Review: Voices and Views on Paul

Voices and Views on Paul: Exploring Scholarly Trends, Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A discussion and analysis of recent Pauline scholarship focusing on E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, John Barclay, Stephen Chester, and Louis Martyn.

As you may gather from my reviews, there has been a plethora of scholarship on Paul in recent years. This is one of those works that offers both a helpful review of some of the key scholarship in this field as well as evaluation that both affirms what the writers see of value, and offers some critique. Ben Witherington III has written a number of commentaries on the Pauline writings as well as a significant work on the new scholarship on Paul, The Paul Quest, first published in 1998, when much of the “New Perspective” scholarship was still a “new” thing. Since then, a number of the key figures have written newer works, in some cases revising their views. Also, in more recent year the “apocalyptic school” led by Louis Martyn has generated its own discussion and reading of Paul. And lastly, John Barclay has focused on the theme of grace and gift in Paul and Stephen Chester has contributed Reading with the Reformers, an effort to reconcile old and new perspectives.

The two authors divide up the treatment of these figures between them with Witherington contributing a chapter on N.T. Wright and the chapter on Barclay and Chester and Myers taking the chapters on E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and on Martyn and others of the apocalyptic school. Both offer overviews of key works, as well as appraisal. Here were a few impressions from my reading:

  1. There is an ongoing discussion of what kind of Jew Paul is. So much of the discussion has been around Paul and second Temple Judaism, but there was the observation that there may be more need to pay attention to Paul’s diasporan roots.
  2. I was impressed by the contrast between E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn in terms of their engagement with their critics. Dunn was far more engaged than Sanders, and his later work reflected this engagement. The authors rightly note the wonderful model Dunn, who recently passed, gave us.
  3. I’m also struck by the greater nuancing that has occurred over time on what is meant by “works of the law” recognizing both the boundary conditions that were a barrier to Gentile inclusion and that Paul had broader understanding of what this phrase meant.
  4. Another matter for continued discussion is the status of Israel and the how the promise that “all Israel will be saved” will be accomplished. Will there be a single way of salvation or distinctive ones?
  5. Myers concedes that there is no accepted definition of “apocalyptic.” I did feel at times there was this “what exactly are we talking about” feel. It is apparent that these scholars may have much to contribute to the understanding of Romans 9-11, and do recover a dimension to Paul’s perspective overlooked by the New Perspective discussion.
  6. Finally, I have concluded that I really want to read the work of John Barclay and I’m intrigued by Stephen Chester’s project.

Probably the least appreciative treatment in this collection is Witherington’s of N.T. Wright. While acknowledging the overall value of Wright’s scholarship, Witherington has a number of critiques, including Wright’s ideas about Christ and Israel, supercessionist tendencies, his exaltation Christology to name a few. Witherington has a history of engagement with Wright, including a blog series on Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God that went to somewhere around one hundred installments. Unlike some who have argued for traditional views of Paul, Witherington carefully engages Wright, affirming helpful aspects of his scholarship, but also noting where he clearly differs.

One other feature of this work, that I’ve seen Witherington do before is team up with younger scholars, noting very clearly their contribution to the work, and introducing them to the scholarly world. This is also a model of generous scholarship to be commended and encouraged not only in the theological world but in the wider academy.

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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: Perspectives on Paul

Perspectives on Paul: Five Views, Edited by Scot McKnight and B.J. Oropeza. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: Presents five perspectives on the ministry and message of Paul: the Catholic, traditional Protestant, the “New Perspective” pioneered by E.P. Sanders, the Paul within Judaism perspective, and the Gift perspective.

Beginning with the work of E. P. Sanders and those who followed him, there has been an explosion of Pauline scholarship, often some version of “perspective” on Paul. The editors of this volume offer a brief overview of the recent scholarship in introducing the five perspectives in this volume:

  1. The Roman Catholic Perspective. Brad Pitre, affirming the New Perspective contribution to understanding Second Temple Judaism’s covenantal nomism, contends that the Catholic view of faith and works has strong resonances with the New Perspective, which for him is not that new.
  2. The Protestant Perspective. A. Andrew Das sets forth the traditional Protestant perspective on justification by grace alone with works as a response to being saved. He also recognizes that the New Perspective gives the lie to stereotypic faith vs. work caricatures.
  3. The New Perspective. James D. G. Dunn offers a restatement of the New Perspective, valuable because it may be one of the last pieces of writing from this scholar before his death in June of 2020, particularly affirming Paul’s theology of justification that crossed cultural boundaries.
  4. Paul within Judaism. This perspective, discussed by Magnus Zetterholm, takes the Second Temple Judaism of Paul further and insists that Paul never left Judaism or its practices, while teaching non-Jews to live consistently with Judaism while respecting their Gentile identity.
  5. The Gift Perspective. John Barclay contributes perhaps the newest perspective, one that sees the gift of Christ, his grace as making sense of the promises to Abraham, the experience of the Spirit, and the oneness of God.

