Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Write-Up: Reformation Women

Rebecca VanDoodewaard.  Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

As the title indicates, this book is about sixteenth century Protestant women who contributed to the Protestant Reformation.  It includes chapters on Anna Reinhard, Anna Adlischweiler, Katharina Schutz, Margarethe Blauer, Maguerite de Navarre, Jeanne d’ Albret, Charlotte Arbaleste, Charlotte de Bourbon, Louise de Coligny, Katherine Willoughby, Renee of Ferrara, and Olympia Morata.

The women profiled in this book were from different countries, including France, England, and the Netherlands.  They had different backgrounds.  Some were from royalty and used their status and influence to protect persecuted Protestants.  One led armies into battle.  Some were ex-nuns.  Some were in Protestants in Catholic families, experiencing pressure to conform.  Some were wives of Protestant Reformers and provided support for their husbands, while helping others in need.  Some were writers, either in a public capacity, or in a private capacity, writing letters of encouragement.

The book has a distinct ideology.  It is sympathetic towards the Protestants, particularly the Huguenots (though the first chapter is about Zwingli’s wife).  Consequently, the Catholics in this book are usually the villains, either as persecutors or as hypocritical philanderers.  The fact that there were Protestants who persecuted people is rarely mentioned, though there is an occasional acknowledgement that some Protestants were more righteous than others.

The book also has a complementarian stance.  One of its goals is to reclaim these women from feminists, such that the Reformation women can be examples of biblical womanhood for Christian women.  This is not entirely bad.  As the author says about feminist treatments of these women, “Marriages in which husbands respected their wives’ intellectual abilities and churches that appreciated female gifts are presented as exceptions to the Reformed rule, when they are simply sample expressions of a widespread biblical complementarianism during the Reformation, as many of the marriages in this book show” (page x).  Treating the males of the past solely as male-chauvinist boors is a limited perspective, and the author does well to assert that there is more nuance than that.

That said, there are aspects of this book that many feminists may like, and there are aspects that they may not like.  The women in this book are strong women, who influence people and use their intelligence and talents.  Many of them were not defined by their roles as wives and mothers, for they had a sense of purpose and mission outside of the home, and they continued using their gifts after they ceased being wives and mothers.  They stood up to men when men were behaving in a manner that they considered unjust.  On the other hand, the author upholds women who stayed with their philandering husbands as examples for Christian women.  She also tells a story about a woman who stopped speaking at ecclesiastical meetings after John Calvin rebuked her; whether the author approves of that is not entirely clear.

The book provided a balance between large-scale historical narrative (i.e., wars, politics, persecutions, etc.) and anecdotes that humanized the women Reformers.  It painted a compelling picture of their struggles, their piety, and their deeds of charity and love towards others.  It was a little thin in describing the differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine and what drew the women to Protestant doctrine, as well as political motivations behind the Protestant Reformation.  There were interesting side-discussions: the one about the woman who appealed to Calvin’s commentaries to justify curling her hair, against those who opposed such a practice on the basis of I Peter 3:3-4, comes to mind.  On one occasion, I wished that the author would have elaborated: John Calvin encouraged Renee of Ferrara when she was concerned that her Catholic son-in-law was in hell, but we are not told what he told her.  (How much information is available about that discussion, I do not know.)

The conclusion of the book was especially strong, as it eloquently discussed lessons that we can learn from the women’s lives.  The most powerful lessons included the importance of deriving one’s identity and mission from one’s faith rather than one’s role, how people have different gifts and should diligently use them where they are, and how people should have a cause beyond themselves.

Searching on the Internet, I found an article by Ruth Tucker on Renee of Ferrara, entitled “John Calvin and the Princess.”  It appeared in the September 2009 Christianity Today, and it presents a rather different picture than what Rebecca VanDoodewaard does.   The Renee in this article had a more contentious relationship with Calvin, criticized Protestant persecution of Catholics, and could have had more influence, if not for the societal limitations on women at the time.  VanDoodewaard’s book is more homiletical, and sometimes hagiographical, and yet it provides a different perspective, which should be considered; it is not the only perspective, though.  Perhaps her book can inspire people to learn more about the Reformation women.

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Quran in Context

Mark Robert Anderson.  The Quran in Context: A Christian Exploration.  IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

The bio of Mark Robert Anderson on Amazon states: “Mark Robert Anderson has completed graduate degrees in Islamic Studies at McGill University and Christian religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. For nearly a decade, he lived, studied and taught in Egypt and Jordan. Mark lectures and writes on Islam, the Qur’an and spirituality.”

The Quran in Context provides background information on the Quran and compares the Quran with Anderson’s Christian interpretation of the Bible.

