Monday, November 03, 2008

Book Review: The Greatest Words Ever Spoken by Steven K. Scott

The Greatest Words Ever Spoken by Steven K. Scott
A Review by Russ Reaves

Steven K. Scott told his friend Gary Smalley that he didn't even know if this book would ever be published. "I'm doing it for me," he said (xvii). His understanding of John 8:31-32 and Matthew 7:21-25 led him to compile the teachings of Jesus in a topical arrangement. "He wanted the words of Christ to form the concrete foundation of his beliefs on every subject and issue of life" (xvii). This book is the finished product of what was certainly a long labor of love and personal devotional discipline for Scott. In it, over 1900 statements of Jesus are arranged into more than 200 categories, and separated among nine larger headings. Those nine headings are the major chapter divisions of The Greatest Words Ever Spoken. They are "the greatest words ever spoken" about (1) Jesus; (2) God the Father; (3) the Holy Spirit; (4) Eternity; (5) Jesus' Followers; (6) Humanity; (7) God Reaching Out to Us; (9) How to Know God. Each of these chapters and many of the various subdivisions within each one contains material written by Scott to introduce the subjects.

Scott is the author of several books including The Richest Man Who Ever Lived, Mentored by a Millionaire, Simple Steps to Impossible Dreams, and A Millionaire's Notebook. He is not a theologian or pastor, but a successful business entrepreneur. His love for Christ is evident in the obvious effort he put into this project, in the introductory words written by Gary Smalley, and in his own words which introduce the various sections of the book. It is refreshing to see someone so successful and influential in the secular world using that influence to point others to the words of Jesus.

The book has a very usable layout, with the chapter divisions and subheadings clearly marked and the biblical passages arranged in two-columns per page. The Table of Contents, Scripture Index and Subject Index make it a handy reference volume. At over 500 pages, the book is sizable, but not unmanageable.

Upon receiving this book, it occurred to me that I do not know of another book of this kind in print today. There may be one or more, but this is the first volume I have laid hands on which seeks to arrange the teachings of Jesus in a topical order. Topical Bibles abound, but this one is limited solely to the words of Jesus. As such, it is a valuable reference tool. For instance, on pp 46-51, under the subheading of Jesus' Missions, one finds over 50 passages in which "Jesus identifies twenty-six different missions that He set out to achieve when he came to earth" (46). These would serve a pastor or Sunday School teacher well in choosing texts on which to base sermons or lessons for the Advent Season.

A new Christian will find the book to be a great help in discovering Jesus' teachings on the variety of subjects treated. The introductory matter in each chapter would also serve the new Christian well in devotional usage. One could read a separate subsection each day and have nearly a year of daily devotional study set before him or her. As a godly layman, Scott's zeal for Christ and biblical wisdom is worthy of emulation for those who are taking their beginning steps in the Christian faith.

The book is not without its faults. I find three major areas of concern with the book. The first is in its theology. Most importantly, though Scott makes it obvious that he believes in the deity of Jesus Christ, he builds the case for Christ's deity slowly and, in my opinion, carelessly. In his introductory chapter entitled "The Greatest Words Ever Spoken," Scott makes no overt claim that Jesus is divine. In the introduction to the first major chapter division, "The Greatest Words Ever Spoken About Jesus," that claim is still absent. Though the titles "Messiah," "Christ," "Son of God," and "Son of Man" are employed frequently throughout these pages, and the pronouns that refer to Jesus are capitalized (He, Him, His), one is forced to endure thirty-four pages of the book before ever arriving at any clear claim of Christ's deity. There, in introducing the subsection entitled "Jesus' Identity," Scott refers to Jesus accepting worship, identifying Himself as God, and engaging in divine actions. This brief paragraph is still insufficient to convince the unbelieving reader of the divine nature of Jesus. On page 55, a passing reference is made to the fact that "Jesus is a coequal, coeternal member of the Trinity." On pages 87-88, readers are told that J. R. R. Tolkein developed "a simple yet brilliant proof of Christ's deity," but that proof is not shared with the audience. It would be my hope that in future editions, Scott would expand his treatment of the deity of Christ, and perhaps include an appendix containing a detailed apologetic of this foundational Christian doctrine. As it stands, I do not believe that the unbelieving reader will come away convinced that Jesus Christ is fully-divine. In fact, it would be very easy for one to read the entire volume and miss the brief passing statements which are included.

Another theological concern I have with the book is in its treatment of Scripture. Christians believe that "All Scripture is inspired by God (or "God-breathed", theopneustas) and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17). This means that God is the ultimate author of every word of the Bible. In short, we do not believe that the "red letters" are more important for faith and practice than the "black letters." This is not evident from Scott's statements in the early portions of the book. For instance, on page 6, he states that his topical arrangement of Jesus' teachings "will enable you to read everything Jesus said without the interruption of commentary, transitional scenes, and details about the activities of the people who surrounded Him." Are we to understand from this that the words of the Gospel writers are "interupptions," needless commentary, and unimportant details? I do not think Scott would intend to declare that, but this is precisely the effect of his words. Again, on page 8, Scott writes, "Whenever you are studying a biblical subject, considering a spiritual question, or seeking guidance for a decision, the first question you should ask is 'What did Jesus say?' His words will provide the foundation for all your values, beliefs, and doctrines." This begs the following questions: Are there passages of Scripture outside of the explicit sayings of Jesus which treat the same subjects and perhaps expand on these sayings? Are there subjects which Jesus does not address, but other passages do? And if so, are those passages of lesser importance than these "red letter" passages? We have observed in our culture the tactics of some who want to pit Jesus' teachings with those of the Apostle Paul, for instance, and the Evangelical response to those arguments is that all Scripture is God's Word, and should be handled with equal gravity. Though I am certain that it is unintentional on Scott's part, he has made a false dichotomy between the words of Jesus and the rest of Scripture that can lead to a dangerous handling of the Bible.

The second major area of concern I find in the book has to do with sloppy hermeneutics. Two examples of this will illustrate the concern. First, concerning the study of Scripture in its context, Scott says on page 6 that by reading his book, "In a matter of minutes, you can read everything He (Jesus) said about a topic, which will help you gain a deeper understanding of His teachings." My response to this statement is, "Deeper than what?" Certainly one cannot expect reading this topical arrangement of Scripture portions to provide a greater depth than a historical-grammatical inductive study of the entire passage in its various levels of context. Scott is aware of the need to study Scripture in its context, for he says on page 8, "Because context is so important, the verses surrounding the key points are usually provided." Sometimes, a verse or two of surrounding context is sufficient, but most of the time it is not. The meaning of a particular passage is embedded in a larger pericope. As a case in point, on page 445, Revelation 3:20 is cited under the heading of "Accepting and Receiving Christ." When one studies that passage in its context, one discovers that Jesus is not knocking on the door of the unbeliever, but of the church! Though Steven Scott is not the first, and certainly won't be the last, to wrench that verse from its context, it is but one example of the error of piecing passages together without a thorough understanding of the context and historical setting.

The second example of sloppy hermeneutics that concerns me in this book is its treatment of the promises of Jesus. On page 2, Scott writes, "If you choose to follow Him (Jesus), then all 108 promises are promises you can count on -- promises that will produce peace in a troubled heart, joy in the midst of tragedy, success in place of failure, and most important, a glorified life that lasts for eternity." There is a hint of subjectivity or relativism in this statement, for according to Scott, it is only those who follow Jesus who find that His promises are "promises you can count on." Perhaps more alarmingly is the undeniable fact that those who do not follow Christ will ultimately find that they can count on His promises as well, only for them they will not prove to be promises of peace, joy, success and glory. Moreover, in this statement one finds the common error of misapplying the all of the promises of Scripture as universals when many of them are addressed only to a particular person or group in a particular setting. Scott is aware of this reality in handling Scripture. On page 299, he writes, "You should note that when a promise is made to an individual or a group, it may be so specific as to apply only to that person or group. Such a promise may reflect a principle that applies to others, but it may not." Yet, repeatedly throughout the book, Scott violates this very principle in applying a particular set of promises Christ made to His apostles as if they were universal promises for all believers. I am speaking of the promises concerning the ministry of the Holy Spirit found in John 14:26 and 16:13. These are specific promises which deal with the reality that the Holy Spirit would enable the apostles to teach the foundational truths of Christ in the first generation of the faith and to write the infallible words of the New Testament by teaching them all things, bringing to their remembrance all that Christ said to them, guiding them into all truth, and disclosing to them what is to come. Scott says on page 9, "As you study the words of Christ, you will receive the benefits He promised in John 16:13 and John 14:26. The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth, He will tell you things to come, and He will glorify Christ. Jesus also promises that the Holy Spirit will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all the things that Christ has spoken to you" [emphasis mine]. These things are repeated in the introductory words on the chapter which treats Jesus' words about the Holy Spirit on pages 114-115 and the introduction to chapter five on pages 183. It has perhaps escaped Scott's notice that the abuse of these promises has been at the foundation of the establishment of many cults who have applied these specific promises universally and used them as justification for their discovery of "new truth." It is a common but dangerous error to mishandle these promises in this way, and the book would be helped by a clarification that these promises are examples of those which apply only to a particular group, namely the apostles.

While this is not an exhaustive treatment of my concerns with the book, these are sufficient to indicate that the book needs some revision. I believe it would be helped by the constructive suggestions of theologians and biblical scholars, as well as by a broader base of personal research on the part of its author. Notwithstanding these concerns, the book is a valuable project. It is unique and fills a void in accessible literature today, being what I would describe as a "Red Letter Nave's." It would be useful for pastors, counselors, Sunday School teachers and laypeople. It would serve them well as a devotional tool and as a guide for selecting texts and parallel passages for preaching and teaching. Perhaps its greatest benefit would be in introducing new believers to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. Though the foreword promises that Scott's short chapter introductions are "extremely enlightening and compelling to non-Christians," I believe that the non-Christian seeker would be better served by a thorough reading of the Bible itself. And for all of its potential benefits, the book cannot be a substitute for personal inductive Bible study and a regular diet of expository preaching in the local church. It is a good book. With some revisions and corrections based on the input of faithful and careful scholars, it can be a great book that will stand the test of time and serve many generations of Christ's church.

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