A More Elemental Atonement (A Review of Leithart)

Delivered from the elements coverThis review was originally written for Books and Culture before its unfortunate closing. Thanks to John Wilson for encouraging me to write it. 

One mark of a constructive theologian is to ask the perennial questions of Christian theology in a contemporary key. In Peter Leithart’s new work Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, and Mission, he reframes St. Anselm’s famous question, “Why did God become man?” as,

“How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and cross-roads for everything?”

To answer that question, Leithart believes we must reconstrue atonement theology as “as social theory”, making social and political questions and consequences central to our understanding of Christ’s work. In that sense, it must be a “theory of everything”, if it is to be a successful rendering of the events that changed everything.

Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.”

Cur Deus Homo?

The work defies simple description and summary. In brief, though, Leithart offers a “Pauline” reading of Scripture that takes its cues from the notion of the “elements of the world” or stoicheia tou kosmou in Galatians 4:1-7. Across cultures in time and space, the world has ordered itself according to the “elements”, the basic “socio-religious principles” and categories such as clean/unclean, sacred/profane, life/death, and so forth. These principles give rise to orders of ritual, sacrifice, and social stratification which, though they can be arranged in a bewildering variety of ways, are the same basic “physics” composing the old creation.

These elemental principles order life in the “flesh.” For Leithart, “flesh” is a master metaphor comprising everything from basic, human frailty all the way to the post-Fall, libido dominandi of phallic warfare, which mortal flesh uses to cover over the fear of death. Fleshly life under the elements is Adamic humanity’s lot: cast out of God’s Garden-house, flesh is divided from Spirit, living under the restrictive regimes of “taste not, touch not” aimed at (yet failing in) overcoming death and restoring communion with God.

On this scheme, Torah is God’s own redemptive set of rearranged “elements” (sacrifice, ritual, holiness codes) which God uses in his history-long war of justice to destroy flesh without destroying humanity. With Torah, God separates a new Adamic people, Israel, out of the rest of the divided world, and with a new set of pedagogical elements, taught them to enter into his presence through sacrifice and purity, though under the condition of flesh.

Of course, the Torah cannot work life, or overcome flesh. Indeed, under the condition of flesh, Torah became an instrument of injustice within and by Israel and worked the curse of death against Israel.

For that reason, the Son came in the flesh to be a new Israel—one who enacted all that Torah aimed at, living out the life of the Spirit. This life and ministry inevitably brought him into conflict with the fleshly authorities, both Jewish and Roman, leading to his crucifixion—a sacrificial (and penal) death on behalf of (substitutionary) Israel and the World in which the flesh was condemned. It also led to his subsequent vindication and justification by resurrection (a “deliverdict”), in which the flesh is raised to life in presence of God by the Spirit. (A similar construction is given by Fleming Rutledge in her notion of “rectification”, which makes sense, since they both draw on themes from the Union school of apocalyptic interpretation).

Baptism, faith, and union with Christ’s justifying life, death, and resurrection leads to the justification and deliverance of the individual (his “deliverdict”), as well as the formation of a new, “post-stoicheic” community animated by Jesus and the Spirit.  As one new man, a just community is made from Jew and Gentile, both now free from Torah and the “elements” of the world. As the of this new community around a new, ritual, and moral order eventually begins dismantling of the old socio-religious hierarchies that surround it, we can begin to grasp how Jesus’ atonement leads to the transformation of social life and human history as a whole.

Promise and Perils of Systematics

One can begin to see, then, that Leithart’s answer to the question is innovative, elegant, multi-faceted, and holistic. I have never read something quite like this.

For instance, in setting the stage for his nuanced, biblical account of Levitical sacrifice and Torah (a brilliant distillation of the complex, often-impenetrable specialist literature on the subject), Leithart offers a literary interlude, consisting of a first-person dialogue between the Apostle Paul and the priests of Egypt, Babylon, and Ancient Greece. It’s something of a crash course in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman comparative studies that manages to set Israel’s religious life firmly in the religious world, without falling into either parallelomania, nor forcing it into some Procrustean bed of a pre-existing theory of sacrifice or religion as so many recent accounts (such as those following Rene Girard) have done. What’s more, it has a literary flair, proving again that theology need not be aesthetically anodyne.

At this point, though, I’m reminded of a story Graham Cole tells about the plight of the systematic theologian. When reading the systematician’s work, a NT scholar will come along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did with the Old Testament, but a few of those bits on the New Testament weren’t so hot.” And the OT scholar comes along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did in the New Testament, but some of those bits from the Old Testament weren’t so hot.” And the historiand comes along and says, “Loved what he did with the Bible, but his historical work could use a tune-up.” The comprehensive holism which systematics demands often leaves exegetical or historical specialists a bit cold (or hot and bothered, depending on temperaments).

Speaking broadly, I’d say that in his attempt to make up for gaps often left unplugged in other accounts, Leithart leaves open a few of his own. For now, I leave it to others to deal with his rough handling of Reformation history, or the idiosyncrasies of his hybridized New Perspective, Apocalyptic, & typological reading of Paul and justification, or even the fuzzy metaphysical status of “nature” in his schema. Brad Littlejohn has explored some of those in his lengthy review, and in the future I may take up his critique of Reformation theology along the lines of the natural/supernatural distinction. For now, I’ll just comment on the pay-out and loss of having opted for his particular reading of Christ’s victory over the elements.

Stoicheia Without Satan 

Reading the stoicheia tou kosmou as the “elements of the world” and the “socio-religious principles” of clean and unclean, etc. has significant payouts in Leithart’s system. As we’ve seen, it allows him to connect Israel’s history to world religious history in its original setting, as well as ecclesiology and the social dimension of atonement. It also allows him to forward a current reading of the scene in which Christian mission happens; the way societies, ideologies, and even other religions like modern Hinduism and Buddhism which have been transformed in their encounter with the continuing impact of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

They also allow him to venture into the contested waters of secularization theory, contending that “we have never been secular.” Rather, modernity is a post-Christian, rationalized reordering of the categories of clean and unclean, sacred and profane, with its own priesthood, and social categories of “other.” It is not the same stoicheic order as the old, but it is a stoicheic order, nonetheless. (Incidentally, this is one of the most interesting parts of the work).

With all these benefits accrued, however, there is one conspicuous absence in Leithart’s story of atonement and his “theory of everything”: there is no Serpent in Leithart’s Garden. (Quite literally, there is no mention of him in the account of Adam and Eve’s Fall.)

In one way this is unsurprising. The other, recent popular interpretation for the phrase stoicheia tou kosmou is to see it as a reference to malevolent, spiritual forces. Opting for the reading “socio-religious principles”, Leithart seems to shelve the alternative almost entirely. With the exception of a few approving references to N.T. Wright’s suggestion that demonic powers or “tutelary deities” stand behind the “powers and principalities”, or a paragraph about Jesus’ exorcisms, the Tempter, the Accuser of the saints, the Dragon, the great opponent of YHWH and his people has gone missing from Leithart’s landscape. Interestingly, the Christus Victor theme is still there, but sublimated—YHWH is still at war, but not so much with demonic powers, but with flesh.

While seemingly unintentional, and while one cannot deal with everything in a single book, this transposition threatens to throw off not only our account of atonement, but our account of churchly mission as well. With respect to the atonement, John tells us that Christ came to utterly destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Paul says one of the great blessings of Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, is disarming the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:13-15). In so doing, Christ liberates us from the fleshy fear of death (Hebrews 2:14), at least in part, by freeing us from Satan’s accusation (Revelation 12:10-12).

Turning to mission, the sidelining of the demonic distorts our understanding of spiritual power at work, lurking behind the “socio-religious principles”, rendering their opposition so potent.  Ignoring this leaves us liable to forget that our struggle is against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), not only a recalcitrant sociology.

I don’t think the narrative he presents can’t be modified to include this line of Biblical theology, but as it stands, the modification is necessary all the same.

At the end of the day, though, even the gaps in Leithart’s exceptional work press us to continually expand the scope of our reflections upon Christ’s atonement to social, political, and cosmic proportions.

Soli Deo Gloria

The End of Protestant Denominationalism and the Beginning of Regionalism?

end-of-prot-2According to Peter Leithart, the history of God’s people is a process of being creatively torn apart and put back together again in new, complex, more holistic ways. With each stage in the LORD’s dealing with his people, beginning from Adam after the fall, Noah after the Flood, Moses after the Exodus, down on into the present, there are separations and reunions. These result in new forms of arrangement, liturgy, and worship according to God’s good pleasure. Single sacrifices become altars, altars become Tabernacle, Tabernacle becomes Temple, Temple becomes Christ, Christ becomes Church, and so forth. Biblical history moves from “glory to glory” in that regard.

In Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, he argues the time has come for American Protestants to recognize that we must move forward once again.  While we should gratefully acknowledge the role denominations have played in God’s good history, they could only ever have been a temporary configuration. Jesus prayed to his Father for unity, but denominations institutionalize division, even if it’s a friendly one, that fails to display the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. And so we know another form of the church—a more unified one—is still to come.

Against the backdrop of church history, biblical theology, and discussions of the global and contemporary church, Leithart wants to offer up an interim program for Protestants (since he knows Catholics and Orthodox probably aren’t listening). He calls them to abandon their tribalism and to pursue a program of reform and ecumenism at the national, international, and local levels to help lead towards the church of the future. His vision is of a “Reformational Catholicism” that calls us to live out now what we will one day surely be.

In some ways, this amounts to calling for an “end of Protestantism.” It is its end insofar as it calls Protestants to die to the identity of being “not Catholics” or “not Orthodox.” It’s also its end in that it may result in new reforms, reunifications, and configurations that aren’t exactly “Protestant” in the way we typically recognize the concept. Finally, it’s the “end” of Protestantism in that it would fulfill what Leithart takes to be the initial thrust of the Reformers—the reformation of the worship of the Church of God according to the Word of God.

Appreciating the End

As Stanley Hauerwas notes in his blurb, “Leithart simply cannot write a dull book.” I was going to work my way through slowly, but I consumed it quickly this week, as the argument was engaging, the language fecund, and the theology provocative.

Typically, theologians find a natural partner in philosophical analysis, but Leithart mixes things up. One of Leithart’s unique gifts is the way he creatively sets biblical-theology conversation with sociological and anthropological sources. Indeed, those prove to be some of his most interesting sections in the work.

Two sections in his critique of denominationalism stand out as particularly helpful. First, I found his retrieval of H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the “social sources of denominationalism” (along the lines of race, class, culture) to be quite illuminating. Especially since he picks up and summarizes some of the most important work along those lines since then.

Also trenchant is his critique of the way the system of American denominationalism has capitulated and simply gone along with the American system. It’s tendency to allow denominations to play nice while not actually grappling with doctrinal differences fosters a civic religion that (counter-intuitively), plays down doctrine, practice, and therefore witness in the world. There is much to heed in this analysis.

Leithart’s section canvassing developments in the global church is another section worth pondering. This involves a survey of the varying forms of Pentecostalism growing worldwide, not all of which fit neatly under the moniker of “Protestant.” More interesting still are some of the unique new Christian sects (and cults) coming out of the African and Asian contexts, which creatively hybrid liturgical elements, theologies of healing, new festivals, and authority structures. New churches are being born whose members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions that don’t easily map into our typical boxes of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

In a sense, Leithart is calling us to realize that ripping and tearing, the unpredictable reunifications of the future are already happening around us. In which case, not only do we need to start taking the global church seriously as a theological conversation partner, we ought to be prepared to think about Christianity beyond the paradigm of American denominationalism. Whether you buy Leithart’s prescription or not, he’s surely correct in drawing our attention to the ecclesial significance of what’s happening outside our too-narrow, American imaginations.

Beyond that, his sociologist’s (and pastor’s) eye for the local situation, leads to any number of important insights that pastors and theologians looking to preach and pastor their people well in the 21st Century would do well to heed.

A Fuzzy, Regional End?

With all that said, I have to admit, I left the book feeling a bit…fuzzy. Leithart’s very upfront about the fact that he’s prognosticating future not easily pictured. Unsurprisingly, his imagined vision of a “Reformed Church” can feel like a jumble of open paradoxes. It’s sort of like asking to help plan for the 50th anniversary of a confirmed bachelor.

Of course, Leithart is too smart to be a foolish utopian. He openly owns that many, if not most, of his suggestions for implementing his “interim” ethic may just make things a bit messier in the meantime. There’s no guarantee. Which renders Leithart’s proposal pre-emptively impervious to critique. He’s probably conceded that any number of my worries are indeed possible, but insists that we should try anyways.

All the same, I think it’s worth imagining our way through some of his suggestions to see some potential problems down the road.

Among his many proposals, Leithart advocates an ecumenical Reformational Catholicism for pastors that involves a number of moves on the local level. Let’s imagine it for a minute.

Caught up in Leithart’s vision, the pastors from a number of local churches in Milwaukee from different traditions (Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran) start to meet, pray, and read the Scriptures together. Because Leithart rightly insists that doctrine matters, they have face to face debate and dialogue about real theological difference ready to receive wisdom as they try to share joint projects, and so forth. These go well enough they even reach the point where they work towards a common confession of faith, recognizing each other’s baptisms, sharing communion. They even take up the suggestion to form a local council of “Nicene Churches” for shared ministry, discipline, local political witness, and so forth. Overcoming their antithetical institutional identities, they’ve formed a functioning “micro-Christendom” within the city.

Here’s where my questions start.

Now that you’ve got this metropolitan gathering of pastors established, presumably there’s a strong chance some pastors in the same neighborhood did not sign on. Maybe they don’t share the Reformational Catholic vision. Or, maybe they do to a degree. But because Leithart (rightly) insists these conversations around doctrine are happening in light of tradition, history, and Scripture, despite all the prayer, meetings, and readings, one chap happens to stay confessionally Presbyterian.

And this not because he can’t imagine life as a “not-Catholic.” Perhaps he has read all the literature, but he still doesn’t think that New Perspective has brought us all that much closer to the Roman church on justification. Or on papal authority. Or the Mass. Or the saints. In other words, it’s not because he’s been squinting when reading all of the awkward verses in James, but because he thinks his tradition read James properly.

And yet half the neighborhood’s pastors are joining the lovely, new Reformational-Anglo-Catholic-Pentecostal Presbytery of Milwaukee. Including a couple of his fellows in the local Presbyterian Presbytery (who are now very excited about being Reformational Catholics and not every much about being Presbyterians). What of their unity? Or I wonder what the other Presbyteries will think of these councils at the General Assembly? Why is the local, Reformational Catholic unity more important than local or national denominational unity? (Rinse and repeat for the Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and so forth.)

I also wonder what happens with those practicing the sort of Reformational Catholicity Leithart is advocating in a different city, with a different makeup of pastors? The group in Milwaukee trends more Anglo-Catholic due to presence of several Anglican rectors in attendence, but the one in Topeka starts to look very Pentecostal and Baptistic. And who knows what’s been going on in the Portland region? So now we have new “Reformational Catholic” churches coming to a regional unity that varies from region to region. How do they start to get along?

In other words, I suspect Leithart’s suggestion for local reunion can’t help but initiate and institutionalize series of different divisions across the board. As these new “Reformational Catholic” congregations unite together, they end up becoming divided from their sister churches within the denomination within the same city that don’t share the vision, as well as from their national bodies. On top of that, they’ve set themselves on course to fall into a nascent regionalism of “micro-Christendoms” developing, possibly at cross-trends.

And this is a serious thing. One of the goods of national and international denominations, despite the social sources that may have originally helped form them, is that they keep us in contact with people who do not share all of our same, local myopias, temptations, and tendencies towards shared, cultural drift. Ironically enough, the regional Reformational catholicity of local metropolitan groups, if carried out in this fashion, may end up making them more parochial in a way that national and international denominations and communions help push back against.

My point here is that even if a large portion of the Protestant church in America, and even globally, signs on to become Leithartian Reformational Catholics, you’ve basically created a big, shiny, new polyglot (linguistically, theologically, liturgically), regionalist denomination that will exist alongside of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the Anabaptists. Now, it might be the best, the most biblical, missionally-contextual, and deepest of all, but a new denomination it will be nonetheless.  And I only see things being exacerbated by the various global movements Leithart has charted.

I’m all for recognizing each other’s communions, being charitable, mutual prayer, and a host of the proposals Leithart makes. But I’m left wondering if this is really step ahead towards unity in comparison to the friendly relations between local ministries that often already exists in current denominationalism? Only this time, on top of denominational paperwork you have to do, you’ve got local, metropolitan paperwork as well.

I suppose my main impression is that many of his stimulating programmatic suggestions might work best if we had assumed a different, more classically Protestant sort of unity in the first place.And, of course, that would take rehabilitating and retrieving some of our Mere Protestant theological instincts.

Conclusion

While there is more to appreciatively explore as well as critique, I’ll leave things here and simply say that, as always, Leithart has offered up a stimulating meditation worth attending for all those who care about the future of the local and the global church.

Soli Deo Gloria

Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin Vanhoozer (Or, An Antidote To Shame-Faced Protestantism)

biblical-authority-after-babel-pic

At Babel, the LORD God pronounced judgment on human hubris. Scattering humanity through the confusion of language, he fractured it into warring tribes and nations. For many, after the Reformation a similar scattering occurred.  On a certain telling, when the Reformers set forth the doctrine of sola scriptura differing theological tribes, tongues, and nations emerged, perpetually at theological (at time actual) war with one another, and a legion of ills followed in the wake of their battles.

The charges are various. For some the Reformation’s “dangerous idea” (McGrath) landed us in a place of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (Christian Smith) which begat such bastard sons as secularism (Brad Gregory), skepticism (Richard Popkin), and schism (Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart). In other words, the crisis of interpretive authority led to a loss of ecclesial unity and, according to many, it could not help but do so.  And you could probably throw in Charles Taylor’s “disenchantment” thesis for good measure too.

Enter Vanhoozer, stage text. In his new book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Vanhoozer moves to defend the Reformation against its critics by articulating it in a broader context with the other four solas (grace, faith, Christ, glory). Together they yield the proper interpretive matrix (the ontology, the economy, and teleology of interpretive authority) shaped by the gospel which yields a properly ‘catholic’ “Mere Protestant Christianity” that is “inflected by the Reformation.”

Now, in what follows I won’t attempt a typical, “objective” review. That would be silly. I’m one of Vanhoozer’s grad students and I saw the thing before it went to print. I also won’t attempt a sort of full-scale summary review. Patrick Schreiner’s engagement over at The Gospel Coalition has a pretty helpful condensation of the main moves of the argument (with charts!).

Instead, I’d like to simply offer a few framing remarks and suggestions about its relevance to the contemporary theological and churchly scene.

What’s It Isn’t and What It is: Retrieval for Ressourcement

First, I think what the book is not should be stated clearly at the outset. Even though the work is an examination of the five solas, Vanhoozer is explicitly not trying to mount an historical defense of the Reformation against these charges. He doesn’t think “the accidental truths of European history” should ever be “the proof of necessary truths of Protestant theology.”

In which case, it should be unsurprising that this is not a book of history. So while there are discussions of Luther and Calvin’s theology, if you’re looking for a nice, historical survey of the key points of the Reformation, you may want to try elsewhere.

Instead, Vanhoozer’s argument is an explicit retrieval of historical theology in order to resource it for the challenges of the present. So when he dips into the theology of the Reformers as summarized by the solas, he is taking them as a historical beginning to be constructively developed or unpacked beyond its original remit in a way that’s consistent with it, but not simply a repristination or rehash.

When you read about the doctrine of sola fide, then, yes, you’ll get a discussion of the historical challenge the Reformers made. But you’ll also see the way that faith alone grounds a broader theology of trust in testimony that undercuts the skepticism so often laid at its door. (See Schreiner’s review for more.)

In that sense, it’s a theological argument for why some of what has been must not necessarily be.

Who It’s For: Embarrassed Protestants (And Others)

I’ve written a before about the tendency for young Protestants in the academy, or just theologically-inclined pastors and students, to tend to feel sheepish about the Reformation. After getting over the triumphalistic Protestantism of their youth, they read all the criticisms, learn that after postmodernity Sola Scriptura just obviously can’t work, and so forth, and they start seeking elsewhere for theological heft and health. I’ve seen it over and over again.

While I think the book’s aims an applications expand farther than this, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work serves as something of a beefed up, theological manifesto for what Fred Sanders called “Glad Protestantism.” In it, many a struggling, young Protestant can find a needed line to save them from being swept away across the Tiber (or the Bosphorous). And this is both at the level of actual communion, as well as theological practice and ethos.

That said, the work also offers a corrective towards the kind of anti-confessional, a-historical, an-ecclesial, me-and-my-study-Bible Protestantism that often provokes these crises of conscience among the aforementioned, embarrassed Protestants!

In other words, it’s an argument for remaining (and becoming) good Protestants, not only in name, but in practice.

Challenge, Defense, and Manifesto

There’s a healthy balance of challenge, manifesto, and defense involved, then. Vanhoozer rightly acknowledges the sort of weaknesses that ought to be worked on. Indeed, the point of mounting a theological retrieval is to urge theological renewal in the Evangelical church through appropriation of the rich veins of ore left to us in our common Reformational heritage.

Beyond that, though, he manages to transfigure some other situations on the ground into glories to be appreciated and leaned into. One such instance is learning to appreciate the proper “Pentecostal Plurality” encouraged by the solas which yield diverse, contextual, theological insights for the whole church. Often our angst at the loss of certain forms of “visible” unity stems from a failure to appreciate the eschatological dimension to God’s work of unifying his Church’s common confession. Appropriate to a healthy, small-“c” catholic, Mere Protestantism (or, if you prefer, Reformed Catholicity) is an appreciation for the eschatological tension at work—the now and not yet of striving for unity where possible, seeking to learn from one another, while not despairing over those areas where we cannot reach it.

Building on this, there is a bit of manifesto relevant to some of the discussions that have been swirling around the issue of Evangelicalism of late. One thinks of the skepticism as to whether bland, a-theological Evangelicalism as a proper heir to the Reformation (Trueman), or calls for the Future of Protestantism to be basically some sort of Reformed Anglicanism (Leithart), or suggestions that, in a post-Trump world, we ought to abandon the word “Evangelical” altogether and redoubt to more solid confessional identities (Roberts).

Following his call for an appreciation of Pentecostal plurality, Vanhoozer argues for developing the kind of strong, Protestant denominationalism that is neither sectarian, nor blandly or generically ecumenical. Indeed, the surprising suggestion at the end of the book is that the sort of revitalized, Reformational, trans-denominational unity supported by the 5 solas is and can be best realized in a denominationally-structured evangelicalism! It is within the solid, older houses of the Protestant tradition, then, that evangelicalism can play the revitalizing role to which it has always been best suited.

In that sense, Vanhoozer’s proposal for “Mere Protestantism” is the needed theological backbone for any movement to take up the term “evangelical” and “steal it back” (Jacobs).

But I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll let you pick up the book to see that counter-intuitive argument for yourself.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I’ll simply say that this book is vintage Vanhoozer: the gracious, inviting style, the treasure-trove of theological insights, references, puns, and tightly-spun arguments. It’s on an extremely important subject for those concerned with the health of the Church, the nature of Scriptural authority, and the future of Protestant Christianity.

So go ahead and pick it up.

Soli Deo Gloria

Making Sense of God by Tim Keller (Reviewish Write-Up)

making-sense-of-godWhen I was in college ministry, I had a small budget for books and resources to use with my students.So for almost the entirety of those four and half years, I had a small stack of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God sitting on a shelf in my office, as well as one or two tucked in the backseat of my car to hand out to students. Ever since reading it right after college, I have found it to be the single-most helpful one-book, contemporary apologetic introductions to Christianity out there. I’ve led small-groups through it, handed it to doubters, skeptics, fervent Christians, and everyone in-between.

