Book Review: A Commentary on Judges and Ruth

A Commentary on Judges and Ruth by Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.

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Thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy! I received this book free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.

The question that is always asked when new commentaries appear is “Do we really need another commentary?” While at times I may be tempted to answer that question with a resound “NO!”, I quickly remind myself that interpretation of the biblical text is a complicated matter and with so many details to consider in any given text, it is always helpful to have different perspectives, if only different in minute ways.[1] One of the special challenges when dealing with biblical interpretation is that the fruit of said interpretation is often meant for the people of God, that they may benefit from the labors poured into the commentary. Of those who use commentaries, they typically fall into two categories and these depend on their level of training: those who need more technical commentaries, e.g., ICC, AB, WBC, and those who need/want less technical series, e.g., NICNT, Pillar, BECNT, NAC, etc. The dividing line between technical and non-technical commentaries is sometimes rather blurred (again, depending on the reader’s level of knowledge), but usually readers can decide fairly easily whether or not a commentary series or single volume is suitable for their purposes.

The Kregel Exegetical Library, which consists of a mere four volumes at present, represents yet another effort to bridge the gap that often exists between scholars and non-scholars. In this particular volume, noted OT scholar Bob Chisholm seeks to provide solid exegetical footing for those who will teach and preach the texts of Judges and Ruth by designing this volume “with pastors and teachers in mind” (13). But do not assume that Chisholm has skimped on the richness OT texts have to offer—far from it! Rather, Chisholm guides the reader through the difficult texts of these books and shows how the original audience would have understood them and how modern readers should understand and teach them. Chisholm provides the following questions that he states must be answered in the exposition of a text: what did it mean in its original ancient Israelite context, what theological principles emerge, and how is it relevant to the church? Reading through this volume one will see a number of features that guide the reader to this end.

The commentary begins predictably with an introductory section in which Chisholm orients the interpreter to the structure and primary themes of the book. Chisholm here covers issues that you would expect: literary themes, narrative structure, provenance, chronology, cultural context, and homiletical discussion. All together, nearly 100 pages (of the near 700 total) are devoted to these issues, so the interpretive ground is appropriately plowed before he gets to matters of the text. The commentary proper is well done and will find favor, not surprisingly with those who are more conservative in their theological bent, though Chisholm shows a deft hand when dealing with matters of ANE backgrounds and other pertinent factors. One of the things I appreciate about this commentary is the references to Hebrew are the actual terms, not transliterated forms as found in BECNT (which are unhelpful), for example. This, along with Chisholm’s grammatical-syntactical discussions (primarily relegated to the footnotes) will require knowledge of Hebrew in order to take full advantage of the commentary. This will likely dissuade some from referring to this work more frequently, but the overall quality of Chisholm’s work will certainly keep interpreters returning to its pages. As with Ross’ volumes in the series on the psalms (vol 1; vol 2), Chisholm’s contribution to the series shows that KEL will be a useful and quality series that pastors and students will want to keep at hand.

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[1] This does not imply that all commentaries are equal—indeed they are not!

Book Review: A Reader’s Lexicon of the Apostolic Fathers

A Reader’s Lexicon of the Apostolic Fathers, edited by Daniel B. Wallace, Brittany C. Burnette, and Terri Darby Moore

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Thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy! I received this book free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.

Dan Wallace (and his associates) have embarked on an ambitious trek, namely to provide students of the Apostolic Fathers a lexicon that serves to aid readers as they read and/or translate works of the Fathers. Having used the first in this series, Burer and Miller’s A New Reader’s Lexicon of the Greek New Testament with great benefit, I had the same expectations for Wallace’s addition. In short, if you’ve used Burer and Miller’s lexicon, you already know what to expect here.

First, a few preliminary notes of interest from the preface. This lexicon provides all vocabulary in the AF that occurs thirty times or less in the NT, thus serving not only to strengthen one’s vocabulary in the AF but also assisting with vocab from the NT as well. Also of note are the various lexical data provided. For example, the AF corpus is roughly half the size of the GNT, exactly 4,966 different words occur thirty times or less in the NT while the same list for the AF is 4,052, and the AF vocabulary “stock” is nearly eighty percent of that of the NT. A couple of other interesting facts: the most common word in the lexicon is πυργος, which occurs 148 times and the verse with the most vocabulary in the lexicon is Diognetus 7.2, which has thirty-four words. Obviously these are not the reasons one would purchase the lexicon. This lexicon’s value lay in the subsequent pages, which provide the necessary information to aid one in the task of translating the Greek fathers.

One of the aspects of this lexicon that I appreciate is the fact that the glosses provided are contextually derived. This, of course, does not obviate the need for further lexical work in order to determine the meaning in a more precise manner (when such is possible), but it serves as a more stable starting point. Rather than just providing a possible meaning, the editors have gone to great lengths to provide at least a more probable meaning. Naturally, many of their choices some will find disagreeable, and this is to be expected; however, their extra efforts will serve the reader/translator well.

Perhaps the only negative that becomes readily apparent is that which can be said for any reader’s lexical aid–it’s simply not practical to arrange all such data on a page in a way that makes simple reading more easily accomplished. By that I mean it’s rather tedious, at least initially, to have to stop and jump over to the lexicon in order to see what a word means. At the same time, one must bear in mind that such a lexicon should eventually serve as a minimally-used tool, assuming the reader will eventually possess such a vocabulary that only occasional consultation will be necessary. The layout, then, is not necessarily a fault or hindrance–it’s simply the nature of this kind of work. However, students of Greek who consult BDAG or LSJ know what a cumbersome task that can be and will likely rejoice that this volume has nowhere near the bulk of those volumes (understanding that those volumes serve a different purpose).

Without question, this volume will help readers of the AF bolster their Greek vocabulary, which in turn helps them in their work with the Greek NT. It will serve not only as aid to reading and translating, but also (hopefully) as a boon to further studies in the field. One can only hope that with two reader’s lexica under their belts, Kregel has more in the works.

Αυτω η δοξα

Book Review: Interpreting the Pauline Letters

Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook by John D. Harvey

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Thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy!

The number of books concerning Paul are seemingly without end. So, when a book of this sort is published, we may ask, “Do we really need another one?” I, for one, am typically glad that numerous books on a particular subject are published because no one person can say all that needs to be said.

Harvey’s book is a helpful volume that combines the task of digging into the world of the text and making the text understandable to us, the text of an alien culture. It’s divided into eight sections:

  1. The Genre of Paul’s Letters
  2. The Historical Background of Paul’s Letters
  3. The Theology of Paul’s Letters
  4. Preparing to Interpret Paul’s Letters
  5. Interpreting Passages in Paul’s Letters
  6. Communicating Passages in Paul’s Letters
  7. From Text to Sermon: Two Examples
  8. Selected Resources

In general, the book is well done and very informative. The first chapter discusses a number of issues concerning the genre of Paul’s letters, a helpful chapter that helps orient the reader to ancient letter writing and why it matters to interpretation. The second chapter on Paul’s historical background is not exactly light reading. Harvey meanders through the historical data in an effort to reconstruct a timeline on which to place Paul’s life and mission. This is a task that has occupied the pursuits of biblical scholars for centuries and Harvey ably navigates the difficult terrain. While some will doubtlessly disagree with some of his conclusions, but he is to be commended for the attention to detail he has given.

The chapter on Paul’s theology is more thematic than anything. Harvey makes no attempt to construct the theology of Paul (or even a theology), but rather a method, which he proposes to be antithetical in nature, particularly as it is conveyed through the Adam-Christ paradigm. He then spends a few pages discussing various themes that show up throughout the Pauline corpus. This is a helpful section in that it is concise enough to whet the appetite and (presumably!) prompt further study, yet does not pretend to answer all the questions that arise in such a study.

Chapter four primarily concerns textual issues–text criticism, grammar and syntax, and translation(s). Essentially, this chapter follows the dictum that before we can exegete the text, we  must establish the text. As some of you may/may not know, I am not a big fan of doing textual criticism, but I acknowledge its importance and am glad to see Harvey has given it a place of importance in the process of interpretation.

Chapter five delves into other necessary elements to exegesis: historical background, geography, and literary and theological analysis. Here Harvey shows the same skill as with the construction of a Pauline timeline–he ably guides the reader on a necessarily truncated survey of Paul’s world and the events that led to its shape.

The next two chapters put wheels on the work that the previous chapters have helped create. Harvey guides the reader through the process of crafting a sermon based on the hermeneutical process detailed in the preceding pages.

The final chapter is essentially an annotated bibliography, offering readers a snapshot of the numerous tools available for the work of interpretation.

In sum, Harvey has written a very helpful book that will be of benefit to all who read it, though it is aimed at interpreters who have had less formal training.

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Book Review: Charts on the Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul

Charts on the Life, Letters, and Theology of Paul by Lars Kierspel

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Thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy, which I received free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.

For many readers in the fields of theology and biblical studies, the juxtaposition of “charts” and “theology” in a book’s title may conjure images of elaborately composed end-times scenarios or depictions of history’s progression toward that end. Thankfully, we need not entertain such possibilities here, for Kierspel has done a fine job amassing a wealth of material and condensing it all into a single reference volume. In fact, it’s really rather stunning to consider how much work must have gone into this volume when you begin poring over its pages. While it’s a bit overextending to say that Kierspel has left no Pauline stone unturned, it’s not far from the truth to say that he has indeed surveyed the landscape that is Paul and has put together a map of sorts to help students navigate his eventful life.

This review was a bit of a challenge simply because Kierspel covers so much ground. Thankfully, he organizes the book into four main sections: Paul’s Background & Context, Paul’s Life & Ministry, Paul’s Letters, and Paul’s Theological Concepts.

In the first section, Kierspel covers the ever-important topics of Roman rule before and during Paul’s lifetime and the Judaisms before and during Paul’s life that have been the subject of intense study over the last several decades. Given this tendency to focus on Paul’s Jewish roots, it is a tad surprising to see that  Kierspel actually devotes a bit more space to Paul’s Greco-Roman context. That’s not to say that the Jewish culture in which Paul lived and preached is in any way diminished, but simply a statement of fact concerning the author’s choices.

The second section concerns Paul’s life and ministry and covers many important topics, including a chronology of Paul’s life, parallels between Paul and Acts, autobiographical information, a comparison of Paul’s conversion accounts, his missionary journeys, and a host of other geographical and historical information.

The third section concerns Paul’s letters and it is here that many will find perhaps the most useful collation of data. Kierspel charts 40+ topics related to the Pauline corpus, including introductory information for the disputed and undisputed letters of Paul, the issue of amanuenses, manuscripts, OT allusions, quotes, and parallels, hapax legomena and a handful of other entries.

The fourth section concerns the many theological concepts on which Paul wrote. This chapter, as was the third, was/is immensely helpful. As you should expect with book of charts, there are no elaborations or scholarly discussions here, at least not in the sense that you would find in a commentary or NT intro. These topics include various references to God, Christological concepts (humanity, divinity), pneumatology, sin, death, and judgment, soteriology, salvation metaphors (!), eschatology, and a variety of other theological topics.

Some will register their disagreements here and there, particularly with matters of dating (Paul’s missionary journeys, the dating of various epistles, etc.), which one should expect any time dates and timelines for historical figures and/or events are the subject of discussion. Some will also quibble with the discussion of various theological themes, as in whether or not Paul was as specific about a particular topic as perhaps Kierspel suggests. However, these minor issues aside, Kierspel has put together an immensely useful volume that will serve as a welcome guide for many. This book may be likened to a map, in a way, in that it provides a general orientation to the Apostle Paul in his primary contexts. This will be a great resource, particularly for those who need a quick reference to a particular detail about Paul’s life that perhaps had not been cemented in their memory.

