Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God
William R. Osborne. Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God. Short Studies in Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2020. Pp. 159. $15.99 paperback.
I like Osborne’s book. The title (Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God) and the series name (“Short Studies in Biblical Theology”) tell you a lot about it. It is a theology of the blessings God brings to his people (“Divine Blessing”). These blessings may be summarized as including both material and spiritual benefits (“Fullness of Life”). They are primarily experienced only in a covenantal relationship with God (“in the Presence of God”). The character of these blessings is slightly modified throughout redemptive-history, and all of this is done well in 126 small pages of text (“Short Studies in Biblical Theology”).
Osborne writes for ordinary church members so they can appreciate what it means to be blessed by God. He notes the common, and many times non-biblical, “blessing” usage in our culture that is virtually a boast about oneself by using humble-sounding words, e.g., “I am so blessed to be good at soccer” (my example). He also tells the personal story of being in a small group where someone asks, “If God gives me a car, is he blessing me?” and the various conflicting answers that were given by well-meaning Christians (p. 107). Finally, he has a soft polemic in much of the book against a prosperity-gospel use of blessing where “blessing = wealth” (p. 72). He points out that there are many biblical situations where it is emphasized that “prosperity ≠ righteousness,” and “suffering ≠ wickedness” (p. 102).
In addressing a broad audience, Osborne has a non-academic and winsome style. There is even occasionally a little comedy, e.g., “God’s [land] promise is not just a place for Abram to tie up his camels!” (p. 59). Given this, there is significant substance to his theology and exegesis that any sophisticated reader will quickly recognize. In the text per se, Osborne presents his arguments assuming conservative assumptions, and, as I perceive it, from at least a generally Reformed perspective. As can be seen from his footnotes, however, he is well aware of academic critical/liberal-versus-conservative issues along with often using common-grace insights of critical/liberal scholars.
In the academic world, there has been some debate as to the best summary of the multifaceted use of the “blessing” word group (ברך, εὐλογέω, and cognates). Osborne has three main uses: (1) “to bless as an action,” (2) “a blessing as thing. . . a gift,” and (3) “being blessed as a state of being” (p. 20). He also appropriately includes discussions of the conceptually similar “happy”/“blessed” (אשׁרי, μακάριος). Finally, he occasionally looks at passages where none of these words are used but the concept surely is (e.g., Israel’s sacrificial system, the “all things” of Rom. 8:32).
Osborne covers many details connected to “blessing” throughout redemptive-history. His primary point is: “God’s blessings for his people are relational, spiritual, material, present, and eschatological” (p. 133). Of course, in the final eschaton, he notes that there still will be spiritual and material blessings in a relational context, but there will no longer be a now/not-yet aspect. To make his broad point, the book consists of an introduction and five chapters. Using my wording, the chapters cover (1) Genesis 1–3, (2) Genesis 12–50, (3) Exodus through the post-exilic era, (4) the New Testament age, and (5) the final eschaton (new heavens and new earth). Of the five, by far the least space is given to the final eschaton.
As part of the soft anti-health-and-wealth polemic, there are two significant emphases. The first is that the Old Testament blessings are more than material. Yes, they include material benefits, but there are also spiritual benefits. And both of these benefits are in the primary covenantal relationship with God, which then would include proper relationships with other humans. These blessings are not due to merit, but they are related to “faith-driven obedience” (p. 57, 66). The Old Testament, especially certain Psalms and Job, also include righteous suffering and poverty. The second significant emphasis is to show that this same Old Testament material-spiritual-relational understanding of blessing comes into the New Testament. There are, however, some redemptive-historical changes, including now/not-yet factors and more of an emphasis on the spiritual. But fundamentally, it is the same blessing theology.
There is a keen pastoral insight stressed in this book. Do not make a “false dichotomy of either loving the giver or the gift” (p. 104). Concerning loving the gift more than the giver, Osborne includes a striking illustration. Consider a typical child at Christmas who receives a really good gift. But he gets so overly excited at the gift that he (unconsciously) focusses his joy only on the gift and forgets about the giver. Osborne offers sage advice for the modern Christian upon receiving a material or circumstantial benefit that appears on the surface to be a blessing. “Does this ‘blessing’ draw me closer to the triune God? Does this need being met bring me nearer to the giver, or is it a distraction?” (p.126, emphasis removed).
Although not stated in this book, its understanding of blessings as including both material and spiritual aspects in every redemptive-historical age well matches standard Reformed theology. Chapter XIII of The Second Helvetic Confession (AD 1566) notes that both Old and New Testament believers had “two kinds of promises.” Some were “of present and transitory things: such as were the promises of the land of Canaan, and of victories; and such as are nowadays concerning our daily bread. Other promises there were then, and are now, of heavenly and everlasting things; as of God’s favor, remission of sins, and life everlasting, through faith in Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine). Reformed theology and Osborne’s book get this right.
RTS students and pastors should read this book. It helps solidify for them a basic and important theme in the Bible, which in turn allows them to better educate church members and/or recommend this book to members. And, in addition, RTS students and pastors may want to read chapter XIII of The Second Helvetic Confession!
Robert J. Cara
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte