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theology

6 years 3 months ago
Though it is the emerging church that seems to have received so much attention in the past few years, just under the radar there has also been a quiet and steady growth of interest in far more traditional Reformed theology. All across North America (and perhaps beyond) Christians, and young Christians in particular, have been rediscovering the church’s historic theology. These disparate movements seem to have grown from a common source—a reaction against the kind of “big box Christianity” of the church growth movement. Tired of seeing people as products and weary of experiencing church as a form of entertainment, church-goers have searched to find churches that offer a more satisfying approach to the Christian life. Many have gravitated towards emerging churches. Many others, though, have taken the opposite approach and have discovered the theology of the Reformation.

Collin Hansen, a young editor of Christianity Today, observed this trend and decided to investigate it. CT had recently published a cover story featuring the emerging church. But he found he just could not identify with this group of people. In the Prologue of his new book, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, he discusses the genesis of this book:

The talk about emerging Christians put me in a difficult spot. As the youngest CT editor, I should have known more about this up-and-coming group. On the contrary, I didn’t know anyone who was emerging, even though my friends and I had recently experienced the fruits of postmodern relativism in college. We had witnessed the complete breakdown of moral authority and heard apathetic responses to Christian truth claims when we shared from the Four Spiritual Laws booklet. Yet we viewed these reactions not as problems with Christianity but as problems with sinners who reject God’s grace shown through Jesus Christ.

After one staff discussion about the emerging church, I talked about these experiences with my boss at CT. I expressed concern that when Christianity Today reports about the emerging church, we might give the impression that this group will become the next wave in evangelicalism. If anything, in my limited sphere I saw a return to traditional Reformed theology. My friends read John Piper’s book Desiring God and learned from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. They wanted to study at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and sent each other e-mails when they saw good sales for the five-volume set of Charles Spurgeon sermons.

Maybe that was just our little clique in Campus Crusade for Christ at Northwestern University. Or was it? I started thinking about leading seminaries in the United States and noticed a number of Calvinists in leadership positions. I considered millions of books sold by Piper and his yearly appearances at the popular Passion conference. Yale University Press had just released a major biography of Jonathan Edwards. Reformed theology had recently become a major point of contention in the nation’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention. Maybe it wasn’t just our group.

So I embarked on a nearly two-year journey to discover whether my experiences had been unique or a sign of something bigger. In locales as diverse as Birmingham, Alabama, and New Haven, Connecticut, I sought to find out what makes today’s young evangelicals tick. The result should help us learn what tomorrow’s church might look like when they become pastors or professors. Even today, common threads in their diverse testimonies will tell the story of God’s work in this world.

In the article Collin Hansen wrote in 2006 he gave Christians a framework to understand the contemporary revival of Reformed theology. It quickly went on to become one of that year’s most-read articles at the magazine’s web site and it ignited no small amount of debate and discussion. Now, in Young, Restless, Reformed Hansen takes a more in-depth approach, expanding that one short article into a full-length book.

The book is structured around chapters that focus on a particular place or event. The first chapter, for example, focuses on Louis Giglio and a Passion conference in Atlanta while the next chapter changes the focus to John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church. Other chapters come from Yale University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Covenant Life Church, a recent New Attitude Conference and Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Along the way Hansen features interviews with many of your favorite authors, pastors, theologians, and yes, even bloggers. If you are Reformed you’ll find a certain level of familiarity with the names and places in this book. In that way I found reading Young, Restless, Reformed almost like reading an autobiography—not of a person, but of a movement or organization and one that has swept me up along with it. You may well find the same as you read this book. You may not find a lot of new information, but you’ll enjoy reading about the ways God has brought leaders to this movement and the way He is using this movement to allow so many people to rediscover His sovereignty.

If there is a flaw or a weak point to this book, it may be that its focus is more on today than on yesterday and tomorrow. This is to say that Hansen takes the reader through many of the current hot spots in this movement and shows how it has propagated itself, but he invests far less time showing how this movement grew up and predicting where it may be going. There are hints in these directions, but perhaps not as much detail as I would have liked. Of course such analysis may well fall outside the scope of this title and it may best be handled by church historians.

To conclude, I’ll share the endorsement I wrote that you will find inside the book: “In an article written in 2006 for Christianity Today, Collin Hansen gave us a framework to understand the contemporary revival of Reformed theology—something so many felt was happening but so few could describe. Now he invites us to journey with him on a voyage of discovery as he travels the nation, learning how our restless youth are discovering anew the great doctrines of the Christian faith. Weary of churches that seek to entertain rather than teach, longing after the true meat of the Word, these young people are pursuing doctrine and are fast becoming new Calvinists. With a keen eye for detail, descriptive analysis, and a strong grasp of theology, Hansen shows where this movement originated, tells who has become involved, and suggests where it may be leading. Any Christian will benefit from reading this book and discovering how God is moving among the young, the restless, and the Reformed.”

