Biblical Theology


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.

Advertisements

Last year, under the editorial direction of Andreas Kostenberger, Zondervan began the Biblical Theology of the New Testament Series.  The first installment was Kostenberger’s contribution A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. The BTNT series seeks to provide a biblical theology of the entire NT in eight volumes with a biblical/thematic approach.

This year the next volume is A Theology of Luke and Acts by well known Luke commentator Darrell Bock. Darrell Bock has written a few other books on Luke and Acts: Luke (IVP), Luke (NIVAC), Luke (BECNT), and Acts (BECNT). A Theology of Luke and Acts is not a commentary but rather a thematic look at the biblical theology of Luke and Acts as a literary unit.

PURPOSE OF LUKE-ACTS

The essential purpose for Luke-Acts is “to show that the coming of Jesus, Christ, and Son of God launched the long-promised new movement of God. The community that has come from his ministry, the suffering these believers experienced, and the inclusion of Gentiles are part of God’s program promised in Scripture.” (p. 29) According to Bock, Theophilus needed assurance that this new movement (Christianity) was a legitimate work of God given the amount of persecution it underwent. Luke assures him that the persecution is not a judgment of God but rather part of the plan of God to spread the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations.

UNITY OF LUKE-ACTS

There has been a long history in regards to the unity of Luke and Acts. Bock’s argument is that Luke and Acts are to be read together, as was intended by Luke. After handling the objections to the unity of the two books Bock responds with the argument that Luke and Acts are to be viewed as Luke-Acts on the basis of literary and theological grounds rather than their shared authorship (p. 60). Two of the literary aspects that point to their unity are the beginning of both books (Lk. 1:1-4; Acts 1) and the clear connection between Luke 24 and Acts 1. “The two volumes link together in the telling of the ascension, which concludes Luke and also begins the book of Acts.” (p. 65) One of the other subtle literary pointers to their unity is the geographical movement of the books. Luke begins in Jerusalem and Acts ends in Rome (p. 66) In regards to the theological point of unity, well, that’s the main content of the book. In each chapter Bock discusses the contribution of both books towards the biblical theological theme discussed. Through the pairing of these books side by side the theological unity of the books clearly shines through.

BIBLICAL THEOLOGICAL THEMES

The bulk of the book is taken up by the intent of the book – to provide a biblical thematic look at Luke-Acts together. In the seventeen chapters dedicated to the major themes in Luke-Acts we see discussion on God as the primary acting agent in the book (chap. 5), Jesus as the promised Messiah and bringer of the new era of salvation (chap. 7), the Holy Spirit (chap. 9), Israel (chap. 12), the church (chap. 14), the law (chap. 18) and eschatology, judgment and hope (chap. 20). With few exceptions, each chapter tackles 2-3 common themes and brings them together through a common thread.

There are a number of elements which Bock utilizes in order to discuss the many themes within Luke-Acts:

  1. Infancy Material of Luke – Perhaps the predominate and driving lens through which Bock sees and draws out the various biblical theological themes of Luke-Acts is in the infancy material of Luke 1-2. Chapter after chapter Bock anchors his discussion within Luke’s infancy material. It is truly the bedrock for the various theological themes in both books.
  2. Israel and the Church – As a Progressive Dispensationalist (though he never mentions this in the book) Bock is committed to the position that since the OT promises were given to national Israel they will be fulfilled to a reconstituted national Israel. However, this does NOT mean Gentiles will not partake in these blessing and promises. In fact, from the beginning with God’s promises to Abraham they were always in view as being recipients of God’s promises and blessings. Though it shows up from time to time throughout the book, Bock primarily fleshes out his view of how this works out in the chapters on Israel (chap. 12), the Gentiles nations (chap. 13) the church (chap. 14) and ecclesiology (chap. 19).
  3. Word Studies – One way in which Bock picks out the major theological themes is by observing the dominate words used by Luke in both books. Here Bock provides a great example for the reader on the proper use of word studies. For instance, in chapter ten on salvation, Bock discusses all of uses of the sozo word group.
  4. OT Background – A reading through of any chapter will alert the reader to the fact that Bock sees Luke-Acts as having their roots in the OT. This is one of the great strengths of the book. As Bock discusses in the book, it is this anchoring in the OT which Bock uses to show that Luke believed what God was doing through Christ, during and after his life on earth, was rooted in the OT plan of God for all nations.
  5. Continuity of Themes in Both Books – As each chapter bears out, Bock begins with the theme under discussion in Luke and then moves to Acts. It is here that the theological unity of the books shines through. What Luke begins in his gospel he continues in Acts.

CONCLUSION

In Bock’s words, the canonical theological contribution of Luke-Acts is that it “presents the continuity of Israel’s story with the new era that Jesus brought and the new community that his ministry generated.” (p. 447) Though much of national Israel rejected Jesus and His message, many still believed and God did not reject His people. There was a remnant that believed (which is typical of believing Israel in the OT). In Christ and through the Holy Spirit, God is continuing to pursue His people and spread the gospel to all nations.

A Theology of Luke and Acts is a very readable biblical theology of Luke-Acts. Bock has done a great job synthesizing the biblical theological themes that no doubt run through his commentaries. Though not a commentary, this is an essential book along side Bock’s, or any other commentators book on Luke and Acts, as it gives the reader the big picture of what Luke wrote to Theophilus and for us. It is clearly organized, exegetically mindful, OT rooted, eye-opening and lay friendly.

BLOG TOUR – If you would like to read some more on certain chapters in the book check out the Zondervan blog tour that was held last week: Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3.

NOTE: I received a copy of this book from Zondervan in exchange for an unbiased review. The views and thoughts expressed in this review are mine.

Studies and discussions on the book of Acts are often the breeding grounds for debates between Dispensational vs. Covenant theology, cessationist vs. non-cessationist theology, Baptist vs. Reformed polity and a myriad of other controversial theological debates. Of course everyone thinks the book of Acts is on their side. When these kinds of discussions become the focal point of the book they reduce its redemptive-historical message of the book. Thus, Acts is turned into a theological billy club that is used to beat over the head of ones opponent.

But the book of Acts is much more than this. It is bigger than any one theological debate (though these debates are necessary). In an effort to refocus Christians on the central redemptive message of Acts Alan J. Thompson has written The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan. This book is the newest edition to the respected New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by D.A. Carson.

Aligning the Focus of Acts

Instead of coming to Acts with a debate to win, Thompson wants to let the book itself determine its main focus. For Thompson this is “an account of the ‘continuing story’ of God’s saving purposes” (p. 17). Though Thompson works with the already/not yet hermeneutic in regards to the the kingdom of God Thompson believes that Acts shows us “what the kingdom of God looks like now that Christ has come, dies, risen and ascended to the right hand of the Father” (p. 17)  One of the textual ways in which this is brought out is the location of two of the eight phrases “the kingdom” and “the kingdom of God” at the beginning and end of Acts (p. 44). This is fitting given the smooth transition from the Gospel of Luke to Acts since both were written by the same author. At various points through the book Thompson shows the intertextual relationship between Luke and Acts which further help to strengthen the argument that Luke’s goal is Acts is to show the continuation of Christ’s work in the church, through the Holy Spirit, despite the fact that He has ascended to heaven to be with the Father.

Major Hermeneutical Events in Acts

The power that spreads the gospel and the growth of the kingdom of God from the first century onward to today is the resurrection of Christ.

In Acts the resurrection is the climax of God’s saving purposes, and it is on the basis of the resurrection that the blessings of salvation may be offered. The reason for this appears to be that in the resurrection of Jesus, the hoped-for resurrection age to come has arrived already, and it is because of the arrival of the age to come that the blessing of that age may now be received” (p. 79).

What Thomson brings to light is the woven nature between the promise and inauguration of the kingdom of God, the resurrection and eschatology. Thus, the hope of Israel is wrapped up in the resurrection and it is the resurrection that inaugurates, or gives power to, the beginning of the end times. This inauguration of the end times, along with the reconstitution of Israel, is birthed at Pentecost in Acts 2 with the eschatological pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all the nations.

