Kingdom People

June 25, 2009

Book Review: John Grisham’s The Associate

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:54 am

The AssociateI have been a John Grisham fan for about ten years now. The first Grisham book I read was A Time to Kill, which is still my favorite. Other Grisham books I have enjoyed are The Rainmaker, The Testament and A Painted House.

In recent years, I have been disappointed by Grisham’s output. Nevertheless, during a brief beach vacation earlier this summer, I picked up Grisham’s newest: The Associate (DoubleDay, 2009). The Associate proves that Grisham is still able to craft an interesting story.

(Warning: Spoilers Follow)

The Associate is about Kyle McAvoy, a promising law student who has a wild past. During his college years, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and almost was charged (falsely) with rape. Years later, a sinister group of lawyers show Kyle a video that places him at the scene of the crime, and then they blackmail him into becoming a spy in the firm in which he works.

If I could sum up this book with one Bible verse, it would be this: “Be sure your sins will find you out.” The sins of Kyle and his friends in their twenties cause a ripple effect. The girl who claims she was raped now hates men and has turned to lesbianism. The other guys involved are trying to get on with their lives, but several are haunted by guilt.

The Associate casts a negative light on frat house parties. Grisham exposes the lifestyle that many in America have come to see as innocent fun or the proverbial “sowing your wild oats.” Grisham’s book demonstrates that some actions have consequences years after we commit them.

Still, the book is ultimately unsatisfying. The end of the book shows how Kyle is able to gain his freedom, but the perpetrators of the blackmail are never brought to justice. The ending may make the book a little more realistic, but most readers will hunger to see the criminals brought to justice.

The Associate is not Grisham’s best, but it is probably one of his better books of late. You might enjoy the fast-paced narrative if you are planning a vacation this summer.

June 24, 2009

Frank Beckwith’s Journey Back to Roman Catholicism

Filed under: Book Reviews,Roman Catholicism — Trevin Wax @ 3:04 am

Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical CatholicIn 2007, Francis Beckwith, the president of the Evangelical Theological Society, announced that he was stepping down from his post after having converted back to the Catholic Church of his childhood. Beckwith’s announcement sent shock waves through the evangelical world. Even some of Beckwith’s closest friends did not see his conversion coming.

Why did Frank Beckwith, a well-respected evangelical scholar and author, return to the church of his childhood? Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (2008, Brazos Press) is a personal memoir that tells the story of Beckwith’s decision to rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.

Return to Rome is primarily a narrative, although it is laced with Catholic apologetics, evangelical appreciation and criticism, as well as theological reflection. Speaking of his book, Beckwith states:

“It is not meant to be an apologetic for Catholicism or an autobiography in the strict sense.” (16)

Despite Beckwith’s stated intentions in writing this memoir, it is hard to see this book as something less than a Catholic apologetic, since he devotes a considerable amount of space to delineating the theological reasons for his movement back toward the Roman Catholic Church.

Beckwith begins his story with his departure from Roman Catholicism. Raised in the atmosphere of post-Vatican II Catholicism, Beckwith received little conservative and traditional teaching.

“My religion teachers often spoke of Catholicism as ‘our tradition’ rather than as a cluster of beliefs that were true. This relativizing of the faith did not engender confidence in the young students under their tutelage. Moreover, basic Catholic doctrine was often presented inadequately.” (36)

He writes honestly about the weaknesses of the Catholic environment of his childhood:

“I believe that the Catholic Church’s weakness was presenting the renewal movements like the charismatic movement as something new and not part of the Church’s theological traditions. For someone like me, interested in both the spiritual and intellectual grounding of the Christian faith, I didn’t need the ‘folk Mass’ with cute nuns and hip priests playing ‘Kumbaya’ with guitars, tambourines, and harmonicas.” (38)

Reading over the reasons for Beckwith’s departure from the Roman Catholic Church, I could not help but wonder if perhaps evangelicals are making the same mistakes he observed in the post-Vatican II era. What if evangelicals are watering down biblical truth in an effort to be “cool” and appeal to certain segments of our society? What if evangelicals are repeating the mistakes the Roman Catholics were making 30 years ago? Might such a development lead more people to Rome?

Beckwith recognizes that the Catholic Church’s intellectual tradition was also very attractive. He writes:

“My experience has been that most very intelligent Christians who had come to a deeper walk with Christ in independent Evangelical and/or non-liturgical churches often gravitate toward a theological and/or ecclesiastical tradition that has strong historical roots, such as Calvinism, Lutheranism, Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.” (44)

Beckwith does not sugarcoat his experience as a young child in Catholicism. He asks tough questions of Catholicism:

“…The American Catholic Church has to ask itself a serious and painful question: is there anything that we did that helped facilitate the departure of these talented and devoted people from our communion?” (45)

Beckwith recounts the passion of his early years as an evangelical. He speaks fondly of Francis Schaeffer. He relates his enthusaism upon becoming convinced that certain creeds are authoritative renderings of Christian doctrine. He outlines the major steps in his education and his rise to prominence in evangelical scholarship.

Readers might be surprised to discover some charismatic tendencies in Beckwith’s memoir. He describes a vision of Jesus that his wife had. He interprets events in his life as signs of God’s approval of his departure from the evangelical faith back to Roman Catholicism.

Beckwith devotes considerable space to the doctrine of justification by faith, which is, of course, the defining difference between Protestants and Catholics. I found his exposition of the Protestant view to be somewhat reductionistic. For example, he writes:

“The grace one receives is legal or forensic. This means that grace is not real stuff that changes nature, but merely the name given to God’s graciousness by legally accounting to us Christ’s righteousness.” (85)

I do not know of any Protestant who argues that God’s grace is not transformative. Protestants take care to note that the basis of our justification is faith alone in Jesus Christ. But that does not exclude the transforming power of God’s grace. We simply do not call the moral transformation “justification.” Protestants are careful to avoid making our own righteousness the basis for our salvation.

The end of the book forcefully argues for inclusion of Catholics in the Evangelical Theological Society.

“I still believe that the ETS doctrinal statement is broad enough to allow Catholic members.” (119)

I actually agree with Beckwith on this issue. I do not classify Catholics as evangelicals in the classic sense, but if Beckwith is making a case for Catholic membership in ETS based solely upon the society’s doctrinal statement, then he is correct. There is nothing in this document that would explicitly exclude Catholic members.

Beckwith bolsters his case by bringing good evidence:

“Pastors and theologians like Boyd, Pinnock, and Sanders are constrained only by ‘inerrancy’ and ‘the Trinity,’ which means (at least theoretically) that they could embrace any one of a variety of heresies condemned by the ancient Church and yet still remain an ETS member in good standing: Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or the denial of Christ’s eternal sonship. Yet oddly, Catholics who embrace the Church that claimed to have the ecclesiastical authority to condemn these heresies, and which provided to its separated progeny, including Evangelicals, the resources and creeds that provide the grounds for excluding these heresies, apparently have no place in ETS.” (126)

I find Beckwith’s case to be very persuasive. He goes on to write:

“Put in terms of specific traditions, if the term ‘Evangelical’ is broad enough to include high-church Anglicans, low-church anti-creedal Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, the Evangelical Free Church, Arminians, Calvinists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventist, open theists, atemporal theists, social Trinitarians, substantial Trinitarians, nominalists, realists, eternal security supporters and opponents, temporal theists, dispensationalists, theonnmists, church-state separationists, church-state accomodationists, cessationists, non-cessationists, kenotic theorists, covenant theologians, paedo-Baptists, Anabaptists, and Dooyeweerdians, then there should be room for an Evangelical Catholic.” (128)

I agree with Beckwith that ETS should allow Catholics in its membership as long as it stands by its current doctrinal formulation. If ETS decides that Catholics should be excluded, then the official doctrinal statement needs to be adjusted in order to reflect what the society agrees is “true evangelical identity.” It might be time for a more robust confession of faith, and not the minimalist document that guides ETS today.

At the end of the book, Beckwith admits:

“…My return to the Catholic Church has as much to do with a yearning for a deeper spiritual life as it did with theological reasoning.” (128)

In the end, Beckwith confesses that a deep spiritual yearning ultimately led him back to Rome, not theological reasoning.  Return to Rome would have been better had Beckwith given us more insight into Rome’s satisfaction of his spiritual yearnings instead of the doctrinal issues that he admits were not the primary factor in his decision to return to Rome.

June 18, 2009

The Need for Sticky Ideas

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:00 am

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others DieThink back to the most memorable sermon you have ever heard. Now think about what it was that made that sermon memorable. Chances are, it was an illustration. Some analogy or story gripped your attention.

I remember attending a youth event where the preacher delivered a message about the dangers of thinking you can control your sin. The illustration he used was so powerful and vivid that fifteen years later I still remember them both – the point of the sermon and the illustration he used to make his point.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2008, Random House) is written by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. The Heath brothers believe they know why some ideas stick and why others don’t, and they are determined to help communicators figure out how to make their ideas “sticky.”

Made to Stick is not a Christian book. Anyone entrusted with the task of communicating concepts to others can benefit from the insights here. But having read Made to Stick, I cannot help but see the practicality of these principles for preachers and teachers of God’s Word. 

According to the Heath brothers, there are six principles for “stickiness” in communication:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotions
  6. Stories

In expounding upon each of these principles, Chip and Dan provide us with a wealth of stories and examples. They show the difference between an “un-sticky” and a “sticky” idea. Most of the time, the packaging of a concept or idea is what makes it sticky, not the idea itself.

Chip and Dan also warn against some of the dangers in communication. One villain is what they call “The Curse of Knowledge.”

“This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.” (20)

Many pastors and teachers struggle here. We know the biblical text and the context, but many of our listeners do not. We must take great care to avoid the Curse of Knowledge as we preach, and Made to Stick helps us figure out ways to circumvent this natural tendency.

There is much food for thought in this book:

“An accurate but useless idea is still useless.” (57)

“Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages. When messages sound like common sense, they float gently in on ear and out the other.” (72)

Chip and Dan also tell stories of people who have succeeded at making sticky messages. I love the story about the Subway guy – the man who lost weight from eating sub sandwiches. This personal story helped boost Subway’s sales by giving them a new advertising campaign.

The Heath brothers believe we should be concrete and specific in our communication. Church leaders need to heed this challenge. As a discipleship pastor, I have seen mission statements that are hopelessly broad. Take this one for example: “We exist to make full fledged disciples of Jesus.” Sounds great, right?  But what does it mean? What does a full-fledged disciple of Jesus look like?

If we are truly passionate for seeing lives changed by the power of God’s Word, delivered through our sermons and teaching, then we should desire that our messages to be remembered. We want our teaching to “stick,” not because our teaching is our own, but because we are setting before our hearers the Word of God.

If there are ways to faithfully present the truth of God’s Word memorably, then we should benefit from them. Made to Stick is a book that helps us fulfill our calling.

June 17, 2009

The Gospel of Adoption

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:21 am

Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families & Churches

Evangelicals are at the forefront of a grassroots movement of families adopting children from other countries. Christian celebrities like Steven Curtis Chapman and Clay Crosse have helped to publicize the joys and trials of adoption. Christian preachers have begun teaching others how the gospel is put on display by families who minister to orphans in this way. I personally know of a number of couples who are involved in cross-cultural adoption.

Russell Moore’s new book, Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families & Churches (Crossway, 2009) provides a theological foundation for the adoption movement. In this book, Moore successfully weaves together three strands of material:

First, he tells the story of his involvement in international adoption.

Then, he sets forth a biblical theology of adoption.

Finally, he offers practical suggestions for those considering adoption or those interested in supporting others who want to adopt.

Rarely do I read a book that seeks to accomplish three different purposes and yet manages to succeed at each one. But Adopted for Life delivers what it promises at every level.

Let’s begin with the personal testimony. Russ Moore tells the story of how he and his wife, Maria, traveled to Russia to adopt two young boys, Benjamin and Timothy. He describes the emotional pain of infertility and the tragedy of miscarriage. He treats the desire for offspring as God-given, and yet he recognizes the selfishness that can take root even in this desire.

Moore exposes his own faults throughout the adoption process. His vulnerability adds weight to the narrative. He recounts careless words that he later came to regret. Moore’s authenticity helps readers see themselves in his story.

The book also contains some heart-wrenching scenes in the orphanage. Moore describes the horror of walking into a room lined with baby beds, and yet not hearing the cries of children. The children had long discovered that tears were useless. No one was coming. Moore also describes his children’s adjustment to American life:

“We knew the boys had acclimated to our home, that they trusted us, when they stopped hiding food in their high chairs. They knew there would be another meal coming, and they wouldn’t have to fight for the scraps. This was the new normal.” (44)

Later on, Moore relates how God blessed him and his wife with biological chidren as well. But readers quickly discover that the Moore household does not distinguish between biological and adopted children. Adopted is a past-tense verb, not an adjective for the present.

