Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Testament Basics for Catholics by John Bergsma

New Testament Basics for Catholics is an enthusiastic self-study guide written in a colloquial style.  The intent of the book is to give the reader a basis on which to build more learning.  This book is by the same author who produced Bible Basics for Catholics.

This book, New Testament Basics for Catholics, is a teaching guide for a self-guided study course, to use alongside a Bible, with the chapters and verses provided along the way.  Through the course of the book, the author links the Bible texts to Catholic traditions such as:
  • The organization of the Church
  • Mass
  • Prayers
  • Religious Orders
  • Charity
  • Priests and Deacons
  • Sacraments 

Because the Bible is not just a religious text, this book is not just a religious course, despite taking a strict Catholic dogmatic line.  The Bible is also literature, history and philosophy.  This book attempts to touch on those points too, to some extent, but I would have enjoyed more of that.

The author has selected this approach to this basic introduction to the New Testament:
I have found that by focusing on just four authors, one can get a fairly good grasp of the New Testament.  Between them, these four authors wrote around 90 percent of the New Testament.  They are Matthew, Luke, Paul, and John.
All the lessons in the book are tied together with a common theme:  Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Under that umbrella, the lessons take place, returning to the theme at the end.  The author makes excellent use of memory techniques such as that, together with concise overviews, and working from broad strokes down to details.

Part of the book is a summary of the Old Testament, covering the six major covenants of God with the Jewish people.  This is necessary, since the New Testament accepts Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophesy of a Messiah.
God will send a Son of David who will build a better temple and restore the Kingdom of Israel.
The Catholic view is explained, that the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ's disciples, and headed first by Peter, is the imperfect Kingdom of Heaven on earth that will exist until the Final Judgment comes, and that the Popes were given by Jesus, via Peter, the right to determine Catholic dogma.

The book is clearly written for a U.S. American Catholic audience, which was why I found it odd that the author used at times the term Christian in the misnomer sense utilized by U.S. American Protestants to refer only to Protestants, to the inexplicable exclusion of Orthodox and Catholic Christians.  Actually, I found it more than odd.  I found it disappointing.

The author is very knowledgeable but he presents his erudition in a folksy manner, using popular culture references and humor to bring home his meanings.  The humor was not to my taste, but it may lighten the reading for some readers.  I found the inclusion of definitions of words together with a pronunciation guide to be condescending, but, again, some readers may appreciate that. 

See if you like this description from the book of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus:
Elizabeth was a wine, cheese, and 'Grey Poupon' Lady who finds her pregnant teenage "Big Mac" cousin from the north on her doorstep.
I didn't like it.

The beginning of the book seems to use a tone that is non-religious, just presenting the history of the Bible, but that non-religious, scholarly tone disappears at a certain point.
God arranged the circumstances of Jesus's birth...
Then come the arguments that are not specifically about the Bible, but are refutations, using Biblical texts, of points of view of living secular liberal philosophers and conservative Protestant theologians.  I feel those are out of place in this book, which is said to be about the Bible and the Catholic interpretation of it.  Just present that, then let the reader think for himself, is my view.

That is the same reason I dislike the parts of the book that lapse into interpreting the Bible in terms of present day life, which often stretch to fit the author's very dogmatic point of view.  He preaches to the Catholic reader:
We have to relearn what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom.

Jesus did not want to produce 'Cafeteria Catholics', those who pick and choose what they will obey among his teachings...and those of his Church.

While the explanations of the writings of Matthew, Luke, Paul and John are fascinating, I kept wanting to tell the writer to "teach, not preach".  I feel all those preaching bits would be better presented in a separate book that interprets the Bible for modern living, and relates it to the lives of modern Catholics in the United States. 

He could even include in his other book all the arguments from this one about why Protestantism is invalid, arguments which I found out of place in a book meant for Catholic readers, who don't need converting.

The jabs at the legitimacy of Protestant faiths, and other faiths, felt mean-spirited and out of place in this book.  I can only guess that the author's own conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism created the famous convert with extreme conviction, so much so that he chose to validate his decision in this book.

I also don't like when the Biblical scholar author veers from scholasticism into suppositions and pure gut guesses about the history referenced in the Bible.  The author even tries to explain away Biblical discrepancies.  Why?  The Bible was written by many people over much time, then translated into other languages.  It would be odd if there weren't any discrepancies.

He really stretches it when he cites archaeology to support Biblical events with a tone that is deceptively confident when the links are really not that clear-cut.  The parts that seeks to affirm Catholic dogma on issues such as marriage and divorce feel stretched as well, with the author making leaps in logic and interpretation that just don't hold up under greater scrutiny of the Biblical texts. 

He even lectures the reader on how to dress and act in daily life with the reasoning:  "Our lifestyle should encourage our fellow Christians in their faith."  Maybe, but when I read a book that says it will teach me about the New Testament, I don't expect to be told how to dress and behave.

I'll leave you with a list of the seven gifts delivered by the Holy Spirit, in the hope that they will bless all of you who have been kind enough to read to the end of my review:
  1. Wisdom
  2. Understanding
  3. Counsel
  4. Fortitude
  5. Knowledge
  6. Piety
  7. Fear of the Lord

From the book's description:
Award-winning author and theology professor John Bergsma follows up his popular Bible Basics for Catholics—which has sold more than 60,000 copies—with a more in-depth look at the New Testament.  Using simple illustrations and the same clear, conversational style that characterized his earlier book, Bergsma introduces four of the most important writers in the New Testament:  Matthew, Luke, Paul, and John.

With humor and simple illustrations, Bergsma focuses on Matthew, Luke, Paul, and John, whose writings comprise about 90 percent of the New Testament.  

The gospel of Matthew, written for Jewish Christians, illuminates the life and teachings of Christ as the long-promised Messiah.

In Luke's gospel, readers will delve into the infancy and Triduum narratives, as well as the Acts of the Apostles and the life of the early Church.

This leads the reader to discover St. Paul and his first and arguably greatest theological treatise:  Romans.

Finally, “the beloved apostle” St. John draws us in to the unsurpassed beauty of the fourth gospel, as well as the most mysterious book of the New Testament:  the book of Revelation.  

A concluding chapter offers suggestions for further study.

Intended as an introductory work for those who are new to scripture study, this New Testament book does not aspire to be a comprehensive guide to all twenty-seven books of the New Testament, but is intended to lay the foundation for a lifetime of scripture reading.

Here is a direct link to the book at

If you're interested, here is a lesson by the author that was made to accompany his earlier book about the whole Bible.

No comments:

Post a Comment