Friday, January 15, 2010

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: Calvin on Habakkuk and Zephaniah

This is just to note that I have also read these two commentaries this week. As before, I highly recommend Calvin's commentaries for sequential reading. According to Richard Muller, Calvin;s commentary work was more influential in the 17th century than were the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Today, of course, it is the other way around, even in conservative Reformed circles. Certainly most Biblical scholars know of Calvin's commentaries through citations or particularly notorious quotes by other commentators. There's little evidence that today's biblical scholars, even evangelicals, actually spend any time reading Calvin's commentaries, which is to their shame.

You can see why the 17th century scholars would have been attracted to Calvin. He's clear and concise, covering Habakkuk in about 180 pp, and Zephaniah in about 130 pp. Compare that to 416 pp in the Anchor Bible Commentary on Habakkuk. He's attentive not only to issues of language and history, but to theology as well. He has, as might be expected, a fine discussion of Hab 2:4 and whether it is faith or faithfulness that is required of the just. He's also sensitive to the NT use of the prophetic material. As with the Micah and Nahum commentaries his primary concerns are ecclesiological and Christological.

For all these reasons, he ought to be read by today's interpreters, and it is to our shame that he often is known in our circles more by reputation than familiarity.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: The Church of God, Stuart Robinson

This is an update on yesterday's post. Two things to note. First, the book is in print thanks to the CE Committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in a nicely done hardback. It was completely re-typeset, so it is not a simple reprint. It is available for $10.00 (postage included) from the OPC website: The GPTS bookstore also has a number of copies on hand.

Second, it should be noted that Robinson is not a great English stylist. That's a nice way of saying that his English is sometimes clumsy. But he does have the benefits of both clarity and consistency, which are much to be preferred to great English style that lacks either.

Again, the book is highly recommended, both for those with low views of the church, and for those with high, but loosely founded, views of the church.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: The Church of God, Stuart Robinson

The full title of Robinson's book is The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel, and the Idea, Structure, and Functions Thereof. It's a big title for a short book. The book has been reprinted from the 1858 original, with the addition of a brief life of Robinson by T. E. Peck. My copy was reprinted by the GPTS Press in 1995, but I think it is currently being reprinted by Solid Ground Christian Books. I can't verify that right now, because for whatever reason, I can't access the SGCB web site.

The book itself is divided into two major parts. The first part is Robinson's own discussion, which takes up about 130 pages. The second major part is an Appendix, containing a number of historical documents pertaining to Presbyterian ecclesiology and polity. These documents, otherwise difficult to find, are worth the price of the book in themselves. However, it is Robinson's discussion that makes this a lost classic. It is, as the title indicates, a defense of the idea that the church is an essential element of the gospel, and in particular the church, as it is found in the Bible, is intended by God for accomplishing the purpose of redemption. Further, it is a church that is Presbyterian in its government and in its worship.

Today's evangelical church has no ecclesiology. That is, in part, why so much of what is properly the work of the church is being done by para-church organizations. It is also why so much a what many churches get involved with is not really the responsibility of the church per se. This work of Robinson's is a valuable corrective to many of the problems facing today's church. It is unfortunate that most evangelicals have a low view of the church (which this book would correct). It is even more unfortunate that many who call themselves Presbyterian are ignorant not only of this book, but more importantly, what it teaches.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: Sacred, by Dennis Lehane

Some of you may have seen the movie Mystic River. Dennis Lehane wrote the novel on which the movie was based. That was a stand-alone novel. Sacred is part of a private eye series featuring the detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. In a certain sense, this book is standard issue detective fiction. What sets the book apart from many others in the genre is the quality of Lehane's writing. He sets tone. He sets character. He sets place. And the world comes alive. You read Lehane in part to find out out who did what. But perhaps in larger part, you read Lehane for the pleasure of the journey.

Now this is gritty stuff, and not something I would recommend to the faint of heart. But if you like a tale well-told, and occasionally indulge in genre fiction, you could do a lot worse than Lehane, and rarely do better.

By the way, another movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel is due out this year. Shutter Room is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio. The book is exceedingly creepy, and I suspect Scorsese will do it justice.

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: Calvin on Micah and Nahum

Calvin's expositions were not composed as commentaries per se, but were daily sequential lectures to students, moving straight through the book. Some things are not found in Calvin's commentaries (or in other commentaries at the time), but are now an expected part of commentary literature. The most notable of these is an introduction. Modern commentaries have sizable introductions, with more or less extended discussions of such things as author, date and occasion of writing, and themes and theology of the book. This introduction can easily take up 15% to 25% of the entire book. Calvin devotes a couple of paragraphs to date and author issues, then simply dives into the exposition. Another difference is the lack of outline, or subdivision of the book. Calvin simply takes a verse, or a few verses at a time, then proceeds to expound them.

Obviously part of this difference is the age. In the 21st century, much more has been written on these books than was available in Calvin's day, and the introduction is a way of summarizing this material for the reader. But in a certain sense, the introduction is often a history of doubt and skepticism, rather than a faithful reading of the biblical text. Thus, Calvin assumes that the opening verse of Micah (The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth, etc.) means that Micah wrote the book. Meanwhile, many modern commentaries will spend page upon page explaining why anyone but Micah may have written it. These extended discussions I do not miss.

But the lack of an overall view of the book given by an outline, or subdivisions of the book means that one can simply get lost in the movement of the book, and the text of the Bible gets reduced to the verse or two currently under discussion.

There are three refreshing characteristics to Calvin's exposition that are commonly missing in modern commentaries. First, he assumes that these are the words of God to men. Second, his exposition is insistently ecclesiological, that is, he explains the text for the church. Third, he also reads the text Christologically. For someone who, in his day, was often accused of being a judaizer (i.e., seeing Christ too infrequently in the Old Testament) Calvin certainly finds the Old Testament to be a mine of teaching about Christ.

A warning. If you go to Calvin;s commentaries expecting him to answer the questions you have about the text, you'll probably be disappointed. Read him for what he has to say, and listen to the questions he's asking of the text. I guarantee that you will be enriched in the reading.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Uncle Ben's Book Blog: Boneshaker

A couple of weeks ago, I got an advertising e-mail (you know what those are) from Amazon, touting the 10 Best Science Fiction works of 2009. Since I like Sci-fi, I had a look, though not with the intent of buying. Three of the books sounded interesting, and the Greenville County library had two of them. One was Boneshaker, which I read yesterday as part of my New Year's vacation. It's an example of what is called steampunk; that is, science fiction set in an alternate-history 19th century, where the technology is big, bulky, and run by steam. Time magazine had a recent short article on the subgenre in reviewing Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan. A decent discussion can be found at Wikipedia. Interestingly, neither the Time article nor the Wikipedia article mention the classic steampunk movie, which is Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985). It isn't set in the 19th century, but everything else about it has the steampunk feel.

Back to Boneshaker, which is set in late 19th-century Seattle. An inventor, Leviticus Blue, is seeking to invent a drilling machine to sell to the Russians to enable them to drill through glaciers in Alaska in their search for gold. In testing out his machine, it runs amok through the underground of Seattle opening up a vein of poison gas. People who breathe the gas turn into zombies (think Night of the Living Dead). Mr. Blue disappears, and his pregnant wife and most of the population manage to escape the gas. Apparently the leak can't be plugged. The gas is significantly heavier than air, so the center of Seattle is simply walled up (a 200-ft high wall), and whoever remained inside was left to fend for themselves.

Move forward sixteen years. Mr. Blue's son, unbeknown to his mother, decides to enter the walled portion of the city to find evidence to repair his father's reputation. His mother discovers his intent and goes in after him. Life inside the city brings to mind the Kurt Russell classic Escape from New York. The action moves along at a decent clip, and there's a certain amount of humor (for example, it is 1880 and the War Between the States is still going on, since Britain had entered the war on the side of the South). Mother succeeds in rescuing son. I won't tell you about Mr. Blue's reputation.

Moderately entertaining, and all the right atmosphere for the subgenre, but my ultimate question in regard to a novel is this: Does it make me want to go out and immediately read another book by the same author. In this case the answer is, "No."