Review: Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God

Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God, Steven M. Bryan. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022.

Summary: A biblical study of cultural identity: ethnicity, nationality, and race.

Cultural identity has become a prominent topic of discussion. There is a growing movement in many countries contending that nations must be constituted of a singular cultural identity, ethnicity, and/or race. At its worst, it eventuates in genocide. In other contexts, an ideal of multiculturalism is upheld, celebrating diversity, yet often struggling to compose relations between diverse cultural, ethnic, and racial groups on any other term than power and any attempt to pursue a common ground is perceived as a move of power and an effort to colonize or assimilate.

Steven M. Bryan, a theological educator who spent twenty years among the ethnically diverse cultures of Ethiopia, believes our starting point must be the biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation. In this work, he surveys the contribution of the biblical corpus to thinking about cultural identity within the overarching purposes of God, reflecting on the relevance of this material to his own cross-cultural experience.

After articulating the contemporary issues, he sets forth his thesis, using the vision of Nebuchadnezzar of the idol of different materials with clay destroyed by the stone which becomes a mountain drawing the nations into a “people of peoples.” From creation to new creation, this has been the vision of God.

He traces this theme in the early chapters of Genesis, seeing humanity as created for cultural identity, reflected in the different cultures of the table of nations in Genesis 10. Babel is fallen humanity’s rebellion against the cultural mandate, an effort toward a totalizing uniformity, prevented by a God who intended diverse cultures to fill the earth rather than gather in one place to form a monoculture. The calling of Abraham as one, was the beginning of a plot to bring blessing to many, forming a people of peoples blessed by God. Yet this takes many twists and turns with the nation that arises from him, with nations declared herem in their idolatry, while others who embrace the one true God are included. And when Israel turns to idolatry, she too is separated, and then restored.

Matthew shows us a Messiah who heals the Canaanite’s daughter and feeds the four thousand, welcoming to his table those who evidence the faith of Abraham, although they are not Jews. Luke portrays the holy people, all who repent and believe, who needn’t become Jewish to become part of a new common culture–“the Way.” John portrays Jesus as the temple not made with human hands, an open house of prayer for all peoples to worship one God in spirit and truth. Paul forms churches as he goes first to the Jew and then to non-Jews, forming a people of peoples reflecting the new humanity. Finally in Revelation, we see the garden-city-temple of the new creation where the nations bring their treasures and the vision of a people of peoples is consummated.

In conclusion, Bryan considers the purpose of peoples within God’s plan for one new humanity and the significance for our current moment. It means our politics are shaped by the hope of the new creation, refusing either soft or hard forms of nationalism and a politics that cannot envision either the individual or a greater commonality beyond particular cultural identities. We allow for both multiple and common identity. We give up power in the pursuit of righteousness, creating a community of equals formed not by contests of power but the downward path of the servant Messiah. We become a holy people as we reciprocate hospitality, hosting one another without distinction at our tables. We become a people of peoples.

Rather than taking sides in our debates about cultural identity, Bryan shows how the scriptures able to navigate the contested waters between incommensurable cultural identities and imposed uniformity. He helps us see God’s intent for the mosaic of identities that comprise his new humanity in Christ and how this reflects the purpose of God from the beginning. This felt to me like an “all y’all” book, not only for the American context but for the many different contentions around cultural identity faced in the global church. And in a time where we tend to take our marching orders from the particular echo chambers we inhabit, Bryan invites us to the expansive biblical narrative reflecting God’s love for cultures and culture making being formed into the beautiful mosaic of a people of peoples.

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

Review: God Dwells Among Us (Revisited)

God Dwells Among Us (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021 (Originally published in 2014).

Summary:A study of the theme of the temple from God’s garden temple in Eden to the New Jerusalem of Revelation, and the role of the people of God, his living temple, in extending the reach of God’s kingdom.

I discovered in logging this book in Goodreads and setting up this post that I read a different edition of this book in 2016 and posted a review of it previously on this blog. I’ve enjoyed the new Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series and have tried to review works in that series and had not realized that this work had been re-issued as part of this series. But it totally fits the series purpose to address broad themes in “the grand story line of the Bible.” The temple is clearly one of these, and building on the work of G. K. Beale, Beale and Mitchell Kim offer a survey of this theme and its practical implications. The book actually grows out of a preaching series by Kim drawing the arc between the Biblical development of this idea and the life of the church.

Rather than recapitulate the material covered in my previous review, since, as far as I can tell, this is basically the same book with a new cover and as part of a series. I will just touch on a few things that stood out to me in this reading of the work. One is that I’ve often thought of the discontinuity between Eden and the rest of history resulting from the fall. This work underscored the purpose of God to dwell among human beings, first materialized in the garden temple of Eden and intended to expand through the rest of creation. The wonder is that the fall, with its very profound impacts, did not thwart God’s intent to dwell deeply with his creatures, as he calls out Abraham, and works through this family to bless all the families of the earth.

I was also impressed with the work done on the pattern of the temple from the outer courts, the holy place, and the holy of holies and how this plays out in tabernacle, temple, and the church. One grasps the deep offense of Jesus when the outer court is turned into a marketplace when this was the place of approach, and as far as the Gentiles could come to pray. Also striking was the idea that for the church, the outer courts, the place of sacrifice is the place of our witness, our μάρτυρα (marturas) the word from which we get martyr. Through the suffering of the church in faithful witness, the nations come to God. Finally, one of the marvels of the new Jerusalem, the new garden-temple is that the outer courts and holy place are no longer. Holy God is amid his people without separations.

Witness is fueled by worship, our prayers, like incense rising, and God’s word like the bread of presence pointing to the one who is our living Bread. All of this flows out of being able to approach the living God through Christ, our great high priest. All of this occurs, no longer in a physical building, but amid a people, and we who are in Christ, are that people, we are that living temple, and in mission, we see that temple expand to encompass the whole creation and all the nations, fulfilling both the mandates of creation and the great commission. The two are really one.

It strikes me that reflecting on this theme of God’s presence among us is great comfort at a time when the American church, particularly white evangelicalism, has been rocked by scandal and apostasy, and many are deserting her. God’s purpose to dwell among his people and to expand that dwelling was not thwarted by the fall, by Israel’s unfaithfulness and exile, nor by the repeated failings of the church. We have failed but God will not fail. One of the encouragements I gain from this work is to face our failures but not wallow them, but rather to look up to the unfailing God who continues to be present and will not fail to build his world-encompassing temple.

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

Review: The Glory of God and Paul

The Glory of God and Paul (New Studies in Biblical Theology #58), Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Downers Grove and London: IVP Academic and Apollos, 2022. (Link to UK publisher)

Summary: A study of the theme of the glory of God in scripture, with a particular focus on the writings of Paul.

At an Urbana Missions Convention, I remember being provoked to thought by a statement of John R. W. Stott to the effect that the highest motive for the church’s mission in the world was neither obedience to the Great Commission nor concern for those who did not know Christ, but rather zeal for the glory of Christ (a remark reproduced on p. 230 of this book). It didn’t make sense at the time but it has increasingly over the years. In my university work, I walk through hallways with displays of research posters and read news of incredible research being done in a multitude of fields, uncovering the wonders of the creation (only one aspect of God’s glory), yet rarely acknowledging its source. Increasingly I find myself praying and working that these researchers would know and acknowledge and glorify the One who is the source of all these wonders, who has illumined and delights in their research.

This may seem an odd way into a review of The Glory of God and Paul. It is not however, because I sense the same motive behind the writing of these two authors, as John Stott spoke of, to foster in us a zeal for the glory of God in all of the manifold excellencies of that glory. They do so by primarily focusing on the theme of God’s glory in the writings of the apostle Paul, who was certainly captivated by the glory he beheld in the risen Lord.

The work begins though by stepping back and attempting a summary of the “panorama” of God’s glory within which Paul’s writing is set: in major sections of scripture, in relation to key doctrines, at turning points in the biblical story, in different senses of “glory” in scripture (summarized as possessed, purposed, displayed, ascribed, and shared) as intrinsic and extrinsic, in biblical tensions (e.g transcendent and immanent), and in redemptive history. One could spend days just pondering this panoramic presentation!

In the second chapter, the authors turn from panorama to drama, considering the storyline of scripture and how every part of redemptive history reveals glory: the creation, the fall, the working our of redemption and the consummation of God’s purposes. These two chapters set the stage for chapters 3-7 which focus on five major sections of the Pauline corpus:

  • Chapter Three: Romans: The Glory of God in salvation
  • Chapter Four: 1 Corinthians 15: The Glory of God and the resurrection
  • Chapter Five: 2 Corinthians 3-4: The Glory of God and the new covenant
  • Chapter Six: Ephesians: The Glory of God and the church
  • Chapter Seven: 2 Thessalonians 1: The Glory of God and eschatology

Each chapter identifies multiple themes in the particular text relating to the major theme for the chapter. So much is offered here for reflection that I will only touch on a few personal highlights. In Romans, we see how glory suffuses every aspect of our salvation. I Corinthians 15 reveals the glory of the risen Christ as the second Adam and the glory we will share in Him. The discussion of the church in Ephesians is challenging in that we do not often think of the place of the church in the purpose of God as a showcase of the one new humanity united through the revealed mystery of Christ’s saving work.

The writers then draw all this together in two concluding chapters. In chapter 8, the biblical theologians address systematic theology, showing how the glory of God relates to the areas commonly discussed in systematic theology: God and his Word, humanity and sin, Christ’s person and work, the Holy Spirit and the new covenant, salvation, the church, the future, and ministry (under which the statement by Stott mentioned earlier appears). Finally, the writers turn to the Christian life and how God’s glory bears on love, provision, hope, mystery, boasting (no room for such!) and our worship.

I suspect that for many of us, John Calvin’s statement about our chief end being to glorify and enjoy God forever is just so much pious content without substance either in our thought, worship, or daily life. Likely, this follows from lack of instruction and personal reflection in a culture focused on “how to’s” and getting God to work for us, or at times simply a list of “ought to’s.” This work certainly represents one place to begin, by taking us into scripture, focusing on the many ways God’s glory shines through every aspect of life, inviting us from hum-drum workaday to wonder and worship and the mission of showcasing that glory to the world.

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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: Transfiguration and Transformation

Transfiguration and Transformation, Hywel R. Jones. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2021.

Summary: “Transfiguration,” referring to Christ and “transformation,” referring to the believer translate the same Greek word, metamorphosis. This work explores both why the difference and what the connection is.

Metamorphosis. This Greek word is used to describe both what happened to Jesus on the mountain with Peter, James, and John and what happens in the believer as the become increasingly like Christ. We say Jesus was “transfigured” while describing what happens to believers as “transformation.” In this compact but carefully argued book, Hywel R. Jones explains both the distinction and what the significance may be that the same word is used.

The first half of the book considers the transfiguration of Jesus. He looks at the setting, as a hinge point at the end of the Galilean ministry and the journey to the cross. He considers this both in terms of its historicity and as revelatory of the one fully God and fully human as the incarnate Son. Jesus’s divine nature is revealed in all its splendor without destroying his humanity. His careful exegesis looks at the significance of the kingdom in all three accounts and the successive scenes of the transfiguration, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and the interruption of Peter and the Father’s word. Finally, this leads to its purpose–to prepare both Jesus and his disciples for his death, that his self-abasing death and the exaltation of God are one thing in this one human-divine person.

The second, and longer, part of the book discusses the believer’s transformation, inaugurated in our regeneration to new life through the Spirit of God and increased through our ongoing sanctification as we behold the glory of Christ, as our minds are renewed, and as we are recreated in the image of God. Finally, we experience transformation perfected in our glorification, where we become like Christ, purified of all sin and raised as Christ was raised in new, glorified bodies.

Hywel R. Jones summarizes the essence of the difference and connection of these two experiences of Christ, and of the believer as follows:

The transfiguration of Christ shows how the divine can penetrate the human without destroying it. The transformation of the believer shows how the human can become conformed to the divine without its ceasing to be human. This is the ultimate metamorphosis that is compatible with Christian truth.’

Hywel R. Jones, p. xvi.

In Christ, his full divinity was revealed through his full humanity. For the believer, we are not nor will be divine, but are rather being formed into fully human but utterly accurate reflections of what God is like in Christ. Neither the divine nature of Jesus or the divine image of God in human beings diminishes the humanity of either.

Jones gives us a study that both reveals the glory of God in Christ and the glorious transforming work God in Christ Jesus has begun in us , is continuing, and will bring to perfect completion when we see Christ. Against scholarship that diminishes the glorious deity of Jesus to emphasize his humanity, Jones portrays the Son to be listened to, whose glory would be revealed in suffering. And for those of us who wonder if there is hope for us muddling sinners, he offers hope rooted in the work that began in our conversion, is continuing day by day as we keep looking at Christ, and will be gloriously completed. We see both the greatness of Christ, and in that greatness, the greatness of our destiny, all captured in that one word, metamorphosis.

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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: Changed Into His Likeness

Changed Into His Likeness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), J. Gary Miller. Downers Grove: IVP Academic/London: Apollos, 2021. (UK publisher link)

Summary: A biblical study of how personal transformation takes place in the life of a believer.

Change is hard. How many of us keep those New Year’s Resolutions? At the same time, one of the claims made by Christians is that new life in Christ is transformative. J. Gary Millar, in Changed Into His Likeness explores what may be asserted from the teaching of scripture about the change that is possible, avoiding the extremes of over- and under-realized eschatologies. He considers the clear teaching that we both have been changed in coming to new life in Christ, and we will be changed. Meanwhile, there is the question of what may be expected in between, where believers live their lives this side of eternity, which is the focus of this volume.

Before engaging this question, Millar asks the question of what do we mean by “us,” considering what is meant by the image of God, and the various words used addressing body, soul, spirit, mind, etc. This relates to current neurophysiological debates. If we are merely material, change is simply a matter of re-routing neural pathways. He seems most sympathetic to the idea of “holistic dualism.”

He then turns to the biblical account of change, considering first the Old Testament. His contention, considering case studies from Noah to Solomon showing that positive change was not possible for those who believe, but rather decline. He then asks an intriguing question: were Old Testament saints regenerate, particular if this Spirit was at most upon them rather than indwelling them? The theologians he references dance around the question and he leaves this unanswered as well. But the evidence shows that transformation is not evident in the Old Testament.

He then considers the New Testament. Jesus, unlike the Old Testament saints fulfilled the law and expanded his treatment from outward to inward, limiting the provisions for divorce, and transforming the lives of those who encounter him, like Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman. He frees from sin, and promises the indwelling of the Spirit, through whom he would bear fruit in their lives. Paul likewise speaks of the gospel’s transforming work. Believers abound in love, please God more and more, learn to discern his will, increasingly reflect the character of Jesus, are strengthened to serve, filled with God’s fullness, show a work of God moving forward to completion, and reflect God’s glory in Christ. He also traces the contributions of other New Testament writers. His summary of Hebrews could preach: We will grow in our knowledge of truth, focus on encouraging others, and experience the kindly discipline and training of God

He then does a historical theological survey from Augustine to the present, including fascinating material on Calvin and John Owen. He also characterizes James K. A. Smith’s focus on replacing cultural liturgies with richer, thicker Christian ones to be a flirtation with legalism. I think he misreads Smith here and does not distinguish what Smith proposes from his own recommended practices of a Word-shaped life. He makes these observations: Biblical change is complex, God’s work, trinitarian, flows from union with Christ, is word-driven, requires piety, and is comprehensive. This sets the stage for his own biblical theology of personal transformation. He highlights that it is a work of God, occurs through the gospel, enabling us to respond with repentance and faith. This change comes through our life in the church and in the world, and involves perseverance. Perhaps more simply, we change as we gaze upon Christ and are changed increasingly into people who reflect his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18).

This is much needed work in an era where the gospel has been hi-jacked either for personal prosperity or political ends, all of which reveal a shrinking understanding of the true and glorious transforming power of the gospel. Only this holds hope for those who have been failed by all the self-help teachers and those in the grips of sin’s tyranny in all its forms–our idolatries, our besetting sins, our injustices, and our fearful animus toward our neighbors. God can transform all of these–not with a wave of a magic wand but as we focus on Christ, are discipled by his word, are impowered to repent, believe, and change by his Spirit, and drawn by a loving Father in a community of mutual encouragement. This theology of change speaks into the lives of quiet desperation of believers who wonder what there is between having first believed and going to be with the Lord and who feel they are just going through the motions. Millar’s study is a vital resource that I hope enjoys much use by pastors and all who commend the Lord who is changing us into his likeness.

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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: Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?

Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, David Wenham. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1995 (print on demand).

Summary: A study of the relationship of Pauline thought to the teachings of Jesus by a comprehensive effort to compare them on a number of major themes.

One of the more discussed questions in Pauline studies is whether Paul may be considered the real “founder” of Christianity as we know it. For one thing, Paul rarely quotes Jesus, and aside from the death and resurrection of Jesus, seems to have little interest in the ministry of Jesus. On the face of it, his teaching seems to have different concerns, everything from justification by grace through faith, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and the ordering of life in churches.

This work was brought to my attention when I reviewed Who Created Christianity, a festschrift honoring Wenham’s work. That work was not possible without this one, and I found it sufficiently interesting to dig into the work that began it all, published by Wenham back in 1995. Wenham’s project in this work was nothing less than a comprehensive comparison of the teaching of Jesus and the thought of Paul. His method, which he outlines in the first chapter is to set the teaching of Jesus and Paul side by side in six major areas in chapters two through seven. He considers that of Jesus first, and then that of Paul. This in itself reveals many areas of consonance as well as divergence. The second part of each chapter is even more important. Wenham looks for connection between Jesus and Paul, and whether this can be argued to go back to the teaching of Jesus. These may be one of the following: formal tradition indicators, where Paul indicates he is drawing upon the words of the Lord, such as in teaching on divorce in 1 Cor 7:10; references to things known by his readers that would have come from Jesus, as in 1 Thes. 5:1-2; verbal and formal similarities, such as Paul’s “yes, yes” or “no, no” in 2 Cor. 17-18, and similarities of thought.

Wenham deals with the question of correlates not demonstrating relationship. His own approach is one in which, if the accumulated evidence shows a number of highly probable or plausible connections, then it may be argued that there is a likelihood of dependence of Paul on the Jesus tradition.

In chapters two through seven, Wenham applies this method to the following:

  • The Kingdom of God
  • Who is Jesus?
  • Why the Crucifixion
  • Jesus and the Community
  • Living in Love
  • The Future Coming of the Lord

Chapter 8 takes a slightly different approach, surveying the life and ministry of Jesus, considering what Paul might have known of his birth, baptism and temptation, ministry, miracles, and lifestyle, transfiguration, passion, resurrection and exaltation.

Finally, Wenham draws together his conclusions in chapter 9, some of which I will highlight. While Paul doesn’t use kingdom language very often, he teaches that new creation, a new situation has come in Christ. Jesus speaks of himself as the Son of Man and Paul of him as the new Adam, and also uses the “Abba” language distinctive to Jesus. At the last supper, Jesus sees his suffering as redemptive and bringing in his coming kingdom and Paul sees the redemption of sinful humanity, and a strong connection in Paul’s writing about the last supper. Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple and the community and mission of the twelve. Paul sees the new temple composed of Jews and those incorporated into the church through the Gentile mission. There is a common thread of the primacy of the law of love and a vision of the last things. Wenham also sees difference but contends that the pre-passion and resurrection setting of Jesus in a Jewish world, and the post-Pentecost, Gentile setting of Paul’s thought accounts for differences. He shows how Paul’s thought is a development rather than departure from the teaching of Jesus. He also has some intriguing ideas in a concluding note about Paul’s gospel sources in relation to the Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Q sources of synoptic scholarship.

