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“Blessed” (versus “flourishing”) in The Gospel of Nicodemus

Back in 2013 I began working seriously on the question of what “blessing” means, particularly what I came to see as an important distinction between μακάριος and εὐλογητὸς (in Greek), אַשְׁרֵי and ברך (in Hebrew).

I gave a paper on this at ETS in November of 2013, followed by further work that contributed to my broader arguments about human flourishing in the Bible that can be found here and here (see also earlier mention here).

In my forthcoming book on the Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing I have a lengthy chapter arguing for the essential difference between flourishing (μακάριος) and blessing (εὐλογητὸς), which is obviously very relevant for the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), which are based entirely on the meaning of μακάριος.

In short, my argument is that Greek and Hebrew both clearly distinguish between the idea of divine, effective, active blessing (ברך and εὐλογητὸς) and the description of the state of flourishing (μακάριος and אַשְׁרֵי). Ultimately these come together in the biblical worldview in that the only way to truly and fully experience flourishing is by also receiving God’s blessing. But the linguistic and conceptual distinction between these two still remains and is important. The big problem is that in English we have lost the ability to maintain this conceptual distinction because we translate both ideas with the singular word in English, “blessed.”

My point in this post today is not to unpack all of this. Rather, I simply wanted to note another example of this same Greek and Hebrew distinction (relative to English) that I ran across this morning in the ancient apocryphal text called The Gospel of Nicodemus or The Acts of Pilate. (A description of this work and its text in diglot form can be found on pages 419-489 of The Apocryphal Gospels by Ehrman and Pleše).

The Gospel of Nicodemus is a fascinating expansion of the Passion narrative that tells us about Pilate and his reactions to Jesus. At one point we are told about the triumphal entry (Matt 21:1-11) including the words said by the children, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Greek text here in Matthew (and in Nicodemus) appropriately uses εὐλογημένος, indicating that God’s divine favor rests on Jesus.

What is interesting is that in Nicodemus 1.4 we get not only the Greek text reproduced but also a Greek transliteration of what was being said in Hebrew. And lo and behold, entirely in accord with the Septuagint and broader Greek usage, the Hebrew transliterated is barouchamma, from ברך, maintaining once again the clearברך – εὐλογητὸς connection in distinction from μακάριος – אַשְׁרֵי.



[BTW, for all the Greek lovers out there I realize that the εὐλογητὸς should have an acute rather than grave accent but I was having a major font battle that I eventually gave up on.]

Reasons for Residential Education & The Local Bookstore

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called “Reasons for Residential: Some Thoughts from a Professor and Administrator on the Abiding Benefits of a Residential PhD Program.” I’ve used this in a couple of lecture scenarios but have not yet published it anywhere, though I hope to get back to it. Partly I’ve delayed because I’ve wanted to keep thinking about this complex issue.

questionbookWhy should we continue to value and promote on-campus, residential, life-together education in this age of high expenses and convenient online and modular options? This is a question I have been thinking a lot about for the last three years as I lead our large part-residential/part-modular PhD program at Southern and as I think about our plans and goals for the future.

Only time will tell and wisdom is vindicated by her children (which also means it can take a while), but I remain convinced that there are numerous tangible and intangible benefits that come from maintaining a traditional residential program, despite the costs and in the face of the great convenience of other forms.

I thought about this whole issue again a couple of days ago when I saw this article on the surprising survival and even thriving ocornerbookstoref the local bookstore, despite the dire warnings that the big box world of Barnes & Noble and Borders (remember them?) and the online giant Amazon would destroy local bookshops.

This has proven to not be the case: “4 Reasons Why Independent Bookstores are Thriving”

The reason this article reminded me of the residential issue is because in my paper I actually used the analogy of bookstores and anticipated precisely this phenomenon — that over time, despite the warnings, the localized experience will win out. One of my “Reasons for Residential” is that residential education can put great emphasis on mentoring the whole person not just educating the mind. I illustrated this with a comparison of Amazon, B&N, and the local bookstore. Here is my argument taken from my original position paper:

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“We can helpfully analogize our options as educators with three possibilities for the sale and purchase of books –, a physical Barnes & Noble store, and the local, independently owned and operated bookshop. I love Amazon, as millions of others obviously do as well. It is not only a one-stop shop for nearly anything one could need, but it also serves as the quickest bibliographic source for many as well. Amazon offers books, both digital and paper, quickly and efficiently, conveniently and cheaply.

This is today’s online education world, or least what online education hopes to be and is growing toward. With a little technological investment and marketing savvy a school can ship off massive amounts of content at extremely low cost, especially employing a phalanx of part-time workers (many of whom are PhD students at other, traditional schools). This efficiency and profitability does not necessarily mean that the quality of the education is low, but at best it means one has to work especially hard to make it so, and at worst, it is a great, profitable method for mass-produced degree generating.

Both students and teachers would agree that personal mentoring and development of the individual is certainly not the goal or driving force behind online education. Rather, it is convenience and speed of earning a degree or certificate. Some rare, exceptional online programs or individual teachers may indeed make an effort to personally relate to their students, but this can only happen on a small scale and can rarely go beyond the level of online dating. Again, this analysis of online education is not a condemnation overall. In many ways online content delivery makes a lot of sense, especially for certain kinds of information and certain necessary settings. I myself have been involved in a lot of online education at the Master’s degree level. But we should not act as if it is somehow just another way of doing education; it is a method of delivering content, but this is not the same thing as education unless one defines the latter entirely in cognitive terms, with no affective or relational aspects.

Largely because of Amazon and similar developments in commerce, the brick and mortar chain stores are in trouble. Borders Books famously went bankrupt and closed down in recent years and B&N is struggling too. No one knows for sure, of course, but it looks like the chain bookstore is going to have trouble making it as things stand.

Why? Because what B&N offers over its main rival Amazon is not much, certainly not enough to make it competitive and profitable enough. What does B&N offer over the convenience and cost of Amazon? Maybe a place for meetings for the local chess club or German speaking society; the place one can run in to on a Tuesday night at 8:45pm to buy the Hemingway book that your teenager was supposed to read for Wednesday but neglected to; the ability to pick up a boxed book set on How to Play the Harmonica from the clearance section as a last minute birthday gift for one’s nephew. These small advantages are not a sufficient business model in an age of online commerce.

By analogy this is precisely what we’re seeing in many educational institutions. The brick and mortar school that is primarily a way to communicate information and provide some knowledge-skill development doesn’t offer enough of an advantage over online education to pay for the expense of building rental, utilities, library resources, insurance, food service, and security, let alone professors’ salaries. As a result, many have closed and many more will likely close. Various attempts have been made to slash tuition prices and cut teachers’ benefits and campus amenities to make ends meet, but you cannot run a business selling clearance items with demoralized staff in a smelly and dilapidated store.

What about the local bookstore? Despite initially having a difficult time of it and contrary to the doom and gloom predictions of the Amazon-effect killing all local business, the local bookshop is doing better than ever. Or more accurately, some local bookstores are doing better than ever – the ones who are thoughtful and intentional in offering something that neither Amazon nor B&N can provide. The failure of the big chain bookstore is, as we noted, that they are trying to do with half the effectiveness and ten times the cost the same thing Amazon is doing – delivering books. But the local bookstore that has survived the initial Amazonification and B&Noblizing of their area has been the shop that doesn’t try to compete with these behemoths or play their game.

Instead, they offer a high quality product, located in a place, providing a community, including caring and motivated experts who guide and inspire and friends who converse, all in an ambience of beauty. In short, they create community and mentoring. They offer the same products that Amazon and B&N do, not always quite as conveniently, but with the added benefits of space and relationships.

It is not difficult to see that this is just the same for the educational institutions that are surviving and even thriving today. They are places that, due to size and/or sound financial management, have survived the initial problems of the financial crisis and the threat of technologically convenient online education, and are doing what the best educational institutions always have – providing a place in which cognitive, affective, and relational education occurs. Campus development, morale of professors, community activities, meaningful mentoring relationships – these are the practices that wise and thriving schools offer, in addition to high quality content delivered by experts in knowledge and pedagogy.

The lesson in all of this is that any institution of higher education that values something more than online content delivery and wants to thrive must stop trying to go the B&N route of competing with the Amazon’s of education and instead do what they do best – educate the whole person through mentorship. Mentorship requires all these best practices just noted – a physical place, committed time over the long haul for ideas and relationships and experiences to germinate and gestate, excellence in teachers who are supported financially and encouraged in morale to enable them to devote time to developing expertise in their field of study and in pedagogical techniques.

To commit to this route as administrators and trustee boards there must be a longer-term vision than the next year’s profitability. Higher education in the States is a business, necessarily, in that bills must be paid and therefore profits must be generated. But experience shows that any business or school that loses the focus on its mission and becomes driven by perpetuating the organization will, ironically, lose both its mission and its organization. Higher education – and especially Christian Higher Education – must remain committed to its vision of academic mentorship (= education), even if this means some lean years or some re-allocation of resources or some less than profitable quarters, because in the long run this trajectory alone will provide a long-term solid foundation and fulfill the calling of the university.”

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That is what I originally wrote and still stand by it. I don’t want in any way to communicate, however, a disbelief in the value of online or modular education (including at my own school where I think we do it VERY well!). My point is not a ludite, “good old days” argument. Online and modular education can be excellent and it is here to stay. Rather, I simply want to make sure we are thinking about these big and important and pressing questions with the right categories, not just pragmatism. Particularly, we must consider the issue of education as mentoring.

Back in the “Why Local Bookstores Are Thriving” article they give four reasons for the surprising trend:

(1) They offer an experience; (2) They curate and recommend in a human way; (3) They’re diversifying their offerings; and (4) They foster community.

Not all of these match precisely with what I have argued above, but there is a striking similarity and significant places of overlap. I will continue to wrestle with how to work out all of this in real life educational environments, as I hope my readers who are involved in education will too.

“Reading the Gospels Smithly” — Interacting with James K. A. Smith

A couple of years ago I greatly benefited from reading Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, both of which I use as textbooks for some of classes I teach as PhD director here at SBTS. They are well-written and stimulating books. Around that time I gave a paper at Southeastern Theological Baptist Seminary reflecting on my reading of Smith and interacting with him as a Gospels scholar.

A slightly modified version of that paper has just now been published in Southeastern’s journal. I am attaching a pdf of that below. The full citation is: Jonathan T. Pennington, “Reading the Gospels Smithly: Thinking Upon and Loving the Gospels in Dialogue with James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom,” Southeastern Theological Review 6/1 (Summer 2015): 45-61.

I continue to be grateful for Smith’s work and all that I’ve learned from him. As I have continued to read and ponder and dialogue with others on these issues I think I would find a few more things to disagree with than before. Nonetheless, I still highly recommend interacting with Smith.

Pennington, Jonathan – Reading the Gospels Smithly


GK Chesterton on St. Francis

This past Thursday and Friday I was supposed to make a quick trip up to McMaster Divinity College near Toronto but ended up getting stranded in and around Reagan International Airport in DC instead. As a result I got some writing done, discovered the delightful historic town of Alexandria, Virginia on the Potomac, and read two books. One was a structuralist analysis of the Sermon on the Mount that had some moments of insight but generally left me dissatisfied.

The other book, however, was a real gem — G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi. A couple of decades ago I read quite a bit of Chesterton’s fiction including Father Brown, Napoleon of Notting Hill, and one of my favorites that I recently re-read, The Man Who Was Thursday. I’ve not read enough of Chesterton’s non-fiction for some undefinable reason. I’m glad I had this book along for my first-world problem of getting stuck in an airport.

I would highly recommend Chesterton on Francis. Here are just a few brief thoughts regarding the book:

  • Chesterton is a great read anytime: nice turns of phrase; ironic statements of litotes that leave one with a wry smile; lively and brisk prose. Good writers give pleasure and Chesterton is a master.
  • The great Roman Catholic authors have a gravitas that exudes from their writings. A good Roman Catholic on the medieval period deepens this even more. As I continue to read people like Sertillanges and von Balthasar I am realizing that this gravitas is a function of a fundamental difference between Roman Catholicism and much of modernist versions of Protestantism. The latter is often a system of doctrines and beliefs while the former is an entire worldview, an understanding of the world as thick and interconnected and a vision of a way of being in the world. Protestantism sometimes communicates this (especially the Dutch Reformed version) but often not in the modernist versions. The great Catholic authors, however, always have this. Even when you disagree at points one cannot deny the sense of a comprehensive picture of the universe.
  • Chesterton makes a fascinating argument about the role of ascetic and monastic practices in the first millennia of the Church. Namely, he suggests that the world into which Christianity was born and grew in the first 1000 years was of a radically different nature than our own and it is hard for us to appreciate that. It was a truly pagan world where nature-worship and the identification of nature with the mysterious divine was inextricably linked. It was a magic and mystical world. Chesterton’s argument is that “Christianity had entered the world to cure the world; and she had cured it in the only way in which it could be cured” (26) — through an era of ascetic practices that expiated and expelled the old ways; the only way this could have been accomplished. As he says, “Nothing could purge this [pagan] obsession but a religion that was literally unearthly. It was no good telling such people to have a natural religion full of stars and flowers; there was not a flower or even a star that had not been stained. They had to go into the desert where they could see no stars. Into that desert and that cavern the highest human intellect entered for some four centuries; and it was the very wisest thing to do.” (31) This is a fascinating idea worthy of more consideration. Chesterton’s bigger point here is to put Francis into his own historical context showing that Francis’ own re-engagment with nature and embracing of the whole world was possible precisely because this expiation had occurred before him. He is like a new born child into a new stage of humanity. Fascinating insight.

There are other great aspects of the book and again, I will simply recommend you read it. No summary of mine can replace the experience of reading Chesterton.

Greek to Latin to English Translation Problems – τέλειος

[First, the obligatory confession that it is embarrassing how long it has been since I posted anything! I’m restarting the clock today!] Now to business:
I have long been frustrated with the English translation of the τέλειος, τέλος word group. Typically these are rendered with “perfect” as in Matt 5:48, 19:21, and James 1:4, but these are very unhelpful glosses because in contemporary English this communicates the idea of unblemished, morally pure, without fault. But this is not what τέλειος is communicating either in the Greco-Roman virtue tradition (where it is a very important concept) nor in Hellenistic Second Temple Judaism.

The idea of τέλειος is not faultless or pure, but complete, whole, or even harmoniously singular (integrity). The implications of this are manifold. It is staggering to consider, for example, how many people have been crushed by the burden of supposed moral perfection in 5:48 or alternatively have deceived themselves into thinking they have reached a place of sinless perfection. Neither of these interpretations understand Matt 5:48 as part of the overall whole-person righteousness theme of the Sermon on the Mount.

I am just finishing up a chapter on the meaning of τέλειος historically and how it serves as a meta-theme throughout the Sermon (for my forthcoming book with Baker Academic, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing).
I have a lot to say, as you might imagine, but for now I just want to reflect on how we got into this bad translation habit of rendering τέλειος as “perfect,” when any scholarly piece you read on it shows clearly that “perfect” is a bad gloss.

In an excellent paper by one of my Greek Exegesis of Matthew students this past semester, David Blackwell took my lecture on this idea and combined it with the insights regarding the similar meaning of “holy” in the OT from my colleague Peter Gentry (article form is somewhere out there; here’s the audio of Peter’s original faculty address).

David also did a nice little spadework on when we started translating τέλειος as “perfect” in English. As a result, he’s appearing in a footnote in my book, which I thought I’d share with you here:

“Like many of our English translation choices they stem from a conservative tradition dating back to the earliest translations from Latin into English by Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the Coverdale and Geneva Bibles. The Vulgate uses “perfectus” in 5:48, which is a decent Latin gloss for teleios, both communicating wholeness or completion. This came into the early English translation as “parfit,” “perfecte,” “perfite,” and finally in the Authorized Version, “perfect.” This transliteration of the Latin term took on its own narrower connotations as English developed and now we continue to use this unhelpful gloss.”

This is a good example of several matters that go on in translation into English:

  • Transliteration from Latin and Greek that created new English words
  • The abiding influence of the first English translations, often unfortunately
  • The generally conservative nature of translations and translators (and Bible publishing houses). Once a certain gloss becomes traditional it is very difficult to change it, even if it becomes clearly a bad choice or ceases to communicate (cf. “Hallowed be Thy Name” and “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer).
  • The need for new and continually revised translations because of both the contribution of scholarly research and the changing connotations of the target language. In this case the scholarly work on τέλειος has clearly been ignored. Additionally, while “perfecte”/”perfect” might have communicated the idea of “complete, whole” in 16th-17th century English, this is not the case now, hence the need for new translations.

My Translators’ Club Presentation


On March 30, 2015 I made a brief presentation at Southern for the Bible Translators in Training Club. We had a good turn out of students and also a couple of seasoned Wycliffe translators showed up (which caused no small self-consciousness as I pontificated about translation theory!).

It was an informal gathering around a few tables. The audio of my presentation is below. There was also a time of Q&A afterwards that we also recorded.

In my presentation I make mention of a number of ideas including some resources from Umberto Eco, Lakoff & Johnson, Delimitation Criticism, and the always enjoyable I also briefly mention this fascinating essay on the history of emoji and how it functions as a language. (In the presentation I said “emoticon” but there is a difference between emoji and emoticons.) More can and should be said about this great piece. And although I don’t say much about it in this presentation, I would also highly recommended the edited volume, The Challenge of Bible Translation by Glen Scorgie and Mark Strauss.

Here is the outline of my talking points:

1) Translation is not math.

2) Translation is a hermeneutical issue.

3) Translation is always transformation, somewhere on the spectrum.

4) Translation Studies continue to improve and so should we.


Allegory and Protestant Metaphor — Some Very Brief Reflections on a Very Big Topic

For a current project I’ve been spending time in the history of the interpretation of the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:16-22 and parallels). [Very helpful is the summary that can be found in Ulrich Luz’s Matthew commentary, 2:518-523]

Among many other interesting things I have learned, it struck me today once again that the rhetoric of the Reformers against the allegorical interpretations of their predecessors is over-wrought and not the whole story.

Specifically, what I mean is this — Any theological or applicational reading is metaphorical, substituting what is in the text for some idea or truth, reading the events or characters of a story for the purpose of saying something else. In this way, the difference between the Reformers’ reading and the oft-villified allegorical readings of the Fathers is shown to be a difference not of kind but only of form and judgment.

jm_200_NT2.pd-P20.tiff   I must turn to an example to be clearer. In the case of the story of the Rich Young Ruler we encounter the shocking command that for the man to be complete or virtuously whole, to achieve the end goal of virtue (teleios-ness), he must sell all that he has and give it to the poor (19:21). The history of the Church’s interpretation of this is largely one of providing ways in which this does not apply literally; this is true across all eras and denominational lines.

One way that this text is regularly read in the earliest centuries of the Church, completely in accord with the hermeneutical practices of the day, was what some would call “allegorical.” For example, Hilary of Poitiers gave a salvation-historical reading of this story, with the rich man equaling Judaism in its attempt to hold on to the Law. Jesus confronts this inferior, shadowy understanding of the Law and also challenges Judaism to “share its wealth” with the poor, meaning the Gentiles who should also be recipients of divine blessings. Due to the ingrained and inculcated “allergy to allegory” that both the Reformers and Modernism has perpetuated, many of my readers may immediately feel an antipathy to Hilary’s reading, especially because I described it as allegorical.

But consider with me for a moment how the Reformers interpreted this text. Various readings abound (as in every era), but some read the story with the RYR as the prototype of a godless person seen by his striving to earn righteousness based on works. In other commentaries and homilies Jesus’ conversation with the man is seen as an example of the good use the law — the law as a tutor that leads us to conviction of sin. Overall, Protestant interpretation has emphasized (like Clement of Alexandria and a long tradition after him) that Jesus’ command is not to be taken literally but is a matter of our hearts and what we love the most. Luther even turns 19:21 on its head against his monastic opponents (and former self) and says that the true command here is not to leave everything and live like the monks who have to beg and live on the handouts of others. Instead, to earn one’s own keep and to protect and manage money responsibly is the right goal; to forsake all possessions and thereby neglect one’s family and responsibilities is the greater sin.

My point is simply this — All of these readings are metaphorical. They are all seeing either the events or the characters in the story as representing something else. The “allegorical” reading of Hilary sees in the story the salvation-historical difference between Jews and Gentiles and the wrong interpretation of the Law among Jews, from a Christian perspective. He explains this via the methods and techniques of ancient exegesis universally understood (by Alexandrians and Antiochenes) — by pointing what each part of the story represents. The Reformers likewise read off the story in a prototypical way, seeing the man as representative of a works-righteousness person or seeing the events of the story as teaching us how to understand the Law in the New Covenant.

As I hope is clear, this is not really a difference in kind of reading, but only in the form of how this kind of (completely natural and justifiable) metaphorical reading is described and practiced. It also represents different judgments about what is the most important theological truth to bring out in the interpretation — something that is going to always vary by time and place. For Hilary it is the situated issue of Jewish versus Christian readings of the canon. For the Reformers it is the issue of works righteousness and/or use of the Law for the Christian. In either case these are situated theological readings that are understandable and helpful; but the difference is not really about hermeneutics. They are all metaphorical readings.

I am well aware that this topic of allegory and ancient hermeneutical techniques is a MASSIVE topic! I have spent the last 15 years of my intellectual life wrestling with many aspects of this so I feel the pain of having to only dip a toe in today. Nonetheless, I hope this real life example from the history of interpretation will stimulate some thoughts and provide some way forward for my readers.


Hector and the Search for Happiness

Much of my academic research and writing for the last couple of years has focused on the issue of happiness or human flourishing in moral philosophy and theology. I am (hopefully) nearing completion of my book on the Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing that will be published by Baker Academic. This will be the main outlet where these ideas get unpacked, though there are other avenues as well where things have or will appear.

So, when perusing Redbox a few nights ago I couldn’t resist the new release entitled Hector and the Search for Happiness. It does not appear to have been reviewed very favorably and I certainly had not heard of it before seeing it in big red box outside my Walgreen’s. However, my wife and I both found it to be a very thoughtful and meaningful film, especially its profound concluding message. I definitely recommend it.


<SPOILER ALERT — My brief reflections below give a brief plot summary and my interpretation of what happens in the last scene so if you plan to watch the movie I would recommend you do so BEFORE reading what I’m about to say. You have been warned.>

In short, Hector is a successful, mild-mannered British psychiatrist who lives happily enough with his equally tidy girlfriend. Due to a number of circumstances he begins to be aware that he is not truly happy and doesn’t really feel much of anything. In classic literary style (and recently in movies such as Eat, Pray, Love) he decides to set off an a journey to search out from a psychological perspective what true happiness is. He traverses the globe with a wide assortment of experiences, both positive and negative, journaling along the way lessons he learns from various people and situations. At the end of his journey he ends up in LA visiting an old flame who helps him get connected with a famous neuroscientist. Reluctantly he submits to the neurologist’s procedure of mapping the activity in his brain while reflecting on various memories. At first he has little success, revealing that he is still very disconnected from his emotional life. Then he has a major breakthrough and the whole gamut of his emotions flood his heart and mind — and brain — resulting in a connection to himself that had been lost since his boyhood. The movie ends with a happy reuniting with his girlfriend and their marriage. Formulaic yes, but meaningful still.

A few observations:

  • The search for happiness or better, human flourishing is universal across time and culture. This movie taps into this deepest of human questions and desires.
  • The movie subtly and rightly connects Hector’s childhood with his emotional blockage later in life. The film does not delve into his family of origin details, but a couple of images are provided that make the connection between the little boy still inside of him and the adult man who has trouble connecting with other people and himself emotionally. This insight can be helpfully understood in terms of attachments and emotional relationship habits we learn from infancy on. For a short and personally applicable explanation of this, consult chapter 3 of Rich Plass and Jim Coffield’s excellent book, The Relational Soul.
  • Most profoundly, Hector finally finds happiness not simply by learning principles from various cultures and people, but when he opens his heart and mind to the whole range of emotions — happy, sad, fear, and hope. In the climactic scene with the neurologist Hector’s brain activity explodes with a fullness of whole brain experience only when he steps into the entirety of his emotional experiences and lets the memories flood over him. The result is a breakthrough and a freeing up of his soul for the first time, enabling him to love and live. This speaks to the importance of memory work in therapy but also to the profound philosophical insight that human flourishing is found in all of human experience, not just what appears to be the “happy” stuff. This is why “happiness” no longer works as the English word to describe the search for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Jesus’ makarios, of Hector’s journey. We are talking about true human flourishing which necessarily entails the whole range of human experience. To the degree that we seek to avoid and deny all of these emotions we will be stunted in our experience of fullness of life.


If you are interested in studying more on happiness from a philosophical and theological perspective here are some of the countless good resources available:

Reflections on Todd Billings’ new book, Rejoicing in Lament


Todd Billings’ other writings are already well recognized as the works of a thoughtful, intelligent, pastorally-sensitive, and orthodox theologian. Both his Union with Christ and Calvin, Participation, and the Gift are award winners and his book, The Word of God for the People of God, is my personal favorite introduction to our shared interest in the theological interpretation of Scripture.

So another book from Todd is always welcome. But Rejoicing in Lament is not just another book. It is a theological memoir that chronicles his journey over the last couple of years in his battle with an incurable bone cancer. I call it a “theological memoir” because it is deeply personal and brutally honest about his struggles, fears, and insights gained, while also providing a rich theological exploration of lament and the problem of evil. On the memoir side I learned about Todd as a man and Christian brother; on the theological side I learned much from what is one of the best treatments of theodicy and lament that I’ve ever read. (Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in the Darkness is up there too.)

Rather than providing a detailed, chapter-by-chapter review of the book, here are some highlights and points of insight that particularly struck me as I read the book:


  • The pervasive use of the Psalms as the Christian’s prayer book

I have become increasingly aware in recent years of how central the psalter has always been for Christians. Those of us involved in studying the history of interpretation, especially pre-modern, find the Psalms as the constant companion of the believer. Todd’s whole book shows how in the midst of suffering and joy he stands in line with this great tradition and habit.

  • Related, the Psalms and the permission to lament

Over the last five years as I have gotten more connected to the suffering and loss and grief in my own life I have learned how essential it is to lament. I was given permission to do so by a dear mentor and friend as part of my therapeutic journey. When turning to the Psalms we find that lament is not only permitted there, but in reality proves to be the major theme of the psalter. This is not something that has been overcome or superseded by the Gospel or the New Covenant. Rather, the Christian is the one who above all people in the world knows suffering and should be longing for God to come and put and end to the grief and pain of the world (“Happy are those who mourn…”). After all, the great and guiding Christian prayer has at its core the desire for God to restore his just reign upon the earth, vanquishing all evil and suffering (“Your name be honored, your kingdom come, your will be done – on earth as they already are in heaven”).

Todd’s book thoughtfully explores the significance of lamenting in the Christian journey. He rightly laments the loss of lamenting in the modern Christian community; as a result our life of Christian discipleship is often stunted and disconnected from our full human experience.

If you want to understand the beauty and power of lament in the Christian journey then you’ll definitely want to pick up this book.

  • The Bible and the Problem of Evil

The single greatest theological problem of the Bible is certainly the POE,

simply stated as the dilemma of how God can be both fully good and fully sovereign while there is still evil in the world. That is the ontological version of it. The ethical or practical version of the POE concerns how God can be both fully good and fully sovereign and yet evil things still happen for which he is not culpable.

Refreshingly, Todd offers no trite answers here and avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of open theism on the one hand or a “suck it up, God is sovereign” view on the other. He humbly but boldly asserts what is certainly true – the Bible doesn’t really give any ultimate answer to the POE. “The Bible has addressed the question, and God’s response – as in the book of Job – is that humans don’t have an answer to the problem of evil, and we shouldn’t claim that we have one.” (21) We can rightly believe that in Christ God is renewing the whole creation but the speculative theodicy question – why our loving and powerful God would permit tragedies – is ultimately unanswerable in this life for only God himself can answer this. (22)

In this Todd is not being flippant or apathetically resigned – no one who is facing the suffering and loss that he is can be written off in these ways – but rather, he is modeling what the Scriptures themselves model in the Psalms and Job: learning to sit in the ashes while still hoping in God through tears.

  • The Biblical Mystery of Concursus

As part of Todd’s varied discussion of the POE he introduces a very helpful classical doctrinal formulation called “concursus,” defined as “the simultaneity of divine and human agency in specific actions and events.” Contra deism, fatalism, or open theism, the classical Christian doctrine of concursus is willing to allow the mystery of both God’s sovereign actions and human’s responsible contingent acts. Who really sent Joseph into Egypt in slavery? Concursus enables us to say fully that both God and Joseph’s brothers were responsible actors. “A creaturely action can have the providential power of God as a primary cause, yet the creature still has agency that moves freely.” (68)

Todd’s clear and straightforward discussion of this idea is very satisfying and beneficial.

