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Tim Challies

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theology

9 years 8 months ago
From the time we are mere children we face the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” The desire and ability to work are deeply ingrained within us, but perhaps they are subjects we do not often pause to consider in a Scriptural perspective. Work Excellence is a light treatment of the subject(112 pages), but one that is valuable. It is conversational in tone and each chapter concludes with questions for reflection and a brief prayer. The book is written by Chuck Garriott, who for over twenty years was pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oklahoma City and whose ministry has taken him around the world. He examines this essential aspect of our lives - one that is discussed in detail throughout the Scripture, and provides a biblical perspective on work excellence.

There were many times in reading this book that I was forced to pause and to consider how I work. “Every day you need the Savior to work in your life in such a manner that you will outwardly and inwardly please your boss. The ability to follow the Scriptures with any degree of discipline will come from depending on Christ. We have no ability on our own to obey an earthly master with respect, fear and sincerity of heart, even though we may appear to outwardly. If on my own I can please God in this area, then of what value is Christ?” (page 27). Do I depend on Christ to help me please my boss (which in my case are clients), or do I attempt to do this on my own? Do I rely on Christ in the workplace as much as in church settings, or have I made a false deliniation between work and spiritual matters?

The author is careful to show that work is not a result of the fall, for man was created to care for the earth. One of man’s chief purposes, according to God’s design, was to work. Yet when man fell, work was made imperfect, just like everything else in all of Creation. “When you come home from work tired, worn out and ready to quit, or when you find that weeks have taken over your garden, you are being reminded of God’s judgment and wrath. For those who do not believe, it is an unheeded warning of what is to come” (page 47). And of course, for those who do believe, it gives us more reason to trust in the promise that having been redeemed, we will one day return to a state where work is enjoyable and holy. “The pain and discomfort are temporal. This is the great message of the gospel. If there is no stabbing pain in childbirth or no thistle injury, then there is no gospel. The gospel has no meaning without recognition of the pain from sin that ignites the anger of God. Our hope is in Christ alone, not in the absence of pain” (page 51). What a wonderful promise this is, and what hope and encouragement this can bring at the end of a difficult day.

Another area of the book that gave me pause for thought was in the section where Garriott warns about work becoming idolatry. “Christ calls us to repent from lives so committed to work and all that it produces, that we have turned work into a god. If we work for anything other than God’s glory, we worship the creation rather than the Creator” (page 78). I had to ask myself whether, when I work, I do from a desire to put food on the table and to do what I know is my duty, or whether I work as an expression of worship towards God.

The author’s conclusion, and mine, having read the book, is that “There is no true excellence in work if the gospel is absent. The gospel not only brings us to a saving relationship with the Lord, but also transforms our lives, including our work and careers” (page 112). Our work needs to be more than a responsibility or an obsession - work needs to be an outpouring of our love for and obedience towards our Savior. I am delighted to give this book my recommendation.

9 years 9 months ago

All that glitters is not gold. This is a lesson many thousands of men learned in the 19th century when they stormed California seeking their fortunes. While there was treasure to be found, as evidenced by the wealth many gained from their mining ventures, there was also what came to be known as fool’s gold. While this looked like gold, it was in reality valueless iron pyrite. For a miner to be successful he had to learn to discern the true gold from mere fool’s gold. A man’s livelihood depended on this. Because it was difficult to tell one from the other only by looking at it, miners develped some simple tests. One was the hardness test, where a miner could bite a rock in question. Fool’s gold was hard while real gold was much softer. A broken tooth would prove the rock to be fool’s gold. For a second test a miner would scrape the rock against a white stone. True gold would leave a yellowish streak while fool’s gold would leave one that was greenish-black. This is the historical backdrop against which John MacArthur and the staff of Grace Community Church compare today’s church. We are in a time where the church is filled with fool’s gold and only godly discernment will show what is true treasure and what is trash.

Fool’s Gold is divided into four sections. In the first John MacArthur provides a call for biblical discernment and examines the devastating consequences of a watered-down message to the church. The second section, entitled “Practicing Discernment in your Local Bookstore” examines four of the latest Christian bestsellers in the light of the Scripture. Nathan Busenitz reviews The Purpose Driven Life, Phil Johnson introduces the New Perspective on Paul through What Saint Paul Really Said, Daniel Gillespie evaluates Wild at Heart and Rick Holland looks at The Revolve New Testament Bible-zine. The third section provides pointers for “Practicing Discernment in your Local Church.” Receiving attention are contemporary worship music, altar calls, the American-Christian approach to politics and the consumer mindset. The book wraps up with an examination of “hills to die on” - a doctrinal framework for developing discernment, and a practical plan for personal discernment.

As we have come to expect from MacArthur’s books and ministry, this book is incisive, penetrating and inherently biblical. It cuts to the heart of the matters at hand. In fact, the authors’ tasks were quite simple ones - they had to merely hold the church’s fads and obsessions up to the light of Scripture and to examine them against God’s unchanging standard. In many cases these fads were found wanting. The authors are careful to assign credit where credit is due and are consistently respectful to those whose teachings they oppose. At the same time, they are unapologetic in their defense of the truth and their desire to see God’s standards held high.

My only disappointments with the book were that the authors did not discuss two of the most pressing issues in evangelicalism today - the Emergent Church (which received only one passing mention) and mysticism, which is gaining a firm hold in the church, in part through the very books the authors evaluate.

