Friday 26 February 2010

Billington’s Bookshelf 2009

[I’ve posted a version of the below as a web article for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and thought I’d post it here as well. The idea was to profile some books published on the Bible during 2009. The mention of an item does not preclude either earlier or subsequent mention elsewhere on the blog!]

Alan Stibbs, Understanding, Expounding and Obeying God’s Word: Methods and Advice to Help You Study and Apply the Bible (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2009).

Three books, first published between 1950 and 1960, are here brought together for this ‘Alan Stibbs Trilogy’. Although the language might feel a little dated here and there, the wisdom and practical advice transfers well across the decades. A former missionary in China and then Principal at Oak Hill Theological College, Stibbs shows his love for Scripture and his desire to help those who themselves want to help others understand the Bible.

The original order of publication – Understanding, Obeying, and Expounding – has here been altered. That doesn’t matter, providing all three are present – not just between the covers of this book but in our own engagement with God through Scripture. ‘Understanding God’s Word’ provides practical tips in discovering what the Bible says and means. ‘Expounding God’s Word’ is not just for preachers but for all those who lead Bible studies or find themselves in any position to help others understand Scripture. ‘Obeying God’s Word’ recognises that understanding and expounding alone are not enough unless they make a difference to what we believe and how we live.

Tim Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2009).

Drawing on the deep wells of those who have gone before as well as utilising insights from contemporary philosophy of language, Tim Ward provides a rich and excellent treatment of Scripture from an evangelical perspective. He sets the Bible in the context of the communicative action of the triune God – showing the link between what God says and how God acts – in creation and redemption, such that to believe and obey God’s word is to believe and obey God himself. Well worth reading and then reading again.

Dean Flemming, Philippians, New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2009), and Michael F. Bird, Colossians and Philemon: A New Covenant Commentary, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene: Cascade, 2009).

It would be too easy to become cynical about the seeming proliferation of commentaries on the Bible. That would be a shame, since commentary writing has an ancient pedigree; it reminds us of our place as the most recent in a long line of those who have gone before us, who themselves have sought to understand and expound the Bible for the benefit of others. Most of all, commentary writing keeps us close to Scripture. It is a mark of a commitment to the notion that this collection of texts matters. So it is that I was pleased to come across these two new-ish commentary series during 2009 which will continue to help new generations of God’s people get to grips with his word.

The ‘New Beacon Bible Commentary’ is written by scholars in the Wesleyan tradition. Beyond that, the commentary is distinctive in dividing its comments into three sections: behind the text (providing information necessary to understand the text: the historical situation, the literary context, etc.), in the text (exploring what the text says in its grammar and words and in Scripture as a whole), and from the text (looking at other issues such as theological significance and application).

The contributors to the ‘New Covenant Commentary Series’ come from diverse backgrounds, denominationally and from around the world, supporting its intention ‘to engage in the task of biblical interpretation and theological reflection from the perspective of the global church’. As well as commenting on the text in its own context, the series aims to provide windows into community formation (‘how the text shapes the mission and character of the believing community’) and ministerial formation (‘how the text shapes the ministry of Christian leaders’).

Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

More technical than the other books mentioned here, this stimulating work looks at the question of our relationship to the earth, particularly as that is portrayed in the Old Testament. Drawing on ‘agrarian theory’ in her reading of Scripture, Davis uses agrarianism as a lens for reading biblical texts and finds them illumined in the process – particularly where agrarianism is seen not just as a narrow concern with farming but in broader terms as ‘a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on the health of the land and of living creatures’.

Looking at a variety of passages from Law, Psalms, Wisdom, Prophecy, and historical narrative, Davis shows how many texts assume an agricultural setting where farmers had to work in harmony with the rhythms of nature to survive. An agrarian perspective sheds light on passages in Leviticus, for instance, where it becomes clear that lists of seemingly obscure laws assume the reality of a web of relationships between humans, animals, and the earth. Adopting an agrian perspective, Davis suggests, enables us to be more sensitive to these issues and, in the process, to find in the Old Testament a source for prayer, reflection, and action.

Not only does this provide a reminder of the ‘goodness’ of creation and a challenge to use the earth sustainably, it also underscores the dangers of a dualistic Christianity that shuns physical reality as inherently evil or not as valuable.

Keith Mathison, From Age to Age: The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009).

At 800 pages long, and wearing its scholarship lightly, this is essentially a survey of the entire Bible which is sensitive to the progressive unfolding of God’s covenant and kingdom we find there.

Don’t be misled by the title: ‘eschatology’ often refers more narrowly to the ‘last things’; more broadly it refers to the whole of God’s plan of redemption from beginning to end being worked out in salvation history – looking not only at the consummation of all things at the end, but the various stages which unfold on the way to the end. It is this overarching promise of redemption that Mathison traces through the entire Bible in an engaging study.

Exploring how each book of the Bible develops the theme of ‘promise and fulfilment’ that culminates in the coming of Christ, and showing how individual texts fit into the overarching story, this is the kind of book which – without too much trouble – could be used by those who enjoy reading the Bible through in a year and would like to use something which provided a trusted guide along the way.

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