Scripture and the Authority of God

Scripture and the Authority of God

N. T. Wright. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011.

Review by David Burnette

The former bishop of Durham and renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright now serves as the chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews’ School of Divinity. His latest in a long line of books is titled Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, which is a revised and expanded edition of his earlier work titled The Last Word. Most notably, this latest edition includes two appendices in which Wright applies his view of scriptural authority to the specific issues of the Sabbath and monogamy. Wright’s central claim is this: “…that the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through Scripture’” (21, emphasis original). The remainder of the book is spent unpacking what is meant by this notion of Scripture’s authority and how it should affect the way we understand God’s Word.

Wright’s main goal is to help readers understand and apply Scripture as the medium of God’s authority. The book is not written with scholars in mind, as is evidenced by the lack of footnotes and endnotes; however, I suspect that readers with no formal scriptural training will need more background on the relevant hermeneutical and philosophical issues. Among the many topics covered are: Jesus’ view of Scripture, the “Word of God” in the Apostolic Church, the first 1600 years of the church’s use of Scripture, the challenge of the Enlightenment, and a critical look at postmodern views of scriptural authority. These wide-ranging issues form the backdrop for Wright’s exhortation concerning how to “get back on track” in our reading of God’s Word.

Strengths

As usual, Wright’s style is engaging and his thoughts on this crucial subject are thought-provoking. Though he is a bit repetitive and at times unnecessarily abrasive, he is never boring. Before listing several strengths regarding the book’s central arguments, it is worth noting that the very treatment of Scripture’s authority is a welcome contribution from a New Testament scholar. Though there are some wonderful exceptions, scholars who focus primarily on “biblical studies” too often treat the issue of scriptural authority as being foreign to their discipline, as if the nature of the biblical documents did not affect their interpretation. However, the issue of scriptural authority cannot be relegated solely to the domain of systematic theology or church history, for Scripture’s own self-testimony forces us to either submit to the text or go our own way. Wright correctly laments the modern distinction between theology and biblical studies (2).

At least three strengths of Wright’s work deserve mention. First, Wright reminds us that interpretation is never done in a vacuum. Both modern and postmodern philosophical influences affect the way we understand Scripture and the very questions we ask as we approach the text. Wright insightfully critiques the Enlightenment’s challenge to God’s authority.[i] On the other hand, concerning the irony of postmodernism’s appeal to tolerance, Wright memorably refers to it [postmodernism] as “an ideology which declares that all ideologies are power plays, yet which sustains its own position by ruling out all challenges a priori” (99). Wright’s inclusion of the church’s view of Scripture throughout history is also a good reminder in this discussion, even if one has some disagreements with his brief summary. More than a few biblical scholars have been guilty of “chronological snobbery,” to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, acting as if they were the first to approach the text in a thoughtful manner.

Third, Wright encourages the reader to interpret Scripture with contextual and canonical awareness. That is, in order to understand and apply the various commands, warnings, etc. contained in God’s Word the reader must consider such issues as genre, literary style, and the place of a particular episode in the context of the overall movement of Scripture. A helpful example can be found in the first appendix dealing with the Sabbath (143-173). Not all readers will be convinced by Wright’s views, as the issue is admittedly complex and often fraught with personal attachment. Nevertheless, Wright gives us a helpful interpretive model by considering the issue of the Sabbath in the context of God’s covenantal dealings with his people and in light of Christ’s fulfillment of God’s purposes.

Weaknesses

Given the wide range of historical, hermeneutical, and theological issues touched on in this book, many readers will have at least some minor quibbles with this or that point. Wright admits the rather abbreviated nature of the book, noting its lack of interaction with other authors and viewpoints (xii-xiii). With this in mind, I will note two closely related critiques that are more integral to Wright’s main arguments.

First, Wright has not adequately defined what is meant by “the authority of Scripture.” He concludes that “when unpacked” this shorthand phrase “offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community” (115-16, emphasis original). What Wright has given us here is not so much a definition or explanation of Scripture’s authority, but rather his own perspective on Scripture’s role in God’s plan of redemption. Since there are a number of Christian and non-Christian narratives on offer, the question still remains: why is this account of God’s plan for his creation authoritative? The authority of Scripture doesn’t merely “offer a picture” of God’s plan, it explains why, among other things, God’s plan is binding on all humanity.

To be fair, Wright notes that Scripture derives its authority from God and Jesus (21-22), so that it exercises authority in a “mediated” fashion (23). This is helpful insofar as it connects Scripture’s authority to God and keeps us from equating Scripture with God. However, to say that Scripture is the medium through which God exercises his authority does not adequately characterize that medium. For instance, can this medium ever err? Does God’s authority extend to the entire text of Scripture? Some of Wright’s comments seem to point to an affirmative answer to this question, but his definition of inspiration is hardly satisfying (35-36). Wright’s discussion runs the danger of distancing the authority of God from his Word. We need more specificity with regard to the relationship between God’s authority and the actual words of the text.

A second critique of Wright’s work is related to the first critique above and concerns his emphasis on the narrative or “story” aspect of Scripture. Whether or not one agrees with this emphasis on “story” over against Scripture’s propositional character, Scripture’s “story” aspect cannot shoulder the load as far as defining it’s authority. While it may be unintentional, Wright ends up locating authority in a meta-narrative constructed from his own reading of the text. After explicating this meta-narrative and God’s over-arching purposes for creation, Wright then interprets various texts based on whether or not they fit the narrative he has constructed. This approach works in the wrong direction, for Scripture’s authority means that any narrative or grand purpose we discern in the text are authoritative only to the extent that they are derived from and faithful to the inspired text. Wright’s question concerning how a narrative can be authoritative is certainly worth reflecting on, but his emphasis on the “story” aspect of Scripture over its propositional character only pushes the question of authority back further. Why should anyone accept as authoritative this particular story?

Readers will benefit from several aspects of Wright’s book mentioned above, and surely more could be added. Nevertheless, this book has not adequately answered what Wright himself has identified as one of the three key underlying questions in interpretation: “In what sense is the Bible authoritative in the first place?” (16) One wonders whether this question can really be answered without some recourse to terms such as “inerrancy” and “infallibility,” Wright’s disappointment with traditional “battles for the Bible” notwithstanding (1). This book’s purpose and target audience may rule out an extensive dialogue with Warfield, Rogers/McKim, and Woodbridge, but we would expect a more lengthy discussion of the nature of the God-inspired text. In keeping with Wright’s very practical purpose, readers should be motivated to listen carefully to Scripture when they believe that in its very words the God of all creation is speaking to them. A more lengthy discussion of verses like 2 Timothy 3:16 might also be helpful in which Scripture testifies to its own authority. In any case, Wright’s work reminds us that the age-old task of defining and submitting to the authority of Scripture will continue to be crucial for God’s people. This “battle for the Bible” is at least as old as Genesis 3.


[i]Interestingly enough, Wright has not escaped his own criticism of modernism in the view of C. Stephen Evans. Evans charges Wright with practicing a less critical form of methodological naturalism in Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. See Evans’ chapter titled “Methodological Naturalism in Historical Biblical Scholarship,” in Jesus & The Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1999, 180-205.

David Burnette is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This review is from an issue of Credo Magazine, “The Living Word.” Read others like it today on our archives page.

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Recommended Resources on the Psalms, Part 3: Academic Commentaries

Posted by on Apr 28, 2014 in Book Reviews, Timothy Raymond | 4 Comments
Recommended Resources on the Psalms, Part 3: Academic Commentaries

After recommending some excellent videos and MP3s on the Psalms, in my last post I directed our readers to my favorite commentaries for preachers on the Psalms.  In today’s post I’d like to muse briefly on my four favorite academic commentaries on the Psalter.

But before I do, a couple preliminary comments are in order.  First, as you’ll see, none of these commentaries are in the uber-scholarly category.  There are several uber-scholarly commentaries on the Psalms, some of which I’m certain are excellent, but I have not relied upon these as I’ve preached through the Psalter.  While I have a natural bent toward very scholarly studies and I certainly recognize the need for uber-scholarly commentaries for those writing journal articles or Bible translators, truth be told, I’ve struggled to see their place in busy local church pastoral ministry.  Most of us only have so much time.

