Thursday, October 27, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Attributes of God, Volume 2, by A.W. Tozer

A.W. Tozer.  The Attributes of God: Volume 2: Deeper Into the Father’s Heart.  Chicago: WingSpread Publishers (an imprint of Moody Publishers), 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

A.W. Tozer was a pastor and Christian author who lived from 1897 to 1963.  The Attributes of God, Volume 2 contains edited sermons that Tozer delivered about certain attributes of God.  These attributes include God’s self-existence, transcendence, eternalness, omnipotence, immutability, omniscience, wisdom, sovereignty, faithfulness, and love.  The book has an extensive study guide in the back, written by David E. Fassenden.  Fassenden offers his own honest musings about each chapter, including what he wishes Tozer had addressed but did not.  At the end of his commentary, Fassenden provides a format that small groups can follow in discussing the chapter.

Tozer is charming as he discusses each attribute of God, using stories, analogies, and anecdotes to make his points.  Tozer’s imagery is often compelling.  Reading the book has the cozy feel of reading a bedtime story, yet Tozer is clear that the God that he is discussing is real, and that we should act as if he is real (i.e., be bold in our prayers, for God can do anything).  Tozer is also humorously self-deprecating in this book.  For example, he talks about how he feels dumb whenever he goes to the library, and how he is a sucker for the latest New Testament translations, even though he finds that they do not enhance his walk with God!  In addition, Tozer offers wry criticism of the religious practices of his day.  For instance, Tozer is mildly critical of prayer meetings, for he wonders what the point is of spending hours telling God what God already knows!  Tozer comes across as a lovable curmudgeon.

The chapters on God’s faithfulness and love were beautiful, thoughtful, and pastoral.  In other books that I have read by Tozer, Tozer seems to have an attitude that Christians need to have all of their ducks in a row, or they are not truly saved.  That attitude appears in this book, too.  But this book also conveys the message that God loves us, even though we are imperfect, and that we should faithfully endure periods of spiritual barrenness in hope that God will come through.  This book, in short, was more encouraging, in areas.

The book also had thoughtful discussions about the relationship between faith and reason, as well as God’s sovereignty and human free will.  In my review of Tozer’s God’s Pursuit of Man (Chicago: Moody, 2015), I expressed curiosity about whether Tozer was a Calvinist or an Arminian.  Tozer in God’s Pursuit of Man seemed to lean more in the Calvinist direction, emphasizing God’s role in calling people to faith in Christ and enabling belief.  In The Attributes of God, Volume 2, Tozer explicitly engages Calvinism and Arminianism.  Tozer and Fassenden present Tozer as one who is in the middle of the extremes of Calvinism and Arminianism, but Tozer in The Attributes of God, Part 2 strikes me as having more Arminian sentiments.  Tozer believes that God is sovereign but that God in God’s sovereignty has given people free will.  As far as I can recall, there is nothing in this book about God causing or enabling people to believe; Tozer in this book appears to treat free will as rather libertarian.  (Of course, Arminians believe that God makes belief possible through prevenient grace; my point is, though, that Tozer leans more towards free-will than determinism of compatibilism in this particular book.)

In terms of critiques, the book would have been better had Tozer engaged aspects of the Bible that appear to run contrary to his picture of God.  For example, why did God say after Abraham almost sacrificed his son that “Now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22:12)?  Did not God, being omniscient, know before this event that Abraham feared God?  On page 125, Tozer does address a similar question: Why did God say that he was going to Sodom to see if they are wicked (Genesis 18:21), when God already knew that they were wicked?  Tozer says that God, being omniscient, was not seeking information, but rather made his statement in Genesis 18:21 for another reason.  Tozer’s explanation was unclear and elliptical, however, and his wrestling with such difficult biblical passages was only occasional.

Tozer wryly mocks the notion that God guilts people: that Jesus guilts people about them not loving him by telling them all of the things that he has done for them.  For Tozer, God is happier and more level-headed than that.  Yet, on page 210, Tozer appears to embrace the approach that he criticizes when he says: “The soul that can scorn such infinite, emotional, eager love as this, the soul that can trample it down, turn away from it and despise it, will never enter God’s heaven—-never.”  Tozer then goes on to provide a reasonable explanation about why people go to heaven and hell: these places are a continuation of their present outlooks and lifestyles.  (That makes some sense, but I would question the implication that non-believers would fail to appreciate a world of love, which heaven will be, whereas believers would automatically appreciate it.)  But Tozer on page 210 does seem to use the sort of guilt-tripping that he criticizes.

Tozer appears to embrace negative theology in parts of this book.  He thinks that God is so beyond our comprehension, that we can often only say what God is not, rather than what God actually is.  Tozer also talks about different images of God, which seems to acknowledge some subjectivity in theology.  Yet, Tozer does believe that there are right answers and that people can actually know God, and he even makes positive claims about God’s psychology: God is a happy God, for instance.  Tozer perhaps would have done well to have attempted to iron out these tensions.  At the same time, this book is humbler than other Tozer books that I have read.  It is still dogmatic, yet Tozer acknowledges his limitations and when he is offering his opinion about what God is like.  In that respect, the book is refreshing.

Tozer does well to treat God as a unitive personality, as opposed to a being with different or contradictory attributes.  A number of evangelicals say that God is loving, but God is also just and holy, as if these attributes are dramatically different from each other.  Tozer, by contrast, has an interesting discussion on pages 197-198 about God’s attributes in the damnation of sinners.  He states: “I believe that at the end of time, when we know as we are known (see 1 Corinthians 13:12), it will be found that even the damning of man is an expression of the love of God as certainly as the redeeming of man.”  Tozer should have spent more time explaining this and offering a unitary, integrative picture of God’s personality, one in which love and justice reinforce one another.  On some level, Tozer does make the argument that unrepentant sinners would be unhappy in heaven, which may lean in the direction of arguing that God is loving even towards the sinners God damns; at the same time, though, Tozer also says that unrepentant sinners will be unhappy in hell!  (I should note that Tozer covers God’s justice and holiness in the first volume, which I have not yet read.)

My questions notwithstanding, this book is an edifying and thoughtful read.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher (Moody Press).  My review is honest.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book Write-Up: A Love Made New, by Kathleen Fuller

Kathleen Fuller.  A Love Made New.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

A Love Made New is the third book of the “Amish of Birch Creek” series.  I did not read the first book of the series, A Reluctant Bride, but I did read the second book of the series, An Unbroken Heart.

Even after reading the second book, I had some difficulty sorting out who was who in A Love Made New, at least in the first half of the book.  For a while, I thought that Sol was Andrew’s brother, since both had fathers who left their family.  Then I learned that Sol’s love interest Irene was Andrew’s sister!  Should I have known better, since I had read the second book of the series?  Well, it had been a few months since I read the second book, so some details were hazy in my mind.  I doubt that I am the only one in this situation!  I think that more authors of Amish fiction should do what Amy Clipston does, and that is to include a family tree at the beginning of the book.

That said, can one read A Love Made New without having read the previous books of the series?  I think readers in that situation can follow the general plots.  Occasionally, some details will be puzzling to those who did not read the previous books.  For example, there is a scene in which characters talk about someone who is in jail, and only those familiar with the previous two books will know why that man is in jail, and why the characters care.  The romances, though, are not that complicated to follow.  And they differ from the previous books in that they focus on other characters (who are still in the previous books, but not as the main focus).  The first book focused on Sadie and Aden.  The second book was primarily about Sadie’s sister Joanna and her love interest, Andrew.  And the third book is about Abigail, a sister of Sadie and Joanna, and her relationship with a new character, Asa.  The third book also talks about a romance between Andrew’s sister Irene and Sol, who is Aden’s brother.  Although the third book focuses on different characters, it still revisits plot-lines of the second book, namely, Bartholomew, the father of Andrew and Irene, who left the family years before because he was part of the witness protection program.

In A Love Made New, Abigail’s boyfriend Joel breaks up with her and reveals that he is seeing somebody else, Rebecca.  Abigail is insecure about her weight and her temperament, and the break-up only makes her feel worse.  But Asa comes into her life!  Asa used to live in the same place as Abigail, but his family moved away.  Asa was known as a ladies’ man before he moved away: all of the ladies liked him!  Now Asa has returned, and he is showering his attention upon Abigail.  What’s more, Asa claims that God told him to do this!

Then there is Sol and Irene.  Sol is an alcoholic, and his drunken mischief (I am assuming) got him banished from the community for some time.  Now he has returned, and Irene is reaching out to him to try to welcome him back.  Sol is still dealing with his resentments.  His father, who was a bishop, left the family, and his father was also abusive to Sol and Aden.

Meanwhile, Irene, her mother Naomi, and her brother Andrew are dealing with the absence of the father of their family, Bartholomew.  They love Bartholomew and still consider him part of the family.  This situation reminds me of Chicken George’s family in the 1977 miniseries Roots: Chicken George was away for long periods of time, but his family loved him and welcomed him back whenever he could return, almost as if he had never left!  Bartholomew’s family receives letters from Bartholomew, which upsets Mike, who oversees Bartholomew in the witness protection program.

The book had its share of positives.  Abigail’s attempts to fake a smile at Joanna’s wedding stood out, as Abigail was hoping that her fake, exaggerated smile did not make her look creepy!  Not only can I identify with that, but this scene effectively conveyed the pain that Abigail was trying to endure, even as social niceties required her to act happy at her sister’s wedding.  Sol and Irene pray together, and Sol apologizes for praying more about his own problems than those of Irene.  And Asa finding his calling made him a character with whom one can identify.

In terms of negatives, the book was rather repetitive.  I am not saying that Abigail and Sol should have gotten over their insecurities quickly, for that is not realistic.  But the book would have done better to have probed or explored different aspects of their insecurities, rather than covering the same ground over and over.  Perhaps more flashbacks or diverse reflections could have accomplished this.  This not only would have made the book more interesting, but it also would have made the characters more rounded and realistic.  When Sol is struggling to forgive his father, for example, the book could have added more of the thought processes that led him to forgiveness.

The book also should have had more of an element of mystery, rather than telling readers things, then repeating those things over and over.  To be fair, the book did have its share of mysteries.  It is only later in the book that we get Sol’s story about his father.  Bartholomew is wondering why he is still in the witness protection program, when the criminals are in jail, and we get an answer to that.  But the book could have been more intriguing had it, for example, opened with Sol hearing from God, wrestling with God, and reflecting on his supernatural experiences as of late.  Sol’s supernatural experiences were significant in the book, but they could have been better explored and developed.

That said, I am still open to reading other novels by Kathleen Fuller.  The one coming out in March 2017, Written in Love, focuses on Sol’s best friend Jalon.  And, after reading a few references to the plot of the first book of the “Birch Creek” series in the sequels and summaries, I may read A Reluctant Bride.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers.  My review is honest.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Write-Up: Mission Possible, by D.L. McCarragher

D.L. McCarragher.  Mission Possible: Spiritual Covering.  Believing for Your Husband’s Salvation.  Alabaster Box Publishing, Inc., 2007, 2015.  See here to buy the book.  (The link is to the 2011 edition, which is cheaper.)

Mission Possible: Spiritual Covering is for Christian women who want their non-Christian husbands to become Christians.

The book has its share of positives.  Each chapter interacts heavily with Scripture.  The questions at the end of each chapter focus a lot on Scripture.  The tone of the book is passionate and faith-filled.  There were times when the book took a break from cheer-leading and expressed empathy towards those who struggle to be a loving spiritual example in their home; God works amidst human weakness, D.L. McCarragher astutely states.  The vision of spirituality that the book conveys is compelling.  To quote from page 74: “I thank you, Lord, that my husband will be a mighty man of God; a man so in love with you that he will not be able to satisfy the hunger he has for you…he will reach for his Bible instead of the TV remote…”

The book was also interesting, as I tried to understand McCarragher’s religious perspective (which is not necessarily to imply my absolute agreement with it).  The book seems to reflect a Word of Faith mindset: a woman Christian is to speak in faith that her husband will become saved, and she waits for God to accomplish that.  (The book has an inspiring chapter about Ezekiel preaching to the dry bones in Ezekiel 37, and the bones come to life.)  In the meantime, according to McCarragher, the Christian wife should sow seeds by serving at church (with her husband’s permission) and giving to ministries, for then she can reap a harvest, her husband’s salvation.  In the process, she is showing her husband that she takes her faith seriously.

There were occasions when I put a question mark in the margin, which shows that the book was not boring.  On page 66, McCarragher states that “You must have genuine love for his soul because he is your husband and that is who will spend eternity with you.”  Is McCarragher like a Mormon here (I said “like” a Mormon, not an actual Mormon!), believing that married couples will be married for eternity?  What about Jesus’ statement in Mark 12:25 that, in the resurrection, people will not marry or be given in marriage?

On page 60, McCarragher states: “Compare I Timothy 2:4 and II Peter 3:9 to find out who God promises to save and if anyone is excluded.”  These passages say that God wants to save all, and McCarragher does portray God as one who pursues a relationship with everyone.  But the passages do not imply that God “promises” to save all, as McCarragher says in her question on page 60.  Does her statement there flirt with universalism?

This is not to accuse McCarragher of being a universalist, for I may be misinterpreting her, or she may have intended something different in her statement.  At the same time, she did appear to have confidence that God absolutely will save Christian women’s non-Christian husbands, provided the women have faith.  But is that necessarily the case?  The book has a chapter on Nabal, the churlish husband of the righteous woman Abigail in I Samuel 25.  Nabal never repented, but instead he died, and Abigail then married David.  In attempting to posit an application of the story, McCarragher says that God will give Christian women new husbands, as God gave Abigail the godly David in place of the ungodly, irreverent Nabal.  But, according to McCarragher, the new husbands are actually the old husbands, but they are new because they have become born again and are now new creatures in Christ.  But that is not what happened in the story of Nabal, and one can raise the question of whether it consistently happens in real life.  This is not to encourage pessimism or to dismiss the value of hope and faith, but it is to say that there may be cases in which God does not answer “yes” to prayers, and McCarragher should seek to account for that, theologically.

Regarding other negatives, McCarragher should have included more stories, since that would have shown (or at least given the impression) that the principles she advocates actually work in real life.  To her credit, she did talk about her own marriage, and she was honest about her husband’s strengths and good character, even though she wished that he would be enthusiastic about God, as she is.  Her personal anecdotes, though they were rare, did add at least some human element to the book.  Still, more stories and illustrations would have enhanced the book a lot more.  In addition, it could have moved the book beyond focusing on her and her husband.  What about a Christian woman who has a husband who is not so tolerant about her attending church?  What should she do?  What principles should she apply?  The book should have addressed a wider variety of situations.

The book is practical in that it gives women advice about what specifically to pray for.  The book includes a sample prayer, and McCarragher states that she prays that her husband might be receptive when God knocks on the door of his heart.  The book could have been more specific when it came to interpersonal interaction, however.

The book could have been better organized at the beginning.  McCarragher’s story about how she married her husband, then became a Christian after attending a church service, perhaps would have been better placed at the beginning of the book, in the “Introduction.”  That would have set the stage for the rest of the book, setting forth the problem that the book aims to address.  McCarragher also should have defined precisely what is at stake when a Christian wife is married to a non-believing husband: why exactly was it important to her that her husband become a Christian?  That would have made her introduction better.  Her chapter on how the husband is to be a priest of the family, like Jesus is high priest, would have served better as the following chapter.

On page 69, McCarragher interacts with II Corinthians 6:14’s statement that believers should not be unequally yoked with non-believers, since some Christians may argue that this means Christians and non-Christians should not stay married to each other.  She states that “Paul was not discussing marriage” there but rather “business, worship…fellowship, and day to day decisions.”  She then goes on to apply the concept of being unequally yoked to marriage, however, saying that “Believers should not willingly ‘join themselves to unbelievers’ in marriage as that leads to spiritual disunity,” which appears to contradict what she just said.  McCarragher’s discussion of this issue had its merits, as when she astutely noted that Paul in I Corinthians 7 recommended that Christians in marriages to non-believers stay in those marriages.  At the same time, McCarragher could have brought her discussion together a lot better than she did, discussing what spiritual disunity is, and why Paul permitted it in the case of Christian marriages with non-Christians.  Perhaps she should have also acknowledged Paul’s statement that such marriages may not work out, since the non-believing spouse may leave the marriage (I Corinthians 7:15).  That would have tempered the optimistic tone of the book, but it also would have made the discussion richer, more interesting, and maybe more realistic.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Bookcrash.  My review is honest.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Scattered Ramblings on Christians Leaving the Faith

For church last Sunday, I watched the service at home, since there were forecasts of heavy winds and rains.

The pastor was preaching about the Epistle to the Hebrews, specifically its admonitions to the Jewish Christians to stay in the faith rather than leaving it or drifting away from it.

The pastor talked about people he knows who used to be in church and left.  Some of their problem was hurt feelings: they were hurt by someone in the church.  The pastor said that Satan was the one trying to discourage them through those hurtful people.

The idea that God would let a Christian leave the faith troubles me, somewhat.  Don’t get me wrong: I am not for God using compulsion or violating people’s free will.  But I would hope that, if a Christian were to leave the faith, God would make at least some attempt to woo that Christian back.

I have been reading some of Robert Price’s writings over the past several months.  Robert Price used to be a Christian, but he came to be an atheist.  (Tonight he will be debating Bart Ehrman, another biblical scholar whose past includes a deconversion from Christianity, over the question of whether Jesus historically existed.)

Price, on his web site, features articles and sermons that he wrote at various stages of his spiritual journey.  I have been going through his sermons, reading one a day.  It is a bit jarring to read him talk about God as if God is real, and to talk about how God is at work in one’s spiritual life, while keeping in mind that he later left Christianity behind.  It is even more jarring because I agree with his sermons: they express Price’s problems with fundamentalism and embrace a version of Christianity that I consider to be open-minded.  Price as a pastor rejected fundamentalism and was open to the conclusions of historical criticism of the Bible, but he still saw value in spirituality and could derive edifying teachings from the Bible.  That is essentially where I am.  Yet, Price got to the point where he concluded that even this version of Christianity was wanting.  I wonder: Could that be me in a decade, or so?

I can somewhat understand a person leaving the faith for intellectual reasons: a person concludes that God is not real.  This happens to a lot of people, including (it seems) Price.  I have some difficulty, though, understanding those who leave the faith because someone in church hurt them.  Becoming discouraged with church, I can understand, but leaving God altogether?

Then there is the feeling that some may have, and I myself have had it, that Christianity feels like a straightjacket: being discouraged over failing to measure up to perfection on a continual basis, opening up the Bible and simply not liking the God who is there, or one’s heart not being in what the church says one’s heart should be in (i.e., service work, a particular dogma, etc.).  That could contribute to people leaving the faith.  Putting on an act in church, or engaging in worship that one has difficulty feeling, can become a burden.

I have to admit: one reason I stick with the faith is because I desire God’s blessing, whether that be positive or hopeful feelings, or material provision.  Incidentally, I read a Price sermon early this week about how we should worship God without expecting anything in return.  And I was reading more of the Bhagavad Gita, As It Is, and the commentator talks about how Krishna will bless those who come to him for material blessing or out of discontent with life.  Why would Krishna do this, if Krishna wants people to reject the material for the spiritual?  Because at least people in such cases are coming to Krishna for something, and that is better than not coming to him at all.  If people experience Krishna, even though they did not initially approach him for the right reasons, then maybe they will fall in love with Krishna, see the inherent value to a devotional spiritual life, and actually serve Krishna for the right reasons.

I was wrestling with the question: Would I worship God, even if God gave me nothing?  That is difficult.  Worshiping God because God is bigger and stronger than me is not enough: there has to be something within me that is actually attracted to God for me to worship God.  God’s love is something that can attract me to God, and that attraction has some measure of self-interest on my part.

My conclusion was that I would not leave God just because God did not give me what I want.  Even if I receive nothing that I want over the course of this lifetime, there is still a moral code, a rule about what is right and what is wrong.  There is a righteousness that does not relate to whether I get what I want in this lifetime.  If I have any unconditional commitment to God at all, it based on that realization.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Book Write-Up: Walking on Water, by Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L’Engle.  Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art.  Preface by Sara Zarr.  New York: Convergent Books, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Madeleine L’Engle is perhaps best known for her renowned children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time.  It’s the novel that begins with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I have read some of L’Engle’s fiction, both from the Chronos series (which is more realistic) and the Kairos series (which has more fantasy and science fiction).  I like those books, but the books by L’Engle that I especially love are the ones that have her musings—-about faith, life, family, and the world of writing.  The Genesis Trilogy is like that, as is the series of books known as the Crosswicks Journals.

This book, Walking on Water, is in that genre.  The book that I just read is a reprint of a book that was originally published in 1980.  This 2016 reprint has a thoughtful preface by Sara Zarr, as well as a Reader’s Guide with discussion questions in the back.

Writing a review that does this book justice is difficult, for L’Engle has so many astute reflections and observations.  In terms of the topics on which the book focuses, the subtitle is accurate when it says that they chiefly concern “faith and art.”  L’Engle discusses such topics as what makes a book a children’s book or a Christian fiction book, how artists are faithful to a vision beyond themselves, and her experiences in reading the Bible as a story when she was a child.

Briefly in my reading of this book, I was plodding along, not fully identifying with L’Engle or what she was saying.  She talked about her speaking engagements, and I thought, “Wow, it must be great to be famous!”

The turning point, for me, was when she compared old English liturgy with new English liturgy, finding the former to be much richer.  For instance, she prefers the old “It is He who hath made us and not we ourselves” to the new “It is He who has made us and we belong to Him,” for the former highlights that we did not bring ourselves into being.  When she talked about her loneliness as a child and how she took refuge in the world of story (both writing and reading), that endeared the book to me: “That’s the Madeleine L’Engle I love to read!”, I thought, “Honest, profound, and vulnerable!”

Some questions remain in my mind about her views on art.  Is the art something separate from the artist—-a vision to which the artist must be faithful—-or does the artist’s creativity play some role in the formation of the art?  She presents art as something that practically overtakes the artist, but she also talks about her experiences as a teacher and her attempts to encourage her students to write better fiction.  Perhaps vision, creativity, and work all play a role in art, according to L’Engle.

My favorite line in the book is one that she quotes, from a man whose name was unknown to her: “God must be very great to have created a world which carries so many arguments against his existence.”

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Blogging for Books.  My review is honest.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Book Write-Up: When the Son of Man Didn't Come

Christopher M. Hays, in collaboration with Brandon Gallaher, Julia S. Konstantinovsky, Richard J. Ounsworth, and C.A. Strine.  When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Many Christians have wrestled with the claim that Jesus at his first coming predicted the imminent end of the world and establishment of an eschatological paradise, or at least predicted that these things would occur within decades.  In Matthew 10:23, Jesus tells his disciples that, when they are persecuted in one city, they should flee to another, and they will not have gone over the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes.  In Mark 9:1, Jesus says to his disciples that some among them will not taste death, before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.  In Matthew 16:28, Jesus says some will not taste death before seeing the Son of Man come in his kingdom.  In Mark 13:30, after Jesus talks about calamity that will befall Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus says that this generation shall not pass away, until all of these things have taken place.

Over two thousand years have passed, and the second coming of Christ has not yet occurred.  Did Jesus err in saying that the coming of the Son of Man was imminent or soon?  Does that show that Christianity is false: that Jesus was merely a man, without a divine identity or a divine message?  In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, a criterion is presented for determining whether a prophet speaks God’s words or not.  The criterion is that, if a prophet speaks in God’s name, and the prophecy fails to come to pass, then the prophecy is not from the LORD.  Does Jesus fail at this prophetic criterion?

When the Son of Man Didn’t Come includes scholarly essays that wrestle with such questions.  In this review, I will comment about each essay, then I will offer a critique, detailing what I believe are the positives and negatives of the book.

Chapter 1: “Introduction: Was Jesus Wrong About the Eschaton?”

In this chapter, Christopher M. Hays lays out the problem.  Against scholars such as N.T. Wright, Hays contends that Jesus indeed did predict an eschaton that was soon.  Hays states that Mark 13 holds that the second coming of Christ would occur soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, which historically occurred in 70 C.E.  That did not happen, however.  Hays also offers an overview of the history of the problem in New Testament scholarship, which includes the tendencies of some scholars to argue that Jesus was originally non-eschatological, but that people later added an eschatological layer to Jesus’ teaching.

Chapter 2: “Prophecy: A History of Failure?”

In this chapter, Hays notes what may be a similar problem in the Hebrew Bible, only this problem concerns the end of the Judahite exile.  Jeremiah prophesied that the Judahite exile would last for seventy years (Jeremiah 25:8-14; 29:10-14).  Yet, seventy years passed, and the grandeur that Jeremiah predicted would accompany the restoration still had not occurred.  Judahites returned to the land of Israel and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, but they were still ruled by Gentiles, and they were not experiencing peace and prosperity.  There are different views in the Bible about when the exile actually ended, and Daniel in Daniel 9 seems to reinterpret Jeremiah’s seventy years as four-hundred-ninety years.  Some voices in the Hebrew Bible believe that the sins of Israel are hindering the full restoration of the Judahite people.  Second Temple Judaism continued to wrestle with the delayed restoration of Israel.

Chapter 3: “Reconceiving Prophecy: Activation, Not Prognostication.”

In this chapter, C.A. Strine argues that the fulfillment criterion in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 was not the only game in town when it came to prophecy.  In Jeremiah 18:1-10, God states that whether God fulfills prophecies of disaster depends on people’s repentance: if people repent, then God will not send the prophesied disaster.  Strine notes a conditional view of prophecy elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in the Ancient Near East, in rabbinic literature, and in early patristic sources.  Could God have changed God’s mind about the prophesied timing of the Son of Man’s return?

Chapter 4: “The Delay of the Parousia: A Traditional and Historical-Critical Reading of Scripture: Part 1.”

In this chapter, Hays and Richard J. Ounsworth talk about the partial fulfillment of prophecy.  There is some recognition in the Hebrew Bible that the Judahites’ return from exile had been partially fulfilled, and a belief that the delay in its full fulfillment was due to Judahites’ sin.  Similarly, within New Testament Gospels, there is the idea that Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God was partially fulfilled through his ministry and the work of the church.  For Hays and Ounsworth, partial fulfillment of a prophecy does not entail the prophecy’s failure.

Chapter 5: “The Delay of the Parousia: A Traditional and Historical-Critical Reading of Scripture: Part 2.”

In this chapter, Hays contends that Jesus’ prediction of the soon coming of the parousia was a conditional prophecy.  Hays cites passages in the synoptic Gospels in which Jesus gives ethical exhortations to his disciples that accompany his prophecies about the end.  What if Christians failed to heed those exhortations?  Hays states: “Insofar as people did not respond properly (as evidenced by the myriad of ethical rebukes contained in the New Testament epistles and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3), one might aver that it is not only understandable, but necessary that the end not occur within the prophesied time-frame” (page 100).  Jesus said that the end would come after the Gospel has been proclaimed to the world, but what if the disciples fail to do that (Mark 13:10; Matthew 24:14)?  Would Jesus delay the end?  Hays also argues that there are indications in Jesus’ eschatological teaching that he did not regard the timing of the Son of Man’s return to be a firmly set event: why else would Jesus tell his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom might come (Matthew 6:10), or instruct them to pray that their flight from Jerusalem does not occur in the winter or on the Sabbath day (Matthew 13:18; 24:20)?  Does not that imply that God may base the timing of the end on Christians’ prayers?  Acts 3:19-21 also factors into Hays’ discussion: there, Peter tells the people of Israel that God will send the Messianic restoration if they repent.  Then there is II Peter 3, which talks about how God delays the end to give people an opportunity to repent, while also saying that Christians can hasten the coming of the day of God by their holy lives.  Hays tries to address whether this is a contradiction: should Christians desire the delay of the end so that more people have a chance to repent before God comes in judgment, or should they seek to accelerate the coming of the eschaton through their holy living?  Hays fails to offer a completely satisfactory answer to this question, but this chapter is still the best in the book, in that it offers a biblical case for Hays’ (and the book’s) claims.  In addition, Hays talks about the appearance of such themes (i.e., delayed judgment) in Second Temple literature and patristic sources.  I should also note that, later in the book (page 232), Brandon Galaher and Julia S. Konstantinovsky refer to an additional example: Paul seems to have believed that he could accelerate the second coming by bringing more Gentiles into the people of God (Romans 11).

Chapter 6: “Negating the Fall and Re-Constituting Creation: An Apophatic Account of the Redemption of Time and History in Christ.”

At this point, the book shifts gears and discusses theology.  In this chapter, Julia S. Konstantinovsky talks about such issues as God’s eternity and the limitations in human understanding of God.  Her argument seems to be that God is outside of our time, and that we cannot understand from our limited perspective why exactly God has delayed the second coming.  Her discussion reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s distinction between kairos and chronos: kairos is divine time, whereas chronos is human chronological time.  Kairos (as I understand it) includes God’s larger plan and story, and God being above and beyond time, with all people and events before God simultaneously.

Chapter 7: “Divine Possibilities: The Condescension of God and the Restriction of Divine Freedom.”

In this chapter, Brandon Gallaher and Julia S. Konstantinovsky argue that God can pursue different possibilities and still be God: the different possibilities that God chooses are rooted in God’s character as God.  In essence, they are saying that God has the leeway to change God’s plan in response to human behavior, and they maintain that such a view exists throughout the history of Christian thought, from Augustine to Barth.  God can plan for Christ to return immediately after Pentecost in Acts 2, as Peter seems to expect in that chapter, or God can change God’s mind in response to human behavior and delay the second coming.  For Gallaher and Kontantinovsky, God is not flippant, arbitrary, or less divine in pursuing either option.

Chapter 8: “Divine Action in Christ: The Christocentric and Trinitarian Nature of Human Cooperation with God.”

This chapter is by Gallaher and Konstantinovsky.  It discusses the Trinity and the cooperation that exists within it, as the Father begets the Son and the Son allows himself to be begotten.  It also offers practical points of application in reference to eschatology, on such topics as worship, social justice, mission, and contemplation.  On a related note, later in the book, on page 298, Hays refers to the “pro-Chalcedonian dynamics of dyotheletism of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (i.e. the Third Council of Constantinople)” that “the divine will and the human will in Christ cooperate; neither one dominates the other.”  This corresponds with the book’s claim that God works with a freely-acting humanity, which the book believes offers some explanation for the delay of the second coming.

Chapter 9, by Strine, Ounsworth, and Gallaher, is about the festivals in the Hebrew Bible, typology, the circularity and linearity of history (i.e., salvation history), and liturgy’s role in celebrating God’s past, present, and future activity.  Chapter 10, by Hays and Strine, discusses the method of the book’s composition and points of practical application.  Chapter 11, by Hays, provides the conclusion.

The book effectively made the case that the timing of the second coming is flexible and contingent, at least in some passages of Scripture.  Perhaps the authors are correct that God has delayed the parousia to give people the opportunity to repent.  The book also is a helpful guide to the history of biblical interpretation regarding the timing of the parousia and contingent prophecy.  Those interested in theology will probably find Kontantinovsky’s contributions informative.  Kontantinovsky and Gallaher make an important point when it comes to debates about libertarianism, compatibilism, and determinism: that God can pursue different options, while still being true to God’s nature.  For Kontantinovsky, I gather, God is not limited to one righteous option, for there may be a variety of righteous options.  While detractors can respond that God would inevitably choose the best option, and there is only one best option, perhaps Kontantinovsky can retort that God considers being flexible in response to human free will to be the best option.  (I do not recall her making that retort, but it is a retort that she could make.)

While the book had positives, its negative is that so many significant questions were left unanswered.  Why exactly did Jesus predict that the parousia would be imminent, or at least soon, and what specifically did Israel and the church do, or not do, that influenced God to delay the second coming?  To say that God delayed the second coming because Israel failed to repent may be faithful to Acts 3:19-21, but it is a problematic solution when other biblical passages are considered.  For instance, Mark 13 and parallels depict Jesus coming back after the destruction of Jerusalem, which presumes that Israel does not repent.  Matthew 10:23 holds that the Son of Man will return when Christians are being persecuted in Israelite cities, which, too, presumes non-repentance on the part of much of Israel when Christ returns.  Non-repentance of Israel, in these passages at least, is not enough to delay the second coming.

Did the church do, or fail to do, something and thereby delay the parousia?  Did it fail to spread the Gospel to the world, and thus violate the condition for Christ’s return set forth in Mark 13:10 and Matthew 24:14?  But Romans 10:18 and Colossians 1:23 appear to imply that the Gospel had gone to all the world in the first century C.E.  Was the church too sinful for Christ to return in the first century?  But there are many parables in the synoptic Gospels in which Jesus talks about the Son of Man returning in a time when certain Christians are not ready, or when some Christians are sinful (i.e., Matthew 25).  Christ does not appear to be waiting for the church to be perfect, before he returns!  The book should have interacted with such questions; otherwise, it seems to be appealing to the conditionality of prophecy in an attempt to find a loophole, rather than exploring the implications of its arguments.

The same can be said about the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible about Israel’s restoration from exile.  God does not fully restore Israel because she is still sinful?  But the prophecies say that God will take care of this problem when God restores Israel: God will punish the wicked Israelites and transform the Israelites so that their hearts are yielded to God’s righteous ways (see, for example, Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 11:19; 18:1; 20:33-38; 36:26; Zechariah 14:8-9).  In this case, non-repentance does not delay the eschaton.

There is also the question of what exactly the faithful should do with Deuteronomy 18:21-22, which says that non-fulfillment of a prophecy disqualifies a prophet.  Strine argues that this scenario is not the only game in town, and, yes, focusing on the conditionality of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible may be more useful in terms of the book’s thesis.  But what should be done with Deuteronomy 18:21-22?  Does appealing to the conditionality of prophecy invalidate Deuteronomy 18:21-22?  After all, if prophecy is contingent on people’s ethical or religious behavior, could not any non-fulfillment of prophecy be explained away?  One can always note some moral flaws or imperfections in people, or something that they are doing right.

The book should have explored more fully the question of why God says that God will do things, that God does not do.  Unless we can see clearly that people repent, and this influences God to change God’s mind (i.e., Jonah), then a change in mind on God’s part appears somewhat flippant (not that I want to judge God, but this is a theological issue that should be addressed).  Why would God threaten evildoers in explicit and specific terms, then delay the punishment to give them time to repent?  Does that not cheapen the initial threat?  What was the purpose of the initial threat?  In my opinion, there is a place for divine flexibility in response to human behavior, but, unless we can see specifically how that comes into play when it comes to the second coming or any prophecies, God appears to be making threats or promises and not carrying them through.  Perhaps the authors could respond that God makes these threats and promises in an educational sense, or to influence human behavior.  While that may be a good answer, there should be more wrestling with how God can go back on what God said, without appearing flippant.  Does God say things that God does not really mean?

There is also the question of whether the contingencies related to the second coming are inconsistent.  If people repent, then God will not send disaster; yet, disaster accompanies the second coming because it is a time of divine wrath, so will God delay the second coming if people repent?  Yet, God delays the second coming when people do not repent, to give them more time to repent!  The book’s authors could perhaps respond that they are not presenting an exact science.  Fair enough, but when does it get to the point when God’s words appear meaningless, under this book’s model, or explanations of the non-fulfillment of prophecy become special pleading?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss.  My review is honest.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Book Write-Up: Hebrews, by Dr. Kathy Stewart

Dr. Kathy Stewart.  Hebrews: It’s Not How You Start—It’s How You Finish: A Study Guide to the Most Encouraging Book in the New Testament.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

As the title indicates, this book is a study guide to the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews.

The book encourages active learning.  Readers are to look up Scriptures, identify things in them, and write things down.  In going through this book, one can go deeply into the Bible, savoring not only the Epistle to the Hebrews, but also the Old Testament passages to which Hebrews refers.

Kathy Stewart’s discussions were pretty good, in areas.  Her discussion of the different views about the authorship of Hebrews, and the reasons for those views, was especially judicious.  Stewart also argued that Melchizedek in the Epistle to the Hebrews was not Jesus Christ but foreshadowed Jesus Christ, as a type, and that would explain Hebrews 7:3’s point that Melchizedek lacks a father or mother, beginning of days and end of life.  For Stewart, the historical Melchizedek had those things, but they were not mentioned in Genesis because Melchizedek was to be a type of Christ, who actually was eternal.  Stewart’s discussion of how David may have seen Psalm 110, which transcended the Israelite religious institutions of his time, was also effective.

One of Stewart’s arguments was intriguing, but it does not quite work.  Stewart argues that Hebrews 6:1-2 is encouraging the Jewish Christians to move past Jewish doctrines, not rudimentary Christian doctrines.  These doctrines include repentance from dead works (which Stewart interprets as animal sacrifices, probably the hypocritical, insincere sacrificing of animals that the Old Testament condemns), faith in God, baptisms, the laying on of hands, and teaching about the last judgment and the resurrection from the dead.  According to Stewart, the baptisms in Hebrews 6:2 refer not to Christian baptism but rather to the ritual washings in the Torah, and the laying on of hands is likewise a practice in the Torah.  For Stewart, the author of Hebrews wants Jewish Christians not to revert back to Judaism but to build on their Jewish foundation by believing in Jesus.  The problem with Stewart’s interpretation of Hebrews 6:1-2 is that Hebrews 6:1 refers to “leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ” and going on “unto perfection” (KJV).  That seems to indicate that Hebrews 6:1-2 concerns moving on from basic Christian doctrine.

Stewart then goes on to explain the troubling passage of Hebrews 6:4-5, which talks about how it is impossible to renew to repentance those who fall away, after they have been enlightened, have tasted of the heavenly gift, were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the word of God and the powers of the world to come.  At first, Stewart argues that this is about the Jewish people, not Christians who leave the faith.  But then she argues that it is about Christians who leave the faith.  Her discussion started out intriguing, as she tried to build on her point about Hebrews 6:1-2 being about Jewish doctrines, but then it became contradictory.

Stewart’s discussion on Hebrews 9:4-5 made an astute and intriguing observation but failed to follow through.  Stewart notes that the passage mentions the golden parts of the Tabernacle, which were in the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, but not the bronze parts that were outside of the Tabernacle.  Her point may have been that Jesus replaced the bronze parts, which related to atonement, by being the atonement himself.  But then she seemed to be arguing that Jesus replaced golden parts of the Tabernacle, too, making me wonder why exactly Hebrews 9:4-5 mentions the golden parts, but not the bronze parts.

Stewart’s discussion of the rest in Hebrews 4 was rather unclear.  She says that God has rested from the works of creation and salvation since the time of Adam and Eve, and that is God’s rest.  Yet, she says that believers enter into God’s rest, which is eternal blessedness.  What does eternal blessedness have to do with God resting from the works of creation and salvation?

At times, Stewart would ask the reader questions, when she would have done well to have explained her point.  Her discussion of the covenant with Abraham and the Mosaic covenant was especially confusing.  She said that the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 was unconditional while the Sinaitic one was conditional.  Then, she seemed to distinguish a promise from a covenant, as if a covenant was conditional.  But she had already called the unconditional covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 a covenant!

Stewart speculates that the recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews were Ebionites, who were Jewish Christians.  Stewart could have explained this a little better, perhaps making clearer that she thinks that the Epistle is refuting certain Ebionite beliefs.  Many Ebionites, for instance, believed that Jesus was a man and not God, whereas the Epistle to the Hebrews presents Jesus as a pre-existent being who assisted God in the work of creation.

Stewart’s book lifts up Christ, which does provide practical edification.  At the same time, it could have included more points about practical application.

Overall, this book has positives and negatives.  Readers may be edified by this book, but it is scattered and confusing, in areas.  The book is upbeat in places, which shows Stewart’s enthusiasm as a teacher; yet, that upbeat tone sometimes degenerated into silliness.

I received a complimentary copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers.  My review is honest.

Search This Blog