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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 66, 2018

DAVID J. DOWNS, The Unrelenting God: God’s Action in Scripture. Essays in Honor of Beverly Roberts Gaventa (ed. Matthew L. Skinner; Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2013). Pp. xvi + 323. Paperback. US$45.00.

This collection of essays honours Beverly Roberts Gaventa, formerly of Princeton Theological Seminary, and now of Baylor University. It gathers contributions from her colleagues, peers and students, in a collection that, while eclectic, finds cohesion in a robust theological engagement with the biblical text, with a focus on God’s character and action in relation to humanity.

The collection opens with a single essay on the Hebrew Bible. Jacqueline Lapsley develops an earlier study on Ezekiel’s imagery of the ‘pierced body,’ arguing that its relation to notions of profanation (the same root chalal can be used for both ideas) prepares the way for the vision of recreated bodies and new temple in Ezekiel 37 and 47.

Three essays treat themes from Luke–Acts. Joel Green exegetes Luke 3 with a view to articulating Luke’s ‘theology of conversion,’ pointing to Luke’s significant emphasis on the priority of divine initiative and the importance of embodied human response. John Miller revisits Luke’s narrative characterisation of the Spirit and points to those passages where the Spirit’s encounter with other characters is complex and underdetermined. Matthew Skinner’s essay treats three texts in Acts that speak of the ‘growth’ of the word of God and argues that the close identification thus established between the ‘word’ and the church in Acts raises theological questions that must be answered from the perspective of a broader narrative understanding of Luke’s theology.

The large majority of the essays are on Paul, with five on Romans, two on the Corinthian correspondence, two on Galatians and one on 1 Timothy. Richard Hays provides a fascinating insight into the politics of bible translation. He tells the story of the way that his work, in partnership with Gaventa, on the translation of Romans for The Common English Bible was rejected by an editorial panel of ‘readability experts’ who downplayed Paul’s apocalyptic rhetoric, were inconsistent in their rendering of Paul’s language of faith and justification, and engaged at various points in unwarranted paraphrase and stylistic reductiveness. Given the publisher’s blatant disregard for the work of two of the world’s leading Pauline scholars, one can only admire Hay’s gentle conclusion that the final result was ‘disappointing.’ Francis Watson provides a brief re-articulation of his view that Paul’s reading of Israel’s covenant is driven by his scriptural interpretation. Shane Berg considers Paul’s discussion of human inability to properly know God and/or the law within the argument of Romans 1–8. The essay reinforces a reading of Pauline anthropology and epistemology that has a pessimistic account of the saving power of Sin at its centre. Ann Jervis offers an insight into her ongoing work on Paul’s understanding of time, arguing that for Paul the key question about time is not temporal (‘what time is it?’) so much as qualitative (‘what kind of time is it?’). The cosmic battle against sin ‘is taking place in a time utterly shaped by the resurrection.’ This emphasis on the apocalyptic dimensions of Paul’s thought (to which Gaventa herself is strongly committed) reappear in Douglas Harink’s essay on Paul’s politics, understood as a form of ‘messianic-apocalyptic political universalism.’

The essays on 1–2 Corinthians and Galatians continue many of these emphases. Alexandra Brown’s discussion of 1 Cor 11:2–16 draws attention to Paul’s rather unstable account of gendered identity as that which is both preserved and transformed in the new creation. Susan Eastman considers the relationship between perception and action, vision and transformation in 2 Cor 2:14–7:4, chapters in which Paul seeks the Corinthians ‘recognition’ of their experience in the light of God’s reconciling work in Christ. Martinus de Boer unpacks the nuances of Paul’s use of kosmos language in Galatians, while William Sanger Campbell argues that the theme of Jew-Gentile unity is an important component of Paul’s argument in Galatians 2:15–21. In the final exegetical essay, David Downs offers a theological reading of the instructions to the rich in 1 Timothy 6:6–19.

If the exegetical studies mentioned above are consistently attentive to the theological dimensions of the passages under examination, the final two essays are written by systematic theologians whose work is marked by attention to exegesis of scripture. Katherine Sonderegger considers Barth’s christology, assessing its implications for Christian understanding of Judaism, and proposing the need for a ‘torah-observant christology’ as a way of advancing Barth’s initial insights. Finally, Michael Welker asks whether it is appropriate to regard Christ as a role-model, critiquing easy appeals to Jesus’ moral example as potentially reductionist and in need of rigorous Christological articulation. The tone and content of the various essays in this volume are a fitting tribute to Gaventa’s work as teacher, scholar and author.

Review by
Sean Winter
Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity