Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Write-Up: 90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James, by Timothy Keller and Sam Allberry

Timothy Keller and Sam Allberry.  90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James.  The Good Book Company, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Timothy Keller and Sam Allberry are pastors.  As the title indicates, this book goes through John 14-17, Romans, and James.

An advantage to this book is that it clarifies biblical passages.  For example, Romans 14 discusses how stronger Christians who eat meat are to respect the scruples of the weaker Christians who do not eat meat.  Paul in v 15 exhorts the stronger Christians not to destroy the weaker Christians for the sake of meat.  How can eating meat around weaker Christians destroy them?  According to Keller and Allberry, if the weaker Christians violate their conscience and eat meat just to fit in, then they are placing themselves on the slippery slope of disregarding their conscience.  That is a helpful way to make sense of the passage.

The interpretation of James 1:5-8 was also helpful, at least in its main point.  James 1:5-8 says that people who ask God for wisdom will receive it, unless they waver or are double-minded.  Keller and Allberry state that the passage does NOT mean that “If you have ever questioned or struggled or wrestled, don’t expect God to give you anything.”  Rather, they think it means that “If you come to God hedging your bets—-asking for help while also looking elsewhere for help—-then don’t expect to find help from the Lord.”  This is unclear: are Keller and Allberry saying that a person should just ask God for help, wait, and do nothing else practically to solve their problems?  Their main point, though, is that a person should be sincere in asking God for wisdom: a person should not just be hedging his or her bets, merely sampling God.  That makes sense.

The book also wrestles with the question of whether James 1:14-15 means that every sick Christian will be healed after being anointed with oil.  Overall, this is an edifying book, which addressed thought-provoking issues.

The book was not exactly academic, though.  It largely focused on the text of Scripture and Scripture application instead of quoting secondary sources or renowned Christian thinkers.  That is all right, but readers should keep in mind that there are more interpretations out there.  For instance, Paul in Romans 2:21 is discussing the hypocrisy of certain Jews, and he asks them if they claim to abhor idolatry, while robbing temples.  Keller and Allberry state that “there is no record of Jews taking idol-statues from pagan temples,” so they interpret Paul as figurative in this verse: “They may ‘abhor idols’ outwardly, but if inwardly they find meaning in power, comfort, possessions, sex etc., then they are idolaters.”

The thing is, there is a legitimate way to interpret that passage that is literal.  Lloyd Gaston, on page 231 of Paul and the Torah, offers his view of what Paul may have had in mind in Romans 2:21:

“[Josephus] uses the hierosyl- root to refer to robbery from the temple contributions of Jews from Asia in Ant. 16.45, 164, 168; to describe robbery from the Jerusalem temple itself in JW 1.654 (=Ant. 17.163), 5.562, and Ant. 12.359; and in referring to Manetho’s accusation that Jews robbed Egyptian temples before the Exodus (AgAp 1.249, 318f).”

There is a possibility that Gaston, Keller, and Allberry are all correct: the Jews who robbed from the Jerusalem temple were idolaters in the sense that they valued money over God’s commandment not to steal.  Still, the treatment of Romans 2:21 by Keller and Allberry highlights that, overall, this book is more of a homiletic commentary than a historical commentary.  Some may like this.  Personally, I think the book would have been richer had it been a mixture of both.

The book contains a tension that is characteristic of many Reformed books, and even Christian books that address grace and assurance of salvation.  On the one hand, Keller and Allberry stress that salvation is a gift of grace: we do not have to scale a mountain to receive it; we are accepted by God when we have faith in what God has done; and we cannot trust our own efforts to keep God’s standards to earn salvation, since we fall short.  On the other hand, Keller and Allberry say that obedience to God is a sign that we have genuinely been saved and that not all who profess to be Christians are actual Christians.  I think that the two ideas run contrary to each other, at least in terms of the psychological effect that they can have on the believer.  The first idea is comforting, the second, not so much.  The tension is understandable, though, considering the different biblical texts with which Keller and Allberry are interacting, and the co-existing themes of grace and practical righteousness within the Bible.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews.  My review is honest!

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