Review: Participating in Christ

Participating in Christ

Participating in ChristMichael J. Gorman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of what it means to be “in” Christ, or to participate in Christ, drawing from the Pauline letters, and particularly what this means for living a cross-shaped and resurrection-infused life by which one becomes increasingly like Christ and God.

This book is about a small word, “in,” that carries a vital and transformative idea for the Christian believer. Anyone who has read Paul’s letters will no doubt have encountered the phrase “in Christ” numerous times. But what should we understand the significance of this phrase to be, both with reference to Christ and for those who have believed in Christ.

Michael Gorman argues that this is the language of participation of union, of an intimate sharing with Christ, and much of his work has been to develop the implications of participation for Pauline theology. His argument begins with the cross, which is at the heart of the revelation of the person of Christ, even as risen Lord. Furthermore, the cross not only tells us what Christ is like, but what the Godhead is like, a God of self-emptying love. And finally the cross reveals what both human beings and the church are meant to be, that individually and collectively, to be in Christ is to take on the cross-shaped character of Christ and God. The cross is not only the source but the shape of our salvation as we live by faith and faithfulness, love, power, justice and hope. Because the cross of Christ reveals the character of God, our lives are God-like (Gorman develops the idea of theosis here, perhaps the most controversial aspect of his work). The cruciform or cross-shaped life is not merely imitative, but transformative through participating in the life of the risen Messiah through the Spirit.

Gorman argues for justification as a participatory event that is both forensic in our trust in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, and that incorporates us into Christ’s body as we share in his covenant faithfulness in our death to sin with Christ and experience in his resurrection the power to live a cross-shaped life. Therefore what Gorman proposes is a theology that bridges the divide between the historic forensic view of justification, and the New Perspective on Paul that focuses on justification as covenant inclusion into the people of God through the faithfulness of Christ.

To participate in Christ is not merely to believe but to become the gospel, advancing it through our embodiment of the cruciform life in reconciliation, restorative justice, forgiveness, and non violence. The transformative work of justification is also one of justice-ification. As we are transformed individually and corporately through being reckoned righteous or just before God (the same word in Greek), we embody this work in pursuing cruciform justice in society

Gorman develops these ideas in nine chapters considering Pauline texts from the Corinthian, Roman, Galatian and Philippian letters, ones universally accepted as Pauline. His final two chapters apply these ideas to the church today, the first through an imaginary epistle of Paul to the church in North America, in which he challenges the pursuit of political power and alignments with a call to cruciformity and latter in which he explores the critical relevance of the resurrection for both Christian hope, and resurrectionally infused ethics in the present.

I like the focus on this simple but often overlooked aspect of Christian living–what it means to live in Christ and how this is evident in the believer’s life. The cruciform shape, resurrection power, and missional presence in the world all are vital for both the individual believer but the body as a whole. I did wonder about the connection between our participation in Christ (and his body) and the idea Paul also develops of our partnership (koinonia) with one another. Gorman doesn’t develop this, but it seems a natural corollary to participation, and speaks to how Christians exercise solidarity across national and ethnic and gender and class lines in the gospel.

I’m also drawn to the way Gorman reconceptualizes the discussion between the New Perspective and forensic camps around justification, particularly in his emphasis on the transformative aspects of justification or being “righteoused.” While we sometimes separate justification and sanctification, and there are dangers of confusing them, to emphasize that justification does not just address our status but also the beginnings of new creation in the regenerate believer seems vital. This is a very different take than in Garwood Anderson’s Paul’s New Perspective (reviewed here) which takes more of a chronological approach to explaining passages that support more of a forensic view and others that support more of a covenant inclusion view as reflective of development in Paul. I’d love to hear the dialogue between these two scholars!

In any event, I found the book a rich exploration of the significance of being “in Christ,” a short phrase we often gloss over. I won’t be able to look at it in quite the same way again, thanks to Michael Gorman’s work.

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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: Into His Presence

into his presence

Into His PresenceTim L. Anderson. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2019.

Summary: Offers a biblical study of the idea of intimacy with God, and engages with Catholic mystical, Pentecostal experiential, and Evangelical devotional approaches to intimacy with God.

Tim L. Anderson contends that scripture assures us that God both longs to draw near to us and for us to draw near to Him. He writes this book to uncover the wealth of material in scripture that both assures us of this truth and explains how this can be a reality in the life of the believer. He writes that he is also seeking “an intervention of sorts.” He believes there are three approaches to intimacy with God that suffer from theological imprecision and thus will fail to lead believers into the fullness of intimacy with God that is promised the believer. He describers these approaches as Catholic Mystical, Pentecostal Experiential, and Evangelical Devotional.

He begins with defining intimacy, which he proposes is “the movement of God and Christians toward a place of true knowledge and close contact.” He believes this consists in four elements: movement toward intimacy, intimate knowledge, intimate place/location, and intimate contact/touch, elaborating each of these from scripture. Chapter 2 looks at the place of intimacy with God in theology and philosophy, beginning with the God who is source of our existence, consciousness, and delights, thus making knowledge of God both our gift and our responsibility, pursued through God’s self-revelation in scripture, showing us a God both immanent and transcendent, all-present and knowing, and yet condescending to us.

Chapter 3 considers the fall and the barriers to intimacy this raises. Chapter 4, then, explores the beautiful symbols of scripture that convey God’s communication of intimacy, especially the anthropomorphisms of face, ears, hands, voice and mouth, and how we are to understand these.

Chapter 5 then elaborates the particular image of God as Father and how a proper understanding of God as an intimate. loving Father heals unhealthy shame that hinders our approach to God. Chapter 6 looks at Christ through the lens of the marriage images in scripture. Here he focuses on the intimate care and faithfulness of Christ and the church, but sets bounds on some of the highly romanticized or even sexualized applications of this imagery. Chapter 7 turns to the Holy Spirit and how he discloses truth in illuminating scripture and intercedes for us in prayer.

Chapter 8 deals with suffering and the apparent hiddenness of God in times of suffering. He shows from scripture how God knows us in our suffering and provides in himself a place of security as we suffer. He underscores this with the stories of the suffering of Moses and Elijah, and ultimately of Christ.

Finally, chapter 9 applies all this material on intimacy to assessing our songs of intimacy, our worship music, past and present, particularly for how the four elements of intimacy are present in them. I loved his treatment of “Just as I Am,” a song deeply etched in my own life from Billy Graham Crusades and other contexts.

I greatly appreciated the emphasis of setting forth the rich biblical testimony for intimacy that grounds intimacy in the promises, works, and commands of God and not in our experience. His critique of the “Jesus is my boyfriend or lover” kind of spirituality is a much needed corrective. I felt that the approaches of Catholic Mystical, Pentecostal Experiential, and Evangelical Devotional were treated somewhat as straw men against which he took a few whacks while focusing more on elaborating a biblical theology of intimacy, and critiquing some examples of unhelpful teaching. I thought the book might have been stronger had he left the straw men out while focusing on his primary aim of a theology of intimacy, while offering helpful correctives to specific examples of inadequate or even false teaching, which I felt did not represent the best of the three approaches.

Because of the lack of good biblical/theological instruction in many of our Christian communities, many believers do not know what is theirs in Christ. As human beings, we long for intimacy. Anderson’s work assures us that God’s longing for intimacy with us more than matches our longing for Him, and in Christ the bridegroom, and the Spirit who discloses his bidding and intercedes for us, He has made that intimacy possible.

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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: Death and the Afterlife

Death and the Afterlife.jpg

Death and the Afterlife (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Paul R. Williamson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A discussion of the biblical texts concerning death and what follows: the state of the dead post-mortem, the resurrection, judgement, hell, and heaven.

One of the most indisputable statistics is that one out of one die. While many other things differentiate us as human beings, the terminus of our lives is one thing we all have in common.  Our responses to this vary, from denial to despair, to mute acceptance that when we die, that is all, to some hope for continued existence beyond the grave. What we believe about these things profoundly shapes how we live.

In this monograph, Paul S. Williamson explores these questions in light of contemporary and ancient thought, and biblical teaching. He writes at the outset, “My primary focus, however, is not the theological case that proponents of various views can mount but rather the prior question: What does the Bible say?” In his opening chapter, he summarizes various views, both ancient and modern, and some of the areas disputed even by evangelical interpreters.

Following this he explores first the biblical materials surrounding what happens to us at death. While acknowledging the limits of the evidence, he recognizes the possibility of some form of post-mortem existence, although this involves a radical separation from embodied life and is thus interim. The ultimate destiny is resurrection. He considers but dismisses the idea of the dead being outside time, and thus the resurrection “immediate.” He traces the idea of resurrection and its development in later OT and intertestamental periods, to its full blossoming following the resurrection of Christ. His chapter on judgement particularly deals with tracing the idea of divine recompense for one’s deeds and how this might be reconciled with salvation by grace alone. He contends that saving faith is trust in action through persistence in doing good, that reflects the transforming work of God in our lives.

Many will turn to the final two chapters on hell, and on heaven, and the contention that ultimately all will wind up in heaven. On hell, while he argues that the language of fire and darkness may well be metaphor, we cannot ignore the language of torment that is everlasting, dismissing the language arguments that deny this. He would argue that annihilation must be read into the text. On heaven, he would contend from scripture that this is the interim resting place of those who die in Christ, but that God’s intention is for a new creation which the resurrected will inhabit. He responds to the arguments of “Gregory MacDonald” for a final universal salvation in which those in hell are brought to post-mortem repentance, showing that this case cannot be made from scripture.

The outcome of Williamson’s study is to uphold the traditional teaching of the church and contend that this is rooted in scripture. There is evidence for an interim state between death and resurrection, for the final resurrection and judgement of all and for eternal conscious punishment in hell. Following some newer interpreters, he would argue that the ultimate destiny for new believers is eternal life with God in the new creation, where heaven “comes down” to a transformed and renewed earth.

No doubt, this is contrary to what interpreters like Rob Bell (“love wins”) or “Gregory MacDonald” (“God wins”) would contend. What Williamson makes the case for is that while such opinions may be popular, they are wanting in terms of biblical evidence. For those who really care about searching such things out, this book is a good, careful statement of the traditional understanding of what scripture affirms, cautious in acknowledging what is not known, and equally cautious in not speculating on what scripture does not say. It makes clear the hope of the resurrection, how we may hear God’s “well done” in the judgment, and how one may enjoy eternal life in God’s new creation as well as warning of what faces the unrepentant. As much as we struggle with the hard truth of the latter, this book poses the question of dare we go beyond what scripture has plainly affirmed?

Review: Finding Favour in the Sight of God

Finding Favour

Finding Favour in the Sight of God (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Richard P. Belcher, Jr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A study of the message and theology of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes concluding with an exploration of Jesus and wisdom.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament is both treasured and puzzled over. Sometimes as we read Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, we wonder “what do we make of these books?” Once we get beyond the first nine chapters of Proverbs and Proverbs 31, is there any structure or order to these sayings? How should we understand the message of Job? Of Ecclesiastes? These books seem very different from the rest of the Old Testament, so much so that Richard P. Belcher, Jr. notes that these books are sometimes referred to as the orphans of Old Testament theology.

This study seeks to address this challenge, beginning with rooting the wisdom books on a foundation of creation, in which wisdom is grounded in observing, interacting with, reflecting on, and drawing conclusions from creation, rather than revelation from God, which helps connect these texts to other parts of the Old Testament. After discussing these issues, Belcher outlines the plan of the book which is three chapters on each of the three wisdom books, considering their message, interpretation, and theology, with a concluding epilogue on Jesus and how wisdom was evident in his person, life, and teaching.

In his chapters on Proverbs, he explores the message of the first nine chapters including the two ways and the person of Lady Wisdom. He then tackles the hermeneutics of proverbs and the question of whether proverbs should be understood as absolute statements. Finally, he considers the theology of Proverbs focusing on the sovereignty of God and the how the Proverbs reflects the creation order within which we seek to live wisely and well. He concludes with a fascinating discussion of “life” in Proverbs, proposing that the horizon of this life, though a focus of Proverbs, is insufficient to understand all references.

The study of Job begins with a discussion of the theology of the first three chapters followed by a discussion of the speeches of Job 4-26. He characterizes Eliphaz as the counselor who misses the mark, Bildad as the defender of God’s justice, and Zophar as the interpreter of God’s ways. None credit the possibility that sometimes the innocent suffer. This sets up his concluding chapter on Job 27-42, in which it becomes clear that wisdom is not to be found among men but only as revealed in Job’s encounter with God, where both his innocence is vindicated and the folly of his challenge to God is revealed. The book stands as a challenge to an inflexible doctrine of divine retribution and looks ahead to the ultimate innocent sufferer, Jesus.

Belcher approaches Ecclesiastes or Qohelet as largely written from an “under the sun” perspective and that the “wisdom” derived from such a perspective is ultimately hebel or futile. Positive passages are offset by the bleak ones. Human wisdom is revealed to be unable to answer either “what is good?” or “what will come in the future.” Belcher believes the postscript is key for countering this bleak assessment in its encouragements to fear God and keep God’s commands–a wisdom from “above the sun.”

The epilogue concludes with connecting wisdom in the teaching, person, and work of Christ with the wisdom books. He draws helpful parallels between Proverbs and the Sermon on the Mount, and discusses how Christ’s person and work fulfills wisdom.

I found three things that were helpful in this study. One was the care given to how we read the wisdom books. The second was a clarity in his summaries the message of the books, probably as clear as I’ve found anywhere. Thirdly, the discussion of the connection of wisdom to creation order as well as the fulfillment of wisdom in the person of Christ addresses the orphan character of these books. It seemed to me the author hit all the important aspects to be addressed in these books within the limits of te format of this series.

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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: God’s Mediators

God's Mediators

God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of the Priesthood (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew S. Malone. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on priesthood, considering both God’s individual priests, and the corporate priesthoods of Israel and the church, and some implications of this material for our contemporary understanding of priesthood.

The language of priesthood can mean quite a number of different things in church circles. We may think of ordained religious workers who lead the church in its liturgical and eucharistic functions, particularly in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox settings. Depending on what part of the Christian family we are part of, we may regard this favorably, neutrally, or unfavorably. Then there is this stuff about the “priesthood of all believers” that particularly arose out of the Reformation, contending that every believer has access to God through Christ, and may minister for God in the world.

The purpose of this work is to look at the biblical theology of priesthood. That is, looking at the passages that speak about priesthood in Old and New Testaments, and formulating from this, the Bible’s teaching about priesthood, mindful of other doctrines and how they intersect with the truths we uncover.

The book divides in two parts reflecting two major threads in the biblical material about priesthood. The first are individuals who are set apart by God both to represent God to people, and to act on behalf of people with God. The second set of references are corporate in character, referring first to Israel, and later the church as a “kingdom of priests.” After an introductory chapter, the book devotes four chapters to individuals as priests, and two chapters to corporate priesthood, with concluding reflections on the relevance of this material.

In Part One, Malone focuses first on the Aaronic priesthood of Exodus, and the clear restriction of that priesthood to Aaron and his familial descendants. Only they may approach, under strict commands, the Lord. But they act such that other Israelites, may “draw near” God, and that through them, God communicates with Israel. Then Malone steps back and considers antecedents to the Aaronic priesthood including a fascinating section on Eden as a garden sanctuary, Adam and Eve as priests, priestly behaviors of the patriarchs, Melchizedek, other priests, and the priestly activity of Moses. Particularly, the activity of setting up altars and the offering of sacrifice certainly antedates the Aaronic priesthood.

The story of the priesthood after entering the land is one of decline, with occasional exceptions, prophetic denunciations, and a glimmer of hope for the future. The priesthood continues into the New Testament period, often portrayed in conflict with Christ and the nascent Christian movement. He studies the hints of Jesus as priest in the gospels (the Son of God, the Holy One of Israel, the prayer of John 17, and the connection between Jesus and the Temple). Clearly, Hebrews represents the culmination of the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as great high priest, superior in every way to the priesthood that had gone before it.

Part Two turns to corporate priesthoods beginning with that of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5-6, NIV).

The question is whether this priesthood derives from the Aaronic priesthood. In fact it precedes that priesthood, and Malone suggests “perhaps God instituted a class of priests in order to illustrate what the nation’s corporate identity might look like.” As a people, they had a “priestly” role in representing the character of God by the character of their national life to the nations. Sadly, much of the story is one of failure to fulfill this destiny.

Attention then turns to the church’s priestly commission, particularly the echoes in Peters words in 1 Peter 2: 4-10 of Exodus 19:6, the regal priesthood language of Revelation, and the access to God Hebrews speaks of through the priestly work of Christ. Perhaps most fascinating is his exploration of the priestly language Paul uses in describing his ministry to the Gentiles. The sense throughout is not taking the place of Christ as mediator, the great high priest, but fulfilling the priestly mission of the people of God among the nations, both representing God to the nations and bringing the nations to God.

So what may be concluded? First of all, he contends that the corporate priesthood of the church derives, not from the individual priesthood of Jesus, but as the fulfillment of the priesthood of Israel. What then of the contemporary priesthood as a vocation for individuals? He addresses the lack of basis in the biblical accounts–the priesthood of Jesus is unique and a class of those who mediate, as in the Aaronic priesthood are not necessary. He also observes the difficulty of language, where our usage of “priest” derives from the word used for elder (presbyter) rather than the biblical idea of one who offers sacrifices. His argument is not that the church leaders who are set apart under this term are not important but that a vocational priesthood, in the same sense as the term is used in scripture has problems with aligning with the biblical usage of the term because of the definitive work of Christ. Rather, the work of such individuals is one of calling the whole church to its holy priestly mission in the world.

Certainly, some of this might arouse a fierce response on the part of some who would defend the ordained priesthood. It is significant that Malone writes this as a member of the Anglican communion where this terminology is used. What I found in his writing was great exegetical care throughout to claim neither more nor less than could be established from the biblical texts. I found this especially in his handling of gospel texts that some might press further in arguing Jesus’ priestly role. He is content to focus on Hebrews as well as some material in Revelation, where this is more clearly established. He is also careful to not derive the priesthood of believers from Jesus, where evidence of this is lacking.

