My 5 Favorite Books of 2020

It’s become an annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. There are a few reasons why I continue to compile this list. First, I love reading and I love to share what I’m reading. Second, I’m also always encouraged by others’ thoughts and their lists often help me pick out a few last books for my Christmas wish list. Third, I get a lot of books from publishers, and while I don’t review or share books I don’t end up liking, I’m always willing to recommend a good book if it is, in fact, good. Fourth, I’m regularly asked by folks what books I’m reading or “what’s a good book to read for X topic?”

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2020. Check out my 2015 and 2016 lists at my old Patheos blog, and my 2017, 2018, and 2019 lists posted here at Biblical Reasoning.

God in Himself by Steven Duby

The doctrine of divine simplicity is one of the most crucial doctrines in Christian theology, but also one of the more overlooked and misunderstood. Duby does a fantastic job of explaining the doctrine theologically, biblically, and even devotionally. You can also check out my Church Grammar conversation with Steven to hear more about the book.

Figural Reading and the Old Testament by Don Collett

Collett’s book is perhaps the clearest argument for the importance of the figural (see also: typological, allegorical, etc.) sense of Scripture. In sum, he asserts that we don’t have to choose between “literal” or figural. Come for the argument for the necessity of figural reading, stay for the excellent historical survey of the issues and the examples he gives from Job, Proverbs, et al.

The Soul of Basketball by Ian Thomsen

If I were to quit ministry and take up another career, it’d be a sports writer and podcaster. That was essentially my dream as a kid. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve particularly been drawn to the NBA and its history. This book in particular is a well-written narrative of how the NBA got to where it is today. Also Dirk.

The Culture of Theology by John Webster (ed. Ivor Davidson and Alden McCray)

The late John Webster was a real gift to the church. Of the many books and articles I’ve read, this collection of lectures might be my favorite overall. In this book, Webster lays out the nature and purpose of theology, and what it means to be a theologian in light of it.

Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews by Madison Pierce

Prosopological exegesis — identifying the speakers in the biblical text where their identities might be unclear, particularly as it relates to divine speech and the NT’s use of OT texts — is an old reading strategy for the early church with a renewed interest from modern scholars. It seems that there is a lot of work still to be done before we see PE’s full potential, but this book is the most helpful and sustained example on offer. You can also check out my Church Grammar conversation with Madison to hear more about the book.

Ched Spellman on Canon-Consciousness, Biblical Theology, and Puns as Pedagogy

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Ched Spellman of Cedarville University. We discuss reading the Bible canonically (3:00), biblical authors’ compositional strategy and intention (12:58), Revelation as a canonical bookend (23:00), canon-covenant-Christology as biblical theology (32:30), puns and memes (45:00), and more. Buy Ched’s books. Also, checkout his world-famous YouTube channel.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Heath Thomas on the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Heath Thomas of Oklahoma Baptist University. We discuss becoming a scholar (1:30), the OT as Christian Scripture (4:03), developing a Christian worldview (20:05), his renowned hair (26:53), and more. Buy Heath’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Matthew Emerson on the Biblical Canon, Hermeneutics, and Auburn Football

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Matthew Emerson of Oklahoma Baptist University. We discuss developing interests in scholarship (2:40), the importance of the biblical canon’s order and shape (9:55), theological method and allegory (18:00), how Jesus influences and clarifies OT exegesis (31:35), Trinitarian theology and method (33:35), renewing Baptist theology (44:33), the legitimacy of Auburn’s football championships (49:40), and more. Buy Matt’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Old Testament Echoes of Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is like the story of Joseph in prison in the book of Genesis: what Jesus’s brothers and the Gentile authorities meant for evil, God meant for good.

Holy Saturday is like the crossing of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus: Jesus goes before his people through the waters of death, leading them out of bondage and into new life.

Holy Saturday is like the scapegoat in the book of Leviticus: having made atonement for sin at the cross, Jesus also goes outside the camp and into the darkness of Sheol for us and before us.

Holy Saturday is like the the wilderness wanderings in Numbers: like the Spirit led Israel through the trackless wilderness, so Jesus leads us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Holy Saturday is like Deuteronomy: as Israel looked backward at the Exodus and forward to the Conquest, so the descent reminds us of what Jesus has already done to defeat God’s enemies at the cross and looks forward to his final victory in the resurrection.

Holy Saturday is like the Conquest in the book of Joshua: Jesus drives out the giants in the land of the dead, Death and Hades, so that they can no longer tempt and test God’s people.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Judges: Jesus breaks the teeth of our oppressors so that his people have rest, not for 40 or 80 years, but for eternity.

Holy Saturday is like the story of the Ark in the temple of Dagon in Samuel: having been taken by the enemy into the stronghold of the enemy, Jesus destroys the strongman and liberates his people from oppression.

Holy Saturday is like Elijah on Mt. Carmel in Kings: Jesus goes to the throne of the enemy and, through seemingly foolish means, shows that Death has no power; only YHWH-in-the-flesh does.

Holy Saturday is the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:2: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”

Holy Saturday begins the reversal of the judgment of decreation in Jeremiah 4:23: Jesus enters into the chaotic waters of the void of death and thereby changes it, breaking open its gates and bringing light and life to those who waited for him.

Holy Saturday is like the wheels of fire in Ezekiel: Jesus goes before and with his people into the exile of death, thus reminding them that he and they will return one day to the land of the living.

Holy Saturday is like Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the fish in the middle of the Book of the Twelve: Israel and the nations are saved through the death, burial, and resurrection of a Hebrew prophet.

Holy Saturday is like the movement from Psalm 22 to Psalm 23: the wise king who has suffered on behalf of his people has lost his life (“nephesh”) and now walks in the valley of the shadow of death, but soon the God of the living will restore his soul (“nephesh”).

Holy Saturday is like God’s speech in Job 41:1-2: Jesus has drawn out the Leviathan, Death, with the fishhook of his humanity, pressing down his tongue with the cord of his perfectly righteous life, putting a rope in his nose with his atoning death, piercing his jaw with his divinity.

Holy Saturday is like the Wise Royal Son in Proverbs: he enters Lady Folly’s house but does not eat her meal. He follows her steps to Sheol but only to bring his people out with him.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Ruth: Jesus, the kinsman redeemer, enters into the famine and darkness of the exile of death and rescues his bride from it, restoring her to the land of the living.

Holy Saturday is like the marriage procession in the Song of Solomon: Jesus comes out of the wilderness of death like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense (3:6), to marry his Bride, the Church.

Holy Saturday is like Ecclesiastes: life is fleeting and death is certain, even for the Son of God…but in dying he has defeated and destroyed Death forever, so fear the LORD and keep his commandments.

Holy Saturday is like Lamentations: the saints who have cried in the valley of the shadow of death, “How long, O Lord?” now see their Redeemer and hope in his impending resurrection, a sign of their own.

Holy Saturday is like the book of Esther: Jesus is not seen or mentioned in the midst of what seem like entirely hopeless circumstances, but he’s still at work for our good.

Holy Saturday is like Daniel in the lion’s den: sealed in the place of darkness and in the presence of all God’s enemies, Jesus is nevertheless in the presence of YHWH and claims victory over those who would seek to destroy him.

Holy Saturday is like the migrations in Ezra-Nehemiah: before God’s people enter their promised rest, Jesus has to lead them from bondage to freedom by crossing through the waters of death in the New Exodus.

Holy Saturday is like the end of Chronicles: Christ’s decree, “It is finished,” has been made, but we wait for the reality of the rebuilt Temple and the restored king in his impending resurrection from the dead.

“I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” -Rev. 1:18

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psychoanalyzing Biblical Authors

At an ETS meeting a few years ago, I asked a presenter (and friend) whether he thought John the Seer intentionally wrote Revelation to an ideal reader or to what extent John meant to communicate certain things. I asked that question because it’s a common question I receive when discussing my own research on John’s theology. He gave a helpful answer, but the summary (rightly) was, “I’m not sure.” That’s often my answer, as well, but I was hoping he would give me some kind of uncharted insight that I could cite later. Alas.

Relatedly, I was recently lecturing at a university on the development of Trinitarian language from the NT to Nicaea and a student asked me afterward, “Do you think the OT writers would have had a pre-existing concept of the Trinity?” Though I answered the question the best I could, my initial comment was, “We need to be careful not to try to psychoanalyze biblical authors.” This is a good general rule for both my question at ETS and the student’s question of me.

That said, we can suggest or hypothesize about particular authors’ intentions or thought processes because we have the final form of their texts in front of us. Along with the text itself, what we know of the historical or cultural conditions in which it was written can help us make relatively informed conclusions about the author’s underlying intentions or influences — so long as we use those tools with care and caution.

For example, in my dissertation, I’ve made the following statement about John’s incipient Trinitarianism:

John’s apocalypse contains a view of the Trinity—that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal in substance and yet distinct in personhood—that is incipient; that is, John’s explanation of the relationship between the persons was developing rather than fully or systematically established. This developing understanding of the persons means that John’s Trinitarianism is not tidy or terminologically precise; therefore, the explicitness of his descriptions will vary from passage to passage. Like other NT writers working from early Christian kerygma—particularly the Christological interpretation of the OT, patterns of devotion, and religious experience—he uses language and concepts familiar to himself and his audience to describe the apparent multiplicity of persons within the identity of Israel’s one God. . . .

While at some level we cannot interrogate John’s mental apparatus in order to understand all of his intentions and presuppositions, we have the final form of Revelation’s text through which we can ascertain judgments about his theological project. For example, John clearly constructs Revelation as a cohesive and unified letter with an epilogue and prologue and, as we will see, his method for applying concepts and allusions varies but is not haphazard. . . .

Regardless of whether it’s John or another biblical author, we should be careful not to psychoanalyze him, most obviously because he is not here to defend himself against our false conclusions. However, we should not allow this caution to scare us from saying anything definitive about the purpose, method, or theological project of an author. Indeed, Christian scholars acknowledge that each text is written by a human author, of course, but also by a Divine Author who is working behind the scenes in ways the human author cannot see. In turn, we as modern readers have the Holy Spirit and a biblical canon that offer us the ability to pay attention to patterns within both individual books and the overarching biblical storyline that may not be obvious on an historical-critical Petri dish.

I suspect that many biblical scholars are so paralyzed by my first question above that they cannot appreciate this tension.


Darian Lockett on Types of Biblical Theology and College Basketball

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Darian Lockett of the Talbot School of Theology. We discuss his denominational pilgrimage (1:45), baptizing kids (14:00), the theology of the catholic epistles (22:30), types of biblical theology (33:40), cheating(?) in college basketball (54:15), and more. Buy Darian’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Canonical Parameters for Talking about the Cry of Dereliction

Last week I posted about some dogmatic parameters for talking about the Cry of Dereliction. In this post I want to add to those parameters some boundaries given to us by the text of Scripture. Jesus’ guttural utterance from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) ought to be taken in its immediate, surrounding, and, ultimately, canonical contexts. Here I only want to outline some of these; as with the previous post, this one could be expanded into at least an article if not a monograph. And nobody has time for that in a blog post.

  1. Mark’s Gospel – The first contexts for the Cry of Dereliction are its immediate and surrounding contexts in Mark’s Gospel. He and Matthew (27:46) are the only Gospels that include it, and Mark includes no other sayings of Jesus from the cross in his Gospel. Regarding the immediate context, there are a few things to say. First, the Temple veil is torn in two (Mk. 15:38) and the Roman centurion confesses that “truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mk. 15:39) immediately after Jesus’ cry and subsequent death. Second, this cry stands as the culmination of “the hour,” spoken of repeatedly in Mark 13 and fulfilled in the events of Mark 14 (see on this Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). This “hour” is for “the Son of Man,” who will come riding on the clouds in glory” (Mk. 13:24-27).  Third, the cry from the cross is answered preliminarily in his royal, Jewish burial at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:42-47) and ultimately by the empty tomb (Mk. 16:1-8). Regarding the surrounding context (i.e. the context of the entire book), Jesus’ reference to Ps. 22:1 stands as the culmination of a long line of references to the Old Testament’s Suffering Servant in Mark’s Gospel. Most of these come from Isaiah, but in both the Psalms and Isaiah the Suffering Servant songs are intended to convey lament over present circumstances in the context of trust in God’s covenant promises, and specifically his promise to bring Israel’s New Exodus through the Suffering Servant. In other words, in Mark, the Cry of Dereliction, a cry of pain, anguish, suffering, and abandonment, is couched within the self-identification of Jesus as the divine and royal Son of Man, trust in God’s covenantal promises, the fulfillment of those promises in the penal substitutionary death of the Messiah, and the vindication of his death as a substitute for sinners in the Temple curtain’s tearing, the centurion’s exclamation, Jesus’ royal burial (rather than a criminal’s burial) at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately the empty tomb.
  2. The Fourfold Gospel Corpus – In addition to Mark’s context, we also need to pay attention to the canonical context of the four Gospels, and specifically to Jesus’ other sayings from the cross. I am here not so concerned about chronological order for the seven sayings as I am about how to read them together. Jesus cries “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” in the context of also saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), (to the thief) “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43), “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (John 19:26-27), “I thirst,” (John 19:28), “It is finished” (John 19:30), and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Notice a few things about these other sayings. First, the initial and final sayings are prayers to the Father. While Jesus experiences abandonment here, it is not in such a way that he believes that the Father will not hear his prayers. Second, whatever we say about abandonment needs to include not only Jesus’ continued prayers to the Father but also his continued speech to those around the cross. He cares for his mother and friend (John 19:26-27), and he speaks to the soldiers (“I thirst”). Third, and most importantly, these other sayings indicate that Jesus’ actions are intended as a propitiatory, acceptable sacrifice (John 19:28, John 19:30). Therefore at death, in anticipation of the ultimate vindication of the resurrection, Jesus’ righteous life and sacrificially satisfactory death will be vindicated when he enters the intermediate state in the righteous place of the dead, Paradise (Luke 23:46).
  3. Psalm 22 – A third canonical context for the Cry of Dereliction is Psalm 22. While we should affirm that Jesus quotes this in a moment of intense suffering, and therefore has the abandonment mentioned in 22:1 fully in view, the NT authors (and Jesus in his ministry) often quote Scripture metaleptically. That is, when they quote one verse they have the entire context of that one verse in view. Given both Mark’s use of the Suffering Servant motif and the other sayings from the cross, as well as a proper understanding of the lament genre, it is likely that Jesus has the entirety of Psalm 22 in view even though he only quotes v. 1. When we look at Psalm 22, we find that this righteous man who suffers unjustly is ultimately vindicated and that his feeling and experience of abandonment to death take place in the context of the covenant faithfulness of God.
  4. The Old Testament Story – Finally, we need to understand that Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction stands at the apex of the biblical story, which is Israel’s story. Israel is promised exile in the Old Testament. They are told that, on the Day of the Lord, God will send them out of the Promised Land. God departs from the Temple at the beginning of Ezekiel in anticipation of its and Israel’s destruction. In other words, exile is divine abandonment. It is judgment on sin. Israel deserves it because they have not repented and trusted in YHWH. But when we look at the narratives concerning exile, YHWH is not only the God who judges but also the God who saves. As he sends Israel’s enemies to crush them and to remove them from the land, he also remains with them. He abandons Israel in 1 Samuel 5, when the ark is taken by the Philistines. But he also in that story is working on their behalf, going into exile on their behalf and defeating their enemies for them in the midst of that self-imposed exile by knocking over the idol of Dagon. In Ezekiel, as he pronounces judgment on Israel by abandoning the Temple, his presence goes with Israel into exile. Exile is real, but so is the promise of return. And in God, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Return triumphs over exile. Resurrection triumphs over death. The judgment that takes place on the cross is real, but it is judgment in a covenant context that anticipates vindication through resurrection.

As I said in the previous post, I wholeheartedly affirm penal substitution. God pours out his wrath toward sinners on Jesus at the cross. Those who repent of their sins and believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9) receive life instead of death because Jesus took the curse that we deserve (Gal. 3:13). Jesus became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In all these ways I affirm penal substitution. But in describing this mystery we need to make sure we do not cross the dogmatic boundaries of Nicaea and Chalcedon or the canonical boundaries of Holy Scripture.

Intertextuality in Revelation

Today on Twitter (and by today I mean 2 minutes ago) I mentioned that I think there is much work to be done on intertextuality between Revelation and the rest of the New Testament. Because of John’s obvious reliance on the Old Testament, there have been an increasing number of articles and books published on intertextuality between Revelation and the OT. For instance, G. K. Beale in his commentary, as well as in his earlier John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation (which has been assimilated into the much larger commentary), notes all kinds of fascinating intertextual connections, but they are largely confined to Revelation’s use of the OT. So far there has been surprisingly little published on how Revelation alludes to other NT books.

Alistair Roberts pointed me to the John-Revelation project, which is a fascinating and compelling textual comparison of the two books, and he also mentioned Peter Leithart’s forthcoming commentary on Revelation as a possible source for this kind of work. In my book I point to a number of textual parallels between Revelation and Hebrews-Jude, and early in the twentieth century R. H. Charles in his ICC volume noted the distinctive connections between John’s Apocalypse and the Gospel of Matthew. But, given Revelation’s status as the canon closer and its relatively late date in comparison with the rest of the NT, we shouldn’t be shocked if there are a plethora of connections between it and the Gospels and Letters. I for one believe this is an area where NT scholars can find hundreds of treasures in a relatively unexplored field.

Christ and the New Creation Kindle Edition

Book CoverI just received word from Wipf and Stock that my book is now available in Kindle format. I neglected to change my Greek fonts when it was published in print, which is why there’s been a delay with the electronic format. Thankfully I had some time to comb through it last week and get the correct fonts in the manuscript. For those of you who enjoy reading on the digital screen rather than the printed page, you can order the Kindle edition here.