Reviewed by Jonny Atkinson
At times within the discipline of Biblical Theology people can get enticed (and distracted?) by subtle and tenuous thematic links and connections throughout Scripture that have no real practical pay-off. Not so with J. Ryan Lister’s new book. The Presence of God: Its place in the storyline of Scripture and the story of our lives does “exactly what it says on the label.” Lister explores one of the most (if not the most) important concepts throughout Scripture: God’s presence with man; and then seeks to unpack the “take home” that this truth has for the Christian today. J. Ryan Lister holds a PhD from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and joined the faculty at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, in 2014. The Presence of God is his first book publication.
God’s Presence: Goal and Means
After determining what God’s presence is in largely systematic categories in chapter 2, Lister defines it as
“the manifestation of God in time and space – mediated in some sense – working to bring forth redemption and redemption’s objective and, simultaneously, the unmediated, fully relational, and eschatological manifestation of God first experienced in Eden, and awaiting the elect in the new creation” (51).
In other words, God’s presence is redemptive and eschatological; and the redemptive presence of God is the means by which the goal of the eschatological presence of God will be realized. Throughout the rest of the book this definition is defended and expounded.
Part 1 of the book surveys God’s eschatological presence. By looking at the beginning (Eden, Gen 1-3) and the end (New Heavens and New Earth, Rev 21-22) of the story, Lister argues that God’s presence with man is the goal of redemption, that is, a return to Eden: “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev 21:3). Admittedly relying on the work of Stephen Dempster, Lister holds that the prominent themes of dominion and dynasty are for the greater purpose of God’s presence to be with man. In other words, dominion secures a place and dynasty procures a people for God’s presence. Lister then avers that this eschatological goal of God’s presence through dominion and dynasty is the aim of each of the covenants in Scripture. This is seen most clearly in the covenant formula: “I will walk among you and will be your God and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:12).
Parts 2 and 3 of the book next trace God’s redemptive presence throughout the Old and New Testament respectively. Over fifty percent of part 2 is spent on the Pentateuch before tracing how God accomplished salvation through the rest of the Old Testament. Part 3 deals with God’s presence in light of the person and work of Christ – in that order; for “understanding the person of Christ precedes our understanding of his redemptive work” (254).
The book concludes with one chapter titled “Finding Our Place in the Story.” This chapter does not seek to extrapolate personal application for the Christian from the doctrine of God’s presence, but is largely a study of the presence of God within the paraenesis of the Pauline and Catholic epistles that directly applies to Christians today.
The God who Saves
When we pause to think, we know that ultimately God must save; yet it is still too easy to read the Old Testament casually and find ourselves thinking of what Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and David did. Lister ensures that the reader views the presence of God as the ultimate means of any redemptive accomplishment by his repeated refrains to that end. For example: “What the covenants reveal, then, is that God pledges to do what Adam could not” (96); “the nation of Israel is unable to fulfill God’s eschatological purposes on its own” (108); “After Adam’s fall we have nowhere else to turn. The only means to accomplish God’s purposes for creation is God himself” (153); “Redemption rests not on Moses’s shoulders, but squarely on God and his being present with his people” (178); “Israel’s story after the exodus makes it quite clear that no one besides God himself can fulfill the Lord’s redemptive objectives” (202); and “we see that it is the Lord who will bring Israel into the Land of Promise, not Israel, not Moses, and not Joshua” (204). That salvation rests ultimately with the Lord and that this is the way He has always worked gives security and peace to the Christian. This God-magnifying-heartbeat to the book makes it a humbling and doxological read.
Biblical and Systematic Theology
Perhaps one of the reasons for the applicability of the book is Lister’s use of not just Biblical Theology, but also Systematics. Lister, Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary, deftly combines Biblical and Systematic Theology throughout this treatise. For example, chapter 2 explores God’s presence through the categories of transcendence and immanence, omnipresence and immediate presence, God’s aseity, and his trinitarian relationship. So, in claiming God’s desire to manifest his presence with his creation, he concludes “it is out of an abundance of his self-sufficient and independent nature that the desire and means to relate to the world arises” (44).
This dual emphasis on Biblical and Systematic Theology proves its own worth in chapter 9. Lister has repeatedly shown that ultimately God must intervene with his redemptive presence to ensure salvation. Yet he also demonstrates from Scripture that God’s eschatological presence is attained through God’s covenants with man, which entails the responsibility of humans to God through the covenant. In other words God’s eschatological presence will not be reached without the faithful Davidic King, the Servant of the Lord, and son-born-as-sign Immanuel (224-232). How will this goal of God’s eschatological presence be reached if it depends on the responsibility of humans, while also God must keep intervening to help fallen humanity? God intervenes as a human in the person of Jesus Christ; and so the full divinity and humanity of Jesus is necessary to our redemption.
When the presence of God is spoken of, conversation can quickly turn to the existential experience of God. Lister clearly communicates that it “is not a mystical feeling” (23) yet even now, through an already-not-yet framework, Christians “experience the eschatological presence of God” (303). He avoids speculation about the subjective element of this experience and writes, rather, about the objective realities of this experience. These include the truths that, through the Spirit, redemption is applied to individuals, sanctification is worked out individually and corporately, and Christians may boldly draw near to God today.
Final Musings and Quibbles
Reading The Presence of God was enriching intellectually and spiritually and so these quibbles below are minor indeed.
(1) While already long at 368 pages and while the omission is acknowledged in a footnote (146, fn 1), the exclusion of some Old Testament books entirely in addition to the lack of space given to the Prophets (former and latter) and Writings compared with the Pentateuch and New Testament remains a lacuna to this otherwise comprehensive work.
(2) Arranging the work of Christ (God’s redemptive presence in the NT) under the rubric of prophet, priest and king, while helpful pedagogically, seemed to cause the material to be forced at times. For example, under the heading “prophet,” Lister compares Jesus to Moses and his role in the Exodus. Granted Moses was a prophet, but it does not follow that everything he did was inherently prophetic. It seemed that the material under Lister’s “prophet,” might be more accurately titled “covenant mediator.”
(3) The footnotes are at times unnecessarily lengthy. While often containing great insights and prompts for further reading, they are regularly cumbersome and redundant, and disrupt a smooth reading of the main text. By the end of some footnotes I found myself having to read back in the main body to remember where I was in the argument. However, it is apparent that the footnotes were wisely used in keeping material out of the main text. This kept the content as accessible as possible rendering the book available to all types of readers.
J. Ryan Lister is a lucid and enjoyable writer. The Presence of God would profit scholar, pastor and church-goer alike. It engages much secondary literature, particularly contemporary biblical theological works and is a welcome contribution to the field, while also standing alone as a significant evangelical work on the presence of God. It is erudite while remaining practical; it is instructive in both content and method; and it elicits praise for God and a longing for God to return. Come Lord Jesus.
Jonny Atkinson is a PhD student in Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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The Presence Of God: Its Place In The Storyline Of Scripture And The Story Of Our Lives