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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Shane Himes

Shane Himes is the pulpit minister at the Hamilton Crossroads Church of Christ in Brundidge, Alabama. He has been married to Kaitlin now for over three years. They are blessed to have recently welcomed their first daughter, Trinity, into the world. Shane graduated from Central Baptist College in Arkansas with an undergraduate degree in theology. He graduated from Colorado Christian University with a M.A. in Theological Studies. Now, he is a PhD student at Amridge University studying Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. Most of all, Shane desires to help others partner with God in the restoration of all things.

If you have spent any amount of time in the theological tradition known as the Restoration Movement, specifically in the Churches of Christ, you have probably been told that “church of Christ” exclusivism is a conservative idea. In other words, if a congregation or individual openly proclaims that everyone who attends worship somewhere other than a “church of Christ” is lost, then they are the conservatives who are defending the truths of Scripture against the ever-dangerous and ever-growing “liberal” tendencies within the church. These conservatives are the gatekeepers of orthodoxy and everyone else is simply compromising the gospel due to cultural influence and pressure to adapt. To be fair, it is important to note that not all forms of this exclusivism are as explicit or as unforgiving. Some may say that it’s not membership in a “church of Christ” which is central, but rather worshipping properly on a Sunday morning, and of course, a correct understanding of baptism at the time of immersion. Regardless of what form of exclusivism is articulated, one central premise remains: God’s people only consists of the church of Christ, and that church is made up only of those who have a proper understanding of baptism and who do everything correctly during the worship assembly (and for the more extreme, for those whose church has the proper name). 

            Here’s the thing: church of Christ exclusivism is actually a progressive idea. The notion that all Christians who disagree with us on baptism or who belong to a “denomination” are lost, is in fact a departure from original Restoration principles, thus making it a progressive doctrine. This exclusivism was explicitly rejected by the founders and most prominent leaders of the original Restoration Movement. In contrast, these men openly acknowledged that there were Christians in every denomination, even in those which practiced infant baptism! Their idea of unity was not predicated upon theological precision, but rather a love for Jesus and a commitment to biblical authority. They, needless to say, hated the divisions in the body of Christ that had manifested themselves in the form of Protestant denominations and invited all Christians to abandon denominational loyalty and be “Christians only, but not the only Christians.”  Below are a few examples of what the early Restoration Movement leaders thought about Christians in other denominations. They certainly didn’t think of them as “lost” or as “outsiders.” 

Thomas Campbell:“We speak to all our Christian brethren, however diversified by professional epithets, those accidental distinctions which have happily and unscripturally diversified the professing world. By our Christian brethren, then, we mean . . . ‘All that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, throughout the churches.’ ”[1]

Alexander Campbell:“But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. . . . I cannot make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and [cannot] in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven. Should I find a Pedobaptist [one baptized as an infant] more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians.”[2]

Barton Stone:“My opinion is that immersion is the only baptism. But shall I therefore make my opinion a term of Christian fellowship? If in this case I thus act, where shall I cease from making my opinions terms of fellowship? I confess I see no end. . . . Let us still acknowledge all to be brethren, who believe in the Lord Jesus, and humbly and honestly obey him, as far as they know his will, and their duty.”[3]

Walter Scott:“Christians who have not been baptized for the remission of their sins! Strange! Whoever read of such Christians in God’s Word? But the times are peculiar, and as faith does purify the life of a man, and as the man of pure life and pure heart is accepted of God and may receive the Spirit, therefore we must allow, that there are now a days Christians in heart and life who have not been baptized for the remission of their sins. What evidences, then, have they for themselves and others, that they are possessed of the Spirit? None but the moral graces which have already been quoted, viz: love, joy etc.; they don’t need to depend upon an opinion; they feel within themselves and show to those without them by their fruits, that they have been made partakers of the Spirit of Christ.”[4]

            These quotations may come as a surprise to some, and if that is the case, it shows how much the movement itself has changed. The Churches of Christ in our present day do not exactly have a reputation for being inclusive. Yet, the Restoration Movement started as one of the most ecumenical movements in Christian history! When I was an SBC Pastor, I joined the Restoration Movement not only for theological purposes, but also because of the ecumenicalism I read about when studying the origins of the movement. If these men had purported some of what we hear today that is considered “conservative” within the Churches of Christ, I would have wanted nothing to do with the movement. 

