Review: From Judgement to Hope

From Judgment to Hope, Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Summary: A survey study of the prophets centering on the movement in these books from judgment to hope.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the foremost scholars on the prophetic literature in the Bible. This book represents a distillation of his scholarship, suited for an adult education course in a church or other group. He focuses on a common thread running through the books, a movement from judgment to hope similar to the New Testament movement from cross to resurrection to return in glory. He helps us understand the prophets in their historical context, their canonical context, and our contemporary context.

He begins with a chapter on the three major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel offering this summary:

  • Isaiah: Jerusalem lost and renewed
  • Jeremiah: covenant broken and restored
  • Ezekial: temple nullified and revivified

Brueggemann, like many scholars, adheres to a “three Isaiah” approach to Isaiah and devotes a chapter to First Isaiah and one to Second and Third Isaiah. First Isaiah traces the announcements of God’s justice due to the people’s injustices, the temporary salvation and eventual fall of Jerusalem, culminating in that fall and hope for restoration. Second Isaiah begins with the highway for our God and culminates with Israel the Servant. The discussion of Third Isaiah centers on the house of prayer for all peoples, God’s chosen fast, and the Spirit of the Lord speaking through the prophet of the new Jerusalem.

Then Brueggemann reviews the “Minor Prophets” in four groups of three, with correspondence to the major prophets:

  • The eight century BCE prophets (Isaiah)
    • Amos: justice and righteousness
    • Hosea: steadfast love and knowledge of God
    • Micah: justice and kindness
  • The seventh century BCE prophets (Jeremiah) — focusing on punishment, both covenantal and cosmic dimensions
    • Nahum
    • Habakkuk
    • Zephaniah
  • The sixth century BCE prophets (Ezekiel) — focusing on restoration, both covenantal and cosmic dimensions
    • Haggai
    • Zechariah
    • Malachi
  • The outliers
    • Jonah
    • Obadiah
    • Joel

Brueggemann only focuses individual chapters on the eight and sixth century BCE prophets. Patricia K. Tull supplements Brueggemann’s work with an introductory overview and a book by book summary in rough chronological order. In the after matter, you will also find a timeline placing the books along key events, familiar quotations from Isaiah and a brief glossary.

This work does offer an introduction to the major contours of the prophetic books, but aside from reflection questions that seem better suited to individual reading, does not seem well-organized for an adult course. It is a good review, though it seems quite cursory especially in its treatment of the seventh century minor prophets and the “outliers.” Frankly, this was a bit disappointing for a Brueggemann work, and unless you are collecting everything he has written, I would pass this one by.

Review: Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew

Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew, Hans Boersma (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: In an effort to foster understanding between the two disciplines, a theologian outlines five areas for biblical scholars to understand about theology as it bears upon the Bible.

In the theological academy the study of scripture and theology are treated as two separate disciplines. Yet each depend crucially upon the other. Scripture sources our theological understanding while theological premises inform our reading of scripture. In this work, Hans Boersma approaches scripture sacramentally, as a means of grace, and not “as a mere repository of historical and doctrinal truths.” This leads Boersma to express his “five things” in the form “No______, No Scripture, devoting a chapter to each of these. Each of the five express theological realities that make possible the grace of scripture.

No Christ, No Scripture. Christ is the heart of scripture, the one to whom the scriptures point. Christ’s presence is essential to its authority. Boersma notes how historical-critical exegesis often brackets out Christ, and thus the one who speaks with authority through these texts.

No Plato, No Scripture. While not asserting that Plato has equivalent authority to Christ, Boersma argues that all approaches to scripture assume some form of metaphysic. If we attempt a pura scriptura approach, we will unconsciously import the prevailing metaphysic of our culture. Boersma asserts the essential character of Christian Platonism is due to its antimaterialism, antimechanism, antinominalism, antirelativism, and antiskepticism.

No Providence, No Scripture. Scripture is an expression of God’s providential care for us as his uniquely authoritative witness to Himself and to the blessed life in relation to Him. God has provided the words of scripture to make present the Word of God, the incarnate Son to us.

No Church, No Scripture. The church and not the theological academy is the primary center for the reading of scripture. This argues against individualist and elitist readings. This nourished by canonical, liturgical, and creedal reading. One of the most soaringly beautiful statements in the book is found where Boersma writes:

“We arrive at genuine Christian teaching only when we have been in the presence of angels and saints and the triune God himself. Only in the presence of divine light of the Spirit do the scriptures begin to make sense to us.”

Boersma, p. 107.

No Heaven, No Scripture. Finally, Boersma contends that biblical scholars cannot read scripture without considering its spiritual end, the heavenly contemplation of God in Christ. In this, he argues for the primacy of contemplation over action–that good action can only follow from contemplation. He also offers a trenchant critique of political readings of scripture that fail to originate in contemplation. Rather, he focuses on the cultivation of virtue in life as the fruit of contemplation.

Boersma’s sacramental approach is hardly generic evangelical theology but reflective of his Anglican tradition (he teaches theology at Nashotah House). Actually, this approach is a corrective to Enlightenment-influenced historical-critical exegesis that treats Holy Scripture as one more ancient text to be dissected. His Platonism comes as a surprise but challenges our presumption that we can come to scripture free of metaphysical premises. We cannot, so better to be explicit about them. More than this, his focus on Christ, on God’s providence, on reading with the church, and on the contemplation of heavenly realities all remind us of the joyous gift of scripture, which leads us to the Incarnate Word and His blessed eternal purposes of his people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Scot McKnight has written a companion volume, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew which is reviewed here.

Review: The Samaritan Woman’s Story

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, Caryn A. Reeder. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: Challenges the view of the Samaritan woman as a sexual sinner, considering how this has been read in the church, and the realities of the life of women and marriage that points to a very different reading.

The narrative of the Samaritan woman in John 4:4-42 is one of my favorite gospel narratives. Over the years I’ve given countless talks and led numerous Bible studies on this passage. I’ve always portrayed the woman as of “questionable repute,” having gone through a string of marriages and living with a man who is not her legal husband. I suspect that’s how you’ve heard the story as well. Caryn A. Reeder argues that we’ve gotten the story wrong and that this both reflects and reinforces unhealthy attitudes toward women in the church that thwarts real partnership between men and women in the gospel, contributing purity cultures, fear of women as temptresses, and even offering license to men to sexually abuse.

Let me talk about the second part of the book first, in which Reeder looks at the social world of the Samaritan woman. First she discusses the life of a woman in Jesus’s world. She begins with the lesser worth of girls, who are mainly an expense in terms of dowries. Some baby girls were exposed and left to die. Unless coming from upper classes, girls were taught to manage the household and all its tasks–cooking, cleaning, family businesses, farms and gardens, and specialized trades. They were married young, usually around age twelve to an older man and their primary value, in addition to the household, was bearing children, often a significant number because of those who died in infancy and childhood. Of course, many women died young. Women were married young and kept in the restricted space of the home to protect paternity. Marriages were contracted between the woman’s father and the bridegroom with the bride able to consent to or decline the marriage.

This is important in the case of the Samaritan woman. She was not hopping from the bed of one husband to another. Her five marriages were ones her family was involved with, suggesting the possibility of significant financial resources and status. The marriages may well have ended with the death of a spouse or because of divorce. In either case, women were expected to marry again. Also, men and women often lived together during the period between when a marriage was contracted and formalized. No one would have blinked an eye at this.

Two other things are important to note in the passage. One is that Jesus never speaks to her of sin or pronounces her forgiven, saying “go and sin no more” as in John 7:53-8:11. Nor do the people in town shun her when she testifies about Jesus. Rather they believe her or at least come, and then believe Jesus. Reeder also discusses her noon time visit to the well in the full light of day, contrasting it to Nicodemus’s night time visit in secret. Reeder also contrasts the two dialogues. She is far more engaged, and far more intelligently so than Nicodemus, continuing to question and learn, and she is the first to know that he is the Messiah. She understands what Nicodemus fails to perceive and models discipleship both as a learner and a witness bringing others to Jesus.

