Review of ‘Paul, A New Covenant Jew’ by Pitre, Barber, & Kincaid

A review of Brant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, and John A. Kincaid, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology, Grnd Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019, 310 pages, pbk.

Over the past several years I have been reading many books on Paul and Pauline Theology in preparation for writing the NT companion volume of my Biblical Theology. This book is written by three Roman Catholic scholars who are widely read in the discipline. The reason I was attracted to this book is twofold: First, because one of the authors, Brant Pitre, wrote an excellent conservative apologetic work called The Case for Jesus, which I reviewed here, and strongly recommend. I knew that Pitre was an engaging and informative scholar. The second reason I took up the present book was it’s title. As anyone familiar with my work over the years will know, I have decided opinions about the Church’s relationship to the New covenant in Christ. There seems to me to be a “blindness in part” over many Dispensationalists concerning the New covenant. Perhaps reading a book like this might broaden their horizons?

This book comes highly recommended by many NT specialists (including Craig Keener, who is no slouch). Although it includes many interactions with Roman Catholic scholarship, predominently it cites leading Protestant thinkers. Since it does this it is a very good introduction of recent scholarship on Paul, if nothing else.

But there is something else. Paul, A New Covenant Jew is a bold and thought-provoking exploration of Paul’s theology in converation with many of the leading Pauline thinkers of today, including N. T. Wright, James Dunn, Douglas Campbell, Richard Hays, and Michael Gorman. Before my reader groans or shrugs his shoulders at those names I want to remind you that it is important to know what these men teach, and that some of the things they write are of real value. (If a Dispensationalist is tempted to leave at this point may I detain him long enough to say that if he is wanting a solid Dispensational study of Paul’s theology he is going to come up short!).

This work on Paul begins with a lively introduction which sets the stage well. They inform the reader that their study relies mainly on the seven universally accepted letters of the apostle, not because they hold that view, but for methodological purposes (6). This choice, while unfortunate, does not hamper them too much as refernce to the other six letters only expands upon the work found here. They begin by asking what kind of Jew Paul was. After summarizing several competing positions they offer their own:

“To be specific: the concept of the ‘new covenant,’ taken directly from the Jewish scriptures (Jer. 31:31-34), has within itself the power to account for elements of both continuity (“covenant”) and discontinuity (“new”) with Judiasm in Paul’s theology.” – 39 emphasis theirs.

I quite agree. I came to the same conclusion in my study of the covenants in the OT. Put simply, the New covenant in Jesus Christ is the super-covenant of the Bible because by it and through it the other unilateral covenants of God will be (literally) fulfilled. On pages 39 to 46 the authors provide an extensive analysis of 2 Corinthinans 3, where, among other things, Paul directly refers to himself and his helpers as “ministers of the New covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). They rightly state that this definition of their ministry is crucial for a proper comprehension of Paul’s theology. They note, along with others like Hays and Gorman, that Paul clearly alludes to Jeremiah 31, which is the only place in the OT where the name “new covenant” is used (40), and also leans heavily on Ezekiel 36:26-27 (42). And this in an epistle directed to Gentiles. They also argue that Romans 11:25f. also alludes to Jeremiah 31 (56-57). The author’s eschatology makes them interpret the “olive tree” of Romans 11 as Israel, to whom the Gentiles are added through the New covenant (59, 62). I agree that the New covenant is uppermost in Paul’s mind in these verses, but I disagree with their understanding of the olive tree, which corresponds much better with the New covenant itself.

From pages 48 to 54 there is a dicussion of Paul’s teaching on the Law. Here the authors outline the New Perspective, wherein the phrase “works of the law” signifies those peculiarly Jewish observances like circumcision which they prized. I am far from convinced that the New Perspective scholars are right. In my opinion they have too static a view of the term “law” and the implications of their position carry them too far from imputation and forensic justification. Pitre and co conclude that although there is something to the New Perspective it wrongly limits “the works of the law” to Jews, and therefore misreads the phrase.

Chapter 2 is a lengthy discussion of “Paul and Apocalyptic.” The authors believe that there is an apocalyptic side to Paul’s theology, but as with so many discussions of this topic, quite what the word means remains vague enough to make it apply to most situations. They place a lot of emphasis on 2 Cor. 5:17 nd the passing away of “the present cosmos” in Christ (72-73), but I am unpersuaded by their treatment. The chapter as a whole is the least impressive in the book. I do think there is something to their “two-world’s cosmology” (using the two Jerusalem’s in Gal. 4), but I don’t see this as apocalyptic (86-89).

The third chapter is a generally excellent study of Paul’s Christology. They correctly place emphasis on Jesus’s messianic credentials, including the importance of understanding “Christos” as a title or honorific not a surname (96-99), and the way the name “Son of God” has strong messianic connotations (101-109). They also highlight the importance of the Shema to Paul’s understanding of Christ (115-121, cf. 194).

Chapter Four discusses “The Cross and Atonement.” They begin by saying that “covenantal logic is crucial for understanding the apostle’s discussion of the cross (130). My understanding of what this means differs from the authors who highlight covenant infidelity as the problem (131). In my view the Gentiles were not under covenant until they were brought near in Christ (Eph. 2:11-13). This is another reason why the New covenant is necessary for the Church. True, the Abrahamic covenant provided for the nations to be blessed, but it never furnished the means of that blessing. Thus, Paul works within a New covenant understanding of salvation.

While talking about the notion of “gift” attention is given to John Barclay’s work (e.g., Paul and the Gift) in which a certain reciprocity is present in the ancient conception of gift-giving (134-136). I do not like the direction these Roman Catholic scholars go with this, but I do believe Barclay has underscored an important dynamic between justification and sanctification which helps us comprehend Paul’s imperatives. There follows an enlightening treatment of Phillipians 2:5-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:9 (137-140) which stresses Christ’s crosswork as an illustratuion of His divine self-giving nature. The cross was a sacrifice, which means it had covenant implications (140-144, 159). This shows that Dispensationalists who will not relate the Church to the New covenant are left without a covenantal association for the sacrificial work of the cross as applied to Gentiles.

It is in their chapter on justification (ch.6) that many none Catholic readers will find strong disagreements with the authors. They make a case for moral transformation being part and parcel of our justification. This is not the place for examining the case for heart transformation as being provided through justification. I believe they confuse justification and sanctification even though I allow that what Protestants call positional sanctification is very closely related to our justified status. Here I think it is imperative to define progressive sanctification and contrast it with positional sanctification. In brief, a sinner is justified by faith in Christ and is acquitted and declared righteous by God. However, upon that declaration the sinner is given the Spirit and becomes a “new creature” in Christ. This occurs at the moment of justification, so that the two are inseparable. There cannot be one without the other. It is essential, however, that any “infused righteousness” (the RC term) be understood as Christ is us and not us made better. It is a real righteousness, but it is derived from Christ through the Spirit.

Does this result in the idea that our righteousness is merely extrinsic righteousness (179ff.)? and does this sit well with the promise of a new heart through the New covenant? The authors say “yes”; I would say “no” as long as one allows that we are to “work out” our salvation (Phil. 1:16) in the sense that we must avail ourselves of the Spirit’s help to live righteously. Sometimes the book seems to put sanctification before justification (206-207).

Further on in the chapter they examine the debated translation of pistis Christou ,coming down on both sides of the divide; they believe Paul had both the subjective genitive (faithfulness of Christ) and the objective genitive (faith in Christ) in mind (186-188). For this reviewer the issue is more smoke than fire. The deliberate juridical framing of justification in Paul (e.g., Rom. 3:20ff) make the objective view far more favorable.

The last main chapter deals with “The Lord’s Supper and the New Creation.” Clearly, there is going to be a clash on what the eucharist is and does, but their linking it with the eschaton is highly suggestive. A short summary of the main conclusions of the three authors finishes off the book.

For my money this was an excellent read. While it’s clever argumentation and skillful writing style will dazzle the unwary, I still think that this book is a very fine addition to Pauline scholarship. For such as myself, concerned greatly with the covenants, I learned much and had many conclusions corroborated.

Short Review: Commentary on 1 & 2 Kings by David Schreiner & Lee Compson

Review of David B. Schreiner & Lee Compson, 1 & 2 Kings: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, hdbk, 315 pages.

This commentary on the books of First and Second Kings combines exposition with homiletics. This way of doing things was popular in the 19th century (think Lange or the Pulpit Commentaries). As with many of these commentaries, the homiletic portions are often of little use (ironically, one of the best of the bunch is Bahr’s exposition of 1 & 2 Kings in Lange’s Commentary).

I’m going to say something about the homiletic portions here and then concentrate on the exposition. After the usual orienting pages, the volume begins with roughly twenty pages of overview of preaching passages from 1 & 2 Kings (13-31). These have enough content to be helpful for a preacher to consider without being too lengthy. Mercifully, no preaching outlines are supplied here, although they are given under the “Preaching and Teaching Strategies” throughout the book.

Skimming through the preaching portions in the book I couldn’t find very much of value. Whether reading the “Exegetical & Theological Synthesis,” the one sentence “Preaching Idea,” the “Contemporary Connections,” or the “Creativity” sections I’m afraid I find them uninspiring. This could be just me of course, but I don’t think so. In any case, I couldn’t recommend the work for this feature; although, to be fair there are one or two good suggestions (e.g. 213), plus some thought-provoking one-liners such as “Details determine if our worship flourishes or fails.” (114).

What of the exposition? Well, I think overall it is well done. David Schreiner thinks the books of Kings were likely the work of multiple authors (41). His introduction is well done. Perhaps the space given to Kings as part of the Deuteronomistic History is more than what most preachers need, but may have something to do with Schreiner’s quite critical stance (e.g., 42-48, 55, 64). Most of his authorities are critical scholars.

Reading through Schreiner’s contribution I must say that he is a fluent writer who doesn’t waste his readers time. He packs a lot of information and relevant data into his writing. His exegetical studies are good, as are his background insets. He does a good job of reading the texts within their historical settings, and he does not explain away the miraculous elements.

Theologically he is also helpful. As an example, I agree with Schreiner that 1 Kings 11 “is arguably one of the most important chapters in the Old Testament.” (152). He has a keen eye for theological development. I have to say that I benefitted from Schreiner’s commentary and that this book, which comes with a fairly thrifty price tag, is worth the money. The book contains many helpful panels which provide information on places, charts, scholarly conclusions, names, archaeological evidence etc.

Brief Review of ’40 Questions About Prayer’

A review of Joseph C. Harrod, 40 Questions About Prayer. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 292 pages, pbk.

Over the many years that I have been a Christian I have read many books about prayer. I have also written about it on several occasions. Prayer is at one and the same time one of the easiest and one of the most difficult subjects in Christian Theology. Most of the books on prayer that I have read are either too simplistic, or else they veer too far from the Scriptures and the view of reality that it presents.

With that in mind I picked up Joseph Harrod’s book with some skepticism, although I was hopeful being that he had written his dissertation on Samuel Davies. Still, I play the cynic well. Was it going to be a wafer-thin book on how much God wants to answer every felt need? Was it going to be written like a long motivational speech, egging us on to pray because prayer is so great? Would the author keep his feet on the ground?

The first thing to do is to see how the author defines prayer. Straight away I was won over. Harrod went to John Bunyan. Since I think Bunyan’s definition (which I will not reproduce here) is one of the best breakdowns of the essence of prayer I was very pleased to find that Harrod agreed. (As an aside, Bunyan’s work on Prayer is available from Banner of Truth).

Harrod’s book is a very good exploration of what prayer is and why it should be prioritized. Harrod divides the subject under five headings: 1. General Questions, 2. Prayer and Theology, 3. Prayer in Scripture, 4. Prayer in Practice, and 5. Prayer in Historical Context. While the first four sections were to be expected I thought the fifth was an excellent choice. My only criticism is that it was not long enough. He covers the early and medieval Church and the Puritans. All good! But I do wish he would have gone into the 18th and 19th centuries at least. There are so many spiritual giants in those eras (e.g., Wesley, Whitefield, Payson, Simeon, Spurgeon, Ryle, etc.). My only other criticism of the book is that it does not tackle the matter of prayer for things that would seem to be God’s will that receive no clear answers. This aspect of prayer – it’s mystery – requires a careful modern treatment.

Nevertheless, the chapters on Theology and Scripture were solid and helpful. The chapters on the Practice of prayer even better. For instance, Question 26 on the Spiritual Disciplines was terrific. Harrod has thought much on this subject.

40 Questions About Prayer is a very good book and is well worth the money.

Review of ’40 Questions About Arminianism’ by J. Matthew Pinson.

A Review of 40 Questions About Arminianism by J. Matthew Pinson, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 395 pages, paperback.

Kregel’s “40 Questions About…” series has produced a number of notable books. I myself have reviewed 40 Questions About Biblical Theology and 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell. This book on Arminianism, or more accurately, Classical Arminianism, is written by the President of Welch College, a Freewill Baptist college in Tennessee. J. Matthew Pinson has degrees from Yale and Vanderbilt and is thoroughly evangelical. His book is a very welcome addition to the set and has been well reviewed.

The present reviewer is not Arminian. Neither is he a thorough Calvinist (much to the chagrin of writers like Roger Olsen who believe one must be either/or). If I may take a moment to explain; my studies of hermeneutics and theological method have left me dissatisfied with Calvinist formulations and defenses. They are simply too deductive for my taste. On the other hand, I do believe that some process of selection, conviction, and saving grace is supplied to meet the needs of some sinners and not others, yet never is the sinner’s responsibility undercut by the philosophical casuistry that is compatibilism, nor are passages like John 3:16-17, 36; 1 Timothy 2:4, 6; 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 3:9; and 1 John 2:2 to be given unnatural readings to make them say what they plainly do not say. I see no reason to pick sides on the issue since I believe neither of them fully represents the data satisfactorily.

That said, I have known for many years that classic Arminianism is often terribly misrepresented by Calvinists, many of whom it is clear have never read it. Moreover, certain Arminian depictions of Calvinism are very unnuanced. To the one I recommend actually reading Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments or his Reply to Perkins. Both will persuade the reader of his strong positions on original sin and the impossibility of any sinner choosing Christ without Divine aid. To the latter I might recommend bypassing the doctrinaire work of A. W. Pink (or even John Piper) and instead reading someone like Elijah Coles or Charles Hodge. When all is said and done, Pinson is correct to say that the real issue between Calvinism and Arminianism is how one defines the sovereignty of God (175-177). One’s conception of “freewill” and the rest will have to fall in-line with that formal definition of sovereignty.

So what about this book? Is it worth the money? The answer is a resounding yes! Pinson has provided us with a theologically astute, irenic, and engaging work. As I have said, the book is about “Classical” Arminianism – a view that broadly encompasses both Arminius himself, but also John Wesley, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Oden, Roger Olsen, and Leroy Forlines, among many others. It is a view that feels at ease with the early Reformed Confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession (13, 77-79), but becomes uncomfortable once the net is tightened in the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Hence, Arminianism in Pinson’s presentation has much overlap with the theology of many Calvinists.

When it comes to the atonement Pinson admits that many Arminians have preferred the “governmental theory” of Grotius and John Goodwin, wherein God acts as a Governor who accepts Christ’s sacrifice and pardons the sinner sovereignly without the need for a satisfaction to be made (90-92). Pinson, as Arminius, Wesley and I. Howard Marshall, rejected this view in favor of substitutionary atonement. This shows that the substitutionary view is not foreign to many Arminians as is sometimes thought.

When it comes to the question of whether Christ died for everyone (Q. 12 & 13) the author brings up the distinction between God’s antecedent will and His consequent will; a position first set out by John of Damascus in the 7th Century (111, 179). God’s antecedent will is that which comes from God’s character, whereas His consequent will is what God allows that flows from us. All Arminians agree that God sent Christ to die for the sins of everyone, and that He wants all sinners to be saved.

Having answered that Pinson turns to Calvinism and asks whether Calvinists are inconsistent by offering the Gospel to everyone even though they (five-pointers at least) hold that Christ did not die for everyone. His answer is in the affirmative. Arminians believe that the consistent Calvinists position with its necessary doctrine of two wills in God is unscriptural (129-136). I say “consistent Calvinism” because the author agrees with five-point Calvinists that four-pointers are inconsistent Calvinists because in that view God provides satisfaction for the sins of all but He is sparing on the dispensation of his grace (120-121).

Then we finally arrive at the question of freewill (Part 3). For most people this is where the rubber hits the road. Has God made man with a will to decide for something other than his “strongest impulse,” or is our will fixed by our strongest desire? In the first their is a power of contrary choice (libertarian freewill), while in the second there can be no contrary choice (compatibilist freedom). It is not too difficult to show that until the later Augustine every church father held to a form of libertarian freewill (see my review of Ken Wilson’s The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism). This does not necessarily make it biblical, but it needs to be on the record. A libertarianism which takes seriously man’s concupiscence is set out and defended.

But isn’t Arminianism synergistic? Arminius himself, and many who follow him, Pinson included, would answer “No.” Since Classical Arminians have a robust doctrine of human depravity (Q. 15) they are insistent that it is impossible for a sinner to come to Christ without divine grace. The author cites Leroy Forlines: “regeneration is solely the work of God.” (146). He also commends Richard Cross’s “ambulatory model” wherein “the sinner is like an unconscious person who is rescued by EMT’s and wakes up in an ambulance and does not resist the EMT’s medical actions to save his life.” (147). This is a form of monergism, as even Calvinists like Oliver Crisp admit, although it differs from the Calvinist position wherein the sinner is like a corpse that must first be regenerated.

Question 16 (151-158) is a careful elaboration of the Arminian view of freewill. It is followed by a well-written critique of compatibilism (Q. 17, 155-166). Among the problems Arminians see in Calvinistic determinism are its redefining of “freewill,” that it is unfalsifiable, and that it is self-contradictory. Pinson believes that libertarian freedom does not detract from the glory of God, so long as one does not include evil in ones idea of divine glory (168-169). If evil is included in the definition and compatibilism is held on to then it becomes impossible to conclude anything other than that God is the ultimate cause of evil (170-173).

There are other matters which are well addressed in the book, such as passages like Ephesians 1:4-11; Romans 8:28-30, and 9:6-23. Pinson also has a section on perseverance and apostasy that includes some very impressive chapters. But before closing I want to visit the matter of “prevenient grace” which is addressed in Questions 21 to 26. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of this doctrine from all sides, so I wondered how the author defined it. The term itself is not a problem. Pinson is correct to assert that all orthodox Christians hold to a form of it. It is simply the grace that God gives to draw sinner’s to Himself (191). However, Arminians believe that grace is universal and resistible (192, Q. 24), not particular and irresistible. I confess that I especially struggle with the universal aspect of prevenient grace, and I don’t think Pinson allayed my concerns here.

At the end of the day, although I did not agree with everything in the book, I did find it an edifying and educational read. Before reading this work I would have recommended Olsen’s Arminian Theology: Myths & Realities, but now 40 Questions About Arminiansm will be the one I point people to first. It is essential reading for any serious student of Systematic Theology.

Quick Review of “James: An Exegetical Guide for Preaching & Teaching”

Review of Herbert W. Bateman & William C. Varner, James: An Exegetical Guide for Preaching and Teaching, Big Greek Idea Series, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, hdbk, 320 pages.

I received this book only recently. It got lost in the post. Because I am required to write the review now I am unable to give a full review.

This attractive book, with its large pages and many tables and charts, is perhaps above the level of the average pastor who has allowed his Greek to slip, but it is an excellent production all the same. Both authors have done fine exegetical work in previous books and Varner is something of a specialist in the Book of James.

The authors have decided to draw attention in particular to the clauses in James (dependent and independent), while highlighting the words within a given passage which mark out those clauses. The independent clauses (whole sentences) are pulled to the left of the page in the Greek text (NA28) with the “structural marker” bolded and a translation underneath. The same is done with the dependent or subordinate clauses, which are placed in the middle of the page. The whole text of James is treated.

By this method attention can be given to both main types of clauses, the main words, and the dependent clause(s) which modify the independent clause. With this breakdown the Grammatical Function, Syntactical Function, and Semantical Function of the important words (structural markers) of the text are given prominence. With each discussion of a clause the Syntactical and Semantical emphases are stressed, being easily located via the two words “Syntactically” and “Semantically” being bolded. Just this arrangement alone is of real value to the busy exegete.

But that is not all. The exegesis is furthered by darkened panels which examine grammatical, semantical, syntactical, lexical, etc., “nuggets” pinpointing colorful use verbs, the many unique word choices of the inspired author, the range of meanings of the word. Guidance as to the intended meaning is provided. Sometimes these “nuggets” (I dislike the term but I can live with it!) feature brief analyses of text-critical, historical, and theological matters. There is a “Nugget Index” at the back of the volume which adds to the value.

The introduction to the book is critical to read, but it may put off some users who want to dive right into the exegesis. I recommend plowing through the introduction and allowing the authors to explain their method. They don’t waste time but they do demand the student’s attention from the get-go. Once one knows what to look for it makes the book more valuable, and the rather daunting feeling at being assailed at the outset by grammatical and syntactical terminology retreats.

This is a very well executed work. I am excited to be able to dive into it frequently over the coming months. It is the first of the Big Greek Idea series that I have encountered and am very impressed! I would have to include this book among any list of recommended titles on James.

An Interesting Book in My Library: A. C. Gaebelein’s Signed Copy of His Autobiography

Over the approximately thirty-five years I have been a Christian I have amassed a personal library of around four thousand volumes, most of which have been carefully selected works on particular topics. I have several older books from the early 19th Century such as an 1838 edition of Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in It’s Fourfold State, and a volume called The Beauties’ of Ebenezer Erskine from the same year. I have one or two noteworthy volumes like the the copy of one of Erich Sauer’s books which he personally sent to his translator, G. H. Lang.

One of the more interesting books I have is the autobiography of a major Bible teacher of the first part of the 20th Century named Arno C. Gaebelein.  The book is titled A Half Century: The Autobiography of a Servant. The book is beautifully bound and signed by the author, August 10th 1944.  Gaebelein died a year later.  I found several items of interest in the book that I thought I would like to share.

I should first say something about the subject.  A. C. Gaebelein was one of the most important teachers of what he called Dispensational truth in the halcyon days of America’s Prophetic Movement.  He was well acquainted with the likes of James H. Brookes, C. I. Scofield and many other premillenarians of the day.  He authored a number of books, the best of which (in my opinion) are Harmony of the Prophetic Word,  The Annotated Bible, The Conflict of the Ages, and The Angels of GodHe also wrote a fine exposition of the Olivet Discourse. Gaebelein published his book in 1930 when Jehovah’s Witnesses were called “Russellites,” when Pentecostals were commonly denounced as heretical enthusiasts, and when Presbyterian pastors enthusiastically endorsed premillennialism.

But, you may ask, if it was published in 1930 how come it is signed and dated in 1944? I think the reason is clear. This specially bound volume is Gaebelein’s own copy of his Autobiography which was gifted to his friend – one Krist or Kaist Gudnarson “in appreciation of his friendship, loyalty and kindness,” and was sent from Mt. Vernon, N.Y. “with much prayer for His blessing till He comes, Psalms 50:15 and 91-.”

Here are some Reflections on his Autobiography:

1. The first impression one gains from the book is that Gaebelein was diligent.  He was very driven (as we say today) and made the most of his opportunities to teach himself the biblical languages, as well as Syriac and, because he at first worked as an evangelist to Jewish immigrants in New York, Yiddish. He also knew German, having been raised in Germany.

Not only did he learn several languages on his own, he was constantly reading his Bible, writing books and pamphlets, editing his magazine “Our Hope,” and preaching.  He was very industrious.  He writes in one place about the importance of reading the Bible as a means of communing with God and refreshing the soul.  Without this, he believed it was not possible to maintain a right relationship with the Lord.

I was impressed by this conviction that attentive Bible reading and a living and open relationship with God were inextricably linked.  The Bible is the source of our sermons and our theology.  But it must also be the voice of the personal God to us.  It must be God speaking to us.  “Ministry,” he writes, “can only be kept by a real growth in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and such growth demands a diligent and prayerful study of the Bible.” (169).

In another place he mentions a small prayer-book which he carried around with him and made it his habit to consult and pray for people whenever he had a free moment.  Gaebelein placed a lot of emphasis on prayer: “True ministry must be born in prayer and communion with the Lord.  A ministry without prayer is barren.” (237).

2. The author was also valiant for truth.  On one occasion he recounts being invited to dine at the home of one of New England’s social elite, a relative of Henry Ward Beecher.  During dinner the lady turned to Gaebelein saying: “Do you not that it is encouraging to find that our fair New England is turning more and more away from that awful teaching that a human being can get to heaven by the blood of another man?”  As the author takes up the story; “She waited a moment, and, as I did not answer, she continued, ‘As if the blood of an innocent victim could do any good to anybody.  It is our character, our life which tells.  This is the true Gospel.’” (107).

After reminding the lady that she was a relative of Lyman Beecher, as well as being related to Thomas Hooker, who both believed the very Gospel she was derogating.  He said to her: “unless you are washed in the blood of the Lamb you will never see heaven.  You are very old, soon you must pass on, and I can assure you your character cannot save you.” (108).

It takes a lot to be so “impolite” at the home of so prominent a person.  This scenario was faced on a number of occasions with the same faithful result.

3. Gaebelein had a strong sense of the providence of God, and would not enter upon a venture – however alluring – if he didn’t have peace of mind about it. There were times when he had tempting offers to turn aside from his itinerant work and accept a well paid pastorate.   I was impressed with his unwillingness to go into anything to which he was not convinced his Lord had not sent him.  This trust extended to his never setting fees for speaking engagements.  He believed the money would be provided.

This sometimes meant him spending nights in less than stellar accommodations such as a hay loft, although it is worthy of note that he was unashamed to request comfortable food and lodgings if they were available.  (I have sometimes had to endure disagreeable conditions when on the road – although not for some time – they are hardly conducive to “giving ones best”).

4. Gaebelein was constantly proclaiming Jesus Christ.  He was very evangelistic and would always include a message on the Gospel, even when his Christian hearers would rather hear a message on prophecy.  He knew that Christians need to hear the Gospel too (despite what some “mature” brethren think).  And he knew there would likely be unbelievers in his audience.

This stress upon the proclamation of the Cross is also seen in the preaching of C. I. Scofield, whose volume of sermons In Many Pulpits shows him to have been no ear-tickler.

5. He had faults.  He admits them toward the end of his book (230-231).  But throughout the reader is informed of the great blessing Gaebelein’s ministry brought to people.  This is a little grating as he might have worded these testimonials more self-effacingly. But his faults only remind me of my own woeful shortcomings.  I was challenged by his dedication and commitment to hard graft, and was encouraged by being reminded that if one is engaged to any extent in teaching prophetic truth from a “literal” interpretation of Scripture, he is going to draw fire from many quarters.  The main thing is to serve the Lord with what you are given in the field He has placed you.

6. Finally, as if this needs to be stated, we should not neglect the reading of these older autobiographies and biographies! This not only provides us with a sense of the historical continuity of our work, but it reminds us of the fact that hard work, faithfulness in the face of difficulty, and prayerful Christ-centeredness should be the hallmark of our ministries.

Perhaps I will write more about the importance of reading good biographies and autobiographies in another post. Anyway, I hope this one was encouraging.

Brief Review of Copenhaver & Arthurs’ “Colossians and Philemon”

A Review of Adam Copenhaver and Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Colossians and Philemon: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching, Kerux Commentaries, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 335 pages, hdbk.

This is the first time I have set my eyes on a Kerux commentary. The series is designed to give exegetical, theological, and homiletical help for the expositor and preacher. This approach is nothing new, although it has not been seen for some time. These kinds of commentaries were quite popular in the 19th century (e.g., Pulpit Commentary; Lange’s Commentary). With odd exceptions, I never got anything out of the homiletic portions of these works. But what about this one? It is written by two authors, Copenhaver being the exegete and theologian with Arthurs taking the homiletic portions (9).

Layout and Introduction

This book is very nicely put together and the large two-column pages hold clear type and headings. The first section (13-26) is an “overview of all preaching passages.” This breakdown is a good idea, although the “preaching pointers” outweigh the exegetical and theological previews by a lot.

When we get to the Introduction we find that Colossians and Philemon considered together; a nice idea which I was not expecting. I would normally prefer separate introductions but I think this was an intriguing choice. The introduction is very well done, with black and white maps and photographs included. I believe Copenhaver wrote this part.


Copenhaver’s exegesis of the epistles is impressive. He knows his way around the letters, and he shows good judgments in his handling of the text. I must say that I have little to quibble about here. Copenhaver has written a very fine commentary on both letters from the exegetical perspective. He does not even fight shy of telling it like it is on a passage like Colossians 3:18 (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands…”). He is one to watch. In fact, Copenhaver’s work is worth the price of the book!

An editorial quibble: The exegesis sections (which include word studies and exegetical panels) are well done, but I was surprised that the Greek was left untranslated. In a commentary such as this it would have been good to include transliterations along with the original. I’m alright, but I don’t understand the decision to leave them in the Greek without an accompanying transliteration.

Theological Focus

I don’t have a lot to say about the theological sections other than that they are competent. They follow on logically from the exegetical sections that go before and they add something to the book.

Preaching and Teaching Strategies

Jeffrey Arthurs writes the homiletical sections, and to be honest, I could have done without them. While there is some good stuff here and there (e.g., a list of ‘Ten Ways Parents Provoke Their Children,’ 239, or the warning about social media, 162), on the whole these parts of the book are a failure. For starter’s, they are seeker-sensitive and not really honed to take advantage of the solid exegetical sections before them.

I found that the more sections by Arthurs I read the more annoyed I became. My idea of preaching and teaching the Word of God is not to change clothes like a ham actor to illustrate Col. 3:9, or to play a film clip in the middle of a sermon (109). Arthurs commends the methods of Willow Creek (160), and recommends biographies for Col. 1:9-14 on Mike Pence, Bono (!), and Jim Caviezel. His advice on “Spiritual Disciplines” from the inset on page 161 is gathered from mystics Richard Foster and Ken Shigematsu (interestingly, the exegetical section of Colossians 3:16 has an inset which cites James K. A. Smith’s more solid advice on spiritual formation in the church – 212). On page 239 one is advised to “Align your soul and body” on a busy work day.

I have no use for such things. They are a distraction from the eternal Word which is being expounded. My advice, for what it is worth, is to consider the commentary because of Copenhaver’s excellent contribution. It’s such a shame it is coupled with such superficial “preaching and teaching” hints, which I for one would not recommend.

This is a Bible commentary, so indices would be nice. But this is Kregel!

Review: ‘The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism’

A Review of Ken Wilson, The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, Regula Fidei Press, 2019, 121 pages, paperback.

I was sent this book by a former student a while back and I promised that I would review it. The book has and will cause controversy with Calvinists because of its thesis. That thesis is that Augustine’s theological turnabout from the generally accepted views of God and the human will was mainly influenced by the determinist worldviews he had imbibed before he was a Christian. This will ruffle the feathers of some of my readers. With that said, let us continue.

The author is an M.D. and evangelical Christian who has earned a D. Phil from Oxford University with a dissertation on Augustine’s Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to ‘Non-free Free Will’: A Comprehensive Methodology. This book, the author stresses, is only a partial presentation of the data in his bigger study (IV-V).

This book is a “popular” version of the Oxford dissertation and is still somewhat of a challenge for the average reader. I appreciate the work as a good piece of historical theology. I do not find the idea surprising that no previous theologian of the early church taught divine determinism and compatibilist freedom. I have taught Church History at Seminary level, and in pouring over the standard works and biographies, as well as reading from the sources (e.g. Epistle of Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocians) one does not encounter these doctrines (I would be very interested if someone could show me where that assertion is incorrect btw). In fact, Wilson avers, you encounter just the opposite, a uniform insistence upon “traditional free choice” or what we would call libertarian freewill (19-20).

Let me be clear, Wilson’s most controversial point is not only that no orthodox writer before 412 taught Augustine’s doctrine of Divine predetermination, it is that there were those who did teach it; the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, and the Gnostic-Manicheans. Wilson claims that these groups employed the very same texts and interpretations to teach their deterministic views as Augustine would later use.

Please understand what is being claimed here. Wilson is not saying that Augustine agreed with Stoic/Manichean exegesis per se, only that his prior familiarity with it influenced his conclusions when pressed for answers in his debates with Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum.

Despite the reading I have done I do not consider myself to be well read enough in Patristics to know whether Wilson is right or wrong in his main points. All I can say is that I think it is uncontroversial to state that the later Augustine introduced theological determinism into soteriology at the turn of the 5th century A.D. This can be found in many books and articles even by Reformed authors. What is “new” is the opinion of where Augustine derived his later teaching, and when.

Now before continuing I should say two things. The first is to point out the obvious, namely that even if Wilson is right in his assertions it does not mean that Augustine was wrong. That is to say, Augustine’s doctrines of predestination and compatibilism (i.e. that human will is compatible with God’s foreordination of all things) may yet be biblical. The second point that I would make is that anyone familiar with the early Church Fathers ought to be aware that they sometimes held what we would consider erroneous views of baptism (that it was necessary for salvation or inclusion in the Church), and of eternal security (that is, they did not hold to it), and occasionally of the Persons of the Trinity (especially concerning the Divine economy). Wilson’s book then should not be seen as a refutation of Augustinianism/Calvinism, and therefore should not be countered theologically but historically. It is a documentation of Augustine’s possible (read probable) influences. Those influences are Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, and Manicheanism; all of which were explored in depth by the pre-Christian Augustine and all of which were strongly deterministic in orientation. Further, Wilson claims that the way these three groups interpreted the Scriptures is directly reflected in later Augustine’s theology. Wilson has developed an acronym, DUPIED, meaning “Divine Predetermination of Individuals’ Eternal Destinies.” (5).

It might be objected that the author’s purpose in writing the dissertation was to prove his beliefs, and I believe it was. The author is an adherent of free grace theology (although he has written against the Zane Hodges/Bob Wilken brand as heresy). But even if that is the case the real question is whether he succeeded in doing so. What makes Wilson’s scholarship noteworthy is that he appears to be one of the very few Patristics scholars who have carefully read Augustine’s theological works in chronological order. The outcome of carrying out this daunting task is that Wilson shows how the great Western Father revised much of his corpus after 412 A.D. (and his Pelagian controversy) to reflect his new understanding. These revisions are particularly relevant in the case of his 396 work Ad Simplicianum 2.5-22 (3, 49-53, 91-94) because it has been thought on the basis of that work that Augustine held to his mature doctrines prior to the Pelagian affair.

This book is well organized and documented although it does have a rushed feel about it; no doubt because the writer had not intended to produce a trimmed version of his dissertation. For all that it presents a cogent and compelling argument. Wilson moves from philosophical precursors (Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism) in chapter 1 to Christian authors prior to Augustine in chapter 2, then on to early Augustine (386-411) in chapter 3, and then to the later Augustine in chapters 4 through 7. A Conclusion with Appendix and Timeline closes the book.

Each chapter is quite short. The first one surveys the relevant teachings of the pagan systems which (once?) influenced Augustine. Chapter 2 runs through a succession of Church Fathers and scholars to show that “Not even one early church father writing from 95-430 CE – despite abundant acknowledgement of inherited human depravity – considered Adam’s fall to have erased human free choice to independently respond to God’s gracious invitation.” (34). Chapter 3 is on Augustine’s earlier doctrine. Things start hotting up in chapter 4 with Wilson’s assertion that, among other things, Augustine emphasized God’s power above His justice (65-66), especially in the election of certain ones to salvation. Chapter 5 is entitled “Augustine Resorted to Manichaean Interpretations of Scripture.” A longish sample of Wilson’s conclusion is pertinent:

“Augustine had earlier taunted the Manichaeans for inventing a god who damned persons eternally when those persons had no ability to do good or choose good (Contra Faustus 22.22). Augustine converted back to a Manichaean proof-text interpretation of Eph. 2:8 wherein God regenerated the dead will and infused faith ( 17). Augustine reverts to his prior Manichaean training with their interpretation of multiple scriptures…He now accepts and teaches the very interpretations he had previously refuted…This scenario is precisely why early church policy forbade any prior Manichaean from becoming a Christian bishop and why charges of Manichaeism had been brought against the early Augustine before ordination.” (78-79 cf. 110-111).

The sixth and seventh chapters compare pagan (especially Stoic) determinism with Augustine and go on to ask when and why he converted to determinism. The author quotes Harvard philosopher Harry Wolfson as saying Augustine’s “doctrine of grace is only a Christianization of the Stoic doctrine of fate.” (86). Whether Wolfson was right is beyond my ability to judge, but Wilson supplies plenty of information.

In conclusion I think that The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, although it is a popular version of a scholarly tome, demands to be taken seriously as a piece of historical research. Again, let not the Reformed reader commit the logical faux-pas of dismissing the book because of Wilson’s own theology and positions (of which I am not in complete sympathy myself). Let the counter arguments be along historical lines, citing the sources.

It has to be admitted that because of the author’s clear animus against Augustinian-Calvinism his book is not likely to find a willing audience among those with Reformed sympathies. I wish a more dispassionate tone would have been adopted in places. However, facts are facts, and Wilson has marshalled a lot of them (at least it looks like it). When he states that he is “unaware of even one Patristics scholar who would agree” that the early Church taught anything like the points of TULIP (112 n. 11), he has by that time mounted a considerable array of witnesses to back it up.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 4)

Part Three

In this final installment of my review of Covenant we turn to look at Daniel Block’s discussion of covenants in the NT. This is the section of the book that I was most looking forward to as many scholars (e.g. I. Howard Marshall) have written about the relative unimportance of covenant in the Gospels, Paul and General Epistles. In one sense (a rather superficial sense) they are right; the NT writers do not seem as concerned with covenants as their OT counterparts. But this is only on the surface of things. Upon closer examination, and provided one has not forgotten about them, it becomes apparent that the Apostolic authors thought much in covenant terms. With this in mind I eagerly read Block’s Part Four, “Covenant in the New Testament.”

Block gives 229 pages to the study (394-623), and even though he insists upon using his (to my way of thinking) confusing naming of the covenants (i.e., Cosmic and Adamic (=Noahic) covenants; the four part Israelite covenant composed of Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic & New, plus the Davidic covenant), I could still mostly follow his argument. But I think casting the covenants into this mold makes them not only confusing but tame; they simply don’t look influential in Block’s presentation. And this creates a problem for his presentation of covenance in the Gospels and Paul; it’s all rather pedestrian (which is epitomized in his Conclusion on pages 615-623).

In his treatment of the first three parts of his “Israelite covenant,” (which we have to remind ourselves are the Abrahamic/Mosaic “covenant” with its renewal in Deuteronomy), the author returns to his insistence that the Torah was/is not “Law” in itself and so is a way of life. Let me turn there first:

The Torah as Grace

Central to Block’s understanding of torah is his position that the rabbinic accrual of interpretive stipulations is what is in Jesus’ and Paul’s minds when they talk about the folly of law-keeping. For example, consider these three quotes:

“The postexilic community was indeed Torah based, but with the elevation of the Torah to virtual idol status, Second Temple Judaism had become a meritocracy in which the Oral Torah regulated every detail of life and for which the Pharisees considered themselves not only definers but also models of Torah piety.” (465).

“Paul’s reference to the Torah as pedagogue was a full frontal attack on the Judaizers. They and their Pharisaic predecessors in Judaism had robbed this precious gift of its heart- and life-giving power and transformed the Torah into an enslaving and stifling institution. The Torah was intended as a gracious gift, defining the will of the divine Suzerain and symbolizing the nearness of God and His invitation to them to flourish under his favor, thus stirring up the envy of the nations (Deut. 4:5-9). Instead, with all the man-made accretions of the Oral Torah, the Torah as nomos (law) had become a noose around their necks, dealing death instead of life.” (491-492).

“As early as the Decalogue we learn that obedience was to be the response to grace, not the precondition of it…” (493).

From this understanding of nomos (Law) in the NT Block believes that when Paul inveighed against the “Law” he was referring to its Pharisaic caricature, not the Torah itself (494 cf. 496). I am thoroughly unconvinced. I cannot reconcile Paul’s strident words in Romans 4 and Galatians 2 with Block’s thesis. Just consider Paul’s argument about the circumcision of Abraham in Romans 4:9-12. It is well nigh impossible to squeeze into his argument the Pharisaic meritocracy that Block is so concerned about. The Apostle simply argues that Abraham was declared righteous before being circumcised, thereby being justified by faith; and this was centuries before the deadly accumulation of rabbinic codes had even been devised. (By the way, the author’s treatment of Romans 4 is disappointing – 448-452, including his handling of Rom. 4:10! – 451). I will be very surprised if Block’s views on the Law go unchallenged by subsequent reviewers, although one never can tell nowadays.

No Supercessionism But…

Moving on, the author makes it clear in several instances that he believes the land promise is critical to God’s covenants with Israel. He even speaks against supercessionism when he claims interpreters who hold that the relative silence of the NT towards ethnocentric Israel and its territory show these elements are no longer important, are often led “to a doctrine of supercessionism, according to which God’s commitment to the church universal eclipses his interest in the physical descendants of Abraham.” (512). This is a good basic definition of the matter, which sadly many who are guilty of teaching it try to hide it with euphemisms. Block declares that given the language of hesed and fidelity (emuna) in God’s covenants such a thing is inconceivable (512-513).

But it doesn’t take him long to muddy the waters, for like most modern historic premillennialists he believes that, “one of the key motifs in the book of Romans is that gentiles who believe in Jesus have been grafted into the olive tree and are now full members of a redeemed humanity.” (515, cf. 480, 523). Using a hermeneutics of charity I want to say that Block is not teaching that Israel and the church merge into one eschatological people of God with no separate traits, but it’s not easy to be confident about it. He leaves the exegesis of Romans 11 alone which is a shame.

The Davidic Covenant in the NT

Block recognizes the importance of the Davidic covenant in the NT, not just explicitly, but often times how it underpins many statements (e.g. 545), especially the messianic ones. He takes time to expound the Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. There is good material here, but again one can get a bit bogged down in the detail.

He appears to think the seventy weeks ended with the birth of Jesus (544), but has good material on the title Son of Man, even though I don’t see as strong Davidic overtones as Block does. Again, he has good things to say about Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (559-562), and also about the Transfiguration (562-566), although he spoils it unnecessarily by quipping that although Moses was a major figure, “the historical Elijah was a regular – if not marginal – rather than paradigmatic prophet.” (564).

When it comes to the Passion narratives we once more get a mixture of the good and the bad. Yes, there are good insights littered here and there, and occasional background information that is of help, but did Jesus really redefine the nature of His reign at His Triumphal Entry (568-572)? Block’s interpretation of John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not from this world”, etc.) as John looking back and recognizing it “as the moment of Jesus’ coronation and exaltation” seems bizarre (578-579). And when the author asserts that Pilate would have interpreted Jesus statement, “You would have no power over me if it were not given you to you from above” (Jn. 19:11 his emphasis), in a political sense, I think he does Pilate a disservice. Was the Governor really that dim as to think Jesus was employing mere truisms? Pilate may not have believed in Yahweh but he did believe in gods above him.

When he reaches the NT letters we get more solid, brief, but not world-shaking stuff. I liked his brief but insightful recognition of 2 Timothy 2:8 (604), and I liked the observations on 1 Peter 1 (608-611). I do not however think John in Revelation borrowed motifs from Ezekiel 40 – 48 (612).


There are some fine moments in this section dealing with the NT that I want to call attention to. Firstly, he believes that Romans 8:18-25 clearly alludes to the “Cosmic” (Noahic) covenant (398). He rightly points out that agapao is a covenant-related term (399, 417), which is just one indicator that the notion of “covenance” underlies the thought of the inspired writers. He repeats the assertion that the relationship between God and Adam in Eden “did not involve a covenant” (416), offers a detailed breakdown of Mary’s Magnificat (430-434), and a decent one of Zacharias’s prophecy (434).

Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of “thumbs-down” moments. On pages 394-395 he claims that diatheke in Galatians 3:15 and Hebrews 9:16-17 carries a testamental significance. That is not unusual in itself (though I strongly disagree with it). But he gives no justification for these perturbances from the normal Apostolic meaning of “diatheke/covenant.” Moreover, later he appears to me to contradict himself by saying, “Gal. 3:15 is not about God’s covenant with Abraham, but a generic statement about how human covenants operate.” (435). Well which is it? Is Galatians 3:15 talking about a testament or a covenant? As Block seems to acknowledge, the context of Galatians 3 points quite decisively to the latter.


After spending the last several weeks reading Covenant and taking detailed notes I came away a little exhausted and sadly underwhelmed. As I stated earlier, the treatment of the divine covenants lacks dynamism, and the author does not trace the oaths that Yahweh took and produce a big picture of all of His promises. His repeated insistence that the Torah was “grace” not “law” is singularly unconvincing. If God gave only instructions not to pick up wood on the Sabbath because it was a gift of rest it is hard to see why the individual in Numbers 15:32-36 was stoned to death. Not following instructions may lead to harm but it does not lead to punishment. Breaking the Law does!

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 3)

Part Two

The “Law” was not Law even though it was Commanded

As we move on from Block’s discussion of what he calls “the Cosmic covenant” (i.e. Noahic) the “Adamic covenant” (?), and the “Israelite covenant” (i.e. the Abrahamic and the Mosaic together!) we next encounter the “New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). For reasons I shall attempt to explain this is what most call “the New covenant.”

