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Archive for October, 2009

God Unchanging

It’s biblical theology appreciation week!  That is, for me, at least.  What exactly is biblical theology, though?  To most Christians, it sounds redundant.  The discipline of biblical theology (as opposed to, for example, systematic theology) is actually tricky to define, but I found three good definitions here.  One of the main thrusts I find in any definition, is that biblical theology strives to connect the dots, as it were, and stress the Bible as a whole.  It highlights the big picture in various texts, and the unity of God’s revelation to humankind.  It uncovers the threads that run from Genesis to Revelation, and is perhaps (n.b., speculation!) the closest thing to the “lecture” Jesus gives on the road to Emmaus (see Lk. 24:27).

Two recent events have given me occasion to appreciate anew the discipline of biblical theology.  First, a recent lecture at our church’s training school by the excellent Garrett Smith stressed what he called a “holistic” approach to reading Scripture.  That is, observe similarities and make connections between texts to note how God works through history.  For example, seemingly random (weird?) feasts or genealogies often have much deeper meaning than meets the eye.  There are connections all over Scripture that shed light on God’s character, and how He relates to humankind.  This is essentially biblical theology.

Second, I recently read a transcript of a lecture given by Graeme Goldsworthy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  I first came to know of Goldsworthy through his great book, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible.  Says Goldsworthy in his lecture,

Individual texts…are essentially books about God and his word-interpreted deeds.  It is this recognition that God is the central character of the Bible that makes biblical theology possible.

I love this quote, because it hits one of the more common interpretive fallacies I find in the church today (myself included).  The Bible is, first and foremost, about God.  It is His revelation of Himself to us.  It is not our set of “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”  To approach Scripture with a narrow focus on what a text says about us, or what we should do, or what it means to us, is a dangerous endeavor if that’s all we seek.  A much better interpretive question would be, “What does this say about God?”  We do well to answer this question before moving elsewhere.  (N.b., “moving elsewhere” is fine, but we should start with what the text says about God; after, of course, we’ve done our exegesis!)

Why is “what does this say about God” a better question?  Simply put, it’s better because while our culture changes, God does not change.  I don’t have to balk at the prohibitions against tattoos in Leviticus 19 and write off the Bible as irrelevant because the culture into which those laws were given is different from ours.  But the One who gave them, God, is the same; by extension, the  principle that underlies the prohibition (which I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader), is the same.  Our very study of the Bible is predicated on the fact that God does not change.  If He did, why would we read ancient texts about God and assume that they were valid today?  If the god of the Old Testament is different from the one in the New Testament, why not think that he’s different in “our testament”?  Why should we think that we can have a relationship with Jesus as did the writers of the New Testament?  Because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  So also for the Holy Spirit (another exercise for the reader).

I believe that biblical theology highlights the unchanging nature of God to the student, which in turn leads to greater appreciation and understanding of the Scriptures.  Leviticus isn’t so boring after all, once you can see it in terms of the whole.   I do not, of course, in any way disparage systematic or historical theology; they are all very helpful disciplines in the theological project, for sure, and contribute in their own way.  Nor would I claim that one flavor of theology is better than another.  But for this week at least, I’m thankful for the contribution of biblical theology to Christian thought, and would encourage readers to explore “big picture” ideas as you read the Bible.  You will be blessed.

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Some of the most frequently asked questions I receive about this site are regarding book reviews.  How did we get started?  Why do we do it?  Do publishers really send you stuff for free?  Stuff like that.

I’ve been mulling over a post such as this for a while, but didn’t feel like anyone would actually be interested in reading a post about book reviews.  But, a recent ruling by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does impact this blog a little bit and is receiving some discussion throughout the internet.  I’ll comment more on it later, but basically the issue is one of compensation.  The FTC has declared that if a blog writer receives compensation (either payment or the book for free), they must declare so in their review.  Brian and I do fall under the category of compensated individuals, so in the interest of integrity, I feel it’s important to comment here.  Brian may add some of his own thoughts, either in the comments below or in his own post.

Let’s proceed, Q & A style:

Q. How did you get started writing reviews?

A. For me it was purely by chance.  You can read about it here at my old blog.  In a nutshell, I randomly happened upon a free copy of the Reader’s Hebrew Bible to review, and a guy named Chris at Zondervan agreed to send along Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology as well.

Q. How do you get publishers to send you books?

A. I ask.  It’s really as simple as that.  I write them, tell them who I am and why I want to review a particular book.  Sometimes they send it, sometimes they don’t.  That’s about it.  A couple publishers now send me books without me asking.

Q. Do you review all books you receive?

A. Not necessarily.  Any book that I request, I will review.  That’s part of the deal.  If a publisher decides to send a book along without my initiation, I feel no obligation to review the book.  I sometimes do, but the bottom line is that there’s only so much time in the day.

Q. Do you really read all the books you review?

A. Yes.  That’s actually why it takes so long sometimes.  I don’t want to review a book if I haven’t actually spent the time to work through it.  I feel like it’s a matter of integrity to read what I review.  The last thing I want is to mislead anyone with a review because of superficial reading on my part.

Q. Does the fact you receive a book from a publisher influence you to give a positive review?

A. The cynical reader might think we’re only being nice to publishers because they send us books.  The answer is actually quite simple: we generally give positive reviews because we pick the books we want to review.  It’s not like reviewing books is our job.  It is something we do on the side.  Naturally, since we only have so much time, we lean towards reading books we think we’ll like.  Also, and perhaps even more importantly, we tend to focus on books we think will be helpful to the church.  That means we aren’t going to request a book we think will be awful.  There have been books I’ve requested and was a bit disappointed in, but none I thought were awful.  My reviews reflect that.  But the bottom line is this: we request, read and review books we think we’re going to like and will be helpful to the church. We may pick a book that falls in the “stay away” category and thus give a negative review, but we won’t intentionally request such a book from a publisher.

Q. Will you change anything regarding after reading the new FTC Guidelines?

A. It’d help if I finished reading the 81-page document first (pdf here)!  I think there are 2 things going on here that are related to reviewing books here on BBG.  First, if a reviewer receives compensation they must acknowledge that in their review.  This is something we already do.  At the beginning of every review, we say something along the lines of this: Thanks to (person’s name) of (publisher) for a review copy of this book. Then sometimes we follow that up with an apology for taking so long (ahem, Brian).  As far as I can tell, this is what the FTC wants.  If we find out otherwise, we will make the adjustments accordingly.  We do not receive any money for these reviews.  The free book itself is considered, rightly so in my opinion, compensation.  We’re happy to acknowledge this.

Second, according to this interview with a member of the FTC, providing a link to Amazon under the Amazon Affiliates program may be problematic.  I’m not sure if we’d have to do anything more than what we’d already be doing.  Truth be told, I’m not sure we actually use our Amazon Affiliates link very often.  I don’t even know how to do it, and it’s not like Brian is my blog-maid who follows behind me to tidy up.  Anyway, I don’t think it’ll be an issue because we’re acknowledging that we have received a book for free.

Q. Why do you review books?

A. We touch on this a bit on our Book Review page.  A major goal of BBG is to help Christians and churches learn the Bible and learn how to apply it better.  Sometimes that takes the form of a post on a particular passage, sometimes we provide a link to something we found helpful on the internet, and sometimes we review books.  Some of these book reviews are geared towards laypeople, while there are a few of more academic books that would be more likely useful to pastors and students.  Either way, we hope that by reviewing books, we are assisting our readers in making fruitful choices in their book purchasing/reading.  There are a lot of books out there, and the number is growing fast.  It can be helpful to have someone help point the way to a useful resource.  Hopefully we accomplish this.

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In Packer’s third chapter, he begins to take on the nuts and bolts of knowing God. Although he’s been using this titular phrase for some time, he devotes this chapter to fleshing out what it means to know God. He opens by way of an excellent thought experiment, wherein the reader is asked to consider the prospect of being introduced to somebody of high rank: some distinguished man or woman of government, the academy, or some other well known position. Packer imagines our thoughts:

We would like to get to know this exalted person, but we fully realize that this is a matter for him to decide, not us. If he confines himself to courteous formalities with us, we may be disappointed, but we do not feel able to complain; after all, we had no claim on his friendship. But if instead he starts at once to take us into his confidence, and tells us frankly what is in his mind on matters of common concern, and if he goes on to invite us to join him in particular undertakings he has planed and asks us to make ourselves permanently available for this kind of collaboration whenever he needs us, then we shall feel enormously privileged…If life seemed unimportant and dreary hitherto, it will not seem so anymore…[here is] something to live up to! (pp.35-6)

This illustration gives us a taste, if only in part, of what it is like to know God. Says Packer, “It is a staggering thing” (p.36). He moves on to highlight three points about knowing God: (1) It is a personal matter; God is no object or study, but a person with whom we have relationship through Christ. (2) It is a matter of personal involvement, including all the aspects of relationship – mind, will and feeling. (3) It is a matter of grace. The relationship is at God’s initiative, and we are known by God before we know Him.

Properly understood, I believe that such truth should knock us out of our chairs every time we think of it. That we are loved, cared for, and every inch of us known by the great God of the universe is truly amazing, and even more so when we consider that He is the one seeking us. God Himself wants to be known by us.  As one simple example (of literally hundreds that I could list), read through the Bible with an eye for “so that you/they/he may know I am the Lord” or similar phrases; it’s everywhere. Our God is one who is constantly revealing Himself to us, that He may be known.

The God of the universe wants to have a relationship with you.  Will you accept?  Will you seek Him out?  I have depleted many hours and dollars to see a band perform, or hear a person speak.  I have spent energy thinking on how great it would be to meet so-and-so.  Our celebrity culture clamors to even catch a glimpse of the latest movie star, and oh, the badge we wear when we can recount some story that highlights our connections!  “I went to college with so-and-so’s nephew.”  Examples such as these highlight to me that C.S. Lewis was right when he said that we are “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

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How have you responded to past failures?  Heartbreaks?  Missed opportunities?  Perhaps, like me, you typically sigh, shurg your shoulders and dole out a theological crumb or two: “Well, I guess God doesn’t have that for me”, “I guess it wasn’t His will”,  “I don’t understand this, but God is good, right?”  While the theology of these statements may be good enough, according to Packer, the attitude with which they are often spoken evidences a deficient knowledge of God.   We focus on our past hurts, and respond to them with “dried up stoicism.”  We carry our hurts as “crosses” to bear, and the “unspeakable joy” of knowing God is nowhere to be found.  As Packer says,

These private mock heroics have no place at all in the minds of those who really know God.  They never brood on might-have-beens; they never think of the things they have missed, only of what they have gained.

Packer points to Paul, who considers “everything a loss” when compared to knowing Christ.  He considers everything else rubbish in light of what he’s gained in knowing God through Christ (Phil. 3:7-10).  The glory of knowing God trumps everything, such that any failure (or success) and hurt (or pleasure) pales in comparisson.

What characterizes the people who truly know God?  Packer suggests four traits.  Those who know God: (1) have great energy for God, (2) have great thoughts of God, (3) show great boldness for God, and (4) have great contentment in God.

Speaking personally, Packer’s analysis here cuts deep.  I am particularly convicted by his fourth characteristic of contentment in God.  Herein lies the “joy” in the midst of hardship; though the world may all but kill us, we rest in joyful contentment with our God.  I believe one of the roots of our discontent is that, whether we realize it or not, we have subscribed to the notion that there is always something better out there, be it a better body, better car, better sex, better iPod, better job, better church, better food, or better friends.  Multi-billion dollar marketing machinery strives each day to create and exploit this discontent, from which the only ostensible escape is the proffered product, be it an idea or automobile.

My analysis is as trite as it is obvious, but we cannot deny that the cacaphony of voices which bombard our senses each day easily cloud the fact that there is a greatest good, a One who knows no close rival, no better, and no equal.  When we truly get our arms around the fact that God Himself is the greatest good in every category – and actually believe it – real contentment must follow.  This contentment transcends every circumstance, because the source of our contentment transcends all circumstance.  Our contentment meets our every need, because everything we need is rooted in God.

Loose your job?  Your friends?  Your reputation?  Your health?  In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter, because you have something far superior in every way:  A relationship with the one and only God.  By comparison, as Paul says, everything else is refuse.  This is why Jesus can say that anyone who does not hate is family – even his own life – cannot be His disciple (Lk. 14:26).  The statement is jarring, but the premise is true:  We’re built to love and cherish our relationship with God to such a degree that all else seems as nothing (i.e., hatred).  Therein do we find lasting, unshakable contentment.

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Not Knowing God

Every few months I receive a newsletter from my brothers and sisters at the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, MA.  In addition to current events and lecture schedules,  director Dick Keyes always begins with a brief essay.  For this autumn’s newsletter, Keyes, taking a cue from Paul’s encounter with the “unknown god” of Acts 17, reflects on three patterns which he believes are common ways people do not know God.  Since Danny and I will be blogging through Packer’s Knowing God for the next few weeks (months?), I thought Keyes’ observations were apropos.  You can read his short but insightful essay here.

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