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The Sixth Seal: Exegesis and Interpretation


For centuries the book of Revelation has been a source of both comfort and confusion for the Christian Church.[1]  The meaning of its strange language and vivid imagery has often proved elusive for its many interpreters.[2]  One of the issues that surfaces time and again is whether or not some parts are to be interpreted literally or figuratively.   The sixth seal (6:12-17) has often been a place that has divided readers on this matter.[3]  The following essay will thus provide an exegetical analysis of this passage within its historical and literary setting to determine how it should be read.

Historical Context

The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic work that was written at the end of the first century C.E. during the reign of Domitian.[4]  The author identifies himself as John a number of times throughout the book and has traditionally been understood as the apostle John.[5]  However, due to the distinct difference in writing style between Revelation and the other Johannine writings, many have suggested other alternatives.[6]  While the authorship may be a matter of debate, the audience certainly is not.  The book is specifically addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor: the church in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:4, 11).[7]

It is now widely accepted that Revelation was written to be understood and interpreted within an oral setting (cf. 1:3).[8]  Maier notes that the text is written in such a way as to keep the listener’s interest and draw them into an emotional experience of the vision.[9]  This is typical of apocalyptic literature, which is expressive and conveys feelings and attitudes.[10]  Therefore, the literary devices John makes use of have important functions that significantly determine the communication process.  Any exposition of the sixth seal should be careful to note the sounds and feelings that are embedded in the text.

Literary Context

The seven seals find their setting in the throne room of Revelation 4-5.[11]  The cry is raised, “Who is worthy to open the book and break its seals?” (5:2).  The Lion of the tribe of Judah is found worthy and steps forward to take the scroll and break the seals.  While the scroll cannot be read until all the seals are broken, the action of breaking each seal produces a series of events on earth.[12]  The first four are characterised by different coloured horses and their mysterious riders which cause increasing distress upon the earth (6:1-8), while the fifth and sixth reveal the suffering of the martyrs and the divine response to their cry for justice (vv. 9-17).[13]  The connection between the fifth and sixth seal should not be overlooked.  The answer to the cry of the saints in v.10 is hinted at in v.11 and explicitly expressed in vv. 12-17.[14]  This progression from one seal to the next indicates that that the events of the sixth seal point to the final judgment.[15]  The description of the sixth seal draws heavily on the apocalyptic imagery used throughout the Old Testament and consists of two parts: the cosmic signs (vv. 12-14), and the human reactions to those signs (vv. 15-17).[16]


As I looked, He broke the sixth seal and a great earthquake occurred.[17]  This imagery would have been frighteningly familiar to John’s original audience.  Some of the churches to which he was writing were located in cities that had been devastated by earthquakes only a few years earlier.[18]  On top of this, earthquakes were often associated with the eschatological presence of God in biblical and Jewish tradition.[19]  The phrase σεισμὸς μέγας occurs four times throughout Revelation and is always mentioned in the context of judgment.[20]  Some view this earthquake as being different to the one in 6:14, which they believe refers to the final earthquake mentioned in the seventh bowl plague (16:18).[21]  However, the composition of verses 12-14 indicates that they are one and the same.  The description of the signs follows an inverse parallel structure: the great earthquake and the shaking of every mountain and island frame the celestial events of the sun, moon, and stars convulsing and the sky disappearing like a scroll being rolled up. [22]  A comparison with the seventh plague also reveals that they are both describing the same event.[23]  Thus, any attempt to distinguish between two earthquakes in the sixth seal “grows out of something other than biblical exegesis.”[24]

The sun turned black like sackcloth, the whole moon become like blood.  The darkening of the sun and moon would have sent shivers up the spines of John’s original audience.  Such phenomena was common in Greco-Roman literature and was understood as a warning sign of divine anger.[25]  This has some overlap in the Old Testament.  The background for these phenomena is Joel 2:31, with possible echoes of Isa. 50:3.  Sackcloth was worn as a sign of mourning and it here serves to emphasise the theme of judgment.[26]  The only other time σάκκος occurs in Revelation is when it is worn by the two witnesses in 11:3 as they proclaim a message of judgment.[27]  The combination of a black sun and a red moon also appears in Acts 2:20 and indicates that they were well understood as signs of the Day of the Lord.

And the stars were falling from heaven to earth, as a fig tree drops its unripe figs when shaken by a strong wind.  The three celestial signs of the sun, moon and stars all follow the same literary pattern of an announcement of what happened in the aorist, followed by a simile introduced with ὡς.[28]  Taken together, these signs clearly point to the end of the age.[29]  Falling stars are mentioned a number of times in Revelation (8:10; 9:1; 12:4), and often point to judgment.[30]  They can also be used as a metaphor for the fall of Satan and his angels.[31]  The sky disappearing like a scroll being rolled up would have been another vivid image for the first hearers of Revelation.[32]  Imagine the sky rolling up like the scroll the preacher was holding![33]  In ancient cosmology the sky was thought to be a solid dome above the earth.  But now that it is rolled up, the earth stands “unshielded before God.”[34]   Both the fig tree and the sky being rolled up is an allusion to Isa. 34:4.[35] Jesus also used the image the fig tree as a sign of eschatological judgement.[36]

As John casts his eye back to earth, he saw every mountain and island was shaken out of its place.  The shaking would appear to be the results of the σεισμὸς μέγας in v. 13, once again indicating that there is only one earthquake.[37]  The three primary verbs in v. 14 are all in the passive voice indicating that God is the controlling agent behind them.[38]  While heaven and earth are thrown into turmoil, the kings of the earth, the courtiers and officers, the rich and the powerful, and every slave and free person hid themselves in the caves and rocks of the mountains.[39]   Given the importance of the number seven throughout Revelation, it is perhaps no accident that John mentions seven groups of people.  This phrase means everyone, “the human world in all its fullness.”[40]  “Fall on us!” they were saying to the mountains and the rocks. “Hide us form the presence of the One who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!”[41]  The imagery of this inescapable judgment is drawn from Hos. 10:8 and Isa. 2:19 where the enemies of God flee to the mountains and cry out to the rocks to cover them from His wrath.  However, the concept of hiding from God finds its ultimate source in Gen. 3:9 where Adam and Eve hid from His presence.  Beale notes that “sinful history must end in the same way that it began.”[42]

The response to these cosmic signs reaches its climax in the collective cry of the wicked: “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”  The use of the article (ἡ ἡμέρα) points to a specific day, the Day of the Lord.  The breaking of the sixth seal marks the inauguration of the great day of wrath itself.[43]  Smalley points out that whenever the word ὀργή appears in Revelation, a creative and positive implication is predicted.[44]  It should also be noted that this is the first time the wrath of God is mentioned in Revelation, and it does so in connection with Christ: “The cross should be understood as the revelation of the love and wrath of God, who is at once savior and judge.”[45]  The rhetorical question “who can stand?” brings to mind Mal. 3:2 and prepares the audience for the answer in the following vision.[46]


Now that we have examined the passage in detail the question remains: are the events described in the sixth seal to be interpreted literally or figuratively?  Because the breaking of this seal marks the beginning of the final judgment, some argue that the cosmic signs should most naturally be understood as being literal material events.[47]  Although this may be the case, the continued existence of the rocks and mountains would suggest that this is not a description of cosmic destruction.[48]  Paulien notes the repeated use of ὡς and argues that this word “introduces a figurative analogy to an actual event.”[49]  However, there is no evidence that it is used this way elsewhere in the New Testament.[50]

Historicists have traditionally pointed to the Lisbon earthquake on November 1, 1755, the Dark Day of May 19, 1780, and the Leonid star shower of November 13, 1833 as being the fulfilment of these signs.[51]  They argue that their geography, sequence, and timing are unparalleled in history and should thus be seen as the fulfilment of the breaking of the sixth seal.[52]  But this interpretation cannot be supported exegetically.  Those who advocate this position read two earthquakes into the text,[53] and split this single cosmic event into isolated events that are separated by decades affecting different generations.[54]  There is also the issue of consistency.  If the descriptions of the sun, moon and stars are read literally here, should they not also be read literally when they are mentioned again in the vision of the trumpets and the woman?[55]  While there is no doubt that these historical events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did stir up the religiosity of those who witnessed them, they should be seen as an application rather than the fulfilment of the sixth seal.

It is far more appropriate to interpret the events figuratively.  This is not to say that there will be no concrete fulfilment.[56]  It is simply a matter of literary genre.  The sixth seal is not a primitive weather forecast; it employs apocalyptic language that invests concrete events with theological significance.  Beale notes that the five Old Testament passages that use these cosmic signs, and thus form the backdrop for the sixth seal, refer to the historical end of a nation’s existence “through divine judgment, in which God conducts holy war by employing one nation to defeat another in war.”[57]  Therefore, even though the language is figurative it still points to actual events that will usher in the Day of the Lord.[58]  The same applies in the sixth seal.  Contrary to what Stefanovic says then, everything in the text indicates that these signs are symbolic not literal.[59]


The message of the sixth seal is both sobering and comforting for believers.  The chronological sequence of the seals reveals that we are living in the time between the fifth and the sixth.  When heaven and earth begin to shake, it will be too late to repent.  Today we must make our decision to stand firm for God, though the heavens fall.[60]  The cry of God’s people for vindication has resounded down through history to our own day.  The sixth seal provides us with the hope that our prayers have been heard.  “God’s time is not always our time, but even if we do not live to see the fulfilment of our prayers, we can die in hope that God will bring about the things He has promised.”[61]  We can be sure that these words are “faithful and true” (22:6).  For those of us who are still alive during that terribly awesome time, Jesus says to us: “When these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).


After examining the passage of the sixth seal within its historical and literary context, the evidence strongly supports a figurative interpretation.  This does not mean that it becomes some sort of abstract description of the events leading up to the Day of the Lord.  Rather John is painting the scene with vivid symbols and metaphors that would have created a strong emotional response in the hearts of the original audience and of those who have read and studied it ever since.

[1] Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), vii.

[2] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), 12.

[3] Most commentators raise the question, but many of them don’t provide any arguments for either interpretation.

[4] Although some date it as early as 68-69 C.E., most accept the traditional dating of 95-96 C.E. See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 15-16. On the issue of literary genre, see David Aune, Revelation 1-5 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1997), 1xx-xc.

[5] Rev. 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8.

[6] See discussion in Alan Johnson, Revelation, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 404-405.

[7] For a comprehensive study of these churches within their historical and geographical setting, see Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (Sheffield: JSOT, 1986).

[8] Harry O. Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002), 101-122.

[9] Ibid, 99.

[10] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 17. However, I disagree with Collins when he states that apocalyptic language is not referential.

[11] David Aune, Revelation 6-16 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 389.

[12] Jon Paulien, “The Seven Seals,” in Symposium on Revelation – Book 1, edited by Frank B. Holbrook (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1992), 201.

[13] Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005), 166.

[14] Beale, 395-396.

[15] Ibid, 398-399.

[16]  Aune, Revelation 6-16, 391. J. Massyngberde Ford notes that there are seven signs. See Revelation. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 112.

[17] The translation used here and throughout the rest of the essay is my own.

[18] Craig Keener, The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 220. Aune notes that the “entire province of Asia was prone to earthquakes; in the great earthquake of A.D. 17 alone, twelve cities were destroyed.” Revelation 6-16, 424.

[19] See for instance Isa. 24:18-23; 29:6; Joel 2:10; 3:16; Micah 1:4; Nahum 1:5; Sib. Or. 1:187; 3.339-59.

[20] Rev. 6:12; 11:13; 16:18 (twice).

[21] Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2009), 249; Paulien, 236.

[22] Hans K. LaRondelle, Light for the Last Days (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1999), 164.

[23] Ibid; cf. Andrew E. Steinmann, “The Tripartite Structure of the Sixth Seal, the Sixth Trumpet, and the Sixth Bowl of John’s Apocalypse,” JETS 35, no. 1 (March 1992), 69-79.

[24] LaRondelle, 165.

[25] See “Excursus 6A” in Aune, Revelation 6-16, 416-419.

[26] Smalley, 167.

[27] Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville, KN: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 138.

[28] Smalley, 166-167; Aune, Revelation 6-16, 414.

[29] Keener, 221.

[30] cf. Mark 13:25.

[31] Isa. 14:12; cf. Luke 10:18.

[32] The verb ἀποχωρίζω can mean to “separate” or “split” (BDAG, 125), but this doesn’t fit the simile of a scroll rolling up. It is perhaps best translated as “disappeared” or “receded” (NIV) with the implication that heaven could no longer be seen.

[33] Joseph L. Mangina, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010), 104.

[34] Francis D. Nichol, ed. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1980), 779.

[35] For a helpful comparison between the two passages, see Beale, 396. Cf. Heb. 1:12.

[36] Mark 13:25; Matt. 24:29; Luke 21:26.

[37] Here I follow Aune in translating the verb as “shaken.” Contra Smalley, who argues that it should be translated “removed” (168).

[38] Blount, 139.

[39] A similar list occurs in Rev 13:16; 19:18.

[40] Mangina, 105; cf. Ford, 112.

[41] For a discussion on the “One who sits on the throne” as a circumlocution for God, see Aune, Revelation 1-5,284.

[42] Beale, 400.

[43] Blount, 140.

[44] Smalley, 171.

[45] Pierre Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 277. For a discussion on the wrath of the Lamb, see G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, 2nd ed. (London: A & C Black, 1984), 90-93.

[46] Keener, 223. cf. Joel 2:11.

[47] Smalley, 168. Cf. 2 Pet. 3:10.

[48] Aune, Revelation 6-16, 391.

[49] Paulien, 237. Followed by Stefanovic, 251.

[50] See BDAG, 1103-1106.

[51] SDABC, 779; C. Mervyn Maxwell, God Cares, Vol. 2 (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1985), 194-201; Alberto R.Treiyer, The Seals and the Trumpets: Biblical and Historical Studies (Silver Spring, MD: Self Published, 2005), 177-183.

[52] William H. Shea, “Cosmic Signs through History,” Ministry (February 1999), 11; cf. Paulien, 237 n. 144.

[53] See references in footnote 21 above.

[54] LaRondelle, 164.

[55] Roy C. Naden, The Lamb Among the Beasts (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996), 114.

[56] I’m not aware of any commentator who would argue against some sort of material fulfilment.

[57] Beale, 397.

[58]We use similar language today when we speak of “earth-shattering events” or “all hell breaking loose.”

[59] Stefanovic, 251.

[60] LaRondelle, 168.

[61] Keener, 228.


The Chronological Relationship between Daniel 1 and 2


For centuries, the book of Daniel has been a storm centre for biblical scholarship.  The wind and waves of criticism have primarily swirled and blown around the historicity of the book itself.[1]  Everything from the dating of Daniel to the historical figure of Daniel has been the subject of intense debate between liberal and conservative Christians.  Among the many apparent historical inconsistences noted by biblical critics is that of the chronological relationship between Daniel 1 and 2.  The following essay will provide a description of the problem, evaluate the various explanations that have been proposed to solve the problem, and conclude with a solution that best fits the evidence.

The Problem

Daniel begins his book with a historical reference to “the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah” (1:1),[2] which is generally considered to be the first year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (605 B.C.E.).  However, careful readers are immediately presented with an apparent historical contradiction.  Jeremiah, who scholars consider to be a far more reliable historical source, states that the first year of Nebuchadnezzar was the fourth year of Jehoiakim, not the third (25:1).  But this discrepancy is easily explained by the differences between the Babylonian and Palestinian methods of dating, the former being based on accession year reckoning.[3]  So far, so good.  The following chapter of Daniel begins with another historical reference, this time to “the second year of the reign Nebuchadnezzar” (2:1).  There is no problem with this historical marker, except as it relates to the three years of education that the young exiles had to complete (1:5, 18).  The dating of chapters 1 and 2 do not seem to allow for three years between the first and second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign.  How then, do we explain this chronological conundrum?


Critical scholarship has responded to this problem by dismissing the dating of chapter 2 as being fictional or unimportant.  Louis Hartman simply states that it has “no historical value.”[4]  Along with other recent commentators, John Collins concludes that Daniel 2 was not originally written to fit the context provided in Daniel 1.[5]  Following Collins, Daniel Smith-Christopher argues that the editor who compiled the stories of chapters 1-6 chose to “leave some of the enigmatic chronological notes alone, rather than straighten them out.”[6]  Robert Anderson waves his hands in the air, saying that the date “is not capable of reconciliation with the historical superscription to the book.”[7]  But to say that the dates are too hard to reconcile or that they are non-historical is an inadequate explanation.  Without wading into the debates on the composition and authorship of Daniel, it would be ignorant to say that the editor or compiler simply did not notice the discrepancy.[8]  The chronological markers seemed to be strategically placed throughout the book.[9]  If they were merely fictional and only added later during the compiling process, one would expect there to have been an even greater attempt on the part of the editor to make sure that they did line up.  It would be far more reasonable to say that they must have somehow made sense to the original audience.  The apparent contradiction should thus be explicable within its ancient context.  This brings us to the various historical explanations.


Perhaps one of the earliest attempts to synchronise the chronology of Daniel 1 and 2 was by Josephus.  In Antiquities of the Jews, he interpreted the “second year” in 2:1 as the second year after Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Egypt.[10]  Following in his footsteps, Jerome commented that the second year refers to Nebuchadnezzar’s “reign over all the barbarian nations” including Assyria, Egypt, and Moab.[11]  This interpretation, however, hasn’t found support with any modern historians.[12]  Calvin attempted to reconcile the dates by arguing that Nebuchadnezzar conjointly reigned with his father Nebopolasser at the time of Daniel’s deportation.[13]  While there is some evidence for this, the fact remains that Nebuchadnezzar ascended the throne in the same year (605 B.C.E.) following his father’s death.[14]  Judah Slotki points out that “Jewish commentators argue that this date refers to the time from the destruction of the Temple in 587 B.C.E. and not from Nebuchadnezzar’s accession”.[15]  This creative explanation seems to ignore the fact that 2:1 specifically refers to the second year of his reign as king.[16]  Some have suggested that the original date was the twelfth year, not the second.  Although this theory was first advanced without a shred of evidence, support has been found in MS 967, an Old Greek translation of Daniel from the third century.  However, because this is the only manuscript with this date, it is best explained as a scribal gloss rather than the original reading.[17]

The discovery of accession year reckoning has made most of these explanations redundant.  As we saw earlier, the chronological discrepancy in Daniel 1:1 that mystified commentators for centuries makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of this ancient dating system.  Samuel Driver was one of the first commentators to use this method as a way of explaining how the three years of education could have taken place between the first and second year of Nebuchadnezzar.[18]  The year in which Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem (605 B.C.E.) is counted as his accession year, not his first.  Therefore, by modern reckoning the second year of his reign (2:1) is really his third.  Stephen Miller provides the following diagram to demonstrate how this works:[19]

Years of Training

Year of King’s Reign


First Accession Year From Sept 605 (the time Nebuchadnezzar assumed the throne) to Nisan   (Mar–Apr) 604 B.C.E
Second First Year Nisan 604-603 B.C.E.
Third Second Year Nisan 603-602 B.C.E


But this raises an important question, had Daniel completed his three years of education before, during, or after the events described in chapter 2? 

Throughout the centuries, most readers have naturally understood the events of chapters 1 and 2 as being chronological.  There must therefore be an explanation that allows enough room for a period of time between the graduation of Daniel and his three friends (1:18-20) and the recognition of Daniel’s God-given wisdom following his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (2:46-49).    Based on this assumption, many have suggested that the period of education may not have been three complete years, since Hebrews often reckoned part of a year as a whole.[20]  Zdravko Stefanovic points out that “the inclusive way of reckoning time was widespread in the ancient world… thus… the three years of training of Daniel and his companions lasted less than two full calendar years”.[21]  This explanation has been favoured by most conservative commentators.[22]

However, the assumption that the chapters are chronological is open to question.  First, it is important to note that the book of Daniel is not primarily arranged chronologically, but symmetrically.[23]  While chapters 8-12 are arranged according to their order of events, chapters 2-7 are arranged according their theme.[24]  Chapter 1 seems to have been written as a general introduction to and overview of the whole book, providing the necessary details as to how and why Daniel and his friends were in the Babylonian court.  Verses 17 and 21 in particular appear to serve as a summary of the rest of the book.  Having provided the context, the remaining chapters should be seen as being an elaboration of how Daniel and his three friends demonstrated their God-given “knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom” (v. 17).[25]

Second, the fact that the three years of education are referred to as a definite period of time would suggest that they were full years.  Leon Wood draws attention to a parallel period of training in Persian culture that covered three full years.[26] If the Babylonian education system was the same or similar, the three years of training would take us beyond the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and into his third.  This would significantly tip the balances in favour of the events of chapter 2 taking place within the three years.

Third, even a cursory reading of chapter 2 suggests that Daniel had not yet completed his training.[27]  He was not summoned by Nebuchadnezzar when the other wise men were (2:2), and he wasn’t even aware of the situation (2:15).  He also appears to disassociate himself from the other wise men.[28]  This would seem strange if Daniel had already “entered the king’s personal service” (1:19).  Later, when he is presented before Nebuchadnezzar, he is introduced as though he were not previously known (2:25).  Either the king had short-term memory loss, having recently praised Daniel and his three friends (1:18-20), or this was in fact their first encounter.  It is thus entirely possible that the events of Daniel 2 took place after the story in 1:8-17, but before the end of the three-year period.  Chapter 2 could therefore be seen as a flashback.[29]

A couple of objections have been raised against this explanation.  Since Daniel was immediately promoted to the position of chief wise man after interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (2:48), he must have already completed his training and been considered part of the group of wise men.[30]  One possible answer to this is offered by John Goldingay who suggests that 1:18-20 and 2:45-49 may refer to the same event.[31]  This is a possibility, though not without some difficulties.[32]  Another objection is that Daniel and his three friends must have already been given their position as wise men before Nebuchadnezzar had his dream because they were included in the order that all the wise men be killed (2:13).  Wood responds to this by arguing that because they were being educated for this specific type of work, “they were included in the blanket order”.[33]


Throughout this essay, we’ve evaluated many of the creative and not-so creative explanations that have been offered to try and make sense of the chronology between Daniel 1 and 2.  Dismissing the dates as being unimportant was shown to be unacceptable.  The discovery of accession year reckoning for the dating of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and inclusive reckoning for the three years of education has provided satisfactory answers for many.  However, the assumption that chapters 1 and 2 are chronological has been shown to be questionable.  Three lines of evidence have been explored which seem to suggest otherwise.  Although it is not without some weaknesses, the wind of evidence has blown us in the direction of understanding the events of chapter 2 as having taken place during (or at the conclusion of) the three years of education, not after.

[1] For a liberal assessment of the historicity of Daniel, see John J. Collins, A Commentary on Daniel (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 29-33; for a more conservative view, see Joyce B. Baldwin, Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1978), 19-29; and for a more popular presentation of the issues, see Josh McDowell, Daniel in the Critics’ Den (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1979).

[2] All Scripture quotations are from the NASB.

[3] Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 183; see also see Francis D. Nichol, ed. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 4. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1977), 747-748.

[4] Louis F. Hartman and Alexander A. Di Lella, The Book of Daniel: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), 143. In fact, he considers all of the dates artifical (138).

[5] John J. Collins, A Commentary on Daniel (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 155.

[6] Daniel L. Smith-Christopher The Book of Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 49.

[7] Robert A. Anderson, Daniel: Signs and Wonders (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 11.

[8] Such as Collins, 155.

[9] J. Paul Tanner, “The Literary Structure of the Book of Daniel,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160, no. 639 (2003), 278.

[10] Flavius Josephus, Josephus Complete Works, translated by William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1960), 223.

[11] Jay Braverman, Jerome’s Commenary on Daniel (Washington, DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1978), 72.

[12] Collins, 154.

[13] John Calvin, Daniel, translated by T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 46.

[14] For a helpful description of the historical situation, see Nichol, 756.

[15] Judah J. Slotki, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah: Hebrew Text and English Translation (London: Soncino, 1951), 7.

[16] The same phrase, used of Jehoiakim in 1:1, can only refer to kingly reign.

[17] Ernest Lucas, Daniel (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2002), 62.

[18] Samuel R. Driver, The Book of Daniel (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1922), 17; followed by Edward J. Young, A Commentary on Daniel (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1948), 55; Desmond Ford, Daniel (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1978), 89; Lucas, 62.

[19] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 76,

[20] Young, 55; Nichol, 762; Baldwin, 85. Cf. 2 Kings 18:9, 10; Matt. 12:40.

[21] Zdravko Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2007), 82.

[22] Such as those referred to in the footnotes above.

[23] Baldwin, 59-60.

[24] Chapter 6 takes place in the time of Darius, while chapter 7 relates to the earlier time of Belshazzar’s kingdom.

[25] Another example of a broad overview followed by a more detailed account can be seen in the comparison between the creation accounts in Gen. 1-2.

[26] Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 49; cf. Collins, 140.

[27] Mark K. Mercer, “Daniel 1:1 and Jehoiakim’s Three Years of Servitude,” AUSS 27, no. 3 (1989), 187-188.

[28] Ibid, 50.

[29] Danna Nolan Fewell, Circle of Sovereignty: A Story of Stories in Daniel 1-6 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1988), 49.

[30] Miller, 76.

[31] John Goldingay, Daniel: Word Biblical Commentary 30 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1989), 45.

[32] Such as the different language that is used to describe the two events. Also the fact that only Daniel is recognised for his God-given wisdom in chapter 2, while both Daniel and his friends are recognised for their skill and wisdom in chapter 1.

[33] Wood, 49.

The Image of God


The concept of the image of God lies at the heart of the biblical doctrine of humanity.[1]  That man – both male and female – in some way resembles the Creator provides significant meaning and value for the human race.  Throughout history, theologians and philosophers have said and written many things about what it means to be made in the image of God.  Is it something we are, something we experience, or something we do?  The following is an attempt to examine the biblical evidence, evaluate the various interpretations of the evidence, and conclude with a summary of what it means to be God’s image bearers.

Biblical Evidence[2]

The foundational passage in the discussion concerning the image of God is Gen. 1:26-28 where God is recorded as saying, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness…”[3]  There has been much discussion regarding the two words “image” (צלם) and “likeness” (דמות) in verse 26, with some arguing for an important distinction between the two,[4] while others suggesting that they can be used interchangeably.[5]  Although there is a lot to be said for the former view, modern scholarship favours the latter.[6]  After creating humanity God immediately charges them with the responsibility of ruling over and caring for the created order.  The two words occur once again in Gen. 5:1-3 where the image of God in Adam is likened to the image of Adam in Seth.[7]  In Gen. 9:6, God prohibits murder on the basis that humanity is made in His image.  The context of this verse suggests that even after the entrance of sin, humanity still bears the image of God to some degree or another.  Beyond this, there are no other explicit references to the image of God in the OT.[8]  Scholars have long recognised, however, that Ps. 8 contains echoes of Gen. 1:26-28.  The parallels between the two are confirmed by the fact that both describe humanity as the crowing act of creation; that humanity was made after the likeness of God, a “little lower” than Him;[9] and that humanity is given dominion over the earth, with everything having been placed under their feet.

The NT picks up on these themes and develops them further.[10]  James 3:9 and 1 Cor. 11:7 both use the image of God in man as a rationale for prohibiting cursing on the one hand, and how certain acts of worship should be performed on the other, once again confirming that although the image may have been damaged by sin, it is not completely lost.  But at this point, we begin to see the concept evolving from simply being part of creation to being part of the process of salvation.  Col. 3:10 introduces this new salvific dimension, stating that believers are to take off the old self and put on the new, which is being renewed in knowledge “according to the image of the One who created him”.  Part of salvation thus involves a full restoration of the image of God in humanity.  Furthermore, in the same letter Paul declares that Jesus Himself is “the image of the invisible God” (1:15).  The author of Hebrews supports this idea when he applies the creation poem of Ps. 8 to Jesus in 2:5-9, implicitly stating that Jesus is the true human being, God’s true image bearer.  Thus, Rom. 8:20 and 2 Cor. 3:18 both speak of believers being conformed to the image of God’s Son, “from glory to glory”.  The NT ultimately reshapes the concept of the image of God around the person of Jesus and the salvation He offers to humanity.


Down through the centuries people have usually interpreted the biblical evidence in light of what was important to them.[11]  Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we let the text be our guide.[12]  There have been three general ways in which the image of God has been interpreted: as something we are (structural), something we experience (relational), or something we do (functional).[13]


Some have suggested that the image of God refers to the spiritual or intellectual dimensions of humanity that are shared with the Creator.[14]  This is generally called the structural or substantive view and has been the dominant understanding throughout the Christian era.[15]  Since humans and other animals are all created beings, the image of God must be something that distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation.  It is argued that human beings alone have freewill and the ability to reason which provides them with the capacity to know and love God.  Others have focused more on the physical or corporeal aspect of humanity, suggesting that in some way we look like God.[16]  This interpretation is based largely on the fact that the idea of a physical image is the most natural meaning of the Hebrew word “image”.[17]

However, there are obvious problems with these structural interpretations.  One of the major weaknesses is that they are not exegetically defensible.[18]  It is impossible to determine which, if any of these qualities – spiritual, intellectual or physical – are intended by the text.  These divisions of human nature are also foreign to OT anthropology.  The Hebrews consistently viewed the individual person as a whole.[19]  Therefore, the image of God must therefore refer to the entire person, not just one part or characteristic.[20]


Due to the inherent difficulties in the substantive interpretation, a number of modern theologians have argued that the image of God is not some aspect(s) of human nature, but is instead reflected in the capacity of humanity to relate to God.[21]  In other words, the image does not consist of what we are or do, but something we experience in our relationship with God and others.[22]  This understanding was primarily developed by Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.[23]  The importance of the plurality of God – “Let Us” – and humanity – “male and female” – is used as primary evidence to support this understanding.[24]  The horizontal relationship between humans flows out of the vertical relationship with God.  Standing on the shoulders of others, W. Sibley Towner expands this into a three-way relationship, looking at the way humanity relates to God, with each other, and with the rest of the created order.[25]  Claus Westermann takes a more nuanced approach by arguing that Gen. 1:26-28 “is describing an action, and not the nature of human beings.”[26]  Thus, it is the special way in which we were created that places us in a unique relationship with God.

The relational understanding certainly has its strengths, in that it remains closer to the text of Genesis, but it is not without its weaknesses.  Those advocating this view, or variations of it, seem to pay such close attention to Genesis 1 that they miss the rest of the biblical evidence.[27]  If relationships are an instrinsic part of image-bearing as Barth insists, how does he account for the fact that the image of God is most often used in reference to individuals?[28]  It seems that this interpretation is driven more by existentialism than exegesis.[29]


Although there have always been a small number of advocates for the functional interpretation, its popularity has increased significantly in recent times.[30]  Those who hold this understanding believe that the image consists of humanity being God’s representatives on earth.  It does not refer to who we are so much as what we do.[31]  Biblical scholars have noted significant parallels between the concept of the image of God and the understanding of images in the ancient world.  It has been demonstrated that many ancient Near Eastern cultures held the belief that the king bore the divine image and was thus a representative of the gods, ruling on their behalf.[32]  The kings also had a common practice of setting up images or statues of themselves in regions where they wanted to establish their authority.[33]  This idea of being distant but present through a representative is also reflected in the understanding of idol images.  Idols were not considered gods themselves but it was believed that in some sense they carried the essence of what they represented.[34]

When read against this historical background, the biblical evidence comes up in three dimensions.  It seems that in creating humanity, God has also placed an image of Himself into the world to represent Him and rule on His behalf.  Genesis 1 contains a double reference to humanity ruling over and caring for “the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (vv. 26, 28).  Ps. 8 also describes humanity as having been given the right to rule over the works of God’s hands.[35]  While the surrounding cultures believed that only the king held this role, the Bible appears to have democratised the idea, affirming that every man and woman bears God’s image and is placed in this world as His representatives.[36]  This is also supported in the NT by the fact that the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus equips believers to fulfil their God-given role more effectively.

Some have argued that this interpretation is not what it means to be made in God’s image; rather it is only a consequence.[37]  Recent scholarship has shown, however, that the verb “create” (ברא) in the OT not only carries the idea of forming the object that is being referred to, but also assigning a function to that object.[38]  This pattern can be seen throughout creation week.[39]  Therefore, in creating humanity in His image, we would expect God to also give them a particular function.  And the distinguishing function that is given to humanity is to rule over the created order.  To say it is only a consequence is to miss the point.  It is a function bound up in the very creation of humanity in the image of God.  The functional interpretation thus stands on a solid historical and biblical foundation, and in many ways incorporates the strengths of the other views that are clearly needed in the process of representing God, such as the ability to reason and make choices, and how those decisions impact our relationship with God and others.


After examining the biblical and historical evidence, and the various ways in which it has been interpreted, the following conclusions can be made. The image of God doesn’t simply consist of the ability humanity has to reason, though that is no doubt part of it; neither does the image of God simply consist in the relational aspect that humanity shares between God and others, though that is also no doubt part of it.  As important as the structural and relational qualities are for making us human, they are simply tools that serve us in our image-bearing role.[40]  Bearing God’s image is not just a fact, it’s a vocation.  It means being called to reflect God’s creative and redemptive love by being His representatives, ruling over and caring for the world.

[1] The Latin phrase imago Dei is often used in theological discussions on the present topic.

[2] To provide an exegetical analysis of each passage in which the concept of the image of God occurs or is alluded to would take us far beyond the limits of the present essay.

[3] All Scripture quotations are from the NASB.

[4] Most of traditional Christian exegesis has followed this route. For a more recent study defending this position, see R. Larry Overstreet, “Man in the Image of God: A Reappraisal,” Criswell Theologial Review 3, no. 1 (2005), 58-65.

[5] For instance Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis: 1-15 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 29-30. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes argues that it is a simple case of Hebrew parallelism in The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 7.

[6] G. Johannes Botterweck, ed. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 392. See Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 13, for a solid defence of this view.

[7] John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 131.

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 519. He also points to two further explicit references in Wisdom of Solomon 2:23 and Ecclesiasticus 17:3.

[9] See Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 18-19, for three reasons why אלהים should be translated as “God” rather than “angels”.

[10] The key word used in the NT for “image” εἰκών. For the usage and meaning of the word see Gerhard Kittel, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 381-387, esp. 395-397 as it relates to the image of God.

[11] John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone Part 1: Chapters 1-16 (Louisville, KN: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 18.

[12] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 137.

[13] In an essay of this size, it is impossible to avoid oversimplifying various views. I am in debt to Erickson, Christian Theology, 520-529, for these three categories.

[14] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 445-447, provides an overview of how these specific aspects are like God.

[15] Erickson, Christian Theology, 520.

[16] See Overstreet, “Man in the Image of God,” for a recent defense of this interpretation. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, translated by John H. Marks (London: SCM, 1961), 56-57, states that this is at least part of what the image of God consists of.

[17] The word צלם occurs seventeen times in the OT: five refer to the humanity bearing the image of God while the other eleven refer to a physical image.

[18] Wenham, Genesis, 30.

[19] Botterweck, TDOT, 392.

[20] Rad, Genesis, 56. See also Westermann, Genesis, who states “there can now be basic agreement that when Gen 1:26 talks of the image and likeness of God, it envisages the whole person, and not jus the corporeal or the spiritual side” (150).

[21] Often referred to as the “I-Thou” relationship.

[22] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, part 1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), 184.

[23] See Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology, translated by Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1947), 82-114; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 183-206.

[24] Barth focuses especially on the repetition of “male and female” in Gen. 1:27 and 5:1-2 (Church Dogmatics, 186), while Brunner’s focus is much wider (Man in Revolt, 105-106).

[25] W. Sibley Towner, “Clones of God: Genesis 1:26-28 and the Image of God in the Hebrew Bible,” Interpretation 59, no. 4 (2005), 349-350.

[26] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, translated by John J. Scullion (London: SPCK, 1984), 155.

[27] For instance, see Wenham’s critique of Westermann in Genesis, 31.

[28] See Gen. 5:1-3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9. Also Jesus, as an individual, is called the image of God in Col. 1:15.

[29] Erickson, Christian Theology, 530.

[30] Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 66 n 46, states that this has now become the domninant interpretation.

[31] Laurence A. Turner, Genesis, 2nd edition (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2009), 15.

[32] Terence E. Fretheim, The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 345. See also Wenham, Genesis, 30.

[33] Walton, Genesis, 130. It has been pointed out that more statues of Roman emperors have been found in Greece, Turkey and Egypt than in Italy or Rome itself.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Erickson challenges this connection with Ps. 8 by arguing that the key words “image” and “likeness” do not occur. Though this is the case, the conceptual and thematic links cannot be denied (Christian Theology, 531).

[36] Wenham, Genesis, 31. Cf. Waltke, Genesis, 66. Contra Westermann, Genesis, 153-154.

[37] Erickson, Christian Theology, 531.

[38] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 38-46

[39] Ibid, 47-71.

[40] Walton, Genesis, 131.

Rudolf Bultmann and the Quest for the Historical Jesus


Among the most influential theologians of the twentieth century stands Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).[1]  He was a man of towering intellect whose work continues to exercise a significant influence over theological discussions to this day.  Although more people say negative things about Bultmann than those who have actually read him, he has made many important contributions to the theological world.  The following essay will explore his role within the quest for the historical Jesus.[2]


Theological ideas are never formed in a vacuum.  They are always developed within a matrix of past and present influences.  Bultmann’s understanding of Jesus is no exception.  Along with Karl Barth, Bultmann’s work marks the transition between the “Old” and the “New Quest”, a period of about 40 years often referred to as the “No Quest” era.[3]  In most histories of the quest, Bultmann is usually considered to have been the direct successor of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).  Schweitzer is generally regarded as being responsible for demolishing the “Old Quest” of the nineteenth century with his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus,[4]  in which he critically weighed the previous reconstructions of Jesus that had been suggested and found them wanting.  He concluded that these portraits of Jesus reflected the faces of the historians themselves more than the historical figure they were searching for.[5]  He dismissed their views as being distortions of the evidence found in the Gospels, arguing instead that Jesus was a wandering apocalyptic prophet predicting the end of the world, which of course didn’t happen.

Ten years earlier, Martin Kähler (1835-1912) had written The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ[6] in which he also rejected the nineteenth-century quest,  regarding “the entire Life-of-Jesus movement as a blind alley”.[7]  While he argued that it is impossible to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, his distinction between the two has had a significant impact on all subsequent quests.[8]  Kähler is also responsible for distinguishing between historie and and geschichte;[9] the former refers to the facts of history, while the latter refers to the interpretation or meaning of history.  Thus, the Christ of faith was geschichte, while the Jesus of historie was simply a “figment of the historical-critical mind”.[10]  Having made these careful distinctions, Kähler was able to argue that faith was not dependant on historical research.  Much of this was anticipated decades earlier by Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).[11]  Casting doubt on the whole quest, he stated that “It is infinitely beyond history’s capacity to demonstrate that God… lived here on earth as an individual human being.”[12]  Instead, he reasoned that faith grows out of an existential experience, not history.

Around the turn of the century, a new methodology  was being developed which came to be known as Formgeschichte, or “form criticsm” as it is better known in English.  Its aim was to examine the biblical text in order to determine what can be considered as reliable historical source material.  Following Hermann Gunkel’s (1862–1932) use of it in Old Testament studies, Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) was the first to systematise the method for the Gospels in From Tradition to Gospel.[13]  Dibelius argued that the Gospels were composed of a series of isolated units that were products of oral traditions developed in response to the church’s needs.  He grouped the material into six categories, concluding that the Gospel writers were little more than collectors and editors of the traditions about Jesus that were really produced by the church,[14] although he didn’t deny the possibility that some of the tradition went back to Jesus Himself.[15]  These are among the many influential ideas that formed the climate in which Bultmann began his work on Jesus.[16]


Given the negative attitude towards the quest by many of his predecessors and contemporaries, it is perhaps no surprise that Bultmann rejected it altogether.  Morris Aschcraft notes that there were at least two reasons for this: 1) the failure of the old quest, and 2) the unsuitable nature of the sources.[17]  Like Schweitzer and Kähler, Bultmann had no time for the nineteenth-century portraits of Jesus, but went further than both of them by insisting that not even the “personality” of Jesus could be recovered from the Gospel records.  In the most frequently quoted statement from Jesus and the Word, he wrote:

I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.[18]

This quotation has been too often misunderstood.  Bultmann did not mean that we can know next to nothing about Jesus.  The book he wrote, in which this statement is found, proves he believed there are in fact some things that can be known about Him.  What he was rejecting were the biographical narratives that were attempting to define Jesus’ personality.[19]

Following Dibelius,[20] Bultmann took a more radical approach to form criticism in The History of the Synoptic Tradition.[21]  He utilised this new method of historical analysis to distinguish the differing layers of oral tradition present in the Synoptic Gospels.[22]  While the individual fragments of Jesus’ teachings were gathered together in a layer of tradition grounded in Palestine, a unified life of Jesus “was first created by the Christ myth of the Hellenistic congregation”.[23]  The Gospel of Mark is the first example in which we see not only a unified form of “the Christ myth” but also the questions, interests and concerns of the Hellenistic church, far removed in time, language and culture from the Palestinian origins of Jesus.  In other words, the Gospels simply “give us a glimpse into the period after Jesus’ death when the church was defining its stand points, settling controversies and coming to some sort of terms with its environment”.[24]  Thus for Bultmann, “what is found in the Synoptic Gospels is a record of the life of the church, not the life of Jesus”.[25]  He concluded that, in terms of the available evidence, we are able to know very little about the historical Jesus.  “The Christ who is preached [in the Gospels] is not the historic Jesus, but the Christ of the faith.”[26]

So after all the tradition had been stripped away, what kind of Jesus did Bultmann find?  In his major work on the topic, Jesus and the Word, he argued that what we know about Jesus is that He baptised by John, He was part of a messianic movement, He preached the kingdom of God, and was executed under Pontius Pilate.  However, He had no consciousness of being the Messiah, He never predicted His passion nor did He imagine that He would return again to earth.  He was essentially an existentialist teacher of timeless truths that calls for a decision in the present.[27]

At this point Bultmann takes up the ideas of Kähler and Kierkegaard and develops them further.  Combining the insights gained from form criticism and existentialism, he was basically confronted with a question similar to that which Kierkegaard faced a century earlier: How is faith related to historically uncertain facts?[28]  For Bultmann, the answer was simple.  Throughout all his writings, he repeats the refrain that Christian faith is not dependant on the historical Jesus but on the Christ of faith.  He consistently maintained “that it is impossible to write a modern biography of Jesus because the source materials are confessional rather than biographical”.[29]  He made no attempt to say that Christianity stands or falls on historical evidence.  Rather, Christianity then as now, stands on the proclamation of Christ,[30] which he referred to as the kerygma.  Bultmann was convinced that he was on the same ground as the New Testament when he turned his attention away from the historical Jesus towards an encounter with the Christ of faith[31] since he believed that the New Testament only deals with the latter and not the former.

Even if we did have the kind of historical evidence needed to paint an accurate portrait, Bultmann believed that theology which is centred on the figure of Jesus would not be Christian theology at all, because in reality Christian theology is the explanation of faith, a faith that initially became a historical reality in the Hellenistic church, not the Jesus movement of Palestine.  Thus, the very nature of Christian faith and theology basically leaves the historical Jesus irrelevant, though not completely forgotten:

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation.  No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.[32]


As mentioned in the introduction, people seem to have more negative things to say about Bultmann than positive, and it’s not hard to see why.  However, Herbert Wolf rightly points out that “any critique of Bultmann demands recognition of the positive contribution he has made in this area of thought.”[33]

Although Bultmann’s picture of Jesus may be considered downright heretical, he was at least attempting to make Jesus relevant.  His motivation to present the message of the Gospel to modern man is seen in the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.[34]  What matters most is not the often misguided reconstructions of Jesus, which are based on confessional documents not historical accounts anyway, but how one will respond to the timeless call for decision.  Jesus is not some dusty figure of a bygone era; His message continues to demand a response in the present.  Bultmann thus intended to direct attention to faith rather than simple facts, a corrective that was perhaps needed at the time.[35]  However, although his approach managed to avoid some of the confusion that previous historical research had generated, it ends up creating bigger problems elsewhere.  For instance, how can there be any existential response to Jesus that does not involve some objective historical knowledge?[36]  The problem with driving a wedge between faith and history is that it totally ignores the fact that Christianity is and always has been a historical religion.  It depends entirely on concrete historical events, especially the resurrection.[37]  As Ben Witherington points out, “A faith that does not ground the Christ of personal experience in the Jesus of history is a form of docetic or gnostic heresy.”[38]  Faith does not arise in and of itself; it comes in response to historical facts.[39]

Through his use and development of form criticism, Bultmann quite correctly brought to light the fact that the Gospels do indeed reflect many of the questions and concerns of the early church communities.  No New Testament scholar would deny the reality of that today.  Along with the others championing form criticism, he helped draw attention to the process of writing, compiling and editing the Synoptic Gospels which has been a constant area of research ever since, often producing important insights.  But once again, Bultmann was right in what he affirmed but wrong in what he denied.  Although the Synoptic Gospels clearly reveal insights into the community to which they were written, does that mean that the writers or editors simply fabricated parts of it to meet their needs?  Furthermore, despite the criteria he outlines in The History of the Synoptic Tradition, how can we be totally sure of which sayings of Jesus are authentic and which are not?  Where do we draw the line?[40]  These are among some of the most notable weaknesses in his understanding.


Whether one agrees with Bultmann’s understanding of Jesus or not, no one can doubt the far reaching influence it has had on all subsequent quests for the historical Jesus.  Pointing to the insufficiency of the Gospels as historical sources, he shifted the focus away from history and on to faith.  Jesus is not a figure confined to the past; His message continues meets us in the present.  While his understanding contains some major flaws, it has had some positive outcomes.  And for those, Bultmann is to be thanked.

[1] A brief but helpful sketch of his life can be found in Morris Ashcraft, Rudolf Bultmann (Waco, TX: Word, 1972), 11-22.

[2] For a definition and overview of the many quests, see Dale C. Allison, “Jesus Christ,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: I-Ma (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2008) 262-264; “Historical Jesus, Quest of the,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross (New York: Oxford University, 2005), 779-780; N.T. Wright, “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 3, edited by David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 796-802. From here on, the quest for historical Jesus will simply be refered to as “the quest”.

[3] It is perhaps important to note that this period was also marked by the two world wars, which had no small influence on theologians and historians alike.

[4] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (London : Adam & Charles Black, 1954), first published as Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung in 1906.

[5] This is a common metaphor used by many writers to sum up Schweitzer’s attitude towards the quest.

[6] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, translated by Carl E. Braaten (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1964), first published as Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus in 1896.

[7] Ibid, 46.

[8] Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 10.

[9] This distinction can only be seen in the original language.

[10] Reinhart Schelert, “The Continuing Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Restoration Quarterly 19, no. 4 (1976), 234.

[11] For a more detailed study on this point, see Herbert C. Wolf, Kierkegaard and Bultmann: The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1965).

[12] Kierkegaard, Søren. Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard, edited by Charles E. Moore (Rifton, NY: Plough Books, 2002), 69.

[13] Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, translated by Bertram Lee Woolf (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971), first published as Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums in 1919.

[14] Schelert, “The Continuing Quest,” 235.

[15] Charles C. Anderson, Critical Quests of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 89.

[16] Another important factor to consider in this context his Lutheran background.

[17] Morris Ashcraft, Rudolf Bultmann (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1972), 45. Walter P. Weaver notes that his scepticism was also a “response to the liberalism in which he was himself trained and from which he came.” The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century, 1900-1950 (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1999), 103.

[18] Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (London: Fontana, 1958), 14.

[19] Cf. Rudolf Bultmann, Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, translated by Schubert M. Ogden (New York: Meridian, 1960), 28.

[20] Weaver has pointed out that “Dibelius attempted to reconstruct the history of the tradition by proceeding from the Sitz im Leben to the literary forms, while Bultmann began with the literary settings and inferred something about the life of the community.” The Historical Jesus, 102.

[21] Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, translated by John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968), first published as Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, in 1921.

[22] In agreement with other scholars, Bultmann excluded the Gospel of John as a source for the historical Jesus.

[23] Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 223.

[24] Ian Henderson, Rudolf Bultmann (London : Lutterworth, 1965), 17.

[25] Robert K. McIver, Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: SBL, 2011), 101.

[26] Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 370.

[27] I’m in debt to Ian Henderson, Rudolf Bultmann (London : Lutterworth, 1965), 43, for some of the phrasing in this summary.

[28] Wolf, Kierkegaard and Bultmann, 62.

[29] Ashcraft, Bultmann, 42.

[30] Henderson, Bultmann, 18.

[31] Walter Schmithals, An Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann, translated by John Bowden (London: SCM, 1967), 215.

[32] Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, 17.

[33] Wolf, Kierkegaard and Bultmann, 86.

[34] This is worked out more systematically in his demythologisation hermeneutic, which strips away everything that seems impossible or irrelevant to people living in a scientific age. Due to the word limitation, this part of his thinking has not been explored in relation to his understanding of Jesus.

[35] His Lutheran background may also have had a significant part to play in this. As many writers on Bultmann have pointing out, basing one’s faith on history could be considered a “work”.

[36] Schelert, “The Continuing Quest,” 238.

[37] Which Bultmann did not accept as a literal historical event.

[38] Witherington, The Jesus Quest, 11.

[39] For instance, 1 Cor. 15:1-19.

[40] This same issue arises in his application of “demythologising” the Gospels.

The “Works of the Law” in Gal. 2:16

“We who are Jews by birth and not from among ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that we might be justified through the faithfulness of Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

(Gal. 2:15-16)


The letter to the Galatians is generally considered to be one of the most important epistles penned by the apostle Paul.[1]  As such, it has played a significant role in the theological reflection and doctrinal development of the Christian Church.[2]  One of the central passages in the letter is 2:15-21 where, for the first time, Paul articulates his understanding of justification by faith over and against justification by works of the law.  Although there are a number of important interpretational issues hidden within this apparently simple but dense passage, the present essay will focus on reconstructing the meaning of the phrase “works of the law” (ἔργων νόμου) in 2:16 from within its historical and literary contexts.

Historical Context

It almost goes without saying that the apostle Paul was the author of the letter to the Galatians.  As Longenecker remarks, “If Galatians is not by Paul, no NT letter is by him, for none has any better claim.”[3]  After identifying himself by name (1:1), Paul goes on to share some important autobiographical information that sheds important light on the occasion and purpose of the letter (1:11-2:14).[4]

While the authorship of the letter is not contested, the identity of the recipients certainly is.[5]  Paul addresses the letter to the churches in Galatia (1:2), and later refers to them as Galatians (3:1).  The uncertainty of the recipients is caused by the fact that the name could be used in both an ethnic and geographic sense.[6]  This has given rise to what is commonly
referred to as the northern and southern hypotheses.  Although convincing arguments can be mounted in support of either position, the weight of evidence seems to lean towards the southern hypothesis.[7]  However, the precise location does not have any significant bearing on the interpretation of the “works of the law” and will thus not be pursued here.

Since Paul’s last visit to the believers in Galatia, a group of “troublemakers” had begun to infiltrate the churches (1:7; 5:10, 12).[8]  We know nothing about these individuals apart from that which we find in the letter itself.[9]  It seems that Paul himself is not exactly sure of the identity of the individuals who are troubling the Galatians either (3:1; 5:7, 10).  But according to the nformation that had reached him, these “troublemakers” were trying to impose the requirements of the Jewish Law upon those in the faith.[10]  This was revealed specifically in the way they were urging the believers to become circumcised (5:2-12; 6:12-13; cf. 2:3-5).  This was an outward sign of an inward concern they had over ethnic identity.  They believed that the Gentiles had to become Jews by circumcision before they could become true Christians.  As McKnight points out, they “saw their message as Jesus Christ plus Moses, not just Moses, not just Jesus Christ.”[11]  Paul thus charges them with preaching a distorted gospel (1:6-9).  There also seems to be hints that these “troublemakers” were casting doubt on Paul’s apostolic credentials, which helps to explain the extended autobiographical account of the divine origin of his calling and commission to preach the gospel (1:11-24).  Therefore, from the evidence presented within the letter, the picture that emerges of these “troublemakers” is that they were Jewish Christians who were teaching that Paul’s gospel was incomplete without obedience to the Law and specifically circumcision.  As far as they were concerned, Christ was subordinate to the Law.[12]

Literary Context

In his landmark commentary, Betz convincingly demonstrated that Galatians is an apologetic letter.[13]  Following the typical epistolary prescript and introduction (1:1-10), the first major section is the narratio (1:11-2:14), which contains a brief statement of the facts relevant to the charge being addressed; the second is the propositio (2:15-21), which contains a statement on the points of agreement and a statement on the points that are contested; and the third major section is the probatio (3:1-4:31), which is considered the most important part of the letter because it contains the proofs that that will determine whether or not the case will succeed.[14]  The passage being considered in the present essay falls between the narratio and the probatio, summing up the content of the former and setting up the arguments of the latter.[15]  Longenecker thus describes 2:15-21 as being “not only the hinge between what has gone before and what follows but actually the central affirmation of the letter.”[16]

The first argument that Paul puts forward in the propositio is in vv. 15-16 which he will develop more fully in 3:1-18.  It flows directly out of his rebuke of Peter in 2:11-14 regarding table fellowship at Antioch.  Prior to the arrival of a certain group of men from James, Peter had been content to eat with Gentiles (2:12).  Presumably, these men were from Jerusalem where most Christians were “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20).  Upon their arrival, Peter separated himself, causing the other Jewish Christians to do the same.  The immediate question that arises from this incident is whether or not Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians belong at the same table, an issue which carried significant social and ethnic implications.[17]  Most notably in this context is the Jewish understanding that eating with Gentiles, including those who had become Christians, meant crossing the line that was drawn by the Law.[18]  Paul sees the actions of Peter in this situation being very similar to those of the “troublemakers,” which is precisely why he tells this story in this way.[19]  “How is it” he questions Peter, “that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”  (v. 14).  Although it is difficult to know where Paul ends this rebuke and begins stating his argument,[20] it seems that v. 15 marks the transition into his theological reflection of this incident that took place at Antioch.[21]

“Works of the Law”

Paul begins the propositio by building on common ground:[22] “We who are Jews by birth and not from among ‘Gentile sinners’.”  This last phrase “Gentile sinners” (ἐξ ἐθνῶν ἁμαρτωλοί) was a technical term for those who were outside the covenant.[23]  Paul identifies himself as a Jew and describes the typical Jewish attitude towards their ethnic identity – they were in, the Gentiles were out.  But, as Wright puts it, “he is about to show that in the gospel this ethnic identity is dismantled, so that a new identity may be constructed.”[24]  As Jews by nature, and Christians by faith, they knew “that a person is not justified by works of the law but only through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”[25]  Paul assumes that “this is the proper and normal view of Jewish Christians, in light of what they know and believe about the work of Christ.”[26]  But what exactly does Paul mean when he speaks of “works of the law” (ἔργων νόμου)?[27]  As Betz has noted, it is important to remember that Galatians “is composed of a great deal of doctrinal ‘abbreviations.’  These abbreviations are difficult to translate.  Commenting upon them means that they must be dissolved into the doctrinal statements which they intend to abbreviate.”[28]  This process must be carefully guided by that which has been discovered in the literary and historical contexts.

The phrase “works of law” is used by Paul eight times,[29] three of which occur in here in Gal. 2:16.  There is general agreement among biblical scholarship that when Paul speaks of “the Law” he has the Jewish Law, the Torah, in mind.[30]  As Witherington notes, the debate primarily centres not on what law Paul is referring to but rather what sort of works he has in mind.[31]  Is Paul referring to all works of the Law or just some in particular?  Or is he referring to legalism?  Traditionally, Paul’s statements about the “works of the law” have been understood as a denial that human beings can achieve salvation by their own works.[32]  This position is still held by some who argue, largely from their understanding of the argument in Romans, that the phrase refers to actions that are performed in obedience to the Law, actions that could be regarded as meritorious.[33]  In a similar vein, others have argued that, while the Law itself is good, the phrase is targeted at those who follow the demands of the Law in a spirit of legalism.  Bruce states that “Paul had no ready word or phrase in Greek to express what we mean by ‘legalism’, and therefore had to use ‘law’ or a phrase containing ‘law’ to express it.”[34]  Westerholm takes a slightly different approach when he maintains that “works of the law” refers to the inability of people to fulfil the requirements of the Law.[35]

These interpretations all seem to have been built upon a distorted understanding that first century Judaism was essentially a works-based religion.  In his ground-breaking study Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E. P. Sanders convincingly demonstrated that Judaism never taught that individuals must earn favour with God through good works.  Instead, as those who were already members of God’s covenant people, obedience to the Law was the way in which they maintained their position in the covenant, not how they entered it.[36]  Thus, any obedience or “works of the law” was an integral part of the covenant.  It would seem only natural then, that the phrase would refer to the obligations laid upon the Israelites by virtue of their covenantal membership.[37]  This historical understanding makes perfect sense of the literary context.  By withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile believers, Peter was not striving to earn salvation by his own good works.  Instead, he was seeking to maintain the boundary between the Jewish Christians – those in the covenant, and the Gentile Christians – those who had to conform to the requirements of the covenant.[38]

Were there any specific requirements?  It would seem so.  Gal. 2:16 forms the immediate conclusion of the two preceding incidents recorded in the narratio which centred on the issues of circumcision (2:3-6) and the observance of Jewish food laws (2:12-14).  Dunn has pointed out that these two issues in particular had been central to Jewish identity and covenant faithfulness since the Maccabean crisis (1 Macc. 1:60-63).[39]  This helps us understand why they appear to have been test cases pushed upon the Galatian believers by the “troublemakers.”[40]  This does not mean, however, that “works of the law” only refers to circumcision and food laws.  Paul rebukes Peter for compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews (2:14), which seems to indicate that the phrase includes more than just these two covenantal markers, but the whole Jewish way of life summed up in the Law.  This understanding is also confirmed by the way in which Paul employs the phrase elsewhere in Galatians, especially in 3:9-10 where the antithesis is drawn between those who are “of faith” (ἐκ πίστεως) and those “of works of the law” (ἐξ ἔργων νόμου), clearly referring to two different modes of existence, the latter being those who view the observance of the Law as obligatory for God’s people.[41]  Thus, I think Witherington is correct in affirming that for Paul “works of law” refers to actions performed in obedience to the Law, “or more specifically acts performed in response to any and all commandments of the Law,” but wrong in denying that Paul is “simply concerned with specific laws,” or “with the social function and effect of the Law separating Jews from Gentiles.”[42]  The whole context has shown that that the phrase includes both the Law in general, and the specific laws in particular, from a covenantal perspective.  Hays appears to be the closest to the truth when he concludes that

The phrase does not refer only to markers of ethnic identity; in principle, it refers – as Dunn has acknowledged – to the comprehensive range of actions required by Torah. But the immediate context of Galatians suggests that “works of Law” points especially to the few litmus-test practices where Jewish identity was symbolically at stake.[43]


The present essay has attempted to reconstruct the meaning of the “works of the law” from within the historical and literary context of Galatians.  The historical context revealed important insights into the Law-driven agenda of the “troublemakers” who were specifically stirring up the Gentile believers to become circumcised.  The literary context further revealed the centrality of the propositio in the structure of the letter and how Paul’s theological statements in that section grow directly out of the incident at Antioch over ethnic separation.  Drawing on these two contexts, the meaning of the “works of the law” was shown to be referring not only to the covenantal boundary markers of circumcision and food laws, but also to the Jewish Law in general which distinguished Jews and Gentiles.  In condemning these “works of the law” as a means of justification, Paul is saying that our true covenantal identity is no longer found in the Law, but
in “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

[1] Along with Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians, F. F. Bruce identifies Galatians as a “capital” epistle of Paul. See The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 1.

[2] Richard Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 11 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000), 184. For a detailed history on the impact of Galatians throughout the Christian era, see Richard Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary 41 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1990), x1ii-1vii.

[3] Longenecker, Galatians, 1viii.

[4] James D. G. Dunn, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (London: A & C Black, 1993), 3.

[5] The destination of the letter is also bound up with issues surrounding the dating of the letter.

[6] G. W. Hansen, “Letter to the Galatians,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1993),323-326.

[7] For a detailed discussion of the two hypotheses, see Bruce, Galatians, 3-18; Longenecker, Galatians, 1xi-1xxii. Both are convinced that the weight of evidence favours the southern option.

[8] Regarding the labelling of these opponents, Dunn points out that it is important not to call them “Judaizers” as that was the term used to describe one “who lived like a Jew”, not one who tried to get others to judaize (Galatians, 9 n 2).

[9] Building on the work of J. L. Sumney, Ben Witherington issues 11 cautionary parameters that he believes will lead to a balanced and careful approach in identifying Paul’s opponents. See Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 21-25.

[10] The frequent use of the word νόμος (32 times) reveals this was one of the central concerns of the letter. See also the keys phrases “works of law” (2:16), and “under the law” (3:23; 4:4-5, 21; 5:18).

[11] Scot McKnight, The NIV Application Commentary: Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 24.

[12] Hays, Galatians, 195.

[13] Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1979), 14-25. The literary genre is also known as forensic rhetoric in which the tactics of persuasion used in the law court are adapted into written form as a defence against accusations. See Hansen, “Letter to the Galatians,” 329.

[14] Ibid, 128.

[15] Ibid, 114.

[16] Longenecker, Galatians, 83.

[17] Space does not permit an overview of the cultural nuances of this, so see Dunn, Galatians, 117-119 for more detailed discussion.

[18] Betz, Galatians, 106. See also John 4:9; 18:28; Acts 10:28; 11:3.

[19] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 94.

[20] Bruce, Galatians, 136.

[21] McKnight, Galatians, 115. Contra Hays, Galatians, 230-231, who argues Paul’s speech continues through to v. 21.

[22] Ian W. Scott, “Common Ground? The Role of Galatians 2.16 in Paul’s Arugment,” New Testament Studies 53 (2007), 425-435, demonstrates that the agreement Paul refers to is between Peter and the others in Antioch, not the Jewish Christian “troublemakers.” This may lend further support to the position taken by Hays.

[23] See Dunn, Galatians, 132-133. The phrase ἐξ ἐθνῶν also occurs in Rom. 9:24; 2 Cor. 11:26.

[24] Wright, Justification, 95.

[25] For a discussion on why I have chosen to translate πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as a subjective genitive, see Hays, Galatians, 239-240; see also Witherington, Galatians, 179-182, for defence of this view against Dunn’s defence of an objective genitive translation.

[26] Witherington, Galatians, 173. Betz goes one further and calls this a “self-definition” of a Jewish Christian (Galatians, 115).

[27] J. Louis. Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1997), 250, 262, suggests that the phrase was probably first used by the “troublemakers” and should be translated as “obervance of the law.”

[28] Betz, Galatians, 115. Hays terms these phrases “theological shorthand” (Galatians, 236).

[29] Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10. This phrase is only used by Paul and has no Old Testament equivalent.

[30] See James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) 128-161, for a full treatment of Paul’s view of the Law.

[31] Witherington, Galatians, 175.

[32] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1979) 65-76. It seems Luther imagined that both his enemies and Paul’s were the same and subsequently interpreted all Pauline literature in this way.

[33] See Douglas J. Moo, “’Law,’ ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983), 92-96; Betz, Galatians, 116. For a defence of this interpretation, which almost entirely ignores the historical and literary contexts, see also William D. Barrick, “The New Perspective and ‘Works of the Law’ (Gal. 2:16 and Rom. 3:20),” The Master’s Seminary Journal 16, no. 2 (2005), 277-292.

[34] Bruce, Galatians, 137. The fact that ἒργον is used to describe actions rather than attitues seems to discredit this position. See Giessen Georg Bertram, “ἔργον, ἐργάζομαι” in Theological
Dictionary of the New Testament
, vol. 2, edited by Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 635-652.

[35] Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 109-121.

[36] Sanders coined the phrase “covenantal nomism” to describe this pattern of religion. See E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM, 1977), 75, 419-428. For a critique on the percieved weaknesses of Sanders arugment, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “An Old Perspective on the New Perspective,” Concordia Journal 35, no. 2 (2009), 140-155.

[37] Dunn, Galatians, 135-136.

[38] Hays, Galatians, 239.

[39] Ibid, 136.

[40] See also McKnight, Galatians, 24.

[41] Longenecker, Galatians, 83. As far as Romans is concerned, the phrase “works of the law” seems to carry the same basic meaning, although perhaps containing slighty different nuances adapted to the particular issues being addressed at Rome. But to explore this further is beyond the scope of the present essay.

[42] Witherington, Galatians, 176-178.

[43] Hays, Galatians, 239.

Micaiah’s Courtroom Vision: 1 Kings 22:19-23


The historical narrative of 1 Kings 22 is one of the most theologically challenging passages in the Old Testament.[1]  The issues revolve around the actions attributed to YHWH in Micaiah’s vision of the heavenly courtroom (vv. 19-23).[2]  Numerous explanations have been offered in an attempt to reconcile these actions with the way in which YHWH is portrayed elsewhere in Scripture.  Following an exegetical analysis of the passage, the present essay will evaluate these various interpretations and conclude with the one that squares best with the text.

Exegesis of 1 Kings 22:19-23

The three years of peace that had settled between the nations of Israel and Aram came to a sudden end when Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, travelled north to visit Ahab, the king of Israel (vv. 1-2).[3]  During his visit, Ahab enlisted the help of the southern kingdom in recapturing Ramoth-gilead, a city that held important political and geographical advantage for Israel.[4]  Prior to joining forces with Ahab, Jehoshaphat wanted to know if this military campaign had the seal of divine approval, so he requested to hear a word from YHWH (v. 5).  Four hundred prophets were summoned who all agreed that YHWH would give the city into the hands of the king (v. 6).[5]  Unconvinced, Jehoshaphat enquired if there was any other prophet of YHWH (v. 7).  Ahab admitted that there was, resentfully describing him as one who never had anything good to say about matters in which Ahab was involved.  At Jehoshaphat’s insistence, Ahab reluctantly sent for Micaiah son of Imlah (vv. 8-9).[6]  Upon his arrival, Micaiah initially parroted the words of the other prophets, agreeing that the battle would be a success.[7] But his sarcastic support of the battle was immediately looked upon with suspicion by Ahab who demanded that he speak the truth (v. 16).  Micaiah’s response was given in the form of two visions.  In the first, he saw a flock of scattered sheep that no longer had a shepherd, symbolising Israel following the death of Ahab (v. 17).  In the second, he saw a heavenly court scene where YHWH was revealed to have sent a deceiving spirit into the mouth of Ahab’s prophets, thus explaining why they were unanimously in favour of going to war with Aram.  It is to this second vision that we will now turn to explore in more detail.

The passage begins with Micaiah seeing YHWH sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left (v. 19).  This scene finds a number of similarities elsewhere in the Old Testament, most notably Job 1-2.[8]  The צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם (“host of heaven”) was a term often used to describe the celestial bodies that were worshiped by foreign nations.[9]  In this context however, the heavenly host seems to consist of YHWH’s attendants.  The literary structure in which this heavenly courtroom forms the central part (vv. 15-28) finds significant parallels with the earthly courtroom (vv. 5-14), suggesting that there is a relationship between the heavenly and earthly thrones.[10]  As the two kings sat on their thrones surrounded by their courtiers, so YHWH was seen sitting on His throne surrounded by His courtiers.

With this scene before him, Micaiah heard YHWH ask, Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” (v. 20).  This question presents the first theological challenge in the interpretation of this vision, but more on that anon.  Here we find the first of three occurrences of the verb פתה (“to entice”) that forms the central theme of this vision (vv. 20, 21, 22). The basic meaning of the word is to be “gullible,” “inexperienced,” or “foolish.”[11]  In the piel form which the verb takes in this passage, it means “to treat as a fool.” [12]  Ahab will be seen as being a simple-minded fool because he will march into war knowing full well that he will be defeated and meet his death on the battlefield.  Similar instances of YHWH “enticing” evildoers towards their own demise are found throughout the Old Testament.[13] An obvious example is that of Pharaoh whose heart was hardened by both himself and YHWH, which ultimately led to his burial in a watery grave.[14]

After some initial hesitancy in the heavenly court where one said this while another said that, a spirit came forward and stood before YHWH and said, “I will entice him” (v. 21).  From among the heavenly host, one particular spirit offered to perform the divine task, literally referred to as הָרוּחַ (“the spirit”).[15]  The identity of this spirit has been the cause of much discussion as it has significant bearing on the theological interpretation of the text.  Some have suggested that the spirit is the devil or a demon that had YHWH’s permission to go and deceive.[16]  Although this has often been the way in which the passage has traditionally been interpreted, it is without exegetical support.  Reasons for this include the fact that the passage is devoid of any satanic or demonic thought.[17]  It also fails to take into account the definite article; it is not simply a spirit, but the spirit.  Furthermore, Satan is never called a רוח in the Old Testament.[18]  Instead, the context itself seems to suggest that רוח refers to prophetic inspiration.  Evidence for this is seen in the both the wider context, where the issue revolves around true and false prophecy,[19] and the more immediate context, where the destination of this רוח is in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets (vv. 22-23).  In connection with the divine assembly the writer “has here understood prophetic inspiration as a divine being which attends upon the heavenly King and functions as his advisor.”[20]  It therefore seems best to understand הָרוּחַ as the personification of prophetic inspiration.[21]

Stepping forward to take on the assignment, the spirit is asked how he would accomplish the task of enticing Ahab.  His response was that he would go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets” (v. 22).  It is important to note that the spirit first appears as a רוח and only subsequently announces that he will become, temporarily it seems, a רוּחַ שֶׁקֶר (“lying spirit”).  This would further suggest that the spirit is not one of evil substance or intent, but rather takes on the quality associated with his activity.[22]  Satisfied with his answer, YHWH commissioned the spirit: “You are to entice him and also prevail. Go and do so.”  This, explained Micaiah, was the reason why the prophets had spoken supportively of Ahab – because they were deceived (v. 23).  The question then arises, by whom were they deceived?

Interpretation of 1 Kings 22:19-23

Having now laid an exegetical foundation, we are in a better position to begin exploring the various theological interpretations of this passage.  Perhaps the most widely accepted interpretation of this vision among Christians grows out of the presupposition that YHWH is portrayed in the Old Testament as committing that which He permits.[23]  Both the good and the bad are attributed to Him.  The vision is therefore understood as YHWH allowing a demonic spirit to go out and cause the four hundred prophets to utter a false prophecy that would lead to the death of Ahab.  Although this understanding of YHWH seems to sit well within the general cultural worldview of the Old Testament, as an explanation of this passage it does not give full weight to the evidence present in the text.  Most significantly, it does not grow out of an exegetical understanding but an a priori understanding.  First, YHWH is not portrayed as merely stepping aside and permitting the spirit to go out and deceive Ahab, as in the case of הַשָּׂטָן (“the satan”) in Job 1-2. He “actively solicits a volunteer and orders him to follow through with his plan.”[24]  Second, those who interpret the text this way also automatically assume that the רוח is demonic.  Our exegesis has revealed otherwise.  Unlike other passages that specifically refer to a רוח as being evil,[25] there is no hint of that in the vision.

Others have interpreted the courtroom scene as being figurative or symbolic.  This position is articulated best by Moberly: “The court of YHWH is the spiritual counterpart to the court of Ahab, it is the other side of one and the same coin. The scene of YHWH’s court interprets to Ahab the reality of his court.”[26]  Support for this is found in the deliberate parallels drawn between the heavenly and earthly thrones.  The vision is simply understood as being a parable of how God would use Ahab’s own prophets to bring about his downfall.  It would therefore be unwise to press the details of the vision as though it were describing a celestial council that literally took place.  This neat-and-tidy interpretation almost manages to avoid the exegetical and theological landmines that are often triggered by other interpretations.  As appealing as this is, it is not without its weaknesses.  For instance, unlike the first vision which is clearly figurative and even written as a parable, the courtroom vision is written as a narrative which would most naturally be understood as describing events that had taken place.  Micaiah’s own interpretation seems to indicate this was how he himself understood it (v. 23).

Although weaknesses can be found in almost every interpretation, the one that seems to fit best with the evidence is the one that takes the passage as it reads.  As Crenshaw notes, the story is quite straight forward, “there can be no question about the fact that this story depicts the ‘false prophets’ as men who gave in good faith the message conveyed to them, and portrays God as the source of this lie, even if mediated by a spirit.”[27]  This of course raises a number of theological questions, the most obvious of which is how can YHWH be responsible for sending a lying spirit into the mouths of the prophets when the New Testament affirms that it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18)?  Clearly, it was not YHWH Himself who did the lying, but He is certainly seen as calling for and commissioning the spirit to deceive the prophets.  What is often forgotten in discussions on this and other similar passages is that the actions of YHWH in this vision are in fact consistent with the way He is portrayed throughout Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments.[28]  The common theme that runs throughout the biblical narrative is that YHWH will often use means that may seem offensive to us in accomplishing His purposes.[29]  He is kind to the kind, blameless to the blameless, pure to the pure, but cunning with the crooked (Ps. 18:25-26).  As Nelson notes, “Sometimes prophecy contradicts itself, but both true and false prophets serve God’s greater purpose.”[30]  So why did YHWH inspire the four hundred prophets to prophesy a false message?  As Lindström writes, “The answer provided by the passage under discussion is that they [were] commissioned in order to help realize a divine decree of destruction.”[31]  In other words, to deliver His people from the menacing king Ahab.


By first laying an exegetical foundation, the present essay has attempted to construct a theological interpretation of Micaiah’s courtroom vision from the building materials found within the text itself and from similar passages elsewhere.  Two other alternative interpretations were examined and found wanting.  The understanding that YHWH Himself was behind the false prophecy of the four hundred prophets has been shown to square best with the exegetical analysis of the text and the theological contours of Scripture.  One final question remains, did YHWH actually deceive Ahab?  Not exactly.  In His mercy, YHWH revealed the situation to Ahab and yet he still marched into battle knowing full well the outcome.  Simply put, Ahab chose to believe the lie.

[1] Peter J. Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006), 162; Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Louisville, KN: John Knox, 1987), 153; See Robert B. Chisholm, “Does God Deceive?” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (1998), 11-12, for an outline of some of the theological difficulties inherent in the narrative.

[2] A parallel account is found in 2 Chron. 18:18-22. See Ray Dillard, “The Chronicler’s Jehoshaphat,” Trinity Journal NS 7, no. 1 (1986), 20-22 for a discussion on the differences between the two accounts.

[3] The identity of the two kings and time period in which the events described took place has been called into question by some commentators. See Simon J. De Vries, Prophet Against Prophet (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 93-111.

[4] John Monson, “1 Kings” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, John H. Walton, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 92; John I. Lawlor, “Ramoth-Gilead,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible : Me-R, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld,ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2009), 734.

[5] The same number of prophets is mentioned in 1 Kings 18:19 where they are clearly identified as being false. This is perhaps a deliberate reference on the part of the author to draw a connection with the themes of judgment and prophecy that are present in the Carmel narrative.

[6] Commentators have often wondered why Elijah, who played a major prophetic role during the reign of Ahab, is absent from this story.

[7] עֲלֵה [רָמֹת גִּלְעָד] וְהַצְלַח וְנָתַן יהוה בְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ  (vv. 12b, 15b).

[8] See also Isa. 6:1-8; Jer. 23:18-22; cf. Ps. 103:21.

[9] See for instance Deut. 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3.

[10] See Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 161, n 3 for a diagram of thse parallels.

[11] Mainz Mosis, ” פתהpth in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 12, edited by G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, & Heinz-Josef Fabry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 169.

[12] Compare the use of the verb in 2 Sam. 3:25.

[13] Mordechai Cogan, 1 Kings (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001), 492.

[14] Ex. 7:3, 13; 8:15, 32; 9:12; 10:1; 14:8.

[15] For a detailed discussion on the significance of the article and the ways in which it can be interpreted, see Chisholm, “Does God Deceive?”, 15-16.

[16] For a sophisticated defence of this understanding, see Richard Mayhue, “False Prophets and the Deceiving Spirit,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 4, no. 2 (1993), 135-163.

[17] Terence Fretheim, First and Second Kings (Louisville, KY: WestminsterJohn Knox, 1999), 124.

[18] Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 162.

[19] A theme which begins in 1 Kings 13. See Cogan, 1 Kings, 497; Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 158.

[20] Fredrik Lindström, God and the Origin of Evil: A Contextual Analysis of Alleged Monistic Evidence in the Old Testament (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1983), 88-89.

[21] Simon J. De Vries, 1 Kings (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 268.

[22] Lindström, God and the Origin of Evil, 89.

[23] Mayhue, “False Prophets and the Deceiving Spirit,” 135.

[24] Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 163.

[25] For instance Judges 9:23; 1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10; 19:9.

[26] R.W.L. Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Micaiah ben Imlah As a Test Case,” Harvard Theological Review 96, no. 1 (2003), 9. See also David M. Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1993), 196.

[27] James Crenshaw, Prophetic Conflict: Its Effects Upon Isrealite Religion (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1971), 84.

[28] Ex. 4:21; Judges 9:23; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 13; Jer. 4:10; 20:7, 10; Ezek. 14:9; 2 Thess. 2:11-12.

[29] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (London: SPCK, 2006), 33. I think Walter Brueggemann overstates the case somewhat when he says that “Yahweh can act in such a cunning and unprincipled way,” although that may be the way it appears to us (Theology of the Old Testament, [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997], 629).

[30] Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Louisville, KN: John Knox, 1987), 152. Although, in the case of true and false prophecy in 1 Kings 13, ascertaining the divine purpose behind the story is difficult.

[31] Lindström, God and the Origin of Evil, 91. For a similar conclusions see  Chisholm, “Does God Deceive?”, 28; Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 163-164; Fretheim, First and Second Kings, 127-128; De Vries, 1 Kings, 272.

The God of Qoheleth


Ecclesiastes is generally considered by readers and commentators alike as being primarily a philosophical rather than a theological work.[1]  This approach to the book has often caused many to miss the important dimension of Deity that permeates the message of Qoheleth.  Although it is clear that the author did not intend his work to be a theological treatise, his message can only be rightly understood from within his theological framework.[2]  How one reconstructs Qoheleth’s theology depends very much on how one answers the following fundamental question: is the god of Qoheleth the God of Israel, or not?  Some answer in the affirmative, others the negative.[3]  The following essay will seek to address this question by exploring the ways in which Qoheleth portrays God throughout his work, and will then use this information to answer the questions surrounding the identity of God.

The Picture of God

Like the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, the God of Qoheleth is often described as being both present and distant, transcendent and sovereign over the world and all that is in it.[4]  Nowhere does Qoheleth argue for the existence of God; he simply assumes it.  The importance he places on God and His involvement with humanity is made clear by the fact that His name is mentioned explicitly some forty times throughout the book and is implied in numerous other passages.[5]  The present section will organise Qoheleth’s statements about God into four categories.[6]

God is the Source

One of the primary presuppositions of the book of Ecclesiastes is the fact that God is the source of all things.  He is the creator and provider of things both good and bad.  Although God is not explicitly identified as the Creator until 12:1, Choon-Leong Seow points out that the preface (1:2-11) already assumes that there is an ordered universe, inevitably leading the audience to the question of the Creator.[7]  This is further emphasised by the echoes of Genesis 1-3 that resound throughout the book.[8]  Qoheleth declares that God is the one who “makes everything” (11:5; cf. Gen. 1:1-27); that, despite the entry of sin, there is still good to be found in this world (2:24; 3:12-13; 5:18; cf. Gen 1:31); that, because of sin, there is also toil and hard labour (2:18-23; Gen. 3:17-18), and in the end, death (9:5; 12:7; Gen. 3:19).  R. N. Whybray thus observes that “Qoheleth’s picture of God and His dealings with man corresponds remarkably closely to that which we find in Gen. 3.”[9]  God is also seen as the provider of all things.  He is the giver of life (5:18; 8:15; 9:9; 12:7); He provides prosperity and the ability to enjoy it (2:24-26; 3:13; 6:2); He is also seen as being responsible for days of adversity (7:14), the “grievous task” of searching for understanding (1:13; 3:11), and for the incapacity to enjoy the benefits of one’s labour (6:2).[10]  Qoheleth therefore seems to believe quite strongly that “there is nothing except what God gives.”[11]

God is the Judge

Another important attribute of Qoheleth’s God is that He is the one who judges both the righteous and the wicked, though the timing of the judgment is a matter of debate.[12]  The role of God as judge first surfaces in the context of miscarried justice in 3:16-17.  Here, God’s justice is contrasted with the injustice exercised among and experienced by humanity.  Such will be met with divine judgment.  In 11:9, Qoheleth exhorts young men to enjoy the pleasures of life and follow after the impulses of their hearts and the desires of their eyes, but to remember that God will bring them into judgment “for all these things.”  Some have seen this as an editorial gloss to counteract such shocking advice.[13]  A similar approach has been taken regarding the judgment clause in 12:14.  But such a position is uncalled for as the reality of divine judgement has already been unambiguously stated (3:17).   Walter Brueggemann concludes that for Qoheleth, “there is a reckoning and an accountability that cannot be escaped. Moral coherence indeed exists, and conduct counts”[14] because all will stand in judgement before God.

God is to be feared

Fearing God is a theme that appears in a number of different, though not unrelated contexts throughout the book.  In 3:14, the appropriate response to the mystery and perpetuity of God’s work is that men should stand in awe before Him.  A similar idea is found in the liturgical setting of 5:1-7, which once again emphasises both the presence and distance of God.  In this context, fearing God consists of being cautious in speech (v. 2, 6), being faithful regarding vows (v. 4-5), and conducting one’s self in such a way that “does not invite punishment.”[15]  Roland Murphy notes that the imperative to
fear God at the end of this passage reveals that it “is at the heart of his religious attitude.”[16]  The one who fears God in 7:18 is said to “come through,” having successfully carried out the two recommendations of avoiding excessive righteousness and wisdom on the one hand (v. 16), and excessive wickedness and folly on the other (v. 17).[17]  Qoheleth assumes one of the traditional features of wisdom literature in contrasting those who fear God with the wicked in 8:12-13.  Significantly, the book ends with the theme of reverencing God hanging in the air, this time being directly related to commandment keeping (12:13).  The common thread that runs through each these statements seem to indicate that the fear of God flows out of “the mystery and incomprehensibility of God,”[18]  and “the recognition that God is God and people are human.”[19]

God is Beyond Comprehension

A final way in which Qoheleth portrays God is that He is beyond understanding.  This idea is made explicit in three places throughout the book.  In 3:11, it is revealed that God has set eternity in the heart of humanity so that they “will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”  Unravelling the ambiguity of this much debated passage need not be dealt with here,[20] except to note that despite the meaning of העולם, the work of God is incomprehensible.  The next passage in which this attribute of God appears is 8:16-17, where Qoheleth pines that although one may seek wisdom and understanding, even depriving oneself of sleep in the pursuit, it is not possible to discover the work of God under the sun.  He later writes that, “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things” (11:5).  Most translations see two points of comparison in this verse, but Murphy suggests that “it seems better to recognise only one term of comparison, the action of the רוח, or ‘life-breath,’ in the womb,” seeing it as a reference to the mystery of conception and birth.[21]

The Identity of God

Having now briefly looked at the picture Qoheleth paints of God, we are in a position to address the questions surrounding His identity.  When the four divine characteristics that have been highlighted are compared with the rest of the Old Testament, it becomes clear that they are in complete harmony.  Roy Zuck thus notes that “all these truths about God are consistent with the rest of Scripture.”[22]  God is indeed the creator and provider of all things (e.g. Gen. 1-2; Job 38:1-7; Ps. 104; Pro. 3:19-20); He is the judge (e.g. Ex. 5:21; 1 Chron. 16:33; Ps. 7:8; 98:9); He is to be feared (e.g. Deut. 10:12; 1 Sam. 12:24; Job 1:8; Pro. 1:7); and He is beyond comprehension (e.g. Deut. 29:29; Ps. 92:5-6; Pro. 20:24; Isa. 55:9).[23]  On this basis alone, one may draw the conclusion that the identity of God is obvious.  It is however, not a conclusion that is without question among some interpreters.

It should first be noted that Qoheleth only refers to God as אלהים, the generic name for god(s) in the ancient world,[24] and not by the usual personal name יהוה.  This has sometimes been used as an argument to prove that Ecclesiastes finds its origins outside of Israel.[25]  But this is not an adequate explanation.  After all, the covenant name for God does not appear in the book of Esther or the Song of Solomon either.[26]  It has already been demonstrated that Qoheleth speaks of one God and identifies Him as the creator and provider of all things.  Such obvious creational-monotheism would be a misfit in any other ancient worldview and thus points strongly towards Qoheleth writing from within an Israelite context.  But if this were so, why the absence of the covenantal name?  There are at least two possible explanations.  First, the frustrations and failures of Qoheleth that characterise the book are experienced on more than just a national level; they are universal.  He may have thus been writing vis-à-vis the whole of humanity to God, which would appeal to a wider audience with the more generic name אלהים.  A second possibility is that as the Old Testament canon was drawing to a close, there was a growing reluctance to use the divine name, “hence, when Ecclesiastes reached its final form – even if Solomon had been the author and had used the covenant name – reverence would have required the use of [אלהים].”[27]

Another criticism which brings the identity of Qoheleth’s God into question is the fact that there is no evidence of the covenant or salvation history anywhere in the book.  But the absence of evidence is no  evidence of absence.  That these central  features of Israelite faith are not referred to by Qoheleth is typical of  wisdom literature, which concerns “the individual member of society rather than with the nation as a whole.”[28]  It addresses the events and experiences of daily life, of which these larger national elements form and implicit framework.  Murphy thus points out that “there is no incompatibility between the saving God of history and the God of human experience.”[29]  Therefore, while such central features are missing, “this does not give one the right to play off the God of Qoheleth against the Yahweh of Israel.”[30]  They are, as has been seen, one and the same.


The present paper has briefly examined the God of Qoheleth by observing four ways in which He is presented throughout the book of Ecclesiastes – as creator and provider, as judge, as one to be feared, and one who is beyond comprehension.  These findings were then compared with the picture of God that is revealed in the rest of the Old Testament and it was seen that they were consistent with each other. Two of the major challenges to this understanding were addressed and were seen to be without any substantial foundation. In light of the foregoing evidence, it must therefore be concluded that
the God of Qoheleth is indeed the God of Israel, and it is only within this theological framework that his message can be correctly understood.

[1] C.L. Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 54.

[2] “Qoheleth’s concept of God… is the central question for the interpretation of his thought.” R. N. Whybray, New Century Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 27.

[3] See Stephan de Jong, “God in the Book of Qohelet: A Reappraisal of Qohelet’s Place in Old Testament Theology,” Vetus Testamentum 27, no. 2 (April 1997), 154, and Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary 23A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1992), 1xvii for a list of representatives of both views.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 395.

[5] Seow, Ecclesiastes, 54. Murphy points out that God is “the subject of the verbs נתן, ‘give,’ and עשׂה, ‘do,’ no less than eighteen times.” Ecclesiastes, 13.

[6] Jong, “God in the Book of Qohelet,” classifies the statements into six categories.

[7] Seow, Ecclesiastes, 55.

[8] See Charles C. Forman, “Koheleth’s Use of Genesis,” Journal of Semitic Studies 5, no. 3 (1960): 256-263, for a more detailed study on this point.

[9] Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 29.

[10] Jong, “God in the Book of Qohelet,” 155.

[11] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 394.

[12] See the discussion in Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 36 and Seow, Ecclesiastes, 175.

[13] Especially in light of the fact that Num. 15:39 warns against following after one’s heart and eyes. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 184.

[14] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 394.

[15] James L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1988), 118.

[16] Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 51.

[17] Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 121.

[18] Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 1xvi.

[19] Seow, Ecclesiastes, 174. Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 36, may perhaps be overstating the case when he concludes that “the fear advocated here is that of fright before a powerful and dangerous being, not respect or awe for a mighty and compassionate deity.”

[20] See Seow, Ecclesiastes, 174, for a helpful and balanced discussion on the meaning of this verse.

[21] Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 109.

[22] Roy B. Zuck, “God and Man in Ecclesiastes,” Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March 1991), 51.

[23] I am in debt to Jong, “God in the Book of Qohelet,” for this idea of comparison.

[24] G. Johannes Botterweck, ed. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Revised Edition. Translated by John T. Willis, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974) 267-277.

[25] “The Israelitish name for God is nowhere employed, nor does there appear to be any reference to Judaic matters; hence there seems to be a possibility that the book is an adaptation of a work in some other language.” David Samuel Margoliouth, “Ecclesiastes,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (New York, NY: Ktav Publishing, 1901), 33.

[26] There is no mention of God in these two books at all, except for a disputed reference in Song of Songs 8:6. But there is no question of His presence, especially in the book of Esther.

[27] J. Stafford Wright, Ecclesiastes, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 1148.

[28] Whybray, Ecclecisates, 29.

[29] Roland Murphy, “Wisdom in the OT,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, edited by David Noel Freedman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 922.

[30] Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 1xviii.

The Messianic Mission in Matt. 1:21

 “And she will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [1]
Matt. 1:21


Recent studies have demonstrated how the beginning of each Gospel performs the role of an overture that introduces the main characters, the major themes, and the world in which the story unfolds.[2]  This initial content shapes the expectations of the audience and sets the stage for all that follows.  In the gospel of Matthew, we find the opening narrative leading up to, and reaching its climax in, the announcement and birth of Jesus in 1:18-25.  In the heart of this passage an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and makes three statements: Mary is to give birth to a son, Joseph is to call his name Jesus, and Jesus is to save his people from their sins (v. 21).[3]  The following essay will explore three aspects that this verse reveals about the mission of the one to be born and how they are developed throughout the narrative.

The Messianic Name

In the ancient Jewish world names carried far more significance than they do today.  Names often defined the personality of an individual and contained the hopes and dreams of the parents for their children.[4]  This was especially the case with names that were divinely appointed as they often carried important etymological and prophetic significance.[5]  This is evident in the name Joseph was to give to his son.  The Greek name Ἰησοῦς is a Hellenised rendering of the Hebrew name Yeshua, a shortened form of Joshua, which means “Yahweh is salvation.”[6]  According to John Nolland, there was a common understanding at the time that the etymology of the name was directly related to the Hebrew verb “to save.”[7]  That this word play between the name and the verb was to be understood is made obvious by Matthew’s use of γὰρ and the Greek equivalent σώσει that follows.[8]  Both the significance of the name and the explicit reference to the saving activity of this individual would not have been missed by the first century Jews.  The Old Testament clearly teaches that God alone is Saviour.[9]  But here, it is Jesus who becomes the agent of salvation.  Donald Hagner has pointed out that “the αὐτὸς is emphatic: it is he who will save his people.”[10]  At the very opening of his gospel, Matthew is establishing the fact that the one who is to be born will fulfil the divine role of saviour and liberator, an important messianic expectation in the first century.[11]

In his magisterial work on the infancy narratives, Raymond Brown demonstrates that the story of Moses in Egypt lies behind the announcement and birth of Jesus.[12]  He, along with a number of other recent commentators, points out that the account of Joseph’s dream contains echoes of a popular Jewish tradition regarding the birth of Moses who was also called to be the deliverer of the Hebrew race.[13]   Moses fulfilled his calling of leading Israel out bondage in Egypt, but it was Joshua who led the people into the Promised Land through the conquest of the occupying nations.  As his name suggests, Jesus could also have very well have been understood by the Matthean community as assuming the role of not only a new Moses, but also a new Joshua who would save his people from the occupying enemy nation of Rome.[14]  This messianic name therefore “serves to guide the readers very effectively toward an understanding of Jesus’ life as one of saving activity.”[15]

Although it was common at the time, the importance Matthew attaches to the name Jesus is made evident by the fact that he uses it 80 times.[16]  It would thus be possible that every subsequent mention of the name throughout the narrative would remind the audience of the salvific mission outlined in Matt. 1:21 and cause them to evaluate the words and actions of Jesus in light of it.[17] 

The Messianic Task

According to the angel, the task that Jesus was to achieve would be the salvation of his people from their sins.[18]  On this basis, commentators have traditionally seen the role of Jesus as being a spiritual rather than political liberator.  Warren Carter and others have challenged this view, arguing that Matthew had in mind not only salvation from spiritual bondage, but also social and political bondage.  He states that understanding “the nature or scope of Matthew’s salvation as individual, spiritualized, and moral, is too restrictive.”[19]  The sins from which the people needed saving are not explicitly mentioned in the gospel, but both the wider contexts of Scripture and history provide important hints towards understanding what Matthew was referring to.

N.T. Wright has pointed out that in coming to save the people from their sins there must of necessity be a previous story in which this same people had fallen victim to their sins.[20]  He states that this is the story of Israel, “more specifically the story of exile.”[21]  As the Old Testament prophets writing during the exilic period make abundantly clear, the Babylonian exile was the result of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant through her social, political, and moral sins.[22]  Although by the first century the exile had ended in a geographical sense, the hope of the people was bound up in the
expectation that soon their God would deliver them from political exile and restore to them their inheritance.  It is important to note that this redemption and restoration not only involved the return from exile but also the forgiveness of sin: “The punishment of your iniquity has been completed, O daughter of Zion;  He will exile you no longer.”[23]  The salvation from sin that Jesus came to provide for his people would therefore have been seen as simultaneously signifying the return from exile.[24]  The sins referred to in Matt. 1:21 should thus not only be seen as the moral and religious sins of individuals, but must also include the social and political sins of the nation as a whole which led them into exile.[25]

One thing that is not revealed in the immediate context is exactly how Jesus will save his people.[26]  This could be intentional as it creates an element of expectation that builds throughout the narrative, gaining clarity with each successive reference to sin and salvation.[27]  It has often been pointed out that there was a common understanding in Judaism and early Christianity between sin and sickness.[28]  This connection is evident in the Greek word σῴζω which is used in contexts both of spiritual and physical healing.[29]  Therefore, as Davies and Allison suggest, the healing ministry of Jesus may be seen as an important aspect of saving his people from their sins.[30]  This salvific theme seems to reach its climax in Matt. 26:28 where the atoning death of Jesus comes into full view and becomes the means by which forgiveness is offered and salvation from sin becomes possible.

The Messianic People

The object of this saving activity is τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ.  One of the issues that interpreters face at this point is the identity of λαός: does it refer to the historic people of Israel or does it refer to the new people of the Messiah, including both Jews and Gentiles?  The word appears 14 times in Matthew and is used exclusively with reference to Israel.[31]  The surrounding context of the opening chapter lends support to this understanding by establishing the fact that Jesus, as a direct descendant of Abraham and David, is a true Israelite.[32]  Nolland notes that the possessive αὐτοῦ emphasises Jesus’ own embeddedness within this people, “the people to whom he belongs.”[33]  Some commentators have also seen in this verse strong echoes of Ps. 180:8 which specifically speaks of Israel being saved from her iniquities.[34]  Jesus’ own testimony further supports this when He plainly states that He was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.[35]  This understanding makes good sense in light of the fact that the theme of sin and exile, which relates specifically to the people of Israel, is in view.

Matthew therefore seems to use λαός as a technical reference to the people of Israel, the people from whom and to whom Jesus came to save.  This becomes significant as each time the word appears throughout the narrative, there is a mounting tension which finally reveals itself in a tragic twist: the very people Jesus had come to save turn out to be His enemies.  This climax is reached at the close of the gospel when His people cry out for His blood to be on them and on their children.[36]  The irony is that this cry for his crucifixion becomes the means by which salvation is made available.[37]  While there is no question that the scope of salvation expands throughout the narrative,[38] it does not do so with reference to λαός.[39]


The present paper has attempted to demonstrate how the Matthean community would have understood Matt. 1:21 to contain the mission of the one to be born.  It has been seen that the name Jesus evokes strong echoes of deliverance from Israel’s past and contains one of the central expectations of the messiah.  The salvific meaning behind the name is then elaborated on by the announcement that “he will save his people from their sins” which, as has been shown, signified much more than salvation from individual sins, but indeed the salvation of the entire nation from all the sins that had lead them into exile.  Finally, the people to whom he came to save were his own, but they did not receive him.  However, their rejection of him resulted in salvation being opened to all.  The three aspects explored – the name, the task, and people of the one to be born – that are played in the overture of Matthew’s gospel, become louder and clearer with each successive reference throughout the narrative until the symphony reaches its climax at the cross and the messianic mission contained in Matt. 1:21 is finally and fully expressed.

[1] All New Testament passages in this essay are the writer’s own translation.

[2] Morna D. Hooker, Beginnings: Keys that Open the Gospels (Great Britain: SCM Press, 1997); Mark A. Powell, “The Plot and Subplots of Matthew’s Gospel,” New Testament Studies 38 (1992), 195-199; Boris Repschinski,  “‘For He Will Save His People from Their Sins’ (Matthew 1:21): A Christology for Christian Jews,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006), 251-252; Robert K. McIver, The Four Faces of Jesus (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 2000), 125-128, demonstrates this in the gospel of Luke.

[3] Each statement identifies the subject followed by the task they are to perform. The parallelism between them is further emphasised by the imperatival use of the future verbs τέξεται , kαλέσεις, and σώσει.

[4] Grant Osborne, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 77.

[5] See for instance Gen. 16:11; 17:5; 15; Isa. 7:14; 8:3; Hos. 1:4, 6, 9.

[6] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary 33A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993), 19.

[7] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 98.

[8] Repschinski,  “For He Will Save His People from Their Sins,” 254. It has been pointed out that the important part of the Hebrew name is the verb itself. See Gerhard Kittel, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament  vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 289. There is evidence that the Greeks also played on names. See Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 97.

[9] See for instance 2 Sam. 22:1-3; Ps. 130: 8; Isa. 43:3, 11; Hos. 13:4.

[10] Hagner, Matthew, 19.

[11] See N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 307-320, for a detailed discussion of this and other messianic expectations.

[12] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (London: Chapman, 1977), 113-116.

[13] Ibid, 138. Cf. Nolland, Matthew, 98; R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 52, n 45.

[14] Warren Carter, Matthew on the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 69.

[15] Repschinski,  “For He Will Save His People from Their Sins,” 255.

[16] M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, Vol. 8, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1995), 135.

[17] Powell, “The Plot and Subplots of Matthew’s Gospel,” 195; Carter, Matthew, 69.

[18] See Robert H. Gundry, “Salvation in Matthew,” in Society of Biblical Literature: 2000 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), 402-414 for a more detailed discussion of
Matthew’s soteriology.

[19] Warren Carter, “‘To Save His People From Their Sins’ (Matt 1:21): Rome’s Empire and Matthew’s Salvation as Sovereignty,” in Society of Biblical Literature: 2000 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), 380.

[20] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 385.

[21] Ibid. That Matthew had the exile in mind while writing his opening narrative is obvious from his references to it in 1:11-12, 17.

[22] See for instance Jer. 11:1-17; 32:17-25; Dan. 9:1-14; cf. Deut. 28:15-68.

[23] Lam. 4:22; cf. Jer. 33:7-8; Ezek. 36:24-26, 33; Isa. 40:1-2.

[24] See Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 272-279, for a fuller treatment of this theme.

[25] Carter, “To Save His People From Their Sins,” 390.

[26] W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Clark, 1988), 415.

[27] See Repschinski,  “For He Will Save His People from Their Sins,” 257-265, who traces these two concepts in some detail throughout Matthew.

[28] Matt.9:2; John 5:14; 9:2; 1 Cor. 11:29-30

[29] Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 990-992. As used in Matthew, the verb σῴζω, can refer to deliverance from physical danger (8:25), disease (9:21-22), and death (24:22).

[30] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 415; cf. McIver, Four Faces, 104.

[31] Matt. 1:21; 2:4, 6; 4:16, 23; 13:15; 15:8; 21:23; 26:3, 5, 47; 27:1, 25, 64. Cf. Keener, Matthew, 97.

[32] See the repeated emphasis in Matt. 1:1, 2, 6, 17, and 20.

[33] Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 98.

[34] Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 19. Repschinski, “For He Will Save His People from Their Sins,” 255, discusses some of the differences between Matthew’s wording and that found in the LXX.

[35] Matt. 15:24; cf. 10:5-6.

[36] Matt. 27:25. See France, Matthew, 53, n. 48.

[37] Cf. Matt. 26:28.

[38] See for instance Matt. 8:10-11; 21:43; 28:19.

[39] However, outside of the Synoptic Gospels λαός does begin to take on a much broader meaning, including both Jew and Gentile who are now a part of the community of Christian believers. See Gerhard Kittel, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 54-57.

The Soteriological Legacy of Augustine


Of all the figures in early Christianity, perhaps none has had such a significant influence on both the world in general, and the church in particular, as that of Augustine.[1]  From his day to the present, the ideas he wrestled with and wrote about have continued to inspire and challenge theologians in areas ranging from Anthropology to Soteriology.  The present essay will explore the development of Augustine’s thought on the latter branch of Christian theology and the influence of his understanding on Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular.

Soteriological Development

Although Augustine spent most of his life within the basic framework of Christian thought, he went through a number of significant changes in his thinking.  His intellectual journey has been described as a series of quests in which he was “perpetually moving on to new concepts or to challenging situations in vocation, residence or thought.”[2]  This constant evolution was largely driven by his quest for understanding and the continual challenge of contemporary controversies.[3]  The development of Augustine’s soteriology will be traced through his reactions to three major conflicts: Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism.[4]

Following his introduction and conversion to philosophy through the writings of Cicero,[5] Augustine became a follower of Manichaeism, a Gnostic sect that began in Persia.[6]  It was here among the Manichees that Augustine temporarily found a simple solution to a problem he had been wrestling with, namely, evil.  The Manichees taught that human beings are basically spiritual beings who are created by a good God, but are in bondage to a material body created by an evil demiurge.[7]  Salvation was thus obtained by virtue of knowledge and reason, rather than faith.[8]  This understanding provided a rational basis on which Augustine could explain his continual struggle with sin.  He fed upon the teachings they served him with great delight, only to later discover that they were, in his own words, nothing but “empty husks.”[9]

After spending nine years as a “hearer” of Manichaeism, Augustine returned to the Scriptures in search of a more satisfying understanding of the problem of evil and its relation to humanity.  In A.D. 391 Augustine wrote On Two Souls, a work addressed to his Manichaean friends, in which he attacked their idea that the body and soul are at war and argued that evil does not spring from matter but finds its origin in the free will of humanity.  At this stage, Augustine believed that sin was a voluntary act of the will and that man could not be held responsible for that which he does not will to do.[10]

During this time, the Donatist Church was fast becoming a major source of controversy in North Africa.  Earlier in the century, they had broken away from the Catholic Church over issues of leadership, moral slackness, and ecclesiastical purity.[11]  By the time of Augustine, the Donatists outnumbered those in the Catholic Church and were thus seen as a threat that must be dealt with.  The issues did not revolve around doctrinal so much as ecclesiastical differences.[12]  The Donatists held the view that the church must be pure and separate from society, and that the priests who administer the
sacraments must also remain pure and separate from society.  The question they asked was, “How can a bishop give [in the sacraments] what he does not possess [holiness]?”[13]  Augustine responded to the Donatist position in his treatise On Baptsm, Against the Donatists.  In this work he argued that the holiness of the sacraments did not depend on the purity of priest “but defined the sacraments as belonging to, and given by, Christ rather than the priest.”[14]  The Donatist controversy thus caused Augustine to refine his soteriology by developing a more objective view of grace, which meant that despite the corrupt condition of believers, individually and collectively, God’s grace prevails in all and through all that we do.

While Donatism placed an emphasis on the perfection of the church, the resulting controversy Augustine faced placed an emphasis on the perfection of human nature.[15]  Pelagius, a British monk, concerned with the lack of ethical living among the Christians in Rome, began to teach a system of salvation that denied original sin and the need for God’s grace.[16]  In the place of this, he taught that the sin of Adam only affected himself; that every human is born with the same nature as Adam before the fall; and that both the law and the gospel lead to the kingdom.[17]  Salvation for Pelagius thus consisted of human beings pulling themselves up by their own moral bootstraps.  Augustine saw that such a belief would diminish “the impact of sin and therefore the need for, and reality of, Christ’s salvation.”[18]  He responded to Pelagius by arguing that all humanity sinned in Adam and that there is nothing that he can do of himself to gain salvation.  It is only through God’s enabling grace that one is able to use their free-will to choose the salvation offered by Christ.[19]  In answering the teachings of Pelagius, Augustine was moving to an opposite extreme of making salvation a work entirely of God in which humans play practically no role at all.  This sowed the seeds of what would later develop into the doctrine of predestination.[20]

Each of the controversies that have been briefly examined can be seen as important catalysts that caused Augustine to reshape and redefine his soteriology.  Through the Manichean conflict, he identified the origin of sin; in responding to the Donatists, he identified the source of grace and began to develop an objective view of it; and the Pelagian controversy forced Augustine to develop and integrate these ideas even further.  Through each conflict, he placed an increasing emphasis on the solidarity of humanity with the sin of Adam; he no longer considered sin itself to be simply a voluntary act of the will, but began to see it as including that which is done involuntarily and unwillingly; and this understanding led him to develop an understanding of grace, which was both prevenient and concomitant.[21]  His soteriology was thus “God-centered, with salvation totally and causatively effected by God.”[22]

Soteriological Influence

Both Catholics and Protestants alike have found in Augustine’s work support for their various doctrinal beliefs regarding salvation.  His defence of Christianity, particularly that of sin and grace, against the heresies of Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism have been drawn from again and again in responding to the various reincarnations of these teachings throughout history.

One of the fundamental beliefs that Catholics and the vast majority of Protestant groups have inherited from Augustine is the doctrine of original sin.  Although the belief was taught by various other church fathers prior to him, Bradley Green notes that “Augustine is rightly and properly viewed as that theologian who gave structure and depth to the doctrine.”[23]  The importance of this contribution should not be overlooked.  The understanding of original sin, though nuanced slightly differently by Catholicism and Protestantism, and by many of those within Protestantism itself, has a direct impact on the way in which salvation is understood; the solution must be able to deal sufficiently with the problem.  Thus, the doctrine of original sin, as systematised by Augustine, has become an important pillar upon which an orthodox understanding of soteriology must rest.

The theological torch of Augustine would lead and guide Christianity, for better or for worse, throughout the Middle Ages.[24]  However, by the sixteenth century the soteriological flames had grown strangely dim.  There had been a growing emphasis in the Catholic Church on the requirement of works, particularly the participation in and receiving of the sacraments, as contributing to salvation. Some of the central issues of the Pelagian controversy had subtly crept into the very Church Augustine had once defended it against. [25]  The Protestant Reformation that was sparked in reaction to this, found in the writings of Augustine an emphasis on the doctrine of grace that had all but been lost.  This core component of his soteriological understanding had withered in the sacramentally centred beliefs of Catholicism, but found fertile ground in the Reformation.  Philip Schaff has thus considered Augustine to be the “first forerunner of the Reformation.”[26]

The founder of the Reformation in Germany, Martin Luther, spent some of the formative years of his life as an Augustinian monk, which naturally brought him under the direct influence of the teachings of Augustine.[27]  Luther saw in his writings a spiritual struggle similar to that of his own.  As was also the case with Augustine, his eventual theological breakthrough was found in Paul’s letter to the Romans.[28]  The influence of Paul, through Augustine, is noted by Margaret Miles when she writes that “Luther quoted from Augustine more than 100 times in his Commentary on the
Epistle to the Romans
alone.”[29]  Although he did not accept all the aspects of Augustine’s understanding of grace, we can be certain that the soteriology of Luther, and his particular emphasis on sola gratia and sola fide, was shaped and influenced, to a large extent, by Augustine.  Here, in this revival of the centrality of grace that characterised the Reformation, is found a second important pillar that supports the orthodox soteriology of Christianity.  Through the dominance of Lutheran soteriology on the majority of the Protestant world, Augustine continues to exert a profound influence.  Green thus states that “if contemporary Christians want to understand various contemporary debates and discussions about the doctrine of grace, they must understand Augustine.”[30]  Thus, two of the fundamental doctrines of salvation within Christianity that have continued to this day, can ultimately be traced back through history to the writings of Augustine.


The present essay has traced the development of Augustine’s soteriology through the Manichean, Donatist, and Pelagian controversies.  In responding to each of these heresies, Augustine clarified and defended his understanding of sin and of grace, two of the pillar doctrines upon which the Christian understanding of salvation rests.  The influence of his soteriology has been seen on Christianity in general, through his understanding of original sin, and on the beliefs of Protestantism in particular, through a revival of his understanding of God’s grace during the Reformation and so on to contemporary Christianity.  It must therefore be concluded that the soteriological legacy of Augustine has shaped and will continue to shape the way in which Christianity understands the science of salvation.

[1] Bradley G. Green, ed. Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity, 2010), 235, goes so far as to say that Augustine “sowed the seeds of virtually the entire Western
theological edifice that has been built from his day forward.”

[2] Warren Thomas Smith, Augustine: His Life and Thought (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), 87.

[3] Eugene TeSille, Augustine (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2006), 1.

[4] Other important factors that helped shape Augustine’s soteriology, but are beyond the scope of the present paper, include his mother Monica, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and Platonism as interpreted by Plontinus.

[5] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 36, 40-41.

[6] Smith, Augustine, 22.

[7] Margaret R. Miles, “Augustine,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, edited by Everett Ferguson (New York, NY: Garland, 1999), 150.

[8] Mary T. Clark, Augustine of Hippo (London: Continuum, 1994), 3.

[9] Augustine, “Confessions,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 63.

[10] Augustine, “On Two Souls,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), see especially 101-103.

[11] Smith, Augustine, 95.

[12] Miles, “Augustine,” 151.

[13] Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 274.

[14] Miles, “Augustine,” 151.

[15] Ferguson, Church History, 276.

[16] Smith, Augustine, 127-128. His message of righteousness by works was readily accepted by many in Rome who were longing for a message that would revive and inspire a higher standard of morality.

[17] Green, Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, 253, n 76.

[18] Andrew Knowles and Pachomios Penkett, Augustine and His World (Oxford: Lion, 2004), 124.

[19] Augustine, “On Grace and Free Will,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 459-460.

[20] This is, of course, another central component of Augustine’s soteriology that could and perhaps should be explored further as it goes hand in hand with his understanding of grace.  But to do so
would take this essay far beyond the designated word limit.

[21] Knowles and Penkett, Augustine, 165-166.

[22] James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2002), 36

[23] Green, Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, 250.

[24] Philip Schaff,  “Prolegomena: St. Augustine’s Life and Work,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 19, states that Augustine “ruled the entire theology of the middle age.”

[25] Marshall D Johnson, The Evolution of Christianity (New York, NY: Continuum, 2005), 65.

[26] Schaff,  “Prolegomena,” 21-22. He continues to note that “no church teacher did so much to mould Luther and Calvin; none furnished them so powerful weapons against the dominant Pelagianism and formalism; none is so often quoted by them with esteem and love.”

[27] “Martin Luther” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross, & E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University, 2005), 1013.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Miles, “Augustine,” 153.

[30] Green, Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy, 252.

The Victoria Falls of God’s Love – Romans 5:5

The Victoria Falls

The Victoria Falls

The Victoria Falls – one of the seven wonders of the natural world. In terms of its volume, being 1,700m wide and 110m high, it is the world’s largest curtain of falling water. Situated in southern Africa on the Zambezi River between the countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe, it has become a popular tourist destination attracting people from all corners of the globe. In fact, during the months of September through December when the river is at a safe level, you can actually swim in a naturally formed pool known as the Devil’s swimming pool right on the edge of the falls.

During the peak season in April, do you know how much water pours over these falls? 10 million litres of water pour over the falls every single second, about 625 million litres a minute! It’s this word pour that brings us to our key text – Romans 5:5 – a thundering cataract of good news for you and me. The Victoria Falls of the love of God.

“Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God” here is comes, are you ready? “…because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” There it is. The same Greek word you would use to describe the vast volume of water that gushes over the edge of a water fall is used here to describe the Victoria Falls of God’s love. Not just 10 million litres of water, rather every last drop of His love has been poured out into our hearts through the sacrificial death of His Son. Verse 6: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.” Paul is saying maybe, just maybe someone would be willing to die for a good person. But would anyone even consider dying for a bad person? Look at verse 8: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Notice that Paul says that it is while we were still without strength (v. 6), while we were still sinners (v. 8), while we were still enemies (v. 10), God poured out all His love in the gift of His Son. What incredible, indescribable, incomprehensible love!

Can I share with you what I consider to be one of the greatest descriptions of this love? It was penned over a hundred years ago:

“All the paternal love which has come down from generation to generation through the channel of human hearts, all the springs of tenderness which have opened in the souls of men, are but as a tiny rill to the boundless ocean when compared with the infinite, exhaustless love of God. Tongue cannot utter it; pen cannot portray it. You may meditate upon it every day of your life; you may search the Scriptures diligently in order to understand it; you may summon every power and capability that God has given you, in the endeavour to comprehend the love and compassion of the heavenly Father; and yet there is an infinity beyond. You may study that love for ages; yet you can never fully comprehend the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of God in giving His Son to die for the world. Eternity itself can never fully reveal it” (5T, 740).

“Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” So there it is, the Victoria Falls of God’s love. How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure. That He should give His only Son to make a wretch – you and me – His treasure. May we each contemplate this love – daily, may we each embrace this love – daily, and by doing so, may we each live this love so that others too may desire to experience the transformative power of the love of God being poured out with their hearts.