Review of John C. Peckham’s “Canonical Theology”

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Calling all theology nerds: Keep a look out for this dude. This scholar is so, so legit. As far as I can tell, his name hasn’t hit the veritable vernacular of wanna-be scholars like myself but it’s only now a matter of time. With endorsements from Vanhoozer and the Foreword by Bartholomew, apparently the big-timers are already talking.  It’s us ordinary folk who hadn’t got the hint until now. For sure: His stuff is furrealz. Fortunately, it’s not too late to cue in. After recently reading his previous book, “The Love of God: A Canonical Model” (my blog review here) I was floored – hook, line and sinker and I immediately set my sights on his latest work, which is this one. It just came out a few days ago and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve finished it already! :)

Peckham’s work is in my mind, one of a kind. He is one of the few writers I am looking for not just for the information (which, ps: think “erudite to the max”). But more so, I am getting my hand on Peckham’s work because I desperately want to figure out how he does what he does because his results show such originality that I’m all but obliged to prod into his behind-the-scenes process. If I were ever to a level that I could even dream of doing the quality of work he is doing (which I’m not and never will be), I’d want to “do theology” just like he does. While the subject matter of the book is interesting, I bought it primarily because in the last chapter Peckham lays out for all to see his process in detail which he is calling, the “Canonical Model.” This is what I wanted to read and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s real, real good. So are the results, but that may not be as important.

Summarized, Peckham’s process is the following:

  1. Identify the issues and engage the ongoing scholarly conversation by way of a careful literature review of theological perspectives…so as to highlight crucial theological questions at the center of the conflict. [In his footnote, “it is crucial first to read to understand and only thereafter to critically analyze the secondary material” (p247)]
  2. Then conduct an inductive reading of the entire canon of Scripture, isolating any texts that even slightly impinged on such issues – with care to avoid selecting passages based on my predispositions (insofar as is achievable).
  3. Attempt to then table my presuppositions and subjecting them to the test of the canonical data. This requires a commitment to self-examination, self-criticism, and willingness to follow the canonical data wherever it leads.
  4. The large amount of data is then extracted and analyzed and grouped in an ongoing spiral, which includes both narrowing and expansion of the data when themes become more or less significant than originally thought throughout the ongoing analysis.
  5. Look for patterns. Do lots of semantic analysis. More than he thought he’d have to.
  6. Now, engage sources from a broad spectrum. In his study on God’s love, he engaged major commentary series and selected commentaries from across the spectrum of exegetical approaches (Including but not limited to: Anchor, ICC, Hermeneia, JPS, Word, Interpreter’s, NICOT/NICNT, NAC as well as standalone volumes and exegetical works on concepts, words, topics, etc.).
  7. Construct a minimal model from the data (leading to “many facts that I would not have anticipated at the outset of my study” and to “other delightful surprises” (254) as he wondered what would happen in the end to the “apparent tensions.”
  8. Conclude with a discernible, demonstrable and defensible conception

All the while, seeking to:

  1. Approach the canon humbly
  2. Read ethically
  3. Derive from the canon minimally that which can be held with confidence as discernible, demonstrable and defensible
  4. Move in a disciplined, delimited fashion from the particulars of divine revelation to universal (metaphysical) conceptions
  5. Refrain from premature conclusions and overreaching extrapolations by restricting conclusions to minimal sound inferences that are also discernible, demonstrable and defensible

As stunning as all of this is, one of his last lines was the most exciting:

“…My hope is to implement this approach on a number of other topics in the future.” (page 257)

To which I say, YIPEEEE! I can’t wait to read more!

Signed: MP: “Your biggest fan!”

***Full Disclosure: I did not buy this book, my GMA surprise bought it for me, for which I am eternally grateful, not least because of how good the book was, but because of how cool she is. I’m just saying, it’s cool to have a cool GMA.***

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Two Prayers from John Owen’s “Overcoming Sin and Temptation”

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I knew upon reading page 16 of the preface that I would thoroughly love this book. In describing Owen’s style, J.I. Packer says,

“He [Owen] wrote, rather, for those who once they take up a subject, cannot rest till they see to the bottom of it, and who find exhaustiveness not exhausting, but satisfying and refreshing…

I read that line and I was like, “YES, that’s ME, I’m gonna LOVE this one!” And I did, of course. Because that’s what this book is: “Exhaustive!” Exhaustive (aka satisfying and refreshing) is the perfect descriptor for this text – If i had to pick just one. And so, it would not do to try to summarize or even highlight the “best parts” because there were too many. Rather, I’ll resign to simply reproduce (only) two of the (many) prayers within the text that took my breathe away. Of course, the prayers are long, and of course, they are worth quoting in their entirety. Enjoy!

