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Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Thanks to Zondervan for a review copy of this book and an opportunity to participate in the Blog Tour for Darrel Bock’s A Theology of Luke and Acts

A few weeks back Zondervan went on the look-out for bloggers who were interested in joining up on their Blog Tour for this fine book, A Theology of Luke and Acts.  Who wouldn’t want to read something by Darrel Bock, right?  It makes sense, too, for Bock to be tabbed to write this particular volume, given that he has now completed commentaries on both Luke’s Gospel and Acts.

Because of the size of the book (roughly 450 pages of text) and the short amount of time to read the book before the Blog Tour, reviewers were asked to pick one chapter and review it.  Fair enough.  I opted to read chapter 17, ‘Women, the Poor and the Social Dimensions in Luke-Acts.’

Bock notes the cultural prejudice against women during Jesus’ time, specifically how they were not seen as reliable witnesses by society.  Yet, they serve that function in Luke’s gospel time and time again, from Anna the prophetess to those who first receive the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  They are some of his most loyal followers, often more faithful than the men who walked with him.

Interestingly, the women of Luke’s gospel don’t fit a single mold.  From rich (Joanna) to poor (the woman who gave her two mites), from righteous (Elizabeth and Mary, the mother of Jesus) to those with unrighteous pasts (the women who anoints Jesus’ feet)- Luke seems to take care to include the whole gamut of possibilities.

Bock also correctly notes that individual women are not the main focus in Acts, since the focus of Acts tends more towards communities (through the ministry of individuals, of course).  Key here is the inclusion of women in receiving the Spirit in Acts 2, responding positively to Paul’s teaching in Thessalonica, etc.  Priscilla, wife of Aquila, is somewhat different, however, in that she’s not a recipient, but a teacher.

As for the poor, it has been long said that Luke has great concern for them.  Bock notes, correctly, that we can’t spiritualize these teachings, but must accept them for what they are: declarations that the poor will be blessed.  He also notes that this concept is “rooted in OT texts… the pious poor of the Hebrew Scriptures who are exploited” (p355).

Bock rejects the over-politicizing nature of liberation theology, remarking “What we have in these passages is something that falls between the full political agenda of a liberation perspective and the ignoring of the poor that often is the approach of the alternatives to liberation” (p355).  I think he is basically correct here.  While I’m not convinced it’s entirely possible to separate Jesus’ teachings from politics- especially not in Jesus’ day, when ‘separation of church and state would have been a completely foreign view- it’s hard to imagine that Jesus would call for the overthrow of a government in order to liberate the poor and oppressed (not to mention probably replace it with a new government that will form a new category of oppressed people).

As solid as this chapter is, I felt like he came up one step short in explaining the importance for this aspect of Jesus’ ministry, especially how it relates to the Kingdom of God.

In fact, the ‘Kingdom’ as a category seems to have received the short shrift from Bock in this volume.  According to the subject index, it’s only discussed on about 10 of the 450 pages.  Now, I realize the Kingdom of God is not peculiar to Luke’s writings, so perhaps Bock felt the need to focus elsewhere.  Then again, healings, discipleship, Israel, the Hebrew Scriptures- these are crucial to all of the gospels yet receive their own chapters in this book.

The point is that the ‘Kingdom’ is central to Jesus’ preaching, and we know this because it’s central to the Synoptic Gospels (elsewhere Bock calls it a ‘key theme’ [p141]).  Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom with his words, and demonstrating its arrival with his deeds.  So what does Luke’s focus on women and the poor tell us about the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed?

This is where I was disappointed in Bock’s chapter.  It’s not that he says anything wrong; in fact, there’s little to argue with in this chapter.  It’s that he doesn’t say enough.  He says basically what anyone with a little bit of time studying Luke-Acts can come up with.  What he doesn’t do is connect the dots and tell us just why it’s so important Jesus’ ministry included reaching out to women and the poor, or why Luke in particular highlights this.

Keep in mind that I’m focusing on one chapter out of 23.  I highly recommend you go and read other reviews included in the Blog Tour to get a fuller picture of the book’s quality.  From what I read (which was a little more than just this chapter), it seems like Bock makes solid observations, but may come up a tad short in pulling it all together and demonstrating the coherence of Luke’s theology.

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Thanks again to Connie at Crossway for a review copy of this book. 

This part of my review of Hamilton’s book, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, will deal directly with the thesis of the book (unlike Part 1, which dealt with other matters in the book).  Hamilton’s thesis is found in the title itself: that the central theological theme of the Bible is God’s glory in salvation through judgment.  Every other theme (God’s love, holiness, etc) “flow from, exposit, and feed back into the glory of God in salvation through judgment” (p56).

Hamilton is making a big claim here.  As he points out, some have tried to make a similar claim, while others despair of finding a single center.  But Hamilton isn’t shy about making his point (and even, somewhat audaciously, outright attempting to do for biblical theology “what Kevin Vanhoozer has done for hermeneutics and David Wells has done for evangelical theology” [p38]), so I won’t be shy in evaluating his attempt to defend his thesis.

Hamilton’s basic approach is to move book by book, arguing that the underlying theological center of each book is ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgment.’  He does this by means of looking at smaller units and stories within each biblical book.

Sometimes it works…

There are certain books that fit Hamilton’s thesis like a glove.  The first book that came to mind when I heard Hamilton’s thesis (even before reading the book) was Exodus.  God judges Pharaoh & Egypt and saves Israel, and does so that Moses/Israel/Egytians/Pharoah will know that he is Yahweh (see chart on p94).  It would be hard to argue against Hamilton in this case.  Another biblical book amiable to Hamilton’s thesis is Revelation.  As in Exodus, God saves his people by pouring judgment on their enemy (Babylon) ultimately resulting in God being glorified for who he is.  Again, not too hard to see the point.

On the whole, Hamilton tends to be strongest in his treatment of the prophetical books, where salvation and judgment are often seen side-by-side and God’s glory is a central theme.  Although there are some questions regarding the definitions of ‘salvation’ and ‘judgment’ in these sections, as well as the exact nature of their relationship to each other, Hamilton makes a strong case for his thesis in the prophets.

…and sometimes it doesn’t

As strong as he is in some areas, Hamilton is particularly weak in others.  I came away completely unconvinced that ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgment’ is the central (or even a central) theme in the epistles.  More on this in a bit, but suffice to say he has to assume his thesis too often in this section to make it work.

Because Hamilton insists on seeing his thesis everywhere, he has some painfully forced interpretations.  This can be seen in some treatments of smaller units of Scripture.  In dealing with the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, Hamilton claims “Isaac is saved through the judgment that falls on the ram” (p88).  But what exactly was the judgment for?  Did anyone do anything wrong?  What is being judged?  Does all sacrifice have to happen because of judgment?

Hamilton runs into problems on a larger scale, too.  In Ecclesiastes the judgment found is “the judgment of discontentment and unrealistic expectations” (p317).  Really?  I’m not entirely sure what that phrase means.  In Ruth, Hamilton has to read judgment into it on such a deep level that one has to question whether it can rightly be read as the ‘theological center.’  Can something be the center if it’s never mentioned or alluded to?

In his treatment of Jonah I honestly had to wonder if we were reading the same book.  God kills the plant that provided shade for Jonah, then rebukes Jonah for getting mad about it (Jonah 4:5-11).  Hamilton writes, “Jonah was brought through the judgment of his attitude to salvation.  This salvation takes the form of rejoicing in Yahweh’s inclination to relent and show mercy” (p247).  Umm, who exactly is rejoicing and what verses record that rejoicing?  Would anyone have read Jonah thought of this unless they were importing the theme and insisted on seeing it?

The truth is Hamilton’s thesis doesn’t fit most of the books of the Bible.  You may be able to argue it’s there, but arguing the centrality of it is something he doesn’t pull off.

The problem of definitions

What I just touched on is a significant problem for Hamilton’s thesis: how exactly are salvation and judgment defined?  Oddly enough, he never really offers a definition; the result is that their usage is at times so broad it cheapens the ‘real thing.’

Sometimes salvation is obvious- God rescues his people from enemies, sickness, etc.  But sometimes Hamilton really needs to step back and explain what exactly he means by ‘salvation.’  What does it mean for Paul to lead his readers unto salvation when they are already saved?  For example, at the end of his (very short) discussion on 1 Corinthians 15, Hamilton writes, Paul “judges and condemns false notions about the resurrection and through that seeks to deliver the Corinthians for the glory of God” (p461).  But deliver them from what, exactly?  What does it mean for readers who are already saved (in some sense) to be lead to salvation by having judgment cast upon false theology?

I’m not saying that Hamilton is necessarily wrong here, but he never explains what he means.  Perhaps he thinks the answer is so obvious that it doesn’t need an explanation, but, I’m sorry to say, he’d be wrong.

The same point can be made for the concept of ‘judgment.’  There are obvious cases (previously mentioned), and not so obvious ones (note the aforementioned ‘judgment of discontentment’).

