Review: Trinity, Revelation, and Reading by Scott Swain

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Scott R. Swain. Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation. New York: T&T Clark, 2011. 168 pp. $27.95.

rinity, Revelation, and Reading by Scott SwainThis slim academic book is gold. It is well written and conversant with a wide-ranging collection of ancient and contemporary theologians (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Barth, Bavinck, Vanhoozer, Webster, Gentry, Peterson, et al.). His discussion on the inspiration, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture is grounded and precise.

One element I appreciated is his emphasis on the exegete’s own heart toward the Lord in the task of interpretation:

- “We do not stand over [the Bible] as interpretive lords. We do not sit beside it as interpretive equals. We kneel beneath it as interpretive servants. The Lord looks upon the one who trembles at his Word. Therefore, the stance of biblical interpretation is humble attentiveness and the goal of biblical interpretation is obedience: ‘speak, Lord, for your servant hears’ (cf. 1 Sam. 3:9ff).” – p. 76

- “There is a real sense … in which our capacity for understanding Scripture grows along with our capacity for obeying Scripture.”

Perhaps most helpful are the final two chapters on reading Scripture “as an act of covenant mutuality.” In these chapters he highlights the “rule of faith” and the “rule of love.” I wasn’t entirely convinced by the various “dogmas” we should subscribe to, but it was good fodder for thought. Swain’s presentation of the four “phases” of interpretation—prayer, explication, meditation, and application—ought to be instilled in every student of Scripture.

One final word: Swain identifies himself with the TIS movement (Theological Interpretation of Scripture). The movement as it currently stands is broad on the theological spectrum—it has Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants, and evangelicals. I’m wary of TIS and afraid that will move people away from “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” but this work presents the movement at its best.

** Rob Plummer, professor at Southern Seminary, has a helpful chapter on TIS.

Eugene Peterson’s Advice to Seminary Students

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Eugene Peterson’s advice to seminary students:

Eugene_Peterson (1)“I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.

“The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want.  And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.”

(via Jonathan Merritt)

Interpretive Stance: Humble Attentiveness and Obedience

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“We do not stand over [the Bible] as interpretive lords. We do not sit beside it as interpretive equals. We kneel beneath it as interpretive servants. The Lord looks upon the one who trembles at his Word. Therefore, the stance of biblical interpretation is humble attentiveness and the goal of biblical interpretation is obedience: ‘speak, Lord, for your servant hears’ (cf. 1 Sam. 3:9ff).”

— Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading (T&T Clark, 2011), p. 76.

Book Review: The Stories We Tell by Mike Cosper

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Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the TruthWheaton: Crossway, 2014.

StoriesWeTellThis is a brief review—mostly quotes to whet your appetite. Overall, I want to say I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about TV shows and movies I’ve never watched—or care to watch, really. Cosper shows how the stories we tell reflect—to greater or lesser degree—the grand story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. There are echoes of Eden all around us; and this books helps us hear them well.

Here are some great quotes:

“The world is like a faded beauty who looks in the mirror remembering her youth, mourning the long-gone glory of Eden. She is now battered and scarred, not merely by age, but by tragedy, war, and defeat. She feels all too heavily how far she’s fallen, and in her sadness she tells mournful tales of glory lost. Of heroes who fail and unravel. Of sin and consequences. Of evil that triumphs and prowls. Of darkness that swallows all who draw near.” — p. 34.

“God, in his wisdom, chose to give his image-bearers imagination, so that any time we get together, we can sit down, tell a story, and be carried away.” — p 56

“For centuries, people have gathered and told tales meant to inspire hope and shed light on the struggles of life. They’ve told about men who conquered dragons and raised mountains, who rescued damsels and rose from the dead. Our hearts swell when we hear and see the stories– when we see Frodo escape from Mount Doom, or Iron Man cut off a portal to intergalactic invaders. We cheer when Prince Phillip kisses Aurora and the kingdom comes to life again. We weep when Harry Potter rises for the dead, lifted by deeper and older magic than even the most powerful wizard in the world can conjure: love. Then the theater lights lift and we return to the harsh daylight of the real world. We can hear the stories of life, death, and resurrection, knowing in our hearts that it really did happen.” — pp. 190-191

“Storytelling is a great gift because humanity is a great gift, something God himself delights in. When we engage great stories, we engage with people, seeing ourselves reflected in their desires and faults. If the big story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation is the background of all our stories, then humanity is the common foreground— broken image-bearers trying to make sense of life.” — p. 216

Review: How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken

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Leland Ryken. How to Read the Bible as Literature. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1984.

41obmXXssiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Since God is the author, many readers of the Bible often assume that one approaches all of it the same manner. Often missed, however, is the reality of the dual authorship of the Bible. The Bible is not a monolithic piece of work. The Bible did not come to us in a Koranic-like fashion with an angel dictating every single word. What we have instead is God the Spirit superintending the process of revelation so that men—with their own personalities, experiences, vocabularies, etc.—wrote down God’s words as he would have them (2 Pet. 1:20-21). As such, we have a rich diversity of God-breathed Scripture, all of it profitable for the people of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This diversity includes genres and styles, ranging from story and poetry to metaphor and proverb. Each of these genres require a unique interpretive approach so as to be faithful and clearheaded in our exegesis.

Summary

Leland Ryken, long-time and now retired professor of English at Wheaton College, provides in his book How to Read the Bible as Literature a guide on how to approach the various literary genres used throughout the Bible. Ryken reminds us that in addition to historical and theological approaches to the Bible, we will be well served and we will do honor to the Bible when we approach it literarily. As he reminds us, the Bible is not simply a truthful book but also an aesthetically beautiful work (9). This dual reality is expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes as he tells the reader that he not only chose the words “with great care” but also “sought to find pleasing words” (Eccl. 12:9-10). The aesthetic, creative element is a handmaiden to the propositional content of the Bible and we should never pit them against one another. Instead, we ought to appreciate the Bible, with all its literary genres, and rightly handle it with care. Leland Ryken helps the reader do just that.

The first thing Ryken establishes is the literary nature of the Bible. By “literature” he means the imaginative or creative element in the Bible (12). He admits that there are also “expository” portions in the Bible. He is quick to make clear that in surveying the literary nature of the Bible he is not ignoring the more abstract or propositional elements. He writes, “I have no intention of building a ‘great divide’ that would make a biblical passage either literature or nonliterature” (12). Instead, he offers a “literary continuum” of portions that more or less literary.

In the opening chapter of the book, as Ryken examines various elements of a story, he is quick to remind the reader that he is not required to memorize all the “rules” to rightly interpret any given biblical story. He writes, “The sheer quantity of ‘rules’ for reading and interpreting biblical stories may seem overwhelming…. We tend to apply most of these rules intuitively, simply as close readers of the biblical text” (68). This caveat, on a book of rules and examples, is a welcome reminder for the reader at the very outset. One need not enroll in an English literature course to read the Bible, although I am sure Ryken would not discourage either. Ryken is a guide, not a heavy-handed literary taskmaster.

Another feature of this book is the exposure to the breathtaking beauty and diversity of Scripture. For example, when surveying the types of biblical poetry, Ryken highlights the types of psalms: lament, praise, worship, and nature. Again, this quick survey exposes the reader to the wideness and appeal of the psalms. The psalms cover the whole gamut of human emotions—delight (1:2), fear (2:11), anger (4:4), joy (4:7), peace (4:8), grief (6:7), gladness (9:2), love (18:1), loneliness (25:16), sorrow (31:10), hope (33:22), shame (44:15), and pain (69:29). The psalms are not a flat, one-dimensional hymnbook to casually read. To the contrary, the psalms invite the reader—every reader—to come to God at every point of human emotion. Ryken helpfully showcases this.

A few other topics deserve mention. The most helpful of the sections in this book are Ryken’s treatment of the parables (139-153) and apocalyptic or “visionary” literature (165-175), for they are two of the genres that most often confuse Bible readers. Ryken also includes an insightful five-page appendix devoted to the topic of allegory in the parables. And lastly, in classifying the various literary genres of the Bible, Ryken concludes his book by stressing the literary unity of the Bible. “Like other stories, the Bible has a beginning-middle-end pattern, a unifying plot conflict between good and evil, a focus on people in the act of choosing, and a central protagonist who is God” (179). In the end, this Bible’s great unifying theme is God. In studying the various genres of the Bible, the student of God’s Word would do well to not miss its main actor.

Critical Evaluation

There are various positive things worth highlighting. Ryken provides the Bible student with an invaluable resource in this book. He systematically works through various literary genres and guides the reader. Like any good teacher, he slowly reinforces what he teaches with various examples. The sidebar captions are invaluable as they concisely summarize what the paragraph is about. The wide margins allow the reader to dig in and gloriously destroy the book with marginalia—it is as if Ryken is inciting the reader to become a conversation partner in this process, not simply a detached and mechanical observer. Moreover, the “Further Reading” at the close of each chapter gives a snippet of more thought and information that a reader can pursue.

There are also a few negatives. At times the discussions can seem tedious. For a new student of the Bible, the many terms and words such as “correspondence” (99) and “encomium” (119) can seem intimidating if not off-putting. Moreover, perhaps this work could have been further shortened and thus made more accessible. An updated version with new recommended books would also be helpful to today’s reader.

And lastly, writing in the mid-1980s, it seems Ryken wished to counterbalance the excesses in those who insisted on a grammatico-historical method of interpretation and emphasized the propositional truths taught in the biblical texts to the exclusion of the literary. As mentioned above, Ryken does not wish to make an either-or separation between the literary and the expository elements in the Bible. But in recent years, it seems to me that the literary side has been so prominent a feature that the more propositional component has been eclipsed. Today’s emphasis on the story line of Scripture has been a welcome reminder that our Bibles fit together—there is one great redemptive thing from beginning to end. The Bible is not reductionistic in its message or simply a scattered collection of abstract truths. But, of course, this must be balanced with the other emphases. This is a perpetual problem for the exegete of any generation. Thirty years have passed since Ryken first published this book; perhaps there is a need for a revised volume—or an entirely new book—that presents a more full-orbed presentation of the Bible as literature and what that means and does not mean.

In the end, however, this is a classic work by a seasoned scholar. The fact that this work is still in print thirty years after it was first published testifies to its enduring value. I am sure that it will still be an invaluable guide for many more years to come

Mike Cosper: Tales of a Faded Beauty

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AdamEveCurse“The world is like a faded beauty who looks in the mirror remembering her youth, mourning the long-gone glory of Eden. She is now battered and scarred, not merely by age, but by tragedy, war, and defeat. She feels all too heavily how far she’s fallen, and in her sadness she tells mournful tales of glory lost. Of heroes who fail and unravel. Of sin and consequences. Of evil that triumphs and prowls. Of darkness that swallows all who draw near.”

— Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), p. 34.

Review: A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42-89) by Allen Ross

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Ross, Allen P. A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42-89). Kregel Exegetical Library. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013. 841 pp.

Books are an indispensable component of a pastor’s arsenal. Commentaries hold special place in this arsenal as a preacher seeks to rightly handle the Word of God in his exegesis. Allen Ross’ three-volume work on the Psalms deserve to be on the shelf of every pastor. They blend the best of rigorous interpretation of the text and warm pastoral application.

ross-psalms-2Each section contains several elements. First, there is “Text and Textual Variants.” In this section Ross seeks provides his own translation of the Hebrew. In the footnotes he provides textual variants and dissects some of the parsing. For the student of Scripture who is a bit rusty in his Hebrew, this is a welcome aid. Second, there is “Composition and Context.” In this section Ross examines the genre (e.g., a Lament Psalm or Imprecatory Psalm) and explains how this should inform the interpretative process. Third is the “Exegetical Analysis” in which Ross provides a helpful exegetical outline of the passage. Fourth is the “Commentary in Expository Form.” In this section Ross helpfully breaks down the exegetical outline and provides a running commentary that I think is the best contribution of these volumes. Ross in thorough in his explanations, but he does not get bogged down in the details, which makes it a breeze to read through and one grasps the text better. Fifth, there is the “Message and Application.” Ross does aim to give all possible applications, but he does seem to offer a sketch for the pastor to chew on and further expand on his own. In a day when most scholarly commentaries bypass this element, it is refreshing to see this done well.

That said, there are a few things I quibble with. For one, the font seems rather large (13-14 size font?) which makes this volume run at 841 pages. It easily could have been half this size with a smaller font. In addition, there is no introductory section in this volume. It would be helpful to have supplied some introductory comments from the first volume in the second and third volumes. If a preacher is preparing for a sermon and picks up volume 2, it would be helpful to quickly glance the preliminary considerations without having to take down volume 1.

Of course, these are minimal critiques. Overall, this is an invaluable resource that will help the preacher study and apply the treasure trove of the psalms.

In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank Kregel for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Principles of Systematic Theology à la John Webster

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john_webster_sketch (1)John Webster, professor at the University of St. Andrews, has in recent years become an emergent voice in the area of systematic theology. In 2009 he wrote an excellent essay, published in the International Journal of Systematic Theology, entitled, “Principles of Systematic Theology” (IJST 11.1 [2009]: 56-71).

Here are a few choice quotes:

Systematic theology, according to Webster, “is the rational work of the children of Adam who are only slowly learning what it is to be the children of God” (71).

While necessary, our systematic categories are not exhaustive since “God’s life is infinitely abundant, [and] we are not yet fully the friends of God, [therefore] a theological system is no more than one staging-post on the mind’s ascent to paradise” (67).

So, when we do theology we should do it “repentantly, under the guidance of the prophets and apostles and the tutelage of the saints, and with prayer for the Spirit’s instruction” (66).

In short, then, “systematic concepts are simply windows through which we may glimpse the biblical landscape and its ultimate horizon in God” (70).

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Note: Although the essay is available online, one must purchase it or be student of an institution with lending rights. Again, one more reason I love being a student at Southern Seminary

David Powlison on the value of reading fiction and history

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powlisonDavid Powlison on the value of reading fiction and history:

[A]longside Scripture, I most love novels and histories. Why? Because you learn about people.

You gain a feel for human experience.

You come to understand riches and nuances that you could never understand just from knowing the circle of people you happen to know.

You come to understand the ways that people differ from each other, and the ways we are all alike—an exceedingly valuable component of wisdom.

You become a bigger person with a wider scope of perception.

All those things you come to know illustrate and amplify the relevance and wisdom of our God. I love fiction and biography for the same reasons that an 18th century pastor would read his Bible and his Shakespeare.

10 books that have deeply affected me

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Books, books, books!

Death-by-Living-e1375235818221A friend today asked me to list ten books that have affected me in some significant way. Knowing me, you probably won’t be surprised it’s a mixture of fiction, theology, biography, and poetry. These are books that in various seasons of life have taken hold of me and have not let go—they have transformed me into who I am today. I could easily echo C. S. Lewis: “I am a product of … endless books.”

Though not always perceived, books make certain indelible impressions upon the reader. We will not always be aware of the mark they are making, but unquestionably books mold us and refine us, they allow us to expand our thinking, to venture into worlds unknown and times not our own. Books can paint with words as stories unfold and worlds are created and history is retold and budding theologians like me are made.

Well, here’s my list (in no particular order):

(1) The Chronicles of Narnia (C. S. Lewis)
(2) Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor (D. A. Carson)
(3) Death by Living (N. D. Wilson)
(4) George Whitefield (Arnold Dallimore)
(5) Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
(6) Holiness (J. C. Ryle)
(7) A Heart for Missions (Andrew Fuller)
(8) A Timbered Choir: Sabbath Poems (Wendell Berry)
(9) The Gospel according to the Apostles (John MacArthur)
(10) Written in Tears: A Grieving Father’s Journey Through Psalm 103 (Luke Veldt)

I wish I had time to expand on each these books. Maybe down the road I will. In the mean time, tolle lege!

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