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Themelios 35.3 (Nov 2010) is now online. It is full of several very-well written articles and book reviews. Graciously, my review of Michael Lawrence’s Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church is included (although a small error has me listed as the reviewer of another title in the Book Reviews’ section).

Below I have posted my original review, which I had to truncate in order to come within the maximum word-count for the book reviews. I am providing the earlier review here so that the reader might gain a greater feel for how significant I find Lawrence’s work for church ministry. I hope that laymen reading this blog will grab Lawrence’s work and read it eagerly and faithfully. I have used the book for an undergraduate course in interpretation of Biblical narrative this semester. I have found that this work is very useful in helping undergrads gain an understanding of the parts and whole of Redemptive History, and a method for drawing out the story in all of Scripture for those to whom we minister. Thank you, Michael, for a great text in service of Christ and kingdom!

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Lawrence, Michael. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 2010. 233 pp. $16.99.

Michael Lawrence’s Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church offers an accessible primer on how to read the one story of Scripture for both personal and corporate Christian living. It gives the church a simple approach for drawing out the meaning of whole and parts of Scripture for faith and practice. Lawrence has designed a work for those “passionate about ministry in the local church” (13). It is a welcome addition to a growing field of entry-level Biblical Theology texts made for immediate use by both laymen and formally trained church leaders.

Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church is divided into three sections. Section One addresses “The Tools that Are Needed” for the task of doing ministry in the church that is rooted in the storyline of Scripture. Following a pattern similar to that of a traditional evangelical seminary curriculum, Lawrence equips the readers with the following “tools:” “Exegetical Tools” (Chapter 1), “Biblical Theology Tools” (Chapters 2 and 3), and “Systematic Theology Tools” (Chapter 5). In this section, the author challenges the reader to use the Grammatical-Historical Method of interpretation, and to consider items such as covenant, epochs, canon, prophecy, typology, and continuity in one’s reading of Scripture.

Section Two concerns “The Stories to be Told” from Scripture. These “stories” piece together the grand story of Redemptive History: Creation (Chapter 6), Fall (7), Love (8), Sacrifice (9), and Promise (10). Lawrence, here, teaches the church how to trace the major themes of the movement from Creation to the New Creation.

Section Three, “Putting it Together for the Church,’” explores the use of the tools and stories in preaching, teaching, and other aspects of local parish life. In this section, Lawrence provides several examples of preaching passages based on the theory and method in this work. In all of his examples, keeping with the “stories” of Section Two, the author seeks to demonstrate that the Gospel message inherently is relevant for contemporary ministry needs. Pastors and laymen alike will appreciate the author’s “application grid” for appropriating messages from individual passages of Scripture to the broader story of the Bible, the non-Christian worldview, society and social issues at-large, Christology and Christological proclamation, Christian living, the Church, and the “Shepherd’s Taxonomy” of personal concerns in the lives of his audiences. This writer was very impressed by Lawrence’s investigation of a plethora of pastorally taxonomical examples without moralizing or spiritualizing passages from either testament.

One of the most rewarding sections of this work is Lawrence’s attempt to relate Biblical Theology (BT) to Systematic Theology (ST). Lawrence provides the reader with a sampling of definitions of Biblical Theology from Geerhardus Vos, D. A. Carson, Tom Schreiner, and Steve Wellum in order to show that BT provides the means for seeing one overarching story in Scripture. In contrast, he explains ST’s importance in helping the reader think biblically about things the Bible does not address directly in the biblical story. Then he demonstrates that the two disciplines – the two tools for reading every part of Scripture – are related by common trajectories and mutual need for each other. To this end, Lawrence says,

“Biblical Theology is how we read the Bible. Systematic Theology is how the story of the Bible is shown to be normative for our lives. To say you want one and not the other simply shows that you understand neither. Everyone has both a systematic theology and a biblical theology, whether they realize it or not. What we want, though, is for both to be faithful to the Scriptures—the biblical story and the biblical worldview. We won’t understand that worldview if we don’t understand the story out of which it arises. But if all we have is story, how will that story ever engage the contemporary concerns of our lives?” (92).

Every Christian servant would do well to establish his Bible reading habits in the vein of Lawrence’s model—habits that will promote ministry that is “faithful to the Scriptures” rather than to the pragmatic conventions of this or any future age of history.

