Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Write-Up: How God Used R.A. Torrey, by Fred Sanders

Fred Sanders, ed.  How God Used R.A. Torrey: A Short Biography As Told Through His Sermons.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

R.A. Torrey (1856-1928) worked with renowned evangelist D.L. Moody, and he also was instrumental in the creation of The Fundamentals, in which conservative Christians responded to modernism and theological liberalism.  How God Used R.A. Torrey provides a brief biography of Torrey, contains some of his sermons, and includes his brief unpublished autobiography.  Fred Sanders has edited the sermons and autobiography for contemporary readers, but, fortunately, they still have that flavor that marks them as from another time.

Although Torrey had academic training in religion and was a religious liberal who became a religious conservative, he does not really engage religious liberalism, historical criticism of the Bible, or atheism from an academic standpoint, at least not in this book.  There is one possible exception: Torrey argues on the basis of Nehemiah 9:20 that the Holy Spirit was a personality in the Old Testament, against historical-critics who would not see the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible.  This was actually a pretty good argument; his argument, however, that the use of the plural “Elohim” for God indicates that God in the Old Testament was a Trinity was not a very good argument, since Judges 16:23-24 uses the plural of “god” for the Philistine god Dagon, who was a single being, not a composite being. Looking at the Internet, I can see that there were works in which Torrey tried to engage religious liberalism and atheism from more of an academic standpoint, but, with the possible exception of his essay on the personality of the Holy Spirit, that is not the case in How God Used R.A. Torrey.   For example, when Torrey engages universalism, the belief that God will save everyone in the end, he caricatures the position by saying that universalism implies that God does not care about sin; many Christian universalists would disagree with that caricature.

The material in How God Used R.A. Torrey often supports conservative Christianity on the basis of experience or anecdotes.  Torrey has seen lives changed for the better as a result of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He has observed that many people flock to the Gospel but not to theological liberalism, and he thinks that illustrates Jesus’ statement in John 12:32 that Jesus, when he is lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto himself.  (Like Calvinists, Torrey interprets that to mean that Jesus will draw all kinds of people to himself, not every single human being, for Jesus makes that statement when there are Greeks at the Jewish festival; the point, in this interpretation, is that Jesus will draw Gentiles to himself, not just Israelites.  Torrey himself does not strike me as a Calvinist, however, for he speaks favorably of Arminian preachers and believes that God wants to save everyone, while also believing that not everyone will be saved.)

A lot of Torrey’s anecdotes reminded me of the sorts of stories that I read in evangelical chain-mails: there were times when I felt that I was reading pablum, and yet there were also times when I could understand why a person, including myself, could find comfort or edification in such stories.  There was a coziness that I felt in reading them.  Sometimes, I was skeptical about whether events actually transpired as Torrey narrates them in his sermons.  Did a theological liberal on his deathbed really ask to see Torrey and repeatedly express his desperate longing to become a Christian?  I have no evidence one way or the other, but I do know that some evangelicals tend to remember events in light of their religious ideology, or to embellish things a bit (intentionally or unintentionally).  At the same time, do I dismiss that God can impress a person’s mind with an idea, or get inside the head of someone who is hostile to God so that the person is more inclined to make peace with God, the sorts of things that Torrey narrates?  No I do not.

Torrey’s narration of his personal struggles resonated with me.  Torrey said that he was afraid to become a preacher because he was very bashful around strangers.  I identified with his story about how his mother rebuked him for not saying hello to her guests, when he thought that he had said hello to them; he must not have done so loudly enough for them to hear him!  I also appreciated Torrey’s presentation of Jesus Christ and D.L. Moodly as humble people, as people who did not seek their own glory but the glory of God.  My impression is that the Bible often appeals to people’s self-interest and desire for glory, honor, and prosperity rather than demanding that people leave those things completely behind, and yet the idea of someone being so devoted to God that those things do not matter to him or her is something that I find inspiring, appealing, intriguing, and admirable.  Moreover, people may find Torrey’s essay on how to compose a sermon to be helpful.  It is practical, but it also presents preparing a sermon as something to be done in a state of dependence on God, and for the glory of God.

I would have liked to have seen more of Torrey’s more academic interactions with the religious liberalism of his day.  The book includes a statement by Torrey that appeared to be open to the theory of evolution, and that prompted me to do a google search on Torrey’s view on evolution.  It turns out that he came to oppose it on scientific grounds, but my impression is that some Christian anti-evolutionists were unhappy with the nature of his stance.  I would have liked to have seen more about Torrey’s engagement with religious liberalism, not just his homiletical dismissals of it.  At the same time, the book did well to highlight the effect of religion on a person’s life, particularly the question of what it does to one’s moral character.

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

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