Yet the effect here is not to arrive at a place of simply telling us what the Bible does not say. Rather, the conclusion I derived is a deepened appreciation of both the high priestly work of Jesus that fulfilled where the Aaronic priesthood failed, and the noble calling of the church as a holy kingdom of priest, representing God’s reconciling work to the world. There is plenty here both for worship, and our work in the world.

 

Review: Creation Care

Creation Care

Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural WorldDouglas J. Moo and Jonathan A. Moo. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018.

Summary: An survey of the relevant scriptures concerning how we might think biblically and theologically about the creation and our role in it, and the relevance of this teaching to current environmental concerns.

Many discussions about the environment get caught up in arguments about scientific findings and public policies. Often Christians end up fighting each other about these matters as well. What the father and son team of Douglas and Jonathan Moo offer is a study that takes us back to first principles. As Christians, our actions in the world ought not be informed fundamentally by talk radio, political party positions, or scientific papers, but rather biblical teaching, and the wisdom principles that arise from that teaching that we seek to humbly and prayerfully apply to all the activities of our lives.

This work serves as a kind of sourcebook for thinking about caring for creation. The authors begin by asking what we mean by the care of creation and contend that this ought matter to us because it matters to the God we love. They then explore how do we develop a theology of creation, and how we understand the evidence of scripture in light of theology, culture, and science. They suggest a “roundabout” model where understanding of text and these influences feed into each other.

The next seven chapters, the majority of the work, develop the teaching of scripture. They begin with the beautiful world God has created, that it is his and our beginning posture is one of joining all his creatures in worshiping his goodness. They turn to our place as members, rulers, and keepers of creation. In discussing dominion and the idea of subduing the earth, they suggest particularly the idea of “bringing the earth under the appropriate rule of those who bear God’s image,” a task that becomes even more urgent in a post-Genesis 3 world. This involves abad and shamar, working and caring for God’s garden. They explore Israel’s relationship to the land, their homeland, and yet owned by God and thus a gift and not a possession. Their use is shaped by sabbath and jubilee, as they trust God to sustain them in the land.

At the same time, they discuss the impact of the fall on a creation “subject to frustration.” All creation suffers because of our rebellion against God, yet the context of Paul’s reference is that God has acted to redeem and reconcile both us, and the creation. The incarnation reveals God’s care for the material creation. God in human flesh in the person of Christ reveals what it means to properly rule in God’s world as his image bearers, and died and rose to inaugurate the renewal of God’s loving rule through his reconciled creatures. They are part of the new creation accomplished through the resurrection of Christ that not only means new life for those who believe but a new heaven and a new earth. They deal with 2 Peter 3, often understood as “it will all burn,” and used to denigrate our care for what will be destroyed, and contend that this passage is best understood as speaking of refining and not destroying fire, consuming all that is dross and evil, preparatory to the new creation.

The last part of the book is a reflection on the relevance of this biblical material in our present time. They propose that caring for creation is an integral part of our gospel. They affirm our role as stewards accountable for good care of the creation, that is also shaped by the realization that our care for creation also is an act of caring for people, and their flourishing. Understanding the biblical teaching leads us into wisdom, which involves knowing and doing, using all of our knowledge of the world, much coming from science, to care for the world in ways that acknowledge God’s ownership, the earth’s goodness, is just toward all God’s creatures, in dependence upon God.

The authors include a chapter briefly summarizing current environmental challenges that require our caring attention: the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, the plight of the world’s oceans (depletion of fisheries, destruction of coral reefs, etc.), soil loss and developing sustainable agriculture, and our changing climate. They are measured in their treatment, providing peer-reviewed data. They conclude with the importance of putting creation into our teaching of new creation and putting ourselves into the creation. They commend five ways in which we might be AWAKE to caring for creation:

  • Attentiveness to the creation and its suffering.
  • Walking and de-emphasizing mechanized transportation.
  • Activism, often beginning in our own churches and communities.
  • Konsumerism: learning to step back from excess to enough.
  • Eating, through choosing food grown sustainably.

While others have covered this ground, Douglas and Jonathan Moo bring strong evangelical credentials and careful treatment of biblical texts to this task with a strong commitment to biblical authority. Because of this most of the work is formulation of the Bible’s teaching. It might be faulted on being short on practical recommendations, yet what this allows is for the reader to reflect on the theology of creation care and determine their own response, perhaps side-stepping politicized discussions.

I would love to commend this work for adult education in churches. The difficulty is that this is a more academic work than I sense many adults in the church willing to engage in an adult education program. The issue is less comprehensibility than comprehensiveness. The treatment of the biblical material is thorough and lengthy, more appropriate for a college or seminary level course. It also would be a good resource for a creation care task force in a church or Christians concerned about the environment who want to think Christianly about their activism. The authors do help us see what is distinctive about a Christian concern for creation and balance proper dominion with care and serving of the creation. They help us understand both how fallen human beings are the problem, and offer hope that as redeemed and reconciled new creations, we can care for God’s good world in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth.

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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: Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature

interpreting old testament wisdom literature

Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Edited by David G. Firth and Lindsay Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A collection of articles on the wisdom literature of the Bible, discussing each book as well as recent developments in Wisdom literature scholarship.

Many of us find the Wisdom books (commonly Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) as both confusing and compelling. Is there some rhyme or reason to the organization of Proverbs? What is the point of Job, his suffering, and all those long speeches? Is everything really hebel or as it is sometimes translated, empty, as Ecclesiastes would tell us? And Song of Songs, is it a sensuous love story, or something more?

The collection of essays in this volume touch on all these questions and more in their survey of the recent scholarship of the Wisdom literature. The work begins with Craig Bartholomew’s overview of current Wisdom literature scholarship. I found his framework of seeing this scholarship in terms of a series of “turns” quite helpful: historical criticism, then literary criticism, followed by postmodern criticism, and finally theological criticism. He surveys the important contributions of each. His most helpful advice:

“What Christian scholars should not do is continue to work away at sites in wisdom studies determined by others who have no interest in reading Old Testament wisdom as Scripture. We always need to be in dialogue with scholars of diverse views, but a Christian perspective will alert us to particular work sites crying out for hard labour if we are to retrieve Old Testament wisdom as Scripture today” (p. 33).

Part Two of the work devotes a chapter each to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Ernest Lucas covers a wide range of issues from questions of structure in Proverbs, the focus on character and consequences in its nuances and contradictions, the personification of Wisdom, and the use of women in various personifications, questions of gender in who is speaking at different points in Proverbs, and the connection of wisdom and creation. Lindsay Wilson’s essay of Job focuses on the faith of Job, and how this is expressed both in the trial he undergoes, and the trial to which he would subject God. Katherine J. Dell’s essay reviews recent scholarship in Ecclesiastes, considering particularly the question of the unity of the book and the tension between pessimism, realism and joy, all of which one will find at some point. Rosalind Clarke explores the question of what wisdom might be found in the Song of Songs, finding evidence that there is wisdom for women, parallels to the personified Woman Wisdom of Proverbs, and in the role of Solomon.

Part Three on Themes considers broader issues. It begins with a delightful essay asking “Is Ruth Among the Wise?” In Hebrew scriptures (as opposed to those most of us read) Ruth follows Proverbs 31 and Gregory Goswell proposes that this “encourages an appreciation of its heroine as an example of the wisdom ethic that is taught in the book of Proverbs” (p. 117). Leonard Boström takes on the theme of retribution in Wisdom literature, that our actions will bring good or bad consequences based on the character of the act–that the righteous will prosper and the wicked suffer. The discussion of the differing portrayals of this principle in different books was helpful under the common but sometimes challenging understanding that retribution traces back to a sovereign creator who ordains in his creation certain consequences for actions, but that this does not reduce to an uncomplicated formula as, in the case of Job, the righteous suffer, and the wicked sometimes prosper. David G. Firth looks at wisdom in Old Testament narrative, and the paradox that the wise often are not approved by God, when “wisdom” is not accompanied by obedience to God. Christopher B. Ansberry considers the contribution of Wisdom literature to biblical theology, where there often seems to be a disjunct between the two. He highlights contributions to cosmology, anthropology, and ethics, and also how Jesus is presented as the wise man par excellence. Simon P. Stocks calls our attention to the “wisdom psalms” and the way their voicing parallels Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 8. Brittany N. Melton concludes the book with what I thought was one of the highlights of the collection, an exploration of “divine absence” in the Wisdom literature. She concludes:

“Wisdom is the way to God, but is not always attainable. As such, the determination to find wisdom was fuelled by the sages’ search for divine presence. And yet, even if wisdom is found, the mystery of God is preserved. In the wisdom literature we have a prime example of the tension between divine presence and absence. Insofar as wisdom is personified and takes on a much larger literary presence than God in these books, this speaks to divine absence. Where is God? He is hidden behind Wisdom (p. 216).

What I appreciated about this collection of essays was not only the many connections they made for me (including that of thinking of Ruth in light of Proverbs 31), but also that they exemplified Craig Bartholomew’s exhortation to scholars. Each studied these works as scripture, and engaged in their retrieval as scripture today, nourishing in this reader the desire to read these works of wisdom once more to hear in them the word of the Lord. This is an important resource not only in the academic setting, but for all who would teach the Wisdom literature, and who want their students or congregants to not only be informed of the latest scholarship, but to be shaped by hearing these books afresh as “scripture today.”

