Sunday, March 27, 2016

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII – Psalms 1-72

The reformers use restraint in their allegory.

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII – Psalms 1-72
Editor: Herman J. Selderhuis
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 561

In reading Old Testament VII: Psalms 1-72, the latest in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series, I am immediately faced with how psalms should be interpreted. In the introduction, Editor Herman J. Selderhuis addresses what is meant by the “literal meaning of Scripture.” The definition has changed over time. “Today by the ‘literal meaning of Scripture’ we mean its meaning according to the constraints of grammar, history and literary method,” he writes (xlvi).

Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, the author of an influential Psalter, saw a twofold meaning in the literal sense: the simple and the spiritual. He defined the simple like the literal sense is defined today. The grammatical, historical and literary aspects of the actual words of Scripture are the focus. The spiritual seeks understanding in light of the full form and content of Scripture. The two are distinguishable but inseparable. The simple is viewed as serving the spiritual, which has priority. This is the approach affirmed by the reformers. “Luther was particularly insistent that Scripture’s substance, Christ, is the interpretive key for all its words” (xlvii).

The reformers used this approach to evaluate the frequent use of allegory. When it did not conform to the rule of faith it was rejected. On the positive side, when it did not go beyond the bounds of Scripture it could “not only enrich doctrine but also console consciences” (xlviii).

Selderhuis goes on to discuss the spectrum of views that reformers had on this subject. Luther and his followers tended to quickly jump to the spiritual meaning, whereas on the opposite end, Calvin spent more time on grammatical and historical considerations before moving on to Christological or ecclesial interpretations.

Today it seems like modern commentators tend to focus more on the technical aspects and less on spiritual meanings. To some extent this is probably a reaction against the abuse of allegory in the past. This trend can lead to greater accuracy, but on the downside, modern commentaries may not be as strong when it comes to connecting the material to Christ and the Church.

That is definitely not a weakness of this volume or any others in this series. Every page is rich in meaning and application. Technical considerations are in the background. The emphasis is on the spiritual meaning of the psalms, which makes for excellent devotional reading, though it may be a bit wordy at times.

One distinctive that I appreciate is a theology of suffering. The doctrine of the reformers is cross-centered. We triumph in the same way as Christ through love and sacrifice. We should not think it strange if we are mistreated and experience trials. It is a comfort to know that this is not unusual. Our exaltation is not fully realized here.

In contrast, a theology of glory, might lead one to believe that pain and hardship are not normal. Taken to an extreme you approximate a health and wealth gospel, where it’s all about prospering now. Suffering is an anomaly, something to be avoided. It may even be seen as a sign of God’s disfavor.

The reformers might think it strange and alarming that such views could be seen as valid. In commenting on Psalm 5, Nikolaus Selnecker writes, “In this life, things generally go well for the wicked; they flutter about in great honor. They are powerful and rich; they also possess such names and titles that intimate that they are holy, pious and honorable people. The pious, however, and in fact the whole church of God, must suffer in this life and we are subject to crosses on every side. They must also continue to bear such names that intimate that they are unruly rebels and heretics among whom no peace or order can be maintained. Now this is painful. And it causes great offense and grieves the hearts and conscience of many pious, godfearing people and teachers. Against this, we must arm ourselves not only with the Word or with teaching with which we confront the godless, but also with somber, incessant prayer to God, that he would rule and protect his inheritance—that is, his church and believers—against false teachers, fanatical spirits and tyrants” (46). Such is the depth found in the reformers.

Each psalm is reproduced in the English Standard Version followed by a brief and helpful overview by the editor. The comments, which are drawn from different ancient writings, are grouped in sections under a verse or verses. Whether it is a verse or comment, each section has a heading that summarizes the content.

Unlike more technical commentaries, some verses, phrases and words are not specifically covered. Usually the commentator gives more of a general sense of a passage. Those looking for detailed exegesis of every verse will not find it here. 

As I have said about some of the past volumes in the series, this is worth reading just to get the comments of people like Luther and Calvin. Those from lesser or unknown reformers are just as valuable. I recommend all of these books. The perspectives here are unique, unlike what you find elsewhere today. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Keep Breathing - Jody McBrayer


Strong comeback from a former Avalon member

Keep Breathing
Artist: Jody McBrayer (www.jodymcbrayer.com)
Label: StowTown Records
Length: 11 tracks/44 minutes

Keep Breathing by Jody McBrayer feels like a homecoming. In one sense it becomes that when he joins his former Avalon partner, Melissa Greene, on “God is in Control” (not the Twila Paris song). It’s a pleasure to hear these two blending and complementing their voices on a song that speaks to the times in which we live.

