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Archive for July, 2009

More on Michael Bird’s Humor

In my review of Michael Bird’s book, Introducing Paul, I mention his sense of humor (or, humour, for those who pine for British rule).  Over at Zondervan Academic’s blog, Koinonia, they’ve been posting short videos of their road trip through the midwest with this Scotland based Australian New Testament scholar.  Thus far, they’ve been fairly entertaining.  To give you a glimpse, here’s a spoof of Koinonia’s “Influential Authors” series they’ve been doing.

For more you can check out the ongoing series over Koinonia or at Euangelion, Bird’s blog.

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Thanks to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.

Michael Bird is a rising young voice amongst New Testament scholars.  An Australian by birth who now teaches in Scotland, he has made himself notable for good scholarship, offering mediating positions between debating parties and blogging (over at Euangelion, which we have linked to the right).  In some senses, he’s rare in the world of Bible scholars, particularly in two ways: he avoids idiosyncrasies (i.e., he doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind) and he’s fairly funny.  Both of these points come up in this book.

Introducing Paul is an excellent and compact guide to Paul and his letters, or as the subtitle states, “The Man, His Mission and His Message.”  The back cover of the book purports to aim for “beginning students and laypeople,” an audience Bird seems particularly suited for.  His discussion is in depth enough to get past the surface level and to the heart of the issues, but not bogged down in details to the point of obscuring the message of Paul.

Bird introduces Paul using five dominant images: persecutor, missionary, theologian, pastor and martyr.  One comes away with the understanding that Paul was not merely a dogmatic theologian looking to wield his authority, but rather a church planter and pastor who eagerly sought the health of his churches.  His theological work was intended to serve and strengthen the church.

There are a number of good points to highlight from this book.  Included is a chapter on the gospel and its terminology, as well as Greco-Roman uses of those same terms to give the reader an idea of how words like “gospel” or “savior” would have been understood in Paul’s day.  This point has been made by many scholars, of course, but Bird actually puts quotations from ancient writings to make his point.  Bird gives a brief overview of the “stories behind the story,” dealing with Abraham, the church, Israel, etc.  I could see bits and pieces of various scholars throughout this chapter, but it was presented in a fresh way that made it enjoyable to learn all over again.

On the debate over justification (most popularly in the Piper vs. Wright showdown), Bird notes that “imputation” is never explicitly stated in Paul but it is an undeniable extension of what is clearly taught, namely “incorporated righteousness” (to use Bird’s term).  Bird also allows a greater place for the resurrection of Jesus than many evangelicals, who often relegate it to “proof of what God did on the cross” (p166).  The “wretched man” of Romans 7 is not Paul as a Christian, but rather written from the point of view of a “pre-Christian.”  There were even moments of personal conviction in this book, especially in his chapter on “gospelizing.”

There are, of course, areas where I was not in full agreement, though they were few and relatively unimportant.  I noticed some grammatical issues, such as a relative clause that stands alone as a sentence.  Which is poor English.  Paul wasn’t referring to offending people when he warns against causing someone to stumble in 1 Corinthians 8 (p152).  Paul is actually talking about leading a brother or sister to act against their conscience, and therefore sin.

While I greatly appreciated the emphasis on the Greco-Roman background of certain terms in Paul, as noted above, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Old Testament could have received more space.  After all, didn’t Isaiah have something to say about the “good news” of salvation?  Old Testament references are offered in the helpful chart on pages 87-88, but the Greco-Roman parallels receive paragraphs instead.

A subsection specifically designated for the Holy Spirit would have been helpful, too.  It’s not that I disagreed with what Bird had to say about the Holy Spirit, but the references were scattered throughout the book.  Since there is no subject index, one couldn’t simply look there to find the references; nor is there anything in the bibliography that stood out as a book dedicated to the subject (Gordon Fee, anyone?).  But the main reason I point this out is because of the book’s intended audience.  Sure, scholars know where to look in this book to find out what Bird thinks of Paul’s view of the Holy Spirit.  They’ve read widely enough on the subject that they know the types of places that scholars will place the discussion.  But the audience of this book is “beginning students and laypeople.”  These are the kinds of people who will want to find a quicker route to what they’re looking for, but will come up disappointed.  It’s a shame, too, because Bird has a strong grasp of Paul’s view of the Spirit, who is active in more ways than many Christians think.

But those points should not detract from the high regard I have for this book.  Bird has a done a remarkable job of making Paul make sense.  I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t do well to read this book, which hits its target audience very well.  I also think that anyone preaching or teaching on Paul’s letters ought to read this book to help them place each letter in the context of Paul’s life and ministry.

I couldn’t recommend this book highly enough.  Bird has a wonderful gift for communicating difficult concepts in an enjoyable -at times witty- manner, but still serious enough given the subject matter.  Bird, like Paul himself, is not content in the ivory tower, but seems to have the goal of helping build the church.  If we can hear Paul’s message in our time, the church can only more faithfully reflect the image of Christ.  Michael Bird helps us hear Paul’s message.

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I have purposely not written about the current debates on justification, specifically the exchange between N T Wright and John Piper.  It’s not that I have no thoughts on the matter- just the opposite is true.  But I’ve seen the discussion online denegenerate very quickly into name-calling and assertions, rarely involving discussions of actual biblical texts.  While it’s true that controversy attracts readers, it’s not the type of attraction we’re looking for.

But, Brian, my esteemed co-blogger, opened the door last week.  This is no surprise, of course, since Brian is the far more controversial and edgy member of our blogging team.  I walk by the can of worms; Brian rips it open and dumps it out everywhere.  =)

I don’t actually plan on talking about it, rather I’ll offer up a few links for those interesting in reading more on the subject.  The quickest thing to read is a recent post at Christianity Today that compares and contrasts Wright’s and Piper’s views on certain subjects.  It’s concise and well done.  It also shows, in my opinion, that they’re really not that far apart on most things.  That, of course, has never stopped people from fighting over it.

The Christianity Today piece was written by a guy named Trevin Wax, who I have mentioned before as my favorite blogger.  He has a few extremely helpful pieces on the subject over at his blog.  Trevin did a tremendous job working through Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, in an easy-to-read series.  I found this to be the best thing I read on this book, and I’ve read a lot (and yes, I have read the book).  It would help to read Piper’s book first, but I do think Wax faithfully presents Piper’s work.

He has also done a couple interesting interviews with N T Wright.  The first I’ll link to is about one of Wright’s book, but he does deal with Piper’s book (before Wright had read the final draft).  The second is an interview with Wright dealing more directly with Piper’s book.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a quick guide to the debate, I think these are the best places to look.  Enjoy.

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Christian Carnival 286

Just letting everyone know that the latest Christian Carnival is up and running, including my post from yesterday and a bunch of other good stuff.  Go check it out when you get the chance.

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I recently had a conversation with a pastor about Psalm 23 that got me thinking about the famous phrase in verse 4: “your rod and your staff- they comfort me.”  I’ve never really thought about it, but in what way is a sheep comforted by a rod and a staff?  I’m no expert on shepherding, but “comfort” wouldn’t be the first thought that would pop into my mind when I think about the shepherd’s rod and staff.

I think we have two pictures here with the rod and staff: protection and correction.  The protection motif is easy enough to understand; when a dangerous animal would threathen the sheep, the shepherd’s job is to ward off the potential (or real) attack.  A rod could certainly be used for this, along with something like a sling and stone (think: David).  I suppose it’s easy enough to see how comfort could be drawn from the knowledge that the shepherd stands ready with rod in hand.

But the correction connected to the staff is not as comforting in most of our minds.  Why would a shepherd need a staff?  For walking, of course.  But that doesn’t bring comfort to the sheep (unless, I suppose, their shepherd is elderly a unstable, but I doubt that’s the metaphor here).

The staff was used to guide the sheep.  Now, that sounds unremarkable until you really think about it.  Does the shepherd use the staff as a pointer, “hey, let’s go to that lake over there!”?  Doubtful. Does he throw it like a javelin out ahead of the sheep and they rush to it?  Ridiculous.

No, the shepherd uses the staff to prod a straying sheep.  When the sheep would wander off the path, away from the rest of the group, it put itself in danger.  It doesn’t realize there is danger in separating from the group and out of sight of the shepherd.  But the danger is nonetheless quite real; the sheep could fall into a pit or into the jaws of a wolf.

So the staff provided comfort in an unusual way.  The shepherd used the staff to “encourage” the sheep to rejoin the safety of the flock.  This would mean, of course, poking or perhaps even whacking the sheep.  That staff would actually cause some level of physical pain for the sheep- comfort, indeed!  I’m not saying that the shepherd would lean back and tee off like a home run derby contestant, but we can’t exactly call it a gentle massage, either.  Pain?  Sure, but for the right purposes.  That is where true comfort is found.

When we think about God as our comforter, I wonder which picture more readily comes to mind: God giving us a nice, firm poke with his staff or God giving us a nice big hug.  Now, to be sure, the picture of the shepherd picking up the hurt sheep and carrying it on his shoulders is perfectly applicable to God.  But that is not the picture in Psalm 23:4.

We ought to expect that when we stray away from the right path, even the path that leads through a dark, shadowy valley, God stands ready to correct our course.  It will not necessarily feel pleasant or loving, but it will be true comfort.  When such “comfort” does come, we must remind ourselves that God is simply doing his job as the Great Shepherd.

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Special thanks to Adrianna from IVP for a review copy of this book.

Over the last few years of teaching in my church, I have searched in vain for a book to recommend to folks that will help them grasp the (often confusing) content of the Old Testament.  It seems to me that most books simply don’t communicate well enough to satisfy the needs of the church.

Enter Sandra Richter, and her new book, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament.  Richter is an OT professor at Asbury Theological Seminary (and a Gordon-Conwell grad, so you know this has to be good).  I’ve been looking for exactly this kind of book for some time.  It’s hard for most readers to make sense of the OT; there are violent wars, strange customs, a bunch of funky sounding names, odd chronological arrangement of the books, etc.  The confusion alone makes it seemingly not worth the effort to work through the OT.  And when you add in things like the sacrificial system and the Law of Moses, which are no longer binding in the new covenant, some Christians wonder why it’s worth the time to figure all this out.

What Richter does is demonstrate masterfully not only why the OT is worthwhile (it is part of our story, after all) but how OT works.  She uses the metaphor of a “closet organizer.”  She  notes that for many, the OT is like a messy closet: there are all sorts of items in there, but seemingly little-to-no organizational structure.  Richter comes in to provide order to the chaos, and does so admirably well.

She breaks the OT down into 5 main portions based on 5 main characters: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David.  If you can understand these 5 men and why they are important, Richter claims you can have a good grasp of how the OT works.  Even before she does this she takes the time to explain basic customs of the Ancient Near East, as well as important concepts such as covenant.  Richter does all of this without coming across as dry or academic.  One gets the sense that she’s explained these things in non-academic settings before.

Richter focuses more on content rather than academic debates, but I don’t mean to say that this book is shallow.   She discusses Hittite treaties and how they effect our understanding of Deuteronomy, explains how covenants were made and why Abraham split the animals into 2 halves in Genesis 15,  mentions the disagreements over the date of the exodus (15th or 13th century?) etc.  All this to say, there is not a lack of depth.  But she doesn’t dive into these things merely for the sake of good information; she demonstrates how all these help us understand what is going on in the Bible.  Outside information serves to illuminate and illustrate the biblical text.

Richter includes a glossary at the end of the book, which will be useful for those who are having trouble sorting through all the new vocabulary.  She also added an appendix dealing with FAQs, a unique idea that I wish more books utilized.  The only downfall is that she only answers 2 questions: what role does the Law play in the Christian’s life and what do we make of the current state of Israel?  Those, of course, are big questions (and I happen to agree with her answers) so I can understand why she didn’t include more.

There are, of course, a couple points I would have liked for Richter to handle a little differently, most of which are fairly minor.  A subject index would have been nice, as well as perhaps a recommended reading list (though you can mine the endnotes if you want).  In her discussion on the Image of God (which was too short) she notes that to figure out what is meant by this phrase in Genesis 1:26 one must look at the context, an approach which I applaud.  But in her list she includes “self-aware and emphatic” (p107), which I don’t find in the text at all.

Also, Richter doesn’t say as much as one might like about the prophets.  Sure, they’re sprinkled throughout the book, but there’s no real sense of where they belong in the OT, which in my teaching experience has been an obstacle for many readers.  I don’t think she would have needed to write much, but maybe a subsection under the David chapter (which deals with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as well) and how the prophets were operating during the time period of the Kings.  I also felt like Douglas Stuart’s emphasis on the prophets as covenant enforcement mediators would have been helpful here, to demonstrate how the prophets were calling the people of God to remain faithful to the covenant as outlined in Deuteronomy.

But those detractions are hardly detrimental to the effectiveness of the book as a whole.  Richter has done exactly what she set out to do, to help Christians make sense of the the storyline of the OT and how it impacts us as Christians (for instance, how God’s original intention as seen in Genesis and God’s final intention as seen in Revelation fit together).  And she has done this in such a winsome manner.  I was impressed again and again how easy this book is to read and how clearly she explained difficult and foreign concepts.  If all Bible scholars could write this well for a general audience, I’d be able to recommend many more books than I currently do.  I have yet to encounter a book that accomplishes so well the goal of organizing the apparent chaos of the Old Testament.  I have and will continue to recommend The Epic of Eden to anyone who is looking to learn more about the Old Testament and how it does actually make sense.   Go buy this book.

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My wife, daughter and I just returned from a little vacation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we visited some family and had a wonderful time.  I had a little extra excitement leading up to this trip beyond seeing family and spending a few days in a lakeside cottage.  In a nutshell, discounted books.

I’ve heard that many publishers have bookstores where they sell “damaged” books at massive discounts.  These damaged books generally have something like a ding in the binding, nothing destructive.  Anyway, both Baker and Eerdmans have such stores, and I was happy to use my $50 VISA gift card I received for Christmas.  So, in a completely selfish and unedifying post, here’s the rundown of what I picked up.

1.  On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by Kenneth Kitchen.  This is one of those books that’s been on my “to buy” list for some time, but other books would creep ahead of it for one reason or another.  Kitchen is a master of the Ancient Near East and ancient Egypt and brings a wealth of knowledge to the study of the Old Testament.  I’m trying to increase my understanding of the world of the Old Testament, and can’t think of a more exhaustive resource than this one.

2.  The Presence of the Future, by George Eldon Ladd.  Ladd is one of the most influential scholars in the study of eschatology, if not the most influential.  I’ve made eschatology a pet topic of mine, largely because it is either ignored or taught poorly in churches.  I’ve received the benefits of Ladd’s works second hand through the writings of others, I’m looking forward to learning straight from the man himself.

3.  Jesus and the God of Israel, by Richard Bauckham.  I’ll admit, this book was a completely selfish purchase.  Sure, I’ll find a way to make it useful in my teaching, but it won’t have as much direct influence as the other books.  Bottom line: Bauckham is an outstanding scholar and his books are always worth reading.  This particular book focuses on monotheism and New Testament Christology.  This book expands on his earlier God Crucified, which is a favorite of mine.

4.  The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll.  This is one of those books that I’ve seen quoted and referenced time and time again, but haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy.  Basically, Noll laments the lack of an evangelical intellect.  Or, to put it his way, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”  I’m looking forward to reading this book by one of the top evangelical thinkers and historians around.

5.  Showing the Spirit, by D A Carson.  Carson has released a few “expositions” of select passages in the New Testament.  This particular book is on 1 Corinthians 12-14, or the “spiritual gifts” chapters.  As one who fits broadly into the charismatic world, yet is concerned with exegetical precision, I’m always looking to refine my understanding of these important chapters.  I’ve referred to this book in small chunks in the past; I’m looking forward to learning from Carson.

So there you go.  In case you’re wondering, I didn’t even spend my entire $50.  You just can’t beat that.

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