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Archive for January, 2010

Tim Keller on The Shack

I encourage you to read this brief, but insightful, look at The Shack written by Tim Keller.  Here’s a taste:

Many have gotten involved in debates about Young’s theological beliefs, and I have my own strong concerns. But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible.

Check out the whole thing.

You can also check out Brian’s thoughts on The Shack here: Part 1 and Part 2.

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Special thanks to Robert of Yale University Press for a review copy (unsolicited!) of this book.

For many who have spent much time digging into the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, Michael V Fox will probably need no introduction.  He has written numerous books on the subject, including this commentary’s predecessor on Proverbs 1-9.  I will not be including any thoughts on that particular commentary; the following thoughts are restricted solely to Proverbs 10-31.

The Anchor Bible Commentary on Proverbs 10-31 contains a detailed study of the Hebrew text (transliterated, which means it takes me twice as long to read it as it would if it were in Hebrew) and issues dealing with the book of Proverbs.  He sees the four collections in chapters 10-29 as dating to the 8th-7th centuries BC, with the 4 units in chapters 30-31 added later (date uncertain).  The inclusion of so many proverbs involving a king and his court makes it most likely these collections come from the monarchy period (whereas he takes Qoheleth and Ben Sira later, since their view of kingship is  much more negative).

Fox not only comments on the text, but also offers some ancient near eastern parallels.  In his comments on the well known proverb of 25:21-22 (“you will heap coals on his head”), Fox notes, “Schadenfruede angers God” and “mercy is the best revenge.”  He does not try to nail down a practice of heaping literal coals on someone’s head, instead showing that the metaphor is meant simply to show the pain of humiliation.  He also goes on to give similar examples of this proverb in Egyptian and Babylonian literature.

At points, Fox goes beyond his own comments and historical background.  For instance, Fox includes 30 pages of discussion of “The Woman of Strength” in 31:10-31, including not only his own comments and overview of potential historical settings, but a short survey of the history of interpretation, a feature he helpfully includes throughout the commentary.

After his commentary portion, Fox has attached four essays.  The first, “The Growth of Wisdom,” attempts to trace the differences in the understanding of wisdom in the various stages of Proverbs’ composition.  In “Ethics” Fox finds similarities between Proverbs and the Socratic (“the sages of Proverbs, like Socrates, believed that ignorance alone is the problem and wisdom alone the solution”).  In the essay “Revelation” Fox attempts to show that revelation in Proverbs is not “verbal” (i.e., from the Torah) but Proverbs “treats the power of the human mind as adequate to the attainment of all sorts of knowledge.”  He follows this with “Knowledge,” where he argues that Wisdom epistemology is not empiricism, but argues for a “coherence theory of truth.”  I would imagine that someone trained in philosophy would do a better job than I in analyzing much of what is contained in these essays, but I still found them interesting to read.

There are, naturally, areas of potential disagreement for those interested in studying Proverbs more deeply, particularly if you are an evangelical.  Fox has little interest in theological synthesis or application.  This should be of no surprise, considering he once wrote “faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship.”  Naturally I stand in sharp disagreement here.

Fox also bucks the trend of seeing smaller collections within the larger collection of the book.  Most proverbs are essentially to stand on their own, though of course there may be a couple verses (in our Bibles) that are grouped together.  So, where Garrett sees a chiastic structure in 14:8-15, Fox sees nothing of the sort.  Proverbs may be paired together (25:16-17), or even clustered according to themes (divine control in 16:1-9), but they are never organized in longer structures.  I’m not inclined to agree with Fox here, though I admit finding larger structures can owe itself to the creativity of the scholar more than anything else.  Wouldn’t the book of Proverbs, being a collection of proverbs, gather together smaller collections thay may already have been grouped in a chiasm?  After all, chiasms are all over the Hebrew Bible, it would seem odd that they wouldn’t be found in Proverbs.

All in all, Fox is a very good scholar of Wisdom literature, and thus has written a very helpful, scholarly work on Proverbs.  Scholars will, of course, get the most use out of it, but I’d venture to say that it would serve well preachers and teachers, too.  It will probably not be the only commentary you’ll want to consult, but it is certainly worth having by your side.

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Surprised by Fasting

Our church is holding a three day corporate fast this week in preparation for our annual missions conference, shameless plug (a.k.a., World Mandate).  Danny suggested that in lieu of a food fast, I ought to fast from not blogging.  I agreed, only under the condition that Danny would fast from making me cry.

My own tears aside, I did think it an appropriate time to share a few reflections I had on fasting.  More specifically, I wanted to share a few things that surprised me when I first started fasting as a Christian.

(1)     Time.  It was amazing to me how much more time I had in my day when I refrained from eating.  Even if one is given to eating quickly, the time savings, counting preparation and cleanup, are easily an hour per day, though in my case it was closer to two hours per day.  Leveraging this newfound time to prayer, Scripture reading, meditation or service is a great benefit that I did not anticipate.

(2)    Tape on my watch.  Growing up, my father used to place a small piece of scotch tape over the face of his watch when he needed to remember something during the day.  Depending on your degree of chronological snobbery, this is either the modern equivalent of tying a string to your finger (which, by the way, is extraordinarily difficult to do), or it is the olde tyme way of setting up a reminder in Microsoft Outlook.  Or your Blackberry.  Or your iPhone.  Or any other piece of technology that offers a “holster” accessory.  The food fast was my constant tape over the watch, as it were.  The human body is beautifully engineered for persistence in reminding us that we’re hungry.  I found this especially helpful in using it as a means to remember that God is with me, or to pray a quick prayer of thanksgiving, or consider my present disposition towards the Lord.

(3)    Thankfulness.  This is perhaps unworthy of falling in a “surprise” category, but I was surprised at the intensity of my thankfulness.  I’ve always been thankful for food, and I anticipated thankfulness when I fasted.  However, I can honestly say that my thankfulness for food was forever changed after my first Christian fast some years ago.  Ever since, I am extremely and consistently thankful for God’s generous provision of food in my life.  I’ve noticed that the denial of something is often the key to a better appreciation of it.  Sometimes it takes a cut on your finger for you to realize how often you use that finger, or an illness to appreciate how blessed you are when you feel well.  It can be hard to remember to thank God for things that aren’t, (e.g., thank you that I don’t have a toothache right now), and frankly, such thanks can get ridiculous rather quickly.  If we take a moment to consider the infinite possibilities and contingencies extant in our lives (Molinism, anyone?), our heads quickly explode.  However, it does bear remembrance from time to time that every last inkling of our existence, every atom of good in our lives, is a gift from God.  A professor of mine put it well when he remarked that a plate of hot food proffered to the perpetually satiated often receives modest thanks, if any.  The same plate given to one who struggles to find food receives a world of thanks.  If I were told that I could walk upstairs, I wouldn’t think much of it, but a man who had until recently been confined to a wheelchair would beam with gratitude.  (There’s probably a separate post in here about the redeeming value of suffering, but I’ll save it for the next time Danny chides my reticence.)

(4)    The wheels of pride go round and round.  One final surprise I experienced during fasting was an increasing need to keep my spiritual pride in check.  I would safely venture that most of us struggle with the desire to build ourselves up at some point or another.  Be it through subtle impression management (nonchalantly, “Yeah, I’m fasting today…”), overt boasting (“I fasted for a whole month once!”), or inward self-satisfaction (“I sure am holy.  God must be so pleased with me!”), pride has a way of rearing its ugly head in our lives.  Fasting was one other vehicle my spiritual pride tried to exploit for its own sinful purposes.  I therefore find Jesus’ words in Mt. 6:16-18 helpful to keep in mind during a fast.

The benefits (or surprises) of fasts extend well beyond what I mention here, so I invite you to share your own reflections.  How has fasting (food or otherwise) affected your walk with God in the past?  Has anything surprised you, for good or ill?

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From time to time I’ll post short thoughts on books that I’ve read but don’t want to review for some reason.  Hope you find it helpful.

Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach, by Robin Routledge.  IVP sent me a copy of this book, which came out in 2008.  It’s a decent overview of OT Theology, offering thoughts on the variety of themes that pop up throughout the OT (as the subtitle indicates).  If you are looking for one OT Theology to study, this would not be my first choice (perhaps Waltke, or Stephen Dempster’s, which I haven’t read but heard is good).  Routledge gives a solid overview of differing views, perhaps to the detriment of coming down hard one a particular position.  Students will appreciate the footnotes; he gives page numbers for every major OT Theology written to go with each section he is discussing.  All in all, it’s okay, but not my first choice.  Had a thought after I posted this.  Routledge doesn’t show any of the exegesis that goes into his views, which factors into my assessment.  I like to see the exegetical work behind the conclusions, which is one reason why I like Waltke’s book so much.  It’s also interesting given that Routledge has not produced any major commentaries on OT books, unlike Waltke, Brueggemann and others.  At least those authors could say, “check out my commentary for more.”

The Surprising Work of God: Harold Ockenga, Billy Graham and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism, by Garth Rosell.  I read this for my church history class and really liked it.  Dr Rosell is writing as someone who witnessed a lot of the events he writes about and people he knew, as his father was a well known evangelist during the revivals in the 50’s.  I was inspired by the faith of the people involved in the early days of modern evangelicalism,  Rosell offers more on Ockenga than Graham, which I was thankful for, since Ockenga is less well known these days than Billy Graham.

The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians, by D A Carson.  I know, I know, 2 Carson mentions in one day.  I actually read this book last year, but forgot it for my Top 5 of 2009.  It definitely would have made that list had I remembered (and I’d probably not cheat and have Block’s Ezekiel commentary).  I actually think this is the kind of book where Carson is at his best; he offers solid and insightful exegesis alongside convicting thoughts on how we can apply the text to our lives and the church.  There is no doubt that the cross was central to Paul and his ministry; Carson helps us follow that pattern with this book.  Anyone in ministry should read this book.

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A Biblical Vision for Prayer

Brothers and sisters in Christ, at the heart of all our praying must be a biblical vision.  That vision embraces who God is, what he has done, who we are, where we are going, what we must value and cherish.  That vision drives us toward increasing conformity with Jesus, toward lives lived in the light of eternity, toward hearty echoing of the church’s ongoing cry, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”  That vision must shape our prayers, so that the things that most concern us in prayer are those that concern the heart of God.  Then we will persevere in our praying, until we reach the goal God himself has set for us.

– D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers

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Knowing God: The Majesty of God

“Today, vast stress is laid on the thought that God is personal, but this truth is so stated as to leave the impression that God is a person of the same sort as we are- weak, inadequate, ineffective, a little pathetic.”

In chapter 8 of Knowing God, J I Packer discusses the often overlooked subject of the majesty of God.  Packer doesn’t downplay the personal nature of God, nor does he think we should either.  But he does believe, and I think he’s right, that we have so stressed this point that we forget that God is not like us.  He is not a created being.  He is not limited in wisdom.  He does not confuse evil and good.

So how do we rediscover the majesty of God?  Packer gives two suggestions.  First, “remove from our thoughts of God limits that would make him small.”  He looks briefly at Psalm 139 “where the Psalmist meditates on the infinite and unlimited nature of God’s presence, and knowledge, and power, in relation to people.”  I found this particular quote convicting: “I can hide my heart, and my past, and my future plans, from those around me, but I cannot hide anything from God.”

Packer’s second suggestion for rediscovering the majesty of God is “to compare him with powers and forces which we regard as great.”  For this, he looks at Isaiah 40, where God invites us to look at 5 things: the tasks he has done, the nations, the world, the world’s great ones (rulers), and the stars.  All of these fall short of the majesty of God.  In fact, none of these would have their existence if it weren’t for the majestic and powerful God of the universe.

In response, Packer gives 3 points drawn from Isaiah 40 (I’m using the translations offered in the book).

1) When God asks, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?”, this question rebukes wrong thoughts about God.

2) When God asks, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord and my judgment is passed away from my God?”, this question rebukes wrong thoughts about ourselves– specifically that God has abandoned us.

3) When God asks, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faintest not, neither is weary?”, this question rebukes our slowness to believe in God’s majesty.

I appreciate Packer’s emphasis on the majesty of God.  While I completely agree with the belief that God is personal and cares for the littlest details of our lives, we cannot lose sight of the majestic glory of God.  In fact, God’s personal nature is made all the more amazing when I remember just how great he truly is, yet cares for me.

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Cousin Jeremy has posted the latest Christian Carnival.  Go check it out to see what all is out there.

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Joel Willits over at Euangelion had an interesting post yesterday regarding the presence of God and charismatic theology.  I was simply going to leave a comment, but it was going to be too long, hence this post.  He starts by asking the question: “How much of the modern charismatic movement’s stress on the ‘tangible presence’ of God in the form of signs, wonders and individual manifestations is the result of a non-sacramental theology?”

For those who aren’t familiar with the term “sacramental theology,” Dr Willits is referring to those Christian traditions who believe that Christ is, in some sense, present in the sacraments (Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, and Anglican- though they all nuance it differently).  There should probably be more to this definition, but for the sake of this discussion we’ll start with that.  He observes that charismatic churches tend not to emphasize the sacraments in terms of Christ’s presence, and I think he’s probably right. Most charismatic/pentecostal churches tend to be “non-sacramental,” along with Baptists and a few other groups (Nazarenes?, Congregationalists?, not sure).

He also relays a conversation he had with a friend who is part of a “supernatural boot camp” (Willits’ term).  This friend expressed a desire to feel the presence of God and experience intimacy with God,  giving a couple examples of this happening, such as feeling a warm sensation in his hands.

I encourage you to read Willits’ entire post, because he discusses a couple other things that provoke good thought, but I wanted to focus on his original question: is the desire to experience the presence of God a result of a non-sacramental theology?

There are probably a number of factors that are at work in the desire for the tangible presence of God, some good and some bad.  Some have a desire for something new or cool.  Some have seen the faithful lives of those who seek after these things and want whatever it is that those people have experienced.  And, as Willits suggests, they may be seeking the tangible presence of God because they don’t have any other room in their theology to have that experience (that is, being non-sacramental).

But I think there is something more crucial here that Willits does not mention, and does not crop up in the comments (at least not yet).  Once again, I appeal to what Gordon Fee has emphasized on many occasions: in the earliest churches, the Holy Spirit was an experienced reality.  Many of us charismatics read 1 Corinthians 12-14, Galatians 3 and the entire book of Acts and note there was something about the presence of the Spirit that manifested itself in the community, and, with maybe a couple exceptions (Acts 2:42?), those passages are not connected with sacraments (or ordinances, as my inner Baptist prefers to call them).  That, of course, doesn’t mean that those holding to a more sacramental theology are wrong to do so (they do have biblical justification in the gospels); it simply means that the presence of God can be manifested apart from them.

To be sure, charismatics hardly have the monopoly on experiencing the presence of God.  I’ve written a bit about this before.  Needless to say, a warm feeling in the hands may indeed be from God, but it most certainly does not exhaust what the NT has to say about God’s presence through the indwelling Holy Spirit.  In fact, I’d say it barely touches on the amazing things we see in Scripture.  My point here, though, is simply to note that there is a biblical and theological justification for the charismatic’s desire to “feel the presence of God,” even if that can be awfully hard to define.

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Special thanks to Jesse Hillman at Zondervan for the review copy of this book.

One of my Christmas presents for this season was volume 4 of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament.  I have reviewed volume 5 of this series here;   my opinions of this series remain as they did in my earlier review, so a new reader may wish to consult it first.  Danny has also reviewed volume 3 here.

In volume 4, ZIBBCOT offers comment on the major prophets:  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  The volume does so with characteristic style, and is (at the risk of being redundant) quite helpful.  While the comments on the text are illuminating, I should state again that some of the best portions of this volume are found in the “sidebars,” wherein a particular concept is described in greater detail.  I have found these mini-articles to be most helpful in understanding the text at hand, and would even submit that they are what sets ZIBBCOT apart from other background commentaries.

Even more helpful, in my opinion, are the introductions to each book.  In this volume, where the subject matter often covers large swatches of history, the extended introduction is invaluable for a broader view of the book as a whole.  In some instances, the authors even include separate introductory sections on the literary setting and historical settings.  The only exception here was the introduction to Ezekiel, which is far less substantial than the others; I would have preferred the more in-depth introductions such as in Isaiah or Jeremiah.

Again, I would commend this series to anybody with sufficient resources as a great help to drilling into the OT.  Each author is competent, and the text is easy to understand irrespective of your level of education in biblical studies.

As a much more general note, and one perhaps better reserved for a different post, those who are less acquainted with biblical reference materials should know that this series, like any backgrounds commentary, does precisely what it advertises:  illumine the cultural background of a text.  There is little in the way of word studies, grammatical analysis, interpretations (past and present), examination of the text with respect to other works in the canon, etc.  A (good) full fledged exegetical commentary will take into account everything that informs the meaning of a text, and will submit what that meaning is.  Backgrounds commentaries will only offer, well, backgrounds.  So if you are having trouble understanding Isaiah’s meaning at some point, a good backgrounds commentary (such as ZIBBCOT), will do only part of the job.

This is in no way a pejorative statement against background commentaries, much less ZIBBCOT, but it is important to understand this distinction.  Without this understanding, and only the back cover to read, I would be disappointed with this series.  It delivers on its purpose, but is only one step (among many) required to uncover the meaning of  a text.

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