Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Friends of Calvin - A Review

I was really looking forward to reading this book and I was not disappointed. If ever a person in the history of the Church had a PR problem it is Calvin. What do you think of when you think of Calvin? Theologian? Preacher? Commentator? Defender of predestination? Persecutor of Servetus? Did you ever think he may have had friends and that they actually enjoyed his company? In the Friends of Calvin Machiel A. van den Berg paints a picture of Calvin with the hues of real humanity. He felt pain, disappointment and discouragement. He had sympathy for people. He got angry (okay, we all knew that one). And, lo and behold, he even laughed! In short, he was as human as you or I. Van den Berg introduces us to twenty four friends of Calvin. Through the eyes of these friendships we see Calvin in ways that may surprise us. We discover that the friendships that Calvin formed were not primarily based on sentiment but on the common bond of their faith and when that faith was threatened those friendships could be lost. But make no mistake, the friendships that were formed on this solid foundation were filled with emotions as strong and deep as any other and when some of those friendships were lost it was intensely painful.
The book is full of anecdotal stories. While on one trip we learn that Calvin “could not sleep in the inn because of the fleas.” (179) We read of an assassination attempt on Froment, Farel, and Viret by poisoned soup (94). Calvin’s friendship with Farel was brought to the breaking point when he informed Calvin that he was to wed a seventeen year old girl. The problem was Farel was 69! Calvin thought he had become senile (87). Another of Calvin’s friends, John Sinapius, found himself so in love he requested a mutual friend, Simon Grynaeus, to write Calvin and ask him to plead with the woman to marry Sinapius. While no one knows exactly what Calvin said to the lady she did accept Sinapius’ proposal (63-64). These are but a few of the stories that make this a truly enjoyable read. One of the most moving stories is about Galeazzo Caracciolo. Due to increased pressure from the Inquisition Caracciolo (who had converted to the reformed faith) left his family without notice. He eventually ends up in Geneva and develops a close relationship with Calvin. After several attempts to work out a compromise with his wife (who was still Roman Catholic) he leaves to live in Geneva permanently. The scene is given in poignant clarity: “His dear wife embraced him and pleaded with him not to abandon her. A little daughter of twelve cried and clung to his legs. But Galeazzao tore himself away, with great difficulty, from their embraces.” (204). Later Caracciolo realizes his marriage is irreparable and asks Calvin and the city council if he could obtain a divorce. Calvin tries to get him to live without a wife but to no avail. Eventually the marriage is declared null and void and Caracciolo remarries and remains so for twenty-seven years. Were such measures really necessary? Did Caracciolo need to leave his family? What you don’t know is that his friend had recently been arrested by the Inquisition and executed for his beliefs. If Caracciolo, who had already been condemned as a heretic, had stayed it most certainly would have spelled his death.

While you can certainly read the book out of order there is a certain amount of development which will be missed if read that way. The chapters on “Lord and Lady De Falais” and “Galeazzo Caracciolo” should be read in the order they are in. The author wrote them as “independent portraits” so he says “some repetition of central events and principles in Calvin’s life has been unavoidable.” (x) These repetitions are not that distracting. On a historical note, this is the second work where I’ve read that Calvin and Idelette together had three children (132). Every other work on Calvin I’ve read says they only had one son together.

Fair warning, readers of this book may actually like Calvin a little better than when they started. If not, you’ll surely understand him better. This is a worthy tribute for Calvin's 500th birthday.
The book is a paperback, 266 pages and sells for $20.00. It includes an index of people and places.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Coming Soon from IVP Academic: Buddhism

One of the problems with some Christian treatments of other religions, especially eastern religions, is that they tend to be simplistic if not down right wrong in their representation of the other religion. It's easy to critique something if you over simplify it or misrepresent it. I'm happy to see this work by Keith Yandell and Harold Netland called Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal. Yandell is Julius R. Weinberg Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Netland is professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies and the Naomi A. Fausch chair of missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Paul Williams, professor of Indian and Tibetan philosophy and co-director of the Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Bristol, U.K says "At last we have a book that moves beyond the inaccurate, rather imprecise and sentimental level of so many books about Buddhism and the Christian-Buddhist encounter, and focuses on a serious consideration of Buddhist truth claims. The opening chapters give an acceptable first survey of Buddhism, and include material on dimensions of Buddhism, such as the personalist school and the historical context for the introduction of some rather idiosyncratic forms of Japanese Zen into the West, that are often neglected in popular introductions. It gives enough detail on Buddhist doctrines for one new to the subject to understand what the issues are and engage in a critical yet respectful manner with them. At many points this clearly written and readable book corrects, from the point of view of Buddhism as it has existed in history and in its Asian context, common Western misperceptions of Buddhism. But the really exciting section of this book is the philosophical analysis of key Buddhist doctrines such as not-self and momentariness. Netland and Yandell take Buddhist truth claims seriously, as Buddhists ask us to do, and in their analysis of those claims they make a truly original contribution, pitched at an accessible yet refined level of philosophical sophistication and knowledge of Buddhist doctrines and debates. The book throws down a challenge to Buddhists to clarify what they mean when they make their claims, and to enter into debate in defense of their truth. This philosophical analysis is followed by an outline of some absolutely fundamental differences between Christianity and Buddhism, and Christ and the Buddha. Here we see the basis of a critical Christian theological engagement with Buddhism as a religion. The book challenges Christians to move beyond polite small talk or minimalizing of essential differences that demand choice and commitment, and engage with Buddhists in debating their mutually incompatible claims to (as the Buddhists put it) 'see things the way they really are' regarding God, Jesus Christ, personhood, and our meaning, purpose and destiny. This book shows us (to use another Buddhist expression) 'analytical meditation' at its finest. It is an exciting book that I shall certainly use and recommend to my students. For those Christians and Buddhists who take truth seriously, and understand the significance of reasoning in making crucial choices, Netland and Yandell's book will contribute significantly to setting the agenda for serious dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism for some time to come." A higher endorsement I can't imagine. The book is due out this July. It is paperback, 224 pages and sells for $22.00.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Craig - Morriston Debate on the Kalam Cosmological Argument

William Lane Craig, research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, and Wes Morriston, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, had a debate/dialogue on the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. The debate was held at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 16, 2009. No video or audio is available yet that I know of. While Morriston is a theist himself he has been a critic of the Kalam argument for some time. Both participants have now commented on what they thought of the debate. Morriston’s response can be found on his website here and Craig’s response can be found on his Reasonable Faith Podcast here. Both have written scholarly articles that you can pursue with interest at either of their websites. I remain persuaded that Craig has the better case. For those unfamiliar with the Kalam argument it is profoundly simple.

Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
The universe began to exist.
Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Craig’s third edition of his book, Reasonable Faith, has significantly expanded his material on the existence of God. It is well worth purchasing even if you own the second edition.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Understanding the Book of Mormon - A Review

Ross Anderson has written a very nice introduction to the Book of Mormon simply called Understanding the Book of Mormon. There are scores of evangelical treatments of Mormonism but few treatments, at a popular level, solely focused on the Book of Mormon. Anderson, a former Mormon himself, lays out the storyline of the Book of Mormon and the surrounding circumstances of its being revealed to Joseph Smith. He also probes into the various problems with recognizing the Book of Mormon as inspired Scripture or even reliable history. Much of what he covers is not new (i.e., the discrepancies in Smith’s first vision, the DNA research on American Indians, the parallels between the Book of Mormon and the King James Version of the Bible.) but is covered in a way that is easy to understand. Anderson still has family who are active members of the Latter Day Saints and so he is sensitive and respectful in his treatment but nonetheless serious about his objections and questions. He repeatedly reminds the reader that most Mormons are not aware of many of the issues he raises in the book. If you have Mormon friends or just want to understand the Book of Mormon a little better this is a great starting point. The book includes discussion questions which make it useful for a small group study. Anderson is senior and founding pastor of Wasatch Evangelical Free Church in Roy, Utah.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Coming Soon from IVP Academic: The Lost World of Genesis One

John Walton was, by far, one of my favorite professors. His expertise in Ancient Near Eastern literature is enviable. So when I saw this new book, The Lost World of Genesis One, from IVP Academic I got very excited. Pardon my enthusiasm. In this work Walton "presents and defends eighteen propositions supporting a literary and theological understanding of Genesis 1 within the context of the ancient Near Eastern world, and unpacks its implications for our modern scientific understanding of origins." (from the catalog) Bruce Waltke says "Walton's cosmic temple inauguration view of Genesis 1 is a landmark study in the interpretation of that controversial chapter. On the basis of ancient Near Eastern literatures, a rigorous study of the Hebrew word bara' ('create'), and a cogent and sustained argument, Walton has gifted the church with a fresh interpretation of Genesis 1." Davis A. Young, Professor Emeritus of Geology, Calvin College, and coauthor of The Bible, Rocks and Time, says "Every theologian, every pastor, every Christian in the natural sciences, indeed, every Christian who loves the Bible must put aside all other reading material this minute and immediately begin to absorb the contents of John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One. Walton closely examines Genesis 1 in light of ancient Near Eastern literature and offers a compelling case that the creation account is far more concerned with the cosmos being given its functions as God's temple than it is with the manufacture of the material structures of the earth and universe. In the process, he has blown away all the futile attempts to elicit modern science from the first chapter of the Bible." The book is paperback, 176 pages and sells for $16.00.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Coming Soon from IVP Academic: Justification by N. T. Wright

