Re-encountering the Beauty of Scripture
A Review of
15 New Testament Words of Life: A New Testament Theology for Real Life
Paperback: Zondervan Academic, 2022
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz
The type of Christian culture I was raised in implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) instructed me that there was precisely one way to understand nearly every matter of theology and belief. There was one way to interpret the creation accounts (7-day creationism), one way to understand the atoning work of Christ on the cross (penal substitution), one way to understand eschatology (premillennial dispensationalism) and one overarching correct doctrine of scripture (rigid inerrancy), as merely a few examples. This “one-way-ism” was part and parcel of a larger philosophical, intellectual narrowness and rigidity that contributed to a few debilitating faith crises as I matured.
The survival of my own faith through these crises was partly due to a discovery of the rich stream of scholarship simply known as “biblical theology” (theological interpretation through the lens of the entire canonical narrative of scripture). Books like The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, or the eminently readable The Story of God, The Story of Us by Sean Gladding were crucial texts on my journey into this world of theological interpretation, and “biblical theology” continues to be a source of life and a vital corrective to the “one-way” tradition I inherited.
Because this theological approach has been so important in my own formation and deepening my love of scripture, and also because it plays an important role in my vocation as a pastor, I am always thrilled to see new and creative approaches within that stream of scholarship. And therefore I’m so grateful that in his new book, accomplished and prolific New Testament scholar Nijay Gupta has provided a uniquely structured “biblical theology” that is also supremely accessible and enjoyable.
First, a few words on the fascinating structure of Gupta’s book. Each chapter is ostensibly focused around a particular word, like “hope” or “righteousness” or “salvation” as that word shows up as an important theme in one of the New Testament documents (for example, Luke’s focus on “forgiveness” in Luke-Acts, or “life” as a theme of John’s gospel, or “faith” throughout the epistles of Romans and Galatians), but it would be a shallow descriptor to label Gupta’s book as a collection of “word studies.” There is much more going on here.
Every chapter not only introduces the Old Testament background of the concept at hand, pointing to voices like the ancient prophets and poetry of the Psalmist, but also situates the theme in the Greco-Roman context of the original writer. Gupta continues tracing the theme through a specific “focal text” within the New Testament, while pointing to other New Testament voices as well. He provides succinct commentary and thoughtful contemporary application, and also a curated list of “further reading” suggestions for each of the 15 themes. Given that list I just typed, I am astounded this book is barely 200 pages long, when something as comprehensive could have easily ballooned into the 500-700 page territory of systematic theology texts. That slim page count is a direct result of Gupta’s clear and winsome writing style and command of a wide range of scholarship, which is evident in his ability to synthesize and summarize.
That winsome style is displayed through light-hearted humor, personal anecdotes and especially an impressive ability to create memorable analogies. One of my personal favorites is the notion of “holiness” (discussed in the chapter of the same name, through the focal text of 1 Peter) as being akin to being selected for the Olympic Team, complete with the gravitas and responsibility that would accompany such a designation. So also might the Christian consider the notion of our own holiness today. Every chapter contains similar analogies, images and metaphors that are concrete, relatable and memorable. Gupta is clearly no stuffy, “ivory tower” academic, but is much more interested in grounding these themes and truths in the cultural spaces that we all inhabit every day, and as such, has given a profound gift to those of us who seek to regularly communicate these truths to others. Frankly, I’ll be mining 15 Words for sermon analogies for quite some time!
In conclusion, and in the spirit of Gupta’s book, I’ll submit an analogy of my own. Reading 15 New Testament Words of Life is a bit like encountering (or re-encountering?) the New Testament as a massive and beautiful sculpture. The sculpture deserves to be taken in from every possible angle, as every time the viewer moves slightly, another aspect of its beauty comes to light. Moving chapter-by-chapter through each of Gupta’s 15 “words of life” is a bit like shifting the viewing angle on this piece of art. There is a compelling beauty to each angle, and each angle also contributes a deeper appreciation of the piece as a whole.
Before I push the analogy past its breaking point, the New Testament (let alone the entire biblical canon) deserves a lifetime of reflection, more so than any sculpture or art no matter its beauty, and Gupta’s book guides the reader gently and reverently into this realization. It is a wonderful introduction to a robust and deeply-learned theology, whether you are a new believer or an educated ministry leader, and will hopefully inspire readers to a deeper love and reflection of the New Testament texts and the ultimate “word of life” they themselves point to, the incarnate Jesus Christ.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com