Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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Book Review – “Preach The Word”

January 21, 2008

Last week I had the priviledge of reviewing Preach the Word: Essays in Expository Preaching In Honor of R Kent Hughes. For all the other reviews, check out the Discerning Reader website.

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In short: A treasure trove of essays on expository preaching that deals with the subject from a variety of angles.

Pastor R. Kent Hughes – recently retired pastor of College Church, Wheaton – is well known for his long standing commitment to expository preaching. So it seemed fitting that to celebrate his legacy a book should be produced in his honour on his favourite subject: preaching!

The wonderful festschrift that has emerged should make a worthy addition to any pastor’s bookshelf: Preach the Word – Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R Kent Hughes. Edited by Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson, the spotlight on the theme of biblical exposition, alongside their obvious affection for Hughes, gives this volume a more unified feel than many other ‘pick and mix’ compilations you come across.

The quality of essays is truly excellent across the board, something which obviously hinges on the quality of contributors. With the likes of David Jackman, Don Carson, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Peter Jensen and John MacArthur – to name a few – it is no surprise to find that all the essays are thoughtful, biblical, and written with the steady hand of experienced men. Leading the pack, choice essays include Leyland Ryken’s “The Bible as Literature and Expository Preaching”, Don Carson’s study of “The 21st Century Pulpit” and “Few are Not Enough: Training a Generation of Men in Expository Preaching.”
The sheer variety of essays examines preaching from a whole range of perspectives. Preaching is considered in Scripture itself and also in history. Hermeneutical principles and practices which underline preaching are analyzed. Finally, contemporary challenges to preaching – including the enormous challenge of training a new generation of expositors – is approached. Both novice and mature preachers, as well as those who train preachers, will benefit from essays of interest within such a broad scope.

Are there any weaknesses in this compilation? Only the usual problems in a book of this type (no developing argument; changing styles throughout etc), and it should be said that this is no introductory book on preaching. Nevertheless, Preach the Word has come together as a remarkable unity and has the feel of a single volume, which is a great credit to the editors, authors and R. Kent Hughes himself, who ceaseless promotes the preaching of God’s Word.

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Simple Church – Review

August 28, 2007

Simple. It’s what everybody wants these days. Just ask Google with their 20-40 word homepage, Papa John’s with their streamlined menu, or Apple with their infamous single-button I-Pod. In an increasingly overcomplicated world, simple is in high demand.

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However, according to Thom H Rainer and Eric Geiger the ’simple revolution’ has also found its way into churches. Congregations once over-inflated with myriad programmes have now become streamlined disciple-making centres. At the same time, churches which are failing to make the switch are tending towards stagnation or decline.

For those who doubt the premise, the authors of Simple Church have research to prove it. Putting questions to over 400 growing and struggling churches the contrast could not be more stark. Simple churches correlate with ‘growing’, ‘vibrant’ communities that are ‘making a big impact’ and ‘expanding the kingdom’ (p 14). Complex churches, on the other hand, are found to be ‘anemic’, ‘floundering’ and “as a whole….not alive.” (p 14).

So what is this highly acclaimed ’simple church’? According to the authors: “A simple church is designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.” (p 60). ‘Process’ and ‘movement’ are key ideas for the authors. Rather than seeing programmes as ends in themselves, church leaders are encouraged to see the big picture of how disciples are moved through various stages of discipleship towards maturity.

For this to work, leaders will have to constantly monitor the effectiveness of four areas:

Clarity – ‘the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by people’
Movement – ‘the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment’
Alignment – ‘the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process’, and
Focus – ‘the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside the simple ministry process’

Intriguingly, the authors don’t want us to think about this as a model of how to do church. “Relax” they begin disarmingly, “This book is not about another church model” (p3). And yet the feel of the book is precisely that. Committing to the simple ministry ‘process’ and keeping one’s eye on four key ‘elements’ sounds suspiciously like a church-model formula.

Moreover, one fears at times that the model being presented is not only simple but superficial. What is virtually ommited from the book (for the sake of simplicity?) is any focus on the biblical means of church growth. The impression given is that if the ’simple’ process is utilized one will likely have a vibrant church, regardless of other key components.

But is this the case? Could, for example, a heterodox church who applies these principles experience divinely empowered growth? Or is the prayer-life of the church a non-contributing factor? How about the congregation’s commitment to the gospel? While these elements are given mention in places, they are at best assumed. Rainer and Geiger do concede that “Ultimately it is God who brings growth and vitality to a local church” (p 249) but next to nothing is said about God’s means of bringing that growth about (See Nine Marks of A Healthy Church, Mark Dever, for a better example)

This is not to say there is nothing helpful in the book. If your church suffers from an over-programmed, over-complicated setup, Simple Church might well be worth reading. Just be sure, however, not to believe the hype of the book itself. Church is never truly simple, and Simple Church over-reaches by claiming that it is “returning to God’s process for making disciples.” (book subtitle). Put simply? Gain insights from this book; don’t build your ecclesiology on it.

(This review was contributed to Discerning Reader)

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Discerning Reader – “Him We Proclaim”

July 10, 2007

Interrupting this intermission – I wanted to mention that I’ve been privileged this week to be involved on the Discerning Reader review team. If you’ve never been on Tim Challies excellent site, do check it out. I had the opportunity to review “Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ in All The Scriptures.” (see below)

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“‘Don’t you know, young man, that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?’ ‘Yes,’ said the young man. ‘Ah!’ said the old divine, ‘and so from every text of Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ.’”

This sagely advice – offered by a veteran Welsh expositor to his fledgling understudy – is quoted with warm approval by Dennis E Johnson, early in his latest book. This is unsurprising, for if Dennis E Johnson’s sizeable tome, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ From All the Scriptures amounts to anything, it is surely the counsel an experienced homiletician to a fresh generation of preachers. The counsel is simple: that Christ is the supreme destination on the biblical map, and that preachers must find their way from every text to His redemptive person.

Johnson’s contention is not new, of course. In recent years a whole family of books has spawned on the subject of preaching the bible as Christian Scripture. Whether it be Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, Edmund Clowney, Sidney Greidanus, or Graeme Goldsworthy – the point has been similarly made, if differently expressed. Biblical history is HIS-tory. Christ is the centerpiece and culmination of holy writ. And this being so, no Scripture portion can be accurately interpreted nor adequately preached without identifying that text’s relation to Him.

However Johnson’s book is a thoughtful and articulate addition to his field. For one thing it rigorously argues that the NT itself (particularly evidenced in the apostle’s preaching) provides the paradigm for Christ-centered exposition of both Old and New Testament. Furthermore, Johnson has evidently taken on board some of the common objections to the approach he is advocating, seeking to answer these reservations with patience, and above all biblical warrant.

Because of Johnson’s commitment to interact with those who don’t share his view, the book is broken into two halves. The first – for would be converts – is titled The Case for Apostolic, Christocentric Preaching (ch 2-5). This is a more apologetic section which defends “apostolic” hermeneutics and homiletics “exegetically, historically, and polemically.” Here Johnson critiques those approaches which take apostolic doctrine seriously yet discard the hermeneutics they employed to get there. Johnson therefore challenges any approach that refuses to read ‘backward’ into Old Testament texts – particularly in light of our fuller revelation in Christ – for fear that biblical interpretation will cease to be ‘literal’.

Indeed Johnson suggests that some evangelicals are so committed to the grammatico-historical method that they cannot accept any meaning of an Old Testament passage that would have been beyond the knowledge of the original hearers and readers. However, according to Johnson, this is precisely what the apostles often assumed. So are we to suggest that we are wiser exegete’s than the apostles? Or are we to think it inconceivable – even as those who hold to a singular, divine author of Scripture – that the biblical canon could have been fashioned to have a Christocentric focus throughout its entirety (quite apart from any limitations in knowledge that Old Testament authors may have possessed regarding the Christ to whom they pointed)?

Johnson seeks to help us by way of illustration: the Old Testament is somewhat similar to a mystery novel. Early in the plot, none of the characters within the tale are fully aware of the final culmination of the story – after all, this is a mystery novel. Nevertheless, once the final page reveals the perpetrator, the book can then be read ‘backward’, and the various prior clues can be better understood with hindsight. So, says Johnson, “the New Testament’s handling of the Old Testament rather implies that God’s redemptive story is one that must be read ‘backward’ if we are going to make sense of any part of it.” (p 159) In our case, the Savior, Messiah and Fulfiller of God’s promises has been revealed, but the prior clues can now be re-examined and understood in light of our fuller knowledge.

Following on from this controversial section, The Practice of Apostolic, Christocentric Preaching (ch 6-10 ) moves from defense to offence. Now seeking to assist those eager to apply the ‘apostolic’ approach, Johnson constructs both a theoretical framework and concrete strategies for the aforementioned hermeneutic/homiletic. Johnson’s practical intent is confirmed by his closing sections which deal with preaching from various OT and NT texts, periods and genres – and not least by a final appendix that offers specific examples of Johnson’s own attempts to follow the apostolic preaching trail.

Within these two broad divisions of the book, there is a goldmine of individual chapters to be plundered. Chapter one, a study of Priorities and Polarities In Preaching, surveys and critiques those modern approaches to preaching that limit their purpose to edification, evangelism or instruction, and subsequently argues for a unified approach. Chapter four is a provocative consideration of the role of context in the history of biblical interpretation, which makes the suggestion that our unfailing commitment to the grammatico-historical method may have left us just as blinkered as the allegorical interpreters from the Patristics to the Medieval scholars. Also worth the price of the book would be chapter six, as Johnson considers the book of Hebrews, what he perceives to be a unique example of Apostolic preaching to believers.

Inevitably, not everyone will agree with Johnson’s argument – not least liberals who balk at the idea of a divine, singular authorship. Yet even within evangelicalism, some will demur from Johnson. For one thing, dispensationalists will take issue with much of what Johnson proposes, and indeed, the author seeks to parry several of their likely objections. Still others may take issue with the hermeneutic being proposed, particularly if they fear the danger of abandoning an objective, literal interpretation of the Old Testament. The readers of Him We Proclaim must weigh carefully Johnson’s arguments and apologetic to make up their own mind.

Undoubtedly, the greatest strength of this book is its comprehensive nature. Johnson both defends and promotes Christ centered preaching, and does so apologetically, theoretically and practically. Some might suggest that such a broad attempt is actually the weakness of this volume (Him We Proclaim could easily have been developed into a three volume set, and some sections are inevitably cursory), but personally I found the well-rounded nature of this work compelling. The fact that Johnson buttresses his argument from so many angles, builds something of a snowball of momentum. Johnson’s argument gains increasing credibility throughout.

In terms of readability, Him We Proclaim will present a high summit, especially for those with little prior knowledge of biblical theology and hermeneutics. But for every serious student of the bible – not least preachers – it is well worth the climb.