Category Archives: Book Review

HOW THE REFORMATION NEGLECTED THE HOLY SPIRIT

The following are excerpts from a chapter on pneumatology from Timothy C. Tennent’s excellent book, Theology in the Context of World Christianity:

“The Reformation’s emphasis on the authority of Scripture, ecclesiology, and Christology are clearly reflected in the post-Reformation attempt to systematize the theological deposit of the Reformers. However, this meant that, as was the case during the patristic period, a full development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was delayed and several vital aspects of his person and work were neglected in post-Reformation Protestant theology in the West. Over time, several major theological traditions developed that either denied completely or extremely limited the active role of the Holy Spirit in performing miracles, divine healing, demonic deliverance, prophecy, tongue-speaking, and other elements that later became central features of the Pentecostal doctrine of the Holy Spirit. For example, this tendency is evident in many expressions of Reformed theology as well as in the later nineteenth-century emergence of dispensationalism …” (Tennent 2007, 171).

“Traditional Western theologies were written by scholars who received their education in respected universities that were deeply influenced by Enlightenment assumptions. The Enlightenment worldview creates a high wall separating the experiential world of the senses – governed by reason and subject to scientific inquiry – from the unseen world beyond the wall; such a world either does not exist (naturalism) or, if it does, we can know little about it (deism). The result has been essentially a two-tiered universe that separates the world of science from the world of religion.

Biblical evangelicalism has challenged this worldview by insisting that God has supernaturally broken through this wall in the incarnation and that knowledge of the unseen world has been provided by the certainty of divine revelation. Evangelicals argued that through prayer we can have sustained communication and fellowship with God. The problem with this approach is that the basic two-tiered universe of the Enlightenment worldview remains intact. It has merely been modified so that Christians punch a few holes in the wall to provide a framework whereby God can come into the empirical world through the incarnation and revelation and we, in turn, can have access to the unseen world through prayer. The basic separation is left unchallenged …” (Tennent, 178).

“The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring the “not yet” of the kingdom into the “already” of our fallen world. All the future realities of the kingdom are now fully available to all believers through the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Doctrines of cessationism or partial cessationism are, in the final analysis, detrimental concessions to an Enlightenment worldview that has unduly influenced the church with its naturalistic presuppositions…” (Tennent, 179).

H IS FOR HERESY?

Heresy

“It seems to be a general feature of the history of Christian thought that a period of genuine creativity is immediately followed by a petrification and scholasticism, as the insights of a pioneering thinker or group of thinkers are embodied in formulae or confessions…” (McGrath 1986, 151).

“A major principle of the Reformation was reformata et semper reformanda – reformed and always reforming. How is continuing reform of evangelical faith and life possible if being evangelical requires firm adherence to a humanly devised cognitive structure of doctrinal content?” (Olson 2002, 39).

I have a deep respect and admiration for theoretical physics. I find that field fascinating. To me, systematic theology and theoretical physics represent the highest intellectual achievements of mankind – the first in regards to Special Revelation and the second in regards to General Revelation.

Christian theologians could learn a lot from theoretical physicists.

In physics, my perception is that scientists stand on the shoulders of giants and collaborate over decades through rigorous, meticulous research. Hypotheses become theories and theories become laws. New discoveries upend or expand previous understanding of the cosmos. Concepts such as falsifiability, replicating experiments, and using theoretical models to make accurate predictions are of one fabric with the scientific method.

However, when it comes to theology, we tend to find lone theologians creating their own systematic theologies, or we find many others accepting the party line of a particular ancient creed or confession. Some act as if the last word on theology was decided in the 1500s by a handful of white, European males. Certainly subsequent centuries of archeology, manuscript evidence, and language studies can shed no additional light on our beliefs (sarcasm).

It is in this spirit that I embark on reading three different books that espouse what I would have in earlier years considered heretical and false outright, based on their differing views from what I was taught at home and in church. Each of these books has had an impact or received high praise, even from those who do not agree. I endeavor to challenge myself and be exposed to contrary ideas with an open mind and without fear.

The books are:

1. ‘Most Moved Mover’ by Clark Pinnock

This book advocates open theism, which is contrary to what I am discovering to be my Classical Arminian leanings. I was raised, without knowing it, with an Arminian perspective (although not Classical Arminian). However, recalling conversations with my father, who was also the pastor of my church, I see that he actually embraced some openness without explicitly identifying it that way.

2. ‘Kingdom Come’ by Sam Storms

This book advocates amillennialism, which is contrary to my Mid-Trib / Pre-Wrath eschatological leanings. I had accepted the doctrine of the Rapture as a given for many years until I started studying the Bible for myself and found no support for it. I currently do not believe in any kind of “rapture” nor the doctrine of imminency.

3. ‘The Fire That Consumes’ by Edward Fudge

This book advocates annihilationism, which is contrary to my traditional views on eternal suffering in the final judgment. Technically, the author labels his view as ‘conditionalist.’ My interest in this topic was piqued when I realized that the Bible describes the lake of fire as eternal, and that Satan and his angels will suffer for eternity there, and that the unregenerate will also go there… but it did not clearly state that the unregenerate will also suffer for eternity there! Hmmm…

semper reformanda!

SALVATION AND SOVEREIGNTY: A MOLINIST APPROACH

Salvation and Sovereignty

I just finished reading ‘Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach’ by Kenneth Keathley in my ongoing quest to find out exactly what I believe about God’s “sovereignty.” Molinism, often advertised as a middle-ground position between Calvinism and Arminianism, piqued my interest. Keathley is a Baptist who teaches at a Baptist seminary, who adopts the ROSES acronym (against TULIP)… originally presented by Baptist scholar Timothy George. As Baptist theology has always been a curious mixture of Calvinist and Arminian ideas, it seems fitting for Keathley to embrace this “middle position” of Molinism.

Unfortunately, the book is far more about the ROSES acronym and how it plays into the doctrines of salvation and sovereignty (as the title advertises) than it is about Molinism itself. I was left mystified by the more elusive, philosophical details of Molinism and will have to read ‘A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology’ by Kirk R. MacGregor next.

Keathley often states that God “uses his middle-knowledge” in such-and-such circumstances. But how? In what exact way? Also, God “actualizes” a particular world out of all possible worlds. But what does it mean for God to “actualize” a world – does he only actualize a world during the seven days of creation recorded in Genesis and then sit back and watch everything unfold in a deterministic cascade? Or is God in a process of constant actualization? Does the world he actualizes change based on Keathley’s concept of contingency? What specific criteria did / does God use to choose a particular world to actualize? Keathley says little about these matters.

Regardless, Keathley writes well and his attention to certain topics have left lasting impressions on me. He argues very clearly and logically in favor of:

1. Contingency: Scripture repeatedly presents scenarios that turned out one way but could have truly turned out a very different way. The outcome was not set it stone. “Contingency is the concept that things could have been otherwise” (25). “A contingent truth is something that happens to be true but obviously could have been false” (28).

2. Permission: The Bible “presents God’s relationship with iniquity as one of permission. The notion of God’s permissive relationship to evil permeates the Bible” (27). This is opposed to God being in any way the author or cause of sin, even indirectly.

3. Soft Libertarianism: Humans have a limited ability to choose to the contrary – their set or range of possible choices are determined by their character. An unregenerate person has the possibility of making genuine choices between alternatives, even to engage in externally moral behavior, but they do not have the ability to please God because this is not within the scope of their character. Humans do not have the freedom to make any possible choice out of an infinite set of choices, nor are their choices illusions determined by external factors.

4. Agent Causation: Closely related to soft libertarianism, the concept of agent causation states that “a person is the source and origin of his choices” and that ultimate responsibility for decisions lies with that agent (73). “Rather than functioning simply as a link in a chain of events, a causal agent operates as the impetus for new causal chains. This creative ability reflects the imago dei” (75). Our capacity to originate choices is like “a little citadel of creativity ex nihilo.

5. Resistible Grace: Keathley powerfully argues, from both Scripture and logic, that grace (though “monergistic”) is in fact resistible. “God’s drawing grace should and would be efficacious for all. The only thing that could stop it is if, inexplicably, a person decides to refuse” (106). Keathley uses many verses that point to the free and universal offer of salvation as well as the culpability of those that refuse. “[T]hose who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonian 2:10b, ESV).

Has this book convinced me to become a Molinist? No. I still don’t fully understand the nuances of the position. But I got a lot out of reading it and I applaud Keathley’s thoughtful work. If this book can help nudge doubting hyper-Calvinists toward becoming 5-point Calvinists, and 5-point Calvinists toward becoming 4-point Calvinists, and 4-point Calvinists toward becoming Molinists… then I consider that a win!

CALVINISM / ARMINIANISM

The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is nothing new. However, after decades of seeming obscurity in the religious marketplace, Calvinism has had a resurgence. The rebirth of Calvinism in America may be a reaction to “superficial, seeker-sensitive theology … the God of Calvinism is far from a cosmic bellhop. He is not obliged to do anything for you except send you to hell, and if he chooses to do so, he is glorified by your damnation” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 17).

There are many differences as well as similarities (e.g., the doctrine of Total Depravity) between the two theological perspectives, but regarding the issue of salvation the heart of the argument is found here: The Bible tells us that God desires the salvation of all. God is all powerful. Why are not all saved?

The simplistic Arminian answer is “free will.” The simplistic Calvinist answer is “God chose in advance some to be saved and others not to be saved.”

I recently read ‘Why I Am Not A Calvinist’ by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, and the counterpart book ‘Why I Am Not An Arminian’ by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams. Both are thoughtful and irenic treatments of the subject matter and what the authors view to be at stake in the debate. I will give brief impressions on both:

WHY I AM NOT A CALVINIST

notacalvinist

Walls and Dongell absolutely nail the underlying philosophical arguments. They helpfully define concepts such as libertarian free will, determinism, compatibilism, and point out our axiomatic beliefs and philosophical judgments that play into the development of theology. Beyond this excellent analysis, however, the “fundamental dispute is [over] God’s character.” Is the Calvinist gospel truly good news?

Distancing themselves from modern Arminianism-lite, the authors instead advocate for Classical Arminianism, which they believe is more faithful to scripture. God enables the possibility of salvation like a surgeon operating on an unconscious crash victim, seeking consent for further operations once the patient is partially stabilized, but not out of the woods. Regarding the crucial point of God’s foreknowledge, they survey three main perspectives – Actual Foreknowledge, Molinism, and Openness.

The authors poke holes in the logic of prominent Calvinists such as John Piper and R.C. Sproul, and even show inconsistencies in Calvin and the Westminster Confession. In general, “too many biblical passages must undergo heavy modification according to Calvinist precepts before they can be understood in Calvinist ways.”

One complaint I would have is that the Arminian concept of God giving every human at least one opportunity for salvation is brought up (although not specifically advocated). Experientially this does not feel true. I have met many people who do not seem to have ever had the slightest glimmer of a spiritual awakening. If such people exist, such as the proverbial unreached native in the jungle, we are somewhat back to square one – why did God not give them that opportunity to respond to the light? I wish the authors would have specifically addressed that.

WHY I AM NOT AN ARMINIAN

notanarminian

“Human beings are utterly dependent upon the saving grace of God. And apparently, God has not acted on behalf of all … Calvinism is predicated upon a divine discrimination regarding the recipients of saving grace.” Peterson and Williams argue heartily for the untarnished sovereignty of God, at least as the word sovereignty is defined by Calvinists (that God always gets exactly what he wants), and show many scriptures that indicate a favored group of individuals identified from “before creation.”

The authors helpfully delve into the historical issues of the Arminian / Calvinist debate, including Augustine, Calvin, the Synod of Orange, Arminius, the Synod of Dort, and the later development of so-called Calvinist positions that perhaps went beyond the intent of Augustine and the early Reformers (e.g., TULIP). This overview spans more than half of the book. The authors also refute the claim that Arminians are Semi-Pelagian, rather identifying them as Semi-Augustinian.

I appreciated this background, as well as the distinction between Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism and how those relate to Calvinism, which I had not thought about since my seminary days. Ultimately, the authors settle on a sort of moderated Calvinism, saying that few actually live at the logical extremes of their beliefs (does that mean that the authors embrace an illogical version of Calvinism?) Preferring Infralapsarianism, they argue that God is not responsible for the original sin of Adam, but essentially for everything else. Sinful mankind get exactly what they deserve; the elect are mercifully spared from their justified damnation.

I have two main complaints with this book. One is that Peterson and Williams often proclaim that such-and-such a point is the “clear” meaning of a verse, whereas the correct interpretation has been debated for hundreds of years by God-fearing Christians. A second is that they on occasion retreat into mystery – God’s criteria for choosing the elect from eternity past is totally unknowable. Of course, it can’t possibly be because of any foreseen positive quality in the elect! But, if the criteria for divine discrimination is truly a mystery, why couldn’t that be one of many possible actualities?

SALVATION AND SOVEREIGNTY

Next up I am reading ‘Salvation and Sovereignty’ by Kenneth Keathley. Keathley argues for a Molinist understanding of salvation and election, claiming that Molinism is the only system that logically holds human responsibility and God’s sovereignty in balance without contradiction or paradox. Ironically, Molinism is decried by Arminians as “too Calvinist” and by Calvinists as “too Arminian.”

FIVE BOOKS THAT EVERY CHRISTIAN SHOULD READ

If I were to create a gift basket to give to new believers, I would include the following five books:

1. FLATLAND: A ROMANCE OF MANY DIMENSIONS (Edwin A. Abbott)

Flatland_(second_edition)_cover

C.S. Lewis once said that sometimes we must first “make the younger generation good pagans and afterwards let us make them Christians.” I could not disagree more strongly with that statement. However, I understand the general point that Lewis was trying to make – that post-Enlightenment Westerners had lost touch with a sense of wonder, with a sense of the miraculous that would enable them to appreciate the claims of Christianity beyond the soul-crushing lens of naturalism-materialism.

Flatland is not a work of Christian Apologetics; it is not even an allegory. However, this satirical novel written in 1884 by English schoolmaster and theologian Edwin Abbott Abbott is very useful in illustrating what Kierkegaard termed the ‘dimensional beyondness’ of God. This thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny book can help people expand their conceptual framework for contemplating the divine.

2. MERE CHRISTIANITY (C.S. Lewis)

Mere Christianity

This is a beloved masterpiece of Christian Apologetics – ecumenical and highly accessible. Despite strong reference points to Britain and the post-WWII era, Lewis adeptly communicates several basic tenants of Christianity in both a conversational and persuasive manner. Notable points include Lewis’s famous Trilemma and his discussion on the moral law.

3. THE BIBLE AMONG THE MYTHS (John Oswalt)

The Bible Among the Myths

John Oswalt defines mythology and then demonstrates the ways in which the Old Testament stories consistently and dramatically differ from every other form of religious literature and narrative found in the ancient world. You will come away from this book with the tools for recognizing the common patterns found throughout the false religions of the world, past and present.

4. SHARE JESUS WITHOUT FEAR (William Fay)

Share Jesus Without Fear

A very simple, very powerful treatise and how-to guide for evangelism. Fay presents a tried and true method for gauging interest, opening up conversation, responding to objections, and leading individuals through the plan of salvation found in scripture – without fear!

5. REES HOWELLS: INTERCESSOR (Norman Grubb)

Rees Howells Intercessor

The best Christian book I have read apart from the Bible. A biography of a humble miner called into God’s service during the Welsh revival. This book will challenge you to your very core as the Holy Spirit systematically obliterates Mr. Howells’ pride and self-interest.

BOOK REVIEW: BONHOEFFER

COVER-Bonhoeffer2I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. I was originally interested in this biography by the John le Carré-esque subtitle, encouraged to get a copy by word-of-mouth, and further motivated by my recent interest in Lutheranism (having recently read Hammer of God by Bo Giertz and getting the Lutheran Concordia). Audiobooks are not my preferred medium, as authorial voice can be distorted by the narrator’s vocal emphases, attitude, and mannerisms. However, I spend an inordinate amount of time driving, with almost 200,000 miles on my 2007 Honda Fit.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who was ultimately executed in a concentration camp for his connection to the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He is perhaps best known to Americans for coining the term “costly grace” and writing The Cost of Discipleship. His story seems tragic in that: 1. He died at the too-young age of 39; 2. He was killed mere weeks before the end of World War II; 3. He spent the entirety of his engagement in prison and was never able to marry the woman he loved; and, 4. The direct reason for his demise was tied to a cause that failed.

Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer did not measure success by external or worldly criteria. Success for him was obedience to God, whatever the consequences. A model for him was the prophet Jeremiah who “failed” from a human perspective but was actually victorious, obeying God until the bitter end. Bonhoeffer spoke of the power of faith to “transform death” – that death is actually the final stage along the road of discipleship. And now, indeed, he is recognized and honored as a Christian martyr by several church bodies around the world.

Bonhoeffer never did take the easy path. He sought out pastoral work when he could have enjoyed a career as an academic. He became an outspoken critic and dissenter when he could have gone along with the political tides of the Reich Church. He returned into the dangerous jaws of Nazi Germany at the brink of WWII when he had abundant opportunities to remain and work safely in the United States. Through it all he saw himself as obeying God’s call on his life.

So how exactly does a Christian pastor reconcile himself to the idea of assassinating a Head of State? How does a theologian with a special love for the Sermon on the Mount ignore the biblical commands not to kill, to submit to governing authorities, to pray for one’s enemies, etc.? One of the interesting things about this book is context – how does environment and experience shape one’s theological outlook?

Bonhoeffer was a life-affirming Lutheran who warned against “excessive piety.” He emphasized the Incarnation of Christ. He was cultured, traveled, ecumenical, patriotic, and educated. He was able to both appreciate and criticize various mediums of fine and not-so-fine art. He spoke multiple languages and made numerous international contacts. He was far from anti-intellectual yet grew to be very conservative when it came to scripture. What happened in human affairs was important to Bonhoeffer, and he even referred to his engagement as a “yes to God’s earth.” It is this backdrop that I think helps explain his choice to attach himself to such an attempted coup / assassination plot.

If you watch your beloved country over the course of many years slipping into the hands of an unbalanced and dangerous madman who encourages atrocities and war crimes, deceives and manipulates both citizens and foreign powers, invades numerous neighboring countries, persecutes and kills an entire people group, and guts the Christian church, you too would likely feel compelled to act in some way. Through his contacts, Bonhoeffer received inside information of the barbarities that were taking place through the Nazi regime, far earlier than most. Germany itself was on a collision course with oblivion under Nazi rule. As Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

This reminds me of a favorite ethical brainteaser that I have often heard Christians use – if Nazis show up at your front door and ask if there are any Jews hiding in your house, is it a sin to lie to them?

My favorite part of this book is the inside look at the church struggle in Germany, with the so-called German Christians desecrating the scriptures, the rise of the Nazi-sanctioned Reich Church, and the breakaway Confessing Church movement. As I view Hitler as sort of a prototype to Antichrist, I likewise see the rise of Nazi Germany as a sneak preview of the end times. It is truly frightening to see how quickly the mainstream Protestant Church capitulated in the face of Nazism, but also encouraging to see those who are willing to take a stand for truth and Christ in the face of persecution.

“… it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Matthew 10:22b).