Book Review: The End of Christianity

End of Xianity

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).

Dembski is critical of young earth creationism even though he acknowledges that this has been the position of the Church historically (55). He asks, “Within young-earth creationism, all divine compensatory action to redress humanity’s sin occurs forward in time from the Fall. But why should God be limited in that way?” (111). His solution to the problem is a self-conscious attempt “to preserve theological orthodoxy regarding the Fall and scientific orthodoxy regarding [modern] geology [among other indicators of an old earth]” (111).

In making his case, Dembski argues that natural evil is not morally significant prior to the Fall. It only takes on moral significance once humans experience it (78-81). In this regard, he holds that hominids likely existed prior to Adam and Eve who represent the first true ‘humans’ (i.e. homo sapiens). With their existence, God’s breathing life into them (Gen. 2:7) is not a supernatural act of imparting physical life into the couple, but rather the life of God’s image (154-55). In other words, this event signifies the moment God created human beings which are primarily marked by giving them “cognitive and moral capacities” to match His own intelligent moral identity (158). After such moral creatures come into existence pre-existing natural evil suddenly takes on moral significance.  Presumably hominids had no moral sense and therefore could not experience the discomforting existential realities of pain and suffering that come with a less than perfect world.

Divine transtemporality is important in Dembski’s view that God acts retroactively in history. He appeals to Newcomb’s Paradox for scientific support of this view (128-29). In this respect, “divine omniscience [i.e. specifically foreknowledge] and omnipresence means that God is able to anticipate events and human actions by acting in response before they occur” (131). Retroactive answers to prayer seem to confirm this belief. He explains further:

Because God knows the future and can act on this knowledge by anticipating events and directing their course, divine action follows not a causal-temporal logic but an intentional-semantic logic. This logic treats time as nonlinear… and sees God as acting in the world to accomplish his purposes in accord with the meaning or significance of events. The causal-temporal logic underlying the physical world and the intentional-semantic logic underlying divine action are not at odds—they neither contradict nor are reducible to each other. Notwithstanding, the intentional-semantic logic is ontologically prior to the causal-temporal logic. God has always existed and acted on the basis of intentions and meanings. The world, by contrast, has a beginning and an end. It operates according to the causal-temporal logic because God, in an intentional act, created it that way. Divine action is therefore a more fundamental mode of causation than physical causation (132).

Dembski furthers this line of thinking by appealing to two uses of words for time in the Greek. The term chronos refers to chronological time as in a succession of events in a linear cause-effect relationship (125). This corresponds to his notion of causal-temporal logic in the physical world (142). Whereas, the term kairos is the “ordering of reality according to divine purposes” (126). It speaks of that which is eternal and invisible (i.e. immaterial, metaphysical reality) and relates to the intentional-semantic logic of God’s perspective (142). Dembski’s appeal to lexical sources for these distinctions is not very convincing. It is doubtful kairos has this sort of specific meaning in any Biblical passage.

Dembski employs these distinctions to the creation account of Genesis 1-3. The predominate time markers in the account are not speaking of literal time (as in young-earth or other old-earth accounts – i.e. chronos) nor are they metaphorical literary devices, rather they speak of “episodes” in God’s mind when he intended to create (142). In order to make this case, Dembski has to really generalize. He does not explain such specific time markers like “evening-morning” or the use of ordinals to describe the “days” (i.e. Hebrew yom) of creation. How this language fits the very specific definition he gives to kairos is left unexplored.

What shall we make of Dembski’s thesis? I believe it is unconvincing for several reasons. First of all, Dembski’s affirmation of pre-existing natural evil resulting retroactively from the Fall means that Adam and Eve never really experienced the “good” creation God initially made. In fact, it seems in Dembski’s scheme there never was a “good” creation to begin with. Furthermore, the first humans had to suffer the consequences of their sin prior to committing that sin. Dembski anticipates both these problems.

With regard to the first, he says God creates a kind of double creation. “God, in Genesis 1, creates a perfect world…. As a conceptual act by a perfect God, it cannot help but be perfect.” This is the first creation. “In Genesis 2-3, we find the ‘second creation,’ which starts off great but quickly ends in ruin” (111). Dembski does not elaborate, but it seems that his notion of the initial creation as perfect is only a conceptual reality corresponding to his motif of God’s intentional-semantic logic. God conceptualizes a perfect world in his mind, but the causal-temporal reality is something less than ideal. This is like some bad Platonic dream, where perfect concepts exist in the mind of God, but reality fails to match up to those ideal notions.

When it comes to the problem of Adam and Eve suffering the consequences for their sin retroactively, Dembski supposes that the Garden of Eden was a specially protected environment untouched by the natural evil that existed elsewhere in the world. Because Adam and Eve’s existence was confined to the garden, they never actually experienced animal violence, death, disease, natural calamities and so forth. The traditional view of the creation account is that the whole world was created in a state of perfection. But Dembski asks “why God would need to plant a garden in a perfect world untouched by natural evil? In a perfect world [such as young-earth creationists posit], wouldn’t the whole world be a garden? And why, once humans sin, must they be expelled from this garden and live outside it, where natural evil is present?” (151). As long as the couple stays in this “island of sanity” (152) they are untouched by natural evil. Once God expels them from the garden they experience what the rest of the world has already experienced for millions of years (151).

This is highly speculative at best. There is nothing explicit or even implicit in the Genesis account to suggest Eden was some haven in the midst of an otherwise evil world of death, violence and calamity. Over and over we are told the whole of the creation was good. This is not a conceptual reality in God’s mind, his “good” intention, but a physical reality. Nor is God’s “good” intention confined strictly to Eden (153). His good intention extends to the whole of the cosmos, not a tiny fraction of it. Dembski must engage in extreme exegetical and theological gymnastics in order to affirm that the Evolutionary paradigm that rules science cannot abide by a such a perfect primordial world. Furthermore, what about the serpent in this scenario? How did he penetrate this island of sanity undetected by God? Or did God’s permissive will allow him to enter? If so what was the purpose? That is the bigger question of theodicy and Dembski never attempts to ask or answer it.

Dembski’s reconstruction of the creation account undermines the whole storyline of Scripture traditionally outlined as Creation-Fall-Redemption. Since his conception of the whole of creation was already cursed from the beginning, it calls into question the goodness of God. Confining the good creation to a tiny spec in the cosmos called Eden will not do. Romans 8:18-22 will not admit of any such reductionism.  The whole of creation was created good and then temporally subjected to futility according to the most natural reading of Genesis 1-3. In other words, there was no strange kairotic (to quoin a Dembski-like term) transtemporal time tricks going on here. This is not to deny God’s transtemporality. It is simply to say that there is no exegetical or theological warrant to employ it with regard to the creation and fall of man. Furthermore, if the creation was not wholly good then Christ’s redemption work whereby he restores “all things” (Acts 3:21) loses its meaning. There is no good to restore. It was largely corrupted from the get-go.

Dembski’s scheme wreaks a great deal of havoc upon the storyline of Scripture in his effort to save the Bible from what he regards as the more sure interpretation of science. Dembski is willing to force a dubious interpretation upon Scripture because its plain meaning cannot stand up to the infallible pronouncements of the scientific establishment. This is not disparaging the scientific enterprise. The Christian worldview is not anti-scientific. Rather it questions the many presuppositions that have entered the debate on origins when that matter was highjacked by an avowed anti-supernatural agenda. Modern science in the guise of Darwinian evolution (in its various manifestations) has an axe to grind with Biblical Revelation and too many believers have been duped by its unquestioned pronouncements about the natural world and its origins.  The fact remains, no matter how much energy is poured into theorizing about origins, science has no absolute way to make pronouncements about it. We simply cannot reconstruct it. The only way to know how it all came bout is to have a reliable witness. The Genesis record, in the plainest of terms, gives just such a witness—from the perspective of the Creator Himself. That record never came under question until the powerful priests of Darwinism pronounced it null and void.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Problem of Evil

Evans_PoE

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.

Evans employs the Free Will Defense (FWD) as his basic approach to the problem. This is no surprise. Ever since the venerable dean of Christian philosophy, Alvin Plantinga, applied this approach to the problem of evil (especially in God, Freedom and Evil), virtually every Christian philosopher has followed suit. Plantinga presented a well-argued response to philosophers like J. L. Mackie and convinced many philosophers, both believing and unbelieving, that he provided an adequate ‘defense’ (not a thoroughgoing theodicy) to the problem of God and evil. Although libertarian free will has had its able defenders in secular accounts, I do not believe Christian philosophers have made a credible defense of it on Christian grounds. Perhaps more to the point, they have not made credible exegetical and theological arguments from the data of Scripture itself. In the case of Evans (and many others) he has not sought to defend the basic libertarian premises in his argumentation. Libertarian free will is assumed to be true without defense.

And this is precisely the point at which accounts like Evans falls short. Reformed/ Calvinistic theologians have provided far better exegetical and theological defenses of divine determinism over and against libertarian freedom from the data of Scripture that seems largely ignored in Christian philosophy. Furthermore, compatibilistic accounts of human freedom and responsibility accord more with the Scriptural data (see my forthcoming book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty – P&R Publishing, February 2016). I think Christian philosophy has become so myopic and specialized that scholars in the field are not conversant with serious theological materials that contribute to a more faithful theodicy.  Furthermore, most works of Christian philosophy simply are not conversant with Scripture. Scripture is not the starting point for their apologetic. This doesn’t mean most Christian philosophers don’t seek to defend Scriptural doctrines. Scriptural concepts are retained in general, however, they are defended by appeal to rationalism first and revelation second. This is not always the case. Evans often makes appeal to Scripture and I applaud him for doing so. But it is often done in a cursory way. In other words, theology and Biblical exegesis plays the handmaiden to philosophy instead of the other way around. This is what leads to the wholesale acceptance of concepts like libertarianism that has scant support from the actual data of Scripture even though it serves to solve the dilemmas of theodicy much more conveniently.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is because Reformed theology has historically been regarded as the harder theology to adopt an acceptable theodicy, even among Reformed theologians themselves. If libertarianism were true, it would solve the problem with greater ease and with greater acceptability among non-believing critics of the Christian faith. I think that is why it has been a more appealing avenue for Christian philosophers and Arminians in general. The problem is the data of Scripture gives unequivocal support for meticulous divine determinism on the one hand; and on the other, its account of human and divine responsibility does not in any way cohere with libertarian accounts of freedom.

