Recently I bought an Old Testament Survey on clearance from christianbooks.com. “Surveys” give the background, culture, and other details of the books of the Bible. I’ve never read one before, but I’ve been intrigued ever since Noah told me some history he’d read on the minor prophets. I’d recognized by reading, for example, that Micah uses a lot of the same terminology as Isaiah (e.g., cf. Is. 2:2ff with Mic. 4:1ff*). I’d never thought, until Noah mentioned it, that Micah might actually have listened to Isaiah prophesy, but there’s a good chance he did.
So I bought this inexpensive Old Testament Survey, hoping to find little facts like that. There are some, but this survey is really a lot closer to a commentary than what I expected. It’s called Encountering the Old Testament, and it’s by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer.
Actually, I hate mentioning their names, because I have a complaint. I don’t know why I am always astonished at the lack of honesty or scholarshipÂ in Evangelical writing, but no matter how often it happens, I’m always surprised. I must be pretty dense. I can’t imagine that so many people are just purposely dishonest, so I’m hoping that most of them are just blind.
Page 454 of Encountering the Old Testament has a text box titled “What about those who have never heard?” They write, “Some people suggest that those who never hear the gospel might still receive salvation if they respond to God’s spiritual light in nature.” They then proceed to argue against this viewpoint. Their first argument reads like this:
Salvation by works is impossible. If we can earn our salvation, then Christ did not need to die (Gal 2:21).
If this statement were made by a high school student or by a co-worker down at the office, I would understand. However, this statement is in a hardcover textbook that claims “first-rate scholarship” on the back cover. The Publisher’s Preface says, “In these two series, Baker will publish texts that are clearly college-level…They will not be written for laypeople or pastors and seminarians…Rather, they will be pedagogically oriented textbooks written with collegians in mind.” There’s an introductory note “To the Professor” and “To the Student.” The Publisher’s Preface refers to “curriculum for Christian colleges” and “textbooks” as the standard this book is living up to. At this level, the statement above is simply inexcusable.
Galatians 2:21 says nothing at all about earning salvation or about works. It speaks of a righteousness that comes from the law. While your average evangelical, brainwashed and ignorant (sorry), can confuse law, works, and earning your salvation as though they are all the same thing, it is inexcusable for something that claims “first-rate scholarship” to confuse terms like that.
The Bible does say that salvation is not by works, but not in Galatians 2:21. It says it in Eph. 2:8. Unfortunately, it also says in Rom. 2:6-7 that eternal life does come by works. Galatians never addresses works alone; it only addresses the works of the law. It clearly says that the works of the law will not produce righteousness, though it never discusses whether the works of the law have anything to do with eternal life or going to heaven.
Again, it is not necessary for the average evangelical sitting in the pew to notice these things. It should be thoroughly embarrassing, however, that a college textbook would pay no attention to these matters. Arguments like these are an introduction to ignorance and poor scholarship, not an introduction to studying the Old Testament.
Now if this were a purely academic matter, it wouldn’t be that important. We’d just be dealing with academic ignorance. While that’s bad, it’s not as bad as deception and following a false gospel. It is exactly this sort of ignorance that causes people to believe that they can be Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ, without meeting any of the requirements that Christ himself laid down for his disciples.
There’s a lot of work in sorting through salvation, justification, eternal life, judgment, works, law, faith and grace. You have to pay attention not just to the terms but even to the authors. James and Paul, for example, use almost exactly the same terminology to make exactly the opposite statements. Paul says we can’t be justified byÂ the works of theÂ Law, while James says we are justified by works and not faith alone (Rom. 3:28; Jam. 2:24). While Paul mentions “works of the Law,” and James mentions “works,” that’s only the minorÂ difference between those two verses. The major difference is Paul and James’ use of the word “justification.” They mean two different things when they use it, which is obvious from context.
Studying those things can be a lot of work. There is a way around all of that. You can choose someone to believe. Most of my readers, I think, have been influenced by the evangelicals and are thus using Martin Luther’s explanations of terms. Personally, having been an evangelical for over a decade, I found the fruit of that path to be sadly lacking. There were good people who knew God on that path, but overall it fell far short of the New Testament description of the church, where “he who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Instead, only the deeply committed and strong of will grew on an ongoing basis. Most just slowly grew cold. Buddhists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses can claim those kind of results; in fact, probably better results because, being older and more accepted, it’s much easier to be lazy and comfortable in an evangelical church.
I’ve chosen to believe the 2nd century church. United and holy, they possessed an amazing power that carried them through in the midst of intense persecution. Minucius Felix, in The Octavius, was able to boast that “many of us have given…our whole bodies to be burned without any cries of pain…Among us, even women and young boys treat crosses, tortures, wild beasts, and every bugbear of punishment with the inspired patience of suffering…Can’t you wretched Romans see that they couldn’t endure these without the power of God?”
The fruit of their lives would be enough to make me choose their theology over the theology of others, but I enjoy study. I like the work of separating the verses on grace from the ones on faith, of sorting verses on eternal life from verses on salvation, and finding out if there’s any consistent and obvious pattern. As a result, I know that early church theology leaves the follower of Christ without almost none of the “difficult” verses that are an inherent part of evangelical theology.
Learning who to believe based on the fruit they produce is something Christ commanded, and it can save you from a lot of the work involved in strenuous theological study. That can be good because I don’t think all of us are supposed to devote ourselves to study and teaching. The church needs teachers, but even more, it needs workers who are out doing what is taught. Workers don’t need to waste their time doing the study that God has called teachers to do.
However, if you’re going to do the work of study, you should do it in such a way as to find the right answers. The sort of poor scholarship I ran across in Encountering the Old Testament is a sure-fire way to continue in traditions that make the Word of God void.
I can’t resist voicing one other complaint. I suppose I want evangelicals to see what their teachers are like and pursue something better. The argument I addressed above is on a page devoted to the book of Jonah. That page, 454, has this statement on it, “Probably to Jonah’s great surprise, the people [of Nineveh] believed God’s message!”
Probably to Jonah’s great surprise? Aren’t these people writing a college textbook? In Jonah 4:2, Jonah says to God, “Wasn’t this what I said when I was still in my country? That’s why I fled to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and you repent of the evil you intended.” Jonah didn’t flee because he was scared of public preaching. Jonah fled God because he knew that Nineveh might repent and avoid judgment. Jonah wanted them to be judged. He sat outside the city in the hot sun waiting in vain hope that God might judge Nineveh anyway, despite their repentance.
Please understand, I’m not trying to be picky. I believe my complaint here is valid and important. If you’re just the average person and you missed the fact that Jonah wanted Nineveh to be judged and regretted their repentance and salvation, that’s understandable. If you’re a scholar, however, you’re supposed to be helping people learn what’s true. In order to do so, you pay careful attention to what you’re studying and teaching. My complaint is not this book’s mistakes. My complaint is their lack of diligence in pursuing what is true, and my statement you, my reader, is that this is common. It’s not uncommon; it’s the standard in popular evangelical works. They are not pursuing what is true, but simply continuing on in dead traditions, and that course of action will reap you no better results in the 21st century than it did the Pharisees and their followers in the 1st century.
You are not going to be able to depend on your evangelical teachers to enlighten you. You are going to have to be more diligent yourself. I’m not afraid to ask that diligence of you, because the first and greatest commandment includes the command to love God with your mind and strength and as well as your heart and soul. An effort to find out what’s true fits well into that command. “In all your getting, get wisdom,” the Proverb says.
*What a mess of abbreviations! “e.g.” means “for example.” It’s short for the Latin exempli gratia. “cf.” means compare, and I’ve always wondered why. I googled it, and it’s short for the Latin confer, which means compare or consult. Finally, “ff” means “and forward.” I’m not sure why there’s two f’s rather than one.