Second, it’s helpful to be aware that liberal academic commentaries on the Psalms are legion.  I’m not entirely sure why this is the case (perhaps it’s because of their constant use in mainline liturgies), but non-evangelical biblical scholars seem to be infatuated with the Psalter and will devote hundreds of pages to discussions which assume certain words or verses or entire stanzas in the Psalms are not the inspired Word of God (this is especially the case in the imprecatory Psalms).  Maybe just stay alert to this and realize that whether or not you believe the Bible is inerrant has an enormous impact on how you write a commentary.  This isn’t to say liberal scholars can’t teach us anything, but just be discerning and don’t unwittingly adopt conclusions which contradict your view of Scripture.

Now, here are my four favorite academic commentaries on the Psalms, all with very creative, original titles:

9780830842155mPsalms 1-72 and Psalms 73-150 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) by Derek Kidner – Kidner’s little volumes on the Psalms (as well as his ones on Genesis and Proverbs) have become something of modern day classics.  They’re conservative, concise, exegetical, thoughtful, pastoral, and consistently trustworthy.  Kidner has that very enviable skill of being consistently profound in few words.  He also has one of the better defenses of the inspiration of the Psalm titles I’ve read.

Psalms (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary) by Geoffrey W. Grogan – Grogan was a specialist in the Psalms and this commentary, while very helpful, doesn’t put his expertise on full display due to the somewhat awkward format of the series.  His comments are clear, concise, and conservative but you wish the commentary were about three times the length.  Grogan’s remarkable theology of the Psalms should also be consulted.

indexPsalms (Expositors Bible Commentary) by Willem VanGemeren – VanGemeren’s tome on the Psalms is probably the closest thing evangelicals currently have to a “go-to”, must-have Psalms commentary (sort of like Fee on 1 Corinthians or Moo on Romans).  As you would expect from VanGemeren and the EBC in general, it is undergirded by the most careful scholarship but pitched to the busy pastor committed to expositional preaching.  While it’s often weak on application, some of VanGemeren’s paragraphs are downright poetic.

Psalms Volume 1 (Psalms 1-72): A Mentor Commentary and Psalms Volume 2 (Psalms 73-150): A Mentor Commentary, by Alan Harman – I’ve saved my favorite for the last.  Harman, Research Professor of Old Testament at the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, and author of commentaries on Deuteronomy and Isaiah, has given us a commentary which, while lesser known, is truly outstanding all-round.  It’s clear, staunchly evangelical and Calvinistic, supported by careful scholarship, attuned to contemporary application, interestingly written, and about perfect length.  While ideal for the pastor, it could be profitably read by any serious layman.  This has become my “will-always-read-even-if-I’m-super-busy-and-behind-on-sermon-prep-commentary.”  It’s one you really should check out.

In my next post, Lord willing, I’ll conclude this miniseries by briefly reviewing a handful of books on the Psalms.  I close by reiterating my invitation.  If there are resources on the Psalms (i.e., lectures, commentaries, books, etc.) you’d like me to review or would recommend yourself, leave them in the comments below.

Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

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Review: Against the Church (Matt Claridge)

Review: Against the Church (Matt Claridge)

Provocative as always, the title of Wilson’ newest book, Against the Church, immediately caught my eye. I was further intrigued as I read the back cover description, “Wilson takes a hammer to some of our very favorite graven images, and we’ve set up display cases for them in our churches: Liturgy, Tradition, Systematics, Infant Baptism, and that crafty old baal Doctrine.” The statement opens itself up to the wildest speculations. Is Wilson beginning to reconsider the error of his ways?Against the church1

One must, of course, look beyond the marketing rhetoric and hyperbole, and observe what Wilson is actually doing between the covers. In the introduction, Wilson outlines his book this way: “This book has four sections. The first lays out the case against the church, both generally and in some particulars. After having made all sorts of people angry, the second section seeks to address certain background assumptions that go into these discussions—philosophical assumptions about human nature, dualism, and lots of other cool stuff. The third section is ‘the Father Principle,’ in which I discuss the source of life in the heart, the family, the church, and the world. The conclusion of the matter is where I seek to bring everything full circle, and lay out the case for the church.” That gives us the flow of thought, but not the main thesis of the work which is, quite clearly, Wilson’s defense of the doctrine of regeneration, the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in converting sinners. There are a couple other themes as well, but this is the taproot.

First, a few notes on structure before content. Although Wilson’s stated outline seems clear enough, I felt as a reader that I was never quite sure what or who Wilson is placing in his cross-hairs. He is clearly responding to something in this book. Part of this is my ecclesiastical and theological location as a Southern Baptist. Part of it, I believe, is that Wilson is not entirely transparent about it either. The further one gets into the book’s argument, the more one comes to think Wilson is responding to disagreements within the ranks of the “Federal Vision.” Wilson refers to Peter Leithart favorably at a few points, but one senses this is damage control in light of recent events and statements (consult the blog trail over at Green Baggins). It appears that Wilson, as a pastor, is responding to a trend among his devotees that criticize “regeneration” theoretically and undermine it practically.

Regarding the former, there is a faction of Auburn Ave. theologians who question whether we have a “nature” that can be changed into another as the doctrine of regeneration implies (pg .181). Regarding the latter, Pastor Wilson is responding to self-professing Christians who rest on their covenantal membership and sacramental laurels to justify unbecoming behavior. As he says, there are “parishoners who are rolling around in Galatians 5:19-21 with shouts of libertine joy. It is time to attack this kind of covenantal presumption, and it needs to be attacked with a canoe paddle. I wish I could say this were a hypothetical problem, but it has not been” (207). Neither of these problems threaten the Federal Vision project, however. Wilson does not wish to retreat from the Federal Vision (FV) convictions he helped develop, particularly, the “objectivity of the covenant” which is the theological center of the movement in Wilson’s mind. Rather, Wilson believes that keeping to the straight and narrow “objectivity of the covenant” will keep us from sinking into the quagmire of covenantal presumption on the left and the abyss of a nominalist denial of “nature” on the right.

This clarifies what Wilson is aiming at. However, most of this clarity only comes in the final chapters of the book. Herein lies the structural problem. I would recommend folks read the final section first, indeed, read the appendix entitled “biting the left hind leg” first before starting the book. In fact, it’s best to just read the book backwards. I understand Wilson’s rhetorical strategy, but it provokes a constant urge to read between the lines. A second structural concern is the fact that the book reads like a string of blog posts. Perhaps this is uncharitable or a failure on my part to appreciate Wilson’s style. Nonetheless, the book has more of a “collection of essays unified by a common theme” feel to it. This results, I believe, is a rather stream of consciousness approach in which all kinds of ideas that should be set side by side are strung out in every which way across the book.

This comes very much into play when considering the book’s content. I’m not going to spend time on Wilson’s great gifts as a writer and wonderful flourishes, nor the many points I found myself agreeing with Wilson. Instead, as a credo-baptist, I feel a burden to respond to Wilson’s book which is driven, in large part, by defending regeneration on the basis of his peculiar sacramental beliefs. I will focus on the places where Wilson agrees with me in spite of himself, that is, where I think he is just plain inconsistent and, unfortunately, somewhat deceptive.

Let’s start with this idea of the “objectivity of the covenant” (hereafter “O of C”). A frontal assault on the “O of C” is impossible here, all I want to do is point out some questionable ways Wilson stacks the deck in its favor particularly in the chapter, “Against Systematics” and later on in “Apostasy and the New Birth.” His basic argument is that only the FV takes all the ways the Bible speaks about election and covenant membership consistently, across the board, and without one privileging the other. In other words, both Calvinists and Arminians let their “systematics” dictate the Scriptures. As Wilson says, “Just lay out all the verses, all of them, and throw away your scissors and your mallet. Let the Scriptures speak.”

Things are nowhere near that simple, of course. I know that Wilson is not making a full defense of the “O of C” in this book, but I find it uncharitable to make such sweeping claims without any interaction with the many sane and textually oriented arguments that are made for the preservation of the saints and for not equating “church membership” with divine election. What becomes clear in the rest of the book is that Wilson really can’t live with this tension himself—with this both/and approach to election, apostasy, and church membership.

For instance, after citing some dominical parables Wilson says, “tares are weeds the entire time, the sow that is washed is a clean pig but still has a natural affinity for the mire, the dog that vomited is still a dog. On the other side, all the branches are true branches, including those to be cut out, etc. We should simply want to affirm all the passages at face value and to let God sort it out. The only way I can do this is to affirm the objectivity of the covenant, affirm that ontological differences exist between the elect and the reprobate whether the covenant is involved or not, and affirm that we should not pry too closely into it.” In another context, Wilson chides Baptists for wanting to “uproot the tares before their time” and by doing so “damage the wheat.” Leaving aside for the moment the straw man here (is that a pun?), Wilson then goes on in the chapter “God’s Phonic program” to outline in what ways we must attempt to uproot the tares and “pry into” a person’s confession of faith. Consider these representative statements:

“It is [not] possible for us to read the decrees of God, and we should not act as though we can do that either. We can’t read hearts, and we can’t read the Book of Life. But from these important truths many have concluded (erroneously) that it is not possible for us to read the story we are in.”

“Jesus is telling us –[in Matt. 7:15-20] that—without access to the decrees or the examined prophet’s heart laid out before us on a dissection table—we have the authority to conclude that someone is inwardly a ravening wolf. This is not reading hearts, or reading the decrees. It is reading the story. The outer story reveals the man.”

“Can such [church discipline] judgments ever be wrong? Well, of course they can. That does not mean that we are warned away from making them.”

“It is no good to dismiss the division of sheep and goats as an eschatological vision and thus put it out of all practical consideration.” (pg 163, this compromises his criticism of Baptists cited above)

Is there anything here a 9marks Baptist would disagree with? I don’t think so. So what kind of pastoral and theological payoff does the “O of C” really give you? Baptists have always approached church membership in all the categories Wilson wants but without the confusing dogmatism of the “objectivity of the covenant.”

Yes, “dogmatism.” As much as Wilson criticizes “systematic dogma” that carefully distinguishes divine election and church membership, he has some dogmatism of his own that steam rolls over a great deal of Scripture. The whole theological notion of the “O of C” is conjured up, I believe, from Wilson’s grappling with the doctrine of infant baptism. I completely understand his confusion, because I think Presbyterians have always been confusing about what baptism is and accomplishes. Because you are willingly and knowingly baptizing people (infants) who are not regenerate, you have to grapple with their status as baptized unregenerates in the church. Wilson’s solution to this problem is straightforward as it is astonishing.

While affirming the traditional definition of regeneration as the sovereign, monergistic work of God, Wilson goes on to say that God can do this work whenever he chooses, without means (which is excruciatingly awkward given Wilson’s high sacramentalism). He says, “I believe I am applying [regeneration] consistently, and across the board. To affirm the reality of regenerate zygotes (which I do affirm, lots of them) is not a contradiction of evangelicalism simply because the zygote doesn’t have legs yet and cannot walk the aisle at the invitation…[or] until after the kid has memorized the Heidelberg Catechism.” Here’s an even more direct statement: “[their regeneration could occur] in the womb or when they were born or when they were baptized or six weeks, three days, and ten minutes after their baptism.” Wilson comes up short of saying “baptism regenerates,” but what he is saying is “we are baptizing infants that might well be regenerate” and “we will assume they are.”

I will voice two main problems with this, though others could be thrown in. First, the Bible is virtually silent about how infants and “zygotes” are drawn to God. Second, we should not build our entire ecclesiological system on answering that question. If the Bible is clear on anything, it is that “faith comes by hearing.” We see this in every account of salvation and every theological reflection of how it comes about. I know this raises the question about the salvific status of infants and embryos who obviously never have the opportunity to hear the word that brings faith. I think as good of an answer as you are going to get can be found here. As a Baptist, I operate within the categories I am given in Scripture, making sure I do not attempt to “peer into the decrees” as I take confessors at their word until proven otherwise.[1] Wilson, however, is using a dogma that has no clear biblical precedent to build an entire theological system on. Physician, heal thyself.

These are the broad strokes of my critique of Wilson’s message. As I said regarding structure, the format of the book hides many of these problems because his argument is more episodic that methodical. In wrapping up this review, I want to end with one area where the difference between how a Baptist sees things and how Wilson sees things makes a great pastoral difference.

While defending “paedo-communion” (allowing children to partake of the Lord’s Supper), Wilson says the following: “When [children] begin to reach for bread and you have to hold the bread away from them, that moment has become didactic. If the lesson is, ‘We’re in and you’re out,’ that’s contrary to the statement we made at their baptism that they’re in with the rest of us. So we encourage parents to begin at that point to give them the elements accompanied by the teaching: ‘This is the body of Jesus . He died for you. He paid for your sins.’ …this practice, however, should not be perceived as a low-bar cognitive admittance test. We are not after understanding first, so that children may be admitted to the company of those who have passed their ecclesiastical prelims. Rather what we want with children who are taking the Supper is gladness, so that the right kind of understanding will then be able to grow.”

There are several assumptions here about the nature of the church as “believers with their children.” I reject those assumptions, of course. I reject infant baptism, so the situation envisioned of withholding the bread despite a child’s baptism gives me little pause. What I really want to take issue with is the final thought that a child’s first experience of Christianity should be “gladness” as an “insider.” Wilson is attempting to take the moral high ground here. Who wants to argue against a child experiencing joy in their first encounters with Christianity? I would say two things: 1) this sentiment contradicts the order of redemption history: first, agony, despair, cliffhangers, nail biting, the Law; and only then relief, joy, gladness, praise. You can’t fully experience Christian joy until you know what you’ve been saved from. 2) The better approach, which is entirely scriptural, is to let the child see the joy in those who profess Christ much like the world should see a Christian’s good works and rejoice. Perhaps I could trump Wilson’s moral high ground of providing “joy” as a child’s first impression with the higher ground of providing a “longing for joy.” We want the longing first, the ache, the hunger, because only then will the joy be sweet and satisfying when its finally tasted.

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.


[1] I take great exception to this unfair comment: “those who want to affirm the central importance of regeneration, but who also want to assert that they have the power to peer into hearts and determine who around here is really born again and who not … are paying far too high a price for it. That price is that they have also introduced the very dangerous sectarian (and—sorry everybody!—baptistic) impulse into the life of the church. We, the Pure and Lovely, consist of ‘thee and me, and I have my doubts about thee.’” Apology not accepted. This is a gross caricature and not even remotely a defensible entailment of baptistic doctrine (Anabaptist doctrine may be something else).

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Recommended Resources on the Psalms, Part 2: Commentaries for Preachers (Timothy Raymond)

Posted by on Mar 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, Timothy Raymond | One Comment
Recommended Resources on the Psalms, Part 2: Commentaries for Preachers (Timothy Raymond)

In my first post in this series on resources on the Psalms, I directed our readers to some excellent videos and MP3s, all available for free on the internet.  There really is a wealth of wonderful, conservative evangelical scholarship in existence on the Psalms and those of us who preach and teach would be wise to take advantage of this.  In today’s post I’ll be drawing attention to the commentaries I’ve found most helpful as a pastor in turning the ancient Psalms into contemporary sermons.

But before I do so, a word of explanation is in order.  As I’ve explained before, I’m thoroughly convinced that preachers ought to be using both exegetical, scholarly commentaries and pastoral, applicatory commentaries in sermon preparation.  If we only ever read exegetical commentaries, such as the NICOT, our sermons will be grammatically precise but most likely deadly boring to the normal Christian.  Likewise, if we only ever use pastoral commentaries, such as Matthew Henry’s, our sermons will connect with the person in the pew, but will likely model a sometimes fanciful exegesis. By utilizing both pastoral commentaries and exegetical commentaries we’ll engage in careful exegesis and explore how a text feeds the souls of the sheep entrusted to our care.  But enough of that soap box…

Here are my four favorite pastoral, applicatory commentaries on the Psalms with a few brief comments as to why:

9780917006258mThe Treasury of David by Charles Haddon Spurgeon – Pride of place goes to Spurgeon’s magisterial exposition of all 150 Psalms, originally in 7 volumes.  As you would expect, Spurgeon is always clear, profound, deeply-reverent, theological, devotional, practical, Christological, and often humorous.  If I could only have one commentary on the Psalms, this would be the one.  The section “Hints to the Village Preacher,” found at the conclusion of each psalm, is a goldmine for sermon outlines.  The one drawback of this set is its wordiness.  Apparently people weren’t so pressed for time in the 19th century and seemed to reason, “Why say something in 100 words when you could use 1,000?”

A Guide to the Psalms, by W. Graham Scroggie – This lesser known tome is a treasure.  Scroggie (1877-1958) was a later successor of Spurgeon’s at the Metropolitan Tabernacle and his Guide to the Psalms is sort of like an abridged Treasury of David.  If my house was burning down and I couldn’t carry out all seven volumes of Spurgeon’s Treasury, I’d grab A Guide to the Psalms instead.  The most helpful aspect of this work is how Scroggie provides incredibly clear, memorable outlines of the psalms.  Once you’ve seen his outline, you’ll be asking yourself, “Why didn’t I see this before?”  Unfortunately this volume is currently out of print, so buy the used copies while they’re available.

The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life: Psalms 1-12 by Dale Ralph Davis – For several years now Dale Ralph Davis has been pumping out excellent Old Testament expositional commentaries and this little one on the first twelve Psalms is a homerun.  As is typical for Davis, it’s clear, well-illustrated, built on careful exegesis, applicatory, and frequently hilarious.  Davis is a master of the punchy, pithy sentence.  One feature which I’m not too terribly fond of is how he feels compelled to illustrate every major point with a fairly substantial story.  After a while, I just skim over these and get back to the ex080106595Xmposition.  I hope he goes on to finish the Psalter.

The Psalms, Three Volumes by James Montgomery Boice – Pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for over three decades, Boice (1938-2000) is well known for his expositional commentaries which are essentially transcripts of his sermons lightly edited for publication.  These volumes on the Psalms are wonderful examples of a loving pastor who worked through the entire Psalter in a local church context, taking 8 years to go through them all.  Boice is similar to Spurgeon in emphases, but perhaps more concise and certainly less humorous.

Lord willing, in my next post I’ll recommend a few academic, scholarly commentaries on the Psalms.  I’ll close by reiterating my invitation.  If there are resources on the Psalms (i.e., lectures, commentaries, books, etc.) you’d like me to review or would recommend yourself, leave them in the comments below and I’ll consider including them.

Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

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Skeptical of Expository Preaching? Think again

Posted by on Mar 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Magazine-Justification | No Comments
Skeptical of Expository Preaching? Think again

Editor’s note: This book review is taken from the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Justification: The Doctrine On Which the Church Stands or Falls.”

Preaching:  A Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2013) is a new volume in the world of homiletics, and hopefully its effect will be a lasting one.  Jason C. Meyer serves as a gracious, but formidable attorney making his case for an expositional approach as the preferred method for the vast majority of preaching from Scripture today.  Meyer roots his case in a conviction that “the whole Bible alone can give a holistic answer to what preaching is” (14).

9781433519710mOut of that conviction, the reader is taken on a journey surveying the entirety of Scripture to see a paradigm of “the ministry of the word.”  This paradigm is described as stewarding the word, heralding the word, and encountering God through his word.  It’s the thoroughness of this holistic approach that is perhaps the book’s greatest strength.

Meyer’s first section provides an overview of how he sees that paradigm function in Scripture.  Then, in the second section he dives deep, surveying redemptive history to see eleven “paradigm shifts in the ministry of the word”, each an important expression of the stewardship of the Word.  He concludes with a third section that applies this paradigm to preaching today.

Through this holistic look at preaching, a broad range of readers could be served very well by Preaching, including:

  • the convinced:  those already convinced of the primacy of expository preaching
  • the skeptical:  those preferring to make other preaching methods more central
  • the weary:  those currently weary in the preaching task
  • the future preacher:  those who may be engaged in future preaching ministry

For the convinced, there is a feast in Meyer’s book.  From helpful practical tips to a wonderful survey of preaching literature, Preaching can be a “go to” resource in many ways.  For instance, Meyer’s reminder to share the main point, show the main point, and shepherd the congregation with that main point is a wonderfully simple but profound one.  Even more importantly, there is a cumulative effect as one reads eleven examples of stewardship throughout the Bible, such that the great privilege and holy responsibility of preaching gets cemented further into the soul.

For the skeptical, Preaching provides healthy engagement with the question of method.  Meyer also provides an even-handed presentation of the strengths of topical preaching, arguing for a real (though limited) place for topical preaching in the teaching diet of a church.  Unfortunately, the truly skeptical may tune out before the lengthy stewarding > heralding > encountering survey of redemptive history is complete.  This is a slight detraction, though there is still much benefit for those in the more skeptical camp.

For the weary, much help could be derived from Preaching.  Where the focus in a typical homiletics book might fall on the “how to,” Meyer includes a healthy dose of the “what” and “why” of preaching.  In doing so, Meyer provides real potential to sustain a preacher with joy and purpose in the task of preaching.  That sustaining benefit for the weary will require working through and wrestling with a lengthy survey of redemptive history before it is truly felt, but it is well worth the effort and regular review.

For the future preacher, Meyer’s book should be required reading.  Any aspiring pastor needs to wrestle with the holy responsibility of rightly stewarding God’s word.  Preaching will help them do just that, perhaps like no other recent work.

That being said, two areas of potential improvement could have made it an even stronger volume.  One area is in the structure.  The book is clear in its structure, and Meyer provides helpful guidance for how to best benefit from Preaching.  But, the steward > herald > encounter paradigm isn’t clearly or entirely carried through into the address of preaching today.  The connections are stated, but some of the powerful cumulative help from the survey of redemptive history seems to be left behind in the third section.

The other area of potential improvement is in the sections of application.  To be sure, there is application, like the sober call to flee sexual immorality in light of the fearful examples of David and Solomon.  One might wish, however, for more sustained application at times.  For instance, the teasing out of the implications of God equipping the called (Moses) and not calling the equipped, or of the implications today of a false stewardship, or of the sustaining hope of a faithful stewardship even when it doesn’t appear to be as fruitful as one would like, would strengthen the effect of what is an already very strong and very helpful book.

In summary, however, Preaching is a book that can bring much profit to the reader’s soul—and much help to the preacher’s preaching—to God’s glory and the good of his church.

Tab Trainor, Pastor, Grace Church, San Diego

Read the recent issue of Credo Magazine today:


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Justification: The Doctrine on which the Church Stands or Falls

While we could point to many different factors that led the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to break from Rome, perhaps one that would be at the very top of the list is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For Luther and Calvin, this doctrine is the very hinge on which the Christian religion turns. In part this is because sola fide is what sets Protestants apart. While every other religion puts something of man into the equation, Protestantism removes man’s works from the justification formula altogether. Therefore, the “sola” in sola fide makes all the difference in the world.

With over 2,000 years of church history in our rear view mirror, it appears that sola fide is a doctrine that comes under discussion in every generation. Our generation is no exception. Much dialogue continues over the New Perspective on Paul, Protestant and Catholic statements of agreement, and the relationship between justification and the Christian life. In this issue I am proud to welcome some of the finest thinkers on the subject in order to better understand what Scripture says about how sinners can be made right with a holy God.

Contributors include Thomas Schreiner, Michael Allen, Michael Horton, Philip Ryken, J.V. Fesko, Matthew Barrett, Korey Maas, Guy Waters, Brian Vickers, Fred Zaspel, and many others.

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Do we really understand “union with Christ”? (J. V. Fesko)

Posted by on Feb 18, 2014 in Book Reviews, Magazine-Justification | No Comments
Do we really understand “union with Christ”? (J. V. Fesko)

In the new issue of Credo Magazine, “Justification: The Doctrine On Which the Church Stands or Falls,” J. V. Fesko contributed a book review called, “Do we really understand ‘union with Christ’? Adding clarity to an essential doctrine.” Fesko’s review is of Marcus Johnson’s new book, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Crossway). J. V. Fesko is Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California.

Fesko begins his review:

Credo January 2014 Cover JPEGMarcus Johnson brings his book, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation, to a crowded field of literature on the subject of union with Christ, with the hopes of encouraging readers to consider the importance of the doctrine. In this noble venture, Johnson ably presents the significance of this subject across a broad cross-section of other doctrines, such as the incarnation, justification, sanctification, adoption, perseverance, ecclesiology, and the sacraments. And throughout the book Johnson dialogs with several conversation partners, including Calvin, Luther, and T. F. Torrance.

One with Christ holds several positive aspects. Johnson provides the broader Evangelical church a helpful survey of the ways in which union with Christ bears upon a number of doctrines, including the doctrines of the church and sacraments. There are likely many who do not consider these connections. Johnson sets forth the different aspects of union with Christ as it deals with salvation and the important doctrines of justification, sanctification, adoption, perseverance, and glorification. On this note, Johnson’s advocacy of the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and his criticism of N. T. Wright for failing to embrace the doctrine are positive and noteworthy (107 n. 37). With Wright’s latest monster tome on the theology of Paul now published, questions about imputed righteousness will likely reappear on the debate stage. Readers will have a good resource with Johnson’s book because he shows how the Scriptures teach that union with Christ and imputed righteousness are compatible and necessary doctrines.

