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:

*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.*

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner and what the Real Issue Should Be for Christians

Let me get to the point quickly. If you are a Christian, the real issue concerning the Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner saga is this: what Caitlyn has done is rebellion against a holy God and, unless she repents and turns to Christ, there will be judgment.

Here is why this is important to keep in mind.

1) There should be absolutely NO "I am morally superior to you" attitude when commenting on this issue. We too were once enemies of God. We too have on our resume "Former rebel against the Great King." It is by grace we have been saved. It is by grace that Caitlyn too, if she repents, will be saved. 

2) It should lead to a great urgency in prayer for Caitlyn. Hell is dreadful. We should take no delight in the prospect that Caitlyn may not repent. That should horrify us.

3)  The fact that the wrath of God is already being worked out (notice the present tense in Romans 1:18) should lead us to hurt for Caitlyn--not reject, scorn or detest her. We should equally preaching Romans 1 as we should Romans 3. There is a God who justifies from wrath.

4)  We should remember that sin is delusional by nature. Caitlyn is deluded by her sin. Sin has a toxic, blinding effect. The large number of Christian men who are addicted to pornography and often feel confused about how to escape are a testimony to how powerful sin is. This should lead us to sympathize with Caitlyn. Sin is a monster. Our sin natures are enemies. We will either be carried away by them or find a Savior who can rescue us from them. We are all in this boat together.

The prospect of hell should change the way we view Caitlyn. While I recognize the world is celebrating this (an option that no Christian should embrace), I am equally disturbed by the amount of people who are harping upon how disgusting this sin is. All sin is disgusting and worthy of judgment. Yes, gender transformation is wrong. Yes, it goes against God's creative plan.

But the real issue here is hell. Let us pray. Let us proclaim that there is still mercy (while it can be found). Let us mourn over our own sin. Let us mourn over our culture's sin. Let's not forget the Gospel is still out there for Caitlyn. God is sovereign in salvation. Let's proclaim that as our message.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What I Teach About Creation

So I have a confession to make: I used to totally be into the Creation vs. evolution debate. Growing up, that was my jam. In my mind, if I could prove that creation was made by an intelligent being, I had essentially proven Christianity true (which, I recognize now, was a HUGE leap in logic).

Over time my zeal for that particular theological topic wore off. I went into Bible college bored and, maybe even worse, with an aversion to the entire topic of creation. I thought it was too scientific and I was just interested in the theology of creation. In my mind, I wanted to let the scientist wrestle over Genesis 1. I was content with looking at the theology of the rest of the Bible.

This aversion stayed with me a long time. Even after I graduated from seminary, I was largely disinterested in the entire conversation. It isn't that I didn't read in the area of creation--it was just that I didn't care.

That has changed over the past three to four years, however. I think when I started putting together the biblical narrative, I realized that the discussion over Genesis 1 was not primarily a scientific conversation as much as it was a theological conversation. Over the past several years I have refined my thinking (and am still refining) on creation. However, as it stands now, if you were to walk into my 9th grade biblical redemption class or my apologetics class, I teach the following three points concerning Genesis 1.

1) The creation account in Genesis (as well as the other accounts in Psalms) are polemical.

What I mean by this point is that Genesis 1 and 2 clearly use language and ideas drawn from other creation narratives in the Ancient Near East (like the Enuma Elish and some Egyptian creation myths), but the Genesis account draws radically different conclusions. Where gods battle it out and make mankind by mistake (or in vengeance), Genesis shows that Yahweh creates by the divine word. There is no cosmic battle where God struggles to maintain order. Rather, God is shown as totally and completely sovereign. In other words, Genesis functions as a polemic against the false gods of the Ancient Near East. Further, I would say that any parallels that do exist (specifically I am thinking of Gilgamesh and Genesis) are superficial at best. Thus, I don't think the author of Genesis was borrowing these pagan thoughts and simply making them more palatable to Jewish monotheism.

I would also argue here something that (I think) is fairly radical and probably rejected by most mainline scholars: it is not altogether clear that the pagan mythologies are actually incorrect in some of the more general details of creation. Here is my point: it is altogether possible (and in my mind likely) that the reason we find any sort of parallel language at all in Genesis and pagan myths is because they all flow from historical fact. We can disregard some of the more fantastical elements of the pagan myths and what I think you find is that there is historical legitimacy to the creation account.

