Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Blog Tour with Latayne Scott - The Mormon Mirage

Latayne Scott was a devoted Mormon and a student at Brigham Young University. The Mormon Mirage gives the account of how she came to leave the church and offers a engaging critique of Mormonism. This third edition is essentially a reprint of previous editions with the addition of some significant material addressing the issues and challenges facing Mormonism in the 21st century. A nice feature of the new edition is that many of the references to Mormon works are now accessible online. This makes it very easy to check her references on the spot. For example when she writes that "Brigham Young once stated that Joseph's consent was required for a person to be able to enter into the Celestial Kingdom of heaven, because Joseph was now reigning there, like God" (29) you can check the reference in Journal of Discourses vol. 2:289 for yourself. One of the more amusing things I thought was the background for the "Word of Wisdom" or health law. Scott wrote that Brigham Young said it stemmed from "Emma Smith's [Joseph's wife] complaining about the mess she had to clean up after Joseph's friends got together and spat tobacco all over the floor. Joseph too was disgruntled by the clouds of smoke from he men's pipe's, so he 'inquired of the Lord' as to the use of tobacco." (111) I thought "surely this is some kind of exaggeration." But I checked Journal of Discourses vol. 12:158 myself and there it was just as she said.

Scott notes that much of the material that has been written against Mormonism suffers on two accounts: 1) They underestimate "the intelligence, integrity, or character of the LDS people and 2) they don't check their facts. (20-21) One of the most significant factors in her own doubting of Mormonism came as a result of a simple observation concerning a facsimile in one of the Mormon Scriptures known as the Book of Abraham. She noticed in one of the woodcuts (known as "Facsimile 3") that Joseph Smith had identified two of the women as men. She states, "No 'anti-Mormon' writer had pointed this out; no hater of the LDS Church could have falsified or altered these prints; they were in my own personal copy of scripture. I found myself crushed and exultant, all at the same time." (22) You can see the facsimile here. Knowing the pitfalls of previous writings she works hard to avoid them and she succeeds admirably. The book abounds with footnotes with many of them coming from LDS writers.

Much of what she covers will not be new to those familiar with the problems of Mormonism but sometimes things are put together in such a way that the confusion of Mormonism is made painstakingly clear. Consider this: "Nothing in LDS theology is as it should be. Each man has two sets of parents; heavenly and earthly. God has many wives, and man should too. Mary the mother of Christ had two living husbands, without sinning. Their physical god begets spiritual bodied children and infuses them into mortal bodies so they can become gods too. Meanwhile, his copartner, the Holy Ghost, has no body at all and is still a god. Other beings are punished with the devil for their sins, and their sentence: no body, ever." (194)

Scott notes "Of ex-Mormons it is often said, 'They can leave Mormonism, but they can't leave it alone.'" (292) In this case I'm glad she couldn't. Scott observed two faults with anti-Mormon writings and to that I would add a third: they can be sterile. By that I mean a lot of anti-Mormon literature too often is reduced to winning arguments and providing documentation without the sensitivity that for the Mormon a successful anti-Mormon argument amounts to the realization that they have been, in part, believing a lie. The emotional impact of that cannot be calculated and I can't begin to imagine what it must be like. Throughout her book Scott's own experience informs and reminds the reader that people are involved and that coming out of Mormonism is hard and sometimes very painful. And on the heels of leaving Mormonism to accept another set of beliefs would not come easy. As she says, "Once you've found the tenets you most trusted and believed to be false, you are not anxious to embrace a substitute."

Scott's complaint is not against individuals of the Mormon Church but rather against the spokespeople, the leadership and the unofficial apologists of the church. (293-94) We would do well to follow her example as we share our faith with those who in Scott's words are "sincere and unknowingly devoted to a false representation of reality." ( 293)

My question for Scott is this (prefaced by a long comment, sorry): You note in your book the existence of new online apologetic resources by Mormons like the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS) and the Foundation for Apologetic Information (FAIR). You candidly admit, "If such had existed, and had I accessed them when I was reading materials by the Tanners and others and trying to decide if Mormonism were true, I fear I would not have had the analytical skills to see through some of the untenable premises which they use as foundation." (263) As you say, "Make no mistake about it, some of their materials are very, very persuasive." (263) How much of an impact are these resources having on the average Mormon or Mormon missionary?

Thank you for an honest, well-written and sober look at Mormonism.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Is Evangelicalism Headed for Collapse?

In an article in the Christian Science Monitor Michael Spencer says that within 10 years Evangelicalism will experience a collapse. The article is a summary of a series of blogs from Spencer's blog--InternetMonk.com . The picture he paints is a bleak one. He says, "Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close."

While I don't share his pessimistic forecast I think some of his observations are spot on. For example, he says "We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures."

The reason so many youth are leaving the church is because they have never owned for themselves the faith of their parents. They reason, "That may have worked for mom and dad but it doesn't cut it for me." Religion is reduced to matters of pragmatism rather than veracity. Spencer notes that the beneficiaries of this collapse will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. There has been a resurgence of interest on the part of Evangelicals in these branches of Christendom. But again I'm not sure the appeal is because these are seen as true but rather because they have an aesthetic and historic appeal. The liturgy, the icons, the rich tradition appeal to a generation that is searching for an anchor during an unstable period of their lives. And some kids would just enjoy the shock value that would come with the "conversion" to one of these traditions.

Spencer predicts that "the emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision." This I could actually see happening.

Finally, he notes that the collapse may not be all that bad. Some good may come of it. He concludes, "We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture. I'm not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions. But is there anyone who is observing evangelicalism in these times who does not sense that the future of our movement holds many dangers and much potential?"

I found the article interesting if not just a bit overly pessimistic and perhaps a bit unaware of some things happening within Evangelicalism. His warnings should be heeded even if you don't adopt his vision of the future. See the response by William Lane Craig on his Reasonable Faith Podcast.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

New Systematic Theology from Michael Horton Coming April 2010

Is it too soon to get excited about something coming out in April 2010? Maybe, but I am. My friend Andrew Rogers at Zondervan gave me a heads up on this new systematic theology from Michael Horton. The catalog gives the following description:

"A prolific, award-winning author and theologian, professor Michael Horton’s highly anticipated The Christian Faith represents his magnum opus and will be viewed as one of—if not the—most important systematic theologies in the past fifty years. A must read for professors, pastors, students, and armchair theologians."

"Features of this volume include: (1) a brief synopsis of biblical passages that inform a particular doctrine; (2) surveys of past and current theologies with contemporary emphasis on exegetical, philosophical, practical, and theological questions; (3) substantial interaction with various Christian movements within the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodoxy traditions, as well as the hermeneutical issues raised by postmodernity; and (4) charts, sidebars, questions for discussion, and an extensive bibliography, divided into different entry levels and topics."

I thoroughly enjoyed Horton's visit to our store when he spoke on his book Christless Christianity. I look forward to this volume and anticipate it will quickly become a standard for systematic theologies (at least in the reformed tradition).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Coming Soon from B&H Publishing - The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown

This August we can look forward to seeing a new comprehensive introduction to the New Testament. B&H Publishing will be releasing The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown by Andreas L. Kostenberger, Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. You can see a sample chapter here on the book of Acts and hear all three authors who have provided brief comments on what particular value they see in this new work. Justin Taylor, managing editor of the ESV Study Bible and blogger, has this to say:

“The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown is an outstanding introduction to the New Testament, which should be warmly welcomed not only by teachers and students but by anyone desiring an up-to-date, comprehensive, judicious survey of the historical, literary, and theological context of the New Testament. Among the user-friendly features of this volume are clear objectives for different levels of study, helpful review questions, recommended reading lists, numerous sidebars, and an extensive glossary. I expect to turn to this volume and recommend it to others for years to come.”
Coming in at almost 1,000 pages it will sell for $59.99.

Friday, June 26, 2009

John Piper on T. H. L. Parker's "Portrait of Calvin"

No one recommends a book like Piper. His excitement is contagious.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Who Wrote the Book of Joshua?

This post on the authorship of the book of Joshua (part 1) by Robert Hubbard was an absolute delight to read. If commentaries were written like this they would be a whole lot more fun. Zondervan has just released one of the last remaining commentaries in the popular series The NIV Application Commentary. This is the entry on Joshua and is authored by Robert Hubbard who is professor of Biblical Literature at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. The question prompted me to return to a series that I’ve neglected for some time now—the comparison of notes in the major study Bibles.

If you had asked me when I first became a Christian "Who wrote the book of Joshua?" I would have gladly told you. “I know exactly who wrote it. Joshua did. And I know because C. I. Scofield told me he wrote it.” You’ll find no discussion on the authorship of Joshua in the Scofield Study Bible. Simply stated: "Author: Joshua." How do the newer study Bibles compare?

I started with what I knew would be the two most conservative—the Ryrie Study Bible and the MacArthur Study Bible. Ryrie said that while “some portions were not written by Joshua (15:13-17; 24:29-31)” he is “clearly the author” based on 24:1-26. MacArthur says the “author is not named” but that “the most probable candidate is Joshua.” He also notes that an assistant “could have finished the book by attaching circumstances as those concerning Joshua’s death.”

The Life Application Study Bible could be placed in this category. It notes “Author: Joshua, except for the ending which may have been written by the high priest Phinehas, an eyewitness to the events recounted there.”

The remaining study Bibles were more cautious in their conclusions (listed here in no particular order).

ESV Study Bible: The book is “named for its leading character” but the “book’s author, however, is not explicitly mentioned.” It continues, “While the book depicts Joshua writing (Josh 8:32; 24:26), it does not claim he wrote the book.”

TNIV Study Bible: It is “safe to conclude that the book draws on early sources. It may date from the beginning of the monarchy.” We are “unsure who the final author or editor was.”

NLT Study Bible: “No where does the book of Joshua claim that Joshua was its author. The author or authors remain anonymous.”

Spirit of the Reformation Bible: “Author: unknown.” “It is likely that its final form resulted from a compiler or compilers working with an earlier version of the book.”

The Apologetics Study Bible: The book is “anonymous in its final form.” It is “clear from Josh. 24:26 that Joshua wrote certain portions of it.” “Precisely when the book of Joshua came to exist in its present form is unknown.”
NKJV Study Bible: "The Book of Joshua does not state who wrote it. Joshua himself undoubtedly wrote portions of the book, since 24:26 states, 'Then Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God."

Archaeological Study Bible: “No one knows for certain who wrote/compiled the book of Joshua or when or where it was written. Scholars have proposed dates ranging from immediately after Joshua’s lifetime to the time of Samuel to the early monarchy and even to the postexilic period.”
It was interesting to note how various Bibles interpreted the role of Josh. 24:26 in the debate. Some like Ryrie said it "clearly" showed Joshua was the author. Others, like the ESV Study Bible said it could not be pressed that far. Most noted that the Jewish tradition attributes the book to Joshua. Of those listed I liked the layout and discussion of the Archaeological Study Bible best (I gave only a small portion of their actual entry.). Though brief (they were all brief) it did a nice job of encapsulating the issues and giving the various options of interpretation.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Our Blog is One Year Old!

