Hope in the Midst of a Hostile World (Book Review)

hope-midst-hostile-worldBy and large, the Church does not interpret and use the Old Testament the same way that Jesus and the authors of the NT did. Christians in the modernist tradition (e.g., main line, socially liberal churches) tend to mine the OT for moralistic examples of how ancient people sought to respond to mystery and the divine. Christians in the evangelical tradition (e.g., fundamentalist, socially conservative churches) tend to read the OT a divinely revealed newspaper account of God’s dealings in human history. Yet both traditions are basically committed to a rigid adherent to the grammatical-historical principle of interpretation. Now don’t get me wrong. The G-H principle is the right place to start. The problem is that the NT does not interpret the OT with only this principle. To read the gospel in the OT, one must pay careful attention to how Jesus saw himself in (and fulfilled in) the Law, Prophets, and the Writings (Lk 24:27, 44). This method of reading the OT in light of the NT in the same way that Jesus taught his disciples to read is sometimes known as Christ-centered interpretation. The problem is that such a label sounds like a slogan. What does it mean when basically all Christians claim they are “Christ-centered”? Definitions are helpful, but I believe that for most people, reading the Bible with a “Christ-centered” lens is best caught than taught. One way to catch it is by reading expositions of OT books that model such interpretation—proclaiming Jesus Christ and the gospel of his kingdom from absolutely every OT text. P&R is one publisher that seeks to do this in its Gospel According to the Old Testament series. For the OT book of Daniel, George Schwab (professor at Erskine Seminary) is the author of Hope in the Midst of a Hostile World: The Gospel According to Daniel (hereafter HMHW). Schwab shows that while Jesus is certainly not found or predicted on every page of the OT, Jesus and the gospel can and ought to be proclaimed from all the OT. To do otherwise would transform an otherwise Christian understanding of the Bible into a synagogue-acceptable lesson.

Schwab structures HMHW as four parts. In Part 1, he lays the groundwork for reading Daniel as one book. This foundational step is necessary because in today’s critical circles Daniel is assumed to be the work of multiple authors (none of which is the historical Daniel!). Schwab argues that Daniel is a narrative unit that skillfully combines both narratives and apocalyptic, both history and dream/vision, both descriptions of the present and prophetic predictions. One of the author’s helpful emphases is that Daniel is also wisdom literature—its purpose in revealing who is really wise. “Again and again the legendary wisdom of Babylon is shown to be impotent and worthless, and wisdom from God is revealed as a special gift to those who know him and live faithfully before him. One could argue that the big issue in the book of Daniel is the discernment of the times, the solving of mysteries, and identifying who is truly wise in the world.” (pgs. 20-21)

Part 2 through 4 are structured around the various historical eras revealed in Daniel by following the model of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the image. Part 2 contains the chapters spanning the “Gold” and “Silver” ages. This is the Aramaic language section in Daniel (chapters 2-7). Part 3 switches back to the Hebrew language section and corresponds to Daniel 8:1-12:4 (the “Bronze” age). Part 4 is the epilogue of both Daniel and Schwab’s exposition of it (Dan 12:5-13).

Since HMHW aims to read Daniel as Christian scripture, it has space in each chapter devoted to application for the Christian by revealing Jesus. Schwab does this in a number of ways: (1) Jesus as thinly veiled in the text (the fourth man in the fiery furnace); (2) Jesus predicted in the text (in the vision of the seventy-sevens); (3) Jesus as implicitly compared/contrasted with a character in the text (Nebuchadnezzar as an evil king, Daniel as a wise man, Antiochus IV Ephiphanes as a type of anti-christ); (4) and Jesus as anticipated in the text (the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age). Schwab does a good job of helping the Christian read Daniel that seeks to remain faithful to the apostolic reading of seeing Jesus in the OT.

One of the weaknesses of the book is Schwab’s willingness to put too much emphasis on the historical context of Daniel, so much so that his conclusions occasionally (at least in my judgment) push him away from traditional understandings of the text toward conclusions more in line with higher-criticism. I suspect that Schwab’s study of Daniel has been influenced by the professors at Westminster Theological Seminary who created the “Enns Controversy” a few years ago (he earned a Ph.D from WTS when Peter Enns taught there). An example of this crops up in chapter 2 where Schab concludes it is best not to read Daniel as history because some of the details are difficult to reconcile with what we know of Babylonian culture.

“If the interpreter’s agenda is solely to defend—or to deny—Daniel as a historical source, then the point of the stories might be missed. For example, in chapter 3 the three heroes are in mortal crisis due to their fidelity to God. One might ask, “Where was Daniel?” Various commentaries attempt to answer that by reconstructing possible scenarios. Perhaps Daniel had been called away; perhaps Daniel was not present. Some commentators wisely ignore the question altogether. However, the only worthwhile answer does not reconstruct history, but reads the chapter as literature, as a religious romance.” (pg. 12)

Schwab goes on to assert that the answers to such questions should be sought in the author’s literary purposes. This is wise as far as it goes, but if Daniel is a historical religious romance, then historical questions are not out of bounds. In other words, literary purposes do not preclude historical claims when what is being narrated actually happened! It seems to me at times that Schwab is unnecessarily comfortable with historical questions when they potentially call into question the historicity of the text. Thus Schwab reveals himself more as a pastor and literary critic than a historian or apologist.

There are several other instances when Schwab overstates his point. Here are a few quotes with my comments.

To suffering saints, sometimes a cold, scientific list of the facts of life does not elicit a movement of the heart toward trust in God; a picture may produce better spiritual fruit. Hope is elsewhere; hope is otherworldly; hope is not rooted in understandable events. God is transcendent; God is close at hand; the future is certain and true. (pg. 17)

I ask: cannot hope come from biblical historical narrative? Such statements seem to suggest suffering people are only comforted by apocalyptic literature.

A third way of reading chapter 2 notes that the unconventional and traditional views cancel each other out. Even with hindsight, thousands of years later, there still is no clear consensus among evangelicals on which is right (although most opt for the traditional). Perhaps Daniel does not intend to precisely forecast the future. ‘The vision intends to communicate something more general, but also more grand: God is sovereign; his is in control despite present conditions.’ (pg. 43)

Seems to me that there is broad evangelical consensus on the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the image/statue. But Schwab doesn’t agree with the majority opinion, so he thinks the mere existence of an “unconventional view” cancels the traditional out. If this is so, why don’t either the unconventional or traditional views cancel his “general view” out? Logically speaking, they should.

There are three additions to Daniel: Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, and the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men…These stories show how Daniel was regarded in the centuries preceding the coming of Christ—as a wise man. His chief characterization was as a sage, not a prophet. He explained mysteries, he solved puzzles. This agrees with how we will treat the book of Daniel—as an example of sapiential [wisdom] writing meant to convey and promote wisdom…Again, this shows how the book of Daniel was regarded in the centuries following the exile. Daniel and his friends were examples to follow, models to emulate. Go and do likewise. (pg. 6) How is reading Daniel as a wisdom book agreeable to the additions of Daniel (pg. 24)

But if these Greed additions to Daniel are uninspired, why should we give them a heightened value assuming they accurately read Daniel as a wise man and sleuth? Perhaps the later tradition got Daniel somewhat wrong (emphasizing the wrong things about the book)?

That last quotation reminds me of one more minor criticism. This book is obviously written for the layman and the common pastor. But the author sometimes uses arcane vocabulary. I read quite a bit Christian theology written for audiences of various levels of education. But I don’t remember the last time I had to look up a non-technical word’s definition. Maybe I’m just dumber than I thought! If you know what these words mean, you’re smarter than me. :-)

  1. sapiential (pg. 6)
  2. Canticles (pg. 28). OK, I figured out this one from the context.
  3. mantic (pg. 57)
  4. ken (pg. 150)
  5. limned (pg. 154)
  6. hauteur (pg. 170)

A final story. When I and the group began to study Daniel last year while using this book, there was an acute uneasiness present. Some of the men wanted to scrap the book after reading the introduction chapters when the author’s presuppositions became apparent. Others, including myself, were cautiously optimistic about how the rest of the book would unfold. We put our confidence in the publisher as we had profited from other books in the series. So we pressed on. I’m glad we did. Despite the problems and quirks of this book, it proved a valuable resource for studying Daniel from an author who doesn’t just repeat what you already believe. By interacting with Schwab’s treatment of Daniel, we were able to engage in iron-sharpening conversations that strengthened our skills in reading the Bible as Jesus taught us to.

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