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Sanctified by Grace – Book Review

Last week, as a part of a blog tour, I began a series of blogs on Kent Eiler and Kyle Strobel’s 2014 book – Sanctified by Grace. Today I “officially” wrap things up with my review of the book! (Though I will still be writing about some of the essays in this book in 9780567383433the future) Let me just be upfront with my opinion – this book will serve as a great textbook for any upper-class undergraduate or seminary level systematic theology course.

The Purpose

According to Eiler and Strobel there needs to be a recovery in Christian dogmatics in which Christian rationality is grounded in the movement of the Spirit within the sphere of grace. (7) Also, dogmatics needs to take on the temptation to accept unformed natural reason as the only possible form of “reason” in the academy. (8) Given these two points, Strobel and Eiler have edited a collection of essays that provide a dogmatic account of the Christian life in which doctrine/life and confession/practice are held together. Here is what they have to say in their own words:

The approach is straightforwardly doctrinal – focusing the life of the Christian on the triune God who creates, elects, calls, and redeems. This is the God of grace who gives himself in Jesus Christ and who catches people up in the movement of his Spirit of love.

Overview

The book is broken up into four parts: 1)The Gracious One, 2)The Graces of the Christian Life, 3)The Means of Grace, and 4)The Practices of Grace. Part one is grounded in the idea that an account of the Christian life requires a careful elaboration upon the one who establishes, sustains, and perfects the Christian life. This section includes essays on the Trinity, election, creation/providence, salvation, and sanctification.

Part two treats the way God’s grace works out in the lives of his creatures. It covers the relationship between reconciliation and justification, victory and redemption, as well as mortification and vivification.

Part three takes a look at the channels or instruments by which God’s grace in Christ is offered and set forth. In other words it addresses the means of grace including, Scripture and Sacraments.

The final part covers the “practices of grace.” It takes a “practical turn” (though its all been practical throughout) by addressing the practices of prayer, preaching, forgiveness, and doing theology.

Thoughts…

This book really isn’t typical. Most books on dogmatics aren’t really geared towards helping make sense of our lives as Christians. This book really is dogmatic theology in a different key, its dogmatic theology written with people’s growth in mind. For this reason I think that this book is perfectly suited for upper-class undergraduates. The reason I don’t think it would be a suitable resource for freshmen or sophomores is that many of these essays are written at a high level and would probably be too complex for underclassmen. I think this book would also be very much suited for seminary students. In seminary people often find themselves asking – so what does this have to do with what I’m going to be preaching about in 2-3 years? This book could show seminary students that complex dogmatic discussions really are important for the everyday life of Christians.

All in all this is a great resource for classroom use. In the future I will find myself assigning particular essays or maybe even the whole book for my own classes.

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Sanctified by Grace – Preaching

A few days ago I began a blog tour on Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel’s 2014 book Sanctified by Grace. Over the next few days I will be posting some highlights from various chapters, concluding with a review of the book as a whole. Today I turn my attention to the chapter on preaching.9780567383433

As a college minister I preach quite regularly. At times it can be a challenge (because preaching is always challenging)! But its extra challenging because I straddle the two seemingly opposing worlds of academic theology and pastoral/spiritual theology. Now most people would say, that these sorts of theology should never be in conflict – and I agree! I agree in principle, but in reality it doesn’t often work out as neatly as we would want it to work. Thankfully Eilers and Strobel have put together a book that helps straddle that gap. Here is what they say about this project:

Coordinating the doctrine of the Christian life to God’s economy of salvation and the practices which are fitting to redeemed existence is not one option among many. Rather, we suggest, this coordination between doctrine and life, belief and practices is integral to life within the movement of God’s Spirit. Within the dynamism of the Spirit’s formation, doctrine and life are pulled together in the broader picture of grace. (7)

Doctrine and life! Belief and practice! Pulled together! This is exactly what the church needs – and this is exactly what should be happening in our weekly preaching….

Preaching – William Willimon

Theology, the editors tell us, is never an end in itself; knowledge of God always breaks fort in love to others. A central outlet for this love is in preaching. (17) In the chapter on preaching Willimon emphasizes several things. First is that preaching revolves around

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Will Willimon

hearing a God who speaks. The task of listening is often overlooked when talking about preaching, but it shouldn’t be! Not only does the congregation listen, but the preacher listens as well! The preacher must listen faithfully to the biblical text just as the congregation must listen faithfully to the word being proclaimed. Listening is not just a skill to be developed though. Listening is a spiritual exercise that hinges on the conditions of our hearts.

But perhaps even more central than listening is to preaching lays the notion that God speaks, and that somehow we speak because God has spoken, and that somehow in our own preaching God speaks! We have a loquacious God – who in our day primarily reveals himself in preaching.

One thing that I really appreciated about this chapter is the importance Willimon places upon the task of preaching. Nowadays many people tend to see preaching as superfluous or as belonging to a bygone era. But according to Willimon this should not be so. A primary way that the Christian life is formed and sustained is by preaching. Willimon rightly points out that in our culture, where preaching is charged with being authoritarian, archaic, or a one-way act of communication, Christians must learn how to be properly attentive to preaching. (227) Thankfully Willimon lists out some helpful practices which will aid in our faithful listening to sermons. Here are a few:

  • A willingness not to receive an immediate, practical, pay off from the sermon.
  • The expectation that a sermon could disrupt one’s received world by verbally rendering the coming Kingdom of God.
  • A patient willingness not to have every single sermon speak to you.
  • An understanding that preaching is a communal activity. A sermon is public speech.
  • A desire for a preacher, a pastor, who cares more for the right division of the Word of God than for the love or ire of the congregation.
  • A relinquishment of our prerogative to talk about what we are obsessed with discussing (sex, family, security, health and a docile willingness to engage in a conversation with a living God, talking about what God wants to talk about.
  • A vulnerability to the mysterious comings and goings of the Holy Spirit.

Life with a loquacious God demands disciplines of listening. These words from William Willimon are sure to help make us better listeners of this loquacious God.

Sanctified by Grace – The Triune God

Sanctified by Grace (Eilers and Strobel) is an attempt to do theology in a way that involves more than the comprehension of Christian truth, rather it is an attempt to do theology in a way that helps bring about Christian faithfulness.

In their preface to the book Eilers and Strobel write that the normal Christian life is 9780567383433intimately and inescapably theological and that the work of Christian Dogmatics can and should participate in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit who forms Christians in the likeness of Christ.

Having said that they notice that there is often a divide between doctrine and theology on the one side and spirituality and ministry on the other. In this book they hope to help tear down that false dichotomy. In my own opinion the doctrine that they start with fits this theme very well. If there is a doctrine that many Christians see as useless, though true, is the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus inviting Fred Sanders to write a chapter on this topic which gives itself over so easily to this false divide is a great move.

In this chapter Sanders sets our spiritual growth in the middle of a Trinitarian truth, specifically Trinitarian adoption. He argues that believers are adopted into the life between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The eternal begetting of the son stands behind the temporal mission of the Son to save humanity. The Spiration of the Spirit stands behind the Spirit’s work in uniting us to the Father and Son. Thus, the Christian life itself can only be understood in light of the Trinity.

For me the highlight of this chapter included his discussion of how eternal processions give rise to temporal missions. The relationship between these two is often tricky and convoluted. Most theologians intuitively know there is a link, but that link is hard to pin down. Sanders does a good job of explaining the connection without being dogmatic about the “link” between the two.

Another highlight was his discussion of adoption. Sanders does a fine job navigating between the view that our sonship is merely metaphorical and the opposite view that we become totally immersed in the life of God (erasing the creator/creature distinction). Rather by advocating a soteriology of Trinitarian adoption, he is able to maintain our intimacy but distinction from God.

Overall Sanders does a great job of showing how the doctrine of the Christian life is shaped by Trinitarian though, specifically the eternal processions of the Triune God. He succeeds in showing that the Christian life is filial by essence.

 

Sanctified by Grace Week

This week I begin my focus on Kent Eiler and Kyle Strobel’s 2014 book – Sanctified by Grace.

In Sanctified by Grace the editors present a portrait of redeemed Christian existence within the multifaceted and beautiful whole of Christian belief about God, humanity and the world. The book articulates theologically how the Christian life is anchored in God’s grace, specifically his reconciling, justifying, redemptive, restorative and otherwise transformative action. Simply put, to understand the Christian life as a life of grace, you have to first glimpse the gracious One, the God of the gospel.

Over the next week on this blog you will be able to find my interaction with some of my favorite chapters (favorite not necessarily because I “like” them but because I find them to be intellectually and spiritually stimulation) as well as a review of the book.

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As a preview of some of the topics I will be covering, here is the table of contents:

Introduction—The Christian Life in Dogmatic Key • Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel

Part One—The Gracious One

  1. The Triune God  •  Fred Sanders
  2. The Electing God  •  Suzanne McDonald
  3. The Creating & Providential God  • Katherine Sonderegger
  4. The Saving God  •  Ian McFarland
  5. The Perfecting God  •  Christopher Holmes

Part Two—The Graces of the Christian Life

  1. Reconciliation & Justification  •  John Burgess
  2. Redemption & Victory  •  Christiaan Mostert
  3. Communion with Christ  •  John Webster

Part Three—The Means of Grace

  1. Scripture  •  Donald Wood
  2. Church & Sacraments  •  Tom Greggs

Part Four—The Practices of Grace

  1. Discipleship  •  Philip Ziegler
  2. Prayer  •  Ashley Cocksworth
  3. Theology  •  Ellen Charry
  4. Preaching  •  William Willimon
  5. Forgiveness & Reconciliation  •  D. Stephen Long

Kyle Strobel on Jonathan Edwards’ Doctrine of Theosis

A few weeks ago Kyle Strobel (Talbot Seminary) came in to Oliver Crisp’s Jonathan Edwards Seminar to present a paper on Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of theosis. For those of you who are interested in this topic – here are my rough notes:

Kyle Strobel – assistant professor of spiritual theology and formation at Talbot School of Theology

Is there such a thing as a Reformed Doctrine of theosis?
• Isn’t necessarily an “eastern doctrine.”

Theosis – several options
• Either communication of attributes
• Or participation in divine nature
• Edwards – does both

Theosis, Deification, Divinization are synonymous terms.
Though there is accepted terminology there is no accepted definition across the traditions.

Assumed: The Divine essence is incommunicable. But the divine nature is communicable.
For a doctrine of theosis to be the doctrine of theosis it must order the rest of soteriology.

The protestant tradition appropriated theosis with Protestant particularities:
• Communication of divine attributes
• Participation in relation to the divine persons (through adoption)

Edwards is able to draw together both traditional expositions of theosis.

What Edwards does is provide a thorough going Reformed doctrine of theosis.

1-Doctrine of Trinity → gives us the mechanics for theosis.

• The doctrine of God simply is affection in pure act.
• The Son and the Spirit both have natures intrinsic to their identity. But they are persons only as they exist in perichoretic relation to one another.
• See the psychological analogy
• Edwards distinction b/w divine essence & divine nature protects from radical divinization
o The nature is communicable but the essence is not
o i.e. Holy Spirit is God’s very holiness – which we can receive
• The natures of the persons are communicable. God gives himself to the believers so they can participate in his own life: his self-knowledge and self-love.
• In Edwards account its impossible to pull apart the persons and natures of God. (The son just is his love and the Spirit just is his love.)
• If God is going to give himself to you he just has to give you his Son & Spirit.

Concluding Thoughts

• Theosis – grounded in Trinitarian participation, modeled in incarnation, effected by Spirit.
• What kind of doctrine of theosis is this? One that covers both options.
• God’s own personal attributes of knowledge and love are now known as through a mirror darkly, but in new creation they will be made clear.
• Glory and happiness are words that describe God’s communicable life. This just is what we participate in.
• He offers a qualification though – never lose their personal identity.

7 Theologians Share Their “Must Read” Books of 2014

At the end of the year tons and tons of “Best Of…” lists make their way out onto the internet. Its almost as though it’s a Noah’s Ark of lists – the lists have been sitting restlessly on a “boat” waiting for the day when the flood waters clear and they can make their way out onto dry land. Okay, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, but that is how I feel – at least about my own list.

 

 

So in the Holiday Spirit of “Best Of…” lists I asked several of my favorite Twitter Theologians a very simple question: “What is the theology book published in 2014 that I must read before the year is over?” I got some great recommendations – here are a few that I found interesting…

Note: These are not books that these theologians necessarily endorse, they are simply must read books of 2014. This might mean that they are really good books that they love or books that they completely disagree about but consider to be “game changers” in some sense. Either way – these are simply important books of 2014.

Michael Bird (@mbird12)

“Simon Chan, Grassroot Asian Theology. Or Moorhead on Princeton Seminary.”

Lincoln Harvey (@lincolnharvey)

“I have high hopes for Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders’ Advancing Trinitarian Theology, which I’ve ordered (but not read.) McFarland’s From Nothing is a good survey of doctrine creation. Sexton (ed) Two Views on Trinity shows Trinitarian debate today.”

Steve Holmes (@SteveRHolmes)

“[Franticly tries to remember what came out this year…] Depends on field a bit. In Ch history, @ThomasSKidd on Whitefield is important; in ethics @robertjsong on sexuality will define a few debates. In systematics – For Baptists, Freeman’s Contesting Catholicity; for others probably Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self.”

Matt Jenson (@MattJenson)

“It was published in 2013, but I *read* it in 2014: Sarah Coakley’s “God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’””

Andy Rowell (@AndyRowell)

“I read @ajay on BCP [Book of Common Prayer], Marsh on Bonhoeefer, @DrStephenLong on Barth/Balthasaar, and McGrath on Brunner. I plan on reading new books by mentors Richard Hays, Douglass Campbell, and Curtis Freeman, and also newest by Andy Root.”

Kyle Strobel (@KyleStrobel)

“I think Sanctified Grace is worth it and would be challenging in the right kind of ways.”

Scott R. Swain (@ScottRSwain)

“Hard q.

Leiden Synopsis is the most significant pub of 2014 IMO [In my opinion]. Fred Sanders’s Advancing Trinitarian Theo [is] great too. Many others as well.”

So there you have it! I can vouch for some of their recommendations as well – Crisp and Sander’s Advancing Trinitarian theology is great (I haven’t read the book, but I watched all the plenary lectures for LATC 2014 – the source of these essays). Also, Coakley’s book was a real game-changer for me.

Book Review: Formed for the Glory of God – Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards by Kyle Strobel

When I heard that Kyle Strobel was writing a book on the spiritual disciplines of Jonathan Edwards I immediately went on Amazon and pre-ordered it. As you well know, I am an avid Jonathan Edwards fan, and have devoted much of my seminary writing to Edwards (and other Reformed theologians like Barth and T.F. Torrance). I haven’t been studying Edwards for a very long time, I was only in seminary for 3 years, nevertheless one of my first papers in seminary was actually on the spiritual disciplines of Edwards. I wrote a paper outlining his Spiritual Formation in a Puritan context, what “practices” he practiced (is there a better word?), and what we can learn from his rhythm of spiritual formation. It was in writing this paper that I fell in love with Edwards, mainly because it forced me to engage with George Marsden’s behemoth biography of Edwards. And now I’m in the process of preparing to do a ThM with a research focus on Edwards alongside of Oliver Crisp (we are waiting for him to come back from his sabbatical in Fall of 2014). So, all to say, that the spiritual disciplines of Jonathan Edwards hold a special place in my heart.

Having laid out the fact that I am biased, and have a keen interest in the subject of this book let me share some thoughts on it.

Overview

Kyle Strobel’s book, Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards, is broken up into two parts. The first is titled “A Journey into Beauty.” In this section of the book Strobel lays out the foundation of the Christian faith according to Edwards. He uses the metaphor of a journey or a path to illustrate Edwards God-centered theology. This journey is centered on the Beatific vision (something that contemporary evangelicals have either forgotten was a central part of our catholic faith or have simply chosen to ignore). Kyle says that the culmination of the journey  “is standing before the God of love and beholding him as my Father, seeing him clearly and growing in knowledge of him for eternity.”[1] In the next chapter he cashes out what the beatific vision is really about, knowing God as glorious and knowing God as beautiful. And we only know God in these ways because we are “in” Christ. Knowing God in these ways, through Christ, is ultimately relational. It is no mere academic exercise. This is extremely important for understanding Edwards’ theology because Edwards’ practical theology is centered on “affections” (and by this I don’t mean the warm fuzzys). Edwards’ thoughts on affections are best captured in the truism “people are not simply thinking beings, but loving beings.” Our hearts will always gravitate towards something. When our hearts do that our will attempts to grasp it because we are vigorously captivated by it.[2] In turn our entire way of living is changed because our will is now centered upon that one object or person.

Part two is titled “Tools for the Journey.” In this section of the book Strobel assesses the “tools God has given us on this journey, asking what they are for and why we should practice them.”[3] He begins by explaining the fact that spiritual disciplines are means of grace. The means of grace are practices or actions given to the church which are not efficacious on their own right, rather they are actions through which we receive the Grace God has already given to us. In other words they are “spiritual postures to receive God’s grace.” This notion of putting ourselves in a posture of dependence is key for understanding Strobel’s discussion of Edwards’ disciplines. Again and again Strobel emphasizes that we don’t create grace or earn it through this disciplines; the Grace is already there, we simply put ourselves in a posture to receive the gift that God has already given to us, namely the gift of himself. Having laid this foundation Strobel explains some of Edwards’ practices. For instance he devotes an entire chapter to examining our own lives and an entire chapter to Mediation/Contemplation (which are slightly different). He concludes with a chapter on Sabbath, Fasting, Conferencing, Soliloquy, Silence and Solitude, and Prayer.

Thoughts on the Book

I want to highlight a couple of things that I believe Strobel did really well, and then make some constructive criticisms of the book.

Here are some of the things that Strobel did well:

  • The Discussion of the Christian Life: Strobel says that “we refuse to talk about spiritual practices until we have a firm grasp of the picture of the Christian life.”[4] Most people writing on spiritual disciplines these days don’t take the time to place the disciplines within the larger context of the Christian life. It almost seems as though these disciplines become the end of the journey, instead of the tools for the journey. Placing them with the context of our spiritual journey keeps us from falling into that trap. On top of this, Strobel did a great job explaining the Christian life from an angle that most people will not be familiar with. In my own experience working in ministry, I have never heard congregant explain their walk with Christ in the way Strobel explained it. Most people describe their journey as growth in becoming better people or something else like that. Strobel explains the journey as a journey towards the beatific vision, which can only occur in Christ. He says that the Christian life is a journey to see clearly.  “It is a journey inaugurated with a sight of faith and a journey whose destination is perfection of that sight.”[5]
  • The Discussion of the Means of Grace: “Means of Grace” is a very reformed phrase, that most people aren’t accustomed to. Nevertheless, Strobel does a great job explaining what Means of Grace are. In my opinion this is the strongest part of the book. Where most people will see spiritual disciplines as self-help tools, or tools that will help them get closer to God so that God will love them more, the notion that disciplines are a means of grace combats these temptations. The disciplines that Edwards practiced, and Strobel recommends are the places that we come to receive the wonderful gift of grace that God has already given to us through his son Jesus. Spiritual disciplines are not a way of wrenching God’s arm into giving us more of himself. God has already fully given himself to us in Christ!
  • The Appendix: For people who will want to practice what Kyle preaches, this is an invaluable tool. Its clear and well organized. Anybody can turn to this section of the book and begin to lead themselves and others into the disciplines that Edwards practiced.

Its hard for me to really criticize this book because I loved it so much, and found it to be spot on with Edwards’ theology, nevertheless here are some constructive criticisms:

  • A Lack of Interaction With Edwards’ Historical Context: I would have liked to see Strobel interact with Edwards greater Reformed and Puritan context a bit more, especially in regard to how spiritual disciplines were regarded by continental reformed pastors and theologians and also by Puritans in the new world. What role did spiritual disciplines play in the lives of puritan pastors? Were spiritual disciplines a big part of reformed piety? Or is Edwards unique in this regard? The fact that Strobel didn’t include this sort of discussion in the book doesn’t hurt my opinion of the book, but I believe the book could have been strengthened by it. Perhaps he could have included it in the chapter about the means of grace.
  • A Lack of a “Spiritual Biography”: I also would have liked to see Strobel pull all of these practices into a short (perhaps chapter long) biography section. Strobel does a good job of picking apart these disciplines and giving Edwards’ theological postitions behind them, but it would have been a stronger book if Strobel would have written about how these practices shaped Edwards’ life and ministry.  I can imagine a chapter where Strobel starts off by talking about Edwards’ periods of prayer and solitude (as well as group prayers) when he was a kid in the woods. Then he could have written about the key role these disciplines played while he was a Presbyterian pastor in New York. And so on… I think you get the point. I would have liked to see how these disciplines fit into the big picture of Edward’s life.

Conclusion

As you can tell I (mostly) have only good words for this book. Edwards and spiritual disciplines are two subjects that I absolutely love to study, and this book brilliantly combines both. If you are looking for an easy introduction into the practical theology of Edwards I highly recommend this book. If you are looking for a reformed take on spiritual disciplines, I recommend this book. If you are interested in spiritual disciplines and want some practical guidance on practicing them, I recommend this book. Basically, whoever you are and whatever you are interested in I recommend this book.

Formed for the Glory of God


[1] Strobel, 34.

[2] Strobel, 59.

[3] Strobel, 16.

[4] Strobel, 16.

[5] Strobel, 34.