December 2013


Theology of the Reformers by Timothy GeorgeAt the end of his life, Augustine wrote what has become a very misunderstood book, especially by those who have not read it or any of his previous works. The book was titled Retractationes which literally means “re-treatments.” Augustine retraced his works and addressed many of the things he had already written by way of clarifications and some changes. Augustine was not recanting of the things he wrote but rather coming to them once again as a more seasoned believer and theologian.

In 1988, while teaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Timothy George wrote Theology of the Reformers, which, unbeknownst to him, would become a standard work on the subject and would be translated into several languages. Twenty five years later George has come back to his first book, not to retract from his original work, but in some ways like Augustine, to revise and expand his work from the vantage point of a seasoned historian of theology.

Recognizing that some today would bock at a book of its nature, George defends his original work, and now revised edition when he states

Theology, when it is given any truck at all, is usually given a quaint form of belles lettres, which the Reformation is generally perceived as having lost much of its explanatory valence as a coherent term of historical understanding. This book assumes the contrary on two accounts: theology matters, and the Reformation of the sixteenth century is a critical, even essential, epoch for our understanding of the Christian story then and now. (1)

The original work focused on the theology of Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin and Menno Simons. The new edition includes a chapter on William Tyndale. The rationale for discussing these five reformers over others is that “each of these figures stands at the headwaters of a major confessional tradition in the Reformation.” (17) Luther with the Protestants of the Augusburg Confession, Zwingli and Calvin with the Reformed tradition, Tyndale with the English Reformation and translator of Scripture, and Simmons with the Anabaptists. The historical, cultural and political climate these Reformers provides the backdrop through which their theological beliefs emerge and which form the primary focus of the book. George shows the reader that the questions and issues facing the Reformers still face the church today.

Theology of the Reformers 25th Anniversary Edition is a welcome continuance of George’s original work. Lovers of the original book, the Reformation and its history and new students of Reformation theology will love this book. I highly recommend it!

NOTE: I received this book for free from B&H in exchange for my honest opinion and I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review. The thoughts and words expressed are my own.

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Evangelical Theology by BirdUnless you have been hiding under a rock for the last several years, biblical scholar, teacher and blogger (and comedian!) Michael Bird should be a name you are relatively familiar with. He has written on Jesus in Are You the One Who Is to Come? and Jesus is The Christ. He has written on Paul in Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission, and His Message and has edited Four Views on the Apostle Paul in the Zondervan Counterpoints Series. He has also written on Second Temple Judaism in Crossing Over Sea and Land and has even written a highly academic commentary on 1 Esdras which is part of the Septuagint. He is the editor of two journals and commentaries series. He has contributed to numerous journals, edited works and reference books, all of which you can view here.

There is no doubt the Bird is highly qualified to write and speak on a number of topics. His areas of focus range from the Historical Jesus, Paul, Christian origins and even biblical and systematic theology. It is to these last two areas that we now turn to, and which Bird has most recently written on in his highly anticipated Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction published by Zondervan. The question that might arise in the mind of some, and which already has, is, can a biblical scholar with his areas of study competently write a systematic and biblical theology? Has Bird gone through a midlife crisis and the biblical scholar become a theologian!? After all, there are a number of famous systematicians such as Turretin, Pannenberg, Barth, Grudem, Hodge, Berkhof, Bavinck and Erickson whom many of them have not published as many books as Bird, and of those they have, most of them are in subsets of systematic theology.

Has Bird stretched himself so far that he has become too thin?

Bird’s Uniqueness: An Evangelical Systematic and Biblical Theology?

I put a question mark at the end of the above heading not because I question Bird’s goal but because I want to bring due attention to what makes this book stand out from others like it. There is no doubt that there are many good systematic theologies out there that are written by evangelicals such as Grudem, Erickson and Geisler, just to name a few. But what Bird feels they lack as an evangelical theology is a focus on just that, the evangel – the gospel itself. Bird is not saying others are unevangelical but that they seem to miss as their focus what makes them what they are.

This is not to say other theologies by evangelicals do not mention the gospel or relate an aspect to the gospel. It is to say, however, that they are not writing their theologies with the gospel front and center in every loci of theological doctrine. For Bird, an evangelical theology must do just that. Bird says of his own work, “It is a gospel-centered theology for Christians who seek to define themselves principally by the gospel.” (21) And later, “Evangelical theology is a theologia evengelii – a theology of the gospel.” (45) True to form, Bird begins every section introduction with a short discussion of how the doctrine under consideration relates to the gospel. For example,

On the doctrine of God in part two,

If we are going to study the God of the gospel, we must study God as he is to us in the gospel: a triune being comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, I contend that the gospel itself establishes our primary contact with the doctrine of the Trinity. The operation of God as he is described as acting in the gospel intimates the triune nature of God. Only a triune God can do what is done in the gospel. (89)

On the doctrine of Christ in part four,

The centerpiece of the gospel is Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is so identifiable with the gospel that there can be no gospel without him. His identity as Messiah and Lord, the redemptive significance of his death and resurrection, set in the coordinating of God’s kingdom, constitute the core of the gospel message. In other words, the gospel sets before us both the work of Jesus Christ and the person of Jesus Christ. (343)

And finally, on the doctrine of the church in part eight,

The evangelical churches are those that have the gospel at the center of their proclamation and practice. The evangelical church is a community created by the gospel, a church that promotes and preaches the gospel, that cultivates the gospel in its spirituality. Its members strive to live lives worthy of the gospel, and at its center is Jesus Christ, the Lord announced in the gospel. (699)

Not only at the main headings does Bird relate the gospel to each section of doctrine, but he shows how each subsection does as well. Bird has given more than mere lip service to the gospel as that which binds all of Scripture and, therefore, theology together. “The gospel is the glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice. I submit that an authentic evangelical theology should be a working out of the gospel in the various loci of Christian theology and then be applied to the sphere of daily Christian life and the offices of Christian leaders.” (21) This gives him the content for his five step method for how theology should be done (81-82).

This gospel focus is also what makes this book a work of biblical theology because it is the gospel, as hinted at in Genesis 3:15 and consummated in Revelation 19-21, that runs throughout the entire Bible. It is the story of the Bible. After working through the various aspects, Bird defines the gospel as

The announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah, in fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (52)

Though some may wince at the positive use of the phrase “canon within the canon,” Bird is not shy in saying that “the gospel is the ‘canon within the canon’ simply because the biblical canon is the scriptural expression of the ‘rule of faith.’ which itself is an exposition of the gospel.” (21)

Evangelical Theology as a Systematic and Biblical Theology

I think Bird hits a home run with his focus on the gospel at every angle, and therefore, has accomplished part of his goal in writing a biblical theology. So how does he do with the systematic aspect? In short, Bird touches on the major loci of theology with adequate depth and coverage for most sections but has some shortcomings in others.

Bird does a good job with the doctrine of God (chapter 2), eschatology (chapter 3), Christology (chapter 4), soteriology (chapter 5) and ecclesiology for the most part (chapter 8). I think Bird’s does his best work right out of the gates with his chapters on God and Christ. He masterfully shows how God as triune forms the heart and shape of the gospel and supports John Piper’s book, and now famous phrase, God is the gospel. He ties the gospel God as triune, creator, His character and attributes and His revelation to man. His chapter on Christ is equally impressive, and should be, as Bird has written a few books and many essays and articles on Christ previously. Chapter three on eschatology is decent and provides a fair and accurate treatment of the various views. Bird’s soteriology by in large follows the standard Reformed/Calvinistic view, with the debatable exception that he holds to the Amyraldian view of the atonement, which is actually dealt with in Christology (section 4.4.3). Finally, Bird’s ecclesiology is handled well. He seems to see more unity between Israel and the church than disunity (719-27 – which I like!). The only glaring omission from this chapter is a dedicated discussion of the offices of the church as deacon, elders and pastor/teacher. These are mentioned in several places but only as they are viewed by different forms of church governances such as Presbyterian or Episcopalian.

