What I Read in 2021

What I Read in 2021

I read 68 non-fiction books in 2021. Most were social history and the rest were theology. This year was marked by (1) a broadening of my own horizons about the church’s mission and its responsibility to society, (2) a realization that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is not a trustworthy organization, (3) a deeper exploration of the more unpleasant side of American evangelicalism, and (4) a study of American social history and its nexus to American evangelicalism over the past 100 years.

My top six

I don’t chose these because they’re “the best.” I chose them because they influenced me the most, or made me think deeply. Too many people (pastors and theologians) only read the same people, saying the same things, in the same way. The conclusions are foregone. Why bother? Don’t read your 800th book on justification by faith written by a guy from the same Reformed sub-culture that produced the other 799 books you read. Break out of the bubble, man!

So, here are my top six for 2021:

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse. A very, very good book about the origins of the Religious Right. This was a watershed book for me. Perhaps the best book I read in 2021.

At heart this book seeks to challenge Americans’ assumptions about the basic relationship between religion and politics in their nation’s history. For decades now, liberals and conservatives have been locked in an intractable struggle over an ostensibly simple question: Is the United States a Christian nation? This debate, largely focused on endless parsing of the intent of the founding fathers, has ultimately generated more heat than light. Like most scholars, I believe the historical record is fairly clear about the founding generation’s preference for what Thomas Jefferson memorably described as a wall of separation between church and state, a belief the founders spelled out repeatedly in public statements and private correspondence.

This scholarly consensus, though, has done little to shift popular opinion. If anything, the country has more tightly embraced religion in the public sphere and in political culture in recent decades. And so this book begins with a different premise. It sets aside the question of whether the founders intended America to be a Christian nation and instead asks why so many contemporary Americans came to believe that this country has been and always should be a Christian nation.

One Nation Under God, KL 240

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein. This is a truly essential book. The preface and the first chapter will always stay with me. Here’s an excerpt:

It is hard, now, to grasp just how profoundly the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted between 1964 and today. Think of a senator winning the Democratic nomination in the year 2000 whose positions included halving the military budget, socializing the medical system, re-regulating the communications and electrical industries, establishing a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, and equalizing funding for all schools regardless of property valuations—and who promised to fire Alan Greenspan, counseled withdrawal from the World Trade Organization, and, for good measure, spoke warmly of adolescent sexual experimentation. He would lose in a landslide. He would be relegated to the ash heap of history. But if the precedent of 1964 were repeated, two years later the country would begin electing dozens of men and women just like him. And not many decades later, Republicans would have to proclaim softer versions of these positions just to get taken seriously for their party’s nomination. The analogy wouldn’t be exaggerating what has happened since 1964 too much. It might even be underplaying it …

Before the Storm, KL 83.

And one more:

Scratch a conservative today—a think-tank bookworm at Washington’s Heritage Foundation or Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation (the people whose studies and position papers blazed the trails for ending welfare as we know it, for the school voucher movement, for the discussion over privatizing Social Security) ; a door-knocking church lady pressing pamphlets into her neighbors’ palms about partial-birth abortion; the owner of a small or large business sitting across the table from a lobbyist plotting strategy on how to decimate corporate tax rates; an organizer of a training center for aspiring conservative activists or journalists; Republican precinct workers, fund-raisers, county chairs, state chairs, presidential candidates, congressmen, senators, even a Supreme Court justice—and the story comes out. How it all began for them: in the Goldwater campaign.

It was something more than just finding ideological soul mates. It was learning how to act: how letters got written, how doors got knocked on, how co-workers could be won over on the coffee break, how to print a bumper sticker and how to pry one off with a razor blade; how to put together a network whose force exceeded the sum of its parts by orders of magnitude; how to talk to a reporter, how to picket, and how, if need be, to infiltrate—how to make the anger boiling inside you ennobling, productive, powerful, instead of embittering. How to feel bigger than yourself. It was something beyond the week, the year, the campaign, even the decade; it was a cause. You lost in 1964. But something remained after 1964: a movement. An army. An army that could lose a battle, suck it up, regroup, then live to fight a thousand battles more. Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?—that was how William F. Buckley entitled an anthology of conservative writings in 1970. Later that year, his brother won a Senate seat from New York with the backing of the state’s Conservative Party. The dream was walking. Maybe it wasn’t even just an army. Maybe it was a moral majority.

Before the Storm, KL 127-136. Emphases added.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr. See my review. See also my article critiquing the often vicious pushback she and Kristen Du Mez continue to receive from white, male theologians associated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

For me, Barr’s book is more than the sum of its parts. I believe her attempts to tie the inerrancy movement to “patriarchy,” and her failure to define “patriarchy” anywhere in the book were mistakes. Yet, it’s value to me is that it was an introduction to critiques of complementarianism. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

For all my adult life, I had served in ministry with my husband, remaining in complementarian churches even as I grew more and more skeptical that “biblical womanhood” as we had been taught matched what the Bible taught. I kept telling myself that maybe things would change—that I, as a woman who taught and had a career, was setting a positive example. I kept telling myself that complementarianism (the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders) wasn’t at its root misogynistic. I kept telling myself that no church was perfect and that the best way to change a system was by working from within it. So I stayed in the system, and I stayed silent.

I stayed silent when a woman who worked at a Southern Baptist church and attended seminary alongside my husband was paid less by that church because she wasn’t ordained. Ironically, the reason she wasn’t ordained was because the church was Southern Baptist.

I stayed silent when a newly married woman whose job carried the family insurance quit that job after attending a retreat with women from our church—a retreat that featured a hardline complementarian speaker who convinced this woman that her proper place was in the home. Her decision, from what I heard, caused tension within the family, including financial. She stopped coming to church. I have no idea what happened to her.

I stayed silent when, after our pastor preached a sermon on gender roles, a married couple gave their testimony. The wife encouraged women to verbally agree to what their husbands suggested, even if they really disagreed. God would honor their submission.

I stayed silent when I wasn’t allowed to teach youth Sunday school because the class included teenage boys. I led discussions with special permission when no one else was available.

I stayed silent.

It wasn’t until that Sunday, three months after the worst had happened, that I realized the hard truth. By staying silent, I had become part of the problem. Instead of making a difference, I had become complicit in a system that used the name of Jesus to oppress and harm women.

And the hardest truth of all was that I bore greater responsibility than most in our church because I had known that complementarian theology was wrong.

Making of Biblical Womanhood, pp. 3-5

A Manual for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. He is the best preaching teacher working in the United States, today. You need his books.

Christianity and the Social Crisis Walter by Walter Rauschenbusch. This might be one of the most paradigm-shifting books I’ve ever read. Very convicting and very good criticism of the “just preach the Gospel” flavor of Christianity. There are clear affinities here with the liberation theologies from Latin American that came to the fore about 50 years later. Though Rauschenbusch is hetero-orthodox in some places, he is a must-read. Your teachers and theological gate-keepers may tell you to stay away from him and his “social gospel.” Ignore that advice. Chew the meat and spit out the bones. There are some big bones, here. But, there’s also a lot of meat. Read it.

As long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without conviction of sin. Those who believe in a better social order are often told that they do not know the sinfulness of the human heart. They could justly retort the charge on the men of the evangelical school. When the latter deal with public wrongs, they often exhibit a curious unfamiliarity with the forms which sin assumes there, and sometimes reverently bow before one of the devil’s spider-webs, praising it as one of the mighty works of God.

Regeneration includes that a man must pass under the domination of the spirit of Christ, so that he will judge of life as Christ would judge of it. That means a revaluation of social values. Things that are now “exalted among men” must become “an abomination” to him because they are built on wrong and misery. Unless a man finds his judgment at least on some fundamental questions in opposition to the current ideas of the age, he is still a child of this world and has not “tasted the powers of the coming age.” He will have to repent and believe if he wants to be a Christian in the full sense of the world.

Christianity and the Social Crisis, p. 88

The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in a Small American Town by Brian Alexander. One of the best books I read in 2021. Sobering. Eye-opening. Engaging. It provides a snapshot of America’s “health care system” through the prism of a small, private, rural hospital in Bryan, Ohio.

A lot had changed in Bryan, though you couldn’t tell at first glance. From his office high up on the hospital’s fourth floor, Ennen could see across High Street to the white water tower with the big blue BRYAN on it, the letters leaning forward as if to announce that the “Fountain City” had momentum. He could see the Spangler Candy Company plant—the Dum Dums lollipop people—sprawled below the water tower. The company had been there for over a hundred years. He could see the railroad tracks beyond and the freight cars headed east and west, day and night, and the trees in their winter nakedness and the flat farm fields to the north, raked by the wind that never seemed to stop. If, as a boy, he had walked up to the top of the county courthouse and looked out of the tower, the picture would have been the same.

Bryan didn’t look different, but it was. Up High Street toward Main, and on the other side of Main, there was the trouble. There were about 36,800 preternaturally homogenous people spread over Williams County’s 421 square miles of tiny villages, fields, and lakes, but there could be as much as eight years’ difference in average life expectancy from one part of the county to the next, and even from one part of tiny Bryan to the next.

Such disparities played out in Ennen’s hospital every day. It was playing out three floors below him right then. He’d attended Bryan High with Marc Tingle. Their paths were already diverging as teenagers, and would diverge even more over the coming decades, until the village contractor with the dentures and the bad heart found himself dying in the CEO’s hospital.

As it happened, what was true in Williams County was true all over America, including places with huge healthcare systems and giant universities with medical schools. America had spent a century arguing about medical care but had not settled a thing. After all that time, all that arguing, and all that money, America was sick, and getting sicker and dying earlier with every passing year. Ennen and his shop were supposed to do something about that, but what—especially when the hospital was struggling to stay afloat? And what had created those differences in the first place? Could a hospital, even a financially secure one, intervene in any meaningful way? In many cases, CHWC was a Band-Aid station, though not the kind its local detractors implied. It was a battlefield clinic in an amorphous and mutating social and economic war that was killing people.

The weapons used against the people CHWC cared for were as deadly as any disease: Both the Ohio and the federal minimum wages were less than they were forty years before, after adjusting for inflation. Pensions had disappeared. Unions had been driven out of workplaces. As they were, wages fell and more of the nation’s wealth flowed to its richest people. Consolidated industries and financial engineers ruled the lives of employees. And as inequality spiked, health insurance evolved into an unaffordable, often useless racket. The hospital took in the casualties, patched them up, and released them back into what had become a one-sided conflict.

The Hospital, pp. 8-10

The rest of ’em

This doesn’t mean these books aren’t good. I enjoyed most of them, liked many, and loved some. Here they are:

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Du Mez. A giant sledgehammer to the knees of the conservative evangelical sub-culture. A great book. Don’t listen to the gatekeepers who tell you it’s dangerous or wrong, or who say “yeah, but …” There are not “buts.” Buy it. Read it. Don’t be like these Christians.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll. An informative monograph on the interpretive morass that resulted when competing cultural narratives used the scriptures to justify their positions. I need to read it again.

The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative by Steve Mathewson. See my review. I didn’t like this book.

The Christian and Social Responsibility by Charles Ryrie. I remember think this book was interesting, but I remember next to nothing about it. Make of that what you will! Ryrie advocates that the church eschew social issues and focus on the Gospel. It’s short. If you come from a white, conservative evangelical background, Ryrie is likely where you’re coming from.

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson. Entertaining. It was cotton-candy history. Light survey on key themes with “lessons” for today. Nothing deep. Just enough to make you feel a little morally superior for having read it!

The History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500 by Kenneth Latourette. Masterful. Fascinating. A real tour de force, if you’re into history. Latourette was a true Renaissance man in the Christian history field. I read this book slowly, in the evenings, over perhaps four months. It gave me great appreciation for Christian traditions not my own, and broadened my horizons along that line in many intangible ways.

A fundamentalist I am familiar with dismissed Latourette as “a liberal,” which means Latourette wasn’t precisely the same flavor of Christian as he. Well, I say that’s a good thing! Latourette’s text used to be the standard Christian history survey at many seminaries, but has largely been displaced by Justo Gonzalez (and others). Well worth reading.

Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement by Gustaf Aulen. Ground breaking. Paradigm shattering. I had never seriously considered the Christus Victor theory of atonement before, though I believed it. I think it complements penal, substitutionary atonement quite well. I preached the 2021 Easter sermon on Christus Victor.

A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War by James P. Byrd. An eye-opening study of the ways both sides used (and twisted) Scripture to make it say what suited their purposes, during the Civil War. This is a grave cautionary tale for leaders today who wish to use God’s word to magically justify their own position, seemingly oblivious to the need for any introspection. Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible is a case in point.

Divorce and Remarriage in the Church by David Instone-Brewer. Very helpful study that conludes Christians may indeed divorce, under certain circumstances. I used it extensively when I wrote my long position statement on Christian divorce, earlier this year.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea. Indispensible. Evangelicals must read this book. They’ll recognize a lot.

The Minister as Diagnostician by Paul Pruyser. An interesting little book. I purchased it to give me some insight for counseling. I thought it was helpful.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mills. Very, very interesting. Mills essentially says everyone ought to be allowed to do anything he wishes, unless it infringes on someone else’s liberty. An enlightening discussion on political theory … and a cautionary tale about how folks consider morality and the public square without a revelation from God.

As One Without Authority by Fred Craddock. A good book on preaching.

Solving Marriage Problems by Jay Adams. Helpful. Adams is always to the point and full of good counseling advice for pastors.

What Happens When We Worship by Jonathan Cruse. An unhelpful book by a neo-Puritan. It drips with venom, contempt, and scorn for anyone who isn’t like him. Read my review.

Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation by Allan Ross. A good overview of worship throughout the Scriptures.

Protestant Biblical Interpretation (3rd) by Bernard Ramm. Very good discussion on hermeneutics.

The Problem of the Old Testament by Duane Garrett. An outstanding book. Garrett’s discussion of a via media between covenant theology and dispensationalism as regards the relationship of Israel and the Church was groundbreaking, for me.

Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Defense by David Hanies and Andrew Fulford. It is what it says. I wrote an article after reading this little book.

Without Precedent by Joel Paul. A biography of John Marshall.

Stalin: Breaker of Nations by Robert Conquest. A great biography of a truly evil man.

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Ron Perlstein. Perhaps the most stunning work of history I’ve ever read. This was my entree to Perlstein’s quartet history of the modern conservative movement.

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976 – 1980 by Rick Perlstein. The same.

With Reverence and Awe by D.G. Hart and John Meuther. A truly awful book written by neo-Puritan, worship fundamentalists who disdain anyone who isn’t like them. The most wretched book on worship I’ve ever read. I considered burning it after reading, because I got the impression the authors would gladly do the same to me. I wrote an article on a related topic.

Worship in Song by Scott Aniol. A helpful perspective on worship.

The Conservative Church by David DeBruyn. Meh.

Anatomy of Hymnody by Austin Lovelace. I understood nothing the author said. Literally nothing.

With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America by William Martin. A great history of the Religious Right. Outstanding work.

The Gospel-Driven Church by Jared Wilson. A good book. Wilson’s target appears to be younger pastors who are disillusioned with the shallow, hipster version of attractional Christianity. That isn’t me, but I still appreciated his book.

Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell. Probably the most helpful book on worship a pastor can own.

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic (1789 – 1815) by Gordon Wood. Part of the Oxford History of the United States series. A good book.

Engaging with God by David Peterson. A very, very good book on worship that goes beyond arguments about the regulative or normative principles.

Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. Very powerful little book.

From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race by J. Daniel Hays. An eye-opening and revolutionary look at what the bible says about race. Moses’ second wife was black!

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. This is a very provocative little book that will challenge any Christian. McKnight’s burden is to make us realize that we all read the Scriptures through our own interpretive lenses, and we ought to know that, admit it, and account for it so we can read the Bible the right way. He has a long discussion on women in ministry, as an example of how we often do this. McKnight is an egalitarian, and that may offend some readers.

What I learned was an uncomfortable but incredibly intriguing truth: Every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture. In less appreciated terms, I’ll put it this way: Everyone picks and chooses. I know this sounds out of the box and off the wall for many, but no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, it’s true. We pick and choose. (It’s easier for us to hear “we adopt and adapt,” but the two expressions amount to the same thing.) I believe many of us want to know why we pick and choose. Even more importantly, many of us want to know how to do this in a way that honors God and embraces the Bible as God’s Word for all times.

The Blue Parakeet, p. 13

A Vision for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. Buy it. Read it. Do it.

“Theology of the Pentateuch” by Eugene Merrill, in Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, edited by Roy Zuck. An extremely good, insightful discussion.

Introducing Liberation Theology by Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff. Short, accessible, thought-provoking introduction to a very important topic. There is much to learn, here.

How to Preach the Psalms by Kenneth Langley. A good little book.

The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David M. Potter. If you want to know the context that lead to the Civil War, then you need this book.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of a Nation by Rick Perlstein. Slower moving than Perlstein’s other books in the quartet. He paints a very dark, very bleak picture of America in the early 1970s.

White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin Kruse. A horrifying, eye-opening look at a very evil issue. One of the best books I read in 2021. Christians should be shocked.

The Second Founding: How Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner. To paraphrase Gandalf the Grey, “I have no memory of this book.” I remember nothing about it, but I do know I read it.

The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson by Bernard Bailyn. I’ve felt sorry for poor Hutchinson ever since I tread about how a mob destroyed his home, way back in my community college days. This is a good biography of a staid, intelligent civil servant who found himself outdone by events he couldn’t understand.

Second Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke. Very interesting reading.

Christian Democracy: Principles and Policy-making. A position paper on the Christian Democrat philosophy, from Germany. This is the brand of political philosophy I most align with. The American version of this perspective is the American Solidarity Party.

Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal by George Packer. A thoughtful book. It’s four-fold taxonomy of the spectrum of “different America’s” is very good. I will use it as a framework for some time to come. If you want to read a short book about “how we got to where we are” in America, you can’t do better than this. This is not a partisan screed.

10 Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald Whitney. It’s a classic for a reason. I will use it for a book study at church, in 2022.

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller. The most helpful, balanced boo on marriage I’ve seen. I use this for marriage studies in a variety of contexts.

Leadership in Christian Ministry by James Means. A good, older book on pastoral leadership. Good reminders, in here.

Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship by Swee Hong Lim & Lester Ruth. A great, short history of a topic that’s controversial in some circles.

Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents by Matthew A. Sutton. It’s what it sounds like. A good, short overview of the Religious Right by Sutton, followed by well-chosen and enlightening primary source documents on various aspects of the movement. A great resource.

The Making of a Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life 1870-1920 by Jeffrey P. Straub. If you want a good primer on the context for the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, this book will do it. A good book.

O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church by Robert G. Rayburn. A wonderful book; right up there with Bryan Chapell’s book.

Thoughtful Christianity: Alvah Hovey and the Problem of Authority within the Context of Nineteenth-Century Northern Baptists by Matthew C. Shrader. A thoughtful and engaging history of a towering, very influential but rarely studied Baptist leader in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook by Mark Futato. Read this today, for an upcoming DMin class. Very basic. Read something very similar at seminary, years ago. Probably why I found it so unhelpful. Not bad, just really “ho, hum.” Like a flat, warm Diet Coke. Not author’s fault. It’s just basic.

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. A sobering look at the hard-core edge of the American complementarian spectrum. I believe the CMBW-flavor of compartmentarianism is hetero-orthodox at points, and that Christian patriarchy is even more troubling.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town by Brian Alexander. If you want to understand the hopelessness that pervades too many small towns in America, this is the book to read. The description:

In 1947, Forbes magazine declared Lancaster, Ohio the epitome of the all-American town. Today it is damaged, discouraged, and fighting for its future. In Glass House, journalist Brian Alexander uses the story of one town to show how seeds sown 35 years ago have sprouted to give us Trumpism, inequality, and an eroding national cohesion.

The Anchor Hocking Glass Company, once the world’s largest maker of glass tableware, was the base on which Lancaster’s society was built. As Glass House unfolds, bankruptcy looms. With access to the company and its leaders, and Lancaster’s citizens, Alexander shows how financial engineering took hold in the 1980s, accelerated in the 21st Century, and wrecked the company. We follow CEO Sam Solomon, an African-American leading the nearly all-white town’s biggest private employer, as he tries to rescue the company from the New York private equity firm that hired him. Meanwhile, Alexander goes behind the scenes, entwined with the lives of residents as they wrestle with heroin, politics, high-interest lenders, low wage jobs, technology, and the new demands of American life: people like Brian Gossett, the fourth generation to work at Anchor Hocking; Joe Piccolo, first-time director of the annual music festival who discovers the town relies on him, and it, for salvation; Jason Roach, who police believed may have been Lancaster’s biggest drug dealer; and Eric Brown, a local football hero-turned-cop who comes to realize that he can never arrest Lancaster’s real problems.

Preaching with Variety by Jeffrey Arthurs. It was ok.

Interpreting the Parables (2nd ed.) by Craig Blomberg. Outstanding guide. I am persuaded the parables are allegory.

The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes by Derek Kidner. Disappointing.

The Parables of Jesus by Dwight Pentecost. If you’re a dispensationalist who wants eisigetical comfort food, this book is for you.

Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass. An exhaustive, dictionary-like resource on the parables.

Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. Buy it. Read it. Do it.

A ho-hum book on the psalms

A ho-hum book on the psalms

Psalms, Psalms and Psalms!

Mark Furtado’s Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook is part of a larger series from Kregel titled “Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis.” Because, the editor proclaims, “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to interpreting Scripture,”[1] the series covers all the Old Covenant genres in different books. Paradoxically, the editor then enforced an identical six-part structure on each author, for each handbook.[2] One-size-fits-all, indeed!

Furtato explains the nature of the psalm genre, offers some suggestions for considering the psalms as a unified literary work, principles for interpretation, and instruction on how to interpret and proclaim the text, and an example of what it all looks like, in practice. The editor envisions the work as a textbook for graduate-level exegesis courses.[3]

Furtato wants you to understand Hebrew poetry to interpret it better. He wants us to “see” the psalms in their original context. He wants us to understand the different genres of psalmody, so we are not prone to wander into exegetical fantasy. He also wants us to preach “with clarity and conviction.”[4]

Is it Worth it?

Furtato’s book is ho-hum. It does its job as a graduate-level introduction the same way a Geo Metro gets you to and from work. In seminary, my professor assigned C. Hassell Bullock’s Encountering the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), which covered the same ground. I prefer Bullock, but perhaps that is just nostalgia.

Furtato sometimes spends time discussing matters that are less than helpful:

  • Parallelism. He states C.S. Lewis personifies an “old way” which sees the second cola as saying the same thing, with different words. Furtato demurs and suggests parallelism is when the second cola says “something similar … but with a difference.”[5] This is a rather underwhelming revelation.
  • Following patterns. Furtato likes patterns. He spends time discussing linear, parallel, and symmetrical patterns.[6] I have never gotten much out of these distinctions―they are about as helpful as talks on verbal aspect theory in Koine Greek. This may well be my own failing, but I do not believe these technical notes help to accurately interpret a psalm. 
  • Purpose. He claims the psalm’s purpose, as wisdom literature, is to instruct us about happiness and holiness.[7] This is a startling reductionism―Furtato has flattened the psalms into a stale pancake. What about teaching us how to lament? How to be honest with God when the world is dark? How to cry out in pain when our lives are ruined? To bear the burden of sadness, and yet still hope? As an umbrella category, “happiness” is inadequate.

Reflection and Interaction

My remarks here are a continuation of those in the preceding section. Furtato has not written a poor book. In the classic movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s father (“the Old Man”) sips champagne on Christmas morning and remarks to his wife, “This champagne isn’t bad! It’s not good, either …” That is Furtato’s book. It is a Kia Forte. Utilitarian. It does its job. It is not sexy.

  • Headings. He spends three pages discussing the historicity of the psalm headings, all to declare they are not meaningful.[8] This is not helpful.
  • Textual criticism. Furtato is brave to discuss textual criticism in the span of four pages.[9] He should not have tried. This is not a discipline that can help a pastor in his day-to-day activities―certainly not in preaching! Leave the textual criticism to the Old and New Testament introduction classes.

I will park at Psalm 13 for a moment, because Furtato used it to illustrate outlining.[10] He says the psalm is about “how to deal with distressing situations in your life.” His three “points” are to (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. Furtato butchers this psalm. He rips out its soul.

The psalm tells us David has lost hope.[11] God has forgotten him. More than that, God has deliberately turned His back on him! David is lost. He cries out, but only has his own counsel to keep. Sorrow fills his heart day and night. Enemies are exalted over him. Implicit, but not said, is that God has allowed this to happen―but why? How many of us feel that way? Neglected? Abandoned? Betrayed? Victims of injustice that God has somehow allowed to happen? Is He not good? Why, then, do I suffer? This is raw honesty. The kind of honesty that makes you, in the solitude of your drive home, ask aloud, “What the hell is going on!? Answer me, God! Please!”

How Furtato managed to smash this Psalm into his outline, I do not know. But, his practical interpretive skills are weak in this example. It is disappointing when an author marshals everything he has discussed into practical reality and the result is … a ho-hum, stale, boring three-point outline that flattens Psalm 13 into (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. It does not reflect well on the book.


[1] Mark Furtato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), p. 13.

[2] Ibid, p. 14. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 17. 

[5] Ibid, p. 38. 

[6] Ibid, pp. 49-53. 

[7] Ibid, pp. 59-71. 

[8] Ibid pp. 119-122. 

[9] Ibid, pp. 125-129.

[10] Ibid, pp. 203-204. 

[11] Due to space constraints, my comments only follow the highpoints of Psalm 13:1-3.

Jesus and John Wayne: An Interim Report

Jesus and John Wayne: An Interim Report

Two female scholars have released books in 2021 that have caused a big kerfluffle in the evangelical world. Both books critique the brand that has become American evangelicalism. One of those books is by Kristin Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, in Grand Rapids, who holds a PhD from Notre Dame. She’s well-credentialed and knows what she’s talking about. The book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. You can watch a talk by Du Mez about her book here. The book jacket declares:

In Jesus and John Wayne, a seventy-five-year history of American evangelicalism, Kristin Kobes Du Mez demolishes the myth that white evangelicals “held their noses” in voting for Donald Trump. Revealing the role of popular culture in evangelicalism, Du Mez shows how evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism in the mold of Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and above all, John Wayne. As Du Mez observes, the beliefs at the heart of white evangelicalism today preceded Trump, and will outlast him.

I come to this book as an evangelical who:

  1. Regularly criticizes the American Church when it weds itself to a peculiar brand of American exceptionalism,
  2. Recognizes that some of the positions the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (“CBMW”) takes are less than biblical and heavily influenced by a particular cultural expression of Christianity. I have never recommended any resource from CBMW and never will.
  3. Believes women are called to serve in local congregations in roles beyond nursery and elementary-aged Sunday School.

So … I’m two chapters into this book. So far, I’m disappointed.

Du Mez’s discussion of Theodore Roosevelt as the archetype “manly man” is cursory and selective. She paints Roosevelt as if he set out to fashion a persona for mercenary motives. She doesn’t mention that Roosevelt was an intensely intellectual boy who only overcame crippling physical challenges by aid of exercise and a love affair with the outdoors. Du Mez skips this childhood context, mentions Roosevelt’s time “out West,” then skips right to San Juan Hill and the Rough Riders. She doesn’t mention his scholarly monograph on naval history, his time as NYPD Commissioner, his outdoors writing, or his stint at the Navy Department. It seems as if she strings selective anecdotes together to paint the portrait she wants. Barry Goldwater did try to resurrect Roosevelt’s ghost in a campaign advertisement, but that was hardly Roosevelt’s fault.

Du Mez’ breezy coverage of the evangelical marriage to conservative politics in the 1940s and 1950s is adequate, but very short.

If it doesn’t get more substantive, this book will be a major disappointment that doesn’t live up to the praise it’s received. If you’re looking to be confirmed in your preexisting animus towards evangelicalism, this book is for you. If you’re looking for a persuasive and scholarly critique as an aid to some introspection, it ain’t happening, so far … and I’m actually looking for it.

I hope things improve.

Preaching to the straw man choir?

Preaching to the straw man choir?

Jonathan Cruse’s book What Happens When We Worship has a simple point. Something important happens between us and God when we worship (p. 1). He presents a theology of worship (ch. 2-7), the pieces of a proper worship service (ch. 8-13), and some brief remarks about how to prepare for worship (ch. 14-15).

This is a book written with more zeal than tact.

The author is Very ReformedTM, which is something better experienced than described. He repeatedly impugns the motives and intent of millions of Christians across the world with broad brush accusations of mercenary pragmatism, and straw men caricatures. This is Cruse’s default rhetorical device. It doesn’t work well if you desire to reach and persuade an audience that doesn’t already agree with you. For example:

  • Cruse suggests that, for Christians, “[g]oing to church gets the same checkmark in the to-do list as going to the grocery store or doing homework,” (p. 1). This is unhelpful. Would Cruse really characterize his own congregation this way? Or, is he just talking about “other churches?”
  • He claims some Christians “dutifully suffer through the service while secretly wishing church wasn’t an obligation,” (p. 3). Who are these people? What real Christian would describe his habitual attitude this way?
  • Cruse writes, “Sadly, many Christians think the only way to worship with joy and gladness is through manufactured means,” (p. 3). Note his use of “many.” He then declares most churches either have an (1) entertainment approach, or (2) a mystical approach (pp. 4-8). His descriptions drip with sarcasm and scorn. He declares, but does not prove, that churches that disagree with him are motivated by mercenary pragmatism. “[I]t wins people to worship with something that will tickle their fancies and yet never save their souls,” (p. 5).

If you don’t do worship the way Cruse thinks it ought to be done, you get the impression you have compromised in some fundamental way. The problem is that Cruse never defines “worship,” and because he makes broadbrush characterizations of his targets you don’t really know who he’s talking about. Is he attacking something like Hillsong NYC? Or, my own congregation? Would Cruse accept that the local Calvary Chapel engages in authentic worship? You don’t know, because Cruse doesn’t tell you.

… when we capitulate our worship to the trends of the culture, we have lost something powerful that is meant to be happening in worship: we are meant to be separated from the world.

p. 71

I agree. But, Cruse never defines the aesthetic style that he believes is “holy,” and so we have no idea what this means. I presume the local Calvary Chapel thinks their worship style is holy. According to Cruse, are they wrong? If so, why?

The entire book proceeds in this manner. Cruse’s seems impatient with congregations which are not Very ReformedTM and don’t practice his peculiar form of the Regulative Principle. Unfortunately, this negates his entire message unless you already agree with him.

The author’s historical horizon seems to begin with the Reformation. He locates orthodoxy within a framework that begins at Calvin and ends with the Puritans. He appears to lack a catholic sense of solidarity or familiarity with the global church, past and present, as betrayed by his cursory comments about mysticism (pp. 6-8). He likes to provide quotes from famous theologians from secondary sources (p. 5 (fn #2), p. 19 (fn #4-5), p. 175 (fn #2)), which is sloppy.

Cruse sees evangelism as something that happens through the means of grace during worship. He argues the only imperative verb in Mt 28:19 is “make disciples,” and cites a book in support, but not the Greek text itself (p. 21, fn. 7), which I presume he can read. He admits that, yes, you must make disciples by evangelizing, but you really make disciples by having true worship, so that’s the key thing. The church fulfills the Great Commission when it gathers for worship (pp. 21-22). The “divinely mandated” methods for church growth are the ordinary means of grace―word and sacrament (p. 115). Cruse thus unfortunately embodies the old stereotype of Reformed folks as the “frozen chosen.” His theology of evangelism is therefore unhelpful.

He has a truncated version of God as the celestial policeman. There is little love or grace. God is the stern judge, ready to kill. Cruse writes:

One pastor I know sometimes opens the worship service by saying, ‘If you are not a Christian, we are glad you are with us today. We hope you will be encouraged by your time with us. But I must warn you that we come to meet with God today, and if you are not right with Him, you may not like what He reveals to you about Himself.’ That’s the idea.

pp. 72-73

Cruse appears to lack a category for God as the grieving husband (Hosea 1-3) who seeks His darling child―whose heart yearns and aches to rescue His people (Jer 31:20) and who loves His chosen with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3). His Calvinism swamps his theology proper, and so Cruse topples off the tightrope and presents a God of profound anger. In short, I think John Gill would have liked the author very much.

The otherwise positive contributions the author does make are discussed more substantively in other volumes. I suggest Hughes Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers as a guide to incorporate the traditional aspects of Western liturgy into your service, to the extent practicable. I think Cruse would appreciate much of what Olds has to say. In that respect, I’m suggesting an alternative to Cruse that upholds some of his own ideals.

I believe this is a book written for Very ReformedTM people who want to feel those warm tickles inside that tell them that, yes, they are right to be Very ReformedTM. This is fine, but it isn’t a book calculated to persuade. I’m off to listen to an Unspoken song. Unfortunately, I suspect Cruse would not approve.

Plain vanilla is good

Plain vanilla is good

This is a review of Rolland McCune’s doctrine of scripture and God’s self-disclosure from his text, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity.

I read Rolland McCune’s systematic years ago, and still refer to it occasionally. It is an excellent representation of scholarly, second-stage[1] Northern Baptist fundamentalism. Tellingly, it is the only meaningful work of systematic theology a latter-day Baptist fundamentalist has yet produced in America.[2] I still treasure memories of reading the second volume of his systematic theology text regarding Christology.

In the doctrine of scripture from his first volume, McCune explains that general revelation acts through creation and conscience and reveals non-verbal information about God.[3] Preservation of scripture is providential, not miraculous. “Because of this, God does not miraculously prevent mistranslations or errant transmissions.”[4] God’s word is providentially preserved in the totality of manuscripts.[5] The Spirit assures us God’s word is true and provides “an ongoing capacity to understand the significance of scripture.”[6]

Accurate interpretation of Scripture is predicated on two pillars; (1) scripture is sufficiently clear about the Gospel, and (2) it is sufficient for life and godliness.[7] “It does not wait to be sufficient until it encounters the individual nor does it cease to be sufficient when rejected or ignored by the same.”[8]

In fact, the entire debate—both about inspiration and, even, inerrancy—boils down to whether or not one accepts Scripture’s origin and, subsequently, its claims about itself. Either these are accepted or rejected; there is no middle ground.[9]

McCune has excellent discussions about Jesus and the apostles’ testimony about the inspiration of the Old and New Covenant scripture.[10] His chart of the Old Testament miracles Jesus affirms is particularly helpful.[11]

McCune holds to a concursus kind of inspiration,[12] which he curiously files under the “dictation” heading.[13] He explains, “Concursive inspiration insists on the (miraculous) participation of both man and God in the writing process.”[14] He flippantly dismisses the dynamic theory in two short paragraphs, citing Augustus Strong as a proponent, falsely claiming this view believes scripture “merely records human reflections on historical encounters with God.”[15] Strong’s extensive discussion[16] deserved better than this, and McCune errs by imputing neo-orthodoxy to him—an anachronism if ever there was one!

