Monday, June 26, 2017

Church Write-Up: Scattered Ramblings on Grace and Service

At church this morning, the pastor spoke about spiritual gifts.

Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) was the biblical text that framed the pastor’s message this morning.  See here if you want to read the parable.  In this parable, a master is looking for workers in his vineyard.  He hires people at different times during the day, offering to pay the workers a denarius.  The master pays the workers who were in the vineyard for only one hour a denarius.  Those who worked in the vineyard throughout the day expected more than that, but the master only paid them a denarius!  Those who worked throughout the day got the same amount of pay as those who worked for only one hour.  The master represents God.

The pastor drew a lot of lessons from this parable: that God is faithful to God’s word, that those who worked in the vineyard for only one hour were faithful to their task (as brief as it was), and that there is no place for jealousy in God’s kingdom.

The pastor was a little muddled about what the denarius represents in the parable.  On the one hand, he said that it represents eternal life, since all the workers receive it: similarly, all Christians will receive eternal life.  On the other hand, he seemed to be suggesting that the denarius represents the rewards that believers will receive in the afterlife for their good deeds and service.  After all, the workers in the vineyard have to work for that denarius.

The pastor was explaining that salvation, eternal life, and forgiveness of sins are a free gift that God gives to those who accept them through faith in Jesus, so we cannot earn them by our works.  After we are saved, however, we serve God, and God will reward us in the afterlife according to our service (II Corinthians 5:10).  How this doctrine fits into the denarius is a good question.  The point of the parable is that all of the workers receive the same wage: a denarius.  I can see why the pastor interprets the denarius as eternal life: all believers receive eternal life, whereas rewards appear to vary according to people’s faithfulness, deeds, and service (see, for example, the different rewards in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents).  But the workers needed to work for that denarius, and that goes against the pastor’s contention that we cannot earn our salvation through works.

At the same time, the pastor seemed to be suggesting that the workers being in the vineyard was itself an act of grace: they had a need (for work), they showed up looking for a job, and the vineyard owner gave them one.  They did not have to earn that opportunity.  The master gave it to them freely, and what the master was looking for was not talent but willingness.

I think that the pastor’s model of salvation preceding Christian service makes sense, at least from a practical standpoint.  If I had to do good works and deeds of love and service to be saved, or even to assure myself that I have been saved, I would always wonder if I am doing enough.  That would hamper my service.  By contrast, if I am saved and can be assured of my salvation, that takes a lot of pressure off of me.  I am then able to serve joyfully.  I am running downhill rather than climbing uphill.  As a mainline Methodist pastor told me years ago, we are saved by God’s grace, and salvation is a free gift, but, after we are saved, the fact remains that there is a lot of work to be done: there are people in pain, problems and injustices in the world, and people who need our help.

A text that the pastor quoted is Galatians 5:13: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (KJV).

The pastor also said in the sermon this morning that we should not assume that we are not spiritual enough to serve.  That spoke to me.  Often in church, I feel that others are more spiritual than I am, maybe because they are surer of their beliefs and their commitment to Christianity than I am.  Some people at church this morning were falling over in their enthusiasm for the Lord, whereas my emotions were far less intense!  But suppose that I am saved by grace.  I can serve, even if I am not spiritual enough.  And the service is for the sake of service—-to help somebody else—-not to boost my spiritual standing.

Does the pastor’s model of free grace salvation then Christian service coincide with the Scriptures and historical Christianity, though, or is it a recent evangelical fad, or at least an idea going back to Martin Luther (though people will probably interject that Luther, when properly understood, was not an antinomian)?  I think that a case can be made from the Scriptures that salvation is a free gift, and that we can have assurance of it right now.  Paul says that, when we are justified by faith, we have peace with God (Romans 5:1).  Believers have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 2:13).  But then there are passages that seem to present a less optimistic picture: the unprofitable servant in the Parable of the Talents goes into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Service seems to have been a heaven and hell issue, in his case (and I am open to alternative interpretations).

I have been reading Augustine’s City of God.  It is over a thousand pages, so I will be reading it for a long time!  Augustine believed in God’s grace, in the sense that he thought that he needed God’s forgiveness and regeneration of him.  As I learned over a decade ago in an Introduction to Christianity course, Augustine did not think that God helps those who helps themselves, for his conclusion from the Scriptures and his own experience was that God helps those who cannot help themselves, and who realize that they cannot help themselves!  Many historians have regarded the Protestant Reformation as a return to Augustine.  And yet, here is something that Augustine says in Book II, Chapter 28 (John O’ Meara’s translation) that does not sound entirely evangelical:

“Men have been rescued, through the name of Christ, from the hellish yoke of those polluted powers and from a share in their condemnation; they have passed from the night of blasphemy and perdition into the daylight of salvation and pure godliness.  This fact evokes complaints and murmurs from the malicious and spiteful who are held tight in the close grip of that wicked fiend.  They resent the streams of people who gather in the church in a modest assembly…where they can hear how they ought to live a good life on earth for a space, so that they may deserve to live a life of bliss for ever, and where the words of holy Scripture and of the teaching of righteousness are read aloud from a raised position in the sight of all; those who observe the teaching hear it for their profit, and those who do not, for their condemnation.”

There is grace in there: Christians have been delivered from polluted powers and condemnation with them; Christians have been saved.  They do not have to earn these things, for they already have received them.  And yet, Augustine says things that would not be warmly received in evangelical churches or Bible studies that focus on grace: believers can learn how to live a good life, so that they can deserve eternal bliss.  Deserve?  We can never deserve eternal life, evangelicals will say!  Augustine also affirms that the possibility of condemnation remains for those who do not observe the teaching of righteousness that they hear in church.  That differs from any teaching that says that we have been saved by grace, and how we live after that cannot affect our salvation.

Those are my scattered ramblings for the day.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Write-Up: Say Goodbye to Regret, by Bob Santos

Bob Santos.  Say Goodbye to Regret: Discovering the Secret to a Blessed Life.  Search for Me Ministries, Inc., 2017.  See here to buy the book.

This is the third Bob Santos book that I have read.  Some of what he said in this book overlaps with things that he said in his other books.  But there were also new things that he said in this book, and the old things that he said did not get old.  Santos has a weighty, thoughtful style, and this book is interspersed with compelling, relevant stories, both personal and from the news.  The stories accomplish a variety of things: they provide an inviting tone, grab the reader’s attention and interest, illustrate the author’s point, and present the author as one who empathizes with our struggles, since he has experienced struggles himself.

As the title indicates, the book tackles the topic of regret.  Some of the book talks about attitudes that we can take to move on past regret: remembering that God is forgiving, and avoiding a hardened heart.  Santos also discusses prevention: how can we avoid doing something that we regret?  Remembering that actions have consequences and having good influences on our lives are part of this preventative approach.  A lot of the book, though, is about living the Christian life.  Santos addresses the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and what was so bad about it.  As in his book, The Divine Progression of Grace, Santos encourages people to depend on God rather than self, and he discourages legalism and self-righteousness.  Many topics that Santos covers relate tangentially to the topic of regret, if they relate to it at all, but what Santos has to say about these topics is still worth reading.

In terms of giving practical, concrete things to do, Santos’ book falls short, even though it does this occasionally, and its suggestions for group activities are creative.  Where the book excels is that it talks about the sort of constructive attitude that we can have as we walk the Christian walk and go through life.  Santos does not necessarily offer suggestions on what to do, but he provides insights on how to look at situations.  In this, the book is especially helpful.

Santos in one place said that God is not a grandfather who approves of all of our choices.  At times, that is the sort of God that I would like to have.  But Santos says that God is tougher than that: “Grandfathers tend to spoil kids, but a wise and loving father trains his children to maturity” (page 194).  What is ironic is that reading this book was like wrapping myself in a warm, comfortable blanket, even though the book may have tried to distance itself from that.  That was on account of its warm, friendly, and empathetic tone.

There were some insights in the book that I appreciated in light of other books that I had read.  For example, Santos’ discussion of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil reminded me of J. Todd Billings argument in Union with Christ that God wanted Adam and Eve to have union with God even in the Garden of Eden.  As Santos says, their sin was that they sought wisdom apart from a relationship with God: they sought autonomy, that they might be gods themselves.

In one case, Santos was making a point that other Christians may have made before, but he did so with such conviction that there was a weight to what he was saying: “Humanity’s problem, you see, is not that our Creator has somehow let us down.  The bigger issue is that we simply fail to see Him for all that He is.  That is what wisdom helps us to do—-to see God more and more in his holiness” (pages 239-240).  It’s like Santos has experienced something yet wants to experience it at a deeper level than he currently is.  And he wants us to experience it, too.

The “About the Author” part of the book talks about how Santos and his wife got involved in church activities soon after their conversion, yet felt empty.  Elsewhere in the book, though, he talks about the importance of service and having a mission beyond ourselves.  Santos appeals to our reason in this discussion.  Santos did not explicitly resolve these tensions, and yet the picture that he presents—-reliance on the God who loves us and knows us—-may be a part of that resolution.

I have not been disappointed in a Bob Santos book so far.

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Different Forms of "Idios" in John 1:11

At church last Sunday, I learned something about the Greek of John 1:11.  Some of my readers may already know what I am about to share, but it was new to me, since I have not read the Gospel of John in Greek since I took New Testament Greek in college.

John 1:11 states regarding the Word who became Jesus Christ: “He came unto his own (neuter plural), and his own (masculine plural) received him not” (KJV).

