Category Archives: Book Reviews

Still Evangelical?

I am the son of two immigrants, my father was Polish and my mother is Guatemalan. I grew up in small Latino churches. I am evangelical. I was on staff at an evangelical megachurch. I am a PhD student at a historically significant evangelical institution. I am also a registered Republican.  It should go without saying that the entire Trump “event,” from his nomination to his presidency today, has been rather complicated for me.

This is not least because so much of what his presidency has brought to light, both in America and the American church, embodies values which are so contrary to me as an evangelical Christian formed by non-Western influences. So, when I saw various 4537evangelicals, like Mark Labberton, wondered aloud whether the term “Evangelical” is still useful or whether the tribe that identifies with that will be left intact I had mixed feelings: “evangelical” is what I am, yet the term has become tainted. Some of these mixed feelings are very well articulated by numerous authors in Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning. There is a lot I resonate with in this book.

Robert Chao Romero, in his essay, “Immigration and the Latina/o Community” describes the experiences of Latino/a Christians in the US in light of the “Latino Threat Narrative.” Basically, this is the idea that Latinos are unwilling to integrate into “American” culture and that they are bent on reconquering land that was formerly theirs. Because many have imbibed this false narrative, many evangelicals voted for a president who espouses this same view. Many Latino evangelicals were left confused as to why their Christian brothers and sisters would think so poorly of them and put nation before Kingdom. [This, I should note, is not a universal experience, I know from conversations that numerous Latino evangelicals were ardent Trump supporters.]

Jim Daly, who leads one of the most significant evangelical organizations, Focus on the Family, writes about the importance of “listening” in this period. He embodies a more conciliatory approach: “Rather than assuming what ‘those people’ are like, we should get to know them.” (180) This practice of listening goes both ways. Evangelicals who can’t fathom why other evangelicals would support Trump inspired political movements and evangelicals who think that those who refused to fall in line with American Evangelicalism both need to speak to and listen to one another. In an age of “yelling” through social media, this call to be slow speak and quick to listen almost seems biblical…

Despite the inclusion of numerous well written chapters, the one that resonated the most with me was InterVarsity President Tom Lin’s chapter. He makes the fantastic point:

Any evaluation of the world evangelical or evangelicalism must be done in the context of the global church. The decision of some American evangelicals to abandon the term is insensitive to our overseas sisters and brothers; it reflects the worst impulses of American exceptionalism and self-absorption. (186)

In my opinion, this global perspective changes everything. I grew up in such a way that my self-understanding of what it means to be an evangelical was more shaped by my Latino and European influences than by institutional Anglo-American evangelicalism. [I didn’t start attending an Anglo-American church until I was 19 years old.] To be an Evangelico was never tied to political parties – it was always tied to evangelical faith and practice. It meant we read and took the Bible seriously, we shared the gospel, we believed in salvation by faith through grace alone, and we believed in the importance of being born again. None of this was tied to a particular political party. Sure, some people in our church were democrats and some were republicans, but that was not what defined you as a “good” or “bad” Christian. Yet, it seems, that in circles just outside the ones I grew up in as a Latino evangelical, one’s political affiliation did define whether one was a “good” or “bad” Christian. Because of my social context, that word, “Evangelical” didn’t carry the same meaning as it does for many of my other Christian brothers and sisters. To me, Evangelical, was never a sociological moniker, it was a theological identity. All this to say, I understand why some evangelicals want to abandon the term, but I simply can’t. To be an evangelical, at least from a Latino perspective, just means that I am a Christ follower. And that is an identification I would never want to abandon.

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The New Christian Zionism

“A survey of 2,000 American Evangelical Christians released Monday found generational differences among participants in positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with older evangelicals offering more unconditional support of Israel than those under 35.

According to the survey, American evangelicals under 35 are less likely than their older counterparts to offer unquestionable support for Israel, and are more likely to hold positive views of the Palestinians.” (Haaretz, 12/4/17)

For many years evangelical Christianity has been known to be highly Zionistic. Undoubtedly this is due, at least in part, to the influence of dispensationalism on5138 conservative Christians. Studies show, however, that Zionistic attitudes among American Christians are waning. Is this due to trends in dispensationalism? Trends in social media, e.g. we have a better view of what Palestinians are experiencing? Or is it something else?

The New Christian Zionism, edited by Gerald McDermott, does not attempt to answer those questions, however in light of Christian Zionism’s waning popularity, McDermott and a host of biblical scholars, theologians, and ethicists attempt to make a case for Zionism which is not dependent upon dispensationalism.

So what was the old Christian Zionism? Basically it was the dispensational view which puts Israel and the church on two separate, but parallel tracks. All the promises given to Israel will literally be fulfilled by the Jewish people group (ethic, national, territorial Israel), and not by a “spiritual” church.

What is the new Christian Zionism? Here I quote McDermott:

The New Christian Zionism asserts that the people and the land of Israel represent a provisional and proleptic fulfillment of the promises of the new world to come. So Jesus brought a new era to the history of Israel but without abolishing what came before, and he predicted that his people and land would be central to that new world. This is why the New Christian Zionism speaks of fulfillment and not supersessionism.

In making their case for this NCZ McDermott shows that Christian Zionism goes back two thousand years , and before the 19th century it had nothing to do with dispensationalism.

McDermott’s introduction is followed by four essays dealing with the biblical material (from a non-dispensationalist standpoint). Craig Blasing attempts to show that the NT affirms the OT expectation of an ethnic, national, territorial Israel in God’s plan. Joel Willits shows that the restoration of the land of Israel is fundamental to Matthew’s story of Jesus. Mark Kinzer argues that eschatology in Luke-Acts is tethered to the holy land. David Rudolph shows that Paul is looking forward to a renewed earth that is centered in Israel.

Jerusalem

The next section deals with some issues that people have brought up against Christian Zionism, often other Christians! Mark Tooley addresses mainline protestant objections to NCZ. Rebert Benne address the objection that Israel is an unjust political state oppressing Palestinians. He turns to Reinhold Niebuhr’s work to defend Israel. Some of the most interesting chapters follow Benne’s. Robert Nicholson addresses the objection that Israel is violating international law by controlling the west bank. He argues that 1)International law is unclear, and where it is clear, Israel is not in violation and 2)Israel’s legal standards are higher than all of its neighbors and many leading western countries. Shadi Khalloul, an Aramean Christian, argues that while Israel is far from perfect, it is far from unjust in its treatment of minority groups.

The last set of essays are written by Darrell Bock and Gerald McDermott, they both chart some possible ways forward for NCZ.

My favorite chapter was by far Nicholson’s chapter. Most likely because he addresses some objections I often hear – namely that Israel does not deserve the land beause it is violating the Mosaic covenant. Nicholson makes a strong case for the difficulty of making that claim. Second, Christian Zionism has lost a lot of support because many western Christians who pay attention to international politics are under the impression that Israel is in violation of international law in its treatment of Palestine. Nicholson, addresses whether or not there were any violations of international law in the taking of territory during the Six Day War. In trying to answer this question he gives his readers a history lesson. He provides 8 essential pieces of background for determing the legal and political context of Israel’s supposed violation of international law:

  1. Israel’s actions in the Six-Day Ware were conducted in self-defense in reponse to overwhelming aggression from surrounding Arab countries.
  2. The “Palestinian” territories that Israel captured in the war did not belong to anyone else under international law.
  3. Israel planned to exchange the captured territories for peace.
  4. The law of occupation may not apply to the West Bank and Gaza. (Because they are “disputed” territories.
  5. Israel has substantially performed its obligations as a belligerent occupier.
  6. The presence of Jewish civilians insde the West Bank does not constitute a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
  7. Israel has substantially pefromed its obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.
  8. Palestinians have legal and political autonomy.

Nicholson concludes by saying that “An objective reading of the situation must conceded that Israel has in fact complied with international law. That Israel is routinely thought to be in violation stems more from ignorance of the laws involved and prejudice against Israel than the facts on the ground.” (280)

So where should Christians who are hesitant about Christian Zionism go from here? Bock makes an important and wise suggestion:

Israel is still responsible to God for how she responds to covenant obligations. To endorse Israel and a national place for the nation is not to give her carte blanche for everything she does. Christian Zionism is not a blind endorsement for Israel. It does not give the nation a pass on issues of justice or moral righteousness. She is still called to live responsibly as a nation like other nations. Rather, Christian Zionism merely makes the affirmation that Israel has a right to a secure homeland, which she should govern and occupy morally and responsibly. (309)

Now you may not find yourself agreeing with Bock’s or any of the other author’s conclusions, nevertheless, you should still give this book a shot. Given our political climate, evangelical (in all senses of the word) Christians really need to think through these issues carefully. To do so would be not only politically disastrous, but potentially spiritually as well.

Walking Through Twilight

Openness, authenticity, and even lament are increasingly been seen as important among evangelical circles. With an increase in the valuing of these virtues and practices we have also seen an increase in the number of books addressing such topics. For example:

  • Todd Billings’: Rejoicing in Lament – Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ
  • Steve Hayner’s: Joy in the Journey – Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death

More recently we have Douglas Groothius’, “Walking Through Death: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament.” In this book, Groothius, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, walks us through what it has been like for him and his wife dealing with her rare form of dementia: Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA). He walks us through the pain of learning of her condition, watching some of her strengths become weaknesses, and most significantly, loosing vital aspects of his relationship with his wife.41guszfmbtl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

The highlights of this book come in Groothius moments of raw transparency. He expresses anger and even rage. He, understatedly says, “I did not think dearly of God.” And, rather strongly says, “I hated God and told him so repeatedly.” (41) He says he never flirted with atheism, but was bordering on “misotheism” – the hatred of God. Yet at the same time he knew that God was his only hope. Those struggling with hating God in terrible situations might find solace in hearing Groothius verbalize thoughts they think they probably shouldn’t have.

In the midst of these emotionally packed moments we are also given glimpses of Groothius’ philosophical mind at work. His reflections on atheism and misotheism are interesting. His discussion about the nature of lying in chapter 13 presents some interesting philosophical reflections. Chapter 15 which addresses humanity’s relationship to animals, specifically dogs, raises some interesting questions about humanity’s nature.

The appendix, though not strictly a part of the “lament” is worth the price of the book. In it he provides three ways to engage with people who are lamenting. I won’t spoil it here, but, I recommend you take a look at this section and really reflect upon how you deal with people who are hurting.

If you are looking for a model of how to deal with pain, anger, agony, and confusion in the face of suffering, this book might be a good place to turn to.

TheologyGrams: Theology Explained in Diagrams

Meme’s and infographics are today’s preferred choice of communication for a lot of people – Millennials I’m looking at you…(and myself).

For those of you who don’t know, infographics are “graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly” (Thanks Wikipedia)

So for example, here is a cool infographic about coffee:

3539a5028859416976f2408ab0f3770f-drink-coffee-coffee-coffee

Infographics have also been used to communicate theological concepts. Here’s one on the Fruit of the Spirit:

fruitofthespirit-1024x768

TheologyGrams

This year, Rich Wyld (such a cool name!), an Anglican priest educated at Durham, turned his blog into a short book titled: Theologygrams: Theology Explained in Diagrams.

The book is pretty simple and straightforward. It uses diagrams to offer a more visual way of thinking about theological topics. He moves from the OT to the NT and then deals with practical issues in the life of the church. He concludes with a chapter on theology.

The chapters include some really interesting topics. In the OT chapter we get “Jonah’s Mood-O-Meter” and its pretty funny. The NT chapter gives us a very helpful diagram on “Resurrection Appearances.” Also, a hilarious graph on Paul’s defense in 2 Corinthians 11. I’m definetly showing this one to my class at Eternity Bible College. His Theology chapter has a diagram on the Trinity – and guess what: Its not incorrect!

This is a really fun book to flip through. It would make a really cool stocking stuffer for theology nerds. It would also make a cool coffee table book for theology nerds. Also… if you are a nerd and into infographics and like theology you are going to like this. Also, if you are into nerdy puns or nerdy cultural references you are going to be into this book. Basically, if you are a theology nerd get this book. And if you aren’t a theology nerd, but know a theology nerd get them this book. *Enough Said*

In all seriousness, this book is really cool. You should get it.

Here are some older TheologyGrams from Rich’s Blog:scripturetradreason

psalm-23-a

calvin-arminius

 

Philosophy and the Christian (PFCW)

“To be ignorant and simple now – not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground – would be to throw down our weapons, and betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” – C.S. Lewis in “Learning in Wartime”

When I told my high school math teacher that I was changing my college major to philosophy he wrote a letter to me and signed off with Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than Christ.” This teacher was certainly not the first person to react this way when I would tell them that I was getting my B.A. in Philosophy, from a secular university nonetheless!

Nowadays, however, there is a greater appreciation for philosophy among Christians. For many, however, it still echoes C.S. Lewis’ position quoted above – philosophy is a tool for defending the faith. In a sense that is true, often Apologetics is profoundly philosophical. However philosophy is so much more than that!

In their recent book, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview 2nd Edition, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland put forth a convincing argument for why Philosophy, not just apologetics, is a good thing for Christians. They begin by appealing to philosophy_dictionarya lecture given by the former UN General Secretary, Charles Malik, at Wheaton. Malik said that evangelism was about “saving the soul and saving the mind.” By this Malik meant that there is an intellectual struggle going on in today’s universities and scholarly journals, which are inherently anti-Christian. Malik emphatically states, “For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence!” (Malik, The Two Tasks)

Part of recentering ourselves into a position of responsible intellectual existence, is the recovery of philosophy as a Christian task. Why? There are at least 3 reasons. First, philosophy is the foundation of The University. As the University goes, so goes culture. Second, pastors deal with peoples’ question about moral values, suffering, evil, religious skepticism, etc. Philosophy addresses all these issues. As Craig and Moreland say, “We do not know how one could minister effectively in a public way on our university campuses without training in philosophy.” (PFCW, 6) Third, not being “passive, sensate, busy and hurried, incapable of developing an interior life” is part of Christian discipleship. (PFCW, 6)  Philosophical thinking promotes the life of the mind, which in turn, affects our spirituality.

If those reasons don’t convince you that Christians should engage with philosophy, at least in some way, then perhaps the fact that theology necessarily interacts with philosophy will. What do I mean by that? I mean that all of our theological concepts have philosophical implications and that our philosophical assumptions have theological implications. Think for example about the concept of Justice. Theories of justice are common discussions among philosophers. These discussions trickle their way down into popular culture. The result is that you probably have adopted one of these theories of justice, and probably aren’t even aware of it. Your theory of justice, which you probably aren’t aware of, affects how you read biblical passages about justice and it affects how you think about God’s justice.  Or take another example, this time related to the philosophical concept of free will: “A psychologist reads the literature regarding identical twins who are reared in separate environments. He notes that they usually exhibit similar adult behavior. He then wonders if there is really any such thing as freedom of the will, and if not, he ponders what to make of moral responsibility and punishment.” (PFCW, 22) Whatever this psychologist decides on regarding his understanding of freedom will have profound theological impact. Is theological determinism compatible with moral responsibility? Can we be morally responsible if we are bound to sin according to the doctrine of Original Sin? After all, original sin, implies that it is inevitable we will sin. And what about God? Is God free to choose between genuine alternate possibilities? If not, is he really free? If so, does that mean that God must be able to choose between evil and good in order to be free? All of these are philosophical issues that make their way into theology. Or what about our doctrine of atonement? Most evangelicals believe in a doctrine of penal substitution. But is penal substitution just? Who dictates what is just and what is not? Is retributive punishment the best form of punishment? How can Christ take our punishment on our behalf? What makes it the case that we are united with Christ on the cross?  Again, all of these are philosophical questions with profound theological implications.

philosophy

All of this is just to say, philosophy is important. Philosophy is a worthwhile task for Christians. Christians should not ignore philosophy. If you agree with any of these statements, or are open to exploring whether or not you agree with these statements I recommend the following books:

  1. God and the Philosophers edited by Tom Morris
  2. Philosophers Who Believe edited by Kelly Clark
  3. An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology by Tom McCall
  4. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland

A Penal Substitutionary Doctrine of Atonement (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview Pt. 1)

I just picked up the 2nd edition of William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (PFCW) – I immediately flipped over to the chapters dealing with philosophical theology – and in some cases what I would call 5187Analytic Theology. The chapter I gravitated towards first was the chapter on Atonement. I’m currently in a seminar on contemporary theories of atonement and I know Craig has recently been busy working on the topic. So, I wanted to see what they had to say.

Unsurprisingly the chapter on the doctrine of atonement is primarily a defense of penal substitution (PSA). They define PSA as:

The Doctrine that God inflicted on Christ the suffering we deserved as the punishment for our sins, as a result of which we no longer deserve punishment. (613)

They helpfully nuance this position saying that this definition leaves open the question whether or not Christ was punished for our sins. They say that one option is that Christ was indeed punished on our behalf and another option is that the suffering Christ experienced, had it been experienced by us, would have been a punishment.

In other words, Christ was a not punished, but he endured the suffering that would have been our punishment had it been inflicted upon us.

With this definition in mind they treat two objections:

1)The Incoherence Objection

This objection states that given an expressivist theory of punishment, it is conceptually impossible for God to punish Christ for our sins.

There are several options one could take in light of this objection. First one could deny the expressivist account. Second, one could say that God does not condemn Christ himself, but that God condemns sin. Finally, one could say that God in fact censures Christ, propose that our guilt is imputed onto Christ. The contemporary analogy to this doctrine of imputation would be cases in civil law which involve vicarious liability. For example, a case in which an employer incurs liability for acts committed by her employee.

Craig and Moreland conclude that the advocate of PSA can agree Christ was not punished, deny an expressivist account, or argue for the compatibility between PSA and expressivist accounts.

2) The Injustice Objection

“It is always unjust to punish an innocent person. Christ was an innocent person. God is always just. Therefore, God could not have punished Christ.” Thus goes a standard critique of PSA.

Again, the defender of PSA has several options. First they could adopt a consequentialist account of justice. If so, the act of punishing one innocent person, is justified because it prevents the guaranteed damnation of the human race. Second, they might argue that issues of justice are determined by God himself. Third, they could argue that, given divine command theory, God does not issue commands to himself, so he ha not moral duties to fulfill. Finally one might want to argue that Christ in fact had our guilt imputed onto him, so it actually is just to punish Christ.

Review of the Chapter

I really appreciated the clarity that Craig and Moreland brought to the issues involving PSA. This includes their definition of PSA which allows for a version of PSA to obtain even if Christ is not strictly punished for our sins. However, one critique I have of this chapter is that for some reason (their conservative evangelical background) they decided to focus solely on PSA. Not only that, they state (not argue) that essential, and indeed central to any biblically adequate theory of atonement is PSA. They offer no argument for that claim. While I am inclined to believe in some doctrine of PSA, they offer no reasons for why we should think PSA is the essential or central model of atonement. There may be reasons for why this is true, but they don’t say why.

Finally, I am left wondering, what we should do with biblical passages which mention that we have died with Christ. If punishment for sin is death (2 Cor 5 & Gal. 2), then it seems like in our “dying” with Christ we have experienced some sort of punishment. Are these passages figurative? Or should we take them in some sort of realist fashion? I’m inclined to say that it is the latter. And if in fact, we have died with Christ, experiencing the punishment for sin, would we still be able to call such an account PSA? I’m not sure… That’s just some food for thought.

Was the Reformation a Mistake?

Today we celebrate (mourn, think about, reflect upon, take your pick) the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. With this momentous event upon us, 517yithbnpl-_sx326_bo1204203200_numerous people have turned their attention to the various historical and contemporary implications of the Reformation. You can see this in the number of books, articles, and blogs that have been devoted to treating either the background of the Reformation, Reformers, and Protestant-Catholic relations.

Among those books these stick out to me as being really interesting:

Biblical Authority after Babel – Vanhoozer 

The End of Protestantism – Peter Leithart

Reformation Theology – Matthew Barrett

The Five Solas Series – Various Authors 

But there is another book that recently caught my eye. A book that was written by a Roman Catholic theologian whom a lot of protestants really like: Matthew Levering (Professor at Mundelein Seminary). Levering, just published a book with one of the foremost evangelical publishers, Zondervan. It’s titled Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbliblical. If that doesn’t catch your eye then maybe the fact that it includes a Protestant response by Kevin Vanhoozer will!

Enough about the background of the book. What is this Roman Catholic theologian’s answer? Was the Reformation a mistake? According to Levering – Yes and No.

No, because the Reformation has reminded the Church of things that have been neglected by Roman Catholics, namely, love for Scripture, the authority of God’s word, salvation by God’s grace, gospel, preaching, Bible study, and personal faith and relationship with Christ. (16) Levering is grateful for these thigns. However, in another sense, he does in fact believe the Reformation was a mistake. How was it a mistake? Well he says, the Reformation was built on a mistaken assumption that Catholic views of Scripture, Mary, the Eucharist, Justification, etc. are unbliblical. In light of this he attempts to show that Catholic doctrine is in fact not unbliblical (note he doesn’t say biblical, rather he says not unbiblical).

In order to make his case, he argues that catholic doctrine is based upon biblically warranted modes of reasoning about biblically revealed realities. (21) Essentially this “biblically warranted mode of reasoning” is a way of thinking about the bible and its truths in a communal and liturgical way. Or to put it in a slightly different way,

The reasoning prescribed by the Bible for interpreting biblical texts is hierarchically and liturgically contextualized, in the sense that the Spirit communicates the word of Christ to the people of God who are gathered for worship by “the apostles and elders,” and by those like Timothy whom the apostles (whose testimony to the gospel of Christ remains uniquely authoritative) appointed as their successors. (24)

To put it more plainly, when we think about doctrine, we must come to the text of Scripture and read it through the lens of tradition. Tradition tells us what the text means and what the text is about. To read Scripture outside of this “biblically warranted mode of reasoning” is a wrongheaded way of reading the text.

Given his definition of biblically warranted modes of reasoning, he proceeds to treat the scriptural background of numerous Roman catholic doctrines, including Scripture, Mary, the seven sacraments, justification, purgatory, saints and the papacy. The result is essentially him saying “well, scripture doesn’t exactly teach purgagatory or the papacy, etc.; but through the mode of reasoning we apply to the text, the doctrines are not unbiblical.”

If protestants are not convinced by his conclusions, according to Levering himself, that is okay! He isn’t trying to convince them to accept Catholic doctrine. Rather he simply wants to show them that Catholics aren’t unbiblical in their thinking. I will leave it to you, the reader of this blog, to pick up the book and decide whether you are convinced by him.

However, I do want to throw in my two cents…

Not being unbiblical is not enough. We aim to say what scripture explicitly and implicitly teaches, nothing more and nothing less.

And,

Tradition is not a second source of revelation – it is a helpful external guide.

Both of these are at least in part two of principles we reflect upon on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Anyone who holds to these principles simply won’t be able to buy into Levering’s account, and thus won’t be able to say that Levering’s account of a “not unbiblical” account of Roman Catholic doctrine is adequate.

All in all, despite this criticism, I do have to commend Levering for writing this book. At the very least, it will dispel caricatures that some protestants have about Roman Catholics, namely that they simply make stuff up as they go or that they don’t care about the Bible. That, it seems to me, is a worthwhile result.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.