10 August 2006

Books and their authors

by Dan Phillips

History. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was slack-jawed as I watched the development of the comments section of my recent book review -- but not by much.

Things were slow until Paul Doutell showed up to sound some cautions about Dan Wallace, one of the three authors of Reinventing Jesus. I agreed that I had my reservations about some things he'd said also, but pointed out that I'd reviewed the book, not the man. Paul responded that he'd done the reverse, and that seemed like the end of that.

But then one of the authors (J. Ed Reallylonglastname) showed up and defended Wallace, and took Paul to task. Then Phil dropped by. And Frank. Then Frank did another one of his "Me too! Me too!" posts. Meanwhile, in the original Comments, tables were turned over, drinks were spilled, and furniture began to fly. I even had to mess with someone's post, for either the first or second time, ever, at Pyro. It was a fairly good-natured brawl, with the requisite hand-wringers. I even made Michael Spencer break Rule 40 again! (I think I hold the record, am waiting for my T-shirt -- though Spencer's evidently forgotten my name.)

So I'm sure everyone's waiting with bated breath to hear my magisterial comment on the whole mess. "Everyone" in the sense of... okay, just me, but anyway, here it is. This is my "Me too, too!" post.

Dan Wallace. "Dan Wallace" the only name I had past associations with when I began reading the book. One-sentence summary of the impression I brought with me: personable writer, scholarly, author of a great Greek grammar, too much of an itch to be "different": read with respect, and caution.

Where did that come from? I first encountered Wallace through the "Professor's Soapbox," as his essays at www.bible.org used to be grouped. If you scan the titles of his articles under their current grouping, you'll see them as very wide-ranging (from "Biblical Gynecology" to "A Mishnaic Commentary on Matthew 1.19" to "Is Self-Love Biblical? Matthew 22:39").

I didn't read him voluminously, but would say I always found him worth the time, though he did irritate me betimes. It irritates me that he went over from using BC/AD to the trendy, politically-correct BCE/CE (as he explains here).

But Wallace's statements occasionally pass "irritating" and go well into "worrisome." Phil highlighted some in the previous thread's meta. Here's a prime example:
...evangelical Christians have to ask themselves what ‘faith alone’—that great clarion call of the Reformation—really means. Is the doctrine of justification by faith alone a necessary doctrine for salvation, so that all those who do not embrace it explicitly are damned to hell? Or is it an important clarification of the gospel which is nevertheless not the core of the gospel? Our attitude toward one another within Christendom depends on how we answer this question. ...when we go back to the scriptures, it does indeed seem clear that Paul has a doctrine of justification by faith alone. But that doctrine is not as easy to find in James, Peter, or Jude. Yet Paul seemed to accept these other apostles, along with their theological commitments, as genuine and true. But if they did not see things quite the same way as Paul did, who are we to insist on beliefs and formulations that just might exclude even some of the apostles?
When Wallace mentions "beliefs and formulations that just might exclude even some of the apostles," it's hard not to see him as suggesting that James, Peter and Jude did not believe in justification by faith alone. It's hard not to see this as going in the direction of branding the Reformation's core as an "oopsie." And that's troubling -- especially if one accepts as authoritative Paul's teaching that by-grace justification was an Old Testament doctrine, not one "developing" within the New (Romans 4).

In that article, Wallace refers back to an earlier article in which he confesses to being "neither a systematic theologian nor the son of a systematic theologian," then nevertheless goes on to write about theology, and to say rather dismissively that writers of systematic theologies "almost always ...are simply unaware of the exegetical issues." Yet he can write about their field, and not they about his?

In this very thought-provoking article Wallace thinks 2 Peter 2:1 may teach that genuinely saved false teachers lose their salvation, and suggests that "Peter’s soteriology is not as developed as Paul’s is" -- maybe; he's not sure, he's just asking. Out loud, in the hearing of potentially hundreds of thousands.

Then there is The Gospel According to Bart. My impression of the passage Phil cited is the same as his: Wallace seems to feel that it is problematic to start with the premise that God is true, though all men are liars. I did not discern what authority Wallace sees as superior to God's, whether scholarly consensus, personal judgment, (mythical) "brute facts," or something else.

With this statement, I could hardly disagree more heartily. But that may form the separate topic of another post.

This book. This enters into why I read with caution. And, as I said, I was glad of both -- glad I read, glad I read with caution. It's a very good book; but I do think the Bible-believing position is presented less aggressively and confidently than it could have been. But the book can be of great use to those with the authority of Bible as their fundamental premise, rather than their pretty-confident conclusion. (See the review.) Hence, I recommended Reinventing Jesus with gusto, and still do.

