Not as Literal as You Think? A Review of One Bible, Many Versions

One Bible Many Versions

“Are literal versions really literal?” So asks Dave Brunn in One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? Brunn is a missionary and educator with extensive Bible translation experience. Noting that the Bible is “virtually silent” on “the issue of translation theory,” he seeks in his book to answer questions like:

  • “How literal should a Bible translation be?”
  • “What makes a translation of the Scriptures faithful and accurate?”
  • “What is the significance of the original form and the original meaning?”

He examines versions as diverse as the Message, the New Living Translation, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, and quite a few others. He lists examples on both the word level and the sentence level to show that “every ‘literal’ version frequently sets aside its own standards of literalness and word-for-word translation,” when slavish literalism would compromise meaning in the target language. For example, the New American Standard Bible–hailed as one of the most literal English translations–takes Genesis 4:1 (Hebrew: [Adam] knew [Eve]) and translates knew as had relations with. This accurately captures the meaning of Gen. 4:1, but it is not word-for-word.

So, too, with the ESV: Mark 9:3’s “no cloth refiner on earth” becomes “no one on earth” (among many, many examples Brunn gives).

At issue here is the relationship between form and meaning. He writes:

The form includes the letters, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. The meaning consists of the concepts or thoughts associated with each of the forms. Both elements are essential in all communication. …[I]t could be hard to argue that one is more important than the other.

To translate, Brunn points out, is to necessarily change the form. The only way to keep the form of Hebrew or Greek is to leave the text in Hebrew or Greek. There is no such thing as “consistent formal equivalence” between “any two languages on earth.” Brunn (rightly, in my view) suggests that it is okay (even necessary) “to set aside form in order to preserve meaning,” but that one should not sacrifice meaning for the sake of preserving form. Besides, he points out, no translation (not even the most “literal” one) sacrifices meaning every time for the sake of formal, word-for-word equivalence.

Brunn drives his point home especially well by making reference to other languages. Perhaps folks argue about literalness in English translations because of English’s linguistic/familial relationship to Greek. But what about non-Indo-European languages, Brunn asks? “As long as the debate about Bible translation stays within the realm of English translation, the tendency will be to oversimplify some of the issues,” he writes. “I believe that many well-meaning Christians have unwittingly made English the ultimate standard.” His examples of translation challenges going from English to Lamogai (the language into which he worked with others to translate the New Testament) reinforce his idea that word-for-word equivalence is simply not possible across languages. (Lamogai, for example, uses gender-neutral terms to refer to siblings, whereas Greek and English do not.)

The translations that people fight over have more in common than we may first realize. Brunn calls for unity among Christians when it comes to what translations we use. “If we set any two English Bible versions side by side,” he says, “We could easily find hundreds of instances where each version has the potential of strengthening and enhancing the other.” (Indeed, there are even times when less “literal” versions like the NIV or NLT seem to stay closer to the original languages at the word level than versions like the ESV or NASB.)

Knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is not needed to profitably use One Bible, Many Versions, though Brunn does have footnotes for “readers who are already knowledgeable in translation issues.” His numerous charts clearly show the difference between form and meaning in multiple translations.

Brunn gives good guidelines for Bible readers and translators alike, as they seek to discern what translations to use and how to think about translation theoretically. Especially in the second half, the book felt a little repetitive–I didn’t think Brunn needed as many examples to make his point that literal translations don’t consistently adhere to their own standards. Though perhaps those who need more convincing will appreciate the extensive charts.

What I was most impressed by was Brunn’s obvious high regard for Scripture, together with a pastoral sense of how to navigate the so-called Bible translation debates. In addition to these, the care with which he analyzed translations and compared them to each other made it easy to follow (and agree with) him. Whether you’re interested in Bible translation or exploring the differences between various versions, One Bible, Many Versions is an engaging and informative guide.

Brunn has a Website here; the book’s site is here.

Thanks to IVP for the review copy. You can find the book on Amazon here, and its IVP product page here.

Review of IVP’s Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (final part 3)

IVP OT Dictionary Pentateuch

I’ve been spending some time the last few weeks with InterVarsity Press’s Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch in Logos Bible Software. You can read part 1 of my review here and part 2 here; those help provide context for this third and final part to the review.

In this post I summarize and briefly interact with three more articles: “Warfare,” “Book of Genesis,” and “Haran.” Then I offer my concluding thoughts.


A.C. Emery’s article explores “the conduct of warfare found in the Pentateuch, as well as instructions provided for the waging of warfare in Israel” (877). He notes, “Conflict is a common event recorded within the OT” (877), even if the student of ancient warfare tactics may not find much in the Pentateuch. To wit: “With rare exception the battle is described more for the divine intervention than for its technical conduct, which is the particular interest of this article” (878-9). God himself is described “as a warrior” (877) in the Pentateuch.

Emery looks at common Hebrew words that the Pentateuch uses to describe warfare and battles, with qārab (“draw near”) being the most common. He explores Pentateuchal “battle accounts” (879), from Abraham in Genesis 14 to Amalek in Exodus 17 and the “Canaanite king of Arad” and Og, king of Bashan, in Numbers 21-25 (879-80). There are “various instructions with regard to activities related to warfare” (880), including “the need to be… emotionally and religiously prepared for the dangers of combat” and the mechanics of negotiations and siege warfare (880). Emery’s final section examines the ethical difficulty that warfare poses.

Surprisingly, Emery does not in his ethics section mention the difficult Deuteronomy 7:2 with its “show them no mercy” command. He also has an article in the dictionary (“ḤĒREM”) that covers that passage, but his treatment of warfare ethics in “Warfare” was briefer than I would have liked. But, as with the rest of the dictionary, the few-page article still offers a decent jumping-off point for further research, even if it’s not a one-stop shop.

Book of Genesis

The entry on the book of Genesis examines the book with special reference to structure, plot, and theology (350). L.A. Turner’s key assumption is: “Genesis is a narrative book, and its theology is conveyed through features such as its structure, plot and characterization, rather than through set pieces of divine promulgation, as in legal or prophetic texts” (356).

Regarding structure, though there are varying theories, most agree that “Genesis is composed of two distinct blocks of unequal size” (350). The first runs roughly through Genesis 11 or the first few verses of Genesis 12 and is about humanity generally. Genesis 12 onward picks up the story of Abraham. The “main sections” in Genesis, according to Turner, are “the Abraham story (Gen 11:27–25:18), the Jacob story (Gen 25:19–37:1) and the story of Jacob’s family (Gen 37:2–50:26)” (350). The Hebrew word tôlĕdôt (genealogy) is a structural marker throughout Genesis.

The plot of Genesis has “progressive complexity” (352), moving from early human history to complex characters and families by the end of the book. “Divine promises and blessings” constitute “the book’s central core” (353) for Turner, and set the stage for the rest of the Bible (358). Regarding theology, he notes the tension “between divine sovereignty (as exemplified in the genealogies) and human free will (as demonstrated in the narratives)” (357).

I wanted to be sure to review a longer article in the dictionary. I was unexpectedly riveted as Turner walked through Genesis (10 pages in print). I found his contention that the book’s structure has theological import to be particularly compelling.


“Haran” in English could refer either to a place or to a person, though the spelling is different between each word in Hebrew (379). Both the place and the person are in Genesis 11:27-32, so M.W. Chavalas treats them together (379).

Haran the place is where Abraham lived after leaving Ur and before departing for Canaan (379). He also sought a wife for Isaac there, and Jacob found Rachel and Leah there, too. Similar to Ur, Haran centered on lunar worship. Haran is located in what today is southeastern Turkey. There is “only a small amount of archaeological evidence…for the city, and even less for patriarchal times” (379). It seems to have been inhabited already well before Abraham’s time, perhaps by some 20,000 people (379). Chavalas notes its likely founding “as a merchant outpost by the Sumerian city of Ur in the late third millennium B.C.” (379).

