26 November 2007

Helpful Reading

With all the down time the last week or so with both ETS and Thanksgiving, I got to read some books unrelated to my studies. I enjoyed all of them and thought I would pass on a comment on them in case it would intersect any of your interests. All of these are books I got at ETS.

The first thing I read (naturally) was a book I found on Jonathan Edwards, specifically on his understanding of revival, by Michael Haykin, who recently moved from Toronto to teach at Southern Seminary in Louisville: Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival. It was all right. Haykin goes through the most pertinent works Edwards did concerning revival, with chapters on Religious Affections, Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Distinguishing Marks, and Surprising Narrative, and shows how JE navigated the waters between James Davenport and the Enthusiasts on the one hand and Charles Chauncey and the rationalists on the other. Haykin was certainly interested in pointing out the link between JE and later Calvinistic Baptists, as he brought this up at several different junctures. Nothing particularly groundbreaking, just a good solid review of Edwards' revival writings. I would have enjoyed it if he had connected Edwards' work more explicitly with today's needs for authentic, God-sent revival (as for example this work and this one does more generally). Granted, it was a historical study, but I was longing for more bridge-building into today's church.

The next thing I read was Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I've been trying to understand the Emerging Church lately and this book swims in that pond, so I thought I'd give it a read. I confess that though I was skeptical when I started it, I ended up loving it. Miller lives in Portland and goes to Rick McKinley's church there. It is a rambling autobiography that is well-written and addresses lots of aspects of Christian living. At times I squirmed a little bit (e.g. statement that belief is about what you do not what you say--a false dichotomy that is reacting to a true problem but does it by overreacting). But overall I think this book will do and has done lots of good. The depiction of sin was right and true, which is often not true of Emerging writers. And the thoughts on how to reach unbelievers, by loving rather than condemning, was of course good. I'm still digesting the book.

Then I read two small books by Steve Nichols that Crossway has published in the last two years. The first is The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. I loved this book because Nichols effectively brings history to life. I now have a book I can enthusiastically put in the hands of people who want to understand the Reformation but are not avid readers or who find history generally boring. The second book was Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards' Vision of Living in Between. I appreciated this one very much too because, as I wished Haykin had done, Nichols explicates an aspect of Edwards' thought and then transplants it into our world today, painting a picture of what it looks like, with Edwards as our teacher, to live on earth in light of eternity in heaven. This book is also one small contribution toward putting to death what we were all taught in high school lit, that Edwards was an angry, misanthropic fire-and-brimstone preacher and nothing else.

John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright was next, which I got for free because at the ETS Crossway lecture in San Diego Crossway handed out 900 free copies. This was much shorter than I expected, which is good because it will be less formidable to everyday believers who have benefitted from Wright yet don't know how much to swallow and how much to spit out. It was fair and helpful and I think it did the job it intended to do. The clarification that Paul's Gospel is essentially "Christ died for our sins" and not "Jesus is Lord," and that the latter is only good news in light of the former, was especially helpful.

Lastly I read the recent work on penal substitution by three men assosiated with Oak Hill Theological College in England: Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. It was originally published by IVP in Britain but Crossway just put it out for American readers. I am very grateful for this book. It is thorough and unique--unique because the last third of the book, 125 pages, is devoted to answering critiques of penal substitution. Dozens of objections are addressed, quoting those who have voiced them so as to leave no confusion and to avoid knocking down straw men. The book is divided into exegetical defense, theological coinherence, pastoral implications, historical corroboration, and the objections answered. I found the theological defense to at times spend time filling out unnecessary theological points, I thought the historical section had some glaring omissions (Luther, Edwards, Wesley), and I found the pastoral section a bit thin, but the exegesis focused on a good selection of passages from both OT and NT, and the objections answered makes the book worth reading if nothing else does. The book explicitly says it is meant to be something between scholarly writing and popular writing, which I appreciated and at which the authors succeeded. And it clarified many things that were a bit fuzzy in my own mind and I find myself more sure than ever that Jesus died as my substitute to pay a penalty I deserved, satisfying God's righteous wrath. The authors rely heavily throughout on D. A. Carson and John Stott, as well as several old-timers such as Owen and Calvin. The idea that penal substitution is the answer as to how the evil powers are overcome, and that we ought not to elevate the latter over the former as many are today, was especially illumining.

Now back to dissertation reading! Next up is Paul Rainbow's The Way of Salvation, which just arrived in the mail from Amazon and argues for a more critical place of works in justification than the Reformers allowed, done through exegesis of Paul and James.


Ortlund Family said...

Paul was a reader. 2 Timothy 4:13.

So are you. Way to go.


Adam Mellem said...

Can you dialogue a bit more on the phrase "The depiction of sin was right and true, which is often not true of Emerging writers." I'm interested in what exactly is the right and true depiction of sin and some examples of emerging writers who view sin differently. What are some examples?

I think the reformed view of sin tends to be the dominant view of sin today - which is probably not a bad thing. But this has not always been the case. Clement of Alexandria, writing in the late second and early third centuries, saw the Christian life as a process of education and continual enlightenment. His view was that Ignorance=sin and that Salvation=enlightenment. (Hagglund, History of Theology). This was the view held by almost all the Apostolic fathers.

Is this wrong? Maybe it is only partially right? Or maybe sin is less prescribed than we might think ? Even the end of Romans 14 implies a malleable moral compass where things may be wrong for some while for other they are permitted...


Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks for the thoughts Adam.

As I read the Bible, I see sin as outright and tragic rebellion against God, rendering us both guilty and corrupt. The basic biblical storyline is that God created us and gave us a perfect world, we gave him the finger, and he suffered to rescue us from our own arrogant ingratitude and independence (with God's work in Christ justifying us, to counter guilt, and sanctifying us, to counter corruption). I guess in the little I've read of Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Doug Pagitt and Rob Bell the problem with the world doesn't sound nearly as bad as Scripture portrays it. I think we need to be saved from ourselves, and only God can initiate and bring that to completion--which he does! At times they make it sound more like a communal disease than individual death. While both exist, I would ground the former in the latter, whereas some of the emerging writers seem to emphasize the former and neglect the latter. And Blue Like Jazz seemed to take sin more seriously. But I'm open to correction if I'm not portraying their work fairly.

I'm not versed in the Fathers but I'd be very skeptical of your depiction. I suspect there would also be a strong sense not only of the effects of sin on the mind but on the will, or heart, too. The huge problem, after all, is not that we don't know what to do to obey God. The problem is that, knowing, we don't do it. We refuse. We pout. We go our own way. Jonathan Edwards is the one who has shown me this more clearly. He points out from James 2('even the demons believe' etc) that the devils have better theology than you or I will ever have. So what makes Christians any different from demons, spiritually? We love God, we desire to honor him, our hearts and wills are inclined toward him. That's what the devils lack.

I also wonder what you mean about Rom 14. It sounds like you're saying Paul means that moral issues are right for some and wrong for others--a point with which our culture bombards us constantly. But it would seem (not least from Rom 12-13) that there are actually quite well defined lines on a whole range of moral issues. Rather what Rom 14 is about is those things that are morally neutral--whether to eat meat, say. And on these, the point is to put the consciences of others first, even if we ourselves feel free to partake. So I wouldn't call that a "malleable moral compass."

I hope you persevere at Fuller. If you are considering other seminary options, I spent 5 yrs at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis and absolutely loved it for a variety of reasons and would commend it without reserve.

Adam Mellem said...

Thanks for the thoughts Dane.

I really like your use of the phrase morally neutral. I like that a lot.

I ask about the sin issue specifically because I've been studying the Patristic theology of the early church and their view of sin is very different than that of reformed theology. It is clear that their view of sin is heavily influenced by Platonic thought. This view is not just perpetuated by one father, but is expressed in a variety of the early fathers, especially before Augustine. So it made me curious that maybe our reformed view of sin may be accurate but incomplete.

I have a friend down at Covenant and he really likes it. I'll have to check it out. I really like Fuller for some things, but others I'm left wondering. I had a good friend point out that I probably won't find anything that makes me perfectly happy - so I'm trying to figure that out. It doesn't help that I'm kind of in the midst of my own faith crisis right now...

Thanks for the dialogue. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

And say hi to Wheaton for me. I spent my first year in undergrad there many years ago. I loved it, but God had other plans.

Andrew said...

Adam seems pretty much on the mark concerning the ECFs views. Conservative Protestants would gernally view the ECFs as "denying the seriousness of sin" I think. Prior to Augustine there is a massive and universal emphasis on free will in the ECFs. The notion that sin afflicts our will leaving us powerless to obey God was a radical innovation by Augustine.

I found when reading Pierced for our transgressions that a recurring problem was that the authors were under-informed in their understanding of alternative atonement theories and ways of interpreting scripture and as a result repeatedly opted for exegesis and conclusions that looked to me to be "well, I don't know any other way of understanding this passage, therefore my understanding must be the only possible one". Since my interests are primarily in studying the various atonement frameworks and wide varieties of biblical exegesis, I felt quite frustrated by the authors ignorance as time and again they showed no understanding of alternatives and as a result regularly used extremely poor exegesis and evidence.