Review: Echoes of Exodus

echoes of exodus

Echoes of ExodusBryan D. Estelle. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Traces the exodus motif from creation, through the paradigmatic event, to its later usage, culminating in the pilgrimage of the church as the people of God and the realization of the exodus promises in the new Jerusalem.

The exodus story is a compelling narrative that has shaped the Jewish people, Christians, and particularly peoples in slavery and oppression. It is a story of God raising up a deliverer, demonstrating his power in plagues, leading them out of the land following Passover and the death of Egyptian firstborn, the passage through the Red Sea, where God wars against the Egyptians, the wilderness wanderings, Sinai, testings, and finally after one generation dies, the entry into the land of promise and eventual worship on the mountain of Jerusalem. This story echoes through the pages of scripture, alluded to and transformed as the saving purpose of God works through the periods of judges, kings, exile and return, and the coming of Christ, his death and resurrection, the birth of the church as a new people of God, on pilgrimage, awaiting the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem.

Many of us, as we’ve read through scripture notice the ways the story of exodus recurs. What Bryan D. Estelle does is trace the exodus motif throughout scripture and how it is appropriated and developed by later biblical writers–the psalmists, Isaiah, the exilic and post-exilic writers, and the New Testament writers of the gospels and Acts, Paul, Peter, and the Revelation. Estelle describes his purpose in this study as follows:

The biblical writers’ use of the exodus event is no mere repetition, no base recapitulation. Rather, it is taken up, transformed, “eschatologized,” and ultimately repackaged into a tapestry that mesmerizes readers and draws them into the drama of salvation. No biblical reader can walk away from the performance unchanged. To trace the allusions throughout this corpus of biblical literature is not only an exercise in curiosity and aesthetic entertainment. Consider the following questions: Why would Paul refer to the exodus event as “under the cloud”? Why would Peter address his church in language evocative of Israelite identity? Why would the prophets invoke the ancient creation combat motif to express theology if they were committed monotheists? What is the purpose of the “way of the Lord” language in Isaiah 40:1-11, arguably one of the most influential passages at Qumran and elsewhere in the Second Temple period? Why would Jesus himself, at the transfiguration, discourse with Elijah and Moses about his own exodon? What, we may ask, is the purpose of these allusions? Are they poetic influence, metaphor, citation, or something altogether different? My goal throughout this book is to help readers grow in their “allusion competence,” especially in their ability to recognize scriptural allusions to the exodus motif. (p.2)

Perhaps one of the major strengths of this work is the first chapter, on “Hermeneutical Foundations,” in which he engages in an extended discussion of intertextuality (further amplified in an appendix), and the various forms of allusion and the hermeneutics of a forward-looking typology. He notes that the biblical authors use direct quote, subtle citation, allusion, and echo or reminiscence (which may or may not be conscious). He also begins this work not with exodus, but with creation, showing how this is prologue, and how exodus arises out of the Genesis events. Throughout the work, he offers in depth discussions of texts that echo Exodus, none perhaps more illuminating than his extended treatment of Isaiah 40–55, and the Isaianic New Exodus to which Mark recurs.

Estelle looks beyond articulating the biblical theology of exodus. He writes, “My own project attempts to bridge a huge gulf that has been created between participationist and forensic descriptions of salvation.” Throughout the book he shows how exodus is both-and rather than either-or. He engages N.T. Wright’s proposal that the idea of Israel being in continued exile shaped the thought of the time as well as the ministry of Jesus. He argues instead that the idea of the new Exodus was dominant, one delivering from the bondage of sin and Satan, and forming a New Israel.

This is an important work that moves beyond typical cross-referencing, or prophecy and fulfillment discussions to a more nuanced study of how later writers and readers of scripture engage with the exodus material, and how this theme is basic to an understanding of the ways of God with his people. It is not simply a “mash-up” of exodus ideas, but takes seriously the understanding of exodus at each stage of the development of the biblical canon and the unfolding purposes of God. More than modelling careful, intertextual hermeneutics, Estelle gives us an exegetically, theologically, and devotionally rich study of this important biblical theme.

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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.

New Studies in Biblical Theology

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Yesterday, I reviewed W. Ross Blackburn’s The God Who Makes Himself Known. This is one of forty-four volumes currently in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (with more forthcoming) jointly published by the Apollos imprint of InterVarsity Press in the United Kingdom and InterVarsity Press in the United States. The series strives for readability, avoiding specialist jargon or untransliterated terms in the biblical languages. D. A. Carson is the series editor and has articulated the goals as follows:

New Studies in Biblical Theology volumes focus on three areas:

  • the nature and status of biblical theology, including its relationship to other disciplines
  • the articulation and exposition of the structure of thought from a particular biblical writer or text
  • the delineation of a biblical theme across the biblical corpus

I try to pick up new volumes as they are released because I have found them of high quality, combining scholarship and devotional insight. Here are the reviews that have appeared in posts at Bob on Books over the years, to give you a sampling of this series. You can count on more in the future.

The God Who Became Human (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Graham Cole. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A biblical theology of the incarnation. Review

Hear My Son (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Daniel J. Estes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. Studies on the first nine chapters of Proverbs. Review

Covenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review

With the Clouds of Heaven (New Studies in Biblical Theology), James M. Hamilton, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the biblical theology of Daniel, including its structure, key themes, how the book influences both early Jewish literature and the New Testament, and how it connects to key themes throughout scripture. Review

Preaching in the New Testament (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Jonathan L. Griffiths. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. An exegetical and biblical theology of preaching from the texts of the New Testament. Review

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew T. Abernethy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A thematic approach to understanding Isaiah organized around the idea of ‘kingdom’ exploring the nature of the king, the agents of the king, and the realm and people of the king as elaborated throughout the book. Review

Unceasing Kindness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A study of the theological themes that may be discerned in the various placements of Ruth in the canon, and the broader themes of unceasing kindness, famine, redemption, divine and human initiative, and the mission of God connecting Ruth with the rest of scripture. Review

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012. A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel. Review

The distinctive cover design looks good on your bookshelves. If you’ve acquired some of these and would like to fill out your set, InterVarsity Press offers a special discount as high as 50% off depending on the number of titles you are purchasing at their website. Of greater importance is that these works are great references at a reasonable price that complement the teacher’s personal study of biblical texts or theological themes in scripture.

Review: The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel.

The God Who Makes Himself Known typifies the purpose of the New Studies in Biblical Theology of which it is a part. It both articulates the theological themes arising from the book of Exodus, and connects that to the theology of the Bible as a whole. In this case, Ross Blackburn explores how God’s concern to make himself known to the nations, which Blackburn describes as “missionary” is reflected in God’s dealings with Moses and the people of Israel in this book.

The organization of the book follows the biblical text of Exodus. I will highlight the key idea Blackburn elucidates in each portion:

Exodus 1:1-15:21. In the first part of Exodus, centering around 6:3, the focus is on the declaration, “I am the LORD” and what this means in the light of the deliverance from Egypt showing both the supremacy and redeeming character of God to the nations.

Exodus 15:22-18:27. This section focuses on the training of Israel in the wilderness, that they would “learn obedience” by which they reflect God’s supremacy in daily life, and their dependence upon the redeeming God to sustain them.

Exodus 19-24. These passages are concerned with the giving of the law. Blackburn reflects upon how Gospel precedes Law and how the Law is given to flesh out Israel’s calling to make known the name of the Lord to the nations in how they live, and what this reveals of the greatness and goodness of God.

Exodus 25-31. Blackburn looks at the instructions for the Tabernacle, showing the progression in the quality of the materials as one approaches the Holy of Holies, the parallel between Eden and Tabernacle that reveals God’s redemptive purpose, and God’s intention to dwell in the midst of his people.

Exodus 32-34. I found this section the highlight of Blackburn’s discussion as he explores the idolatry of the people, even while God is in the midst of giving instructions for his dwelling place in their midst. He highlights how Moses intercession is heard on the basis not of his attempt to substitute for the people’s sin but on the basis of God’s name and purpose, and how this will be jeopardized should God’s presence depart from them.

Exodus 35-40. Blackburn explores why we have this second description of the Tabernacle, downplayed by many commentators. He argues that the canonical order of this text after Israel’s sin shows how the Lord responds to sin, and how God restores a repentant people and so reveals his glory, greatness, and redeeming character to the nations as he indwells the Tabernacle.

The biggest question that may be raised is whether Blackburn is reading New Testament perspectives into Exodus. Certainly, he is reading Exodus in a New Testament light, but his argument of concerning the missionary heart of God revealed through Israel’s deliverance and wilderness encounters with God is one rooted in both the data of the text and a discussion of the canonical structure of Exodus. What Blackburn does is make an argument for the coherence of Exodus as a whole, as well as for its place within the canon.

This work strikes me as a helpful adjunct to exegetical study of Exodus, offering a larger framework useful for teaching or preaching the book as Christian scripture. While interacting with scholars discussing the meaning of texts like Exodus 34:6-7 and how God both forgives and punishes sin, Blackburn also offers insights into the lavish greatness and goodness of God that leads us into worship, and the life of faithful obedience against God’s gospel purposes for the nations. Like other monographs in this series, Blackburn exemplifies how scholarly rigor and devotional warmth may walk hand in hand.