Review of Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History by Francis A. Schaeffer

June 13, 2017

Schaeffer, Francis. Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History. Wheaton, lllinois: Crossway, 2004, pp. 223, $19.99, paperback.


Francis Schaeffer was the founder and director of the L’Abri community in Switzerland. He became famous for his hospitality and intellectual discussions centering on the place of the historic truths of the Christian faith in the midst of a changing European worldview. He authored more than 20 books before his passing in 1984, including Joshua and the Art of Biblical History, reprinted in 2004.

Schaeffer’s work is an attempt to discuss the major events and characters in the book of Joshua within the context of the larger biblical narrative. As a result, he begins his study with Joshua’s place within the Pentateuch and the lessons he received at the feet of Moses (pp. 15-36). Then, he discusses some “changeless” factors of leadership that influenced Joshua’s life (pp. 40-48). This pattern, consisting of highlighting passages from Joshua, making connections from Joshua into other biblical narratives (including, especially, New Testament ones) and discussion ethical or moral lessons learned from the story of Joshua continues, whether it be the idea of eating before the divine and its relationship to Communion (p. 10), the circumcision of the Israelites prior to the Jordan crossing and Paul’s teaching on circumcised hearts (pp. 104-7), a comparison between Achan and Sapphira (pp. 123-4), a discussion on Caleb and his relevance to the fruit of the Spirit (pp. 168-170), or an analysis on how the division of the land points to the supremacy of Christ (pp. 173-8). Schaeffer focuses on the moral implications of Joshua’s era and its biblical-theological consistency with the rest of the Scriptures. As a result, the book, while rigorous and filled with clear and precise thought, is not necessarily scholarly or heavily researched. This is not a fault with the book; Schaeffer’s work deserves to be judged on how it met its intended aim, not on whether or not it meets its readers expectations of what that aim should be. Readers, however, should be aware that there is a minimum of reference to outside scholarship or engagement with the larger critical discussion surrounding ideas like biblical history or biblical theology.

When Schaeffer does discuss biblical history in an academic sense, it is often against an implied “liberal” opponent. As such, Schaeffer reasserts the foundational importance of propositional truths as a bedrock of faith (p. 82) and of salvation as an act of the will in the cognitive region of the mind (p. 86). He continually emphasizes the existence of a written, normative, canonical Pentateuch in Joshua’s day (pp. 35, 172), going so far as to compare the Israelites in Joshua’s time to “Bible-Believing Christians” (p. 38) since both groups are receivers of inspired books. Schaeffer expects his readers to share these presuppositions, only offering a few reasons why his conservative positions are the best conclusion, such as the “we” passages in Joshua 5 (p. 42).

Taken as an introduction to the biblical account of Joshua and its impact on the Christian life, this book is incredibly useful. When read as an Old Testament scholar would read a text on “biblical history,” this volume seems to fall short in its use of precise terms and engagement with the wider scholarly conversation. Two examples of this practice should suffice.

The titular “Flow of History” in Schaeffer’s meaning seems to be that “biblical events actually happened in space time.” As Schaeffer discusses the events on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, he states that “space-time history had already begun to weave a web around this place” (p. 128). He reminds readers that Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Jesus, and even Justin Martyr encountered that place and brought various revelations to God’s people there. Similarly, Schaeffer posits that history is heading towards an end-point rather than engaged in a cyclical drift. (p. 174)

This approach seems very similar to the salvation-historical readings of the Old Testament (heilsgeschichtliche). Given such broad areas of agreement, one wonders why Schaeffer doesn’t explicitly engage this school of thought, or even opposing schools of thought, such as a more Bultmannian approach to the text. For better or worse, Schaeffer is committed to building a literal, biblical case for his ethical and moral conclusions rather than in contributing to biblical scholarship in these areas.

Another important aspect of Schaeffer’s conception of the biblical “flow” of history is that of continued disobedience to moral law. Schaeffer compares the condition of the ancient Israelites to that of rubbing one’s hand against a rough, wooden board and coming away with splinters. In the same way, when either the ancient Israelites or modern persons act against the grain of how God set up the universe, there are consequences to those actions. (pp. 140-3) As result, Schaeffer is not clear whether history is primarily meant in the sense of “these things happened” or “these things continue to matter.” Instead, there is some conflation between issues of biblical history and biblical theology. His interest is not primarily in determining how events happened (what some would call biblical history). Nor is it in determining the full scope of what the biblical literature teaches on a subject (what some would call biblical theology). Nor, even, is it solely on determining what lessons the book of Joshua has for modern readers (what some might call a devotional approach). Rather than proceeding from confusion or imprecision, however, this conflation is a result of his worldview: the acts recorded in the Scripture actually happened (history) and therefore have incredible importance for people today (theology). It is not inconsistence as much as it is insistence. One suspects that if Schaeffer’s categories and methods departed from those of the academy, he would find that a mark in his favor and not a problem to be corrected!

If a student is interested in a model for how to work from text to concept while keeping the broader biblical text in mind, Schaeffer’s work is an excellent starting point. If, on the other hand, a student is interested in a technical introduction to issues of biblical history, biblical theology, or the text of the book of Joshua, then he or she should consult another resource. Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament, edited by Vanhoozer, is a valued resource for biblical theology, while Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary by Richard Hess serves as a source for textual commentary and technical issues.  All readers, though, will find Schaeffer’s passion for the text and affirmation that the biblical text still speaks today inspiring and invigorating, whether as an encouragement to their own beliefs or as a sparring partner against which to set their own worldview.

Richard Hannon

Oral Roberts University, Tulsa OK

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