Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Write-Up: Sunlight, by Julius Buchanan

Julius Buchanan.  Sunlight: Acts of the United Sceptres, Book One.  Julius Buchanan, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

The back cover of this book says that Julius Buchanan “writes fantasy novels that drill into the deep questions of life and faith.”  It goes on to say that Buchanan “doesn’t just want to entertain you” but “aims to leave you relishing life and finding your purpose for waking up tomorrow.”

Overall, that accurately characterizes this book.  Sunlight explores spiritual territory and offers constructive advice.  One character continually focuses on what she cannot do and what is impossible, and she is exhorted to look for the possibilities.  Another character was abused and unwanted when he was younger and still deals with the effects of that rejection; he is encouraged to forgive in order to find his destiny.  Different characters in this book fight a spiritual, not just a physical, battle.  They are challenging Marduk, a demonic entity who has taken over their country and has obscured sunlight, and yet a significant part of this battle is their war with their own inner demons.

Three of the characters need to undergo tests before they can use their gifts in battle.  One of them learns that failure and humility is a way to pass the test.  There is also the issue of weaponry: the heroes refuse to use the weapons of the enemy, for those weapons are evil, and how one fights is just as important as winning.
All of these are edifying themes, which can provide readers with a constructive outlook when they wake up in the morning.  They also enhance the story, in that they allow readers to know and identify with the characters.

There are aspects of the book’s world that are enchanting, or intriguing.  There are giant birds, who have a story in their own right.  The book also includes biblical-like accounts of the world’s past.  Perhaps the book could have been less obvious about this, as opposed to, say, using the name “Najo” for “Jonah.”  Still, its presentation of the land’s mysterious past added intrigue.

The book’s plot was dry and plodding, however, and there was a lot of focus on technical details.  The book also should have reiterated more often what the mission of the gifted children was, in case some readers did not pick up on that the first time.  Aspects of the book could have been better integrated into the plot.  The book did well to highlight some of the weapons that the heroes refuse to use, for example, but what weapons were they to use instead, and how were they effective?  The children had their gifts, but one of the heroes still used a sword.

In short, the homiletical parts of the book were the parts that I understood the best and enjoyed the most.  The fantasy plot, not so much.  The book edified me somewhat, but it did not entertain.  It had potential, though!

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ramblings on Music and Worship

Now for my church write-up!  I attend church every Sunday, and, each week, I write a post about something that I got out of the service.

Warning: scattered ramblings ahead!

At church last week, the pastor in his sermon was talking about how he and his wife were watching The Voice on TV.  On that show, a woman was singing on stage, and the people in the audience were waving their hands.  Some were closing their eyes and enjoying the music.  That reminded the pastor of church.

The pastor was drawing some conclusions from this.  One question he asked was why people cannot be as excited about God, as they are about a singer who does not even know them!  The pastor made clear that he does not want us to wave our hands in worship just to please him, but he asked us to consider his question.

That got me thinking about music.  Here are some thoughts:

A.  I do not think that The Voice was counterfeiting the church.  Rather, I think that music is a powerful force, and that is why it has been incorporated into worship throughout history.

This is not an absolute statement, for some biblical scholars have noticed that there is no reference to musical accompaniment in the priestly sections of the Torah.  Biblical scholar Israel Knohl wrote a book entitled The Sanctuary of Silence.  I say in my post here, as I interact with Knohl’s book: “For Knohl, the priest’s ideal was for people to be silent before a majestic God.  Knohl cites Psalm 65:2: to you (God), silence is praise.”

But there is a lot in the Bible about praising God with music!  To quote Psalm 150:4: “Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs” (Psalm 150).  King David in I Chronicles 25 is credited with establishing Temple musicians, but the Bible depicts music in worship before then: in Exodus 15, the Israelites sing after their Egyptian adversaries are thrown into the sea, and Moses’ sister Miriam plays the timbrel.

Music is a way for people to express their happiness and their longings.  The church uses music so that people can express their happiness and longings towards God, in the context of worship.

B.  The Church of Christ does not include musical instruments in its worship.  The people sing at Church of Christ services, but without accompaniment by musical instruments.  There were church fathers and Christian thinkers who were likewise critical of using musical instruments in worship.  See here for some passages that are critical of musical instruments, but also here for patristic passages that are more supportive of them.

A criticism that some Christians have employed against using musical instruments in worship is that instruments appeal to the flesh.  Their argument is that Old Testament religion was very physical and thus incorporated musical accompaniment to appeal to worshipers, whereas New Testament religion is supposed to be spiritual.  Yet, even those who use this argument seem to acknowledge a place for music in worship, so long as it is sung vocally.  Ephesians 5:19, after all, encourages “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (KJV).

