A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in The Words of Jeremiah

December 20, 2013 — Leave a comment

41Qt7RpiuOL._SL500_Andrew Shead, A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in The Words of Jeremiah, (New Studies in Biblical Theology). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, November, 2012. 321 pp. Paperback, $27.00

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

Andrew Shead is Head of Old Testament at Moore College, Sydney, where he lectures in Hebrew, Old Testament, and music (a good trifecta). Here, he is offering readers another stellar installment in the New Studies in Biblical Theology. This is one of the heftier volumes in the series, I think only outdone by Beale’s in terms of page length. It is a dense read, but an important topic to wade through.

Shead did his doctoral work in Jeremiah, but this isn’t a revised dissertation. It is instead further reflections on Jeremiah coupled with “the concern with biblical theology [that] comes from years of teaching,” and “the interest in exploring how the Old Testament may contribute to systematic reflection” on the doctrine of Scripture. As many of his colleagues were involved in the rumination process, Shead says, “what you are about to read is child of Moore College and its faculty” (15).

In his introduction to the work, Shead spends his time clarifying the aim of the book by laying out what he sees as theological interpretation, as well as biblical theology. Shead is self consciously “boundary blurring” and offering a reading of Jeremiah that falls under the title of “theological interpretation of the Bible” (21). Having established this, Shead proceeds to discuss the nature of biblical theology. In his account, biblical theology is “the framework on which theological interpretation grows” and this interpretation “nourishes confessional evangelicalism” (27). In this sense, he defines biblical theology as “knowledge of God as the God of the Bible” (27). He then elaborates:

First of all, the God of the Bible is the God in the Bible, the God of whom the Bible speaks. And by the testimony of Scripture this God turns out to be the God behind the Bible, the one whose word the Bible is. And as a result of this fact, God also turns out to be the God who addresses us from the Bible (28).

With this in mind, a certain way of reading the Bible follows:

First, we read for knowledge of God in the Bible, that is, for its theological message. Along the way it will yield other sorts of information, but they are important only as they throw light on the God of the Bible.

Secondly, the God of whom the Bible speaks is not a fiction or a myth but the God who creates and redeems us, who acts and speaks in history. To speak of this God as God of the Bible means that though we read the Bible as a book written by many hands over many years, behind all these hands we see God’s creative power and speaking voice. We read it as Scripture. It its diverse words we expect to find one word, and by the clear testimony of the New Testament this one word is Christ. How Scripture in its diversity conveys this word to us is perhaps the single question that most exercises biblical theologians, and how to discern this message without descending into bad reading practices is the challenge of biblical criticism.

Thirdly, because God is the God of the Bible in this strong sense, the message of Scripture is one by which he makes himself present to us in judgment and salvation. And so we do not value objectivity and scholarly detachment in quite the same way that those who read the Bible as a secular book do. We read prayerfully, in the Spirit and as part of the body of Christ. Only this way does knowing about God become knowing God (28).

In offering readers a reading of Jeremiah grounded in this approach, Shead argues “that ‘the word of the Lord’ is the book’s protagonist” and “this is not God himself but a divine attribute and self-communication” (38). Further, Jeremiah could be described as “the story of what happened when the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.” As such, Shead attempts “to read Jeremiah as an authoritative story whose many and varied elements advance the progress of the word of the Lord in their own way and, by so doing, yield a portrait of God that no simpler collocation of elements could do justice to” (39).

Given that his main interest in this volume is “doctrine from Jeremiah” (40), Shead certainly has his work cut out for him. The plan of his book follows this trajectory:

  • Chapter 1: The Word and Words (focus: Jeremiah 1-52)
  • Chapter 3: The Word and Speaker (focus: Jeremiah 1-20)
  • Chapter 4: The Word and Hearers (focus: Jeremiah 21-29)
  • Chapter 5: The Word and Power (focus: Jeremiah 30-51)
  • Chapter 6: The Word and Permanence (focus: Jeremiah 36)

You may notice chapter 2 is missing above. That is because chapter 2 is a detailed analysis of the structure of the book of Jeremiah. He ingeniously employs the analogy to film-making (87-90) to help readers see how the “point-of-view” shifts throughout the narrative. As he concludes:

It is the story of God’s word addressing his people with the utmost urgency, over matters of life and death, with patience and longsuffering, until at last that divine word puts into effect all that it had declared, with devastating results. The suffering that was initially felt only by the speaker of the word (both God and Jeremiah) was ultimately poured out upon his dead audience and, in the end, every nation on earth. And yet, all along – glorious twist in the plot! – it turns out that it is precisely and only through this very devastation that God’s longed-for future can be created. And so that word of God triumphs twice over (105)

After proceeding through the outline listed above, Shead’s final chapter is on the movement from the book of Jeremiah to the doctrine of the word of God. Here, he interacts in a fairly extensive way with Karl Barth, comparing and contrasting Barth’s doctrine of the word of God with the version of the doctrine Shead has exposited from the book of Jeremiah. Though I could say a lot here, I’m going to refrain. Those familiar with Barth’s understanding of the word of God will be given a contrasting voice from Jeremiah. There is some overlap between Jeremiah and Barth, but I guess you’ll need to read the book to see what that overlap looks like.

In the end, this is volume that readers will want to pick up if a) they really like the New Studies in Biblical Theology, b) they are particularly interested in theological interpretation for the use of doctrinal formation, and/or c) they are familiar with Barth’s thoughts and would like to see a case from Scripture brought into brief conversation with him. Certainly you could be all three, as well as be a reader who is particularly interested in a) the doctrine of Scripture and/or b) Jeremiah. Much of what Shead says here would be useful in the inerrancy conversation, though his focus is more on how the words (plural) of God found in Scripture relate to the Word (singular) of God which is not synonymous with them. That conversation alone is worth looking into, and this book can be a good conversation partner.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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