Michael Bird & Brian Rosner (eds.). Mending a Fractured Church: How to Seek Unity with Integrity. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015.*
It’s no secret that Christians disagree- sometimes with considerable harshness. It’s also no secret that the New Testament issues strong calls for the unity of the Church, and for graciousness and charity over disputable matters. But what are the non-disputable matters? How do you ensure that the discussion of disputable matters is charitable and does not lead to breaking of the unity? Mending a Fractured Church is meant to bring biblical, theological, and historical considerations to bear on these questions, and promote a greater sense of unity among Christians who still differ on some issues without losing or compromising essential doctrines.
What it’s about:
Mending a Fractured Church brings together a collection of scholars (almost all of whom are faculty at Ridley College in Australia; Peter Leithart being the exception) to examine the biblical precedents for handling disputes about doctrine or practice, as well as looking to Protestant history and contemporary challenges posed because of a plurality of backgrounds in contemporary churches. The authors attempt (as the subtitle suggests) to set precedents for how address theological concerns in ways which preserves the unity of the Church but doesn’t compromise doctrinal integrity.
The first essay (Andrew Malone) seeks to set the parameters: what do we mean by “disputable matters” and what does the New Testament give us in terms of defining the unity of the Church. The second (Lindsay Wilson) explores the dispute which is described in Joshua 22 (a dispute about the placement of an altar) and examines what was done well, and what was not done well in the case, and how we can avoid problems in conversations about perceived violations by other Christians. Third, Brian Rosner examines Paul’s instructions in Romans 14 concerning disputable matters, which centres around the issue of food- more specifically meat offered to idols. These instructions focus around accepting others who disagree on specific issues of practice which are as deemed non-essentials. Paul argues the believer is free, but ought to willingly curb the expression of freedom for the sake of accepting those who are not fully matured in that freedom. Fourth, Michael Bird examines the Johannine Epistles, noting that in the congregations to whom these letters are addressed, there had been a “parting of the ways” but this is not a justification for schism. Bird astutely and bluntly states “we need another denomination like we need another Babylonian captivity”. Bird argues that our commitment to the one Church ought to prevent us from leaving where we are, and “the good guys” should avoid being the ones doing the leaving (more on this below). Fifth, Rhys Bezzant examines Protestant history for examples of disagreement done poorly (using the Puritans mainly who held their church order as the only valid option and others as not part of the true church) and some done well (early evangelicals, particularly in Europe, who allowed considerable space for freedom of conscience on non-essentials, demanding unity around the central marker of the Gospel). Finally, Peter Leithart unpacks the challenges confronting church in the present, especially as immigration creates a plurality of cultures, in which Christians from various parts of the world bring particular practices and forms from one place to another. How does the Church accommodate these variations.
This book is needed. The fracturing of the Church into a seemingly ever-growing number of denominations is a disconcerting development in our history as Christ’s Church. The Creed’s declaration of one Holy, apostolic, catholic church is at odds with the fragmented collection of denominations we see in the present. It seems we are divided more than we are united. The Church needs our leaders to lead the way toward greater unity, even if we continue to exist in various traditions. Setting some groundwork for that movement towards unity is something most Church leaders would agree needs to happen. We need precedents (especially biblical, but also historical) to set a framework to launch inter-denominational conversations. We need some folks to begin making big moves in a positive direction. These essays lay out some potential guidelines, biblical principles, for us to begin conversations from. Realistically we can’t expect any book of this type to solve all our problems, but we need some folks who are broadly respected, a category which among evangelicals, I believe, includes Michael Bird and Brian Rosner, who can be catalysts for further development. So while not the be-all-end-all, this is a good place to start; evangelical scholars bringing Scripture to bear on the disputes between “camps” within the Church.
As with all collections of essays, there are highlights. Given the fact that Romans 14 is perhaps the most extensive treatment in the New Testament on the issue of overcoming disputes, one would want any discussion of that passage to be rich, challenging, and central to the overall impact of the book. Rosner does achieve that. He capably points to Paul’s approach to the division over meat. He points that Paul calls upon the mature to curb their freedoms for the sake the less mature, so that offense may be avoided to keep the unity of the Church.
Rhys Bezzant’s essay was a pleasant surprise. He graciously, but effectively critiques the Puritan tradition, which, in a sense, became what it hated in the Roman Catholic Church- demanding that it alone was the true Church based on the markers of Church structure. He points to the early evangelical movement, and specifically the Evangelical Alliance, as a positive model, which made allowance for considerable disagreement, but provided a central core which could unite groups with varying opinions on non-essential matters.
One thing lacking was a proposal of some concrete examples of non-negotiables and disputable matters. There are a few bits in Bird’s work on the Johannine Epistles (incarnation, atonement) but what constitutes a disputable matter? Depending on who you speak to, they will define this differently. Is eternal torment in hell a disputable matter? Is the understanding of the model of atonement a disputable matter? Is women in ministry disputable? Is modes of baptism disputable? Is inerrancy disputable? How do we settle disputes over what is and isn’t disputable? Bird also suggests the “good guys” should not be the one’s to leave. Those who differ from the orthodox should be the one’s to walk away and the orthodox should allow for that if necessary. But the challenge comes with the question “who are the ‘good guys’?” How do we determine who has the high ground? When both sides insist on their position as the right one, and both camps assume they’re the “good guys”, this suggestion doesn’t provide much resolution.
The other key issue unresolved in the question of “how do we do this?” Moving from the theoretical belief that the Church should be one and not divide over disputable matters to actually mending divisions which have occurred, and preventing fractures which are beginning to form to lead to division, is a very real struggle, which this book does not address, which may have been helpful. An additional chapter or chapters on application, perhaps written by pastors or denominational leaders who have been part of reconciliation or conflict resolution would have been an appropriate here.
In a period in Church history when disputable matters are fragmenting the body of Christ, it’s time for “big moves” toward unity. The unity of the Church is certainly placed, by Scripture, as something created by God in Christ, which we are called to steward and protect. For instance, Ephesians 2:14-22 (NRSV) says:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
While Mending a Fractured Church won’t solve the problem of division (I’m sure no one is under the illusion it will), it is a strong push to begin or perhaps further build on a very serious, and much needed conversation- how do we maintain unity of the Church and maintain our convictions about doctrine and practice? So I commend Bird and Rosner for taking on the proverbial elephant in the room. This small volume succeeds in moving the conversation forward. The conversation will of course require more work. But each step towards a goal of greater unity is a good thing. The Church needs to be always reminded of the centrality of unity of Christ’s body in the New Testament. This call to action is a welcome one.
*The publishers supplied a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. I am thankful to Lexham Press and Jessie Strong for the opportunity to read and engage with this book.
John G. Stackhouse Jr. Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.
I have openly and unashamedly argued in favour of an egalitarian understanding of gender on many occassions and in many different forms of discussion. I have no reservations about this, and I do so from an evangelical approach, anchored by exegesis of Scripture. So, when a conservative evangelical scholar publishes a book sharing an egalitarian position, that’s encouraging and exciting. John Stackhouse has an established credibility in evangelicalism, but also a courage to be upfront and potentially controversial on sensitive and disputed matters. So I appreciate his presence in evangelical academia. It also helps that he recently moved from Regent College to Crandall (formerly Atlantic Baptist University, where I did my undergraduate studies). Partners in Christ is a theological argument for an egalitarian view from a still conservative vantage point.
