Review: The Heart of Revelation

Revelation (2)

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

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

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

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

A chapter is devoted to each of the ten themes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Philosophy of Revelation

Philosophy of Revelation

Philosophy of Revelation, Herman Bavinck (edited by Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, foreword by James P. Eglinton). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018 (Originally given and expanded from Stone Lectures in 1908).

Summary: A new annotated edition of Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck’s 1908 Stone Lectures at Princeton, arguing that revelation is a warranted basic belief.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch Reformed theologian, writing mostly in Dutch, from the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. With the translation of his Reformed Dogmatics in 2003, studies of Bavinck’s work has flourished. This work represents an expanded version of Bavinck’s Stone Lectures at Princeton, first translated in 1908 by Geerhardus Vos. Two contemporary Bavinck scholars recognized the importance of this work to discussions of Reformed epistemology, and have given us this new annotated edition of the work. The annotations to the work are found in the footnotes and address everything from alternate translations of the text to explanations and context for Bavinck’s arguments, a tremendous asset to any modern scholar-theologian studying Bavinck. This is particularly important because Bavinck is engaging philosophers, scientists, and historians of his day, who are often not a part of contemporary academic and theological discourse.

Bavinck’s basic argument, anticipating the work of Alvin Plantinga, is that revelation is a warranted basic belief. The lectures argue this inductively from the disciplines of philosophy, natural science, history, religion and religious experience, culture, the Christian faith, and our teleology, our understanding of the future. Revelation in its general form (the things we can’t not know), and particularly around religious experience and Christian faith, special revelation, are shown to be basic to human experience and actually foundational to science, history, and philosophy.

Bavinck writes in a period where modernism had theology on its heels. Scientific research exalted the materialistic, rational explanation of all. What I was most intrigued with in the work was how Bavinck anticipated much of the developments of the last one hundred years in the movement from materialism to various forms of pantheistic monism in shaping our view of reality. Bavinck is one of the first I have observed to address the questions of the one and the many and how revelation, and the Christian faith offers the only satisfying explanation about connections between material and spiritual reality, and the sources both of oneness and true diversity. He is also prescient, in his discussion of revelation and the future, in anticipating the eugenics movement, and more recent efforts in genetic modification or even trans-humanism, human efforts to control our future.

The strength of this work is the basic argument Bavinck is making, and its connection to later thinkers from Van Til to Plantinga and Wolterstorff. An important aspect of this philosophy of revelation is the argument for how revelation serves as the basis of the coherence of all intellectual inquiry. This is desperately needed good news for our modern, fragment university world, as well as our fragmented modern lives, and even sense of self.

Sometimes, Bavinck’s engagement with scholars of his day makes it harder for those of us unfamiliar with them to keep track of his argument. The annotations are quite helpful in this regard. While it may have felt like meddling in the text, some form of subheadings or marginal summaries would have been helpful to this reader in keeping track of the thread of his argument. In some cases, such as critiquing Darwin, it felt that he might have been relying on apologetic arguments of his day that are less helpful with the advances of biological science. I realize that such a criticism simply reflects the problem of engaging any scholarly work from one hundred years ago.

None of this takes away from the compelling case he makes for a warranted basic belief in revelation, addressing both the philosophy of revelation, and the philosophy of revelation. We continue to live and move and work in an incoherent culture that divorces reason and revelation. Bavinck offers a significant extended argument for reconciling these, summarized well in one of his concluding statements:

“Revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture form, in alliance (verband) with each other, a harmonious unity which satisfies the requirements of the intellect and the needs of the heart alike.” (p. 242)

[By the way, don’t overlook the editors explanation, in their introductory essay (pp. xxxii-xxxiii), of the use of Piet Mondrian’s work on the cover of this work!]

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: With the Clouds of Heaven

With the Clouds of Heaven

With the Clouds of Heaven (New Studies in Biblical Theology), James M. Hamilton, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A true 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.

In this book, James M. Hamilton, Jr. sets out to give us an evangelical biblical theology of the book of Daniel. He begins by assuming a canonical approach to the book of Daniel, that Daniel would have had access to most of the works that preceded his, and he contends, against a significant part of the scholarly community for dating Daniel in the exile, and not in the Maccabean period of the second century B.C.

Working from these assumptions then, Hamilton sets out first to consider Daniel’s contribution to the Old Testament picture of the history and future of the world, which is one that reflects the literary structure of exile and return, with the critical piece of the four kingdoms, the coming of the Son of Man, and the end of days including the 70 weeks. He considers the visions of Daniel 2-4, 7-8, and 10-12 and their meaning, the beastly powers that attempt to stamp out the people of God against which the faithful are to stand in hope. He then discusses the seventy weeks, with the persecution of the faithful and the ultimate victory of the son of man. With that he turns to the various heavenly figures throughout Daniel and considers which may be equated with the son of man, and actually determines that none can be definitively equated with him.

Chapters 7 to 9 then explore how the book of Daniel influenced early Jewish literature, the New Testament other than Revelation, and finally the use of and fulfillment of Daniel in Revelation. Hamilton argues that not only the language but also the structure of Revelation parallels that of Daniel.

I thought the final chapter the most interesting as Hamilton considers Daniel as part of the big story of all of scripture, considering the parallels of Daniel with Joseph in Egypt, Nehemiah, Esther, Jehoiachin, and finally Jesus. Daniel’s life is a type as intercessor, one who “rises from the dead” and his message with the four kingdoms, during the last of which the kingdom of the son of man comes, in the sixty ninth week, as it were. Hamilton sees the seventieth week as divided into the first half, a long period of growth and witness, and a final tribulation the last three and a half days (a shorter time he argues) before the final victory of the son of man and the resurrection of the dead.

Whether or not one agrees with all of Hamilton’s conclusions, what is most valuable in this book is the careful work in the structure and theology of Daniel, the appropriation of Daniel in later literature, and the place of Daniel within the canon of Scripture. Furthermore, Hamilton draws out Daniel’s vision of history that is of great encouragement to faithfulness as kingdom advance is met with beastly resistance and brutal opposition. Daniel’s faithful witness and prophetic word call us to a faithful witness that looks one way or the other to the Lord for deliverance from the lion’s mouth, and for the final restoration of all things.

This is a wonderful resource for the student of scripture who wants to understand more deeply the inter-textual connections between Daniel and the rest of scripture. It is a valuable resource to those who would teach or preach this book and a good complement to any commentary in understanding the “big picture” of Daniel.

 

The Month in Reviews: February 2015

February is always a short month. It was also a “full court press” month in my work with travel and several major events. Somehow I managed to finish nine books this month ranging from another John Scalzi novel to The Bully Pulpit to a fascinating book on the value of vulnerability and a thought-provoking treatment on the idea of revelation (not the book but the concept) by a young Catholic theologian. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews:

1. Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation by Preston Sprinkle. Sprinkle thinks a more nuanced view is needed of the continuity between Judaism and Paul than is proposed by “New Perspective” theologians.

Paul & JudaismBully PulpitDaring Greatly2. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. A magnificent work that introduced me to the lesser know figures of William Taft and the muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell who set a high bar for investigative journalism. Of course, there was also a fascinating portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, as well as the complicated relationship between him and Taft.

3. Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown. Brown explores how the courage to be vulnerable leads us to personal wholeness, human connection, better parenting, and more effective organizational life.

4. 30 Events that Shaped the Church by Alton Gansky. Gansky gives us a highly readable narrative of key events throughout church history. I would have wished for more from outside the western world and more about the African-American church’s contribution, particularly around civil rights.

Essential EschatologyRevelation30 events5. Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel Through Church and Scripture by Matthew Levering. Levering is a Catholic theologian publishing with an evangelical publisher who both upholds a high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible while also arguing for the important role of the church in its councils, liturgy and leadership for mediating a clear and unified understanding of that revelation.

6. Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope by John E. Phelen, Jr. Hope is a theme of this book that explores how our future hope may shape our present lives.

7. The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi. The second in “The Old Man’s War” series which explores the ethical landscape of enhanced human clones grown specifically to become Special Forces troops in the midst of a riveting plot.

Ghost BrigadesProtegeShepherding God's Flock8. Protege’: Developing Your Next Generation of Church Leaders by Steve Saccone with Cheri Saccone. The Saccones outline five key elements of their leadership development work: Character, Relationships, Communication, Mission, and Entrepreneurial Leadership.

9. Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond edited by Benjamin Merkle and Thomas Schreiner. The contributors to this volume do just what the title proposes, albeit from a common, shared Southern Baptist perspective.

I thought this month I might start including my “best book” recommendation, and “best quote” simply for your enjoyment!

Best Book: Hands down, it had to be The Bully Pulpit for its exploration of presidential influence, the role of the press, and the fascinating portraits of Roosevelt, Taft, and the muckraking team of journalists that gathered around McClures.

Best quote:  Consistent with my best book recommendation, but cited from Daring Greatly is this quote from Theodore Roosevelt in a speech at the Sorbonne in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Previews for March: A collection of essays on Christian political witness, a book exploring the future of higher education, a mystery by Michael Innes, a narrative on the rise of Amazon, and her founder, Jeff Bezos, and the place of paradox in our spiritual journey.

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” category on my home page. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

 

Review: Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture

RevelationI have more than one friend who grew up in an evangelical or mainline Protestant background who has converted to Roman Catholicism. For many, this has been a thoughtful decision carefully taken. One of the reasons some take this step is the focus of Protestants on personal interpretation of the scripture, the belief that each believer is capable of understanding the scriptures unmediated by the church, pastors, church doctrine and tradition, among other things. They see diverse interpretations in many cases and Christians justifying almost anything on the basis of their reading of scripture and unchallengeable because they claim “the Bible tells us so.”

Others in the stream of the churches of the Reformation appeal to Sola Scriptura, the authority of the Bible alone, and the distortions or even contradictions they observe in the traditions of the church. They join Martin Luther in appealing to the scriptures alone, saying “Here I stand.”

Matthew Levering, who currently teaches theology at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois was educated in a Protestant seminary (Duke) yet embraces and articulates a Catholic theology of the relation of scripture and church in how God has revealed the Christian message. What I found most helpful was his thoughtful engagement with a range of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theologians in an exploration that argues both the inspiration and authority of the biblical text and while also contending for the crucial role of the church in clarifying and mediating our understanding of the Word of God we find in the scriptures. We encounter N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Alexander Schememann, as well as von Balthasar and Ratzinger in the pages of this book.

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Matthew Levering

Levering begins by discussing the nature of the Church as a missional community founded by the Son and the Spirit, countering the individualism of the post-Reformation church. He moves on to explore the importance of the Church’s liturgy as the context in which the Gospel message of scripture is proclaimed. The hierarchy of the priesthood has been an important in maintaining a unity in our understanding of revealed truth. The Church’s councils and creeds are especially illustrative of this importance. Church councils such as Nicaea clarified the shared understanding of scripture on such important issues as the Trinity and the nature of Christ as fully God and fully human, resolving the contested interpretations of scripture around these issues.

Levering takes on the role of tradition in the transmission of Gospel revelation through the generations and argues against those who see these traditions sometimes in conflict with themselves, believing in the continued work of the Spirit to guide the Church. He contends, along with John Henry Newman, for the development of doctrinal understanding through the history of the church and, against many post-modern approaches, for the possibility of propositional truth, that God reveals God’s self in cognitively understandable terms.

His last chapters articulate a high view of scripture’s overall trustworthiness, arguing against those who would differentiate between errant and inerrant portions. He concludes with a surprising chapter supporting the contribution of Greek philosophy to the Christian understanding of God.

There was much here I appreciated. I too find troubling personal biblical interpretation gone amuck. I think it is undeniable that the Church has played a crucial role in articulating our gospel faith, drawing on the scriptures. Similarly, there is a recognition of the work of the Spirit of God at work in continuing to develop our understand of the testimony of the scriptures.

At the same time, I think there is much more to be engaged in a discussion of tradition and the magisterium.  What is to be done when traditions are distorted and the hierarchy is not filled with the Spirit and is advancing what can only be construed as the traditions of humans, particularly at the expense of the Word of God? Is the Church to simply wait for however many centuries it takes for the Lord of the church to right things?

I also wish Levering would have talked more about the appropriate use of the scriptures by individuals. Certainly since Vatican II the study of the Bible by the laity has been encouraged. And countless generations of Christians have advanced in their spiritual lives through personal reading and study of the Bible. It seems to me that a place for mutual engagement between Protestants and Catholics would be to explore the relation between our individual and communal reading of scripture and to what degree should we subject our personal readings to the understanding of scripture in the wider community.

Levering’s book is a thoughtful contribution to this basic question of how the Church hears and understands God’s word revealed to us in the scriptures. It is Catholic without being anti-Protestant. It is both a book of clarity and conviction and yet an irenic engagement with those who don’t identify as Roman Catholics.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free in e-book format from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”