I remember it vividly. Twelve years ago, my pastor, my wife, the academic dean of the Washington D.C. campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, and I were at lunch discussing why I wanted to go to seminary. Back then, my heart was set on writing books on theology and apologetics. (That hasn’t happened yet, but as you can see, my blog Dangitbill! is my outlet for that desire.) The Dean shared with me his mutual love for analytically studying the Bible, but explained that when eventually introduced to the study of the Bible’s grand story, his passion switched from “systematic” theology to “biblical” (sometimes called “redemptive-historical”) theology. I looked at him with a blank stare. He looked back at me with a wiser-than-thou stare. He knew something about me that I didn’t yet know about myself. The study of God’s redemptive story is awesome because God’s story of redemption is absolutely awesome!
Fast forward to the present. Our church has completed a two-unit study on the Bible’s grand story—from Genesis to Revelation, focusing on how all the Scriptures center on and are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. For our biblical theology survey, we used Mark Strom’s book The Symphony of Scripture (SOS) to guide the adult Sunday School lessons. This book is the most symmetrically balanced book that we could find, devoting about equal treatment to OT and NT. Most of the other introductory books out there on redemptive history give most of their space to the OT, and tend to wrap up all the OT themes at the end with a few chapters on the NT. Our church had two goals in teaching the congregation the story of the Bible.
- Devote a whole semester of Sunday School to the study of the OT, and a whole semester to the NT.
- Provide continuity in the OT-NT study, preferably by using a single book.
Unlike other excellent books, Strom’s SOS seemed to meet both goals. So we went with it. I was excited to teach the amazing story of how the Bible is all about Christ. After reading and studying the material in this book for the better part of a year, we found much in it that was useful, helpful, truthful, and insightful. But we won’t be using it again. Here’s why.
Despite all the good things that SOS contains, we determined it has a few fatal flaws that prevent us from using it or recommending it in the future. In a nutshell, the problems are:
- The author seems to be writing with the attitude that systematic theology (sometimes called “dogmatics”) is of lesser value that biblical theology. Considering the scholarly era in which it was published, this is not unusual. I remember some of my seminary professors urging the class to not pit the two theological perspectives against one another. They are complementary. Consider just a couple of examples from the last chapter. On page 258, Strom writes of the Lord’s return, “At one extreme, some people rarely discuss the topic and then only as a dry, cold article of doctrine rather than a rich source of encouragement and hope.” On page 261, Strom discusses the value and power of imagery, “Rather than bog down in tedious, analytical descriptions, they lift us out of the scene and into another world to force their original idea upon us with unexpected power and colour.” Both these illustrate my thesis that Strom harbors antipathy toward systematic doctrine, preferring imagery, narrative, and story. If this is the case, he should dislike the Pauline epistles and the legal codes in the Torah. But he doesn’t, so he appears selectively inconsistent. I’m glad today’s biblical theologians are (by and large) no longer bickering with systematicians.
- In chapter 17 wherein the author explains the various literary images of Jesus, his antipathy for systematic doctrine appears to surface. At one point (footnote 9), Strom seems to call into question the ontological sonship of Jesus Christ as the eternally begotten Son of the Father. He writes, “The title ‘Son’ is a bit misleading in view of the status of Jesus apart from his conception in Mary’s womb. The title properly describes how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament ideas of kingship and the true covenant person. Thus the Father/Son language is only biblically appropriate when describing their relationship after Jesus came to earth. Before that time we can only appeal to the vague and sometimes unhelpful language of his place in the Trinity” (pg. 205). To which historically orthodox Christians ought to respond: Is Jesus not the eternal Son in relation to the Father? Does he only become the “Son” of God the Father at his incarnation? How is the doctrine of the Trinity sometimes vague and unhelpful?
- In chapter 21 on the nature of the church, the author relies heavily on the views of Robert Banks, a NT scholar who functionally denies the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) canonical status. This is hugely significant, because without the Pastorals, it is possible to construct a non-institutional doctrine of the church. The church is an organism, a body of Christ-followers, who meet together regularly for gospel encouragement and fellowship. It is a family, and for a number of reasons it met in homes from the outset. But the church is not an anti-institutional organism. Ignoring what the Pastorals teach about the organization, government, and institution of the church leads to an incomplete, and therefore faulty view of the church.
Regarding this last problem, I think Strom (certainly foolishly; perhaps ignorantly) relies heavily on the ecclesiology of Robert Banks as expounded in his Paul’s Idea of Community. After doing a little digging, I came across a couple of reviews of Banks’s book. One by Greg Gilbert. The other by Jeff Kennedy. These reviews of Banks’s book make sense of my objections to Strom’s doctrine of the church. Where Strom follows Banks, he adopt all sorts of conclusions about the nature of the church that are hostile to Presbyterianism, and thus (I believe) to biblical ecclesiology. In a nutshell, church is put forward as Christians merely gathering together (think the house church movement). Anything more is written off as “religious” (i.e., bad).
Aside from these fatal flaws, my one minor complain is that SOS is poorly edited. It is too self-referential, too conversational, and too repetitive. The reader gets the impression that much of the material is a transcript of the author’s audio presentation of his material from written notes.
Despite these flaws, the book does contain much that is worthwhile, especially the effort to meaningfully connect everything to Christ. It includes thoughtful discussion questions and exercises that would prove useful for teachers and students of this book. Since the book does an admirable job of achieving its stated goal of “making sense of the Bible’s many themes,” I can recommend it as an excellent lesson preparation reference for teachers. But until the fatal flaws are corrected in a future edition, I cannot recommend the book for study or for use in Bible study or classroom settings.