As already noted in this review, in terms of literary pedagogy, what is good about Lawrence’s manner of presentation is that he demonstrates his theory and method with several examples. The author also draws out the implications of the five “stories” in the framework he has established. He reviews his method multiple times, restating what he has taught in many different ways. For example, at the beginning of Section 3, Lawrence offers a “quick review” of what he has taught about the story – the metanarrative – of Scripture with Christ as the key character. Then he reviews the methods he used to tell the story:

Having told the story and noted the structure and patterns in the story, I also tried to apply the story to our lives. Using systematic theology, I asked the questions, (1) What does this story teach us about God, ourselves, and about the church? And (2) How does it apply to life right now…. Each time I’ve told the story there has been two steps: (1) biblical theology—getting the whole story right, and (2) systematic theology—applying the story to our lives. In fact, each time there has been another step that I did ahead of time but didn’t talk about. I simply announced that I was going to trace through the Bible, and I asked you to trust me that I got the theme right” (180).

Those responsible for training teachers in their congregations often find themselves in need of a step-by-step resource. This review methodology encourages the reader to follow the steps of Lawrence’s method with confidence.

In mild criticism, not everyone will agree with Lawrence’s interpretation of select passages of Scripture. For example, Lawrence proposes that Psalms 1 and 2 represent a framework for the Psalter and are thus the BT ideal from which the Psalms are built. In contrast, some scholars contend that attempts at using Psalms 1 and 2 as framework for the Psalter miss the places of creation and praise in the Psalms, for they are ideas that only can be incorporated into a biblical theology of the Psalms by inclusion of other Psalms into the framework.

Readers also might question the reasoning behind suggesting “Joshua 24 begins the process” of analyzing Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan (191). Many assumptions take place in Lawrence’s analysis that are unseen to the reader but most likely are second-hand or intuitive for Lawrence. Teaching all of the intuitive steps in moving from Biblical Theology to sermon application is a process akin to explaining all steps in finding square roots of whole numbers by a longhand method; as one of my former professors explained, at some steps, “it’s just theory.” Lawrence explores passages in brevity without unpacking all of his intuitive steps—missing steps that initially might create “just theory” gaps for readers as they attempt follow Lawrence in their own analyses of Scripture. Therefore, readers would be wise observe the author’s caution: “The vision I am talking about arises out of the patience, repeated, observant reading of the whole bible” (216).

Occasionally, Western cultural bias appears, such as when the writer notes, “Epistles are the most straightforward of the genre, because they are letters written to people in the exact same part of the story as we are—believers living in between the resurrection of Christ and his second coming” (49). While it is true that the Epistles are for the church, the Gospels and Acts tell the story of the Lord’s “disciples,” and as disciples, contemporary believers are in the same part of the story as that recorded by the evangelists and historian. Those believers in story-telling cultures might find the Gospel literature to be most straightforward. Equally so, understanding and discerning the significance of speaking in tongues and meat offered to idols in Corinth can be as challenging to the contemporary believer in a story culture as appropriating a passage about the land inheritance of daughters of a deceased man who had no near male relatives for those in a non-story culture.

In final analysis, given the emphasis on letting the biblical story shape our individual, corporate, private and public practices, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church is an enjoyable series of lessons on Christ-centered spiritual formation. And this may be key to opening the wealth of what the author is teaching: Lawrence has not given us a text in theology, but a text about “life” in the church. That is, the uniting of BT and ST reveals to congregants how God intends to use the story of Scripture to give life to and shape the life of the baptized community. Thus all private meditation, small group growth, congregational teaching, life-stage programming, and pulpit and corporate worship planning should find themselves centering life on the whole counsel of God. Lawrence’s work is refreshingly attractive in the age of 40-day-readings-approach to spiritual (and congregational) formation. It is an exciting alternative to the pop-culture approach of engaging society with minimum emphasis on the exclusivity and binding nature of the Gospel message. It is a work appropriate for adult Sunday School, leadership training, and beginning-level college and seminary interpretation classes. As a pastor, it encourages me to think of what might happen if many believers in churches become encouraged to begin faithful, daily reading of the Scriptures because Lawrence has aided them in seeing Christ in the Scriptures, and in shaping their lives after him.