Jeremiah Johnston’s book Unimaginable: What Our World Would be Like Without Christianity seeks to live up to its title. It is an apologetic for Christianity that focuses upon all the good the Christian faith has produced in the world. In this regard, it fits in a similar genre of books written by Rodney Stark (e.g. The Triumph of Christianity, The Victory of Reason, Cities of God, For the Glory of God). The book is very readable and informative even though Johnston frequently quotes scholarly sources.
The book is divided in three parts. Part 1, consisting of five chapters, looks at the world before Christianity came upon the scene. He focuses his attention primarily on the Western world (i.e. Greek and Roman). His thesis is the world before Christianity was marked by moral, social and religious darkness. It was a world full of self-inflicted suffering and fear. Its gods were petty, vindictive, and often more evil than humans. The ancients had no concept of a benevolent God. The love of the gods was erotic instead of merciful and compassionate. Slavery and racism were rampant. There was massive inequality between rich and poor, with no middle class. The poor were despised. Women were degraded. Infants were frequently disposed like trash. Then Christianity came and brought light to this dark world.
Part 2 consists of 6 chapters that seeks to tell the story of the modern world where Christianity has been absent. Here Johnston is focused on the world from the time of the Enlightenment, but focuses particularly upon influential thinkers from the 19th to the early 20th century. Johnston believes Feuerbach, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are the five most devastating thinkers of the last 200 years. He briefly chronicles their thinking and influence in chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 8 tries to draw a connection between atheism and immorality, particularly sexual immorality. Thinkers like Percy Shelly, Jean Paul Sartre, and Bertrand Russell were well known atheists who also engaged in sexual immorality. He quotes Aldous Huxley who was explicit about atheism’s rejection of Christian morality because it interferes with sexual freedom (99). Chapters 9 and 10 zeroes in on Adolf Hitler’s Utopian (dystopian!) vision as the end result of the atheistic philosophy spawned by the likes of Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud. Continue reading
How many times have you heard someone say, “I chose Christ of my own free will”? In many Evangelical circles such a notion is so self-evident as to be proverbial. “Well, of course we must exercise our free will in order to be saved!” So goes the conventional wisdom. Christians sling the phrase free will about with the same ease Tom Brady throws footballs to Rob Gronkowski. But do most really have any idea what they mean when embracing the notions that stand behind these overwrought words? Free will is part of the stock parlance of Arminian theology, and those who employ it with a little sophistication mean something like that which is advanced by philosophers known as libertarianism. And no, we are not talking about Gary Johnson! On the other hand, Calvinists have usually disparaged the use of the term, avoiding it like the scourge of Black Death. But of course Arminianism and its many step-children believe that Calvinism puts the grip of death upon the freedom and responsibility of human beings. In their mind, the dreaded Calvinists would have all humans beings consigned to a vast kingdom of droids.
Is this true?
A modest renaissance of sorts is occurring with a little known brand of Calvinistic thought that, while opposed to the libertarian impulse of Arminianism, embraces a wholly different kind of free agency. It is known as compatibilism and serves as a useful way to frame what the Bible really says about this slippery notion of free will. This understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility was most clearly articulated in Jonathan’s Edwards’ magnificent tome Freedom of the Will. Edwards picked up where Luther and Calvin left off in their carefully crafted works on the subject. Of course, they all stood on the shoulders of Augustine as he tried to grapple with the Biblical text.
In what follows, I offer a humble ode to the thinking of these theological giants on the complex issues that surround the sovereignty of God in salvation and what takes places in sinners who are converted to Christ. In order to understand the dynamics of conversion, one must understand the often neglected doctrine of regeneration. I suggest that regeneration is not only ill-conceived in Arminian theology, it bears little consequence for how we make sense of the metamorphic miracle that transpires when a sinner enters the glorious kingdom of Christ. That supernatural transformation can only be explained by the Calvinistic interpretation of the relevant Biblical data. Furthermore, only Calvinistic compatibilism can make sense of the conundrums that have plagued our understanding of the tension that resides between absolute divine sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom and responsibility on the other.
Let us consider some definitional points first. Continue reading
My book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty is to be released on February 29. It was 2 years ago that I began working on this book and the day of its publication is finally here! You can order the book from Amazon here. The book also has its own website here. If you sign up on the website you will begin receiving a number of resources connected to the book that are not available elsewhere.
William A. Dembski is a well-known proponent of Intelligent Design. But in his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World he makes an interesting foray into theology, specifically the question of theodicy. Dembski holds to the standard age of the cosmos as accepted by the scientific consensus. Nonetheless, he also holds to the divine inspiration of the Bible and thus he seems to accept the literal existence of Adam and Eve as the parents of modern humanity. He also maintains the orthodox Christian belief in the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden which he also seems to accept as a literal event in a literal place in the Genesis account of origins. But like other old earth creationists, Dembski holds that animal death, parasitism, disease, and natural calamities like tsunamis and earthquakes occurred prior to the Fall. These affirmations set up the dilemma Dembski seeks to solve in this book. Dembski believes that the Fall of Adam and Eve, which constitutes a collapse into moral evil, is responsible for natural evil (i.e. death, disease, calamity, etc.). Again, this is standard Christian orthodoxy. But since Dembski believes that natural evil existed prior to the Fall then how can he hold that the Fall into moral evil is responsible for pre-existing natural evil? This is the problem he seeks to solve (46).