So what happens is that the definitions of both words seem flat.  If something good happens- rescued in battle, healed from sickness, falling in love- it’s salvation.  If something bad happens- going into exile, overcoming sin, or wondering if your life is going anywhere- that’s judgment.  Methinks someone lacks a bit of nuance…

None of this is simply an academic critique or a debate over fine points of theology.  I have a deeper reason for my frustration regarding this.  I agree that salvation comes in many forms in the Bible; it is, as they say, a many splendored thing.  My problem is this: Hamilton never weaves the various strands together to demonstrate the beautiful tapestry that the Bible itself presents to us.  To change the metaphor, he’s too busy strumming his one chord- an important one, no doubt- that he can’t allow the reader to hear the symphony.

Contrast this, for example, with Christopher Wright’s Salvation Belongs to Our God (reviewed here).  Now, I have disagreements with Wright’s book; at least as many as I do with Hamilton’s.  But Wright does something that Hamilton doesn’t.  He connects the themes and shows the reader how it all fits together.  All throughout his book I was blown away at how brilliant God’s plan of salvation has been shown throughout history, and will be right up until the end.  In 1/3 of the space, I learned far more about what the Bible actually says about salvation than I did reading Hamilton’s book.

Can the Center Hold… Methodologically?

Truth be told, I think Hamilton’s project- proving that salvation through judgment to the glory of God is the central theological theme of the Bible- is pretty much doomed from the start.  Because what he cannot do is find a method that will actually back up what he says he’s going to do.

Hamilton has to assume his thesis in too many places to prove its centrality.  This is most clearly seen in his treatment of the epistles.  Hamilton’s method is basically this: show how each NT epistle fits with the thesis, then say something like “see, this is the central theological theme of the book.”

But all he can really do- and I would argue this is true of any one proposed center- is show how it fits, but not how it is central.  For example, let’s say I wrote a book arguing that creation/new creation is the central theological theme of the Bible.  I can easily demonstrate (in fact, far more easily than Hamilton can with his thesis) that Paul, John and the other NT writers assumed that God’s new creation is primarily seen in his people, so when they wrote their epistles they expect that Christian communities live out of the life of a new creation (in their ethics, in their preaching, in their ministry, etc).  So even if not explicitly stated, ‘new creation’ is the controlling theme underlying everything that is said.

What I would be doing in this hypothetical book is exactly what Hamilton is doing; that is, showing how my thesis sheds light on aspects of the Bible.  But what I’m not actually doing is showing that it’s central.  It’s there, it’s important and it is a basic assumption of the biblical writers.  But the central theme?  I can’t really even begin to think of a method that could carry that weight (unless, of course, your central theme is ‘God’).

Concluding Thoughts

I realize it seems I’m being hard on Hamilton.  The truth is, as I’ve stated, he sets the bar high for himself with his rather large claims.  He claims to be demonstrating the single most central theme of the entire Bible.  He doesn’t hedge his bets much, an admirable trait.  If he had simply said ‘here’s an important, but often overlooked, theme of the Bible’ this review would have been about ¼ of its size.

I truly did enjoy this book.  I learned a lot, was challenged in some areas, and confused in others.  I feel sorry for whoever might borrow this book from me, as there are now markings all over the place.  This is a sign of a good book, one I’m glad I read.

So I’m not convinced his thesis is correct, but I am convinced that Hamilton is on to something important.  I happily recommend the book to anyone who would wish to read it and learn more about our glorious God.

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With thanks to Connie from Crossway for a review copy of this book, and special thanks for your patience. 

Once in a while I run across a book that I want to read slowly and carefully, taking in the good, wrestling with the parts I’m unsure of and weighing the arguments of the author against the Word of God.  God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment by Jim Hamilton is one of those books.  I received this book before my son was born, and now he’s 18 months old.  I had a big move in the middle and actually restarted the book, hence the long delay.

The truth is I could probably write 100 pages on this book, but no one would sit through that.  So I’m opting for a 2-part review instead.  The title of the book is Hamilton’s main thesis, that the central theme of biblical theology is ‘God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.’  But Hamilton tries to accomplish more than this.  So my approach is the following: this review will focus on a few aspects of the book not directly related to his thesis, and the next one will interact exclusively with his supporting arguments for his thesis.

Structure and Overview of Books

Hamilton pays careful attention to the structure of bibilical books, often giving very helpful overviews of each book.  Sometimes he nails it, particularly in the OT.  On the macro-level, for example, his rundown of the flow of the 5 ‘Books’ of Psalms is excellent, helping the reader see more than a random collection of songs but an intentional (albeit implicit) storyline presented in the Psalms.

On a slightly less macro-level, I didn’t buy his Revelation chiasm (although it’s intriguing) but his ability to distill the central teachings of the book in a short amount of space was remarkable.  On a micro-level, his discussion of Isaiah 40-55 (in particular chapter 40) was refreshing and convincing (making it all the more strange that chapters 56-66 received less than a page- did he tire?).

