Encounter, Rememberance, and Anticipation: A Review of Ronald P. Byars’s “The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective”

When followers of Jesus gather in worship to perform a baptism or celebrate the Eucharist, these occasions can become moments when believers are immersed in sacramental means of grace that make the Christian faith tangible and help them “feel the truth of the resurrection,” to borrow a phrase from Ellen F. Davis (2016, p.282). It seems to me that there is something formational about these practices. In both of them, the whole self participates in the worship of God.

Presbyterian scholar Ronald P. Byars echoes this sentiment near the beginning of The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective when he observes that the sacraments “testify to the conviction that the knowledge of God involves the mind, indeed—but not only the mind” (p.4). Byars’s wide-ranging and conversational exploration of the relevant biblical texts grows out a lifetime spent teaching liturgical theology and being a lectionary preacher. In light of these experiences, he finds it only natural for Christians to eventually reflect on their participation in the sacramental life of the Church and ask themselves, “What does this all mean? What do these words and actions say about God’s redemption of creation in Christ?” These are deep questions, and developing well-rounded answers takes some time and patience. For those taking this journey, though, Byars makes for a helpful traveling companion. Continue reading

Should I not Pity…?: A Review of Phillip Cary’s Commentary on Jonah

The book of Jonah is short, but its brevity does nothing to reduce the significance of the theological questions it raises. In Phillip Cary’s 2008 commentary on Jonah, he shows that those who have the courage and humility to let Jonah’s story confront them will be challenged to deepen their understanding of God’s mercy and wrestle once again with the meaning of the proclamation in Exodus 34:7 that the LORD is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (NRSV).

Cary approaches Jonah with both literary and theological sensitivity, pointing out relevant storytelling and rhetorical features, bringing the rest of the Christian canon into conversation with the text, and reflecting on how the book of Jonah might have challenged those who first encountered it. He also explores ways in which Jonah can continue to challenge Christian readers today.

Unfortunately, some studies of Jonah get tangled up in questions of historicity to the degree that the heart of the story—the expansive depth of God’s patience and mercy—can be missed. While some read Jonah as a historical narrative, there are a number of reasons for thinking that this is a misunderstanding of Jonah’s genre. Regardless of one’s position on the historicity of Jonah, though, most readers can hopefully agree that the main focus of the story is on the nature of God’s forgiveness and mercy. Continue reading

Getting off the Tourist Path: A Review of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s “When in Romans”

when-in-romansFor many Christians, Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the more intimidating parts of the New Testament. This is both understandable and unfortunate. Romans is, after all, an undeniably complex letter, with both occasional and systematic dimensions. And in case we forget its historic significance, the Pauline scholar Michael Gorman reminds us that “Romans has spawned conversions, doctrines, disputations, and even a few reformations” (2004, p.338).

A feeling of slight trepidation when embarking on a study of Romans might then actually be entirely appropriate. It’s a shame, though, when this causes Christians to shy away from reading the letter at all. “[While] it is clearly a book that challenges the best minds in the community,” Eugene Peterson points out, “The scholars are here to help us read it, not read it for us” (2009, p.261).

Hopefully, these introductory comments can help us better appreciate the usefulness of Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s brief and illuminating book, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul. In it, she reflects theologically on the significance of Paul’s letter for those who might not otherwise know where to start. As Gaventa explains in the preface, “This book on Romans is intended for people who would not normally read a book about Romans” (p.xiii). Continue reading

Taking a Developmental Approach to Paul: A Review of Garwood P. Anderson’s “Paul’s New Perspective”

pauls-new-perspectiveIn recent years, a growing number of Pauline scholars have sought to push beyond the bitter debates that have taken place over the last few decades between proponents of the so-called old and new perspectives on Paul. In Paul’s New PerspectiveGarwood P. Anderson makes a substantial contribution to this quest for a more nuanced via media by introducing a relatively unexplored proposal to the conversation: an ambitious developmental approach to Paul’s soteriology.

In Anderson’s eyes, “Paul’s letters show evidence of both a contextually determined diversity and also a coherent development through time” (p.7). This conviction enables him to say that “both ‘camps’ are right, but not all the time” (p.5). He begins Paul’s New Perspective with a survey of the sprawling landscape of recent books on Paul. Anderson’s impressive familiarity with the relevant works of well-known “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) luminaries like Sanders, Dunn, and Wright is evident. He also introduces readers to the more recent contributions of other scholars like Bird, Gorman, and Barclay. To call Anderson “well-read” seems like a real understatement, and his nuanced engagement with an intimidatingly large pile of Pauline literature is both helpful and at times illuminating.  Continue reading

The Surprising Nature of Scripture: A Review of “Preaching the Luminous Word” by Ellen F. Davis

preaching-the-luminous-word*This review was originally posted over at The Englewood Review of Books. Do check out their other reviews if you have a few minutes. 

Near the beginning of Preaching the Luminous Word, Ellen F. Davis describes herself as “an exegete who teaches Old Testament and preaches, in that order” (xxiv). I’m grateful for that. It means the sermons gathered together in these pages are born out of a love for exegesis and attentive theological study, and it allows her to open up the unendingly rich and surprising world of Scripture in ways that invite her hearers and readers to slow down and linger with the text. Though her main academic background is in the Old Testament, Davis’s sermons in this volume reflect her engagement over the years with both the Old and New Testaments, delivered on a variety of occasions and in the midst of the seasonal rhythms of the Church’s liturgical calendar.

In the past, Davis has expressed concern over the harmful effects of shallow Scripture reading, which she finds to be an all-too-common problem, at least in some North American churches. What she speaks of as shallow readings of Scripture flow out from the presumption that we already know what the text has to say to us, so our readings become more like rehearsals than fresh explorations (xii). In sermons, this can manifest itself in a tendency to sentimentalize the Bible or rely too heavily on (sometimes rather contrived) illustrations to keep up the interest of those sitting in the pews. In light of these things, Davis wants to recover the importance of reading Scripture in deeply theological ways for the Church, especially from the pulpit. Stanley Hauerwas hits it on the head when he comments in the foreword that this sermon and essay collection “not only provides the exemplification of a theological reading of Scripture but also demonstrates the power of such a reading when articulated by someone of depth and elegance” (xiii). Continue reading

The Dead Sea Scrolls, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, and Early Christian Interpretation

eta53uf0ste-samantha-schollThe identity of Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah has been central to theological reflection since the earliest days of Christianity. Indeed, Martin Hengel states in Between Jesus and Paul that by the time Paul wrote his letters, the term Christos had already become strongly intertwined with the name of Jesus—and without losing its messianic connotations (2003, pp.74-77). This position is also supported by N.T. Wright in his essay, “Messiahship in Galatians?” (2014, pp.4-7).

For these early Christian communities, the belief that Jesus had lived and died “in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3, NRSV), as Paul phrased it, was no mere secondary issue. In fact, as Richard B. Hays contends in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, the first Christians were actually very concerned to show that, “Jesus’ teachings and actions, as well as his violent death and ultimate vindication, constituted the continuation and climax of the ancient biblical story” (2016, p.5). Among the many Old Testament texts that early believers drew upon to better understand the redemptive meaning of their Messiah’s life, death, and resurrection, the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah 40-55 turned out to be among the most significant passages for them. Continue reading

Patristic Perspectives on Theodicy: A Review of “Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought”

patristic-sufferingThe wounds of the world feel especially exposed this year. I’m sure this can be truly said about many times, but the sense of exhaustion with violence and turmoil, and of deep longing for genuine peace, seems especially palpable these days. Nonna Verna Harrison confesses in the introduction of Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought that, “questions about God, suffering, and evil arise from a heart full of anguish. They tear at our faith in an age when faith seems weak anyway” (p.x). In the face of things like the mystery of pain and evil, one reasonable response is to turn to the past in order to see what wisdom can be gleaned from the early Christian tradition about how to think about these questions (p.x).

Therefore, the essays in Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought occupy themselves with explorations of how various figures from the Patristic period grappled with the problem of God, suffering, and evil. Theologians from both the early Christian West and East are included in the book’s pages. Hence, Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria all receive extended engagement from the volume’s contributors, which include the likes of John Behr, Gary A. Anderson, and Kallistos Ware. Continue reading