  • Lament as Protest and Resistance

The idea that I think will most stick with me from the book is that of lament as protest and resistance. Those who give themselves to serve others and help to eliminate some bits of the great suffering in the world know all too well that the task is overwhelming and will sooner or later cause even the heartiest, most compassionate soul to burn out. When one considers the pervasiveness and suffering of sex trafficking or homelessness or violent religious persecution in the Middle East it is very difficult to avoid becoming hopeless. Those among us who are especially deep-feeling sorts, such as our artists, often struggle to believe in the God of the Bible in light of this.

Todd recommends that rather than giving up or throwing our hands up and rejecting the biblical God, we need to embrace our laments as right and powerful forms of protest that this is not the way things should be. The Christian of all people should join the resistance against the evil in the world. Through our God-directed lamenting and compassionate acts we serve as witnesses to the coming kingdom. This is beautiful and powerful and life-giving.

On a personal note, my wife and I found great courage from this hither-to-never-considered way of approaching the reality of suffering in the world.

  • Divine Impassibility

Finally, I am thankful for Todd’s excellent discussion of the doctrine of divine impassibility in chapter 9. I realized to my embarrassment that once again I had only a sophomoric understanding of this classic doctrine and its importance. Indeed, from my limited understanding I have recently been wondering about this doctrine because I mistakenly understood it to mean that God is emotional-less, something Holy Scripture does not seem to allow. But Todd points out that classically, God’s impassibility means he lacks “passions,” understood in this context not as emotions in general but as “disordered affections that could make his loving being and action ebb and flow.” (159)

We would be mistaken (as I was) to think of this doctrine as depicting God as apathetic and unresponsive. The biblical witness belies this understanding. Instead, the point is that God can and does fully enter our suffering (and joy), but does so in a way that is always perfectly commensurate with his perfect and whole being. God has all the affections/emotions that we do but does so analogically because his perfection of being is not like the shifting shadows of our fickle existence.

The point of this doctrine in the context of suffering is that God does know and sympathize with our weaknesses and suffering; he is not distant and apathetic nor surprised at what we encounter, even in our darkest night of the soul. Jesus’ himself cried out with the greatest despair, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

Once again, I am thankful to have Todd’s thoughtful and theologically sophisticated wisdom as a guide to help me understand our God faithfully.


Overall, obviously I am glad to recommend this book. It is probably too theologically thick and long for the average lay Christian struggling with cancer (it’s not a “gift book” nor is it intended to be). But is a very good length and level for the more zealous congregant and certainly pastors. I can also imagine this book being read in a chapter-by-chapter format in a small group setting if the leader has some theological training that would enable good facilitation.

It would be terribly trite and insensitive to suggest that somehow Todd’s and his family’s suffering is any way explained or justified by it resulting in the production of this book for others. I am not suggesting that. But, along with Todd, by faith I can proclaim that in a mystery beyond our understanding, we can simultaneously protest against his suffering and also express our trust and praise in God for doing all things well. This book is a gift to me as I am sure it will be to many others. Lord, hear our prayer…


The site dedicated to Todd’s book, including reviews by many others can be found here.

My Vision for PhD Studies at SBTS

Each semester I run a weekly meeting for all of our PhD students which is called the 1892 Club. (This date honors the year Southern started its doctoral program.) I bring in a different scholar each week for a brief presentation and then dialogue. The Spring 2015 schedule can be seen here. It has become one of the greatest highlights of my week and a significant part of the trans-disciplinary, dialogical culture I am seeking to develop among our PhD students.

Most semesters I kick off our season with a vision talk. For the first time on Feb 4 we recorded this.

Although it is too painful for me to personally watch, many have suggested it would be beneficial to post this for a broader audience. So here you go! My vision for PhD Studies at SBTS.

The outline of my talk is as follows:

Introduction — The Year 1892

Four Words of Vision (“words” meaning statements or ideas):

  1. Paideia
  2. Community
  3. Centrifugal Force
  4. Doctor of Philosophy



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