Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Top 5 Books for 2016

I didn't get to read quite as much this year as I have in years past. However, the books I did read were, for me, life-transforming. A quick note: this list does not mean these books were written in 2016. Here are my top 5 for the year:

5) Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

This book was more timely than it was excellent. In light of the recent election, Hillbilly Elegy provides a rationale for why Donald Trump was elected and gives a snapshot into the lives of those who voted for him. I related tremendously with the book because Vance writes about my people. The stories he told were all too real for me. I loved it and I think you will find it interesting too.

4) You are what you Love by James K.A. Smith 

James K.A. Smith wrote one of my favorite books back in 2014 called How (Not) to be Secular which was a brilliant diagnosis of culture. I think You are what you Love is brilliant for its diagnosis of the heart and one that I have often thought back on. Smith argues that real spiritual transformation can only come when we begin dealing with the heart and our love. I preached a message that drew heavily from this book in chapel so I think it will provide some good stuff for pastors as well.

3) Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis that You Can't Learn from Exegesis Alone by John Lee Thompson 

I really can't express how soul nourishing this book was for me. Thompson's thesis is simple: there has always been divergence when it comes to interpretation of the Bible. The idea that it can just be me, the Bible and the Holy Spirit is isolating, dangerous and ultimately crippling for those who are looking to truly understand the Bible. It helped me realize the value, not just of good exegesis, but of good historical theology. I loved it.

2) On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard O. Forde

This is a SHORT book that absolutely devastated me spiritually. Forde goes carefully through Luther's Heidelberg Disputations and asks the question, "What does it mean to be a theologian of the cross?" Notice what the question is not asking--"What is a theology of the cross?" The difference lies in who we are? Have we internalized the message of the cross? Have we internalized the death of and the promise of our Savior? There is almost no page without some sort of marking on it. It would have easily been my number one book of the year, if book number one had not been arguably the best book I've ever read.

1) America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln by Mark Noll 

This book changed the way I viewed a) America b) Evangelicalism c) biblical interpretation and d) war. It was that good. And massive. It is not a book you read as quickly as possible but a book you persist with and slowly digest. It is long and dense but it is well worth the time to read. Noll argues that America has a completely different vision of Christianity--one that is ultimately linked to politics. Of course, Noll sees this as problematic (and rightfully so). He traces how the intertwining of politics and biblical interpretation ultimately impacted the Civil War. This book challenged so much of what I thought I knew about America and theology. I cannot say enough good about this book.

So there you have it! There is my top 5 for the year! I hope you pick a book (or five) from the list and digest them. I think you'll appreciate them!
 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

"Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness" Review

One of the things I appreciate about the Puritans is there resoluteness that Christians are truly different--we are in the world but we are not to be of it. Our lives ought to be transformed and that makes our relationship with the world tenuous. I am not sure we can be reminded of this truth enough. Along this line, I heartily commend the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness by Jeremy Walker. 

Walker uses the term "pilgrim" to describe the life of a Christian here on earth. The Bible and theologians have constantly referred to followers of God as strangers and those passing through the world. Walker calls Christians to not abandon the world or ignore it but to remember that this world, in the grand scheme of God's narrative, is not our home. He explains how we ought to live as pilgrims:

Chapter 3: Understand the Environment
Chapter 4: Know the Enemy
Chapter 5: Fight the Battles
Chapter 6: Pursue the Mission
Chapter 7: Respect the Authorities
Chapter 8: Relieve the Suffering
Chapter 9: Appreciate the Beauty
Chapter 10: Anticipate the Destiny
Chapter 11: Cultivate the Identity
Chapter 12: Serve the King

As you can see by the outline of the book, Walker advocates that we walk carefully between both acknowledging the world's importance but also acknowledging the world's fallen state. I greatly appreciate his emphasis on the biblical authority. We are repeatedly drawn back to truly trusting what the Bible says about Satan, world powers, suffering, and the kingdom to come.

For this reason, Passing Through has a very "old school" feel to it. I mean that in the best possible way. Modern theologians just don't call us to taking the Bible at its word. Walker doesn't mince words or play around. This is valuable for the reason that we live in a world that seems to becoming more hostile than ever toward Christianity. Walker doesn't leave us pilgrims in despair. He constantly reminds us of God's sovereignty and goodness in this broken world.

Further, Walker doesn't leave us hating the world or those in the world. He reminds us that this world is something to be enjoyed and appreciated without conforming. This balance is something difficult to reach and yet the author does a remarkable job of it.

