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Usually, I am very high on any volume in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. You can probably tell already that I might feel differently about Richard Lints’ Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion (NSBT). Given that my interest in this subject reaches back to mid-seminary and my discovery of G. K. Beale, I had high hopes for this volume. For whatever reason, I found it less engaging to read than I expected and almost immediately forgettable.

Perhaps that is too strong. Let’s start again.

Richard Lints latest addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion traces out our understanding of Genesis 1:26-27 for a biblical theology of the image of God. The inversion of this image leads to idolatry, conceptually speaking. The opening chapter provides a conceptual and somewhat sociological orientation to the subject. In chapter 2, Lints turns to the foundation of our creation in God’s image in Genesis 1:26-27. This additionally opens up discussion about the nature of human identity and human nature itself. In chapter 3, Lints makes note of the liturgical nature of creation and explains briefly the cosmic temple idea. This leads to a deepening of this motif in chapter 4 where Lints discusses how man was intended to image the Creator King in his cosmic temple.

Chapter 5 presents a turning point for here Lints notes the post fall origins of idolatry. Special attention is paid to the golden calf incident, as well as the prophetic foundation laid in Deuteronomy for invectives against idolatrous practices. In chapter 6, Lints moves to the New Testament, specifically Romans 1, 1 Corinthian 10, Acts 7 and 17, and Colossians 1. From here, chapter 7 turns an interesting analysis of the masters of suspicion (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche) and their “religious” critique of religion (Feuerbach makes an appearance as well). Here the focus is on idolatry as the key issue driving some of the critics of religion. That is to say, not necessarily their idolatry, but their recognition of idolatries that have found a home in religious practices. There is a sense in which their criticisms are valid, but their target is not Christianity in its truest, intended form. The final chapter brings the insights into the present cultural situation and draws some interesting applications.

On the whole, there is much of interest in Lints’ work. Perhaps the best criticism is that it doesn’t seem quite at home in this series. Given the nature of the series, one would expect more extended exegetical analysis than is offered. It is however still offering a biblical theology of the image of God and its inversion by tracing the story from Genesis 1 into the New Testament and noting the developments along the way. On the other hand, this volume is bit more philosophical (not a bad thing) than others and perhaps reflects that it is written by a theologian with philosophical and anthropological interests rather than lexical or exegetical ones (though obviously these are not mutually exclusive interests).

Depending on what you think a book in this series should do, you might find this a welcome change of pace, or a frustrating read. It didn’t stick that well with me as I read it, and that may be more due to how I was reading it than a defect in the volume itself. As I went back through to prepare this review, I found myself wanting to go back and give it a closer read for whatever that is worth. Will I actually do that? Probably not until I need to for some research project, but that tempers my opening comments a bit. If nothing else, this book clocks in under 200 pages and if you are at all interested in understanding the image of God in theological and philosophical context, you’ll probably want to at least check this out.


Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion (NSBT)Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, August 2015. 192  pp. Paperback, $22.00.

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

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I’ve found that when it comes to blogging, I tend to go back and forth between being over-disciplined (to the neglect of perhaps more important tasks), to being so occasional that I easily outpace my review requests. This past blogging season has been the latter. While it has been good to take a slight break, I’d like to be a little more disciplined, for a couple of reasons at least. First, I need to write more frequently. This helps me fulfill reviews, but it also helps me think more clearly. Second, I’d like to be more organized in general, and this is a particular way to pursue that. Reading is easier than writing and too often I take the path of least resistant with my discretionary time.

With that in mind, I’m going to start forecasting reviews that I have coming up during the month and try to pair them together in groups of 2-3 each week. The groups will be thematic, or at least related to each other in some way. For this month, here’s what I’ve got:

Idolatry

This week I’ll have a New Books of Note post featuring some shorter, lighter books (From Topic to Thesis, The Dude’s Guide to Marriage, The Imperfect Pastor, More). The main reviews though will be Richard Lints volume in New Studies in Biblical Theology, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion and Daniel Strange’s Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions. Both of these titles focus heavily on the early chapters of Genesis as well as the concept of idolatry. Lints’ book is more about how idolatry in general forms, while Strange’s book is more about the nature of world religions from a Reformed theological perspective.

Early Church

Next week, I want to turn attention to the early church. As promised, I’ll have a review of Augustine on The Christian Life to start the Theologians on The Christian Life series. In addition, I’ll have some thoughts on David Wilhite’s The Gospel According to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts. In the case of these two, there isn’t much conceptual overlap, but they do deal with the same period of church history.

Trinity

In the final week of February, I’ll finish with three books on the Trinity (obviously). First, I’ll talk about Wesley Hill’s Paul and The Trinity, the first book I finished this year. Next, assuming I stay on track with reading, I’ll post on The Birth of The Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament. Based on my thematic ordering, this could have been placed in the previous week, but then I’d only have two Trinity books and that just won’t do! I suppose if I had made more headway in The Oxford Handbook of The Trinity, I could post on it here, and have three reviews in back to back weeks. That’s kind of aggressive though. Instead, I’ll wrap up here with Roderick Durst’s Reordering the Trinity: Six Movements of God in The New Testament.

That gives you an idea what I have planned. Often, I will try to introduce new blog features only to abandon them shortly after. This may very well be another one of those failed experiments. Hopefully not!

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A couple of weeks back I posted about Tim Challies Reading Challenge. I noticed last week that he posted a January update and I thought I’d do the same. I’ll be a little less annotated in listing the books I finished since several of them I need to post full reviews of. I am self consciously following Challies’ format and used his overall checklist as well (see below). Also, for much the same reasons he listed, I decided to not try to stick with the stages of the plan but read widely and checked books off from the whole list as completed.

Here’s what I read in January:

As you can see, I was mainly working through books for review still. I’m also on pace to hit around 132 books give or take. However, I have moved toward diversifying my reading somewhat, especially in the direction of spiritual theology (more on that soon).

Here’s the whole list, in case you’re curious:

THE LIGHT READER (13 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (26 BOOKS)

  • ☐ A book written by a Puritan
  • ☐ A book recommended by a family member
  • ☐ A book by or about a missionary
  • ☐ A novel that won the Pulitzer Prize
  • ☒ A book written by an Anglican (Paul and The Trinity)
  • ☐ A book with at least 400 pages
  • ☐ A book by C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien
  • ☐ A book that has a fruit of the Spirit in the title
  • ☐ A book with a great cover
  • ☐ A book on the current New York Times list of bestsellers
  • ☐ A book about church history
  • ☐ A graphic novel
  • ☐ A book of poetry

THE COMMITTED READER (52 BOOKS)

  • ☐ A book from a theological viewpoint you disagree with
  • ☐ A book written by an author with initials in their name
  • ☐ A book that won a ECPA Christian Book Award
  • ☐ A book about worldview
  • ☐ A play by William Shakespeare
  • ☐ A humorous book
  • ☐ A book based on a true story
  • ☐ A book written by Jane Austen
  • ☐ A book by or about Martin Luther
  • ☐ A book with 100 pages or less
  • ☐ A book with a one-word title
  • ☐ A book about money or finance
  • ☐ A novel set in a country that is not your own
  • ☐ A book about music
  • ☐ A memoir
  • ☐ A book about joy or happiness
  • ☐ A book by a female author
  • ☒ A book whose title comes from a Bible verse (Eat This Book)
  • ☐ A book you have started but never finished
  • ☐ A self-improvement book
  • ☐ A book by David McCullough
  • ☐ A book you own but have never read
  • ☐ A book about abortion
  • ☐ A book targeted at the other gender
  • ☐ A book by a speaker at a conference you have attended
  • ☐ A book written by someone of a different ethnicity than you

THE OBSESSED READER (104 BOOKS)

  • ☐ A book published by The Banner of Truth
  • ☐ A book about the Reformation
  • ☐ A book written by a first-time author
  • ☐ A biography of a world leader
  • ☐ A book used as a seminary textbook
  • ☐ A book about food
  • ☐ A book about productivity
  • ☐ A book about or relationships or friendship
  • ☐ A book about parenting
  • ☐ A book about philosophy
  • ☐ A book about art
  • ☐ A book with magic
  • ☐ A book about prayer
  • ☒ A book about marriage (The Dude’s Guide to Marriage)
  • ☐ A book about a hobby
  • ☐ A book of comics
  • ☐ A book about the Second World War
  • ☐ A book about sports
  • ☐ A book by or about a pastor’s wife
  • ☐ A book about suffering
  • ☐ A book by your favorite author
  • ☐ A book you have read before
  • ☐ A book about homosexuality
  • ☐ A Christian novel
  • ☐ A book about psychology
  • ☐ A book about the natural world
  • ☐ A book by or about Charles Dickens
  • ☐ A novel longer than 400 pages
  • ☐ A historical book
  • ☐ A book about the Bible
  • ☐ A book about a country or city
  • ☐ A book about astronomy
  • ☐ A book with an ugly cover
  • ☐ A book by or about a martyr
  • ☐ A book by a woman conference speaker
  • ☒ A book by or about the church fathers (Augustine on The Christian Life)
  • ☐ A book about language
  • ☐ A book by or about a Russian
  • ☐ A book about leadership
  • ☐ A book about public speaking
  • ☐ A book by Francis Schaeffer
  • ☐ A book by a Presbyterian
  • ☐ A book about science
  • ☐ A book about revival
  • ☐ A book about writing
  • ☐ A book about evangelism
  • ☐ A book about ancient history
  • ☒ A book about preaching (Preaching the Whole Counsel of God)
  • ☐ A book about the church
  • ☐ A book about adoption
  • ☐ A photo essay book
  • ☐ A book written in the twentieth century

(image via challies)

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On Monday, I mentioned a new review series I planned to start. While this book is not part of that series, it covers a very similar terrain. Edited by Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel, Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian Life is a collection of essays articulating the Christian life “in dogmatic key” (3). If we play with the musical metaphor, the idea is that one could compose the melody of the Christian life in a variety of key signatures, but this work does so using the resources of Christian dogmatics. I’m sitting here trying  to think of what other “keys” one might use, but am drawing a blank. I think we need to tweak the metaphor a bit so that it works better.

“Modes” is a better option, but transposition doesn’t work as well. A song in C major won’t sound drastically different if played in D major (unless you have perfect pitch). A song in C Ionian (major) will sound much different than a song in C Dorian, but that is a modality shift rather than a key signature change. Technically, it appears as a key signature change on the score, but the tonal center that emerges in the song would lead you to figure out the mode employed. The difference between C Ionian and C Dorian is not the tonal center, but the steps between the degrees of the scale used.

If we take the idea of tonal center and connect that with the Christian life, we would say the tonal center is “communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit” (3). Building out from the tonal center and utilizing all the richness of the tones in the key signature is what the authors seem to envision doing. In that sense, the better description is an account of the Christian life that explores the full scale of notes and harmonic richness from Christian dogmatics. Different doctrinal connection points represent different tones within a scale. Many accounts of the Christian life stick close to a single tonal center, perhaps only deviating to the octave or interval of a 5th above, giving minimal melodic or harmonic variation. Here, the full range of tones and harmonies are brought into play, weaving together a more interesting melodic result.

With that metaphor in mind, here’s how the authors describe (not metaphorically) what their aim is:

While the primary reference of “the Christian life” is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension (3).

Ultimately, they suggest that this volume provides “a theology of the Christian life oriented around the triune God of grace” (6). This is seen in the outline which breaks out into four parts. The first, “The Gracious One” has essays on the triune God (Fred Sanders), the electing God (Suzanne McDonald), the creating and providential God (Katherine Sonderegger), the saving God (Ian McFarland), and the perfecting God (Christopher R. J. Holmes). Part Two, “The Graces of The Christian Life,” covers reconciliation and justification (John Burgess), redemption (Christiaan Mostert), and mortification and vivification (John Webster). Part Three, “The Means of Grace” provides a pair of essays on Scripture (Donald Wood) and church and sacraments (Tom Greggs). The final part, “The Practices of Grace” focuses on discipleship (Philip Ziegler), prayer (Ashley Cocksworth), theology (Ellen T. Charry), preaching (William Willimon), and forgiveness (D. Stephen Long).

While in some sense that gives you an idea of what the topics and writers include, in another sense, it doesn’t quite give you a feel for the book. To help with that, I entered into a technical discussion about music theory just a few paragraphs ago. If you already understand music theory fairly well, you could probably connect the dots. If not, it might have been harder to follow what I was explaining. In a similar way, the more familiar you are with Barth and other major figures of 20th century theology, the more comfortable you’ll be with the dogmatic expositions in this more or less academic theological work. If you have a finger on the pulse of recent theological movements, you’ll follow the discussions fairly well.

I had originally gotten this work for myself out of interest, and abandoned reading halfway through. I was later contacted to participate in a blog tour, and so I resumed and finished the remaining essays. I’m glad I pushed through to get to the ones by Webster and Willimon which I found particularly insightful. Closely behind were the ones on theology and prayer. While the essay on discipleship provides an interesting theological meditation on the topic, it is not particularly helpful if you’re interested in how to actual disciple someone. Granted, that’s not the focus of the essay (or the work as a whole), but it is perhaps a bit ironic.

This further illustrates the kind of book under consideration. This is not a book of practical theology, at least in the typical evangelical sense. It is a book of academic and dogmatic theological reflection on topics connected to the Christian life. The price probably prohibits it from consideration by the average reader and the content makes it something I couldn’t recommend to anyone in my church (which tells you both about my church and the book). However, it could be of particular use in a classroom setting, but most likely only for upper-level undergrad or introductory level seminary courses. With the opportunity to discuss further in that setting, this book could be more useful, but only if the class itself has the facility in modern theology that enables a clearer reading.

That being said, I do like what Eilers and Strobel were aiming at in their goals for the book. I don’t think that all of the essays necessarily hit the mark (although Sanders sure did). I would be particularly interested in a more user friendly version of a book like for people like me involved in the discipleship and equipping of a local body of believers. I’m not entirely sure what that would look like and don’t particularly fault Eilers and Strobel for not producing that volume. This book sets the tone at least for books like that could follow (and I mean that in the sense of the musical metaphor from above) and I will look forward to that eventual composition.


Kent Eilers & Kyle Strobel, eds., Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of The Christian LifeNew York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, August 2014. 288 pp. Paperback, $39.99.

See other posts in the blog tour

Visit the publisher’s page

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Thanks to the generosity of Crossway, I will be posting reviews of the Theologians on The Christian Life series over the next several months. I have one more to finish reading, but since I just recently finished Augustine on The Christian Life, I’m ready to get started.

Recently, I’ve wanted to refocus my attention on the basic of living the Christian life. Some of that is because of teaching commitments (at school and soon at church). Some of that is because of just feeling rusty myself in terms of basic spiritual disciplines. Another part of it is my fairly longstanding interest in the relationship of good works to the life of faith in Christ. When you add all these together, it should make for a good spring series.

I thought it might be interesting to do the series chronologically by theologian rather than book release date. This particularly series unfortunately only has Augustine before the Reformation, but given some of Bray’s comments, it is probably a justified choice (more on that in the actual review). There are more 20th century theologians than I think any other single century. Also, were it not for Wesley, it would be a fairly monochrome sample of Reformed authors (the Germans being mild outliers).

Regardless, in this stack you have some of the most influential Christian theologians and their thoughts on the Christian life. I thought it might be interesting to move through them in a way that gives a brief overview of each book, notes which ones are stronger contributions than others, and over time, note what themes are held in common by each of these writers. With only one title left to read (Bonhoeffer), I have a pretty good idea what these themes might look like, but it will be clearly as I actually start writing the reviews. By next week, I’ll hopefully have Augustine ready to go and then we’ll see how it goes from there!

Realistically, this probably won’t happen. But, since noting the perils of reading too much, I have thought about ways to cut down. In that post I also pointed out Tim Challies Reading Challenge. After giving it a bit of thought, it seemed good to me and the Holy Spirit to give it a shot.

I need to prioritize reading in order to feed myself, but I need to prioritize other tasks more so that reading doesn’t become a gluttonous activity. I go back and forth about spending my morning doing other things and pushing reading into the afternoon. Ultimately, this might be best since I like reading enough to still do it in the afternoon, whereas making it to the gym can be put off once I’m tired. I may have to ease into adjusting my morning routine, so bear with me.

When it comes to the reading challenge, if I complete it in full, I’ll read 104 books. That’s a bit low for me, given my past history according to Goodreads. As you can see, I usually average around 150 a year:

Book stats

(Not pictured: 2012, which was a low year of 103 books)

Full disclosure, I didn’t read the NICOT Psalms volume cover to cover (I’m doing that this year). I did read enough of it to consider it “read” though. I do that with some longer works, usually commentaries, but not with the other two longest books pictured, which I did read cover to cover. Anyway, I digress…

This year, I thought I’d try to broaden my reading and get back to reading more for enjoyment than for busyness. I say that because I often I end up reading books that are ok for the most part (usually 4 stars given my rating system) but are not particularly enjoyable. I feel obligated to read these books for one reason or another, and so dutifully complete them. Often, this turns into a form of procrastination. Everyone only has so much time in the day, so if I’m reading 150-160 books a year that average 256 pages (last year at least), then I’m doing that instead of many other things. I feel obligated to read these books, but often I don’t really have to, and I’m putting off doing something else (like writing).

Instead, I’d like to read less but read better. Hopefully, this first leg of the Reading Challenge can help. The way it works is like a snowball. You begin with the Light Plan, which includes 13 books:

  • A book about Christian living
  • A biography
  • A classic novel
  • A book someone tells you “changed my life”
  • A commentary on a book of the Bible
  • A book about theology
  • A book with the word “gospel” in the title or subtitle
  • A book your pastor recommends
  • A book more than 100 years old
  • A book for children
  • A mystery or detective novel
  • A book published in 2016
  • A book about a current issue

Some of these are obviously in my wheelhouse. It does have quite a bit more fiction than I usually read, but I need to read more of that anyway. I put some thought into it and came up with this list for the first leg:

Some of these are still pretty typical reads for me, but I think it is a little bit broader than normal. I’m trying to utilize books for review where possible, but also trying to think outside the lines when I can. I’m still taking recommendations for a “book that changed my life,” I got a few on Twitter, but am still undecided. Feel free to lobby for something for me to add there.

In the meantime, I’ll get to reading and once I finish this set, I do another set of 13, then a set of 26, then a set of 52. Sounds like fun right?

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As is my custom, several weeks back I started a series on book recommendations and then promptly abandoned it. I gave some recommended readings in Reformed theology, promised some on systematic and biblical theology, and well here we are. It would be pointless to promise when those posts will arrive, but most likely it will be before Easter (ever the optimist I am).

In the meantime, this is a collection of previous posts with commentary recommendations. What is a biblical commentary you ask? It is a book designed to help you understand either a specific book of the Bible or a collection of books in the Bible. If you have a study Bible, the notes in it a usually a short version of what a full commentary is (although the ESV and NIVZSB are pretty commentaries in their own right). It is a book that should help you understand the literature, culture, and theology of a given book of the Bible. That last point is somewhat disputed when it comes to commentaries that are more technical. That is, those commentaries tend to go into extensive detail on the literary, cultural, and historical side of things, but do not always terminate in explaining the theological message of the book.

Commentaries come in many shapes and sizes. They also tend to get published in series. Some of these are specific to the Old or New Testament, and some are for the entire Bible. The website that I like to gather recommendations from categories commentaries as either devotional, pastoral, or technical. This is roughly a beginner, intermediate, advanced kind of categorization, although the difference has to do more with focus. The devotional commentary is more for the average person who just wants to understand the book of the Bible better as part of their own personal growth and study. The pastoral commentary is generally more for pastors and teachers of the Bible, and goes into more detail in places. The technical commentary is for pastors and professors and as you might imagine, goes into even more detail, often focusing more on literary and cultural dimensions and less on the theological ones.

A couple of years ago, I put together a series of posts with my recommend commentaries for each book of the Bible. Here are the Old Testament lists:

The post on Old Testament Backgrounds gives a good orientation to both the background of the Old Testament and how to select commentaries on it. After I finished the series, I collated my recommendations into a single post, which you can read here.

Here are the New Testament lists:

There isn’t a corresponding New Testament backgrounds post, but this is a similar type of post. Along with all of this, you can read my reviews of specific commentaries, although they are rarely very in depth.

Thanks to the generosity of IVP Academic, I recently got not only several new releases, but a few old ones as well. Four of those are in the outstanding New Studies in Biblical Theology series.

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First, I requested Peter Adam’s Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality, forgetting I already had that in my collection (read the sample here). You can tell the subject from the subtitle, however Adam unfolds it in a way that is not strictly biblical theology. The opening chapter nails down the shape and structure of biblical spirituality, the gist of which you can discern from the book’s title. Chapters 2 and 3 then trace this theme through the Old and New Testaments respectively. Chapter 4 then focuses on a key historical figure, in this case Calvin, and what can learned from his take on the subject. Chapter 5 looks at issues in the study of spirituality and the final chapter offers examples, drawing on the Puritans and in particular Richard Baxter. Like most volumes in this series, this is worth your time, especially if you’re interested in digging into the basis of Christian spirituality.

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Next, I was able to read Mark D. Thompson’s A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (read a sample here). Unlike many other titles in this series, this volume is more historical and/or systematic theology than biblical theology. The clarity of Scripture is a fairly hot button contemporary issue, so it’s still worth checking out. The opening chapter sets the issue in context. Chapter 2 presents God as the foundation of Scripture’s clarity. From here, Thompson turns to the phenomena of Scripture itself in chapter 3, which does a fair share of biblical theology. Chapter 4 then turns to the hermeneutical challenge. In other words, if we claim Scripture is clear, why are there so many interpretations? Thompson then closes with a chapter that takes some of his doctoral work on Luther’s doctrine of Scripture to help us better explain the clarity of Scripture today. While certainly not definitive, this is still a valuable resource on the topic, showing that there is precedent for the clarity of Scripture in Scripture’s own teaching and in the history of the church’s witness.

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Shortly before Christmas, I read through Paul W. Barnett’s Jesus and The Logic of History (read a sample here). This is one of the earliest volumes in the series and as a byproduct, the typesetting is not easy on the eyes. However, in a culture that questions the historical existence of Jesus, this is a handy volume to pick up. Barnett’s opening chapter talks briefly of historiography how to approach the evidence for Jesus’ existence. The second chapter establishes a link between the historical Jesus and the proclaimed Christ of faith. The next chapter surveys the New Testament letters’ proclamations about Jesus. Chapter 4 looks at Jesus in historical context, primarily in relationship to Herod. From here, Barnett looks at the Gospels as historical records. Chapter 6 moves to the early Christian movement and its relationship to Jesus. Chapter 7 is perhaps the longest and is somewhat summarizing of the ground covered so far. Here, Barnett ties all the previous threads together, solidifying his case for the historical Jesus. Chapter 8 and the conclusion are a combined 6 pages, so this is the pinnacle of the argument more or less. While this volume is one of the shorter in the series, I found it very profitable to read and post a bit more about in the coming days.

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Lastly, while I up in Tennessee I finished Andreas Köstenberger and Scott Swain’s Father, Son, and Spirit (read a sample here). I would say of the volumes I’ve mentioned, this one is the most in-line with what you’d expect from a series called New Studies in Biblical Theology. And the two subjects, the Trinity and the Gospel of John, make it worth your time. The first part of the book, which is just one chapter, establishes the historical context for John’s gospel within Jewish monotheism. The second part is in-depth biblical reflections on the Scriptural data of John’s Gospel. The chapters focus on God, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in turn. Each chapter covers a similar outline, starting with an introduction and then looking at the relevant passages in the prologue, the Book of Signs (1-12), and the Book of Glory (13-21). The chapter on the Son deviates from this slightly. A short concluding chapter synthesizes the findings.

The third and final part of the book then turns to theological reflections. Chapter 7 is Christological, examining Jesus’ identity as Son in the Gospel. Chapter 8 is pneumatological, exploring the relationship of the Spirit to Christ and believers. Chapter 9 is Trinitarian, unpacking the one divine mission of Father, Son, and Spirit. The final chapter looks in detail at John 17 (the high priestly prayer) and the link between the immanent and economic Trinity.

Given all that, this is definitely a volume for your library if you want to study either the Gospel of John or the doctrine of the Trinity more deeply. Having an author that is a biblical scholar (Köstenberger) working alongside a theologian (Swain) makes for a good combination. I would like to see more volumes in this series try something similar (Köstenberger co-authored another volume, but with Peter O’Brien, another biblical scholar). The tag-teaming I think works well, as does the resulting organization of the material. I know Swain has been co-authoring up a storm with Michael Allen, so maybe there’s another volume like this in the works on the horizon. I guess I could always ask!

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I’m usually skeptical of books like this. However, I was intrigued after seeing someone who teaches astronomy review it on TGC (you’ll notice he has the same feeling I do about books like this). Since I had the ability to easily receive the e-Book from Crossway, I decided it was worth checking into. The endorsements are from a combination of respected astronomers and biblical scholars. The foreword is even written by a guy who is literally a cometographer.

I gave a brief overview of the book already when I posted several excerpts last week. The relevant portion was this:

Nicholl had surveyed what people have made of the Bethlehem star (chapter 1). Then he examined Matthew’s historical account (chapters 2-3), the main hypothesis about the star (chapter 4) before offering his own case that it was a comet (chapter 5-6). Chapter 7 then tackles the question, “why did the Magi interpret the comet the way they did?” In other words, what could the Magi have seen in the night sky that lead them to not only infer a special birth, but then know where to go to see the child?

Nicholl looks briefly at what Matthew says the Magi say. They allude to Numbers 24:17, a text they would have had access to, if in fact they were from Babylon (which is most likely). He then suggests that the astronomical phenomena they witnessed involved a conjugation of constellations with the comet. Then, surprisingly, he suggests that it is described in Revelation 12:1-5

The chapters that follow, which I didn’t mention because I hadn’t read, cover how the Magi would have connected what they saw in the sky to Israel (chapter 8). He suggests the main passages that would have formed their expectations are Numbers 24:17 (alluded to in Matthew 2) and Isaiah 7:14 (quoted in Matthew 2). The latter passage was not necessarily part of the Jewish messianic expectations prior to fulfillment. The Magi could have played a significant role in making that connection explicit. Chapter 9 then turns to a chronology of the Magi’s journey. Assuming the earlier data about what appeared in the sky was accurate, the Magi would have arrived in Bethlehem late November or early December. Jesus is still very much a baby.

Chapter 10 tracks the comet across the sky from its first appearance to its eventual departure. The proposed path Nicholl suggests allows the comet to do some interesting things with the constellations, which might have been what initially caught the Magi’s attention. What he explains about Virgo giving birth (see previous post) would have been the culmination of events that had been going on in the night sky for quite some time.

Chapter 11 and 12 are both on the shorter side. The former makes the case that this would have been the greatest comet in history, given the generally accepted measurements of such a thing. The latter then tells the “on-going” story which mainly includes Herod’s demise (which may have also coincided with an eclipse over Virgo). And with that you are left to pore through the bibliography and notes and the glossary of astronomical terms if you so desire.

Not knowing as much about astronomy, I was actually mostly skeptical of the Revelation 12 connection. It makes sense, but having never heard it before, I was curious to see what the commentaries say. Keener (NIVAC) explicitly denies the connection. He does agree that the term “semeion” can be refer to constellations. However, he notes that the portrayal here differs from Greek mythology, so they can’t be constellations. This seems to be begging the question, or at the very least, assuming that since what is depicted here has no direct correlation in mythology, then the constellations can’t be in view. Not a very strong argument.

David Aune (WBC), as you might expect, goes into the greatest detail and explores the background most fully, especially the combat myth in both Jewish and other cultural backgrounds. I didn’t have all day so I didn’t read his entire section on the passage, but he doesn’t affirm or deny an astronomical connection. He notes such a thing is possible, but not in the kind of detail that Nicholl is arguing.

As far as Beale (NIGTC), Osborne (BECNT), Mounce (NICNT), Morris (TNTC), Kistemaker (BNTC), and Patterson (NAC) go, there is no connection argued. They almost all interpret this passage in purely symbolic terms, but with various literal referents (usually Israel as the woman and Jesus as the boy born). To me this suggests that an actual historical referent is entirely possible. John may very well be describing something that historically happened in the night sky (or rehearsing a version of it) that has multiple symbolic meanings. One of those is the literal birth of Christ in 6 BC. This historical event itself has symbolic meaning against the Old Testament backdrop and John may very well be developing that further in his re-telling of it Revelation (since obviously the passage in question doesn’t end with the birth).

All that to say, I don’t see a good argument against Nicholl’s interpretation of Revelation 12 from any of the major commentaries. They do not argue for it, but what they do argue for doesn’t conflict with Nicholl’s suggested referent. At the end of the day though, it may be best to concur with the previously mentioned reviewer’s conclusion:

So, has Nicholl finally solved the mystery of the Star? I’m tempted to say he has. But until an independent reference to the Christ Comet is discovered in the historical record, I would have to call his theory a speculative historical reconstruction—albeit a sophisticated one that may be the most plausible offered to date.

Historians, take note: even a single brief note of a comet appearing at a certain date and in a particular constellation consistent with Nicholl’s theory would be enough to confirm it.

I was encouraged by reading through this book leading up to Christmas. Even though it is tomorrow, it’s not late to use that Amazon gift card you’re going to get to pick this up for yourself!


Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem. Wheaton: Crossway, September 2015. 368 pp. Hardcover, $40.00.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Read an excerpt

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!

Once again, August Burns Red has a new Christmas song. This came out a few weeks ago, but I just stumbled across it. That works out because over at Christ and Pop Culture, they are doing a series this week Stations of Home Alone. Rock out here and then head over to read Wade Bearden’s Can a Filthy Animal Have a Soul? and check back throughout the week for more!