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).


Review: If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis

A review of If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis: Explaining the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life, by Alister McGrath, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2014, 241 pages, hdbk.

C. S. Lewis is an endlessly fascinating person.  He was an Oxford Don with few equals as an intellectual.  Anyone who is familiar with the three volumes of Letters is well aware that they are reading the correspondence of a man who had read (and often reread) just about every great work of literature in the Western canon.  Lewis was a Medievalist, thoroughly at home in Thomas Aquinas, Dante and Boccaccio (in their originals), with Beowulf and the Nordic mythology, and with Edmund Spenser, Milton, and a whole roster of other poets and mystics and playwrights.

But Lewis not only knew the greats of the 10th to the 16th centuries, he was also immersed in Plato and Aristotle, the Tragedies, Virgil and Ovid, and Neo-Platonists, again, all in the original Greek and Latin.  His Letters especially brim with references and allusions to these works as well as a host of British, French and German classics.  He was, by any measure, a brilliant scholar.

But to say this about Lewis is not to get at the whole man.  For C. S. Lewis was a man of down-to-earth uncommon sense.  His faculties were aware of the limitations of the five senses and the realities of life and truth that dwelt beyond.  He, like G. K. Chesterton, saw the miraculous everywhere.

This little book by Alister McGrath attempts to get across to us what Lewis regarded as the “intellectually capacious and imaginatively satisfying way of seeing things” which Christianity provides (16).  The author is right to call our attention to the riches that lie within the Christian view of God and life, and how it should be the believers lot delve into that worldview and communicate it to others.  As he says,

“Christianity has to show that it can tell a more compelling and engaging story that will capture the imagination of its culture.” (60). 

McGrath introduces us to Lewis’s friends (Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, Dyson, Sayers, and others).  He writes about the books, though not all of them.  For example, we are given short but helpful introductions to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and A Grief Observed; not exhaustively by any means, but as a way of describing the shape of Lewis’s thought.  The background to The Chronicles of Narnia is explained, and their world expounded (67-103, 197-205).

McGrath helpfully confronts us with Lewis’s question, “Which story are you in?” (57ff).  Our story, yours and mine, are a part of an overarching “big story,” and, as the author says, “In one sense, faith is about embracing this bigger story and allowing our own story to become part of it.” (72, 93).  This sense of our story being played out within God’s bigger story is perhaps what grounded Lewis, and why he had access to so many wonderful metaphors and illustrations, which seemed so ready-to-hand (17).

Being an apologist himself, the author does not miss out on surveying Lewis’s apologetic (e.g. 85-91, 108-132).  On the whole, given the limitations of the book, and its introductory intent, I think McGrath does a good job.  He is aware of his duty to speak in terms of his subject’s honest view of life, hope and trials.  McGrath dips our toes in the water.  The book can be handed to anyone as an invitation to read Lewis.

As for any slight criticisms of the book, I might name three in particular.  The first is the title is a bit misleading.  Instead of If I Had Lunch with C. S. Lewis it really should be entitled, If I Had Lunch with Alister McGrath About C. S. Lewis.  The revised title may not arouse our interest like the chosen one, but I for one would not turn down the opportunity to hear McGrath talk for a long time on this subject.

The second little matter for me was that I should have liked a more concerted focus on Lewis’s preoccupation the greater reality that lies behind our present world; what Lewis called “longing” (14).  This “Argument from Desire” is indeed mentioned, but it is not really developed in the book.

Lastly (and again this is a purely personal wish), when McGrath discusses Lewis’s important views on education (135-157), he opts not to interact with The Abolition of Man (138).  Now I fully understand that Abolition is a tough book to read (it was the first Lewis book I read and I confess I didn’t understand it then and have had to return to it several times to really appreciate its argument), but I hoped that McGrath could break it down.  It’s message is so vital for our day and I expected to see it unpacked in this book.

For anyone who like Lewis, or for anyone who would like to like Lewis, McGrath has written a very useful introduction to an increasingly important Christian thinker.


Review: ’40 Questions About Heaven and Hell’ by Alan W. Gomes

A review of 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell, by Alan W. Gomes (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018), 378 pages, softcover. 

This book sits within a series of “40 Questions” books published by Kregel and edited by Benjamin Merkle.  I confess that the other volumes in the series have quite passed me by, although a couple have got my attention.

This one would have assuredly been treated to a dose of my ignorance had it not been for the name of the author.  You see, although Alan Gomes is not well known to many Evangelicals, I for one had heard of him and have always been grateful that I had.  Gomes is the editor of that brilliant but aforetime unwieldy tome of Dogmatic Theology written by William G. T. Shedd.  Shedd’s is, to my mind, the finest piece of systematic theology of the 19th Century, even ahead of Charles Hodge.  Alan Gomes work in presenting Dogmatic Theology in new dress, while incorporating the third supplementary volume in the main body of the work makes Shedd’s penetrating and balanced views available to a new audience.  If you are in to systematics and have not yet gotten hold of that book, well, put Grudem away and purchase Shedd!

One more word before looking at the book itself.  It is always good to see a modern author who knows and uses the old classic writers.  Not only does Gomes cite Shedd, one will also come across the names of Laidlaw, Quenstedt, Buswell, Moses Stuart, Pache, etc.  This is not to say that he doesn’t know his modern writers.  They are used.  But even there it is good to see someone referencing works such as the fine Systematic Theology of Robert D. Culver, which again is one of the best out there.

Anyway, Alan Gomes is the author of this excellent volume on Heaven and Hell.  The “40 Questions” approach gives him enough range to cover a great deal of territory, which he does with aplomb.  Each chapter is full enough to offer a well-reasoned answer to the question which opens it.  The author’s style is easy and pleasant to read as he leads the reader through a consideration of various viewpoints and the biblical material.  While he is not shy to convey his decided views on a subject, he is generous wherever possible, knowing that there is room for disagreement in some areas.

The book is divided into four parts: Part One is “An Overview of the Afterlife,” and includes such questions as “Can We Really Know Anything About the Afterlife,” “What Does the Bible Mean When it Speaks About Out ‘Soul” and ‘Spirit’?”  Gomes also tackles the issue of so-called “trips to Heaven” (he is not impressed), and the biblical meaning of the  terms “Heaven” and “Hell.”  On the latter he shows that the Bible employs the terms sheol and hades in a negative sense for a place of punishment.

In Part Two, “The Intermediate State Between Death and the Resurrection of the Body” he deals with such subjects as post-mortem salvation (he answers in the negative), communication with the dead (he answers no again, although demonic deception is possible), and what happens to infants that die.  Gomes’ response to this question does not paper over the thorny problem of original sin, but he sides with those who affirm the salvation of those who could not understand the question, never mind the doctrine of original sin.  I found his handling of this matter, as with other difficult questions with which the book deals, to be very thoughtful and balanced.

In Part Three, is on “The Final Judgment.”  The six questions handled in this section include “What is the Final Judgment?” the rewarding of the saints and the degrees of punishment of unbelievers, and two chapters addressing the resurrection body.  I found this section to be very encouraging.  As a premillennialist Gomes holds to a two-stage judgment, but he points out that eschatology, while affecting one’s view on the timing of judgment, does not interfere with the substance of God’s judgment.  Gomes’ teaching on the resurrection body is outstanding.  He sees an essential continuity between our present bodies and those to come.  He also holds that unbelievers will be raised, but not with glorified bodies.

Part Four is about “The Eternal State” and is divided further into sections on believers and unbelievers.  I like this part the best of all.  It is both encouraging and sobering.  Gomes’ believes in conscious eternal punishment (and has chapters on universalism and annihilationism).  He does not, however, think that the flames of Hell are literal.  In this he is certainly not alone (he lists men like Calvin, Hodge, Shedd, and Culver).  Once more, he is careful to give arguments for both sides.

The section on the sufferings of the wicked is of real practical importance.  For instance, there is a chapter on the supposed conflict between eternal punishment and the love of God, and another which asks “Does Eternal Punishment Really Fit the Crime?”

This practical concern is carried over into the section on believers in the Eternal State.  So there is a question about whether it will be possible to sin in glory.  The author gives attention to nuance his negative answer.  And such can be said for all these chapters.

All in all, this is the best Biblical Studies book I have read in quite some time.  I highly recommend it.  Kregel have even put a Scripture index at the back – which is a big improvement for them!  It might not seem that a book on Heaven and Hell is your cup of tea, but Alan Gomes may well change your mind.

Short Review: ‘New Creation Eschatology and the Land’ – Steven L. James

Review of New Creation Eschatology and the Land: A Survey of Contemporary Perspectives, by Steven L. James, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2017, xvii + 164 pages, hdbk.

This book provides an informative introduction and critique of the recent trend among scholars to stress earth-centeredness of the eschatological passages of Scripture rather than heaven-focused scenarios.  The trend is most noticeable among amillennialists, especially since the publication in 1979 of Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.  That book called upon believers (especially Hoekema’s fellow amillennialists) not to spiritualize the OT passages that speak of a coming era of peace and righteousness on the earth.  This planet, in its restored state, is the venue for the enactment of God’s eschatological promises.

The author, who serves as a Professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, examines the works of several prominent teachers of the “New Creation” eschatology; namely, N. T. Wright, J. Richard Middleton, Russell Moore, Douglas Moo, and Howard Snyder.  Not all of these writers were directly influenced by Hoekema’s work.  He notes that although they correctly stress the earth’s central role in our future, he argues (again correctly) that they ignore the specificity of the land promises to Israel and thus contain a major contradiction.  The contradiction is this: how can the OT promises of restoration and renewal be taken literally and every mention of Israel or Jerusalem be treated as metaphorical?  It is a very good question.

In the first chapter James gives a survey of these men’s approaches.  He notes that the arguments of these men are grounded in OT passages such as Isaiah 2, 11, 52; 60, 65-66; Micah 4; etc.  These passages stress both the reign of justice and peace on the earth.  James says that all his chosen scholars emphasize “the coming of God’s kingdom, bodily resurrection, and the reconciliation of all things.” (26).

The second chapter demonstrates that New Creation authors all believe that there is continuity between this present earth and the next.  They all emphasize God’s “mode of materiality.”  As he says,

The idea of transformation of the present materiality is important to new creationists.  Because matter is not understood as inherently sinful, it does not have to be utterly disposed of… New creationists affirm that, instead of being annihilated, the present creation will be renewed or transformed. (31).

Several pages are dedicated to showing how New creationists tackle such dissolution passages such as 2 Peter 3:8-9 (32-36).  The arguments which James records were not very convincing.

Chapter three discusses “Land Theology” as it has been presented by the likes of W. D. Davies, Walter Brueggemann, Christopher Wright, Gary Burge, and others.  These influential works all contain supercessionist theology, and have been relied upon by many in the New Creation movement.  The basic outlook is that the land of Israel is treated as a metaphor (77-94).

Having documented the views of New creationists, in the fourth chapter the author begins to highlight the inherent contradiction of asserting earth continuity on the basis of OT texts, while at the same time treating territorial promises to Israel as metaphors, when those promises occur in the very same passages!  James states the sane conclusion:

The language in the prophets in no way suggests that the particular territory of Israel or Jerusalem somehow envelops the territory of the rest of the world.  More importantly, the idea that a particular territory of the earth somehow transforms into the entire earth makes no sense in a new creation conception that envisions the restoration of the present earth. (117).

Chapter five is where the author shows that there is no need to create metaphors of the land of Israel, and that, in fact, the notion of territorial particularity and nationhood is a clear biblical teaching of both Testaments.  Here he notes the work of dispensational authors Craig Blaising and Michael Vlach (131-132), who are more consistent in their attention to scriptural details.  He also mentions amillennial writer Vern Poythress, who appears to accept the reality of nationhood in the new heavens and new earth (132-134).

In his conclusion the author points to a few areas of fruitful exploration, such as the study of “place,” and ends with a plea for further work in this area.

In my opinion New Creation Eschatology and the Land is a very worthwhile monograph, filled with good exposition, logical thinking, and solid argumentation.  He is fair-minded and irenic throughout.  I hope many students of theology will take the time to give the book a close reading.




Review of ‘Can We Trust The Gospels?’ by Peter J. Williams

A review of Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 153 pages, pbk. 

This excellent little book by the English biblical scholar Peter J. Williams (not to be confused with the apologist Peter S. Williams) is a readable and informative introduction to some of the main questions people have about the four Gospels.  In eight tightly argued but entertaining chapters Williams, who acts as principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, dispels common myths and furnishes many enlightening facts about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, avoiding dogmatic overreach but still making a very solid case for their trustworthiness.

Williams’ first chapter surveys external sources such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus to corroborate many features in the Evangelists.  Tacitus reported on the “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome in AD 64, the year of the great fire (23).  Since there is a distance of over 2,000 miles between Rome and Jerusalem, this testifies to the extent to which the new Faith had spread throughout the Roman Empire in Apostolic times.  Incidentally, such witnesses as Tacitus seem to give the lie to the more conservative estimates for the extent of Christianity in the first centuries (cf. also 27).  These non-Christian sources also confirm the execution of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate.

A real reature of this chapter, which continues throughout the book, is the way Williams appeals to common sense and reasonable expectations to make  his points.  For instance, on page 34 the author observes,

Skeptical readers…might naturally assume that these beliefs [i.e. about the virgin birth] arose through exaggerations over time as word of Jesus as Messiah spread.  The problem with this is finding a context in which such embellishments could spread…According to 1 Corinthians 9:5 (written ca. AD 56) not just one brother, but “brothers” of Jesus traveled with their wives, spreading the Christian message.  This suggests a situation in which the sprouting of novel beliefs about the family origins of Jesus would have been hard.

Notice here how Williams allows for the force of the unbeliever’s argument (“might naturally assume”) while giving an answer which is scriptural and provides food for thought.  This ability of the writer to converse with those dubious of the Bible’s claims provides a model for effective communication with unbelievers.

The second chapter, “What Are the Four Gospels?” identifies them as ancient biographies, early in date, and surprisingly many (four) for an ancient figure (39-41).  It deals with why the Gospel of Thomas is not on a par with the biblical Gospels, and the important matter of the the traditional authorship of the Gospels (43).

Chapter three asks whether the authors got their geographical and cultural facts right, while the next chapter explores the fascinating subject of “Undesigned Coincidences” in the four Gospels, utilizing Lydia McGrew’s recent work on the subject [Hidden in Plain View].  By this term is meant the converging of independent details in different authors which complement and reinforce one another, but without any clear signs of interaction between the sources.  Examples include the way personality traits are noted by Luke and John in separate incidents concerning the sisters Mary and Martha (88-89), or Jesus asking Philip where to buy bread (Jn. 6).  This looks like a random enquiry until we read John 1:44 and Luke 9:10, which informs us that Philip was from the town of Bethsaida, which is close to where the miracle was performed (92-93).

Chapters about whether we still have Jesus’s words; if the the text of the Gospels has been changed (a particular strength of Williams), and contradictions follow.  All are good, especially the first two, although I would have like a little more interaction with alleged contradictions; a few more examples would have helped.

The final chapter is titled “Who Would Make All This Up?”  He begins the chapter with a typically sensible statement:

There are many particulars in the Gospels that the authors would be unlikely to have invented.  Although one can usually think of complex reasons why someone might invent them, those are not the simplest explanations.  The simplest explanation is that these reports are true. (121)

In this chapter the author tackles miracles and the Resurrection, before reaching his conclusion – that the Jesus presented in the Gospels and predicted in the Old Testament is who the Gospels claim He is.  The NT does not simply say that Jesus died, but that He was buried.  Who would bury a convict who had been crucified?  Answer, Jews!  They would make sure that people were buried (133).  And then there are the resurrection appearances.  In a terrific passage Williams sums up the all the varied details of those appearances (134).

Scholarship has well established the strong links between Second Temple Jewish belief and the emergence of Christianity from its milieu (see e.g. Larry Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period).  On the back of this Williams comments,

One can make a good argument that the concept of the bodily resurrection of one person in advance of others would have been very odd within Judaism, and therefore it is unlikely that early Christians would have invented it in an effort to continue the Jesus movement after the death of their leader. (135).

The apologetic method employed could best be described as evidentialist, but since the writer is clear that he is presenting a case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels this should not be seen as a flaw.

In summary, Can We Trust The Gospels? is a fine book which packs a lot of important information within its brief compass.  It deserves a very wide readership and would be an excellent gift for any growing Christian or non-believer with an openness to its message.

This book was provided to me by the publisher without any obligation to give a positive review.