Anthony Thiselton is one of those scholars that I have frequently come across but have never read. Hermeneutics is not my forte. (The bliss of naive realism!)

Thiselton is one of the premier evangelical Anglican scholars working today. With the recent release of his massive (800+ page) encyclopedic volume, The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology, it is time to introduce him. Here is an excellent video of Thiselton introducing himself:

This is a very interesting and informative overview of his life’s work.


This is the second and final installment of a brief, two-part series on Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” See the first part for introductory material and the main analysis. Below, I offer some concluding thoughts.


Edwards repeatedly appeals to the “heart.” It is in the heart that prejudices are harbored, as sin darkens our vision of “seeing” the truth of the Gospel. But, whenever a person discovers for himself, as Edwards writes, “the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, and sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth.”  Reason is sanctified – set apart for God – once the heart of stone is changed into a heart of flesh, to cite Ezekiel 36:26. This experience of the heart involves one’s affections, as we have seen in Edwards’ fondness for language of “sweetness.” This is given extensive treatment in Edwards’ much-acclaimed A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746). As in our present sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Edwards continues in his later writings to account for the nature of and conditions for our affections toward God. In a basic sense, no Reformed theologian has ever discounted the affections. On the contrary, Reformed theology has emphasized that true faith is only ever present when the heart has been converted and turned toward God, all of which is part and parcel of God’s beneficence toward us in Jesus Christ.[1] As Calvin said, faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”[2] God’s goodness is sealed upon our hearts. In order to highlight the theme of comfort, we could turn to the famous first Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism. For the theme of joy or delight, we could turn to the first Q/A of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These are rightly beloved statements in the Reformed tradition and often noted for their “warmth” of expression.

While there is significant continuity between Edwards and his Reformed forbearers, there is still something new with Edwards. It arises from his revivalist impulse, however cautious he was to subordinate the affections to truth. The new thing is the extent to which the affections are a criterion for ascertaining the presence of saving faith. This is especially evident, as Edwards attempted to do, when evaluating the status of a person’s soul according to the expressiveness or otherwise of his affections. It is no wonder that Edwards was ejected from his pulpit in Northampton! We can commend his concern for the souls of his congregants, but the heart of another is not ours to evaluate. We have to be satisfied with the candidate’s statement of faith and let God judge.

Secondly and more importantly, we have to be cautious about emphasizing the affections within ourselves as a measure of God’s love for us. Edwards does not do this precisely, but his revivalist heirs did and perhaps he opened the door. The problem is when the emotions subside, when the elevated feelings are no more – or during times of spiritual “dark nights,” when God’s “absence” weighs heavily on our soul. It is during these times when we need to rely the most on God’s sufficient and perfect work in Jesus Christ, not preoccupied with our malaise and questioning whether God loves us. Otherwise, in vain, we will attempt to stir ourselves and recover the initial sweetness of our conversion, when in fact God is calling us to a deeper maturity and more profound trust in him. As Edwards would agree, we do not have faith in our affections but in Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest.


[1] In other words, faith is not the efficacious cause of our salvation; it is the instrumental cause – receiving, not bringing about. The grace of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is the efficacious cause.

[2] John Calvin, ed. John T. McNeill, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster Press, 1960), 3.2.7.


Yesterday, the Henry Center at TEDS posted a debate between Douglas Campbell (Duke Divinity School) and Douglas Moo (Wheaton College) on Paul’s doctrine of justification. This debate will garner wide interest. I just finished watching it, and I can highly recommend it. Moo is well-known for his several commentaries on Paul’s epistles and as a leading biblical scholar in the American evangelical academy, including his work on the new edition of the NIV a few years ago. Campbell is that rarest of things: a biblical scholar who is an unapologetic Barthian, happy to utilize systematic and confessional categories. You should watch his advice to students.

As the debate progressed, I thought the discussion got more and more interesting, all the way into the Q and A. Campbell and Moo are irenic and respectful throughout. I would have liked to see more exegetical work, but it serves well as an overview of their respective positions.

Embedding is disabled, so you will have to click on the link and watch it on YouTube.

If you are new to these issues, then you would do well to read Joshua Jipp’s introduction to the debate: “Re-Reading Paul: What is Being Said and Why It Matters.” Jipp’s summary of Campbell is probably the clearest that you will find anywhere.

Tip of the hat to Jennifer Guo for alerting us to this debate.


Image: The Carl F.H. Henry Center

edwards preaching

“A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1734) is one of Jonathan Edwards’ most important sermons. Therein, Edwards is beginning to formulate his understanding of “religious affections,” culminating in his famous treatment of the topic in 1746. To give you a time frame for reference, his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God was published in 1737 on the basis of the revival in his congregation at Northampton in 1734. So, this sermon was delivered in the same year as the “Great Awakening” made its way to Northampton.

The following is the first of a two-part analysis of the sermon. You can find the sermon in the Yale anthology of his writings. I own this volume, but it is stored away somewhere in a box. So I had to use the online edition without pagination. The text for the sermon is Matthew 16:17.


In Matthew 16:17, Jesus pronounces Peter as blessed for his confession of faith. He alone rightly recognized Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). This was not a revelation of “flesh and blood” but of the “Father in heaven.” In other words, God revealed this to Peter, not as a revelation derived from the material and limited nature of creation. This was not a particularly clever insight of Peter. It was a “revelation” or “unveiling” from God himself, and as such it was a gift. It is the nature of this gift of faith that Jonathan Edwards aims to discern in his sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” delivered in 1734. The sermon reveals some of the distinctive aspects of its time and place. While it is surely an expository sermon, committed to the faithful exposition of the passage, it is also oriented to the currents of the time, both receiving and influencing these currents.

In the early eighteenth century, Protestant divinity was the recipient of the Reformation heritage, with its subsequent scholastic development and impressive coherence. This doctrinal heritage was challenged mightily by the currents of Enlightenment thought, most famously pronounced by Descartes’ “subjective turn.” No longer was external authority a sufficient means to our knowledge of God and the world. The authority had to be ratified within. There was a crisis of certainty, which is to say, a crisis of knowledge. John Locke would distinguish between opinion and certainty, wherein the latter can only ever amount to “degrees” of certainty and that only upon a subjective foundation and apprehension.[1] And the criterion for all Enlightenment thinkers was reason, together joined with the incontrovertible evidence of sense experience. The result is “natural” religion, with its noble quality of ratiocinative integrity. As John Tillotson stated it, “Nothing ought to be received as a revelation from God which plainly contradicts the principles of natural religion.”[2] Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards agrees with the “subjective turn” in his own way. Truth is received and verified within, and this verification is capable of articulation. The difference is that God, for Edwards, is both the author and the criterion of this truth, when it concerns matters of God’s own self-disclosure. This displaces man and man’s reason as the criterion, while maintaining the “realm” of man’s subjectivity as the location in which God is operative and graciously present. In this way, Edwards is able to maintain the Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation within an anthropological rendering of our subjective apprehension of this God. He is, at once, an heir of the Reformation and an heir of the Enlightenment. And perhaps Pietism, with its experiential basis for doctrinal reception, is the synthesis of the two. Edwards is all three.

As he exposits Matthew 16:17, Edwards is keen to emphasize that Peter’s knowledge is “above any that flesh and blood can reveal,” because it is “too high and excellent to be communicated by such means as other knowledge is.”[3] Our knowledge of God is categorically distinct from other knowledge. The “otherness” of this knowledge derives from the fact that God “reveals it…not making use of any intermediate natural causes, as he does in other knowledge.” Lacking such intermediate means, this knowledge is “immediately imparted to the soul by God.” In contrast to the “natural man,” those who receive this saving faith are given the “light” to apprehend the truth of God, and this light gives life. It is an “indwelling vital principle,” such that God indwells man and “takes him for his temple, actuates and influences him as a new supernatural principle of life and action.” The Holy Spirit abides within the saints, “exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties.”

For Edwards, the assent of faith is never a merely intellectual calculation and conclusion. While our faith involves the intellect, in its full analytical rigor, it is true faith insofar as it is birthed by the new life of God within our hearts. Edwards has a number of ways to express this existential reality: “the sense of the heart: as when there is a sense of the beauty, amiableness, or sweetness of a thing; so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it.” In this one sentence, we have several of Edwards’ favorite terms: heart, beauty, sweetness, pleasure, and delight. The significance here is that Edwards is utilizing aesthetic categories within a moral framework. Herein, the individual’s will is operative upon the conditions of an aesthetic “divine excellency,” to use one of Edwards’ favorite expressions. In other words, as Edwards states it, “There arises from this sense of divine excellency of things contained in the word of God, a conviction of the truth and reality of them….” The “conviction” follows upon the “sense.” Our assent is a consequence of our aesthetic perception and reception of God’s splendor.

This “spiritual light” does not produce any new doctrine, for that would be the gift of inspiration. Rather, the light allows us to apprehend and receive the truths of the word of God, already given. The objective referent is the truths of Scripture and the Gospel revealed therein. Edwards is offering an account of how our subjective disposition is made capable of receiving this truth. The important point here is that Edwards is not orienting our subjectivity back upon itself, as if the “sweetness” or “delight” was the object of faith. The feelings are the medium or the means, not the end. Edwards is preserving epistemological realism, even as he challenges an Enlightenment aridity that elevated the rational at the expense of the moral and aesthetic. For Edwards, the rational is never alone, never without the moral and aesthetic, which would make him a Platonist, broadly speaking.[4] In this way, Edwards is also anticipating 19th century Romanticism, but without retreating into subjective affectivity as an end in-itself, which cheapens truth and elicits sentimentality in one’s piety.


[1] As Locke states, “A man cannot conceive himself capable of a greater certainty than to know that a given idea in his mind is such as he perceives it to be.” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapter 2.

[2] The Works of the Most Reverend Dr. John Tillotson (London: Goodwin, Tooke, and Pemberton, 1714), 225.

[3] All citations from Edwards are from “A Divine and Supernatural Light” ( No pagination.

[4] The transcendentals of Platonism (Goodness, Truth, Beauty) are convertible with one another: the good is always beautiful and true, the truth is always good and beautiful, and the beautiful is always good and true. And yet, they are not identical with each other: for example, Edwards writes, “It is out of reason’s province to perceive the beauty of loveliness of any thing: such a perception does not belong to that faculty. Reason’s work is to perceive truth and not excellency.”

Recommended reviews at Ref21

February 16, 2015


Reformation 21 (Ref21) is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. I have enjoyed several of their book reviews recently, worthy of passing along to y’all.


Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal, Alister McGrath

Reviewed by David Gilland (PhD, University of Aberdeen; Lecturer in Systematic Theology, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Germany)

John Henry Newman: A Biography, Ian Ker

Reviewed by Matthew Boyleston (PhD, University of Houston; Assistant Professor of English and Writing, Houston Baptist University)

Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, Peter W. Martens

Reviewed by Kyle Strobel (PhD, University of Aberdeen; Assistant Professor of Spiritual Theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University)

Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts, Adonis Vidu

Reviewed by Jordan Hillebert (PhD cand., University of St. Andrews)

Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541, John Calvin, trans. Robert White

Reviewed by Paul Helm (Teaching Fellow at Regent College; Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College London, 1993-2000)

Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain

Reviewed by Mark Gignilliat (PhD, University of St. Andrews; Associate Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University)

A Guide to Study Bibles

February 13, 2015


On a personal note, blogging will continue to be slow for the next several weeks. I am currently in the middle of an internship, in addition to my library job at Union Presbyterian Seminary and classwork at said seminary. I work six days a week. I am rather exhausted. Woe is me!

I have been meaning to publish a post on study Bibles, and so here it is. You wouldn’t know it from this blog, but I have been immersed in biblical studies for the past few years. This was spawned by learning Greek and Hebrew and doing standard exegetical papers, per the requirements of an M.Div. program. As a result, I have developed an interest in comparing different study Bibles, which are of considerable benefit for orienting oneself prior to delving deeper. I have also been in the situation of needing to recommend a study Bible to prospective students.

A Brief Note on Historical Criticism

Before we look at the various study Bibles, it would be helpful to account for the question of “historical criticism.” Every seminary student needs to be familiar with biblical criticism, where “criticism” is a value-neutral term and designates the “sources” or “forms” or “traditions” or “redactions” of the material that constitutes the biblical canon. Except for the most ardent fundamentalist, everyone recognizes this to some extent. But when it comes to mainstream historical criticism, there are three “test cases” (among others) that reveal the general orientation of a study Bible vis-à-vis the mainstream. These test cases are the dating and context of (1) the book of Deuteronomy, (2) Isaiah 40-66, and (3) the book of Daniel. When biblical criticism was being systematized and consolidated in the late 19th and early 20th century, these were the prominent controversies. For example, see S. R. Driver’s An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament. Driver was an important facilitator of the emerging consensus.

And scarcely little has changed. The magnificent speeches of Moses from the plains of Moad (in Deuteronomy) are not strictly historical, at least in their final textual form; rather, they represent later theological reflection and development in the life of Israel in the late period of the divided monarchy. Isaiah 40-66 represents the prophetic utterances of an Isaianic school during the exile and thereafter, not during the time of Isaiah. And the book of Daniel presupposes and reveals the details of Jewish persecution during the 2nd century BC, not the time of Daniel centuries earlier. Given the literary conventions of the time, this need not ipso facto destroy one’s confidence in the divine governance of scriptural formation and canonization. Nonetheless, we should harbor concerns about the priority and primacy of historical contingency in divine revelation. On this score, I tilt in a “conservative” direction, though obviously with latitude.

Regardless of where one locates oneself on the spectrum of liberal or conservative engagement with the Bible, everyone must responsibly engage the method and conclusions of historical criticism. With that in mind, you should be open to all of the study Bibles below. I will list the Bibles in alphabetical order, and you can click on the headings for the link.


New American Bible


Roman Catholic biblical scholarship is doing a lot of things right. Ever since Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943, Catholic scholars have pursued the rigorous enterprise of critical scholarship with vigor. And, yet, they have done so with sensitivity to theological concerns within a dogmatic framework. Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer are two of the most prominent names in this regard, as demonstrated in their volumes for the Anchor Bible and elsewhere. Brown will be too liberal for many of you, but he is a remarkable scholar, with a theologically adept mind.

The NAB was commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and you can hear it at every mass in the United States. The other favorite translation among American Catholics is the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), published by Ignatius Press. I love the RSV, but I have come to appreciate the NAB more and more. It may lack a certain elegance, but I appreciate its “punchiness.” See Psalm 10, for example. But the significant advantage for the student is the study material. The book introductions are consistently good, and the study notes are genuinely helpful. The overall perspective is “moderate critical,” much like the Protestant New Interpreter’s Study Bible. See the New Jerusalem Bible below for a similar study Bible from Roman Catholic scholars.

New International Version (NIV) Study Bible


It has many naysayers, but I am a fan of the NIV, especially the 2011 revision (see a related post here). This study Bible is the evangelical standard. As such, it is minimally concerned with appropriating historical critical research, except in an adverse position. When it comes to the Pentateuch, for example, Moses is the author, albeit with some recognition of later redaction. When it comes to Isaiah, the similarities among the parts overrule the differences (e.g, “Holy One of Israel” throughout), yielding a single author. And the book of Daniel is not a species of late AD apocalyptic, intertestamental literature. In each case, appeal is made to the New Testament’s use of the OT and how traditional authorship is ascribed.

For many people, this would be enough to dismiss the NIV Study Bible. But that is a shame. The NIV Study Bible is enormously beneficial to one and all. As you would expect from an evangelical study Bible, the NIV-SB does a marvelous job of systematizing the disparate material in the biblical canon. Agree or disagree, it is helpful, especially for the pastor. The 2011 NIV-SB also includes a wealth of charts (in color!) that will serve every student well.

New Interpreter’s Study Bible


The NISB is a distillation of The New Interpreter’s Bible, one of the most important commentary series on the market and the successor to the widely utilized The Interpreter’s Bible. There is also the accompaniment, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, which is also an academic standard. And all of this derived from the “biblical theology” movement of the mid-twentieth century, with Interpretation as the flagship and leading journal for mainline Protestants facilitating both critical and theological analysis of the Bible. Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond continues to house Interpretation. And there is also a commentary series, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. This is a favorite among preachers, and it includes the likes of Brueggemann on Genesis and Thomas Long on Hebrews.

So, the “Interpretation” enterprise is vast, and it is much beloved among mainline Protestants. It represents the best of “moderate critical” scholarship. This means that the theology of the NISB is largely congenial to “neo-orthodoxy” of the 20th century, but it also features aspects of liberation and feminist theology, also rather congenial to mainline Protestantism of today. Personally, I have a mixed reaction to the NISB, but I am largely favorable to it. It is certainly worth owning and worth frequently consulting, but I think that the NAB (above) and NJB (below) are superior on the whole.

As with all of the mainline Protestant study Bibles, the translation is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I am not overly fond of the NRSV for stylistic reasons, but it represents some of the best of biblical scholarship in the late 20th century (including the indomitable Bruce Metzger at Princeton) and is the academic standard.

New Jerusalem Bible


This is an astonishingly good study Bible. The book introductions are alone worth the price of the volume and should be published independently as an introductory survey of the Bible. Like the NAB, the NJB is a Roman Catholic translation of the Bible, featuring academic introductions and study notes. (Note: the “Reader’s Edition” lacks the study material.) But most importantly, these academic features are also combined with theological commitments, much like the NAB. For example, the study note for Romans 9:5 (“…Christ who is above all, God, blessed forever. Amen.”) is a splendid account of the divinity of Christ within the doctrine of the Trinity. I do not know of any other study Bible that combines such theological depth with academic-critical rigor.

While the NJB is a Roman Catholic Bible, it could easily be called an ecumenical Bible. Most of the mainline Protestants would be comfortable with it, and I would encourage evangelical Protestants to utilize it as well. There are only a few instances where peculiarly Roman Catholic “bias” could be detected. For example, the study note for Matthew 1:25 allows for the ever-virginity of Mary: “The text is not concerned with the period that followed and, taken by itself, does not assert Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is assumed by the remainder of the Gospel and by the tradition of the Church.” The NAB says basically the same. But this is not significant. I think the Epiphanian view is plausible — why else was Mary entrusted to the beloved disciple and not to Jesus’ “brothers”? (John 19:26-27). So, I am not concerned with this particular “bias.” More importantly, the controversial matters on justification in Romans and Galatians are notably unbiased and fair to everyone concerned, if you sufficiently understand the complexities involved.

New Oxford Annotated Bible


The NOAB is the long-standing standard in academic study Bibles, widely utilized in both mainline Protestant seminaries and secular universities. This was the Bible we were assigned at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The original edition (with the RSV translation) is still in print, and it is considered a classic, thanks in large part to the influence and labor of Bruce Metzger. Metzger also supervised both the NRSV translation (1989) and the revision of the NOAB. But later additions of the NOAB have gone beyond Metzger, who was a moderate-critical, neo-orthodox Presbyterian scholar. The editors of the third and fourth editions of the NOAB, Michael D. Coogan and Marc Z. Brettler, have incorporated a decidedly secular and non-theological perspective throughout the NOAB. This is my opinion, after using both the third and fourth editions extensively. Nonetheless, the NOAB remains a valuable resource for understanding the mainline academic/liberal perspective on the Bible.

However, The HarperCollins Study Bible (NRSV) appears to be a better resource for grappling with the theological implications of critical research, from the perspective of liberal mainline Protestantism. But, I am not as familiar with the HCSB, so I have to reserve judgment.

Other Study Bibles

There are several other study Bibles worth mentioning. The NLT Study Bible is very good, and in certain respects it is even superior to the NIV Study Bible. More than the latter, it gives greater recognition to the mainstream, as in providing the “lower chronology” of Moses and the Exodus (13th century BC) set beside the higher chronology. Yet, it lacks many of the features that make the NIV-SB special, and it is an inferior translation.


Also on the evangelical side, we should recognize The Reformation Study Bible, edited by R. C. Sproul. Next month, the RSB is scheduled to release its latest edition. This is the traditional Calvinist study Bible, par excellence. It first appear in the mid-1990’s as The New Geneva Study Bible, in the NKJV translation only. It then expanded to the ESV translation, which is the sole translation of the new edition. There is also an NIV edition, The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, edited by Richard L. Pratt and based upon the Sproul edition of the RSB. The NIV edition features more expansive study notes. And most importantly, the NIV edition includes the Reformed confessions (Three Forms of Unity and Westminster Standards) at the end and footnoted throughout the text.

The ESV Study Bible is easily the most talked about study Bible to emerge in the last decade. This is thanks in large part to the wide publicity of Crossway and enthusiastic support from leaders within the “New Calvinism,” such as John Piper. The theology is basically the same as The Reformation Study Bible, but I find the RSB to be more theologically in-depth and elegant. Yet, the ESV-SB features more material and more study aids, much like the latest NIV-SB.

On the mainline Protestant side, there is The Discipleship Study Bible, which appears to be very similar to the NISB (above). It comes from the same “Interpretation” group of scholars, with pastor-scholars like Thomas Long, and is published by Westminster John Knox.


Alright, I think that is enough for now! We have a wealth of study Bibles in the English-speaking world: evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic. And each of the above have something worthwhile to offer us all.

Thielicke on Billy Graham

February 3, 2015


I have previously blogged, a while back, an excerpt from Helmut Thielicke on his experience at a Billy Graham crusade: “Billy Graham among the theologians.” Here is another quotation from Thielicke, which I recently came across in Pollock’s biography of Graham:

I saw it all happen without pressure and emotionalism (contrary to the reports which I had received up until now)….I saw them all coming towards us, I saw their assembled, moved and honestly decided faces, I saw their searching and their meditativeness. I confess that this moved me to the very limits. Above all there were two young men — a white and a black — who stood at the front and about whom one felt that they were standing at that moment on Mount Horeb and looking from afar into a land they had longed for. I shall never forget those faces. It became lightening clear that men want to make a decision….

The consideration that many do not remain true to their hour of decision can contain no truly serious objection; the salt of this hour will be something they will taste in every loaf of bread and cake which they are to bake in their later life. Once in their life they have perceived what it is like to enter the realm of discipleship. And if only this memory accompanies them, then that is already a great deal. But it would certainly be more than a mere memory. It will remain an appeal to them, and in this sense it will maintain its character indelibilis.

[Quoted in John Pollock, The Billy Graham Story, p. 119]


Image: Helmut Thielicke (source)


Mark Gignilliat is Associate Professor of Divinity (Old Testament) at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. He received his Ph.D. from St. Andrews, Scotland, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah.


Who knew that a book on OT criticism could be enjoyable?

Mark Gignilliat’s A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism is a superb introduction to modern historical-criticism of the Bible. The format, the style, the scholarship is all excellent. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular figure: Benedict Spinoza, W. M. L. de Wette, Julius Wellhausen, Herman Gunkel, Gerhard von Rad, William F. Albright, and Brevard Childs — a list that he recognizes could be expanded to include other prominent persons (Eichrodt, Noth, Barr, et al.). By choosing to focus on major figures, situating each in his biographical context, there is a liveliness to the book. As Gignilliat writes in the introduction:

People and their ideas are more interesting (at least to me) than abstract discussions of critical theories. For example, I do not have a chapter on form criticism. But I do have a chapter on Hermann Gunkel, with form criticism discussed therein. Also, I find these figures fascinating as people located in the broader cross-stream of ideas, cultural norms, and ecclesiastical battles. [p. 12]

And indeed, the little biographical tidbits enhance the discussion immensely. The audience for this book is fairly broad. Gignilliat has a very engaging style and presupposes little, if any, insider knowledge of the field. And since Gignilliat’s prose is always clear and brisk, many laypersons could find it accessible and enjoyable. For the academic, you will appreciate that Gignilliat is studious and unbiased in his explanations of these diverse figures, though he freely acknowledges his preference for Brevard Childs. The concluding chapter features a who’s who of my favorite theologians: Thomas Torrance, John Webster, Karl Barth, and Herman Bavinck. This is where Gignilliat offers some constructive theological commentary, but the previous chapters on De Wette, Wellhausen, Gunkel, etc., are not distorted in any way by his own commitments. These chapters could have been written by any competent scholar in the field.

To give you one, fairly random, example of Gignilliat’s style, here is part of his discussion of Spinoza’s account of the prophets:

The language of being filled with the Spirit is an internal claim about the prophet’s uniquely cultivated piety and virtue. Revelation in such an account becomes religious self-awareness. Spinoza does claim that within the prophet’s imaginative gifts genuine divine communication can take place. Therefore, Spinoza does not dismiss the veracity of prophetic knowledge. As natural knowledge has its source in the mind, prophetic knowledge has its source in the imagination. But both sorts of knowledge are an act of self-discovery. [p. 30. Referencing Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, Cambridge 2007, pp. 24-25.]

This is a somewhat technical passage, but in the context it is perfectly clear what Gignilliat is explaining about Spinoza.

The book is 176 pages, plus a name index and subject index. The publisher mercifully chose to use footnotes instead of endnotes! I honestly do not understand why endnotes are still in existence.


This is a follow-up quote for my previous post, “The Case for Wine.” I’ve seen this quote, from bloggers and elsewhere, multiple times, and it is worth sharing again. This relates to my responses to Objections #2 and #3 in the previous post, namely that wine is not interchangeable with grape juice without changing the signification (what is represented and indicated by the sign). Here is Frederick Buechner:

Unfermented grape juice is a bland and pleasant drink, especially on a warm afternoon mixed half-and-half with ginger ale. It is a ghastly symbol of the life blood of Jesus Christ, especially when served in individual antiseptic, thimble-sized glasses. Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one. [Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 96]

Last month, Robin Parry posted an excerpt from George Hunsinger’s Eucharist and Ecumenism, which complements the Buechner quote rather nicely:

What I like least, I’m afraid, is the usual form of celebration in American Protestant churches like my own. What does it symbolize when little trays of pre-cut white bread are passed through the pews, to be followed by larger, more cumbersome trays with grape-juice-filled little cups (these days, more often than not, even disposable plastic cups). I feel embarrassed when these services are visited by ecumenical friends. How can they help musing that what is being symbolized here is the essence of Protestant individualism and privatized religion, the alone communing with the Alone (as Plotinus said), a deracinated form of community, giving new meaning to Rahner’s phrase “anonymous Christians”? [p. 332]

When it comes to bland, antiseptic, Gnostic-like Protestantism in America, there is no better symbol than grape juice. And our bread is no better:






For some of you, the argument over wine versus grape juice in the Lord’s Supper is entirely foreign. You grew-up Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox or Anglican or similarly “high church.” You can read this post as an observer on the outside, curiously looking in. But here in NASCAR country, we do our drinking at the track or pretty much anywhere and anytime, unless it’s Sunday morning at church and it’s time for Communion. So, this is a lively debate still. Here is a brief run-down of how I understand the issue.


For those who know little or nothing of this discussion, here is a quick history. The transition from wine to grape juice is a recent event in the two thousand year history of the church, and its provenance was almost entirely in America. Not every church or denomination transitioned to grape juice. Those that did were under the influence of two powerful sociological forces in the 19th century: (1) the plight of alcoholism and (2) the rise of revivalism. These are very different, but I think they sufficiently account for a lot.

The temperance movement swept our nation in the 19th century, in response to the serious rise in alcoholism, especially among the working class. The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but I think a broadly Marxian critique is probably right. The sociological behavior was driven by economic forces, namely the inhumanity of 19th century industrialism. Alcoholism was a consequence, in large part, of industrialism. I know that can be disputed, and I would not extend this critique further than it needs to go. For the record, this is probably the only time I have ever appealed to Marx to substantiate an argument, and I wouldn’t recommend doing so when talking to Southern Baptists!

Another factor worth considering is the increased availability of distilled spirits (hard liquor), thanks to the invention of the column still in the 19th century. Distillation goes back to the early middle ages, but it was not mass produced in the way we are accustomed today and for the past 100 or so years. As those of us who drink are well aware, it takes a lot of beer or wine to get truly drunk. But with liquor, it’s easy and relatively inexpensive, if you go for the bottom shelf booze. I don’t know how much of this contributed to alcoholism in the 19th and early 20th century, but it seems like a good guess.

The entrepreneur to capitalize on the plight of alcoholism was the devout Methodist, Thomas Bramwell Welch. But his motivations were not avaricious, as “to capitalize on” may suggest. He was genuinely concerned about alcoholism and for religious/ethical reasons — the same reasons that motivated his involvement in the Underground Railroad. He invented the pasteurization process that yields grape juice as we know it today, and he advocated for its use as a substitute for wine. He and his heirs were enormously successful in doing so.

Alongside the rise of alcoholism, the 19th century was also the century of revivalism in the churches. There was a “Great Revival” in the 18th century, but this revivalism acquired whole new dimensions with Charles Finney and other prominent revivalists in the following century. For many, it became a comprehensive template for how the church should conduct itself. As a result, the sacraments diminished and “enthusiasm” increased. The sacraments were sidelined, although not entirely abandoned, of course. It was in this context that substituting wine for grape juice was, quite simply, not a big deal. In those churches where a higher view of the sacraments was retained, this was unconscionable. The “low church” bodies were generally the most adaptable to grape juice, such as Baptists and Holiness groups, but many mainline leaders advocated the same, as a part of the social gospel awareness. As a result, many of the mainline Protestant denominations were caught in-between, such as the Methodists and the Presbyterians. The Methodists had a stronger revivalist streak, and thus many of them adopted grape juice rather easily. For Presbyterians, it was mixed, and it remains mixed to this day. Some use wine. Some use grape juice.

So, that is the history. More needs to be said, but let’s look at the common objections to wine in the Eucharist.