 

6 years 5 months ago
Vintage Jesus is the first book published under the banner of Resurgence Literature (Re:Lit) which is a ministry of Resurgence (which is, in turn supported by Mars Hill Church). This is also the first title in a series called “Vintage Jesus” that will build on the themes and doctrines introduced in this book. It is one of six(!) new books we’ll see this year from the pen of Mark Driscoll. The book is a collaborative project between friends—Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears. Describing how this collaboration unfolded, Driscoll writes, “In the chapters of this book you will hear my voice since I crafted the words onto pages, but many of the concepts were shaped and formed by my good friend. I sent the manuscript to him for his insights and suggestions, and he also wrote the answers to common questions found at the end of each chapter.” Their hope is that “this book will be readable, practical, and biblical so that everyone from seminary professors and pastors to non-Christians would benefit from our work.”

Those expecting another Radical Reformission or Confessions of a Reformission Rev will not find it here. This book, though still written by Mark Driscoll and still laced with the humor and unique writing style we’ve come to expect from him, is in a whole different category. The bulk of the book is simply straightforward, biblical teaching about the person and work of Jesus Christ. It also engages in some light apologetics, defending Jesus against the countless caricatures of Him that have arisen through the history of the church. The book offers “timeless answers to timely questions” and in that way is meant to speak to some of the strange and unorthodox teaching that we see in the church and outside it today. As Bruce Ware says in his endorsement, “Vintage Jesus offers a fresh, engaging, and insightful discussion of some of the oldest and most crucial truths about Jesus Christ that constitute the very core of the gospel itself.”

As Driscoll covers this ground, you’ll find some things that are funny, some that are profound, and some that are, in my opinion, in poor taste. I will provide a few brief examples of each.

There are some portions of the book that have the Driscoll flair that so many people have come to love. Some may just leave you laughing out loud.

  • “Jesus was a dude. Like my drywaller dad, he was a construction worker who swung a hammer for a living. Because Jesus worked in a day when there were no power tools, he likely had calluses on his hands and muscles on his frame, and did not look like so many of the drag-queen Jesus images that portray him with long, flowing, feathered hair, perfect teeth, and soft skin, draped in a comfortable dress accessorized by matching open-toed sandals and handbag. Jesus did not have Elton John or the Spice Girls on his iPod, *The View* on his TiVo, or a lemon-yellow Volkswagen Beetle in his garage. No, Jesus was not the kind of person who, if walking by you on the street, would require you to look for an Adam’s apple to determine the gender.”
  • “The Orthodox and Catholic baby Jesus pictures are simply freakish, with him looking like a Mini-Me complete with a halo. Honestly, if I had a kid like that I would sleep with one eye open.”
  • “Sadly, the Catholic Church in which I was raised and served as an altar boy missed the punch line when Jesus called Peter the Rock and, rather than a good laugh, ended up with the papacy.”
  • “Jesus also tells some Sunday school teachers they are going to hell, which made the universalistic Emergent folks immediately engage in a conversation about the mythology of hell and fingerpaint about the emotional wounds caused by his words.”

Like many who will read this book, I appreciate how Driscoll is able to communicate real truth in a way that is accessible and funny. He is able to poke fun at the way people think about Jesus and do so in a way that makes those beliefs seem so utterly ridiculous. He has his finger on the pulse of this culture and is able to speak to it.

But sometimes this humor gets a little out of hand. There are some portions of the book that I felt went beyond good humor and crossed the line into what is inappropriate. This is a common critique of what Driscoll says and writes and, I suppose, some were hoping that his transition from publishing with Zondervan to publishing with Crossway would signal the end of such statements. Somehow, while these statements may not seem so out of place in a Zondervan book, I had hoped for better from Crossway. I can’t help but feel that certain words and phrases must mark a kind of low point for Crossway. Perhaps the editorial staff weeded out more and worse. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find any other Crossway title with this kind of language. I hope it is the last.

For example, when looking at the humanity of Jesus, Driscoll chooses to say that Jesus told the Pharisees “that their moms had shagged the Devil.” Though what the Lord said may have such connotations, that particular phrase seems out-of-place and unnecessary. It’s flippant and it makes light of serious subject matter. Similarly, a heading in the chapter entitled “Why did Jesus’ Mom Need to Be a Virgin” reads, “Scripture does not teach that Mary knocked boots with God.” While it is true that the Bible does not indicate that there was some kind of sexual relationship between Mary and God, using this particular term seems beyond good taste. The same phrase (and a passing supposedly-humorous reference to incest) appears on the book’s first page:

  • Roughly two thousand years ago, Jesus was born in a dumpy, rural, hick town, not unlike those today where guys change their own oil, think pro wrestling is real, find women who chew tobacco sexy, and eat a lot of Hot Pockets with their uncle-daddy. Jesus’ mom was a poor, unwed teenage girl who was mocked for claiming she conceived via the Holy Spirit. Most people thought she concocted a crazy story to cover the “fact” she was knocking boots with some guy in the backseat of a car at the prom. Jesus was adopted by a simple carpenter named Joseph and spent the first thirty years of his life in obscurity, swinging a hammer with his dad.

It is interesting to compare how D.A. Carson handled the Pharisee’s talk in his commentary on the book of John. He writes, “It is not at all impossible that the Jews are alluding to the irregularities connected with Jesus’ birth. From their perspective, he displays considerable cheek to talk about paternity: they were not born of fornication (wink, wink). If this is a correct reading, then it is a further instance of Johannine irony…” The point is the same, but Carson preserves a kind of dignity absent in Driscoll’s description. This is not just anyone we are talking about here, but our Lord and Savior—the Son of God. Surely we ought to treat His conception and birth with more respect and dignity than this.

What bothers me is not just the use of these phrases, but the utter non-necessity of doing so. They are designed to illicit laughs and perhaps show people how edgy Driscoll is. But they are, in my estimation, completely unnecessary, especially since Driscoll is perfectly capable of being humorous without being dirty. The book would not suffer at all without them. It is easy to gain laughs through such words and phrases, but just because we are able do so, I don’t think we necessarily should. Thankfully such examples are rare (though one could argue that their rarity proves how unnecessary they are). There is so much more to Driscoll than his sense of humor and his edginess. I hope that sooner or later he becomes known for what he does that pleases God rather than what he does that shocks the masses. In some cases I’m convinced they are not the same thing.

Of course there are also many portions of the book that gave me a lot to think about and showed some very good depth of insight. Here are just a few examples:

  • “The warm, soft truth is that for those who do love Jesus, this life is as close to hell as they will ever get. Heaven awaits them.”
  • Sadly, it is too common for churches not to speak of Jesus, which is a tragedy akin to a wife rarely uttering the name of her own husband. In our day when there are innumerable contradictory beliefs about who God is, Christians must be clear that their God is Jesus Christ alone so as to communicate the same central truth that Scripture does. No matter how many verses are used, the Bible has not been rightly understood or proclaimed unless Jesus is the central focus and hero.”
  • “Sadly, some Christians and some Christian leaders, while not denying the cross, prefer to keep it out of plain view because they wrongly believe that nice, decent people hate to have their sensibilities offended by such violence and gore. Consequently, the word has gotten out that being a Christian is about avoiding the suffering, pain, and horrors of this life by living in a safe, zip-locked Christian plastic bag filled with diversionary worship songs to prom-date Jesus so we don’t have to pick up any cross or shed any tears.

Statements like these, combined with the book’s biblical foundation and the addition of several poignant descriptions of moments from Driscoll’s ministry, make it a valuable read. Those who read it are likely to learn from each of the chapters. The teaching is powerful, biblical and weighty. This is solid food.

But would I recommend you read it? That is a tough question for me to answer. And no matter what I say, someone is going to disagree with me (and quite strenuously too, no doubt). To be honest, there are some people to whom I’d definitely hesitate to recommend it. I would certainly not be happy if Driscoll, standing face-to-face with my wife or my children, used some of the words and phrases in this book. Why then would I hand them the book and recommend that they read it? There is certainly much to gain from Vintage Jesus and I’m sure that many will read it and will benefit. But I’m sorry that Driscoll had to cross the line of good taste, even if only occasionally. It does not invalidate the book, but neither does it make it any better. It was so utterly unnecessary.

6 years 5 months ago
There are many people I “know” primarily through their books. I read constantly and find that books allow me to understand the people who write them, especially when the author has written several books. As I read through the corpus of his writings I learn to understand how he thinks and learn to understand what he believes. Even if I have never met an author face-to-face, I often feel like I have met him in his books. Because Tim Keller has written so little, I do not know him in the way I feel I know many of his peers—pastors and theologians who have written extensively. So it was with great interest that I read The Reason for God, only his second book (besides edited volumes to which he has contributed a chapter) and certainly his most significant. Published by Penguin and with a positive review by Publishers Weekly, it has all the makings of a bestseller.

The Reason for God is written for skeptics and believers alike. It is a response to or perhaps an antidote to the the writings of popular authors like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. And it is a fine one, at that. While the skeptic has several volumes he can hand to a believing friend (many of them written by the aforementioned authors), the believer has fewer to choose from. So many introductions to Christian beliefs were written many years ago and simply do not resonate with today’s skeptics. They assume too much and deliver too little. Keller’s volume seeks to fill that void, and it does so well.

The Reason for God arrives at a unique time, for we are at a point when both belief and skepticism are on the rise. “Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence,” says Keller. “But, at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well.” As each grows, those who hold to each become increasingly convinced that they are in imminent danger. The world is polarizing over religion—or at the very least our culture is polarizing over religion. “We have come to a cultural moment in which both skeptics and believers feel their existence is threatened because both secular skepticism and religious faith are on the rise in significant, powerful ways. We have neither the western Christendom of the past nor the secular, religionless society that was predicted for the future. We have something else entirely.”