Personally, I do not see what the big deal is when it comes to using musical instruments in worship.  If we are allowed to enhance or manifest our appreciation of God with singing, why not add instrumental accompaniment to the mix?  And is it so wrong to appeal to the physical senses in worship?  Nowadays, many Christian thinkers are rejecting the anti-physical, ultra-spiritual orientation that has characterized elements of Christianity throughout history, noting that God loves God’s physical creation and plans to renew it and dwell in it.

C.  A while back, I was reading Dan Barker’s deconversion testimony.  I cannot find what exactly I read, but here is wikipedia’s page about Dan Barker, in case you want to know more about him.  Essentially, Dan Barker was an evangelical musician who became an atheist.  And my understanding is that there was a season in which he was still singing Christian music, even though he was no longer a believer.

When Dan came out as an atheist, many of his Christian friends and acquaintances were shocked.  One friend asked Dan how Dan made such beautiful, heart-felt music, without believing a word that he was singing.  Dan replied that it was the music that was making him happy, not the words to the songs.

I can somewhat identify with this.  One of the things that I especially like about the church that I attend is its music.  The church is an African-American church, but there are people of other ethnicities and races who attend, as well.  The music is a force of nature!  And, in contrast to some of the other churches that I have visited, the congregation at this church actively participates in the singing: they clap, they wave their hands.  I have visited other churches, and I often feel unsatisfied with the music at these places: perhaps I want to hear more, or I wish that I could display enthusiasm without being looked upon as a nut.  At the church that I am currently attending, I feel fed by the music, and I leave the services feeling full.

But here is a question: am I excited by the music, or by the God towards whom that music is directed?  I cannot deny that I love the music.  I like to clap my hands and sing and bop my head, even when there are times that I am not sure what I believe or feel about God.  I don’t think that is horrible.  I just hope to feel good about God, too.

Whether I display that sort of enthusiasm at secular concerts or when I am listening to secular music, that is a good question.  I suppose that it depends on whether I like the music!  I one time attended a secular concert and I did not care for the music.  But I will say this: I do like art that actually makes a valuable or an edifying point, and that is one reason that I tend to gravitate towards worship music, or Christian music.  I still enjoy the secular stuff, but its lyrics do not edify me that much.  If I were to go to church, and the music there lacked any reference to God, I would be disappointed.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Book of Mormon

I recently finished the Book of Mormon!  Here are some thoughts:

A.  Let’s start with a summary of what the Book of Mormon is about.

Jerusalem is about to be destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E..  Lehi, who lives in Jerusalem but is descended from Jacob’s son Joseph, leaves Jerusalem on a ship with his family.  Lehi is a righteous man.  His son Nephi is also righteous.  But his son Laman is not: Laman resents Nephi, loves riches, and does not want to leave Jerusalem.

Lehi’s family arrives in America.  The Lamanites descend from Laman, and the Nephites descend from Nephi.  The Lamanites are warlike and desire power.  They carry around a distorted memory that their ancestor Nephi deprived them of what was rightfully theirs.  The Nephites are somewhat like Israel in the Old Testament: they have the truth, and there are times when they are fairly righteous, but they often stray from the straight and narrow.

A lot of the Book of Mormon describes conflict between the Lamanites and the Nephites.  God often uses the Lamanites to punish the Nephites when the Nephites are unrighteous; the Nephites do well, however, when they trust in God to help them in battle.

At one point, some Nephites send missionaries to the Lamanites.  A group of Lamanites convert, and they decide to forswear war, at great cost to themselves.  God does not require pacifism in the Book of Mormon, but these Lamanites want to repudiate their warlike past, so they covenant with God not to fight in wars anymore.

Zarahemla is a region in America.  My impression is that it was started by other Jews who left Jerusalem when Jerusalem was about to be destroyed.  Nephites offer to rule Zarahemla, and Zarahemla accepts their rule.

Jesus Christ comes to America in the first century C.E. and preaches to the Nephites, the Lamanites, and Lehi’s other descendants.  Jesus preaches some of the things that are in the New Testament, such as the Sermon on the Mount, and pieces of his last speech in the Gospel of John.  Jesus also establishes a church in America.

At this point, the distinction between the Nephites and the Lamanites becomes rather confusing.  On the one hand, there are indications that the Nephites and the Lamanites are no longer racial or ethnic groups, but rather religious groups: the Nephites are those who accept Jesus Christ, regardless of what their nationality may be, whereas the Lamanites are those who reject Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, there also seem to be indications that the distinction between the Nephites and the Lamanites is still ethnic, or racial.  There was a prophecy before Jesus came to America that the Nephites would be exterminated in four hundred years on account of their sin, and, when this prophecy was made, the Nephites were still Nephites in a racial or ethnic sense.  And, four hundred years later, long after the coming of Christ, the Nephites were fatally defeated because they had fallen into deep iniquity.  This prophecy-and-fulfillment would make more sense if the Nephites remained an ethnic group before and after Christ came; maybe the solution is that most of the ethnic Nephites accepted Christ, whereas most of the ethnic Lamanites did not.

Mormons consider the Lamanites to be the ancestors of at least some of the Native Americans.  In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites receive dark skin twice: one time before Christ came, and the other time after Christ came.

There is another group in the Americas, and it is discussed in the Book of Ether.  These people descended from Jared’s family, which came to America after God scattered the people at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  The Jaredites had successions of righteous and wicked kings, and there was political infighting.  Centuries later, the Nephite Moroni, who also hid the Book of Mormon, read the Jaredites’ records.

B.  There were a lot of surprises in the Book of Mormon.  Mormons are often associated with polygamy, on account of their history.  But the Book of Mormon condemns polygamy!  In terms of their view on the Godhead, Mormons are usually labeled as tritheists: people who focus on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being three distinct beings rather than their unity in one Godhead.  In the Book of Mormon, however, there are places in which Jesus seems to be equated with God the Father, as if the two are the exact same person; that would be modalism, not tritheism!  (There are also places in which the Father and Son appear to be distinct.)  Mormons fall on the continuationist side of the cessationist-continuationist debate.  On the one hand, that is not much of a surprise: after all, they believe that Scripture was written after the time of the New Testament, so, in their mind, prophetic gifts must not have ceased after the completion of the New Testament canon!  On the other hand, it is surprising because I never thought that Mormons believed in speaking in tongues or the continuing existence of miraculous healing!  The Book of Mormon says that these gifts remain and that, if they are not around, it is due to a lack of faith.

Some friends who have read about Mormonism helped me out on some of these items.  One said that Mormonism changed its position on polygamy and noted that the Book of Mormon is not the final authority within Mormonism, since there is the Pearl of Great Price.

(UPDATE: Something else that surprised me about the Book of Mormon was that it lacked the heresies or oddities that many say are characteristic of Mormonism: Satan and Jesus being brothers, God the Father once being a baby on a planet, human beings becoming God, people being married in the afterlife, etc.)  

C.  There seemed to me to be some interaction in the Book of Mormon with nineteenth century thought.  Universalism, the idea that all people will eventually be saved, is criticized in the Book of Mormon.  There is also a criticism of atheism, as a hero uses the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the idea that people should have faith to support belief in God.  Another idea that gets criticized a couple of times is the idea that God could not become flesh; perhaps the Book of Mormon, in that case, is arguing against a nineteenth century idea that Jesus was merely a man.  The Book of Mormon also takes a swipe at people who form secret societies to overthrow kings.  Could that reflect concern about Masons or the Illuminati, or something like that?  (I am just speculating here.)

D.  Related to (C.), one indication to me that the Book of Mormon was written in the nineteenth century, as opposed to having authentic pre-Christian documents, is that its prophecies about Jesus are so heavy-handed and specific!  In the Book of Mormon, people in the B.C. era knew who Christ was, and some were even converting to Christ in the Christian sense.  The Old Testament is not that heavy-handed and specific when it supposedly predicts the advent of Christ!

E.  In the Book of Mormon, salvation comes by faith, repentance, and baptism.  It does not believe in once-saved-always-saved, for it maintains that a person can fall from the faith and become worse than he was before, even more hardened to God and morality.  My impression (and this is subject to correction) is that it held that Christians need to uphold their salvation through continued repentance.

F. The Book of Mormon is against the baptism of children because it believes that children are innocent, perhaps in the sense that they are not yet accountable.  In fact, the Book says that those who promote the baptism of children will themselves go to hell!

G.  A question that I had in my mind is whether the Book of Mormon maintains that only those who accept the Book of Mormon will be saved.  There is a sense in the Book of Mormon that the Gentile world, or Christendom, has the truth, on some level, for there is a prophecy that the Gentiles will bring the New Testament to America.  At the same time, Christendom is deemed to be corrupt and immoral; there seem to be a couple of swipes in the Book of Mormon against Christians who preach grace-only!  There do appear to be statements that true Christians will accept the Book of Mormon.  The argument for the Book of Mormon in a few of these passages is that it encourages people to do good, and this shows that it is from God.  But couldn’t the same be said about the Bhagavad Gita?  And suppose that people do good without guidance from the Book of Mormon.  Why wouldn’t God accept them?  What would Mormonism say about that?  The Book of Mormon may be edifying, but what does it add, that is not already in the Old and New Testaments?

H.  There is a passage in the Book of Mormon that appears to suggest that everyone is invited to attend services; I thought that Mormons were more secluded or mysterious than that, but I am open to correction.  While all can attend services, however, communion can only be taken by actual believers, who are also subject to church discipline.

I.  On the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum, the Book of Mormon seems to me to fall more on the Arminian side.  There appears to be an acknowledgment of prevenient grace, and a belief that Christians can lose their salvation.  At the same time, in an enigmatic passage, there seems to be an indication that the Fall of Adam and Eve was a necessary part of God’s plan.  In 2 Nephi 2:23-24, we read that, had Adam and Eve not sinned, they would have had no children.  V 4 then says, “But all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.”  This reminds me of the Calvinist view that God decreed the Fall, yet I do not want to say that Calvinists and the Book of Mormon are exactly alike in regarding the Fall as positive.  I should also note that there are places in the Book of Mormon in which the Fall is treated as negative.

J.  2 Nephi 18:19 intrigued me.  It is drawing from Isaiah 8:19, yet diverges from it on a significant detail.  Isaiah 8:19 states: “And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?” (KJV, emphasis mine).  2 Nephi 18:19 states: “And when they say unto you: Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep and mutter—-should not a people seek unto their God for the living to hear from the dead?”  (Emphasis mine)  Do you see the difference?  Isaiah 8:19 forbids consulting the dead.  2 Nephi 18:19, however, seems to say that consulting the dead is acceptable, as long as people do so through God.  Why would the Book of Mormon change Isaiah 8:19?  My speculation is that it did so because of its belief that Moroni, long after his death, appeared to Joseph Smith and told him where he (Moroni) buried the plates.  Joseph Smith heard from a dead person, but not by going to wizards or fortunetellers.  Maybe I am reading too much into 2 Nephi 18:19, but its difference from Isaiah 8:19 certainly stood out to me.

A final word: I apologize for any distortions or important omissions in this book write-up.  Any distortions are not intentional.  This write-up is my informal general impression of the Book of Mormon.   

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Write-Up: War Against War, by Michael Kazin

Michael Kazin.  War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918.  Simon and Schuster, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and co-edits the publication DissentWar Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918 is about the American anti-war movement during World War I.  The book talks about who was involved in the anti-war movement and why, chronicles the events that led up to American intervention into the war, and discusses the attempts by the U.S. government to suppress anti-war dissent through such measures as the Espionage Act.

A book that was continually on my mind as I read Kazin’s book was William P. Hoar’s Architects of Conspiracy, which I read back when I was in the sixth grade.  Hoar’s book was published by Western Islands, which was the publishing arm of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, and my understanding is that some of the chapters of Hoar’s book also appeared in the Bircher periodical American Opinion.

Why was Hoar’s book on my mind as I was reading Kazin’s book?  In a sense, much of what I knew about World War I and the players involved came from Hoar’s book, and I have not read much about World War I since then.  The school that I attended as a child covered the high points of World War I, such as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the Zimmermann telegram.  But it did not talk much about the prominent personalities who had an opinion about the war: Woodrow Wilson, Charles Lindbergh, William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Henry Cabot Lodge, and the list goes on.  Hoar’s book covered a lot of those personalities.

But, in significant areas, the narrative in Hoar’s book was different from the narrative in Kazin’s book.  Both clearly overlapped in that both were highly critical of American entry into World War I.  But Hoar talks about World War I within the context of his sweeping narrative about how the rich Insiders were trying to create a one world government.  In the course of Hoar’s narrative, there are heroes and villains.  Woodrow Wilson was a villain because he broke his promise not to get America into war, and because he promoted the League of Nations after World War I.  Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was a hero because he valiantly opposed American entry into the war.  Charles Lindbergh, Sr. (father of the famous pilot) was likewise a hero because he opposed American entry into the war (and also the Federal Reserve, which is another story).  Henry Cabot Lodge was a hero because he stood against American entry into the League of Nations.  Henry Ford was a heroic anti-Internationalist.  Andrew Carnegie was a villain because he supported a one-world government.  Jane Addams was a villain because of her left-leaning stances.  The progressives were bad because they wanted socialism.

Kazin’s book presents a picture that is more complicated.  Woodrow Wilson emerges as a figure who was trying to keep America out of war as long as he felt he could, and he had reservations even after the U.S. got into the war.  William Jennings Bryan was largely critical of American intervention, yet, at the same time, like many in the anti-war movement, he supported a globalist system to keep the peace, the sort of system that many Birchers would find abhorrent!  Charles Lindbergh was critical of American entry into the war, but he was one of the few Republicans to oppose it: in Kazin’s telling, many Republicans wanted a stronger military and supported the war because that would benefit their wealthy corporate backers.  Henry Cabot Lodge supported American entry into the war.  Henry Ford was against the war and sided with leftists who wanted a one-world government, or something like that.  Andrew Carnegie and Jane Addams opposed American entry into the war, as did the progressive Robert La Follette.  Hoar’s heroes were not entirely heroic, by Bircher standards, and his villains were not entirely villainous.  At the same time, while Kazin talks a lot about the leftist opposition to American involvement in World War I, Kazin also tells the story of Southern conservative Democrats who were against the war.

(This is not to suggest that I had a Bircher view about World War I until I read Kazin’s book, but rather that Hoar’s book was on my mind when I was reading Kazin.)

Kazin is a compelling narrator and storyteller.  He gives the background of many of the people who opposed World War I, and their reasons for opposing American entry.  Among the criticisms of American entry was a sense that it would benefit wealthy capitalists rather than workers, a belief that negotiation could alleviate the international tension, a utopian desire for a globalist sort of system to maintain the peace, a recognition of the horrors of war, and a sense that America need not worry about foreign conflict because America was invulnerable to outside attack, since two oceans protected it.  Moreover, for a while, President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to create a standing army or to boost U.S. military spending because he preferred the Jeffersonian Democratic aversion to a strong military.

Kazin also talks about the rationale of Americans who supported the war.  There was a sense that war brought out the best in people, giving them the opportunity to think beyond themselves and to exercise such virtues as courage.  There was some fear that Germans could attack America’s cities, and the Zimmermann telegram confirmed in some minds that the Germans had hostile intentions towards the United States and could attack from Mexico.  Germans were interfering with U.S. and British trade by sinking ships.  Some American labor representatives thought the the war could boost the economy and help workers.  There was a desire for the U.S. to be strong: Theodore Roosevelt especially articulated this, as he portrayed Wilson as a weakling.  Among certain leftists, there was concern that Germany could threaten the newly emerging Soviet Union, which they saw as the beginnings of a model and just society.

In reading Kazin’s narrative, I had difficulty identifying a clear event that got America into the war.  Even after the Germans sank the Lusitania, Wilson was still dragging his feet.  There were anti-war people who considered the Zimmermann telegram a fake.  But, as Germans continued being aggressive and rejected peace overtures, more and more Americans got tired and thought that the U.S. should enter the war.  Wilson later targeted the anti-war activists whom he once embraced because he thought that they were undermining morale.

Kazin explores interesting historical topics: how women conducted the anti-war movement in a different manner from men; the different attitudes toward the war within the African-American community, as some championed the war as an opportunity for African-Americans to support freedom and demonstrate their valor, whereas others contended that it was hypocritical for America to fight for freedom abroad while neglecting it at home; and how anti-war legislators sought to modify American entry into the war, by attempting to impose a heavy tax on wealthy industrialists to pay for it!  Kazin also discusses the role of Helen Keller in opposing the war, and Henry Ford’s unsuccessful and derided attempt to negotiate a peace settlement.

In addition, Kazin provides a helpful timeline and list of books at the end.

In terms of critiques, Kazin perhaps could have been clearer about what specifically precipitated American intervention.  Moreover, although Kazin effectively described the motivations of so many people, he also should have gone into more detail about German motivations: why were the Germans doing what they were doing?

Overall, though, this is an informative, interesting, and engaging book.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Write-Up: He Will Be the Preacher, by Erwin W. Lutzer

Erwin W. Lutzer. He Will Be the Preacher: The Story of God’s Providence in My Life.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Erwin W. Lutzer pastors the Moody Church in Chicago, and he has written a number of books.  The title of this particular book, He Will Be the Preacher, comes from something that the wife of the pastor who married Erwin Lutzer’s parents said about Erwin when Erwin was a baby: “Er wird der Prediger sein.”

This book is somewhat of an autobiography.  Lutzer talks about his parents’ backgrounds, aspects of his childhood, his time in college and seminary, how he met his wife, his role as pastor at the Moody Church and his challenges there, his children, how he became an author, the times that he interacted with his hero Billy Graham, and the time that he visited Wittenberg in German, where Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses.  The last chapter of the book contains reflections on preaching: the call of preaching, and how to be effective at it.

I was hesitant to read this book, at first, probably because I wondered if Lutzer was famous enough to write an autobiography.  There are plenty of people who have written books, preached in churches, and been on the radio, but they have not written a book about themselves!  But I was in the mood for a spiritual autobiography, and I had read some of Lutzer’s other books.  He struck me as a lucid, inviting, and thoughtful writer, so I decided to read He Will Be the Preacher.

The book was good, overall.  Lutzer told personal stories, while interspersing them with spiritual reflections and discussions.  He saw spiritual significance in many of the stories that he told, and that does give the book substance.  Lutzer also shared about how his personal time with God has evolved over the years and his witnessing to others.  Occasionally, Lutzer interacted with thorny, difficult questions regarding divine providence or the Christian faith.  He talks about how he feels that God did not want him to marry a particular woman and put roadblocks in his path to prevent that, but then he wonders why God allows other people to enter into bad marriages.  His personal story about how he asked Christ into his heart and did not feel any differently soon after that is also noteworthy.

The book seemed rather sugary at times, since there were so many things in Lutzer’s life that fell into place, or good things that just fell into his lap.  The book perhaps could have been better had Lutzer talked more about attempts to overcome personal flaws: he said that he was shy as a youth, for example, and, as a shy person myself, I wonder how he became less shy.  The book also had some name-dropping, and it could be tedious, in places.

Still, to say that Lutzer presents himself as perfect would be a mistake, for Lutzer is candid about the differences he had with his wife and the errors he made as a parent.  He does come across as humble in this book.  Lutzer in this book also does not shy away from the trials or tribulations of life.

In addition, the book offers sensible advice about evangelism, parenting, and preaching.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Pentecostal/Name-It-Claim-It Remnants?

The church that I attend is Baptist, and the pastor, of course, is Baptist.  Yet, he has a name-it-claim-it Pentecostal sort of background.  At times, he argues against that background.  In his sermon last Sunday, for example, he was saying that people can glorify God even when they’re sick.  In making that point, he may have been disputing a name-it-claim-it idea that God always wants to heal us when we are sick, but we need to muster up enough faith for God to do so.  There are times when the pastor is more explicit in his criticism of name-it-claim-it.

At times, though, the pastor seems to reflect his Pentecostal upbringing: it’s still a part of him, even though he is now a Baptist.  In his prayer before his sermon, he prays that God might use his sermon to minister to the person who is in danger of losing his soul.  Does that imply that a Christian can lose his or her salvation?  But the pastor does not believe that a Christian can lose his or her salvation.  He believes in once-saved-always-saved!  I listened to a sermon of his online in which he tried to reconcile once-saved-always-saved with Jesus’ statement in John 15 that unfruitful branches will be taken away, and that branches that remain not in Jesus are burned in the fire.  The pastor’s conclusions in that sermon were pretty disturbing (i.e., I understood him to be saying that God may prematurely kill unfruitful Christians in this life because they are not making a difference for God on earth, even though they are still saved and will go to heaven after death).  But the effort that the pastor took to reconcile John 15 with once-saved-always-saved shows that he takes once-saved-always-saved seriously!  My understanding is that many Pentecostals, by contrast, believe that Christians can lose their salvation (their soul), through persistent backsliding, for instance.

Is the pastor talking about non-believers losing their soul, not believers losing their salvation?  But non-believers are already lost when it comes to their souls, aren’t they, according to his religion?  They cannot lose something that is already lost!  Or maybe I am being too literal.  Jesus in Mark 8:36 and Matthew 16:26 says that it does not profit a person to gain the whole world, yet to lose his own soul.  Jesus was not only talking to believers there, I don’t think, but he was saying that those who do not follow him are forfeiting their souls.  They have a choice: to follow Jesus and to find their souls, or to reject Jesus and to lose their souls.  They have the potential to find their souls, so being lost is not inevitable; if they choose poorly, however, they will lose their souls.

Before the sermon, we recite “This is my Bible.  I am what it says that I am.  I can claim what it says I can claim.”  And the recitation goes on.  Those who watch Joel Osteen or have seen sermons by his father, John Osteen, will recognize that recitation.  The Osteens are often associated with the Word of Faith movement, which is similar to name-it-claim it.

The pastor is often critical of the prosperity Gospel.  In the sermon last week, he was saying that being promoted for a job is not God’s will for us, if that job will take us away from God: from church, from small group, from reading the Bible, etc.  And yet, the pastor seems to believe that God can and does bless people in their businesses.  But, come to think of it, that is not necessarily a distinguishing mark of Pentecostalism, for much of North American Christianity, maybe even world Christianity, believes along those lines.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Book Write-Up: Vos' Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, Theology Proper

Geerhardus Vos.  Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One: Theology Proper.  Translated and edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr, with Kim Batteau, Annemie Godbehere, and Roelof von Ijken.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2014.  See here to purchase the book.

Geerhardus Vos lived from 1862-1849.  According to the back flap of this book’s cover, Vos was a “Dutch American theologian.”  He “is considered by many to be the father of modern Reformed biblical theology,” and he “held Princeton’s new Chair of Biblical Theology from 1893 until his retirement in 1932.”  Plus, his “thinking and scholarship deeply influenced the biblical and theological work of Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Herman Ridderbos, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.”

Volume 1 of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics concerns “Theology Proper.”  The book’s format is one in which Vos responds to questions.  Some of the answers are brief, and some contain lengthy paragraphs.

Chapter 1 is the briefest chapter in the book, and it concerns God’s knowability.  Vos disputes a pantheistic view that God is unknowable, maintaining instead that we can know God from God’s revelation to us, even if that knowledge is not comprehensive.  Chapter 2 is entitled “Names, Being, and Attributes of God.”  In this chapter, Vos discusses God’s incommunicable and communicable attributes.  Among the attributes that Vos discusses are God’s infinity, immutability, simplicity, eternity, love, righteousness, freedom, holiness, and wrath.  Vos also addresses the reasons for God’s punishment: are they punitive, or educative?  Chapter 3 is about the Trinity.  Vos depicts the Son as dependent on the Father for his existence, and the Holy Spirit as dependent on the Father and the Son.  Yet, Vos still maintains that the Son and the Spirit are eternal and possess the same divine substance as the Father.  Vos holds that there is still subordinationism within the Trinity, however, as the Son is subordinate to the Father in terms of work and function, and the Spirit is functionally subordinate to the Father and the Son.

Chapter 4 is about “God’s Decrees in General.”  In this chapter, Vos elaborates on sentiments that he has expressed elsewhere in the book.  Vos rejects the notion that anything can occur outside of God’s decree, as if such a notion compromises God’s sovereignty and posits a “second deity” (page 83).  Vos then has to wrestle with the question of whether God decreed evil, and is thus the author of evil, a question that he continually revisits throughout the book.  Vos believes that God decreed evil for God’s wise purposes but is not its author, and he calls God’s decree of evil a “permissive decree.”  Vos also maintains that God is free: God did not have to decree things as God did and could have decreed them differently.  At the same time, Vos denies that God is arbitrary in God’s decree, for God is righteous, ethical, wise, and rational.  Chapter 5 concerns “The Doctrine of Predestination.”  Vos in this chapter addresses whether divine foreknowledge in Scripture means that God merely foresees who will be saved rather than predestining the saved individuals.  Vos also goes through Romans 9 and pieces of Romans 11, addresses whether Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20 present the salvation of angels, and discusses the differences between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.

Chapter 6 is about “Creation.”  Vos in this chapter addresses details about Genesis 1, disputes the idea that the creation is an eternal emanation from God, and discusses the role of each person of the Trinity in creation.  Chapter 7 is entitled “Providence.”  Here, Vos appears to argue from Scripture that God is intricately involved in the sustenance and functioning of every detail of creation, and yet that God respects secondary causes and the natural powers that God has given to the aspects of creation.  Vos realizes that he is walking a fine line between deism and pantheism: Vos does not believe that God wound up the natural clock and walked away to let the clock work on its own, but neither does Vos want to make God’s involvement in nature so overbearing that natural laws are irrelevant, non-existent, or unnecessary.

This book has many positives.  First of all, while many might expect a Reformed Dogmatics to be predictable, this book was not.  The prose was not too difficult, and yet I had to follow Vos’ reasoning very closely, as I took notes in the margin.  I could not simply take for granted that Vos would argue according to my stereotype of what Reformed people believe.  To cite some examples, Vos wrestles at length with the part of Romans 9 about God forming some lumps of clay for honor and other parts for dishonor, and Vos even goes so far as to say that the analogy itself has limits.  While Vos does say at one point that God owes nobody salvation, a point that Reformed people often make, Vos still wants to see God as ethical rather than cruel and arbitrary; Vos, in fact, critiques certain views (i.e., pantheism, suffering being educative) on the ground that they make God look cruel, promote pessimism rather than optimism (in the case of pantheism), or disregard the value of human beings by treating them as means to an end (as treating people’s punishments as educative for other people arguably does).  (NOTE: This is not to imply that I think Reformed people view God as cruel or arbitrary.)  Moreover, Vos defined supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism in ways that overlapped somewhat with my understanding of them, but also differed dramatically.

Second, Vos’ Scriptural interpretations were good, at least overall.  Vos argues that God’s foreknowledge of the elect is consistent with predestination and means that God looked on those whom God predestined to salvation with love, not that God merely foresaw that they would believe and be saved.  As Vos notes, I Peter 1:20 states that Christ was foreknown, and certainly God did more than merely foresee that Christ would come and die for people’s sins!  God actually planned it!  Vos’ Scriptural support for God being intricately involved in nature seemed to be sound.  Vos interacted with the question of whether the days of Genesis 1 were literal days, as Vos judiciously presented both sides of the issue and offered his own opinion.  Vos also addresses the question of whether God changed God’s mind when God told King Hezekiah that he would die soon, and Hezekiah then went on to live a while longer.  According to Vos, God did not change God’s mind but rather was highlighting that Hezekiah’s disease was deadly.  That is not entirely convincing, but it is a nice try!  One interpretation that was unconvincing was Vos’ discussion about whether the warning to Gentile Christians in Romans 11 that they could be broken off if they become too proud means that Christians can lose their salvation, which Reformed Christians deny is even possible.  Vos argues that Paul is talking about the Gentiles as a race or nation, not as saved individuals.  What does that mean, exactly?  That God will stop reaching out to non-Jews and including them in God’s church, if they become too proud?  That Christianity would revert back to being a Jewish movement?  Vos should have elaborated on his interpretation.

Third, Vos engages difficult questions.  How could Adam be good and yet sin, when it will be impossible for the perfected saints in the eschaton to sin?  If God is infinite, does that imply that all is God (pantheism), and that there is nothing distinct from God?  How can God be outside of time and yet create a world that exists within time?  In many cases, Vos says that the answer is a mystery!  That may sound like a cop-out, but Vos often extensively wrestles with the questions before he takes that route.

Fourth, Vos referred to other Christian thinkers.  He disagrees with Augustine’s view that God foreknew but did not decree evil.  He disagrees with Calvin’s apparent rejection of the eternal generation of the Son.  He rejects Jerome’s view that God would not degrade God’s majesty by being concerned about mosquitoes.  Vos also expresses agreement with historic Christian thinkers.  This aspect of the book was informative and educational, and it added more nuance to the book.

In terms of criticisms, there were places in which Vos could be rather elliptical.  Vos’ chapter on God’s attributes could have been clearer, and he should have defined the meaning of communicable and incommunicable.  Moreover, even after looking up those terms on the Internet, I still am unclear about how some of those attributes that Vos lists as incommunicable are incommunicable.  Vos asserts that God’s eternity is incommunicable—-which means (I think) that God alone possesses it and does not impart it to others.  But does not God impart eternal life to believers, which would make eternity communicable?  Or is God’s eternity incommunicable in the sense that it is inherent to God alone?  Here, my knowledge is incomplete.

There were times when Vos seemed rather contradictory.  He seemed open to saying that the “us” who create in Genesis 1 is a plural of majesty, then he disputed that shortly thereafter.  He contended that one can only know of creation ex nihilo from revelation, rather than from nature or reason, but later he appeared to be saying that one could deduce from nature that the Trinitarian God created the cosmos.

Vos supported many of his views with Scripture, but there were occasions when he did not.  While his model of the roles that each person of the Trinity played in creation appeared sensible and may be helpful, he did not offer Scriptural support for that.

In some cases, Vos was more sensitive to the diversity of Scripture than in other cases.  Vos astutely noted that God as Father means a lot of different things in the Bible, not just God’s Fatherhood in the Trinity.  Yet, Vos seemed to think that Jesus being the Son of God means the same thing throughout the New Testament: that it relates to Jesus being eternally begotten.  This, even though there are a variety of meanings of “son of God” in the Bible (i.e., the Davidic king as God’s son, etc.).  How can Vos be so sensitive to nuance in one area, and apparently oblivious to it in another?

Vos could have demonstrated more knowledge about evolution and the reasons scientists were accepting that view, as opposed to casually dismissing it.

Finally, Vos struck me as rather absolutist, in areas.  Does God have to decree every little thing to be sovereign?  Is there no middle ground here?

Overall, though, this is a thought-provoking book.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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