Book Review: Kingdom through Covenant by Gentry and Wellum

Peter J .Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 848 pages


“The idea of covenant is fundamental to the Bible’s story” (p. 21)—with this statement Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum (GW) open up their extensive work on the metanarrative of Scripture. Integrating exegetical, biblical-theological, and systematic-theological insights, the authors seek to reconsider the nature of and the relationship between the different biblical covenants. On the basis of the assumption that both dominant theological strands—i.e., Covenant theology and Dispensationalism—ground their conclusions on inadequate convictions about the covenant(s), the co-authors set out to present an alternative reading, mediating between these two traditions. This “via media” proposal, labeled as “progressive covenantalism”, stresses “the unity of God’s plan” by tracing “God’s redemptive work through the biblical covenants” (p. 24). God’s kingdom is established through the covenants, which are climaxing in Christ. In this overarching divine plot both the prophetic nature of typology and the culminating role of Christ’s new covenant work as the fulfillment and telos of all the preceding covenant promises are central to understanding the development and function of the new covenant realities. Continue reading

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review of Clarke, “Pentecostal Theology in Africa”

00_PICKWICK_TemplateIt is widely acknowledged that Pentecostal and charismatic influences are a powerful force in African Christianity. The late Ogbu Kalu accomplished much in describing Pentecostal origins and history on the continent. In Pentecostal Theology in Africa, editor Clifton Clarke aims to continue and expand the study of Pentecostalism in Africa through theological analysis. The volume includes contributions from African and Western scholars, and is divided into two parts: the first analyzes theological currents, the second addresses pragmatic concerns and implications.

The book as a whole is more descriptive than prescriptive, which can be frustrating as contributors rarely disclose their own judgments of the trends they explore. The various contributors examine various ways in which Pentecostalism has been contextualized in Africa, as well as how and why this branch of Christianity gives greater agency to African churches and why Pentecostalism is appealing in an African context. For example, several authors note that the holistic view of Pentecostalism coheres well with traditional African worldviews, such as its acknowledgement and address of spiritual forces at work in the world. The authors offer varying views on how Pentecostals have dealt with African traditional religion. Pentecostal Theology in Africa is more theological than historical in focus, and tends to focus on West Africa without adequately representing other parts of the continent.

Standout essays in the book include Clifton R. Clarke’s tribute to Ogbu Kalu and Clarke’s methodological proposal, John Gallegos’s “African Pentecostal Hermeneutics,” David Ngong’s “African Pentecostal Pneumatology,” David Ogungbile’s assessment of the prosperity gospel in Pentecostalism, and Maria Frahm-Arp’s contribution on how biblical texts form Pentecostal evangelical charismatic views of gender. Unfortunately, Frahm-Arp’s essay provides one of the only instances in the book of engagement with biblical bases for Pentecostal positions.

This book is most suited to graduate students, or readers with some familiarity with Pentecostalism in Africa and African theology. The volume’s strength is the wide range of topics it examines; a weakness is that the majority of the contributors are still Western or located in the West. Was there no way to include more voices from Pentecostals on the ground?

Overall, the volume is a helpful contribution to the field, deepening understanding of the theology underlying African Pentecostalism, deserving 3.5 out of 5 stars. Thank you to Pickwick for the review copy.

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Book Review: Matthew, Texts @ Contexts

Matthew Texts and ContextsFortress / Amazon

Duran, Nicole Wilkinson, and James P. Grimshaw, eds. Matthew. Texts @ Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013. Xxii + 351 pp. $49.

Among the myriad of commentaries on the book of Matthew, Fortress has just put out one with a significantly different angle, or perhaps we might say it has several different angles. As part of their new Texts @ Contexts commentary series, this commentary on Matthew edited by Nicole Wilkinson Duran and James P. Grimshaw is a gathering of sixteen essays from scholars of a variety of diverse contexts who have been brought together in order to shed new light on the book of Matthew. These contexts include differing ethnic cultures, religious traditions, and social environments, covering “work conditions, disabilities, ecological trauma, nonviolent resistance movements, post-Communism and globalization, single mothers and preacher’s kids, womanism, and masculinity studies” (1). Although each author represents a differing reading context, the commitment remains for them to be in dialogue with traditional scholarship and faithful to the biblical text in its ancient world context. As the editors state, the goal of the work is to “have a conversation that takes seriously both the ancient text and its many contemporary contexts” (1).

This wide range of contexts becomes readily apparent from a brief overview of the book. The commentary is divided into five sections according to themes, and each chapter focuses usually on one particular text within Matthew (thus, it diverges from the typical format of commentaries in that it does not cover every pericope). The first section entitled “Community and Beginnings” contains two essays, which both look at the genealogy of Matthew. Lidija Novakovic explores the idea of community identity in Matthew’s genealogy in light of sociological realities she experienced in post-Communist Croatia. In a similar way to how Croatians reinterpreted their past through the formation of a new collective memory and identity, she argues that the Matthean community also remembers its Jewish past in a unique way in order to create its own new identity. In another essay, Jonathan Draper, a white South African, uses his insights from working with the Zulu people to examine the genealogy, pointing out how the Jewish culture of Matthew’s day may have shared some of the same conceptions about ancestry. He also uses the illustration of South Africa needing to “forge a new identity and practice” beyond genetic ties and argues that this same situation, which existed in Matthew’s community, may have influenced his genealogy.

The second section, “Children and Family” consists of five essays, four focusing on mothers and one on fathers. Sharon Betsworth analyzes Jesus as a child (Matt 1-2) and his teaching about children (Matt 18:1-5) in light of insights from those who work in children’s ministries. Febbie Dickerson and Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, African American women, analyze the story of the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:22-28) in light of family realities of women (Dickerson focuses on her as a single mother and Crowder looks at her as a working mother). In another essay, Tsui-yuk Liu, from her Hong Kong context, explores Matthew’s use of mother imagery in light of disenfranchised working mothers, while in another essay, Sung Uk Lim, examines Jesus’ suffering in Gethsemane and what it signifies based on his relationship with his father as a pastor’s kid in a patriarchal family in Korea. Clearly, the scholars in this section read Matthew through the lens of various familial contexts, and as such, offer unique insights for interpretation.

The third section, “Disability and Culture” contains two essays focused on healing stories. In one, James Metzger and James P. Grimshaw (who both have experiences related to chronic pain from rheumatic conditions) shed light on Jesus’ responsiveness to those he heals, while at the same time, giving attention to how those with disabilities are portrayed in the gospel. A second essay written by L. J. Lawrence, who has experience working with deaf individuals, analyzes Matthew’s gospel with a resistant reading to its audiocentrism as well as a sympathetic reading to features that affirm the deaf culture.

The fourth section, “Laborers and Empire” contains three essays. Gerald West and Sithembiso Zwane examine the parable of Matthew 20:1-16 in the context of casual workers in South Africa, offering socioeconomic readings of the text. A second essay, written by Lung-pun Common Chan views the Matthean apocalypse (Matt 24-25) as a critique of Roman imperial power and applies this critique to the economic and political realities of globalized Hong Kong. John Yieh, a Chinese Christian scholar, writes a third essay on the Sermon on the Mount in view of the growing greed and exploitation he has witnessed in China’s global economy.

The fifth and final section “Community and Borders” consists of four essays which address border issues that threaten communities. Dorothy Jean Weaver, a member of the North American Mennonite community, interprets Matt 5:38-42 in light of issues of violence and nonviolence from the insights they gained from interviews with Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Elaine Wainwright offers an ecological reading of Matt 4:1-11 from her context in Oceania, where she has experienced firsthand the effects of climate change. Francisco Lozada writes from a Latino/a perspective on the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9b-13). Finally, Jeannine Brown examines the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46) assessing how her own culture of white, middle-class, evangelicalism interprets this parable both in relation to individualism and community.

Clearly, from this overview, we see that one of the primary strengths of this work is the diversity of voices brought to bear on the gospel of Matthew. The book certainly draws from a wide range of contexts and does a commendable job of directing the reader’s attention to many issues for the church to consider such as racial and gender concerns, socio-economic realities, and global issues. In addition, as many of the contributors have a greater sensitivity to the cultural and social realities of the characters in Matthew’s narrative and the historical context of the work itself, they are able to shed new light on the text and ask fresh questions of the text. In so doing, these essays offered new interpretational insights that enrich our understanding of Jesus, the historical world of the gospel, and Matthew’s purposes. Beyond interpretation, this work is also valuable for life-transforming application, especially for those living in the various contexts of the contributors. Thus, for both interpretation and application, this commentary has much to offer.

In critique, the trappings of such a contextual approach were also evident in this work. At times, it seemed as if the writers were overstretching the parallel between the ancient context of the biblical world and their own. While in some cases, there were certainly strong connections to be made, at other times writers did not seem to give due credence to the differences between their own contemporary culture and that of the first century. Furthermore, as is often the case whenever someone reads texts through a particular lens, there is always the danger of missing the forest for the trees—or perhaps, more accurately, seeing only one species of tree when looking at a forest which hosts a variety. There were certainly moments when it felt the authors did, indeed, fall into this trap thus, offering a very narrow interpretation of a particular text.

Despite the hazards pertaining to the approach, this commentary offers a great deal for anyone striving to understand Matthew on a deeper level. Most readers will emerge from this work having gained a deeper appreciation for various contextual perspectives along with a stronger conviction that biblical scholarship needs to move beyond the first-world Euro-American orientation that has characterized it for far too long. This work may also encourage those studying scripture to broaden their own contextual horizons, and perhaps, as a result, both the academy and the church will be richer for it.

Special thanks to Fortress Press for providing this review copy.

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Review of Georg Walser’s OT Quotations in Hebrews

Wasler, Georg. Old Testament Quotations in Hebrews.Walser WUNT 2/356. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

According to Walser, recent scholarship on Hebrews has failed to take into account the complexity of biblical text-traditions that existed in the first century CE, especially as demonstrated in the burgeoning field of LXX studies (3–4). Walser attempts to resolve this problem by examining the reception history of some texts cited in Hebrews in order to create a more comprehensive picture of the texts available to the author of Hebrews as well as the contexts in which they were used (3).

The bulk of the book (chs. 2–4; pp. 29–183) deals with three texts: Jer 31:33//Heb 8:10 and 10:16; Ps 40:7b//Heb 10:5; Gen 47:31b//Heb 11:21. Each of these chapters has four parts:

1) a brief overview of the relationship between the MT and LXX versions of the OT text under consideration

2) the reception history of that text in early Judaism

3) the reception history of that text in early Christianity (with separate sections for Greek and Latin traditions, up to ca. 500 CE)

4) the form and function of that OT text in Hebrews

These three texts, Walser says, “were chosen because the Old Testament texts quoted existed in different versions at the time when the New Testament text was composed” (190; cf. 23–24). This is one of the strengths of the study: Walser has not necessarily chosen the most significant OT texts for Hebrews (e.g., Ps 110:1, 4), but he has chosen some of the most difficult, simply because our data suggests sufficient textual variation in the first century to make the question of Hebrews’ source material rather complicated.

Chapter Two: Jeremiah 31:33 (38:33 LXX) has one particular variation of interest to Walser: the singular תורה (found in all Hebrew mss) and the plural νόμους (found in all Greek mss except Sinaiticus [32–33]). Walser notes that all early Jewish references to this text have the singular form, and all early Christian references have the plural form, but he admits that “there is no indication whatsoever that the plural of the LXX version was used [i.e., made a point of interest] by any of the early Church Fathers in their interpretation of the text” (85). And yet, he argues, “it is not unlikely that the plural of laws in Jer 31:33 still promoted the interpretation of the law as something other than the Torah” (89). More specifically, the use of the plural form in Hebrews makes it likely that, as was sometimes the case in later Christian use of the text, “the teaching of Jesus was in fact included in what was put into the heart of the people” (88).

Chapter Three: The differences between MT and LXX versions of Ps 40:7b clearly go beyond those of Jer 31:33; here we have “you have dug ears for me” (MT) vs. “a body you have prepared for me” (LXX). The former likely refers to a posture of obedience (rather than the offering of sacrifices), while the latter identifies oneself as the sacrifice to be offered. In this chapter Walser makes three basic arguments: both options appear frequently in early Christian literature (136), the LXX version as it appears in Hebrews (“a body you have prepared for me”) is not, as is sometimes thought to be the case, the product of the author of Hebrews himself (139), and “the meaning of the LXX version is actually the same as the MT version” (140).

Chapter Four: The final text, Gen 47:31b (in Heb 11:21), contains less variation than even Jer 31:33. “The difference between the two versions is, from a technical point of view, very small and only affects the vocalization of the Hebrew consonantal text מטה [either “bed” or “staff”] and the addition of αὐτου in the Septuagint” (142). Thus in the MT, “Then Israel bowed himself on the head of the bed,” while in the LXX, “And Israel did obeisance upon the top of his staff.” Walser further argues that the LXX rendering of מטה probably indicates the object of worship, while the MT rendering identifies the place of worship (182). He concludes that “the meaning of Gen 47:31b in Heb 11:21 is still unknown” (182), but “the main conclusion, and what is most important for the present investigation, is the fact that there actually existed several versions of the Hebrew text at the time when Hebrews was composed, and that there also existed interpretations based on the different versions, which were used by the Jewish community as well as by the early Church” (183).

The strengths of this book are primarily in the data: the central chapters provide a ton of reception-historical information, drawing from every source imaginable: Mishnah, Talmud, Pseudepigrapha, Latin and Greek Fathers, important NT mss (B46 [ca. 200 CE] plays a key role in chapter four), and so on. In terms of primary texts and translations dealing with the three key OT texts, this book will be a go-to reference source. One concluding observation arising from all this data is worth repeating: “in at least some cases the Jewish and Christian communities did not interpret the same text differently, but they interpreted different texts differently, and, as could be expected when using different texts, they came to very different conclusions” (189; emphasis original).

Walser is also right, generally speaking, when he says that literature on the OT in the NT oversimplifies the state of the text in the first century, and in particular that NT scholars would benefit from closer attention to recent Septuagint scholarship (I place myself among the guilty!). I am more confident than Walser about our ability to grasp the meaning of the text by means of the data available to us (see below), but his word of caution against overconfidence and oversimplification of the issues at stake is certainly a valuable one.

On to the weaknesses. First, the title of the book (OT Quotations in Hebrews) is misleading: this book is not really about Hebrews at all, but rather about the reception history of some OT texts that happen to appear in Hebrews as well as scores of other places. The quote from p. 183 given above tells the story: we don’t know what Gen 47:31b means in Heb 11:21, but “what is most important for the present investigation” is that we can know some things about text traditions that existed contemporaneously with Hebrews (183). A similar point arises from his conclusion about Ps 40:7 in Heb 10:5: “later sources have little to add about the understanding of Hebrews in this case” (139)—if the book were actually about Hebrews, this final claim would render the whole chapter rather superfluous.

Second, at least one of the three variations in form under discussion (singular vs. plural “law” in Jeremiah 31; the same might be true of “bed” vs. “staff” in Genesis 47) are inconsequential for their received meaning. Walser repeatedly identifies early Christian citations of Jer 31:33 that use the plural form but make no use of that form in their discussion (57, 58, 60 [2x], 61, 64, 65 [2x], 66, 67, 69, 70, 75, 77, 79, 81, 82, 83), and concludes that, as I cited earlier, “there is no indication whatsoever that the plural of the LXX version was used by any of the early Church Fathers in their interpretation of the text” (85). My question: Why make the form of νόμος the interpretive hinge when there are more important differences between Jeremiah (MT) and Jeremiah (LXX) from which to choose?

Third, I found unsubstantiated one of Walser’s major claims—that “interpretations are not always based on the version of the text that is actually quoted in the context of the interpretation” (17). That is, Walser argues that an author may have quoted the LXX version of Ps 40:7b (for example), but was actually interpreting the MT version. This claim is repeated ad nauseum (107, 127, 138–39, 169, 172, 178, 182, 186, 187, 188, 189, 191), but Walser offers a plausible argument on its behalf only once, in discussing Chrysostom’s correlation of Ps 18:44–45 with Ps 40:7b (121). One possible example a hermeneutical principle does not make.

Fourth, Walser’s use of later material to shed light on Hebrews is not in itself objectionable—undoubtedly, as he assumes, later traditions can be indicative of earlier ones. What is objectionable, however, is his frequent suggestion that the existence of a later interpretive tradition necessarily indicates awareness of that tradition by the author of Hebrews (e.g., 109, 135, 138). This is pure speculation on Walser’s part—possible, but impossible to prove.

Fifth, the book contains other numerous interpretive leaps that seemed to me unwarranted by the available data. For example, he claims that we need not distinguish between quotation and allusion simply because what appears to be an allusion may simply be a quotation of a text-form unknown to us (25). This may be true in some sense, but Hebrews’ unique way of introducing some Scriptures (as direct divine discourse) also suggests that the author is using certain texts for more fundamental rhetorical and structural purposes than others—in this case, Ps 40:7 and Jer 31:33 play a far more significant role in the argument of the letter than Gen 47:31. The distinction between citation and allusion remains important, I think.

Walser also appears to assume that all interpretations are conscious decisions between text-types—that is, interpreters had the various options in front of them and thus a choice for one wasby definition a choice against another (e.g., 158, 168–69).  On a related point, Walser claims that unless an author gives an explicit interpretation of a text, “no clear interaction can be traced between the quoted text and the argumentation of the author” (186, referring to Jer 31:33 in Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16). That is, if I have understood him correctly, we cannot know why authors cite other texts unless they clearly spell out for us why they have done so. These two issues strike me as a rather wooden hermeneutic—the meaning of the text is derivative of purely explicit and external factors.

In light of these issues, I wonder if the only plausible outcome of Walser’s method is differánce—perpetual deferral of any conclusion regarding the meaning of the biblical text. If the version of the text being interpreted is not the one being cited, if the best a dissertation on the OT in Hebrews can say is “the meaning of [the OT text as appropriated by Hebrews] is still unknown,” and if textual meaning is a function of choices between text-types and we don’t know what the options were, when will we ever be able to say anything about the meaning of the text itself? Walser summarizes his project this way: “there is still a lot to be done before a correct evaluation can be made of how the texts could or should be interpreted” (191). But is he asking the impossible, requiring that we do no actual biblical interpretation until one has gathered all the textual variations that existed in the first century and were therefore known to the author of Hebrews?

*Thanks to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review copy.

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Review: Against the Gods by John Currid

John. D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 160 pages.
I would like to thank Crossway for providing me a review copy.

Amazon | Crossway


CurridJohn Currid, professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), writes this book to “demonstrate that the concept of polemics is not foreign to or uncommon in the Old Testament” (p. 10). It is an introduction and is written to those who know little of the subject, but are interested in the relationship between the OT and the literature of the surrounding cultures. Currid’s focus is exclusively on polemical theology, though he notes that this is only one way to look at the relationship between alleged parallels between the OT and literature from the ancient Near East (ANE), which includes Egypt and other Mesopotamian cultures like Babylon and Assyria.

Currid beings with two introductory chapters. The first surveys the history of ANE studies going back to 1798 and up to the present. The second chapter introduces the nature of polemical theology. He defines polemical theology as “the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning” (p. 25). Polemical theology can employ shared expressions (e.g., “a strong hand”) or motifs (e.g., the thundering deity).

The next nine chapters examine specific instances of polemical theology. Creation and the Flood receive two chapters (chs. 3–4), and Joseph, one (ch. 5). Stories from the life of Moses receive five chapters (chs. 6–10), and the last chapter is on a collection of Canaanite motifs (ch. 11). These chapters cover the details of the parallel or parallels (sometimes a single biblical story has similarities to multiple ANE stories) in order to establish that a relationship exists between the biblical material and the literature of the ANE. Here, Currid is clear and careful to explain the strengths and weaknesses of each alleged parallel, noting where the biblical text reflects the ANE literature and where it differs. This takes the bulk of each chapter, but he concludes with comments about the polemical nature of the parallel in the biblical material. Continue reading

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Congratulations to Brittany Kim!

Brittany Prof PicAmong the graduates this spring from Wheaton’s doctoral program was our friend and colleague, Brittany Kim, graduating with a degree in Biblical Theology—Old Testament. Her graduation followed the successful defense of her dissertation on February 21st entitled, “‘Enlarge the Place of Your Tent’: The Metaphorical World of Israel’s Household in the Book of Isaiah.” Brittany applied a literary and rhetorical approach to the book of Isaiah, examining how it portrays Israel and its capital city, Zion, through metaphors from household relationships— sons/children, daughter(s), mother, wife, and servant(s). While her study focuses on Isaiah, her work has important implications for biblical theology and a contemporary understanding of the people of God. Brittany’s advisor was Dr. Richard Schultz, her second reader was Dr. Daniel Block, and her external reader was Dr. Mark Boda.

In addition to her Ph.D., Brittany also holds holds an M.A. in Biblical Exegesis from Wheaton and a B.A. in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Westmont College. She and her husband, Ted, have a 1½ year old daughter, Eliana, and are expecting their second child, a son, in September. They reside in Syracuse, New York where Ted serves as a worship pastor at the Vineyard Church in Syracuse. Brittany is currently serving as Adjunct Professor for the online program at Ecclesia College in Springdale, Arkansas, and as an occasional Adjunct Professor at Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York.

Congratulations Brittany! It has been a privilege to walk this journey with you here at Wheaton! Brittany Family Pic

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Review of “T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity in the New Testament”

Often when a scholar enters a new field of study, she locates a handbook or dictionary on that topic, and uses that resource to find her bearings and identify broad trends within her chosen topic. As a systematic theologian, I would have greatly appreciated this sort of introductory work when I began to research social identity theory. However, until just this year, I had found no single work which would serve as such a starting place.  Continue reading

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