Sometimes it isn’t obvious how much of a void existed until something comes along to fill that void. This is the case with Michael Lawrence’s book Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church. Written for a wide audience, Lawrence opens the subject of biblical theology to a wider audience than has previously been exposed to the subject. This is not an academic work written for professional theologians, but rather a popular book written for Sunday School teachers, deacons, youth workers, businessmen, and stay-at-home moms. While not shying away from difficult or complex material, Lawrence’s book makes these subjects accessible to the Body of Christ at large. It is a book that has the potential to enrich and deepen a congregation’s understanding of the Lord and His Word. This review will first give an overview of the general content of the book, and will then seek to offer a few of the book’s strengths and weaknesses for consideration.
Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church (BTLC) is structured in a clear and compelling way. The flow of the book can be compared to that of a growing tree. It begins with the roots that uphold and give life to what will follow, offering a sweeping overview of how the Bible is to be studies. This foundation gives birth to the trunk and branches, a section
Section One: The Tools That Are Needed
In the first section, Lawrence sets forth a groundwork on which the rest of the book will be built. He gives the reader a number of “tools” for approaching the work of biblical theology. These tools are essentially the building blocks of sound hermeneutics. Lawrence begins by discussing the Grammatical-Historical Method, explaining the need to understand how the biblical text is structured and how the genre of each section of scripture impacts the way in which it must be interpreted. Next, he begins to explain the ways available to the reader to begin to think about viewing the Bible through the lens of Biblical Theology. While he identifies a number of lenses, Lawrence gives special attention to explaining the nature and unfolding of biblical covenants. He also introduces the concept of typology, providing some basic guidelines and warnings when using this method to move from text to application.
In chapter four, Lawrence compares and contrasts biblical and systematic theology, making a strong case that both are vital in our study of God’s Word. He characterizes biblical theology as “the attempt to summarize in an orderly and comprehensive manner what the whole Bible has to say about any given topic" (BTLC, 89). Lawrence then goes on to explain that systematic theology is “the attempt to summarize in an orderly and comprehensive manner what the whole Bible has to say about any given topic" (Ibid.). While each branch of theology approaches the text in a different way, both are necessary in providing the reader with a robust, fully informed understanding of the biblical text. Finally, Lawrence closes this section with a chapter dedicated to highlighting the value and necessity of systematic theology in the church, emphasizing that good theology must be done in the context of the church for the building up of the church (Ibid., 111-112).
Section Two: The Stories That Are Told
Section Two begins to put the principles of biblical theology into practice, giving an overview of the scriptures when viewed through five different interpretive grids. Lawrence acknowledges that these are not the only ways to approach the text of scripture, but they provide solid representative examples to help the reader learn how to apply the principles being taught in the book (Ibid., 180). Moving through chapters six through ten, Lawrence examines God’s plan of redemption with a particular focus on the stories of creation, the fall, love, sacrifice, and promise.
In each chapter, he follows the same pattern of unfolding the topic. First, Lawrence begins by giving a narrative overview of each section, simply and clearly telling the story. Next, he examines patterns that emerge in each story, providing explanation for the themes and textures that lie beneath the narrative surface of each section. Finally, Lawrence attempts to draw some systematic conclusions from each section, closing each chapter with a list of biblical principles that can be drawn from the study of each chapter’s particular theme. This pattern enables Lawrence to cover a surprising breadth of material while keeping the presentation focused. In addition, each chapter examines the topics well beneath a surface-level explanation while ensuring that the material is accessible for an audience of laymen.
Section Three: Putting It Together For The Church
The final section aims to bring the study of biblical theology out of the realm of abstraction and put it into pulpits and pews of everyday church life. Lawrence offers a case study in chapter eleven, exploring how biblical theology impacts the preaching and teaching ministry of a local church. He spends most of this chapter instructing the reader how to move from the biblical text to application into the lives of those who are being taught God’s word. In doing so, he provides a number of helpful lists for a preacher or teacher to think through when preparing their lesson. These lists walk through different kinds of people who will be hearing and exploring how the text might be brought to bear on their unique situations.
The final chapter moves quickly through several other areas that might be impacted by biblical theology. While Lawrence does not spend nearly as much time on each of these areas, he provides helpful case studies demonstrating the affect of biblical theology on counseling, missions, care for the poor, and church-state relations. Lawrence paints with this broad brush to make his point crystal clear: biblical theology is important for every aspect of a local church’s life.
Lawrence’s work is a tremendous help to the church, providing a volume that highlights the unique place of biblical theology in the life of a local congregation. The book makes a number of contributions that, when taken together, offer something that has not been available in a single volume on biblical theology.
First, the book is both thorough and accessible. Lawrence does not cut corners or water down the content of his arguments. The book is written in a way that is robustly biblical and covers a great deal of ground in just over 200 pages. At the same time, he has been careful to write with a popular audience in mind. Lawrence writes in a way that is both challenging and helpful for seasoned pastors and yet accessible and intelligible by the average church member.
Second, the book is thoroughly Christ-centered. The force of this book is found in its continual push towards the person and work of Jesus Christ. In every chapter, the reader is brought face to face with who Christ is and what he has done for God’s people. Lawrence both explains and models what good biblical theology must do, which is to bring the reader face to face with the excellencies of our great Savior.
Third, throughout the book Lawrence lifts up the importance of the local church. Biblical theology is the heartbeat of a maturing congregation. The church is not interested in theology as a hobby or interesting abstraction, but rather for the sake of passing on the great truths of God to one another throughout each generation. “It should be our ambition to grow in our ability to carefully and faithfully articulate biblical doctrine, and then to communicate it with clarity, precision, and passion” (Ibid., 108). At the same time Lawrence is intentional about pointing out that theology must not be done in a vacuum, but rather within the context of a healthy local church.
Finally, the book is immensely practical. Even in the first two sections, which are not focused on practical application, Lawrence ensures that the reader is able to see the hands-on nature of what he is discussing. He weaves the implications of viewing the scriptures through the various grids he holds up throughout his explanation in each chapter. This is not a book of academic theory or theological-sounding pabulum, but rather a book that brings the redemptive story of God to bear on every part of life.
As excellent as the book is, there are a few areas that could have been improved upon. First, in section two, “The Stories To Be Told,” Lawrence closes each chapter with a section called “Systematizing It All.” Essentially, these are applications drawn from each of the stories that have been unfolded. However, the terminology has the potential to be confusing for the common reader. It is not clear whether these are intended to be examples of systematic theology, general application, or both. Something as simple as a more descriptive heading would clear up any confusion as to the intent of these sections. In addition, a number of the conclusions feel a bit arbitrary. While all of them are biblical and true, there is no explanation given as to why these propositions were offered rather than other potential implications.
Second, Section One could have been briefer and more succinct. This first section occupies fifty percent of the total content, which seems to be disproportionate when compared with the other two sections. While there is some value to including a foundation of how to study theology in general, this section didn’t seem to fit the narrower focus of the book: biblical theology in the life of the church. While Lawrence’s thoroughness is admirable, his purpose might have been served just as well with a one-chapter introduction and a recommendation of several good texts on general hermeneutics.
Finally, the closing section entitled “Putting It Together For the Church” seemed much briefer than it should have been. Occupying only fifteen percent of the book, this section could have provided the most help for laypeople reading the book. While some effort was given in these chapters to fleshing out the practical implications of biblical theology in the life of a local church, it could have been far more helpful if Lawrence would have treated these applications more fully. In addition to moving too quickly through the practical application, the book dedicates an entire chapter to preaching and teaching, while other topics are given only a short section of the final chapter. While preachers will undoubtedly appreciate this, the disproportionate focus given to teaching limits its usefulness for deacons, staff, and lay leaders.
In conclusion, Lawrence has done the church a great service in writing this book. It provides an introduction to the subject of biblical theology that is at once robust and comprehensible to most readers. It offers a unique approach to the subject, elevating the importance of the local church in how we approach theological study and giving attention to equipping God’s people to know their Lord more fully. Despite the mild criticisms noted in this review, it is an immensely valuable resource that this reviewer would not hesitate to recommend to anyone in his congregation. Without a doubt, those who read it thoroughly would come a way with a greater understanding of God’s redemptive plan revealed throughout the entire Bible, along with a renewed appreciation for the great Savior who has accomplished this redemptive work.
~ Bill Streger
(Bill is the senior pastor of Kaleo Church Houston and a divinity student in Reformed Baptist Seminary.)