Anderson weighs in on scholarly debates and issues.  He offers a historical defense of the traditional narrative of the Quran’s origins against scholarly ideas to the contrary.  As a Christian, Anderson probably does not believe that Muhammad received the Quran from God, but he agrees with the traditional narrative in that he holds that the Quran was the product of a historical Muhammad and addressed issues in the Arab world of Muhammad’s day; not every scholar believes in a historical Muhammad.  Occasionally in the book, Anderson argues against scholarly ideas that Muhammad was challenging specific Christian sects: in many cases, according to Anderson, Muhammad was lampooning Christianity rather than discussing an obscure sect that actually held the position Muhammad was attacking.

Anderson also discusses current debates on Islam.  For example, Anderson acknowledges that there are peaceful sects of Islam, but he does not agree with apologists who claim that Muhammad’s wars were purely defensive on his part.  For Anderson, Muhammad initially sought peace with Jews, Christians, and pagan Meccans but became more belligerent and militaristic over time, as Muhammad sought to spread the religious-political regime of Islam.

Anderson takes care to distinguish the Quran from subsequent hadith and Islamic interpretations.  What you think you know about Islam is not necessarily what the Quran teaches.  According to Anderson, the Quran does not argue that the Bible is corrupted, Muhammad in the Quran is not believed to do miracles, the Quran does not hold that Jesus escaped death at his crucifixion, and Jesus does not have the eschatological significance in the Quran that later Islam ascribes to him.  (As Anderson says, the Quran calls Jesus the Messiah, but it does not describe what that means.)  And, yes, Anderson offers his interpretation of passages that have been interpreted to suggest these things.

The book also explains how the Quran reflects cultural ideas and concepts within the Arab culture of the time.  No, Anderson does not say that Allah was originally a pagan moon-god, but he does contend that Muhammad’s conception of Allah’s transcendence reflects Arabic pagan ideas about their gods.  Anderson also draws contrasts, as when he compares Muhammad’s prophetic experience with the prophetic experiences of pagan Arabs at the time.

In comparing the Quran with his understanding of what the Bible teaches, Anderson’s version of Christianity comes out looking better.  The God of the Quran is distant, is a judge, and accepts people only if they repent, although Anderson acknowledges that the Quran often calls Allah merciful and compassionate.  The God of Christianity, by contrast, is loving towards all and desires a relationship with God’s creation.  Christianity believes that the Fall corrupted humanity such that it needed a Savior to be forgiven and spiritually transformed.  The Quran, according to Anderson, is not as dramatic about the Fall, and it holds that humans can save themselves by repenting.

Anderson does acknowledge nuances, though, which was why his introduction at the beginning of each chapter was helpful: it provided a summary that served as a sort of roadmap for the discussion that would occur in that chapter.  In addition, while one might think that Anderson’s idea that God wants to be our friend is a modern evangelical concept, Anderson takes great pains to demonstrate that it comes from the biblical narrative itself.

In terms of critiques, Anderson does seem to proof-text, and I am saying “seem” because readers could come back and say that he does not, and offer reasons that he does not.  In terms of the Bible, Anderson prooftexts, or, at least, he employs a synchronic approach that does not fully appreciate the diversity of the Bible or tie its writings to their historical contexts.  One can get the impression that he does the same thing with the Quran: he pulls out passages throughout the Quran and claims that they teach a specific doctrine about God (or salvation, or anthropology, or politics, etc.).  This criticism would not be entirely fair, for Anderson does root the Quran in its historical context and discuss changes in ideology that occur within the Quran, which occurred as the historical context changed.  Perhaps Anderson should have made more of a conscious effort to tie each chapter in the Quran with the historical context.  Moreover, Anderson should have been more vivid about Muhammad’s motivations: what exactly Muhammad was protesting, and why.

In some places, Anderson was rather elliptical.  For instance, he was trying to explain how Christianity balances and preserves both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence, while claiming that the Quran sacrifices immanence in favor of transcendence.  I am still unclear about how Christianity preserves both simultaneously, in Anderson’s view.  Anderson also could have been clearer in explaining the passage of the Quran that many Muslims interpret as saying that Jesus escaped death at the crucifixion.  Anderson makes a convincing case that Jesus dies in the Quran, but the road leading up to his conclusion about that particular passage was bumpy and technical.  There is nothing wrong with technicality, but interspersing the discussion with lucid summaries would have been helpful.

The book was more conservative than I expected, in the sense that Anderson essentially argues that moderate Islam does not coincide with what the Quran actually teaches, particularly on jihad.  I call this “conservative” because it coincides with what right-wing Americans say about the Quran.  At the same time, Anderson encourages understanding on the part of Christians, and his discussion on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God was thoughtful.  He did not exactly say “no,” and he acknowledged the difficulty of this question, in light of the subjectivity that accompanies attempts to understand God.

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

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!

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