Tag Archives: theology

The Theology of Zephaniah

This post is the second half of an essay introducing Zephaniah.In this post I outline what I think are the leading theological themes in the book of Zephaniah, and give a bibliography.

4. Zephaniah’s theological message

According to most authors, the coming Day of Yahweh is the overarching theme of Zephaniah (e.g. Baker, 2012, p254). For Motyer (1998, p897), Zephaniah has ‘only one topic, and he never digresses from it’. Other authors (Dillard and Longman, 1995, p419; Boda, 2012, p905) also mention the themes of God’s faithfulness and mercy to the remnant and the universality of God’s sovereignty. However, I think these themes are best seen as Zephaniah’s particular emphases in the prophetic tradition of the Day of Yahweh as Yahweh’s holy warfare (Stuart, 1987, p231). We will identify four particular characteristics of Zephaniah’s proclamation of the coming Day of Yahweh, before concluding by pointing out an underlying theme.

1. The Day will be cosmic and universal in scope
Zephaniah loudly proclaims that the Day of Yahweh will have a world-wide impact. The book opens in §2.1 with the striking repeated statement that Yahweh will sweep away ‘all from upon the face of the earth’ (1:2). The word ’earth’ here could simply mean ‘land’, but the allusion to Gen. 1 (Berlin, 1994, p13) suggests Zephaniah is thinking of ‘a kind of undoing of creation’ (McConville, 2002, p222).

The oracles against the nations in §2.3 expand on what is meant by ‘the day of the anger of Yahweh’ (2:3). Zephaniah successively picks out representative nations to the east, west, south and north of Judah, showing that Yahweh’s day will target all the nations (Motyer, 1998, p931). But on the Day that Yahweh consumes all the earth in the fire of his jealousy, he also promises in §2.5 to ‘change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech’ (3:8-9, NIV) in a reversal of the curse of Babel (Gen. 11).

Zephaniah shows us that the Day of Yahweh will be cosmic and universal in scope, both in judgement and blessing. However, this is balanced by the second theme.

2. The Day will be centred on Judah
Amos testifies to an expectation that the Day of Yahweh would bring light for God’s people (Amos 5:18). But, in line with Amos, Zephaniah teaches that Jerusalem/Judah can expect to be at the heart of the terrifying judgement that the Day of Yahweh will bring. §2.1 begins (1:2-3) and ends (1:17-8) with an abstract outline of universal judgement, but at its centre is a fine-grained picture of the effect of the Day on Jerusalem, down to the details of different areas of the city that will be impacted. Far from being overlooked, ‘at that time’ Yahweh will ‘search Jerusalem with lamps’ (1:12, NIV).

A similar point is made in §2.3, where the oracles against the nations conclude, on Moyter’s (1998, p901) analysis, with a lament for ‘the oppressing city’, where morning by morning Yahweh shows forth his justice in the temple (3:1-5).

In §2.5, despite the universalism of the salvation, Judah remains at the centre of the Day: the haughty will be removed from Zion, and instead of fighting against her, Yahweh in her midst will be like a warrior celebrating winning the battle (3:17, NIV).

Jerusalem/Judah then will be at the heart of what Yahweh will do in the coming Day, both in judgement and salvation.

3. The Day will leave behind a remnant
The third theme Zephaniah draws our attention to is the discriminating nature of the Day. Yahweh’s anger will not sweep away everyone. This is implied in the careful searching Yahweh will do in order to find those in Jerusalem who harbour complacency in their hearts (1:12) and becomes clearer in the call to seek Yahweh (2:1-4) in order to to be ‘hidden on the day of the anger of Yahweh’ (2:4). From 2:7 onwards we see the presence of a remnant, which is most easily understood as those who have been hidden on the Day, and who are now in a position to take possession of new territory. The focus shifts fully to the remnant in §2.5, where we see that those left in Israel will be humble (3:12 c.f. 2:3) in contrast to the proud in the nations (2:10, 15) and in Jerusalem (3:11) who will be taken away. However, the remnant is not pictured as being worthy of escaping the judgement: it is Yahweh himself who removes their shame (3:11) and takes away the judgements against them (3:15).

4. The Day restores the fortunes of the remnant
The book concludes with the two sets of three promises that will take place ’at that time’ (3:19-20), a phrase earlier associated with the Day (3:9). Yahweh promises to restore the fortunes of those who mourn for the festival (the context suggests a reference to the humble remnant who seek Yahweh) by making them praised in all the earth (3:19,20). This section forms an inclusio with 3:9-13, which suggests that 3:14-17 also refers to the remnant. In the Day of Yahweh (3:16), the remnant’s shame and guilt will be taken away (3:11, 15) so that they can enjoy an unhindered and unending relationship with Yahweh, where saved Zion will sing for joy and Yahweh will sing a song of triumphant love over the people he has saved (3:14-17).

Conclusion: The underlying theme
While the Day of Yahweh is undoubtedly the controlling motif, it would be remiss to comment on Zephaniah without bringing into focus the central theme in its proclamation of the Day of Yahweh: that it is the Day particularly of Yahweh himself (Baker, 1996, p852). On that day, Yahweh will personally search out and fight against the people who have not sought him (1:6), but strikingly, rejoice over remnant Zion with ‘loud shouting’ (3:17). In the meantime, his people must seek him, and wait for the Day when Yahweh ‘rises’ (3:8). For Zephaniah, the Day of Yahweh will be an intensely personal revelation of Yahweh himself.


I’ve starred resources I found most helpful:

*Baker, D.W. (1996) ‘The Theology of Zephaniah’ in Elwell, W. (ed.) Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press, pp851-852.

Baker, D.W. (2012) ‘Zephaniah’ in McConville, G. J. and Boda, M. J. (ed.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. United Kingdom: Inter-Varsity Press, pp254-255.

Berlin, A. (1994) Zephaniah: A new translation with introduction and commentary. 1st edn. New York: Anchor Bible, New York.

Boda, M.J. (2012) ‘Book of Zephaniah’ in McConville, G. J. and Boda, M. J. (ed.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets: A compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship. United Kingdom: Inter-Varsity Press, pp899-907.

Kselman (1992) The Book of Zephaniah’ in Freedman, D. N. and Staff, A. B. (ed.) The Anchor Bible dictionary, volume 6. United States: Bantam Dell Pub Group, pp1077-1080.

Longman, T. and Dillard, R. B. (1995) An introduction to the Old Testament. Leicester: Apollos.

Mason, R. (1994) Zephaniah (Old Testament guides). Sheffield: JSOT Press.

*McConville, G. (2002) Exploring the Old Testament: V. 4: Prophets. London: SPCK Publishing.

*Motyer, J.A. (1998) ‘Zephaniah’ in Mccomiskey, T. E. (ed.) The Minor Prophets: An exegetical and expository commentary: Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (minor prophets: An Exegetical and expository commentary). United States: Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

*Robertson, P. O. (1990) The books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Stuart, D. (1987) Word biblical commentary Vol. 31, Hosea-Jonah. Waco, TX: Paternoster Press.

Sweeney, M. A. (1991). A form-critical reassessment of the Book of Zephaniah. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 53(3), 388-408.

Sweeney, M. A. (2000) The Twelve prophets (Vol. 2): Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Berit Olam series). United States: Liturgical Press.

Sweeney, M. A. (2003) Zephaniah: A commentary. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers.


Review of “The Holy Trinity” by Stephen Holmes

It seems that, in the world of Trinitarian theology, Stephen Holmes’ 2012 overview of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity from the Old Testament through to the 20th Century has been, in the best sense, controversial. A theological journal recently devoted an entire issue to the discussion of Holmes’ work, and fellow-theologian Karen Kilby endorses it on the back cover as “a real intervention in a debate”. But strikingly, she also endorses it as being at the same time “a textbook for serious students”.

As someone with little formal theological training, I am not in a position to comment on its impact on the debate (of which more in a moment), and am not even a serious student. However, I am someone with a keen interest in speaking about God in a way that is faithful to his Word, as it’s been reflected on by his Church through the centuries, and so the “textbook” part of Kilby’s endorsement appealed to me. On top of which, who doesn’t like a good debate? I read the book to get an overview and introduction to Trinitarian doctrine, particularly to see whether I’d been falling into any obvious traps. It’s with that agenda in mind that I want to offer a review of it: given its controversial and serious nature, is “The Holy Trinity” the best place to start?

To answer that question, I’ll briefly summarise the book, evaluate it in light of that aim, and then raise some questions it prompted for me to illustrate the kind of thinking it provoked.

Holmes’ thesis is that the biggest divide in Trinitarian theology is not between Eastern and Western versions, but between the modern account of the doctrine and the teaching of the Church Fathers. Holmes contends that the modern version of the doctrine is essentially unrooted from, and at points explicitly at odds with, the traditional one. To substantiate this Holmes seeks to offer objective and careful readings of both modern and ancient Trinitarian theologies. He claims that a strong modern/traditional division “arises naturally out of such readings without very much need for further argument.” And so after an introductory chapter outlining the themes of recent Trinitarian theology, Holmes works through chapters on the Fathers’ exegesis of the Old and New Testaments, debates between the Fathers leading up to and following the Council of Nicea, the reception and development of the doctrine in through late antiquity and the medieval period and then the radical questioning of the doctrine in the 17th-18th centuries. In a final chapter, Holmes shows how the 20th century’s Trinitarian theology is at least as shaped by the questions (“how can we recover a Biblical doctrine of God free from the influence of Greek philosophy?”) and redefinitions (particularly of the word ‘person’) of the preceding two centuries as it is by the first 16 since Christ. Along the way, Holmes gives helpful summaries of his argument and his findings. In essence he claims that modern Trinitarianism:

  • speaks univocally about God and created things
  • defines ‘person’ as a centre of will/volition
  • rejects the doctrine of simplicity (that is, God is without parts) as being philosophical
  • has an inadequate construction of God’s unity
  • is willing to entangle God’s being, and especially the Son and the Spirit, with his creation through an over-emphasis on the work of the Trinity in creation and redemption as a source for understanding God’s eternal life

In contrast, the traditional doctrine:

  • is careful to describe all speech about God as analogical
  • thinks of God’s will as being undivided, and therefore his “personality” is a property of the one rather than the three
  • regards God’s simplicity as the central and necessary glue holding our thought about God together
  • constructs a doctrine of unity through a careful distinction between what can be said of the nature/essence/substance of God and the persons/hypostastes
  • maintains the Creator/creature distinction as central, while affirming God’s ability to act immediately in the world, resulting in the placement of the Son and the Spirit firmly on the side of being uncreated

The above is just a rough sketch from memory of Holmes’ concerns and conclusions – for Holmes’ own, typically clear and forthright, presentation of these, see the final page (p200) of the book.

So, how did this book serve as an introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity for someone without formal theological training? “The Holy Trinity” is a short book, and so Holmes is often condensed. I found that I had to read this book actively, with a pencil in hand. Some frequently used words such as “hypostasis” were initially confusing but became clearer as I cross-referenced (I take it to be a way of saying ‘person’ without bringing the modern connotations of that word into play). I was helped by Holmes’ regular eye to serve the reader with conclusions and well laid out arguments within and between the chapters. The fact that this work is one with a specific agenda did not for me detract from it: like the gospel writers, Holmes thinks his purpose is best served through a simple laying out of facts, and so the work can still function well as an introduction to the history of the doctrine. I certainly had the impression that Holmes was engaging with the most representative or important parts of the tradition, acknowledging where the evidence was not always precisely in line with his thesis. In fact, the presence of a clear argument made for what was, given the sometimes abstract subject matter, a gripping read (the American title “The Quest for the Trinity” bears witness to this dynamic). Coming away from it, I certainly feel like I have a surer grasp of Trinitarian doctrine, especially as taught by the Fathers but also the modern version. And importantly, I feel that Holmes has made me aware of the points at which he has presented controversial views.

How about those Trinitarian traps I was worried about? Reading this as someone from a classically Reformed/evangelical tradition, I wasn’t always finding myself on the receiving end of Holmes’ criticism: as described by Holmes, modern theologians like Robert Jenson really do go a long way towards entangling the life of God with the world, in a way that I haven’t heard being expressed in the evangelical circles I’ve been part of. However, reading the first chapter’s summary of modern Trinitarian doctrine, I recognised a number of themes that I would be sympathetic to: the centrality of personality and relationship in God’s own life, the possibility of speaking of God’s character in ways which are essentially overlapping with our own existence, the relevance of the doctrine for our community life, and the validity of reasoning from the revealed actions of the Trinity to the eternal life of God, often known as Rahner’s Rule (“the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity” e.g. the Son pours out the Spirit once he has returned to his Father as a reflection of the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son). In these areas, I think reading Holmes will help me to be more discriminating before speaking: I’ll certainly be wary, for example, of using the modern definition of the word person in reference to the Father, Son and Spirit.

Perhaps the best way to end this review is to give a list of questions I’ve jotted down for myself to look into as I seek understanding. These aren’t meant to imply criticisms. Instead, they show how this engaging book has stimulated my thinking on this vital doctrine. To anyone who is looking to be introduce to the topic and willing to work with Holmes through his argument, I recommend the book highly.

  1. God’s simplicity is “at the heart of Trinitarian doctrine” (p200). Can it be firmly grounded in revelation?
  2. What does it mean for God to be ‘personal’? Is ‘personality’ (modern def.) only a property of God’s one undivided nature/work, or can we say that each of the three are truly personal? (p200)
  3. The economy is determinative for Anselm (p149), Augustine and Aquinas (p157 n29) as well as Rahner (p10). But Holmes argues that consistent application of Rahner’s Rule has led to an entangling between God and creation (p24). What responsible rules are there for working from the economy to God’s eternal life?
  4. In sections on Eunomius (p98), Augustine (p136) and Calvin (p169-70), the issue of whether the Father’s ingenerateness can be said of the Son and the Spirit is raised. What does it mean to say that the Son is independent, yet begotten? Is the classical answer that begottenness is a personal property while independence is a property of the nature sustainable?
  5. Holmes refers repeatedly to “one God existing thrice over” (e.g. p109) and “three instantiations of the divine nature” (p200). Are these Holmes’ own formulations or traditional ones, and what do they mean?
  6. If ‘personality’ in the modern sense resides in the one rather than the three, what does it mean to have a relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit?

Checking our pulse

How much can you tell about our theology from our favourite Bible verses?

The Bible Gateway recently published a list of the top 100 most searched-for verses. I’ve rearranged the top 10 into a vaguely organised fashion, with the rank of the verse in brackets.

Gen 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (5)
Rom 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (3)
Jer 29:11: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (2)
John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (1)
Rom 12:2: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (8)
Prov 3:5: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. (6)
Prov 3:6: in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. (7)
Phil 4:6: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (9)
Phil 4:13: I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (4)
Matt 28:19: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (10)

How accurate do you think this is as a guide to the functional theology of the wider evangelical church? (CT, the Shack)

Are there any go-to verses we should really have?

What theology is, and what it is not

Good quote here from John Frame (author of an excellent introduction to systematic theology):

We need a clearer understanding of what theology is. Many, I think, regard theology as discovering something within the Bible, sometimes called a “system.” On this view, the challenge of theology is to see who can reproduce this system in the fullest detail. In our circles, many assume that Calvin and the Westminster Standards did it best; they got the system right. So our theology must be a reproduction of theirs. This concept of theology encourages, I think, the “golden age” view of things and the necessity of holding rigidly and in detail to past models.

Let me suggest instead that the work of theology is the work of application. It takes the Scriptures and uses them to answer our present questions and to meet present needs. This is Paul’s concept of doctrine: teaching that is sound (health-giving) (1 Tim. 1:10, 6:3, 2 Tim. 4:3, Tit. 1:9, 2:1). Thus, as Jones says, its focus is upon the present and future, not only the past. And so theology is bound to the mission of the church.

Read the whole thing.

(As an aside, Frame really needs to start publishing these articles directly to his blog!)

Hop little frog

If you’re wondering why it’s quiet here, it’s because I’ve been stung into silence by this quote from a book called A little exercise for young theologians:

During the period when the voice is changing we do not sing.

More here:
Jesus Creed

And David Field has picked it up too.

What do you think? Should ‘young theologians’ blog?

frogspawn developing