This book is an excellent introduction to the importance of biblical discernment and a penetrating analysis of how a lack of discernment has allowed error to infiltrate the church and prosper within. Only with a rediscovery of biblical discernment will the church be able to root out this fool’s gold. This book will help any Christian develop a foundation for biblical discernment that will allow him to make the crucial distinctions between truth and error. I highly recommend this title, especially as a companion volume to Ashamed of the Gospel and Hard to Believe.

9 years 11 months ago
There exists a surprisingly popular series of books entitled Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. These books are a compendium of quotes, short stories, trivia and jokes that are each just a few lines or paragraphs in length. The book was designed to appeal to the bathroom reader - one who likes to read whilst he is sitting upon the throne, so to speak. I affectionately call Now, That’s A Good Question, R.C.’s Big Bathroom Reader. The cover features R.C. sitting (thankfully) in an armchair and displays one of the worst jobs of removing the background from a photo I have ever seen. His hair is cut in almost straight lines and looks completely unnatural on the cream-colored background. Actually, the cover looks like it may have been someone’s high school project. But I digress.

Now, That’s A Good Question is a wonderful book. The back cover poses the question, “If you had the opportunity to quiz one of today’s foremost theologians, what would you ask?” That is the thrust of this book. Through the 1980’s, R.C. hosted a radio program unimaginatively titled Ask R.C. and this book represents about 300 of the questions he faced. The questions are divided into 22 sections and the topics range from the Bible to salvation to the end times to heaven and hell. Here is a completely random list of some of the questions he answers:

  • How can church members influence seminary education?
  • What should we conclude about the polygamy practiced by Old Testament heroes?
  • When we experience trials, how can we determine if they are the consequences of violating a scriptural principle, a test from the Lord, or an attack from Satan?
  • Are there certain ethical standards the government should uphold on a biblical basis?
  • Why did Jesus say some people wouldn’t die before he came back?
  • What is existentialism, and how should I respond to it?
  • Is it proper to say “if this be your will” when we pray?
  • If someone wanted to read three Christian books this year, which three would you most recommend?
  • Does the Bible tell us what heaven will be like?

Each answer is only a few paragraphs in length and more often than not provides a satisfactory answer to the question that was posed. There are a few of them where I wish he would give a more definitive answer, but on the whole he takes a stand and backs it up with proof from Scripture. The questions represent his views in the mid 1980’s and I’m sure some would have changed slightly by this time, but there were very few that I disagreed with. The majority are handled with Scripture and with grace. If you had the opportunity to ask one of today’s foremost theologians a question, there is a good chance you would find the answer in this book.

I found this an excellent book and it is one that I return to often. R.C.’s Big Bathroom Reader is a great resource and one you would do well to include in your library (or bathroom).

9 years 11 months ago

Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought by Stephen J. Nicholas was at the same time excellent and disappointing. The disappointment was my fault and in no way reflects upon the book or the author, for I had begun reading it with unfair expectations. I had not read the cover carefully and thus I thought I was buying a short biography of Edwards and that is not what this book is. After I came to realize what the book was intended to be, I enjoyed it thoroughly. And in this way it was excellent. Despite not being a biography it contained all sorts of great information about Edwards and about the events and writings that shaped his life. It is, as it says in the title, a guided tour to his life and thoughts more than a chronological ordering of the events of his life. More than a biography, this is a gateway into the thoughts, writings and theology of this great man of God.

In the introduction Nichols writes that the book “is not an end in itself; it is not a substitute for reading Edwards. It is intended to help anyone who, like me, has wanted to read Edwards and even has tried to read him, but needs a little help.” It might also be said that this book is not a substitute for reading a thorough biography of the man. Later Nicholas says “My hope is that this book will help you to see the relevance and importance of Edward’s thought and that through these pages Edwards will help you, as he has helped so many others, to better understand God, his Word, his work in this world, and your place in it.” In this regard, the book and the author succeed admirably.

The format of the book is as follows. It is divided into four sections. The first section, comprising two chapters is dedicated to a short overview of his life, from his upbringing in a Christian home to his untimely death from a failed smallpox innoculation. The following three parts, each comprised of three or four chapters, examine his writings and sermons. Part two examines his writings on revival and church life, part three his writings on theology and philosophy and part four several of his sermons. Each is presented in the appropriate historical context and is examined in light of the impact it had in his day and in its ongoing relevance to the church today.

This book is a solid entry-level introduction to Jonathan Edwards, and in particular, to his contribution to Christian thought and theology. I give it my recommendation, not as an alternative to his writings or biographies, but, as it was meant to be, a supplement.

9 years 12 months ago

In this article I will be reviewing Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN, known hereafter simply as A Generous Orthodoxy. This is going to be quite a long book review - probably the longest I have written. To spare you having to read the full text if you are not so-inclined, I will ruin any sense of expectation by giving in advance my general impressions of this book. In short, it is awful. I consider it, in terms of content, one of the worst I have ever read and it stands as damning evidence of what passes for Christian reading in our day. Though it was easy to read, and even enjoyable at times, throughout the text Brian McLaren has consistently, deliberately and systematically dismantled historical Protestantism. From Sola Scriptura to hell to biblical inerrancy, nothing is sacred. At this point, those who are devotees of McLaren, The Emergent Church and post-modernism, will no doubt already have felt their blood boil and will be ready for a fight. I would encourage those people to keep reading. Those who are more traditional Christians will be grappling with an all-too-familiar feeling that this book represents yet another attack on the faith. And that is exactly what this book is. The remainder of this review will concern itself with showing how this book does away with biblical faith, replacing it with something far less godly and far more human. In short, something that is simply not Christianity.

It is difficult to critique the writing of people like McLaren because discerning what they actually believe is far more difficult than finding what they do not believe. Settling on those beliefs is akin to nailing Jello to the wall - it is a near impossible task as the Jello has no consistent form or shape, always changing, always conforming to what contains it. We are often left to read between the lines, interpreting what the author believes in light of what he rejects.

One has to become accustomed to McLaren’s rather odd style of writing. He is able author who writes in a conversational tone, continually pokes fun at himself, uses many long sentences and, by his own admission, uses parentheses far too often. The reader also needs to get used to near-constant use of the prefixes “post” and “pre.” Much of what McLaren writes about has no clear identity of its own, so can only be defined in terms of what preceded it. While we may not know exactly what post-modernism is or what form it will take, we do know that it follows, and hence is not to be equated with, modernism. Strangely, he even gets these prefixes wrong at times. For example, he claims at one point that “post” means “coming from” when the reality is that it simply means “after.” He constantly throws about terms such as post-liberal, post-conservative, post-protestant, pre-modern, post-medieval and so on.

To understand what this book claims to be, we need look no further than the back cover. It tells us that McLaren “calls for a radical, Christ-centered orthodoxy of faith and practice in a missional, generous spirit. He argues for a post-liberal, post-conservative, post-protestant convergence that will stimulate lively interest and global conversation among thoughtful Christians from all traditions. Instead of defining what is and what is not orthodox, McLaren walks through many traditions of the faith, bringing to center a way of life that draws us closer to Christ and each other.” Thus, while this book primarily intends to draw us closer to Christ, it is also ecumenical in its desire to break down barriers that seperate the various traditions within Christianity. To this end the cover claims it will draw the reader “toward a way of living that looks beyond the “us/them” paradigm to the blessed and ancient paradox of “we.”“

Upon reading that description, I immediately became curious as to what McLaren’s authority will be. As he examines the wide divergence of traditions with Christianity, how will he decide which to hold on to, which to cast aside and which to adopt as his own? Will he test all things in the light of Scripture and follow Paul’s directive to Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” or will he rely instead on his own wisdom and experience? It does not take long for the answer to become clear. We will turn now to a synopsis of the text.

Introduction

The book begins with an introduction where the author establishes the audience this book is intended for. McLaren states that the book is especially directed at “Christians (or former Christians) - evangelical, liberal, Catholic, whatever - who are about to leave (or have just left) the whole business because of the kinds of issues I raise in this book. And equally I’m writing for the spiritual seekers who are attracted to Jesus, but they don’t feel there’s room for them in what is commonly called Christianity unless they swallow a lot of additional stuff.” (Page 39) While I do not fit in either category, I felt I should read the book as a means to attain a greater understanding of Brian McLaren as he is currently one of, if not the, primary leaders of the so-called Emergent Church. His popularity, especially among young evangelicals, is growing by the day. My interest, then, is in knowing who this person is that commands such a following and in discerning just where he is leading these people. In the introduction the author also states that he has gone out of his way to be “provocative, mischievious, and unclear, reflecting my belief that clarity is sometimes overrated, and that shock, obscurity, playfulness, and intrigue (carefully articulated) often stimulate more thought than clarity.” (Page 23) Within the text there is no further reference to where he is being serious and where he is being provocative, michievious or unclear. Hence I have no option but to approach everything he says as if he really means it. I would also like to point out that I do not claim any sense of absolute objectivity. I have an objective standard to which I will hold this book - the Holy Bible - but cannot let go of my Reformed, Protestant heritage and understanding of Scripture as I examine this book. I read the pages with a spirit of humility, always seeking and willing to be taught, but without letting go of the Word.

Chapter 0, entitled For Mature Audiences Only, is where we will find our first clues as to what McLaren considers to be a Generous Orthodoxy. It is a term coined by Hans Frei, a key figure in the emergence of what is now known as post-liberal theology. A typical definition of the term “orthodoxy” might be “a belief in the standards of accepted and true doctrines taught in the Bible.” In other words, the Bible defines within its pages what is true doctrine and those who believe in and adhere to these doctrines are orthodox. McLaren defines it differently. “Orthodoxy in this book may mean something more like “what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.” Or it may mean “how we can search for a kind of truth you can never fully get into your head, so instead you seek to get your head (and heart) into it.”” (Page 28) He believes most Christians are far too serious and busy for such a definition of orthodox. I do not wish to belabor this point, but this is important. Look at what McLaren has not said. He has rejected the view that the Bible exists to give believers a consistent knowledge of God. He rejects the idea that we can have a consistently accurate orthodoxy from the Scripture. In his view we cannot know absolute truth from the Bible, hence we must search the vast gamut of Christian experience to find “a kind of truth.”

A second observation about this Generous Orthodoxy is that he has cleared the playing field, so to speak, eschewing all current systems of orthodoxy and beginning anew. But on what authority will he do this? The answer, as becomes clear later, is that he will do so on his own authority - with what feels right. His generous orthodoxy will not be a biblical orthodoxy for it does not begin and end with Scripture. He does not weigh each and every doctrine or experience by the Word of God. In his concluding chapter he tells us “To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have truth captured, stuffed and mounted on the wall.” Parenthetically, I would like to point out that this is an irrational statement, for I know of no Christians who would make the claim that he has arrived at absolute truth in every area of doctrine. We will continue with McLaren who says that orthodoxy is a “loving community of people who are seeking truth on the road of mission and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still.” Again, notice that he refuses to acknowledge that perhaps we have captured much of objective truth through the Scripture. Orthodoxy is “a way of seeing and seeking, a way of living, a way of thinking and loving and learning that helps what we believe become more true over time, more resonant with the infinite glory that is God.” So to McLaren, orthodoxy is thinking or opinion, not doctrine. Furthermore, it becomes “more true” over time. How can something be more or less true? It is either true or false, unless of course, one is fully absorbed in the relevatism of postmodernism.

Chapter 0 concludes with acknowledgment that many parts of this book are far too simplistic, and affirmations of the dangers of absolutism and relativism, of inclusivism, exclusivism and universalism and his unfair bias in which he is overly harsh towards Conservative Protestants and overly sympathetic towards Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and liberals.

The remainder of the book is divided into two uneven sections. The first, with four chapters, explores why the author is a Christian. The second, with fifteen chapters, identifies the kind of Christian he is by investigating Christianity in the light of the emphases of fifteen different traditions.

Why He Is A Christian

The Seven Jesus I Have Known explores seven traditions McLaren has been part of or has investigated and shows the emphases each of them places on Jesus. The seven in question are: Conservative Protestant, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Liberal Protestant, Anabaptist and Liberation Theology. One has to question how well he understands each of these, especially the Roman Catholic Jesus. He says that he came to know this Jesus through the writings of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Romano Guardini and Gabriel Marcel as well as various medieval mystics. He believes that the focus of Roman Catholics is how Jesus rises from the dead to save the church. This is inconsistent with the obvious, for only a brief survey of Catholic writing and art will show the emphases are on Jesus as a baby and Jesus’ suffering and death. The resurrection, while integral to Catholic theology, can hardly be considered the main emphasis. There can be similar concerns with his understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy which he typifies as valuing Jesus’ birth above all. Yet the Eastern Orthodox revere Easter above other liturgical celebrations. McLaren proposes that we, as believers, unite our emphases on Jesus and celebrate a richer, multidimensional vision of the Lord; that we “acknowledge that Christians of each tradition bring their distinctive and wonderful gifts to the table, so we can all enjoy the feast of generous orthodoy.” (Page 67)

Jesus and God B contrasts two prevailing views of God - God as the authoritarian sovereign and God as a mysterious saving force. He describes the universe one might expect of God A: “a universe of dominance, control, limitation, submission, uniformity, coercion.” From God B he would expect a universe of “interdependence, relationship, possibility, responsibility, becoming, novelty, mutuality, freedom.” (Page 76). The reality, as we find in Scripture, is that God contains elements of both of these views. God is sovereign and has full authority to do what He wishes. However, He also desires relationship and gives us responsibility and freedom. There is no warrant to tell believers they need to choose one of these views or the other. One wonders where McLaren draws these views from! In this chapter he pauses to apologize for his continued use of masculine pronouns to describe God. He proposes several solutions to this dilemma, including interchanging he and she or using the clumsy s/he. In the end he merely apologizes for the use of he, affirms that he considers God neither male nor female and tries to avoid using pronouns altogether. He goes on to say that the usage of the Father/Son imagery so prevalent in Scripture “contributes to the patriarchalism or chauvinism that has too often characterized Christianity.”

Would Jesus Be A Christian asks the difficult question of whether Jesus would identify with what we have constructed and named in His honor. In this chapter he acknowledges the influence of N.T. Wright in shaping his view of the apostle Paul, stating in a footnote that we have “misunderstood and misused Paul.” (Page 86) He believes that traditional views of Paul have pitted him against Jesus so that we have “retained Jesus as Savior but promoted the apostle Paul to Lord and Teacher.” He tells us that the result of today’s Christianity is “a religion that Jesus might consider about as useful as many non-Christians consider it today.” (Page 89) This is consistent with the New Perspective on Paul, a theological view espoused especially by N.T. Wright that is gaining prominence and teaches that the Reformers misunderstood Paul, interpreting his writing through their medieval mindset, rather than through Paul’s own context. This view necessitates radically redefining the doctrine of justification and is, at its core, ecumenism, making light of the differences that have seperated Protestants and Catholics. That is a subject unto itself and not one that can be covered in this review. Suffice it to say that it is clear from this book and McLaren’s other writings that he does hold to the New Perspective on Paul, a view that has been condemned by most Protestants as a serious, critical deviation from the Scriptural model.

