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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

John Frame. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Phillipsburg, NJ. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1994

Apologetics to the Glory of God is a short introduction to the apologetic approach of John Frame. Frame holds the J.D. Trimble chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida and is probably best-known for his writings on presuppositional apologetics in the vein of Cornelius Van Til, of whom Frame was a student.

Apologetics (in the formal sense) is not a subject I have read widely in, so my judgments are those of a rank amateur. Even so, I found the book to be easy to understand and certainly very profitable for someone like me with almost no prior reading in the area. Frame gets right to the point, which in my view is the book’s greatest strength. The subject matter here is complex at times, but he has a real gift for breaking the arguments down into “bite-size” pieces without dumbing the subject down. His larger work on the subject, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, is referred to often for those who want to go deeper into his thought at various points.

After a short overview of basic definitions and concepts, the book starts at the broadest possible horizon, with metaphysics and epistemology. Frame comes from a very strong Reformed background, and the entire book from this point forward reflects this perspective. I certainly don’t see this as a weakness, but it did at times leave me scratching my head. For instance, on pp. 45 he chides (gently) Christian traditions outside of Calvinism for not having a logical working out of how “free will” and God’s sovereignty interact, and then on page 46 he is perfectly willing to allow the Trinity to go unexplained and simply be proclaimed. How the doctrine of the Trinity can be simply asserted but the relationship between human responsibility and God’s sovereignty must be given some sort of logical “theory of everything” is never spelled out. Surely not on the basis of the Nicene Creed, of all things! (I say that VERY tongue in cheek). In my case  would much rather wrestle with (or accept) the fact that how God rules His universe is beyond my understanding, than dogmatically state how this relationship works, which is what Frame seems intent to do. The fact that he wants to do as strongly as he does is surprising, but this may be par for the course in writings from a Calvinist perspective. To be fair, I would imagine this is addressed in much further detail in the larger work.

From here, Frame goes on to devote a chapter to the differences between the apologetic methods, and gives a very good explanation of what it means for an argument to be “presuppositional”. This isn’t exactly riveting reading due to the technical nature of the subject, but it was here where I learned the most, and while it might seem to some to be a rather irrelevant topic, Frame does a very good job of showing why this is not the case. Very good stuff. His discussion of the circularity of arguments is very enlightening. The book then moves  to general proofs for the existence of God, and then to more specifically Christian arguments, before looking in some depth at the “problem of evil”.  I confess to not expecting much to the “problem of evil” discussion, but I actually found it be very informative. Frame then goes on to outline different approaches of taking an “offensive” apologetic approach to different worldviews. This chapter is only 10 pages long, which to my mind was much too short, as he really had some good things to say here, and I would have been interested to read more. Perhaps he addresses this subject at length somewhere else. If so, I would be very interested to read it.

The book (minus two appendices) then ends on a practical note with a mock conversation between an agnostic and a believer on an airplane, showing in practice what the book has outlined in theory. Again, good stuff, and I applaud Frame for not forgetting the kind of “so what?” question.

The appendixes, on the other hand, seem to me to be almost totally irrelevant, but I hold out the small chance that there is someone out there who cares enough whether the “Ligonier” apologetic (whatever that means) meets the standard of being able to stand in the tradition of Cornelius Van Til to read the 24 pages that this debate gets here. I certainly don’t.

So, to summarize: Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God  is a good book. It’s short, gets to the point quickly and concisely, and (other than the appendices) it doesn’t linger over things that only the specialist would care about. If you are interested in apologetics at all, you will enjoy the book. If you have an interest in the presuppositional approach to apologetics or have wondered what people mean we they say something is “Van Tillian”, then you will love the book. And, if you have no interest at all in the subject, I would encourage you to check the book out anyway. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

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David Alan Black. The Jesus Paradigm. Gonzalez, FL. Energion Publications, 2009

Thanks to Henry at Energion Publications for the review copy.

David Alan Black’s The Jesus Paradigm is one of those books that has you wanting to shout “Amen” at one moment, and then leaves you scratching your head the next. It certainly isn’t a boring book. The basic thesis of the book is that the American Protestant church needs to reclaim the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and come to a true and full understanding of this as requiring the ministry of every member of the body of Christ. Then we need to simply put it into action. This is the first of the “Shouting Amen!” sections, and it’s a big “Amen”. Black, like myself, is a Southern Baptist, and much of what he observes I can relate to in my own church experience. It would honestly cheapen his message to go point by point and try and summarize it, so I won’t do that. I will simply say that it is good, powerful reading, and quite convicting on many levels. Black is seriously to be commended for what he has written here, and he pulls no punches.

After this main section on discipleship, Black devotes two chapters to the Anabaptist tradition, and to practical Ecclesiology based on the principles he has outlined. We will return to these two chapters, as this was where I was left feeling a little confused on some things. Next, he gets into politics, and it is here that I imagine that most of the controversy (at least in Southern Baptist circles) will be. It’s a hard-hitting section, and Black names names. Lots of names. Its easy for me to say the following because I agree almost 100% with what Black says in these chapters, but it is so refreshing to read a book that might fall under “Theology” speak with the clarity that Black displays here. After reading the chapter, you know exactly where Black stands, what he sees as the problem in our churches related to the issues raised, and what he suggests we can do about it including practical advice for churchgoers, both in the pulpit and the pew. I mean, really, when was the last time you read a book where you could say that?

Thus far, the “Amens”, but lets return to the middle section, where we get a look at the implications for Ecclesiology as Black sees them. On page 38, we get a list of principles for the modern church pulled from the Anabaptist tradition. I just want to push back on some of these, with what seem to me to be simply gut level reactions:

Black calls for:

“breaking down walls, rather than isolationism” – At the risk of sounding sarcastic…how can one say this based on, of all things, the Anabaptist tradition? Its almost laughable to say this about Protestantism in general. Its certainly a strange thing to say coming out of a Baptist context in the American South, where there must be 200 different denominations just within the “Baptist” context. In fact, Black himself has just spent the few pages before this showing how Anabaptism was a movement based on the idea that the reformers had not gone far enough, which essentially makes it a protest movement of a protest movement. How, in that context, does one go about breaking down walls?

Black calls for:

“biblical authority instead of ecclesiastical tradition” – Well, that will go a long way toward breaking down walls, won’t it? 😉 Respectfully, I have to ask, and I have been asking myself this question for years now, what’s so wrong with tradition? Our forefathers and mothers in the Faith just might have something to say to us that’s of use, and to ignore them is just one more capitulation of the church to the voices of our modern American context, which has no memory whatsoever. By all means, the Bible should critique our traditions, whether ancient or modern. I would say the problem is that the Bible is NOT being allowed to critique some of our modern church practices. Surely ruling “ecclesiastical tradition” out of isn’t the answer. This leads onto…

Black calls for:

“The catholicity of the true church, rather than sectarianism” – Really? I think I’ll just let this hang there.

I won’t go on, but I can say I was left confused by much of this section, although I’m willing to think on these things and possible have my mind changed. I agree with Black on the major points, but I think I differ greatly on the means of getting there. His call for community and activeness within the church is to be commended, and the last thing I would want is to allow what I think we would disagree on to eclipse the need to hear the overall message of the book.

I’m not naive enough to think that the quality of a book is based on what percentage of the book I agree with, but in any case, I found the VAST majority of the book to be incredibly helpful, clear, and engaging. The little that I want to quibble about has only stirred me to more thinking on the issues, and it would be a great book to read in a group and discuss. The chapters on ecclesiology and politics would  be particularly interesting in this setting. I commend the book to all, and particularly those who like me are in a Southern Baptist context, to really get you thinking about these things that are incredibly important to our life as the Church, and are so often neglected by so many.

David Alan Black has taught New Testament and Greek for over 30 years. Most importantly, he is a brother in Christ. He and his wife live on a 123-acre working farm in Southern Virginia and are self-supporting missionaries to Ethiopia. He also hosts the popular blog, Dave Black Online.

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Allan Hugh Cole Jr. The Life of Prayer. Louisville, KY. WJK Press, 2009.

 

Sincere thanks go to WJK Press for the review copy.

Books on prayer always seem a little strange. I mean the best advice on prayer is simply to do it, right? Well, maybe, but of course sometimes a little help in thinking it through is needful, and it is to that end that a book like The Life of Prayer can be a good thing.

 

The Life of Prayer is a short book (roughly 130 pages), divided into six chapters, covering the “what’s, why’s, how’s, and with’s (praying in community)”. Obviously, with such a short length, the author only has time to scratch the surface, so the conversation stays pretty basic, but the book is not shallow by any means. The discussion is always grounded in the Bible, with the Gospels and Paul’s letters getting the bulk of attention, but with attention given also to what various theologians have had to say on the subject, notably John Calvin, and of course the BIG 3 B’s of mainline protestantism (Barth, Bonheoffer, and Brueggemann). Ok, well not Brueggemann so much, but he does contribute a blurb for the back. It is easy reading, but it is good stuff, filled with personal anecdotes of real pastoral experience leading congregations, and with the stories of normal folks who sometimes struggle with prayer.

Chapters 1 lays out how the author sees prayer as fitting into the life of the Christian as an individual. Contrast is made between both the “new age” sort of folk spirituality that floats around North American culture at large and the prosperity gospel of Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer, with a Christian alternative. The book will later bring in some suggestions which may fit more in the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions, but for the most part this is a book for protestants, and probably mainline protestants at that. For instance, there is little talk of praying in tongues, on the one side, or praying with icons, on the other.

Chapter 2 (Why Do We Pray) is easily my favorite chapter of the book, and it is here that the author’s affinity with Bonheoffer becomes apparent as he is quoted at some length. The is the most theologically deep chapter of the book, and deserves to be re-read as a foundation for the more practical chapter which follow on from it.

Chapters 3 and 4 go on basically to look at the various benefits of prayer, both for the individual and in the community. The discussion of the importance of praying with others within the community certainly hit home for me, and I could stand to take much of what he says on board. I would imagine this to be true of most North American churches.

Chapter 5 is the climax of the book and its here where the “meat” lies as far as practical advice. Here, Cole lays out different ways of praying, under four broad headings:

Praying the Lord’s Prayer

Praying Scripture

Contemplative Prayer

Liturgical Prayer

Under each heading, Cole ranges broadly, with the discussion touching on various issues such as the importance of scripture memorization, the place of the Psalms as guides for prayer, and an apologia of sorts for using liturgy in prayer, as opposed to always “winging it”. On a personal note, it is interesting to me how these all seem to me to be minimized in the current North American Evangelical landscape, and its here that the “just do it” sort of attitude to prayer begins to break down. There are other ways to pray than just speaking your mind to God, although of course the author would also see a place for that.  Like chapter 2, this one should also be re-read, to really get at the points that it is making.

The remainder of the book then lays out a routine for prayer, with each week devoting more and more time and different ways of praying, as a suggestion for cultivating a more robust prayer life, along with a short list of books that can be used to pray liturgically.

Bottom Line:

Phyllis Tickle, on the back cover of The Life of Prayer, says that this book is “the most complete tutorial on the basics of Christian prayer that I have ever seen”. That’s quite a statement about a paperback of about 130 pages, even taking into account the typical book blurb hyperbole. The book most certainly isn’t that. What it is, rather, is an easily accessible, theologically astute, and above all practical guide to the simple act of praying, that can be read with benefit by the lay person in the pew. I would imagine that is much more valuable than a complete treatment, in any case.

Alan Hugh Cole Jr. is Nancy Taylor Williamson Associate Professor of Pastoral Care at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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Ben Witherington III’s old blog was the first blog I ever read, and was the only one for a long time. I quit reading when he moved to Beliefnet because I couldn’t stand all the pop-up ads, ridiculous comments and other general mess, so I was very excited a few weeks ago to see that he has moved his blog over to a new site. He has been posting some interesting stuff, as always, and is currently reviewing Luke Timothy Johnson’s Among the Gentiles for those who want to check it out here.

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David Alan Black. Learn to Read New Testament Greek, Third edition. Nashville, TN. B & H Publishing, 2009

Many thanks to Jim Baird at Broadman & Holman (B & H) for the review copy.

(Dr. Black is currently professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern Baptist Seminary. You can check out his blog here.)

I’ll start this review by confessing that I find learning new languages to be tedious and boring. I have to really force myself to keep coming back and stick with it. I am not in seminary, but I would imagine that the only thing that would make a semester of introductory Greek bearable for me would be a good teacher, who cared deeply for and loved the subject so much that their enthusiasm would rub off on me. Well, as for classes, so for books, and David Alan Black is just the teacher for someone like me. His book, Learn to Read New Testament Greek, is about as engaging (and sometimes even fun) as I could ever have hoped for a Greek textbook to be. It’s also very effective. I’m still learning the language, so I don’t have many points of comparison, but I can attest that if you stick with it, you’ll definitely find yourself learning and enjoying New Testament Greek for yourself. The book itself is divided into 26 lessons and 9 appendices, and Black says in the introduction that one way to use the book is to focus on one lesson per week (which makes 26 weeks). Following that sort of timescale, the reader is translating simple Greek sentences by the end of week 3. The next two weeks or so will find the reader able to write simple Greek sentences (with some help on the vocabulary). From that foundation, the lessons build until, in the final lesson, Black gives a 14-page overview of reading the Greek New Testament so that you are actually using your newfound skills so to get the most out of them. This last lesson and the concluding epilogue give the reader a path to further study (and enjoyment!), complete with Black’s suggestions for good reference works to have available, and a further reading guide covering everything New Testament Greek. One other thing that I liked about the book: It’s size. At roughly 9 x 5” and hardcover, it’s perfect for taking along with you to study when you’re stuck somewhere waiting with nothing to do. I even took mine deer-hunting a couple of times (yes, we do that here in Georgia).

Bottom line: David Alan Black has managed to write a Greek textbook that even a novice with absolutely no skills in this area (like myself) can enjoy and profit greatly from. It’s hard to imagine a better book for the beginning student of the language of the New Testament. I’ve already suggested the book to family members who have even a passing interest in learning to read the New Testament in its original language.

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Well, it’s time for the obligatory top 5 list. These are the top 5 books that I read in 2009. Only one was actually released this year, and it was a new edition reprint. These are in no particular order.

1. Bruce Waltke – An Old Testament Theology

A pleasure to read. Waltke’s love for the Old Testament comes through on every page. I would have liked a little more on the prophets, but who am I to complain? Maybe we’ll get something fresh on the prophetic literature from Waltke’s pen at some point in the future.

2. David Alan Black – Learn to Read New Testament Greek

Probably as fun as a beginning Greek textbook could possibly be, and it’s definitely worth the time spent studying & working through it. I’ve already got a list of people who I plan on loaning it to once I finish.

3. Gordon Fee – God’s Empowering Presence

Enough said.

4. V. Phillips Long, Iaian Provan, & Tremper Longman III – A Biblical History of Israel

I wasn’t what I expected, but it certainly was worth reading and will definitely be one that I will return to. The bibliography gave me loads of new books to go on the “wanted” list. This one has also wins the “most annoying endnotes ever” award for the year. Flipping to the back is always a pain, but in a book like this, it’s almost unforgivable.  Almost.

5. Bishop NT Wright – The Resurrection of the Son of God (again) (sort of)

Right, so I read this one straight through back when it came out, and loved it. Well, I happened to pick it up this year to see what he had to say about a certain passage in Paul, and ended up basically reading the last 2/3 or so straight through again. If on the off chance you haven’t read this one, you really should do yourself a favor and pick it up. I simply can’t say enough about the thing.

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Martin Hengel. Crucifixion in the Ancient World & the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Philadelphia, PA. Fortress Press, 1977

hengel

Thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy.

Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion is considered a classic, and for good reason. The book is only 99 pages long, but there is hardly a wasted word in the entire work. Hengel has a straightforward and to-the point style of writing (at least in this work) that is actually very refreshing. It was originally written in German, so there are a few clumsy phrases where apparently the translation did not come over perfectly, but overall it’s pretty easy reading as far as the actual language and writing is concerned.

The content is another matter entirely. Hengel manages to compress a massive amount of information into the short little book. At times it feels like being on the receiving end of a machine gun of information, drawn from the mind of someone who has obviously spent decades in the classics of the Roman and Greek world. Many readers, if they are anything like me, will find themselves reading and then re-reading many passages multiple times to allow them to sink in. It’s great stuff, but I wouldn’t call it easy reading.

The basic thesis of the book, if I can be so bold to try and distill it down, is twofold:

  1. In the ancient world, crucifixion was not only a gruesome and painful death, but was a shameful death, and was the “death of a slave”, in ways that we often do not understand today.
  2. As such, the claim that a victim of crucifixion was the Son of God would have been seen as utterly foolish, in ways that may be impossible for a modern person to understand.

Since the second point naturally follows from the first, probably 95% of the book is devoted to the historical background of crucifixion. The first three chapters focus on the general “folly” of the claim that a crucified figure could be ‘divine’ in any sense of the word by going deep into the mythology of the ancient world to compare other gods and their claims with the Christian claim. It takes a while to get your bearings when reading these sections, as quotes are often rendered in Latin, and Hengel is basically just smarter and well-read than any of the rest of us, and it shows. The remaining eight chapters are all concerned with the historical information, and it is here where the real meat of the book lies.

Hengel makes his point extremely well, and it is  hard to try and give the force of his argument in just a few sentences. It is one thing to say that Jesus died a gruesome and shameful death. Not many are surprised or ignorant of this. It is something totally different entirely to be led by a scholar like Hengel through the ancient world, and actually be shown just how shameful that death would have been. By the time I finished the book, I truly had a completely new understanding of just how shameful death by crucifixion would have been seen at the time of Jesus, and how scandalous the message of the cross that we proclaim as Christians truly is. When it comes to the contemporary significance of the shame of the crucifixion, Hengel pulls no punches with the modern church and the tendency among some to ‘domesticate’ the message of a crucified Messiah.

As he says himself in the conclusion, Hengel is “breaking off where theological work proper ought to begin”. As such, this short little book works best as a work of history, with a little theology thrown in for good measure. It’s hard to imagine a better historical survey of that way in which crucifixion was viewed in antiquity, and, even though the book was originally published in 1976, I am not aware of any book that has filled its spot to date.

Bottom Line:

Crucifixion is an extremely useful survey of ancient attitudes toward crucifixion. Reading it will cast new light on your reading of the New Testament (not just the Gospels). Recommended.

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