Does Archaeological Minimalism Apply Only to the Bible?

Many of us are aware, I’m sure, of the raging debates between biblical maximalists and minimalists, and have even grown accustomed (and perhaps are not altogether unsympathetic) to the inevitable minimalist commentary on the wake of any purportedly significant archaeological discovery in the Bible lands. I was baffled, therefore, when a news item like unto those which have drawn in the past nothing but the sharpest minimalist criticism was posted without trace of condemnation by none other than Jim West, Chief Executive Officer of the Guild of Biblical Minimalists. Our estimable friend excerpts the article, originally posted on Spiegel Online, as follows:

Archeologists have uncovered Martin Luther’s household waste, including beer mugs, toy marbles and a child’s crossbow. The find is being shown in a new exhibition that casts the religious reformer’s private life in a new light. Brother Martin, a stout man, was sitting on the toilet in the Wittenberg Monastery, wearing the black robe of the Augustinian Order, when he was suddenly struck with the fundamental concept of his reformist body of thought. Martin Luther himself noted, in two after-dinner speeches (Nos. 1681 and 3232b), that Protestantism was born in the sewer: “The spiritus sanctus imparted this creation to me on dis cloaca.” [sic] … Excavations in the Wittenberg Monastery have uncovered not only the remains of Luther’s old study, but “a small pit latrine with a lid” in the cellar below, as archeologist Mirko Gutjahr reports. … The digs exposed toys and food remains, broken dishes and grain (dated to the year 1500, using the C-14 method). The archeologists also found his wife’s wedding ring and a hoard of 250 silver coins. The German State Museum of Prehistory will unveil the exhibition of Luther’s personal effects this Friday, to coincide with Reformation Day. The catalogue describes the content of the exhibition as “sensational,” noting that it enables us to reexamine “entire chapters in human life.”

“Now that’s fun!,” saith Jim. But wait a second! How do we know that the “wedding ring” they found in the garbage (!) belonged to Luther’s beloved Katie, any more than we know that the so-called “Seal of Gedaliah” belonged to the character named in II Kings 25:22-26? And for that matter, how do we know that this newly-uncovered latrine is the exact place where, according to popular (i.e., wrong1) belief, Luther had his epiphany, any more than we know that the so-called “Palace of David” was the actual residence of the biblical king? To me this is simply another example of archaeological fudging and journalistic sensationalism, methodologically indistinguishable from fanciful reports of successful excavations of Noah’s Ark and the Garden of Edenunless there exist, shall we say, different evaluative standards for biblical and Reformation archaeological finds. But, as Marion Cotesworth-Hay of Marblehead once put it, “that is a different foxhunt altogether, isn’t it?”

N.B.– Among other things, this post is my shameless attempt to gain access to the above mentioned Guild of Biblical Minimalists by demonstrating that, on odd days and depending on the phases of the moon, I can have sharper minimalistic reactions than Jim West. At the very least I deserve to be included among Those Barely Tolerated by the Guild, though I’m not sure that I wish to be associated with Anson Rainey. Also, this post is a direct response to the Irreverend Mr Ker’s gratuitous accusation that I haven’t “blogged anything of substance in weeks” (!).


1Cf. Steven Ozment (The Age of Reform (1250-1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe [New Haven: Yale, 1980], 230): “In the late Middle Ages, the descriptions of oneself as being in cloaca, in stercore, or in latrina were common religious rhetoric, actually derived from the Bible and connoting a state of utter humility and dependence of God. When Luther described his Reformation insight as occurring ‘in cloaca,’ he was saying no more than that he received his understanding of the righteousness of God after a long period of humble meditation in the tower room–actually the library– of the monastery.” But note that Luther (and his medieval forebears and contemporaries) did mean a bit more than what Ozment suggests here: as David William Kling has succinctly put it, “He was, in the parlance of friars, in cloaca, literally in the toilet, or down in the dumps, tormented with Achfentungen” (The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times [New York: Oxford University Press, 2004], 128).


The Trinity and Soteriology: The Case of Michael Servetus

In a recent post, our good friend Nick Norelli underscored (quite rightly) the centrality of the Trinity to our salvation with the following words: “One need not get caught up in the esoteric matters of Trinitarian theology to explain the Trinity, but explain it we must because the Trinity is the God who saves” (emphasis mine). There I reminded him of the well-known dictum of Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky (perhaps quoting Fr Paul Florensky; Lossky’s text, or else his translator, is not entirely clear on this point): “Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice”1. This brief exchange came to mind a couple of days ago as I read a very able analysis of the thought of the controversial Reformation-era figure Michael Servetus that concluded thus:

“It is obvious that Servetus’ understanding of Christianity was quite unusual. Had Servetus accepted a more orthodox notion of original sin, human depravity, and captivity to evil, he would also have necessarily accepted a partially human Christ to atone for a fallen mankind. In turn, a human Christ would have necessitated some conventional concept of the Trinity to account for how the same Godhead could consist of an unseen Father, a human Christ, and a phantom Spirit. Servetus’ great departure from orthodoxy was that man did not need atonement but a divine ritual and a celestial Christ to transform man into God. Consequently, the key to Servetus’ thought was soteriological and not theological; an elevated view of man simply made the Trinity unnecessary”2.

In Servetus’ case his anti-Trinitarianism was the end result of a fatally flawed soteriology; it stands to reason, then, that the reverse is also true: anti-Trinitarianism, an effective denial of the God who saves, must result in a fatally flawed soteriology. This is why the whole structure and content of Christian theology properly so-called is, and must be, Trinitarian.

ADDENDUM (7/19/2010): Over the past few days I have had occasion to revisit Jaroslav Pelikan’s first published work, From Luther to Kierkegaard: A Study in the History of Theology (St Louis: Concordia, 1950). In his discussion of the  natural theology of the last great dogmatician of the period of Lutheran orthodoxy, David Hollaz (also Hollatz or Hollatius), he notes that

[o]n the basis of several New Testament passages and of the Athanasian Creed, Hollaz concludes that “he who does not honor the Triune God is an atheist” (page 67)3.

Even if one cannot grant Hollaz’s broader arguments on natural knowledge, his conclusion here is nevertheless true. If the Most Holy Trinity is the One True God (and rest assured that this indeed is the case), then to deny the Trinity is to deny that God exists. As such, then, the anti-Trinitatian is in the end an atheist. Their atheism is not irreligious, however, but rather idolatrous, because it leads the anti-Trinitarian to replace the One True God, who has revealed himself, with a monistic god of their own making.



1 Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 66.

2 Jerome Friedmann, “Michael Servetus: Advocate of Total Heresy,” in Hans-Jürgen Goertz (ed.), Profiles of Radical Reformers: Biographical Sketches from Thomas Müntzer to Paracelsus (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1982), 251-252.

3 The citation given by Pelikan in his endnote points to Hollaz’s Examen theologicum acroamaticum I, 379. In spite of my best efforts, I have been unable to locate the Latin text of this work, and thus can’t provide the quotation in the original or even verify the particulars of the translation.

The Tale of My Recent Adventures (Or, "Have a Gander at the Renewed Michigander!")

My sincerest thanks to all for your kind forbearance during the past couple of weeks! Naturally, I say this on the assumption that you, my gentle snowflakes, have indeed exercised your longanimity towards me during this period of continued non-posting and have not gone running to greener pastures, which is far from certain. After all, what the great Casablancan philosopher, Groucho Marx, once said about his career in entertainment applies every bit as much to struggling bloggers: “I am in an extremely precarious profession whose livelihood depends upon a fickle public.”

