Book Review: The Lost World of the Canaanite Conquest

The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest
John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton
IVP Academic, 2017. 269pp.

In the world of oft-retreaded and wearying debates, the discussion of Old Testament violence done in God’s name is high on my list of over-discussed and over-obsessed topics. Maybe I am a little tired of the topic because I found Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God to be a huge let-down. I have heard that another recent release, Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, has made an attempt to advance a thesis that would tag-on to Boyd’s nicely. There are even rumblings in the anti-atonement camp (those who reject the concept of God’s wrath being poured out upon His Son) of a sea-change in evangelical theology as a result of these two works (see, for instance, William Paul Young’s Foreward to Zahnd’s book), which only serves to tell me that I will inevitably run across more attempts to solve “the problem of OT violence” in the near future. Exciting.

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John H. Walton, professor Old Testament at Wheaton College; his son, J. Harvey Walton is also a co-author

It was in the spirit of “Goodness, There’s Gotta Be A Better Way To Deal With This Problem” that I requested John H. Walton (and son)’s latest entry of the acclaimed Lost World series for review. Having heard of the strengths of Walton’s engagements on the Book of Genesis, in particular his astute knowledge of the ancient Near-East (ANE) world, Hebraic syntax, and religio-cultural matters, and having tasted of those strengths first-hand through The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, of which Walton is an editor, I figured that this new release could provide the sound engagement with Old Testament conquest narratives that I hungered for. Or, at the very least, I hoped that Walton could put the unsettled ghosts of Boyd’s poorly-argued thesis to rest, so I could get some sleep at night. After all, it does no one any good for a bad thesis to go to the grave disquieted.

Hermeneutics: Pre-Modern Assessment for a Pre-Modern Text

As I just mentioned, one of Walton (and son)’s (and hereafter I’ll just called Walton & Walton as “Walton” with the pronoun “his” instead of “their”; it’s nigh-impossible to separate their voices in the text anyways) strengths is his incredible background in ANE texts. From beginning to end, the whole matter is dripping with far more linguistic-cultural analysis of ANE practices and literary tropes than I could have ever recognized. From little matters, like the DINGIRS which set various individuals or places as “holy places” dedicated to this or that god, to big matters, like the trope of the invincible barbarians and the commonalities between this trope and the OT portrayal of the Canaanites, Walton stuffs this book with a wealth of ANE perspective that is so rarely addressed in other sources. It is one kind of thesis to suggest that maybe the Canaanite conquest fits a literary motif (and it is a weak thesis, one easily dismissed by Boyd in his CWG); but it is another kind of thesis — a far stronger kind — to put a particular ANE literary motif side-by-side with the accounts in Joshua and see a strong parallel. It was this kind of persuasive argument that sold me on Walton’s reading of Genesis in the first place, and I find him well-grounded again here.

What is most helpful about Walton’s reading of the OT accounts is that he is particularly mindful and careful of the wide array of modern assumptions that present-day readers of the OT bring with them to the text. As he wisely observes, even when we set down a word like “genocide” we are already making a moral judgment on the text based in our modern assessment, rather than letting the text judge for itself its own terms. (This is something that Boyd radically fails to accomplish.) By systematically setting aside a wide array of modern concerns, Walton slowly begins peeling away a huge eisegetical framework that most readers of the OT (myself included) have attached to these stories.

One great example of this is how we almost universally think of the Israelite conquest as some kind of punishment on the Canaanites for their sins. But Walton reads the Torah and Joshua very slowly, and he discovers that this “punishment-narrative” is, simply put, unfounded. One piece at a time, he reveals that the Canaanites are not being punished for their sinfulness, that they are not sinful because they cannot transgress the Law, and, as a result, the Israelite conquest is not an example of God’s wrath. This is particularly shocking given that most counter-arguments involving the conquest stories (especially those from atheist authors, but also from Christians of the Boyd-Zahnd ilk) begin by refuting this view of God’s wrath. Walton undercuts all such interpretations which rely on God’s wrath (and he rightly emphasizes how God’s wrath operates with Israel during the exile, etc.).

Instead, as we read onward, the conquest of Canaan is like-unto God’s conquest over the waters of Creation and His conquest over the waters of the Red Sea and His conquest over the waters of the Jordan. Walton savvily weaves his previous ANE work into this project to proclaim the great unifying theme of the OT: Yahweh, King of All Creation, is the God of Gods who rules over even Tiamat, the serpent of chaos. Unlike the other gods, Yahweh does not contend with Tiamat; He rules her absolutely.

At the end of the work, Walton ties this theme together with the New Testament, identifying the hermeneutically-correct application of the OT conquest narratives: not the destruction of enemies (which would be opposite to Christ’s own commands), but the clearing out of the chaotic force of sin in our lives. For Walton, the conquest theme is all about the Lordship of Yahweh, His absolute dominion, and His sovereign right as ruler of the universe to claim the land as His own and to make of it what He wills. This sovereignty-centered reading, at the end of the day, attributes more power and more glory to Yahweh, while Boyd’s reading relies so heavily on Open Theism that it allots for, at the end of the day, a very weak vision of Yahweh the King.

Ethics: (Is There A) Problem of Violence?

Of course, where Boyd’s thesis was an utter mess in its hermeneutics, he still nevertheless raised a serious question in the form of ethics: How can the Yahweh whose embodiment is in the Person of Jesus Christ be the same Yahweh who commands Israel to kill Canaanite people? In particular, Boyd finds of chief offense the problem of herem, the word typically translated as “totally destroy” in most English Bibles.

What I find applaudable about Walton’s thesis, however, is that while he is clearly aware of the ethical problem within and without the

Lost World of Israelite ConquestCanaanite conquest, he keeps to the narrow goal of his claims and objectives. He does not wander into the depths of ethics, he keeps to a centered, organized thesis. This alone makes Walton a far greater academic than Boyd, whose CWG was a miry, over-complex, all-over-the-place mess of far-too-many academic disciplines. Walton gladly sticks to his task at-hand: How do we read the OT conquest narratives? Boyd jumps from topic to topic without as much as a second glance in order to answer a question that Walton isn’t even sure is a reasonable (that is, a biblical) question: How can the God who is Jesus command wanton death and destruction?

Walton advances a worthy re-reading of herem, tying it into, again, other ANE cultures and their usage of similar concepts. In so-doing, Walton brings us into the difficult complexities of cross-language discourse. As any student of language will tell you, to know the denotations of a word is a simple as having your cross-language dictionary on-hand; but to enter into the thought-life of a word (not just its connotations, but all its associations and founding cultural practices) is a huge task. This is probably why Christian scholars are still arguing about the meaning of agape. But somehow Walton succeeds in bringing the reader into the ANE linguo-cultural world in order to navigate the conversations on order and place and meaning that constitute the foundations for herem.

The result? It doesn’t have anything to do with “destruction”; instead it has more to do with “de-use-ifying” a thing. Maybe “retire” is an appropriate synonym. It turns out that herem is more like taking a lamp down from a table and putting it in a closet, than lighting that lamp on fire and tossing it in the trash can.

Of course, at the end of the day Walton’s work only changes the OT conquest stories from a full-scale genocide (as Boyd would say) to a conquest, where armies fight armies and the occasional city is raided and destroyed. This is enough for some just-war types, but it leaves an ethical problem for me.

Still, again, I applaud Walton for sticking to the problem at hand. Rather than answering our ethical questions (and, let’s be honest, answering ethical quandaries is such a modern thing to do), he leaves us with a more faith-filled account of the OT conquest narratives than any other scholar I’ve seen working on the topic and leaves those “problems” unanswered. Maybe they don’t have an answer. That is an answer that our (very-) modern writers like Boyd find quite incomprehensible. It would be far more satisfying to have an answer to such ethical quandaries.

Rhetorics: But, Oh!, the Proposition Format…

Lest the reader of this review think that I am all sunshine-and-flowers for Walton, let me share that I found his proposition-by-proposition (almost in the vein of the 95 Theses-like proposition) structure to be thoroughly aggravating. Sure, it may well account for his particularly convincing thesis and, sure, it may have been a necessary measure to accomplish his delightful prepondering slowness that allows for his thesis to be narrow, tight, and rigorous. But, gosh darn it, it was aggravating to read!

As a student of rhetoric and the humanities, I am so often tempted to request a mastery of both content and rhetoric in monographs (see: Freud, Foucault, et al.). But I can’t win every time.

Final Thoughts

Walton’s work is not without some minor hitches. He has a weird section where he eisegetically assigns a very particular view of Scripture to the Torah and rejects its moral vision. This seems unwise, given that his audience (through IVP) is predominantly evangelical and would find such an assertion liable to disqualify the rest of his argument. Fortunately, this claim doesn’t cause as much a problem to his broader argument as it possibly could thanks to the very narrow view of his thesis. Within the confines of this work, such a claim is just a strange parasite to a bigger, more healthy set of claims, and it can be safely left alone and ignored.

But the strengths of Walton’s work, rightly reading an ANE text from an ANE perspective, are massive. By re-orienting the whole way we think about the OT conquest narratives, Walton successfully makes the case for a new way to read the text without excising the unique power of its stories (something that Boyd’s proposed Cruciform Hermeneutic unintentionally does to the entire OT). Altogether, Walton has satisfied my curiosity and interest in the OT conquest narratives, answered some problems that I find many stumble over, and opened up new ground for wrestling with the ethical problems of OT violence without demanding their precise answers. If I were to recommend a text on this topic, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest would be my go-to choice.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

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Book Review: Mark Through Old Testament Eyes

Mark Through Old Testament Eyes
Andrew T. LePeau
Kregel Publications, 2017. 352 pp.

If you have spent any time with InterVarsity people, students or staff, you will begin to notice a strange commonality between them all. No matter how different, how theologically diverse, or how socio-geographically dispersed, you will eventually discover that InterVarsity people love the Gospel of Mark. They return to it with unerring frequency, their staff workers assign it for Bible studies, their area directors quote it with knowing reflection. There is some sense that the Gospel of Mark is the foundational text of the whole student-ministry movement.

There is due reason for this, of course. Ever since InterVarsity pioneered the structure of Inductive Bible Study in the 50’s, the preeminent text for both Bible study training and student spiritual development has been Mark: we InterVarsity folks preach Mark in our chapter meetings, we study Mark in our dorm rooms, and, for those blessed many who have gone to chapter camp (and for the smaller number who have been blessed to go to Cedar Campus!), we even spend an entire week digesting just the first half of the book.

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Andy LePeau, former publisher with IVP and IV-famous champion of hospitality

So when Andrew [Andy] LePeau, of late a publisher for InterVarsity Press, approached me a few months back about reviewing his forthcoming commentary on the Gospel of Mark, I already knew that the text I was about to receive was a “word-made-flesh” version of something like the spirit of InterVarsity Bible studies. After all, in the front cover Andy has written: “Tables [X]… are adapted from Fred Bailey, rev. Andrew T. LePeau, Mark I and Mark II Manuscript Study: Teacher’s / Program Director’s Manual…” It should be noted that this mentioned Fred Bailey owns the original copy of InterVarsity’s “unofficial Mark chiasm guide,” a IVCF-wide famous handwritten piece of paper wherein Fred has listed the whole book by all its chiastic structures.

 

With this background in-hand, I feel a little like the disciples in Jesus’ parable of the soils: “the mysteries of the kingdom have been given to you…”

Immersed into Mark’s Old Testament Images

My first major takeaway from this commentary was the way it immersed me into the Old Testament world contextualizing Mark’s Gospel. Some commentaries let you get away with observing OT references and say “Oh, that’s cool,” but Andy LePeau forces you to reckon with the presence of the OT in the Gospel account. This commentary does not let the reader get away with ignoring the OT presence. In some sense, it thoroughly unmans the notion that one could even read the Gospel of Mark without any OT engagement, and it reveals the artistic elegance of Mark’s narrative weaving of the OT throughout the story of Jesus’ ministry, as well as bringing to the fore Jesus’ own role as an interlocutor of the OT.

One comes away with the overwhelming sense that there would be little left of the Gospel of Mark should the OT interplay be removed! All that Jesus says and does has immediate and significant relevance to some OT forebear. John opens his Gospel by calling Jesus “the Word”; Mark’s Gospel demonstrates Jesus as the Word, as the embodied fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, without even needing to state it so explicitly. And LePeau’s hard work of cross-referencing and theological review makes all of the more difficult comparisons and intertextual references readily available to even beginners in biblical study.

Some great observations LePeau highlights include Jesus as the New Moses leading the New Exodus, Jesus as the Divine Warrior bringing God’s Judgment, Jesus as the New Temple, amid many others. What is perhaps the most compelling part of this commentary’s work on this end is that LePeau does not rely too much on his bibliographic sources; the commentary succeeds in its role as a study tool by effectively pointing out these themes from the text of the Gospel itself and simply tying threads together.

Accessible Entrance into Biblical Interpretation

Mark TOTE cover.jpg

One of the most difficult parts of leading readers into the Gospel of Mark (and into a wide variety of New Testament works reliant on Greco-Roman rhetorical structures) lies in explaining the relationship between structure and message. Modern readers often impute a “literal” reading onto the texts they engage with, without any sense that their “literal” lens is not the way the original recipients of the text would have read. Explaining structural pieces like chiasms, euphemisms, riddles, and the like can be roadblocks for understanding at best and sometimes lead to crises of faith at the worst (as in: “Why does Jesus say something that clearly is not true?”).

