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November Books

Well, one of the many wonderful things about being off work and on disability is that I was able to do a little more detailed reading this month. Seriously, smashing up my ankle was one of the best things to happen to me in a long time!
1. A Concise New Testament Theology by I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008).
Many thanks to Adrianna from IVP for providing me with this review copy (and with a review copy of We Become What We Worship by G. K. Beale, which I began to discuss here, but which will not be fully reviewed until the end of this month)!
This book functions as a concise summary of the Marshall’s earlier, award-winning volume, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. Consequently, what one finds here are Marshall’s conclusions and summary statements, without having to wade through extended and detailed scholarly and exegetical discussions. Thus, for the pastor or the lay reader this book in an invaluable aid. However, even for those interested in such detailed discussions (and I consider myself one such reader) this book is useful. In particular, it provides a wonderful overview of the broad strokes of the NT. The student, or researcher, or scholar, often becomes bogged down in his or her own area of expertise (say the synoptics, or Paul, or the historical veracity of Acts, or whatever else) and it is all top easy to lose sight of the rest of the NT. Now, granted, for the secular scholar, this need not be so troubling, but for the Christian scholar — and particularly the scholar who affirms the whole canon of Scripture as authoritative in some way — this should be a concern. Consequently, a book like this one is very useful indeed.
In this regard, the brevity of the book is a great strength. As Marshall rapidly works through the NT book by book (first by going through each book from beginning to end, then by tracing the theological themes of each book, and then by relating each book or corpus back to the rest of the NT — in roughly fifteen pages each), it becomes a great deal easier to relate the Synoptics to Paul, or relate Paul to the Johannine epistles, or relate Hebrews to Revelation, and so on. Further, given that the majority of biblical scholars do not relate their area of NT studies to other areas, it was refreshing to read an author who was very interested in doing this.
That said, I was somewhat surprised with a good many of the conclusions drawn by Marshall. In particular, it seemed that Marshall was regularly reasserting a traditional or ‘Lutheran’ understanding of the NT — in ways that actually seem untenable to me given the trajectory taken by NT scholarship in the last twenty or so years. Now it is obvious that Marshall is aware of this scholarship — for example, he will do things like mention that there has been heated scholarly discussion regarding ‘faith in/of Jesus Christ’ (pistis Christou) but then he will invariably restate the traditional position. Marshall’s commitment to such traditional affirmations is even obvious in the layout of his section on Paul. Although he states that he wishes to survey Paul’s letters in chronological order, he chooses to start with Galatians because ‘its theological content makes it a good starting place’. Hence, we also see major emphases on salvation by faith (which is is generally seen as affirming certain propositions), on the mission of spreading the Gospel (which is primarily proclaimed propositionally) and so on.
Of course, as I stated above, this book is simply a summary of Marshall’s earlier 765pp tome on the NT so, if anything, my surprise regarding Marshall’s reaffirmation of these traditional positions has simply whet my appetite for more. I would like to know how Marshall can hold on to some of these views and, just as importantly, some of these emphases, especially in light of the so-called New Perspectives on Paul and Jesus, and empire-critical readings of the NT… which means I’ll just have to go back to his earlier work!
2. Theology of the New Testament: a canonical synthetic approach by Frank Thielman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).
Many thanks to Chris Fann from Zondervan for this review copy!
I tend to approach scholars with Evangelical or Conservative reputations with at least as much hesitation or suspicion as I approach scholars reputed to be on the far Left (actually, to be honest, I might approach them with even more suspicion). Consequently, I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Thielman’s New Testament (NT) theology, but I was afraid that I was going to find a good chunk of it disagreeable. Consequently, you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I began to read this book and found it to be absolutely delightful on a number of levels.
First of all, beginning on a fairly superficial level, this is a nice looking book. It has a great (hard) cover, well structured sections and headings, and wide margins. I’ve come to appreciate such things.
Secondly, moving to a literary level, I find this book a delight to read because Thielman is a damn good writer. I have encountered few authors who can so clearly lay out what they are going to say, what they are saying, and what they have said. Thielman is so good as this that I found myself enjoying sections that I normally would find a little more dull.
Thirdly, moving to the level of method, I was impressed with just how even-handed Thielman is in his research and in his conclusions. In this regard, Thielman reminds me of James Dunn — a scholar who holds certain convictions, but a scholars who, as much as possible, allows his research, and not his convictions (or his ideological location), to determine his conclusions (although I think Dunn is still more faithful to this approach). Thus, in Thielman’s work, one finds a beautiful and fruitful combination of insights from scholars who have emphasised different facets of the letter, author, or subject under discussion (this is especially true of the section on Paul).
Indeed, one of Thielman’s strengths is not only uniting scholarly voices that have spoken in opposition to each other, but is also revealing how a good many of the supposed contradictions between various elements of the NT are more projected than actual. However, I would not take things as far as Thielman does as he emphasises the unity of the NT to such a point that there appears to be no room for disagreement between the various NT authors. I’m not so sure about this, but I will leave my comments on this topic for a future post.
Of course, there were other conclusions drawn by Thielman which I found unconvincing (for example, is the ‘centre’ of Paul’s theology really ‘God’s graciousness toward his weak and sinful creatures’?) — but in these situations I found myself respectfully disagreeing with him, not feeling frustrated with him, or angered by what he was saying (which, alas, is all too frequently how I find myself reacting to other so-called ‘Conservative’ scholars).
I recommend this book. It was a strong reminder to me not to judge a scholar be those who sing his or her praises.
3. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society edited by Richard A. Horsley.
This book, the first in a series put together by Horsley and the ‘Paul and Politics’ section of SBL, contains a number of selections that were foundational to the development of ’empire-critical’ or ‘political’ readings of Paul (although we do need to remember that every reading of Paul is necessarily political). Thus, we see selections from people like Dieter Georgi, S. R. F. Price, Paul Zanker, Helmut Koester, Neil Elliott, and several others.
Given my own area of expertise, I’ve already read a number of the books from which these selections are taken but for the unconvinced or the curious but uninformed, I would strongly recommend this collection. It is guaranteed to get your wheels ticking and should (in time) lead to a necessary paradigm shift!
4. Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation. Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl edited by Richard A. Horsley.
This book is the second in the series from the ‘Paul and Politics’ group at SBL and it contains the ways in which various members of the group — Pamela Eisenbaum, Mark Nanos, N. T. Wright, Antionette Wire-Clark, Robert Jewett, and others — have continued to develop the trajectory established by the various authors listed in the first volume. I found many of the contributions to be excellent, although — despite my own sympathies and my desire to be convinced — I must say that the essays focused upon removing (almost?) all conflict between Paul and Jewish groups, as well as some of the feminist readings, to be more suspect than the others.
5. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus by Paul Zanker.
As I mentioned in my ‘September Books’ post, there are two books that are always mentioned when one begins to engage in ‘political’ readings of the New Testament — the book I was reviewing then, Rituals and Power by Simon Price, and this book by Paul Zanker. Having now completed this book (which, by the way, is full of beautiful, and very helpful, photos and illustrations of images from the age of Augustus), it is easy to see why. Upon completing these two books, it is impossible not to conclude that the Roman imperial ideology was a dominant social force throughout the Empire. Thus, it only makes sense to accept Warren Carter’s repeated assertion that the Roman Empire is not ‘the background’ of NT studies. It is the foreground. Not convinced? Read this book!
6. Church Dogmatics II.1: The Doctrine of God by Karl Barth.
Upon completing CD I.1 and I.2 last year, I decided to take a break from Barth. I hadn’t really hit my stride in terms of coming to grip with Barth’s voice (I think that getting into an authors voice, or style of writing, is half the battle in terms of understanding what the author is saying), and I wasn’t too keen to read “The doctrine of God” because I usually find this part of dogmatics to be pretty, um, boring and redundant (i.e. one just rereads what one has read in a thousand other places).
However, since I injured my ankle I had some more time for reading and I decided to read fifteen pages of Barth each day. To my surprise, this became a really wonderful devotional experience — the last thing I expected! I found Barth’s sustained reflection on the being of God as the One who loves in freedom, and his consequent discussion of the perfections of God, to be beautiful and moving. I found it incredibly refreshing to just step back from everything and reflect, with Barth, on God.
Oh, and I think I hit my stride with Barth’s voice. He’s just one of those authors you can’t skim read. At all. Dangnabbit.
7. rabbit, run by John Updike.
Updike’s ‘rabbit’ series has been on my to-read list for a long time. Well, a recent date night with my wife led us to wander (or crutch) into a bookstore and I emerged with this story — described by Updike as his response to Kerouac (wherein he demonstrates the damage caused to others when a young family man goes ‘on the road’).
I think that one of the powerful things about this book is the way in which it portrays people as (I think) they really are — confused, caught up in shitty external circumstances, wanting to be respected, but continually sabotaging themselves and hurting others because of their own insecurities (I think that Sartre and Vonnegut also captured this, although in rather different ways). Thus, we have the portrayal of some characters who do some pretty nasty things (especially rabbit) but, at the end of it all, we can’t really dislike them. They’re just people. And this is what people do — to each other and to themselves.
Also, it may be the fact that I’m about to be a father, but this book contains one of the most terrifying chapters I have ever read by any author. I won’t give away what happens but the way in which Updike moves you from being unaware, to becoming suspicious, to growing scared, to becoming truly horrified is quite incredible.

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  1. That is a pretty hefty set of reading! Thanks for the reviews. Sure would be nice to get hooked up with books like that, do you contact publishers or did they just find your blog?

  2. familiar names in this month’s batch for me.
    i am deep into marshall’s big volume, as i am currently writing a paper on discipleship for him, and preparing for his NT Theology exam in january. and i wrote a book review of thielman earlier this fall as well. i too didn’t agree with all he had to say, but it was an interesting and easy read and a good resource for students or pastors.
    i just picked up bruggemann’s ‘word that redescribes the world’, have you read that one yet? i am looking forward to it.

  3. Liam:
    Of the three sources that currently provide me with review books, one contacted me and I contacted the other two. So, if you’re thinking about doing something like this, I’ve discovered that there’s no harm in asking!
    I figured you would have the Marshall and Barth and, as you are studying under Marshall, I’m not surprised to hear about the Thielman (let me guess — you’ve been reading Schreiner, too?). To be honest, I found I disagreed with Marshall a lot more than Thielman, but I really do need to go back and read the larger volume to know how Marshal draws his conclusions.
    As for the Brueggemann book, I don’t think I’ve read that one, although I’ve read about half a dozen others by him (dude has published something like 60 books!).
    Also, do you read the blog Sub Specie Aeterni? One of the moderators, Troy I think, studies at your school, and he seems like he would be an interesting guy to hook up with.