Review: Passions of the Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Nazarene

The Nazarene: Forty Devotions on the Lyrical Life of Jesus, Michael Card. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: The author helps us consider Jesus through lyrics from his songs and biblically informed reflections.

Michael Card has been singing and writing about Jesus for over thirty years. I first encountered his music in the late 1980’s and was struck with the depth of the lyrics that made the biblical text of the gospels come to life. Later on, he began writing more about the biblical texts that had informed his lyrics in books like Scribbling in the Sand, and commentaries on the four gospels titled The Biblical Imagination Series. Last year, his book Inexpressible made my “Best of the Year” list (review).

This work is a series of forty devotions, nearly all associated with lyrics from his music, beginning with his title “The Nazarene.” They are grouped in four groups of ten based on each of the gospels. Each of the devotions can be read on its own or in conjunction with listening to the recordings (not included with the book).

Each section begins with an imagined reflection on each of the attributed gospel writers. Matthew is found reflecting on the expulsion of Jewish Christians from the synagogues. This gives added meaning to his reflection on Jesus’s words, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His last devotion on the Kingdom reflects on the hidden and revealed, its smallness and enormity, its nearness and far off character.

In Mark, the devotion on “A Great Wind, A Great Calm, a Great Fear” brought to light the demonic character of the storm, enroute to the encounter with the Gadarene demoniac. Most fearsome was not the storm but the authority of the one who calmed it. It raises for me the question of whether I want Jesus to be that powerful. This is followed up with the devotion on “The Stranger” and how we the real Jesus may be a stranger to us. I think of the many times of reading the gospels, and asking, along with Card, “who is this Jesus?”

For me, one of the most thought-provoking of the reflections from the Luke section was number 26 on “The Bridge.” He writes:

From the head to the heart
From the heart to the mind
The Truth must make a journey

He believes that the “bridge” from heart to mind is the imagination–that we often read scripture only with our hearts or only with our heads. He proposes that the parables of Jesus help bridge these. It seemed to me that this devotional captured the essence of Card’s work–a life of studying and meditating on the word and using the imagination in lyric and writing to enter deeply into the narratives of Jesus.

Finally, in John, I felt Card brought to life for me the significance of Jesus’ proclamation on the last day of the feast, “come to me and drink” in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles. He also takes us deeply into the shortest verse in scripture, “Jesus wept” and why he did so at the death of Lazarus.

This work comes out just in time for Advent but equally would make a great collection of Lenten readings. More than that, Card invites us to join him in singing the songs of the Savior. When asked why he writes all these lyrics about Jesus, Card responds, “How can you not sing about him?” Perhaps amid a pandemic and after contentious election, we don’t want to sing at all, and perhaps if our worship is online, it has been a while since we’ve sung the songs of Jesus. This book will restore those songs, and perhaps help us approach with wonder the Jesus we thought we knew, but knew so little.

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

Review: The Jesus of the Gospels

The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction, Andreas J. Köstenberger. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2020.

Summary: An introduction to the four gospels, providing accessible scholarship, introductions and commentary focused on Jesus, to whom each gospel witnesses.

How I wish I had this work as a young Christian reading the New Testament for the first time (the Old Testament would come later). I thought back as I read through this work how much I had missed in my early readings. Sure, I noticed the amazing, and sometimes perplexing, things Jesus taught and did. I noticed the similarities between the first three gospels, and some of the differences but had no sense of why they were different. Then there was John, which seemed so different. But I missed so much that Andreas Köstenberger highlights in this work, designed as a companion for new readers and students of the gospels.

In the introduction and first chapter the author sets out his basic premises for the book. He accepts these as accounts either by witnesses or based on eyewitness accounts that are trustworthy, coherent, and centered on the person of Christ. Rather than provided lengthy discussions of critical scholarship, the focus is on the text in its context. Citing the “quests for the historical Jesus” which often are reflections of the interpreters, Köstenberger’s approach is to allow each gospel to speak for itself, offering four complementary accounts of Jesus life, and he advocates the reading of all four gospels, proceeding in the canonical order.

After the introductory material, the author takes a chapter for each gospel. First he answers the questions of who is the person to whom the gospel is attributed, how they tell the story of Jesus, what their distinctive emphases are and the major contours or outline of the gospel. This is followed by passage by passage commentary of the text with helpful background, and occasional sidebars (for example on “The Herods in the New Testament”). At the end of each section, there is a Recap, summarizing the section and how this connects to the theme.

Köstenberger notes key structural features of each gospels, such as the five sections of teaching in Matthew, or the book of signs and book of exaltation structure of John. He calls attention to the “Markan sandwich” and alerts the reader to instances of this. He shows Luke’s concern for women and the outsider. He also offers a list of suggested resources for those interested in further study (although all of these were written by him!) and a thirty day reading plan to work through the gospels.

The book is a large format paperback that easily lies flat on a desk (or one’s lap) while you are reading your Bible. The commentary is easy to read and often offers applications. This is a great resource for anyone beginning to read the gospels, for anyone wanting to discover Jesus again, or perhaps for the first time.

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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: From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels David Wenham (Foreword by Donald A. Hagner). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: Explores the role of oral tradition as a source for the written gospels.

Depending on the gospel and the scholar, anywhere between roughly 30 and 60 years elapsed between the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the accounts of the mission and message of Jesus we know as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Most scholars propose that Mark was the earliest of the gospels and that Mark’s material served as one of the sources for Matthew and Luke. At the same time these gospels share material not in Mark, often posited to originate in “Q” (short for Quelle, German for “source.”). There is also material unique to Matthew (“M”), and Luke (“L”). Most have considered these “literary sources,” that is written and circulated, but all we have are the canonical gospels. Q, M, and L exist only hypothetically.

David Wenham argues that serious consideration needs to be given to oral sources. The cultures in which the gospels arose were oral cultures and the possibility of accurate transmission is far greater than often credited. He contends that significant portions of Jesus life, teaching, as well as passion were proclaimed as early believers pursued the mission of Jesus. Wenham notes the emphasis on teaching, learning, remembering, and witness in Acts, as well as the four gospels, all having to do with the faithful transmission of the accounts of Jesus.

Wenham then turns to the writings of Paul, the earliest written documents. 1 Corinthians 15: 1-3 provides the clearest evidence of Paul’s reliance on what were probably oral traditions in speaking of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is another example, as he speaks of what he received regarding the Lord’s supper. He goes on to note a number of passages including the “thief in the night” of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and other teaching about the Lord’s return, teaching on non-retaliation in Romans 12:14-19 that echoes the Sermon on the Mount, “love fulfilling the law” in Romans 13:8-10 echoing the great commandment, and a number of others.

He also discusses the places where Matthew and Luke record material that is in Mark but seem to be drawing on another source that overlaps Mark. Traditionally, this is the hypothetical “Q” but Wenham argues that oral tradition is an equally plausible explanation. He also focuses on two incidents of oral tradition in the gospels and also in Paul’s writing, the references to the labor being worth his hire, and the discussions of “the thief in the night” and the surrounding material. Wenham argues that these are strong examples pointing to oral traditions around the mission and return of Jesus. He then considers how extensive this oral tradition is and notes that Paul’s writings show evidence of the whole story of Jesus–his ancestry, birth, ministry, last night, death, resurrection, and commission to evangelize the nations.

Wenham then concludes with some fascinating proposals, that the hypothetical Q might be oral tradition rather than a lost written document, and that Matthew and Luke may have drawn not only upon Mark, but perhaps upon oral material that pre-dated Mark. Rather than drawing on a couple of hypothetical literary sources, these writers may well have drawn upon widely circulated oral traditions, instead of or in addition to these.

Aside from offering a possible explanation as to why we have not found any manuscript evidence of hypothetical Q, L, or M, the primary contribution this makes is to help us see an alternate route to how oral traditions preached and taught became the written gospels (though there is little here about John), and how oral traditions may offer a good explanation for the connections between the gospels and Paul’s letters. I suspect if Wenham’s proposal gains traction, many will continue to find Q, L, and M helpful for delineating the departures of Matthew and Luke from Mark but that, increasingly, these may be posited as oral traditions rather than literary sources. There is a parsimony and explanatory power to Wenham’s proposal in this slim volume that is worth far more study.

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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.