Haran the person has “very little biblical or extrabiblical information” recorded about him. He was Terah’s son, Lot’s father, and Abram’s brother. It was Haran’s death at Ur that led Lot to go to Haran with Abram. Haran also had two daughters, Iscah and Milcah.

The more I research Abraham and the Pentateuch, the more I realize how important Lot was to him. His desire to bear a family perhaps through Lot seems to be what led to his rescue of Lot in Genesis 14.  Several dictionary articles point this out nicely. Chavalas covers Haran fairly thoroughly in a short amount of space (just two or three print pages).


I hope Logos will update the dictionary so that the sidebar Table of Contents can expand to include all the article sub-points. Another thing that would make the product better is an easier way to find out about contributors from within an article. Having their names hyperlinked with their biographical information would be nice. As it is, one has to move between the article and the separate “Contributors” section to find out more about each author. [EDIT: Author names have hyperlinks in the Accordance production of this module.]

The Logos edition of the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch is overall a good module. Being able to have it open to both Hebrew and English biblical texts saves considerable time compared to using the print edition. The Dictionary is a solid first place to go on issues, themes, and people in the Pentateuch.

The Dictionary is on Amazon here (in print) and at Logos here. My thanks to Logos for the review copy.  Read part 1 of my review here and part 2 here.

(Part 2) Review of IVP’s Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch

IVP OT Dictionary Pentateuch

Sarah, Melchizedek, and the language of the Pentateuch. Last week I reviewed the articles on each of those topics in InterVarsity Press’s Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch in Logos Bible Software.

Here’s what the IVP page says about the dictionary in its book description:

The Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch is the first in a four-volume series covering the text of the Old Testament. Following in the tradition of the four award-winning IVP dictionaries focused on the New Testament and its background, this encyclopedic work is characterized by close attention to the text of the Old Testament and the ongoing conversation of contemporary scholarship. In exploring the major themes and issues of the Pentateuch, editors T. Desmond Alexander and David W.Baker, with an international and expert group of scholars, inform and challenge through authoritative overviews, detailed examinations and new insights from the world of the ancient Near East.

My first review contains an initial evaluation of the dictionary specifically in Logos Bible Software; you can read that here. In this post I summarize and briefly interact with three more articles: “Terah,” “Lot,” and “Ur.”


Terah was Abram’s father and Lot’s grandfather. He also fathered Nahor and Haran. M.W. Chavalas notes that Terah was “the family head,” since “all of the material in Genesis 11:27-25:11 is prefaced by the statement, ‘This is the family history of Terah’” (829). Chavalas considers Terah in three parts: the etymology of his name, his time in the city of Ur, and “Terah and Later Traditions.”

Chavalas considers several options for the meaning and linguistic source of “Terah,” but concludes, “An understanding of the etymology of the name Terah has proved to be difficult” (829). It does seem to have “associations with a place name in northern Mesopotamia” (830) and perhaps some associations with lunar worship (though perhaps not). Similarly, Ur, from which Terah comes, has been difficult to pinpoint. Chavalas places it in southern Mesopotamia. Chavalas finally considers the challenge that Acts 7:4 and Philo pose regarding chronology and location.

Chavalas manages to cover most of the essential territory on Terah in a short space. There is not much biblical material on Terah, but this article contains an overview of it all. There is little content in the “Terah and Later Traditions” section, and the article’s bibliography does not point to more resources to explore Abram’s father, for example, in rabbinical tradition. Detailed research on Terah would have to be supplemented with other resources.


Lot was Terah’s grandson and Abram’s nephew. J.I. Lawlor notes that Lot traveled with his grandfather Terah from Ur to Haran because his own father has died (556).

Lawlor primarily takes a literary and narrative approach to understanding Lot’s place in the Abram/Abraham material. He notes “two ‘paired sets’” of Lot material that “have been integrated, one set in each half of the Abraham story” (556). The author/compiler of Genesis does this, Lawlor notes, to “suggest and hold open the possibility of Lot as Abraham’s heir” (556), later dismissing the possibility as Isaac becomes heir (557).

Genesis 14:17-24 marks Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek, occasioned because Abram had gone to battle due to the Mesopotamian kings’ kidnapping of Lot. Abram rescued Lot in Gen. 14, then rescued him again, in a way, by interceding on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen. 18-19 (557-8).

Due to an incestuous drunken encounter with his daughters, Lot gave rise to two groups of people, the Moabites and Ammonites, which Lawlor briefly discusses.

Lawlor’s most helpful contribution is in his situating of Lot in the larger flow of Genesis 12-19, where Lot serves as a possible answer to the question, Who will be an heir to Abram and Sarai? His reading of the “two paired sets” of Lot material is illuminating.


Like Chavalas in the “Terah” article, Osborne locates Ur in southern Mesopotamia as one of its “oldest and most famous” cities (875). Today the two-millenia old city of Ur is “modern Tell al-Muqayyar, located on the Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia” (875). Osborne looks at the archaeology of Ur as well as its place in patriarchal times.

Based on an early 20th century exploration of the tell (hill/remains) where Ur once was, archaeologists think that Ur was “not…one of the most extensive cities of its time” (875), with a population of just under 25,000. Ur was a center of lunar worship in Mesopotamia, as was Haran, where Terah would go from Ur (875). Tomb excavations have shown a wealthy city, which “was most probably derived from its lucrative involvement in trade along the Gulf” (876). Osborne also explores the debate over the birthplace of Abraham, whether it was northern or southern Mesopotamia (he favors the latter). He notes that the Genesis text does not say why Terah and his family left Ur.

Archaeology is not my primary interest within biblical studies, but Osborne introduces the basic archaeological finds to the reader in a short space, and does a good job of it. The bibliography at the end of the article offers titles for further reading.


My impression of the dictionary continues to be positive. At the same time it is becoming clear to me that it is not comprehensive in the subjects it treats. So researchers, exegetes, writers, and teachers will want to consider using it alongside other resources. However, its ability to summarize much detail in a succinct way is a strong point of the dictionary.

I’ll do at least one other installment in my review of Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, and include some concluding thoughts there. See the first part of my review here.

The Dictionary is on Amazon here (in print) and at Logos here. My thanks to Logos for the review copy.

Review of IVP’s Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Logos edition)

IVP OT Dictionary Pentateuch

Over the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing IVP’s Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch in Logos Bible Software. I’ll look at a few dictionary articles in each post, commenting on the content of each, as well as on the dictionary’s presentation in Logos.

I’ve reviewed Logos 4 and 5, looking at several packages and additional resources. Find those reviews collected here.

The dictionary is easy to lay out in Logos with other accompanying resources. Here I have it next to the Hebrew text with English translation and a Hebrew lexicon (click to enlarge):

IVP OT Dictionary Logos

As with all of Logos’s resources, you can hover over hyperlinked words (see “Heb 7:2” above) to see the Scripture without leaving that tab.

One solid feature so far (true of Logos resources in general): being able to use the shortcut command (Mac) or control (PC) + F to quickly find words in the entries.

One thing to critique so far: the items in the Table of Contents don’t expand to all the subpoints. In the shot above, for example, you can see that “1. Prosopography” under Melchizedek has “1.1. Name” in the entry, but not in the left sidebar Table of Contents. This makes navigating through multiple layers of detail a bit more cumbersome. (By contrast, the Accordance version of this module looks like it has the triangle that continues to expand, here.)

What about content of the dictionary itself? In this installment, I summarize and review three articles: “Sarah,” “Melchizedek,” and “Language of the Pentateuch.”


R.G. Branch notes that Sarah and other “matriarchs of God’s people” are “equally significant” compared to the “widely recognized Israelite patriarchs” (733). Chief among these is Sarah. Even if there is not the amount of biblical material about Sarah that there is about Abraham, she remains a “pivotal character” in Genesis (733).

Branch divides the “Sarah” entry into two parts: “Sarah in the Ancestral Narratives” and “Sarah in the Later Tradition.”

