Jesus and Holy Joe: a book review

A couple months back, my pastor was preaching through a series on the Joseph narratives in Genesis 37-50. So when I saw a new book by Voddie Baucham exploring the life of Joseph in a Christological key I thought it would be an interesting supplement to this sermon series. Unfortunately I didn’t get my copy of Joseph and the Gospel of Many Colors until well after the series wrapped up, but reading this particular book before Christmas was also apt.

Baucham avoids many of the common pitfalls of interpreting Joseph. He does not mine the story for life lessons. He does not read it as a morality tale. Nor does he present Joseph’s struggles as an example of how we can secure God’s blessing from our own faithfulness. Baucham places Joseph within God’s redemptive history. While Joseph was used by God to save his family from famine, he also preserved God’s covenant with Abraham and paved the way for Jesus’ coming (through the line of Joseph’s brother Judah).

Baucham’s hermeneutic calls into question a bald literal-historical reading of scripture which says that the passage can only mean what it meant in its original context, for its original recipients. Instead he takes a theological-canonical approach to the Joseph narrative, drawing inspiration from how New Testament authors have read the Old Testament. This doesn’t mean he allegorizes and finds types of Christ everywhere within Genesis, though he does want us to recognize when they are there.  His entire project is to read the Old Testament in light of Christ.

Generally I found Baucham’s exegesis insightful and interesting. As a pastor-theologian, Baucham’s insights come from his own study of Joseph as he preached and taught through the text. I found myself in general agreement with his take. I was pleased that he picked up on the contradictions and growth in Judah and didn’t solely focus on Judah. This is not a full length commentary, but it has a lot of details for a short book.

My one small critique is that I think that Joseph’s story should be read for its moral implications as well. If he just looked at the Old Testament for life lessons and morality he would have missed the point, but that is there too. I agree with Baucham that the gospel of Christ is the key for a proper Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible; yet sometimes in our zeal to avoid moralism we fail to grasp the moral implications of biblical narrative. We are invited to imitate the good and avoid the bad. Other writers who share Baucham’s Calvinist, Reformed perspective and general theological framework see the moral and ethical implications of Hebrew narrative, notably Gordon Wenham and Jason Hood. Baucham is right to lay emphasis on the gospel, but we can also learn from Joseph’s perseverance and tenacity without baptizing everything he says and does. This isn’t the main point of the passage, but it is still important.

That is really a small critique because the whole story of Genesis is not about what the patriarchs do, but about what God does with them. I recommend this book for Christians who wonder how they should approach the Old Testament. Baucham’s interprets Joseph well, but he also gives clues on how students of the Bible can approach other passages Christologically. In this way, Joseph is a kind of case study for biblical hermeneutics. Baucham helps us fill out redemptive history, showing how the patriarchs prepared the way for Christ’s coming. This is helpful for anyone trying to connect the events of individual Bible stories to God’s overarching story. I give this book 4 stars: ★★★★

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Gospel Transformation Bible: a bible review

The Gospel Transformation Bible is not a Study Bible, at least in the traditional sense. A team of scholars and pastors have joined together under Bryan Chappell’s and Dane Ortlund’s editorial direction to answer two questions: (1) How is the gospel evident in all of scripture? and (2) How does the gospel of grace bring about our transformation? Each of the books of the Bible have a brief introduction which describes authorship and date and how the gospel is illuminated (how it fits into the larger story of salvation). The notes on the bottom of each page, continue this dual focus on God’s larger plan of redemption and implications for our life.  Sometimes the notes are as detailed (particular books have more expansive and detailed notes). Some passages are passed over without comment (i.e. certain narratives in the Old Testament historical books do not carry much comments). The reason for this is that the notes are focused and so do not attempt to untangle every difficulty in the text (like a Study Bible would).

What is the gospel that contributors describe? It is focused on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as God’s plan of redpemption for humanity. But Jesus did not come in a vacuum. The Bible tells the story of God’s relationship to his people and the First Testament anticipates Christ’s coming. Thus the contributors to this volume, read the Bible Christologically (yet sensitively).

Some great scholars and interpreters have contributed to this Bible. Among them are Michael Horton (Joshua), V. Philips Long (1-2 Samuel),  Bruce Ware (Psalms),  Graeme Goldsworthy (Jeremiah, Lamentations), Bryan Chapell (Daniel), Frank Thielman (Matthew), R. Kent Huges (1-2 Timothy) and more. Because some of the scholars are more scholarly and others more pastoral, there is a lack of consistency from book to book.  Each of these individual interpreters give their particular spin on the gospel implications of a passage or book, though they share a broad agreement on the gospel.

Scot Mcknight argued in The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan 2011) that certain evangelicals have reduced the gospel to the message of personal salvation, rather than describing how Jesus fulfills the hopes of Israel. In general I would say that most of the interpreters in this volume are not guilty of McKnight’s charge. They have attended to the wider biblical story and not just the ‘order of salvation.’ However there are occasional lapses. For example, Daniel Doriani’s notes on James reduce the book’s gospel value to illustrating our inability to enact ‘true religion,’ driving us back to the grace of Christ. I would say that James carries social implications (care of widows and orphans) which make the gospel manifest. The gospel in James should not be reduced to the level of personal sin (only). But this is one example. At other points, I think the notes are brilliant and illuminating.

Another feature I appreciate about this Bible, is the use it makes of the ESV cross-reference system.  Following these cross references sheds light on particular themes and I find that helpful.  Purchasing the Bible in print gives you access to the Bible online (it is easier to access cross-references if you don’t have to flip through pages for every verse). This makes this a very practical choice for personal study.

In general I am pretty happy with the quality of this Bible. The notes are not always perfect (some interpreters are more perfect than others), but the inspiration of the Bible does not extend to marginal notes. I appreciate how well executed the final product is. And I absolutely loved finding Phil Long’s contribution (on Samuel). Long was my professor for two classes of Exegesis at Regent College (neither of which focused on Samuel, but because it is an area of some expertise I heard plenty of Samuel examples). From Phil I learned to read Old Testament narrative sensitive to its narrative craft, its historical value and theological import.  I like having some of his practical insights in print form.

I give this Bible 4 stars and would recommend it for personal study. I am not a huge fan of ‘study Bibles,’ but the unique features and perspectives of this Bible make it a valuable contribution.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Why Wesley matters to the non-Wesleyan: a book review

John Wesley is one of the great Evangelical voices of Christian history. But when a self-consciously Reformed publishing company (Crossway Books) published a book surveying Wesley’s theology, I was somewhat suspicious.  If an Arminian press (or even a Lutheran press) published a book on John Calvin, I would have similar suspicions. Thankfully the author, Fred Sanders, is an able and sympathetic interpreter of Wesley’s theology.  Wesley’s Arminianism is not the focus of Wesley on the Christian Life.  Sanders spends little time discussing Wesley’s views on predestination, but turns his focus towards Wesley’s practical, pastoral theology. This does justice to Wesley’s theological output. Wesley was not a systematician. Instead he wrote in response to occasional issues. His Standard Sermons are where he did his best and most important theology (and these sermons were bolstered by his brother Charles hymns).

There are ten chapters, each delving into an aspect of Wesley’s legacy. Sanders begins his survey of  with a brief biography which illustrates the importance of Wesley and the influences upon his theology.  In chapter two and three, Sanders than turns attention to Wesley’s theology of New Birth and the significance of ‘heart religion.’ Wesley’s theology of new birth, shows his continuity with the wider evangelical movement.   Against the cold orthodoxy of his age, Wesley’s ‘heart religion’   demanded real affection and personal faith. Orthodoxy should never be cold, it should fill the heart with joy at all God has done on our behalf in Christ! Chapter four  examines the place of pride 1 John had in Wesley’s theology (Luther’s go to book was Galatians, Calvin Ephesians and everyone read Romans), but he does show how Wesley makes use of Paul’s theology as well (there is no canon within a Canon here).  In chapter six, Sanders discusses Wesley’s reaction to the language of ‘imputed righteousness,’ what he ultimately affirms about it and where he finds the language dangerous (Wesley feared anti-nomianism).  Chapter seven discusses Wesley’s ‘means of Grace.’  Wesley was against mysticism that denied the centrality of Christ and his work and quietism which caused people to withdraw from community. He commended regular spiritual disciplines and participation in the Eucharist as a way that the Grace of God meets and refreshes the soul.

The most controversial aspect of  Wesley’s theology is his language of ‘perfection.’ In chapter eight, Sanders describes what Wesley means (and doesn’t mean) by perfection and uncovers popular misunderstandings. He distinguishes Wesley’s theology from many of the movements which have enshrined their own understanding of this. Chapter nine discusses Wesley’s catholic spirit, his willingness to work alongside and affirm other Christians with whom he disagreed with doctrinally. However there are limits to Wesley’s ecumenism. Chapter ten describes the Trinitarian aspects of Wesley’s theology. Wesley did not extend the right hand of fellowship to Arians, Deists and Socinians.

Sanders has done a masterful job of re-introducing Wesley to those outside the Methodist/Wesleyan universe.  Wesley was once read by Reformed and Arminian alike. The young, restless and reformed just might need a shot of holiness from the English speaking world’s most famous Arminian. What Sanders does here, is make Wesley tenable to them. While Calvinists will continue to balk at Wesley’s  views on predestination and sanctification, there is much in Wesley that all Christians would and should agree on. Sanders demonstrates that much of Wesley’s piety was a recovery of Puritan spirituality. The difference is that Wesley did not dissent, but ensconced his theology within the Anglican church.

I think there are limitations to Sanders’s account. I think he assumes a largely Reformed audience and so makes an effort to build bridges between the eighteenth century arch Arminian and contemporary Calvinism. However, I think Pietism played a larger role in shaping Wesley’s theology than Sanders describes. When Sanders describes the Moravians, their chief importance seems to be their pointing Wesley to Luther. However, the pietists were the great purveyors of heart religion, and I think that this needs to be drawn a little more firm. Also, I think this book only goes part way towards recovering Wesely’s sacramental theology. I agree with Sanders’s placement of the Lord’s Supper as ‘a means of Grace.’ Yet the high sacramentalism of Wesley is sometimes forgotten by his followers (the way Calvinists seldom read what Calvin said about the table).

But with this, I am more stating the limits of this text, than I am criticising Sanders. Books, even good books, can’t say everything, and if they did no one would read them. This is a book which gave me a greater understanding of Wesley’s theology and ongoing importance. It made me want to read some Wesley for myself, and it gave me a hunger for a deeper faith and a more generous spirit. This is truly a win for a book on historical theology. I give it five stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy in exchange for my review.

Packer and Paul’s Weak Offering: a book review

J.I. Packer knows something about weakness. As a child he suffered a near fatal accident when hit by a truck. He had to wear a steel plate over a hole in his head for a year (incidentally,  the injury kept him out of World War II and sent him off to Oxford. How’s that for providence!).  Now that he is ‘well advanced in years’  he has to deal with aging, mortality, and convalescing from a hip replacement surgery.  The apostle Paul  also knew something about weakness.  He suffered his share of persecution and hardship.  In 2 Corinthians, Paul sets out to defend his apostleship from the Corinthian church who dismissed him for his weakness. Paul points the Corinthians to the fact that “weakness is the way” for those who seek to live out the Christian life.

In “Weakness is the Way: Life With Christ Our Strength,” Packer reflects on Paul’s words about weakness and what they have to say to us. In four brief chapters these meditations describe what weakness is, the Christian calling, the Christian understanding of giving, and  the Christian hope in the resurrection.  The first meditation speaks about 2 Corinthians more generally, whereas the other three chapters interact directly with particular passages from the letter.

Packer has a rare gift of packaging deep theological insights accessibly.  As he broods over this peculiar Corinthian correspondence, he challenges us to learn from Paul to not rest on our own strength, but to confidently lean on Christ to be our strength and provision.  He challenges us to trust God in and through our giving rather than trusting our own wealth and financial security. Finally Packer paints a compelling vision of the Christian hope in the resurrection which looks ahead to the good things God has in store in Christ for us.

Paul wrote, “When I am weak I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  Our spiritual state is that we are all weak and inadequate. Sin in our lives has crippled us. What Packer and Paul have to teach us is that our true strength lies not in our own resources and whatever energy we can muster.  Jesus Christ is our strength.  This of course, is not news to anyone who has walked with Christ: weakness has always been the way. But this is a message  we need to hear often.  I know I do.

 

I give this book five stars–★★★★★.

Thank you to Crossway Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Words For Readers and Writers: a book review

When I picked up Word for Readers and Writers: Spirit-Pooled Dialogues I had no idea who Larry Woiwode was. I had read his bio and knew he was an award winning novelist (William Faulkner Foundation Award, John DosPassos Prize, plus a finalist for the National Book Award and Book Critics Circle Award), recipient of the Medal of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Poet Laureate for the state of Norht Dakota since 1995. But I had not read any of his works, much less heard of them until I picked up this book.

I loved the beauty of Woiwode’s prose and am sure that this will not be the last of his books I read(unfortunately my local library only has a couple of his other books). These essays are compiled from previous publications in various journals and publications. They showcase  Woidwode’s grasp of English literature and a lifetime of working with words. Some of these essays reflect on Woidwode’s own literary endeavors (there are a couple interviews of him in the collection). Other essays probe the writing of others. Still others are more reflective about the nature of writing and craft. My favorite of these essays (A Fifty-Year Walk with Right Words or A Writer’s Feel of Internal Bleeding, A to Z) are personally revealing. 

These essays form 21 chapters, organized into three parts: Uses of Words, Users of Words, Realms of Users. The theme joining the essays in each part is not always immediately apparent but in general part one  is more descriptive of Woidworde’s own understanding of metaphor and words, part two (primarily) describes other writers, part three discusses the nature of writing and explores writing in different contexts. But these divisions are fluid and each essay (or interview, or speech) is a stand-alone piece. 

I came away from reading this, wanting to read more Woidwode. He is a Christian author and self consciously so, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his faith.  My standing critique of Christian novelists is that they are all ‘tell’ with very little ‘show.’ By that I mean that their prose is baldly didactic with very little craft. In a novel that is unforgivable. But in a volume of essays I may let a little ‘telliness’ slide.

However I was pleasantly surprised. These essays are well crafted and beautiful.  The importance of Woiwode’s faith is evident but this isn’t an apologetic or a thinly-veiled Bible lesson. This is a celebration of the power of words by a man who had dedicated his life and career to wordcraft. I enjoyed this book a lot. I give it four stars.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. 

Entering Deeper into the Psalms: a book review

I know that I’m not alone in loving the Psalms. Many of us have found comfort, strength and words for prayer. My own love for the Psalms was whetted years ago when I read Eugene Peterson’s devotional works (especially The Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Answering God). Since that time I’ve read many good many more books on the Psalms, some devotional, some academic. I have a short list of books I really like on the Psalms, and am happy to add a new book to my list!

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms by Gordon Wenham

So I was excited when I saw Gordon Wenham’The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wenham is one of my favorite commentators  and is an adjunct professor at Trinity College, Bristol. I have appreciated his writings but have never read his treatment of the Psalms. In the Psalter Reclaimed,  Wenham culls together his lectures on the Psalms delivered between 1997 and 2010. Despite the occasional nature of these essays, there is a remarkable cohesion to the book as a whole. Wenham examines the liturgical use of Psalms and their personal devotional use in prayer. He also discusses the Messianic nature of the Royal Psalms (and in what sense they are Messianic), the ethics of the psalms, the value of praying the imprecatory Psalms, the vision of God’s steadfast love as expressed in Psalm 103, and the Psalm’s vision of the nations (enemies of God who at last lift their voice in praise).

This may be one of the greatest introductory books on the Psalms for the sheer breadth of what Wenham is able to cover in a short book. He comes from a strong Reformed Anglican tradition and therefore has a lot to say about the liturgical use of Psalms  to enrich our corporate worship and to provide moral instruction.  He discusses the various genres of Psalms in his section on ‘praying the Psalms’ and demonstrates how the various types (i.e. Pslams of Lament, praises,  Royal Psalms, etc.) speak to the various seasons of the Christian life.  This emphasis on the liturgical and personal use of the Psalms makes this a great introductory book for anyone seeking to enter deeper into the Spirituality of the Psalms

But Wenham is not simply writing a lay introduction. These essays also discuss how current scholarship enriches our understanding of the text.  And so he shows how speech-act theory helps describe the performative nature of the Psalms, Canonical l criticism reveals the meaning behind the Psalm superscriptions and the internal organization of the book,  he proposes a theological hermeneutic which takes the Royal Psalms past their historical-literary context into the realm of New Testament fulfillment, and he reviews historic and current discussions  of the imprecatory Psalms and whether they may be  appropriately prayed by Christians. Wenham’s skill as an exegete and a scholar are evident throughout.

I especially liked his treatment on the ethical import of the Psalms because Wenham’s Story as Torah was the book that alerted me to the way ethics were embedded in Hebrew Narrative. In abbreviated form he gives a compelling case for the ethical use of Psalms to provide moral instruction and encourages modern readers to mine the Psalms for what it tells us about Biblical Ethics.

Because this book is an edited collection of earlier lectures there is some overlap in the chapters which you wouldn’t expect in a full length monograph. Wenham also doesn’t say everything that needs to be said on the Psalms (though he points us to some great resources). But this book is an introductory text and I think that anyone’s understanding of the Psalms will be enriched by reading this. I recommend this book to scholar, student, clergy and lay-person alike. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Reading to the Choir: a book review

Christians are in a real sense people of the Book. What we know of God and his relationship with his people  is mediated to the church through the Bible.   And the Bible is not than just a book but an entire library which includes every genre of literature. So Christians ought to be readers, but this does not mean they ought to read anything and everything. Some books will lead Christians into vicarious sin (i.e. reading vivid sexual depictions will cause some readers to cross the line into sin) while others will cause them to gouge out their eyes  because of the poor writing.

Reading Between the Lines : A Christian Guide to Literature by Gene Edward Veith , Jr.

Gene Veith wrote Reading Between the Lines to help people be better readers. Good literature is not merely a matter of taste; there are objective criteria for judging a book’s merits (i.e. clarity, elements of style, etc.). Veith argues that reading a good book that you vehemently disagree with may be more beneficial than reading a bad book with which you agree.

 

Veith’s book is organized into four sections. The preface (chapters one and two) describe his purpose in writing, and the value of reading books critically.  The next section explores the forms of literature (non-fiction, fiction and poetry) and describes the elements of each. This section gives a fairly basic introduction to each form and describes the characteristics of good literature in each category. Next Veith describes modes of literature (tragedy and comedy, realism and fantasy).  In the final section  he describes the traditions of literature (the Middle Ages and  the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Romanticism and Modernism and Post-modernism). This brief historical overview of literature provides critical insight into the objectives of literature in each era (including our own). The final chapter talks about the role of writers and publishers  in producing good literature and the role of readers in purposefully reading good literature. Veith urges us to stop wasting our reading on literary distractions but to read the good books (which in turn encourages publishers and writers to produce good books by creating a market for them). 

 

Reading Between the Lines was first published in 1990. This is not a revision or second edition, it is a new printing. At times the text feels dated. Neil Postman is spoken of as a living author (he past away ten years ago).  Annie Dillard is introduced as a Christian author (she has since moved somewhat in her spiritual life).  However much of the information in this book remains relevant. Vieth provides insights into the nature of literature–its forms, modes and traditions. He offers a robust defense for reading good literature, and for Christians to create it.  I think Christian highschool students or college students will benefit from what he says.  This is a primer in Christian literary criticism from an able reader of texts.

All this is not to say that more mature readers will not draw valuable insights from the text. Veith has good stuff to say; yet  I wondered who his intended audience is.  This is an accessible but fairly dense book about literature. I can’t image people who read bad books or no books being interested in reading a two hundred odd page Christian guide to literature.  This is preaching to the choir at its finest

. I give this book ★★★½. Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.