Monday, December 05, 2016

Hitchens on the King James Version

After listening to an audio book version of Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality, a collection of essays he wrote while suffering from the esophageal cancer that would eventually take his life, and reading his essay collection And Yet…., I have started Hitch 22, the 2010 memoir of the hyper-articulate journalist and “public intellectual,” completed just before the discovery of his fatal cancer.

Hitchens is perhaps best known for his outspoken atheism, especially as expressed in his 2007 book god is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything.  Though it would be simplistic to explain Hitchens’ antagonism to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular, based on his biography, the memoir reveals many possible sources for this antagonism.  For one his mother left his father for a former liberal Church of England minister.  They mutually embraced Eastern Religion and the two died in a murder-suicide pact in Greece.  For another he attended boarding schools with nominal (liberal) church affiliation from the age of eight years where, as he puts it, he was “compelled to sit through lessons in the sinister fairy tales of Christianity” (p. 52).  One wonders how his views might have differed if he had been raised in a loving Christian home and if he had been exposed to authentic, Biblical Christianity.

Nevertheless, despite his protests, Hitchens was clearly influenced by the very faith tradition he despised.  He begrudgingly admits, “but I can’t pretend that I hated singing the hymns or learning the psalms, and I enjoyed being in the choir and was honored when asked to read from the lectern” (p. 52).

When recalling the funeral service of his conservative, British navy veteran father, whom he called “the commander,” he describes how he chose Philippians 4:8 as a reading, hedging that he selected the text “for its non-religious yet high moral character” (p. 45):

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

After citing the verse in the KJV, Hitchens adds:

Try looking that up in a “modern” version of the New Testament (Philippians 4:8) and see what a ration of bland doggerel you get.  I shall never understand how the keepers and trustees of the King James Version threw away such a treasure (p. 46).


Friday, December 02, 2016

The Vision (12.2.16): That men should fear before him

Image:  Fall scene, North Garden, Virginia, December 2016

Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on Ecclesiastes 3:12-22.

I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

In v. 14 there are three independent statements made about God’s providential works:

First, his work is permanent: “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever.”  Would God have made such an intricate and special creature as man merely for a limited temporal existence?  No. we were made for time and for eternity.

Second, his work is perfect:  “nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it.”  Mere men cannot second guess God’s work. We are in no position to critique his works or presume to improve upon what he had done.  His work is perfect.

Third, his work is purposeful:  “and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.” God made and provided for the world, so that men, his image bearers, made a little lower than the angels, should fear him.

His goal or end in giving us all the experiences of our lives is that we might fear him.  Fear here means to give reverence or awe. Notice, his end is not that we love him or thank him, though we do love and thank him (and it is right to do so!), but that we fear him, that we hold him in reverential awe. This recalls a repeated refrain in the wisdom literature, perhaps best epitomized in Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.”

The term “God-fearing” has become one that seems out of fashion, and it has even become one of ridicule and derision, but it continues to convey a key Biblical concept. 

Are you a God-fearing man?  The wise man is one who does not think first of pleasing himself or any other man but of pleasing God. He fears God!  God provides for us so that we might fear him.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Muratorian Canon (AD second century)

Here are some more notes from study of the canon of the NT:

The Muratorian Canon is perhaps the oldest extant record of an attempt to list the canonical books of the NT (find an English translation and the Latin text here).  The document gets its name from the Italian scholar L. A. Muratori who discovered the work in the library in Milan, Italy in the early eighteenth century.  The document is written in ungrammatical Latin and is fragmentary.  It begins with a description of Luke and John as the third and fourth Gospels, so we can assume the original also discussed Matthew and Mark.  The work is usually date to the second half of the second century and its provenance is thought to be Rome.  Here is a summary of the data in the fragment:
Accepted books
Questionable but accepted books
Not accepted but edifying books
Rejected and Heretical books
Apocalypse of Peter
Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans [Marcionite forgery]
2-3 John
Shepherd of Hermas
Paul’s Epistle to the Alexandrians [Marcionite forgery]

Writings of Arsinous
Apocalypse of John (Revelation)

Writings of Valentinus

Writings of Militiades
1-2 Corinthians

Marcionite Psalms

Writings of Basilides of the Cataphyrigians



1-2 Thessalonians




1-2 Timothy


1.  The Muratorian Canon shows there was generally an early recognition of most of the books we now consider part of the canonical New Testament.

2.  It affirms consensus on a fourfold Gospel:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

3.  It affirms the Pauline epistles but offers an alternative ordering of the books.

4.  It assumes Paul’s letters were written to seven churches (Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Galatia, Thessalonika, Rome), following the pattern of John’s letters to seven churches in Revelation chapters 2-3.

