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Tim Challies

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theology

5 years 2 months ago
Calling the Holy Spirit “Forgotten God” may be a bit of an overstatement. Or perhaps it is an understatement. Some Christians seem to show little evidence that they have any theology of the Spirit while others seem to emphasize the Spirit at the expense of other biblical doctrine. What seems clear is that few Christians have it quite right. In this new book Francis Chan says, “From my perspective, the Holy Spirit is tragically neglected and, for all practical purposes, forgotten. While no evangelical would deny His existence, I’m willing to bet there are millions of churchgoers across America who cannot confidently say they have experienced His presence or action in their lives over the past year. And many of them do not believe they can.” With the entertainment (or perhaps “edutainment”) model of church so prevalent today, churches have become filled with self-focused consumers instead of Spirit-filled believers. Chan asks this provocative question: “What if you grew up on a desert island with nothing but the Bible to read?” If you had nothing but Scripture to guide you, would your understanding of the Holy Spirit be far different from what it is today? It is probably worth thinking about. Says Chan, “If I were Satan and my ultimate goal was to thwart God’s kingdom and purposes, one of my main strategies would be to get churchgoers to ignore the Holy Spirit.”

It is easy to fake the presence of the Spirit, isn’t it? “Let’s be honest: If you combine a charismatic speaker, a talented worship band, and some hip, creative events, people will attend your church. Yet this does not mean that the Holy Spirit of God is actively working and moving in the lives of the people who are coming.” It is possible for a church to be fun and vibrant and exciting even while utterly ignoring the Holy Spirit—even while outright grieving the Holy Spirit. Such churches may say much about Jesus but little about the Spirit. Yet how then do we reconcile Jesus’ words that it is better for us if we have the Spirit than if we have the Son? Chan says, “I think most of us would…choose a physical Jesus over an invisible Spirit. But what do we do with the fact that Jesus says it is better for His followers to have the Holy Spirit?” Do we believe Him? If so, do our lives reflect that belief?”

Alternating teaching with stories and testimonies, Chan seeks to reverse this neglect of the Spirit. Essentially he provides a brief and basic theology of the Spirit (even titling one chapter “Theology of the Holy Spirit 101”) and shows how the Spirit can and should operate in the life of the believer. It is an eminently quotable book, offering scores of statements that are worth highlighting and worth pondering in the days and weeks to come. Some reading this review will want to know his position on the continuation of the miraculous spiritual gifts. I would say his is “guarded, hesitant continuationism,” though this comes from reading between the lines more than any bold statements to that effect.

If the book has a weakness I would say it is in Chan’s unwillingness to draw distinctions and to clearly delineate opposing doctrine. It is all very well to indicate that a church may not quite fit within one mold or another, but sooner or later we do need to make distinctions. Either the Spirit speaks through audible voices or he does not; either words of knowledge exist today or they do not. We cannot have it both ways and the distinction can cut right to the heart of a church’s beliefs. I realize that labels can be as unhelpful as they are helpful, but at some point we do need to make distinctions. I will grant that this may not be the role or purpose of Forgotten God but it is still possible that the book can confuse the reader exactly because of this lack of precision.

Nevertheless, for those who have thought little about the person and role of the Holy Spirit, Forgotten God may be just the thing to get them thinking. For those who have not thought about the Spirit for a long time, this may serve as a good wake-up call. It is far from a full-orbed or exhaustive treatment, but neither is that its purpose. Chan sets out to get the reader thinking “that by keeping in step with the Spirit, we might regularly fellowship over what He’s doing rather than what He did months or years ago.” It’s about living a life dependent on and surrendered to the Spirit, about seeking how we can live faithfully here and now. And this he accomplishes well.

Chan’s previous book Crazy Love has sold over a quarter million copies and continues to fly off bookstore shelves. Forgotten God shares a message that is nearly as urgent and undoubtedly even more important. It is a fitting sequel that bears many resemblances to the book it follows. After all, how can we show true love if not through the Holy Spirit? There are many people sharing similar messages today, but few doing so to Chan’s audience which is largely young and in many cases not very well trained in the teachings of Scripture. I have little doubt that God will use this to shake them up in all the right ways.

 

5 years 5 months ago
At the very heart of the gospel, at the very heart of the Christian faith, are two great miracles, two inseparable miracles, through which a dead man is brought to life. The first miracle is justification; here a condemned sinner is made right in the eyes of a perfect judge. The second miracle is regeneration; here a hater of God and a hater of good is transformed into a lover of God and a lover of all that is good and right. Despite the importance of these two, confusion reigns, even among Christians, about what they are and what they mean. In Justification and Regeneration Charles Leiter sets forth a biblical understanding of each of these, the similarities, the differences, the misconceptions, the truth.

