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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review of Eric J. Bargerhuff, "The Most Misused Stories in the Bible"

Bargerhuff, Eric J.  The Most Misused Stories in the Bible.  Bloomington, MN:  Bethany House, 2017.

I am doing a new thing with my blog, as I am going to be reviewing new books on a monthly basis as part of a program I am participating in for a publisher.   The other day, I was inundated with three packages in my Martinsburg, WV, P.O. box which we haven't checked in some time, and upon checking the box one of the books I had received was this one.   Now, it is important that as I review a book, I know a couple of things.  First, I want to know something about the author, as that is vital to understanding more of what I will be reading.  Secondly, I want to also check out his source material to make sure it isn't referencing off-the-wall junk in the book - referencing a deviant source doesn't necessarily invalidate the book itself, as oftentimes the source may be cited critically in order to show how the author differs with it, and that I can respect.  Therefore, I want to start there first.

Eric Bargerhuff is, as the back cover of this book notes, a professor of Bible and Theology at Trinity College of Florida.  He received his own degrees at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, including the Ph.D. he possesses, which would place him squarely within the Protestant Evangelical tradition.  He has written another similarly-titled book, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, and that will be worth examining more at some point as well.  I also checked out his Trinity College profile (, accessed 5/27/2017) and it notes that he lives in Trinity, FL, which is a small community between New Port Richey and Zephyrhills just off SR 54.  I know that area well, as we used to attend Mass at a Maronite parish that met out there, and we also lived about an hour south of there for several years.  Trinity College is itself a small school located in the same area, and what puzzles me is what denominational affilliation (if any) that Trinity and Dr. Bargerhuff have, as he has 20 years of pastoral experience as well.  In reading the book thoroughly, I will understand better where is position is and it may reveal his theological tradition within Evangelicalism.

As for source material he references, a careful perusal through his footnotes reveals that he relies on some fairly orthodox Evangelical sources for his material, citing frequently for instance the works of John MacArthur and Wayne Grudem, as well as John Piper and D.A. Carson.  This means that he is not in any way part of the "Emerging Church" movement, and he appears to be part of a moderately Calvinistic theological tradition.  I am still at variance with many of his views as an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist myself, but I can appreciate and respect his views, as at least he is within a consistent Christian tradition.