In the first part Branch notes that Sarah, about 10 years younger than Abraham, is “the first matriarch of the biblical text” (733). Her childlessness in Genesis 11:30 is a key characteristic. Her first mention in that passage describes her barrenness, which “sets the tone for the stories about them that follow” (733). Sarai and Sarah (her name after God changed it in Genesis 17) both mean “princess” or “chieftainess.” Genesis records several threats to the possibility of Abraham and Sarah bearing offspring, not the least of which is two stories (in Genesis 12 and 20, which Branch understands as two separate incidents) of “marital deception,” where Abraham claims Sarah as his sister (734).

“In both cases,” Branch notes, “Abram feared for his life because of his wife’s great beauty” (734). It is this beauty that is the focus of the second part of the article, “Sarah in Later Tradition.” Branch cites various Jewish sources that extol Sarah for her immense beauty. She is also said to have been “surrounded” by miracles (735).

Branch gives a good, basic summary of biblical and Jewish rabbinic material about Sarah (as well as her importance for understanding Elizabeth in the New Testament), with citations that the reader can follow up for more.

Key statement from this article is: “Many of the issues in the stories about the couple can be understood as their struggle to come to terms with God’s promises of land, offspring, greatness and blessings” (734).


Scripture contains very few references to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. S.J. Andrews recounts Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18-20, which Psalm 110 (noted as a “royal Psalm”) cites. Andrews also does well in noting the book of Hebrews’ understanding and interpretation of Melchizedek.

In “Prosopography” Andrews notes the complications that arise in trying to understand the name malkîṣedeq. Hebrews reads it as “king of righteousness,” but Andrews notes scholarly disagreement on “whether it was originally a Northwest Semitic personal name (theophoric or descriptive) or a royal epithet” (563). Therefore, “The name could mean either ‘(my) Malk/Melek is just’ or ‘Ṣedeq is my king’” (563). Either way, Genesis calls him “king of Salem,” which could be Jerusalem, or just mean, “king of peace,” as in Hebrews 7:2.

The “Historical Account” section of the article delves more into the story of Abram’s victory of kings and subsequent exchange with Melchizedek, where the latter gives the former bread and wine and a blessing, and the former appears to tithe to the latter.

In the final section, “Messianic Application,” Andrews explores various possibilities for the appearance of Melchizedek, what it meant, possible connection to a Messiah, and so on.

Andrews says, “The Qumran text 11QMelch portrays Melchizedek as an archangelic figure like Michael” (564), but he could have perhaps gone into more depth about the Qumran understanding of Melchizedek. However, his basic overview serves as a solid starting point for understanding the Melchizedek figure in biblical tradition.

Language of the Pentateuch

R.S. Hess’s “Language of the Pentateuch” article consist of three sections: “A discussion of the history of languages in and around Palestine during the third and second millennia b.c., a consideration of the grammar and style of the Pentateuch’s language in comparison with Classical Hebrew, and a study of those linguistic elements within the Pentateuch that might relate it to the period in which the narratives and events recorded in Genesis through Deuteronomy claim to have taken place” (491).

He offers a survey of Pentateuchal chronology, marking the date of the exodus as “sometime between the fifteenth century b.c and the end of the thirteenth century b.c.” (492), part of the Late Bronze Age. The Hebrew language is part of a family of West or Northwest Semitic dialects. There are not immense differences between the language of the Pentateuch and the language of (presumably) later Old Testament texts, but Hess does point out research around some “distinctive elements found in the Pentateuch that might set it apart from the grammar of the remainder of biblical Hebrew” (493), though these are few. Hess holds to an “early date” for at least the initial writing of the Pentateuch.

This particular article was a bit dry at times, but the level of detail is still to be appreciated.

So far my overall impression of the dictionary is positive. I will write more about it later. UPDATE: Part 2 is here.

The Dictionary is on Amazon here (in print) and at Logos here. My thanks to Logos for the review copy.

And God planted a garden…

[R]econciliation has too often been discussed in Christian circles as if it took place in a vacuum, as if only people and not trees, rivers, mountains and farms are swept up in God’s redemptive drama. Our aim, then, is to point our attention back to the land, to say what a faithful life on it might look like, and to show that the land–indeed, the entire cosmos–is inextricably bound up in God’s salvation through Jesus Christ (see Col 1:20).

–Fred Bahnson & Norman Wirzba in Making Peace with the Land

The newest offering from IVP Books’ Resources for Reconciliation series is Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with CreationThe Resources for Reconciliation series pairs a practitioner with an academician, who then together address the theology and practice of reconciliation in a given sphere of life. The first book in the series, Reconciling All Things, profoundly influenced my development of a Biblical theology of justice and reconciliation.

Practitioner Fred Bahnson is an agriculturalist and writer (and excellent theologian); academician Norman Wirzba is a theology professor at Duke Divinity School (and grounded practitioner). Making Peace with the Land makes the Biblical case that “redemption is cosmic,” and so extends to the whole created order, not just humanity. God wants all creatures (“human and nonhuman”) to be “reconciled with each other and with God.” In other words, our Biblical theology of reconciliation is anemic if it does not extend to a loving stewardship of the whole of God’s creation. The authors warn against “ecological amnesia.”

Our “ecological amnesia” is at its core a theological issue. God is God of the soil, a gardener who loves the soil and brings forth life through it (as noted in Genesis). But we have worked against the land in developing systems and structures for farming that draw heavily on “our own agricultural scheme” and “monocultures of annual crops.” Instead we need to “look to nature as a model for how to practice agriculture,” engaging in what Bahnson calls regenerative agriculture, founded on the truth that “the ecosystems in which we find ourselves–created by God and deemed ‘very good’–are far more adept at growing things than we are.” The profile in chapter 6 of the work of ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) both astounded and inspired me. (Check out ECHO here.)

Bahnson and Wirzba are compelling: “Surely it is a contradiction to profess belief in the Creator while showing disregard or disdain for the works of the Creator’s hands.” After reading a lengthy description of how Chicken McNuggets are made, I was about ready to become a vegetarian. Regardless of how the phrase “animal rights” makes you feel, animal torture is not possibly justifiable by those who have been called to co-steward the creation with God.

At times I desired more exegetical nuance when the authors dealt with Scripture. For example, though the prologue is convincing enough that we ought to view God as gardener, to accept that God’s gardening work is “the most fundamental and indispensable expression of the divine love that creates, sustains, and reconciles the world” is difficult for me to… well… reconcile with the expression of divine love on the cross. In the end, it’s all of the above. That said, Bahnson’s note on the acacia tree in Isaiah 41:18-19 as a nitrogen-fixing tree and thus “divine agroforestry advice” was awesome. And the authors do affirm elsewhere that reconciliation begins with the person and work of Jesus–it is in Jesus that all things hold together, as they point out from Colossians 1.

Many of us practice “a sort of gnostic disdain for manual labor, soil husbandry, caring for physical places and living within our ecological limits.” If I make enough money to simply buy food, I don’t need to get close to that food except to pick it up at the store (or restaurant!). Then I eat it and keep going with my work, however disconnected I may be from the source of that food. However,

Reconciliation with the land means learning to see the land as part of God’s redemptive plan and acknowledge God’s ongoing presence there. That will require putting ourselves in proximity to the land and staying there long enough to be changed.

After reading this book, I’m unsettled. I’m a lot farther from “the land” than I perhaps should be. I’m not sure what to do with that. And my theology of reconciliation has often not been robust enough. But I’ve been thinking more about my food, its sources, and my connection to God’s land now that I’ve read Making Peace with the Land. I’m not suggesting that we engage carbon offsets as a solution. (Slight detour: does this not look eerily like indulgences?)

But if I’m unsettled, I’m also inspired. What if I allowed my having been reconciled with Christ to inform a ministry of reconciliation not limited to other people? What if we followed Wirzba’s advice to allow our weekly “Eucharistic eating” to “not only transform the eating we do with people,” but to also transform “the entire act of eating, which means [changing] the way we go about growing, harvesting, processing, distributing, preparing and then sharing the food we daily eat”?

That would be an abundant life.

Thank you to IVP for the free review copy, in exchange for an unbiased review, and–as it turns out–a re-examined life. Find more about Making Peace with the Land here (IVP) or here (Amazon). Highly recommended.

Forsaken: Did God the Father kill Jesus on the cross?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

“I and the Father are one.”

Wondering how these three verses of Scripture fit together? I often have. Cognitive dissonance finally got the better of me, and I decided I should try to think through this one a little more deeply. To that end I read Thomas H. McCall’s Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (InterVarsity Press, 2012). Here, on Magnificent Monograph Monday, I offer a review of the book. (Thanks to IVP for the free review copy, in exchange for an unbiased review.)

First, the very short summary of my review, if you want to cut to the chase and head off and do something else after this next paragraph.

McCall tackles some difficult questions: “Did God forsake Jesus [on the cross]? Did the Father turn his back on the Son in rage? Was the Trinity ruptured or broken on that day?” His answers and arguments are rooted in Scripture, the history of interpretation of that Scripture, and are consistently compelling. McCall really helped me through my own struggles to grasp some of these questions, leading me to a fuller understanding of the life of the Trinity and the relationship between its persons, particularly in terms of what happened on the cross. And he spells out the implications of his assertions beautifully. God is not divided, he concludes, but God–all of God–is for us. So we can rejoice and rest secure in that. Five stars, no doubt.

McCall writes “not for other scholars…but for pastors, students and friends–indeed, for anyone genuinely interested in moving toward a deeper understanding of God’s being and actions.” Forsaken is heavy theological lifting for a non-scholar (and not lightweight for a scholar, either), but the effort is well worth it. McCall answers some very common questions people ask (or are scared to ask and should ask) about the Trinity, also showing ramifications for our relationship to God.

Forsaken has four chapters. Each asks a theological question, addresses it, then concludes with some theological assertions to avoid, some to affirm, and why it matters.

The first chapter asks, “Was the Trinity Broken?” Here McCall discusses the theological concept of “dereliction,” or the idea that Jesus was abandoned by God on the cross. Recent theology notwithstanding, McCall makes a strong Scriptural case that God the Father did not forsake the Son on the Cross. Understanding Psalm 22 as an “interpretive key” to Jesus’ death, McCall writes:

No, the only text of Scripture that we can understand to address this question directly, Psalm 22:24, says that the Father did not hide his face from his Son. To the contrary, he has “listened to his cry for help.”

Not only that, the author argues, but if God truly had forsaken Jesus, why would Jesus bother–after his cry–to say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”? Jesus “prefaces his last words with a sense of deep relational intimacy: Jesus addresses his ‘Father.'”

In chapter two McCall asks, “Just what are we to make of the biblical witness to the wrath of God? Is it opposed to his love? Is it a ‘dark side’ to God that is inconsistent with his holiness or with his mercy?” He makes a pretty hard-to-argue-with case that “the biblical witness does not set love and wrath in opposition to one another.” McCall, I thought, was at his best in this chapter when he highlighted multiple New Testament references to wrath–not only the wrath of God generally, but Jesus’ wrath specifically. So there’s no Old Testament God=wrath, New Testament God=mercy conclusion to be drawn from the Bible. The author utilizes the theological categories of divine impassibility and simplicity to show that “wrath” as God exhibits it is not what we might envision in human anger; rather, it is an expression of holy love.

McCall’s third chapter asks whether God’s divine foreknowledge means that God killed Jesus, since he knew it was going to happen, could have stopped it, but didn’t. “God’s plan was to use the death of Jesus for his purposes and for our good,” but God himself did not cause the death. As Acts so often makes clear, McCall points out, “The apostolic proclamation of the gospel places the fault and blame on the sinners who are responsible for the death of Jesus.”