The book’s strengths aside, there are two key areas that reveal weaknesses and show a need for greater (1) historical engagement and (2) clarity on how justification and union with Christ relate. . . .

To finish reading Fesko’s critique, take a look at the new issue of Credo Magazine today.


To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here}

Justification: The Doctrine on which the Church Stands or Falls

While we could point to many different factors that led the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to break from Rome, perhaps one that would be at the very top of the list is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For Luther and Calvin, this doctrine is the very hinge on which the Christian religion turns. In part this is because sola fide is what sets Protestants apart. While every other religion puts something of man into the equation, Protestantism removes man’s works from the justification formula altogether. Therefore, the “sola” in sola fide makes all the difference in the world.

With over 2,000 years of church history in our rear view mirror, it appears that sola fide is a doctrine that comes under discussion in every generation. Our generation is no exception. Much dialogue continues over the New Perspective on Paul, Protestant and Catholic statements of agreement, and the relationship between justification and the Christian life. In this issue I am proud to welcome some of the finest thinkers on the subject in order to better understand what Scripture says about how sinners can be made right with a holy God.

Contributors include Thomas Schreiner, Michael Allen, Michael Horton, Philip Ryken, J.V. Fesko, Matthew Barrett, Korey Maas, Guy Waters, Brian Vickers, Fred Zaspel, and many others.

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The Final Days of Jesus – Review by Schreiner at TGC

Posted by on Feb 4, 2014 in Book Reviews, Thomas Schreiner | One Comment
The Final Days of Jesus – Review by Schreiner at TGC

Credo Magazine contributor Thomas Schreiner has just written a review over at The Gospel Coalition of The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived (Crossway),edited by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Justin Taylor, with Alexander Stewart. Here is what he says to start:

35109Andreas Köstenberger, an outstanding biblical scholar from Southeastern Seminary; Justin Taylor, the well-known blogger and publisher at Crossway Books; and Alexander Stewart, a research assistant for Köstenberger; have teamed up to write a book on the last days of Jesus—that is, the final week of his life. The authors primarily march through the week day by day, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, though they also include a brief epilogue that includes other resurrection appearances, the Great Commission, and Christ’s ascension.

The format of the book is easy to follow, and the commentary is brief and consistently excellent. For each day in the final week of Jesus’ life, the events are listed, the scriptural passage (or passages) pertaining to the event is printed, and a commentary on the passage is provided. The Final Days of Jesus should prove to be helpful for pastors, teachers, and interested laypersons who preach and teach about the events in our Lord’s last week. Moreover, those who desire to meditate on Jesus’ last week will find this to be an excellent resource as well.

One of the main advantages of Köstenberger and Taylor’s book is its brevity. Here is a resource that pastors and teachers will be able to read in advance of teaching, for the commentary is concise and accessible. I especially found helpful the numerous tables that illustrated events or other truths. Sometimes busy pastors and teachers don’t have the time to plunge into technical details about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and yet they need to be informed by responsible scholarship about what occurred. This book serves that need.

Read the rest of Schreiner’s review here.

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Changing lives with Christ’s changeless truth

Changing lives with Christ’s changeless truth

The newly formed Biblical Counseling Coalition (2011) organized around the goal of fostering collaborative relationships as well as providing relevant biblical resources that equip the body of Christ to change lives with Christ’s changeless truth.  As their confessional statement continues, it says that they pursue “this purpose by organizing our thinking around one central question:  What does it mean to counsel in the grace and truth of Christ?” (429). Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling, edited by James MacDonald, Bob Kellemen, and Stephen Viars, is this goal and purpose expanded into one volume containing over forty authors.  The shear amount of participation followed by coherence among these authors is amazing in itself.  The collaborative nature among these biblical counselors who are comprised of men and women of various backgrounds, with different experiences, makes this volume a unique compendium of writing on one subject.  For anyone looking for one book that summarizes and explains biblical counseling, this is definitely the book.

9780736951456mThe first half is composed of the theology behind biblical counseling.  John Piper’s chapter, “The Glory of God:  The Goal of Biblical Counseling,” is placed first.  Piper, in usual fashion, impacts readers from the beginning.  He states that the goal in biblical counseling is “God-centered, Bible-saturated, emotionally-in-touch use of language to help people become God-besotted, Christ–exalting, joyfully self forgetting lovers of people” (24).  From here, the rest of part 1 connects biblical counseling with the nature of Scripture, the Trinity, and redemption, and applying these truths through the gospel to the sinful human heart, leading to salvation and producing holiness, being held together by the hope of eternity.  What is described is really nothing new; it is simply taking Scripture within its context and connecting it to the Bible’s grand narrative.  In the midst of this big picture is the hope that comes through understanding the gospel.  As Nicolas Ellen and Jeremy Lelek explain in their chapter, “the reason for this rests in the fact that our hearts are wired for worship, and our worship is directly tied to our sense of hope.” (218).  This hope drives our pursuit of holiness as we fight the battles of sin and suffering, with the truths of Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The second half of the book is composed of the practice behind biblical counseling.  It is here that the theology of biblical counseling in the first half is fleshed out in the life of the church and in the ministry of the counselor.  The view of the writers in this book is that “formal counseling is required when struggles of sin and suffering reach a point of crisis, but informal counseling occurs all the time.” (227). Therefore, focus is not only given to private ministry of the Word in the counseling room, but also the public ministry of the Word.  These two aspects of counseling interweave together as they both serve similar functions in the believer’s spiritual formation.  Both ministries encourage believers to “grow spiritually by abiding in Jesus” (290).  In addition to displaying what biblical counseling looks like in the life of the church, attention is given to the process and procedure of change.  The goal here is to “equip biblical counselors to minister God’s Word to hurting people with confidence, competence and compassion” (325).  This includes explanations of data gathering, sorting out problems, counselor involvement, finding idols of the heart, seeing the power of confession, repentance and forgiveness, as well as understanding the complexities of the mind/soul relationship.

I recommend Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling for two reasons.  First, this book is extremely practical.  Providing a theology that undergirds counseling is necessary, but theology should always lead to practice. Case studies abound throughout this volume displaying truth applied to problems.  In addition, many chapters come with bullet points, diagrams and grids to help further break down information.

Second, Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling offers a helpful balance between different strands of biblical counseling.  This was clearly demonstrated by Laura Hendrickson in her chapter on “The Complex Mind/Body Connection.”  Hendrickson wades through difficult waters when she addresses disagreements over medicine and counseling.  She argues that when it comes to medicine and counseling, “neither extreme position is consistent with the full counsel of Scripture or with the findings of medical science” (415).  This balance displayed throughout this book comes through having a variety of writers, which again adds to the value of this volume.

As Bob Kellemen and Steve Viars conclude, “Christ Centered Biblical Counseling will equip you to equip others also so that we bring Him glory through our individual and corporate growth in Christlikeness” (426).  This conclusion shows through in the message of this book where the reader will see that, “understanding people, diagnosing the root sources of problems, and prescribing wise ‘treatment options’ requires robust, relational, comprehensive and compassionate care grounded in our shared redemptive relationship to Christ” (422).

Michael Nelson is Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Osceola, AR.

This book review is from the recent issue of Credo Magazine. Read others like it today!


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What’s the Big Idea Story?

Why Biblical Theology Should Matter to Every Bible-Believing Christian

When the sixteenth-century Reformation erupted, one of the alarming dangers that became blatantly obvious to reformers like Martin Luther was the pervasiveness of biblical illiteracy among the laity. It may be tempting to think that this problem has been solved almost five hundred years later. However, in our own day biblical illiteracy in the pew continues to present a challenge. Many Christians in our post-Christian context simply are not acquainted with the storyline of the Bible and God’s actions in redemptive history from Adam to the second Adam.

With this concern in mind, the current issue of Credo Magazine strives to take a step forward, in the right direction, by emphasizing the importance of “biblical theology.” Therefore, we have brought together some of the best and brightest minds to explain what biblical theology is, why it is so important, and how each and every Christian can become a biblical theologian. Our hope in doing so is that every Christian will return to the text of Scripture with an unquenchable appetite to not only read the Bible, but comprehend God’s unfolding plan of salvation.

Contributors include: Justin Taylor, Darian Lockett, Edwards Klink III, David Murray, Stephen Dempster, James Hamilton, T. Desmond Alexander, Stephen Wellum, Peter Gentry, G. K. Beale, Graham Cole, and many others.

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Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Review)

Posted by on Jan 16, 2014 in Atonement, Book Reviews, Resurrection of Jesus | No Comments
Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Review)

What does Hebrews say about the bodily resurrection of Jesus? David Moffitt, in the revised version of his doctoral dissertation at Duke University entitled Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, seeks to answer this question. Moffitt’s thesis is two-fold: First, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is essential to the argument of Hebrews and is not by-passed or conflated with exaltation as others have argued. Second, in the logic of Hebrews’ argument, the bodily resurrection is crucial for atonement to be accomplished—it is the presentation of Jesus’ resurrected flesh and blood in heaven that results in atonement. Moffitt thus argues against the predominant view that Hebrews presents Jesus’s death as the central soteriological reality that accomplishes redemption. This volume is one of the most important among recently published monographs on Hebrews, and was the feature of an entire session at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society this year.

Summary

Moffitt begins by setting forth his thesis and the structure of his argument. He claims that Jesus’s resurrection is not only an important event for the author of Hebrews, but that the author’s entire argument is grounded on the resurrection as the event where Jesus obtained indestructible life. Furthermore, the author of Hebrews views the presentation of Jesus’s glorified humanity in heaven as the culmination of the sequential process of blood sacrifice—the presentation of the blood / life of the victim before God. Moffitt then assesses and responds to prevailing views on Jesus’s resurrection. Moffitt faults interpreters of Hebrews for overlooking the importance of the bodily resurrection in the author’s theology. Some interpreters have claimed that though the author affirms the resurrection, he passes over it to focus on death and exaltation. Other interpreters conflate the categories of resurrection and exaltation, view the resurrection as a spiritual ascension, or deny that Hebrews affirms the resurrection altogether.Capture

In chapter 2, Moffitt argues that Hebrews 1–2 presents Jesus as superior to the angels by virtue of his embodied entry into heaven as a human being. Jesus is qualified to reign over the world to come only because of his embodied humanity. First, Moffitt argues that the primary contrast between the Son and the angels in Heb 1 is embodiment—the Son is a flesh-and-blood human being, while angels are spirits. Second, Moffitt considers the eschatology of Hebrews, focussing on οἰκουμένη (world) in Heb 1:6 and 2:5. He argues that Heb 1:6 refers to the Son’s entry into the same coming world that is referenced in Heb 2:5. Third, Moffitt claims that the use of Ps 8 in Heb 2:5–9 shows that Jesus’s entry and enthronement as ruler of the heavenly world to come is proleptic of the entry of the heirs of God’s promise. Most importantly, glorified embodiment qualifies Jesus (and human beings) to reign over the heavenly world. Thus, concludes Moffitt, Jesus’s bodily resurrection is vital for the argument of Heb 1–2.

Chapter 3 addresses the question of Jesus’s resurrection in Hebrews in two steps. First, Moffitt surveys contemporary Second Temple literature to establish the plausibility of a bodily entry into heaven. Moffitt argues that in early Jewish apocalyptic texts, ascension of a human body into heaven is made possible through some kind of glorification. Second, Moffitt probes Hebrews for the author’s theology of resurrection. Moffitt argues not only for the presence of Jesus’s resurrection, but also that the author’s conception of “perfection” includes resurrection. Since Jesus’s high priesthood is predicated on his perfection, Jesus’s bodily resurrection is a necessary prerequisite to his service as the great high priest. This is Moffitt’s major claim, and the foundation on which the rest of his work is built: if Hebrews teaches that Jesus’s high-priestly heavenly offering is ­post-resurrection, then Jesus’s death on the cross does not have the atoning significance traditionally ascribed to it by most interpreters of Hebrews.

Moffitt addresses this issue in chapter 4, by arguing that in Hebrews, Jesus’s death does not accomplish atonement, but rather that it is “the event that triggers the process that results in [Jesus] being qualified and equipped to offer his indestructible life to God” (220). Moffitt builds on the work of OT scholars who argue that the slaughter of the victim in the sacrificial process has minimal significance; what in fact accomplishes atonement is the ritual manipulation and presentation of blood, which represents the life of the victim. Thus, in Hebrews, it is Jesus’s heavenly presentation of his blood / life as the resurrected high priest that accomplishes atonement rather than his death. Yet Jesus’s death is not devoid of significance in Hebrews, because it is exemplary of endurance, and because it sets in motion the events by which Jesus is qualified to make his heavenly offering to God. Thus, Moffitt claims, the early Christian kerygma, that Jesus died, was raised, ascended, and is seated at the right hand of God, is the narrative substructure of Hebrews.

Critical Evaluation

Moffitt’s volume is stimulating and warrants careful engagement. Moffitt writes with great clarity and structures his argument carefully. The volume is also packed with exegetical insights. I found many of Moffitt’s arguments to be persuasive. I was convinced by his interpretation of oἰκουμένη in 1:6 as referring to the promised heavenly world to come. His argument for a new conquest theme in Hebrews is compelling, including his proposal of an allusion to Num 13:3 in Jesus as the “pioneer” (ἀρχηγός) of salvation. I was also persuaded by Moffitt’s interpretation of the use of Ps 8 in Heb 2:5–8.

However, Moffitt’s argument is flawed on multiple fronts. First, his emphasis on Jesus’s embodied humanity leads him to almost completely overlook the emphasis on Christ’s deity in Hebrews 1. Moffitt does not really show how texts that emphasize the Son’s superiority over angels by virtue of his deity fit into the argument—while Hebrews 1 does present the Son as the enthroned (human) Davidic King, it also asserts that the Son is the eternal agent of creation who upholds the universe by his powerful word (1:2–3, 10–12). Moffitt also seems to miss the fact that in Heb 1, the author freely applies to the Son OT texts that refer to Yahweh in their original contexts. Moffitt’s downplaying of Christ’s deity here results in a deflated christology, which affects his interpretation of other texts and his understanding of Christ’s high-priestly appointment. Moffitt’s christology thus falls short of Hebrews, which despite its emphasis on Jesus’s embodied humanity, always presents Jesus as the eternal, divine Son of God.

Moffitt makes compelling arguments for the presence and importance of Jesus’s resurrection in Hebrews. He rightly argues for a reference to Jesus’s resurrection in Heb 5:7. Also convincing is his argument for the centrality of resurrection hope in Heb 11. However, Moffitt’s insistence that Jesus’s high priesthood is predicated on his resurrection is questionable. This point is crucial because Moffitt builds the edifice of his remaining argument on this issue.

Moffitt claims that the main contrast between the Aaronic priesthood and Jesus’s priesthood is “the respective relationships of Jesus and the Levitical priests to the power of death” (197). Further, Moffitt claims that Jesus was appointed as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek only after and because of the resurrection. Moffitt makes strong arguments, but he misses other points of contrast between Jesus and the Levitical high priests that imply that Jesus was a priest prior to the resurrection. For instance, Jesus’s high priesthood is superior by virtue of his sinlessness (7:26), his sonship (7:28), and the superiority of his sacrifice (7:27). Jesus’s high priesthood is certainly contrasted with the Levitical priesthood on the basis of his “indestructible life” (7:16), which Moffitt argues that Jesus obtained post-resurrection. But here again, Moffitt misconstrues the text. Melchizedek is not only said to be different from the Levitical priests because his life extends forward eternally, but also because he has no father or mother or genealogy, and is without beginning of days. Hebrews also states that Melchizedek resembles the Son of God in this respect. Perhaps then, Jesus’s “indestructible life” is one that he always possesses, by virtue of his deity, and this “indestructible life,” together with his priesthood, is vindicated at the resurrection rather than obtained post-resurrection. Perhaps Moffitt’s interpretation here is affected by his lack of attention to Jesus’s deity in Heb 1. Yet, even if as Moffitt argues, Hebrews conceives of Jesus obtaining his “indestructible life” post-resurrection, this does not entail that Jesus did not hold his priestly office in any sense during his earthly life. Hebrews makes clear that Jesus was Son throughout his earthly life (5:8), but still allows for an appointment as Son post-resurrection (1:5). Similarly, there is sufficient evidence to show that Jesus held his priestly office prior to his death and resurrection, despite the designation as high priest that occurs post-resurrection. Moffitt’s argument fails on another count: If Christ attained his priesthood only post-resurrection and was not a priest in some sense prior to his bodily resurrection, would it not render his death as an improper sacrifice? After all, in the Yom Kippur ritual the sacrificial offering had to be made by the high priest, who was also responsible for the slaughter of the victim.[1] The rest of Moffitt’s argument rests heavily on Christ becoming a priest exclusively post-resurrection. If this idea is disproven, then the rest of Moffitt’s schema collapses.

Moffitt also insists that Jesus’s self-offering in the heavenly tabernacle is not an “incoherent and inconsistent metaphorical appeal to Jewish sacrifice and high-priestly service intended to explain the spiritual significance of the historical event of the crucifixion” (228). He then forces the author’s typological interpretation of the Yom Kippur event into a rigid literal paradigm that seemingly drives a wedge between Jesus’s heavenly offering and earthly death. This is problematic for two reasons. First, Hebrews uses more than Yom Kippur alone to interpret Christ’s death (as does the rest of the NT). Moffitt’s rightly privileges the Yom Kippur ritual as the primary lens by which Christ’s death is interpreted in Hebrews, but in doing so, he obscures the other sacrificial imagery that Hebrews (and the NT) employs. Second, it seems like Moffitt pushes the typology too far here—the language of heavenly offering need not be interpreted literally, but can function metaphorically to indicate the superior value and significance of Jesus’s sacrifice.

Moffitt’s argument that blood is a reference to “life” and that death / slaughter is not the focal point of atoning sacrifice in the OT and in Hebrews does not do justice to several texts that use “blood” as shorthand for death, both in the OT and in the NT. Even within Hebrews, blood clearly seems to refer to death of a sacrificial victim in Heb 9:15–22. In Heb 9:15–22, Christ’s death is interpreted through the lens of covenant inauguration, and death is equated with blood. Moffitt begs the question when he uses his construal of the larger argument to inform the interpretation of this text, instead of letting this passage affect his understanding of the larger argument—in 9:15–22, death clearly stands at the center of the sacrificial process. Moffitt does not comment on Heb 12:24, where Jesus’s blood is juxtaposed with a reference to Abel’s blood, and the latter clearly refers to death.

Moffitt also overlooks language in several texts in Hebrews that attribute soteriological significance to Christ’s death. For instance in 2:9, Jesus tastes death “for everyone” (ὑπὲρ παντὸς). In 2:14–15, the author states that Jesus through death destroys the devil and delivers those who were subject to lifelong slavery. In 9:27–28 also, Christ’s being offered once to bear the sins of many most likely refers to Christ’s death (rather than heavenly offering), as it is set in parallel to the death of men, and also because this text seems to be a clear allusion to Isa 53:12. Additionally, Moffitt assumes the views of OT scholars who argue that blood refers to “life” rather than to death, but these points are debated even within OT scholarship. Also against Moffitt’s thesis that death is not central to atonement are OT and NT texts in which atonement is linked to death rather than on ritual manipulation of blood (for example, Num 25:6–13; 35:33; Mark 10:45; John 11:50–52; 12:32–33; Rom 3:24–25; 5:9–10; 1 Cor 15:3; Gal 3:13–14; Eph 2:13–16; Col 1:20; 1 Pet 2:24; 3:18; Rev 5:9). This point brings me to some methodological issues with Moffitt’s work.

Perhaps the most serious deficiency of Moffitt’s volume is his failure to integrate his findings in Hebrews with the rest of the NT, particularly the Johannine and Pauline literature, in which Christ’s death is clearly emphasized the central act which procures redemption / atonement. Moffitt appeals to 1 Cor 15:17 and Rom 4:25 to claim that even for Paul “the cross is not sufficient for atonement” (292, fn. 159). But this is also misleading, because in these texts Paul states that the resurrection vindicates the atoning significance of Christ’s death. For Paul, the resurrection does not achieve atonement, but it vindicates the atonement achieved at the cross. If Moffitt’s thesis is accepted, it creates strong tensions with the atonement theology of the NT as a whole. At times, one wonder what Moffitt even means by “atonement,” a term that he never really defines with any clarity. This failure to integrate things biblically and theologically is related to the nagging issue of the relationship between “biblical studies” and “theology.” The kind of bifurcation evident in Moffitt’s volume may work in the larger academy, but it will not help evangelicals who are committed to teach and proclaim the “whole counsel of God.”

Similarly, Moffitt’s volume suffers from a lack of any engagement with pre-modern readings of Hebrews. Apart from two brief footnote references to Faustus Socinus (and not to Socinus’s work itself, but to Demarest’s summary of it), Moffitt engages no interpreters from before the 20th century. Since Moffitt wrestles with issues that are rooted in age-old debates (eg., the question of when Christ becomes a priest), his work is severely weakened by his passing over of 1900 years of interpreters of Hebrews who have already examined these issues at length.

Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews is an important contribution on Hebrews. Moffitt is to be commended for this carefully argued volume that raises important questions, new and old. Careful readers will profit from Moffitt’s numerous exegetical insights, particularly his emphasis on the clear presence of Jesus’s resurrection in Hebrews. However, while scholars of Hebrews must respond to Moffitt’s study and build on its foundation, this book is limited in its value for pastors because of the deficiencies I have noted above.


[1]John Owen, arguing that Christ held his priestly office prior to the resurrection, rightly identified this issue—Christ could not have become a priest only post-resurrection, because this “excludes his oblation in his death from being a proper sacerdotal act.” John Owen, The Works of John Owen: An exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, with Preliminary Exercitations, ed. William H. Goold, vol. XXII (London: Johnstone and Hunter), 452. Moffitt does not engage Owen’s arguments against the Socinians—arguments which also apply against Moffitt’s own proposal. See Ibid., 513-571. In fact, Moffitt’s work is marred by a failure to engage any interpreters of Hebrews prior to 1903.

Aubrey Sequeira is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. 

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Matthew Barrett reviews Bird’s Evangelical Theology

Posted by on Jan 13, 2014 in Book Reviews, Matthew Barrett | One Comment
Matthew Barrett reviews Bird’s Evangelical Theology

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, has written a review of Michael Bird’s new systematic theology for The Gospel Coalition, which you can read here. This is what Barrett had to say:

Michael F. Bird. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 912 pp. $49.99.

Rarely will a biblical theologian attempt to cross over into the field of systematic theology. The task is incredibly difficult because systematics is the queen of the sciences. Not only is the theologian attempting to put together what the whole Bible says about each doctrine of the faith, but in doing so one must employ Old and New Testament theology, historical theology, and philosophical theology, as well as apologetics. Additionally, the scholar must be up to date on past and present theological discussions that interest few biblical theologians. Showing an impressive range in scholarship, Michael Bird has atempted to do just this in writing a systematic theology from an evangelical perspective.

From the outset, Bird’s effort to bridge biblical theology to systematic theology is commendable. In entering the world of systematics, the lecturer of theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry in Australia has set an example for other biblical theologians to follow, demonstrating that one shouldn’t stop with biblical theology but follow it through to its theological implications. Bird’s textbook is an example to systematic theologians as well due to his continual and persistent emphasis on the gospel. Bird structures systematics around the gospel so that the objective work of Christ is front and center, the purpose and goal of theological study. While we must not say the gospel is missing from past systematic theologies, Bird is certainly on target to recognize the gospel hasn’t always been the central focus. While at first I was uncertain how Bird would tie each chapter back to the gospel, he proved time and again that each loci drives us back, in one way or another, to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Moreover, I especially appreciated that Evangelical Theology was historically informed. Because a systematic theology has so much ground to cover, it would be tempting to bypass the historical development of doctrine and leave that work to church historians. However, historical theology is wedded to systematics. While Scripture is the only inerrant authority (sola scriptura), we nevertheless stand on the shoulders of others and must glean from their arguments and insights.

Another strength is Bird’s attention to the storyline of Scripture. Bird incorporates the structure of redemptive history into many of his chapters, demonstrating that each doctrine cannot be divorced from what God has done from Adam to Israel to the Messiah. I believe systematics, going forward, could do a better job in this regard, for often the tendency is to dip into Scripture for theological construction but without going deep enough to show readers how each doctrine is grounded in salvation history.

A host of other strengths could be mentioned, but certain criticisms must now occupy our attention.

evangelical-theology-birdThe Sausage Maker 3000

First, it is questionable whether Bird escapes methods he criticizes. He deals a heavy punch to Wayne Grudem, categorizing his method as “naive biblicism” for using what Bird labels the “Theological Sausage Maker 3000.” Such an approach (1) “finds all relevant verses with a concordance,” (2) summarizes “points made in each verse,” (3) summarizes all the “verses together by making one or two points of what is affirmed,” and (4) finds a “way to harmonize the passages that do not fit your summarizing statement.” While Bird says this approach is “robustly biblical” he believes it reduces theology to a concordance, not taking into account “canonical, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical factors” (78). In short, one puts the sausage (the Bible) into the maker and out comes doctrine.

What do we make of Bird’s criticism? First, it’s distasteful to label Grudem’s approach “naive biblicism.” This isn’t entirely fair, either, since there are many points in Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine where he does incorporate “canonical, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical factors,” even if not up to Bird’s standards. Second, there are countless times Bird uses the infamous sausage maker he apparently detests. For example, simply read over his treatment of the attributes of God. Bird will quote a passage to support a certain divine attribute with no mention of its canonical context or relation to the storyline of redemptive history. Or he will quote one passage only to rapidly fire off three other randomly ordered ones. And at other times he finds it necessary to quote a cluster of passages in full, one after the other. Or, and for some this is the ultimate sin, Bird will make an assertion and simply list legions of verses in parentheses. This practice pervades Bird’s entire work. This classic prooftexting doesn’t always take into account “canonical, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical factors.” So while Bird may detest Grudem’s method, at times his own treatment hardly differs.

Moreover, Bird is critical of Grudem’s approach because his biblicism leads him to reject “divine impassibility” since the Bible says God has emotions. However, Bird does the same when he rejects imputation because the classic prooftexts don’t say “explicitly” that “the obedience of Jesus is imputed to believers as their righteousness” (563), and the covenant of works because “there is no explicit reference to a ‘covenant’ in Genesis 1–2” (223). It appears Bird has not abandoned biblicism’s concordance after all.

Gospel Without Christ’s Imputed Righteousness?

Second, perhaps the most serious weakness of Evangelical Theology is Bird’s allergy to the active obedience of Christ and the doctrine of imputation. One begins sensing this allergy when Bird calls the covenant theology understanding of the covenant of works and the Mosaic law Pelagian (!) because both center around keeping or disobeying God’s command(s). “Adam’s failure,” Bird writes, “was not the failure to keep an eternal law; it was the breaking of his relationship with God” (227). The Reformed view, according to Bird, mistakenly believes that what “we need now is someone to keep God’s law on our behalf and to impute the merit of his law-keeping to us.” Bird contends instead that “Jesus does not fulfill a covenant of works by his life and death, but that he fulfills the roles given to Adam and Israel in completion of his messianic task” (224). Salvation means “restoring the relationship between Creator and humanity as opposed to accruing the meritorious law-keeping that Adam failed to achieve” (227).

Bird definitely shows his cards when he comes to imputation. He’s frustrated with the Reformed view that says that since Adam failed in the garden, “Jesus, as the new Adam” must acquire “merit for us in his life of obedience,” his merit being “imputed into our account”—an imputation that is the basis of “our righteousness” (562). To the contrary, the “problem humanity has is not a lack of moral merits” but a “broken relationship.” This leads Bird, following Robert Gundry, to eventually conclude the standard prooftexts (Rom. 4:4–5; 5:17–19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:7–9) do not prove imputation since “no text explicitly says that the obedience of Jesus is imputed to believers as their righteousness.” So Bird instead opts for the word “incorporation” (563).

While a full response cannot be given here, certain problems should be pointed out. (1) Like N. T. Wright, Bird unfairly caricatures the Reformed position as if Jesus is “racking up frequent flyer points” and we have Christ’s “righteousness molecules floating through the air to us” (563). And though I cannot speak for covenant theologians, Bird seems to misunderstand covenant theology by labeling it Pelagian. (2) Bird poses a false dichotomy between “law” and “relationship,” as if one must understand Adam as either breaking a law or breaking his relationship with God. Doesn’t Scripture affirm both, even grounding the latter in the former? Surely Adam’s failure to obey God’s command causes the rupture in his relationship with God. Likewise, the same can be said of Israel. So why must we choose between the two? (3) Without the active obedience of Christ, our salvation is incomplete. It isn’t enough to say Christ forgives our sin by paying its penalty. If this is it, then we’re left neutral and naked before a holy God. Yes, our sin is removed, but apart from Christ’s active obedience on our behalf there is nothing positive to testify on our account before a holy God. We must still be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, for not only has the law been broken, it also hasn’t been perfectly upheld and fulfilled. (4) Bird’s dismissiveness of the exegetical warrant for imputation is disappointing. He never interacts with the Reformed interpretation of these texts (Rom. 4:4–5; 5:17–19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:7–9). In fact, Bird never argues his own view by exegeting these texts. I’d point readers to Brian Vickers’s excellent exegesis in Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness, as well as John Piper’s case in Counted Righteous in Christ.

In the end we must wonder, for all of Bird’s focus on the gospel, has an essential component and corollary to the gospel been abandoned?

Reformed?

Third, Bird places himself in the broad Reformed tradition. At first glance, this appears to be the case given his moderately high view of Scripture, strong emphasis on total depravity and divine monergism in salvation, and affinity for Reformed confessions. But the more one reads the more one begins to wonder whether the Reformed camp will welcome Bird’s peculiarities.

Bird rejects the active obedience of Christ and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness; his treatments of election and atonement are Amyraldian to the core; while he affirms penal substitutionary atonement, Christus victor is Calvary’s central image; he accuses the Reformers of smuggling in anthropocentric philosophy that resulted in the philosophical rationalism and autonomy of modern thought; his high roles for experience, culture, and tradition share more in common with the Wesleyan quadrilateral than the Reformer’s sola scriptura; and he categorizes aspects of covenant theology as Pelagian. All that to say, Bird’s systematic theology may sit comfortably with a broad evangelical audience, but I suspect those evangelicals in the Reformed tradition will cringe and grow frustrated the more they read.

Incomplete

Fourth, there are other little (and big!) frustrations to mention briefly. To begin, while Bird does interact with a variety of historical sources, it was surprising to see legions of contemporary contributions never mentioned. For example, in his lively overview of theological systems, Wellum and Gentry’s “progressive covenantalism” is missing. Or in his treatment of the perseverance of the saints, Schreiner’s and Caneday’s proposal escapes his purview. Likewise, in his theodicy Feinberg, Helm, and Ware are nowhere to be found. Though not always, Bird often neglects to interact with outstanding contemporary theologians.

Additionally, Bird omits a surprising number of topics, and it’s unclear why. Divine simplicity doesn’t make the list of God’s attributes; the debate over Christ’s impeccability or pecability is ignored; the ever-growing rage over evolution, science, and the days of Genesis isn’t addressed because Bird says he has “no interest” in covering it; the clarity of Scripture only receives attention in a footnote; and the list goes on. Other omissions are even more difficult to forgive: Bird spends merely four pages on the hypostatic union; his treatment of original sin never addresses a slew of historical and contemporary positions (for example, meditate vs. immediate imputation of federalism); divine providence is reduced to a chapter on the problem of evil at the end of the book; and so forth.

But perhaps the most troubling instance is the absence of a section devoted to union with Christ. In Bird’s chapter on the order of salvation (5.3), union with Christ is relegated to one paragraph in the conclusion, and in the chapter where one would expect it to be found (“Images of Salvation” [5.4]), it’s missing once again. To be fair, Bird does mention union with Christ at the end in his affirmation of “theosis,” but even here it’s used more as a foil to his intrigue with this Eastern doctrine of deification. This omission is shocking not only because union with Christ language pervades Scripture, but also because Bird approvingly quotes John Murray who says it is the “central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” If so, this neglect undermines Bird’s entire thesis that systematics must revolve around the gospel of Christ.

Some of these omissions and weaknesses are more forgiving than others. However, they may reveal a bigger issue, namely, Bird doesn’t always do justice to the many facets and players of systematic theology. Consequently, Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith or John Frame’s Systematic Theology may have the advantage at this point.

What Shall We Say?

While this review has been occupied mostly with criticism, readers should recognize that there’s far more in this volume to praise than to disparage. So many of his chapters present an orthodox, biblically driven, historically informed summary of theology that readers will find it valuable.

Of late, there has been an exciting influx of systematic theologies, especially those of the Reformed variety (for example, Horton, Frame, Kelly, Bray), and from what I hear there are more to come. Praise God for this resurgence, helping laypeople, students, pastors, and scholars alike grasp the importance of biblically rooted, historically grounded systematic theology. Surely every generation needs to learn what the whole Bible has to say about each doctrine of the faith in order to better apply God’s Word to new challenges in our own day.

Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist University, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books, including Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. You can read about Barrett’s other publications at matthewmbarrett.com.

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