Book Review – The Recovery of Mission (Vinoth Ramachandra)

Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 284 pages, with extensive endnotes and comprehensive bibliography.

I get my book suggestions/recommendations mostly from my social media feeds, primarily Twitter (I follow a couple of major book publishers) and through blogs and other odds and ends kinds of sources. This book was recommended personally by a “digital” friend – someone I’ve never met in “3-D” but someone who corresponds with me via this blog. I was extremely hesitant at first because (hangs head in shame) I just was not convinced anyone with the last name of “Ramachandra” could write anything of substance regarding Christianity and the plague of pluralism. To my friend’s great credit he kept asking if I had read the book, and so I finally put it on my “wish list.” I eventually had the time slot and the money to buy the book, and I am very, very, grateful to my friend for consistently pushing me to consider it. It is worth every penny, and a significant addition to the conversation regarding where Christianity is headed. I have to note here that the publication date is 1996 – what would the author’s opinion be today?!

Ramachandra begins with a critique of three authors who, independently and with different emphases, seek to blend Christianity into what they would consider a healthy pluralistic religious amalgamation. They each object to any claim of exclusivism by Christians, and in varying ways attempt to prove that every religion has a common core that should be accepted and valued by everyone, and that no one single religion has a monopoly of what is true, or right, or normal. I have to say that this first part was extremely difficult for me to follow, as I am not at all familiar with Hinduism or Buddhism, and the writers the author critiques are related primarily to those East Indian religions. The main culprit of religious intolerance, according to each of the authors Ramachandra critiques, is clearly Christianity, and each of them suggests that it is Christianity that has the most to repent of in terms of humanity reaching a consensus of religious truth and tolerance.

In part II, Ramachandra draws parallels between the three authors and addresses those parallels more generically. It is in this part that he introduces Lesslie Newbigin, which was enlightening to me. Having just recently started reading Newbigin, it was interesting to me to read a critique of Newbigin, although it is a favorable (and constructive) critique.

It was in the third part that I feel the value of this book lies (although, to grasp what Ramachandra says in part III you have to work through the first two parts!) In part III discusses “The Scandal of Jesus,” “A Gospel for the World,” and “Gospel Praxis” (a fancy word for ‘work’ or ‘practice.’) Here Ramachandra specifically points out that in order to be genuine, the Christian message must be scandalous. It is exclusive. It is not authoritarian (as in the mistaken form of Constantinian “Christendom,” but it is most certainly exclusive). The more acceptable a person tries to make Christianity in relation to the major world religions, the less Christian it becomes. In other words, you cannot make Christianity merely a sub-specie of the generic word “religion.” The belief in Jesus of Nazareth is unique, exclusive, and therefore exclusionary of the major tenets of these world religions.

I should add here that Ramachandra does a good job of pointing out a necessary corollary – people who insist that Christianity can be made compatible with other world religions (especially the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism) do not fully understand those religions, or intentionally misrepresent them. The deeper one understands those religions it becomes apparent that they are just as exclusive, and that they are completely incompatible, with Christianity. Stated another way, you really have to  change those religions as much as you would have to change Christianity in order to make each of them compatible with each other.

This point to a huge issue I have with so many proclaimers of Christian pluralists today. One, they utterly misunderstand Christianity. Two, they utterly misunderstand the world view that they claim is superior to Christianity, and that they try to make Christianity conform to. I believe most Christian pluralists today loathe Christianity, and their complete unwillingness to view the Christian faith from the pages of the New Testament, choosing rather to cherry-pick obvious failings of the Christian centuries (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, etc.) makes it obvious their critiques are not genuine. Their blindness to the moral failings of the major world religions is equally disastrous for their agenda. You simply cannot overlook the atrocities committed by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others against persons of differing faiths.

Okay, I apologize for getting a little preachy here, so I have to get back to Ramachandra’s book. He does raise some questions (and points to answers I am not sure I can accept), but in general he remains faithful to what most would consider “creedal” Christianity – the Christianity of the first two or three centuries. Perhaps his most critical question is this – what is the eternal destiny of those who have never had a chance to hear of the saving work of Jesus? The pluralist wants to say that all roads (and religions) lead to God and heaven. Ramachandra will not go there – but he does suggest that the blood of Christ is effectual even for those who have not specifically heard of Jesus. This is a question that is just above my pay grade for me to answer, but as most pluralists will begin with this question in order to push their agenda, it is one that must be addressed by every disciple of Christ.

At over twenty years, this book is just beginning to get a little “long of tooth,” but it is contemporary enough to be valuable for Christians, and especially Christian teachers (preachers, elders, Bible school teachers) to read. Whether you agree with his answers or not, you need to hear and to consider the questions he raises. His deft, and in my opinion, powerful, responses to three different, but common, objections to the exclusiveness of Christ are important to consider.

This book is a valuable addition to the section of my library that includes Os Guinness and Lesslie Newbigin. They write from entirely different points of view, but each in his own way points in the same direction. The faith of Jesus Christ is exclusive, and to be faithful to Jesus his disciples must honestly and fearlessly present that exclusiveness. Any attempt to marginalize or minimize the message of the cross is simply heretical.

Why is that such a hard message for ministers of the church to understand?

Book Review – Signs Amid the Rubble (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, Edited and Introduced by Geoffrey Wainwright, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 121 pages.

As I have “reviewed” (my reviews rarely constitute what would properly be called a book review) a number of Newbigin’s books recently, my comments on this book will be much shorter.

This volume was not written by Newbigin, but is rather a collection of speeches that has been collected and edited by Geoffrey Wainwright. In fact, I have discovered that a number of Newbigin’s books originate with speeches that he presented to various missionary meetings. I like this, because I do not get the opportunity to sit in lecture halls anymore, and reading these lectures gives me the opportunity to stretch my “listening” muscles as much as I can through the printed page.

Basically, this book reinforces what I appreciate so much in Newbigin. To wit:

  • Newbigin has the ability, and the courage, to analyze and to call out the weaknesses of our contemporary culture as few authors I know of. In many respects he is ruthless in nailing our hides to the wall. His utter repudiation of the idea of “progress” in these speeches is worth the price of the book. He has the knack of seeing what so few people are able to see, and he has the courage to “call it like it is.” His candor is truly refreshing.
  • Newbigin is relentless in his belief that presenting the gospel as fact, and not opinion, is the only way the church will confront this deteriorating culture. As he states in a number of his speeches throughout a number of books I have read, if there is no purpose to history, if all of this is just one gigantic mistake, then secularism is about the best we can do. But, if there is a point to history, if God will eventually bring all of history to a grand cataclysmic end, then it is only the gospel of Jesus Christ that will save mankind. This gospel does have a political component, but the gospel itself is not political (that is, humans will not usher in the kingdom of God by our human efforts).
  • Being a devoted student of the American Restoration Movement, I cannot help but hear echoes of the apocalypticism of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb as opposed to the millennial utopianism of Alexander Campbell. In Newbigin’s observations, the major thrust of the evangelical churches repeats the post-millennial view shared by Campbell (a point ably defended by Richard Hughes), while Newbigin himself paints a more apocalyptic vision, where only the power of God will set things right in this world. To recall Richard Hughes again, it was the loss of Stone’s and Lipscomb’s apocalypticism that has severely stunted the health of the Restoration Movement, and it is strangely reassuring to me to read Newbigin’s comments, knowing that he is writing primarily as a missionary, first in India and later in his life to the thoroughly secular (or pagan) culture of a postmodern England.
  • I read today a passage that explains to me both (a) why some promote Newbigin as the father of the “Missional Church” movement and (b) why those people really have not read Newbigin carefully. Here are two sentences, and note how he deftly suggests the first while in reality denying it:

Today we have all learned that mission is not marginal to the life of the church, but definitive of it, central to its being . . . The church is God’s sending, His mission. (p. 95)

There you have it, the church is God’s mission, God sent the church just as he sent Jesus. The church does not have a mission, it is God’s mission. Nothing could be clearer, right? Except that one sentence later Newbigin says this,

But by the same shift of perspective, mission now often appears to be everything rather than something. (p. 95)

And that is the major argument I have against the “missional church” movement even as it is being promoted within the Churches of Christ. I distinctly remember reading a blog of a young preacher who was so proud of leading his church into be a “missional church” and pointing to their most recent “missional” accomplishment. What was that accomplishment you ask? Cleaning up a stretch of highway near their community. That’s right, God’s mission includes highway beautification. When God’s sending his Son into the world includes picking up trash, that is when the word “mission” loses all of its meaning. Now, mind you, I am not against cleaning up trash. I am certainly not against a church doing so. It can be, and probably is, a great community service project. I just rebel at the thought of using a highway clean-up day as a way of presenting God’s mission to a sin-sick and dying world.

And, so, once again I encourage those who have never read Newbigin to give him a read. I will say this about this particular volume, the editor’s introduction provided much needed biographical information about Newbigin, and explains a little more of Newbigin’s theological background. After reading a number of Newbigin’s books, I wish I had this information much earlier.

Now for the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read in this book” warning. Newbigin comes from a much different theological background than I do, and his Calvinistic leanings do show through here and there. I cannot defend everything he says any more than I can defend the writings of B.W. Stone, David Lipscomb, or Alexander Campbell. I read with care, and I expect others to use their God given intellects as well. I do recommend the purchase and reading of many books, not because the authors are inspired and their words are equal to Paul’s or Peter’s, but because they cause me to think, and because God can use less than perfect men (and women) to present his perfect truth.

Book Review – Paul’s Theology of Preaching (Duane Litfin)

Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth, (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) 359 pages plus 27 pages of bibliography)

I have been struggling with how to create an appropriate introduction for my review of this book. This morning I finally settled on what I think is the best way to communicate how I feel about not only the content of the material, but the manner in which it was presented: this is the book I wish I had available to me when I was a young man considering becoming a preacher.

First, for want of a better term, I will address the “style” of the writing. Many authors are absolutely brilliant in their field of study, but seem to be genetically prohibited from getting that brilliance out of their heads and onto paper so that others can share their illumination. Litfin’s book is the polar opposite of that obtuseness. I love reading this book because it was just such a joy to read. Once again, some authors are so in love with their thesis that they do not take the time to explain why their thesis is important to begin with. Litfin begins (part 1), not with explaining what he thinks Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 1-4, but rather by explaining the cultural understanding of rhetoric and the power of persuasion (Greco-Roman rhetoric) that Paul would be familiar with in Corinth. Then, in part 2 he turns to 1 Corinthians 1-4 and demonstrates that Paul was specifically rejecting this view of persuasion. Litfin could have cut the length of the book in half by simply arguing his position from 1 Corinthians 1-4. However, the value of the material would have been reduced by far more than 50 percent. Litfin’s knowledge of, and presentation of, the material in part 1 is, hopefully not to be too effusive, magisterial. When he moves to part 2, the reader (student) is thoroughly conversant with the basic understanding of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Here I must also praise Litfin’s use of primary writings. He quotes ancient writers at length, but not so many and so long as to make the material unreadable. I repeat what I said at the beginning, this book is so well crafted, so well written, that whether you want to be a preacher or not, just reading this book is an education in how to present your arguments.

But, let us move on to the content. Litfin’s thesis boiled down to a simple sentence is this: the apostle Paul was well aware of the prevalent culture of Greco-Roman rhetoric, but he (Paul) made the conscious decision to reject the art of that rhetoric in order to present the gospel message as an obedient herald, a simple proclaimer of the cross. On a simple reading, one might be tempted to say, “ho, hum, next . . .” But this message cuts against the grain of so much of what is taught in preacher training courses that it demands to be heard. I could not help but think as I read and digested this material – “wow, if Litfin’s thesis was widely promoted and accepted, hundreds of instructors in preaching trainings situations would suddenly be unemployed.” The reason for such a response is simple – we are training preachers to do exactly the opposite of what the apostle Paul presented as his guiding theology for both ministry and preaching.

Today preachers are taught the art of communication (we do not use the word rhetoric anymore, but that is what it is). Preachers are taught how to evaluate an audience (age, economic background, educational level, etc) and to decide how to “get under the audience’s skin” (my words) so as to manipulate the audience’s feelings in order to generate the greatest amount of positive response. The preacher may be after conversions or a greater commitment to giving, or to motivate people to become a short-term missionaries. But the process is all basically the same – how do I take my message to this audience and what tools do I use in this setting to achieve my greatest goals? That, in a very crude way, is to use the “art” of rhetoric. It is the basic skeleton of the process I was taught in my speech and preaching classes.

Litfin argues persuasively that Paul takes all of that and throws it out the window. Paul was well aware of that theory and all of the tools of rhetoric. However, Paul’s theology, Paul’s foundational motivation, was not to be an accomplished speaker/preacher/rhetorician. Paul’s goal was to be an obedient herald. Paul simply wanted to preach the message of the cross. The result was up to the Holy Spirit. Paul preached, God converted. Paul’s goal was not to be successful, it was to be obedient. Success, in other words, for Paul was not in the number of conversions, but it was to be measured in how faithful he was in presenting the gospel.

Now, to be sure, Paul was aware of his audience, and to Jews he referred to the law of Moses and to cultured Greeks he referred to secular poets. But this was not to use (or abuse) the art of rhetoric – Paul was simply adapting his presentation of the gospel message to the level of understanding of his audience. He was educating his audience, not manipulating them. There is a significant difference, and one that I believe is lost in much of contemporary preaching classes.

I will leave it to the reader to follow Litfin’s argument. I found it to be both profound, and profoundly significant. The author’s style is not elegant in the sense of flowery language, but it is indeed elegant in the sense of its structure and presentation. I think I am being redundant here, but this book provides an education in not only the content of what is being argued, but in the very essence of how it is being argued.

Although Litfin’s main purpose is not to write a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-4 per se, I must add that his treatment of these four chapters is as fine a commentary as I have read on Paul’s introduction to this critical letter. If I had my druthers, I would have two copies of the book, and I would put one on my library shelf dedicated to 1 Corinthians, and one in the section I have dedicated to preaching and homiletics. I will probably keep the book in my preaching section, but the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1-4 is an education in its own right.

No book is absolutely perfect, and I do have to share one caveat for a reader who does not know Greek. Litfin’s use of Greek terms is frequent, and in about 95% of the cases he does provide an English translation. However, when he repeats a Greek word he does not always repeat the translation, and there are a number of times in which he assumes that the reader knows how to read Greek (the terms are never transliterated) and even knows the meaning of the words. In terms of editing, I would have liked IVP Academic to have demanded a little “dumbing down” for those who do not have a background in Greek, but this is a relatively small quibble, and if you do not know Greek the overwhelming majority of the book is still valuable. I would suggest that due to the inclusion of the Greek terminology this book is probably written for a 2nd or 3rd year college student, or seminary student, so buyer beware. On the other hand, the language is decidedly written, and the argumentation is so well defended (repeated appropriately, but never to the point of obnoxious redundancy) so that even if you have to “bleep” over the Greek words, the book would still be of inestimable value.

I end with how I started. I so wish I had this material back when I was starting my school work, back when the crust of the earth was first starting to cool. I’m just glad I have read it now, and over the next few weeks and months I am going to re-evaluate all of my preaching and teaching to see if I am being faithful to Paul’s theology of preaching, or if I am falling prey to the less faithful, but much more highly praised, skill of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

Book Review – “Philosophy: A Christian Introduction” (James K. Dew, Jr. and Paul M. Gould)

Philosophy: A Christian Introduction, James K. Dew, Jr., and Paul M. Gould, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 254 pages.

Long time readers of my blog might have picked up on a habit that I have – I love to recommend books. With only very few exceptions, every book review that I post has the same bottom line, “buy this book.” Even if I disagree with one or more of the salient points that the author(s) make, I like to read books, ponder books, argue with the authors of books, and to be challenged and provoked by books.

Sadly, I’m going to have to break my custom here.

It’s not that this is a bad book, or one that I disagree wholeheartedly with. It’s just that the book does not accomplish what it sets out to do. And that is really sad, because there is a genuine dearth of books written for the neophyte in philosophy, and especially a book that attempts to tackle the thorny issue of relating philosophy to Christianity.

The authors here begin by saying the right things, and I was excited to believe that maybe I had found a source to share with those who might be looking for a true Christian introduction to philosophy. They admitted that books, and university courses, in philosophy can become overwhelming, confusing, and obscure. They regret that, and believe it does not have to be that way. In the introductory chapter they indicate that their book will bridge the gap between secular philosophical studies and a Christian worldview.

In my estimation, and this is purely my response, I just believe they fall into the first category, and fail to deliver on the second promise.

Regarding the first comment. If a book is going to be an “introduction,” the authors need to assume that the reader knows little or nothing about his, her, or their subject. These authors devote a mere 10 pages to an introductory chapter on philosophy, then immediately jump into the subject of epistemology. “Okay class, I’m going to spend 10 minutes discussing the basics of anatomy, then we are going to all participate in a cardio-vascular operation.” No overview of major philosophers, no quick, down-and-dirty discussion of philosophical schools of thought. Just dive into epistemology, and then run head-long into a section on metaphysics. The third major section is even more head-scratching for an “introduction” – and that is a section on the philosophy of religion. That topic would be fine if it were a concluding chapter (or maybe a brief section), but the last section of the book is devoted to ethics. The general outline of the book just makes no sense to me. My response to this book is, if you already know something about philosophy, it might be valuable. But, then, if you already know something about philosophy, why read an “introduction”?

Also related to my first comment, the authors fall into the obscure, confusing and overwhelming trap of most books on philosophy. Their chapters on “Properties and Universals” and “Particulars” are just mind-numbing. The attempt to make such obscure topics relatable by the introduction of Rosie the chicken was commendable, but even that attempt ended up falling flat. In my opinion (and I am not a professional philosopher, as this review reveals), these topics were just way too complex and advanced to discuss as in-depth as these authors attempted to do. These chapters illustrate perhaps more than any that the authors over-shot the understanding of their assumed audience by a wide margin.

