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Book Review – New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity (Frank Matera)

Frank J. Matera. New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 520 pp. $55.00.

matera-nttFrank Matera is a prolific Roman Catholic New Testament scholar who had published books on NT ethics and Christology prior to this New Testament theology (hereafter “NTT”). He conceives of NTT as a specifically theological task and feels that history of Christian religion should be a separate discipline. Matera further contends that for those who see the NT as inspired Scripture, the presupposed internal coherence should be seen in how we carry out the task of NTT – that is, NTT should display the unity of the writings while doing justice to the diversity. This is a primary aim of Matera’s NTT, as made plain by the book’s subtitle and throughout the introduction. His method of achieving this aim is by taking into account the implied narrative of Scripture.

Matera’s NTT takes an author-by-author approach, with the book broken into the three great voices (Synoptic tradition, Pauline tradition, Johannine tradition) plus “other voices.” He sees the distinctive starting points of the three great traditions as the key to their diverse theologies – the Synoptics in Jesus’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the Pauline in the gospel of what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Johannine in the incarnation. He puts the Acts of the Apostles in the Synoptic tradition and presents the books in the order of Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts in order to show the development in the Synoptic Gospels as well as “how Luke envisions the transition from the preaching of Jesus about the kingdom of God to the proclamation of the early church about its risen Lord” (1).

For the Pauline tradition, Matera deals with all 13 letters together; although he believes some to be deuteropauline, he sees the canonical letters as together forming a Pauline tradition that originated with the Apostle Paul. Because Matera’s goal is not to construct a historical account of Paul’s theology but to construct a theology of the canonical Pauline corpus, methodologically he doesn’t need to distinguish between the undisputed and disputed Paulines. However, I think bringing up the authorship issue but not saying more about it will incite questions from both the conservative and critical. Matera organizes the Pauline tradition into five groups, each with its own focus: (1) the Thessalonian correspondence in light of its election theology; (2) the Corinthian correspondence in light of its theology of the cross and the resurrection of the dead; (3) Galatians and Romans in light of their theology of justification by faith apart from during the works of the Mosaic law; (4) Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians in light of the imprisoned apostle’s theology; and (5) the Pastoral Epistles in light of the theology of handing on the Pauline Tradition to a new generation” (102-103).

Matera excludes Revelation from the Johannine tradition because of its differing starting point – God’s victory in the slaughtered lamb. I think that even on the basis of starting point Revelation could be placed with the Johannine Gospel and Epistles, and that separating it needs more justification. For example, I think you could make a case for the starting point of Revelation also being the incarnation – in Revelation Jesus is the lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). What Matera notes as the distinct starting point of Revelation as God’s victory in the slaughtered lamb could be tweaked – God’s victory in the incarnate lamb who was slain.Nevertheless, Matera notes that the Gospel and Epistles of John share the common starting point of incarnation, as well as themes such as faith, love, light, and life. He also mentions diffs within this tradition such as genre, theological implications of the incarnation (revelation of Son from the Father in Gospel, communion of believers with God and each other in letters).

The “other voices” are Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation. Matera expounds upon the rich Christology of Jesus as high priest in the order of Melchizedek in Hebrews, the counterbalance to Paul provided by the General Epistles, and the Christology of Jesus as the lamb who was slain and will be victorious in Revelation. These “other voices” share several theological motifs: “(1) the need for conduct that coheres with the gospel, (2) the assurance that there will be a final judgment at which the wicked will be punished and the just rewarded, (3) a conviction that suffering and affliction are part of the Christian life in the time before God’s final victory, (4) warnings that false teachers will appear in the last days, and (5) exhortations for the faithful to persevere and maintain the apostolic teaching they have received” (334).

In the introduction Matera notes that the unity of the NT, while touched upon here and there throughout the book, will be explicitly presented in the conclusion. The conclusion first summarizes the implied narrative mentioned in the introduction:

The unity of New Testament theology is grounded in the implied master story to which these writings witness. This story can be summarized in this way: Humanity finds itself in a predicament of its own making from which it cannot extricate itself. This predicament, which is experienced as a profound alienation from God, is the result of humanity’s rebellion against God. It affects Jew and Gentile alike. Because humanity cannot reconcile itself to God or free itself from this predicament, God has graciously sent his own Son into the world to redeem the world. Those who believe and accept this gracious offer of salvation, Jew and Gentile alike, are incorporated into a community of believers that God has redeemed and sanctified through Christ. Redeemed and sanctified, this new community lives by the power of God’s Spirit as it waits for the consummation of all things. Although this consummation is expressed in different ways (the parousia, the general resurrection of the dead, the final judgment), the New Testament writings agree that God will be victorious and Christ will be the agent of God’s victory (427-428).

Then the New Testament witness to this narrative is summarized under the headings 1) humanity in need of salvation; 2) the bringer of salvation; 3) the community of the sanctified; 4) the moral life of the sanctified; and 5) the hope of the sanctified. These are basically what we traditionally call anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, ethics, and eschatology.

The conclusion was a bit of a letdown for me. From the introduction I was expecting it to be a synthesis, but it was instead mainly summarizing author-by-author under the aforementioned headings; I did not perceive a satisfactory synthesis of the unity of the NT and NTT. The body of the book also felt most of the time like an NT introduction, with a lot of summarization. However, Matera’s NTT is a good book by a great scholar. It’s provides a solid theological overview to the New Testament that intellectually-minded Christians would benefit greatly from as a robust introduction to the New Testament. It would be a great book in NT intro/theology courses in Bible college courses and perhaps lower-level seminary courses. In preparing to teach/preach through a book of the New Testament, reading the pertinent section from Matera’s NTT would be fruitful. That being said though, it’s not a particularly exciting book, especially if you’ve read other NTTs that pursue a specifically theological task and aim to do justice to the unity of the NT (e.g. Thielman, and especially Marshall). However, for those who have not read an NTT of that type, Matera’s is an excellent representative/choice.

Thanks to Westminster John Knox for the review copy!


Book Notice – An Introduction to the New Testament: History, Literature, Theology (M. Eugene Boring)

M. Eugene Boring. An Introduction to the New Testament: History, Literature, Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012. 720 pp. $45.00.

Boring NTThis NT introduction is the fruit of a lifetime of scholarship by a distinguished NT scholar, M. Eugene Boring, I. Wylie Briscoe Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. One distinguishing feature of this NT introduction is immediately apparent: there are nine chapters weighing in at 181 pages before Boring even gets into the NT texts. Many NT introductions dive right into a book-by-book survey, with others supplying a brief chapter or two that provide a broad overview of the Greco-Roman and Jewish backgrounds of the NT. The detailed background from multiple angles that Boring provides sets his volume apart in the world of NT introductions and makes this a valuable resource for the motivated and serious beginning student of the NT.

Boring’s introduction to his introduction covers what the NT is and how it was formed as the Church’s book; it introduces textual criticism, bible translation and biblical interpretation; it provides an overview of the Hellenistic world and Palestinian Judaism within that world; and introduces the quests of the Historical Jesus and the first Christian generation. After this lengthy prolegomenon, the next surprise is that whereas NT introductions typically begin with the Gospels, Boring begins with Paul and ends with the Gospels, Acts, the Johannine letters, and Revelation. The other major unique attribute of Boring’s NT introduction is its theological emphasis, as noted in the subtext. Whereas NT introductions typically do not cover theology, Boring’s volume addresses what he calls the “exegetical-theological précis ” of each book.

For those not familiar with Boring as a scholar, it should be noted that this is a critical NT introduction. This is apparent from methodology as well as conclusions, from issues such as dating and authorship to more significant matters related to the integrity of the NT text. As such, as an evangelical, this isn’t a book I would recommend to the typical person in the pew as an introduction to serious study of the NT. The first NT introduction I’d recommend is hands-down The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Kostenberger, Kellum, and Quarles). That being said, for the academically-inclined evangelical who has read a few conservative NT introductions and is somewhat familiar with the terrain, I highly recommend Boring’s volume as a stellar work from a moderate, more critical approach.

For the serious student of the NT, Boring’s An Introduction to the New Testament: History, Literature, Theology is a worthy addition your library. Alongside the conservative must-haves such as Kostenberger/Kellum/Quarles and Carson/Moo, Boring’s volume merits a spot in one’s NT introduction section next to the likes of Raymond Brown and Luke Timothy Johnson.

Thanks to Westminster John Knox for the review copy!

Purchase: Amazon

Book Review – Jesus as a Figure in History (Mark Allan Powell)

Mark Allen Powell. Jesus as a Figure in History, Second Edition: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 288 pp. $30.00.

