Thursday, February 28, 2019

Book Write-Up: The State of the Evangelical Mind

Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Mark Noll is an evangelical scholar and historian. His 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, lamented that there was not much of an evangelical mind. What he meant was that there was a dearth of scholarly engagement and production from a distinctly evangelical perspective. The State of the Evangelical Mind reflects on Noll’s thesis and asks where evangelicalism is now.

The book contains contributions from Mark Noll, Jo Anne Lyon, David C. Mehan, C. Donald Smedley, Timothy Larsen, Lauren F. Winner, James K.A. Smith, and Mark Galli. The book’s editors, Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, write the book’s introduction. The common view in the book seems to be that evangelicalism has made progress, yet there is substantial room for improvement. Evangelical support for Trump concerns one author, for example, as does the bestselling status of Tim Tebow’s book among evangelicals.

The best contribution, in my opinion, is that of C. Donald Smedley. Smedley advances a bold critique of Noll’s thesis. Noll says there is a scandal of the evangelical mind, Smedley contends, yet Noll marginalizes contributions from the evangelical mind, such as apologetics. Noll also dismisses dispensationalism, though it is a Baconian approach to Scripture. Is Noll right that there is a scandal of the evangelical mind, or is Noll’s problem that the evangelical mind does not look as Noll wants it to look? Smedley speculates that Noll’s conclusions may be shaped by his own academic training, as he went from a Christian college to a secular graduate program. Evangelical students at secular colleges, however, find apologetics to be useful as they interact with non-Christian students, so they support that expression of the evangelical mind. Smedley raises important points, but, as I read my notes on Noll’s book, it seemed to me that Smedley did not engage some of Noll’s reasons for his conclusions. Noll was critical of Scottish Common Sense Realism, for instance, because it highly valued intuition, a development that Noll saw as contrary to evangelical intellect.

Timothy Larsen’s contribution is noteworthy because it explains why evangelicals, and really anyone, should value learning, rather than just seeing education as training for the mundane responsibilities of adulthood. Larsen also defends faith statements by Christian colleges, claiming that they do not obviate academic freedom because they have been changed over the years, at least at some Christian colleges.

James K.A. Smith’s contribution is not overly optimistic, for Smith seems to doubt that modern evangelicalism has much of a deep well from which to draw; modern non-denominational churches, for example, lack a deep historical connection. Christianity, however, is a deep well, and evangelicalism can draw from that. Whether Smith is correct on this is a good question. There have been thinkers who could be classified as evangelicals, such as Jonathan Edwards, so perhaps the evangelical well is not completely dry. For some thinkers, their exact classification may be difficult to define: are they evangelicals, or simply conservative Protestants?

Mark Galli offers a stirring praise for evangelicalism on account of its zeal and its emphasis on Jesus.

Some of the essays are dry, in that they mentioned names and fields and made rather obvious points. Still, they contain information that may be of interest to those who want to know more about where evangelicalism is in terms of scholarly endeavors. What I mention in the previous paragraphs is what I consider to be the most insightful, or at least the most thought-provoking, parts of the book.

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

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Church Write-Up: Loving Enemies and God Picking Up the Pieces

Here is my Church Write-Up about this morning’s LCMS service.

Two of our texts were Genesis 45:3-8, 15 and Luke 6:27-38. Genesis 45:3-8, 15 is about Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery. Joseph reassures his brothers that this was part of God’s plan, to preserve the Israelites in the midst of famine. In Luke 6:27-38, Jesus exhorts people to love their enemies, to be merciful, and to give, not expecting anything in return.

A. The youth pastor talked with the kids about how Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. If someone did something like that to you, he asked, would you want to do anything good for them down the road? One kid said “Yes,” and the youth pastor said, “Really? That’s good!” The other was hesitant, and the youth pastor replied, “Yeah, I understand.”

B. The pastor’s sermon revolved around the Genesis 45 text. He told four anecdotes. One was from when he was in high school, with some friends in the library. They were talking about a party that they had attended that weekend, and they were feeling guilty about some of the things that they did. They wondered if they were displeasing to God. One of the friends then asked why God would care so much about what they did. God is so big and has so many huge responsibilities running the universe, so why would God care about what they did at a party? This conversation has stayed with the pastor for forty-five years. I heard the pastor mention this comment in a previous sermon months ago, but this morning’s sermon set the context for that comment. In that previous sermon, the pastor cited that comment as an example of youthful immaturity: that teen questioned that God was concerned about our behavior, but the purpose of Lent is to remember that God indeed is concerned about what we do and how we are. In this morning’s sermon, the pastor cited that comment in another context: God is not just concerned about the big picture—-the galaxies, the nations, and the empires—-but about the small details of our everyday lives.

The second anecdote was about a young man who was struggling with things in life. He essentially expressed to the pastor Mackie’s conception of the problem of evil, only in his own words, and informed by his experience rather than a philosophy book: either God is not powerful enough to help him with his problems, or God is sufficiently powerful yet does not care enough to help.

The third anecdote was about a woman with brain cancer. She passed on, but she inspired people at that church with her faith.

The fourth anecdote was about airports. The pastor has just been on a trip to see his mother and grandchildren, and he had to go through airport security, taking off his belt and his watch, putting his computer and change through the procession, etc. He likened that to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz: “they took this piece of me and threw it over there, and that piece of me and threw it over there!” A sign at the airport was entitled “recombobulation cenrer,” where people could put everything back together.

The pastor mentioned a song that kids learn: “My God is so great, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that God cannot do.” It focuses on God being great and in charge of the big picture (“the mountains are his, the rivers are his, the sun in the sky is his too, ooh, ooh”). But the song ends with “and you, and you, and you, and you.” God is concerned about each individual.

The pastor mentioned details about the Joseph story. Joseph was cast into prison for something he did not do. In those days, prisons were essentially dark holes where prisoners stayed; sometimes they were fed, sometimes not. Not much, if any, hope was there.

The pastor also said that God did not cause Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery, or Potiphar’s wife to falsely accuse him, but God was involved in the intricate details of Joseph’s dysfunctional family and experiences, picking up the pieces. The pastor made a similar point at Wednesday’s Bible study: God did not cause the famine in Egypt, but God worked good in the midst of it. I asked the pastor about verses that seem to suggest that God did cause the famine (Genesis 41:25, 28, 32).
Looking now at the Genesis 45 reading, I also question the view that God in the story did not cause Joseph’s brothers to sell him. In Genesis 45:5, 7-8, Joseph essentially says that God was the one who sent Joseph into Egypt. And how did Joseph get to Egypt? His brothers sold him.

The pastor’s interpretation is understandable from a pastoral perspective. Regarding that young man in the second anecdote, he had enough of a struggle accepting God’s apparent inactivity in the midst of his suffering. What would he think if he heard that God actually caused his sufferings? I would have a difficult time telling anyone that. I remember reading Randy Alcorn’s mammoth tome on suffering a while back, and Alcorn cited Exodus 4:11, in which God said to Moses: “Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD?” (KJV). Alcorn interpreted that to mean that God actually makes people with these disabilities, but God does so for God’s righteous purposes.

C. The Sunday School class engaged the two texts. Here were items that stood out to me:

—-After Joseph revealed his identity to their brothers, he asked them if his father was still alive. They then talked. They caught up. A lot of times, our differences make us into enemies, but we have more in common than we have differences. Joseph and his brothers had family in common.

—-We are to give, even if what goes around does not necessarily come around in this life. God wants us to be different from other people, who just love those who love them, but the reason for this is that God himself is different: God is merciful. God cannot help himself. It is who God is. The Greek word for mercy in the Luke 6 text refers to a visceral pity that comes from the core of one’s being, and that is what God has and what we should have. We do not do that to earn God’s favor, but due to what God already has done through the resurrection of Christ; another of our texts was I Corinthians 15, a chapter about Jesus’s resurrection. In light of that, we hear what Jesus says about how we should be.

—-The teacher shared three reasons for showing mercy that he found in a commentary. First, we extend the mercy of God to those who may not receive it otherwise. I could identity with that: this world can be an unforgiving place! Second, we deepen our own understanding, appreciation, and experience of God’s mercy: when we show mercy to those who do not deserve it, we remember God, who loves us even when we do not deserve it. Third, showing mercy serves as a model to the Christian community as to how it should be. Although we should show mercy, we should also make clear when something is wrong.

—-Back then, communities tended to take on the characteristics of their leader. God wants God’s community to take on God’s merciful and gracious characteristics.

—-The class was getting into definitions. Mercy is not giving people whatever bad that they deserve. Grace is giving people good that they do not deserve. Then we got into whether one can have pity or empathy without love, or mercy without love. People seemed to say “yes” to that. When I am empathetic, though, I see that as love; at least it is preferable to hating someone.

—-The teacher commented on Luke 6:38. The image there is of a merchant pressing down the grain in a customer’s container so he can fill it with more grain for the customer, up to the brim, and whatever spills over can be put into the customer’s apron so he or she can take that home. The picture here is one of abundance. The teacher may have been suggesting that this is how God is. In a sense, the text has that kind of message: God is merciful, and we should be like God by lavishing love and mercy onto others, even if they do not deserve it, repay it, or reciprocate. At the same time, v. 38 does seem to present a qualification: the measure that we give is the measure that we get back. Does that conflict with the abundance that v. 38 depicts, since we often give so sparingly, even at our peak?

I will leave the comments open, in case anyone wants to add anything. I would prefer the comments thread not to be a debate forum, though. Just state your view to me, and I will read it. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Book Write-Up: Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue

Thomas M. Crisp, Steven L. Porter, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof. Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue: Moral and Spiritual Change in Christian Perspective. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

This book is about the intersection between psychology and Christian spiritual formation. In this review, I will comment on each essay.

“Spiritual Theology: When Psychology and Theology in the Spirit Service Faith,” by John H. Coe.

This chapter starts strong, with a story about a person who is told by a pastor to pray more, to put off anger, and not to worry. The person responds that he knows about that and has tried doing it, but it does not work for him. As far as I can recall, the chapter did not revisit this issue. Still, it offers a compelling summary of St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Knight of the Soul,” with its descriptions of desolation and consolation. It also offers a biblical defense of psychology, treating it as part of the human wisdom to which the Bible and historical Christianity have been open.

“Is Spiritual Formation More Cultural Than Theo-Anthropological? An Ongoing Dialogue,” by James M. Houston.

A solid intellectual chapter, as it compares European and American Christianity in their emphases, discusses postmodern conceptions of the self, and engages Ignatian spiritual formation and Rene Girard. The conclusion may be a bit obvious: people need metanoia. But the journey is intellectually rich.

“‘End of Faith as Its Beginning’: A Christ-Centered Developmental Spirituality,” by Bruce Hindmarsh.

It just seemed to me that this chapter couched a basic point in a lot of advanced language: humans are made in God’s image, and there is more to them than what science can discern.

“Living ‘Before God’: A Kierkegaardian View of Spirituality,” by C. Stephen Evans.

This is one of the few down-to-earth essays in this book. It talks about Kierkegaard’s view on reading Scripture. Kierkegaard strikes me as rather legalistic, and the chapter would have been better had it addressed Kierkegaard’s own misanthropy, and how he may have reconciled that with the biblical imperative to love one’s neighbor. Still, the chapter summarizes Kierkegaard’s intriguing point that reading Scripture in community can be an attempt to shield ourselves from the personal conviction that reading Scripture can bring. That is refreshing, in light of the contemporary emphasis on communitarianism.

“Beyond Resilience, Posttraumatic Growth, and Self-Care: A Biblical Perspective on Suffering and Christian Spiritual Formation,” by Siang-Yang Tan.

The point of this chapter seems to be that therapy often seeks to remove or lessen suffering, whereas the Bible depicts suffering as a possible pathway to spiritual growth, depending on one’s response to it. This is a question worth addressing. Speaking personally, I feel that I do well to take anti-depressants instead of relying solely on prayer and Bible reading (not that the author suggests otherwise); they complement each other, and it makes me more tolerable to be around.

“Seeking the Tropological Import of Psalm 35,” by Ellen T. Charry.

There is not much here that I have not encountered before: the imprecatory Psalms are a cry for divine justice.

“On Specks and Planks: Psychotherapy, Spiritual Formation, and Moral Judgment,” by Earl D. Bland.

What enhanced this chapter was the case study. A Catholic named William does not think his wife is traditional enough, and he is understanding towards virtually everyone except his own wife. They work on their issues.

“Queen of the Virtues and King of the Vices: Graced Gratitude and Disgraced Ingratitude,” by Robert A. Emmons.

Basically, we should be grateful rather than seeing good things as our due and taking them for granted.

“Relational Spirituality, Differentiation, and Mature Alterity,” by Steven J. Sandage, David R. Paine, and Jonathan Morgan.

This on page 191 caught my eye: “Bonhoeffer spoke to this dialectic in saying the person who cannot be alone is not ready for community, and the person who cannot be in community is not ready to be alone.” How to move towards this state of wholeness is an excellent question. The quote rubs me the wrong way, but it also is refreshing in light of some of the pat answers that I have heard. Some say to loners: “You need to rejoice in being alone—by learning to be by yourself, you are developing a self that can be in community.” Well, that makes me feel better about being alone, but things do not necessarily work that way. Being alone for a long period of time can hinder one from having the skills to fit into communities.

“Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Contributions of Positive Psychology to Spiritual Formation,” by Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Brandon J. Griffin, and Caroline R. Lavelock.

This chapter illustrates that being around generous, socially-concerned people can make us more generous and socially-concerned. Or at least we will try to act the part when we are around them!

“Born to Relate: In Trauma, in Transformation, in Transcendence,” by Marie T. Hoffman.

This chapter has a case study about a couple that learns empathy towards each other.

“Give Up Childish Ways or Receive the Kingdom Like a Child? Spiritual Formation from a Developmental Psychology Perspective,” by Justin L. Barrett.

This is the best chapter in the book. It talks about the cross-cultural awareness of the spiritual in children. It seems to associate the fruit of the Spirit with familial or tribal loyalty, treating political liberals as deficient because they supposedly lack that. I did not care much for that point and question how biblical it is, considering the biblical writings that challenge the societies of their day. This chapter does well, though, to address the question of how psychology and the Holy Spirit can interact. The book as a whole would have been better had it done that more, and in greater depth. I agree that people’s identity as agents is preserved once they become Christian: they are not automatons. At the same time, if people can become better through psychological means, or through doing spiritual practices, where does spiritual transformation from the Holy Spirit fit into the picture?

I apologize if I misinterpreted or missed the point of any of these contributions.

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Church Write-Up: Ethnocentrism, Assimilation, Potential Crumbling, and Theodicy in Reference to the Joseph Story

At the LCMS Bible study, the pastor talked about the story of Joseph. Here are some items:

A. The Egyptians thought highly of themselves. Of course, the Pharaoh believed that he was a god, but, according to the pastor, the people in the Egyptian hierarchy saw themselves as semidivine. The Egyptians saw themselves as above other nations, so the Egyptians would not eat with the Hebrews. Joseph asks the Egyptian staff to leave the room before he reveals he is Joseph to his brothers because he does not want those Egyptians to know he actually is Hebrew.

B. At this stage, there was not as clear of a definition of what being an Israelite meant. We are not yet in the Book of Leviticus, where God sets forth stipulations that set Israel apart from the other nations. Joseph has some conception that the God of Israel is opposed to adultery, which is why he refuses the advances from Potiphar’s wife, but he later marries an Egyptian, even more, the daughter of a priest. Joseph becomes absorbed in Egyptian culture.

C. A student read a note from her study Bible that said that seven years of famine, one on top of another, would have crumbled the Egyptian empire, had God not intervened.

D. The pastor said that he does not believe that God caused the famine but foreknew it and prepared the Egyptians (and the world) for it; God does not cause evil but brings good out of it. We got some into theodicy. Calvin elevated God’s sovereignty, whereas Luther saw divine mercy as more important: God’s sovereignty informs and shapes his sovereignty. Whereas Calvin believed that God somehow caused Adam and Eve to sin, Luther held that Adam and Eve sinned by their own free will, but God foresaw their sin and thus planned to send Christ. A student asked if God knows we will sin but hopes we will not. The pastor replied that God sees the whole movie in advance but his heart still breaks over human sin.

I asked about Genesis 41:25, 28, and 32, which appear to suggest that God indeed did cause the famine. The pastor referred to Luther’s idea of three kingdoms. The Kingdom of Power includes God’s jurisdiction over nature. The Kingdom of Grace is God dealing with us according to God’s promises. The Kingdom of Glory is heaven. How the pastor addressed my question may need to be unpacked, a bit. The pastor seemed to suggest that God rules nature but often allows nature to unfold itself. The pastor may have been implying that, when Joseph says that the famine is something that God is about to do, he means that God, in his rule over nature, is permitting the famine to take place. The pastor also said that the New Testament focuses on God’s mercy more than God’s power, whereas God’s power was stressed in the Old Testament. Yet, the pastor noted exceptions, such as the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira and the Book of Revelation, commenting that, just when you think you have God figured out, something in the Bible trips you up.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Church Write-Up: Planted by Streams

Here are some items from the LCMS service and Sunday School class:

A. The visiting pastor preached about Luke 6:17-26, which are the beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus promises blessing to those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated on account of their belief in Jesus, and woe to those who are rich, full, laughing, and popular. The latter, according to the pastor, are people who gloat in their power and wealth and see themselves as self-sufficient, without need of God.

B. The Sunday School class that I attended was about the lectionary.

I will go through the presentation. Some of what was said may be speculative or debatable, but I am preserving this for future reference rather than fact-checking.

The use of lectionaries in churches began in the first century. Christians inherited the practice from the synagogues, which read from the Torah and the prophets and had a homily on the reading. Christians met on Sunday rather than Saturday since the first Easter, and they supplemented the Old Testament readings with readings from the writings of the apostles. But the specific readings for each week differed from church to church, as there was not a standard lectionary.

Starting in the fourth century, the church’s calendar, with the readings that accompanied it, was developing. There were readings for the time from Advent to Pentecost. In the twelfth century, there emerged the celebration of the Trinity. The Reformation was divided on what to do with the church calendar. Many Reformers chose to abandon it and to do their own thing, but Luther kept it because it neither taught false doctrine nor altered what the church knows about Christ.

The LCMS has a choice between a one year calendar and a three year calendar. The one year calendar uses fewer passages, they are repeated from year to year, and it is good for memory, since people will hear the same texts every year. The three year calendar uses more passages. The three year calendar started as late as 1969, with Vatican II. The Lutheran Church in America began using it in 1973. The three year series has three options: A, B, and C. A uses Matthew for the Gospel reading, B uses Mark, and C uses Luke. The church that I attend is currently in C, and it will continue the three year series until the first Sunday in Lent, then it will diverge from that for a while.

The Old Testament lessons are selected according to how they relate to the Gospel lesson. One of the teachers said he was unsure how the epistle readings are chosen, and the visiting pastor then shared that the church often chooses to continue through an epistle even if it does not tie directly into the Old Testament and Gospel lessons. For example, the New Testament reading over the last several weeks has been from I Corinthians.

We then dived into the passages for today (Sunday, as I write this). The Old Testament reading was from Jeremiah 17:5-8: it curses those who rely on their flesh for strength and whose hearts are turned away from the LORD, while blessing those who trust in the LORD. The former are like shrubs in the desert, whereas the latter are like trees planted by water, which bear fruit even during drought. The Epistle reading was from I Corinthians 15:12, 16-20: if affirms that, if Christ has not risen, then our faith is futile, we are still in our sins, and those who have died in Christ have perished, without hope of resurrection. The Gospel reading, of course, is Luke 6:17-26: Luke’s beatitudes and woes.

One student drew a contrast between Jeremiah 17:5-8 and Luke 6:17-26. Jeremiah says what to do to improve your circumstance, namely, trust in God. Jesus, however, offers a different way to look at one’s circumstances: to remember that God will make the circumstances better. It is about what Jesus does. If it is about what you do—through accumulating, exulting, and trusting in wealth, power, and comfort—then you will get your reward.

The teacher said that, apart from God, we have no expectation that good will come, nothing to which we can hold on. The plant’s fruit in Jeremiah 17:5-8 is not from what it has done but from the living water that comes from God. Through heat and drought, Christ sustains and nurtures us. Psalm 1, which is also part of the lectionary for today (but which we did not read), also has the theme of a plant being beside waters. Rich people may feel inclined to trust in themselves and that they did everything right. The problem with trusting in the strength of human beings is that, with age, strength fades. In the Gospel reading, people come for miles to touch Jesus’s garment so that Jesus’s life can flow from him to them. In the Old Testament reading, Jeremiah predicts ugly things that will happen and wants the Israelites to make sure that they are planted in the right place. The Epistle reading from I Corinthians explains why we can trust in God: Christ’s resurrection is why we can trust God to be the living water for us.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Church Write-Up (Sort Of): It’s Personal, by Andy Stanley

The LCMS church that I attend has two Sunday School options for the next four weeks. One option is Andy Stanley’s series, “It’s Personal.” The other option is a discussion of the lectionary. The Andy Stanley option intrigued me because it addresses the issue of doubt and the barriers—both intellectual and personal—that people cite as inhibitors to their acceptance of the Christian faith. I decided to listen to the Andy Stanley series at home, and I will attend the lectionary Bible study at church. The LCMS church did not have its Wednesday Bible study this week, so I will use the time and space that I ordinarily devote to my mid-week Church Write-Up to a write-up about the Andy Stanley series.

Let’s start with a rough summary. Stanley acknowledges that people have legitimate, or at least understandable, reasons not to become Christians. They may wonder how the dinosaurs got onto the Ark. They may look at Christians and wonder why anyone would want to be like them, or they may have had bad experiences in churches. They may compare themselves with Christians and conclude that they live better lives than Christians do. Some may just be indifferent. “Why don’t I want to be a Christian? I don’t know—why don’t I want to stand on one foot all day? I just don’t want to be one.”

Stanley was encouraging people to desire to know and love God for himself, not to get their questions answered. Is that not the way many of us are: we want to be loved for us, not accepted after we answer people’s questions about us? We are that way because we are made in God’s image. Stanley said that most people who become Christians do so, not because their questions were answered, but because they had an experience in which they met and fell in love with God. One can have all one’s questions answered and still not be close to God.

Stanley drew a comparison with marriage. Single people may have a bunch of objections to getting married. Perhaps they struggle to support themselves financially, so how would they support both themselves and a spouse? What if they get married and then develop a connection with someone else, who could have been “the one”? But when they meet and fall in love with a person, those questions fall into the background. Sure, they will meet other people, but none of them will be that person. Before, they were looking at marriage as an issue, the way that many non-believers look at Christianity as an issue. After they meet the right person, they love that specific person, as believers are enraptured with Christ.

Throughout the series, Stanley referred to Scriptural examples. Abram did not have all of his questions answered when he believed in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15). He did not know how God would address his lack of offspring, and God did not tell him then and there. Nathaniel in John 1 was skeptical that Jesus was the Messiah because what good could come from Nazareth? Then Jesus revealed a personal detail that Jesus knew about him, and Nathaniel believed, even though that whole Nazareth question was not resolved. Saul of Tarsus encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus; he may have still had his religious questions about whether Jesus biblically qualified as the Messiah, but he could not deny the truth when he appeared to him. The Jewish leaders in John 9 had their reasons not to accept Jesus as the Messiah, yet there standing before him was a man who had been blind but now could see, due to Jesus.

Stanley expressed doubt that we would want a God who would be so undignified as to answer all of our questions before we accepted him. Stanley also referred to people’s experiences of God in Christ throughout the world, treating that as an unavoidable fact. Another point that Stanley made was that unbelievers may win a debate with their believing friend or spouse, but, after winning, there is still something that nags in their heart: the realization that God so loved the world.

A lot of what Stanley said hit close to home. I have some issues with the claim that one should just accept God, whether his or her questions are answered or not. Those questions are not just about curiosities. They pertain to whether the God of the Bible is real, and if that God is just, kind, and good (especially on such issues as hell and the biblical Conquest). In addition, not everyone, including not every Christian, has had a powerful experience of God.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Book Write-Up: George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles

Timothy Larsen. George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

George MacDonald was a nineteenth century Scottish preacher, whose works had a profound influence on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, G.K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle. This book is a collection of lectures about aspects of MacDonald’s life and thought. Timothy Larsen is the author of most of them, but James Edward Beitler III, Richard Hughes Gibson, and Jill Palaez Baumgaertner. All of them are scholars at Wheaton College.

The back cover of this book states: “Larsen explores how, throughout his life and writings, MacDonald sought to counteract skepticism and to herald instead the reality of the miraculous.” Well, not entirely, at least not according to my impression. The book is excellent, but, if you are expecting MacDonald to be presented as a classical Christian apologist, you may be disappointed. MacDonald celebrated doubt as a possible path to authentic faith, in an age when people were starting to become more publicly honest about their doubts concerning the Christian faith. MacDonald was also a romantic, who believed that nature could inspire the worship of God, but who shied away from arguments for the existence of God that appealed to nature. At the same time, in one passage in this book, it is speculated that MacDonald may have regarded one of his character’s gullibility regarding fairy stories as preferable to wholesale doubt, as the former view is more enchanting.

I have read some of the works with which the book interacts, in Michael Phillips’s edited versions. Still, this book taught me a lot that I did not know before. Larsen talks about how the celebration of Christmas changed throughout history, and how MacDonald’s thought interacted with that. MacDonald’s surly personality is a prominent point of discussion in this book, as one of the essays argues that MacDonald’s failure as a pastor was due, not to his unorthodox beliefs, as that did not stop conservative churches from inviting him to speak. Rather, he was simply a bad pastor, who really wanted to be a poet. Imagine Sheldon Cooper in the pulpit, only with the desire to be a poet. Although MacDonald repudiated Calvinism, he still had a robust view of divine providence, viewing afflictions (even his own) as purifying agents from the hand of God. But he also had the idea that a person’s doctrinal beliefs could somehow influence his or her physical health, which reminded me of “Word of Faith” teachings.

When the book discussed topics that I had encountered before, it did so in an edifying and insightful manner. This includes MacDonald’s belief in postmortem cleansing and his preference for the Gospels over other books of the Bible, even though he did not reject the other biblical books. The book does not agree with MacDonald’s universalism. Larsen cites MacDonald’s view that God will utterly purify people in the afterlife before letting them into heaven and remarks that one need not be a universalist to appreciate the value of holiness. Maybe, but how many will become perfect for heaven in this life? Baumgaertner then offers her own Lutheran perspective, saying that “we cannot pursue” “holiness and sanctification” but “can accept it as it is freely given to us through Christ and respond in gratitude with good works” (page 132).

The book perhaps could have gone into a little more detail about how MacDonald thought nature pointed to God, by giving examples. Still, this is an informative and edifying book.

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

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Church Write-Up: The Call; Following Jesus; Canon

Here is this week’s Church Write-Up. I attended the LCMS church.

A. Here are some items from the pastor’s sermon. He told a lot of anecdotes, but not all of the following items are anecdotes. The theme was God’s call, and the pastor’s main text was Luke 5:1-11, in which Jesus calls Peter to be a fisher of people.

—-The pastor talked about a woman who runs a half-way house for single mothers. I have heard her speak, and the church partners with her. She found that she enjoyed mothering and that she was good at mentoring single mothers. But she was not just doing running the halfway house because she enjoyed it and was good at it. She felt it was a divine calling on her life.

—-Jesus instructed Peter to go out into the deep and cast his net. That was literal, the pastor said: Jesus was asking Peter to do something that was counterintuitive to his instincts as a fisherman, since fish preferred to be closer to the shore, where the sunlight struck at that time of the day. But the pastor also saw something spiritual and metaphorical here: Jesus was inviting Peter to confront the deepest parts of himself. The pastor said that there are many things deep within himself that he does not want people to know about. They entered him years ago, sunk to the bottom, and stayed, like trash at the bottom of the ocean; at times, they can come to the surface. But God can use us, even with those deep parts. The pastor told a story about someone he knew from seminary. This student was burdened by seminary, since it was demanding: learning Hebrew and Greek and systematic theology can be daunting. The student suffered from depression and attempted to commit suicide. He was unsuccessful because cars saw him and did not run him over, but his pelvis was crushed from jumping onto the road. He was in the hospital and lived only for three weeks, but he spent that time witnessing to terminally ill people about Jesus.

—-As he did in Wednesday’s class, the pastor talked about how Peter prior to his calling knew who Jesus was, admired and respected Jesus, and was attracted to Jesus’s teachings. But Peter’s connection with Jesus was not yet personal. The pastor told a story about a professor of his who studied under a renowned New Testament professor at an east coast seminary. The NT professor lectured about the Greek and loved the stories of the Gospels, but he confessed privately that he did not believe that Jesus was his Savior.

—-Jesus called Peter to use his skill-set for the service of the Gospel. The pastor told a story about a Lutheran he knew who owned his own oil company and was a billionaire, though you would not know it talking with him, since the man simply came across as a cheerful Lutheran. The man said that he has always tried to honor God in his everyday life, whether he is at work or serving the church.

B. In the youth part of the service, the youth pastor said that we do not literally follow Jesus around, as the disciples did, but we follow Jesus when we spread forgiveness, share God’s love, and serve in Jesus’s name.

C. The Sunday School class completed a series called “Books and Readers in the Early Church: Forming the Biblical Canon.” Here are some items:

—-A question that has recurred throughout the class has been why the early church used the codex instead of scrolls, when scrolls were prominent. The answer that the teacher thinks makes the most sense is that the early church preserved and circulated Paul’s writings as a collection, and it was unfeasible to put all of that onto a scroll: that would be a very big scroll! It would be more convenient and economical to put them onto a codex and to circulate them that way. Paul was seen as the interpreter of the Old Testament, so the Old Testament was attached, and eventually the Gospels, too, were attached.

—-The teacher went through criteria that the “orthodox party” used to accept New Testament books as authoritative. In a sense, this was a bottom up process: churches were using and circulating most of the books that are in our canonical New Testament, as those were the books that God used to edify the church and to transform lives. But there were Gnostic Christian writings, and the “orthodox party” felt a need to deal with those. Gnosticism was against physicality and was elitist, thinking that only those with special knowledge could be saved, and that only a few were even capable of that special knowledge; the rest were simply doomed. Christianity, by contrast, thought that God created the physical and worked within the physical, and that Christ died to save all. Among the criteria for accepting a book as authoritative: a book must be by an apostle or someone who knew an apostle; a book must be consistent with apostolic teaching, the Gospel, as it exists in the church’s teaching and in the Old Testament (particularly Isaiah); and the book must speak in God’s style, according to God’s voice as it appears in the Old Testament. Other factors contributed to canonization, such as the costliness of producing books that encouraged the church to decide which books deserved priority, and how the state in the third century was burning Christian books and Christians needed to decide which books they were willing to die for.

—-The teacher talked about lists of New Testament books. Justin Martyr in the second century CE said that the church at services read from the Old Testament then the memoirs of the apostles, then there was the homily. Origen’s commentary on Joshua appears to refer to all of the New Testament books: four Gospels, 1-2 Peter, James, Jude, Luke-Acts, Paul’s fourteen books, and Johannine writings (Gospel, Epistles, Revelation). This is by 250 CE. Origen also alludes to books in a homily on Isaac’s wells in the Book of Genesis. By the fourth century, the Council of Nicea listed 27 books of the New Testament as canonical. There is also Athanasius’s festal letter (367 CE). The teacher said that, technically, the canon has never been closed. A person can write a book now, and, if the church concludes that God is using that book in a special way, it could be added to the canon.

—-The teacher talked about how the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible differ. He said that the Hebrew Bible ends with Ezra-Nehemiah; my understanding is that it ends with 2 Chronicles, but I remember reading in John Sailhamer’s book on the Pentateuch that the Jews end their Bible with Ezra-Nehemiah, so the teacher probably was not getting that idea from nowhere. The Septuagint ends with the prophets. Judaism ends with Ezra-Nehemiah because it is about the fulfillment of the promise that the Jews would return from exile to their land. Christianity adopted the Septuagint’s order because the prophets predict the Messiah, then we turn right to the New Testament and there is Jesus, the Messiah the prophets predicted.

—-The teacher talked some about the Apocrypha. Protestants regard the Apocrypha as edifying but they rejected it as authoritative for doctrine because the Catholics used it to support purgatory, plus they identified errors in it. Catholics nowadays treat it as secondary canon, calling it Deuterocanonical. The teacher says he doubts it is read in Catholic services. I have heard Wisdom and Ben Sira read in Catholic services, though, and I have come across Catholics who treat the Apocrypha as divinely-inspired. Yet, the teacher does make a good point: Catholics call them Deuterocanonical, for some reason.

—-The teacher attempted to define inerrancy. He says that the Bible was not dropped from heaven or written by people possessed, so it is not like what the Muslims claim about the Quran. We read Paul, and we can see his personality. The Bible, however, conveys God’s will accurately. God can use broken people and vessels to do God’s will, so God can also use texts that are imperfect, due to the absence of the original manuscripts (which are inerrant), copying errors, and different versions. I was thinking of asking him what he thought about Bart Ehrman’s conclusions. Bart Ehrman argues that orthodox Christians made slight alterations to the New Testament text to make it more consistent with orthodoxy: to eliminate any possible implication of adoptionism, or that Joseph was Jesus’s father. But time was running out, and the teacher would have to explain who Bart Ehrman is, what adoptionism is, and what Ehrman argues, before offering his critique, so I did not ask my question.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Beauty of the Lord, by Jonathan King

Jonathan King. The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics. Lexham, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Jonathan King has a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and lectures at the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Universitas Pelita Harapan in Indonesia.

This book is about how beauty relates to Christian doctrines, including the divine nature, creation, the incarnation, the cross, and eschatological recreation. King brings into the discussion such theological luminaries as Irenaeus of Lyons, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Herman Bavinck, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jonathan Edwards.

This review is subjective. All reviews are, of course, but this one is especially subjective because I recognize that others may read it and have a different impression.

Overall, I thought that the book contained a lot of basic Christian concepts that I have encountered before, albeit couched in academic language. Christ is the creator of beauty and recreates people as beautiful. Penal substitution. Christ manifests glory as the incarnate one, even when he was not transfigured. The usual debates about what the divine image is: the human role as God’s representative, some characteristic of humans, etc.? I do not want to convey that I lack appreciation for these concepts. Perhaps showing rather than telling may have enhanced these concepts, as far as the book goes.

Although I was not floored by any of the book’s insights, it did contain some interesting discussions. Can God be simple and have attributes? Do humans still possess the divine image when they are in hell? How the eschatological recreation is indeed recreation but does not exactly destroy the old creation. The concept of the divinization of humans, as they see God through God in the eschaton, was a helpful way to conceptualize how Christians will know God. The contrast between a soulish body and a spiritual body was also fairly effectively fleshed out. The discussion of beauty was abstract but was deep: what is beauty, and how do we identify the beautiful?

This book was not entirely my cup of tea, but it had some good things.

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Church Write-Up: Sacerdotalism and Functionalism, Isaiah 6 and Acts 9, Fish

Here are some items from today’s LCMS Bible study. The topic was God’s call.

A. The pastor distinguished between two schools of thought. The first school of thought is known as sacerdotalism. This view emphasizes the pastor or the priest. In Roman Catholicism, the priest is a representative of Christ, conveying God’s forgiveness to those in Christ’s body. People come to the priest, confess their sin, and walk away absolved; the priest plays a necessary role in a person receiving grace. The second school of thought is functionalism, which de-emphasizes the pastor and priest and instead stresses the power of the word of God: the Spirit works through the word of God, and that is what is efficacious. The word of God makes things happen, not the person in office.

B. The pastor then shared how sacerdotalism and functionalism have played out in the Missouri Synod Lutheran church. He referred to Wilhelm Loehe, who denied sacerdotalism and held that the word of God was God’s agent in the church. Arthur Carl Piepkorn, on the other hand, brought back sacerdotalism; for instance, he brought back the cope, which is an outer garment that is very high church. My impression is that the LCMS is in between sacerdotalism and functionalism, with different pastors leaning one way or the other. Our pastor characterized himself as a functionalist. One reason is that he was influenced by the Springfield Concordia campus, where Loehe was influential, even though he himself graduated from the St. Louis Concordia, which was where Piepkorn was prominent. The pastor also said that he believes, from experience, that the Holy Spirit can make any sermon effective, for the Holy Spirit used some of his own sermons to touch people’s lives, even though he felt that those particular sermons were not any good; what was important was the word and the Spirit, not him personally. On the other side, the pastor quoted a prominent LCMS official who characterized functionalism as treating pastors like light bulbs: you unscrew it when it gets old and replace it with another, and it makes no difference. Personally, I think sacerdotalism can be taken in that direction, too, in that it seems to portray the priest as a functionary: why care about what the pastor is like, under sacerdotalism, since what is important is that he perform the rituals that are essential for grace? The Donatist controversy explored such territory. My characterization is likely unfair, though, since Roman Catholics conceive of the priest as a shepherd who should feed the flock by preaching and example. Functionalism needs not to treat the pastor as utterly dispensable, and sacerdotalism needs not to disregard the power of the word of God.

C. The pastor talked about the Herr Pastor, the types of pastors who assume a special authority in the church; some even claim that they alone can convey God’s forgiveness of sins in the church. According to this midset, if one person sins against another, they can share God’s forgiveness with each other, but only the pastor can speak the absolution from God. (Our pastor disagrees with that idea.) The pastor speculated that the concept of a Herr Pastor may go back to Lutheran immigrants in the nineteenth century. Most of them knew their trade, but the pastor was the best educated among them, so people came to him to draw up their wills and for advice on problems.

D. The pastor talked some about apostolic succession. England broke away from the church of Rome, yet the bishops of the Anglican church had been previously ordained by the bishops of Rome. The Anglicans continued a line of apostolic succession from those bishops. Something similar happened with the Swedish Lutherans. The LCMS, by contrast, believes that the word of God is what ordains and calls people to service.

E. Two of our texts were Isaiah 6:1-8 and Galatians 1:11-24, which concern the calling of Isaiah and Paul, respectively. The pastor brought Acts 9 into the mix. In Acts 9, when Jesus appears to Saul of Tarsus and blinds him, the people around Saul hear Jesus’s voice but do not see him (v. 7). The pastor tied this with Isaiah 6:9: “And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not” (KJV). The people around Saul hear the voice but do not understand it; Saul cannot see, but he perceives Jesus.

F. Paul’s detractors in Galatia, the Judaizers, were saying that Paul’s authority was not from Christ but from men. Their claim was that Paul was not giving the Galatians the full story—that they needed to keep the Jewish law—because Paul himself had not learned it at the feet of Jesus. Paul responds that he received his Gospel through a direct revelation from Jesus Christ.

G. The pastor moved on to Luke 5:1-11, the calling of Simon Peter. It takes place in Capernaum. In Luke 4:38, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law at Simon’s house. The pastor said that Simon’s house was Jesus’s base of operations, since Jesus did not have a house of his own. He referred to scholar Paul Maier, who argues that Simon’s house is beneath a church in Capernaum. That has been the traditional claim, but the pastor wondered what archaeological evidence there is for that, since there was not any china in the house with a label saying, “This china belongs to Simon’s mother-in-law.” I found this brief article by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. The article states that the house is like the house in the Gospels, but so were other houses. This house, though, is different in one respect: as early as 50 CE, one of its rooms was used for public gatherings. Murphy-O’Connor believes those were Christian gatherings.

H. Now for the pastor’s comments on Luke 5:1-11. Peter knows Jesus and has seen some of Jesus’s miracles, such as Jesus’s healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and his exorcisms. Peter has also allowed Jesus to use his fishing boat for public preaching. But who Jesus is has not quite sunk into Peter’s head. It finally does, however, when Jesus enters Peter’s realm, namely, fishing. When Jesus instructs Peter to go out into the deep and launch his net, Peter assumes that he knows more than Jesus. “What can this cityboy know about fishing?”, Peter likely wondered to himself. “Isn’t his dad a carpenter?” But Jesus is a rabbi, and, out of respect, Peter does what Jesus says. The pastor was portraying Jesus’s command as a bit daunting: Jewish fisherman liked to stay near the shore rather than launching into the deep, since the deep and the sea were associated with the unknown and with chaos. But Peter does what Jesus says and catches a lot of fish, and that is when he recognizes that Jesus is much more than a nice rabbi who does tricks. Peter is now like Isaiah, who felt unclean in the presence of a holy God who could squish him. Jesus tells Peter to be not afraid, and the pastor’s handout says that the verb tense here conveys the idea of “Stop being afraid,” meaning the forgiveness has a lasting impact. (The verb form is a present imperative. It occurs elsewhere in the LXX and the New Testament; at times, it appears to refer to specific situations—do not be afraid about this present circumstance—but I am not ruling out that it could be an exhortation not to fear in general, due to who God is or what Jesus is doing. I have not done a thorough study of this.) We are okay being in God’s presence as a result of Jesus’s word to us. Jesus then tells Peter that he will fish for people. Jesus enters Simon’s world and puts Simon’s identity and skillset into the service of the Gospel. Similarly, God took Isaiah, a temple employee who knew what was going on in Jerusalem and had access to the king, and put him into God’s service, such that Isaiah became more than a temple employee. God puts us in service to the Gospel where we are.

I. Peter went back to fishing in John 21, resuming his former life when the risen Jesus was slow in coming to Galilee. Jesus performs the same miracle there that he did at Peter’s calling, and Jesus uses that to call Peter into a deeper relationship. The pastor said that Jesus personalizes. The class had a brief discussion about apostasy, and the pastor said that some people may have difficulty connecting the Gospel to their pain and hurt.

J. The pastor said that apostasy is a result of sanctified free will. He did not elaborate on this, but that could be Lutheran monergism talking. By our free will as sinful human beings, we are unable to accept the Gospel. It is when God regenerates Christians that they are able to have faith, or to walk away from the faith that they have as a result of regeneration. I am speculating here.

K. Ezekiel 47:10 talks about fisherman standing beside the shore of the river, catching great varieties of fish. The fish will be plentiful, from the river of fresh water flowing from God’s sanctuary. The pastor said that the fish represent believers: there are so many believers in the river of God, flowing from his presence.

L. The pastor said that Jesus calling disciples was unusual, since ordinarily students came to rabbis asking to follow them. I have not done a fact check of this. It would make sense, though: Jesus was not just a rabbi teaching the law to his students but was enlisting people in his kingdom mission.

Book Write-Up: An Introduction to the New Testament, by David A. deSilva

David A. deSilva. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation. Second Edition. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

David A. deSilva has a Ph.D. from Emory University and teaches New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary.

As the title indicates, this book is an introduction to the New Testament. It is over 800 pages, and this review will not do it justice. Here are some of my thoughts, impressions, and observations of it.

A. The book is thorough. It extensively covers the historical context of the New Testament writings, as well as various methodological criticisms: form, text, source, literary, feminist, and rhetorical. It uses examples to illustrate what these critical methods entail, explains the basis for them, and evenhandedly evaluates them. deSilva also brings up more recent scholarly trends when it comes to the Gospels, such as social memory. The methodological discussions serve to elucidate the biblical text, however, meaning that the content of the New Testament writings take center stage. deSilva discusses their theological perspectives and how those perspectives interacted with their historical setting; an able teacher, deSilva paints a picture of what it was like for Christians to live in those days. At times, deSilva delves into scholarly debates about the perspectives within the New Testament, such as the debate over whether Paul stresses the faith OF Jesus or faith IN Jesus. There are also discussions in the book about the practical or ministerial application of New Testament insights.

B. In terms of authorship of the New Testament writings, the book is largely conservative. deSilva defends at least the possibility that Paul wrote Colossians, Ephesians, and the pastorals. He argues that Peter may have written I Peter, and that his words may have formed the basis for II Peter. He holds that Acts and the Pauline epistles are not necessarily contradictory in their historical presentation. On the Gospels, deSilva is more moderate. He embraces source criticism, such as Markan priority and Q. He does not buy into some arguments in favor of Matthean or Lukan authorship, but he offers a plausible reason that Matthew, an eyewitness to Jesus, would use Mark’s Gospel (i.e., the priority of Mark’s Gospel and the respect it had within the church). deSilva does not believe that John the son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel of John or the Book of Revelation. Where deSilva is conservative, he does not look like he is trying to force the evidence into a preconceived confessional mold, but rather as one presenting plausible models.

C. The book leans heavily towards the New Perspective. If you find comfort in the idea that you are saved by Christ’s free grace through faith (trust) alone, even if you fall drastically short of God’s righteous standard, then this book will probably disappoint you. deSilva stresses good works, avoiding sin, following Jesus’s example, and living in a self-sacrificial manner. These are the appropriate responses to God’s grace and are enabled by God’s work within believers, and deSilva at times seems to suggest that they are necessary to retain God’s favor. The book is not comforting, but it does effectively present Christianity as a noble and righteous way of life, far better than pursuing sin and selfishness.

D. At times, deSilva stresses the communitarian nature of Christianity, as if Christians are to see the church as their family. That may be a challenge for some, in this individualistic age in which many feel disconnected, even in church. Still, deSilva effectively illustrates how families functioned in antiquity—they recognized the value of mutual love and forgiveness—and why the church needed to be a family to Christians who, on account of their faith, were cut off from the support of their own natural family.

E. deSilva somewhat presents early Christianity as a step up from paganism and Judaism. At the same time, deSilva also acknowledges pagan beliefs in divine goodness and grace, and Jewish emphases on love, mercy, and forgiveness.

F. There are times when deSilva helpfully explains biblical passages that I have found perplexing. For example, why did Jesus curse a fig tree when it was the wrong season for figs? deSilva proposes that, in Mark, Jesus exhorts his followers to be continually ready for his return, since Jesus may return when we deem it the “wrong season.”

G. One area in which the book is lacking is that it never (as far as I can recall) engages Jesus’s imminent eschatological expectations: the idea that Jesus expected the imminent end of the world. deSilva states that Luke repudiates such an idea, and he refers briefly to Albert Schweitzer’s picture of Jesus, but he does not deal with passages that appear to suggest an imminent eschatological expectation in Mark’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. The same is true with deSilva’s treatment of Revelation (at least in this book). deSilva places Revelation within the context of other apocalyptic literature, but he never seems to engage that literature’s imminent apocalyptic expectations, or passages in which Revelation appears to manifest an imminent apocalyptic expectation.

H. In more liberal New Testament introductions, you will find the idea that the New Testament is diverse: that, say, Mark has a low Christology, whereas John has a high Christology. I do not recall that in this particular book. This is not to suggest that deSilva’s picture of the New Testament is flat, for deSilva presents particularities in the New Testament writings in terms of the issues addressed and their emphases. But deSilva seems to depict the New Testament as largely unified in its core message. In one place, deSilva extensively summarizes the view that blood atonement is lacking in Luke-Acts. He acknowledges that is puzzling, then says that this does not necessarily mean Luke did not believe in blood atonement.

I. In terms of whether this would be a good introductory textbook for undergraduates, that is a good question. On the one hand, students will learn a lot from this book, and deSilva shines in fleshing out the historical context of the New Testament writings. On the other hand, the book may not be as successful in gently easing undergraduates into the heavy material.

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

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Church Write-Up: Mission, Text Criticism and Luke 23

Here are some items from this morning’s LCMS church service and Sunday School class.

A. The pastor handled the children’s part of the service this morning because the youth pastor was conducting a retreat at the beach. The pastor talked about love and the different people who love: the kids’ parents love them and provide for them, and their teachers show them love by teaching them. God showed us love by sending Jesus to die for our sins, and Jesus chose to come and do so out of love. As God sent Jesus on a mission, so Jesus sends us on a mission. We love others not out of obligation or law but because we get to do so; we want to do so.

B. The pastor’s text was I Corinthians 13, but the pastor spoke about how love relates to the church’s mission. He referred to church growth studies in the 1960’s that encouraged churches to build on their homogeneity. In the case of our church, it consists mostly of white, middle-class people over 20 (that “over 20” part got some chuckles!), so church growth books would suggest that our church seek out other white, middle-class people over 20. The pastor disagrees with that approach, however.

The pastor later told a story about a pastor he knows who aroused controversy by saying that the four walls of the church are not for those who are already there, but for those on the outside. Our pastor said that our church, too, seeks to serve those on the outside. We have a traditional service because people in the outside community might have a nostalgic feeling about the liturgy and decide to visit. We have a contemporary service because some may like lively contemporary Christian music. Of course, the pastor would probably agree that the four walls of the church are for those on the inside as well; we’re going through I Corinthians, and that is about edifying the church. But the church is supposed to serve the community, too.

The pastor told another story about a Lutheran church where two families were at odds. The sanctuary was being built, and different people in the congregation ended up bringing different things, without the congregation voting on it. You would expect disaster, but it actually turned out well, like God was working things out for good.

C. The Sunday school class was about text criticism. We looked at three versions of Luke 23:13-23. The first was the Bodmer Papyrus, p75, which dates to the third century. The second is Codex Sinaiticus, which dates to the fourth century. The third is Codex Claromontanus, which dates to the fifth century. V. 17, which specifies the reason that Pilate is offering to release Barabbas—because of the custom to release a prisoner on the Passover—is missing from p75, the earlier manuscript. The teacher speculates that p75 is the earlier version, and later scribes added v. 17 because that explanation was in the other Gospels. Often, texts go from shorter to longer, as scribes add details for clarification.

In Luke 23:15, Pilate says that Herod sent Jesus “back to us.” Codex Claromontanus, however, has Pilate saying that Herod sent us back to him. That makes no sense, so the teacher speculated that this reflects a scribal error: the scribe was getting tired, or sleepy, and make a mistake.

The teacher made some other points about Luke 23:13-23. He told the story of Pilate. A Jewish delegation earlier went to Emperor Claudius and asked for Pilate’s removal, due to Pilate’s violence and disrespect for the Jewish religion. Pilate was recalled to Rome due to that, so now he seeks to appease the Jewish authorities. He offers to whip Jesus. The Greek word there is paideuo, which relates to correction; from that we get the word pedagogy, which concerns education. Tutors in ancient times would beat students to correct them.

The teacher gave us some other text critical morsels:

—-He referred to the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. That story is missing from most ancient manuscripts. Church fathers cite it, however, and Origen apparently had a manuscript of the Gospel of John that had it.

—-Sometimes the Syriac is more accurate. Jesus spoke Aramaic, so his idioms make more sense in Syriac.

—-In some cases, if scholars are puzzling over a word, they may check another Gospel with the same story to see what it says, and that can clarify the meaning of the word.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Physics and Philosophy of the Bible, by James Frederick Ivey

James Frederick Ivey, M.D. The Physics and Philosophy of the Bible: How Science and the Thought of Great Thinkers of History Join with Theology to Show that God Exists and That We Can Live Forever. WestBow, 2017. See here to purchase the book.

James Frederick Ivey is an M.D. He is also the father-in-law of Eowyn Ivey, who was a Pulitzer finalist for her novel, The Snow Child. She offered suggestions for Dr. Ivey’s book.

This book is somewhat of a mixture between apologetics and testimonial. Ivey attempts to argue that Christianity has a truth that non-Christian religions lack, and that science points to an intelligent mind behind the cosmos. He can get pretty deep in his discussions, but there is also an informality to the book, as Ivey talks about how different thinkers—scientists, philosophers, theologians, and novelists—have influenced his religious worldview. There is also an anecdotal element, for Ivey discusses some of his family’s faith journey. It was like hearing Ivey talk about his interests and insights over a cup of coffee.

In terms of positives, Ivey is very well-read, and that shows in this book. He discusses the anthropic principle and intelligent design, as do a lot of apologetic works, but his scientific discussion is not limited to that. Quantum theory looms large in this book, and Ivey engages the speculation that the cosmos is a thought in the mind of God. Ivey draws some from Rob Bell’s “Everything Is Spiritual” thoughts and refers to the importance of light in the cosmos and possible theological conclusions that one can draw from that.

In terms of aspects of the book that I did not like as much, I did not care that much for his discussion of the various religions. There was a humble tone to that discussion, as Ivey said what he liked and disliked about them. In some cases, he could have tried harder to approach the religions empathetically. He inquired about the basis of the Buddhist noble path, as if morality can only be grounded in theism. Yet, a number of Buddhists would say that their way of life is correct because it recognizes the miserable human condition and tries to cure human spiritual sickness. Why would we want to do that? Well, why would anyone want to be miserable?

On one occasion, Ivey said: “Thus, if you wish to dispute my idea of abstraction that can do something, you will have to go up against Hawking.” That statement was an argument from authority. Also, Hawking was an atheist. There were places in which Ivey offered a more nuanced understanding of Hawking’s thought, which is what makes that one passage rather surprising.

Some of Ivey’s arguments were “God-of-the-gaps” arguments: we cannot account for certain things naturalistically, so we should at least be open to saying that God did it. Is that an argument, or is it jumping to conclusions with limited knowledge?

Some of his more theological discussions were a mixture of positive and negative. Ivey is not afraid to think outside of the box, but he occasionally throws in a thought without much support, as when he says that God does not punish but we punish ourselves. More interaction with the Bible may have enhanced the theological discussions.

This is still a good book. The scientific discussions were over my head, in places, but Ivey was still fairly clear about what point he was trying to make.

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

Friday, February 1, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Emperor’s Visions, by R.A. Denny

R.A. Denny. The Emperor’s Visions. 2018. See here to purchase the book.

The Emperor’s Vision is the next to last book of R.A. Denny’s “Tales of Tzoladia” series.

Let’s catch up on some of our characters, without giving away too many spoilers.

A. Metlan is still king of the Samalitans, who are cat-riders. He has just defeated the Karsonians. He has ambitions to rule Tzoladia. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Well, he is rather pompous and immature, yet, outwardly at least, he comes across as noble and in control. He is not yet a worshiper of the high deity, Adon.

B. Amanki is the long-lost brother of Metlan. He recognizes Metlan’s hubris, but he gets a lecture from the old prophet Baskrod about how he is not supposed to judge and how Adon can use all sorts of people.

C. Bladar is the ruthless leader of the Sparaggi. Yet, he is a man of his word. He will help Metlan become emperor, if Metlan will help him get a powerful seal. Metlan can probably use Bladar’s assistance, but do we really want Bladar to possess that seal?

D. Baskrod is an elderly prophet. He seems larger than life. Yet we get some indication that he has a difficult and tragic history with Bladar’s family.

This book was not as eventful as the previous ones, but it ended climactically. Perhaps what could have strengthened the book is more wrestling on the part of the righteous characters over whether they are right to kill the evildoers.

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

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