The Message of the New Testament: Promises Kept, By Mark F. Dever, Wheaton: Crossway, 2005. 560 pages $29.99
Verse by verse Bible commentaries, while helpful in unpacking the meaning of words and phrases, can run the risk of missing the theological forest for the trees. Mark Dever, a Baptist minister from Washington, D.C., offers a more thematic approach to the New Testament and, in the opinion of this reviewer, happily avoids this pitfall. Based on a series of sermons preached by Dever to his congregation, The Message of the New Testament gives a “bird’s-eye” view of the New Testament, highlighting important theological concepts unique to each document, and showing how the individual parts relate to the whole.
Summarizing the purpose and intent of the New Testament in the Introduction, Dever writes, “…the point of the New Testament, indeed, the point of the whole Bible, is that God has made promises to us, he has kept those promises to us, and we are called to trust him because he is the keeper of promises!” (33) Dever confidently demonstrates in each book of the New Testament the verity of this statement.
One of the highlights of The Message of the New Testament was Dever’s discussion of the tension between God’s wrath and his love. Dever does a superb job of tackling the question of how God can “forgive wickedness” and yet “not leave the guilty unpunished” (26). Some resolve the tension by mistakenly focusing on one to the exclusion of the other. So God can either be wrathful or loving, not both. Dever answers this question by pointing to the cross: “Jesus death on the cross allowed God both to punish and forgive.”
Another helpful discussion is found in his chapter on Romans, where the issue of Israel’s rejection by God is discussed. Dever explains that God in his rejection of Israel is not going back on his promise to save Israel. God has always been faithful; Israel has not. God has always worked by calling sinners to faith, and He has not changed whom he intends to save.
Though he writes from the Baptist tradition, Lutheran pastors and lay people will appreciate his ability to let the text speak for itself, as well as the respect he espouses for Luther in several places. He exhibits a keen sense of what is known by Lutherans as the “Theology of the Cross.” In his discussion of the Pauline Epistles, for example, he takes note of how Paul’s ministry mirrors that of Christ. What makes Paul’s ministry more authentic than that of the so-called “pseudo-apostles” is the fact that Paul suffers for the name and sake of Christ. His “credentials” are his beatings, his stripes, and his persecutions. Paul is therefore the authentic apostle.
If there is any weakness to the book, it is in the fact that each Book of the New Testament is given a summary heading based on what Dever considers to be the overarching theme of the book. For example, the chapter on Matthew’s Gospel is entitled: “The Message of Matthew: Jesus, the Son of David.” For Mark, it is the “Son of Man.” Taking one title and using it as the theme for the whole book ignores the richness and complexity of Christological titles in the Gospels. Certainly “Son of David” is a prominent title, for example, in the Gospel of Matthew, but so are “Son of God” and “Servant.” Who is to say that one is more important than another? This task may be more realistic when approaching the Epistles, which were written for specific circumstances in the Church.
Not surprisingly, Dever holds to a “limited” view of the atonement, frequently saying that Jesus died for those who repent and believe. This, however, should not discourage Lutherans from reading it. Lay people using Dever’s book for personal Bible study will appreciate the practical applications to the Christian life, as well as the concluding prayer and questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. The homiletical and devotional character of The Message of the New Testament makes it easily accessible for one who does not have an academic background. For a “bird’s eye view,” Dever covers quite a bit of ground in 560 pages.