Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Book Write-Up: Reclaiming Prophecy, by Darin Slack

Darin Slack.  Reclaiming Prophecy: Encouraging Church Leaders to Rethink Prophetic Ministry.  Apopka, FL: Certa, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

More than one person has said that prophets can be a destabilizing presence.  A person can enter a congregation with a “Thus saith the LORD” and end up destabilizing the church.  Not only can that happen, but it also has happened.  The apostle Paul himself dealt with the issue of prophesying in the Corinthian congregation, and Paul in I Corinthians 14 gives the church instructions on how to preserve prophecy in its midst, while also regulating it for the sake of order and the edification of the church.

Darin Slack’s goal is similar.  He wants for prophets to be part of prophetic teams that are accepted and integrated within the larger church body.  That can allow prophets to mature, lessen any arrogance or alienation on their part, and remind them of their mission to love and edify the church.  Meanwhile, the church can be edified by prophets and reminded of the presence of God within its midst.

The book can be repetitive, at times.  Moreover, I sometimes wondered if there was a cost to lessening the spontaneity of prophecy and subordinating it to an institution, though I can understand the rationale for doing so.

There were things that I appreciated about the book.  Slack is honest about his vulnerabilities and areas in which he needed to grow.  He tells good stories: one story was about a time when he prophesied to a waitress and then a guy on the street, who (unknown to him at the time) turned out to be the waitress’ boyfriend; the other story was about when he worked well with a prophetic partner who was unlike him in so many respects.

Slack states that prophecy is intended to encourage and not to condemn, and that made me wonder about the Old Testament prophets who rebuked rather harshly.  Slack states that, after the death of Christ, God does not condemn his church, for Christ paid the penalty for people’s sins.  I did not find that entirely convincing as an explanation for why Old Testament prophets rebuked whereas Christian prophets are supposed to encourage, for it seems to imply that God arbitrarily changed his character in the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament (not that Slack would say that, but I do wonder if that could be an unintended implication of his argument).  Slack also says that prophecies, even ones that correct, are supposed to offer hope, and I would say that even many of the harsh Old Testament prophecies do that, in the end.  While I did not entirely agree with Slack’s discussion here, I do respect him for addressing the question.

Another question that was in my mind as I read Slack’s book concerned the nature of prophecy.  Prophecy, from what Slack said, is not necessarily a clear “Thus saith the Lord.”  It can require some interpretation, and there is the possibility that prophets can misinterpret the message that they receive.  Slack states that prophets need each other and the church because no single prophet sees the whole story.  Slack often advises prophets to say that they believe that God is impressing a certain message on them, as opposed to being dogmatic.  Slack states that there are different levels of prophetic anointing, and that (to Slack) may explain why prophets today are not as authoritative as the prophets who wrote Scripture.  In Numbers 12, Slack notes, God distinguishes God’s revelation to Moses from God’s interaction with other prophets.  I appreciate Slack’s wrestling with these issues.

There was one place in which Slack was not particularly clear, and this is on pages 211-213.  In I Corinthians 14, Paul says that tongues should be interpreted for the edification of the body, since people cannot understand tongues.  Slack is wrestling with the question of how to distinguish an interpreted tongue from a prophecy that was inspired by hearing the tongue but is not an attempt to interpret it.  I was unclear about whether Slack believed that the tongue needed to be interpreted, and what his Scriptural basis for his position was.

Overall, I found this book to be a reasonable and judicious discussion of prophecy.

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R.A. Torrey on the Sabbath and the Holy Spirit

I finished Fred Sanders’ How God Used R.A. Torrey, and I will be writing my review of it tomorrow.  (Moody Publishers sent me a review copy in exchange for an honest review, just to get that out into the open.)  The book is a collection of sermons that were delivered by R.A. Torrey (1856-1928).  In this post, I would like to discuss two topics that are in the book: the Sabbath and the Trinity.  I grew up in a denomination that observed the seventh-day Sabbath on Saturday and did not believe in the Trinity, thinking that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force rather than a person.  While I do not feel bound to those beliefs, they form a background for my discussion in this post.

A.  On page 59, Torrey states after quoting the Sabbath commandment: “This is not the seventh day of the week, as some men say, daring to put into God’s Word what He did not put in, but the seventh day is for rest after six days of work, without specifying which day of the week it should come.  Of course it was the seventh day of the week with the Jew, in commemoration of the old creation; but with the Christian it is the first day of the week, in commemoration of the new creation through a risen Lord.”

I read this sort of argument some years back on a Christian dating site of which I was a part.  Someone was arguing against seventh-day Sabbatarianism by saying that the fourth commandment does not require people to observe Saturday (or, more accurately, sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) as the Sabbath; rather, it requires people to work for six days and rest on the day after those six days.  It does not specify which days those six days are, and which days the seventh day is.  The person making this point cited Waltke-O’Connor, but (in vague retrospect) I doubt that Waltke-O’Connor were making that point about the Sabbath; rather, they were referring to examples in the Hebrew Bible of a set number of days being followed by another day.

I respected the person making that point, since he brought a knowledge of scholarship to the discussion boards.  But I thought that he was dead wrong in his interpretation of the fourth commandment.  The reason was that, in the Torah, the Sabbath seemed to me to be a specific day of the week, not any seventh day coming after any six days.  I think of the story of the manna: manna fell for six days, but it did not fall on the seventh day, so the Israelites had to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day.  Does that sound to you like the Israelites could pick any seventh day as their Sabbath?  No, the Sabbath was a specific day of the week, the seventh day, and on that day manna did not fall.  Or consider the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath and got executed.  He could not say, “Today is my day of work, and it is not the seventh day that I have chosen to rest on; my seventh day is Tuesday.”  No, the Sabbath was a specific day of the week, and all Israelites were expected to rest on that day, under penalty of death for refusing to do so.

My reading of Torrey indicates that he would agree with my analysis, even though he made a similar argument to that of the person on the Christian dating site.  Torrey acknowledges that the Sabbath for Old Testament Israel was sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.  He may even acknowledge that God in Genesis 1 rested on sunset Friday to sunset Saturday (or at least he thinks that the Saturday sabbath commemorates what happened in Genesis 1).  But his point appears to be that Christians, by observing Sunday as their Sabbath (not that all Christians do, but a number of Christians in history have), are actually obeying the fourth commandment, even if they rest on a different day from what the ancient Israelites rested on.  The reason is that the Christians are working for six days and resting on a seventh.  Their seventh day is not the same seventh day that the Israelites rested on, but it is still a seventh day after six days of work, and resting on it obeys the fourth commandment, after the dawn of the new creation.

I take it that Torrey is quite specific about what in the fourth commandment is the actual commandment.  The actual commandment, for Torrey, is to work for six days and rest on the seventh day after that.  I doubt that Torrey includes in the fourth commandment the elaboration in Exodus 20:11 that provides the rationale for it: that God worked for six days at creation and rested on the seventh day, and that God blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.  For Torrey, I infer, that is not the commandment itself, but the elaboration of the commandment for Old Testament Israel, as it specifies the day on which Old Testament Israel is to rest, namely, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.  Christians celebrate another day, Sunday, in commemoration of something else (Christ’s resurrection and the new creation), but they are still obeying the fourth commandment because they are working for six days and resting on the seventh day after that.

I am not sure if I find this argument convincing, but it is interesting.

B.  There is a chapter of the book in which Torrey is arguing that the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force.  (Whom exactly Torrey was arguing against, I do not know, but he does say later in the book that he used to read Unitarian literature, so he may be arguing against Unitarians, people who did not believe in the Trinity.)  Torrey notes places in the New Testament in which the Holy Spirit speaks, knows, intercedes, instructs, can be grieved, has a mind, and has a will.  According to Torrey, that applies to a person, not an impersonal force.  Torrey also refers to Nehemiah 9:20, which states that God gave God’s Spirit to instruct Israel.  Torrey believes that the doctrine of the personality of the Holy Spirit, and even the Trinity, is present in the Old Testament, not just the New.

I do not entirely know how Armstrongites account for such passages; one Armstrongite I know said that such passages about the Holy Spirit are personifications, not literal descriptions, in the same way that wisdom is personified as someone calling out in the Book of Proverbs.  I am skeptical that such a comparison works, though.  The Book of Proverbs could be personifying wisdom as part of a poetic appeal for people to follow wisdom and not folly; that, in my mind, is arguably different from a New Testament narrative or statement about reality that the Holy Spirit speaks or has personal characteristics.  The two just seem to me to be different genres.

At the same time, I am scanning a United Church of God article that argues that the Holy Spirit is not a person, and it makes the case that there are impersonal characteristics of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament: the Holy Spirit is said to be poured out; it can fill people; people can quench it.  Can this be said of a person?  The article answers no.

Then I wonder: Can the Holy Spirit be the power of God rather than a personal being, as Armstrongites argue, and still do all the stuff that Torrey mentions?  Can God instruct people through his power?  Well, where that may get tricky is that the Holy Spirit in Romans 8 intercedes for believers.  Can God use his power to intercede for believers before God?  I am not saying that is impossible, but it is hard to picture; it is easier to picture a being interceding between us and God the Father.  Or maybe God does, through his power, support people in their prayers.  Is that a stretch, though, that departs abysmally from what Romans 8 is saying?

Then there is the question of the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible.  I am very hesitant to say that we have the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible.  I am not hesitant to question my Armstrongite heritage; my education in the historical-critical method of studying the Bible, well, I am more hesitant to question that!  There, I am open to saying that God according to Nehemiah 9:20 can instruct Israel through God’s power, meaning there is only one God- person in the Old Testament, but God still acts through God’s power; in this model, there is a personality behind that power, namely, God, but the Holy Spirit would still be God’s power, as opposed to being a separate person from God the Father.

I admit that I have much to learn about the Holy Spirit: historical-critical understandings of the Holy Spirit, Jewish understandings of the Holy Spirit, etc.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mark 10:46-52: A Blind Man Sees God

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Mark 10:46-52.  Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd are departing from Jericho, and a blind beggar on the roadside calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  People tell the blind man to be quiet, but the blind man cries out more loudly, “Son of David!  Have mercy on me!”  Jesus tells his disciples to call the blind man to him, and they do so, while offering the blind man words of comfort.  The blind man hastens to meet Jesus, and Jesus asks the blind man what he wants Jesus to do for him.  The blind man responds that he wants to see, and Jesus says, “Go: your faith has made you well.”  The blind man immediately can see again, and he follows Jesus on the way.

(My summary of the story draws from whatever translation my church’s bulletin was using.)

The pastor was talking about how blindness in those days was considered to be God’s punishment for sin, and so, if a person were blind and continued to be blind, people concluded that the blind person must be on the outs with God.  Moreover, people with disabilities were excluded from the Temple and the worship that occurred there.  The pastor said that a blind person could learn really fast that one can experience God outside of a physical building.  And, indeed, the blind man in the story has keen spiritual insights.  He calls Jesus the Son of David, which may indicate that he recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah.  He believes that Jesus can heal him.  What’s more, he is tenacious in crying out to Jesus for mercy, for he does so even when people tell him to shut up.  And, when Jesus tells the blind man to go after the blind man is healed, the once blind man instead chooses to come: he follows Jesus.

The pastor was talking about the importance of rehumanizing the dehumanized, which means respecting the humanity of people whose humanity society does not generally respect.  The pastor also talked about acknowledging the spiritual insights of people outside of the church and inviting them to church.  I remember when I was googling my pastor’s name when I learned that he would soon be our new pastor, and I found an interview in which he said that there is something special about the spiritual insights of the poor.  He may have had something like that in mind, among other things, when he delivered his sermon this morning.

There are historical questions that occur in my mind.  Did ancient Judaism believe that the blind were blind because they were being punished by God?  Obviously, that was a belief that was out there.  In John 9:2, Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus who sinned—-the blind man or his parents—-that the man was born blind.  There is the Jewish story of a man named Tobit, a righteous man who became blind, and whose healing God arranged.  Even righteous Tobit felt that his blindness may have been God punishing him for his sins (Tobit 3:5).

Did ancient Judaism exclude the blind from the Temple?  Leviticus 21 prohibits blind sons of the high priest Aaron from offering food to God, even though they can eat from the sacrifice.  In II Samuel 5, David’s attack on the blind and lame in taking Jerusalem from the Jebusites serves as an etiology for the rule that the lame and the blind cannot come into the house.  According to The Able Bodied: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, by atheist biblical scholar Hector Avalos, Sarah Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper, “According to Johannes Renger, in ancient Mesopotamia people afflicted with a disease or a disability would often end up working at the temple, because their immediate family could no longer take care of them” (page 81); a different view on how things should be done appears in parts of the Hebrew Bible, however.  There is at least one place, though, where a blind man blesses in God’s name: Isaac in the Book of Genesis was blind on account of his old age, and he blessed Jacob and Esau; yet, that was prior to the time of the Temple.

Did ancient Judaism believe that one could experience God outside of the Temple?  Well, eventually the Jews tried to do so, when they were in exile.  But Temples were considered to be important in the ancient world.

At the same time, the Hebrew Bible does teach compassion for the blind.  Leviticus 19:14 prohibits putting a stumbling-block before the blind.  Deuteronomy 27:18 curses the one who makes the blind person wander out of the way.  Job in Job 29:15 says that he was eyes to the blind.  Isaiah 35:5 promises that, in the time of God’s restoration, the eyes of the blind shall see.

Was Jesus challenging the system and assumptions that God himself set up in the Hebrew Bible?  That is a good question.  Perhaps, in the Hebrew Bible, God could punish people with blindness, but that did not mean that everyone who had blindness was being punished by God.  I should also note, again, that, in Leviticus 21, the blind priests are not thoroughly excluded from priestly duties, for they can still eat the meat of the sacrifice.

Loving the marginalized can be easier said than done, at least for me.  If I were to see a homeless man mumbling to himself on the street, I would be very hesitant to engage him, and I think that is wise on my part.  Still, we should care about the marginalized, and if we feel that our abilities to do so are limited on the individual level (i.e., how exactly would I help a homeless man mumbling to himself on the street?  I’d have no idea what to do!), then we should act on the communal level, getting different people’s wisdom, experience, and resources in trying to help.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Photograph, by Beverly Lewis

Beverly Lewis.  The Photograph.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

This is the first book by Beverly Lewis that I have ever read.  She writes a lot of Christian fiction about the Amish.  In The Photograph, Lily Esch abruptly leaves her Amish family and her Amish community after the death of her parents, and that worries her sister Eva.  Meanwhile, an Amish buggy-maker named Jed is traveling by train from Ohio and finds a photograph of an Amish woman with make-up looking into the camera.  The photo is inside of a copy of Little Women.  Jed is not only puzzled by the boldness of the woman in the photograph, since Amish people are not allowed to get their picture taken, but he is also drawn to the notes in the copy of Little Women—-their sensitivity, longing, and wisdom.  Jed himself is trying to move on after the death of his fiancee, who loved books just like he did.  While many women are attracted to Jed, they are not exactly what he is looking for in a spouse.  Jed is reluctant to fall in love again, until he meets Eva, thinking that she is the woman in the photograph.

This book did not sweep me off my feet, for it was a romance novel, and the ending was rather predictable.  Still, it was a delightful read.  It even had an endearing sub-plot about an Amish man named Omar who wanted to register to vote because he was enamored with Ronald Reagan, but his Amish community discouraged voting because God’s people are not supposed to be a part of this world.

The book also painted an interesting picture of Amish religion.  One Amish person in the book said that Amish people who leave the community really struggle in the outside world because they are not being true to who they are.  Jed’s father says that people in grief often pull away from the body of Christ, with disastrous consequences.  While many Amish people in the book disapproved of Lily’s departure and were hoping that she might return or be found, there is one character, Tilly, who had left the community years before to marry one of the English, and she offers to Eva her own perspective.  While Amish parents are often encouraged to shun their children who leave the community, Tilly’s parents chose not to do so.  Tilly appeared in a previous book by Lewis, The River.

Beverly Lewis writes books about the Amish in part because she grew up near Amish farmland, and, in the Acknowledgements, she thanks Amish consultants who have offered helpful feedback to her as a writer.

Will I ever read a book by Beverly Lewis again?  There is a part of me that thinks reading romance books is a waste of time.  On the other hand, there was a calming feel that I had in reading Lewis.  I enjoyed spending time in her Amish setting, the same way that I like spending time in Mayberry when I watch the Andy Griffith Show, or Walnut Grove when I watch Little House on the Prairie.  I may very well read more of her books in the future.

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

Book Write-Up: Exploring Christology and Atonement, by Andrew Purves

Andrew Purves.  Exploring Christology and Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H.R. MacKintosh and T.F. Torrance.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Andrew Purves teaches Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  I wanted to read this book because my pastor at the Presbyterian Church that I attended in upstate New York and his wife heard Purves speak, and they were really impressed.  After reading this book, I was impressed, too.

In Exploring Christology and Atonement, Purves explores the views of the atonement that were held by three Scottish theologians: John McLeod Campbell, H.R. MacKintosh, and T.F. Torrance.  All three of these theologians were critical of the penal substitution model of the atonement, the idea that Jesus Christ through his death on the cross paid the death penalty that sinners deserve for their sins, dying in their place, appeasing God’s wrath, and bringing them forgiveness (or at least the option of forgiveness).

As I read Purves’ chapters about these thinkers, they did not seem to me to dismiss penal substitution thoroughly, for they did believe that Jesus Christ endured God’s judgment or absorbed God’s wrath on the cross.  They were, however, opposed to limiting the atonement to that, as if the atonement were primarily a legal transaction.  They were also critical of some of the baggage that has been associated with penal substitution, such as the idea that Jesus needed to die on the cross for God to love us or to reconcile himself to us. According to more than one of these thinkers, God does not need to be reconciled to us, for God loves us already; rather, we need to be reconciled to God.

Concepts that are explored in Purves’ book include the following: the relationship between the Father and the Son; union with Christ (which includes Christ’s attitudes towards sin on the cross); Christ’s repentance on behalf of sinners; how Christ’s incarnation binds God to God’s creation; the cross being an example of Christ’s faithfulness and righteousness, which believers can assume; how refusing to forgive others is rejecting God’s forgiveness and placing oneself outside of it; how Christ’s life on earth, not only his death, played a role in forgiveness and atonement; and how Israel plays a vicarious role in saving the nations in that, through her unbelief, God can save the Gentiles (Romans 9-11).

Some parts of this book were a worshipful experience in that they allowed me to appreciate the atonement as I have long understood it, as a Protestant (i.e., penal substitution, yet with an acknowledgment of other aspects).  Other parts of the book opened my mind to new dimensions.  While all of the book was good, it really came alive to me when Purves was discussing John McLeod Campbell’s criticism of many Christians for treating the Gospel as law, whereas Campbell supported greater assurance of God’s love and salvation for the believer.

My favorite passage in the book was on page 248, as Purves quotes H.R. MacKintosh: “They discover that to be Christians is not to repeat a creed, or to narrow life into a groove; but to have a strong, patient divine Leader, whom they can trust perfectly and love supremely, who is always drawing out in them their true nature and making them resolve to be true to it through the future…who imparts the forgiveness of sins and gives power to live in fellowship with God.  Apart from this, his call would only mean a new despair.  But his strength is made perfect in weakness.”

This is a deep, scholarly, and edifying book.

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pete Enns: 5 Insights About the Old Testament from Modern Biblical Scholarship

Book Write-Up: The Love of God, by John C. Peckham

John C. Peckham. The Love of God: A Canonical Model. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.

John C. Peckham teaches theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, which is a Seventh-Day Adventist university. His book, The Love of God: A Canonical Model, is a scholarly treatment of God’s love. Peckham interacts with theological ideas about God and God’s love.

Peckham addresses two models. The first model is the transcendent-voluntarist model of God’s love. It maintains that God is transcendent and unaffected by emotions, that God dispassionately and unconditionally loves the world, and that God voluntarily makes a choice to love the world rather than being compelled to do so by nature. The second model is the imminent-experientialist model of God’s love. It holds that the universe, in some sense, is a part of God, and that God thus feels what beings in the universe feel, in a sympathetic and empathetic manner.

