Category Archives: Reviews: Old Testament

Reviews of books on the Old Testament.

Froehlich on Biblical Interpretation

FroehlichA brief review of Karlfried Froehlich’s, Biblical Interpretation from the Church Fathers to the Reformation

There have been some interesting new books on interpreting the Bible recently. Karlfried Froehlich’s, Biblical Interpretation from the Church Fathers to the Reformation is a handy collection of 13 articles by a prolific scholar covering several aspects of medieval and Reformation biblical study.

A number of these articles focus on the Glossa Ordinaria, a medieval Latin commentary on the whole Bible which has often been attributed to Walafrid Strabo (erroneously, as Froehlich nicely demonstrates). He also considers the interpretation of Paul, particularly Romans 8, and the place of Peter (and the papacy) in history.

He shows that medieval exegetes were not blatant “prooftexters” or imposers of “framework” onto the text, with a lovely quote on this from Abelard, saying, “I do not want to be a philosopher in such a way as to lord it over Paul.”

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Teaching Isaiah by David Jackman

Teaching Isaiah: Unlocking Isaiah for the Bible Teacher by David Jackman

This is not another commentary on Isaiah to help with the specific task of understanding the message of the prophet. We already have a goodly number of those, including excellent contributions in recent years from Alec Motyer and Barry Webb. Instead, David Jackman gives us here a helpful resource to be used when actually teaching the book, either from the pulpit or in a small group setting.  He provides help in planning, structuring, and applying key points throughout Isaiah in a style that is neither too heavy nor too simplistic and patronizing.

This book is the ninth installment of the ‘Teaching the Bible’ series from the Proc Trust and Christian Focus, and anyone who has used previous volumes in that series will quickly see the advantages of this one also.  David Jackman has worked on Isaiah as both a pastor and as the Director of the Cornhill Training Course over many years, and it is immediately clear from reading this that he has laboured long and hard to find a main line through the mass of material in the book without sacrificing the distinctive flavour and emphases of this particular prophet.  (I won’t give it away – you need to buy the book!)  One of the great strengths and advantages of a help like this for preachers and Bible study leaders is that it enables us to get a handle on the big picture of how Isaiah fits together
before we dive into all the wonderful details, and to see how each part contributes to the whole.  David Jackman is a master at never losing the plot.

At the same time, this book avoids the trap of simply giving us cardboard cut-out expositions to re-use on unsuspecting listeners.  The point is not that we avoid all the hard work of sitting down to work and meditate on scripture ourselves and simply imitate or regurgitate “the right message” from David Jackman.  Indeed, he himself says, “Downloading other people’s sermons or trying to breathe life into someone else’s outlines are strategies doomed to failure. They may produce a reasonable talk, but in the long term, they are disastrous to the preacher himself since he needs to live in the Word and the Word to live in him, if he is to speak from the heart of God to the hearts of his congregation.”  That being said, I benefited a great deal from David’s insight and suggestions while preparing a year-long series of Bible studies and talks on Isaiah, and it is a great boon for us to have such help readily and widely available in this format.  So, be brave – do all 66 chapters and not just chapters 6 or 40 or 53!  And take David Jackman along for the ride, to inspire and guide you on that exciting journey into territory which is sadly too little known in our churches today.

This review was published in Evangelicals Now (November 2010).

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Praise, and Prophecy: A Theology of the Psalms by Geoffrey Grogan

Praise, and Prophecy: A Theology of the Psalms by Geoffrey Grogan (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2001)

 

This introductory overview of the Psalms comes highly recommended on the cover, with glowing praise from such worthies as Dale Ralph Davies, Alec Motyer, John Mackay, and Desmond Alexander.  And it is an excellent book, a great example of an integrated biblical theology which is aware of questions of textual criticism, doctrine, ethics, historical theology, and pastoral practice, addressing them all at various points as appropriate.

With chapters of only about 10 pages each, it is easy to get through (a great book at bedtime!).  It is best read with a Bible open by the side of the book because it is constantly referring to the text of Psalms itself without necessarily quoting texts in full each time, although if one is familiar with Psalms this would not be too much of a problem.  It is well-researched, but may be off-putting for the layman with no idea of who Childs, Barth, Mowinckel, Westermann and others are.  Grogan is aware of the history of Psalms scholarship, but has not overburdened the book with too much technical detail or heavy footnotes.  I’m not sure that many people in the pews would be capable of digesting it, although it would certainly be of use to keen students and well-trained Lay Readers as well as clergy.

Grogan specifically talks about the Christian use of Psalms at the end of the book, but he usually includes some kind of contemporary application in each chapter (sometimes a bit trite and clichéd but often profound).  He never forgets the New Testament; there are a great many comments about the continuity of the testaments, showing how specific texts or themes are taken up from the Psalms later on in the Bible.

Overall, this book is reminiscent of Robert Reymond’s biblical theology of Paul (Paul: Missionary Theologian) being pitched by the same publisher at the same kind of level.  It interacts with all the latest research, distils it, and attempts to show the practical ministry implications.  It’s great as an overview of the longest book in the Old Testament, of much help if such an overview was missing from one’s college training or if one is contemplating a sermon series on Psalms.  Those who are more familiar with Psalms from years gone by will still find much stimulating material here, including a good outline of the “Psalms as a Book” approach which is popular among scholars at present.

This review was first published in Churchman 117.4 (2003).

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The Message of Leviticus by Derek Tidball

The Message of Leviticus (The Bible Speaks Today) by Derek Tidball (Leicester: IVP, 2005).

Some parts of the Bible have always been more taxing for interpreters than others.  Leviticus has something of a reputation as a difficult book to read, so we must be grateful to Derek Tidball for writing this thorough and lucid exposition of it.  It is a challenge to work through Leviticus and to try and make sense of it, understanding how it is God-breathed and useful for today.  I had many questions and issues after doing it again recently and on many of them Tidball is very helpful in showing the way.  This is no surprise since he is an experienced writer and has already completed another commentary on this book in the Crossway Bible Guides series.

 

Tidball is excellent in helping us to see the different contexts into which Leviticus fits.  He does not go from a text in Leviticus straight to Jesus but spends time trying to understand its context within the book first, as well as the Pentateuch, which some sermons I have heard on Leviticus fail to take account of altogether.  He thinks through knotty theological issues and addresses them, outlining and assessing alternative theological interpretations as he does so while engaging major commentators, both Jewish and Christian.  He is usually sane in his applications, rejecting views which feed our fancy with their creativity and imagination rather than feeding our hearts in adoration (as he puts it).  That is not always the case; I found the suggestion that “the mildew that was embedded in the homes of people who had settled in the promised land is representative of the sin embedded in the institutions of our society” perhaps a little fanciful, though that is not to say we shouldn’t think through structural or institutionalized sin.

 

Other applications are more helpful and rooted in the text.  On homosexuality in Leviticus 18 he advocates the traditional interpretation in quite definite language as “the plain meaning… straightforward… obvious” and has little time for special pleading which attempts to circumvent such verses.  Comparing contemporary penal codes to the Old Testament he writes that “One cannot help but feel that the emphasis on restitution, at least, would lead to a great improvement in the current system of sentencing.”  On tithing he suggests, “the tithe should probably be regarded as the minimum a Christian should give”; and on several occasions he counters the arguments of those who dislike substitutionary atonement, at one point labelling their view “extraordinarily shallow.”  I was edified by the plethora of applications which were addressed to ministers (e.g. on seriousness in our task, on not making ministry an idol, on ministerial pay).  I found some of his comments on chapter 8 somewhat inconsistent and difficult to reconcile with other parts of the book; for instance, he refers to ministers as “standing in the gap” today as Moses and Aaron did, but in several other places he is quite clear that Christian ministers are not priests so this did not quite compute for me.  Elsewhere the remarks can perhaps be a little tendentious, as when he applies parts of chapter 10 to say that “there was room for two godly people, both qualified in the law, and both handling it with perfect integrity, to see it differently.  However precise its stipulations, there were always going to be areas where there was freedom to interpret it one way or another.”

 

Nevertheless, generally speaking Tidball’s exegesis is well founded and his application carefully worked through a biblical-theological grid which sees Christ as the fulfilment of the law.  On a final note, I am left slightly puzzled as to why this book had to be so long.  At 327 pages and 23 chapters (to Leviticus’ 27) it is perhaps a trifle verbose and could have benefited from some judicious editing in places, especially compared with Barry Webb’s excellent BST on Isaiah which somehow manages to treat 66 chapters of text in far fewer (252) pages.  Of course, Leviticus is a neglected book we want to recover for Christian preaching and teaching.  But will we preach it in this much depth?  Anyone you know planning to do a 23-part series in Leviticus soon?  If not, if it would be pastorally wiser in most churches to cover larger swathes of the text or simply edited highlights in a shorter series of sermons, then that will require having to read much longer sections of this book for it to function as a useful guide.  Still, there’s much here to chew on and praise God for.  A shorter book may be more helpful as a guide to preaching Leviticus, but that is not the stated aim of a Bible Speaks Today book anyway, is it?

This review also appeared in Churchman 122/3 (2008).

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The Old Testament Apocrypha: An Introduction by Otto Kaiser

The Old Testament Apocrypha: An Introduction by Otto Kaiser (Edinburgh: Alban Books / Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2004)

 

The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion tell us that the Apocrypha “are read by the church for examples of life and instruction in behaviour, but the church does not use them to establish any doctrine” (Article 6, from An English Prayer Book).  Luther too said that these books, such as Tobit, Baruch, Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, and Maccabees, were “profitable and good to read.”  Of all Protestant denominations only Anglicans tend to make much use of the Apocrypha today, although amongst many evangelicals it is probably rare to find anyone who has even heard of them let alone read them for ‘instruction in behaviour’!  In some ways this is a good thing, since we do not want to succumb to the temptation that other traditions have fallen for of elevating these books to the status of Scripture (the Council of Trent gave them unqualified canonical status and anathematised those who would not do likewise).

However, it would be useful for those who consider themselves well-read, and for all clergy, to at least be familiar with these ancient writings which, although they form no part of God’s word written, do give us insight into the history and thinking of God’s people in the inter-testamental period.  The New Testament contains several allusions to verses in the apocryphal books (e.g. Romans 1:18-32 = Wisdom of Solomon 12-14; Hebrews 11 = Ecclesiasticus 44), and no-one who reads 2 Maccabees 7 can fail to be inspired, and also enlightened as to the ferocity of attachment the Jews of Jesus’ day had to the food laws.  Baruch 3:38 has interest in debates about pre-incarnate appearances of Christ, and 2 Maccabees 12 is the favourite passage of the Catholic Catechism to ‘prove’ purgatory and prayers for the dead.

Given that reading the apocrypha is a profitable exercise, the question is whether this book is a profitable introduction to read alongside the texts themselves.  I do not think it is.  For specialists and scholars wanting an introduction to the historical-critical analysis of the sources, compositional histories, and dating problems associated with these works it may be of use.  To those wanting a survey of the material and its usefulness and some theological reflection, it is not so obliging.  From page 1 it is unhelpful, claiming that the Church recognised the apocrypha “as canonical” as early as the 4th Century, which clearly is a distorted picture of a more complex historical and theological reality, and a definite overstatement.  Kaiser’s liberal attitude to the Bible itself also surfaces occasionally.

The most difficult thing for the reader to acclimatise to is, however, the heavily Germanic sentence structure.  Consider for example, “The poetry of the Wisdom of Solomon employs the parallelismus membrorum typical of Semitic poety, which as a rule is bipartite and occasionally tripartite, and which is apparent in the antithetically, synonymously, or in its analytical form, synthetically balanced cola or lines” (page 107).  Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister would be proud of such otiose prolix verbosity, and the distinguished Dr. Kaiser writes thus as a matter of course, excelling in the art of saying simple things in particularly complicated ways.  (He means, incidentally, that Wisdom of Solomon uses parallelism like the Old Testament, with ideas being either contrasted, repeated, or developed within 2 or 3 lines).

There are some useful insights still to be gleaned here for those unfamiliar with the Apocrypha.  It is just quite tiresome wading through everything else to find them.  So for a basic introduction to these useful works, I would recommend B. M. Metzger’s, An Introduction to The Apocrypha and leave Kaiser’s work on the shelf for that very rare occasion when someone asks me a complicated question about inter-testamental Judaism or I need a useful chart like that on page 24 which elaborates “the Divergent Enumeration and Transmission of the Books of Ezra in the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the NRSV”.

This review was also published in Churchman 120/1 (2006).

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Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job by Christopher Ash

Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job by Christopher Ash (Leicester: IVP, 2004)

 

This short book grapples with the big issues in the book of Job which, the author tells us, is about God.  “This ought not to surprise us,” he writes, “but it is easy to forget.  If we take our eye off the central focus and major instead on suffering, we shall be disappointed – for we do not find in Job the answers to the questions we have chosen to pose” (page 109).  This is a healthy corrective to the idea that reading and studying a 42-chapter book of the Old Testament is the best prescription for those who are undergoing painful suffering because it gives us all the answers to it.  All the same, I read this book at a time when the Asian tsunami had struck and some friends had just lost a young baby, and I found here much helpful material to put those and other tragedies into biblical perspective, as well as help on how to speak to people about such horrific occurrences.  I also found a book which takes the agonising struggles of our messy and often unhappy lives seriously without resorting to pious clichés or platitudes.

