Archive | Theology

First and Second Samuel | Walter Brueggemann

The cover of Brueggemann's First and Second SamuelThe books of Samuel describe a critical shift in the life of Israel.

When the book begins, Israel had suffered through a series of increasingly impotent judges. The loose confederation of tribes increasingly wandered from God and did what seemed right in their own eyes. Into this world Hannah struggled and conceived a child—Samuel. When the book ends, Israel is a monarchy under the rule of King David, the second of two Kings Samuel anointed.

Here is the critical shift: Israel has gone from being a nation under YHWH to a nation under human kings.

Brueggemann’s commentary is excellent. He presents a close reading of the story of Samuel, Saul, and David with an eye for detail. All the political nuances which might escape the casual reader of scripture are brought to the forefront for consideration.

In Brueggemann’s reading, the heroes and villains of scripture are no one-sided caricatures. They are complicated, as human beings always are. David is no mere Sunday School hero—he is at the same time politically shrewd and spiritually attuned. He is human, warts and all.

The Interpretation commentary series is not overly technical. I would encourage any thoughtful Christian with a love for scripture to pick up this gem and read it alongside the text.


Brueggemann, Walter.  First and Second Samuel. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.

Perspectives on Paul | Ernst Käsemann

The cover of Kasemann's Perspectives on PaulErnst Käsemann (1906-1998) was a German theologian who earned his doctorate under the supervision of Rudolf Bultmann. Perspectives on Paul is a collection of seven essays which are based on four lectures he gave in America along with three additional articles. Each focus (as you might expect) on an element of Pauline theology.

As with any fifty year old theology book, it’s not enough to read the author’s argument—you have to understand what the author is reacting against. This is especially true here since, “[c]ontroversy is the breath of life to a German theologian, and mutual discussion is the duty of us all” (60). Käsemann’s sparing partners include Hans Conzelmann and Krister Stendahl. As if anticipating Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (which was published a full decade later), Käsemann argues strongly for a view of justification which is fundamentally individual—over against Judaistic interpretation of the law. On the basis of Pauline thought, Käsemann argues that the justification of the sinner—not salvation history—is the centre of the Christian proclamation.

His words are eloquent.

Salvation never consists in our being given something, however wonderful. Salvation, always, is simply God himself in his presence for us. To be justified means that the creator remains faithful to the creature, as the father remained faithful to the prodigal son, in spite of guilt, error and ungodliness; it means that he changes the fallen and apostate into new creatures, that in the midst of the world of sin and death he once more raises up and fulfils the promises we have misused. (74-5)

Perspectives on Paul reminds the reader why Käsemann is one of the key Pauline interpreters of the twentieth century.


Käsemann, Ernst. Perspectives on Paul. Translated by Margaret Kohl. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

An Evangelical Christology | Bernard L. Ramm

The cover of Ramm's An Evangelical ChristologyNineteen eighty-three was a frightening time to be an evangelical theologian. Liberal, existential, process, and liberation theologies (to name a few) put pressure on conservatives to respond, but many felt untrained for the specialized tasks of redaction, form, and textual criticism. Evangelicals had two choices: ignore or engage. Ramm chose to fight.

An Evangelical Christology is two books rolled into one. On the one hand, Ramm states with clarity the various elements of Christology. The further into the book you read, however, the larger the second purpose looms: this book is a manual for war. It is never enough for Ramm to state what he believes—he defines his views as opposed to liberal theology, especially that of Rudolf Bultmann.

The overall method Ramm uses to fight back is revealed in the subtitle: “Ecumenic and Historic”. Ramm begins with the classic creeds—Apostolic, Nicene, Chalcedon, etc.—and shows how evangelical christology stands in line with church history (and how his liberal opponents have forsaken their birthright).

The strength of this volume lies in Ramm’s clear exposition of the classic elements of Christology (although I am always frustrated at how most Christologies, this one included, virtually ignore Jesus’ three years of earthly ministry). The weaknesses are twofold:

  1. The battlelines have been redrawn. As culture has shifted from a modern to a post-modern worldview, the war between conservative and liberal theologies seems almost quaint. Ramm’s 1983 battle against the forces of liberalism now reads more like a history of theology.
  2. Ramm ignores his own situatedness. This comes to the surface (ironically? hypocritically?) when he discusses why John’s gospel is different from the synoptics. Ramm wisely asks, “What kind of gospel would John write if he lived in Ephesus about thirty years and carried on a Christian dialogue at a high level in its most sophisticated community? He would write a gospel . . . that would reflect his effort to reframe the original Christian message to make it most effective to his audience in Ephesus” (145). Ramm understands that the writing of John’s gospel was situated in the cultural river (a John H. Walton phrase) of his day yet understands himself as somehow transcendent to the culture of modernism which led him to war in the first place.

The apostle John once brought Jesus a concern: a person outside Jesus’ group of disciples was going around exorcising demons. Jesus replied, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50 NRSV). An Evangelical Christology would have been a much stronger book had Ramm laid down his weapons and sought to learn from the strengths of his theological interlocutors.


Ramm, Bernard L. An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic & Historic. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1999.

Catch the Fire | Michael Wilkinson and Peter Althouse

The cover of Wilkinson and Althouse's Catch the FireSoaking prayer is a relatively new phenomenon. Participants are brought together in a worship setting. They then lie down, often with pillow and blanket, as worship music is played. During this time they rest—soak—in the Father’s love. Leaders of the meeting don’t pray verbally, although they may lay hands on the soakers for a time.

Soaking has a purpose beyond the appeal of a new spiritual experience. Those who soak believe that they are being filled with the Father’s love in order to  express that love to others. Soaking has an altruistic motive which aligns with the vision of Catch the Fire churches: “… to walk in God’s love and give it away, until the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

There are two roots to soaking prayer. Classical Pentecostals spoke of being “slain in the Spirit.” This occurred when someone receiving prayer fell over under the Spirit’s power. The Catholic tradition, especially with Francis McNutt, rejected the violent language of Classical Pentecostals and preferred to speak of “resting in the Spirit.” This aligns with Catholic contemplative tradition. The purpose of resting in the Spirit is to receive healing.

In Catch the Fire, sociologist Michael Wilkinson and theologian Peter Althouse share the results of an extensive study of the soaking phenomenon. The book is methodologically rigorous and theologically generous. It was written not to support or criticize, but to understand and explain.

If you are interested in what is happening in the charismatic renewal, this is your book.


Wilkinson, Michael and Peter Althouse. Catch the Fire: Soaking Prayer and Charismatic Revival. DeKalb, IL: NIU Press, 2014.

Paul and His Letters | John B. Polhill

The cover of Paul and his LettersIt’s safe to say that the church wouldn’t exist in its current forms without Paul. Although the Spirit worked through many characters hinted at tangentially (Apollo, for example), Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. His complex background, dramatic conversion/commissioning, zealous missionary work, and extant letters have been a puzzle tackled by Pauline scholars throughout the ages.

Polhill’s book begins with about a hundred pages of introductory material on Paul before giving way to chapters about his key letters. Chapters about his travelogue are interspersed amongst the letters. Polhill presents a conservative view of Paul, assuming the Pauline authorship of the thirteen epistles that bear his name. At the end of each chapter a helpful bibliography for further investigation is included, divided into Greek-based and English-based sources.

I struggled with Polhill’s lack of subtlety in handling Paul’s motives and actions. For example, Polhill notes how “Paul remained a Jew even as a Christian . . . [h]e maintained Jewish practices, like taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and participating in the vows of others (Acts 21:26)” (26). While it’s a given that Paul remained an ethnic Jew while following the Jewish Messiah, Polhill oversimplified the situation. Paul’s participation in the vows of others was conceived by James and company and implemented as a tactic to avoid a religio-political confrontation. (The ruse failed!)

Current issues in Pauline scholarship were undertreated. The “new perspective,” for example, receives a one page overview with the following summary statement: “The debate on Paul’s view of the law is far from finished and promises to continue for a long time to come” (297). Again, this statement is true but unhelpful. Such a major interpretive issue should be more thoughtfully handled. In these cases Polhill always assumes a traditional conservative view.

Paul and His Letters is a solid overview of the life of Paul. For a fuller picture of the enigmatic apostle, this volume should be supplemented by more current scholarship and divergent viewpoints.


Polhill, John B. Paul and His Letters. Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999.

Practical Theology | Mark J. Cartledge

The cover of Cartledge's Practical TheologyEmpirical and Theology are unlikely partners. Empirical refers to that which is verifiable through observation. Theology (at least in the more conservative traditions) is rooted in revelation and textual studies. In Practical Theology, Mark Cartledge demonstrates how these two ideas play well together in a Charismatic milieu.

Practical Theology is written in two parts. In the first three chapters, Cartledge explains his methodology along with a variety of research methods that suit. Particularly enlightening is the way he weaves contemporary philosophy and charismatic scholarship together to define truth.

The chapters in the second half of Practical Theology illustrate the methodology of the first half. Cartledge has used both quantitative and qualitative research methods in his career. He uses the data he gathered throughout his research to demonstrate various ways of doing sociological studies. These chapters are interesting on two levels. They illuminate some key ideas in charismatic theology: prophecy, the role of women, and glossolalia to name a few. At the end of each study Cartledge offers a reflection on the methods used to interpret the data.

Practical Theology should be read by anyone interested in doing sociological research from a charismatic perspective.


Cartledge, Mark J. Practical Theology: Charismatic and Empirical Perspectives. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003.

The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon | James D. G. Dunn

The cover of Dunn's The Epistles to the Colossians and to PhilemonColossians is a stunning letter. Written near the end of Paul’s life, his message to the church is rooted in a profound understanding of Jesus Christ and the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection for both the universe and individual believers. Consider the epic vision of Jesus portrayed in the Christ Hymn:

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation
For in him were created all things
in the heavens and on the earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or principalities or authorities;
all things were created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things,
and all things hold together in him;

and he is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
in order that he might be in all things preeminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things to him,
making peace through the blood of his cross (through him),
whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens.
(Colossians 1:15-20 Dunn)

In other words, “Christ is all and in all” (3:11 Dunn).

Having studied Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle in detail (check it out here if you’re interested), I am always eager to read another of his commentaries. His NIGTC entry is detailed without feeling ponderous. Dunn brings out the meaning of the Greek language with clarity. He brings the perceptive reader to the point where the implicit relevance of the text shines through the exegesis.

The NIGTC series is written for the study of the Greek text. However, you don’t have to be a language expert to follow Dunn’s arguments. This commentary should appeal to any thoughtful Pauline exegete.


Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Practicing Theology | Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, eds.

The cover of Volf and Bass' Practicing TheologyWhat does theology have to do with the so-called real life? Are theologians doing anything other than splitting hairs? Volf and Bass, along with all the contributors to this volume argue that theology is intimately connected with life. This connection is discerned through the concept of practice.

In general use, a practice is a dense cluster of ideas and activities that are related to a specific goal and shared by a social group over time. . . . Christian practices are patterns of cooperative human activity in and through which life together takes shape over time in response to and in the light of God known in Jesus Christ. (3)

By engaging in theological reflection on Christian practice, the contributors to this volume—all academic theologians—demonstrate how important theology is for living faithfully in a changing world.

The various essays in this volume reflect on a diverse range of practice including healing, hospitality, theological education, and worship. Tammy Williams is particularly insightful in her essay, “Is There a Doctor in the House? Reflections on the Practice of Healing in African American Churches.” By examining the practice of African American churches, she uncovers three models of healing: care, cure, and holism.

Volf closes the book by arguing that while “Christian beliefs normatively shape Christian practices, and engaging in practices can lead to acceptance and deeper understanding of these beliefs,” beliefs take logical priority.

Since we identify who God is through beliefs—primarily through the canonical witness to divine self-revelation—adequate beliefs about God cannot be ultimately grounded in a way of life; a way of life must be grounded in adequate beliefs about God. (260)

Practicing Theology functions on two levels. On the ground level, each article has something insightful to say about Christian practice. On a higher level, the book shows that theology is not a withdrawal from the world but a way to engage the life and practices of the Christian community more deeply.


Volf, Miroslav and Dorothy C. Bass, eds. Practicing Theology: Beliefs and PRactices in Christian Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

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