He begins the book in the most obvious spot, focusing on sin as man’s ultimate problem. After all, it is sin that makes both justification and regeneration a tragic, though wondrous, necessity. He says, rightly, that sin is the ultimate and only problem of humanity. He turns next to a brief explanation of how a man can be righteous before God without it being some kind of a legal fiction or some kind of a pardon that comes at the expense of justice. Next, he dedicates a chapter to each of the twin topics of justification and regeneration. But the heart of the book comes in a series of nine short chapters, each of which stands as a biblical description of the great miracle of regeneration. He says, rightly, that “each description views the same glorious reality from a different angle, while illuminating different facets of it.” Here is the list of these descriptions: A New Creation; A New Man; A New Heart; A New Birth; A New Nature. After looking to Crucifixion and Resurrection, he shows that justification brings about five different changes of realm: Flesh to Spirit; Earth to Heaven; Sin to Righteousness; Law to Grace; Adam to Christ. Actually, the last two chapters break from the pattern just a little bit. In “Law to Grace” he looks at both justification and regeneration within the wider biblical context of law and grace in the final chapter he zooms out a bit further even, looking at what it means to be “in Christ.” “Christianity is Christ. Every spiritual blessing is found “in Him”—including all the blessings of justification and regeneration—and no spiritual blessing exists apart from Him.”

At this point the book is at only page 133 of 176. The remainder of the book is dedicated to a series of useful appendices (not often words that go side-by-side). In these appendices he summarizes the truths of regeneration, he looks at the difficult words “cannot sin,” he looks at Romans 7 and some of the age-old controversies surrounding that chapter, he writes about “All blessings in Christ” and he answers some frequently asked questions.

Though dealing with a deep subject and one of critical importance, Justification and Regeneration is very accessible and is written in a way suited even to new believers. The chapters are short, making it easy to read just a few pages at a time. Charles Leiter has done us a great service with this book. I know of no better, more accessible study of these two great truths.

5 years 6 months ago
Martin Luther got it right when he said, “No theology is genuinely Christian which does not arise from and focus on the cross.” The cross of Christ is the very center point of the Christian faith; indeed, it is the very focal point of all of history. No event will or can be more significant than this. Little wonder, then, that so many books have been written that teach the cross, reflect on the cross, draw the Christian’s gaze to the cross.

In Outrageous Mercy: Rediscovering the Radical Nature of the Cross William Farley writes, “The cross teaches us everything we need to know about life, death, God, humanity, eternity, and host of other issues.” And it does so in a unique way. “The cross is God’s ‘show, don’t tell.’ Systematic theologies catalog and systematize the Bible’s doctrines, and their work is important—but they ‘tell’ us the truth. The cross shows us.” The cross displays God’s mercy and grace and justice and does so with startling clarity. It does the Christian well to turn continually to the cross, to devote time to gazing upon it, searching out its deepest meanings. “There is nothing deeper. It is a bottomless well, a fountain of vibrant truth, a pinnacle of wisdom and knowledge. In it lie the depths of the mysteries of God. The first sign of spiritual maturity is when one increasingly thinks about, ponders, marvels, and wonders at the mystery of the cross.”

“The cross has two dimensions. It is something God has done for us, but it is also a revelation of vital truths communicated to us.” Books such as John Stott’s The Cross of Christ and, a personal favorite, The Cross He Bore by Frederick Leahy focus on the former. In Outrageous Mercy, William Farley chooses a different path and focuses on the latter. As Christ did what he did on the cross for the world, he also spoke to the world. In this book, Farley examines some of the key messages communicated to us through the death of Jesus. And, of course, it can only be “some” of these since an exhaustive treatment would be impossible. Says Farley, “My work will be worthwhile, and I will be satisfied, if you finish this volume longing to plunge more deeply into the implications of the cross for everyday life. You will never reach the end of its lessons and ramifications in this life or eternity.”

In each of the book’s eleven chapters, Farley looks to a different implication of the cross in the life of the believer. So instead of describing the suffering of Christ on the cross, he looks to the implications of the cross, the meaning of the cross, in the Christian’s life. He shows that at the cross we truly do learn all we need to know about God, man, eternity, wisdom, worship, suffering, and a host of other subjects. As much as I enjoyed each of the chapters, I also enjoyed isolated sentences that are eminently quotable. Here is just a sampling:

  • “One important way we can measure the depth of the Holy Spirit’s work is by the extent of our mourning for sin and fear of God.”
  • “It is idolatry to serve others without reference to the glory of God.”
  • “We become helpful to this world to the degree that we die to it and live for the glory of God.”
  • “The cross message synthesizes the Bible’s divergent statements about God into one consistent message that satisfies even the most demanding intellect.”
  • “If you have never been deeply scandalized and offended by the cross, you may have never really heard its message.”

I hope you do not feel that you’ve already read enough books on the cross. And even if you’ve read hundreds, I suspect that this one will open your eyes to new aspects of the meaning, the implications, of all that happened there. While Outrageous Mercy is a book that deals with a subject that has filled the pages of many books, Farley gives a unique take on it and thus offers a unique perspective. There is little overlap, I think, with the works of Leahy or Stott or Mahaney or others. Their books are valuable and have their place; this book has a niche all its own. I give it my highest recommendation.

5 years 6 months ago

Until I read this book I would not have considered God’s love as a particularly difficult doctrine. The Trinity is a difficult doctrine to understand, impossible even. The eternal nature of God—that is another difficult or impossible one. But the love of God? I wouldn’t have thought of it as such. But this book convinced me otherwise.

The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson is just a short book (96 pages) that is drawn from four lectures he delivered in 1998. There was a small amount of editing performed, but the conversational nature of the speech carries through the text. It makes for an easy read, despite some deep theology.

Carson begins by outlining five reasons why this is a difficult doctrine. First, he suggests that while most people believe that God is a loving Being, this belief is set within a foundation other than Scripture. Second, many complementary truths about God are disbelieved by many within our culture (and our churches). Third, postmodernism reinforces a sentimental, syncretistic and pluralistic view of God. Fourth, the church has fallen into believing a sentimentalized version of God’s love that is not consistent with God as presented in Scripture. And fifth, the church portrays this as a simple doctrine and overlooks certain important distinctions that prove it to be difficult.

From this foundation, Carson builds the book around four themes: the distortion of the love of God; the fact that God is love; God’s love and God’s sovereignty; and God’s love and God’s wrath. As we would expect from Carson, he goes straight to the source—to God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture—to correct false assumptions and provide a deep discussion of what God’s love entails. He defends the compatibility of seemingly-opposite characteristics of God (that God can be perfectly loving and yet perfectly just in His wrath) and examines how God’s love interacts with His sovereignty in human affairs.

The only caveat I would provide with this book is that it does assume some knowledge of Christian theology since it was initially targeted at seminary students. For example, Carson discusses distinctions between Calvinism and Arminianism without first defining his terms. A basic knowledge of Greek would not hurt either, though it certainly is not necessary.

It is rare to find so much depth in such a short book. At the same time it is also nice to be able to learn so much without having to wade through hundreds of pages of text. This book could as easily have been hundreds or thousands of pages long. Carson does a wonderful job of highlighting the most important issues while confining himself to a limited word count. I highly recommend it.

5 years 6 months ago
Every now and again I pick up a book that I feel I should really enjoy. And yet, for one reason or another, it simply does not “click.” Unfashionable by Tullian Tchividjian is just such a book. It has been widely praised by Christians I respect and its six (!) pages of endorsements contain a veritable who’s who of prominent Evangelicals, each of whom tells of his esteem for the book and its author. And yet, after reading it through twice, I have significant concerns.

Unfashionable is about making a difference in the world by being different. The point Tchividjian tries to drive home throughout the book is this: Christians make a difference in this world by being different from the world; they don’t make a difference by being the same. And certainly we have seen the inevitable fallout from too many Christians who have done just the opposite, chasing every trend in a vain attempt to win the world by being nearly indistinguishable from the world. “In contrast, I’m asking you to embrace the delicious irony Christ demonstrated in bringing a message of God’s kingdom that subversively transforms both individuals and the world. Only by being properly unfashionable can we engage our broken world with an embodied gospel that witnesses to God’s gracious promise of restoration, significance, and life.” And so, through this book, Tchividjian seeks to give a clear picture of what it means to live “subversively and redemptively—for God and his expanding kingdom.”

He divides the book into four sections, making it well-structured and easy to follow. In The Call, he calls upon Christians to be different from the world, and to be, well, unfashionable by the world’s standards; in The Commission he calls upon Christians to be agents of renewal in the world; in The Community he shows what unfashionable Christians look like and how they live; in The Charge he gives that final charge, that final call, to make a difference by being different.

The section I most enjoyed was The Community. Here Tchividjian, showing his skill as a teacher of God’s Word, teaches from the book of Ephesians, showing six ways that God tells Christians to be different. He teaches on truth, righteous anger, generosity, edifying words, kindness and love. It is a good section that simply calls Christians to be different and shows from Scripture, carefully and consistently, how Christians are to do that.

Where I struggled most was in The Commission. Here Tchividjian teaches theology of God’s kingdom that I just was not able reconcile with Scripture. This is not to say that what he writes is unbiblical but rather that it strikes me as being nonbiblical. He writes about transformationalism, the view that God seeks to redeem and renew not just people but nations and cultures. I feel inadequate to really critique this kind of theology, so wish to tread very carefully here.

My concern is that such theology emphasizes the continuity between the world today and the world after the consummation of history and does so at the expense of the kind of radical discontinuity Scripture teaches. I know that when history is consummated in Christ, we will not go to some kind of ethereal cloud-land heaven. No, the Bible teaches that we will spend eternity on a renewed earth. We will live in bodies that, somehow, are still our bodies. At the same time, these bodies will rot and turn to dust and there is some reason to believe from Scripture that the earth itself will undergo that kind of a transformation. So there will be some genuine continuity between life now and life hereafter. As we read Scripture we wrestle with reconciling both continuity and discontinuity.

Yet as I read Unfashionable I saw much greater emphasis on continuity and all that this then entails. “God promises nothing short of total cosmic renewal. Our confident anticipation of that renewal—our living hope of it—triggers and sustains our excitement and motivation for making a difference by living unfashionable lives. It links us with something so grand and glorious that it easily exposes the flimsy lie behind mere fashionability.” And so Tchividjian tells us that we need to take part in God’s work of “revitalization” and says that we have been redeemed by God to “become agents of renewal.” Without offering clear Scriptural proof he puts forth statements such as “Churches are designed by God to be instruments of renewal in the world, renewing not only individual lives but also cultural forms and structures, helping to make straight all that is crooked in our world.” Now certainly Christians will be instruments of renewal, at least to some degree, but I do not find Scripture teaching that the church is to concern itself, at least primarily, with renewing cultural forms and structures.

He says also that “the New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus intends to bring about the restoration of all things—he’s working in the direction of total transformation.” At one point he says “By fulling engaging in every area of culture—education, art, politics, business, media, science—we’re following Paul’s example” at which point he quotes 1 Corinthians 9:22. And yet I do not see Paul’s concern with culture except as a means to reach souls. Without laying out my concerns with the potential cost of such theology to the church and to the Christian’s life, I will simply say that I do not see that the Bible teaches such an emphasis.

While such theology is found primarily in only one of the book’s four sections, it does provide a foundation for much of what follows. And in that way I found that it tainted what followed.

So I suppose I wouldn’t say that Unfashionable is a bad book and it is certainly not an unbiblical book. But I do feel that much of what Tchividjian teaches falls under the realm of nonbiblical. At the very least I would say that one section of this book majors on what Scripture at best regards as a minor. And hence it may just serve to distract people rather than focusing them on what the book does so well in calling people to make a difference by being different. I believe it would have been a stronger book without the emphasis (or over-emphasis) on transforming culture.

5 years 8 months ago
Cornelius Venema’s The Promise of the Future, published in 2000 by Banner of Truth, has been hailed as the most important major Reformed study in biblical eschatology since Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future (published in 1972). It is not coincidental, I am sure, that Venema is a former student of Hoekema. The Promise of the Future was expanded from a series of articles serialized in The Outlook magazine. Now Christ and the Future is an abridgement of the original edition. The publisher says, “While [The Promise of the Future] has justly received acclaim from numerous reviewers, its size and weight may discourage the less experienced reader from taking it up and benefiting from its contents. The publishers, therefore, are grateful to Dr. Venema for kindly agreeing to produce this abridgement of his original edition, and are now delighted to offer it to a wider readership in this smaller, paperback format.” And, indeed, this volume, coming in at just over 200 pages, is far more accessible and far more likely to gain a wide readership. It is an ideal introduction to the subject of the Bible’s teaching about the last things.

Where the original volume contained sixteen chapters divided into six parts, this book has just twelve chapters. It may be easiest to trace the author’s argument by simply listing the chapter titles:

  • The Future is Now
  • The Future Between Death and Resurrection
  • The Future of Christ
  • The Future Marked by “Signs of the Times”
  • The Future Marked by Signs of Antithesis and of Impending Judgment
  • The Future of the Kingdom: Four Millennial Views
  • The Future of the Kingdom: Revelation 20
  • The Future of the Kingdom: An Evaluation of Millennial Views
  • The Future of All Things: The Resurrection of the Body
  • The Future of All Things: The Final Judgment
  • The Future of All Things: The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment
  • The Future of All Things: The New Heavens and Earth

Time would fail me, of course, to describe the nuances of the author’s argument—the particulars of his views in each of these areas. After all, the various eschatological views, which seem to be just about as numerous as the number of Christians, often depend on small distinctions of interpretation. As with his earlier volume, Venema leans towards an “optimistic amillennialism.” His evaluation of the four millennial views is fair, I believe, and he goes to great lengths to describe their beliefs accurately. When he considers the resurrection, the final judgment, eternal punishment and other such issues, he comes down squarely on the side of biblical orthodoxy, speaking out harshly against annihilationism and universalism, and affirming the reality of judgment. He looks constantly to Scripture to defend all that he teaches.

This is a very readable, enjoyable and biblical examination of what the Bible teaches about the last things. Dr. Venema has crafted a careful, nuanced book that covers the topic well but also briefly enough that it avoids becoming bogged down in detail. While he defends the amillennial view, he offers information that will help anyone, regardless of his eschatology, to better understand what is to come. It will help every reader better understand what the Scriptures teach about the end of this age and the age to come. I recommend it for any reader.

Those who are seeking more detail about the nuances of his argument may wish to read these reviews by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. and Keith Mathison . Even better, buy it and read it for yourself. This book will make a great addition to your library.

5 years 8 months ago
This review is a few weeks overdue. It was almost a month ago that I reviewed Roger Olson’s Finding God in The Shack and at that time I had hoped to review Randal Rauser’s book of the same title within a week. Life being what it is and how it is, the deadline slipped. Today I am attempting to make amends.

And so we come to Finding God in the Shack (II). This book comes from the pen of Randal Rauser, Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton. As with Olson’s book of the same title, the publisher ensures the reader is aware that it is a theologian who is offering his professional evaluation of The Shack: “Aware both of the excitement and uncertainty generated by The Shack, theologian Randal Rauser takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the pages of the story. In successive chapters he explores many of the book’s complex and controversial issues. Thus he explains why God the Father is revealed as an African American woman, he defends the book’s theology of the Trinity against charges of heresy, and he considers its provocative denial of a Trinitarian hierarchy.”

Rauser begins his book by explaining why it is appropriate to allow a theologian into The Shack and then explains why he is particularly fond of this novel. In the subsequent three chapters he examines issues that have been of particular concern to readers of The Shack: its depiction of God, its portrayal of the Trinity and its view of authority. While in many cases he does offer firm and biblical views on theology, he also shows a proclivity to asking questions he does not answer. For example, he looks at the female imagery used for God in The Shack and asks, “Is it ever appropriate to think of God as Mother or to pray ‘Our Mother, who art in heaven…?’” He does not answer, saying only that The Shack offers no settled position and that “if we become too committed to one or another image of God, it can become an idol for ourselves and a stumbling block for others.” This may be true as far as it goes, but surely a theologian should offer answers to his own questions. Other strange statements abound such as this one in the chapter looking at hierarchy: “As for The Shack, it may be that the appropriateness of the book’s depiction of God depends on who reads the book and what prior conception of deity they bring to it.”

He dedicates the final three chapters to the most prominent of The Shack’s themes—that of suffering and evil. Rauser understands, rightly I think, that the majority of The Shack’s detractors are Calvinists and hence he sets much of this chapter against Calvinists and Calvinism. He first summarizes what he understands to be the tenets of Calvinism and then proceeds to refute them. Sadly, as I have documented elsewhere, he offers a completely fabricated portrayal of Calvinism. It is inaccurate, offensive and almost libelous. In the meta for that earlier blog post I interacted with Rauser and asked him to point to one credible source for some of the most outrageous of the statements he made. To this point he has not done so. Nor do I think he will be able to. No Calvinist I know of believes what Rauser claims to be true of Calvinists. So this whole section on suffering is tainted, at least to someone who has a realistic understanding of Calvinism. Even while Rauser does offer some valuable wisdom, it is overshadowed by his scorn for Calvinism and has irrational reaction to it.

The book’s strongest chapter may be “Finding Hope in God’s Pain.” Here Rauser shows that the doctrine of the atonement is missing from The Shack, explaining what this doctrine is and how it is critical to the Christian faith. As he does so he speaks of propitiation, of sacrifice, of reconciliation, and ultimately of the gospel. Ironically, he quotes John Calvin to support his points. Where the gospel was largely lacking from The Shack, it was refreshing to read it here.

Perhaps my greatest concern with this book is that it is sometimes difficult to separate the author’s understanding of theology from his description of the theology presented in The Shack. At times I was uncertain whether he was agreeing with The Shack or merely summarizing his understanding of what it teaches. When we combine this critique with Rauser’s habit of asking questions he does not intend to answer, we find a book that does not offer as many answers as we might like. Why should the publisher play up the fact that this book is written by a theologian if he will not use his expertise to answer the questions?

So I guess we are left with this: I would not recommend either Finding God in The Shack. Neither one deals consistently and biblically with the theology of The Shack. If you absolutely must read one or the other, go with this one; it is a better effort than Olson’s and, at the very least, it shares the gospel message. But with so many books available to us today, I have to think your time could be better spent elsewhere.

5 years 9 months ago
It is a question I am asked a lot: what Bible study curriculum do you recommend? I rarely know what to say. There are so many of them available; time would fail me to collect, examine and review them all. I was interested, then, to see that Paul Washer is releasing a new edition of The One True God, a title first released several years ago. It is published by Granted Ministries Press. No less than Iain Murray declares that it is “the best introductory work known to me. … Young Christians could scarcely spend their time better than working carefully through these pages.”

This is a 192 page hardcover book meant for serious study. “The great goal of this study is for the student to have an encounter with God through His Word. Founded upon the conviction that the Scriptures are the inspired and infallible Word of God, this study has been designed in such a way that it is literally impossible for the student to advance without an open Bible before him or her.” And he is right. A person who seeks to skim through this study or who leaves it for the last minute will not only gain very little but will actually be unable to complete it.

Washer begins his book this necessary, valuable exhortation. “The study of doctrine is both an intellectual and devotional discipline. It is a passionate search for God that should always lead the student to greater personal transformation, obedience, and heartfelt worship. Therefore, the student should be on guard against the great error of seeking only impersonal knowledge, and not the person of God. Neither mindless devotion nor mere intellectual pursuits are profitable, for in either case, God is lost.” The purpose of this study, then, is not merely to increase knowledge, but to increase devotion. At the same time, we must not downplay knowledge for “The mind is not the enemy of the heart, and doctrine is not an obstacle to devotion. The two are indispensable and should be inseparable.” We must love God with heart, soul and mind; we must love God in both spirit and truth.

Each of the book’s fourteen lessons looks to a specific attribute of God. Studies include “God is One,” “God is Spirit,” “God is Righteous,” “God is Creator and Sustainer” and “The Names of God.” The student will complete lessons only by looking to Scripture, studying it and understanding it. It is self-directed in that the benefit gained will be directly proportional to the work given to it. Says Washer, “The student will find that this is primarily a Biblical study and does not contain much in the way of colorful illustrations, quaint stories, or even theological commentaries. It was our desire to provide a work that only pointed the way to the Scriptures and allowed the Scriptures to speak for themselves.” And this is exactly what he accomplishes.

The lessons are completed right within the book, ensuring that this is a book you will personalize and make your own. There are fill-in-the-blank questions, questions that will require turning to Scripture and completing a sentence or two of summary, and questions that will require thought and application. All of this is interspersed with solid, biblical teaching about the person and character of God. You can view an older edition of the book here if you would like to get a taste of the format (though you should note that the new edition looks quite a bit nicer, even if the content is the same).

Suitable for individual use, small groups or Sunday school classes, this is a valuable book and one that will serve you well. It will draw your mind, your heart and your affections to the One True God. I highly recommend it and agree with Iain Murray—a young Christian could scarcely do better than to work through it with care, keeping his Bible open all the while.

5 years 9 months ago
I mark this review as Finding God in The Shack I because this month will see the release of two books by two authors but with only one title between them. Both books look to the overwhelming success of William Young’s The Shack, evaluate it, and seek to answer its critics. As one of those critics, and as one whose review has been read hundreds of thousands of times, I have some interest in the subject matter. This is especially so when both books claim to lay to rest some of the criticisms lodged against it.

First out of the gate is Roger’s Olson’s effort. Olson is a theologian (professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University) and in this book he purportedly “views The Shack with a theologian’s eye and finds much sound truth. He delves into many of the significant issues raised by the book such as forgiving those who have done us great evil, how God acts in the world, how God is three persons in one and what difference this makes to us. While he offers his own criticisms of the book, he largely finds the truth about God in The Shack.” Of course it is strange that in a book offering a theologian’s eye he would say “Why do I think The Shack has something important to teach? The book rings true to my own experience.” This seems to directly contradict the publisher’s claim that he looks at this book as a theologian. Nevertheless, a few pages later he says that the book “communicates great truths about God that are both biblical and resonate with experience.” Throughout the book he dedicates some effort to both.

Within his book, Olson asks this perceptive question. “I wonder how many folks who say they really love The Shack even stopped to think about what they read there?” I have wondered the same. I have enjoyed interacting with many people, hundreds even, who have done that. But I fear that hundreds of thousands more have put little thought into what they have read. Olson stops to think about The Shack and points out some of what is good and some of what is bad. Unfortunately his own theology is suspect in some areas, leading this book to advocate some seriously flawed doctrine.

Olson is Arminian in his theology (and is even author of a book titled Arminian Theology) and his understanding of free will will not sit well with those of a more Calvinistic persuasion. His understanding of free will impacts a good deal of related theology, especially as it relates to suffering and God’s sovereignty. For example, it dictates how he understands suffering in this world and leads him at times dangerously close to open theism. “God has the power to stop evil and suffering, but that would require taking back the gift of free will. For now, at least, God is honoring our demand for independence, and is using his power of suffering love and mercy to bring us back to himself. If he unilaterally stopped all evil, people would not be free.” And again, “In every tragic situation of innocent suffering God does all that he can do to prevent and alleviate it. Is God powerless? No. … Rather, God limits himself for the sake of human freedom. And God abides by rules about how often and when he can intervene.” He then tells of his indebtedness to Gregory Boyd’s book Is God to Blame?. At one point he suggests that while God is in charge of the world, he must not be in control of it. He also says, “what if, instead of knowing with absolute certainty, God limited himself to knowing all possible outcomes and was prepared to deal with whichever ones became actual? It’s just something to think about.” He is the theologian. Shouldn’t he tell us instead of just offering loaded suggestions?

Allow me to point to a few other areas in which Olson defends unbiblical theology.

First, Olson says rightly that The Shack gets the Trinity wrong in some important areas, and especially in areas related to the atonement (or, at least, in a traditional penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, something he does not necessarily adhere to). But he follows this by saying “I consider these relatively minor flaws in what is otherwise a superb and moving portrayal of the character of God.” This makes me wonder what could possibly qualify as a major flaw.

Second, he is a little bit ambiguous on the subject of hell. Where William Young seems to almost go so far as denying hell (and where at the least he describes it as something less than divine punishment for sin), Olson offers some criticism for this without affirming the biblical truth. He does say, “I wish William Young had said more about hell. It’s not necessarily a place of literal fire and physical torment. But it is a biblical place.” But he does not offer a biblical alternative.

Third, Olson defends inclusivism. “[C.S.] Lewis and the author of The Shack, together with many Catholic and Protestant thinkers, are inclusivists with regard to non-Christians. Without using the term ‘anonymous Christians,’ they are saying the same thing: that many people who are not organizationally Christians are Jesus followers because they love him and do his works. I agree with the author of The Shack on this.” He declares that Jesus may accept people who are supposedly serving Christ even while not knowing who he is.

Also curious are these sentences. “A major theme of The Shack is trust. God wants our trust, and that will lead to everything else. Theologians call this ‘justification by faith alone.’” Though I can understand what he is getting at here, I do not know of any theologian who would define justification by faith alone in terms even approximating these.

In the book’s closing pages Olson declares that, when it comes to what it teaches, The Shack is 90 percent right on. And this may be right if we are discussing mere quantity. But when we weigh the ninety percent that Young gets right with the ten percent that he gets wrong, we see that this leaves him wrong on a great deal of very important theology. These are no minor details. He is wrong on the atonement, the Trinity and God’s sovereignty over what he has created to name just three. So yes, there is a good deal of value in the book. But there is also too much that touches on theology that is just too important to overlook.

Olson concludes by suggesting that anyone who reads The Shack should do so with an open Bible and in light of Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 that we “test everything.” Applying this same exhortation to Olson’s book I think we will have to conclude that it falls short itself. At one point Olson says this about William Young: “I choose to think he’s more biblically and theologically correct than that.” And perhaps this is the downfall of Olson’s book. Sometimes he deals well with the poor theology of The Shack. Yet all the while he does so with the underlying belief that Young’s theology is more orthodox than the evidence seems to indicate. Olson’s presuppositions may just keep him from seeing what is all too obvious: The Shack is just plain wrong in some very fundamental areas.

The surprising thing about Olson’s take on The Shack is not that he finds both good and bad and not even that he finds more good than bad. What is surprising is that he regards as minor errors in theology that is at the heart of the Christian faith and that he shares so much poor theology along with it. As the publisher promises, Olson does cast a theologian’s eye on The Shack and as such offers some good reflections, both positive and negative. While his overall assessment of the book is that it offers more truth than error, the discerning reader will find good cause to remain concerned. Ultimately I think Olson inadvertently does a wrecking job on his own thesis—that The Shack is predominantly good. By the time he has finished sharing all that is wrong with the book, many readers will no doubt scratch their heads and wonder just how good the good can be in light of all the bad.

Stay tuned next week for a review of the other Finding God in The Shack…

6 years 3 months ago
In the past weeks I have spent some time wrestling with issues related to the environment and creation care. I have been seeking distinctly Christian wisdom on this issue, seeking to learn how we, as Christians, are to understand this world and our role in its care and protection. Last week I turned to Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man hoping and even expecting that it would answer some of my deepest questions.

Schaeffer acknowledges from the beginning of this book what our society’s secular humanists cannot—that mankind has been called by God to exercise dominion over the earth. But like everything else in this world, man’s ability to exercise such dominion has been affected by the Fall. No longer do we tend the world always in love, but instead we ravage and pillage it. Though we may not believe in all of the dire claims being made about the world today, we must at least acknowledge that we have not cared for the world as God has called us to.

The answers to this crisis lie not in our own efforts and not in the dictums of former Vice Presidents. Rather, if we are to understand the crisis, its roots, and its solutions, we must turn to Scripture. And this is precisely what Schaeffer does in Pollution and the Death of Man. Originally published in 1970, the book reads as if it was written yesterday (if the reader is willing to replace the ecological crises of thirty years ago with those of today, perhaps substituting global warming for DDT). Schaeffer looks at the spirit of the day and sees how men are dealing with ecological issues. Perceptively, he sees that ecology, bereft of any firm, biblical foundation and without any consistent basis for morality, is breeding a kind of pantheism. Men deal with the environment by making themselves one with it and it one with them. He launches into what I’d consider classic Schaefferian thought: “Pantheism,” he says, “will be pressed as the only answer to ecological problems and will be one more influence in the West’s becoming increasingly Eastern in its thinking.” Almost forty years later, his words are proving true. “The only reason we are called upon to treat nature well is because of its effects on man and our children and the generations to come. So in reality…man is left with a completely egoistic position in regard to nature.” “Having no absolutes, modern man has no categories. One cannot have real answers without categories, and these men can have no categories beyond pragmatic, technological ones.” “A pantheistic stand always brings man to an impersonal and low place rather than elevating him.” In the end, pantheism pushes both man and nature into a kind of bog, leaving us unable to make any kind of necessary and rational distinctions.

After looking at a few alternative inadequate answers to pantheism, Schaeffer turns to the Bible to give the Christian view of creation care. He affirms that our understanding must begin with the world’s creation when God created things that have an objective existence in themselves. Despite the claims of pantheism, creation is not an extension of God’s essence. It is only the biblical view that gives worth to man and to all that God has created. Nature begins to look different when I understand that, though I am separate from it, I am related to it as something God has created. “So the Christian treats ‘things’ with integrity because we do not believe they are autonomous. Modern man has fallen into a dilemma because he has made things autonomous from God.” As we love the Creator, we love the creation.

Schaeffer next looks to “a substantial healing,” saying, “we should be looking now, on the basis of the work of Christ, for substantial healing in every area affected by the Fall.” As Christians we should be ones who are treated creation now as it will be treated in eternity. The problem, of course, is that “by creation man has dominion, but as a fallen creature he has used that dominion wrongly. Because he is fallen, he exploits created things as thought they were nothing in themselves, and as though he has an autonomous right to them.”

The book’s final chapter brings a few points of application, though they are more high level than practical. Still, they are insightful. “We must confess that we missed our opportunity. We have spoken loudly against materialistic science, but we have done little to show that in practice we ourselves as Christians are not dominated by a technological orientation in regard either to man or nature.” “If we treat nature as having no intrinsic value, our own value is diminished.” Ultimately, we treat nature well because we are all products of the loving Creator; we are all creatures together.

While Pollution and the Death of Man is one of Schaeffer’s lesser-known works, it is one Christians would do well to read and study even today. In this book Schaeffer does what he does best, providing a logical, consistent, biblical response to a matter that really matters.

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