It was one year ago today that we ventured into the blog world. Baker Book House is also celebrating its 70th birthday this year. Founded in 1939 by Herman Baker who started selling books from his own library. The company is still family owned and located in West Michigan.

The blog was the brain child of Andrew Rogers who has moved on to one of our favorite publishers, Zondervan, and is a regular contributor/producer to the Koinonia blog. For those who haven't noticed we actually have three blogs for the store: this one, one dedicated to fiction books and one for music. Since our beginning we have been delighted to have author interviews, blog tours and numerous book reviews as well as updates on news and the occasional commentary. This year we've done a number of posts on John Calvin in honor of his 500th birthday.

In a world where there are virtually 1,000s of blogs it is hard to find an identity and to contribute something meaningful. We hope as we continue to grow that we will help some along the way and be a true "church connection." I want to thank those of you who have stopped by and taken the time to comment. We do appreciate the input. What's to come in the future?

We will continue to provide forthcoming titles from various publishers. As a retailer we see a lot of forthcoming books and hopefully this feature will allow us to highlight just a few of them. For example, we just finished the sales conference for Baker Publishing Group so we will be featuring some of their Spring 2010 titles.

We also have two blog tours planned. One on June 30th with Latayne C. Scott (on her book The Mormon Mirage) and the other on July 14th with Fred VanKamecke (on his book Busted: Exposing Popular Myths about Christianity).

Finally, there will be the many tidbits of information, book reviews, links to other blogs and general commentary. If you have any suggestions that you think we could do to make this a better blog for you just let us know. We are a full service Christian retail store located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids is home to some major Christian publishers: Baker Publishing Group, Zondervan, Eerdmans, Kregel Publications and Reformation Heritage Books. We have strong relations with all of them, and many more, and enjoy partnering with them in the Christian retail industry.

Thanks for making this a fun first year!

P.S. We've updated our photos of the store. Just click on the picture on the left sidebar to take a look.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

World Magazine Crowns ESV Study Bible 2009 Book of the Year

Congratulations to Crossway publishers on the selection of the ESV Study Bible (hereafter ESVSB) as the recipient on World Magazine's 2009 Book of the Year. Marvin Olasky, editor in chief of World Magazine, says the ESVSB is "informative throughout and spectacular in parts." He cites the many articles which have been praised for their clarity and thoroughness. He also says he took it for a "road test" as he went through the book of Leviticus. He enjoys the various charts and illustrations and the occasional note acknowledging that "we just don't know." He concludes, "The Bible is the book for all years; this study Bible is a particular winner in the Year of Our Lord 2009."

In March of this year the ESVSB was selected as the Book of the Year and also won in the Bible category by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Inaugural Assembly of the Newly Formed Anglican Church in North America

This week a group of Anglicans is meeting in Bedford, Texas to formally inaugurate the Anglican Church in North America (ANCA). These are Anglicans who have been increasingly uncomfortable with the "the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada [which] have increasingly accommodated and incorporated un-Biblical, un-Anglican practices and teaching." Now these Anglicans have found a formal expression through the ANCA. This is Anglican history in the making. Bishop Robert Duncan is the Archbishop designate for the ACNA.

To learn more visit their website. There you can find "fact sheets" explaining their "genesis", "who they are", and "what they stand for."

John Calvin, Sin and the Goodness of God

Before I actually read Calvin for myself the impression I was given from others was that when he wasn't talking about predestination he was talking about what sinners we all are. Granted, he talked about sin but he had a profound sense of the devastating effects it has in the life of the believer and what an offense it was in the sight of God. But he was a pastor and knew that we could go too far in thinking about our sin and how the enemy could use that to his advantage. I remember the first time I read this passage was to fulfill a reading obligation for my class on Calvin. That night I saw Calvin in a way I had never envisioned--I saw him with a pastor's heart. The quote from Bernard is especially good.

"Those who are really religious experience what sort of punishments and shame, confusion, groaning, displeasure with self, and other emotions that arise out of a lively recognition of sin. Yet we must remember to exercise restraint, lest sorrow engulf us. For nothing more readily happens to fearful consciences than falling into despair. And also by this stratagem, whomever Satan sees overwhelmed by the fear of God he more and more submerges in that deep whirlpool of sorrow that they may never rise again. That fear cannot, indeed, be too great which ends in humility, and does not depart from the hope of pardon. Nevertheless, in accordance with the apostle's injunction the sinner ought always to beware lest, while he worries himself into dissatisfaction weighed down by excessive fear, he become faint [Heb. 12:3]. For in this way we flee from God, who calls us to himself through repentance. On this matter Bernard's admonition is also useful: 'Sorrow for sins is necessary if it be not unremitting. I beg you to turn your steps back sometimes from troubled and anxious remembering of your ways, and to go forth to the tableland of serene remembrance of God's benefits. Let us mingle honey with wormwood that is wholesome bitterness may bring health when it is drunk tempered with sweetness. If you take thought upon yourselves in your humility, take thought likewise upon the Lord in his goodness.'" (Institutes 3.3.15)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Lost World of Genesis One - A Review

In The Lost World of Genesis One John Walton offers a view of the first chapter of Genesis which is sure to spark debate. Those who have read Walton’s commentary on Genesis will recognize much of what is covered in this book. But few layman read commentaries and, unfortunately, too many pastors don’t either. So this popular level work will now bring the fruits of his scholarship to a whole new audience.

Walton says we have lost our way in understanding Genesis 1 because we have lost its cultural context. The only interpretation of Genesis 1 that we have understood has to do with the material creation of the universe. But what if the chapter is not describing a material creation at all? What if it is describing creation as it would have been understood in its ancient Near Eastern context? In that context Genesis 1 is describing not the material creation of the universe but its functional creation. That is to say for those in the ancient Near East the universe did not “exist” in any meaningful way until its parts had been assigned a purpose or role. Walton explains, “[T]he actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence. Of course something must have physical properties before it can be given its function, but the critical question is, what stage is defined as ‘creation.’” (27) For those in the ancient world to create something “means to give it a function, not material properties.” (35) It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this distinction in order to properly understand Genesis 1.

Walton illustrates this distinction with that of “creating” a computer. First there is the assembly of its physical components, that is, its physical creation. Then someone has to write the programs but until they are installed its “’existence’ is meaningless—it cannot function.” (27) Someone still has to install the software and then we need to find a power source. Finally he concludes, “But what if no one sits at the keyboard or knows how to use or even desires to use it? It remains nonfunctional, and, for all intents and purposes, as if it did not exist. We can see that different observers might be inclined to attribute ‘existence’ to the computer at different stages in the process.” (27) To the modern mindset “existence” is entirely related to the physical composition of something—it is an ontological focus rather than a functional one. But as Walton demonstrates, “[i]n the ancient world, what was most crucial and significant to their understanding of existence was the way that the parts of the cosmos functioned, not their material status.” The problem seems to revolve around the word “create.” To the modern mind the word refers almost exclusively to the material composition of something. The functional sense of the word is better seen when we say something like we “created a committee.” The people already existed but the committee did not exist until roles were assigned to certain individuals and a purpose was given for them to meet. This is what God is doing in Genesis 1. He is assigning roles and purpose to a chaotic system. He is creating order with a purpose. That purpose brings us to Walton’s next point which hinges on day seven.

What’s the point of God resting on the seventh day? Simple. God rests in a temple and only a temple. Walton explains this is not just a siesta on a Sunday afternoon. “For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.” (73) The temple is not primarily a place of worship but a home or more importantly his “headquarters—the control room.” (75) From here, the temple, God assumes his rightful place. Genesis 1 is “describing the creation of the cosmic temple with all of its functions and with God dwelling in its midst. This is what makes day seven so significant, because without God taking up his dwelling in its midst, the (cosmic) temple does not exist. The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God’s presence.” (84-85) Walton supports this thesis with important connections between the cosmos and the tabernacle and the temple. (pp. 81-84) This leads to my final point.

Walton suggests “the seven days may be understood in relation to some aspect of temple inauguration.” (87) The parallels of Genesis 1 to other ancient Near Eastern inauguration ceremonies are striking. The Bible itself records temple inauguration ceremonies (see p. 89 for discussion). Also, these inauguration ceremonies could be reenacted on a yearly basis. No evidence has been found that Israel engaged in this kind of yearly festival but it should not be surprising if we found they did and Walton says it “would be theologically and culturally appropriate.” (91) This also relieves the problem of whether the Hebrew word for day (yom) is a twenty-four hour day or a long period of time. Since Genesis 1 is not describing the physical creation of the universe the problem dissolves. An inauguration ceremony which is seven twenty-four hour days poses no problem. Walton says understanding yom as a twenty-four hour day “has always been the best reading of the Hebrew text.”

Readers may be concerned that Walton is buying into the theory that the Israelites simply borrowed from other pagan cultures. He is not. He clearly says, “I am not suggesting that the Israelites are borrowing from these ancient literatures. Instead the literatures show how people thought in the ancient world, and as we examine Genesis, we can see that Israelites thought in similar ways.” (79 see also his discussion on pp.13-15) This is an important distinction. Walton also notes that it was not his reading of the ancient Near Eastern texts that changed his mind on Genesis 1 but rather questions he had in the text of Genesis itself. (54)

Other readers may wonder if Walton believes that God did create the material universe. Rest assured he does. He says, “If we conclude that Genesis 1 is not an account of material origins, we are not thereby suggesting that God is not responsible for material origins. I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, and that, in fact, material origins do involve at some point creation out of nothing. But that theological question is not one we are asking. We are asking a textual question: What sort of origins account do we find in Genesis 1?” (44)

The last part of the book Walton engages with how his view affects issues like evolution, intelligent design and public science education. I had more qualms with this part of the book than I did with the first part. But they are minor points of disagreement which do not affect his major premise.

Walton’s book is a five-star example of exegesis which is culturally informed without compromising Biblical authority. Highly recommended. I think it would make a great choice for a small group study.

You can hear a lecture that Walton gave during a science symposium to a group of physicists on Genesis 1 here. It is extremely helpful and includes power point slides he used in the presentation. In several places he expands and clarifies what he covers in the book. The presentation is 52 minutes long with about 10 minutes of Q & A following.

For further reading:

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible by John Walton from Baker Academic.

Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? edited by Daniel I. Block. Walton has an essay in this volume called “Interpreting the Bible as an Ancient Near Eastern Document.”

"Do We Need Background Studies?" an article for the Koinonia blog

See especially the forthcoming 5-volume work from Zondervan called the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Walton is the general editor. It should be released this fall.

Walton mentions a forthcoming full scale scholarly work on Genesis 1 from Eisenbrauns. The title is Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns). I have been unable to get any details on its release date.

See also the publisher's (IVP) blog, Addenda & Errata, on the book as well.

Friday, June 19, 2009

N. T. Wright and Justification

No better summary than that offered by the author himself. Wright summarizes a couple of the major points of importance in his latest book.

Paul Helm and Calvin's Definitions

Philosopher Paul Helm has provided a nice summary of Calvin's definitions of important terms as found in the Institutes. He offers first a complete survey of the definitions and then takes a "closer look" at a few of them. True to Calvin, Helm is careful not to leave the discussion as one more thing to "flit in the brain." He concludes his discussion with these two paragraphs:

"There is one final characteristic of definitions that is surprising but which ought not to be. The prominence given to definitions in the Institutes is not merely testimony to the Calvinian love of order. Calvin shows that he thinks we ought to be moved by these definitions, not moved to admiration for the cleverness of the definer, but moved by the divine reality defined. For he notes more than once that an apt definition reveals the ‘force’ of an idea. These realities, once defined, are not meant to be filed away, or argued over – they are not to ‘flit in the brain’ but to move us."

"There is one more thing. A survey of these discussions is in fact a run-down of the main themes of the Reformation – original sin, free will, faith, repentance, justification. For Calvin the Reformation was about the recovering of biblical realities, or their rediscovery, and one main way in which this recovering takes place is in the defining of those realities. It is additionally interesting that the emphasis falls upon anthropological themes rather than the doctrine of God, theology in a narrower sense. In fact apart from the definition given in the course of his discussion of the Trinity, Calvin does not, as far as I can discover, ever approach the reality of God by first searching for a definition of God. (And even his Trinitarian discussion is about the meaning of ‘person’, though here again there might be a definition without using the word, as when he states ‘Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality’ (Inst. I.13.5) No doubt this disinclination to define ‘God’ is fully consistent with Calvin’s restrained approach to the being of God, testimony to the importance for him of the contrast he draws throughout the Institutes and elsewhere between God ‘as he is in himself’ and God ‘as he is towards us’. He repeatedly disdains the search for what God is as against what he is to us. " (emphasis mine)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

John Piper is Bad?

Piper says when he heard this he laughed. You can't say Calvinists don't have a sense of humor.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Coming Soon from B&H Publishing - Contending with Christianity's Critics

Atheism has been catapulted into the limelight recently by what is popularly called "The New Atheism." The front runners of this movement are Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. The have been dubbed the Four Horseman. B&H Publishing Group has assembled eighteen Christian scholars to respond to these critics. It is appropriately titled Contending with Christianity's Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors. The book is edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig. Look for it this August. It is 304 pages and sells for $19.99.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Too Liberal to Become an Episcopalian Bishop?

Christianity Today has a story on some Episcopal Church leaders who "have rejected the consecration of a bishop-elect who denies traditional Christian teachings about sin, salvation, and Christ's atoning death at Calvary." This struck me as odd since the Episcopal church has among its bishops such notables as James Pike and John Shelby Spong. The article clarifies this by noting "The 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church has had bishops who have denied core Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection of Jesus. But the most prominent bishops to make such claims (such as John Shelby Spong and James Pike) reportedly did not do so until after they had been made bishop." I'm not sure what logic is in place to say you can't become a bishop if you deny these doctrines but you can remain a bishop if you deny them.

Kevin Thew Forrester is the priest behind the controversy. According to the article Thew Forrester believes "Christ's blood doesn't wash away sin and Christ's death doesn't redeem and restore humanity. Jesus doesn't make us one with God, but simply reveals to us that we're already and always one with God." Furthermore, he "denies that Satan exists, calls the Qur'an the Word of God, describes sin as being blind to our own goodness, and questions whether Jesus is truly the only begotten Son of God." Finally, he "has rewritten the church's baptismal covenant, the Apostles' Creed, and the Book of Common Prayer's Easter Vigil liturgy to remove historic Christian doctrines." He is a student of Zen Buddhism and has taken "Buddhist lay ordination vows and adopted a new Buddhist name—Genpo—meaning 'way of universal wisdom.'"

I will watch to see how this plays out. With all that he rejects and all that he adds and rewrites what's the point in being called a Christian? Michael Wittmer is correct when he says, "those who reject these fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith cannot be saved, no matter how swell they are and how well they behave." He distinguishes between what we must know (that we are sinners forgiven in Christ) and what we at least cannot reject (God is triune and Jesus is the God-man). (Don't Stop Believing, p. 43)

Monday, June 15, 2009

John Calvin and Doubt

This week's quotes comes from Calvin's treatment of faith. In part of this chapter he deals with the doubts that plague the mind of the believer. Many today have begun to make a virtue out of doubt. It is one thing to admit to doubts and not shy away from the fact that we have them. But it's another thing to wear it on our sleeves as a badge of honor. To live with doubts with no thought of trying to resolve it would be, I believe, a curious notion for Calvin. As he notes, "Surely, as often as God commends his Word to us, he indirectly rebukes us for our unbelief, for he has no other intention than to uproot perverse doubts from our hearts." (Institutes 3.2.15) I know not every doubt can be classified as "perverse" but I think for Calvin whatever enters our heart that causes us to doubt God dishonors Him and to that extent every doubt is perverse. Calvin is not immune to the realities of life. He says "we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety. On the other hand, we say that believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief." (3.2.17) He knew believers struggled with all sorts of doubts. But he directed believers to hold fast to the Lord during times of doubt (3.2.37).

Doubt. We can't live without it but it doesn't have to become a new fruit of the Spirit.

Calvin's heart as a pastor comes shining through. Commenting on Matthew 8:25-26 he says, "Indeed, while he reproves them for their little faith, he does not cast them out from the ranks of his disciples or count them among unbelievers, but urges them to shake off that fault. Therefore, we repeat what we have already stated: that the root of faith can never be torn from the godly breast, but clings so fast to the innermost parts that, however faith seems to be shaken or to bend this way or that, its light is never so extinguished or snuffed out that it does not at lest lurk as it were beneath the ashes." (3.2.21)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Coming Soon from B&H Publishing - Jesus and the Gospels by Craig Blomberg

Coming this July/August is an updated edition of Craig Blomberg's award winning book Jesus and the Gospels: an Introduction and Survey. I have used this book for years and it is one of my favorite introductions to the gospels. I don't have many details on the extent of the revision but I'm sure I won't be disappointed. Blomberg is noted for his fair treatment of the evidence and his careful scholarship. I'm sure this update will be a valuable asset for any student or pastor. The first edition was published in 1997 and was the recipient of the Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 1998. It has 512 pages and sells for $39.99

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Master Scripture Index for New Studies in Biblical Theology Now Available

Andy Naselli has prepared a master scripture index for the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. I've picked only one from the series to picture here for recognition purposes and because this particular issue has special memories for me. Murray Harris was my commencement speaker when I graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and he spoke to us about being a slave of Christ. The series has received high praise from scholars and is regrettably not as well known among pastors. You can see the entire series (thus far) and the link to the scripture index here. Those who own the set will find this an invaluable resource. If you are not familiar with the series I will recommend just a few:

1.) Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for total Devotion to Christ by Murray Harris

2.) Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions by Craig Blomberg

3.) The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God by G. K. Beale

4.) Contagious Holiness: Jesus' Meals with Sinners by Craig Blomberg

5.) Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John's Gospel by Andreas Kostenberger and Scott R. Swain

6.) Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett

The series editor is D. A. Carson and there are currently 24 available volumes.

Monday, June 8, 2009

John Calvin and the Church

In preparing for our forum this year on John Calvin I've been re-reading portions of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Each week I want to give a quote that I found especially helpful. I've been amazed at how much Calvin covers that the current church is struggling with. In this case it is people leaving the church because of some gripe they have. Calvin makes it clear that "it is always disastrous to leave the church." (4.1.4 - this is the typical reference system for the Institutes. All it means is book 4, chapter 1, section 4. Often you will see it in roman numerals, IV, i, 4). Calvin reminds us that the Lord is at work in the church "smoothing out wrinkles and cleansing spots." (4.1.17) But here is the thought I want to leave you with:

"Let the following two points, then, stand firm. First, he who voluntarily deserts the outward communion of the church (where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered) is without excuse. Secondly, neither the vices of the few nor the vices of the many in any way prevent us from duly professing our faith there in ceremonies ordained by God. For a godly conscience is not wounded by the unworthiness of another, whether pastor or layman; nor are the sacraments less pure and salutary for a holy and upright man because they are handled by unclean persons." (4.1.19)

I encourage you to read the whole chapter for he has much to say that we can all benefit from. It is a strong word to those who are disgruntled with the church (I'm among the worst.). The answer does not come in abandoning her but in living with all her blemishes knowing the Bride is loved and cared for by her Lord.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The American Patriot's Bible and Greg Boyd

Thomas Nelson has released The American Patriot's Bible and Greg Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, has written a rather unflattering review. That's putting it mildly.

As a Christian retailer it does become difficult to sit and hear the rationalizations that are provided as justification for another niche market Bible. My stand has been I will carry the product and have it available for those who want to purchase it. But the criticisms are most often right on target.

See Greg's review which is in two parts here and here.

The editor of The American Patriot's Bible, Richard Lee, did offer a response which most have found unpersuasive.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Deuteronomy by Telford Work - A Review

Many thanks to our former co-worker Eric Karloski who is currently Professor of Old Testament Studies at Life Theological Seminary, Bhubaneswar, India who took the time to write this review for us.

Although I am only two years past my formal education at the master’s level, already there is a deep hesitation in me regarding biblical scholarship. It seems so narrow. I am now teaching in north India at a seminary which is English based, so there are difficulties regarding both how and what I teach. Currently I am teaching a class on the Pentateuch and these difficulties continually arise. I need to address specific themes from the Pentateuch which are necessary for the Christian church in India. I have found that the Indian classroom needs to address application issues far more than the American classroom, and that the Indian classroom needs to address application issues far more than academic issues. Please do not take this as a sign of inferiority, but as a sign of culture. The more I thought about the differences and similarities between the Indian and American churches the more I realize how similar some aspects are. Let’s face it, the American seminary will never have the majority of influence upon the common people as much as we want to try and push for such an ideal!

This is why I want to praise Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible with more applause every time one is released! The newest volume by Telford Work (author of Ain’t to Proud to Beg: Living through the Lord’s Prayer) on Deuteronomy is a masterpiece of combining both academic and application based comments on scripture. Work’s commentary is similar in format to two commentary sets, The Church’s Bible published by Eerdmans (currently only Song of Songs, Isaiah, and I Corinthians are released) and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture by Intervarsity Press. Work’s commentary on Deuteronomy has three things which make it a far better investment than the other two series. First, it combines both academic and application based studies for each passage which are organized under four headings. These headings are Plain (literal and/or historical comments), Faith (Christological comments), Hope (eschatological comments) and Love (ecclesiological comments). Work firmly believes that the Bible is for the edification of the church so commentaries also have to be for the church. This book is a perfect commentary for any small group or advanced Bible study. He even says that if the church claims the whole Bible is inspired for and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (II Tim. 3:16) then the church needs to “put up or shut up.” “It is one thing to call a book biblical, and another thing to treat it that way.” In other words, we have to take Deuteronomy to be just as important as the rest of Scripture. “This theological commentary is a recovery project” as the author says. Work believes that theology has been handed over to modern critical scholarship and the leftovers have been given to the common person who can make no sense of it all, and his commentary seeks to correct that. Second, the book is fun to read and well written! Theology should not be boring. Work makes no apologies for using “I” in his book. But he also makes several apologies (as in apologetics) to his readers who are expecting a similar commentary to all the rest. Third, the book’s price is very reasonable at $29.99.

