Revelation Paintings

I’ve always been intrigued by works of art keyed to biblical texts. In the realm of music, I think of the father and son contributions of Johann Sebastian Bach (e.g., St. Matthew Passion, based on this Gospel’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Magnificat, based on Mary’s song of exultation at learning she would bear the Messiah). As for painting, my favorite site is the Arena Chapel on Padova (Padua), Italy, where, in the 14th century, Giotto covered the walls and ceilings with dozens of scenes, from the flight into Egypt to the raising of Lazarus. And, last year, I enjoyed putting together some parable paintings for a seminary magazine, including a Van Gogh Good Samaritan, a Rembrandt Prodigal Son, and a Brueghel rendition of the blind leading the blind.

These were works requiring months and even years to produce, but there is a special type of Christian artistry, works constructed between Sundays for the use in the next Lord’s Day service. In this vein, the elder Bach was known for his prodigious output of worship pieces, where a new cantata was required of him every week (for a total of over 200) when he served as organist of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. For instance, on June 24, 1724, he first performed Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (Christ our Lord came to the Jordan), marking the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin who baptized Him in the Jordan River).

With Bach’s example in mind a few years ago, I turned to an artist in the church that I pastored1 for help with my series on Revelation. I asked if he might bring us one painting or drawing a week, and offered him essentially Wal Mart greeter wages. Happy to say, he was game.

Sure enough, each Sunday he showed up with a fresh work, executed on eight-inch-square pieces of drawing paper—some in pencil, some in pen or paint, some with Rev.1bigencaustic techniques, using heated tar and wax. In one instance, he held the paper over a candle flame to capture the look of black smoke. They featured fantastical, symbolic animals, landscapes and cityscapes, saints and stars.2 We pinned them on the wall to the congregation’s right, saw the collection grow week by week (ten in all), and kept them posted long past the series’ end. (They’re now framed on our dining room wall, where we use them for gospel conversation with guests.)

Addressing the Second Commandment in their Larger Catechism, the Westminster Divines condemned drawing any member of the Trinity. Of course, the Commandment goes beyond that to prohibit likenesses of anything whatsoever in “in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). But context is important, for following God’s instructions, the Ark of the Covenant cover bore cherubim sculptures (Exodus 37:7), and Solomon’s Temple featured carved palm trees and flowers (1 Kings 6). The issue was idolatry. Much could be said about this concern, but suffice it to say here that we did not worship the drawings. Rev.5Rather, we extended Revelation’s word pictures into hand-crafted pictures, in order to advance the strong biblical teaching of the destruction of the devil’s works and the exaltation of the saints in glory.

Of course, artists can get it wrong (and often do in their free-wheeling push for drama, novelty, or provocation), but so can preachers. Yes, the Word has primacy, but not exclusivity, and blessed is the church which regularly enlists the fresh work of musicians and artists to serve with the Holy Spirit in magnifying the holy text.

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Endnotes:

1 Dan Addington (danaddington.com)

2 E.g., the winged eyes of Rev. 4:8, the crowned locust/horse/scorpions of Rev. 9:7-10; the frogs of Rev. 16:13; the resurrected, ascending witnesses of Rev. 11:12; the river and fruit-laden trees of Rev. 22:1-2; the burning Babylon of Rev. 19:3; the descending New Jerusalem of Rev. 21:9-21; the rise of prayers from a golden bowl of Rev. 8:3-4; seven stars in the Lord’s hand of Rev. 1:16.

Rev.4

Rev.3

Rev.1


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Drunks, Derelicts and the Unquietable Conscience of John Wesley

On a bright April day in 1743, John Wesley stood preaching to an open-air crowd the great truths of salvation. The rag-tag congregation, who had come out into the countryside to hear this famous preacher, listened enraptured to his message of regeneration and new life. Just then, an old drunk rode his horse into the middle of the crowd, rearing the beast up and shouting all manner of curses and bitter words at the preacher. Wesley, who by XJF384017this time was used to such displays, tried to ignore the man and continue his sermon. That course, however, quickly proved impossible when the fool drew his horse up and, still spewing venom at Wesley and his gospel, tried to run down some of the crowd. People scattered, no one was trampled, and in a few minutes the situation was brought under control. Speaking later to some local residents, Wesley was shocked to learn who the old wobbly drunk was: a clergyman from a neighboring parish church!

After months of open air preaching, Wesley had learned to expect such opposition. Anglican rectors early on refused to allow him to preach from their pulpits, so Wesley finally forsook the beautiful established churches altogether and took his message first to the church cemeteries and then to the countryside. Thousands of hearers followed him, but even there in the remote regions, he could not avoid trouble. Hecklers and other troublemakers hounded him wherever he went, running through the crowds screaming, banging pots and pans together, or even throwing rotten eggs and over-ripe fruit at him to silence his preaching.

Wesley’s message evoked such a vehement response because he called on Christians to do more than merely recite their creeds once a week. He expected the gospel of Christ to change their hearts and, from there, to reform their lives and ultimately their entire society. “Christianity is essentially a social religion,” he said, and “to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”

With that conviction, Wesley publicly addressed at one time or another nearly every social and cultural issue of his day. He took aim, for example, at Britain’s thriving slave trade, calling it the “execrable sum of all the villainies” and insisting on the “equal and priceless value” before God of “every immortal soul,” including blacks. He also abhorred war and worked tirelessly to urge a peaceful solution to the conflict with the American Colonies in the 1770s. He rejected the common notion that religion could be kept separate from business, for unless it was permeated with Christian values and dedicated to Christian goals, Wesley thought, business could not help but be turned to diabolical ends. Wesley railed against the social and cultural degradation of his day, championing the poor, castigating Britain’s aristocracy for wasting and hoarding their goods, condemning the liquor traffic which had reduced the nation’s labor force to a drunken stupor, and rebuking lawyers and politicians for using the law to gratify their own greedy desires. Secular or religious, sacred or profane, no department of human affairs was exempt from the word and command of God.

Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons during his life and traveled more than 200,000 miles, mostly on horseback. When he died at the age of 88, his tireless efforts had made Wesley an internationally revered figure. His Methodist movement had won official recognition by the government, and its influence had spread far beyond the shores of Great Britain.

Wesley suffered scorn for his down-to-earth, practical Christianity, but the Lord used his faithful, persevering labors to build a worldwide Christian movement.  Even if faithful Christians disagree about how exactly to apply the conscience of Christianity to society, all can benefit from a careful perusal of the life and legacy of John Wesley.

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Endnotes:

J. Wesley Bready, England: Before and After Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers).

Besides the 294 preachers and 71,668 members on the Isle, there were 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America, as well as some 5,300 new Christians brought to Christ by 19 missionaries spread throughout the world. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Wesley, John.”

The Holy Land, Where the Bible Comes Alive in a Bittersweet Way

I’m just back from my seventh trip to the Holy Land, where it’s said “the Bible comes alive.” Indeed, it does, but in a mixed way, for there were, as always, both edifying and dispiriting aspects of the tour—for the Bible is not just a “happy talk” book, but also one of stern declaration.

Jerusalem1. The Land Itself. From the Sea of Galilee to the Kidron Valley to the Judean Wilderness, the topography and scale bring color to Scripture. Modern development doesn’t change the bracing effect of a first look at Jaffa and Maritime Caesarea, the expanse of Jezreel, the rushing streams of Dan, the waterfalls of En Gedi, alongside the Dead Sea desolation, viewed from Masada.

2. Judeo-Christian Culture. You’d have to be literally or willfully blind to miss the differences between a culture oriented on the Bible and one oriented on the Koran. In Israel, much of the desert Arava blooms; not so in Jordan. From my earlier visit to the region in 1966, I’ve felt like I was traveling from ancient Decapolis to Southern California when crossing from Jordan to Israel.

3. Pharisees and Sadducees. Hasidic Jews (modern Pharisees if you will) are photogenic, with their earlocks, shtreimels, tzitzit, and fedoras, but they’re an unsmiling bunch, quick to raise a ruckus if you transgress their sensitivities. (Just ask our ladies who got too close to the Wailing Wall). The Sadducees were the secularists, and they abound in Israel today.

4. “Christian” Turfism. It is a disgrace to the cross that two of the most visited sites in Judea (the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) are showcases of “Christian” pettiness, where various sects guard their floor space with a vengeance.

5. Fellowship of Travelers. Holy Land tours are as much a matter of conversation as sightseeing, over meals, waiting in line, on the bus, etc.  And when one’s fellow visitors are Christian, the fellowship can be sweet, full of testimony, exhortation, encouragement, and insight—from, in our case, cancer survivors, late converts, veteran ministers, seasoned parents, and internationals.

6. Hocus Pocus and Simony. There’s a lot of magical thinking over there, with pilgrims kissing stones, scooping up dirt, and such. It makes you hunger for deeper transactions of the soul before God. And there no site too remote or implausible that someone is not willing to gin up a yarn and charge you entry, not only to the attraction, but also to the restroom.

7. Artistry and Craftsmanship (and Kitsch). From the Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives to the Elijah statue on the heights of Carmel, the Holy Land is a grand art gallery, the sort of place Bezalel could appreciate.1 Alas, some gift shops and churches are laden with tackiness, clutter, pointless flash, and ostentatious overkill—barriers rather than aids to devotion.

8. Textual Overlays. One of my favorite things is to be with a group reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) on the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking Gennesaret, or recalling the critical role of seats at the city gate2 as we come upon the one still in place at Tel Dan.

9. The Testimony of Ruins. Ruins evoke both humility and encouragement, for they testify both to the vanity of trust in human institutions and to the hope that enemies of the cross will fail.

10. The Remnant. The evangelical community is small, but alive and growing.

So yes, in the Levant, the Bible comes alive in all its teaching. Of course, “holy land” is found wherever the people of God stand and serve, on any continent. And the Christian’s physical body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” But it is exhilarating to walk where Jesus walked, and see what He saw, both the good and the bad, for it is all spiritually instructive.

 

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Endnotes:

1 In Exodus 31:1-5, we read, “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

2 For instance, we read of David in 2 Samuel 19:8: “Then the king arose and took his seat in the gate. And the people were all told, ‘Behold, the king is sitting in the gate.’ And all the people came before the king.”


The ABCs of Christian Civilization

Many contemporary critics of the faith charge that Christianity is a barrier to progress. Of course, these critics are prone to have a twisted view of progress, one involving moral and spiritual decline. But they also suffer from historical blindness. If they did their homework, they would see that God’s people have been extraordinary agents of social health, artistic excellence, and scientific advance. By God’s common grace and providence, non-believers also do remarkable things, but there is nothing to compare with the consistent, splendid record of the saints. Yes, the Church has sometimes embarrassed herself, as during the Crusades and the Salem witch trials. But the overwhelming weight of good is undeniable—and indispensable to civilization.

Church-Triumphant3A number of contemporary books make this point beautifully.1 Chapter by chapter, they chronicle the contributions of those who have claimed the name of Christ—accomplishments in charity, government, education, science, economics, exploration, medicine, and the arts. For instance, one book presents the reader with a single-page roll call of 30 scientific pioneers, such as Joseph Lister, the father of antiseptic surgery, and James Clerk Maxwell, the founder of electrodynamics.2

It is impossible to do this heritage justice in a brief piece. One way to hint at its breadth is to give two selections, based on an alphabetical listing of first and last names. With little effort, an important figure can be found for virtually every letter of the alphabet. Only the Lord knows which of the following were truly regenerate, but all worked within the Christian tradition and honored Christ in their speech.

First names first: Adam Smith (free-market economist); Blaise Pascal (mathematician/philosopher); C. S. Lewis (author/literature professor); David Livingstone (African missionary/explorer); Eric Liddell (Olympic champion); Fyodor Dostoevsky (author); George Washington Carver (scientist/inventor); Hans Christian Andersen (children’s author); Isaac Newton (physicist/founder of calculus); John Milton (author); Kenneth Scott Latourette (missionary/historian); Leo Tolstoy (author); Martin Niemöller (opponent of Hitler); Nicholaus Copernicus (astronomer); Oliver Cromwell (ruler of England); Patrick (patron saint of Ireland); John Quincy Adams (U.S. president); Rembrandt van Rijn (painter); Søren Kierkegaard (philosopher); Tycho Brahe (astronomer); Ulbaldus Huchbald (father of musical polyphony); Vincent de Paul (hospice founder); William Booth (Salvation Army founder).

And then last names: Dante Alighieri (author); J. S. Bach (composer); Christopher Columbus (explorer); Leonardo DaVinci (scientist/inventor/painter); T. S. Eliot (poet); Michael Faraday (founder of electromagnetics); Johannes Gutenberg (inventor of printing press); George F. Handel (composer); Adoniram Judson (Burma missionary/lexicographer); Martin Luther King, Jr. (civil rights crusader); Frank Laubach (literacy crusader); Cyrus McCormick (inventor of the mechanical reaper); Florence Nightingale (nursing pioneer); Flannery O’Conner (author); Louis Pasteur (founder of bacteriology); G. F. B. Riemann (founder of non-Euclidean geometry); Harriet Beecher Stowe (author); J. R. R. Tolkien (author); Vincent Van Gogh (artist); William Wilberforce (anti-slavery parliamentarian); Francis Xavier (Far East missionary); Lin Yutang (UNESCO division chief/author); Nicholas Zinzendorf (founder of Moravians ).

This heritage is gratifying but largely wasted if today’s Christians fail to follow their example of vocational excellence. The world may be intrigued by the fact that Christendom once boasted a Bach, a Pascal, and a Wilberforce, but the world is more likely to be convicted if contemporary counterparts to these greats can be found in pews around the world.

 

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Endnotes:

1 For example, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?: The Positive Impact of Christianity in History (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994); D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If the Bible Had Never Been Written? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998); Alvin Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001); John Woodbridge, ed. More than Conquerors: Portraits of Believers from All Walks of Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992); Dan Graves, Scientists of Faith: Forty-Eight Biographies of Historic Scientists and Their Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996).

2 Kennedy and Newcombe, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?, 101.

The Theological Freight of a Cult’s Hymns

On a recent mission trip to Detroit, I came across a treasure house of used books with over a million volumes, jammed into four floors and a basement in an old glove factory. I couldn’t resist a visit, indeed two, and among the books I purchased were four on the Jehovah’s Witness faith, one of them a hymnbook.1 A pastor with whom we were working had asked us to do a Q&A session with some new believers, and some had JW backgrounds. So I wanted to study up.

watchtowerThe first three books made the predictable, non-Christian moves, such as those documented in apologetical tracts and flyers.2 But my attention was drawn especially to the song book. Unlike the Mormon version, which draws heavily on traditional Christian hymns, as it seeks to pass itself off as genuinely Christian,3 the JW collection of 225 songs is totally unique as best I can tell, though some have similar names—“Balsam in Gilead” instead of “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

It’s been said that we Christians, particularly Protestants, learn our theology from hymns, such as Amazing Grace, And Can It Be?, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and In Christ Alone. The same could be said of JWs, as these samples show:

Jesus was created and is not eternally divine with God the Father.4 Playing off Hebrews 1:6 (which simply calls Jesus the “firstborn”), Hail Jehovah’s Firstborn! denies Christ’s divinity and renders him a mere creature: “Let’s hail, Jehovah’s Firstborn—God’s Heir he has been made—Who since he was created, His Father’s voice obeyed.” This is the ancient heresy of Arianism. Bless Our Christian Brotherhood references 1 Peter 2:17 (“Love the brotherhood”), and assigns Jesus the humble job of model: “He showed love in real brotherhood, With zeal for righteousness, Set patterns of humility, Of love and faithfulness.”

You are saved by your works. Working from Revelation 12:17, Meeting God’s Requirements features, “If we make straight paths for our feet, With Kingdom joys we’ll be replete.” They like the part of verse 17 which identifies the saints with those “who keep the commandments of God” but avoid the part about those who “hold to the testimony of Jesus,” which includes His divinity and grace. Lacking grace and mercy, JWs need to be spurred to sing Do More—As the Nazirites Did (Numbers 6:8): “Their lifestyle was simple. Self denial was their role . . . Close to God it surely did bring them. Could we too have such a goal?”5

There are three possible destinies after death. Only 144,000 will make it to heaven, but decent, Christ-respecting people, will inherit an earthly paradise, or else be annihilated, for there’s no eternal hell. One of the three destinies is pictured in God’s Promise of Paradise (from Luke 23:43, with Christ’s words to the thief): “A Paradise the earth will be, With eyes of faith this we can see.” Another destiny is pictured in Proclaiming Jehovah’s Day of Vengeance (Isaiah 61:2).

Earthly government has no claim on your loyalty. JWs’ famous refusal to pledge allegiance to the American flag is reflected in Theocracy’s Increase (Isaiah 9:6, 7), in Loyally Submitting to Theocratic Order (1 Corinthians 14:33), and in No Part of the World (John 17:16), which reads, “Because our God set us apart, It is to him we give our heart. No part of Satan’s world are we; Like Christ, our Lord, we choose to be.”

A tour through their hymnbook makes one all the more happy that ours includes the messages of Come Thou, Almighty King, Amazing Grace, When We All Get to Heaven, and, yes, in our case, America. How fortunate we are to sing praise and thanks regarding God in Christ, the Gospel, the hope of all the redeemed, and the blessings of life in a “sweet land of liberty” where we are still free to worship.

 

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Endnotes:

1 All were published by their Watchtower Bible and Tract Society: Happiness: How to Find It (1980); You Can Live Forever in Paradise (1982, 1989); Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life (1995); and Sing Praises to Jehovah (1984).

2 http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbnew.aspx?pageid=8589952841 (accessed May 15, 2014).

3 For example, All Creatures of Our God and King, God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand, How Great Thou Art, I Know that My Redeemer Lives, Joy to The World, Count Your Blessings, Onward Christian Soldiers, https://www.lds.org/music/library/hymns?lang=eng (accessed May 15, 2014).

4 They have notoriously robbed John 1:1 of its power with their own New World Translation, which calls Jesus “a god” rather than simply “God.”

5 Door-to-door evangelism is a very familiar aspect of their ministry for reward. They undergird this practice in song, drawing on Acts 20:20 (which pictured the rotating fellowship of the early church): From House to House: “From house to house, from door to door, Jehovah’s Word we spread.” They press on, though comedians regularly make fun of them in this connection. Here’s a sampling from http://www.jehovahs-witness.net/jw/experiences/199125/1/Best-JW-Joke#.U2mEIMf8EUU: “Why don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses get killed during an earthquake? They’re always in your doorway” (Johnny Carson); “What does Hannibal Lector call a Jehovah’s Witness? Free delivery!” (Jay Leno); “Hey, I tell you I get no respect! The other day a Jehovah’s Witness came to my door, and he said he wasn’t interested” (Rodney Dangerfield) (accessed May 15, 2014).


The Decline of Biblical Languages

In 1816, Harvard University published a circular letter in response to enquiries about admissions standards for ministry students. Candidates for admission, it said, “must be thoroughly acquainted with the grammar of the Latin and Greek languages” and “be able properly to construe and parse any portion” of the Greek New Testament.1 Fast forward to the year 2000, when it was only “recommended” that candidates for admission to Harvard Bible_GreekDivinity School have an “elementary” knowledge of one ancient or modern language. To graduate with a master of divinity, the main graduate degree typically sought by pastors, a student needed only to demonstrate “intermediate” proficiency in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German, or Spanish.2 Apparently being able to ask “¿Como está usted?” had become as valuable in ministry as being able to read Romans in its original Greek.

Harvard isn’t an anomaly. Across America, there has been a marked decrease of biblical language training for Christian ministers over the past 200 years. Consider Princeton Theological Seminary, where as recently as 1950 candidates for the bachelor of divinity (the precursor to the master of divinity) were required to take exams in Greek competency before beginning their course of study, and take remedial classes if they didn’t pass.3 By 2013 though, language study was no longer even a required portion of the master of divinity curriculum at Princeton.4 Indeed, one of the main accrediting bodies for theological schools in the US and Canada, the Association of Theological Schools, does not require a seminary to offer Greek or Hebrew in order to have an accredited master of divinity program.

The most powerful preachers and theologians of ages past likely would regard this as ministerial malpractice. For, instance, Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian and North African bishop, said men who “speak the common tongue” need “two other languages for the study of Scripture: Hebrew and Greek.” The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that “we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages . . . the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained.”5

Of course, language study is not required of all faithful ministers. For example, a bivocational pastor who works 40 hours in a factory on top of shepherding a church and leading a family may not have time to study Greek. And doing so might keep him from more important responsibilities. Or there may be ministers with learning disabilities that prevent them from grasping language study. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary founder James P. Boyce rightly observed that learning “interpretation of the text in the English version” is “all that is actually necessary to . . . preach the gospel.”6 Still, Boyce would have agreed with Charles Spurgeon that every minister who is able should aim at “tolerable proficiency” in Hebrew and Greek.7

But aiming at “tolerable proficiency” is a far cry from what’s happening today. Some ministers who have opportunity to study biblical languages opt instead to study managerial techniques and advertising methods—both of which have their place, but neither of which feeds the church spiritually like biblically faithful preaching generated from study of Greek and Hebrew texts. Two surveys of preaching from the 1990s found that only 24.5% of sermons had content and organization determined by the biblical passage under consideration.8 Surely, the percentage would rise if more pastors took their cues from the original languages.

Those who spend years studying for ministry yet avoid the languages need to rethink their educational priorities. Refusing to study a topic that helps them teach Scripture more effectively contributes to the ministry’s becoming what one author has called a “new order of sacred fools.”9

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Endnotes:

1Circular Letter Relating to Harvard University,” The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 3 (1818): 297, (accessed April 21, 2014).

2 Harvard Divinity School Catalog, 2000-2001 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2000), 47-48.

3 Princeton Theological Seminary Catalog, 1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1950), 15-16.

4 Princeton Theological Seminary Catalog, 2012-2013 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 2012), 35.

5 See video at BibleMesh Biblical Languages homepage, (accessed April 21, 2014).

6 James Petigru Boyce, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions,” an inaugural address delivered before the board of trustees of Furman University, July 31, 1856, (accessed April 21, 2014).

7 See video at BibleMesh Biblical Languages homepage, (accessed April 21, 2014).

8 David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 251.

9 Ibid., 245.