Book Review: “Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry” by Michael Lawrence

LawrenceIn the book Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, author Michael Lawrence wants to help pastors to apply the discipline of biblical theology in the day-to-day ministry of the church. His book is laid out in an introduction and three sections. The introduction examines the nature of the Bible. Section one explores theological methodology using the metaphor of “tools that are needed.” It explores the use of exegetical tools (ch. 1), biblical theological tools (ch. 2-3), the relationship between biblical and systematic theology (ch. 4), and systematic theological tools (ch. 5).

In Section two Lawrence traces the development of several themes through the whole Bible using the metaphor of “stories to be told.” He examines the stories of creation (ch. 6), the fall (ch. 7), love (ch. 8), sacrifice (ch. 9), and promise (ch. 10). Section three focuses on “putting it all together for the church.” In these two chapters, Lawrence looks at how biblical theology contributes to the practices of teaching and preaching (ch. 11) and how it forms a church’s philosophy of ministry with regard to various aspects of the church’s life (ch. 12).

Summary

In the introduction, Lawrence begins by examining the nature of the Bible. He indicates that before a person can use the Bible in ministry, he has to understand what it is, and he believes that biblical theology can help accomplish that goal. He highlights that God’s revelation of Himself in history is progressive, historical, organic (compared to a seed growing into a tree), and practical. Because of this, the Bible is a book 1) with human authors, 2) with a Divine Author, 3) a narrative, 4) structured by covenants, and 5) centered on “God’s glory in salvation through judgment” (33).

Chapter one covers the grammatical-historical method. Lawrence first affirms that it actually is possible to discern what a text means (in contrast with a post-modern interpretive theory which denies that this is possible). He says that “words, when placed in sentences and paragraphs, convey meaning. And not just any meaning. They convey the meaning of the author who constructed the sentence and the paragraph, as a reflection of his authorial intent” (40). He discusses the how the grammar, the historical background, and the rest of Scripture give clues as to the author’s intended meaning. Finally, he discusses how to interpret various literary genres.

In chapter two, Lawrence moves from “exegetical tools” to “biblical theology tools.” This chapter discusses covenants, epochs, and the canon. He is mainly concerned with discussing what he calls the different “horizons” of Scripture. There is the textual horizon (up close and detailed), the epochal horizon (which is structured by covenants and represent various stages in redemptive history), and the canonical horizon (the context of the whole Bible).

Chapter three continues with the “biblical theology tools” by explaining prophecy, typology, and continuity/discontinuity within redemptive history. Lawrence explains the “promise-fulfillment” structure of the Bible and how there are sometimes multiple fulfillments to God’s promises. Similar to that is typology, in which “God providentially orders events and individual lives so that they serve to prefigure what is yet to come” (75). The most important aspect of studying types is the fact that they focus on the anti-type, who is Christ. He discusses how to discern whether something or someone is a type and how to move from type to application without moralizing or allegorizing it. Finally he discusses the fact that there is both continuity and discontinuity between promise and fulfillment.

In chapter four, Lawrence answers the question “Do we need both biblical and systematic theology?” He defines biblical theology as “the attempt to tell the whole story of the whole Bible as Christian Scripture” (89). On the other hand, systematic theology is “the attempt to summarize in an orderly and comprehensive manner what the whole Bible has to say about any given topic” (ibid.). Although the two are different, they are both necessary. He sums up the relationship between them this way: “Biblical theology is how we read the Bible. Systematic theology is how the story of the Bible is shown to be normative in our lives” (92).

Chapter five addresses the tools of systematic theology. Lawrence states that every time a person makes a statement about what the Bible teaches on any subject we are doing systematic theology. Since the reader already does systematic theology, Lawrence wants to convince him to do it in a thoughtful way. He first examines the nature of doctrine and concludes that doctrine is biblical knowledge, personal knowledge, and situational knowledge. That is, it is knowledge gained form the Bible that tells us who God is, who we are, and explains our world to us. He encourages the pastor to give the congregation solid doctrine and then shows that in reality, doctrine and the church belong together.

In section two the author begins to apply what was discussed in the first part. Specifically, he uses biblical theology to trace out several themes that run through the storyline of the Bible. In chapter six, Lawrence traces out the theme of creation though the Bible. He shows how God made everything by His word, and despite human sin, he works in a pattern of recreation that culminates in the beginning of the new creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and climaxes in the new heavens and earth. He then shows how this biblical-theological theme informs our systematic theology with reference to topics like creation, salvation, the glory of God, and the consequences of sin.

Chapter seven traces out the theme of the fall. He discusses the original fall and then how the pattern of sin and judgment repeats through the Old Testament. He also shows how the fall comes to an end in the death of Christ. He then analyzes how the fall took place and the effects of the fall for humanity. Finally, he systematizes the data and makes some conclusions about the world, humanity, God, sin, and Christ based on the biblical theology of the fall.

Chapter eight addresses the theme of love. As with the other themes, Lawrence first walks through the biblical narrative with reference to the theme of love. He shows that there are patterns to the biblical story of love, such as the pattern of marriage and covenant. Finally, he systematizes it by answering the questions “Who does God love?” “How does God love?” and “Why does God love?” from the story of love found in the Bible.

Chapter nine illustrates biblical theology by examining the theme of sacrifice. He walks through the narrative of Scripture and shows how the theme of sacrifice culminates in Christ’s sacrifice for us and why this is important for us. He hammers strongly on penal substitution as the heart of the cross. Chapter ten covers the story of promise. Lawrence shows that God is a promise-making God. He begins with Gen. 3:15 and shows how God progressively works out His promise to defeat the seed of the serpent through the seed of the woman. He also shows how God’s faithfulness to His promise means that we can wait patiently for the promised return of Christ, when we will finally be freed from our sinful nature to live with Him.

The last two chapters show how biblical theology can be put to use in real ministry in a local church. Chapter eleven deals with what Lawrence calls “the main use for biblical theology in the church,” namely, “our preaching and teaching” (180). This is essentially the chapter on where biblical theology fits into the process of applying the text. Two helpful tools that Lawrence introduces are an “application grid” and a “shepherd’s taxonomy.” The application grid simply includes each point of the sermon or lesson and how it might apply to various groups of people form Christians to non-Christians, to society as a whole, to the church as a whole. The shepherd’s taxonomy is just a list of categories of people that will be listening to us at any given time. It helps the teacher/preacher to keep in mind that the listeners will be of a variety of different states – some will be believers and some not; some will be legalistic while others will be licentious; all of us will struggle with idolatry, self-justification, and a love of the world, and so on. Finally Lawrence presents four case studies in which he demonstrates how to apply a particular text of Scripture.

Chapter twelve deals with some other areas of ministry in which biblical theology can serve as a helpful tool. Lawrence says that “biblical theology sometimes helps guard against error in our approach to ministry. In other cases, biblical theology helps set proper boundaries and goals for our life and work together as a church” (201-202). He specifically examines how biblical theology impacts four areas of ministry: counseling, missions, helping the poor, and understanding the relationship between church and state. Finally, the epilogue gives one last pitch to convince the reader that biblical theology is crucial for a ministry based on God’s Word.

Analysis

This book has many strengths and a few weaknesses. Overall it was a great book. I really enjoyed reading it, and I felt sharpened in my interpretive skills and was reminded of things that I have studied in the past and hadn’t thought about in a while. I think the chief strong point of this book is its ability to take aspects of the process of biblical interpretation and condense them into a concise summary without losing accuracy. It is broad enough to give the reader an understanding of how the various “tools” of interpretation fit together, and yet detailed enough to actually be useful. It does a really good job of balancing out both the theoretical and the practical. The book also does a good job of introducing the reader to the discipline of biblical theology. It is in detail enough to help the reader understand the concepts, but again it is not so detailed that it fails to be practical.

One thing that needs to be kept in mind about the book is that it is an intermediate level book. It is able to crunch so much of the hermeneutical process down because it seems to assume that the reader already understands basic concepts like context and authorial intention, and so it doesn’t go into much detail on them. It also assumes that the reader is at least favorable to biblical theology. For the person who has a developed hermeneutic that would predispose him to be skeptical of biblical theology, this book is not going to handle many of the objections that would be raised. But for the person who basically agrees with the “salvation-history” approach to the Bible, this book has some great handles that will help them actually do biblical theology.

Finally, the book had just a few weaknesses. I found his discussion of the covenants unclear in some areas (p. 57ff). I think he confuses the idea of “conditional” and “unconditional” covenants with the Covenant Theology view of the covenants in which they are all different administrations of a “Covenant of Works” and a “Covenant of Grace.” The result is that he talks about “covenants of works” and “covenants of grace” as two different kinds of covenants (57). He also talks about Ancient Near East kings as having “covenants of works” and “covenants of grace” in a way that reads the reformed understanding into extra-biblical covenants. This is all very confusing. I think he could have just made a paragraph long explanation of the similarities and differences between the theological covenants in Reformed Theology and the “unconditional/conditional” covenants of the ANE kings. This would have provided a lot of clarity on the issue.

The other weakness that I see is that he sometimes resorts to straw-man arguments against theological opponents. For example, he mentions that some dispensationalists teach two ways of salvation (p. 62), he labels everyone who doesn’t use a Christological hermeneutic on the David and Goliath story with moralism (p. 79), and he caricatures the missional movement when he implies that advocated would suggest that “we scrap our missions program and set up tutoring centers and health centers instead” (206). While I am sympathetic to Lawrence’s view regarding many of these issues, I did feel like these were some areas in which he was less careful than he could have been.

Despite these weaknesses, this book was really helpful. Overall I found it well put-together and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in biblical theology and ready for an intermediate handbook on hermeneutics. Its great overview of the process of interpretation, and its practical nature make it a great resource for the pastor or Bible teacher.

Bibliography
Lawrence, Michael. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

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