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

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

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

Exploring John Goldingay’s “Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures”

biblical-theology-goldingay

*This post is by guest writer Chris Wermeskerch. Chris is currently a M.Div. student at Northern Seminary. He loves memes, theology, Star Wars, and God. Not always in that order. 

Biblical theology, as a whole, is a somewhat new discipline. It was not generally received as a separate study of theology until the late 1700s, and even after being differentiated, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between theology and biblical theology. Biblical theology seeks, as best it can, to replicate the theology of the Bible itself, not inside of current frameworks.

In doing so, biblical theologians hope to let the Bible speak for itself rather than following current epistemological trends, such as foundationalism, postmodernism, or even denominationalism. This type of theology has been made popular recently by thinkers like Graeme Goldsworthy, Kevin Vanhoozer, Geerhardus Vos, and Meredith Kline. In Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures, John Goldingay seeks to differentiate his work by answering a somewhat different question: “What understanding of God and the world and life emerges from these two Testaments [the First and the New Testaments]?” (p.13).

Continue reading

Understanding Paul’s Identity: A Review of Michael F. Bird’s “An Anomalous Jew”

michael-bird-paulAn Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird’s newly published addition to the field of Pauline scholarship, begins with the obvious: the Apostle Paul was a Jew. Paul was born into a Jewish family and spent his early years studying the Torah. As he grew older, he became a Pharisee, and according to both Luke’s description in Acts and Paul’s own words in Galatians, he worked actively to eradicate the young Christian movement before himself becoming a follower of Jesus.

In the introduction, Bird draws attention to the fact that, even as a Christ-believer working among the Gentiles, Paul expressed concern for his “kindred according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3, NRSV) and affirmed the value of Israel’s election and covenants (p.2). In sum, the man was deeply Jewish. What makes the issue complicated, though, is that Paul also said some things that, as Bird puts it, “no Torah-affirming Jew could seemingly say” (p.3). Continue reading

Rowan Williams on Following Jesus as a Way of Life

being-disciples

Discipleship is a mode of being, a way of life—this is the conviction that forms the guiding center of Rowan Williams’ reflections on the nature of following Jesus in his newly published book, Being Disciples. “We are caught up in the task of showing that what we say is credible,” he notes in the introduction (p.vii). While this task is always a pressing demand for those who follow Christ, I dare say that there are aspects of life in today’s America that make it especially challenging (let the reader understand).

The main body of Being Disciples is composed of six chapters, which were originally delivered on separate occasions as lectures and talks. The book itself forms a companion to Williams’ earlier examination of the essentials of the Christian life, Being Christian. The topics he addresses range from holiness and forgiveness, to the role of the disciple in larger society and life in the Spirit. In this post, however, I wish to concentrate especially on his opening chapter, “Being Disciples,” which gives some important reflections on what it means to embrace the invitation and command of Jesus to “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19, NRSV). Continue reading

Interpretation as Craft: Looking at David Starling’s “Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship”

hermeneutics-as-apprenticeshipIn the introduction to Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship, David Starling suggests that scriptural interpretation should be thought of as “requiring not just sweat but skill, and not just skill but character” (p.17). Throughout the book’s pages he emphasizes that readers should consider biblical hermeneutics to be, not merely an austere set of rules for interpreting the Bible, but also a craft that one participates and grows in.

Part of what Starling seeks to address in Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship is the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” present in Protestant and evangelical hermeneutics (pp.7-8). One way of defining the issue can be found in Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. In this book, Smith essentially asks how it can be that, given the claims made by many evangelicals about the clarity and accessibility of Scripture, there are still significant disagreements amongst sincere, devoted, and intelligent evangelical readers about how to best understand and interpret it (The Bible Made Impossible, p.17). Continue reading

Introductory Patristics for Regular People: A Review of Bryan Litfin’s “Getting to Know the Church Fathers”

church historyFor many of those cracking open the pages of Bryan Litfin’s book, Getting to Know the Church Fathersthis is their first real glimpse of the ancient Christian church. Rather than returning to old, familiar friends, they are embarking on an exploratory journey that will hopefully enrich and deepen their appreciation for the church fathers (p.1).

As the book’s subtitle indicates, it’s oriented towards evangelical readers who might not know much about the Patristic era. Litfin, who is himself an evangelical professor at Moody Bible Institute, has a task made more difficult by the suspicion and skepticism towards the early church fathers held by some parts of the evangelical community. It seems that keeping his audience in mind is important for properly understanding the purpose of Litfin’s efforts. He is striving to accomplish two main goals: acquaint readers with some of the early church fathers (and a mother), and dispel harmful misconceptions held about them by some (though not all) parts of contemporary Christianity. Continue reading

Reviving the Church’s Imagination: A Review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Pictures at a Theological Exhibition”

pictures at a theological exhibition

In the eyes of a fair number of Christians today, the imagination doesn’t seem to count for very much—or at least that’s how Kevin Vanhoozer describes the current landscape in the introduction to his new essay collection Pictures at a Theological ExhibitionHe believes that many evangelicals unfortunately view the imagination essentially as “a factory for producing images of things that are not there” (p.18). “Maybe it’s important for telling good stories at night or writing gripping novels, but it’s not that important for theology,” they might say.

When the imagination isn’t considered theologically useful, it seems like the value of analytic activities like systematic theology tend to get over-emphasized while artistic expressions like poetry get marginalized. For Vanhoozer, though, both systematic theology and poetry have important roles to play in the Christian life. He writes, “We need both the clarity of crisp concepts and the intricacy of lush metaphors in order to get sound, life-giving doctrine” (p.13). His overall indictment is that many contemporary believers don’t think having a developed biblical imagination matters. In a world where “many Christians are [simultaneously] suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life,” this is a sadly ironic state of affairs (p.20).

Continue reading

Four Gospel Texts and One Christ: A Review of Francis Watson’s “The Fourfold Gospel”

fourfold gospelA few years ago, Francis Watson penned Gospel Writing, a mammoth-sized piece of scholarship that investigated the origins of how the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) became a fourfold collection placed at the head of the New Testament. In The Fourfold Gospel, therefore, Watson chooses to dwell not so much on the origin of the fourfold gospel as on its theological “form and significance” (p.viii).

The gospel narratives have long been considered by Christians to be both four individually distinctive accounts and yet also one unified whole. In other words, Watson explains, Christians can both speak of four gospel accounts and “of a singular ‘gospel according to…’ in four different versions” (p.vii). What is the significance of this? And what, theologically, does it mean to affirm that these gospels speak most truly of Jesus when read canonically, in conversation with each other? These are the kinds of questions Watson explores throughout The Fourfold Gospel. Continue reading