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Review: The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing

30259200Jonathan T. Pennington is associate professor of New Testament Interpretation and director of research doctoral studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Pennington received a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Along with numerous articles, Pennington is the author of Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew and Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, and works on both Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. Most recently, Pennington has written a theological commentary that provides a fresh approach to the Sermon on the Mount that is both contextually informed and practically concerned with application in the Christian life.

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary is strategically divided into three major parts: (1) Orientation, (2) Commentary, and (3) Theological Reflection. In the introduction, Pennington surveys the history of interpretation and positions the reader to better recognize the overall strategy of his approach. As Pennington acknowledges, the entire purpose of the book is to wrestle with one, single question: What is the Sermon really saying theologically and practically? (p. 14). In Part One, Pennington familiarizes the reader with the interpretive lenses used throughout the second and third parts of the book. Pennington positions the Sermon as a Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation (p. 15). Contextually, Pennington rightly positions the Sermon within the crossroads of Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition, and spends a fair amount of time detailing how such a crossroad influences the language therein—especially terms such as Makarios (“Flourishing” or “blessed”), Teleios (“whole/complete” or “perfect”), and others. In Part Two, Pennington applies his interpretive lenses to the text of the Sermon and offers a section-by-section commentary on Matthew 5:1-8:1. In Part Three, Pennington brings the entire book to a practical point of digestion and offers six “theological assertions [or theses] that seek to pull together several threads and themes to construct a theology of human flourishing rooted in the Sermon” (p. 290). The book closes with an author index and a Scripture and ancient writings index for reference use.

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing is both convincing and engaging. Pennington is judicious and detailed, but also clear and accessible. A few observations need to be mentioning here. First, and probably foremost, those not familiar with a theological approach to the Bible will need to read Part One before moving into the commentary proper. This is not to say that readers cannot delve into the commentary without reading Part One, rather that much of what is developed in the commentary is further implications from that previously established. It should be a necessary start point for most. Second, Pennington’s lexical exploration on Makarios and Teleios was not only convincing (I can almost guarantee that you won’t read the Sermon the same again), but it was a superb example and demonstration of how to do such work properly. The keen reader will not only glean from Pennington’s conclusion, but thereafter will do well if they imitate his methodology. Lastly, though some readers may at points disagree with Pennington, it is nearly impossible to see how such disagreement could detract from the value of his willingness to follow the text and establish the Sermon as “an eschatological, Christ-centered, kingdom-oriented piece of wisdom literature with roots in the Jewish Scriptures that invites hearers into human flourishing through faith-based virtue, expressed in language that overlaps with other first-century moral philosophies” (p. 289). Pennington is careful and honest, and does much to help the reader recognize the benefit of reading the Sermon through theological lenses.

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary by Jonathan T. Pennington is a remarkable, theological exploration into one of the most important passages of the New Testament. Pennington is familiar with the history of interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and his expertise in the Gospels provides a solid foundation for the work produced here. Pennington is insightful, engaging, and informed. If you can only own a single book on the Sermon on the Mount, please, let it be this one! It comes strongly recommended and will be used often.

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Review: Exile: A Conversation with N. T. Wright

61CntzMDAbLExile: A Conversation with N. T. Wright edited by James M. Scott brings together 11 scholars from various academic backgrounds and disciplines to interact and engage with a controversial aspect of Wright’s New Testament worldview—an ongoing narrative of exile that underlines the heartbeat of the Second Temple period. Wright has expressed this topic in various forums and has developed it at length in a number of his books, including the magisterial two volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress Press, 2013).

The essays that comprise Exile are mostly edited and expanded from an engagement at Trinity Western University in November 2010. The volume opens with a sizable essay (60 pages) by Wright. This is the lead essay of which the contributing scholars will interact with and engage in the many pages that follow. The book is divided into four parts: (1) Old Testament/Hebrew Bible/Septuagint with essays by Walter Brueggemann, Robert J. V. Hiebert, and Jörn Kiefer; (2) Early Judaism with essays by Philip Alexander, Robert Kugler, and Dorothy M. Peters; (3) New Testament with essays by Scot McKnight, S. A. Cummins, and Timo Eskola; and (4) Theology with essays by Hans Boersma and Ephraim Radner. The volume appropriately gives Wright the final word and includes another sizeable essay in response to the collective work of the above scholars.

Wright’s work is notoriously witty and dense with complexity. The opening essay was a well-articulated and refreshing (re)affirmation of Wright’s exile thesis. The scope of the essay is quite breathtaking given the space, and Wright takes full advantage of the opportunity to explain his case. Wright’s claim isn’t that all Jews believed they were still in exile, but that some did, and Jesus and his followers picked up this belief as a chief resolution of the gospel message. In short, this essay is an essential starting point for both acquainted and non-acquainted readers. Wright has boiled down a lot of thought into these pages, and each and every word matters greatly for the road ahead. The engagement that follows is what many would expect from a multi-authored work, but the overall sense of argument and tone of the book is clear and pointed. The goal of the volume is to further the conversation, and this it most certainly accomplishes. The standout essays include “Not All Gloom and Doom: Positive Interpretations of Exile and Diaspora in the Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism” by Jörn Kiefer, “Exile to the Land: N. T. Wright’s Exile Theory as Organic to Judaism” by Scot McKnight, and all three essays on early Judaism.

Exile: A Conversation with N. T. Wright edited by James M. Scott demonstrates how academic dialog should be given and received. As Wright closes, “these eleven essays, in their different ways, have done what academic conversation ought to do: that is, they have compelled me to think through once more what exactly I have been wanting to say, and (I hope) how to say it more sharply” (p. 332). The only shortcoming of this volume is that some of the contributors assume a certain level of knowledge that some readers may not possess. But, most readers that are picking up a book with such title should know the journey they are about to embark on. It accomplishes its goal of furthering the conversation and I am excited to see where this volume takes us. One can only hope that it’s out of Exile. It comes highly recommended!

Curious? NIV Faithlife Study Bible

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Curiosity ignites a fire that both informs faith and encourages spiritual growth. There are several ways to feed this curiosity within the Christian life, but few are more impactful than uncovering new or previously unnoticed insights into the Bible. For those who study the Bible often it is easy to find yourself in a dangerous place when it comes to keeping this flame of curiosity alit. There is no easy or one-size solution to remedy this situation, but a well-rounded Study Bible such as the new NIV Faithlife Study Bible can provide an excellent point of engagement to kindle this flame. Let me tell you about a recent encounter I had with a well-known passage in the book of Hebrews.

The book of Hebrews contains five major warning passages against apostasy (2:1–4; 4:12–13; 6:4–6; 10:26–31; 12:25–29). These warnings are scattered throughout the landscape of the book and all of them, except for 6:4-6, appear to be intrinsically tied to an Old Testament allusion or quotation. Here is where curiosity set in and a flame was lit. Given the consistency of the pattern found in the other warning passages, does it make sense to look for a similar type of pattern in 6:4-6? Moreover, if such pattern were present in 6:4-6, would it impact the current wave of theological conversation surrounding the passage? With these questions in hand, I began to survey what commentaries were saying with almost no success. I knew there was a chance that I was off track, but the pattern seemed too strong to simply disregard. As curiosity carried on and I turned to the NIV Faithlife Study Bible, I was pleasantly surprised by my discovery. Not only did it confirm my curiosity, but it opened a door to further insights of exploration.

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There are at least three features of the NIV Faithlife Study Bible that distinguish it from other Study Bibles on the market and position it for readers motivated to stay curious about the Bible. First, and probably foremost, because a Study Bible is only as good as those who contribute, the list of contributors is both impressive and wide-ranging, including scholars such as Michael Bird and William Varner, and best-selling authors such as Randy Alcorn and Charles Stanley. This balance brings both academic and pastoral considerations to the forefront of the reader’s minds. Second, the visual appeal of the NIV Faithlife Study Bible is unlike any other Study Bible available today. Readers will be met with beautiful full-color maps, timelines, tables, infographics (example above), etc. This aspect alone should activate the reader’s curiosity, especially the family-tree diagrams. Third, the level of depth provided in the introductions, articles, and notes offer an unparalleled experience.

No matter where you are in your faith journey, the new NIV Faithlife Study Bible has something exciting for everyone. It will keep your interest near and engage your heart as you continue to discover God’s word. Stay curious. There’s always more to explore.

Review: Biblical Theology

30010115John Goldingay is David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including An Introduction to the Old Testament, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, the three-volume Old Testament Theology, and many more. Most recently, in Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures, John Goldingay has uniquely navigated across canonical lines and produced a biblical theology that both encapsulates the grand narrative of the Bible while simultaneously transcending traditional theological categories.

Biblical Theology is a sizable tome, covering over 600 pages and divided into eight major sections: (1) God’s Person, (2) God’s Insight, (3) God’s Creation, (4) God’s Reign, (5) God’s Anointed, (6) God’s Children, (7) God’s Expectations, and (8) God’s Triumph. The keen reader will be able to detect the close parallel between Goldingay’s major category organization and that of classic systematic approaches to theology. That said, it is quickly visible that Goldingay has sought to venture off the beaten path to pave his own way. Those previously acquainted with Goldingay will be met with his familiar wit and lucid writing style as he reframes the conversation towards an understanding of God and the world as it effortlessly emerges from within the Christian Scriptures (p. 13).

Where I think Goldingay shines in this volume is in his willingness to allow the text of the Old and New Testament to speak for itself. Goldingay avoids trying to unnaturally harmonize tensions within the text, and instead seems to intentionally allow them to remain unresolved. I found this to be refreshing at times and frustrating at others. It is also here I presume that Goldingay is going to find himself in a familiar place with many conservative evangelicals. Among other things, this seemingly intentional ambiguity is most recognizable in Goldingay’s omission of an affirmation of penal substitutionary atonement (p. 332). It is here, and his comments on justification, that will likely generate the primary buzz within the ears of readers committed to traditional categories of Protestant Christianity (myself included)—none of which will detract from the usefulness or brilliance of this volume.

Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures by John Goldingay is a masterpiece of excellence and a new benchmark in the arena of biblical/theological studies. Goldingay has an uncanny ability to keep his eye focused on the bigger picture of the Bible as he brilliantly unpacks a compelling portrait of the God revealed therein. While Biblical Theology is a large and somewhat intimidating book, Goldingay is accessible and easy to read. There will be some inevitable areas of disagreement along the way for many readers. That said, for most of those looking to engage with this volume, such points of disagreement are likely to be known by virtue of its author. Biblical Theology is a unique and praiseworthy work that merits the widest readership possible. If it hasn’t found its way on to your 2017 reading list yet, it should!

Review: Ephesians (SOGBC)

33288691The Story of God Bible Commentary is an exciting and practical series that seeks to explain the Bible in light of the grand story of the biblical narrative. The editors and contributors for this series are top-tier scholars and pastors with seasoned insight and experience into the world of biblical interpretation and proclamation—making this series an attractive addition to the pastor’s library.

Ephesians by Mark D. Roberts is a welcomed addition to the series. Roberts is a brilliant man. With nearly two decades of pastoral ministry and three degrees from Harvard University, Roberts is well positioned for the focus on this series, and the results are noticeable. The commentary opens with a brief introduction to Ephesians, including comments surrounding some of the distinctive features of the letter, context and purpose, etc. Still, like other volumes in the series the introduction is rather lackluster, and those looking for introductory material will likely need to look elsewhere. This isn’t Robert’s fault. It’s simply the nature of the series. That said, Roberts does affirm the traditional Pauline authorship of the epistle and rightly encourages readers to interact with the letter itself as the best form of introduction.

As the commentary proper opens the reader is guided passage-by-passage through three major sections: (1) LISTEN to the Story—includes the NIV translation with additional references to encourage the reader to hear the story within its broader biblical context, (2) EXPLAIN the Story—explores and illuminates each passage within its canonical and historical setting, and (3) LIVE the Story—reflects how each passage can be lived today and includes contemporary stories and illustration to aid teachers, preachers, and beyond.

When issues arise where theological/interpretive disagreements are inevitable (i.e. Eph. 1:3-10; Eph. 2:1-10; etc.), Roberts does an exceptional job steering the concerns towards the purpose of the letter. In this respect, Roberts exemplifies how to handle the text in a corporate setting. Not that these issues are insignificant or irrelevant, but the primary purpose of the passage isn’t always to bog down into the theological weeds. That said, Roberts generally provides a few words about such issues (without overtly taking sides) and moves forward towards the goal. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest aspects of Robert’s work here, and it will inevitably prove useful for the target audience of the series.

The Story of God Bible Commentary: Ephesians by Mark D. Roberts is a unique contribution that offers a unified presentation of one of the most theologically significant Pauline epistles. Roberts is well-informed and easy to read, and any lack of distinctive interpretive contribution is made up for in his keen ability to keep sight of the whole amid the details. This is a worthwhile read if you are studying Ephesians. It comes highly recommended!

Review: Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

28147335Richard A. Taylor is Senior Professor of Old Testament Studies and Director of the PhD program at Dallas Theological Seminary. Taylor received PhDs from Bob Jones University and the Catholic University of America and has published in both Bibliotheca Sacra and JETS. His previous publications include a commentary on Haggai in the New American Commentary series. Most recently, Taylor published an interpretive guide to the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament in the widely praised Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series by Kregel Academic.

Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook begins with a 20-page introduction to the genre of apocalyptic literature, including the distinctiveness of apocalyptic literature as a genre and various definitions related to the task of grasping apocalyptic literature in general. Taylor defines apocalyptic literature as “written expression of the emphasis that characterize apocalyptic communities, whether found in stand alone compositions known as apocalypses or in sections of material assimilated into other genres of literature” (p. 36). Taylor addresses the major themes in apocalyptic literature and covers a wide sample of representative text, including both biblical and extrabiblical material. Most of the book is spent equipping the reader with the tools for preparation, interpretation, and the proclamation of apocalyptic literature, specifically where such is discovered in the Old Testament. Lastly, Taylor offers a sample of his interpretive methods and uses Daniel and Joel as test cases.

There is much to be praised by Taylor’s work here. First, and probably foremost, the simple fact that he wrote the book is to be commended. Apocalyptic literature is a difficult genre that either gets mishandled or overlooked. Taylor has not only offered a framework for understanding this obscure genre, but he has made that framework exciting. Second, Taylor went beyond the canonical borders of the Old Testament and provided readers with a wider understanding of apocalyptic literature in general. Taylor demonstrates that the genre of apocalypses was both more widely used and better understood in the ancient world, and thus, guides the readers to that world as he surveys characteristics of related documents. Finally, the bibliographical material provided throughout the preparation, interpretation, and proclamation sections is invaluable. The keen reader wishing to build a useful library will harvest much from Taylor’s recommendations.

Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook by Richard A. Taylor is a unique and important work. Taylor informs both mind and heart on how to do proper exegesis of this obscure genre. Students, pastors, and teachers struggling to provide contemporary relevance to the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament will do well consulting this volume. It’s an essential exegetical resource that will become a standard for many years to come. It will be on a syllabus near you soon, so you might as well be proactive and get started now! Trust me. It will pay off dividends in no time!