Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review: ESV Study Bible

I won’t pretend this is a rigorous or thorough review. For that kind of thing, I encourage you to keep on eye on John Hobbin’s blog, and read Nick Norelli’s review. That said, here are my thoughts on the ESVSB:

You will not like the ESV Study Bible if:
i) You do not like the Bible
ii) You do not like the ESV
iii) You do not like study bibles
iv) You do not like the theological position of the ESV Study Bible notes.

i) If you don’t like the Bible, then the ESV won’t be much use to you. It’s a bible for people who want to read, study, and spend significant time with their bible. If you’re not a Christian who wants to spend some time reading the bible, by all means read this or any other number of fine bibles, but save yourself some money.

ii) Many people do not like the ESV translation. There are some good reasons for this. Firstly, the ESV was produced somewhat as a reaction to how the NRSV updated the RSV, and so the ESV emerged as an evangelical counter-version. Secondly, when the ESV first came on the scene, it was widely heralded as ‘the translation to end all translations’, which was dumb, untrue, and not very well received. This has led to an on-going current of ESV-first proponents, who while not as loopy as KJV-onlies, do tend to have an unhealthy regard for the ESV. Thirdly, there is a second wave of such endorsements, and ongoing fierce debate about the ESV’s merits, particularly in relation to the NLT.

Personally, I find the ESV to be a very fine translation, though not one I use regularly. I still find the NIV superior in terms of readability. Anyone with knowledge of the original languages should accept that translations involve compromise and choice, and much of the ESV’s rhetoric does a poor job of acknowledging this fact. Nonetheless, I heartily recommend the ESV as one of the best current English translations.

iii) Many people do not like study bibles. The most extreme version of this mentality is the one that says you should just read God’s word, and notes and interpretations are all to be set aside. These are the people who go through their bibles striking-through the little headings that are there to helpfully inform you what the passage is about. I find some of these people a little ludicrous, because they’ll just as readily read commentaries, listen to sermons, and fail to read the original languages, but they are very exultant of the English text. By all means mark up your own bible, but get it in perspective.

Why a study bible then? I view it this way – a study bible is basically a chance to have a bible with a running commentary and useful helps, from fine scholars in the field, all present in one volume for convenient access. Sure, I can do some original language work and consult several commentaries and other works, but there are times when I just want to know what a conservative evangelical thinks about a passage, and the ESV study bible does exactly that.

iv) The ESVSB notes are evangelically conservative, reformed, Calvinist. They do not represent the full breadth of contemporary evangelicalism. Furthermore, they are slanted to be more ‘theological’ notes than ‘biblical’ notes, such as in the NLT Study Bible. If that is what you are after, then the ESV is a good fit. If, however, you’re theologically not in that camp, you’ll find yourself disagreeing regularly with the ESVSB notes. They tend to have a more authoritative tone, and that will also likely irk you.

All this said, I’ve had my ESVSB for a few days now, and several opportunities to use it and reflect on its contents. It’s great for what it is, and more or less what I was hoping for. The ESVSB gets my tick of approval for general consumption. 4.5 stars

The ESV Study Bible

Review: Peters Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or PhD.

This is now the second book I’ve read on the topic of getting a PhD. My interest is both functional and theoretical. Just as my interest in languages has led to quite an interest in language pedagogy, my extended studentship has led to an interest in the structures and processes of graduate education.

Unlike the former book I read, this one is targeted to the US market. There are fundamental differences between US style and UK style graduate programs, and you should bear that in mind if planning to purchase this book.

Peter’s book covers everything from those important pre- questions (what is grad school like, should you go, should you work first, etc..) to post-questions, such as looking for a job. The pre- question sections are really strong. They help burst bubbles about what graduate school is like, especially pointing out how universities virtually employ grad students as cheap academic labour, and your odds of getting an academic job are pretty slim.

There are three things I found this book particularly helpful for. Firstly, the opening sections really helped me rethink some aspects of graduate education. The reality is, I’m not interested in a top-name institution for the purposes of reputation, because I’m not aiming to base my career off trading a first rate PhD program for a first rate academic position. I’d be happy to go to whatever institution can offer me what is best for my education, and really that will come down to supervisor options and broader life goals. There are some aspects of my life plan that really only require the paper, not the prestige, and I’m okay with that.

Secondly, the book continued to remind me that I’m far from enamoured of the US style of graduate programs. They have some good things going for them, but I’m not convinced they are any superior to other doctoral programs. So it has further confirmed me in the plan not to head to the US without some serious mitigating factors.

Thirdly, I did find the thesis-writing sections helpful. Mainly because I have problems writing thematically instead of writing commentary on texts, and the thesis writing section gave me some ideas for fixing that and for generally approaching things in a more systematic manner.

That’s me, but what about you? I think Peters has written a fine book, full of helpful information. There might be better books on the subject out there, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to read this one. If you’re in, or contemplating, graduate studies in the US, I’d recommend picking this book up and having a read. 4 stars.

Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Classical Trinitarian Theology by Tarmo Toom

Toom’s new volume presents a welcome and excellent addition to the field. Realising the need for a ‘textbook’ type work, more comprehensive than a small primer, but less detailed than the extensive works of the likes of Behr and Ayres, Toom outlines his aim for his project as an attempt to provide an introduction to the ‘classical’, ie., patristic 4th century consensus, doctrine of the Trinity. He does so without providing any stake in its ‘rightness’ or faults, but as a necessary starting point for any further Trinitarian theology. The works of more recent Trinitarian theologians of all directions must be read against this background.

In the freedom afforded by a ‘textbook’, of aiming to present material for learning rather than an argument for persuasion, Toom sets up the shape of his book in 4 ‘times around’, a reflexive and recursive approach to the material, as well as furnishing a number of schematic charts and diagrams. The first ‘time around’ provides an excellent basic summary of the doctrines of the Trinity, relying on traditional terminology and conventions, and a minimum of exacting historical detail. This section would form an excellent primer for the well-read Christian looking to get a firmer grasp on the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as outlining the primary elements that one would want to communicate in outlining the Trinity as a teacher. It also functions as an excellent solid base for the rest of the book.

Part 2 consists of 3 charts, outlining and situating the emerging doctrinal issues, characters, and debates, in the 3rd and 4th century. Toom follows the course of the debates and positions, primarily by historical character, with attention to nuance, historical detail, linguistic usage, and theological concerns. As an introduction to the historical development of the doctrines, Toom shows his engaged acquaintance with both sources and secondary material, without weighing the reader down with excessive detail. A complete reading of Part 2 leaves one with an appreciation for the issues at stake, the questions raised and solved, and how pro-Nicene orthodoxy emerges as a viable and meaningful resolution of the ‘problem’ of the threeness and oneness of God.
The third part of the book, times three and four around, consists primarily of a guide to reading original source documents, focused on those mentioned by Toom in part 2. Having grasped an essential understanding of the doctrines, the reader is well equipped to begin exploring the terrain of the debates with a discerning and nuanced understanding of the ‘situation’ of each author and their works.

Overall I consider Toom’s textbook a great success at what it hopes to achieve. Having been in need of a quick primer before setting off into some primary source reading in this area myself, it did what it set out to, and I have a far more intimate acquaintance with the doctrines of the Trinity and the shape of the patristic debates, even considering a background already in early church history. The focused nature of Toom’s work, and pedagogical sensitivity, serves him well, and the resource guide of part three ensures his ongoing utility. His writing is not overly heavy or technical, but does not shy away from technical language where it aids the reader in following the material. All in all, a valuable contribution. 3.5 stars.

Classical Trinitarian Theology: A Textbook

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Say a prayer for me

One of the most frequent lies out of the mouths of Christians is, "I'll pray for you."

Not intentionally, perhaps, but the gap between the promise and its fulfilment is usually enough to cause forgetfulness, laziness, and soon it becomes the unfulfilled promise. Why is that?

I suspect that much of it comes from a pietistic and religious picture of prayer - that we must go aside in private and beseech God and bring these requests before him again and again, and wrestle in prayer until he answers.

But is that really what we believe about prayer? Are we not rather taught to come to God as our heavenly Father, and thus as beloved children? Does not Jesus teach us that long-winded prayers do not avail us more than the short and direct?

No amount of prayer, type of prayer, frequency of prayer, will bring the answer we desire, but so often we make prayer a serious, grave, long-term laborious task that we can't even face the thought of it, and our prayers remain unprayed.