Dembski proposes some novel moves to make the case that moral evil is the cause of pre-existing natural evil. He sees the effects of the Fall acting retroactively. In other words, the effect occurred before the cause (50). He points to the retroactive saving work of the cross to prove his point (50, 110). Jesus’ death was not only an atonement for sins that occurred after the fact, but also before the fact. This event in time and space transcends time and space and has a retroactive saving impact upon Old Testament saints (Rom. 3:25-26). Both historical situations are possible due to the transtemporal nature of God who is unbound by time (50). Because God is unbound by time He can rewrite the story of history “while it is being performed [like a play] and even change the entire backdrop against which it is performed—that includes past, present, and future. An infinite God who transcends time can redeem a botched performance by acting in creation so that those effects, though attributable to the Fall, come temporally prior to it. In other words, the effects of the Fall can be retroactive” (110). Continue reading
Trying to reconcile the notion of a good and powerful God with the existence of evil has been a perennial problem that Christian theism has had to face from its inception. The matter has been taken up in earnest over the last several decades. One contribution is The Problem of Evil by Jeremy A. Evans, an associate professor of philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Evans is part of the thriving resurgence of Christian philosophers that have proliferated the field of philosophy for some time now.
Serious Christian responses to the problem of evil are dominated by philosophers and I find this unfortunate. That is not because I think philosophical responses are problematic, rather they are inadequate. In other words, I believe they are necessary but not sufficient. Comprehensive theological, biblical and exegetical responses are wanting. It seems that a great deal of those who engage in systematic and biblical theology have conceded the problem to the philosophers and this is not helpful to the church at large.
Having said that, Evans’ contribution is a worthy effort, but overall, it is not entirely satisfying. First of all, because of the philosophical approach, this volume will be tough sledding for most readers. Although he does not get bogged down with standard scholarly philosophic/ logic notation and complicated syllogisms, there is enough philosophical language to keep non-specialists on their toes. The bottom line—only those who are conversant in at least moderate levels of philosophical discourse will be able to benefit from Evans’ work. However, there are many places where his argumentation is clear and pithy, making those sections more accessible and profitable for us neophytes. Continue reading
The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement by Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn and Michael A. G. Haykin is a newly published textbook on Baptist history that should prove to be useful for college and seminary students as well as those interested in church history. All three authors are accomplished writers and historians, but especially Michael Haykin who is very prolific in drawing out little known treasures from church history (especially 17th and 18th century Baptist figures) through the publication of multiple volumes. Haykin is not only one of the best Evangelical historians doing work today, but he is also quite conversant in theology. He has been able to show how theology and church history intersect in important ways.
The authors walk through the Baptist story from its beginnings. Baptists had their origins not in the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century Reformation, but a century later as one of the separatist movements who broke away from the Church of England in the early 17th century. Although there are parallels, Anabaptists and Baptists have distinct origins and beliefs beyond the common acceptance of believer’s (credo) baptism. The English Separatists became known as Puritans and one of these Puritans was John Smyth. He fled England to the Netherlands as did many Separatists seeking to escape persecution. Initially he was joined to the group of believers who eventually made their way to America in the Mayflower. The two groups separated over views on church polity. Smyth was initially a Calvinist but then became convinced of Arminianism during the Remonstrance controversy in the Netherlands at the time. Continue reading
Michael D. McMullen is an associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He completed doctoral work on Jonathan Edwards at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland as well as Yale University. He has done us a great service by publishing in this volume, some 22 previously unpublished sermons of the great pastor and theologian of the colonial era. McMullen provides a short introduction to Edwards and the painstaking process he undertook to transcribe these sermons for publication from the original manuscripts held in the well-known Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Even with the massive project by Yale University Press to publish the works of Edwards, many of his sermons have not made it into these volumes which now stand at 26 (73 for the online edition). Thankfully, the Works of Jonathan Edwards Online is available on the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University website making the purchase of printed editions unnecessary for those who wish to read Edwards.
Each of the 22 sermons in the present volume is given a brief introduction by McMullen where he discusses the original date of the sermon, its occasion, contents and basic themes. This is very helpful in orienting the reader. McMullen did not select the sermons based on any specific criteria. He simply wanted to provide a broad range of sermons which are from both the Old and New Testaments, long and brief sermons as well as those which are more doctrinal versus evangelistic in flavor. The sermons themselves are simply divided, following standard Puritan traditions. Edwards opens with a brief introduction then moves to the ‘Doctrine’ portion of the sermon with several points. He then concludes with an ‘Application’ section with its several points to press the truths upon the hearts and minds of the listener. The Biblical text for each sermon is as follows: Chapter 1: Genesis 32:26-29; Chapter 2: Deuteronomy 32:29; Chapter 3: Job 19:25; Chapter 4: Psalm 115:1; Chapter 5: Psalm 119:60; Chapter 6: Psalm 139:7-10; Chapter 7: Proverbs 28:13; Chapter 8: Ecclesiastes 7:1; Chapter 9: Song of Solomon 1:3; Chapter 10: Ezekiel 7:16 (Sermon 1); Chapter 11: Ezekiel 7:16 (Sermon 2); Chapter 12: Hosea 13:9; Chapter 13: Matthew 7:13-14; Chapter 14: Matthew 13:47-50; Chapter 15: Mark 16:15-16; Chapter 16: Acts 19:19; Chapter 17: Romans 5:7-8; Chapter 18: 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Chapter 19: 1 Timothy 2:5; Chapter 20: James 1:13; Chapter 21: James 1:17; Chapter 22: Revelation 3:20. Continue reading