Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Write-Up: The Path of Christianity, the First Thousand Years

John Anthony McGuckin.  The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

John Anthony McGuckin has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University, and Oxford University.  His fields include Late Antique Christian History and Byzantine Christian Studies.  He has also served in Orthodox churches.

This book is 1157 pages of writing.  Each chapter discusses a time period or a topic and is followed by excerpts from primary sources.  Part I of the book is organized chronologically, as it goes from the second century C.E. to the eleventh century C.E.  Part II is more topical, as it includes chapters on ancient Christian stances towards various issues.  These issues include biblical interpretation, war, hymnography, prayer, women, healing and philanthropy, church authority, magic, wealth, slavery, sexuality, and art (particularly iconoclastic controversies).  After these chapters are appendices that summarize church councils and list Roman popes, patriarchs of Constantinople, and Roman emperors until 1453.

Part I is excellent in that it lays out the stories of key figures throughout church history, in terms of their personalities, their arguments, their beliefs, and what happened to them.  It also lucidly describes the beliefs of Marcion, Origen (specifically his view on pre-existent souls and the human attempt to re-unite with God), and the Manicheans.  The Christological controversies are described, along with what different perspectives believed was at stake.  The theological, ecclesiastical, and political differences and tensions between Western and Eastern Christianity are also highlighted.

Part II is a useful resource for those who wonder how exactly to assess Christianity’s contribution.  Debates occur about what ancient Christians believed.  Were they pacifists until the time of Constantine, indicating that Christians today should be pacifists?  Were icons a later development in Christianity, as some Protestant scholars narrate?  Were ancient Christians progressive or regressive about such issues as gender, compassion for the poor, and slavery?  McGuckin’s discussion of these issues is balanced and, I would say, trustworthy.  They highlight diversity within ancient Christianity.  While ancient Christianity does not come off smelling like a rose in his telling, it does appear to have progressive elements, rooted in Christian teachings.

Moreover, while McGuckin may have a faith-perspective, he is unafraid of the historical-critical method, although he critiques marginalizing spiritual and religious interpretations of the Bible in favor of it.  In one aside, McGuckin discusses how the Gospel of John fit into and spoke to Alexandrian culture, with its emphasis on the divine logos and personal immortality.  McGuckin also questions whether certain New Testament teachings about wealth and sex (i.e., asceticism) should be considered eternal laws or instead were designed specifically for Jesus’ itinerant disciples, who were expecting the imminent end of the world.

Something that I found informative in this book was McGuckin’s discussion of the biblical hermeneutics of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Antiochian school.  They disdained Christological allegory of the Old Testament, and they held that certain Old Testament prophecies that many Christians applied to Christ actually pertained to events before the coming of Christ, such as the time of David or Hezekiah.  Contrary to common belief, McGuckin states, the Antiochian school was not a forerunner to the modern historical-critical method, which interprets the Hebrew Bible in light of its historical context rather than Christ.  Rather, the Antiochian school’s approach was rooted in the belief that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant were distinct from each other, and thus writings in the Old Testament often related to the Old Covenant rather than the New.  This is a helpful insight.  I have wondered why the Antiochian school was willing to see certain Psalms as predictive of Hezekiah but not of Christ: if they are suggesting that writings in the Hebrew Bible can transcend their historical context and predict the future, why not say that they predict Christ, since these interpreters are Christians?  McGuckin presented the rationale behind their hermeneutical approach.

Another interesting topic was the relationship of debates on iconography to Christology.  Some on the pro-icon side accused the anti-icon Christians of minimizing the incarnation: after all, was not Jesus an icon of God when he was on earth?  That must mean that icons (visible representations of the divine) are all right!  Some on the anti-icon side, however, said that the pro-icon side minimized the incarnation: what is important is the union of humanity and divinity in Christ, they argued, and an icon is neither human nor divine and thus cannot represent Christ.

This book was edifying and informative.  It certainly will have a place on my shelf, so that I can consult it when the need arises.

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

Monday, February 26, 2018

Church Write-Up: Forgiveness, Saints, Passions and the Divine

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday School class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen” church.

I will consider the Missouri Synod and “Pen” services together, since they overlapped in theme.

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church was talking about unity, and how petty resentments hinder that.  He shared that he had been estranged from his younger brother for thirty years, and neither of them even remembered what the offense was.  He also talked about a man he met who was proud that he had not attended church in decades.  Why didn’t this man attend church?  Because the pastor at the church that he had attended was an umpire at his son’s baseball game and called the son “out” when the son was “safe.”

The pastor also mentioned the Olympics and how North and South Korea are uniting in their teams.  I thought that was beautiful.  My Mom was reading a novel about the yearning of people in the two Koreas to become one.  She said that President Trump does not understand that.

The pastor at the “Pen” church talked about having a drama free life.  The issue of forgiveness showed up in his sermon, too.  He discussed Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.  Philemon felt deprived after his slave Onesimus stole from him and ran away, but Paul tried to assure Philemon of two things.  First, Paul attempted to reassure Philemon that Philemon had far more than he had lost.  Paul in v. 6 mentions every good thing that is in Philemon in Christ Jesus.  Many of us have resentments, the pastor said, because we try to balance the scales ourselves, or to hold on to what we have, or to take what we want, rather than acknowledging that, because of God, the table is big for everyone.  Second, Paul sought to assure Philemon that Onesimus had truly changed and was not the same Onesimus who stole from Philemon and ran away.

The pastor shared a story about how he was mentoring a homeless addict.  The homeless addict got sober, and God was doing wonderful things in this man’s life.  The pastor spent a lot of time with him.  Then the homeless addict relapsed.  The pastor felt personally betrayed, as if he had wasted his time.  But God convicted the pastor, reminding the pastor of his own issues.  The homeless addict got sober again, and God used him to reach out to and to help other homeless addicts.

B.  At the Sunday school class about patristic interpretations of John, we got into a couple of issues.  First, there was the topic of sainthood.  According to Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity in medieval times, there were some Christians who exemplified Christ-likeness above other people, including Christians.  There was a woman named Catherine, who ran into the plague to minister to the sick, when many were fleeing the plague.  These people, the teacher said, were believed to be especially filled with the Holy Spirit, whatever their imperfections.  That was why their relics were revered: they were deemed to be filled with God’s presence.

The teacher said that he has met a few such people in his life.  He acknowledged that he himself is often motivated by selfishness, by what’s in it for him.  When he reads the Prayer of Confession in the service, he can identify with what he is reading (as can I, many weeks).  But there are some people who do not have this motivation as much, for they are filled with love for God and neighbor.

Our biblical text was John 11.  In that chapter, Lazarus dies, and Jesus resurrects him.  Jesus weeps in that chapter, and his soul is troubled.  The church fathers struggled with this passage, for the ancient Greek concept of the divine that the fathers inherited held that the divine cannot be troubled: it was free of passions, or emotions.  Passions were considered bad because they could lead to sin.  Some fathers held that Jesus in his human nature was troubled by the reality of death, as humans naturally are, and that there is nothing wrong with that.  Some, however, had issues with such a view: some said that Jesus wept for joy; Augustine affirmed that Jesus had his passions under control.

People in the class were baffled by the patristic belief that God lacks emotions.  At the heart of many of their questions, I think, is this: if humans are made in God’s image, and humans have emotions, does that not imply that God has emotions?  But, if passions are sinful, would that not indicate that they are a product of the Fall?  In that case, did Jesus assume sinful, fallen flesh?  That is a thorny issue: my understanding is that Roman Catholicism answers “no” to that.

Another point that the teacher made: the teacher said that, in many icons of Jesus, Jesus is depicted as thin.  The message here, the teacher related, is that Jesus did not succumb to appetites.

I know that, in this post, I spent more time relaying things that I heard than offering my own thoughts.  So be it!  Some weeks will be like that.

Book Write-Up: A Place at Our Table, by Amy Clipston

Amy Clipston.  A Place at Our Table.  Zondervan, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

A Place at Our Table is the first book of Amy Clipston’s “Amish Homestead” series.  Jamie Riehl is a volunteer firefighter and is Amish.  He meets Kayla Dienner, who also is Amish, when he rescues her little teenage brother Nathan from a fire.  There is an attraction between Jamie and Kayla, but Kayla fears that Jamie is having a bad influence on Nathan.  Nathan dreams of becoming a firefighter, and Kayla does not want him to do that because their older brother, Simeon, died as a firefighter in the line of duty.

Tragedy hits Jamie and his family, and Jamie suffers an incredible amount of grief and guilt.  His sister, Cindy, cannot bring herself to forgive him.  In an attempt to heal his own wounds, he dives into work, both at the fire department and at home.  This leads him to neglect his blossoming romance with Kayla.  Kayla herself is recovering from a relationship in which her previous boyfriend, Abram, neglected her, although she had been wholly devoted to him.

I have said in other reviews that some of Amy Clipston’s novels tend pick a theme and to dwell on that theme throughout the course of the novel.  This book did that a little, yet the book was still good, for a variety of events were occurring in the book.  The characters were also likable: Nathan, for example, brought a youthful enthusiasm to his dreams, as well as a desire to learn.  Kayla maybe went overboard in thinking she should be number 1 to her boyfriend, and yet her desire to be loved was understandable.

The religious themes were fairly good.  Kayla suggests, appealing to the Gospel of Luke, that Jamie’s faith can make him well.  Both help each other to heal, and that is beautiful.  Some of the views about God may be troubling to some, and encouraging to others.  Some characters find strength in the belief that God causes tragedy, and others trust in God to protect, even though God has permitted tragedy in their lives up to that point.  Then there are characters who are practical: who say that the risk of tragedy can be minimized, even if not avoided, through proper attainment of knowledge and training (in this case, in the firefighting field).  Clipston herself never implies that any of these views is right or wrong.

The book is enjoyable—-it would be enjoyable, say, as a TV episode, in the Little House or When Calls the Heart genre.

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

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Write-Up: The Promise of a Letter, by Kathleen Fuller

Kathleen Fuller.  The Promise of a Letter.  Thomas Nelson, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The Promise of a Letter is Book 2 of Kathleen Fuller’s “Amish Letters” series.  The first book, Written in Love, was about Jalon, Phoebe, Phoebe’s child Malachi, and, last but not least, Blue the cat.  Book 2 focuses on Leanna, who is the sister of Jalon, Roman, Roman’s brother Daniel and his wife Barbara, and Karen and Adam, a couple that is sitting on the fence about getting married.  But Jalon, Phoebe, Malachi, and Blue still have cameos in the book!

Leanna and Roman are both odd ducks.  Leanna is a bit of a tomboy and is not good at what women in Amish society are expected to do (i.e., cooking).  She works for Daniel, who (if I recall correctly) is a carpenter, and a couple of busy-bodies are spreading rumors that she and Daniel are having an affair.  Daniel fires her, and she initially thinks it was because she read a note that she was not supposed to read.

Roman is a creative person, one who excels at coming up with ideas and drawing technical designs.  He does not have a whole lot of discipline with hands-on work, though.  Years before, he left the community.  His dream is to get a degree at a college, and he wrote the college a letter.  Because he left, he and Daniel are estranged from each other.  When he learns that his grandmother has died, he returns home, as his grandmother encouraged him to become reconciled with his brother.  We learn in the course of the book that their parents were rather cold and did not show affection.

Other things happen in the course of the book.  Daniel is injured.  Barbara is pregnant and loses the baby.  Karen and Adam are each waiting for the other to make the first move.

I read this book over the course of two months, a little each day.  It was an enjoyable book.  Roman does a lot of growing up, and Leanna gets to observe this because she was acquainted with him before he left.  Roman and Leanna were also characters for whom I wanted to root, as they were underdogs, in a sense.  The book had enough going on that it was not boring.  And its ending set the stage for the next book of the series.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Write-Up: Anatomy of an Affair, by Dave Carder

Dave Carder.  Anatomy of an Affair: How Affairs, Attractions and Addictions Develop, and How to Guard Your Marriage Against Them.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Dave Carder is a pastor and counselor.  He has degrees in psychology from Wayne State University and the University of Toledo.

Anatomy of an Affair covers a variety of issues.  First, there is the question of how adulterous affairs can develop: what people are missing in their marriages when they commit adultery, and what they are looking for.  Carder discusses different kinds of affairs, and he also addresses apparent puzzles, such as the question of why many who commit adultery do so with someone who is unlike their spouse.  Carder provides exercises that can assist a married couple in taking the temperature of its marriage.  Second, there is the question of how a married couple can recover from adultery.   The book has exercises on steps that a couple can take in forgiveness and in adding spice to its marriage.  Third, there is the question of what motivates the “other woman” or the “other man,” as well as sex addiction.  Often, they are attempting to cope with their own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, even trauma in some cases.

The book is filled with real-life case studies.  A lot of them followed a predictable pattern, but some of them had distinct details.  There was one sad story about a woman who was given to her grandparents when she was a child, and her parents lived right next door, raising her brothers and sisters; as a result, she felt unwanted.

Much of the book is probably common-sense, but, for a lot of people, that common sense needs to be put into accessible words: they are hungry for a repertoire that they can draw on as they seek to avoid adultery, or to move on from adultery.  This book provides that in an empathetic and practical manner, while suggesting resources that readers can consult.

In terms of critiques, I have two.  First, on page 107, Carder appears to recommend that married couples have occasional sex in an “unconventional place” to add spice to their marriage.  Couples should keep in mind, however, that sex in a public place is illegal in several places and may have dire legal consequences.

Second, many have criticized the “Billy Graham Rule” (the rule that a married man should not be alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife) for discouraging Platonic friendships between men and women, and even for holding women back professionally.  Carder addressed these issues tangentially, but he could have done so more than he did: how can one avoid the risks that Carder highlights, without unfairly preventing women from advancing professionally due to a lack of networking opportunities, or opportunities to interact with men professionally?

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

Church Write-Up: God's Love; Congregant Questions

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretations of John, and the “Pen” church.

Because the Lutheran service and the Pen church’s service overlapped in theme, I will consider them first and second, respectively, before discussing the Sunday school class.

A.  The pastor at the Lutheran service talked about the hole in our hearts that only God can fill, according to Augustine, but that we futilely look to other people or things to fill.  What can heal us of this?  Can we simply stop sinning?  The pastor said that we cannot.  If we discipline ourselves in one area, we find three other areas in which we are looking to sin to fill our hearts.  What is the solution?  The pastor said that the solution rests in God’s love.

I was wondering if he was going in a Tim Keller-sort of direction.  Tim Keller often gave sermons about how we seek to root our identity in things other than God, with disappointing results.  For Keller, we cannot simply decide to stop doing that and to start doing the right thing.  The solution rested in Jesus’ self-sacrificial love for us, and, the more that is real to us, the more we will rest in his love.

I am sure that both pastors believe that the Holy Spirit’s work within the heart has to be involved in this conversion process, in some manner.  Sometimes, though, one can get the impression from sermons like these that Jesus’ act on the cross inspires people to respond with love towards God, like a moral-influence view of the atonement.  Does it, though?  I can believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again; believing I am a beneficiary of that, to be honest, can be more difficult, for do I have the proper faith, or do I repent correctly, or are the salvific benefits of Jesus’ death somehow contingent on my forgiveness of others?  Those who have assurance that they are children of God—-and Romans 8:16 speaks of the Spirit testifying within believers that they are such—-would probably be able to rest better in and to build their identity on God’s love for them.

The pastor also said that he does not want us to leave the service asking ourselves what we can do for Jesus.  Rather, he wants us to reflect on how Jesus invites us to be with him and to learn from him.  That is an interesting thought: the disciples got to be around Jesus and to hear from his wisdom.  Imagine people today being able to do so, either in reality or pretend: to walk with Jesus, either hearing from him, or asking oneself what Jesus might say in such-and-such a situation.

B.  The pastor at the “Pen” church also spoke about God’s love.  He said that many are like Simon Peter in Luke 5:8, after Jesus caused Peter’s boat to be filled with fish: Peter asked Jesus to depart from him, for Peter was a sinful man!  They cannot believe that God has a purpose for them because they have been and are sinful.  Whereas God wants them to have an identity in God, which entails abundant life, Satan tries to steal that identity (John 10:10).  The pastor shared that this was true of his own grandfather, who died in that state.

According to Psalm 139, the pastor shared, God loves us deeply and has a purpose for us.  God designed us in our intricacies, down to the smallest level.

C.  What stood out to me in the Sunday school class was the questions that the congregants asked.

—-We were reading patristic interpretations of John 6, which concerns eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood.  Many church fathers applied that to the Eucharist.  Some seemed to go so far as to suggest that partaking of the Eucharist was necessary to receive eternal life.  A lady in the audience had a problem with that: she said we are saved by faith alone; similarly, last week, a man said that communion was part of sanctification, not justification.  Interestingly, in the sermon, the pastor was telling about a shut-in who did not want the pastor to bring communion because she did not feel that she was a sinner: she was shut-in, after all, so what opportunity did she have to sin?  Is the implication that forgiveness of sins somehow relates to communion?  In any case, the teacher talked about how faith is more than cognitive: it is trusting in God, even when things do not make sense, and faith is what leads one to understanding.  We trust, he said, that we ingest Christ when we take communion, even if it looks like bread and wine; we trust that the Holy Spirit speaks through the pastor.

—-Another lady was saying that she disagreed with Christians who claim that all human beings have an eternal spirit inside of them, for she believes that people receive immortality only through Christ, and through belief in him.  I did not know if she was espousing conditional immortality here: the doctrine that only the saved live forever, whereas the un-saved are destroyed.  The teacher defined death as destruction and as eternal separation from God, and he probably believes that all have an immortal soul, including the un-saved.  Back when I was a teenager, going through the Ambassador College (Worldwide Church of God) Correspondence Courses, I encountered the view that Martin Luther rejected the immortality of the soul and embraced soul sleep.  That claim is still around, but I found this article to be a balanced assessment of it, and of Luther’s comments about the state of the dead.

—-The physical and the spiritual were salient topics in this session of the class.  According to some of the fathers we read, Jesus in John 6 was contrasting ordinary bread, which brings physical and temporal nourishment and life, with Jesus (and, perhaps, the bread of the Eucharist) as bread, which brings eternal life.  And yet, the teacher was saying that, according to the fathers, God meets us in the physical, which would include the elements of the Eucharist, and even the written words and verbal proclamation of Scripture.  The teacher also said that Jesus has a physical body—-a glorified body, and yet a body of flesh.  Someone in the class was curious about the definition of physical and non-physical.  His question reminded me of my Armstrongite heritage, which held that Jesus rose with a spiritual body.  Of course, people can ask: are not “spiritual” and “body” contradictory concepts?  Does not spiritual mean non-corporeal?  But, in ancient times, was that necessarily the case?  Did not the gods have bodies of some sort, in ancient pagan belief?  Then there is the issue of Jesus in the New Testament shining like the sun (Revelation 1:6; see also Matthew 17:2; Acts 26:13), which Gnostic literature liked to stress: is that consistent with Jesus’ resurrected body being spiritual, or physical, albeit a glorified physical?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Write-Up: No Quick Fix, by Andrew David Naselli

Andrew David Naselli.  No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful.  Lexham Press, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Andrew David Naselli has two Ph.D.’s: one from Bob Jones University, and another from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He teaches New Testament and Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary, which is in Minneapolis.  He wrote a dissertation about the Keswick movement, which he revised as a book for Lexham press: Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick TheologyNo Quick Fix is a shorter book about the same topic and is more accessible to lay readers.

What is the “Higher Life Theology” that Naselli is criticizing?  Higher Life Theology posits that there are two kinds of Christian believers, both of whom are saved: there are carnal Christians, who are habitual sinners and are not fully yielded to God, and there are spiritual Christians, who are yielded to God and are filled with the Holy Spirit.  At a dramatic moment of decision sometime after his or her conversion, a Christian may decide to yield to God in surrender and to become filled the Holy Spirit.  This results in a great spiritual transformation, as the believer becomes liberated from sinful tendencies and attracted to righteousness; it also entails receiving spiritual power to do God’s work.  While obedience to God can set the stage for this intense moment, the transformation comes, not through actively working for it, but through “letting go and letting God”: trusting and allowing God to do the work of transformation.  Practically speaking, according to Naselli, many who have this kind of experience find that their spiritual batteries eventually run low and they feel a need to attend a Keswick conference where they can have the experience again.

What are Naselli’s problems with Higher Life Theology?  He has a variety of them.  For one, he does not acknowledge any distinction between carnal and spiritual Christians.  All true Christians bear spiritual fruit, to varying degrees, and this commences when they are saved, not at a later point in time.  Second, Naselli disagrees with the passivity that Higher Life Theology encourages.  According to Naselli, the New Testament does not teach believers to passively wait for God to transform them but encourages them to live out actively who they are as Christians: to mortify sinful desires and to perform works of righteousness.  On the basis of John 15, Naselli defines the believer abiding in Christ as walking in Christ’s commandments, and Christ abiding in the believer as Christ’s words dwelling in the believer; this entails activity, not passivity, on the part of the believer.  Third, Naselli believes that Higher Life Theology overlaps with Pelagianism, which he states “exalts a human’s autonomous free will and inherent ability to obey any of God’s commands apart from God’s help” (page 84).  How can this be, when Higher Life Theology encourages the believer to let God do the work of spiritual transformation?  For Naselli, Higher Life Theology is Pelagian in that it emphasizes that the believer can make a decision on his or her own to surrender to God, to plug into the Holy Spirit, and to become transformed.  The correct view, according to Naselli, is that God is the one who creates the faith and the will in the believer to obey God and to do good works.

Fourth, Naselli contends that Higher Life Theology sets believers up for spiritual discouragement.  They have a dramatic religious moment and expect things to be smooth sailing for them spiritually after that, but this does not happen.  They may conclude that they did not truly surrender everything to God, or they may even redefine sin, lowering the bar to where they are, to defend the authenticity of their religious experience.  Naselli discusses his own negative experience with Higher Life Theology and his recovery from it.  He also mentions evangelical luminaries who have had similar struggles with it, including J.I. Packer.  And, in an epilogue, John MacArthur, Jr. shares his own struggle with it back when he was a young Christian.

The book discusses the historical roots and development of Higher Life Theology, as its roots came from a variety of sources (i.e., Methodism, Pentecostalism, dispensationalism, etc.).  He talks about key figures associated with the movement, including D.L. Moody and Hanna Smith, the author of The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.  Naselli refers to the high points of the movement: for instance, Moody was impressed when a cantankerous Christian attended a Keswick conference and became sweeter and more loving afterwards.  But Naselli also mentions the lows: Hanna Smith’s husband Robert was sexually immoral and became an agnostic, and Hanna became (by Naselli’s and many conservative Christians’ standard) a heretic.

To his credit, Naselli attempts to account for those who have had positive spiritual experiences with Higher Life Theology, without dismissing their experiences.  For Naselli, sanctification can entail times of rapid growth spurts, and that may be what they are experiencing.  Naselli also acknowledges that believers becoming aware of their dependence on God’s Spirit for sanctification (which the Keswick movement encourages, albeit in an incorrect manner, as far as Naselli is concerned) is a positive development.

The book is informative.  Naselli does not systematically lay out his view of sanctification in one setting, but he does refer to it, and he supports it Scripturally, when he attempts to refute Higher Life Theology. Naselli not only demonstrates that there are New Testament passages that affirm that believers must actively fight sinful desires and do good works, but he also seeks to unpack the meaning of the concept of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  He presents different interpretive options concerning Ephesians 5:18, and he concludes that it means being influenced by the Holy Spirit and being indwelt by the words of Christ, which can exist at varying degrees.  Yet, unfortunately, Naselli does not address the concept as it appears in the Book of Acts.  Naselli’s discussion of how some commands in Scripture entail varying degrees of obedience, and how one can always improve one’s obedience of those commands, was an interesting insight.

There are spiritually inspiring statements in the book, from those Naselli seeks to refute, from himself, and from those Naselli cites for support.  Regarding Higher Life Theology, there is an appeal to letting go and letting God, as opposed to climbing uphill in an attempt to become better.  And Naselli favorably cited a powerful comment by Jerry Bridges in his appendix of Christian resource that he considers helpful: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace.  And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”

It was ironic, from my standpoint, that MacArthur narrated his spiritual struggles with Higher Life Theology, considering that his Lordship Salvation beliefs gave me my own share of spiritual struggles and disappointment.  I continually wondered if my life was spiritual or holy enough to be a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in me, and if I could even follow Christ’s commands.  Naselli may have done well to have addressed the question of what professing or nominal Christians can do if they find that sin is great in their life and question whether they are truly Christians.

Finally, it stood out to me that, in listing spiritual exercises that believers can do to assist their sanctification, there was no reference in the book to accountability from fellow believers or fellowship.  There was a brief reference to church discipline, in an attempt to refute the idea that there are carnal Christians.  But, considering that accountability is emphasized in evangelicalism today, its extremely rare occurrence in the book was salient.

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Church Write-Up: Ash Wednesday 2018

I attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church.  My plan, for the next several weeks, is to attend the church’s weekly Lenten services, followed by the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services.  And, yes, I hope to do a blog post about each one of them, as a way for me to process the service and to preserve it for myself and anyone interested.

The pastor opened his sermon by referring to an old car commercial, depicting a car that went through various terrain.  The slogan was, “It’s not about the destination, but the journey.”

The pastor said that the journey is indeed important, but so is the destination.  He told a story about when he was in Hawaii with other Lutherans, and his group wanted to see a waterfall.  The directions were not clear, so his group was trying to find the waterfall.  They were walking on what they thought was a trail—-for a while, they were trying to convince themselves that it was a trail—-but it was not.  They were lost, and they did not reach their destination.

The pastor applied this to repentance.  Whereas the directions to the waterfall were not clear, God has laid out God’s instructions.

The pastor got onto the topic of godly verses ungodly repentance.  II Corinthians 7:9-10 refers to godly repentance, but, according to the pastor, it also seems to imply that there is such a thing as ungodly repentance.  What is ungodly repentance?

The pastor defined ungodly repentance as repentance that is superficial and does not accompany or lead to an authentic change of mind—-which encompasses more than intellectual thoughts but also includes moral decision-making.

The pastor told a story to illustrate ungodly repentance.  The pastor was trying to get to an elders’ meeting at a Lutheran church where he was serving, and he went way over the speed limit.  A cop stopped him, and the pastor told the cop that he was trying to get to an elders’ meeting; the pastor was wearing his collar, so he hoped that the cop would go easy on a clergy-person.  It turned out that the cop was a lapsed Lutheran.  The cop remarked that his grandmother went to that Lutheran church, and he should be going, too, but he never does.  The cop decided to let the pastor off in an attempt to get right with God.

There were two things wrong with this cop’s repentance, the pastor related.  First, it did not lead to any change on the cop’s part: it was not as if the cop started attending the church!  But, second, the cop was trying to solve the problem of his alienation from God on his own.  According to the pastor, he was like Adam and Eve in the Garden: rather than turning to God, he was trying to be God, assuming autonomy.

What is true repentance?  According to the pastor, it entails being challenged by God’s law and asking God to be merciful to us, sinners (Luke 18:13).  It includes dying to a desire for sin.  It entails wanting oneself to decrease while Jesus increases (John 3:30).

But, the pastor said, even this focuses on us.  For the pastor, we are helpless to save ourselves.  Many of us, when confronted with our transgression of God’s law, may become resentful rather than repentant.

The pastor then talked about how God grieves for our sin.  The pastor detected God’s grief at Adam and Eve’s sin when God in Genesis 3 asked them where they were and who told them that they were naked.  It was manifest when Jesus asked God to forgive his persecutors, for they know not what they do (Luke 22:34).

These were the highlights of the sermon, as I recall them.  I could identify with what the pastor said about resenting God’s law: I often feel that God’s law (as I understand it) is the problem because it is too high of a standard, one that I, and very few people, can reach.  But I wondered how the pastor envisions God healing our attitudes.  Is it through an act of monergism, of God unilaterally transforming our hard heart?

We sang different songs, but one that particularly ministered to me was an old Lutheran hymn called “Today Your Mercy Calls Us.”  You can read its lyrics here.  The hymn is worth reading because it illustrates the meaning of forgiveness and highlights God’s love:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Write-Up: Isaiah's Daughter, by Mesu Andrews

Mesu Andrews.  Isaiah’s Daughter.  Waterbrook, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Isaiah’s Daughter is biblical fiction that is set in the time of Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah.  Ishma and Yaira are refugees from the invasion of Judah by Northern Israel and Syria in the eighth century B.C.E. (II Kings 16-17; Isaiah 7).  Ishma is adopted by the prophet Isaiah.  She is friends with Prince Hezekiah, with whom she attends school, which Isaiah teaches.  Ishma and Hezekiah eventually marry, and her name is changed to Hephzibah, or Zibah, for short.  The book goes from Ahaz’s idolatrous, cruel reign, through key events of Hezekiah’s reign (i.e., his fight against the Philistines, the Passover celebration, the Assyrians’ attempted invasion of Jerusalem, and Hezekiah’s sickness), to the birth of Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh.  It does not include the Babylonians’ visit of Jerusalem.

Here are some thoughts about this book:

A.  Naturally, I compared this book with Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series, which covers the same time period.  There were similarities between the two works: a child sacrifice scene, and Hephzibah’s discouragement at not being able to give birth.  Some similarities may be due to the authors’ common insights into biblical history or what biblical passages say: Lachish is depicted as rather idolatrous in both works, and both works depict Isaiah applying promises to Zion to Hephzibah personally, which is not too surprising, considering that Hephzinah’s name appears in Isaiah 62:4.  But there were also clear differences between the two works.  Hezekiah’s mother Abijah is a righteous martyr in Austin’s work, whereas she is a conniving queen and queen-mother in Andrews’ narration.  Shebna is an atheist in Austin’s series, but merely a self-serving know-it-all in Andrews’ book.

B.  In terms of which telling is better, both have their advantages.  Austin did better in laying out the characters’ motivations.  Andrews, however, had a more sophisticated, deeper writing-style.  That made the book rather slow for the first half, but the book came alive in the second half.

C.  Both tellings highlight the complexity of biblical interpretation, albeit in different ways.  Austin’s work concerned interpretation of the Torah and the different conclusions that this could yield.  Andrews, by contrast, focused more on the prophecies of Isaiah.

D.  Austin’s work tended to assume a Christian interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecies, treating them as about the far off future and in reference to Jesus Christ.  Andrews, by contrast, seemed more sensitive to historical-critical interpretations, which interpret the Book of Isaiah in light of its own historical contexts.  The characters wonder if Isaiah’s prophecies relate to their own day, and, while their eventual conclusion is that several of them relate to the future, they still maintain that they may have at least a partial application to their own time.  Hezekiah wonders continually if he is the anointed Davidic king who will preside over eschatological peace and prosperity.  And, drawing from an article by Margaret Barker, Andrews contends that Hezekiah’s sickness, on some level, fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53 about the servant suffering for people’s sins.  Like a number of conservatives, Andrews apparently treats the prophet Isaiah as the author of Isaiah 53, whereas many scholars would associate that section with an exilic or post-exilic author.  Still, her sensitivity towards interpreting Isaiah in reference to the time of Hezekiah is intriguing and refreshing.

E.  There were some hints of Christianity in the book, some more warranted than others.  Andrews interprets Isaiah 7:14 as a virgin birth, and, in attempting to discern if the prophecy is being fulfilled in their own time, characters wonder if a specific character is a virgin.  This is somewhat warranted, as conservative scholars have argued that “virgin” is a possible meaning of the Hebrew word “almah,” as they are distinguished from queens and concubines in Song of Solomon 6:8.  At the same time, the word may simply mean young woman, as “alam” means “young man” in I Samuel 17:56 and 20:22.  In another passage in the book, there is a statement that offering a lamb can atone for sins.  The stress on the sacrificial victim being a lamb is obviously Christian, since Christians believe that Jesus was the lamb of God.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, however, a variety of domesticated animals are offered for sins.

F.  In Austin’s work, Hezekiah and Isaiah largely seemed to be on the same page: both are pious men, seeking to do God’s will.  By contrast, Andrews emphasizes the clash between Isaiah and Hezekiah.  Hezekiah is practical and seeks an alliance with Egypt, which Isaiah lambastes, and even walks naked through town to protest.  Hezekiah tries to build a water tunnel to help Jerusalem in times of siege, but Isaiah deems that to display a lack of trust in God (see Isaiah 22:11), as well as a violation of the sanctity of Gihon (which Andrews seems to base on Nathan’s anointing of Solomon there in I Kings 1).  Andrews even presents Hezekiah and Isaiah clashing in ways that the Bible does not: when Hezekiah allows Levites to sacrifice and Israelites to eat the Passover without being purified (II Chronicles 29-30), Isaiah is outraged, seeing that as a violation of the Torah; Isaiah acknowledges that this is his opinion, though, not a word from God, as his other prophecies were.  Although Isaiah and Hezekiah make peace eventually, the tensions between their two positions are never fully resolved.  Hezekiah rejects Egypt’s gifts of scarabs, seeing them as idolatrous, yet Egypt still helps Judah when the Assyrians invade.  Hezekiah proceeds to build the tunnel.  When Isaiah instructs Hezekiah to put a lump of figs on his boil (Isaiah 38:21) to recover, Hezekiah wryly asks if Isaiah is telling him to help God out, rather than trusting God completely, as Isaiah usually exhorts Hezekiah to do.  The tension between practicality and trusting God remains unresolved in this book.

G.  Hephzibah was not always easy to understand.  She could sympathetically and empathetically comprehend why women would want to worship Asherah, yet she was practically a religious zealot in expunging Asherah worship from the harem.  Still, the book was somewhat believable in depicting her religious journey: she gained strength as she reflected on Isaiah’s words in a season of solitude.

H.  One scene was particularly intriguing.  Biblical scholar Brian Beckham argues that a biblical author in Isaiah 37 criticizes Isaiah’s prophecies by placing Isaiah’s words in the mouth of the taunting Rabshakeh.  Andrews actually attempts to do something with this idea: Hezekiah suspects that Isaiah has communicated with the Assyrians.  By the way, that was in character for Hezekiah, as far as this book is concerned.  Although one might expect Hezekiah to have more faith in his former teacher, Hezekiah could get rather suspicious and paranoid in this book.

I.  Andrews, to her credit, acknowledged nuance among pagan views, rather than lumping them all together.  She narrates, for instance, that the Assyrians were not too keen on human sacrifice.

J.  On page 373, we read: “When one of God’s prophecies doesn’t come to pass, it’s not because He failed; it’s because we misunderstood it.”  How would that be reconciled with Deuteronomy 18:22, which states that a prophet is false if his words fail to come to pass?  If one can explain away non-fulfillment, does that not undermine Deuteronomy 18:22, in some manner?

I am giving this book five stars, because it was engaging.  I appreciated its sensitivity towards historical-criticism and the differences between Hezekiah and Isaiah.

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

Church Write-Up: Christ's Transfiguration and Miracles; Real Presence; Agape

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen” church.

Here are some summaries, followed by links:

A.  At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, we were celebrating Transfiguration Sunday.  The youth pastor and the pastor were both discussing Christology.  They said that Jesus as a human being on earth was still divine, but he was hiding his divinity from people; the youth pastor suggested that this was because a premature revelation of Jesus’ divinity would anger people and they would put him to death before his time.  According to the youth pastor and the pastor, Jesus showed Peter, James, and John his divinity at the Transfiguration.  The pastor likened that to the Eucharist: the Eucharist looks like a simple meal, if it can even be called a meal, for it is not enough food to fill one up.  But divinity accompanies the elements of the Eucharist.  The pastor also talked about God being present in the seemingly mundane things of life.

Similarly, at the Sunday school class, the teacher was saying that Jesus hid his divine nature in becoming fully human.  Jesus still drew from it in doing miracles, however.

Some links:

A while back, I wrote a blog post about J.R. Daniel Kirk’s A Man Attested by God, in which Kirk argues that the synoptic Gospels do not depict Jesus as pre-existent or ontologically divine when he was on earth.  The post is here, in case you want to read it.  Unfortunately, I did not refer to Kirk’s discussion of the Transfiguration.  If my memory is correct, Kirk argued that, at the Transfiguration, Jesus was showing Peter, James, and John the glory that he would have after his resurrection, not any ontological divinity that he possessed.

Regarding Jesus doing miracles through his inherent divine nature, I referred in my Church Write-Up last week to passages in which Jesus does miracles through the power of his Father or the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28; John 5:31-38; 14:10; Acts 10:38); I noted, however, John 2:19, in which Jesus seems to affirm that he has the power to resurrect himself from the dead.  Here is that post, if you want to read it.  I wondered if there were ancient Christian thinkers, after the time of the New Testament, who acknowledged that Jesus performed miracles through the power of the Father or the Holy Spirit, as opposed to drawing on his own divine nature.  I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of patristics, but, in my post here a while back, I discussed the debate between Theodoret and Cyril of Alexandria: Cyril thought Jesus did miracles through his own divine nature, whereas Theodoret said Jesus performed them through the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

B.  The Sunday school class talked a lot about the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.  We were reading patristic sermons about John 6, in which Jesus talks about how eating his flesh and drinking his blood brings a person eternal life.  The sermons we were reading applied that, at least in part, to the elements of the Eucharist.  An elderly woman then asked, “In light of this, why do Reformed people teach that the bread and the wine are merely symbols for Christ’s body and blood?”

The teacher replied that the teaching that the bread and the wine are merely symbolic originated after the sixteenth century, whereas, before then, the widespread Christian position was that Christ was actually present in the bread and the wine.  He stated that the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the Orthodox are very similar on the Eucharist.  Luther differed slightly from the Catholics, the teacher said, in that the Catholics believed that the bread and the wine literally became the body and blood of Christ, whereas Luther thought that, on some level, they remained bread and wine, even though they were connected to the spiritual.

The class then talked about what the church did to leftover elements of the Eucharist.  One practice that some Lutheran churches perform is to send the wine back to the earth.  That reminded me of what my Grandpa did when our family observed the Lord’s supper every year: he would burn the leftover matzos.  We did not believe in the “real presence” but saw the Lord’s supper as commemorative, but my Grandpa’s idea was that the bread was holy and could only be used for holy purposes.

My understanding is that Zwingli believed that the bread and the wine of communion were symbolic, and Zwingli lived during, not after, the sixteenth century.  Still, I wondered if the belief in the real presence was the universal belief until the Reformation.

Here are some links, some more scholarly than others:

In this post, Nathan Busenitz, whose book Long Before Luther I wrote about here, cites patristic statements that he believes support the view that the elements of the Eucharist are symbolic and commemorative; he states that Catholic apologists misunderstand the patristic passages that appear to support a “real presence” in the elements of the Eucharist.  Meanwhile, some Catholics in the comments section accuse him of misunderstanding.  And this Catholic article trots out patristic statements, from many of the same people whom Busenitz cites, that appears to support Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist.  Could the reality be that they believed in both/and, or does one view preclude the other?

I wondered if the Waldensians of the twelfth-thirteenth centuries believed in the “real presence.”  The reason that they came to mind was due to my Armstrongite heritage, which depicted them as part of the “true church” in the medieval era.  What I found was different people saying different things.  Here and here, one can read the view that the Waldensians rejected transubstantiation.  Here, one can read the view that they believed in it.

Another comment on this issue: I think that, in John 6, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood relates to believing in Jesus and coming to him, not so much the Eucharist.  I believe that on the basis of v 35: “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”  But I can understand that other Christians interpret eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood in John 6 in light of New Testament passages about the Lord’s supper, which call the bread Jesus’ body and the wine his blood (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; I Corinthians 10:16; 11:24-27).

A question: Does the Missouri Synod believe that communion services that do not believe in the “real presence” can still contain the “real presence” and be legitimate communion services?

C.  At the “Pen” church, the pastor preached about abiding love.  His focus was on marriage and romance.  He said that there are three Greek words for love: eros is romantic and sexual love; phileo is a friendly love that contains give-and-take but can break down under pressure; agape is self-sacrificial love that is concerned about the well-being of the other person.  The pastor said that we practice agape when we grasp God’s love towards us: that God will stay with us and will never leave.  That way, we are filled, and our love spills out towards others.  Many of us, by contrast, run on empty and the slightest thing can set us off.

Some links and thoughts:

Many evangelical preachers, writers, and laypeople assume that there is a difference between phileo and agape, when, in reality, they were often used interchangeably.  See my post here.  Still, I appreciate what the pastor was saying.  There are relationships out there that are give-and-take.  There are relationships out there that are brittle.  Hopefully, there are also relationships out there that are solid, and disinterested love is a real thing.

I recalled a sermon that a United Methodist pastor preached about three years ago, about the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  He said that the man who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, did not necessarily have sinister motives.  He was just wondering something: did he have to pour out agape love on every single person, or could he do so with a few select people?  I have heard Christians casually say that we are supposed to “love everybody,” but can we?  Can we truly have a selfless, sacrificial, giving love towards everyone, even everyone we know?  Would we not naturally show that love to some over others?  On the other hand, I am not suggesting that we should only love our friends and family and forget about the outside world.  Anyway, I wrote about that sermon here, and you can read there my other thoughts about that sermon.

Finally, can I believe in God’s unconditional love for me?  That is difficult.  I can try, but, before long, some Christian will come along and say or imply that God loves me if I behave, or that I cannot use God’s love as cover for sinning, or not forgiving, or not loving my neighbor.  Then there are biblical passages about God leaving those who deny or forsake him (II Chronicles 15:2; II Timothy 2:12).  And yet, the Bible is a record of God’s faithfulness: God provides for Adam and Eve after their sin; God is faithful to disobedient Israel; Christ dies for people while they are yet sinners.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Book Write-Up: Seeds, by Greg Belliveau

Greg Belliveau.  Seeds: Meditations on Grace in a World with Teeth.  CrossLink, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The back cover of this book says that it is “In the vein of Donald Miller, Anne Lamott, Debbie Blue, Brennan Manning, and other contemporary narrative writers[.]”  Of those authors on that list, I have only read Donald Miller and Brennan Manning.  Based on that, I would say that this description captures the genre of the book quite well.  To that list, I would add Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction work and Rachel Held Evans’ books.

The book is slender, at 75 pages.  Perhaps it would have been more satisfying had it been longer.  At the same time, what it did have was quite inspiring.  The prose was eloquent.  The insights were thoughtful and honest.  The stories were moving.  The back cover says that the author was a Christy Award finalist, and that is no surprise to me.

Among the themes that are in this book are:

—-How many of us look to success as a way to mask our awareness of the suffering that is in the world, and that we fear will happen to us;

—-Recapturing our wonder at life and nature, whether things go our way or not;

—-The oddness of Jesus;


—-The story of a man who was not the sharpest tool in the shed but had a faith that entailed praying for others; he died of cancer, but he influenced the author;

—-How many of us become callous in this world (this chapter was pretty convicting!);

—-How a person can lose everything, and that becomes the soil for a new birth, which impacts others in a positive way;

—-And how many of us, legitimately, are afraid of honest community.

A lot of these points may seem to be obvious or banal, but, trust me, the author explores them in a refreshing manner.  His insights capture the fears that many of us have, fears that are not baseless but are often rooted in our existence in a world of pain, suffering, loss, and death.  He points to God as a source of hope.  He uncovers our insecurities, which hamper our connection with people.  And his stories have a sense of innocence, as they convey a simple, yet profound, faith.

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

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book Write-Up: Judah's Wife, by Angela Hunt

Angela Hunt.  Judah’s Wife.  Bethany House, 2018.  See here to buy the book.

Judah’s Wife is Book 2 of Angela Hunt’s The Silent Years series, which is about the years between the events of the Old Testament and the events of the New Testament.  Whereas Book 1 was about Cleopatra, Book 2 is about the Maccabean revolt.  The “Judah” of the title is Judah the Maccabee, who led the revolt against the Seleucid occupiers of Jerusalem.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Leah in the book is the wife of Judah.  For a long time, she is upset with Judah’s participation in the war.  She grew up under an abusive father, so she detested violence.  She comes to embrace that Judah is fighting for God and the people of Israel, but she had some initial concerns that seemed to be legitimate yet ultimately unaddressed: Judah’s gratuitous slaughter of people and the exultation that he had in warfare.

B.  The book itself was rather conflicted in how it handled the Maccabees’ violence.  On the one hand, it sought to downplay it or to justify it.  In I Maccabees 2:24, the pious priest Mattathias, filled with zeal for God, kills a Jew who is about to sacrifice on a pagan altar.  In Hunt’s retelling, that was an accident.  And, when Judah is killing Hellenes, he says that he is doing so in self-defense.  On the other hand, there are times when the book is honest about the religious motivations for the Maccabees’ violence.

C.  The book could have been clearer in the beginning about who the Hasidim were.  At the beginning, it seemed to imply that the Hasidim were those devoted to the Law of Moses, which would presumably include the Maccabees.  Later, the Hasidim are portrayed as a specific religious group of people, who are distinct from the Maccabees and even disagree with Hasmonean policy.  The portrayal of them as a specific group is more consistent with I Maccabees.

D.  The Hasidim disagree with Judah’s attempt to form an alliance with the Romans, believing that he should trust in God alone.  As far as I can recall, that is not a theme in I-II Maccabees.  But it did enhance the book.  The Hebrew Bible itself, particularly in the Book of Isaiah, addresses the dilemma of trusting God for security as opposed to making alliances, so it would not be surprising if Judah the Maccabee wrestled with this issue.  Moreover, this theme added a foreboding element to the book, as the Romans would be the future occupiers of Israel.  It reminded me of the end of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: this looks like a reasonable policy, but are we sure this will end up well?

E.  The portrayal of Leah’s father was somewhat contradictory, or so it seemed.  On the one hand, at the beginning of the book, he was portrayed as a devout Jew who attended synagogue and observed the Sabbath.  On the other hand, he was depicted as a Hellene, one who admired the Greeks and sought to curry their favor.  Maybe his religiosity at the beginning was his way of gaining influence with his fellow Jews.

F.  Some issues were resolved, and some were not.  One woman gained a sense of her purpose.  The other struggled to believe in God—-even though she despised the Hellenes—-and, from my recollection, her faith struggle was never resolved.

G.  Overall, the Hellenes were depicted negatively.  The book may have been better had it explored their position a little more.  Some scholars have speculated that some of the Hellenes actually sought to reconcile Hellenistic culture with their understanding of biblical religion (i.e., follow Abraham rather than the Torah, which came later, or treat Zeus as another manifestation of the one true God).  There was one positive Gentile character, who had a wry admiration for the Jews.  He was refreshing, yet the book made somewhat of a stretch when it depicted him being willing to stick his neck out for the Jews, or to take risks with his own life on their behalf.

H.  Related to (G.), the book would have been better had it included the story of II Maccabees 12:40-45, in which Jewish soldiers fighting on the side of the Maccabees are carrying idols with them.  Judah suspects that this is the reason that they fell in battle, and he prays for God to forgive them so they can enter a good afterlife.  This raises profound theological issues, and it highlights the complex motives of people involved in the conflict.

I.  The book ended on a sad, yet hopeful, note.  The Books of Maccabees themselves are sad, because the Maccabean protagonists die violently.  Hunt, to her credit, does not shy away from that.  Whereas the end of the Cleopatra novel had a Breaking Bad series finale feel, the end of Judah’s Wife had an ending of Braveheart feel.

J.  Hunt does not include the Hanukkah tradition about the lights that burned for eight nights because it is unhistorical.  At the same time, she seems to presume that I Maccabees is more historical than II Maccabees, yet she uses stories from II Maccabees.  The story of Antiochus on his deathbed being willing to become a Jew (II Maccabees 9:17) is seen by many scholars as wishful thinking on the part of the author, and its historicity is doubted because there are different stories in I-II Maccabees about how Antiochus died (I Maccabees 1:8-16; II Maccabees 1:13-16; 9:5-27); then there is Daniel 11:45, which, if one accepts that is about Antiochus, presents another scenario of his death.  To her credit, Hunt admitted that she sometimes drew from unhistorical stories to enhance the book.

K.  Hunt states in the appendix that I-II Maccabees is non-canonical and uninspired.  She would have done better to have noted that there are Christian communities that deem the books to be canonical.
Overall, the book is well-written.  The search for purpose was an inspiring aspect of this book, as was the portrayal of Judah as a reluctant hero who boldly stepped forward for his people.

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

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Book Write-Up: Excusing Sinners and Blaming God

Guillaume Bignon.  Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil.  Pickwick, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Guillaume Bignon is a French analytic philosopher and computer scientist.  He used to be an atheist but is now a Calvinist.  I am sure that is an interesting story and am happy to find that it is on the Internet, on various sites.

In Excusing Sinners and Blaming God, Bignon attempts to respond to a notorious criticism of Calvinism.  If Calvinists are correct that God has foreordained all things, including evil, the criticism runs, does that mean that evildoers lack personal responsibility for their evil acts?  How can God judge them for doing what God essentially decreed or caused them to do?  Bignon also addresses the question of whether God is a moral monster for foreordaining evil.

Bignon employs a variety of arguments in responding to these questions.  First, Bignon argues that God is not compelling people to commit evil acts against their will: they are acting willfully and voluntarily, knowing that what they are doing is wrong.  That makes them responsible.  Second, Bignon states that the burden of proof rests on those who claim that a person must be able to make the opposite decision in order to be responsible for his or her evil deed.  As far as Bignon is concerned, that burden of proof has not been met.

Third, Bignon contends that non-Calvinist Christians run into the same problems that they accuse Calvinism of having.  Do they believe that one needs to have libertarian free will—-the neutral ability to choose one path or another—-in order to be personally responsible?  How, then, can they consider God to be praiseworthy for God’s good deeds, when God is unable to do evil?  How can they believe in original sin, which inclines people’s hearts towards sinfulness?  Even though they believe in that, they still hold that human beings are responsible for their evil deeds, for Christ died for their sins.  Do they think that Calvinism incoherently posits two wills in God (a decreed will and a moral will about what is right and wrong for humans to do)?  Do not they do the same thing when they maintain that God desires free-will, on the one hand, and moral righteousness on the other, yet tolerates evil in the belief that free will is a positive good?  Arminians criticize the Calvinist God for causing evil, but does not their God permit evil?

Bignon settles on two answers to the questions that the book addresses.  First, Bignon believes that God can decree evil and yet be blameless because God is God: God has concluded in God’s wisdom and foresight that a world with evil is better, at this point, than a world without it.  Critics of Calvinism try to critique Calvinism by comparing the Calvinist God to human beings who cause evil, even for a good purpose, and Bignon maintains that those are apples and oranges.

Second, Bignon holds that God does not directly cause people’s evil decisions but simply withholds God’s grace, allowing them to fall back on their innate sinful desires.  They are making the sinful choices, in short, and God is letting them do so by withholding God’s grace.  When they do good, that is a result of God’s grace, so they have no cause to boast.  At the same time, perhaps because the Bible itself praises doing good and criticizes doing evil, Bignon still tries to maintain that a person who does good is praiseworthy.

Occasionally, Bignon interacts with Scripture.  He refers to passages in which God somehow causes events, through either intervention or refraining from direct intervention.  Near the beginning of the book, he interacts with Romans 9:17-23, in which Paul likens God to a potter shaping clay, in discussing God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  In response to those who inquire how God can find fault with anyone if God operates that way, Paul asks, “Who art thou that repliest against God?” (KJV).  Bignon disputes Arminian interpretations of that passage because he believes that Paul would not have received the objection that he did, or answered as he answered, had he been saying what Arminians claim.  Bignon backs away from saying that Paul’s response is “Shut up and don’t question!”, for Bignon states that Paul is responding to those who try to excuse their evildoing by chalking it up to God’s providence.

The book has a lot of logical arguments—-and by this I am not talking so much about the quality of his arguments, but rather his practice of using letters and symbols for premises and conclusions, both in his own arguments and in conveying (or improving upon) the arguments of others.  At the same time, there is also a lot of lucid prose in the book.  Moreover, Bignon engages Arminian or non-Calvinist philosophers and thinkers, even going so far as to highlight nuances in their positions.  Readers may find the book to be informative on that front.

On the whole, the book is somewhat unsatisfactory.  Bignon was asserting that the burden of proof rests on those who claim that libertarian free will is essential for there to be moral responsibility, but he seemed to be making claims that certain elements were necessary for moral responsibility (i.e., knowledge that an act is wrong), without really defending them (as far as I can recall).  (I should add, though, that Bignon at one point declines to offer an all-encompassing basis for human responsibility, as Bignon doubts that he can find one that encompasses every situation.)  Bignon spent a lot of time highlighting the contradictions in non-Calvinist perspectives, but the book would have been better had he himself engaged certain questions, such as: Why exactly is God praiseworthy, if God is only doing what God by nature does and cannot do otherwise?  Why does God blame humans for acting according to their human nature, which is sinful?   There were resources from which Bignon could have drawn to address these questions, such as Jonathan Edwards (and Bignon did refer to Edwards, Calvin, and other Calvinist thinkers elsewhere in the book).

Bignon never claims to be making a comprehensive defense of Calvinism, at least in this book.  Rather, his goal is to dismantle the objection that, under Calvinism, humans are not responsible for their evil deeds.  Still, the book would have been better had Bignon at least provided possible reasons that God might ordain evil: what good end is God seeking to accomplish?  (Bignon has written a book on suffering, so that might be worth reading.)

And, ultimately, while Bignon may have a point that God ordains evil for a righteous purpose, his discussion does not leave me with the impression that humans are truly responsible for their actions, in his scenario.

Those who have read a lot about Calvinism may not find much that is new in this book.  It is still a thoughtful engagement of arguments, even if I cannot point to any insight in it that swept me off my feet, or blew my mind away.

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

Monday, February 5, 2018

Church Write-Up: Odds and Ends on 2/3/2018

For church Sunday morning, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen” church.

Here are my write-ups about each.

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church made three points that intrigued me.  First, he was talking about why Isaiah 40 is a significant chapter for Epiphany.  Isaiah 1-39 has a lot about God’s wrath in response to Judah’s sin, which included both idolatry and social injustice.  Isaiah 40, by contrast, offers a tone of comfort and forgiveness, which is what Jesus brought.  This interested me because it was a Christian explanation for how the sections of Isaiah fit together.

Second, the pastor said that many of us are like Martha in John 11:24: we believe that God will act in the end, but we may have difficulty believing that God is active now, or has a plan now, with all the fearsome things in the world (i.e., North Korea).  I liked how he weaved that Scriptural allusion into his sermon, as if the story of the Scripture is a natural part of life, of explaining how we are.

Third, the pastor said that, after the Jews returned from exile, they tried to keep rules to impress God, so that they would not experience God’s wrath again.  He stated that they forbade intermarriage with foreigners in an attempt to keep Israel pure (see Ezra 9:2).  The pastor was portraying this as a wrong path.  That intrigued me, because it is the path depicted in the Book of Ezra and, on some level, the Book of Nehemiah.  That raises a question in my mind: Are Christians allowed to question what Ezra and Nehemiah did?  I remember a seventh-day Sabbatarian pastor who edited a Sabbatarian magazine, and he was addressing the question of whether Christians are permitted to purchase things on the Sabbath.  Of course, people who say “no” often point to Nehemiah’s policy in Nehemiah 13 of banning markets from Jerusalem on the Sabbath.  This pastor, however, did not think that Nehemiah was necessarily right in doing this: Nehemiah may have been overzealous, in that case.  By the way, eventually, this pastor ceased being a Sabbatarian.  But his questioning of Nehemiah intrigued me.

B.  The class on patristic interpretations of John got into a lot of issues.  For one, the teacher discussed the views on women in that time.  Women were deemed to be temptresses in Greco-Roman culture, whereas men were considered the people who exercised sexual restraint.  In churches, there was a belief that the physical and the spiritual should be kept separate, so a number of monks (which many church fathers were) tried to suppress the physical: sex, eating, sleep, etc.  That amplified misogyny.  Still, there were Roman women who owned estates, which their husbands bequeathed to them in war, and, upon becoming Christians, several of them donated their estates to the church.  That said, the church fathers were fascinated by the story of the woman at the well in John 4, for this was a person who was not expected to understand Jesus’ message, yet she did, whereas many of the Jews who had the oracles of God did not.

Second, the teacher talked about Christology.  He said that most Christians today, were they to take a test on Christology, would probably turn out to be heretics—-they might say, for example, that Jesus’ mind was divine but his body was human, which was the Apollinarian heresy.  Ultimately, he said, the church fathers chalked up the interrelationship between Christ’s divine and human natures to mystery, for those who tried to nail it down usually had to contend with Scriptural passages that suggest the opposite.  Something that I thought: how many of the things in Scripture that are attributed to Jesus’ divine nature by Christians are actually due to Jesus’ divine nature?  The teacher mentioned miracles or clairvoyance, but Jesus in the New Testament may have those abilities through the power of the Father or the Spirit (Matthew 12:28; John 5:31-38; 14:10; Acts 10:38), not inherently.  In some cases, though, as when Jesus presents his resurrection as something that he himself performs (John 2:19), his power may be inherent.

I asked a question in class.  We were reading a homily by Cyril of Alexandria, and Cyril seemed to be saying that Jesus was sealed by the Father with the Father’s likeness.  Was Cyril saying that Jesus’ divine nature was imparted to him by the Father, as opposed to being inherent to Jesus?  That would be unlike Cyril, who believed that Jesus had an inherently divine nature, mixed with his human nature.  The teacher responded that Cyril believed that Jesus’ divine nature was inherent, but that Cyril was wrestling with the impact of the incarnation on Jesus’ humanity: that Jesus’ divine nature left an imprint on Jesus’ human nature.  That is probably correct, as it is classic Cyril.  Yet, Cyril says that the Father sealed Jesus with the Father’s likeness.  Does that mean that Jesus as a human being was the full image of God, like Adam was, whereas other human beings are corrupted images of God?  Could God the Father, in eternally generating Jesus, be the source, not only of Jesus’ existence, but of Jesus’ divine nature: the way that Jesus is?

Third, the teacher talked about the concept of human divinization in patristic Christianity.  He referred to the classic statement that God became a man that man might become divine.  The teacher said that this does not mean that humans in the afterlife will have inherent divinity, for they will have it by adoption.  Even in the afterlife, they will be human.  I doubt that humans will be on the same level as God in the afterlife, according to the church fathers, but I also think that they conceived of human divinization entailing humans coming to possess certain characteristics, including immortality and moral and spiritual perfection.  Still, a question I would have is whether they would possess those characteristics inherently, or as they depend on God, even in the afterlife.  I think of I Corinthians 15’s insistence that Christians in the resurrection will have spiritual bodies, which some scholars interpret to mean Spirit-renewed or Spirit-empowered bodies.

Fourth, the teacher was talking about the Hebrew term “mashiach,” which, of course, means “anointed.”  In English, the term comes across as “Messiah.”  The teacher noted that Saul’s shield in the Hebrew Bible was called “mashiach” (II Samuel 1:21), and that simply meant that it was consecrated to God’s use and purpose.  In calling Jesus “Christos” (the Greek equivalent of “mashiach”), the same was being said about Jesus.

C.  At the “Pen” church, the pastor finished up his series on rebounding from the blows of life.  Some points:

First, the pastor talked about how many of us have failed and no longer want to try.  I was thinking about that earlier this week.  “If I were to go back to that situation, I wouldn’t even have shown up,” I thought to myself.  But I had to try to convince myself that at least I tried, and that was better than not trying.

Second, the pastor was talking about some of the mistakes the church made in the past.  It tried to set up a system in which Spanish-speakers would wear head-phones in church that translated everything into Spanish, but that went over like a lead-balloon.  Instead, the church started a Spanish-speaking church plant, and that was successful.  Another example: the pastor said that the church has tried Saturday evening services and has failed.  Some of its plants have failed.

Third, the pastor told the story of Mark.  Mark failed significantly in his ministry with Paul and Barnabas, such that Paul did not want Mark to accompany them on the next mission.  Paul and Barnabas split over that, in Acts 11.  Mark failed, but Barnabas assured him that God still had a plan for his life.  Mark would travel with Barnabas rather than with the high-profile Paul.  Similarly, the pastor said, maybe after a failure we should take a lower-profile, working more anonymously, since that would lack the pressure that being in the spotlight entails.  The pastor astutely noted that, if we are not content working anonymously, we are not ready for the big lights.  The pastor also observed that Paul and Mark eventually reconciled, as Colossians 4:10 and II Timothy 4:11 indicate.

Fourth, the pastor talked about Proverbs 2, which exhorts people to listen to wisdom, apply their heart to it, cry out for it, and treasure it.  This may appear redundant, the pastor said, but it is not: we should not just listen to wisdom but go all out in desiring it.  The pastor applied this to joining a small group, which I do not want to do.  Still, I liked his insight on Proverbs 2.

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