Books of 2017: Titles of interest to theology lovers and Bible students

I read all of these from cover to cover.

Only kidding! The themes for 2017’s theological reading seem to have been justification (and my discovery of a long-standing debate between John Piper and Tom Wright), hope and the kingdom of heaven, and prophecy. So here are a few short reviews of:

  • Justification
  • Why the Reformation Still Matters
  • New Testament for Everyone commentaries
  • Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
  • Whole Life Worship
  • Surprised by Hope

(Actually, they’re not short. This post is about 3,500 words. Whoops.)

Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision

By: Tom Wright
Publisher: SPCK
First published: 2009

Well, it was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and I wanted to understand the concept of justification better. I mean, yeah I thought I had the basics in place, but I’d stumble about if I tried to explain it to anyone. So I got this book. Little did I know what I was buying.

OH. SO. GOOD.

Please appreciate that Tom Wright (or NT Wright when he writes academically) is a Church of England bishop who has written a lot about the New Testament and the theology of Paul. I am particularly grateful to him for what he’s written about resurrection, because that has transformed my faith (see Surprised by Hope below). And maybe I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s worth listening to and he’s gracious.

In recent years, Wright has been writing about what is called the ‘new perspective on Paul’. If I understand correctly (and I probably don’t) it’s the theory that covenant, and inclusion within the family of Abraham, is central to Paul’s theology. This has brought Wright to a revamped understanding of inaugurated eschatology (how the ultimate eternal goodness of the ultimate end state is being manifest in the present), hope, justification and salvation. Not everyone agrees with Wright and some people even accuse him of saying things that he hasn’t (like the idea that the second coming has already happened – no, he hasn’t tried to say this). Wright wrote this book basically because John Piper disagrees with the ‘new perspective’.

It’s hard for me to write concisely about what this book Justification taught me – because there’s just so much.

First, it told me about the long-standing debate he’s been having with John Piper about what justification is and how salvation works. I have many, many issues with Piper’s theology so to discover that this book was written as a direct take-down of a book that Piper wrote to take down Wright’s new perspective on Paul came as a complete, though rather pleasant, surprise. It also made me feel like I’d been living under a rock for the last eight years, but hey – better to come to the party late than never.

Second, it set an example about how to engage with someone in debate. Wright’s opening introduction on Piper’s conduct (both his politeness and his utter non-engagement with Wright’s ideas) was insightful.

Third, it pointed out some of the serious flaws in Piper’s theological method. And that was useful for me, because I could imagine myself making some of the same mistakes (mainly, trying to deduce an entire theology on my own without reference to what others have said on the subject). I can now try to do better.

Fourth, it told me a lot about the history of the doctrine of justification. How Augustine framed it, how Luther framed it, how Alister McGrath wrote about it. Sure, he could have gone into more detail, but that wasn’t the point of the book.

Fifth, exegesis, exegesis, exegesis! He opens up the New Testament passages on justification like I have never read before. It was amazing. It was like reading the passages for the first time as piece after piece fell into place, and confusion after confusion was ironed out. I have always had niggles with how justification was presented to me in church because it was almost always presented as an anti-law thing (and my Bible translation was biased in that direction too). Thing is, I have a lot of time for the five books of law (the staff in my blog’s banner is the staff of Aaron). And reading Wright’s explanation of Paul’s theology finally swung wide open the door for it to be OK for me to love the Old Testament Torah, whilst not falling into legalism.

And then, sixth, the book paves the way for saying, “Yeah, and you know what, there is so much more to Paul’s theology than justification.” Wright posits that if the church had developed with a major focus on Ephesians rather than Romans, then history might have looked very different. And I’m jumping up and down because what Wright is saying is consistent with my work-in-progress theology of purity.

In short, if you are serious about understanding Paul’s theology, this book is simply unmissable.

Meanwhile, if you want a short summary of how Piper’s and Wright’s theologies of justification compare, there’s a handy PDF published on Christianity Today a few years ago. There is also a humorous Downfall Parody on YouTube where Hitler rants as the masses flock to N.T. Wright and his teachings, while John Piper gets left in the dust.

In terms of my blogging, reading this book is what prompted me to write I always loved the Torah – and now I feel lied to (a complaint about translation) and A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world.

Why the Reformation Still Matters

By: Michael Reeves and Tim Chester
Publisher: Inter-Varsity Press
First published: 2016

I knew I was buying a book written by evangelicals. I figured that there was enough historical content in it to make it useful, and that even where I disagreed on theology, I would be learn from how the authors were presenting their views.

Oh good grief.

This book would be better titled, “Why we think the reformation supports an evangelical view of scripture and justification and therefore proves we are right even now despite the challenges against evangelicalism’s authority.”

For the uninitiated, evangelicalism is a ‘brand’ of Christianity that was born out of a movement in the eighteenth century, which itself had roots in the reformation. In the 20th century, the evangelical church in America got very, very politicised, particularly in matters relating to race and abortion. However, evangelicalism is broader than its white, politicised manifestation in the US (and there is criticism coming from high profile leaders in the UK regarding evangelicalism in the US).

I understand evangelicalism to be characterised by five traits: a high view of the Bible, Christ-centredness, cross-centredness, conversionism and mission. So when I say the authors are evangelical, I’m referring to these five traits, not their political views.

Even so, I have a number of gripes with how these traits manifest in the church. In particular, I am fed up with how elevated the Bible is. For example, the UK Evangelical Alliance includes in its basis of faith:

We believe in the divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.

In fairness to the Evangelical Alliance, this statement says the Bible is the written word of God, but most people don’t include ‘written’. They’re just like, “the Bible is the Word of God”. No it’s not, Jesus is the Word of God. And I’m convinced that this flippant usage of ‘Word’ is encouraged by saying the Bible is the ‘supreme authority’. Again, God is the supreme authority.

Now I know that when the phrase ‘supreme authority’ came out, it was in the context of arguing about whether the Catholic Church’s tradition of selling indulgences in the 1500s had more authority than the Bible. (Answer: no.) This is the story that the authors of this book are trying to tell. And whereas they try to put that balance in – that scripture is what to prioritise when there is conflict, and that we need Jesus and the Holy Spirit as we interpret scripture – I still came away feeling that they over-elevated the Bible.

It’s phrases like:

The Bible is not just true; it is truer than anything else. So the Bible always trumps experience. That does not mean we must ignore experience. Experience will often give rise to questions we bring to Scripture. [p56]

No, God is truer than anything else. God’s Word is truer than anything else. The underlying truth about God as revealed in scripture is true. But it’s simply not fair to say that the text of the Bible, as compiled, as translated (and as corrupted by copying errors) is truer than anything else.

They might as well be saying that experience is good for raising questions that require systematic theology (e.g. euthanasia, copyright law, pension regulations), but you always have to discount your experiences if they steer you toward answers that contradict an evangelical interpretation of the Bible. I felt like they were digging a doctrinal trench saying, “There is only one way people – and this is it!” labelling anyone who disagrees as ‘unwilling to submit to authority’.

Well, sorry, I’m not getting into their straight long trench when it focuses way too much on our sinfulness, over-elevates marriage, and says

…the biggest problem facing humanity is God’s justice. [p29]

Excuse me?

God’s mercy is just! God’s love is just! And when you say that ‘nothing matters more than justification’ [p29] you’re falling into the traps of conversionism where building the kingdom of heaven on earth, and the very practice of hope, doesn’t matter so long as you’ve ‘been saved’.

(And this, by the way, is what Tom Wright is getting at in Justification when he says the world would look different if the church had studied Ephesians more than Romans, and I suspect it’s the biggest reason why he wrote Surprised by Hope – see below.)

Apologies, this review has turned into a gripe about evangelicalism more than telling you about the book. It is perfectly possible that the authors of this book are very reasonable people, who are doing their best, in good faith, to convey something life-giving to the wider world. And the historical presentation of who said what was helpful for me. However, I reckon this book is largely a product of the flat and unimaginative parts of evangelical culture.

This means that I think there are many people who, if they read it, would fail to find good news in it, or answers to the questions that really matter to them.

And I find that very sad.

New Testament for Everyone

By: Tom Wright
Publisher: SPCK

So, I put the commentaries for Romans, Galatians and Thessalonians in the picture above, because that’s where most of my studying has been this year.

These are really great accessible commentaries being designed ‘for everyone’, not just academics. Each book is broken into short segments of scripture and each explanation or section comment begins with an illustrative anecdote.

What’s more, the translation used is Tom Wright’s own translation, so it doesn’t fall foul of anti-law bias, gender bias, or any kind of spirit-body dualism (the idea that that body is bad). That isn’t to say it’s perfect, but it provides a refreshing rephrasing of familiar passages (especially 2 Corinthians 5). By the way, his translation is also listed as the ‘NTE’ translation on Bible Gateway.

If you read enough of them, you’ll find that some of Tom Wright’s themes keep recurring (covenant, creation, resurrection), but then only the truly dedicated would sit down and read these systematically. Sometimes the illustrations betray Wright’s age and culture, but he is only one person and I’m not complaining.

These books aren’t a substitute for thick, in-depth, exegesis, but they’re a good start for anyone wanting to get a feel for what a passage is (or isn’t!) about.

Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

Publisher: Inter-Varsity Press
Ezekiel: John B Taylor; 1969, 2009
Isaiah: J Alec Motyer; 1999
Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi: Andrew E Hill; 2012

There is just nothing like a good commentary to introduce who wrote a book, when and where, and how it’s structured. Especially when you’re dealing with books of prophecy, because when you read them cold they can be really hard to make sense of.

This year I made a point of digging into Ezekiel, Isaiah and Haggai. I wasn’t interested in a commentary that was trying to make applications to modern day life, I just wanted to know the historical context of what was actually there, and what it would have meant to the people who first heard it.

And these commentaries generally do a good job. Their introductions present the broader themes of the books they are studying, as well as some of the modern day debates regarding authorship. The main parts of the books go through the text in detail, pretty much verse by verse and they’ll tell you things that most readers simply will not realise if they read the Bible text on its own. For example, the second prophecy in the book of Haggai was delivered during the feast of tabernacles. (Oh sure! Of course you knew that was what the ‘twenty-first day of the seventh month’ meant!)

That said, author bias still creeps in and Motyer (who wrote the commentary on Isaiah) is an unashamed evangelical. We can’t know for sure whether the book of Isaiah was written by one person or more, but Motyer’s confidence that it was just one person bugged me. He’s happy to say that the later chapters are targeted to a later time than the preceding ones [p393], but tries to close off the possibility that it was written at that later time. Thing is, it was a common literary practice of the culture to write something prophetic and attribute it to the name of an earlier prophet; there are also layers of unexplored implications if the passages were written from that time, not just to that time.

That said, my NIV study Bible argues that Ezekiel is compiled thematically and not chronologically, whereas Taylor (who wrote the Ezekiel commentary) argues the opposite [p27] – and I found his case more compelling.

All in all then, these books will tell Bible students a lot, but they also present one scholar’s opinion. It’s worth picking up other commentaries to read alongside. In looking at Ezekiel and Isaiah and Haggai, I found myself repeatedly thankful that I’d read Aaron Koller’s Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought. But then I would say this because that book was simply amazing and changed how I read the Bible.

Whole Life Worship

By: Sam & Sara Hargreaves
Publisher: Inter-Varsity Press
First published: 2017

This book was written as part of LICC’s vision for Christians to feel empowered as the people of God wherever they are. LICC is the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity; it was founded by John Stott about 35 years ago and make no mistake: Stott was an evangelical. (See my review of Why the Reformation Still Matters above for what I do and don’t mean by this word.)

But.

He founded LICC because he believed that the church desperately, desperately needed to get active in living out the gospel wherever its people were. That meant social action, not just proselytising. Stott was also someone who had a high view of preaching believing that to be effective you had to do dual listening – listening to culture and listening to God. This means that, from what I know of Stott, he avoided many of the pitfalls I associate with evangelicalism and even if he did fall into some, I don’t think he fell deep.

True to Stott’s vision, LICC has been working hard to break down the sacred-secular divide – that’s the idea that church art, church literature, church music, church mission are what matters to God, and that other stuff like sport, media, law, accountancy, commerce, other art, other music and whatever else you might call ‘secular’, aren’t important to God.

(I know, right? Why do Christians think like this?)

What this book tries to do is set out a framework for understanding and facilitating church worship so that people are able to live all of their lives as an act of worship – even if they’re cleaners, teachers, artists, doctors, whatever. This isn’t about Christian-ising the workplace or putting Christian wrappings onto a person’s language; it’s about helping people recognise how they are, and can be, bringers of good to others, whatever their context.

I think my biggest problem with reading Whole Life Worship is that I read it on my own. I’m someone who likes to soak up concepts and theories, but to get the most out of this book, I feel like it needs to be read by a team of people, in a church, who can ask, “OK great – but how could we make something like that happen here?” Sure, there is some interesting theory, for example, about the difference between gathered worship and scattered worship, but I was hungering for more.

I also found myself frustrated at times because I believe that the true meaning of sacrifice is not self-denial, or self-restraint, but an outpouring of one’s inner being. The authors used language that was consistent with this (e.g. ‘being refilled by God and sent out’ p28), and discussed concepts of sacrifice that again are consistent with this, but without actually naming it. As I said above, I found myself hungering for more ‘theory’ of what worship fundamentally is. But that could be just me.

In any case, the book offers a number of stories of what churches have done to transform their worship lives and practical suggestions for what congregations and worship leaders might try. It also doesn’t hesitate to ask some much-needed questions about the substance (or otherwise!) of some modern worship songs. For example, the heavy emphasis on the singer’s response, without much mention of what they’re responding to. Or that salvation is sung about for the individual, when salvation is for all people, for all creation.

All in all, I don’t think I got the full benefit of this book when I read it. That might be because I read it on my own, though it might also be because I don’t go to a particularly evangelical church and I think that’s the culture it’s really trying to speak into. (I have no problems with this, by the way.) Even so, I want to go back to it and give it another read. And I think that worship leaders and preachers would benefit from reading it, regardless of denomination.

Surprised by Hope

By: Tom Wright
Publisher: SPCK
First published: 2012

Do we ‘go to heaven when we die’?

Where did the idea of ‘the rapture’ come from? Is it biblical?

What is ‘eschatology’? What is ‘inaugurated eschatology’?

What is ‘the kingdom of heaven’?

On what basis can we say that Jesus actually physically from the dead?

Does resurrection matter?

What was the ascension about?

What are we meant to do once we’ve ‘been saved’?

Does creation matter?

This book addresses two questions which have often been dealt with entirely separately but which, I passionately believe, belong tightly together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see ‘Christian hope’ in terms of ‘going to heaven’, of a ‘salvation’ which is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated. … But if the ‘Christian hope’ is for God’s new creation, for ‘new heavens and new earth’ – and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth – then there is every reason to join the two questions together. And if that is so, we find that answering the one is also answering the other. I find that to many – not least many Christians – all this comes as a surprise: both that the Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed, and that this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world. [p3]

Unless you’ve read The Resurrection of the Son of God then you probably would be better off giving this book a good read and a good study. Wright is a heavyweight on the subject of resurrection and even if you don’t agree with him on everything, you’re sure to learn a lot that’s useful.

I certainly did.


This is the third of four book review posts. In the first I discussed ‘The Twilight of Cutting‘ and what it taught me about FGM.  In the second, I discussed books that would be of interest to egalitarian Christians. I’ll finish with the books relevant for people who want to think outside the box, particularly in regard to sex and gender.

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