Tag Archives: Theology

Book Review: The Holiness of God by RC Sproul

the-holiness-of-godWell this is embarrassing

For a guy who generally tries to average about one book a week, I have to admit that I’m a bit behind my intended pace. Ok I’m a lot behind. This is actually the first full book I’ve finished this year. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent some time reading lots of different things, I just haven’t finished anything until now.

One of my goals this year

Every year I try to read from a wide variety of books, but I’m always attempting to read all of the things that I should have read a long time ago. I’ve read very few classics in either literature or Christian theology, and I want to be better acquainted with important works. So, I began this year with the intent of reading three important theology books that I’ve never read before (sort of modern classics). The first is this one: R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God. I plan to follow this by reading Stott’s The Cross of Christ, and Packer’s Knowing God.

Not that I Can Probably Add Anything

I’m quite sure that I am not able to add anything to what’a already been said about The Holiness of God, it was originally published in 85 I think, and it’s fairly beloved. But, I’ll go ahead and tell you a few thoughts. (This is really less of a review and more of a collection of loosely collected thoughts).

It’s Better Than I Thought

Theologically I’m a reformed guy, but my heroes of the faith aren’t always made up of the typical cast of characters. I’ve never been much of a Sproul guy. In the previous little exposure that I’ve had to his writings, I haven’t been that impressed (I’m not sure I should say that out loud, but it’s true). It’s not that I disagree with anything he says necessarily (although I’m sure I do), It’s just that I had a hard time getting excited by his writing style, or tone, or something along those lines––I’m not really sure. So, I began this book thinking of it more as a chore than a delight. But, I’ve got to say that The Holiness of God really surprised me. It’s a good book. There’s apparently a reason it’s considered a modern classic. wink. wink. Sproul writes well, better and more creatively than I expected. He uses lots of examples and illustrations to get his points across, and he remains scholarly but easy to read.

This Book Made Me Wrestle with My Faith

I’m probably most thankful for this book because in God’s providence, He used it to make me wrestle with a few areas of my faith. Specifically, chapter 6, aptly named “Holy Justice,” caused me to struggle. Sproul says in the second paragraph of the chapter:

“Whoever reads the Old Testament must struggle with the apparent brutality of God’s judgment found there. For many people this is as far as they read. They stumble over the violent passages we call the ‘hard sayings’ (99).”

In chapter 6, Sproul deals with issues like Uzzah touching the arc of the covenant and being killed on the spot by God, and God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And I’ve got to be honest, though I’ve read and even wrestled with these passages for years, and though I could easily have answered the typical objections to these passages, I was still rattled as I reexamined them for myself. I wasn’t rattled so much in my head as in my heart. Did I really believe that God was just to kill people in these situations? And further, did I really believe that God was just to judge me as a sinner? Sure, I know I’m a sinner, but why is that such a big deal? Why is God so much about Himself that He must receive glory and must punish sin? I know the biblical answers to these questions. I’ve heard John Piper talk about this for years, and I know justice is a biblical idea and the cross only makes sense if God cares about justice. But for some reason while reading Sproul, my heart began to wrestle. Doubts began to pop into my head. I didn’t know if it was demonic attack, or stress, or a crisis of faith, or what. To be honest, it scared me a bit. I mean, I’m a pastor for crying out loud! But it was a good, healthy wrestling match, and it helped me.

Ultimately, as I begin calling out to God and dealing with my heart, I felt like this is what He spoke to me:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16-17).

In verse 17, the Apostle Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed only from faith. As I read this verse for probably the 500th time, God seemed to be saying, “Ben I know you know the answers in your head, and I know that your heart is struggling to understand my justice and my righteousness, but realize this: You can only understand it by faith. My righteousness and justice will never completely make sense to you if you’re thinking about it in a human way.  It can only be understood by faith. It can only be accepted by faith.” And that helped me. I began to trust God more deeply and truly. I began to re-accept the things that were hard for me to hear, but that I knew were true.

My faith has been strengthened. I recently told our congregation that we must wrestle with our doubts. If we don’t wrestle, our faith will remain shallow and weak. I feel like God took me through this experience so that my trust and faith in Him would increase.

Final Evaluation

You should read it. It is actually really good. You’ll understand the Christian faith better by reading this book. And if you’re due for some wrestling with God, you just might wrestle.

4.25 cups of black coffee out of 5.

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Book Review: Total Church by Tim Chester & Steve Timmis

total-churchTim Chester and Steve Timmis’ book, Total Church is one of my favorite reads in the last couple of years. I’ve been in the process of reading and digesting this work for much longer than I would have expected with a 200 page book. But every time I would start to read again, the content was so good, so challenging, and so helpful, that I would find myself re-reading chapters, and encouraging others to get a copy and re-read chapters with me. To date, this has been the most helpful book I’ve read in helping to plant Basileia Church. This is the book that I most want all the people of Basileia Church to read, and it’s the book I want all my friends considering church planting to read.

So what is it about? The subtitle of the book tells the whole story:  “A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community.” In the authors’ own words:

“This book argues that two key principles should shape the way we “do church”: gospel and community.  Christians are called to a dual fidelity: fidelity to the core content of the gospel and fidelity to the primary context of a believing community. Whether we are thinking about evangelism, social involvement, pastoral care, apologetics, discipleship, or teaching, the content is consistently the Christian gospel, and the context is consistently the Christian community” (15-16).

Further, Timmis and Chester explain:

“Being gospel-centered actually involves two things. First, it means being word-centered because the gospel is a word––the gospel is news, a message. Second, it means being mission-centered because the gospel is a word to be proclaimed––the gospel is good news” (16).

The rest of the book is basically an explanation and exegesis of these two statements. Following the introduction,there is a chapter on the gospel and a chapter on community, and then the rest of book covers all of the topics that flow out of these two foundations: evangelism, social involvement, church planting, world mission, etc.

The thing that makes this book great is that it is deeply theological and deeply communal. Many would lead us to believe that a church can either be deeply theological or deeply communal, but not both. The argument is usually described like this: “If a church chooses to be good at community, it will come at a cost to theological obedience. Or if a church chooses to be theologically astute, then it will come at a cost to true community.” This is a classic liberalism versus conservatism argument. Liberals apparently do community well, but at a cost to good theology. Whereas conservatives apparently do theology well, but at a cost to true community. Chester and Timmis paint a different picture altogether. (And as a side note, I would argue that it’s not good theology to be bad at community, and it’s not good community to be opposed to hard truth).

To put it another way, the type of church that Chester and Timmis are describing feels very post-modern in a communal sense but not very post-modern in a theological sense (I realize I may not be using post-modern in the most correct sense of the word, but just ignore that for a second and follow my train of thought). It’s very obvious that Chester and Timmis deeply believe the Bible. They don’t don’t deny propositional truth, and yet they’re describing church in a way that feels very at home in a post-Christiandom. What they’re describing sounds not only plausible in my city, but exciting. This description of church will work among people with little or no Christian background (which is increasingly the situation we find ourselves in within the urban centers of America). And Chester and Timmis don’t seem to simply be reacting to the changing culture around them, and thus scrambling to try and figure out how to “do church” these days. Rather, they seem to be reflecting deeply on the Scriptures and trying to figure out how to “do church” period. The authors are actual practitioners, not just theorists. They came to believe what they believe by reflecting on the Bible, putting it into practice, and seeing what happened. The result is both theologically pleasing and pragmatically feasible. A rare combination in the midst of pendulum-swing-prone-Christianity.

Here’s the other reason I really love this book. It’s teaching me how to share my faith in a way that feels both authentic and obedient to the Bible. I’ve struggled all my life to share my faith the way that the Bible commands. It always felt contrived and sales-pitchy. I knew I was supposed to do it, in fact I wanted to do it, it just never felt right.  Lots of times I shared, I was trying to be obedient to God, but it didn’t feel like it was doing any good. But now, finally, I’m seeing what living a life of mission looks like. The result has been that I look forward to sharing my faith with new friends. I don’t feel embarrassed to share the gospel. I can see that the gospel really does change lives. Is it still difficult at times? Yes, certainly. But it now feels more like a new way of living, a way of life where all of my life is mission, instead of a segmented time where I try to be obedient to the Great Commission for a couple of hours. This is life-changing. This is authentic. This is New Testament.

I love this book. You should read it.

5 out of 5 cups of black coffee.

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Book Review: The Escondido Theology by John Frame

the-escondido-theologyI just finished reading The Escondido Theology by John Frame, which is perhaps the strangest title for a book, ever! The subtitle of the book – “a reformed response to two kingdom theology” – gives the average consumer a gist of the content, and yet I still find it to be an absolutely awful title for a book. The world “Escondido” means absolutely nothing to the average person, unless he or she happens to know that it’s a town in California where Westminster Seminary California is located. The cover design doesn’t help sell the book either, it’s pretty bland to say the least. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but honestly we all do. So this book has literally nothing going for it, except perhaps that it was written John Frame, who is one-beast-of-a-theologian (I mean this in a positive sense).

Anyway, blah, blah, blah, none of that really matters. I decided to read this book at the recommendation of a friend, who said he thought it offered a compelling critique to some of the writings of Michael Horton. I should mention that both myself and the aforementioned friend like Michael Horton and John Frame, and have read several of their collective works. But no one’s theology is perfect, so it’s good to read one point of view and then to hear counter arguments. If theological critique is done in a loving and irenic spirit, then arguably, everyone is the better for it. I should also add, that I’m a church planter and I named the church that I’m currently planting “Basileia Church.” Basileia is the Greek word for “kingdom,” and our church’s mission statement reads, “For the Kingdom of God in East Nashville.” If there’s any one branch of theology that I geek-out about, it’s kingdom theology. I find it an absolutely transfixing theological subject that is exciting and often overlooked.

A little bit of the backstory to this book is that John Frame used to work at Westminster Seminary California with many of the men that he critiques in this book. He was not fired from the school, but claims that in the 1990‘s his theological views were increasingly scorned at the school because they differed from many of the other professors. Due to this development, Frame took at job at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Now years later, Frame has written a book that is essentially a collection of longer, technical book reviews that critique many of the works that the men at Westminster Seminary California have published. Frame argues that increasingly the professors at Westminster have formed a unique theological school of thought within the reformed movement that he refers to as “Escondido Theology.”

Frame assures the reader that he has not written this book to “get even” with his former colleagues, but because:

“The Westminster California professors have written prolifically, and though there is some good in this literature I believe the net effect of their work has been dangerous…Unfortunately, many have supported the Escondido literature, without, I think, quite understanding it…But anyone who thinks the Escondido theology is merely a conservative movement within the Reformed community has not seen it rightly” (Frame, xli).

So there you have it, a book of reviews, critiquing the particular brand of  Two Kingdom Theology that has developed in the last 30 or so years at Westminster Seminary California.

Specifically, Frame reviews the following works:

  • Christless Christianity – Michael Horton
  • Recovering the Reformed Confession – R. Scott Clark
  • A Biblical Defense of Natural Law – David Van Drunen
  • Kingdom Prologue – Meredith Kline
  • Covenant and Eschatology – Michael Horton
  • A Secular Faith – Darryl Hart
  • Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down & A Royal Waste of Time – Marva Dawn
  • A Better Way – Michael Horton
  • With Reverence and Awe – Daryl Hart & John Muether
  • Dual Citizens:  Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet – Jason Stellman

He ends the book with two short chapters titled, “In Defense of Christian Activism” and “Is Natural Revelation Sufficient to Govern Culture?” In my opinion, these two small chapters are actually some of the most helpful in the book, and I wish Frame had done a little less reviewing and a little more personal writing on the topic of the kingdom and two kingdom theology.

My opinion of this book is that it’s interesting at times, ultimately unsatisfying, and not nearly as useful as it could have been. Despite Frame’s intention to keep personal wounds from affecting his assessments, it still seems as if he unfairly criticizes his former co-workers. In his reviews, he repeatedly mentions portions of their books that he agrees with, but he also seems to aim unnecessary jabs in their direction. Perhaps most telling, is that if one searches the web, he finds Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary, and many others claiming that Frame failed to fairly represent their views. It would have been more helpful to write a book that explained the two kingdom view of the Escondido school and then compare it to the one kingdom view of Frame and others. In this proposed book, if the Escondido Theologians had agreed that Frame adequately represented their views, then the two sides could have discussed which view more adequately represented the content of Scripture, rather than just taking pop shots at one another. I fear that instead, neither side completely understands the other, and they just keep talking over each others’ heads.

That being said, I do agree that a conversation needs to be had regarding the Scriptural appropriateness of the Escondido school’s two kingdom theology. Is the two kingdom view the best way to formulate Scripture’s teachings on the interaction between the church and culture? I personally don’t think it is. At times when I read the Escondido Theologians, I feel as if they’re advocating an unhealthy separation between Christianity and culture for fear of falling into some sort of Nuevo-social-gospel-liberalism or as a reaction against the mistakes of the religious right. So I actually find myself in agreement with Frame on many points, I just wish he had written a different sort of book. Perhaps he felt he needed to take an aggressive approach to get everyone’s attention, or maybe this book was meant to be a launching pad for further discussions on the topic, but ultimately different sorts of books will need to written on this subject if any headway is going to be made.

Overall
2.5 of 5 black cups of coffee.

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Not a book for most people, but interesting if you know the players or are already part of the discussion between one kingdom and two kingdom views. Someone please write a more concise book that fairly represents both sides and allows readers to make an informed decision on this theological topic.

Extended Quote of the Day: Craig Bartholomew & Ryan O’Dowd

old-testament-wisdom-literatureToday poetry is, very often, our truest link with reality. Our modern age has tended to prefer facts and reason to imagination. Such an emphasis can misrepresent, underestimate, flatten and distort reality…Poetry, in fact, is at its best an ethical way of preserving the mystery, ambiguity, power, tragedy and sublimity of our world. It should be clear to us that our modern preference for the concrete, certain and measurable hardly matches with our daily experiences of God, life and reality. Metaphors, stories and poems, however, meet us in this gap between God’s power and goodness and the strangeness of everyday life.

– Craig Bartholomew & Ryan O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction, 69-70.

Book Review: Cornelius Van Til, Reformed Apologist and Churchman – by John R. Muether

cornelius-van-tilA Biography on Cornelius Van Til

I wrote a paper on Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic method back when I was in seminary, and since then I’ve been intrigued by his writings and his life. So it was only natural that I found myself purchasing a biography on Van Til when I saw it sitting so pretty and seductive on the shelf at our local Christian bookstore (shoutout to Logos!). I have problem with buying books, so you’ll have to excuse my use of the word “seductive.” Anyway, you should know that I’m not so much interested in reviewing this biography (deceiving blog title I know), but I would like to post two things that seemed to stick with me as I finished reading it…

Van Til the Husband

The day after Van Til’s wife of 52 years died – her name was Rena – one of Van Til’s colleagues wrote the following note to him:

“You have been, and are, probably the most remarkable husband I have ever seen. No one else could have given Rena the care, support, and admiration which you have given her over the years. Time has not dulled your patience and steadfastness. You have thought of her and her welfare over the years and under all possible conditions and have done everything you could to make life possible for her. If have been a most remarkable demonstration of Christian love and tenderness and is a patter that I am sure no one will equal for uncounted time (213).”

I want to be a husband like that. Not much else I can say; just that at the end of my life I want to be known as a man who deeply loved, protected, and provided for Magen.

Van Til & Reconciliation

I’m a Baptist, and we have plenty of demons in our own closet, but I was struck by how much of Van Til’s time seemed to be spent battling against other Presbyterians. There is a good and necessary type of theological fighting, and then there is an over-the-top kind where you just seem angry at the world. In my estimation, Van Til seemed to be involved in both kinds. The gospel of salvation by grace through faith must be defended at all costs. This is non-negotiable for those claiming to be Christians. Van Til stood for the reality of truth. That is, truth can be known and understood, and to oppose this truth is to be wrong. There are many things we don’t know and don’t understand in the Bible, but the things that are clear, are clear. To disagree with these clear truths and claim allegiance to the Bible is twisted.  Van Til referred to this as “antithesis.” There is thesis and there is antithesis. One is correct and one is incorrect. No fuzzy middle. End of story.

But there are also secondary and tertiary issues that should be discussed firmly and seriously, but with a sense of charity to the other party. There are many things that aren’t so clear in the Bible, and there are many things that aren’t of primary importance. Van Til seemed too militant on many of these issues. His tone might have sounded different if I had heard him in person, but I’m not so sure. There were times when I was reading about his life, and I seriously thought, “Man take a chill pill. This other guy loves Jesus, and so do you, don’t die on this hill.” But then, it’s easy to see the speck in his eye, and not the plank in my own. So I’m not accusing so much as I’m observing.

But I think Van Til began to realize some of this at the end of his life. Muether writes, “With former antagonists Van Til spent his last years pursuing reconciliation” (213). Personally, I just don’t want to have to get to the end of my life before I start making amends. I could be reading this whole thing wrong, but I wonder if Van Til had it to do over again, if he would have spent more time attacking the real enemies of Christianity and giving more grace to those whom simply disagreed with him over smaller issues. We battle against spiritual forces after all, not physical ones. Heresy is a spiritual enemy, but our apologetic method…not so much.

I want to keep growing in this area in my own life. I need Jesus to continually help me see what the major issues and minor issues are. The secondary stuff, let’s discuss it all day, but let’s keep our wits about us.

Extended Quote of the Day – Tim Keller

tim-keller“On the other hand, if God exists but is unipersonal, there was a time when God was not love. Before God created the world, when there was only one divine person, there was no lover, because love can exist only in a relationship. If a unipersonal God had created the world and its inhabitants, such a God would not in his essence be love. Power and greatness possibly, but not love. But if from all eternity, without end and without beginning, ultimate reality is a community of persons knowing and loving one another, then ultimate reality is about love relationships.”

– Tim Keller, King’s Cross, 9.

Extended Quote of the Day – Francis Schaeffer

francis-schaeffer“These paintings, these poems, and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they live; yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.”

– Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There, page 54.

Extended Quote of the Day – Gregg Allison

gregg-allison“A…benefit that historical theology renders the church is to protect against the individualism that is rampant today among Christians. Tragically, numerous factors – a consumerist mentality, an insistence on individual rights, an emphasis on personal autonomy, a pronounced sense of entitlement – have converged to foster an atmosphere in which too many Christians pick and choose their doctrines like they pick and choose their clothes or fast-food meals. If they feel uncomfortable about the sovereignty of God or are upset by the thought of an eternal conscious punishment of the wicked, they opt to overlook or dismiss those doctrines. If their worldly lifestyle is confronted by the demands of sanctification, or if the authority of Scripture challenges their stylish doubts about truth and certainty, they choose to minimize or set aside those doctrines. Thankfully, historical theology can act as a corrective to this regrettable situation. It reminds believers that theirs is a corporate faith that has always affirmed divine sovereignty, hell, holiness, and biblical authority. This rich heritage protects against the tendency to select the doctrines one likes and to reject those one does not like, thus giving in to one’s sinful propensities.”

Gregg Allison – Historical Theology, page 26.