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Posts Tagged ‘biblical theology’

The biblical theologian who writes in the service of the church does so to elucidate the biblical worldview, not merely so that it can be studied but so that it can be adopted.

James Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, page 45.

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Finally, the Bible shows us the perfect completion of God’s covenant with Abraham in the book of Revelation.  In fact, all the great Bible covenants are there in the book of Revelation.

  • Noah is there in the vision of a new creation, a new heaven and new earth after judgment.
  • Abraham is there in the ingathering and blessing of all nations from every tongue and language.
  • Moses is there in the covenantal assertion that ‘they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God,’ and ‘the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’ (Rev 21:3).
  • David is there in the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, and in the identity of Jesus as the Lion of Judah and Root of David.
  • The New Covenant is there in the fact that all of this will be accomplished by the blood of the Lamb who was slain.

Christopher J H Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God, p95.

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I’ve been staring at my computer screen for about 10 minutes, wondering how to start this book review.  So I’ll just jump to my conclusion- I loved it.  Christopher Wright is quickly emerging as one of my favorite authors, combining a biblical scholar’s precision, a theologian’s broad scope and a missiologist’s heart, not to mention an uncanny ability to say much in little space (the book is under 200 pages). 

The book, as you can surmise from the title, is about salvation- Salvation Belongs to Our God: Celebrating the Bible’s Central Story.  The “control text” (as he calls it) is Revelation 7:10:

Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.

He unpacks this little song, sung by the innumerable multitude from “every nation, tribe, people and language,” phrase by phrase, sometimes dealing with something as small as a word (“our”), to unpack “what the Bible means when it uses such phrases” (p16).  That may seem painstakingly slow, but what the reader is treated to is a whirlwind trip through the Bible.  This is not a classic, systematic theology-style treatment of soteriology.  Wright is much more concerned to unpack the story of salvation, from Eden through Abraham to Jesus all the way to Revelation.

Because of this, the reader learns more about the Bible than a few quick tips on “how to get saved.”  Wright covers the variety of ways God saves (sin, danger, sickness, enemies, etc).  He emphasizes the uniqueness of God’s identity as Savior (especially in Isaiah, if you’re studying Isaiah you should get this book), as well as the implications for understanding Christ as Savior.  The way he weaves the biblical covenants into the story line of the Bible was perhaps my favorite part of the book.  In most sections, he demonstrates from both OT and NT texts what he is emphasizing, showing the reader that there is far more continuity between the testaments regarding salvation than many think.

Wright does, of course, deal with some heavy theological issues.  How do other religions fit into the picture (though I should point out that he’s quick to affirm that Christianity itself does not save someone)?  What about the destiny of the unevangelized?  What is the relationship between Jew and Gentile, Israel and the nations, in the New Covenant?  Many readers will not agree with everything he states, but nonetheless he treats positions fairly and argues his case well.

It’s not that I learned something new in this book.  Wright’s conclusions and arguments are hardly novel.  Most evangelical readers can affirm the theological points he is making without reading the book, save for maybe one or two.  But it’s the way Wright goes about writing about salvation.   Having such a fully-orbed treatment of the subject, written in an engaging- one could even say “worshipful”- tone was refreshing to my soul. 

That isn’t to say I agreed with everything in the book.  No doubt in effort to keep the book short, Wright sometimes makes assertions without support (I, of course, notice these things on points of disagreement between him and me).  He is an Anglican (paedobaptist), so when he draws a strong connection between Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism, I (the credobaptist) automatically have my defenses up.  I’m also uncomfortable saying that salvation is “mediated” through the Scriptures and the sacraments.  I wonder why he chooses that word, since it hardly clarifies what he was trying to say.

I did have one disappointment regarding the holistic nature of salvation and eschatology.  Early in the book, and scattered throughout in smaller chunks, Wright notes that the Bible talks about salvation in a number of ways: salvation from enemies, poverty and so on.  He notes the danger is separating “theological” or “spiritual” salvation too far from “physical” salvation.  But, he argues, rightly in my mind, that salvation from sin and its consequences is given highest priority in the Bible.

And while he does speak about the eschatological (future) nature of salvation, I kept wishing he would bring these points, the holistic and eschatological, together more definitely.  The clear implication of what he says throughout the book, in my opinion, is that in the new creation- the New Heavens and the New Earth- salvation in all its facets, spiritual and physical (if we can use these terms) are brought together.  Physical salvation (salvation from sickness, enemies and so on) which has been experienced by various portions of God’s people at various points in history, will be experienced fully (Rev 21:4, for example).  But the key to experiencing that eschatological salvation is to experience salvation from sin in this age.  Throughout the book I felt like Wright (though perhaps he wouldn’t agree with this) was leading the reader to this point, only to dance around it and never fully state it.  I felt like he was a football team, marching down the field with ease, only needing to punch the ball across the goal line for the winning touchdown, only to settle for a field goal (sorry, football season is right around the corner and I’m getting antsy).