For Thompson, Pentecost is the answer to the disciples question in Acts 1:6 about the restoration of Israel. Thompson argues that while Jesuchallenged them on their wanting to know the timing of the restoration of Israel He “neither postpones that fulfillment to the distant future nor rejects such prospect for the present” (p. 105-106). That Israel has been reconstituted at Pentecost is marked out by the three references to Israel in 2:14-36 and the, at minimum inaugurated, fulfillment of Joel 2 (see p. 109-12). But Pentecost is just the beginning. From there, Thompson points out at least four more events in Acts that support this conclusion: Samaria and the restoration of Israel (8:1-25), outcasts and the restoration of Israel (8:26-40), the servant who restores Israel and brings salvation to the Gentiles (13:47) and the rebuilding and restoring and rebuilding of David’s fallen tent (15:13-18). These passages, and others, show that there is a double purpose to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2; Israel is restored and the Gentiles are being brought in in droves.

Since the promised Spirit is poured out on Jews and Gentiles alike, this points to the reality that there is one people of God under one Lord. This can clearly be seen in Acts 10-11 to which Thompson comments:

The overwhelming emphasis of the passage is that these Gentile believers are part of the same people of God as the Jewish believers who received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. (p. 137)

For Thompson it is clear that Acts demonstrably shows that as their is one Lord and Spirit sent from God the Father, there is one people of God to which they are sent to bring salvation to and one kingdom of God into which they are part of together.

Some of the later parts of the book deal with the transition or change from Old Testament functions or realities to New Testament functions and realities in light of the resurrection and inauguration of the kingdom of God. These include the more stationary nature of the temple and its leaders in the OT to their encompassing broad nature and function in the NT and beyond (chap. 5). In chapter six Thompson discusses the role and view of the law in the life of the believer and the church. The law is no longer the rule of God’s people as it has been fulfilled in Christ. However, it is not deemed useless.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, the main biblical theological message of Acts is that in Christ, God is fulfilling His promises to Israel in the church, which is made possible by the resurrection of Christ and  made evident with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all nations as the reconstituted Israel with whom God has inaugurated His kingdom.

The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus is a great in depth study into the salvation-historical message of Acts over and above all other debates that it may be dominated by in various circles. Though rich with the history and happenings of the early church, Acts is a theological goldmine for those willing to take the book as Luke intended it to be read. This is a book for serious students of Acts, the New Testament, the kingdom of God and eschatological studies. Thompson lets the book of Acts speak to us its message rather than use it to speak to others our message.

NOTE: I received this book for free from IVP and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review. The words and opinions expressed in this review are my own.

This post was originally published at Servants of Grace and has been re-posted with permission.

G. K. Beale’s long awaited A New Testament Biblical Theology is finally here!

Westminster Books is offering the book for $30.24 (45% off) from now until November 22.

Here is G.K. Beale discussing the contents of his book:

Here is a long list of praises for this book:

“Beale’s volume is far reaching, written at a high scholarly level, and conversant with a wide range of scholarship. Even where one may disagree, Beale’s treatment is always informative and at times even provocative. A very important contribution to biblical theology that deserves to be widely read.”
Andreas J. Köstenberger, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Biblical scholars and theologians, after long separation and now perhaps with a healthier sense of their own historical location, have recently found themselves engaged on a common project: what is it that binds the church’s canonical texts together? Reflecting its author’s situatedness within the evangelical Reformed tradition and firm commitment to exegetical integrity and the priority of the biblical storyline, Beale’s extensive and detailed new book is a most welcome addition to the ongoing discussion.”
Rikk Watts, Regent College

“In your hands is a gold mine of biblical scholarship, a distillation of a lifetime of study by one of the most respected New Testament scholars of our day. Beale’s arguments and conclusions are presented with such clarity and force that any interested reader, whether pastor, layperson, or professional scholar, will be able to benefit from the rich insights that appear on almost every page.”
Gordon P. Hugenberger, Park Street Church, Boston; Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

“Beale has been harvesting the fields of biblical theology in major biblical commentaries and exegetical/theological studies for many years. Here now is his biblical theology magnum opus. As with all of Beale’s works, this volume is brimming with rich and deeply satisfying redemptive-historical exegesis. This provides an enormous feast for anyone wishing to understand in greater detail the thrust of the Bible’s saving story, but it also results in a great contribution to scholarship.”
Charles E. Hill, Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando

“This volume, impressive for its massive sweep, is the matured fruit of the author’s extensive work over several decades in New Testament theology. Especially those with interests in biblical eschatology, with some attention to the role of the church and Christian living ‘between the times,’ as well as in the New Testament use of the Old will profit from the characteristically sound and often stimulating instruction Beale provides.”
Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

A New Testament Biblical Theology takes Beale’s years of study, teaching, and research and presents his readers with the most thorough and mature work of New Testament biblical theology yet seen in the English language. He has structured the massive volume in a beautiful fashion, focusing nearly half of the work on the eschatological storyline of the Old Testament then moving to the story of the already-not yet latter-day resurrection and new-creational kingdom of the New.”
Richard C. Gamble, Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary

“The canonical scope and focus on the biblical storyline give Beale’s New Testament Biblical Theology a unique place among the many New Testament theologies now available. The book is vintage Beale, creatively making connections between Old Testament and New Testament and pursuing a definite vision of how the Bible hangs together.”
Douglas J. Moo, Wheaton College

“Certainly Beale has written his magnum opus, in which he deftly integrates the Scriptures via the new creation theme. The use of the Old Testament in the New Testament forms the backbone of this work so that readers grasp how the storyline of Scripture coheres. We stand in debt to the author for his detailed and profound unfolding of New Testament theology.”
Thomas R. Schreiner, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“A magnificent achievement! Rarely does a volume in biblical studies come along with such breadth, depth, insight, and specificity. It is a brilliant reconstruction of themes that are central to Christian faith. This is a landmark accomplishment.”
David F. Wells, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

“Reflecting thirty years of research, this volume is unique in our time and in fact without close parallel in a discipline (biblical theology) that split the Old Testament off from the New over two hundred years ago. Beale has brought them back together in a creative and methodical way.”
Robert W. Yarbrough, Covenant Theological Seminary

“Drawing on decades of exegetical research and teaching, A New Testament Biblical Theology exists at the intersection of biblical studies and theology. Carrying on the tradition of Geerhardus Vos, Beale has raised the bar for biblical theology in our day. We will be digesting this volume for many years to come.”
Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California

“A stimulating read. Readers will find the emphasis on the already-not yet end-time new creation and kingdom very enriching and insightful. What we have in this new biblical theology is an appreciation for the biblical story as a whole, an appreciation that provides a much-needed counterweight to the atomistic tendencies in much of our exegetical and theological work. Beale’s book will make an important contribution.”
Craig A. Evans, Acadia Divinity College

“Beale demonstrates new creation as an umbrella category covering all of the other major motifs not only in the New Testament but also in the relevant Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish background material. Along the way, readers are treated to outstanding up-to-date discussions of most of the main topics they have come to expect and some new ones. Throughout, Beale is thoroughly evangelical and thoroughly scholarly. This work is a true tour de force.”
Craig L. Blomberg, Denver Seminary

For over the last year the buzz in ecclesiology has been the discussion of the missional church. “If your church is not missional then it is not fulfilling God’s purpose”, is the cry of many. It is probably fair to say that much of the conversation concerning the missional church has been held in the arena of practical ecclesiology. That is, describing what a missional church looks like as it lives out the mission in its local context. While the church needs a practical vision for the mission of the church, there has not been enough discussion regarding the biblical theological concept of mission as the foundation for being missional. In an effort to fill this space Michael W. Goheen has written an enlightening book A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story.

“Mission”, as Goheen defines it, “is the role and identity of the church in the context of the biblical story (p. 4).” Thus, being missional is not about “describing the activity of the church but the very essence and identity of the church as it takes up its role in God’s story in the context of its culture and participates in God’s mission to the world (p. 4).” Put another way, “Mission is what God is doing for the sake of the world: it is God’s long-term plan to renew creation. The people of God are missional in that they are taken up into this work for the sake of the world (p. 25).” So, since much of the discussion on the missional church has been dominated by the pragmatic implications of the mission of the church, there has been more discussion on its activity rather than its identity and essence. Goheen believes we need to get back to the mission of the church as found in the biblical story (biblical theology) and then move forward from there lest we continue to lose our way.

A Light to the Nations can be summed up in three main stages that present the biblical development of the people of God as missional people: (1) OT Israel as the beginning of the people of God, (2) the coming of Jesus to restore the people of God and (3) the NT church as the reconstituted people of God.

In the search for the uncovering of the mission of the church as found in its biblical theological context, Goheen begins in the Old Testament. The OT is the only proper place to begin for Goheen because the place of the church in the mission of God is the same as and a continuation of Israel’s but with resurrection implications. This is a necessary corrective to much of the missional church discussion. Following Gerhard Lohfink’s comments Goheen states:

The church was not founded or established for the first time in the New Testament. Rather, the church is a covenant community that has been gathered and restored to its original calling. A proper understanding of the church begins with Israel – its role and identity, its relation to other nations – because the church is Israel’s heir (p. 21).

Take a moment to soak that statement in – the church is Israel’s heir. For Goheen, there is only one people of God and therefore one mission of God for His people. This mission begins in the OT with Israel and continues with the church as the reconstituted people of God.

OT Israel as the beginning of the people of God

The mission of God begins with Abraham in Genesis 12: 1-3. Amidst the many things mentioned in these verses there are two aspects that help to define the mission of the church. First, Abraham is chosen to receive the blessings of God. God’s election of a people (Israel) is for the purpose of mission. Second, as recipients of God’s blessings God’s people are to in turn mediate those blessings to the world. From Genesis 12 we move to Exodus 1-18 where we see God releasing Israel from their captivity in order “to fulfill its Abrahamic role and identity (p. 34).” Once Israel is delivered from captivity they are given the covenant at Sinai which functions to show that they are bound to God and not Pharaoh. At Sinai God tells Israel how they are to live in order to receive God’s blessings and how they are to mediate those blessings to the nations (p. 37). Exodus 32-34 describes how God will dwell with Israel which is important for Israel to be able to carry out their two sided purpose.

Flowing from Sinai to Israel’s missional living is the threefold role and identity of Israel. First, Israel was to be a people in the center of the nations. Surely this was their position when they entered the Promised Land in Joshua. Israel was to visibly live out their identity before the nation’s such that they would desire to come and see and join. They are not to be passive observers but active engagers “with the pagan cultures of the surrounding nations, by which it is to confront idolatry with the claims of the living God (p. 53).” Second, Israel was to function as a priestly kingdom. The life surrounding the priesthood was to nourish Israel amidst their missional encounter with the pagan nations. The temple plays a huge role in this purpose and the prophets are seen as Israel’s ‘covenant enforcers’ keeping them on track (p. 59). Third, the story of Israel in the OT closes with them as a dispersed people. Fortunately, because of God’s covenant faithfulness He promised through the prophets (Isa. 60 & Eze. 36:24-27) that He would return and restore them.

The Coming of Jesus to Restore the People of God

Goheen does not mince words when it comes to his assessment of the significance of Jesus’ coming, “With the coming of Jesus, the promised gathering of God’s eschatological people begins (p. 76).” Following the gospel of Mark, Goheen defines the kingdom of God as “the restoration of God’s rule over the whole world (p. 77).” Though God rules on His own, His people are to proclaim this rulership to all the world as they carry out their missional identity.

Though there are many that believe Israel rejected the offer of the kingdom, Goheen contends that

Many within Israel do respond to the invitation of faith, and they begin to form the true eschatological Israel, the people of the kingdom, purified by judgment to take up the task of being a light to the nations….Those who respond thus become part of this community of Jesus-followers and receive the gifts and obligations of the kingdom (p. 84-85).”

Though there are no doubt many Jews who will reject the offer of the kingdom and the call to restoration, there is a remnant that accepts and thus becomes the beginning of the eschatological fulfillment of the people of God – the light to the nations.

It is Jesus’ work on the cross and resurrection that become the defining works of Jesus that enable Him to restore Israel and give them the power to carry out their missional task. It is through the cross that Jesus takes on the punishment of Israel’s sin, thus freeing them from it. “The death of Jesus creates a restored community, reinstated in it vocation as a channel of salvation to the nations. The cross is an event that creates a redeemed and transformed people (p. 107).” As for the resurrection it “marks the restoration of God’s people to new life as part of a new creation (p. 112).” Of this new creation Jesus is the ‘first fruits’, the ‘first born’ and the ‘beginning.’  It is at the close of the Gospels that we see Jesus giving restored Israel (the church) its new identity through the great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). The church is to take the gospel to all the nations. The church is the new Israel and thus the light to the nations as Israel was in the OT.

The question for many is how do the NT writers perceive and describe the church as the reconstituted people of God – the restored Israel?

The NT Church as the Reconstituted People of God

For Goheen the clearest NT example of how the church (reconstituted Israel) continues the mission of God is to read the book of Acts. Beginning with Pentecost (Acts 2) and running through the end of the book we see God’s people spreading the gospel to the nations while God builds His church and kingdom through this activity. The geographical structure of Acts is huge for Goheen. “The story line of Acts is about the geographical spread of the Word (p. 129).” Jerusalem has great redemptive-historical and eschatological significance (p. 129 & 131). “God has chosen Israel to be a blessing to all nations, and the centrifugal movement in Acts marks the beginning of the process by which that blessing is to be fulfilled (p. 131).” What Goheen believes is clear from the book of Acts is that God restored many Jews and that He brought many Gentiles into the church.

So how what evidence is there that the NT writers saw the church and themselves as the reconstituted people of God? Take Peter for example. In 1 Peter 2:9-10, Peter uses no less than 5 explicit word/phrases to describe the church that are used in the OT to describe Israel. Peter uses “a chosen race,” “a royal priesthood,” “a holy nation,” and “a people for his own possession” all to describe the church. Not only is the language telling but the historical context of I Peter. 1 Peter is written to dispersed believers. In the OT Israel was dispersed because of unbelief and disobedience. Now, reconstituted Israel is once again dispersed but not because of unbelief. Their dispersion is caused because of their belief and by command (Matt. 28:19-20). I Peter exemplifies for us “how the church can live faithfully in a non-Christian environment (p. 182).” Goheen contends that the imagery and word usage here is I Peter is just a small example of the many examples in the NT where the authors saw the church as the continuation and expansion of Israel.

Conclusion

A presentation of a biblical theology of mission would be incomplete without some suggestion for what this might look like today. Goheen offers thirteen suggestions. Some of the most notable are the need for the church to reach out to the world with its message. This follows along the lines of the people of God being the mediators of God’s blessings to the world – namely, salvation. Along the same lines we need preaching that is more missional minded. While the ministry of the Word through preaching is primarily for believers, we need to make sure our preaching proclaims the biblical story of redemption. Perhaps the most relevant of Goheen’s suggestions is the need for the church to live out as a community within its community. This is how the NT church lived mission and this is how the church today and in the future needs to live out its mission.

A Light to the Nations is a great corrective to much of the missional talk of the day. It puts the meat on the bones of some weak theology of mission that too many have today. The greatest strength of the book is its truly biblical theology approach as it begins with the concept as originated with Israel and Abraham. For those who see more discontinuity within Scripture in regards to Israel and the church this book will be a much needed dose of corrective medicine. It is perhaps not a stretch to say that, a rejection of Goheen’s biblical theology of mission is a rejection of the Scripture’s concept of mission.

NOTE: I received this book for free and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

If you pay attention to them, the very combination of the words ‘hell under fire‘ should make you pause and think. I suppose that was the intent of the publisher when they came up with the title. Well – it worked. What is ironic about the title Hell Under Fire is that fire is a word that Scripture uses to describe hell. I suppose the subtitle ‘Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’ implies that the critical nature of modern scholarship towards the doctrine of hell is itself fiery. Do you see the picture forming here? Liberal modern scholarship is exacting its own fire on the traditional orthodox view of hell which includes the description of hell as fire. Is the picture getting clearer? Fire is being used to fight against fire.

Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson is a riveting and clear defense of the orthodox position of hell that it is real, eternal and will include conscious suffering. The book has a powerful line up of contributors such as Al Mohler on Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell, G.K. Beale on The Revelation on Hell, Douglas Moo on Paul on Hell and J.I. Packer on Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved? The contributors do not mince words in their faithful defense of the historic position of hell. It is not an exaggeration to say that as these authors present the Biblical doctrine of hell they expose the inaccurate and unfounded claims of universalism and annihilationism. Every chapter in this book is worth commenting on but the focus of this review will only be on a few of them.

From the outset Mohler’s words are spot on when it comes to the consequences of redefining hell:

…No doctrine stands alone. Each doctrine is embedded in a system of theological conviction and expression. Take out the doctrine of hell, and the entire shape of Christian theology is inevitably altered (p. 16).

In chapter two Daniel Block presents the Old Testament contribution to the doctrine of hell. Block admittedly states that the OT teaches very little on hell. Block seeks to answer four questions: (1) How does the OT refer to the abode of the dead?, (2) Who occupies the netherworld?, (3) What conditions greet those who enter the netherworld and (4) What evidence does the OT provide for the Christian doctrine of hell as eternal punishment (p. 44)? Most notably are OT passages such as Ezekiel 32:22-23, Isaiah 66:1-17 and Daniel 12:1-3. “Ezekiel offers the fullest description of the deceased in the netherworld in his oracles against the nations (p. 53).” Isaiah clearly shows a contrast between the eternal state of believers and unbelievers and Daniel 12 points to a time in the future when men will see their eternal fate (p. 62). In conclusion to the OT doctrine of hell Block states:

…the general tenor of the Old Testament seems to reflect a conviction that people continue to live even after they die. Logic would suggest that any belief in the resurrection would be based on this supposition…..It is difficult to imagine a doctrine of resurrection without an understanding of the continued existence of the person in some (spiritual) form after death (p. 58-59).

In chapter three Robert Yarbrough handles the passages in the New Testament where Jesus talks about hell. Yarbrough minces no words when it comes to attempts to alter the Biblical doctrine of hell:

The problem is that if Jesus spoke as frequently and directly about hell as Gospel writers claim, then it may not be the Christina message that we end up proclaiming if we modify his doctrine of posthumous existence….If the historic doctrine of hell is to be set aside, it is most of all Jesus’ teachings that must be neutralized (p. 71-72).

Yarbrough first walks through the Gospels to see what Jesus actually said concerning hell. It is clear that Jesus said too much about its reality, eternality and conscious unending punishment to pass it off as temporary and merely used as a scare tactic. Throughout his chapter Yarbrough interacts a lot with Edward W. Fudge, noted annihilationist. Yarbrough honestly engages Fudge’s argument of several passages presenting Fudge’s position is his own words. Fudge believes that while hell is real it will only be the experience of some for a short period of time (p. 77-78) and that “the traditionalist notion of everlasting torment in hell springs directly from that non-biblical teaching (p. 83).” That non-biblical teaching is Greek Platonic philosophy. After addressing the second claim Yarbrough  responds by saying,

To demonstrate Plato’s influence it would be helpful to see at least a fair number of patristic authorities explicitly adducing Plato to help ground their interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on hell. To my knowledge no one has produced such a study…..If our aim is to be faithful to Scripture, we must face what Jesus’ teachings have been understood to assert by most biblical interpreters over many centuries, cutting across a wide assortment of confessional and denominational settings…..the frequent first move of discrediting the historical view by accusing it of early and Platonic origin lacks credible basis (p. 87).

In chapter four Douglas Moo deals with Paul on hell. This is perhaps the strongest chapter in the book. From Romans 1:18-2:11 Moo wonderfully points out that,

“Death,” “condemnation,” “wrath,” and the :curse” a;; descend on human beings as a result of Adam’s sin. Human beings are, therefore, already in a state of “perishing.” This condition is fixed forever for those who do not respond to God’s grace in Christ and the work of his spirit. But it is also clear that the condition that follows final judgment is an intensified form of what unbelievers now experience (p. 93).

Moo’s statement here points to what he calls an “inaugurated eschatology” of judgment. People come to death as already condemned because of our relationship to Adam (p. 94; Rom. 5:12-21). Moo also aptly notes that “Paul and his readers assumed the doctrine of hell as so basic that he did not need to provide extensive evidence for it (p. 95).” Moo addresses passages like I Cor. 15:20-28,Rom. 5:18, Col. 1:20 and 2 Thess. 1:8-9.  Moo’s conclusion on Paul’s doctrine of hell is that he “presents the judgment that comes on the wicked as the necessary response of a holy and entirely just God. For Paul, the doctrine of hell is a necessary corollary of the divine nature (p. 109).

In chapter six Christopher Morgan looks at the doctrine of hell from a biblical theology stand point in the New Testament. He looks at three picture of hell in Scripture:

  1. Punishment is frequently portrayed as retribution, judgment, suffering, and torment by fire.
  2. Destruction is often described as perishing, death, or the second death.
  3. Banishment is commonly pictured as separation from the kingdom of God, exclusion from the presence of God, or being cut off from something living (p. 136)

Morgan bear out these three pictures in a number of ways. First, he walks briefly through every book and writer in the NT and touches on their passages on hell. Then he fleshes out the three pictures of hell from the NT. Finally, he concludes by interpreting these three central pictures of hell. Morgan states that these pictures characterize hell as eternal (p. 148).  They also “interweave with biblical portraits of God” as Judge, warrior and King (p. 149-50).  Also, the three pictures of hell “flow naturally from biblical portraits of sin,” they “also appear to illustrate the biblical doctrine of the atonement,” they “stand in contrast with biblical portraits of salvation,” and they also “stand in contrast with biblical portraits of the kingdom of heaven (p. 150).”

In chapters eight and nine J.I. Packer and Christopher Morgan address the positions of universalism and annihilationism respectively. Packer point out that “most universalists concede that universalism is not clearly taught in the Bible (p. 171).” However, “it is argued that the biblical revelation of God’s love to his world entails a universal salvific intention, that is, a purpose of saving everybody, and that sooner or later God must achieve that purpose (p. 171).” For annihilationism, or as it is preferred to be called, conditionalism, Morgan defines it as “the belief that God has created all human beings only potentially immortal. Upon being united to Christ, believers partake in the divine nature and receive immortality. Unbelievers never receive this capacity to live forever and ultimately cease to exist (p. 196).” Perhaps the best argument against this view is found in Revelation 20:15 which reads, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (p. 218).”

In the final chapter of the book Sinclair Ferguson offers some concluding pastoral remarks. Ferguson admits honestly that the very thought of an eternal hell of suffering for people is “emotionally intolerable (p. 220).” However, we must grapple with the reality that “hell exists; this is the testimony of the Scriptures, of the apostles, and of the Lord Jesus himself (p. 220).” Ferguson calls preachers of the Word to preach at least four things about hell from Scripture:

  1. Hell is real.
  2. Hell is vividly described in the pages of the New Testament.
  3. Hell, though prepared for the devil and his angels, is shared by real human beings.
  4. Most important, in expounding and teaching the biblical teaching on hell, we must emphasize that there is a way of salvation (p. 226-28).

His final words provide the preacher of the Word with great encouragement as we preach the biblical doctrine of hell:

Hell is at the end of the day the darkness outside; dense like a black hole, it is the place of cosmic waste. Who can contemplate this for long? Who, indeed, is sufficient for these things? The question is surely rhetorical. None of us is sufficient. But our sufficiency is to be found in Christ, the Savior, the Perfect Man, the Redeemer, the Judge. We must constantly remind ourselves that it is the Savior who spoke clearly of the dark side of eternity. To be faithful to him, so must we (p. 237).

Hell Under Fire is a much needed corrective to much of the teaching within evangelicalism today on the doctrine of hell. This book needs to be read by every pastor and student of the Word. Read this book with Bible in hand and allow the Word of God to shape your heart and mind on the doctrine of hell.

Biblical theology is one of my favorite areas of study. G. K. Beale is one of the finest biblical theologians. Among his many solid works Beale’s latest book A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Transformation of the Old Testament in the New will be a most welcome addition to the ever growing field of New Testament biblical theology.

Here is the publishers description of the book:

This comprehensive exposition is the first major New Testament biblical theology to appear in English in fifty years. G. K. Beale, coeditor of the award-winning Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, examines how the New Testament storyline relates to and develops the Old Testament storyline. Beale argues that every major concept of the New Testament is a development of a concept from the Old and is to be understood as a facet of the inauguration of the latter-day new creation and kingdom. Offering extensive interaction between the two testaments, this volume helps readers see the unifying conceptual threads of the Old Testament and how those threads are woven together in Christ. This major work by a leading New Testament scholar will be valued by students of the New Testament and pastors alike.

Next Page »