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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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Special thanks to Connie at Crossway for a review copy of this book.

For all the time I’ve spent studying Scripture, I hate to admit that I have a fairly weak theology of Scripture itself.  The truth is that I’m probably not alone.  It had been a long time since I had read something about the nature of Scripture, particularly of a more technical bent.  Enter D A Carson (I know, I’ve read a lot of Carson this year- I have many years of catching up to do).

Collected Writings on Scripture by D A Carson is just that, collected writings on Scripture written by D A Carson.  Included are 10 articles; the first 5 covering a variety of topics related to the Bible and the study of it (originally published between 1983 and 1997), the last 5 being a collection of book reviews of 9 books released from 1981 to 2007.  It may seem odd to some that one would include a series of book reviews in a collection of writings, but they reveal as much about Carson’s understanding of Scripture. 

The first chapter, “Approaching the Bible,” is probably the only one that could be read with relative ease by a layperson (despite Carson’s claim to the contrary in his preface).  It was originally written as the opening essay for the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, released in 1994.  This essay would be the most broadly useful, one that could be passed around to church members wishing to understand better the nature of the Bible and how it is best interpreted (note: it can be downloaded as a pdf here, although it looks a bit awkward). 

The next four chapters are a bit of a tougher read, though still quite rewarding.  I’ll admit that I found my eyes crossing a bit during chapter 2 (“Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture”)- though don’t ignore the warning to evangelicals at the end of the chapter-, but was reinvigorated during chapter 3, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology.”  The latter chapter is a must read for those of us who find ourselves suspicious of systematic theology (myself included).  Pastors could easily take the insights from this chapter and make them more digestible to their congregations.

I found chapter 4, “Redaction Criticism: On the Legitmacy and Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool,” to be my favorite, surprisingly so.  “Surprisingly” because chapters on methodology, specifically a method I’ve found to be used with far too much confidence by some scholars, are rarely the most exciting.  Yet after giving 20 reasons to be cautious of redaction criticism, Carson still argues that it has its place in Gospel study.  (Side note: the extended Morna Hooker quote on page 160 is worth multiple readings.)

In the fifth chapter, entitled “Is the Doctrine of Claritas Scripturae Still Relevant Today?,” Carson jumps into the worlds of historical theology and epistemology in admirable fashion.  For those familiar with his works on postmodernity, such as The Gagging of God, this chapter will cover familiar territory. 

The book reviews deal with a handful of books I’ve never heard of, and a few more well known authors (Marshall, Enns and Wright).  After offering a summary of their contents, he interacts (often critiquing) their contents in rather entertaining fashion.  For the most part his reviews would be seen as “negative,” meaning he has serious concerns with the books reviewed.  The notable except is Jeffrey Sheler’s Is the Bible True?.  His disagreements doesn’t lead him beyond the bounds of appreciation, however.

One of my concerns about this book is in these book reviews.  It’s not that I find them unworthy of their inclusion in this collection of essays; on the contrary I find them to be brilliant.  Carson writes with candor and wit, deconstructing false premises, refuting historical revisionist tendencies and kicking over sand castles built on bad logic.  Considering the vast majority of book reviews I read in the world of biblical scholarship are formulaic and predictable, I appreciate Carson’s willingness to forego convention and get to the heart of the matter.

My concern lies not with Carson’s reviews themselves, but that readers from my generation (roughly 40 and below) may skip over the more dense chapters on methodology and the nature of Scripture to grab a ringside seat for the fight.  My generation is one that loves to pump our fist in the air, rallying behind our champion as he goes toe-to-toe with the “bad guys.”  My concern is that the scholars, both actual and wannabe (my choice of the latter term over “aspiring” is intentional), of my age group are more adept at poking holes than patching them.  We have been taught to think critically, engage thoughtfully, examine assumptions, etc.  And I’ve seen firsthand many who were quite skilled at doing just that.  Unfortunately, many of those in my generation are cowards.  They can point out the flaws of others, but won’t stick their neck out long enough for anyone to return the favor. 

But Carson is not like my generation.  To be sure, the first portion of the book devotes plenty of space to critiques.  But the function is not merely negative (why so-and-so is wrong).  Carson offers positive arguments for how to approach Scripture.  In other words, he isn’t simply arguing against something, he’s arguing for something.  Building a strong case often requires both, though I fear many can only do the former.  Thankfully, Carson provides a model for making a case, not just deconstructing one.

I do recommend this book, particularly for students and pastors who need some assistance thinking through their understanding of Scripture, both its nature and the study of it.  The first chapter and the review of Sheler’s book would probably be the only sections easily read by a layperson, though with time and a knowledge of theological terms one would benefit greatly from it.  In all, D A Carson’s Collected Writings on Scripture is worth the time and effort.

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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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Special thanks to Adam of Baker Publishing Group for a review copy of this book.

