The Future of the Bible in the Evangelical Church

It is time to close this series of blogs with a projection of the role of the Bible in the evangelical church as we move forward. Let me start with my analysis of where we are today, the current ground game in play. I will do this by asking two defining questions.

First, where is the locus of authority in the evangelical church today? As mentioned above, Martin Luther and those who followed him used the Bible as a means of redirecting the authority in the church from trained hierarchical teachers to the individual believer. This is still true today (and will continue), but things have changed from Luther’s day. Now, men and women who have training and degrees in biblical studies have a small or non-existent voice of authority in the church. This may sound like sour grapes to some, but I have experienced this more than once in ministry. It is at the scholar’s peril that he or she challenges a cherished but unbiblical belief in a local church. I rarely do this anymore, but when I have, my advice will often be rejected in one of two ways. First, the church leader being challenged (exposed) may intimate that my Ph.D. in New Testament has corrupted me and turned me into a liberal, so I cannot be trusted. Second, a church leader will basically answer, “And so say you!” meaning, “Even if I’m wrong, I’m not changing my position.”

However, a strange corollary to this has emerged in the last decade, the nationally influential scholar/pastor. There are a few dozen evangelical pastors who have achieved a national platform through publications, blogs, tweets, conference speaking, and other media. While the university professor’s authority is dismissed, the pastor’s knowledge and authority are accepted. After all, he has written two books! This is a mixed bag, for some of these guys (and they are almost all male) are well educated, and I don’t know where it will come out. I admire hard working pastors and their dedication to preaching the gospel and building the church. Sometimes, though, the personality characteristics that lead to a megachurch (narrow focus, self-confidence, independence, flamboyance) make it difficult to participate in a community dialog about the meaning of biblical texts. Grant Osborne exhorted his students (including me) to always practice a “hermeneutics of humility,” realizing the best exegetes may make mistakes. We need more of this today.

All this is to say that the Bible is often a tool for the most influential authorities in the evangelical church, the influential pastors and their disciples. Most church members have no interest in Luther’s ideal of careful Bible study by the educated and godly layperson. They want their doctrine and theology delivered in 140-charcter bites, sometimes a series of these tidbits strung together as a sermon. (We used to call this “proof-texting,” which hatched a flock of bad approaches to the Bible that have now come home to roost.) I don’t see this trend changing soon. I await a rediscovery of the Bible and its authentic authority for a future generation.

Second question, what do evangelical church people want from the Bible? It is easier, maybe, to say what they don’t want. Many don’t want the Bible to stand in criticism to the way they live their lives. Rampant materialism, covert racism, excuses for immorality … please don’t bring any biblical truths to challenge these things! Many want comfort from the Bible, to know that God loves them and they don’t need to change anything to please him. Even more, many want to keep the Bible at arm’s-length so that its light of truth does not shine too brightly on their lives. This seems to me to be the role of the Bible for most Evangelicals for the foreseeable future. It is like the wise uncle who lives out of state. He may have good advice, but we don’t want to hear it, and it is easy to ignore him.

I do believe, however, there is a growing hunger among evangelical church members for a healthy meal of biblical truth. They have been fed baby food for too long. They want a biblical steak, or at least seasoned and sautéed sliced eggplant (for vegans).

I am encouraged by a couple of things that have happened in my church, Wildewood Christian Church in Papillion, NE. First, our pastor, Ron Wymer, has committed himself to include more doctrinal and theological meat in his sermons. He is doing a D.Min. degree and was challenged in a recent class to bring theology back to the pulpit, and he has been doing this. But Ron preaches from the Bible, not a systematics textbook. I applaud him, even if I disagree with him some time. For me, it is better to have a sermon where I might disagree a little, than a sermon that has nothing worth disagreeing about.

Also, this church has been gracious to allow me to teach in its “Wildewood Academy,” a Wednesday night program for adults who are desiring serious study of the Bible. We have been wading through the book of Revelation, and I am amazed at the response. We have almost outgrown our classroom. We are tackling some tough stuff, places in Revelation where I have to say, “I’m not sure what this means.” But we are seeing this great book of theology and worship in ways that speak to our lives and our faith. These faithful, Berean-type church members are a great encouragement to me and the church.

