Book Review: Heaven and the Afterlife

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Heaven and the Afterlife by James L. Garlow and Keith Wall   

Bethany House ǀ CBD ǀ Amazon

With thanks to Bethany House for the review copy!

This book is rather outside my normal reading in that it is a non-academic work.  I typically shy away from works such as this for a number of reasons, but I thought I’d read through this one to see what kind of thoughts were hitting a larger audience than an academic treatise on the subject might.

Death and what happens after has long been an issue humanity has sought to understand. Because death is something all will face, it only makes sense that we would like to know something about it. The authors, one a journalist and the other a pastor, seek to provide some insight into what lies beyond the bounds of physical life.  Questions such as “What happens after we die?”, “What do near-death experiences mean”, and many others in this vein were the impetus for this work.  The authors have compiled a host of accounts from historical records and personal testimonies that tell of various kinds of experiences about a post-mortem existence and they seek to sort through it all to offer their readers a glimpse into these what might be.

For some this work will tickle an already-itching ear that longs to hear of encounters from beyond; for others the claims and accounts will not deter their agnostic or skeptical bent. For me personally, I find this book to be a mixed bag—some entertaining stories, some good and helpful discussions of biblical matters, and plenty of frustrating claims and suggestions.

The book is arranged into six sections:

1)    Through Death’s Door (near-death experiences)

2)    What Lies Between Worlds (ghosts, departed spirits, etc)

3)    Crossing Over: The Upward Call (heaven)

4)    Crossing Over: The Dark Descent (judgment and hell)

5)    Hell-Avoidance Strategies (universalism, annihilationism, purgatory, and reincarnation)

6)    Confident Before the King (essentially a “plan of salvation”)

As the title indicates, this book is about heaven and the afterlife. I will begin with a few comments on the authors’ discussion of heaven, followed by a few thoughts on their discussion of other post-mortem issues, then a brief summary of my own opinion.

Part 1 (comprised of chs. 1-4) is entitled Through Death’s Door and essentially tackles near-death experiences (hereafter NDE), both positive and negative experiences people have had. Having never had such an experience, I can’t say one way or the other what such an experience would be like. According to the authors, NDE are not an unknown phenomenon amongst the general population. Their reports of what they experienced when near death are interesting to read and I would not be so bold as to say they couldn’t have experienced what they claim to, for I’ve not ever been near death. This first section, then, is basically a collection of personal accounts/stories of those who have been near death and experienced various kinds of phenomena—some good, others not so much. One story the authors share is of a man who “died” only to come back to life a short time later. It was during his “death” that he claims to have left his body and went with people. While in this state, he encountered Jesus, who healed his wounds and showed him some of what awaits on the other side. It was then he decided to become a follower of Christ. I certainly don’t want to say that God can’t communicate with and reveal himself in such a way, but it seems quite outside the norm and honestly I am not sure what to think of it.

Part 2, entitled What Lies Between Worlds, explores various accounts of what are “ghostly” encounters, both benevolent and nefarious visitors from beyond, and the methods by which mediums and other “spiritualists” seek to communicate with the dead. Paranormal phenomena have been reported for as long as people have been able to do so and it’s no more popular than in our own time. Shows like the once popular Crossing Over and more current series such as Long Island Medium, Paranormal State, Ghost Hunters, and a plethora of others testify to the fact that people are fascinated with what lies beyond the grave.

The authors, as they have done thus far, recount numerous stories and accounts of those who have seen and otherwise encountered what they say are ghosts, angels, and demons. The chapters on ghosts include much of what you might find in any of the episodes from the shows mentioned previously. I found this section to be somewhat interesting, though most of it is stuff I’ve heard or knew of already. I was also glad to read that the authors discourage communication with the dead (90).

Part 3 is entitled Crossing Over: The Upward Call and deals with the “first heaven,” judgment, and the “permanent heaven.” The “first heaven,” as the authors call it, is temporary stopover and the account of Lazarus and the rich man is touted as the best description of this first heaven.[1] One of the questions raised is that of physical bodies in this first heaven—will we/they have them? Personally, I believe the intermediate state (the interim between death and the eschatological resurrection) will be an existence absent the body (2 Cor 5:8). The author remains a bit hesitant to argue a fully physical body upon death, though he seems to suggest that we will have some sort of one (141). In all the discussion of heaven and rewards, the author remains a bit reserved in pressing the imagery of the scripture to the point of hyper-literal, and this I appreciate. That is not to say that he doesn’t think heaven is a real place—indeed he does—but that the language and imagery used by the biblical authors to describe such a place is simply inadequate to express its wonders.

One thing that may strike some as odd is what will take place in heaven according to the author. I appreciate that he says heaven will not be an eternal church service, but his description may come off as strange to some. I must say at this point that I certainly believe heaven is a real place; in fact, that the “final heaven,” or as the scripture describes it, the new creation, will be right here on earth. Earth will be freed of its bondage, all unrighteousness will be purged, and God and Christ will rule over it with us there with them. Exactly what we will do in the new creation I am not completely sure, save for living in God’s presence. Garlow offers quite a few possibilities as to what life will be like. He says there will be pets, there may be games, there will be goods, services, major events, transportation, and communications, education, eating (let’s hope so!), and work. The picture he paints is much like life here and now only without the evil one and sin and death, a picture I can agree with, at least generally. Whether or not all of the things he mentioned will be there I can’t say for sure (nor can anyone else).

One point of disagreement I will mention is his argument that the dead can contact us and that doing so is part of the “communion of saints” (165). I know some of my Roman Catholic friends would have no issue with this, but I have always been leery of any kind of communication with the deceased. He likewise appeals to authority and refers to a “respected community professor” who communes with his deceased wife (165). The Israelites were strictly forbidden from communicating with the dead (Lev 19:31) and the NT is silent on the matter; however, it would seem within reasonable interpretation of the scripture to assume that communication with the dead is not a good idea.

Part 4 is Crossing Over: The Dark Descent is about “hell” and judgment. I’ll only mention a few things here; I feel this review is already a little too lengthy. For one, the authors argue that hell, as a concept, has been around since OT times, but rightly note that it was not as developed a concept as that found in Jewish apocalyptic and in the NT.  Second, the author likens the term Gehenna to the smoldering trash heap, an idea that has found great popularity in the evangelical world, but has more recently been questioned as the actual idea behind the word. Third, the author seems to suggest that natural revelation is sufficient for salvation. Ironically, he cites Rom 1:19-20 as evidence that God may indeed save some this way. While I think the passage from Romans actually mitigates against his view and that natural revelation is insufficient to lead to saving knowledge of God in Christ, if God were to save someone that way it would be a good thing. Fourth, the author sees hell as largely figurative, a position that I am quite comfortable with. Whether hell is a figurative place or a real physical one, the end is the same—separation from God and all that is good—and this is its true horror. He writes, “Separation from God after death means separation from everything that’s right, true, and wonderful; he is the source of all that is good. Eternity without God means exposure only to what is wrong, false, and horrible” (190).

Section 5 is entitled Hell-Avoidance Strategies and deals with the various ways in which people have sought to deal with the doctrine of hell, namely universalism, annihilationism, purgatory, and reincarnation. This is an informative section and is helpful, though a bit succinct.

The last section, #6 (Confident Before the King), is essentially a presentation of the gospel, a brief God-loves-you piece that points people toward Christ.

In sum, Heaven and the Afterlife is an decent read and is geared towards a lay audience. One of the positives of the book is that the authors are Christians and ultimately point toward Christ. This book also manages to cover quite a bit of ground in terms of competing views on various aspects of the afterlife. Aside from the few points of disagreement mentioned, most of the points made herein are right and helpful. The sprinkling of evangelical clichés throughout I found a bit annoying, but that’s a matter of personal preference. A second point of additional criticism I’ll mention is the rather common negative portrayal of Rudolf Bultmann (which is spelled Rudolph in the book). Though it is brief (only a paragraph), he casts Bultmann’s demythologizing as stripping the scripture of its authority, something that I am sure Bultmann would say is quite far from his intent.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, to some; to others, no. My only concern with is that some, perhaps those with a fascination with the paranormal, may find in its pages justification for practices I am confident are contrary to God’s good purposes for them.

Αυτω η δοξα

[1] The author does not address the parable other than the imagery it provides. Scholars debate whether or not this particular account is a parable, a decision which makes quite a difference in how one reads and understands it. I happen to believe it to be a parable, so I don’t believe it is meant to provide a geography of the afterlife, but to illustrate the consequences of neglecting those who are less fortunate and the permanence of that consequence.

Book Review: A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1 (1-41)

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A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1 (1-41) by Allen P. Ross.

Kregel ǀ CBD ǀ Amazon

With thanks to Kregel Publications for the review copy!

While it may possible to read through this entire volume for the purpose of this review, I never read commentaries that way. As such, I will focus on a handful of psalms to serve as the focal point of this review. Volume 1 spans the first 41 psalms and from them I will provide a brief synopsis of Ross’s treatment of psalms 1, 2, 22 and 23. At the outset I must say that I am no expert on the psalter or the language in which they were written; in fact, I’m barely a novice, so my reflections will be in accordance with the measure of knowledge I have of the psalms. With that said, let’s commence with the review.

Ross’s introductory section (180 pages!) covers some of the typical issues (date, authorship, provenance, etc.) encountered in most commentaries, but he doesn’t devote whole sections to them. He instead intersperses discussion of these issues throughout the commentary itself as he finds them relevant. His attention then is paid to matters that are more particular to the psalter: abbreviations, the psalms’ value, the text and versions of the psalms, and titles and headings. Reading through these chapters shows the reader the psalms’ truly variegated nature. Following these chapters, Ross attends to other matters that are more broadly applicable, but important for understanding the psalms. These chapters cover the history of interpretation (which shows quite a diversity of approaches), biblical poetry (a notoriously untamable beast!), literary forms and functions in the psalms, theology of the psalms, and an exposition of the psalms. I won’t deal with these sections except to say they are helpful in equipping the reader with the appropriate tools necessary to begin the interpretive process in the psalter.

The first psalm I chose to evaluate is arguably the most important in the entire collection—Psalm 1. It’s place at the head of the psalter is not accidental and, as Ross argues, it along with Psalm 2 sets the theme for the whole psalter: the way the righteous are to live among the ungodly and the salvation the righteous have in their divinely chosen king (182). Psalm 1 is indeed concerned with the comparison of the righteous and the wicked and Ross ably works through the details so that the reader is clear on some of the important nuances in the descriptions. One aspect here I appreciate is his attention to the description of the ungodly (which plays out primarily in the footnotes). Discussing each of the three terms used to describe these “ungodly” each bear a slightly different nuance and drawing such distinctions can prevent unnecessary and inaccurate depictions of those outside the faith. Ross also draws attention to the apparent escalation of the descriptions of the two groups as well as to the verbs used to describe their actions (or inaction in the case of the righteous). All this reinforces the point—to enjoy the “heavenly blessedness” of God is to pursue life in the fashion of the righteous and abstain from undue influence from the ungodly. In general, Ross’s interpretation of this psalm is fairly consistent with how I understand it (not a claim to the veracity of said interpretation!) and there’s nothing here that one probably wouldn’t find in most standard commentaries.

Psalm 2 is a regal psalm that serves to remind God’s people of His plan for them in the absence of a Davidic king (199-200).  Here, as in the previous psalm, Ross offers a fairly straightforward interpretation that would find resonance with more conservative interpreters, though I don’t know that those who are less conservative would find much to disagree about.  I certainly don’t consider that a bad thing, for I myself am in that camp more times than not.  One thing that readers will notice here is that Ross does not spend a great deal of time tackling matters of how this psalm (or part of it) is used in the NT, specifically in Hebrews 1.  While he addresses the language of sonship in footnote 25 (p. 208), he leaves it at that and focuses on the psalm itself in the commentary.

Psalm 22 presents several challenges to interpreters, a couple of which are understanding the textual variants and how it (the psalm) is interpreted Christologically.  Ross gives some  attention to the text-critical questions, but keeps things fairly manageable due to the nature of the commentary, namely to remain accessible.  Though I personally do not enjoy reading about and sorting through text-critical issues, it is a good and necessary part of exegesis and Ross makes the issues fairly understandable without oversimplifying them.   As to the matter of Christological appropriation of the psalm, Ross claims that though Christians will find it nearly impossible to read the psalm and not think of Christ’s suffering, we must first read it in light of the psalmist’s experience of suffering.  Once readers can interpret the psalm in its original context can the parallels and Christological overtones be seen and heard.  Ross handles this psalm in the same erudite manner as those before and after it, providing a solid interpretation supplemented with abundant discussions of various theologically significant vocabulary in the footnotes.

Psalm 23, arguably the most well-known psalm of the whole collection, is also ably handled by Ross.  In fact, of the four psalms I focused on, this was the most enjoyable to read.  This is due partly to the general familiarity I have of the psalm, but also because of Ross’ explanation of the text (what’s a commentary for if not that!).  While certainly this psalm is committed to the memories of many in the KJV or other older translation, Ross demonstrates a number of points concerning how one translates the psalm that show more accurate ways in which to translate it.  As with the previous psalms (and others I skimmed), there are grammatical references aplenty!  Overall, Ross’ exegesis of the 23rd psalm is solid and thoroughly readable.

Though I’ve not read many commentaries on the psalter (and what I have read has been on particular psalms, never a whole volume), I’ve worked with them enough to know what I expect from the commentary in general and whether or not it will be helpful to the overall interpretive process. I can say that after my examination of Ross’s commentary I am assured that many will find great help in this volume (and presumably the coming volumes 2 and 3), even those whose training in Hebrew far exceed my own.

Perhaps the most commendable aspect of this commentary is its accessibility, a goal that many commentators either eschew or miss altogether.  To benefit from Ross’ commentary one need not have advanced knowledge of Hebrew to work through the exegetical discussions.  However, some facility in Hebrew will be beneficial, perhaps even necessary, to fully benefit from Ross’s work.  Ross, whom I know primarily through his introductory Hebrew grammar, offers plenty in the way of grammatical analysis and categorization of usage.  While for me this is helpful, it may not be to some, only because some of the categories require minor explanations (which are standard fare in Hebrew grammars).  In fact, it’s the one element that stands out about this volume in comparison to other commentaries on the same level, which is why I say some facility in Hebrew will help gain the fullest benefit from the commentary (just keep Ross’s grammar handy and you’re good to go!).

Another feature that I appreciate is the absence of transliterations.  I am no fan of them so I was glad to see that Ross does not employ it, but rather puts terms/phrases being discussed in quotes as a translation and provides the Hebrew in parentheses.  I also appreciate the relegation of more technical discussion to the footnotes (and by implication the absence of endnotes!), which of course is the whole purpose of footnotes, thereby providing opportunities for deeper study for those interested.  I must admit that at times I was a little frustrated that the information I was after was in the footnotes and didn’t receive quite the attention I would have liked, but again this is in a way a commendation for Ross for keeping more technical points and discussions out of the main text.

One other interesting aspect of the commentary is its layout—each psalm is arranged structurally according to the Hebrew text, yet Ross takes another step and arranges the discussion homiletically.  For those teaching or preaching through the psalms, this could be a great help.

I did encounter a few minor annoyances while reading through the commentary.  For one, there is the occasional use of rather esoteric vocabulary.  Because of the nature of Hebrew poetry, some technical jargon is to be expected and thankfully Ross keeps it to a minimum; yet, the presence of words such as epizeuxis and tapeinosis aren’t really necessary in a commentary written on this level, even with brief definitions provided.  Second, there were a few instances in which I was hoping for a more helpful discussion in the footnotes (as I mentioned above).  For example, in the discussion of Psalm 22, Ross claims that Jesus’ enemies knew Psalm 22 as a messianic psalm and thus quoted from it in order to mock and deride Jesus as he suffered (536).  While I find it very likely that by the time of Christ’s death this psalm was being read through a messianic lens, Ross only points to one example from Jewish literature that substantiates this idea.  I only wish there were more discussion of this.  Again, this is comparatively minor complaint, especially given the detail some Hebrew words/concepts are given, but I hoped for a little more here.  Third and finally, I had hoped for a little more background to explain the figurative language that permeates many of the psalms.  I am certainly not saying such was entirely absent—hardly!  The literal reality that stands behind figurative speech can really bring the text to life and such is the case when Ross fills us in, but it’s not quite enough to satisfy me.  Again, this is more a personal preference and not necessarily a critique of Ross.

You might think that a commentary that addresses 41 psalms in just over 700 pages (for the commentary proper) would be verbose, but not so. Part of this is due to the length of some of the psalms themselves and part is due to Ross’s extensive footnoting (as previously mentioned), but in general he provides rather concise discussion for each psalm.  Ross’s style is easily read and never comes across as pedantic and that makes this particular volume quite handy.  Again, this series is not going to be as helpful to some (those whose own scholarly pursuits intersect with the material presented), but there is more than enough insight and exposition to benefit the vast majority of those for whom it was written.  I would recommend this volume to any who are studying the psalms, but especially for those whose training in Hebrew and OT is/has been minimal.

Αυτω η δοξα

Book Review: Invitation to Biblical Interpretation

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Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson 

Kregel ǀ WTS ǀ CBD

Many thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy!

My review is one of many that are a part of the blog tour for this book.

Köstenberger and Patterson (hereafter K/P) have written this book “to teach a simple method of interpreting the Bible,” (23) presumably the purpose for anyone who has ever written a hermeneutics text. There is a distinct difference, however, in the approach that K/P have taken. They call it the “hermeneutical triad,” which is comprised of history, literature, and theology (24). These are the components used to construct the grid through which the reader is to read the biblical text. As the authors note, they are not the first to use this grid (they give appropriate nods to Longman, Dillard, Wright, and Vanhoozer), but the first to describe it with a specific name. K/P also claim to take a rather novel approach to the interpretive process, namely moving from specific hermeneutics to general (25). So rather than starting with words (i.e. syntax), they start with canon, particularly looking at the bigger picture of Scripture. They take this approach because of “the common linguistic premise that the discourse context is primary for determining word meaning” (26).

You might already decide the track the authors will take simply by their names and the associations that attend them. They are upfront that they look at scripture as “the inerrant, inspired Word of God” and that this conviction underpins the entirety of their work. While this is repellant to some, it would be unfair to immediately dismiss this work so simply.

K/P begin by offering a bit more detail to their triad. History (=historical context) is critical because all scripture is rooted in real-life history—it wasn’t produced in a vacuum. Second, the bible is literature. K/P state that literature (at least concerning scriptural literature) has three components—canon, genre, and language and these components are the object of their literary analysis (27). The third component is theology. Interpreting the scripture as God’s self-disclosure demands that it be rightly understood if God himself if to be understood rightly. Is this triad effective as a hermeneutical approach? In this review, I hope to answer this quest thoughtfully and humbly.

 Concerning the format, each chapter begins with a list of objectives, a modest outline of the contents, and a visual “road map” of sorts. These are rather common elements in textbooks and will prove to be helpful to some, not as much to others. Each chapter also concludes with a list of guidelines that succinctly reiterate the main points of the chapter, a short glossary of key terms and a list of study questions. These elements can be helpful if one takes opportunity to take advantage of them. There are also helpful appendixes in the back for building a biblical studies library and a glossary, as well as scripture, person, and subject indexes.

 Though I do not plan to summarize each chapter here (there are 16!), I will speak generally of its three-part history-literature-theology division. Chapter 1 sets the stage for the task at hand and introduces the reader to the discipline of interpretation by discussing two different aspects of biblical interpretation, namely what it is and why it should be done properly, and a condensed history of hermeneutical approaches spanning from the Old Testament to modern theories and practices. As stated, this history is quite brief, but helps to understand how various methods have come and gone and how we got to where we are.

Now that introductory matters are introduced, one can feast on the real meat of this book—the hermeneutical method itself. Part one of the book is concerned with the historical-cultural background of the bible and (obviously) begins with the OT. K/P essentially offer a historical synopsis of the major historical events and persons that we might say help define the OT era and set the stage for the arrival of the Christ. K/P also briefly discuss the Second Temple period (or intertestamental period) for its now-recognized importance in better understanding the historical-religious atmosphere of the NT era. The remainder of the chapter is a discussion of primary and secondary sources and their importance for understanding the historical background of the text. One of the helpful features that this book includes (and other hermeneutics texts as well) is a sample of how the features previously discussed figure into the hermeneutical process. Here both OT and NT examples are provided and aptly demonstrate how historical background is helpful and necessary to rightly begin the interpretive process.

 Part two focuses on literature and there is much to feast upon here. This part is comprised of three subsections: canon, genre and language, topics that are continually at the center of study and debate. In their discussion of the OT canon, they introduce readers not only to the concept of canon, but also canonical interpretation. This approach typically evokes one name—Brevard Childs—and they spend a few pages discussing his method and that of Christopher Seitz, whom they credit with forwarding Childs’ work. While their contribution is hardly even a primer on the subject, it is enough to help the hermeneutical novice get a bearing on an important interpreter’s contribution to the field. The discussion of law and covenant are helpful here, particularly in light of more recent research on the various types of covenants in the ANE. While much of what K/P discuss is typical of introductory hermeneutics texts, they distinguish themselves somewhat by tackling matters that aren’t typically included, such as the Exodus and the development of messianism. The Exodus may seem an odd subject to discuss hermeneutically, but K/P clearly believe events such as the Exodus to be actually historical events and thus it is necessary to know its place in the development/evolution of the Israelite people and the scriptures they produce.

 The bulk of part two, as one might expect, is concerned with the myriad features of the various types of literature, e.g. narrative, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, apocalyptic, etc. I was pleased to discover that the canonical book of Revelation is given an entire chapter’s devotion. Few books frustrate and fluster bible readers more than Revelation and it’s not hard to see why. However, both novice and more learned students of the scripture will gain from K and P’s contribution.

 One of the more challenging sections to plow through is poetry. Even in English poetry is difficult to me, partly because of its esoteric vocabulary. Certainly every subject that has been scrutinized by scholars has yielded its own brand of highly specialized terminology, but poetry is one that I’ve had a harder time fully grasping because of this. K/P don’t hold back and offer the reader a number of technical terms in this section, such as aposiopesis, apophthegm, dactylic, anapest, and amphibrach to name a few. While they provide brief definitions (thankfully!), poetry is inherently contrary to most readers’ use of language and these kinds of terms will certainly not help the beginning interpreter.

 Part three of the book, while comparatively short, is perhaps one of the most helpful sections for beginning readers (more learned folk might learn something as well!). Here the authors tackle the issue of language, and no current hermeneutics text would be complete without it. K/P address initially some important aspects of Greek (genitive, the article, word order), yet do not address Hebrew specifically. K/P also introduce the reader to discourse analysis, an area that has received much more attention in recent years and is making its way into more texts such as this one. The twenty pages devoted to exegetical fallacies is also a helpful, especially to those new to the task (but we more experienced interpreters aren’t immune, so this is a good refresher on some basics, though certainly less extensive than Carson’s work). The final chapter of this unit deals with figurative language, an element that continues to befuddle many and spark plenty of debate. K/P do a fine job of acclimating the interpreter to the shallower waters of discerning the meaning behind figurative language, though one will have to look elsewhere for more comprehensive treatment.

 The final unit of the book concerns theology and thus rounds out K and P’s hermeneutical triad. Unfortunately, this section was the least stimulating for me personally. Why? Mostly because it’s quite short in comparison. Naturally I expect a hermeneutics text to be concerned primarily with historical and literary features and issues, but given the attention paid to theology in interpretation in recent years, I really hoped for more here. But that’s not to say this section isn’t good, because it is. I appreciate and resonate with the authors very strongly here because they argue for a theology that is derived from the bible, rather than imposing one’s own viewpoints onto the scripture. Essentially this is known as a biblical theology, to which they give attention in the following pages, specifically the issues, methods, and history of biblical theology. Not surprisingly, K/P discuss the theology of the NT (though briefly) and the use of the NT in the OT, another topic that has received a healthy share of scholarly attention in recent years. This unit on theology is concluded with a seemingly logical end—the dispersion of theology, or a chapter on preaching/teaching the scripture as a result of examining the text through this hermeneutical triad. Because not all interpreters of scripture are necessarily teachers and/or preachers, this final chapter will be of less value to some than others.

 In sum, I am confident to say that Köstenberger and Patterson have produced an immensely helpful volume that will certainly become the standard biblical hermeneutics text for many (if the endorsements are any indication) and a valuable companion resource to many others. While Invitation to Biblical Interpretation treads plenty of very familiar ground, its inclusion of more recent research will set it apart from other similar texts, as will the vastness of the terrain it surveys and samples of the method at work. I can highly recommend this volume to the uninitiated who have only begun the potentially perilous journey of biblical interpretation, as well as to the well-traveled sojourners who have covered many miles in their exploration of the canonical landscape.

Αυτω η δοξα

Book Review: How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

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How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams

Zondervan ǀ WTS ǀ CBD ǀ

Thanks to the folks at Zondervan for this review copy!

This is my contribution to the book tour for which I received this copy of Michael Williams’ book. For my part, I chose Genesis and Romans for review (I’ve not read every page of this book as it was not required for the review).

The title of the book says it all—Williams writes to show how one can read the bible in such a way as to find Jesus in every book in the canon. This sort of Christocentric hermeneutic is certainly nothing new or novel, but Williams feels that “the fact that all of scripture testifies about Jesus” has been somewhat obscured by other details that tend to be the object of the bible reader’s study. His aim, then, is to provide a snapshot view of each biblical book, wherein he offers enough thematic ties to formulate a theme for that book and ultimately how each canonical book points to Jesus.

Each canonical book/chapter is comprised of several parts. First, he offers a quick introduction of the book in question. Bear in mind it’s not an introduction that you would find in a commentary or other more specialized work, but something much more generalized, at least in the chapter on Genesis. Other chapters throughout the book briefly summarize the story up to that point either chronologically or thematically and segue to the contents of the book itself. These brief glimpses at the landscape of the biblical story are helpful in that they are concise and show the reader how various books relate to others (the book of the twelve is a good example).

Each chapter has a graphic inserted just after the introductory paragraph that indicates what Williams’ believes to be the theme of the book. For Genesis, the theme is said to be “God separates out one through whom he would bless all nations” (13). This aspect of Williams’ book will likely serve as the spawning ground for most of readers’ disagreements. I will agree with Williams’ that the idea of separation is an important theme early on in Genesis, but I am not convinced that it is the theme. Williams’ notes the acts of separation in the first creation account (vv1:1-28) and the subsequent separation of people, i.e. Seth from Adam and Eve’s other children (5:3-32), the line of Abraham from all other people (12:1-3), etc, but does not discuss how the remainder of the story plays out except in a brief summary (clearly the nature of the book prevents such extended discussions). Each chapter also includes memory passages/verses that reinforce the proposed theme.

The subsequent sections are “The Jesus Lens”, “Contemporary Implications”, and “Hook Questions”. The “Jesus Lens” sections obviously tells how the canonical book in question points to Jesus, which in Genesis (acc. to Williams) is accomplished by showing “Jesus is the one to whom all God’s separating was always meant to lead, and Jesus is separate from all others in his ability to bring the promised divine blessing to the nations” (15). I must say that I was surprised that the so-called “proto-evangelium” of Gen 3:15 was not mentioned, given that many see in that verse the beginnings of what Christ would ultimately accomplish. The “Contemporary Implications” section is exactly what it sounds like—a brief attempt to show the contemporary relevance of these ancient texts and their pointing to Jesus. Williams maintains the theme of the canonical book here and ties it together by showing how God’s work of separation continues in the life of modern believers. The final part of each chapter is “Hook Questions,” questions provided for readers to engage personally and/or in a group setting, presumably for those who wish to pursue matters beyond the initial discussion of the chapter. These questions will be helpful to varying degrees depending on a number of factors, some being more helpful than others.

On the New Testament side, I chose to read and comment on Williams’ treatment of Romans. The theme proposed is “Through Christ, God brings his chosen ones from death to life”. While this is certainly a concept Paul discusses in Romans, I’m not convinced that it would serve as the theme of the book. This is due mostly to my own view of Romans, which is to say I see it as Paul’s explication of what the gospel is and how it is effected in the life of sinners and how they, upon regeneration, are to live the gospel. This is certainly not at odds with Williams’ proposed theme—much of what the gospel is in Romans concerns what God does to reconcile sinners to himself, i.e. bringing them from death to life, but one is hard pressed to condense the whole of Romans to this one idea.

And therein lies the main concern I have with this book and others like it—the attempt to condense canonical books to a singular theme is often difficult, if not sometimes impossible. Many books of the bible are quite complex and defiantly resist simplified categorization, thematic or otherwise. To do so concerns me because too often people (especially many modern bible readers) are more concerned with simplifying the scriptures so that they can make more expedient use of it. It’s a common approach in many churches today to hurry up and get to the application—what does this mean for me today? While I believe the scripture is certainly relevant for readers of all eras, we must not bypass the difficulties and complexities of scripture just to get to why it’s important today. Cart before the horse, anyone? This approach can easily lead to bad interpretations which inevitably leads to bad theology.

However, let me be clear in what I do not wish to suggest—that Williams’ book will lead to this end. Yes, it could for some, those who fit the mold I mentioned above, but for those whose desire is to read the scripture from a bird’s-eye perspective, to get a snapshot of the bible’s story, Williams’ book will help you in that. I agree with Williams and others who believe the whole of scripture finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ and that we should read the it accordingly, but I also believe the fullest and most faithful way to read the scripture Christocentrically (or through the Jesus lens) is to understand each book and each section of scripture as it was understood by its original hearers and readers, to whatever extent we are able. I am confident that Williams would agree with this and he does an admirable job of telling the greater story that all scripture, as a whole, is meant to tell. He has written a very readable book (at times even humorous) and it will serve well those who wish to see how the scripture tells of Jesus, whether by a whisper or a shout.

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Book Giveaway

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It’s Marc Cortez again giving away another title from IVP. This time it’s Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ by Rodney Reeves and you can earn several entries. Head on over to Everyday Theology to put your name in the hat!

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Book Review: Common English Bible with Apocrypha

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Common English Bible with Apocrypha

CEB ǀ Amazon ǀ CBD ǀ

I would like to thank the kind folks at B&B Media Group for this review copy!

This review is one of many that have been/will be posted as part of the CEB Blog Tour. Find a list of participants here.

This review will be unlike others I have done simply because there are a number of elements to consider when reviewing a bible. I will address two particular elements of this bible: aesthetics and the “feel” (dimensions, durability, etc) and various samplings of verses. I must also state that I’ve not read through the entirety of this translation and certainly have not pored over even the verses included in this review with a fine-toothed comb. I have chosen selections that caught my attention and have offered a few comments as to why I found them satisfactory or otherwise.


The volume here reviewed is described as “portable” and measures 5.375” x 8.375”, so it’s certainly small enough to carry with you, but not a pocket bible so you won’t have to strain to see the type (which is 9 pt.). The cover is black decotone, a synthetic material commonly used by some publishers and has a nice feel to it. While it certainly doesn’t have the feel of genuine leather, it is softer than bonded leather, and that’s a plus. The pages are a bit transparent so a minimal amount of “ghosting” occurs, but no to the extent that it’s distracting for me to read. Overall, I rather like the size and feel of this bible and find it at least comparable to others like it that are available.


The CEB is a “fresh translation” that is the product of “one hundred fifty biblical scholars from twenty-two faith traditions” that aimed to “create sentences and choose vocabulary that would be readily understood when the biblical text is read aloud.” Ultimately, this is hoped to accomplish a translation “that is suitable for personal devotion, for communal worship, and for classroom study.” How successful were they? That depends on who you ask.

Every translation of the bible that is published receives its share of scrutiny and criticism, which it should, and the CEB is no different. My overall assessment of the CEB (while not based on an entire reading) is that it is a solid translation that many will love, but one that is not without its quirky renderings.

Genesis 1:1

The CEB renders this verse “When God began to create the heavens and the earth…” This verse, one of the most discussed in all the scripture, will catch some off guard. Many, if not most, English translations render the phrase בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים as an absolute temporal clause, i.e. “In the beginning, God created…”, which would seem to indicate that point of Gen 1:1 is God created the universe. This is the most popular interpretation of the verse, particularly in evangelical circles. However, many Hebrew and ANE specialists have (convincingly, in my opinion) argued that the clause is a relative temporal clause that speaks of only when God began the work of bringing order to creation. This will undoubtedly not sit well with many who hold Gen 1:1 as the definitive biblical statement as to the origins of the universe.

Genesis 2:7

The translation of  הָאָדָם as “the human” prepares CEB readers for one of the distinctions of this translation, namely the use of “human” in various constructions where “man” or “mankind” (and also “humanity” in other more recent translations) had been used elsewhere. There is no inherent problem with such a translation, other than it will sound unusual for many (more on this to follow).

Genesis 3:21

The decision to translate עוֹר as “leather clothes” is a bit odd, though it fits with the goal using common English to communicate. Other translations tend to use phrases such as “garments from skin” (NET), “clothing out of skins” (HCSB), “garments of skins” (ESV), “garments of skin” (NASB95), or something similar. Though leather is a material made from animal skin, it seems strange to hear of God fashioning leather—it sounds so modern! I can’t help but picture modern leather attire rather than something more crude.

Genesis 15:4

I rather like the translation “your very own biological child” for יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ because the text certainly communicates that Abram’s heir will be the result of conception and birth with Sarai. Like the leather-clothes example mentioned, this sounds almost odd because it’s a very modern way to communicate the Hebrew, but makes the intent very clear.

Genesis 15:6

I don’t know that I agree with the translation choice for צְדָקָה here as “high moral character.” The term can certainly mean that, and it’s not necessarily wrong here, but it seems a better translation could be been chosen. The context isn’t focused on Abram’s morality, per se, but rather on his obedience to Yahweh. I suppose one could quibble that obedience is entangled with morality to some degree, and yes character is in view here, but I would rather have seen a bit different wording for this phrase.

Genesis 15:8

For a bible whose translators “balance rigorous accuracy in the rendition of ancient texts with an equally passionate  commitment to clarity of expression in the target language” and who “create sentences and choose vocabulary that would be readily understood when the biblical text is read aloud,” I think they miss the mark a bit here. The CEB renders the phrase הַהוּא כָּרַת יְהוָה אֶת־אַבְרָם as “the LORD cut a covenant with Abram” (emphasis mine). The verb כָּרַת does literally mean in many contexts to cut or to cut down, but in others, such as the present one, it conveys the idea of making a covenant. It seems strange that in the pursuit of a translation of clarity the choice would be decided upon to render this phrase as “cut a covenant.” Sure hearers and readers with some knowledge of and experience with Hebrew would understand the idea, but it seems that for most some explanation would be necessary. As such, I think this is a bit of a misstep.

Genesis 18:6

One of the challenges in translating and reading the bible is deciding what to do with weights and measures and the CEB translators state in the front matter that they prefer “to transliterate (rather than translate) measurements of capacity, both we and dry, as well as measurements of weight” (xv). What’s curious about this is they choose to convert linear and spatial dimensions into feet and inches—why not weights and capacity? Gen 18:6 is an early example. The word סְאִים is transliterated seahs, used when Abraham tells Sarah to knead three “seahs” of dough to make some baked goods for the three visitors that have come to them. Thankfully there are footnotes to give the approximate equivalents, but again, why not just render the calculation in the translation?

A quick note on the Apocrypha. I did not include passages or verses from the apocryphal books as part of this review because I have not worked in those books enough to offer insight that would be of help. I will say, however, that the selections I have read thus far from those books are fairly consistent with the old and new testaments as far as style is concerned. Like the OT and NT, the CEB’s translation of the apocrypha is quite readable and suffers from the occasional oddity.

Matthew 23:33

The phrase γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν is here rendered “children of snakes.” This choice of wording quite awkward, especially when considering that most people are probably more familiar with “brood of vipers” or the NLT’s “sons of vipers.” “Children of snakes” just doesn’t have the same emotive force that “brood of vipers”—it sounds rather timid, which doesn’t quite fit the tone of the passage.

John 1:1

Don’t worry—the CEB handles this verse like practically every other translation I’ve read (except for the NWT obviously!).

John 1:14

The verb ἐσκήνωσεν here is often fodder for all kinds of misinterpretation, but the CEB handles it decently. While “made his home with us” may be a little hokey, it’s rather on target and communicates well one of the great truths of John’s gospel.

2 Corinthians 5:17

This is another example that will catch more particular readers as a bit unusual. Most modern translations render this verse along these lines—If anyone is in Christ, he/they is/are a new creation. But the CEB takes a slightly different perspective, one that I think nicely captures the larger Pauline theme: “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation.” This particular passage concerns God’s work of reconciling creation through Christ and, obviously, humanity is the focus here. However, there is throughout Paul’s writings the idea that salvation transcends the redemption of humanity only, but will (ultimately) encompass all of creation. Certainly it seems that mankind is the primary recipient of God’s redemptive work, but not the only recipient, and I think that connotation is shown in this translation.

Obviously this is a very minimal sampling of potential texts that could be weighed in evaluating the “accuracy” of a translation. While many more could have been examined, I chose to limit them to just a few–where would I draw the line? How many texts need to be examined? Ideally I would have liked to looked at texts from most/all genres represented in the bible, but time is the issue. Hopefully this review will give you a peek into CEB, at least enough to provoke enough curiosity to read it or pick up a copy.

As noted earlier, one of the most notable differences with the CEB compared to other modern English translations is that the CEB translates certain phrases differently that have remained practically constant (or at least minimally varied) in other versions for many years. For example, the CEB translates the Hebrew phrase בֶן־אָדָם and its Aramaic counterpart בַר אֱנָש along with the Greek ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (and its varied forms) with a clear anthropological nuance. בֶן־אָדָם is rendered either as “human being” (Num 23:19 et al; likewise the Aramaic phrase in Daniel 7:13 is translated “human being”) or as “human one” (Ezekiel et al). Also, the phrase as it used in the NT is rendered “human one.” Some are likely to object to this because of the longstanding tradition to translate ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου as “S/son of M/man” and they may feel this diminishes the phrase as it is used of Jesus. However, such objections really aren’t sustainable because the phrase is meant to highlight the humanity of Christ and in those contexts where a bit more is intended the CEB capitalizes the title to indicate as much. I will say that I did not check every occurrence of these phrases so there is a possibility that it may somewhere be rendered inaccurately, but no need to get into a twist about “the human one” or the other more anthropologically-focused renderings. I suspect that some, perhaps many, who are leery of this translation will be so due to some measure of aural dissonance rather than theological concern.

This is perhaps the most notable aspect of the translation, that it renders many phrases that have become part of the Christian vernacular in different ways, ways that would take some acclimation. Of course, this is not a new concept–new translations should provoke readers to investigate further why things are translated the way they are. Is this is a good thing? It can be, when it drives the reader to the original languages to investigate for themselves merits of any of the CEB’s renderings. Perhaps one downside to this is many will feel uncomfortable reading a bible they feel “departs” too greatly from the translations they already know or are more familiar with. This, however, says more of the reader than the translation itself. Will the CEB find its place alongside popular modern translations like the NIV, HCSB, NLT or ESV? While it has achieved “best seller” status faster than any bible before it, time will tell of its impact beyond its sales. But I will say that the CEB is an solid translation and will serve well those who read it, so long as they are not beholden to particular translations that have come before it.

You can connect with CEB in several ways:

§  Website                       

§  Twitter                        

§  Facebook Group Page

§  Facebook Bible Like Page

§  Video                           

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Book Giveaway

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Marc Cortez is giving away another book from IVP. This time, it’s The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy. Just like last time, there are a number of ways to enter, so head on over and put your name in the hat.

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Book Giveaway

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Marc Cortez is giving away a copy of Timothy George’s Reading Scripture with the Reformers at his blog. Looks like a great volume and you can earn multiple entries, so head over and sign up!

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Just Arrived

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I mentioned the other day looking for Chrarlesworth’s volumes on the OT pseudepigrapha (1 & 2) and happened upon a great deal, so I ordered them. I was pleased to see they arrived today! Only six days from the placement of order to their arrival on my doorstep–not bad! I was also very pleased that the seller took the time to properly package the books to prevent shipping while in transit.

I ordered these from HPB Marketplace, the on-line arm of Half Price Books. They are linked with independent sellers all around the world and I was able to find these two volumes, brand new paperbacks, for $44 including the shipping. I know that many have aired their grievances lately about Amazon’s price-checking practices, so if you don’t want to buy from them, I would encourage you to check out HPB Marketplace. You’ll be buying from actual stores and their connections the world wide may yield the prize you so desperately seek! Ok, that’s a little dramatic, but you get it.

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In search of…

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…James H. Charlesworth’s two volumes on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Yes, it’s readily available online, but is anyone interested in selling theirs for a competitive price? Surely someone out there is forsaking all their print media in favor of digital and desires to unload their print volumes at obscenely low prices!!!

Just thought I’d ask!

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