Sundoulos - Spring 2011

Book Reviews

The Bible Story Handbook: A Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible

The Bible Story Handbook: A Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible

John H. Walton and Kim E. Walton. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. 448 pp. Paperback. $24.99.

Reviewed by Ken Way, Associate Professor of Bible Exposition

This short review is my ecstatic endorsement of an indispensable resource that every Bible teacher simply must have. John and Kim Walton have been mentors to my wife and me since the early 1990s, and my students at Talbot can attest to the fact that John’s scholarship is foundational in my own career and approach to the Bible. Additionally, John and Kim have been actively engaged for decades in developing and evaluating Sunday school curricula.

As the title indicates, this book gives advice to teachers concerning 175 Bible stories. Covering no less than 97 Old Testament stories and 78 New Testament stories, this book offers hermeneutical and pedagogical insights under the following headings for each story: Lesson Focus, Lesson Application, Biblical Context, Interpretational Issues in the Story, Background Information, and finally, Mistakes to Avoid. The “Lesson Focus” and “Lesson Application” sections briefly summarize the big idea and theological themes of the given story. “Biblical Context” basically sets the story within the meta-narrative of the biblical book and of the Bible as a whole. “Interpretational Issues” usually offers a few important exegetical insights. “Background Information” attempts to bridge the historical-cultural gap between the biblical and modern worlds. And the final section on “Mistakes to Avoid” is, personally speaking, my favorite part because the authors identify inappropriate tendencies that are commonly employed by Bible teachers. This final section draws on the results of the preceding sections and it is usually where their hermeneutical methods and pedagogical suggestions are made most explicit.

And speaking of hermeneutics, the authors offer a wonderful introduction to their book that addresses “Why Do We Teach Bible Stories?” “Is There a Right Way or a Wrong Way to Use Bible Stories?” and “The Big Picture of the Bible.” The first two sections offer a provocative discussion on the importance of practicing a theocentric hermeneutic and the role of biblical authority in the pedagogical process. The authors rightly warn about the dangers of setting up Bible characters as heroes or as behavioral role models. They also discuss the challenges of applying Bible stories in age-appropriate ways. The third section of the introduction offers a brief biblical theology that emphasizes the revelatory purpose of Scripture and the relational plan of God.

The book closes with some unusually helpful back matter. “Resources for Further Study” is an annotated list of recommended reference books, commentaries and children’s books. This is followed by a “Teaching Index” (topics indexed by lesson), a “Scripture Index” (again, by lesson), and a number of helpful maps and illustrations.

In short, the advice in this book is pure gold. The Bible Story Handbook is a “must buy” and “must read” for anyone who takes seriously the authority of Scripture and cares to consistently practice theocentric hermeneutics as they teach Bible stories in the church today.

The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything

The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything

Fred Sanders. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010; 256 pp., $17.99. 196 pages, $19.00

Reviewed by Rob Price, Assistant Professor of Theology

It could have turned out badly. Back in spring 2010 I decided sight unseen to assign Fred Sanders’s The Deep Things of God as a textbook in my fall Theology I class. The publisher said that the book should be available by mid-August. That’s about one week before the start of the semester. What if there were delays? And regardless of delays, what if the book showed up and was lousy? What would I tell my students?

Deep Things came through wonderfully, of course. (Anyone who knows Fred, theology professor at the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola, would have high expectations of his book.) My classes—two sections, over 60 students—loved it. Students found that it resonated with their personal experience, either their own questions and confusions about the doctrine of the Trinity or what they’ve encountered in people in their congregations. One student was inspired to write his research paper on John Flavel (1627-91), an English Puritan who makes an appearance in the book. Another taught from it in a Sunday school class at church. Another found that his homework assignments in the book had become devotional reading for him. He actually contacted Sanders to ask about translating the book into Samoan! Everyone was amazed at how clearly Sanders explains the deep things of God.

Fred Sanders is passionate about the doctrine of the Trinity. The problem is, we evangelicals typically are not. We know that God is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe it. But we don’t often know what to do with it. Ours is what Sanders calls a “tacit” or implicit trinitarianism. So one of Sanders’s basic tactics to get us passionate about the doctrine of the Trinity is to show us how it “changes everything”—everything that we are passionate about.

We are passionate, for example, about the forgiveness of sins, getting saved, being reconciled with God. We rejoice in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is “the main hinge on which religion turns” (Calvin). But what exactly is our justification for? We’re justified, and then what? It is no disparagement to the great doctrine of justification by faith alone to observe that justification is merely the means to an even greater end. That end, that goal, is our adoption by God (chapter 4). Indwelt by the Spirit, united to the Son, we are no longer enemies, but sons and daughters of the Father! You could call this the trajectory of the gospel—from the Spirit through the Son to the Father. We were once alienated from God, but are now brought by the Spirit, through the mediation of the Son, to participate as adopted children in the triune life of God.

We follow this same trajectory in something else we evangelicals are passionate about: prayer (chapter 7). Empowered by the Spirit, through the mediation of the Son, we call upon our heavenly Father (Romans 8). I don’t think I ever realized just how staggering a privilege prayer is until I read Sanders—that is, until I got more trinitarian in my understanding of prayer. Praying isn’t merely talking to God. To pray is to address the Father as only the Son may. To pray is to be lifted by the Spirit into the position of the Son. Nobody else gets to talk to the Father like that. Amazing. Amazing grace!

If you’ve never realized the trinitarian dimensions of the gospel, the life of Jesus, the reading of Scripture, or the practice of prayer, or if you want to be more evangelical, more biblical, in your walk with the Lord, I highly recommend Sanders’s book, at once learned and worshipful, systematic and practical, simple and profound. In case you’re wondering, it will be part of my Theology I classes at Talbot for the foreseeable future.

The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective

The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective

Michael Bird. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007. 230 pp.

Reviewed by Joe Hellerman, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature

Michael Bird is a prolific young evangelical NT scholar who has written several helpful academic books. This work represents Bird’s take on the New Perspective on Paul (NP). Those familiar with (and perhaps somewhat troubled by) the current polarization between the neo-Reformed camp (represented preeminently by John Piper) and the NP folks (e.g., N. T. Wright) will appreciate the mediating positions Bird adopts on the salient points of the debate.

Bird is thoroughly conversant with the scholarship on Paul (the book contains an excellent bibliography for further study), the author’s tone lacks the polemical edge of some recent treatments, and Bird discusses with clarity most of the important issues related to the NP.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between perspectives Old and New is their emphasis, respectively, on the vertical and horizontal aspects of Pauline soteriology. The Reformed camp highlights what Paul has to say about the individual’s relationship with God. In contrast, advocates of the NP generally view the uniting of Jew and Gentile in the new covenant community as central to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. Bird insists on keeping both in the mix, in order “to avoid these needless dichotomies between personal soteriology and corporate identity”(34).

I think Bird is right, and, for the most part, he admirably achieves his goal. There has been heated debated, for example, over whether “righteousness”language in the Hebrew Scriptures and LXX (from which Paul draws, of course) refers to “adherence to a norm”or “right relationship.”Bird finds both in the Bible: “In so far as righteousness relates to God’s people, the norm of righteousness is then provided by the covenant relationship so that there cannot be any strict bifurcation between a norm and a relationship”(12).

When he turns to Paul, Bird resists the position of those who see Paul in Romans and Galatians dealing almost exclusively in ahistorical, individualistic, soteriological terms (Mark Seifrid, for example). Bird also forcefully challenges those NP scholars, however, who downplay the universal nature of Paul’s gospel. The reader encounters throughout a judicious, commendable openness to the best of both “perspectives”on Paul.

In the course of his discussion, Bird carefully examines a number of key New Testament passages. I was delighted, for example, to find a detailed treatment of Romans 2:1-16 (Chapter 7) the very week I was preparing to preach on this text. This is where Paul, in his first use of “justification”language in Romans, states that “the doers of the law”“will be justified”(2:13). Bird (a) systematically unpacks five key options for interpreting this thorny passage, (b) offers a series of thoughtful “guidelines for a solution,”and then (c) judiciously applies his guidelines to the evidence at hand, in order to argue for his preferred interpretation of the passage (an interpretation which, by the way, persuaded this reviewer). Other important texts in Romans and Galatians receive similar treatment elsewhere in Bird’s monograph.

Neo-Reformed theologues will struggle the most with what Bird has to say, particularly where imputation is concerned. Bird acknowledges the legitimacy of framing imputation in traditional theological categories—for theologians, that is. He does not, however, think we can argue from the Bible that Christ’s righteousness—i.e., what we sometimes call “alien righteousness”—is imputed to the believer. Rather, Bird views imputation in participatory terms. We share in Christ’s righteousness because we are incorporated “in Christ.”Those who see imputation—traditionally conceived—as a watershed issue in the debate (e.g., Piper) will have a problem with Bird’s viewpoint. Those who do not will, of course, respond more positively.

A final “heads-up.” Some readers in our sound-bite culture will struggle with Bird’s prose. It is a bit dry and academic, particularly compared to some of the more recent, livelier contributions to the debate (e.g., Piper & Wright). Part of this has to do with the fact that Bird avoids polemics (commendable!), and polemics tend to engage the reader. But Bird also lacks the seasoned ability to spin off a brilliant turn-of-a-phrase here and there, an ability which (for example) renders Wright’s prose so delightfully engaging.

Readers who work their way through The Saving Righteousness of God will be rewarded with a rich and balanced treatment of an important and highly debated aspect of New Testament theology and interpretation. Bird’s monograph takes its place among a burgeoning mass of Pauline scholarship as one of the best current treatments of the topic. A recommended read!

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