So when I found out that he wrote a prequel called Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, I thought to myself, “What? Why would you do that?”

How Different Is It?

As it happens, Keller thinks that for some, the conversation needs to start farther back in the process than he does in The Reason For God. In that book, an interest (even if a somewhat hostile one) in Christianity is assumed. And on that basis, Keller proceeds to deal with some of the biggest objections and then making a positive case for Christianity. The way I used to put it was that the first half was for showing you didn’t have to be an evil idiot to believe, while the second half argues it may actually be smart and moral to believe.

In this book, Keller’s on the (gentle, welcoming, professorial) offensive trying to drum up the interest by raising some objections to, or just complicating any comfortable, self-understandings that secular people may be trying to live with. Instead of focusing on the rational case (though that’s present), he’s expanding his focus on the emotional and cultural argument for Christianity. And, of course, presenting the gospel all throughout.

One way of thinking about the book is to look at The Reason for God’s chapters on “Christianity as a Cultural Straightjacket”, the moral argument, and the problem of sin and spin those out at greater length. He tackles issues of science and rationality, argument for belief in God, Jesus in particular, and so forth, but for my money, the meat is at the center where he’s making the case that on the big questions of meaning, hope, identity, etc., secularism can’t deliver a coherent, satisfying vision of life. In that regard, it’s less like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith and more like Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (sans the profanity).

It’s a bit more than that, though. In some ways, it reminds me most of two of his other works, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and Counterfeit Gods. In Counterfeit Gods, Keller specifically goes on the offensive against the main idols promising us satisfaction and fulfillment. In Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering he spends a solid third of the work showing the way secularism has a very high bar to meet when it comes to making sense out of suffering as well. It’s not just that Christianity isn’t overwhelmed by the problem of evil, but that it offers help for a universal problem that secularism never could.

Should I Grab it?

You might be wondering, then, if I’ve read The Reason for God and some of these other works, should I grab this book? Short answer: yes!

For pastors and preachers looking for preaching and apologetic points, this is a no-brainer. There will be a number of familiar moves and material, if you’ve been reading and listening to Keller for a while. That said, there is plenty of new material, or new examples, authors cited, applications, and problems that he’s working through in a way he hasn’t elsewhere.

For instance, on the issues of faith and science, Keller cites and engages with a surprising amount of work out of the critical theory of T.W. Adorno, Horkhiemer, Habermas, and the Frankfurt school. Or again, the fruit of Keller’s time spent with Charles Taylor’s works, not just A Secular Age, shows up throughout.

And, of course, there are the endnote-essays. If you haven’t realized by now that you always need to read the end-notes, repent, and go back and start scanning them. There’s a treasure-trove of references, analysis, taxonomies, and more.

As Andrew Wilson pointed out in his review, Keller’s form of response and maturity in handling the material has the feel of conversationally-honed insight, rather than a repackaged apologetic textbooks, which is extremely helpful.

Which One Should I Give My Friend?

For everyone else, you may be wondering, “Which book should I hand to my unbelieving friend first, if I had to pick between The Reason for God and Making Sense of God?”

Honestly, it depends on your friend. If they’re struggling more with issues like hell, the problem of evil, other religions, or more straightforward evidential objections, The Reason for God is still the way to go. If they’re chewing more on Christianity’s moral stances, cultural issues, and so forth, or they’re of a more existential, searching, inquisitive mindset (whether high existentialist like Camus and Sartre, or pop-“existential” like Elisabeth Gilbert and the Oprah book club), then Making Sense of God is probably the way to go.

So, if I was back in college ministry with my book budget, I’d probably start to stock up both and make the judgment call on which book to hand the student based on our conversation.

One last comment on general “feel.” While I’ve been a fan of basically all of his stuff, after writing books for something like 10 years now, I have to say Keller’s voice continues to pick up that book feel. I noticed it first in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and again in Prayer. This one has it too. Just a thought for those interested in that sort of thing.

Well, to wrap up, Tim Keller’s got a new book and (big surprise!) it’s good. I recommend it to people at all stages in their walk with Christ, whether seasoned believers looking to grow in evangelism, or those who haven’t even taken a first step.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures ed. D.A. Carson

enduring authorityD.A. Carson has spent his career studying and teaching the Bible, with work spanning across a wide range of commentaries, monographs, and articles. He has also been defending its authority as Christian Scripture, God’s Word, for the whole of that time, with multiple individual works and co-edited monographs like Scripture and Truth Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon.

Well, he’s apparently not done, as earlier this year witnessed the release of his massive edited volume (1240 pages!) entitled The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. Which makes sense given the reality that controversy surrounding the subject continues unabated. Indeed, it seems to only progress in the level of sophistication and the scope of issues involved.

To get the job done, Carson enlisted the talents of 37 different Evangelical scholars across a wide range of disciplines and competencies in order to critically examine and defend the “formal principle” of Evangelical Protestantism. Within its pages, you’ll find essays on key historical figures and periods (Calvin to Roman Catholicism), theological principles (accommodation and inerrancy), specific textual challenges (OT history & myth), and sundry other questions you may never have thought to ask. It’s really a stunning piece of work.

Now, I have to admit, I’m writing this quasi-review having only read a couple hundred pages of the work, as I have been slowly picking at it essay by essay. But since I wanted to make notice of it this year, I figure I’ll note some high points, how the volume can be used, and one gap I would have liked to see filled.

Fun Essays

I have to say, given my own interests of late, I’ve had a fun time cruising through the historical essays featured in this volume. This is especially the case since it’s so common nowadays to have criticisms of Evangelical views of Scripture’s authority, inerrancy, and so forth come in some version of the form, “Well, you know that the (Fathers, Medievals, X other communion) doesn’t look at Y (inerrancy, accommodation, authority) that way. It’s just those modernist Evangelicals (ie. your Sunday School teacher).”

For that reason, I found Charles Hill’s essay “‘The Truth Above All Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine” well worth the time. He helpfully charts the views of authors East and West on various issues like inspiration, authority, and inerrancy, providing large quotes and contextualized discussions that hew away from simple cherry-picking.

Another gem in the historical section is Tony Lane’s essay on “Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present.” What was so illuminating about the work was his demonstration of the clear doctrinal development that’s taken place over the last couple hundred years. While current, Post-Vatican II views are much more fluid, open to historical criticism, and so forth, statements from Trent, Vatican I, and earlier documents paint a different story. Pope Leo’s statement in Providentissimus Deus 1893 basically out-Warfields Warfield on inspiration and inerrancy, giving the lie that this is some uniquely Evangelical doctrine.

Of course, Kevin Vanhoozer’s got an essay in the mix, this time dealing with the controversial issue of doctrinal development. “May We Go Beyond What is Written After All?” This is a perennially relevant issue for Protestants who must think through what it means to be “biblical” in our theology, even while we acknowledge that key doctrines (Trinity, Chalcedonian two natures, etc.) are conceptual developments of biblical material, rather than direct quotes from Scripture. Plus, it’s Vanhoozer, so he always makes it fun.

I would go on, but I’ll just emphasize again that there are solid bunch of scholars covering a wide range of issues. Henri Blocher has an essay on dual authorship, both human and divine. Graham Cole reflects on the nature and arrangement of the canon. Bruce Waltke has an essay on myth and history (which should maybe be read in tandem with Glenn Sunshine’s essay on accommodation). Mark Thompson covers the clarity of Scripture. Craig Blomberg tackles Jesus’ use of the Old Testament. James Beilby has an essay on religious epistemology (and there are more in this section). The list just keeps going.

One Thing I’d Have Liked To Have Seen

When it comes to ecumenical discussions, Evangelicals have been typically concerned with two groups: liberals and Roman Catholics. And this book seems to have the issues raised by both covered fairly well. What we haven’t concerned ourselves with enough (in my humble opinion) is Eastern Orthodoxy. This is partly because of the little contact we have typically had with the tradition due to simple geography as well as formation of the Reformation tradition in the West.

Understandable as that is, I think this is a gap because Orthodoxy, first of all, is still a major theological tradition. Second, it has been slowly but surely been exerting greater theological influence worldwide and in the North American academy. It even seems to have a unique appeal for a certain type of younger Evangelical, especially once they encounter their somewhat distinct, non-Roman Catholic, yet non-Protestant position and critique of Protestant views of Sola Scriptura. A survey and analysis of Eastern Orthodox views of Scriptural authority, especially in relation to tradition, would have been helpful for remit of defending the “formal principle” of Evangelicalism as well as in filling out the already broad range of engagement.

That said, on the defensive end, a judicious study of the patristic essay, understanding the actual positions of the Reformers, the clarity of Scripture, doctrinal development, and so forth covers a good many of the issues.

How to Use the Book

Let’s be honest, the odds are that you’re not going to read the book cover to cover. This is so just because of the length as well as because some of the essays probably won’t strike you as immediately interesting. What I would recommend, then, is one of two things.

First, if you kind of already know some issues you’re interested in (say, Karl Barth’s view of Scripture), just cruise through the table of contents and read whatever you like.

If you’re not quite as sure, though, read Carson’s introductory essay (you should probably read it anyways), and then jump to the back. There you’ll find an article by Carson which basically summarizes a great deal of the content of the various essays in short responses to frequently asked questions and challenges. This is so helpful because (a) it’s a bit of a preview of what you’re getting, (b) you start to get a feel for where and when this sort of information is useful, and (c) they’re just good summaries that are immediately useful.

In sum, this is a magnificent piece of scholarship that I’m sure will be a great resource for pastors and scholars in the coming years.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Theology As Discipleship by Keith Johnson (Themelios)

theology as discipleshipThere are few laments more frequently raised in the evangelical academy than the divorce between the academy and the church, or between the life of piety and that of theological scholarship. Indeed, it is not uncommon for pastors to admit that seminary was one of the most spiritually difficult times in their lives, precisely because the pursuit of academic rigor in theology, by its very nature, seemed to choke out the spiritual life. Moreover, the relevance of the theological task seems distant from the life of faith for the average congregant.

Drawing on years teaching theology to undergraduates, in Theology as Discipleship, Wheaton College professor Keith L. Johnson attempts to articulate a vision for the theological task as “integrally related” to the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ (p. 12). Aimed at introductory theology courses, pastors, and interested lay-people, the result is an elegant, biblically-attuned, classically-oriented, yet uncluttered text inviting the novice (as well as the seasoned initiate) to view theology in the sweep of God’s saving economy to renew all things through Christ and the Spirit.

You can read the rest of this review online in the latest issues of Themelios.

Soli Deo Gloria

Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne

rankinThe heart of the New Testament gospel is the idea of union with Christ. All of the benefits of salvation (justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification) we only receive as we are “in Christ.” It is the doctrine without which all these other truths is not good news.  Unsurprisingly, then, you can’t read Paul, John, Peter, or even the words of Jesus himself without tripping over these references.

And more and more, theologians and biblical scholars are recognizing this and putting it at the center of their expositions of Scripture and biblical truth, with a number of helpful volumes on the subject having been written in the last few years. For instance, just this year, Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ was an excellent entry into putting “union with Christ” back at the center.

Sadly, though, it seems to have been a very slow trickle-down effect for this glorious recovery reaching the practical preaching of the pulpit and the life of the pews. The books are aimed at either other theologians, or at pastors who might grasp the value, but struggle to work the riches of this biblical truth into their regular preaching.

It is at just this point that Rankin Wilbourne wants to step in with his new book Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God. His aim is to take the doctrine of union with Christ out of the murky shadows and place it front and center, not only of the discussions of academics and theologians, but everyday Christians wanting to learn how to close the gap between what they read about the Christian life in the New Testament and the reality they experience in their regular walk with Jesus.

(Now, you may be wondering, “who is Rankin Wilbourne?” Wilbourne’s a pastor at Pacific Crossroads Church in LA whom I only know about because my pastor used to work with him and because of his awesome cowboy name. In any case, when my pastor handed me his book and told me to read it, I gave it a shot since I figure he knows I don’t have too much time to waste on cruddy books during my summer of learning German.)

I have to say, I’m very grateful that he did. Wilbourne’s book was a great read for me and came at just the right time. I mostly read it in the mornings before studying and, like with Jen Wilkin’s book, it proved to be a real source of spiritual assurance and up-building during that time.

What’s in the book, then? Well, a little bit of everything to be honest. Wilbourne covers a wide range of topics, precisely because he (rightly) knows that union with Christ touches just about everything.

So, of course, there’s chapters on union with Christ in the Bible, and chapters on union with Christ in church history (turns out its all over it), and a couple of chapters on why we struggle with the concept (very helpful for cultural observers, by the way). But the bulk of the book is how union with Christ affects your real life, covering everything from your identity, to your approach to spiritual practices, to suffering, and even the way you look at the Church.

With that terrible summary out of the way, I’ll give you a few highlights or reasons you should give it a shot.

First, Wilbourne knows the importance of the imagination for spiritual life. Right of the bat, actually, Wilbourne shows you that he knows we think, we feel, we live out of the depths of our imaginations—our ability to piece together the world, or whatever reality we’re thinking of, into synthetic wholes. Which is why, he notes, the New Testament gives us so many metaphors, so many pictures, for our salvation in union with Christ.

Wilbourne leans full tilt into that reality by spending time unpacking biblical metaphors, creating and deploying helpful, lively new pictures of his own to drive home and inhabit these spiritual truths. I’ve never heard him preach, but I think I have a fair idea of what it would look like now.

And actually, preachers, this is something you ought to pay attention to (especially if you’re a youngster like I am)—learn the art of the key illustration that helps your congregation actually grasp the truths of Scripture in a vital, living manner. This book is full of good examples of how to do that.

Also, this means that this is a book you can put in someone’s hands without worrying if it’s going to be too over their heads, or jargon-filled, or technical.

Second, Wilbourne is a pastor. To be honest, I don’t think he says much “new” when it comes to the doctrine itself. He’s basing it on a lot of the most recent scholarship (Billings, Campbell, Letham, etc) as well as what the classic teachers of history (Calvin, Owen, Scougal, etc) have said. What he does do that’s “new” is the application of these broad truths to our late modern culture.

I know I keep beating this horse from different angles, but the ability to take and apply this deeply Biblical truth to a broad variety of questions and struggles that actual members of our churches are working through is a great gift. Wilbourne has that gift in spades.

To sum up, if you want to understand the good news of union with Christ, to walk into the heart of enjoying God through Christ, Wilbourne’s Union with Christ is a good place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria