I have a confession: I have a standing bias against any book which has the word ‘essential’ in the title. I have several ‘essential’ books on my shelf, but I always think, “Essential? Really? I don’t know how I have made it this far in life without cracking open The Essential Schopenhauer or referencing often my copy of Lawrence Quirk’s essential biography of Joan Crawford.” Of course I am using the term essential narrowly. What authors (and publishers) have in mind is a distillation of the ideas, elements and basic characteristics of their subject. Even this doesn’t put me at ease because I always wonder what is being left out of such ‘essential’ descriptions and compilations.
My standing bias aside, I picked up Robbie Castleman’s New Testament Essentials because I have read her work appreciatively before (even reviewing a couple of her books here). Castleman is professor of biblical studies and theology at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Her previous works include a go-to-resource for parents wishing to shepherd their children through Sunday morning worship and pass on the essential aspects of the Christian faith (the book is aptly titled, Parenting in the Pew). Last year she released Story-Shaped Worship which delved deeply into the overarching biblical story and Christian history to help worship planners and liturgists enrich their Sunday services. Both books are on my essential reading list.
New Testament Essentials: Father, Son, Spirit and Kingdom is part of a series from IVP which includes Greg Ogden’s Leadership Essentials, Discipleship Essentials and The Essential Commandment, Daniel Myers’s Witness Essentials and Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Essentials. I own three of the other volumes but have yet to work through any of them ( I’m still trying to figure out if that’s really essential). So Castleman is my introduction to the series.
I have really enjoyed the twelve studies which she presents. In each of the studies she is sensitive to the operation of the Trinity, the outworking of the gospel in the church and the full in-breaking of God’s kingdom. The studies are organized into three sections. Part one examines the ‘revelation of God in Jesus Christ’ and focuses on Bible passages which explore Jesus, life, teaching, death, resurrection and the implications for us would-be-followers. Part two focuses on the ‘indwelling of God by the Holy Spirit in the church.’ These studies (study 6-8) explore how the Spirit’s presence binds believers to one another in counter-cultural ways. Part three examines the ‘present and coming Kingdom of God.’ This final section reflects on how citizens of Christs kingdom ought to love and serve one another and how our faithful witness to Christ is galvanized by our sure faith and hope of his return when creation and humanity is restored.
Each study focuses on a particular Bible passage (or two or three). The format for each study includes a ‘Bible Study Guide’ which asks questions to help you engage the text, a ‘Reading’ section where Castleman fills in historical background and provides theological insights on the text, a ‘Reading Study Guide’ which delves deeper into the passage and theme in light of the readings, another section which connects the passage to the Old Testament, and finally ‘The Ancient Story and Our Story’ which bridges the gap between the biblical world and our own. There are also book suggestions for digging deeper into each theme.
My approach to Bible study was shaped during my student years in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. There I learned an inductive approach to the Bible which moved from observations to interpretation, and finally application (OIA). This approach to Bible study makes you pay attention to the passage you are reading and ask perceptive questions of it. As a veteran leader of Bible studies, I have learned that the best insights into the text, are often the insights that participants come to themselves. That is the beauty of the workbook format of this book (in the Bible Study and Reading Study Guide sections). Castleman is gifted at asking questions which help readers dig into the text and discover its significance for life. She has many rich insights of her own and provides good historical background for each passage and fills in the canonical context with her readings, but I think my favorite part of this book was that she got me to engage passages directly and I connected the dots on some familiar passages in a way I hadn’t before. Her reading study guide also has suggestions for digging deeper into the Bible during your personal devotional time.
Back to my ‘essential’ objection: Does this book help us tap into the Essence of the New Testament? Is something significant left out? Castleman wears her theologian hat well and presents a robust account of God work of redemption in Christ, the community formed in Christ’s name and the hope of salvation. Of course there are passages and themes that could be explored that weren’t here. Castleman interacts with a broad swath of New Testament books but not ever book can be explored in a twelve-study workbook. Hebrews, John’s epistles, Jude, and several Pauline letters remain unexplored. But Castleman commends the slow, careful, humble, daily reading of the Word of God on her final page (150). In the end, I think she does a beautiful job of presenting a rich and full account of the gospel. She would have us put her book down and turn to the Bible for ourselves to fill in what gaps remain.
This is a book which is good for personal study, to be read in small groups or with a spiritual mentor. I think it will prove to be a helpful resource for discipleship. Perhaps I have to get around to working through the other essentials resources. I give this book four stars.
Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.