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.