What it’s about:
A theological argument (as distinct from a biblical argument) means Stackhouse is not simply trying to say this is what the bible says, but recognizing Scripture as authority, Stackhouse is attempting connect how Scripture is then worked out and applied in a world where contexts can change (and have changed significantly from the context of the Paul, Luke, etc.). In other words, how do we move from the Biblical text to theological worldview and lived theology for a contemporary context. Stackhouse argues that exegesis by itself will not resolve the disagreements since proof-texts can be appealed to on both sides. Stackhouse argues that the Bible is polyphonic; it does present texts which call for male headship and female submission (albeit in an ad hoc context; e.g. 1 Cor. 14:34-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-15), and other texts which call for the equality of both genders in the Church and family (e.g. Rom. 16:1-7, Gal. 3:28, Acts 18:24-26). From this he views Scripture as presenting an ideal of equality, and calls for a trajectory towards equality, whenever and wherever that is possible and best serves the gospel, while still being sensitive to the real life, on the ground situation. God is accommodating to the context of patriarchy in the ancient world, but still clear that this is not the ideal which the Church should work towards. Historically, there was a reason for allowing patriarchy to remain in operation in the first century; it was for the benefit of the Gospel that Jesus and the Apostles do not immediately and fully upend patriarchy. Were the Church to do that in the first century, it would bring scorn and disgrace on the church, and likely result in the Gospel mission being compromised. But now that the 21st century Western world presents a very different situation, patriarchy is damaging to the Church’s witness, and therefore the Church would be better served by moving toward the equality of genders, which is a good thing, since we would through this moving towards a situation closer to the ideals which God has intended.
So, while Paul had cause to caution against a fully egalitarian situation, which, according to Stackhouse, he does in 1 Tim. 2, Eph. 5, 1 Cor. 14, etc., we have no such reason now. Paul and Jesus undercut many of the assumptions lying behind patriarchy (most notably the sexist views on which patriarchy was built) but did not call for an immediate social revolution, which would threaten the Church’s witness within a patriarchal society. In the present and western context, patriarchy hinders the mission of the Gospel, and thus can be removed as God had set as the ideal for the future anyway.
While Stackhouse’s exegetical assertions are a bit of a concession to complementarians (more on that below), his hermeneutical principles are a wise caution to traditional readings of the “clobber passages” invoked by complementarians to defend male headship in marriage and the Church. The Epistles of Paul are ad hoc documents, written in a specific historical and cultural situation. Thus they are conditioned by the cultural context of first century Judaism and Hellenism, which had varying nuances on gender, but on the whole recognized patriarchy as normative. To read these texts insisting on universal application is to miss what is really happening in the text. Noting other texts where women clearly move beyond typical roles in certain situations means that even in the first century church, much had already changed. I would push harder on this than Stackhouse, but his call to note how the text pushes towards amelioration of the patriarchal situation in a trajectory towards equality, which can now be applied in 21st century North America because of the cultural shifts, is welcome.
The distinct advantages of this work over others attempts at building a case for egalitarianism are mainly two; first that it is written from a position of evangelical theology. The attempt to divide people into camps of egalitarians who are “liberal” mainline protestants and complementarians who are “conservative” (I seriously dislike those terms, since they are ideological, not theological, but we’ll leave that for another day) won’t work for this book. The argument that egalitarians don’t recognize the authority of Scripture, or are conceding to culture over Scripture is proven false once again.
Second, it is written for a broader readership. Other defenses of egalitarian views (whether on biblical or theological or philosophical grounds) are often less accessible to most folks in the Church. While this book has some serious meat to it, it is still manageable for a very broad audience. It is good to see the conversation being opened up for people who may not be familiar with the arguments on either side.
It may seem surprising, but I am not a huge fan of Stackhouse’s argument. To his conclusion that we should be practicing egalitarianism in our homes and churches, I wholeheartedly say “Amen”. But while we share convictions that egalitarian views should be brought to bear on the Church and home, I think that Stackhouse concedes too much in his method of argument. I disagree with him regarding the New Testament’s concessions to patriarchy. I think his conclusions regarding the complementarian clobber texts are not the best readings of those passages. By saying the text presents male headship as an instruction from Paul (even with the recognition that these are ad hoc statements restricted by their context) Stackhouse makes his argument easier to dismiss by many conservatives. Firm complementarians will not be convinced by this argument, since the most ardent supporters of complementarianism won’t accept this hermeneutical approach. The common refrains of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” or “When the Bible speaks, God speaks” or appeals to inerrancy and immutability render this argument easily dismissible (not because these counterarguments are vaild, but because they are assumed in advance). I don’t disagree with Stackhouse’s argument per se, but think it’s effectiveness may be somewhat limited in the debate. It may sway some fence sitters. But will it persuade completementarians? Probably not. It may give them more ammunition. Having conceded that 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15 do indeed show Paul advocating for patriarchy, many will then say Stackhouse is conceding to the cultural shifts when God has spoken in favour of male-headship. Even though Stackhouse is making a valid point, he is doing so in a way which will likely turned back on him by those who disagree. By building a theological argument that we should be egalitarian while admitting Paul instructed the Ephesian and Corinthian Churches to remain patriarchal, Stackhouse is making his argument less convincing to a very vocal segment of contemporary evangelicalism.
I admire John Stackhouse. I really do. To remain committed to the conservative evangelical community and take a firm stance, and label himself a feminist is a big move. I am thrilled he wants to bring nuance and openness to conversation which has all too often been characterized by vitriolic accusations of liberalism and cowardice or hardheadedness and oppression. Stackhouse speaks with a firm but charitable tone, and answers many of the challenges of his opponents. But I think he leaves too much for complementarians to build a counter argument against him. I think this book is good, helpful, wise, and deeply charitable. I hope readers of all positions will engage fairly with the argument being presented and hear what is really being said. This certainly won’t settle the argument, but it is a good means to move the conversation forward, and open up the difficulties to a broader audience.
Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination (Second Edition). Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.
Few Old Testament scholars have been able to capture the liveliness of the Hebrew Scriptures the way Walter Brueggemann does. When it comes to literary artistry and spirituality of the Old Testament, Brueggemann is arguably the best in the business. He has a keen eye for the storytelling methods, spiritual and emotional context and impact of texts, and the power contained in them which is unleashed if we can really get inside them.
What it’s about:
The Prophetic Imagination is probably Brueggemann at his best. Reworked in 2001 to bring his work to bear on a changed historical context (the original is from 1978, so a lot has changed in the world since then) this book is designed to be a guide for those seeking to capture the method of Old Testament prophet as a model for prophetic ministry in contemporary life. Brueggemann identifies the two key tasks in the ministry of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets: “prophetic criticism” and “prophetic energizing”.
Prophetic ciriticism, argues Brueggemann (ch. 3), is to speak or through symbol live out a declaration that the prevailing culture is a false ideological construct which cannot stand. The prophet is called to delegitimize and reveal the dismantling of imperial ideology or “royal consciousness” (the way of Pharaoh, Solomon, Herod, Ceasar) with its superficial appearance of affluence, forced labour, and formation of a civil or royally sponsored (and thus controlled or at least controllable) “static religion”. This criticism happens through the prophet vocalizing and/or living out the laments and groans of the people (“The Embrace of Pathos”)- by speaking into and from a place of communal grieving from under oppression, turning to the God who is free to act on their behalf. Thus the prophet identifies and denounces injustice, and speaks to the inevitable toppling of unsustainable oppression.
Prophetic energizing (ch. 4) is the presentation of an alternative way- a new vision for a newly formed people called together to live out the vision. This vision is anchored in the freedom of God to act as he wills, and his refusal to be domesticated by kings and/or priests to serve the royal purpose. God challenges this imperial way with a prophetic word which declares God’s freedom and sovereignty to act, to tear down the unjust royal consciousness, and lift up the oppressed. Thus, the prophets of Israel, and prophetic leaders of the Church in present are called speak boldly of a way other than the prevailing culture, but a way which infuses hope, purpose, and vocation into the community of faith.
This vision of criticism through embracing pathos and energizing through providing a basis from and for amazement and imagination of the possibility for a new way, finds its greatest model in Jesus of Nazareth (ch. 5). Brueggemann walks through the incarnation, ministry of compassion, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus to show how Jesus enters the suffering and lamenting of humanity, destabilizes power structures, and announces their imminent demise, but also provides a new word of hope and amazement as he overcomes death through being raised, and calls his followers to a life which is lived out in acts of mercy (the ultimate anti-imperial way) which speaks into existence a new people with a renewed purpose (ch. 6); living according the vocation of mankind as defined by God’s character rather than the royal consciousness.
Finally, Brueggemann connects this prophetic imagination to the practice of ministry in the contemporary church (ch. 7). Brueggemann insists that arena for this prophetic mission is in the parish, that the life of the local congregation, is where the criticism and energizing is focused. In other words, those in pastoral leadership, elders, and leaders of ministry programs, are called to embrace the pathos of their people, facilitate lament, and “penetrate the numbness” (117) which comes from complacency under the weight of the royal ideology and immense pressure of the prevailing culture to acquiesce to the agenda of the powerful. Prophetic ministry in the local congregation must also propose a vision of alternative way to be made manifest in the local congregation itself- to become a community which embodies the way joy, compassion, and justice of the Kingdom of God, and lives it out in the public arena.
Brueggemann captures beautifully the essence of the prophetic leader. He traces this task of criticism and energizing through Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, to the climax of the redemptive story in Jesus. He astutely picks up on something often overlooked. The “doom and gloom” image of the prophet quite misleading, and this is a helpful corrective. The prophet is a counter to the royal/imperial agenda. A prophet, in the Old Testament tradition, is called to identify, name, expose, and indict exploitation and oppression, and to rally the people to cry out to God for help, and to call the people to live in a renewed commitment to the ways of mercy, justice, and righteousness. The task is a difficult one; a call to suffer with the oppressed, and work against the current, to come up against the denial, numbness, and despair of those who either bought into the royal consciousness, or have given up against the juggernaut of injustice and imperial oppression.
Brueggemann captures the beauty of the Kingdom-at-hand message of Jesus. He comes to not only suffer with and for his people, but to bring the word of hope and joy of the Kingdom breaking into the world to undo the powers-that-be, to critique the prevailing culture, and declare the inevitable demise of existing oppressive power structures and the ideologies behind them. Brueggemann’s prose is unparalleled in theological scholarship. He is able to write solid, profound, intelligent theology with true artistic craftsmanship.
But Brueggemann doesn’t just leave with an abstract, but connects the big picture of Scripture with the rubber meets the road of of the local parish/congregation. His word becomes useful, tangible, liveable. His words are convicting for us pastors, who have a weekly opportunity to speak to these things, and are called be leaders of lament, prayer, grieving, and bringers of hope. The ministry task Brueggemann places in front of us is hard, but it is good. His precision and clarity brings the word from ancient Israel to bear on a very different context. Pharaoh goes by a new name now. But the nature of the royal ideology is very much the same.
Where I think this work comes up short or could use some reworking is really somewhat nitpicky.The first issue I have with this book is that there isn’t more of it (a mere 125 pages without endnotes; which I find so annoying- footnotes for the win!). It’s compact to the point where it’s conciseness becomes a weakness. I would have preferred to have Brueggemann sit longer with different texts. One can feel like there is more in the words of Scripture to be explored in this book. Instead, Brueggemann moves on a bit too quickly from one text to another.
The second issue is that Brueggemann seems to make “prophetic ministry” less prophetic in the traditional sense of the prophet. Scripture seems to present the prophet as a very specific ministry of proclamation. Brueggemann seems to move boundary markers a bit to pull all public ministry under the umbrella of prophetic ministry. Pastor ministry certainly includes what Brueggemann is calling for; sharing in the pathos of the people, facilitating mourning, and helping to move people from a place of lament towards hope. But is this “prophetic”? Not in the traditional meaning of the word. This is pastoral. The New Testament does seem to make the distinction between the two (most obviously in 1 Cor. 12) though the text certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility (or perhaps inevitable?) overlapping. I think Brueggemann’s terminology pushes things a bit.
Brueggemann is a must for all students of theology. He is able to bring together exegesis, spiritual theology, praxis, and art in a package to make the text of Scripture something which can, and must be lived out- not just as moral demands, but as a story we join into- the message of the Kingdom of God coming into the present age to tear down oppression and injustice, and bring peace and joy through Jesus Christ. Only when the message of the prophets are examined from multiple angles, as Brueggemann has done, do we understand but also benefit from the text in our striving for kingdom living. This book calls on God’s people in the present to join a story, to reflect what has come before, and speak into the present to shape the future for God’s people. Brueggemann gives us not just an explanation of what was written, but a vision of how that text becomes a model for us to live into God’s ways.
J. Richard Middleton. A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.
Many moons ago (not really, but some days it feels like forever), as an undergrad, I read Al Wolters’ Creation Regained and I remember the hype the instructor and other students had for this book (I was attending Redeemer University College, where Wolters was and still is a professor). I recall being less than completely impressed by it, though I don’t recall why. It was shelved, and, for the most part, forgotten/ignored for many years after that. It was not because I disagreed with Wolters; for the most part I did agree, except on a few nitpicky bits. My best guess is that my interests, studies, and development wasn’t in worldview questions, but elsewhere. Recently I won a copy (three cheers for free books! thanks Baker Academic) of J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth, which explores in a fresh and comprehensive way much of what Wolters had written about in Creation Regained. This time around, the topic grabbed me, and this volume is one I got excited about, and which delivered.
What it’s about:
A New Heaven and a New Earth is written as a corrective to theological assumptions (worldviews) which Middleton shows has been influenced by the inclusion of ideas from Greek philosophy with Christian theology. More specifically, Middleton is addressing the view of the ultimate direction of the created order as a whole, and humanity within that world, and the cosmic salvation and renewal of creation which Scripture presents- that is, he is taking a narratival approach to the scope of Scripture and the vision for the future in provides. The common picture of “where we are going” in many circles is of death as a separation of soul and body, with disembodied souls “going to heaven” after death. This, argues Middleton doesn’t square with the biblical depiction of a renewed creation which, having the curse of sin removed and creation healed, will reflect the original intent of creation as a place of flourishing and abundance on the earth which God made good, and into which God placed humanity to cultivate and function as God’s vice-regents. Middleton is seeking to recover the vision of resurrection life in the new creation.
Middleton begins (Introduction) with the roots of the problematic view of “otherworldly” salvation; where did this notion come from, and how did it shape the Christian worldview? Next (Part 1) he examines the picture Scripture gives us of the original design behind creation- a place for the flourishing of human activity, a place of harmony, peace, completeness; a venue for God and creation to be in an abundant connectedness. He also comments on the catastrophic result of human sin, bringing division between humans, a struggle for dominance, and an abuse of creation. Parts 2 & 3 examine the trajectory of biblical salvation; the story of the Old Testament (Part 2) declaring the hope of God’s working for salvation through the Exodus paradigm and the prophetic vision of the Day of the Lord which would bring judgment and salvation and the fulfilment of that paradigm (typology) and vision in the New Testament (Part 3).
Part 4 specifically looks at the texts which have often been drawn on to prop up the problematic view of otherworldly salvation which typically views eschatology as expecting the end of the created world and the continuation of the saved as disembodied souls in heaven following the cosmic conflagration; a total destruction of the corrupt physical world. Middleton aptly unravels the problems and insists that those texts which at first glance appear to speak of a coming end to the physical creation in fact do not, but instead speak of earthly judgment using cosmic imagery and symbolism- that in all these texts the age to come which follows is still centred around God’s people inhabiting God’s new creation.
The final section explores the ethical implications of this understanding of the big picture of biblical worldview. Middleton focuses in on Luke 4, Jesus’ first recorded public announcement in Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus declares the fulfilment of Isaiah 61. Jesus states that with the coming of God’s renewed creation under his reign, all things are reoriented around justice, mercy, compassion, healing, repentance, and reconciliation. Thus, as participants in the kingdom’s coming on earth as it is in heaven, we are pressed with a Christ-like ethic of care and concern for the vulnerable, and a proclamation of the coming kingdom of God, inviting people to come and be reconciled to God. Thus, a kingdom coming/cosmic salvation view challenges us to move away from an “us vs. them” mentality, to a Christ-for-us view, which seeks to live out the love and grace of God to brother/sister, neighbour, and enemy alike. Thus, our Christology informs our soteriology and eschatology, which informs our ethics and ministry model.
Although I already shared Middleton’s view of cosmic salvation, and fully appreciate the narratival approach to Scripture and how that informs both worldview and ethics (at almost every juncture I was nodding in agreement with Middleton), it is wonderful to be reminded of the beautiful vision which Scripture gives us, and the hope which comes from it. There can often be a temptation to specialize, and narrow our theological discussions, and so it can be vital to step back, take glance at the big picture and see how the whole works together. Middleton covers the sweep of Scripture, beginning to end, incorporating all sections of Scripture, even bringing in Wisdom Literature which is sometimes overlooked in discussions of biblical eschatology, as well as capturing key typological connections between the Old Testament and the Gospels, and the ways in which Paul interprets the death and resurrection of Christ in presenting his eschatalogical vision.
His argument is convincing, well laid out, fully substantiated, and considers all the evidence equally and offers gracious correction to opposing views. It is a solid example of how good scholarship should work; avoiding invective, focusing on the text of Scripture, carefully weighing all the data, and working through the practical implications of the conclusions for the Church.
Though not a central concern, I very much appreciated Middleton’s courage to take on two specific issues which are of note for my own interests and personal studies. First, in unpacking Genesis 1 & 2, Middleton takes a firm egalitarian reading, noting the shared vocation and complete equality of male and female in the created order, which is distorted and sent into a destructive and oppressive patriarchal way as a result of the fall into sin, which is being corrected in Christ, removing the stratification of gender relations (Gal. 3:28; see 50-55, 275-6, 276 n. 16). Secondly, Middleton hints at a reading of the new creation which fits with the view of conditional immortality. Middleton offers this not as a dogmatic view but a reasonable and probable conclusion from the biblical evidence using the terms “annihilation of the person” and “cosmic disinheritance, permanent exile from God’s good creation” (207).
While the implications section is very much welcome in order to work out how the biblical picture of eschatology applies to the life of the Church, there is a bit of a gap here. Middleton’s exegetical and theological work is beyond the average pew-sitter. Most of those who have been through formal theological education have been exposed to most of what Middleton is advocating for in the previous sections. Many (perhaps even most) Pastors and Academics have for quite some time had this view in mind (as best I can tell), but part of the struggle is bringing doctrinal/worldview conclusions from the world of the formally trained, to the pews where the problematic view still persists. Most average church-goers are not prepared to read a 300+ page work dealing with the historical development of eschatalogical and soteriological assumptions, and the influence of Platonic and Stoic ideas on anthropology, eschatology, etc. The basic model Middleton presents has been presented by Wolters, NT Wright, and others at the scholarly and, to a lesser extent, more popular level. While Middleton’s treatment (in my humble opinion) exceeds previous work on this topic which I’ve read both in comprehensiveness and style, it doesn’t bring much in terms of an original vision. It does what has been done before, only better. What hasn’t been done in anything I’ve seen, is take this vision and make it more accessible. I know this wasn’t Middleton’s goal- he wasn’t writing a popular level book, but an academic one, but I think what the church needs is a well crafted popular level version of this. Theologically trained leaders will need to do some of their own work with this to make this reflect in their leadership.
Middleton can be commended for producing a fine piece of theological scholarship. As someone whose has recognized expertise in biblical exegesis and theology as well as worldview studies, this is clearly a book which Middleton can produce with excellence (and he has). Profoundly biblical, expertly arranged and written, and firm in its conviction but still gracious in tone, this deserves to be required reading in bible colleges and seminaries. Pastors need to work with this, so that this vision can be brought into the pulpit so that congregations can move away from the problematic view of disembodied souls being taken away from the earth. If this vision takes hold in the Church, the negative view of God’s creation, and the entrenched, triumphalist, exclusive, “circle the wagons” mentality, which has been a dark spot on the Church for far too long, may begin to be chipped away. The Gospel of the Kingdom offers new life. Our Gospel proclamation ought to reflect that, as should our view of both the present and the future. This is a gift to students and pastors which in turn, I hope and pray, will be brought to bear on the leadership they bring to congregations.
Nate Pyle. Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.*
Social media can be a very effective and helpful thing. It has its dark side of course, but it has also been at times a real blessing by allowing me to stay connected to friends and family who are geographically scattered. But Twitter has also allowed me to connect with a variety of folks, including a colleagues/peers/generally cool folks who I otherwise would not be able to encounter. One of those folks who has been an encouragement to me is Nate Pyle. Nate is a pastor in Fishers, Indiana at Christ’s Community Church (affiliated with the Reformed Church of America). He and I have had lots of great interactions, and he even invited me to guest post on his blog.
I was excited when he announced he was being published. Nate was generous enough to convince Zondervan to send me a free copy of Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood. This is not the type of book I am usually reading. But now and then I need to move out of my comfort zone and read something a little less cerebral and more “rubber meets the road”. This isn’t to say Nate isn’t a brilliant person and sound theologian (he is), but Nate is writing to take a conversation which has been happening in the ivory towers of more scholarly circles and bring it down to where the Church can access, digest, reflect on, and apply it. For this I am very thankful.
What Nate has given us in Man Enough is a deeply personal, authentic, and vulnerable reflection on what it means to be a man. The notion of “biblical manhood” is one which draws antagonisms and visceral reactions from many (myself included). Nate though is a deeply pastoral voice, with incredible ability to discern, cut through the noise (without being combative- a skill I sometimes lack), and leave one feeling encouraged and hopeful that this conversation can be done well.
Nate’s central “thesis” is that manhood should not be defined by cultural assumptions of manliness which distort things and apply pressure for males to be macho, tough, strong, stoic, and conform to certain patterns, attitudes, and roles. Instead, manliness is found in becoming like Jesus. Jesus, who allowed himself to be weak, who served, who sacrificed, who was tender and loving becomes the model for men to imitate (of course, the same is true of women). Men and women are therefore not defined by rigidly defined roles, behaviours, and interests, but by their imitation of Jesus, and living into the image of God in which male and female were created. How that plays out may be different for each gender, and also for each cultural context, and even for each individual.
