Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Book Review - Understanding the Bible by John Stott

Understanding the Bible: Expanded Edition
By John R.W. Stott
Zondervan, 1972 rpt 1999
Category: Biblical Studies
ISBN: 0310414318
216 pages
Indexes: Person and Subject
$14.99 MSRP

Books whose goal is to provide a broad sweep of the entire Bible will never go out of style. It seems as though each Biblically-centered publishing arm cranks out one or more “Bible Overview” type books every two years or so. This book just happens to have enjoyed its first printing thirty-five years ago. However, as the message of the Bible is timeless, any overview of the Bible should remain timeless as well and endure the test of time.

Dr. John Stott’s biography may be found here. I must be clear that I do not agree with Dr. Stott on all things theological. Stott does not believe in a literal six-day creation (544-55). Stott does not believe that the flood in the days of Noah was a worldwide flood but only a localized one (56). He has written elsewhere that he no longer believes in a literal Hell, but rather favors the doctrine of annihilationism and he hints at this idea in view of an uncertainty concerning the nature of Hell (151). Nonetheless, in Understanding the Bible Dr. Stott has written a great work that would be beneficial to any student of the word. He states in the preface that this book is written for two people: first, the new convert and second, the long-standing Christian. Broad categories, sure, but here is his explanation:

"In particular, our Christianity is mean because our Christ is mean [meager, lacking not unkind]. We impoverish ourselves by our low and paltry views of Him. Some speak of Him today as if He were a kind of hypodermic to be carried about in our pocket, so that when we are feeling depressed we can give ourselves a fix and take a trip into fantasy. But Christ cannot be used or manipulated like that. The contemporary church seems to have little understanding of the greatness of Jesus Christ as Lord of creation and Lord of the church, before whom our place is on our faces in the dust. Nor do we seem to see His victory as the New Testament portrays it, with all things under His feet, so that if we are joined to Christ, all things are under our feet as well.

It seems to me that our greatest need today is an enlarged vision of Jesus Christ. We need to see Him as the One in Whom alone the fullness of God dwells and in Whom alone we can come to the fullness of life (Col 1:19; 2:9-10).

There is only one way to gain clear, true, fresh, lofty views of Christ, and that is through the Bible…

In order to apprehend Jesus Christ in His fullness, it is essential to understand the setting within which God offers Him to us” (10).

And with these statements, I was hooked. Indeed, our need today, every day prior, and every day yet to come is to have “an enlarged vision of Jesus Christ.” If we were to be a people who saw Christ glorified as He truly has revealed Himself in Scripture we would make of our world by making much of our Lord. And thus Dr. Stott sets us on a quest to magnify the Lord Jesus Christ through contextualizing Him within the Biblical roots pf culture that He has chosen to reveal Himself through to us.

The overarching theme of the Bible is this: God’s glory as revealed in redemption’s unfolding plan for His people. Stott states that the supreme purpose of the Bible is a book of salvation. He cites the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy where Paul affirms that the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 3:15) (14).

According to Stott, the Bible is primarily a book about salvation in that “its intellectual instruction (its "wisdom," as the Greek word implies) is given with a view to the moral experience called “salvation” (Stott 15). Initially, I would say that this definition does not travel far enough, but then Stott adds, “Salvation is far more than merely the forgiveness of sins. It includes the whole sweep of God’s purpose to redeem and restore humankind, and indeed all creation. What we claim for the Bible is that it unfolds God’s total plan” (16). Many Dispensationalists disagree that the Bible is not a book primarily concerned with salvation, but that it is rather a revelation of God’s glory. I think that this may be semantics and the debate is not as far reaching as one might conjecture, but it may prove to be a greater distinction than I realize in other circles.

The Bible is a book concerned with the revelation of God’s glory, but, God’s glory is most evidently revealed in redemption. Those who are outside of Christ do have the opportunity to witness God’s glory as it is revealed in creation so that all are without excuse (Ps 19:1-6; Rom 1:20) though many fail to do so. Instead, they find themselves “[serving] the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). But those who are in Christ have an unparalleled opportunity to give witness to and then be witnesses of the glory of God. This evident in that that the Holy Spirit is able to illuminate to the them the Scriptures by guiding the redeemed into all truth, and will take what is Christ’s and declare it to others (John 16:13-15). Further, the redeemed in Christ are privileged in the matter of salvation as these are “things which angels long to look” (1 Pet 1:12). Peter further declares that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). Thus, Peter does not deny the fact that the Scriptures give testimony to the glory of God, but it is under the umbrella of God’s glory (as 1 Cor 10:31 declares that all things are to be done for this) that salvation is revealed and that those who have come to salvation are then fit to glorify God as an object of mercy rather than a vessel of wrath (Rom 9:22-24).

Therefore, operating under the auspices of the Bible being a book that deals primarily with the message of salvation, Stott’s book seeks to illustrate the plan of redemption as it has developed through Scripture. This book is NOT a commentary or Bible handbook. This book is a narrative depicting the truths found in the most published book in world history.

Chapter Two of Stott’s book is titled “The Land of the Bible” and admittedly, I was a little less than hooked when I read the first few pages of this chapter. He speaks of vegetation, annual precipitation, and geography – areas in school where I have not always been the brightest. However, he reveals much of the importance to these facts and figures if we are to accurately interpret the Scriptures in their literal, grammatical, historical contexts. Why was rain so important to the Israelites? Why did they view its presence or lack thereof as a direct signal to God’s blessing or curse? What is the significance of each of the three annual festivals that Israel was to observe? Read the Scriptures…then read the book.

The next two chapters are truly a grand sweep of the Biblical narrative. In about eighty-five pages, Dr. Stott covers both the Old and New Testaments, highlighting many of the major events that happened along the way. Again, this is not a commentary or a handbook so he does not go book by book, verse by verse. Rather, he allows you to see the grandiose account of Israel’s history throughout the various covenant’s ultimately leading up to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, followed by the beginnings of the first century church. Yes, eighty-five pages. But he does so in a manner that is of a rapid flow where you sense that you are sitting with your grandfather as he recounts your genealogy in a matter of minutes.

Stott then follows with two chapters concerning “The Message of the Bible” and “The Authority of the Bible”. In “The Message of the Bible,” Stott asserts that there are two things that we need to know about God. First, He is living and sovereign, and second, the He is consistent (Stott 139). If God is not both “living and sovereign” then he is therefore by default dead and not in control. If God is not consistent and therefore mutable, we can not trust anything that He has to say because what He says today may be different tomorrow which may be different from the next day, and so on. Thus, since He IS living, sovereign, and immutable we can trust that the word that He has given to us – the revelation of Himself – is indeed authoritative and accurate for yesterday, today, and all days in the future. He then continues to describe the outworking of the covenant of redemption that God has with His people. He does not follow a complete ordo salutis as it were, but he does offer insights into the theological concepts of what he calls Redemption, Adoption, and Glorification.

Next is a brief introduction into the interpretation of Scripture which is merely a preface to the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation.

Stott concludes his work with a synopsis of five “uses of the Bible” but should be understood as what the Bible’s effect should have on a “doer” and just a “hearer” only. They are: Worship, Repentance, Faith, Obedience, and Witness. It was in this section that I derived my favorite quote from the entire book.
“Worship is impossible without a knowledge of the truth…[T]he more we come to know Him, the more we shall realize that He is worthy of our devotion. For to worship is to praise God’s name, to glory in Who and What He is in the splendor of His being and works…Since worship is always a response to the truth of God we perceive, it is supremely the Word of God (His self-revelation) which evokes worship in God. Therefore the Bible has an indispensable place in both public and private worship…Only when God speaks through His Word, making Himself known in the greatness of His glory and grace, do the congregation truly bow down and worship” (211).

I would recommend Understanding the Bible to anyone seeking a broad overview of the Bible and to see an introductory glimpse into the outworking of God’s covenant of grace with His people.

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