Thoughts on Craig Keener’s Review of MacArthur’s ‘Strange Fire’

While perusing Dr. David Alan Black’s blog a couple weeks ago (specifically, the entry on December 30), I saw that Black had pointed to Dr. Craig Keener’s review of Dr. John MacArthur’s book Strange Fire, a work exposing some of the faulty theology and practices within Pentecostalism/charismaticism.  Keener, who puts out multi-volume scholarly works every week (OK, it’s not quite that frequently, though it seems so), reviewed MacArthur’s work at length, providing a fair, even analysis, criticizing the author for unnecessarily condemning one whole segment of Christendom.  (I state this without having read the book, though I’ve read other critiques, and have no reason to disbelieve Keener and the others in this regard.)  The reader is encouraged to view Keener’s review it in its entirety (at hyperlink above). 

I’ve selected portions of the review from which to add comments of my own.  The reader here should feel free to cut and paste other parts of Keener’s critique to add to the comments section and provide further commentary.

Assuming Keener’s (and others’) charge that the author has painted with a very broad brush is correct, I’d fully agree with the following statement:

 …Reactionary teaching like MacArthur’s, however, is more likely to polarize than to invite.

While I’m certain that hyper-charismaticism is dangerous, I’m just as certain that hyper-dogmatism is the same.  A few years ago, the teacher of a study I was attending, using an analogy from bowling, offered the general advice of steering clear of either gutter (though he didn’t use either of my “hyper-” terms) as I was seeking his input on my concerns over doctrines and practices of another student who was attempting to influence me.  Without stating so explicitly, it was obvious he agreed with me that the other individual’s ball fell into the hyper-charismatic gutter.  I never forgot that analogy.  I eventually left the group over the teacher’s own promotion of others with unorthodox and heretical doctrines of the hyper-charismatic variety (after enjoying a few lunches – my treat – in which I expressed concerns).

Since then, I’ve tried to steer clear of the other extreme, the one of hyper-dogmatism.  I don’t know that I’ve been entirely successful in that endeavor; I’d say my bowling ball may have a slight tendency toward the hyper-dogmatic side rather than the other gutter – much as I’d like to remain in the middle.  I suppose I’m continuationist in theology (I cannot read 1 Corinthians 12-14 and conclude cessationism), but not so much in praxis – at least not as many charismatics practice it.  My view is that spiritual gifts are not “practiced” so much as individuals are given gifts “just as He (the Holy Spirit) determines” (1 Cor 12:11) as we submit to the Spirit, on an individual and circumstantial basis.  MacArthur, however, has a definite tendency towards hyper-dogmaticism.

I suppose in many ways he’s much like some other denominational teachers who tow the party line, i.e., teaching doctrines in view of particular denominational slants to the exclusion of other possible, valid interpretations in non-essential matters, even perhaps stretching a bit to do so.  The following should go toward illustrating my point.  In MacArthur’s book Truth Endures (Panorama City: Grace To You, 2009), a collection of sermons he’s preached over the years, is one on Revelation titled “A Jet Tour through Revelation”.  In it he states:

…People often ask, ‘Where does the Rapture come in?’  It’s in the white spaces between chapters 3 and 4.  You have the church on earth in chapters 2 and 3; all of a sudden we appear in heaven in chapter 4. [p 132]

The “white spaces”?  I understand that he’s not the only one who, in part, supports the pre-tribulation Rapture doctrine by this, but I can only imagine MacArthur’s critique of similar exegesis to promote continuationism!

Yet, it’s his hard cessationism that overshadows his views of anything remotely continuationist, as Keener observes:

MacArthur’s indiscriminate condemnation of anything charismatic is little different from some bigoted secular condemnations of all evangelicals because of the behavior of some. Someone prone to generalize could even use the offenses in the book to blacklist all evangelicals, or all Christians, using the same logic that MacArthur uses against the entire charismatic movement…

Good point. 

More from Keener:

…[S]ome extreme Word of Faith teachers do promulgate teachings that, at least at face value, cannot but be viewed as heretical, especially believers being gods (rightly noted on pp. 11-12). But have such beliefs in fact “become the rule” among charismatics (p. 12)?…

One heresy that I did on occasion run into, which probably took matters more literally than did those MacArthur mentioned, was the Manifested Sons doctrine (or at least its extreme version that I encountered). Its proponents taught that overcomers by faith would achieve physical immortality before Jesus’s return, becoming “the many-membered Christ” on earth

One thing I do know is that the charismatic Spirit I have experienced was not compatible with this teaching. On one occasion I recoiled inside when I heard a guest speaker at a noncharismatic congregation teach on a completely different subject. I felt that he carried the same spirit as the Manifested Sons teachers. Afterward I asked him if he had known a certain Manifested Sons teacher. “Yes,” he replied, astonished. “We were good friends.” He was himself a Manifested Sons teacher. The Spirit I experienced regularly in sounder charismatic circles clearly testified against this false teaching

I’m glad that Keener has actually witnessed firsthand the Manifested Sons of God (MSoG) doctrine. This “many-membered Christ” (manchild), the culmination of MSoG, is what Bill Johnson of Bethel Church in Redding, CA – an individual with worldwide influence – has been teaching in a veiled form for quite some time now, while others such as Bob Jones, Paul Cain, and Todd Bentley have been much more obvious (see here for one example each of Jones and Bentley).  Yet Johnson’s recent podcast “Thinking from the Throne” is much more explicit (see here for lengthy CrossWise article, especially transcriptions at 13:49-14:12 and 36:30-37:34 of the podcast, near end of article1).  This is not just heresy, but a doctrine paralleling the occult teachings of the New Age / New Spirituality for the past 100 years, a teaching that is specifically antichrist in nature as defined by the Apostle John (1 John 2:22, 4:1-3).

I wonder who it was teaching MSoG and the “many-membered Christ” doctrine that Keener mentions here?

…I suspect that when we cite the highest figures for the numbers of charismatics in the world, we recognize that not all of them are those we would feel comfortable embracing as spiritual or theological kin

Of course, many would agree.  But, this begs the question: why aren’t there more Biblical scholars writing about these specific individuals (in a more irenic manner than some of the laity), warning the church at large?  Why didn’t Keener reveal the name of the Manifested Sons teacher he mentioned earlier?

Partly, if not mostly, in response to MacArthur, in a recent Charisma article Dr. Michael Brown poses the question Are We Charismatics Doing Enough to Correct Abuses in Our Midst?  Certainly, Brown has exposed some of the faulty doctrines and practices within Pentecostalism/charismaticism, even mentioning some names.  For that he deserves credit.  Yet on Brown’s own Voice of Revolution site he allows others to post articles, sometimes promoting teachers with very questionable theology and praxis.  This can cause confusion.

As just one example, Bill Johnson was lauded in a piece titled HEAVEN ON EARTH by Bill Johnson (Everyone Must Hear This!). The author of the piece merely provided one quote – “Jesus is perfect theology” – and two audio clips, yet there were some very troubling things stated in those clips.  (Rather than go into detail here, the reader can go to the link, listen to the audio for themselves, and read some of the comments, which include a few of my own, though I came in a bit late.)

Charisma itself is one of the worst offenders, promoting leaders of the so-called “New Apostolic Reformation” (C. Peter Wagner’s own term) to include Bill Johnson, Mike Bickle (of International House of Prayer), etc.   Jack Hayford, who is mentioned favorably by Brown in his article referenced above, appears to be a part of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), as well.  Hayford had suggested using the Gamaliel approach (cf. Acts 5:38-39) to the so-called “Lakeland Revival” of 2008, refusing to provide a very much needed corrective to the proceedings, illustrating what I’d define as poor leadership at best.

For those unaware, the NAR even has its own “Apostles” (that’s a capital “A”), as evidenced by their own International Coalition of Apostolic Leadership organization (formerly “International Coalition of Apostles” – and there are other similar organizations).   While the membership list is now concealed to those of us outside this elite group (though with a recommendation by a current member and by paying the requisite dues you too can become a member!), here is a list of members from November 10, 2009, to include former “Presiding Apostle” C. Peter Wagner.  Following is some now-deleted verbiage from the old site (no longer available on Internet Archive):

The Second Apostolic Age began roughly in 2001, heralding the most radical change in the way of doing church at least since the Protestant Reformation. This New Apostolic Reformation [NAR] embraces the largest segment of non-Catholic Christianity worldwide, and the fastest growing…

These folks (NAR) who are “heralding the most radical change in the way of doing church at least since the Protestant Reformation” are purportedly “the largest segment of non-Catholic Christianity worldwide, and the fastest growing”, and these are all within the charismatic realm.  I’d be delighted if Dr. Keener would research this group and write a detailed analysis of his findings, given both their charismatic leanings and purported size.  In addition, I think it especially prudent for Keener to name the individual who was teaching MSoG, and to name those who were teaching the “many-membered Christ” doctrine as a warning to the Church at large.


1 Here are the respective transcriptions: [13:49]…So what is He looking for?  He is looking for a people that will cooperate with the FULLNESS of God’s presence, operating and manifesting THROUGH them so that this world actually gets a FULL and ACCURATE taste of who Jesus is.  It’s not us; it’s Him.  But He dwells IN us in FULLNESS in bodily form…[14:12]

[36:30]…until we all come to unity of faith and the KNOWLEDGE of the SON of God.  Too many people think they know that don’t know.  So the knowledge of the Son of God, to A perfect man.  Look at the description.  Millions and millions of body members come to A – singular – perfect mana full-on revelation of the Person of Jesus, what He is like, how He is.  To A perfect man, to the measure and stature – equal measure to the fullness of Christ…[37:34]

Book Review: Body and Character in Luke and Acts, by Mikeal C. Parsons

[Mikeal C. Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity, 2006, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI / 2011, Baylor University Press, Waco, TX, 191 pages]

God penetrates outward appearances to see the heart.

It has been said that one should not judge a book by its cover, meaning one should not judge a man’s character by his outer physical features.  Yet, according to the research of Mikeal Parsons, assessing a person’s morality based on their physical attributes is precisely what was done in ancient Greece and Rome, as there was an assumed correlation between the two.  For example, according to third century AD writer Pseudo-Aristotle, “soul and body react on each other; when the character of the soul changes, it changes also the form of the body, and conversely, when the form of the body changes, it changes the character of the soul” [p 22].  There was also geographic (‘you are where you live’), and zoological (equating traits in animals to humans) stereotyping.  This practice is known as physiognomy.

The author traces the methods of physiognomy in ancient Greco-Roman tradition, Jewish culture (to include OT and extra-biblical, pseudepigraphical works), the church “fathers”, Pauline NT texts, and other works, before illustrating its contrary usage in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.  If you want to know, among other things, what Paul likely meant in his reference to those whose “god is their belly” (Phil 3:19; cf. Rom 16:18) [pp 50-51], or what Matthew meant by “be wise as serpents” (Matt 10:16), considering the term “serpents” had a negative connotation [p 75], then this book is for you.

But, as the title of this work indicates, the bulk of this book finds Parsons explaining how the Lukan material works as an apologetic over against the conventional understanding and use of physiognomy in the milieu of first century Greco-Roman culture (Luke/Acts has been the primary focus of his professional literary career).  The author illustrates how Luke the NT writer, in particular, deftly subverts this pseudoscience of physiognomy:

…It is noteworthy that nowhere does Luke provide any extended physical description of the main protagonists (Jesus, John the Baptist, and the disciples) or antagonists (religious and political leaders)…This is especially striking in the case of John the Baptist…its inclusion might lead Luke’s readers to draw moral inferences based on physical characteristics – the very kind of thing Luke is bent on breaking… [p 81].

However, Luke does specify physical descriptions of Zacchaeus, the Ethiopian eunuch, and others – those who, by their respective appearances, would be prejudged in the larger culture as individuals possessing undesirable character traits.  Yet despite their outward physical appearances, these individuals are worthy (or, perhaps more accurately, made worthy) of His Kingdom, as God knows the heart (Luke 16:15) and “shows no favoritism/partiality” (Acts 10:34).

While scholarly and detailed, this book is a relatively easy read, rather short due to its focus.  Unlike many new works, this one breaks new ground.  Undoubtedly, future commentaries on Luke and Acts will source Parsons’ work here.  Very highly recommended.

(My copy is the first edition by Baker Academic.  It appears the Baylor University Press is a straight reissue without any sort of revision.)

Book Review: Colossians and Philemon: A Handbook on the Greek Text, by Constantine R. Campbell

[Baylor Handbook of the Greek New Testament series, Martin M. Culy, Gen. Ed.; 2013, Baylor University Press, Waco, TX, 114 pages]

The union of Verbal Aspect and ‘Union with Christ’ in one volume

In the continuing series of the Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (BHGNT), Constantine Campbell, in his in-depth look into Colossians and Philemon, highlights his past and continuing work in Verbal Aspect, as well as his more recent research into Paul’s use of ὲν Χριστῳ̄ (en Christw͆) and similar phrases (union with Christ).  This is my second acquisition in the BHGNT series, and I like this one even more.

The series presumes some competence of NT Greek at the intermediate level, with its focus on grammar, while utilizing up-to-date linguistics (discourse analysis, Verbal Aspect), and touching on text critical issues where deemed appropriate.  (See my previous BHGNT review for more info on the series in general.)

With this particular volume, the reader should have a good working knowledge of verbal aspect (I’ll follow Porter’s convention of capitalizing tense-forms  to differentiate from aspect and associated terms), as Campbell focuses on this throughout.  For those unfamiliar with VA, essentially the view is that Koine Greek verb morphological forms (tense-forms) do not semantically encode time, but rather aspect.  Time, instead, is derived from context.  Aspect is the viewpoint, or perspective of the writer, who chose the particular tense-form from among other possibilities, to suit his particular purposes (though some tense-forms are more appropriate for narrative as opposed to discourse and vice versa).

The Aorist, for example is termed ‘perfective’ in aspect, meaning a summary or remote perspective of the event/situation (external view).  Conversely, the Present and Imperfect tense-forms are `imperfective’ in spect, displaying a view of the internal process of the event/situation (internal view).  The function of these aspectual forms, the resulting Aktionsart (kind of action), is determined by lexis and context (pragmatics).

To assist the reader, Campbell gives a handy overview/review of his Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2008a), in his Introduction.  Worth the price of admission, however, is how the author, in the Introduction, breaks down each tense-form into each of its Aktionsart functions [pp xxiv – xxvii], providing a ready reference as one works through Colossians and Philemon.  For example, under ‘Present Indicative’ is ‘Gnomic Aktionsart’, which is described:

“Imperfective aspect with any lexeme in a context of ‘general reality’ can implicate a gnomic Aktionsart.  This expresses a universal and timeless action” [p xxvi].

My only minor criticism – and it is indeed small – is that the aspectual terms ‘perfective’ and ‘imperfective’ are not defined in a general way, in abstraction from their Aktionsart functions, in the Introduction or in the Glossary (hence my explanation above).  I deem this important because, for example, under ‘Aorist Indicative’ is ‘Gnomic Aktionsart’ [p xxiv] with the identical description as ‘Gnomic Aktionsart’ under ‘Present Indicative’ above, except the introductory word, with “Perfective aspect…” replacing “Imperfective aspect….”  Without a firm grasp of the general differences between perfective aspect and imperfective aspect, one may not see the distinction between the Present gnomic and Aoristic gnomic, with the nearly identical descriptions.

This minor quibble aside, Campbell’s book is rich with insights.  While the author argues for his own grammatical and syntactical interpretations, he compares these to other possibilities and other’s viewpoints with clarity.  I may not (currently) agree with all his conclusions, but this may reflect my own theological biases (e.g., Col 1:16-17, with respect to ὲν αὺτῳ̄ (en autw͆) as being locative, rather than reflecting instrumentality, i.e., Christ as both creator and sustainer – could the usage here be both locative (in Him) AND reflect instrumentality (by Him)?).  In these instances I’ll pray and ponder.

Book Review: II Peter and Jude: A Handbook on the Greek Text, by Peter H. Davids

[Baylor Handbook of the Greek New Testament series, Martin M. Culy, Gen. Ed.; 2011, Baylor University Press, Waco, TX, 130 pages]

Your starting point for exegesis and exposition in II Peter and Jude

The Baylor Handbook of the Greek New Testament series is geared toward intermediate and advanced students of Koine Greek “but also for students and scholars who no longer have the luxury of increasing their Greek proficiency within a classroom setting” [p viii].  Its primary focus is on grammar, incorporating elements of up-to-date methods of linguistics, including elements of Verbal Aspect theory, while touching on text critical issues where appropriate.  The series apparently adheres to the UBS4/NA27 as the base text.

There is very little exposition of the text, as this series is designed as a tool to extract proper meaning from the Greek by focusing on syntax and semantics, so the reader is then prepared for exegesis, followed by exposition.  Series General Editor Martin Culy describes these Handbooks as “’prequels’ to commentary proper” [p vii].

The Series Introduction is followed by the Author’s Preface and Intro.  Included at the very beginning is a list of abbreviations utilized throughout both Jude and II Peter.  In addition, there’s a short Glossary, a handy Grammar Index, as well as an Author Index (and a Bibliography, of course).  I’m especially fond of the Grammar Index.  One can go through this by topic and find explanations on concepts on which one is rusty or unfamiliar.  Left-dislocation?  Just go to Jude 10 or II Peter 3:6 for examples and application.

Davids is quite familiar with both books, having written his own expository commentary (Pillar New Testament Commentary) on this “odd couple” [p xvii].

The practice throughout is to select a verse, on up to a few verses, which are translated to English (by author), followed by the Greek text itself (bolded), then a brief grammatical explanation of the selection. This is followed by the author taking a section (usually a clause) of the selection, providing a general grammatical explanation, concluding by taking individual words from the section, providing parsing as well as more technical details, sometimes including brief exegesis. Essentially, it’s a macro to micro approach once the text is first broken down into digestible chunks (keeping in mind the natural flow of the text).

Here’s an example using one word in Jude 1 [p 2]:

τετηρημένοιϛ.  Prf pass ptc masc dat pl τηρέω (attributive).  The second defining characteristic of these people is that they have been and are being kept or guarded, which is important given the threat that Jude will mention later.

While Davids touches on some modern linguistic theory, illustrating its usage (referencing Runge and Levinsohn ), including Verbal Aspect (utilizing Porter), there is not a considerable focus on these innovations.  This is a bit disappointing, as I was hoping for extensive examples, most especially of Verbal Aspect.  But, this is a minor quibble.  The few examples quoting Porter are helpful, and these can be applied to other verses.  I’m hopeful Verbal Aspect will get more traction in Koine Greek studies. 

Here’s a great illustration of its usage in II Peter 1:17, as Davids quotes from Luke in this same series (Culy, Mikeal C. Parsons and Joshua J. Stigall) with reference to εὺδόκησα in its parallel in Luke 3:22:

“This is a good example of why some scholars (e.g. Porter, Decker, Campbell) maintain that the aorist tense, like the other tenses, does not explicitly refer to time, though it is used most often to refer to past events…Here, God is simply portrayed as speaking of his pleasure with Jesus as a whole action or simple event by using the aorist tense/perfective aspect (cf. McKay, 27) rather than as a process (imperfective aspect)…” [pp 59-60].

As one who is self-studying NT Greek, this work (and, I’m assuming, series) is quite useful. It’s a bit beyond my current level, which makes it that much more profitable.  Since this is my first acquisition of the BHGNT series, I’m assuming the rest is fashioned similarly, and with that in mind, I’ll be buying more. I’m particularly eager to acquire Constantine Campbell’s edition on Colossians, as I’m quite confident he’ll provide a thorough treatment of Verbal Aspect throughout (not to mention Colossians is one of my favorite books in Scripture).

Book Review: Roger Omanson’s ‘A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament’

[Roger L. Omanson A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament: An Adaptation of Bruce M. Metzger’s Textual Commentary for the Needs of Translators. 2006, German Bible Society, Stuttgart, Germany]

For those who’ve wondered about those footnotes in modern Bible versions and the reasons why some passages are shortened (e.g. Matthew 6:13) while others are omitted entirely (e.g. Acts 8:37), Roger Omanson’s work can provide assistance.  Ideally suited as a companion to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition) [yes, it’s all in Greek], better known as UBS4, Omanson’s work (like the Metzger version upon which his book is based) explains why some passages have been amended or taken out entirely based on the discipline known as textual criticism.

Textual criticism, as it pertains to the New Testament, is the ongoing process (more manuscripts are unearthed every year it seems) of assessing all known manuscripts containing Biblical material with the goal of determining the original text.  All the original autographs, as they are known, are no longer in existence.   Therefore, this is important work!

Omanson adapts Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: Second Edition [1994 German Bible Society, Stuttgart], dispensing with some of the technical jargon while adding some more verbiage for clarification, with the goal of making it easier to read for those whom English is not their primary language and for the average layperson. The Greek words remain in Greek font yet they are also translated to the English (not transliterated). Omanson’s work still requires a bit of knowledge about textual criticism; however, a primer is included in the “Introduction” which retains some of the same info as Metzger’s edition but, again, with added information and more simplified verbiage.

Omanson uses most but not all the comments on variants contained in the Metzger. Yet, given that Koine Greek (the Greek of the NT) was limited in punctuation and that the manuscripts mostly do not contain punctuation, Omanson adds what he calls “Segmentation” on some verses illustrating additional exegetical considerations (such as the difficulty in ascertaining the point at which a quoted portion ends, as well as the possibility of phrasing some discourse as questions rather than statements and vice versa), providing an added bonus.  [See what is known as the Codex Sinaiticus here (designated as א – aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) taking notice of how all the text runs together.]

It may be helpful to provide a direct comparison between the two versions using John 7:8 as one example. First is Metzger followed by Omanson

7:8 ουκ {C}

The reading ούπω was introduced at an early date (it is attested by p66,75) in order to alleviate the inconsistency between ver. 8 and ver. 10.

7:8 ουκ (not) {C}

The reading ούπω (not yet) was introduced at an early date in order to remove the inconsistency between v. 8, in which Jesus said that he was not going to the festival in Judea, and v. 10, where it is stated that he did go. Following the variant, NIV and Seg read, “I am not yet going up to this Feast.”

[ED: “Seg” is the designation for a modern French translation  (Louis Segond).]

The bracketed “C” above corresponds to a grading system (A, B, C, or D) by the UBS4 committee designating the relative certainty of the variant chosen (according to the committee) with A being “certain”, B “nearly certain”, while C “indicates that the committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text”, with D illustrating “great difficulty” [from Metzger p 14* and UBS4 p 3*]. Unfortunately, Omanson does not include this rating system in his volume. Omanson’s edition can work as a stand-alone, i.e. one does not necessarily need the UBS4 for comparison as the layperson could use Omanson in conjunction with an English (or other language) Bible translation; however, the inclusion of the rating system would have been most helpful.

Two more comparisons: 1) while Metzger’s book is `pocket-size’ (5 X 7.5 X .75 in. – the same h X w as the UBS4), Omanson’s is larger – about the size of an average textbook (6.25 X 9.375 X 1.375 in.); 2) Omanson’s is in larger font and on thicker, whiter paper making it easier to read – especially for those of us with aging eyes.

A minor criticism: the Greek font renders the kappa ( κ ) in such a way that it resembles the English letter x which causes me pause at times. My mind’s eye initially sees this as an English transliteration of xi ( ξ – which is transliterated as the English “x”). This is especially confusing with και which I initially see as (transliterated) xai. But, I note this font is similar to the BDAG.

Bottom line: this is a great reference for expounding on some of the reasons why one variant was chosen over another (or why the committee was unsure) in the UBS4. One can use this in lieu of the Metzger. Metzger is useful for those who are more versed in textual criticism and for those, like me, who have to strain to see the info in the UBS critical apparatus (“apparatus” is essentially the footnotes detailing the variances of the manuscripts) as this is sometimes replicated in Metzger’s edition in larger font (the UBS apparatus is not necessarily small in font but rather crammed with info, and with the thin paper there’s some bleed-through). However, for those who speak English as a second language, the Omanson will likely be the better choice. For the average layperson, Omanson’s work is more useful than Metzger’s in the way it translates all the Greek words into English and with the more simplified verbiage.

Book Review: Exploring Kenotic Christology by C. Stephen Evans (Ed.)

[C. Stephen Evans, ed., Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God. 2010 (2006 Oxford University Press), Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, BC.]

C. Stephen Evans’ compilation of modern essays on kenotic Christology brings together a number of current proponents of the kenosis theory with a few adherents of the historically orthodox view.  The essays are written by philosophers, theologians and Biblical scholars all professing Christian faith.  Certainly, some strides have been made in attempting to articulate a more coherent (and varied) kenosis doctrine since Gottfried Thomasius first proposed his theory in the mid-nineteenth century.  Yet, there are still problems inherent in any literal ‘self-emptying’ and/or ‘self-limiting’ doctrine with respect to the Word (Logos) when compared to Chalcedon and, by extension, Scripture.

Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of GodConfusingly, some use the term kenosis as a way to define the Word’s (Logos’) necessary limitations qua human while neither divesting divine attributes nor limiting the usage thereof during the Incarnation, which is in actuality merely defining Chalcedonian orthodoxy.   For example, to claim that Jesus is limited in power yet God the Son is omnipotent is consistent with historical, orthodox Christianity.  Yet others in modern times use the term in ways far removed from the starting point of orthodoxy, even going so far as denying pre-existence.  Thomas R. Thompson explains: “Kenoticism is now applied to various Christological projects that differ significantly from the intent and strictures of nineteenth-century advocates” [p 102].  Thankfully, the essayists in this volume all affirm the Logos’ pre-existence, though some depart from orthodoxy in other areas.  On the more orthodox end, we have scholar Gordon Fee in his working definition as “some form of self-limitation of divine prerogatives on the part of the earthly Jesus” [p 29].  However, others use the term in the sense of either ontological kenosis (the Word no longer retains certain, or perhaps any, divine attributes) or functionalist kenosis (the Word retains all divine attributes yet restricts the usage of some or all).  For the benefit of the reader, the type of kenosis will be listed with the explanation of the essayist(s)’s stance in this review – ontological or functionalist (which will also be collectively identified as “unorthodox”), as opposed to orthodox (fully Chalcedonian/Biblical).

Not surprisingly, Fee, a renowned exegete, offers the most Scriptural examination of Jesus Christ’s earthly life.  He cautions against overly humanizing the divine or improperly divinizing the humanity of the Incarnate Christ, for to do the latter is a sort of “naïve docetism.”  Fee does an excellent job of debunking James D.G. Dunn‘s exposition of Philippians 2:6-11 as an ‘Adam Christology’ [30-32].  While not technically kenotic (excepting perhaps a modern understanding of the term), Dunn asserts that the Apostle Paul understood Christ as a man (Adam) rather than the pre-existent Logos who was subsequently made flesh [Dunn, Christology in the Making 1980,Westminster; pp 113-128].  Fee provides a fairly thorough exegesis of the Philippians passage illustrating that the best way to understand the ‘self-emptying’ is metaphorically rather than literally.  At times he seems to be propounding a functionalist kenosis [34], yet it appears Fee is merely explaining the Biblical grounds with which to approach the study of the humiliation of Jesus Christ [the Incarnation from conception to Cross and subsequent burial] to stay within the bounds of Chalcedonian orthodoxy [29].  Fee neither attempts to explicitly debunk any of the historically unorthodox kenosis theories (save Dunn’s) nor fully define his own stance.

Bruce Fisk agrees with the logic of kenosis, yet his essay focuses primarily on comparing the Philippians hymn (2:6-11) with contemporaneous Graeco-Roman fiction and how the Christ-hymn might have been understood by first century readers.  While interesting in its own right, it sheds only a small to moderate amount of light on the discussion of kenosis in this volume as Fisk, frustratingly, neglects to specifically state his own position.  To be fair, he does explain portions of the text by providing some commentary of orthodox scholars with whom he agrees (or seems to agree), with opposing viewpoints as well.  Furthermore, to his credit, Fisk touches on the problems in defining the Greek (transliterated) harpagmos [in verse 2:6b – see further explanation in section C of Rodney Decker’s exegesis – updated here] given its limited usage both in Scripture (only one time) and extra-Biblical material, noting that he himself leans toward the view of Moule, Hoover and Wright that Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” [63-4].

Ruth Groenhout compares kenosis (self-emptying) in general to feminist thought, arguing that self-sacrifice is not antithetical to feminism: “When placed in the context of a robust notion of self-worth, and when oriented toward service to the Kingdom rather than purposeless self-abnegation, self-sacrifice is an appropriate call for all who call themselves followers of Christ” [311].  She makes a somewhat useful analogy of Christ’s state of humiliation in comparing fairy tale kings who temporarily dress as peasants, setting aside the prerogatives of royalty, who subsequently return to the throne receiving again their full due [297].   Noting that some feminists dismiss Christ’s sacrifice out of hand merely because He was male, Groenhout opines: “His life, death, and resurrection, however, are not intrinsically tied to his masculinity, but to this humanity” [312].  While this is a very profitable essay in its own right, it does little to advance the discussion of the kenosis theory.

Thomas R. Thompson provides a useful history of nineteenth century kenosis, discussing various models and their resultant criticisms from the right and the left.  In summation, Thompson asserts that any non-kenotic theory devolves into paradox with contradiction (in distinction from merely paradox) which makes ‘classical’ (19th century), or modern, kenosis theories more palatable in comparison.  Better, according to Thompson, to accept some paradox “pushing beyond contradiction, if possible” [110] in explicating a kenosis theory.  With this in mind, he claims that the W. F. Gess model (the Logos truly BECAME flesh as a human soul and gradually regained deity throughout the Incarnation – a true metamorphosis of the divine Logos) is “the most consistent and coherent” [111], while conceding it failed in the claim of deity.  Yet incredibly (especially in light of the fact that he’s at least cognizant that the Word was to sustain the cosmos [94], cf. Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17), Thompson believes this kenotic motif provides the most promise, asserting that a Gessian model can somehow “make the deity claim”, concluding with, “But, that is the argument for another work” [111].   This most extreme of the ontologically kenotic theories has been described by La Touche as “incarnation by divine suicide” [“The Person of Christ in Modern Thought” in L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans; p 327].

Edward T. Oakes expresses an understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation: “To explain that paradox by saying ‘the infinite has emptied itself to become finite’ certainly resolves that paradox.  But if one interprets self-emptying too univocally or too radically, the paradox is not just resolved but abolished” [218-219].  Oakes then proceeds to expound on an essay by Hans Urs van Balthasar putting forth a view that Jesus “descended into hell”, i.e. Sheol, to die there, between the Cross and the Resurrection (which, perhaps to some, could well be a logical conclusion to ontological kenosis, given that Christ took on the sins of the world [cf. 2 Cor. 5:21]).  He even seems to suggest that Jesus went to Gehenna, the lake of fire: “Sin is burnt up, as it were, in the fire of this love, for God, as Scripture says, is a consuming fire that will not tolerate anything impure but must burn it away” [240].  To support the view, Oakes/Balthasar use the Apostles’ Creed and much-disputed Biblical texts, primarily 1 Peter 3:18-20, the disparate views of which are aptly described by R.C. Sproul who admits his own view is in the minority: “I would hasten to add that most views of this passage are in the minority, since there is no majority view on the meaning of this text…” [St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: 1-2 Peter, Crossway; p 125].  Wayne Grudem explains the various theories related to this passage in the appendix of the TNTC of 1 Peter, taking 37 pages to do so.  Neither Sproul nor Grudem construe this passage as remotely kenotic, and Grudem contends the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed (descended into Sheol) is not in the earliest versions of the Creed [Systematic Theology, Zondervan; pp 583-588, cited from Schaff, Creeds of Christendom] and, on that basis, omits it from his systematic [p 1169].  Orthodoxy vehemently denies Jesus literally died in Sheol, much less Gehenna.

Not wishing to “abolish the paradox”, Oakes asserts that Jesus Christ was literally the Word ‘become’ flesh [218, 236] (a la Gess, as Thompson proposes above); subsequently, the second person of the Triune Godhead actually becomes wholly separated from the rest of the Trinity post-Cross [similar to the ‘Jesus Died Spiritually’ heresy of some Word of Faith teachers], at which point the kenosis is “subsumed” into the Trinity and the Trinity is “transformed” [241].  Oakes ends his essay with his admonition to “leave the paradox as stark as possible” [245].

In the Thompson/Cornelius Plantinga Jr. chapter the authors assert that kenosis theories are dependent upon the adoption of a ‘social’ view of the Trinity, but one that does not go so far as implicit or explicit tritheism [as Oakes’ essay does so implicitly].  While I’m not so sure that the authors make their case, there are other problematic issues put forth.  Again, the Gessian kenotic theory is the preferred model [170, 176].  In speaking of Gess’ view, Chafer aptly describes it thus, “This theory is so untrue…that it needs no minute refutation” [Systematic Theology, Kregel; I.380].

In asking the question “Is kenosis orthodox?”, Stephen T. Davis sets out to ‘prove’ that kenosis can be congruent with the Chalcedonian view that the Incarnate Christ was fully human and fully divine, “I am suggesting a kenotic theory as a way of interpreting Chalcedon” [115].  Davis does not propose a fully formed theory; he merely attempts to show that kenosis (vaguely defined) is orthodox.   To counter the charge that a kenosis entailing a ‘laying aside’ or restricting of the ‘omni’ attributes denies divine immutability Davis claims “soft immutability” such that “God is not fickle, capricious, mercurial, or moody; God’s holy and benevolent nature remains ever and eternally the same; God is faithful in keeping God’s promises; God’s aims and intentions for human beings do not change” [135-36].  But how does that square with Psalm 102:27 and Hebrews 13:8, as well as Colossians 1:15-17 and Hebrews 1:3 (and others noted below)?

In the introductory chapter it is stated that the Evans/Davis jointly authored closing essay “attempts to draw together some of the main strands made by the proponents of kenotic Christology today” as a challenge to “traditional theories” [24], with the concluding essay itself asserting that only a “full-fledged” kenosis provides “the best hope of an account of the Incarnation that is genuinely orthodox and yet does complete justice to the biblical portraits of Jesus” [321].   While no specific theory is proffered in the final essay, the authors do claim that Jesus Christ “lived his life in complete and continuous dependence on the Holy Spirit” which, while one could potentially argue that this view is not out of the bounds of Chalcedon, runs contrary to the Biblical witness [cf. John 5:21-25 (Christ acting divinely of and by Himself while incarnate by giving eternal life to whom He chose); John 2:19/10:17-18].  This dependence on the Holy Spirit implies at minimum a functionalist kenosis, but an ontological kenosis can be derived from this as well.

In his own essay, Evans promotes an ontological kenosis such that the claim is that if God is omnipotent then to be so necessarily means He should be able to forego His omnipotence.  Thinking this through, Evans rightly notes, “If he has given up omnipotence, he cannot use omnipotence to get it back” [213].  Excellent point.  Evans, however, explains, “That is why the glorification of the Son is described by Scripture as accomplished by the power of the Father” [213].  While I don’t believe this can be backed up Biblically, there are other problems with this view.  Both John 2:19 and 10:17-18 indicate that Jesus was in fact omnipotent as He raised Himself on the Third Day [In fact, the entire Trinity was involved in the Resurrection as other Scripture attests: Holy Spirit – Romans 1:4/8:11; Father – Acts 5:29-31/Galatians 1:1/Ephesians 1:17-20; God – Acts 2:24/Romans 4:24].  Moreover, John 2:11 makes the explicit claim that Jesus performed the miracle at Cana by His own inherent powers which “thus revealed his glory”.

Asserting that a kenotic theory should adhere to Chalcedon, Ronald J. Feenstra begins his essay with a brief Christological history starting with the events leading up to and the making of the Chalcedonian Creed.   He then proceeds to propound an ontological kenosis by distinguishing between ‘essential’ and ‘accidental’ attributes of divinity, similar to Thomasius’ “immanent” and “relative” attributes.  However, as in Davis’ view [Logic and Nature of God, London: Macmillan and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983; p 124] God is, for example, “omnipotent-unless-freely-and-temporarily-choosing-to-be-otherwise”, borrowing this idea from Thomas V. Morris [152].

In favor of the orthodox view and specifically critical of the unorthodox theories, Edwin Chr. van Driel‘s essay notes the “polemic twist” of the unorthodox kenosis proponents.  While classical theologians see the Incarnation as an addition (of a human nature/body), the ontological or functionalist kenotic sees it as a divestment or necessary self-limitation of certain divine attributes instead.  Adopting a metaphor borrowed from Marilyn McCord Adams, van Driel calls the divine nature of the Word a “power pack” with the human nature acquired at the Incarnation an additional “power pack”.  Thus, the incarnate Christ had two complete “power packs” in one person.  Van Driel believes a satisfying kenotically orthodox account can be found in Chalcedon, keeping in mind Constantinople III (AD681) which further specifies a two-willed (and, van Driel construes, a two-minded) Incarnation.

Similarly, Sarah Coakley asks if modern kenosis “rests on a mistake”, and looks at patristic exegesis (Cyril, Nestorius, Gregory of Nyssa) of the Philippians hymn/poem as a way to show possibilities existing in the communicatio idiomatum to arrive at a coherent Chalcedonian, Biblically orthodox Incarnation, as opposed to an ontological or functionalist interpretation.  Disappointingly, Coakley stops short of fully codifying a theory concluding her essay with an admonition to “re-embrace alternative readings of kenosis that take the communicatio tradition seriously, along with its understanding of the radical difference of status of the ‘divine’ and the ‘human’” [264].  (Oliver Crisp, in his book Divinity and Humanity [Cambridge, 2007; {see my review}], uses a similar methodology promoting a fully formed theory which he terms “divine krypsis”. He defines it as not being kenotic (though one could argue, ‘quasi-kenotic’) in the manner of Evans, Davis, et al since the Logos is not limited in any way.  This works in virtue of the perichoretic relationship of the divine nature to the human in hypostatic union, while restricting any transference of essences or properties to either nature.)

While I will agree with the following statement in the Davis/Evans jointly-authored final essay that “Christology is THE Christian doctrine” [313], I do not agree with their kenotic conclusions on this all-important subject.  In fairness, however, the authors state just before their concluding remarks: “We believe that the challenge of kenotic theory will be helpful even to those who eventually reject a full kenotic theory.  For a kenotic account will stimulate those who reject it to think more deeply about the meaning of the Incarnation and do more justice to the full humanity of Jesus” [321].  I don’t disagree, as there are those who lean more towards divinizing Jesus’ humanity.  One must keep both the human and the divine natures in proper balance/tension.

This book mostly fails to fulfill its billing as from the back cover: “It is an attempt to make sense of the traditional [i.e., Chalcedonian; pp 1-2] Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth was both human and divine by developing the idea that to become human God the Son temporarily emptied himself of some of his divine attributes.”  The reason it falls short is two-fold: 1) the essayists promoting a literal self-emptying fail to take into account the whole of Scripture [primarily Colossians 1:17/ Hebrews 1:3, John 2:19/10:17-18 & John 5:21-25] from which Chalcedon is drawn; and, 2) those who promote (or seem to promote) an historically orthodox view (that Jesus did not literally empty Himself of some of His divine attributes) are in opposition to the back cover’s claim.  And, frustratingly, neither camp fully explicates a viable theory, though some (Coakley, van Driel) come closer than others.  But this in no way renders the work fatally flawed; rather, this illustrates that whoever wrote the back cover commentary was either ill-informed of its contents or did not think through a proper synopsis.

A minor criticism: the book does not segregate those preferring (or seeming to prefer) a historically orthodox position from those who favor modern kenosis which can be confusing as one reads along.

All in all, the book is thought provoking both for those of orthodox persuasion and those favoring the more unorthodox kenotic views and is therefore well worth the read for either camp in investigating opposing views.  Be forewarned, unless one is well-versed in Christological issues and somewhat aware of the various kenotic theories, this book will be a challenging read (as it was for me) and likely a difficult read in spots.  Yet, it is this reader/reviewer’s contention that this volume deserves a close study as a way toward a (re)consideration of one’s own position on “THE Christian doctrine”.  Proper Christology is indeed central to the Christian faith.  Distortions can lead to heresy, and faulty Christology has negative implications on the Trinity and the Atonement.  Full adherence to Chalcedon is imperative, keeping in mind the full counsel of Scripture from which the Creed was codified.

Three (maybe 3.5) out of five stars overall for inducing further reflection on this subject.