The only thing that I find questionable is Walker's dismissal of the idea that this world is in fact our home. Authors like N.T. Wright have demonstrated (convincingly, in my opinion) that there is continuity between this world and the New Heavens and Earth. It seems, at times, that Walker relies to heavily on authors like Calvin and the Puritans in informing his language here. Recapturing the Christian vision for this world (and not a genuinely "new" world) I feel is important and I am not sure that Walker does the best job of doing this.

Nevertheless, there is so much to value in this book and I highly recommend it to all readers of virtually any reading level. There is much to profit in reading it.

Shaun Tabatt recently had an interview with the author of this book which you can listen to here:
http://shauntabatt.com/011.

*Thanks to Cross-Centered Reviews for this book which I was given in exchange for a fair review*

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Two New and Noteworthy books

Bound for the Promised Land: The land promise in God's Redemptive plan by Oren R. Martin (IVP, 2015)

Oren R. Martin introduces the newest monograph in the New Studies in Biblical Theology. It is about time that the NSBT series had a book on the land promises in the Bible. Unfortunately, I am not sure that this is the work they were hoping for. This is by far the weakest work in the entire series that I have read. The reason for this is that Martin adds virtually nothing to our understanding of the Promised Land. Further, he primarily interacts with other scholars from his own theological tradition (conservative Southern Baptist). It feels as if he is just condensing the thinking of Gentry, Wellum and Beale. He essentially argues that what was promised in the Old Testament concerning the land is fulfilled in the New Testament in Christ. He doesn't effectively, in my opinion, dispatch Dispensational thinking. It is disappointing.

That isn't to say the book is useless. On a practical level, I have found this book helpful when needing a cliff-notes version of other larger works. The book is readable. Unfortunately, the level of technicality that is normally displayed in NSBT just isn't here. This book could have been so much more.

Do We Need the New Testament?: Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself by John Goldingay (IVP, 2015)

I like John Goldingay. He is a brilliant Old Testament scholar and I have personally profited greatly from his work. This new work promises to be a sort of preview of a biblical theology his writing. That sounds great. Too bad this book isn't. There are some good points here and there (his chapter on the Grand Narrative and the Middle Narrative in chapter four is pretty solid). The weakest spot of this book is the fact that John Goldingay oversells the idea that the New Testament offers nothing really new. Paul makes abundantly clear that there is something radically new with the coming of Christ (as does the book of Hebrews).

One of the more ridiculous chapters in the book is when Goldingay argues that we should be wary of being Christ-centered, Trinitarian or constrained by the rule of faith when interpreting the Old Testament. Jesus had no such problem using himself as the hermeneutical method for reading the Old Testament. His statements are not very well grounded or defended. This is obviously debatable since some have given this book great reviews. However, I found the work frustrating. 

I am a fan of the Old Testament. I think that it contains almost everything we need to know in order to accurately interpret the New Testament. Goldingay's work is definitely provocative. Unfortunately, in this case, I am not sure that is such a good thing. Maybe his full-length biblical theology will do a better job explaining his thinking. For me, this book is a definite pass.

*Thanks to IVP for providing the review copies*



Review of "Providence Made Flesh"

Calvinism can quickly run into a roadblock. If God exercises exhaustive providence over the world, how can we talk about human free will? Normally Calvinism (since Calvin although you can trace the development of thought back to Aristotle) uses primary and secondary causation to explain how God rules. It works something like this, though this is greatly truncated: God will use secondary agents to cause his will. So he primarily moves secondary agents and accomplishes his purposes without being held responsible for doing the act directly.

When I explain this to students I teach, their reaction is almost always the same: "But that doesn't really explain anything or get God off the hook."This is unfortunate because I think Calvinism, as a whole, provides the best way of understanding the Bible. The problem is often how the discussion is framed.

Enter Providence Made Flesh: Divince Presence as a Framework for a Theology of Providence by Terry J. Wright. The title basically explains the premise. Wright believes a better model for understanding causation is Trinitarian presence.Wright is not trying to re-Wright (haha, see what I did there?) the book on providence. Rather, he is interested in demonstrating that "the doctrine of providence is demonstrated to concern the action of the triune God: The Father sends the Son to become incarnate and to act as God in the world; the Son obeys this calling within the freely accepted limitation that creaturely existence imposes; and the Spirit enables him continually to offer himself to the Father despite the temptation to reject his vocation." (222)

His goal is rather modest and he accomplishes what he sets out to do which is simply provide a slightly different framework from which we ought to think about providence. This is Wright's dissertation and I must be honest: it is pretty remarkable what he accomplishes. First, he explores the idea of secondary causation. In chapter two, he explores secondary causation in John Calvin. In chapter three, he explores how secondary causation actually shoves God out of the equation.