This book will surely be worth the price, time, and effort not only to study Deuteronomy, but also begin to connect the OT books back into the life of the church!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Genesis 1 - John Walton and A New Perspective on Genesis?

The fun thing about reading more than one book at a time is finding similar thoughts expressed in widely different contexts. I started reading John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origin's Debate, and thought it soundly strangely familiar to another book I'm currently reading: Justification by N.T. Wright. Here's what I'm talking about. The first quote is from Wright and the second from Walton.

"If you read your own question into the text, and try to get an answer from it, when the text itself is talking about something else, you run the risk not only of hearing only the echo of your own voice rather than the word of God but also of missing the key point that the text was actually eager to tell you, and which you have brushed aside in your relentless quest for your own meaning." (42)

"All of these issues are modern issues imposed on the text and not the issues in the culture of the ancient world. We cannot expect the text to address them, nor can we configure the information of the text to force it to comply with the questions we long to have answered. We must take the text on its own terms--it is not written to us. Much to our dismay then, we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today's dialogues. Though we long for the Bible to weigh in on these issues and give us biblical perspectives or answers, we dare not impose such an obligation on the text. God has chosen the agenda of the text, and we must be content with the wisdom of his choices. If we attempt to commandeer the text to address our issues, we distort it in the process." (21)

I'm about a third of the way through Wright but one of the endorsements on the back of Walton's book said "every Christian. . .must put aside all other reading material this minute and immediately begin to absorb the contents of [Walton's book]." So I did. I must say though I was already familiar with Walton's views I'm already impressed with the clarity this book provides. This is an important work and should be must reading (admittedly an over used phrase) for anyone interested in creation and Genesis.

Both Wright and Walton are prepping the reader for what is to come and the necessary ground work for that is, in part, to make them aware of how terribly easy it is for us to impose our own thoughts and concepts on to a text. No one is calling Walton's view the "New Perspective" on Genesis but given the similar cautions and warnings as Wright he is clearly preparing the reader for somthing new. So, I called it the New Perspective on Genesis. The similarites end there since both are dealing with very different contexts. But while the material context may differ both are advocating for a serious and careful consideration of the cultural context for a proper interpreation of the Biblical text.

I will do a proper review in a latter post but for now I should say Wright may have to wait till I'm done with Walton. I have been anxiously awaiting for Walton's book. I won't tell you to stop what you're reading and start Walton but maybe you could make it number two on your list.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Why We Love the Church - A Review

The coauthors of the award winning book Why We're Not Emergent have teamed up again to bring us their latest book called Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion. Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have returned with their unique combination of wit and discernment to give a counterbalance to the surge of books published today on quitting church, hating church, church is bad, hypocritical, dull, lifeless, insensitive, narrow minded, and on and on and on. (Disclaimer: The copy I read is a pre publication copy and so the page numbers I give may not match the published edition.)

Let's get one thing out in the open: DeYoung and Kluck are not blind idealists who are not acutely aware of the problems in the church. This is not a book that says the church is perfect. Far from it. They admit, "There are grave failings in the church, in the evangelical church as much as anywhere. We need better preaching, better theology, more love for Jesus, more involvement in our neighborhoods, more evangelism, more crosscultural missions, more generosity, more biblical literacy, less worldliness, less trend-tracing, and better discipleship. The church in this country will always have something--many things--to work on. But in the midst of our struggles, we need to guard against wild hyperbole. We need to exercise more caution before we announce the end of the church as we know it. We need a little more humility before we announce everything must change. And we need a little more wisdom before we reinvent the church for yet another time--let alone before we pitch her to the curb altogether." (219) And again, "[M]y aim is not to let the church go scot-free for all its mistakes. Instead, I hope to provide some much needed balance and nuance." (76)

The book divides itself into four main parts which are the four primary reasons why people are leaving/hating the church. 1) The missiologial. This addresses the complaint that the church is either not growing or that it is has lost sight of its mission. "The church has turned a blind eye to the community around her and is making no impact on the world." (16) 2) The personal. This addresses the complaint that the church is "filled with hypocritical, anti-women, anti-gay, judgmental, close-minded acolytes for the Republican Party." (16) This is also for those who have wounded or let down by the church. "The leaders are controlling: the people are phony, and the ministry is programmed to death." (17) 3) The historical. This addresses those who see the church as "an unbiblical, historical accident at best and a capitulation to paganism at worst." (17) Furthermore, "the church as we know it in the West has been corrupted beyond recognition. And on top of this, we have the record of atrocities committed by the church over the centuries." (17) And 4) The theological. This is the most serious and is addressed to those who say "Jesus came to put an end to religion, not to start a new one. He came to bring the kingdom, not our little empires we call churches. The more we can move away from all the manmade doctrines, rituals, and structures of church as we know it, the closer we will be to truly knowing God in all his unconditional, untamed, mysterious, relational love." (18)

DeYoung has an uncanny way of asking just the right question at just the right time. For example, he cites this conclusion by George Barna based on a research study: "local churches have virtually no influence in our culture. . .The local church appears among entities that have little or no influence on society." DeYoung in turn asks, "Come on, really? What research show that? Are we really to believe that if every church were removed from every street corner in America and every Christian in those churches disappeared that the impact on our culture would be negligible? Are a hundred million Christians really that pathetic?" (42-43) To be sure this isn't meant to be a show stopper. He has much more to say. But I think the question is justified in the light of such a sweeping statement based on "research."