This first one, a prayer for being open and sorry before God about our sins: 

“What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Do I thus requite [repay] the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash, that the blessed Spirit has chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust’s sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart? How shall I escape if I neglect so great his salvation? In the meantime, what shall I say to the Lord? Love, mercy, grace, goodness, peace, joy, consolation – I have despised them all, and esteemed them as a thing of naught, that I might harbor a lust in my heart. Have I obtained a view of God’s fatherly countenance, that I might behold his face and provoke him to his face? Was my soul washed, that room might be made for new defilements? Shall I endeavor to disappoint the end of the death of Christ? Shall I daily grieve that Spirit whereby I am sealed to the day of redemption?” (Page 105)

This last one is a prayer as we remember how helpless our cause is on our own, and yet what hope we have if Christ works in us through the power of His Spirit: 

“I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me, and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul is become as parched ground, and an habitation of dragons. I have made promises and broken them; vows and engagements have been as a thing of naught. Many persuasions have I had that I had got the victory and should be delivered, but I am deceived; so that I plainly see, that without some eminent succor and assistance, I am lost, and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of God. But yet, though this be my state and condition, let the hands that hang down be lifted up, and the feeble knees be strengthened. Behold, the Lord Christ, that has all fullness of grace in his heart [John 1:16], all fullness of power in his hand [Matt. 28:18], he is able to slay all these his enemies. There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror [Rom. 8:37].

“Why do you say, O my soul, My way is hid from the LORD, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Have you not known, have you not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faints not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He gives power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint” (Isa. 40:27-31).

“He can make the ‘dry, parched ground of my soul to become a pool, and my thirsty, barren heart as springs of water’; yea, he can make this ‘habitation of dragons,’ this heart, so full of abominable lusts and fiery temptations, to be a place for ‘grass’ and fruit to himself (Isa. 35:7)”

(Page 132)

Favorite Hermeneutical Tidbit from Abraham Kuruvilla’s “A Vision for Preaching”

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This book was so-so, at best. I had never encountered Kuruvilla before but after hearing Donald R. Sunukjian say he is “one of the best homiletical thinkers today” I was happy to give this book a whirl. Unfortunately, I found the ride to be a little slow and a lot monotonous. I’m just glad that it’s over.

If I were trying to be nice, I suppose I could say this book would work fine for a beginner seminary student for establishing a basic overall “vision” for what preaching should be. Maybe a first book among many? This book combined with a few others would perhaps get the ball rolling in the right direction, but the vision itself is far too vague for my own tastes, and I was surprised that the corresponding chapters didn’t add much depth or specificity to the discussion. I can’t say exactly why I didn’t like it (I suppose I could put some words to it if I thought hard enough – but that seems like unnecessary work at this point) besides to say that I was bored most of the way through. Confession: I skipped three chapters (6, 7, and 8), because I just couldn’t handle it any more.

In case you are curious, and you like ***spoiler alerts***, Kuruvilla’s vision for preaching is as follows:

“Biblical preaching, by a leader of the church, in a gathering of Christians for worship, is the communication of the thrust of a pericope of Scripture discerned by theological exegesis, and of its application to that specific body of believers, that they may be conformed to the image of Christ, for the glory of God – all in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

If you are amazed at that particular articulation of a vision for preaching then let me know and I’ll mail you my copy of the book for you to read it further. I don’t need it back.

However, not everything in the book was all-bad. His little section on the value of ordination (pages 36-45) was the first “defense” of the practice I had read, and I think he has me convinced that it is indeed, a very important practice for both the preacher and the congregation.

As well, I liked a few of his stories/analogies/examples that began a few of the chapters. They were short, powerful, and prepared the reader well for what was coming. In discussing the importance of figuring out what a Scriptural author is doing with what they are saying (page 78), Kuruvilla goes to an old Aesop folktale about “the dog that found a bone…”

“On its way home with its booty, the canine happened to cross a bridge over a stream, and as it looked into the water it spotted “another” dog with a bone. Well, greed took over: the real animal barked at the reflected one, and thereby lost the bone it had.

While the story deals with dogs, bones, bridges, streams, and reflections, the thrust of the story is about being content (and the loss one incurs otherwise). This is what the text is all about, its thrust – the pragmatics of the text. That is what Aesop was doing with what he was saying, and that is what he would want readers to catch and respond to: One practices the prudence of contentment rather than lusting for the ephemeral. Indeed, only after grasping this thrust of the text can one ever move to valid application consonant with the author’s purpose. In other words, it is not enough to comprehend what authors are saying (the semantics of the utterance); one must also arrive at what authors are doing with what they are saying (the pragmatics of the utterance) – the text’s thrust. In the fable by Aesop, the semantics deals with the description of the specific events – the dog-and-bone theater; the pragmatics or the thrust of the text is an endorsement of contentment – that was what the whole story was about.”

The genius in this example is in the simplicity of the story. At least 70% (95%?) of the misinterpretations of Scripture that I hear from myself or from people in my own church who are spouting out some theological idea they have [usually proof-texting in the process] is a result of someone not asking: What is the author DOING with what they are SAYING? The distinction isn’t surprising to me. I learned at Gordon-Conwell that this is a NECESSARY question-of-the-text. What HAS been surprising to me is how often we in the church don’t ask that question when we are reading Scripture.

I’ve learned the unfortunate truth that almost no one in the real-world ever asks that very important question when they are reading Scripture: “What is the author DOING with what they are SAYING?” Instead, most readers, without even realizing it, look at words in a text, then interpret that text (“I’m just pointing out what the text says!”)  according to their own interpretation of those words without asking the broader question regarding the very meaning of the passage itself – let alone truly doing the work to ***try*** to discern the potential overall authorial intentions at play.

So, while I’ve known this is a problem in the real-world for a few years now, I’ve had a similarly difficult time explaining to people the significance of the problem. The illuminating question begs a question of clarification – and I haven’t always known how to answer it concisely without getting all philosophy-of-language on people [and you can imagine the almost instantaneous-glaze-overs].

But, this story about the dog and the bone? This story works! It shows how if we don’t ask what the author is doing, then we haven’t yet understood what the author is saying. Cool, I’ll take that story to the bank! I’m hoping to utilize this story in conversations when I am trying to explain to my friends the sort of work we should be doing when we read any book, but especially when we are trying to figure out how to understand Scripture so we can properly obey it.

Review of “Essential Worship: A Handbook for Leaders” by Greg Scheer

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In a really good way, reading this book made me feel like a child again. Finally, I’ve found a worship primer written for normal people. The writing is clear, his summarizations are succinct, and his pictures, discussion questions and activities are memorable. The author doesn’t make any assumptions about what you might already know and he doesn’t waste time showing you what is necessary for you to begin. I found this to be a very engaging text – a book to not just be read, but to be used!

The genesis of this book is a while back, the author noticed a lacuna: A book to lay out all the basics of worship and specifically, leading worship. A few years ago I would have been surprised to hear that this would be difficult to locate but reading it now, I completely agree. I’ve been looking for a good primer to be utilized by my church for a few years now. A few years ago I read a bunch from Robert E. Webber, and I especially enjoyed his classic Worship Old & New, but this was a historical book more than anything else. Last year, I read Daniel I. Block’s For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship. This book was phenomenal in its exhaustive depth on the theology of worship but also really dense, and thus not a book I could utilize for most of the leaders in my own church without me having to significantly synthesize.  I recently found Brian Croft and Jason Adkins’ Gather God’s People: Understand, Plan and Lead Worship in Your Local Church to be a fairly helpful “manual” but still felt like it was a bit broad. Simpler and shorter, but not quite as specific as what I needed. This book, on the other hand, scratched my itch. It provides a fairly comprehensive list of topics while each chapter is filled with practical insights (he even has a chapter dedicated to “how to sing a Psalm” – how cool is that?!). Every subject is covered in readable amounts for the average joe. Each chapter is about 8 pages long.

This book “happened” because in the authors’ trips to Indonesia, Uganda, and Ukraine Scheer noticed many pastors were lacking adequate training materials. Many leaders were “patching together their worship philosophy from whatever they came across on YouTube or saw in other local churches.” (Of course, we know this isn’t only an international problem!) Then, closer to home, Scheer had a friend ask for a recommendation for a book on worship that would provide a simple overview of worship and worship leading – and Greg couldn’t find one. So he wrote it! There were three components of this book that I especially appreciated:

1) His pictures! Scattered throughout the book are visualizations of what he is saying. Every single picture is both really simple and really illuminating. Whether it is on the definition of different components of worship (28-29); worship as nourishment-in-action (51); a visual of the liturgical church year (74); the roles of congregational songs (147-154); theological architecture (199-200) or the flashlight funnel of distributed leadership (258),  the pictures help the reader to see the forest from the trees. I’ve included one picture to give you a sense of what I mean. On this page, the author is showing the potentially diverse actions or moods our worship songs should consist of. Really cool:

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2) His questions! Oh, his questions are really good! He realizes that all too often, we ask the wrong questions: “What would my people like? Who will get upset about it? How long will it take? Instead, we should be asking questions that will help us go deeper: What does the Bible say? How have Christians worshiped in the past? What do my people need?” Scheer begins the book with a potent one: “What kind of worship do I want to take to the grave with me?” (19) Beginning with the end in mind helps us to know where we want to go. As well, before every chapter he has a paragraph titled, “Before you begin” which includes a thought provoking question to get you started. So many of these are phe.nom.en.al! I plan on utilizing some of these questions in my own upcoming church worship team meetings. His questions force substantial processing and have a lot of potential for clarifying for actual worship teams what our stances should be on these practical issues of leadership each of us deals with, often.

3) His recommendations!  Peppered throughout the book are little boxes titled, “Further learning.” As a primer, this is really helpful. His suggested resources include a lot of really, really good books – some I had never heard of (including the one I just bought which looks so, so good, The Worship Sourcebook, 2nd Edition). Although, in his suggested further reading on public prayer on page 86, I wish he would have included the recent book by Jeffrey D. Arthurs’, Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture: The Transforming Power of the Well-Spoken Word, which is in my mind, one of the better more practical resources for normal pastors working in normal churches.

I would recommend this book to every pastor I know because this isn’t just a book that can be read in the church, this is a book that can be used for the church.

*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied*