Honoring Heroes – and Respecting Differences

In my last post I shared some reasons why David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are two of my heroes of theology. I freely admit that my thinking contains more than one paradox. These two are hardly theological twins. Maybe that is one reason they attract me so much. In no way whatsoever do I want to suggest they shared the same theological conclusions in every possible way. And so, in part to clarify some issues, and in part to continue to honor their influence, I share these rather significant differences between my two favorite theologians.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trained in, and always practiced, the classical form of liberal biblical studies that was current in Germany in the early 20th century. David Lipscomb would NEVER have accepted what Bonhoeffer viewed as something that was self-evident – that theologians could, and should, identify the purely human elements involved in the production of Scripture as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer would have viewed Lipscomb’s literalist approach to Scripture as being reactionary. But it is here that I find a remarkable similarity – when Bonhoeffer preached, he preached the Bible as fervently and “literally” as Lipscomb would have. That is to say, when Bonhoeffer was doing academic theology, he leaned heavily on his liberal training. But when he preached, he preached the text as if he were a conservative’s conservative. He thought the “theology” that was being taught at Union Theological Seminary was laughable – he wrote that the only place he could find the gospel being preached in New York City was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I am not the only one who strives to hold two vastly different viewpoints in tension!
  • Bonhoeffer accepted the view that the universal church was comprised of the various “churches” found primarily in Europe. He was mystified by the proliferation of “denominations” in America – I’m not sure he ever really figured out what Americans did with the concept of the church. Lipscomb was a Restorationist – he was firmly convinced there was only one church, and it could not be comprised of a number of different bodies who held significantly different beliefs. Lipscomb rejected both the European view of the church, as well as the uniquely American experiment in denominationalism.
  • Similarly, Bonhoeffer had no issue with promoting the classic creeds of Christianity, and was active in formulating the Confession of Faith that defined the Confessing Church in Germany. Lipscomb believed that creeds were unnecessary, and that Confessions of Faith were divisive, not unitive. Yet, even here, there is a strange intersection of belief between these two men – both men believed that the church they were a part of was the one true church! Bonhoeffer famously wrote (and was excoriated for it) that if one separated himself from the Confessing Church, he separated himself from salvation. For Bonhoeffer there was one church, and the Confessing Church in Germany was that church (or at the very least, was a part of that church). Lipscomb would have said the same thing (and perhaps did), except that the church to which he would have referred would have been a conservative Church of Christ (certainly not a congregation of the Disciples of Christ!) Coming from two radically different approaches, both men ended up basically in the same place.
  • As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Lutheran, it goes without much explanation that he and David Lipscomb would have had significant differences in understanding the Lord’s Supper.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the finest explanations on the topic of baptism that I have ever read – and yet, he concluded that infant baptism was perfectly acceptable. [Note, this is one area where Bonhoeffer just drives me crazy. His justification for the necessity of baptism could have been written by Alexander Campbell or David Lipscomb, but then he concludes that it is this necessity for baptism that mandates, or at the very least, allows for, infant baptism. His logic makes my head spin. The only thing I can suggest is that, like every single one of us, Bonhoeffer was a product of his theology, not just a shaper of that theology. For him to have rejected infant baptism would have meant far more of a radical turn than he was willing to make, and, for the battle in which he was so completely devoted, the specific question of infant vs. believer’s baptism did not occupy a critical position.] Lipscomb rejected the idea of “inherited” or “original” sin, and for him infant baptism was not only unnecessary, it was unbiblical.
  • Related to another point above, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of the 1930’s. His conception of the church universal not only allowed this, it pretty much demanded it. Lipscomb would have rejected this approach of recognizing the church universal, and would have been emphatic that the only way to unify divided Christianity was to return to a simple and straightforward understanding of the New Testament.
  • Bonhoeffer held firmly to the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” One of the distinctive views of Lipscomb is that there is only one kingdom, that of God, and that any attempt of man to govern within that kingdom was a repudiation of God’s kingship. Therefore, for Lipscomb, a Christian should not participate in any form of government, even down to voting! Bonhoeffer believed that government was established and blessed by God, so long as it reserved its authority for strictly “secular” purposes. The role of the church was to teach the government how to govern appropriately, and to correct the government when it overstepped its boundaries.

As I mentioned in my first post – the differences between Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer are vast and deep. One should in no way confuse the beliefs of these two men! However, the intersection of their thoughts, where they do indeed intersect, is profoundly interesting to me, for the very reason that they approach Scripture and the church from such differently positions. I am captivated by both. I favor Lipscomb in many ways because he is family – we share the same ecclesiastical heritage. I find his political views refreshing, and dare I say it, far more biblical than most of my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. I believe Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both drank from the same Spirit. I can see, despite their differences, a strange union. Maybe its because I am so strange. Who knows.

Anyway, thanks for sharing a bit of my conservative, and liberal, heritage!

Honoring Heroes – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and David Lipscomb

Okay, maybe I’ve have put the whole “orthodoxy/heresy” question to bed. Time to move on.

I have often ruminated that the two greatest theological minds to have influenced me are (in chronological order) David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer would get the nod in terms of amount of written material that I have, but Lipscomb would get the nod in terms of theological agreement. I have suggested that if I were to name my favorite theologian, it would be David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb

While separated by a generation (Bonhoeffer was nine when Lipscomb died), an ocean (Lipscomb and American, Bonhoeffer a German), a culture, and vast theological differences, the two share some striking similarities; maybe not profound to many, but poignant to me. Here are just a few of the most important:

  • Both were center-right of their respective churches. Bonhoeffer was considered an irritant by many in the German church. He was labeled a trouble maker and extremist. Lipscomb was also viewed as somewhat of an extremist – not so much for his theological positions, but for the radical ethical positions he drew from those theological positions. While Lipscomb could also be attacked by those further to the right on the Restorationist continuum, both of these leaders were marked for their obstinate refusal to surrender core biblical teachings, or to compromise for the purpose of “just getting along” with their opponents.
  • Both were committed to reforming these churches. Lipscomb would use the word “restore” rather than “reform,” but both men dedicated themselves to correcting what they saw were serious errors in the church. Both men were able to see that the error they were facing was not simply the presence of individual “sin” in the church, but rather that there was a systemic bent toward sinfulness in the church. Any preacher can preach against sin, but it takes a true visionary to attack the presence of systemic Sin in the life of the church.
  • As a result, both men were willing to face the inevitable wrath of former friends and colleagues. Neither man was exempt from such wrath.
  • Both men were pacifist. This is truly intriguing. Both men saw the error, the futility, of war. Lipscomb lived through the American Civil War, and preached tirelessly that Christians in the South were not to take up arms against Christians in the North. Bonhoeffer was just a youth during World War I, and as a patriotic German, defended the act of going to war even as a young preacher during his ministry in Spain. However, by the time Hitler ascended to the role of Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer had come to reject his earlier defense of militarism, and was fully aware that his acceptance of pacifism might ultimately cost him his life. It was a risk he was willing to take.
  • Both men were deeply committed to mentoring, teaching, and developing young men for the ministry of the church. Bonhoeffer led an illegal seminary for Lutheran pastors, and Lipscomb created a college for the purpose of educating and training young preachers. Through their tutelage, scores of Christians have been influenced by this interest and love for training the next generation of preachers.
  • Finally, (at least for this post), both men were deeply committed to the power of God to effect the changes necessary to reform or restore the church, but both men were aware that humans were going to have to change if there was to be any lasting transformation. You could say that both had almost a child-like faith in God both to will and to empower the church to change. After all, it was Jesus who said, “Unless you change and become like these little children . . .” Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both radiated that child-like love and faith in their God.

Perhaps other similarities could be drawn, and perhaps I will do so. Obviously I have not labeled all of the differences – and they are numerous and not insignificant. I have considered it profound how two men who, at least ostensibly have so little in common, have been such influences in my life. If you know me very well at all, you should be able to see David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer in my words. Alas, I’m afraid I’ve not put much of their courage or their holiness into actual lived experience, but maybe I can change that over the remaining portion of my life on this earth.

For the Love of Words

Harvey Porter, long-time preacher and hero of mine, once said that in order to be a good preacher you had to be a lover of words. My father bequeathed to me many quirks, but maybe one that I value the most is a profound love of words. I have seen him reading Ogden Nash and laughing so hard tears came to his eyes. My father loved a beautiful poem and beautiful song lyrics. To him words were not simply objects to be thrown around mindlessly, but tools to be treasured and protected.

Words move us, shape us, comfort us. Conversely, words can cut, inflame, and injure. While other animals have the ability to communicate using sounds, only humans have the ability to create and share the specific meaning of individual sounds called words. There are countless languages on the earth, but none without meaning, and none without the use of specific, individual words.

There is something profound, and even mystical, then, that the gospel writer says that Jesus was the Word of God. The Divine Being that is beyond and transcends all understanding, descended into this world to be known as the Word.

All of which is to point to the death of words, of language, today. Words used to have meaning – words used to be signs that pointed to a fixed and immutable truth that lay behind the vocalization of certain sounds. Take the word truth for example – on one level the word is simply a combination of a sequence of vocalizations that, on their own, have no significance. On another level the word points to something solid, secure; as I mentioned above, immutable and eternal.

But, today, even truth is dying. We are told there is no immutable, eternal truth. Truth is a construct, truth is what we want it to be, truth is transitory, cultural, and ephemeral.

Pardon me for being old-fashioned, out-of-date, and stodgy, but I treasure words. I value words not only for the beauty that they reveal, but for the beauty they contain in-and-of themselves. There is a quality, an aspect, of words that I hold to be precious. Even though the eternal concept of Truth cannot be affected by the degrading of the physical word truth, its value in the economy of language does suffer. The mention of truth used to make gentlemen stand up and remove their hats. Now, all it does is engender snickers and guffaws.

All of the preceding leads me to the question that motivated this post – what does the word Christian mean anymore? That is to ask, what does it mean to be a Christian? Is one a Christian simply because he or she is not a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist? Is one a Christian simply because he or she says that he or she is a Christian? Is there some definable, measurable quality that would identify a person as a Christian? If so, what is it? How would we identify it?

There is a collection of writings that, for roughly two thousand years, men and women have used as a measure of what it means to be a Christian. We call that collection of writings a Bible, a word that simply means book. The Bible is a book of books, comprised of millions of words. Those words are not just any kind of words, however. For those who have historically used the adjective “Christian,” those words are believed to have come to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of the Holy God. They are not, in other words, just inspirational words, such as the words of the great Greek, Roman, or English poets. No. These words are believed, are confessed, to be the words that God himself gave to his chosen penmen (and perhaps, penwomen). To deny that those words are inspired of God, and even to deny the truths that those words communicate, has, for those two thousand years (and even longer, adding the history of the Jewish people), meant that one is outside of the boundaries of the church. In other words, you cannot deny that which creates the identity of a person or group, and then claim the identity of that person or group.

There are people who reject the inspiration of the Scriptures. They therefore reject the foundational truths revealed in those Scriptures. They may selectively borrow certain qualities or virtues promoted in Scripture, but for them those qualities are simply inspirational, and therefore not crucial (note, the root for crucial is the cross – that which is crucial is founded of the truth of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross).

Here is where, for me, the “rubber meets the road” (to use a colorful colloquialism). It is simply impossible to deny the inspiration of the Bible, and deny the historical and moral teachings contained in those Scriptures, and then claim allegiance to the One to whom those Scriptures point. It is not enough to claim a belief in the historical life of Jesus. It is not even enough to claim that this Jesus died to forgive the failures of mankind.

If you deny the claims that Scripture makes about itself (or, that the authors make regarding their writings) then you cannot claim participation in the realm, the kingdom, that the Scriptures identify – the kingdom of God. To me its that simple.

I am enough of a realist to understand that in the ebb and flow of history, the meanings and the usage of words changes. Take, for example, the bastardization of the word gay. Gay used to mean happy, carefree, exuberant. Now it is used to describe a deviant sexual lifestyle.

I question whether the word “Christian” can have any linguistic value today. I know the truth behind the word has not changed, but because we use the word to describe everything from trinkets and baubles to the precise and exacting exercise of theology, the word has “literally” become vapid, insipid, meaningless. I think for the time being the phrase disciple of Christ has more validity. You can measure discipleship, you can challenge it, test it, qualify and quantify it. Not so much with the adjective, Christian.

I love the word Christian, however. In its pristine form it means, little Christ. Those who honorably claim the name seek to become like Jesus in every way. In order to do that we must rely on the words he loved and meditated upon – the Holy Scriptures that we call the Old Testament. We must also rely on the words of those whom He inspired to continue his message – the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament. We must love the Word, and we must love the words.

And, for anyone who does not love the Word, let him or her be anathema. (1 Corinthians 16:22). If anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to the gospel preached in the Scripture, let that one be accursed (Galatians 1:8, 9)

The Impossibility of Heresy

Thomas Merton on heresy –

In the climate of the Second Vatican Council, of ecumenism, of openness, the word ‘heretic’ has become not only unpopular but unspeakable . . . But has the concept of heresy become completely irrelevant? . . . Or is error something we no longer consider dangerous?

The Catholic is one who stakes his life on certain truths revealed by God. If these truths cease to apply, his life ceases to have meaning.

So then: what is a heretic?

A heretic is first of all a believer. Today the ideas of ‘heretic’ and ‘unbeliever’ are generally confused. . . It [heresy] is, however a problem for the believer who is too eager to identify himself with their [the unbeliever] unbelief in order to ‘win them for Christ.’

Where the real danger of heresy exists for the Catholic today is precisely in that ‘believing’ zeal which, eager to open up new aspects and new dimensions of faith, thoughtlessly or carelessly sacrifices something essential to Christian truth, on the grounds that this is no longer comprehensible to modern man. Heresy is precisely a ‘choice’ which, for human motives (rationalized perhaps as ‘grace’), selects and prefers an opinion contrary to revealed truth as held and understood by the church. It then proceeds to teach this opinion contumaciously even against the sincere protest of the faithful (not merely the carping of a few bigots). [Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 338-339]

Why in the world am I quoting the words of a Roman Catholic Trappist monk, with whom I would have far more to disagree with than to agree? Because, oddly enough, I have much more respect for someone who is willing to defend their beliefs, than for anyone who is willing to sacrifice what they think they believe, or used to believe, in order to salvage any measure of popular admiration.

Once upon a time, it was actually possible to “commit”  heresy, to be a heretic, simply because the church zealously defended a robust, specific, and exclusive concept of truth. Now, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and we have to be “tolerant,” “affirming,” and “inclusive” of every opinion no matter how bizarre or ridiculous, heresy is impossible.

But, follow me here. If the rhetorical concept of evil was totally and completely erased, everything would be “good.” Murder would be good. Rape would be good. Lying, cheating, stealing, all would be “good,” because there would be no concept of “evil” with which to label these activities. In that sense, the meaning of “good” would likewise be erased. There can be no concept of the ethical or the “good” without the opposing concepts of the unethical or “evil.”

If the rhetorical concept of “heresy” is erased, then, likewise so is the rhetorical concept of truth. “Truth” then becomes whatever one wants it to be. In the profound words of Merton above, truth then simply becomes a choice and an opinion with no reference to any external authority.

Today we have erased the concept of heresy at the horrifying expense of erasing the concept of truth.

If you doubt me, just follow any kind of religious publication and see what happens when someone utters or writes the “H” word. “You better be careful” say all the nervous nellies. “You can’t call someone a heretic just because they disagree with you.” Well, no. No one is saying that. But, you can identify someone as a heretic if they deny or reject a specific teaching of Scripture that the church universal has accepted and proclaimed for virtually all of its 2,000 year existence.

A few months ago, a young evangelical hero publicly proclaimed that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God of the New Testament. A long, long time ago a fellow by the name of Marcion said the same thing, and was purged from the church as being a heretic. A few people had the courage (and the insight) to recognize that what the young hero was saying was virtually identical to what Marcion taught, and called the hero a heretic. You would have thought they called him the antichrist. “You cannot label him a heretic just because he has a different interpretation than you.” Well, no. Once again, no one ever said that. But to specifically deny that the God of the New Testament is the same God as the Old Testament is a heretical teaching. Ergo and therefore, the young hero is a heretic.

Just recently a young female author passed away and she has been duly canonized and beatified into evangelical sainthood. Commentators have been tripping over themselves trying to be the most effuse in their praise of her opinions. I may be the only one to say this, but if the Thomas Merton’s definition of heresy above has any merit at all, this woman was a heretic. She may have been a believer (I cannot affirm or deny that judgment), but she clearly made choices that deviated from Scriptural norms, she actively promoted those choices and opinions and denigrated those who defended truths that have been sustained by the church since its inception.

Read the paragraph from Merton above again that begins with the words, “Where the real danger of heresy exists. . . ” Substitute the word “Christian”  for “Catholic” (or, if you are Catholic, leave it there, or if you are comfortable with understanding Merton’s ecumenism, leave it there as well) and think about it for a while. Both the evangelical hero who denies the eternal nature and unity of God and the one-time evangelical author (she actually left “evangelicalism” and moved to the Anglican church) who denied the inspiration of Scripture and the divine nature of God as revealed in human sexuality, sought to promote their heresies in order to “win people to Christ.” They both thought that the more traditional, read “biblical,” view was too confining, too exclusive, too demeaning. So, let’s just create a new and different God for the New Testament, a God of love, of kindness, of acceptance, a God who would never stoop to such behaviors as executing disobedient people (well, Acts chapter 5 excluded). Let’s just create a Christianity where there are no distinctions between male and female, let’s just do away with that repressive concept of “one man, one woman united in marriage for life.” Let’s just do away with that silly myth that the Holy Spirit could inspire an author (or authors) to teach and proclaim such clearly inhumane doctrines. Let us be able to pick and choose which teachings in the Bible we find acceptable, and let us be free to reject those we find unacceptable; and above all, let us be free to excoriate those who hold those traditional teachings we find so repugnant.

I find it somewhat embarrassing to have to go to a Roman Catholic, Trappist monk to find a cogent discussion of the possibility, even the necessity, of labeling certain teachings and teachers as heresy and heretical. I wonder what he would say of the Roman Catholic church of 2019.

I don’t think I have to wonder what he would think about someone who denied the doctrine of the unity of God throughout the Bible, or of someone who denied that all the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.

I know this is politically incorrect (as this entire post has probably been) but I think the “H” word needs to made possible again.

Asking the Wrong Question, and Missing the Point

Been reading a lot of philosophy lately – of both the secular and theological kind. So a new question struck me recently, maybe not a new question for you, but it has raised a series of related questions in my mind. I always seem to be better at asking questions than providing answers. Anyway, if you have any profound insights, please feel free to comment.

My observation which led to a question is this: I wonder if the reason the church is losing members, and is having the related issue of paralysis of evangelism, is because we are asking the wrong question. What I mean is, if we confront people with the wrong existential question, no matter how correctly they answer any other question, in the long run it really will not matter. This takes some unpacking, but stay with me for a little while and let me at least try.

Unless I am just flat out crazy, it seems to me that the Bible is totally unconcerned with proving that God exists. It simply takes for granted that God exists, that He is a personal God, that He is vitally interested in the creation He created, redeemed, and will at some point in time, completely renew. In fact, I will venture that until the time of the Enlightenment, it was assumed by virtually every culture that there was a god. Whether that god could be considered the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might be debated, but with the exception of some far-Eastern religions, the existence of a god was never even questioned. So, if I am correct, all the ink that is spilled and the breath that is expelled trying to “prove” God exists is utterly a waste of time. For one, it cannot be done (otherwise, faith would be replaced by some laboratory test or other) and two, even if you could “prove” God exists, all you have done is expend a tremendous amount of energy to arrive where the Bible begins, “In the beginning God. . .”

A far more vital question relates to the historical existence and truthfulness of the claims of Jesus: that Jesus is the Son of God and that he lived, was crucified, was resurrected, and will return. Here again, however, at least for those of us living in the 21st century, these questions must be answered by faith. We cannot interview those who stood by the tomb of Lazarus, those who tasted the water turned into wine, those who stuck their heads in the empty tomb. “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” is therefore a legitimate and probing question. Sadly, however, “belief” in Jesus as the Son of God has been so watered down in our culture that quite literally any belief can qualify as belief in Jesus as God’s messiah. You can be a white supremacist, devoted follower of cultists such as Joseph Smith, or card-carrying member of the LGBTQ cohort and still proclaim to be a believer in Jesus as the Christ. Logically, and not just theologically, that is just impossible, but the use of logic went out the window decades ago.

So, it seems to me, that the question that is the ultimate question is this: “Will there be a supreme and final judgment that will separate the righteous from the evil, the right from the wrong, the blessed from the cursed.” I offer as evidence the fact that when both John the Baptist and Jesus started their ministries, their primary message was, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” They did not say, “believe in God,” or “yo, dudes, Jesus is da man.” They said “repent.” As in, judgment is coming, you better get right with God.