LePeau demonstrates himself as a teacher first and foremost, providing for the reader easy on-ramps into the more difficult rhetorical and intertextual parts of Mark. He frequently breaks down the various chiastic structures in order to angle how one ought to read more difficult texts. In so-doing, he also rights many poor interpretations taken out-of-context (for example: he dismantles the common evangelical reading of “moving mountains” as having to do with “overcoming obstacles” and replaces it with a more text-centered engagement with Jesus as the New Temple).

This makes Mark: Through Old Testament Eyes a resource for a wide variety of Bible students, whether they are students in seminary, pastors or Bible teachers, or just folks who want to grow in their understanding of the Bible. The tools that LePeau hands to Bible readers in this commentary will inevitably unlock new ways to engage in the entire Bible. In short, this book provides onramps for increased biblical literacy for all, something that ought to be celebrated.

Making the InterVarsity Mark Experience Available to All

But I have to show my true colors: What I love the most about Mark: Through Old Testament Eyes is not its thorough engagement with Old Testament imagery, nor its ease and accessibility for the common Bible enthusiast; instead, it’s the way LePeau has made a beloved InterVarsity Chapter Camp experience available to everyone.

This is no small feat. At InterVarsity’s Cedar Campus (for instance) every year, students spend an entire week reading the first half (or, more rarely, the second half) of the Gospel of Mark, going through extraordinarily slowly, line by line, on sheets of manuscript paper, armed with colored pens and pencils and New Bible Dictionaries (courtesy of IVP) led by Mark-masters like Andy LePeau and Fred Bailey. (I once got to be in the course when Fred led it; it was unimaginably cool.)

For so many IVCF alums, this manuscript study in Mark is one of “those” moments. Sometimes it’s the moment when they “got” the Gospel for the first time, sometimes it’s the moment when they realized that studying the Bible could be joyful and fun, sometimes it’s even the moment when they commit themselves to full-time ministry or the academic study of God’s Word. The Mark track at Chapter Camp is a formative experience for anyone who has ever gone through it.

And somehow LePeau has bottled that experience, sprinkled it with a solid theological bibliography, mixed it up with his own life and ministry experiences, and composed it into a book that others can read. That is something of the magic of this commentary: LePeau brings the reader into a secret that every IVCF student and staff knows.

And, even better, that secret is the selfsame secret that Jesus hides and then reveals in the Parable of Soils. There’s an invitation implicit behind it: the secret is to ask the Teacher what the secret is! It’s the spirit of that secret that permeates this commentary and makes it a joy and not just another suitable addition to one’s theological reference library.

I would like to thank Andy LePeau and Kregel Publications for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements

With the recent (ill-timed, it would seem) release of a theological declaration regarding human sexuality, signed by the likes of J.I. Packer and D.A. Carson and folks from their respective camps (British evangelicals and Gospel Coalition American Calvinists), the Christian news sources have been all a-flutter along the same lines that they tend to be with all these such statements and all these such discussions. The (broadly speaking) traditionalist Right* has made the typical claim that they feel adequately communicates their historic orthodoxy, while the (broadly speaking) progressive Left* has responded in typical outrage and frustration, even crafting a reflective statement of their own (courtesy of Nadia Bolz-Weber). *Left/Right, notably, are horrible terms to use when speaking of theology. Continue reading “The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements”

Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination

The Prophetic Imagination
Walter Brueggemann
Fortress Press, 2001. 151 pp.

Imagination in Place
Wendell Berry
Counterpoint Press, 2010. 196 pp.

Recently, I was disappointed by a book I had high expectations of. Now, as someone who willingly plunges into book after book with the aims of (often) writing critical reviews, one might say that I have set myself up for this very sort of disappointment. Sure. And that has truly been the case of books that are even well-liked by certain influential critics.

But I was surprised by my disappointment of this particular book because I actually loved it. It revealed a whole mode of thought regarding a major theme of the Scriptures that, for me, was insightful, provocative, and, as a freshly-minted pastor, theologically resourceful and useful. Continue reading “Wendell Berry’s Prophetic Imagination”

A Pilgrimage to New Cana

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Richard Lischer’s “New Cana Lutheran Church” as of December 2016

Open Secrets
Richard Lischer
Broadway Books, 2001. 239 pp.

In December of 2016, my wife and I drove “[out] of Upper Alton… up a state road…” in our 2009 Chevy Malibu. We had been visiting families for our first Christmas with our son (Theodore) — hers in Godfrey and Collinsville, mine in Gillespie — and on that day we had one small pilgrimage, of a kind, to make before we left for our home in Chicago. We were on-the-hunt for “New Cana.”

About a month earlier, one of our pastors gave a message in which she quoted from a moment in the memoir of a Lutheran minister named Richard Lischer. She told how he had entered into his first pastoral appointment, at a small rural church in southern Illinois, with the high aims of using all his theological training to its utmost ability. He sets up, at his first event, a small group discussion for talking about how the church is engaging with their new pastoral appointment; the first (and second) responses are muted, stiff “Well, I didn’t vote for you, but I know we will have a very good church with you as our pastor.” Our pastor weaved this narrative as an example of how we (as American evangelicals especially) often think of ministry strategies before thinking of the people we aim to serve.

But, if I’m an honest parishioner, I was a little distracted by her description of Lischer himself. A memoir about a pastor in small-town Illinois? As a son of small-town Illinois who had married a daughter of small-town Illinois, and as a person who had recently received a call to pastoral ministry, I knew that this was one of those books I would need to borrow. While walking to lunch after church, I grew curious: I wonder where in small-town Illinois Lischer preached? Then I read the opening chapter via an Amazon preview and saw the above quote of him driving north out of Alton (where my wife and I had lived our first year of marriage) into the country. Immediately, I began comparing Lischer’s words with my mental map of Madison and Macoupin Counties (which is, if I say so myself, pretty accurate), and soon I had narrowed down the location of his “New Cana” parish to a small sub-region of the north-of-Alton, east-of-Jerseyville region.

It was in this context, that my wife and I ended up outside of “New Cana” Lutheran Church, the world of Lischer’s memoir Open Secrets.

 

Our pilgrimage itself was not precisely “exciting.” After all, we are long-time Madison-Macoupin County residents who have only recently made residence as urbanites in Chicago.

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Open Secrets‘ 2001 cover; the “small town” pictured here is far too populated to be “New Cana”

We have been lost in the middle of a cornfield many-a-time before. And “New Cana” Lutheran Church is literally “lost in the middle of a cornfield,” in a way that was utterly familiar to us. Hannah ended up taking one of her better photographs of the church (as my photograph, above, is, characteristically, angled and unprofessional) and using her graphic design wizardry to produce a better book cover, since the edition we had clearly represented a “small town” on the Atlantic seaboard, not southern Illinois. Our small “Lischer-circle” at church (which was us, our pastor Tiffany, and our local Hauerwasian theologian Kevin) were ecstatic about such an update. But the church itself, however mythic as told by Lischer, was no surprise to us. It was, in many ways, a part of us already. The stories that Lischer tells in his memoir could have just as easily been some of the stories my grandmother tells me about growing up on a farm in Shipman. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that somewhere in her family there wasn’t some offshoot that married into or joined the “New Cana” Dullmanns and Bufords and Semanns at some juncture. I’ll have to investigate the Caveny family line at some juncture.

But we didn’t pilgrimage to the “New Cana” church for the sake of excitement. Rather, I think we pilgrimaged there for a sense of “home.” In December, it was becoming ever-clear to me and Hannah that we longed to return “home,” to “our world.” Our inability to see the sunset or sunrise in Chicago was wearing on us; our distance from family was difficult for us; and our new “city-like” busyness was, honestly, “not our thing.” So, however blessed and joyful our time in Chicago had been, we visited “New Cana” with the strong sense that someday soon we would live again in this world. Our world. And in the same sense, we didn’t read Lischer’s memoir to view, as though visitors at a zoo, a “different culture and society,” but, in part, to learn again and learn anew our own home.

 

Lischer’s pastoral observations are some of the most profound on the topic that I have ever read.

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Richard Lischer is a Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School

Instead of confronting, as most theological-praxis books tend to do, us with theological controversies in the church or practical concerns about preaching or leading Bible studies, Lischer addresses the real “meat” of pastoral work: arguing with the cemetery committee about an unnecessary expense that would overburden a poor widow, learning how to receive a beer offered by a parishioner when the subtexts of the convention are concealed, attempting (unsuccessfully) to “be tough” while half the church watches a pig be butchered prior to dinner. Or, more difficult, wrestling with how to effectively marry a passionate couple with no sense of responsibility or commitment, baptizing an infant that will surely die, consoling a mother whose only son fell in the pond and drowned, or taking a young man to the Cardinals game in the wake of him both losing his father (to a heart attack) and his pastor (to a job-move).The book is a holy excursion into the work of pastoral ministry, and one that expounds on a far more interesting (and far more important) layer to how one thinks of “pastoring.” Too often in American Christianity, the “pastor” is really seen as a “preacher-teacher,” whose “ministry” is all words, words, words; theology without any weighty living behind it. In some sense, Lischer also had this preconception upon arriving at “New Cana.” But Open Secrets divulges a different kind of pastoral ministry, a different aim of a philosophy-of-pastoring, that is desperately needed in our day. Ministry, in Lischer’s memoir, does not occur primarily in the pulpit but at fences, post offices, hospitals, and garages. And, yet, (and this is crucial) it is not the flimsy thing that happens when a person smacks the word “ministry” on top of something else (“Brother, I feel called to do a cassette tape-to-CD transfer ministry,” etc.). Lischer’s ministry is something holy, that manifests the divine in the day-to-day. It is Sacramental, perhaps in its purest form.

Lischer’s insights on rural thought are also extraordinarily valuable. He uncovers the concept of “Gossip” as a form of knowledge (even, I think, an epistemology), and considers how he, as a pastor, can use that “Gossip” for the sake of God’s Kingdom. He reveals the power-structures of committees and sub-committees, of the elders versus the cemetery committee. He observes the tensions of interfering with abusive families, wrestles with his own methods of accomplishing what he feels is right, and, more often than not, discovers that he does not understand how this German farming community actually communicates. If anything, Lischer’s “outsider” view of downstate Illinois rural life helps one to consider any number of “outsider”-“insider” dynamics within churches; and, furthermore, underscores the need to observe traditions and values before moving too quickly in changing them.

 

If Hillbilly Elegy reminded me of the rural world “falling apart” (as I’ve written about before), then Open Secrets encourages me about all the good of rural communities, all the possibility that exist in them, and all the tensions that come with doing effective Christian ministry in that context. In the time since Hannah and I made our pilgrimage to “New Cana,” we have been considering a pastoral opportunity at a church in small-town Illinois. It isn’t a job offer yet — there are, as always, various hurdles to jump over — but we have still, nevertheless, been considering the possibility in a way we hadn’t when we first picked up Open Secrets. As we finished reading Lischer’s memoir last night, I think we both felt a strange sense of preparedness for wherever the Lord is taking us. Lischer’s misadventures in “New Cana” have changed us, equipped us, even prophesied to us, of some new adventure of our own.

Book Review: Preaching in the New Testament

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Hugo Vogel, Martin Luther Preaches in Wartburg (19th century)

Preaching in the New Testament
Jonathan I. Griffiths
InterVarsity Press, 2017. 152 pp.

Preaching, of all the various pieces of Christian liturgical practice, is maybe the one that we think the least about theologically. The works out there devoted to discussing preaching from a matter of practice, of course, are dime-a-dozen, and there are many writings discussing the preaching style of some of Christianity’s most famous preachers (re: Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, M-L Jones, etc.). But to hear the act and purpose of preaching qua preaching discussed is a novel and worthy exercise.

Griffiths’ study is a solid foundational work for dealing with a wide variety of questions that arise when thinking about the concept of “preaching” and “the preacher”: What makes preaching distinct from teaching? Who can / cannot preach*? What are the appropriate / inappropriate occasions for preaching? Griffiths admirably resists the urge to follow a wide variety of loose ends and rabbit holes in order to set certain base standards of the Preaching in the New Testament.jpgconcept of preaching.

The monograph is short and to-the-point, with a quick overview of key Greek terms and some discussion of the differences between “semi-technical” terms for preaching proper and less formal terms for general communication. Here Griffiths avoids over-indulging in Greek word-study while setting a solid context for the rest of the work’s observation of specific instances of those terms. I did find myself hungering for a little more Greco-Roman hermeneutics to ground those word-ideas, but given the New Studies in Biblical Theology‘s value for accessibility I know that I am asking for something beyond the bounds of the work.

Griffiths work shines the best as he jumps into the exegesis of various New Testament texts, especially when he gets to the Epistle to the Hebrews and its sermonic structure. With thoughtful attention, he pulls out of each text various key implications regarding preachers and preaching-acts. Some of these claims are fairly self-evident to the task of modern preaching (i.e. they serve to instruct God’s people, to exhort, to teach from the Scriptures, etc.); but, of course, Griffiths goal was never to tear down the common evangelical assumptions but, instead, to question whether they hold Scriptural weight or not.