The whole book centres around Nate’s own personal struggle, stemming from middle school insecurities. Nate confesses his own battle with trying to be tough, to be accepted as manly, to avoid being perceived as weak. He then unpacks the negative impact it had on his life and relationships- leaving him distant, disconnected, and unable to be honest and real with other people. Nate courageously unpacks a battle many have had. My own story, and I’m sure the stories of many males, has many important overlaps (of course we all have different nuances and experiences, but I’m fairly sure most males can identify with something in Nate’s experience). He describes the freedom which came from dropping the false image with one of his mentor-friends, and how that began a journey of seeing manliness anchored in who Jesus is, not an arbitrary construct of sports, hunting, bread-winning, and emotional toughness. This, Nate says, allowed him to be real, and to be open to be shaped not by cultural demands, but by Christ himself.
If I could put my finger on one weakness, it’s this: the chapters (other than chapter 1 which describes the important moment in which he came to his knowledge of the false persona he had built to uphold this sense of manliness) are many different reflections which mostly unpack the same idea. The thought doesn’t develop and lead somewhere. The final chapter is a bit more assertively worded and draws a lot together, but in between, there isn’t a movement towards something. Chapters 3 and 11 struck me as the strongest. But in between there wasn’t much development.
To conclude/sum up: Nate Pyle’s is a voice we need in our churches. His pastoral sensitivity and humility is a welcome relief in strong rhetoric and flippant ways we (I include myself here) talk about/to those with whom we disagree. Man Enough effectively brings the conversation to the pews, to cut through the confusion created by the often hostile debates between egalitarians and complementarians. He writes with conviction, but also a definite care and concern for both sides. His voice brings the divided elements closer together to really ask tough questions: are we imitating Jesus, or some cultural constructed definition of gender roles and masculine and feminine attributes. By drawing us to the person of Jesus as the one women and men are both to emulate in our lives, and his effective unpacking of the fruits of the Spirit as characteristics men and women are universally to hold, Nate has lovingly and gently- but also effectively- dismantled the need for false bravado, the muscular, domineering, macho, one-upmanship character demanded by culture from males, which has imposed itself within the Church and distorted our view of masculinity and even our view of Jesus. This book will be liberating to those who have are where Nate was, and encouragement to those who have, like Nate, challenged that place, or felt the pressure to conform to the corrupted vision of manhood. Nate’s call back to the person of Jesus, and to find our worth, value, acceptability, and defining model in him is one which will, if heeded, be of unspeakable value.
*The author and publisher arranged for me to receive a free copy of this book. Many thanks to Nate and to Zondervan.
Sunday, October 25th, 2015. 176th Anniversary Service. Guest Speaker, Rev. Heather Myers. Being a “Let Us” Community (Hebrews 10:19-25)
Michael J. Gorman. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness, Following the Lamb into the New Creation. Eugene: Cascade, 2011.
I had, for a long time, bucked against any notion of preaching on Revelation. Ok, maybe chapters 1-3; lots of compelling challenges for the church there. But the rest of it was a bit too dicey. Then I began to read more, and really became convinced of wonderful, sermon ready content in the throne room scene of chapters 4 & 5. Ok, but from chapter 6 on, no way. But more and more, I’ve come to see the value of a close reading of Revelation for discipleship, and for preaching. Of course, Revelation must be read with care. Many have gotten into weird and wild places because of the way Revelation has been read (part of the reason I hid from it).
So, as my interest has grown a bit more (not enough to really tackle Revelation in the pulpit yet) I’ve gathered a few resources, and recently picked up this volume by Michael Gorman. Since reading Inhabiting the Cruciform God earlier this year, I’ve become a Gorman fanboy. Sure, I haven’t read much of his stuff, but I immediately identified with his writing, and it resonated in exciting ways. I’ve generally carried tension with a lot of various things within evangelical theology, and Gorman has been incredibly refreshing. His emphasis on cruciformity, discipleship, formation, and union with Christ have been a breath of fresh air which evangelicalism needs so badly. He skillfully draws out the beauty of the Gospel and frames the New Testament in what I would argue is a more accurate and responsible way. Similarly, evangelicalism needs more responsible, sane, and responsible readings of the Book of Revelation. So, I figured I could count of Gorman to bring something valuable to the table. He didn’t disappoint.
Reading Revelation Responsibly is designed to counter various misreadings of Revelation and set up a more contextually sensitive and responsible approach. Whether hyper-preterist, or dispensationlist or sundry other extreme readings, Gorman aptly cuts down these readings to get to the core of what Revelation is about. This book is a very good hermeneutical guide to managing a difficult text well. Gorman capably debunks problematic readings like those of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth and the very popular fiction series Left Behind with their sensationalized Armageddon and rapture focused readings. Gorman dismisses all the rapture readings, and develops a much more contextually sensitive reading. Historical situation and literary genre considerations (properly understood meanings of “apocalyptic”, theopoetic, and pastoral writings) are explored to demonstrate the shortcomings of dispensational and the various other improper readings of Revelation.
Gorman argues that the main purpose of the book is what he sums up in the subtitle of the book, “Uncivil Worship and Witness, Following the Lamb into the New Creation”. In other words Revelation is meant to address a few themes:
Uncivil worship- rejecting civil worship of Rome, which demanded worship of state and Emperor in a fusion of religion and politics which was common in the ancient world. Christians are called to reject any worship of the state (thus, have worship which is “uncivil”). Thus, Revelation is a liturgical text- one that promotes proper worship. Through hymnic portions, Revelation exposes the throne centred worship which is to characterize Christian practice.
Witness- to be faithful witnesses (to the point of death if necessary) to Christ, who is the faithful witness. Thus, argues Gorman, Revelation calls Christians to testify to Christ, and speak faithfully of the person and work of the Lamb. While many would glorify martyrdom in the popular sense (glorifying those who die for their faith), Revelation speaks of martyrdom in the true sense of the Greek word, which means witness. So, whether or not death might result from Christian witness, the key is faithfulness in our witness.
Following the Lamb- Jesus Christ is throughout Revelation referred to as the Lamb, the one slaughtered but raised. The Church is called to follow him, obey him, be joined to him in suffering and death, which is then vindicated by God in the resurrection.
Into the New Creation- the promise of Revelation is that those who follow the Lamb away from civil worship, and remain faithful witnesses will share with the Lamb in his final victory of sin and death, and will participate in the new creation.
In other words, Gorman argues that Revelation is a call for Christians to reject the practices of the Roman world, and be radically committed to remaining faithful to Jesus Christ, a potentially dangerous choice, but one which will be vindicated in the new creation. Gorman also suggests that Revelation’s focus on civil worship has implications for his own context of 21st century America, with the potential trappings of American nationalism, which links the state to religious identity. He warns that American identity and patriotism may be capitulation to civil religion.
The one short-coming for me was the amount of space given to critique of American Civil Religion. While relevant, I am not convinced it warranted as much space as it received. For those of us outside of the USA, the book would not have been less impactful had the comments been removed, or reduced in size.
For the sake of full disclosure, I must state that my appreciation for Gorman’s take may reflect the fact that I already had an understanding of Revelation which mirrors almost exactly what Gorman has written here. At basically every point Gorman was stating a case which I had accepted based on other materials I have read on the subject. So this book served less as correction, and more as affirmation, which may skew my opinion in Gorman’s favour. But nevertheless, I do think Gorman’s case is very convincing, and would be an important, eye-opening, corrective to many.
Gorman is an accomplished scholar, and some of his other work is quite technical. This however, is far more manageable for the average reader, and can be understood by the vast majority of people. It still has some theological heft to it, but is written in such a way to make it suitable for folks with little formal theological training, but with a sincere interest in understanding what Revelation is really about. This is a very important resource for pastors and laity. To anyone really interested in the book of Revelation, I would absolutely recommend this book as the go-to guide to be read as one reads what is perhaps the most difficult to understand portion of Scripture.
J. R. Daniel Kirk. Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
Daniel Kirk is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. His Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? (review here) was mind boggling good. Unlocking Romans, Kirk’s first book, sat on my shelf for a sadly long time (almost a year before I got into reading it). But I finally broke it open and it took a long period to get through it all. It’s a highly academic monograph, which requires moments to pause and unpack. Kirk challenges many protestant assumptions about soteriology and heremeneutics.
Kirk’s thesis is two-fold: Romans is a “theodicy project”. It is Paul’s resolution to the challenging question how can Israel’s God be considered faithful when Israel is in painful subjugation to other nations. Why are God’s covenant people still in exile if YHWH is creator, sovereign, and good? And the response Paul has is the resurrection of Jesus declares that yes, the God of Israel is faithful. He has begun the vindication of himself and his people by raising Jesus from the dead, so that those who are in the messiah become inheritors of the promises of Israel’s God.
Second, the resurrection of the Messiah becomes the lens by which Israel’s scriptures are to be understood. All of Israel’s hopes and understandings of the promise are reread in light of the resurrection. In other words, Paul reads Israel’s history and Scriptures through a resurrection hermeneutic.
I’m often amazed at the way resurrection is missed in Pauline soteriology among protestants, especially in Romans. Kirk does a fantastic job at answering the questions, and articulating some of the thoughts I’ve had for many years. Richard Hays, in his blurb on the back cover captures this sentiment: “Many readers will come to the end of this book saying, ‘Yes, of course; why didn’t we see that before?'” Kirk has provided an essential challenge to deeply ingrained assumptions about penal substitution as the central tenet of Paul’s theology and the central argument of Romans. Kirk rightly (in my opinion) recasts the thesis of Romans as not in 1:16-17 (the Gospel is God’s salvation), as is often assumed, but is found earlier in Romans- 1:1-6. Thus, Kirk reorients the content of the Gospel. As has been argued astoundingly by Wright and McKnight (among others) the Gospel is not soteriology. Instead the Gospel is about Jesus, the one promised in the Scriptures, fulfilling the promise, as a son of David, who has been revealed as Son of God and Lord over all through the resurrection, and this promise has created (and is creating) a new humanity, a new people of God which includes both Jews and Gentiles. This important factor is needed in Pauline discussion, and I for one welcome this important rereading Romans. Romans is not about penal substitution, but about how Jesus fulfills the promises of God to vindicate himself and his people, and this comes about through Jesus, who was crucified and raised.
Kirk’s thorough analysis of the sweep of Romans demonstrates how Romans is permeated by resurrection language. At all points it seems that the resurrection lies as key to understanding all debates about God’s work in his creation. Instead of dealing with Romans as separate propositions, dealing with various aspects of doctrine, Kirk embraces the sweep of Romans as a letter with a single purpose and various components coming together to argue that in the resurrection of Jesus, God has fulfilled his promises to be faithful to his people and bless all people through Israel and remake and renew the creation.
Although there are definite hints of New Perspective on Paul (NPP) arguments, Kirk is engaging various sides and arguments. He engages the differing views of Wright, Dunn, Sanders, Moo, Fitzmeyer, Watson, etc. Although much of what is presented seems to lean towards NPP and shares more in common with Wright than Moo, he is still critical of both sides.
Kirk’s thorough analysis, although highly technical (you’re going to need some Greek for this one) is still presented in a way which makes it clearly relevant, beautiful, and practical. In the final chapter(s) Kirk points out that we are drawn into the people of God, filled with the Spirit, and dwell in the bifurcated, already but not yet reality, living in the eternal life brought to us, but also part of the present age. The age to come has broken into the present age where sin and death have asserted power. But, with the Spirit’s presence we bring the age to come to bear on the present. We live in a way that demands we make resurrection relevant to how we function in the here and now. So, Kirk is not simply interested in theoretical pontification, but his analysis of Romans calls us to know God has given his answer to the challenge “where is God?” with the answer resurrection and new life, available now, through the spirit which allows us to live for God now, and not simply await the day when we are freed from the evil of the material world. Kirk exposes the crypto-gnosticism in so much theology where earth is heaven’s waiting room. Instead, Kirk shows us that Romans points us towards life lived in the Messiah now as a foretaste of the age to come.
Unlocking Romans is a wonderfully refreshing take on Romans. For several centuries- at least since Luther- Romans has been all about salvation from sins through the atoning death of Jesus and not by works. Instead Kirk has, by tracking the sweep of Romans, demonstrated how Paul’s theology is centred around the hope of new creation which God is faithfully bringing about, defeating sin and death by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Kirk has, in my mind, captured the heart of Paul. Kirk has shown how Romans declares the gospel of Jesus Christ, promised messiah and fulfillment of God’s faithfulness and vindication of himself because he has shown himself faithful to the covenant.
Kirk has provided a beautiful depiction of Romans which captures the whole of that letter, and has drawn out of the dynamic of resurrection as the solution to the theodicy question. God has shown himself faithful in the risen Lord. Kirk has astutely captured and presented the Gospel according to Paul’s letter to the Romans. How the protestant world has frequently missed what Kirk has noted is shocking, and hopefully will be corrected more and more. The more this book is read, and the more we are pushed to rethink our assumptions about Pauline theology generally and Romans specifically, we will open our eyes more and more to message of new life which is really at the fore of Paul’s words to the Roman Christians.
Many pastors live and die by our books. Commentaries are particularly important. A pastor without commentaries can be like a carpenter without a hammer and saw. My collection is hardly authoritative. But what I’ve compiled here is my recommendations for each of the books of the New Testament. I’m sure I don’t own all the good options out there. I have a running “wishlist” and am more than happy to take suggestions. There are several NT books which I don’t preach from as often which I have fewer resources for, but I have made sure that I have a few options for each. But these are the standouts from my experience and interaction. I’ve tried to pick one “must have” for this list. For some, it’s obviously harder than others. If you want multiple recommendations, see my list here. So if your favourite isn’t here, it may be because I don’t own it or have never used it, or perhaps because it was good, but I prefer another. So here goes…
Matthew: If you can only own one commentary on Matthew, get R.T. France’s NICNT. I love this commentary. The introduction is brief, but points to other secondary works where more in depth treatments of introductory material can be found. The commentary is well-balanced and easy to follow. The research is up to date, and well laid out in footnotes to avoid it bogging down the flow of the exposition.
Mark: Top spot on Mark also goes to R.T. France; this time in the NIGTC series. I cannot say enough good things about this one. It’s detailed, well structured, and surprisingly pastor friendly for a highly technical commentary (you’ll need some Greek knowledge to make full use of this one). I was using Mark for my Lenten series in 2013, and this commentary was incredibly useful, clear, deep, and beautifully written.
Luke: Joel B. Green’s volume in the NICNT series is the most comprehensive single-volume commentary on Luke. Luke is not easy to condense into a single volume and still be sufficiently detailed, but Green’s commentary is jam-packed, and as detailed as some multi-volume sets.
John: Marianne Meye Thompson (New Testament Library) is a bit more current and far more succinct and user-friendly than the other standby, Raymond E. Brown’s 2 volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series, which is still relevant (though perhaps a bit too speculative) after all these decades.
Acts: Here, I recommend the best short commentary on Acts: Luke Timothy Johnson’s volume in the Sacra Pagina series. Johnson also wrote the Luke volume for that series and the two are outstanding expositional commentaries which avoid the rabbit-trails of commenting on other commentaries. Even though it’s much shorter than other options, it is still top notch.
Romans: My preference is either the NIGTC volume by Richard Longenecker, the Sacra Pagina volume by Brendan Byrne, or the Anchor Bible by Joseph Fitzmyer. Longenecker is more recent, released in 2016. Longenecker is sensitive to the New Perspective on Paul, and incorporates much of that research to balance out traditional reformed readings of Romans. Unlike most NIGTC volumes, Longenecker includes a “contextualization” section, helping bring the meaning of the 1st century Greek text into the present, as well as a “biblical theology” section which helps place a specific pericope within the broader world of biblical theology. Byrne is a Jesuit scholar, taking a more succinct approach. He does get into some critical scholarship issues, particularly rhetorical criticism, but stays primarily focused on the exposition of the text and its overarching purpose, and does so beautifully. Fitzmyer is also a Jesuit scholar, and master commentary writer with tons of expertise in the social setting of the NT.
1 Corinthians: A tricky epistle to nail down sometimes, with a few “touchy” subjects covered and a lot of hermeneutical puzzles. The best all-around option is Gordon Fee’s NICNT (2nd edition, 2014), which I absolutely love. This is everything a good commentary should be. If you can only get one, I’d suggest Fee.
2 Corinthians: Frank Matera’s New Testament Library volume has been the one I’ve used most, and would probably be my first choice. It’s less well known, but still a very good commentary. It’s fairly technical, but manageable for someone with only basic level Greek, and even someone with no Greek can still get much from this one. David Garland’s NAC is the other one I’d recommend, even though I think the intro is a bit too brief. I think the exegesis is a bit more useful for preaching and bible study than Matera.
Galatians: Although I also really like Richard Longenecker’s WBC volume, I find it not always great for sermon prep, in part because WBC’s formatting is hardly user friendly, but it includes some New Perspective elements overlooked by others. But the new NICNT replacement for Fung’s volume by David DeSilva is far more user-friendly, and equally sound and robust in its exegesis as Longenecker. If you’re good in Greek, and willing to put in the work of the WBC, Longenecker is where to go. If you’d prefer something a little easier to manage, DeSilva.
Ephesians: Klyne Snodgrass’ NIVAC is among the most useful and theologically engaging commentaries on my shelves. It is pastorally inspiring, concise, and still sufficently detailed. It captures the beauty of the christological emphasis of Ephesians in a way which is incredible, but also connects that with application for contemporary context and issues.
Philippians: Gordon Fee’s NICNT is definitely the best option I’ve used. The fantastic introduction covers the context and genre extremely well. The exegesis balances technical detail with useful exposition for preaching. Fee is one of those scholars who is immensely brilliant, but can still write for a pastor incredibly well, and this comes through in his commentary.
Colossians: On Colossians, James D.G. Dunn’s NIGTC on Colossians and Philemon is probably the most thorough, and where I have been going to first, but I find myself disagreeing with some of Dunn’s conclusions (which typically doesn’t happen) epsecially on authorship (Dunn’s degree of certainty against Pauline authorship is, in my opinion, unjustified) and he comes up a tad short on Philemon. Two other more pastor-friendly options for Colossians are McKnight’s brand new NICNT (replacing the good, but way too short Col/Eph/Phlm volume by Bruce) or Jerry Sumney (NTL). Both deal with Colossians alone, without Philemon. McKnight defends Pauline authorship, while Sumney goes the other way, though not with a high degree of certainty, and his position doesn’t distract from reading the text well. Any of the three are great options.
1 & 2 Thessalonians: My first choice is still F.F. Bruce’s WBC volume. Although it’s now 30+ years old, it still hasn’t been surpassed by anything I’ve read. It’s nuanced, reliable, and not interested in wild speculation.
Pastoral Epistles: Here I typically go with Luke Timothy Johnson’s Anchor Bible volume on the letters of Timothy, and William Mounce’s WBC first. Mounce’s introduction and discussion of authorship issues is very good, and he interacts throughout with the varying perspectives on authorship and how that may affect interpretation, and is very balanced and charitable. Overall Mounce covers controversial issues with the content well and graciously. Johnson is great at not trying to too get tied in knots to resolve some of the tensions, but allows the difficult material on gender, authority, etc to sit and speak on its own terms.
Philemon: While volumes dedicated to Philemon alone are not plentiful, and in many commentaries on Colossians and Philemon together, Philemon doesn’t get the coverage it deserves (my favourite Philemon commentary in a combined volume is David Garland’s NIVAC). The two commentaries on Philemon alone which are excellent options are Joseph Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible volume, and the more recent NICNT volume by Scot McKnight. McKnight is geared more towards a pastoral audience, and is probably the better option for preaching, and spends more time examining ancient slavery as part of Paul’s historical reality and how he navigates that. Fitzmyer is more technical and covers the history of interpretation in more detail.
Hebrews: Luke Timothy Johnson’s New Testament Library volume is my first choice. In fact, all around, it is among my favourite commentaries on any book of the bible I have on my shelves. It’s a must have.
James: For the best, most comprehensive introduction, Luke Timothy Johnson’s Anchor Bible is the stand out. Scot McKnight’s NICNT volume is a solid, and innovative approach (he very intentionally doesn’t filter James through Paul and protestant readings of Paul, but lets James stand on its own terms, rather than spending lots of time trying to reconcile the two). McKnight is detailed in the introduction, but not as extensive as Johnson, but sets the context well. McKnight’s approach to the text illuminates the unity of what has often been considered a disjointed text, and the format is more user friendly than the AB. If you want just one commentary, I would suggest that McKnight is the best overall option, with Johnson a very, very close second. But if you can, get both, and Ralph Martin’s WBC volume too.
1 Peter: I would highly recommend I. Howard Marshall’s IVPNTC, even though I do have several more in-depth treatments (Ramsey, Jobes, Donelson, and Davids). The series is certainly not exhaustive. But Marshall’s 1 Peter commentary is excellent, and captures well the theological thrust of the epistle. Marshall is a top notch scholar, but has managed to put together a more popular level commentary without “dumbing down”, which is not an easy task.
2 Peter/Jude: Richard Bauckham’s WBC is certainly the best I’ve worked with. Bauckham’s expertise in Jewish Apocalyptic writings and eschatology make him the best person to comment on these two texts.
Johanine Epistles: 1 John still holds a special place in my heart. My first sermon at Centre Street was on 1 John 1:1-8. The first scripture verse I ever memorized was 1 John 5:13. I prefer Raymond Brown’s mammoth 800 page Anchor Bible volume, which is superb, and still, after 35 years, the most comprehensive and important volume on these relatively short texts. Judith Lieu’s recent volume in the NTL series is also a fantastic, more succinct option. If you don’t do Greek, Marianne Meye Thompson’s IVPNTC is a very good non-technical option.
Revelation: Beale’s NIGTC is a great option; more in-depth than Smalley, but not as overwhelming as Aune who can sometimes get lost in minutia. More recently I’ve added Koester’s Anchor Bible volume and Brian Blount’s NTL volume and both have similar perspectives on Revelation, but Koester has a bit more detail. Overall, I’d probably go with Koester as my preferred ommentary. While not actually commentaries, Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly and Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation are great aids for hermeneutical issues.
Jonathan Martin. Prototype: What Happens When Discover You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think? Tyndale Momentum, 2013.
Pastors don’t usually get to sit and listen to sermons on Sundays. I can’t speak for all pastors, but I miss being able to sit and hear someone else lead me through scripture. So I do what I can- podcasted sermons. There’s a few folks who in a sense “pastor” me, most without realizing they’re even doing it. One of my favourite pastors to listen to via podcast is Jonathan Martin. Until this spring, Martin was Pastor of Renovatus Church in North Carolina. I love his preaching. It’s deep without being dry, stuffy and heady. It’s passionate, and soaked with the message of radical, transforming grace. So when his book Prototype popped up on sale for the low low price of $1.60 (US) for the ebook I jumped at the opportunity. And I launched myself into it, and took advantage of a unique opportunity to get through the whole thing- I was reading this between my wife’s contractions, and then while she and my newborn daughter slept peacefully. And I did indeed finish the whole thing in 24 hours. But since that was my third daughter, it has meant this review has been understandably (hopefully) long in coming.
What it’s about:
The basic premise is that Jesus is the “prototype” of a new way to be human. Jesus, as the perfect image-bearer of God, reflects to us what it means to be human, made in the image of God, living as we are intended. Living in our broken world has lead us to confinement, to living according to the demands and expectation, a life of fear, guilt, and anxiety. What God has created us to be is ourselves, free from the restrictions which come from sin and brokenness. We are created to be freely ourselves. Martin connects this freedom to time spent as a child riding his bike, where he felt most able to break free of any restrictions and be truly and authentically himself (since leaving renovatus, Martin’s twitter handle switched from @renovatuspastor to @theboyonthebike). This incredible sense of freedom and connectedness is what Martin depicts as the free, unrestricted, untainted life in the presence of God. We are to be defined by the identity given and designed by God, not the activities we do, or the marks we bear from sin. Jesus has freed us to be like him. Prototype goes through the various means by which Jesus frees us and transforms us to live in his presence, and more fully live as bearers of the image of God, and beloved children.
I am deeply appreciative of Martin’s tone, and encouragement. The reminder that we are beloved children, created to be free and in fruitful connectedness to our creator is something we always need. We need to know that God desires not a life a guilt, shame, oppression, insecurity and identity crises. He desires fruitful life in his presence.
Martin suggests we need times of “wilderness”, times away from Facebook, email, and frenetic life in 21st century western culture which inundates us with expectations of how we are to look and be- expectations which create crippling fear of inadequacy and failure. We need to escape, suggests Martin, to find a place (like riding a bike) where we are uninhibited before God. While there is something lacking in this wilderness depiction I get what he’s implying- that the pressure of culture can create a situation in which we live to please the cultural expectation. This existential cry can be problematic, but there is something in there which needs to be heard. The call to become vulnerable, cut off, “exiled”, draws us out of our little pseudo-realities and force us to confront the fact that we utterly in need of something else. It is in the wilderness, in “obscurity” that we hear the “calling”. It is when we strip away the noise and distractions vying for our attention that we hear what God has to say.
The chapter “Resurrection” is particularly good. In this chapter Martin depicts the stumbling block that our affirmation of the risen Christ can be. But in that, God’s plan is unpacked, New Life, freedom from sin and death, and sharing in God’s community become realities. Martin unpacks Thomas’ reaction to the news of the resurrection. Noting that a moment of doubt at the claim of resurrection ought not become a defining characteristic. Why do we call him “doubting Thomas” because of this single moment of wavering? Are we defined by single low points in our lives? Or are we defined by our belovedness, and the grace and victory we’ve been showered with, and the person who God is transforming us to be? The good news declares that “doubting Thomas” is beloved, redeemed, and reconciled Thomas.
In the following chapter (“Sacraments”), Martin unpacks how it is we experience God, and draw close to him and participate in his life. He opens with “Following Jesus turns out to be a full-contact sport” (99). He declares the Christ who reveals the “goodness” of the created world. This anti-gnostic affirmation of God revealed in the flesh, “The God you can touch” (100), declares that God can be encountered in real, flesh and blood, experiential ways, through sacraments. While I am not “High Church” in my view of the sacraments, I do take a more participationist stance on baptism and the eucharist (ie. what we do in the eucharist and baptism is more than simple symbols, but symbolic acts which allow us to “participate” in Christ, to have union with him). Martin does include footwashing in his sacramentalism, which is not necessarily bad, but I simply don’t, since I think it’s power is somewhat culturally bound.
The chapters on “witness” and “community” do a great job of drawing the lines between our experience and the outworking of our spirituality towards others. It demands that our spirituality not become isolationist or pietistic, but become enfleshed, and lived out with others.
The non-headyness of Prototype was helpful for me, breaking from my usual reading patterns of commentaries and academic theology. Given the fact that I was reading in the maternity ward, having little sleep, it is probably best I wasn’t forced to engage on an intellectual level (I may have to reread this one, because I probably missed some good stuff in my sleepiness). But Martin provided a wonderful portrayal of what life with God’s presence can look like. It’s unsettling, and difficult at first, but freeing. Finding God in the flesh-and-blood realities is kind of weird, after seeing my daughter Mhaili born; to see the holiness and sacredness of life there in that room. To be awed at God who is imaged in humanity is amplified by the stuff that makes us squeamish.
One thing I noticed which was kind of weird is that Martin’s writing here and his sermons are somewhat different. Maybe it’s the southern accent. I don’t know, but part of me hope that this book would more closely resemble his sermons. I love how his sermons focus so much on the absurd and incredible outpouring of grace and transformation revealed in Jesus; how Martin captures the extravagant and lavish grace of God, in ways which are humourous, captivating, but real, raw and unafraid of brokenness. In Prototype there are some moments that more closely resemble self-help pop psychology in terms of style. Finding my true self type stuff (which I’m sure wasn’t the aim, but occassionally is what came across to me) turned me off on occasion. I wanted the gritty, rawness, and humourous depiction of the outrageous love of God. We see only glimpses here of something Martin does with excellence and abundance in his preaching. We see his story telling, but less of his exegetical skill (Martin is incredible, especially when preaching on the parables).
Secondly, there are several appeals (especially in the second half) to stories from Renovatus Church’s ministry. I was struck with a sense of lack of clarity as to the purpose of including these stories, as interesting and encouraging as they may be. Is it a justification of ministry style? Promotion? I want to assume he is using them to illustrate how the freedom of becoming a beloved child in the image of God happens, but sometimes those connections aren’t made as clear as I would like them to be.
All in all, it is a good read; uplifting, encouraging, and does what it intends to do- depict Jesus as the model of our lives when we receive God’s liberation and redemption- free, unhindered life with God our creator, being as he had intended, keenly aware of his love, goodness and desire to have us dwell in fruitful life in his creation. Martin artfully depicts God, whose beauty can be seen in the healing of mess, not in the distance he keeps from the mess. Our messy, broken lives become the place where God is revealed, and his power is shown in the transformation which comes about in the lavishing of grace on us in our realities. I am thankful to Martin for writing this. And now, since my reading of this is so closely associated with the birth of my Mhaili, this book carries an accentuated place.