2) The creation account in Genesis is primarily theological.
My point here isn't really radical (or new) and is essentially in agreement with what most Old Testament scholars know: Creation is pictured as a cosmic, ever-expanding, temple to God. This can be see in the numerous parallels in language between the temple construction and the Garden of Eden. In other words, the creation of the cosmos is framed as a temple for God. For more on this you can consult The Temple and the Church's Mission by G.K. Beale, The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton and The King in His Beauty by Thomas Schreiner, The Biblical Cosmos by Robin Parry (and basically every major OT theology written in the past twenty years).

This should remind us that before we start trying to dig for scientific evidence to support our particular view of creation, we need to look for what the original author was trying to convey. His point was that all of creation was in some way sacred and devoted to God prior to the fall. Mankind's vocation was to serve as holy priests to the Lord within this cosmic temple. 

3) The creation account in Genesis is historical.

WHOOP! There it is. This is the point that basically isolates me from liberal scholarship. Up to this point many mainline protestants would be saying "Right on, Pandolph!" Here is where we part ways. I believe that, regardless of  your view of the age of the earth, the Genesis account provides a factually accurate account of creation. This means I hold to a literal Adam and Eve and a literal fall as well. I think God created the world in 6 days (regardless of how you translate "days") and that there was definite beginning and ending in creation. This is not poetic symbolism. It is not just polemical or theological--it is actual.

Fundamentalists often push and ask "Well, do you believe in a young-earth or old earth? Do you believe in theistic evolution?" This is where you start to lose me in the conversation because (and this is important), it ultimately doesn't impact much. While I personally reject theistic evolution, it is possible to maintain a literal Adam and Eve and fall (despite what Ken Ham says) and hold to evolution (provided that God maintains total sovereignty in it). As far as the young-earth vs. old earth debate...I'll be honest...it is boring to me. I don't care. I've read enough about it and we are now traversing into the field of biology and that isn't my specialty so I'll refrain from commenting.

For the record, I am a (tentative) "young-earther". The reason for this flows out of the lexical argument for the Hebrew word for yom (which is translated "day" in our English Bible). Yom when it possesses a numerical adjective means a literal 24-hour day. That is what you see in Genesis 1. Also, I think the argument that God patterns Israel's work week off of creation should carry a bit of weight.

Of course, there are middle ground positions as well. If you disagree with me, I'll probably just slap you on the back and say "Cool deal, bro" and go out to get Mexican food with you. The big three issues I listed above, to me, are the most essential points to grasp when talking about creation. I think those three points also bring out the richness of the biblical text. It helps us to not read the Bible just as a scientific account of creation. Rather, it pushes us to see the God behind creation. God was going to war against the false gods, giving us a theological paradigm for understanding the Christian mission, and yes, even giving us a historical picture of what actually happened.

That is beautiful. That gets me excited to talk about creation.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why Does Our Stance on Scripture Matter?

What you believe about the primacy of Scripture in the life of believer matters. It shapes pretty much everything you think when it comes to integrating various disciplines. It will impact whatever model of integration you propose and it will shape how you assess information. For instance, if you don't really care if a finding in a discipline contradicts Scripture then you will more likely adopt that belief. However, if you hold that Scripture is the lens by which we see the world you will filter all contradictory claims through that lens.

Ultimately your view of Scripture is a worldview question.

It is one I wrestle with as a psychology and Bible teacher. Much of psychology seems to contradict what we find in the Bible. At times psychology sets itself as a sort of anthropological God. It is tricky waters navigating being both a teacher committed to the Bible as the inspired, authoritative Word of God and yet also holding to the legitimacy of psychological discovery. I have had many conversations with Christians who think psychology should not be studied at all or, if it is, we must dismiss most of it as unbiblical. I disagree, but that is because I believe we can integrate the two. 

But how that integration occurs is a question of tremendous debate. This is where David N. Entwistle's book Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity: An Introduction to Worldview Issues, Philosophical Foundations and Models of Integration comes in. David lays a foundation for thinking biblically about integration. Most of the book is rock solid but there is one major pitfall that I think hurts the book severely. I'll get to that in a minute.

The over half the book, Entwistle lays out various worldviews and philosophical perspectives held throughout history. His introduction to these issues are sufficient. It serves as a really good introduction to many worldview issues. The foundation he lays is great.

My problem really comes in when he starts discussing various models. He sees that there are three primary models of integration: antagonistic models (models against psychology--he calls these "enemies"), intermediate models (labeled "spies", "colonialists" and "neutral parties") and finally integrative models (labeled "allies"). In order to understand my problem, you have to grasp the intermediate models in a bit more depth.

"Spies" are those that basically highjack the language of psychology but filter it so much through the lens of Christianity that it really ceases to be psychological. It is neither theological or psychological but some bizarre mashup. "Neutral parties" are those who say that Scripture has its realm and psychology as its realm but the two should not really intertwine. Don't mix them together.

I reject both of these views because, as Entwistle rightly points out, they are sub-biblical. But what about the "colonialist" perspective? It basically says that provided that psychology does not contradict Scripture, we can use psychology. However, if psychology contradicts the Bible we must reject psychology. Entwistle rejects this perspective, adopting instead the "two books" model. This model says that both creation and the Bible are God's books by which we can learn from Him. If one contradicts the other, we should inspect our interpretation of either one to see if we have misinterpreted either the Bible or the science. Much of what we think contradicts the Bible really just contradicts our interpretation of the text.

But here is the rub (and I think the downfall of the book). Entwistle tends to lean toward the idea that most of the time we are misinterpreting the Bible, not misinterpreting the science. Yet, what happens if psychology contradicts historic orthodoxy? Is that open for negotiation? If it is, Entwistle is going against what has largely been handed down through 2,000 years of church history. Further, is it more likely that we have misinterpreted the Bible for 2,000 years or that the science is wrong? These are, of course, worldview questions.

Image result for integrative approaches to psychology and christianityI would also ask, "What is so wrong with using Scripture to critique psychology?" I agree with the general thrust--I think we need to always be inspecting our interpretations. But if a contradict really exists, Scripture wins. Always. Entwistle would disagree and say that I essentially hold to an intermediate model. That is fine. Why? Because we have to assume that when we call the Bible the Word of God, no truth will ultimately contradict that. If there is a contradiction I tend to think it is going to fall more on the side of recent scientific interpretation than 2000 years of church history.

Those taking aim and saying that I am doing nothing more than pulling a "Catholic faith vs. Galileo" scenario are wrong. The church has often been on the cutting edge of science. While the church has often been slow in adopting new science, I don't think it is without warrant. Much of psychology is in flux. Yesterday's quirks are today's disorders. Our understanding of how the brain is changing quickly due to pioneering work in neuroscience. Yet there is still much we don't know on how the brain works. Yet we know much on how God operates and how humans operate. Church tradition is a powerful testimony and should not be dismissed quickly.

I think Entwistle would agree. I just don't think his "two books" solution is nuanced enough to stand as a serious proposal for theologians. Unfortunately, that hurts his book since it is essentially proposing a "third way" of integration.

The book can be read with profit but I cannot give it full marks.

*Thanks to Cascade Publishing for the free review copy in exchange for a fair review*

Is Covenant Epistemology the Way Forward?

Esther Meek's book Loving to Know is a remedy to modern and postmodern epistemologies. She proposes a model entitled covenant epistemology that seeks to integrate knowledge that we gather from investigation and from emotion. What makes covenant epistemology unique is that it is grounded in covenant theology and assumes that all knowledge is essentially covenantal. Thus Meeks assumes that even non-Christians are under some sort of covenant relationship with their Creator. This allows Christians and non-Christians to integrate our findings since all knowledge ultimately come from God. This allows integration from various fields to be possible.

Meek's philosophy of knowledge is difficult to pinpoint since she draws from such a variety of sources. Meeks integrates the theological thinking of John Frame and Mike Williams as well as the philosophical thinking of Michael Polanyi, James Loder, Martin Buber, John Macmurray, David Schnarch, Colin Gunton and Philip Rolnick. The benefit of this is it allows Meeks to synthesize a massive amount of material. The downside is that it feels as if what is really happening is adopting so many views that it accommodates any issue while solving nothing. In other words, her theory of epistemology feels so unbelievably bloated that I am not entirely sure that she has synthesized anything. With every layer of knowledge discussed, I kept thinking "Do we really need yet another dialogue partner?"

But maybe that is the appeal. Maybe we need an extremely complicated system of knowing because we are dealing with an extremely complex God, right? Maybe the reason Meek's book resounds so much is because we recognize the inherent complexity of living in a world with various viewpoints. Yet these various viewpoints, in Meek's thinking, never collapse into relativism. The voices are all heard at the table and the conversation is allowed to progress without disintegration.

I think the genius of Meek is that she writes like a literature professor with the mind of a philosopher. There is something captivating and beautiful in her work...she makes epistemology beautiful. I cannot think of any philosopher who has done that for me. Her work is long. It comes in at almost 500 pages. She displays a verboseness that really could have (and should have) been reigned in by an editor. The journey becomes wearisome around the 300 page mark. I feel as if some chapters were unnecessary, retreading old ground.

Yet I have to recommend the book. It is too important for Christian theologians and philosophers to ignore.  It is a unique and necessary approach to philosophy that I think allows Christians to engage with a plethora of disciplines. In some sense, her work is groundbreaking. I honestly feel as if I have only just begun to digest her thinking. This is an important work...I would argue one of the most important works on Christian philosophy written in the past decade.

For some of the reasons listed above I cannot give it five-stars. Yet I also have to say this: if you are a pastor, theologian or philosopher, you need to read this book. It is worth the (hefty) price of admission.

*Thanks to Cascade Publishers for the free review copy in exchange for a fair review*

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"A Little Manual for Knowing" Review

I like Esther Lightcap Meek. Her proposal for covenant epistemology is rich in potential. It is illuminating and helpful on many levels. However, her work Loving to Know is fairly massive and wordy. Students who are on the journey in studying epistemology would probably be put off by its sheer size and depth. A Little Manual for Knowing by Esther Meeks attempts to remedy that situation by providing a more accessible guide to covenant epistemology. Does it succeed?

I'll tell you how I honestly felt: I felt like I had just swallowed whip cream after reading this. I knew I had just digested something but it left my largely unsatisfied. There were times throughout this 100 page book where I had very little clue on the actual contours of her thought were. There were some things that the text did very well. It explained subsidary-focal integration better than her larger work Loving to Know. It was if the author put together some of her more beautiful ideas but never really connects the dots.

I know my review sounds ambiguous. Part of the reason for that is because of the nature of Meeks writing. She is capable of deep philosophical discussion, yet the work just comes across as ethereal.  I'll give you an example of a quote from the book that I think best demonstrates this issue:

"A second key strategy to invite the real is to place ourselves where what we are looking for is most likely to show itself. " (pg. 43)

This sounds good but practically, I'll confess that I have no clue what to do with this. Even after reading her larger work, I am puzzled on how to deal with this practically.

I recognize this sounds extremely harsh and probably seems like the whole book is a waste of time. So let me pull back and say that the book has some really great qualities. It is thought provoking and has some really great quotes. I really love Meek's discussion on how we need to change our thinking about how and why we acquire knowledge. All knowledge is essentially covenantal and knowing in relationship.  There are many great diagrams as well to help make sense of what Meeks is saying.

So I guess I would recommend this work, provided that there is a teacher that can help the reader discern how the puzzle pieces fit together. It is short enough to keep the reader engaged and Meeks a lot of great examples to keep the pace moving along at a solid clip.

In the end, I feel as if this book is almost too truncated. That doesn't diminish the value of the work. I think the work will meet a need in a freshman philosophy course as a supplemental text. I also think that those looking to have their way of thinking challenged will find much to like in this work as well.

*Thanks to Cascade Books for providing a free review copy of this work in exchange for a fair review*

"A Change of Heart" book review

Timothy George has called Thomas Oden "one of the most remarkable Christians of our time." Yet if you don't run in theological circles you are probably left wondering who the heck Thomas Oden is. I wasn't really aware of who he was until about 2008 when I stumbled upon his three volume systematic theology. What impressed me about the work was how saturated it was in the church fathers. I amazed at the breadth of understanding Oden had...so much so that the volumes felt a bit intimidating. Beyond my very limited interaction with those volumes, I had virtually no clue who Oden was.

A few years later I stumbled upon an anecdote that mentioned how Thomas Oden used to be a very liberal (both politically and theologically) Christian who later had a change of heart and became a staunch defender of Christian orthodoxy. I was captivated by the story mostly because you tend to see the results flow the other way: conservatives tend to become liberals.

When IVP announced that they would bee publishing a personal and theological memoir of Thomas Oden, I was excited to get some of the details behind his story. However, having  A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir cover to cover, I got even more than I expected.  Simply put, this work is a treasure trove of anecdotes, insights into American and religious culture, beautiful writing, encouragement and challenge.

Oden takes each decade of his life and records his memories. He is an expert writer so the text runs smoothly. His style reminds me of Marilynne Robinson. He stories are fascinating. From his time growing up in a rural town in the Midwest, to his days in seminary, to his change of heart and to his editing of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, I found the whole work stimulating. There is seldom a page that goes by that doesn't have some fascinating story.

I found the pastoral wisdom alone in this book to be fantastic. There is something really encouraging watching a Christian mature in his thinking and life over several decades. I found myself often praying to God, "Help me persevere like Thomas Oden!"

The life of Oden is remarkable. He is a scholar with a pastor's heart who has labored for the unity of the church for years. I cannot recommend A Change of Heart highly enough.

*Thanks to IVP Academic for providing a free review copy of this work in exchange for a fair review*