In 11 expository chapters (based on sermons delivered before he became the new Director of the Cornhill Training Course) Christopher Ash takes us through Job in easy to read and short-ish chapters which could be read alongside the biblical text itself in daily quiet times, or instead of Eastenders.  One of the great strengths of this book is the fact that it lingers on the central section of Job (chapters 4-37), which can be skated over in more superficial treatments.  There must be a reason why God gave us such a long section in-between the disasters of 1-3 and the denouement of 38-42.  These are not comfortable chapters of course, but it is valuable to have them dealt with in this way.

There are some excellent illustrations and applications throughout the book.  As part of wisdom literature, Job is often read by those seeking “wisdom” and a deeper understanding of the complexities of life.  Yet we are warned here not to seek any wisdom for its own sake alone as this merely puffs us up.  “So do not seek Wisdom; seek the Lord” (page 73).  Ash has some interesting thoughts on the place of the original angry young man, Elihu, in Job 32-37.  I warmed to the idea that he could be “a type of the puzzled believer, mixed both in motives and tone, mixed also in theology, and yet set before us as one who is on the way to wisdom” (page 88).  In many ways that makes him a ‘type’ of us and many preachers of the book of Job.

There are some minor errors in the book, including the mistaken idea that Jesus called Satan “the god of this world” (page 95).  In 2 Corinthians 4:4 the phrase “god of this age” is used (probably referring to Satan but not necessarily), and in John’s Gospel Jesus calls Satan “the prince [or ruler] of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11 etc), which probably accounts for the confusion.  In this reviewer’s opinion, the font size of the Bible text is too small, which sadly encourages the reader to skip over the quotations from Job itself (and also the poems which are occasionally cited).  Occasionally I found the style a tiny bit cumbersome such as on page 104 where we are told that “directed, prayer-filled waiting is the integrating arrow of hope that holds together the authentic Christian life.”  I’m still trying to work out what is “integrating” about an arrow but, needless to say, these are only small quibbles which could be sorted out in further (well-deserved) reprints of this very useful volume.

This review was first published in Churchman 119.4 (2005).

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The Message of Psalms 1-72 and The Message of Psalms 73-150 by M Wilcox

The Message of Psalms 1-72 and The Message of Psalms 73-150 (BST) by M Wilcox (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001)

 

The Bible Speaks Today series has been very influential in helping Christians (not just evangelicals) to understand Scripture better.  We should be grateful to IVP for continuing to expand the series and for attempting to fill the gaps still left in its Old Testament expositions.  These recent additions to the BST series are designed to be read like a novel.  Strangely, it would be difficult to use these books as commentaries because the author expects us to remember details from ten or twenty pages ago (which could be several Psalms back).  So, for instance, if one did not read the “exposition” of Psalm 30, one would not understand everything that is said in the exposition of Psalm 31 (the reference to the Vierzehnheiligen, for instance).  There are, however, some excellent illustrations and usefully clear explanations contained here.

As “novels” these volumes can be quite stimulating, and are certainly not dull or lifeless.  Indeed, there are some excellent insights in both the text and footnotes.  There are also quite a few anachronistic allusions and illustrations which may leave the younger reader baffled.  One also needs to be au fait with the French, German, and Latin phrases peppering the text (for whom, one wonders, is Augustine’s Latin given on page 111 of volume 1?) and be happy with obscure references to the Book of Common Prayer, Dante, Longfellow, and Herbert.  One would also need to share Wilcock’s taste for old hymnody, which is oft cited, but will not be appreciated by youngsters like me who cannot either recall the words sung by the author in his youth or find them in a modern hymnbook.

Wilcock says he intended to mine the riches of Luther and Calvin and Spurgeon but unfortunately “life is too short” (volume 1, page 11).  It is a shame that we hear more of modern scholars such as Goulder and Brueggemann, as one suspects that the influence of the classic commentators may have been more beneficial.  That is not to say there is not a great deal of interesting and stimulating speculation here; there certainly is.  There is also some profitable utilisation of trendy literary scholarship on “the book of Psalms as a whole.”

As a whole, however, this contribution to the Bible Speaks Today series is quite uneven and of inconsistent quality.  The “List of Related Hymns” at the beginning of volume 1 is incomplete (in a less than systematic search, I found at least four hymns mentioned in the expositions which are not listed).  Sermons based on these expositions alone would probably be more like random and (perhaps) inspiring jottings or homilies than sustained, applied expositions of the text.  It would also be helpful to have the text of the Psalms included in the books – very few “novels” require constant reference to another volume!  For an excellent up-to-date introduction to Psalms, read Grogan’s Prayer, Praise, and Prophecy.  After that, I personally will be going straight to Calvin and Spurgeon for help with the text, although I may just glance at the BST briefly, if inspiration is very slow in coming.

This review was first published in Churchman 119.1 (2005).

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