Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Disappointing Effort: A Review of "Kingdom Conspiracy" by Scot McKnight

I absolutely loved Scot McKnight's book The King Jesus Gospel. In fact, it is one of the few works that I integrate into my lecture notes on the Gospels every year. So when I heard that McKnight had written a book on the kingdom, I was super excited. I was expecting a work that would transform my understanding of kingdom, just as his previous work had done with my understanding of the Gospels.

Maybe I had my expectations too high. I was really disappointed with this work for several reasons. First, the tone of the book strikes me as somewhat demeaning. Throughout the entire work it seems as if the ENTIRE church has missed what Jesus meant by kingdom. On one side you hear people calling everything kingdom work (political and social activism) and on the other side you have people equating the church to the least according to McKnight.

I'll be honest, I am not buying it. Having worked as a youth pastor in some pretty backwoods churches and now serving in a private Christian school that works with largely upper-middle class students, I have seen (and heard) a wide range of uses for kingdom. Even so, none of them fall into the two categories that McKnight discusses.The first half of the book strikes me as a rebuttal against a straw man.

Further, I have read some really solid works on the kingdom of God that serve as necessary correctives such as this great work. So I am wondering what exactly McKnight is seeking to correct. McKnight's twelve theses on the kingdom are helpful...but I wouldn't call them revolutionary. Probably the biggest takeaway I got from the book is that "the kingdom is the church, and the church is the kingdom." (Loc. 3721)

There are some highlights. I will most definitely be using his section on how the Bible is structured. I really am glad he pointed out that the traditional "creation, fall, redemption, consummation" outline of the Bible is insufficient for what it misses. His A-B-A' structuring is much more conducive for understanding the nuances of the Bible.

Is the book worth the money? I'm going with no. I think your money could be better spent elsewhere and the shelf space too. I think you can glean what you need from this work by scanning through the chapters and hitting the high points. This is a "check out" not buy kind of work.

While certainly not a bad book, the tone and message are a bit off-putting. McKnight isn't breaking new ground with this work and there are other works that I think say what he says better. Still, McKnight is an excellent scholar and I am extremely grateful for his labors and research.

*Thanks to Baker Academic for the free review copy in exchange for a fair review*

"Heaven, Hell and Purgatory" Review

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: a Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama by Jerry L. Walls is a fascinating defense of the existence of heaven, hell and (surprise!) purgatory. Most Protestant Christians are going to immediately turn to Wall's chapters on purgatory but I would actually encourage people to slow down and listen to Wall's entire argument first.

Wall's argues that the eschatology is essentially a drama that gives meaning to the entire story of our existence. Walls does a really great job of showing how heaven meets our deepest longing and sets the stage for the entire scope of cosmic redemption.

I've got to pause and say one thing, however, that shapes the entire book and Wall's argument. Wall's is blatantly against any form of Calvinism (he DID write the book Why I'm Not a Calvinist). This means he places a really large priority on free will and defending the goodness of God in spite of hell. For instance, he states that freedom is one of the reasons hell exists. Also, people choose hell willingly. "As I see it, then, hell is indeed a place of misery but not unbearable misery. This is why it can be freely chosen forever as one's eternal destiny." (p. 84) He also argues that to be in the presence of God's love and to reject that love is, in itself, a punishment. Also, hell itself is a twisted triumph because the one who rejects Christ is delighted in the victory of their own bitterness and hate.

Wall's, as you can see, draws heavily upon the free will argument (and C.S. Lewis). Whether or not someone finds this persuasive will largely depend upon their theological orientation. While I personally don't have a dog in the fight,  I found his tone toward Calvinism increasingly irritating in the book. At times I felt he introduced shots at Calvinism that did little to advance his argument. That said, I found his arguments intelligent and interesting. He definitely has a reader-friendly writing style.

The real meat and potatoes of this book has to be the Protestant argument FOR purgatory. While studying the issue in seminary, I found no biblical evidence to support the existence of purgatory. However, Wall's logical argument for the existence of purgatory is really compelling. Essentially, the issue boils down to two main issues:

1) When he argues for purgatory, he is NOT arguing for a "satisfaction" view that requires us to undergo punishment. Christ has already been punished for us. No further payment is necessary. However, we still need to be totally sanctified and holy to be in God's presence. Thus, Walls argues for the "sanctification" model. Therefore, purgatory exists to make us holy.  The point he makes here is interesting: Protestants who reject purgatory and those who accept purgatory agree on the same issue: we need to be made holy to stand before God. The only difference is that those who deny purgatory agree it occurs instantly at death while those who accept purgatory believe our transformation will continue after death.

2) "Although Christ is utterly committed to making us perfect, there is one possible obstacle he may not be able to overcome, namely, our freedom." (pg. 108) There is the second issue--for God to transform us at death would be a violation of our own free will. Walls states,

"Acts of sin can be forgive and not in any way be held against us, but the issue of what we are--our sinful tendencies, those rats in the cellar--cannot simply be forgiven away. It needs a different kind of treatment, namely, the transformation of sanctification. And that transformation is just as much a matter of grace that we claim through faith as justification and forgiveness are." (pg. 111)

"A true relationship is a two-way street. For us to have the sort of loving relationship with God for which we were created, it is not enough that God loves us. We must return his love! And our sinful tendencies prevent our relationship from being what God desires it to be. Again, it is not enough to be forgiven or to have our sinful acts covered by the blood. We need that additional work of grace that transforms who we are in the depths of our being so that we can truly enjoy our relationship with the God of holy love." (pg.112)

"If we must cooperate in our sanctification in this life, is that not a good reason to think that we must continue to do so after death? Again, the issue is whether, both sanctification and our free cooperation in it are nonnegotiable." (pg. 114)

Nothing here should be objectionable to most Protestants. While I do not see any reason to accept the existence of purgatory biblically, I think Wall's has cleared up some obstacles between Protestants and Catholics.

The rest of the book deals with our identity in the afterlife, whether or not all will be saved. He offers some good reasons to accept the idea of postmortem repentance for those who have never heard the Gospel. He links this idea to purgatory. Again, for those who are not Calvinists, I can't imagine finding his argument unconvincing. I think that his argument actually clears up some major theological problems. It is absolutely compelling. For Calvinists, most will go to sleep comfortable with the idea that God probably hadn't predestined those who had never heard anyway.

So is the book worth purchasing? I'll say yes. It is a philosophical work more than an exegetical work. That isn't bad but just be aware of what you are purchasing. I think most Calvinist's will want to take a pass (unless you want to be challenged). I personally liked the book a lot (although I disagree with many of his conclusions). It is a work to be read slowly and pondered carefully. It is probably going to rank among the most interesting books I will have read in 2015.

*Thanks to Brazo Press for providing me a free review copy in exchange for a fair review*

Book Review of "Hidden But Now Revealed" by G.K. Beale

I am an unabashed fan of anything G.K. Beale writes. I don't always agree with how he connects passages together, but you have to be impressed by his knowledge of the Bible. I was overwhelmed (in a good way) by his New Testament Biblical Theology (which I rank as one of the most important works of theology written in the past decade) and The Temple and the Church's Mission (which changed the way I read the Bible). So when I saw Beale was writing a biblical theology of mystery (co-authored by Benjamin L. Gladd), I was super excited. Why?

First, in my undergraduate studies I found that the word "mystery" in the New Testament had major implications for biblical interpretation. The only problem, I found, was that almost every treatment of that word was superficial or unhelpful. Most scholars acknowledged the dependence of Paul and Jesus on the book of Daniel chapter 2. Yet no one really teased out the ramifications of what it really meant beyond the phrase, "A mystery in the Bible was something that was previously unknown but was now fully understood."

Thankfully, that is remedied now in the work  Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery. Beale and Gladd set to work to not only provide an in depth study of the word "mystery" but to connect it with the larger scope of redemptive history. They go through every occurrence of the word and show what "mystery" really means.

After a brief introduction, the authors begin in the book of Daniel. From there they move to the use of mystery in early Judaism, the book of Matthew, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy and Revelation. They then look at locations where "mystery" is not explicitly used but the idea is nevertheless apparent. Finally, they look at the connection of mystery in Christianity and any possible connection it might have with pagan mystery religions.

So what are some big takeaways from the book? Here are a few big ideas that I hope will inspire you to read the book.
  • The New Testament provides fuller understanding and clarification of ideas that were already found in the Old Testament. Hence the idea "hidden but now revealed." 
  • Jesus, Paul and John were not using fanciful exegesis when interpreting the text. They were merely clarifying what was not previous explicit. 
  • The term mystery largely centers around Christ's death and resurrection, eschatology and the Gentiles becoming a part of Israel. 
Obviously, each idea is spelled out in greater detail. For instance, Beale and Gladd argue that it was not clear from the Old Testament that there was an "already, not-yet" dimension of eschatology. They also address how the Old and New Testament work together in ways that were previously unclear (at least to me).

Normally, I find Beale's work dense and difficult to read. I found this work, however, to be easier. I don't know if I am just getting used to reading him but the prose seemed to flow smoother. The chapters were not overwhelming largely. I wouldn't call this an easy read, but the material that Beale normally packs in each chapter concerning extrabiblical literature was moved to excurses at the end. It was a much faster read than I expected.

I can't really recommend this work enough to pastors and professors. It is, in my mind, essential reading. Not only is it a work I will likely condense, distill and teach my students, but it is a work that I will consult again and again as I work through the New Testament. It is well, well worth the price of admission.

*Thanks to IVP Academic for providing me a free review copy in exchange for a fair review.*

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Thoughts on Humility--Drawn from Thomas Watson (Part II)

A few days ago I posted some thoughts on humility, drawn from Thomas Watson's book The Godly Man's Picture. Today, I want to finish up that post by looking at some suggestions Watson makes on dealing with the issue of pride in one's life.

Watson reminds us that we must strive for humility. "It is better to lack anything rather than humility." Some things Watson exhorts us to remember...

1) The higher rank a man is in his life, the more humble he ought to be.

2) God loves a humble soul (Isa. 57:15; 66:2).

3) The times we live in are humbling. When God sends affliction upon a people, it is meant to make them humble.

4) Pride is a horrible sin.

5) Pride goes about causing problems for everyone.

6) The irony of humility is that the more humble you become the greater you will be esteemed in others' eyes.

So how do we actually become humble? Watson provides three answers.

First, we should look at Christ as our example of humility. We should study his life and by studying his life we can come to see what it truly is to be humble. Christ took on flesh though He was God. That is the greatest demonstration of humility ever.

Second, we should study the immensity and purity of God because a sight of glory humbles us. As a side note (and one that Watson doesn't say but I am sure would agree with), this is why as pastors and youth pastors we MUST teach our students theology and not just "practical" teaching. In my opinion, there is nothing more practical than showing them the glory of God.

Third, we should study ourselves. Here Watson says we must study two things: our dark side and our good side. By studying our dark side we see how evil we are and this should humble us.

By studying our good side we can see several important things...
  • The good we achieve is pretty small compared to the grace we have received. In other words, considering how much grace we have received, we lack much in our actions.
  • The grace you have is not because of you. It is a free gift of God.
  • Look at others who are mature in Christ. You will then recognize how far you have to go.
  • Any beauty in your actions are blemished.
  • When all else fails, consider that you are going to die. There is nothing more humbling  than realizing that you have a limited amount of time here on earth. 
Watson's words can come across as harsh but I think they are tremendously helpful. Pride is not a sin to take lightly or to handle gently. If we are serious about holiness, we must be serious about sin. If you deal gently with sin, sin deals harshly with holiness. We must be at war with the pride in ourselves.

I think though that there is a lot of grace to be found in this advice as well. Christ is the one who has MORE than equipped us to deal with pride. We are utterly dependent upon the one who has already defeated pride. We serve a God who shows us grace in spite of our pride.

I hope you have profited as much from Watson's words as I have. In the Puritans I have found a powerful ally in dealing with sin.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

How I Put the Biblical Storyline Together

For the past three years I've been teaching ancient biblical history for 9th graders. This class essentially amounts to "Biblical Theology for High Schoolers." When I was first asked to teach the class, I had really no idea how to go about doing that. I was reading a lot in biblical theology at the time and was largely unconvinced by the idea of central unifying theme. However, I also wasn't convinced that the Bible was all diversity with random streams of thought in each book. I also wasn't convinced by the idea that Jesus is the central unifying theme of all of Scripture. I believed that all of Scripture testified about Christ and I also believed that the Prophets and Law spoke concerning Christ (see John 5 and Luke 24), but I found it unhelpful as THE central unifying principle.

With class being the next day and with time for writing my lesson running out, I threw my hands in the air (like I just didn't care...sorry, I couldn't resist) and said, "What if there isn't a unifying theme but a unifying question?! And what if the answer to that question was manifold? Therefore, each topic in biblical theology seeks to answer the same question."

What could that question be?

I thought back to my junior year in college when I took a class on Romans. My professor, Dr. Horn, argued that rather than Romans 9-11 being a set of throwaway chapters, they were actually central to the argument of the entire book. They were seeking to answer the question, "How can all of the good blessings promised to believers in Romans chapters 3-8 be true if God had failed to keep his covenants to rebellious Israel?"

There it is. There was the question. What if the book of Romans was essentially a microcosm of all of Israel and mankind's story, which is told in the entire Bible?

It was then that I resolved to teach my students that the Bible asks a central question: "Is God able to keep his covenants, even when things look bad?" Later, after reading Matt Chandler's The Explicit Gospel, modified the statement to say (what now every student who has taken any Bible class with me can recite by heart):

"Is God able to keep his covenants, both to the individual and the cosmos, even when things look bad?"

To which God responds, "Yes. Yes I can."

Later I will post several themes that I see interacting with this and how this question is seen in all 66 books of the Bible.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Thoughts on Humility (drawn from Thomas Watson)-Part I

I am prideful. I hate it. I recognize how it is soaked in me to the very depth of my being. Trying to uproot pride is really difficult too.

Enter Thomas Watson, a Puritan. He is currently one of my best friends (though he has been dead a while) and I have found his works to be of tremendous comfort. He wrote a book called The Godly Man's Picture where he unpacks some attributes of someone who is truly Godly. The eleventh attribute he describes is humility.

First, Watson describes three things he does and does not mean when he talks about humility. He says that there is a difference between being humbled and being humble. There is also a difference between someone who acts humble outwardly and someone who is humble inwardly. Finally, there are people who are only humble to achieve their own ends.

But wait! How can I know if I am humble and consequently godly? As soon as I see I am humble, doesn't that mean I am not humble? Not necessarily according to Watson. A Christian can inspect his or her life and see if they exhibit fruits of godliness.

  • One of these signs is that a Christian is emptied of all swelling thoughts of himself. 
  • A second sign is that he thinks of others as greater than himself. 
  • Third, a humble person sees the sin in his good deeds.
  • Fourth, a humble person embraces any indictments against himself, recognizing that he truly is evil in his heart.
  • Fifth, someone who is humble will seek to show why God is absolutely just in allowing him to go through tough times.
  • Sixth, humility shows itself to be a Christ-magnifier.
  • Seventh, a humble individual is willing to be reproofed for their sin.
  • Eighth, if a man's gifts and talents are downplayed and God's glory is magnified and he is perfectly fine with that, that shows a spirit of humility.
  • Ninth, a humble man likes whatever condition God has put him in in life.
  • Tenth, a humble Christian will reach out to the lowest, poorest, most hurting Christians.
So how can we use this?  Watson suggests asking ourselves six important questions:

1) Am I boastful? Are you boasting about your wealth, apparel, beauty, or gifts?

2) Do I have a high opinion of my best qualities?

3) Are there other people you despise?

4) Do you try to trumpet how awesome you are?

5) Are you stealing the glory of God to make yourself look better?

6) Are you constantly obsessed with improving your condition, never being satisfied?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, Watson would say you are not displaying humility.

Tomorrow, I'll post on Watson's solution on dealing with pride itself.