The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible

By Donald E. Gowan
Nashville, Tenn. : Westminsters John Knox (2003). xii + 531 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
15.1 (Spring 2004) : 118-120

A new lexical reference volume based on an English-Bible text while delving into the underlying Hebrew and Greek foundations has been a need for some time. Vine’s Expository Dictionary (Old Tappen, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1900) is dated, and attempts to update it have been unsatisfactory. This current work, edited by a longtime professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, seeks to fill in that gap, but with mixed results.

The English word-entry points derive from the text of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV), not a version of choice for most evangelicals. As Thomas noted in his review of the NRSV, “The major obstacle to its use by evangelicals remains: theological bias towards looser views of traditional orthodox doctrine that characterized the RSV also characterizes the NRSV” (TMSJ 2/1 [Spring 1991]:114-15). The editor states, “[T]he book has been written so that it can be used by readers who do not know the biblical languages” (vii), and in the introduction he refers to three works for those seeking more technical sources: (1) Theological Dictionary of the of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974- 2002, in progress); (2) Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997); and (3) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-74). Why the more recent (and more evangelically inclined) works, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed. Colin Brown [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986]) and the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (ed. Willem A. VanGemeren [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997]), were not listed is puzzling. Gowan lists two other Bible dictionaries as reference sources in the preface: the very much dated, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962) and the thorough but decidedly liberal Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992).

The format of the work is a standard two-column reference style. The article authors are named and occasionally there are bibliographies for the entries (although most of the bibliographic references seem out of sync with the intended audience). The work lacks any indexes, except a listing of abbreviations. An index listing all the articles would have been particularly helpful, and the lack of a Scripture index (especially for a work that has a particular English version as its basis) is especially detrimental to the overall usefulness. The work includes a generally helpful use of “see” references scattered throughout the entry points, but has a surprising lack of “see also” references at the end of different articles. The articles range in length from a few paragraphs to several pages.

Though many articles contain helpful and useful insights and the careful reader can derive benefit from this volume, quite a few problematic entries, especially for evangelicals, are also present. To detail the articles of this work in the short space of a review is impossible. A couple of examples will suffice. The article on “numbers [in the Bible]” leaves the impression that all numbers in the Bible have a deeper or symbolic meaning. At this point the article is critical even of the NRSV rendering, where, commenting on Revelation 21:16, the author states, “[T]he dimensions of the city are foursquare, ‘its length the same as its width,’ at twelve thousand stadia (Rev 21:16; NRSV’s ‘fifteen hundred miles’ obscures the use of the symbolic number twelve thousand), and the city walls at one hundred forty-four cubits (21:17); twelve squared reinforce the point that the city is complete and perfect” (348). It seems more precise to say that the city is complete and perfect because it is God’s city and “God Himself shall be among them” (21:3). Interestingly, though the author devotes some space to the number of the Beast, 666 (Rev 13:18, which he categorically declares to represent Nero Caesar), he has no discussion of the “1,000 years” of Revelation 20.

One additional example is noteworthy. When looking for “inspired or inspiration” (e.g., 2 Tim 3:16) one finds a “see” reference pointing to the entry for “prophet.” That rather disappointing article has no mention of 1 Pet 1:20-21, and the mention of 2 Tim 3:16, besides implicitly denying Pauline authorship, reduces inspiration to the insipid “salvational reliability” construct of liberalism. “Because Scripture is ‘God-breathed,’ it is a reliable source of teaching and instruction in the godly life” (409). That Donald K. McKim, a long-time opponent of both inerrancy and the evangelical view of inspiration, was the publisher’s editor for this work (viii) comes as no great surprise.

As the title suggests, the articles are more theological than lexical in nature, but some articles have excellent lexical notations. This feature is a key aspect in separating the volume from a more lexically based work, in that it presents meanings through the lens of a particular theological viewpoint. It therefore is not a tool for those who want to engage in independent Bible study. It cannot be recommended for the Christian in need of a personal Bible study tool; despite its age, Vine’s still surpasses this disappointing volume.