Book Review: Canon, Covenant and Christology

At the outset of this review I should note that I work for the publisher of the NSBT Series in the UK, and that this may cloud my review. Let the reader understand!

Canon Covenant and Christology Book Review

I’ve been excited about this book since I heard about it – and it seems to me to be something of a ‘goldilocks’ product, fitting in between (on the one hand) Tim Ward’s OUP monograph which in my mind is a superb articulation of the authority of Scripture, and Andrew Wilson’s brilliant Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said About the Word of God. Matthew Barrett’s Canon, Covenant and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel sits mid-way between the two, being a readable but very thoughtful piece of writing. It is longer than both, and more wide-ranging, interacting with covenant theology and theology proper as it considers Jesus view of Scripture.

Toward the end of the book, Barrett writes “It is not an exaggeration to say everything hinges on Christology. The works and words of Christ substantiate the claim that God’s word through the prophets is divine in origin (inspiration), trustworthy in nature (innerancy), perspicuous in its saving message (clarity) and effective in its truth claims (sufficiency). To be even more accurate, the person of Christ – whether Christ is who he says he is – verifies that God’s word through the prophets does not return to him void

This sums up the book, but in order to get here we are masterfully treated to an engagement with many of the major questions of what the Bible is, how it works, and how and why Christians believe it to be authoritative. The two introductory chapters, ‘Divine authorial intent, canonical unity and the Christological presuppositions of biblical theology’ and ‘The book of the covenant and canon consciousness’ guide the reader through a myriad of debates – with some fairly extensive footnoting – in order to arrive at the meat of the book. This meat is found in the central three chapters; ‘The Scripture must be fulfilled: the Matthean witness (case study 1)’, ‘The ultimate fulfillment and self-disclosure of God – the Word made flesh: the Johannine witness (case study 2)’ and ‘Living by every word from the mouth of God: what Christ’s covenant obedience to the Scriptures says about the Scriptures’.

What is particularly striking about this book is not the way that Barrett deftly demonstrates how Jesus fulfills Scripture, both prophetic and typological imagery/texts, but the way that he integrates the concepts of both canon and covenant so thoroughly. This is a book that moves on like a confident steam engine, with one of the fuel sources being a substantial confidence in the Bible. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time in the Gospel of John, and is occasionally frustrated by repeated claims that John is very different to the Synoptics, I particularly appreciated Barrett’s excellent chapter on John, wherein a particular eschatological emphasis is detected. In relation to one of the richest passages of John, Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well in chapter 4, Barrett writes “Here is one of the most lucid self-attestations by Jesus in all the Gospels. He is none other than the Christ, the Messiah. On that basis, he has eternal life to give. The fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant promises are at hand because the one the Law and the Prophets foreshadowed has arrived and offers salvation to all those who will drink his water“. Amen!

One possible weakness of the key chapter, ‘From Christology to Canon’ is that whilst attempting to make a Trinitarian argment (And Barrett offers an orthodox Christology, to be sure!) is that this section begins with a distinct pneumatological lack. The Holy Spirit doesn’t get a look in for around 30 pages of a chapter, though when He does show up, Barrett does write beautifully about him: “The Spirit… is not merely a ‘substitute’ for Jesus: he is his ’emissary'”, “Jesus includes the Spirit, bringing a trinitarianism in its fullness to bear on the disciples’ reception of his word”, and culminates in the authors observation that “Apart from Christ’s sending the Spirit to finish writing the story of redemptive history, the Old Testament remains incomplete and a tragic tale of false hope“. Ultimately, Barrett neatly draws together the threads of Canonical, Covenantal and Christological questions in a way that points to Jesus’ view of Scripture. Before concluding this chapter, Barrett takes the reader on a concise but fascianting tour of different views of Christology, further demonstrating his wide reading.

The final chapter is a welcome addition to the standard NSBT format, which Barrett notes is included “as an example of how one can move from the argument and thesis of a biblical theology project to systematic and dogmatic construction“, wherein the reader is forced to ponder the brilliant question ‘Is our doctrine of Scripture Christological enough? The future of inerrancy and the necessity of dogmatics’. Bold! This chapter is a gift – Barrett gives a potted history of evangelical arguments over the authority of Scripture, and challenges evangelicals to engage in dogmatics. Not for nothing has the authors present book “sought to situate Jesus’ view of Scripture within its canonical and covenantal context to comprehend better the nature of Scripture in the vein of its Christological fulfillment“. Barrett’s challenge to refocus evangelical accounts of inerrancy on Christology is timely and important. I’ll close with the authors final words:

To conclude, it is time evangelicals stop letting others have all the dogmatic fun. It is also time to erase the myth that an evangelical doctrine of inerrancy is antithetical to Christology (i.e. without Christological warrant). For as it turns out, the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy has a Christological foundation that is far sturdier than that of its critics, for it not only solidifies itself in who Jesus is but also in what he has said

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. For such a dense and deep topic, Barrett should be applauded for keeping things comprehensible, whilst also demonstrating serious engagement. Whilst it isn’t perfect, Canon, Covenant and Christology should be noted as an important book for those seeking to understand a) Jesus’ view of Scripture and b) why some of his followers use words like ‘inerrant’ to describe the Bible. I would warmly recommend this book to theological students of all worldviews, and to both pastors and scholars interested in the relevant topics. I believe it would be as helpful in preparing sermons on relevant Gospel passages as it would be for engaging with the Doctrine of Scripture, canonicity, covenant theology, and Christology.

 

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