But you know what?  I don’t care.  I liked this book too much to worry about it for too long. 

I have not had a book capture my attention like this one in quite some time.  I took, no exaggeration, 33 pages of typed notes on this book!  33 pages!  (Now you’ll understand why I’m having trouble keeping this review short).  There was so much to soak in, I didn’t want to miss anything.  Even my detractions demonstrate how engaging Wright’s book is, as I found myself thinking alongside him with my Bible open and pen in hand.  And I’m not ashamed to admit that my heart literally raced at points as I was so drawn into God’s plan of salvation and His identity as Savior.  A theology book that brings you to worship- now that’s a great book!

So go out and get Salvation Belongs to Our God.  Read it critically (in the good sense).  Read it carefully.  Read it reverently.  Because the God who saves is not merely a point on your statement of faith.  He is the God before whom we will stand and sing, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

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Within a covenant structure, the Old Testament held out a programme of ideals for a perfected people of God.  But the Old age did not reach that goal.  Now [sic] did the New.  Neither has our own.  The kingship of God sought expression through a whole web of relationships which successive covenants both pointed towards and also exercised over the people of God and their world.  But this kingship presupposed a return within history to the beginning of history.  As we have repeatedly noted, nothing less than a new creation – and thus a new covenant – would achieve this goal.  In that sense, the notion of the kingdom of God, controlling as it does the whole of biblical thinking, was always a theological assertion pointing towards a future reality – the New Covenant.

-William J Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, p206

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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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Special thanks again to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.  See also Part I, Part II, Part III.

This portion of the review covers Beale’s chapters on Paul’s epistles and Revelation.  As we work through these chapters, keep in mind that Beale’s thesis statement is: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”

Beale takes on Paul’s letters, specifically Romans 1:20-28 and 1 Corinthians 10.  There are no real surprises here; he sees Psalm 106:19-20 and Jeremiah 2:5-11 in the background of the Romans passage, as well as allusions to Genesis 1-3 (important texts for Beale, as we saw in part II of this review).  The language of worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, exchanging their glory and becoming vain are all seen in idolatrous contexts of the OT, all of which is also seen in 2 Kings 17:15-16.  The idolater is “punished by means of its own idolatry (p216).  While he argues, fairly persuasively, that these idolatry texts are in the background, how does it fit his thesis statement?  Beale says, “the punishment is that the idol worshipers’ unnatural relationships with others resemble their unnatural relationship with God” (p204).

He gives a little portion of this chapter to Romans 12:1-2 to show the flip side of his thesis statement.  Here, when someone gives themself to worship God, they are transformed and conformed to His image (see also Romans 8:29).  I actually wish he would have spent more time  here, but I understand this is a book about idolatry.

Beale explores the quotations and allusions to the OT in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22.  Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to partake in sacrificing to demons because “I do not want you to become sharers in demons” (v20).  On the phrase “sharers of demons,” Beale states, “the idea in 1 Corinthians 10: 18,20 is that of sharing in or reflecting the nature or attributes of the demons in contrast to those who share in Christ and are identified with him and reflect his spiritual character” (p229).  We see similar uses of “sharer” in 1 Peter 5:1, 2 Peter 1:4, 2 Corinthians 13:4, and other places.  This, of course, fits Beale’s thesis very well.  I found his analysis of idolatry in Paul to be quite helpful.

Beale has written extensively on the book of Revelation, including what I have called elsewhere the best commentary on Revelation.  This chapter contains a wealth of insight into the problem of idolatry in Revelation: the “Jezebel” of chapters 2-3, the harlot of chapters 17-18, the Beast of chapter 13, etc.  While he does go into 9:20-21 a bit, I think he probably could have done more here.  Let me explain.

As much as I enjoyed this chapter on Revelation, I didn’t find much support for his thesis: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”  Idolatry is prevalent in Revelation, and Beale offers many helpful suggestions throughout his discussion.  But I fail to see where Revelation talks about someone becoming like the idol they revere (with the possible allusion in 9:20-21).  Beale states, “They [the Beast worshippers] have devoted themselves to the beast and so have themselves become beastly, which is part of the consequence of being identified with the name of the beast” (p258).  But where in Revelation are idol worshippers portrayed as beasts?  Beale doesn’t demonstrate this.  To be sure, those who worship the Beast suffer the same fate as the beast, but that is not saying the same thing.  Nor is noting that idol worshippers identifiy themselves with the Beast (they receive “the mark”) saying the same thing as them coming to resemble the Beast.

For instance, in passages in Isaiah and Psalms (115, for example), there is a clear teaching that idol worshippers become like their idols.  Beale demonstrates this clearly back in the earlier chapters of the book.  So, if someone worships an idol of stone which cannot see or hear, they themselves will be unable to see or hear what the Lord is doing and saying.  They take on the characteristics of the idol.

This is different from saying they will someday be destroyed like that idol.  That is what we have in Revelation.  The worshippers of the Beast do not become like the Beast.  The descriptions of the Beast are not applied to those who worship it.  Thus, while I think Beale offers some wonderful insight in this chapter, he does not support his actual thesis statement.

As I look back on this chapter and go back through Revelation, I wonder if one would be better trying to make the case that those who worship the Beast do so because they were already idolaters.  In other words, because they came to resemble the idols they worship (i.e., they cannot see or hear what is really going on), they were unable to spot the deception of the beast.  So, worshipping the Beast is actually a consequence of their idolatry, as well as a continuation of it.  This wouldn’t be hard to demonstrate, since we know that pretty much all pagans in John’s day were idolaters.  John’s call for the church not to participate in idolatry in chapters 2-3 are all that much more important considering they need to be able to discern what is really the driving force behind the Beast.  So, I do think Beale’s thesis can be found in Revelation, just not where he thinks it is.

With all that said, I don’t want to come across as if one can simply discard all that Beale has written here.  On the contrary, I find myself being driven back to the Bible to see what Scripture is saying.  I look forward to reviewing the final chapters of this book soon.

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Thanks once again to Adrianna at IVP for a review copy of this book.  See also Part I, Part II.

We Become What We WorshipI’m picking up this review with Beale’s chapters on the Gospels and Acts.  I’m skipping his chapter on Intertestamental Judaism, not because it wasn’t helpful or interesting, but because this review is ridiculously long already.  Remember, Beale’s thesis is: what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.

Beale’s main text, Isaiah 6, appears clearly in the Gospels, usually quoted along with Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:10-15, Mark 4:12, etc).  It does not, however, seem explicitly connected to idolatry.  Beale admits this is a potential problem for his thesis.  In fact, idolatry doesn’t seem present in the Gospels at all.

Beale, however, appeals to the use of Isaiah 29 in Mark 7:6-13 (and Matthew 15:7-9).  The Isaiah passages use sensory-malfuncation language, which Beale has argued all along is due to idolatry (becoming like what you worship).  In the case of the Gospel passages, however, the worship is not of physical idols but of tradition itself.  Thus, Beale reads this use of Isaiah 29 back into the use of Isaiah 6.  Tradition has become the new idol, particularly of the Pharisees.  “Jesus’ application of Isaiah 6:9-10 and Isaiah 29:13 to his Israelite contemporaries indicated that what had happened in Isaiah’s day was happening again: Israel was being judged for idolatry–committing itself to something besides God” (p176).

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this.  It makes sense, but I still can’t help but think that he is, at points, making connections that are tenuous at best.  Here’s how I see it working in Beale’s scheme: we see the context of idolatry in the use of Isaiah 6 in Mark 4 via the use of Isaiah 29 in Mark 7.  I have to be honest, I find myself scratching my head on this one.  It makes sense, to be sure, but I’m wary of needing multiple steps to come to such a strong conclusion.  It’s not that I think he’s wrong, it’s just that I feel like more work would need to be done here.  I can accept Beale’s statement at the end of the chapter that “adequate interpretation necessitates that the interpreter retrieve unmentioned correspondences between two passages” (p183).  I’m just not sure he’s done so convincingly here.

Beale admits that while idolatry shows up in a number of places in Acts, “the notion of idol worshippers becoming like their idols is difficult to discern in the book” (p200).  It’s interesting that the one place in Acts (28:25-28) that quotes Beale’s central passage of Isaiah 6 is discussed only briefly, since even Beale admits idolatry is not central here.  He does try to show how it might fit, but one wonders if he’s trying too hard to make it all work together.

This chapter does include an extremely helpful discussion on Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, which Beale summarizes, “For Jews to continue to believe that God’s unique revelatory presence was in their physical temple and not in Christ was idolatry–the same as believing that God’s unique presence was in some wooden idol or ancient tree (p195).  He appeals to the references of the golden calf incident and Stephen calling the Jewish leaders “stiff-necked” (see part II of this review for more on that) as evidence of his central thesis that people resemble what they revere.  I found this section illuminating; I’ll probably not read Stephen’s speech quite the same way again.

My plan is to review his chapters on Paul’s epistles and Revelation in Part IV, then Part V will discuss his concluding chapters as well as summarize my final thoughts on the book.

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