Second, if you put “A Christian Introduction” as the sub-title of your book, then I expect a thorough Christian response to the topics you discuss. In this book there is only the thinnest veneer of a Christian reaction, and even that is limited to a Reformed theology. Although this is a weakness throughout, in one chapter the lack of any biblical, and in this regard, New Testament  response, is glaring. That chapter specifically deals with “The Possibility of Life After Death.” You would think, after a general overview of the theories of life extending beyond death, that there would be at least a cursory mention of 1 Corinthians 15. You would be sadly mistaken. After giving grudging credence to the idea that cannibalism might be a legitimate threat to the idea of a resurrected body, the authors do not even mention that the apostle Paul specifically rejects the idea of a reconstituted human, physical body in the resurrection! We will have bodies, Paul makes clear, but  what those bodies will consist of Paul makes no effort to define. What he does reject is the reconstitution of our present, physical, human body. This is not the only time that the authors fail to incorporate biblical teaching regarding the topic at hand (the Hebrew concept of nephesh, for example, in the discussion of the soul), but I will argue it is the most egregious.

I’m just sad to say that, with so much potential, and with such a huge need for a book with this intention, it just fails on so many levels. We – the uninformed masses – need a book that introduces the leading framers and topics of philosophy and at the same time builds a bridge between those topics and the Christian worldview. Maybe that introduction is out there and I have just not found it. As well intentioned as this volume is, this is not it either.

For what it is worth, by far and away the best volume I have found to date giving an easy (or at least easier) to understand overview of philosophy, is C. Steven Evans magnum opus, A History of Western Philosophy. (See my review here Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans) At almost 600 pages long it does not fall into the category of an “introduction,” but it is written on a far more accessible level, and covers the basic fundamentals of philosophy much more completely than Dew and Gould’s book. Also, without overtly attempting to do so, Evans provides a much more comprehensive Christian appraisal of the topics he discusses, something that Dew and Gould fail to do, even though their volume expressly claims that is one of their goals.

I really, really, do not like being negative about a book. I strive to find the positive even in books where I disagree with the author(s). As I have stated many times, I can learn very little new from someone with whom I already agree 100%, so it is not that I just disagree with these authors. But, the book makes two significant promises – one, that it is an introduction to philosophy, and two, that it includes a Christian response. On the first promise the book just becomes too obscure and confusing, and on the second, it just whiffs.

Book Review – A Free People’s Suicide (Os Guinness)

Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 205 pages plus substantial endnotes.

Os Guinness is becoming one of my favorite authors. He personifies what I consider to be the best attributes in an author: first, he is aware of and interacts with authors who have dealt with the same subject – going back to the classics of Greek and Latin. Second, he does not shy away from calling a turkey a turkey, if that is what he genuinely believes. And third, his prose is beautiful to read. In other words, he is not a contemporary American author.

In A Free People’s Suicide, Guinness asks the question of the sustainability of American freedom. He points out that the founders of America both won and ordered our freedom, but the issue of its sustainability is open to debate. In point of fact, Guinness is rather melancholy about the prospect, although in the concluding chapter he expresses a measured optimism, but only if there are some (rather significant) changes in our current leadership and citizenry.

The book is organized into seven chapters, and I believe the key chapter is the middle chapter (4) where he provides what he calls the “golden triangle” of sustainable freedom. That triangle consists of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, and that virtue requires faith. The exercise of faith then requires freedom, which must must be built on virtue, which then returns to faith, and on and on. Guinness is forceful in his rejection that America will remain free (or great, for that matter) if all its citizens do is rely on the Constitution or our ever-expanding quagmire of laws. His point, which he returns to repeatedly, is that unless the super-structure of the Constitution and our laws is built on a stronger foundation than what he calls “parchment freedom,” all freedom will eventually disappear and America will fall, just as every major empire in the world has ultimately fallen.

It should be noted, and Guinness does make this point, that there is a big difference between what most modern Americans call “freedom” and the much more poisonous concept of “license.” What we see in so much of our domestic debate today is not a discussion of freedom at all – it is an infantile demand for license to do whatever we want, the consequences be damned. Freedom, as Guinness expounds beautifully, demands self-control and the virtue of a people that is rooted deeply in faith. (Spoiler alert – while Guinness does refer to the Judeo-Christian features of so much of our founding documents, he is painstaking in not asserting that our nation is a “Christian” nation. He is far too educated not to know that many of our founding father were deists at best, and some were outright humanists.)

The publication date for the book is 2012 (I thought is was much later), so I would really be curious to know what Guinness thinks of the petulant little toddler that currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C. Whatever that opinion might be, Guinness’s observations and warnings are even more critical in 2019 than they were in 2012. The tendencies that Guinness criticized through the G.W. Bush years have only been magnified in the Obama and Trump presidencies, and the “slippery slope” (Guinness never uses the term) that he warns about is on the verge of becoming a national catastrophe. He question is chilling – will a leader stand up who has the courage to put a stop to our self-chosen suicide?

I cannot end without providing Guinness’s three tasks if America is to save itself from a certain demise. First, “… America must strongly and determinedly restore civic education, and education that is truly ‘liberal education,’ or an education for liberty. Conservatives must get over their shortsighted aversion to the ‘L word,’ and liberals must reexplore what liberal  education really means and why it matters.” (p. 192) Basically, what Guinness is calling for is an education in citizenship – and everything that entails. Guinness illustrates this beautifully, but painfully, “With civic education, for example, the clash between backward-looking teachers’ unions  and forward-looking foundations concerned only for educational ‘skills’ leaves the United States industriously turning out students who are deficient not only in global competitiveness but in American citizenship and in Socrates’ examined life.” (p. 196)

Second, “… America must strongly and determinedly rebuild its civil public square, leading to a profound resolution of the current culture warring and a re-opening of public life to people of all faiths and none, so that all citizens are able to play their part in a thriving civil society and a robust democracy.” (p. 194)

Third, “… America must strongly and determinedly reorder the grand spheres that make up American society and its powerful cultural influence in the world.” (p. 194) By this Guinness means reordering the “spheres” of business, law, education, entertainment (and others) to serve the “wider public good,” a system of “checks and balances” that is frequently quoted in terms of our federal government, but rarely (if ever) applied to other aspects of our culture.

There is a fourth task, that Guinness demurs from expanding, that requires a “… restoration of the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics of the citizenry, which in many cases in America today are as faithless, flaccid and fickle as the health of ordered liberty itself.” (p. 196). This, he believes, is outside the responsibility of the government to address, and I would agree. If the church is “faithless, flaccid and fickle,” it is the church’s responsibility to address those issues.

A final word to my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. We are heirs of a heritage that is commonly referred to as the “American Restoration Movement.” All too frequently, however, the concept of restoration has fallen into disrepute among our congregations. From the extreme conservatives we hear that the restoration is complete, that there remains nothing to restore. From the extreme left we here that restoration is a folly, that the very idea itself is unchristian. “We cannot look back, we have to look to the future” is the mantra of far too many preachers today. I was dumbfounded to read in Guinness’s closing comments one of the best defenses of restoration I have ever heard – not in the sense of restoring some kind of pristine past (which was never pristine to begin with, and which can never be done in the second place), but a return to the very foundational concepts and practices of our faith. Two quotes must suffice: “But history shows that when it comes to ideas, it is in fact possible to turn back the clock. Two of the most progressive movements in Western history – the Renaissance and the Reformation – were both the result of a return to the past, though in very different ways and with very different outcomes.” (p. 197, bold emphasis mine PAS) And this, “In other words, all three movements – Jewish, Christian and American – share a striking feature that sets them apart from much modern thinking: A return to the past can be progressive, not reactionary. Each movement in its own way best goes forward by first going back.” (p. 198, italics by Os Guinness, bold emphasis mine, PAS). As I have said, and perhaps written elsewhere, the American Restoration Movement must continually remain a restoration movement, or it becomes a statuary monument – an idol.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a painful read – but Guinness’s words must be heard if health is going to be restored to our republic. I for one believe Guinness’s medicine to be too strong for us to stomach. I tend to be much more apocalypticist in outlook – I just do not think we have the political will to do what Guinness recommends. But, be that the case or not, this book needs to be read and digested by everyone who is concerned about the direction our country is headed.

Book Review – Christianity at the Crossroads (Michael J. Kruger)

Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 231 pages.

I have been reading a lot of philosophical works lately (or, rather, philosophical/theological) and in order to maintain my sanity I try to keep a variety of subjects in my reading list. So, this month I turned to Michael Kruger’s work in church history. What a delightful read! I know history, and in particular church history, is an anathema to many people, but I freely admit that I am a nut and I joyfully choose to participate in all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

First, I guess I should say that I love the structure of this book. Kruger does not work through the second century decade by decade, but rather examines seven topics that he believes are significant, not only to the church in the second century, but for the future development of the church. These topics are: the sociological makeup of the second century church (ch. 1), the response of the political and intellectual world of the second century to the church (ch. 2), second century church worship (ch. 3), diversity in the second century church (ch. 4), unity in the second century church (ch. 5) the literature produced by the second century church (ch. 6), and finally the New Testament canon in the second century (ch. 7). While a specialist might quibble with this choice of subjects, as an amateur church history buff I thought this structure was more than adequate, and while the theologian in me would love to dive into some of the questions of later church history, that is not the purpose of this book and to do so would have detracted from the flow of Kruger’s work.

That leads me to the second of the reasons I love this book – it is a survey, not an in-depth examination of these seven topics. Each of these chapters could be expanded into a full book. Kruger repeatedly makes this point. From the “teacher” in me I would say that this is a great introductory text for an undergraduate class, (to be supplemented, of course) and it should be used to whet the appetite for future study. Actually – this would be a valuable book for an adult class in a church setting, as long as the teacher used the material alongside the study of pertinent Scriptures. It is clearly not written for the specialist, and I think it would open up a world of discussion for those who have never been taught anything about church history or who only have the vaguest idea of what occurred at the conclusion of the first century.

Third, I love Kruger’s self-awareness. He writes as a historian, and as a fully aware historian. Every chapter acknowledges that there are opposing viewpoints, and he responds to those viewpoints charitably. However, he has the courage of his conclusions, and he moves on to provide the supporting evidence for what he believes. He is honest (almost to a fault) that our primary sources for the second century are thin in certain areas, and so a great many questions cannot be answered with a huge degree of certainty. He does, however, provide enough primary, and sometimes secondary, evidence to support his conclusions. He certainly gave me some significant fodder to chew on – and provided me some insights into some subjects that I had never considered.

On the geeky side – Kruger provides 16 1/2 pages of “select bibliography.” You cannot accuse him of not knowing and not making available other sources of information.

Now for the only quibble I have of the book, and I really only discovered it as I read his conclusion – and it is an awesome conclusion. My quibble is that he makes three “observations” that really deserve a chapter for each. But, once again, in Kruger’s mind that would probably have detracted from the point of the book. However, his concluding observations are so spot-on, so perfect, that I will quote them here:

First, modern Christians need to learn again how to be a prophetic voice in the midst of a hostile world where the Church lacks substantial cultural influence or power. (p. 230)

Second, as we look to the second century we are reminded again that Christianity, at its core, is a ‘bookish’ religion. (p. 230)

Third, and finally, when we look to the second century, we are reminded afresh that early Christians, regardless of the exterior pressures and challenges, were always keep to keep the focus on one simple thing: worshipping Jesus. (p. 231)

As I said, each of those points deserved a whole chapter, but at 231 pages the book is really at a perfect size, and as a historian Kruger might not have felt comfortable stepping into the “prophetic” role he called for.

Kruger ends by calling for a greater understanding and exploration of the second century – once again stressing that his volume is an introductory survey. I agree wholeheartedly. Especially in light of his concluding observations, I think the 21st century church is far more like the 2nd century than we are probably aware, and we need to have our eyes opened and our minds focused on the “crossroads” where we stand today.

P.S. – I cannot end this little review without adding another personal note – anytime I see one of my professors quoted in a scholarly work it makes my skin get goose-bumps. Kruger makes reference to Everett Ferguson in a number of places – and Dr. Ferguson was (and remains) one of my heroes. I took every course I possibly could from Dr. Ferguson, and I am simply in awe of his knowledge and his love for the church. When I think of scholarship, the one name I think of most often is Everett Ferguson. That does not make or break this book – but it sure made me smile to see another scholar recognize Dr. Ferguson’s importance in early church historiography.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt. 4)

[A little background here – after I posted my first review of Andrew Root’s book, Baker Academic “tweeted” a link to it. I was mortified. It’s one thing to opine about someone’s work if you are, like, 99.999% sure the author will never read your critique. With the surprise advertisement, I was suddenly faced with the fact that Dr. Root might read my review. He did. And he responded. In some of the most gracious words imaginable, no less. I emailed back and forth with him a couple of times, and I am deeply touched by his willingness to discuss his book, and what he saw as legitimate critiques that I made. His correspondence made my week.]

Okay, its been a while in coming, but I think I am finally ready to share my last (maybe, hopefully) review of Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. As I have hopefully already made clear, this book has deeply cut into what I consider to be “faith development,” and I eagerly await the next two volumes in this series. If you have not read my earlier posts, the bottom line is I highly recommend this book – even with the caveat that there is some technical language used, so parts of the book may be daunting.

Now I want to share my main “quibble” with the book. I have a real hesitancy in doing this for one huge reason. My quibble is not so much with something Root said, but with what he did not say. My hesitancy is that I have a real issue with people criticizing what does not exist in a work. I have two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and the one thing that always irritated me the most in getting a graded paper back was when the professor said something like, “…but you did not address ‘x'” (what ever ‘x’ might have  been.) The one time I really deserved this critique was in my Master of Divinity comprehensive exams. I totally forgot to answer half a question. I thought I was going to get “pass plus” and I think I got a pass-minus. Oops.