Christian philosophers love to quote Augustine, Aquinas and the scholastics along with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, et. al. but have little room for Calvin, Luther, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck and Berkouwer. Historians have long acknowledged the genius of Jonathan Edwards, but few philosophers have grappled with his magisterial Freedom of the Will where he ably defends a nascent brand of compatibilism (the idea that human freedom and responsibility is compatible with divine determinism—that is, meticulous providence). Perhaps that is because he was a theologian first and a philosopher second. Ignoring Edwards has become unfortunate.

Evans acknowledges that the real problem of evil is not the logical problem. Plantinga has solved this with the FWD and others who hold to divine determinism have shown the logical problem is not a problem at all (e.g. John Feinberg, Paul Helm, James Speigel, Thaddeus Williams). The notion of gratuitous evil is where the problem largely centers—and let’s be honest, this is where it has always centered. Why does God allow evils that have no apparent reason or purpose? Evans seeks to solve the problem first of all by putting theism in perspective. He argues that there are many other avenues of apologetic value that have sought to vindicate the existence of God. In this regard, he shows his hand as an evidentialist, the most common form of apologetics among Christian philosophers. I favor presuppositionalism.

Evans then provides 2 syllogisms:

1. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2. Gratuitous evils do exist (or, there is at least one gratuitous evil)

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

1’. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2’. It is very likely that God exists.

3’. Therefore, it is very likely there are no gratuitous evils. (28)

Evans obviously favors the second of these two arguments. Both arguments are valid, but which is more likely to be sound? The first argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence that gratuitous evils exist (premise 2). The second argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence (premise 2’). Whichever of these 2 premises has better support will determine which argument is more sound. Evans goes on to argue that God always has some good for evils we don’t understand. The fact that God does not reveal what those reasons are is no argument against their existence. There is of course nothing wrong with this argument. The problem is it does not have much persuasive power. When a mother holds the lifeless body of her 5 year son who caught a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, saying God has an unknown reason for his death is not terribly helpful though perhaps true. This is where our efforts to construct a theodicy have to be far more pastoral than cold syllogisms.

One of the more fruitful arguments Evans provides is a sort of modified version of John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. He speaks of the defeat of evil. At this stage Evans’ theodicy is two-pronged. First, the FWD responds to the “why” of evil. Secondly, since evil cannot be prevented, there must exist a reasonable response to mitigate its unseemly characteristics. This is the “what now” response (59). It requires the defeat of evil—“To remove its hold on the content of our experience” (59). We must necessarily partner with God in the defeat of evil, because we can’t do it on our own. Trying to doing things on our own is what brought evil into existence in the first place (59). This defeat of evil has special value for the Christian. “The reason that conversion is the summum bonum of soul making [adopting Hick at this point] is that in the act of conversion the condition of the heart is restored” (49). I think Evans is on to some very provocative ideas here, unfortunately I do not believe he develops them enough. Furthermore, they are hampered by his endorsement of libertarianism. A more robust Biblical theology would tease these ideas out, but that moves beyond his philosophical focus.

Evans’ section on hell may be his best contribution to the problem of evil. The question revolves around the unfairness of the eternal nature of hell. Why would God punish finite sins with infinite punishment? Typically, Christians argue that those in hell never stop sinning and thus they ever incur fresh waves of never-ending judgment. Evans thinks this argument is weak. He says, “The real problem attending the denizens of hell is that they have a disposition that is bent against God” (100). “Sin deforms our character” (100) such that a person reaches a point at which he becomes perverse in his opposition to God. Evans highlights the fact that the word “transgression” speaks of a specific sin in Scripture that highlights “intentional defiance against God” (100). Evans cites Isaiah 59:12-13 for this (101). “Persistence in transgression… ultimately yields a heart hardened against God” (101). “Scripture indicates… the effects of transgression on a person is that as we persist in these choices we forge a character toward a particular destiny, the culmination of which (in the negative sense) is a completely hardened heart against God” (101). This corresponds to Pharaoh’s hardened heart (though I disagree with Evans’ libertarian interpretation of the account in Exodus) and Romans 1 in which God “gives people over” to greater indulgence in sin. Evans argues that this sort of abandonment and hardening of hearts takes place prior to the sinner’s entrance to hell. “Hell is not what hardens a person; instead, hell is a place for hardened persons” (102). He further argues that although hell is sheer horror and why would anyone want to remain there, that is not really the right question. The alternative is to embrace God and acknowledge his Lordship and repent of sin and that is decidedly more repugnant to the “denizens of hell” than the horror it holds for them (102).