So there is hope …

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

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Biblical Authority in the Evangelical Church Today

Thanks to you who have had the perseverance to follow this long blog string on “Future Church, Future Bible.” Let me briefly recapitulate the previous posts.

The church from its earliest days had a tradition of Scripture, written words of recognized authorities. The church inherited this tradition from its Jewish forebears, and the early Scriptures of the church were the same as the synagogue. This, for the most part, was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible books we call the Septuagint. In its first century of existence, the church began to recognize writings from its own people (like Paul) as having authority and began to collect these books into its own Scripture (the New Testament). The eventual result was the “Bible,” a collection of individual books in two parts, the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament.”

After a time, the authority of Scripture was muted or inaccessible to most people in the church, especially in Western Europe (the primary source of American Evangelicalism). Martin Luther changed this by beginning to study Scripture in the original languages in a somewhat historical and critical way. Luther often took into account the context and intent of the original authors. He also translated Scripture into the language of his people, the German-text “Luther Bible.” Many scholars believe that Luther transferred the authority within the church from the Roman Catholic curia of his day to the Bible, but what he really accomplished was moving the authority for interpretation from the trained and authorized (and sometimes ruthlessly corrupt) teachers of the Roman church to the individual believer. Lutherism, when understood this way, was less a move away from a corrupt church to establish a biblical church as it was a move away from a unified church to a church reduced to the individual.

This was the key to the rise of Protestantism in Europe. It eventually unleashed generations of learned people who studied the Bible using the best scholarly techniques and resources available to them in their day. In the 500 years since Luther, several things have happened.

One was the move away from a single church with its highly organized government (hierarchy) and political power (“Christendom”). This had unintended consequences. The Bible had become a tool of authority for the individual believer. New churches were organized around dynamic leaders and these churches adopted their leaders’ interpretations of key Bible texts. No mechanism existed to prevent further divisions within the church. The result was a multitude of distinct churches, most of which recognized the Bible as authoritative, but with different results based on culture and interpretations of this book. Practical unity in the church was confined to the congregational level, and even there, restless or dissatisfied members could hop from church to church until they found a congregation they personally judged to be adequate. This is still the case in the evangelical church today.

Also, two great trends within the tradition that became Evangelicalism were nurtured and grew. The first of these trends was the desire to systematize the teachings of the Bible into a coherent grid. This was not new, but was undertaken with greater emphasis and exclusivity where the Bible was concerned. The great systematic theologians worked to define the major themes of the Christian faith (Theology, Christology, Soteriology, etc.) and mine the Bible to find the gems of texts that spoke on each topic. The systematician then synthesized these texts into unified statements of doctrine.

The second trend that eventually ran afoul of this systematics work was the progressive development of biblical interpretation itself. A tradition of scholarship arose that began to take the Bible seriously as a collection of documents written within identifiable historical and cultural contexts. Left behind were naïve understandings that treated the narratives of the Bible as stories about semi-fictional or mythological characters unlike the modern readers. Also left behind were the allegorical readings of many texts, the move that made the Bible ahistorical and washed away difficult things by seeing them as symbolic. The interpretation of the Bible became a rigorous discipline, some would say a science, that had clear rules based on the analysis of ancient literature in general.

In the mid-twentieth century, these two trends were primed for a collision. Whether entirely aware of it or not, evangelical scholars had always been influenced by their systematic presuppositions when interpreting the Bible. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the principle of the evangelical “analogy of faith,” the idea that all readings of Scripture must fit into the larger grid of what the church has taught historically. This amounted to the triumph of systematicians over biblical interpreters and is still the case within evangelical scholars today (as witnessed by many of the papers read at the Evangelical Theological Society).

We should not be surprised by this. Luther shifted authority from the hierarchical teachers of the church to the individual, thereby resulting in semi-biblical conclusions driven by theological and doctrinal presuppositions. This was somewhat inevitable, I think.

What has called this into question is the rise of literary criticism in a larger sense in the mid-twentieth century. There were many parts to this: the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” “literary deconstruction,” “reader-based interpretation,” and others. But one positive result was to expose the fallacy of reading and interpreting any text without presuppositions. There was no tabla rasa, no blank slate for any human interpreter. We all come to the text with preunderstandings. For evangelicals, this includes the systematic truths drilled into them as doctrines. But does the Bible determine our doctrines, or do the doctrines control our reading?

Next: How the Train Wreck of Systematics vs. Bible Interpreters Influences the Evangelical Church Today

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (part 3)

This is the fourth installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. Recently we have been looking historically at the early church’s practices concerning Scripture. The early church, before the completion and collection of the New Testament, esteemed the Scriptures from its Jewish roots, using the Greek translation of the Old Testament we call the Septuagint. At the same time, words of Jesus were accorded special, Scriptural-like authority before our Gospels were written. The writings of the apostles were also esteemed and began to be treated as Scripture. Beginning in its early centuries, serious Christian writers were both using Scriptural citations in their polemic and apologetic writings to define and bolster their positions. Great scholars like Origen began to do systematic exposition of Bible books, using predefined methodology to interpret the meaning of Scripture for their readers.

Skip to the sixteenth century. The church is in the final stages of emerging from the “dark ages,” a development influenced by many things. Not the least of these factors is the invention and continuing perfection of the printing press. In the 1450s, the first major publishing project began using movable type. The publisher, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, chose his first book carefully and his choice is instructive. He printed the Bible in a grand fashion, impressively large and luxuriously bound. What is important for our study is that he chose the Bible as his first project and that the version he used was the Latin Vulgate text, which included the books of the apocrypha.

The cost of Gutenberg’s Bibles and the limited production meant they found homes in large churches and libraries, not in homes (for the most part). Even with papal approval, the Latin text made it inaccessible to all but the learned. Yet the printing technological revolution had begun, and there was money to be made in producing smaller and less expensive books. This spurred something of a revival of biblical scholarship, partly because printers needed reliable texts to publish that would be accepted by the church and the public.

At the same time, the authority of the church in Rome was being questioned on many fronts. This can be attributed to factors such as rising nationalism, abuse or neglect of spiritual authority, crusade fatigue, rediscovery of classical pagan philosophers by the humanists, and the extravagance of building projects in Rome and elsewhere despite grinding poverty in much of Europe. This set the stage for a German-speaking Augustinian monk, Martin Luther.

It is not overstatement to say that Martin Luther changed the entire trajectory of biblical scholarship, and that his influence continues until today. Luther did this in two primary ways. First, he began to study the texts of Bible books in something like an objective, modern way. He wanted to know what the author said and meant when the author originally wrote. Luther did not feel bound by traditional interpretations that were sometimes intended to benefit the church establishment.

Second, Luther believed that Scripture needed to be widely available to all Christians. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the church was his German translation, later called the Luther Bible. For the first time in 1,500 years, Christians might be able to own a copy of the Bible in their home and read it in their language. In both of these things, we like to think that Luther shifted the locus of authority from the Roman Catholic church and its magisterium to Scriptures, but that is not really what happened. As we shall see, the Scripture is now seen with a new level of authority, but the shift was from the authorized church interpreters to individual Christians as interpreters. If a semi-learned layman could read Scriptures for himself, then he could interpret it for himself, too.

This is the beginning of the evangelical tradition of today: Scriptures widely available in common translations and at low cost for a literate church membership. In America, one of the motivations for public schools was to produce a literate people who were able to read the Bible for themselves. Protestants have little patience for official, church-decreed interpretations of Scripture. We can read it for ourselves!

Next: Biblical Authority in the Evangelical Church Today

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (Part 2)

This is the third installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. The last blog indicated that “Scripture” for the early church was what we would call the “Old Testament” today. The functional Scripture of the church was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (LXX). This indicates a couple of things. First, that the idea of “Scripture,” the written word, as having unique authority was retained by the church from its synagogue origins. Second, the idea that we must study the Old Testament in the original language (Hebrew/Aramaic) has little historical basis in the earliest church. Third, that our mania to have absolute exactitude concerning every word of Scripture and its original meaning also has little basis in the earliest church.

How did we get where we are today, where there is a sincere desire to recognize authority in the Bible while tolerating a low level of biblical literacy in our churches?

This blog can only use a big brush and very broad strokes in this, but let me point out a couple of developments. First, the words of Jesus were accorded special respect and authority in the early church, even before the Gospels were written. For example, in Acts 20:35, Luke portrays Paul as ending his discourse to the Ephesian elders this way:

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: It is more blessed to give than to receive.

This little saying, attributed to Jesus himself, is not recorded in the Gospels. It is significant that Luke himself did not include it in his first volume, what we call the Gospel of Luke, for he often foreshadows material in Acts with material in Luke. If Luke is writing in the late A.D. 70s, he pens this forty years after Jesus said it, but he gives us no context for Jesus making this assertion. He is also writing twenty years after the event in which he portrays Paul as quoting it, and here the context is important. Paul is speaking with apostolic authority to a group of church leaders and ends his discourse with this verse. Quoting Jesus finalizes his argument and both compliments and surpasses his own authority.

We also see this in some of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings. One example is Clement of Rome, probably writing in the AD 90s. Possibly the co-worker of Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3, Clement writes to the church in Corinth in a letter we call 1 Clement, a book saturated with scriptural quotations and allusions. Decrying divisions in the Corinthian church, Clement makes this statement:

Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. (1 Clement 46, Ante-Nicene Fathers translation).

This seems to be a quotation of Matthew 18:6 (perhaps Mark 9:42), but not with the precision we would demand today. What it shows us is that this early church leader (Clement) and his fellow Christians saw authority in the words of Jesus, and that Clement used a written source (Matthew or Mark) for these words.

Second, in the centuries following Clement, other church leaders and scholars used both the Old Testament and the writings that became the New Testament with authority. Sometimes the New Testament authors were quoted to bolster a command or teaching. Others did lengthy, systematic expositions of certain books. For example, Origen (flourishing c. A.D. 200-250) wrote lengthy expositions on books of the Bible from the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Genesis, Lamentations, John, Romans). His exegetical method may seem inadequate today (referred to as “allegorical” or “spiritual” interpretation), but the fact that the greatest scholar of the church’s first two centuries would expend so much effort on biblical studies is significant. Origen’s efforts also included his famous Hexapla, a six-columned work showing the Hebrew text, a Hebrew transliteration in Greek, the Septuagint text, and three other Greek translation of the Old Testament. Now lost to us, the Hexapla’s purpose seems to have been to establish the best possible Greek text of the Old Testament for use in scholarship and in the church. This, again, is an attestation to the high esteem in which Scripture was held in the early church and the seriousness of the scholarship devoted to it. It is also a move to raise the stakes for the exact words of Scripture, to have a trusted text that is the basis for interpretation.

Next: Biblical Authority in the Reformation

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (Part 1)

Evangelicals today face a great paradox within their churches. On the one hand, Evangelicals take a strong position on the importance of the Bible. On the other hand, members of our churches have inaccurate and meager biblical knowledge, and no general penchant for gaining more and better information. Furthermore, preaching and teaching in the church today seems ineffective and lacking in biblical truth. We have a general church membership with a low level of biblical literacy, and church leaders who barely rise above it.

How did we get here? I know there are many exceptions to the generalizations above, but I doubt that anyone would assume today that if a person identified herself as a “Christian,” we could be confident that this person had a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible.

I remember an epiphany I had years ago when my daughter was old enough in school to begin having notes sent home in her backpack by her teacher. I was often appalled by these notes, which had spelling and grammar errors. These were my daughter’s teachers! English teachers! My epiphany was in realizing these teachers did not know English well, and this was because they had not been taught well. The result was a generation of students with inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of English, and then those students became teachers. This is somewhat parallel to the situation in Evangelical churches. The inadequately educated students are now the teachers.

How, though, did we ever get to a place of expecting our church preachers and leaders to have a deep and accurate knowledge of the Bible? Or better, why should we expect this? Should we still expect this? More basically, why does the Bible have a privileged position of authority in the Evangelical church? Allow me to offer a couple of observations.

First, the idea of “Scripture” or “Sacred Writings” was inherited by the church from its Jewish founders. At the time of Jesus, the ancient writings of the Law (Pentateuch) and the Prophets (Former and Latter) were recognized as having authority that could command respect and obedience. One could win an argument or demand behavior if one could cite a verse of recognized Scripture. This trumped all opinions. To be sure, the Jewish community of the first century did not simply view their Scriptures as proof-texts to be used in argumentation. They also saw them as telling their story as a nation and giving them an identity as the people of God.

So, like the synagogue, the early church had Scriptures, roughly identified with what we call the “Old Testament” in the Evangelical church. The early church’s Scripture did not include the “New Testament,” because its books were still being written, collected, and recognized. When Paul writes in 2 Timothy that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …,” he is not talking about the New Testament, but about the Old Testament. Application of this verse to Christian writings is retroactive, perhaps anachronistic, maybe even circular argumentation.

One significant difference is that the early church’s “Old Testament” was the Greek translation we call the Septuagint (LXX). The idea of learning the Hebrew language to exegete the Hebrew text of Genesis would never have occurred to the Greek-speaking Gentile leaders of Paul’s churches. The authority of the text, as they understood it, was perfectly intact when using a translation such as the LXX. It would be hard to imagine a first century preacher telling his congregation that he had insights into Scripture they could not fathom based on his study of a Hebrew text. Such a claim would be little more than Gnosticism, touting a secret knowledge to gain authority and power. All this is to say that when we understand that the Scriptures of the early church were a Greek translation, our desire to have absolute exactitude concerning every word and its original meaning may be overly zealous today.

The earliest, documented use of Scripture by the Christian community comes in the writings of the New Testament itself. In the next installment of this series, we will attempt to understand not only how the New Testament writers use Scripture (the Old Testament), but how they understand its authority and how this established the tradition of biblical authority in the church that continues to this day.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Future Church, Future Bible

Upheaval. Chaos. Questioning. Fear of Future. Disregard for Tradition. Distrust of Experts. Dismissal of Science. Alternative Facts and Truths.

A negative appraisal of the current situation in American politics and social life sees elements of all of these descriptors in play today. It is easy, however, to see these things confined to cable TV news, internet news sites, and Washington, D.C. We believe our lives are insulated from such turmoil, at least for the most part. Questioning? Haven’t we always done this? Don’t we have a right to question authority? Fear of Future? Who wouldn’t be afraid after living through 9/11 and the Great Recession? Disregard for Tradition? Isn’t it about time we jettisoned some of the archaic traditions that hold us back? Should we let our past control our future? Distrust of Experts? Can’t I look up anything on the internet and find a source I like? Aren’t we all experts these days? Dismissal of Science? Scientists don’t agree on anything, do they? And aren’t the answers of science always changing? Didn’t they tell us at one time that menthol cigarettes could heal our lungs? Alternative facts and Truths. Isn’t there a lot of fake news out there? Haven’t the major news agencies we trusted in the past shown themselves to be purveyors of an agenda I don’t like? Isn’t Walter Cronkite dead?

Where does this fearful and questioning environment come into the church? We are long past the days when we could believe the church was a “Fortress of Solitude” untouched by raging conflicts in the cultural and social world. Whether we admit it or not, our religious identity is at the core of this situation. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “Religion is the essence of culture and culture is the dress of religion.” What are the religious elements behind our cultural upheavals?

In a series of blogs over the next few weeks, I would like to explore a specific aspect of this, the religious identity of the church as expressed in current culture. What lies behind the cultural expressions our society experiences in the church today? More specifically, I want to look at the role of the Bible in the church’s religious identity. Then I want to play the role of a futurist and project a little. What will be the relationship between the Bible and the future church?

My father was a medical doctor (M.D.) and had been drilled about a couple of things in medical school that were essential to his profession. One was that he always was to sign his name with “M.D.” at the end. So he wasn’t “Charles E. Krause.” He was “Charles E. Krause, M.D.” His degree conferred upon him a unique status that he should take pride in and publish whenever he could. A second thing he was taught was that other medical people who claim to be “doctors” but were not “M.D.” were suspect, probably quacks. In my family, visiting a chiropractor would be grounds for disinheritance. These and other things were drawn from the culture of medical schools when my father was being educated, an effort to define an elite identity for medical school graduates at the top of the medical world’s influence hierarchy. This culture (from the 1950s) would be aghast at the idea that medical information could be accessed from the internet, that a person with a medical degree from a place like Pakistan could be a real doctor, and that (of all things) a person could receive a flu shot in a Target pharmacy given by a pharmacist (as I did last week). In the end, this wasn’t so much about competency and certainly not about consumer value. It was about “protecting the shield,” insuring that medical doctors were highly competent and appropriately respected.

I’m afraid my field of expertise, biblical studies, has some of these same tendencies. We distrust and dismiss opinions on the Bible coming from anyone who does not have at least a master’s degree from a reputable school. We cringe at the misinformation about the Bible and its interpretation that can be found on the internet. We are aghast at preaching that largely ignores the Bible, and misinterprets it when it is used. We, too, have been “protecting the shield” of our guild, PhDs who know the original biblical languages and talk to each other in terms no average church person could understand or appreciate. When we look into the future of the church’s relationship to the Bible, are we part of it? Are we part of a new synthesis or a lingering part of an old problem?

Here are the topics I want to look at in the next few weeks:

  1. How did the Bible come to have a place of authority in the church and what is the nature of that authority?
  2. How did the assumption of this authoritative role for the Bible form part of the essence of the Evangelical church, and how was this essence dressed in popular cultural expressions of evangelicalism?
  3. What is the “realpolitick” role of the Bible and biblical experts (like me) in the evangelical church today?
  4. What is the likely future role of the Bible and its experts in the future church.

I hope you are along for the ride!

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

“Everything Happens for a Reason” Redux

My pastor today deliberately called out some “bad theology” that cripples us and causes misunderstandings of the Christian life. I appreciate it.

If we are not discerning, one person’s bad theology is another person’s favorite doctrine. I try to use biblical concepts to form my theological concepts. I am not infallible. I make mistakes and learn more as I go. I hope my theology is progressing toward purer truth all the time.

A persistent saying in Christian circles is “Everything happens for a reason.” This has the ring of faith and of yielding to the mysterious will of God. But I think it is bad theology in the way most people view it.

I have heard this from people who have experienced great tragedy, or by those who are trying to console victims of life’s horrors. The unstated logic of the statement goes something like this:

  1. God is in control of all things, therefore of everything that happens.
  2. God has a plan for all things and this plan is continually unfolding according to his will.
  3. Therefore, when bad things happen, God is the ultimate cause.
  4. When we suffer tragedy, saying “Everything happens for a reason” is a polite way to blame God.
  5. Our hope is that God’s reasons will favor us in the future.

I just don’t think it works this way or that the Bible teaches this. I will admit there are places where the Bible authors seem to attribute life’s good things and life’s terrible things to God. Perhaps most famous are the words of Job:

 Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10)

Not all tragedies have a simple, easily explained cause. But many do. Many are the result of sinful behavior, especially injustice at the hands of greedy and unprincipled individuals. Sin causes pain for us and for others. Yet the Bible does not teach us to passively accept injustice. We are to fight it, to champion justice.

In the end, God’s control of his creation is not in question. He can bring good from catastrophe. But this does not mean he brings catastrophe to cause good. So let’s replace “Everything happens for a reason” with “God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University