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.

Hyde and Go Preach: a book review

Paul’s pastoral epistles are sometimes identified as his letters to Timothy and Titus, These are fruitful for pastoral leaders; however we shouldn’t jump to the false impression that the rest of Paul’s letters are non-pastoral. Most of Paul’s letters are directed to congregations he formed and pastored. Even when Paul isn’t ‘the pastor’ (as in Romans) he stll comes off pastoral. . In a new  expositional commentary,  From the Pen of Pastor PaulDaniel Hyde explores the pastoral implications of the books of I & II Thessalonians (one of Paul’s early church plants).

fromthepenofpastorpaul_1024x1024This isn’t a normal verse-by-verse commentary. It was born out of sermon series that Hyde delivered at Oceanside United Reformed Church where Hyde pastors (he is also adjunct instructor at Mid-American Reformed Seminary and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary). Hyde’s sermons walks through the Thessalonican correspondence, rooting his understanding of Paul in the Reformed tradition. Hyde’s chief dialogue partners include ancient preachers, medieval theologians, Reformers and the Puritans, and modern scholars like FF Bruce, and John Stott (14-15).

These aren’t fluffy-feel-good-sermons addressed to the felt needs of the congregation. Hyde simply walks through the text: warnings about false teachers, apostasy and the man of lawlessness; advice for living; wonder at the public Second Coming of Christ. I appreciated that Hyde counters contemporary  eschatologies which treat Jesus’ return more as an occasion to fear than as our ultimate hope.

If I ever preach through Thessalonians, I will find this helpful; however, I didn’t find hyde an easy communicator to relate with. I like the substance of what Hyde says, but wish he took greater pains at accessibility. He moved quickly to deep theology and discussing applications without much in the way of  illustration (i.e. personal anecdotes, pop-cultural references, or stories). He is more likely to underline a point by quoting Calvin or one of the Puritans than to connect his message to life.  I also wish his go-to-theologians weren’t mostly  dead white guys (not that there is anything wrong with that).

The expository nature of this book, makes it less useful if you are studying particular verses, but Hyde does a nice job of drawing out important themes. I give this three stars.

Note: I received this book from Cross-Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

 

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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Timmy Time on the Romans Road: a book review

Charismatics like Corinthians, emotional people like Philippians and justice advocates like Galatians. But ‘serious theologians’ love Romans. I’m kidding, although Romans is highly significant. This is Paul at his deepest. It is no wonder that ‘Romans is a book that repeatedly changes the world by changing people” (7).  Augustine was converted from his reading of Romans, Luther came to a fresh understanding of Justification and countless others have been inspired, challenged by this Pauline Epistle.

Tim Keller has written an accessible, non-technical commentary on Romans which will help pastors and ordinary readers unearth the treasures of Paul’s most theological letter. As part of the God’s Word for You series, Romans 1-7 for You is designed for you to:

  • Read–a guide to help you appreciate the letter
  • Feed–a daily devotional to help you grow in Christ
  • Lead– Notes to help you illustrate  and explain the opening chapters of Romans

This made me think of other appropriate rhymes (‘Heed’–putting Romans into practice or ‘Weed’–using your reading of Romans to get right with God), but these three give a sense of what this book is about and how it should be read.

As this is a commentary, Keller follows the outline and shape of the book of Romans. Walking through chapter by chapter, Keller articulates the message of Romans to us: we learn the power of the gospel (1:1-17), our universal need for the gospel (1:18-3:31), how Abraham and David illustrate justification (Romansr 4), how Jesus–the second Adam–brings us salvation (Romans  5),  our identity as one united with Christ (6:1-7:6) and as people at war with sin (7:7-25).

Keller is one of my favorite pastor-theologians. He does a great job of explaining the text. I certainly appreciated walking through Romans again (reading it along side my Bible). I  think that it will serve as a helpful teachers resource for anyone seeking to hand on the truths of this Epistle. As I got to the end of the book, I was disappointed that I  have to wait to see how Keller treats the last half of Romans (which has some truly fantastic and difficult to understand stuff). I eagerly await the next installment!

 

Where this book loses  a few points for me is the Glossary. The glossary explains difficult words and concepts which illuminate what Paul (and Keller) are saying. These include Biblical terms like ‘gentiles,’ ‘circumcised’ or ‘Kingdom of God’; theological terms like ‘orthodoxy,’ or ‘doctrine’; and general words used in this book like ‘non-sequiturs,’ ‘subjective,’ or ‘perverse.’ However Keller speaks of ‘expiation,’ ‘propritiation’ and ‘federal headship.’ I think he ably describes what he means by these concepts within the text of the book itself, but a glossary which fails to describe the most technical terms is not good pedagogy (also not in the glossary).

However on the whole, I found this to be solid resource. Lay leaders, clergy and general readers can all delve into this book with benefit. There are twelve chapters which are each divided into two parts. This means you could divide this book up into 24 readings and read through it devotionally over four weeks. I give this book 4.5 stars.

Thank you to the Good Book Company and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

Charting Paul’s Life and Ministry: a book review

This is the second book in the Kregel Charts of the Bible series I have reviewed for my blog.  The previous volume focused on a particular book (Hebrews).  Charts on the Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul explores what we know of Paul in Acts and his Epistles and delves into his theology. Because this book doesn’t focus on one New Testament book, it does not have the focus that Bateman’s Hebrews charts did; however Lars Kierspel does a great job of providing an overview of Paul. In 111 charts, Kierspel organizes and presents information about Paul’s Greco-Roman context, information about his life and ministry, the purpose and content of various letters, and the theological themes developed throughout the Pauline corpus.

The charts are organized under four headings. “Paul’s Background and Context” discusses Paul’s first century context (charts 1-9). In this section, Kierspel summarizes pertinent information about Roman political and social life, Greco-Roman religion, and first century Judaism and how these contexts inform Paul’s life. In Part 2, “Paul’s Life & Ministry,” Kierspel looks at Paul’s life, his various missionary journeys, the cities he visited and the men and women he interacted with (charts 1-34).  Included in this section are charts illustrating Paul’s miracles, prayers and speeches, as well as comparisons between the portrait of Paul in Acts versus the Epistles.  Part three (charts 35-77), “Paul’s Letters,” examines the epistles and records information on Pauline authorship, his literary sources and structure, OT and intertestamental allusions, Pauline vocabulary, and provides ‘snapshots’ of each letter. The final section, “Paul’s Theological Concepts,” traces various themes through Paul’s teaching (78-111).  These include theological concepts (i.e. Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, etc.) as well as Paul’s teaching on ethics, virtue and vice, men and women, and slavery. The final two charts summarize modern Jewish views of Paul and compare and contrast old and “new perspectives” on Paul.

I like the concept of these chart books for several reasons. Most of the information in these books can be found in good commentaries, but charts make the information available at a quick glance. They are a good pedagogical-aid for teachers and a good study-tool for the rest of us. When I am studying a book of the Bible, I find charts and tables useful tools for organizing information and tracing concepts through a book.  These charts will be useful to anyone who wants to get a deeper grasp of Pauline theology.  Of course there are limitations to this format  Not everything about Paul is charted and I thought there could be more exploration of contemporary theology than Kierspel does here, but these are charts and so are by necessity brief. Mostly this volume is just great at parsing historical and exegetical data, meaning regardless of  your theological perspective, whether it be old or new, wrong or Wright, you will find this book a helpful resource.

Some of my personal favorite charts include:

  • Parallels between Acts and the Pauline Corpus (11)
  • Differences between Acts and the Pauline Corpus (12)
  • All Women Mentioned By and Around Paul (22)
  • Paul’s Prayers (27)
  • Hapa Legomena in Paul’s Letters (43)
  • Key Words in Romans (54)
  • Metaphors of Salvation (86)
  • Participation with Christ (87)
  • Virtues in Paul’s Letters (100)

 

I give this book four stars and commend it to you as a helpful resource for understanding Paul’s theology.

 

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

 

 

Man the decks matey it’s time to talk about the Canon: A book review

 

Canon Revisited cover How did the New Testament Canon come to be and why should we regard it as authoritative? My own denomination has historically affirmed scripture as’ the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct,’  but is this position defensible?  Where does biblical authority rest if the canon was decided upon by the church.

Michael Kruger, professor of New Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary, has written a lucid and helpful examination of issues surrounding the formation of the canon and argues convincingly for a self authenticating model of the New Testament canon.  Kruger is remarkably gregarious in his approach, often affirming the good in the models he opposes while trying to establish a model of canon which is both faithful to scripture and tradition and  can stand up to critical scrutiny.  If you read one book about canon formation this year, this book should be it.

The book is organized into two parts. In part one, Kruger presents and evaluates various approaches to Canon formation. In chapter one he critiques ‘community determined models’ which argue that the basis of a book’s canonicity is solely determined by the book’s recipients (the church or faith community).  Of course there are a wide range of community determined approaches: historical-critical, Roman Catholic, Canonical criticism, and Existential/Neo Orthodox.  Because of the range of approaches and brevity of Kruger’s treatment, he runs the risk of oversimplifying but is generally fair and well documented in his treatment of each model (even separating out the strand of Roman Catholic teaching which seems to affirm his self-authenticating approach from the strand which places the authority of scripture as subservient to the authority of church). In Chapter 2 he critiques the historically determined models (canon within a canon, or criteria for canonicity model) which argue that the historic, apostolic origin of the books in question are the sole basis for their place in the New Testament. Over and against these approaches Kruger presents the Self-Authenticating model (chapter 3) but he draws generously on the insights from both the community and historic models.  His self authenticating model has three features:

  • Providential exposure (only the books the church has or have been exposed to can be considered for canonization
  • Attributes of Canonization (the New Testament books have a ‘divine quality,’ they are recieved corpoartely and affirmed by the church at large and they have apostolic origins).
  • The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit confirms the authority of a book and it’s place in the canon for believers.
In part 2, Kruger looks more in depth at the attributes of canon (second in the series above) in order to articulate more fully what he means by each and answer particular ‘defeaters’–scholarly arguments against each of these elements. This gives part 2 of the book a sort of apologetic feel (obviously you need to account for counter arguments in all academic discourse but Kruger places himself firmly on confessional grounds). In articulating the divine attributes of Scripture, Kruger points to the beauty and excellence, the power and efficacy and the unity and harmony of scripture. By beauty and excellence, he isn’t referring to literary style or rhetorical flare but the manner that the Bible puts forward the beauty and excellence of Christ.  The divine stamp is further evidenced in the power of scripture as a means of grace for people and providing  authority in action. God is also seen in the Divine unity of scripture,  doctrinally, in articulating  the whole redemptive story, and structually. This doesn’t mean that each book does not have their own peculiar emphasis and distinctives but that together they present a full picture of who God is and what he is doing in our world.
In articulating the apostolic authorship and the reception of the canon Kruger sets up a rational for trusting the authority of the canon and is able to demonstrate that those who question the canon, have not removed all rational basis for believing in it.
On the whole, this is a carefully reasoned and accessible presentation of issues surrounding the Canon. I think Kruger does a very good job of articulating his case and I am in substantial agreement with him.  In an era where the authority and truthfulness of the New Testament is often questioned, a book like this provides a powerful apologetic. I highly recommend this book, particularly for students and ministers who are faced with questions and are looking for solid answers for why we trust our Bible and not every other unearthed gospel.
Thank you to Crossway books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Meeting Marcus Borg Again For the First Time.

I’m finally reading a book by Marcus Borg (Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time). Being somewhat theologically conservative I never bothered before and so my knowledge of Borg was based upon the way people like N.T. Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson deal with what Borg writes. Now I have read him for myself and have actually quite enjoyed it.

Just because I enjoyed Borg doesn’t mean I am going to join the collective. There is a great deal that he says that I would object to (i.e. a strong distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus, his critical view of scripture, his relativizing of christological and Trinitarian formulas, etc.). But I have tried to read generously and I see some worthwhile insights. Here are some things that get me thinking:

1. The importance of compassion in the ministry of Jesus
2. Jesus critique of the purity system which developed in First Century Judaism.
3. The inclusiveness of Jesus ministry
4. The alternative vision of Jesus and its critique and reversal of conventional wisdom.
5. His exploration of other Christological images in the New Testament (especially Sophia of God and logos of God ).

Unfortunately the good is mixed with the bad in Borg and he takes things in directions I wouldn’t. But there is much that is challenging and even worshipful in this volume.