Monday, December 14, 2009

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament - Ben Witherington III

Scholar at work

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament (Volume One) The Individual Witnesses
Author: Ben Witherington III
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 856

“Scholar at Work” would be an appropriate cover sticker for this book. This might also be the most important reason for reading it. I watch in admiration when a scholar like Ben Witherington III employs the tools of his trade to examine Scripture.

In this first volume on New Testament theology, he focuses on exegetical work. What qualifies him for such a task? Prior to this project, he took on the rather daunting challenge of writing a substantial commentary on every book of the New Testament. This exercise served him well as he works in chronological order through the writings (and in the case of Jesus, the teachings) of all who contributed to the New Testament canon. In his effort to get at the heart of the major themes, he defines words and looks at their usage. He provides historical background, and he frequently resorts to extrabiblical writings to provide context.

He has an amazing grasp of these outside writings, and I wish he had explained their importance, but from his use it is plain that they provide corroborating evidence in support of the Scriptures. Again, the most valuable learning is watching Witherington attempt to determine the original meaning of texts. What we end up with is a multitude of Bible resources rolled into one. With extensive name, subject and verse indexes in the back, this is an extremely valuable reference, one that should be in any theological library, particularly those that support higher education in biblical subjects.

Even the most learned may find new insights in the wealth of exposition. One interesting example in his discussion of Matthew 19:1-12, where Jesus seams to permit divorce in the case of “adultery,” or “immorality.” Witherington states that the original term translated “adultery” comes from a word that means “prostitute.” He writes that the exception could be in a case where the wife has taken up prostitution. The word can also refer to the sin of incest. Jesus may have been commenting “on the very situation that John the Baptizer was beheaded for protesting against: the incestuous marriage of Herod Antipas to his brother’s wife.” If the exception is in the case of incest, a devout Jew would not see this as a proper marriage.

Since the word “porneia” can refer to a wide variety of sexual aberrations, translating the word in the normal way would seam to make Jesus more lenient than some ancient Jewish teachers in regard to divorce. The disciples reaction to all of this, “If that is the way it is between a man and a woman, it is better not to marry,” supposes a stricter view. Witherington suggests that what is meant “is either ‘except on the grounds of prostitution’ or more likely ‘except on the grounds of incest.’” He believes this makes good sense when compared with Mark 10, “where Jesus’ teaching is said to be ‘no divorce,’ and also 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul says that Jesus’ teaching was ‘no divorce.’”

In this survey, one major theme that continually emerges is Witherington’s view that salvation is not ironclad. He finds manifold support against the position of “once saved, always saved.” I wondered if being a Methodist scholar shaped his interpretations, but he displays a careful fidelity to the Scriptures, even if some finer points are arguable.

Further, he is not teaching the Wesley doctrine of sinless perfection, only that Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling. He seems to concede that it may be hard to lose one’s salvation, but it is possible.

It’s almost startling how clear this possibility of loss becomes. It probably serves as a much-needed correction to the idea that what comes after salvation is not as important as conversion. Witherington emphasizes the two-sided nature of salvation: faith and works. Somewhere over the course of time the latter has been uncoupled from the former. Highlighting so many passages that seem to show salvation is conditional is somewhat novel and unsettling, but we need to know the truth. More than once I wished that this kind of careful analysis would filter down into our pulpits.

Calvinists and others might take issue with Witherington’s Arminian positions. I encourage them to read him. He provides strong support for his views, and if they follow his logic with an open mind, they will at least come away with a better understanding of an opposing argument. Believers in Christ should not be afraid to hold up their beliefs to scrutiny and change them if needed.

Could this book be shorter? Maybe, but the length is what makes this so comprehensive. In this first volume he gives voice to all of the individuals whose thought, actions and writings comprise the New Testament. The second volume will be a synthesis that will focus equally on belief and behavior. Witherington repeatedly shows that there is no separating the two.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Songs 4 Worship: Country Live - Various Artists

Country style adds reverence
Songs 4 Worship: Country Live
Various Artists
Label: Time Life (
Length: 15 tracks/71:49 minutes

Songs 4 Worship: Country Live follows Songs 4 Worship Country, a 2007 studio release that has been on Billboard’s Top Country album chart since its release. That recording features some of the same artists (and in some cases the same songs, except in this recording they are live) that you find here. Having the same song, even if performed by a different artist, is a bit of a drawback if you already have the studio recording. Another is the use of popular praise and worship songs that have become overly familiar to many. But before you write this recording off, know that these are just minor weaknesses to an album that is full of excellent performances.

Spotlighting some of the best praise and worship songs in a country light brings an added reverence that you don’t find on the pop versions. It’s like they are born anew to be the means of adoration for a new audience. The artists highlight the best aspects of already strong compositions, and some tracks are outside the standard fare.

What immediately comes to mind is “Revelation Song” by Susan Ashton. The press release accompanying this CD states that it has been at the top of the Christian radio charts for 13 weeks. Ashton was prominent in the Christian music scene before recording two country albums for Capitol, the second, for reasons unknown to her was never released. She has kept a low profile for several years, and I can only hope that we will hear more from her. This song is not only my favorite; it’s off the charts! I found myself caught-up with its great swelling tide of exaltation.

Another standout is “There is a Reason” by Alison Krause & Union Station. I like this one for different reasons. It does not address God directly. It is more of a thoughtful reflection on how difficulties bring us closer to God. It features some exquisite picking that includes a Dobro solo.

I enjoy the deep voices and harmonies of the Palmetto State Quartet on “Trading My Sorrows.” “How Can I Keep from Singing” by Lenny LeBlanc was a great choice for an opening song. It soars. Like Susan Ashton, this is another artist that seems to have crossed over to country music. LeBlanc is credited with songwriting on two other songs performed on this CD: “Above All” and “We All Bow Down.” The latter is performed movingly once again, as on the prior studio release, by Ricky Skaggs.

Collin Raye shows his versatility by performing the liveliest song, “Get Up in Jesus’ Name,” with gospel-like backing vocals, and then switching gears to perform the lovely “Indescribable,” written in part by Laura Story and made popular by Chris Tomlin.

Every performance is excellent. These songs were captured live at the historic Ryman Auditorium, with the exception of “Open the Eyes of my Heart” by Randy Travis, which comes from a previous recording. I think it’s wonderful that the Ryman, which originally was a church, became the venue for some of the brightest stars in country music casting their glory like crowns before the throne of God in humble adoration and worship. They do their best to recognize the holy and awesome Creator as the light that outshines all others.

Redefining Beautiful: What God sees when God sees You - Jenna Lucado with Max Lucado

Beauty as God defines it

Redefining Beautiful: What God sees when God sees You
Author: Jenna Lucado with Max Lucado
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Pages: 221

In Redefining Beautiful Jenna Lucado writes in the same conversational mode that has made Max Lucado endearing to so many people. Max contributes throughout with excerpts and adaptations from previous writings, which serve to highlight his daughter’s thoughts.

Jenna is chattier than Max; girls and young women will find it easy to relate. She gets candid about beauty tips that deal more with identity than outward appearance. Jenna helps girls become all that God wants them to be, even if starts with something as unconventional as “embracing your weirdness.” It’s another way of saying, “Be yourself!”

Jenna is surprisingly transparent. She takes us not only into her inner psyche but the world of teenage girls. I found it fascinating. How often do you get to see life from the perspective of the opposite gender? Girls will find a friend and an advocate.

One subject that rightly gets a lot of attention is the influence of fathers. In introducing the topic she quotes Dr. Kevin Lehman, “The (most important) ingredient in any woman’s life is her relationship with her father.” She gives hope to those whose fathers have failed them, which leads me to a general observation about Max and now Jenna.

The Lucados make the gospel good news. They constantly remind us that God loves us unconditionally, no matter what. As Max writes, “God loves you just the way you are. If you think his love for you would be stronger if your faith were stronger, you are wrong. If you think his love would be deeper if your thoughts were deeper, wrong again. Don’t confuse God’s love with the love you get from people. Love from people often increases with performance and decreases with mistakes. Not so with God’s love. He loves you right where you are.”

But it does not stop there, as Jenna adds, “Being beautiful means overflowing in love for others. . . . God fills us with his love not only to show us how much he loves us but so that it will overflow to others.”

As Jenna writes of Joyce Meyer, who she uses as an example, change must sometimes begin with facing the truth about ourselves and our past. It may be as simple as realizing we need help. Jenna wants girls to give God the pen so that He can change the way their story is going. If they give Him their hearts, He can write a beautiful ending regardless of the ugliness of the past.

I was deeply impressed by the chapter on submitting to authority. Just the thought of it may seem distasteful, but as Jenna’s friend Hannah learned, it can mean “opportunity, wisdom, and triumph.” At first, Hannah would not obey her coaches. She disregarded what they told her, and as a result, did not attain the status she thought she deserved. After realizing her pride, her attitude toward authority changed. She trusted her coaches to achieve her goals. She realized that “attitudes and actions toward authority are a reflection of how we respond to the authority of God. I have learned that when we respect authority, some of that respect flows back to us from others. Good things come back—rewards!” Taking hold of this one truth can minimize the pain we go through from our own willfulness. It can also be the difference between success and failure.

This book is filled with practical principles that can change one’s outlook and life. Max and Jenna both have a way with words. They make the truth plain and simple. They are great encouragers in this journey of faith. You can’t go wrong by spending time with this book.

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

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