Objection #1: Alcoholism

The obvious objection, given the history above, is that of alcoholism. The objection is basically this: “Every church has members or guests who struggle with alcohol abuse. Serving wine is a temptation for them to ‘fall off the wagon,’ and so it is unloving and irresponsible for us to do so.” This objection has to be taken seriously, as I think everyone agrees. Because of this, I am willing for churches to adopt a compromise position, serving wine primarily but with grape juice as an option. But it also needs to be observed that Catholics, to give one notable example, do not seem to be debilitated by this concern. Neither do Lutherans or Orthodox or Anglicans. In those communions and cultures where wine in the Eucharist is “a given,” it is not a problem, and these also tend to be cultures that (as I see it) have a healthier view of wine and alcohol consumption in general. Alcoholism, as in the ancient world, is seen as one manifestation of a disordered life, and it is the disorder that has to be targeted. This is why “alcoholism,” as a distinct disorder, did not exist in the ancient world. This is a much larger and debated discussion, for which I am not truly qualified.

So, I question the merit of this objection. One of my seminary classmates has a long history of alcoholism and is now helping other alcoholics. I asked her about wine in the communion service, and she said (without hesitation) that it has no effect on her or anyone she knows. It is too little alcohol. And with intinction, it is entirely a non-issue. This is just an anecdote, and other alcoholics can disagree. But it is people like her that we have to hear, as we weigh this delicate issue.

Objection #2: “Wine” in the Bible is not really wine.

This objection can take a number of creative forms. The general approach is to emphasize how wine in the ancient world was diluted by water. This is true, to an extent. Wine is clean. It is pure and healthy (as we know now more than ever), protecting itself against parasites, which is the biggest reason why it was used so often as a common drink in Jesus’ day. In its everyday use, it was “cut” by water in order to make it last longer…but not in festivities. When Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana for the wedding celebration, it was the finest wine of the entire event, which means that is was definitely not cut by water.

It is hard to take this objection seriously. Even diluted wine is still wine, not grape juice. And the festal wine was not diluted. This objection only serves to further highlight the extent to which wine was part of the life and well-being of ancient societies. It was an everyday drink, safer than water, and yet it was also a celebratory drink for special occasions. These are not unconnected, it seems to me. Wine was a blessing. Amos 9:13. Joel 2:24. The prophets used it as an image of blessing in the restoration of Israel. Even today, when we don’t have to worry about unhealthy drinking water (at least not in the West), wine still has its celebratory association, which seems rather important in its signification within the Eucharist (which, after all, means “thanksgiving” for a reason).

Objection #3: Both wine and grape juice are “fruit of the vine” and that’s all that matters.

The expression, “fruit of the vine,” indicates wine. As Jesus said, “I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29 NIV). Nonetheless, some have used “fruit of the vine” to indicate grape juice as well. As such, it is used as the essential feature of the wine. All that matters is that it is “fruit of the vine.” Thus, the fermentation does not really change anything substantially. The alcoholic content is accidental, in other words. But, are we really squabbling over alcohol content? That’s how it may seem.

But, I think the fermentation process is essential, not accidental. It’s more than about “alcohol content.” It’s about what the element (bread or wine) signifies, and grape juice does not have the same signification as wine. It lacks the festal and celebratory features noted under objection #2 above. Jesus chose wine for a reason. And I think one of the casualties, of switching to grape juice, has been the cheapening of the entire character of the eucharistic meal and celebration.


This is a quick discussion of the objections, with only the briefest of responses. I am convinced of the responses, which is why I wrote them! But even if you are not convinced, you have to ask yourself one question. Is it not significant that Jesus, the apostles, and over 1800 years of church history unanimously agreed on this? At the very least, that should be a haunting question.

For your listening pleasure, I will direct you to a sermon by Arden Hodgens, pastor of Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in La Mirada, California: “Wine vs. Grape Juice.” Hodgens, with the other elders of Trinity Reformed, changed the church’s practice from grape juice to wine! He doesn’t care about your opinion or preferences in regard to consuming alcohol. The only question is whether it is biblical to substitute grape juice for wine in the Lord’s Supper. It is not.


Image: Gundlach Bundschu, located in Sonoma Valley, is California’s oldest continuously family-owned winery. With my brother and our parents, I took a tour of their winery this past summer. It was fascinating. They are German Protestant, which meant that they had to close during prohibition, whereas the Catholic wineries were given an exemption for sacramental reasons! Of all the wineries we visited, Gun-Bun was by far the best.


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