Book Highlight: Christian Dogmatics

Or: “Don’t Forget Your Theology”

This post is a little bit outside of my usual strike zone for an Old
Testament and Septuagint Studies blog like this one. So I’ve titled it a “Book Highlight” since that seemed to make sense, although the spirit of this post is a review. But, having read and thoroughly appreciated Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s manifesto for scriptural interpretation, Reformed Catholicity, I knew that I had to read this volume too: Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Baker 2016). 

This volume is essentially a one-stop tour of theology from a broad and historically Reformed perspective. Almost every major loci of dogmatics is treated by an academic dream team of scholars from numerous institutions. They are all eminently qualified for the task. Each essay is about 25 pages long, and is equally introductory, thorough, and intellectually challenging. It would make an excellent text for the college or master’s level theology course.

Part of what I particularly like about this book is that, while its contributors set out to explicate their theological topic according to the historically Reformed approach, not all of them are formally affiliated with that tradition itself. To quote the introduction, “What binds the different essays together is their attempt to draw on the fecund resources of Holy Scripture within the context of the catholic church of the Reformed confessions … [and their contributors’ commitment] to the proposition that theological renewal comes through dependence upon the generative resources of the Triune God in and through the gospel and that such dependence is best expressed in our particular historical moment by way of retrieval” (p. 2).

The basic idea behind “theological retrieval” is that the contemporary theological task must be undertaken with the full history of tradition that has sustained the faith that has come before it. This will include, of course, the orthodox creeds and confessions, but also earlier theologians and exegetes from the Church Fathers up to and beyond the Reformers.


Just have a look at the range and caliber of contributors to get an idea of the quality of contributions:

Introduction  Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain
1. Knowledge of God  Michael Allen
2. Holy Scripture  Kevin J. Vanhoozer
3. Divine Attributes  Michael Allen
4. Divine Trinity  Scott R. Swain
5. Covenant of Redemption  Scott R. Swain
6. Creation out of Nothing  John Webster
7. Providence  John Webster
8. Anthropology  Kelly M. Kapic
9. Sin  Oliver D. Crisp
10. Incarnation  Daniel J. Treier
11. The Work of Christ Accomplished  Donald Macleod
12. The Work of Christ Applied  Richard Gaffin
13. The Law of God and Christian Ethics  Paul T. Nimmo
14. The Church  Michael Horton
15. Sacraments  Todd Billings
16. Kingdom of God  Michael Horton

Add to that the remarkable collection of figures who have endorsed the book. I am not going to go into detail describing the content of each chapter, in part because it’s obvious what each deals with. But also, to be honest, because I haven’t finished working through them all yet! It is a dense and richly rewarding read, I can attest, and I don’t plan to rush. Instead, I’ll give some macro-level thoughts on the vision of this volume and highlight its intersection with my normal wheelhouse: biblical studies.

Scripture and Theology

It is an eminently biblical principle that faith and knowledge of God is to be passed from one generation to another (Exod. 13:8-10; Ps. 44:1; Deut. 4:9; 2 Tim. 4:1-4). Each generation therefore receives and is trained in the gospel from those before it, and this process therefore rightly generates a tradition, biblically conceived (1 Cor. 15:3). Helpfully, Allen and Swain distinguish between the biblical concept of theological tradition – being intellectually and spiritually shaped by the Christian confession – and mere “custom” that may perpetuate error through history (p. 5). To that extent, the task of this volume is dogmatic, and not “systematic.” The latter implies doctrinal deduction from a logical principle, while the former entails reflection on the task of Christian confession to “equip the saints for a more faithful hearing of and testimony to the words of the prophets and apostles” (p. 6).

Simply insert “biblical” before “critic.”

There is a persistent notion in the biblical studies academy that our discipline is a non-theological discipline, especially Old Testament studies (where sometimes one gets the feeling that it is an anti-theological discipline for some). Even academics who are active in and practicing some faith tradition (yes, including evangelicals) sometimes prefer to tell themselves they have “turned off” their theological thinking while exegeting scripture. The logic here is that doing so is somehow a more “pure” reading of the text, one that does not “fill in” (or, even worse, eisegete) theological categories that are alien to the virgin text. To change the metaphor, this turns into a kind of interpretive bumper bowling, where a strike is an objective and historically accurate understanding of the ancient text, and where throwing a gutter-ball is “thinking too theologically” and thus “straying” from the goal. Because biblical studies deals with physical evidence like manuscripts or archaeological realia, and intersects with “secular” fields like theoretical linguistics, the logic seems to go, our discipline requires “objectivity” and “disinterest.”

Of course, biblical studies is different from theology. Dogmaticians like those who contributed to this volume have a closed corpus of texts to interact with: the biblical canon. Now, the whole idea behind this volume is to self-consciously allow the weight of Christian tradition – biblically defined – to inform the theological task, which entails a huge range of “secondary literature” for study and reflection. But, unlike in biblical studies, it is exceedingly rare that something “new” comes up in theology. In fact, when that happens, it’s usually a bad sign. In biblical studies, however, it is not all that uncommon for something new to literally be dug up: a manuscript, an inscription, an ancient ruined city, whatever. Very often, these discoveries have some significance to the various tasks of biblical studies – sometimes with enormous implications, as with the discovery of the Qumran Scrolls in the Judean desert. So, to some extent, it’s understandable that biblical scholars often seem their discipline as “scientific” in a way that theological studies is not. The two departments do very different things much of the time.

Next year’s SBL conference will be held here.

But not all the time. There is and must be overlap between the two. That is underlying idea of biblical theology, for one thing, and has been increasingly acknowledged in the so-called Theological Interpretation movement. But more than that, we cannot claim to approach any intellectual discipline severed from our faith commitments. That goes for textual and linguistics studies as much as it does for hermeneutics and theology. Consequently, biblical studies is rightly and most faithfully carried out within the confessional context. That is how we appropriately reconfigure the image of interpretive bumper bowling for a discipline that exists within a secular academy that tends to become a smokey, midnight techno-neon bowling alley.

As someone who shares the goals and convictions outlined so well by Allen and Swain in their Introduction, I am grateful for their efforts. And – perhaps I should do it more – I encourage my readers, who most likely are textual and linguistic gearheads like me, to take up and read theological volumes like this one and get your “bumpers” set in the right places. To the extent we do so, our work too will contribute vitally to a more faithful hearing of and testimony to the word of God to his people in Scripture.

Two Recent Book Reviews, and Some On the Way

I’ve been working on reviewing books pretty steadily over the last year or so. It’s a good discipline to keep you reading texts closely, keep up with topics of interest that are not immediately connected with my dissertation, and get my hands on some free premium volumes.

Two of my reviews were recently published in the Bulletin for Biblical Research, the journal of the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR). At the moment BBR is holding first place in my review contributions, mainly because they publish so many and there is plenty of opportunity to do it.

Here are the two that I reviewed in BBR 25.3 (2015).

The Hebrew Bible (BHS) Reader’s Edition

It’s an odd task to review a Reader’s Edition. In case you don’t know, a Reader’s Edition is simply a primary text – in this case Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia – reproduced with vocabulary helps included throughout. In this case, any word that occurs seventy times or fewer in the Hebrew Bible is given a note in the text that corresponds to a footnote, where the parsing (where appropriate) and a contextual gloss appears. This allows you to read your Hebrew as easily as you like, whenever you hit an unknown word it’s there for you to check and/or parse.

I really like this volume. It’s very well produced by Hendrickson, one of the highest quality publishers in the industry in my opinion when it comes to primary sources. The German Bible Society teamed up with Hendrickson to allow them to use the BHS 5th edition text (’97), so aside from the Masorah Parva and textual apparatus, you’re also getting a high quality scholarly source also. In terms of kethiv/qere variants, the editors of the Reader’s Edition have smoothed things out using their apparatus at the bottom of the page.

There are a few drawbacks. For the most part, this consists of the parsing system used throughout. It is based on LaSor’s system, and takes some getting used to. Ideally, you can parse everything yourself anyway so you won’t need it much!

You can read my review here.

Adams and Socio-Economics of Second Temple Judaism

A lot of my research includes reading about Judaism. That may sound surprising if you know I work in Septuagint studies. But believe it or not, the Septuagint was produced by Jews. Ta-da! Although I tend to read a great deal more about Jewish life in Ptolemaic Egypt, where most of the translation work likely occurred, I am also interested in other diaspora communities and, of course, Palestinian Judaism.

That’s why I picked up Adams’ volume Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea to review. I was astounded to read that there is no other volume specifically focused upon this subject-matter, something I am still somewhat inclined to doubt (although I have yet to find proof otherwise). Naturally many of the other tomes on Second Temple Judaism treat socioeconomics in passing or so some extent, but it is not the main focus.

A variety of topics are covered: family and the household, the lives of women and children, the marketplace, the state, and the ethics of wealth and poverty. There is the natural challenge of lack of sources in many parts of this study (especially women and children), so Adams makes up for it by contemporary anthropological studies. This can be problematic, as you can read in my review. More so, however, is his use of almost the entire Old Testament as “evidence” of life in the Second Temple period. If you’re not aware of higher critical assumptions, they more or less allow Adams to presume that most/all of the OT was written or finalized in the Second-Temple period, thus allowing him to use it as a primary source. I find this approach specious, but it’s a different kettle of fish for a different day.

You can read my review here.

Some Reviews in the Pipeline

I have a few reviews that will be coming out soon, and some I’m looking forward to producing. I have two reviews coming out in the Westminster Theological Journal that I will post here in time. I’m more interested in reading these three volumes, however:

Review of Porter’s “Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament”

I was glad to receive a review copy of Dr. Stanley Porter’s most recent (latest) new (fresh) book this year, Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice. Stan is the president, dean, professor of New Testament, and chair in Christian Worldview at McMaster Divinity College, among inconceivably numerous other roles. To save some space detailing Porter’s credentials, why don’t you swing over to view his CV to peruse all fifty-seven pages of it.

Needless to say, when Stan Porter says something about Greek, it’s worth listening. Many will know (better than me) about Porter’s close involvement with the ongoing scholarly debates over verbal aspect in Greek, which – like it or not – makes him an important figure in contemporary biblical studies generally. Even in Old Testament studies, I am convinced, Greek remains quite central, considering the importance of the Septuagint to OT text-criticism and interpretation.

Book Outline

The book, which runs to over 440 pages, is structured as follows:

Part 1: Texts and Tools for Analysis
1. Who Owns the Greek New Testament? Issues That Promote and Hinder Further Study
2. Analyzing the Computer Needs of New Testament Greek Exegetes
3. “On the Shoulders of Giants”–The Expansion and Application of the Louw-Nida Lexicon
4. The Blessings and Curses of Producing a Lexicon
Part 2: Approaching Analysis
5. Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation
6. A Multidisciplinary Approach to Exegesis
7. Sociolinguistics and New Testament Study
8. Discourse Analysis: Introduction and Core Concepts
9. The Ideational Metafunction and Register
10. Time and Aspect in New Testament Greek: A Response to K. L. McKay
11. Three Arguments regarding Aspect and Temporality: A Response to Buist Fanning, with an Excursus on Aspectually Vague Verbs
12. The Perfect Tense-Form and Stative Aspect: The Meaning of the Greek Perfect Tense-Form in the Greek Verbal System
Part 3: Doing Analysis
13. A Register Analysis of Mark 13: Toward a Context of Situation
14. The Grammar of Obedience: Matthew 28:19-20
15. Verbal Aspect and Synoptic Relations
16. Study of John’s Gospel: New Directions or the Same Old Paths?
17. Method and Means of Analysis of the Opponents in the Pauline Letters
18. 1 Timothy 2:8: Holy Hands or Holy Raising?
19. Greek Word Order: Still an Unexplored Area in New Testament Studies?
20. Proper Nouns in the New Testament
21. Hyponymy and the Trinity

Thoughts in Review

There is a lot of valuable material in this volume. In large measure, the essays are distilled from Porter’s previous papers or presentations, but refined and updated. Each of the three parts has its advantages, but I found Part II most fascinating.

Part I is caught up with discussing what might be called “logistical items” in New Testament studies, such as the idea of intellectual property and ancient texts, computer tools, and the ins-and-outs of Greek lexicons. These are helpful essays insofar as they bring up interesting and relevant questions for the biblical studies community. But these chapters will prove most useful, I think, to those already a part of the “guild” rather than students. That said, those students who go on to enter professional biblical studies will do well to have these questions raised for future work.

Part II was, as I said, more interesting, and strikes me as the meat of the book. As the title rightly indicates, the most valuable aspect of Porter’s volume is his application of linguistics to the study of the NT. In Porter’s case, this is done consistently in the vein of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). The SFL approach in particular is what Porter has done so rigorously for so long, and is what he has found so “fruitful” for NT study (see his CV for proof). SFL has come under criticism by some because it is a basically quantitative approach that does not accommodate languages with highly variable word order, like Greek. For this reason, I was happy to see that Porter does not see SFL as the all-or-nothing for right exegesis, although he does presumably see SFL as the best model of modern linguistics for the tasks he is interested in completing. Chapter 6 however is concerned with, as Porter calls it, a “multidisciplinary” approach to exegesis that blends a variety of approaches to distill the many aspects of a text for contemporary understanding. In this part of the book, Porter basically works from broadest to narrowest, conceptually speaking, working from sociolinguistics through discourse, register, and verbal aspect. All these chapters are very clearly written and I personally found them very useful. The last topic – verbal aspect – as we might expect receives the favor of three full chapters promoting Porter’s taking on “nontemporality” in the Greek verb. Like it or not, Porter provides many compelling arguments for this particular view, which will need to be considered in future work on the topic.

Part III essentially puts some of the theoretical concepts from Part II into action. I was glad that Porter decided to do this, since in large measure there is a pretty hefty amount of undefined linguistics jargon strewn through Part II (especially guilty of this is Ch. 9), and the practical application in Part III clarifies much of Porter’s work. I found the first chapter (13) the most interesting in this section, likely because register is a significant aspect of my own research in the Greek version of the Old Testament. There is much of use in this part of the book, too, to students looking to continue their studies at more advanced levels, since Porter is consistently serving up ideas to pursue. The prime example here is ch. 19, which outlines the under-explored potential of word-order studies in Greek.

Wrapping Up

Needless to say, the great amount of particular goodies in this latest publication by Stanley Porter makes a review like this more prone to highlight generalities. Even so, I hope this brief review provides enough encouragement to get a copy of this book, or at least peruse through it at your institution’s library. If you are involved in biblical studies, there is something (or many things) relevant to you in Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament.


Thanks to Baker for providing a review copy, which has not influenced my comments above.