Friday, January 15, 2021

Ecclesia Militans: A New Christian Studies Journal

 by Michael R. Burgos

Ecclesia Militans is a new peer-reviewed Christian studies journal hosted by Forge Theological Seminary. I am currently serving as the general editor and am looking forward to our first edition in June 2021. 

As far as theological journals goEcclesia Militans is a unique contribution since anyone who holds evangelical convictions is able to submit an article or book review. Additionally, we're accepting submissions on biblical and theological studies, counseling, ministerial studies, and Christian philosophy. We are also accepting formal disputations between two or three parties aimed at a formal thesis. Let me invite you to consider a submission! You may find the submission guidelines here.

"Sleight of Mind:" The Myth of the Christian Trinity, A Review

 by Michael R. Burgos 

Sleight of Mind: The Myth of the Christian Trinity, Vol. 1 is an anti-Trinity polemic written by Steven Blake. Whereas I have read and responded to what are likely the best non-trinitarian polemics (e.g., Buzzard; Stafford), "Sleight of Mind" is a popular-level volume that conveys a significant number of common arguments against orthodoxy. For that reason, a critical review may be helpful for those interested in typical popular subordinationist argumentation.

            The foreword includes Blake’s claim that he feels as though he has been called by God to “correct one of the most egregious distortions of biblical fact” (i.e., the doctrine of the Trinity).[1] Blake claims no relevant formal training, whether in biblical studies, languages, or theology. Only, he cites thirty years of “intensive study.”[2] Regularly, however, Blake makes substantial claims regarding Bible translation, Greek and Hebrew definitions (while never properly citing any source) and syntax. For example, he spent several pages unpacking why “Godhead is a pagan concept.”[3] He waxed long as to why “theoin” does not actually mean “Godhead.” Likely due to his unfamiliarity with biblical Greek, Blake confuses the accusative form of θεότης with its lexical form. He similarly demonstrates his ignorance regarding the archaism “Godhead” since the suffix -head has largely been supplanted by the suffix -hood in modern English. Hence, expertise is not among the fruit of his thirty years of “intensive study.”

It is difficult to imagine a text with more unsubstantiated invective than what is presented in "Sleight of Mind." Blake is an adept ‘proof-texter,’ predicating much of his conclusions on Scripture quotation with erroneous and shallow commentary. Quaint arguments such as “the word Trinity” is not found in the Bible and the Trinity is “irrational” make up the bulk of this volume.[4] The surface level argumentation is often so incoherent that is presents as sacrilegious satire. By way of example, Blake criticizes Christians for the ease at which they have been “beguiled” by such an obvious false teaching and then cites several arguments to demonstrate his point: “The Bible says that ‘no man has seen God at any time’ (Joh 1:18), and yet it states that Jesus was seen by ‘multitudes’ (Mt 8:1).”[5] Not only has Blake ignored the multitudinous occasions in the OT wherein God is explicitly seen (e.g., Gen. 32:30; Exod. 24:10; Isa. 6:5), he has neglected John 1:18 wherein John claimed that no one has seen the Father but the “one and only God” has revealed him.[6] Thus John’s resolution of the apparent contradiction between the many accounts wherein God has explicitly been seen and the prohibitions of seeing God (e.g., Exod. 33:20) is that when people have seen Yahweh, they saw the Son (cf. John 12:41; Isa. 6:1-5).

Within the same pericope, Blake made this claim:

The Bible makes clear that the Father alone is God. It portrays Jesus as representing God’s mind, personality and character. He is said to be “the exact likeness of God”- 2Co 4:4, NIV, “the exact representation of His (God’s) being”- Heb 1:3, NLT and “the visible image of the invisible God” - Col 1:15, NLT. The common denominator is that in thought, word, and action, Jesus looked like God - not that he was God.[7]

            Blake has made the astounding claim that when the writer of Hebrews says that the Son possesses the exactness of God’s being, this means that Jesus acted like God. Not only is the claim completely unsubstantiated, it defies the natural reading of Hebrews 1:2. The relevant noun (ὑπόστασις) is defined as “the essential or basic structure/nature of an entity, substantial nature…”[8] and thus the author of Hebrews has made the claim that the Son of God possesses ontological equality with God not merely in terms of his human actions, words, and thoughts, but in his divine essence.

            Blake presents the usual litany of quotations from theologically liberal sources which claim that the Trinity is a post-biblical construct.[9] He neither interacts with these quotes or substantiates the claims within them. What these many quotations amount to is a fallacious appeal to authorities that does little to add credibility to his case.

            Blake presents a variety of peculiar biblical claims that are obviously erroneous. This claims are apparently designed to discredit trinitarianism but they rely upon fictitious premises. For example, he wrote, “1 John 5:7 and Matthew 28:19 are the only verses in the Bible in which the titles ‘Father’, ‘Son’ (or ‘Word’) and ‘Holy Spirit’ appear together in the same sentence.”[10] Moving past the arbitrary presupposition (i.e., these titles must necessarily occur frequently in a single sentence for the Trinity to have legitimacy), Blake’s claim is obviously wrong (cf. 2 Cor. 13:14). Whereas much critique could be levelled at his surface-level method, errors such as this run deep in “Sleight of Mind.”

            As for his Christological argumentation, Blake’s tack is to identify things attributed to Christ which he believes preclude trinitarian Christology. For instance, he points out that Acts 10:38 states that Jesus was anointed.[11] He then scoffs: “This being the case, if each of the members of the Trinity were God, Ac 10:38 would be telling us that 'God anointed God with God'. But would such an idea make even the slightest bit of sense?”[12] Similar argumentation appears with regard to the accounts wherein Jesus is said to have a God (i.e., the Father). These sorts of arguments presuppose a non-incarnational Christology from the outset and thus engage in fallacious question begging. If Jesus is the incarnate Son, he has taken upon himself the limitations of human existence and has endured a great humiliation. On incarnational Christology, descriptions of subordination (e.g., Christ’s anointing; prayers to God; etc.) are due to the fact that he exists as a human being and thus endured a functional subordination in order to redeem his people. Much the same ought to be said with regard to the exaltation accounts.[13]

            The fallacy of petitio principii (i.e., question begging) occurs when one presents an argument where the conclusion is assumed in a premises.”[14] This fallacy is indelibly weaved into most of “Sleight of Hand.” Blake assumes unitarianism when he approaches the biblical text and then presents proof-texts which, having assumed his conclusion, demonstrate his conclusion. There are so many instances of this that providing one or two exemplars seems to do injustice to a fair review. However, for the sake of brevity I will provide two:

Scripture tells us that Jesus was a “man” (1Ti 2:5) and “without sin” (Heb 4:15). Being neither God nor a member of sinning mankind, he was qualified to mediate between them - to pay the ransom for sin and redeem mankind from its penalty. God cannot, by definition, be mediator in a conflict between Himself and sinning mankind. Hence, as the mediator in that conflict, Jesus cannot be God.[15]

The same is true for the phrase: “the Son of God”. I believe that this title intends to mean what it appears to mean: that Jesus is God's offspring, not God Himself. I don't think we require a theologian to give us a convoluted explanation of why it “really” means that Jesus is God - instead of what it appears to mean.[16]

In both of these quotations, Blake assumes unitarianism and thus reads that conclusion into the relevant texts or phrases. This tactic is incoherent and is about as far from actual biblical exegesis than is imaginable.

Blake affirms a rudimentary Arian Christology that posits Christ as the personal agent through which God created.[17] He never provides a consideration of the relevant Christological texts which would, on their natural reading, provide some question regarding his position (e.g., Heb. 1:10-12). His Christology is also in keeping with some modern expressions of Arianism (e.g., the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society). He defines the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force and yet never deals with the litany of biblical texts which contradict his claim. Evidently, Blake believes on can have intimate fellowship with an impersonal force (2 Cor. 13:14) and that God’s impersonal force is set on a par with personal subjects (Matt. 28:19). He also, believes by implication that an impersonal force intercedes to God on behalf of the elect (Rom. 8:27-28). When Jesus said he would send “another helper” (John 14:16), on Blake's view, he apparently did not really mean a Helper akin to Jesus Christ despite the fact that this Helper teaches God’s people (John 15:26; cf. Acts 5:32; Rom. 8:16). In short, there is overwhelming evidence for the personhood of the Holy Spirit and Blake never interacts with any of it.[18]

Blake demonstrates consistent unfamiliarity with orthodox trinitarianism. At times, he confuses trinitarianism with modalism and at other times he engages in mischaracterization. An example of this occurs in his discussion of Hebrews 1:2 where Blake notes that Jesus is at the right hand of God and then concludes, “Thus we are given evidence that Jesus did not - as Trinitarianism alleges - resume his identity as God, but took a position near God.”[19] This claim is a bald mischaracterization as orthodoxy has always affirmed that Jesus is still fully human and is seated at God’s right hand.

In chapter six, Blake claims to address “Trinitarian arguments.” Here, I thought, this must be where he actually interacts with the other side and provides substantiation of his position. Hardly. Blake only continued to provide proof-text citations and unsupported claims. Chapter seven fairs much the same. There, Blake engages a number of topics (e.g., “Jesus is created by God”). He spent several pages seeking to demonstrate that Psalm 2:7 and its NT quotations mean that Jesus was created by God.[20] Whereas he admits that the Psalm’s original application doesn’t refer to the Davidic king’s creation,[21] he insists that the application of this text in the NT does. The manner in which he has sought to demonstrate this is a few lexical entries from unscholarly sources (e.g., a few Bible websites) which attest that יְלִדְתִּֽי means “begotten.” Blake wrongly assumes the lexical definition of “begotten” is in dispute and he neglects to recognize that Psalm 2 is a coronation hymn and is applied in the NT to the final Davidic King in terms of his coronation and not his birth (e.g., Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). Moreover, Blake ignores the fact that orthodoxy affirms that Jesus became a human being and was, therefore, conventionally begotten.

In what is perhaps the most surface-level treatment of the term “firstborn” as it appears in Colossians 1:15, Blake appeals to a number of English dictionaries as well as a number of unscholarly sources (e.g., Strong’s Concordance) to demonstrate that “firstborn” means the one born first. Of course, in order to make these claims Blake isolated Colossians 1:15 from v. 16—a specious attempt at disregarding Paul’s claim that Jesus is the Creator of all things who is “before all things” (v. 17). Blake is either ignorant or ignores the fact πρωτότοκος can have a figurative meaning that refers “to having special status associated with a firstborn.”[22] Thus when Yahweh said “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exod. 4:22), the Septuagint translates the Hebrew בְכֹרִ֖ with πρωτότοκος. Figuratively, Israel receives all of the preeminence and favor from God as if it was his firstborn son. This figurative use occurs again in the Septuagint’s rendering of Jeremiah 31:9, where Jehovah calls Ephraim (Joseph’s biologically firstborn was Manasseh) his “firstborn.” Jehovah said of king David, “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:27). Thus Jesus, the Son of David and the King of kings is identified as “the firstborn of all creation” so as to identify his utter preeminence.[23] Much the same can be said regarding Blake’s appeal to Revelation 3:14.[24]

In closing, Blake’s contribution articulates a variety of folk-level subordinationist arguments but rarely demonstrates a rudimentary grasp of theological concepts and relevant methodological considerations. This work is completely devoid of actual biblical exegesis. His argumentation is often incoherent and his vilification divulges misplaced arrogance. Since this is Blake’s for installment, I will seek to review the second when it is released, Lord willing.

[1] Steven Blake, “Sleight of Mind”: The Myth of the Christian Trinity, Vol. 1 (n.p., 2018), Kindle Ed., 8.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 27-9.

[4] Ibid., 64 and 68 resp.

[5] Ibid., 72.

[6] There is a significant variant at John 1:18. Due to its robust external evidence, the critical editions have θεὸς, as the reading is found in two 2nd century papyri, 𝔓66 and 𝔓75, as well as several important uncials (א ,B, C, and L). The second reading, υἱός, occurs in codex A, a ninth century correction of C, and in codices K, Γ, Δ, Θ, and Ψ. A, which aside from having a Byzantine reading of the gospels, comes at least 200 years after the papyri. Regarding patristic attestation, both μονογενὴς θεὸς and μονογενὴς υἱός find broad support. However, since μονογενὴς υἱός occurs elsewhere within the Johannine corpus (John 3:16, v. 18; 1 John 4:9), one would expect patristic writers to affirm both readings if θεὸς is authentic (as in Origen, Clement of Theodotus, Cyril, Basil).  Given the difficulty of μονογενὴς θεὸς and the harmonizing tendency of the Byzantine text, especially in the gospels, and given that John already applied θεὸς to the same subject in the prologue (v. 14), there remains no substantive textual critical reason to object to the earliest attested reading.

[7] Blake, “Sleight of Mind,” 72.

[8] BDAG, 1040.

[9] E.g., Blake, “Sleight of Mind,” 74-6.

[10] Ibid., 85.

[11] Ibid., 87.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For a in-depth consideration of the humiliation and exaltation of Christ in light of subordinationist claims, see Michael R. Burgos ed., Our God is Triune: Essays in Biblical Theology (Torrington, CT: Church Militant Pub., 2018), 164-75.

[14] Douglas N. Walton, Begging the Question: Circular Reasoning as a Tactic of Argumentation (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991), 11.

[15] Blake, “Sleight of Hand,” 96.

[16] Ibid., 99.

[17] Ibid., 101-2.

[18] For a thorough analysis in light of JW claims, see Michael R. Burgos, Counterfeit Religion: A Biblical Analysis of Cults, Sects, & False Religious Movements (Torrington, CT: Church Militant Pub., 2019), 63-9.

[19] Ibid., 110.

[20] Ibid., 244-54.

[21] Ibid., 245.

[22] BDAG, 894.

[23] Melick observed that of the eight times πρωτότοκος occurs in the NT, “It is clearly used literally of primogeniture only once [i.e., Luke 2:7]. The rest of the occurrences are figurative, and they are far removed from any idea of birth.” Richard R. Melick Jr., The New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1991), 216.

[24] See Burgos, Counterfeit Religion, 58-60.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Christian Counselor's New Testament & Proverbs: A Review

 The Christian Counselor’s New Testament and Proverbs, 4th Rev. Ed. Translated by Jay E. Adams. Cordova, TN: Institute of Nouthetic Studies, 2019.

By Michael R. Burgos

Jay Edward Adams (1929-2020) is best known for his work in biblical counseling.[1] Drawing upon his Reformed and presuppositional commitments, Adams wrote the first thoroughgoing polemic against clinical psychology and psychiatry and the integrationist movement. Simultaneously, Adams sought to establish reformation among evangelicals calling them back to a robust biblical psychology and the sufficiency of Scripture for the cure of souls. By any account, the movement and institutions started by Adams are both successful and thriving.

Adams was a prodigious author, writing mainly on issues related to practical theology but also homiletics, eschatology, ecclesiology, and the like. His formal training, however, focused mainly on theology, biblical studies, and homiletics. In 1969, Adams completed his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in speech having produced a dissertation entitled The Homiletical Innovations of Andrew W. Blackwood. Earlier, he had earned two undergraduate degrees, namely, a Bachelor of Divinity from Reformed Episcopal Seminary and a Bachelor of Arts in biblical Greek from Johns Hopkins University. Training in biblical Greek afforded Adams a love of the language and appreciation for the ancient commonality of New Testament Greek. The latter of which motivated Adams to produce his essentially literal translation of the New Testament into accessible English.

The Christian Counselor’s New Testament and Proverbs (CCNTP) is a unique and worthwhile contribution to an already crowded market. It features an excellent verse by verse format with healthy margins and handsome font with quotations of the Old Testament rendered in caps. Dotting the margins are short notations that identify the general topic of the pericope. These marginal notations are indexed in the back of the volume and serve as a useful topical guide. Adams has also provided his footnoted commentary throughout the translation. While not as extensive as a full-on study Bible, his comments are to the point and generally very helpful to both the biblical counselor and the student of Scripture. They contain both textual information, Scripture commentary, and occasional cross-references.

The translation work in the CCNTP is thoughtful and accurate. For example, Adams intuitively renders דּוֹר in Proverbs 30;11-14 as “one age.” Whereas “generation” or perhaps “period” would render the noun most literally, “age” makes better sense in modern English and communicates the transient nature of those who transgress the commandments of God. When we think of “generations” we tend to think of individuals who were born around the same period and live contemporaneously, whereas “age” goes a step further not merely connoting contemporaneous existence but mutuality in the relevant sin.

The modern translations render μονογενὴς at John 1:18; 3:16; 3:18; and 1 John 4:9 “only” (ESV; NRSV), “one and only” (CSB; NIV), and “only begotten” (NASB; NKJV). The CCNTP stands out, rendering μονογενὴς “unique.”[2]  This is perhaps the best translation of the term in print since it is evident that throughout the canon that God has other sons (e.g., Gen. 6:2; Luke 3:38), albeit quite unlike the Μονογενὴς Θεὸς.

The adage “No translation is perfect” is true of the CCNTP. Whereas Adams translates Jesus’ ἐγὼ εἰμί statement in John 8:58 as “I AM” he neglects to employ that rendering consistently. For example, he supplied the predicate in John 18:6: “He said to them, ‘I am He…’” On rare occasions, Adams’ translation is unnecessarily wordy. One example is found in 1 Corinthians 8:6. Adams renders the phrase ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς αὐτόν as “from Whom all things have come, including us who ourselves have been made for Him.” The introduction of the reflexive pronoun is redundant and when joined with the relative pronoun, it makes for a clumsy clause. A more succinct translation would render ἡμεῖς conventionally: “from whom all things come, including we for him.”

On the whole, the CCNTP is a very good translation that ought to find traction among Bible students of all backgrounds. His commentary, particularly in Proverbs, is worth the price of the volume alone. Adams has brought fresh consideration to both translational and textual issues and his insights are both valuable and faithful.

[1] Originally called “nouthetic counseling” drawing upon the verb νουθετέω (to admonish; exhort; counsel), biblical counseling and nouthetic counseling now refer to the same general theological commitments (e.g., the sufficiency of Scripture; the supremacy of the local church; the utilization of the Scriptures for soul care) and are essentially synonymous. Although, it has been argued that the phrase “nouthetic counseling” refers to those whose sympathies lie with the distinctives of Adams and the first generation of the biblical counseling movement.

[2] Notably, only the NET renders μονογενὴς as a substantive (i.e., “only one”) as in John 1:14.