Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: The Last Days of Jesus by Taylor and Köstenberger

Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor haven’t broken the world of scholarship wide open with The Final Days of Jesus (and that's a good thing!). They haven’t done anything controversial or scandalous with this book. They haven’t chosen to repeat the liberal skeptical tropes that we’re used to seeing from people like Bart Ehrman, and as such we’re unlikely to see Taylor and Köstenberger on the evening news or being interviewed on Nightline (is that show still on?). Instead, this book The Final Days of Jesus presents a helpful introductory timeline of the last week of Jesus’ life straight from the biblical record.

The book is organized by days of the week, beginning with Sunday, March 29th, A.D. 33 and going until Sunday, April 5th, A.D. 33. Each chapter contains the biblical material of what occurred on each day of the week leading to Christ’s death along with helpful commentary by Dr. Köstenberger. Just as an example of how the chapters are laid out, Friday, April 3rd A.D. begins with a section on the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. It is followed by all of the biblical accounts of this event from Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-52, Luke 22:47-53, and John 18:2-12. This is followed by a section of commentary on these events from Köstenberger and a map of the area of Gethsemane and showing the path that was probably taken from Gethsemane to the palace of the high priest. Next in the chapter comes the Jewish trial of Jesus with its relevant Scripture passage from John (since he’s the only one who records that event) just as the previous section was laid out and so on. In this sense, the book is interested in bringing out details, discussing harmonization issues, and keeping things as narratively driven as possible.

All of this does seem somewhat academic, I’ll confess. What comes out of the reading, however, is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to really drink up what the Scriptures say, laid out in a helpful, chronologically structured book. It isn’t long. It isn’t hard reading. It also isn’t excessively defensive in the apologetic sense (though harmonizations between accounts are dealt with, when necessary, in a secondary way), which I think your average reader will appreciate. They approach the biblical record acknowledging slight differences in the way the authors record the events. But they encourage readers to adopt “a charitable rather than critical reading,” which they say “demonstrates that the evangelists are each accurately referring to the same thing rather than contradicting one another.” This is a refreshing approach compared to the mainstream NT scholarship that dominates in the academy today.

Although I had this review written last week, I purposely decided to keep from publishing my review of it until after the Easter weekend. I’m a Presbyterian and we’re famously obnoxious for our rebellion against the church calendar (as well as publicly beating our breasts at times: "Thank God I am not like these other men who observe the church calendar!"). But my reason for waiting until after Easter was not to grate on the nerves of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who would expect this sort of thing to go online before Easter. Rather, I did it because this book isn’t just important to read at Easter. The death and resurrection of Jesus is not merely something to think about during the month of April. These events are central to the whole of redemptive history. They are the glue the holds the covenants of God and His promises of New Creation throughout the Old Testament prophets together. As such, they deserve our attention throughout the year. My hope is that Christians will be motivated by this book to not merely “get in the Easter spirit” during one particular season of the year, but that every Sunday would be an occasion for us to meditate and think upon the death burial and resurrection of Christ. A book like this is just the tool to help us do that. I commend this book to be used by Christians all year long.

[This book was provided by Crossway to me for review purposes.]

Friday, April 11, 2014

Book Review: New Testament Biblical Theology by G.K. Beale

A New Testament Biblical Theology was a book 22 years in the making. One could argue that Beale’s commentary on Revelation alone would be enough to cement his place of importance among the great exegetes (Reformed or otherwise) of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The commentary is an excellent picture of how to read the New Testament and Old Testament faithfully in light of one another. If this is true of his Revelation commentary, his New Testament Biblical Theology is further confirmation of the exegetical prowess of a theologian who no longer needs to prove himself.

Even beginning with the subtitle of this book, G. K. Beale makes clear that he is no dispensationalist. Rather, Beale (like Ridderbos and Vos before him) sees the Old Testament as something that is not to be set in contrast to the New. It is to be seen as a continuation or “unfolding” of what was already there in seed form in the Old. Of central importance to Beale’s project is developing upon Vos’ own conviction that the message of new creation is the central focus of the Old and New Testaments. He says explicitly where this volume stands in relation to Vos: “The present volume is my attempt to develop further Vos’ program, since he never wrote a full biblical theology of the NT” (20).

Beale spends the first chapter buttressing his own conviction of how the Old Testament “storyline” (5) can be summarized:
The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance his kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory (62).
This quote is crucial for comprehending the rest of the book. All parts of the OT, then, serve to move with and build upon this dominant, overarching metanarrative. Notice the eschatological tone that the Old Testament takes on when it is read in this light: the Old Testament storyline has direction, movement, and inertia, moving from creation, to fall, to new creation, and this tone dominates the rest of Beale’s work in NTBT.

This Old Testament metanarrative, of course, unfolds into the New Testament, which Beale summarizes as follows:
Jesus’ life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit have launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new-creational reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God’s glory (188).
The central theme of new creation isn’t replaced by this NT storyline, of course, but rather brought to fruit. The entire book is particularly interested in “trac[ing] out these major eschatological and biblical-theological notions” (188). The notion of “new creation” for the purposes of displaying God’s glory dominates the book, receiving special attention at the end in chapter 28.

Richard Gaffin, who was similarly building upon the work of Vos and Ridderbos, argued that “history has reached its eschatological realization in the death and especially the resurrection of Christ” (Resurrection and Redemption, 13). Beale is in agreement with this sentiment, and it shows in how he structures the remainder of the book. Out of the 10 parts into which the book is organized, the term “new Creation” appears in the title of 7, which are geared toward exposing God’s new creational purposes in different redemptive-historical areas. Beale doesn’t simply argue that new creation is central and then structure his work as though it were not so. Rather, for Beale the Old Testament, as well as the New, reveals the progressive outworking of God’s new creational purposes. In this schema, the death and resurrection of Christ become the inauguration of that new creational purpose, and the second coming of Christ becomes the consummation of that new creational movement. There is no downplaying the centrality of the resurrection to what Beale is arguing. Whenever the term “new creation” is used by Beale, it is nearly impossible to separate it from “resurrection,” although there may be redemptive-historical differences between them. There is not one without the other. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may already be a student of Beale’s predecessors.

If there is any misstep in the whole work, it may be in chapter 15, his chapter on the Inaugurated Latter-Day Justification. In one part of that chapter, Beale discusses the relationship of works to final justification. In the process, he makes an odd statement on page 518, where he says, speaking of Romans 2:3–10 :
It seems best to understand Paul’s statement in verse 13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” to refer to the final judgment when those who have faith in Christ and possess good works, though not perfect, will be “justified” or “vindicated” on the basis of those works (italics added).
Beale’s affirmation here that the final eschatological judgment will be “on the basis of” the believer’s good works rather than “in accordance with” the believer’s good works is difficult to reconcile with his prior affirmation of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to believers (see 471–477). When Richard Gaffin, who holds a similar view of final justification to Beale, speaks on the subject, he says what seems to be quite the opposite: “[I]n that future judgment, their good works will not be the ground or basis of their acquittal.” I will leave it to readers to make sense of how the rather odd statement in question fits into Beale’s overall perspective on justification; I am quite at a loss to discern the answer myself.

Even in light of the above-cited shortcoming, this book really is a treasure trove of biblical-theological and redemptive-historical insights. Reading this book during my first year of seminary was profoundly formative, and it increased my confidence that the Bible could be read as a whole elegant tapestry and not as a patchwork quilt. Even in light of the above-mentioned confusing statement regarding final justification, I would still recommend this work highly. The fact that this book is now available in a searchable format on Logos further increases its high value to both pastor and student. Even if one doesn’t plan to read it all the way through, it can be very helpful to use the Scripture index and see how Beale works with particular texts in their redemptive-historical context.

Being able to read the numerous Scripture references on the fly simply by hovering over them is a feature so exciting that I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I own a physical copy of this text, with highlights all over the place and writing in the margins, but the truth is that—at 1,000 pages—it’s quite cumbersome for a bus trip or even a ride across town in a backpack or briefcase. Being able to put this on my iPad with Logos, and read the Scripture references immediately within the text, all in a searchable and digital format, is well worth the repurchase price tag. If you have this book and find yourself using it already, don’t hesitate to pick it up on Logos.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Evangelicals Seeing the Fault Lines

Rachel Held Evans quit evangelicalism. For like, three days, anyway. But she's back now. Angered at the Christian response to World Vision's change/non-change of its policy on same-sex marriage, she is evidently apoplectic. "Instead of fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, I want to prepare tables in the wilderness, where everyone is welcome and where we can go on discussing (and debating!) the Bible, science, sexuality, gender, racial reconciliation, justice, church, and faith, but without labels, without wars." I've said this before, but this really just sounds like she's describing the liberal mainline churches. She wouldn't have to fight any culture wars over there, at least. They've already capitulated, so there's no war to be had. But I digress. That isn't to be my focus.

I'm intrigued by the idea of someone dropping evangelicalism. If RHE did "step away" from the evangelical table, how would that look any differently for her? The last I read, she doesn't even go to church (much like the Blue Like Jazz dude or Rob Bell or my friends who were reading Brian McLaren back when it was hip). There is no "evangelical roll call," after all, where you can remove your name. There is no President of the Evangelicals who will note your departure. It is no denomination with a written set of views that you can compare to see who does and doesn't belong. The idea of evangelicalism has really been precariously held together over the past fifty years with a bit of shoe-string and duct tape. As long as everyone who called themselves "evangelicals" believed and behaved like evangelicals were supposed to, the movement had some assumed identity.

But things have begun to visibly splinter. Some, such as RHE, desire to keep the name of 'evangelical' but allow and even celebrate unrepentant sinners (note that I say unrepentant). This has become something of a fault line for the movement. Others think that "the bible" itself is up for debate. Yet another fault line. Women's ordination... you guessed it. Fault line. Issue after issue have crept into the evangelical discussion until one day evangelicals raised their heads, looked around, and realized they were running a china shop over the San Andreas Fault line. The problem, of course, is one of definition. As Trueman tautologically put it, "If evangelicalism has no boundaries, then no boundaries [can be] transgressed."

Way back in the olden days (2011 to be exact) Carl Trueman released a prescient little book titled The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In that book he argued that evangelicalism is bound to fail as a coherent movement because it cannot agree on what the "evangel" even is. This problem will become progressively more evident as cultural pressures push in until some just can't take it anymore:
There may be a bright side to evangelicalism's decline. When the fog has lifted and it becomes clear that all talk of evangelicalism as a clearly defined movement was a category mistake...then new alliances may emerge...Once various groups are no longer competing for ownership of the evangelical brand, they might be able to assess one another in a less defensive manner...The cultural referee is about to call time out on evangelicals and evangelicalism, if not traditional religions entirely. No evangelical leader or organization can prevent it. The gay lobby, militant secularists, and atheists who deride any religious belief as distasteful will force Christians either into capitulation to their demands or a sectarianism that thrusts us to the margins. Abandoning the myth of the evangelical movement can only help us, as it will free us to be who we truly are and to speak the gospel in all of its richness as we understand it. This is what our day and generation needs. 
Carl Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, pg. 40-41.
Trueman is right. Groups who are not content to let evangelicals remain on the sidelines are forcing them to take sides on all of these issues. Some are capitulating or assimilating, following a hybrid, Borg-like ethic that (in their minds) looks like the old evangelicalism (because it embraces "love"!) but functions like moral libertinism (because it doesn't know how to tell anybody "no"!). The rest are left calling themselves evangelicals, functioning in the older ways with historical precedent, but all the while being slandered by the Borg (who claim to only want peace and no war) as unscientific, misogynistic, racist, justice-hating troglodytes. This uneasy union of evangelicals has been destined to fall because it is a boundary-less coalition without creed or confession or standards of any kind. It's been a gentleman's arrangement up to this point, you might say. RHE holds a significant voice within what one might call emergent evangelicalism. The fact that she spent three days wanting to get out of town over the evidently non-negotiable issue of gay marriage says something about how deep the fracture has grown.

I'm with Trueman. The sooner Christians realize that the term "evangelical" is empty, nebulous, undefined, and unhelpful, the sooner Christians can start to be honest about their views and engaging with one another in a way that allows authenticity and (almost paradoxically) less infighting.