The opening “Good to be Home” is the sound of a prodigal returning. The lyrics and R&B/gospel styling are so warm. It’s a testimony of coming in from the cold. It’s emerging from a time of difficulty with a new song. Like much of this release, it worships Christ and celebrates being in the family of God.

Along with the title track and “He Gave Me More Love” these three songs especially appeal because of the soulful music. They are my favorites. They exude welcome. It’s like being greeted with a loving embrace.   

The programming and the guitar riff on “When We Look Back” are a look back toward one of Avalon’s most famous songs, “Testify to Love.” It’s a slower song but I hear echoes of the former’s majesty.

The pennywhistle on “With Each Borrowed Breath” gives it a Celtic feel. It’s a pensive reflection on one’s days. It’s one of several worshipful songs. They feel so appropriate on this release.  

Though well-written and performed, the style of the orchestrated “What it takes to be a Savior” is probably the least compelling. It follows the inspirational format one might associate with singers that start quietly and build toward a crescendo where they hit and hold the high notes. It’s not a bad song; you won’t find one on this release. It just doesn’t feel as fresh.

On the other hand, on this and the other tracks you hear a voice that is as strong as ever, regardless of the setting. McBrayer masters the material.

The inspirational style works best on the closing, “This is a Son,” which addresses the marginalized and outcasts of our society. It makes a startling identification at the end.

McBrayer was part of Avalon for nearly 12 years, until he left in 2007 due to a rare but manageable form of heart disease. His previous releases consist of This is Who I Am (2002) and an EP on iTunes, Christmastime (2015).

This is a strong comeback, one that will appeal to Avalon fans and anyone that appreciates faith-inspired music. Grace, the work of Christ and praise are three repeated themes. The gospel-oriented material alone makes this worthwhile. The weaker moments are when McBrayer drifts toward the orchestrated, but it doesn’t overshadow this effort.

Friday, March 4, 2016

New Testament Introduction (Fourth Edition) - Donald Guthrie


No serious scholar should be without this masterful analysis.

New Testament Introduction (Fourth Edition)
Author: Guthrie, Donald
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 1161

Can there be a finer introduction to the New Testament? I don’t see how any other volume could exceed this exhaustive work. The fourth edition of New Testament Introduction by Donald Guthrie represents a lifetime of study and it’s now available in paperback, which makes it more affordable.

No Bible institute, college or university, and no theological library should be without it. It provides detailed analysis of the form and content of every book in the New Testament. Form and content are the key words. Like nothing else that I have read, it goes to great lengths to examine structure and theories of origin.   

It’s a scholar’s and academic’s dream. Extensive footnotes are found on every page. There is also a lengthy bibliography. The author’s command of the material is astonishing.

The one drawback is that it may be a little unintelligible and tedious for the non-academic. That’s not to discourage anyone from trying to read this, although it will be easier to consult, rather than read from beginning to end.

Unfortunately, many Christians will never go this deep, and that is a shame, because the material is important. It matters. It’s wrestling with the Scriptures on a different level, and in some instances the outcomes have had a negative impact.

More liberal thinkers call into question the history and reliability of the Scriptures. This is where the various theories of source and form criticisms come into play. There is no denying that this is difficult reading, but the competing arguments and analysis are useful in defending the faith. Fortunately, Guthrie is an evangelical, one committed to thoughtfully examining all the relevant data. We can learn from how he handles it.

Any pastor, theologian, scholar and serious Bible student can benefit from even a general knowledge of the material. On the other hand, they could easily dismiss the relevance, by imagining little in terms of return in pastoral ministries, which is a narrow, questionable view. This is an outstanding reference work that belongs on their shelf so that they can consult it if and when needed. Who knows what truth may be gleaned and what fruit it will bear?

There are subject and author indexes in the back, but no Scripture index. With so many references that might have been a difficult undertaking. Plus, each New Testament book is exhaustively covered in its own chapter. So if someone is studying a particular book, like The Epistle of James, they can easily turn to that section and learn about authorship, the addressees, date, purpose, literary form and style, and get a synopsis of the contents, plus find the many Scripture references pertaining to that section.

This also covers in detail the differences and problems associated with the synoptic gospels. If you want to learn about the hypothetical document know as “Q,” you will find a wealth of information, along with the speculation around other supposed documents or oral traditions.  

Don’t expect commentary and application. This has more to do with technical aspects. Yet, it can have some use for sermon preparation, especially when covering an entire book, or even just a few messages drawn from a bible book.  

For those looking to add a New Testament introduction to a theological library, you can’t go wrong with this. It provides more than most people will ever use.

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

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