Additionally, this volume will prove to be beyond handy for those who wish to study a particular letter, concept, or theme of Paul’s. With so many issues concisely covered and topically arranged, this will be a go-to guide.

This is a wonderful tool and I look forward to other volumes that Kregel has in the works!

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Book Review: Jesus the Messiah

Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King by Herbert W. Bateman, IV, Darrell L. Bock, and Gordon H. Johnston

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Thanks to the folks at Kregel for this review copy!

I have had the privilege of studying under both Gordon Johnston and Darrell Bock and both are truly gentleman and scholars. Naturally, when given the opportunity to review a book on which they (and Bateman) had collaborated, I jumped at it. I must say that this book met my expectations and will serve as the go-to guide for many when it comes to messianic expectation in Jewish and Christian literature.

Essentially this book covers three major literary corpora and how each demonstrates, in varying degrees, messianic expectation, promise, and fulfillment. Gordon Johnston tackles various texts from the Hebrew Bible, Herbert Bateman discusses the various messianic expectations recorded in intertestamental Jewish literature, and Darrell Bock tackles the NT teachings on Jesus as Messiah.

Though plenty of readers will find fault with interpretations presented throughout (a given for any book of this sort), I found the hermeneutical approach quite satisfying. There is a stereotype/stigma that attends books of this sort, i.e. that books about messianic issues written by evangelicals are predictable. Many may assume that the sections dealing with the Hebrew Bible and intertestamental literature will default to seeing Christ in every possible text so as to demonstrate the obvious presence of messianic expectation. I must say that such hyper-messianic readings of Jewish literature are off the mark, but you won’t find such a view here. While the authors obviously see messianic expectation in a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible and intertestamental literature, they don’t see it everywhere. They lay out their hermeneutical approach on pages 20-36, which I will not rehash here. The gist of the approach is that God revealed the Messiah via progressive revelation, even from the first of canonical literature. This is not to say that everything about the Messiah, particularly his identity, was revealed, but that there were glimpses that continually built over generations until the Jesus the Christ could be made known.

Permit me a lengthy quote by Bateman that describes the difference in their approach (pgs. 24-25).

Granted, our starting point is not unlike other approaches that acknowledge the value of Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) when discussing Messiah. Yet there is a difference. Many people today unfortunately fail to grapple with the human journey of discovery about “Messiah.” Many preachers who preach sermons about Jesus as the Messiah often over emphasize their theological system with limited or even no consideration of any progress of revelation in human history. Others may read the text historically, often looking exclusively to the long-term reality. But in their quest for a singular historical-contextual meaning throughout all of Scripture, they argue that what a First Testament human author said about Messiah equals that which is stated about Jesus the Messiah in the Second Testament. They tend to suggest that Jesus and the apostles assert that the Hebrew Scriptures testify directly and (or more importantly) exclusively about him. In their mind, the evangelists and epistolarists believe Moses foretold only the death of Jesus the Messiah; David foresaw only the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah; Isaiah predicted only Jesus’ ascension into glory; and that Abraham heard only the Gospel to the Gentiles preached to him. Thus, they stress the work of the divine author and thereby over emphasize an unambiguous continuity between the Testaments. The idea is that most or all of these texts need to be direct prophecies to work for Jesus being the messianic fulfillment in the way the Second Testament describes…We, however, will offer a slightly different approach. Granted, there is most certainly a link, but we will argue, just not a completely exclusive one. One of our goals is to argue that these texts do not need to be only direct prophecies for them to reveal a messianic connections and fulfillment in Jesus. Such an explicit-exclusive reading of the First Testament tends to ignore the complexities of Jewish history as well as God’s revelation and its progress. Such an explicit reading deprives us of historical information that ultimately helps us grasp what was going on in the lives of the Jewish people and what God’s revelation told them about their present and future. While a traditional approach argues for explicit predictions about Jesus, we suggest that while the wording is ultimately messianic, it is often more implicitly stated and becomes clearer only as the entirety of God’s portrait of messiah is eventually and fully disclosed, both by how the First Testament concludes and by what Jesus himself does to pull all the messianic pieces together.

I hate to quote things at such length, but this is the grid through which the texts in the book are read and it leads to a much more suitable interpretation than does a hyper-messianic reading mentioned earlier.

All in all, this is a superb book with little to fault. Again, as with any book (particularly those of an exegetical nature), there will be disagreements on this detail or that and I’ve chosen to leave that for others to discuss. Whatever disagreements you may find, I think most who read this, even those outside evangelical camps, will find a trove of exegetical treasure and plenty of food for thought.

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Book Review: From Eden to the New Jerusalem

From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology by T. Desmond Alexander 

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

Interest in biblical theology (hereafter BT) has been on the rise in recent years and a number of fine volumes have been published on the subject. One of those entries is T. Desmond Alexander’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology . One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that Alexander’s approach is hardly like most others. Rather than an introduction to the discipline of BT per se, it’s more an example of how one can do BT. There is no discussion of the history of the discipline, nor of what constitutes such—it’s simply a demonstration of one approach to BT.

He states that this book has its origins in a study he was doing on what Revelation 20-22 reveals about death and the afterlife. Using that study as a springboard, Alexander explores the meta-story of scripture from…end to beginning? Yes, Alexander puts it in reverse and explores the grand story of scripture by starting at the end—Revelation—and working back to Genesis. By that I mean that his study of Revelation 20-22 serves as a catalyst to study from the beginning—Genesis0—and work through the Bible, tracing the development of particular themes.

You should not expect, however, a detailed walkthrough of the whole Bible, but rather a thematic exploration that hits on some of the more central themes in Scripture, the temple motif in particular. Admittedly, I had reservations about this approach; however, Alexander capably accomplishes the purpose he set out to achieve in this book, which is to answer the questions “Why does the earth exist?” and “What is the purpose of human life?”

Having said this, it seemed a bit odd (initially) that Alexander would have entitled the book From Eden to the New Jerusalem.  Given his approach, shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Not really, because Alexander vacillates back and forth between the two canonical bookends and discusses not only how each serves to frame the biblical story, but how the temple motif figures into the intervening material. Obviously this is not an exhaustive discussion of the motif, but a survey to show at minimum how the temple, from the garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, is developed throughout the biblical story.

Overall, Alexander’s take on the meta-narrative of scripture is one with which I can mostly resonate. If someone wanted to know what my general take is on the big picture of scripture is, I would recommend this book. While I remain unconvinced that the whole of Scripture is bound by a single unifying concept or theme (Heilsgeschichte would be the most likely contender), Alexander ably answers the questions asked at the outset.

Though a few years old now, I gladly recommend this title, particularly if you are interested in biblical theology in general or the temple motif specifically. This book clocks in at only 208 pages (including bibliography and scripture index), so it will leave many questions unanswered or partially addressed. However, Alexander amply footnotes his discussion throughout. That and the bibliography should provide plenty of resources for additional study.

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Book Review: The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek

The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek: Grammar, Syntax, and Diagramming by Douglas S. Huffman

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This short review is part of Kregel’s blog tour for Huffman’s book. The blog tour is technically past; however, there was a mix-up and this volume was sent to my old address, thus delaying its arrival for several weeks. Thankfully, Kregel sent along another copy.

The title aptly describes the book’s function—it is a guide, not an exhaustive reference. Huffman states that this book is “for second-year Greek students, pastors, teachers, and preachers,” “will not replace grammar and syntax textbooks,” “to be less cumbersome  and more readily accessible” than “larger grammar and syntax books,” “presumes some of the basics of NT Greek,” and is “intended as a useful tool and ready reference.” There you have it—why this book was produced.

The book is broken down into three parts: 1) Greek Grammar Reminders, 2) Greek Syntax Summaries, and 3) Phrase Diagramming.

There is a lot to commend about this book. First, it’s concise, just as you would expect a “handy guide” to be (in contrast, for example, to Brill’s four-volume, 3,600+-page Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ringing in at a staggering $1,200). The Brill example was merely to highlight that when we hear terms like “handbook” or “guide,” most of the time we expect something compact, just what this book is. A “handy guide” must be useful. It must glean important information from other volumes and put it in a more accessible work and that’s exactly what you should expect from Huffman.

Second, and perhaps the primary draw of this book, there are helpful little hints here and there that help the reader recall/remember the function of a particular part of speech or a category into which some element of grammar falls. After all, it’s meant to help fairly new students of Greek recall and retain information they had previously studied. These are often found in standard grammars, but I was glad to see some of them here. For example, in the section dealing with the cases, Huffman provides alliterative descriptions associated with each case’s function.

  • Nominative – typically nominates the subject
  • Genitive – typically generates some description
  • Dative – typically names “to/for” whom an action is done, as in “dating”
  • Accusative – makes accusation about what the subject did
  • Vocative – vocalizes who being addressed

Admittedly, these are very simplified descriptions (and even I shortened what was in the book) and don’t draw out the nuances each case can embody, but again, this is a resource for review not advanced study.

Another feature that you don’t find in many Greek grammars is the section on diagramming. My first- and second-year Greek professors instilled the importance of diagramming in us (thankfully so–it’s a very useful exercise), so I can appreciate Huffman’s decision to include them here.

Third, this volume is portable. I didn’t realize it at first, but it’s virtually identical in terms of width and height of the standard editions of the Greek New Testament (NA28/UBS4). It’s like they were made for each other!

As you might expect, there are also charts and tables aplenty! What is a good book on Greek without the requisite tables and charts?!

Though I may only refer to this volume once in a while, I can still appreciate its usefulness. I remember one of the assignments I had for an advanced Greek class was to take Wallace’s advanced grammar and make a summary outline of it, every category and sub-category trimmed down to the essentials (I still have it). The reasoning was so that we would have a more accessible guide handy when working through a Greek text. It was a long and tedious assignment, but I used that condensed outline for some time after the class. This is essentially what Huffman has done, only not having drawn from a single source.

In sum, this is a wonderful little volume that should aid students who haven’t quite found their footing on the sometimes-treacherous terrain of Greek grammar. The book’s greatest strength (its conciseness) will likely be its greatest weakness for some; however, if one keeps in mind the purpose for which it was written, this little volume should serve many and serve them well.

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Book Review: True for You but Not For Me

True for You but Not For Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith by Paul Copan

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Thanks to the folks at Bethany House for this review copy!

I must admit from the start that I don’t typically enjoy reading apologetics and this book didn’t change that. That’s not necessarily a critique of the book, but of my own disposition toward the subject. Essentially, God needs no defenders; yet, the value in being able to dialogue with skeptics of varying stripes can’t be understated. So, I requested this book to see what he had to say about the multitude of objections that still being leveled against Christianity so that, in the event that I find myself in conversation with someone making these assertions, I might be better able to understand their position and respond appropriately.

Copan covers a broad range of typical objections to Christianity one might encounter. As I read through the chapters, some of them only a few pages long, I found myself treading very familiar territory. That is to say, Copan doesn’t really say anything that hasn’t been said before. There is nothing particularly novel here, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t helpful. It can be that, if one has not read widely on the subject. As I mentioned above, the reason I requested this book was more or less to reacquaint myself with some of the objections that may be raised in discussion of Christianity. It’s a helpful little volume and should I need a quick reference, it will serve me well. To that end, I would recommend this title to you. For those who live and breathe the subject, they will definitely want to swim in deeper waters.

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Book Review: Heaven and the Afterlife

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.

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[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)

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

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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