In addition to recounting his personal narrative, Moore sets forth a biblical theology of adoption. The theological portion of this book truly surprised me. Before picking up Adopted for Life, I thought I knew how the metaphor of adoption serves as one way of speaking of salvation. What surprised me was just how incredibly practical the doctrine of adoption is. Having been through these experiences and having reflected upon them deeply, Russ Moore is able to tease out implications from the doctrine of adoption that I had never considered.

Moore believes our churches should be more like households, and he calls the church to foster an atmosphere of adoption. The gospel truth that we are orphans, adopted by God, is put on display by churches that encourage adoption. Adoption brings us into the worldwide family of God. Jew and Gentile alike are brothers in Christ.

“Our adoption is about more than just belonging. Our adoption is about the day when the graves of this planet will be emptied, when the great assembly of Christ’s church will be gathered before the Judgment Seat. On that day, the accusing principalities and powers will probably look once more at us – former murderers and fornicators and idolaters, formerly uncircumcised in flesh or in heart – and they may ask one more time, ‘So are they brothers?’ The hope of adopted children like my sons – and like me – is that the voice that once thundered over the Jordan will respond, one last time, ‘They are now.’” (57)

Moore is not content to leave the theology of adoption at merely the level of individual salvation. He shines a spotlight upon the implications of this doctrine for the church – the community of the adopted.

“When we adopt – and when we encourage a culture of adoption in our churches and communities – we’re picturing something that’s true about our God. We, like Jesus, see what our Father is doing and do likewise. And what our Father is doing, it turns out, is fighting for orphans, making them sons and daughters.” (73)

The theological sections of this book are woven into the narrative. Do not expect narrative in one chapter and then theology in another. The narrative informs the theology, and the theology informs the narrative.

Moore also offers many practical suggestions. He gives good advice to those who are considering adoption, those facing infertility, and those who would like to be foster parents. He asks very pointed questions that go to the heart of people’s motivations for wanting to adopt. He helps parents understand how to treat their children after adoption. His insights here are valuable because he has been through the process.

The book ends by tying everything to the gospel:

“The gospel welcomes us and receives us as loved children. The gospel disciplines us and prepares us for eternity as heirs. The gospel speaks truth to us and shows us our misery in Adam and our glory in Christ. The gospel shows us that we were born into death and then shows us, by free grace, that we’re adopted for life.” (214)

Well said. Adopted for Life is one of the best books I have read this year. It combines robust theology with personal experience. It serves as a powerful pro-life apologetic, and it demonstrates the power of the gospel when acted out by a faithful community of believers.

June 4, 2009

Evaluating “Total Church”

Filed under: Audio Resources,Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:29 am

Lit)TWR Today out of the United Kingdom has recently done a radio show that focuses on the book Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis (Crossway, 2008). I am one of the guests on this program, discussing my thoughts on this book.

You can download the program or listen online here. Also, check out my review of Total Church.

Many thanks to Phil Walker and the other guests for contributing to the ongoing conversation… and to Steve and Tim for writing such a compelling book.

June 3, 2009

The Man Behind Charlie Brown

Filed under: Book Reviews,Culture / Entertainment — Trevin Wax @ 3:10 am

Schulz and Peanuts: A BiographyRussell Moore’s review of David Michaelis’ book, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (Harper Collins, 2007) is one of the best book reviews I’ve read in a long time. His recommendation is what initially prompted me to pick up a copy of this book. So let me point you to Moore’s excellent review first, and then to a few thoughts of my own about this fascinating biography of Charles Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang.

According to Michaelis, Charles Schulz was ambitious from his childhood. Not only was he artistically gifted, Schulz was aware of his gifts. Growing up, he longed for a way to use his gifts, but his family did not support his artistic endeavors. 

Later in life, Charles Schulz repeated the mistakes he saw in his own parents. His parents were distant and somewhat cold to him. But instead of growing close to his own children, Schulz showered his fatherly affection on his comic strip characters. At one point, his abdication of parental responsibility leads him to help his daughter travel to a different country in order to obtain an abortion.

Despite the fact that Schulz’s life story turns out to be sad, this book is fascinating. Michaelis believes that Schulz wrote his life story into the Peanuts comic strips. So throughout this biography, readers are treated to various Peanuts strips inserted into the narrative at crucial moments. These strips help us see what was going on in Charles Schulz’s mind at any given stage in his life.

For example, consider the fascinating example of Peanuts character Lucy Van Pelt before Schulz’s divorce and her subsequent personality after Schulz’s remarriage. Before the divorce, Lucy is a loud-mouthed selfish girl. After the divorce and in the later years of the strip, Lucy mellows out. Michaelis believes that the early Lucy was patterned after Schulz’s first wife. The later Lucy reflected his second wife.

Michaelis also exposes Schulz’s insecurity, even after his stunning success. Schulz felt threatened by the creator of Garfield and worried that Garfield might somehow usurp Peanuts. Even as Schulz is at the top of his game he is still insecure.

The saddest aspect of this book for Christians is watching Charles Schulz, who at one time embraced the Christian faith, slowly abandon his Christian convictions. By the time he dies, he seems to have lost all hope.

Schulz and Peanuts is a brilliant book. The childhood sections might be too long, and the narrative could have used a bit more editing. But overall, this is a terrific biography for anyone who is interested in the life of the man behind the comic strip that is still cherished by readers all throughout the world.

May 28, 2009

Personal Reflections on the Canaanite Conquest

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:55 am

Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite GenocideShow Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide does not quite deliver what it proposes. The introduction by Stan Gundry indicates that all four authors have the same view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Furthermore, the title indicates that four different views are offered. After having read this book, I conclude that the book fails at both these counts.

First, it becomes evident very quickly that the authors are not working from the same foundation of biblical inspiration. Cowles minimizes the testimony of the Old Testament and discounts its accuracy by denying that God commanded or commended the Canaanite conquest. How his view lines up with the doctrine of biblical inspiration or inerrancy is beyond me.

Secondly, there are not four views represented here, but only two. It is Cowles over against the other three contributors. The disagreements between the other three scholars are quite minor, so that the latter chapters differ more in emphasis than in the actual proposals set forth. Merrill, Gard, and Longman can, in many ways, be considered in the same camp, even if there are subtle distinctions between their views.

In reflecting on this book, I will point out some points of appreciation and criticism for each of the chapters.

C.S. Cowles

Cowles’ contribution is notably passionate. I enjoyed the spirited rhetoric which he employed to make his case. In the responses to the other authors, Cowles comes across as feisty and passionate, ready to drive home the implications of the authors even if they intend to pull back.

The problem with Cowles’ view is that he fails to take into account the loving and compassionate God revealed in the Old Testament and the angry and wrathful God revealed in the New. He conveniently avoids the Old Testament depictions of God as gracious and merciful just as he avoids the New Testament emphasis on judgment (not least in the words of Jesus himself).

Cowles never once explains why, if his view is correct, the New Testament authors do not seem to be particularly perplexed or embarrassed by the warfare accounts in the Old Testament. If Cowles is right that the New Testament, in effect, abolishes the inferior picture of God established in the Old Testament, why do we not see the warfare passages dismissed by the early Christians?

A second problem with Cowles’ contribution is his view of biblical inspiration. It becomes clear that Cowles sees the Old Testament as a collection of mainly human writings that record the experience of Israel. Therefore, the Israelites were sadly mistaken in their understanding of the will of God. Even though the Scriptures indicate that the conquest actually accomplished the will of God, Cowles insists that their view was faulty.

So is the Old Testament wrong?

In what sense is the Old Testament inspired if these accounts of God’s will are mistaken?

Yet there is a more serious accusation to be made against Cowles’ view, and this accusation concerns his understanding of salvation. Cowles departs from the traditional understanding of Christianity and advocates a view that more closely resembles the heretic Marcion than the early church fathers.

For Cowles, our problem is not our rebellion against God and our need to escape his just and divine wrath. Instead, our problem is our inability to comprehend the love of God. Jesus Christ came to show that God is actually loveable (39). This understanding of the work of Christ is in direct opposition to the evangelical view of sin and salvation.

Eugene Merrill

As I am in substantial agreement with the other three authors, I will offer just a few points of disagreement. Merrill goes too far when he claims that genocide cannot be seen as objectively right or wrong, saying that its divine sanction clears up that question.

Would Merrill say that we cannot see divorce as right or wrong? Or polygamy? Merrill leaves no room for a distinction between the perfect will of God and his permissive will.

The Bible shows that God sometimes makes concessions in this fallen world. At times, he accommodates the wicked world without expressly condoning these accommodations as his perfect will or preference. It is too much of a stretch to see the Canaanite conquest as God’s ideal.

Instead, we should recognize that God did command the Israelites to perform this task of judgment, but that this commandment represents a concession to the fallen state of our world, not a commendation of this action as a good in and of itself.

Daniel Gard

Daniel Gard’s chapter puts forth the view that is closest to my own. I appreciate his emphasis on the future-oriented nature of the Canaan conquest. He is right to see an eschatological continuity between the Old and New Testaments.

Gard also helpfully points out that the conquests of herem are not indicative of all the wars in the Old Testament. We are mistaken if we reduce the God of the Old Testament to a divine being who is always on the warpath.

Gard’s overall thesis is sound, but there is one place where his exegesis is flawed. He believes that the world will be utterly destroyed, based upon an incorrect reading of 2 Peter 3. The proper translation of the passage indicates that the fire that comes upon the earth in the Last Day is a purging, cleansing fire, not merely a destructive one.

Tremper Longman III

Longman’s chapter is beneficial in its attempt to establish a spiritual continuity between the Testaments. But it seems, at times, that Longman over-spiritualizes some of the principles from this type of warfare. He clearly believes in the historicity of the events, but he too quickly moves to the spiritual lessons that we can take from the conquests. I doubt that the Old Testament authors would have understood these events in this way.

All of the authors would have done well to emphasize more substantially that genocide in the Old Testament never takes place on ethnic grounds. The Bible does not condone a sense of ethnic superiority among the Israelites. In fact, God acts against Israel at times because of her own wickedness.

The view of the Old Testament is that God uses nations as the agents of his wrath toward wickedness, even the sin of his own people. Only within the context of God’s sovereign judgment can we make proper sense of the herem ban. Once we turn the picture around, Gard and Longman are correct to point out that the real question should be: Why does God allow any rebellious person to survive?

Conclusion

Reflecting upon the whole of this book, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps we are trying to answer questions that the early Christians did not ask.

Is it possible that we are seeking to fit the Old Testament stories into a different metanarrative, a Western framework of human rights and earthly progress?

Perhaps we can make better sense of the Canaanite conquest if we recall the storyline of the Scriptures. God chose Israel in order that he might bless the world. Yet even in the overarching Story of that blessing, there are cases in which God comes in judgment upon wickedness.

The Bible holds these two truths together: God judges the wicked now, even as his ultimate purpose is to bless all the nations in the end.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 27, 2009

Other Ways of Dealing with the Canaanite Conquest

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:44 am

merrillThe second position put forth in Show Them No Mercy is from Eugene H. Merrill, professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. Merrill uses the term “Yahweh war” when speaking of the Canaanite conquests. “God initiated the process by singling out those destined to destruction, empowering an agent (usually his chosen people Israel) to accomplish it, and guaranteeing its successful conclusion once the proper conditions were met.” (65)

Merrill takes us through the relevant Old Testament passages that describe these battles. He distinguishes between regular battles and those that display the “undeniable traits” of genocide. He then seeks to reexamine the accounts from the standpoint of Christian theology and ethics.

Merrill frames the conquests within the story of God’s choice of a people through whom to bless the world and bring salvation. Seen in this light, Yahweh war is not so much about eliminating the foreign gods from the land, but about elevating Yahweh as the true God in the eyes of his own special people (80).

According to Merrill, the wars described in the Old Testament must be seen through the prism of holiness – both the holiness of God himself and the holiness of his chosen people, Israel. The battles are intended to protect the holiness of Israel (81) and showcase the utter holiness of God. Radical destruction of the enemy is necessary because God’s reputation and sovereignty is at stake. Israel becomes the divine instrument of God’s judgment in the Old Testament, but no Christian can excuse or condone such warfare today (85).

Merrill concludes his chapter by evaluating the New Testament scenes of apocalyptic judgment. Though he argues for “moderate discontinuity” between the Testaments (due to his Dispensationalist viewpoint), Merrill admits that the scenes of Yahweh war reappear in the final book of the New Testament. Therefore, “Yahweh war… is descriptive of the ages-old struggle between the sovereign God of Israel and the church on the one hand, and the devil and his demonic and human hosts on the other” (91).