Jesus: Savior of What provides as clear a definition of salvation as McLaren gives in this book. This is not to say it is, by any means, lucid. Drawing from the Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan, he believes we need to rethink what Christians have long called salvation. Quoting Donovan, he says we need to move beyond the theology of salvation and towards the theology of creation. He encourages the reader to suspend any knowledge of what it means to be saved and examine the issue with fresh, unbiased attention. Salvation is then redefined in a way that is consistent with the New Perspective on Paul. He tries to challenge those so fixated on salvation being an issue of saving people from hell that they forget salvation also necessitates action and responsibility in this life. He contends that contemporary Christians are largely fixated on salvation being “all about them.” While this may be true in some regard, today’s emphasis on worship being extended to all areas of life is certainly beginning to give people fresh eyes about what it means to live for God. In this chapter he also toys with the concept of hell, neither rejecting nor affirming any view. Reading between the lines it would seem that he does believe in some non-traditional concept of hell, but he merely says that “radical rethinking is needed.” (Page 100) He suggests that he will deal with the subject more thoroughly in an later book.

The next fifteen chapters are dedicated to part two, an examination of many of the different traditions within Christianity.

What Type of Christian

McLaren is Missional in the vein of Lesslie Newbigin, because he places in the forefront of Christianity the need to be active in improving the world in the name of Jesus. His defines the church’s mission as “To be and make disciples of Jesus Christ in authentic community for the good of the world.” (Page 107). He also further muddies his view on hell in this chapter so that if the reader was confused before, he will be only further confused now.

McLaren is evangelical (note the small “e”) because he cherishes an identity beyond a doctrinal array or practice. He has an attitude toward God and his neighbor that is passionate, based on a respect for Scripture, a personal walk with God, a belief that intimacy with God is possible and a desire to evangelize, though not necessarily in the way most people think of evangelism.

McLaren is Post/Protestant in that he no longer protests what the first Protestants fought against, but instead Pro-testifies, telling his story to others. In this and several of the subsequent chapters he writes about the Reformation, saying that it was essentially “Christianity going post-medieval or modern.” (Page 132) This does a great disservice to those men and women who protested Roman theology, even to their deaths, and rediscovered the faith of the Bible! They did much more than take Catholicism to a new era. He simplifies the Reformation, making it more about indulgences than authority and justification. In this way he can indicate that issues keeping Protestant from Catholic at the time of the Reformation are no longer valid, for even Catholics now reject indulgences and many other excesses of medieval Catholicism. McLaren proves here what a low view he has of Protestantism.

McLaren is Liberal/Conservative which seems to indicate emphases on both social action and evangelism, a balance the church has had great difficulty maintaining in recent years.

McLaren is Mystical/Poetic in that he speaks of a “non-prose world, called unreal by the rulers of this age, but real to people of faith-…the world entered by the mystic, the contemplative, the visionary, the prophet, the poet.” (Page 146) He criticizes modern Christians who build “conceptual cathedrals of proposition and argument…known popularly as systematic theologies.” (Page 151) While he continues to value prose and narrative, he places greater emphasis than most on mystery and metaphor. He believes systematic theology is inconsistent with a biblical understanding of the mystery of God.

McLaren is Biblical in that he has a high regard for the Bible - higher now, he says, than it ever has been. He values it differently now than in his youth, seeing it less now than before as a book of answers. Despite a chapter-length treatment of the subject, it is difficult to discern exactly what his view of Scripture is. He indicates that he believes the Bible contains Paul’s opinion (1 Corinthians 7:12), a common misunderstanding that perhaps betrays his lack of theological training, and that it also contains Paul’s own biases (with Titus 1:12-13 as an example). (Page 161) He seems to believe that the Bible’s primary purpose is to train people for their mission to the world, downplaying terms such as authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute and literal. He indicates that the profitable use of Scripture is to leave the comforts of home and go to the world. His examples of people who have understood what it means to be biblical Christians are St. Francis, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Our modern assumptions of the Bible have often been wrong, so to move forward we need to reclaim the Bible as narrative rather than didactive in nature.

McLaren is Charismatic/Contemplative in that he believes in the miraculous, supernatural works of God, yet prefers quiet contemplation. He writes about his discovery of Brother Lawrence and says that the discipline of practicing God’s presence “became…the single most important spiritual discipline in my life.” (Page 176) As one would expect, this chapter is laden with quotes from and references to Catholic contemplatives.

McLaren is Fundamentalist/Calvinist because he affirms the semper reformada of the Reformation. He believes, as did the Reformers, that we need to be continually reforming our faith. Of course the Reformers would never have seperated this from the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which would have ensured the Bible was their guide to reform. In this chapter McLaren denies the Doctrines of Grace as summarized in the acronym TULIP and also states that the solas of the Reformation are restrictive, unnecessary reductionism. He believes truth is “often best understood in a conversation, a dialectic (or trialectic), or a dynamic tension” rather than in non-negotiable solas. In this chapter he shows a blatant disregard for the heart of the Reformation and gives no real reason to believe he has ever read or understood John Calvin or any of the Reformers. He also rewrites TULIP, a topic I have covered in detail in this article, so that they now focus on man instead of on God.

McLaren is an Anabaptist/Anglican in that he appreciates the pacificism and simplicity of the Anabaptists and the liturgy and willingness to compromise of the Anglicans. He mentions, cryptically, on page 204 that one becomes a Christian by making a personal committment where one identifies with Jesus, his mission and his followers.

McLaren is Methodist in that he identifies with the Wesley’s original emphasis on reaching the outcast of society.

McLaren is Catholic for many reasons which he identifies more clearly than in most chapters. He enjoys the sacramentalism, the liturgical nature of worship, the respect for tradition, the celebration of Mary and the fact that Catholics know how to party (as emphasized in Mardi Gras). In regards to Mary he expresses a realization that his Protestant faith has been impoverished “with its exlusively male focus.” (Page 228) He explains how much we have missed, as Protestants, by failing to see the beauty of the incarnation through Mary.

McLaren is Green because he emphasizes good stewardship of Creation. He adopts an Eastern Orthodox outlook of continual creation, rather than stagnant creation.

McLaren is incarnational in that he seeks to become all things to all men. He respects and values other faiths and seeks to enter into constructive dialogue with them. Should someone from another religion want to become a Christian, McLaren encourages that person to become a Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish follower of Jesus. People should remain within their religious contexts rather than joining a Christian context. His hope is that God will redeem all of the religions of the world.

McLaren is depressed-yet-hopeful. Depressed as he looks back to Christian history, but hopeful as he looks forward. He indicates that all believers need to repent of the atrocities of the past, committed against other religions. He mentions, as one example, the horrible acts of the conquistadors against the kingdoms of South America and indicates we all need to repent of these awful deeds. This shows, once again, his belief that all the traditions within Christianity are, to some extent, equally valid, for why else would I, as a Protestant, need to repent of deeds done under the banner of Rome by one who clearly was not a believer?

McLaren is Emergent. This chapter is perhaps the culmination of all that has been said since McLaren is primarily known as being a leader of the Emergent Church. He compares the emerging church to a butterfly that is halfway out of its cocoon. It looks ugly now, but as it swings back and forth between absolutism and relativism, it will eventually emerge in the middle as something beautiful. In this chapter he provides something of a definition of sin, a definition which would take too long to recount but is clearly at odds with that of the historical confessions.

McLaren is, finally, unfinished. Because he realizes he has not arrived at any firm conclusions, he knows that he must keep seeking, keep learning and keep growing. The book closes in mid-sentence to illustrate that it is, likewise, unfinished.

Discussion

That is a brief but I hope accurate assessment of what one will find in the book. Not everything McLaren has to say is bad. For example, he brings out some valid criticisms of each of the traditions he examines. He has good things to say about the shortcomings of the church growth movement. Even his desire to semper reformada is admirable. But the positive aspects of the book are by far outweighed by the negatives. I have hestitated to speak of the author in this way, but before God I feel I have no choice. He teaches false, anti-biblical doctrine throughout this book. The faith of Brian McLaren is not the faith of the Bible and only bears the most vague resemblance to Christianity.

Here are several random observations:

There are many arguments I would like to make, but I know most of them would have little meaning because McLaren acknowledges no authority outside himself. I would like to appeal to Scripture to understand where we a generous orthodoxy is commanded, suggested or even hinted at. But if Scripture is not authoritative, we have no need to look there. McLaren does not examine each tradition in light of the Scripture and decide which are most biblical. He makes no attempt to examine traditions and beliefs in light of Scripture and discern what God says about them. Instead, he interprets and develops theology in light of what is important to him. For example, because he loves the environment he cannot believe it can be evil and fallen, and thus is forced to do away with a biblical view of original sin. Quotes from the Bible are by far outweighed by quotes from mere human authors, a majority of them Roman Catholic. Chesterton appears to be his primary influence and quotes by him must outweigh biblical quotes by at least a margin of three to one. A man who rejects God’s authority should not be a leader within the Christian community.

He builds and then refutes straw-man arguments. He continually paints things in the worst possible light, often in a completely false light, and then seeks to be profound in refuting those arguments. This was most notable to me in his discussion of Calvinism. He presented beliefs no true Calvinist adheres to and then proceeded to show that the false view was wrong. Ironically, on page 135 he criticizes both liberals and conservatives for continually comparing “their own best to their counterpart’s worst” yet that very spirit pervades this book.

He proves nothing. Time and time again he mentions facts, especially from history, with no attempt whatsoever to prove them true. He gives no context, no proof, no particulars and no citations. I suspect many of his readers have as little knowledge as he does of history, especially Reformational history, and will thus believe what he says, regardless of its truthfulness.

He is so nice. Those of us who are concerned far more with truth, and by that I refer to God’s truth as outlined in Scripture, are rarely as nice as McLaren. We are forced to call sin sin. We are forced to reject much of what other people value, treasure and believe. We unapologetically reject what does not adhere to Scriptural models. McLaren and other Emergent leaders are always so nice, accepting everything and politely, though often sarcastically, rejecting Truth. What chance to Protestant apologists have against such niceness? Yet it does not matter, for foolishness in the eyes of man is wisdom in the eyes of God. God be true though every man be a liar!

Conclusion

In the end I have to reject this book as being something entirely different than Christian. It portrays some sort of faith modelled loosely on aspects of Christianity, but there is far more error than truth. McLaren has proven himself to be just one more in a long line of “Christian” leaders leading people away from Scripture and away from the absolute Truth it contains. Of course McLaren can always claim that we, the old-fashioned, non-Emergent Protestants, just don’t get it; that somehow we are so absorbed in our modernism that we cannot make the transition to the new realities of our society. But with others, I am committed to the Bible and to remaining under God’s authority.

Having read McLaren’s statement of faith, I can see little evidence that he understands or accepts even the basic tenets of the faith. I do not doubt McLaren’s niceness, kindness or even his desire to see the church Reformed for the better. But his generous orthodoxy is far removed from true Christianity. Christians need to reject this book and reject McLaren as a leader and teacher as long as he continues to espouse such views. I would call upon him to repent of his arrogance in rejecting God’s authority and to return in submission to our Lord.

9 years 12 months ago

Led By The Spirit by Jim Elliff is a short, but well-argued, satisfying and scriptural examination of how a believer can know and understand the will of God. It is also practical, having been based on the author’s own experience in being what he refers to as an illuminist - a person who, when confronted by difficult decisions in life, seeks guidance from God by getting a series of impressions which he believes come as God directly impacts the spirit. This belief is taught by most evangelical leaders today, though perhaps the most notable of these is Richard Blackaby in his book Experiencing God. While Elliff does not rule out such forms of communication altogether, he does teach that there is no reason to believe that such means of communication are normative for Christians today. These types of communication are inherently subjective, meaning that there can always be an element of doubt in the recipients mind about whether he really heard God’s voice or merely his own mind. A quote from George Whitefield is helpful to understand this: “God may use the sincere individual who gets his guidance the illuminist’s way. He may bless him. He may honour his faith more than his method. I am quite sure that God always condescends to our imperfections. And if there is immaturity, we must realize that God will often use in our zealous immaturity what he disallows in our maturity…The Great Awakening preacher, George Whitefield (1714-1770), who had such tendencies in his earlier days, later commented, “I am a man of like passions with others, and consequently may have sometimes mistaken nature for grace, imagination for revelation.” He put away his illuministic patterns as he grew in Christ. Yet, it is important to note that he was used in those earlier days just as dramatically as in later life.” (page 35)

The author concludes that we are to submit any impressions we may have to Scripture which is the only infallible guide we have been given by God. Scripture contains all we need to make decisions in life and to know what God’s will is for us. The most important concept in the book “sanctified reasoning” which is where we, as increasingly sanctified followers of Christ, make decisions based on the Word of God. The Holy Spirit who indwells us and is continually renewing our will, helps us make decisions that honor and glorify God. Rather than trust in impressions and voices, we are to trust the Spirit’s work in the mind and will.

The book is only 46 pages long and is written at a level that even young people and new believers will be comfortable with. I highly recommend it. In the same vein I also recommend Decisions, Decisions by Dave Swavely and Guidance And The Voice of God by Jensen and Payne.

10 years 1 month ago

When it comes to evangelism, it seems that Calvinists have quite a poor reputation in the church today. Most of the largest and seemingly most successful mission organizations were founded by Arminians and continue to be based around Arminian theology. Arminian churches seem to grow much faster than churches based on Calvinist principles. It seems that part of the reason for this is that Calvinists have such a high view of God’s sovereignty that it is easy for them to assume that there is no reason for Christians to evangelize. After all, if God truly is sovereign, if He does control absolutely everything, what reason is there to evangelize? If God has ordained someone will be saved, they reason, that person will be saved regardless of my efforts. Perhaps evangelism is even sinful, for is it possible that it actually denies God’s sovereignty?

It is against this backdrop that J.I. Packer wrote Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God, a classic study on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and the necessity of evangelism. A short but exceedingly powerful book, Packer shows that rather than precluding evangelism, God’s sovereignty provides the most powerful incentive and support for it.

Packer begins by presenting the concept of antinomy, which he defines as “an appearance of contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary.” An antinomy we face as believers is that of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Somehow, although God is absolutely sovereign, He has ordained that we would be responsible for our involvement in His plans. Our obedient response to this antinomy is to accept it for what it is and learn to live with it. Any other response would be to minimize something God deems important and even necessary to a godly life. We cannot see Divine sovereignty and human responsible as opposites or principles that are in conflict with each other, but rather as principles that complement each other and are equally true.

The author turns to a lengthy discussion of evangelism where he defines what evangelism is and what it is not. He speaks of the message of evangelism as well as the motive and means for it. He concludes with an examination of how God’s sovereignty affects evangelism. Packer’s conclusion is that “We would not wish to say that man cannot evangelize at all without coming to terms with this doctrine [God’s sovereignty]; but we venture to think that, other things being equal, he will be able to evangelize better for believing it.”

For a book weighing in at a mere 126 pages, this one contains impressive depth and contains a thorough and satisfying treatment of the subject. I highly recommend this book for all believers and trust anyone will be able to learn and grow through it.

10 years 1 month ago

There is any number of books available today that serve as introductions to Calvinism or the doctrines of grace. While some of these leave much to be desired, many of them are excellent and do justice to the topic. One might ask, then, why someone would want to write (or read) yet another one, and that would be a fair question.

What attracted me to this title is that it was the final book written by one of our generation’s great pastors and teachers, James Montgomery Boice. Having been diagnosed with cancer and knowing that he had merely a few months or weeks to live, he dedicated himself to hymn-writing and to writing this book. He lived for a mere forty two days after receiving his diagnosis, and though he was not able to see it to completion, he turned it over to his colleague Philip Ryken who completed it after Boice’s death. In the foreward R.C. Sproul writes of Boice: “Here was a man who not only believed in the doctrines of grace but also loved those doctrines and had fire in his bones about propagating them. I knew Jim Boice for more than thirty years and never saw that fire diminish. His soul was held captive by the doctrines of grace. His ministry was an ongoing doxology to the doctrines of grace because they so clearly manifest the God of that grace…It is not surprising that the last literary work of James Boice would focus on his first love, the doctrines of grace.” This book, then, contains the last words of an eminent pastor, theologian and teacher who dedicated his life to the very topic at hand. It would be foolish for us to disregard such a message.

The book begins with an examination of the current state of the evangelical world and traces some of the history of Calvinism and great Calvinists of the past. The reader is introduced to Arminianism and sees how the two systems of doctrine are at odds. We see how a rediscovery of the doctrines of grace is the antidote to the current sorry state of evangelicalism.

The author then moves to an in-depth examination of each of the five doctrines of grace. Eschewing the traditional TULIP acronym, Boice chooses instead to speak of Radical Depravity, Unconditional Election, Particular Redemption, Efficacious Grace and Persevering Grace. Each of the points receives a full examination, but one that is targeted at the layperson so that even a young person or someone with little theological background could easily understand. Each of the points is supported with Scripture and even the passages that seem to contradict the doctrines are examined and dealt with. As one would expect, the Arminian opposites of each doctrine are considered as well.

The final two chapters speak of rediscovering God’s grace. Calvinism is not a system of doctrine that impacts only the mind. While it is based on theological distinctions, this theology should spur us to action. One who considers himself Calvinist but sees no reason to take the gospel to the world or to be involved in the betterment of society has not truly understood the words of God. The true Calvinist should be a leader in issues of evangelism and social justice.

This book provides a beautiful and captivating introduction to Calvinism. Combined with Boice’s prior volume Whatever Happened To The Gospel of Grace one receives a solid introduction to the doctrines of grace and to the five solas of the Reformation. I recommend this book as heartily as I recommended Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace. Both are excellent studies and deserve to be read and appreciated.

10 years 2 months ago

Since the middle of the twentieth century, dynamic equivalency has become standard practice and the vast majority of Bible translations since then have eschewed a literal format in favor of the less-literal approach. The most popular of these is the New International Version, but other popular translations such as the Contemporary English Version, The Message and the New Living Translation have also been guided by these principles. One does not have to look far to find a book that is critical of the translation techniques and principles that have come to be known as dynamic equivalency. The bulk of the books written to defend literal translations are written by theologians, many of whom are convinced that the King James version is the only pure English translation. That is where The Word of God in English stands apart, for it is written not by a theologian but by a Professor of English, Leland Ryken, who is a literary critic and a professor at Wheaton College. Having devoted his life to studying and teaching the English language, he is able to approach the subject with a fresh perspective.

The book begins with a variety of definitions that will be relevant to the discussion that will follow and then turns to a short history of English Bible translations. We are taught some lessons from the history of translation and even from ordinary, everyday discourse. The author then discusses some fallacies about the Bible, about translation and about Bible readers. For example, he shows that the Bible is not always a simple book - one that is easy to understand - which puts it at odds with dynamic equivalent translators who would seek to make it so. He speaks about the fallacy of translating meaning rather than words and shows how it is not the translator’s job to discern the meaning but to accurately translate his words so that the reader can be left with an accurate representation of the Author’s words.

Following discussion of each of these fallacies, Ryken moves to theological and hermeneutical discussions and then to various problems inherent in modern translations and proposes some possible solutions. Perhaps the most interesting section here is the one that deals with destabilization of the text where he shows that as texts are interpreted and dynamically translated, they become destabilized so the true meaning is no longer transparent to a person reading the translated version.

The book closes with a length discussion of the literary merits of the Bible in its original languages and the necessity of ensuring these merits extend to translations. He speaks about diction, poetry, rhythm and even the actual words that are used.

The author’s conclusion is obvious: modern dynamic equivalent translations of the Scriptures are deeply and irrevocably flawed. Only with a literal translation and one that gives heed to more than simply words but also the literary qualities of translation, can we have the Bible as God intends for us to have it in a translated form. While Ryken does not recommend one translation above others, he served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version and clearly considers that his translation of choice, and with good reason, it would seem.

I found this book fascinating as it spoke to my loves both of the English language and of the Bible. Ryken makes a very strong argument and one that could not easily be refuted. While I have always leaned towards literal translations for my times of study, I now know why I must continue to do so. The author makes a complex topic readable and enjoyable and ultimately leaves the reader with very compelling evidence. I highly recommend this book.

10 years 2 months ago

Since its publication in 1986, Chosen By God has become a classic introduction to Calvinism, for it is clearly one of the best introductions to Calvinism available. R.C. Sproul, ever the theologian but one with a gift for making the complex simple, begins with an introduction to God’s sovereignty and then moves to free will before tackling the 5-points of Calvinism (as summarized in the acronym TULIP). He changes several of the terms, so the acronym eventually reads RULEP, but provides good justification for doing so. Not being one to back down from a fight, Sproul also tackles the subject of double predestination and assurance of salvation. The book closes with a Questions and Objections section which answers some of the most common objections to Calvinism, such as “Is predestination fatalism?” and “What does predestination do for the task of evangelism?”

It is important to note that this book is only an introduction to Calvinism, so does not provide exhaustive commentary on any single topic, each of which could easily become a book of its own. While 200 pages is plenty to introduce topics, it certainly does not allow for in-depth discussion.

The chapters on God’s Sovereignty and Free Will were particularly well-written and alone are worth the price of the book. A book that discusses difficult concepts but does so in a biblical manner, and ultimately provides very satisfying conclusions, I give this one my unreserved recommendation.

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