Bioethics: What Is It?

Politics, Medicine and Christian Ethics, by Charles E. Curran (Fortress, 1973, 222 pp., $6.95), Is It Moral to Modify Man?, by Claude A. Frazier (Thomas, 1973, 332 pp., $10.95), Medical Ethics, by Bernard Haring (Fides, 1973, 250 pp., $8.95), Human Medicine, by James B. Nelson (Augsburg, 1973, 207 pp, $3.95 pb), and Biomedical Ethics, by Kenneth Vaux (Harper & Row, 1974, 131 pp., $5.95), are reviewed by Roy Branson, associate professor of Christian ethics, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and research scholar, Kennedy Center for Bioethics, Washington, D. C.

Bioethics was not even a word until 1971. For years Catholic moralists had written on ethics for physicians, with Joseph Fletcher, almost alone among Protestant academic ethicists in America, joining them in 1960 with his Morals and Medicine. By 1974 there were at least two major research institutes, many university programs, and a rapidly increasing number of publications analyzing the ethics not only of medical practice but also of biological research. This review looks at a cross-section of recently released books on the subject.

The most usable for pastors and layman wanting a readable, careful introduction to bioethics is James Nelson’s two-hundred-page paperback. His constant “on the one hand … but on the other,” approach may become maddening, but the reader is spared eccentric arguments, and Nelson’s hesitancy to advocate clear-cut positions on all issues emerges from a self-conscious and respectable theoretical commitment. Nelson adheres to the priority of the concept of responsibility articulated by H. Richard Niebuhr, the late Yale theologian and teacher of many of today’s most prominent Protestant ethicists. Nelson understands responsibility to mean the sensitive balancing of individual rights and obligations against social benefits and harms. In the contemporary ethical landscape he wants to take a path that ignores neither the deontological preoccupations of a Paul Ramsey nor the utilitarian enthusiasms of a Joseph Fletcher. The book is not a constructive one, full of original solutions, but it is a helpful survey.

On what are now the standard topics in bioethics—abortion, human experimentation, genetic engineering, organ transplantation, death and dying—Nelson gives a fair description of the various Protestant and Catholic positions. Typically, on abortion he says the right decision is inevitably made by “living beings immersed in widely varying patterns of social relationships,” reconciling the conflict between “the sanctity of the life of the fetus in one instance and the woman’s right to self-determination in the other.”

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The other book in this group written by a Protestant also takes Niebuhr’s concept of responsibility as the fundamental category for bioethics, but tilts it in the direction of Fletcher’s utilitarianism. Kenneth Vaux talks of the necessity, in dealing with bioethical problems, of having a “retrospective” insight into traditional rights, as well as a “prescriptive” view of future consequences. He says these considerations of the past and the future are reconciled by “introspective” insight into the present relational situation. Benefits now and in the future are uppermost in his mind when he addresses his first concrete bioethical problem. “A human society should not only allow but facilitate abortion when a mother’s well-being, a family’s vitality, is severely threatened. It should be readily available and economically feasible.”

Vaux’s slim volume attempts too much theoretically and accomplishes too little concretely. In the few pages at his disposal at the beginning of the book the author cannot adequately explain and justify a rather ambitious and elaborate multi-part theological and philosophical scaffolding for what can be only a cursory fifty-page overview of the standard issues in bioethics. The theory is in its construction and defense, so that one remains rather uneasy about its conclusions on specific topics.

Vaux is a sprightly writer, however, and fundamentally well within the same community of discourse as the other writers in this group. The book, like Nelson’s, could serve as the basis for church or class discussion of the Christian’s response to recent biomedical discoveries.

The other two authors of complete books are Roman Catholic moral theologians. Some may be surprised at the extent to which they agree with the conclusions of their Protestant counterparts. True, Bernard Haring, no doubt the world’s best known Catholic moralist, begins his book not by adopting the Niebuhrian idea of responsibility but by explaining a concept more familiar to Catholic theology, that of nature. However, his description might well have enough flexibility to please the Protestant bioethicists. He defines nature as “the dynamic principle directing the development of that which is innate.” In its human form, nature, dynamically understood, is the basic standard for ethics. “I say that the decisive norm or criterion is the human person … the human person in the process of self-actualization through encounter with and in dedication to other persons.”

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As he discusses the various problems, Haring remains in dialogue with the scientific data and the writings of his Protestant friends in ethics. For example, Haring agrees with Protestant bioethicists on the importance of physicians’ receiving free, informed consent from patients before experimenting on them, and on the value of distinguishing between ordinary and extraordinary means for prolonging life (a distinction refined by Catholic moral theology in the first place).

Even on abortion, the topic within bioethics that one might think would reveal the greatest split between Catholics and Protestants, Haring shows that there are points of convergence. Haring’s stress on dynamism and process in nature is consistent with his belief that with reference to a fetus “we cannot state a specific or accurate moment of hominization.” One can say that “as the fetus develops, there is an increasing degree of certainty that it has become a human being.” Haring does not retreat from the implications of his dynamic view of human nature:

I think it can be said that at least before the twenty-fifth to fortieth day, the embryo cannot yet (with certainty) be considered as a human person; or, to put it differently, that about that time the embryo becomes a being with all the basic rights of a human person [p. 89].

Haring’s twenty-five to forty days would still fall far short of the first three months allowed by United States Supreme Court for legal abortions virtually on demand, but it would provide Catholic bioethicists greater flexibility. As Haring himself says, “Up to the moment of complete individualization, the traditional judgment about the absolute immorality of the direct interruption of pregnancy might be modified in extreme cases of conflict of values and duties.” He is aware that his position allows greater conversation with Protestants. He mentions James Gustafson and Paul Ramsey, assuring his readers that there is “a wide area of common ground among Catholics and Protestants relative to abortion in general, even if there are different positions in difficult situations.”

In much of contemporary bioethics one figure looms in the background. Charles Curran makes explicit what emerges implicitly in the other books: Paul Ramsey may well be the dominant Christian ethicist writing on biomedicine. First of all, he is one of the two or three most respected Americans in the field of Christian ethics generally. Second, as Curran points out, he has written an impressively large and growing body of work specifically in bioethics. Third, and perhaps this is the most important reason, Ramsey attempts to draw together not only scientific data and Christian affirmations but concepts in philosophical normative ethics as well. Curran is right: “Any Christian ethicist discussing these question in the contemporary context must come to grips with the thought of Paul Ramsey.” Curran’s “coming to grips” grew to book-size proportions.

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Like the three volumes discussed previously, Curran’s book could serve as an introduction to bioethics. The one hundred pages of parts three and four cover the major problem areas in the field, and readers can get a survey of the positions of two leading ethicists for the price of one. On the issue that we have followed through these various volumes, Curran substantiates Haring’s claim that at least some contemporary Catholic theologians can find basic agreement with Ramsey. Not only does Curran approve of Ramsey’s willingness to balance grave threats to the mother’s psychological health against the life of the fetus; he would go on to approve of an abortion when the continued life of the fetus endangered “values that are commensurate with life,” within which he explicitly includes “values of a socio-economic nature in extreme situations.” Curran hastens to add, “I would want to underline that these cases are comparatively rare.”

The book is clearly written, and provides an orderly outline of Ramsey’s sometimes shifting positions for those particularly interested in his work. It will be an especially useful for those who are familiar with Catholic bioethical positions and want them compared to the views of a leading Protestant scholar in the field of ethics.

Unfortunately, perhaps because of space constraints, Curran does not so much engage Ramsey in a dialogue as his subtitle, A Dialogue With Paul Ramsey, suggests. He follows an exposition of Ramsey’s position with a rather terse summary of his own views, with little argumentation or defense of them.

Anyone wanting to go beyond one of the introductory volumes might prefer to go directly to Paul Ramsey’s own books, especially Patient as Person. The reading would, frankly, be more exciting. One can not only follow Ramsey’s description of a problem in biomedicine and his exposition of how moralists have historically met analogous issues, but watch as a firstrate ethical mind moves into new territory, taking on new issues and daring to propose clear-cut answers. Somehow the adventure in Patient as Person even carries Ramsey past his well-known problem with style, about which Curran goes so far as to complain in his introduction. The Patient as Person is very readable.

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Claude Frazier’s book is quite different from the others we have discussed here. It is a collection of essays covering a wide range of topics, many of them well beyond the field of bioethics, and many written by physicians themselves, reflecting on the social implications of their scientific work. Reading Frazier’s volume would not give one any coherent overall picture of the developing field of bioethics.

Perhaps the most interesting fact to emerge from a comparison of these books is that theologians responding to the problems of medicine and biology are not constructing a Protestant or Catholic position but contributing to a common Christian approach to bioethics. Protestants and Catholics may differ over the Supreme Court’s opinion concerning the legal status of abortion, but ethicists are finding areas of consensus on its moral status. In normative ethics the true unchartered frontier of ecumenism is the dialogue between religious and philosophical ethics. Even here, a theoretical consensus may well be emerging on fundamental positions. But that is another story.

Ordering The Christian Home

One Home Under God, by Jack R. Taylor (Broadman, 1974, 157 pp., $4.95), and Christ in the Home, by Robert R. Taylor, Jr., (Baker, 1973, 282 pp., $3.95 pb), are reviewed by A. J. Conyers, pastor, Ila Baptist Church, Ila, Georgia.

Recent cynicism over the family’s present and future roles in society has increased the need for Christian answers to problems that plague the home. These authors contend that there are answers, and that if the Gospel bears upon human relations at all, then its power should be especially evident in the home. They seek to clarify both the problems and their biblical solutions.

In a number of ways Robert Taylor and Jack Taylor have taken similar approaches to a study of the Christian home. Both authors are convinced that problems of marriage, child rearing, and home management stem from a failure to acknowledge the God-given design for family living. Both deal with the difficult questions of submission and authority, and both point to Ephesians 5 as a key passage for understanding the dynamics of Christian order within the home.

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Beyond these points, however, the similarity ends. Jack Taylor’s One Home Under God is like a testimony. The author ties his discussion together by telling, at each point, how his own family began to discover the reality of certain biblical teachings on family life that before had been rather shadowy concepts. Their discovery of the meaning of submission and authority in the home resulted in mended relationships and a new appreciation for the various roles of family members.

This author doesn’t avoid the hard questions. When right at the beginning he launches into the subject of wifely submission, one is almost afraid either that he will add fuel to the already hot suspicions of Paul’s feminist detractors, or that he will neglect the real thrust of the Apostle’s teachings, as some writers have done in recent years. Taylor avoids both of these pitfalls. In the first place, he says that submission involves both partners, not simply the wife. The beginning of his own family’s pilgrimage involved the realization, based on Ephesians 5, that “we were to submit ourselves to each other in the fear of the Lord.” In fact, the husband’s title to authority stems from that very act of submission. The pattern is found in Christ’s relationship to the Church: Christ gave himself for the Church and is therefore the head of the Church.

Building on this point, Taylor follows with an account of the biblical patterns that apply to each member of the family. The life in submission to God, framed by love for one another, has consequences that reach into every area of family concern. Such effects become quite evident in Taylor’s discussions of family finances and the life of worship, as well as in a chapter on coping with the minutiae of family life (“the little foxes”). The same principle it not quite so clear, though still felt, in his treatment of the preacher’s family (a chapter not just for preachers) and the Spirit-filled family life.

Robert Taylor’s Christ in the Home covers much the same ground but with less emphasis upon personal experience and more drawing upon biblical illustrations of family patterns. Chapters on the roles of husband, wife, and children are followed by portraits of Old and New Testament characters as they relate to these family roles. This author gives attention to a subject often neglected in works of this type in a chapter entitled “The In-law in the Home.” He also considers the potential witness of a well ordered Christian home to a world of marred values and broken relationships.

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This author’s vigorous homiletical style forfeits some of the advantages of the written word. The writer is afforded the leisure to ponder various facets of his subject, reveal to his reader some of the finer points that lead him to certain conclusions, and work on building the reader’s sympathy in advance for a conclusion that may be a shade unpopular or unorthodox. Robert Taylor, however, doesn’t spend much time in pondering the finer points of his argument. His style is more that of the thundering pulpit, and at times his treatment is somewhat heavy-handed. Long-haired boys and mini-skirted girls come in for a scathing attack, as do their fathers, who are “derelict in their duty.” On such points a more considered approach might make the same argument more telling in its effect on the reader.

There is, nonetheless, one clear advantage in Robert Taylor’s direct approach. His central message, which he pursues with single-minded consistency, is unmistakably clear: when parents and children “lift up Christ and the Bible” in the home, their roles will likewise be exalted.

Lutherans And Charismatics

The Fire Flares Anew: A Look at the New Pentecostalism, by John Stevens Kerr (Fortress, 1974, 112 pp., $2.95 pb), and Gifts of the Spirit and the Body of Christ, edited by J. Elmo Agrimson (Augsburg, 1974, 112 pp., $2.95 pb), are reviewed by Erling Jorstad, professor of history and American studies, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

Among the many titles now being published on the charismatic renewal, or neo-Pentecostalism, these two merit particular attention because of the specialized information they contain. Each focuses sharply on specific aspects that are not well covered in other works.

The Fire Flares Anew is by the senior editor for youth of the Lutheran Church in America. Its particular virtue is that it gives over half of its space to a careful exegetical and theological study of the ministry and understanding of the Holy Spirit from Old Testament writings, through the New Testament, and on into the early church fathers.

Kerr contacts the traditional view of the work of the Holy Spirit, which he calls the “continuing-collective,” with the Pentecostalist, which is the “individual-spontaneous” view. The Church has said the Spirit is an ever-present reality in the believer’s life accessible through the sacramental life of the Church. Pentecostalists have held that the Spirit comes to individuals, not through churches but in a spontaneous manner, making his presence known instantly through the manifestation of one or more of the spiritual charismata. Kerr concludes that “the biblical evidence doesn’t settle the Pentecostal issue squarely either way.”

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Kerr also explains clearly why the forms of charismatic renewal are appealing to so many (he estimates participants number nearly a million adults in America) today: they find a closer walk with God; they like the spontaneous freedom of worship; they cherish the small group, individualized prayer meetings; and they agree with the individualized ethics accent. Kerr lauds the first two but feels the last two could split apart church bodies, and finds dangers of obsessive self-centeredness in celebrating individual, rather than social, renewal. He concludes with a sound summary of unique Pentecostal-charismatic teaching and makes clear that he feels most mainline charismatics are really Pentecostal in their theology.

The Agrimson volume has an entirely different purpose. Written more for the parish pastor and the lay leader than for the general public, the volume explores charismatic renewal from several academic disciplines: biblical theology, church history, sociology, psychology, systematic theology, and pastoral ministry. The editor makes no attempt to synthesize these perspectives; the reader is left to make what application he needs for his own congregation.

The essays show we know a good deal about the biblical teachings about the spiritual gifts (described in an excellent essay by Duane Priebe); we have considerable experience in counseling congregations split over the charismata; and we know on what we agree and disagree in the matter of spirit baptism.

The other essayists try to show how the charismatic movement can be understood from their particular perspectives. The historian Paul G. Sonnack presents wise and carefully balanced comparisons between today’s renewal and that of Finney’s search for holiness. John P. Kildahl summarizes his long-term research into the psychology of speaking in tongues and concludes that the phenomenon is understandable by psychology and linguistic scholarship. It would be helpful to know how extensive his sampling has been.

The essay searching for sociological explanations of the renewal adds little understanding because the author has no real theoretical foundations or empirical studies on which to build.

The charismatic renewal cannot be understood purely from the historical, psychological, or sociological perspectives. Charismatics are talking about Scripture and prayer life and transformed lives. To minister to them and to their critics in those realms is a challenge to which this volume, despite its limitations, makes a significant contribution.

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Hebrew Christianity: The Thirteenth Tribe, by B. Z. Sobel (John Wiley and Sons, 413 pp., $12.50), and Hebrew Christianity: Its Theology, History, and Philosophy, by Arnold Fruchtenbaum (Canon [1014 Washington Bldg., Washington, D. C. 20005], 139 pp., $2.50 pb). Sobel is a sociologist who attended Hebrew Christian activities in order to learn first-hand about the long neglected movement. His observations, historical survey, and bibliography make this an extremely significant book. Fruchtenbaum writes as an insider; the book is useful as a brief overview. He advocates Hebrew Christian fellowships in addition to, rather than instead of, separate Jewish churches.

Where in the World Are the Jews Today?, by James and Marti Hefley (Victor, 175 pp., $1.75 pb), and My Heart’s Desire For Israel, by Richard DeRidder (Presbyterian and Reformed, 126 pp., $1.95 pb). The Hefleys give the Gentile a brief introduction to Jewish history, from Abraham to the present, including information on Jewish Christians. DeRidder offers a more theological treatise on Jewish-Christian relations, especially as they relate to evangelism.

The Gospel of Moses, by Samuel Schultz (Harper & Row, 165 pp., $5.95). The widely known teacher of Old Testament at Wheaton offers a fresh survey of the thirty-nine books stressing God’s graciousness in dealing with Israel.

The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge, by Ninian Smart (Princeton, 165 pp., $8.50). A guide for the scientific study of religion as distinct from “theologizing.” Introduces methodological questions important in such a study.

The Last and Future World, by James Montgomery Boice (Zondervan, 148 pp., $1.95 pb). A pastor holding premillennial views presents a well-balanced overview of prophecy and is fair to those with whom he differs. Originally a series of sermons.

The Nature of Human Consciousness, edited by Robert Ornstein (Viking, 512 pp., $15). Forty-one articles from a variety of psychologists and religious thinkers.

Great People of the Bible and How They Lived (Reader’s Digest, 432 pp., $14.95). A chronological narrative of the major biblical figures, interspersed with cultural, social, and geographical background. Large pages. Color photos, sketches, and maps admirably augment this readable history. Helpful for Sunday-school teachers and families.

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Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, by F. F. Bruce (Eerdmans, 216 pp., $3.45 pb). Pertinent data from pagans, Josephus, the rabbis, the apocryphal gospels, Islam, and archaeology are skillfully and readably marshalled by the dean of evangelical biblical scholars. Bruce does not set out to “prove” the reliability of the primary documents, the New Tsetament. Therefore this book is especially valuable for those falling prey to the fanciful, but widely publicized, alternative accounts of how Christianity began.

Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox, by W. Stanford Reid (Scribners, 353 pp., $12.50). A major study that should be of interest far beyond Presbyterian borders. The author is a leading evangelical professor of history.

The Justification of Religious Belief, by Basil Mitchell (Seabury, 180 pp., $8.95). Demonstrates that the problems faced philosophically in defending theism are not peculiar to religious discourse. Seeks to clarify the grounds of discussion among competing world views.

The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire, by T. R. Glover (Canon [1014 Washington Bldg., Washington, D. C. 20005], 359 pp., $8.95). Reprint of a highly commended and very readable work of classical scholarship that examines early Christianity against the background of politics, literature, and religion.

The Negro Church in America, by E. Franklin Frazier and The Black Church Since Frazier, by C. Eric Lincoln (Schocken, 216 pp., $2.95 pb). A decade-old classic is augmented in this edition by an equally long account of recent events.

Georges Bernanos, by Robert Speaight (Liveright, 285 pp., $8.95). The first full-length biography of a French Catholic novelist and polemicist (1888–1948) whose abhorrence of evil is reflected in his best-known work, translated as The Diary of a Country Priest.

I and II Esdras, by Jacob Myers (Doubleday, 384 pp., $8). Latest addition to the Anchor Bible series of commentaries and the first volume to appear on the Apocrypha.

Living Animals of the Bible, by Walter W. Ferguson (Scribners, 95 pp., $9.95). Large pages, colorful illustrations, brief descriptions of all the animals (lions to leeches) mentioned in the Old Testament and still extant somewhere. Fortunately distinguishes guesses from certainties.

Sharpening the Focus of the Church, by Gene A. Getz (Moody, 320 pp., $5.95). Detailed look at the Church as depicted in Scripture, and a brief look at its character over the centuries and the influence of the culture on it. Suggests a practical contemporary strategy. Keen insights by a professor of education at Dallas Seminary.

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When All Else Fails … Read the Directions, by Bob Smith (Word, 151 pp., $4.95). Challenging and helpful book on how congregations today can function in the light of God’s Word according to a specific example. Highly recommended.

The American Puritan Imagination, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge, 265 pp., $10.95, $3.95 pb). Twelve essays examining Puritans from a literary viewpoint. Sheds considerable light on theology.

Word Meanings in the New Testament: Romans, by Ralph Earle (Beacon Hill, 261 pp., $4.75). Studies of nearly 350 Greek words and phrases from Romans. This is the first of five projected volumes on the whole New Testament by a leading evangelical scholar.

The Case For Entire Sanctification, by Pascal Belew (Beacon Hill, 79 pp., $1.50 pb). The distinctive doctrine of Nazarenes, Free Methodists, Wesleyans and others in the “holiness movement” is often misrepresented by others. This basic explanation and appeal is for those who wish to consider the scriptural arguments that can be marshalled.

Scottish Theology, by John Macleod (Banner of Truth, 350 pp., $6.50). Covering the period from the Reformation, this 1943 volume by a Calvinist scholar is reprinted with the addition of a much-needed index.

Death in the Secular City, by Russell Aldwinckle (Eerdmans, 194 pp., $3.95 pb). A theology professor affirms the existence of personal, individual life after death. A scholarly treatment.

On Taking God Out of the Dictionary, by William Hamilton (McGraw-Hill, 255 pp., $8.95). A treatise on the aftermath of the “death of God” movement by one of its “theologians.”

Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868–1900, by David Pivar (Greenwood, 308 pp., $10.95). Religious social activism after the Civil War was directed not only toward temperance but also against the legalization of prostitution. This is a scholarly study of the latter movement and its related causes.

Relativism in Contemporary Christian Ethics, by Millard J. Erickson (Baker, 170 pp., $3.95 pb). A critique of situation ethics by a professor at Bethel Seminary. It is accompanied by an alternative structure that rests on the glorification as the first principle. Views of the ramifications of situationist positions help the reader see their weaknesses. For the general reader.

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Chautauqua, by Theodore Morrison (University of Chicago, 350 pp., $10.50). A scholar offers a centennial history, well illustrated, of the widely known religious institution in far western New York State. For the general reader.

A History of Christianity in the World, by Clyde L. Manschreck (Prentice-Hall, 378 pp., $7.95). Thumbnail sketch of Christianity throughout the world, from Pentecost to the present. Captures the major trends and personalities.

Cults and the Occult in the Age of Aquarius, by Edmond Gruss (Presbyterian and Reformed, 132 pp., $1.25 pb). Brief chapters, with good bibliographies on a dozen or so groups. Besides the usual older deviations from Christianity such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, many of the currently active groups are presented such as Armstrongism and Scientology. Highly recommended.

Theology: White, Black, or Christian?, by Warner Jackson (Herald Press, 48 pp., $.75 pb). A middle-of-the-road statement on the race issue that attempts to put the focus on Christ’s teachings. The author, a black pastor, points out the errors and inconsistencies of both black and white reaction. Concise and helpful.

The Interpretation of Prophecy, by Paul Lee Tan (BMH Books, 435 pp., $6.95). Comprehensive defenses of the principles underlying dispensational eschatology together with consideration of some of its specific conclusions.

God, Secularization, and History, edited by Eugene Long (University of South Carolina, 161 pp., $7.95). Nine essays in memory of the Scottish theologian Ronald Gregor Smith.

William Culbertson: A Man of God, by Warren Wiersbe (Moody, 176 pp., $4.95). Popular biography of the late Episcopal (Reformed rather than Protestant) bishop and president of Moody Bible Institute.

Isaiah 13–39, by Otto Kaiser (Westminster, 412 pp., $12.50). For advanced scholars.

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