As you can see, the first “his own” is in the neuter plural.  The pastor translated this as “his own things.”  The second “his own,” however, is in the masculine plural, which refers to people.  The pastor translated this verse as: “He came unto his own things, and his own people received him not.”

What is the significance of this grammatical point to the meaning of John 1:11?  The pastor made a point that is similar to a Muslim concept that I have heard: that creation is naturally submissive to God, but human beings are not necessarily, since they have free will.  The Word who became Jesus Christ came to his own things, but his own people did not submit to him.

I checked a variety of commentaries: George Beasley-Murray’s Word Biblical Commentary on the Gospel of John, David Rensberger’s comments in the HarperCollins Study Bible, John Calvin’s commentary, John MacArthur’s study Bible, and the E-Sword commentaries (Albert Barnes, Cambridge, Adam Clarke, John Gill, Jamieson-Faussett-Brown, etc.).  Essentially, they said that the verse means that God came to his own property, and his own people received him not.  And what is God’s property?  Some say the world, whereas others say Israel, which was God’s own possession (Exodus 19:5).

The “world” interpretation may have the preceding verse going for it.  John 1:10 states: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (KJV).  In this interpretation, the world belonged to the Word because the Word created it: the Word came to the world, his own property, and his own people there did not receive him.

On BibleWorks, I looked up the Greek word “idios” (own) in the Gospel of John, specifically when the word is in the neuter and lacks an accompanying noun (as in John 1:11).  A few times, it means one’s own home (John 16:32; 19:27).  Interestingly, a footnote to John 1:11 in the HarperCollins Study Bible translates “ta idia” as “to his own home.”  The Word came to his own home.  I thought of such passages as Sirach 24 and I Enoch 42.  In Sirach 24, wisdom searches for a home and settles in Israel, especially Zion.  In I Enoch 42, wisdom searches in vain for a home on earth and then returns to heaven.

Many commentators have interpreted the Word (Logos) in John 1 in reference to Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31 and other wisdom literature.  Could the author of John 1 have had passages such as Sirach 24 and I Enoch 42 in mind?  If so, perhaps we see irony in John 1.  Jesus, as Wisdom, came to what was supposed to be his home, Israel and Zion, and many in his home did not receive him.  Or, in reference to I Enoch 42, Jesus sought a home on earth but was not successful; he went back to heaven (John 8:21; 13:36), yet he has not turned his back on the earth (John 12:32).

John 15:19 is noteworthy from a grammatical perspective: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world– therefore the world hates you” (KJV).  “Its own” there is in the neuter, yet it is applied to people, the disciples if they were to belong to the world.  That being the case, “ta idia” in John 1:11 could refer to people, regarding them as God’s property.  The different forms of “idios” in John 1:11 do seem to go together: he came to his own, and his own received him not.  “His own” in both cases appears to have the same reference point: he came to his own, and you would expect his own to receive him, but his own do not.

I do not like to rain on people’s attempts to go more deeply into the Bible, in search of features that are not immediately obvious.  Maybe there is significance in John 1:11’s usage of different forms of “idios.”  That “his own home” interpretation may have potential.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Write-Up: The People's Book

Jennifer Powell McNutt and David Lauber, ed.  The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

As the title indicates, this book is about the Protestant Reformation and the Bible.  It consists of essays from the 2016 Wheaton Theology Conference.  In this review, I will comment on each essay.

Chapter 1: “Teaching the Book: Protestant Latin Bibles and Their Readers,” by Bruce Gordon.

This essay dispels the Protestant myth that places the Roman Catholic church on the side that was against vernacular Bibles and for the Latin Bibles, and the Protestants on the side that was for vernacular Bibles and against Latin Bibles.  Not only did Catholics produce vernacular Bibles, but Protestant scholars also valued Latin Bibles because Latin was the language of biblical scholarship during the time of the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic stance on vernacular Bibles is an issue that recurs throughout this book (pp. 143, 180, and 230): another essay affirmed that the Catholic church supported vernacular Bibles (while opposing the Protestant ones), and two essays said that the Catholic church was reluctant to place Bibles in the hands of the masses.  In my opinion, the authors in this book should have attempted to integrate these different facets into a coherent picture.  This essay by Gordon was also interesting because it discussed the view of humanists and Protestants towards different versions of the Bible: the Hebrew, the Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate.

Chapter 2: “Scripture, the Priesthood of All Believers, and Application of 1 Corinthians 14,” by G. Sujin Pak.

The main argument of this excellent essay is on page 50: “In effect, while in the early 1520s early Protestant reformers called upon 1 Corinthians 14 to empower laypersons, from 1525 forward Lutheran and Reformed leaders increasingly employed 1 Corinthians 14 to consolidate Protestant clerical authority.”  You can read the essay for yourself to see how the interpretation of I Corinthians 14 played a role in that!

Chapter 3: “Learning to Read Scripture for Ourselves: The Guidance of Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin,” by Randall Zachman.

According to this excellent essay, Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin emphasized different things in their argument that people should read Scripture.  Erasmus stressed discipleship and the spiritual life, Luther emphasized being able to answer the devil’s accusations by appealing to God’s grace at the last judgment, and Calvin wanted a widespread familiarity with Scripture so that people would be able to test what their pastors were teaching, as good Bereans.

Chapter 4: “The Reformation and Vernacular Culture: Wales as a Case Study,” by D. Densil Morgan.

This chapter concerns the production of Welsh-language Bibles in sixteenth century Wales.  The pastor at a church that I attended for four years would probably appreciate this chapter, since he is Welsh and enjoys reading about Welsh religious history.  What interested me in this chapter was its description of the Protestant myth that the Elizabethan faith re-established the authentic Christianity of the Old Celtic Church, which Joseph of Arimathea allegedly instituted, and which Augustine of Canterbury allegedly corrupted.

Chapter 5: “The Reformation as Media Event,” by Read Mercer Schuchardt.

This essay provides background about Gutenberg, who initially made mirrors that were used to capture relics on pilgrimages.  (You will have to read the chapter to see what that was about!)  Schuchardt argues that the printing press not only assisted the Protestant Reformation, but also what Martin Luther opposed: the indulgences, which the printing press produced in mass numbers.  In addition, the essay interacts with Victor Hugo’s profound claim that hearing contributes to community, whereas seeing (and, by implication, reading) fosters individualism.

Chapter 6: “The Interplay of Catechesis and Liturgy in the Sixteenth Century: Examples from the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions,” by John D. Witvliet.

This essay argues against Catholic Virgil Michel’s argument that Martin Luther emphasized the catechism  and divorced it from the liturgy.  This essay includes Protestant hymns that tried to teach people the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and Christian doctrines.

Chapter 7: “Word and Sacrament: The Gordian Knot of Reformation Worship,” by Jennifer Powell McNutt.

This chapter explored different Protestant views on the sacraments and their relationship with Scripture.  It is an informative chapter: for instance, it includes critical statements by Luther of transubstantiation.  A criticism I have, however, is that the chapter said that the Catholic Church served bread but not wine to congregants at communion, without (as far as I could see) explaining its rationale for that policy.

Chapter 8: “John Calvin’s Commentary on the Council of Trent,” by Michael Horton.

This chapter provides the historical background for the Council of Trent.  According to Horton, many Protestants expected it to be a farce, even though they may have supported the existence of some council to serve as a check on the papacy.  John Calvin defended Protestant ideas such as the notion that a Christian can be assured of forgiveness, but he also appealed to history in arguing against Trent.  Calvin argued, for example, that the priority of the Roman bishop did not go back to the time of the church fathers.  From Horton’s telling, Calvin valued the fathers, and Calvin defended some of his Protestant beliefs about church tradition and the marginalization of the apocrypha in reference to them.

Chapter 9: “The Bible and the Italian Reformation,” by Christopher Castaldo.

This chapter will interest people (like me) who did not know about the Protestant Reformation in Italy during the sixteenth century.  Castaldo actually says that this “may come as a surprise” to a lot of people!  But there were Catholic reformers and Protestant vernacular translations in Italy, the “bastion of the Roman church” (page 171).  Protestants challenged doctrines and were persecuted there.  Castaldo also discusses how Protestantism may have influenced Michaelangelo’s work.

Chapter 10: “Reading the Reformers After Newman,” by Carl Trueman.

John Henry Newman was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism in the nineteenth century.  As Trueman argues, other people did that, too, but many talk about Newman because of his effectiveness in explaining his conversion.  Trueman counters some of Newman’s claims: that Protestantism devalued church history, and that Luther was an antinomian.  Trueman also observes Newman’s odd relationship with the usual conservative-liberal boundaries: Newman criticized liberalism because he stressed the importance of dogma, but his insistence that the dogma be upheld by Rome placed him on the opposite side of Protestants and evangelicals, who themselves emphasized dogma.  Moreover, Trueman contrasts trends in contemporary Protestantism with classical Protestantism: whereas prominent elements of contemporary Protestantism emphasize religious experience, classical Protestantism focused more on dogma, Luther’s tower experience notwithstanding.  This chapter was informative, but it was slightly unclear on page 198, where it discussed the question of whether “Christ is mediator according to his person, not simply according to his human nature[.]”  Trueman seemed to be saying that the Catholics believed Christ was mediator according to his person and that the Protestants challenged this position, but then he appeared to depict the Protestant argument as saying that a person, not a nature, intercedes.  But was that not the Catholic position?  Trueman could have been clearer here, but Trueman provides references to Aquinas and Calvin in a footnote, so those may provide greater clarity.

Chapter 11: “From the Spirit to the Sovereign to Sapiential Reason: A Brief History of Sola Scriptura,” by Paul C.H. Lim.

John Calvin believed that the Holy Spirit interpreted Scripture for the believer.  Would that not lead to subjectivism, as each Christian asserts that his or her interpretation is Spirit-led?  As Lim points out, Calvin was aware of this problem, for it was occurring in his time!  Lim did not thoroughly explain how Calvin got around this problem, however: Lim merely says that Calvin acknowledges that our understanding is partial right now and will be full in the eschaton (a la I Corinthians 13).  Perhaps Lim should have raised certain considerations that other essays in the books raised: the importance of scholarship and the church in biblical interpretation.  That could have improved, not only this essay, but also the book as a whole, by showing how Calvin held different concepts (i.e., scholarship, community, and Spirit-led interpretation, even by the laypersons) together.  This chapter was interesting in that it discussed how Hobbes and Locke interacted with the problem of individualistic interpretation.  Hobbes said that the sovereign should have the primary authority to interpret, like Moses, whereas Locke stressed the importance of reason in interpreting the Bible.  Lim did not really explain Hobbes’ rationale, unless that rationale was that somebody needs to give the final interpretation lest there be chaos, and that somebody had might as well be the sovereign!

Chapter 12: “Perspicuity and the People’s Book,” by Mark Lamberton.

Is Scripture perspicuous?  As Lamberton notes, Calvin affirmed that it was, and yet Calvin still felt a need to write volumes of commentaries to explain it!  Lamberon affirmed the importance of Christian community in interpreting Scripture, but, really, the chapter was more impressive in its questions than its answers.  To quote from page 232: “Is a highly trained, technical reading of…1 Corinthians 13 necessarily a better reading than an obedient and embodied, nontechnical reading?”

My critiques notwithstanding, I am still giving this book five stars.  It is informative, thoughtful, deep, and sophisticated.

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Write-Up: Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition

Craig G. Bartholomew.  Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Craig G. Bartholomew teaches philosophy and religion at Redeemer University College, which is in Ancaster, Ontario.  His book, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, is about the thought of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920).  Kuyper 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!’”  Bartholomew not only explores Kuyper’s thought, but also the thought of some of Kuyper’s predecessors and successors.

Here are some of my reactions:

A.  A compelling part of the book was Bartholomew’s narration of Kuyper’s conversion.  Kuyper was initially a religious modernist, and he had an academic interest in religion, as he wrote a paper about John Calvin.  Kuyper converted to Calvinist Christianity after reading a novel by an author who had Anglo-Catholic sympathies.  This narration personalized Kuyper, and, although I lean more towards the liberal end of the religious spectrum, I found his conversion intriguing.  Kuyper had an academic interest in religion, like me, yet he came to long for a transformed life.

B.  Kuyper was a Calvinist, but he was not afraid to disagree with Calvinists, and he drew from other Christian traditions, as well.  The novel that he read presented an Anglo-Catholic perspective on the church, and that influenced Kuyper to see the church as a mother.  There are things that Kuyper said that many other Christians have said as well.  For example, Kuyper, not surprisingly, favored a unifying perspective on Scripture to a fragmented picture, which historical critics posited.  Kuyper resolved to trust Scripture, whatever its apparent problems.  Kuyper did not believe in the divine dictation of Scripture but maintained that God shaped and used the experiences and personalities of the biblical authors such that they wrote what God desired.  Kuyper desired a living, active faith rather than a dead orthodoxy.  Not surprisingly, Kuyper held that education should go somewhere (i.e., provide wisdom and a larger picture of life) rather than merely passing down facts.  Some of the details of Kuyper’s thought were not particularly interesting to me, since, as I said, other Christians have said similar things, repeatedly.  But what was interesting was the eclectic nature of Kuyper’s thought: where Kuyper was a “conservative,” where he was a “liberal,” etc.  And, occasionally, there were surprises.  For instance, Kuyper had an open, yet critical, stance towards evolution, and Kuyper also stressed the importance of church tradition in theology as opposed to basing theology primarily on the first century church.

C.  Some discussions in the book were of more interest to me than others.  For instance, the criticisms of having a worldview that Bartholomew surveyed (by Barth, Bultmann, and others) struck me as nit-picky.  I could see Bartholomew’s response to them coming a mile away: a worldview is not necessarily bad, as long as it is done in a certain way.  The discussion of the relationship between nature and grace could get arcane, at times, yet this issue looms large in Christian theology and is significant to understanding Kuyper’s thought, so Bartholomew did well to engage it.  And Bartholomew summarized the different views on nature and grace concisely.

D.  One chapter that gave me a slightly new (from my perspective) perspective was the one on missions.  Bartholomew discussed J.H. Bavinck’s view that God is at work in non-Christian religions (which are still non-saving), such that people in those religions seek God, even as they run away from God (a la Romans 1).  When they seek God, that is a result of God’s revelation and influence.  I have heard elements of this idea before, but Bavinck put these elements together.

E.  Parts of this book could have been better had concepts been illustrated more.  How did Kuyper believe that church tradition should contribute to theology?  How exactly did Kuyper think that belief in Christianity could contribute to learning rather than restricting it?  Examples may have been helpful, assuming Kuyper himself provided them.  There were also some apparent tensions within Kuyper’s thought that could have been ironed-out more effectively or saliently, assuming Kuyper himself resolved them.  Kuyper was for religious freedom and against theocracy, yet he maintained that Christianity should guide the state, on some level.  Bartholomew does well to explore how Kuyper’s thought can be relevant to modern or contemporary issues: South Africa, Christianity’s relationship with Islam, etc.  But, in my opinion, the book should also have engaged the relevance of Kuyper’s thought to contemporary questions of how (and whether) religion should influence politics.  How does Kuyper compare and contrast with the religious right, for example?  Such a discussion could have provided a crisper, more relatable description of Kuyper’s political ideology.

F.  There was some historical context in this book, but not as much as I expected.  Considering Kuyper’s love of William of Orange in Our Program, I was expecting a reference to him in Bartholomew’s book, but I do not recall such a reference.

G.  I read volume 1 of Kuyper’s Common Grace and Kuyper’s Our Program.  How did Bartholomew’s discussion of Kuyper compare to my amateur impressions?  First, it was interesting that Bartholomew had a similar reaction to mine to Kuyper’s view that God will destroy and recreate the earth: that it did not fit neatly with Kuyper’s view that Christians should serve the earth because it is part of God’s redemption.  Second, in reading Our Program, I thought that Kuyper had a dimmer view of Islam than Bartholomew implies.

H.  This book was variegated.  There were parts that highlighted aspects to Kuyper’s thought that are similar to what many other Christians have articulated.  There were parts that were arcane, yet informative and important.  There were parts that were more personal and down-to-earth: Kuyper’s conversion story, Kuyper’s statement about the perspective missionaries should have when they approach people in other countries and cultures, Bartholomew’s discussion of Christian ministries to the disabled, the Amish in light of Kuyper’s thought, etc.  There were also some gems in the book: T.S. Eliot’s beautiful statement about education and wisdom, and Lewis Mumsford statement about how the medievalists essentially turned Roman lemons into lemonade (he said that more profoundly and eloquently).

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Church Write-Up: Living in the Past and Moving On

The pastor at one of the churches that I attended spoke about some issues that had been in my mind earlier that week.  They included dwelling in the past, and the fears that result from remembering past experiences.  That was a struggle for me last week.  I told myself that I should forget the past and move on.  That is good advice: focus on the now, not the past.  But the me now has some of the same flaws as the me then, so I fear having some of the same negative experiences.

I’m not sure if there is an easy fix to that.  Not to be flippant, but, just to cite an example, I think of times when I came across as a dork to others, so I fear coming across as a dork to others now and in the future!

The pastor was making interesting points about God.  He was saying that, if we have God in our life, and God wants us to reconcile with others, then God will prepare the way for that by softening the heart of the other person.  I do not know if that is an absolute, but I can picture God doing something like that, at least sometimes.  That does provide a reassuring feeling: not being alone.

The pastor was telling the story of a woman who saw one of the church’s service projects and joined in, and a week later she was baptized.  Now, she organizes lunchtime church services for people who miss church because they work the graveyard shift.  (That is not to say that the church meets during the graveyard shift, but probably that people work until morning and thus go to bed when they get home, rather than going to morning church services.)  That helps other people, and she gets the satisfaction of performing a service.

Service does not have to be grandiose, but it can get one out of oneself.  One fear that I have, based on past experiences, is churches not being particularly hospitable towards those who are different.  You would think that they would be.  Churches like to advertise themselves as such.  But people are people, even in churches.

I have experienced the opposite, though.  At another church service that I attended that morning, a couple was moving.  Their service at the church was appreciated and considered valuable.  The pastor’s eyes were tearing up as he wished them well, and the pastor’s wife hugged them.  That experience was not foreign to me as I watched it.

Anyway, those are some scattered musings.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning

Brennan Manning.  The Ragamuffin Gospel: Special Anniversary Edition.  Multnomah, 2015.  See here to buy the book.  (I think that is the edition I am reviewing here, though there was nothing by Michael W. Smith in the book that I read, plus Fil Anderson wrote the Afterword, not the Introduction.)

I first heard of Brennan Manning in 2013, right after he passed away.  People posted quotes of his that were meaningful to them.  I learned more about him when I watched the movie Ragamuffin, which was about Christian musician Rich Mullins.  In a powerful scene, Rich and his friend are listening to a sermon by Brennan Manning about how God loves us as we are, not as we should be.  After hearing that, Rich Mullins broke down in tears.

The Ragamuffin Gospel essentially proclaims the message of that sermon: that God loves us as we are, broken and all.  That does not mean that God is okay with whatever we do.  Manning contends that the Gospel is life-changing: it calls us to love.  When we recognize that we are broken people who need God’s grace, we drop the pretense and are merciful to others.  Plus, God’s unconditional love for us gives us space to grow.

One could make the point that a lot of Christian books say that sort of thing.  But this book had an eloquence and a thoughtfulness about it, so it was far than banal.  There are passages that I can quote that illustrate the message of the book, but I would like to quote an insightful passage about forgiveness, and how God’s forgiveness contrasts with ours:

“When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic, some scribes thought to themselves, ‘Who but God can forgive sins?’ (Mark 2:7).  How enlightened they were in their blindness!  Only God knows how to pardon.  Our clumsy human attempts at forgiveness often create more problems than they solve.  In condescending fashion we crush and humiliate the sinner with our unbearable largesse.  He may feel forgiven but utterly bereft of reassurance, consolation, and encouragement.  Only God knows how to pardon and put all four together.  The prodigal’s father said, in effect, ‘Hush, child.  I don’t need to know where you’ve been or what you’ve been up to.”  (Pages 173-174)

The book was like drinking a glass of cold water when thirsty.  Yet, there were parts that rubbed me the wrong way.  The leader of the recovery group that Brennan was in sounded to me like a jerk, which contrasted with the book’s usual understanding, compassionate tone.  The book also would have been better had it explored more how we can move past grudges and bitterness.  It seemed to presume that accepting God’s grace would provide us with a more merciful perspective towards others, but that does not always work like clockwork.  Manning himself recognized in at least one place of the book that the concept of grace has become rather banal or trite in Christianity, so we need to experience it from a fresh perspective.

As Manning says in “The Scandal of Grace: Twenty-Five Years Later,” he was accused of being selective with the biblical texts, focusing on the grace passages rather than the passages about sin and judgment.  Overall, I would say that is a fair criticism.  At the same time, it should be highlighted that Manning interacted with Gospel passages that include God’s judgment, such as the Parable of the Talents.  Manning observed that Jesus often presented accepting the Kingdom message as a matter of importance and urgency.  Manning did not interpret that in reference to fear of hell, at least not explicitly, but rather in terms of the importance of our own spiritual health.  Still, his interaction with those passages was noteworthy, as it elevated his “Ragamuffin Gospel” beyond being some feel-good message to being a message of profound importance.  All of that said, Manning does well to highlight the grace passages of the New Testament: Jesus reaching out to sinners, and cases in which divine forgiveness seemed to precede repentance (i.e., John 8:11).  At the very least, Christians can agree that God is the one who makes the first move.

The Notes at the end were excellent because Manning recommended books on spirituality that he found helpful, and his enthusiasm for those books was contagious!

This “Special Anniversary Edition” contains a Preface by John Blase, a testimony by Rich Mullins, and an Afterword by Fil Anderson.  Anderson’s Afterword was notable because it highlighted Manning’s accessibility to people who needed help, notwithstanding his busy schedule, as well as his struggles in the final year of his life.

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Church Write-Up: Ramblings on Spiritual Gifts

At church this morning, the sermon was about finding one’s spiritual gift and contributing to the church.

Here are some scattered thoughts:

A.  Yes, there are people who are good at particular things.  But there are also a lot of people who are just mediocre.  What’s my point here?  Well, it just seems that Christians who talk about spiritual gifts presume that every Christian excels at something.  I have my doubts about that.  Christians may excel, be good, or be mediocre about the something in question.  What if a person does not excel at anything?  The pastor did appear to be sensitive to this, on some level: he referred to Apollos as an example of someone who needed constructive criticism about his sermon delivery.  Actually, Apollos needed correction because his understanding was incomplete (Acts 18:26), but I appreciated the pastor’s point.  And I personally identified with what the pastor said about Apollos: what Apollos wanted to say sounded good in his head, but it came out not so good!  I’ve had my share of those experiences!

B.  The pastor was making spiritual gifts sounds rather dramatic.  He said that there are some things that God cannot accomplish without us personally.  And he was not referring to the entire church as a body, making the point that God needs the church as God’s hands and feet on earth.  He was saying that only I (and the other “I”s there) can do the specific task that God wants me to do—-that the specific task that God wants me to do cannot be done by anyone else.  Maybe there is something to that.  I don’t want to dismiss it completely.  At the same time, I think serving the church can entail doing low-key things that anyone can do.  What is important is service, right?

C.  I think that a lot of spiritual gifts tests are artificial.  Maybe they can help some people.  I am not sure if they help everyone.  Plus, not everyone may have the desire to use a gift in a congregational setting.  The pastor was talking about people finding what they are good at and what fulfills them, and using that gift in a church, but what if one finds that one finds fulfillment in doing things in solitude?  For instance, I enjoy reading books and blogging about them, and I believe that my reviews serve at least some people, even if I am not the most charismatic blogger or reviewer on the face of the earth.  Am I a “lazy Christian” because I seek to contribute outside of the four walls of the church?  I don’t think so.  Still, somewhere in my mind, I acknowledge the value of trying to serve the church in some capacity.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Disruption of Evangelicalism, by Geoffrey R. Treloar

Geoffrey R. Treloar.  The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of Torrey, Mott, McPherson, and Hammond.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

The Disruption of Evangelicalism is Volume 4 of the “History of Evangelicalism” series.  This volume covers evangelicalism from the time shortly before World War I, to the time shortly before the onset of World War II.  It looks at evangelicalism in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

As I read this book, I was comparing it to another book that I read: Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology (1805-1900).  What made Dorrien’s book satisfying was that it went deeply into the biographical background and ideas of liberal thinkers.  Geoffrey Treloar’s book covered a lot more territory, but it did not have as much depth.  It relayed different evangelical perspectives at a surface level.  While it included anecdotes about evangelical thinkers and personalities, they usually focused on a surface-level, brief description of their ideas rather than offering details about their personal backgrounds or characteristics.

There were exceptions to this characterization.  R.A. Torrey was contrasted with D.L. Moody, with Torrey looking more methodical, intellectual, and focused on hell than Moody was.  Geoffrey Treloar also shares that Torrey was active in social justice until he decided to devote more time to trying to save souls.  The brief anecdote about the suffragette who gave up the feminist cause to proclaim the imminent Second Coming of Christ was also interesting.  The stories about World War I and its effect on evangelicals had more of a personal element.  Treloar provided some background information about Aimee Semple McPherson, but he devoted most of that discussion to explaining how she fit and did not fit the religious trends of the time, and what exactly she did that made her a success.

Reading this book was more like eating a lot of tasty snacks than eating a satisfying meal.  There were a lot of interesting discussions in this book.  That discussion of McPherson was one of them.  The book was also helpful in that it communicated the different evangelical positions on socialism, the social Gospel, sanctification, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the nature of Scripture, World War I and its aftermath, the League of Nations, prohibition, the New Deal, and the rise of totalitarian states in Germany, Italy and Russia.  There were conservative and there were liberal evangelicals, and yet, as Treloar demonstrates, there were plenty of times when theological conservatives ventured into territory that would be considered politically liberal.  In its breadth, the book covered material that would probably be absent from a lot of histories of Christianity, such as evangelicals’ struggle with the question of where the souls of unsaved casualties of war went after their death.  The book also mentioned the series Evangelicalism, which was a liberal evangelical version of the famous Fundamentals.

While the discussions of the different positions were surface-level, they were clear: one could understand what the different evangelical thinkers believed and why.  The discussions about the nature of Scripture were not as good as other discussions in the book.  While the book talked about the attempts of centrist and liberal evangelicals to incorporate historical-criticism into their view of Scripture, there was some unclarity about how exactly they did so.  Treloar tried to explain this, for he mentioned such considerations as progressive revelation.  Perhaps examples of their usage of the historical-critical method in a religious or homiletical setting would have clarified their stance on the issue.

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Why Did Jesus Tell Mary, "Mine Hour Is Not Yet Come" (John 2:4)?

In John 2:1-11, Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding, and the wedding feast runs out of wine.  Jesus’ mother Mary tells Jesus about the problem, and Jesus replies, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come” (KJV).  But Jesus proceeds to turn the water into wine.

Jesus’ statement that “mine hour is not yet come” intrigues me.  The reason is that, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus’ hour refers to the time of his crucifixion and resurrection (see 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1).  But what does Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection have to do with his reluctance to change water into wine?  “I don’t want to change water into wine right now, for my time to be crucified and resurrected has not come yet.”  That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

In this post, I will interact with four attempts to solve this apparent problem.  I will be drawing from this 2013 post, while also adding two interpretations that I recently encountered.

A.  John Gill speculates that “it was not proper for him to work miracles as yet, lest it should provoke his enemies to seek his life before his time…”  According to this interpretation, Jesus is essentially saying to Mary, “My hour to die is not yet come, so don’t pressure me to do something that might bring that about!”  Maybe this explanation works.  Perhaps Jesus in John 2:4 realized that the performance of his work was a delicate task: that he had to do things just right to get his message out.  Jumping the gun by publicly turning the water into wine might puzzle or anger people prematurely, leading to his death, and thus he would not be able to say what he needed to say, when he needed to say it.  Why, then, did Jesus turn the water into wine?  Because he did so in a private, low-key manner, which would not attract premature attention.