            And this realization is imperative for those within the movement today to understand: people want nothing to do with this sort of church of Christ exclusivism. There are numerous aspects of the Restoration Movement that are appealing to a good number of people today, including young people. Congregational autonomy, no clergy-laity distinction, a commitment to biblical preaching, and no allegiance to denominational beliefs, structures and/or traditions are all present within the best of the Restoration Movement. These are all things the Churches of Christ should be able to offer! And we know that the churches which actually do offer these , they are growing exponentially. A recent study done by scholars at Harvard University in conjunction with scholars at Indiana University revealed that church attendance and religious devotion in the United States is actually very steady.[5] Yes, most Protestant denominations are in decline, especially the mainline denominations. However, some Christian groups, such as many nondenominational churches, as well as the Christian Churches, are indeed experiencing growth. In short, people are abandoning certain types of churches in favor of others. 

            There is a bit of irony to be found here for those of us in the Churches of Christ: people love the idea of nondenominational churches! We were supposed to be those churches. And as I said, there is much within our tradition that is admirable and worthy of respect. All of the available data we have concerning church growth/decline in America suggests to us that people desire substantive Christianity; most do not desire a church which will simply exist to entertain them or one that would question the historicity of Jesus/deny his bodily resurrection. The Churches of Christ, at their best, offer a substantive articulation of the historic Christian faith as well as the freedom for those attending to seek truth for themselves. We respect the great thinkers which came before us but are not bound by their conclusions. We embrace historical theology as an indispensable discipline while acknowledging our authority comes from Scripture alone. Whatever someone thinks of these ideas, it is inarguable that this particular approach to Christianity is attractive to the masses in our day. 

            What is the problem, then, for the Churches of Christ? Well, an obvious answer could be that not all of our churches are places where these theological inclinations can be found. Some would say people are not free to search for truth in Churches of Christ, for example. Nonetheless, I do not desire to explore that here, though it is undeniably accurate. Rather, what I simply wish to say is that the Churches of Christ, as originally conceived, were ecumenically minded as well as theologically driven. If the Churches of Christ looked like original Restoration Movement churches, they would be growing just like the Christian Churches are. The problem which I believe is the source of most other problems in this regard, is the widespread rejection of Christian ecumenicalism that took root within our movement in the 20thcentury. This exclusive thought so permeated the Churches of Christ that eventually many thought convincing their Baptist neighbor to be re-baptized or to join their local church of Christ was the equivalent of evangelism. People within the movement no longer viewed other Christians as their allies; they viewed them as a mission field. This paradigm shift was devastating for the movement due to a plethora of reasons that would take an entirely different article to explore. For now, suffice it to say that we became obsessed with winning a debate about baptism or musical instruments and lost sight of what it meant to actually be faithful to Jesus or to reach the unchurched with the gospel: in reality, we lost sight of what discipleship even was, replacing it with church of Christ exclusivism. Perhaps we talked more about “the Lord’s church” than the Lord himself. 

            This was not just detrimental to the people within the movement; it turns out, as I have said, people want nothing to do with this church of Christ exclusivism. They may like taking communion every week, congregational autonomy, simple church structure, a rejection of denominational allegiance and a high view of biblical authority, but they want nothing to do with that sort of exclusivism. People can find these desirable traits while replacing exclusivism with Christian ecumenicalism, and they have. They’re flocking to churches with these same desirables, but not to the Churches of Christ. Church of Christ exclusivism is biblically illiterate, void of historical theological considerations and is simply grotesque. For these reasons people want nothing to do with it; in my experience, it is the single largest barrier for people to even consider joining the Churches of Christ. 

            The good news is, there is hope in all of this! If the Churches of Christ can embrace their historic theology; if, dare I say, we can become more “conservative” by embracing Christian ecumenicalism, I am confident the movement will once again experience growth. People are willing to have conversations, and people are willing to even admit they were wrong about some tenant of theology. I certainly was! What they are not willing to do, however, is accept that they aren’t even a Christian simply because they’re mistaken, in our minds, about some contemporary theological debate. That is a silly concept, and we would do well to rid ourselves of such a paradigm of thought. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the future of our movement depends on it. 

[1] Millennial Harbinger, Series 1, May 1844, p. 199.

[2] Millennial Harbinger, 1837, p. 411-412.

[3] Christian Messenger, 1831, p. 19, 21.

[4] The Evangelist, No. 2, Vol. 2, Feb 4, 1833, p. 49.

[5] See,

“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them.” (Ex. 6:3)

Have you ever had an “ah-ha!” moment while reading Scripture? Something that let you know either that you had finally figured something out, or at least that you’ve been wrong in your thinking? Well a few years ago, this was it for me. I read Exodus 6:3 which seemed pretty straight forward: God was known as El Shaddai (God Almighty as it is rendered in most English Bibles) to the patriarchs but was not known as Yahweh (The LORD) until he revealed himself as such to Moses. But I remembered reading in Genesis the day before, and I could have sworn God was referred to as Yahweh. Sure enough, I turned back to Genesis 14 and Abram refers to God as Yahweh in 14:22. You see this frequently in the book of Genesis, even as early as the second creation account in Genesis 2-3.

