Book Review: Mark J. Boda, Return To Me: A Biblical Theology of Repentance

Boda, Mark J. ‘Return To Me’: A Biblical Theology of Repentance. NSBT 35; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 232 pp. Pb; $22.   Link to IVP

Mark J. Boda (PhD, University of Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at McMaster Divinity and a coeditor for IVP’s Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets. Boda is well-suited for a monograph on repentance: more than two pages of the bibliography of Return to Me were written or edited by Mark Boda, primarily works dealing with repentance and penitential prayers. He has been extremely active in SBL/AAR groups studying repentance and related themes.

Boda, Return to MeThis new contribution to New Studies in Biblical Theology is an excellent example the theory and practice of biblical theology. He examines a narrowly defined topic in all of the genre of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. After collecting and analyzing this data, he summarizes his findings in order to create a biblical theology of repentance. Boda is sensitive to both text of Scripture and its message to the original readers of the canon of Scripture. Occasionally I find his exegesis lacking depth, but this is the result of restrictions on the size of the book in the NSBT series. Boda has pointed the way for future exegetes to explore repentance in these texts in far more detail.

In his introduction, Boda states that careful observation of both the Old and New Testament will show “the striking similarity in their expression of the theology of repentance” (20). He begins by reviewing the various vocabulary of repentance used in both testaments, but he is well aware the idea of repentance may be present even when specific vocabulary is not (29). Boda defines repentance as “a turn or return to faithful relationship with God from a former strain of estrangement” (31). Here he cites Zech 1:1-6 and Acts 26:16-20 as illustrations of this definition.

Boda develops this definition by surveying the texts on repentance in eight sections of Hebrew Bible. Beginning with the Torah, he briefly examines every example of repentance. These texts are selected because of the presence of repentance language or because the idea of repentance is clearly in the background. Several patterns emerge as this survey progresses. First, repentance is necessary because of human obstinacy. Second, an invitation to repent is initiated by God through his leaders or prophets. Third, repentance is accompanied by physical rituals (washing with water, weeping, tearing clothes, etc.). When humans respond to the prompting of God and repent, there is a need for covenant renewal. This renewal is often a sacrifice or other act of worship.

From the Latter Prophets, for example, Boda develops what he calls the “Penitential Process.” Using 2 Kings 17:12-15 as his model, he outlines the basic structure of the penitential process as: Israel sins, Yahweh warns through the prophets and their message of repentance, Israel “stiffens the neck” and refuses to repent, so Yahweh responds with judgment (62). This is a pattern found throughout the prophetic books explaining Israel and Judah’s need for repentance and return to covenant faithfulness. For some readers, this may sound a great deal like Deuteronomic theology.

Chapter 11 is a summary of Boda’s reading of all of the texts on repentance in the Old Testament. First, in the Old Testament, repentance is relational. Often this shift in relationship is rejection of a foreign god and a return to Yahweh. That return is accompanied by inner convection (sincerity, contriteness, etc.) and demonstrated by a ritual (fasting, tearing of clothes, ashes on the head, etc.) Repentance most often is a response to God’s wrath, although this is not always the case. Like Josiah, One might hear the words of the Torah and return to the Lord. While in some cases God prevents repentance (Pharaoh, for example), he also enables his people to repent and return to him. Using Deut 30:6 as an example, Boda points out that Moses looked forward to a time when God would “circumcise the heart” of his people and enable them to return from exile (158).

After ten chapters on repentant in the Old Testament, Boda dispatches the issue of repentance in the New Testament two chapters. One surveys the texts, the second summarizes this data into a coherent New Testament “biblical theology of repentance.” For the most part, Boda finds the same themes in the New Testament as the Old. Beginning with the command to “repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” Boda shows the Synoptic Gospels and Acts are filled with the language of repentance (166). This is perhaps a good opportunity to create continuity between Jesus and the Hebrew Bible since Jesus’ call to repent is more similar to an Old Testament prophet than personal repentance of sin. To a certain extent Boda achieves his in summary chapter on the New Testament: “repentance in redemptive-historical perspective is the posture of those who will participate in the kingdom in the present age and the age to come” (181). Here he highlights the continuity between this age and the age to come, but I think more can be done do connect the repentance called for by the prophets and the preaching of Jesus.

