Top Five Reformedish Books of 2013

AD: I use Grammarly to check plagiarism because what if I go on the Janet Mefferd Show? 

Once again it is time for my annual “Top Five Reformedish Books” of the year. This is actually a horrible post to write. I read a lot of good books this year. Many of them deserve to be on Top Five book lists somewhere. For me, though, these particular five distinguished themselves. Now, unlike some other lists, I am not simply choosing from books published in 2013, but rather from ones that I’ve read in 2013. I am still catching up on 20 centuries of thought, you know. Well, without further ado, here they are:

death by livingDeath By Living: Life Was Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson – I’ve already reviewed this over at the Gospel Coalition where I said:

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond-imagining author of this ridiculously unexpected universe. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, as a sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow of eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

walking with GodWalking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller – I’ve read a number of books on the subject, especially in my undergrad in philosophy, and I have to say, it is going to be the new classic on the subject. Unlike other works on the subject, it is not only pastoral, or only philosophical, or only theological, but approaches the issue of suffering from all of these angles and more. Keller brings sociology, literature, theology, philosophy, and, of course, the Scriptures, to bear on the seemingly intractable burden of suffering and evil. I’ll go out on a limb and say this is his best book yet. Given that you and everyone you know will encounter pain and suffering in this world, everybody should go out and pick up this book.

people and placePeople and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology by Michael Horton – This is the fourth volume of Horton’s dogmatics examining traditional doctrinal loci from the standpoint of a retooled covenant theology. Building on the work of Farrow, Volf, and others, Horton offers an instructive treatment of the origin of the Church, the sacraments, the classic marks of the Church, and her mission in the world. Of course, eschatology figures prominently in the discussion, and there is an excellent discussion of Scripture and tradition towards the front-end. As always, Horton is in constant conversation with Roman Catholic ecclesiologies, Barth, Radical Orthodoxy, Stanley Grenz, and general Evangelicals setting up a clear, irenic, and charitable contrast. While some discussions are a bit thick for the non-specialist, I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the ecclesiological discussions of the day, especially if you’re looking for a Reformed account that can play alongside the big boys like Ratzinger (RC) and Ziziouslas (EO).

athanasius leithartAthanasius by Peter Leithart – I decided to get down to business and read Athanasius’ Four Discourses Against the Arians this year, so I picked up Leithart’s volume as a bit of a guide. As usual, I was not disappointed. Paying close attention to Athanasius’ metaphysical categories and scriptural exegesis, Leithart cleanly and clearly expounds the good bishops’ beautiful Trinitarian and Christological theology, bringing it into living conversation with theologians at work today. Not only is Leithart an able interpreter of Athanasius’ polemical and pastoral theology, he sets the discussion in lively account of his theo-political controversies. For anybody interested in Athanasius, or the conversation around the ‘theological interpretation’ of scripture, it’s a great place to take the plunge.

paul and the faithfulness of GodPaul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright – I’ve waited for this book for a few years now. While I’m only through the first volume (weighing in at 570 pages), I can safely say this is the Paul book of the decade. It will be impossible to write about Paul from now on without engaging Wright’s arguments in this sprawling masterpiece. Beyond that, what can I say? It is the most grossly comprehensive thing I’ve ever seen on the subject. It’s Wright at the height of his powers: asking the big questions, giving even bigger answers; setting Paul in his 1st Century context against various backgrounds (2nd Temple Judaism, Roman, Greek); engaging New Perspectives and Old Perspectives; telling stories and arguing for stories; close exegesis and sweeping overviews from 20,000 feet; actantial analyses for days. No, you don’t agree with everything he says, but that isn’t why you read Wright, now is it?

Honorable Mentions:

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor

The Word of God for the People of God by J. Todd Billings

Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Soli Deo Gloria

N.T. Wright’s Pro-Government Paul

GovernmentLet every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1, ESV)

While yesterday I highlighted some of the anti-imperial thrust of Paul’s eschatology, Wright doesn’t want us to get the wrong impression about his overall theology of governmental authority, or authority in general:

The present scholarly mood, which I understand and in a measure share, is all for finding points of conflict, for reading between Paul’s lines to see the way he implicitly and sometimes explicitly undermined the imperial rhetoric and religion that pervaded his world. Fair enough. Yet I believe that, in the last analysis, Paul did affirm the goodness, the God-givenness, of human structures of authority, even while at the same time undermining, through central aspects of his theology, the hubris, idolatry, blasphemy and other wickednesses which, as a Jew never mind a follower of Jesus, he associated with the arrogance and swagger of Rome. To say that a particular police force is riddled with corruption, racism or collusion with organized crime is not to say, ‘therefore we should not have a police force’. To say that the present imperial system encourages and sustains wickedness or folly of various sorts is not to say, ‘therefore we should have no human authorities.’. (The possibility of replacing an existing empire with some other system lies some way off the side of Paul’s page. In any case, we should not forget that when Rome acquired its empire – a long time before it acquired its monarchical empire – it was a proud republic whose office-holders, appointed by public votes, were accountable to public scrutiny.) The answer to corrupt authorities is not anarchy. Paul, once again as a good creational monotheist, would not suggest such a thing; that is what is underneath his strong affirmations so shocking to some liberal democrats, never mind some Anabaptists, in Romans 13.1-7. That is why the poem of Colossians 1.15-20 is so important. Creational monotheism entails a strong statement about the God-givenness of human structures, even while at the same time also indicating that the one God will hold office-holders to account.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pg. 381

Just because some governments are bad, that doesn’t mean that all government is bad; just because authority can be abused, that doesn’t mean that all authority must be rejected. No, within the sovereign purposes of God, there is a place for delegated authority to rule and order human societies and peoples. When we read Paul’s very real and important criticisms, implicit or explicit, of the existing power structures, we must not be drawn into thinking that all power structures are bad. They are accountable to God and will be judged for their arrogance and folly in going against the commands of God, but there is no suggestion that they shouldn’t exist at all (or, for that matter, that Christians have no business with them.)

In essence, here we have the pro-government Paul.

Soli Deo Gloria

Lewis Couldn’t Write About Aliens AND Centaurs — (Or, N.T. Wright on Pauline Authorship)

paul and the faithfulness of GodWhen I got to seminary, I found out a lot of people think Paul didn’t all the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Actually, it’s not just that some people don’t, but rather it’s the dominant position in non-conservative academia, and even many conservative scholars adopt it. The idea is that letters like Ephesians, Colossians, the Timothys, Titus, and 2 Thessalonians are later compositions, pseudepigraphal, either by an imposter, or a devoted disciple that claim Paul’s name and authority. Depending on how conservative you are, you might say that the earliest recipients would have, of course, known this, and so there really wasn’t fraud being committed, but rather this would have been seen as an acceptable instance of a very common practice. Or, you might just call it lying.

While I can’t get into all of the details, one of the main arguments against their authenticity is the alleged difference in style and vocabulary. When you compare and contrast the undisputed letters to the others, you apparently find different vocabularies employed, special terminology missing or in use, sentence construction and so forth.

Now, I have to admit, when it comes to the Pauline epistles, I’ve never found this sort of argumentation all that convincing. Actually, I said as much in a footnote in one of my papers in seminary:

I’ve never been very impressed with arguments like that. “Paul couldn’t have said this, because he never says this kind of thing, as far as we know.” But what if he just said it in the passage? Then it would be the kind of thing he would say. I find this to be especially problematic given the contextual nature of these letters. It strikes me as kind of like saying, C.S. Lewis couldn’t have written The Space Trilogy because he never talked about aliens in The Chronicles of Narnia and the former is written for adults and clearly the latter is for children. Or it’s like saying “Oh, Bob could never have talked about that with his girlfriend Gina. I know that because I know what he talks about with his mother.” Barring a demonstration of contradiction or of unacceptably different conceptual backgrounds, these arguments often-times are simply an elevated exercise in question-begging that don’t take seriously issue of the way contextual concerns dominate the theology of Paul’s letters and the topics he chooses to address.

Now, you could easily chalk that up to a young, conservative student’s incredulity towards disturbing scholarship. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that N.T. Wright agrees with me!

Wright dives into the issue of authorship in his first volume of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (yes, I started it and a couple hundred pages in it’s great) in order defend his use of Ephesians and Colossians as source material instead of simply sticking to the undisputed seven letters. While he has a fascinating section dealing with the theological motives in play for doubting the letters I’d love to get into (in the early days, the problem was that the general epistles sounded too “Catholic” for modern liberal Protestants to stomach, nowadays it’s more from postmodern egalitarians who don’t like what Paul has to say in the household codes),  it’s his short (for Wright) little section on the style issue that I found worth highlighting:

Arguments from style are clearly important in principle. But they are hard to make in practice. We have such a tiny sample of Paul’s writing, hardly an adequate database for definite conclusions about authorship. Those who have done computer analyses of Paul’s style come up with more ‘conservative’ results than we might have expected. In fact, if it’s stylistic differences we want, the most striking are, in my opinion, the radical differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians. The second letter to Corinth is much jerkier; its sentences are dense and convoluted, bending back on themselves, twisting to and fro with language about God, Jesus Christ, and Paul’s ministry. The organization of the material is much less crisp. There is a far greater difference between those two Corinthian letters that there is between Galatians and Romans on the one hand and Ephesians and Colossians on the other; yet nobody for that reason cast doubt on 2 Corinthians. As John A.T. Robinson pointed out from personal experience a generation ago, a busy church leader may well write in very different styles for different occasions and audiences. The same person can be working simultaneously on a large academic project with careful, ponderous sentences and a short, snappy talk for Sunday school. It has not be unknown for senior biblical scholars to write children’s fiction [in fn.135 …Among NT scholars who have written children’s fiction we might mention C.H. Dodd and R.J. Bauckham]. More directly to the point, it has recently been argued strikingly that Ephesians and Colossians show evidence of a deliberate ‘Asiatic’ style which Paul could easily have adopted for readers in Western Turkey. I regard the possibility of significant variation in Paul’s own style as much higher than the possibility that someone else, a companion or co-worker could achieve such a measure of similarity. Other historical examples of that genre do not encourage us to suppose they would have been so successful.

–Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. 1, pg. 60

So then, style matters, but it isn’t everything. If a NT scholar can write children’s lit, and someone as limited in range as me can write about epistemology and dating tips, then we ought to be wary about these sorts of judgments, when you’re dealing with a versatile thinker like Paul who’s doing ministry on multiple fronts across a series of decades.

And that’s just one of the dozens of nuggets worth sharing out of Wright’s PFG.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why I’m Excited About N.T. Wright’s Big New Book: Paul the OT Theologian, Greek Culture, and the Roman World

paul and the faithfulness of GodN.T. Wright is releasing his big book on Paul Paul and the Faithfulness of God in his ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ series. It’s so big, that, in fact, it’s two books on Paul, each of which could be two books (2 volumes weighing in at 1700 pages.) Now, of course, this is the only excuse that I’ll accept given how long he’s taken to write it (10 years since RSG). In any case, I’m beyond excited to read this beast for multiple reasons, but as I was scanning through the table of contents (posted online), I was reminded of one of the biggest reasons I love reading Wright: he refuses to limit Paul’s horizons. His first volume is a few hundred pages simply tracing NT background in multiple fronts: Greco-Roman philosophy, Rome, and the OT/2nd Temple Judaism. He doesn’t get to Paul’s theology proper until the second volume!

See, for some Pauline scholars it’s all about Greece. Paul is a Hellenized Jew who is engaging and appropriating language and thought from the world around him to speak of Christ to the Greeks. For others, it’s all about Rome, and Paul is preaching a serious, counter-imperial Gospel that cuts to the heart of Roman political culture. And still, for others, he is chiefly an OT theologian, transformed by Christ, who is engaged in demonstrating Jesus as the Jewish Messiah who fulfills all the prophecies and, bringing about reconciliation with the Gentiles. For Wright it’s about Paul the OT theologian, transformed by Christ, apostle to the Gentiles, engaging Rome, and the surrounding Hellenistic culture with the Gospel of Jesus.

‘Gospel’ Backgrounds: Isaiah or Rome?
You can see this approach at work in an article of his on the gospel in Galatians. He notes that typically, exegetes have wanted to understand Paul’s use of the word ‘gospel’ (euangelion) in relation one of two backgrounds: Isaiah or Rome. Wright notes that the approaches are favored usually either by those who see Paul primarily as a Jewish thinker, or a Hellenistic one, respectively.

Gospel in Isaiah
In the septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, the prophet Isaiah declares:

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings (ho euangelizomenos Zion);
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings (ho euangelizomenos Ierosaleme)
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’ (40.9)

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation.
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’. (52.7)

These passages talking about God returning to Zion as king, the return from Exile, the defeat of Israel’s enemies (Babylon, etc), and so forth. They are majestic passages of national hope that were taken up in the 2nd Temple period (Wright cites a number of texts here) as foretelling a future day of salvation and good news where God would return and become King in their midst. And, of course, it’s easy enough to see how Jesus fits in as the fulfillment of all of this.

Gospel in Rome
Of course, there’s a pretty good case to be made for the Roman context as well. To quote Wright directly and save myself some time:

In the Greek world, ‘euangelion‘ is a technical term for “news of victory”’. More specifically, it refers to the announcement of the birth or accession of an emperor. Not least at the time of Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor following a long period of civil war, the coming of a new ruler meant the promise of peace, a new start for the world:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. . . ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him. . .

In which case, you can see where the whole counter-imperial thing comes from. In this view, Paul’s gospel is: “These things are not true of Caesar, but of Jesus, the world’s true Lord, whose birth was real good news.”

Yes and Yes
Now, I’ll have to admit, both of these answers were tempting to me while I was younger. As a good Evangelical boy, I knew Jesus was the fulfillment of OT prophecy even if I hadn’t read too many of them. Then, when I was a bit older, all of the counter-Imperial stuff made a lot of historical sense as well, plus it sounded awesome. (I’ll just be honest, when you’re 20, being against Empire is sexy.) In fact, it’s what I favored most, until the last few years when I really started to see just how deep the Old Testament thread ran, especially with works by G.K. Beale and such. Not that I’d rejected seeing Paul’s gospel engaging with the wider thought-world, but it hasn’t been a focus.

Still, reviewing this passage reminded me of why I fell in love with Wright as an exegete and historian, and why I’m looking forward to this new book:

Which of these backgrounds, then, is the appropriate one against which to read the New Testament evidence? Is ‘the gospel’, for Paul, an Isaianic message or an Imperial proclamation? I suggest that the anti-thesis between the two is a false one, based on the spurious either-or that has misleadingly divided New Testament studies for many years

Yes, he just called out a false either/or (which is a great way to make me your fan) in NT studies, and moves on to a constructive solution that has the best of both worlds.

Wright pushes us to understand Paul as the OT theologian who takes the Gospel of Isaiah and uses it to answer the Gospel of Rome. He points out that the 2nd Temple Jews didn’t live in ‘water-tight’ worlds closed off from the surrounding cultures, nor the OT Jews for that matter. The Gospel of Isaiah was always about God’s true Kingship over and against the pagan rulers like Babylon, and later, for 2nd Temple thinkers, Greece and Rome. What’s more, the false bracketing between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that often underlay efforts to split the two backgrounds, makes no sense when Emperors and Kings are claiming divine honors.  Again, it was always about the Servant King who would come to conquer Israel’s enemies and reestablish God’s rule where the pagan pretenders were claiming what was his alone.

So, with that in mind, how much of a stretch is it to see Paul, the OT theologian and 2nd Temple thinker, applying the Gospel of Isaiah, in a fresh and Christ-centered way, to the Gospel of Rome? In other words, (and I think I’m stealing this from Wright), you have to imagine Paul with both feet planted firmly in the OT, staring out at the Greco-Roman world, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus the Lord promised to Israel to a world that thought it already had one.

As Wright puts it:

The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel’, the more it confronts directly the pretensions of the Imperial cult, and indeed all other paganisms whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’. It is because of Jewish monotheism that there can be ‘no king but god’…The all-embracing royal and religious claims of Caesar are directly challenged by the equally all-embracing claim of Israel’s god. To announce that YHWH is king is to announce that Caesar is not.

Basically Paul was saying, “You think your Caesar is the King who brings salvation? I’ve got real good news for you, one that’s been promised for ages, Jesus, the Servant King of Israel is the one whose rule brings true salvation.”

That works nicely doesn’t it?

Paul’s Gospel and Ours
This is part of why I like reading Wright on Paul. Despite my qualms, which are real enough, on what he has to say about justification, (I prefer Michael Bird’s Reformed-Hybrid view) he is still one of the most faithful, creative, thorough, and helpful exegetes of Paul out there. He gets that while Paul was an apostle called to deliver the Gospel with divine authority, he was still a genius who expounded it with great intricacy and care. What’s more, he’s not just a dry academic, but a churchman who wants to present pastors with a vision of how to preach this stuff. In a sense, his vision of Paul as OT theologian looking to proclaim the biblical Gospel of Jesus to the pagan world around him, helps him present Paul as a model for pastors looking to do the same thing today.

If you’d like to learn more about the upcoming book, I’d suggest this interview with Michael Bird and N.T. Wright.

Soli Deo Gloria