All books. If we read only books by authors who exactly share our convictions... well, let's just say we'll be catching up with past seasons of 24 a lot quicker than anticipated. And perhaps taking up Monopoly and cricket.

I can readily think of a parallel: the late F. F. Bruce's The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Really great book. I'd recommend it anytime. But I'd wager good money (if Phil allowed it) that Bruce's position on Scripture was well to the left of Wallace's. Have you read William Barclay with profit? Helmut Thielicke? C. S. Lewis? As you probably know, I just went all over the theological map, in just three names.

If you're going to evaluate and recommend/warn about a book, you focus on the book. If you're doing the same for the writer, your focus broadens considerably.

Now, it is fair game to bring what you know about an author to your evaluation of the book. You might read certain nuances more attentively, be wary of various emphases. But still, you use the book and evaluate the book. Reading broadly is helpful for ministering broadly. Paul clearly believed this; he could quote Greek poets and philosophers from memory (Acts 17:28).

Closing thoughts. I actually got something out of what everyone contributed -- Paul, Ed, Phil, Frank, others. If that sounds wimpy, I'll just have to live with it. Phil and I share this: Fundies think we're soft, everyone else thinks we're hidebound and doctrinaire. That may mean we've struck the perfect balance. But probably not, at least in my case.

I agreed with the thought that we should focus on the book, not one author. But I also agreed that the questions raised about Wallace were legitimate and substantial, even if tangential. I agreed that no one should form a lynching party, and that on the broad scene of scholarship, what Wallace does is far more helpful than not. But I also agree that his occasional subtle, wheedling, insinuative snipes at what I do believe are foundational commitments are troubling and dangerous. Plus, I don't find the imprimatur of the ETS reassuring in any way.

Nor do appeals to what a dear Christian man someone says a writer is, serve to obviate objectively-based dealing with one's words in print. I'd bet that I'm not the only one who read Ed's affirmation of Dan Wallace, and thought of N.T. Wright's assurance that Marcus Borg was undoubtedly a Christian. Now let me say loud and clear: my point is not that Wallace is like Borg (he's not); it's that we shouldn't be comparing guesses based on reading Dan Wallace's heart. We should be reading his writings, and discussing them. And I also agree that private conversations won't clear up public statements.

So there. All cleared up, now? Great.

Dan Phillips's signature


Phil Johnson said...


DJP said...

Well, there y'go, then.

marc said...


If I were you I would have been far more bothered at having been lumped in with the likes of... well... me in Ed's "Theologically Astute" list.

DJP said...

I posit a South Central original, in which Ed actually said, "A stupe," and his scribe mis-heard and wrote "astute."

centuri0n said...

Listen: I'm still somewhat agog that I turned out to be the "moderate voice" in this bruhaha.

It seems to me that asking the questions that the right honorable DJP cites Dr. Wallace as asking and saying, "oh geez: I wonder if he's dumping inerrancy" is ignoring that Dr. Wallace isn't talking about theology proper in these statements. He's talking about the bald-faced text without any presuppositions.

Let's be honest: I think it's more than a little risky to try to read the NT abstracted from Jesus Christ -- which is to say, as merely literature and not as revelation. The reason, of course, is that while Luke or James or Jude had human motives for writing any part of their contributions, if Jesus is Lord and Christ, the universe is not dictated by human motives.

The issue of "scripture" is a lot bigger than literature: it's a matter of the intervention of God in things. And in that, if James and Peter both wrote Scripture, those works have something in common above and beyond the Greek language.

That said, there's no doubt that the Greek language is the literary context of the NT. And I think we have to read Dr. Wallace's statements understanding -- as he tries to qualify his statements -- as not being theologically motivated, but as being motivated by critical reading of the idiomatic language. He's not employing some pomo epistemology here: he's asking the honest question -- as a Grad student in an English lit seminar or a French lit seminar might ask -- "what does the text say on its own?"

I'd say that, if we read the text as it comes, he's right that it is "hard to find" the doctrine of justification by faith alone in James -- but that doesn't mean it is easy to say that James posits something contrary to sola Fide. That doesn't toss out sola Fide as a foundational belief. James also fails to mention the virgin birth -- yet I would suggest that someone would have to be quite a piece of work to now blog, "Turk's gone soft -- he's denying the virgin birth," because I mentioned it.

