Book Review of “Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century (Essays in Honor of D.A. Carson On the Occasion of His 65th Birthday)”

Kostenberger, A.J. & Yarbrough, R.W. (Eds). 2011. Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century (Essays in Honor of D.A. Carson On the Occasion of His 65th Birthday). Crossway: Wheaton, IL

I want to thank the fine folks at Crossway for this review copy of a much-deserved festschrift for scholar D.A. Carson. Carson is one of the most influential Evangelical scholars of our time and that each essay in this book is written by a former student is confirmation enough of his influence on Evangelical scholarship.

My first introduction to Carson’s writings was through his work, “Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14”. I appreciated his honest and fair treatment of the text. He is an “open but cautious” guy regarding the charismatic gifts, and that’s saying quite a bit considering his background. He had much to offer for both sides of the argument. I knew right away that Carson was a credible scholar who was irenic in tone and was concerned about the Gospel above all and promoting as much unity as possible around the Gospel. Carson’s recent involvement with the Gospel Coalition evidences the heart of a statesman for the Gospel who is able to speak to a broad spectrum within Evangelicalism.

Now, to the book. I actually think the book is a bit pricey in that it will primarily appeal to those who have a heightened interest in NT studies, who will likely only be drawn to a handful of the essays within the book. That being said, the essays are worthwhile to those who have interest in the disciplines dealt with. I was particularly drawn to the following essays:

Hermeneutics and Theological Interpretation by Grant Osborne

Evangelical Self-Identity and the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy by John D. Woodbridge

Lifting Up the Son of Man and God’s Love for the World: John 3:16 in Its Historical, Literary, and Theological Contexts by Andreas J. Kostenberger

Justification in Galatians by Douglas J. Moo

The Language of Baptism: The Meaning of BAPTIZO in the New Testament by Eckhard J. Schnabel

Appendix: D.A. Carson: His Life and Work to Date by Andreas J. Kostenberger

It’s a daunting task to review so many scholarly articles, so I will confine my review to only 2 of the essays that I found to be the most personally edifying, the ones by Osborne and Moo.

Osborne’s essay was an extremely helpful assessment of the lay of the land regarding the role of theological interpretation within the discipline of hermeneutics. There are many schools of thought concerning this. Many exegetical scholars would state that it is not their role or responsibility to do theology and that such a task is left for theologians and the church. There has been a wedge of sorts between the respective disciplines. Osborne advocates the need for harmonization and the fallacy of doing exegesis with total theological neutrality.

Osborne advocates the primacy of Scripture and the supplemental value of tradition, “The thesis of this essay is that Scripture has absolute primacy, and tradition is supplemental, informing us and providing models for the way Scripture has been utilized through the centuries, but not determining our present system” (2011:84).

Osborne advocates the use of four components that provide the ingredients for a wholistic understanding of Scripture: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. He says,

Tradition, experience, and reason together form our preunderstanding, that set of hermeneutical awareness and beliefs that guide us when we study a text and draw theological meaning from it. This compendium of the reader’s strategies must be consciously held, lest they become an a priori that determines the textual meaning rather than a perspective from which we make decisions. Once again, the competing schools of thought are our friend, for they force us away from presuppositional readings (2011:84).

Osborne has advocated for a model that will prove useful in the construction of theology in the church which is not entirely dismissive of the role of historical theology as codified in ancient creeds and the understanding of such throughout the centuries. Osborne also views experience as part of the equation. Of course experience does not trump other components, but it does play a valid role within the whole. Who would dare suggest that Luther’s experiences had nothing to do with his emphasis on justification by faith and other emphasized doctrines in the reformation? The NT epistles themselves are occasional in nature and responsive to the experiences of the church. All in all, Osbrone’s essay is incredibly helpful and I didn’t even scratch the surface on all that he has to say.

Moo’s essay on justification in Galatians was actually quite surprising. Moo engages judiciously with the text and is not interested in validating certain individuals in the whole modern justification debate. He interacts with all parties and humbly advocates his understanding of the text on its own merit. Moo therefore says things that align closely with N.T. Wright at times, while also criticizing things that have been advocated by Wright.

Moo contends that the doctrine of our union with Christ would help resolve a lot of the tension in the justification debate about its forensic and moral implications. Moo clearly advocates a forensic nature to justification while at the same time acknowledging that it is sometimes used in a moral sense and in an eschatological sense. He says (2011:176-7),

Following the lead of Calvin and many others in the Reformed tradition, it does much better justice to Paul if we connect forensic justification with transformation by viewing both as inevitable and necessary products of our being “in Christ.” While not explicitly taught in Galatians, the idea that our union with Christ produces these two inseperable but distinguishable benefits is clearly hinted. Being “in Christ” is foundational…

He adds (2011:177),

As I would argue is the case throughout his letters, union with Christ, not justification, lies at the heart of Paul’s theology.

Regarding the timing of justification, Moo is to be praised for his admission of its eschatological nature, and not just within the traditional interpretation of vindication alone. He says (2011:190),

N.T. Wright is surely correct to stress that eschatology is one of the key lenses through which justification must be viewed. Indeed, it is traditional to assert that justification in Paul is a basically eschatological verdict, with his focus on the initial verdict then being seen in light of his typical “realized” perspective. I have no quarrel with this way of viewing the matter…

Moo continues (2011:190),

A future element in justification does not fit entirely comfortably within my own Reformed tradition. It is messy. But it appears to be biblical.

In the conclusion of the essay, Moo suggests a couple topics worthy of further conversation: the future aspect of justification and the relationship of works with justification. Moo, having already stated that these topics are “messy” within the Reformed tradition, nonetheless encourages further dialogue around these polarizing topics. He says (2011:193),

First, the focus on the future aspect of justification in Galatians raises difficult questions about the nature of this event, especially in light of its relationship to “initial” justification. Piper, reflecting the main line of Reformation teaching, argues that future justification is a declaration and not a “saving act.”

He continues,

This way of putting the matter would seem to be the inevitable logical deduction from a conviction that initial justification is a definitive act; and may well be the best way of handling all the biblical data involved. Yet one has to wonder whether Paul would give the future aspect of justification the kind of prominence it has in Galatians if it was a matter simply of public declaration. The importance he attaches to the Galatians’ continued reliance on faith and the Spirit – see especially Galatians 5:2-4 – suggests that more may be involved.

Moo encourages further study on what this “more” might entail. Moo proceeds to mention the second topic of works (2011:194),

Second, granted that “by faith alone” is, indeed, taught in Galatians, what of “works”? What role do they place in the believer’s ultimate justification? In keeping with the balance that typifies all of Paul’s letters, Galatians highlights, along with faith, the necessity of works for entrance into eternal life…

Moo directs attention to Galatians 6:7-9. I would add that the implications of Galatians 5:19-21 is relevant to Moo’s acknowledgement of works being related to final judgment. Traditionally the Reformed tradition has advocated works as an evidence of justification and union with Christ through the Spirit, but never as the basis for justification. Moo is not suggesting that we ditch this traditional Reformational understanding but rather we reassess the language and perhaps modify and qualify our terms a bit better.

All in all, very stimulating essays from this book (as was expected). Recommend the essays to those who are very interested in the field of NT studies.

© 2011, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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2 comments on “Book Review of “Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century (Essays in Honor of D.A. Carson On the Occasion of His 65th Birthday)”
  1. There was a lot of good and favorable interaction with the New Perspective and Wright before it became a popular whipping boy about nine years ago. Carson’s “Justification and Variegated Nomism” is a good text, minus Carson’s summaries, which seem to deny what the very book he edited said. Gathercole was good on this stuff, I wonder what he is doing lately?

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