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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

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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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Gerald Bray (ed.), Thomas Oden (series ed.). We Believe in One God (Ancient Christian Doctrine volume 1). Downers Grove, IL. IVP Press, 2009

Thank you very much to Adrianna Wright at Intervarsity Press for the review copy.

We Believe in One God is the first of five volumes in the Ancient Christian Doctrine Series from Intervarsity Press. Those who have read any of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture will be familiar with the format, as this series is basically an expansion of that series to provide commentary on the Nicene Creed.

First things first, the book is absolutely beautiful. It is hardcover, the paper is high-quality stock, and Albrecht Durer’s Adoration of the Trinity is the cover image. If they were to release the whole series as one volume edition (which would be really cool) with the same cover and binding, I dare say it would be worth buying just to gawk at it on your bookshelf.

Moving on to the content of the book, simply stated, it is a commentary culled completely from the works of the fathers of the early church on the first stanza of the Nicene Creed:

We Believe in One God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen

Two introductions,  by Thomas Oden and Gerald Bray, respectively, lay out the series and the aims of the commentary and are good reading in themselves. Oden’s contribution is particularly interesting as he lays out what he sees as some of the reasons for the renewed interest in history and tradition among evangelicals. I found myself relating to much of what he had to say, and can agree with his sentiments.

The commentary itself splits the creed into small sections (such as “We Believe” and “Maker”) and then provides small sections of commentary from the fathers. The strength of this approach is that it allows the editor some room for movement as far as what is actually discussed, rather than the entire book being on “God the Father”. For instance, in “We Believe”, scripture is discussed as it is a large part of why “we believe”. In “Maker”, creation is discussed, etc. If you haven’t been introduced to the thought of Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, et al, then you will learn much from this volume, as it touches on so many subjects.

This is not meant to be a gripe, but it should be noted that the quotations are of very short length. Rarely is anyone quoted for more than two to three sentences at a time. Like criticisms I have read of The Justification Reader (also by Oden), this opens the book up to the charge that with such short excerpts, freed from their original context, they can almost mean whatever the editor (or reader) thinks they mean. I don’t actually think that this should be seen as a negative, so much as a warning to potential readers that book is very high level introduction to the thought of the fathers of the early church, not a systematic treatment. For that, one should go to the fathers themselves (such as the Ancient Christian Texts series, which also looks very promising).  Again, this is not a criticism, just an observation of what to expect if you’re thinking of buying the book. The format works very well for devotional type reading also, which may be the best use of the book. I certainly found much to reflect on.

If there was one thing that became apparent to me as I read the book, it was that it is a testament to the writings of the early church and the content of the book that it can withstand such fragmented treatment and still be interesting, fresh, and readable. Can you imagine a compilation consisting of two or three line quotations of modern theologians? Would you want to imagine that? 😉

Bottom Line:

We Believe in One God is a very promising introduction to the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. For those (like  myself) who have only read lightly in the early church fathers, it will be a very helpful introduction to their thoughts on God the Father as Creator, the Holy Scriptures, and many other subjects along the way. It is not the sort of book that one sits down and reads through at once, but rather a book that bears repeated reading and reflection on its content. It definitely has staying potential, and I imagine that I will still be reading and reflecting on it for a while to come. I look forward to the other volumes in the series.

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Craig Evans & NT Wright. Jesus: The Final Days. Louisville, KY. Westminster John Knox, 2009

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Many thanks to WJK for the review copy.

Simply stated, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are the center of the Christian faith. We are many things as Christians, but I would think it fair to say that we are all that we are chiefly because we follow the Jesus the Messiah, whom we worship as the crucified and risen Lord. As such, the subject of what we can know about these crucial events is very important indeed. Toward that end, Troy Miller (Crichton College) has done us the service of putting into book format the 2003 and 2004 Crichton College Church and Academy lectures, given by NT Wright and Craig Evans, respectably, which detail the historical background of these events.

The book is short and to the point (roughly 100 pages). Being based on lectures, there are no footnotes or endnotes and the only bibliography to speak of consists of two or three references for further reading at the end of each chapter. It is divided into three parts, corresponding to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

In Part 1, Craig Evans sets out to paint us a picture of the crucifixion and death of the Messiah. After a quick run through of the historical written affirmations of Jesus’ death (biblical and otherwise), he delves into the reasons why Jesus was crucified in the first place. Evans focuses here on the actual situation “on the ground” in 1st century Palestine, not on the theological import of the event. The triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple, and the parables of judgment on the temple establishment are all unpacked and defended historically as plausible and legitimate offenses that could and would have lead to Jesus’ being perceived as a political threat. Evans then argues, based not least on Gethsemane narratives and the death of John the Baptist, that Jesus plausibly could have, in fact, anticipated his own death, and spoken of this to his followers.

From there, Evans discusses in detail Jesus’ trial and mockery. The detail of this section is pretty remarkable, considering the length (15 pages or so). Obviously the gospels get the longest treatment here as sources, but Evans also touches on allusions to the trial in Peter’s sermons in the Book of Acts, as well as Paul’s letters. His contention that Jesus’ drawing together of Daniel 7 and Psalm 110 in his confession before the high priest would have been seen as blasphemous won’t be new to those who have read much in this area, but given the implied audience of a book of this length, it may very well be the first time that some have heard this line of reasoning. Evans then goes on to discuss the Passover pardon of Barabbas, and it is here (the first of many places) that his mastery of the primary sources really shines. Using both Jewish and Roman sources, he shows that criminal pardons (of prisoners sentenced to crucifixion) were a political and historical reality in the 1st century. I found his quotation of the Mishna (m. Pesahim 8:6) particularly interesting:

“ …they may slaughter (the Passover lamb) for one…whom they have promised to bring out of prison (on the Passover)”

Some discussion of the political situation that Pilate found himself in, and some interesting tidbits regarding the mockery of Jesus round the conversation out, before moving on to the crucifixion itself, where again Evans is masterful in his knowledge of the relevant background material. Lastly, Evans focuses on the theological implications of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the foolishness (if I can use that word) that a crucified messiah would have been seen as in the first century. On the whole, one could think of this last section of Part 1 as a very selective condensation of Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion, boiled down to about three pages (!). Good stuff.

Part Two, also by Evans, looks in some detail at the burial of Jesus. The chapter begins with some background on the history of Jewish burial practices. Again, Evans’ knowledge of 2nd Temple history and material really shines here. This section was the most interesting for me, and it is short enough that you can read it through a few times to let it all soak in. Moving from Jewish to Roman burial practices at the time of Jesus, Evans devotes a couple of pages to the discovery of a Jewish crucifixion victim’s ossuary (with the nail apparently still in the heel), which is a very good read. Citing Pliny the Elder, Plautus, and various inscriptions, he then discusses Roman tendencies regarding burials for criminals, and responds to those who would argue that the apparently small number of buried crucifixion victims found suggests that Jesus would not have been given a proper burial at all. Lastly, he briefly recounts the gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial, and argues that based on the evidence discussed and the texts themselves, they deserve a fair reading.

The Bishop NT Wright takes up the topic of Jesus’ resurrection for the third and final chapter of the book. The chapter is very good, but this information is so readily available elsewhere, whether in book, essay, or various lectures, that it is hard to be too excited about if you’ve already read or heard Wright on the resurrection (and most probably have). I won’t attempt to sum up his work on the matter in a few words, but it’s widely available in various formats. If somehow you’ve not been exposed to the Bishop’s work on the subject, this is probably a good, if very truncated introduction to it. Just to put this in perspective, Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God gave him roughly 700 pages to devote to the topic. A shorter, wonderful treatment of Jesus’ resurrection, along with related topics, can be found in Surprised By Hope, which runs about 300 pages. Here, he gets about 35 pages. As a result, this chapter is basically unnecessary for the reader who has read either of the books above, or heard any of Wright’s many lectures on the subject (available here). The chapter is good for what it is, but why buy the postcard when you could have the full-color painting?

To sum up:

It is hard to imagine a better book if you are looking for a short and informative discussion of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Craig Evan’s two chapters are particularly good, and pack a great deal of information into a small number of pages. Even those who have read other works in this vein will probably learn something here, or at least be given something new to ponder. The final chapter, by Bishop Wright, is good, but is eclipsed by both Surprised By Hope and The Resurrection of the Son of God, both of which are worth buying in their own right, and highly recommended. This doesn’t detract from the value of the book, however, and for the price it is hard to beat.

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Justo Gonzalez. A Concise History of Christian Doctrine. Nashville, TN. Abingdon Press, 2005.

Sincere thanks go out to Abingdon Press for the review copy of this book.

Justo L. Gonzalez is a Methodist theologian and historian of the Christian faith.  For those who have read much at all in Church history, his name will probably be familiar. For everyone else (and probably most Western protestants), he very well may be completely unknown.

I want to begin this review with a personal anecdote. For the past few months, I have found myself continually returning to questions of the universal Church, tradition, and the nagging feeling that some what makes up the modern American church is simply thumbing its nose at Historic Christianity. In the Southern Baptist circles in which I find myself, tradition is looked at either with suspicion (anything involving liturgy) or complete apathy (any doctrine that disagrees with ours). This is not the place to delve into the reasons for this, and it is probably more of a cultural issue than a denominational issue. In any case, there is clearly something wrong here. It is in this context, aware of the ignorance of the tradition in which we stand, that one should read A Concise History of Christian Doctrine.

The book is organized according to individual doctrines. After some preliminary remarks and an outline of his approach, Gonzalez delves right into the fray with a chapter entitled “Israel, the Church, and the Bible”. I was expecting a discussion of Scripture in detail (infallibility vs. inerrancy, etc.), but instead the chapter focuses on the canon, the relation of the Old Testament to the New, and the apocrypha. The Marcion heresy is discussed, and it is at this point that two things become clear: First, Gonzalez’ tranquil and clear writing style is perfect for presenting a rather dense subject like dogmatics, and second, he is almost ridiculously evenhanded in presentation (a good thing). Issues are laid out, and all options are given a fair hearing. This evenhandedness becomes even clearer in later chapters dealing with the Reformation and Calvinism, Lutheranism, and the Wesleyan tradition.

Covered next are the doctrine of creation, and the Christian response to culture. Both discussions stay at a pretty high level, without engaging in details. Don’t expect differing interpretations of Genesis 1 to be discussed, but do expect a reminder (which we need) of the historic Christian belief in the goodness of creation, and the implications of that belief for behavior and culture. The creational theologies of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both get a brief treatment, along with some of the ways that they have influenced the church at large.

From there, Gonzalez moves on to the doctrine of God, proper. The section is compact, but dense. Arianism and modalism are both touched on, and the chapter is a respectable introduction to the early history of Trinitarian doctrine. In the following chapter, Gonzalez focuses on “Christian anthropology”. This was for me one of the most interesting chapters of the book. The nature of the soul, the imago dei, the Augustine/Pelagius debate, and Calvinism and Arminianism are all covered (in 20 pages!). As stated, Gonzalez is a Methodist, but he is fair to both sides of the divine sovereignty debate. Again, the evenhandedness and pastoral tone which comes through is quite remarkable.

After a short chapter on Christology, the book turns to two things that should be of particularly interest to Protestants (in my opinion): Ecclesiology and the Sacraments. The chapters weave a middle ground through the maze, “setting up fences of orthodoxy” (Gonzalez’ term) rather than charting a definitive road. Gonzalez’ assertion that during the Protestant Reformation the debate was not over the authority of Scripture (which he argues was agreed upon by both sides), but rather the authority of tradition, is certainly a different view than some might take. You’ll have to read the chapter for the details, but his overall case is pretty convincing. I also was not aware of how late in history some of the Catholic dogmas (the immaculate conception, papal infallibility) actually became dogma. Great stuff.

The final three chapters turn to tradition, salvation, and the Holy Spirit/eschatology. The first two pack a remarkable amount of information into 40 or so pages. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley are all discussed in some detail in regards to justification by faith. There is a great discussion of the often misunderstood holiness tradition within Methodism. The attitudes of the reformers’ to tradition are also discussed, particularly John Calvin.

Conclusion:

At just over 200 pages, Justo Gonzalez has managed to write a readable, informative, and completely even-handed overview of the history of Christian doctrine. It should be underscored that this is not a systematic theology, or a dogmatic sketch from a certain perspective. If you are looking to have someone convince you of a certain tradition’s merits, then this is not the book for you. What the book does is lay out the historical foundations of the various doctrines of the Christian faith, and then outline the history of those doctrines, and the debates involved in them. At the risk of sounding redundant, I will say again that the book’s greatest strength is the pastoral tone of Justo Gonzalez’ writing. Church history is not the most riveting subject for most of us, but Gonzalez makes it a pleasure to read it. I would most definitely recommend the book as a beginner-level introduction to the history of the Faith that we all profess.

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