Book Review

Peoples of the Old Testament World

Peoples of the Old Testament World, edited by Hoerth, Mattingly, and Yamauchi ★★★
This book was published in 1995 and won the Publication Award of the Biblical Archeological Society, so I felt that it would be a great read. I was a bit disappointed. It is perhaps that scholarship tends to be so scant and poor in biblical archeology, that any publication would receive accolades regardless of the actual quality of the write. Each chapter was written by different authors, some chapters being excellent, others being quite poor. I thought that the last three chapters, on the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites were actually the best, while the chapters on Egypt and Mesopotamia were quite mediocre. My greatest complaint is the absence of any reasonable discussion regarding the reconciliation of the biblical with the archeological data. Often, the author would consider the biblical record as entirely subservient to the archeological findings, an approach I feel that does violence to God’s word. I’ll quote two examples… page 170, “What can be known about the Canaanite religion derives from two general sources of information: written records and material remains. The Bible is an important source, but the biblical writers naturally present a somewhat biased point of view that deprecated the Canaanite religion…”. Excuse me! I thought that God’s point of view was the only truly unbiased view. I am seeking a Biblical view on how I look at the world, desiring and NOT avoiding a Biblical perspective! Page 219 “…the account of the battle at Ramoth Gilead in I Kings 22 seems problematic as well and should also be considered highly suspect.” I would actually consider the archeological data highly suspect before I consider the Biblical data suspect. I could go on, but I think I’ve made the point that many of the authors seem to have a very low opinion of Scripture. IMHO, Scriptures seem to reflect an absence of human bias and error that is found in all writings, including the current newspapers, which need to be read with great care, in order to discern what actually happened in a given event. The authors oftentimes frustrated me. Discussions of Sumer and early Babylon failed to mention the Biblical context, such as describing the world that Abraham came out of. Virtually no thought is given to the Biblical flood, and though flood accounts are mentioned throughout most world literature, this book treats the flood as a non-event. Should I presume that there are virtually no archeological remains from before the flood? Minimal to no discussion of the timing of the Exodus was given, of the tower of Babel, and other significant Biblical events. I would hope that a better archeological text with a modicum of respect for the Scriptures be forthcoming in the future.

Understanding the Land of the Bible

Understanding the Land of the Bible—A Biblical-Theological Guide ★★★★
This is a short, very easy-to-read text that describes the land of the Bible in order to help one understand the biblical history and teaching from a perspective of understanding the lay of the land. Robertson briefly describes the geography of Israel, followed by various topics such as the climate, vegetation, and various cities/populations over the epochs of biblical times. This book is an enjoyable read, as Robertson is able to include in a meaningful fashion how the geology and land of the Old and New Testaments affected the understanding of various historical events that occurred. It has some deficits. It is a little too brief, and one has a hard time grasping the actual terrain without actually being there. While reading the text, I spent about half of the time on Google Maps, trying to get a better grasp of the geography of the area. It could have used more illustrations other than just maps. A brief chapter on the geology of Israel would have been nice in order to understand such geological deformities as the Jordan Valley/Dead Sea. The vegetation section describes various Mideast plants but leaves us wondering what those plants are, such as the Terebinth. A photo, if not a brief description, would have been quite helpful. Many locations are described, but one is left wondering where those locations fit on a modern map of Israel. Where is Shechem, Samaria, etc.? Why is Capernaum no longer in existence? What happened to it? Where does the city of David’s Jerusalem fit into modern Jerusalem? I could go on. The strongest chapter was the last, which describes five ways of viewing the land of Israel. Does the land of Israel belong to the Jews? Will they reoccupy the land someday? Were the crusaders correct in trying to re-conquer the Holy Lands for Christianity? Is it even proper to name the land of the Old and New Testament the “Holy Land”? All of these questions are answered in a most proper fashion. Through all the chapters, Robertson is able to add biblical insights that show how the land of Israel indeed was certainly created specifically as the stage for the appearance of our Lord. This is a worthy book to read, yet I hope that perhaps a second edition will remedy the deficits mentioned above.