The reason for this relatively brief hiatus is that, as some of you know, on October 1 I successfully completed a transoceanic move from tropical Puerto Rico to autumnal Michigan. (Granted that only a minimal portion of the Atlantic was crossed, and the short way, at thatbut I insist, an ocean was crossed all the same!) As might be imagined, my chief concerns over these past weeks have been packing and traveling, and then unpacking and getting settled, which have regrettably trumped other, preëminent concerns, such as composing blog posts for your reading pleasure.

Of course, unpacking my luggage (which on account of my traveling with books consisted of two 50lb. suitcases and a 60lb. carry-on bag) took but an afternoon. The focus of my labors for the past week and a half has been the transfer, unpacking and sorting of the first third of the 60 or so boxes which have long contained my exiled library. While this happy reunion is necessarily dampened by the realization that 20 boxes of my more important books are now themselves exiled in Puerto Rico, I have been thrilled to uncover a great many books that I have sorely missed over the years in my reading and research (Ellis, Ladd, Beasley-Murray, Vos, and Ridderbos, among others). Together with these I have also unearthed a number of old favorites, such as the Barth-Bultmann Letters (which together with The Groucho Letters, I have found, make for splendid reading at the commode) and Jaroslav Pelikan’s wholly excellent The Melody of Theology. My greatest joy, however, has been the reunion with my commentariesdozens of them, emerging from these boxes as though raised from the dead: von Rad and Waltke on Genesis; Childs on Exodus; Brueggemann on I & II Samuel; Childs and Seitz (1-39) on Isaiah; Luz (1-7) and Gundry on St Matthew; Bock (BECNT), Danker, Green, and Pate on St Luke; Barrett, Brown, Carson, Keener, and Ridderbos on St John; Bruce (Greek Text and NICNT), Haenchen, and L. T. Johnson on Acts; Fitzmeyer, Käsemann, and Schreiner on Romans; the perfect Lightfoot on the Pauline Epistles; Dunn, Ebeling, Lührmann, and Luther on Galatians; M. Barth and Schnakenburg on Ephesians; O’Brien on Colossians and Philemon; M. Barth and Blanke on Philemon; Wanamaker on I & II Thessalonians; Bruce on Hebrews; Neyrey on II Peter and Jude; and Caird, Carballosa, Ladd, and Kistemaker on Revelation, among others. Several important volumes have yet to surface, but my point is this: clearly I stand in need of more commentaries on Hebrews.

As for commentary series, I found one of the two I ever had (nearly) in full on my shelves: The NIV Application Commentaries. Wilkins on St Matthew wasn’t yet available when I moved to Puerto Rico, and it is therefore the only New Testament volume I’m missing; as for the Old Testament ones, I have Walton on Genesis, Jobes on Esther, Provan on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, Longman on Daniel, and Duguid on Ezekiel. Of the volumes published since 2001, only Oswalt on Isaiah seems indispensable to me. In any case, this commentary series, together with Calvin’s Commentaries on the Whole Bible, proved unfailingly helpful to me in my erstwhile duties as a Christian preacher, for which reason I kept it in its entirety.

God willing, tomorrow I will return to Grand Rapids to raid once again my storage room, and I’m certain that more tales of bibliophilia shall be forthcoming as I unpack and sort the next installment of boxes. When not engaged in such labors, however, one of my favorite pastimes has been acquainting myself with the wonderful volumes formerly on my Amazon Wish List which were kindly bestowed on me by some of you on the occasion of my 30th birthday: Carson and Beale’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Young’s Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture, and Thompson’s Reading the Bible with the Dead. For these, once again, I am profoundly grateful. (Incidentally, I thought that I would mention this: one of you lovely people evidently purchased Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent from my Wish List, but the book never arrived. Whoever is responsible for this kind deed might want to check their archives to see whether they were charged for the book, and perhaps file a complaint with Amazon to make sure that their expenditure was not in vain!)

Thus far the account of my adventures. Now that I am more or less settled, I hope to start posting again regularly, unless, of course, you have not execised your longanimity and have moved on to greener pastures, which would make the whole premise of this post, alas, tragically false.