For many years I struggled with myself - knowing that I should promise to pray for people, but that I had a strong tendency to fail to follow through. I now follow this resolution: to pray immediately and directly about whatever is at hand. If I say I will pray for someone, I will usually pray with them, or if not, I will walk away from that meeting and pray shortly thereafter in private. I speak to God with the frankness of a child and their imaginary friend. And I do not worry about wrestling for years with God on a single prayer - I know that I will only do that if my prayer remains a burning issue within my heart, and so instead I pray that I will be restless in the heart first, and that those prayers will come forth from my deepest regenerate desires.

Something to pray about.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sermons, Exodus and Revelation

I would like to be blogging more, but life is a bit hectic at the moment. In lieu of real content, let me point to a few more recent talks uploaded, including a talk I did for Christian Union down at La Trobe university's Bendigo campus this week. The topic was 'The Jesus of Revelation' and you'll get a glimpse of my approach to the book of Revelation as I deal with 3 key passages and portraits of Jesus in the book. sermons

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Revelation: Structure

For many, the structure of the book of Revelation has become their hermeneutical key. If only we could figure out its structure, we could understand its meaning. I do not believe that approach is bound to succeed.

Nonetheless, Revelation is a highly structured work, and I would argue moreso than many of its contemporary apocalypses. Its structure is complex, interlocking, multi-level, and marked. Complex, in that Revelation exhibits a number of structural elements, and is not easily reducible to a nice outline. Interlocking, in that segments of the work are deliberately interwoven, especially at their hinge points. Multi-level, in that Revelation may better be seen as having a number of structural analyses that overlay one another, rather than a single level of linear structural segments. Marked, in that Revelation primarily indicates structural features through distinct language markers.

With that in mind, I identify these structural features of the book:
1.The whole of the book is framed by an epistolary framework. This is evident in chapters 1 and 22.
2.The phrase ‘in the Spirit’ functions as a marker for 4 major movements in the book. In chapter 1, it denotes the visionary experience of John himself, and in chapters 4, 17, and 21 to indicate visionary-translocation and the introduction of a major vision segment.
3.The forbidden-angel-worship elements, in 19 and 22, function to mark chapters 17-22 as two distinct and parallel vision accounts, designed to contrast Babylon and the New Jerusalem.
4.The highly structured nature of the messages to the seven churches in chapters 2-3 links, by means of the description of Jesus in each, them back strongly to the picture of Jesus in chapter 1.
5.Chapters 4 and 5 function as a unit in describing the heavenly throne room.
6.Chapters 6-8:5 is structured by the sequence of 7 seals, the numerical marking functioning as a distinct ‘marker’. 8:2 exhibits interlocking with the second sequence of 7.
7.8:6-11:19 is structured primarily by the sequence of 7 trumpets.
8.10:1-11:13 (and 11:14 as transitional) function as an extended interlude, locking both the Seal and Trumpet sequences into the events of the throne room 4-5, and the commissioning of John (ch 1).
9.Chapters 12-15 form a complex structural unit. Despite attempts to see a 7-fold vision here, the lack of distinct markers should count against this. Nonetheless 12-15 should be read as a recapitulation of cosmic history in highly symbolic terms, culminating in final judgment in 14:14-20. 15:1, 5-8 interlocks this series with the following.
10.Chapter 16 contains the third sequence of 7, the 7 bowls. The interlocking element of 17:1 connects the twin visions of 17-22 with the rest of the book. 16:8 should be read alongside 11:19 and 8:5, as markers of eschatological judgment.
11.A number of phrases should be read with attention to visionary sequence rather than temporal chronology. Foremost among these is the repeated ‘after these/this I saw’. Revelation’s structure features trans-temporal symbols as well as multi-perspectival retellings of chronologically simultaneous events.

Broadly speaking then, I outline the structure Revelation along these lines:
Ch 1: Introduction and the vision of Christ
Ch 2-3: Messages to the Seven Churches
Ch 4-5: Vision of the Heavenly Throne Room
Ch 6-8: The Seven Seals
Ch 9-11: The Seven Trumpets
Ch 12-15: Visions of the Cosmic Conflict and the Unholy Trinity
Ch 16: The Seven Bowls
Ch 17-20: The Fall of Babylon and the Final Judgment
Ch 21-22: The Coming of the New Jerusalem and the New Creation
22:6-21: Final exhortations and epistolary framework

Revelation: An Introduction