Revealing the Hidden Things: a book review

Christian films, books and TV preachers give their take on the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Speculation about end times is a Christian cottage industry with theories bandied about on things like the identity of the beast, the rapture, the role of Israel, or the nature of the judgments poured out on the earth. Revelation is written in highly metaphorical language, so there are tons of speculations. Other Christians read through Revelation once or twice but unsure of what to do with it, so they ignore it.  In The Heart of Revelation,  J.Scott Duvall offers a third way of of reading revelation. He attends to the vision of hope in the book without devolving into personal speculation about what we may or may not suffer.

TheHeartOfRevelation_hires+spine.inddAfter a brief introduction discussing the cultural context, Duvall explores the book’s message through the lens of ten themes: God, Worship, the People of God, the Holy Spirit, our enemies, our mission, Jesus Christ, judgment, new creation, and perseverance. By attending to Revelation thematically, Duvall provides a overview of the book rather than a detailed walk through the text (elsewhere he has published a commentary on revelation in the ‘Teach the Text Commentary Series).

In his introduction Duvall offers these guidelines for understanding the book: (1) attend to the meaning of the book to its original hearers in Asia Minor, (2)  Be aware of the symbolic nature of its language and (3) a focus on the main theological message of each vision (9-10).  The result is a historical-literary sensitive reading which doesn’t get caught up in theorizing about locust in smoke or Russia’s role in Armageddon (Sorry Hal). This isn’t to say that what Duvall says isn’t compatible with various eschatological options. He allows for the book’s future orientation without speculating about the minutia. His focus remains on the major themes through out the book and I think that mild Preterists, Millennialists and Dispensationalists can all read this book profitably.

The picture he paints is of a loving God who is the true center and source of life, a worshipping community drawn from every tongue, tribe and nation, a Holy Spirit who is living and active among us, an oppressor who is defeated by the cross and enemies we will overcome as we take up our cross and suffer. We also see our calling to be faithful witnesses to Jesus, the coming judgment against sin which takes seriously God’s holiness and  our human freedom, a new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with his people,  and the challenge and promise for those who persevere until the end.

If Revelation mystifies you and you want a book that helps you see the meaning and purpose of the book, this is a great place to start. Each chapter ends with a list of key texts, a reading plan and community group questions for exploring Revelation in a small group setting (or personal study).  I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.

Paul’s Last Days: a book review

Scholars debate the center of Paul’s theology. Protestant Reformers saw ‘Justification by faith’ as their hermeneutical key. The Tubingen theory (from F.C. Baur et al.) posited a dialectic between Paul’s message of  ‘justification by faith’ with Peter’s ‘justification by faith plus the works of the Torah.’ A Third hypothesis reads a shift in Paul–from Judaism to Hellenistic religion. A fourth possibility is that Paul’s theology is ‘Jewish eschatology but in a revised form’ (14-16). This is the position that C. Marvin Pate argues for in Apostle of the Last Days: the Life, Letters and Theology of Paul-. 

There have been varying eschatological constructs for understanding the New Testament (Jesus and Paul). “Consistent Eschatology” argues for a wholly futurist understanding of ‘last days.’ At the other extreme, a “Realized Eschatology” argues that the Kingdom of God has already come in the person and mission of Jesus Christ. A mediating position, is “Inaugurated Eschatology.” This view acknowledges both that Jesus’ mission and life announced the Kingdom, but it has not come in its fullness. It is now, but not yet. Pate argues that this best describes the Apostle Paul’s apocolypticism (19).

However the genesis of Pate’s approach is his observation of a clash of eschatologies between Paul and his opponents.  Apostle of the Last Days examines the Pauline epistles and the issues that Paul addressed, While Paul had an ‘inaugurated eschatology’ with Jesus’ death and resurrection at the center, his opponents clung to diverse, eschatological hopes. The Imperial cult, Hellenistic religion and Jewish Merkabah Mysticism (sometimes in a Christian variety) had different  versions of a  realized eschatology. Non-Christian, non-merkbah Judaism had a consistent eschatology, which awaited God’s future (political) deliverance. The Christian Judaizers had an inaugurated eschatology, but by giving weight to the Mosaic tradition they downplayed Jesus’ significance.

In part one of this book, Pate walks through each of the epistles and shows how Paul answered each of these opponents and the way he expressed his own eschatological hope. Part two examines Paul’s theology in systematic categories with an eye towards how Paul’s eschatology shapes his thinking about God.

This is a good book. Pate’s eschatological read of Paul (and his opponents) illuminates his epistles. Paul’s Christological hope was grounded in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and Paul awaited a future reality where Christ returns to put the world to rights. So there is a lot that is fruitful here. Pate walks through the entire Pauline corpus. I found I didn’t always agree with his handling of individual passages and was occasionally bothered by a supercessionist tone which described ‘the Old Testament’ as ‘works righteousness’ and faith and Jesus as the gift of grace. There is a greater continuity between testaments than Pate allows. God’s choice of Israel was not rooted in merit, but in Divine pleasure. Yet  I appreciated his analysis.

Eschatology is a word which many of us are wary of. Certainly there has been an unhealthy fascination with what Christ return will look like (and who ‘the beast’ is). Nevertheless I appreciate Pate’s description of Paul’s eschatological hope. This book contributes to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Paul’s gospel. Anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of the Pauline Epistles will benefit from Pate’s walk-through. I give this book four stars.

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

Eschatology is Essential!: a book review

As I write this review the season of Advent is coming to a close. I have spent part of this season reflecting on Christ’s return. Eschatology is the study of end times. Itsignals our final hope: Christ’s return, a new heaven and new earth, and the restoration of all things. Thus the lectionary rehearses Old Testament prophecies that point to Jesus’ coming and hint at future hope: when lion lays down with lamb and we study war no more.  Part of my reflections on eschatology in this season, have been guided by a new book from one of my favorite practical theologians, John Phelan, Jr.

I have been a fan of Phelan since taking a Evangelical Covenant Orientaiton class (the denomination I am seeking a pastoral position in) where I read one of his previous books. As a former dean and president of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago (the denomination’s seminary), Phelan is an important ECC voice.  Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hopeurges us to take eschatology seriously. Despite how much this season of Advent calls us to hope and long for Christ’s coming, many of us Evangelicals have an uneasy history with eschatology. There are influential fringe groups that fanatically obsess over end times, naming days and hours of Christ’s return. Others, like me at times, have claimed ambivalence. calling ourselves ‘pan-millenialists,’ because it will all pan out in the end. Phalen challenges us to see the importance of eschatology because of its practical and personal significance (13).

This is a short book (less than 200 pages), but Phelan covers a lot of ground in ten chapters. Chapter one gives an overview of Christian hope through the lens of Isaiah, the Gospels  and Revelation. Chapter two describes the urgency of reclaiming Christian eschatology. Phelan argues that the alternative to Christian hope is accommodation to the wider culture. he describes the alternative and prophetic hope of early Christians  and the later accommodation to culture by the church at large, beginning with Constantine. Thus Phelan warns against our contemporary capitulation to our contemporary culture, especially in the areas of individualism, technology and the destruction of creation (45-8) Rather than ‘buying in’ to these false and bankrupt hopes, Phelan encourages us to cling to the hope we have in Christ.

The chapters that follow make Christian hope vivid. Chapter three discusses the hope for resurrection. For Christians, our eternal hope is bound to Christ’s resurrection and our life and eternal destiny is bound up in him. We too shall rise!. Chapter four describes the hope of future judgement. In an-anything-goes, relativistic world, judgment may not  seem ‘hopeful’ at first glance; however, Phelan makes the case that we live in a ‘morally serious universe’ and that the decisions we make matter (84). He discusses the reality of hell as the natural consequences of isolating ourselves from God and sinking into misery, fear, and loss (84).

Chapter five describes the hope of the Kingdom of God–Christ’s reign on the earth. When Jesus came he proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was here. As the church awaits  the fullness of the Kingdom coming, it also inhabits the Kingdom come. The church is the sacrament of the Kingdom of God (in Moltmann’s happy phrase)!. Phelan exhorts us to live out ‘the Kingdom life’ proclaimed by Jesus even as we await its consummation (98).

In chapter six, Phelan discusses our hope for Christ’s return. He argues (along with N.T. Wright) that Jesus’ coming was the grand fulfillment of Israel’s story (107). Yet he differs from Wright in seeing eschatological implications for the Olivet discourse(Mark 13 and parallels) beyond the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.  Specifically, Phelan takes seriously Christ’s statement that no one knows the day or the hour except the Father and applies this statement to Jesus’ second coming. However, Phelan is no Hal Lindsey. He doesn’t give specifics about Christ’s return but says that it will likely be as surprising as the first (118).

Chapter seven takes a closer look at the book of Revelation, to reveal our hope in the midst of empire. John of Patmos wrote while imprisoned by the emperor to a church struggling against opposition and threat. Phelan urges us to read Revelation with an eye for how to navigate a hostile world (and not to see prophetic references to helicopters and nuclear war).

Chapters eight and nine discuss our our hope for the millennium and the hope of Israel, respectively, There are different views on the millennium–Christ’s thousand year reign. Phelan argues for a millenarian view (àla Moltmann) which posits that Jesus will rule the whole earth. This points to the redemption of our world, and also challenges the historic Christian tendency of supersessionism in regard to the Jews. A restored world, means a restored Israel and the promises to Israel are not negated by the existence of the church.

The capstone of Phelan’s reflections is chapter ten, the ‘hope for the church.’ Phelan acknowledges the past failures of the church (i.e. antisemitism, the crusades, etc). But he also has faith and hope because the church is Jesus’ vessel to help usher in the kingdom. The restoration of all things is Christ’s work but we in the church have our part to play, as ambassadors of reconciliation (187).

I loved this book. Phelan draws on the insights of N.T. Wright, Rodney Stark, Jurgen Moltmann and others in  describing out hope as Christians. I found this book both accessible and compelling (a rare combination). I appreciated that Phelan did not get bogged down in end time predictions but explored the implications of our hope within a biblical-theological framework. I recommend this book for students, for use with church small groups and for individual readers who are interested in exploring Christian eschatology. While this is published by IVP’s academic press,  ordinary readers will also be able to engage with the material that Phelan presents. He avoids theological jargon and explains his terminology. This is a book appropriate for any thinking Christian.

Christianity is by necessity eschatological. I am grateful for Phelan’s work in cataloging and describing how Jesus is our hope. I give this book 5 stars. ★★★★★

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