While taking nothing away from Paul’s importance to the Gentile mission in the urbanized Roman empire, Wenham contends that “Paul would have been horrified at the suggestion that he was the founder of Christianity” (p. 409). Rather, he would consider himself a follower, indeed a “slave” of the one he encountered on the Damascus road.

This is not only a wonderful contribution to Pauline studies but also to biblical theology, in considering the continuity, indeed the origins of our Christology across the gospel. I suspect there are those who would be more skeptical of Wenham’s connections and conclusions, giving less credence to dependence upon Jesus. But what Wenham does accomplish is the removal of the wedge some would drive between Jesus and Paul, while doing full justice to the biblical material. So much of Pauline studies has been dominated by the “New Perspective” discussion which may lead to overlooking Wenham. Amid discussions that may threaten to eclipse Jesus, this work both honors Paul and exalts Christ.

Review: Waiting for the Rest That Still Remains

Waiting for the Rest That Still Remains, Arie C. Leder. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021.

Summary: A consideration of the theology of the former prophets, including the Book of Ruth, considered through the lens of rest.

The books known as the former prophets, including the Book of Ruth, constitute both a significant amount of material in the Old Testament, and cover the history from Joshua preparing to cross Jordan to the heights of the reigns of David and Solomon, the divided kingdom, apostasy, and conquest of first Israel and then Judah, with the people in exile in Babylon–seven centuries.

Is there a theological thread that ties it all together? Arie C. Leder proposes that the thread is one of rest. The center point is Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:56 in which Solomon praises God “who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised.” This book explores this theological theme, connecting this back to Genesis through Deuteronomy, considering the echoes of this theme in the New Testament as well as implications for the church today.

After four chapters laying the groundwork, Leder devotes a chapter each to Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel and Kings. In Joshua we witness the Lord giving the land of Canaan into their hands but at the end, not completely at rest from their enemies. Rest would hinge on their faithfulness to their covenant vows at Shechem. Sadly, Judges reveals a nation that chooses to do what is right in its own eyes rather than keep covenant. They rob themselves of rest as God abandons them to their enemies, and their own internal conflicts. Amid the chaos, we focus in on Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth. Naomi returns to the land of promise bereft, except for Ruth who has abandoned her family, home, and gods to embrace those of Naomi. But most of all, Boaz shows the covenant faithfulness in extending his wings of protection over Ruth, and Naomi, establishing the line of kings. They find rest, and so much more.

The land who lacked a king finally receives one in the books of Samuel–first Saul, who fails to obey the word of God wholeheartedly, and then David, the man after God’s own heart. This doesn’t mean sinlessness, and results in unrest in his own house, but his humbling himself in repentance means not only pardon but rest from his enemies all about, a gift to his son Solomon, who builds the temple where the ark of the covenant rests. Leder unpacks the prayer, noting six petitions in the promised land, and a seventh that prays toward the land, recognizing the possibility of exile. Then, beginning with his own reign and the gods of his foreign wives, Solomon sets the precedent interrupted only by Hezekiah and Josiah of following foreign gods and leading Israel astray both in worship and covenant obedience. And they no longer find rest in the land but must pray from Babylon.

While a remnant returns, there is a sense in which exile has not ended and rest still remains to be found. Yet, there is a kind of rest even in exile, whether for Israel or for the church, found in remaining in the promise, the covenant of God. Leder draws upon this covenant framework as a guide to what may be appropriated from these ancient texts. Often, the former prophets are neglected, apart from a few selective texts often subjected to moralizing sermons. Leder helps us connect these books to the rest lost in Eden to the sabbath rest for the people of God in Hebrews and the new garden city of Revelation. This is good biblical theology that invites us to look at these books with new eyes and recognize afresh the wonder of a collection of so many works that weave together into one story.

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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 Theology of Jeremiah

The Theology of Jeremiah, John Goldingay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A survey of the life of Jeremiah, the composition of the book, and the theological themes running through it.

The book of Jeremiah is a formidable book to study. It is a long book, one John Goldingay likens to a series of blog posts stitched together into a scroll, the contexts of which are not always apparent. It covers over forty years. Its author was reviled by many, ending up carried off to Egypt while many of his people were relocated to Babylon and those who remained in Judea struggled to eke out an existence.

This book is not a commentary to unpack the tough textual questions (the author has written one of these as well). Rather, what John Goldingay does is help us see the forest instead of just the trees, as well as the rivers, fields and hills. He looks at Jeremiah’s life and literally overviews the book forward and back. Then he considers the major theological themes running through the book.

He begins with Jeremiah’s life and the kings during whose reigns he prophesied largely unheeded (apart from Josiah). Goldingay stresses how he both embodies the faithfulness to which Israel was called, and in the treatment of Israel, he reflects how they are in fact treating God. He considers the composition of “Jeremiah,” originally a scroll of messages read to and burned by Jehoiakim, subsequently a scroll Goldingay believes his followers compiled of his messages in the years following his exile and after his death. He takes a retrospective view of Jeremiah’s life that he believes reflects the retrospective vision of the scroll of Jeremiah. He then traces the themes of the various sections of the two parts, chapters 1-25 and 26-52. He walks through various divisions that he singles out with “Begins with: Think About…” and then walks through the section concluding with a section outline. For example Jeremiah 2-6 is “Begins with: Think About the Exodus” the subject of chapter 2 followed a call to turn back to God in chapter 3, warnings of devastation in chapter 4, condemnation of their unfaithfulness and injustice to the poor in chapter 5, and warnings of devastation from the north because they have been judged and found wanting in chapter 6.

The second part of the book centers around biblical theology, considering five theological ideas and how they are unpacked in Jeremiah. They are:

  1. God
  2. The People of God
  3. Wrongdoing
  4. Being a Prophet
  5. The Future

The chapter on the people of God is rich with reflection on all God wanted (and wants) for his people. a possession belonging to God, a household, a community, a country and domain, a city and also a sabbath resting place. God wants for them well-being and good leadership. The chapter on “wrongdoing” delineates the ways God’s people turn from him. The chapter on being a prophet includes a striking list of the qualities of prophets evident in Jeremiah the man and the book: do they say the opposite of what we think? do they get attacked by the people of God and especially their leaders? do they love the people of God? and do they intercede? to name a few. Each of the chapters reflects on the implications of these themes in a Christian context.

This book is both concise (140 pages plus a page of commentary recommendations and scripture index) and rich. Leaving exegesis to the commentaries, Goldingay helps us make sense of the whole scroll, the collection of messages (blog posts) over 40 years, the section themes, and the larger theological themes. This is invaluable for anyone studying, teaching, or preaching this book who has to make sense both to oneself and others the message of the sections of the book and the recurring themes of the whole. This helps us move from the information of exegesis to the formation we long for in our lives and those with whom we share this rich and complicated text called Jeremiah.

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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: Rebels and Exiles

Rebels and Exiles (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of the theme of exile throughout the Bible, from the garden, to the warnings and reality of Israel’s exile, the return from exile accomplished by Christ, realized in part even while his people remain exiles awaiting the new creation.

I have to admit, I have really liked the volumes of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology that I have read. Each surveys a key theme that may be traced through scripture, both its significance in historical context and for believers in the present. Each volume is biblically grounded, reflects current scholarship, and readable for the non-specialist. This volume is no exception as Matthew S. Harmon traces the theme of exile through scripture.

He begins with Adam and Eve in Genesis, yielding to the temptations of rebellion and idolatry. Harmon draws this conclusion explaining the significance of the exile from Eden:

The message could not be clearer: rebellion and idolatry result in exile–separation from the presence of God. As pure holiness, God cannot allow sinful humanity access to his garden sanctuary, so he drives the couple out. To ensure that they can never reenter the garden, God places cherubim at the entrance as angelic guardians in conjunction with a flaming sword that turned in every direction. God ensures that humanity can never again access the Tree of Life at the center of his garden sanctuary. Yes, they are still divine image bearers. But now they must live out this reality in exile, away from the presence of their Maker.

Matthew S. Harmon, p. 15.

Harmon then traces God’s plan to work through Abraham to bring an end to exile. But first his grandson Jacob and his twelve sons must spend 400 years away from the land in Egypt. God makes them a people and brings them into the land under Moses and Joshua, with warnings that if they forsake the law of the covenant, they will be forsaken in exile. They rebel and God keeps his promise, as first the northern kingdom is defeated by Assyria, and later the south goes into exile in Babylon. Repentance brings return in 538 BC, and yet exile continues as they live under foreign rulers. Full restoration occurs only when Jesus dies for their sins, rises to life and ascends to rule.

One of the highlights of this book for me was the study of the various letters that speak of God’s people as redeemed and yet exiles in the world, called to live as imitators of Christ and citizens of heaven while still in exile, a unique way to cast our already/not yet condition. The study concludes with the final end of exile in the new creation.

The concluding chapter draws seven implications of the biblical material on exile. We are enabled to understand:

  1. Who God is and his plan for this world.
  2. Who we are as human beings.
  3. What is wrong with this world.
  4. What God has done to fix this broken world through Jesus.
  5. That this world is not our true home.
  6. How to live as God’s people in this world.
  7. Where our true hope lies.

Particularly compelling is this idea of understanding why we have this sense of longing for we know not what or where. Carson McCullers writes, “We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” C.S. Lewis describes “desire for our own far off country . . . for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” Longing is the proper response for exiles who are still far from home.

Harmon helps us read the narrative of scripture through the lens of exile, making sense of our condition and God’s big story. It is a story that addresses our deepest longings and the source where we find hope.

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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: Ecology and the Bible

Ecology and the Bible, Frédéric Baudin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on ecology, and how it bears on our current crises.

Imagine an art patron leaving a priceless Cezanne in your care. You fail to dust it, leave it in the sun, allow your children to play underneath it leading to inevitable damage. It is irreparably damaged and you turn the painting toward the wall. Then the owner returns. The author of this book suggests this as an analogy for our care of the creation God has entrusted to us.

The aim of this work is to consider our present ecological crisis in the light of scripture, particularly in light of God’s mandate for human beings. Baudin begins with considering Genesis 1:28 and our stewardship mandate. He looks at the words used that underline our role to properly manage God’s creation, an earthly temple we guard and serve, language used for those who do this later on in Israel’s temple. Instead of exercising proper dominion, they submit to the serpent, and begin, as fallen creatures, to misuse the creation. In various ways, we exceed the laws and boundaries God sets for his world, including sabbath.

In the gospel, we are reconciled to the creation we had been alienated from, which is not an invitation to exploitation but care and restoration. The continuities and discontinuities between the creation and the new creation challenge us to not put all our hope in our work in this world while living in the hope that our work in caring for creation will matter in the new creation. Baudin discusses this eschatology in light of competing ideologies and various conceptions of the millenium.

Having considered the biblical narrative from creation to new creation, Baudin then turns to a discussion that moves “from theory to practice.” He explores the relation of economy and ecology, not merely in the etymology of the words, but how these interact in modern life, particularly in consumerism and advancing technology. He discusses politics on the global scale in which ecological decisions must be made. He turns to the efforts of Christians. and emphasizes the unique contribution our trust in the providence of God, shaping the tenor of our care of creation, putting God first, then people, and finally the welfare of the whole creation.

This work combines solid treatment of the scriptures, particularly apparent in the discussion of continuity and discontinuity in the New Testament. Given the work was originally in French, it reflects a European perspective. I would also note that whether it was an issue in the original text or the translation, the writing is characterized by the passive voice making reading more difficult. However the combination of solid treatment of scripture and the global perspective makes this a valuable work for Christians who would root their ecological thinking in scripture.

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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.