Chapters needing more work begin at the beginning with prolegomena (chapter 1). Though this is where Bird laid out his unique approach in focusing on the gospel, this also became its downfall as there is not enough else by way of a standard discussion on this area of first theology. The chapters on the Holy Spirit (chapter 6) and man (chapter 7) read and feel too short. Perhaps, in my opinion, what is lacking the most in the book is an adequate doctrine of Scripture. (Consider that Wayne Grudem spends almost 100 pages in his systematic theology in the doctrine of Scripture!) This is surprising since Bird has contributed to the recent book Five Views on Inerrancy. Bird places his very short discussion on Scripture under the discussion of the Holy Spirit “because the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired authors to write Scripture, who preserves the inscripturated revelation, and who brings illumination to those who read Scripture.” (638) Bird does not outright reject inerrancy and verbal inspiration (though he does sympathize with both) but he does express much hesitancy towards the terminology. He gives a list of reasons he is hesitant about fully affirming verbal inspiration (640-42) and on inerrancy he states, “If the Word of God is God’s own Word, then its veracity is safeguarded not by our efforts to harmonize any apparent inconsistencies or even by our sophisticated arguments for inerrancy, but by divine fidelity. That is to say, the truthfulness of Scripture is secured by the faithfulness of God to his own Word.” (645) At times Bird seems to use all the same phraseology of an inerrantist but just does not use the term itself.

Conclusion

In the end, though I don’t think Bird has written the next systematic theology that will replace Grudem or Erickson, he has written an overall fine book that will serve the church. What Bird has excelled at is defining the role and relationship of the gospel to systematic theology. This contribution alone is worth owning the book, and others in the future need to follow in his steps. The only other systematic theology I can think of that comes close to this approach is Michael Horton’s recent work A Pilgrim Theology.

Bird treats other theological traditions fairly and shows a real awareness and familiarity with church history. He is thankfully very in tune with and supportive of the various creeds of the church which he turns to throughout the book. Evangelical Theology is not your typical systematic theology as it seeks to weave systematics with biblical and historical theology (primarily through the creeds) to create a more rounded source of theological discussion. The book is peppered with sidebars (often very extensive) in which he seeks to draw attention to certain issues at hand. True to form, Bird mixes his humor throughout the book which makes the reading all the more enjoyable.

NOTE: I received this for free from Zondervan in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts and words expressed are my own and I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

2591 cvr 14.inddWhen the first century Christians read the Old Testament how did they understand them? Moreover, how did they read them in light of Christ? How did Christ understand and teach them in light of Himself? Understanding the Old Testament as a whole and its many books the same way Jesus would have has been the goal of Christians and the life work of scholars like N.T. Wright. Christians cannot, and should not, read the Old Testament as if Christ had never come.

In 2008, under the editorial leadership of Kenneth Berding and Matt Williams, Kregel released What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Their Writings. Following this book five years later, Jason S. DeRouchie has edited What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible. DeRouchie earned his PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is associate professor of Old Testament at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He is joined by a team of amazing contributors like Stephen Dempster, J. Daniel Hays, Preston M. Sprinkle and Daniel J. Estes. The goal and interpretive lens through which this book is written is summed up in the first paragraph:

Jesus never read Romans or Revelation. He never heard sermons on Matthew’s Gospel or Peter’s epistles. Indeed, the New Testament was not written in Jesus’ day, so his only Bible was what we call the Old Testament. It was books like Genesis and Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Psalms that shaped Jesus’ upbringing and that guided his life and ministry as the Jewish Messiah. It was these Old Testament “Scriptures” that Jesus identified as God’s Word, considered to be authoritative, and called people to know and believe so as to guard against doctrinal error and hell. Jesus was convinced that what is now the first three-fourths of our Christian Bible “cannot be broken”, would be completely fulfilled, and called for repentance and forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. All this Jesus summarized as “the good news of the kingdom of God.” If we want to know Jesus as best we can, we must saturate ourselves in the same Scripture he read – namely, the Old Testament! (28 – Scriptures removed)

Overview of the Book

Taking cue from Jason Meyer’s, DeRouchie summarizes the central message of the Bible as “God’s kingdom through covenant for his glory in Christ.” (51) This answers the what (God’s kingdom), the how (through covenant) and the why (his glory in Christ) questions for biblical theology. The overall structure of the book is viewed through the lens of KINGDOM:

  1. Kickoff and Rebellion – Creation, Fall and Flood: God creates, mans sins and God responds with worldwide judgment, though He extends mercy and grace to Noah and his family.
  2. Instrument of Blessing – Patriarchs: God elects to create a people for Himself through which He would bless the world.
  3. Nation Redeemed and Commissioned: Exodus, Sinai and Wilderness – God brings His people out of bondage in Egypt, reveals His glory and Law at Sinai, though His people respond in sin and they are sent in exile in the wilderness.
  4. Government in the Promised Land – Conquest and Kingdoms: God leads His people in the conquest of Canaan and the establishment of kings. Though Israel fails many times God promises a future coming righteous king through David’s line.
  5. Dispersion and Return – Exile and Initial Restoration: God casts Israel out of the promised land because of their sin. He later restores them to rebuild the temple though most of them are still cold-hearted towards God.
  6. Overlap of the Ages – Christ’s Work and the Church Age: God sent His Son Jesus, the promised king of David and suffering servant of Isaiah, to  deal with the sin of His people and begin restoring the world as God’s kingdom. God’s people are now identified as the church.
  7. Mission Accomplished – Christ’s Return and Kingdom Consummated: God sends His Son again to exact judgment on those who rebel against Him, to gather His people from all over the world, to remove sin and complete the reestablishment of His kingdom rule on earth as His people are ushered into eternity with God.

It is the theme of kingdom that runs throughout the Bible and through which we (1) understand God’s relationship with man through the various covenants and (2) are pointed to the glory of God as displayed in Christ.

The Old Testament books are categorized into three groups: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. These three groups are summarized as follows:

  1. The Law – “The Pentateuch was designed to highlight the establishment of the old covenant, which provides the literary lens for understanding the Prophets and Writings and anticipates the need for the redeeming work of Messiah Jesus.” (57) This follows the KIN sections of the Kingdom structure of the Bible.
  2. The Prophets – “The Former Prophets provide a narrative history that clarifies God’s perspective on what happened to Israel from their conquest of the Promised Land to their exile from it. The Latter Prophets then offer prophetic commentary that develops why Israel’s story went the way it did.” (163) This follows the G section of the Kingdom structure of the Bible.
  3. The Writings – “The Writings provided guidance to this [the loyal remnant] faithful few, still in ‘slavery’ (Ezra 9:8-9), who remained resolute in their confidence that Yahweh was on the throne and would one day right all wrongs through a royal redeemer.” (320) This follows the D section of the Kingdom structure of the Bible.

Overview of the Chapters

Each of the three main sections begins with an overview of the content as connected with the KINGDOM overarching structure. The chapters on each book of the Old Testament have the same layout. There is a one page introduction to the book answering who wrote it and to whom, when and where it was written and why it was written. At the beginning of each chapter the authors select a few passages from their respective book which they believe encapsulate and summarize the message of that book. For example, in summarizing Genesis, Stephen Dempster selects Genesis 1:1 to point to creation, Genesis 3:15 to point to the promise of a redeemer, Genesis 12:1-3 to point to the covenant with Abraham and Genesis 15:6 to point to salvation from God as found in faith in God.

Each chapter has more charts and pictures than you will most likely find in any other Old Testament introduction book. Initially I found this to be distracting as I wanted more comments from the contributors. The further I reflected on their presence the more I feel they accomplish as much or more than more explanation would. The charts help to summarize content which remove distracting or unnecessary discussion that the reader might get lost in. Some examples of more helpful charts include “Yahweh’s Mighty Acts Against Egypt” in Exodus (86), the camp arrangement of the twelve tribes of Israel around the tabernacle in the wilderness in Numbers (130), a detailed chart on the “Old Testament Yahweh Wars of Judgment” in Joshua (182-83) and the “Mosaic Covenant Blessings, Curses and Restoration Blessings” in Ezekiel (270). The many pictures help to bring the discussion and Scripture alive as the reader is reminded that the Christian faith is embedded in time and history itself. They tell us that these events really happened and here is what it might have looked like. Additionally, there are sidebars throughout the book which give more information about people, places and events. These are similar to study notes in a study Bible. Each chapter has an “At a Glance” chart which summarizes the book in short statement with corresponding chapters, key words and concepts to review at the end of the chapter as well as resources for further study.

Conclusion

All total, What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About is a solid survey of the Old Testament by a team of conservative evangelicals committed to the authority of Scripture and its redemptive focus. The audience aim college and seminary students as well as local church leaders. I readily agree with this. My only recommendation would be that while it may be sufficient as a foundational textbook for seminary it would need to be supplemented with other more in-depth Old Testament works as well. For college and laymen this is almost a one-stop-shop for an Old Testament survey. Further, this book guides the reader in their understanding of the Old Testament in light of Christ and not despite it.

NOTE: I received this book for free from Kregel in return for an honest review of the book. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review and the words and thoughts expressed are my own.

Five PointsThe doctrines of grace (otherwise known as the five points of Calvinism) are among the most hotly debated theological issues within Christianity. To some they are abhorrent and others they are cherished. The theological issues surrounding the doctrines of grace have been debated for centuries by generations of Christians with seemingly no end in sight regarding the tension the discussion elicits.

Pastor and author John Piper is no stranger to this discussion. He is perhaps the most well-known contemporary advocate of the doctrines of grace and many younger evangelicals have been persuaded by his rigorous, passionate and biblical appeal to their truths. Through Christian Focus, Piper has written Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace which is a positive contemporary presentation of the doctrines of grace. His goal in writing the book can be summed up in these words

My experience is that clear knowledge of God from the Bible is the kindling that sustains the fires of affection for God. And probably the most critical kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. That is what the five points of Calvinism are about. (8)

Realizing that much of the presentation of the doctrines of grace is given amidst, and in response to, criticism it receives, Piper wants to present the “positive biblical position” regarding the truths the doctrines of grace encompass (12).

Piper’s Summary

It is to be noted that Piper does not set out to reinvent the wheel in presenting the doctrines of grace. He presents a faithful description of the doctrines mixed with his his own characteristics that mark his writing style.

In short, here is a brief summary of the doctrines of grace:

  1. Total Depravity – “Our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sinful, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment.” (22) Some relevant texts are Romans 3:9-11; 8:7-8; 14:23, John 3:20-21 and Ephesians 2:1-3.
  2. Irresistible Grace – “Does not mean that every influence of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. It means that the Holy Spirit, whenever he chooses, can overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible (26)”…..”it makes the unwilling willing. It does not work with constraint from the outside, like hooks and chains; it works with power from the inside, like new thirst and hunger and compelling desire. (32)” Some relevant texts are Psalm 119:3, Acts 7:51; 16:14, Romans 8:7-8; 9:14-18, John 6:44 and 2 Timothy 2:24-25.
  3. Limited Atonement – “The atonement is the work of God in Christ on the cross in which he completes the work of his perfectly righteous life, canceled the debt of our sins, appeased his holy wrath against us, and won for us all the benefits of salvation (37)”……”And we affirm that when Christ died particularly for his bride, he did not simply create a possibility or an opportunity for salvation, but really purchased and infallibly secured for them all that is necessary to get them saved, including the grace of regeneration and the gift of faith. (40)” Some relevant texts are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:25-26, 1 Timothy 4:10, Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 9:15, John 10:15, 26; 17:6, 9, 19 and Revelation 5:9.
  4. Unconditional Election – “Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional on that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.” (53) Some relevant texts are Acts 13:48, John 10:26, Romans 8:28-33; 9:1-33 and Ephesians 1:3-6.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints – “The saints will and must persevere in faith and the obedience which comes from faith (63)”……”God will so work in us that those whom he has chosen for eternal salvation will be enabled by him to persevere in faith to the end and fulfill, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the requirements for a new kind of life. (68)” Some relevant texts are Romans 8:30, 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Colossians 1:21-23, John 10:27-30 and Jeremiah 32:40

Piper spends the least amount of time on the first, second and fourth points and the most amount of time on limited atonement and perseverance of the saints. Because this is a positive presentation of the doctrines of grace Piper does not overtly respond to objections but he does anticipate them (see pgs. 38 & 48 on limited atonement and the entirety of chapter seven on perseverance of the saints for examples of this).

Conclusion

Five Points is a clear on all points, consistent, faithful to the text exegetically, faithful to Scripture in its overall biblical witness and concise enough for anyone to benefit from. As my systematic teacher Fred Zaspel says time and time again, if you accept total depravity then the rest should fall into place. This is the case and Piper shows us the way.

NOTE: I received this book for free from Christian Focus through Cross Focused Reviews and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review. The thoughts and words expressed are my own.