Reviews


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.

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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.

In his book Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundmaentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelism, Robert Gundry asks,

Does the Bible present theological data to be organized neatly, or a range of canonical options to be kept discrete? To what extent should the theological enterprise be systematic? To what extent selective? Ought systematic theology to dominate biblical theology or vice versa? Or ought they form a partnership of equals, or go their separate ways? (p.95)

Gundry’s questions are by no means new, and in recent scholarship there has been a renewed interest in the relationship between systematic theology and biblical studies. In this line the recent volume, Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament, edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, takes up Gundry’s specific questions in an attempt to show how the two disciplines relate.Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the N

I’ve asked Ben to describe for us some of the issues in this book.

1) The contributors to the volume are New Testament scholars and Systematic Theologians. Can you describe for us some of the different approaches or assumptions that emerge from the juxtaposition of these groups and essays?

The volume’s essays address a number of topics and do begin with a number of assumptions. The first five essays come from a New Testament studies perspective and the latter five come from a theological perspective. As you might expect, the NT scholars more often begin with the biblical text and move toward a discussion of theological implications. The theologians address theological issues with often less connection to the biblical text. Those realities only seem to fit the stereotypes that each discipline has of the other.

In Kevin Vanhoozer’s introductory essay he challenges biblical scholars not to view their work as handing off a baton to theologians. He argues that the work that biblical and systematic theology do is similar in that they both address “theodramatic” judgments. Biblical theology is more sensitive to single authors and texts while systematic theology considers God’s role in the broader scheme of things. Vanhoozer’s challenge is important because the essays point out the difficulty of each discipline continuing in its own ruts. The assumptions of the authors indicate the extent to which we continue to work in these disciplines in discontinuity from the other.

Webb Mealy’s essay on Revelation is a case study in how one’s theological presuppositions tend to influence the way exegetical arguments are made and conclusions are reached. Roger Newell argues something similar with regard to how suffering, or the desire not to suffer, has led to certain interpretations of eschatology. He refers to it as “sentimental exegesis.”

One of my favourite essays is Jennifer Powell McNutt’s examination of the use of James during the Reformation. She unearths some really interesting information about how James 5:16 was used quite extensively and about Luther’s use of James, even though he called the epistle a book of straw.

2) How does this volume as a whole answer Gundry’s questions about the relationship between the two disciplines?

Surprise, surprise, the volume does not completely answer Gundry’s questions. I would say that most of our contributors think that biblical and systematic theology form a partnership of equals, but it is telling that two to three of the NT essays lean toward the baton view of biblical studies that Vanhoozer warns against (two of them explicitly so). What the volume does provide are ten essays that are aware of the tension between biblical and systematic theology and attempt to bridge the divide. They highlight the challenges we face after a long separation of the disciplines.

3) One of the difficulties I think many face when trying to cross discipline boundary lines is the amount of literature to read. How have you overcome this?

Working across discipline boundaries does require a lot reading. My essay on “Eucharistic” language in John 6 was one of the most difficult essays I have ever written. There is so much secondary literature on John 6 before you even consider history of reception and Eucharistic theology. I wouldn’t say that I “overcame” the challenge. For example, a thorough paragraph on Thomas Cranmer’s view of John 6 would require days of reading. I read some, but I never would have finished the essay if I tried to become an expert on Cranmer or Calvin or John and Charles Wesley before I said anything about them. However, I learned quite a lot about John 6, especially its reception, its use in various debates, and about how theological presuppositions influence perspectives on biblical texts.

4) The volume is written in honour of Robert Gundry. How has he influenced your scholarship and your teaching?

I took New Testament survey and first year Greek with Bob. He was extremely influential in the beginning stages of my interest in the academic study of the Bible, and he has continued to be as we have kept in touch over the years. I have always been impressed with Bob’s care for the biblical text and his willingness to stick with views his exegesis leads him to, even if they are not popular. Most evangelical NT scholars always connect him with the infamous ETS vote of over thirty years ago, but his position on certain aspects of Matthew are based on a close, redaction-critical reading of Matthew’s source material. I’m not sure anyone has actually refuted his readings of these sections. Bob’s concern for the church is apparent in a number of his writings, including The Church and the Tribulation and in some of his recent Books and Culture When you read through his body of literature, it is easy to see that he has remained consistent in his exegetical rigour and in his beliefs. That consistency, love of the text, and academic rigour have definitely been influential to me in my teaching and scholarship.

5) If someone was looking for a PhD thesis addressing the relationship between biblical and systematic theology, what would you suggest?

I would say that there are plenty of opportunities. Obviously, there are only certain programs that will look kindly to such a PhD thesis that attempts to reconcile biblical and systematic theology. But considering the amount of literature that will need to be read and assessed, someone pursuing a project like this will need to have a narrowly focused passage or doctrinal issue that can provide an example for the interplay of biblical and systematic theology.

6) Now that you have finished this project, what can we be looking forward to next?

I am currently co-editing a book on Jewish apocalyptic thought and the New Testament that is scheduled to be released with Fortress Press next year, and my own work continues to include the Gospel of John and Jewish apocalyptic literature. A book length project is in the works on that subject.

I would like to thank Ben for answering these questions and be sure to check out his blog at Divinity United. The book is available now or you can get it from Mohr Siebeck at SBL.

51-Q4LemSWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Mike Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne, is well known for his many books and blog Euangelion. In his latest volume, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, he explores the origins and development of the Gospels. Mike works through a range of the key issues, such as oral tradition, the synoptic problem and the Johannine Question, and presents many complicated issues with great clarity. (His discussion of the synoptic problem is one of the clearest accounts, whatever one makes of his conclusion.) He kindly has answered some questions about the book.

1. Your publications have spanned across the breath of New Testament and Systematic theology. What brought you back to the Gospels at this point and particularly to this topic?

A number of things. First, it’s always good to go back and have a close read of the Gospels because the Gospels present to us the story of Jesus. So by virtue of their subject, Jesus, they should have a special place in our hearts. Second, I didn’t want to engage in a study of the literary, narrative, and theological texture of the Gospels just yet. I hope to return to that task in the coming years. But I felt the need to write a kind of critical preface towards understanding how the Gospels came to be. How did we get them, what are they, and where do they sit in the story of the early church. So GOTL covers all the preliminary stuff, hoping paying the way for a more concerted study of the actual content of the Gospels themselves.

2. Will you summarise for us what your main thesis (theses) are in this book?

There is no singular thesis since I’m trying to answer the critical questions abou the origins of the Gospels. In a nutshell, I’d say: (1) The Gospels are historically reliable and are reasonable guides to Jesus; (2) The Gospels were probably transmitted in a complex web of oral and written traditions. (3) Social-memory is probably the best hermeneutical framework for understanding the origins of the Gospel traditions. (4) On the Synoptic Problem, I go for the three-source theory (Holtzmann-Gundry thesis) where Luke used Matthew-Mark-Q. On the Johannine Question, I opt for the semi-independence of John from the Synoptics (i.e., John has probably seen, heard, or read Mark, but doesn’t write with it front of him). (5) The Gospel genre is a variation of Greco-Roman biography married to OT narrative and Christian proclamation. (6) The fourfold Gospel was not a late invention nor one meant to stifle diversity, but bring us the clearest testimony to Jesus as he is understood in the rule of faith.

3. There have been several recent studies addressing the formation of the Gospels and the four-fold Gospel (e.g. Dunn, The Oral Gospel Tradition; Eve, Behind the Gospels; Rodriguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament; Watson, Gospel Writing). What will readers find different in your study?

I believe there are good reasons for supposing that the church was interested in what we might call a “historical Jesus” (though not necessarily “historical” as we might conceive it). I think we can no longer look for a pure oral tradition behind the Gospels since the Jesus tradition moved to and fro between oral and written forms in its pre-Gospel stages. It means that orality, book culture, and social memory theory are all needed to reconstruct what is behind the Gospels and how we got them. I take a bold perspective in advocating the Holtzmann-Gundry thesis. I think we can read non-canonical Jesus literature and other “Gospels” sympathetically even if they are not regarded as part of the church’s testimony to Jesus.

4. In your view what has led to this interest in the formation of the Gospels?

It is a bit of a detective game when you think about it. The Synoptic Problem and Johannine Question beckon us with why these documents are partly similar and partly different. Who knew what when? Who used who first? It also raises the question of sources, reliability, and authority, which are natural questions for those who treat the Gospels as sources of either authority or even revelation. To put it broadly, what forces and factors shaped the Evangelists to write these Jesus books in these particular ways and what were they trying to achieve by doing that? These are all big questions and no consensus has really won the day.

5. Two areas that have received much attention lately are orality and memory which both are important throughout your whole project and discussed directly in chapter 3. Would you explain how you address these areas?

Whoa, that would take a big lecture and while I utilize social memory, I do not profess to be one of its leading practitioners. I’m reliant on chaps like Anthony Le Donne, Rafael Rodriguez, and Chris Keith. The important thing is that social memory is not a “school” that describes how the Gospels evolved from orality into literature, but it provides a hermeneutical framework for how memory is both reliable and yet refracted or redacted in light of the situation of the remember(s). In many cases, it provides a way of breaking the impasse between different ways of conceiving the development of the Jesus tradition.

6. Your title ‘the Gospel of the Lord’ comes from two patristic authors (John Cassian and Cyprian). How have these early Christian authors and others shaped your understanding of the Gospels?

I think the Gospels are fundamentally about drawing people to praise, revere, believe in, and worship, the one whom the Evangelists know to be “the Lord.” They are the books and stories that tell us who the Lord Jesus is, what he taught, how he lived, why he died, why he rose, who we should think he is, and how we should relate to him.

7. What areas in the study of the formation of the Gospels need addressed further? To put it differently, if someone was looking for a PhD thesis topic, what might you suggest to them?

So many areas. The Gospel of Mark in the Second Century would be good. The Gospel titles in the various manuscripts. The making of early Gospel commentaries. Angels in the Gospels needs to be done (see esp. Matt 18:10).

8. Now that you have finished this project, what can we be looking forward to next?

I’m currently working on a commentary on Romans for the SGBC series and an introduction to Christian doctrine via the Apostles’ Creed. Coming soon!!

I would like to thank Mike for answering these questions. For more information about the book, check out this video interview by Mike. The book is available now or you can get it from Eerdmans at SBL.

Simon Gathercole and Larry Hurtado have published very helpful reviews of Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Gathercole’s review is at Reformation21, and Hurtado’s is on his blog where you can find the pre-publication version and links to earlier comments.

Gathercole focuses on the three key issues at the heart of Wright’s project: Monotheism, Election and Eschatology. The longest section is on election where Gathercole raises some sharp questions about Wright’s view of justification focusing particularly on Wright’s view of justification as event and his definition of righteousness as covenant membership. In his review Hurtado remarks on Wright’s view of Paul’s Christology, election and eschatology. He also raises questions about Wright’s presentation of Paul as a novel thinker and whether Wright has given sufficient attention to ‘how much Paul also drew upon, reflected and developed convictions and traditions of “those who were in Christ” before him (e.g., Rom. 16:7), those with whom, Paul insists, he shared basic beliefs and message (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:1-11)’ (p.3).

One interesting feature of these two reviews is the differing opinions about the value of attempting to explain how Paul came to his Christological views. Note these comments, first from Gathercole and then Hurtado:

On the broader theme of the Christological reinterpretation of election, I had minor quibbles about some points. I am not as convinced as Wright is that we can easily identify the impulse which led Paul to come to the conclusions that he did. I wonder whether the combination of (a) the return to Zion motif, and (b) Wisdom theology, played such an important role in the development of Paul’s Christology (655). Indeed, one might wonder whether it is necessary (or for that matter, possible) to try to identify from Paul’s letters how he came to the Christology that he did. For Wright, such scepticism might I suppose appear to be an abdication of the historical task. But on the other hand, we know so little about the so-called “tunnel period” between c. 30-50 CE: we know what the Christology of Paul’s earliest letters looked like at the end of the tunnel, but before that, the outlook is dark, or at least rather gloomy. (Gathercole under Monotheism section)

In any case, for all his emphasis on Paul’s historical context, Wright’s aim really seems more to show that Paul’s beliefs form a coherently rounded theology than to address adequately how (in historical terms) Paul came to hold them. If, however, as Wright contends, Paul developed an unprecedented ‘mutation’ in ancient Jewish ‘monotheism’, it is surely all the more important to ask how this remarkable innovation arose. Certainly, Wright is correct to emphasise that Paul reflects a creative use of Jewish scriptures in developing/expressing his theology. But what in particular prompted and shaped this novel reading of these texts? Wright’s focus on Paul’s ideas is no doubt appropriate for a theology of Paul, but may leave some historical questions insufficiently addressed. (Hurtado, p.2)

Another interesting point is that both reviewers raise questions about Wright’s presentation of other views. Hurtado remarks, ‘In line with his previous publications, Wright also ridicules what he portrays as the view of some other scholars that Paul expected the dissolution of ‘the space-time universe’ (which may be another instance of caricature), and the undoubtedly widespread popular Christian notion that the future hope is to depart to a heavenly realm for existence as spirits/souls’ (p.2; his other instance of caricature is with Wright’s presentation of his view of the role of ‘divine/principal agent’ traditions in early Christology [p.1]). Gathercole comments on the second of Hurtado’s points:

Wright continues the emphasis here which he expounded at length in The Resurrection of the Son of God. I suppose my slight reservation lies in the presentation: the continuous polemic against a spiritualised heavenly eschatology becomes a little repetitive. Of course there are many people in the world who believe that our final destiny consists of our souls going to heaven when we die. Wright explicitly mentions American Evangelical Protestantism of the popular variety, at e.g. PFG, p.142 and n. 271. But such people are not the people who are going to read this book. In fact, ironically, the main scholarly target of Wright’s polemic against ‘going to heaven’ is someone who is about as far removed from popular American evangelicalism as one could imagine, namely Troels Engberg-Pedersen (pp.1399-1400). (in the section on Eschatology)

Both reviewers raise valid concerns about the way in which Wright has described these positions. I think the lack of specific examples of scholars who hold these views and detailed engagement with them is unfortunate particularly in light of Wright’s extensive engagement with Engberg-Pedersen, John Barclay and the apocalyptic circle associated with J. Louis Martyn.

These reviews give much more to think about and highlight issues that remain to be resolved in the study of Paul.

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