90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James: a book review

Tim Keller is a pastor, popular author and a sought-after conference speaker. Even those of us on the egalitarian, non-Reformed end of the evangelical spectrum appreciate Keller’s graciousness, intelligence, and humility. He is kind of like our Calvinist, complementarian man-crush. Sam Allberry  is an editor at the Gospel Coalition, a global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) an author, and the founding editor of Living Out (a ministry for those struggling with same-sex attraction). Keller and Allberry have teamed up for a 90 day devotional on John 14-17, Romans and the book of James. Their  walk through these passages were first published in Explore Quarterly, a journal published by the Good Book Company.

kellberryThe daily entries walk through a passage of scripture by breaking it up into a verse or two mini-sections, asking probing questions, and providing brief explanatory notes. Each day closes with suggestions on how to apply the passage, and often suggestions for what to pray in response. There is a blank, lined page for notes and prayers for each entry. These studies are designed to be done with an open Bible beside your devotional, so you can reference the words on the Page.

Carl Laferton, Good Book Company Editorial Director, writes a helpful introduction (seems like a series introduction as he makes no reference to the actual passages discussed in this volume). He suggests that as you read the passage for each day you note a highlight (the truth from God which strikes you most) the query (questions about what you are reading) and the change (ways God’s spirit is prompting you to change) (8). At the close of each study Laferton suggests writing a one sentence summary of how God spoke to you each day and a short prayer about what you have seen. This format is not reflected in the notes of Keller and Allberry’s daily entries; nevertheless it seems like a fruitful way to approach God’s word expectantly.

Because Keller and Allberry elected to write questions and notes for each verse or two mini-section, there isn’t a heuristic framework for the type of questions they ask. For example, many Bible Study methods use some version of Observation, Interpretation, Application. Mostly they ask the observational questions (questions about what it says in the text) and interpretive questions (questions about what you think the passage means) for every couple verse section, saving the application questions for the whole passage.

This is a 90 day journey and I have had this in possession for about a week. I haven’t been able to more than skim through it; however I read enough to get a sense of the entries for the purposes of this review. I will focus mostly on entries from Romans in my comments bellow.

The authors of this volume are both theologically conservative and this is reflected in their approach to passages and particular notes. That is to be expected, we all bring our own theological lens to scripture, but they do attend to what they read in each passage. So for example, in their discussion of Romans 1:26-32 they give a brief explanation of how homosexuality is viewed as a sin in the passage, “homosexuality is described as ‘against nature’ (para phusin).” But they are also careful to not turn it into a super sin as some conservative interpreters might, “But notice it comes after Paul has identified the root of all sin: worshiping something other than God. And it comes before a long list of other sins, including envy and gossiping. Active homosexuality is no more or less sinful than these—all come from worshiping the created, rather than the Creator” (104). This is perhaps a controversial passage to highlight (the only verses in this study which would address anything about homosexuality and the LGBTQ lifestyle) but it gives you a sense of how they attempt to follow the contours of the biblical text and are constrained by it.  Romans 9-11 give a classic Reformed understanding of election, predestination, God’s foreknowledge and the future of Israel (175-192), though not in a heavy-handed way.

The notes are not detailed. There are no footnotes or suggestions for further reading to delve deeply into the passage. Keller and Allberry give a non-technical, lay-person friendly interpretation of the passage, but if you do each daily study right, you, the reader, are doing all the heavy lifting, accessing biblical truth for yourself rather than depending on them for interpretation. Because they walk through whole books of the Bible, or sections of books in the case of John 14-17, this is much more detailed than those daily-thoughts-on-a-verse devotionals they sell at the supermarket.

Yet, because this work is not scholarly, there are the occasional lapses common to popular preachers. When they are discussing Romans 8:15-17 they write, “Abba means ‘Daddy,'” I know how well this preaches (I’ve preached it myself), but the best linguistic evidence would just translate Abba as father or dad without the informal, familiar feel of daddy. Nothing serious but not always careful speech. I also think breaking up passages into small daily chunks, can obscure the rhetorical structure and the flow of an argument. I think a bird’s-eye-view is so important for grasping an epistle’s meaning (especially a theologically sophisticated one like Romans). Keller and Allberry clearly have a road map they are following through each biblical book, but like your GPS they only reveal where to turn next. They don’t give you a large overview of the terrain, trajectory and destination of each book.  A good orienting essay introducing the books covered would help tremendously.

I love the Bible. The upper room discourses & Jesus’ high priestly prayer, the book of Romans and James, contain some of my go-to passages. If you are looking for a devotional or guided study to discover these sections of scripture, this is a good choice. It would be  impossible to read through this in 90 days and not grow in your understanding of these books and their meaning. And reading this devotional, as intended, will help you hear the voice of God in the text. Keller and Allberry are good guides, by no means perfect, but this would be helpful alongside other resources which help you to engage the Bible. I give this three-and-a-half stars.

I received this book via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

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Essentially, This is Great Resource: a book review.

 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. 

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The Jesus Moses Wrote About: a book review.

The Lamb of God: Seeing Jesus in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy by Nancy Guthrie

One of the ways that Christians approach the Old Testament is with an eye to see where it reveals Jesus Christ. This could be through direct prophecy, poetic and symbolic allusions or through reading the text typologically. In patristic and medieval exegesis this became somewhat fanciful, but the Reformers and their evangelical heirs have also followed a similar method, albeit in a chastened manner.  In The Lamb of God, author Nancy Guthrie explores where Jesus is revealed in four of the books of the Pentateuch (the Torah): Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. She writes from the conviction that Jesus himself  declared, ” For if you believe Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. (John 5:46).”

So in a 10-week Bible study she explores the various ways that Christ is revealed in this part of the Old Testament:

  • In the burning bush
  • In Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (the Exodus) and especially Passover.
  • In the giving of the law on Sinai
  • In the details and design of the Tabernacle.
  • In the manna
  • In the water from a rock
  • In the sacrificial system
  • In the wilderness wanderings and through symbols of salvation (like the bronze serpent)
  • In  and through God’s covenant relationship with his people Israel.

Guthrie is a gifted Bible teacher and has her readers explore the text in various ways. Each of the ten sections begin with a section for personal Bible study in which Guthrie provides guided questions to help readers engage the biblical text. This is followed by a ‘Teaching Chapter’ where she presents her understanding of the significant themes in the text. The teaching chapter ends with a section called ‘Looking Forward’ which picks up on the themes that Guthrie explored and draws them forward. Finally there are discussion questions which make this a good choice for a small group Bible study.

I appreciate that Guthrie has  spent time here engaging the text and what she has presented here is not fluff. Readers who are more accustomed to the ‘seeker sensitive’ or ‘investigative Bible study’ approach, may find that in jumping into this Bible Study, they have dived into the deep end.  A quick scan of  Guthrie’s bibliography will reveal that many of her insights into the text are garnered from sermons and podcasts of well known reformed Evangelicals (in addition to books, commentaries and articles).  Guthrie’s gifts seem to lie in helping others appropriate Biblical truths. I found Guthrie’s illustrations engaging and appreciated her good humor and grace. That isn’t to say I agreed with her on every point, but I love the detailed approach she commends.

I have no problem recommending this for small group Bible study with two small caveats. First,  I wish the later part of the Pentateuch received a more detailed treatment.   The way that the lessons break down is that there is an introductory lesson, six weeks in Exodus and a week in Leviticus, a week in Numbers and a week in Deuteronomy.  Certainly I like the attention given to Exodus but how many attempts to read through the entire Bible were wrecked on the shoals of Leviticus and  against the rocky crags of the book of Numbers?  I found myself wishing that more attention was given here because this is one of the sections of scripture that ordinary readers need the most help.

Secondly, my critique is tempered by the fact that I did not read this book the way I was supposed to. I did not read this as a 10-week Bible Study along side my reading of this portion of scripture. I found myself skimming her personal Bible Study and discussion questions, giving more of my attention to her ‘teaching chapters.’  I think I have read attentively enough to assess the merits of this study, but had I read this book properly most of my time would have been spent in personal Bible study on this part of the Pentateuch. So in the category of  ‘for what it’sworth,’  I think this is a good investment of your time and think that Guthrie is faithful guide through this section of the Old Testament.

And so go ahead. I promise you’ll learn something, and if you do it right, you will meet Jesus in these pages and see how this part of the Bible whispers His name.

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