Review: Hardness of Heart

Hardness of Heart in Biblical Literature, Charles B. Puskas. Eugene, Cascade Books, 2022.

Summary: A study of the words and texts in which they are used referring to hardness of heart holding in tension both the refusal to heed God and the purpose of God in the hardening of hearts.

In reading the Exodus narratives, we read both that Pharaoh hardens his heart and that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. There is both a what seems a purposive failure to communicate and a willful refusal and resistance to what is communicated. We want to ask which is it? Charles B. Puskas shows that this is a pattern that recurs both in many Old and New Testament texts. Later in the Old Testament, it is Israel that is hardened. In the New Testament, there is a similar phenomenon with the hearers of Jesus who see but do not see, hear but do not hear. At times, even the disciples hearts are hard, but do not remain so. Later, the apostle Paul speaks in Romans of the hardening of the Jews until the full number of Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:26).

Puskas takes us through a careful study of the words used and the various texts in both literary and historical context, looking at both the world behind the texts and their reception, and subsequent interpretation. One of the observations he makes is that hardness is not limited to hearts, but also to ears, eyes, face and forehead, neck, shoulder, and back. He considers the question of what hope there is for the hard of heart with a God who would have none perish. And he wrestles with the questions of free will and predestination.

What I appreciate in this study is that Puskas conclusion is that we see both human willful refusal and failure of communication that reflects the hardening purpose of God. He cites the work of John Feinberg arguing for free will within divine causation. He also points out that it is God who takes away hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh, that is, receptive hearts. Hardening as God’s purpose is to fulfill his saving purposes, whether it is the deliverance of Israel, or later the salvation of Gentiles. But Puskas never resolves the tension between free will and predestination with regard to hardening, Do humans harden their hearts? Does God? Puskas would say “yes.”

In an appendix, he discusses Romans 9-11 further and advances the argument of Robert Jenson against supersessionism–“the idea ‘that the church succeeds Israel in such a fashion as to displace from the status of God’s people those Jews who do not enter the church.’ ” He concludes with his own translation of Romans 11:17-18 as the Jews being “some of the branches [were] bent down.” The tone and inference here is an irenic one of hopefulness for Israel with deep regard for honest and respectful dialogue.

This work, derived from a doctoral thesis, is a careful piece of scholarship. I appreciate Puskas’ restraint in being governed by the textual evidence, as complex as this may be. In the end, he reminds us of our utter dependence on the sovereign purposes and great mercy of a God who not only may harden a heart but also make it receptive.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.