Category: tolle lege book reviews

Tolle Lege: Interpreting Eden by Vern Poythress

My first exposure to Vern Poythress was through the “Help Me Teach the Bible” podcast with Nancy Guthrie.  Afterward I immediately purchased 3 of his books, “Redeeming Sociology,”  Philosophy, Science and the Sovereignty of God” and “Christian Interpretations of Genesis.”  Step 2 was to download every audio file of his I could find, mainly through the Westminster Seminary archives.  Step 3 was to regularly haunt the website he keeps with John Frame, where I discovered I could access many of his older books for free, including the ones I had already purchased.  Live and learn. 

A humbler, more versatile scholar I have seldom encountered.  The latter attribute one could expect from a pile of degrees including a Bachelor of Science from California Institute of Technology, a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard, an M.Litt. from Cambridge, a Th.D from University of Stellenbosch, and a couple more from Westminster Theological Seminary where Poythress has been teaching for 40 years.  But the humility this learned man exudes must come the indwelling of the Holy Spirit Himself.  I also suspect there were seeds of this attribute planted during his upbringing on the family’s farm outside Fresno, California, a place I know well, having lived there myself while studying Philosophy at Fresno State University where Poythress taught math long before I was born.

Poythress’s latest book, Interpreting Eden  (Crossway, 2019), and NOT available for free on his website, couldn’t have come at a better time for me as the ladies Bible Study I am involved in is currently going through the book of Genesis.  That said, this isn’t at all a commentary on or supplement to any study of the first book of the Bible.  Nor is it some fresh, new interpretation of the creation account.  Rather, it is an in-depth analysis of the various interpretations already at play, the presuppositions on which they are based, their strengths, weaknesses, and the interpretive strategies they each bring to the text.  

Poythress starts big. His first chapter is entitled, “God.” After examining the various substitutes interpreters of creation have set up in His place from Pantheism, to philosophical materialism, to mechanistic scientism, he points out that “when we begin seriously to take God into account, it changes some important hermeneutical principles for interpreting Genesis 1-3.  In fact it changes every hermeneutical principle under the sun (45).”  Poythress spends several chapters thoroughly fleshing out the ramifications of our presuppositions on the creation account.  Even Christian interpretations fall prey to bad presuppositions.  Of course, these days, Poythress points out, “the word Christian can be used very loosely (47).”  Kind of like Poythress’s description of his own book as a “guide.”  Clearly, “guide” is being used very loosely.  I would say, this book is to “guide,” what “tsunami” is to ones baptism into the subject of interpretations on Genesis.

Thankfully, about half-way through the book, Poythress throws the drowning reader a life-preserver in the form of a three-page summary of the hermeneutical principles he has applied to the creation account thus far (131).  I say linger long over that summery and then once you’ve caught your breath you’re ready for the next wave, “Part 2, Exegetical Concerns.”  In this section Poythress builds on the premise that “God’s present-day governance provides a key framework for interpretation, because God knows that readers’ familiarity with his providential governance of nature offers the natural starting point for understanding Genesis 1 (137).” Poythress applies the term providence to “God’s rule in the present world, subsequent to the completion of his creative acts at the end of the sixth day” of creation.”   This he contrasts with the term creation which he uses to “designate the acts of God during the six days of Genesis 1 (139).” Unfortunately, I think Poythress builds too heavily on this distinction and subsequent correlations.  

Part 3 devotes a lot of time to . . . time, to which he gives due diligence, given its current centrality to modern debates over interpretations of Genesis 1.  He then ends with a helpful examination of “Factuality and Literalism” which also serves to tie a lot of loose ends together.  After such a tidal wave of material, I feel Poythress’s conclusion ends with a trickle.  Even though I agree with his summation, it lacked the force that seemed so present throughout the rest of the book.  He concludes this way,

“God really did create the world in six days.  He really did create Adam and Eve as human beings, made in the image of God—two individuals whose actions and fall into sin have affected the whole human race.  We can be confident about these things, not only because Genesis 1-3 sets them forth, but because they are confirmed by later biblical reflections based on Genesis 1-3.  But we do well to respect the sparseness fo the account in Genesis and to remain tentative at some points as to how we think theses truths are to be connected with modern scientific claims (289).”

This book would be of extreme value for two kinds of people.  The first are those who have never given the creation account of Genesis a serious thought but are willing to finally come to terms with the reality of this historical narrative and its universal implications.  The second are those who have already given Genesis more than the usual amount of serious consideration and are already so set in their interpretation as to need a good shaking up.  In other words, this book is NOT for the faint of heart.  If really hard questions about your preconceptions and possible biases might cause you to lose confidence in the authentic exalted divine authority of either the God of the Bible or whatever substitute you’re setting up in His place, then maybe this book isn’t for you.


Although I was provided with a free copy of this book from the publisher, I am under no obligation to give it a favorable review.

Tolle Lege: ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible

I feel hugely privileged to be able to write the following book review of the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible(Crossway, 2018).  It’s only been in my eager hands for a day, but I wanted to share my first impressions.  Before even opening my hard-cover copy, I’m already loving the promising subtitle, “Christ in All of Scripture, Grace for All of Life.”

Thumbing through, I’m excited to see that it’s in the same single-column format as my ESV Journaling Bible.  Once you experience that format it’s really hard to go back to the double-columns.  Of course that difficulty also applies to the ESV translation itself.  That was enough thumbing for me.  I wanted to dig right in.

The introduction makes clear right away what makes this Study Bible different from other Study Bibles.  Editor Bryan Chapell states their twofold goal as being, 

“(1) to enable readers to understand that the whole Bible is a unified message of the gospel of God’s grace culminating in Christ Jesus, and (2) to help believers apply this good news to their everyday lives in a heart-transforming way (vii).”

That statement is exactly why I wanted to get my hands on a copy of this Study Bible in particular.  I’m not a student of Study Bibles.  Even though we have several in the house, the last time I actually regularly studied the notes in one was back as a teenager when I had a copy of the NIV Student Bible.  In fact, a good portion of the doctrinal error from my formative years I can pretty much trace back to those notes.  Praise the Lord for ministries like The Gospel Coalition, Ligonier, Desiring God, and The Proclamation and Charles Simeon Trusts!  Not only did those resources help correct so much of the error I had been exposed to, through them I kept hearing that various authors, pastors, and teachers which I had come to respect had contributed notes to this volume.

So when I turned to page xvii and scanned the list of contributors, it was like walking into a room full of old friends.  Michael Horton, Kathleen Nielson, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Ray and Dane Ortlund, Graeme Goldsworthy, David Helm, Colin Smith, Nancy Guthrie,  Iain Dugoid, Kevin DeYoung, Burk Parsons, Dan Doriani, Vern Poythress… (xvi-xix)  Really?  You’re all here?  I’m imagining myself showing up to the Bible Study I was at tonight, only all my best and most learned friends have shown up too, and we get to study God’s Word together!  So what that none of these contributors know me from Adam?  I know they know Jesus, and have helped me immensely the past few years to see how all of scripture bears witness to Him (vii) and that scripture isn’t the Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth of my Student Bible Days, but the amazing revelation of God to man concerning His Son, Jesus Christ and the salvation He grants to all who believe in His Name.  

Oh, and besides not knowing me from Adam, these contributors actually do have a pretty good handle on Adam, himself.  Since the ladies Bible study I’m in was studying Genesis 2 tonight, I took the opportunity to quickly check out the notes for that chapter.  And there was Jesus!  William VanGemeren (a brand new friend :), traces the story of Sabbath through scripture to Jesus Christ Himself, our Sabbath Rest (6).  I had to get to Bible Study, so I couldn’t read more, but that little morsel was enough for me to know what a feast would be awaiting me later on.  I really can’t wait for my next bite!

Although I was provided a free copy of this book through Crossway, I am under no obligation to write a positive review.

Tolle Lege: Education: A Student’s Guide by Ted Newell

Given the fact that the average evangelical upbringing in America potentially includes access to Protestant day-schools, private Christian schools, home-schools, Sunday schools, youth groups, para-church organizations, Christian colleges, seminaries, church camps, along with every conceivable form of on-line resources, can someone please answer the question why only 40% of American youth continue in the faith when they leave home? And how did those who remain in the faith shift so far from the historical tenants of the apostles creed to the “moralistic, therapeutic deism” so prevalent in today’s churches (16)?

Theories abound, but Ted Newell in his book Education: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019) suggests that the shift is owing to a competing flood of dissonant educational paradigms. Evangelicals today need to take a much broader approach to Christian education and reclaim our intellectual tradition (14).  Newell traces that tradition from Jesus own education, through the Christian education in Hellenistic city-states,  the medieval cloister schools, and on into the modern era.

As the daughter-in-law of a public and a Christian school teacher, the wife of a Christian school teacher and a homeschooling mother of 5, I was more than enthralled on this journey through the hows, lows, highs and “whys” of Christian education.  My own education was through the public school and state university system and reading how it had evolved through the ages brought to light the competing paradigms between the sacred and the secular.  What was even more illuminating was Newell’s analysis of the evolution of Christian education, its curricula, and especially its setting.

The Hellenistic setting of oikos and ekklesia was presented as “situating the knowledge where it was to be used (54).”  In other words, “Learning the faith in a household was done in a context where the knowledge was immediately applied (50).”  In sharp contrast, American youth are experiencing full-time (via the advent of hand-held devices) exposure to conflicting stories. This coupled with “the withering of settings for acting out the Christian story means that Christian knowledge is increasingly “unsituated.” It lacks a relevant setting for its use (56).” Consider the following link Newell makes between this unsituated learning and the statistical crises of my opening paragraph:

“Unsituated learning is a significant issue for present-day, church -related learning. The weakening of contexts where biblical knowledge matters may help explain declines in Bible reading and Bible knowledge. Families that practice the faith and teach it in the home remain the primary site of faith learning. Renewed Christian education must show the urgent cultural relevance of God’s Word (51).”

Newell concludes this third chapter with the following observation:

“The earliest churches prevailed over their severe competition. Their deliberate alienation from the wider culture placed significant weight on family and church formation in faith. Contradictory voices and stories were kept away. Christians maintained the faith in high tension with their society. In some places and periods, the sacrifice of lives was graphic illustration for their nonconformity (56).”

The rest of the book shows the shift from this biblically focused, deeply contextual learning environment to the modern-era public school and university system which seeks to educate all students, including Christian ones, “in secular knowledge for secular aims (75).”  Even with the myriad of supplemental Christian add-ons, what seems to be lacking most is context.  THIS is the post-modern dilemma.  Our current age-segregated church structure so removes our youth from the actual context of church life that a New Testament overflowing with Ecclesiastical rhetoric has no meaning.  And how is one to learn anything from the Bible of the Father and Son, Christ and His Bride, or the privilege of being an adopted heir into an Eternal household of faith, if the oikos has lost all its edifying influence?

While Newell’s book is quite heavy on history and the development of educational philosophy, I still found much to apply to our own way of “doing school.”  Teachers, administrators, pastors and parents could all benefit from a close examination of why, how, and especially in what context we are educating our youth.  It cannot be stressed enough what’s eternally at stake.


(Even though I received this book gratis from the publisher, I am not required to give it a positive review)