My second piece of evidence is what might arguably be called Paul’s first letter to any of his fledgling congregations, 1 Thessalonians. He wrote in 1:10, “. . . and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” While Paul is at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ to come (1 Cor. 15!), the existential question Paul seeks to answer is this – what does it matter? If there is no judgment to come, then what does it matter if Jesus is God’s messiah or not? Jesus could just as easily be God’s messiah (the Christ) if there is no judgment forthcoming. Clearly, the coming judgment was a primary, if not the primary, question.

Stated somewhat differently, if there is no coming judgment, it really does not matter what we believe! We can believe in God, or a god, or no god. We can be a racist or promote racial equality. We can follow Joseph Smith or Jim Jones or David Koresh or Joel Osteen – or nobody. We can be straight or gay or male or female or change what we think we are with the change in weather. It simply does not matter – we will all just vaporize at the moment of death, or all go to heaven, or something in between. God then simply becomes another deism, Jesus as the Christ becomes another prophet or guru, and our life on earth is utterly, totally, and completely meaningless.

On the other hand, if there is a coming judgment, then biblical truth really does matter. Then it really does matter what we believe God to be. It really does matter if we submit to the Lordship of Jesus. It really does matter whether we reject religious imposters. And it really does matter how we express our love for all races, how we express our solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, and yes, even how we express our sexual natures. It really does matter if we accept the biblical teaching regarding morality and ethics, and yes, it really does matter that we obey both the weightier matters of God’s law as well as the lighter matters – so long as we correctly differentiate those distinctions (Matthew 23:23-24, Romans 14).

In short, the impending judgment is what will ultimately give our present life meaning. As far as the kingdom of God has been revealed, our life has meaning here and now. The ultimate revelation of what our life on this earth means will be made clear when we see the new heaven and the new earth.

This is not to suggest that we begin with the question of the judgment. Every person and every situation is different. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to evangelism and sharing the gospel of Christ. Some people need to see the reality of God. Some need to be confronted with the lordship of Jesus. Some need to even understand the authority of Scripture. But if we never get around to pressing the issue of the judgment, if we never get around to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” we will never be successful in leading people into that kingdom.

I could be soaking wet, mostly wet, or maybe just a little damp. But the question has caused me to re-orient my own preaching and teaching. I hope it helps you focus as well.

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.

Follow-Up to ‘A Church Shameful to Christ’ (last post)

Upon reading and re-reading my last post, I feel a few follow-up comments are warranted.

First, I admit my emotions may have come through a little too forcefully in that post. I do not retract anything that I said, but this is an emotional topic for me. Also, the past few weeks of my life have been anything but normal or settled, and perhaps the events of the past couple of weeks made my trigger finger a little too edgy. Sometimes I feel a need to apologize for unkind words or thoughts, and while I do not think I crossed any lines, I do want to offer some additional thoughts that might help explain the rawness of my last post.

I have said repeatedly that I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, and I not only am I deeply moved by the goals of that movement, I am proud of the better angels of that movement. I am aware no group of people throughout history has been perfect, and the members of the Restoration Movement are not exception to that rule. We have had our black sheep, and our closets are more than full of rotting skeletons. What transpired 200 years ago almost to the year, on the Western Reserve of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, and south to Tennessee is nothing short of an American miracle. I am grateful to be an heir of that miracle.

The tragedy of the Movement is that we stopped moving. The focus of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and their compatriots was virtually entirely focused on the externals of ecclesiology. We focused on how to enter the church (baptism) and what one received in the process (forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit). We focused on church polity and decorum (proper worship and congregational government). In other words, over ninety percent of our efforts were focused on the visible congregation, how it was administered, how one entered it, and how one behaved in its assemblies. What was virtually non-existent was any sustained focus on what might be termed the spiritual nature of the Christian life. Exceptions exist, but, as I said, the vast, overwhelming majority of the foci of the early Restoration leaders was on the visible aspects of the congregation.

The problem with that emphasis is, once it was “restored,” once it was deemed to have been brought back into line with New Testament teaching, what else was there to restore? So, we quit restoring and starting fighting. Having decided that we were going to make our stand over jots and tittles, we started civil wars over who could count the most jots and decide the significance of the tiniest tittles.

For proof of that assertion, I point to how our fellowship has distinguished itself in topics that are generally considered to be of biblical or ecclesial importance. Scholars who are associated with the Churches of Christ have distinguished themselves almost exclusively in the areas of New Testament studies and church history, especially within the first three centuries of the church. There are a much smaller number of scholars or authors who are respected in Old Testament studies. Once you leave the fields of textual studies and early church history, the number of scholars, or even of respected authors, from the Churches of Christ virtually vanishes.

  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of the spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, meditation, contemplation, giving, – some authors provide a dozen or more specific spiritual disciplines).
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of spiritual direction.
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field Christian ethics.
  • I can only think of one peer-recognized author in the field of biblical theology.
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of serious, biblical ecumenical work.
  • The last of the great revival preachers among the Churches of Christ, those who could roar like Amos and weep like Jeremiah, are all retired or long dead.

Now, just because I do not know of such authors or scholars does not mean they do not exist. But I do read broadly, and the absence of authors from my own spiritual family in these and other areas is deeply disturbing to me. We have fought for decades to “have a place at the conversation table,” and seemingly at the moment we were granted that place, we just quit trying. Or, those who were invited to the table are just so embarrassed to be associated with the Church of Christ that they just rubber stamp what everyone else is saying. That is not ecumenism. That is cowardice.

What I do see is a widening and deepening chasm among factions within the church. On the left I see an avalanche of writing and teaching that has fully accepted the core tenets of evangelicalism. This is actually the full born fruit of Alexander Campbell’s later years and philosophy – “If you cannot beat ’em, join ’em.” In that sense these liberals are pure Campbellites, and they are utterly clueless about what that term means.

On the reactionary right I see the full grown fruit of the poisonous legalism that was introduced by such journals as The Heretic Detector (yes, that was an actual journal). Self-proclaimed guardians of the faith have made a career out of “outing” such blasphemous practices as raising hands or clapping during the singing of a song, having a functioning coffee pot during a Bible class, or, heaven forbid, singing a song during the participation of the Lord’s Supper (you cannot participate in two acts of worship simultaneously!).

Somehow, after two millennia of church history, we have succeeded in re-establishing both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

When I first started my Doctor of Ministry degree, I had a private conversation with one of the directors of the program. He asked me what I wanted out of my specific study. After a considerable amount of embarrassed humming and hawing, I managed to weakly blurt out, “I want to help the Church of Christ be the church of Christ again.” He allowed that was a pretty noble quest.

Which brings me to my last post, “A Church Shameful to Christ.” It as an emotional outpouring, I admit. But I am pretty emotional right now. I see a church that is increasingly becoming more political (on both ends of the spectrum) – and simultaneously becoming less influential. I see a church that is doing everything that it can to appear to the world to be acceptable and popular. At the same time I see a retrenchment into attitudes that were divisive the first time around, and are proving to be even more divisive today. I see a church that is increasingly becoming embarrassed to be associated with the Bible (instead of Bible lectureships, we now have such foofy lectureships as “Summit” and “Harbor.”) The presidents of the universities and colleges associated with the Churches of Christ have displayed an unwillingness to stand up to the LGBTQ cabal that is repugnant, quite frankly. We are preparing more men (and women!) to preach in evangelical churches than we are men who are committed to Restoration principles.

As the church universal sinks deeper and deeper into utter irrelevancy, the message of the Restoration Movement is a clear and penetrating beacon in an otherwise wretched night. But, we cannot keep fighting battles that were fought and decided centuries ago and yet still consider ourselves faithful to Jesus. We have to move on past the jots and the tittles. Without surrendering an inch of the gains we have made in our biblical and historical studies (which are prodigious, and worth promoting), we must, we absolutely must, move forward.

We must return to discipleship. We must return to Christ. We must return to the basics of what it means to “put off the old self, and to put on the new creation.” We must lay aside the basic fundamentals and move on to a full humanity in Christ Jesus. I do not begrudge my forefathers one little bit, but in order to honor them I must keep the restoration flame burning. I cannot build a city where they merely pitched a tent.

God will not judge this generation, or any generation, on the basis of the successes or failures of the preceding generation. The church of the 21st century will be judged by how we both live and proclaim the cross of Jesus to a bent and broken and dying world.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I just don’t see us doing that. That makes me emotional – and sometimes when I write I let off more steam than I generate light.

If I offended, please forgive. If I spoke truth – let’s get it right.

In everything, let us ascend lower.