Some Book Reviews

This year has been an extremely busy one for me. My main focus at church has been on running a year-long leadership training course, and I’ve also been creating a lot of online technical training content. In fact, the opportunity to do this has been one of our family’s biggest answers to prayer this year, as it has provided the additional finance we needed to send our son to the King’s School, a local Christian school.

So there haven’t been as many book reviews as normal on the site here, but I haven’t stopped reading. Here’s some brief reviews of what I’ve been reading, along with a few selected quotes…

Total Truth (Nancy Pearcy)

I’d heard a lot of good things about this book, and read it as part of my preparation for a talk on worldview. It’s a fairly substantial volume, and one of the main focuses of the book is to demolish the “fact-value” dichotomy. This is where Christians succumb to the idea that their beliefs are just “private beliefs”, and to be kept out of the public arena in which everything is based on “fact”, with God not allowed into the debate.

The mistake lies in thinking there is such a thing as theories that are unbiased or neutral, unaffected by any religious and philosophical assumptions.

She explores this in a number of different ways, and I found particularly interesting the sections on the ways Christian thinking has been shaped by culture through history.

One of the biggest areas in which the “fact-value” battle is fought is in the Creation vs Evolution debate. A Christian worldview starts with a God who creates, and a Darwinian worldview starts with matter. This will doubtless be one of the most contentious parts of the book, and she argues for an Intelligent Design position. What I think is undeniable is the fact that evolution itself has become inextricably intertwined in popular thinking with a materialistic worldview that excludes God.

She repeatedly challenges Christians to stop thinking that the Bible has nothing to say about how we conduct our businesses (the “sacred/secular” divide). She highlights how even many Christian organisations have adopted business practices that run completely counter to the values of the Bible.

We must begin by being utterly convinced that there is a biblical perspective on everything—not just on spiritual matters

One of the most interesting chapters is entitled “How women started the culture war”, and contains fascinating information about how women and men’s roles developed, as men’s work increasingly took them away from the family.

Overall, this is an excellent exploration of a subject that has been badly neglected by many Christians. Lots of food for thought in here.

The best way to drive out a bad worldview is by offering a good one, and Christians need to move beyond criticizing culture to creating culture. That is the task God originally created humans to do, and in the process of sanctification we are meant to recover that task. Whether we work with our brains or with our hands, whether we are analytical or artistic, whether we work with people or with things, in every calling we are culture-creators, offering up our work as service to God.

We may do a great job of arguing that Christianity is total truth, but others will not find our message persuasive unless we give a visible demonstration of that truth in action. Outsiders must be able to see for themselves, in the day-to-day pattern of our lives, that we do not treat Christianity as just a private retreat, a comfort blanket, a castle of fairy-tale beliefs that merely make us feel better.

We can go so far as to say that if Christians win their battles by worldly methods, then they have really lost.

The Hole in our Holiness (Kevin DeYoung)

Kevin DeYoung is an author I’ve been meaning to read for some time, and I picked this one up when Amazon Kindle were doing a special offer. He has a good writing style, humble and humorous, and he is careful to back up everything he says with plenty of scriptural references. In this short book on holiness puts the Bible’s call to holiness into the context of the gospel of grace, and in my opinion does a great job of avoiding the pitfalls of legalism on one side of the road, and antinomianism on the other.

“When we sin, our union with Christ is not in jeopardy. But our communion is.”

“worldliness is whatever makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange”

God doesn’t say, “Relax, you were born this way.” But he does say, “Good news, you were reborn another way.”

Grasping God’s Word J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays

This is essentially an introductory textbook on hermeneutics, and it does a good job covering all the main bases, and is well-written. I did have a couple of criticisms though. First, the general assumption is that the main thing we are trying to do is extract some timeless principles. I agree that those can be found in the Bible and good hermeneutics will help us to correctly identify them. But this approach ends up downplaying the significance of the metanarrative of Scripture, and views it almost as an inconvenience that we were given these principles in story form.

Second, I would have preferred a more Christological approach to the Old Testament. Often evangelical hermeneutics can set up so many “rules” that whenever the New Testament authors see Christ in the Old Testament, they have to be granted a special permit to “break” the usual rules. But what if they are modelling how hermeneutics ought to be done? What if we are really supposed to see Christ in all the Scriptures?

I didn’t quite finish the book, so maybe these two concerns are addressed in more detail before the end. But those two concerns aside, this is actually a very helpful and well-presented guide to interpreting the Bible.

Readers must be prepared to have their values and beliefs called into question by the text. If they are not, they will grasp the Bible in the wrong way, twisting its words so that they conform to what we want them to say.

We do not create meaning out of a text; rather, we seek to find the meaning that is already there.

Book Review – Life in the Trinity (Donald Fairbairn)

Life in the Trinity - Donald FairbairnFrom its title, you might expect that this is simply another book aimed at helping the ordinary Christian get to grips with the sometimes perplexing doctrine of the Trinity. But its scope is much wider than this. The subtitle reveals more: “An introduction to theology with the help of the Church Fathers”. Essentially in the 237 pages of this book, Fairbairn intends to give us a basic systematic theology, but instead of the approach you might be familiar with from the likes of Wayne Grudem, the subject is tackled through the perspective of the church Fathers, and in particular, their strongly Trinitarian emphasis.

“The conviction of many of the church fathers was that all of Christian life was meant to be a reflection of and participation in that central relationship between the Father and the Son.”

Probably the most immediately obvious difference is that rather than focusing on justification as the heart of Christianity, the fathers preferred to talk about “theosis”, a word that can make many evangelicals nervous. For Fairbairn, the chief aspect of theosis is that “Christians share in the Son’s relationship to the Father”. The “deification” is not about becoming divine in the same sense that God is divine. ”God grants us to share in his qualities, … grants us to share in his immortal life, … and causes us to become sons and daughters of God”

He begins by arguing that the heart of Christianity is the Son’s relationship to the Father. He bases this on an exploration of Jesus’ words in John 13-17. Throughout the book, he regularly includes quotes from Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, Irenaeus and Augustine. Some of their sayings are hard to get to grips with but Fairburn is good at clarifying what they are driving at. He makes an interesting point about the unity that Jesus prays for in John 17. Believers are to share the same unity that Jesus shares with his Father. This is referring to a unity of love rather than a unity of substance. The emphasis of the church fathers was more on the three than the one, whereas for many of us it tends to be the other way round. This is of course not tritheism – “God possesses both a unity of substance and a unity of fellowship”.

“One cannot speak of love and relationship unless one is speaking of distinct persons, so the distinctions between the persons are indicative of who God as always been, from all eternity”.

 

“A God who was completely alone would have nothing relational to offer us in salvation; he could have offered only a right status before him or something of that sort. But because has eternally existed as a fellowship of three persons, there is fellowship within God in which we can also share.”

Having laid these Trinitarian foundations, Fairbairn sets out on telling the big story of salvation, starting with life how it was meant to be, followed by the fall, the promise, the incarnation, redemption, becoming Christian, and then being Christian. Each of these familiar sections of the story are seen in a fresh light through this trinitarian lens.

The first of these sections includes a fascinating discussion on the common human desire for “significance”, and how this is found in relationship with God.

“Christianity teaches us that our significance does not ultimately lie in what we accomplish or what we do; it lies in the one to whom we belong”.

The chapter on sin and the fall is also very helpful. The heart of the human problem is the loss of relationship with God – Adam and Eve wanted to be gods without God, when the irony was that they were already “gods” in the most important sense in that they were sharing in the divine relationship.

I found the chapter on “the promise” particularly interesting, as he notes the way the church fathers would make what seem far-fetched exegetical leaps in order to find Christ throughout the Old Testament. This is often dismissed as “eisegesis”, a reading into the text what you want to find, rather than reading out what is already there. But while not affirming all their conclusions, Fairbairn provocatively asks whether they have a sounder basis to their hermeneutics than we evangelicals do. The church fathers took for granted that the Scriptures were Spirit inspired, and since the New Testament makes clear that Christ is to be found in all the Old Testament Scriptures, they had good justification for expecting to find him there. By way of contrast, “we tend to stick to interpretations for a given text that the human author of the passage could have meant and the human audience could have understood at the time”.

“The Fathers believed that the entire Bible was a book about Christ, and therefore they were determined to read every passage of Scripture as being directly or indirectly about Christ, the Christian’s relationship to Christ or the church’s relationship to Christ.”

 

“Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we are influenced by a method of biblical interpretation that treats the Bible as a set of unrelated human testimonies to the divine-human encounter.”

As he looks at the topic of incarnation, he returns to a recurring theme that salvation is not something that Christ gives us; rather, salvation is Christ – he gives us himself. You cannot have salvation without having him.

In the chapter on redemption, I was particularly struck by his discussion of death. In what sense is it possible for God to die? He explains that in the Bible, death is not about ceasing to exist. There is physical death – the separation of the soul from the body as the body ceases to function. And there is spiritual death – alienation from God as a result of sin. We are all born spiritually dead and inevitably headed for physical death. By becoming human Jesus was able to experience physical death, and by taking on our sin he was able to experience spiritual death. Viewed in this way, the resurrection can be seen as a victory over physical death, as Jesus’ soul is reunited with his resurrected body. And the ascension can be seen as victory over spiritual death, as Jesus is reunited back into the presence of his Father.

This brings us to the final section of the book, exploring what it means to become and be a Christian. Becoming a Christian is more than just forgiveness – it is adoption – we get to share in the Son’s relationship with the Father. With all the emphasis on the Father-Son relationship up to this point, we may be wondering where the Spirit features in this take on theology, and in this section Fairbairn explains that the Spirit links us to the Father-Son relationship by uniting us to the Son. It is this relationship that is at the heart of salvation for Fairbairn. Yes, salvation does have a “legal” side – justification and the remission of sins. But it also has a “relational” side – redemption, reconciliation and adoption. And all of these only make sense because of our union with Christ.

The Spirit’s ongoing work in the life of a believer is to enable them to live in a way that reflects the Father/Son relationship. Here Fairbairn makes a plea to evangelicals to take more seriously the importance of the eucharist (and emphasises the need to take it in community rather than privately).

“In order to sustain life, one must eat and drink regularly, and likewise, in order to sustain spiritual life by remaining in Christ, one must spiritually eat and drink regularly.”.

 

“If Cyril and the early church are correct here, then repeated, lifelong participation in the Lord’s Supper is central to one’s growing relationship to the Trinity, just as lifelong devotion to God’s Word, to prayer and to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are central”.

There are many other interesting points raised in the book, but I need to conclude this review. In summary this book provides a very fresh perspective on several familiar categories of Christian theology. With this approach, the Trinity is not just one of several doctrines to be believed by Christians, but the central theme that permeates through them all. In doing so he gives a great introduction to the thought of the church fathers, and why their concerns which often seem arcane to us are actually of great importance. There were a few places where I found it a little heavy-going, but overall I found it very stimulating and would recommend checking it out.

“God’s promise after the Fall, around which one may organize the entire history and teaching of the Old Testament, was ultimately a promise that the Son of God would come to bring human beings back into a share in the communion of the Trinity”

Book Review – Mere Apologetics (Alister McGrath)

Mere Apologetics - Alister E. McGrathApologetics is a subject I rarely read books on. It’s partly because it feels like “cheating” to borrow someone else’s reasons to believe instead of thinking for yourself. But I think there is an important place for learning from those who have a particular expertise in defending the faith. This book is subtitled “How to help seekers and skeptics find faith”, and though I wouldn’t describe many of my work colleagues as “seekers”, “skeptics” would be a fair description of many of them. So I thought I would try this relatively short book to see if it provides some good pointers to enable me to share my faith more effectively.

McGrath, a former atheist himself, is well placed to address the topic of apologetics. He has debated a number of prominent atheists as well as writing a number of books responding to their position. He has a scientific background, and wrote a major work some time ago on Scientific Theology (I reviewed a condensed version of it here).

The book title, “Mere Apologetics” is of course evocative of C.S.Lewis’ classic apologetic work “Mere Christianity”. This is quite deliberate since McGrath devotes considerable attention to C.S.Lewis’ uniquely creative and multi-faceted approach to apologetics. I suspect that the writing of this book in some way formed part of his background research for a more recent publication of a biography of Lewis.

McGrath begins with giving some background to apologetics. “Apologetics aims to convert believers into thinkers, and thinkers into believers”. Apologists have the task of defending, commending and “translating” the faith. He stresses the need for a tone of gentleness and respect and the vital importance of God’s sovereign work of salvation.

Apologetics establishes and proclaims the plausibility and desirability of the gospel; evangelism summons people to enter into it and share in its benefits.

Along the way he highlights a number of common apologetic mistakes, including the weaknesses of a purely rationalist approach to defending the faith. In particular he notes the challenges of defending the faith in a post-modern context.

He understands that there are significant dangers in apologetics books that simply try to provide answers to difficult questions that can be memorized and regurgitated at the appropriate time. Instead he stresses the need to understand the question behind the question in order to give an answer that really resonates. An apologist needs to identify arguments that will carry weight with this particular audience, so different occasions call for different approaches.

The heart of apologetics is not about mastering and memorizing a set of techniques designed to manipulate arguments to get the desired conclusion. It is about being mastered by the Christian faith so that its ideas, themes and values are deeply imprinted on our minds and in our hearts.

Unsurprisingly given his background and experience, he does focus more on atheist objections than those raised by other religions or agnostics. There is an interesting but brief discussion concerning the “multiverse”, which is often used by atheists as a way to reduce the force of the cosmic fine tuning argument. This is something I would be interested in reading a little more on, as the multiverse has always seemed a somewhat contrived concept.

Another fascinating topic was responding to Freud’s suggestion that belief in God is simply wish fulfillment – we want him to exist so we imagine he does. McGrath rightly points out that this argument can cut both ways, and is particularly ironic given Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex.

He stresses that not everyone’s objections are purely intellectual, and so apologists must be ready to show Christianity to be not just rational but exciting, wonderful, beautiful. He does give a few brief examples of how he answered particular questions, showing how he tried to tailor his response to the person asking the question.

One particularly helpful feature of this book is that at the end of each chapter, a number of books for further study are listed. There were lots of very interesting looking options and I may try some of them if time permits.

Overall I would say this books serves as a good introduction to apologetics, explaining what it is and how it should be done. Whilst he does touch on a number of particular issues that apologists deal with, there is not space to cover them in great depth, and in any case he explicitly doesn’t want to produce a book of model answers. McGrath does tend to assume his readers will be defending the faith in public meetings or debates, but there is much to be gained even if you most of your interaction with unbelievers is in informal settings.

On a more general note, I think our culture is becoming increasingly ignorant of what Christians actually believe, and perhaps as a result, increasingly dismissive of our faith. In such a context it would be wise for all Christians to seek to improve their ability to graciously defend and commend the faith. This book would serve as a good starting point for someone who feels inadequately prepared for this task.

Book Review – The King Jesus Gospel (Scot McKnight)

In this book, Scot McKnight challenges evangelicals as to whether we have truly understood what the “gospel” is. He draws on the work of N T Wright and Dallas Willard, both of whom provide forewords. He claims that many evangelicals would be better termed “soterians”, since it is salvation, rather than the gospel, that we have placed the emphasis on. When we use the word “gospel” we assume it means something like “instructions for how to become a Christian”, when in fact what the Bible and apostles understood the gospel to be was something quite different.

Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.

McKnight takes pains to reassure us that he has nothing against preaching the need for salvation and how to be saved (McKnight calls these the “Plan of Salvation” and the “Method of Persuasion”). But he thinks we have mistakenly equated this with the gospel and “evangelism”. So he takes John Piper to task for assuming that justification by faith is the gospel. Again, McKnight doesn’t want to disagree with justification by faith; he wants to show that it is not “the gospel”.

I am convinced that because we think the gospel is the Plan of Salvation, and because we preach the Plan of Salvation as the gospel, we are not actually preaching the gospel.

So what is the gospel, according to Scot McKnight? Well the short answer is that the gospel tells the story of Israel and how it is fulfilled in Jesus. The gospel only makes sense in the Bible’s story, and more than that, “without that story there is no gospel.” We need to understand the Old Testament story in order to understand the gospel.

McKnight begins proof of his thesis, with the one place in the New Testament where the “gospel” is clearly defined – 1 Cor 15. This also happens to be one of the earliest composed parts of the New Testament. And it is clear that for Paul, “the gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ.” His method of evangelism, or “gospelling”, was to “to tell, announce, declare, and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God.” His writing is saturated in OT quotes and allusions because he understood that “the gospel is the resolution and fulfillment of Israel’s Story and promises.”

So, where does “salvation” fit into the picture for McKnight? Salvation flows from the gospel – it is the intended result of the gospel story. But it is not itself the gospel, and cannot be made to replace the gospel.

He includes a fascinating chapter on how the early creeds reinforce this basic understanding of the gospel. Again and again you see the creeds including very 1 Cor 15 like summaries of the crucial events of the life of Jesus. It wasn’t until the time of the reformation that the creeds started to frame the gospel in terms of salvation (though he does not directly blame the reformers for this shift from “gospel culture” to “salvation culture”).

McKnight then moves on to consider the teaching of Jesus. Did Jesus preach the gospel? Well if the gospel is all about Jesus, then to preach the gospel, Jesus would have to focus his message on himself, and on how he completes the story of Israel. And this is exactly what he does – he believed he was completing scriptural passages.

the Gospels show a Jesus who unequivocally and without embarrassment nominated himself for Israel’s president.

McKnight also makes the obvious but easily overlooked point that we call the four gospels “gospels” precisely because that is what they are. In telling the story of Jesus (and how he fulfilled the story of Israel), the “evangelists” are in fact proclaiming the gospel.

The final piece of evidence McKnight brings to the table is a survey of the gospel preaching in the book of Acts. If to preach the gospel is indeed to tell the story of Jesus, then did the early apostles do that? A survey of Peter and Paul’s sermons reveal that yes, they did exactly that, showing how the events of Jesus’ life fulfilled the Scriptures.

Jesus’ resurrection and the profound experience with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led the apostles into a “hermeneutical revolution.” They suddenly had new eyes to reread and reinterpret the Old Testament from the perspective of the Story of Jesus.

But now we get to our first real objection. What about preaching the gospel to Gentiles? Like most in our modern culture, they did not already know the story of Israel, so preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of it would be at best confusing. Surely we have to adapt the gospel to be comprehensible to those in our culture?

McKnight readily admits that the gospel is “in no less need of creative adaptions to one’s audience”, noting Paul’s varied approaches with a Gentile audience. And to his credit, he attempts to outline how he might go about explaining the “gospel” today. He recognizes that it will probably take at least an hour to explain. He begins the story with Creation, focusing on humans as “Eikons” who became usurpers. The story climaxes not primarily with Jesus as “saviour”, but as “Lord”:

Remember that the fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord.

This is where we begin to see that this might be more than simply a war of words over what exactly “gospel” means. For McKnight, the heart of the gospel is Jesus as Lord and King. Thus the forms of evangelism that simplify the gospel down to simply trusting Jesus for forgiveness of sins have missed out the centerpiece

much of the soterian approach to evangelism today fastens on Jesus as (personal) Savior and dodges Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

So a right presentation of the gospel must include a call to submit to King Jesus:

gospeling declares that Jesus is that rightful Lord, gospeling summons people to turn from their idols to worship and live under that Lord who saves, and gospeling actually puts us in the co-mediating and co-ruling tasks under our Lord Jesus.

Overall I would say I am in broad agreement with McKnight’s main thesis, that the Lordship of Jesus is central to the gospel and not a dispensable part. Despite never directly referring to it, this book is weighing in on the Lordship Salvation debate. But it also focuses on our evangelistic approach. McKnight is arguing for a change in tactics: “We need to regain our confidence in the utter power of proclaiming that one Story of Jesus”. And this is something I would like to see a lot more of in “gospel” presentations. I fear many forms of evangelism can bring people to “pray the prayer” without ever really appreciating that they are now expected to embark on a lifetime of following Jesus.

One thing I think this book left hanging a bit was the initial claim that “If the gospel isn’t about transformation, it isn’t the gospel of the Bible.” His argument is that recovering the King Jesus Gospel will make disciples rather than converts, but he fails to flesh out exactly how this will happen. The Lordship of Jesus is the right foundation to base discipleship on, but there must also be practical guidance and support in order to see this worked out in daily life.

Book Review–Hearing Her Voice (John Dickson)

This short book seems to be doing the rounds within TNOCFKANF (the network of churches formerly known as newfrontiers). Newfrontiers churches typically hold to a “complementarian” position, believing that Scripture teaches that only men are appointed as elders, whilst all other ministries remain open to women. By contrast “egalitarians” (and there are many I know of within newfrontiers churches) disagree that any role should be restricted to men. But leaving aside the question of “office”, should a “complementarian” church, one that holds to male eldership, allow women to preach? The traditional answer has been no, based largely on 1 Tim 2:12, but an increasing number of complementarians are questioning that interpretation.

And this is the position that John Dickson argues for in this book. His thesis is that whatever roles women may or may not be excluded from (he remains complementarian with regards to church government), preaching is not one of them. The basic premise is that we have falsely equated the Greek word translating “teach” (διδάσκω) with our own concept of a Sunday morning sermon. We assume that anyone “preaching” must necessarily also be doing what the NT calls “teaching”. However, Dickson understands διδάσκω to mean a very specific type of activity unique to the first century context. Therefore, 1 Tim 2:16 is not relevant to the question of women preaching at all.

Essentially we could say this is a cessationist argument (making it ironic that it has been so well received in newfrontiers circles). “Teaching” has ceased, in much the same way that many non-charismatic evangelicals are happy to say that “prophecy” has ceased, or that the ministry of an apostle is no longer for today.

So if “teaching” is not preaching, what is it? According to Dickson, “teaching” was the passing on of the oral traditions including the stories of Jesus and apostolic doctrines, which was critical during the time before the New Testament books had been written. This did not involve applying or expounding these traditions, instead the “teacher” was an authority on what did and did not form a part of this essential deposit of faith. Once the New Testament was available in written form, this role was no longer necessary, and the church’s role was simply to expound the contents of Scripture.

To a certain extent I am able to agree with this idea. Of course, passing on these oral traditions must have been an important part of the early church. And διδάσκω would be a perfectly good word to use to describe this activity.

But I am not convinced that the word “teaching” can be so narrowly defined. If you take the trouble to do a word study of all instances of this word in the New Testament (which I did), you will see that it is used in a very broad variety of contexts. Even if you grant that Paul has his own special meaning for διδάσκω that others (e.g. Matthew, Luke, James) do not share, I find it hard to interpret every instance of διδάσκω found in Paul in such a technical sense.

Another problem is that by excluding what we call preaching from the semantic range of the word διδάσκω, Dickson needs to find another word that does mean preaching. He picks παράκλησις, sometimes translated “exhorting” (e.g. Rom 12:8), although this word is more often translated as “comfort/encouragement”. Again, I would agree that this word does seem to be used for sermons, but I’m not persuaded that these words can be so neatly divided into categories.

The trouble with making παράκλησις into the word for preaching is that, assuming Paul considers preaching a vital element of church life, he doesn’t seem to mention παράκλησις nearly enough. For example, Paul forgets to mention “exhorters” in the classic list of Eph 4:11 ministries. Nor do they get a look-in in 1 Cor 12:28-29. Dickson’s solution at this point seems to be by equating prophesying with preaching (once again opting for a common non-charismatic argument).

Another thing you notice looking through uses of the word “teach” is that it often appears in a pair. The apostles were commanded by the Sanhedrin not to “speak” and “teach”, (Acts 4:18), but they carried on “teaching” and “preaching” both publicly and privately (Acts 5:42). Timothy is to “command and teach” (1 Tim 4:11), and to “teach and urge” (1 Tim 6:12). I suppose Dickson could claim that this supports his thesis – making “teaching” a distinct activity from the “preaching/urging/speaking” which would happen subsequently. But I see these verses as using two words that describe different elements of the same speech act. In other words, when someone preaches they are also speaking, teaching, encouraging, exhorting, commanding and urging.

In summary, whilst Dickson’s argument is an interesting one (and one that perhaps bears a second reading), I think it creates more problems than it solves, and is exegetically unconvincing. But I will finish with one thing that impressed me about Dickson’s approach. From start to finish, this is an argument based in Scripture. He does not attempt to bolster his arguments with examples of great women preachers, or make accusations against the motives of those who disagree with him. Instead he attempts to prove his point solely from Scripture, and for that, I applaud him. Egalitarians will doubtless be pleased with his conclusions, but I suspect they too may have their reservations about how he got there.

Postscript: In case you are wondering where I stand on this issue, I would describe myself as a complementarian open to persuasion. Most complementarians agree that it is sometimes acceptable and appropriate for a non-elder to preach. And so the ever-contentious 1 Tim 2:12 remains the main obstacle to me accepting Dickson’s conclusions. Anyway, let me know in the comments what you think. Do you accept Dickson’s argument? Egalitarians, what do you consider the best treatment of 1 Tim 2:12?

Book Review – The Message of Thessalonians (John Stott)

The Message of ThessaloniansThis is actually the second time I have read (and reviewed) this book in the Bible Speaks Today series, but since I was recently going through Thessalonians again, I wanted to re-read it. I feel I have a great collection of commentaries on Thessalonians as I also really enjoyed the ones by Green and Fee. But I always appreciate Stott’s insights, and this volume has the advantage of being more concise (200 pages).

The introduction provides a brief outline of the Acts account. Stott sees the lesson of 1 Thessalonians as “the gospel and the church” and breaks it into five sections which roughly correspond to the five chapters:

  • Christian evangelism
  • Christian ministry
  • Christian behaviour
  • Christian hope
  • Christian community

Stott has a knack for breaking passages down into structures that might seem implausibly neat at first, but after he goes through the passage, you begin to think that Paul himself probably had the exact same headings in mind.

There is also a brief introduction to 2 Thessalonians, whose structure is broken down as:

  • Revelation of Christ
  • Rebellion of Antichrist
  • Responsibility of Christians meanwhile

I’ll pick out a few highlights from his commentary, which as always is insightful, devotional and practical. On the triad of “faith, hope and love” mentioned in 1 Thess 1:3, he notes that these three virtues are outgoing (faith towards God, love towards others, hope towards the future) and productive (“faith works, love labours and hope endures”).

In the section on “Christian Ministry” (1 Thess 2:1-3:13) he highlights the minister’s dual responsibility, first to the Word of God and second to the people of God. In the section on “Christian Responsibility” (1 Thess 4:1-12) he argues that “There is an urgent need for us, as pluralism and relativism spread world-wide to follow Paul’s example and give people plain, practical, ethical teaching”.

right from the beginning, converts must be told that the new life in Christ is a holy life, a life bent on pleasing God by obeying his commandments.

Although this is by no means an academic commentary series, Stott will refer to the Greek where neccessary, such as discussing the meaning of σκεῦος and κτᾶσθαι in 1 Thess 4:4.

There are a couple of places where I am not sure I agree with his conclusions. For example, he argues that the most likely explanation that some of the “idle” had stopped working was due to their imminent expectation of the Parousia. And his fitting of the “idle, timid and weak” in 1 Thess 5:14 very neatly into groups discussed earlier (so for example the “weak” are the sexually immoral) is ingenious if perhaps a little contrived. I did find his argument that the commands of 1 Thess 5:16-18 are in the context of a church service to make a lot of sense, and it is not an option I had considered before.

As I mentioned in my previous review, he provides a level-headed approach to the teaching on the second coming and antichrist. He also takes opportunities in both books to firmly underscore his opposition to the thought of modern-day apostles.

Overall, I would say that this is classic John Stott, and a fine example of how Biblical exposition should be done. Unless you need the more detailed analysis of Fee or Green, this is a great starting point for getting to grips with the teaching of these two often neglected epistles.

Book Review – Reaching Muslims (Nick Chatrath)

Reaching MuslimsI attended sixth form college in Luton, where roughly a third of the students were Muslims. It meant I made a lot of Muslim friends and had interesting debates with many of them. But since moving away from Luton I must confess that I have had very little contact with Muslims. However, recently an opportunity came up to debate some friends of a Muslim we know, and hear their objections to Christian beliefs. It made me realise that my own knowledge of Islam and its beliefs was fairly limited, so I looked around for a good introductory book. This one was suggested to me so I got the Kindle edition.

The first section simply aims to give you a basic introduction to the history and beliefs of Islam. It’s a good overview, although there were places where I wanted more information (for example, what were the prevailing religious beliefs at the time of Mohammed – were people Christians, or pagans?). One of the things he stresses is the diversity amongst Muslims, and gives some good questions you can ask to find out more about the views and culture of your own Muslim friends. He explains their view of Jesus, who they hold in high regard as a prophet, although obviously reject the Christian claim to his divinity.

The second section of the book is focused on helping you connect with Muslims. In particular, he wants to help Christians get over the “fear factor” and show welcome and acceptance towards your Muslim friends.

The third section of the book gives some suggestions for studies and talks you can use for sharing the gospel with Muslims. Some of these are essentially summaries of talks that Chatrath has given himself on different occasions. I don’t think I would attempt to reproduce these talks myself, but it is helpful to get some ideas of approaches that he has found effective. A number of the Bible studies start with characters that Islam also recognises as prophets, such as Adam and Moses.

The fourth section deals with some “hot potato” issues, such as whether Christians should call God “Allah” or eat halal meat. There is some helpful advice on when baptism should happen for converts from Islam.

Whilst this is a short book, it is an excellent starting point for those who have Muslim friends and want to understand how they can reach out to them with the gospel. Another useful feature of this book is that it has a good list of resources that you can read to go further, which is something I would like to do if time permits.

Book Review – The Message of Kings (John Olley)

I must start by apologizing to my handful of readers for the long delay since my last post. The last few months I have been busy working on a few different projects (writing some software, and running a leadership training course), and so I had to put blogging to the side for a while. Here’s a review of a book I finished earlier this year but never got round to reviewing.

This is the most recent addition to the Bible Speaks Today series, which is now only a few volumes away from being completed. It’s a fairly substantial 374 pages, so there is good coverage of the text of the two books.

Olley describes Kings as a story of decline and complete reversal from the high point of Solomon’s peace and security. It is storytelling with a purpose: “Kings tells the story of the past so that, in light of Yahweh’s purposes and promises, people will change their lifestyles in the present.”

The introduction includes some helpful tables such as a list showing prophesies and their fulfilments (p31). “The Kings writer repeatedly reminds his hearers that it is Yahweh who is sovereign, his word is not sovereign”. Another helpful table (p36) visualises the kings of the North and the South, showing their timelines in relation to other key events.

Olley notes that although we call the book “Kings”, it is often prophets who take the lead. He makes an interesting contrast between David’s “wisdom” in 1 Kings 1 to kill his enemies, with the wisdom of God to benefit the powerless in 1 Kings 3. In 1 Kings 9, he is critical of the way Solomon focuses on gold, acting like the rulers of other nations, to earn their admiration.

Whilst he defends the historicity of the accounts, he does accept that some of the numbers are exaggerated, following the pattern of ancient Near Eastern “numerical hyperbole”.

In 1 Kings 2, he highlights a number of ways in which Elisha’s ministry foreshadows the compassionate ministry of Jesus. He has some interesting reflections on the difficult issue of violence in the name of God in 2 Kings 10 and some helpful material on idols in the section on 2 Kings 17.

As always, this BST volume will prove helpful for anyone studying or preaching their way through the book. Leithart’s commentary remains my favourite on 1 & 2 Kings, but the two are quite different in their approaches, so complement each other very well.

Book Review – The Message of Chronicles (Michael Wilcock)

This volume in the Bible Speaks Today series covers the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles in 288 pages. In the introduction, Wilcock sets the scene and deals with the issue of relevance. The Chronicler is telling stories of times before the exile to those living after it. If we struggle with the question, “how is all this relevant to me”, then so did the original hearers. But the Chronicler is more than a historian, he is a preacher. His sermon is about right relationship with God and his sometimes selective use of history is intended to draw out principles that illustrate various points.

One of the biggest challenges a commentator on Chronicles faces is what to do with the long-winded genealogies at the start of the book that can test the patience of even the most committed reader. Wilcock does an admirable job of helping us through this difficult section, presenting this material as “the tree of the Lord’s planting”, with its root, branches, and fruit. David, Israel (Jacob), and Adam are particularly highlighted, the Chronicler making the point that the people of God are the true kingdom, God’s true family and the true humanity.

As he goes through the remainder of 1 Chronicles, which is about “David, the man of war”, he deals with several of the chapters out of order, so he can group them into themes of nation, ark, testimony and temple. The Chronicler is preaching to a people who live in “day of small things” compared to the grandeur of David’s day, but the challenge of his sermon is that people in his own day follow the example of those before them and “offer willingly” and “consecrate themselves” to the Lord’s work.

The Chronicler is often accused of manipulating history, and Wilcock is not afraid to highlight several the places where his account deviates from the Samuel/Kings narratives. The Chronicler may be selective in places, but does so to support his point, rather than attempting to “suppress” information that his audience know in any case. Wilcock also deals with “anachronisms” such as reporting the amount of the temple offering in terms of the Persian Daric, which amounts to no more than presenting the total in “today’s money”.

Wilcock’s interpretation of the Chronicler’s sermon is that he presents David and Solomon as a double ideal – kind of two-fold picture of God’s true kingship. The point for the original audience is not for them (or their rulers) to “be like Solomon”, but that blessing will follow when the life of God’s people is directed by the one of his choosing.

As he moves through the various later kings, Wilcock picks out various lessons from their lives which he thinks the Chronicler also is trying to highlight. We see Asa’s capitulation to ‘worldly wisdom’ in 2 Chron 16:2-3, and Jehosophat’s repeated ill-advised alliances (a marriage alliance, a military alliance and a commercial alliance).

Many of the kings are described as examples of “pastors”, such as Uzziah the “strong” pastor whose strength was his downfall, and Josiah the “alone” pastor. Wilcock sees the throne and temple as the main two focuses of the Chroniclers sermon, and though Jesus is the fulfilment of the three-fold office of prophet/priest/king, it is priest and king that are at the forefront here.

Overall, this is a helpful guide that will broaden your understanding of the overall message of these books, as well as help you appreciate them in their own right as opposed to simply being the poor relations of the much fuller Samuel/Kings accounts.

Book Review – The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Philip Towner)

This is a fairly recent addition (2006) to the long-running New International Commentary series, currently under the editorship of Gordon Fee. As with others in the series, this is a thorough exegetical commentary that leaves no phrase unexamined, interacts with modern scholarship, and often deals with issues of Greek vocabulary and grammar. The series also comes from within the evangelical tradition, and seeks to address the sorts of questions preachers and serious students of the Scriptures will have.

The Pastoral Epistles carry their fair share of controversial issues, the first of which is of course whether Paul really wrote them. Towner’s introduction outlines the various arguments against Pauline authorship, which he does not find convincing, although he has more time for Marshall’s idea of “allonymity”. However, his commentary treats Paul as the author, and he continues to probe the topic throughout.

He explains the historical context into which the letters were written, including the likely beliefs of the false teachers Timothy was opposing (he does not think they were Gnostics), and the moral climate, particularly in Crete, which was similar to Corinth. Each letter in the PE brings its own theological contributions, and Towner gives particular attention to the Christology of the three letters.

He commentates on the TNIV, although in places goes with his own alternative translation. For example he prefers “compete in the good contest of faith” instead of “fight the good fight” in 1 Tim 6:12 to keep with the athletic metaphor he discerns in 1 Tim 6:11.

He includes several excursuses, which are in-depth word studies of key words in the PE. These are a little on the academic side and you could skip over them. However, by the end of the commentary it often becomes clear that the words they explore are important recurring terms within the PE. For example there is one on ἐπιφαίνω which is an appearing or epiphany.

A few highlights for me were his treatment of 1 Tim 2:1-7 on the “universality” of salvation and on the significance of Jesus’ humanity. He is also very illuminating on the somewhat confusing section about widows in 1 Tim 5:3-16. He argues that it was not likely an office / sisterhood with vows of celibacy. Another passage that he gives particularly close attention to is 2 Tim 4:16-18, in which he detects several allusions to Psalm 21. In fact, allusions to the OT, or “intertextuality”, is one of the key areas Towner states in the introduction that intends his commentary to focus on.

Although this is primarily an exegetical commentary, there are places where he will briefly switch gear and move into preaching mode. For example, in some challenging summarising comments on 2 Tim 3:1-9, he asks us to consider our own potential for apostasy by remaking the “untameable” gospel into something we find more accommodating. Are these verses a “mirror” that we need to consider whether we see our own reflection in, and not just a description of what “they” are like?

In a detailed discussion of Titus 2:13, he considers the debate about whether Jesus is referred to as God. He argues “God and Saviour” has a single, not multiple referent, and then that it is “glory” that Jesus is set in apposition to not God. In other words instead of “Jesus, who is our great God and Saviour”, he argues for something along the lines of “Jesus, who is the glory of our great God and Saviour”, or to put it another way “Jesus is the embodiment of the glory of God”. I found this quite convincing, and it seems to me to fit nicely with Titus 2:11, in which we have the “epiphany” of “grace” (Christ’s first coming), which makes the second coming in Titus 2:13 the “epiphany of glory”.

I suspect many readers of this review will be interested in his take on one of the most contentious sections of the PE, the instructions to women in 1 Tim 2:8-15, to which he devotes 50 pages of comments. Towner, like the series editor Fee, holds to the egalitarian position, and therefore does not see these commands as having universal applicability. However, he does not choose to follow the interpretive line of some egalitarians who think that the husband/wife relationship in the privacy of the home is in view. He very much places these instructions in the context of public worship.

As someone who holds to a complementarian view but willing to have my mind changed, I was a little disappointed with his dismissive and sometimes acerbic comments directed towards the likes of Mounce, Knight, and Köstenberger. In fact he refuses to use the term “complementarian”, preferring to characterise the opposing view as “hierarchicalism” or “traditionalism”.

He draws heavily on Bruce Winter’s work on the “new Roman woman”, and this which he sees as something of an interpretive key to 1 Tim 2:8-15, 1 Tim 5:3-16 and also Titus 2:3-8. These were wealthy women who wanted the freedoms normally restricted to men, including sexual freedom, and were speaking up in public gatherings, and less modest in dress. There seems a lot that is plausible in this reconstruction, whatever one thinks of the ongoing validity of the commands. In fact, Towner himself in his comments sees these restrictions very much related to the church’s witness within society, and suggests that in certain Asian cultures, a similarly conservative approach to women’s roles might be wise, but in our western culture the opposite is true, and Christians dragging their feet with regards to the “egalitarian trajectory within the gospel” are damaging the witness of the church.

I was not persuaded by his view that the overseer and elder do not refer to the same role (he suggests a single overseer leads in concert with a larger council of elders). He sees both Timothy and Titus as operating in the role of “apostolic delegate”.

I made use of this commentary as part of a detailed study of the Pastoral Epistles I have been doing over the past few months. I would study a few verses myself, coming up with my own understanding, before consulting Towner. Only very rarely did I find that questions I had about the text weren’t addressed in some way in the text. So I would say this is an excellent resource filled with stimulating and insightful comments, that has greatly helped in my understanding of the PE.