Peckham is critical of both models, and he supports a third model, which he calls the foreconditional-reciprocal model of God’s love. Peckham bases this model on the biblical presentation of God’s love. In this model, God voluntarily chooses to love the world and to be emotionally invested in it and affected by it. God does not have to love the world out of any neediness on God’s part, for God already gives and receives love within the context of the Trinity. But God chose to create the world and to love it, and God is affected emotionally by what humans do. God’s emotional response is not arbitrary, however. God is pleased and satisfied when humans reciprocate, through faith and obedience, the love that God has shown to them, and God is upset by human wickedness. Moreover, Peckham regards God’s love as foreconditional more than unconditional. God wants every human being to be saved and in a relationship with God, but God has a special love for those who reciprocate God’s love through faith and obedience.

Overall, Peckham supports his model with Scripture. Against the view that God is dispassionate and devoid of emotions, Peckham appeals to the mountain of biblical statements about God having emotions and feeling certain ways in response to human behavior. Against the view that God’s love is unconditional, Peckham refers to biblical passages about God’s special love for the faithful and the righteous, and God’s special relationship them. Peckham is convincing on these particular issues.

Peckham’s book is also useful with regards to the Greek and Hebrew words for love. Many theologians and Christian writers have waxed eloquent about agape being a dispassionate, disinterested, divine sort of love, but Peckham effectively argues that this is not necessarily the case in Scripture.

This book is a fresh, scholarly, and biblical discussion of God’s love. My main criticism, however, is that it should have gone into more detail about what God’s love is, or what God’s love entails. Is it God’s affection? Is it God’s desire to do good to people? If so, what is the nature of that good? Are we talking about physical and material blessings, spiritual blessings, or both? When people say that God loves them, what does that mean exactly? In what sense is God loving them? From a Christian perspective, the answer to these questions may seem rather obvious, in areas: God shows love for people by offering them salvation, which includes forgiveness of sin, a relationship with God, and eternal life. This is God benefiting people and being concerned about their well-being. But does God’s love entail giving people material blessings, as seems to be the case in parts of the Hebrew Bible and even the New Testament (i.e., Psalm 104; Matthew 5:45)? If so, how can one account for people who do not have many material blessings? Does God not love them? Peckham would have done well to have wrestled with these issues, for they relate to the substance and concrete expression of God’s love.

Peckham seems to be an Arminian, one who maintains that God gives prevenient grace so that all people can respond to God’s love; this is in contrast with Calvinism, which holds that God chose who would be saved before the foundation of the world and then unilaterally transformed the chosen ones so that they would have faith and live a holy life. My issue with Arminianism is that it does not seem to me that everyone on earth has an equal opportunity to respond to God. Some have heard the Gospel, whereas some have not; some are receptive to God, whereas some are hard-hearted or indifferent, or find that they cannot believe even if they wanted to do so. How does this fit into God’s love? Peckham should have wrestled with this.

The book did not exactly make me feel better from a spiritual standpoint. I am drawn to the Christian slogan that there is nothing we can do that will make God love us more, and that there is nothing we can do that will make God love us less. The problem is that this does not mesh that neatly with certain things that are in the Bible. Moreover, when we say that God has a special love for the faithful or obedient, that is not particularly reassuring, for, being imperfect, many of us fall short in terms of faith and obedience to God’s rules. I do not dismiss what Peckham says, but I would add to it a belief that God is patient with us and recognizes that we are works in progress.

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Book Write-Up: God's Weigh to Your Ideal Body Weight

Michael Scott Lowery. God’s Weigh to Your Ideal Body Weight: Your Body Should Glorify God. Bloomington: Westbow Press (a division of Thomas Nelson), 2013. See here to buy the book.

In God’s Weigh to Your Ideal Body Weight, Michael Scott Lowery talks about how Christians can arrive at their ideal body weight. While Lowery does not believe that this is essential to salvation, he does view it as an important part of Christian discipleship. I Corinthians 6:19-20 says that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, that Christians are not their own but were bought with a price, and that Christians should therefore glorify God with their bodies. According to Lowery, Christians in good health can be happier, more energetic disciples than Christians in poor health. Lowery also thinks that Christians in good health can attract non-believers to Christianity.

What, according to Lowery, is God’s “weigh” to arriving at one’s ideal body weight? Lowery does not recommend getting up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym, for he regards the time when he was obsessed with exercise and physical fitness to be a waste of time, which proved to be deleterious to his health. Lowery also is not for people starving themselves, for Lowery maintains that people should eat when they are hungry.

What Lowery does support, however, are spiritual, personal, and dietary changes. Pray and read the Bible every day, for that can give you peace of mind (so that you don’t eat to cope) and spiritual direction, as well as ensure that you are dieting for the right reasons (i.e., to glorify God, not out of vanity or trying to look good for purposes of seduction). Instead of working at a job that you hate, find God’s calling on your life. Avoid processed sugars, processed flours, and hydrogenated oils. Take cod-liver oil (a source of Omega 3) each day and eat fruits and vegetables. Obey the dietary instructions of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, eating the meats that God allows (i.e., beef, cod), while avoiding the meats that God prohibits (i.e., pork). Eat Ezekiel 4:9 bread.  Do not drink water with dinner, but be hydrated throughout the day. Lowery believes that his method not only can make people healthier but also can reduce their craving for food that drives them to overeat. Lowery usually offers a scientific explanation for his method, as he explains why his approach works better for the human body.

Lowery is practically absolutist about his approach. He not only regards eating processed sugar as unhealthy; he believes that processed sugars are poison and that eating them is a sin. Lowery also seems to regard being overweight as a sin. Lowery does not believe that he has been perfect, however, for he is open about his flaws, where he has struggled, and what he has learned.

I am rather ambivalent about some of Lowery’s biblical interpretations. Lowery clearly regards Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 as laws relating to physical health, and that has been disputed by a number of biblical scholars, who believe that the laws relate to purity or setting Israel apart from other nations; ancient Jewish interpreters tended to look for spiritual or moral reasons that God allowed Israelites to eat some animals but not others (i.e., unclean animals are carnivorous, and God does not want us to be trying to oppress our fellow human beings). Deuteronomy 14:3 does call the unclean animals abominable, as Lowery repeatedly notes, so that tells me that Deuteronomy 14 is not arbitrary in saying which animals are unclean. Yet, Deuteronomy 14:21 allows Israelites to give animals that die of themselves to resident aliens or foreigners, even though the Israelites are not allowed to eat them themselves. If this law were about physical health, why would God allow the Israelites to give an animal dying of itself to a foreigner? Is God less concerned about the physical health of the foreigner? I doubt that even Lowery would say that, for Lowery treats the dietary laws as universal!

Lowery also seems to resort to conspiratorial thinking in talking about Mark 7:19. The KJV for Mark 7:19 talks about the bodily purgation of meats, whereas the NIV says that Jesus was declaring all foods to be clean. For Lowery, the NIV is adding to Scripture. Actually, the NIV is following manuscripts that treat the verb as nominative.

On Ezekiel 4:9 bread, yes, it is probably healthy and can address people’s desire for carbohydrates.  But God was not giving Ezekiel that recipe to give him tips on how to have a healthy diet: God’s point was that Israel would have to eat bread like that in the time of her affliction.

Overall, this is a good book to read. I doubt that I will be as absolutist as Lowery in my dietary habits, but I should try to make better dietary choices more often than I do.

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Christian Life, by Stephen A. Hein

Steven A. Hein. The Christian Life: Cross or Glory? Irvine, California: New Reformation Publications, 2015. See here to purchase the book.

In The Christian Life: Cross or Glory?, Stephen A. Hein presents his Lutheran view of the Christian life, as he draws from the writings of Martin Luther. This view emphasizes justification by grace through faith alone----accepting God’s free gift of being regarded as righteous through Christ, even though one is still a sinner. It believes that God’s law exists primarily to remind sinners of their dire need for Christ by pointing out their sins and need for justification.  For Hein, the condemning law and the saving Gospel are both relevant even to Christians, in that remembering them prevents spiritual indifference, on the one hand, and self-righteousness, on the other hand.  Hein's Lutheranism maintains that Christians perform good works out of gratitude to God for salvation, and also because their new nature is naturally inclined to perform good works. It also presents the Christian life as one of trial and struggle against the flesh, the world, and the devil.  Hein upholds his Lutheran perspective, while critiquing other perspectives about the Christian life, particularly the prosperity Gospel, as well as Augustinian, Wesleyan, and Calvinist views.

The positives of this book were many. Hein speaks to the frustration that many Christians have as they try, yet often fail, to live a holy life. A lot of what he says about free grace and the limitations of the law is comforting. Hein tells or relays beautiful stories that effectively illustrate his message about what the Christian life should be like: the story of the husband who admits to his wife that he does not really love her, yet comes to love her when she says that she loves him anyway; and Kierkegaard’s story about the king who falls in love with a peasant woman yet wants her to love him authentically, not out of fear of him or his power. Yet, Hein is scholarly, as he draws from Luther’s writings and interacts with debates about Luther’s views on the third use of the law (i.e., the law as a guide to the Christian life). Hein also includes in his book some fresh and interesting insights. Hein contrasts Old Testament views of suffering with New Testament views, and he addresses the view that Christ is not present in the Eucharist because Christ is in heaven by presenting heaven and hell as parallel dimensions, not exactly as physical places. (I wonder if that could account for ghosts from a Christian perspective: we may see ghosts in our reality, yet those ghosts may also be in heaven or hell.)

In terms of the book’s negatives, there were times when I found the book to be rather contradictory.  I was unclear about whether Hein believes that the law of God actually condemns the non-believer, for Hein said in a few places that people in hell are forgiven and justified.  Hein presents good works as something that should be automatic to Christians, who have a new nature, yet he also acknowledges the struggles of the Christian life, which (in my mind) calls into question how automatic the good works are.

Hein also should have laid out more clearly the differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism.  Both Lutheranism and Calvinism overlap, in areas.  Hein, for example, likens salvation to God raising a dead body, and Calvinists have used this sort of simile in arguing that humans are so sinful that they can only respond to God if God enables them to do so, if God resurrects their spiritually dead selves and opens their eyes.  Luther in the Bondage of the Will says things that remind me of Calvinism.  At the same time, there are differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism, as I can tell from Hein's book.  Hein criticizes Calvinism for promoting spiritual insecurity, as people look at the quality of their spiritual lives to determine if they are among God's elect, if they are bearing the spiritual fruit that God's elect produce; Hein believes that his Lutheran view offers more assurance of salvation.  Hein maintains that Christ died for everyone and that everyone, in some sense, has been forgiven (Hein cites II Corinthians 5:19), whereas many Calvinists hold that Christ died only for the elect, and that only the elect have the forgiveness that is unto salvation.  Hein thinks that Christians can get to the point where they become hardened to God through their sinful lives, undermine their faith, and commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, whereas many Calvinists believe that the saints persevere in their faith unto the end.  I did learn more about differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism in Hein's book, but I am still unclear about how Hein's Lutheran view holds together: How can it be so like Calvinism, in key areas, and yet depart from Calvinism, in other areas?  Calvinism, overall, strikes me as having an inner consistency, such that its system holds together: God transforms the sinful person, such that the person stays faithful unto the end.  How can God transform the sinful person, without that person staying faithful to the end?

Overall, I found this book to be edifying and educational.

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

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Scattered Ramblings on Following Jesus

At church this morning, the pastor’s Scriptural text was Mark 1:14-20, in which Peter, Andrew, James, and John left the fishing business to follow Jesus and fish for people.  The pastor was saying that we all have to make this decision each day: Will we follow Jesus?  Will we, for example, love our neighbor and even our enemy?  The pastor said that we need God’s help for this each and every day, which could be one reason that the Lord’s Prayer says “Give us this day our daily bread.”

I do like that “one day at a time” approach.  In terms of “following Jesus,” I’m not entirely sure what that means.  Do I follow Jesus each day?  I do not entertain the choice of leaving everything behind and becoming an itinerant missionary, I can tell you that.  Do I love my neighbor?  Well, I do talk with my Mom and ask how she’s doing.  Maybe my blog is a form of love for neighbor, since I am sharing with others.  I read books, and maybe reviewing them does a service for the authors and readers.  Still, there is a lot of ego and desire for attention in all that.  Do I love my enemy?  I often struggle with seething in anger against my enemies, and, when it gets too bad, I take a prayer break.  How about giving to the poor, which is emphasized in the Bible?  Well, I am not going out and doing community service.  Would God be happy if I regularly donated to the Food Bank?  Would that satisfy him?  My life is pretty solitary.  Can one follow Jesus in solitude?  One can interact with God and learn about him.  I do admit that all of those activities that I mentioned, and more, are things that one can do to follow Jesus.  But does one have to do them?

I hope to start a job in a little over a week.  Will I be following Jesus there?  Well, I will be a dedicated employee.  I will help people there as part of the job, and helping people can be part of following Jesus, even though it is not specifically Christian but part of the job.  Will I be a “light for Jesus” at work?  I most likely won’t evangelize to people (and, by the way, a customer way trying to evangelize to me when I was checking out the job site after church this morning).  I do think that trying to be a “light for Jesus” can give me a sense of purpose each day and make me a better person.  But there have been times in my life when trying to be a “light for Jesus” has been a burden that I have not been able to carry: it has amounted to me feeling bad because I am not perfect in others’ eyes, or in fact.