Let me be clear: there is a way to read what Dr. Wallace has written and consider that we should be troubled by his theology -- that he shouldn't each theology to others because, for example, he doesn't think Scripture is necessarily consistent. I think that there is also a way to read what he has written as think to one's self, "that Wallace is trying to grab all the lousy preaching one hears in evangelical churches today by the throat and choke the stupidity out of it -- and then we can get back to talking about theology when we have mopped up the stupid and emptied the bucket in the mop sink."

I know (now) that this is a much bigger tussle than I originally anticipated, but the more I read about the objections, the more I wonder if we are missing the kind of work Dr. Wallace is trying to do here.

That's all I'm going to say about this. I'm not even going to defend any of the things I have said so far. All I'm asking is that people who are concerned about Dr. Wallace exercise humility and love as well as godly discernment.

Let the merciless beatings begin.

DJP said...

Here I think you've ranged pretty far from the direct quotations and statements, Frank.

It just doesn't make sense to ask (as Wallace did), "Is the doctrine of justification by faith alone a necessary doctrine for salvation, so that all those who do not embrace it explicitly are damned to hell?" -- and then hide behind, "But what they hey? I'm just a plain ole Greek teacher!" That isn't a question about Greek. It isn't about the subjunctive mood or deponent verbs. It's about the nature of the Gospel.

I'm absolutely in favor of being charitable in how we approach folks' statements. But when you say that Wallace is "talking about the bald-faced text without any presuppositions" -- it flat-out can't be done. A text that claims to be the Word of God is approached as such, or not as such; there simply is no such animal as approaching anything "without any presuppositions."

I don't see how we can try to grant this point without tacitly agreeing with Dr. Wallace that inerrancy is a peripheral doctrine. Wouldn't you say that Eve probably thought she had decided to approach the fruit "without any presuppositions" -- that is, maybe God's right about it, maybe He isn't, she'll make up her own mind on her own terms? And wouldn't you say that this decision in itself constituted a rejection of His authority?

centuri0n said...

Dan --

I will break my word not to discuss this further to answer your excellent question. Dr. Wallace's point has two prongs, as I read it:

[1] Belief in justification by faith is not necessary for salvation. That is to say, I may be saved by grace alone through faith alone, but I may not have the systematic fortitude to grasp that. I think that's his specific point, especially in light of ...

[2] ... the fact that he says that one would be hard-pressed to find such a thing fleshed out on peter, James and Jude. That is, we don't have textual evidence that PJ&J affirmed sola Fide -- do we scrap them as messengers of Christ? That's a rhetorical question which clearly has the answer, No we do not.

This two-fold point is explicitly wrapped up in the qualifier Dr. Wallace makes when he considers whether "all those who do not embrace it explicitly are damned to hell". Notice: not all who specifically reject it, but those who do not specifically embrace it.

I may be off the rail in defending him, but I think that his statements are not sound bytes: they are very specific statements which are based on a specific frame of reference which is not inherently belligerent towards the Gospel.

It is not belligerent against the Gospel to admit that 1Peter only says what it says and not more -- because 1Peter is not the whole Bible.

It is possible that Wallace is off the rail, but in the stuff I have read so far I don't think that's the case.

H.C. Ross said...

Masters of Pyro,

I came into the game late, having just now read the original book review and all the comments that followed, and then this post. I wanted to opine about something peripheral, if I might. Two points, really:

1. I appreciate the way all you guys bend over backwards to be fair and gracious. Our Lord said we should wash each other's feet, and I see you doing that (metaphorically, thank goodness).

2. I wish all the passers-by who contributed comments took the same attitude. I felt waves of despair and resentment as I read over the comment stream from Dan's original post. But I suppose that's what one should expect from online conversation.

Specifically, I wanted to point out the following: there is a pride which glories in having little (or less) education which, in my experience, can be and often is more vehement and repugnant than any pride one might take in his/her academic achievement. I attended DTS during the last decade, and I can honestly say some of the men and women who taught me there were the most humble I've ever met. Dr Eugene Merrill, OT prof, immediately comes to mind. My favorite quote from him: "Never parade your knowledge, or your ignorance."

Anyone who has gone very far in an effort to educate themselves, formally or informally, knows that a little information can puff you up (just enough to make you dangerous) but a lot of information tends to show you how LITTLE you know, or ever will know. You arrive at new vistas of your own ignorance, if I can put it that way.

Yes, there are academics who carry themselves arrogantly, but I haven't seen near as many as one would think there would be, given all the comments made by folks who glory in their simple, child-like, uneducated-and-thus-untainted faith.

I offer that tangent free of charge. You're welcome.

centuri0n said...

I re-read the essay on progressive revelation and high bibliology, and I think it's great. The only nearly-troubling part was when Dr. Wallace listed his conversation with an unnamed professor who saw verbal inspiration as a negative attribute (protection from error) rather than a positive attribute (sourced from perfection and therefore perfect). I also cringe when I see Pinnock's name in print, but he wasn't drummed out of ETS so you can't expect people to treat him like he was. Well, you know: unless a fellow really thinks Pinnock has denied the essentials of the faith.

So there you go. I broke my word twice about this. I'm wicked and untrustworthy.

donsands said...

"Reading broadly is helpful to ministering broadly"

There's a good thought.

And I appreciate what h. c. ross said as well. Good point.

DJP said...

I will break my word not to discuss this further....

I have that effect on your and Spencer. Gift? Curse? You decide. Film at eleven.

I feel like I say A, and you come in and say B; so I respond B, and you say A. I speak English, you answer in Spanish; I switch to Spanish, you revert to English.

So which is it, young feller? Is it that Wallace can't be criticized for his theology because he's really a Greek prof and just talking about the (supposed, nonexistent) "brute facts of the text" and not theology? Or is it that he is talking about theology, and you agree with him?

I'll assume you did read my whole post. So you did read that Wallace doesn't merely say, "Gee, there's no Romans 3 in 2 Peter or James!" No, he says in effect, "Gee, maybe in our day explicit acceptance of justification by faith alone isn't that big of a deal, since I don't see it explicitly in James."

So, once again, I say: that is not about the conative aorist. That is a theological issue. And it's fair game for registering alarm and/or dissent.

centuri0n said...

Do I dishonor myself by breaking my word again, or do I dishonor you by leaving your completely-fair question unanswered?

I place the question of my sanctification in your hands.

Gummby said...

One thing that I will unequivocally affirm from your other post is that endnotes are the bane of existence. Kind of like the literary version of theistic evolution.

I can't believe that otherwise sound people could ever prefer them over footnotes.

Oh, and when I first read your other post, I was reading the RSS version, and obviously missed your name at the top. Thinking that Phil had written it, my first reaction to the footnote comment was "if they are so bad, why do you let them into John MacArthur's books?" Then I went back and realized my error.

I will also say that what you've done here is probably also a useful framework for thinking about the overall issue of separation. We can affirm some things said by some people without affirming everything--a point that unfortunately seems lost on much of the blogosphere.

centuri0n said...

Ah, my personal honor be flummoxed.

Dan said this:

So which is it, young feller? Is it that Wallace can't be criticized for his theology because he's really a Greek prof and just talking about the (supposed, nonexistent) "brute facts of the text" and not theology? Or is it that he is talking about theology, and you agree with him?

It bothers me when the last question in a series of questions amounts to, "when did you stop beating your wife?" I have never beat my wife, and it's unkind to imply that I did. Apply that metaphor as necessary to the last question in this paragraph: neither is there wife beating, nor am I a perpetrator of such a thing.

Wallace, as I read the passage in question and the context of that passage in particular, is saying this:

[1] We have to begin with what the text says, the way it says it. Period. If we start with the idea that the text has to say "X", we are being either dishonest or foolish.

[2] When we understand what the text says, the way it says it, we can then make applications about what the text says -- and because of the nature of Scripture we are called to make vital application of the text.

{Now keep this in mind: that's really the underlying theme of almost everything substantive Wallace had ever written up through the publication of Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics.}

[3] In the case of Justification by faith, he is asking a question: is this explicitly listed in the definition of the Gospel and in all the books of the NT, or is it an important clarification of the gospel which is nevertheless not the core of the gospel? (notice: those words in bold are his exact words)

[4] If it is a clarification -- and notice: as a clarification, that means it is an amplification or an emphasis which is good and useful and true (which means denying it would be to deny something good and useful and true) -- does that mean that if we run into someone who doesn't understand or actively affirm it we have to class them as theological persona non grata? That's his question -- not "is justification by faith actually true", but "is 'justification by faith' as crucial and central as 'Christ died for our sins in accoradance with Scripture'?"

[5] So for example, what do we make of Acts 2, given that Peter doesn't say anything about being faith's relationship to grace? Is it phony evangelism by which 3000 are added to "the church", or is it legitimate evangelism? That rhetorical question is intended to be answered "No, of course it is not phony evangelism."