Furthermore, “the issue… cannot be whether or not genocide is intrinsically good or evil – its sanction by a holy God settles that question. Rather, the issue has to do with the purpose of genocide, its initiator, and the particular circumstances of its application” (93).

gardThe next proposal is from Daniel Gard, associate professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. Gard makes the case for what he calls “eschatological continuity.” This approach describes the genocide of the Old Testament as a type of an eschatological event that will find ultimate fulfillment in the future (115).

Gard spends a good deal of time defining herem – the practice of “the ban” in which all spoils must be devoted to Yahweh and all life must be destroyed (116). He seeks to demonstrate from the biblical accounts that defeat in war is a mark of “divine retribution.”

Pointing out the times that Israel is defeated because of the decree of their own God, Gard reminds readers that it is God (and not human armies) who determines the final outcome of an earthly conflict. The Old Testament reveals God turning against his own people, although he promised to preserve a remnant (123).

Instead of seeing discontinuity between the Testaments, Gard argues for an eschatological framework for the Old Testament. In Chronicles, for example, he sees Saul, David, and Solomon as representatives of judgment, restoration and final redemption (130). David, as the warrior king, is a type of Christ, the Warrior who will be the leader of the final, eschatological battle. Christians today exist in a Davidic Age, in which the battle against the Evil One still rages. Yet, we anticipate the new Solomonic era, in which peace will be forever established. However, before this peace can take effect, God will impose the herem ban upon the entire earth and destroy this present world (135).

Throughout his chapter, Gard continually turns to eschatology in order to make his case regarding the continuity between the holy-war texts and the New Testament. “The God who commanded and, at times, personally executed herem against the enemies of Israel is the same God who will execute judgment and destruction at the end of time” (135-6).

In the present age, the church has no authority to fight for God, since we have no territorial or political boundaries. However, Gard argues that those who attack the church attack the Lord himself, and the enemies of the church will be destroyed by the Lord at the end of the age (138).

In explaining how this view of God is compatible with the example of Jesus, Gard appeals to mystery. “If there is a problem in understanding God’s commands and actions, the problem resides not in him but in human limitations.”

Furthermore, he writes: “A more pertinent question than why God commanded such brutal practices as the extermination of the Canaanites is why he did not command the destruction of the entire human race in time and history” (140). Ultimately, the answer for such questioning is found in Jesus, who is both the Lamb of God who lays down his life for sinners and the Judge who will return to fight for his people.

longman_tremper_webThe final position in Show Them No Mercy is set forth by Tremper Longman III, professor of Old Testament at Westmont College. Longman gets to the heart of the issue: How are we to read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament?

By taking readers through the different battles recounted in the Old Testament, Longman points out the overarching principle that God is present with the army in battle. He makes the case that herem warfare is worship.

Before the warfare began, the people of God were to seek the will of God, prepare themselves spiritually, make sacrifices, and keep the ark of the covenant (the mobile symbol of God’s presence) (164-7). During the battle, the march with the ark resembles a religious procession. The warfare strategy clearly relies on God’s involvement in the battle as what ultimately determines victory or defeat. After the battle, the army was to march back and return the ark to its place in the sanctuary. Likewise, there was celebration with music and dancing as all the enemies were utterly destroyed and their spoils devoted to the Lord. (172).

What about the innocent women and children who were slaughtered? Longman does not mince words:

“We must point out that the Bible does not understand the destruction of the men, women, and children of these cities as a slaughter of innocents. Not even the children are considered innocent. They are all part of an inherently wicked culture that, if allowed, to live, would morally and theologically pollute the people of Israel” (174).

How does Longman make the case for spiritual continuity between the Testaments? He argues that there are four phases of holy war in the Bible.

First, God fights the flesh-and-blood enemies of Israel.

Second, God fights Israel when they disobeyed his command.

Third, the Bible prophesies that God will come in the future as a warrior.

Fourth, Jesus Christ fights the spiritual powers and authorities.

The fifth phase is the final battle in which Jesus will come again as warrior and king (175-83).

Longman believes that this spiritual continuity is easily observed once we recognize that “the war against the Canaanites was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to its climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgment. The object of warfare moves from the Canaanites, who are the object of God’s wrath for their sin, to the spiritual powers and principalities, and then finally to the utter destruction of all evil, human and spiritual” (185). The Canaanite judgment serves as a preview of the final judgment.

Tomorrow, I will offer some thoughts on these proposals.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 26, 2009

One Way of Dealing with the Canaanite Conquest

Filed under: Book Reviews,Uncategorized — Trevin Wax @ 3:37 am

cowlesThe first contribution to Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide comes from C.S. Cowles, professor of Bible and theology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.

Cowles makes the case for radical discontinuity between the warfare narratives of the Old Testament and the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New. According to Cowles, if we attribute the command for ethnic cleansing to the intention of God, we create severe problems for Christian theology, ethics, and praxis (15).

Cowles’ essay is marked by passion. His analysis cannot be accused of being expressed from the lofty tower of academia. Instead, he forcefully brings the reader face to face with the horror of mass extermination, describing in gut-wrenching detail how this killing took place, including the killing of women and children.

For Cowles, there is no synthesis between the Testaments on this matter. When it comes to the issue of divinely initiated and divinely sanctioned violence, we should acknowledge a radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.

“The starting point in forming a truly Christian theology is not what the Bible teaches about God in general but what Jesus reveals about God in particular,” Cowles writes. We are to see God, “not like the first Joshua, a warrior, but like the second, the Prince of Peace” (23).

The heart of Cowles’ case against the genocide in the Old Testament is his sharp distinction between the God portrayed in the Old Testament and the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

“The God portrayed in the Old Testament was full of fury against sinners, but the God incarnate in Jesus is not” (28). Jesus reveals to us the true God who does not “engage in punitive, redemptive, or sacred violence… God does not proactively use death as an instrument of judgment in that death is an enemy…” (30).

In Cowles’ view, Jesus’ revelation of God stands over against the Word of God mediated by Moses. Perhaps because he knows this discontinuity could make his opinion theologically suspect, Cowles marshals John Wesley for his cause, affirming a quote by Wesley that Jesus came “ to destroy, to dissolve, and utterly abolish” large sections of the Torah (35).

How can we speak meaningfully about the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures if Cowles’ view is correct? Cowles answers questions about inspiration by appealing to Christological criterion. What results is a view of the Old Testament that is inferior to the New, since the understanding of God has progressed since the time in which the Old Testament accounts were recorded.

Cowles seeks to demonstrate this progression by pointing to the advanced theological reflection of the Chronicles, in comparison with the earlier writings. He focuses on the progressive understanding of Satan, so that by the time the Chronicles were written, “the Jews had begun to project some of the darker attributes of Yahweh onto a contradivine being, Satan” (38).

The New Testament unveils God to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The mission of Jesus, according to Cowles, is to “pull back the curtain and let us see the beautiful face of God.”

The people in the Old Testament did not have the capacity to gather the light of God’s truth. Christ comes to reveal the non-violent, true God. “Before he could reconcile us to God, he had to show us a heavenly Father to whom we would want to be reconciled: a God who is for us rather than against us, a God of love and grace who can be loved in return” (39).

How does Cowles’ proposal affect our view of the Old Testament accounts? The Israelites merely acted upon what they believed to be God’s will. But they were wrong. God honored their obedience, even if he despised their atrocious behavior.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at three other views on the Canaanite Conquest.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 25, 2009

Show Them No Mercy

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:32 am

Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite GenocideIn the latter years of the previous century, the world saw a marked increase in ethnic violence.

Whether it was ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or the mass murder of Tutsis at the hands of Hutus in Rwanda, the increase in violence worldwide was clearly evident. After Americans and Europeans only reluctantly became involved in ending these crusades, the horror of such atrocities hit home with us after the turn of the century, when Islamic terrorists attacked the United States in the name of Allah and on a mission of jihad, or “holy war.”

Since September 11, Christians in the West have demonstrated a renewed interest in the idea of “holy war,” especially since the Old Testament clearly recounts certain narratives in which God not only commands, but also commends the absolute destruction of nations, including women and children.

How are we to understand these difficult passages of Scripture?

How can we maintain our trust in a good God when he commands Israel to engage in what appear to be genocidal atrocities?

Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003) is a book that seeks to provide a response to these difficult questions. Under the editing hand of Stan Gundry, four scholars tackle the issues of Old Testament divinely-sanctioned genocide, seeking to provide a way forward so that we can make sense of the warfare narratives in light of the coming of Jesus Christ. This week, I want to look in detail on this book.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, I will briefly summarize each of the four positions and later on this week, I will offer some personal reflections on each contribution.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 21, 2009

The Miracle of Forgiveness

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:13 am

As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda

In As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda (Zondervan, 2009), Catherine Claire Larson tells two sides to the story of the 1990’s Rwandan genocide. On the one hand, she documents the horrific scenes of mass murder. On the other hand, she describes the moving accounts of forgiveness that have taken place between victims and their abusers.

Larson begins her book by laying out a chronology of events. Readers who are unfamiliar with the history of the genocide in Rwanda will find the historical context helpful for understanding the individual stories that follow.

In short, the seeds of the genocide were planted in the bitterness between the Hutu and the Tutsi regimes. In the mid-1990’s, Hutus began a systematic slaughter of Tutsis. Over 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days. The most chilling fact about this genocide is that, in most cases, neighbors were killing neighbors. The Hutus were not roaming the countryside killing strangers with machetes. These were people slaughtering people they knew.

But As We Forgive does not concentrate primarily upon the atrocities that took place during the genocide. Instead, Larson focuses upon the incredible acts of forgiveness that have since followed. 

Within the past several years, more than 100,000 of the killers have been released back into society. One may wonder: How have the victims coped with these new societal developments? These are people who lost parents and siblings and children. They are people who even today bear the physical scars of violence or the emotional scars of rape. How have the Rwandans been able to co-exist with the very people who caused them such pain?

Christianity provides the answer. Larson tells the stories of several victims and perpetrators, and offers a few additional insights into the nature of Christian forgiveness.

As you read these powerful stories, you quickly come to realize that forgiveness does not come easy. The Rwandan victims do not minimize the sin by ignoring it or sweeping its consequences under the rug. 

Larson is unflinching in her portrayal of evil. The line of evil runs through both victim and killer. It is not as simple as “bad” versus “good.” One woman recounts how she was rescued by a man who kept her safe from the threat of death for a period of time, even as he occasionally raped her.

Larson believes that when we look at a murderer, we look at ourselves. The victims need to offer forgiveness, but even they need forgiveness from God.

The struggle to forgive is palpable at times. One woman cries out to God to forgive her for failing to forgive: 

“Oh, God, forgive me for dwelling so much on the past, for pushing others away and feeling lonely, when I didn’t have to feel that way. And most of all forgive me for not thinking of you, or what you have given me today. Help me, God; to start living and to start being truly thankful for the ways you are working in my life.” (84)

Moments later, Larson provides the key to the entire book: 

The more she had come to understand the significance of the Bible’s teachings on Jesus Christ’s death, the more forgiveness seemed possible. She learned how Christ had been executed in a horrible manner, more horrible than some of the things she had seen in the war. And she learned how he willingly died to pay the penalty for her wrongdoing and for anyone else who would give up their bad ways and look to him. If Christ could forgive her, if he could forgive the people who tortured him, then Joy knew she could forgive too. (86)

One might think As We Forgive would be a depressing book. It is not. It is deeply inspiring. The accounts of forgiveness help us move past the petty grievances we hold towards others.

There is also an inspiring account of a group of students who refused to divide into Hutus and Tutsis. “All of us are Rwandans here,” they declared, and paid for their boldness with their lives. 

My only quibble with this book is its quick dismissal of the idea of retributive justice in favor of a type of restorative justice. I am not sure that these two types of justice are incompatible. Of course, there is not enough room in this kind of book to develop some of these concepts, which makes me wonder why they were alluded to in the first place.

As We Forgive succeeds in telling a powerful story. We read of pastors and church leaders returning to Rwanda to encourage forgiveness, even as they suffer great personal cost for their decisions. We read of people sacrificing their own desires for the good of others. We read of people so engulfed in their own guilt and despair for the past sins that the offer of forgiveness becomes a liberating act of sheer grace.

These stories are Christianity-in-action. Highly recommended.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 20, 2009

Engaging Emergent – One More Time

Filed under: Book Reviews,Emerging Church — Trevin Wax @ 3:29 am

Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church MovementI confess a sense of weariness when it comes to speaking of the Emerging Church movement.

Back in 2008, I wrote about how the Emerging Church had begun to “recede.” Shortly thereafter, some key participants in the conversation began abandoning the title altogether.

Today, much of the debate centers on correctly identifying “Emerging” as a diverse movement that includes some who are more traditionally evangelical and others who are not.

Regardless of the current state of the debate, evangelicals should at least ask this question: What insights can we glean from the Emerging Church conversation? Such a question presumes that there are both positive and negative aspects of the movement. It takes little thought to condemn the movement outright or to embrace it wholeheartedly. What is needed is a careful engagement of the Emerging conversation so that Christians can distinguish between the wheat and chaff. 

The new book, Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement (2009, Broadman and Holman) features a collection of essays from notable authors and scholars like Ed Stetzer, Norman Geisler, Darrell Bock, and Mark DeVine. The contributors to this book seek to examine the Emerging Church fairly and then weigh the positives and negatives of the movement in light of Scripture.

Mark DeVine starts off by differentiating between the two streams of the Emerging Church – the more traditional evangelical stream and the more liberal stream. DeVine focuses on defining the Emerging Church by the questions and criticisms of its proponents, not their doctrinal commitments.

DeVine believes that D.A. Carson’s influential critique of Emerging was helpful in its assessment of Brian McLaren’s epistemology. Yet in the long run, by treating McLaren as the main spokesperson for Emerging, Carson’s book caused a good deal of confusion and consternation among those on the more evangelical wing of the spectrum who did not want to be lumped together with McLaren. So DeVine broadens his engagement of Emerging by taking into account the other voices.

My only concern with DeVine’s definition is that, while definitely an improvement over Carson’s, it suffers from the opposite problem. It is almost too broad to be helpful. I am not sure in what way Tim Keller, Mark Chandler, and Mark Driscoll can be considered “Emerging.” Would these men not be voices within the Reformed Resurgence?

DeVine’s contribution could have been strengthened had he illuminated the fact that the young Reformed movement seems to be the flip side to Emerging, in that many of the people he mentions are asking the very questions being raised in the Emerging Church and yet offer different answers.

Ed Stetzer contributes a helpful chapter that looks at Emergent from a missiological perspective. He follows Tony Jones’ terminology in describing the Emerging Church. He divides the movement into three categories  – Relevants, Revisionists, Reconstructionists – and insists that each group be dealt with on its own terms.

Norm Geisler writes about a postmodern view of Scripture. There is little engagement of the Emerging Church here. It would have been helpful had Geisler shown why some of these questions about Scriptural authority are being raised in the first place. Instead, the chapter serves as simply a rebuttal of the views of Stan Grenz and Brian McLaren.

I enjoyed R. Scott Smith’s work on the importance of truth. Smith understands the objections to evangelicalism, and he actually does business with Emergent criticisms. He admits that evangelicals can demonstrate a tendency toward Christian rationalism. We have too often used truth as a weapon instead of expressing it with grace and love. Smith’s chapter is helpful because he remains robustly orthodox, and yet believes this discussion can provide us with something of value. 

Darrell Bock looks at the Christology in the Emerging Church and excels at providing a fair analysis. Recognizing that Christians need to think through Emerging criticisms, Bock contends:

“My point would not be to pit the conventional and emerging story against one another as McLaren is prone to do but to consider how these features combine to do a better job of filling out the full scope of what the biblical call to experience the gospel means.” (183)

My friend, Robbie Sagers, has a terrific chapter on the Emerging views of the atonement and conversion. He engages different authors on their own terms, advocating caution in some areas and acceptance in others.

John Hammett looks at the ecclesiology of the movement and makes a strong case for evangelism: 

“A mission that stops short of ultimately bringing people to the cross to receive forgiveness and eternal life is not the mission to which Christ calls His church.” (237)

Hammett also poses an important question for those in the Emerging camp:

“If we guide our practice of worship solely by the principle of engaging culture, could we not be in danger of creating another set of consumers, with the only difference being that they are postmodern consumers rather than modern?” (241)

Danny Akin offers an insightful chapter about making ethical choices. The issue he focuses on is alcohol. Overall, it seems a bit out of place in a book of this nature, which is more theology/philosophy-driven. 

Chuck Lawless and Jim Shaddix assess the Emerging views of evangelism, advocating some of the positive aspects of the movement while critiquing others in light of Scripture.

Overall, I heartily recommend Evangelicals Engaging Emergent for being an evangelical contribution to the conversation that actually lives up to its title. The essays (for the most part) engage the Emerging Church thoughtfully and biblically.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 14, 2009

A Look at the Taizé Community

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:17 am

A Community Called Taizé: A Story of Prayer, Worship and ReconciliationMy first introduction to the music of Taizé came in 2006. I was reading a book by the late Robert Webber and came across a brief mention of a monastic community that recorded chants in various languages. I looked up Taizé on iTunes, sampled some songs, and then bought a CD. (I now own several.)

The Taizé chants are splendid. They are beautifully written, well-performed, and the instrumentation adds an ethereal dimension to the sound. Most of the lyrics are verses from Scripture. The chants are sung in many different languages (including Latin), and yet their brevity and repetition help listeners learn to sing along without too much difficulty.

Taizé is a Protestant monastic community in France that welcomes all denominations. The monastery’s purpose is to be a place of reconciliation and peace between Christians of all different stripes. Thousands of young people go to Taizé every year, from all over the world – including Africa, Asia and Europe. 

A Community Called Taizé: A Story of Prayer, Worship and Reconciliation (IVP, 2008) by Jason Brian Santos documents the history of the Taizé community. The first night that Santos arrived at Taizé was the fateful night in August 2005 when Brother Roger, the 90-year-old founder of the monastery was stabbed to death during evening prayers by a deranged Romanian woman. Santos witnessed the incident from just a few feet away. 

The book opens with this story, partly because of its drama, but mainly because the community’s reaction to Brother Roger’s death illuminates the emphasis on reconciliation for which this monastery is known. The rest of the book tells the story of the community’s beginning and development. Santos also helps readers know what to expect should they decide to go. 

At times, I felt like the book was a biography. At other times, it seemed to be a travel guide. But in the end, the book succeeds at both levels.

Taizé is an ecumenical monastery. Because of the emphasis on reconciliation between humans, the gospel’s horizontal dimension (peace between people) is emphasized, almost to the exclusion of the gospel teaching about our reconciliation to God.

Some readers will undoubtedly find this ecumenism troubling. Furthermore, Protestants generally view the entire monastic enterprise as unnecessary, irrelevant, and sometimes dangerous. And often for good reasons!

At the same time, those of us in the Protestant tradition need to admit our need for some of the spiritual disciplines that the monastic tradition offers.

Why do so many Christians go on spiritual retreats? We have deacon retreats, youth retreats, and pastors’ conferences – places where Christians seek to “get away” and “get alone” with God. It seems clear that even as we eschew monasticism, we find monastic-influenced retreats to be spiritually fruitful.

Why is there such a hunger among Christians today for authentic Christian community? Perhaps the church has become so market-driven that we are attracted to the simplicity of prayer and Scripture reading, of Word and Sacrament, of fellowship and exhortation.

Why are we seeking out times of silence and solitude during the hectic pace of Western life? Perhaps the noise of our busy lifestyles has kept us from hearing the voice of God through the spending of unhindered time in his Word.

I believe there are aspects of the monastic tradition to which we should be cautiously open. We can learn from a community like Taizé, even if we may differ from some of the theology and the extent of the ecumenism advocated there. I am most grateful for the heavenly music created by these praying Christians. You ought to listen to some of the chants. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Check out some of the Mp3s here: Taizé

May 13, 2009

Making the Case for Life

Filed under: Book Reviews,Pro-Life Witness — Trevin Wax @ 3:04 am

The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture“Most people who say they oppose abortion do just enough to salve the conscience but not enough to stop the killing.” 

In his new book, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (Crossway, 2009), Scott Klusendorf confesses that the above quote from Greg Cunningham haunts him. It haunts me as well. And that is why the book that Scott’s book needs to be consulted by scores of evangelicals weary of the abortion debate.

The Case for Life is unarguably one of the most important books to come out for the pro-life movement in the past several years. Scott takes the highly sophisticated arguments made against abortion-on-demand and brings them down to a level that anyone can understand.

Scott believes that the case against abortion is sound. The question for us as evangelicals is how we will make the case to our skeptical friends and neighbors. Scott writes:

“My own thesis is that a biblically informed pro-life view explains human equality, human rights, and moral obligations better than its secular rivals and that rank-and-file pro-life Christians can make an immediate impact provided they’re equipped to engage the culture with a robust but graciously communicated case for life.” (14)

Well put. And this is why the book is so valuable. Scott puts forth robust arguments against abortion, yet insists on engaging people graciously. Grace and truth come together marvelously in this pro-life apologetic.

But what is the case against abortion? How do we equip people to engage their friends and neighbors regarding this sensitive debate? Frankly, is it even possible to change minds when it comes to this issue? In answering these questions, Scott points us back to the central concern of the debate: What is the unborn?

Almost every argument for or against abortion can come down to this one question. Abortion-rights advocates assume that the unborn baby is not a human being (or a human person). Regarding the humanity of the unborn, science firmly comes down on the pro-life side.  The unborn human being is just that …a human being. The pro-life position claims that taking the life of an unborn human being is no different than taking the life of another innocent human being.

To make the case effectively, Scott recommends we “trot out the toddler.” If you replace the “unborn child” with the “toddler” and try to make the case for abortion, nearly everyone experiences some sort of repulsion. Why? They understand the toddler is a human being. Most people, once they accept the humanity of the unborn, realize that innocent life is at stake in this debate.

Simply put, the beginning of life is not an issue above Barack Obama’s paygrade. The humanity of the unborn is a scientific fact put forth by embryologists, text books and scientific studies.

The Case for Life succeeds in two areas. First, Scott solidifies the arguments for the pro-life case, which hopefully will reinvigorate the younger evangelicals who are experiencing what has been termed “fetus fatigue” when it comes to this issue. The expansiveness of Scott’s argumentation may serve to reinforce the views of those who are pro-life without quite understanding the reasons why. (Case in point: some pro-lifers make distinctions between late-term and early abortions, or abortion-on-demand and embryonic stem cell research.) Many evangelicals may be nominally pro-life without understanding how many of these life issues are connected around the central affirmation of the pro-life cause: the unborn human being is worthy of protection.

Secondly, Scott helps Christians to winsomely engage people who hold opposing views. And the way he accomplishes this task is by showing how exclusive and elitist the pro-choice argument actually is.

“Opponents of the pro-life view…assert, without justification, the belief that strong and independent humans have basic human rights while small and dependent ones do not. This view is elitist.” (66)

The pro-life camp does not need to vilify abortion-rights advocates. We must simply appeal to the inclusive and compassionate stance of the pro-life cause. We are the inclusivists wanting to welcome every member of the human family.

The Case for Life is divided into several sections. Scott begins by helping pro-life Christians clarify the debate by bringing attention back to the central question surrounding the identity of the unborn.

Next, Scott recommends that pro-life Christians establish a foundation for the debate. This section delves a little bit deeper into the question of human rights and their origin.

Then, Scott helps pro-life Christians answer objections persuasively. He lists several of the main objections and makes a winsome case for the pro-life cause. I found this section to be the most helpful part of the book.

Finally, Scott counsels pro-life pastors and churches in how they can equip their congregants to be advocates for the unborn in their respective communities.

Scott wisely includes some foundational aspects for understanding human rights. He tackles difficult subjects concerning belief in God and the teaching of the Bible with respect to abortion. He also makes a case for Christianity’s uniqueness, devoting a lengthy section to defending the historicity of the resurrection. Scott is right to see the pro-life issue as one that stems from a correct understanding of the gospel itself. Although I appreciated the contents of these chapters, I am not sure that were necessary within the framework of this brief apologetic.  

Overall, The Case for Life should be studied and applied by every pastor or layperson who desires to be profoundly pro-life. Perhaps if evangelicals read this book, the haunting quote from Greg Cunningham will no long be applicable to the people of God.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 8, 2009

According to Plan: Some Questions for Further Thought

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:42 am

manuscriptAccording to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible raises several important questions for further discussion. Goldsworthy cannot be blamed for not substantively answering these questions. Had he chosen to do so, According to Plan would have taken on a shape quite different than its current form. But there are several questions raised by Goldsworthy’s work that readers will want to consider.

The Nature of “Biblical Theology”

The first question regards the nature of biblical theology itself.

The very title of “biblical theology” tends to place itself in a higher position over the other types of theology that Goldsworthy lists. After all, if faced with a choice between systematic theology, historical theology or biblical theology, most people would probably choose “biblical theology” as being the most helpful.

Not only that, because of the title, some would be inclined to believe that “biblical theology” is somehow more biblical and trustworthy than the other types.

Of course, the discipline of biblical theology is sorely needed in evangelicalism today. We have plenty of systematic theologians and pastor/teachers and too few historical and biblical theologians.

But the point needs to be made that each of these disciplines is necessary. When one discipline is emphasized over the others, it can lead to a lopsided view of Christian theology.

When systematic theology is emphasized to the exclusion of biblical theology, the theological enterprise can quickly turn into a rigid, categorization of theological concepts, some of which may be completely foreign to the mind of the biblical author.

When historical theology is overemphasized, theology becomes less about the biblical text itself and more about the historical developments surrounding theological reflection.

Pastoral theology, likewise, can lead to a downplaying of the difficult texts of Scripture that seem to have little pastoral or pragmatic value.

And biblical theology, by itself, can sometimes result in a neglect of the other disciplines, especially systematic theology.

Goldsworthy cannot be faulted for only treating “biblical theology” in this book. After all, According to Plan is an introduction to this type of theological work.

But as readers finish the book, they should remember that biblical theology is merely one tool in our theological tool belt. It is not the belt itself. Other theological tools deserve time and attention and will need to be consulted, depending upon the task at hand. Maintaining the proper balance is imperative.

The Question of Authorial Intent

The second question raised by Goldsworthy’s work centers on the question of authorial intent.

Jesus Christ is indeed the center of the Bible. The Old Testament points ahead to the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus. Goldsworthy is right to see the foreshadowing and typology of the Old Testament that shines a spotlight on Jesus. In fact, the Christ-centeredness of Goldsworthy’s approach is one of the greatest strengths of According to Plan.

But one can hardly survey the landscape of evangelical hermeneutics and homiletics today without bumping into the roadblock of “authorial intent” as the overarching principle for interpreting Scripture. Some evangelicals go so far as to tell preachers to only preach that which the original author intended to communicate.

For example, if preaching a text in Isaiah that points ahead to Christ, one should preach only those truths that Isaiah had in mind (a Messianic servant representing Israel) and not the fulfillment that only appears later.

Surely there are strengths to this hermeneutical approach. It puts brakes on the imaginative preacher who would take a text and run with it wherever he wants. It keeps teachers grounded in the text and the original historical context of the author.

But how does authorial intent fit with Goldsworthy’s Christ-centered approach to Scripture? At what point do we allow the New Testament explanation of Old Testament texts to tear down the roadblock of authorial intent?

If the Bible has both a divine author (God himself) and a human author (the original writer), at what point do we go beyond the intent of the human author in order to see the divine purpose running throughout the whole of Scripture?

Do we focus on Jesus in the Old Testament only where the New Testament does so? Or are we allowed to see Christ in the Old Testament, even in those places not given explicit Christological connections?

If Goldsworthy is right (and I believe he is), many other evangelical teachers are wrong. (Ironically, the great early proponent of authorial intent as the primary hermeneutical tool was Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberalism.) So Goldsworthy’s Christ-centered reading of Scripture leads to further questions of hermeneutics and homiletics that evangelicals should consider.

The Limitations of the Incarnational Analogy

A third question raised by Goldsworthy’s book is the incarnational analogy he employs when speaking of the divine/human nature of Scripture.

This analogy has become quite controversial since Goldsworthy’s book was first published in 1991. Since then, Peter Enns, former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, has published a book that takes this incarnational analogy to a new level. Enns believes that the incarnational model helps us to understand the historical context within which the human authors lived. They could, therefore, incorporate into Scriptures various myths and legends common to the time and place in which they lived. The question that arises within Enns’ work is whether or not these incorporations represent true historical events.

Goldsworthy spends little time addressing the way in which he applies the incarnational analogy. This brevity is understandable considering the purpose of According to Plan.

But the incarnational approach today raises some of these important questions, issues which Goldsworthy hints at but never fully develops one way or the other. He rightly reminds us that the divine/human analogy breaks down at some crucial points, not least of which is the temptation of worshipping the Bible itself.

But when dealing with issues of infallibility and inerrancy, Goldsworthy makes statements that do not clarify the question of historicity (63). This question and others beg for further reflection and discussion.

Conclusion

Some Christians are experts in mastering the details of Scripture. They win Bible drills, know answers to trivia questions, and can recount all of the stories. But when it comes to the overall Story of the Bible, their answers leave much to be desired.

Others know very little about the Bible or how the Old Testament has anything to do with the New or how the Bible applies to our life today. They too have missed the big picture that the Bible provides.

According to Plan is an immensely helpful guide to understanding the theology and unity of the Bible. I know of no better resource that helps connect the dots of the Scriptural storyline until the image of Christ is clearly represented. Goldsworthy’s book raises some important questions regarding the nature of Scripture, methods of interpretation, and the relationship of biblical theology to other disciplines.

Overall, this text is a wonderful introduction to the exciting discipline of biblical theology and one that remains accessible to laypeople who want to know what the Bible is all about.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 7, 2009

The Strengths of Goldsworthy’s “According to Plan”

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:37 am

According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the BibleThe strength of According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible is its accessibility to the layperson. Other books that seek to develop a biblical theology make for thick reading. Goldsworthy avoids delving into intricate exegetical details.

Instead, he seeks to provide his readers with an overall grasp of biblical theology. He focuses on the “big picture.”

To accomplish this task, Goldsworthy encourages readers to bypass some of the harder chapters and perhaps return to them later. The “How” section focuses on issues of epistemology. Goldsworthy realizes that some of these chapters will be tough sledding for newcomers to theology. But he is wise to include them, as our presuppositions regarding knowledge and truth have a direct impact on how we understand the Bible. So Goldsworthy’s book remains accessible, without abandoning the thoroughness necessary for the task at hand.

According to Plan remains accessible to laypeople, not because Goldsworthy avoids rich theological teaching, but because he utilizes helpful tools that break down his concepts into simple forms.

For example, summary paragraphs are found beneath each chapter heading. This practice helps readers understand where the author intends to take them in any given chapter.

The book also provides summaries, charts, diagrams, and key terms and phrases at the end of each chapter, making it very easy for readers to quickly access the foundational information of each section. Goldsworthy has succeeded marvelously in making key theological concepts accessible to the laypeople.

The second strength of According to Plan is its Christ-centeredness. Goldsworthy emphasizes again and again that Christ is the one to whom all the Scriptures testify. God reveals himself primarily in Jesus Christ, showing us what the promises of the Old Testament are about.

“God in fact reserves his greatest revelation until the point of fulfillment. Jesus does not simply fulfill the promises; rather, he is the final and fullest revelation of what the promises are really about. This means that the form and the content of the fulfillment exceeds by far the form and the content of the promises themselves. The very act of fulfilling the Old Testament promises is itself the most important revelation of all” (65).

This emphasis on Christ as the center of all Scripture is sadly lacking in many evangelical churches today.

Goldsworthy insists on a Christ-shaped reading of Scripture, as evidenced by his emphasis on the gospel itself as the entry point into studying Scripture rightly.

According to Plan also raises a few questions for me. Tomorrow, I will examine some of the questions that Goldsworthy’s proposal leaves unanswered.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 6, 2009

Summary of “According to Plan” – Part 2

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:31 am

old_bibleThe third section of According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy is the most extensive, and understandably so.

Here, Goldsworthy leaves behind the questions of why and how biblical theology is done and turns to the pressing issue of what biblical theology actually looks like.

What shape does it have?

What do we discover when we approach the theology of the Bible in the way that Goldsworthy has laid out?

The central section of According to Plan connects the dots of the Bible’s theology.

Interestingly enough, Goldsworthy does not begin with the creation story described in Genesis 1. He starts off with the gospel as the entry point to understanding Scripture: “Jesus is our starting point for all true knowledge, and therefore for theology. He is the goal toward which we move” (87).

Goldsworthy’s attempt to begin theology with the gospel is the outworking of his earlier statement that our entry point into studying the Scripture rightly is through the gospel message that brings us to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Having defined the gospel and its relevance for understanding the rest of Scripture, Goldsworthy turns his attention to the main parts of the biblical narrative. Much of his presentation centers upon the truths about God, man, the world, and God’s kingdom that are expressed in Genesis and Exodus. The reason he spends so much time in the first two books of the Bible is because of the great number of truths about God and the world that are revealed here.

As Goldsworthy progresses through the Old Testament, he ends each chapter with a brief summary of the main point in the storyline, as well as a list of main themes and key words. In his effort to connect the Old Testament narrative to its fulfillment in Christ, Goldsworthy includes events recounted in the New Testament that are foreshadowed at different points in the Old.

For example, in the section on God’s creation of the world, he mentions three themes that will find fuller revelation in the scheme of salvation history later on in the Bible: Adam (fulfilled by Christ as the Last Adam), Creation (pointing to New Creation), and heavens and earth (the new heavens and earth). Breaking down each section into a summary is a helpful way of keeping track of the biblical Storyline.

As Goldsworthy continues through the Scriptures, he shows how the revelation of God is progressive. We see God’s choice of Abraham, God’s purpose in calling out the people of Israel from slavery, the purpose of the Law, and the establishment of the kingdom in Israel. He incorporates the wisdom books (Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) and the Psalms into a chapter called “The Life of Faith” which concentrates on the life of the children of Israel in the Promised Land.

Goldsworthy devotes several chapters to the prophets, emphasizing the conditional nature of the covenant and Israel’s transgression of the Law. He points out the “pattern of redemption” seen throughout Israel’s history. He describes God’s punishment of Israel by sending them into exile. And though many of the Israelites return from exile by the end of the Old Testament, the great promises that God has made to his people have yet to be fulfilled.

Goldsworthy brings his treatment of the Old Testament to a close by pointing ahead to the hope of the Jews that God will one day act to bring about his kingdom and the salvation of his people (199).

As he begins his section on the New Testament, Goldsworthy examines the Gospels by showing how they portray Jesus as God in the flesh. He also shows how Jesus represents the true people of God, the very intention of God for humanity from the beginning of time. Likewise, Jesus is the new creation, the new temple that embodies the new created order (201-09).

The rest of the central section of Goldsworthy’s book focuses upon the spread of the new creation detailed in the book of Acts. He demonstrates how the kingdom of God comes “by the Holy Spirit taking the word about Christ into all the world, through the preaching of the disciples” (213).

In examining the New Testament epistles, Goldsworthy shows how this new creation takes place in us now through our union with Christ, a theological reality that includes vital doctrines like justification by faith (219-21).

Finally, Goldsworthy points ahead to the not-yet-fulfilled future that awaits believers in the new creation (232).

According to Plan ends with a practical exercise in applying the theology of the Bible. Goldsworthy chooses two unrelated topics (“Knowing God’s Will” and “Life after Death”), and then shows how one might use the discipline of biblical theology in order to find the Bible’s teaching on this subject.

We should start by connecting the topic to the gospel. Then, we should investigate the biblical words related to the subject, investigate the various strata of biblical teaching, and arrive at practical conclusions (237-44).

Tomorrow, I will interact with some of the points in Goldsworthy’s book.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 5, 2009

A Summary of Goldsworthy’s “According to Plan” – Part 1

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:25 am

biblestudyAccording to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible begins with Goldsworthy’s explanation of why the discipline of biblical theology should be embraced by any Christian who desires to understand the Scriptures rightly.

Goldsworthy does not take for granted that his readers understand the reasons for the existence of this type of book, so he explains the purpose in the first section.

The simple Christian may think this type of exercise to be unnecessary. After all, should we not simply decide to be biblical and therefore believe and act upon the Bible’s teachings?

Goldsworthy does not believe that this type of decision regarding biblical authority solves our problems. After all, people who are committed to the authority of the Bible disagree on very important matters.

Goldsworthy does not believe biblical theology should be seen as a solution to denominational squabbles, but he suggests that “any Christian who wants to understand the reasons for the differences, and who wants to develop a sound method of approaching the text of the Bible in order to find out what it really says and means, needs an understanding of biblical theology” (19).

Biblical theology provides us with certain tools that help us interpret the Bible rightly. This discipline helps us understand problematic or difficult passages of Scripture in light of the overall biblical Story. It gives us the power to relate particular Bible stories to the whole message of the Bible. It helps us understand the Old Testament as pointing ahead to the person and work of Jesus Christ. And by providing a map of the Bible’s narrative, it helps us see the unity of the different biblical books in telling that story (21-25).

Next, Goldsworthy answers the question of how biblical theology is done. He begins by helpfully affirming that every Christian is a theologian (29). The question is not whether Christians will do theology, but how well they will do theology.

Goldsworthy compares and contrasts the discipline of biblical theology to other types of theological inquiry, namely systematic, historical, and pastoral theology (30-32). Biblical theology is set within the wider discipline of exegetical theology, but biblical theology asks this specific question: “By what process has God revealed himself to mankind?” and as a result is able to relate the “whole Bible to our Christian life now” (32).

Goldsworthy is wise to spend a chapter dealing with issues of knowledge. He divides the views of knowledge into three categories: secular humanism, theistic humanism, and Christian theism – arguing of course for the latter as the proper view for studying the Bible as God’s revelation (37-43).

Rather than seeing our study of Scripture as an encounter with mere facts about God, Goldsworthy maintains that theology is about an encounter with God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ. Biblical theology shines a spotlight on Jesus Christ as the one who perfectly reveals God to us.

Personal knowledge of Jesus Christ is vital to correctly understanding the Bible (47). The unbeliever approaches the Old Testament without any presuppositions that would point him to see the progressive nature of Old Testament theology as leading to the New Testament fulfillment. But the Christian approaches the Old Testament after first believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing that the gospel revealed in the New Testament is in accordance with the Scriptures (the Old Testament), the Christian can follow the progressive revelation of the Old Testament to its fulfillment in the New (55).

Pointing to the incarnation of Jesus Christ (the Word of God that is both divine and human), Goldsworthy argues for a similar understanding of Scripture. We must not downplay the divine or human aspects of the Word of God. The Bible is the very Word of God – a divine revelation that points to Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, the Bible is given to us through human beings within their own history and culture. The individuality of each author is highlighted, not obliterated. Being a word that is both divine and human, Goldsworthy argues that the truth of God is conveyed without error. “When we speak about the infallibility of the Bible, we mean that it conveys exactly what God intended it to” (63).

Goldsworthy challenges us to avoid the allegorical interpretations that remove history as the stage for revelation. Likewise, we should avoid literalistic interpretations that leave little room for revelation as the interpreter of historical events (67-69).

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the rest of According to Plan, and then on Thursday, I will offer a few reflections.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

May 4, 2009

Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:18 am

According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the BibleAccording to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bibleby Graeme Goldsworthy is an important and helpful book that seeks to apply the discipline of biblical theology to the text of Scripture.

Too many Christians approach the Bible as a list of rules, general promises, or helpful tidbits to help them in their daily lives. Taking Scriptural verses out of their context can lead to division and incorrect application.

Furthermore, a simplistic appeal to biblical authority can overlook the differences of interpretation encountered by people who are equally committed to the authority of the text.

According to Plan seeks to give Bible readers firm ground on which to stand when interpreting Scripture. Goldsworthy points us to the overarching narrative of the Bible that helps us then understand the individual Bible stories that fit within that larger Story.

Understanding the Story the Bible tells also helps us understand the theological doctrines found in the epistolary material, as well as the poems and songs of the Old Testament.

This week, I will be providing a summary of Goldsworthy’s book and then some interaction with his main points. We’ll begin the summary tomorrow.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

April 29, 2009

Worshipping the God You Don’t Understand

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:52 am

The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of FaithIn conversation with 20somethings and teens today, I have discovered that there is an aversion to simplistic “Sunday School” answers to the tough passages of Scripture. Dissatisfaction with easy answers is widespread among the younger generation. Whereas previous generations prized practicality over everything else, the up-and-coming generation is looking for depth in its quest for truth.

We do not want to devote our lives to the worship of a God made in our own image. Neither do we wish to confine God to a box. Let us do business with what the Bible teaches, no matter how complex or difficult or unpleasant the journey may be.

Christopher Wright’s book, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith is a welcome addition to a spate of recent books that demonstrate a willingness to tackle the hard questions raised by the Bible. The God I Don’t Understand is an appropriate title. Wright does not exhaustively answer the difficult questions he poses, but he shares valuable reflections that display his pastoral insight and personal piety in seeking the truth.

The God I Don’t Understand is for people who ask, “Why?” 

Why did God judge the Canaanites the way he did in the Old Testament?

Why is there evil in the world?

Why do good people suffer?

Why do we have to believe this or that about the cross?

Why are there so many views about the end times?

Christopher Wright ponders these questions and then provides some insights that help clarify the issues:

“To me it is a profoundly moving thought that the word that introduces our most tormenting questions – ‘Why’ – was uttered by Jesus on the very cross that was God’s answer to the question that the whole creation poses.” (21)

Wright understands the importance of putting ourselves in the shoes of those who read the Bible in its original, historical context. Therefore, when addressing the problem of evil, Wright says:

“Whereas we often ask ‘Why?’, people in the Bible often asked ‘How long?’. Their tendency was not to demand that God give an explanation to the origin of evil but rather to plead with God to do something to bring about an end to evil.” (27)

In addressing the mystery of evil and its origins, Wright insists on holding three truths together that he can see in the story of Joseph and in the story of the cross:

  1. The utter evilness of evil.
  2. The utter goodness of God.
  3. The utter sovereignty of God.

Wright refuses to deny any of these truths or to pit one against another. He insists on holding them together, just as he sees the biblical authors doing.

The second part of the book focuses on the judgment of the Canaanites in the Old Testament. Did God really command Israel to commit genocide?

Wright does not minimize the issues at stake here. He points out some wrong solutions to the problem. Then he takes us back to the Old Testament in order that we might make sense of these accounts and what we can learn about God from them.

But Wright does not neatly resolve the issue. Perhaps that is why the book is entitled The God I Don’t Understand. There are no easy resolutions, but Wright’s pastoral insights help shine light on the issues at stake.

Part 3 focuses on the cross. Wright wants to be faithful to the biblical teaching about the cross of Christ. And yet, he also wants to embrace the mystery inherent in the cross. He fully recognizes that we will never exhaust the depths of the meaning of Calvary:

“I understand enough on the basis of what the Bible tells me to know that I owe everything I am now or ever will be to the love and grace of God supremely poured out at Calvary. But when I probe into why and how that is so, I join the multitudes who recognize depths and mysteries here that lie beyond our own understanding but not beyond our faith, praise and worship.” (109)

Wright refuses to join the recent critics of the traditional understanding of substitutionary atonement. He holds tightly to penal substitution as one of the primary ways in which we should understand the cross of Jesus Christ.

But even here, Wright helpfully resists pitting the differrent atonement pictures against one another. He argues for a “both/and” approach, refusing to separate what he believes should be held together. Wright recognizes the tendency to make debates about the atonement too abstract:

“Part of the problem with so many theories of the atonement through the centuries is that they tried to explain the death of Christ in terms of other stories or world views where it does not really fit while ignoring the one story in which it is actually set – the Biblical story of God’s dealings with Israel and of God’s mission through Israel to bring blessing and salvation to the world.” (145)

I believe that Wright is on target here. We should promote the biblical atonement theories, including penal substitution, but we should situate these theories within the historical setting of Jesus in the first century.

The last part of the book focuses on eschatology – the doctrine of the end times. Wright offers some illuminating insights into biblical eschatology. Yet, I did not find part 4 as relevant to the book’s overall theme as the previous sections.

The God I Don’t Understand is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I highly recommend that those who want to wrestle with these issues of faith consult Chris Wright’s wise reflections.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

April 28, 2009

The Other Side of William Whitsitt

Filed under: Book Reviews,Seminary,Southern Baptist Convention — Trevin Wax @ 3:45 am

W.H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy (Jim N. Griffith Series in Baptist Studies)James Slatton has done Southern Baptists a service by offering us a fascinating portrayal of one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s most notable (and notorious) leaders.  W.H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy recounts the fascinating story of Whilliam Whitsitt, the third president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a leader who found himself at the center of a controversy that raged for the last two decades of the 1800’s.

The Whitsitt controversy surrounded a “discovery” that Whitsitt made regarding the origins of the Baptist movement. Whitsitt wrote in an encyclopedia that Baptists “invented” immersion in the 1600’s. Of course, as a Baptist himself, Whitsitt did not intend to imply that Baptists were the first to baptize adult believers, only that they recovered the practice.

But Whitsitt’s discovery came at the time when the Landmark movement was gathering steam. T.T. Eaton, B.H. Carroll and other Baptist leaders were arguing that there had been an apostolic succession of Baptist churches (and thus baptism by immersion) since the first century. Whitsitt argued that the historical documents indicate that Baptists recovered the practice and that the idea of succession could not be sustained historically.

Slatton’s biography is a fascinating look at Whitsitt’s life. Whitsitt remains a pivotal figure in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was the bridge between the founding generation and the second generation of Southern Seminary leadership.

Slatton was given access to Whitsitt’s personal documents and his “secret” diary. Surprisingly, Whitsitt comes across as quite arrogant. He calls James P. Boyce, the first president of Southern Seminary a “dunderhead.” He goes off on people who disagree with him, and he expresses disdain for friends as well as enemies.

But readers must also keep in mind that Whitsitt also talks about himself negatively. Many times, after preaching a sermon, he will dismiss his own delivery and content as sub par. He seems to be rather self-deprecating, so that his harshness with others is also reflected in his harsh treatment of himself.

Most interesting is Whitsitt’s sympathy for his colleague and roomate, Crawford Howell Toy, who left the seminary because of his unorthodox views of inspiration. Whitsitt appears to agree with Toy, even though he remained at the seminary.

Usually, after reading a biography, I better sympathize with the protagonist. Not so with Whitsitt. Before reading this book, I had seen Whitsitt as a good man and conservative scholar who became involved in an unfortunate controversy over Baptist history. Since Whitsitt was right on the issue of Baptist origins, I had seen him as a beleaguered hero of academic freedom.

Now that I’ve read this book, I am glad that Whitsitt left the seminary. The attitude he reveals in his diary, the sympathy he confesses for a colleague who became a Unitarian, and his disdain for his Baptist brethren have caused me to lose respect for the man himself. Southern Baptists were wrong to oust Whitsitt for his views on Baptist history. But perhaps the seminary was actually better off because of his removal.

Slatt recognizes the complexity of Whitsitt:

“He was a complex man. At one time he predicted Baptists eventually would drop their insistence on immersion – and should. In his most important published work, however, he identified immersion as their defining practice.

He agonized over the narrowness of his fellow Southern Baptists and whether he could stay with them in good conscience. Later, when the issue was joined, he took his stand as a Baptist to the bitter end – and a Southern one at that!

He argued that he had been assailed for the mere assertion of a mere historical fact, and that the issue was not doctrinal. Yet he consistently argued that at stake in the controversy was the essential Baptist doctrine of the universal spiritual church, and that it was the foundation on which the Baptist vision of the church stood! – surely a doctrinal issue.” (327)

W.H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy gives us the long-overdue biography of a man at the center of a theological and denominational storm. James Slatton’s work is an unflinching portrayal of Whitsitt and his research is a gift to all Baptists who wish to learn lessons from Baptist history.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

Related Posts:
John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy
A Man of Books and a Man of the People
A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

April 22, 2009

A Bird’s Eye View of Paul

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:55 am

Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His MessagePope Benedict XVI declared 2008 to be the “Year of The Apostle Paul” in celebration of the apostle’s 2000th birthday. Coming to terms with the theology expressed in the letters of Paul has kept theologians and pastors busy for nearly two millennia now.

Michael Bird’s new book, Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message (IVP, 2009) is a wonderful introduction to the Apostle Paul that manages to be both brief and substantive. Some books on Paul focus on the theology of the apostle expressed in his letters. Others provide a biographical look at the apostle’s life and missionary journeys.

Introducing Paul combines the best of these approaches. Bird delves into Pauline theology, the specific letters, the story of Paul’s life. And he accomplishes these tasks in less than 200 pages.

Bird is careful to read Paul in his own historical context. Many times in the book, he insists that we first realize that Paul’s letters are not written to us, even if God intends that the letters be for us. If we are to understand Paul rightly, we must read him in his own context.

“If the Paul we claim to know looks and sounds a lot like us, then that is probably a good indication that we do not know him as well as we think we do. There is always a temptation to recruit him to our cause, to make our enemies his enemies, our beliefs his beliefs… If we can be mature enough to let Paul be Paul and treat his letters as windows into his world rather than as deposits of theological dogma, then we stand a chance of meeting him anew, letting him speak for himself in his language, on his terms and for his purposes.” (12, 13)

Bird starts off by talking about Paul the man. He focuses on five important aspects of the story of Paul’s life: the persecutor of the church, the greatest missionary who ever lived, a world-class theologian, a pastor with a heart for the church, and the martyr who died for his faith. Bird describes as a “maverick.”

Bird spends a good deal of time recounting Paul’s conversion experience. He argues for continuity in Paul’s thought after coming to faith in Christ. Against some scholars who argue for late-life shifts in Paul’s theology, Bird believes that his theology remained generally stable from conversion until his martyrdom. The conversion experience is central for understanding Paul:

“This encounter with the risen Jesus had an enormous impact on his continuing religious experience of God, on his missionary drive and upon his theological reflection about God, Israel, Torah and salvation. That grace-event killed Saul the Pharisee and birthed Paul the apostle.” (37)

From there, Bird spends considerable time familiarizing his readers with “the stories behind the Story.” In order to properly understand Paul, we must know the stories about God and creation, Adam and Christ, Abraham and Israel, Jesus and the church. These worldview stories provide frameworks into which we can fit the letters of Paul.

After he sets up the historical framework, he then launches into a chapter that gives a brief overview of the historical circumstances, original audience, and basic theology of each of Paul’s letters. In a single chapter, Bird successfully surveys all of the letters.

What makes Bird’s contribution especially timely is the way in which he weaves together old and new perspectives on Paul. He has great appreciation for N. T. Wright and for other New Perspective authors; yet he affirms the traditional view of imputation of Christ’s righteousness:

“Although no text explicitly says that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, nonetheless, without some kind of theology of imputation a lot of what Paul says about justification does not make sense…imputation is the integrating point for a variety of ideas in Paul’s letters.” (97)

Bird attempts to do what many believe is impossible: incorporate the best aspects of the New Perspective within a largely traditional Reformed framework.

Some of Bird’s views are unconvincing. I disagree with his take on Romans 7. Likewise, though Bird does not advocate egalitarianism or complementarianism, he clearly leaves the egalitarian option open.

I was also disappointed to not see any discussion at all about the inspiration of the Scriptures or at least the inspiration of Paul’s letters (which is ultimately the reason we should pay attention to what Paul says).  Theories of inspiration seem to be assumed in this book rather than stated. Perhaps treatment of this subject is missing due to the brevity of the book.

But overall, Introducing Paul  serves as a wonderful introduction to Paul’s theology. It covers the relevant material in a way that is easy for the reader to understand, and it provides a good overview of the main issues in Pauline studies.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

April 15, 2009

How the Younger Generation is Being “Found”

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:29 am

Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach ThemChurches are beginning to wake up to the fact that our congregations are missing large numbers of young people. The “missing generation” includes young people who have either “dropped out” of church or who have never had a church background at all.

What to do? How can churches reach 20-somethings? Some books focus on reclaiming the “drop-outs” – those who once were in church, but have since left. Essential Church, by Thom and Sam Rainer, is a book that focuses on reclaiming what we have lost.

Ed Stetzer’s new book puts forth a vision that is more expansive. Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them (Broadman & Holman, 2009) focuses on churches that are seeing success in reaching the younger unchurched from across the spectrum – including those without any Christian background whatsoever.

Co-written with Jason Hayes and RIchie Stanley, Lost and Found sets forth an optimistic tone:

“This book is not entitled Lost and We Just Wanted to Tell You (and it’s the Church’s fault by the way). We’re calling it Lost and Found because that we want you to know that young adults are being found – effectively engaged in their culture, coming to faith in Christ, and being incorporated into congregational life.” (1)

Stetzer focuses on this question: “Who are the young unchurched and how can they be reached with the good news of Jesus Christ?” By simplifying the question, the authors are able to move past all the debates about church growth methodology and discussions about style. In fact, they are unapologetic in their focus on discipleship results: 

“A movement may be emerging, contemporary, reformed, or whatever, but if it fails to produce new followers of Jesus Christ, it is only a fascinating and engaging dead end.” (3)

Lost and Found is indeed about church growth, but Stetzer’s brand is what I like to call church growth with brakes. He remains tethered to Scripture and the centrality of the gospel. There is no sense in watering down the gospel in order to gather a crowd. But neither is there any sense in clinging to methods or traditions that distract people from the centrality of the gospel and our commission to evangelize.

The first part of the book describes the younger unchurched (their assumptions, opinions, values, and convictions). Introducing us to the younger generation is Stetzer’s way of preparing us to be “good missionaries” – people who understand the context in which we live and who have a passion for reaching the lost where they are

I admit that statistics don’t do much for me. And part 1 contains plenty of stastics that make my eyes glaze over. Thankfully, the authors continually incorporate summaries to help along readers like me. By transforming the statistics into concrete examples, the authors make the data easy to comprehend.

Part 2 lists four markers that are common to young adult concerns:

  • Community
  • Depth
  • Responsibility
  • Connection

Part 3 shows how churches are reaching young adults, by taking the markers listed above and fleshing them out in practical ways. The authors come up with nine characteristics common to churches that are reaching young adults:

  • Creating deeper community
  • Making a difference through service
  • Experiencing worship
  • Conversing the content
  • Leveraging technology
  • Building cross-generational relationships
  • Moving toward authenticity
  • Leading by transparency
  • Leading by team.

Lost and Found gives me hope for the next generation. God continues to seek and save the lost, even among this “missing” generation. We are not a lost cause.

Stetzer’s analysis is not particularly innovative, and that’s a good thing. Instead, he marshalls the polling and statistics in support of his call for churches to go back to the basics of the Christian faith. Lost and Found challenges the status quo. But the book is also encouraging. The authors strike an optimistic chord regarding the future.

The call to witness to the truth of the gospel goes out to every generation, young or old, churched or unchurched, missing or present. Whatever the context, our task remains the same. And Lost and Found makes me want to take part in God’s mission with greater passion.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

April 14, 2009

Blazing an Unfashionable Trail for Today’s Evangelicals

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:41 am

Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different

Some evangelical Christians believe that the best way to win the world is to be like the world. Looking like the world might help us gain a hearing for the gospel.

In Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different (Multnomah: 2009), Tullian Tchividjian demolishes the fallacy of such thinking. Instead, Tullian skillfully shows how we as Christians make the biggest difference in the world when we are most different from the world.

The power behind our proclamation of the gospel comes not from our being in step with the world, but from our being out of step with the surrounding culture. Once you sacrifice the counter-cultural nature of the gospel in order to be “cool” in the present, you abandon the greatest opportunity you have to make a difference that will last forever.

Unfashionable is a book of depth and breadth. Tullian doesn’t leave us with superficial spiritual sayings. The book demonstrates a passion for theology. Tullian goes deep into the truth of God’s Word in order to emerge with a robust, strengthened Christianity for the world we live in.

But the book also contains a variety of topics. In less than 200 pages, Tullian writes about:

  • the atonement
  • the purpose of Jesus’ resurrection
  • God’s intention to renew the cosmos
  • the loss of Truth with a capital “T”
  • our culture’s hunger for trascendence
  • the importance of the church’s “togetherness
  • sex and lust
  • greed and theft
  • anger and truth-telling

This is a short, accessible book that ably covers a number of subjects. The thread that holds all of these topics together is the drum that Tullian beats page after page:

“Christians make a difference in this world by being different from this world; they don’t make a difference by being the same.”

“The more we Christians pursue worldly relevance, the more we’ll render ourselves irrelevant to the world around us.”

Tullian believes that a biblical understanding of Christology and eschatology will lead to a view of mission that will transform the church and the world. We are called to be God’s ambassadors in this world, to join him in his mission to redeem and restore the world.

“Since God is on a mission to transform this present world into the world to come, and since he’s using his transformed people to do it, our commitment to living unfashionably has cosmic implications.”

Unfashionable resonates with me. Like Tullian, I want it all. I don’t want to choose between the cultural mandate and evangelism. I don’t want to choose between Christ’s kingdom and Christ’s cross. I don’t want to choose between individual salvation and the connectedness of Christian community. I want it all.

Unfashionable is God-centered and gospel-soaked. And yet it is immensely practical. This book displays Tullian’s passion for Scripture and his heart for personal application. You will be convicted, challenged, and encouraged as you read. 

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

April 9, 2009

Godology: Theology is All about God

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:23 am

Godology: Because Knowing God Changes EverythingFew authors can take theology and make it fun to read. Christian George is one of the few. His new book is Godology: Because Knowing God Changes Everything (Moody, 2009) and includes a foreword by J. I. Packer.

Godology is all about God. Each chapter creatively describes an attribute of God. Christian is rare in that he is able to take his subject matter very seriously while not taking himself too seriously. No easy task. And in the meantime, he leaves us with sparkling writing about a subject of utmost importance.

Godology is funny:

“It is easy to ignore the role of the Holy Spirit and treat him like the ‘red-headed step child’ of the Trinity.”

It is memorable:

“God doesn’t want to be our footnote; He seeks to be our title.”

And best of all, Godology is thoroughly biblical:

“Because Jesus was man, God identifies with us…because Jesus was divine, we identify with God.”

Godology focuses on the attributes of God and then shifts to our response to God’s revelation. The spotlight is on God, but Christian does not leave out our reponse. This book is as much about spiritual disciplines and practices as it is about God and theology.

Christian demonstrate an openness to disciplines from different traditions, a willingness to learn from the church throughout different ages and in other manifestations. (One chapter includes a section on the medieval labyrinth!) But Christian does not engage in such disciplines in order to find favor with God. Instead, the ancient practices are clearly described as ways of responding to the majesty of the God we see in Scripture. His emphasis on prayer, memorization, meditation and Scripture reading showcase the passion all Christians should have for knowing God and for making God known.

What makes this book stand out is not its content, but the accessible way in which it is written. Teenagers, college students, and young adults with little theological knowledge will be able to pick up this book and receive an informative book that is easily understandable (and even entertaining!). If you are looking for a book to pass on to others, Godology is one you will want to pick up.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

April 7, 2009

Kingdom Now and Not Yet

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:38 am

Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of GodIn recent years, the phrase “Already/Not Yet” as a description of our understanding of the kingdom of God in its present and future state has become very familiar. I took it for granted that this understanding had long been the dominant one in evangelicalism.

It was not until recently that I discovered the gridlock that existed between Dispensationalist and Covenant theologians in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Scholars and pastors within the evangelical world had a difficult time coming to an agreement on what the kingdom is, much less the timing of its arrival. 

The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd (Wm. B. Eerdmans) was first released back in 1959 and is still in print today. In this short book, Ladd leads us through the relevant Bible passages about the kingdom in order to bring scholars and teachers to a consensus.

The Gospel of the Kingdom is a ground-breaking work. Ladd is able to take truths from both the Dispensationalist side and the Covenant side and fit them together in a way that makes the best sense of the biblical picture.

First, Ladd explains what the kingdom of God is. It is a rule, not a realm. The kingdom can be defined as the “reign of God.”

After defining the kingdom as “God’s reign,” Ladd then explains the timing of the kingdom of God. Specifically, he shows how the kingdom of God can be both present and future. The kingdom has been inaugurated, but not yet consummated.

Also helpful is Ladd’s description of the role of the church: 

“Love is that gift of the spirit, above all others, which will characterize our perfected fellowship in the age to come. This love we now enjoy, and the church on earth will be a colony of heaven, enjoying in advance the life of the age to come.” (74)

The Gospel of the Kingdom is illuminating, clarifying and (thankfully) brief. It is amazing that Ladd manages to fit all of this great theological teaching into 140 pages.

There is a reason this book is still in print. It is unmatched in its clarification of what the kingdom of God is, and how the kingdom of God can be already present but not yet here in its fullness.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

April 2, 2009

Fasting: A Much Neglected and Much Needed Discipline

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:53 am

Fasting: The Ancient Practices

It will be unfortunate, yet not surprising, if Fasting, the newest book by Scot McKnight and newest installment in Thomas Nelson’s Ancient Practices series does not sell well. Not suprising – because American evangelicals have shown little appetite for the practice of fasting. Unfortunate – because Scot’s new book is one of the best treatments of this subject to find its way onto Christian bookshelves.

Not too long ago, a seminary friend questioned my desire to fast during the season of Lent. When I asked him why he was opposed to the Lenten practice, he pointed to its lack of prescription in the New Testament as well as the possibility to take such fasting to extremes. My response? “I don’t think that evangelicals are suffering right now from too much fasting.”

Scot McKnight claims that one of the reasons why we have neglected this ancient discipline is due to an unhealthy view of the body. Philosophically, we grativate toward dualism, which would have us view spiritual disciplines as just that – spiritual. We then miss the biblical view of embodied spirituality – a living out in the body that which one desires and yearns for in the spirit.

For Scot, “fasting is the natural inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life” (xx). Therefore, we are wrong to see fasting as a manipulative tool that guarantees results. It is instead a response.

Fasting is a comprehensive and helpful book. I enjoyed Scot’s honesty in describing his struggles with fasting (even as he was writing this book!). The distinctions he makes between normal fasting, absolute fasting and partial fasts (where we abstain from certain kinds of food or certain activities and things) help to clarify what it is that we are doing when we fast.

The greatest strength of the book is Scot’s picture of fasting as a response, never an instrumental practice in which we try to receive something. We go without food because of what has taken place in our hearts.

The book lays out the different ways that fasting serves a response. It can be an expression of repentance, a response to a moment in which we feel we must earnestly seek God, a response to grief (Scot sees grief as the thread that connects all the various fasting practices). Fasting can sometimes be a response to our need for spiritual discipline, a response to our corporate life together, even a response to poverty and injustice.

Again and again, Scot drives the point home: we do not fast to get something. We fast as a response. And if we receive something after or during the fast, it is because God has used the yearning in our heart (expressed through the fast) in order to grace us with more of his presence.

I thoroughly enjoyed the historical anecdotes contained in this book. Scot uses examples throughout church history, and points to people from all spectrums of Christianity. He is not afraid to critique traditions or misguided intentions with the Bible. Though he appreciates the different streams of the church, he does not appreciate them uncritically. He constantly points us back to the Bible. Even men like Francis of Assisi and Dallas Willard are evaluated, appreciated, and critiqued in light of Scripture.

As I came to the end of this book, I could not help but feel challenged and convicted as I considered the apathy often evident in my Christian life. Am I risky enough or take on some of the practices in this book?

Do I respond with a heavy heart to my sinfulness in a way that would take away my appetite?

How much do I truly feel when it comes to motives for grief in this world?

Fasting comes highly recommended. It is a comprehensive treatment of the subject written in terms any layperson can understand. But let me warn you. God may do a work in your life that will then lead you to respond by fasting!

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

March 31, 2009

Do We Know What Jesus Said?

Filed under: Book Reviews,Jesus — Trevin Wax @ 3:19 am

Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus

In recent years, I have noticed that many of the twenty and thirty-somethings in my circle ask very pointed questions about the accuracy of the biblical text. Some of the questioners are devoted Christians; others are outside the faith, challenging the foundation of our belief system. Regardless of their background, they are familiar with History Channel documentaries about the Gnostic or Lost Gospels and they have seen movies like The Da Vinci Code.

C.S. Lewis famously argued that Jesus must be either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. There are no other legitimate options. Despite the brilliance of Lewis’ trilemma, his apologetic falls apart if one disposes with the historical data of Jesus given to us in the Gospels. The Jesus of the canonical Gospels must be either liar, lunatic, or Lord. But once you question the historicity of the biblical picture of Jesus, his identity is once again in dispute.

Enter Nick Perrin, former research assistant to N.T. Wright and now the Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. Perrin’s book Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus takes on the recent critics of the Gospels’ reliability in a winsome and readable manner for laypeople.

The impetus for Lost in Transmission is the recent work of Bart Ehrman. Ehrman has made the argument at the popular level that the words of Jesus have been corrupted beyond recovery – intentionally tampered with by the scribes who handed down the words of Jesus.

Readers of Ehrman are struck by the personal nature of his writings. Ehrman cannot reconcile the existence of a good God and the existence of horrifying, unspeakable evils. Perrin’s response is just as personal. He recounts his own spiritual journey as he dismantles the illogical theses of Ehrman.

Writes Perrin:

“This book is for different kinds of people. It is for the countless people out there who, though interested in Jesus, are afraid to believe because they think that we cannot know anything about him or his words. It is also for Christians who are afraid to think because they believe we cannot know anything about Jesus. And it is for Christians who, being unafraid to believe or think, have dared to ascend the intellectual climbing wall of their faith, but who, having been harnessed into the Enlightenment understanding of historical evidence, are unaware of the fragility of that harness.” (x)

Perrin believes that evangelicals need to do business with historical research. We dare not ignore the historical challenges to our faith: 

“When people succumb to that temptation of ignoring challenges to their faith, they are in the end demonstrating that they are more committed to the feeling of having a lock on truth than they are to truth itself.” (xxi)

In other words, Perrin sees our refusal to engage in the historical debate as a backhanded denial of the truths at the very heart of Christianity. We must never suppress the historical truths surrounding the life of Jesus Christ presented in the Gospels. For Perrin, history and Christianity are inseparable because of the nature of the resurrection.

“I do claim that for historical reasons we can have a great deal of confidence in the scriptural record of Jesus’ words – and for that matter, his deeds as well. My own confidence may initially be born of biblical faith, but it is not a faith willfully oblivious to historical realities. Nor is biblical faith to be afraid of historical inquiry; rather, it seeks out such inquiry. If faith and history collide, it might make a pretty mess for a time. But the only worse mess is a stillborn faith that insists on fleeing history and, ultimately, the world in which we live. Never let it be said that the self-revelation of Jesus Christ demands blind acquiescence. Rather, it demands we ask questions when we’ve come to realize, once again, that we don’t yet fully understand the implications of that revelation.” (42)

The above passage forms the heart of Lost in Transmission. Perrin’s book attempts to demonstrate the need for us to do business with historical inquiry and to answer historical questions correctly.

I benefited from Perrin’s focus on the Jewish-ness of Jesus. Failing to take into account Jesus’ Judaism leads to a failure to understand his words and deeds in the appropriate context.

Likewise, I enjoyed Perrin’s unmasking of the arrogance and exclusivity of Enlightenment liberalism. Perrin ably demonstrates the closed-mindedness of the Enlightenment perspective, even as it parades under the guise of openness. He writes: 

“It is hard, if not impossible, to take Jesus’ Judaism seriously and make him into a poster child for Western liberalism.” (62)

I also appreciated Perrin’s desire to not over-harmonize the Gospel accounts when he runs into apparent discrepancies. He recognizes the danger of the extreme harmonizing tendency to flatten out the different picture each Gospel author desired to present to the readers.

Perrin says we should let the Gospels be the Gospels:

“Luke’s Jesus has to be understood for what he has to say without Matthew’s Jesus interrupting. The problem with sending one evangelist in to rescue another is that this becomes an easy way to get the Gospels to say what we want to hear. To me, this is just manipulating the Gospels as a magician might manipulate a stack of cards.” (123)

Perrin’s critique of the Enlightenment does not lead him to make statements of utter certainty. He proposes what seems to be a chastened postmodern sensibility that accepts our lack of understanding regarding certain aspects of the Gospels.

Do not expect Lost in Transmission to solve every textual problem you have as you study the Gospels. Instead, enjoy the reflections of a scholar whose work will increase your confidence in the reliability and accuracy of the biblical text.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

March 26, 2009

Praying the Psalms

Filed under: Book Reviews,Prayers — Trevin Wax @ 3:42 am

The Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms

I once read that Billy Graham prays five psalms a day (completing all 150 in a month). The more I consider that practice, the more I am convinced that such spiritual discipline is much needed in our fast-paced lives. We too often lack  time for prayer and Bible reading.

Most people admit that they would like to pray more. But how to start? How to continue? What to say?

We fail to realize that we have a divine prayer book available to us! Open up the Psalms and you will discover some of the most powerful prayers ever written – powerful because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit himself.

If you are looking for a resource to help you understand how to pray the psalms, then I encourage you to pick up God’s Prayer Book: The Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms by pastor Ben Patterson. God’s Prayer Book leads you through a selection of psalms, illuminating ways in which you can make these ancient prayers the cry of your own heart.

This is not a book of prayers inspired by the psalms. It is a book that puts the actual psalms in the spotlight. Patterson says just enough to stir our hearts to pray. He is a guide. He does not do the praying for you. 

Neither should you expect a scholarly commentary on the psalms (though I admit I will consult this book whenever I preach through the psalms). God’s Prayer Book is the best kind of devotional – one that shines light on the psalms and and offers some specific prayer points to get you started, without weighing you down with too many details.

The best part of Patterson’s work is his focus on spiritual formation. Patterson believes that praying the psalms changes our desires:

“Prayer is more than a tool for self-expression, a means to get God to give us what we want. It is a means he uses to give us what he wants, and to teach us what he wants.” (7)

Patterson sees the psalms as a mirror that reveal us. Whenever we read them, they show us who we are in light of God’s majesty. But whenever we pray them, they change us.

God’s Prayer Book contains the meditations of a man who has spent many years drinking deeply from the Scriptures. The book is also filled with good illustrations. Pastors will want to file away some of the stories for future use in sermons.

If it is true that “80 perecent of learning to pray is just showing up – and doing it” (22), then God’s Prayer Book is the perfect way to get started. 

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

March 19, 2009

You Need Atonement Counseling

Filed under: Book Reviews — Trevin Wax @ 3:05 am

Lit)Mark Driscoll thinks the cross is the answer to your problem. That’s right. Whatever your problem, the cross provides the answer.

In Death by Love: Letters from the Cross (Crossway, 2008), Driscoll describes the cross as a multi-faceted jewel that needs to be appreciated in all its biblical glory. He refuses to pit one theory of the atonement against another, instead insisting that the proper view of the cross will lead to proper pastoral application of each theory.

“Most poor teaching about the cross results from someone’s denying one of these facets, ignoring one of these facets, or overemphasizing one of these facets at the expense of others, often due to an overreaction to someone else’s overreaction. Such narrow and reactionary theology has tragically caused the beauty of the cross to become obscured by the various warring teams that have risen up to argue for their systematic theology rather than bowing down in humble worship of the crucified Jesus.” (10)

Driscoll may be committed to letting all of the atonement theories have their place, but he remains staunchly committed to the traditional substituationary view. He takes on the recent critics of the substitutionary view:

“Such critics are also commonly known to be the most vocal of hypocrites, simultaneously demanding justice on the earth for the poor, oppressed, and abused, while denying God the same kind of justice that is due him by those people that he created to glorify him with sinless obedience.” (22)

One might say that Driscoll sees substitution as the central theory, around which all the other theories find their ultimate meaning and strongest application.

Strengths

Death by Love contains powerful imagery. You cannot read the accounts of sin and its consequences without feeling a sense of holy rage and holy sadness. Driscoll does not tone down his talk about evil. He describes it in gut-wrenching detail.

Another strength of Death by Love is the nature of Driscoll’s pastoral insights. He is able to apply the atonement practically without neglecting the powerful theological content necessary to do the job. Who would have thought that a book on the cross for a popular level audience would include a chapter on Driscoll’s view of “unlimited limited atonement”? Even more, who would have expected a chapter like this to be so practical (and convicting)?

I was glad to see that Driscoll did not argue for merely one atonement theory at the expense of the others. The different motifs are weaved into most of the letters. The chapter on reconciliation, for example, overlaps with the Christus Victor theme. The reason for such overlap comes from Driscoll’s commitment to explaining the atonement biblically instead of forcing artificial distinctions upon the atonement theories.

This commitment to the beauty of each aspect of the atonement gives Death by Love a depth sadly missing from many evangelical books on the cross. For example, when Driscoll tells someone to forgive his dad who beat him mercilessly, he is able to ground the appeal to forgiveness in the cross itself. This makes his instruction much richer and deeper than just telling the man to “forgive.”

Weaknesses

At times, Driscoll describes Jesus’ crucifixion in gruesome detail that rivals Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. This kind of detail can be useful in preaching, especially due to our tendency to sanitize what happened at Calvary. Still, I cannot help but ask why (if such detail is necessary) the Gospels avoid such gruesome depictions. Breshears rightly points out that “fascination with blood itself has no resonance with the Bible,” (85) which makes me wonder why Driscoll describes the bloody cross in so much detail in many of his letters.

Readers may grow weary at times of the repetition in these letters. Since each chapter is a letter from Driscoll to a specific individual, the chapters tend to repeat previous themes again and again. The letter-format explains why this is the case, but the average reader might grow weary of the repetition.

The other weakness of the book is the absence of the Church. Of course, it could be said that the book contains Driscoll’s letters to individuals. True. But where is the biblical emphasis on Jesus dying to create a church, breaking down barriers between Jew and Gentile in order to form a worldwide community of believers from every tribe and tongue and nation? I expected this theme to come up in the chapter on reconciliation, but it did not.

Perhaps a chapter called “Jesus is my Church Membership” could have been written to the scores of young people today who see the believing community as an optional aspect of the Christian faith instead of one of the central reasons why Christ died.

Overall, Death by Love: Letters from the Cross  is a solid book that ably demonstrates the power of Jesus’ Passion for everyday life. Pastors and laypeople alike will benefit from the cross-centered counseling that fills these “letters.”

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

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