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 covenant 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 the covenants, 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 outline of Cosmic and Adamic (i.e. Noahic) covenants; the four part Israelite (i.e. Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic & New) covenant, and the Davidic covenant I could still mostly follow his argument, but I think casting the covenants into this mold makes them too 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 with 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.

The Torah as Grace

Central to his understanding of torah is his position that the rabbinic accrual of interpretive stipulations is what is in Jesus and Paul’s mind 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 the argument the Pharisaic meritocracy that Block is so concerned about. No, 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…

The author makes it clear in several instances that he believes the land promise is critical to God’s covenants with Israel. And he even speaks against supercessionism when he says that those who hold that because of the relative silence of the NT towards ethnocentric Israel and its territory those elements are no longer important, “often leads 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 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), has good material on the title Son of Man, even though I don’t see as strong Davidic overtones as Block does. Has good things to say about Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (559-562), and also 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 can be of help, but did Jesus redefine the nature of His reign at His Triumphal Entry (568-572)? Again, his 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 tautologies? 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 though, 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 think John borrowed motifs from Ezekiel 40 – 48 (612).

Elsewhere

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 “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 note-taking 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 covenant still failed why 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.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 2)

Part One

Block’s Definition of Covenant

Daniel Block’s Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption is a big book around 700 pages long. It is very noteworthy when a prominent OT scholar takes up the challenge to write a book on the biblical covenants, and I am grateful to have such a work to study and repair to.

One of the most important tasks that lies before a writer of such a book is that of definition. If you are going to be writing about the covenants then it is well to put forward a decent definition of just what a covenant; a biblical covenant no less, is. Here is Block’s definition:

A covenant is a formally confirmed agreement between two or more parties that creates, formalizes, or governs a relationship that does not naturally exist or a natural relationship that may have been broken or disintegrated…Covenants typically involve solemn commitments establishing the privileges and obligations that attend agreements. (1).

This definition is somewhat unlike what one usually finds, but it includes the important items such as formality, the relationship between the parties, and the solemn commitments (read oath). In Covenant Theology the covenants that we read about in the Bible, such as those involving Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are understood to be manifestations of other covenants which, confusingly, are not to be found in the Bible. These covenants are the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, the latter of which is instanced in the covenants we can see; i.e. Noah, Abraham, etc. Block is having nothing of this. although he is nice about it, on several occasions he makes it clear that he sees no covenants in the early chapters of the Bible. On page 46 he writes,

I]f covenants involve formal procedures to create a relationship that does not exist naturally or to reestablish relationships that have been ruptured, then we cannot define Adam and Eve’s relationship with God in Genesis 2 – 3 as covenantal.

He says something similar regarding Genesis 1 on page 24 (cf. 40). In fact he calls life in Eden “precovenantal” (3). This will not endear him to Covenant Theologians, Progressive Covenantlists, or indeed many Dispensationalists who, despite their professed literal hermeneutics insist upon finding Edenic and Adamic covenants in these early chapters of Genesis.

The “Cosmic” and “Adamic” Covenants of Genesis 9.

For Block the first covenants we can identify in Scripture are found in Genesis 9 (37). And this is where things start to get a bit debatable, for Block thinks he sees two covenants there; the first with the world, which he calls the “Cosmic covenant”, and the second with Noah himself, which he calls the “Adamic covenant.” (I know, just keep reading). As for the “Cosmic covenant” he states plainly that this is usually referred to as the “Noachian covenant” (39), but because “Noah’s role is unclear” and there are real cosmic dimensions to the covenant Block thinks “Cosmic covenant” is a better name.

But then there is his “Adamic covenant.” By the term “Adamic” Block means “humanity” not merely Adam. He believes he finds this second covenant in Genesis 9. This is necessitated because Noah and his family were given administrative roles as guardians of the creation (62).

How does one respond to this? I have to admit that I remain unconvinced. For one thing, on the same page (62), and in several other places Block presents Noah as a “second Adam.” But if he is a new Adam then surely he is given dominion and responsibility in similar ways to Adam? And this is borne out by Genesis 9:1-2. Well then, as God’s vice-regent Noah was the representative of creation to God and so the usual term “Noahic covenant” seems entirely appropriate. Accepting this, there is no reason to introduce a novel covenant with Noah called the “Adamic covenant.” Furthermore, although he extracts a lot of data from the text, Block does not hone in on the central verse for this covenant, namely Genesis 9:11, where the oath of God is to be found.

The author tells us a few pages on that, “After Genesis 11 the Adamic covenant recedes into the background.” (65). Well, I for one was not sorry to see it go. Yet when one reaches the NT portion of this book, the “Adamic covenant,” in tandem with its near twin, the “Cosmic covenant” raises its head again (see esp. 405-424), although in the case of the “Adamic covenant” I think this is as unnecessary as formerly. As a matter of fact it creates a contradiction because the qualifier “Adamic” in connection with the covenant means “humanity,” but Block will relate it to the man Adam in Rom. 5:12ff. You can’t have it both ways.

Saying this does not mean one cannot profit from Block’s material, but in my opinion they will have to reinsert it into the mold of the Noahic covenant. For certain, the covenant with Noah and creation forms the stage or backdrop of the history of the world until the New Creation (Rev. 21-22), but Block’s failure (as I see it) to zoom-in on the actual oath of God in Genesis 9:11 is what causes the confusion. The preamble and general descriptions that surround the oath (i.e. Gen. 8:21-9:10, 12-17) are not a part of the covenant itself. As Paul Williamson has said, “the most basic covenantal element” is “a promissory oath.” (Sealed with a Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, 59.) The Noahic covenant (as I and most others call it) concerns God’s promise to never flood the entire earth again, full stop. Block believes that Noah and his descendants were placed under conditions by God in Genesis 9:1-7, but these verses do not set out conditions. Maybe I am guilty of a lapse of memory, but I cannot recall one mainline or evangelical scholar who reads Genesis 9 this way. For sure, some like Bruce Waltke see a conditional covenant in Genesis 6, but even then they all state that the covenant in Genesis 9 is unconditional.

No Unconditional Covenants

Seeing conditions in what most heretofore have called an unconditional covenant with Noah and the world does not come as a surprise though. For Block has already made it clear that he rejects the idea of unconditional covenants (2-3). But it turns out that he does this because he includes the conditions that often surround God’s covenants within the covenant oath; or rather, he does not distinguish between the oath and the rest of the verbal context. This can be seen above and I believe it is a main cause of Block’s problematical constructions.

Miscellaneous Early Positives

In the first few chapters of Covenant there are numerous noteworthy comments and insights. The list would include:

Warning readers of the problems inherent in reading the NT back into the OT (9-10).

Calling attention to the fact that Creation is a “project” that God is committed to (13).

Noting that the presence of a Suzerain and a vassal does not make a relationship covenantal (15).

Insisting that Adam was a royal figure (20, 27), not a priestly figure.

Throwing suspicion upon the currently trendy “Cosmic Temple” readings of Adam in Eden (29ff.).

Identifying the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6 as most probably angelic (34).

Addressing and repudiating the Dumbrell/Gentry & Wellum view that heqim berit must mean “to confirm a preexisting covenant” and the interpretation of Hosea 6:7 as referring to a covenant with Adam (46).

Block’s statement that “Hebrew wisdom is first and foremost covenantal.” (66).

Asserting that the Bible “is our source of information on the covenants.” (5).

At the same time there are a few assertions that are open to question, they include, drafting into the discussion a lot of ANE parallels. Sometimes these are illuminating (e.g., 19, 77, 85, 87, 99-100, 124, etc.), but occasionally I think they are unhelpful and get in the way of what the biblical text is saying (e.g., 23, 48, 159, 161, 162). Another negative is Block’s opinion that the sequence in the opening chapter of Genesis has “an artificial flavor.” (18). Then there is his view that “nefarious external forces” were in Eden (25, 50), but we should expect that from a professor at Wheaton (are there any YEC’s at Wheaton?).

As for Block’s treatment of covenants per se and his exposition of his “Cosmic” and “Adamic” covenants, I think he unnecessarily muddies the waters, but there is much here worth thinking upon.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel I. Block (Pt. 1)

A Review of Daniel I. Block, Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021, 704 pages, hdbk.

Daniel Block has been a major evangelical OT scholar for many years, contributing commentaries on Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, and Judges/Ruth, and many articles. He is known for his incisive and creative scholarship. Therefore, this contribution to the study of covenants in the Bible is most welcome.

As someone with familiarity with Block’s work I fully expected Covenant to be marked by independent thinking and fresh insight. Both qualities are to be seen in this large work. As someone who has a decided interest in the subject I think it best if I begin my review with some general comments.

  1. Block decided not to interact with the scholarship on covenants in this book. for the most part this was a good choice, although occasionally one feels this reduces the interpretative options of certain passages and concepts.
  2. Block is not satisfied with some of the traditional nomenclature of the biblical covenants. This leads him to rename the Noahic covenant the “Cosmic covenant,” with an additional “Adamic covenant” which he also thinks he sees in Genesis 9. The Abrahamic and Mosaic (or Sinaitic) covenants together are the “Israelite covenant,” with the New covenant being dubbed “the New Israelite covenant.”
  3. Block sees the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and even the New covenant as one continuous covenant.
  4. He doesn’t like the term “Old Testament” either, preferring “First Testament” (the New Testament retains its name).
  5. The book contains a lot of helpful exegesis, much background information placed inside the narrative, and ample word studies. Sometimes the examination of texts can mean heavy-sledding for readers. The text is read carefully, even pedantically in places. Because of this it is easy to loose sight of the covenant being discussed.
  6. Although he sticks to a chronological approach Block’s method has a tendency to view God from a distance rather than personally. Yahweh is referred to in a way similar to how false gods are treated. It is the same for biblical personages; Noah, Abraham (slightly less so), David, etc. are studied dispassionately as if they were simply people who lived a long time ago. E.g., Moses is studied with the same kind of aloofness as Gudea of Lagash. This impression may be somewhat subjective, but I believe it ought to be mentioned.
  7. The definition of “covenant” is disappointingly “loose.”
  8. The “Priestly” covenant (e.g., Num. 25) is called the “Levitical covenant” and is dealt with only in a lengthy but unsatisfying Excursus. Block avoids its connotations in Ezekiel 40 – 48, Jeremiah 33, etc.
  9. Block rejects the “conditional/unconditional” concept, choosing to keep the former while calling God’s unilateral oaths “irrevocable.”
  10. Speaking of oaths, the author spends very little time on the importance of the oaths within God’s covenants.
  11. Block believes that the instructions (torah) from Exodus to Deuteronomy were doable. His arguments for this are important, if a little optimistic. If Israel could perform the requirements of the Mosaic code, so can we. If that is so why do Israel (or we) need a spiritual rebirth?
  12. He includes a lot of comparisons from the ANE. Sometimes these are helpful, while at other times they seem to dictate his interpretations.
  13. Although he does hold to and expound messianic passages, it is not always done compellingly (e.g. Psalm 110). He tries to fit these texts within the historical context (sometimes speculated) of the passage. The predictive element is occasionally obscured.
  14. Block has no room for pre-Noahic covenants including the theological covenants of covenant theology.
  15. He is to be commended for providing a rare study of covenant in the New Testament.

In the coming weeks I shall attempt to discuss this important book, noting what I think are it’s strengths and weaknesses. I envisage four installments in all, but may need to add a summary post.

A Short Review of ‘The Jesus of the Gospels’ by Andreas Kostenberger

A Review of Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020, hdbk, 462 pages.

This book is designed as a mid-level introduction to Jesus as He is depicted in each of the Four Gospels. The author is a well-respected New Testament scholar at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His books cover a range of topics and usually make important contributions.

It is easy to see that Kostenberger knows his subject. Although this book is not intended to chart any new territory, what it succeeds in doing is furnishing the reader with an informative up-to-date companion to evangelical thought on the Gospel portraits of Jesus, replete with the insertion of many facts about the differences in the presentation of material (especially synoptic material) in the Evangelists. Kostenberger writes in what I might call a conversational tone, adding personal reflections and anecdotes here and there to root many of his applications.

Each Gospel is given between approximately 100 to 120 pages, although the Gospel of John, which Kostenberger knows best, has less space allotted to it, no doubt because the author is able to condense his thoughts more readily. There is a really good 13 page beginning chapter (after a brief Introduction) entitled “Situating This Book in the History of Jesus Research,” in which he deftly covers the scholarship on the Gospels from Schweitzer to the present. This kind of material can get a tad boring (let’s face it) and Kostenberger is to be commended for the way he covers the bases with such finesse. In only one place would I demur, and that is where the author claims that the titles of the Gospels were not original, but were rather added very early. Although impossible to prove, to me it is unconceivable that these four books could have started their lives without the identification of the inspired author affixed to them; for among other things, how then can one explain the universal acceptance of their derivation?

I will not expound the way Kostenberger surveys each Gospel. He avoids a dry recitation of the details be his adopted style and his eye for application. While it is true that applications may “age” a book, or imperil the objectivity needed of a textbook, Kostenberger is master of these twin potentialities and skillfully weaves the more personalized sentences into the main arguments. A good example of this is where he notices that after they had rightly cited the appropriate passage to Herod about where Messiah would be born, the chief priests and scribes never actually ventured there themselves!

There were places where I had to disagree with the author. These were mainly in the area of eschatology, where I questioned several times his view of the kingdom and elements associated with it. Kostenberger is too quick to dismiss a this-worldly Israelite kingdom as envisaged in the Old Testament and anticipated by the Jewish people. I did not like his interpretation of Jesus’ transfiguration as incorporating “apocalyptic language” as per the Book of Revelation. The disciples saw what they saw. Additionally, I should have liked more discussion of the Lawsuit motif in John’s Gospel, where John’s skillful narrative presents to his reader an indictment against those who judged Jesus so unlawfully.

The Jesus of the Gospels is a very useful book, and would be eminently suitable for introductory courses on the four portraits of Jesus, although for me it would need to be supplemented by a better treatment of eschatology.

I cannot end this brief review without congratulating Kregel on their inclusion of Scripture, Subject, and Name indexes at the back of the book. Some of my readers may know that I have had a bone to pick with the publisher about this issue in the past.

Review of ‘Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels’ by Richard Hays.

Review of Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017, 524 pages, paperback.

Richard B. Hays has established himself as one of the foremost NT scholars in the world, based on enduring works like The Moral Vision of the New Testament and Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. He has been at the forefront of the study of such seemingly obtuse but telling elements of the study of the NT as “metalepsis” and “figural interpretation.”

Metalepsis in biblical studies is the incorporation and use of the OT in the New, particularly by way of partial allusion, employed in a new context that draws attention to aspects of the larger previous context.

“Figural interpretation” or “figuration” here is where a NT author draws comparisons between something in the OT and the life and work of Jesus Christ. The “echo” of the OT passage is seen as transformed in Christ by the Evangelists’ reading back into the OT text (essentially as presented in the LXX) truths which they have located in Jesus. Figuration differs from prediction in that “correspondence can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first.” (3). Or, as he says in his conclusion, ““the discernment of unexpected patterns of correspondence between earlier and later events or persons within a continuous temporal stream” (347). As the two poles of the figural reading are understood, the sense of continuity within the Scriptures is deepened (3).

Hays is known for his thoroughgoing analysis of the biblical text and his creative insights in biblical intertextuality. Though teaching at Duke Divinity School, his approach can certainly be called broadly evangelical as well as Christ exalting.

This 500 page book is the much anticipated follow up to the aforementioned Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul; a book that is surely one of the most significant works of hermeneutics of the last fifty years. Not that I am either a convinced adherent of Hays’s approach nor an ardent supporter of his conclusions, but I am an appreciative reader. Not only is he an articulate writer, he is a high-level exponent of how to read Scripture. Even when finding plenty of objections to Hays’s exegesis, I was grateful to him for the way he gets one to rethink these familiar texts.

Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels attempts the herculean task of examining each of the four Gospels individually, tracing how each writer employs the OT. Hays achieves this by way of a patient analysis of each pericope or verse he interacts with. He listens carefully to the setting of a passage and tracks down the often subtle backlighting of the subject that is provided by the author’s use of the OT. Early on I was not convinced that Hays was not overstating his case. Examples include asserting that the phrase “I will make you fishers of men” in Mark 1:17 as meaning fishers for judgment (24), and his claim that Mark primes his readers to see a new exodus and the setting up of God’s reign (30). But later on I saw that he did make many good connections.

The book is divided into four main large chapters devoted to each of the Gospels. Hays also has a well written candid Introduction and a Conclusion. There are eighty pages of endnotes, a bibliography, and indices. In this review I will be mainly offering a critique of the book, not because the book isn’t full of good things, but because this form of interpretation has become very influential in evangelicalism, and Hays is a vitally important mentor for many who pursue this line.

As with most published believing scholars today, the author holds to what I call a “first coming hermeneutic.” That is to say, fulfillment of the OT, no matter what it describes, must be located in the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the Church in Him (5, 19, 52, 143, 194, 289, 335). Through figural interpretation the OT witness is transformed (10, 14, 32, 82, 122, 143, 148, etc.). This is most welcome for the amillennialist and postmillennialist, but rather dubious for the premillennialist.

From this stance Hays teaches that the Kingdom is now (e.g. 18, 56, 59); that the “new exodus” motif lends a hand in seeing this properly (e.g. 23), and even how this leans toward a form of supercessionism (though Hays is careful about this at times) (95).

Make no mistake about it, this book is about the reinterpretation of Scripture by the writers of the canonical Gospels. Hays uses that very term unabashedly many times. It locates the locus of reinterpretation in the figure of Jesus Christ in His first coming, as for example, with his insistence that Mark is retelling Israel’s story which reaches its climax in Jesus (19 cf. 33). He speaks about “subterranean exegetical undercurrents” (135) and “hermeneutical reshaping” (232) which the attentive reader needs to see. Hays is canny enough to know that “our discourse is inherently intertextual and allusive” (12), still one wonders if Mark (and Matthew and Luke) really thinks of Israel as still in exile – a la N. T. Wright (16, 109f., 120, 175, 195)? I do not think either Wright or Hays has proven this controversial assertion. At times the focus on reading retrogressively appears to dominate the plain reading of the passage. As another example, Hays seems to view Christ’s sacrifice as a redefinition and reconfiguration of the Sinai covenant, not as an altogether separate “New” covenant (36). One wonders whether an assumption is getting in the way here. In fact, there are cases where Hays’s exegesis on the basis of reading backwards looks like guesswork (27, 43). Does Mark 4:29 really echo Joel 3:13-14? (25). Does Mark 4:30-31 transparently echo Ezekiel 17:23-24? (31).

As another example, at several points in handling the Synoptics Hays employs the understanding of the “Son of Man” figure in Daniel 7:13-14 as a corporate entity, not an individual. To me at least, one huge problem with this is is the confusion that would have arisen when Jesus used this very title as the favorite way of referring to Himself!

Unsurprisingly for a scholar out of Duke, Hays betrays some of his critical colors along the way (73, 106, 108, 117, 129, 143-144, 151, 161, 239, 352, 382 n. 84). He employs ANE parallelism when discussing the Chaoskampf of early Genesis (67). His embracing of Q; his seeing Mark as sharing the apocalyptic outlook (36), and even his acceptance of Markan priority also color his work at times (e.g. his repeated view that Luke follows Mark).

Hays agrees with much scholarship on the third Gospel. In this he does not pay enough attention to the Kingdom of God motif in Luke – Acts, reading it more in terms of ecclesiology (192, 264f.); a position that has become increasingly common in our day. He also offers scant attention to the role of covenant, although there is some recognition of it here and there (e.g. 111, 119-120).

Other criticisms could be made, but I want to return to a note of appreciation for this work. It really is a book of brilliant scholarship which will become quite as influential within conservative circles as its precursor on Paul has been. Throughout the deity of Christ and the cruciality of His resurrection is insisted upon. In fact, the use that “figuration” and “metalepsis” are put to by Hays in service of these two doctrines will doubtless be a major cause of its becoming considered a “classic” in the years ahead.

With that said, I do not think works of this kind teach us how to read the OT, but they do teach us how many 21st century evangelicals read it, and it calls us to deeper scrutiny of the biblical texts.

Review: 40 Questions About Biblical Theology

A Review of 40 Questions about Biblical Theology by Jason S. DeRouchie, Oren R. Martin, and Andrew David Naselli, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020, 400 pages, paperback.

How does one review a well-written and well researched book on Biblical Studies that one disagrees with almost entirely? That is the position I find myself in with this book. DeRouchie, Martin, and Naselli are all subscribers to the fast-spreading approach to the Bible called “Progressive Covenantalism”; an approach first annunciated for most people by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, which I reviewed here.

What this means is that fans of New Covenant Theology are going to really like this book, fans of Covenant Theology are going to approve of much in it (even though CT draws some criticisms), “Essentialist” (to use Joseph Parle’s word) and Progressive Dispensationalists are going to like it a lot less, and “Biblical Covenantalists” (that’s me) are going to really take issue with it. I say this so that my biases will be clear.

Now that I’ve made that point, I do want to say that the authors have done a very good job of explaining their positions. The 40 questions they pose are extremely well chosen. Moreover, their tag-team works in unison throughout the proceedings. They also write clearly and persuasively. I am sure this book will convert many to their side. I am half inclined to do a series on how the Biblical Covenantalist would answer the questions (although don’t expect 40 responses).

So before going off on what I disagree with about this book, I want to state that if a person wants to know about Progressive Covenantalism (PC), or if they want to know how evangelicals in the American academy generally (whether PC or CT) do Biblical Theology, look no further. This is a book you should get. If you want to know some reasons why I don’t like it, read on. Understand that my space is limited. My copy is literally filled with question marks, objections, and the like.

40 Questions About Biblical Theology is broken down into five parts. Part One has nine questions on “Defining Biblical Theology.” Part Two has ten questions about method, including descriptions and critiques of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism, both of which are well done. Part Three is about themes such as “Mystery” (Q.21), “the Covenants” (Q.22), “the People of God” (Q.24), and “the Land” (Q.29). Part Four has some examples of the use of earlier passages by later authors, and Part Five is about Application. I shall not be dealing with the latter two sections here.

Part One includes agenda setting questions like, “How Does Biblical Theology Help Us See Christ in the OT?” and “How Should Biblical Theology Approach Typology?” The longer definition of what they are doing is as follows:

“Biblical theology is a way of analyzing and synthesizing the Bible that makes organic, salvation-historical connections with the whole canon on its own terms, especially regarding how the Old and New Testaments progress, integrate, and climax in Christ.” – 20.

I am going to utilize this definition for most of the comments which follow.

Okay, the first thing I look for (and expect to find) in such definitions is a statement of how the approach climaxes with Christ, or is fulfilled in Christ. Once I see that I ask one question: does it climax in Christ’s first coming or second coming? I know the answer before I pose the question, but the response will determine how they will argue and what they will have to resort to in order to argue that way. The answer comes back as expected; the climax they are speaking of is at the first coming (e.g. 29, 51, 52, 59, 67, 68 n. 14, 225, etc.).

Now if you take the first coming as the “climax” of most of the Bible’s storyline you are going to have to find ways of packing an awful lot of pesky OT covenant prophecy into the first half of the first century A.D. When you have done that you are free to declare things like, “Every significant whole-Bible theme climaxes in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah” (59), and, “God designed some types to repeat and develop through the progressive covenants before they climaxed in Jesus” (85), and “The age of eschatological fulfillment has come in Christ” (96). Hence, “if God gives you eyes to see” (86) this first coming fulfillment, you will agree with the authors. If you don’t think most of the OT covenants are fulfilled at the first advent then you have “missed the point” and are not interpreting Scripture like Jesus did (see 53).

The definition given above also (and typically) focuses in on redemptive history, which is there called “salvation-history.” Redemption is what the story is all about. Salvation spectacles are what you should be wearing (20, 43. 58-62, 193, etc). The basic outlook is this: “In Christ [i.e. at His first coming], God fulfills what he promised. Christ realizes what the OT anticipates.” (225). But this position is simply assumed, and it not coincidentally aligns well with a first coming approach. Conversely, a second coming approach, where many of the covenanted promises of God are awaiting fulfillment, is not just focused on redemption. Of course redemption is important, but so is the judgment of Satan and the demons; so is the Kingdom; and so is the glory of God. Even redemption does not always refer to the first coming, as the books of Hebrews and 1 Peter make clear (e.g. Heb. 1:13-14; 5:9; 9:28; 1 Pet. 1:3-9 ; cf. Rom. 13:11).

I have already quoted this above, but it deserves another airing. The authors all believe: “The age of eschatological fulfillment has come in Christ” (96). How does this effect their interpretations? Here’s how they continue:

“As a consequence of the preceding presupposition, it follows that later parts of biblical history function as the broader context for interpreting earlier parts… One deduction from this premise is that Christ [at His first coming] is the goal toward which the OT pointed and is the end-time center of redemptive history, which is the key to interpreting the earlier portions of the OT and its promises.” (96-97, emphasis in original).

So “the broader context” has the final say, but only if it is understood to mean that the earlier parts of the Bible must find their telos in the first advent. This necessitates any covenant or prophetic oracle in the OT, no matter what it states, being brought under submission to the hermeneutical requirements of the Cross and Resurrection (the progress. integration, and climax parts of their definition of biblical theology above). How is this done? The old way was via spiritualizing and supercessionism, but today’s amillennialists repudiate such terms (240). No, the big gun in the armory is typology (85)! Here are some samples:

“[P]rogressive covenantalism does not see the church as directly extending or fulfilling Israel. Rather, Christ is the antitype of Israel, who fulfills Israel’s identity, purpose, and mission such that in Christ the church inherits all the covenant blessings.” (68)

“Paul argues that Adam is a type of Christ: Adam is the covenantal head of the original creation, and Christ is the covenantal head of the new creation (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49).” (82-83).

“The antitype eclipses the type. The type is but the shadow; the antitype is the substance.” (85).

“The Rest God gave His old covenant people on Saturdays is a type, and the Rest Jesus gives His New covenant people every day is the antitype.” (262. This is a sub-heading).

“[H]ow the NT fulfills the OT promises strongly influences the progressive covenantal understanding of typology, which sees Christ [in His first coming] as the ultimate antitype of all previous types.” (192).

That last quote is revealing as regards method, but it ought to read: “The progressive covenantal understanding of typology, which sees Christ [in His first coming] as the ultimate antitype of all previous types, strongly influences [our view of] how the NT fulfills the OT.” That spells it out better I think.

In light of this, to calmly claim, “Sometimes significant connections between promise and fulfillment involve typology” (74) is a massive understatement. Symbolism and typology are where it’s at when it comes to understanding the story of the Bible. But observe; if types are but shadows, and OT Israel is a type, and the Church “inherits all the covenant blessings,” isn’t this just replacement theology with a smile? Truly, what chance does an OT covenant promise to national Israel (like Isa. 11:11-12; 62:1-12; Jer. 12:14-17; 31:27-40; Ezek. 34:11-31; Zech. 14:16-21; Zeph. 3:9-20) have under these conditions? None! Only those which “fit” the prescribed first coming telos are admitted. The others will be dealt with by the “first coming hermeneutic” as I like to call it.

The authors wish to engage the whole canon of Scripture “on its own terms.” What does this part of their definition mean? Again, for anyone familiar with this form of Biblical Theology (it makes little difference whether it is PC or CT), the answer is that the whole of the Bible is the “final context” (52). Perhaps the clearest declaration of this is found on page 144:

“Meaning is not limited exclusively to what the human author intended, but also to what God intended, which becomes clearer as revelation progresses until it reaches it fulfillment at the canonical level.”

We are advised that “biblical theology should keep the whole canon in view even when studying the various parts.” (145). So while we are trying to do exegesis of a particular passage “we must read every passage in the context of the completed canon” (Ibid). Surely I cannot be the only person to see that what is being recommended here is precisely backwards? Just when is a person in a properly qualified position to know the whole Bible entirely correctly so that he can accurately exegete a single passage of it? Where is the place for inductive exegesis in this arrangement?

One can accomplish virtually anything by these means. For instance, you can chop up the Abrahamic covenant to make some troublesome part – the land promise to ethnic Israel – go away. On page 225 the authors insist that the “Mosaic covenant fulfills stage one of the Abrahamic covenant: single nation, Israel, occupies the Promised Land.” (cf. 194). Did DeRouchie, Martin, and Naselli read Jeremiah 31:23-36 or 33:14-26? Yes, they cite some of these verses (e.g. 190; 286). They cite Jeremiah 33 but are careful to dance around God’s unconditional promise to the Levites in 33:18, 21-22, or God’s warning in verse 24:

Have you not considered what these people have spoken, saying, ‘The two families which the LORD has chosen, He has also cast them off’? Thus they have despised My people, as if they should no more be a nation before them. – Jeremiah 33:24.

But that’s alright, “progressive revelation” culminating at the first advent will furnish the real meaning to those with “the eye of faith” (145).

There is simply too much to critique in one small review, but before leaving I want to say that despite the show of scholarship, the overall impression made upon me was of a lack of definition and precision on crucial questions; questions such as these:

What precisely do the authors think covenants are meant to do?

If covenants can change their meaning what is the point of making one? Especially if one swears an oath to do something for another and ends up doing something different?

How can faith flourish when false expectations are raised based on what God promises to do?

How can there be “five major salvation-historical covenants” (43) when only one of them (the New covenant) contains any elements of salvation terminology in its terms? Isn’t the constraints of a salvation-historical straight-jacket making them salvific when they are not?

Why was there no discussion of the covenant with Phinehas?

How can you use typology as a driving mechanism for your system when typologies depend upon and corroborate that very system?

Since the OT prophecies regarding Christ emphasize what we know as His second coming above His first coming, shouldn’t we just believe those texts literally without cramming everything into a first century fulfillment? Can’t we just throttle down on the question-begging typology and believe that what God has covenanted to do He will indeed do?

Review of ‘The New Testament Commentary Guide’

A Review of Nijay K. Gupta, The New Testament Commentary Guide: A Brief Handbook for Students and Pastors, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020, 124 pages, pbk.

Nijay Gupta is a Professor of NT at Northern Seminary and a busy author.  This little book is his attempt at writing a NT Commentary survey that is up to date and judicious.  No attention has been given to NT Introductions or NT Theologies, only commentaries are included.  Gupta’s introduction covers several questions about commentary sets, one-volume works, and Study Bibles.  When speaking about one-volume NT works the author says that he knows of no non-technical ones.  I find this surprising as Robert Gundry’s Commentary on the New Testament is very worthy attention.

The rest of the Introduction provides a survey of the commentary sets (e.g. Anchor, ICC, Baker, NICNT, Pillar, etc.). The author puts in a good word for the Smyth & Helwys series, which I am not familiar with. I have always thought it was a bit pricey.

The main part of the book is entitled “Commentary Recommendations.” These are separated into Technical, Semi-Technical, and Non-Technical, with an additional category called Hidden Gems. Gupta writes from the perspective of the evangelical left. His knowledge of the choices is extensive, but more conservative shoppers (like me) will need to augment this guide to ensure the right balance. Only modern commentaries are listed.

So what about the commentary recommendations themselves? As might be expected Davies and Allison gets top billing on Matthew for scholars. Among others on Matthew, Craig Keener’s volume fairs better than he does in many lists. Hagner does well, as does R. T. France. There is no place for Grant Osborne or D. A. Carson (whose commentary on John also doesn’t make it).

On Mark’s Gospel, R. T. France, A. Y. Collins, and Mark Strauss are among the top picks. I appreciated the inclusion of Larry Hurtado’s short commentary, but where oh where is James Edwards? The same applies to Luke. Edwards is nowhere to be seen, although his commentary is excellent. Darrell Bock, Joel Green, and David Garland are among the books that Gupta commends.

Moving on to Romans, the top choice is C. E. B. Cranfield’s classic, with his successor at Durham J. D. G. Dunn next. I have a high opinion of Dunn, not because he is conservative (he is not), but because he asks the right questions and, in lucid prose, has such fertile suggestions for exploration. Moo makes the cut. Schreiner does not.

Elsewhere, I thought that Gupta’s suggestions for 2 Corinthians were very good. On Ephesians he tells us which interpreters believe the epistle is authentic or pseudonymous. Rather astonishingly, there is no place for Harold Hoehner’s massively detailed work! Gupta’s recommendations on Hebrews were overall a disappointment.

At the back Gupta includes a list of “Commentaries by Women and People of Color.” I have no time for such politically correct nonsense. Either a commentary is good or it isn’t. The “accidental” characteristics of the writer are hardly relevant.

At $18.99 this Handbook may be priced a little above what some people are willing to pay. Since I received my copy free from the publisher I didn’t have to come up with the money. Would I have done otherwise? Possibly. It’s good to have an alternative to Carson. I thought many of Gupta’s comments were informative.

   

 

Review of ‘An Introduction to John Owen’ by Crawford Gribben

Review of An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life by Crawford Gribben, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020, 190 pages, pbk.

Crawford Gribben is a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and is well known as a scholar of Puritanism, specializing on eschatology. He has written a previous book on John Owen which has garnered him much praise.

This work represents a modest exploration of the life and thought of the Puritan giant John Owen, and comes at the subject from a different angle than most of the biographies and studies of Owen I had encountered before. It is definitely a book by a historian, not a theologian (Sinclair Ferguson’s John Owen on the Christian Life is a good example of the latter). Gribben employs the device of the stages of life to understand Owen, and he is well-suited to the purpose. In particular, Owen’s experiences during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and then in the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy provide a good lens through which to view him and his writings.

The book consists of a chapter long Introduction followed by four chapters and the Conclusion. The main chapters deal with “Childhood,” Youth,” “Middle Age,” and “Death and Eternal Life,” as seen from Owen’s perspective. These phases of life are approached via Owen’s own thoughts, intermixed with facts about Owen’s life situations and temperament.  All this is preceded by a full timeline.

Gribben’s Introduction (25-45) is very well done.  He gives the reader much helpful information and sets up the four main chapters well, pulling you in to the life and times of his subject.  Of particular note is the use of contemporary diaries and notebooks which make the oft romanticized figure of Owen more concrete.  Owen’s career was carried on in tumultuous times and in the midst of much personal trouble, ill-health, grief, and even fear for his life.  He achieved much in his lifetime, but Gribben explains that by the end he was surrounded by the scent of failure (39).  Yet his impact was and is considerable, and not only as a theologian.  One of the most interesting things in this book is the description later in the book of Owen’s thoughts on religious liberty (e.g. 94-103, 146-149).  John Locke was a student of Owen and Gribben believes that,

Owen’s political theory – undeveloped as it was – made a very significant contribution to the emergence of the political tradition that has since been described as classical liberalism.  His work anticipated by two decades Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), which would make the best-known intervention in this emerging defense of civil and political liberty. (100-101).

Returning to the main outline of the book, the chapter on “Childhood” sees Owen as a considerate minister to the capacities of the young.  The chapter focuses on two topics; a Primer which I shall discuss in a moment, and Baptism, of which Owen became sympathetic to the concerns of the Baptists.  This part of the book is a bit drawn out, occupying more space than one would expect in a slim volume.  Gribben’s discussion of The Primer is of interest.  For whatever reason, this book was not included in the reprint of Owen’s works by the Banner of Truth, but the author says it “deserves to be recovered.” (48. Although it appears that Owen’19th Century editor, William Goold, was not aware of its existence – 65 n. 40).  “The Primer offers a glimpse into the simplicity he expected of childhood piety… as well as the daily routines of thankfulness that he expected parents to exemplify.” (68). 

Chapter 2 on “Youth” records Owen’s regimen as an Oxford student, and how upon his return to Oxford as its vice chancellor he tried to inculcate an inward piety as well as outward academic excellence, a concern that “met with mixed success” (78).  To address this Owen preached and later wrote his classic On Communion with God, which depicts the Godhead as approachable, kind, and gracious.  The author’s treatment of this great book (82-90) is a highlight. 

The chapter on “Middle Age” is mostly taken up with Owen’s views on religious liberty and worship.  Chapter 4 addresses “Death and Eternal Life” and concentrates on Owen’s views about prophetic portents in his age (although Owen was not much interested in millennial questions – 121-122).  Again, for me this section on his prophetic speculations is over-long.  Better is the treatment of the Beatific Vision, which in Owen is not seeing the Father’s glory but the Son’s (136-141).   

The book wraps up with an informative summary, rightly pointing out that “Owen was much more than a theological clinician,” and that, in fact, 

Owen’s discussion of the spiritual life has contributed, and perhaps even shaped, some of the most important religious communities and philosophies of the last several centuries of civilization in the West.  Owen was so much more than merely the most important English theologian. (146).

All in all An Introduction to John Owen succeeds in its purpose.  There are some engaging and uplifting pages in the book, though there are also a few less compelling paragraphs.  The author sets his subject within his troubled milieu, even if sometimes he is guilty of repetition, especially in his mentioning of the display of the heads and limbs of some of Owen’s revolutionary friends at various points of the book.  This little book humanizes John Owen more than other biographies I have read.  I should have liked some interaction with the great devotional treatises in Volumes 6 and 7 of Owen’s Works, and his Discourse on the Holy Spirit, which is probably my favorite, but it is only 190 pages long.  One can’t have everything.   

This book was supplied to me by the Publisher.                

 

Short Review of ‘Three Views on Israel and the Church.’

A Review of Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9-11, Jared Compton & Andrew David Naselli, Editors, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018, 266 pages, pbk. 

It  might be thought that a debate book on just three chapters in one of Paul’s epistles would only be of interest to a marginal group of specialists.  However, the chapters in question are central to the vital theological and hermeneutical issue of the relationship between the nation of Israel and the Christian Church.

This book brings together well chosen advocates of differing views of Romans 9-11; Michael Vlach represents “A Non-Typological Future-Mass-Conversion View,” which interprets the extended passage in line with what the OT writers predict when their words are taken at face value.  Hence, “Israel” is the future remnant who enter the coming kingdom as a redeemed nation on the basis of the major provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant concerning land and ethnicity cum nationhood.  Vlach’s essay, which opens the proceedings, is very well organized and informative.  He is a clear writer, and this clarity and precision also comes across in his responses.  His understanding of what he calls “the place of blessing” regarding the “root” of the Olive Tree as the covenant with Abraham is articulated solidly.  I do not agree with this centralizing of the Abrahamic Covenant in Paul’s argument.  In fact, I believe it weakens Vlach’s argument somewhat (though it is easier to point things out as a non-participant!).  To me, the focus on salvation as the apex of Paul’s discussion (which is not a property of the Abrahamic promises), and the quotation of two New Covenant passages from Isaiah in Romans 11:26-27 put the emphasis on the New Covenant.  This also makes the terminative (already fulfilled) view of Merkle less plausible.  Still, this is a good presentation.

The next position presented is by Fred Zaspel and James Hamilton as “A Typological Future-Mass Conversion View,” in which Israel becomes a type of Christ and the Church.  However, the Jews are still promised salvation en masse in the future.  As broad exponents of “New Covenant Theology” they are tilted heavily towards typology.  They place great emphasis upon motifs such as the “cosmic temple,” and the “second exile.”   I am tempted to reproduce a longish quote by them which explains their typology, but this is a short review so I will be content to say that most of page 80 is incomprehensible to me as a simple reader of the Bible: starting with Cosmic Temple typology, it is easy to turn any which way.  The fact that these scholars believe that the OT writers intentionally included this typology into their books looks like a bad case of self-deception.  It would be better to say that subsequent revelation utilized previous work to shape a type/antitype structure.  In their exposition of Romans 9:6 (“not all Israel who are of Israel”) they hit the nail on the head.  Also their treatment of the Olive Tree metaphor they do well to avoid mixing the Gentiles (i.e. the wild branches) and Israel (the natural branches), even though they believe the remnant who will be saved will finally be incorporated into the Church.  There is much in their main essay to commend.

Benjamin L. Merkle expounds “A Typological Non-Future-Mass-Conversion View.”  Notice the “Non” in the heading!  This view claims that Paul does not teach a future large scale salvation of the Jewish remnant.  Merkle is a skilled expositor, and it is to his credit that does not simply regurgitate many of the typological views of Zaspel and Hamilton.  He is more clear on his “first coming hermeneutic” than are the latter.  Once more, Merkle’s interpretation of Romans 9:6 as meaning an Israel within Israel is to be commended.  Yet I found his insistence on seeing Paul’s concern only with “the present situation” unconvincing.  At least to me Merkle forgets how the Apostle lays out of the question of Israel in Romans 9:1-8, and 11:1.  I was surprised at the lack of attention to the Olive Tree illustration in Merkle’s presentation; especially the way Paul sets it up.  I might also point out that his handling of the covenant issues was disappointing, and this despite earlier criticizing of Vlach in that regard.  Although this is a good article on this view, I wanted to put the brakes on a lot as I read through it.  I felt that there were gaps that needed to be filled.

The editors of this book allowed each side to have plenty of space to set out their respective understandings of Romans 9-11.  In their responses they also had space to maneuver.  Each writer deserves respect for not wasting the reader’s time.  This book is not a throwaway read.  In the rejoinders I thought Merkle fared less well than his opponents.  Both Vlach and Zaspel & Hamilton probed weaknesses in his position.  For example, Merkle had accused Vlach of committing an exegetical fallacy in his discussion of kai houtos in 11:26 (and I don’t believe he does), but Merkle does not escape this charge with his view that the Olive Tree is about individual salvation, nor in his assertion of a cumulative historical interpretation of “all Israel” in 11:26.  Zaspel & Hamilton’s reliance on author-intended OT typology looks like it is actually their NT interpretation foisted back upon the OT writers.  My bias sides with Vlach.  He sticks with the continuity between Testaments that the Apostle takes in his stride.  While I do question his stress on the Abrahamic Covenant, and I personally wish that he had made more of Israel’s election (or “selection”), as in Romans 9:6-10 and Isaac, I thought he took the laurels – even if he was rather too genteel in his response to Zaspel & Hamilton.

In ending this brief review I would like to quote Merkle’s final sentence from his response to Vlach:

In the end, our disagreements relate not merely to the exegesis of a particular text (in our case Romans 9-11), but to our fundamental differences in the relationship between the covenants, the role and function of typology, and our understanding of God’s eschatological kingdom.” (96).