Book Review: Jesus Christ Our Lord, by John Walvoord

John Walvoord (1910-2002) was a past president of Dallas Theological Seminary (1952-1986) and a prolific author. He was probably best known for his advocacy of dispensational theology and of pre-tribulation ‘rapture’ theology with respect to eschatology. In his book, Jesus Christ Our Lord, Walvoord offers a systematic presentation of the person and work of Jesus Christ [1], though he confesses his inadequacy for the task: “The riches of divine revelation embodied in Jesus Christ are as measureless as the ocean and His perfections as numberless as the stars. To attempt to state in complete theological form all that should be said about Jesus Christ leaves the writer with a sense of futility. He has dipped but a cup from the ocean of infinite glory and perfections of his Lord and Saviour,” (p. 8). Nonetheless, “With the confession of inadequacy…comes the practical necessity of setting forth in systematic form, insofar as words can do, the many truths relating to the person and work of Christ. Upon this systematization the whole structure of Christian preaching and teaching must be erected, and by this means the individual faith and devotion of a believer in Christ can be immeasurably enriched by enlarging as far as possible his understanding of the scriptural revelation concerning his Saviour,” (pp. 8-9).

The Divine Attributes of Christ

The first chapter of the book contains a discussion of modern trends in Christological studies, concluding that “contemporary Christology has in many respects confused rather than clarified the extended revelation of the Word of God. It is, therefore, more important to discover what Paul or John says about Jesus Christ than to follow the latest learned theological pronouncement. When the Word of God has spoken clearly and plainly, the unbelief of men, the reasonings of the natural mind and the wisdom of the world can be safely disregarded,” (p. 9).

Chapter two asserts the pre-existence, eternal nature and divine attributes of the Son of God. He notes that, “The works of Christ, His titles, His majesty, and promises that are related to Him are all those of God Himself. His appearances in the Old Testament referred to as theophanies also provide historical evidence of His existence in the Old Testament period prior to His birth in Bethlehem,” (p. 23). Further, “The Old Testament evidence for the eternity of Christ is both direct and indirect. In Messianic prophecy Christ is spoken of as the Child to be born in Bethlehem ‘whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting’ (Micah 5:2). This is one of many passages which state in effect His eternity,” (p. 23). In addition, “All of the Old Testament predictions of the coming of Christ which assert His deity are also evidence for His eternity. For instance in Isaiah 9:6 Christ is declared to be not only ‘mighty God’ but also ‘everlasting Father’ or, better translated, ‘Father of eternity,’” (p. 24). Walvoord also notes various New Testament texts that indicate the eternal existence of Son, including such well-known gospel texts as John 1:1 and 8:58, as well as Pauline texts including Colossians 1:16-17 and Revelation 1:11. In summary, “In the New Testament as in the Old, there are many contributing arguments to support the assertions of His deity and eternity such as His titles, His works, His divine attributes, His eternal promises, and almost any other aspect of His person and work which would imply His deity. If Christ is truly God, He is also truly eternal,” (p. 25).

Walvoord also argues that “Every attribute related to Deity or ascribed to the Father or the Holy Spirit can also be attributed to Christ. Only in Their personal properties is it possible to distinguish the Members of the Trinity and in no case are these properties, such as the term Father, any reflection on the deity of Christ,” (p. 27). He notes various Scriptures that affirm the omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, immutability, and sovereignty of the Son. Unfortunately, he also adds the false statement that “Since the Council of Nicaea in 325 there has been no denial of the deity and eternity of Christ which did not also deny the infallibility of Scripture,” (p. 27). To the contrary, Biblical Unitarians such as Restoration Fellowship (who deny the pre-existence of the Son), and Jehovah’s witnesses (who affirm the Son’s pre-existence but deny his eternality and fully divine status), though quite mistaken in their Biblical exegesis, do not reject the infallibility of Scripture.

Old Testament Theophanies

In chapter three, Walvoord discusses revelation concerning the person of Christ in Old Testament history. I appreciated his discussion of the angel of the Lord (pp. 44-46, 51-55), a subject about which I have also written in some detail. Readers should note that the Hebrew word מַלְאָךְ֙ (malak, “angel”) has a broader meaning than designating an angelic creature. Though it often does mean this, it can be used of human messengers as well (c.f. 1 Sam 23:27; 2 Sam 11:19, 22, 23, 25), or even of God Himself (c.f. Gen 48:16; Mal 3:1). Walvoord argues, correctly in my view, that the angel of the Lord is none other than the preincarnate Christ Himself. In support of the contention that the angel of the Lord is the second person of the Trinity, Walvoord adduces three lines of evidence. First, “Christ as the Angel of Jehovah is identified as Jehovah in numerous Old Testament passages,” (p. 44). Second, “The Angel of Jehovah is also revealed to be a distinct Person from Jehovah, that is, a Person of the Trinity. In Genesis 24:7 (ASV), for instance, Jehovah is described as sending ‘his angel,’” (p. 45). To this, I would add that the angel of the Lord possesses divine prerogatives, such as the ability to forgive sins and withhold forgiveness (Exodus 23:20-21; Zech 3:4). Finally, Walvoord contends that the angel of the Lord is in fact the second person of the Trinity. In support of his contention, he appeals to four further lines of evidence: First, “The second Person is the visible God of the New Testament. Neither the Father nor the Spirit is characteristically revealed in bodily and visible form,” (p. 45). Second, “Confirming this induction is the fact that the Angel of Jehovah of the Old Testament no longer appears after the incarnation. References to angels in the New Testament seem to refer to either angelic or human messengers. It is a natural inference that the Angel of Jehovah is now the incarnate Christ,” (p. 46). Third, “The similarity of function between the Angel of Jehovah and Christ can be observed in the fact that Both are sent by the Father. In the Old Testament, the Angel of Jehovah is sent by Jehovah to reveal truth, to lead Israel and to defend and judge them. In the New Testament, Christ is sent by God the Father to reveal God in the flesh, to reveal truth and to become the Saviour,” (p. 46). Finally, Walvoord argues that the identity of the angel of the Lord as the second person of the Trinity can be demonstrated by a process of elimination, since He “could not be either the first Person or the third Person,” (p. 46). He observes that John 1:18 indicates that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Concerning this text, Walvoord notes, “This passage seems to imply that only Christ could be visible to man and that the first Person and the third Person did not reveal Themselves in visible fashion. As the Angel of Jehovah is the sent One, He could not be the Father for the Father is the Sender,” (p. 46). Walvoord also argues that the angel of the Lord cannot be the Holy Spirit, since “the Angel of Jehovah characteristically appears in bodily, usually human form,” (p. 46). Thus, “He could not be the Holy Spirit who does not appear bodily, except in the rare instance of appearing in the form of a dove at the baptism of Christ,” (p. 46).

Walvoord’s treatment of the subject of the angel of the Lord would have been enhanced with an interaction with the most popular objection to the identification of the angel of the Lord as a divine figure – that is, that the text can be plausibly understood to use the language of agency, since the angel of the Lord does the bidding of the Lord God and thereby may be appropriately addressed as God. In response to this argument, however, one may appeal to at least three lines of evidence. First, this view fails to account for the parallelism in Jacob’s blessing of the sons of Joseph in Genesis 48:15-16: “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, may he bless the boys.” This is a case of Hebrew parallelism, a common device in Hebrew poetry where the same meaning carried by the first line is expressed in different words by the subsequent line. This suggests that “the angel” and “God” are to be taken as the same individual. This is further supported by the fact that, though not reflected in modern English translations, the verb יְבָרֵךְ֮ (‘to bless’) is in the singular, thus suggesting that God and the angel spoken of in this text are to be understood as identical. A similar parallelism exists in Zechariah 12:8, which says, “On that day…the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, going before them,” (Zech 12:8). Second, on multiple occasions, after the angel of the Lord has been encountered, the witnesses recognize the implications of having seen God face-to-face, which according to Exodus 33:20 is death (c.f. Gen 32:30; Judg 6:22-23; 13:21-23). This reaction is surprising if these individuals encountered only a subordinate messenger who was not God Himself. The consistent distinction in the Hebrew Bible between the ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ Yahweh points to a plurality of divine persons. Third, the angel of the Lord is the recipient of religious worship, which is only appropriately addressed to God (Exod 3:4; Josh 5:15; Judg 13:15-25).

I would also maintain that both the Old and New Testaments point to the identification of the angel of the Lord with the Messiah. For example, Malachi 3:1 identifies the Messiah as “the angel/messenger of the covenant.” This echoes Judges 2:1-2, where the angel of the Lord says, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land…’” Thus, the angel of the Lord is the messenger of the covenant, and therefore the Messianic figure of Malachi 3:1. The New Testament identifies the one who brought God’s people out of Egypt with Jesus (c.f. Jude 4-5). Though there is a textual variant in Jude 5 (a minority of manuscripts read κύριος instead of Ἰησοῦς), this is of little interpretive consequence since the preceding verse identifies Jesus as “our only Master and Lord,” (v. 4).

Messianic Prophecy and Typology

In chapters 4 and 5, Walvoord turns his attention to types and prophecies concerning Christ in the Old Testament. He correctly notes that “Two extremes in the study of typology should be avoided,” (p. 63). The first extreme is the “tendency on the part of some is to limit typology to instances clearly authorized in the New Testament,” (p. 63). The second extreme is those that “have found typology in almost every situation in the Old Testament to the neglect of primary exegesis, (p. 63). Walvoord classifies types of Christ into five categories: (1) typical persons; (2) typical events; (3) typical things; (4) typical institutions; and (5) typical ceremonies, giving examples of each.

Chapter five offers a review of Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ. A weakness of this section is that many popular objections to the examples that Walvoord adduces are left undiscussed. For example, the controversies surrounding the identification of the Immanuel child of Isaiah 7:14 are unacknowledged. Most commentators view the child prophesied in this text as being an individual born in Ahaz’s own day. I would take the view that the Immanuel child is indeed the Messiah and one and the same child as that spoken of in Isaiah 9:6-7. However, to make this case would require extensive discussion that I will not provide here. 

Walvoord also offers examples that are not, in their literary context, Messianic prophecies at all. He asserts that “Many other scattered references to the death of Christ complete the picture of prophecy. He was to be betrayed by a friend (Ps. 41:9), falsely accused (Ps. 35:11) and spit upon (Isa. 50:6); His bones were not to be broken (Ps. 34:20),” (p. 92). However, there is no indication that Psalm 41:9 has anything to do with the Messiah. In fact, just five verses earlier, in the same Psalm, the writer had said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!” This assuredly cannot refer to the Messiah, who is understood to be sinless (2 Cor 5:21). The betraying friend of verse 9 may well be Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s trusted counsellor (2 Sam 15:12; 16:21). Though this Psalm is cited in connection with Jesus’ betrayal by Judas in John 13:18, I would argue that this should be understood typologically (which makes sense on the view of Jesus as the second David) rather than as a predictive prophecy. Walvoord also appealed to Psalm 35:11: “Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me of things that I do not know.” Again, however, nothing in context suggests that this text is intended to be prophetic concerning the Messiah. Psalm 34:20 likewise does not concern the Messiah but a generic righteous man. Though John 19:36 states that Christ fulfilled the Scripture that “Not one of his bones will be broken,” I would argue that this is more likely a reference to the Passover lamb, whose bones were not to be broken during preparation (Exod 12:46; Num 9:12).

The Gospel Birth Narratives

Chapter six concerns the incarnation of the Son of God, with an emphasis on the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke. In a section titled, “Critical Problems,” Walvoord notes, “Though there have been many attempts to weaken the credibility of the accounts of the birth of Christ, there has been little documentary evidence to support this attitude popular in various forms of higher criticism,” (p. 102). With this I would largely agree, though I think a real discrepancy can be successfully argued for insofar as Luke appears to be completely unaware of the flight to Egypt reported in Matthew 2:13-15. This would not be a problem per se, since omission is not the same thing as denial, and Matthew and Luke are evidently drawing on different sources. However, Luke 2:22-38 concerns Jesus’ dedication at the temple and the purification ceremony. Luke 2:39 indicates that “when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” The text strongly implies that it was very shortly after the purification that they returned home, whereas Matthew implies that Jesus’ family remained in Bethlehem for some considerable time after Jesus’ birth and only returned to Nazareth following the flight to Egypt. Personally, I think that the explanation that makes the most sense is that Luke’s sources did not inform him of the coming of the magi, the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem, or the flight to Egypt. Plausibly, Luke’s principal source for his nativity account was Mary. It is a reasonable conjecture that Mary may have told Luke the story of Simeon and Anna in the temple (Lk 2:25-38) before transitioning to the next account by saying something like “And later, when we were living in Nazareth, we used to come every year to Jerusalem to the Passover feast.” Perhaps Luke made the natural assumption that they had returned to Nazareth immediately following the presentation at the temple, and thus wrote a transition connecting the two accounts. If this is the case, then this can be viewed as a legitimate ‘good faith’ discrepancy between Matthew’s and Luke’s nativity accounts. It is unfortunate that Walvoord does not acknowledge or discuss this discrepancy between the nativity accounts, nor does he address any of the other popular assertions of error in these narratives (which I would maintain are unsuccessful).

Walvoord, however, does address the apparent discrepancies pertaining to Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus. He correctly notes that the discrepancy in the number of generations between these genealogies is not problematic, since there is precedent for skipped generations in genealogical lists (e.g. in Ezra 7:1-5, six generations of the priesthood are omitted). He notes that “The reason for the omission seems to be to maintain the unity of fourteen generations in each section,” (p. 103). To this, I would add that the number fourteen is very likely being used by Matthew to emphasize the Davidic descent of Jesus, and His position as the greater David (since fourteen is the numeric value of David’s name in Hebrew). Walvoord also addresses the problem that, in Luke, “an entirely different lineage is presented from David to Joseph, the descent coming from Nathan, the son of David, rather than through Solomon as in Matthew’s account,” (p. 104). In response to this concern, Walvoord writes, “The most common explanation of this seems to be the best, that is, that Joseph as the son-in-law of Eli was considered in the descent from Eli through his marriage with Mary and that the lineage therefore is that of Mary rather than of Joseph,” (p. 104). The common argument for this is that the Greek in Luke 3 does not say “the son of Heli,” but rather simply “of Heli” (the word “son” is not repeated after the first usage). B.B. Warfield argued that the location of the qualifying phrase—“who was the son, as it was supposed, of Joseph”—and the omission of the possessive definite article του before Joseph’s name suggests that Joseph is not part of the lineal descent being given. [2] However, this solution, in my assessment, is unconvincing. If Luke had known that the genealogy was in fact that of Mary, this could have been much more clearly expressed – for example, by saying, “being the son, as it was supposed, of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of Heli…” 

Personally, I would incline towards the view that the genealogy given by Luke is probably indeed that of Mary, though it was mistakenly understood by Luke to be the genealogy of Joseph. Presumably, at the time of Luke’s writing of his nativity account, he was not in the physical presence of Mary and was therefore unable to verify to whom the genealogy belonged. It is not implausible that Mary’s genealogy would have been kept, given Christ’s virgin birth and Mary’s being a descendent of David. It may also be observed that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke contain embarrassing details that are somewhat supportive of historicity. Matthew has Jesus descended from Jechoniah (also known as Jehoiachin and Coniah), upon whom was a curse that “none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling again in Judah” (Jer 22:30). This, then, is an unlikely invention on the part of Matthew. Some, including Walvoort have argued that this makes sense in light of the virgin birth if we interpret Luke’s genealogy as that of Mary, since “the legal right to the throne of David is passed through Solomon and Jehoiakim to Joseph and to Joseph’s legal son, Christ. The physical seed, however, is passed through Nathan and Mary to Christ,” (p. 85). Furthermore, despite God’s promise to Solomon that “I will allow your dynasty to rule over Israel permanently, just as I promised your father David, ‘You will not fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel,’” Luke’s genealogy has Jesus being descended through Nathan instead of Solomon. This too is an unlikely invention if one were to fabricate the genealogies whole-cloth. For these reasons, I favor the view that Matthew’s genealogy is that of Joseph, and Luke’s is that of Mary, though Luke made a ‘good-faith’ error in identifying the genealogy as that of Joseph.

The Incarnation of Christ

Chapter seven discusses the person of the incarnate Christ, appropriately emphasizing the importance of the humanity of Christ as well as His deity. Indeed, “Those who deny the true humanity of Christ, such as modern Christian Science, are just as effective at destroying the Christian faith as those who deny the deity of Christ,” (p. 109). Further, “The hypostatic or personal union of the human and divine natures in Christ is given explicit divine revelation in at least seven major passages of Scripture (Phil. 2:6–11; John 1:1–14; Rom. 1:2–5; 9:5; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 1:1–3). These passages which are studied in connection with other doctrines make it evident that the eternal Son of God took upon Himself a complete human nature and became Man,” (p. 112).

Chapter 8 concerns the life of Christ on earth. Walvoord begins by revisiting the nativity accounts, noting that “The gospel of Matthew presents Joseph’s aspect of the story, the account of the visit of the Magi, and other details which confirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of David. The gospel of Luke traces some of the more human elements. The birth of John the Baptist and the related incidents, the experience of Mary and her Magnificat, the details of the birth in Bethlehem, and the visits of the shepherds and the words of Simeon and Anna with profound simplicity give the details of the birth of Christ,” (p. 124). Indeed, the consistent one-sided reportage of Matthew and Luke from the perspective of Joseph and Mary respectively, I would argue, is suggestive that Matthew’s account is based on the eyewitness testimony of Joseph, and Luke’s account that of Mary.

Walvoord goes on to survey the ministry of Jesus, beginning with his early ministry in Judea, and progressing through His ministry in Galilee and Perea, His passion Week, His resurrection from the dead, and post-resurrection appearances. The chapter also offers a discussion of the offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. He notes that, “Taken together, the three offices of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King are the key to the purpose of the incarnation. His prophetic office was concerned with the revelation of the truth of God; the priestly office was related to His work as Saviour and Mediator; His kingly office had in view His right to reign over Israel and over the entire earth,” (p. 137).

The Resurrection of Jesus

Chapters 9 and 10 deal with the sufferings and death of Christ and His resurrection from the dead. Chapter 10 presents a case for the resurrection of Jesus, though I found Walvoord’s arguments to be rather shallow, failing to acknowledge and engage with popular counterarguments and alternative explanations of the facts he adduces, and at times dramatically overstating his case. For example, Walvoord asserts that “The day of Pentecost, occurring only fifty days after the death and resurrection of Christ, was the occasion for the sermon by Peter on the doctrine of resurrection as thousands gathered to hear. Those who listened to Peter had access to the garden where the tomb was located, and had undoubtedly investigated the reports of the resurrection of Christ which were commonly discussed in Jerusalem,” (p. 198). However, the majority of the crowds at Pentecost would have been Jewish pilgrims from outside of Judea and it is quite implausible that the thousands of gathered Jews had each individually investigated the facts concerning the resurrection (even supposing they knew in which tomb Jesus had been laid). Moreover, given that Pentecost was some fifty days removed from Jesus’ purported resurrection, the body, if still present, would have already decomposed beyond recognition. The resurrection claim, therefore, could not by this point have been falsified by production of a corpse.

Eschatology

The final two chapters discuss the present and future work of Christ, concluding with a review of the diversity of perspectives on eschatology. The author advocates a premillennial pre-tribulation rapture view, though I again found his analysis of this subject to be quite superficial. For example, Walvoord asserts that “not a single passage in the New Testament relating to the rapture contextually can be proved to refer to the close of the tribulation period. Posttribulationists therefore are driven completely to inference,” (p. 263). However, there is also no text that unequivocally asserts that the rapture of the church will occur before the great tribulation. Pretribulationists are therefore also driven completely to inference. The question, then, is which inference makes the most sense of the whole council of Scripture. Moreover, I would contend that the burden of proof lies with the one who proposes to draw a distinction between the second coming of Christ and the rapture of the church (since viewing them as one and the same event is the simpler thesis). 

1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 is a favourite text often cited in connection with the purported rapture of the church prior to the second coming. Here, Paul states that “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” but instead “the dead in Christ will rise first” and “then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” However, only a few lines preceding this is the allusion in 1 Thessalonians 3:13 to “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints,” which indubitably refers to the second coming of Christ. But notice that the exact same expression “the coming (παρουσία) of the/our Lord” is used to refer to both. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1, Paul again writes, “Now concerning the coming (παρουσία) of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him…” Undoubtedly, this refers to the rapture of the church (compare with 1 Thess 4:15-18). However, just a few verses later, Paul writes, “And when the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming (παρουσία).” But the antichrist is to be defeated at the end of the great tribulation. Thus, I would maintain that the simplest reading of Scripture is that the rapture of the church and the second coming are one and the same episode. The burden of proof must surely lie with he who proposes that they are distinctive events. For a more thorough discussion of this subject, I refer readers to Not Afraid of the Antichrist — Why We Don’t Believe in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, by Michael Brown and Craig Keener. [3]

Conclusion

To conclude, though there were some aspects of Walvoord’s book that I appreciated (such as his survey of the angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible, and his defence of core Christian doctrines such as the deity of Christ and hypostatic union), I found much of his exegesis to be superficial. He often fails to acknowledge and engage with obvious and popular rejoinders to his arguments, sometimes overstates the force of his arguments, and occasionally makes mistakes on a factual level. Walvoord should thus be read with a critical eye. Even in the parts of the book that I appreciated, there was nothing insightful or novel that has not been discussed at length in many other popular and academic treatments of the subject.

Footnotes

[1] John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord (Galaxie Software, 2008).

[2] Benjamin B. Warfield, “On the Post-Exilian Portion of our Lord’s Genealogy”, Presbyterian Review 2, no. 1881 (1881), 388-397.

[3] Michael L. Brown and Craig S. Keener, Not Afraid of the Antichrist: Why We Don’t Believe in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen, 2019).

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