Boda says Paul uses penitential vocabulary to describe the “normative Christian life” (172), although the data he provides does not always illustrate the point. For example, “setting one’s mind on things above” in Colossians 3 is suggested as an example of repentance since this involves putting off the old self and putting on the new. It is possible repentance is required if one is to put to death the old self, but Paul does not make that point in Colossians 3. His brief comments on sowing and reaping in Galatians 6:8-9 also seem to straining to find repentance in a text which is not obviously about returning to a former relationship.

In his final chapter, Boda discusses a few theological implications of repentance based on his findings, especially as related to the “hyper-grace gospel.” This is a more recent version of the Lordship Salvation debate of the 1980s. Having surveyed the whole Bible, Boda concludes repentance is a core element of the Gospel that is in fact a human act, but a human act which is prompted by God. To overplay either one of these elements is dangerous and risks obscuring the Gospel.

Conclusion. Since the book follows canonical order or the Bible, I wonder if a trajectory could have been established by treating post-exilic sections of the prophets in the same unit as Ezra-Nehemiah, Daniel and Lamentations. Perhaps Isaiah 40-55, 56-66 alongside these early Second Temple works would have yielded interesting results. It is possible dividing Isaiah is the problem, but that is not an issue addressed in the book. While this book is excellent as is stands, a chapter on Second Temple literature may have been helpful to set the stage for the New Testament. He indicates very early in the book that repentance in the Second Temple Period is an important area of research (citing N. T. Wright, for example), but he has defined his study as limited to the canonical texts.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Mark J. Boda, Return To Me: A Biblical Theology of Repentance

  1. Good to hear about this book… thanks. You may (somewhat) know that I’m interested in the development of Judaism and Christianity esp. as cultural/religious phenomena. Repentance is an important aspect of this and at least one of your citations indicates how it relates to the important theme of the development of true monotheism. It seems this “return” aspect of repentance evidences what is indicated in various ways in the Heb. Bible: that worship of YHWH only very gradually, over centuries, became consistently the “orthodoxy” of Israel/Judah, and primarily the latter as the later-surviving “branch” and fore-runner of Rabbinic Judaism.

    So there were many occasions for repentance as return. Also interesting that it was sometimes prompted by developments taken as judgment by God (altho being over-run, conquered was probably inevitable given their pivotal geographic location).

    As to the NT, it sounds to me like he doesn’t very deeply explore something I’ve noted and think is of significance: That Paul is not particularly interested in pushing repentance — almost never mentioning it in the sense Boda develops . I see that as directly tied to the fact that Paul is pushing a new dynamic (or new angle on an established one): faith. Particularly faith in Jesus as not just Jewish Messiah, but as cosmic Savior. Since this is a new revelation (via Paul himself, quite self-consciously), it logically seems to not need a “return” to earlier belief. And, of course, those in his pagan audience would not be returning to Jehovah at all, tho they did need to “turn” from past beliefs and actions to the true God and righteousness (per the “law” revealed in their hearts). Does he go into any of this? Or how Paul’s intense conviction that the Kingdom was about to come fully in with Jesus’ appearance may also have affected his views of repentance?

    • Two things mitigate against the book “downplaying” the NT. First, Boda is an OT guy, so I would expect his focus to be there. He mentions in the intro the bulk of the book will be on the OT since that is about 76% of the canon. Second, his argument is more or less, the NT assumes the OT with respect to repentance. This means he needs to spend the bulk of his book on the foundational texts.

      There is more to “turning” than perhaps I gave in the review, he does talk about turning from either wrong practices or ideas to the Lord, although perhaps “return” is better since repentance is for the covenant people (who are supposed to know better).

      As for repentance and Paul, immanent eschatology is not really a factor in this book, Paul’s letters are a portion of a chapter which includes the Gospels, so there is not much room for detail. In fact, there is less repentance in the Pauline Letters than in the rest of the NT, so he includes things like changing of mind (Rom 12, etc), even if the vocab of repentance is absent.

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