But before we do that I need to refer the reader to Block’s position on the possibility of obeying the Torah. He rightly says that the word means “instruction” more than “law.” Then he goes on to say on page 264 that,

“YHWH’s expectations, expressed by the laws he prescribed for his people, were both clear (Deut. 29:4, 29…) and attainable (Deut 29:29..30:1-14).” Italics original.

On the next page he avers,

“The ethical and ceremonial performances that YHWH demanded of the Israelites were both reasonable and doable. Not a single command was impossible.” (265).

But notice that Block calls this torah by the name “commands” which “YHWH demanded.” Sounds like law to me! My mind runs to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem conference where certain Pharisees wanted to instruct the Gentiles to keep the law [nomos] of Moses (Acts 15:5). Peter’s response to this was incisive:

Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? – Acts 15:10.

Peter calls the law a yoke which doesn’t sound very promising. And James writes,

For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. – James 2:10 (cf. Gal. 5:3).

So this “doable” torah required absolute and unwavering conformity if it was to work. Block says that “they lacked the will and the motivation to keep the law.” (265). But surely that was because they were sinners! I think Block is trying to show that God’s “demands” were reasonable, but the law of the offerings (Lev. 1-7) was there because they were so stringent. Moreover, those offerings did not have the power to clear the conscience (Heb. 9:9). This was not an ideal setup, which is why Paul says that the law was a pedagogue to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24), since the law kept us under guard “synkleio” (Gal. 3:23). The metaphor is very apt. Torah living is not “freedom” (Gal. 5:1).

The New Israelite Covenant (i.e. New covenant).

Block’s name for the New covenant is “the New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). I understand that Jeremiah 31 is the only place in the OT where the term is used (276), and that even there the prophet does not call it “the New covenant”; he simply speaks of “a new covenant.” That said, the OT doesn’t call it “the New Israelite covenant” either. But Block’s term does assist him in tying “the New Israelite covenant” to the “Israelite covenant.” (AKA the Abrahamic cum Mosaic covenant).

Block’s way of unifying the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic covenants with the “New Israelite covenant” (New covenant) does not persuade me. For one thing, the NT does speak of this covenant as the New covenant (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 12:24 with the definite article).

Before he gets into his exposition of the “New Israelite covenant” the author stops to remind his reader that the “Cosmic” (“Noahic”) covenant and the Abrahamic covenant were characterized as berit olam (everlasting covenant). But he says the same thing about the “Israelite” (Mosaic) covenant too, by referencing Lev. 24:8 and Exod. 31:16-17 (276 cf. 288). But Lev. 24:8 is about the bread offering on the Sabbath and Exod. 31:16-17 is about keeping the Sabbath. Neither reference is about the (Mosaic) covenant itself! As a matter of fact the Bible never calls the Mosaic/Sinaitic covenant “everlasting.” But it is necessary for Block’s view that his “New Israelite covenant” be the fourth part of his one “Israelite covenant.”

He rightly asks concerning Jeremiah 31:31-34, “What is new here?” (283). His answer is that,

“There had always been “new-covenant” Israelites who had the Torah of God in their hearts/minds,” who delighted in covenant relationship with God (Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:12), who knew God (Exod. 33:13; cf. Judg. 2:10), and who rejoiced in the knowledge of sins forgiven.” (285).

A closer look at these texts reveals that Block is reading more into them than they say. For instance, both Exod. 29:45 and Lev. 26:12 concern God dwelling in the Tabernacle, not in people’s hearts. Exodus 33:13 is Moses’ plea for God’s presence to go with Israel, while Judges 2:10 is a statement about Israelites who “did not know the LORD”, whose opposite is not that some did know Him in the Jeremiah 31 sense. To Block the “New Israelite covenant” was “not like” the Mosaic covenant only in the fact that with this “New” covenant all Israelites would know God. Better therefore to think of it as “a renewed covenant” (286 his italics); the “ultimate realization of the same covenant that God had made long ago with Abraham, established with the exodus generation…at Sinai, and renewed with the conquest generation on the plains of Moab.” (Ibid).

I know the author believes this, and argues for it in several places (e.g. 288, 292), but I cannot follow him there. For one thing this would make “the New Israelite covenant” a second renewal covenant after the Deuteronomic covenant in the plains of Moab (which failed). If people had the new birth in the OT, and these covenants still failed, what would ensure the success of this one? For another thing, neither the Abrahamic covenant nor any covenant apart from the New covenant is soteriological, whereas the New covenant is (Jer. 31:34; Isa. 49:6; Ezek. 36:26-27). The New covenant is also Christocentric (Isa. 49:8; Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:15), whereas the Mosaic covenant is not (cf. Jn. 1:17).

I’m afraid I am not buying what Block is selling here, even though I respect him and good material abounds. E.g., he is a consistent supporter of the land being given to Israel, and he warns against spiritualizing (287). But I also have to report that the author considers the “Gog and Magog” chapters (Ezek. 39-39) to be “hypothetical” (296). Let us move on.

The Davidic Covenant

The chapter on the Davidic covenant (300ff.) includes a number of good studies and solid assertions. The coverage is extensive, taking in the Historical and Prophetic books and Psalms. He is clear that the Davidic covenant “is never retracted” in “the prophets, psalmists, and NT writers.” (310), although “the benefits could be suspended for a time.” (310, 317). In fact, the very existence of the Psalms “testifies to the significance of the Davidic covenant.” (367). The importance of Zion is stressed (391). There are good things here.

Sadly though, it’s another mixed bag. The collective understanding of Genesis 3:15 is “preferable” to the singular Messianic view (304); the Book of Ruth was composed long after the fact; probably in the seventh century B.C. (306, 334). Micah 5:2 is best viewed as an ancient decree “calling David to kingship” (334); The covenant with Levi [probably related to Num. 25] is downplayed in Jeremiah 33:18 (349); and in an odd translation Zechariah 12:10 no longer has men looking at “me whom they pierced (daqar).” Block has the poor individual needlessly “stabbed,” thus destroying the Messianic implications (364, despite Rev. 1:7). There is also a curious mention of “David’s Melchizedekian Priesthood” (387).

Finally, Block fails to interact in any way with the crucial Messianic covenantal texts in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8. I was looking forward to seeing how he tackled these verses and to discover that they went untreated was a big let down.

So ends the “First Testament” part of Covenant. The detail is there, making the book important for anyone wanting to dive into the biblical concept of covenant, but as Spurgeon might have said, there is a good deal of dross mixed with the gold. The overall impression on this reviewer is that this approach to the covenants of God, though a vast improvement over Covenant Theology, still lacks the dynamism that I find in the Hebrew Bible.