Attempting to find a way forward, Keller suggests that both believers and skeptics look at doubt in a whole new way. Within the book he does not make the classical distinction between believers and unbelievers, but rather between believers and skeptics. His thesis depends on this distinction between unbeliever and skeptic because, he says, we all believe something. Even skeptics have a kind of faith hidden within their reasoning. Understanding what we believe about belief is crucial. His thesis is this: “If you come to recognize the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs—you will discover that your doubts are not so solid as they first appeared.” He seeks to prove that thesis in the book’s first part.

In the first seven chapters Keller looks at seven of the most common objections and doubts about Christianity and discerns the alternate beliefs underlying each of them. This section is titled “The Leap of Doubt” and answers these seven common critiques:

  1. There can’t be just one true religion
  2. A good God could not allow suffering
  3. Christianity is a straitjacket
  4. The church is responsible for so much injustice
  5. A loving God would not send people to hell
  6. Science has disproved Christianity
  7. You can’t take the Bible literally

In the second half of the book, titled “The Reasons for Faith,” he turns to an examination of seven reasons to believe in the claims of the Christian faith.

  1. The clues of God
  2. The knowledge of God
  3. The problem of sin
  4. Religion and the gospel
  5. The (true) story of the cross
  6. The reality of the resurrection
  7. The Dance of God

The book begins with an Introduction, between the two parts is an Intermission, and following it all is an Epilogue.

The Reason for God is, at least to my knowledge, unique. The reader will soon see that Keller follows closely behind C.S. Lewis whom, along with his wife and Jonathan Edwards, he counts as his primary theological influences. Yet he sets Lewis and Edwards in a new context. And really, much of the book only makes sense within our contemporary cultural context. The arguments that matter here and now are different from those of days past and, I’m sure, different than ones in days to come. But the arguments Keller makes are compelling and reasonable and targeted pointedly at today’s skeptics. If you have read our day’s leading skeptics you owe it to yourself to read this as well.

Nobody but Tim Keller could have written this book. It seems likely to me that nobody but Tim Keller will agree with everything he says. For example, many believers will be uncomfortable with his defense of evolution—not the naturalistic evolution of so many skeptics, but a theistic evolution that attempts to reconcile rather than ignore the creation accounts of the Bible. Others will take issue with his description of hell and the thread of ecumenism that runs throughout the volume. But if we heed his exhortation to major on the majors, to look to what’s most foundational to the faith before focusing on matters of secondary importance, both believers and skeptics have a great deal to learn from this book.

Publishers Weekly has said well that this is a book for “skeptics and the believers who love them.” Believers will rejoice in a book that carefully and patiently answers the objections of their skeptical friends and does so with grace and in a way consistent with the Bible. Skeptics will see that even their skepticism is founded on some kind of faith and will be challenged to discern those underlying beliefs. May this book convince us all that we can believe and can believe reasonably, even in this age of skepticism.

 

6 years 7 months ago

Thabiti Anyabwile’s new book is one where the title really says it all: “The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity.” This is a book that traces the sad decline of the broad stream of African American theology from its orthodox past to its increasingly unorthodox, irrelevant present. The book makes what is, to my knowledge, a unique contribution to the study of African American theology. “What should be studied as the most central characteristic of the church—its theology—has been for the most part neglected by scholarly research and writing. The thing that makes the church the church—its understanding of God’s nature, work, and interaction with man—has not received sufficient attention as either a subject unto itself of as a motivating factor in more plentiful historical and sociological studies.” This book attempts to fill some of that void, looking to the development of the theology of African American churches and, sadly, looking also to its decline.

The book traces African American theology from its earliest manifestations in slave narratives, slave songs, sermons and popular writings. “Contrary to what might be supposed given the prohibition of education, reading, and writing among slaves, early Black Christians evidenced a rather sophisticated and clear theological corpus of thought. This clarity of early theological insight produced perhaps the most authentic expression of Christianity in American history and formed the basis for the African American church’s engagement in both the propagation of the gospel and social justice activism.” But over time, the theological basis for the church’s activist character was lost and the church became less grounded on theology—less concerned with studying and understanding the character of God—and instead become primarily concerned with social, political, and educational agendas. Because of the many years of theological decline, “the Black church now stands in danger of losing its relevance and power to effectively address both the spiritual needs of its communicants and the social and political aspirations of its community. In effect, cultural concerns captured the church and supplanted the biblical faithfulness that once characterized her. It has lost the law and the gospel, and stands in danger of lapsing into spiritual rigamortis.” This book is call to the African American church to reclaim its effectiveness by returning to a “proper theocentric view of itself and the world.”

To attempt to trace the development of theology over such a long period of time and through so many people, to do so in a volume of only 224 pages, and to do so in a way that was accessible to a broad audience must have been a daunting task. To do this effectively, Anyabwile focuses on key doctrines, key figures, and key time periods. He sets about tracing the decline of African American theology in six chapters, each of which concerns itself with a particular aspect of Christian theology that is critical to an orthodox understanding of God and His work. These are the doctrines that lie at the very heart of the faith.

The chapter headings are as follows:

  1. “I Once Was Blind but Now I See”: The Doctrine of Revelation in the African American Experience
  2. “A Father to the Fatherless”: The African American Doctrine of God
  3. “Ain’t I a Man?” African American Anthropology
  4. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”: The Christology of African Americans
  5. “What Must I Do to Be Saved?” African American Soteriology
  6. “Gettin’ in de Spirit”: Pneumatology in the African American Experience

Each chapter is organized into five historical periods:

  1. Early Slavery Era through Abolition Era (1600 - 1865)
  2. Reconstruction, “Jim Crow” Segregation, Great Migration, and the “New Negro” Movement (1865-1929)
  3. Depression and World War II (1930 - 1949)
  4. Civil Rights Era (1950 - 1979)
  5. End of Century, Postmodern Era (1980 - Present)

Though obviously somewhat artificial distinctions, these historical periods present a logical and helpful framework to understand how African American theology and practice changed over the course of American history. For each of these five eras, “the major theological contributions of key African American thinkers, preachers, and writers are examined for their representativeness of, and impact on, the trajectory of the Black church’s theology.” The author relies on primary sources and generally allows these men and women to speak in their own words.

And as these key figures speak, they show that the thesis of this book is not far off. Where they first speak words that are consistent with Scripture, and where they first show a reverence for God and for His Word, too soon they begin to speak of a God of their own imagining. The decline is clear; it is shocking; it is disheartening. The decline did not come in one step from the humbly orthodox faith of Bishop Daniel Payne to the outright heresy of Bishop T.D. Jakes. Rather, it was a series of steps away from Scripture and away from its authority. As other authorities supplanted Scripture, whether the manifestations of the Azusa Street Revival or the man-centered “theology” of liberalism, the broad stream of African American theology fell into decline. Anyabwile aptly traces this decline both in its manifestation and its consequences. But the book does not end with despair. Though at the end of each chapter Anyabwile has to conclude that African American theology has declined, he offers hope and offers a challenge. He exhorts the African American church to re-center the Bible, to re-exalt God, to recover the gospel, and to revitalize the church.

In his Foreword to this book, historian Mark Noll says “it is remarkable that, to my knowledge, there has never been a book that attempts what Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Decline of African American Theology attempts. For historical purposes, the book makes an unusually valuable contribution with its full account of the course of African American thought. Theologically, it makes another signal contribution with its critique of the general development of that thought. For both historical and theological reasons, this is a very important volume.” It is, indeed, an important volume, and one we should all hope is widely read. It offers proof that the African American church has drifted from the faith it was built upon, but in doing so it offers hope that it can rediscover this foundation and rebuild upon it. Thabiti’s closing prayer is that “the Lord of lords and the King of kings will be pleased to revive us, to turn today’s watered down ‘faith’ back into the enduring faith once for all delivered to the saints, and give us a holy zeal for His glory above all things.” To that prayer, all Christians ought to say a hearty “Amen!”

The book, having been just released, is currently available only at Amazon, but should soon be in stock at other online retailers.

 

6 years 8 months ago

Election and Free Will: God’s Gracious Choice and Our Responsibility is what I believe to be the first volume in a series called “Explorations in Biblical Theology” (at least I could find no mention of previously published volumes). This book is written by Robert A. Peterson who is also serving as the Series Editor. The series is to include two types of books: some will treat biblical themes while others will deal with the theology of specific books of the Bible. Written for college seniors, seminarians, pastors and thoughtful lay readers, the volumes are intended to be accessible and unobscured by excessive reference to the original languages or to theological jargon. “Explorations in Biblical Theology is committed to being warm and winsome, with a focus on applying God’s truth to life.”

Peterson begins Election and Free Will with a defense of its existence. He outlines three reasons that we need a new book dealing with biblical teaching on election and the related topic of free will:

1.The need for graciousness in the debate about election. The debate about election has been marked, even recently, by a lack of grace. With a topic that stirs such strong emotions, Peterson sought to write a defense of the Reformed understanding of election that dealt fairly and graciously with its critics. 2. The tremendous scriptural witness to election. Election is a topic that receives a lot of attention within the pages of Scripture. If this is a topic God emphasizes in the Bible, it is a topic we should also emphasize. 3. The insecurity of contemporary life. In an age of insecurity, where we are prone to worry, we should renew our interest in the doctrine of election. “Within the Bible its function is largely to comfort the people of God and assure them that underneath all their meager efforts to live for him are God’s everlasting arms to hold, protect, and caress them.”

Peterson takes what is, in my view, a unique route to a defense of the Reformed view of election and free will. He first surveys the key ideas on the subject through the history of the church, moving from the church fathers all the way to the contemporary church and pausing on many key figures such as Augustine, Pelagius, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, Arminius, Schleirmacher and Barth. He next moves through Scripture, dedicating a chapter to election as seen in each of the Old Testament; the Gospels and Acts; the General Epistles and Revelation; and then Paul’s Epistles. The Pauline Epistles actually claim two chapters, with the second being an in-depth study of three key passages: Ephesians 1:4-5,11; Romans 8:29-30; and Romans 9:6-24.

Having surveyed election throughout the Bible and having shown that election is present from cover to cover, he turns to three final topics. First he explores free will, pointing out that to understand free will we must understand where biblical characters are located in the biblical story. After all, human free will has changed as the biblical drama has unfolded. The freedom Adam and Eve enjoyed is different than the freedom we experience today; the freedom we experience today is different than what we will experience in eternity. In what I feel is the book’s strongest chapter, Peterson distinguishes between “freedom of choice” and “true freedom” and provides a biblical and thought-provoking defense of the Reformed understanding of free will. There is a false idea in the church, he says, that “the epitome of true freedom is the ability to choose between righteousness and sin. It is not. True freedom is the ability to love and serve God unhindered by sin.” True freedom of the will waits for us when the Lord returns.

Peterson pauses to provide the Bible’s story of election in a chapter I would suggest is an optional read and then moves finally to “Objections to and Applications of Election.” In this chapter he handles objections and application at the same time, showing how common objections to this doctrine provide opportunity to apply it. After all, it is not enough to simply know that this doctrine exists and to know what it means. We must also live in light of it, and the author provides encouragement to do just that.

If Election and Free Will is indicative of the quality we can expect in the “Explorations in Biblical Theology” series, I look forward to reading the forthcoming volumes. This book fulfilled the goals set for it. Winsome and accessible, based on the Bible and consistent with Reformed theology, it will make for good reading for anyone who has struggled with these doctrines or who wishes to understand them better. I am glad to recommend it.

It is available from all of your favorite retailers:

Westminster Books | Monergism Books | Amazon

6 years 8 months ago

Mark Tubbs, who writes reviews for Discerning Reader, has just posted his review of John Piper’s newest book, The Future of Justification. Here are a few quotes:

A certain friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) attended a certain pastoral training institute (which shall remain nameless) where he was once advised by a certain staff member (who shall remain nameless) of said pastoral training institute that Dr. John Piper (D. Theol. From the University of Munich) is not a theologian. Piper’s ears must have burned at this utterance. In The Future of Justification, Piper’s theological acumen is on full display. His logic, as far as I can make out, is impeccable, and more importantly, his exegetical work is careful, nuanced and accurate.

Critically reading The Future of Justification was a difficult pleasure. I am somewhat humbled by other reviewers’ gauging of this book’s difficulty. While it certainly isn’t at the level of difficulty of John Owen, nor of some other theological-philosophical obscurantist pedants who shall likewise remain nameless, I would not rate it quite so low as 3 out of 5 for difficulty – more like 4 out of 5, at least for this reviewer. Its intricacy arises from its two main objectives: 1) to examine and assess the New Perspective teachings of N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham; and 2) to celebrate and reinforce the traditional reformation teachings on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

What I appreciate most about Piper’s book most how biblically based it is. When Wright declares “What I’m saying is in the Bible,” Piper both graciously and devastatingly meets him in theological disputation on Wright’s own terms – biblical exegesis. While Piper does briefly appeal to theological work accomplished by others, including the founding Anglican theologians who wrote the Thirty-Nine Articles, Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon, the framers of the Helvetic confessions, the Westminster divines, and Westminster’s Richard Gaffin (not to mention CREC pastor Douglas Wilson and Piper’s own theological assistants at Desiring God), Piper establishes his arguments primarily on extensive scriptural exegesis rather than standing on the shoulders of a tradition that Wright routinely criticizes.

 

Read the rest of the review here: “The Future of Justification” by John Piper

6 years 8 months ago

The doctrines that together form what we call “Calvinism” have always been controversial. Since the time of the Reformation, they have brought out both the best and the worst in Christians. Critiques of Calvinistic theology tends to focus upon certain areas, certain questions that continue to confuse and continue to cause people to insist that Calvinism cannot be biblical. In The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism, a short book published by Ligonier Ministries, author Craig R. Brown turns to five of the most common questions and seeks to show that these are not true dilemmas but are, rather, simple misunderstandings. “This book has two purposes,” says the author. “First, I want it to be a resource for people who are struggling with the answers to the five ‘dilemmas’ that I have put forward. Second, I want it to be an incentive for thought. In other words, I hope it will be an encouragement to Christians to think through what they believe about these issues and attempt to come to God-honoring conclusions about them.”

After a Preface by R.C. Sproul, a brief Introduction, a look at the historical basis for Reformed theology and a quick outline of the differences between Reformed and Arminian theology, Brown turns right to the heart of the book. The questions he addresses are these:

  1. The Dilemma of Responsibility: If God is in complete control of everything, to the point of predetermining all human actions, how can man be held accountable for what he does?
  2. The Dilemma of Motivation: If we are saved by grace and not by works, why should we do anything good? What purpose do good works serve? Are there rewards in heaven for what we do here on earth?
  3. The Dilemma of Obedience: If God has predetermined everything that comes to pass, why should we spend valuable time in prayer or evangelism?
  4. The Dilemma of Evil: Since God created everything and He cannot sin, how did evil come into being?
  5. The Dilemma of Mercy: If people are born totally depraved, as Calvinism says, where do babies go when they die?

The author’s strategy is simple: he turns to Scripture and carefully, deliberately debunks the false portrayals of Calvinistic theology. From there he turns to Scripture to prove that Calvinistic theology is, in reality, nothing more than the theology of the Bible. He shows that each of these five dilemmas is based not on a factual understanding of Calvinism and its interpretation of the Bible, but rather a simple misunderstanding. The obvious conclusion he reaches is that Calvinistic doctrine is biblical doctrine.

I believe Brown attains the purposes for which he wrote this book. It will give much to think about for those who struggle with these five dilemmas and will reassure them that the Reformed understanding of these issues is not only consistent with Scripture, but is more consistent than the alternatives. And it will certainly be an encouragement for all Christians to ponder these things and to come to conclusions that bring glory and honor to God. If the book has a mis-step, I believe it lies in the final chapter where Brown is perhaps a tad too dogmatic about the Bible’s teaching on what happens to infants when they die. Though no Calvinist I know of would suggest that all infants who die are condemned to hell, neither would they be unanimous in believing, as does Brown, that all who die in infancy are taken immediately to heaven. We would all like to believe this, but many do not find that such an understanding can be sustained from Scripture. In the end, though, we cast ourselves in the same place Brown does—on the mercy and wisdom of God, knowing that He will do only and ever what is best.

The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism is a short book, but one that proves biblical answers to good questions. It is winsome and easy to understand. I recommend it!

At this point I believe the book is available only through Ligonier Ministries.

6 years 9 months ago
Stephen Nichols is quite the prolific author. A professor at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School and a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, Nichols has written several notable books in the past few years and it seems that he always has at least one title on the “Coming Soon” lists at Crossway or P&R Publishing. Nichols has a gift for presenting church history in a way that is interesting and in a way that appeals to those who may not otherwise know (or care) about the long, storied history of the church. He shows how church history is relevant precisely because the controversies we face today are strikingly similar to ones the church has dealt with long ages ago.
The early church fathers wrestled with the same problems presented by The Da Vinci Code phenomenon and its fanciful speculations about Jesus. They wrestled with the same problems presented by Islam and its adamant denial of the deity of Christ. And they wrestled with the same problems presented by the scholars working in the Jesus Seminar or in gnostic texts like the Gospel of Judas who quickly dismiss the four canonical Gospels as God’s true revelation to humanity. In the days of the early church, the names of the opponents were different from those faced by us today, but the underlying issues bear a striking resemblance. When the church fathers responded with the orthodox view of Christ, they did the church of all ages a great service.

Nichols’ latest effort is titled For Us and for Our Salvation and it examines the doctrine of Christ in the early church. “This book explores [the] controversies over Christ faced by the early church. This book also looks to tell the story of the people involved.” The timing of this title is no coincidence. In the past few years we have seen several attacks on the doctrine of Christ, most of the accusers claiming that the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity was a fabrication of those who followed centuries after His death.

This book tells the story of how the doctrine of Christ was formulated by the early church and how this doctrine was forged in the fires of controversy. It relies, as do many of Nichols’ books, on primary source materials from the key councils and theologians. Nichols offers compelling proof that the divinity of Jesus Christ was not fabricated by his followers centuries later, but was central to the church from its earliest days.

He ultimately has to conclude that

The early church was right in spending so much time and effort on the doctrine of Christ. They were right to contend that Christ is the God-man, very God of very God and at the same time truly human with flesh and blood. They were right to content that Christ is two natures conjoined in one person without division, separation, confusion, or mixture, to use the language of the Chalcedonian Creed. They were also right to contend that the gospel collapses without this belief. In the words of Athanasius and the Nicene Creed, Christ is the God-man “for us and for our salvation.”

I’ve long believed that church historians do not receive their due in today’s church. But a man like Stephen Nichols shows what an integral role they can (and should!) play. Historians have a unique perspective on contemporary struggles in the church and are able to show, to borrow a great little phrase from French, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” Or, to translate, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” There is a sense in which history seems cyclical—controversies arise and are put to rest for a time, but seem to rise again. Those with a view to the church’s past are specially equipped to see these controversies for what they are and to teach how the church dealt with them in the past. Nichols does just this in For Us and for Our Salvation. He leaves no doubt that the answers to these contemporary issues lie in the past.

6 years 10 months ago
Some books receive titles that are a little bit mysterious, only hinting at what the book contains. There are others that just give it all away in the title. Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell pretty well says it all. Edward Donnelly simply turns to Scripture to see what God says about these important doctrines of heaven and hell.

