Book Reviews

Review: ‘The Spirituality of Paul’ by Leslie T. Hardin

Leslie T. Hardin, The Spirituality of Paul, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016, 190 pages.

This book is written in a lively and engaging style by a professor of New Testament at Johnson University in Florida, an institution connected to the ‘Stone-Campbell’ Restoration Movement. The University’s Statement of Faith expresses clearly the major bone of contention between Restorationist churches and Evangelical churches:

Faith, repentance, confession of faith in Jesus, baptism (immersion) and prayer are for the remission of past sins, and faith, repentance and confession of sins and prayer are for the remission of the erring Christian’s sins (Acts 8:22)

This is not salvation by grace alone through faith alone!  “Campbellites” (if I may employ the term without trying to be inflammatory), believe that one must be baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit.  Quite what Kregel Publications thought they were doing by issuing a book from such a source is beyond me.  This is not to say that the book is not without merit, nor indeed that the author should be ignored, but Christian publishers owe it to their readers to inform them about the authors they publish.  The statement reproduced above teaches a conditional or ‘maintained’ state of forgiveness.

Another feature of The Spirituality of Paul that raises some concern is Hardin’s endorsement of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’.  Citing E.P. Sanders he writes:

Jews believed they were saved by grace, and (as much research has borne out for us) maintained their status in the covenant by doing works of piety and holiness which upheld the covenant and demonstrated to the world that they were holy… Therefore, when Paul speaks about “works of the law” he’s primarily referring to Jewish traditions… The context makes more sense now in Ephesians, … that “it is by grace you have been saved…not by [Jewish-style holiness works]”… (36-37 Emphasis in original)

In the book Hardin covers various spiritual characteristics (e.g. devotion to Scripture, prayer, discipleship, evangelism, holiness), in an easy to read personal style.  Some readers (myself included) will not warm to Hardin’s approval of Richard Foster (14), but then again, they will appreciate the author’s candidness about the struggle of prayer (53-55).

The book is well informed and does contain good insights.  I like that he deals soberly with the miraculous and experiential aspects of day-to-day spirituality in Jesus and Paul (17-20), although I do wish he had refrained from calling these experiences by the term “ecstatic”, which is misleading.  There is a particularly good treatment of speaking in tongues in the chapter on Spiritual Gifts (esp. 131-134) and a fine chapter on the “value” of Christian Suffering.

Part of me wants to recommend The Spirituality of Paul, and the mature believer would find much of benefit in it.  But its author’s views on the role of baptism and the New Perspective persuade me to caution people about the book.

This book was provided by the publisher

 

“The Kingdom of Speech” by Tom Wolfe

A review of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe.  Audiobook read by Robert Petkoff, 2016.

This little book by the novelist and contemporary commentator on modern culture Tom Wolfe is worth the attention of anyone interested in the enigma of language.  An enigma it is, more especially if one does not understand language as God ordained.  Wolfe would appear to be an example of this point of view.

So if Wolfe does not connect language to the Creator, but rather sees it as an artifact, an invention of man, what use is this book to the Christian reader?  My answer is in two halves.  In the first instance Kingdom of Speech is a good book because Wolfe puts his finger firmly (and repeatedly) on the problem of incorporating the realities of speech within the confines of evolutionary grand narratives, whether Darwinian or neo-Darwinian, it makes no difference, since he shows how all its champions come up empty-handed.  He shows further, with the assured poise of a well-read researcher, and in entertaining prose that the problem of accounting for speech has eluded and is eluding the brightest of the “brights” from Darwin down to Chomsky.  That story itself is worth getting the book for.

But an added feature is that in posing the problem, the author presents the enormity of the task for the evolutionary purists, and while doing so spells out the “achievement” that language and speech is.  Alongside of this there are diverting examinations of the sort of conformity-at-all-costs peer pressure which has been exercised within the academy since before the publication of the Origin of Species.  One more exposure of how utterly fallacious the picture of how cool and disinterested the scientific establishment has always been is always to be welcomed.

But the second part of my answer sounds a note of caution.  While Wolfe is rightly dismissive of the usual accounts of human speech in evolutionary dogma, he replaces it with Daniel Everett’s view of language as artifact, which, though an improvement, is nonetheless unsatisfactory.

The book can be roughly divided between the compelling story of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, which is the most entertaining part of the book, and the more contemporary tale of the supremacy of the armchair linguist Noam Chomsky and the rise of the young field-hardened pretender, Everett.  Wolfe is well aware that Chomsky is a patron saint of progressives as well as of the scientific who’s who, and he unleashes both barrels of his furious irony upon him (for those of you who cannot get enough of this cruel pursuit, may I recommend the appropriate essays in David Berlinski’s Black Mischief).

He contrasts Chomsky’s ivory tower approach to his subject with Everett’s more down to earth empirical studies.  Everett lived and worked among an obscure Amazonian tribe called the Piraha (pronounced Pea-de-hah) for many years.  These people have an accentuated view of present experience; they are the ultimate empiricists.  Everett, who went there as a missionary, lost his faith when he couldn’t provide evidence to the Piraha which they could comprehend, of Christ’s existence (of course, the reality of Christian truth claims, along with very many other things – like the year 1564, or tomorrow, or the existence of Antarctica -, cannot be decided within the limits of a strict empiricism, unless one has been to the Antarctic!).

Anyway, Everett’s work threatened to overthrow the Chomskian paradigm and has therefore been vigorously opposed.  Still, the outcome of all of this is that at the time of writing, the phenomenon of speech is a mystery.

I give the book a cautious recommendation.  What it lacks is a good critique of Everett’s epistemological assumptions and any interaction with his thesis that language is just a tool for getting communication done.  As such, The Kingdom of Speech seriously lacks a proper ending.  In sum, it is entertaining, informative, iconoclastic, but without any thought of exploring the deficiencies of the feeble-looking speech as artifact thesis.  From all the eulogizing of speech which Wolfe has indulged in inside the book, this is a grave omission.

‘The Case for Jesus’ by Brant Pitre – A Review

Book Review: The Case For Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, by Brant Pitre, New York: Image, 2016, 242 pages, hdbk.

I suppose that the first thing I ought to say is that this is not The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, nor is it related to the set of books spawned by it. This is a new work by a Professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

Coming from the desk of a Roman Catholic readers may want to question what I am doing even bothering to read it. My defense is that some Roman Catholic writers are well worth being acquainted with, and, in fact, ought to be read – though with the caveat that they are Roman Catholics. To name just a few, I think Jay Budziszewski is one of the best writers and speakers to recommend to a college student. Anthony Esolen and Benjamin Wiker are good guides on what to read and what not to read. Robert Barron, who coincidentally wrote the Afterword for the book under review, is worth your time on practically anything, creation and church doctrine apart. And a man who cannot find any benefit from G. K. Chesterton is a reflective sluggard indeed. Alongside of these Brant Pitre deserves a hearing, and especially this book.

The Case For Jesus is, I think, the very best book on its subject for a general audience. It is wonderfully written, very informative, conservative in its conclusions, and is a great faith-builder. Its thirteen compact chapters, which even with Barron’s contribution bring the book in at a mere 242 pages, including endnotes, comprise a consistent push-back against the slippery arguments of Bart Ehrman (Pitre’s main foil) and others like him.

The opening chapter sets the context for the discussions which follow. Of major concern to Pitre is the Telephone Game illustration of Gospel transmission used so effectively by the run of unbelieving scholarship. Anyone who has heard Erhman will be familiar with his mantra that the Gospels are anonymous, the titles we have being added much later. Actually, I have come across this belief even in evangelical authors. But Pitre dispatches this fiction very effectively – by a straightforward appeal to the facts. He points out in chapter two,

The first and perhaps the biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have. (15. Author’s emphasis).

The edifice which Erhman leans upon so heavily is made of air. All of the available manuscript and Patristic evidence points in the other direction. Erhman, a textual critic, is surely close to committing the unpardonable sin of his discipline – of ignoring all the textual evidence in favor of his preferences.

Pitre also asks how such well known and cherished writings managed to be copied and handled without their authors being identified. And how come there is complete unanimity in the ascription of the authors? (19).  Related to this is the question of the both internal (within the Gospels themselves) and external (writers outside the Gospels) evidence for whether we know who wrote the Gospels. These issues are covered in chapters three and four. Again, the evidence is “completely unambiguous and totally unanimous.” (39).

The fifth chapter ably handles the inaccurately called “Lost Gospels” while chapter six inquires whether the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biographies. This impressive chapter closes with a short discussion about whether the Gospels should be viewed as verbatim transcripts. The author decides in favor of the position that word-for-word accuracy is not always present but,

On the other hand, the historical character of the Gospels does mean that the authors intend to record the substance of what Jesus really said and did. (81. Author’s emphasis).

Chapter seven examines the dating of the Gospels. Pitre deals with reasons for fixing the Gospels with a late date and finds them to be seriously flawed (89). This excellent chapter finishes off what I might call the first part of the book. From then on the next six chapters focus on who Jesus is.  They continue the high standards set by “part one”. Along the way Pitre works with several prophetic chapters from the Book of Daniel (Dan. 2, 7, and 9).  On the whole he addresses himself to these chapters with real competence, and always conservatively. The ninth and tenth chapters are concerned with Jesus’ divinity, while chapters eleven and twelve deal with the crucifixion and resurrection respectively. The resurrection in particular is skillfully handled, with a fine exposition of “the Sign of Jonah”(185-190).

Fittingly, the final chapter is a brief meditation on the identity of Jesus Christ utilizing His question at Caesarea Philippi, “who do you say that I am?” We are left in no doubt about the answer:

In light of everything we’ve seen in this book, one thing is clear: if you are going to hold a theory that Jesus never claimed to be God, you had better be committed to eliminating a lot of historical evidence. (193. Author’s emphasis).

Indeed. Dr Pitre makes his case. And he is helped by a whole company of scholars, from Craig Keener, Richard Bauckham and Martin Hengel to John Meier and Joseph Fitzmyer, whose appearances are most felt in the endnotes.

So buy and read The Case For Jesus, digest its arguments, teach them to others. Do not commit the logical error of shooting the messenger because he is not a Protestant. The author has written a clever rebuttal to the croaking arguments of the skeptics, and I for one am very glad that he did.

Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches

Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches by D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, editors.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2016, 501 pages.  

This book is a celebration of the work of Craig A. Blaising.  Though I am not a Progressive Dispensationalist, I do like Blaising’s writing.  He always approaches a subject from interesting angles, and usually makes important points.

The book is divided into the three sections of the subtitle, plus a beginning section on foundational matters.  The list of contributors is impressive and the table of contents is inviting.  But more important is whether the contributions are up to snuff.  On that score I can answer with a firm if not universal yes!  In this brief review I shall first turn to the most impressive essays and then say one or two things about what I might refer to as the more makeweight chapters.

First place for this reviewer goes to Daniel Block’s piece on Mosaic eschatology centered on the Book of Deuteronomy.  The essay presents a fine arrangement and handling of the salient texts, with good interaction with scholarship.  But its best part comes with the author’s treatment of Deuteronomy 4, 30 and 32.  This is an excellent piece of biblical theology.

Pretty close on its heals is the next chapter on “The Doctrine of the Future in the Historical Books.”  Although it did not interact with as many interpreters as Block, the writer, Gregory Smith, did use his limited pool of sources well.  He has many good footnotes, but too often relies on the same people (e.g., Merrill, Dumbrell, Kaiser, EBC).  This I think confines him to general conclusions instead of a decided stance.  He manages to convey the importance of the Davidic hope in the Historical writings, even if he leaves things a little open-ended.  Still, I learned a lot from Smith’s article and I recommend it.

The opening chapter is by Jeffrey Bingham and is a scholarly look at the answers given by the early church to the assailing of the two Testament canon by Marcion.  Bingham’s major thrust is that the Fathers recognized that theological continuity between the OT and NT was essential and also possible, whereas Marcion sided with a radical discontinuity (e.g. 45-46).  The article is informative and asks good questions, but Bingham runs out of space to answer them.  He does show, however, that the paths taken to minimize the perceived discontinuity problem are still with us and that Dispensationalism has not been given a fair hearing for its hermeneutical stability across the Scriptures.

John and Stefana Laing’s bold effort is entitled “The Doctrine of the Future, the Doctrine of God, and Predictive Prophecy.”  It ambitiously tries to bring the three ideas into unified focus and nearly succeeds.  It is well structured, well annotated, and well written.  Some of the notes were especially nice to have, either for apologetic or for theological purposes.  They include a lengthy footnote, for example, about the ecstatic behavior of pagan prophets in which they customarily lost control of their faculties (83 n.6).  This article, with its mix of thoughtful historical, theological and apologetic content, must have taken a lot of effort to put together within the imposed page limit.  For the most part I liked it, although I have to take issue with their repetition of the hackneyed line about the prophets being more ethical preachers (forthtellers) than predictors of the future (foretellers).  Sooner or later evangelicals will discover that the scholarly consensus has shifted back quite a bit.

I could write glowingly about several other pieces in this fine book.  George Klein on the Psalms, Mark Rooker on the Prophets, Glenn Kreider on the eschatology of Jonathan Edwards, and more.  Mark Bailey handles Dispensationalism well.  For readers interested in Jurgen Moltmann the chapter by Lanier Burns is a great one stop treatment, even if Barth and Pannenberg must be content with a brief but competent review by two German scholars.

I said I would refer to a few less impressive chapters.  For me Stanley Toussaint’s piece on eschatology and hope was just okay.  I was disappointed that he did not tie hope more poignantly to the resurrection.  Charles Ryrie wrote a short piece, “The Doctrine of the Future and the Weakening of Prophecy.”  I shall only say that if I ever reached his age I doubt that I could produce an essay as good as Dr. Ryrie, although I’m afraid it isn’t very good.  Finally, Albert Mohler on the application of eschatology to the contemporary situation was rather pedestrian.

But after all is said and done I can give this book my recommendation.  It is not only a tribute to a fine evangelical scholar, it is a collection of solid articles, some of them super, on biblical eschatology.

 

Review: Allen Ross on the Psalms (Vol.3)

A Review of Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 3 (90 – 150), Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1042 pages, hardback 

Finally we have the third and final volume of the Kregel Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms by Allen P. Ross, Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.  This one covers Psalms 90 through 150 and brings the complete set to three thousand pages.  The first two volumes were outstanding.  I have found that I turn to them first for exegetical and even ques to homiletical material (alongside VanGemeren in the EBC).

Although this review is on Volume 3, I want to say something about the other volumes.  Ross’s introduction in Volume 1 is a very helpful orientation to the Psalter, its forms, its themes, and its theology.  As with his outstanding book on worship, Recalling the Hope of Glory, he concerns himself in these books with the Divine – human encounter.  Take a look, for instance at Ross’s comments on Psalm 8 and Psalm 23 in the first volume, and Psalm 42 in the second, and see how Ross brings you into the context of the human author.  The author is a Bible conservative.  He is not interested in winning friends in the critical academy, although he is a first rate Old Testament scholar.

But my job is to comment mainly on this third volume.  At 1042 pages it is the largest of the three.  The page count includes an Index of Word Studies and a Select Bibliography but no Scripture, Subject or author indices.  Why not?  For no good reason that I can think of!  It is my only complaint with the book and it is not Ross’s fault, it is the publisher’s.  When Kregel make peace with practical common sense and start including proper indexes I will stop moaning about their lamentable absence.

What kind of Commentary is this?  It is first and foremost an interpretation of the biblical text.  That is to say, it is quite single-minded in its basic intent.  If you want to know what the text says, with some insight into what is going on, this is the book for you.  Other commentaries will need to be on hand for those concerned with the theological teaching of each Psalm or with detailed interaction with critical opinions, although Ross does discuss various matters to do with motifs, classification, and ideas about dating and purpose, together with furnishing his own translation.

Usability marks this series overall, and this work doesn’t waste the reader’s time.  This is what makes these excellent volumes for the preacher.  The footnotes are many but they do not overwhelm the student.  They do their job of informing and authorizing certain statements of the author.

The interpretations are coined with an eye for what they would have meant for the Old Testament Jew.  Thus, with the great Davidic Psalm 132 stress is laid upon the faithfulness of God to His covenant with David and how belief in God’s promise leads naturally to confidence in God.  David knows that his descendant will reign on his throne one day.  It is good to find a commentary that takes these things seriously without making them heavenly types.  The troublesome imprecation at the end of Psalm 137 is treated head on as a righteous supplication from those who have suffered or seen great suffering.  Meanwhile Psalm 119 is given 140 pages of exposition.

Allen Ross is one of Evangelicalism’s best scholars.  He has brought to conclusion his Psalms Commentary, and has produced arguably the best exposition of the Psalms available.

 

This book was sent to me free of charge by the publisher.

Merrill’s New Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles

A review of Eugene H. Merrill, A Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015, 637 pages, hdbk

Among readers of the Old Testament (you know, those creatures of legend that used to inhabit churches), the Books of 1 and 2 Chronicles would not rank too high on their list of favorites.  Even zealous preachers would, given the choice, prefer to go through 1 & 2 Kings rather than Chronicles.

But these neglected books (one book in the Hebrew Bible) are the only ones which traverse the entire history of Israel, even if they do so by concentrating mainly on the fortunes of the tribe of Judah, particularly the line of David, and the fate of Jewish worship under a succession of kings.  A key underlying theme concerns the self-identity of the Davidic monarchy as related to the Davidic covenant (see the excellent treatment of the Theology of the Book, 57-68).

Eugene Merrill was a wise choice to write the commentary.  Anyone familiar with his Kingdom of Priests will know about his attention to detail, faithfulness to the biblical text, and refusal to swallow the camels of historical criticism.  As the reviewer can personally testify, Dr. Merrill is a churchman, and his book is a fine exposition for the preacher and teacher of the Bible.

As is usual with this impressive series, the comments are deep enough to cover the important items: text, exegesis, explanation and application.  Merrill even includes twelve excurses on topics like “The Angel of YHWH”, two on “Holy War”, “Old Testament Historiography”, issues of chronology in relation to extra-biblical events.

For me the real treasure of this commentary are the chapters handling the “Theology of…” which close out each section.  These expand the fine summary in the Introduction and they deserve careful attention.  As 1 & 2 Chronicles are, first and foremost, theological histories, these chapters are invaluable.

In my opinion this is the best place to go to study these books, and to preach them!

Sad to say, the editing of the Commentary leaves a lot to be desired in the area of proofing of errors.  Also, once again for this series, there are no indexes, and there’s no excuse for that!

 

I received the commentary free from the publisher.

 

Science Versus Religion: A New Angle

The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 320 pages.

The battle between Science and Religion has been presented to the wider public as a struggle between reason and superstition.  In the present intellectual climate, where the ghosts of logical positivism have been far from exorcised from the corridors of scientific thinking, any countering of the reigning attitude is most welcome.  The volume under review is an absorbing historical account of the way the words scientia and religio have been used through time, and how they have changed their meanings since about the middle of the 19th century.  The book under review is scholarly yet readable, comprising six chapters, an epilogue, fifty plus pages of notes, and indices.

It may seem that a book-length study on two archaic words would scarcely qualify as a riveting read, still less that it would be of any relevance.  But Peter Harrison, who is a distinguished historian of science at the University of Queensland in Australia, has managed to produce a study which does both things.  The resultant work is a real contribution to the Science versus Religion debate; a debate that has been impacted to a large degree by its wrong understandings of the terminology.

In six well documented chapters the author ranges from ancient and medieval beliefs about the world and about a life well-lived to the changes in point of view ushered in during the 16th century and especially during the Enlightenment and its aftermath.  When we think of “religion”, or even “faith” today, we think about a certain tied-down set of beliefs.  This impression becomes stronger when it is contrasted with “Science” – the ideal of which (often portrayed by scientists themselves) is the dispassionate search for facts via detached experimentation and cool analysis.  But neither view, whether or not it is the correct definition of the words at the present time, should be thought to capture the mindset of most people, scientists included, prior to about 1850.  Harrison shows that before that time, and certainly before the Reformation had caught hold, the Western mind saw both scientia and religio in terms of development in the attainment of inner virtue (e.g. 47-48).  As he puts the matter later on, “Modern religion had its birth in the seventeenth century; modern science in the nineteenth.  Properly speaking, then, this belated appearance of “science” provides the first occasion for a relationship between science and religion.” (147).

From this point of view it becomes obvious that a critical delving into the past is essential to help in clearing away the rhetoric and the false assumptions which have accumulated over the past century or so.  The basic theme of the book is that there has been no “warfare” between science and religion; at least not until relatively recently.  The author’s object is to prove that, contrary to what is usually supposed, the two terms, “Science” and “Religion” have not traditionally described two distinct activities whose definitions have remain unchanged over time (6).  Rather, the two words share a mutuality historically; a shared trajectory which needs to be understood so as to bring balance to the present arena of conflict.

Briefly then, the word “Religio” was seen as part of the improvement of the individual, particularly in the cultivation of the interior live; of piety in other words (7).  The concern of the ancients as well as the Medievalists, was “for moral and spiritual formation” (40), more than to objectify doctrine.  Thus, “early discussions about true and false religion were typically concerned not with belief, but rather with worship…” (8).  Meanwhile “Scientia” was about the accrual of intellectual virtue through the use of good mental habits (11, 13, 15, 69).  This is part of the reason why modern appeals to Greek ideas of science to support the contemporary naturalistic consensus are totally misguided (25f.).  In fact, Harrison claims that these forbears saw theology as being an important part of science (31-33, 52).  The Stoics, for instance, held up theology as “the most elevated branch of physics.” (31).  This also means that attempting to read the Greeks as if they were on the same page as scientific naturalists simply ignores their understanding of natural philosophy (211 n.12 & n.14), and the different ideas of pagans and Christians as to the best means of pursuing spiritual growth (37f.).

Seeing Christianity as a way, even if it is the best way, of improving mind and soul, goes to explain the easy appropriation of pagan philosophers by the likes of Justin, Clement, and Origen (41).  Tertullians’s opposing Jerusalem and Athens might be thought of as a reference more to a “mode of life” than to doctrinal standards – a contention which, it must be said,  appears to be at odds with Tertullian’s argument in the Prescription where he insists that Christian truth “is our palmary [i.e. admirable] faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.”  Here I think Harrison overplays his hand, but he makes enough sense to contribute value to topic. (more…)

God Vindicated – A short review of Kaiser’s book on God’s actions in the OT

Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament by Walter C. Kaiser, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015, 176 pages, pbk

God Almighty will always have to suffer the inquisitions of his rebellious creatures, at least until He sorts out the waywardness epidemic of creaturely independence which is the bequest of the presence of sin.  It won’t do to answer these jibes with “God can do anything He likes”, we must be prepared to educate unbelievers about the justice which always lays behind God’s judgments.

This new book by veteran OT scholar Walter Kaiser nicely addresses the most important issues which are raised by the destruction of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel or the “deceptions” one reads about hither and thither, or the Bible’s view of women and other things.  Kaiser does so, moreover, in a patient, thoughtful and even pastoral manner.  He is careful to explain all-important backgrounds and context, while unlike some recent attempts in the same genre, not sidestepping the sticky problems which some accounts may raise.

A particularly helpful and relevant chapter deals with whether God was okay with polygamous marriages in the Old Testament.  Through clear exegesis Kaiser demonstrates that although there was polygamy, it was not pleasing to God.  The tricky passage in 2 Samuel 12:7-8, for example, is dealt with deftly (100-101).

There are one or two extras included in the book.  One which stands out to this reader is Kaiser’s caution about going “first to the New Testament interpretation as the source for the original and final meaning back into the Old Testament.”  Of course, this NT understanding is but an “alleged New Testament meaning” which “makes the Old Testament meaning dispensable and reduces it to mean the same thing as the most recent application of that text in the New Testament.” (13).

A good book made better by the author’s mature, almost devotional at times, reflections on the issues.

As with all recent Kregel titles, I have a big ax to grind against the decision not to include any indexes.  Really, who made such a dumb decision and why were they listened to?

 

My thanks to Kregel who sent me this book for review without charge.

 

Review: ‘A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament’

Review of, A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament, by Philip Wesley Comfort, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015, 443 pages, hardback, $29.99

Philip Wesley Comfort is well known to students of the text of the New Testament.  He has produced some informative works on the subject such as Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament, and Encountering the Manuscripts.  Both productions, as well as the one under review, are marked with a clarity of style which makes them accessible to interested readers.  He has produced, with David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, of which the present book is the companion.  Along with these efforts Comfort has edited several helpful books, of which the The Origin of the Bible is perhaps the most noteworthy.

This Commentary is divided into three main parts.  After an introduction and a listing of the earliest Greek mss. lying behind each verse in the NT, what I will call Part One deals with a brief survey of the manuscript tradition. Unsurprisingly, the author favors the Alexandrian tradition as found in the papyri; with special exemplar status given to P75 through Codex B (Vaticanus) (24-26).  In his list of “reliable copies” the author takes leave of the Aland’s classifications, noting that if a ms. is from the same codex and is clearly by the same scribe, it deserves to be seen in the same way.  He adds to the Aland’s list several mss. he thinks “largely preserve the original wording.” (27-29).  The chapter also includes a section on the nomina sacra (that is, the distinctive way the “sacred names” are written), which, as Comfort rightly points out, has not received the notice it should have done (33).  He notes, “The nomina sacra for “Lord”, “Jesus”, “God”, and “Spirit” must have been created in the first century.” (38).  An extended treatment of this significant phenomenon is appended to the end of the book.

“Part Two” (chapter two), is titled “An Annotated List of the Manuscripts of the New Testament.”  It is a lengthy chapter, running from page 43 to page 126.   Ranging from the papyrus mss, to the major uncials and minuscules, to the older versions, and, too briefly, the Church Fathers, the reader is provided with the essential information.  The most important texts are described in terms of sigla (designations), first transcription, present location, date (with discussion where needed), and a brief description of textual provenance.  The use of clear typeface making this section less of a chore to read than it might have been.

The main part of the Commentary, which covers chapters three through nine, is best described by the author’s introduction to chapter three, which is on the Synoptic Gospels:

In this chapter and those that follow, I list what I think is the original wording in a verse in bold type; variant readings follow.  Manuscript information is provided for each reading in the manuscripts (abbreviated as MSS.), followed by an explanation.  The names “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” are almost always written as nomina sacra (sacred names) in all the MSS; so these are not noted throughout.  There are notes for other nomina sacra (sacred names), and sometimes for “Lord” in certain contexts. (127) 

Comfort’s notations are conservative; as, for example, when he is dealing with Matthew’s use of parthenos (virgin) for the Hebrew almah in Isaiah 7:14 (129), or in his quite extensive handling of the original ending of Romans (312-316).  Not everyone will be enthusiastic about his preference for 616 over 666 in Revelation 13:18b, especially as he links it up with “Caesar Nero” (410-411).  Proponents of the importance of the Byzantine tradition, of which I am one, have their own arguments against the author’s conclusions regarding the ending of Mark’s Gospel (197-206, although Comfort’s discussion should be read carefully); the pericope de adultera (Jn. 7:53-8:11), or the better reading of John 1:18a or 1 Timothy 3:16a.  In such places it appears that the chosen slant, namely that “the readings of the earliest manuscripts are always followed” (31), will tend to prejudice his conclusions while relegating other counter-evidence to the sidelines.  The historical “accident” that preserved early Alexandrian-type manuscripts in the sands of Egypt needs to be viewed with a critical eye, as must the reality of 2nd and 3rd century heresies in the region, which even Kurt Aland called attention to.  Too, the fact that the favored methodology of “reasoned eclecticism” in NT textual criticism is often not followed by critics in other fields ought to be considered, as should the fact that this procedure does not present us with what Maurice Robinson calls “a running text” of the NT based upon a clear textual tradition.  This last tendency is, of course, minimized somewhat by Comfort’s onus on the earliest witnesses to a reading.

Keeping these propensities in mind, the student of the Greek New Testament has been given a most useful tool.  It does not replace Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, but it complements Metzger well.  I shall be referring to this book often in my studies.                

 

A Review of ‘Understanding Prophecy’ by Bandy & Merkle

Review of Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach, by Alan S. Bandy and Benjamin L. Merkle, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015, 264 pages, paperback 

N.B. This review is from the perspective of someone who is less than an enthusiastic supporter of symbolical cum typological interpretations of the Bible, so it will be mainly critical.  However, for those in-tune with the approach of the writers, the book can be recommended as a good explication of the redemptive-historical method. 

This new book on prophecy comes from two writers who differ on whether or not the millennium is here already or whether it is still to come.  Alan Bandy is a historic or covenant premillennialist, while Benjamin Merkle is a covenant amillennialist.  The choice to present biblical prophecy from this angle was clever.  However, this should not be interpreted as anything more than a mere novelty.  As the authors themselves write on the first page of the Preface,

First, we discovered that although our millennial views are different, we actually agree with each other most of the time regarding our interpretation of prophetic texts and our way of seeing the big picture of the Bible. (9)

The admission that the authors “agree with each other most of the time” will not come as a surprise to those familiar with the two eschatological positions, particularly as they are repristinated by the “already-not yet” hermeneutics of G. E. Ladd.

The approach represented here then, is “redemptive-historical” (20 n. 5).  This means they promote what has become the usual way of reading the Bible in evangelical seminaries: with theological assumptions applied by use of symbols and types.  On the next page the writings of T. D. Alexander, Greg Beale, and others are endorsed as further examples of the method being advocated.  These authors admit certain crucial presuppositions in their interpretation which determine their idea of the subject.

From this platform we run into the assertion that the fulfillment of most prophecy is to be looked for at Christ’s first coming (e.g. 10).  So,

Christ is the eschatos of prophecy who gives meaning to all that has happened or will yet transpire throughout human history.  Our approach to prophecy must always be viewed through the gospel and what Christ has already accomplished. (27-28)

A gospel-centered hermeneutic filters all prophecy through the lens of the resurrected Christ. (29)

While these sentiments contain a forceful and persuasive piety, I think they make biblical interpretation more involved than it needs to be.  They also appear to beg the question.  In the first instance both quotations assume that the great stress of the prophetic teaching of the Bible is on the first advent.  But this seems to be palpably untrue.  There are scores of covenanted promises in both Testaments which point to the second advent and events before and (especially) after it.  That is, unless one’s hermeneutics are fashioned in such a way that the prophecies come to be seen as pertaining to the first coming.  As for viewing all prophecy through the gospel and Christ’s accomplishment, the cross and resurrection can be given all the recognition they certainly require without bending the prophetic corpus into the historic past.  For all the world a plain reading of Scripture places an even greater stress upon the coming of the Lord in glory to establish real righteousness and shalom on His earth.  Far better then to let the Bible say what it says without making some of its earlier parts pass through a theological “filter” of the interpreter’s making.

To explain their program the writers call upon “progressive revelation” (31-33), although like most evangelicals today they employ language which sounds like double-speak.  Later revelation can “add to or modify” earlier revelation, but it does not “necessarily supplant or abrogate” previous scripture. This reader begs to differ.  One can nullify earlier statements by declaring they mean something other than their words appear to mean.  Citing Beale, the OT texts “undergo an organic expansion or development of meaning.”  But when one steps back and looks at the result the meaning of the OT passages have not only “expanded”, they have morphed into something else!  As is contended later, “we believe that the text will be literally fulfilled but not necessarily according to the precise wording of the prophecy” (110 n.5).  According to the online Oxford Dictionary, “literally” means,

In a literal manner or sense; exactly:
the driver took it literally when asked to go straight across the traffic circle 

Notice that the driver in the example above did “fulfill” the direction he was given “according to the precise wording”.  So with all the arguments in the book against plain-sense interpretation one will not be surprised to read that,

If John the Baptist was unsure about the fulfillment of prophecies, what assurance do we have regarding predictions related to Christ’s second coming?  That unfulfilled prophecy will be fulfilled is certain, but precisely how they will be fulfilled is uncertain. (209).

The thesis of the book could not be stated better.  Prophecy as information we can understand is practically mute until God declares it fulfilled.  It is revelation that doesn’t reveal.  I have taken issue with this depiction of God in another place.

The position is then shored up by poking fun at populist dispensational writers like Tim LaHaye and the wacky fringe who do newspaper exegesis while purporting to read the Book of Revelation literally (58).  To show how dispensationalists are mistaken about their understanding of OT prophecy the authors employ Amos 9:11-15 as an example (109ff. This text or Joel 2 is the passage of choice for such discussions).  It needs to be noted that when James uses the passage in Acts 15 he does not say the prophecy is fulfilled. The authors’ case would have been more impressive had they tackled Jeremiah 33:14-26, but who does?

Strangely, when it comes to giving guidance on the Return of Christ the texts are simply quoted with the apparent assumption that they are to be taken, well, literally (179-181).

As said above, if you are taken with this school of interpretation the book has much to commend it.  If, like me, you are not, it could serve as a helpful introduction to what I might call “first coming hermeneutics.”

The book was supplied to me by the publisher.