In regard to Dr. Root’s book, the essence of what he identifies as “faith” centers in the Pauline expression, “in Christ.” My ears perked up. He went on to discuss Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, and the transformation that took place in Saul’s life. I grew more interested. Root emphatically defended his contention that faith in the New Testament occurs when a person symbolically dies, has someone come and minister the death of Christ to them, and then comes to a new life consisting in service and ministry to others. I was totally captivated. And, with bated breath, I kept turning pages waiting for the ultimate hammer to fall – the hammer that would locate this death, burial, and resurrection to a new life in the physical moment of baptism.

It never fell.

And, as I mentioned above, it is not appropriate to overly critique the omission of a topic in someone’s else’s work – so in terms of reviewing Faith Formation in a Secular Age, I will leave you with this simple observation. The omission in no way minimizes the value of this book – I recommend it highly. But – if the book had been mine to write, this is the section I would add regarding baptism.

Ever since the days of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, the heirs of the Restoration Movement (especially the Churches of Christ) have been accused of overly emphasizing the physical and spiritual act of baptism. Too many times, I fear, this accusation has been all too accurate. Maybe “overly emphasizing” is overly critical, but we have taken one aspect of conversion and, hopefully not to generalize too much, have turned it into the only aspect of conversion. Just as an example, when someone comes to one of our congregations and seeks membership, the primary question asked of them is not, “do you have the gifts of the Spirit active in your life?” but, “have you been baptized?” (And often included in that question, “. . . by the right person in the right church. . . “)

The end result of this emphasis is that now two hundred years (give or take a few) from the writings of Stone and Campbell, I honestly believe that many members of the Churches of Christ have a totally sacramental view of baptism. Conversion and transformation have been replaced with a magical view of baptism that is utterly absent from the New Testament. What I hear from all too many members of the Church is a curious mixture of evangelicalism (you must be ‘born again’) and Roman Catholicism (it’s just ‘one and done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out’). Talk about your unholy marriages.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the practice of baptism in so many churches. We say that we do not believe in infant baptism, that we are “credo-baptists,” that we only baptize believing adults, or, at the very least, those who have reached the “age of accountability.” [WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE THAT PHRASE IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?] And, yet, I see and hear of younger and younger children being baptized – as young as 8 or 9, in some cases probably younger.

We do not allow adolescents to drive until they reach an age twice what we gloriously accept as a “believing adult.” We do not allow anyone to join the military until a couple of years past that. We do not allow anyone to purchase or legally consume alcohol until a couple of years past that. Yet, we trumpet the decision of a child barely into elementary school as a great transformation of life and character. And, we come up with some of the most specious arguments to defend that practice. “But, they believe in Christ.” Um, yeah, so do the demons, according to James 2:19, and it does them no good. “But, what happens if we tell them ‘no’ and they leave the church?” Well, why do we tell our children they can’t have a driver’s license until a  certain age, that they cannot marry until a certain age, that they cannot join the military or drink a beer until a certain age? Why does our judicial system protect minors who are not capable of making adult decisions and being responsible for those decisions until they reach a certain age? And, just to respond to an absurd argument with one equally absurd, what happens if we DO baptize them and then they leave the church – as is happening by the hundreds if not thousands? What then? Do we become crypto-Calvinists and whisper, “Once saved, always saved” as our young adults stream out the back door?

[If you have never sat and answered the anguished questions of one who was baptized as an infant/child, and had them question their faith, their beliefs, their actions, then I suggest that you do sometime. You will not be so quick to dismiss their hopelessness. If they ask for baptism again they feel like they are rejecting the approval of their loved ones years ago. But to continue on living in the doubts and fears of realizing they simply “got wet” in order to please parents or to succumb to peer pressure is spiritually paralyzing.]

You see, as a group of biblical reformers – whose sincere and genuine desire was to restore baptism to a foundational place in the conversion process – we have come full circle to simply practicing baptism as a quaint “right of passage” that doubles as an entry into the membership of a congregation and provides legitimacy to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings me right back to Dr. Root’s book. If he is correct in his definition of faith (and I think that if not fully correct, his view points us in a bright and helpful direction), then we must, repeat must, restore the biblical view of baptism to that picture of faith. And, I emphasize this, not just as a brief, momentary photo opportunity, but as a life-long, unending commitment to following in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

After examining Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, the passage that was most lacking in Dr. Root’s book is Romans 6:1-14. But, hear me on this – it has also been lacking in my preaching and in my life as well. I too have fallen into the “one-and-done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out” mentality. I too have been caught up in the baptism of infant/children. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I think it is time, past time actually, that the heirs of the Restoration Movement do some actual restoring again. I think we need to restore baptism to its rightful place, not just in the event of a new birth, but in Root’s words, to a lifelong commitment to the death of Jesus – as lived out in service and ministry to others.

In other words, we need to restore the biblical view of faith back into our vocabulary and our practice.