2018 Year in Review: there and back again

Cloudless blue skies soar above us. Food and drink – all packed. We turn round the bend, then take a left onto State Highway 1. Two hours of driving towards the Southern Alps awaits. “It’ll be a day trip,” I assured the passengers: an elf queen and three hobbits. Yes – we’re going there and back again.


How to sum up 2018 – our second year in Sydney, our second year raising three kids, our second year digging into the riches of God’s Word? It’s been like a long stretch of gravel road sometimes – bumpy, never-ending, full of surprising potholes.

I learned to schedule important due dates a day or two early, and expect the rest of the time to be filled with unexpected moments. A difficult parenting moment. An impromptu confer and counsel with someone. A daddy date, a playground appointment, a train station excursion. A lecturer wisely pointed out that an essay takes as long as you give it. So this year was spent channelling research and essays into the allocated time. “Turn my eyes away from worthless things!” has been my constant, half-successful mantra this year.

Yet I’m grateful it’s a road others have travelled before us, and alongside us. It’s been amazing how fellow students were so willing to share ideas, resources, notes, and to spur each other on. What a privilege it’s been to learn in community.


“I want to see my name.” Dust billows behind us as we barrel towards our destination: Mount Sunday. Once upon a time, herders on horseback peeled away from their farms to meet on this rocky outcrop beyond the Ashburton Lakes. These drovers would perch on the rock to regale anecdotes of the past week, a tumbleweed-strewn valley before them, snowy peaks surrounding them.


My walk with God has been average this year. Some days were easier. Many days were hard. Is it ironic that I found it easier to parse Hebrew than to pray to the High King? “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” (Ps 94:19)

I’ve learned this year to try and give each area of my life full attention rather than attempt to power through multiple areas with partial attention. I’ve had to practice letting go of my need to perfect every assignment at the expense of sleep. It’s been a different rhythm this year: work hard during the day, then clock off and give Cheryl and the kids my full attention. Catch up on studies in the evenings, but be realistic. God will look after the results. And looking back, He really has. My proud self wants to claim credit, but no. It’s a work of God’s grace in me. My part to play remains – I want to keep changing and becoming more like Christ. To prioritise more than just my studies in 2019. I want to enjoy God, love Cheryl, nourish our children, and serve those around me: church and family, friends and neighbours.

We cross the one-lane bridge, and pause in awestruck wonder. At last! Mt Sunday these days is better known as the filming location for Edoras in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. You first meet Theoden, King of the Rohirrim, here: corrupted by the evil wizard Saruman. Hope seems lost for men, yet when Gandalf the White strides into Meduseld and reveals himself, he drives out the darkness in Theoden and the first ray of hope begins to shine through. Edoras becomes a Rock of Remembrance, where good starts to triumph over evil.


After God provides Israel with an undeserved victory over the Philistines in we read in the Bible that

Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

1 Samuel 7:12

As we look back this year – wow, hasn’t the Lord helped us! So many Ebenezers. So many Rocks of Remembrance. So many moments of God’s faithfulness and kindness. A band of brothers sharing our weakness to a groom-to-be. Nature walks and ant swarms. Games of Crocodile on the lawn. Quietly exchanging verses and prayers while watching children play. Belting out “All Hail, Redeemer, hail!” with a thousand voices. The still small voice of comfort at a spiritual retreat. Children’s birthday parties. Sunday night laughs and tears. Sharing the gospel with a fellow bus passenger, and hearing him trade an addiction for a worship service. “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Sometimes we need to cross difficult waters to see our Ebenezers better.
“Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I” – Psalm 61:2

“Can we come back to my name?”
“I don’t know son. Perhaps one day.”


2019 will bring more adventures, more Ebenezers, more chances to reflect on God’s kindness to us as we sojourn a final year in Sydney.

So here’s to another year of walking by faith, amidst our failures, looking to our Solid Rock.

“Here I raise my Ebenezer, 
Hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, 
Interposed His precious blood.”

Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing”
Happy New Year! Much love from the Chongs for 2019.

Book review: The Extent of the Atonement by David Allen

The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (B&H Academic, 2016).

by David L. Allen

Genre: Biblical Reference / Christian Theology

Size: 820 pages (and weighs in at 1.7 kg!)

What’s the big idea: David Allen makes a comprehensive biblical, historical, theological case that the majority of Christians, even within those who are considered Reformed, affirm an “unlimited atonement” as the best understanding of the extent of Christ’s saving work.

Easy to read? It was OK. It’s certainly an extensive tome on the atonement’s extent, so I’ve read through about a third of it so far. The sheer size of the book will probably appeal to those interested in the topic, rather than general readers. That being said, B&H editors have helpfully indexed the book by subject, author and Scripture passage. If you know how to search through this book, it becomes easy to read and a goldmine of information.

What I appreciated:

  • It’s comprehensive. From Irenaeus to Al Mohler, Allen surveys what every well-known (and more unfamiliar) Christian leader has believed regarding the extent of the atonement. You’ll need to discern between the historical data and Allen’s own commentary and assessment interspersed throughout. But a lot of research has gone into this book, which we can be grateful for.
  • I appreciated the tone of Allen’s work. He doesn’t play the man but seeks only to critique the positions that they hold. This kind of writing style is often lacking in the intramural debates on this topic.
  • He provides two helpful charts (p.xxviii, 766) – one is a summary of four different views of the extent of the atonement. Another is a comprehensive list of theologians and their view on this matter.
  • Part 3 of the book comprises a chapter-by-chapter critique of Jonathan and David Gibson’s From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, the most comprehensive defence of definite atonement to date. Even for someone who’s persuaded by the arguments for definite atonement, I found it helpful to understand the objections from Allen’s side of the fence. He summarises each contributor’s arguments fairly, and offers thoughtful and persuasive rebuttals.

What I would have liked to see:

  • For an 800-plus “tour de force”, there was surprisingly little discussion on OT conceptions of the atonement. For example, the Day of Atonement is only referenced twice (p402 in a discussion of Robert Lightner, and when Allen critiques the article on definite atonement in the OT in From Heaven He Came And Sought Her).
  • A bit less of an inquisitionary tone. I understand that this is meant to be a comprehensive historical survey, but Allen seems to take aim at any and every author who’s ever published about the atonement’s extent. In some cases, he pulls apart their arguments in the kind of lengthy, meticulous manner one normally associates with blog posts you disagree with (e.g., poor Paul Jarvis in p.610-12). At times, it seemed like a meeting or phone conversation would have sufficed in place of the extended critique.
  • Some more trimming. I appreciate how extensive the data is out there, but there’s no reason why some of the historical surveys couldn’t have been abbreviated.
  • Allen sometimes adopts unclear labels to describe his and other viewpoints. He insists that no Baptists can be “Reformed” in the confessional sense (p.xv), and goes so far as to call his own view not Arminian, or Moderate Calvinist – but simply, a “Baptist” perspective (p.xviii).

Who I’d recommend it to: Anyone who is interested in the debates about the extent of the atonement. Carl Trueman (an advocate of definite atonement) offers a warm endorsement: “While David Allen and I disagree on the matter, this work is an irenic and learned contribution to the topic which carries the historical, and thus doctrinal, discussion forward in an extremely helpful way. I am thus happy to recommend this work of a friendly critic. It deserves wide readership and careful engagement.”

Verdict: Not for the faint-hearted, this extensive tome about the atonement’s extent serves as a thorough, critical companion to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.

More info:

  • Jeff Johnson offers a detailed critique of Allen’s book from a definite atonement perspective.

(I’m grateful to B&H Academic who provided a review copy of this textbook, which has not influenced my opinion of the book.)

 

Book review: Amyraut on Predestination

Amyraut on Predestination: The First Published Translation from the French (Charenton Reformed Publishing, 2017).

by Matthew Harding, with a biographical sketch by Alan Clifford

Genre: Church History, Theology

Size: 190 pages – a 30 page biography, some translation notes, and then 100 pages of Amyraut’s own words from Brief Traitté de la Predestination et de ses principales dependances (Brief Treatise on Predestination and Its Dependent Principles).

What’s the big idea: Never heard of Amyraldianism? This English translation of his seminal work on predestination and the atonement (which sparked three heresy trials!) will help you understand where the idea of “4 Point Calvinism” or “Moderate Calvinism” originated from.

Easy to read? Definitely. Harding’s translation is lucid and clear, and even sounds like a “French” person is saying it. I found the book easy to use when preparing a theology essay on Amyraldianism.

What I appreciated? A few things:

  • The fact that this work now exists. A lack of primary sources has been a longstanding barrier to evaluating Amyraut’s teachings accurately – for example, if you want to know what Calvin himself taught you can read his Institutes. Matthew Harding and Alan Clifford have done a service to the church by publishing the first English translation of Amyraut’s most well-known work, This will hopefully provide clearer insight into Amyraut’s teachings.
  • The biographical sketch by Alan Clifford reads well. While he comes across as very adoring of Amyraut (complete with photos of the archway he used to walk under!), it doesn’t seem to seep into hagiography.
  • Harding is a careful guide – his explanatory notes are helpful, particularly when Amyraut seems to his metaphors or says confusing things, e.g. a “predestination unto salvation” and a “predestination unto faith” in Chapter 13.
  • Amyraut’s words exude a warm and pastoral tone. It certainly helped me to gain a fuller picture of his teachings, not just as an abstract theology, but motivated by real issues from real people. It’s much harder to see Amyraldianism in this way if you’re reading him through the lens of secondary authors who seem more interested in dissecting his theology rather than listening to his words.
  • While I don’t agree with Amyraldianism myself, reading his words directly helped me to appreciate his view as a legitimate view of the atonement within the Reformed evangelical tradition.

Who I’d recommend it to: Two kinds of people – those who call themselves Amyraldians (e.g. Sydney Anglicans) but have never read Amyraut’s own teachings; and those who are wrestling with the idea of the “L” in “TULIP” (limited atonement). Don’t discount Amyraut’s views before studying him first-hand.

Verdict: Lisez-le s’il vous plaît! (Please read it!)

Get the book from Amazon or Book Depository.


(I’m grateful to Dr Alan Clifford who provided a review copy of this book, which has not influenced my opinion of the book.)

Wishing tree thoughts

On the first day of the Lunar New Year, we were walking through a local shopping mall and saw they’d put up this tree:

It turned out to be a wishing tree – people were invited to write their wishes on a card, and hang them on the tree. The branches were full of notes.

Some were predictable:

I wish for endless love! And lots of money!

Good health for my parents

To find a good job

Some were lovely:

That Josh proposes to me

Dear God, May we love each other just as you have loved us.

Some expressed pain and longing:

For us to fall pregnant with a healthy baby

For my parents to choose who I love

For my son to come home

Some were sad:

For my Mr Grey to find me

For my family to get along, 

For my parents to stay together

I think what kept Cheryl and I there for over an hour, reading message after message, was this: what we wish for is a window into our hearts.

So I started to pray to the Triune God for each card I read. After all, who else can answer our prayers? Who are we wishing to? God? A Higher power otherwise undefined?

I found it hard to stop thinking about the messages afterwards, so jotted a few lines of verse down.

// WISHING TREE //

Under the Wishing Tree hopes expressed
dreams declared
reunions requested
and names signed
Among them
Tamara pleads for a family in heaven
A prayer that God in Christ sought to answer
When he too dangled his message on wood
Jesus Messiah laid bare for sinners
Our names bound to him by scarlet thread
His death and revival
Brings the arrival of riches exceeding red packet provisions
This New Year lift your eyes to true prosperity
God’s Son wishing life from his death on a tree.

16.2.2018

 

Book review: Going Deeper with New Testament Greek

 

Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (B&H Academic, 2016).

by Andreas Köstenberger, Benjamin Merkle and Robert Plummer

Genre: Biblical Reference / Language Study

Size: 550 pages.

What’s the big idea: The book aims to “stir in you a passion, and to provide you with the necessary tools, to ‘go deeper’ in your pursuit of your master of NT Greek” (p.1).

There’s a quip in New Testament Greek circles that, for every 9 Greek lecturers, there are 10 Greek grammars. The most recent contribution to the scene is Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (B&H Academic, 2016). I first heard about this volume through Rob Plummer’s Daily Dose of Greek videos, and thought it would be a good complement ahead of my second year of learning biblical Greek.

Easy to read? Surprisingly enough, yes. It’s certainly more readable than Daniel Wallace’s grammar (as excellent as it is). I think part of the charm of Deeper Greek is that it’s organised in a way that blends the traditional grammar with other helpful content (like a Swiss Army knife). Each chapter ends with practice exercises, a vocab list and tables summarising the content just covered. I came away enjoying, rather than enduring each chapter I read.

What I appreciated? Several things.

  • I loved how every chapter features a short introduction where the author takes an example from the Bible to illustrate the practical relevance of the content to follow. For example, Chapter 2 on The Genitive Case begins with a translation issue in the Bible: should Luke 2:14 read “Peace on earth, good will towards men” (KJV) or “Peace on earth to those whom his favour rests” (NIV)? Lo and behold, it all hangs on whether there’s a genitive noun, and I’m hooked into going deeper into the rest of the chapter. Contrast this with Wallace, who writes assuming that you’re motivated to plow through 33 types of genitives without being convinced of its usefulness.
  • I found the first chapter on the history of Greek and textual criticism very helpful to kick things off and bolster my confidence that in 99.9% of cases, we have in our Bibles God’s authoritative Word preserved for us.
  • There’s a very interesting and informative chapter on verbal aspect, an area of debate among NT Greek scholars today.
  • The last chapter gives practical tips to keep up your Greek. You really feel like the three authors are encouraging you to keep studying and mastering Greek.
  • The book contains charts summarising each chapter. These are fantastic and would be worth the price of the book alone, though seems like you can purchase them separately.

What I would have liked to see:

  • Section numbers. The lack of them throughout the textbook. It made it more difficult to find specific concepts more easily and to cite them.
  • Less derivative content. Some chapters on noun cases seemed to lean on Wallace quite heavily, where it would have been nice to see the authors just present their own study of NT grammar and syntax
  • An answer key for the Practice Exercises would have been helpful for students.

Who I’d recommend it to: Any Greek student with a year of Greek behind their belt, or a pastor who’s “apostasised” from their Greek in seminary and wants to get back on the saddle. If you’re a whizz at Greek and love getting into the details, the thoroughness of Wallace’s grammar might be more suitable.

Verdict: This book will help you to understand the language of the New Testament better, and to become excited about studying God’s Word more deeply.

More info:

  • Deeper Greek website – coming soon, a website that will hopefully dive into some of the topics covered in this textbook. A video discussion on verbal aspect would be very helpful.

(I’m grateful to B&H Academic who provided a review copy of this textbook, which has not influenced my opinion of the book.)