I have been reading a Lutheran book, which I will be reviewing tomorrow.  The author says that he is frustrated when people ask him if they need to do good works, since they are saved by grace.  The author is tempted to ask them, “Why do you ask?  Don’t you want to do good works?”  To be honest, I often don’t.  I feel safe in my room and would like to stay there.  I appreciate that good works need to be done, but I have to push myself to do them.  They do not come automatically to me, as the Lutheran author seems to think should be the case for Christians who have received God’s free gift of grace.

I hope that I can say that I follow Jesus in my own way, as I honor God in my thoughts, and as I, with God’s help, become compassionate to others in my thoughts.  Many Christians may say that’s not good enough.  Oh well.

There was something in the pastor’s sermon this morning that I particularly liked.  The pastor was asking us if we truly believe that we are in control of our lives, the way that the disciples were when they left everything to follow Jesus (or so they thought).  To be honest, I would say “no.”  So many things are beyond my control.  Adding Asperger’s to the mix makes it worse.  In any case, what I like about the pastor’s sermons is that I sometimes wonder where he is going with his points, and they get into my head that way.  I find them intriguing.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Hell in Testament of Isaac 5 (and the Testaments of Abraham and Jacob)

For my daily quiet time, I recently read the Testament of Abraham, the Testament of Isaac, and the Testament of Jacob in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha.

According to the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, the Testament of Abraham dates to the first-second centuries C.E., the Testament of Isaac to the second century C.E., and the Testament of Jacob to the second-third centuries C.E. The books could be from the same milieu. The scholars who introduced the works maintain that the Testament of Abraham and the Testament of Isaac were from an Egyptian Jewish context. But the Testament of Isaac has Christian redactions, probably Coptic Christian redactions (according to W.F. Stinespring). In the scholarly introduction to the Testament of Jacob, there is not much information about the Testament of Jacob’s milieu, but it does say that the main manuscripts for the Testament of Jacob are the same as those for the Testament of Isaac (with Arabic, Coptic, and Ethiopic texts); in addition, the person who put in the side notes of parallel passages mentions the Testament of Isaac a lot, so perhaps the Testament of Jacob drew from it.

In this post, I will talk about the topic of hell in these three Testaments, but I will use as my starting-point Testament of Isaac 5. The translation I will use will be that of Stinespring, for both the Testament of Isaac and the Testament of Jacob.

In Testament of Isaac 5, Isaac sees a man who is torn apart and eaten by lions, only to be ejected out of the lions’ mouths and eaten again, over and over. Isaac inquires of his angelic tour-guide what this person did to deserve this. The angel responds that the man “was in enmity with his neighbor for five hours, and he died without having been reconciled to him.” According to the angel, a man in the afterlife is tormented for each hour that he has been hostile to his neighbor, if he has not repented and reconciled with his neighbor prior to his death. This occurs until the completion of a full year.

Isaac then sees a river of fire, and wisdom is in that fire. The fire was not harming the righteous, but it was tormenting the sinners. At the bottom of the river, suffering a “drastic punishment,” are those who “have committed the sin of Sodom.” An overseer of punishment would tell his helpers to kill the sinners that it might “be known that God exists forever.” Isaac asks the angel how long these people will be tortured, and the angel responds, “Until the God of mercy becomes merciful and has mercy on them.”

Here are some thoughts:

1. Hell here is temporary, or at least it is possibly temporary: there is the possibility that God will have mercy on the tormented sinners and end their torment. Is that consistent with what is in the Testament of Abraham and the Testament of Jacob? In Testament of Abraham (Recension A), there is a reference to the everlasting punishment and destruction of sinners, those who not go through the narrow gate. In Testament of Jacob 5, adulterers, male homosexuals, masturbators, astrologers, sorcerers, evildoers, idol worshipers, and slanders are tormented in a place of outer darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and “fire which will not be extinguished.” In Testament of Jacob 7, we read: “O my dear son, avoid the evil ways of the world, which are anger and depravity and all vicious deeds. And beware of injustice and blasphemy and abduction. For the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God, nor will the adulterers, nor the accursed, nor those who commit outrages and have sexual intercourse with males, nor the gluttons, nor the worshipers of idols, nor those who utter imprecations, nor those who pollute themselves outside of pure marriage; and others whom we have not presented or even mentioned shall not come near the kingdom of God.”

2. Are these texts inconsistent with each other, or possibly consistent? I can understand one answering “inconsistent.” In Testament of Isaac 5, hell is possibly temporary. In Testament of Abraham (Recension A) 11, it is everlasting punishment. In those Testament of Jacob passages, there is the statement that certain sinners will not come near the Kingdom of God, which would arguably be a meaningless statement if hell is temporary, if the sinners spend some time in hell then go to the Kingdom of God. Could the passages be consistent, though? Maybe “everlasting” does not always mean eternal but can mean a very long time that eventually comes to an end. Maybe the sinners do not come near the Kingdom of God while they are still sinners, but their torments in hell cleanse them of being sinners, of being the types of people who would commit those sins (yet I should note that there is nothing in the Testaments about hell being a place of purification for sinners). Do these Testaments contain different concepts or views on hell, or can the temporariness of hell that we find in Testament of Isaac 5 qualify, in some sense, the pictures that are in Testament of Abraham and Testament of Jacob?

3. Are the passages Jewish or part of the Christian redaction? On the one hand, there are parts of the Testament of Abraham (Recension A) that are probably Jewish and that pertain to hell: Testament of Abraham (Recension A) 12 has a concept of God weighing people’s good and bad deeds, and that is similar to what was in rabbinic literature. On the other hand, Testament of Abraham (Recension A) 11 has the concepts of the narrow gate and everlasting punishment, and E.P. Sanders states that v 11 is “[a]pparently conflating Mt 7:13 (‘that leads to perdition’) and Mt 25:46 (‘eternal punishment’).” Sanders also seems to see v 11 as quoting Matthew 7:13. There is a note in the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha citing I Corinthians 6:9 beside Testament of Jacob 7, which may indicate that a belief that I Corinthians 6:9 influenced the person who wrote Testament of Jacob 7, or may simply be highlighting similarity, without saying that one source influenced the other. The story of the tormented man in Testament of Isaac 5 reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving man in Matthew 18. In both stories, a man is punished because he did not forgive somebody else. Matthew 18:34 states that this man was punished until he would pay what he owes, and that could imply a temporary hell (though believers in conscious eternal torment would say that the man could never pay what he owed, since it is an incredibly large amount). But there is a difference between the stories. The man in Testament of Isaac 5 is punished specifically for the sin of not making peace with his neighbor, whereas the man in Matthew 18, because he did not forgive his neighbor, is punished for his sins against the king that the king had previously forgiven. The reason this issue could be important is that it could help establish which voice said what in these Testaments. That is relevant to the question of whether the temporary hell in Testament of Isaac 5 should be understood as qualifying the pictures of hell in the other Testaments, or is simply another viewpoint inserted into the text. And that is relevant to the question of whether ancient Jews and Christians, and even the New Testament, could simultaneously call hell everlasting or eternal, while still regarding it as temporary, in some sense.

4. I should also note that Testament of Isaac does have a concept of forgiveness for those who do not know God, those who have never heard. Testament of Isaac 4 reads: “And pardon all your creatures whom you have fashioned, but who have not heard and learned of you.”

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Story of Monasticism, by Greg Peters

Greg Peters. The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.

Greg Peters is a Benedictine oblate, an Anglican pastor, and an academic who teaches medieval and spiritual theology. His book, The Story of Monasticism, is about the history of Christian monasticism, and reactions to it, from the first century C.E. to the present time. Peters also explores possible implications of monasticism for today’s Christianity, including evangelicalism.

Peters seems to argue against Protestant misconceptions of monasticism, particularly the misconception that monastics were cloistered spiritual elitists who did little to help the outside world. Not only did many monastics set up institutions that helped the vulnerable, Peters contends, but they also aimed to instruct laypeople on how to live a spiritual life, through words, publications, and example. Although Peters is arguing against misconceptions that can probably be identified as Protestant, Peters also holds that historic Protestantism was not thoroughly opposed to monasticism. Prominent Protestant founders maintained that monasticism was acceptable, as long as it expressed gratitude to God for salvation as opposed to trying to attain salvation, and expressed repentance.

I was particularly interested in reading this book to learn more about the origins of Christian monasticism. Peters’ discussion on this topic did not disappoint, although there were occasions when his arguments were a bit of a stretch. Peters was arguing that certain ideas of monasticism are present in the Bible: the Nazirite vow and other vows in the Torah, contemplation of God in the Hebrew Bible, leaving one place to go to another (i.e., the desert) for a religious purpose, and Paul’s reference to people who abstained from sex for spiritual purposes in I Corinthians 7.

Peters is probably correct that some of these concepts set the stage for monasticism, but I would not consider Moses talking with God on the mountain to be an example of contemplation, or Abraham leaving Ur or Haran to go to the Promised Land to be like monastics leaving society to set up religious communities. Maybe there is somewhat of a similarity between monasticism and these biblical ideas, but there are also differences (i.e., Moses was not engaging in a discipline of contemplation, and Abraham was not setting up a monastic community). Peters also speculates that a belief in the imminent end of the world may have encouraged Christians to seek salvation and purity through monasticism, and that is plausible. Moreover, Peters mentions possible predecessors to Christian monasticism (i.e., the Essenes), and he notes in a footnote the existence of monasticism outside of Judaism and Christianity (in Buddhism, for example).

Although Peters’ focus in the book was on Christian monasticism, he would have done well, in my opinion, to have offered brief rationales for Jewish and non-Jewish or non-Christian forms of monasticism, in order to explain the rise of Christian monasticism within the context of monasticism in general. Peters did refer to the scholarly view that Christian monasticism was different from Hellenistic ascetic associations, and that “there is no evidence of cenobitic monasticism until the rise of Christian cenobitism in the fourth century” (page 24), but I was unclear about what the difference was (though Peters does cite an article, which I can read).

There were questions that I had in reading the book: What was the significance of publishing spiritual books for laypeople, when many people in medieval times could not read? Was there an expectation that the social elites would teach others? If people went to monasteries to be saved, what does that say about people outside of the monasteries? According to Peters, monastics went to monasteries to escape temptation and to focus on discipleship, but they still believed that people outside monasteries could be saved. I wondered how they envisioned that taking place.

The book is still an informative resource in detailing the history of Christian monasticism and Christian monastic movements (i.e., the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, etc.). Moreover, Peters did well to offer a taste of monastic spirituality, particularly the obedience, the discipline, the humility, the fellowship, and the solitary contemplation of God that monastics sought to achieve.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Baker Academic in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Book Write-Up: Messy Grace, by Caleb Kaltenbach

Caleb Kaltenbach. Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2015. See here to buy the book.

Caleb Kaltenbach’s mother and father were gay, academic, and skeptical of Christianity. The two of them divorced, and Caleb’s mother then lived with her partner, Vera. What happened to Caleb’s relationship with his parents when he became an evangelical Christian? What is more, what happened when Caleb was preaching a sermon about homosexuality, with his parents in the audience? And what can evangelical Christians learn from Caleb’s experience?

There are things that rubbed me the wrong way about this book, and I will get into that momentarily. But let me first say that the book’s greatest asset is Caleb’s story. His story moved me to tears at some points. Caleb talks about the hurt and rejection that homosexuals have felt from Christians. “Why do you hate us?”, a homosexual asked a belligerent Christian at a rally that Caleb attended with his mother. Caleb also tells about the friendships that he had with homosexuals. I think of Louis, who played video games with Caleb because Louis was bored at a party; Caleb saw Louis die of AIDS. Vera was another person in the book whom I liked. Caleb never felt that Vera accepted him, and Vera was afraid that Caleb would become a homophobe after converting to evangelical Christianity. But, when Caleb’s mother was complaining to Vera about Caleb’s religion, Vera reassured her that Caleb still loved her, for Caleb was continuing to be in their lives. That’s what I liked about Vera: she was a tough, pragmatic woman, able to look at a situation fairly and honestly.

What didn’t I like about the book? Well, let me tell you something else that I liked, and that will set the stage for me to explain what rubbed me the wrong way. Caleb had a section about how NOT to react when a friend or relative comes out to you. He said that a person should not respond by quoting Bible verses or by saying that we’re all sinners in need of grace; the latter approach, Caleb noted, lumps homosexuality together with sins like murder, and that may offend the person coming out of the closet. Moreover, Caleb notes that many homosexuals are aware that there are Christians who interpret the Bible to be critical of homosexuality, so why quote Bible verses at them, as if they hadn’t heard that before?

Caleb in this section manifests wisdom and sensitivity towards the concerns of many homosexuals. The difference I have from Caleb is that, while he would probably say that his advice applies when a person initially comes out of the closet to a Christian, I would say that his advice should apply throughout the relationship. Caleb seems to believe that, somewhere in the course of a Christian’s friendship with a homosexual, the Christian should tell the homosexual that homosexual activity is a sin. The purpose of the book is to encourage Christians to reach out to homosexuals in the hope that homosexuals will become Christians. Caleb denies that he is for treating homosexuals as projects, saying that he is for telling them that God loves them. But one cannot deny in reading this book that he believes that the friendship he proposes does contain a missionary element.

The book did get me thinking. I struggle with what the Bible teaches about homosexuality. I do believe that the Bible opposes homosexual sex, but I do not think that is fair. Why would God, who instituted marriage because he did not think it was good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18), consign homosexuals to lives of loneliness and celibacy? Caleb says that a homosexual can marry a person of the opposite sex, and (contrary to what one might think) he does not suggest that lightly, nor does he maintain that this will usually work out. But that would be like telling me, a heterosexual male, to marry a guy. Some homosexuals have said that the “ick” feeling that heterosexuals have at the scenario of having sex with someone from the same gender is similar to what homosexuals feel about having sex with someone of the opposite gender.

But should not a person be willing to sacrifice anything for Jesus? Well, that depends on where a person is. Does the person believe in Christianity, is the person convinced that homosexuality is a sin, and does the person believe that Jesus is worth sacrificing anything for? Caleb acknowledges that conservative Christians are suggesting that homosexuals sacrifice a lot when they say that homosexuals should remain celibate. I think that a lot of conservative Christians give that piece of advice (or “Thus saith the Lord”) lightly and glibly, without really appreciating what they are asking homosexuals to do.

I tend to have doubts and to vacillate when it comes to my belief in Christianity, but, putting my Christian hat on, what do I think my approach as a Christian should be? I believe that my faith should shape my interactions with all people, wherever they may be. My faith teaches me to love and to respect others, to treat others as I would like to be treated, and doing so is part of my walk with God, and my worship of God. I honor the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the values of love, self-sacrifice, and redemption that it teaches (and, as a side-note, let me say that I did not care for Caleb using that story to guilt Christians into witnessing or reaching out to people, as well-intentioned as he was). I am open to wanting others to become attracted to Jesus, and, if a homosexual becomes convinced that Christianity is true, that homosexuality is a sin, and that Jesus is worth giving up a homosexual relationship for, then I respect that decision. It is a heavy decision, however. It is not one that I can force someone else to make. It is not one that I even want to pressure someone to make. For peace to exist, respecting where people are is often a good policy. I identify, somewhat, with the Christian slogan about just loving others, and letting the Holy Spirit do his work in his own time. Some of my approach may overlap with that of Caleb, and some of it may differ.

I have just interacted with the main substance of Kaltenbach’s book. Let me now note something in the book that I found particularly interesting. Have you ever wondered why Jesus wrote on the ground when people were bringing the adulteress to him (John 8:3-6)? Caleb interprets this in light of Jeremiah 17:13: “O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters” (KJV). Jesus’ point in writing on the ground, according to Caleb, was that the people who brought the adulteress to Jesus to test him were alienated from God. They were valuing power and one-upsmanship over what God valued. That sounds like a reasonable interpretation to me.

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

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bernie Sanders at Liberty University, and Its Response Was Not Entirely Negative!

Book Write-Up: Understanding Prophecy

Alan S. Bandy and Benjamin L. Merkle.  Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.  

Understanding Prophecy is about prophecy in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  It looks at prophecies that were fulfilled historically, as well as Messianic prophecies: prophecies in the Hebrew Bible that Alan Bandy and Benjamin Merkle believe predicted or foreshadowed Jesus Christ, and prophecies in the New Testament about Jesus Christ’s return.  Bandy and Merkle also present their contrasting perspectives on the millennium (i.e., whether it will be a literal future reign of Christ on earth or is a present spiritual reality) and the salvation of the Jews in Romans 11 (whether a large number of ethnic Jews will convert to Christ, or only a remnant).

Overall, Bandy and Merkle were judicious in their discussions, as they discussed the positives and negatives of a variety of views and interpretations.  The topics in which they explored and critiqued different views included whether Jesus was predicting that his second coming would occur within the generation of his contemporaries (Mark 13, Matthew 24), and whether Jesus in Matthew 24:40 was suggesting a pretribulational rapture (Bandy and Merkle somewhat beat a dead horse in arguing “no,” but they are convincing).

I have some critiques, though.  

First of all, Bandy and Merkle contend that many prophecies in the Hebrew Bible predict or foreshadow Christ, and they note examples in which the New Testament interprets those prophecies in a non-literal fashion.  They contend that the focus of prophecies in the Hebrew Bible on Israel’s restoration from exile and revival as a nation are not always literal but are often about Christ’s work or heaven.  As an assessment of how New Testament authors interpreted prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, that is probably accurate, though I would note possible exceptions that Bandy and Merkle should have addressed.  I think of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:28 that the disciples would judge the twelve tribes of Israel, which seems (to me) to be faithful to a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies that focus on ethnic Israel.  In terms of what the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible were originally intended to communicate, I doubt that their authors meant them to be symbolic of Christian themes.  If they were, then that raises some questions.  Was God being misleading by making predictions that seemed to be about ethnic Israel’s restoration, when actually they were not about that?  And why would God in the Hebrew Bible start talking about Christ or Christian themes when addressing ethnic Israel’s trials and dilemmas?  What was the relevance of that to Israel’s historical situation, in short?  Bandy and Merkle should have tackled these issues more than they did.

Second, in discussing Isaiah 7:14, Bandy and Merkle in one place maintain that it is a type of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth, rather than a direct prediction of it.  Bandy and Merkle realize that Isaiah 7:14, in its original context, appears to relate to the time of Isaiah rather than the distant future, the time of the historical Jesus.  What they should have done, however, was discuss how Isaiah 7:14 in its original context could have foreshadowed Jesus Christ.  How did the story in Isaiah 7 foreshadow the story of Jesus’ birth?  Are there similar themes in the two stories?  Bandy and Merkle maintain that a typological interpretation does not do violence to a literal interpretation of a text but is consistent with it, on some level.  They should have shown how that was the case in terms of the Gospel of Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah 7:14.  Their discussion of Isaiah 7:14, as it stands, makes it look like they were superficially trying to take the easy way out, appealing to typology to solve a challenge to a Christian claim rather than fleshing that alleged typology out.

Third, Bandy and Merkle say that the New Testament maintains that Jesus inaugurated the end times, and they point to examples of New Testament authors presuming that they themselves were living in the end times.  For Bandy and Merkle, the end times have been with us since the time of Christ’s first advent, meaning that we have been in the end times for about two thousand years.  In some places, however, Bandy and Merkle seem to use “end times” to refer to the time that is right before the end of the world.  Bandy and Merkle may want to save Jesus and early Christians from the possibility that they envisioned an imminent eschatology, which did not historically materialize, at least not literally.  My question would be whether Bandy and Merkle, in effect, make the term “end times” a meaningless term, if it can encompass two thousand years.

Fourth, Bandy and Merkle did not really interact with prophecies in the Hebrew Bible that many scholars would claim went unfulfilled (as in the prophets predicting one thing, and something different happened).  I think of Ezekiel’s prophecies about Tyre and Egypt.  Bandy and Merkle should have wrestled with that in their discussion of the historical fulfillment of prophecies.   

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

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