“‘Return to Me’: A Biblical Theology of Repentance” by Mark J. Boda

Mark Boda. ‘Return to Me’: A Biblical Theology of Repentance. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

In the 35th title of the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series, Mark J. Boda expands upon his publication A Severe Mercy (2009). While his 2009 work focused on sin and the remedy, Boda was prepared to write a book about the biblical theology of repentance. His work, thus, seeks to “offer a comprehensive overview of the theological witness of Scripture concerning the theme of repentance” (19), primarily oriented towards the overall theme of repentance and “implications for Christian theology and practice today” (34).

While his introduction clarifies the important term ‘biblical-theology’ and explains that he is only looking at repentance in context of man to God, he does not consider an important detail to the biblical theme of repentance, namely that how man relates to man often reflects how they stand in relation to God. Prime example is Joseph’s brother, who clearly were clearly penitential in Genesis 45 and 50. Perhaps their penitential behavior is indicative of their relationship to God, their willingness to do God’s will. Another prime example is Leviticus, in which sin against another person results in the necessity to repent not only for the neighbor but also for sin against God. Hence an important aspect of repentance excluded from Boda’s work

Essentially his overview of the Hebrew Bible accounts for every instance of discussion of repentance, either in word or dead, and focuses on two elements about the ‘inner change’ and ‘external/behavioural’ change. First, there is a variety of manners in which the biblical authors interpreted, represented, or discussed repentance. Yet, at the same time, the second point stands strong: there is a common theme of “return to relationship with Yahweh” (46). Boda traces this theme through the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, especially noting the inclination over time towards a theology in which God made repentance a possibility solely via his mercy and grace. Upon completion of his comprehensive discussion of the Hebrew Bible, his review of all of the Hebrew Bible includes dimensions, motivations, purposes, and psychology of repentance. More theologically oriented, he discusses the divine disablement or enablement. He concludes that the theological trajectory over-time led to a focus “that the restoration community [would be] typified by a penitential posture” (160), the community to whom the Hebrew Bible is written.

Based on the previous conclusion about the Hebrew Bible as written to the exile community, and the theological variations about repentance, he  moves forwards into overview of the New Testament. For Boda, the New Testament proceeds into a new time of redemptive-history, a time in which the kingdom is re-established “through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and assecion (Acts 2:13-36), and repentance is identified as the key posture of those who enter into relationship with Jesus as Messiah” (181). Hence those of the kingdom of God hold a posture of repentance, an idea made popular by N.T. Wright and McKnight. Again, similar to the conclusions of the Hebrew Bible, Boda notes a variety of approaches to repentance, all of which point to the idea of return to relationship. Covering the same elements, he reviews the various dimensions of repentance in the New Testament. Upon his analysis, he concludes that repentance, from a Christian canonical biblical theology, “signals the beginning of the final phase of redemptive history” (190).

Regarding discussion of New Testament repentance, it is almost as if Boda considers the New Testament to be totally autonomous, independent of influence from the Hebrew Bible. While he is warranted to do so in that he is reading the New Testament from a redemptive-historical approach, his approach sparingly discusses the dependency of New Testament theology upon the Hebrew Bible. Though there is brief reference to the Hebrew Bible highlighting “God’s role in enabling his community to embrace fully the agenda of repentance” (189), the lack of direct discussion shows that his approach fails to take into account the cultural importance of the Hebrew Bible. Even among evangelical Christians, the primary audience of Boda’s work, there is some recognition that the New Testament is not an independent work. New Testament concepts of repentance originated in the Hebrew Bible by utilizing major themes and motifs. They also developed via Second Temple Period Literature, which is out of the scope of his study.

His final chapter discusses the theological implications of repentance within Christianity, rooting Christian faith in repentance and noting the continual necessity for repentance. And as he quotes Luther, “the entire life of believers should be one of repentance” (194). Boda’s overview of repentance places emphasis on the daily and active repentant posture that should consume the Christian life. He concludes with three applicable points for Christianity: individuals “have a part to play in the penitential rhythms of other individual believers” (197), repentance should impact corporate experience as believing communities, and repentance is “fundamentally a return to intimate fellowship with he triune God”(198).

Overall Mark Boda’s work to comprehensively cover the basic concepts surrounding repentance in the Christian Biblical canon is accomplished. And although there are areas where one may disagree with what constitutes repentance regarding the relationship of man with God, his work is nonetheless an excellent coverage and formation of a biblical theology of repentance. Even though his ‘Return to Me’ is not full of secondary references to current work, it is reasonable because the academic dialogue and discussion is located in his foundational work, A Severe Mercy. For the sake of the lay and pastoral reader, Boda explores a biblical theology of repentance in a manner which is appropriate and should be read by people of the Christian faith. His presentation is clear, uncluttered, and sucinct, a key to people seeking to understanding a tradition of a certain biblical theology of repentance.

I would like to express my gratitude to InterVarsity Press for supplying with a review copy of “‘Return to Me’: A Biblical Theology of Repentance”.

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