Scripture is the result of God’s creative power—it is God-produced, not God-animated.[17] If “all” Scripture is produced by God, “then this production must extend to its very words.”[18] McCune does not deal with problem passages. As McCune left matters, the reader must conclude God moved the biblical writers to quote the LXX rather than the Hebrew, and produced Paul’s (shall we say) … creative re-purposing of Psalm 68:18 at Ephesians 4:8-10.

McCune believes inerrancy “argues for accuracy of statement, not necessarily exactness of statement.”[19] He declares, “[w]ithout question, the Bible teaches its own inerrancy by claiming its own truthfulness.”[20] Given that McCune goes on to pursue two lines of evidence for the Bible’s truthfulness,[21] one wonders why Michael Bird’s suggestion to re-package this concept as “divine truthfulness” has not caught on with Americans.[22]

McCune then draws a parallel to Christ’s dual nature incarnation to help us understand how God and man worked together to produce inspired scripture.[23] Troublingly, Strong has an excellent discussion on this very point just beyond where McCune last cited him,[24] but McCune never credits Strong (or, indeed, any theologian) with this insight.[25]

McCune closes the selection with a helpful survey of seven ways God reveals Himself to people.[26]

McCune does not interact with those even a bit to his left in any sustained way. For example, it would have been helpful if he had addressed criticism from the center-left of evangelicalism such as that of Donald Bloesch, who labeled positions like McCune’s an “epistemic bondage to Enlightenment rationalism.”[27] Bloesch was neither a liberal or a fundamentalist, and his observations are worth the effort to engage them. For example, “[b]iblical inerrancy has become a slogan masking a not-so-hidden antipathy to the historical-critical approach to Scripture.”[28]

But, McCune stays away from this. His is a solid, conservative systematic theology advancing views rather standard among second-stage Northern Baptist fundamentalists and their heirs. It’s a beginning text. It’s a “safe” place to get the “right” answers. That is not to say McCune’s answers are wrong. He just does not interact meaningfully with opposing views. Indeed, the student reading his text may not realize there are other views that hold sway in the broader stream of evangelicalism.


[1] This is Roger Olson’s term (Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology [Louisville: WJK, 2004]pp. 36-39). He accurately distinguishes first-stage fundamentalists who were concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy from second-stage fundamentalists whose rhetorical foe became conservatives who “compromised” on doctrine. First-stage fundamentalists are the modern conservative evangelicals (e.g. the GARBC). Second-stage fundamentalists are groups like the FBFI and the ACCC, who still fight the good fight of separation from evangelicals and other conservatives.

See also Tyler Robbins, “Fundys, Evangelicals, and the Eye of a Needle …” at eccentricfundamentalist.com (15 December 2019). Retrieved from https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2019/12/15/fundys-evangelicals-and-the-eye-of-a-needle/.

[2] One possible exception is Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology, second revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). Bancroft’s work began life in 1925 and went through several editions. Bancroft died in 1944, and was a co-founder of Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. I hesitate to include Bancroft because I doubt he could be considered a “fundamentalist” in the second-stage sense of the term at all.

[3] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), 1: 42-43.  

[4] Ibid, p. 49.  

[5] Ibid, p. 54. 

[6] Ibid, pp. 56-57.  

[7] Ibid, pp. 58-62.  

[8] Ibid, p. 61.  

[9] Ibid, p. 63.  

[10] Ibid, pp. 65-77.  

[11] Ibid, pp. 67-68.  

[12] Ibid, pp. 37-39.  

[13] Ibid, pp. 80-81.  

[14] Ibid, p. 81.  

[15] Ibid, p. 80.     

[16] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Revell, 1907), 211-222. McCune’s issue with the dynamic theory seems to be that it denies God’s direct agency in the choice of words (Systematic Theology, 1:80). Strong is inconsistent on this point. At the beginning of his discussion, he argues inspiration is plenary (Systematic, 211) but then remarks, “[t]hought is possible without words, and in the order of nature precedes words. The Scripture writers appear to have been so influenced by the Holy Spirit that they perceived and felt even the new truths they were to publish, as discoveries of their own minds, and were left to the action of their own minds in the expression of these truths, with the single exception that they were supernaturally held back from the selection of wrong words, and when needful were provided with the right ones,” (Ibid, p. 216).

[17] McCune, Systematic Theology, p. 83.  

[18] Ibid, p. 87.  

[19] Ibid, p. 90.  

[20] Ibid, p. 91.  

[21] Ibid, pp. 91-93.

[22] “Rather than ‘inerrancy,’ a better categorization of Scripture’s claims for itself would be ‘veracity,’ or ‘divine truthfulness.’ Instead of stating how or in what way the Bible is not untrue—which is an odd thing to say, when you think about it—we are better off simply asserting that God’s Word is true as it correlates with God’s intent for what Scripture is to achieve, because he is faithful to his world and to his Word,” (Michael Bird, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA,” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, ed. Stanley Gundry [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013; Kindle ed.], KL 2655).

[23] Systematic Theology, 1:102-103.  

[24] Strong, Systematic, 212-222.  

[25] See McCune, Systematic Theology, 1:102-103 at footnotes 129-131.  

[26] Ibid, pp. 171-187.  

[27] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 33f.

[28] Ibid, p. 32.

Revenge of the strawmen

Revenge of the strawmen

This is a review of the first seven chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice.

J. Ligon Duncan opens the book with two chapters on the regulative principle (“RP”). This is the concept that corporate worship must only be based on positive commands from scripture. Duncan presents a familiar lament about contemporary worship services. You hear this so often that one wonders if these warnings are no more than recycled, plagiarized strawmen. Duncan presents the RP as the answer. “True Christian worship is by the book,”[1] he declares, and “there must be scriptural warrant for all we do.”[2]

So, Duncan presents a representative case for the RP, using sometimes questionable hermeneutics. He cites Exodus 20:5-6 to claim God is like a wronged husband who seeks revenge against “adulterous” believers who worship Him wrongly.[3] It is unclear what the that text has to do with the RP.

Duncan believes nearly every theme in scripture supports the RP.[4] The way we worship communicates how we think about God; “form impacts content.”[5] He asks, “what makes us think we can possibly fathom what would please God, apart from his telling us what to do in his word?”[6] We can only respond to what God has revealed,[7] and the Church has “derivative authority” to “administer his rule for worship, as set forth in the word.”[8]

Contra charges of legalism, “[t]he regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship.”[9] Indeed, the Reformers “did not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do.”[10]

Derek Thomas then weighs in with an angry article answering objections to the RP. He wastes time by arguing the Puritans did not misunderstand Calvin’s theology of worship,[11] presuming the reader will care about this burning question.

The RP is not legalistic at all—why shouldn’t God have rules? We only hate rules because of sin.[12] People who have different interpretations about the RP, Thomas warns, are likely motivated by prejudice.[13] In fact, Thomas suspects disagreement is merely a cloak for pragmatism.[14]

Thomas dismisses John Frame’s objections by, ironically for a RP advocate, not quoting one passage of scripture![15] He acknowledges the charge that Jesus, by worshipping in a synagogue, did not practice the regulative principle.[16] Thomas never meaningfully responds to this, and again cites no scripture.[17]

Thomas likes strawmen, so much so that even at 19 years distance since its publication a fire marshal may well shut his essay down as a fire hazard. To abandon the RP, he declares, is the slippery slope to ruin.[18]

Edmund Clowney chimes in with an essay arguing corporate worship is a means of grace (ch. 5)—an issue I was not aware was in dispute. His contribution is unnecessary. Albert Mohler queues up to offer a workmanlike article on expository preaching. Like Duncan, he employs the same laments about the state of the contemporary church[19] and declares “the heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.”[20]

Mark Dever offers an uninspired article about how to preach evangelistic sermons. It includes the immortal remark that an evangelistic sermon is one where the gospel is preached.[21]

Terry Johnson and Duncan team up to offer advice on reading and praying in corporate worship. They rightly call the Church back to corporate readings, but their advice can be too idealistic.[22] Johnson does not approve of non-pastors reading scripture in public but, irony of ironies for an RP man, he cannot provide scriptural support.[23] Crudely, he suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture.[24]

All told, this is a collection of passionate essays from men who, to greater or lessor extent, minister in a very Reformed context. At times you get the feeling you’ve stumbled into the middle of a nasty family dispute, and start looking for the exit. Some essays exhibit inappropriate contempt and suspicion for those who disagree.


[1] Philip Ryken (ed.), Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 540-541.

[2] Ibid, KL 581-582.  

[3] “In other words, God is saying in this warning: ‘My people, if you commit spiritual adultery in your worship, I will righteously respond like the most fearsome wronged husband you have ever known.’” (Ibid, KL 802-804). Because “there is a double essence to the idolatry prohibited in the second command” (Ibid, KL 1179), we need the regulative principle.

[4] “[T]he doctrine of God, the Creator-creature distinction, the idea of revelation, the unchanging character of the moral law, the nature of faith, the doctrine of carefulness, the derivative nature of the church’s authority, the doctrine of Christian freedom, the true nature of biblical piety, and the reality of the fallen human nature’s tendency to idolatry,” (Ibid, KL 1103-1105).

[5] Ibid, KL 1122.  

[6] Ibid, KL 1148-1149.

[7] Ibid, KL 1192-1193. “Where God has not revealed Himself, there can be no faithful response, so “God cannot be pleased by worship that is not an obedient response to his revelation, because it is by definition ‘un-faith-full’ worship.”

[8] Ibid, KL 1215-1216.  

[9] Ibid, KL 1222-1223.

[10] Ibid, KL 1347.  

[11] “Is it the case that the seventeenth century took the regulative principle in a direction that Calvin, for example, did not intend?” (Ibid, KL 1626).

[12] Ibid, KL 1689.  

[13] “[I]t is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice,” (Ibid, KL 1698-1699).  

[14] “One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (Ibid, KL 1700-1701).

[15] Ibid, KL 1725f.  

[16] Ibid, KL 1778.  

[17] “Of interest to us here is to know whether synagogue worship contained anything in it that would be deemed contrary to the regulative principle. Did it contain an element of worship that was not warranted by the Old Testament? The answer is definitely in the negative. What did a typical synagogue worship service look like? Nothing that will give devotees of greater freedom any joy! The fact is that synagogue worship was remarkably predictable, containing a call to worship, a cycle of prayers, the singing of psalms, the recitation of portions of Scripture (the Shema in particular), reading of Scripture, and something that we would now call preaching or exposition, followed by a blessing. It all sounds very similar to a traditional worship service!” (Ibid, KL 1811-1817).

[18] “… being at the mercy of a worship leader with the Outback Steakhouse approach to Sunday morning worship— no rules! What prevents our adding a ‘Pet consecration moment’ between the singing of ‘Jesus Is All the World to Me’ and the offering? Or a section called ‘Getting in Touch with Feelings’ led by Counselor Smith in place of the sermon? Or ‘Mrs. Beattie’s Bread Board: Cooking with Jesus’ as the closing facet of worship? The answer is ‘Nothing!’ Only cultural mores and prejudice can keep worship sane if there is no distinction between the worship service and the rest of life,” (Ibid, 1834-1839).

[19] The Church has been seduced by topical preaching (Ibid, KL 2065). Therapeutic concerns set the tone in many congregations (Ibid, 2065). “The appetite for serious preaching has virtually disappeared among many Christians,” (Ibid, 2084).

[20] Ibid, KL 2044.  

[21] “One thing and one thing alone determines whether a sermon can properly be said to be evangelistic, and that is its content. Is the evangel— the good news—present?” (Ibid, KL 2365-2367).

[22] They proclaim the public scripture reading “ought to be arresting to the congregation. It ought to grab their attention. It ought sometimes to make them tremble and other times rejoice,” (Ibid, KL 2631-2632). This sounds lovely. It likely will not do that. The authors appear to have been carried off into rapturous delight in their prose.

[23] Ibid, KL 2667f.  

[24] “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (Ibid, KL 2664-2666).

The art of tacky preaching?

The art of tacky preaching?

Steven Mathewson’s work The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative[1]is a somewhat helpful but ultimately disappointing book. Curiously, only ch. 3-6 (pp. 43-78) deal with narrative.

Mathewson’s discussion of expository preaching as “more of a philosophy than a method” is quite good (pp. 21-22). He appropriately critiques pastors who preach all genres the same way. “The analytical outline approach presses the story into a mold that often works against it, especially when the outline points are alliterated or parallel,” (p. 26).  

His review of the building blocks of a narrative plot are adequete (pp. 57-78). However, a pastor will only be a competent interpreter if he is already a reader. So, attempts to explain nuts and bolts about the narrative genre are of limited value. It would be akin to me, the investigations manager for a WA-state agency, trying to explain the basics of ERISA health benefit plans to laypeople and expecting them to do something meaningful with this information. Unless you are already “in the know,” such an explanation would be a waste of time. I fear it is here, too.  

Mathewson suggests the pastor ask himself three functional questions when considering application; (1) what does it mean?, (2) is it true?, and (3) so what? (pp. 95ff). I do these during the sermon as rhetorical questions to engage the audience so we “discover” the story together.

His application suggestions are disappointing. He suggests the pastor “build application around the contours” of the vision of God and the “fallen condition factor” (a la Bryan Chapell) of the text (p. 101). I agree with Abraham Kuruvilla that such an approach is inherently generic and can be applied to many other passages—thus implicitly denigrating the concept of plenary inspiration.[2] If the inspired author’s intent with the passage, the action he wants the audience to take, does not drive our application then we are tacitly saying the text is useless. Christlikeness predicated on the theology of the passage is the better way.  

Mathewson follows Haddon Robinson’s “big idea” approach (ch. 9), which distills the theology into a memorable saying. This approach is an error. Did God really inspire 1 Samuel 17 so Mathewson could fashion a kitsch ditty like, “when God has big business, faith always gets the contract!” (p. 105)? We can distill the application; the author’s imperative from the passage’s context, but we ought not do it to the theology of the passage.   

Troublingly, Mathewson suggests our “purpose” for the sermon (again, following Robinson) can be different than the author’s purpose “as long as it is in line with the author’s purpose” (p. 109; emphasis added). His Father’s Day suggestion from Genesis 22 is tawdry and irrelevant.[3] Ironically, he doesn’t follow his own caveat; “Would the author be comfortable with the way I am using his story to address this particular situation?” (p. 109). Regarding Mathewson’s butchering of Genesis 22, Moses would perhaps be tempted to call down an 11th plague upon him.

He helpfully suggests pastors craft specific and measurable purpose statements, but his examples are crude and of dubious exegetical warrant (pp. 110-111). For example, applying Genesis 13 means people ought to set lunch appointments to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Mathewson prefers an inductive, “telling the story” shape for the sermon (pp. 113-115). His discussion of outlines is fine (pp. 122-130), but I confess I have never used outlines. He provides troubling advice for “cold opens” involving first-person narrative, costumes, and triteness that veers well-nigh unto blasphemy.

  • He suggests pastors turn their backs on the congregation, then spin about and “become” the character for a brief period (p. 149).
  • Mathewson sums up Genesis 22 for an introduction by suggesting the immortal line, “There’s a story in Genesis 22 that helps us understand why God appears to eat our lunch when we’ve asked him for our daily bread,” (p. 148).
  • He also recommends pastors begin the sermon “as” the character to introduce the passage. “I always figured that the movie based on my life story would be called The Natural. But a more appropriate title would be The Jerk. My name is Samson,” (p. 150).

Mathewson’s book has some helpful but unremarkable advice recycled from better-known works by other authors. In that respect, his book is what generic Target-brand soda is to Coca-Cola. It’s not bad. It just isn’t particularly great. In addition, his rhetorical suggestions are tacky and cheap. His commendable passion to tell the biblical narrative “as story” has led him astray into irreverence.


[1] Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).

[2] Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea? A Fresh Look at Preaching” JETS 61.4 (2018), pp. 833-834.

[3] “Fathers will write out a list of sacrifices they make for their children that steal time or money rightly belonging to God,” (109).  

Did the Apostle Peter write for Zondervan?

Did the Apostle Peter write for Zondervan?

I updated this review on 24 December 2020.

In his book, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers, Abner Chou considers how the authors wrote.[1] “Do the apostles go beyond the original meaning (or ideas) of the Old Testament writers? Or, do they make a legitimate inference (significance) based upon what was originally established?”[2] He concludes, “The Old Testament writers themselves were exegetes and theologians who understood and correlated their texts with previous revelation.”[3]

To chart this path, Chou first considers the importance of authorial intent (Ch. 1). He then notes some necessary presuppositions, such as the distinctions between meaning and significance, and the principle of intertextuality that he alleges should force us to go beyond a mere “two text” approach when considering how authors use previous revelation.[4] (Ch. 2). He then explains why the prophets were exegetes and theologians (Ch. 3), discusses later author’s use of older revelation (Ch. 4), the New Testament use of the Old (Ch. 5-6), and concludes (Ch. 7-8).

Chou repeats the lament that post-enlightenment thinking has denigrated scripture. However, his own model is itself quite rationalistic at points. The Spirit’s work in the biblical author’s writings seems to be an afterthought; a pro forma appendix to Chou’s proposal. This is illustrated by how he handles Matthew’s “fulfillment” citation (Mt 2:15) of Hosea 11:1:[5]

  • Hosea must have known his text would be applied to a future situation in a new exodus.[6]
  • God’s “son” is Israel, and also the Davidic King,
  • who occasionally depicts his trials in exodus-like language with expectations of deliverance for himself and his house,
  • and Hosea much earlier in his book suggested a bold “new David” would lead the people back from the coming exile,
  • so, in Hosea 11, the author must be “linking” these motifs,[7]
  • thus “Matthew chose to use Hosea (as opposed to quoting Exodus 4:22) for this reason! The apostle wanted to talk about the Exodus the way Hosea did.”[8]

However, Matthew says none of this. Nor does Hosea. Rather, Matthew explains Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Egypt “in order to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet,” (Mt 2:15).[9] Chou must thus nuance the meaning of “fulfill,” which he does by gingerly claiming it “perhaps” refers to the fruition of certain theological concepts.[10]

Matthew uses Hosea appropriately because he is an exegete, not a rote scribe, so “[a] sound application occurs when one draws a legitimate inference from the range of implications intended by the author.”[11] In fact, a New Testament author can use an Old Testament text in a way the original author would not understand, and yet still honor that author’s intent.[12] But, Chou avers, this is not sensus plenior—it is exegesis.

Indeed, Chou’s aim is to show “the prophets were exegetes and theologians.”[13] Thus, our hermeneutics textbooks largely model what the biblical authors did—historical context, genre, context, grammar, and word study. “Their hermeneutical method does not derail all that we have traditionally learned. Rather, their methodology substantiates it.”[14]

Perhaps unwittingly, Chou imputes his own context as a comfortable Western academic to the biblical authors. To him, they were great essayists and researchers—inspired exegetes doing word studies, genre analysis and historical research.[15] Does that really describe Amos, the lowly shepherd of Tekoa? Jeremiah as he wept over the Jerusalem ruins? Solomon as he composed Song of Songs? The author of Job? Does it encapsulate Hosea as he preached and wrote about his faithless wife? What about Ezekiel and his dead wife, the delight of his eyes (Ezek 24:15-27)? Were these men merely exegetes with BDAG and BDB open before them, and Logos’ FactBook glowing reassuringly on a nearby screen? Is Matthew the master intertextual exegete (2:15; cp. Hosea 11:1), or is God making the unexpected application for us?

It is the latter.

Chou’s late colleague, Robert Thomas, advocated an “inspired sensus plenior application” approach that is much simpler.[16] The biblical author, under inspiration of the Spirit, “does not eradicate the literal meaning of the Old Testament passage but simply applies the Old Testament wording to a new setting.”[17] In this way, Thomas better accounts for the incongruity of Matthew’s Hosea citation by not tacitly downplaying God’s activity in that citation by appeal to an implicit rationalism.  

Generically, Chou’s proposal is correct. The authors surely did understand previous revelation and build upon it. He errs by attempting to rescue notorious “problem passages” by tacitly downplaying the Spirit’s role and re-casting say, Peter, as an exegete par excellence instead of a good man moved by God to write what God wanted. His rejection of inspired sensus plenior application (a la Thomas) forces him to find intertextual links that seem occasionally desperate. His alleged solutions are rationalistic, I believe, in that Chou is unwilling to attribute their new application to the Spirit’s intent. Instead, Chou must always find an exegetical warrant because, to him, biblical authors are master exegetes who do word studies and genre and literary analysis. I wonder what Chou would have done with the Apostle Paul’s citation and application (Eph 4:8-10) of Psalm 68:18?

In short, Chou’s author looks suspiciously like a biblical theologian writing a tome on deadline for Zondervan.

Chou’s project is intriguing, but unacceptable at points. By claiming to “know” what Matthew intended with the Hosea citation[18] without any evidence from Matthew himself, Chou engages in the same extra-textual analysis as his “post-enlightenment” foes—the difference is his analysis is relentlessly positive. This is not always a credible way to handle “problem passages.”

Finally, I must note that in his discussion of so-called “trajectory hermeneutics,” Chou falsely suggests William Webb[19] accepts unrepentant, homosexual Christianity.[20] Ironically, this is an unfortunate error that detracts from Chou’s own standing to speak credibly about hermeneutics.  

Chou is to hermeneutics what the more passionate harmonizers[21] are to the inerrancy debate;[22] he evidences zeal for harmonization as the tool to explain away all difficulties. And sometimes Chou’s solutions are overwrought.


[1] “What was the author thinking? How did he reach his conclusion?” (Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018; Kindle ed.], p. 18).

[2] Ibid, p. 131.  

[3] Ibid, p. 21.  

[4] “… figuring out the author’s logic is far from subjective. Rather, it is textually expressed by the intertextuality in Scripture,” (Ibid, p. 36). “The author could have ‘two texts’ in mind (his own and the text he alludes to). However, he also could have many more texts in view as he wrote,” (Ibid, p. 38).

[5] “… did Hosea know his words would be applied to something future when they seem to refer to the past? Second, would Hosea ever think that his text pertains to the Messiah, since it originally talks about Israel?” (Ibid, p. 105).

[6] Ibid, pp. 105-107.  

[7] “The similar language between the passages indicates Hosea believes the new David of Hosea 3 is involved in the new Exodus of Hosea 11,” (Ibid, p. 109).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matthew 2:15b: ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου.

[10] Chou, Hermeneutics, p. 132. “Put in terms of the prophetic to apostolic hermeneutic, perhaps the apostles were not always claiming a prophecy being fulfilled but the completion or full development of the work of their prophetic predecessors. The theology has been brought to its fullest maturation,” (Ibid, p. 133).

[11] Ibid, p. 142.  

[12] “… as I have commented before, comprehensive knowledge of a future ramification is not required for a text to be used per the original author’s intent,” (Ibid).

[13] Ibid, p. 199.  

[14] Ibid, p. 201.  

[15] See Chou’s discussion at pp. 201-209.  

[16] Robert Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), pp. 241-269.  

[17] Ibid, p. 242.  

[18] “The apostle wanted to talk about the Exodus the way Hosea did,” (Ibid, p. 109).

[19] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001).

[20] Chou, Hermeneutics, p. 226, fn. 50.  

[21] See, for example, Harold Lindsell’s discussion of “the case of the molten sea” from 2 Chronicles 4:2 in The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 165-166.

[22] I am relying on categories from the discussion by Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 199f. 

Big ideas and the Dutch kerfuffle

Big ideas and the Dutch kerfuffle

Sidney Greidanus’ work Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts is a masterpiece—but more because of the questions it raises than its own conclusions. His aim is to consider how to preach historical texts faithfully. He does this by using a pre-war homiletical[1] kerfuffle in the Dutch church as a foil—specifically by contrasting the strategies of (1) exemplary, and (2) redemptive-historical modes of preaching.

The redemptive-historical model is predicated on biblical theology; “[w]e must, therefore, try to understand all the accounts in their relation with each other, in their coherence with the center of redemptive history, Jesus Christ.”[2] The exemplary method often uses bible persons as illustrations, mirrors and models for our own behavior. Thus, “young David was brave and trusted in God, and so must we!” etc. The champions of the exemplary method are not opposed to the idea of an over-arching redemptive framework, but “their basic motive [is] a concern for the relevance of the sermon.”[3] So, one advocate explains:[4]

… they still feel felt free to treat separately (using biblical givens) certain persons described in Scripture, to picture them psychologically, to speak of their struggles and trials, their strengths and weaknesses, and then to draw parallels between the experiences of the Bible saints and the struggles of believers today. Without hesitation our fathers held up the virtues of the biblical persons as an example to all, but also their sins and weaknesses as a warning.

The problem, Greidanus believes, is that by following this exemplary method one employs a dualistic approach to homiletics—using contrasting preaching methods that do not easily mix. So, one might preach objective facts for the sermon proper, then pivot to “imitate this guy!” for application.[5] Indeed, Greidanus even rejects the common “explain the text, then apply it” method.[6]

Greidanus embarks on a detailed survey of both approaches, which I cannot relate here. The critiques from both sides are very instructive because, despite the passage of perhaps 90 years since that kerfuffle in the Netherlands, the homiletical problem is perennial. He settles on a cautious redemptive-historical approach, but protects his flank by leveling some critiques against excesses from his side. Intellectual sermons are a problem; “conceiving of revelation as a number of theological propositions which can be fitted neatly into a dogmatic system.”[7] A sermon can degenerate into a lecture; “would reading a decent commentary at home not fill the bill?”[8] When one preaches nothing but “facts,” then “[t]his must lead to objective preaching, which is, strictly speaking, no preaching.”[9]

He concludes the book by suggesting some principles for preachers:

  1. Historical texts are proclamations of God’s acts in history. So, one must examine the text itself in proper context. All texts are theocentric, and “people have been taken up into the scriptural narrative not for their own sake but for the sake of showing what God is doing for, in, and through them.”[10] Application can only properly flow from the nature of these historical proclamations directed to specific people—we cannot add relevance that is not there.[11]
  2. Select a preaching text from one single composition. Preach a pericope, not an isolated verse from a larger passage unit. And, do not stitch a sermon together from a collection of isolated texts. Use one passage.[12]
  3. Privilege historical context. What did it mean to the original audience? But, this does not mean the redemptive-historical approach should be a dry recitation of “facts.” Do not “relativize” the message, but make application from the context of your passage.[13]
  4. The bible is one story. “The historical text must be seen in an expanding context: its immediate context, the book, the Testament, the Bible—in that order.”[14] This means one must place the text in a Christocentric framework.[15] “[I]t must be seen as a constitutive part of a larger whole.”[16] It is difficult to reconcile this with Greidanus’ previous advice about privileging context in application. What if the pericope’s place in the redemptive story is largely irrelevant to the point the biblical author is making (like, say, in Song 4)? His clarification that this overarching motif “is not so much a progression to Christ (the Incarnation) as the progression of Christ”[17] helps, but does not explain the disconnect (or, more ironically, the dualism) in Greidanus’ method.
  5. “Big idea” preaching. Greidanus anticipates Haddon Robinson here.[18] “[T]he sermon will be limited in scope: it has one focal point, one message to drive home.”[19] He recommends preachers structure their sermons to follow the flow of the narrative. However, he allows for re-arranging to suit the theme.
  6. Mind the gap. Greidanus closes by suggesting the preacher bridge the continuity gap between “then” and “now.” The application should follow the “big idea.” There is no explication then application, but rather an “applicatory explication of God’s word.”[20] This application is only possible because of a “progression in redemptive history,”[21] which is Christ.

Greidanus’ suggestions, in the end, closely anticipate both Robinson and Bryan Chapell. Each text has a context, but the preacher must situate it in the larger bible story. Yet, Greidanus does not go so far as to recommend the pastor buy a pair of “gospel glasses.”[22] Still, this disconnect results in the very dualism Greidanus is so anxious to avoid.

The “big idea” motif forces another straitjacket over top of the passage’s own organic context. God did not give us scripture as a bullet-point series of propositional statements, and a passage may well be more complicated than a single distillate.

It is difficult to see how a text can “speak” at all when it bears the weight of two different, contradictory frameworks. A sermon has one “big idea,” and each one is also about Christ’s progression through history, and each passage has a specific context one must “bridge” over to today. That is a tall order. Perhaps it is best to just let the text speak and donate the straitjackets to Goodwill?


[1] Greidanus sees this as a hermeneutical issue (Sola Scriptura [reprint; Eugene: Wipf, 2001], p. 5). I disagree and believe, at heart, it is homiletical.  

[2] Ibid, p. 41.  

[3] Ibid, p. 43.  

[4] Ibid.  

[5] “Here the two methods stand in stark contrast to each other. Though they can be combined in theory perhaps, in the practice of preaching the combination is often infelicitous because of the inherent dualism,” (Ibid, p. 47).  

[6] Ibid, pp. 91-93.  

[7] Ibid, p. 183.  

[8] Ibid, p. 189.  

[9] Ibid, p. 191.  

[10] Ibid, p. 215.  

[11] Ibid, p. 216.  

[12] Ibid, pp. 217-218.  

[13] Ibid, pp. 219-220.  

[14] Ibid, p. 222.  

[15] Ibid, pp. 223-224.  

[16] Ibid, p. 135.  

[17] Ibid, p. 143.

[18] Greidanus even refers to a poor sermon a “buckshot” (Ibid, p. 227), which is perhaps where Robinson got his infamous “a sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot” line (Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001], p. 35).

[19] Sola Scriptura, p. 227.  

[20] Ibid, pp. 230-231.  

[21] Ibid, pp. 229-230.

[22] Bryan Chapell writes, “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (in Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.], p. 16).

1, 2, 3! Preach After Me?

1, 2, 3! Preach After Me?

NOTE: This is a review of an assigned excerpt from Kaiser’s book for a doctoral class. You shouldn’t construe it as a review of the entire book.

Walter Kaiser’s Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament is an excellent primer for why the First Covenant is important. He published it in 2003. More recent works have made the compelling case that the situation has not improved![1]

He begins by making the case for the First Covenant. In short, it is the foundation for everything. The New Covenant cannot stand alone.

Nowhere in the New Testament can one find evidence advocating that the writers went outside the boundaries of the Old Testament text to gain their view of the Messiah, or that they just rejected outright what these texts taught about the coming one. The “story” the early church told was the story of the promise-plan of God and the line of the “seed” that would end in David’s final son, Jesus. This was the gospel they proclaimed.[2]

Indeed, Kaiser explains, this is the “master problem of theology.” His solution is to see it as the foundation for the entire bible story through his well-known “promise-plan” motif,[3] from Genesis 12:3.[4] Kaiser then remarks that expository preaching is “one of our oldest styles of preaching,”[5] but fails to note we have no examples of Jesus and the apostles employing this method. He defines expository preaching in a manner Kuruvilla would likely approve:

An expository sermon or lesson is one that takes a minimum of a full paragraph (a scene in a narrative or a strophe in poetry) and allows the biblical text to supply both the shape and the content of the message or lesson from that text itself.[6]

However, Kaiser then contradicts himself by quoting Greidanus thus: “the preacher’s task is ‘to view the whole counsel of God, with all its teachings, laws, prophecies, and visions, in the light of Jesus Christ.’”[7] If the text really determines the sermon shape and context, then Christ cannot be the center of every sermon! He then provides some tips for pastors, which are a mixed bag:

  1. Find the extent of the pericope. Don’t atomize the text—preach the whole natural episode.[8]
  2. Find the “big idea.” I am less and less sure this is a wise move.[9]
  3. Find the “key word.” Kaiser does not explain the rationale for this step, but assumes it. It is unclear what he wants.
  4. Make application relevant and contemporary.
  5. Make a final appeal.

Remarks on narrative

Kaiser devotes a chapter to understanding the building blocks of narrative text,[10] and here is where he becomes less helpful. The harsh reality is, if a pastor does not read widely, he will never interpret the scriptures competently because he will never understand literary genres. No amount of spilt ink or saved megabytes of Kindle text will change this. Thus, Kaiser’s survey of the elements of narrative are good, but not enough. Not nearly enough. Without an intuitive literary radar honed by years of reading for pleasure (fiction and non-fiction), Kaiser’s discussion of dialogue and characterization will remain stale and academic to the poor reader.

His suggested five-step process from text to sermon[11] is depressingly mechanical. His suggestion of block diagramming, identifying topic sentences in each paragraph, then keying paragraph syntax to that topic sentence[12] is unacceptably atomistic and completely at odds with his own definition of expository preaching. What happened to the text determining the shape of the sermon? Kaiser is inconsistent, here.

I generally view biblical interpretation and preaching as gifts from God. One must “have it” in embryo form; it largely cannot be taught ex nihilo. I confess I have no idea how one can “teach” people to understand how setting, plot, dialogue, and characterization interact. You only learn this by reading a lot. It becomes intuitive. It is the same with crafting a sermon. It is not a mechanical process; there is an indescribable art and “feel” at work. Perhaps it is not Kaiser’s fault he cannot adequately replicate that process on the printed page. Perhaps no teacher can.

Still, this is a helpful book that will encourage the pastor to preach from the First Covenant.


[1] See, for example, Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).

[2] Walter Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 24-25.  

[3] “If there is a key that unlocks this quest for an organizing center, what is it? I contend that it is to be found in the promise-plan of God,” (Ibid, p. 31). Also, “My solution is to understand the two testaments as part of one continuing, unified plan of God,” (Ibid, p. 37).

[4] “If I were to choose a text of the Old Testament that most succinctly states the divine mind and brings together all the multiplicity of themes, I would choose Genesis 12:3. It reads: ‘In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ (my translation). There is the organizing plan of the whole Bible,” (Ibid, p. 32).

[5] Ibid, p. 50.

[6] Ibid, p. 49.  

[7] Ibid, p. 51.  

[8] Ibid, p. 54.

[9] See, for example, Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea?” in JETS 61.4 (2018).

[10] “The central elements in the total package of literary devices used in narrative include: (1) scene, (2) plot, (3) point of view, (4) characterization, (5) setting, (6) dialogue, (7) leitwort, or key-wording, (8) structure, and (9) stylistic and rhetorical literary devices employed,” (Ibid, p. 64).

[11] “The process I advocate here and in Toward an Exegetical Theology includes five basic steps in preparing a text for preaching or teaching: (1) Contextual analysis, (2) Syntactical analysis, (3) Verbal analysis, (4) Theological analysis, (5) Homiletical analysis,” (Ibid, KL 3061).

[12] “Place the topic sentence all the way out to the margin that you have just drawn. Then, show how each clause, phrase, and sentence is related to that theme sentence by indenting the clause, phrase, or sentence to fit under (if it follows the theme/topic sentence in the paragraph) or above it (if it precedes the topic sentence),” (Ibid, KL 3129).