By now readers of this site should not need an introduction to D. A. Carson.  He’s about as prolific an author as there is in the world of biblical studies, as well as a high-demand speaker.  In fact, this book, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story, stems from a series of talks he gave at Bethlehem Baptist Church in February 2009 (The Gospel Coalition has generously posted the audio for free, as well as short video clips from each talk). 

I’m at a loss for how to categorize this book.  It is a work of theology, in that it’s subject is the God of the Bible.  It is a bit of a Bible introduction, for it is written with someone who has little-to-no knowledge of the Bible in mind.  It is evangelistic in nature, in that one of the target audiences of the book is the non-Christian (who ought to know, in Carson’s words, about the God in whom they disbelieve) and they are encouraged to find their place in God’s story (as the subtitle indicates).

The book itself is divided into 14 chapters weighing in at about 225 pages.  The chapter titles (e.g., The God Who Made Everything, The God Who Dies- And Lives Again) give the reader a clue about the content of each chapter.  Coming as no surprise to anyone who has read him, Carson handles each chapter with great care and clarity.  He anticipates questions and objections well and answers them, even if briefly.

This book is, as I said, a theology book, specifically theology proper (about God Himself).  But it is unlike many other theology books out there, or at least systematic theology.  First of all, Carson follows the basic story line of the Bible itself as his approach to teaching about the God of Scripture.  Thus, it is no surprise that his first chapter is on God as Creator and so on.  Carson does deal in terms of categories (Creator, Judge, etc) and characteristics (wrath, love, etc) like systematic theologies, but they rarely seek to follow the Bible metanarrative.  I, for one, much prefer Carson’s method.

Second, unlike most systematic theology, Carson’s work is text- and context-driven.  Each chapter focuses on a specific text, sometime multiple biblical chapters, and its context rather than prooftexting his way through a given topic.  That is not to say he never refers to other places in the Bible in a given chapter, but he only does so to make clear how it fits into the story of the Bible.

Overall, I think Carson does an admirable job explaining how God is portrayed in the Bible.  I appreciate that he did not shy away from the more difficult images of God used in the Bible, as many are prone to do, in order to make Him more palatable to our culture.  God is who He is, and Carson is content to let the Bible speak for itself.  He does attempt to answer some objections and common questions along the way, and occasionally suggests further reading (and more, I’m told, shows up in the Leader’s Guide- if I would have known there was one I would have asked for a review copy of that, too).

The God Who Is There is also, in some sense, an introduction to the Bible.  He explains very basic points (how many books are there, the original languages, etc) and when he refers, for instance, to Romans he explains it is the 6th book of the New Testament, coming after the Gospels and Acts.  I wouldn’t say this book should be used as an introduction to the Bible, as it is uneven.  For instance, it gives some quick guidance to reading certain books (such as the Wisdom books), but not most others.  This isn’t a knock on the book, since Carson’s goal was more to introduce the God of the Bible rather than the Bible.

Carson is a master expositor, and his skills shine throughout the book.  He seeks to explain the text, not just the original meaning but the implications for the reader.  He explains difficult concepts, draws out important points and shows how they fit in the Bible and what they reveal about God.  For a book written with a biblically illiterate audience in mind, Carson doesn’t mind digging to make his point.  I was humbled on more than one occasion by not noticing something in Scripture that I had read over many times before (like the echoes of Exodus 32-34 in John’s Prologue).

My only real complaint is that Carson is a bit weak on the prophets.  Given that Isaiah through Malachi makes up a dominant portion of Scripture, I would have liked to have seen more said about them.  I made this same critique of an otherwise wonderful OT introduction, so I’m starting to wonder if scholars just aren’t sure what to say about the prophetical books in their lay-level writings.

Like I said above, Carson’s book is partially evangelistic.  It is not, as you can probably guess by now, evangelistic in the same way the 4 Spiritual Laws are evangelistic, or even the “Romans Road.”  It is evangelistic in that it seeks to tell the reader, who may not be a Christian at all, about God.  Carson tries, as much as is humanly possible, to capture the essence of the God who created and sustained all things and who has revealed Himself throughout history, especially in the pages of the Bible.

But more importantly, Carson seeks to show how the revelation of God is most supremely seen in the person of Jesus.  It is Jesus, God incarnate, who died on a Roman cross and rose again 3 days later, who is the centerpiece of the faith.  The gospel is not a cool story for children’s book, or a doctrinal point to check off.  It is the message of Jesus- His life, His work and His return- that the reader is encouraged on these pages to meet. 

I should note that this is probably one of the more intellectually engaging attempts at evangelism out there (aside from the debate circuit).  Whoever gives this book to an interested friend, or leads a small group based on this book, ought to expect many questions along the way.  But if you have friends who are genuinely interested in knowing more about the Bible, and even more so about the God of the Bible, then Carson is probably the best pick around.  And the truth is, plenty of Christians desperately need to read this book as well, and learn more about the God we worship.

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Special thanks again to Caitlin of Baker Books for a review copy of the DVD and Study Guide.  See my previous post for my review of the 3rd Edition of the book.

Along with publishing a 3rd edition of John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad, Baker has released, a helpful complement in the DVD and DVD Study Guide.  I for one applaud the attempt at a multimedia approach, as different media reach different people.  While some may be put off by long chapters (see my review) and extended footnotes, Piper’s passionate preaching and pleading (which is often what he does) with his listeners to pursue and support missions may speak to them.  The content of the actual sermons is largely the same as the book itself, so I won’t spend as much time reviewing that as I will the quality and character of the sermons on the DVD and the helpfulness of the accompanying Study Guide.

The DVDs are divided into 6 talks of approximately 30 minutes.  I think they were originally 2 talks when they were given (I read somewhere they were given in NC).  I’m not entirely sure, but it seems they were given to a group of pastors, presumably under the label of “missional,” since Piper consistently makes the point (especially in the first sermon) “you are not biblically missional unless you pursue missions.”  In the third sermon he also does a Mark Driscoll impersonation, so I’d imagine he was involved in the conference at which these messages were originally given.

The titles of the 6 talks are:

  • Defining Missions and Defining Peoples
  • The Urgency of Missions: The Reality of Hell and the Work of Christ
  • The Urgency of Missions: Preaching, Hearing, and Believing
  • The Goal and Fuel of Missions
  • Prayer: the Power of Missions
  • Suffering: The Cost of Missions

Interestingly, while the content is mostly the same as the book, the order is slightly different.  I say this because after hearing the second sermon, specifically the section on the urgency of missions because of the reality of the eternal nature of hell, I thought, “he really needs to balance this with chapter 1 from his book.”  This came in the fourth sermon (which is why I need to learn to look ahead!).  Without going into all the details (and the book lays out the exegesis for his conclusions), I agree with Piper that the glory due the name of Jesus is the primary motivation for missions, not the fear of hell or anything else.  God is the center of our missiology, not people. 

Piper’s preaching is passionate and powerful.  If I had to pick one sermon for anyone to listen to, I’d probably pick sermon four, “The Goal and Fuel of Missions.”  I think this lays out the basis of missions in a way that anyone interested in the subject can learn and be blessed by.  But none of these sermons stand out as much lower in quality.  In fact, the listener/viewer will find themselves challenged by any and all of these.

The Study Guide contains 8 Lessons for 8 weeks geared toward a small group, with the sermons coming in weeks 2-7 (though it has suggestions for how to do this in a 6 week time frame).  There are questions for people to read 5 days in the week prior to watching the DVD.  They also ask people to read sermons available for free on desiringgod.org, so it isn’t simply watching the DVD and answering some questions.  The advantage to this is that it gets the small group members thinking about God’s plan for the nations of the world throughout the week rather than succumbing to the “once a week” bare minimum that so many groups are built on. 

The questions, by and large, do a good job getting to the heart of each week’s focus.  In my opinion, the success of small groups comes less from the quality of the study guide and more from the discussion leader’s ability to facilitate the discussion.  It seems the folks at Desiring God know this as well and offer simple advice for small group leaders at the end of the Study Guide, a wonderful feature I hope doesn’t slip by because of its location.

I really only have two caveats to make in my praise of the DVD and Study Guide.  First, if you are leading a group of people who are already convinced of the necessity and value of cross-cultural missions to unreached people groups, you will find yourself nodding in agreement more than feeling the conviction of what Piper says.  It seems to me that he is trying to convince those who are not convinced.  So, if you’re group falls into the “already convinced and active” camp, then use the book and DVD as refreshers and support.  The Study Guide will be less helpful for this group, though I suggest using it as a basic guide for asking good questions.  But if you are a pastor and/or a small group leader and you are looking for a way to introduce missions to your church or group, this will be a wonderful tool to do this.

The second caveat is this: it is very John Piper heavy.  This will naturally be the case with a Study Guide based on a DVD of John Piper sermons, which are based on a book by John Piper.  But each week’s discussion also has you read a sermon or article also written by John Piper on desiringgod.org.  I understand the logic behind this: all the items on this website are free for download and reading, and they can control the permanence of this material unlike those which appear on other sites. 

However, John Piper is not the only one who has written on missions.  There are many helpful writings online from missiologists and missionaries that could be used in a small group setting.  Again, I understand why the Study Guide is set up the way it is.  My suggestion for group leaders is that they research and add some supplementary material as they see fit.

Other than those caveats, and they are admittedly small, I highly recommend these materials, especially for those who are on the fence regarding world missions.  Piper’s biblical and passionate preaching stirred my heart and confirmed what God has speaking to me over the years.  I pray that we heed the call to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to those who have never heard and see the Lord worshipped as He alone is worthy to be worshipped.

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