So basically the first quarter or so of the book is systematic theology. He then turns his attention to biblical theology and the action of the triune God. After outlining God's providence in both the Old and New Testament (borrowing heavily from G.K. Beale's temple theology), he goes on to exegete particular texts. So we have a work of philosophical, systematic, biblical and exegetical theology. This is a great work.

I will say, however, that Wright actually doesn't solve the issue of God's sovereignty and human free will. If you are looking for the magic bullet, it isn't here. There are still plenty of unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions. All Wright is doing, again, is suggesting a better way to discuss God's providence. For that, I couldn't be happier! 

Be forewarned: since this is a dissertation, it maintains a fairly high level of technicality. A working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew would definitely help, especially in the later chapters. However, educated laity should have no problem tracking with the gist of what Wright is saying.

Overall, it is a great work. I look forward to seeing how Wright extends the scope of this work. It certainly provoked me to think in new ways about God's providence.

*Thanks to Wipf and Stock for the review copy!*

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What's the deal with "The Evangelical Universalist"?

First some clarifications: evangelical universalism (EU) differs from universalism by stating that Jesus is the only way to God. However, it accepts that one day all people will one day come to accept Christ. The evangelical universalist does not deny hell but believes that all who are in hell will eventually come to know Christ.

Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym--the author's real name is Robin Parry) writes to defend this (unpopular) position to Evangelicals. MacDonald rightly sees that the problem of hell binds together many theological difficulties. However, he also believes that by abandoning the eternality of hell we can clear up many of these theological difficulties.

In my mind, if you are going to buy into EU you have to make your case in three distinct areas: 1) exegetical issues (arising from looking at the text) 2) philosophical issues and 3) historical theology (or has this view been accepted). So how does MacDonald do?

Let me start by saying that I think the eternal suffering of man in hell is an extremely disturbing and difficult doctrine. So I am fully empathetic to what MacDonald is wanting to do in this work. I also think that MacDonald covers most (if not all) of the objections that could be posited against this position in the second edition. I was impressed by the amount of material covered in a relatively short work. MacDonald is also an excellent writer in theology. He writes in a clear way. In my mind, he is one of the best examples of how theology should be written.

MacDonald's strongest arguments against the traditional view of hell (TVOH) and for EU are his philosophical arguments. MacDonald, in my mind, makes the convincing case that eternal suffering in hell would be inferior to a universalist position. I cannot imagine a Christian who does not find, on some level, the idea of universalism appealing. The biggest objection that can be raised is that universalism does not deal harshly enough with sin against a holy God. MacDonald argues, however, that even if we do sin against God (even against an infinite God) an infinite punishment would not be just. Further, he argues that it is not even a just position. The whole discussion is fairly nuanced but I thought he raised some excellent objections. He also notes that while not many throughout church history have held to EU, many like Origin (who was NOT condemned for his universalist position), Barth and others have held to the position. It is not unheard of--even if it was the minority position.

So that leads us to the exegetical issues--the most important issue of all. It is here that he takes an interesting position. MacDonald, in order to have his position acceptable among evangelicals, only needs to show that his argument is warranted (even if not persuasive) from the Bible. His technique is interesting (though not surprising). He starts in Colossians and argues that we can see in Paul a universalist tendency. From there, he argues that biblical theology supports a univeralist reading. He follows this up with a retelling of the OT narrative and NT narrative (read: biblical theology).

He recognizes that the largest challenges against his position are going to come from Revelation, so he spends an entire chapter on that issue (for the record, I don't find his interpretation of those texts convincing). He then addresses the passages that seem to talk about hell in the teachings of Jesus. He notes that authors such as Perriman have noted that all of the mentions of hell and heaven are actually not referring to future eschatology but events that were fulfilled during the early church. Thankfully, MacDonald doesn't simply assume Perriman is right and spends time exegeting the key texts.

Probably the biggest problem I have with MacDonald's position comes when he starts trying to exegete the texts. By starting in Colossians, he then reads the rest of the Bible through that lens. The problem with attempting to provide a full biblical theology is that you can end up making the Bible say what you want and I couldn't shake the feeling that that was what I was encountering reading MacDonald's work.

So I will grant that MacDonald's work is plausible at points but I don't think it actually falls in line with the whole Bible. More disturbing (and probably damning to his own position) is the fact that he openly admits that his position was not likely held by all the biblical authors and some may have disagreed with him while at the same time holding to the basic trajectory of universalism.

But this won't do. What MacDonald has essentially created now is a canon within a canon. It also causes the reader to begin reading author biblically inspired authors skeptically. I'm not digging that. I think it puts a strain on conventional hermeneutics.

I also want to propose one more troubling aspect of EU--that of daily holiness and hatred of sin. While I don't think that avoidance of eternal suffering in hell is a good reason to pursue holiness alone (I think you need to pursue holiness out of love of God), the Puritans used it as one of the motivations. If my suffering is temporary in hell, why should I listen to the call of Gospel holiness now? To avoid hell? Why not just suffer a bit but enjoy my sin for as long as possible? I agree that this thinking is foreign to the Gospel and that love should be an ultimate motivator.

But realistically, will this doctrine make you hate sin more? Will it make you pursue holiness with reckless abandon? I'm not sure it does. I grant that this argument is more existential and personal in nature and I could very well be proven wrong. However, I just cannot foresee this doctrine producing the holiness that God requires. I'm just not sure I am buying into the idea that if we accept EU then we are not changing any major doctrines, like MacDonald insists. I'm just not there.

The historical evidence just isn't there for me either. Most of the major church fathers (who I trust, mostly) rejected the position as unbiblical. It wasn't until the past few hundred years that this position has gained traction. That is problematic to me. 


So I am left unpersuaded. However, I liked the book and it was highly readable. It is challenging (in the best way) and congenial. If nothing else, MacDonald gives us an example of how theology (especially polarizing theology) should be done.

*Thanks to Cascade Publishing for providing a free review copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.*

"Finding God in the Verbs" book review

Finding God in the Verbs: Crafting a Fresh Language of Prayer by Jennie Isbell and J. Brent Bill attempts to help Christians learn how to pray by writing their own prayers. The point of the book is to try to teach you how language informs prayer and can help reignite your prayer life.

The book covers how to use verbs, adjectives, adverbs. Most importantly, the book encourages intentionality in our prayer life. I appreciate that about this book. It made me rethink how I use language in praying to God. The book provides about 35 exercises that help make the book more interactive.

The problem with the book probably lies more with me than with the book itself. I don't pray out loud often. Most of my prayers are in my head. When I do pray out loud, I have learned most of my language from reading Puritans or reading works of theology. So this book really didn't resound with me. The book doesn't provide any solid theology of prayer which I find problematic but the book isn't really seeking to provide that. The book is very specific about finding language for prayer.

Overall, the work is a good book if you are someone who writes out prayers. I think the exercises could be really beneficial for the reader. This is not a book to speed read through but to read intentionally and carefully. I hope it finds a wide readership.

So now that I'm saved...what am I suppose to do?: A Review of Covenant and Commandment

You aren't saved by the law. You are saved by faith. So what is the purpose of the commandments in the Bible? Do we still need to follow the law? How does the New Covenant relate to the Old Covenant?

These are pretty loaded questions. They are also immensely practical too. If we are no longer bound to the law, how are we suppose to live? What is our moral imperative as Christians? How do we live holy lives? Covenant and Commandment: Works' obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life provides a biblical theology answering these questions. It is a great book and one that helped clarify my thinking in some of these matters.

Bradley Green, professor at Union University, starts chapter one by showing the necessity of works in the Christian's life from the New Testament. There really isn't anything groundbreaking here. It isn't up for debate. Nevertheless, Green treads through the material carefully, evenly and sets up the remainder of the book well.

Chapter two traces the theme of obedience in the Old Testament. Green focuses on Ezekiel and Jeremiah, showing how the texts on the New Covenant are used in the New Testament. This in term leads to discussing how the Old and New Covenant relate to each other in chapter three. What makes the New Covenant truly new? Green answers that in this chapter. He traces the flow of redemptive history and relates it to the New Covenant.

Chapters four and five deal with Christ's work on the cross and his union with believers. Green demonstrates that while salvation is by grace, works are still a necessity. He exegetes several key texts in his demonstration of this. Further, Green shows that now we are united with Christ good works should flow from us. Why? Because in one sense, our bodies are not ours but it is Christ working in us.

Finally, Green spends an extended amount of time looking at how judgment will play into our lives at the end of time. Green surveys Calvin, Owens and even modern perspectives on judgment (like N.T. Wright). It is an extremely balanced approach. Green shows his talent at both historical, biblical and systematic theology in this chapter. He writes, "If what God is doing in history is forming and redeeming a people who will praise him for all eternity, and who will be more and more conformed to the image of God, then of course this people will be marked by spirit-induced obedience." (142)

If you are looking for breakthroughs or new perspectives on obedience and works, look elsewhere. Green doesn't tread any new ground. What you will find is an intelligent, thoughtful and BIBLICAL perspective. I highly recommend this work.

*Thanks to IVP Publishers for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*