Why do I, why do we, not tell the story this way? Reeder traces this to an interpretive history of this story, largely written by men, who perceive her as a sexual sinner, shaped by the perception at times that sex was somehow unclean, even in marriage, that men needed to be wary of temptation by women, and that objectified women as objects of male desire. In successive chapters in the first part of the book she traces this through the early fathers (Tertullian, Origen, and John Chrysostom), Reformation Protestantism from Calvin (who identified her as an adultress) to Clare Lucas Balfour and Moody (who saw the woman as a prostitute, though an effective evangelist), and the present. Liz Curtis Higgs treats her as a sexual sinner after the deaths of her husbands, Barbara J. Essex describes her as having a shady past but as the first missionary, and John Piper identifies her as a adulterer and prostitute who needed the protection of a gender patriarchy.

What was striking to me is that this interpretive history obscured in my own eyes things I should have readily noted in the socio-historical context, important to careful exegesis. I ignored the role of families in contracting marriages and read contemporary practice back into the text. I ignored the betrothal practices (that played into Mary and Joseph’s story) and made her a loose woman living in sin. I ignored the immediate context of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus. And with the sexual sinner aspect so large in my view, I diminished both Jesus and the woman, in terms of the conversation that led to her being the first to see Jesus as Messiah and then bring so many others to him. I missed what “living water” would have meant to a woman who had suffered and witnessed, perhaps, the deaths of multiple husbands.

In her conclusion Reeder discusses contemporary views of women in the age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo. She argues that how we tell these stories does color our views of women in the present–how we honor their worth and their voices. The story challenges men committed to Christlikeness to be like Jesus in this story–not afraid to be with her and respecting her enough to engage her in thoughtful conversation that invites her to explore and question. He takes her intelligence, worth, and voice seriously enough, that, despite barriers of gender and ethnicity, she joins him as a partner in mission.

One thing for sure. I will never tell the story the same way again.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew

Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew, Scot McKnight, Foreword Hans Boersma. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: In an effort to foster understanding between the two disciplines, a biblical scholar outlines five areas for theologians to understand about biblical studies.

A common challenge in the academic world is the need for specialization, which promotes careful research in one’s field, but also increasing ignorance of other related fields. This is true in the world of theological studies as well, and disciplines like biblical studies and systematic theology operate in separate silos. Yet both concern the story of God. In this work, and a companion volume, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (review forthcoming), Scot McKnight and Hans Boersma engage in a conversation that seeks to foster greater understanding between the two disciplines.

So here are the five things McKnight wishes theologians knew, and a few of the highlights of each:

  1. Theology needs a constant return to scripture. While McKnight would not adhere to sola scriptura, he proposes an expansive model in which creeds, denominational beliefs, major theologians, and church and culture all figure into our reading of scripture, and yet always beginning with scripture (prima scriptura). He also distinguishes between good biblicism (Bebbington) and bad biblicism (Christian Smith).
  2. Theology needs to know its impact on biblical studies. Here, McKnight asks the question of whether it is possible for the church to interpret scripture apart from church dogma and interacts with a number of contemporary examples around Christology where this is evident.
  3. Theology needs historically shaped biblical studies. Often theology is done without awareness of the historical context of scripture in which a doctrine arises. He notes John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift as an example of where historically shaped study is modifying the theological paradigm.
  4. Theology needs more narrative. Theology is often creedally or topically framed, yet most of the Bible is narrative and arguably, individual narratives are part of a larger, over-arching story. Should the fact that God has disclosed God’s self in this way shape how we do theology? McKnight would say yes.
  5. Theology needs to be lived theology. Theology is often divorced from ethics or practice. McKnight argues that scripture itself doesn’t permit this, cites Ben Witherington, III and Beth Felker Jones as good contemporary examples, and offers a treatment of Romans 12-16 in context of the whole book of Romans as doing theology with practice in view.

Boersma in his forward largely agrees with McKnight. He does contend that even McKnight’s prima scriptura inadequately recognizes the influence of tradition on interpretation, which McKnight himself seems to flirt with in his second chapter. I’d love a longer conversation between the two and look forward to reading Boersma.

I think McKnight hits the key issues and offers constructive examples of theological work informed by biblical scholarship. The discussion on scripture and tradition shows the work critically needed here. McKnight’s proposal that specialists in seminaries regularly offer updates in all-faculty meetings of key contributions to their field just ought to be the case everywhere.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Piercing Leviathan

Piercing Leviathan (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Eric Ortlund. Downers Grove and London: IVP Academic and Apollos, 2021. (Link for UK publisher).

Summary: A study of the book of Job that focuses on the second of the Lord’s speeches to Job, focused on describing Behemoth and Leviathan.

There is so much that is challenging to understand about the book of Job, from the willingness of God to permit Job’s loss and suffering to the seemingly endless speeches of Job’s friends and Job’s protestations of innocence and desire that God come and answer. In this book, Eric Ortlund covers all this material but focuses his treatment on God’s two speeches to Job, and especially the second and more baffling, where God at length discusses two imposing creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. God never directly answers Job about why he has suffered, yet in the end, Job describes himself as having uttered what he did not understand and repents in dust and ashes.

Many of us have imagined ourselves responding, “But, but, but…” Why doesn’t Job? Have these strange answers truly given the answers Job needed, or is Job just acquiescing in the face of God’s awesome presence? Eric Ortlund contends the former, offering a close reading both of Job’s complaint and responses, and the speeches themselves, especially the second on Behemoth and Leviathan. In some sense, Ortlund’s whole book is a prologue to his discussion of this second speech. Even so, I found his elucidation of the Accuser’s test and the friends speeches assuming a retributive answer brought clarity to these chapters–both the inflexible fallback of the friends on the theory that Job must have sinned and thus deserved the tragedy that followed, and the insistence of Job that God has wrongly punished him and his desire to have God justify his ways.

Ortlund describes the first speech with its questions as a massive reminder of God’s good rule in creation, and that God is not the arbitrary deity who has punished Job without cause. And Job admits that his criticism of God’s rule was wrong, but that he has nothing else to say in response. Implicit is still this question of all the evil that has befallen him. Then God launches on the descriptions of the massive and threatening Behemoth and Leviathan, who may only be conquered by their Maker. Yet the conquest is not described here, only the formidable armament and power of these “evil” creatures.

Ortlund considers various possible interpretations for these creatures, contending that they represent supernatural chaos and evil. On this interpretation, the comfort to Job is that it is not simply God and Job in the story but that “a massive, writhing evil is loose in the creation.” There may be other possibilities than God unjustly afflicting Job, or Job having done something worth affliction. The massiveness of Leviathan offers reason to believe there is a source outside God for the terrible evil done Job. And the fact that God wields the sword and fishhook that will bring these creatures down, but not yet, offers hope for ultimate justice.

Then more briefly, a discussion follows on the restoration of Job, and why God never fills Job in, as the reader is, on the specifics behind his suffering. Ortlund argues that any such explanation would have invalidated the test, saying that Job only repented and believed to have blessings restored. As told, while Job is restored, what he lost is lost, and throughout his life, he believes God for God’s sake.

To my mind, Ortlund offers a treatment of Job that coheres. More than that, he portrays a Job that believes God for God’s sake, even in his accusations, and a God who finally will defeat evil and is overwhelmingly good, even when this is not readily apparent in the chaos of the world. He treats other views of Leviathan in the course of this book. What I think Ortlund has done is establish an alternate proposal that other readings will have to address and helped make sense of Job’s ultimate response to God’s speeches.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One

The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One, Gregg Davidson & Kenneth J. Turner. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021.

Summary: An layered approach to the meaning of Genesis 1, focusing on what this reveals about God and God’s intentions for the flourishing of his creation and the human beings created in God’s image.

Genesis 1 is often the focus of controversy over scientific theories of origins and how to reconcile these with the biblical account. The two authors of this book, a geologist and an Old Testament professor, think that in doing so, we miss the richness of this account, and more than that the glory of God and the wonder of God’s creation. More than that, they contend that this account is so meaning laden that it may only be fully grasped in a layered approach that approaches scripture from different angles or through different lenses. They defend the idea that this multi-layered approach is both consistent with biblical inerrancy and sound hermeneutics, arising as it does from exegesis of Genesis 1 itself.

They identify seven layers to which they devote a chapter to elaborate. The layers are:

  1. Song. Many have noted the poetic character of Genesis 1, yet it defies poetic forms known elsewhere in scripture. The authors note the formlessness of creation and how days 1-3 give it form, and they note the emptiness of creation and how days 4-6 fill what God has given form. Noting all the repeated language in the days, they contend that this well may have been a sung account in which the beauty of the text reflects the beauty of the Maker.
  2. Analogy. The form of a week of seven days, of work conceived, executed, and appraised, the bringing of order from disorder, and the rest on the seventh day serves as an analogy that teaches us the goodness of work, that celebrates creativity, and serves as the basis for keeping the sabbath rest.
  3. Polemic. Genesis 1 is polemic. It shows there is no god like the LORD. The LORD has no backstory, no company of gods. Creation by intent and not accident. God sustains humans; they do not sustain him.
  4. Covenant. While the word is not used, the framework of covenant is evident: a suzerain-vassal, a royal land grant, blessings and curses, and loss of the land grant for disobedience.
  5. Temple. They note the many parallels with other Ancient Near East texts of gods and their temples in the language of Genesis: a garden on a mountain facing eastward, cherubim that guard the entrance, the tree of life (lampstand), the tree of knowledge, the mentions of lands with gold and gemstones, the source of rivers, and most of all, a place of God’s dwelling.
  6. Calendar. In addition to the creation week structure, the mention of the luminaries in day four to be “for signs and appointed times,” and “for days and for years.” This look forward to the yearly calendar of festivals that follow planting and harvest and commemorate the great events of the Exodus.
  7. Land. The land prepared for the first couple and lost, anticipate the land promises to Israel, their fulfillment, and the land lost in exile, and the hope of restoration.

Many of these layers are both rich in themselves and anticipatory of future works of God. The authors admit that not all the arguments for a particular layer are strong, but the cumulative case for the layers is. For me, the argument for “calendar” seemed the most tenuous, and yet not without basis.

I’ve long believed that to teach any important biblical truth, you have to start with the early chapters of Genesis. This book underscores this truth by demonstrating how so much that we see in the scriptures is evident in one or another of the layers of Genesis. The authors uncover rich treasures in Genesis that have nothing to do with origin controversies and everything to do with God and God’s ways. Manifold beauty indeed!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Holy Spirit in the New Testament

The Holy Spirit in the New Testament, William A. Simmons. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A book by book study of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament from a Pentecostal perspective.

Globally, Pentecostalism is the fastest growing movement within Christianity. At the heart of this movement is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. William A. Simmons argues that the term “Pentecostal” ought not be seen as a label but as a lens colored by the living presence of the Spirit of God. He writes:

Even so, what lies at the heart of Pentecostal so described? In brief, Pentecostal means the collapse of the transcendent. A Pentecostal lens is framed by this one central premise: God has become immanent among his people by way of the vibrant presence of the Holy Spirit (Rev. 21:3). The power, the presence, and the praxis of the Spirit has invaded the world and established God’s people as a beachhead for the reclamation of all creation (Jas. 1:18). In this sense there is a decidedly incarnational aspect to the Pentecostal interpretive grid. The Spirit inhabits the redeemed, and by way of the preeminent sacraments flowing from Jesus and the Scriptures, the Spirit empowers believers to see things as they really are (1 Cor. 2:11-12).”

Simmons proposes that this lens is both holistic and integrated, comprehensive and cosmic and that the global growth of Pentecostalism requires an exegetically sound study of the New Testament through this lens.

What Simmons does in this book is the exegetical work necessary for a New Testament biblical theology of the Spirit. He proceeds book by book identifying a theme verse and introducing that theme, taking a “pause for prayer,” discussing key passages in the book concerning the Holy Spirit, summarizing, and then discussing “what it means for me.”

There were a number of insights that I appreciated:

  • The powers of the day, whether of Empire, religious establishment, or the demons were no match for Jesus Spirit empowered ministry (Mark).
  • The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Joy (Luke).
  • He is the Spirit of Truth who grants us to be born into new Life directing us in the Way of Jesus (John)
  • He is the Spirit of Adoption, enabling us to know God as “Abba” (Romans).
  • He is the indwelling and gift-giving Spirit who testifies to the holiness of our bodies as temples and gives gifts for the wholeness and holiness of Christ’s body, the Church (1 Corinthians)
  • He is the Spirit whose fullness empowers our worship (Ephesians)
  • He is the Spirit who empowers for ministry (1 Timothy)
  • He warns us of the dangers of spiritual drift from the supremacy of Christ (Hebrews)
  • He speaks to us in our suffering with Christ, reminding us of the blessing and glory in which we share (1 Peter)
  • We are to hear what the Spirit says to the churches and discern between the Spirit of Jesus and lying spirits (Revelation).

I have to come back to Matthew though. Simmons asked some questions there I found myself pondering throughout the book: “To what extent am I really open to the leading of the Spirit?” and “When we say that we want all the Spirit has for us, do we really mean all?” A bit of self-disclosure here. After my early Christian experience in the Jesus movement of the early 1970’s, I reacted against some of the Pentecostal aspects of this movement–the insistence on a “second experience” and the speaking in tongues. I found none of that polemic here but simply the encouragement that God would powerfully indwell all of us, making God’s self present to us through the Spirit, and not to close ourselves off from some of the more unusual manifestations of that, whether it be tongues, dreams, miraculous works, or the quieter marks of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is all over the New Testament. And Pentecostalism is all over the world. William A. Simmons asks if perhaps we need a new lens as we read Scripture, and perhaps new wine in our lives. I hope I am not to old for that new wine, nor too deaf and blind and hidebound to heed the Spirit’s leading. Come Holy Spirit!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Birth of the Messiah

The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1979 (Link is to 2nd edition, published in 1999 by Yale University Press).

Summary: An academic commentary on the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke.

This has been on my shelves a long time, a library copy picked up at a sale many years ago. More recently, it has been joined by Brown’s two volume The Death of the Messiah. I decided for Advent this year, it would be a good time to finally dive into this magisterial commentary by Brown

The commentary consists of an overall introduction, introductions to Matthew and Luke’s account respectively, and then commentary, running section by section of each narrative. This includes Brown’s own translation of the text, notes on the text, including textual variants, and commentary. In addition to overall bibliographies, Brown offers a bibliography for each section. He also includes a number of appendices on the genealogies, the Birth at Bethlehem, virginal conception and the charge of illegitimacy, the census, and midsrash.

I will offer here some overall highlights, rather than a lengthy discussion of a lengthy commentary. First of all, it is Brown’s theory that the infancy narratives came last in the formation of the gospels, the passion narratives being first, and then the ministry narratives. One of the big questions is why these narratives are so different and Brown would chalk this up to the theology of each evangelist, which he develops in the commentaries.

First, with Matthew, he emphasizes how Matthew shows Jesus to be Son of God and son of David, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, key for a Jewish-Christian audience. We see this in the genealogy, the five Old Testament texts which Brown would suggest may have been interpolated into an earlier pre-Matthean tradition, particularly Isaiah 7:14, which he deals with at length, as well as the visits of Magi, Herod’s attempt to kill him, and the flight to Egypt, a kind of recapitulation of Israel’s history. I was also struck with the thread of Joseph’s implicit obedience throughout. Joseph shines for this brief moment, and then slips from the scene.

The commentary on Luke focuses the transitional character of the infancy narratives, even as Acts 1-2 focuses on the transition from the ministry of Jesus to the church. The annunciation stories echo those of the births of Samuel and Samson, upon whom the Spirit dwelt. At the visit of Mary, who had conceived by the Holy Spirit, to Elizabeth, John, in utero, testifies to the coming of Jesus as Elizabeth speaks in the fullness of the Spirit. This anticipates the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Brown also gives extensive attention to the parallel annunciations, birth narratives, and subsequent hymns. He also offers intriguing ideas about the connections of Simeon and Anna to the anawim and the Essene sect at Qumran. He observes the intensification of each of these for Jesus, showing how John is the lesser forerunner we will encounter in the following chapters.

The work reflects the historical, form, and source criticism of Brown’s time. Brown moderates some of the radical skepticism that would question the historicity of these events. Most notably, he defends the virgin conception (but not necessarily birth) of Jesus and the Davidic descent, but considers the claims of a Bethlehem birth weaker (despite this being a commonality of the two accounts), and believes Luke was in error about a census under Quirinius. He would not consider such passages such as the Magnificat as ipsissima verba of Mary, being skeptical that testimony could have come through Mary or her family to Luke.

While Brown, in this work, is more skeptical about the historicity of various aspects of these narratives than I am, it is wonderful to read with this scholar who has read scripture so closely. Having written narratives of local history, drawing on various sources, I am more sympathetic than I once was to his exploration of how Matthew and Luke composed these narratives. But I suspect that no two people who studied what I wrote could dissect the sources in the same way. There is a speculative element of this and I am more appreciative of the rhetorical criticism that looks at the final form of a work and its theological purpose. I think this is where Brown seems to be on the most solid ground.

My review is based on the first edition of this work. A revised edition was published in 1999, a year after his death. I have not had the chance to compare the two and to see if Brown’s views changed on any matters. At very least, it may reflect more current scholarship. This is well worth obtaining for any who expect to preach on these texts and offered rich devotional reflection for me.

Review: The Parables

The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive Speech, Douglas D. Webster. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of the parables of Jesus, why he used them, how they conveyed his message and what that message was, and what they mean for our preaching.

I’ll say it straight out, this is one of the best treatments of the parables of Jesus I have read. Douglas Webster explains why Jesus spoke in parables, his friendly subversive speech, and how this plays out in all of the parables. He both draws on scholarly work and roots his explanations in the text but uses stories, both those of the parables and contemporary illustrations to convey the meaning of the parables.

He begins this work by positing that Jesus turned to parables after encountering resistance and increasing opposition to his teaching and works. He writes:

In the face of growing opposition, Jesus’s communicational strategy hit the wall. Straight-up authoritative teaching was becoming counterproductive. This is why I think Jesus switched to parables. Through the medium of story he was able to communicate to the crowds without giving his enemies a clear target. The general audience hung on his captivating stories—stories they could hear superficially, almost as entertainment. Or they could hear Jesus’s stories provocatively as world-upending stories. The disciples knew full well that Jesus was doing more than telling simple stories, and he invited their questions. I suspect the scribes and Pharisees also knew that Jesus’s parables were operating at a deeper level, but this indirect mode of communication offered little leverage for their campaign against Jesus” (p. 10).

Webster focuses on the texts of the parables found in Matthew and Luke and the context of the parables in these books. He begins with the seven parables in Matthew 13, starting with the parable of the sower, then the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the mustard seed and the yeast, and the concluding parables of the hidden treasure, the pearl, and net. They tell us the kingdom is rooted in the hope of harvest despite the resistance of many, that the kingdom works without coercion, that there will be growth from small beginnings, incomparable joy, even as there is a final judgment. These are stories people hear, but the disciples question and understand.

He then turns to the parables of Luke (in Luke 10-18), setting them in the context of questions about neighboring, prayer, the follies of worldly wealth, readiness and unreadiness for the kingdom, the fruitlessness of Israel’s religion, like the barren fig, the religious inhospitability to “sinners” and the urgent concern for the lost. In the parable of the lost son, I appreciate that Webster doesn’t only consider how we might be like one of the two sons, but might also embrace the role of the father. In the rich man and Lazarus, he considers Lazarus as a Christ figure and the chilling indifference of the rich man to the poor. In the Pharisee and tax collector, I love the way Webster contrasts merit and mercy.

Webster then returns to Matthew and the Passion week parables. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard I was struck by the generosity to the latecomers–am I so generous as a fifty-year Christian to newly minted believers and joyful that we all share the same gift? We consider the “no” and “yes” of two sons, wicked tenants, joyful banquets and who is in and who is out, and the four parables in Jesus “End of the World” sermon–the faithful and faithless servants, the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats. All these point me toward the return and rewards and judgments of the King, and what it means to keep faith to the end.

The concluding appendix discusses ten reasons to preach the parables. I’ll share just one:

The most important thing to remember about preaching the parables is that Jesus is telling the story.

They are not just general utterances about religion, but set in the context of Jesus life, death, resurrection and rule. They are his utterances and they point to the one speaking.

Douglas D. Webster has given us a work not only useful in understanding the parables, but one that holds the mirror up to us, asking, “What do you see? Are your eyes open?” We’re invited to open our eyes to the light of the gospel and encouraged to use these stories with the hope that God will give eyes to see and ears to hear to our friends who listen to this “friendly subversive speech.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Passions of the Christ

Passions of the Christ, F. Scott Spencer. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of the emotional life of Jesus in the gospels, drawing upon both classical thought and emotions theory.

Sometimes, Jesus is presented to us as without passion, always in control. Some of this arises from belief in the impassibility of God. Yet what does the incarnation mean if the fully human as well as divine Jesus is emotionless. F. Scott Spencer presents a very different picture of the emotional life of Jesus. He observes a range of emotions in Jesus from anger and disgust to anguish to surprise, deep compassion, and joy. Often, in the same episode, there will be a complex mix of emotions. Not unlike us.

Spencer’s approach is a combination of exegesis, word study and cultural backgrounds, a consideration of classic philosophy concerning the emotions and contemporary psychology. This results in a deep, probing study of the emotions of Jesus, surprising and unsettling at times, particularly the instances of his anger or disgust, and yet consistent in his passion for the full human flourishing of those to whom he came to minister.

After two chapters laying out the basis for his study, Spencer explores in eight chapters key emotions of Jesus evident in the gospels: anger, anguish both during his ministry and in his final hours, disgust, surprise, compassion, and joy. One of the most interesting episodes is the resuscitation of Lazarus where anger, anguish, disgust (Jesus “snort”), and compassion all come together in one narrative.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter was that on the amazement or surprise of Jesus. We see this both in response to the unbelief of his own people, and the unexpected belief of the Roman centurion. Spencer proposes that there is a kind of “enlargement” of Jesus on perspective in these episodes. Likewise, we may wonder about the anger of Jesus at times, for example with the leper in Mark 1. Spencer contends that the leper’s “if you choose,” questions the life-giving mission of Jesus, a form of unbelief deeply disturbing, sufficiently explanation for the anger of Jesus.

Spencer makes us take a fresh look at these emotional expressions in Jesus’s life. Whether one agrees with his exploration of these emotions, it is unavoidable that Jesus manifests the full range of emotions we all do. He is not the incarnate God in appearance only. Yet anger, disgust, surprise, compassion and joy also make sense in light of a singular passion for human flourishing in relation with God. And in all this, the saving God is revealed.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.