God’s People in the Wilderness

God’s People in the Wilderness; The Church in Hebrews, by O. Palmer Robertson ★★★★★
This is a rather short book, 149 pages, and easy to read in several evenings. Robertson writes in an efficient style without wasted verbiage, yet is not challenging to read. He writes in an academic style and manifests the art of exegesis of Scriptures at its best. In sum, he is a joy to read. This is the second book that I’ve read by him, and you should be seeing a number of further reviews of this author, as he merits our full attention. Robertson now teaches in Africa at Malawi Bible College but lives as one of the veritable giants among living theologians today. Robertson is best known for his book “Christ of the Covenants”, showing that the Covenants throughout Scripture are indeed one, though progressively contributing to or fulfilling prior “versions” of the covenant.
The introduction to this text provides the theme. While Christ often referred to the church as the “Kingdom of God”, and Paul referred similarly to the church as the “body of Christ”, these metaphors for the church are never used within Hebrews. Rather, the author of Hebrews develops the likeness of the church as Israel during the time of the Exodus, living in the wilderness. The first chapter develops the thesis of the living church today as being the church in the wilderness. Subsequent chapters note the covenant that binds Israel (the church) in the wilderness, the unity of people within the wilderness sojourn, and the tensions encountered in the wilderness such as the temptation to rebel or the failure to heed the instructions of the law, the worship of the church in the wilderness, and the ultimate goal of eternal rest of God’s people in the wilderness. Indeed, throughout the book of Hebrews, the theme of the church, like Israel, living in the wilderness is used, and the cautions, admonitions, and exhortations for the church remain the same as God gave the Israelites in the wilderness until their goal of rest for God’s people is found. That rest is symbolized by the arrival in the promised land but represents our final rest in Christ after death. Until then, the tensions and struggles of the wilderness will remain.
Perhaps the best summary of the book might be given by a brief quote from the book. “If the church of today could grasp the eschatological nature of its present pilgrimage, it could be saved from many current disillusionments. Bodily health and material wealth, an abundance of creaturely comforts, should not be the promise held out to believers today. Escape from troubles and troublous times should not be the church’s expectation. On the contrary, the spoiling of material goods along with society’s rejection that leads to a life out of the camp should be openly presented as the norm for the disciples of Jesus. At the same time, a simplified philosophy of pie in the sky bye and bye cannot properly represent the Christian’s perspective on the present life. Instead, currently living out life within the inner chamber of God’s Most Holy Place, constantly communing intimately with the three persons of the one true triune God, fellowshipping in daily life and worship with the loving brotherhood, while all the time anticipating the final rest, perfection and realization of consummate hope – these are only a few of the elements that describe the eschatological lifestyle of believers in Jesus as the Christ. As the church of today discovers its true identity as God’s People in the Wilderness, she may find the fullness of life that only the Christ of God can give”.
As an aside, there is a book titled “Truth Triumphant-the Church in the Wilderness” where the church in the wilderness metaphor is used in what a careful observation would show to be a strictly non-biblical usage. In this text by B. Wilkinson, the argument goes that the wilderness church remains a small remnant of the church that has separated from the mainline church to remain Saturday-Sabbath observers and maintain the purity of the “true church”. A reading of Robertson’s text, or a simple reading of Hebrews, would demonstrate the error of using the wilderness church metaphor in the fashion of Wilkinson.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997, by Piers Brendon ★★★★
This book is  monumental, 662 rather thick pages. It could not be read quickly. A very compelling read, the book was difficult to put down. Brendon starts the fall of the Empire at the time of the loss of the American colonies. Brendon then details the rise and fall of the British slave trade, the early attempts at colonization of India, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Further, he speaks of the spread of empire through the Far East and Afghanistan, Africa, and then the troubles with Ireland and the Boer War in South Africa. The First world war was detailed as the first truly significant decline of the British rule of the world, though they did acquire holdings in the Mid-east, including Egypt and Cyprus. The second world war seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with which India, then Ceylon, Myanmar, Signapore and other smaller entities rebelled and were able to obtain freedom from England. Brendon walks through the loss of Israel, the Suez Canal debacle, and Aden loss. The 1960’s showed British attempts to stabilize their hold on Africa, only to see Gold Coast (Ghana), Nigeria, Kenya, Rhodesia and the other African republics peel off. Finally, the loss of holdings in the West Indies and Cyprus, the comical attempt to show strength in holding a worthless set of islands off of Argentina (the Falklands), and lastly the loss of Hong Kong to China in 1997 left England with only a few insignificant rocks and islands scattered throughout the world.
Brendon writes in style that is mostly ad hominem. He doesn’t give you straight history, and often, if unfamiliar with any particular history, one would need to look elsewhere to find details of the events that he is discussing. Instead, Brendon will linger at length at what various politicians, generals, and other leaders may have said at the time of the historical event. It is more a history behind the closed doors, or a history that you would experience on the streets. This is both good and bad, since Brendon tends to dwell on the most foppish remarks made that perhaps don’t always reflect true feelings or intentions. Several reviewers gave the book very low scores with the complaint that it has a vile bias against empire building. That is certainly true. Most histories that you read of the British Empire tend to extol the virtues and blessings that the British bestowed on forcefully occupied populations. If one wished to purely look for the good that came out of something, one  could argue the virtues of Napoleon since he brought a liberal rule of law to many lands, and the goodness of Hitler since he gave Europe the gift of the Autobahn. I appreciate Brendon because he gives one balance in thinking about the history of the British Empire, even though it is biased heavily against British rule over half the world. Brendon’s terrible biases become most apparent in his interpretations of modern history. He has a terrible dislike for Margaret Thatcher and fails to say any good about her, even though she was following the general wish of most Britons. Even still, forget or sweep under the rug the abominations and atrocities performed by Her Majesties Service in the colonies, such as total and complete mass genocide in Tasmania, forced opium sales in China, brutal slaughters of major portions of the population in the Boer wars as well as other colonies, tyrannical forced rule in India, Ceylon, Burma, Kenya and many other African countries, arrogant racial snobbery towards blacks, Indians, and yellow folk suggesting that European (British) whites were a master race, and the absolute ineptitude of many military enterprises such as in Gallipoli and the Falklands.
By the time one has read all 662 pages of this book, it should be very clear that the Brits are intolerably arrogant, profoundly hypocritical, brutally racist, almost making Stalin, Hitler and Mao look like school children in the art of vice. Yet, I see many Americans possessing this arrogant attitude towards the rest of the world, suggesting that the problem runs deeper than just the British thought pattern. With its problems and limitations, I would still highly recommend this book as a worthy read, even if just to get one thinking about how certain foreign policies tend to create messes that will be around for centuries to come.

Systematic Theology: Berkhof

Systematic Theology, new Combined Edition, by Louis Berkhof ★★★★★
I had to read portions of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology with a class that I took from JI Packer. The other systematic theology text was Grudem’s Systematic Theology, which had been reviewed previously. Packer contended that Berkhof indeed was the best available systematic theology text, though he says “there is no God in Berkhof”. Since I’ve read Grudem cover to cover, I felt it was now time to do the same with Berkhof, using the combined edition that includes the discussion of the possibility and legitimacy of systematic theology, arguing in defense of the text of Scripture itself. Certainly, both Berkhof and Grudem have their strengths and weaknesses, but I preferred Berkhof over Grudem in most aspects. Yet, there are problems with Berkhof that I would briefly mention.

  1. Many topics are missing, including
    1. Development of the theology of the Holy Spirit. He has a very short section on the Holy Spirit in discussing the topic of soteriology.
    2. Discussion of pertinent aspects of the history of certain doctrines, such as the development of the theology of the trinity, and the Christology controversies
    3. Ethics is an aspect of systematic theology yet is completely missing.
  2. Berkhof spends much time in discussing certain aspects of science and theology, yet is completely outdated. As one example among many, he mentions his continued belief in the ether theory.
  3. Berkhof often belabors topics without reasonable scriptural clarity, leaving a bit of a muddle. One topic was a lengthy discussion of the covenants, which I believe he could have done much better at. His discussion of paedobaptism is ponderous at 10 pages, not well referenced scripturally, and doesn’t accomplish much. It would have been better for him to defer to scriptural silence and leave the practice to best interpretation of what one feels the scripture is saying.

In spite of the above complaints, Berkhof remains an extremely readable text, most conforming to how I see the scriptures. His text remains publicly as the best Reformed theology text available and is the standard that all subsequent systematic theology texts will have to rise to.
The Addition of the Introductory Volume to the text was a very appropriate addition and well worth reading. In it, Berkhof argues for the rationality for Scripture in opposition to the new liberalism. I had a very strong feeling as though I was reading Francis Schaeffer. I am quite sure that it was from Berkhof that Schaeffer (and VanTil) received their greatest arguments in their apologetic structure for Scripture. Without hesitation, I contend that it would be of value for any and every serious-minded Christian in today’s world to take time at some point in their life to work their way through Berkhof. It will be worth the time and most rewarding.

Feynman Trilogy

Six Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman ★★★★
This, and the subsequent two books, are actually not a trilogy, though they seem to go together, in providing a layman’s read for modern physics. Feynman has written a number of other popular-read books. In this book, Feynman, the noted Nobel-prize-winning American physicist, includes six lectures that he gave at Caltech to explain fundamental physics to non-scientific types. While these lectures are very rudimentary, they exhibit the sheer brilliance of Feynman, who has the ability to make those principles that one strained over in college physics seem quite simple. This book is a fun read for both the scientifically literate, and those who are otherwise.

Six Not So Easy pieces, by Richard Feynman ★★★★
Obviously, this is a continuation of the book reviewed above. This time, Feynman attempts the nobler task of explaining Einsteinian physics to laymen. He mostly succeeds, and is even able to offer a rationale behind such formula as E=mc2. There are some formulae that he fears not tackle how they were derived, such as the Lorenz transformation. This book is a natural continuation of his previous text, and fun read.

QED, by Richard Feynman ★★★★
QED is what made Feynman a Nobel prize winner, in that he was able to tackle one of the dilemmas of quantum mechanics, that of applying quantum mechanics to electricity, etc., thus quantum electrodynamics. Feynman makes one thing perfectly clear, and that is that ultimately, he has no clue as to really understanding the nature of quantum physics. Quantum physics doesn’t make sense, but it seems to give the correct numbers to most, but not all, calculations. It provides only a model, and as we learn more, even more confusing data seems to grab our interest, such as all the new atomic particles that continue to be discovered. Feynman diagrams provide a rough visual experience as to how photons and electrons interact, though it also demands such explanations like time going backward. I won’t hold my breath too much on the next installment of physics explanations. This was a fun though somewhat bizarre book to read, and, together with the other two books above, helps a non-physicist see where we’re at in the grand world of physics.

Day of Reckoning

Pat Buchanan, Day of Reckoning ★★★★★
Buchanan, in his inimitable style, discusses the many things on his mind that he feels are wrong with America. His sweep of subjects is quite large, covering the destructive ideology of multiculturalism and racism, the loss of public morality, our inability to develop a clear policy toward immigrants that supports American interests, the serious trade imbalance in the name of “free markets”, the loss of America’s industrial base, American imperialism throughout the world, with disastrous consequences on our friends and dose who are not our enemies, specific foreign policy blunders also being mentioned, from our recent treatment of Russia and Iran, all attesting to a direction that very well will lead to the downfall of the USA. This book is a valuable book for those who regard America as home, and who choose not to expatriate. Highly recommended and an easy read.

The End of Christianity

The End of Christianity, by Willian Dembski ★★★
The main title of this book is a bit deceptive, in that it fails to describe the nature of what the book is about. Indeed, the subtitle is a better explanation, in that it is Dembski’s attempt at theodicy, that is, an explanation as to why it is evil in the world. Dembski is best known for his work in intelligent design and has proven himself quite capable as a thinker in that regard. Regarding his theological ventures, he proves less adept. Dembski develops a rather rigid form of old-earth creationism in order to develop his theodicy thesis, though he admits that his theodicy would work regardless of whether one was old-earth or young-earth. Thus, it is strange that Dembski spends so much time arguing for an entirely evolutionary scheme to the “creation” of man, the final transformation of man from animal to human happening by God creating a garden in which two hominids (Adam and Eve)  enter and thus become human, after which they promptly sin. To explain death and evil before the garden of Eden and the fall, Dembski evokes the possibility of retroactive effects of the fall, acting on the created world long before the fall had ever taken place. To defend his position, Dembski develops at length the comparison of chronological and kairological time, chronological time being literal time as one would observe on a clock, and kairological time being logical time, time that occurs in the thought process that exists outside of clock-time.  This explains the whole of Genesis 1-11, in that no attempt is being made to demonstrate a scientific view of how the world and first civilizations were brought about. Unfortunately, Dembski’s approach is easily generalized to suggest a logical fuzziness to any of the factual statements of Scripture. I tend towards old-earth creationism but shudder when I see what Dembski wishes to do with old-earthism to accommodate science. Eventually, God must stick his finger into the world somewhere, whether it be the garden of Eden, or in simply making a man along with the models of prior biological entities that he has previously created. Worst, Dembski never really accomplishes an effective theodicy of explaining why God would allow evil, save for answers already given by theologians, that is, that in some way, a greater good would be seen coming out of the evil that exists. Better theodicy works exist. I reviewed one recently (Paul Helm, The Providence of God) that was superlative save for the difficulty in following the ramifications of Helm’s thinking. The End of Christianity ultimately does nothing but contribute to the confusion of our existence. It is an easy read, and thoughtful read, though not a terribly exciting or informative read.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, by DA Carson ★★★
This is actually a combination of two books, the first being a treatise on the sermon on the mount, and the second “Jesus Confrontation with the World” on Matt. 8-10. The latter were derived from sermons that DA Carson preached early on in his life, and the former is an exposition that we also wrote many years ago, though in a sermon-type format. It is Carson in the “easy-read” mode, speaking in admonitions and encouragement towards a full Christian life. Carson is repetitive with other writings of his and doesn’t offer critical insights that one is accustomed to in his more academic writings. This is a book that offers a good read of a “devotional” type.

Practical Religion

Practical Religion, by J.C. Ryle ★★★★
This book is a series of 21 papers written by J.C. Ryle, former bishop of Liverpool, on aspects of practical Christianity. In it, J.C. Ryle accounts for the necessity for regular Bible reading, prayer, and other aspects of life which maintain the health of a Christian person. There was a moderate amount of repetition of examples, and the papers were more like sermons than expository articles. They provided good reading for self-examination and contemplation on how to live the Christian life in a better manner, focusing on the things that are most important in life.