[6] Fine (says Wallace in absentia): so if we do not run the apostle Peter out of good company for failing to emphasize one of the 5 solas -- perhaps, Wallace theorizes, because it hasn't occured to him yet -- in what way can we run people off today who would agree with everything Peter says in Acts 2 in the way he actually meant those things, but who do not embrace sola Fide explicitly?

From there, Dan, you try to make the case that Wallace is implying that JJ&P deny some doctrine(s), but in fact he's advocating that it is possible, given the contents of their enscripturated letters, that maybe it never occured to them. That's hardly a plea against the innerrancy of Scripture: that's a practical fact that this guy who can read Greek better than anyone on TeamPyro -- and maybe better than 90% of all readers of koine Greek -- has read the texts and sees that Paul says something more but not contrary to the other epistle-writers.

Moreover, he sees Peter's statement about Paul's letters as telling regarding Peter's view of Paul: he (Paul) writes things which are difficult to understand. If that really such a controversial reading of Peter's view? But what it says is that Paul is either expressing more-in-quality than Peter, or Paul is expressing more-in-content than Peter.

And here is something interesting: I don't know anyone who would argue that the Book of Romans isn't more difficult and expresses a more completely-formed theology than any of Peter's letters. Maybe you would -- I dunno.

So when we read this, what we ought not to do is say, "that Dan Wallace is tossing inerrancy and perspecuity and divine autority out the window". What we have to say is, "Dan Wallace is challenging us -- who are evangelicals, and protestants, and men who say we have a high Bibliology -- to make sure we don't hold men who are standing right next to us to a higher standard than we hold the men Jesus sent as Apostles."

Is that a theological statement? Why yes: it is. But it's not made by forfeiting or fudging or rephilosophizing any particular doctrine of the faith, or chewing upon some set of propositions which we have derived from a piece confessional Juicy Fruit past the place where the confession was meant to be tasty and useful. It is made -- as all our theology ought to be made -- by seeking the word of God first, and then seeking to conform our thoughts and actions to it.

Does that clear it up any?

DJP said...

Gummy -- I can't believe that otherwise sound people could ever prefer [endnotes] over footnotes

Oh! I know! It's like an insanity! Like someone's talking along, sane and rational -- and then starts barking and drooling!

Look, don't even get me started on ENDnotes! Feh!

J. Ed Komoszewski said...

Some folks here will be interested to know that Dan Wallace has weighed in on the controversy surrounding his bibliology.

His article entitled “My Take on Inerrancy” can be found here:


centuri0n said...

I would like to point out that wisdom is justified by his, um, her children.

Learning Grace said...

I'm sure at this point as a new comer to this discusion I have nothing new to add, but this is a discussion that comes up every now and then at our bible studies.

Can being a bad word, the questions goes Are there Mormons or Catholics that are saved. This may seem like a complete digresion at this point, but it goes to something centuri0n said:

"Belief in justification by faith is not necessary for salvation. That is to say, I may be saved by grace alone through faith alone, but I may not have the systematic fortitude to grasp that."

I think Mr. Turk is right, though I doubt that Peter wasn't aware of the concept of sola fide, he was just addressing a diferent set of concerns.

It is Christ that is central to the Gospel, not our terminologies of it. They are important in describing and laying out exactly what we mean and also as a handy tool for not having to use run-on paragraphs to talk to someone already familiar with the concepts.

That being said. Ed never did answer the specifics, Frank had to. And he got huffy when Phil called him on it.

I've loved reading this blog, and now that I see how disagreements are handled in-house... I've gained even more respect for you all.

Keep up the Good work.

Phil Johnson said...

Thanks, Benjamin.

With that, I'm going to refer anyone who wants to pursue this thread to this post.

Carry on about the big-picture issues on the table. But let's leave Dan Wallace out of it for the rest of this comment-thread.

Gummby said...

Cent: I wish.

Sadly, I think it's more likely a measure of "need for sanctification."

C. T. Lillies said...

That was a nasty one. A regular donnybrook.

Frank I always make a point to never say "And thats all I have to say about that" because anyone who knows me knows its probably not true.

moderate voice thats a good one.

Hey Dan, one question about something that bothered me. It sounded as if you were advocating reading a book without regard for the authors intent. Specifically you stated, "I agreed with the thought that we should focus on the book, not one author." Is that an accurate assessment.


Jorge Afanador said...


Great response! You hit the nail right on its head. Good job.