The Word of the Lord [A Review]
Hers is a name that I have seen more and more frequently over the past year on the blogs I frequent as well as on Facebook amongst my friends. Until recently, however, I had known very little about Nancy Guthrie, and so I decided to pick up one of her books for a review.
The Word of the Lord is part of her series Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament which are Bible studies aimed at helping women read Old Testament (OT) books with an eye toward their fulfillment in the gospel. The Word of the Lord looks specifically at nine of the prophets, arranged chronologically, beginning with Jonah. Her treatment of each prophet consists of a personal Bible study, a teaching chapter, a "looking forward" section (situating the prophet in light of Jesus' return), and a discussion guide. Her design is that an individual would devotionally use the personal Bible study to walk through the biblical text, and then use the teaching chapter and the looking forward section to prepare for a corporate Bible study. She then gives the discussion guide to facilitate a group exploration of the text week-to-week. These housekeeping details aside, I'd like to use the bulk of this review in reflection on Guthrie's overall purpose and method, and then offer a few closing comments by way of evaluation.
Purpose and Method
Do you find the OT to be rather daunting? Intimidating? Where do you even start? Especially when it comes to the prophetic writings, we often find ourselves a bit lost in the labyrinth of strange words, peculiar poetry, and hard-to-pronounce names. Sure, there's an occasional well-known story (Daniel and the Lion's Den), or poem (The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, traditionally read around Christmas), or inspirational coffee mug verse (Jeremiah 29:11 anyone?), but beyond these the prophets tend to remain an impenetrable forest.
Guthrie's aim is in helping the average Christian woman enter into this forest for herself and gain a certain level of comfortability so she can begin to navigate on her own. This is but a survey of the prophets, so you'll have to look elsewhere for an in-depth study of a specific book. That being said, Guthrie is a very good guide and will help you get your bearings for later adventures in the prophets. Her compass always points toward Jesus, and she'll help you see how every prophetic oracle and narrative yearns expectantly for its fulfillment in Christ.
There are a lot of ways to go wrong when we interpret the prophets; common errors include cherry-picking them for moralistic tales (You, too, can endure the fiery furnaces of your own life if you just have faith) or for promises of prosperity (God will prosper you too, if you trust him). Further, some tend to go into the prophets as if they were some sort of code book that could unlock the secrets of the end of the world. In contrast, Guthrie's purpose is to see the gospel when she reads the prophets. She works hard to help us look for a true and better Jonah who goes to all the world proclaiming the good news of God's clemency for those who repent and believe. She helps us see Hosea as a picture of a divine husband who woos his wayward wife back to him time and again. She wants us to understand that the blood-spattered conqueror described in the final chapters of Isaiah is Jesus the Just, who will never let evil have the final word.
She accomplishes her purpose well, and that is in large part due to her socratic method of questioning that enables the reader to come to conclusions for herself. This is the personal Bible study that begins each chapter. Do not expect easy, spoon-feeding type questions, however. Consider the following, her second question about the book of Isaiah:
Isaiah 6 tells us about the vision Isaiah was given "in the year that King Uzziah died." Since Uzziah ruled for fifty-two years, he would have been the only king Isaiah had thus far known. With that in mind, why might Isaiah have needed to see the vision, recorded in Isaiah 6:1-7, at that time?
What I love about her questions is that they don't lend themselves to obvious, one word answers. When I read the above text, it did what a good question should do: lead me to me consider something I had never thought of before. Yes indeed! Why did Isaiah need to see that vision? All of her questions in The Word of the Lord are just as well-formed and thought-provoking, if a bit verbose sometimes.
After the personal Bible study there is a brief commentary on the prophet at hand where she takes the opportunity to discuss the text and its relevance to us. Here she fills in appropriate historical and cultural background information to illuminate the text. I was relieved to find that she generally stays centered on the text (examine an average page from a teaching chapter and it will be peppered with relevant biblical quotes). I also commend the way she structures the study so that her commentary is sandwiched between questions for the individual and questions for a group.
I'll limit myself here to one critique, which I see as one of the study's only weak points. Though Guthrie tends to stick pretty close to the text, sometimes her use of historical/cultural background to illuminate the text gets flipped on its head, and the text starts illuminating her historical/cultural background info. It's a problem that is larger than this book, and which seems to be endemic in evangelical preaching and teaching today.
Here's what I mean: try counting the number of sentences in her teaching chapters that begin with "Maybe," "Perhaps," "It seems," "One would think," etc. For example, in her teaching chapter on Jonah under the section "Jonah's Resurrection," she writes this:
We can't help but notice that his prayer of chapter 2 does not include any confession of his sin. Perhaps that's why the fish vomited Jonah out. Let's face it: the whole idea of vomit is disgusting. Perhaps God was disgusted with the stubborn self-obsession of his prophet, even though he did intend to use him.
Let me be clear that there's nothing inherently wrong with such speculation. Along with Guthrie I am genuinely curious about some of the details that the text omits. But at the end of the day we must admit the inherent uncertainty of speculation: perhaps the fish vomited Jonah out because the fish was disgusted with Jonah's unconfessed sin, but perhaps the fish wasn't.
She is correct in saying that nowhere does Jonah repent in the text, but the argument from silence is a sword that slices both ways. Perhaps he never did repent, or perhaps he did. Perhaps the fish and God were disgusted with Jonah, but on the other hand perhaps they weren't. Jonah is a short, concise work, and it is well within the realm of probability that it only summarizes the events of Jonah's tale.
I do not mean to belittle Guthrie or her work in any way; as I said above, she has written an otherwise fine Bible study and this criticism (which is the exception in The Word of the Lord rather than the norm) is not enough to hinder me from recommending it. Nevertheless, I do find the prevalence of such speculation within the evangelical world to be concerning. As protestants, we believe in Sola Scriptura; in other words, what we have on the biblical page before us is sufficient for life and godliness. This is not a prohibition against looking at historical/cultural data, but is instead a profound belief that scripture can stand up on its own. Speculation leads us to draw our teaching points more from what is not there than from what is.
Steven Smith, in his May 2014 article about the movie examines this misappropriation of historical background in a very different context:
The movie "Noah" represents some profound acting and directing in one really strange movie. In so much as Darren Aronofsky is a director, he is typical of Hollywood: very gifted and a little bizarre. Oddly perhaps, as an exegete of Scripture, Aronofsky is typical of much evangelical preaching. Regarding his interpretive approach to the events recorded in Genesis 6-9, I find myself struggling with the same challenges, especially in two areas. First, he filled in gaps in the story with information that scratched the itch of curiosity while throwing sawdust on the trail that would take us to Christ. Therefore, he missed the end, the purpose of the story. The movie then is a warning of sorts for preachers.
I'm fairly well convinced that scratching the itch of curiosity is what we're often trying to do with our historical/cultural background information. Guthrie certainly does not throw sawdust on the path to Christ, but I would be remiss if I did not address this whole issue as somewhat of a weakness.
In the final analysis, The Word of the Lord fills a needed gap in the evangelical world for solid biblical studies for women that empower them to encounter scripture for themselves rather than instilling an unhealthy dependency upon more able scriptural interpreters. Guthrie does the work of a good teacher, which is to instruct her readers to the point where they no longer need assistance. In the final analysis, this is a commendable Bible study even in view of the weakness stated above.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.