There is something special about reading books by great bible teachers whom you personally know and have been shaped by. I eagerly awaited getting my hands on Peter Adam’s book “Hearing God’s words – Exploring Biblical Spirituality“. I was not disappointed.
Peter Adam is the principal of Ridley Theological College where I have just finished four years studying! I have heard Peter speak on elements of this book in many different contexts: conferences, theology lectures, chapel sermons etc. It was great to see the material drawn together and presented as a whole. This book is related to Peter’s book “Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching“.
This book has lofty goals. It is an attempt to firstly describe what a Bible-centred spirituality would look like, and convince us that it is not only a legitimate spirituality, but it is a sufficient spirituality which God’s desires us to have (p17). It is so true that when people talk about spirituality, they usually mean doing anything but reading the Bible. This is bad. I have Christian friends who have been drawn into other spiritual traditions because they have felt that their evangelical church lacked any spirituality. In the book, Peter also outlines that he is responding to the challenge of D. A. Carson (in the appendix of “The Gagging of God”) for developing a biblical spirituality. Carson’s article, “When is Spirituality Spiritual?”, is a brilliant questioning of the terminology and usage of the word “spirituality” in Western culture. Peter’s challenge is clear: “Some may feel that the Bible is an unlikely source for spirituality. Please suspend your disbelief, and find out more of what is in the Bible” (p44) !
Peter summarises the shape and structure of biblical theology in the following way: its content and focus is God in Christ; its practice is hearing the word of God by faitih. Its experience is that of meeting God in his Spirit-given words; its result is trust in Christ and our heavenly Father (pp44-45).
The book then goes on to work through and develop the theme of the centrality of the word of God in the life of God’s people throughout the whole Bible. He explores the powerful creative words of God in Genesis. He insightfully shows that loving God in the “shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) is to value God’s words (Deuteronomy 6:6-9, p53). He notes how the drama of the book of Job revolves around the use of words (p60). His section on the Psalms is excellent – showing that from the very first Psalm that a spirituality of the Psalter “is a response to the verbal revelation of God” (p61). In this light Psalms such as 119 show a rich and emotional spirituality in response to God’s law and promises. Why don’t we show such love for God’s word the Bible as is displayed in Psalm 119? The extended discussion on Luke’s resurrection account rightly shows that chapter 24 is a spirituality based on Jesus words’ and a right understanding of the OT in light of Jesus (not a spirituality based on empty tombs, experiential encounters, or bread/sacraments). Luke 24 is a classic chapter that suffers from what Peter calls “spirituality fundamentalism” (p43). It is good to see it explored exegetically, not just to correct misinterpretations but to point us to a true spirituality. From Colossians he shows that “theological caution is a key ingredient in true Christian spirituality”. If you think about the issues in the New Testament letters this point is obvious, but why is it so quickly forgotten when people are getting into spirituality?
Peter includes a chapter on Calvin’s theology of revelation. This is helpful because we need to be clear on what the Bible is, in order to know its relevance to our spirituality. Calvin is insightful because he both uses the Bible exegetically and carefully, and yet knows how to read Christ in the Old Testament (very interesting section, pp121-132). The big and most helpful point here is that, “in the Bible we hear the living words of God”. If God speaks through the Bible and wants us to hear him speak through the Bible, then we should shun alternative means of hearing his voice and use the means he has provided.
Chapter 5 deals with various applications, such as the lack of confidence in the power of words in our society. If we live in a society that has no confidence in words, how will people ever rely on the Bible as a fruitful source of spirituality? He puts forward a good case that the use of images in Christian education (such as in medieval times) works against Scripture, and the Reformation rightly sought to bring the message of the word of God to all people. Using images over Scripture also misreads our place in history; heaven is an age where words will be replaced by a face-to-face reality/image of Christ, but that age is not now. Our culture also likes to separate heart and mind, whereas a biblical spirituality joins them. He outlines a number of ways in which people avoid being impacted by God’s word today (p171).
The historical section is somewhat thin, focussing on the Puritan/Quaker debate and the Puritan Richard Baxter’s methods of contemplation. The latter is very interesting – Baxter was an expert in spirituality – that is he reflected thoughtfully on how to experience God through his word and develop a way of being enthused by the Word. From the little I have read, Baxter’s written reflections on Scripture and Christian living are very moving. Packer was right to call the Puritans “Spiritual Giants”, I feel ashamed at my shallow experience and love for God in light of them – I want to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ like they did.
This book is a helpful argument for showing the richness of a bible-centred spirituality both within the people of the Bible and in church history. I’m not sure he will be convincing enough to show non-evangelicals that this is THE kind of spirituality God wants (though I believe it is), but he will succeed in showing evangelical Christians the richness and depth of spirituality which lies at their fingertips (and eyes and ears!).
For a long time I found reading the Bible difficult. For a long time I blamed the Bible (calling it a “boring book”) or myself (“I’m not smart enough to understand it” or even “I know all that”). Then I realised the issue was simply one of sin. My natural tendency is to rebel against God and to not want to listen to him speak. Since that time I have fought hard to read the Bible and not let sin stop me from hearing God’s words. This book encourages me to continue along this path. Even as a preacher there is a tendency for me to avoid reading the Bible to get my message. It was exciting to hear Peter say: “Whenever I prepare a Bible study or sermon I am constantly challenged as I try to find out what God is saying through these words, rather than what I thought he was saying!” (p212). May God help all of us, especially leaders, to be passionate about listening to the living God speak through the Bible and to shape our spirituality around this great privilege.