Hearing God's Words:
Exploring Biblical Spirituality (NSBT)
Peter Adam (Leicester: Apollos, 2004)Blurb Review by Gordon Kennedy, Stranraer
Review by Gordon Kennedy, Stranraer
Having written an excellent book on the ministry of God's word (Speaking God's Words IVP:1996) Peter Adam has done the church a great service by turning his studies towards the hearing of God's words. This is the sixteenth volume in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series being published by Apollos and edited by Don Carson. This is a fine contribution to this series and a must-have book for any serious student of the bible who longs to do more than merely study God's words but really hear them.
Following a brief introduction the book has six chapters which offer us (1) a definition of biblical spirituality, (2) and (3) a consideration of Old Testament and New Testament texts as describing or illustrating this biblical spirituality, (4) a consideration of this biblical spirituality in the writings of John Calvin, (5) a helpful discussion of contemporary issues in spirituality and (6) some examples of spirituality. A brief conclusion of only three pages brings the preceding discussion back to earth with some suggested texts for meditation, and the bibliography which covers thirteen and a half pages is a resource for much further fruitful reading in this field.
Adam begins with his definitions of spirituality and a defence of his claim that spirituality for an evangelical Christians should be biblical.
It should also be the case that if Evangelicals are those who are governed by the principle of sola scriptura, the Bible alone, then pure evangelical spirituality ought to be pure biblical spirituality. (26)
With this we would agree. How is an evangelical to discern this ‘pure biblical spirituality' from the pages of the bible?
Biblical theology enables us to make good gospel use of every part of the Bible; it has the potential to produce good and rich gospel spirituality, which reflects every facet and every stage of the biblical revelation. Christian spirituality needs biblical theology so that its use of the Bible is coherent, Christian, responsible, and reflects the full literary width and theological depth of the Scriptures. (43)
This is a helpful section in his work where Adam addresses the need for a robust biblical theology and answers the question why this work in included within this series.
The purpose of biblical theology is to treat every part of the Bible as contributing its particular riches to a full understanding of the gospel of Christ, both in promise in the Old Testament, and in fulfilment in the New Testament. For this reason it is entirely appropriate that a series of studies in biblical theology includes a volume on spirituality. (42)
This final quotation is important in two ways. Firstly, it points us towards an understanding of biblical theology which is a whole-bible biblical theology. This is not to be a bit-study of Johannine or Prophetic contributions to an understanding of spirituality, rather the whole testimony of the bible is to be brought to bear upon the subject for only in this way will we gain a full understanding of a biblical perspective. Secondly, we are assured that there is a spirituality to be found in the witness of the bible. In an age much given to spirituality, or even spiritualities, we must have this confidence that there is a biblical spirituality that can be described from the pages of Holy Scripture. Discerning this biblical spirituality is a work that requires careful and detailed exegesis of the texts of Scripture. The burden of describing this biblical spirituality is borne by the next two chapters.
Given the constraints of the size of this book it is not reasonable to expect Adam to have attempted an exegesis of every text in the Old and New Testaments. Adam seeks to ‘study some books of the Old Testament to discover the spirituality they disclose and teach.' (47)
The spirituality that Adam discovers is a spirituality of the word.
Here is a spirituality of the Word, of the covenant promise of God. The people of God believe the words of God, even when that is all they have. Patriarchal and matriarchal spirituality is a spirituality of the Word. (52)
From the Psalms:
... the moving characteristic of the book of Psalms is that it is mostly made up of words of response to God. ... Here we are shown the shape of our prayer, lament and thanksgiving. Here we are shown the shape of our spirituality. Here the words of our response are articulated for us. Here are words that resonate with our own humanity formed by God's grace. (60)
This section on the Psalms is especially helpful to anyone seeking to understand the book of Psalms as a unity and learn way of handling the Psalms for preaching and for personal study and meditation. In summary of chapter 2:
Here is an effective spirituality of the Word. As we have studied the Old Testament books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Jeremiah, we have seen the following features of biblical spirituality: its content and focus is God in Christ, its practice is hearing the word of God by faith, its experience is that of meeting God in his Spirit-given words, and its result is trust in Christ and our heavenly Father. (79)
The section on Luke is an extended exposition of chapter 24 which is wonderfully helpful. So the teaching of the three stories [in Luke 24] reaches its climax in the third story, where the origin and content of the gospel is made clear. The gospel is foretold in the Old Testament and in Jesus' teaching, and its content is the suffering, death and resurrection of the Messiah/Son of Man, and the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness in his name to all nations. The point of the chapter is not just the resurrection of Christ, but the resurrection of Christ as part of the gospel. And the basis for faith is not the empty tomb, an experience of the risen Christ, or the breaking of bread, but the trustworthiness of both the Old Testament and Jesus' teaching. (86)
The application here for a spirituality of the word is obvious. Less obvious is Adam's section on Colossians. Adam introduces this section by suggesting that in the New Testament documents what we have are ‘... debates about the nature of true Christian spirituality.' He then continues:
We should not think of a ‘Colossian heresy', as if it were the thought-out and articulated product of theologians. It was a way of living the Christian life that differed in some important ways from that taught by Paul. ... Paul's reply is to present full Christian spirituality found in Christ, which is why he uses the language of ‘fullness' and ‘fulfilled'. He urges the Colossians not to move away from a spirituality based on full gospel truth of the fullness of God in Christ. (90)
Adam then presents ‘thirty lessons in true spirituality' to be discovered in the letter to the Colossians. My concern here is that these lessons appear to describe a spirituality of the Christ rather than a spirituality of the word. Adam ends by alluding to Col 3:16, a verse which brings together the word and Christ. However, it may have been helpful for a preacher and bible student of Adam's abilities to demonstrate the hermeneutical steps that led him to offering such a detailed description of the spirituality centred upon Christ in Colossians in a work presenting us with a spirituality of the word. It may be that Adam would point to his conclusions from his study of Revelation:
In summary it is a spirituality that recognizes the presence of Christ among his churches, and submits to the words that come from his mouth. It is a Christ-centered spirituality, communicated from Christ and the Spirit in the words of a prophetic letter, and resulting in praise to God and the Lamb, and the certain expectation of Christ's return. (116f.)
In the church today a spirituality of Christ would not be controversial; however, a spirituality that submits to Christ's words would be highly controversial. It is surely the task of a whole bible biblical theology to demonstrate from a careful exegesis of the bible that such submission to the word of Christ is a spirituality of Christ, if not the spirituality of the word taught us from Scripture.
My concern in both these chapters is the selection of material Adam chooses to study. From the Old Testament Adam studies Genesis, Deuteronomy, Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Jeremiah. Using the common divisions in the Christian bible that is 2 from the 5 books of the Law, 3 from the 5 books of poetry (or wisdom) and 1 from the 17 books of prophets. The obvious omission is the historical books. From the New Testament Adam takes us through Luke, Romans, Colossians, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation, which is a better spread of texts from the New Testament. Particularly in the Old Testament if one started with a desire to discover a spirituality of the word these are the texts one would look to. What about Esther, or Chronicles or Obadiah? The weighting towards the poetic or wisdom texts is particular felt at this point. Of course the challenge simply is to look to these other texts and see if as a result of careful exegesis a spirituality of the word is discovered there.
Turning to Calvin in chapter 4 Adam finds that the spirituality he has discovered in the bible is found also in Calvin. Although Adam does not defend his choice of Calvin as a representative of a tradition of theological exposition of the Christian faith (perhaps for the intended readership of this volume there is no need for such a defence), Calvin's theology of revelation is a thorough exposition of this theme and as always Calvin is careful to control his theology by his study of Scripture. Adam concludes his chapter:
The Bible is God speaking his one Word to all. So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. In this chapter we have seen the theological basis for the spirituality of the Word as found in the Reformed tradition of John Calvin. Again we have seen that the content and focus of the spirituality of the Word are God in Christ, its practice is hearing the words of God by faith, its experience is that of meeting God in his words, and it results in trust in Christ and our heavenly Father. (138)
Here is a further answer to the question of how the word of God that is the bible is related to the Christ of God presented in the bible. Adam demonstrates that Christ is the object of both the Old and the New Testaments and so is the content of the word, that word which is the focus of a true Christian spirituality. In Calvin's theology of revelation we find the means to bring together not only Christ and the word but also the Spirit and the word, the importance of this being that we do not have Christ or the Spirit apart from the word, which is a corrective against many contemporary troubles facing the churches.
In his fifth chapter Adam addresses the question of the form of Christian spirituality. In describing a spirituality of the word Adam is seeking to focus Christian living upon the word of God. This is a proposal that is under considerable attack and is widely discredited. Adam's chapter is a masterly handling of this field, covering sacred images, sacred places and objects, sacred times and actions, and the power of words - including prayer, mysticism and prophecy. Adam writes:
The great barrier to true spirituality is not the lack of technique in spiritual aptitude, but sin. ... God has provided ‘means' by which he works in us for his glory. We must make good use of the means provided by God, and not replace or supplement them with means we devise. The means provided by God are explained in the Bible, namely the Bible itself, the fellowship of the people of God, prayer, baptism and the Lord's Supper, and a right use of creation. (173)
And a word of warning:
We should not overvalue the sacraments, those visible words of God. While we hear echoes of the Bible in our inner selves, the God-given and certain place to hear God speaking is in the Bible. (173)
There are not many who would consider themselves evangelical who would tend to an explicit use of other means to engage our spirituality. The danger is rather in non-explicit means whereby we adopt patterns of thinking about places, music, certain gathering or fellowships and invest them with the expectation of engaging our spirituality in a way that is not biblical. On the other hand it is entirely possible that many of us undervalue the full range of means as described by Adam, it would be helpful to have a treatment of the place of these means within a spirituality of the word that we might engage with these aspects of Christian spirituality in a fruitful way.
In his final chapter, perhaps the highlight of the book, Adam works through three examples of spirituality. It would no doubt be possible to have brought forth further examples, but these three are very helpfully chosen and presented. The three examples are:
· the corporate spirituality of the Word that marked the early church
· the Puritan defence of biblical spirituality against the Quaker attacks on it
• the practice of biblical meditation found in the writings of Richard Baxter. (175)
On the theme of a corporate hearing of the word Adam more than adequately demonstrates that most of the bible was originally written to churches and was heard by congregations worshipping and studying the word together.
This means the primary question is not ‘What is God saying to me?' but ‘What is God saying to the church?' So therefore a ‘spirituality of the Word' will primarily be a corporate or group spirituality, and the question we should ask as we hear the Bible read and preached is ‘What is God saying to us?' (175)
In many of our churches we suffer from the ‘That didn't really speak to me' syndrome. This individualism of our Christian living and our Christian spirituality needs to be challenged and Adam has given us a biblical pattern to use in re-establishing a biblical spirituality that brings the church together in submission to God's word.
In a long section on the Puritan Quaker division we see again Adam's great ability to present Puritan theology and a careful understanding of the issues at debate from this Puritan period.
What was their fundamental disagreement? It was about the crucial issue of the way in which God speaks to his people. The Puritans believed that God spoke through the Bible, and the Quakers believed that God spoke immediately, and not through the Bible. Both agreed that believing and obeying God's words were crucial: they disagreed about the way in which God communicated his words to his people. (180)
Adam works through the major implications of this division in understanding and comes to a remarkable conclusion:
I have argued that the difference between the Puritans and Quakers on the method that God uses to bring revelation to us was of fundamental importance, because the issue of the means of revelation influences all other doctrines. It leads to radically different understanding of the place where the Spirit reveals Christ, and so to radically different understanding of Christ and his work. If the historical revelation of Christ is lost because the historical revelation of that work through Christ's Spirit in Scripture is lost, then all is lost. Without the Bible the remembered Christ becomes the imagined Christ. (201f.)
Beginning from a difference in understanding the means of revelation there grew a significant difference in the practice of spirituality which results in a different faith.
The short section on Richard Baxter on meditation is the kind of helpful section we all would benefit from reading. Meditation has become a common word used to describe a variety of practices in our contemporary Scotland; few of the uses of this word would come close to reflecting a biblical practice of meditation. In short Adam describes Baxter's model as follows:
It begins with ‘consideration'. This means thoughtful reflection on the subject of the meditation, what we might call discerning faith. ... Then comes ‘soliloquy'. By this Baxter means preaching to oneself, self-exhortation. ... Then comes ‘prayer', which in this context means addressing God with praise, thanksgiving, lament or confession. (203)
Adam illustrates Baxter's use of this method from a consideration of The Saints' Everlasting Rest. That this model of spirituality is one Adam would commend to us is made clear from the concluding pages where Adam offers us a series of verses from Scripture and short quotations from students of Scripture for our meditations.
This book is an excellent example of the careful exegesis of Scripture, reflection upon the lessons of church history and study of systematic theologies that we should long to see more of on our shelves, and on our desks for reading and study. Many will find Dr Adam's work to be an encouragement in their personal experience of true Christian spirituality. Surely it is only from receiving such encouragement and practising this spirituality of the word in our own lives that we are able to teach this spirituality to others.
This extended review is not offered as an alternative to reading and studying Dr Adam's work. This is a highly significant book in many ways. The contribution made to our understanding of Christian spirituality is matched by the contribution made to the disputed field of biblical theology. Does Dr Adam succeed in presenting us with a biblical theology of biblical spirituality? In his series preface Carson describes one area of biblical theology as follows ‘the delineation of a biblical theme across all or part of the biblical corpora.'(9) Certainly Adam describes this biblical theme across part of the biblical material; however, my concerns about the scope of his studies outlined above remain. This is biblical theology in its descriptive mode; a theme is identified and its contours defined across a range of biblical material. In this case there is also a synthesis of the biblical material to present a unified whole, there is a whole bible biblical spirituality. This biblical theology of spirituality is then used to test the work of church fathers and theologians from earlier times and also to inform, more than that to direct and define what should be contemporary Christian practice in this area. I am not well placed to know how a church historian or a systematic theologian would respond to such a use of biblical theology and would be interested to learn of this.
Our desire as students of the bible is to worship God our Father made known to us through Jesus Christ his Son our Saviour. A study of Scripture informed by this work of biblical theology will be well placed to achieve this goal. There is much for which we are rightly grateful to Peter Adam, this book increases our debt to him and is warmly commended to you all.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature