Book Review–Your Jesus is too Safe (Jared Wilson)

I first heard of Jared Wilson through his excellent blog, the Gospel Driven Church which I have followed for a few years now, and so have been looking forward to reading my first book by him. He is an excellent communicator, and, as his blog title implies, brings a gospel-centred approach to all the subjects he addresses.

This is a book about Jesus – a subject that is well deserving of our attention. The blurb and preface led me to expect that this would be a deconstruction of various popular misconceptions of Jesus such as “hippie Jesus, Grammy Award Jesus, Role Model Jesus, Buddy Jesus” etc. But his approach is instead to go to the Scriptures and highlight twelve aspects of who Jesus is.

Each chapter deals with a title or role of Jesus. For example, Jesus the Prophet, Jesus the Shepherd, Jesus the Sacrifice, Jesus the Lord. The book is theologically and biblically rich. With each topic he weaves in some helpful historical and Old Testament background information to help illuminate the already familiar stories of and teachings of Jesus from the gospels.

As might be expected from someone who blogs for the Gospel Coalition, he draws from the likes of John Piper, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll. But he also brings in insights from NT Wright and Dallas Willard which brings a greater breadth to the overall message of the book.

His sense of humour is infused throughout the book, with plenty of quips and gags which give it a light-hearted feel. It made for an enjoyable read, although it felt a little incongruous in places as he juxtaposes a wise-crack with a profound thought.

This isn’t a book of radically new insights, but its chief value is in focusing us in on the person of Jesus, and allowing his own radical and challenging message and identity to be impressed on us again. It would be helpful for a Christian who finds the gospels to have become over-familiar and uninspiring to see Jesus from some fresh perspectives.

Book Review–The Presence and the Power (Gerald Hawthorne)

I’ll start straight off by saying this is one of the best books I have read all year. On almost every page I found myself wanting to underline something, but since I had borrowed it from a friend, I couldn’t. I may have to buy my own copy just to be able to do so, although sadly it seems to be currently out of print.

In this book, Hawthorne sets out to explore the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus. He looks at how the Spirit was involved in Jesus’ conception and birth, and goes through his childhood, his baptism and temptation, his teaching and miracles, and right through to his death and resurrection. What is surprising is how few others have tackled this subject in a sustained manner. Hawthorne is a Professor of Greek, and this book is fairly academic in feel. However, his devout faith and reverence for Christ shines through.

The first chapter gives a brief introduction to who the Holy Spirit is, since the gospel writers seem to take for granted that their readers are already familiar with the person of the Holy Spirit. Hawthorne also addresses the question of who Jesus is. He makes a special point of underscoring the full humanity of Jesus, something that no orthodox Christian would deny, and yet a truth whose implications are not always fully recognised.

The central thesis of the book is that “the Holy Spirit was the divine power by which Jesus overcame his human limitations, rose above his human weakness, and won out over his human mortality”. In other words, he makes the bold claim that all that Jesus accomplished is not merely attributable to his divinity, but rather to the fact that he was a human filled with the Spirit without measure.

Lest anyone suspect him of emphasising the humanity of Christ at the expense of his unique divine nature, Hawthorne also enumerates several ways in which Jesus was unique: he was sinless, his ministry was unique, he was aware of a special relationship with God as his Father, and, most significantly, he was the pre-existent Son of God.

The bulk of the book deals with the life of Jesus in stages. First of all, a chapter deals with the conception and birth of Jesus. He argues that Jesus, like John the Baptist, was filled with the Spirit from the womb. He claims that Jesus’ humanity was comparable to that of Adam’s before the fall – free from sin but also susceptible to sin. Jesus’ sinlessness was therefore a choice, not merely a logical necessity.

Despite there being very little biblical material available, Hawthorne also explores the role of the Spirit in the boyhood and youth of Jesus. He argues that it was the Holy Spirit who was filling Jesus with wisdom, and equipping him for ministry. He reminds us that Jesus is not presented in the gospels as a superhuman child, but one who followed the normal patterns and means of growth and development.

Another chapter explores the Spirit at the baptism and temptation of Jesus. His reconstruction of the event is fascinating. Rather than assuming that Jesus set out with the expressed intention to get baptised by John and then begin his public ministry, Hawthorne suggests that as Jesus listened to John the Baptist’s sermon, he was stirred by the Spirit to respond in obedience. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that he knew that a voice from heaven would speak to him, assuring him of his sonship, nor that he would then go into the wilderness. His Spirit baptism changed the trajectory of his life dramatically.

He points out that the voice from heaven in Luke 3:22 addresses Jesus personally. It was for his benefit. Though he was aware from the age of 12 of a special relationship with the Father, it is possibly only at this point that he learns more fully of his true identity. Or as Hawthorne puts it “Jesus’ awareness of sonship was subject to growth and development, perhaps even to a degree of uncertainty, in need of constant illumination and affirmation.”

The next chapter looks into the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus. Again, Hawthorne has many interesting suggestions in this section, including the possibility that Jesus claiming to have seen Satan fall like lightning from heaven was a prophetic vision rather than necessarily a memory from his pre-birth existence with the Father. He also makes a compelling case that even Jesus’ miracles were not performed by virtue of his divine omnipotence, but through the power of the Spirit. In addition to surveying the explicit mentions of the Spirit, Hawthorne has also gone to some lengths to find implicit evidence for the Spirit in the gospel accounts, particularly in the use of the words exousia (authority) and dynamis (power).

The final chapter surveying Jesus’ life looks at his death and resurrection. Whilst the gospels are largely silent on the Spirit’s role in these events, the rest of the New Testament is not. He looks at various scriptures including Rom 8:11, 1 Cor 6:14 and 1 Tim 3:16, exploring the role of the Spirit in raising Jesus from the dead.

A number of the arguments put forth in this book have the potential to be highly contentious. Whilst in charismatic circles the concept of Jesus performing miracles by the Spirit’s power is more commonly accepted, it certainly is not agreed with everywhere. And perhaps even more sensitive is the suggestion that Jesus had to learn who he was rather than being perpetually aware. Hawthorne deals with this first by surveying church history and highlighting a number of heretical christological views that have been rejected by the church over the ages. He warns that “in a legitimate concern to preserve at all costs the deity of Jesus Christ, many contemporary teachers of the church have followed the lead of the ancient fathers and have become de facto Docetists”.

This leads him to discuss “kenotic Christology”. The original proponents of this thesis suggested that Jesus “emptied” (Phil 2:7) himself of the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. Hawthorne distances himself from this view, but follows Vincent Taylor in proposing a modified form of it, in which Jesus willed to renounce divine prerogatives in order to live as a human. In other words, the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence were present but not operative. He chose to do his miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than that he had no other option. Taking this view avoids the problematic conclusion that other evangelicals have come to that Jesus had some kind of dual consciousness – an omniscient, omnipresent one, and a human one.

A final chapter explores the implications of his findings for the followers of Jesus. If he is right, then Jesus set an example that we really can follow, if we too are filled with and yielded to the Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles is a book that demonstrates what is possible for ordinary people to do under the influence of the Spirit. “The Holy Spirit is God present and active in the lives of Jesus’ followers not to make life rich and comfortable for them, but to equip them to fulfil God’s mission for them in the world.”

This is a rich and thought-provoking book, and I am not yet sure how to what extent I go along with his conclusions. I would say he makes a very compelling case, and one that makes a lot of sense to me. In particular, I think this makes for a much more trinitarian christology, since it presents Jesus as living not only in close communion with his Father, but in complete dependence on the Spirit. So this book comes with a very high recommendation from me. It is not particularly long (less than 250 pages), but it took me a while to get through it since there is a lot of material to digest and ponder. I’d be very interested to hear what others who have read it think.

Book Review – Vintage Jesus (Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears)

I didn’t originally intend to read this book as I had listened to a number of the sermons in Mark Driscoll’s Vintage Jesus series, but a friend lent it to me and I’ve been working my way through over the last month. Driscoll co-authored it with Gerry Breshears, but it would appear that Breshears is more of an editor as Driscoll speaks regularly in the first person.

In terms of style, it’s typical Driscoll. Easy to read, funny, contemporary, direct, shocking and borderline offensive in places. I had supposed at first that the book would be presented as an “introduction to Jesus” for non-Christians, and while it may be appropriate for that, it is more of a book form of the sermon series, and so will often rely on proof-texting from the Bible to make various theological points. It is full of fascinating anecdotes and quotes and could be a good source of material for preachers to borrow from, although it is quite America-centric.

The first chapter sets out to prove that Jesus is “God”. I would have thought it might be good to discuss what this means in terms of the Trinity, but the focus is solely on proving Jesus’ divinity. This is then complemented by a chapter on Jesus’ humanity (in Dricoll-speak “Jesus was a dude”). The third chapter, “How did people know Jesus was coming?” deals with all the prophecies and promises concerning Jesus’ coming in the Old Testament. This raised some hermeneutical issues for me, as many of the Scriptures he cites clearly are not straightforward “promises” as he puts it. Rather, I see them as fore-shadowings, things that could be understood after the Messiah coming, rather than being some kind of cryptic crossword clues to be solved in advance. However, I do commend his Christo-centric approach to Scripture:

no matter how many verses are used, the Bible has not been rightly understood or proclaimed unless Jesus is the central focus and hero.

One of the strengths of the book is that each chapter is followed by a set of common questions and objections, and Driscoll don’t duck any hard questions.

His chapter on Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King had some interesting insights into the tendency of Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism and Liberalism to emphasise only two of those roles at the expense of the third.

Then follow some chapters dealing with the subjects of the virgin birth and the atonement, and he takes the opportunity to distance himself from various emerging church leaders who doubt or deny a literal virgin birth and oppose the concept of penal substitutionary atonement. He argues for a multi-faceted understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which has at its core the penal substitionary model but also includes concepts such as Christus Victor. He lost me a little on his fine distinction between paradise and heaven before and after the cross though.

The chapter on the resurrection presents a variety of evidence for believing its historicity as well as the theological importance and implications. He then turns to consider the importance of worshipping Jesus, and here is some of the strongest material in the book as he explores the various forms of idolatry in Western culture, the chief of which is self-idolatry.

serving people in the name of Jesus and in the character of Jesus is the most satisfying form of worship ever

There is a chapter on the difference Jesus has made in history. This includes a variety of answers to those who suggest that Christianity has made the world worse, not better. He also takes on some of the theologically liberal ideas of the Jesus seminar. The final chapter is on the return of Jesus. Refreshingly he doesn’t set out a timetable of when it will happen (choosing to mock those who do), but rather talks about what Jesus will do when he returns, which includes a frank discussion of judgement and hell, as well as his bringing of recreation and shalom.

Can I recommend this book? Certainly, I think it is a great book for Christians who perhaps are not used to reading more solemn theological tomes, but want to understand more of the Biblical teaching about Jesus. It could also be good read for a non-Christian who has had some exposure to Christianity. Driscoll is to be commended for his willingness to tackle the tough questions, and to challenge and call us to look to Christ and worship him. It’s not a perfect book, and not everyone will appreciate his style, but there could be no more edifying subject matter than the person and work of Christ.