Bowled Over

I just got this commentary in the mail today. I do not get bowled over very often when it comes to commentaries, but this commentary was an enormous surprise to me. The International Critical Commentary series has the following characteristics: extreme technical detail; moderate to strongly liberal perspectives; little to no interaction with conservative writers; comprehensive in scope (with the exception of the conservative writers); little to no concern with systematic theological concerns. The only really notable exception that I know of to this trend besides the new Allison commentary is Cranfield’s masterwork on Romans. Allison’s work reminds me strongly of Cranfield.

For those of my readers who have any familiarity with the ICC at all, can you imagine an ICC volume that cites the following authors (many of them favorably!): Thomas Manton, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Francis Turretin, John Owen, A.W. Pink, Jonathan Edwards, John Gill, Matthew Henry, Johannes Piscator, Martin Bucer, W.G.T. Shedd, William Pemble, John Newton, Martin Chemnitz, and Wolfgang Musculus? And yet, Allison does in this commentary on James. I’m not saying that that makes him a conservative Presbyterian. I haven’t read his conclusions on the section 2:14-26 to know exactly where he comes out on that. His work with W.D. Davies on Matthew is similarly exhaustive, but is moderately liberal. Be that as it may, he drops all those names mentioned in his history of the intepretation of 2:14-26, along with dozens and dozens more from every theological persuasion. Folks, even if Allison is not conservative, he is listening to us. He writes in his preface: “I have aspired to read as many relevant books and articles, of whatever date and provenance, as possible, including much outside the usual scope of standard academic study” (p. ix). Indeed, he has! His efforts are extremely refreshing and will not go unnoticed, I hope, by the Reformed world.

What amazes me so much about this commentary is that Allison does not shrink from engaging in systematic theological categories and ideas (and theologians!). It would, of course, be difficult to avoid this in the difficult passage 2:14-26. However, he doesn’t just dip his toes into the theological arena: he dives in with full force! Surely, if a conservative Reformed pastor is going to read just one commentary that might be outside his tradition, he should make it Allison. What a tremendous work of scholarship. I am bowled over. Since he has done us conservative Reformed folk the courtesy of reading our works, we should definitely return the favor.

On Peer-Reviewed Scholarship and Self-Criticism

I see a growing trend/problem in today’s scholarship. Authors are becoming less and less likely to submit their manuscripts to anyone who would disagree with the main thesis of their work. They are not submitting their materials to those who would be their staunchest critics. This is in keeping with the growing self-idolization of scholars, who quite often think that if they say it, then it is true. This is pride and egotism at work, not humility and desire for truth. Scholars are motivated by whether they can sell the book, or whether they can gain prestige as “the world’s foremost authority” on the subject. Of course, rarely can those two things both be accomplished in one book. They usually try for one or the other. But their motivation is incorrect. The true motivation of the scholar must be the glory of God, which is only to be gained by the pursuit of truth.

Truth must be tested by all those who oppose it. This is why God has given the tremendous gift of heresy to the church: to test the truth in the church so that the church will know why it does not believe X, and instead believes Y. I would even say that the Holy Spirit uses heresy more often than almost any other goad to get the church to realize what the Bible really says. I remember well Ligon Duncan’s rule of thumb in reading the early church fathers: when they are responding to heretics, they are generally on target. When they are not, watch out!

If we are really after the truth, and not just our own prestige, then surely we should submit our materials to the very best and brightest critics of our position on the matter in question. It is a humble thing to do, and it is a wise thing to do. Two examples of this, one positive and one negative, will help illustrate: when Peter Enns published his book Inspiration and Incarnation, he did not submit the manuscript to those of the faculty of WTS who would have opposed his main theses. As a result, the book suffered from lack of probation, if you will. The book has a certain anemia about it that bears the mark of musings, but not of tested scholarship. On the other hand, when John Piper wrote his book critiquing N.T. Wright (The Future of Justification), he sent the whole manuscript to none other than N.T. Wright himself, surely the very best critic who opposed Piper’s position that Piper could find! This shows not only humility on Piper’s part (notice that in N.T. Wright’s response to Piper, entitled simply Justification, he did not extend the courtesy back to Piper, which says a lot about Wright’s ego, in my opinion), but also a desire to get at the truth, and to have it tested against the most rigorous standards possible.

Of course, there is an additional side benefit to doing this sort of thing. If and when the scholar is published, he will already know the vast majority of ways that his book could be criticized, and will therefore not be very surprised by any of the book reviews (except perhaps the positive ones!). Some scholars have been known to sink into a deep depression because their work was not well received, and because they were shocked at the reception it got. This is their own fault for peddling a book to stroke their own ego, and to feed their own idol: the fear of man.

Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae

Now, there’s a catchy title! It has such a familiar ring about it, doesn’t it? Now that everyone knows precisely what I am talking about…

This is a massively huge project (a 10-volume work), of which the director of the program (Christian Locatell) is trying to assess interest. It will need a fair bit of support for the project to get underway. Polanus’ work is nothing more or less than a complete compendium of Reformed theology from the period of Reformed orthodoxy. This work has been buried in the mists of obscurity before now, but it was a very important work indeed in its time. Polanus is one of the most-quoted sources in Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. So show your support for this work, and help get some of the riches of Reformed orthodoxy in print in English!

Recent Book on Trent

There are very few full-length books on the council of Trent. There is an historical reason for that, in that the pope forbade any commentaries from being written about the council, since he wanted to control the reception and implementation of the council. With the opening up of the Vatican archives in the twentieth century, Trent is finally fair game for historians. In this regard, John O’Malley has done it again, and the scope of his achievement is rather mind-blowing to me, especially when one considers how much research he also has done on Vatican II. In both cases, he not only read the complete series of books that document the councils, but also most of the secondary literature as well. This may not seem huge until one realizes that in both cases (Trent and Vatican II), the documentary series of books runs to over 30 volumes. O’Malley certainly seems to have read everything of importance, and the result is a highly compact, incredibly fact-dense, but also very readable history of Trent. I thought I was going to run out of the world’s supply of lead, I underlined so much. Now, his being Roman Catholic means, of course, that I am not going to agree with him in many places. However, that does not take away from the fact that this is an incredible book. It will give you an excellent handle on what happened at Trent. Given the situation of the RCC at the moment, which is in large part determined by Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, it is exceedingly important that we know not only what happened at Trent, but also what did not happen.

He does an especially good job making distinct the actual acts of the council from the reception and perception of the council. His delineation of the political situation was a real eye-opener. The reason why the council took so long and was interrupted, was due to the highly volatile political situation involving the two most powerful political entities (France and the Holy Roman Empire) in their various relations and machinations with the popes of the day.

The only thing I wish he had done was to analyze the Joint Declaration that the Lutherans did with the Roman Catholics. O’Malley seems to think that the entire discussion of whether the anathemas of Trent still apply is to be referred to those ecumenical discussions. I’m not so sure about that, to put it mildly, and I would have liked to see his own evaluation of that in the light of his own mastery of the history of Trent. Still, this is only a minor blemish on a work of fantastic historical value. If you want to know what happened at Trent, you really need to read this book.

Wise Words on Preaching

Timothy Ward concludes his wonderful book on Scripture with some wise words on preaching that I would like to share with folks.

Firstly, he notices that some pastors are so afraid of seeming too arrogant, authoritarian, or tyrannical in the pulpit that they seek to avoid any and all trappings of power in their sermons: “In sermons like these the preacher comes not proclaiming, declaring, exhorting and rebuking, but sharing, musing, reflecting and imagining” (157). He puts his finger directly on the problem with this: “The main problem with preaching in this ‘weak’ style is that it is not weak for any of the same reasons that the apostle Paul judged his own preaching to be weak” (157). His trenchant conclusion on this issue is very quotable indeed: “Preaching goes as tragically astray when it muses and reflects on those matters it should be proclaiming, as it does when it confidently proclaims what the preacher cannot know, because Scripture is silent” (158).

Secondly, Ward establishes a very clear, strong and beautiful connection of the Holy Spirit to the Word in preaching: “[W]hat the faithful preacher does, and what the Holy Spirit does with Scripture through him, is best described as a contemporary re-enactment of the speech act that the Spirit performed in the original authoring of the text” (emphasis original, 162). This should have a profound effect on the preacher himself: “The preacher should have grappled with the meaning of the text in his preparation, desiring the Spirit-given purpose of the biblical text to become real in in his own life. He should enter the pulpit as someone who has been chastened by the Spirit, or given new hope, or set out on a new course of action, or renounced a kind of behaviour, or had love rekindled in his heart, that is, responding faithfully to the speech act conveyed by the Scripture on which he is preaching” (164).

Thirdly, Ward connects the private reading of Scripture to the public preaching in an interesting and helpful way: “the healthiest way to relate the two is to think of the individual reading of Scripture as derivative of, and dependent on, the corporate reading and proclamation of Scripture in the Christian assembly” (171). What he means by that is that “good preaching exercises something of a ‘credal’ function in the local church” (172). It helps the people read their Bibles better.

Fourthly and lastly, Ward gives us a good argument for turning to commentaries a bit sooner in our preparation of sermons. This statement is worth quoting in full. Notice how balanced it is, with appropriate qualifications and limitations set on it:

There is certainly merit in not simply turning to learned books to find ‘the answer’, as a lazy short-cut to avoid wrestling with Scripture for myself. Yet increasingly, when reading Scripture, I find myself wanting to turn to a good Bible commentary sooner rather than later. My reason is this: a good commentary will give me an insight into the consensus view on the meaning of each passage held by the generations of believers who have come before me. Working within that framework seems to be a sensible, humble and faithful place to start. For most Christians, who lack the time, resources and perhaps also the inclination to do the research themselves, good preaching will be a crucial means by which that historic consensus on Scripture’s meaning is conveyed to individual believers. For that, of course, the preacher needs to be, as he should be, well educated in biblical, historical and systematic theology. (paragraph break, LK) Nothing that I have just said denies outright that God can cause new light to break out from Scripture, enabling us to see truths in it that our forebears did not” (173-174).

Longman and Carson on Commentaries

The subject of bibliography has always been a favorite of mine, and that of commentaries in particular. I have my own commentary recommendations here. So, I picked up the recent editions (both published in 2013) of Longman’s Old Testament Commentary Survey and Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey.

I will start off with Carson’s survey, because it is so incredibly impressive. I was very hard pressed indeed to think of a single important NT commentary that has appeared since his sixth edition (2007) that Carson has not commented upon, and that is certainly saying something. Almost all the time, I agree with his assessments, as well. He even knew about some commentaries that are not in the mainstream of scholarship, and mentioned them as well. The only commentaries published between 2007 and 2013 of any real importance for pastors that he failed to mention were Pipa’s and Fesko’s commentaries on Galatians. He mentioned McWilliams’s commentary, though, which I did not expect (not because it is not important, but because it would appeal primarily to a fairly niche market). I highly recommend Carson’s study as a great bibliographical help for students and pastors seeking the best commentaries.

I cannot be nearly as positive about Longman’s book. Most of the shortcomings of the previous editions are still there, and there are vast swaths of scholarship that he simply ignores. There is almost no mention of the Historical Commentary on the Old Testament (which has a growing number of volumes in it), which is not only available through Dove Booksellers (and most of them on Amazon as well), but represents extremely important scholarship. He mentions the name Renkema, for instance, in connection with Garrett/House’s commentary on Lamentations, but fails to rate Renkema’s own commentary, which is surely the most important detailed exegetical commentary of Lamentations in existence. Many of the recent International Critical Commentary volumes are missing, as well (Williamson on Isaiah 1-5, Goldingay/Payne on Isaiah 40-55, Mackintosh on Hosea, Salters on Lamentations). On Lamentations, he includes the Daily Study Bible entry, but not the ICC volume. Really? Absolutely none of John Currid’s commentaries are mentioned at all, nor are Dale Ralph Davis’s. Only one of Iain Duguid’s commentaries are mentioned (his Ezekiel volume), and none of John Mackay’s. So, among the four best living Old Testament commentators (in my estimation), only one receives any mention at all, and only for one of his books. I am well aware how huge the field is. It is impossible to include absolutely everything. But the gaps I have mentioned are particularly glaring for Reformed pastors. Reformed pastors should own every commentary published by Currid, Davis, Duguid, and Mackay (who among them have covered a huge amount of the Old Testament).

It is not very well updated, either. For instance, he shows no knowledge that Fox completed his Anchor Bible commentary on Proverbs (the second volume was published in 2009). His blurb on the first volume reads precisely the same as it did in the fourth edition (“The only drawback is that it covers just the first nine chapters. Hopefully, we will not have to wait too long for the rest of the commentary to appear,” page 78). Oops! He does include a review of every single contribution to the Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary, which he edited. I’m glad he did that, don’t get me wrong, but without some of the other far more important contributions, it feels a bit like an advertisement for his own work. I counted only 35 new entries outside the REBC. There have been quite a few more than 35 new important commentaries written on OT books since 2007.

He still includes glaringly arrogant recommendations of his own commentaries, though not always. His blurb on his Job commentary is much more humble than his blurb on his Proverbs commentary, which I hope is an embarrassment to him (“You can guess my feelings on this commentary. I wouldn’t have published it if I didn’t like it!” p. 79).

There are many, many times when I disagree with his judgment on commentaries. For instance, his assessment of Hamilton’s Exodus commentary, while generally positive (which I do agree with wholeheartedly, as Hamilton’s commentary is one of my favorites), includes a statement that I think is completely off the mark: “a good treatment of the text’s meaning without much further theological or canonical reflection.” And he only gave it 4 stars. If any commentary deserves 5 stars, it’s Hamilton on Exodus, and there is a LOT of theological and canonical reflection. He does not appear to have read this one yet.

This is not much of an update on the fourth edition, has numerous gaps (where Carson has practically none), and has more than hints of self-serving in it. I cannot recommend this book as a reliable guide to commentaries, I am sorry to say. The fourth edition was much better in its time (though still suffering from some of the problems mentioned, the problems were less glaring in older editions) than this fifth edition.

Growing in Devotional Discernment

C.S. Lewis once said:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

What I wish to talk about today is discernment in reading Christian books so that we will grow. There is a large tendency in evangelicalism and also in Reformed circles, to read nothing but “devotional” literature. By this I mean books like “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose-Driven Life.” I am not going to disparage such books completely, although Warren’s book has some serious theological problems with it. Devotional books can indeed lift our spirits heavenward on occasion, especially the better ones, and by the better ones, I mean primarily the Puritan devotional literature. There is, however, one big difficulty with devotional literature, and it can be illustrated by an analogy. Supposing someone told you that in order for you to experience the emotion of joy, you had to pursue the experience of having the emotion joy. “Just feel joyful” they might say. The problem with this is that it doesn’t work. If you just lost a loved one, for instance, joy may be hard to come by, and it might be even harder to achieve if someone tells you that you need to pursue it. Because then you pursue it in ways that do not tend to bring joy, but rather despair, because when you pursue something and don’t get it, then the pursuit becomes quite counter-productive. The same thing can be said about devotion to God. Telling someone directly that they must be devoted to God emotionally and spiritually is often counter-productive.

It can be much more productive to try an indirect way. Ask yourself this question: what are some reasons why I should love God? Well, look at who God is. You can’t look at God very long before you realize just how beautiful He is, with all His marvelous Trinitarian attributes, dazzling in their multi-faceted unity. Similarly, look at what He has done, and you can’t help but love a God who loves us that much, and has shown us that much grace. But do you notice what we just did in asking those questions? We have moved out of the realm of most devotional literature, and instead entered the realm of systematic theology. We asked questions about who God is and what God has done. Those are the primary questions that systematic theology seeks to address. The answers to these questions give us reasons to sing. The promote what my father lovingly calls “doxological didacticism.” This brings us back to the quotation by C.S. Lewis. What Lewis was getting at was that the indirect approach to devotion (getting at devotion to God through theology) is often more effective than trying to do it directly.

The problem is that most Christians are absolutely terrified of “systematic theology.” They think that they cannot understand any of it. They think that it is irrelevant and impractical. What I would say to that is that any theology that is not understandable, or that is irrelevant and impractical is not good theology, but rather bad theology! The Puritans used to define theology itself as the science of living for God. That obviously has a very strong practical component in the very definition of theology itself. I would go even farther. A systematic theology that is impractical is not even theology at all. All true theology is practical and useful. Theology that is not understandable is not theology but gobbledy-gook.

Here is another way of thinking about systematic theology. Systematic theology asks one question many times, and that question is, “What does the Bible as a whole say about x?” You can fill in “x” with any theological topic you want. The process of comparing Scripture to Scripture will result in a larger picture of what the Bible says about God, man, sin, Jesus Christ, redemption accomplished, redemption applied, the church, the sacraments, the last things, and other topics. Systematic theology is something that we do all the time, even though we may not call it that. Whenever you ask a question about who God is or what He has done, you are engaging in systematic theology. The word “systematic” simply means that after you have compared Scripture with Scripture, you will wind up with a system, or a pattern. The Bible itself commands us to do this. “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” (2Ti 1:13 NKJ) This passage tells us that there is a pattern, or system, to what Scripture teaches, and that we are to hold it fast. Obviously we cannot hold it fast, unless we know what it is. It is not a system or pattern that we impose on it from outside the Scripture. Rather, it is the pattern that the Scripture itself suggests. Jude tells us to contend for the faith once for all given to the saints. There is a special sense given to the words “the faith.” The Faith in that sense is what we confess, a body of doctrine. Whether you look at Jude’s way of putting it or Paul’s way of putting it, the Bible commands us to engage in systematic theology. It commands us to search the Scriptures to see what the Scripture says about various things.

All this to say that if we as teachers in the church are not growing by asking these questions, then we risk several unmitigated disasters: 1. We will not pass on this pattern of sound teaching to our children, and their knowledge of the Christian faith will be very fragmented, and they will therefore be unable to cope with all the challenges they will face in a secular world (they will be swept away by people who have a more coherent system of thought!). 2. We ourselves will not have discernment when it comes to new books and ideas that come out. Systematic theology gives you a core of knowledge to which you will always be adding, and to which you can compare any new thing that comes along. If you don’t have that core, you will have almost no discernment whatsoever. 3. Our teaching itself will be fragmented, disjointed, and illogical. It will have a much more “stream of consciousness” feeling about it. We do not want Faulkner theology. 4. We will stagnate in our growth as Christians, because we will not be learning how to read our Bibles better, and we will not be challenged by anything. We will want everything spoon-fed to us. We will be dipping our toes in but never learning how to swim.

So read books that will make you stretch. Read books where you will not automatically understand everything that is said, but where you have to grow in order to understand. Read books where you might need a dictionary of theology terms handy. Read Calvin’s Institutes, Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, and get what you can out of it, which is a lot more than you might think. Then ask questions so that you will grow. If you are not growing, then your students won’t grow either. So work through that tough bit of theology with a pipe between your teeth and a pencil in your hand! You might find your heart singing the praises of God more often than you might think.

New Book on the Lord’s Supper

I received a review copy of this book two days ago, and read it the day I got it. Imagine a Baptist arguing for the LS as a means of grace! Of course, that is their original heritage, as the author well proves.

I have been eager for more books on the Lord’s Supper for two reasons. Firstly, I plan on preaching a series on the Lord’s Supper in the near future, and secondly, the Reformers talked more about the Lord’s Supper than about any other topic, including justification by faith alone. I have been realizing that the Lord’s Supper is a much larger and much more important subject than I had thought previously (being infected previously, I suppose, with some of the general evangelicalism’s memorialism). It is a gospel issue, since the Lord’s Supper preaches the gospel to all five senses. It is a means of grace fully equal to Word and Prayer. And yet, in today’s Christianity, it gets a measly third place to Word and Prayer. This is due, no doubt, to the fact that most people do not see the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace.

Enter Barcellos’s book. His thesis is fairly circumscribed: it is to prove that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, and to show from Scripture how the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. He is explicitly aiming his thesis at those who tend to follow the early Zwingli in their memorialism. Barcellos certainly proves his thesis (not that I took a lot of convincing!). Certain points he makes here and there are worth the price of admission, and I will point those out. The book is geared towards pastors. The average layperson will not be able to follow the serious Greek exegesis of various passages.

The best things about the book (for me) were the careful exegesis of 1 Corinthians 10:16, and the description of the tenses of the Lord’s Supper. The former is a lynchpin verse for the case that the LS is a means of grace, and not just a remembering. The latter was a fascinating point that also helps greatly in proving the thesis: the LS looks back to Christ’s finished work, looks at present to our Savior in heaven (and by the power of the Holy Spirit we commune with the risen Lord now), and we look forward in time to the wedding supper of the Lamb (“until He comes”). If the LS is only a remembering, then only the past tense matters. Barcellos also ties in the tenses with the tenses of the Lord’s Day in a very intriguing way (noting that “kuriakos” only ever describes two things in the NT: the LS and the Lord’s Day). I think one could even go farther than Barcellos here and connect it all back to the covenant via Vos’s description of the change of covenants as related to the Sabbath (in his Biblical Theology).

So, overall, I am very enthusiastic about this book, and will use its insights in my sermon series with gratitude. There are a couple of points where I think the book might be improved. Firstly, the book is a bit short (128 pages including indices). There were many times when I thought he could have expanded his arguments and included more data. I wanted more exegesis, too! Secondly, although he mentions the connection of Word and Sacrament towards the end of the book, I felt that this topic deserved its own chapter. He has a whole chapter devoted to comparing the LS with prayer as means of grace. To me, it seems just as important, if not more so, to compare and connect Word to Sacrament. This was a very important connection to the Reformers. Barcellos mentions it, and says some very good things about it, but I felt that it deserved a whole chapter to itself. Thirdly, though I know he knows Mathison’s book, I get the feeling he is not quite convinced by everything that Mathison says. Now, that’s perfectly fine. But I do think that Mathison’s book provides enormous ammunition to those arguing Barcellos’s case for the LS as a means of grace. Calvin’s position on Christ’s presence in the LS may be hard to understand at times (Hodge, Dabney and Cunningham all rejected it, though they agreed with Calvin that the LS is a means of grace), but to me it seems the most biblical position. Especially in the discussion of 1 Corinthians 10:16, it seems to me that Calvin’s position makes eminent sense of the text there. Here’s to hoping that Barcellos is already thinking about a second edition. This book is already a very worthy addition to the discussion and well worth the purchase.

Pauline Perspectives

N.T. Wright is alternately enthralling and infuriating to read. He is enthralling when he is trouncing dispensationalism, and leaving the tattered remnants (!) of their theology on the floor; or when he writes a beautifully written, cogently argued defense of the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead (The Resurrection of the Son of God is, in my opinion, by far the best book Wright has ever written, even though I disagree with some of his methodological standpoints); or defending the substitutionary atonement (though there are points in that area where he makes me very nervous indeed). He is infuriating when he positions himself as a sort of eschatological exegete: all the Reformers were wrong, and only with the advent (!) of N.T. Wright has there come understanding of Paul. No doubt he would cry foul for that blow, and yet his dismissal of Reformational understandings of Paul is so thorough and systemic that one wonders if Wright believes anyone really understood Paul except Paul and N.T. Wright (and those who have had glimmerings, such as Sanders, Dunn, Hays, Horsley and some others). When I read Wright, therefore, it is a surreal roller-coaster of sorts, with interesting insights in many places followed immediately by howlers.

This book, by N.T. Wright, consists of essays written from 1978-2013 on the subject of Paul’s theology. Most of the important articles on this subject are included with the exception of those that found their way into Climax of the Covenant. The most interesting feature of reading these articles in chronological order is to see his development. The essays are a working out, development, and continual updating of what is largely one thesis, looked at from mostly overlapping (there is a rather enormous amount of overlap in these articles), but still complementary angles. Early in his career, the thesis looked like this:

Paul regarded the historical people of Abraham as God’s answer to the problem of the sin of Adam…First, the Messiah sums up his people in himself, so that what is true of him is true of them. Second, the Messiah has died and been raised. From these two sources flow salvation history and justification by faith, not as two parallel streams, nor even as two currents in the same stream, but as one stream…the one God has purposed and promised that he will create one worldwide family for Abraham, a family in whom the sin of Adam is reversed: and this he has achieved in the Messiah, Jesus (pp. 6-7).

What is central to Wright is what happened to Israel, which is that “this people, being themselves sinful, fail in the task, and their anointed representative has to do the job solo” (p. 8). In responding to this, I want to affirm with Wright that dispensational readings of Scripture simply do not do Galatians 3 and Galatians 6 justice. God’s purposes for Israel always had a worldwide perspective on them. I agree wholeheartedly with Wright on that point.

Sometimes, however, I get the impression that Wright’s position entails some sort of “plan B” on God’s part: that Adam sinned, and Abraham was elected to fix the problem, and his people Israel failed too, so then God had to cast about for a further solution. Put this way, Wright would probably disagree that such was what he meant. He does not always guard against this possible misinterpretation, however. Israel was the carrier of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Israel’s failure did not necessitate a change in God’s plan. This problem is not helped by the unguarded language on p. 426: “Humans sin; that’s their problem, but God’s problem is bigger, namely that his plan for the world is thwarted.” This is unguarded at best, simply wrong at worst.

Lately (2012), the thesis looks like this: “Paul was picking up the idea of Israel’s vocation, to be the light of the world, and was explaining, in terms of Israel’s own scriptures, not so much that all Israelites were sinful (though he believed that too) but that Israel had failed to be faithful to its commission” (p. 489). This is still closely connected with the Abrahamic promise of one worldwide family that would inherit the new heavens and the new earth.

At the beginning of his career, Wright was much more open to the Reformational understandings of Paul, as is demonstrated on page 12, where we nevertheless see the first of many false dichotomies (Wright may be said to be a master of false dichotomies, in fact):

Paul never speaks of Jesus obeying the law (though he certainly did not imagine that Jesus had broken the law), but rather, in Philippians 2 and Romans 5, of Jesus’ obedience to the whole saving purpose of God. Not only did Jesus offer God the obedience which Adam had failed to offer: he offered God the obedience which Israel should have offered and had likewise failed in, obedience to the vocation of redemptive vicarious suffering for the sins of the world.

This is a false dichotomy for a very simple reason: God’s saving purpose involved Jesus obeying the law (as Galatians 4:4 makes rather clear). Even if one rejects (as Wright rejects) the idea of the imputed active obedience of Christ, there still remains the vitally important truth that Jesus would not be the proper substitute for sinners without a sinless perfection. How can God be faithful to the covenant if Jesus is not? And does not that covenant include the law?

As this thesis started working its way through his thinking, he became much more pugilistic against the Reformational readings, probably because those holding to Reformational readings started critiquing his work. Of course, that pugilism reached an apex in his book What Saint Paul Really Said, which I regard as by far the worst book he ever wrote (not because it is pugilistic, but because it distorts so much). Pugilism is not necessarily bad. The thing that strikes me about Wright, though, is that he is considerably more careful and considerate of Second-Temple Judaism than he ever is with Reformation authors and views. He dismisses Reformational readings (usually caricatured) with a wave of the hand, hardly ever quoting an author who holds said view. For example, he accuses Reformational authors of equating justification with conversion (or regeneration) numerous times in this book (pp. 36, 215, 221, 284, 308, 342). Maybe I am woefully under-read in Reformational systematic theologies, but I have never seen this advocated even once by Reformed systematicians. Wright shows his own enormous ignorance of Reformed systematics on pp. 283-284, cf. p. 310, where he advocates something that Reformed systematics has supposedly completely missed. The word for conversion is “call” and not “justification” (p. 284). Hang on, I’m quite sure I’ve read something about effectual calling somewhere in every single Reformed systematic theology I’ve ever read. These kinds of caricatures raise a very important question: he wants us to treat him with charity and kindness, even asking for criticisms to be directed his way privately before making them public (see p. 222, which is nonsense: Matthew 18 is not about public teaching but about private offenses. Public teaching falls under the category of what happens in Galatians 2, where Paul did anything but criticize Peter privately first). However, Wright doesn’t treat Reformational readings with charity in any sense of the word. Take as another example his ridiculous statement regarding moral effort on p. 202: “Earlier readings of Galatians, particularly in the Reformation tradition, had so emphasized the wrongness of ‘justification by works’, understanding that phrase in a Pelagian or Arminian sense, as to make it difficult to articulate any sense of moral obligation or moral effort within the Christian.” This is so outrageously unfair to the Reformation, even to the Lutheran tradition, that Wright really ought to be ashamed of himself here. He should read Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification or Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity and seriously revise this caricature or eliminate it entirely. He might receive a bit more charity from old perspective people like myself if he himself were a bit more charitable towards the Reformation. A lot of his insights are not as original as he seems to think.

His understanding of the Reformational doctrine of justification is quite errant as well. For instance, in his description of the law-court setting of justification (take p. 100 as an example), he repeats the same error that was in What Saint Paul Really Said, namely, that the Reformational doctrine of justification has the judge passing his own righteousness to the defendant. There are only three parties in the courtroom, according to Wright’s account: the judge, the defendant, and the prosecutor. He leaves out the most important character of all: the Defense Attorney. In Reformational accounts of justification, it is our Divine Lawyer whose righteousness is imputed to us, not the Judge. The Judge passes the sentence of innocence on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. This takes place because of our faith-union with Jesus Christ. In that divine marriage (which is both corporate and individual), all of our divine husband’s assets become ours, and all of our debts become His. The marriage being both individual and corporate actually makes the Reformational reading much more global than Wright’s reading, which leaves out and denies imputation, despite his attempts to say that the NPP really retains all that is good from the Reformation.

Later on in his career, though still having many false dichotomies and caricatures, he makes more of an effort to say things like “if you believe my view, you get everything the Reformation wanted and more” (see, e.g., p. 427). In his Justification and in what I’ve read so far of his massive Pauline theology, he seems more interested in moving beyond the old and new perspective divide, though still being firmly new perspective.

Another development that happened around 2000 is his interest in the thesis that “Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar is not” (see his “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”, pp. 169ff.). Here there would be significantly more grounds for me to agree with his work. I can definitely see a lot of what he is saying in Paul’s letters, though I am still a moderate two kingdoms guy myself.

There is much more than could (and should) be said. This is a very important volume for understanding N.T. Wright’s work. There are valuable insights in this work, and also many errors. The critical reader needs to be discerning.

Great Book on Canon

This book is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and that for a number of reasons. I tire quite easily and quickly of theologians who, being experts in one discipline (say, Old Testament), look down on the other theological disciplines (like, say, systematic theology). Kruger will have none of that. He mixes in exegetical, systematic, historical, apologetic, and practical disciplines in one happy feast. Of course, that might be grist for criticism from some reviewers, but this reviewer found it quite refreshing. We need more generalist theologians rather desperately.

A second reason I really like this book is the wealth of scholarship on offer. Kruger has really done his homework, and there is no doubt that he is one of the world’s experts on canon. And yet, this scholarship never overwhelms the prose, which is compact, pithy, and accessible.

A third reason (and the reason I picked up the book to read in the first place) has to do with his treatment of Roman Catholicism vis-a-vis the canon. Kruger is always quick to point out strengths and truth in opposing viewpoints while pointing out the extremes. In his treatment of Roman Catholicism on the question of canon, for example, he points out that the community does have a role in the formation of the canon. It just doesn’t have the exclusive role. The primary driver in the Reformed position on the canon is the self-authenticating nature of Scripture. But that does not meant that history and community play no role whatsoever.

Among the many insights that Kruger offers, I want to point out some of the most important answers to Roman Catholic objections to Sola Scriptura. First of all, he notes that there are plenty of Roman Catholics out there who do not believe that the church created the canon (see p. 41). Even Vatican I states that the church holds these books to be canonical no because of the church’s authority but because they have God as their author. To put it lightly, this is not the position of most Roman Catholic apologists today who argue against the Protestant position. In addressing Patrick Madrid, for instance, and his objection about the “divinely inspired table of contents,” Kruger rightly notes that this objection is artificial, since, even if there was a divinely inspired document that was a table of contents, that also would need to be authenticated by the church, and would never satisfy Roman Catholic objections, “because they have already determined, a priori, that no document could ever be self-attesting” (p. 43).

He mentions that the early Christian church did have a canon: it’s called the Old Testament now (p. 44). So, unless the church wants to claim that it created the Old Testament canon as well (before the church was even officially in existence), we fall back to the Protestant position that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20).

This raises the question of how the Roman Catholic church establishes its own authority. If the church is to be infallible, then it must have an infallible foundation for its infallible authority. Where is this infallible foundation? Kruger remarks on the three possibilities: 1. Scripture is the source for the infallibility of the church (which would be rather viciously circular if the church grounds the canon, and the canon grounds the church); 2. external evidence from the history of the church (his reply here is that historical evidence cannot be infallible. His footnote 79 on p. 47 is particularly telling); 3. the church is itself self-authenticating (the church is infallible because it says so, to which Kruger responds that the Roman Catholic church chiding the Reformers for positing a Sola Scriptura self-authenticating model seems a bit hypocritical when it is advocating a self-authenticating Sola Ecclesia model).

This book is essential reading on the canon, all the more so for those engaged in Roman Catholic-Protestant debate. Tolle lege.

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