JesysMy first encounter with historical Jesus research was in a Christian origins and New Testament course at my secular university less than a year after I had become a Christian. While my evangelical faith remained intact through the course by God’s grace, the impression I got about historical Jesus work was that this is the business of non-Christian scholars seeking to debunk the foundational truth claims of Christianity. I went along the next several years with no interest in this field whatsoever, only occasionally brushing shoulders with it unintentionally through apologetics and gospels studies. Needless to say, my opinion of the field based on a very limited and one-sided exposure has changed.1

In Jesus as a Figure in History, Mark Allan Powell provides a very accessible introduction to the field of historical Jesus research from the perspective of a journalist researching an academic movement. Though Powell is a confessing evangelical Christian and has chaired the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and was a founding editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, he aimed to be descriptive in this book rather than argumentative, writing in an unbiased way with an ideologically neutral tone.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book (which focuses on the scholarship of the past three decades) by providing a brief survey of historical Jesus studies that demonstrates how we got to where we are. Key figures and their contributions to the discipline are introduced, and the various quests for the historical Jesus are defined and explained. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the data and sources historians use to study Jesus (archeology, Roman literature, Jewish literature, New Testament epistles, Synoptic Gospels, Gospel of John, noncanonical gospels, agrapha) as well as a survey of nine key criteria of authenticity that are applied to these sources in historical Jesus research. Though different scholars have different approaches, the sources and methods outlined in this chapter are basic and generally employed by all.

Chapter 3 examines a few snapshots of certain aspects of who Jesus was that have been suggested by modern scholars: Jesus the social prophet (Richard Horsley), Jesus the charismatic Jew (Geza Vermes), Jesus the magician (Morton Smith), Jesus the sage (Ben Witherington III), Jesus the Cynic philosopher (F. Gerald Downing), Jesus the itinerant radical (Gerd Theissen), Jesus the millenarian prophet (Dale Allison), Jesus the mamzer rabbi (Bruce Chilton), and Jesus the purported Messiah (Paula Fredriksen). Chapters 4-9 provide a more in-depth treatment of the work of the “big six” historical Jesus scholars – Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, and N.T. Wright. In contrast to the snapshots of chapter three, these scholars have all more or less tried to produce comprehensive portraits of Jesus. Each of these six chapters follows a similar structure: overview of the scholar, his method for studying Jesus, resulting portrait of Jesus, and criticisms from the guild.

The concluding chapter provides a summary of key issues in which there continues to be disagreement. Powell addresses the disagreements in method (sources, criteria, approach) as well as disagreements over Jesus’s relationship to Judaism, eschatology, politics, and the supernatural. Whereas Schweitzer sounded a death knell for historical Jesus studies a century ago, today the field is alive and well. The appendices look at the work of scholars who claim Jesus never existed, the relationship between historical Jesus studies and Christian apologetics, and scholars who try to develop a psychological profile for Jesus. I found appendix two particularly interesting as a Christian and as someone who was at one time very engaged in apologetics. Powell takes a look at how Christian scholars engage in this discipline and the challenges therein, focusing unsprisingly on Darrell Bock and Craig Keener. He notes the unfortunate yet unsurprising marginalization of Christian scholars in this field, and also points out some reasons why Christian apologetics has an uneasy relationship with historical Jesus studies.

Jesus as a Figure in History is a phenomenal introduction to historical Jesus research. This kind of descriptive introduction to the field is uncommon; most of the literature is that of a particular scholar sketching his particular portrait of Jesus or writing from his particular perspective. Powell truly does write in an unbiased way. When he presents criticism of a scholar’s work from the guild, he also points out strengths and contributions. This book is also very accessible and doesn’t require any prior knowledge in the field. Powell explains everything very clearly. This is definitely a must-read for anyone with an interest in historical Jesus research that is seeking an overview of the field and the contemporary issues. And though Powell points out an uneasy relationship between historical Jesus research and apologetics, I actually feel that any Christian with a passion for apologetics and evangelism should be acquainted with the field of historical Jesus research. Some non-Christians are very knowledgeable about the work of scholars like Crossan and Ehrman, and it would be a challenge to engage in dialogue without some familiarity with this kind of critical scholarship.

1 Evangelicals without exposure to historical Jesus research should note that this is an academic field dominated by non-Christians/non-evangelicals. Therefore, when you read in this area, you are bound to read things that you fundamentally disagree with and things you find extremely offensive to your faith convictions.

Purchase: Amazon

A free electronic copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.

Book Review: From Jesus to the Church (Craig Evans)

Craig A. Evans. From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. 176 pp. $25.00.

From Jesus to the ChurchDr. Craig Evans is a household name to many. Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Dr. Evans is an internationally renowned scholar with notable expertise in historical Jesus studies and the Jewish background of the New Testament. His latest book, From Jesus to the Church, grew out of the Deichmann lectures delivered at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel in May of 2010. The purpose of the lecture series is to support scholarship that is concerned with the intersection of Judaism and Christianity.

The scope of this book is much narrower than the title might suggest. It’s not a broad history of the first generation of the Christian church; rather, this study is a treatment of “the clash between the family of high priest Annas and the family of Jesus of Nazareth, a clash inaugurated by a Jeremiah-related prophecy of the temple’s doom, uttered by another man named Jesus. My goal is to draw attention to the importance of this prophecy, what motivated it, and the effects it had on both the followers of Jesus and on the followers of Annas, his family, and allies” (2).


Book Review – The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lyle Bierma)

Lyle D. Bierma. The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 266 pp. $30.00.

heidelbergI’ve never been a member of a confessional church, but for a while now I’ve been thinking about studying through and memorizing a catechism. I just haven’t been able to choose between the Westminster and the Heidelberg. Since I’m interested in both, I was eager to read this new book published in the 450th anniversary year of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC). From my very brief and often second-hand encounters, it always seemed to me that the Westminster Catechism is more explicitly Reformed and more “heady” and the Heidelberg is more general (i.e. broadly evangelical with a wider appeal) and devotional.

However, despite the fact that the Heidelberg is perhaps the most ecumenical catechism to come out of the Reformation period, Bierma believes that in the past fifty or so years its ecumenical nature and potential has not been discussed much. He states that the major barrier to the HC being viewed as an ecumenical document lies in the fact that for most of its history, it has been identified almost exclusively with the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Furthermore, “[t]his Reformed ecclesiastical identity of the HC has been buttressed over the past 150 years by a body of scholarship that finds in the catechism a distinctly Reformed theological character as well” (2). Many scholars asserted that the HC is not Lutheran, Melanchthonian, Zwinglian, Bullingerian, nor Bucerian, but distinctly and thoroughly Calvinistic and Reformed.


Book Review: Faith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and Devotion (Alister McGrath)

Alister E. McGrath. Faith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and Devotion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 128 pp. $16.00

FCWhat do you believe and why? What difference does it make in your life? These are the themes Alister McGrath aims to explore in the new series “The Heart of the Christian Faith,” of which Faith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and Devotion is the first volume. McGrath seeks to explore the basic themes of a simple and genuinely “mere” (a la C.S. Lewis) Christian faith in this series, setting forth a big picture that makes sense of both what we see in the world and what we experience within ourselves. In this first volume McGrath displays before us a panorama, exploring the nature of faith and the history and significance of creeds. The subsequent four volumes will provide snapshots of individual beliefs, expounding upon topics such as the nature of God and the significance of Jesus of Nazareth. Written for the “ordinary” Christian, McGrath draws upon and frequently references three of the great lay theologians of the twentieth century: G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers.

In the first chapter, McGrath uses his own journey to show how science and empiricism fall short, that the true meaning of reality is to know God, and that an accurate view of the world around us is only possible through knowing God. Christianity enables us to see the big picture, and in chapter two McGrath focuses on three models that help us explore the big picture – the map, the lens, and the light. The Christian faith brings about a new way of seeing the world; and if you want to explore a new place, you need a map to help you explore and discover, to help you find your way to where you want to go; a lens to bring things into focus; and a light to illumine the shadowlands.

Chapter three explores words and stories. “The creeds give us a framework for going further and deeper into our faith. Yet many find their words and phrases inadequate, if not occasionally baffling” (40). However, although words have limitations they also have power, expressing matters that speak to the heart as well as the mind, acting as signposts that point to God. Story (which the Bible employs) is powerful because it makes faith more accessible and it has the unique power to change the way we think. The creeds are shorthand summaries and interpretations of the grand biblical metanarrative, tracing the story from creation to fall to redemption to final restoration. Chapter four explores how creeds came into being, focusing especially on the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. “The creeds are the carefully chosen words that the early church agreed on to try and capture what lay at the heart of the Christian faith. They describe the Christian faith as a sketch map describes a landscape” (62). Here, McGrath also expounds upon how creeds weave together the great themes of the Bible and provide a framework for interpreting it, as well as how creeds connect us with the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) of faithful believers throughout history.  The final chapter explores how what we believe makes a difference in the way we live.

Concluding Thoughts
This book is a short, accessible, and engaging look at the nature of faith and the origin and significance of Christian creeds. Many in this age live by a mantra of “no creeds but Christ” or “no creeds but the Bible,” missing out on a rich Christian heritage as well as a hermeneutical/practical guide. McGrath convincingly shows how creeds can enrich our spiritual lives. This book and the entire series will likely be excellent books for a young believer or any Christian wanting to deepen their faith, to truly explore what they believe, why they believe it, and what difference it makes in their lives.

[…] far from merely summing up the things of God, they are an invitation to explore the wonders to which they point. Like diagrams of cathedrals and maps of landscapes, they are useful as summaries and starting points, but come to life when we let them guide us on a voyage of discovery, in which we see things with new eyes and take things in with a new sense of satisfaction (59).

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*I received a free electronic copy from the Westminster John Knox via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.