 

There are two particularly interesting claims Griffiths puts before the reader in his conclusion that are worth ruminating on:

The first point that Griffiths drives home time and again is the importance of the anointing of preachers for the work of preaching. By carefully drawing out the distinctions between formal preaching and other, as he calls them, “word ministries,” Griffiths is able to observe the Scriptural importance given to the anointing of preachers for ministry. He does not linger too long upon the topic, since he would quickly run aground on the reefs of ecclesiological distinctions (i.e. presbyteries ordaining preachers versus bishops ordaining preachers versus congregations ordaining preachers), but he does so with enough biblical grounds and theological argument to sustain the idea that “lone wolf” preaching is unbiblical. The claim is a hard one, especially for the North American church (Griffiths is Canadian) and its propensity for pastor-founded independent churches. The idea that preachers must be called is not new, of course, but it is a bold statement in the theological milieu of today, where preachers are more and more likely to “call” themselves rather than allow a local church body call them.

The second point worth further notice is Griffith’s emphasis on the spiritual nature of the preached word. Time and again he reminds the reader using the Scriptures (especially Hebrews) that it is God who speaks in the preached Word, not simply the man who has been anointed preacher. Griffiths says this explicitly near the end of the work:

When authentic, faithful Christian preaching of the biblical word takes place, that preaching constitutes a true proclamation of the word of God that enables God’s own voice to be heard.

One would almost say that this is a nigh-sacramental view of preaching, although I doubt Griffiths’ tradition (or most traditions, for that matter) would be comfortable with that usage of the term. Still, it bears much resemblance to how most Christians view baptism and the eucharist: they are, rightly, works of God, works of Grace, that He works in the believer actively through His agents (i.e. the officiant). In the magisterial traditions of the Reformation (Lutheran and Calvinist) as well as in the high-church traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican), the regular confession is that God is present (in some fashion) in the performance of these acts. For Griffiths, God is actually present and speaking in the act of preaching.

Of course, a question could be proffered as to what would account for preaching that does not fit the given standard, just as the question is proffered regarding the sacraments. For baptism and communion, most Christians would agree that they are legitimate even if the sacramental agent is deficient in some manner (hence why the early Reformers refused to baptize converts from Catholicism). Clearly, Griffiths does think that there are situations in which the preaching of God’s Word is not “authentic,” but he does not precisely provide us with such a rubric. An attempt to sort out what does and does not constitute the “authentic” act of Christian preaching would be a very interesting study.

 

Altogether, Griffiths provides useful exegetical engagements with the New Testament to remind the evangelical what he or she already believes regarding preaching (i.e. that it is a ministry of God’s Word, that it serves to exhort and encourage the body of Christ in the Truths of God, etc.) while also pointing to several less-recognized truths of preaching (mainly, that it is a ministry of authorized / anointed leaders, and that in it God actually speaks to His people). I find myself wondering if there are more critical questions that could be asked regarding the act of preaching, and wondering the limits of various terms (such as what constitutes the “authentic” preaching-act, see above), but the work stands on its own as a solid, reasoned example of exegetical theology. It is a useful “step back” from our typical assumptions of preaching in order to re-examine the Scriptural bases for the preaching-act itself.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

*Griffiths graciously brackets the topic of women in ministry for the purposes of his discussion. He marks it once, near the beginning, as a topic that could be discussed from this work, but he does not muddy the waters by stepping into another discussion. As it stands, I think his work could be useful for both complementarian and egalitarian theologians.

Book Review: Hearing the Call

Church of the Servant
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s home church in Grand Rapids

Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World
Nicholas Wolterstorff
Eerdmans, 2011. 440 pp.

Liturgy and Justice seem like odd bedfellows. When we typically think of “Liturgy,” we think of Sunday morning worship and the organization of the church service. On the other hand, when we typically think of “Justice,” we tend to think, more often than not, of something that occurs “outside,” in some fashion, the bounds of the Sunday morning worship. If we participate in the work of Justice — however one may define that term — then we participate “outside” of the realms of “worship,” “music,” “architecture,” or any of the other matters that come into consideration under the broad heading of Liturgy.

And this ought not be so, contends Nicholas Wolterstorff. In a collection of essays that includes biographical shorts, letters to young academics, essays on social work, poverty, and architecture, and reflections on matters of theology and practice, Wolterstorff reminds the reader, time and time again, that the call of the Old Testament Hearing the Callis unified in its commitments to the “orphans, widows, and foreigners,” and how the prophets remind the people of God, time and time again, that their worship is null and void apart from this ethical-moral precommitment.

For a book that is inadequately named (“Hearing the Call” is the most unhelpfully vague title I could imagine for such a work), I am surprised at how often I find myself reflecting on Wolterstorff’s admonitions. There’s a joie de vivre throughout — probably a “good infection” that Wolterstorff received from Allan Boesak — that is irresistible; there’s a sense of that eternal Kingdom that Wolterstorff always points to as being palpable and livable hear and now. And yet Wolterstorff does not hold back his hammer: he takes apart Max Weber’s obnoxious thesis of Calvinist anxiety (it is about time someday did this with academic virtuosity!), brings to task American evangelical predilections with capitalism, undoes the secularist’s love of wealth, and demolishes the nondenominational / charismatic structure of a worship service. But even in his direct rebukes, all of Wolterstorff’s words are spoken with intricate care and with loving attention. What is most profound about such a compassionate call-to-action is the vast temporal space between the earliest essay (1969) and the latest (2010): If this were biography, the confession of Wolterstorff’s lifework would be one of compassionate, loving, yet firm, theological and prophetic engagement.

With such a variety of essays and ideas to highlight, it is impossible for me to do Wolterstorff’s work here its due credit. Here are some (sparse, diverse) thoughts that I came away with:

An Attention to Liturgy, Architecture, and Music: Spread throughout the various sections of the book, Wolterstorff spends incredible attention on the individual pieces of corporate worship, dealing with, in turn, the topics of liturgical structure, architecture of the church building, and selection of church music appropriate for this or that mood or season. The thoughts included here are the little pieces upon which Wolterstorff’s later (and more specific) monograph on worship and liturgy, The God We Worship (2015), was built, but they are more than enough to serve as suitable entrance into his thoughts on the matter. The overarching theme is one deemed practically unimportant by most of American evangelicalism: the choices we make in organizing our liturgy, building our churches, and planning our music are important; they reveal our implicit theologies.

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher, Reformed epistemologist, and professor emeritus at Yale

In particular, Wolterstorff spends significant attention to the importance of doors and open spaces in church buildings (as one can see in his home church, Church of the Servant, depicted above), highlights the values of expressing Christian egalitarianism through architecture, and, more than anything else, the centrality of churches as spaces filled with light, an idea he draws from Calvin’s Genevan churches.

— The Admiration of John Calvin: Speaking of Calvin, I found Wolterstorff’s consistent return, time and again, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion to be refreshing, an incredible feat in and of itself. While most readers of Calvin (including both Calvinists and Arminians) find him staunch and pietistic, Wolterstorff brings out the Calvin who is deeply concerned with matters of justice, matters of right worship, and matters of Christian communal living.

If there is something to be lamented in American Calvinist / Reformed thought in the present-day, it is the absorption of Calvin’s thought into specific sectarian (and politically-charged) camps to serve particular (often politically-intentioned) purposes. Wolterstorff, alongside other Reformed interlocutors (I would include Peter Leithart, for instance), does an incredible job of bringing out the wholeness of Calvin’s theology to address topics that are rarely addressed in typical Calvinist circles.

— Poverty as a Moral Ill: One last set of thoughts from Hearing the Call that stood out to me were the ways in which Wolterstorff addressed the topic of poverty. Wielding a solid group of ancient witnesses (mainly 4th-Century Church Fathers) alongside Thomas Aquinas, Wolterstorff makes a thorough case near the end of the book for describing poverty as a moral ill, and, with that, takes an axe to the politico-theological camp of ascribing moral goodness to American capitalism. He articulates his arguments firmly and with conviction, with solid biblical and theological grounds, making the American reader double-guess his or her own received values of money as a moral good.

What shocked me in reading Wolterstorff’s addresses on this topic was how little I considered my own economic / financial decisions to be ones of moral importance. But Wolterstorff leaves no room for moral neutrality (as he ought) and holds the Church to the biblical standard of caring for the poor as one of her fundamental duties. Wolterstorff provides an antidote for the poison that is American capitalism, without relying on its typical antithesis, Marxism, at all. Instead, he calls the Church to a higher calling and a higher duty.

 

Wolterstorff’s collection can feel at times slightly repetitive, as it perhaps should be for an anthology of fifty years’ worth of essays, yet it is a delightful “salve for the eyes,” so to speak, helping the American Christian re-frame their theological commitments toward Justice in biblical terms as opposed to our received cultural ones. Some essays leave one with bigger questions than solved answers, but Wolterstorff doesn’t ever leave an essay without some sense of eschatological hope. The works are convicting and compelling, but never damning or heavy-handed; instead, one senses a stronger call to follow the Lord’s ways and purposes, and to, as the prophet Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”