And yet, not long after turning the water into wine, Jesus in John 2:13-25 cleansed the Temple of merchants and money-changers, criticizing them for making his Father’s house a house of merchandise.  Jesus then told some of the Jews to destroy the Temple and Jesus would raise it up in three days, a statement that baffled them.  Jesus also performed miracles in Jerusalem.  Jesus was not afraid to be provocative, baffling, and confusing at the onset of his ministry.  Why, then, did he think that turning water into wine was inappropriate, not long before that?  Was he aware that the ministry that would lead to his death was about to start, and he was not in a hurry to start it?  Did he want his ministry to be defined, not primarily in terms of miracles, but in terms of piety, and thus he wanted to start it with the cleansing of the Temple, not a miracle?  Such a dim view of miracles does occur in the Gospel of John.  In John 2:23-24, Jesus does not commit to people who believed in him on account of miracles that he did.  In John 4:48, Jesus says with some frustration to a nobleman who wanted Jesus to heal his son, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.”  In John 6:26-27, Jesus criticizes those who sought him for his miracles, specifically the multiplications of the loaves, encouraging them instead to seek the food that leads to eternal life.

B.  Related to (A.), George Beasley-Murray in the Word Biblical Commentary on the Gospel of John states the following:

“In this Gospel the ‘hour’ of Jesus commonly denotes his death and glorification (see 7:30; 8:20; 13:1; 17:1). An immediate reference to that hour is scarcely thinkable in this context; it must relate to the service of the divine sovereignty on which Jesus now embarks, which will (as the Evangelist knows) culminate in the ‘lifting up’ on the cross. (If the saying was in the source it would clearly have related to the beginning of the redemptive ministry, and was interpreted by the Evangelist in the light of its end, since the ministry was an indivisible unity.) The import of the statement is to declare that Jesus’ service for the kingdom of God is determined solely by his Father; into that area not even his mother can intrude (cf. 7:3–9 and Mark 3:31–35, and see the excellent discussion of Schnackenburg, 1:327–31).”

In a way, Beasley-Murray interprets Jesus’ hour, not just in reference to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but also in reference to Jesus’ entire ministry, which would lead to Jesus’ crucifixion.  And yet, Beasley-Murray’s reference to John 7:3-9 poses a problem for this interpretation.  John 7:2-9 states:

“Now the Jews’ feast of tabernacles was at hand.  His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest.  For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world.  For neither did his brethren believe in him.  Then Jesus said unto them, My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready.  The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil.  Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast; for my time is not yet full come.  When he had said these words unto them, he abode still in Galilee.”
John 7:2-9 takes place after Jesus started his ministry.  And, after starting his ministry, Jesus is still saying that his time has not yet come.  Can we, therefore, interpret Jesus’ ministry as part of his “hour”?

What is interesting, though, is that Jesus soon thereafter in John 7 goes to Jerusalem and assumes a public profile by teaching in the Temple and getting into an argument with Judean critics.  Jesus probably realized that he was walking a fine line, or treading on delicate territory.  Jesus did not want to bring about his death before his time, so he was hesitant at times to make a public appearance, lest that could provoke people to kill him.  And yet, Jesus did not impose on himself inflexible guidelines, for he changed his mind and went to Jerusalem.  John 7:30 states that Jesus’ enemies did not lay hands on him, as much as they wanted to do so, for Jesus’ hour had not yet come.  Perhaps Jesus concluded, after some thought, that his enemies could not harm him at that point, so he decided to go to Jerusalem, or to assume a public profile after arriving there.

C. John MacArthur in the MacArthur Study Bible states: “My hour has not yet come. The phrase constantly refers to Jesus’ death and exaltation (7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1). He was on a divine schedule decreed by God before the foundation of the world. Since the prophets characterized the messianic age as a time when wine would flow liberally (Jer. 31:12; Hos. 14:7; Amos 9:13, 14), Jesus was likely referring to the fact that the necessity of the cross must come before the blessings of the millennial age.”


I am not overly convinced by this explanation, to tell you the truth.  I do not think that Jesus had to die and rise again before Israel could enjoy the blessings of the messianic age, for such blessings were evident in Jesus’ ministry before he died and rose again.  In Matthew 11:5 and Luke 7:22, Jesus says that John the Baptist should have known that Jesus was the Messiah on account of the healings that Jesus was performing.  Jesus in these passages may have had in mind such scriptures as Isaiah 35:6: “Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.”  But, if you only want to consider what is in John’s Gospel in interpreting John’s Gospel, even John’s Gospel implies that the blessings of the messianic age were occurring during Jesus’ ministry.  In John 6:45, for example, Jesus applies the prophecy of Isaiah 54:13 that “they shall be all taught of God” to the people who were believing in him.

And yet, there is a sense in John’s Gospel that certain prophecies in the Hebrew Bible could not be fulfilled until after Jesus died and rose again.  In John 7:38-39, we read (in the KJV): “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)”

D. Derek Leman raised some considerations in his May 27, 2017 Daily Portion.  Part of what he said is here.

Leman observes that John 10:11 states that Jesus manifested his glory at this first miracle in Cana of Galilee.  Leman goes on to state:

“John interprets Yeshua’s nature miracles, such as turning water into wine, as the Messiah letting slip through the screen a bit of the divine glory that was his from the foundation of the world. Only the creator of water, of grape vines, can transmute matter in such an omnipotent manner. And Yeshua did not pray and ask God to perform the miracle. He apparently did it himself. He let slip his glory, allowing it to show through, for those who paid close attention, and thought deeply about such things. Of course, no one got it. No one understood until the revelation was made more obvious in the ascension and in later appearances of Yeshua from heaven, seated on the throne of heaven beside God.”

Leman later states:

“There is a mysterious indication that Mary knew Yeshua’s divine power, leading even very early in Christian history to speculation about miracles he may have worked in his youth (as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). The miracle is a sign fostering belief in his disciples, manifesting his Glory, his hidden identity (vs. 11)…Why does Yeshua feel this is not his business? The answer he gives is that it is ‘not yet my hour,’ meaning ‘my hour to be revealed as the hidden Glory revealed.’ That hour will be at his death and resurrection. Yet Mary is persistent and, as is often the case, Yeshua is willing in spite of his objection…Yeshua may have said his hour had not yet come to reveal his Glory, yet he fosters faith in advance of his hour with this sign and with others that will come. These signs lead to a greater understanding of the ultimate one, the resurrection.”

Leman is saying that Jesus, by turning the water into wine, was revealing his divine glory and power, and Jesus did not want to do that at that time because his death and resurrection were to be the occasions at which he revealed his divine glory.

There is much that Leman does not say here.  Were Jesus’ other miracles occurrences in which Jesus reluctantly decided to reveal his divine glory?

A relevant consideration is that, in the Gospel of John, Jesus quite possibly does his miracles through the power of his Father.  Jesus affirms in John 5:31-38 that the works that he is doing are the Father testifying that he sent Jesus.  In John 14:10, Jesus states that the Father does the works.  Perhaps the miracles that Jesus did in John’s Gospel are different from his turning of water into wine and his resurrection.  When Jesus turned the water into wine, he did that miracle by his own power.  Regarding his resurrection, Jesus implied in John 2:19-21 that he, Jesus, would raise up his own body after it is destroyed.  The other miracles, by contrast, were done by the power of his Father.

Another consideration is that, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is glorifying God, not self (John 8:50; 11:4, 40).  In John 17:5, however, Jesus wants God to glorify him with the glory that he had before the foundation of the world.  Presumably, this would occur at his resurrection.  Were Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine and rising from the dead incidents in which he demonstrated his inherent glory, whereas, in the other miracles, his focus was on the glory of his Father?

I do not know if this thesis consistently works throughout the Gospel of John.  Just looking at John 17 itself, I see that Jesus’ hope is that the Father will glorify him.  Does that imply that Jesus lacked inherent glory, at least before his resurrection (I wonder if I am approaching heresy here)?  Or does it at least suggest that the glorification of Jesus at Jesus’ resurrection was the Father’s glorification of Jesus, not Jesus’ glorification of himself, which would go against what I argued above?  And can we truly differentiate what Jesus does from what his Father does, since they were in each other (e.g., John 14:20)?  Plus, are not Jesus’ glory and his Father’s glory intertwined?

I am open to correction on this, so I will leave the comments on.  Be tactful, though!  And, just to be clear, I am building on Derek Leman’s thoughts here, so don’t blame him for my conclusions.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Church Write-Up: Reagan on Memorial Day; Keswick Lives; Jewish Literacy in the Time of Jesus

I went to the "Pen Church" this morning.  Here are some items:

A.  We saw a brief video about Memorial Day.  In the background was a speech by President Ronald Reagan.  Reagan said that many of us see soldiers as wise old men, but he noted that the people who went to war were boys.  Not only did they give up their lives, Reagan said, but they also gave up the lives that they could have had: as fathers and grandfathers.  That made me appreciate the gravity of their sacrifice.  And, in saying "appreciate," I am not necessarily supporting all the wars in which they fought: some may have been necessary, some not.  I do honor their willingness to sacrifice, but the video also convinces me that we should only enter war as a last resort.

B.  The pastor was continuing his series about becoming a "Velcro Christian": having a faith that sticks.  In today's sermon, he talked about the importance of Scripture reading.  He brought up a variety of considerations: how today's generation has more access to Scripture than previous generations on account of new technology; how Scripture can be a comfort to people; how there are different ways to do one's quiet time (i.e., morning, evening, when riding the bus, whenever one feels inspired, etc.); and how Scripture is like a plumb line, showing us where we are crooked rather than straight (and he showed a picture of a plumb line beside a wall, which illustrated its function).  In talking about the plumb line, he seemed to make biblical correction look so simple: we read the Bible, it corrects us, and we change.  That can be the case sometimes, perhaps more effectively if we focus on one character defect at a time (or, more accurately, one manifestation of a character defect at a time) rather than allowing ourselves to be inundated with the Bible's demand for perfection.

C.  The pastor quoted the NLT rendering of Romans 12:2, which reads: "Don't copy the behavior and customs of the world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  Then you will learn to know God's will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect."

The pastor was saying that we should relax and "let" God transform us.  When I got home, I checked the Greek on my BibleWorks to see if there is any merit to his point.  Well, the Greek does use the passive: be transformed.  Does that not imply that someone else, namely God, is doing the transforming?  I did not check every use of the passive verb in Greek, though, so I do not know if passive verbs always exclude activity on the part of the agent.

I started Geoffrey R. Treloar's The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of Torrey, Mott, McPherson and Hammond.  On page 19, Treloar discusses three evangelical approaches to sanctification in the nineteenth century.  According to Treloar, the Reformed and Wesleyan approaches advocated struggle against sin, and Wesley was more optimistic about the ability of believers, with God's help, to eradicate sin from their heart in this life.  A third approach was that of the Keswick movement.  It was basically a "Let go and let God" approach: stop struggling and rest in God's power to remove sin from your life.  According to Treloar, this conception spread to different countries and gained influence within evangelicalism, albeit against opposition.

What the pastor said this morning reminded me of Keswick, even though the pastor did seem to acknowledge that we play some role in our sanctification: we have to "let" God transform us, and such factors as trust, reading Scripture, drawing closer to God in prayer, and yielding to the Holy Spirit's correction are significant in this.  Still, he was presenting sanctification as more of a relaxing process than some Christians do when they depict it as a struggle.

Incidentally, one can draw parallels between Jimmy Swaggart's "Message of the Cross" and the Keswick movement.  To quote a description of Swaggart's book, The Message of the Cross:
  
"The message in this book is personal and addressed to every believer who has tried to live for God but failed.  It was written for those who were told by elders to just try harder to overcome sin.  It's for the people of God who trust their own abilities, strengths, and talents because they don't know how to trust God.  Read this apostolic revelation from God to Brother Swaggart and how it changed his life and ministry.  In these chapters, he shares God's prescribed order of victory though faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, which is the story of the Bible.  Learn how the Holy Spirit works within the parameters of the finished work of Christ to help believers gain victory over the world, the flesh, and the Devil."

This article here is an attempt to refute Swaggart's message.  I did not read it in its entirety but skimmed here and there.

I have encountered both approaches within Christianity: look to God and let God transform you, on the one hand, and keep trying hard and virtue may become second-hand, on the other hand.  Many combine the two approaches, in some manner: the Holy Spirit works, and yet our efforts are important, too.

D.  The pastor was arguing against those who would point out that daily quiet times are now possible due to the printing press and new technology, but that Christians and devout people prior to those inventions did not have quiet times.  Why, then, emphasize daily quiet times as essential for Christian growth?

The pastor referred to a scholarly view that Jesus' family may have had its own scroll of the Torah.  What he said reminded me of John Sailhamer's The Meaning of the Pentateuch, which I recently discussed in a post.  Sailhamer contends that there is a shift towards individual piety in the course of the Hebrew Bible.  Deuteronomy 15:1 commands that the Israelites are to hear the Torah every seven years.  By contrast, Joshua 1:8, which marks the “Prophets” section of the Hebrew Bible, and Psalm 1, which marks the “Writings” section, exhort individuals to meditate on the Torah day and night.  Sailhamer refers to a scholarly argument that the Book of Psalms was intended for individual piety, and he presents a picture of exilic and post-exilic Jews as literate.

There is debate within scholarship about how literate Jews were in Jesus' day.  My post here rehearsed arguments against widespread Jewish literacy back then.  A commenter referred me to Alan Millard's Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, which argues for more widespread literacy.  Josephus in Against Apion 1.60 and 2.204, and Philo in "On the Embassy to Gaius" 115-116, affirm that Jewish children in the first century were taught the Jewish laws; Josephus even mentions education in letters.  But, as Chris Keith asks on page 77 of Jesus' Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, how typical was this?  "As we will see," Keith says, "it is far more likely that Josephus and Philo reflect only the status of the privileged few such as themselves, and universal literacy was nowhere near a reality for Second Temple Judaism as a whole."

Was there still individual piety, then?  Perhaps one could argue that Joshua 1:8 and the passages in Psalms about meditating on Torah are about what leaders should do, not what every Israelite is expected to do.  Joshua 1:8 is an instruction to Joshua, the leader of Israel, and the Book of Psalms is largely attributed to King David.  And Deuteronomy 17:18-19 commands the King of Israel to write out a copy of the Torah so that he might obey it.  And yet, Psalm 1 seems to say that men who meditate on God's law prosper: that means more people than leaders and kings, right?

One can make a case that there could be individual piety, without widespread literacy.  Keith questions the assumptions that "'most Jews' drew a direct line between Torah-observance and literate skills."  Jews could have heard the Torah in the synagogue and meditated on what they heard.

And yet, Deuteronomy 6:9 commands Israelites to write God's laws on the door-frames of their houses.  Does that imply widespread literacy?

Anyway, I am writing myself into a pit, so I will stop here.  If you want to comment, please focus on the last three items.  I am not really interested in reading comments about how churches are wrong to honor Memorial Day. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Dawn of Christianity, by Robert J. Hutchinson

Robert J. Hutchinson.  The Dawn of Christianity: How God Used Simple Fisherman, Soldiers, and Prostitutes to Transform the World.  Nelson Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

In The Dawn of Christianity, Robert J. Hutchinson covers the time from the last days of Jesus to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15.  Chapter 1 is somewhat of a novellization, but the remainder of the book has more of a tone that one would expect from a non-fiction historical book.  Hutchinson tells the story of Jesus and the early church, while interspersing information about customs, cities, and figures of the time, as well as scholarly discoveries and controversies.

Here are some of my reactions to the book:

A.  I am giving the book five stars, for reasons that I will explain below.  Let me start, though, with a few critiques.  For one, Hutchinson argues against the scholarly idea that Jesus predicted an imminent end of the world.  Overall, his arguments were not particularly convincing (at least to me), and he did not entirely explain what Jesus meant when he preached about the Kingdom of God.

Mark 9:1 states that some standing there will not taste death before they see the Kingdom come with power.  Hutchinson seems to argue that the Kingdom was already coming in power at that time, with the ministry of Jesus.  On some level, that may be true, but is that what Jesus was talking about in Mark 9:1?  Why would Jesus say that some standing there would not taste death before seeing the Kingdom, if he were discussing a Kingdom that was breaking out all around them?  Hutchinson believes that Matthew 24:14, which states that the Gospel shall be preached to all the world before the end comes, precludes the possibility that Jesus envisioned an imminent end of the world, for the Gospel at the time was a long way off from being preached to all the world!  And yet, Paul in Romans 10:18 and Colossians 1:6 (assuming Paul wrote Colossians) seems to suggest that the Gospel then had gone or was going to the entire world.  Hutchinson states that certain Jesus Seminar scholars dispute that Jesus believed in an imminent end of the world, and yet he does not share that some of the Jesus Seminar scholars dismiss as secondary and non-authentic the apocalyptic parts of the Gospels.  I doubt that Hutchinson embraces that kind of methodology!

Hutchinson tried to offer an idea of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.  He presented a picture of God offering forgiveness and people repenting, lives being changed, and people gathering together in groups in which Kingdom principles were practiced.  The Kingdom of God arguably entails those things.  And yet, on page 19, Hutchinson states that “Jesus saw himself, and was seen by others, as the long-promised Jewish Messiah, the divine Son of Man who was inaugurating a new era in human history—-and whose reign would threaten and ultimately destroy all the kings and warlords of the earth.”  That sounds rather apocalyptic, perhaps imminently apocalyptic!  (Well, there is that word “ultimately” there, but the statement still implies that eschatology was a significant aspect of Jesus’ identity and mission.)

This is not to suggest that all of Hutchinson’s discussion of this issue was lacking.  I myself wonder if Bart Ehrman is correct in saying that Jesus envisioned an imminent divine destruction of the Romans, since Jesus hardly ever mentioned the Romans.  Hutchinson had a pretty good response to Bart Ehrman’s arguments that Q has an imminent apocalyptic saying: Hutchinson noted that the saying includes Jesus’ statement that Christians will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man but will not see it (see Luke 17:22).  As Hutchinson notes, that sounds like a delay in the Son of Man’s coming, not imminence.  Hutchinson also recommended scholarly books on the topic.  And the endnote about Dale Allison’s struggle with this issue was endearing.  To quote Allison: “…a Jesus without eschatological error would certainly make my life easier…I might, for instance, be able to tell some of my relatives, without them shuddering aghast, what I really do for a living” (quoted from Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p. 133).

B.  There were a few factual errors.  Hutchinson seemed to equate God-fearers with proselytes, when the two were not the same.  He considered such Jewish dietary prohibitions as the ban on mixing meat and milk to be biblical, when it was post-biblical.  Not that this necessarily counts as a “factual error,” but Hutchinson assumed that Isaiah 40 was written by Isaiah of Jerusalem, when many scholars believe it was written by Second Isaiah, who was a century later than Isaiah of Jerusalem.  This was surprising to me, since Hutchinson is well-versed on scholarly debates.

C.  Hutchinson generally believes in the historical reliability of the Gospels and the Book of Acts.  This approach actually led to interesting discussions in this book, as when he suggested that there is plausibility in the Gospel portrayals of Pilate being reluctant to execute Jesus, even though Pilate is presented in non-biblical sources as quite ruthless.  Hutchinson offered ways to reconcile these pictures.  At the same time, Hutchinson was not rigid in defending biblical inerrancy.  He thought that the Gospel of John’s timing of Jesus’ last meal and crucifixion makes more sense than that of the synoptics, for the Jewish establishment would not try Jesus on a Sabbath.  (In an endnote, however, he refers to a scholarly argument that there were different ways to date the Passover at the time.)  In discussion the question of whether the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 coincides with the Gospels, Hutchinson mentioned possible areas of overlaps (i.e., an early appearance to Peter), but also difficulties (i.e., the difficulty of assuming that Jesus’ appearance to the 500 is what Matthew 28 depicts).

D.  I had a slight problem with Hutchinson’s implication that Jesus was on everyone’s radar: that everyone was thinking about Jesus (well, maybe that is overstating his argument, but he did seem to suggest that a lot of people in first century Palestine were thinking about Jesus).  Hutchinson may just be following the Gospels here, since there are statements in the Gospels that state that Jesus was famous, or was unpopular with the Jewish establishment.  I wonder why, if Jesus’ was on so many people’s radar, there is such a dearth of first-century non-Christian references to Jesus.  Maybe my question is off-base: one could argue that there are major historical events that we only know about from one source, or that not all sources have survived.  Maybe.  The question still nags me, somewhat.

E.  Hutchinson attempts to explain why the early Christian movement was controversial.  He opts for Larry Hurtado’s suggestion that the early Christians were portraying Jesus as divine, on some level, and that was what many first century Jews did not like.  Hutchinson refers to a few passages in Acts that he thinks may imply this.  This discussion was rather brief, considering how significant the issue is: why do so many people in Acts hate the Christians so much?  Yet, Hutchinson deserves credit for attempting to offer an explanation.  (And, as Hutchinson notes, many Gentiles did not care for Christians turning people away from idols and, in turn, their business.)

F.  I said above that “Hutchinson still tells the story of Jesus and the early church, while interspersing information about customs, cities, and figures of the time, as well as scholarly discoveries and controversies.”  This is where the book shined!  And Hutchinson did so in a compelling, lucid, and engaging manner: readers would not get caught up in a bunch of weeds (those were saved for the endnotes!), and the asides did not inhibit the story but often advanced it.  There are many examples in this book, and I will not share all of them here.  I will share one, though: I appreciated Hutchinson’s discussion of Herod Agrippa I.  Herod Agrippa I became King of the Jews on account of his friendship with Caligula, so he had the authority to implement the death penalty, something that the Jewish authorities in Palestine often lacked under Roman rule.  In the Book of Acts, he used that authority against early Christians.  And yet, Josephus and rabbinic literature portray him as a pious man.  But Josephus and the Book of Acts also talk about his demise, with overlapping details: both present him as dying soon after people were extolling him as a god!  Okay, many who have read and studied the New Testament may already know this, but Hutchinson also shared some less-known scholarly controversies.

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Biologos: Did Darwin Promote Genocide?

http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/did-darwin-promote-genocide

Church Write-Up: We Support Each Other, but We Walk Our Own Spiritual Walk

I visited two churches last Sunday.  The first is a non-denominational evangelical church.  I will call it the “Pen church” because I got a new pen there.  And these pens are long-lasting!  The second church is a largely African-American Baptist church.  I have been there a lot of times in the past.  Even in weeks that I do not go there, I watch the sermon online.

The pastor at the Pen church was starting a series about being a velcro Christian, having a faith that sticks.  The pastor shared a statistic that 70% of high school students who become Christians end up leaving the faith.  One solution that the pastor proposes is being in Christian community.  That can keep Christians on track, as they deal with a world that tempts them towards pleasure away from God.

The pastor at the Baptist church was continuing a series on the family.  Last Sunday, he was preaching about how husbands and wives should relate to each other.  He said that spouses cannot force each other to be a certain way through nagging, for each spouse has to feel that call from God for himself or herself.

I somewhat juxtaposed the two sermons in my mind.  I can understand the benefit of small groups or church attendance.  Christians gather together with other Christians, and they can encourage one another on the Christian path.  A person who wants to keep on being a Christian may appreciate that positive form of peer pressure.

But it is far from fool-proof.  There are people who professed Christianity who were involved in church, small groups, and maybe even Christian ministry, but they ended up leaving Christianity.  Maybe they felt alone in small groups and felt that they were wearing a Christian mask.  Perhaps they had intellectual doubts that they deemed to be insurmountable.  Maybe they got discouraged with God on account of life, or got tired trying to be perfect all of the time.

In some cases, their fellow Christians may have tried to help them.  They gave them Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ or tried to argue them back onto the Christian path.  But it did not work.  Either these Christians falling out of the Christian faith were not truly convinced intellectually, or perhaps their mind was simply going in the opposite direction.  I have been there before.  I am told that I need to be HERE in terms of my faith, but I am THERE.

This is where the Baptist pastor’s sermon comes in.  We cannot have faith for somebody else.  People ultimately have to walk their own walk.  Maybe Christians can advise others, or offer a listening ear, provided that the struggling or leaving Christian wants that.  But nobody can make a person have faith.  Attempting to argue someone into the faith may create resistance rather than helping the person.

I may visit the Pen church next week, since I find the series to be intriguing.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Most Misused Stories in the Bible

Eric J. Bargerhuff.  The Most Misused Stories in the Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories Are Misunderstood.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Eric J. Bargerhuff has a doctorate in biblical and systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, was a pastor for over two decades, and teaches in the Bible and Theology department at Trinity College in Florida.  Bagerhuff in this book discusses biblical stories, explains how he believes that they have been misunderstood, and offers his interpretation.

In this review, I will comment on each chapter, except for the Introduction and Conclusion.

Chapter 1 is about the David and Goliath story.  According to Bargerhuff, the popular misunderstanding here is that the story is a lesson about how we should overcome our fears and face our giants.  But Bargerhuff observes that David is not actually afraid in this story.  David challenges Goliath because he is jealous for the glory of God, whom Goliath has mocked.  These are good observations.  At the same time, there are times in the Bible in which David was disturbed and sought refuge in God, and that should be appreciated.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Gideon and His Fleece.”  According to Bargerhuff, the misunderstanding here is that the story is about how we should determine the will of God.  As Bargerhuff notes, however, Gideon already knew the will of God when he performed the test.  Bargerhuff mostly spent this chapter on the topic of how we can discern the will of God, and he seemed to regard Gideon as unnecessarily insecure.  In my opinion, though, the story is a beautiful example of how God is patient with us in our insecurities.

Chapter 3 is about Cain and Abel.  Bargerhuff attempts to explain why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s sacrifice, and he resorts to appealing to Hebrews 11:4 to find an explanation.  Ordinarily, I prefer for scholars to focus on the Hebrew Bible in explaining the Hebrew Bible, but I did not mind Bargerhuff’s approach in this case.  The reason is that Bargerhuff tried to get whatever he could from the context of Genesis 4, as he interacted with the proposal that Abel offered the firstlings of his flock, whereas Cain did not offer the firstfruits of the soil.

Chapter 4 is entitled “Jonah and the Big Fish.”  One feature of this chapter that stood out to me was when Bargerhuff noted that Jonah seemed really proud to be a Hebrew in Jonah 1:9-10, even as he was disobeying the God of the Hebrews!

Chapter 5 is entitled “The Woman Caught in Adultery.”  He points out that Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more.  Bargerhuff disagrees with those who appeal to the story to undermine criticisms of sin.  Throughout the book, Bargerhuff stresses the importance of repentance in salvation.  In an interesting endnote, Bargerhuff discusses the text critical issues surrounding this passage, as well as its controversial status among Christians in the time of Augustine.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Jesus Could Not Do Miracles in His Hometown.”  Bargerhuff spends this chapter criticizing health-and-wealth Gospels that claim that people who are not healed lacked faith.  He appeals to Paul as one who was not healed (assuming his thorn in the flesh was a physical malady), and he makes the wise statement that life in this fallen world entails suffering.  These are fine points, but I thought that Bargerhuff was dodging what the biblical passage said: Jesus could not do miracles in his hometown.  Bargerhuff was trying to argue that Jesus could perform miracles but chose not to do so.  Perhaps Bargerhuff would have done well to have done a word study on the Greek word dunamai to see if it always means “to be able to.”  The chapter also would have been better had it explored the question of why Jesus emphasized faith when it came to healing.

Chapter 7 is about Zacchaeus.  Bargerhuff argues that this story is not about Zacchaeus seeking Jesus but rather Jesus seeking Zacchaeus.  Bargerhuff interacted with a scholarly view that Zacchaeus was already doing the right thing before meeting Jesus, and, lest you wonder who in the world would think that, he quotes scholars who make that argument.  (Now I am interested in reading their rationale!)  Bargerhuff resorts to Paul’s writings in an attempt to explain why Jesus emphasizes that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham.  I think that, instead, he should have based his explanation on the significance of Abraham in Luke/Acts.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Sowing Your Seed.”  In this chapter, Bargerhuff criticizes prosperity preachers who claim that people can prosper by sowing seeds (money) into the preachers’ ministry.  According to Bargerhuff, the Parable of the Sower is not about that.  I am open to correction on this, but I doubt that prosperity preachers appeal specifically to the Parable of the Sower to defend that teaching.  There are other passages that they can cite to make their point, such as Luke 6:38 and II Corinthians 9:6.

Chapter 9 is about the “three” wise men.  As Bargerhuff notes, the Bible never says that there were only three wise men.  Bargerhuff makes interesting points as he tries to harmonize the stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: he states that the magi brought Jesus the gifts a while after his infancy.  After all, if Mary and Joseph had that wealth when Jesus was a baby, why did they offer a poor-person’s offering at the Temple in the Gospel of Luke?

Chapter 10 is about Judas.  Bargerhuff argues that the example of Judas does not demonstrate that a Christian can lose his or her salvation.  According to Bargerhuff, Judas was never a believer, and Bargerhuff astutely appeals to John 6:61-64 to support this point.  Is that true of everyone who leaves the Christian faith, though?  Bargerhuff appears to think so, on the basis of I John 2:19.  But, in reading this book, I wonder if he is completely persuaded by this, for he seems to manifest a sensitivity towards the reasons that people leave the faith.  Moreover, while Bargerhuff finds comfort in once-saved-always-saved, he appears to believe that believers should look to subjective criteria (are they bearing the fruit of the Spirit?), among other things, for assurance of salvation.  Can that offer assurance, since we are imperfect?

Chapter 11 is entitled “The Samaritan Pentecost.”  In Acts 8, there is a gap of time between when the Samaritans believed in Jesus and when they received the Holy Spirit.  Bargerhoff argues against the idea that all Christians who are baptized with the Holy Spirit speak in tongues, experiencing a “second baptism” sometime after their conversion.  Bargerhuff argues on the basis of I Corinthians 12:13 that all Christians are baptized with the Holy Spirit right when they believe, and it does not necessarily entail speaking in tongues.  The early chapters of Acts, according to him, portray a different scenario because it was a time of transition between the Old and New Covenants.  Bargerhuff’s argues that God in Acts 8 was showing that God accepted the Samaritans as God accepted the Jews by giving them a similar experience, like the Jews had in Acts 2.  That makes a degree of sense: after all, in Acts 10, the Gentile Christians spoke in tongues like the Jewish Christians did in Acts 2, for that very reason!  Bargerhuff should have attempted to account for the people in Acts 19 who speak in tongues, but perhaps he can tweak his explanation about the Samaritans who receive the Holy Spirit, such that it accounts for the people in Acts 19.  In an interesting endnote, Bargerhuff quotes a statement by D.A. Carson offering a grammatical reason that the baptism with fire that John the Baptist mentions is the purifying Holy Spirit, not hell or divine wrath.

Chapter 12 is about the rich fool in Luke 12.  This was a level-headed chapter.  It said that God is not against people being rich, but God does not want people to be greedy: God wants them to be generous to those in need!

Chapter 13 is about Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper that “This is my body.”  Bargerhuff critiques the doctrine of transubstantiation and provides a lucid explanation of consubstantiation, referring to a sponge analogy (quoting Wayne Grudem).  Bargerhuff critiques Roman Catholicism for believing that the mass is a literal sacrifice of Christ, as he appeals to the Epistle to the Hebrews to argue that Jesus died once and for all.  I wondered how Catholics get around that.  From the Council of Trent, I can see that Catholicism does regard the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice.  Do they reconcile that with Hebrews in a manner that makes sense, or is the fit rather awkward?

Chapter 14 is about “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit.”  Essentially, Bargerhuff argues that it is rejecting Christ, to whom the Holy Spirit testifies.  But Jesus said that speaking against the Son will be forgiven.  How does Bargerhuff account for that in his argument?

This is a thoughtful book.  I was hoping for a little more depth, considering Bargerhuff’s scholarly credentials, but it was an informative, edifying read.

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Thomas a Kempis.  The Imitation of Christ.  New York: Dover Publications, 2003.

According to the translators in the Foreword, the most popular view regarding this book’s origin is that it was written by a few members of the Brethren of the Common Life, a group of priests, in the Netherlands during the second half of the fourteenth century.  The priest Thomas, a member of the Brethren, translated it into Latin.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  What surprised me was what was lacking in the book.  When we think of WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”), what enters a lot of Christians mind is love and service towards others.  There are statements about that in this book, here and there, but it is not the book’s focus.  How, then, do we imitate Christ, according to the book?  We accept suffering, as Christ did, placing God’s desires above our own in so doing.  Some of this suffering comes from life’s events.  Yet, the book also has a strong ascetic focus.  When Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and give it to the poor, this book seems to regard that as more normative than a lot of Christians do.

B.  The book resembles Buddhism in its belief that Christians should detach themselves from worldly things, such as money and a desire for success.  It even believes that Christians should try to avoid looking to people for consolation and should instead turn to God for that: God may take God’s time to console us, the book acknowledges, but keep on waiting!  The reason that I say that the book is like Buddhism in its emphasis on detachment is that it maintains that attachment leads to suffering: our desires will be disappointed in this life, so we are happier when we are detached.  But the book also holds that even those who do get what they want are either suffering, or their possessions are standing in the way of their intimacy with God and the spiritual rapture that can come from that.

C.  While I understood the book’s argument that attachment leads to suffering, I did not know what its rationale was for asceticism.  Okay, sure, this world will not last, but why not enjoy it when we still can?  And cannot enjoying the pleasures of life enhance our appreciation for God, as we give God thanks?  I think of I Timothy 4:3, in which the author criticizes those who command people “to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (KJV).  Asceticism sounds rather Gnostic to me.  The Gnostics believed that the material world was bad because it was created by a sinister or an inferior sub-deity to trap people and estrange them from spirituality.  Their asceticism is understandable, in light of this view.  The Imitation of Christ does not believe that, though, for it holds that the creator of the material world was a good God.  Yet, for some reason, it seemed to denigrate the material world and enjoyment thereof.

D.  There is a lot of emphasis in evangelical Christianity on socializing: you need to be in DEEP community!  You cannot be a lone-ranger Christian!  This book, by contrast, stressed solitude: it is good to get away from people and seek consolation from God!  At times, the book treats chatting as foolishness to be avoided.  On one occasion, though, the book did say that people should not allow their private prayers to take them away from public prayer, a rather communitarian sentiment, but that sentiment was rare in this book.  As an introvert, I appreciated the book’s emphasis on solitude.  Still, I thought that the book went too far in that direction.  Does not Galatians 6:2 exhort Christians to bear one another’s burdens?  And, since the book was putting words into the mouth of Jesus, would not one expect Jesus to say more about loving other people?

E.  The book did exhort people to avoid negative feelings about others, but it tended to avoid the cheery “reach out to people” sentiments of modern evangelicalism.  Rather, it said that we should try to minimize our annoyance with others, since we ourselves have flaws that may annoy people.  Overall, though, the book had a rather dim view of life and of people, as if it regarded life as a drag, with temptations and desires that drag people down.  It looked to God, for consolation in this life and in the life hereafter.

F.  Humility was a theme that recurred frequently in this book.  We should be intellectually humble: intellect should lead to a virtuous life and not simply be for the sake of knowing things!  Part of the book’s stress on humility was its conviction that priests should submit to their superiors.  The book also emphasized that we are sinners.  We will interact with that more in the next item!

G.  A problem that I have long had with elements of conservative Christianity is this: we are supposed to believe that we are sinners, yet we are also supposed to look for internal signs that we are saved, and such signs include the fruit of the Spirit: are we loving?  Do we have joy?  I am not saying that all of Christianity is like this, but I believe that the elements of Christianity that do have this sort of stance place people in a Catch-22.  Am I supposed to see myself as bad?  Am I supposed to see myself as good, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work?  Which way do I go?

In light of that, the way that this book interacted with such issues intrigued me.  On the one hand, it believed that God’s judgment was a reality that even Christians should fear: in one poignant passage, it said that many of us are afraid when people are upset with us, so what makes us think we will be so brazen at God’s judgment seat?  That definitely spoke to me: I can be quite timid around other people, and yet, for some reason, I can envision myself telling God off at the last judgment!  In addition, the book seemed to regard its exhortations as a heaven or hell issue: those who surrender to God’s will and give up attachment will be the ones who will be saved.  One can get the impression that, as far as the book is concerned, we need to have all our ducks in a row to be saved!

On the other hand, the book was honest about human flaws.  The authors confess their imperfections.  If there is good within them, they believe it is on account of the Holy Spirit, and, even then, they often do not feel God’s consolations and sense the depths of their own shortcomings.  Sometimes, the book makes concessions: if you cannot bear suffering cheerfully, at least do so with patience!  If you cannot partake of the Eucharist with enthusiasm, then you can put off doing so, as long as you do not make that a habit.  The book also emphasized God’s mercy.  The book did not embrace any concept of “Once Saved Always Saved,” as far as I could see, and yet it was comforting, in its own way, since it was honest about human fallibility and encouraged people to persevere, trusting in a merciful God.

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