Evans also has a profitable discussion of a divine command theory of ethics, which states that an action’s moral value is determined by God. This is commonly met with the Euthyphro objection: “Is something good because God loves it, or does God love something because it is good?” (136). The Euthyphro objection presupposes that attributes of God exist independently of him. Evans answers this with an exposition of the doctrine of divine simplicity which indicates that God cannot be divided into parts as if attributes are added to his person. The reality is they exist as essential to his very being. Evans contends that the notion “God is good” should be “more precisely phrased ‘God is identical with goodness’ (quoting Norman Kretzmann). To be more specific, “God is goodness made real, not just the property of goodness. He is the reality of goodness” (180). Thus the very nature of God is the ground of ethics and of human moral obligation.

Evans moves on the application of divine command theory to one of the more thorny problems in this regard: Genesis 22 and the command to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans makes a remarkable statement. “Every moral command imposed by God has as its root the same concern, namely whether one holds anything in a higher priority than one’s relationship to God” (193). I love this statement. Basically, Evans argues that God’s intention with commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not to bring about a particular state of affairs (i.e., in this case, the death of Isaac), rather his intention is “to bring about obedience with regard to the content of what is commanded” (194). The intention of God is the same in every command he gives to human beings. “What is this intention? To obey the known commands of God and have no other perceived good to be held in higher esteem than him” (195). Evans quotes Hebrews 11:17-19 to vindicate his argument  that God never intended the death of Isaac; although Genesis 22:12 confirms this analysis when God tells Abraham that he knows that he “fear[s] God” above the son he loves.

All this discussion sets up Evans’ attempt to exonerate God from culpability for evil. Although Evans endorses libertarian freedom for humans, he denies it to God since God maintains perfection in his attributes and therefore cannot act contrary to his nature. He appears to affirm a higher theology of providence that Arminianism, but one that falls short of the divine determinism embraced by Calvinists. Here is where interaction with compatibilism would have been fruitful for Evans, but alas, no mention of it. He sounds awfully close to speaking like a compatibilist but staunchly maintains his libertarianism. He quotes Hugh McCann to show that God’s providence is like that of an author to a novel. God creates and determines the circumstances in which human choices play out, yet somehow those choices remain independent of any causal connection to God. This seems rather odd in light of an analogy used more often by Calvinists than Arminians (I am thinking specifically of Wayne Grudem and John Frame). Unfortunately Evans does not tease out some of the implications of his model of providence which would have been helpful.

All-in-all Evans’ book has some useful material for evaluating the problem of evil. He develops some fruitful avenues of thought in seeking to solve at least some of its problems. I believe the work is marred in two ways. First, it embraces libertarianism as a given. If libertarianism is shown to be insufficient as an explanation, then the basic Free Will Defense Evans (and most Christian philosophers) employs fails significantly.  Secondly, he does not employ the solid work of standard Christian Systematic and Biblical theologies. In particular, I believe Reformed theology provides the most faithful and rigorous exposition of Christian doctrine. The work of John Frame, John Feinberg, D. A. Carson, and Paul Helm provides some important perspectives that remain untapped among Christian philosophers with regard to the problem of evil. Feinberg and Helm, in particular, are quite conversant with philosophical accounts of the problem of evil; and Feinberg’s massive tome, The Many Faces of Evil, is rarely consulted in other works of theodicy. This is unfortunate. By all means, read Evans, but read widely from these others as well.

Book Review: The Baptist Story

Baptist Story

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.

A split among Smyth’s followers resulted in many joining Thomas Helwys in a North London church. They became known as the General Baptists. The name stems from the fact that they believed in the Arminian doctrine that Christ’s death provided a general atonement for all people. Shortly thereafter, a new movement known as the Particular Baptists arose from 3 pastors of another London church. These became more prevalent in the early days of the Baptist movement. Their name derives from the fact that they held to the Calvinist doctrine that Christ’s death provided a particular atonement only for those elected to salvation by God. While early Baptists baptized by affusion (pouring water over the head), these were the first to baptize by immersion. The Particular Baptists produced the The First London Confession of Faith in 1644 and then the influential Second London Confession in 1658.

From these modest beginnings, Baptists began to emerge as a major force in Protestant Christianity. We learn of Roger Williams, the first influential Baptist in America who fought early battles for religious freedom in the colonies for struggling Baptists even as fellow Baptists in England began to thrive. But soon, new persecution arose in England with those known as Dissenters or Nonconformists, again with regard to resisting the strong arm of the Church of England. Among this Puritan stock were famous Baptists like John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Finally, the Act of Toleration in 1689 brought religious freedom for English Baptists.

The 18th and 19th centuries brought Baptists to the very forefront of Evangelical revivals and reforms which has made them perhaps the most formidable group of Protestant denominations ever since. The authors tell us the stories of men like the pastor-theologian John Gill, Isaac Backus, Shubal Stearns, Abraham Booth, Andrew Fuller, the father of modern missions William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Francis Wayland and the greater London preacher Charles Spurgeon. We see how Baptists were instrumental in the spread of the First and Second Great Awakenings, the establishment of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the abolishment of slavery in the US South, the temperance movement and other social reforms. We learn of the Northern and Southern Baptists, the Free Will, Primitive, Landmark and Independent Baptists and the rise of educational institutions like Brown University and Southern Seminary. Along the way, the authors weave these individual stories with those of other Baptists institutions and movements, doctrinal and ecclesiastical disputes as well as how Baptists interfaced the culture at large and other Christian denominations.

Important Baptists and institutions of the 20th century are well covered. We learn of George Truett, B. H. Carroll, E. Y. Mullins, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Carl F. H. Henry along with Baptist involvement in the Fundamentalist controversy of the 20’s and 30’s, the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, and the Conservative Resurgence of the 80’s and 90’s in the Southern Baptist Convention led by men like W. A. Criswell, Paige Patterson, and Adrian Rogers. The last chapters bring us to the contemporary scene. It focuses on Baptist figures like Chuck Colson, Rick Warren, and John Piper. We see the global impact of Baptists, the Calvinist renewal and the response to renewed threats to religious liberty.  The last chapter seeks to identify what has historically distinguished Baptists from other Christian denominations in their beliefs. It is very helpful in that regard.

This textbook is brief at only 356 pages, but it does an excellent job of painting Baptist history with broad strokes while also focusing on a number of lesser known stories and figures of interest. It balances the two very well. The prose is very readable and enjoyable. This is not dry history. One may argue that some figures, movements, issues and institutions are given short-shrift, but that is to be expected in a volume of this size and purpose. It is a survey. The book contains numerous helpful photos and side-bars relating Baptists in their own words. One disappointment is that I found the indexes to be incomplete. A number of names and subjects that occur in the text are not mentioned in the indexes. This will make it harder to search and that is unfortunate. But all-in-all this is an excellent textbook for examining Baptist history. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Blessing of God

Blessing of God

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.

In order to give you the flavor of some of the sermons, here are a few examples. Chapter 4 contains a sermon on Psalm 115:1: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.” Edwards writes that “it is the temper and disposition of a truly godly man to delight in exalting God.” Such “see God reigning on the throne of his glory, exalted on high. They love to have him do whatever is his will and pleasure in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth. They care that he should do just what he pleases. They rejoice in it that God is the governor of the world. It is a happy and joyful consideration to them that God reigneth” (74). If Edwards was anything, he was most certainly theocentric his theology and preaching. The glory of God was ever foremost in his mind.

Chapter 6 contains a sermon on Psalm 139:7-10 entitled, “That God is Everywhere Present.”  In speaking to the unconverted, Edwards says, “It is an awakening and even an amazing consideration to think that they live and move in that God who is angry with them every moment. He is not an enemy at a distance from them, nor is he only near to them, but he is in them and they in him. He is in them and through them wherever they go, and yet they provoke him to anger… He possesses every part of their body which they use as instruments of sin against him” (115). Edwards’ strong view of the doctrine of concurrence is very evident here.

Chapter 7 contains a sermon from Proverbs 28:13 about God’s forgiveness of those who confess and forsake their sins. Here he writes, “In confessing sin to God, there is an appearance of a sense of God’s displeasure for sin, and therefore if confession be sincere, there is really such a sense. We confess to God because we are sensible he has been displeased and provoked, and therefore we come to humble ourselves before him to seek reconciliation. He who truly confesses to God is therefore sensible of God’s holy and pure nature whereby he abhors sin and is much displeased with it. They are sensible of his greatness and majesty which they have affronted and are therefore sensible that God is angry with them.” Note how many times in these few sentences that Edwards uses the word “sensible.” This speaks to Edwards’ contention that genuine Christianity consists in the proper “affections” of the heart. To experience the work of God inwardly through regeneration is to experience a transformation of the basic desires and orientation of one’s thinking and feeling which has as its object a newly acquired sense of the majesty, glory and attractiveness of God.

Chapter 15 contains a sermon entitled, “What is Meant by Believing in Christ?” based on Mark 16:15-16 which was preached to Mohawk Indians in New Jersey in 1752. This is an example of Edwards’ evangelistic preaching, and note the greater simplicity it contains. “Now therefore, let everyone look into and search his own heart and see whether he does truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t think it enough that you come to meeting, that you are honest, that you keep the Sabbath days, that you don’t get drunk. You must do these things, must keep the Sabbath, but these things alone won’t do. You must give your whole heart to Christ. Have your eyes ever been opened to see the glorious excellency of Jesus Christ? Has the light of the word of God ever shined into your hearts so that the excellency of that Word that teaches Christ and the way of salvation by him? Has that word of Christ been sweeter to you than the honey on the honeycomb?” Edwards was a firm Calvinist, but his evangelism was informed by the fact that God uses definite means in order to convert souls to Christ. No one shall be shown to be predestined to salvation who also does not hear the gospel faithfully preached and voluntarily exercises his or her will to repent and believe. Edwards was a compatibilist, holding that God’s sovereignty co-exists with human freedom and responsibility.

Edwards’ theology is on full display in these sermons as is his pastoral heart. These messages are a more accessible way to gain entrance into the otherwise heady thinking that marked many of Edwards’ more formidable treatises on theological topics. He was a model of sound doctrinal preaching that never missed a beat when it came to addressing the truth of Scripture to his hearers’ hearts. There is both meat here for Christian growth and reflection as a well as a model for teachers and preachers. We owe a debt of gratitude to Michael McMullen for pulling these sermons together.

Book Review: Ulrich Zwingli (Bitesize Biographies)

Zwingli

William Boekestein has written a much needed little biography of the important Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, part EP’s Bitesize Biography series. Zwingli is not nearly as well-known as Luther or Calvin. No churches directly trace their heritage to his legacy. Yet in many ways he was just as important as these larger than life figures of the Protestant Reformation. Boekestein’s biography is short (162 pages) but very satisfying. You come to know something of Zwingli that other accounts don’t capture. Zwingli’s reformation of the Swiss canton Zurich roughly coincided with Luther’s reforms in Wittenberg. In fact, Boekestein points out that Zwingli enacted many of the same reforms before knowing anything about Luther. This would indicate that needed reform was in the air and one cannot escape the providential nature of what took place in those heady years beginning around 1517.

Zwingli’s personal turning point began in 1516, one year before Luther’s. There is no evidence that Zwingli or Luther knew of one another before 1521. By 1519, Zwingli had already begun seriously questioning papal authority, the practice of indulgences and other Catholic abuses. Zwingli’s personal reformation began through his discovery of Augustine’s treatise on the gospel of John and his fellow humanist friend Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. When Zwingli was appointed as the pastor of the Great Minister church in Zurich he quickly abandoned the mass and replaced it with expository preaching. He managed to preach through the whole New Testament within 4 years. Like the other Reformers, Zwingli became convinced of the sole authority of Scripture and refused to embrace traditions he believed were linked to the Roman Church.

Just as Zwingli was the first to experience reform in his own ministry, he was also the first Reformer to write a systematic theology entitled, A Commentary on the True and False Religion. Boekestein believes the only reason this work has not had the lasting value that Calvin’s Institutes have had is because he never bothered to revise it as Calvin did his own work—numerous times in fact. Most of Zwingli’s writings were put together hastily and lack the rigor of other Reformed writings. However, I think Boekestein has underestimated the fact that Calvin was a far more innovative, astute and careful theologian than Zwingli ever could have hoped to be and that explains Calvin’s lasting impact. The same could be said for Luther.

Like many of the Reformers, Zwingli’s life was full of contradictions. He believed in the authority of Scripture and spent a great deal of time emphasizing the preaching of the gospel and yet he spent an equal amount of time engaged in politics and meddling in civic affairs. This is understandable since the relationship of church and state during the Reformation was intricately tied to one another. Zwingli decried the mercenary culture of the Swiss military and yet found himself preaching for war when other Swiss cantons resisted and threatened the reforms in the Protestant cantons. He ended up dying at the hands of a Swiss mercenary in Second Kappel War in 1531.

Zwingli also decried the celibacy and rampant sexual immorality of the priesthood and yet himself was engaged in gross fornication early in his ministerial career. His wife Anna was 6 months pregnant before they were secretly married.

But perhaps the most egregious flaw in Zwingli’s life was his treatment of the Anabaptists. Many of these more radical reformers had been students of Zwingli such as Conrad Grebel. The Anabaptist Reformers were a broad lot; and even though they differed significantly on many points of view, most historians tend to lump genuine Anabaptist Reformers with those who are better regarded as true heretics. Boekesteien seems to fall into this familiar trap. For a time, Zwingli appears to have considered the viability of credo-baptism (believer’s baptism) that many of his students adopted and yet in the end defended paedo-baptism (infant baptism). The reason for this defense does not seem to be rooted upon Biblical grounds but political ones. Zwingli, as did other Magisterial Reformers, believed that the dispensing with infant baptism would cause a rift between the covenant community of the church and the civic community. It was believed that the strength of national unity was tied to the initiatory rite of children into the church community through baptism. This supposedly insulated society from becoming vulnerable to outside threats to the state. But the Anabaptists saw no Biblical warrant for such thinking. They believed the marriage of church and state diluted the purity of the church, but for this reason they were regarded as enemies to both church and state. The civil authorities in Zurich banned Anabaptist teaching including credo-baptism and even drowned these believers as punishment.

Boekestein expresses disappointment with Zwingli’s support of executing Anabaptists, but does not seem to express concern for the underlying flaws in the church-state mentality that proliferated the thinking of the Magisterial Reformers. It is interesting that later Baptist theology (growing out of Anabaptist thinking) developed strong arguments for religious liberty that has allowed the flourishing of Christianity in places like the United States. Ironically this thinking has allowed for a stronger Church, whereas nations that have maintained strong church-state ties (many European nations) have diminished the power of the Church over time.

Ulrich Zwingli was certainly an important Reformer and should be praised for his part in advancing the recovery of the gospel in this critical era of church history. Nonetheless, he was a flawed man imbibing many of the prevailing ideas that brought the church to the mess that required the Reformation in the first place. A couple of things should be said about this. First, as a Protestant, one should never expect that the Reformation should have cured every possible ill the church faced at that time. The times and epics in which one lives always has a blinding influence even upon those who have seen the light of better things. The Reformers had many such blind spots and we should be careful about castigating them too much, lest we discover how many blind spots we have ourselves. Secondly, God always uses cracked pots to carry forth the truth. All the great leaders of Biblical history were weak, sin tainted saints whom God used in spite of their shortcomings. Christ builds his church not by perfect men, but by grace-infused men.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

Book Review: Living Without Worry

Lane Worry

Tim Lane is becoming better known in the Biblical Counseling movement and has written a workman-like book on the subject of worry and anxiety. In 11 short chapters, Lane’s book, Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, lays out the basic problems associated with worry and anxiety and how it should be addressed from a Biblical perspective. In this regard, Lane spends a good deal of time pointing the reader to Scripture instead of psychological remedies. He canvases a great deal of different passages from the Old Testament (particularly the Psalms) and New Testament, where he focuses equal time in Jesus’ teachings in the gospels along with Paul, James and Peter’s epistles. He even looks at the worry Paul suffered when ministering in Athens and Corinth from the book of Acts.

Lane defines the problem from several different angles throughout the book. For example, he says, “The essence of worry is attempting to find your ultimate hope, comfort and meaning in something that is temporal and fleeting” (p. 24-25). He says, “What you worry about is a good indicator of what you truly value and rely upon” (p.93). Essentially worry is turning our eyes off of Christ and upon things that consume us in this world. Lane points out that “worry is a sign that you believe that God is not good or that he is not in charge, and that he therefore cannot be trusted to care for you” (p. 138). Worry becomes a crisis of faith and doubting the character of God. Wrong thinking about God leads to wrong living. However, Lane helpfully points out that right thinking does not always lead to right living. In chapter 9 he says change in the Christian life can be elusive and we should not always expect instant results even when our focus is centered upon Biblical solutions.

The book has a very practical focus. Lane examines many different scenarios that can produce anxiety such as relationships, marriage, parenting, finances, suffering, and even past sins and traumatic experiences. He shows how anxiety relates to our perspective on the past, the present and the future.  Lane makes some helpful distinctions as well. For example, worry should be distinguished from concern. It is okay to be concerned about matters, but concern can become “over-concern” (p. 20) which degenerates into sinful worry. And worry simply reveals what our hearts really cling to. “Over-concerns reveal over-loves” (p. 30). On the other hand, there are legitimate reasons to worry, for example when we contemplate the destiny of our souls if we have not genuinely repented of sin and placed our faith in Christ. In chapter 5, he points out that the prospect of eternal hell should produce a great deal of fear and anxiety. In fact, no worrisome matter on this earth can compare to the fear hell generates. The remedy is to have a secure future in heaven. The assurance of salvation not only dissipates hell as the worst of fears, but it can dissipate all lesser fears.

The ultimate solution to fear, worry and anxiety is not terribly difficult to understand. It is simply cultivating renewed faith in a God who loves us beyond measure, whose comfort and care exceeds our worries, and who maintains a good purpose for all the believe goes through. He is in utter control of our lives. But moving from doubt, exasperated by various worries, to confident trust in the Lord is never an easy path. But thankfully Lane points out that we serve a patient and merciful God.

Although Lane’s book is nothing extraordinary, it is quite helpful to the Christian struggling with worry and I warmly recommend it. I do have a few caveats. First, I did not like the fact that when other authors were quoted, references were left out. I like to know where quotes come from. Secondly, the construction of the book itself made it a little difficult to read. Its pages, cover and binding were particularly stiff requiring some hand strength to keep the pages open.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

Book Review: The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America

Image

While teaching a class on the Great Awakening I decided to read Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. Although this is an informative account of the 18th century American revival, I cannot wholly endorse it. While Kidd is a great scholar, the book suffers from several things. Before I discuss those, let me first say that Kidd does a good job of surveying source materials for the Great Awakening and we learn a great deal about many of the American participants in the revival. He evenly treats the revival’s impact across the colonies without undo focus on New England, as is sometimes the case. He also shows the connection of the revival to the American Revolution and many subsequent developments such as the rise of Baptists in the south and the impact of the revival on African and Native Americans. I like the fact that he shows how the revival demonstrated some of the first attempts at addressing the abolition of slavery in the American colonies (It is of interest that the parallel Awakening in England directly led to the abolition of slavery there through the efforts of William Wilberforce and others).

Having said that, here are three problems I had with Kidd’s analysis. First of all, perhaps because the book is strictly a scholarly treatment, he does not capture the marvelous aura of the revival and what a remarkable work it was. While his writing was not necessarily dry, it was not exactly inspiring either. I am not of the opinion that works of historical scholarship have to be dry and uninspiring, even for a specialized audience. Furthermore, although Kidd is an Evangelical Christian, he tends to treat the revival strictly as a human work with some strange phenomena that is not easily explained. As a Christian, I believe the main thrust of the revival was a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a nation whose spiritual condition was in serious declension. Kidd fails to capture this reality. Unfortunately, I believe he falls into the category of many Evangelical historians who tend to ignore divinely providential explanations of history in favor of strictly human ones. This is one era of history where that simply doesn’t work. There are too many remarkable coincidences and phenomena that cannot be adequately explained apart from divine intervention. But of course this approach to history does not sit well in the secular dominated Academy and this is the milieu out of which Kidd operates. As a Christian I believe this skews the whole enterprise of historiography. If God is the God He has revealed Himself to be in the Bible, a Christian historian must recognize His providential control and purposes in history or risk misinterpreting history as something merely anthropocentric.

Secondly, I felt like Kidd focused too much on the strange and extreme aberrations of the Awakening – i.e. the ‘enthusiastical/ fanatical’ aspects that tended to sour the Awakening. Reading his account, you almost get the impression that the Awakening was marked primarily by religious hysteria. While such things prevailed in some quarters, I feel as though Kidd gives the impression they represented the main thrust of what was happening. He also provides woefully inadequate treatment of Jonathan Edwards’ reasoned response to such extremes. Edwards was the preeminent leader and shaper of the interpretation of the revival’s impact which had a profound influence on subsequent Evangelical history. Kidd underplays this important reality. If this is the only book you read on the Awakening you might walk away thinking it was a period of a great deal of uncontrolled religious hype and foolishness. In fact, I think Kidd fails to demonstrate how the Awakening birthed modern Evangelicalism.

This leads to my third criticism. Kidd fails to place the revival in its broader context. I realize he is narrowly focused upon the revival as it unfolded in the American colonies, but this is short-sighted. The revival in America was intricately tied to similar events in Great Britain, with simultaneous awakenings in England, Wales, Scotland and to some extent, Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the role of the Moravians (Germany) was instrumental in what took place both in America and Great Britain. These things receive little or no notice. Although much is said about George Whitefiled in America, we learn little of other key leaders like Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland in Wales; James Robe and William McCulloch in Scotland; and other leaders like the Countess of Huntingdon in England. John Wesley is given some mention, but his role in the broader Awakening is underplayed. In this regard, Mark Noll’s book,The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (History of Evangelicalism Series) does a better job of drawing these connections. Furthermore, it is much more readable than Kidd’s book, probably because it is addressed to a general audience. Also, Noll makes a better case for how the Awakening shaped modern Evangelicalism.

I don’t dismiss Kidd’s work altogether because much is learned here that is not readily available elsewhere and he does draw some important insights into the revival. But I would compliment his treatment with Noll’s book. I also highly recommend an older work on the Awakening, A. Skevington Wood’s The Inextinguishable Blaze: Spiritual Renewal and Advance in the Eighteenth Century (Advance of Christianity Thorugh the Centuries). Wood is an older Wesleyan scholar whose book focuses mainly on the Evangelical Revival as it is called in Great Britain, particularly England. But he also does a good job of showing the broader context to what was happening elsewhere that Kidd does not. What I also like about Wood is that although his treatment makes use of the scholarly sources available at the time (1960), his narrative of events is warm, inspiring and not afraid to demonstrate that the revival was largely a work of the Holy Spirit. He combines scholarship with a pietistic fervor for the sort of revival fires he describes. As a Christian, he views history as something God orchestrates and thus it serves to encourage Christians by its examples for our spiritual edification and not for mere historical interest or intellectual reflection. I had hoped Kidd’s work would have done the same. Sadly, it did not. It left more of a bad impression about the Awakening and that is very unfortunate, because in spite of some of its unhappy excesses, it was a wonderful work of God that is sorely needed again in our time. O God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us again!