Book Review: Unimaginable

Unimaginable

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

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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). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading