Reviews


Thanks to Nijay Gupta for his favorable review of Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (Fortress, 2016):

This is a timely book, offering thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection and debate on how Pauline scholars use the language of apocalyptic and apply it to the Apostle’s letters. I do not doubt that this volume will enjoy a long life of use, especially the early chapters that treat the critical matters of definition and methodology. Students of Paul will benefit greatly from this colloquium on Paul’s apocalyptic thought in context. (Horizons in Biblical Theology 38 [2016]: 242-44)

519k8B372hL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Zondervan has recently released another study Bible: the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture. The notes for this study Bible are completed by John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener. Both are well-known for their work on the context in which the Bible was written.  As one would expect from Zondervan, the Bible is printed well. The biblical text is in a darker font than the notes, and cross-references are centered on the page against a light brown background. There are many color pictures and maps spread throughout the Bible along with short essays about various topics.

This new study Bible has the aim ‘to increase your understand of the cultural nuances behind the text of God’s word so that your study experience, and your knowledge of the realities behind the ideas in the text, is enriched and expanded’. The notes, then, focus on cultural issues that the original readers would have known but are not clearly stated in the text. The notes do not identify how one should live out the text, nor do they give much comment on theological matters (at least from what I’ve looked at).

I was asked to comment on the notes to 1 Thessalonians. The introduction is very brief covering only date and occasion. Nothing is said about the city of Thessalonica. Notes on Acts 17.9 and 1 Thess 1.9 provide a little more detail about the city, but not as much as I expected given the stated aim of this study Bible. The introductions in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible and the NLT Study Bible are more substantial and likely to benefit readers more.

The notes themselves are fuller and will help readers better understand the context of the letter. Several comments are made about how 1 Thessalonians relates to other ancient letters and speeches. Helpful also are the comments about the social impact of turning from idols and the context for the language of peace and security. Additionally, there is an explanation of ancient travel, which I think is particularly helpful for modern readers. A table identifies links between the eschatology of 1 Thessalonians and Jesus’ teachings. The notes are fuller at times than those in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible and the NLT Study Bible when it comes to contextual matters. Potential connections with the Old Testament are often noted, but no references to non-canonical literature are provided.

Isolating 1 Thessalonians for comment may give the wrong impression about the study Bible. The Introduction to the Old Testament and the Introduction to the Gospels and notes on the Gospels were much fuller and seemed more useful.

I suspect that whether one likes a study Bible is determined to a large extent by what one hopes to get out of it. Overall, this one will serve well those who interested in the context the Bible was written in.

For more information about the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture check out www.contextchangeseverything.com/.

Matt O’Reilly has written a review of Reading Romans in Context edited by Ben, John and myself at his blog Orthodoxy for Everyone. He writes toward the end:

Reading Romans in Context is distinct in that it introduces elements of context by focusing on particular texts. We might say that books on biblical backgrounds often take a wide-angle approach; Reading Romans in Context is a zoom lens that takes the reader up close to the particularities of the ideas in question. I find that students are sometimes intimidated by the large amounts of information that come with a lecture or reading assignment on New Testament backgrounds. There is a lot to learn, and it takes a lot of work. The precision focus of the chapters in this book strikes me as offering a complimentary approach that has potential to mitigate that problem. Students should be able to handle this book, and I am happy to recommend its use in a course introducing the New Testament, Paul and his letters, or on the exegesis of Romans. As a pastor, I would also feel comfortable recommending this book to an interested layperson in a local church setting.

Thanks Matt for the review. Although there are not formal plans (yet) for additional volumes on Paul’s letter, we are working on Reading Mark in Context.

My thanks to Zondervan and Mike Bird for a copy of his latest book, What Christians ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine through the Apostles’ Creed.

I haven’t had the chance to work through the whole volume yet, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far. The structure of the book is simple. After some overview chapters about the development and importance of creeds and the nature of ‘faith’, Mike works through the Creed line by line. In his exploration of each line, Mike shows the connections with the Bible and ancient traditions. The chapters are also filled with personal stories, hymns and movie references.

One element I appreciate is that the book is pastorally sensitive. Mike connects the Creed with every day life but doesn’t shy away from aspects that can be uncomfortable for some (such as the language of Father for God). This is a book that takes the Creed seriously as a summary of the Christian faith and as a call to shape one’s life by that faith.

This book is not written for the scholar. That is, you won’t find here complex discussions of the text of the Creed (although it is discussed briefly) or lots of footnotes. The volume is written for the average church goer. I can imagine this book being used in a small group or Sunday School class. It is undoubtedly much better than much of the other material commonly used in small groups.

I know there are other books available on the Apostles’ Creed, but I’ve not looked at them. Perhaps Mike could do a couple of blog posts on how his book relates to other studies on the Apostles’ Creed.

In nearly every work in theological or biblical anthropology one finds a discussion of the ‘image of God’. The recent volume The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology (eds. Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau; Downers Grove: IVP, 2016) seeks to place this phrase in its biblical context and to draw out the theological and ethical implications of the idea that all humans are created in God’s image. The editors describe the aim of this work in this manner: ‘The Image of God in an Image Driven Age encourages continued reflection on the imago Dei in a time when narcissism reigns and new patterns of living are desperately needed’ (p.261). The papers originated from the twenty-fourth annual Wheaton Theology Conference and draw on scholars from Wheaton and wider. A unique aspect of this volume is that the papers are not only by biblical scholars and theologians, but also artists. The reflections on the place of image theology in art and culture adds a new dimension to the usual discussions.

Part One of the book addresses the biblical material and rehearses the usual explanations for what image of God means. The papers are clear although the discussions don’t bring any significantly new evidence to the table. Catherine McDowell’s and Craig L. Blomberg’s papers would serve well as entry routes into the discussion. In Part Two the authors connect the image of God with the themes of sexuality, iconoclasm and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The chapters are interesting attempts to trace how humanity as image bearers is reflected and distorted in various ways. Similarly, Part Three expands the link between image bearing, culture and theology. One of the more interesting papers is Janet Soskice’s piece ‘The God of Creative Address: Creation, Christology and Ethics’. She contends that image bearing should be linked with speech. She emphasizes that image bearing is a physical idea and cannot be limited to rationality. The paper is a creative theological reading of Scripture. Part Four focuses on the ethical implications of humanity as image bearing. Beth Felker Jones’ piece ‘Witnessing in Freedom: Resisting Commodification of the Image’ presents a strong challenge to the selling of the human in practices such as slavery and marketing of body images in adverts. She addresses sexual ethics as a specific form of the exploitation of humans.

The volume brings up some interesting issues related to the image of God. I did feel that there was a lack of explicit Christological reflection on this subject. The Genesis account of the image of God was given priority and seemed to set the agenda for many of the papers.

I received a review copy of John Walton’s and Tremper Longman’s How to Read Job from IVP this week. This continues an already fruitful series by Tremper and IVP on How to Read various biblical books: see How to Read the PsalmsHow to Read ProverbsHow to Read Genesis, and How to Read Exodus. I confess this is the first of this series that I’ve really looked at, but I’ve been impressed. I am easily tired by commentaries and other works that seem to miss the big picture or that bury the answers to the questions that I am most interested in under a mountain of details.

Without time for a full review, let me note a few salient points:

The book is separated into 4 parts: 1) Reading Job as Literature; 2) Getting to Know the Characters of Job; 3) The Theological Message of Job; and 4) Reading Job as a Christian. Spread evenly between the four parts are 20 chapters that discuss a range of issues from the high level to specific interpretive and topical issues. For example, chap 1: ‘What is the book of Job about?’, chap 6: ‘Who is “Satan” in Job?’, chap 11: ‘The retribution principle and theodicy in Job’, or chap 20: ‘Applying the book of Job’.

The layout and topics will be helpful to those teaching/preaching the book and to students who want to engage the main ideas in the text. Though not a fully academic monograph, the footnotes engage a wide range of literature that will help students understand key issues. For instance, along with commentaries they cite a range of dictionary articles, essays, and monographs, as well as other ancient texts. For instance, in the chapter on Satan they mention Second Temple texts (like 1 Enoch) that set the stage for wider conceptions.

I’m definitely intrigued by the book and the series. It seems to fall into a similar category of integration along with the T&T Clark Study Guides and the Cambridge New Testament Theology Series. I really like those too, so I’m sure I’m predisposed to like this series as well.

When working on Romans 7, I struggled to grasp how Paul was conceptualising ‘sin’. I eventually settled on the position that he viewed ‘sin’ as more than wrongdoing and that he was not only personifying an abstract idea. Rather, Paul had in mind something more sinister, more powerful. I adopted the language of ‘quasi-personal being’, which was a compromise but at least indicated that more was going on. How best to understand Paul’s statements, though, has remained a problem for me. Thus, when I saw Robert Moses’ book Practices of Power: Revisiting the Principalities and Powers in the Pauline Letters (Fortress, 2014), I was naturally drawn to it.

Moses’ study, though, is not like the typical investigations of Paul’s principalities and powers language. Rather than focusing primarily on the question of what Paul meant by this language, Moses turns his attention to how Paul instructs his congregations to act (the ‘practices’) in regard to the powers. This shift in focus is a breakthrough in the discussion of the powers, undercutting a good deal of the discussion. To be sure, Moses realises that one can’t discuss how a person should act toward the powers without some assessment of how Paul conceptualises the powers. His second chapter surveys four common approaches to the topic:

Clinton Arnold: Personal Spiritual Beings

Rudolf Bultmann: Demythologizing and Existentialist Interpretation

Hendrik Berkhof: Structural Interpretation of the Powers

Walter Wink: Invisible Interiority of Material and Outer Materiality

He highlights a variety of problems with these approaches, but more significant is his contention that the missing element in these discussions is Paul’s account of how the community acts with regard to the powers. He writes, ‘Whatever we may consider to be Paul’s theology of the powers, his understanding is embodied and social, disclosed by practices he performed or advocated for the early believers’ (p.39). Moses’ proceeds to discuss key sections of Romans, 1& 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians. He highlights practices that not only remove humans from the control of the powers (such as baptism in Romans), but also ones that place humans under their control (such as idolatry in 1 Cor 8-10 and Galatians). The discussion is exegetically sensitive, and he often highlights how Paul’s arguments are influenced by the Old Testament. He offers several interesting and new arguments in support of standard views as well as his own solutions to longstanding problems.

To highlight one point where I think more could be said, I would like more discussion of exactly how the practices guard or expose humans to the powers. That is, given the exegetical work, some theological reflection is now needed. For example, Moses rightly identifies the crucial role of baptism. The discussion could be extended by engaging with the theologians on what is happening in baptism. This isn’t a weakness in Moses’ study; rather, it is the opportunity for someone to develop his insights into the practices further.

The book concludes by ‘applying’ Paul’s language about the practices of power to the African context. Unlike modern Western (scholarly) society, the African religions have a robust view of ‘powers’ and have devised a variety of practices to counteract them. The chapter is a fascinating case-study of how to apply Pauline theology to the real world. The chapter is also a strong critique of Western scholarship which discounts or re-interprets Paul’s powers language based on myopic views of truth and reality. However Moses intended the chapter to function, it serves as a call for scholars to see beyond our own culture and let others give us a wider view.

Overall, I think this book has a lot to contribute to the discussion of Paul’s view of the powers. It isn’t the last word, as Moses himself acknowledges, but I think he opens a new door that can help us in the task of understanding Paul’s theology and applying it to our own contexts. If you have any money left over after SBL or are looking for a Christmas present, Moses’ Practices of Power would be worth considering.

Next Page »