Each of the contributors respond to others with a concluding response from each contributor. What is striking (perhaps apart from A. Andrew Das’ response to the Catholic perspective), was that this wasn’t one versus the others, but each in conversation with the others. It was striking the widely shared consensus on the New Perspective, particularly in its shattering of stereotypes of Judaism that lead to anti-Semitism. More clearly we see the Paul who is a product of second temple Judaism as well as apostle to the Gentiles. James D. G. Dunn candidly admitted his lack of reading of the early fathers in conversation with Brad Pitre. In addition to the irenic character of the conversation, one sensed a convergence of perspectives. Not that there was total agreement, particularly in the nuances. But one had the sense of scholars at different vantage points considering the same object, Paul, and gaining a fuller perspective from the perspectives of each.

This, to me, represented the best of theologians from different perspectives in conversation. In addition, between the editors’ introduction and the interactions around each perspective, this book is a good introduction to recent Pauline scholarship in a single volume, drawing upon the very best from each perspective. Dennis Edwards adds a concluding essay considering the pastoral relevance of the discussion. This is one of the very best “perspectives” books I’ve encountered.

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

Review: Between History and Spirit

Between History and Spirit, Craig S. Keener. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the author’s journal articles on the book of Acts

Craig S. Keener is a prolific biblical scholar. One of his most magisterial works is a four volume commentary on the book of Acts. Writing such a work involved him deeply in studies of context, exegetical matters, and other questions surrounding the book of Acts resulting in numerous shorter articles. This work brings a number of these works together in a single volume. It displays both his erudite scholarship (34 pages of abbreviations of ancient and modern sources referenced) and his missional passion.

The collection is divided into three sections and I will highlight a few from each part to offer a taste of the rich fare the reader interested in such matters will find within.

A Question of History

“Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus” examines what kind of writing is Luke-Acts and the accuracy of his sources. He concludes this is a form of first century historiography with biographic and rhetorical interests and that Luke draws upon reliable first generation accounts. We wonder if the writer of Acts was actually an eyewitness and participant in some of the events narrated because of the “we” language. Keener explores possible explanations and concludes that the “we” language with the omission of the author’s name reflects the practice of other ancient historians who participate in the events they narrate. “Paul and Sedition” considered the purpose for including so much material defending Paul against charges of sedition and the importance of the defense for the early church. Other essays consider the growth reports of the church in Acts, the novel official of Acts 8:27, whether troops were really stationed in Caesarea during Agrippa’s reign and the character of Paul’s ministry in Athens.

A Question of Context

Interethnic marriage has been considered problematic in many cultural settings including that of the New Testament. Given this, in “Interpreting Marriage in Acts 7:29 and 16:1-3, Keener argues that the only problematic instance of marriage in the New Testament is for believers to marry non-believers and that interethnic marriage of believers is not problematic “within the church. He offers a wonderful study on “Turning from Idols in Acts: 14:15-17 in honor of our shared mentor Ben Witherington III. He offers a careful study of Acts 16:8-10 and the crucial transition from Asian to European ministry by Paul and his team. There is also a wonderful short article proposing Acts 21 and the temple controversy as a backdrop for Ephesians 2:11-22 with it tearing down of dividing walls. A couple essays deal with language and rhetoric focused on Paul’s rhetorical techniques. He considers the charge of insanity in Acts 26:24-25. He also offers a fascinating article on fever and illnesses in Acts and ancient medicine.

A Question of Spirit

Keener has done extensive research on miracles, making the case for the plausibility of miracles in the biblical accounts. His article on “Miracles and History in Acts and the Jesus Tradition” is a great summary of this research. Keener’s work is especially worthy of reading if you are skeptical about miracles but open to argument and evidence. Several of his essays consider the work of the Spirit in empowerment for mission in Act. His study of spirit possession in Acts 16:16-18 and 19:12-16 comparing these accounts to modern anthropological accounts is remarkable for its even-handed discussion of Christian and other perceptions of spirit possession and the anthropological evidence for the universality of this phenomena. He recognizes the beginnings of ancient African Christianity in Luke’s encounter with the Ethiopian and expands of the early development of east African Christianity. His reviews of other works that conclude the section reveals a scholar gracious with those he differs and capable of learning from them.

Anyone who has studied or is studying Acts will find in this collection a treasure trove of insights. It is good for whetting one’s appetite for Keener’s commentary on Acts (at least it was for me if I could fit it into my budget and bookshelves!). It models well the fusion of evangelical conviction and scholarly rigor and careful textual and contextual study. I also find in his writing jargon-free clarity that makes this work useful beyond the scholarly guild. Finally, I value the fine balance between historical and contextual questions, and the unavoidable presence of the Holy Spirit in Acts that both accounts for much of the history in Acts and the empowerment of the missional momentum of that history.

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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.

Review: How to Read Daniel

How to Read Daniel (How to Read series), Tremper Longman III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A helpful introduction to the Old Testament book of Daniel, dealing with its original setting and context, the theme of the book, basic commentary on each story and vision, and contemporary applications.

Most of us who have read the Old Testament book of Daniel the prophet find we can make pretty good sense out of the first six chapters, which are narratives. It is the last six which are more problematic, consisting of visions with all sorts of strange beasts, divine figures coming on the clouds, and future kings.

Tremper Longman III does for Daniel what he has done in other books in his How to Read series. Without getting engaged in highly technical commentary with extensive introduction, he introduces the reader to the original setting of Daniel, and then offers a concise commentary of the book, offering the thoughtful lay reader enough to study Daniel for oneself, or with a group.

He introduces the context of Babylonian oppression of Israel including Daniel and his companions and the structure of the book, noting the chiasm of chapters 2-7, the six stories and four visions of which the book consists, and the shifts between Hebrew and Aramaic in the book. He reviews the story of Israel, exile and the succession from Babylonian to Persian, and eventually Greek empires significant to understanding the book. The author takes a more traditional position of Daniel as a sixth century BCE rather than second century BCE work, and for the real possibility of predictive prophecy.

He then works through the book chapter by chapter. He does alter the order slightly, looking first at stories of court contest in Daniel 1 and 2, and 4 and 5, and then stories of court conflict in Daniel 3 and 6. Then he moves on to the four visions in Daniel 7, 8, 9, and 10-12. Longman sees all this material held together by a primary theme “that in spite of present difficulties, God is in control, and he will have the final victory.” In each section, he shows how the material develops that theme. He also notes a secondary theme, that “God’s people can survive and even thrive in the midst of a toxic culture.” We witness this repeatedly throughout the book as people live faithfully and experience God’s provident care, whether in superior abilities to interpret dreams or deliverance from fiery furnaces and lions’ dens.

He concludes the book with discussion of what it means to live in a toxic culture where we cannot force the government to act like the church, providing a basis for a far more nuanced political theology than we customarily encounter. He also explores what it means to find comfort in God’s ultimate victory that begins with the recognition of the real existence of a battle between good and evil operating behind many of the conflicts we face in the world today. There may be real instances where we need to stand against evil, and this may even cost our lives. Likewise we need to be attentive to the war within, finding courage to stand against both external and internal evils, the systemic and the personal, in view of the victory of God portrayed in the visions.

This is a great resource for an adult ed class studying Daniel, as well as a personal devotional study. Each chapter includes a few reflection questions helping connect specific content to the larger themes of Daniel. Commentary recommendations will help the person know where to look who wants to dig deeper. This is a sound work of introduction and interpretation that I would recommend as a great first book on Daniel.

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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.

Review: Unto Us a Child Is Born

Unto Us a Child is Born, Tyler D. Mayfield. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that, as we read Isaiah during Advent, we need to read “with bifocals,” considering both the Advent liturgical significance of the texts and their meaning for our Jewish neighbors.

For unto us a child is born.” (Isaiah 9:6a)

This is a phrase from Isaiah 9: 2-7, one of the readings on the fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) in liturgical churches. Many non-liturgical churches will read this as well during one of the services leading up to Christmas. And surrounding all of this is the magnificent rendering of this passage by George Frideric Handel in Messiah. In our churches, we readily connect this passage with the babe born in Bethlehem, this great one come from God, even called “Mighty God.” We marvel at the divine condescension that means our salvation.

Little do we often consider that we are neither the first nor only ones to read passages like these that we understand as “Messianic.” These passages were read by Jews in Isaiah’s time, and down to our own day. Yet we often remain oblivious to what these passages meant and mean to our Jewish neighbors, sometimes in painful and insensitive ways.

Tyler D. Mayfield recommends that we read with bi-focals, using our near vision to read the Isaiah passages of Advent to consider their significance in the Christian Advent context. He also suggests that we simultaneously read with our distance vision, understanding what these texts mean for our Jewish neighbors who share them.

He spends the first part of the book discussing what it means to read with bi-focals. An important contention he makes is that the prophecy-fulfillment paradigm we often use fails to recognize the significance of the text in its original context, and to Jewish readers. He proposes instead a model of texts in conversation, as is often the case in liturgical churches where Old and New Testament texts are paired and we listen to the conversation between them for common and relevant themes. He also observes the importance of historical development of “messiah” from “anointed” to an eschatological figure, the deleterious effects of supersessionism (the idea that the church has superseded, or replaced Judaism in God’s economy), and how this may even shade into anti-Judaism.

The second and third parts of the book consider eight passages from Isaiah that are a part of the Advent liturgical readings, four “Messianic” texts (Isaiah 7:10-16; 9:2-7; 11:1-10; and 61:1-4, 8-11) and four “eschatological” texts (Isaiah 2:1-5; 35:1-10; 40:1-11; 64:1-9). For each passage, Mayfield considers originating contexts, later Jewish and early Christian contexts or readings, contemporary Jewish and Christian readings, and finally a “bifocal look,” a kind of summary.

We might take the example of Isaiah 9:2-7, noted earlier. He begins with the context of the passage in the 8th century BCE, at the time of the Syro-Ephraimite war. The language is that of the birth of a king whose enumerated qualities would have been vital for this time. Who is this child-king? He is not named but the leading candidate may be Hezekiah. In the early Christian context, “for unto us…” is not quoted but the first verses of this passage are in Matthew 4:12-16, noting the light that has come to the northern tribes in the region of Galilee. Early Christian commentators Justin and Jerome were the first to apply “for unto us…” to Jesus. He then considers the influence of Messiah, including some translational issues, and current contexts, focusing on the light to the Gentiles in this passage for Christians, the shared theme of light with Jews in Hanukkah, and a shared hope for faithful government. He concludes with this “bifocal look”

“With our near vision, we see a wonderful child has been born to us. With our near vision, we hum along with Handel as we celebrate: ‘Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!

With our far vision, we see our neighbors celebrating the theme of light during Hanukkah. With our far vision, we see the originating context’s focus on a new king’s accession to the throne.”

This book raises an important issue of how we read not only these scriptures but other Old Testament texts. Do we read these in a way that recognize and honor our Jewish neighbors, are oblivious to them or even exclusive of them, or at worst hostile? Mayfield models an approach holding in tension readings acknowledging the conversation between these texts and New Testament texts and respect for the context of Jewish readings of these same texts. In this era of rising anti-Semitism in many countries, it is vital that Christians in no way contribute to this by our reading of scripture, and in fact affirm our common heritage with and debt to our Jewish neighbors.

I wonder, at the same time, about the repudiation of the idea of fulfillment, an idea found in the New Testament scriptures, for “conversation.” Fulfillment has historically been an important part of both a Christian hermeneutic of reading the two testaments, and of Christian apologetics. Likewise, prophecy has been understood not only as “forth-telling” but as including elements of “fore-telling.” Mayfield’s approach mutes but does not negate the differences between Jewish and Christian readings of these texts. Good bi-focals, ground to the correct prescription, bring both near and distant objects into sharp focus. I am concerned that Mayfield’s prescription for near vision softens or blurs our Christian reading of these texts while bringing our far vision into focus. While the latter is a commendable aim, for which the author offers a good and important model, I would like clarity of vision in both readings, even if it means wrestling in charity with the tensions that have always existed.

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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.

Review: A Week in the Life of Ephesus

A week in the life of ephesus

A Week in the Life of Ephesus (A Week in the Life Series), David A. deSilva. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A historical novel exploring the religious and cultural context of Ephesus during the reign of Domitian c. 90 AD.