One book in particular receives due criticism: Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. This book received a harsh review from noted New Testament scholar Ben Witherington. DeYoung is not nearly as detailed in his critique but just as insightful. He picks two issues from Pagan Christianity that are common among the "anti-Church-as-we-know-it literature:" church buildings, and spirituality and spontaneity. Viola alleges that to meet in church buildings is unbiblical since the early church only met in individual homes. It's true the early church did meet in homes but this was, in part, because for a good part of the time their faith was illegal. Furthermore, some of the homes were quite large, complete with spacious courtyards, and could easily accommodate up to a hundred people. Finally, Christians did meet in synagogues, rented lecture halls and in caves. (120-21) The second point is spirituality and spontaneity. Here Viola objects to the traditional order of worship which is the same in all Protestant churches. The early church was much more spontaneous, free and vibrant. DeYoung faults Viola for being "grossly uncharitable" and asks "Are we really to believe that true biblical worship has been in hiatus for about two millennia and is just now getting a second chance with charismatic house meetings?" (122-23) Secondly, Viola's complaints are valid only if we ignore significant parts of the New Testament and a considerable amount of testimony from early church history. DeYoung is careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The problem is finding the baby given the bath water is so dirty. "The arguments in Pagan Christianity are grossly overstated. On several occasions as I read Viola's claims I thought, You would be fine if you stopped right now and made the point that these things (pulpits, stained glass, robes, etc.) don't have to be in the church, but then you go and try to prove that they can't." (117) Summary, does Viola have some points? Perhaps, but it is ruined by the excesses of his own distorted logic and rhetoric.

The book admirably tackles three other issues which have been distorted in popular literature: the church's early belief in a flat earth, it's support of slave trade and the crusades. The first one is flat out false and the latter two need serious qualifications. As for slave trade, "this doesn't mean Christians have no complicity in the evils of slavery, but we should remember that slavery was eradicated chiefly due to Christians and Christian nations." (129) Also, church history is lined with those who have objected to slavery as far back as the seventh century with Saith Bathilde (wife of Clovis III) who was "famous for her campaign to stop slave trading and free all the slaves in the kingdom." (130) What about the crusades? Again, while not white washing the complicity and faults of the church due consideration must be given to the initial attacks made by militant Muslims. This reminded me of the excellent discussion by Dinesh D'Souza in What's So Great About Christianity? He has a chapter called "Rethinking the Inquisition: The Exaggerated Crimes of Religion." D'Souza forcefully pushes back on the issues of the crusades as well as the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. I was surprised to learn that in the latter less than twenty five people died. That's a far cry from the impression I had growing up that hundreds if not thousands died. D'Souza, like DeYoung, does not intend to excuse these atrocities by focusing on the lower numbers but simply to keep it in perspective. D'Souza points out that if religion has to give an account for its bloodshed then atheism has it all the more. The number of people who have died under atheistic regimes and for political reasons far exceeds those in the name of religion.

Many will complain that DeYoung is, at the end of the day, insensitive to those who have genuinely struggled with the real problems of the church. When DeYoung asks "[b]ut I'd like church-leavers to consider that some their angst may be self-induced and some of their pain is more personal than profound. That is to say, it's possible that a good deal of the problem for church-leavers rests with the one leaving and not just the church" (84) will the response be self defense or honest examination? He concludes this chapter with "However, I am worried for church-leavers. I wonder if they will be happy in five years with their new form of church. I wonder if they will keep up the revolution without the life-support of structure and routine. I wonder if they will escape their own cynicism and anger. Most of all I worry that in leaving the church they are leaving the faith of the church and the Christ of two thousand years of church history. I feel sorry for their hurts and worry about their hearts." (92)

What about Kluck? Did all I read were the chapters by DeYoung? No, I read those by Kluck as well. His chapters were painfully honest and sometimes surprising given the topic of the book. This is best seen when he admits that when he was encouraged by the publisher to be "authentic" and "share some of your own struggles with the church" he says "I think I might be in my-church-is-hard-phase now." (60) Doesn't he know his co-author is his pastor? Of course he does. Kluck talks about the things that have been bothering him in the church--things that happen almost every Sunday like the ritual "meet and greet" or singing worship songs in different languages or being in a church when everyone is pregnant but you (and you've been trying for years). This is real and no doubt we can all relate. Personally, the "meet and greet" always bothers me too. What does Kluck do with all this? You'll have to read chapter 8 "The Year of Jubilee: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Church." Not to be missed is the next chapter where Kluck writes a letter to his son Tristan. He starts, "By the time you read this, it might be hip to like church again. Right now it isn't, but luckily for us, you're five, and for you church is just another place with good toys, friends, and lots of space to run." The chapter is intensely personal and is written from the depths of a father's heart who both loves his son and the church.

Buy this book. Read it. Give it to someone who has left the church or someone who is thinking about it. People read book reviews to know about the book not the reviewer (though I did sneak in a comment about "meet and greet"). But I will say this book helped me in innumerable ways and I'm grateful to Ted and Kevin for their labor of love and that of the church. The book is due out July 1st and sells for $14.95. See the two endorsements by Sam Storms and Mark Dever.