Book Review: Interpreting the Pauline Letters

Harvey, John. Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis). Kregel Academic, 2012.

The author takes on a great challenge, to provide an exegetical handbook for the Pauline letters. In fact, provides more than an exegetical handbook, including isagogical, hermeneutics, and initial sermon preparation. And he succeeds in this task.


Chapter 1 Genre of Paul’s Letters: Harvey sets Paul’s letters into the first century context that includes the oral, rhetorical and literary environments. This is helpful because of the shift taking place in the 1st century between the first and third environments. He offers comparisons to other letters, distinguishing between literary, official, private letters, noting that Paul’s reflect family type letters.

In Chapter 2 (“Historical Background”) Harvey provides a brief overview of each letter. Then he lays out a timeline based of Paul’s writings and compares that with a timeline based on Acts. He considers those points which seem to be referenced in both, then9780825427671 explores the issues related to any such matching. Harvey presents an extremely helpful table showing the matching comparison (pp. 69-71).

In Chapter 3 the author surveys Paul’s theology. He present four major themes: 1) two spheres “in Adam” and “in Christ,” 2) “faith in Christ” transfers a person from one sphere to the other, 3) common themes in five groupings of Paul’s letters, and 4) the model of “coherence and contingency” is used to understand the theology. The explanations are direct, and neatly summarized in table form for each section (pp. 81, 83, 84, 88). It seems a little surprising that the 4th area of interest is presented by each letter rather than by theological concept. Nevertheless the the information is helpful for the exegetical task.

Although Chapter 4 (“Preparing to Interpret”) is a relatively short chapter, Harvey provides a helpful overview of resources and tools to examine and understand the text. In essence, this is a quick review of textual criticism and the hermeneutical process. He then reviews the process of determining what the text means: 1) comparing English versions, 2) Working with interlinears, 3) translating the passage. The only criticism on this is that since the book is primarily for seminary students and pastors, it would make sense to reverse the order. He briefly addresses semantics and syntax. He follows with a sample exercise demonstrating the points covered in the chapter. I particularly like that he poses questions of the text and how each part should be resolved in terms of translation.

Chapter 5 (“Interpreting Passages”) seemed redundant at first perusal, offering similar material earlier in chapters. However, he ties together the earlier historical details into the textual study. Further, he moves into the literary analysis of the text. Under “General Context” he urges a synthetic study to get a big picture for a framework to study the text appropriately. He illustrates that with an appropriate table showing the overall framework for Ephesians. Then he provides a structure of the specific passage under consideration (p. 135). He concludes with a short review of three theological tools: the analogy of Scripture, the analogy of faith, and use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.


Overall this is a helpful book. Not having read any other volumes in the series, since this was an exegetical handbook I was not expecting isagogical material or sermon material. Nevertheless, the approach worked well.

At times I sensed a lack of filling in the gaps for the beginning exegete. For instance, in one section he writes: “It seems unlikely, however,…” (p. 68), which leaves the student wondering “why is it unlikely?” A further exploration of why the author thought it unlikely would have been helpful. Likewise, on p. 138, he states “Those twelve uses fall naturally into three categories of meaning…” The question arises, does the student know this? Is this based on lexical studies (BDAG, GEL, or something else) or is it based on the author’s experience?

However, despite these minor annoyances, Harvey is to be commended for providing a solid resource for the beginning exegetical student, and a good review for pastors. Initially I thought that the “be-all-to-all” approach of combining isagogical, hermeneutical, exegetical, and homiletical elements serves to detract from the focus on exegesis, the intended purpose. But after further study of the book and reassessing the stated purpose of the series, I find that this book is a worthwhile contribution to the exegetical task.

There are several editing errors in the book, very uncharacteristic of Kregel; I supplied the list directly to Kregel.

Note: Thanks to Kregel Academic & Professional for the review copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.


Thrashing season and broken nose

About the gravatar

I recently changed my main gravatar to this one of a thrashing machine. For many people the image doesn’t mean anything. For me, it brings a lifetime of memories.

What is it? A thrasher machine for separating oats from the chaff. I grew up in northern Minnesota on a farm, where putting up hay bales and thrashing oats marked out summer work. That and cutting 30 cords of oak and maple for our wood furnace.

View of extended thrashing machine
View of extended thrashing machine

This photo shows one very similar to what I remember in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I remember several farmers would plant oats in their fields in late spring. Then when harvest season came, they would pull the binder behind the tractor, which would cut the oats and pull them into a bundle with string wrapped around the bundle. Then they would shock their own fields of grain, that is, put a few bundles upright in teepee fashion, which allow the grain to dry.

The next step was to load the bundles into a wagon for delivery to the thrashing machine. We only had one thrashing machine in the area, owned by John Goodell. So, he would pull the thrashing machine to one farm, and all the farmers (and neighborhood kids) worked together to harvest the entire field. Then he would pull the thrashing machine to the next farm, and the process continues.

Pitching bundles onto thrashing machine
Pitching bundles onto thrashing machine

Usually we would have our noon meal (called “dinner” in my neck of the woods), somewhere near the thrashing machine. The women would fix the meal, bring large blankets out and spread everything under a large tree. Many good meals!! Seemed like the food tasted better, too.

Usually the kids drove tractor and the men and high school boys would pitch the bundles onto the wagon. Then they would drive up to the thrashing machine, one wagon on each side of the delivery belt.

Driving Tractor and Broken Nose

I started driving tractor in the field when I was six (yep, 6, as in half a dozen years old). The first time I was driving a tractor and wagon for thrashing season, I was doing so up and down and sideways on hills on Vic Swan’s farm. I remember the high schooler (Rod Goodell) would give help between throwing bundles on the wagon. But on a side hill, I had to stop while he pitched the bundles. Unfortunately I couldn’t hit the brakes hard enough while pulling back on the clutch, and the tractor and 4 wheel wagon started rolling backward on the side hill.

Me at six years old—driving the tractor at that age??
Me at six years old—driving the tractor at that age??

So Rod ran to the tractor and jumped on behind me, grabbing the steering wheel. He began swinging hard on the wheel, and in the process, his elbow came down on my nose. Broke it good, the first of four nose breaks for me. He managed to get the tractor and wagon straightened out. By then with my bloody nose, I managed to walk ½ mile back to the thrashing machine where my mother was helping with the meal.

Didn’t stop me from driving, though. Next time one of the farmers was ready, so was I!!

While growing up was at times hard, there were also some very enjoyable times. Thrashing season was one of my favorite times. And the gravatar reminds me of that.

The Faith of Jesus Christ—Part 1

Faithfulness of Jesus Christ? Or faith in Jesus Christ?

In my continuing look at translations, I have come upon an interesting translation, interpretation, and theological issue, specifically related to the phrase (or its equivalent):

διὰ πίστεως ⸉Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ⸊ (Galatians 2:16)

“Jesus Christ” is in the genitive case, which is often simply rendered by the Multi-use but vague preposition “of.” However, the genitive case can be indicated in at least nine different ways. The issue becomes how to understand that genitive, especially relative to “faith.”

The more traditional (and common) English rendering of the genitive has been this:

“through faith in Jesus Christ”

NAS, ESV, NKJV, NRSV, HCSB—with fn for alternate, NJB, NAB, REB, GW, NLT

But some recent translations have opted to change πίστεως to “faithfulness” and retain the basic genitive form “of Jesus Christ.” Thus, they render the text as this:

“through faithfulness of Jesus Christ”

NET, NIV 2011, CEB

So, what difference does this make?

I am still in the process of studying the issue, currently reading this book by Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle. The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies. Baker Academic, 2010. So, my comments here are preliminary at best.

The traditional rendering focuses on the faith of the individual, the one who believes (consistent with the Reformation heritage). The second one focuses on Christ’s faithfulness, which implies objective standing which Jesus accomplished, and by which the person is incorporated into that “covenant/faith community.” At first glance, this latter position seems to reflect the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), as advocated especially by N. T. Wright.  That is, Wright’s emphasis on critical “justification” texts is “incorporation into Christ community,” which moves away from the Reformation (and even early Church Fathers) understanding of “justification by grace through faith.”

Interestingly in this book, James D. G. Dunn (often seen as walking a similar path to Wright on NPP) notes in the Foreword that “faith of Christ” (second rendering) is not where he settles the question. In other words, he favors the traditional rendering. For him Galatians 3:6-7 are decisive, when Paul quotes Genesis 15:6.

So the broader NPP does not necessarily favor the second translation. I am firmly of the Reformation, specifically Lutheran tradition, view of justification and all that such implies. Thus, I think that Wright has it wrong (yeah, great pun) in his presentation and expansion of NPP.

At this point, I remain in the traditional translation and understanding of the “faith of Jesus Christ” as “faith in Jesus Christ.” I think Dunn’s note on Galatians is definitive for settling the issue. But I am reading the book with an open mind. I am pleased to see that the editors allow a variety of views in the book. Thus, it is not meant as the final statement on the topic, but to show the arguments and directions that the topic has taken.

Lest We Forget

Is our memory as long as the last media clip on the internet? Is our attention drawn to the urgent—always? Nearly 50 years ago a book was published with the title Tyranny of the Urgent. The problem? The urgent often clouds our ability to see the important. Has that changed in the last 50 years? Not really. What about headlines that capture us today, but are forgotten within hours or days?

The Need

I have written about abuse in its various forms. How devastating it can be within families, communities, churches. The affects of abuse are much longer lasting than we want to admit. Therefore, when we know someone who is coming out of an abusive situation, what kind of timeline do we set for “getting back to normal”? Unless we are intimately involved in the care, we might be tempted to set a timeline for them. Rather, as Christians let’s refrain from that and take a different approach.

It has been eight days and yet how many have already forgotten?

Gina DeJesus

Michelle Knight

Amanda Berry and Jocelyn Berry

What kind of news coverage is happening now? Thankfully, they have asked that the media step away from them and their families. Good for them! They need time, space, safety, love, and help. They have at least 10 years of days they want to forget. But let’s not forget these women.

We don’t need to rush to Cleveland to listen to them. We can speak to God who listens to each of our prayers. These people need continued prayers and support.

We take time now, to remember each of them, and their new lives. They have much to learn and unlearn. There may be times of painful memories, flashbacks, nightmares, and sadness, and perhaps depression. Most importantly we ask God to bring them peace, safety, and wholeness in Jesus Christ.

Our Prayer

Lord God, we as a nation were shocked by the details of the kidnapping, rape, and abuse that these women endured. Sin is horrible in any manifestation, any kind of outer dress that it is enclosed in. We lift up to Your throne of grace Gina, Michelle, Amanda, and Jocelyn. As deep as their physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds are, You are the God who understands, who cares, who loves especially in the worst of times. According to Your great mercy, work all that is necessary in their lives. Surround them with people of love and patience. Grant them nights of rest, free from fear, uncertainty, and confusion. Sustain them each step of the way as You grant healing of body, mind, and soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen

And for others…

Perhaps you know someone in an abusive relationship. You can adjust this prayer, or say it in your own words. Regardless, prayers for those who are or have been abused are an important part of our plea as Christians before our God.

Lest we forget

Sober Mercies

Kopp, Heather Harpham. Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up With a Christian Drunk. Jericho Books, 2013.

Sober Mercies
Sober Mercies

I have read thousands of books over the last 50 years, many of them very good, a few superb. And I have read more intently many in the last two years. I pay particular attention to books now because I have written several reviews, but even more so, because those that I write about affect me personally. But two books stand apart from all the others. Aside from the Bible, these two books have profoundly affected me, and in several different ways.

Emily Cook wrote Weak and Loved, and I had the privilege of reading a preview copy and writing a review. Her writing was gripping, realistic, and compelling. I read it in one day, literally spending 10 hours reading. As a parent I agonized with her in the long, unknown future of her daughter. I rejoiced with her in the answer to prayers, far beyond the miracle of Aggie, to the miracle of God working in Emily’s heart.

And now Heather has written the second stand-out book. The writing is on par with Emily’s, the story is just as riveting. But this one is so much closer to home for me. I am still reeling from the emotional impact (I may not be able to write about that for a while). I didn’t expect this; but it is probably the highest compliment I can pay to Heather. As I read, I marked several places, “this is right on target” —not for her, but me! I began thinking how many quotes are so pertinent to me. Half way through I gave up, because there were too many quotes to remember.  As the days go by I will post a few of these quotes; they are too good not to share.

By opening her life to us as she relived the pain, struggle, hurt, anger, and more, she opened my heart for some needed searching and examining in some long forgotten recesses where I still struggle. Her Christian training had given her a sense of grace and all the intellectual support for understanding it. But her alcoholism exposed her need for grace in a different, more profound way. Not an intellectual appreciation, but experiencing God’s grace at the deepest level, the bottom of the barrel (or bottle in her case).

She faced the double challenge of her own addiction, and that of her son. Either would be overwhelming for most people, but combined, it was not only a vicious cycle, it was one that seemed to offer no hope. And yet God’s grace…

On a larger scale, her life story needs to be heard by those “comfortable” with church as usual. An encounter with God’s grace is life-changing, not just a one time event, but a daily life-changing encounter. That is the whole point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians!

Jesus “came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10)— the lonely, the messy, the broken, the hurting, the outsiders, the victims, the volunteers (you need to read the book to catch that reference), the addict, the addict’s family, the forgotten…

At the end I wanted to hug Dave and Heather and the rest of the family. To celebrate, to walk with them, to learn from them. But even more, I want to hug those who suffer or struggle, people who need that kind of hug. A hug that reassures of God’s life-changing grace. They need someone to love them unconditionally. They need God’s grace in its fullness, just as Heather does, just as I do.

Thank you, Heather, for such an important book—to me, and I am sure, to many others.

Random thoughts about life and death

I just finished reading a gripping book. Normally I read books very quickly. This one I could not. I knew some men who fought in World War I. The “war to end all wars” was not the glamorous new era, but a continuation of the reality of sin, and the depravity of humans.

Groom, Winston. A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. Grove Press, 2003.

Storm in Flanders
Storm in Flanders

Powerful book, well written, worthy to be read by everyone.

Groom provides an overview of the conduct of the war regarding Flanders, such that the reader gains an appreciation of all factors weighting upon decisions that at times seem brilliant, more often idiotic, and usually puzzling. The ranking officers in the British Army had their own agendas and battled the political leaders (especially Gen. Haig vs. David Lloyd George). In addition, Groom adds the view from the trenches that shows the heroism, despair, and futility of fighting in the trenches. The contrast between what the Generals knew and what the men experienced comes through in this perspective from General Haig’s chief of staff after the battle of Passchendaele (in 1917).

The day that Passchendaele fell, Haig’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Launcelot Kiggell, went forward to see the battle area for the first time. Nearing Ypres in his big Rolls-Royce staff car Kiggell was first amazed, then dismayed, and finally horrified at the breathtaking morass where the battle had taken place: an almost indescribable sea of mud littered with the bloated, rotten carcasses of artillery horses, smashed guns and wagons, and other detritus of war. He is reported to have broken into tears, crying out, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” His companion, an officer who had been in the battle, told Kiggell, “It’s worse further on up.” (pp. 224-5)

The brutality of war comes through as the mud intensified the drudgery of daily life. And in this case brought horrendous choices.

One sergeant related: “We heard screaming coming from another crater a bit away. I went over to investigate with a couple of the lads. It was a big hole and there was a fellow of the 8th Suffolks in it up to his shoulders. So I said, ‘Get your rifles, one man in the middle to stretch them out, make a chain and let him get hold of it.’ But it was no use. It was too far to stretch, we couldn’t get any force on it, and the more we pulled and the more he struggled the further he seemed to go down. He went down gradually. He kept begging us to shoot him. But we couldn’t shoot him. Who could shoot him? We stayed with him, watching him go down in the mud. And he died. He wasn’t the only one. There must have been thousands up there who died in the mud.” (pp. 214-5)

The ghastly image cuts through any civility that anyone tried to put on the war and the consequences.

Ugly, Harsh Realities of Life

This is a hard book to read, but a necessary read. We get immune to the ugly, harsh realities of life, if we only watch what we want on TV/internet, etc. This book opens our eyes at several levels to challenge the status quo of indifference.

The longer I read the book, the more I realized that it has a present application. We have a sanitized view of life. Are we indifferent to the sufferings of many? Perhaps more than we want to admit. What about the indifference 20 years ago in the Balkans? It got to be old news, except for sensationalism.

Human trafficking is a huge worldwide problem, millions of people caught in it. And yet, for many in the US, unless it is a family member or friend who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, it is not “real.” “Not my problem.” “Do we have to talk about such unpleasantness?”

In the abortion struggle, those who cover their eyes think that Gosnell and others are being treated unfairly. Yet, the hideous reality is that babies are being murdered. No, not just 12 week old infants in the womb, but babies, living, breathing. The mantra of “right of the mother to her body” has changed to “right of a doctor to murder.”

An Ugly Answer

Obviously, the litany of horror has marked humanity since Genesis 4. But it doesn’t end with that. Jesus’ death, for some first graphically portrayed in the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” brings to light the cost of paying the penalty for sin. And Jesus died for all people, even those indifferent to suffering, and those causing the suffering, and even me. As John wrote in his first letter:

He is the payment for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2 GW)

The answer to suffering is the suffering of Jesus, the answer to death is the death of Jesus, the answer to despair is the raising of Jesus back to life.

So, back to the book. I hope that as a Christian with the message of life, I am not like General Kiggell. And yet sometimes I am like him. I don’t want to be in the shell hole watching someone die because there is nothing to be done. But sometimes I am. And I seek forgiveness.

I also pray that my heart never becomes indifferent to the sad consequences of sin in this life. Jesus came to bring life and it abundantly.

God hears, remembers, knows

Cry for Help

Yesterday’s post about “hollering and whimpering” when at the bottom of the depression barrel triggered further thoughts. And then this morning I read in Exodus

After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned because of their difficult labor, and they cried out; and their cry for help ascended to God because of the difficult labor. So God heard their groaning, and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and He took notice. (Exodus 2:23-25 HCSB)

After the great days of Joseph and the favor that the Israelites enjoyed in Egypt, the days of affliction came to them. Not only did the political environment change, but the personal circumstances changed for every Israelite. Moses was gone when he hastily fled from Egypt when he tried to correct a wrong (Exodus 2:11-15).

The joy of Joseph is replaced by the groaning of the burdens. As oppressed people who saw no hope in their circumstances, “they cried out; and their cry for help ascended to God because of the difficult labor.” Whether this was “hollering or whimpering” does not matter. From the anguish of the burdened soul, such differences are meaningless. This is a “cry for help”—forget categories, forget subtle differences. The broken heart does not care, cannot care.

The three fold response by God

God is not indifferent to the people, His people. He “heard” and “remembered” and “took notice.” These three actions by God are critical; they are the turning point for the Israelites—and yet nothing “happened” for them. The burdens continue, the agony does not cease, and God seems to have a deaf ear.

God heard

But the reality of change depends not on their (or our) ability to see change. Rather, the key is that God is already poised to act in behalf of His people. In yesterday’s post I finished with 1 John 5:13-15, “We are confident that God listens to us.” This is something the Israelites will learn. This is something that all God’s people learn. For the Israelites in Egypt, “God heard their groaning.” Their groaning does not reflect our use of muttered sigh to a bad joke, but the extreme cry of the heart that is longing, yet cannot see any solution. The groaning is real, the expression of a heart overwhelmed by experiences. No matter the outward circumstances, God hears our groaning.

God remembered His covenant

This is the critical turning point in the story. God had made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17). It is a one-sided covenant, dependent on God’s fulfillment. God said, “I will …” to Abraham.

I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, … (Genesis 12:2-3)

Further, it is not Abraham who fulfills the covenant, but God Himself. “When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals” (Genesis 15:17 HCSB).

It is this covenant that God remembered, His promises, His commitment, His action, His fulfillment. Thus, while the Israelites groaned, God remembered. And that is the key for God’s delivering action. After their deliverance and as Moses wrote his farewell, Deuteronomy, notice how many times Moses urges the people to imitate God by “remembering.”

God knew

Several translations have “God took notice.” ESV has “and God knew.” This reflects the basic sense of the Hebrew yadah (ידע). Same word used for Adam when he “knew” Eve. An intimacy of knowing, and for God that means he understands, even feels, the agony and misery of His people.

We may be tempted, okay, I am tempted to think that God does not know what I am experiencing. My pain, my hurt is too deep, too personal. Or so I imagine. But no, God knows, He knows everything about me, even my desire to set up a protective cocoon that keeps out anything that might hurt.

But God wants more than that for His hurting, groaning people. He hears, remembers, and knows.

And that is enough!

And it is well with my soul.