The latest installment in the IVP Academic “A Day in the Life Series” acquaints us with the religious and cultural context during the reign of Domitian, around 90 AD. Like other books in the series, David deSilva uses a historical fiction approach centering around Amyntas, a prosperous Christian landowner in a context becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, who were considered atheists because they did not join in the worship of the pantheon of deities, from local deities to the cult of the Roman Emperor Domitian.

Amyntas hosts a gathering of Christians in his home. Some community leaders, who are also involved in the various religious cults, including that of the Emperor Domitian, for whom Ephesus has been designated a regional center, collude in a plot to trap Amyntas. They invite him to become a neopoios for the temple of Domitian. This is a kind of caretaker or trustee position, that on the face of it is an honor and would make him an insider. But it would either compromise him, or “out” him as a Christian, leading to his being ostracized, or worse. A close friend, and then his own son, are beaten up for their Christian beliefs.

A Christian friend from Pergamum suggests that he “go along to get along.” After all, “idols don’t really mean anything.” The contacts he would make, and the influence he would wield, could help the Christians. People from his house church disagree, and even ask Amyntas’ friend to leave. Amyntas struggles to decide. It becomes more complicated when a letter arrives from the John, in exile on the isle of Patmos.

Through the narrative and sidebars, we learn about the pantheon of gods, and emperor worship, and how Christians worshiped. An underlying theme is the power of imperial Rome and how that power was projected through the imperial cult, and how imperial Rome was a drain on the rest of the empire. Although set two millenia ago, the narrative raises questions about what Christian faithfulness looks like in relation to the competing claims of empire. We are forced to consider what we would do, or perhaps are doing, when faced with the conflicting claims to allegiance of empire, and the kingdom of God. David deSilva portrays the subtle guise in which the temptation may come, the allure of the inner ring, the justifications one may use, and the real consequences of Christian faithfulness many through the ages have faced.

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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.

Review: I (Still) Believe

i still believe

I (Still) BelieveJohn Byron and Joel N. Lohr, editors. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

Summary: Seventeen narratives of scholars who address the question of whether academic study of the Bible is a threat to one’s faith.

One of the ironies of seminary studies are the popular stories of those who went off to seminary only to lose their faith. I’ve seen that happen. The question may be asked, “is academic study of the Bible a threat to the student’s faith?”

The seventeen prominent scholars who contributed to this volume (as well as the two editors) answer this question with a resounding no! The editors provided a series of questions regarding the academic journeys of the scholars, instances where their studies posed challenges to their faith and ways their lives have been enriched by their studies, the role of the church in their work, and the advice they would give aspiring scholars.

Richard Bauckham’s response typifies those in this volume:

All this seems to me relevant to the fact that I have never experienced anything like a “crisis of faith” through my study of the Bible–or through any other kind of study, for that matter. There seems to me nothing remarkable about that fact, but people sometimes find it surprising….I think it may be helpful if I go back behind my work to the deeper roots of my faith. I have always loved God (p. 23).

What struck me through these narratives was that the scholars are marked by this abiding love for God and God’s scriptures, a love that began in childhood for some, following conversion for others, but has remained through their lives and scholarly journeys. Some grew up in fundamentalist circles, which often seems deadly for academic studies, but in this case, the experience was one of loving the Bible from sword drills to family devotions.

That does not mean that they did not face challenges to their faith. The greatest challenges were life experiences, particularly the loss of loved ones, as for example narrated by R.W.L. Moberly in the loss of his wife. He concludes:

Probably the greatest challenge that any Christian scholar faces, however, is not different from that which any believer faces: How can I keep my first love fresh? Love for God and love for one’s subject can both become dulled over time. There is no simple solution. For me, at least, it is a matter of life-long learning: learning to bring together head and heart, learning to pursue both truth and goodness, and learning to recognize that any and every place and time and situation is where, in the words of Moses, I must choose life (p. 210).

I saw several other recurring themes in the work. One was the importance of mentors who modeled both faith and scholarship. Names like C.F.D Moule, Brevard Childs, and James Muilenberg came up over and over. There were a host of others as well.

Another was an intellectual openness coupled with a commitment to the authority and inspiration of scripture. For many who came out of fundamentalism, their understanding of the nature of the trustworthiness of scripture changed over time. For many, the constructions of inerrancy they grew up with became inadequate to their understanding of the kind of book the Bible is. This did not mean a rejection of the Bible, if anything scripture grew in its authority and influence in these scholars’ lives.

Reading about the academic journeys of these scholars, from their studies to their teaching was fascinating. Sometimes there were setbacks, particularly when convictions no longer conformed to their institutions. Many of the narratives detail the scholarly questions, publications, and insights these scholars pursued over the course of their academic careers. For some, there were corresponding journeys in the church communions of which they were part. For example Edith Humphreys describes her journey from the Salvation Army, through Anglicanism, to the Orthodox Church.

These scholars see their work as in service to the church and often enriched by their participation in its ministry. Beverly Roberts Gaventa speaks pointedly about the ethos of self-promotion she sometimes sees in the field while the church often offers up thin gruel. On the other hand, Scot McKnight writes about his congregation, one in which his children and grandchildren are part:

It is of great significance to Kris and me that we are handing on our faith to our children and their children–in the context of worship and fellowship. What is doing on there is propped up by an academic career of teaching and writing, but what goes on transcends an academic career. It is there–under the preached Word and in the Eucharist–that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring forgiveness and justification. When my grandkids become adults and begin to think about me as their grandfather I want them to say that their grandfather was always talking about Jesus, even on the golf course or during baseball games (p. 171).

I thought this a quite wonderful collection, particularly for one considering theological studies. The narratives highlight the grace of God, the orientations of our hearts, the providence of God in one’s career, and the delights of research and teaching and an intellectual life open to the Spirit of God, motivated by the love of God, and the centrality of the risen Christ. They invite the pursuit of this work for its own sake, trusting the guidance of God, warning of the uncertainties of academic careers. It left me with a fresh appreciation for the work of these scholars, and the deep life of faith that motivates so many of them.

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I received this book as a gift from John Byron, executive dean and vice president of Ashland Theological Seminary, where I was privileged to pursue my own theological studies. The views expressed in this review are my own.

Review: Including the Stranger

including the stranger

Including the Stranger (New Studies in Biblical Theology), David G. Firth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the former prophets that makes the case that God was not an exclusivist who hated foreigners, but that God welcomed the stranger who believed and excluded the Israelite who repudiated him.

Many people have the idea that in the Old Testament, God hates foreigners. At worst, some have called him a genocidal monster. David G. Firth argues from the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings)  for something far different. He believes that these books reveal a picture of a God who includes the foreigner who believes, works through such people for the benefit of Israel, and that ultimately, the people of God were defined not by ethnicity but by faith.

In Joshua, he contrasts the faith of Rahab the Canaanite prostitute (and ancestor of David and Christ), with Achan, who takes for himself what was to be devoted to destruction, to the destruction of his fellow Israelites and his own family. Firth also points to the inclusion of the Gibeonites and their subsequent role. In Judges, he contrasts Othniel the Kenite (an outsider), the paradigm judge who saves Israel from the invading nations, with the nation itself, divided by tribal rivalries and becoming more like the surrounding nations.

The books of Samuel contrast Israel who wants to be like other nations and Saul, whose kingship is shaped more by his responses to foreign adversaries than obedience to God, with David, the man after God’s heart, who slays Goliath who dares to taunt against Yahweh. Later, we see David the unfaithful adulterer and murderer of the faithful Hittite soldier Uriah. And when David’s actions bring a plague ln Israel, it is Araunah, the Jebusite, whose threshing floor becomes the site of an altar to Yahweh at the point where the plague stops.

In the books of the Kings, once again, it is the vindication of the greatness of Yahweh over the nations that results in the defeat of the Assyrians confronting Hezekiah. Often, as in Judges, the incursions of the nations are a judgment for Israel’s faithlessness. When Yahweh acts, it is that the nations may know him (2 Kings 19:19). Perhaps the height of this expression of concern for the foreigner is in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple:

As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (I Kings 8:41-43, NIV).

Later, Naaman is a striking example of one who finds healing through faith in Israel’s God. Firth then concludes his treatment by tracing this trajectory of concern for including the stranger into the New Testament, and makes application to the church.

Firth’s point in all this is to show that the people of God may include foreigners, and exclude unfaithful Israelites. Foreigner nations face judgment not because they are foreigners, but when they embrace rivals to the living God and represent a threat to lure Israel into the same. Sometimes, these nations are instruments to draw Israel back to God through invasions.

Firth does a service in calling our attention to the numerous instances of the inclusion of the foreigner in the Former Prophets, and God’s revealed intentions, material overlooked by those who attack these books. In so doing he demonstrates that there is a greater continuity in the two testaments than may be thought. Some may find his inference that the people were destroyed or driven out not because of their ethnicity but because of the rival gods they believed in inadequate to justify this destruction. To fully address this would require a much longer book. What Firth does is show us that the actual case is far more nuanced than is popularly portrayed. While we cannot get away from violence against the nations, there is also an ongoing thread of the inclusion of foreigners from Rahab, to the paradigm judge, Othniel, to Naaman and many others that reveal God’s over-riding concern for his glory among the nations and the inclusion of all who believe into the people of God.

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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.

Review: The Heart of Revelation

Revelation (2)

The Heart of RevelationJ. Scott Duvall. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2019.

Summary: A thematic approach to the book of Revelation focusing around ten key themes which answer the basic question of “who is Lord.”

I think I’ve just found my new “go to” book when someone asks for help in understanding the book of Revelation.  Instead of getting engaged in systems of trying to figure out who in contemporary history might be one of the Beasts, or the significance of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, J. Scott Duvall focuses on themes running through Revelation centering around the purpose of proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar is Lord and will triumph, to the encouragement of a suffering and persecuted church.

Duvall thinks that taking context seriously is vital. Revelation cannot mean something to us that it didn’t mean to the original recipients. Duvall helps us understand how the seven churches faced pressure from Rome, from the Jews, and from false teachers. He emphasizes reading the book as a letter, as prophecy, and as apocalyptic, or an unveiling. He proposes that in interpreting that we try to understand what the book would mean to its original recipients, that we take the text seriously, but not always literally, since much is symbol, and that we focus on the theological message of each vision, particularly around the truth that “God is in control, and he will successfully accomplish his purposes.” Also, he offers a kind of theological glossary which he terms “Cast of Characters in the Divine Drama of Revelation,” offering a brief explanations of everything from “abyss” to “woman clothed with the sun.”

A chapter is devoted to each of the ten themes:

  1. God: “The Almighty”
  2. Worship: ” You are Worthy.”
  3. The People of God: “His Called, Chosen, and Faithful Followers”
  4. The Holy Spirit: “The Seven Spirits before His Throne”
  5. Our Enemies: “The Dragon Stood on the Shore of the Sea”
  6. The Mission: “My Two Witnesses”
  7. Jesus Christ: “The Lamb, Who Was Slain”
  8. Judgment: “How Long, Sovereign Lord?”
  9. The New Creation: “I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth”
  10. Perseverance: “To the One Who is Victorious”

Each chapter traces the theme through the whole book, summarizing main points, offering key texts and a reading plan and community group questions. Indeed, the clarity of the text, the inclusion of this reading plan and questions makes this an excellent text for a class or small group, as well as an adjunct to personal study.

The thing that stood out to me most was the idea of the greatness of and ultimate victory of the Triune God. At the same time, chapters on the people of God, our enemies, our mission, and judgment emphasize the call to faith and faithfulness in witness, which has often been accompanied by suffering. Much of the global church needs to understand this. I found myself wondering if there is also a message for the American church in coming years. At very least, the challenge to faithful witness, vigilance, and a preparedness to suffer is a clear message of scripture.

I found myself pausing at times in worship and wonder on reading passages on the greatness of God, and the destiny of his people. One example from the chapter on “The New Creation”:

   The new creation will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to live among us. This idea can be a bit scary until you let it sink in that every good thing that exists in our lives now comes from the Lord. He is our loving Father, who only wants to give us good things. He wants to be with us and wants us to be with him and to experience the perfect community, the very reality we were created for. In fact, all our longings and desires for life and goodness and beauty will be completely fulfilled in the new creation because we will be dwelling in God’s presence….Haven’t you ever wanted a short time of such peace and joy and love to last forever because it was so wonderful, almost a fleeting glimpse of heaven? We long for that world, and that longing comes from God, and he intends to fulfill these longings and desires. He will keep his promises (p. 176).

This book makes both a great first book on reading Revelation as well as a helpful resource for deeper study and for those who would teach others. It models a good example of doing biblical theology in tracing great biblical themes running through this book in a way that at the same time is consistent with the context and content of Revelation.

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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.