But there are times Hamilton is less strong in this area.  For instance, in his introductory comments on Matthew’s Gospel, he notes the major shifts (at 4:17 and 16:21) and their impact on how we read Matthew.  But in his actual discussion of Matthew, he doesn’t follow this at all, making me wonder why those turning points are mentioned as anything more than a minor curiosity.

In the section on Acts, the Holy Spirit doesn’t get nearly enough attention considering his central role in the book and the crucial events in chapter 15 received 2 sentences (compare that to his nearly masterful treatment of Acts 7, which was 3 pages).  And when it comes to the NT epistles, Hamilton essentially restates the contents of the books rather than focusing on their flow of thought, to the point that I wondered why I was reading his book rather than simply picking up the NT itself.

All in all, I appreciated his discussion of structure and summaries of each book.  He is especially strong in narrative (which is the majority of the Bible) and handles the prophets well.  I’ve heard it said Hamilton’s book could also double as a good Bible introduction.  I’m not sure it should be the primary book used for that purpose, but it does fit the bill (maybe Hamilton ought to write one).

Extra-Curricular Discussions

Like many writers, Hamilton has trouble passing up an opportunity to comment on his favorite ‘pet’ topics, whether or not they are related to his thesis.  Depending on your perspective, these little tangents will either infuriate you or get you pumping your fist.  Examples include baptism and election/predestination, but there were two in particular that detracted from the book.

Anti-“liberalism”- Hamilton occasionally takes potshots at (unnamed) ‘tenured theologians’ at schools such as Yale, Princeton, Duke and Fuller (pp525-526), in particular for those holding anti-imperial readings of NT passages.  In Hamilton’s view, they go directly against passages such as 1 Peter 2.  Now, I tend to agree with Hamilton’s conclusions that there is not a strong anti-imperial focus in the NT.  But, I have two issues with Hamilton’s treatment of the topic:

1) If one were introduced to the topic through this book, they would come away thinking there are only two camps: those who reject biblical teaching on this matter; and those who accept the biblical teachings (and Hamilton falls into that camp, of course).  Is there no nuance?  Is there no argument to be made in favor of those who see anti-imperial readings?  Why was Jesus killed on a Roman cross?  Or why was Paul eventually killed by the Romans?  Or why does Revelation come down so hard on the Roman Empire?

2) To take shots at scholars without really naming them or interacting with their arguments is, at best, cheap.  Either give a respectful, detailed critique of their position, or leave it out.  The latter would have been a wiser course of action.

Complementarianism– Hamilton rarely misses a chance to point out the need for women to submit to men.  The issue here isn’t his complementarianism, it’s that it receives a disproportional amount of space.  For example, more is said about 1 Tim 2 than about 1 Cor 12-14 (or the Holy Spirit in Acts), even though the latter passage is arguably more central to its letter and is, at the very least, longer and thus arguably deserving of proportionally longer treatment.

In one case, Hamilton’s complementarianism skews his reading of an entire book, a reading not required by his complementarian viewpoint.  After reading his discussion of Esther (pp320-322), I came away this with basic moral point: submission is more important than purity.  Who cares that Ahasuerus was an immoral pagan king who wanted to give Esther ‘a try’ before he committed to marry her?  Esther needed to submit to him (and Mordecai) in order to be blessed by God.  Premarital sex and marrying a pagan?  Not nearly as bad as not submitting to a man (who wasn’t even her husband, might I add).  It was, quite frankly, hard to read this section.

Miscellaneous

Tables & Charts– Included in the book are dozens of helpful charts and tables which aid the reader.  He was especially strong in the Pentateuch, such as connecting Eden and the Tabernacle (p74), Abrahamic blessing answered Genesis 3 curses (p82) and so on.  At other points he compiles related concepts into charts, such as all the doxologies in the NT (pp538-539).

Translation & Writing Style- Hamilton opts to use his own translation, supplementing it with the ESV.  For the most part, then, everything sounds like the ESV.  There is one case, however, where he translated something that made me chuckle aloud to myself.  I’m still not sure how a warrior can ‘innocently’ shoot an arrow in battle, but Hamilton thinks it can happen (2 Chron 18:33-34, p349).

I’ll point out that I never really caught any typos, other than Onesiphorus is called ‘Onesimus’ on p508 (discussing 2 Tim 1:16-18).  The lack of typographical errors is a rather noteworthy achievement given the size of the book.  Well done, Crossway.

Concluding Thoughts (Non-Thesis)

Hamilton includes a lot of wonderful things in his book that are not directly related to his thesis.  There are benefits and drawbacks to this approach.  The upside is that he can unlock treasures in Scripture for the reader that make the book very exciting.  It also makes his book useful on a couple different fronts.

The downside is that he all-too-easily distracts from the purported purpose of the book.  It’s a shame, really, because he makes some fine points on almost every page.

In Part 2 of this review I’ll deal directly with Hamilton’s thesis and the evidence marshaled in its support.

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I’m not sure how many people judge a book by the blurbs found on it, but I pray that number dwindles greatly.  Because frequently, perhaps more often than not, they are misleading, particularly if they are written by a well-known scholar, author, pastor, etc.

Case in point: a while back Justin Taylor, one of the most popular bloggers in evangelicalism, highlighted a new book put out of IVP, The Roots of the Reformation.  The author, G R Evans, is apparently a well respected Cambridge medievalist.  Taylor includes in his post 4 endorsements of the book, two of which were particularly glowing:

“G. R. Evans is one of our finest scholars, and she has written a superb book placing the story of the Reformation in the wider context of Christian history. Comprehensive, well researched and readable.”

—Timothy George, general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture

“Briskly and breezily, but very efficiently, medievalist Gillian Evans here surveys Western Europe’s changing and clashing views of Christianity from the fourteenth century through the seventeenth century. This large-scale introduction is certainly the best of its kind currently available.”

—J. I. Packer, Regent College

But, a month later and Taylor (admirably) issued a ‘mea culpa‘ for implicitly endorsing this highly-praised book.  Why?  What changed his mind?

Because an expert on the subject matter of the book in question actually read the book carefully.

Carl Trueman wrote an absolutely devastating review of the book, pointing out numerous (and I mean numerous) embarrassing errors that undermine the credibility of the book, and thus, the author and those who praise it so unreservedly.  How devastating is this review?  IVP has opted to pull the book off the shelves, revise it (in time for the fall semester, although I wonder if any professor will opt to use it now) and give free ones to those who purchased the 1st edition.  You can read their letter here.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the damage done here.  No one’s salvation is at stake.  There won’t be a generation of scholars who will screw up basic facts about Calvin, Luther and the rest of the reformers.  The 2nd edition will fix the errors and the world will move on.

But I have to wonder about the endorsers, particularly the two I quoted.  Was Packer right when he said the book is “the best of its kind currently available?”  Are the other options so awful that Evans’ book is, in fact, better?  I highly doubt it.  The better question is: did Packer read the book?  Or, perhaps, is Packer qualified to write an endorsement for a book on the Reformation?

Same goes for Timothy George.  He said this book is ‘well researched.’  Did George read the book?  Is he qualified to make such a claim about the book?

I’m being a bit sarcastic.  Both Packer and George are highly qualified scholars.  Their credentials speak for themselves.  They ought to be able to read a book on the reformation and determine its value for classroom use.  But the only real explanation for their high praise is probably the simplest: they didn’t read the book carefully.  Trueman can’t be that much better of a scholar to be able to see frequent errors while they are not.  If so, they aren’t the scholars we all think they are.

So what’s the point in trusting blurbs for a book?  If you can’t trust J I Packer and Timothy George, then who can you trust?  I’ve read too many books that received high praise, only to read the book and wonder if the endorsers actually read it.  But often times it’s a matter of opinion to a certain degree.   In this case, it’s plain and simple.  The book had so many errors it has to be pulled off the shelf.  This isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of getting basic facts correct.  IVP shouldn’t be the only ones apologizing here.

I’m not the first to note the uselessness (or at least, the limited usefulness) of book blurbs.  Nick Norelli makes the same point here.  Esteban Vazquez (the only blogger to blog less than me) nail it pretty well here.  Or even better, read this.

Anyway, to bring my rant to a close, it’s disappointing to have your suspicions confirmed: sometimes (oftentimes?) endorsers don’t read carefully the book they are endorsing.  The quicker we all realize this, the better off we’ll be.  But we’ll be even better off if endorsers stop doing it altogether.

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It is my custom to end the year with a “5 Favorite New Reads of the Year” post here at BBG, highlighting my 5 best books I read for the first time that year.  It’s not that they were published that year, I hardly have time only to read the latest and greatest (which cease to be the latest and greatest in short order anyway).  This year, however, is a little different.

I mentioned to Marcus the other day that I only completed 3 books this year, which upon further review isn’t true.  There’s one I have yet to finish, although I’m putting it on this list anyway because I’m almost done.  So I’ve actually only read 2 books from front-to-back this year.  With my family making a major move this year, there simply wasn’t time to read.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read this few books in a calendar year since I learned how to read.  Shoot, I used to polish of 3 books a week.  Granted, I was in middle school and they were the Hardy Boys, but still.  (Side note: I’m eternally thankful for Franklin W Dixon for introducing the phrase “Man alive!” into my vocabulary.)

So this year I’m only going to highlight 2 books for the year, with a look ahead at 2 more books that I’m looking forward to reading in 2012.

2. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James Hamilton

I’m actually working through this book (albeit very slowly) for a book review.  Quite honestly, I could write 100 pages on it.  It’s been one of the more interesting books I’ve read in a while, even though I have some big reservations at points.  I have a million (give or take) markings in the margins recording my thoughts and, sometimes, rather frank reactions.  Part of the reason why it’s so intriguing to me is that Hamilton has stated his thesis so strongly (that the center of the Bible’s theology is… well… read the title) that it’s fun seeing whether or not he can pull off a defense of it.

So I’ll give Jim Hamilton some credit.  He didn’t hedge his bets at all.  He’s making a big claim and he’s doing what he can to back it up.  He also includes a lot of other tidbits throughout the book, breaking up the monotony a bit, as well as distracting from his point.  All in all, I’m glad I’ve worked through it so slowly.  It repays careful reading.  You’ll have to wait for my review to see my final thoughts… if I ever get around to writing it.

1. T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, by Steve Smith with Ying Kai

This book is written by a veteran missionary and a Chinese church planter, detailing the method (T4T- Training for Trainers) used by Ying Kai which (in part) led to one of the largest church planting movements in the world.  It is no exaggeration that using this method has radically changed the work of many in cross cultural ministry.  It’s a convicting and convincing call to adjust ministry methods that are neither commanded in the Bible or demanded by necessity.

The strength of the book is it’s attempt to emphasize that there’s nothing new they’re promoting, hence the word “rerevolution” in the title.  It would be easy for some to slip this book from “very helpful and effective” to “don’t mess with it, it’s perfect.”  The latter would be wrong, but just as bad would be to breeze over it with some lame excuse of “that’s overseas, not the US” or “what about tradition.”  Smith and Kai try their best to root all of their suggestions in the Word, and even if they can’t convince you (or me) that it’s 100% what the Bible says, at least it’s biblically grounded and sound.

I can’t recommend this book enough.  I think it needs to be read more than once, and best if in a group of people who can beat the ideas around together, going back to the Scripture and praying through the method.

Now for what’s ahead…

Gregory Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology

It’s rare that I’m completely surprised by a Christmas gift, but this was one.  Beale’s strength is in connections between the Old and New Testaments, as well as eschatology, which for Beale go hand-in-hand.  Given the paucity of spare time in my life, I can’t imagine how long it’ll take me to read this book.  But I’ll give it a go.  I’m convinced that eschatology is more important in biblical theology than most Christians care to think, but I’m also convinced that biblical eschatology looks radically different from the eschatology commonly peddled in the church.  This book, hopefully, will help me sort through all that.  If I ever get around to reading it.

Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches

I know, I know.  This book is for mothers, not fathers.  But I am married to a mother of little children, so I’m only one step removed from the target audience.  If crusty old men can review movies for adolescent girls and get paid big bucks to do it, surely I can handle this.

Actually, my wife got this for Christmas and we decided we’d read it aloud together.  It’s short (just barely over 100 pages), fun (so far, haven’t read too far into it) and comes highly recommended.  I actually haven’t read a single parenting book, partly because I dread “how to” manuals.  This doesn’t seem like that sort of book, and I’m grateful.  Besides, my wife will be blessed by it, and her blessedness is in my best interest.

What books did you read this year?  Anything you’d recommend?

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Who, in their right mind, turns down a gift?  Apparently, a lot of people do, when they reject the church.

Jim Samra has written a helpful little book called The Gift of Church: How God Designed the Local Church to Meet Our Needs as Christians, in which he argues that the church is, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, a gift from God to help Christians mature spiritually.  In it Samra gives us 6 chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the church and how it functions as a blessing to Christians:

  • God is uniquely present when the church gathers
  • In the church, there is unity in diversity in Christ
  • We find true community in the church
  • The church is God’s instrument of bringing about spiritual growth
  • The church can accomplish more for God’s Kingdom than individual Christians
  • The church makes an invisible Jesus visible to the world

Mind you, Samra does not ignore the problems of the church; in fact, he even notes that the primary argument against the church is the church itself!  But he, rightly, comes from the vantage point that the church is the collection of God’s people, whom he has redeemed for his name and his purposes.  If God himself hasn’t given up the church, then why should we?  Because of this there are points when Samra almost comes across as too idealistic (I say ‘almost’ because he doesn’t sugarcoat anything), but when I stop and reread Ephesians I realize that Paul himself uses high praise for God’s people, and he was as familiar as anybody with their problems.

Samra offers some useful perspective throughout the book with helpful illustrations (you can tell he’s a pastor).  For instance, in the first chapter he likes corporate worship to a experiencing a full-blown concert, as opposed to listening to a cd on your own.  Sure, listening to the Beatles on the radio is good, but for those experienced them live in one of their many sold out shows, they’d pick the live show.

His take on diversity was good, too.  Many of us think of ethnic diversity when we hear that word, but Samra does point out there are other forms of diversity in the church (without ignoring the racial component).  So, for those who think going to their college Bible study, as an example, is the same thing as going to church, they forget that the church is supposed to include people outside their own demographic.  He didn’t put it this way, but basically by doing this (my college Bible study, the Christian guys at work going to lunch, etc) you are forming your church in a “Jesus + __” manner.  That is, “being a part of our ‘church’ requires you to believe in Jesus and be an accountant.”  But this has never been God’s plan for the church (though this does make me want to have a conversation with Samra on church membership).

Samra’s book is not a “how-to” approach to church.  He doesn’t advocate for a particular style, which means that churches of various stripes (contemporary and traditional, megachurch and house church, etc) can utilize this book and apply it in their context.

My concerns with this book have little to do with content and more to do with might be the perception of it.  For instance, some might accuse Samra of capitulating to our culture, which focuses on “me” more than others, especially God.  Is answering “how the church can benefit you” the wrong approach in a culture that is already me-centered?

The answer to this question comes in the subtitle and is sprinkled throughout the book, which explicitly states the church is designed to “meet our needs as Christians.”  “Needs” is the key word here.  Many people mistake “wants” for “needs,” and Samra does well to avoid this problem.  The local church may not give you everything you want, but God has designed it to meet your needs.

One thought I did have as I finished up the book was that I’d love to see Samra write a follow up from another angle, how God has designed individual Christians to serve the local church.  There is certainly some of this throughout the book, but maybe a stronger focus would help it stand out to those who tend to focus on themselves rather than others.  (Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church- something like that.)

Who will benefit the most from this book?  My guess is that people who call themselves Christians but have basically given up on the church will probably not be convinced otherwise from The Gift of Church.  They should, and Samra clearly lays out the biblical teaching on the subject.  But in my experience, those who have reached this place probably know what the Bible says and for various reasons have opted to move in a different direction.

But for those who have one foot in the church and one foot out, so to speak, The Gift of Church will probably be of great benefit, and for those of us know need the occasional reminder of why we “do church.”  If you allow yourself to be, you’ll be encouraged and convicted (as I was, and I’ve never really struggled with the church) to stick it out with God’s plan for the church in this world.  Samra is to be commended for a fine book on a worthwhile topic.

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

Way back in September of last year I mentioned my desire to read Worship and the Reality of God, and guessed that I would “be pumping my fist in agreement in one chapter and shaking my head the next.”  That’s pretty much how it turned out, though my reaction would often change from page to page.  I, for one, appreciate this in a book.  John Jefferson Davis is professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and, as my previously linked post indicates, an eclectic theologian (in a very good sense).  Davis’ concern in this book is the lack of understanding of the presence of God in Christian worship, hence the subtitle “An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence.”

As Davis sees it, there are “competing ontologies” working within the church today (p21).  There’s the scientific materialism (the ontology of modernity), digital virtuism (the ontology of postmodernity) and trinitarian supernaturalism (the ontology of eternity).  As you can see with just that short list, this is no easy book to plow through.  If you are not familiar with philosophical categories (ontology and epistemology being the two biggest), then I’m not sure how much of this book makes sense (another example, the John Zizioulas quote from page 178: “Pneumatology is an ontological category in ecclesiology”).  Davis demonstrates how the first two ontologies have diluted Christian worship, specifically in how we understand God’s presence in our worship.  To put it differently, churches act as if God’s is not truly present when we gather to worship, and this is largely because we have a skewed view of reality (ie, our ontology is off).

So Davis has some strong words of critique for modern Christian worship, which is no surprise coming from a seminary professor (especially one from Gordon-Conwell).  But what I love about Davis is that he doesn’t simply point the finger at others, but calls theologians and seminaries to task for not spending enough time thinking and training people in worship (pp9-10).  Davis takes this topic seriously and personally, which shows throughout this book (more on this point at the end of this review). 

I won’t take the time to summarize Davis’ argument for the lack of understanding of God’s presence in our worship, in part because I think he’s basically right.  Christians across the board, and I’m including we charismatics who allegedly have a strong theology of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit, do not show up to church excited to gather with other believers in the presence of God.  There is little-to-no expectation of encountering God.  Davis attempts to demonstrate how this has happened through the aforementioned competing ontologies and their impact on our view of reality (interestingly, I had a lot of trouble keeping up with his discussion of modern technology, virtual gaming and its impact on the church, whereas many people my age would understand that far better than the philosophical portions of the discussion).

What I want to get to is Davis’ recommendations for fixing this problem.  Davis’ stance is that with the loss of liturgy we have lost the belief in the real presence of God in Christian worship.  He believes that a more regular practice of the Eucharist would lead Christians back to a place of taking the presence of God more seriously in worship.  Davis also argues that a return to the regular practice of spiritual gifts would contribute to fixing our error.  Like I said, he’s eclectic.

If you’ve read this blog for very long, you’ll know I’m jumping on the spiritual gifts bandwagon, but I remained unconvinced of the previous two points (liturgy and Eucharist).  We all must be aware that we are in danger of turning preference into law, and there were points of this book where I felt like Davis was doing exactly this.  There’s no doubt that he is greatly moved by a weekly Eucharistic celebration, and he feels the weight of the liturgy.  But he never convinces me that I should be, too.

Davis marshalls all sorts of evidence in support of his liturgical and Eucharistic (is that even a word?) suggestions, mostly theological and historical.  But that is precisely the problem: because his biblical arguments are unconvincing, I’m not sure why anyone should adopt his stance on these points.  And I’m not sure the historical evidence necessarily works in his favor at all times, either.  Let me explain.

There is no liturgy in the New Testament, at least not in any sense we see practiced in liturgical churches.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad to follow one, but to think of this as the medicine for our problem when it isn’t described or prescribed in Scripture seems a bit backwards.  Besides, there were pragmatic reasons for adopting the liturgy in the first place.  Yet, when reading Davis one gets the impression that pragmatism is the enemy of the church. 

Also, last time I checked, New England (where I’m from) is littered with liturgical churches that have no understanding of the presence of God.  Their liturgical practices haven’t helped one bit, why should we think this is the solution to our problems?  I do admit his list of 6 advantages of using a liturgy is intruiging (p188, I’ll post them another day), but, again, I’m surrounded by churches that see none of these despite their liturgical practices.

Regarding the Eucharist, I’m simply too far removed from Davis’ theology here to buy what he’s selling.  I don’t even like using the term Eucharist (nor sacrament, nor communion, for that matter).  I’ll confess that I’m basically an old-fashioned Baptist/Zwinglian on this issue.  Mind you, I agree with Davis’ argument that evangelicals don’t take the Lord’s Supper seriously enough- I’m 100% on board with that.  And I even lean towards a weekly observance.  But I’m uncomfortable with terms like “means of grace” or the thought that the Eucharist “seals to believers the benefits of the Redeemer’s Sacrifice” (p131).  Last time I checked, that the job of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14).  I should note that when Davis talks about the presence of Christ at the Eucharist, he is careful to say he does not believe Christ is present in the elements (basically a Catholic view) but at the Table.  But again, I’m unconvinced by the biblical argument of this point, and would argue that Christ is present through his Holy Spirit, not through the Lord’s Supper.

Going back to church history, I think one could make a case that those with a high view of the Eucharist share the blame for its fall within American churches.  After all, it was those folks who wouldn’t allow frontier churches (a target in the book) to administer the Lord’s Supper because they did not have ordained clergy to do so.  Well of course the practice fell out of favor, no one would let them do it! 

This review is going on much longer than my normal ones, so I’ll summarize briefly.  I think church leaders would benefit from this book.  Because Davis’ approach is fairly eclectic, he helps the reader see church practices from multiple angles.  And even though I’m unconvinced by his positive arguments (what the church should do), I see the merit of his negative ones (what the church should not do).  This will be, whether we admit it or not, largely determined by our previously held position.  It’s no coincidence that you can read a largely negative review of the book by a Baptist, and a positive one by an Anglican.  If nothing else, read the book for the annotated bibliography- it’s a goldmine of historical and theological writings on the topic of worship, liturgy and the Eucharist.

I mentioned above that Davis’ passion for this topic is evident.  This is not a normal thing to include in a book review, but it did affect the way I read the book so I feel the need to mention it.  When I told a seminary buddy about this book before it came out, he relayed something to me that stuck in my brain.  He heard Dr Davis give a talk at a conference on worship and was greatly impressed by Davis.  In his words, “this isn’t the same man we studied under a few years back.  I honestly think he underwent some kind of personal revival since then.”  I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ll agree with the basic point.  The Jack Davis coming through these pages was more passionate and moving than what I remember in class.  It is clear this is a very personal issue for him, and he truly is moved in worship of our Savior through the practices outlined in Worship and the Reality of God.  I appreciate that about him and this book.  I hope others see that, too.

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