Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: “Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel According to Esther”

Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel According to Esther (Gospel According to the Old Testament)Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel According to Esther by Bryan R. Gregory
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inconspicuous Providence The Gospel According to Esther Gospel According to the Old Testament by Bryan R. Gregory is written as part commentary, part devotional. The first chapter sets the context in which this work understands and interprets the story of Esther in the Bible. The remaining chapters go through the text of Esther in units, as exegetical commentary, a theological commentary, a Christological commentary, life applications, and questions for reflection.

The theological position taken by Bryan, in my perspective, is a moderate Evangelical one. He takes as actual history the story of Esther as found in the Bible. He does not discuss some of the issues about the historicity of the story that have been raised by recent biblical scholars. He also takes the position that Christ is intentionally foreshadowed in the Esther story, hence the subtitle "The Gospel According to Esther." Finally he takes the Calvinist position of God's omniscience and omnipotence; i.e., that God is fully in control of human affairs.

Where Bryan diverges from the more conservative or fundamentalist Evangelical traditions is that in his discussions he presents a number of alternatives in interpretation that are sometimes at odds with the more traditional ones. For example he describes the cultural and social situation of commoners during the time and suggests that it was more than likely that Esther was a willing participant, perhaps even voluntary in her acceptance of going into the king's harem; and that later interpreters, uncomfortable with Esther's complicity, tried to find ways to "preserve her purity." Another example is that he sees in Esther a very strong female "type" of Christ. Bryan also sees in Esther a leader of the Jews, not merely a political one but a spiritual one who inaugurates a new celebration for the Jews in the midst of exile; and in this way follows in the footsteps of Moses, the liberator and law-giver.

Even though I do not share all of Bryan's theological positions through which he writes, I found this book informative and helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of Esther and how it found support among the Jews and early Christians. Even though it does not explicitly mention "God" anywhere, his presence is assumed through the various literary allusions to earlier Old Testament stories and characters. It is a story of a hidden God who is nevertheless present with his people, to comfort and to lead them through trials and sufferings.

(This review is based on ARC supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review: “Paul: Apostle and Fellow Traveler”

Paul: Apostle and Fellow TravelerPaul: Apostle and Fellow Traveler by Jerry L. Sumney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Apostle and Fellow Traveler by Jerry L. Sumney is an excellent work offering an overview of recent scholarship on Paul and the epistles in the New Testament written by him and/or attributed to him. The issues of authorship of each epistle is discussed in clear and easy to understand terms.

The book itself is divided into three main sections: the first part is a historical, cultural, and theological overview of the New Testament era; the second part discusses the undisputed Pauline epistles; and the third part discusses the disputed ones.

The writing is simple and clear; in fact, it took me a few chapters to get used to it because of its style - short sentences and very simple style. I guess I expected a more heavy, complicated writing given the topic. The content is not superficial in any way, however.

The first part that discusses the overall environment of the Pauline churches is quite informative and provides necessary background for understanding how to read, interpret, understand, and apply each of the epistles that are discussed in the remainder of the book.

The second and third parts discuss each epistle. Most chapters discuss one epistle, but a few of the shorter epistles are discussed together in a single chapter. The discussions include the use of rhetoric, literary features, the possible issue(s) addressed, the historical setting and context, the theologies, and what it reveals about the author.

When discussing the disputed epistles, Jerry provides clear reasons why the material for each is disputed and why Paul most likely could not have been the author, but also why the early chose to accept it as authoritative.

To be clear, this is not a liberal Christian work. It takes the incarnation, the crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ as historical. However, it is not hold to the conservative (and certainly not fundamentalist) Christian tradition of the historicity of Pauline authorship of all of the epistles attributed to him. It accepts recent, sound, mainstream Christian Pauline scholarship in both authorship and theology.

I think Paul Apostle and Fellow Traveler is a worthwhile book to have on my shelf (or e-shelf) as a quick and concise reference to the Pauline epistles and their time and place.

(This review is based on ARC through NetGalley and the publisher.)

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Book Review: “Undiluted” by Benjamin L. Corey

Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of JesusUndiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus by Benjamin L. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this book Benjamin Corey reverses the usual understanding of "watering down the gospel." Through the discussions in this book, he demonstrates that a rigid, fundamentalist/conservative Evangelical dogma and beliefs are, in fact, watering down the gospel by becoming too much like the surrounding culture. He writes from an American perspective and argues against the popular American versions of Christianity. This book describes his journey out of rigid Christianity to a fluid, progressive one; a journey that begins when he enrolls in seminary.

Benjamin argues against the kind of exclusionary, tribalism that is common among Americanized Christianity. He argues against the extreme individualism that permeates much of what is valued - individual sin, repentance, and salvation - and argues for a more inclusive Christianity - community, social justice, non-violence. He argues that the gospel is spoken of by Jesus and Paul as "offensive" not because the boundaries are so narrow, but because they are so wide and broad. The gospel is offensive because of who it lets in, and not because of who it keeps out. Benjamin argues that the gate is narrow not because it is so difficult, but the gospel is so offensive to institutional and conservative religion.

Benjamin argues against the more widely accepted views of atonement and salvation that employ violence as a means of atonement. He argues for a non-violent atonement. It is because Jesus was so non-violent, that people became violent against him which resulted in his execution on the cross. The gospel is not merely about individual salvation but about restoring and reconciling relationships - between humankind and with communities of humans to God.

This is a call to set aside rigid, black-and-white versions of Christianity and embrace a nuanced, fluid one in which we do not have all the answers, but in which together as community we pursue the questions and journey together in the quest for answers.

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Thursday, January 08, 2015

Interpreting Genesis 1-3

Dr. John Walton presents and Joe Fleener provides a response. My notes on the video are found after the video and I conclude with my assessment of the response.

Dr. John Walton, Old Testament, Wheaton College (dur. 1:08)

·         Inspiration and interpretation of scripture.

·         The importance of context and culture.

·         Scripture written for us, but not to us.

·         We must strip away our culture from our reading of scripture.

·         We need to place ourselves into the original setting as much as possible.

·         Communication takes place on the basis of what is familiar.

·         God could not communicate something completely foreign to ancient peoples.

·         Understanding ancient cosmology is crucial to reading creation accounts.

·         “Who’s in charge?” was the most important concept to communicate.

·         Material structure was not important.

·         God doesn’t always use “right” science to communicate, rather he uses familiar.

·         We can’t read the words of the text with our assumptions.

·         We have to define words and concepts according to what it meant to the original audience.

·         Textual authority can only come from what the original context would have communicated.

·         Naturalistic explanations do not eliminate God.

·         The Bible does not provide scientific revelations.

·         God does not “upgrade” Hebrew scientific understandings.

·         God accommodates the understandings of his audience to communicate using the already familiar.

·         Inerrancy only applies to what the Bible is meant to affirm.

·         Day 1: God created the basis of time.

·         Day 1: Time is not an object, light is not an object - no objects created on day 1.

·         We think creation means “creation of objects.”

·         The ancients did not think that way.

·         Usage is the key to meaning.

·         English words can mean different things in different cultures.

·         Usage determines meaning.

·         “Create” [baw-raw] does not have to create an object.

·         “Create” can mean creation of functions and orderings.

·         That God created everything is not in question.

·         The question is, what part of this creation story is the creation account telling?

·         The creation account begins with Gen 1:2.

·         Genesis 1:1 is an introduction.

·         There is already material at verse 2.

·         The starting point of this account is “no order” and “no function,” not “no material.”

·         the Egyptians talk about the desert and sea as “non-existent” - not materially, but in function.

·         Thesis: Genesis 1 is an origin account of order and functions; not material objects.

·      Ancients thought of the cosmos as a kingdom with someone in charge.

·         Creation account: who is in charge?

·         When God says “it is good” in the creation account it doesn’t mean perfect or righteous, but ready to function.

·         When God says “it is not good” it means something is not ready to function.

·         It is futile to ask “what objects were created on a particular day?”

·         Moderns are concerned with how the material aspects are built.

·         The ancients weren’t particularly concerned with that.

·         Moderns are concerned with the story of how the house was built.

·         The ancients were concerned with the story of how a home was created.

·         John 14 - Jesus says he will build a home for his family.

·         In the house story we are insignificant.

·         In the home story we are honored guests.

·         Day 2: Creation of weather.

·         Day 3: Food.

·         Time, weather, food - three crtitical functions of existence.

·         Days 4-6: functionaries are installed

·         Hebrews did not see sun, moon, and stars as objects - they were functionaries providing functions.

·         Day 7: a temple account

·         We moderns don’t see “temple” in the text, but the ancients would not have required it.

·         Why does God need to “rest”?

·         It is not six days of creation, but a full seven days.

·         When God “rests” it screams “a temple”!

·         God takes up residence by “resting.”

·         God moves in to take charge.

·         When the Bible says that the Israelites rested, it means they took charge and order established.

·         When Jesus says “I will give you rest” it means he will elevate his people to take charge in the kingdom.

·         When the book of Hebrews says “rest hasn’t been achieved” it means full order and charge has not been established.

·         Rest is where a being rules, not where someone sleeps.

·         Rest is the climax of the creation account.

·         The opposite of rest is not activity, but unrest.

·         The temple does not “exist” until God moves in.

·         God moves in by an “inauguration ceremony”

·         In ANE texts, an inauguration ceremony involves proclaims the functions of the temple, functionaries are installed, and a deity takes up rest in the temple, and takes seven days.

·         Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the Hebrew version of an ANE temple inauguration ceremony.

·         The Genesis creation account is a theological account, of the past but also of the promise for the future.

·         Seven, literal, 24-hours days – but it isn’t about the literal construction of the material world.

·         No claims are being are made about the age of the earth.

·         Genesis 2 is not about Day 6.

·         Genesis 2 is a sequel account.

·         If Genesis 1 and 2 are sequel accounts, the humans in Genesis 1 are not Adam and Eve.

·         Genesis 2 describes the “creation” of Adam and Eve.

·         Second account does not need to fit into Day 6.

·         Adam and Eve are not the first people – solves quite a few problems.

·         Biblical text suggests there were a whole lot more people than Adam and Eve’s descendants.

·         Adam and Eve are archetypes – one who represents all the others.

·         Does Genesis 2 refer to individuals or archetypes?

·         “Dust” – not chemistry or craftsmanship.

·         “Dust” = “mortality”.

·         People were created mortal (from dust).

·         Tree of life – no sense if people were created immortal.

·         Sin – humans lost the antidote to immortality.

·         Psalm 103:14 – “we” are all formed from “dust”.

·         Not unique to Adam – every human being formed from “dust”.

·         Formed from “dust” is not about material formation.

·         Formed from “dust” does not preclude being born from a woman.

·         Formed from “dust” is a statement about every human being throughout history; it is a statement about identity.

·         Gen 2: Does Adam believe Eve was created from his rib? No.

·         The word “rib” in Gen 2 is never used anatomically anywhere else.

·         Biblical text is not talking about surgery.

·         When Adam falls into deep sleep, God shows him a vision.

·         Adam sees a vision of him being cut into two halves, and Eve being created out of one half.

·         When Adam and Eve join together, humanity is restored to wholeness.

·         It is not about the material origins of woman; but about identity.

·         They (together) are given a priestly role.

·         Adam and Eve can be historical individuals, without being the very first biological humans.

·         There is no biblical account of human (material, biological) origins.

·         The Bible does not endorse or rule out evolutionary processes.


Joe Fleener provides a response to John Walton in the remaining 45 minutes.

·         How did the LXX translators understand Genesis 1?

·         How did pre-Enlightenment Christians understand it?

·         How did pre-Enlightenment Jews understand it?

·         How did the Qumran community understand it?

·         There is strong evidence that these understood Genesis 1 as material creation.

·         There is ample evidence that pre-Enlightenment.

·         God is The Author of the entire Bible.

·         The entirely of the Bible has an intentional beginning and an end.

·         Revelation refers back to the Genesis creation account.

·         Revelation discusses new material creation.

·         The language in Revelation is the same as LXX Genesis accounts of creation (therefore, Genesis 1 must be referring to material creation).

·         Various examples from Bible passages that describe God as creator of the material world.

·         The Flood is about material destruction.

·         Genesis 1 and 2 must be about material creation.

·         Paul’s use of the creation account as requiring it to be chronologically and materially literal.

·         Creation of sea creatures in Genesis 1: sometimes thought to be a polemic, but it is clearly a material creation.

·         Not either/or – but both/and.

·         Genesis 1 and 2 is both functional and material creation.

·         Genesis 1 is not science, but it is history.

·         There can be no conflict between science and Genesis 1, even though the Bible is not a science text.

·         How accurate are our understandings of ANE cultures?

·         Are the ANE texts reflective of how people really thought?

·         Scripture must be inerrant and true in all aspects: can something be theologically true, yet ontologically untrue?

·         Criticism of higher criticism in interpreting scripture.

·         Discomfort with the idea of a Cosmic Temple imagery.

My assessment of the response

In my opinion, Fleener’s response fails to convince. John Walton never said God didn’t materially create, which is what Fleener appears to be trying to answer. What John Walton says is that Genesis 1 and 2 are about functional creation which pre-supposes a material creation ex nihilo. Fleener is addressing a single statement from Walton’s work in which Walton appears to put forth a claim that reading Genesis 1 and 2 as a material creation account is strictly an Enlightenment development. Fleener falls into some of the interpretation issues that Walton describes: reading anachronistically; assuming the later Jews and pre-Enlightenment commentators were expressing the original author’s intent; assuming later text in the Bible perfectly reflect the understanding of the Genesis account; assuming a perfect revelation of theology and science from the Bible. What this tells me is that Walton and Fleener is talking past each other due to their different starting points.