Review: The Gospel According to Eve

the gospel according to eve

The Gospel According to Eve, Amanda W. Benckhuysen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A history of women who have written on Genesis 1-3 since the fourth century, treating their worth, education, their roles as wives and mothers, whether they may teach and preach, and as advocates of social reforms.

One more book on women and issues of biblical interpretation? Yes, but the reason you want to add this book to your library is that Amanda Benckhuysen has done something I’ve not previously seen. She has dug through history and found over sixty women spanning the time from the fourth to the twentieth century who have written on Genesis 1 to 3, either in works focused on interpretation of these passages, or works that reference the passages. [The work also includes one paragraph biographies of the women mentioned in this work in the back matter.]

Why is this important? When it has come to the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3 with regard to women, most of the work through history has been done by men. For many, the focus has been on the deception of Eve, and the authority or dominance of men over women. While some of these women have taken similar approaches to Genesis, Benckhuysen shows that long before the contemporary discussion, women have been looking at Genesis 1 to 3 and many have reached very different conclusions that anticipate contemporary findings.

A few that stood out to me:

  1. Many women interpreters focus on Genesis 1 that presents men and women equally as made in the image of God. The only stated dominion is over the other creatures.
  2. In the Genesis 2 account, interpreters noted the creation of woman from Adam’s side, an image of partnership. God forms her separate from Adam so that she has a relationship with God before being brought to Adam, who recognizes her as a helper (ezer), the same language used of God’s help of his people. Nothing in the text indicates any inferiority of Eve to Adam, who celebrates Eve as like him in flesh and bone.
  3. While many interpreters read Eve as the one leading Adam astray in the fall, these interpreters suggest other motives to Eve, including Adam’s benefit in growth in knowledge. Instead of putting all the blame on Eve, they note Adam’s culpability, particularly if Adam was present, as the text suggests. What these interpreters emphasize is that each bears responsibility equally in this tragic episode.
  4. In Genesis 3:14-19, these interpreters noted that only the serpent was cursed. Many observe that the statements about men and women are descriptive of the consequences of the fall, not prescriptive of role relationships as God meant them to be.

Benckhuysen organizes the book around the way women interpreters who had insights like those above applied these to concerns of women of their day. She begins with tracing the interpretations of the early fathers of the church and subsequent interpreters. She then considers how women used the material on Eve to advocate for the worth and dignity of women when they were treated as chattel, how they advocated for greater educational opportunities for women, befitting their equal status with men and how they wrestled with Eve’s story as they considered the role of being a wife and mother.

Benckhuysen considers women as teachers and preachers of the gospel. One of the things that mark interpreters here, and elsewhere, is their canonical approach to scripture, interpreting scripture by scripture, noting not simply prohibitions, but the many examples of women in both Old and New Testament of women preaching and leading God’s people, all with the apparent approbation of God. We are introduced to Margaret Fell, a seventeenth century interpreter, along with other seventeenth century millenarian writers: Antoinette Bourignon, M. Marsin, and Rebecca Jackson. She considers the contribution of Deborah Peirce and Harriet Livermore, who speak of the gospel being entrusted to women, and Catherine Booth and Francis Willard, whose careful exegetical work defended the role of women in preaching. This is an example of the pattern followed in each chapter.

Concluding chapters focus on the representation of women in children’s Bibles and literature and the contribution of women to this literature, and the use of Genesis 1 to 3 in advocacy for social reforms in working conditions and opportunities, suffrage, and advocacy against the exploitation and abuse of women. The last two chapters consider the history of patriarchy in the church and the value of listening to these interpreters from other times. These women both questioned the foundations for patriarchy that male interpreters established in Genesis, and offered cogent alternatives. They used this to advocate for the flourishing of women in the home, the church, and the wider society, and against the ways they saw their sisters being abused in these different spheres.

Someone might argue against this gendered reading of Eve. But isn’t that what men have been doing for two millenia, often to the great harm of women and to the church? Benckhuysen doesn’t argue that women’s reading is superior to men. The truth is, her women vary in their interpretations and disagree, just as do men. Rather, what was striking to me was to listen to their collective voices through history as a man and to realize that they see things we have missed. We need their voices if we are truly to hear the whole counsel of God in this very important area of how men and women live together, upholding each other’s dignity, worth, and gifts as image bearers of God, and experiencing the redemptive work of Christ in relationships marred by the Fall, but intended for better.