Monday, March 23, 2015

Review of "40 Questions About Creation and Evolution."

Here is a shocker: if a you write a book on creation and evolution you will make no one happy. By the mere mention of "creation" you have alienated all who hold to naturalistic evolution. If you hold to a literal seven day/24 hour creation, you will find yourself at odds with those who are more progressive thinkers. If you hold to theistic evolution you will find yourself at odds with fundamentalist Christianity.

In other words, if you write a book about creation and evolution, you are stacking the deck against yourself. So I give major props to authors Kenneth Keathley and Mark F. Rooker for writing a fairly large, fairly comprehensive work that covers 40 questions spanning the theology creation to questions on intelligent design. The work, entitled 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution, is not going to satisfy fact, it probably won't make a lot of people happy. Yet there are some real gems in this book that are waiting to be found.

There are some great chapter in this book. For instance chapter three on why the doctrine of creation is important and chapter four on creation in the grand narrative of the Bible I found incredibly helpful in locating the doctrine of creation in both systematic and biblical theology. Further, the authors provide some solid depth in their discussion on evolution without going too deep for most readers.

I have some concerns though. For one, probably the great challenge facing the traditional view of creation are the parallels that exist from other ANE material. Here is the dilemma: it seems that Israel basically functioned with a view of the cosmos, that while interesting and absolutely meaningful, cannot be considered "scientific." Authors like Robin Parry (in his great book The Biblical Cosmos) have spent a great deal of time showing how Israel largely functioned with the framework of the ANE while also transforming the mythological nature of those stories to reflect Yahweh.

The authors spend very little time interacting with perspective and quickly dismiss it. What limits the book is the authors lack of interaction with some of the "weather language" that can be found in the Psalms. It is clear from passages outside of Genesis that the Israelites did not follow what we call a "scientific" perspective. I also found puzzling their lack of interaction with major authors that deal with these issues.

I understand that in a book that is attempting to answer 40 different questions, you have to pick and choose what questions you deal with and with how much depth you can actually answer those questions. However, the challenge to me is NOT with evolution as much as it is identifying what Israel's cosmology was. That answer cannot be identified by only looking at Genesis 1-11. It must take into account all of the OT. 

This by far is one of the greatest weaknesses of the book. I think that the book CAN be helpful. I think the authors defend Young Earth Creationism well. However, I felt like I was simply reading a rehashing of old arguments that advance the discussion very little. That isn't to say that this is a bad work--just unmemorable and, unfortunately, already dated.

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

"40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law" Review

One of the thornier issues in biblical theology is the role of the Mosaic Covenant. A recent mega-church pastor stated from the pulpit that the Ten Commandments were no longer binding on believers and it caused quite the firestorm among Christians. Although the issue, in my mind, was overblown because of the pastors lack of precision in his words, it really highlights just how complicated of an issue the role of the law is.

Thankfully Thomas Schreiner, New Testament professor at Southern Seminary, is an extremely faithful and trustworthy guide to help interpreters navigate this problem. The book is divided into five parts. The first part deals with the law in the Old Testament. Part two (and the longest part of the book) deals with the law and Paul. Part three deals with the law and the Gospels and Acts. Part four deals with the law in the General epistles. Finally, part five deals with contemporary issues for Christians involving the law.

This book is a treasure trove of wisdom and exegetical insight. Schreiner writes in such an easy to understand tone and covers so much in this book. The book follows a question and response format, where questions like "What is the New Perspective on Paul and how should it be assessed" and "What does the word justify mean" are clearly answered.

I wish I had had this book while I was working on my undergraduate degree in biblical studies. It would have made my research in the area of Paul's thinking on the law so much easier. There is also an excellent annotated bibliography located at the end of the book to help those who are looking forward.

So what can you expect in terms of answers? Schreiner rejects "Covenant theology" and opts instead for "New Covenant Theology" which basically teaches that Christians are no longer under the Old Testament law (yes, that includes the Ten Commandments) but instead are under "the law of Christ." He defends this position quite well and I found him very convincing.

Are there any weaknesses in the book? The only one that I noticed was that Schreiner doesn't deal very extensively to Matthew 5:17-20 (which, to me, is one of the more difficult texts for the New Covenant Theology perspective). He does devote a chapter to Matthew's view of the law which I think accurately refutes the idea that the law is still binding on Christians. However, I really wish he would have spent more time breaking that particularly text down more.

So in conclusion, this book is fantastic. I would highly recommend this work for all pastors. It will help you sort through all sorts of difficulties and clarify the role of the law in the Bible. I would argue that you cannot truly understand the law apart from understanding the role of the law. This work functions as a great aid and guide for students of the Bible.

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

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Heresy and Orthodoxy in Early Christian Contexts: A Review

Scholars like Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels have brought to the masses the Bauer thesis. What is the Bauer thesis? In a nutshell, it is the theory advanced by German scholar Walter Bauer that states early Christianity was composed of multiple "orthodoxies"/"heresies." It was until later that the church at Rome established its dominant form of orthodoxy that destroyed all competitors. In this way, Bauer advanced the idea that there was no true orthodoxy. We should consider even gnostic forms of Christianity as acceptable. Therefore the history of Christianity is one of silencing different views.

So here is the deal: Bauer's thesis has been basically refuted on EVERY SINGLE point over the past century. The details of his argument just cannot sustain his reconstruction. However, the History Channel and Ehrman, Pagels and Karen Armstrong seem insistent on spreading this view as if it is fact. Because they write at a popular level, their views have really caught on. I have had a few of my students basically trumpet that view. "What is orthodoxy anyway," they ask rhetorically. What indeed...
Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis
Now, from Pickwick Publications comes Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis, a book dealing with refuting (again) the Bauer thesis. This work is composed by multiple authors, each dealing with early Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy. Some chapters include dealings on the apostolic father's understanding of orthodoxy, Montanism, heresiologist and more. The basic conclusion of all these studies can be summed up in the last argument:

"In a closing reflection for future trajectories of inquiry, the decisive issue does not seem to entail a historical discernment of precedence (which could theoretically vary by locale) or of plurality (which all scholars acknowledge in some form or manner) but of the possibility and nature of a focused normativity." (pg. 248)

Yes, there was diversity but there was always a consist stream of orthodoxy. To argue otherwise is to go against history and the New Testament texts. This book functions as a great refutation of Bauer/Ehrman's thinking.

That said, I wonder who this book was written for. It is too detailed and complex to be considered a "popular" level work. Those convinced of the Bauer thesis will not give much attention to this work since all the contributors are evangelicals. There have already been many works dealing with refuting Bauer's thesis so I don't feel like anything new is really presented here.

I guess the best part of this work is found in the fact that it brings most of the best arguments against Bauer's thesis together in one book. For that reason alone, I highly recommend this work. We live in a world that is skeptical of the truth of orthodoxy. Thus it is impossible to ignore this highly important book.

*Thanks to Pickwick publications for the free review copy which I received in exchange for a fair review*

Why the Bible is Weirder than you think....:A review of The Biblical Cosmos by Robin A. Parry

Robin A. Parry talks about those parts of the Old Testament in his new book The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim's Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible. What parts? The parts of the Bible that seem to indicate the authors believed in a flat earth, sea monsters and weird demons out in the desert. I'll be honest, I cannot remember a time in my undergraduate or graduate studies where I was given a truly biblical (non-apologetic) approach to these strange texts. So I approached this book with a great deal of excitement. I was not disappointed.

Product DetailsAfter a brief introduction to ancient views of cosmologies, the book dives into how the Bible views the ancient world. There are four parts to the book. Part one deals with how the Bible views the world. Here, Parry takes us through a tour of the Israelite view of the ocean, land, mountains, weather and sheol/hades.

Part two, takes us through a tour of how the Bible views the heavens. Here we get a view of the sky, stars, angels, archangels and more. I'll leave some of Parry's arguments to the end of the review. However, it is a fascinating section that deserves careful reading.

Part three, deals with how the cosmos is patterned upon the temple and how Jesus transforms the biblical cosmos. I absolutely loved how Jesus is shown to restore every single element of the cosmos through his life, death and resurrection. Parry finally presents a convincing case as to why Christ actually did travel to hades after death.

Finally, part four deals with how we can apply all this cosmological language to our every day life. Parry finds our ability to draw meaning from the metaphors. Metaphor allows us to see the cosmos as truly living (not in a pantheistic way). In this way we can adopt a spiritual hermeneutic (my term, not Parry's) when interpreting our surroundings. We can truly see a God entranced vision of all things (Parry's basic idea, not mine).

Why could Parry's book cause a stir? Here are some of my thoughts merged with Parry's thoughts:
  • Parry (while not overtly stating this) assumes that scientific explanations (read: theistic evolution) is not incompatible with Scripture's view of the cosmos. In other words, Parry assumes that the authors were not being literal in Genesis. It was part of their understanding of the cosmos. I am not sharing my stance on this issue. I am just saying that many upfront will discount Parry's book because of this issue.
  • It is clear that the authors of the Bible at least structured their thinking of the earth and heavens around ancient cosmologies. They were potentially doing this as an apologetic device, of course. In this way they could dialogue with surrounding cultures and simultaneous critique the polytheistic understanding of creation.
  • Even if the biblical authors DID have an incorrect understanding of the cosmos, that doesn't devalue or call into question the truthfulness of the Bible, according to Parry. The authors saw that God was the creator and that all of creation testified to his power. To expect the authors to have pinpoint scientific understanding of the world is unrealistic. I suppose (and this is my take away, not Parry's argument) if God did not even reveal with perfect clarity the Messiah in the Old Testament, why would he reveal with precision the nature of the cosmos? 
The book is well researched and easy to read. I really like the illustrations in the book (I found the one on how the cosmos were structured as a cylinder really helpful). There is some great humor throughout the work. It is an easy read and is absolutely loaded with biblical citations. I found the work in most cases EXTREMELY convincing. The main reason is that the entire argument is based off of actual ancient cosmologies. It makes the Bible both beautiful and exciting--full of depth and meaning.

I think this is an important work that serves as a great introduction to what biblical scholars have known for a long time--the world of the Bible is wacky, weird and really exciting.

*Thanks to Cascade Books for providing a free review copy of this work in exchange for a fair review*