IVP Academic will be releasing N. T. Wright's newest title this coming May, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. This is, in part, his response to the work of John Piper who critiqued Wright's view of justification. He says the problem with Piper is that "he hasn't really listened to what I'm saying" (21). Others he says have "simply not allowed the main things I have been trying to say to get anywhere near [their] conscious mind" (21). Finally he says he is "more than a little weary with this happening again and again, on websites, in questions after lectures, in journalistic interviews, and increasingly in academic and quasi- or pseudo-academic articles and books, I am determined to have one more go at setting things out." (22) Due to the "pressure of other duties, and the urgency of publisher's deadlines" he was unable to send initial drafts to Piper for comment (from the Preface). Whether you agree or disagree with Wright this will be a work you can't afford to ignore. You can read the preface, chapter one and an interview with the author here. The book is hardcover, 264 pages and sells for $25.00.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ben Witherington reviews Bart Ehrman's Latest Book

Ben Witherington has started a series of posts reviewing Bart Ehrman's latest book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) from HarperOne. His first post only covers the first 60 pages but he doesn't hold any punches. He says, "Bart Ehrman. . . has never done the necessary laboring in the scholarly vineyard to be in a position to write a book like Jesus, Interrupted from a position of long study and knowledge of New Testament Studies." And, "Bart does not much reflect a knowledge of the exegetical or historical study of the text in the last thirty years." He continues, "There are methodological problems, historical problems, exegetical problems, theological problems, and epistemological problems with this book, to mention but a few areas." Ben covers a number of the problems and "contradictions" that Ehrman raises in the book and shows how a careful reading of the text or a proper understanding of the genre or history of the text provides other viable options without resorting to believing a contradiction really exists. For those who have been disturbed by reading Ehrman I would greatly encourage you to read these posts by Ben. Part two of the series is here. Part three is here. Part four is here. Part five is here. Part six is here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

In Store Now - Baptism in the Early Church

Another book on baptism? Yes, and what a contribution it is. Everett Ferguson is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Abilene Christian University. Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries is massive work of over 850 pages (not including indexes). Maxwell Johnson of the University of Notre Dame says "Everett Ferguson has accomplished here the next to impossible by presenting us with a single, detailed, comprehensive, very well written, and easily readable study of baptism in the first five centuries of Christianity. No baptismal font remains unturned. No author or document, whether of greater or lesser significance, is left untreated. Liturgically and theologically, with attention to culture and archaeology, this is a truly remarkable study. Required reading and reference for anyone seeking to enter more deeply into the riches of early Christianity and the diversity of its baptismal practices and theology." (from the book jacket) I can't wait to be immersed in this volume (pun intended). It is divided into seven parts 1) Antecedents to Christian Baptism, 2) Baptism in the New Testament, 3) The Second Century, 4) The Third Century to Nicea (325), 5) The Fourth Century, 6) The Fifth Century and 7) Baptisteries. Twelve pages of black and white photos are included. The introduction provides an outstanding survey of the literature which breaks it down into "Comprehensive Surveys," "Studies with Liturgy as the Theme," "Topical Studies," and "Collections of Sources." It is 953 pages from Eerdmans Publishing and sells for $60.00.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Complete Guide to Bible Translations - A Review

With the proliferation of Bible translations it only seems appropriate to add yet another guide to those translations. This latest one, The Complete Guide to Bible Translations, comes from the pen of Ron Rhodes who is president of Reasoning Together from the Scriptures Ministries. Rhodes covers 20 different translations. He gives a brief history, a sample reading of the translation and the benefits and cautions of each translation treated. Included are two Catholic translations (New American Bible, NAB and New Jerusalem Bible, NJB) and one British (Revised English). The title can be a bit misleading by the word “complete.” It is certainly not complete in the sense that it covers all Bible translations. It does, however, cover a majority of the current Bible market. Noticeably missing are any Jewish translations. One might excuse this since the intended readership is probably conservative protestant Christians (note the comment on the NJB: “Hence, this is certainly not a Bible that conservative Christians would feel comfortable with.” 208) but then it begs the question why Catholic translations were included. The most important Jewish translation that perhaps should have been included is "The Complete Jewish Bible" by David Stern. The increased awareness of Christianity’s Jewish roots makes such an omission unfortunate.
Rhodes devotes three chapters to introductory matters: “The Difficulty of Bible Translation”, “Theories of Bible Translation” and “The Debate of Gender-Inclusive Language.” Rhodes does well in fleshing all of these issues out. He strives to be fair to all sides although his bias does come out here and there. In the chapter on “The Theories of Bible Translation” Rhodes covers “The Case Against the Formal Equivalence Philosophy” in just over one page. But “The Case Against the Dynamic Equivalence Philosophy” gets over four pages. Now Rhodes says repeatedly that one should compare several translations from both translation philosophies but his own preference for formal equivalence slips through here. He frequently states that dynamic equivalent translations are not well suited for detailed Bible study. He admits his “personal favorites when it comes to formal equivalence translations” are the ESV and the NASB (216). But he goes a bit over the top when he summarizes the section on the ESV with “Still, it is the general consensus of Christian scholars and church leaders that the English Standard Version is an excellent translation of the Bible.” (168) Are there many who think the ESV is an excellent translation? Sure. But a general consensus! That’s stretching it.
Sometimes Rhodes attempts “to be fair” seem to miss the point. One of the criticisms by David Dewey on the Amplified Bible is noted. Dewey says that “it is wrong to assume the Hebrew or Greek word in question will carry that full range of meaning in every context. Generally, a writer has one specific meaning in mind when using a particular word.” Rhodes replies, “Again, though, one should in fairness keep in mind that the translation was checked by a team of Hebrew and Greek scholars.” (88) This misses the point of Dewey’s criticism. The criticism is on the format of amplifying words in the text with multiple possible meanings. The litany of possible meanings opens the door to misunderstanding how words are defined by their given context. It doesn’t really matter if the text was checked by Greek and Hebrew scholars. The format of “amplification” is what is in question. I’ve seen this countless times from readers of The Amplified Bible. They read a passage and think a word which is amplified means all the words that are given in the parenthesis each and every time it occurs.
Rhodes concludes the book with a chapter on “Choosing the Best Translation and the Best Bible.” Here he clearly leads the readers to pick the best translation that fits their needs. He discusses a variety of other matters in selecting a Bible as well. He discusses the various covers (leather, hardcover, paperbacks), Bible paper, cross references, red letter editions, size of print, number of columns, study notes, concordance and margins. I was surprised that for all the discussion on the value of comparing translations he never mentioned parallel Bibles. The book includes five appendixes. A) The Textual Basis of Modern Translations, B) The Rendering of Divine Names, C) Does the Apocrypha Belong in the Bible?, D) Assessing the “King James Only” Controversy, and E) A Warning about Cultic Translations. This last appendix discusses the “Mormon Inspired Version” and the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Readers will benefit from Rhodes' book in spite of my occasional cautions.

Monday, April 6, 2009

In Store Now - Tough-Minded Christianity

Tough-Minded Christianity is a formidable work of over 700 pages dedicated to honor the legacy of lawyer/apologist John Warwick Montgomery. J.P. Moreland says Montgomery's name "deserves to be mentioned alongside of C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer as one of the 20th century's most articulate defenders of historic Christianity." I would certainly agree with Moreland's assessment but unfortunately Montgomery is not as popular as he was in the 70s, 80s and 90s. This should in no way diminish his contribution to the church. Among his many achievements Montgomery was the founder of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law in 1980 (now Simon Greenleaf University). "He is a U.S. and U.K. citizen, the author of some fifty books in five languages, and is included in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in France, the European Biographical Directory, Who's Who in the World, and Contemporary Authors." (from his website) While I never had the pleasure of studying with Montgomery I did study under some who did and I have met him on a couple of occasions. He has a pleasant personality and an encyclopedic mind. The sheer breadth of this volume shows he is in the truest sense a renaissance man. The book is divided into six sections 1) The Christian Worldview, 2) The Nature of Nature, 3) Doctrinal Integrity, 4) Defending the Faith, 5) Law, Ethics, Society, and 6) Tribute. The contributors include J. I. Packer, Vernon Grounds, Harold O. J. Brown, I. Howard Marshall, Roger Nicole, Erwin Lutzer, Edwin M. Yamauchi, Michael Horton, Gary Habermas, William Dembski and others. As soon as I get started on this tome I will give you some thoughts. But I can tell you already that my initial impressions are this is an excellent work.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

New Book on the Doctrine of Scripture from Crossway

To say you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture today is almost like saying you believe in a flat earth. “You better catch up with the 21st century” is what you’re encouraged to do. Postmodernism today has advanced past what is perceived to be a doctrinal relic and focuses the discussion on the issue of interpretation. I want to introduce you to a great book that looks at the doctrine of Scripture--Ancient Word, Changing Worlds: The Doctrine of Scripture in a Modern Age by Stephen J. Nichols and Eric T. Brandt from Crossway Books. The book addresses three issues: inspiration, inerrancy and interpretation. Each topic is given two chapters. One chapter discusses the respective doctrine and its proper formulation. The second chapter provides select readings from the authors discussed. Each narrative chapter also includes a timeline covering roughly the past 150 years. Each narrative chapter introduces the reader to the major thinkers and their writings in their historical context. A glossary is included which provides definitions of people, significant terms and select denominations. The book is easy to read without over simplifying the issues. Though written from a conservative perspective the authors are civil in their discussion of opposing viewpoints. Nichols and Brandt have given us an excellent introduction to the doctrine of Scripture which is marked by clarity and sound judgment.