Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Review of "The Beauty of the Triune God"

Jonathan Edwards has seen a resurgence lately, especially among those writing dissertations and for good reason. Edward's thoughts are rich and full of promise for theologians looking to navigate their way through our post-Christian age. In this vein, The Beauty of the Triune God: The Theological Aesthetics of Jonathan Edwards by Kin Yip Louie holds promise for those seeking to explore what a Christian theory of aesthetic might look like.

Louie admits that his work is largely descriptive and not proscriptive. He explores Edwards' thinking on beauty and metaphysics, God, Christ and eschatology. This to me is the strength of the book since we get to hear from Edwards himself. Rather than a critique of Edwards, I felt that Louie treated the material fairly...even some of the more difficult areas like hell. In essence, Edwards held that hell could be perceived as beautiful since God's justice was being done. This is admittedly a difficult pill to swallow and yet Louie, without fully accepting Edwards' stance, still manages to salvage some pearls from the discussion.

The weakest part of the book to me was the conclusion. After surveying so much beauty in Edwards, I was a little disappointed with the lapse into discussion of art and the cultural mandate and its relationship to postmodernism. To me, Edwards' conception of beauty has much more to say to those engaged in politics, media, architecture, design, church leadership, missionaries, city planners and more. Yet these areas were essentially unexplored and Louie disappointingly steers us back to a narrow conception of art and music. For a work as broad and wonderful as this, I just felt a little cheated at the end.

However, that shouldn't prevent you from read this work. I loved it. There are many quotable lines and many, many moments where you will go "Wow...that's awesome!" For a dissertation-turned-book, I can't think of much higher praise.

*Thanks to Pickwick Publications for providing the free review copy in exchange for a fair review*

A Review of "A Commentary on Exodus" by Duane A. Garrett

I'll admit I'm biased. Since I first encountered Kregel Exegetical Library's Old Testament commentary set, I have liked them a lot. I am also biased toward Duane A. Garrett who I think is one of the best conservative OT scholars alive. So when I heard that the two had teamed up to write a commentary on Exodus (one of my favorite OT books), I was hooked. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I am going to go make a very bold statement up front: I think that Duane Garrett's commentary on Exodus is the best available conservative commentary on Exodus right now. 

Let's begin with the structure of the series. Each section of scripture is outlined in Hebrew with plenty of textual footnotes. Then, commentary is provided on the actual text. Finally, each section is recapped with a theological summary of the text. The typeset of the work is attractive and is altogether NOT like the WBC series which is a strain on the eyes.

On to the work itself. After an extended introduction (coming in at a whopping 150 pages), Garrett begins to dissect the text. I could cover a myriad of issues here but I will just give you one example where Garrett does a fine job with the text.

Exodus 4:18-26 is an extremely odd and baffling text. Why was God seeking to kill Moses? Why did Zipporah say, "You are my hatan damim?" There is unquestionably a lot going on here. Garrett devotes 12 pages to this issue. He (rightly) points out that the Hebrew does not specify that God was seeking to kill Moses but rather "him." He further points out that damim has nothing to do with murder but simply blood ritual in circumcision. To summarize, Garrett states, "We might, therefore, suggest the following reconstruction of the story behind this text. Moses and Zipporah set out for Egypt. Along the way, their son suddely became deathly ill. Zipporah recognized that the boy needed to be circumcised, and she did the act with a flint knife...After the removal of the foreskin, she ritually touched the boy's feet (or genitals) with her hand or the flint while saying, 'You are hatan damim to me' (a member of my community by virtue of the blood of circumcision." (pg. 230)

How one might apply this text in preaching is probably even more baffling. Thankfully, Garrett gives us a way forward in his theological summary section by connecting it to Christ (no weird typology here) and to spiritual wisdom and being a part of God's people. There is nothing forced here (I won't give away how he connects these ideas together) and it really does give us a beautiful picture of Jesus.

Overall, I cannot recommend this commentary enough. It is worth the price and is a fine commentary and the best conservative commentary on Exodus.

*Thanks to Kregal publishing for providing a free review copy of this work in exchange for a fair review*

Review of "Atonement, Law and Justice."

Atonement, Law and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts by Adonis Vidu is a dense work that seeks to explore how atonement theory has been understood throughout various cultures. What Vidu especially seeks to demonstrate is how understanding of the role of law and punishment in society affected a theology of the cross and vice versa.

Vidu accomplishes this by going through the thinking of the Patristics, Medieval theologians, Reformation theologians, Modern (or Enlightment) thinkers, and Postmodern thinkers. He normally highlights the thinking of the most influential thinkers and draws parallels to thinking about the role of judges, punishment and retribution in society at that time.

He concludes at the end of this massive study that the doctrine of divine simplicity is needed in order to recapture the heart of penal substitution. Since all of God's attributes are perfectly aligned (balanced? I am not sure a good word for this), we must not construe God as either more or less loving at the cross.

In one of my favorite quotes from the book, Vidu states "First, simplicity dictates that no matter what solution we come to on the issue of hell, we must not construe God as less loving, more just than loving, Second, theologically, the doctrine of simplicity helps us to say that, although God is fully present in all the majesty of his attributes, in each divine action, given the contingencies of the circumstances of those actions, certain traits are more easily recognizable by human selves." (Loc. 5411)

There lies the heart of this book. Vidu seeks to reestablish the doctrine of penal substitution by reminding the reader of a very old doctrine, the doctrine of simplicity. I love that! I love how Vidu draws his massive study together and places it squarely here. I couldn't agree more. Again and again, Vidu demonstrates how by simply reminding ourselves how God is balanced in all he does, we can regain a healthy understanding of the atonement.

However, I cannot recommend this work for everyone. It is a tough, tough read. It is nuanced, and one must have a firm grasp on atonement theory as well as legal theory. I am rusty on legal theory throughout history so this made the work extremely trying to read. It is heavily footnoted and thorough. It reads like a dissertation.

Keep in mind, however, that as far as a historical work on the atonement goes, I think this is a winner. His chapters on the Pastristic thinkers and Reformation thinkers were great. It is a necessary work for those engaged in historical theology to read. For the pastor (or those with limited time), read the last chapter where Vidu essentially recaps his entire book and begins constructing his argument. It is a great chapter and boils the whole work down well.

*Thanks to Baker Academic for providing a free review copy of this work in exchange for a fair review.*

Review of "Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker" by Andrew Root

I was a youth pastor from the age of 19 to the age of 24. During that time I estimate I read 30 to 40 books on youth ministry. Out of that number, I probably found about four or five of them to be actually helpful. Most of them were centered on pragmatic aspects of reaching youth, developing your speaking skills, and make your youth ministry more dynamic.

So I tried doing that. I tried designing a killer youth ministry in one of my first pastorates and it was an epic flop. We spent a lot of money on designing a youth room that would attract students, only to see students shift away from the youth ministry. I was baffled. I took it personally. It haunted me.

It was only at my next youth pastorate that I said, "Look, let's keep this simple. Love students. Teach the Bible. Reach out to others." We had almost no budget. We met in an old house (that was kind of scary). But you know what? We had community. We saw growth. It was amazing. It was like a gigantic family coming together. I have fond memories of my time as youth pastor there. More importantly, however, were the lessons I took away from that experience. Theology and relationship must play a dynamic role in youth ministry or it will die.

Which is why when I saw Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together by Andrew Root, I was excited to review it. Full disclosure: I had not read much of Bonhoeffer prior to this book (a few excerpts and a few pages of his Ethics). So I was for a pleasant surprise that I had an ally in youth ministry I never knew about. I only wish I had had this book when I was a youth pastor. It would have quieted my mind on many sleepless nights when pondering if I was doing the right thing!

This is an odd book on youth ministry because Root takes you through Bonhoeffer's life (focusing particularly on his work with youth) and helps the youth pastor see ways to incorporate a deeper theological vision for his youth ministry. What you will not find in this book is a list of "how-to's" or "if you only do this you will see your youth ministry grow!"

Root argues instead for giving students space to figure out their theological convictions. We must be theologically adept and yet driven by truly being present (emotionally and spiritually) for students. We are not to adopt the position of guru but theological journeymen, where we come alongside students and guide them toward God.

The best chapter (and worth the price of the book alone) is "Eight Theses on Youth Work" where he outlines Bonhoeffer's eight main ideas concerning youth. Without giving them away, I felt that they were pregnant with philosophical issues that could easily be made practical. It was the most highlighted section of the book (for me) and one that I think is absolutely essential reading.

Are there areas of weakness that prevent this from being a five-star book? Yeah. There were a few chapters where I was left thinking, "So what?" When I finished the book, I was also left struggling on how to articulate some of the main points in it. I think this is more due to the nature of Bonhoeffer's thought than Andrew Root's writing though. The footnotes on some of the more esoteric discussions I found helpful. Also, I think the biographical nature of the book tends to overwhelm Root's discussion on youth ministry. I was looking for more of that and, unfortunately, I tended to get more biography. Finally, I found Root's own thinking on how we are to guide students theologically to be a bit ambiguous. I think Root purpo

These are minor quibbles, of course. The work is excellent itself. Part biography, part work on youth ministry Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker is must reading for anyone involved in youth ministry. Even in areas where I disagree with Root, I love the overarching ideas presented. It is well worth a careful reading (or two)!

*Thanks to Baker Academic for providing me a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Jesus and the Cross: Necessity, Meaning, and Atonement Review

Systematic theology and and historical investigation don't seem to be friends. Systematic theology likes to call up historical investigation and talk about doctrine, philosophy, application and other stuff. Meanwhile, historical investigation is all like, "Hey dude, why can't we ground this in reality? No one cares what you think the Bible is saying. We aren't really even sure what the author's intent was."

It's sad because I think the two could get along really well if they just hung out a bit more. They both have something to offer. Thankfully, Peter Laughlin thinks so too and has written a really good book merging the two fields together exploring their relationship to the atonement. The book, Jesus and the Cross: Necessity, Meaning and Atonement attempts to cover a lot of ground by exploring why the atonement was necessary, whether divine violence is approved of at the cross, how the cross relates to the problem of evil and Jesus' own intention in his ministry. Whew!

Part philosophical, part theological and part historical? I love it! It makes for a really engaging read. There are some fascinating ideas that Laughlin explores (the origins of evil are unexplainable because they are literally irrational) and wonderful (God invests meaning into the death of Christ). I also like how Laughlin seeks to synthesize modern thinking about the historical Jesus with theology. His conclusion is that much modern thinking about Jesus fails to reconcile what Jesus actually taught about evil and his death.

So what you end up with is a creative, orthodox synthesis of the best of modern scholarship.

My only beef in all honesty is how Laughlin seems to discount penal substitution upfront. I was expecting this and it is unfortunate. He seems to offer what amounts to a Christus victor model, which I am ok with. However, I still think it is unnecessary to choose which model we want. I think most models of the atonement can be best friends.

So it would seem that Laughlin has sat down with systematic theology and historical investigation and attempted to reconcile their differences. I think he succeeds and I also think he demonstrates an excellent model of how theology should be done (especially in light of Wright's historical work on the gospels).

This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

*Thanks to Pickwick publishing for providing me this free review copy in exchange for an unbiased review*