5.  It distinguishes Paul’s letters to churches from the letters to individuals.

6.  It affirms the authenticity of the Pastoral epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus).

7.  It omits Hebrews, James, and 1-2 Peter altogether.  Note:  B. Ehrman in Lost Scriptures (Oxford, 2003) also lists 3 John as excluded in the canon (p. 331).

8.  It includes the book of Wisdom as likely acceptable.

9.  It makes a distinction between canonical books and books that are edifying and orthodox but not apostolic (e.g., The Shepherd of Hermes).

10.  It rejects heretical books and recognizes some of these works (Pseudo-Pauline epistles) as forgeries.  This attention to authenticity of authorship argues against any notion that early Christians would have accepted pseudonymous works.  Thus, it argues in favor of the fact that the early Christians accepted the authenticity of the purported authorship of the accepted NT books.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Book Note: Smith & Bennett's "How the Bible Was Built"

Charles Merrill Smith & James W. Bennett, How the Bible Was Built (Eerdmans, 2005):  97 pp.

I’m always on the outlook for works that seek to explain how the Bible came to be in a simple and approachable manner.  I saw this little work referenced somewhere so I ordered a very cheap used copy on Amazon.  It’s less than a hundred pages so it was a quick read.  A draft of the book was originally written by Smith, a United Methodist bishop. The unpolished manuscript was left at his death and then was edited and put in its final form nearly twenty years later by his friend Bennett.

The book uses the analogy of building to describe the formation of the Bible.  The Hebrew Bible was the “First Wing,” and the New Testament the “New Wing,” with the apocrypha a “Passageway” connecting the two.  Though written by a Methodist bishop, the book makes the distinctly non-Protestant assertion that the apostles accepted the apocrypha as Scripture (p. 26)!  This is one of many signs of danger in the book.

Though the book makes the initial claim that it will stick to the basic facts about the Bible’s formation in such a way that persons of all theological persuasions will be able to agree with its content, a quick read makes clear that this isn’t exactly the case.  The primary author (Bennett) writes as we might expect a United Methodist bishop to write.  That is, his view of the Bible is that of a liberal mainline Protestant who has wholly accepted the “assured results” of modern historical-critical scholarship.  So, he assumes Markan priority and the existence of Q, rejects Pauline authorship of the Pastoral epistles, and presents the formation of the canon as essentially a human process.  One encouraging note is his very brief reference to the role of Gutenberg in the functional closing of the canon (pp. 68-69).

In the end, I can’t recommend this book.  If you want a brief but engaging book on the how the Bible was “built,” the best work IMHO is still W. Harold Reid’s How God Gave Us the Bible (Welch, 1982).  Get that one and leave this one alone.


Monday, November 28, 2016

"Triumphant Journey" Poster (and Puzzle)

Image:  My sons holding up the "Triumphant Journey" poster.

Image:  A closeup of one scene.

I got a great unexpected gift in the mail today from friends in Florida.  It is a sturdy,  over-sized poster with plotted scenes from John Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress created by artist Phyllis F. Sweeney and titled Triumphant Journey.  The poster provides a great visual over-view of the narrative of Pilgrim's Progress from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

I've long appreciated the children's work Dangerous Journey which does something similar in a juvenile book format.  After reading this to my children several times in family devotions, it helped me better to follow the plot when re-reading Bunyan's original.  The poster also grabbed the interest of my children and I sense it will serve the same purpose, and I like the poster title (with the emphasis on "triumph" rather than "danger") even better.  It will be framed and hung on the wall of my study.

You can order the poster or the same scene in a puzzle format by visiting  It would make a memorable gift for someone who is a fan of Bunyan's great allegory.  Thanks Ireland family!


Update (11.29.16):  The puzzle came in the mail today, so my first thanks was premature and incomplete.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Word Magazine # 64: Jeff Purswell on the Ending of Mark: Merely "ancient faithful commentary"?

I just recorded and posted WM 64 (listen here).  It offers a review of a July 15, 2016 sermon titled “The Final Chapter” from Jeff Purswell at the Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Kentucky on the ending of Mark.  In addition to being an elder at this church, Purswell is also Dean of the Sovereign Grace Pastors’ College.

I review the section of the sermon (from c. 7:00-19:00 minute mark) in which Purswell addresses the text of the ending of Mark.  The sermon demonstrates how many evangelical and otherwise conservative evangelicals who have embraced the modern critical text are now openly rejecting the ending of Mark and teaching their congregations that the Longer Ending (LE) of Mark 16:9-20 is not part of inspired Scripture.

He defines text criticism as “the science of comparing all known copies of a document to discover what the original said.”  I point out that this “reconstructionist” definition is one that modern academic text criticism has largely abandoned.

When it comes to “external evidence” Purswell asserts that the “oldest and best” manuscripts do not support the LE.  He cites no manuscripts and does not mention that only two extant Greek manuscripts actually end Mark at 16:8 (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus).

He notes several Church Fathers typically cited in favor of omitting the LE (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, Eusebius, and Jerome).  After noting problems with these (arguments from silence, no pre-300 citations, Jerome includes the LE in his Vulgate), I point out that the biggest problem here is that he fails to list the church fathers who do support the LE, including Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.

Purswell also uses the “bandwagon” argument.  You should reject the LE, he says, because “virtually no Biblical scholars think it is original.”  This overlooks the more recent scholarly defenses of the LE by Dean John Burgon, William Farmer, Maurice Robinson, James Snapp, and Nicholas P. Lunn.

Purswell asserts it is “a virtually assured explanation” that the LE was written and added by a well-meaning but misguided scribe.  As I point out this explanation is hardly “assured” but based entirely on unsubstantiated speculation.

Turning to internal evidence, Purswell calls the LE a “patchwork” with non-Markan style.

In the end he calls the LE merely uninspired, “ancient faithful commentary.”

As I point out this creates a great dilemma for those who embrace this position.  If they hold that Mark 16:9-20 is not part of Scripture should they not contend that it be removed from their printed Bibles? Why do they not do this?  My guess is that they are not so bold to do this, because they fear the backlash of God’s people who intuitively hear in Mark 16:9-20 the voice of their Shepherd.

At the close of this discussion, Purswell makes a somewhat standard evangelical apologetic argument regarding the large number of NT manuscripts (c. 5,700).  He contrasts this with the relatively fewer and later manuscripts of works by Josephus and Tacitus.  I point out that this argument is rather misleading.  Most of the NT manuscripts cited are fragmentary and late.  In fact, we have very few complete copies of the NT. I cite Robert F. Hull, Jr. in The Story of the NT Text (SBL, 2010):  “In fact, only fifty-three manuscripts contain the complete NT, and only one of these is dated as early as the fourth century” (p. 24).  The irony is that Purswell appeals to the number of extant Greek witnesses to the NT but then rejects the fact that the vast majority of them, including many of the oldest, support the LE.

In the end the rejection of the LE creates a major theological problem for those evangelicals who have embraced the modern critical text.  Would a canonical Gospel end without any resurrection appearances?


Friday, November 25, 2016

The Vision (11.25.16): God's Perfect Timing

Video: Pete Seeger and Judy Collins sing "Turn, Turn, Turn."

Note:  Devotion taken from last Sunday morning's sermon on Ecclesiastes 3:1-11.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is one of the best known passage in the entire book.

Many children of the sixties know the words not from reading their Bibles but from The Byrds song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” which drew its lyrics nearly verbatim from Solomon:  “To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”  It hit Number One on the Billboard charts in November 1965.  The song was actually written in the 1950s by folk singer Peter Seeger.

I often tell my college students, that every religion has a view of time.  The Jews and Christians, based on the special revelation of Scripture,  saw time as linear.  It has a beginning and a purposeful ending.  The pagans, on the other hand, without that guidance, saw time as cyclical, the same things repeated over and over without purpose.  This is how the idea of reincarnation developed.  With the pagan view of time came a sense of futility and lack of control over time, so that man was seen as the victim of time as a capricious master.  Men saw themselves as subject to the great wheel of fortune.  Round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows.  One man’s house gets hit by lightening and burns to the ground while his neighbor’s house stands intact.  One child is stillborn, another is born and lives to 100. It’s all a matter of chance, or fate, or karma.

Solomon in our passage puts forward his own views of time from the perspective of godly wisdom and he teaches that time is not a master but it is a servant.  Time is on God’s leash.  He controls it and he uses it to fulfill his purposes for the world and for every person and creature within it.

God is sovereign over time.  As Isaiah prophesied, the Lord declares “the end from the beginning,” saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isaiah 46:10).  Every day ordained for man was written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139:16 NKJV).  Proverbs 16:9 teaches: “A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.”  And Jesus himself taught that not even a sparrow can fall to the ground unless it be God’s will (see Matt 10:29-31).

Christians, therefore, do not believe in luck or fortune. Those are pagan terms.  There are no accidents or mistakes.  We believe in providence.  God provides for all his creation, and especially for the redeemed, what gives him the most glory and does them the most good.  The opening paragraph of chapter five “Of Divine Providence” in the 1689 Baptist confession:

God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will; to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.

That is what is being affirmed in Ecclesiastes 3.  Solomon not only declares that man’s life is meaningful but also that man is not the victim of time as a series of random and purposeless events.  John Currid observes:  “the Preacher argues against those who believe that time is a tyrant that is totally out of control” relentlessly pushing us toward our deaths while we are but “helpless pawns in a cosmic game!” (p. 49).  No, Solomon says, for every time there is a purpose under heaven!

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle