A Word in Edgewise

The Righteous & Merciful Judge

I just finished reading and reviewing a book that I think deserves notice.  Here is the bibliographic detail.  I’ve added a link in case you’d like to buy a copy from Target.  They have it for a good price.  It won’t be ‘out’ until the end of September 2018.

Matthew Aernie & Donald Hartley. The Righteous & Merciful Judge: The Day of the Lord in the Life and Theology of Paul. Studies in Scripture & Biblical Theology.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018.  

These days it is out of fashion to talk about judging and judgment.  Ours is a much more “tolerant” day—or so we’re told. But as our authors, Aernie & Hartley, correctly describe, throughout the counsel of Scripture the idea of God coming in judgment to right all wrongs and settle all scores is at the heart of God’s revelation.  Yet the specter of Marcionism is still with us in the church especially when we divide the Scriptures into parts and imagine that the first is dominated by justice and wrath, the second by mercy and grace.  As our writers point out, such mischaracterizations undermine the unity of Scripture and subverts the true story of God in the world. Some of the most wonderful passages of forgiveness, restoration, and grace are found in the Old; some of the most unsettling about justice, wrath, and judgment are found in the New.

The project Aernie and Hartley pursue in this book is to consider the theme of “the day of the Lord” in Paul’s letters.  They argue that it is not some subsidiary crater to Paul’s theology, but it stands as a major motif in his thinking.  They stop short of calling it the center, but they do make it central by arguing that “every aspect of his theology was in some way affected by the concept” (p. 5)  So their book examines the theme of “the day of the Lord: in scholarship, the Old Testament, extracanonical Jewish literature, Paul’s call/conversion on the Damascus Road, and the language of the day of the Lord and associated themes in Paul’s letters.  As a result, they shed much needed light on an ignored and marginalized feature of Paul’s theology.

Like most scholars Aernie and Hartley pursue their task systematically working through time, asking first: where this concept came from? But, of course, scholars don’t tend to agree on much and that includes how and where the notion of “the day of the Lord” entered into Jewish consciousness.  Some think it came from the holy war tradition; others from enthronement ceremonies when YHWH is installed as King.  Some think it came from within Israel itself; others imagine it was adopted and adapted from the Canaanites or the Babylonians.  The starting point remains elusive. What is clear is that the OT is rich in associations around the notion that God will visit the nations, including Israel, in judgment, power, and restoration.

While the phrase “the day of the LORD” is not found in the Books of Moses, our authors claim the theme  sits just beneath the surface in passages that portray YHWH as coming to visit his people in blessings and curses. The prophets developed the language of God’s visitation into the language we know, “the day of the LORD.” Only later, among the prophets does the phrase “the day of the LORD” become a technical term for a day of final judgment.  As such, depending on how a people are currently situated toward YHWH—whether faithful to the covenant or not—it is a day that prompts fear or a day awaited with joy.

In the past, periods of famine, scarcity, war and ultimately exile could be construed as “days” of judgement in typological patterns of what is to come: the final, definitive, eschatological day of the Lord.  When that day comes, God will make the world right.  In the final assize of history anything wrong in Israel or the nations must be judged.  All that is right is destined to be redeemed and restored. These patterns are found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures but they are also present in later Jewish collections such as the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls.   This was the symbolic world that Paul inherited.

One of the more interesting features of the book is how Aernie and Hartley interpret Paul’s Damascus Christophany as “a proleptic day of the Lord.” In other words, Paul had his own day of judgment when he encountered the risen Lord.  Instead of getting what he deserved, i.e., wrath, he found mercy.  Instead of being marked out for destruction, he was transformed, converted, and called to a new mission.  In this encounter the persecutor replaced the false identity of Jesus he had developed for the  true identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Lord. Now that the moment of Paul’s own judgment had arrived and he had found grace, he began to think that the final judgment for all was closer than he ever imagined.

The last portion of the book goes deeply into Paul’s language associated with “the day of the Lord.”  For Paul, “the day of the Lord (YHWH)” had become “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5.2) or more simply “the day of Christ” (Phil 1.10).  Words of coming (Parousia), “revelation” (apocalypsis), and “appearing” or “manifestation” (epiphania) season his discourse as he likens the coming of Jesus to judge the living and dead to various manifestations of God in the Scripture. The final chapter offers the most detailed exegesis in the book.

The big idea Aernie and Hartley pursue offers an important corrective for the academy and the church. The current western mood is to avoid anything that smacks of judgment.  We want a merciful, forgiving, anything-goes kind of god, not one who demands something of us and will ultimately judge us.  We  cannot adequately deal with Paul’s life, mission and theology until we grasp where he believed the telos toward which history was moving.  The next thing we await is the final, definitive coming of Christ in glory, power, and judgment.




What oral tradition is not: the game of telephone


Jesus of Nazareth lived between 6-4 BC and 30-33 AD.  When he died, he was in his mid- to late-thirties. That’s about as good as we can get.  The documents and historical sources don’t allow us any more precision.  The first Gospels written about Jesus—perhaps in this order, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John—are not written until 30-40 years after his execution.  The period in between we call the period of oral tradition.  In this time, the stories of Jesus are told and retold, and then they are written down in the books we have today.  Now this does not mean there were not written sources during the period of oral tradition.  It means we just don’t have them.  Why? Because like most things written 2000 years ago they did not survive.  If, as some believe, the stories of Jesus are taken up in longer narratives like Mark or Matthew, going to effort to preserve preaching or teaching notes did not need to happen.  That is the only way they would have survived. But even after the Gospels are written down, that did not end the oral traditioning  of the stories.  Why? Because 90% of the people could not read.  So there was a need to tell and retell the stories over and again in oral form and fashion.game of telephone

If you are 20 years old, then thirty to forty years sounds like a long time.  But in historical terms, it is not long as all.  To take an analogy from the time I am writing, 2018, go back thirty to forty years and we have the Reagan administration in America, John Paul II in Rome, and Gloria Estafan and the Miami Sound Machine’s hit song “Anything for You.”  Are there people today who can tell us what was happening in the 1980s?  What do you think?

Scholars think John’s Gospel may be have been written last.  Perhaps sixty years after Jesus’ execution.  So, in historical terms, again that is not a long time.  That is the late 1950s when Eisenhower was president, John Paul XXIII started his papacy, and the Everly Brothers were crooning “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”  Are there people around today who can tell us what was happening toward the end of the 1950s when rock n’ roll is in its infancy?  What do you think?

Some scholars make the case that oral tradition is like the “game” of telephone. In this party game, one person whispers something in the ear of another, then he/she in turn whispers to the next person and on and on. Then by the time you go all the way around the room, you compare notes and everyone has a good laugh because the message has changed.  That is not at all how oral tradition societies pass on their most precious stories.  It’s baffling to me that a “parlor game” designed to get laughs at a party could in any way be identified with the passing down and handing on of religious tradition.

Oral societies, like those that existed around the Mediterranean world in the first century, privileged the living voice over the written record.  That may sound strange to westerners who have to see everything in writing (often because you want to use it against them).

A better example of oral tradition would be this:  Do you think you could teach someone the Lord’s prayer?  You have heard it hundreds of times.  You’ve internalized it.  And even if you say “debts” rather than “trespasses” (a distinction in the English language translations), you still can pass it along in a fixed and stable form.  This is what happened to the Jesus stories.  They were told and retold.  They took on fixed forms.  Then they are handed down.  This happened early enough that there were authoritative voices who could correct the record if something got off kilter.

With the passing of Senator John McCain recently, people are telling and retelling stories about him.  When he and his fellow soldiers were prisoners-of-war in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam war  (early 1960s), they were eventually allowed to hold religious services.  Not at first, but eventually.  John McCain stepped in to lead those services in part because his great grandfather had been an Episcopal priest, and John grew up with the Anglican liturgy.  “Bud” Adams, one of his fellow prisoners, told news agencies that John did an excellent job leading the liturgy because he remembered it nearly word for word.  Now, we might quibble over this or that wording to part of the service, but I bet you that then prisoner McCain did a good job handing on the liturgy he heard as a boy and later young man.

Father Mario Arroyo is a good friend of mine.  He is a Catholic priest and native of Cuba.  He and his family came to the USA after the revolution in the 1950s.  Father Mario is a fan of 1960s and 70s pop music.  When he hears just a few notes of a song, he can tell you the name of the song, the artist, and begin singing it nearly word for word even if he has not heard the song in 20-30 years.  The songs of his youth imprinted in his mind, and they will likely never leave him.  Those are better analogues for how oral tradition is passed on than the game of telephone.

There have been a lot of important anthropological and social studies done of oral societies because oral cultures still exist today.  Studying these cultures is probably a better idea than going to party and studying the silly games people play to make some argument about oral tradition.



John McRay, RIP

John McRay died recently.  From 1980 to 2002 he taught in biblical studies at Wheaton College, the place I now teach and where I serve as Dean of the School of Biblical and Theology Studies.  When he retired, he was awarded emeritus status.5121

I never met John personally, but I did know him through his books.  I used his book on Paul the apostle in undergraduate courses at Houston Baptist University, until Randy Richards, Rodney Reeves and I wrote our own.  It was a solid book on the apostle, but I didn’t always agree with him.

Perhaps John’s greatest accomplishment in scholarship came through his study of the New Testament through the land and material culture of Israel.  He was part of the digs at Caesarea (Maritima), Herodium and Sepphoris, three premiere sites in Israel.  Through his passion for the people and the land–and students–he became a beloved member of the Wheaton faculty.

If you’d like to know more about John, there is a good article about him on his Wheaton Emeritus site:


I’m grateful now to be a small part of the history of a college that has done so much to serve the church and benefit the world.

Today, I led in Graduate orientation at Wheaton College and we had students from China, Zimbabwe, England, Colombia, and all around the country.  In part, the success of our program goes back to people like Dr. John McRay.  Rest in peace, John.





What is the Gospel of Thomas?

A few years ago I wrote an article for the E3 Foundation on “What is the Gospel of Thomas?”  Here is the link:


The article is not meant for specialist.  It’s meant for the curious.  While not part of the official Christian canon, it gives us a fascinating look at one of the movements inside second and third century Christianity.

A Neighborly Faith

Recently, I had the privilege of appearing on the Neighborly Faith podcast with Kevin Singer and Chris Stackaruk.  They are involved in a great project helping evangelicals engage the world around us.  Over the last several days I’ve been listening to some of their podcasts.  It is extremely well done.  Here is a link.  Enjoy.


A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus

On March 19, 2018 John Dickson gave the Ellis lecture at Wheaton College.  Ellis was my Doctor Father so it was my privilege to help introduce the lecture.  The topic was one, I think, Ellis would have appreciated, “A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus.”

Here is a link to that lecture.  I hope you enjoy it.

Who does Mark say that I AM?

One of my favorite features of our book, Rediscovering Jesus (InterVarsity, 2015), comes in the Gospels themselves.  In each chapter we ask the question: Who does Mark/Matthew/Luke/John say that I am?  In effect, we take a look at how each evangelist tells the story of Jesus.  Here is an excerpt from the chapter on the Markan Jesus.


And who is this Jesus? He is the Messiah (Christ) and Son of God—that is, God’s end-timeRediscovering Jesus agent whose task is to liberate the world from evil, oppression, sin, sickness, and death. The world that Jesus enters is hostile and contrary to the human race. The Messiah appears in order to claim all that God has made on behalf of heaven. In Mark’s account Jesus moves quickly along “the way” challenging and disrupting demonic powers, disease, religious authorities, storms and, ultimately, the power of Rome itself.

But Jesus does not appear from nowhere; prophets such as Malachi and Isaiah have written of him long ago. They foresaw his coming, and John the Baptizer arrived right on schedule to prepare his way. If John is God’s messenger (Mal 3:1) and the voice crying out in the wilderness (Is 40:3), then surely Jesus is the “Lord” whose paths must be made straight (Mk 1:2-3). But the word “Lord” here is no polite address to an English country gentleman or a simple affirmation of a person in authority; it is the way Greek-speaking Jews uttered the unspeakable name of the one, true God of Israel. Jesus the Christ is no ordinary man, for the very name of God—a name protected by the Ten Commandments—belongs rightly to him. As Mark’s story unfolds, it is apparent why this is so.

When Jesus heard that a prophet had again appeared in Israel, he left Nazareth to see for himself. As he entered the Jordan River to be baptized, onlookers would have thought that Jesus was becoming a disciple of John. But it was what Jesus heard and saw next that dramatically changed his life. He saw a vision: the heavens were ripped open, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. Then he heard a voice from heaven: “You are my Son” (Ps 2:7) and “with you I am well pleased” (Is 42:1). Whether or not anyone else saw or heard what was going on in the heavens that day is unclear. Mark tells us only that Jesus saw and heard; perhaps Jesus’ special sonship was a secret that needed protecting for a while. But it was enough for Jesus to see and hear it, because it was about him and him alone. He knew what he must do next. He must leave behind Nazareth and the anonymity of the workshop for a public life in Galilee and beyond. He must trade a builder’s tools for the skills of a traveling rabbi.


To read more, check out our book here.