The Nature, Function, and Purpose of Old Testament Genealogies



900-158_Ahnentafel_Herzog_LudwigEvery student of the Bible at one point or another comes to certain portions of Scripture that create confusion, perhaps mixed with a tinge of boredom or imagined insignificance. One such portion is the genealogies found across the Old Testament.[1] This post will examine in cursory fashion a smattering of these genealogies, giving attention to some general considerations of their form, how they function in a text, and conclude with a brief word on the purpose they serve. In so doing, the reader will grasp the importance genealogies play in societies in general and that of the nation of Israel in particular. It is easy to assign one all-encompassing reason for the presence of genealogies in OT, but that would be reductionistic and ultimately unhelpful; genealogies are much more expansive and layered than most readers often assume.

I. The Nature of Genealogies

In a sentence, genealogies are a record of a person’s ancestral descent.[2] Although genealogies can be passed down in oral fashion, we have them in their canonical-literary form in various portions spread throughout the Old Testament, some short and some long.

One helpful distinction made by scholars is that of linear and segmented genealogies. The former provides the name of an individual and then connects him/her to a generation prior (e.g., son and father, etc.), while the latter can do the same while also providing information within a generation (e.g., brother to brother, etc.).[3] For example, in Genesis 5:3-31 there is a linear genealogy, listing the line from Adam to Noah, one generation at a time. The format is simple enough: When A had lived X years, he fathered B. Also in the book of Genesis, in Gen. 10:1-32, one finds a segmented genealogy. In this example, the emphasis is not so much on the continuity of one generation to the next but rather the geographical spread of Noah’s three sons.

I will examine these two examples in greater detail below, but at this point it is good to note that this distinction should not be pushed too far since at times both linear and segmented genealogies appear together. In such cases, the transition marks the significance or insignificance of a specific generation.[4] A good general rule, as J. W. Wright explains in his discussion on the Pentateuch, is that “linear genealogies . . . tend to connect characters at the center of the unfolding of the plot; segmented genealogies tend to fill out the families of characters who no longer will play a central role in the . . . story.”[5]

A few other odds and ends include the distinction between patrilinear versus matrilinear genealogies; most genealogies in the OT trace the line through the father. Additionally, genealogies can vary in length, although obviously they must consist of at least two generations. There are twenty-six generations from Solomon to the sons of Elioenai in 1 Chronicles 3:10-24.[6] And lastly, there is a degree of fluidity among genealogies where details can vary in various circumstances: (1) a change in relationship among individuals, (2) or an addition of persons or families to the society; (3) or when telescoping is used (i.e., names are removed).[7]

II. The Function of Genealogies

It would be easy to assign one overall function to genealogies, but in so doing one would miss the richness of their use in the Old Testament. In this section I will list several functional categories and will seek to provide examples of each.[8]

(1) Social Function

There is a social function to genealogies, especially of the segmented sort, which explore the kinship relationships between individuals. At a horizontal level, these genealogies show the equality of individuals in relation to one another; at the vertical level, they show a level of hierarchy and hence of inequality, not in the inferior sense but that of different role and purpose (e.g., those descended of Levi were priests and thus a man from the tribe of Gad could not become a priest).[9] Another important feature of segmented genealogies is that the OT does not only contain the descendants of the children of Israel but also preserves that of surrounding nations (e.g., Gen. 10:6-7, 21-31; 22:20-24; 25:1-6, 12-20; 36), which serves to show Israel how to relate to its neighbors among other reasons.

(2) Legitimizing Function

Another function of genealogies is the establishment of legitimacy. In other words, it confirms the legitimacy a certain person to be included in a group or to serve an official capacity or receive inheritance of a land. These appear most often in linear genealogies which “ground a claim to power, status, rank, office, or inheritance in an earlier ancestor.”[10] For example, in Zephaniah 1:1 the prophet provides a linear genealogy: “Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah.” Among the prophetic authors, only Zephaniah traces his lineage back to the fourth generation, highlighting its particular importance.[11] The reference to Hezekiah, as Adele Berlin notes, suggests a connection to the kinds reforms, which “hints that Zephaniah’s apparent support of religious reform in his own day has an origin in his family history.”[12] In this case, there is a certain weight of legitimacy given to Zephaniah’s ministry as he seeks to turn Judah back to the Lord.

On a similar front, this legitimizing role is at play in postexilic texts like Ezra and Nehemiah where Jews are returning home and the priesthood needs to be reestablished. It is clear that descent from Aaron was a necessary qualification for the priesthood (cf. Num. 16:40). Unless such lineage could be proven, there would be no right to claim priestly prerogatives or roles. Ezra 2:62 unequivocally states that certain individuals’ names were not found in the family records and as a result were “excluded from the priesthood as unclean.” The emphasis here is on a rigid safeguard to ensure the purity of devotion to the Lord.

(3) Theological Function

The most notable and lengthy of the OT genealogies is found 1 Chronicles 1-9. Most readers often skim over this section if not outright ignore it. H. G. M. Williamson is correct in observing that “few biblical passages are more daunting to the modern reader than the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles.”[13] Even modern commentators face this daunting challenge. Adam Welch, for example, believes these genealogies were not original to the book of Chronicles because they “have no unity among themselves and are not integrally related to the rest of the book.” But this assertion need not be so. The problem often arises when modern readers impose modernistic assumptions on the text, demanding a purely historical purpose to the genealogies inclusion in Chronicles.

For sake of space, I argue that the Chronicler’s use of genealogy gives a panoramic view of the human background of emergence of the nation of Israel.[14] Two key theological features in this use of genealogy, when taken as a whole, is (1) the hope-giving confidence that God is sovereign over the course of history and that (2) God is faithful to his covenant people. Moreover, this genealogy culminates in the Chronicler’s present day with his own generation, tucked away in exile in the Persian Empire. The entire sweep of history beginning with Adam in 1 Chronicles 1:1 is closely tied with the legitimizing function but it is more in that it gives this small remnant a sense of history rooted in the character and promises of God.[15]

Another theological function is found in Genesis 5:3 where it says, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (emphasis mine). This is clearly a hearkening back to Genesis 1:26 where God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” The inversion of the order is a literary device that points back to the original statement.[16] Moreover, as Wilson notes, “Adam genealogically transmits the divine image and the blessing to his son. The entire linear genealogy thus deals with the transmission of the divine image and the blessing through a series of firstborn sons. The genealogy thus has a theological function.”[17] The author of Genesis thus makes a theological point that the image and likeness of God continues down the line of Adam. More to the point, the Fall of man in Genesis 3 does not entirely obliterate the image and likeness of God in which he was created.

(4) Historical Function

The historical function serves to order the information of the past in order to make sense of and better understand the present.[18] The clearest example of this is the concluding verses in the book of Ruth. There are ten generations listed, from Perez to David. If the purpose of genealogy was purely to demonstrate the royal line of David, then reference could have been made to Judah, the father of Perez, who after all received Jacob’s prophetic blessing that the “scepter” would depart from Judah (Gen. 49:10). Instead, it seems more likely that this genealogy was appended in order to fill out some of the historical details; reference was made to Perez and David in verses 12 and 17 respectively, and so the reader would naturally ask, How did we get here?[19] Daniel Block, therefore, maintains that the key to this genealogy’s inclusion is found in the narrative section that precedes it and the relative silence as to the connection of these characters.[20]

(5) Literary Function

We have already examined the theological function of 1 Chronicles 1-9 above; but it also contains a literary function. Of special importance is the Chronicler’s portrayal of the tribe of Levi. In terms of both location and amount of space devoted to it, Levi’s tribe serves a central role in this genealogy. Gary Knoppers identifies a broad chiastic structure of this section:[21]

a. The peoples of the world (1 Chr. 1:1-54)

b. Judah (1 Chr. 2:3-4:23)

c. Simeon and the Transjordanian tribes (1 Chr. 4:24-5:26)

d. The tribe of Levi (1 Chr. 5:27-6:66)

c’. The northern tribes (1 Chr. 7:1-40)

b’. Benjamin (1 Chr. 8:1-40)

a’. The Persian period inhabitants of Jerusalem (1 Chr. 9:2-34)

Observing a similar arrangement, Brian Kelly argues that “Levi is placed in the literary and spiritual center of the Chronicler’s ideal conception of Israel.”[22] Along with Judah and Benjamin, the Chronicler also suggests that Levi will play an essential role in maintaining Israel’s heritage in post-exile as it had done so in the past.[23] Again, there is a legitimizing element at play here since there is a need for purity of descent within the priesthood, especially in the postexilic period.

Another literary dimension is the genealogical inclusion in narrative sections. One easy example of this is Ruth 4:18-22, which we already examined in detail above: the presentation of a ten-generation-long genealogy, however simple, speaks volumes to the reader as to the promise-keeping nature of God (cf. 2 Sam. 7:16).

(6) Military Function

The census list in Numbers 1:3-46 (and then re-done thirty-eight years later in 26:4b-51), although not a classic genealogy, functions in many ways like a genealogy. The most immediate reason for its inclusion in the book of Numbers is to count all the men over the age of twenty (Num. 1:3) who would be fit for military service — a kind of preliminary draft. The repetitive formula in this census is (1) tribal nomenclature, (2) military conditions of enlistment, (3) clan and familial basis, (4) tribal name reiterated, (5) tribal total.[24]

To better understand the nuanced and multi-layered function of genealogies, consider that the Levites are exempted from military services and were instead to carry and care for the tabernacle (Num. 1:50). In this small example, then, we find an element of the social function; there is an explanation and reiteration of social responsibilities among the various tribes. Moreover, there is a ethical affirmation of Israel’s faithful obedience — however short-lived — to the Lord in taking the census (Num. 1:54) and a theological affirmation of God’s covenant-keeping promises. Dennis Olson succinctly sums these various elements together:

Although the lists in Numbers display a somewhat altered form from the genealogies and tribal lists of the book of Genesis, they perform similar literary and theological functions. They mark major structural divisions. They make a theological claim about the continuity of the covenantal promises and laws given to the patriarchs for each succeeding generation. They make a theological claim for the inclusiveness of the covenant promises and laws for all Israel. Furthermore, the expanded segmented genealogies of Numbers 26 suggests a partial fulfillment of the promise of an abundance of descendants which was given to the patriarchs in the Genesis narrative.[25]

It is clear, then, that while a genealogy may function militarily, it also serves in a theological sense and social sense among others.

III. Brief Word on Purpose

For the sake of clarity of argument, this post has sought to somewhat neatly categorize the various functions of genealogies, and obviously many clearly operate on one or two main levels. But the nature of the Old Testament and the God that it gives testimony to, does not allow the modern reader to impose these categories onto the text as a straightjacket. Instead, these categories serve as an invitation to us modern readers to better grasp initially off-putting passages like genealogies.

This study serves to remind us, as Paul told Timothy in reference to the Old Testament, “[a]ll Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 2:16). The purpose of Old Testament genealogies is the purpose of Scripture: to transform God’s people in all ages into a righteous people ready to serve him in every good work. Although seemingly jarring or boring at first, genealogies (1) remind us God’s care and concern for individuals; (2) they remind us that God cares for how his people relate to each other and others around them; (3) they remind us that God’s infinitely concerned with his own holy standards while at the same time patient with weak and sinful people; (4) they remind us that God always has had and will always have a faithful remnant through the ages; (5) they remind us that God keeps his covenant promises; (6) they remind us that God is intimately acquainted with and sovereign over every epoch of human history; (7) they remind us that God uses an unworthy people to act both as his emissaries of grace and swords of judgment; (8) and they remind us that God is wonderfully creative, and among the various genres of Scripture one of them is genealogy.

[1] Of course, there are genealogies in the NT (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). The focus of this purpose, however, is solely on those in the OT.

[2] So D. S. Huffman, “Genealogy,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 253.

[3] J. W. Wright, “Genealogies,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 346.

[4] So ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James T. Sparks, The Chronicler’s Genealogies: Toward an Understanding of 1 Chronicles 1-9, Academia Biblica 28 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 15. The LXX allows four more generations, giving thirty in total. Cf. Gary N. Knoppers, I Chronicles 1-9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 334.

[7] Robert R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 27–36. See also Sparks, The Chronicler’s Genealogies: Toward an Understanding of 1 Chronicles 1-9, 18–21.

[8] These categories are adapted from Marshall D. Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002); John H. Walton, “Genealogies,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 2005), 309–316.

[9] Robert R. Wilson, “Genealogy, Genealogies,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 931.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kenneth L. Barker, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, New American Commentary 20 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 408–409.

[12] Adele Berlin, Zephaniah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible 25A (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 65.

[13] H. G. M. Williamson, 1 and 2 Chronicles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 38.

[14] J. A. Thompson, 1, 2 Chronicles, New American Commentary 9 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 48.

[15] Cf. ibid., 48–49. For a helpful extended discussion on this theme, see Michael Wilcock, The Message of Chronicles: One Church, One Faith, One Lord, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987), 19–31.

[16] So K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, New American Commentary 1A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 310.

[17] Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, 164.

[18] So Walton, “Genealogies,” 313.

[19] So Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary 6 (Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 735.

[20] Ibid., 736.

[21] Reproduced from Knoppers, I Chronicles 1-9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 261.

[22] Brian E. Kelly, “1 and 2 Chronicles,” in The ESV Study Bible, ed. Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins, and Thomas R. Schreiner (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 711.

[23] Knoppers, I Chronicles 1-9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 264.

[24] R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, New American Commentary 3B (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 76–77.

[25] Dennis T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch, Brown Judaic Studies 71 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), 187, quoted by Cole, Numbers, 76.

Book Review: “Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms” by David Barshinger


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9780199396757_450David P. Barshinger. Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture (Oxford, 2014).

For many decades the view often portrayed of Edwards has been that of philosopher, theologian, and revivalist. What’s often missing is that first and foremost Edwards was a student of the Bible—”he was at his core devoted to the glorious God of Scripture and to mining that Scripture for truth” (3). Barshinger seeks to amend this scholarly oversight of Edwards studies by offering the first book-length treatment of Edwards’ approach to a book of the Bible.

In the opening chapter Barshinger helpfully situates the Psalter in Edwards’ world. Present as an undercurrent throughout the work Barshinger uses four key Puritan interpreters of the Psalms in the 17th century: David Dickson (1583–1663), John Trapp (1601–1669), Matthew Poole (1624–1679), and Matthew Henry (1662–1714). This comparison enriches one’s study of Edwards’ exegesis of the Psalms by showing the similarity and divergence of Edwards with his Puritan predecessors—where Edwards’ hunkered down in the hermeneutical fort and where he blazed down his own interpretive path. This enlarges the book by perhaps a third if not more, but one can easily bypass these points of comparison by ignoring the footnotes.

Edwards’ continual emphasis on the history of redemption serves at the skeletal structure for each of the chapters: God and Scripture (ch. 2), Humanity and Sin (ch. 3), Christ (ch. 4), Spirit and Gospel (ch. 5), Christian Piety (ch. 6), and Church and Eternity (ch. 7). I found the analysis on Edwards’ Christian piety to be a devotional experience, particularly the discussion on the Psalms as a book for Christian living (pp. 283–307). With the anemic worship that ails the contemporary Christian church, this is both a timely and encouraging portion of the book.

Barshinger provides a helpful appendix where he details all of Edwards’ 104 extant sermons on the Psalms and where they can be found. Most helpful, however, is the Scripture index. Preachers and students of Edwards will appreciate the ease of having a ready resource on what Edwards thought on any given psalm (the only psalms not referenced are 54, 83, 120, and 150).

This is a wonderful study that is not only academically profitable but exegetically informative. Many pastors and students of Edwards will appreciate this work. One only hopes other students will take up similar studies on Edwards’ approach to other biblical books. On a related note, in footnote 43 on page 371 Barshinger alerts us to a forthcoming book by Douglas Sweeney where he will offer a synthesis of Edwards’ exegesis of the whole Bible: Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford). Needless to say, students of Edwards will eagerly await this volume!

Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Cipriano de Valera: Zeal for Salvation of His Countrymen


cipriano-de-valeraCipriano de Valera is not a name often recognized today, but he was a monumental figure for the number of Protestants exiled from from their native Spain under the Inquisition. In 1597 he translated Calvin’s Institutes into Spanish. In his preface his concluded with this exhortation:

“Therefore, open your eyes, O Spaniards, and forsaking those who deceive you, obey Christ and His word which alone is firm and unchangeable for ever. Establish and found your faith on the true foundation of the Prophets and Apostles and sole Head of His church.”

“Abrid, pues, los ojos oh Españoles, i dejando á los que os engañan, obedezed á Cristo i á su palabra, la cual sola es firme i inmudable para siempre. Estribad i fundad vuestra fé sobre el verdadero fundamento de los Profetas i Apóstoles, i la sola Cabeza de su Iglesia.”

Life and Death in Nursing Home Ministry



orig_old_hands_on_bible-300x222One of the residents I minister to at a local nursing home died this last Thursday. He leaves behind his wife of 68 years, another one of the residents at the nursing home. Though weak and frail, he was faithfully trusting in Christ and eager for glory.

The sobering reminder of death is one of the several lessons I’ve learned in this ministry—and also the blessedness: “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on!” (Revelation 14:13).

I wrote about these lessons in a post for The Gospel Coalition. You can read it here.

Anne Lamott on Writing First Drafts



Good reminder for writers from Anne Lamott:

birdbybird“For me, and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really sh***y first drafts. . . .

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

(HT: Matthew J. Hall)

Resources on John Calvin and Prayer


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John_Calvin_Poster-thumb-480x384[1]For my master’s course on Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, I decided to write on John Calvin’s view of prayer. Eventually the paper took shape and this became the title: “The Trinitarian Focus of Calvin’s Theology of Prayer.” In my paper I argue that throughout his writings Calvin has a robustly Trinitarian framework when discussing prayer. When we pray we are communing with the triune God: we pray to God the Father, in the Son, by the Holy Spirit. With a few exceptions, that emphasis is missing from most discussions on Calvin’s view of prayer. Perhaps when I receive my paper back with feedback and suggestions, I’ll post it here.

In the meantime, here’s a list of the secondary literature (books, chapters, articles, and theses) I found most helpful for my paper. I should also note that I mostly used primary sources (the Institutes and his commentaries).

Beeke, Joel R. “Calvin on Piety.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, edited by Donald K. McKim, 125–52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

———. “John Calvin on Prayer as Communion with God.” In Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, edited by Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Najapfour, 27–42. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011.

Benge, Dustin W., ed. Lifting up Our Hearts: 150 Selected Prayers from John Calvin. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012.

Boulton, Matthew Myer. Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Calhoun, David B. “Prayer: ‘The Chief Exercise of Faith.’” In Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis, edited by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback, 347–67. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008.

Coulibaly, Nouhoum. “Calvin’s Teaching and Practice of Prayer.” Master’s thesis, Tyndale Seminary, 2009.

Crisp, Oliver. “John Calvin and Petitioning God.” In Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology, 133–55. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010.

Hansen, Gary Neal. “Praying with John Calvin: Studious Meditation on the Psalms.” In Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers, 75–95. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012.

Hesselink, I. John. “Calvin’s Theology.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, edited by Donald K. McKim, 74–92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

———. “Introduction: John Calvin on Prayer.” In On Prayer: Conversation with God, 1–31. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Huijgen, Arnold. “Calvin and Prayer.” Lux Mundi 28, no. 4 (2009): 94–97.

Loggie, Robert Douglas. “Chief Exercise of Faith—An Exposition of Calvin’s Doctrine of Prayer.” The Hartford Quarterly 5, no. 2 (1965): 65–81.

Matheson, J. G. “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life.” Scottish Journal of Theology 2 (1949): 48–56.

Matteucci, Stephen. “A Strong Tower For Weary People: Calvin’s Teaching on Prayer.” Founders Journal 69 (Summer 2007): 19–24.

Mazaheri, John H. “Calvin[’s] and Augustine’s Interpretations of ‘The Father in Heaven.’” Revue D’histoire Ecclésiastique 106, no. 3–4 (2011): 440–51.

———. “John Calvin’s Teaching on the Lord’s Prayer.” In The Lord’s Prayer: Perspectives for Reclaiming Christian Prayer, edited by Daniel L. Migliore, 88–106. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993.

Murr, Barry. “Treasure in Plain Sight: Prayer in John Calvin’s Theology.” Vision, September 1, 2006.

Parsons, Michael. “John Calvin on the Strength of Our Weak Praying.” Evangelical Review of Theology 36, no. 1 (January 2012): 48–60.

Pitkin, Barbara. “Imitation of David: David as a Paradigm for Faith in Calvin’s Exegesis of the Psalms.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 24, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 843–64.

Ware, Bruce A. “The Role of Prayer and the Word in the Christian Life According to John Calvin.” Studia Biblica et Theologica 12 (1982): 73–91.

11 Quotes from Steven Pinker’s “A Sense of Style”


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71vuG05f13LI recently read Steven Pinker’s latest work, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Viking, 2014). I loved this book, especially the first two thirds. The last third reads more like a reference book and it is tedious at times with an abundance of examples, but overall its helpful.

(A related book I recommend is Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation [W. W. Norton & Company, 2007].)

That said, here are eleven of my favorite quotes, mostly from the first two thirds of the book:

Style . . . adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, interesting metaphor, a witty aside, and elegant turn a phrase or among lives greatest pleasures. (9)

Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. (12)

Readers who want to become writers should read with the dictionary and at hand . . . And writers should not hesitate to send the readers there if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again.  . . . I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice that I once read any bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of the room with Vice-Grip pliers: “Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool.” (23)

The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate. (28)

The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. (29)

Classic prose is a pleasant illusion, like losing yourself in a play. The writer must work to keep the impression that his prose is a window onto the scene rather than just a mess of words. Like an actor with a wooden delivery, a writer who relies on canned verbal formulas will break the spell. This is the kind of writer who gets the ball rolling in his search for the holy grail, but finds that it’s neither a magic bullet nor a slam dunk, so he rolls with the punches and lets the chips fall where they may while seeing the glass as half-full, which is easier said than done. Avoid clichés like the plague — it’s a no-brainer. (45-46)

[G]ood writers reach for fresh similes and metaphors that keep the reader’s sensory cortexes is lit up. (48)

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose…. Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person you know spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your readers. (61, 76)

The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. The advice in this and other stylebooks is not so much on how to write as on how to revise. (76)

There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version one’s notes. (186)

… [T]he reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world. (304)

Make sure to pick up a copy of the book.

Sweeping Growth of Christianity in China



From the Economist article

In the latest issue of The Economist there’s a report on the sweeping growth of Christianity in China. Here’s the poignant conclusion:

“The paradox, as they all know, is that religious freedom, if it ever takes hold, might harm the Christian church in two ways. The church might become institutionalised, wealthy and hence corrupt, as happened in Rome in the high Middle Ages, and is already happening a little in the businessmen’s churches of Wenzhou. Alternatively the church, long strengthened by repression, may become a feebler part of society in a climate of toleration. As one Beijing house-church elder declared, with a nod to the erosion of Christian faith in western Europe: ‘If we get full religious freedom, then the church is finished.’ “

Read the entire thing—and then pray for our brothers and sisters.

Mark Noll on the (Boring) Lives of Historians



9780801039935This is how evangelical historian Mark Noll begins his memoir, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Baker Academic, 2014):

“For the most part, historians sit, read books, prepare lectures, grade student papers, occasionally travel to archives, sit some more, organize notes and books, relax by going to museums (and reading everything on all of the placards), attend conferences to hear papers read, write books and articles, retire, read some more, and fade away.

“The constant effort to figure out why people, institutions, ideas, cultural assumptions, conflicts, social relationships, and day-to-day living developed as they did in the past leaves little time or psychic energy for close attention to ourselves. While some of the books that historians write might be lively, humane, and compelling, our lives rarely are.”

Yep, I’m excited to dig in!

A Collection of John MacArthur’s Live-Tweets



john-press-02On November 5, 2014 John MacArthur took to twitter for the first time to answer questions within the constraints of 140 characters. I’ve added them all here. I’ve also taken the liberty to correct any misspellings and grammar. Enjoy!

(1) Most important factor to unity in the local church? Biblical truth. One Lord. One baptism.

(2) What positives do you you see occurring in the church today? The greatest spread of sound doctrine in the history of the church.

(3) Will your Bible commentary volumes on the book of John get updated based on your new sermons? I just finished the final two volumes in Mark. The whole New Testament to complete. It’s taken me 35 years. I’m done.

(4) What’s the best advice you have for a young man in seminary? Get the tools to interpret scripture and the theology to frame your convictions. All the rest is dressing.

(5) I’m transitioning to a new (bigger) church and a bit overwhelmed. I hope to give my life there as you have at GCC. Advice? The Apostles went from 120 to over 20,000 in a few weeks. It was still Acts 2:42.

(6) What is the best way to deal with pride? Get your eyes off yourself and onto Christ. The gap between whatever you are and what he is is infinite.

(7) [B]aptized as baby, saved as adult. Baptise again? Or for first time? Or ok to leave alone? Or…??? There’s only one baptism in the New Testament. Believer’s baptism. You need to be obedient to that command.

(8) How can a young man best prepare for ministry or missions without using debt? Have a rich uncle, or marry up.

(9) Is paedobaptism a form of popery spilled into [P]rotestant churches from the [R]eformation era? It didn’t come from the New Testament.

(10) What was the most valuable counsel you received from your father regarding pastoral ministry? When I told him I felt God’s call to ministry, he gave me a Bible and in the front wrote: “Preach the Word, love Dad.”

(11) How can I know if I’m called to the ministry? When the desire is singular and you can’t do anything else and your church affirms that desire.

(12) What can the pastor do to help the church fulfill the Great Commission? Tell them that’s the only reason they’re still on earth.

(13) What have you found to be the best book(s) that helped you understand and come to a point on eschatology? Revelation. Take it as it comes.

(14) Which preacher with a sound doctrine in latin american do you recommend for listening? Luis Contreras at

(15) [C]an one hold to biblical inerrancy and reject a literal Adam or believe in death before sin? No. You’ve violate[d] John 10:35 by breaking Scripture at the beginning.

(16) [H]ow important is sticking to a particular Bible translation? Very important. One translation causes you to become familiar with your Bible.

(17) Re: Strange Fire, has the response from the Charismatic Movement surprised you in any way? No. False teachers are entrenched. I’m grateful that Strange Fire removed continuationism as the default position.

(18) Does [Grace Community Church] demand members to sign off on their whole doctrinal statement for membership? No. It’s “what we teach.” If you’re in the kingdom of God, you can join our church.

(19) What is the future for dispensationalism in the current [R]eformed surge? Old dispensationalism has already faded. A biblical understanding of God’s economies will always survive.

(20) [D]o you find the “evangelical pope” title annoying?! I have no idea who he is, so he doesn’t bother me.

(21) Do you see Easy Believism as more dangerous to the church than “Strange Fire”? Yes. Easy Believism has occupied my preaching and writing for decades, and it is rampant in the charismatic movement.

(22) [Is there] some benefit from reading Karl Barth and those who follow him? The church has suffered immeasurably from the resurrection of dead German apostates. We don’t read him at @mastersseminary.

(23) [I]s six-day literalism the only acceptable interpretation of Genesis 1? It’s exactly what Gen[esis] 1 says. Anything else is not an interpretation. @theinerrantword

(24) I see a lot of bretheren fighting over eschatological views. Mostly post-mill’ers. Is that really a hill to die on? God cares that we understand His revelation. The end matters for His glory & our worship Follow Revelation.

(25) What is one piece of advice you have for a young man preparing to go into pastoral ministry? Come to @mastersseminary. It will define the rest of your life.

(26) Is there an advantage to being single, in terms of the spreading of the Gospel? If you can bear it. See 1 Cor[inthians] 7.

(27) Has a doctrinal belief you have ever change since you started as a pastor? If so, which? Nothing has changed. Everything has been expanded, refined, and enriched by the study of Scripture. [I’ll quibble with this one. One thing MacArthur has changed on is the ‘incarnational sonship‘ of Christ: “I want to state publicly that I have abandoned the doctrine of “incarnational sonship.”]

(28) Greatest influences that shaped the way you think about teaching/preaching in your early ministry? The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge enabled me to explain Scripture with Scripture. Set it by your Bible.

(29) [T]hankful to have sat under you for 21 years. How do you combat the thought that GCC [Grace Community Church] is “too big?” I haven’t tried to grow the church, only to faithfully feed and lead the flock. The rest is up to the Lord

(30) [W]hat is the most important part of systematic theology? Prolegomena. Scripture as divine revleation inspired and inerrant. Weaken it, and everything collapses.

(31) [H]ow does same-sex attraction differ from lust, if at all? Is there room for [same-sex attraction] in the church? Same-sex Attraction is sin in the heart & Jesus says carries the same weight of guilt as the act.

(32) How important is it for the music minister of a church to be theologically trained? Trained or not trained, it’s essential that he’s theologically accurate.

(33) [A]ny advise for theology student at a secular university, with wishy-washy theology from lecturers? Transfer to @MastersCollege. Psalm 1. Don’t sit at the seat of scoffers.

(34) Is there a particular book/epistle in Scripture that you would recommend a young pastor begin preaching through? Essential place to start is Romans because it explicitly defines salvation in all its aspects and culminates with practicality.

(35) What, if any NFL team do you root for? I have a commitment to a higher level of athletics – all the sports at @MastersCollege.

(36) Do you ever deal with spiritual lethargy and if so what do you do about it? The best way is to get your eyes off yourself and pour yourself into others for the sake of the gospel.

(37) [W]hat do you think of the discipline of Biblical Theology? Exegetical Theology and Biblical Theology produce Systematic Theology.


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