Reformed View of Immutability

While studying the book of Daniel, I came across an interesting statement by Richard Pratt. Pratt asserts, “When we speak of historical contingencies affecting the fulfillment of prophecies, we have in mind a concept of contingency that complies with the emphasis of traditional Reformed theology on the sovereignty of God. In the first place, this study affirms the doctrine of God’s sovereign immutability. Unfortunately, this doctrine is often misunderstood to teach that God is unchangeable in every way imaginable. But such an outlook denies the biblical portrait of God’s ability to have meaningful interaction with the creation (to judge, redeem, answer prayer, become flesh, etc.). It is for this reason that Reformed theologians have distinguished ways in which God is immutable from ways in which he is not. For example, Louis Berkhof puts the matter succinctly: ‘The Bible teaches us that God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were, lives their life with them. There is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purposes, His motives or actions, or His promises.’ We can summarize Berkhof by saying that Reformed theology has identified at least three ways in which God is unchanging: (1) God’s character does not change; he cannot become something other than what he is. (2) God’s covenant promises are immutable. He will not break his covenant oaths. (3) God is immutable in his eternal counsel or plan for all of history. God has an unchangeable plan, and this plan governs every detail of history.” (Richard L. Pratt, Jr., “Hyper-Preterism and Unfolding Biblical Eschatology,” in When Shall These Things Be? ed. Keith A. Mathison (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), 124.). Notwithstanding Pratt’s views on eschatology, I do not subscribe to his view on immutability, and in fact Pratt’s view does not conform either to the traditional Reformed view of immutability nor to the current Reformed view. Francis Turretin, a 17th century Reformed theologian, for example, states, “Immutability is an incommunicable attribute of God by which is denied of Him not only all change, but also all possibility of change, as much with respect to existence as to will” (“Immutabilitas est attributum Dei incommunicabile, quo negatur de Deo non tantum omnis mutatio, fed etiam possibilitas mutationis, tam quoad existentiam, quam quoad voluntatem.” Francisco Turrettino, Institutio Theologiæ Elencticæ (Amstelodami: Ant. Schouten, & Th. Appels., 1696), Third Topic, Q. XI.225.). Thomas Ridgley, an 18th century Reformed theologian, asserts that God is immutable not only in His essence but also in His will: “That God is unchangeable in his will: thus it is said of him, He is of one mind, and who can turn him? Job. xxiii. 13. this is agreeable to his infinite perfection, and therefore he does not propose to do a thing at one time, and determine not to do it at another.” (Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity: Wherein the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, are Explained and Defended (Glasgow: John Bryce, 1770), 38.). John Dick, a 19th century Reformed Pastor and Theologian affirms the same view: “I proceed to speak of his immutability, by which we understand not only that his duration is permanent, but that his nature is fixed, immoveable, unaffected by external causes; in every respect the same from eternity to eternity.” (John Dick, Lectures on Theology (Oxford: David Christy, 1836), 102–3.). Herman Hoeksema, a 20th century Reformed Theologian avers the same position: “He does not grow older, does not increase or decrease in Being or power, is from eternity to eternity the same in essence and in all His virtues, in His mind and will. His love and life, the absolute fulness and Self-sufficient God. When in the Scriptures we read that God repents, or when He speaks a word which at a later moment is changed into the very opposite, as in the case of Hezekiah’s sickness, or of Jonah’s commission concerning the destruction of Nineveh, these instances may never be explained as presupposing a change in God. Rather must we remember that the eternal and immutable God reveals Himself in time, and that what is thus revealed to us in a succession of moments is eternally and unchangeably in the mind of God.” (Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966), 76.). Even Pratt’s quote from Berkhof does not tell an accurate story. Although Pratt quotes from Berkhof, he fails to quote enough, so the reader gets a distorted view of Berkhof’s position. Berkhof goes on to assert, “And if Scripture speaks of His repenting, changing His intention, and altering His relation to sinners when they repent, we should remember that this is only an anthropopathic way of speaking. In reality the change is not in God, but in man and in man’s relation to God. It is important to maintain the immutability of God over against the Pelagian and Arminian doctrine that God is subject to change, not indeed in His Being, but in His knowledge and will, so that His decisions are to a great extent dependent on the actions of man;” (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 59.). Pratt’s view is not consistent either with the traditional Reformed view or with the current Reformed view. The contingencies he describes are perfectly consistent with the traditional view of immutability and do not require any sense in which God changes.

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N. T. Wright, History, and the Bible

I am utterly astounded that an author of the renown of N. T. Wright would so completely ignore and/or distort the historical and biblical facts simply to maintain a pet theory. That the assumptions and sweeping claims of E. P. Sanders—claims that have formed the foundation of the New Perspective on Paul—have been so completely demonstrated to be false should still be employed as a foundation for Wright’s theories is absolutely beyond understanding. As D. A. Carson puts it, “Several of the scholars [in the book sited below] found that at least parts of their respective corpora could be usefully described as reflecting covenantal nomism. One conclusion to be drawn, then, is not that Sanders is wrong everywhere, but he is wrong when he tries to establish that his category is right everywhere [D. A. Carson, "Summaries and Conclusions," in The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, vol. 1, Justification and Variegated Nomism, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 543.]. Once it has been shown that Sanders’ claims do not characterize all, or even most, of Second Temple Judaism, any interpreter must put forward strong evidence that Sanders’ covenantal nomism is in fact the background against which Paul should be interpreted, evidence that is completely absent and is not forthcoming. It seems that some prominent persons are simply so far beyond the possibility of admitting when they were wrong that they will take whatever means to salvage their reputations and hang on to their pet theories (please pardon me for being so critical, but I am just utterly aggravated that this kind of writing—or Wrighting—is continually foisted upon a reading Christian public when the overwhelming evidence has so clearly proven that he is wrong).

In order to justify his claims about the definition of the phrase “the righteousness of God” as “God’s covenant faithfulness,” in his book, What Saint Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright launches into such a remarkable case of historical and exegetical gymnastics as to boggle the mind. After describing a “Hebrew law court” scene that has historical foundation neither in history nor in the Bible, Wright argues,

What happens, then, when we put the covenantal meaning of God’s righteousness together with the metaphorical level drawn from the law-court scene? God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies. She longs, that is, to be justified, acquitted, vindicated. And, because the God who is the judge is also her covenant God, she pleads with him: be faithful to your covenant! Vindicate me in your righteousness! [N. T. Wright. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997),  98–99].

Before we look at the above claim, let us consider what Wright says as a preface to his mischaracterization of the Hebrew law court. First, he says, “For a reader of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, ‘the righteousness of God’ would have one obvious meaning: God’s own faithfulness to his promises, to the covenant” [Ibid., 92]. Of course, there is simply no justification for such a claim. Wright refers to “Isaiah 40–55″ as if this were somehow evidence for his claim, but he fails to produce any statements or point to any specific passage(s) in this wide range of material that would support his assertions. Later he says, “There are many other passages which support this reading of ‘God’s righteousness’; for instance, the great prayer of Daniel 9″ [Ibid., 96]. Of course, Daniel 9 offers no such support for Wright’s claims (it is understandable that Wright would not point to any particular verses since there are not any to which he could point). If anything, the prayer of Daniel in chapter 9 argues decidedly against Wright’s claims. Daniel points out several times that God is righteous and that is why Israel is desolated and destroyed. Because God is righteous, He has brought destruction up Israel because they have “we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances” (Dan. 9:5).

When it comes to Daniel’s supplications, Daniel does not call upon God’s righteousness since it is because of God’s righteousness that Israel is in the state of destruction and exile: “Righteousness belongs to You, O Lord, but to us open shame, as it is this day” (Dan. 9:7). Rather, Daniel calls upon God’s compassion and forgiveness: “To the Lord our God compassion and forgiveness . . .” (Dan. 9:9). So, neither Daniel nor any other biblical passages support Wright’s claim that the righteousness of God should be understood to mean God’s covenant faithfulness. In fact, that God remains true to His covenant promises is based on the fact that He is righteous. God’s righteousness is the foundation of His covenant faithfulness. As Mark Seifrid points out, “All ‘covenant keeping’ is righteous behavior, but not all righteous behavior is ‘covenant keeping.’ It is misleading, therefore, to speak of ‘God’s righteousness’ as his ‘covenant faithfulness.’ It would be closer to the biblical language to speak of ‘faithfulness’ as ‘covenant righteousness’” [Mark A. Seifrid, "Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism," in The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, vol. 1, Justification and Variegated Nomism, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 424].

Wright talks about the Old Testament law court as a way of understanding his sense of the phrase “God’s righteousness.” He says, “In the lawcourt as envisaged in the OT, all cases were considered ‘civil’ rather than ‘criminal’; accuser and defendant pleaded their causes before a judge. ‘Righteousness’ was the status of the successful party when the case had been decided; ‘acquitted’ does not quite catch this, since that term applies only to the successful defendant, whereas if the accusation was upheld the accuser would be ‘righteous.’ ‘Vindicated’ is thus more appropriate. The word is not basically to do with morality or behavior, but rather with status in the eyes of the court—even though, once someone had been vindicated, the word ‘righteous’ would thus as it were work backward, coming to denote not only the legal status at the end of the trial but also the behavior that had occasioned this status” [Wright, N. T. "The Letter to the Romans." In Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians, vol. 10, The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 398–99]. In a footnote to this paragraph, Wright refers to Gen. 38:26: “A good example of this can be seen in Genesis 38:26, when Judah acknowledges that his daughter-in-law Tamar is in the right and he is in the wrong. This states a legal position; only secondarily, and by implication, does it comment on the morality of their respective behavior” [Ibid., 399,n5]. Wright’s characterization of the story of Judah and Tamar is, however, quite incorrect. The problem arose as a result of Tamar’s behavior, which was, because of her pregnancy, interpreted by others as the result of “playing the harlot” (ht;nÒz:, za4nt`a4h). According to the standard Hebrew lexicon, the verb hnz (znh) indicates “to become involved with another man, to commit fornication (as wife, betrothed) Gn 3824” [The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (2001), s.v. "hnz."]. The entire episode concerns the behavior of Tamar which has been identified as “playing the harlot.” When it is revealed that Tamar was pregnant by Judah, Judah acknowledges the unrighteousness of his own behavior, as he says, “She is more righteous than I;” Why is Tamar more righteous that Judah? Judah identifies his unrighteousness as his lack of action: “inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” It is precisely because of their relative behaviors that one is acknowledged as more righteous than the other. Additionally, the characterization of “more” makes sense only in terms of an absolute standard of moral conduct. Judah is able to acknowledge Tamar as “more righteous” because of the absolute standard of moral conduct by which each is judged. Wright has not only got the idea of God’s righteousness wrong, his example works against his own claims.

The supposed background to Wright’s claim that we quoted earlier in fact is a factually incorrect report of the actual historical background. Wright claims, “God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies” [Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 98]. The problem with this characterization, or rather, mischaracterization, is that Israel is not standing before God pleading her case against the wicked pagans. In fact, God, as the Judge, is charging Israel with going after the pagan nations and abandoning the covenant. Israel is not “righteous” and longing for God to hear her case. God is the one who is bringing the case against Israel who is unrighteous, as Daniel said and as the other prophets repeatedly declared. In order to attempt to hold on to his discredited theory, it seems that N. T. Wright will go to any lengths, even distorting the historical and biblical facts.

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Opening Verses of John Chapter 2

There is an important flow of thought of the previous section, from Jn. 1:19–51, that impacts one’s understanding of the upcoming material. In Jn. 3:22–30 the author records an interaction between John the Baptist and some of his disciples concerning Jesus and the fact that everyone was going to Him rather than coming to John. In 3:30, John states, “It is necessary for that one to increase, but for me to decrease.” This is exactly the flow we see between 1:19 and 51 and the beginning of chapter 2. In verses 19–28 of chapter 1, the focus is on John who is being interrogated by the religious leaders. Throughout this section John denies any independent authority and identifies himself as the forerunner prophesied in Isaiah. In the section from 29 to 34, the focus shifts slightly as John points to Jesus and identifies Him as the Lamb of God. In 35–42 the focus shifts even more as some of John’s own disciples leave him to follow Jesus. In verse 43–51, John is out of the picture altogether, and Jesus is not calling His own disciples.

D. A. Carson attempts to make the case that the miracle of the transformation of the water into wine takes place on the seventh day. He argues that another day should be added to John’s sequence: “This is achieved, not by appealing to the variant at 1:41 but by observing that when the Baptist’s two disciples attach themselves to Jesus it is already 4:00 p.m. on the third day—and they spent the rest of that day with him (1:39). That means Andrew’s introduction of Simon Peter to Jesus takes place on the next day, the fourth; the Nathanael exchange occurs on the fifth; the changing of water into wine on the seventh” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), 168). It seems very unlikely that John, having explicitly identified the series of days by specific markers: Th’/ ejpauvrion (te4i epaurion) in verse 29, Th’/ ejpauvrion pavlin (te4i epaurion palin) in verse 35, Th’/ ejpauvrion (te4i epaurion) in verse 43, and finally Kai; th’/ hJmevra/ th’/ trivth/ (kai te4i he4merai te4i trite4i) in 2:1. For John to introduce an additional day without a specific marker, and to do so with such subtlety that it would inevitably generate a question, seems completely outside the theme of this material. As Carson himself notes, “Only here does John provide a careful record of a sequence of days” (Ibid.). To conclude that this careful record is interrupted by the introduction of an additional day so carelessly  unmarked simply does not fit.

Rather than concluding this week on the seventh day, John seems to conclude it on the sixth day. This seems to place the events in the setting of the sixth day, the day when man and woman are created. The symbolism depicts Jesus as the last Adam who successfully obeys God’s commandments and fulfills all righteousness. By the time we get to chapter 2, Jesus is the focus. John has done his job well. He has pointed us to the Messiah that is coming, who will release His people from captivity and bring them the new wine of the kingdom.

1. The Time – Notice the time is the third day. If day one was 1:19–28, day two 1:29–34, day three 1:35–42, and day four was 1:43–51, then 2:1 is probably the sixth day of that first week.

There are at least two features that make this significant. First, if we remember the association we made with the creation week, we think of what happened on the sixth day of the creation week. Man was created. As Jesus was there at the creation of the first man, so He is here at the creation of the new man. Secondly, when we think of the “third day” we think of the resurrection. This is the event that brought about the possibility of becoming a new creation in Christ.

2. The Situation – Cana was a very small town somewhere near Nazareth of Galilee. A wedding was being held and Jesus and His disciples were invited. The way the statement is made seems to indicate that Jesus’ disciples were invited because they were with Him, but that the wedding had not been planned with them in mind. Perhaps the extra men was the cause of the early depletion of the wine resources.

3. The Sign – Mary came to Jesus and told Him that the wine was depleted (v. 3). Jesus’ answer was not disrespectful. Mary probably assumed that Jesus could use this event to show His supernatural power. Jesus said to her, “What do we have in common? My hour is not yet come!” Jesus was telling her that she must not continue to function as if their relationship was the same as always. Jesus was embarking upon His earthly ministry and everything must progress according to the Father’s plan. It was not His hour to reveal Himself openly.

John points out that there were 6 large water pots capable of holding about twenty gallons each. Verse 7 notes that they were filled to the brim. This is important to indicate that there was no room to add anything to these pots. Also, these were pots that kept water for various ritual washings, so there would be no residue of wine in the pots to account for the wine taste. John points out that the water pots were made of stone rather than earthenware. Stone was not capable of becoming ritually unclean. The water was used to cleanse the hands and various utensils from ritual uncleanness. Following the Babylonian captivity, such practices were extended to things that were not formally included in the Mosaic law. “The laws of purity prescribed that vessels, clothes or persons which had been defiled by contact with something unclean should be washed in water (Lv. 11:24–15 (sic), 28, 32, 40; 15 passim; 22:6). But water was also used to wash things which had been in contact with something sacred: meat what had been offered in sacrifice was a most holy thing, and therefore the metal vessel in which it had been boiled had to be scoured and rinsed in water; it was an earthenware vessel, it was to be broken (Lv 6:21)” (Roland de Vaux, Religious Institutions, vol. 2,  Ancient Israel (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), 461.).

When the headwaiter tasted the wine which Jesus had created from the water in the pots, he remarked that this wine was the good wine. The custom was to serve the best wine early, and to serve the poorer quality wine later when the guests would not be as discerning about the taste.

4. The Significance – By this sign, Jesus presents Himself as Messiah, King of Israel.

For the Nation of Israel this meant;

a. The kingdom of God is often presented in terms of a banquet, and especially a wedding feast. Matt. 8:11; 22:1–14; Rev. 19:7–9.

b. The kingdom age was often pictured as a time of abundance symbolized by the new wine. Gen 49:11–12; Joel 2:19. The depletion of the old wine during this wedding feast symbolizes the obsolescence of the Judaism that was prominent in Jesus’ day. The old was replaced by the new, which was even better.

c. By supplying the good wine, in a sense taking over the responsibility that was the bridegroom’s, Jesus is depicted as the Bridegroom who will supply the new wine of the kingdom. Wine was not only symbolic of the joy of the kingdom, but became associated with sustenance and life. Wine was also a symbol of covenant blessing. The warnings in Deuteronomy 28–29 include the curse, “You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the  wine  nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them.” However, the repentance and restoration of Israel included the promise of an abundance of new wine (Hosea 2:22; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13). Israel was depicted as God’s wife. Jer. 31:32 depicts God as Israel’s husband: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,  not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.” It is interesting that the metaphor is used in the announcement of the new covenant. In Isaiah 62 the ultimate restoration of Israel is couched in terms of marriage

It will no longer be said to you, “Forsaken,” Nor to your land will it any longer be said, “Desolate”; But you will be called, “My delight is in her,” And your land, “Married”; For the Lord delights in you, And to Him your land will be married. For as a young man marries a virgin, So your sons will marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you (Isa. 62:4–5).

For the Christian this means;

a. The joy of salvation is frequently symbolized by wine in the OT (Ps. 104:15). Jesus provides an abundance of joy. The Lord made between 120 and 150 gallons of wine. It is interesting to note that when God instructed Israel to tithe to the LORD, He also instructed them to take a tenth and have a feast (Num. 14:22–27). Even in John Jesus is presented as the Bridegroom

b. The New wine symbolizes a new life in Christ. The old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. This is why the author makes the note that this wedding feast took place on the third day.

This sign was designed to prompt faith in His disciples that He is the Messiah of Israel, and it functions in accord with the basic theme of John to present Jesus as Messiah, the God-Man who brings the Kingdom of God to the earth.

There is an interesting hint of an Old Testament relationship indicated in the opening verses of chapter 2. The structure of this section which began at 1:19 certainly seems to indicate an intent to present this material as the first week of Jesus’ ministry and to link this with the creation week. If this is accurate, there seems to be an effort to link the concepts of the first creation and the new creation—the first kingdom, in a sense, and the new kingdom; the garden and the millennial kingdom. Consequently, there may be an effort to link Jesus and Adam. Adam was, of course, the first man. Jesus is designated by Paul as the second man (1 Cor. 15:47), and the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). Jesus is the second man because He is the progenitor of a new humanity. Jesus is the Last Adam because we have had at least three Adam’s prior to Jesus— Adam, Noah, and Israel—and each new beginning ended in failure. Jesus is the Last Adam since the New Beginning in Jesus will never end, and Jesus will not fail. We will not need another Adam. We will not need to start over again.

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Authorial Intention

The Goal of Interpretation and the Intention of the Author

The question of the goal of interpretation is not so much a question of what one is trying to achieve. Almost everyone agrees that the ultimate goal of interpretation is to obtain meaning. The question is, where is the meaning? When we ask, “Where is meaning?” we are asking about the locus of meaning—were is meaning located. If the goal of interpretation is meaning, we must know where the meaning is in order that we might head in that direction. There are three places meaning can be located—in the mind of the author, in the text, and in the mind of the interpreter. Now, at any given point, meaning may be located in all three places. However, from the point of view of the interpreter, the locus of meaning is one of two places. Either the locus of meaning is the mind of the author, or the text. It is, of course, obvious that before there is a meaningful text, there must be an author with a meaning he desires to communicate. However, from the point of view of the interpreter, the meaning in the mind of an author is totally inaccessible apart from some communicative act by that author in which he communicates that meaning from his mind to the mind of the interpreter. This communicative act is his text. A text can be either spoken or written. The meaning that is caused by the author is carried to the mind of the interpreter by means of a meaningful text. Consequently, from the point of view of the interpreter, it would seem that the locus of meaning is the text.

Therefore, it would seem that the goal of interpretation is to discover the meaning of the text. However, this is not a universally held position. Tremper Longman III, who was at the time of the publication of his book, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, was Associate Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, said, “Interpretation then has as its goal the recovery of the author’s purpose in writing” (Tremper Longman, III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 64–5.). In fact, Longman claims, “If literature is an act of communication, then meaning resides in the intention of the author” (Longman, Literary Approaches, 64.).

To consider the proposal that meaning is in the intention of the author, we should  first distinguish between various uses of the word ‘intent’ when we talk about the intention of the author. There are six causes of meaning, three of which relate to the idea of intent, or intention.

1) The efficient cause, the agent, that by which meaning is caused, namely, the mind of the author. This is the intent in the mind of the author: “I didn’t intend to say that.”

2) The final cause, the purpose, that for which meaning is caused, namely, to communicate. This is the intent of the author as to the purpose for his communication: “My intention (purpose) was to help you.”

3) Material cause, the material, that out of which meaning is caused, namely, words and symbols, language.

4) Formal cause, the form, that of which meaning is caused, namely, the meaning of the text. This is the intent of the author in the expressed meaning of the text.

5) Exemplar cause, the pattern, that after which meaning is caused, namely, the Logos, God, the Divine communicator.

6) Instrumental cause, the means, that through which meaning is caused, namely, logic, reason (Class notes on Semantics by Norman L. Geisler, 1987.).

If, by intention of the author, Longman is talking about the author as the efficient cause of the meaning, his proposal seems to present an insurmountable problem for the interpreter. If the meaning of any communication is in the intention of the author, then, in order to grasp the meaning of the author’s text, the interpreter must attempt to reconstruct the author’s intention. Now, after having gathered all relevant information, and after having developed what the interpreter believes to be the intention of the author, how does the interpreter then validate his hypothesis? The immediate problem, as has been observed by Grant Osborne, is that, “while the original authors had a definite meaning in mind when they wrote, that is now lost to us because they are no longer present to clarify and explain what they wrote” (Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 7.). Osborne unequivocally asserts that an author’s intention is “lost to us.” If it is lost to us, how can we then use it to tell us what the text means or how it should be received by us? But also, what Osborne’s statement implies is that if an author is available, then this would solve the problem. The interpreter could simply confront the author and question the author about his intention. However, let us assume that the author is present and, all I need to do is have the author critique my hypothesis about his intended meaning and correct my misunderstandings of his intention. This is illustrated in Figure 1.

This presents an additional problem, however. In order for the author to communicate his critique of my hypothesis about his intended meaning, he must do so by communicating with me, and this involves presenting me with another text, either oral or written. This is illustrated in Figure 2.

 

Now, in order to understand the meaning of his critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning in his original text, I must construct another hypothesis of his intention in communicating his critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning in his original text. However, before I can apply his critique to my original hypothesis of his original intention, I must validate my new hypothesis of the intention of the author in communicating the text of his critique of my original hypothesis. How can I do this? By having the author critique my hypothesis of his first critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning of his original text. Now, in order to understand the meaning of his subsequent critique about my subsequent hypothesis about his subsequent intention about his original critique of my original hypothesis of his original intention of his original text, I must construct an additional hypothesis . . . ad infinitum. The point is, if the meaning of any text, whether oral or written, is located in the intention of the author, then it is forever inaccessible to me as an interpreter. This is illustrated below in Figure 3. And what if the author is unavailable for comment?

Consequently, if the goal of interpretation is the intention of the author in writing, then our goal is unattainable and meaning can never be understood. But, this does not fit reality. The fact is, people have been communicating for many thousands of years and their communications have been understood by their audience(s), although often there is misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the fact that communication does occur indicates that it is possible to grasp the meaning of an author’s communication even if we do not have direct access to his intention.

The Goal of Interpretation and the Meaning for the Reader

Have you ever been to a small group Bible study in which the basic approach to a passage was, “What does this passage mean to you?” In these kinds of studies there are usually as many “meanings” to a passage as there are people in the group, and, often, the group pools its collective ignorance.

Just as there has been a history of actual communication, there has also been a history of misunderstanding. People have understood one another, and they have misunderstood one another. How many times have you read a text and did not grasp its meaning? Indeed, how often have you written a note, perhaps in the margin of your Bible, and when you later come to read it, you cannot remember what you intended? This fact has led many to propose that the goal of interpretation is the meaning for the reader. According to these proposals, meaning is something that resides in minds. Since a text is an inanimate object and not a “mind,” meaning cannot reside in the text. However, if there cannot be meaning in a text, and since the mind of the author is inaccessible to the interpreter, then the only place left for meaning is the reader. Radical reader-response theories propose that meaning is in the response of the reader to the text. The influence of Immanuel Kant is unmistakable in this perspective. Just as Kant held that the mind supplied the intelligibility (categories) of sensible experience, so for these theorists the mind supplies the meaning for the sensible text. Similarly, as sensible experience supplied the “stuff” of knowledge, so, roughly, the text, by virtue of the cultural parameters of the linguistic community, supplies the stuff of meaning and sets the broad limits of meaning, but the meaning of any text is supplied by the reader, not either the text or the author. The proponents of radical reader-response theories would say that everyone’s interpretation is valid. But this creates another insurmountable problem for the interpreter. As Aristotle put it, “not to have one meaning is to have no meaning, and if words have no meaning there is an end of discourse with others, and even, strictly speaking, with oneself” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Tredennick (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980), 167, Book IV, Chapter iv. 1006 b.). In other words, if every reader supplies his own meaning to a text, then there is no determinate meaning communicated, and communication is at an end (strangely, those who propose a radical reader-response approach to meaning do not want their own readers to read into their texts a meaning other than the one they put into the text). Consequently, if the goal of interpretation is the meaning for the reader, and every reader’s interpretation is valid, then there is in fact no goal to interpretation, and no interpretation because there can be no communication.

The Goal of Interpretation and the Meaning in the Text

It would seem, then, that since the locus of meaning, from the point of view of the interpreter, is not the intention of the author, or the mind of the reader, that this leaves only one possible location, namely, the text. The locus of meaning, from the perspective of the reader, must be the text. The author is the efficient cause of meaning. The author has expressed his meaning in a text. The text is the location of the meaning. The text carries the meaning from the mind of the author to the mind of the interpreter. Consequently, the goal of interpretation is to discover the meaning of the text. Meaning can reside then, in all three places at the same time: it can be in the mind of the author as the meaner, it can reside in the text as meant, and it can reside in the reader as meaning. There is, of course, the possibility of misunderstanding on the part of the reader. This is caused by several factors. One factor can be the inadequate communication skills of the author. He simply did not adequately convey the meaning he intended. This can be judged only by the author and not by the reader, however. There are also the inadequate skills of the reader. The reader may not be skilled in the science and art of interpretation. That is why we study hermeneutics. Simply because someone has read a book or article, or a monograph or professional paper, etc., does not mean they have understood the meaning of the text. In the Licona/Geisler debate over inerrancy, this kind of problem is rampant. Many individuals who have offered observations and criticisms have failed to understand the issue, and consequently, they make proposals that completely miss the point.

Since the Bible is the Word of God, we can rest assured that God has not made some kind of mistake in communicating His Word. Consequently, when misunderstanding occurs, the error must be attributed to the reader, not either to the human author or the Divine Author. Also, since the intention of the author in the sense of what an author had in mind when he wrote his text, or the way he wanted his text to be received, is inaccessible to the reader apart from the text itself, we cannot go behind the text, or under the text, or over the text, or around the text, or in front of the text to the author’s mind to discover his intent. All we have is his text, and meaning must come from the text. Additionally, we cannot use what we suppose to be an author’s intent to tell us what a text means. Meaning comes from the text, and it is the text that tells us how we should read it, not some amorphous, unprovable speculation(s) about what was an author’s intention.

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Matthew and Sinai

Another argument for taking the events in Matt. 27:51–54 as literal, historical events is the relationship that these descriptions have with Theophanies in the Old Testament. Jeffrey Niehaus has published a remarkable book tracing the theophanic appearances of God throughout the Old Testament (Jeffrey J. Niehaus, God at Sinai: Covenant & Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995).). What is significant in relation to the Matthew passage is the recurring presence in theophanies of the darkness, dark clouds as Niehaus discusses this with reference to the Sinai theophany:

Yahweh tells Moses to consecrate the people for two days because on the third day “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud” (be‘ab he‘ãnãn, Ex 19:9). Yahweh’s coming is portrayed with theophanic language: e.g., “thunder” (qõlõth, 19:16), “lightning” (berãqîm, 19:16), “thick cloud” (‘ãnãn cãbed, 19:16), “smoke” (‘ãšan, 19:18), and “fire” (’eš, 19:18). some phrases are used now for the first time: “a very loud trumpet blast” (šõphãr hãzãq, 19:16), “the smoke billowed up” (wâya‘al ‘ašãnô, 19:18), “like smoke from a furnace” (ke‘ešen hakibšãn,[,K], 19:18), “the whole mountain trembled violently” (wâyeherad kãl hãhãr me’õd, 19:18). A subsequent account in Exodus 20 echoes these descriptions: “thunder” (haqqôlõth, 20:18), “lightning” (hallappîdim, 20:18), “the trumpet” (qõl hašõphãr, 20:18), “”the mountain in smoke” (hãhãr ‘ašen, 20:18), and “thick darkness” (hã‘arãphel, 20:21) (Niehaus, Sinai, 195.).

At another place, Niehaus specifically refers to Matt. 27:51 in relation to the Sinai type theophanies. In his discussion of Joel’s prophecy as referred to in various New Testament passages, He states, “Matthew adds that when Jesus died, ‘The earth shook and the rocks split’ (Mt 27:51), familiar features of Old Testament judgment theophaines” (Niehaus, Sinai, 328.). In his discussion of three New Testament mountains that hark back to the Old Testament, the mount of the beatitudes, the mount of transfiguration, and the mount of crucifixion, Niehaus points out, “Just as those first two ‘mountains’ [beatitudes and transfiguration] alluded to events of Sinai, so does the third (Mt 27:45–56). . . . We note here that it contains key elements of an Old Testament theophany. In particular the darkness (Mt 27:45) and earthquake (v. 51) echo the ‘dark cloud’ (Ex 19:16) above Sinai and the ‘violent trembling’ of the mountain (v. 18) as God descended upon it” (Niehaus, Sinai, 340.). And again Niehaus refers to the Matthew passage as reminiscent of Sinai: “Darkness and earthquake not only remind us of God’s descent on Mount Sinai; they also elicit a human response that we have come to expect in any Sinaitic theophany: that of fear. When the centurion and others saw the earthquake and all that had happened, ‘they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God”’ (Mt 27:54; cf. Mk 15:39; Lk 23:47)” (Niehaus, Sinai, 364.).

The association of the events recorded in Matt. 27:51–54 with the Old Testament theophanies, particularly at Sinai, once again argue that these events, including the raising of the bodies of some of the saints, must be taken as literal, historical events. To deny the historicity of these events would be to rob the text of this significant connection, particularly of demonstrating that Christ is not only the Resurrection and the Life, but He is also the Judge Who will judge the world—He is God in the flesh.

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Matthew and Daniel

The theme of Matthew’s Gospel gives special significance to the account of the resurrection of the saints in Matt. 27:52–53. That there is a strong link between the book of Daniel and Matthew’s Gospel has been acknowledged by scholars for many years. This link is especially strong in Matthew’s account of the transfiguration. A. D. A. Moses has closely examined the transfiguration pericope in relation especially to Daniel 7 [A. D. A. Moses, Matthew’s Transfiguration Story and Jewish-Christian Controversy (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 89–101.]. As he says, “Since (1) Matthew shows considerable interest in Daniel 7 and Danielic motifs, and since (2) he brackets his transfiguration pericope with four Son of Man verses (16.27; 16.28–17.1-8–17.9; 17.12), we may reasonably infer that Matthew has been influenced by Daniel 7″ [Moses, Transfiguration, 90–91.].

Moses goes on to make a connection between the Danielic motifs and Jesus’ resurrection:

The idea of resurrection is not seen in Daniel 7, but there is some evidence of Matthew applying Daniel 7 to Jesus’ resurrection elsewhere, (a) in Jesus’ saying anticipating resurrection (26.64) and (b) in his post-resurrection appearance and exaltation (28.19–20). The latter will be dealt with in Chapter 6. In 26.64 where Jesus’ inquisitors are told that ‘from now on’ they will see the Son of Man coming…, the force of ap arti ["from now on"] has often been missed. ap arti ["from now on"] here, as in 23.39; 26.29, signifies a new period beginning from now; and it is arguable that this must in context include the immediately forthcoming events, including Jesus’ death-resurrection (note also Matthew’s distinctive ‘saints-resurrection’ motif in 27.52-53). Thus it is arguable that theologically Matthew has linked the resurrection with Daniel 7 [Moses, Transfiguration, 98.].

Unless the raising of the saints in Matt. 27:52–53 is taken literally, this association is lost and the significance of this event is completely missed. By not making the connection between Matthew’s Gospel and the book of Daniel in terms of Danielic motifs Licona seems to have missed the significance of these events and consequently the evidence that these events actually occurred [Mike Licona does indeed refer to the book of Daniel and many passages in Daniel in his book The Resurrection of Jesus (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2010), but he never makes the connection between these books the way A. D. A. Moses discusses them.]. An example of this lacuna by Licona is his discussion of  the term ‘the vision’ [to horama] as this is used by Matthew in reference to the transfiguration [Licona deals specifically with this term on pages 330–33 of The Resurrection of Jesus.]. Licona deals with this term by considering its use in the LXX and the New Testament. In his conclusions, he does not refer to Matthew’s use as a characterization of the transfiguration. A. D. A. Moses, however, focuses on this word as important for understanding Matthew’s depiction of the transfiguration: “Of the evangelists Matthew (alone) categoises the transfiguration as to horama. This usage functions as a window into his unique understanding of the transfiguration, since he blends Moses-Sinai particularly with Danielic motifs. This blending in his transfiguration story also contributes to his understanding of the passage in terms of the ‘coming of God’” (Moses, Transfiguration, 89–90.).

Moses devotes many pages to his discussion of the Matthew’s depiction of the transfiguration and its connection with Daniel 7. He points out that it is not without significance that Daniel uses the same term, horama, in his depiction of the coming of the Son of Man in Dan. 7:13: “I kept looking in the night visions [horamati], and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him” (NASB). Moses points out the significance of the similarity of structure between Daniel 7 and Matthew’s account of the transfiguration:

Dan. 7.13–28 is a passage that includes (1) a ‘vision’ (7.13–14), (2) the seer’s reaction to the vision (7.15 also 28), (3) request for its explanation (7.16, also v. 19), and finally (4) interpretation of the vision (7.16–27, which also takes into consideration the vision in 7.2–12). Matthew’s portrayal of the transfiguration is somewhat similar. For (1) the disciples see the ‘vision’ (to horama) of the transfiguration (Mt. 17.2–5). (2) They react to what they saw and heard (17.6–8). (3) They query Elijah’s coming (Mt. 17.9–13), presumably prompted by his appearance at the transfiguration, and (4) receive an explanation from Jesus, with Matthew alone stressing that they ‘understood’. Mt. 17.9–13, of course, parallels Mk 9.9–13, but Matthew alone describes the transfiguration as to horama (compare Dan. 7.13 LXX), and, given his use of apocalyptic language in 17.2 (to be compared with 13.34 and Dan. 12.3 etc.), the comparison with Dan. 7.13–18 is arresting (Moses, Transfiguration, 91.).

The significance of the discussion, as we have alluded to already, is the connection that is made between the account of the transfiguration, with its Danielic motifs, and the resurrection, also in light of Danielic motifs. As A. D. A. Moses pointed out, although Daniel 7 does not refer to a resurrection, the connection with Daniel and Matthew’s use of Danielic motifs strongly implies a connection between Danielic motifs and Matthew’s account of the resurrection (see block quote above). A. D. A. Moses specifically argues that Matthew links Jesus’ resurrection with Daniel 7. Also, he goes on to point out, “Another general but contributory argument is that the concept of ‘resurrection’ is found in Dan. 12.2–3. This Danielic description of resurrection is drawn on in the M passage Mt. 13.41–43, where it is applied to the final vindication of the ‘righteous’” (Moses, Transfiguration, 98.).

The Daniel passage reads, “Many of those who sleep in the dusty ground will awake – some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting abhorrence. But the wise will shine like the brightness of the heavenly expanse. And those bringing many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:2–3 NET). The Greek of Daniel uses the expression “those who sleep,” which in the NET Bible is a translation of the participial construction, tõn katheudontõn. The use of the concept of sleeping as a euphemism for death is not unusual. However, it is significant that of all the Gospels, only Matthew uses this expression in reference to a resurrection of saints. The following is the transliterated Greek text of Matt. 27:52.

kai ta mnemeia aneõchthesan kai polla sõmata tõn kekoimemenõn hagiõn egrethesan.

As we said, of the four Gospels, Matthew is the only one that speaks of a resurrection of saints in terms of “having fallen asleep.” The use of the term ‘fallen asleep’ in other places in the Gospels is listed below in Table #2.

Table #2: Uses of ‘Fallen Asleep’ in the Gospels

“The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep [kekoimemenõn] were raised” (Matt. 27:52).

“and said, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep [koimõmenõn]“’” (Matt. 28:13).

“When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping [koimõmenous] from sorrow”  (Lk. 22:45).

“This He said, and after that He said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep [kekoimetai]; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep’” (Jn. 11:11).

“The disciples then said to Him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep [kekoimetai], he will recover’” (Jn. 11:12).

This connection between Daniel and Matthew indicates the necessity of taking the statement in Matt. 27:52 as an historical event. Also, this connection is used by Matthew as evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Daniel’s prophecies. By taking references in Matthew’s Gospel, such as 27:52–53, as non-historical, Licona has inadvertently robbed the text of its witness to the Messiahship of Jesus.

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the real issue

It is amazing that so many people have so little understanding of the real issue in the Geisler/Licona debate. Having discussed this issue with both Mike Licona and Norman Geisler, I think I can clarify what is actually going on. In his book on the resurrection, Licona says that statements in Matt. 27:52-53 are apocalyptic and therefore do not refer to any actual historical events because, as apocalyptic, Matthew did not intend that they be taken as historical. Geisler argues that this is a denial of inerrancy while Licona claims that this is a matter of interpretation, not inerrancy.

First of all, it is unprecedented that an author, including Matthew, would stick a piece of apocalyptic literature in the midst of historical reports. As Grant Osborne puts it, “Would Matthew switch back and forth from history to legend to history without some type of hint? In fact, the entire crucifixion scene — Jesus’ remarkable serenity throughout the day, the darkness, the tearing of the curtain, the earthquake, the raising of the saints — transcends history and demonstrates the intersection of human history by divine power. If there is a supernatural God, there is no reason to deny the historicity of this scene” [Grand R. Osborne, Matthew, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 1044.]. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that this is the case. Licona and others have argued that, as apocalyptic literature, Matthew did not intend that this statement be taken as historical fact. Not only is it nearly impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the intent of an author was, it is even more difficult to prove one’s suppositions about an author’s intent. In a comical video designed to ridicule Norman Geisler, the ghost of Christmas past takes Geisler back to 1983 and the ETS controversy surrounding a member who was accused of denying inerrancy. At one point, the ghost asks Geisler something like this: “Isn’t an author’s intent part of understanding the text?” The maker of the video has Geisler answering yes to this question. Unfortunately, the makers of this video did not bother to try to understand either Geisler or his position on such an issue, and Geisler has written enough that it would take far less energy to discover his position than to produce a video. Geisler would never have answered yes to such a question. All it would have taken for the makers of the video to understanding Geisler’s position would have been actually read some of his writings, especially his article on “Does Purpose Determine Meaning.”

The point of Geisler’s article was to demonstrate that since it is nearly impossible to know an author’s purpose/intent, an interpreter cannot use his suppositions about intent to determine the meaning of his text. That being the case, Licona and those who try to defend him on this point are utterly mistaken about resting their argument on suppositions about Matthew’s intent. We cannot know Matthew’s intent, and, consequently, we cannot use that supposition as a basis to tell us what Matthew’s text means.

But, let us suppose that we can know Matthew’s intent and that this intent is that these two verses are apocalyptic literature, this does not in fact eliminate the problem. In defense of Licona’s claim, Licona and others have attempted to appeal to an analogy between statements in Revelation and the statements in Matthew’s Gospel. For example, some have argued that if we take Matthew’s statement literally, we would have to believe that Satan is a literal dragon. But this completely misses the point. In Revelation, although Satan is indeed not a literal dragon, the symbol of the dragon symbolizes a literal Satan, a being that actually exists. An analogy of Matthew’s statements with Revelation is a faulty analogy. What Licona is saying is not that the raising of some of the bodies of the saints is an apocalyptic statement about a real event, but that such an event did not in fact occur. But this is not what biblical apocalyptic statements do. In Revelation, if indeed it is apocalyptic literature, which is not at all backed by scholarly opinion, the apocalyptic statements are indeed symbolic, but they are always symbolic of some actual reality, and the events in Revelation, though symbolized, are nevertheless actual events; either events that have occurred or events that will yet occur. Licona is saying that Matthew did not intend that the reference to the raising of some bodies of the saints be understood as referring to actual events. This is a totally different matter.

Secondly, Licona and others claim that Licona’s position is a matter of interpretation, not a matter of inerrancy. The problem with this claim is that the word ‘interpretation’ is very ambiguous. If we use the term ‘interpretation’ to mean what the words and phrases say as linguistic and syntactical units, then Licona is simply wrong. Understanding the meaning of the words and statements as linguistic/syntactical units does not yet address the question of whether the statements refer to actual historical events. Everyone who reads these verses understands the same linguistic/syntactical meaning of the words: “And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.)” (Matt. 27:52-53). The tombs were opened, the bodies were raised, etc. That is simply the linguistic/syntactical meaning of the words and phrases. Once we have established what the linguistic/syntactical meaning is, then we should go on to address the question of whether those events actually occurred. So, for Licona et al. to claim that Licona’s claim is just a matter of interpretation are seriously misrepresenting the case, and, I think, seriously misunderstanding the case.

Now, if by the term ‘interpretation’ we mean inferences and/or implications from the text that we might draw, or whether the statements refer to actual events, or genre classifications, or other aspects that the term ‘interpretation’ has been used to mean over the years, Licona is certainly not wrong, but in this case his claim is certainly irrelevant to the issue. Although it may be interpretation in the latter sense, to say that Matthew’s statement does not refer to any actual historical event(s) is simply not a matter of interpretation in the former sense. Rather, it is a matter of whether Matthew was telling the truth or not. As we have said, even apocalyptic statements are symbols of actual historical things or events, and, whether apocalyptic or not, there is nothing in the text that would lead one to think that Matthew is not referring to actual historical events. So, if the events did not actually occur, then Matthew’s text is presenting these events as if they occurred when in fact they did not. This is clearly a matter of inerrancy.

An even more obvious instance is when Licona says certain statements in John’s Gospel are candidates for embellishment. An embellishment is when an author puts something in the text which he knows did not occur, but he puts it in for effect or impact. In another place Licona says that John actually changed the hour of the day from what the other Gospel writers reported and that John purposely made this change when he knew it was not the actual time. Licona is saying John actually misrepresented the time. What can this be if not lying? And it is certainly not a matter of interpretation. Licona is denying inerrancy, unequivocally.

Licona is not saying that this is merely apocalyptic literature, but that, as apocalyptic literature, Matthew did not intend for these statements be taken as referring to historical events. Even in the wildly fantastic statements in Enoch, one can only assume that Enoch believed that the events he describes actually occurred. Whether they occurred or not, Enoch presents them as actual events. Nowhere does Enoch say he did not believe his apocalyptic descriptions and symbols referred to actual historical events, so we can only grant that he in fact did believe this. Now, if it turns out that the events Enoch described did not actually occur, then we would be justified in saying his text was in error and Enoch was mistaken.

This is the same thing Geisler is saying about Licona’s claims. Licona claims that the events in Matt. 27:52-53 did not actually occur because, as apocalyptic literature, Matthew did not intend them to be taken as referring to historical events. But Licona cannot know Matthew’s intent, and even if he did, it does not follow that because a text is apocalyptic that it cannot or does not refer to historical events. To claim that the events in Matthew’s text did not actually occur is simply not a matter of interpretation. Even if we take Matthew’s text to be apocalyptic, which is by no means certain, Matthew presents the events as actual historical events or as symbols of actual historical events, but nevertheless as events that actually happened. If they did not occur, Matthew’s Gospel is in error, and this is certainly a matter of inerrancy.

Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.

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