Chapter four articulates a robust theology of justification (forensic; instantaneous; by which I enter into the life of God) and sanctification (separation unto God; progressive; by which I grow in communion with God). Page 145 and following has a brilliant interpretation of Paul’s famous Romans 7:14-25 passage where he (seemingly) wrestles with sin.

One difficult implication of this book for me as a worship leader (and coach of worship leaders) is that, if McCall is right, we may be singing some not-quite-right theology in two well-known songs. “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” has a line that says, “The Father turns his face away.” And the song “In Christ Alone” says, “…till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” McCall addresses these two claims head on and (in my opinion, successfully) refutes them. The Father did not turn his face away (see the block quote above). And to say that God the Son mollified the wrath of God the Father is to bifurcate the Trinity in some unorthodox ways. (!)

I’m not sure if it’s generally accepted for a book reviewer to admit to shedding tears when reading a review copy. (Objectivity! Right?) No matter. McCall’s concluding postscript (“A Personal Theological Testimony”) moved me to tears, as he recounted the difference “the trinitarian gospel” made for him and his family as they processed the death of his father.

Getting the theological details of the Trinity right (as best we can!) matters. It matters for our understanding of God, our relationship with him, and for all of life. In the life and truths of the Trinity–properly understood, and I think McCall a good guide here–there is great comfort. We see a God who, as McCall says, is for us. We find a God who has granted us victory over sin and death, making it possible for us to enter into communion with the triune God of love.

You can find Forsaken here at the IVP product page or on Amazon.

Book Review: The Next Evangelicalism, by Soong-Chan Rah

Soong-Chan Rah writes, “As many lament the decline of Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the twenty-first century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing, but in unexpected and surprising ways.”

In The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Rah posits that mainstream evangelicalism in the United States has been too monocultural in its worldview–“white” and “Western,” he says. It has been “taken captive” by individualism, consumerism and materialism, and racism. This captivity is pervasive, he writes, as seen in the megachurch movement, the emerging church movement (which Rah rightly argues pays too much attention to just white voices), and through cultural imperialism. Looking at Native American, African American, immigrant, and multicultural communities, Rah offers hopeful alternatives for evangelicalism’s future.

Every evangelical Christian should read this book. Rah has the courage to say hard things the church needs to hear. His excellent treatment of racism, especially, should be preached from the pulpits and studied in small groups.

However, there are at least two key points where I take issue with Rah.

First, a distraction is Rah’s equating “white” with “Western” as he discusses the church’s captivity. But these two are not always synonymous words, and sometimes when the author uses “white” he really means (or should mean) “Western” instead. Rah mentions T.D. Jakes as a megachurch pastor who is emblematic of the church’s captivity to (“white”) numerical pragmatism. But Jakes is “Western” and not “white.”  And there are non-white sectors of the Western church deserving of Rah’s critique (for example, Creflo Dollar and other “health and wealth gospel” African American pastors should be included in Rah’s critique of Western consumerism and materialism). Rah’s arguments would have more force (and been more accurate) if he simply had referred to “Western cultural captivity.”

Second, I struggled to accept some final remarks: “The shift in American evangelicalism is well under way. The white churches are in significant decline.” I will grant the first assertion. But as to the second, Rah does not define further what he means by “decline” and provides barely any evidence of it that I could see. In fact, if he means numerical decline, he is using a standard previously rejected in his book. (Church health ought to be measured not by buildings built or number of attendees alone, he notes, but by taking the spiritual pulse of the congregation.) Is a Church feeding the poor?  Welcoming visitors?  Caring for the sick? (Etc.?) If so, Rah would say, it is a healthy church. By this standard, the predominantly “white” church at which I recently served as youth minister, for example, is very healthy. Members of that church, and of many others I know that are like it, might read lines like this and ask, “What decline?”

Even so, I don’t want to overly fault Rah for those objections. As a reader I do not demand that Rah say everything perfectly before I accept the force and truth of his overarching claims. All in all, The Next Evangelicalism issues a clarion call to the church to end racism, embrace the growing ethnic diversity of the body of Christ, hear voices that have been overlooked and marginalized, and more accurately reflect the church the Bible calls us to be.