Heaven is a popular subject at the moment. Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven has over 300,000 copies in print and there are another 200,000 Heaven-related products in print with it. I’m quite sure that he would have sold fewer than 3,000 had the book been titled Hell. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven has sold millions of copies and has been on the New York Times list of bestsellers for months now. For obvious reasons, hell is a less popular topic. Bill Wiese’s 23 Minutes in Hell has barely made a splash. We would far rather ponder heaven than hell. And for good reason. But in this book Donnelly dedicates equal time to both subjects.

The first half of the book discusses hell in all its fiery horror; the second part turns to heaven with all its beautiful glory. The first half is difficult to read and weighs heavily on the soul; the second is like a sip of cool water on a hot day. The first terrifies; the second elevates. Donnelly is not given to hyperbole or imagination. He does not present a fictionalized vision of hell that owes more to horror movies or medieval art and imaginings than to the Bible. Rather, he simply relates what the Bible tells us, both explicitly and implicitly, about that awful place. He does so under four alliterated headings: Absolute Poverty, Agonizing Pain, Angry Presence and Appalling Prospect. When, in the second half of the book he turns to heaven, he does not guess what it is like or fall into conjecture about what we will experience there. Instead he relates only what the Bible tells us, reflecting on the fullness of joy that is there and waiting for those who love the Lord.

Though only a short book, weighing in at just 127 pages, Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell still seems to be thorough. This is, I believe, because though the subjects of heaven and hell are mentioned often in the Bible, we do not receive a great deal of detail about them. They are so far beyond our experience that God can only give us glimpses of what they will be like by drawing comparisons to what we know and experience in this life. This is a book that dedicates equal time to both subjects, first allowing the heart and spirit to recoil at the though of hell but then comforting it with the knowledge of heaven. Throughout the book Donnelly is pastoral, often challenging the reader and continually returning to the gospel, ensuring the reader knows that the promises of heaven are given only to those who know the Lord and that the horrors of hell can be avoided by those who will turn to Him. For those interested in doing some reading on the subject matter, this book is a worthwhile investment in both time and money. I recommend it.

7 years 4 months ago
Steven Lawson’s series called A Long Line of Godly Men has made me awfully excited. I love Reformed theology and am thrilled to see the effort Lawson is expending in proving that this theology, seen as so new and so radical by such a large number of Christians, has been consistently taught by courageous and biblical Christians from the time of the writers of the Bible all the way to today. There truly is a long line of godly men testifying to God’s sovereignty in these doctrines of grace. And someday I look forward to having a long line of these books on my shelf.

While the main series will encompass five volumes each measuring several hundred pages, there will also be a subseries known as “Long Line of Godly Men Profiles.” These books will narrow in on some of the most important figures in church history, attempting to show how they held to these doctrines. It also wieghs and measures the impact of these individuals in one particular area. As I understand it, future volumes will cover Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon and other giants of the faith. Each volume will focus on a particular aspect of that person’s ministry and legacy. Preachers will be the key focus for, as Lawson says in his introduction, “I can think of no better discipline for preachers today, apart from the study of Scripture itself, than to examine the biblical exposition of spiritual giants from the past.” The first book in this series is The Expository Genius of John Calvin.

Affirming that to step into the pulpit is to enter onto holy ground, Lawson bemoans the fact that we live at a time when so many churches have compromised the sacred calling to preach. “Exposition is being replaced with entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and technology with theatrics. Desperately does the modern-day church need to recover its way and return to a pulpit that is Bible-based, Christ-centered, and life-changing.” The goal of the book is simply to allow others to see what a commitment to biblical preaching looks like in the life and ministry of a man who was sold out to this duty. For those who preach, this book ought to call you to a higher standard in handling the Word. If you are a supporter of one called to this ministry, the book will teach you how to pray for the one who teaches you.

The book begins, as we might expect, with a short biography of Calvin but quickly turns to his unsurpassed expository ability. Lawson discusses Calvin’s approach to the pulpit, his preparation, his introductions, his method of expounding the text, the way he crafted his delivery, his application of the truth and his concluding statements. In short, it examines each of the components that together formed his sermons. It focuses not only on function, but also on form.

The book is written in a way that is very logical, building around a consistent point-by-point framework as Lawson looks at 32 distinctives of Calvin’s preaching. And though the subject may appear to be dry, the book is easy to read and even enjoyable for a person like myself who does not preach. There is much we can all learn from the preaching ministry of John Calvin.

I agree with Lawson and so many others than expository preaching really is the need of the hour. The health of the church will begin with a healthy pulpit. A healthy pulpit is one from which the Word of God is faithfully and consistently preached. Those who wish to be better expositors of the Word should turn to the masters to learn how to improve their ability. John Calvin was one of these masters and one from whom all preachers can surely learn. Dr. Lawson’s brief book provides a fantastic introduction to Calvin’s ministry, not just in its impact but in its methodology. If this book portends what we can expect from this series (and this series within a series) it will be a landmark collection of books and I will eagerly anticipate the coming releases.

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