It was at this point that, in my mind, I had one of two options: I could declare the Christian faith a hoax due to contradictions in certain parts of the Bible, or I could nuance my understanding of biblical inspiration and my expectations of the Bible. Unfortunately, some have chosen the former option. That was never really an option for me though. I chose to study further and eventually realized that my inerrantist paradigm of biblical inspiration was not only untenable, but also completely unnecessary. Instances in the Bible such as the one I have described are only problematic if our expectations of Scripture and our theological preconceptions are unfounded. Do we expect an ancient collection of documents written a thousand years apart in different cultures, circumstances and languages to contain perfectly cohesive ideas about God and the world? Should we expect absolute historical and scientific precision? Some say yes due to the Bible being God’s word, and as far as assertions go, I suppose that is a fair assertion. But assertions alone are just that-assertions. They need to be substantiated. And we must substantiate our assertions about biblical inspiration with critical study of the text itself.

Thus, I am proposing that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, can best be understood through a progressive revelation paradigm. As I wrote in the previous article, God progressively revealed himself to humankind throughout history, with that revelation ultimately culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This means that there is inevitably a human element to Scripture, and that we must look to Jesus Christ to see a perfect revelation of who God is. After all, it was the apostle John -a Jew- who dared to proclaim that no one had ever seen God but that it was Jesus Christ who had made the Father known (Jn. 1:18).

Understanding progressive revelation is essential, in my opinion, to understanding the nature and purpose of Scripture. So, what does progressive revelation tell us about the Bible and the nature of God’s revelation to humans? For starters, it means that God chose to reveal himself to ancient Israel in such ways that they would understand. At times, this meant he would have to accommodate their human nature and culture. This can easily be seen in several ways, not least of which is examining texts from surrounding civilizations in the ancient Near East.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, many significant archeological discoveries were made specifically pertaining to the fields of biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern history. In the 19th century, archeologists discovered thousands of clay tablets which had Akkadian markings on them. This is important as Akkadian was the predominant language used by many of the ancient Near Eastern cultures in the third, second and first millennia BC, including Assyria and Babylon.[1] What these tablets exposed to us is that some of the material contained in the Old Testament, particularly the Torah, was not wholly unique to ancient Israel. This was a problematic discovery for many because a good number of Christians implicitly expected for revelation from God to be wholly unique. After all, if the Bible in its entirety is direct revelation from God and is not itself human reflection on or interpretation of revelation, then we should not expect the Old Testament to look anything like documents from surrounding cultures, as those documents were of human origin while the Old Testament was of divine origin. Further, how could we logically say that Genesis was to be read as literal history when many of these Akkadian tablets had myths that were similar to the narratives found in Genesis? Or, so the reasoning went. “Liberals” reacted by saying the Old Testament could not be inspired by God in any way, while “Conservatives” attempted to distance the Old Testament texts from the Akkadian texts, often times blatantly ignoring clear parallels between the two. Both reactions were and are unhelpful, in my opinion. Nonetheless, it is important to point them out as they demonstrate inerrantist expectations of Scripture.

Now, you might be wondering if these Akkadian texts really are similar to the Old Testament texts or if some skeptical scholars are just trying to discredit the biblical accounts by any means necessary. To be fair, there is some debate concerning the Akkadian texts and how reliant, if at all, the Israelite texts are on them. For instance, though some similarities can be drawn between the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish and the Genesis creation accounts, it certainly cannot be said that the Genesis accounts are reliant upon Enuma Elish.

Both Genesis and Enuma Elish share ancient cosmology. For example, both have light existing before the sun, and both have the waters being separated above and below the firmament. The creative sequence of days is also similar. There are, however, some major differences, as Enuma Elish says the god Marduk had to fight and kill the goddess Tiamat, and from her dead corpse he created the universe. The point of the story is likely to justify the worship of Marduk as the head of the Babylonian pantheon.[2] Of course in Genesis, God simply speaks the world into existence without having to struggle against any other deities. The Genesis creation accounts could be a reaction against stories like Enuma Elish; their purpose could very well be to demonstrate the sovereignty of Yahweh over the universe. At the same time, it is also possible that the authors of the Genesis creation accounts could have been completely unaware of Enuma Elish (though I don’t think this to be the case for various reasons). We do not know with certainty. The point is, while there are similarities between the Genesis creation accounts and Enuma Elish, there are differences as well.

There are various other ancient Near Eastern documents that share as much or more in common with the Old Testament. I would like to briefly look at two: the epic Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi. Gilgamesh is one of several flood myths from the ancient Near East. See if this looks familiar:

The ship which you shall build,

Let her dimensions be measured off.

Let her width and length be equal.

What living creatures I had I loaded upon her.

I made go aboard all my family and kin,

Beasts of the steppe, wild animals of the steppe.

The sea grew calm, the tempest grew still, the deluge ceased.

I looked at the weather, stillness reigned,

And all of mankind had turned to clay.

The boat rested on Mount Nimush,

Mount Nimush held the boat fast, not allowing it to move…

When the seventh day arrives,

I released a dove to go free,

The dove went and returned,

No landing place came to view, it turned back.

I released a swallow to go free,

The swallow went and returned,

No landing place came to view, it turned back.

I sent a raven to go free,

The raven went forth, saw the ebbing of the waters,

It ate, circled, left droppings, did not turn back.[3]

Compare some of those relevant lines of Gilgamesh with Genesis 6-8, and you will see the striking similarities. Now, for the Code of Hammurabi.[4] It is lengthy, so we will just look at a two exerts and compare them with some of the laws found in the book of Exodus:

Code of Hammurabi 195-97: “If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand. If a nobleman has put out the eye of another nobleman, they shall put out his eye. If he has broken another nobleman’s bone, they shall break his bone.”

Exodus 21:23-25: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (NRSV)

Code of Hammurabi 209: “If a nobleman has struck another nobleman’s daughter and has caused her to have a miscarriage, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus.”

Exodus 21:22: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.”

And yes, the Code of Hammurabi was written well before the Torah as we have it today. Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who ruled in the 18th century BC, while the earliest date anyone can conceive for any kind of biblical exodus is the 15th century BC. In actuality, the Israelite narratives, at least in the forms we have them in today, are much newer than their Akkadian counterparts. The Israelite stories could have existed earlier in oral form, and likely did in some capacity, though they would have undeniably been framed in an ancient Near Eastern worldview. But writing was reserved for established nations in the ancient world and Israel does not become that sort of established nation until roughly the kingdom monarchy. Not to mention, biblical Hebrew likely did not exist as a language before the 10th century BC. Nonetheless, scholarship has concluded that the Israelite narratives, as they are in their Hebrew forms, are very likely newer than the Akkadian myths.

From here, some may then ask how we are to understand some of the early Israelite narratives, particularly Genesis 1-11. That question will be addressed in a later article in this series. For now, it is safe to conclude that God was content to reveal himself to ancient Israel in ways they would understand. The ancient Near Eastern evidence suggests to us that the Old Testament is not some other-worldly book dropped out of heaven but is rather very much a part of the world in which it was produced. We should expect this, as even Joshua 24:2 says, “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors-Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor-lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” The ancient Israelites were a people who were deeply entrenched in a specific worldview and their Scriptures reflect that worldview. This means that God did not advance their scientific or historical knowledge in ways that would satisfy our post-Enlightenment minds. I mean, after God leads them out of Egypt, it’s not long before they are worshiping an inanimate object in the wilderness made out of gold. They clearly didn’t “get it” right away, as some might say. As Israel walked with God, they began to know him more and more. God gradually took Israel from their ancient Near Eastern roots and transformed them into a people who would eventually produce and embrace the Messiah who called them away from vengeance and to enemy love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Mt. 5:38-39)

This leads us back to the questions concerning what we should expect of the Bible. Again, some Christians have expected absolute cohesiveness as well as scientific and historical accuracy. A man named Galileo, an Italian astronomer and devout Christian, once dared to question some of the cosmology found in the Bible. He agreed with a man born earlier named Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who had concluded that the earth revolved around the sun. This was, of course, a heretical view at the time because, well, the biblical authors thought otherwise. They thought that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth, as that was the prevailing consensus at the time. This can easily be seen in Joshua 10:12-14. The Israelites were in a battle with the Amorites and needed a bit more daylight. So, after Joshua prays to Yahweh for this additional daylight, 10:13-14 reads, “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD heeded a human voice; for the LORD fought for Israel.” Galileo’s assertion that it is actually the Earth that revolves around the sun got him imprisoned by the Catholic Church in 1633. Why? Because their expectations of Scripture were faulty. They did not recognize the aforementioned human element so evidentially present in Scripture. Thankfully, Christians eventually came to accept that the Earth revolved around the sun. However, some may still be troubled by examples such as the disagreement among Pentateuchal authors about when God became known as Yahweh. Perhaps we would be better off basing our beliefs about the doctrine of inspiration on all evidence available to us, including critical textual studies, as opposed to theological preconceptions and biblical expectations that some of us may have inherited.

In the next article, we will focus generally on some of the ideas which progressed throughout Israel’s history to demonstrate their journey to know and understand who God is.

[1]. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, second ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, an imprint of Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 14.

[2]. Ibid., 16.  

[3]. Citations of Gilgamesh are from Ibid., 18.  

[4]. Again, this is not to say that the Code of Hammurabi and the law of Moses can be said to be synonymous. There are differences between the two as well. The point here is simply to demonstrate a shared worldview between the two.

“What is the Bible and what do we do with it?” This is a question that one of my favorite scholars, Peter Enns, asks and attempts to answer regularly. Some may be tempted to say that the answer is simple: The Bible is the inspired word of God and its purpose is to tell us what to do. You know the old adage, the Bible stands for, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Silver bullets are nice. The problem is, they’re few and far between. In this instance, this supposed simple answer to a supposed simple question is inadequate to address something as complex as the Bible. We may be inclined to ask what it even means that the Bible is inspired by God. Further, can the 66 books in the Protestant Bible really be described as “basic instructions”? Better yet, could the first five books in our Bibles be described as purely instructive, even if just for Israel? Surely so! After all, they are referred to as “the law” and the purpose of laws is, at least in part, to tell us what to do.

            What we will see in this series is that the Bible is far from a collection of literature simply meant to give us instruction. Specifically, we will see that not even the Torah can be thought of in purely instructional terms. The Torah, like the rest of Scripture, is a depiction of humanity’s journey in coming to know God and its ultimate purpose is to point us to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament in general is a theological journey. It is written, arguably, over the course of roughly 1,000 years and covers events that span even farther. Different thoughts about God are represented, much of which are drastically influenced by culture and circumstance. These thoughts can stand in tension and even in contradiction with one another at times. Understanding this reality is essential to understanding the Torah specifically, the Old Testament more broadly and the entire Bible ultimately.

            My assertions inevitably lead to discussions of biblical inspiration. What does it mean that the Bible is inspired? Some hold to what is commonly referred to as inerrancy.[1] Advocates of this position state that, in the original manuscripts, every single word was unilaterally dictated by God.[2] In this paradigm, the Bible is accurate in all it addresses, whether that be science, sociology, theology, morality or anything else. Therefore, in the entirety of the Bible what we have is unilaterally dictated revelation from God. God would never lie, and would certainly never be mistaken, so everything presented in the Bible regardless of subject is wholly accurate, or so the argument goes. Every piece of literature in the Bible, then, is not at all human reflection on the Divine or an interpretation of Divine revelation but is rather, again, unilaterally dictated revelation from God himself.[3] Consequently, the Bible does not contain any errors: All depictions of God are cohesive, all science is irrefutable, and all thoughts are consistent with one another. We do not find contradicting thoughts about God within the pages of Scripture, as all revelation in Scripture must be internally constant.[4] This is the essential premise of the doctrine of inerrancy. And this is how many Christians in the West have thought about the Bible since arguably the Protestant Reformation.

            To put it bluntly, I do not think inerrancy is the best way to think about the Bible. I do not think the Bible God gave us is “inerrant” as modern theologians have come to define the term. Upon examining Scripture on its own terms and in its own context, I believe we find something much different. As opposed to Scripture being exclusively God’s communication to us, it is rather both God’s communication to us and human reflection on that communication. This means that not all ideas about God in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, stand in unison. Depending on the time and circumstances in which a text was produced, the biblical authors demonstrate a range of ideas and thoughts about God and the world.

As time goes on throughout Israel’s history, God progressively reveals himself to his elect people. Their theology develops over time and is eventually much different come Second Temple Judaism than in the days of the patriarchs. As they come to know God more fully, the Israelites inevitably see him differently. It is similar to how a child sees her father; her perspective will change as she comes to know him, but he is still the same person. God doesn’t change, but Israel’s thoughts about him do. I will demonstrate this throughout the series.

For now, there are two indispensable implications to what I have said concerning biblical inspiration:

1) There is a human element to Scripture. It is both a human and a Divine product. The Bible is ultimately from God and is God’s gift to the church, but that reality alone does not predicate for us particular nuances regarding the doctrine of inspiration.

2) As I have made clear, ideas about God throughout Scripture can change. Jesus is the perfect revelation from God and all previous revelation must bow to him. I have written more about that here.

            This article will serve as a short introduction to various other concepts we will explore in the coming days:

1) The concept of progressive revelation and Israel’s not-so-unique place within the ancient Near East. What do other ancient Near Eastern documents tell us about Israel’s Scriptures? What does the presence of theological diversity and ancient cosmology within the Torah tell us about the Bible itself?  

2) Yahweh as being God among gods. Do other deities exist? Monotheism was not always present within Israelite theology.

3) Retribution theology. Israel eventually comes to question the idea that God always rewards those who are obedient and punishes those who are disobedient. Do good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people?

4) Sacrifice. How do thoughts about sacrifice change throughout Israel’s history? Does God desire animal sacrifices at all?

5) God is perfectly revealed in Christ. What does that mean for us concerning violent depictions of God in the Torah and rest of the Old Testament?

“What is God like?” This is the question humans have had on their minds from the beginning of civilization. We still ask that exact question! Israel’s theological progressions and diversity demonstrate for us that even they were asking that very question. It is in Christ that we find the answer all of humanity, including ancient Israel, has searched for. I hope you will be fascinated, as I am, by examining Israel’s journey in coming to know God. And I hope this series will help to give us all a better sense of the nature and purpose of Scripture, that being to point to Jesus.

When I look at ancient Israel as God’s people, I see much of myself. I struggle with God: I ask questions and have doubts. My thoughts about God have changed since my childhood. Nonetheless, I still trust in the righteousness of God. He is the sovereign creator of the universe and Jesus Christ is Lord of all. I’m not always the follower of Jesus that I should be, but his grace is enough in the absence of my perfection. Israel was the same way; God fulfilled his covenant through them, despite their imperfection, when he brought about the Messiah that would bless all the nations of the world.

[1]. Yes, there are those who give credence to the term “inerrancy” while defining it in a plethora of ways, most of which are not compatible with its most popular definition. Thus, I am using the term here as it is defined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

[2]. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article VI.  

[3]. Ibid., Article III.  

[4]. Ibid., Article V.   a

Most people even remotely involved with theology are aware of the controversies surrounding the new perspective on Paul (NPP), and specifically the doctrine of justification. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to read and comprehend all of the material being produced on the matter, though there are two extremely well-known Pastor-theologians who, in my opinion, brought the debates about justification into the mainstream of Christian news and conversation. These prolific scholars are John Piper and N.T. Wright. In 2007, Piper’s book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright was published. Piper wrote this book in response to a growing acceptance of the NPP and more specifically, to various academic lectures, books and articles produced by Wright on the topic of justification. It did not take long for Wright to respond with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision which was published in 2009.

In 2015, I became heavily involved with this debate. I read as much as I could on the subject, but it all started with these two books written by John Piper and N.T. Wright. Both were saying we were saved by grace through faith. But, Piper said our final justification was on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, while Wright insisted that language was not found in Paul. Who was right?

At the time, I was just an undergraduate theology student trying to find my way. I was also the Pastor of a small Baptist church. Leaving Calvinism was less than ideal, and I certainly didn’t want to leave traditional Protestant theology altogether. I desperately wanted Piper to be right. I wanted the Bible to teach double imputation and sola fide (as articulated by Luther). At the end of the day though, it became apparent to me that one side was using deductive reasoning, while the other was using inductive. One was presupposing a theological axiom, while the other was attempting to establish axioms from Scripture and the context in which the New Testament was produced, namely Second Temple Judaism. I discovered I was, indeed, on the wrong side.

Several takeaways from reading these books that I simply could not ignore:

-Piper’s definitions of tsedaqah elohim and dikaiosyne theou (the Hebrew and Greek terms which are usually translated as “The righteousness of God”) were idiosyncratic. No scholars defined these Hebrew and Greek terms as he did. He seemed to completely ignore the body of scholarly literature on the subject, as Wright pointed out.[1]

-Piper (and the broader Reformed tradition) did not deal well with Romans 2. It simply did not fit with his presuppositions, and that became obvious to me. Conversely, Wright’s exegesis of Romans 2 was consistent with the whole of the context and the rest of Paul’s commentary on the subject of final judgement. I did not see any way that Romans 2 could possibly fit with traditional Protestant theology.

-Piper actually warned his readers against considering Second Temple literature while interpreting Paul. This is not an exaggeration or caricature; Piper is explicit about this in chapter one of his book.[2] Meanwhile, Wright demonstrated a robust knowledge of Second Temple Judaism and showed how misunderstandings of the Jewish religion led to Protestants (particularly influenced by the Lutheran tradition as opposed to the Calvinistic tradition) systematically misunderstanding Paul for centuries after the Reformation.

-The language of imputed righteousness is not in the New Testament. The concept is a theological construct based on inferences made from Paul’s writings. To be clear, this does not prove or disprove the legitimacy of the doctrine. All Christians, to some degree, infer from and interpret Paul’s writings. This point became important to me though, because as a Baptist and someone who was a Calvinist for years, I was always taught that imputation was ‘the heart of the gospel.’ Can something be at the center of the Christian faith that is never explicitly taught in Scripture, and that certainly was not explicitly taught by Jesus? The resurrection, caring for the least of these, Christ’s death for our sins and the sovereignty of God? All plainly taught in the Bible. The concept of imputation? Not so much.

-And finally, the concept of imputation contradicted what became apparent to me: Jesus and Paul taught a final judgement according to works. Paul constantly referred to a day when everyone, Christians included, would stand before God and be judged according to what they had done. Romans 2:1-16 was the obvious passage: “For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury…For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom. 2:6-8, 13) There were others, such as 2 Corinthians 5:10; Paul frequently taught that your works will have a direct impact on the judgement you receive from God (Rom. 8:13 and Galatians 5:19-21 are good examples). And this was just Paul. Jesus emphasized and depicted a final judgement according to works in great detail, not least of which are found in Matthew 25:31-46 and John 5:25-29: “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out-those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (Jn. 5:28-29) John Piper claimed, through a quote of Solomon Stoddard, that he wanted his book to show that Christians would finally be judged, not based on what they had done, but on the basis of the perfect life of Jesus Christ: “The general tendency of this book is to show that our claim to the pardon of sin and acceptance with God is not founded on anything wrought in us, or acted by us, but only on the righteousness of Christ.”[3] If Paul (or Jesus) taught imputation as articulated by Piper, then it would be reasonable to expect depictions of final judgement in Scripture to reflect this reality. I expected to see the final judgement in Scripture illustrated as Christians being judged based on the life Jesus lived. Conversely, I found final judgement to be as already discussed: according to what we had done.

Years later, these are just a few observations I wanted to share from my own reading of Piper and Wright. It would be impossible to even begin to answer every question people may have, or to delve into every area of the conversation in a single article. I do think both of these books are good starting points for anyone interested in debates about justification. I pray God will continue to bless our efforts to understand Scripture.

  1. N T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 64.
  2. John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2007), 33-36.
  3. Solomon Stoddard, The Safety of Appearing at the Day of Judgement, in the Righteousness of Christ (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995, oig. 1687): vii, quoted in Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright, 11.

Imagine telling a first century Jew that they don’t really know what God is like. Or, even to go a step further, imagine telling them that no one has ever seen God. They would be quick to object! Christians who know their Old Testament may even be sympathetic to these objections. What about Adam? He encountered God in the garden (Gen. 3:8). And Enoch? He walked with God for years (Gen. 5:22). What about Abraham? He sat with God and shared a meal underneath the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-15). Jacob? He saw God at the top of that ladder (Gen. 28:10-22). Moses? He spent time with God on Mount Sinai and even received the ten commandments from God (Ex. 19-20). Then, the 70 elders of Israel went to Sinai and saw God as well (Ex. 24:9-11). God spoke through the prophets to the people of Israel. Ezekiel even had visions of God by the Kebar River (Ezek. 18:1). Plenty of others talked with God, such as Hagar, Sarah, Rebekah, Aaron, Joshua, David, etc.

Yet, in spite of all this, the apostle John said “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (Jn. 1:18, NRSV) In light of the entirety of the Old Testament, this is quite the claim. At first glance, we may be tempted to side with the objecting Jews and Christians, as God clearly has a long history with the people of Israel. Who is John to say, despite Israel’s long history with God, that no one has ever seen God? What’s more, what could possibly compel John to say that it is Christ who has made God known? Has not God been making himself known in various ways to Israel, including through the Hebrew Scriptures?

There’s no need to be overly-spiritual about it: this is an audacious claim made by the apostle John. But the issue is not the audacity of the claim; what matters is whether or not it is true. And sometimes, the truth is audacious to many.

Of course, John isn’t a Marcionite. He values the Old Testament. John quotes from it some 40 times in his gospel, and another six times in 1 John[1]. The book of Revelation quotes from the Old Testament another 249 times[2], though many in modern scholarship do not think John of Patmos and the apostle John are the same person. Nonetheless, it is clear: John believes God revealed himself to Israel through the Old Testament, and that followers of Jesus should take it seriously. The question still remains though, what did John mean when he said that no one had ever seen God before Jesus revealed God to us?

I think John gives us some clues in the verses preceding verse 18. The apostle John describes John the Baptist in verses 6-8, saying he was sent from God but was himself not the light. Rather, John the Baptist bore witness to the light. And, it was the true light that was coming into the world. John called this light the Word of God which became flesh! In that, God was not content to simply reveal himself through other people, or through words written by men. Instead, God himself became a man. He lived and walked among us. And during this time, he perfectly revealed himself to us. In the same way, Scripture is itself not the light. Rather, Scripture’s purpose is to bear witness to the light, the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

John’s paradigm of thought should inform our own opinions about the nature of Scripture and the Christian faith. The writer of Hebrews does something very similar in Hebrews 1:1-3. We are told that God did speak to our fathers in many and various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. It is the Son who reflects the glory of God and is the exact representation of his very being (v.3). This is interesting, to say the least. Though the writer gives us multiple ways in which God has revealed himself to us, it is his revelation through Christ which he says is an exact representation of his character.

What does John mean by saying that no one has ever seen God? I believe he would say that compared to any revelation of God we’ve had before, no matter what visions, encounters, dreams, theophanies or Christophanies which may have taken place before, they pale in comparison and are submissive to the perfect revelation of God we have in Christ!

Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us; rather, he came to change our minds about God. Jesus is exactly what God has to say![3] So, we need to make sure that the God we are worshiping and proclaiming to people is a Christ-like God.

If you cannot find it in Jesus, you should not say it about God.[4] This is the truth John dared to proclaim concerning the Messiah.

[1] “Quotations from the O.T. In the N.T.,” Blue Letter Bible, accessed July 25, 2018,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: the Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook, 2017), 59.

[4] Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey in and Out of Calvinism (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 41.

Paul once said, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.”[1] There’s something about having freedom in Christ that actually makes us slaves. We are slaves to righteousness, slaves to God. Christian liberty is more about being free from Satan and sin than about possessing total autonomy. Christ does not free us from sin and the curse of the law so that we can live our best life now or pursue the American dream while knowing one day we will “go to heaven when we die.” Rather, he gave himself to redeem us from all iniquity and purify us for good works.[2] In short, the grace of God enables us to be faithful to Christ’s desire to bring the reign of God, the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in Heaven.

This is all fine and good. But, it does lead us to a simple, yet profound question: What does it mean to be transformed by the grace of God? Or, more simply, what does it mean to be faithful? How we answer that question will drastically impact the way in which we live our lives, and the way in which we view the world.

If you’ve grown up in the South, you were probably given the idea that being a faithful Christian means to faithfully attend church on Sundays. And, if you were exceptionally zealous for faithfulness, you would also attend Sunday night and Wednesday night services. In some circles of the Restoration Movement, church attendance has been so forcefully emphasized that it is not uncommon for me to hear people say they heard a sermon on Hebrews 10:25 once a month growing up. Exegetical problems with that concept aside, it is troubling for anyone to accentuate something that Scripture simply does not.

Attendance, though, is just the beginning for some. There has been a tendency among some believers to assert that the barometer by which we measure the faithfulness of a Christian is by what they do in their hour of worship on Sunday mornings. If they’re not doing everything in the way we think they should, then they’re not faithful. In the same way, this is how many Christians examine themselves to see if they are being faithful to Christ!

The consequences of this paradigm of thought are devastating. We have millions of believers who are examining themselves and coming to the conclusion that they are faithful because they attend church, and ‘do church’ the right way. And so, the salvation of God and mission of Christ have been reduced to creating a people who are zealous for their hour of worship on Sunday mornings, and who anticipate afterlife rewards for doing so.

Don’t get me wrong, I love assembling with God’s people on the first day of the week. I emphatically believe that every follower of Jesus should be seeking to serve others through a local congregation regularly. What’s more, I value doctrine and have my opinions on what I believe Scripture does and doesn’t say regarding corporate worship. My point is simply this: nowhere in Scripture, and most importantly, in Jesus’s teachings, is how we worship on Sunday’s considered to be a measurement of faithfulness. Corporate worship is mentioned by the apostles, but never in the manner described in this article.

It is evident to me that we need a new way of thinking about faithfulness. I believe the Hebrew prophet Isaiah can help us here. In Isaiah 1, we find one of the most sobering passages in Scripture: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies-I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly…Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”[3] God was not pleased with an Israel who was corporately worshiping him and offering sacrifices while they ignored the oppressed. God was much less concerned with their assembling and their sacrificing than he was how they loved others.

But what about Jesus? What did Jesus expect of his followers? Well, he said blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. He also placed substantial importance on the idea of loving our enemies, and the least of these. In Matthew 25, Jesus depicts a final judgement for us. In this illustration, the difference between the sheep and the goats is not that the sheep have good theology, and the goats don’t. Nor is the difference between the two that the sheep have good church attendance, and the goats don’t. Rather, the difference between the sheep and the goats is that the sheep fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the sick, while the goats did not.[4]

Do we care for the poor, the sick and the needy? We can have perfect church attendance and perfectly accurate doctrinal beliefs, but if we are not caring for these people, then we are not faithful to the cause of Christ. To have freedom in Christ means to be a blessing to others, for the glory of God.

In light of this, I think it best for Christians when discussing faithfulness to stop asking ourselves and others about church services on Sunday mornings, and start asking ourselves if we are caring for the people who Christ called us to love.

[1]. 1 Cor. 9:19.

[2]. Tit. 2:14.

[3]. Is. 1:13, 16-17.

[4]. Mt. 25:31-46.