Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ramblings on Focus, Training, Prosperity Gospel

Last Sunday, I visited a non-denominational evangelical church.  I’ll probably be visiting a lot of those as I explore churches in the area!

The sermon was somewhat meandering, but it was interesting.  If there was a key theme, it was the importance of having focus: a vision, or a goal.

The pastor talked about the story of Joseph.  He said that the sons of Jacob in the Book of Genesis were not exactly good people.  Judah, for example, slept with a prostitute.  But Judah would later offer to sacrifice himself for the sake of his half-brother Benjamin, since Judah knew that Benjamin meant a lot to his father.  Judah was like Christ in this regard, the pastor said: having regard for his father, wanting to save someone (in this case, his father) from dying in a state of sorrow, and being willing to sacrifice himself.

What brought about this change within Judah?  According to the pastor, it was that Judah had a son who would be the ancestor of the Messiah.  Judah now had a vision.  He had something on which he could focus.

I looked at Genesis 38, the chapter in which Tamar has Judah’s son, Pharez, the one who would be the ancestor of David, and Jesus.  There is nothing there about Pharez being the ancestor of David or the Messiah.

Still, the pastor made good points: we can change when God shows us grace and we focus on our identity in Christ.  The pastor talked about such concepts as discipline and delayed gratification and how those lead to success, but he also said that they can easily amount to legalism if a person lacks focus.  Focus also can provide motivation for discipline and delayed gratification.  On what should we focus?  The pastor was not overly specific about that, but his answer was “Christ.”

The sermon made a lot of thought-provoking points.  I am not sure what to do with it in terms of my spiritual life, but I was thinking some about the areas of my life in which I need more discipline.  I need to remind myself that the end-goal will be satisfying, on some level.  The end-goal is worth striving for.  I think that one reason that I struggle to be disciplined in certain issues is that I lack hope.  Think of delayed gratification: if you do not think that there is any gratification down the road, will you feel motivated to delay it?

The pastor made another point that I forgot in my summary above.  He talked about how the Christian life was one of training.  He said that “trying to tithe” is like a football player “trying” to block an offensive tackle.  You don’t just “try” that: you have to prepare and train for it.  He referred to I Corinthians 9:26, in which Paul talks about discipline and says that he was not beating the air.  According to the pastor, people beat the air when they have not been trained to land a punch.  How do we train?  Well, on the issue of tithing, the pastor talked about going to God in prayer and receiving guidance.  That seemed to be a significant part of what the pastor was recommending: prayer.  Even if the prayer is less than a minute, he said, God can use that time to give us vision.

I want to get something out of that training point, since it looks pretty profound.  I suppose that, on some level, I do train.  When I pray for strength for a coming situation, that gives me more peace than if I were to walk into that situation without any preparation at all.  I said “more peace,” not perfect peace.  I also discipline my thoughts so that they do not lead me down a bad road.  Are there other areas in which I need to train?  Well, yes: when it comes to social situations, I am afraid—-both when I think about them and when I am in them.  A road-map for what to do in the midst of them—-a training manual, if you will—-may be helpful.

I was thinking of something else when I was walking to and from church, and the service reinforced what I was thinking about.  It seems to me that the prosperity Gospel does color a lot of evangelicalism.  There is a belief that God wants to bless people materially, and, if we do X, Y, and Z, God will be more disposed to do so.  That came across in the service, and I have encountered it in other evangelical sayings.  I am not saying that this is utterly bad or that there is absolutely nothing to this.  What I recall as I look at my past, though, is that such an idea did make me afraid of leaving evangelicalism over the years: I feared that, were I to leave it, my life would fall apart, or God would not give me the blessings that I wanted.

I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Book Write-Up: Piecing Together Forgiveness

Kristi Burchfiel.  Piecing Together Forgiveness: A Study of Philemon.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

As you can tell from the book’s title, Piecing Together Forgiveness is about the subject of forgiveness: our forgiveness of others, and how that relates to God’s forgiveness of us.  The book has six lessons about forgiveness that we can draw from the biblical Book of Philemon.

As Burchfiel shows, forgiveness shows up in so many ways in the Book of Philemon and its background.  There is Philemon, a Christian whose slave, Onesimus, runs away and becomes a Christian.  Paul encouraged Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to accept him back.  This was probably difficult for Philemon to do, since Onesimus likely owed Philemon money.

Apphia, who may have been Philemon’s wife, is also mentioned in Paul’s letter.  According to Burchfiel, Apphia herself may have had difficulty forgiving Onesimus, as many of us are reluctant to forgive those who have hurt our loved ones.  Paul’s letter is also addressed to other Christians and a church, showing that Paul intended for the incident between Philemon and Onesimus to instruct and edify the body of Christ.  Then there is Paul, the author of the letter, who himself was forgiven by God for persecuting the church.
A reason that I read this book was to see how Burchfiel would define forgiveness.  To be honest, feeling positively about people and moving on from hurts and slights are very difficult for me.  I have long been haunted by Jesus’ saying that God will not forgive our trespasses if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:35; Mark 11:25-26).

The question that I then ask myself is, “Okay, then what exactly is forgiveness?”  What exactly does God want me to do here?  People may think that this is awful or legalistic, but I wonder what forgiveness is at its minimum.  Is trying to get rid of hateful thoughts enough?  Do I have to be actively in a relationship with people I do not like?  If so, how often does God want me to be around them?

Read or listen to Christian teachers, and you will encounter different teachings about forgiveness.  Many say that we should forgive primarily for our own benefit: it is our way of moving on and having spiritual and psychological health.  Some deny that we need to be reconciled with the person who hurt us.  Others, by contrast, say that we should pursue reconciliation and remain in a relationship with the person who hurt us: if we are unwilling to do that, they say, then that shows that we have not truly forgiven the person.  I read one blogger who was seeking to define forgiveness, and he looked at God’s forgiveness in arriving at a definition.  When God forgives, the person was saying, God remembers our sin no more (i.e., Jeremiah 31:34), and that should be our aim.  Later, I listened to a preacher who said something different: that we are not God, so, unlike God, we cannot forget people’s sins against us, so our forgiveness of others does not necessarily mean forgetting.  There are other debates within Christianity about forgiveness: Does the offender need to repent before I can forgive him or her?

Where does Burchfiel land on the subject of forgiveness?  She says on page 7 (of my PDF copy of her book):

“Understanding what forgiveness is about is actually quite simple.  Forgiveness is pardoning a past wrong and then moving forward with a restored relationship.  Forgiveness is about relationships.  Without a relationship, forgiveness has little meaning.”

Burchfiel believes that forgiveness is about relationships.  She seems to be part of the school of thought that maintains that forgiveness entails reconciliation, or at least an attempt to reconcile.  As far as I can recall, she never says in her book that we should forgive primarily for our own benefit, so that we can feel better.  As she says, “Without a relationship, forgiveness has little meaning.”

There are other things that she says that accord with this.  For example, she critiques a common saying among Christians that “I love that person, but I do not like that person.”  She believes that such an attitude hinders genuine love for the loved-but-disliked person.  Burchfiel’s argument here seems to be that Christians are telling themselves that they love the person because God commands them to love and they want to feel that they are obeying God, but they do not really love the person.

Yet, there are things that Burchfiel says that may qualify her definition of forgiveness.  She says that forgiveness does not necessarily mean a restoration of trust: Philemon, for example, did not give Onesimus the keys to his estate after forgiving him and accepting him back!  Then I was wondering what Burchfiel’s definition of “relationship” is.  Is it continually being around the person and making contact?  Burchfiel tells a story about a church that her husband pastored that hurt her husband, and she really struggled to forgive that church.  She has moved on from that, but does she now have regular contact with the people from that church?  I do not know for sure, but I have my doubts.

I feel burdened by Christian teachings that I should like or be in a regular relationship with hurtful people.  I feel that those teachings are unrealistic, maybe even unhealthy.  We cannot be friends with everybody!  At the same time, I do not think that it is honest for me to add qualification after qualification to forgiveness, such that it becomes a meaningless concept, which is what I can easily find myself doing.  Do I believe that forgiveness is impossible?  I think that it is possible, if the person values the relationship and sincerely loves the person.  And I’m talking here about really valuing the relationship and the person—-not doing so because God commands it and one wants to appease God.  Let me add this: I think that Jesus’ statements about God not forgiving us if we do not forgive others make matters worse.  Does threatening people to forgive really work?

In terms of Burchfiel’s book, there were issues that I wish she had explored more deeply.  She talked about how many of us feel that it is easier on ourselves not to forgive.  This is a profound insight, one that is slightly contrary to the common wisdom that we do ourselves a favor when we forgive.  But she should have explained that more.  She should have interacted more with Jesus’ statements about God not forgiving us if we do not forgive others.  She notes that Paul encouraged but did not command Philemon to forgive, but what is the significance of that?  Jesus’ statements about forgiveness seem to me to imply that forgiveness is something that God commands.  Burchfiel said that our failure to forgive hinders our relationship with God, but she should have explained how that is the case.

In addition, there were some areas in which Burchfiel’s book could have been better organized.  Many books have a chapter, then discussion questions at the end.  This book, however, would have discussion-like questions in the middle, and that could be confusing.

At the same time, there are positives to this book.  Burchfiel is honest about her own struggle to forgive.  She is also a gifted storyteller: her story about Paul being haunted by his past and moving on was especially compelling.

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

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age

Ed. Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau.  The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

This book is associated with the twenty-fourth annual Wheaton College Theology Conference.  There are seventeen contributors to the book.  Most of them teach at evangelical institutions of higher learning, but a few teach at the University of Cambridge.

The focus of this book is on humans being made in the image of God (a la Genesis 1:26-27).  The book has three scholarly essays about what this means in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.    A few essays talk about the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries, which argued over whether Jesus should be represented by icons.  There were essays discussing the relevance of the image of God to sex, racism, and global Christianity.  There were also poems in this book, a discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and discussion of works of art.

Here are some thoughts about this book:

A. The contributions by Catherine McDowell and Craig L. Blomberg were especially good.  Catherine McDowell teaches Hebrew Bible at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Charlotte, and Craig Blomberg is a renowned evangelical New Testament scholar.

McDowell argues that the image of God in Genesis 1:26-27 relates to humanity’s function as representatives of God in ruling and stewarding the earth, and also to humans’ identity as children of God.  She bases this argument on Genesis 1 as well as the concept of the image of the deity in the ancient Near East, particularly regarding kings.  She acknowledges that other scholars advocate a functionalist interpretation of Genesis 1:26-27, but she states that the relationship of the image of God with being a child of God has been neglected within biblical scholarship.

Craig Blomberg disagrees with McDowell’s (and other scholars’) functionalist interpretation of the image of God and contends that the image of God relates to morality towards God and neighbor.  For Blomberg, the image of God is what qualifies humans to represent God as rulers of the earth, but their rulership of the earth itself is not the image of God.  Although Blomberg sometimes interprets the Hebrew Bible in light of the New Testament, he also interacts with what the Hebrew Bible itself actually says, in terms of passages’ immediate context.  Overall, Blomberg presents a picture in which, according to the Bible, humans are still in God’s image even after the Fall, and yet that image is being renewed in Christians as a result of the work of Christ.  Blomberg’s discussion of the issue of head-coverings in I Corinthians 11 and how that coincides with his moral interpretation of the image of God was especially worth reading.

B. It was interesting to see McDowell make a statement about Barth’s interpretation of Genesis 1:26, only for William A. Dyrness in the very next essay to present Barth saying something different. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our own image.” Why is God speaking in the first-person plural?  According to McDowell, Barth related the verse to the Trinity: God referred to God-self in the plural because there is a plural dimension to God.  Dyrness, however, said that Barth maintained that God in Genesis 1:26 was deliberating with God-self.  Perhaps, as some say, Barth is complex and people can find different or contradictory things in his writings.  Or maybe Barth thought both: God was deliberating with God-self within the context of the Trinity.

C. The book was very informative about the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth-ninth centuries. The controversy was not just about the biblical command against graven images (Exodus 20:4), but it also pertained to the controversies about Christ’s nature and how his human and divine nature were inter-related.  The significance of icons of saints and how they related to the icons of Christ is also discussed, as is the distinction between worship and veneration.  One essay expressed openness to learning about the image of God from iconography, which I found refreshing in an evangelical publication.

D. Beth Felker Jones’ contribution was informative in discussing differences between Christian and Roman views on sexuality in the ancient world.

E. The contribution by Timothy R. Gaines and Shawna Songer Gaines about sexuality was interesting, yet rather baffling. The authors appeared to be critiquing the tendency of many Christians to treat sex as dirty, and they also seemed rather critical of abstinence campaigns.  On page 104, they state: “…we cannot wait to be sexual, nor can we put our desires on hold.  To do so grates against our very createdness and obscures the image of God, creating frustration, repression, shame and sexual disorders.”  Still, they do seem to oppose sex outside of marriage.  I was unclear about what their solution was to the problem that they identify on page 104.  Is it for single Christians to channel their sex drive into other avenues, such as ministry, to wait for God to send the right person, or to wait until Christ comes back?  They appeared to me to be leaning in those directions.  There may be some wisdom to these approaches, but I doubt that they can fully solve the problem that the authors identify on page 104.

F. Overall, the poems and the discussions of art and literature did not interest me that much. I prefer prose to poetry, but I respect that there are people with different preferences.  The discussion of art highlighted theological ideas that I have encountered elsewhere, but I do respect that Christians are doing art and trying to make people think.  The chapter on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road could have relayed the story in a more compelling manner, but the chapter did have compelling insights about the human struggle to survive.

G. A discussion of literature in the book that did catch my attention, in a positive manner, was Philip Jenkins’ discussion of Charles Williams’ The House of the Octopus. In that story, an apostate from Christianity is saved after her death and redeems a missionary.  Jenkins seems to respond positively to this: “Not only is the apostate girl in the image of God, but that likeness extends to the ability to transcend time” (page 250).  This was interesting to find in an evangelical publication.

H.  Jenkins’ essay talked about such historical controversies as the filoque, and I was unclear about how that related to the image of God in an image-driven age. That was often the case in my reading of this book: I wondered how certain discussions pertained to the image of God in an image-driven age.  Still, the book made profound points and was informative.

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

Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Write-Up: Kierkegaard, by Mark A. Tietjen

Mark A. Tietjen.  Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Soren Kierkegaard was a nineteenth century Danish Christian philosopher.  Kierkegaard had problems with the Christendom of his day, for he thought that it was nominal and cultural rather than vibrant and spiritually authentic.  According to Mark A. Tietjen, Kierkegaard was a Christian missionary to Christians, and Kierkegaard had insights that can challenge, instruct, and edify Christians today.

A number of the insights that Tietjen presents can be encountered in other Christian writings and sermons, as important as these insights may be: one should be a doer of God’s word and not just a hearer; one should set one’s sights above momentary and temporary pleasure but also moralistic legalism.  In addition, while Tietjen discusses how Kierkegaard diagnosed a number of spiritual and psychological maladies that people have, there was not much in Tietjen’s book about possible solutions to these maladies, other than turning to Jesus.  How that would help was not sufficiently explained.  (A refreshing exception is Tietjen’s chapter on Christian love.)

The tension between relying on God’s grace and rigorously doing good works also appears unresolved in Tietjen’s book.  On the one hand, Kierkegaard was critical of how the Lutheran emphasis on God’s grace bred spiritual apathy, passivity, laziness, and complacency.  Kierkegaard advocated obedience and self-denial in the Christian life.  Yet, in a beautiful passage, Kierkegaard encouraged people with a variety of problems (i.e., loneliness, being forgotten, being suicidal, etc.) to rest in Christ’s love, for Christ’s burden is light.  Are Christians supposed to strive for perfection or rest in God’s grace?  What is the proper mixture of these two approaches, or the correct relationship between them?  Tietjen should have addressed this issue.

At the same time, there were plenty of positive aspects to Tietjen’s book.  Tietjen tied his discussion of Kierkegaard’s thought to Kierkegaard’s historical context (i.e., historical critical interpretations of the Bible).  Tietjen continually connected his discussion of spirituality to specific passages in Kierkegaard’s writings, both devotional and non-devotional, and Tietjen occasionally highlighted distinct features of Kierkegaard’s thought.  Tietjen’s point about how Kierkegaard often wrote from a non-believing standpoint (under a pseudonym) to get Christians to think was intriguing.  Tietjen effectively responded to conservative Christian criticisms of Kierkegaard----particularly those by Dave Breese and Francis Schaeffer----and Tietjen’s response was nuanced and informative.  (For example, while Kierkegaard has been labeled a Christian existentialist, Tietjen highlights where Kierkegaard differed from existentialism.  Tietjen also addresses Kierkegaard’s discussion of the akedah in Genesis 22, denying that Kierkegaard was advocating a thoroughly irrational obedience of God.)

The best chapter in the book, in my opinion, is the one on Christian love.  At first, I did not enjoy what I was reading in that chapter because Kierkegaard seemed to be presenting Christian love as extremely difficult, if not impossible: Who among us, Christian and non-Christian, can love others without at least some self-interest?  Yet, that is God wants from us, according to Kierkegaard.  But the chapter shared helpful insights as it proceeded: about how we should remember and trust that all people have love within them because they were created in God’s image, and what hurt, jaded, burnt-out people should do when they are reluctant or afraid to love others.

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

Book Write-Up: Justification, by N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright.  Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.  With a New Introduction.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

This book is a 2016 reprint of N.T. Wright’s 2009 book on justification.  It has a new introduction by the author.  Wright’s book was a response to Reformed pastor John Piper’s 2007 book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright.  Wright’s views on the Christian doctrine of justification have been controversial among Christians.  Some Christians have even accused Wright of perverting or undermining the Gospel, or of teaching another Gospel (a la Galatians 1:8).

For a number of evangelical Protestant Christians, justification is God’s forgiveness of people’s sins and imputation of the righteousness of Christ onto Christian believers.  The criterion for being justified is faith: accepting God’s free offer of forgiveness and imputed righteousness.  According to this view, people can never earn a right standing before God by doing good works, for all have sinned and no one can be righteous enough for a perfect and holy God.  Justification needs to be God’s free act of unmerited grace.  When a person is justified, God no longer sees that person’s sin, even though he or she is still a sinner.  Rather, God sees Christ’s righteous life covering the person who is justified.  That imputed righteousness will serve the Christian well at the last judgment, when God will accept the Christian into heaven because the Christian’s sins are covered by the righteousness of Christ.  Many evangelicals believe that this view of justification was taught by the apostle Paul in the New Testament.

What is Wright’s view on justification, and how does it compare and contrast with the view held by many evangelicals?  Wright shies away from seeing justification as God’s imputation of Christ’s righteousness onto the believer, even though he thinks that there is some grain of truth to this idea.  For Wright, justification is about God judicially declaring and reckoning the believer as “in the right” and forgiving the believer’s sin.  But Wright thinks that justification also concerns God placing the believer in the Christian community of believing Jews and Gentiles.  This community is Abraham’s seed, possessing God’s mission for Abraham and his seed to bless God’s creation.  It does that in this life by serving the world, preaching the Gospel, and being a light to people about who God is.  But it will also do so after Christ returns and renews the cosmos, as Christians will play an integral part in this cosmic renewal.  For Wright, this picture corresponds with the Old Testament picture of God’s cosmic renewal accompanying God’s restoration and exaltation of Israel.  For Wright, Christians are the firstfruits of God’s new creation, which will one day encompass the entire cosmos.

Wright also contends that, according to Paul, God will eschatologically judge all people, including Christians, according to their works.  Christians’ good works, in short, will be a part of their final justification before God.  Wright’s view here has troubled a number of evangelicals, who maintain that people are saved at the last judgment solely by receiving God’s free grace through faith, not by doing good works.  To his credit, Wright is sensitive to the pastoral implications of what he is saying: Christians will be afraid that their works are not good enough to get them into heaven.  Wright addresses this concern in a variety of ways.  Wright denies that final justification requires believers to be perfect, but he maintains instead that it requires them to be patiently doing and pursuing the will of God, a la Romans 2:7.  Wright also argues that Paul’s teaching is that the Spirit, in cooperation with the believer, will produce fruits of virtue and holiness in the believer’s life.  Moreover, Wright holds that the Christian’s performance of good works should not be an apprehensive attempt to appease an unsmiling judge, but rather should flow from a desire to please a gracious God.

In reading this book by Wright, I was perplexed about why Wright’s view on justification is controversial among Christians, especially Christians of the Reformed variety.  Granted, Wright does not regard justification as God imputing Christ’s righteousness onto believers, which is important to Reformed Christians.  But Wright still associates justification with God’s forgiveness of sin and regarding of believers as judicially righteous.  Is that not what is important?  In addition, while some Reformed Christians have criticized Wright’s view on the importance of works in final justification, how is Wright’s view different from what I have read and heard a number of Reformed Christians say: that people are not saved by their good works, but they are not saved without them?

This book was not exactly a light read for me.  The prose was not difficult, but I had to pay close attention to what I was reading to see where Wright would go with his argument, and how his argument would hold together.  In the end, Wright’s view on justification came together rather coherently, even though some of my questions remained unanswered.  For one, I wondered how exactly Israel’s return from exile fit into Wright’s scenario.  Wright repeatedly highlighted the biblical and post-biblical Jewish theme of Israel’s return from exile as important in understanding Paul’s teaching on justification.  But I was unable to determine from this book how Wright was conceptualizing Israel’s return from exile within his view on justification.  Does Wright interpret that return literally, as the Jewish people returning to the land of Palestine and receiving political sovereignty over their land?  Some believe that such a picture is consistent with Romans 11.  Does Wright believe that the church fulfills Israel’s return from exile in a spiritual sense, or that Israel’s return from exile in the Old Testament stands for God’s larger renewal of the cosmos?

Second, I was somewhat unclear about Wright’s view on the role and significance of Israel in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.  Did God want Israel in the Old Testament to be a light to the nations, or was Israel’s role in God’s plan to produce Jesus Christ, who would fulfill that mission to be a light to the nations?  Wright acknowledges Scriptural passages about Old Testament Israel being a light to the nations: in Deuteronomy 4:5-8, for example, God talks about the nations marveling at God’s wise laws for Israel and God’s presence within Israel.  At the same time, Wright seems to contend that Paul is saying that the Torah separated Israel from the nations and was a dead end in terms of Israel’s mission on account of Israel’s sins, which is why Christ came.  For Wright, was God setting Israel up to fail at the mission that God gave her?  Wright appears rather critical of a Christian view that God gave people a law they could not keep to show them that they needed a savior, or that Christ is God’s Plan B in response to human sin.  But how is Wright’s view different from those views that he criticizes?

Of course, critiquing Wright is a difficult task.  Because Wright is a prolific writer, he may have addressed such questions elsewhere.  Still, in my opinion, he should have briefly addressed these issues in Justification, since that would have tied up some loose ends.

This book did provide me with a way to account for various aspects of Paul’s writings.  For example, I have long wondered about Abraham’s faith in Romans 4, and if or how that related to Christ.  For Wright, it does: Abraham trusted that God (by giving Abraham a son) would create from him a community that would bless the world, and Christ’s creation of the church is part of God’s fulfillment of this divine promise to Abraham.

In reading this book, I wondered if Wright’s views could be found explicitly in Paul’s writings.  How faithful is Wright’s interpretation of Paul to what Paul actually wrote?  In some cases, Wright seemed to be reading his own ideas into Paul’s writings.  Wright argued, for example, that Romans 10 relates to how the Jews separated themselves from the Gentiles, but, as far as I can see, such an idea is not explicit in Romans 10.  Overall, though, I think that there is something to Wright’s model.  Paul in Romans 2:17-24 does appear to presume that Israel had a mission to be a light to the nations and failed at that mission, a theme that Wright emphasizes.  Paul in Romans 3:1-7 regards Israel’s failure as a problem.  Romans 8 does present a picture of cosmic renewal in which God’s people will participate.

I am somewhat unclear about how Wright holds together his belief that final justification relates to works with his view that believers already possess God’s final verdict of “righteous” (though Wright thoughtfully interacts with the issue of assurance of salvation and critiques how some Christians have understood this).  Still, Wright does well to note that such a tension appears to exist in Philippians 3:12-16, and that Paul talks about judgment according to works, even for Christians.

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

Book Write-Up: Common Grace, volume I, by Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper.  Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World.  Volume I: The Historical Section.  Ed. Jordan J. Ballor and Stephen J. Grabill.  Transl. Nelson D. Kloosterman and Ed M. van der Maas.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a Dutch minister, a member of Parliament, and a prime minister.  He also founded the Free University in Amsterdam.  Many Christians have quoted his statement that “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

In this first volume of Common Grace: God’s Gifts for the Fallen World, Kuyper explains the Christian (albeit not held by all Christians) doctrine of Common Grace.  Common Grace asserts that God is not only at work in the lives and hearts of Christians, but in the lives and hearts of non-Christians, as well.

How is God involved in the lives and hearts of non-Christians, according to Kuyper?  First, God restrains them from being as bad as their fallen, depraved nature would lead them to be.  Second, Common Grace explains how the Fall has not completely defaced human intelligence or the ability to make cultural achievements, to live long and healthy lives, or to have some measure of virtue.  Third, Common Grace includes God’s preservation and blessing of the world.  As Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, God sends rain to the just and the unjust alike.

Kuyper regards these as features of Common Grace, yet he does not treat Common Grace as an exact science.  Kuyper argues that Common Grace can be manifest in different ways, and that God can vary God’s approach in exercising Common Grace.  The people before the Flood lived for hundreds of years, which is a mark of Common Grace, yet they were exceedingly wicked.  According to Kuyper, God after the Flood restrained human wickedness more than God did prior to the Flood.  Kuyper states that there are people who may manifest intelligence or artistic ability, yet they live in moral turpitude.  Kuyper often notes that there are ambiguities without sufficiently accounting for them, but his notation of them attests to his thoughtfulness.

Why does Kuyper believe that God shows non-believers Common Grace?  One reason is that God wants a society in which God’s elect, the Christians in the church, can exist and thrive.  As far as Kuyper is concerned, the church cannot exist or thrive in a totally chaotic society, so God restrains human evil through Common Grace.  But Kuyper also stresses that God is concerned, not only for the church, but also for the world.  God called Abraham to bless the world, and the church can contribute positively to the larger society.  Moreover, the gifts that God provides to humans through Common Grace give God glory.  Kuyper also maintains that Common Grace somehow prepares the world for the eschaton: the return of Christ to rule.

Why should a person become a Christian, if God is already involved in a non-believer’s life and heart through Common Grace?  Kuyper distinguishes Common Grace from particular, saving grace.  According to Kuyper, God under Common Grace restrains evil in the heart of the non-believer; under particular grace, God defeats evil in the heart of the believer.  Kuyper also thinks that only particular grace can save a person from hell: Common Grace cannot do that, as far as Kuyper is concerned.

Why did Kuyper write this book, which was originally a series of newspaper articles?  Kuyper thought that Common Grace was an important concept that was underdeveloped and neglected.  Kuyper observes traces of the concept in the writings of John Calvin and other Reformed works, yet many Reformed people either focused on particular grace to the exclusion of Common Grace, or they were reluctant to acknowledge Common Grace as an act of divine grace, period.  Kuyper held that the concept of Common Grace was significant in terms of explaining how Christians should view and interact with the world.  Kuyper also was challenging other influential religious and political ideas, such as the tendency of Anabaptists to (in his eyes) withdraw from the world.

Kuyper’s views on the relationship between church and state have been noted by thinkers, and it will be interesting to read what Kuyper says about this topic in other works.  From this particular volume, I observe that Kuyper does believe that secular society should acknowledge God’s authority, on some level.  Kuyper says that society should practice the death penalty specifically because God mandated it in Genesis 9:6.  At the same time, I doubt that Kuyper believed that the state should force non-believers to think and behave like Christians.  My guess is that Kuyper thought that only the people God chose for redemption can think and behave in a regenerate manner, whereas the larger society should be held to a lower standard.  I am open to correction on this, though.

Kuyper in this book surveys biblical history and eschatology.  He thoughtfully engages a variety of questions: How were Adam and Eve like God in knowing good and evil after they ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3)?  What does it mean for humans to be created in God’s image?  (Interestingly, while Kuyper never says in this volume that God has a body, he does maintain that humans’ physical capabilities somehow reflect God’s nature.)  What does Genesis 9:6 mean when it says that whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed?  Is this referring to the death penalty, private vengeance, or what?  How were the people who built the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 expecting to make a name for themselves, when everyone was in that same location?  To whom would they make a name for themselves?  Kuyper thoughtfully engages different perspectives on these and other interpretive issues, even though he rarely identifies the thinkers with whom he is interacting.

The book could be rather scattered, perhaps because it was originally a series of newspaper articles.  I was not always clear about how certain discussions in the book even related to the topic of Common Grace.  There also seemed to be places in which Kuyper conflated, somewhat, God’s particular grace to Christians with God’s Common Grace.  That could be because the Bible sometimes appears to associate God’s love for the world with God’s particular grace towards Christians (i.e., John 3:16).  How (for Kuyper) Common Grace sets the stage for the second coming of Christ and the new heavens and the new earth is also unclear to me.  Kuyper, a la II Peter 3:10, holds that the cosmos will be destroyed in fire at Christ’s return.  Why would God preserve the world for Christ’s return, only to destroy it in fire?  Moreover, how can God love the world, yet condemn (or, for many Calvinists, predestine) so many people to hell?

My areas of confusion notwithstanding, I still found Kupyer in this book to be lucid, winsome, engaging, interesting, and thoughtful.

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

Book Write-Up: Karl Barth's Infralapsarian Theology

Shao Kai Tseng.  Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development, 1920-1953.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

The twentieth century Christian theologian Karl Barth professed to be a purified supralapsarian.  Shao Kai Tseng, however, contends that there were infralapsarian elements to Karl Barth’s thought.

What is the difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism?  Essentially, they address this question: Was God’s decree for God the Son to become incarnate in Jesus Christ and to elect people to salvation and reprobation made in light of human sin?

Supralapsarians answer “no.”  They believe that God would have become incarnate in Jesus Christ even had human beings not sinned.  The incarnation, for them, was not God’s salvific plan to save sinners.  Rather, God planned to become incarnate for other reasons, such as becoming intimate with human beings, or displaying God’s glory.  Similarly, for supralapsarians, God’s election of certain people unto eternal life was unrelated to human sin.  God’s plan was to glorify these people, even had they not sinned.  For many supralapsarians, God also elected certain people unto damnation to display God’s justice.

Infralapsarians, by contrast, hold that the incarnation and election were in response to human sin.  For infralapsarians, God planned to become incarnate as part of God’s plan to save sinners.  God also elected to save some sinners from sin, while leaving other sinners for reprobation.

Some may say that my summary here is simplistic, perhaps even inaccurate.  Indeed, there are other considerations besides the ones that I just attempted to explain.  Supralapsarians and infralapsarians are not monolithic.  Plus, many supralapsarians and infralapsarians hold that God decreed for human beings to sin before God created the universe, so, technically, both regard human sin as inevitable.  Neither thinks that God decreed the incarnation and elected people after Adam and Eve had actually sinned.  For both, the incarnation, the election, and human sin were all decreed prior to God’s creation of the universe.

What distinguishes supralapsarians and infralapsarians is the question of whether the incarnation and election relate primarily to human sin, or if they have meaning and significance apart from human sin.  Infralapsarians maintain that God decreed them in light of human sin (which God also decreed); supralapsarians think that the incarnation and election have significance apart from human sin.

Karl Barth called himself a purified supralapsarian.  Barth was not entirely in agreement with the views of Reformed supralapsarians and Reformed infralapsarians.  For one, Barth rejected the idea that God elected people to be reprobate.  Second, Barth appeared to have problems with the idea that God decreed for human beings to sin.  For Barth, God elected one man, Jesus Christ, and all of humanity would be elect in him.

Shao Kai Tseng argues that there are indications in Barth’s writings that Barth saw the incarnation as a response to human sin.  Barth regarded the incarnation as God’s revelation of God-self to human beings, and Barth doubted that such a revelation would have been necessary had humans not sinned.  For Barth, had humans not sinned, they would have known God apart from the incarnation.  According to Tseng, Barth here is infralapsarian.

Why, then, did Barth call himself a supralapsarian?  Tseng contends that Barth misunderstood supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.  My impression is that, according to Tseng, Barth wrongly thought that infralapsarianism regarded the incarnation and election as God’s Plan B after Adam and Eve had actually sinned.  Barth valued the incarnation and election too much to go that route.

But my understanding of Tseng’s argument regarding Barth is this: Barth, a severe critic of natural theology, wanted to understand all theological concepts in light of God’s revelation in the incarnate Christ.  For Barth, people should look at what God did through Christ and (with the Holy Spirit’s illumination) draw conclusions from this that human beings are sinners and what sin meant.  Barth seemed to think that supralapsarianism prioritized Christ, whereas infralapsarianism prioritized sin, and Barth wanted to prioritize Christ.  But Barth still presumed, in places, that the incarnation was God’s plan in light of fallen humanity, an infralapsarian idea.

Tseng discusses related aspects of Barth’s thought.  Tseng chronicles a development in Barth’s thought on divine revelation: Barth went from treating divine revelation primarily as God’s illumination of people, to focusing on the incarnation.  Tseng also discusses Barth’s views on sin and human sinfulness: Barth saw sin as nothingness, and Barth shied away from the idea that humans inherited a sinful nature from Adam and Eve.  For Barth, humans are good, as God said in Genesis 1, but they are trapped in a fallen condition.

The Forward to the book by George Hunsinger may indicate that there were supralapsarian dimensions to Barth’s thought.  The passages that Hunsinger cites are relevant, as are Tseng’s arguments that there are infralapsarian aspects to Barth’s thought.  There were parts of Tseng’s book that were abstruse, but Tseng clearly demonstrated those infralapsarian elements.

Overall, Tseng explained the difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism rather well.  A question remains in my mind about supralapsarianism, though: Does not God’s election of certain people unto reprobation to display divine justice, which many supralapsarians believe, itself presume human sin?  Is not divine justice only meaningful in response to human sin for God to judge?  But supralapsarians maintain that God’s election of certain people unto reprobation was unrelated to human sin.  How can this be?  It seems to me that many supralapsarians cheat and embrace infralapsarianism on the issue of election unto reprobation.  Tseng should have included more about supralapsarian stances on divine election unto reprobation, assuming that supralapsarians have sufficiently addressed this issue.

To his credit, Tseng discusses why supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, and Barth’s views on them should matter to Christians, from a practical standpoint.  Overall, however, Tseng did not appear to me to flesh this out adequately.  For example, Tseng mentioned distinct political implications of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, without clearly explaining how these political implications follow from the beliefs.

At the same time, I cannot leave Tseng’s book thinking that supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism are uninteresting, unimportant, or arcane.  After reading Tseng’s book, I see them as part of a profound discussion about God’s activity and plans, and the rationale for them.

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

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