I am going to focus my review now on three chapters of the book, the first being Chapter 4, which he entitles "Jonah and the Big Fish."   One excellent point he makes is on page 41, where he asserts that many who read the account of Jonah misunderstand it due to misplaced emphasis - many focus on either the fish itself, or the city of Nineveh, or even the person of Jonah.  However, Bargerhuff correctly notes that the true emphasis of the story is to be upon God's patient, enduring, and loving grace, and his love for the sinner and desire for the sinner's redemption.  This is consistent with the historic Church teaching regarding the kerygma of Scripture and divine economy - God's desire is to restore mankind to what he was created to be in the Garden, and all of Scripture (especially its covenants) point to Christ as the ultimate manifestation of that kerygma.  This is also consistent with the Thomistic tradition as well, as the function of supernatural grace is to perfect, heal, and elevate nature, and its prime focus is on human nature when it comes to the purpose of the kerygma.  As Bargerhuff points out too, the legitimacy of Jonah's prophetic office is not in question either, but rather the fact that Jonah messes up also focuses the story back to the primary role of God's grace, which is not only extended to the Ninevites Jonah preaches to eventually, but to Jonah himself.  As a catechist, one concern of correctly teaching the Fidei Depositum is that Christocentricity must be noted in the Old Testament accounts, and this is done primarily through typology.  On page 42, Bargerhuff addresses this specifically when he correctly notes that Jesus even linked his own death and resurrection to Jonah's story, in that Jonah's ordeal with the fish was a typological image of the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Himself.  The following paragraph to this discussion on page 42 also resonates well - in addressing those who would question the historicity of Jonah - especially the fish part - Bargerhuff reminds the reader that the Bible is a supernatural book about a supernatural God who does supernatural things.  That was refreshing to read, in that Bargerhuff affirms the historicity of Scripture and is not subscribing to Enlightenment-influenced Biblical scholarship like that of the Turbingen School.  Reading further on page 43, Bargerhuff also notes the fact that God pursued Jonah despite the fact Jonah balked and rebelled against a divine mandate - the fish was not necessarily a punishment in other words, but also a demonstration of God's grace, which the author describes as "radical and pursuing."  For many who almost divorce the Father in the Old Testament from the Son in the New, this says a lot - it means that the same grace God manifested in the person of the Son was very much a part of the Old Testament kerygma as well.   Note as well Genesis 3, another passage often misused by many and that the author should have also addressed - when God pronounces sentence in the Garden at the end of Genesis 3, it is often assumed that God "cursed" Adam and Eve - if you re-read that however, it does not imply that at all.  Rather, God cursed the ground for man's sake, and the implication here is that if man stays busy, he will protect himself from the temptation of sin.   In Jonah's case a similar misunderstanding comes to mind in the thinking of many who read this story - moving over to page 46, the author notes that while the miraculous - a big fish swallowing Jonah and Jonah somehow surviving - is a prominent part of the story, there are three words that are often overlooked:  "the Lord appointed."  Bargerhuff then proceeds to explain this by noting that the appointment by God of all the steps in this saga is a witness of the unlimited supernatural grace God extends to all He loves, and even adversity is at times an appointment by God to get our attention.  I personally experienced that recently myself when a series of adverse circumstances made me snap, and I even refused to go to church for a couple of weeks.  Yet, there was something liberating about it, and I had time to do some introspection and was able to get refocused and am now more aware of what I am supposed to do and how I am supposed to do it.  Even reviewing this book is an appointment of sorts, as it confirms my own experience in this case - my late spiritual mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, often said "Man's disappointments are God's appointments."  That could truly apply to the story of Jonah as well.  A couple of pages later, Bargerhuff even expounds more on that point by noting that God even uses human rebellion to work His plan - as noted on page 50, even when Jonah obeys, his heart was not truly in what he was doing, and therefore God used a man with shortcomings to bring a city to its knees and spare it - God uses us sometimes in spite of ourselves, in other words.  On page 51, the author's orthodox position is summarized in one sentence he writes - "Ministry success today should never be measured by the size of the building or the crowd, but by the change in people's hearts and lives through the message of repentance and faith."  True repentance is something that can be accomplished by imperfect vessels - as an Anglo-Catholic, this is made very apparent through the sacramental grace one receives in the Eucharist; it is not about the priest offering, but rather about the Body and Blood we receive.  Grace, as the author notes on page 54, is not something deserved (the classic Evangelical definition of "grace" in this case is "unmerited favor.") but rather is an endowed gift God gives us to sanctify and restore us to that which He intended us to be in the first place.  And, the focus shifts as a result of that grace from us to Him.  That is why the author makes a very compelling case about the fact the story is ultimately about that and not about the fish, Nineveh, or even Jonah.  However, those secondary details - the historicity of Jonah, ancient Assyrian history, and the identity of the fish (which I personally believe to be a Megalodon) enhance the story and there is nothing wrong with studying those details, but the author asserts that we need to recall the real focus of the story is God's supernatural grace.

The next chapter I wanted to turn to is Chapter 13, entitled "This is My Body."  As an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist personally with a definite belief in the Real Presence, this chapter got my attention.  Being the author is an Evangelical Protestant with a more symbolic view of Communion, I expect to differ with him in opinion as I embarked upon reading this chapter.  There is a statement though on page 135 that Bargerhuff makes which summarizes the ultimate desire of Eucharistic theology, although he probably doesn't see it that way - the Christian longs for the presence of Christ.  He then notes on the following page that there are many ways Christians can spiritually experience the presence of Christ - prayer, worship, service, Bible study, fellowship with those of like precious faith, etc.  He does note that the Lord's Table is the unique way we experience this presence, and in a typical Protestant Evangelical way he notes the presence is solely spiritual and a remembrance in the sense of "memorial."  He then proceeds to misinterpret the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence on page 137 when he incorrectly says that Catholics are "in fact" offering up Christ as a sacrifice on a regular basis - that is not exactly true at all, and like many he misinterprets what we do in the Mass.  God transcends our linear time and space, and no Catholic (at least an informed one) would ever believe that we are sacrificing Jesus over and over again - that misconception is a carryover from biases from the Radical Reformation, and I would recommend that Dr. Bargerhuff read the Catholic position as it truly is believed by us - he would do well to read Scott Hahn's The Lamb's Supper, as well as Brant Pitre's The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.   If one takes the time to really study this, one will understand that the sacrifice of Christ is once and eternal, and by supernatural grace we participate in that sacrifice every time we partake of the Body and Blood, not by recrucifying Christ all over again, but rather by a mystery of faith we are taken ourselves in a way that transcends time to the foot of the very Cross itself, and there we receive the nourishment that transforms us through supernatural grace.   I am amused at how even educated Evangelicals who are intelligent and well-read still miss this, when they should know better.  That being said, I will give him credit though for stating something at the bottom of page 137 - the ongoing practice of sacrificial rites in the Old Testament was indeed designed to foreshadow the future perfect sacrifice of Christ, and I will go further by saying that every covenant points to that reality.  On the next page (138) Bargerhuff also makes another common Evangelical error - the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  I used to believe this as a fundamental of faith until I understood it better myself - God cannot substitute for our sin, and penal substitution is not possible because the love of God is far deeper and greater than our sin.  By extension, so is supernatural grace.  Although Jesus was a perfect sacrifice for our sins, He must not be understood as a tit-for-tat substitution - later on the same page, Bargerhuff partially redeems himself by noting correctly that the perfect sacrifice of Jesus was not to atone for sin, but to bring a reward of complete salvation.  But, why?  Simply, it goes back to unlimited love and supernatural grace - God's love for us is beyond our ability to understand, and it far outweighs even the worst sin committed.  Our responsibility then is to accept or reject it.  In further discussion of the Eucharist (although as an Evangelical Bargerhuff would not call it that) he then makes the assumption that the references Jesus made to "Body" and "Blood" were merely metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic and spiritual, as he notes on page 141.  I would suggest that he re-examine what the early Church taught about the Eucharist - he may be in for a surprise!  Also, while he does acknowledge the importance of the sacrament in the life of the Church, he errs by stating that there is no specific command on the frequency of celebrating it - on the contrary, many Fathers and Doctors of the Church from the earliest times taught that it is to be partaken as often as possible, at least weekly.  One of the earliest documents of Church discipline, dating to earliest times, entitled the Didache gives the admonition to "Gather each Sunday, break bread, and give thanks, first confessing your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure."  Look at those terms - "giving thanks" is the background for the term Eucharist itself, and the confession of sin before receiving it also denotes that this is not mere bread and wine, but something more.  And, the term sacrifice - as an Evangelical, Bargerhuff would not be as intimately familiar with the term liturgy itself, as the word comes from two Greek terms (Laos, meaning "people, and ergon, meaning "work" - they are joined by the conjunctive tou meaning "of" or "from," and thus have evolved together via the Latin liturgica to mean "a work of or from the people.)  and when liturgy is also associated with Eucharist as the focal point of the liturgical celebration, it pops out as being a work of sacrifice in thanksgiving for what God has done for us, and we receive it humbly and joyfully.   It is also an integral part of the Lord's Prayer as well (for another discussion, but I would challenge Bargerhuff to look at the misuse of the term "daily bread" and how it was traditionally understood - it will cause one to radically rethink how one prays that prayer!).  Therefore, contrary to the classic Evangelical assertion that the frequency of how a church celebrates the Lord's Table is irrelevant, the early Church placed a great importance upon that very fact.  Therefore, while some good things can be gleaned from this chapter, in the greater context of faith and praxis it is of little value to a Catholic Christian.

I now want to focus on the conclusion of the book, which begins on page 153.   There are many valuable and good points to be made in the first couple of paragraphs.  For one, he affirms that we should never abandon the literal (plain text) meaning of Scripture, although at the same time we use reason and the teaching of the Church to guide us, which I would add.  There is a traditional four-fold reading of Scripture that the Church mandates, and it entails this - the literal (plain sense), the allegorical (dealing with faith and spirituality), the moral (dealing with practice and living), and the anagogical (focusing on the ultimate destination of our faith - where we are going).  Although over the centuries some Biblical scholars have focused on one and have dismissed others, they all go together and Scripture is to be understood from all of those senses.  That being said, Bargerhuff on the following pages then offers some sound and universal responses to common errors that often get us off-kilter - he notes that we should avoid ignoring the context of the passage, attempt to understand the main point, read it free of modern-day biases, accepting discovered truth whether we agree or disagree with it personally, and others.  However, on one he errs grossly - on page 156, he makes a blanket statement that a common error is allowing "tradition" to cloud facts.  What he says on the surface makes sense - we shouldn't impose human traditions back on our understanding of Scripture.  There is some wisdom in that, but Bargerhuff is not specific at defining of what he thinks "human traditions" are.  The "T word" is almost an anathema to many Protestant Evangelicals, and often they will balk at the mere utterance of the word without really understanding what they are balking against.  In this case, what Bargerhuff needs to clarify is the difference between "human traditions" and historic Tradition of the Church, something that may not be relevant to his understanding but is fundamental to a Catholic Christian.  The problem with many who balk at the term "tradition" is that often they dismiss historic understandings as taught by the Church since her founding in favor of something they "feel" the Holy Spirit is telling them, and in essence what they are doing (although they fail to admit it) is replacing a Tradition of the Church with their own "human traditions."  When that happens, it creates a disconnect - one knows something should be there, but in rejecting the soundness of the historic position of the Church and replacing it with their own experiential "human tradition," they are in essence trying to substitute a filet mignon with a dollar-store weiner, and it will eventually lead to some bad consequence.  Scripture, Tradition, and Reason all form a part of a sound hermeneutic of Scripture, and they are all integral to a healthy theology and hermeneutic.  If one is lacking or replaced, it makes the whole thing incomplete.  So, in essence, what Bargerhuff said by the imposition of "human traditions" clouding facts, he is correct, but it also points a finger back to the many sects of Evangelicals whose own bodies of "human traditions" have often even pitted them against each other.  That then leads to another issue he addresses as an error (correctly) on page 157 - taking a man-centered approach instead of seeing God and His glory as the central focus of Scripture.  The Bible is primarily a book about God, as he correctly states, but it isn't about who God is (theology in the strictest sense) but rather about what He does (economy, the essence of the Kerygma, in other words).  It would probably be important to buttress his argument with that distinction, as there is no possibility that anything could ever completely reveal to us who God is, but his deeds do reveal many of the important things about Him.  That is what makes Holy Scripture true, inerrant, and infallible - God's work is true, and it is for the benefit of His creation, in particular the human race.

There are many valuable things that Bargerhuff does say in the concluding paragraphs of the book which do merit its value, and it compels the reader to take away some new insights on how one approaches Scripture.  He notes correctly in the middle of page 158 the imperfection of human nature, and that our own understanding of Scripture grows as we study more and grow ourselves.  I can testify to that fact, and by writing that Bargerhuff does too - admitting that shows an openness on the part of the author that may even in the future require a revision or two of this very book (and maybe even my review of it - who's to say?).  In the next paragraph, he also notes that people are hungry for the truth but don't necessarily realize it until that moment happens (as it has to me for sure at times) when one's soul gets an overwhelming craving for it,  This leads to the very last sentence of the book, which is "Let us strive to be faithful, and in humility, allow ourselves to be corrected along the way."  That could be a fitting prayer for all of us, and as one of my own professors at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr. Bob Rice, admonished us once in a class lecture, Scripture is not just a book to be studied academically, but it is foremost to be read prayerfully.  I think that Dr. Bargerhuff would probably concur, as despite a few denominational biases in his writing he also is a man who seems to write with a humility, and that I can appreciate and respect.  Definitely read the book - if you are Evangelical reader, you will probably think "This sounds good to me," but a traditional Catholic reader of this text will need to be better-informed when reading it, and read with discernment.  Like anything else, there is good "meat" in the text, but there is also some fat and gristle you will need to spit out on occasion - but, don't throw out the steak because of a piece of gristle - savor the meat and discard the gristle!