Book Review – Through the Bible Through the Year (John Stott)

First of all, a brief apology to regular readers of my blog for my failure to post anything much this year. I have been preparing a Saturday morning theology course to run at my church, on the subject of ecclesiology. Hopefully all the course notes will appear on this blog in due course.

I bought John Stott’s "Through the Bible Through the Year" with the intention of making it my main Bible reading companion for 2007. The basic idea is that he follows the traditional Christian year and works through the Bible in three stages. Part One goes through the story of the Old Testament. Part Two is the life of Jesus. Part Three is the early church (Acts, Epistles and Revelation). Or you can think of it as Father, Son and Spirit as well. If you start in January you do parts two and three first so that the Christmas and Easter stories fall come at the appropriate times.

Each day has a short Bible passage to read followed by a section of John Stott’s comments – usually three or four paragraphs. John Stott is one of my favourite expositors, and as usual his comments are fresh and insightful. Those who have read a lot of his Bible Speaks Today series will recognise some of the material, but it is worth hearing again in succinct form.

Having said all this, I did have a couple of disappointments with this book. First, the Scripture readings for each day are very short. If you only read the suggested passages you will not end up reading very much of the Bible in a year. I found myself wanting to supplement the reading with some extra material, and it was not always easy to keep pace with where the book was. It would have been nice to include extra readings to get you through the entire Bible in a year in a way that kept you roughly in sync with the comments. Also, I think the book could have done with some daily suggestions for prayer and worship.

Anyway, I would recommend this to anyone who does not have a regular habit of Bible reading and doesn’t have much time. It will require only five minutes a day of you and will help you to begin to grasp the overall story-line of the Bible. Anyone in Southampton who wants to borrow my copy to start at Easter is more than welcome.

Book Review – Calling Christian Leaders (John Stott)

This short book is an exposition of 1 Corinthians 1-4, focusing particularly on Christian leadership. Stott breaks the four chapters into five sections. The first is on the “ambiguity” of the church – the church is a painful paradox – what it claims to be is not what it seems to be. It is holy yet becoming holy, one yet divided. With regards to holiness he warns of the opposite dangers of perfectionism (failing to appreciate that there will always be sinners in any church) and defeatism (giving up opposing sin and tolerating it in the church).

The second section takes on the theme of power through weakness. Stott explains how the only power of the church is found in Jesus, in the cross and in the Spirit. He warns of the corrupting desire for power, and calls us to examine our motives even when we pray for power – why do we want it? The gospel demonstrates power through weakness, and so should the church. It is important then that leaders exemplify this principle and reject worldly models of leadership.

The third section is on the Spirit and the Scripture. He speaks of the twin gifts of our salvation and the Spirit, before explaining the relationship between the Spirit and the Bible. The Spirit not only inspired the Bible, but illuminates us as we read. He takes some time to clarify what is meant and what is not meant by “verbal inspiration” of Scripture.

The fourth chapter explores various pictures of the church – a field, a building, a temple. A higher view of the church will actually result in a lower view of leaders – as we understand that it is God who gives the growth.

The fifth and final chapter deals directly with the topic of leadership, and calls for loving, gentle and humble leadership as opposed to the autocratic models too often found in churches.

As with all John Stott’s books, this one is marked by careful exegesis and reverent submission to the Word of God. As usual he is humble, gracious, thought-provoking and insightful in his teaching. It could be read in a few hours, and would be useful as a guide for anyone preaching or studying their way through the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians.

Book Review – The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (John Stott)

This exposition of the Sermon on the Mount was originally published under the title “Christian Counter-Culture”, before being added to the Bible Speaks Today series some years later. Although it only covers three chapters of Matthew, it is a worthy addition to the series, and allows the Sermon to be covered in much more depth than would otherwise be possible. The extra space however, is not devoted to surveys of the various theories about how the sermon came to be in the form it is, but the focus is always kept on practical application for today’s Christians.

While the book doesn’t strictly speaking have an introduction, the opening section on 5:1,2 effectively functions as one. Stott claims that the world is seeking for a counter-culture – a different, and better way to live, but have looked at the church and found confusion instead. He sees the sermon as a call to Christians to demonstrate a genuinely different way of life. He defends the sermon against criticism that it is inauthentic, irrelevant or unattainable. He also argues that it is not a gospel of righteousness by works, but it is a new law that leads us to Christ and shows us how to please God.

The beatitudes are set out as graces that all Christians need to manifest, and from the following verses he argues for Christians to be an influence for good in society. He sees Jesus’ antitheses as correcting distortions of the Mosaic law, to show that Christian righteousness is deeper than mere outward conformance to law.

Stott is careful not to make legalistic prescriptions about how the sermon should be applied, but still is willing to discuss many specific contemporary issues (e.g. pornography). His handling of the subject of divorce is gentle, and he includes an extended discussion of whether the non-retaliatory command should relate to the law courts. Basically, he tries to pick up on those verses which typical Christian readers might have questions about and works through the issues. As such it makes it a valuable resource for those who are studying or teaching their way through the sermon in a small group setting.

The first half of the sermon contains much material related to a Christian’s righteousness, while the second deals with prayer and Christian relationships. The sermon is broken down into 12 sections, and although he sometimes may be trying to be too neat with the structure he finds, it is a helpful way to organise the material.

There is not a great deal of discussion of how the sermon might have been heard by its original audience, and the political implications it would have had. He does however emphasise the multi-faceted “authority” of Jesus seen in the sermon, especially in the way he speaks of himself.

John Stott is convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is highly relevant teaching for today’s Christians. His practical focus throughout will mean that everyone will find something to challenge and inspire them. Reading through it should not prove difficult thanks to Stott’s good writing skills and devotional warmth. It will also serve as a good companion to any introductory commentary on Matthew, which will not typically be able to afford so much space to the sermon.

Stott on the New Perspective

Thanks to Peter Bogert, for pointing out that John Stott’s BST volume on Romans contains a brief analysis of the New Perspective (I read it 5 years ago before I had even heard of the New Perspective). It was published in 1984 and doesn’t interact with N T Wright’s view on justification, but nevertheless it provides an excellent introduction. In keeping with the style of the Bible Speaks Today series, no specialist vocabulary or background knowledge of historical theology is assumed. It is section 2 of the “Preliminary Essay”, entitled “New Challenges to Old Traditions” (pp. 24-31).

Stott first introduces us to the ideas of Stendahl, who argued that Calvin was wrong to believe that the main theme of Romans is justification by faith. Rather, it was written to defend he rights of Gentiles to be full heirs of Israel’s promises, apart from the law. Stott feels this is an unnecessarily sharp antithesis, and is far from convinced that Paul’s pre-Christian conscience was as robust as Stendahl claims.

He writes, “Paul was indeed deeply exercised, as the apostle to the Gentiles, about the place of the law in salvation and about the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the one body of Christ. But he was also evidently concerned to expound and defend the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. In fact, the two concerns, far from being incompatible, are inextricably interwoven. Only loyalty to the gospel can secure unity in the church.”

Stott then moves on to consider Sander’s contribution. Sanders wanted to destroy the notion that Palestinian Judaism was a religion of legalistic works-righteousness, and argued that instead they believed in “covenantal nomism” – their obedience to the law was a response to the covenant of grace. Or, in now familiar terms, they “get in” by God’s gracious election, but “stay in” by obedience. Stott then summarises Sander’s interpretation of Paul’s teaching and notes that “categories of human sin and guilt, the wrath of God, justification by grace without works, and peace with God in consequence, are conspicuous by their absence.”

Stott presents five points of objection to Sander’s thesis that Paul was not objecting to self-righteousness. He questions whether the evidence on Jewish teaching is as uniform as Sanders claims, and notes that “popular religion may diverge widely from the official literature of its leaders”. Just because they weren’t ‘officially’ legalistic doesn’t mean many weren’t in practise. Our human nature tends towards being self-centred and proud. It would be surprising if all the Jews were somehow immune from this tendency. In any case, for Paul, “getting in” and “staying in” were both by grace alone.

Contra Räisänen, Paul was not confused about the law, struggling how a divine institution could be abolished. Stott explains that for Paul, in both the areas of justification and sanctification, we are not under law but grace. “For justification we look to the cross, not the law, and for sanctification to the Spirit, not the law. It is only by the Spirit that the law can be fulfilled in us”.

Finally, Stott considers Dunn’s claim that “works of the law” refer not to good works but ethnic identity markers. Paul therefore only objected to a boastful sense of national privilege and ethnic exclusivity. Stott agrees that Paul objected to these, but drawing on Westerholm, claims that “law” and “works of the law” can be shown to have wider reference to good works in general.

Though Stott has rejected some of the New Perspective teaching, he does not see it as being entirely without merit. In conclusion he states “… we can be profoundly thankful for the scholarly insistence that the Gentile question is central to Romans. The redefinition and reconstitution of the people of God, as comprising Jewish and Gentile believers on equal terms, is a critical theme which pervades the letter.”