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Book Review: Hidden in Plain View

This time the devil isn’t in the details. In Hidden in Plain View, Dr. Lydia McGrew revives a neglected, but intriguing argument for the historical reliability of the Bible. While most of historical apologetics typically features flashy arguments from archaeology or textual criticism, McGrew challenges us to look inside the texts themselves to find the earmarks of authenticity. One such indicator is what is called an “undesigned coincidence”. McGrew defines this as follows.

Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts by Dr. Lydia McGrew. DeWard Publishing. 2017. $16.

An undesigned coincidence is a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned by the person or people giving the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a puzzle. (pg. 12)

McGrew provides an analogy of three friends: Alan, Betty, and Carl. Alan and Betty tell you they recently had an intervention with Carl, but Carl denies any conversation took place. In their own independent stories, Alan and Betty tell you they all three met at a coffee shop. Alan mentions that it was extremely crowded so they could barely find a table for the three of them; Betty mentions that Alan knocked his coffee in her lap during the conversation. Alan doesn’t mention the spill and Betty doesn’t mention the crowd. Nevertheless, we can see that these two details coincide nicely. A crowded table with little elbow room makes a spill more likely – especially a spill into someone’s lap rather than onto the table.

The kicker is that such a roundabout, offhand confirmation of the two stories is highly unlikely to be the product of collusion. Typically, colluders create obvious points for their audience to notice. Thus, subtle confirming evidences like this lend credence to the stories being true.

Once the concept of undesigned coincidences is in place, McGrew surveys the historical books of the New Testament pulling out the strongest examples. The cumulative effect is intended to demonstrate that (i) the Gospel writers provided a historically reliable account of the life and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and (ii) the author of Acts provided a historically reliable account of the early church and Paul’s mission. As such, the book is divided into two parts.

Part I: The Four Gospels

  • The Synoptics Explain John
  • John Explains the Synoptics
  • The Synoptics Explain Each Other
  • Miscellaneous

Part II: Acts & Pauline Epistles

  • Connections Between the Universally Acknowledged Pauline Epistles
  • Connections Between the Other Pauline Epistles

In Part I, McGrew is conscious of the debates over literary dependency between the Gospels and explicitly constructs the argument so as to skirt most of the associated difficulties. Personally, I find the miscellaneous examples to be the most convincing because when the line of explanation is convoluted, it becomes exponentially more difficult to explain by authorial coordination. One of the more popular examples is the feeding of the five thousand. John’s account is as follows.

Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”

John 6:1-5 (ESV)

It seems peculiar that Jesus would ask Phillip, of all people, where to buy food. One might expect Peter or one of the other A-list apostles if this were a fabricated tale. However, there are two pieces that when brought together make for a nice explanation. In Luke’s account of the feeding, we are provided with the location as the city of Bethsaida.

On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him

Luke 9:10 (ESV)

Earlier in John, we are told that Phillip is actually from the area.

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

John 1:43-45

Pulling all of these independent threads together, we have a satisfying explanation: Jesus asked Phillip where to buy food because they were near his home town of Bethsaida.

Part II focuses on the books of Acts and its connection to the Pauline epistles. As with the Gospels, McGrew is conscious of the debates over authorship, subdividing the section between the universally acknowledged Pauline epistles and those whose authorship is contested in scholarship.

The mileage varies on the strength of the arguments. Some are close to knock-down, others are more conjectural. However, (1) that’s the nature of historical data and (2) they don’t all have to be individually strong because the cumulative effect is stronger than the sum of the individual coincidences. Although, at some points, I thought McGrew relied too heavily on the psychology of the writers e.g. “If he were making this up, he would’ve gone into more detail about etc. etc.”. It wasn’t so much as to detract from the work as a whole, but, a more robust defense of authorial intentions at the relevant points would’ve been preferred.

Each chapter has a great summarizing table at the end with the name of the coincidence, which passage explains which, and additional notes, such as whether the event involved a miracle. The best way to describe this book is a reboot. McGrew has taken an old argument, spruced up the best parts with modern scholarship, trimmed off the outdated elements, and added her original contributions. McGrew acknowledges which coincidences are her own and which are updated versions of William Paley or J.J. Blunt, both champions of this argument from the 18th and 19th centuries. I think this is one of those arguments that is hard to grasp at first, but, once it “clicks” it’s truly ingenious. The best part is that anyone can pick up the New Testament and find new coincidences on their own. I hope McGrew will do a follow up volume on coincidences in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible.

Formatting 4.5 / 5.0
Material 4.0 / 5.0
Cover art 5.0 / 5.0
Overall 4.2 / 5.0

Assessment: Highly recommended


Christmas Book Review: The Logic of God Incarnate

The Logic of God Incarnate is my favorite Christmas book. Is HM Relton right that “The person of Christ is the bankruptcy of human logic”? Tom Morris argues that contemporary philosophical objections to the Incarnation fail.

This is a fantastic, thought provoking book that I will definitely read again. As promised in the synopsis, Morris does a great job parsing out the key metaphysical distinctions for retaining the coherency of the orthodox claim that God the Son is identical to Jesus of Nazareth. The key takeaways: (i) common properties are not necessarily essential properties and (ii) merely human and fully human are not the same thing. Overall, I rate this book a 4.6/5

For much of the book, I was skeptical of his proposed “two-minds” model. The terminology is terrible because it sounds exactly like he is promoting Nestorianism. Well, he isn’t and while I’m a little hesitant to fully endorse it, it does seem like a coherent and plausible model. I was especially persuaded by his argument concerning the possibility of multiple incarnations.

It was difficult for me to get my head around some of the concepts because of my layman knowledge of metaphysics. Nevertheless, the salient points are well communicated and I definitely recommend this book if you are interested in sophisticated defenses of Chalcedonian Christology.

In ch. 1, Morris lays out the incoherence charge, surveys a few defensive maneuvers but dismisses them as ad hoc manipulation of the principle of indiscernible identical. In Ch. 2, Morris addresses two alternatives to orthodoxy: the one-nature view as espoused by Ronald Leigh and the reduplactive properties view espoused by RT Herbert. The first fails on the grounds that it assumes objects cannot have kind-natures essentially. The second fails as it only works for representational properties. Morris’s central argument centers on the fact that a common feature of all members of a kind-nature is not an essential property. For example, all humans have been born on planet earth; however, not-being-born-on-earth is not a property that would disqualify a being from being human.

Morris addresses the temptation & impeccability experienced by Christ. The chief argument is epistemic, not alethic, possibility of sin is sufficient for temptation. Paralleling Frankfurt cases, Morris argues that the human range of consciousness held a belief set which entailed the possibility of sin, yet, this was never genuinely open. I’m not sure about Morris’s two-mind model that undergirds his analysis, though.

The last chapter, “The Cosmic Christ”, deals with the objection that Christianity is too small, or, “Did Jesus die for Klingons?” Morris argues that (i) most of these arguments ultimately boil down to “muh unevangelized” and (ii) his “two-mind” view accounts for multi-planetary incarnations. I found the thought experiment helpful. Morris’s answer keeps the Son as the only redeemer.

One of the most interesting sections was Morris’s argument for the essential goodness of God which I have adapted as follows:

On the Anselmian view, God is, among other things, essentially omnipotent and omniscient. Can we derive essential goodness from these two properties? Consider the following reductio.

Assume in some world W God commits an evil act at time t and thus ceases to be good. Consider the moment right before at time t – 1. There are two options:

(a) God does *not* intend to do the evil act
(b) God does intend to do the evil act

If (a) is true and God commits the evil act at t, then He could not be considered omnipotent for He would be coerced into doing something.

If (b) is true, then God actually ceases to be good at t – 1 for sin is a condition of the heart. Thus, by intending to do evil, God has ceased to be good. This creates a bigger issue because if God is omniscient, then He knew what His intentions were from the beginning of creation. Indeed, it was at the beginning of creation that He decreed all of His future acts, including, in this thought experiment, the evil act at time t. However, if He intended to do evil at the beginning of creation, then at no time has God been good.

The reductio is complete: if God does evil at time t, it was either in accord with His intentions or against His intentions. If it was always His intention to do evil, He has never been good. If was was never His intention, He is not omnipotent.

This gives us

(G) If God is (i) essentially omnipotent and (ii) essentially omniscient and (iii) good at time t, then, God is good for all t.

Unfortunately, the modal scope of this argument is limited. We can conclude that God is contingently (although eternally) good, but, it does not show God is good in every possible world.

Book Review: Transcending Racial Barriers

This book is a great, short primer on addressing racial issues in the United States. Yancey and Emerson focus primarily on the tension between blacks and whites, so, it is not quite universally applicable. The core thesis of the book is that (i) proposed solutions to racial tensions fall along a spectrum of majority-group obligations (i.e. what whites need to change) to minority-group obligations (i.e. what people of color need to change) and (ii) most of these models fail because they fall too far to either ends of the spectrum. In place of these failed models, Yancey and Emerson propose a new, centrist model called the “mutual-obligations” approach. The basic contention is not all that controversial: white people and people of color have to agree on the solution if said solution is going to be successful. Saying that whites need to fix the broken system that we have created and benefitted from will not work because (i) it creates an unnecessary sense of powerlessness among people of color and (ii) heck no, we like our white privilege. Saying that we need to all just be colorblind will not work because (i) it allows the very real systemic problems to be ignored and (ii) it devalues the uniqueness of culture. Thus, Yancey and Emerson suggest that each group has obligations to the other if there is going to be long lasting reform. To evaluate this empirically, they analyze (through interviews) successful interracial communities: the U.S. military, interracial churches, and interracial marriages. In all of these cases, there was a “critical core” identity around which the communities aligned themselves and for which they sacrificed their self-interests.

In interracial churches, the interviewees expressed a common identity in Christ and need of His grace – truly an equalizing factor unlike any other. Because of this, they did not let their station as white or black influence how valuable they saw others that were unlike them. (Historical note: this has been a defining part of the church since its founding. The absolute scandal in the 1st century Mediterranian culture was that people of all social strata would participate in worship. Slaves and owners, while treated differently by their peers were equal before Christ. There is some speculation that this factored into later abolitionist movements, but, I’m not versed enough on the topic to speak intelligently one way or the other). Moreover, these churches allowed for self-reflection on the part of the leadership because they had to make decisions about conducting corporate worship in a ways such that it was mindful of all of the cultures present. The members of the church benefitted from communing with members of different backgrounds and expressions of faith. My favorite interview was of a Japanese-American who talked about how he adjusted when greeting Latino members of his church. He was shocked and uncomfortable the first time that he was greeted by a stranger with a hug where in the same situation, he would have used a simple handshake. Yet, he learned that in their culture, cold handshakes are considered distant and aloof. I identified with this man’s story because the first time I met Ada’s family and friends, they looked at me like I was performing a professional business transaction. In fact, before Ada and I started dating, I don’t think I ever gave her a hug but maybe once or twice.

It was also in these close, interracial communities that honest discussions about race relations can be had. If the environment is not political and you know the other person is not against everything you hold dear, it allows for more open conversation. Indeed, this was what helped me, as a white guy, to start to see things differently. My exposure to racial tension had always been through angry liberals in protests and it was easy for me to dismiss their opinions just like it’s easy for everyone to dismiss opinions of people you don’t relate to. But, a few years ago when I started hearing some of the same concerns being calmly stated by conservative black Christians who I respected, it was easier to accept that there might be more to the issue. Indeed, Yancey and Emerson point out this effect in interracial communities: whites began to be more aware and sympathetic to the difficulties faced by their brothers and sisters of color. Interestingly, in interracial marriages, the white spouse would show changes in their attitude toward racial tensions but the spouse of color would not. Also interestingly, the white spouse did not show a substantial increase in their socioeconomic status as a result of the marriage, but the non-white spouse on average did increase their socioeconomic status after the marriage.

There are several more interesting anecdotes and empirical results of interracial communities. The main point of this book is fairly simple: common goals, mutual obligations. I definitely recommend it if you are interested in racial tension in the U.S. and are unsure of where to start. It’s a short read, not overly ideological, and there are 15 pages of references at the end for further reading.

Overall: 4.0/5

Book Review: The Heresy of Orthodoxy

“Early Christianity was a mess with scores of contradicting gospels and different beliefs about who Jesus was. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that the orthodox squashed out opposing views and rewrote the NT manuscripts”. Such is the charge that Köstenberger and Kruger tackle in this short work. They argue (I) early Christianity was remarkably United around the core identity and actions of Jesus, (II) the disagreement on the NT canon was localized to peripheral books and the 4 Gospels enjoyed widespread privileged status as early as the beginning of the 2nd century and (III) the textual reliability of the NT collection far and away outsrips any contemporary work.It’s important to go into this book with the right expectation. Essentially, this is a condensed summary of the authors’ work in three controversial areas of Christian origins: plurality of beliefs in the early church, origin of the NT canon, and textual criticism. I did not know this and having already read Kruger’s work on the canon and Daniel Wallace’s work on textual criticism, the arguments came off as surface level. DO NOT GET ME WRONG, it’s a great overview book, but if you are already familiar with Kruger or Köstenberger’s work in these areas, I would not recommend it. If you are looking for a starting place in these controversies, I would absolutely recommend it and further, follow the rigorous footnotes for detailed discussion on every point made.
With the caveat that this is not an extremely detailed work, I found many of the arguments to be a little rushed. To their credit, the authors would often cite a more detailed discussion in the footnotes. The form of some of the arguments were not overly persuasive to me even though I agree with the conclusions; however, as mentioned in my previous review on “Is There A Synoptic Problem?”, I think that if you are going to make a probability claim, it needs to include a properly justified p-value. 
Overall 3.8/5

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Book Review: Is There A Synoptic Problem?

There is a lot of good and a fair bit of “meh” in this book. Linneman’s main thesis is that current scholarship’s obsession with the Synoptic Problem and, by extension, the two-source theory is unwarranted. Then, she defends the litereary independence of the Synoptics. 
At the start, she surveys several modern NT textbooks that blithely assert (without argumentation) the literary dependence of the Synoptics and the use of Q by MT/LK. This area stands out as she effectively shows that modern scholarship is effectively indoctrinating students with the two-source theory. This critique is also shared by Mark Goodacre (who actually thinks the Synoptics are literarily dependent). He and Linneman both argue that the Synoptic Problem is taught through the lens of the two-source hypothesis without proper attention given to the data that need explanation. It is to this question that Linneman turns in Part 2 of the book. 
Here, she provides an extensive quantitative analysis of the parallels that supposedly demonstrate literary dependence. While her work is extremely valuable, I did not find her analysis overly convincing. For example, she would argue along the lines “We are expected to believe that Luke only found 28% of his source material from Mark valuable enough to retain verbatim which is absurd!” Granted, this is about the same caliber of reasoning used by the folks that came up with the two-source hypothesis. However, I think Linneman should have done more statistical analysis. Admittedly, I am an engineer, so, something like “On the hypothesis of literary dependence, we find a p-value of 0.036 for this pericope” would be much more convincing. Linneman thinks she has definitively shown that the literary dependence hypothesis is absurd and untenable. I do not find her argumentation that persuasive; however, I can say that her work has switched me from leaning towards the two-source theory to leaning slightly towards literary independence. YMMV.
The other weak area is at the end where she attempts to construct a plausible theory of how the Synoptics originated. I do not think that she substantially interacted with the objections to (a) the reliability of the patristic fathers nor (b) the Aramaic origins of Matthew. I think she could have been a bit more critical.
Lastly, I understand that she perceives historical-criticism as parasitic to Christian belief; however, I found her style to be unnecessarily polemic. Once I got used to it, it was fine to read; however, people who are already hostile to her position will not find the style to be any more comforting. I get the impression that may be an unnecessary barrier to interacting with her detractors.

Overall, this is a good read. It’s a great example of how conservative scholars interact with and take liberal scholarship seriously even when not reciprocated. 

Rating: 3.9/5

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