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Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard's Understanding of the Lord's Supper as a Converting Ordinance
Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard's Understanding of the Lord's Supper as a Converting Ordinance
by David Paul McDowell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.40
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Insights into a Controversial Figure, September 10, 2012
Solomon Stoddard, the 17th century New England pastor and grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, has received a bad rap.

At least that's what David Paul McDowell argues in his new book, Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard's Understanding of the Lord's Supper as a Converting Ordinance. Known primarily (and often exclusively) in relation to Edwards, Stoddard has suffered from a lack of scholarly research on his ministry and theology, especially in relation to his views concerning the Lord's Supper.

This short volume explores the ins and outs of Stoddard's peculiar views regarding church membership, regeneration, and the sacrament of communion, suggesting that Stoddard has been misrepresented and misunderstood--both in the writings of his contemporaries and in modern scholarship. McDowell argues that Stoddard's understanding of the Lord's Supper as a "converting ordinance" must be interpreted in light of his historical context, highlighting the evangelistic foundations of his move "beyond" the Half-Way Covenant and examining his lasting effect on the entire Connecticut Valley. Stoddard understood communion as a powerful preparatory work that was often, though not necessarily, used by God for the conversion of sinners.

Beyond the Half-Way Covenant is an important contribution to ongoing discussions related to New England Puritanism. Those interested in Edwards should consider this book required reading. However, in addition to providing valuable insights related to Stoddard's famous grandson, this book is important because it offers modern Christians an example of how evangelistic zeal shapes theology and practice. Although most evangelicals will disagree with Stoddard at certain points, he nonetheless provides a model of passionate pastoral care and rigorous theological reflection that can, and indeed must, be imitated today--for God's glory and the good of his church.


Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity
Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity
by Mark Batterson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.47
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting But Not Groundbreaking, July 11, 2011
Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity is an interesting and, at times, provocative book calling the American church back to what author and pastor Mark Batterson calls the "primal glory" of Christianity. He writes,

"I...wonder if our generation has conveniently forgotten how inconvenient it can be to follow in the footsteps of Christ. I...wonder if we have diluted the truths of Christianity and settled for superficialities. I...wonder if we have accepted a form of Christianity that is more educated but less powerful, more civilized but less compassionate, more acceptable but less authentic than that which our spiritual ancestors practiced." (3)

With that as the implicit "thesis" of the book, Batterson sets our to recapture the "lost soul of Christianity" (4). He argues that at the very center of the Christian faith is the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This simple, yet utterly profound command, is the fundamental essence of the Christian faith that we must regain. To that end, Batterson breaks down Jesus's command into it's component parts:

"The heart of Christianity is primal compassion.
The soul of Christianity is primal wonder.
The mind of Christianity is primal curiosity.
And the strength of Christianity is primal energy." (7)

Each section, while containing a lot of good and challenging material, was nonetheless frustrating for a number of reasons. First, Batterson's interpretation of the Great Commandment seems rather arbitrary. He offers little exegetical support for his restatement of Jesus's words, which left me wondering whether or not the text really supported his specific points. Additionally, Batterson often lacks nuance in his writing. In these instances, although I generally knew what he was trying to say (and often agreed), I didn't really appreciate the way he was saying it. For example:

"Sometimes our minds interfere with our hearts. Logical objections get in the way of compassionate actions...But if God is speaking to your heart, don't let your mind get in the way of what God wants you to do. Sometimes loving God with all your heart simply means listening to your heart instead of your head." (31)

In my opinion, constructing this type of dichotomy is not helpful. In regard to this particular example, I would say that what we need is right thinking (God is a gracious, compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, seen primarily in Christ's work on the Cross), not less thinking (I just have this feeling, detached from any real thinking and careful judgment). Assuming Batterson's understanding of the terms "heart" and "mind," I would argue that while mind without heart is certainly a risk, heart without mind is equally dangerous. It is this lack of nuance, which unfortunately characterizes much of the book, that would lead me to point interested readers elsewhere.

That being said, the book does offer some compelling insights into what it means to truly love God, most often in the form of provocative anecdotes and questions. Batterson isn't afraid to call out areas of hypocrisy and complacency in the American church. I was particularly impacted (and convicted) by the third chapter, which deals with Christians and money, and includes some compelling practical suggestions (like establishing an "income ceiling" and making "pre-decisions" about your finances).

It seems that almost every page has some interesting story illustrating the spiritual truth Batterson is attempting to drive home. From Chuck E. Cheese to atomic bombs, crack houses to brain physiology, Batterson has a story for everything. Additionally, Batterson's style of writing is quite gripping. He writes earnestly, with what I would say is probably a godly passion.

All in all, Primal was an interesting book, but I finished with the distinct feeling that I'd heard it all before, and with more nuance at that.

Note: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.


King's Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus
King's Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus
by Timothy Keller
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Reflections on the Life of Jesus, July 6, 2011
Tim Keller has a gift for communicating deep and important truths. His engaging, disarming, and persuasive style of writing and speaking is put to good use in his recent book, King's Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus.

From the beginning, Keller is clear about his purpose in writing:

"[The book] is an extended meditation on the historical Christian premise that Jesus's life, death, and resurrection form the central event of cosmic and human history as well as the central organizing principle of our own lives." (x)

With the Gospel of Mark as his primary text (most of the book's content came from a sermon series), Keller takes his readers on a journey through the life and ministry of Jesus, pointing out important people, events, and ideas along the way. He dives into deep, life-changing discussions related to Jesus, faith, the Trinity, the cross, discipleship, and heaven (among many others). Ultimately, Keller makes good on his promise to show "how beautifully [Jesus's] life makes sense of ours," (x).

Cleverly borrowing the name of the famous London railway station (made even more famous by the Harry Potter books), Keller notes and follows the Gospel of Mark's structure of "two symmetrical acts," (xiv). Part one (chapters 1-8) relates to Jesus's identity as the reigning King of the universe, while part two (chapters 9-16) relates to Jesus's purpose in dying on the cross for sinners.

Keller writes in such a way as to be accessible and engaging to the pastor, layman, and unbeliever - the book has something for everyone. His tone is scholarly yet conversational, assured yet non-confrontational. In many ways, the book serves as an introductory survey of the book of Mark, with helpful illustrations, applications, and reflections sprinkled throughout. While Keller doesn't shy away from engaging in some biblical theology and real exegesis (complete with references to the original languages), he does not make detached commentary the main thrust of the book. Rather, his purpose is clearly more pastoral and apologetic in nature. He often spends considerable time thoughtfully (and I would say, convincingly) answering the "objections" of skeptics. And I was especially impressed with the way he continually brought the fundamentals of the Gospel to the forefront, with an energy and beauty that, at times, startled me and caused me to wonder at it with fresh eyes.

While not groundbreaking, King's Cross is a great introduction to the life of Jesus, with some helpful reflections on how His story comes to bear on our stories. The book is ultimately a powerful reflection on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news about our King and His cross.


Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care
Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care
by C. John Collins
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.15
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105 of 113 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Contribution to the Discussion, May 23, 2011
I wish I could shake C. John Collins's hand. It has been a long time since I last read something as lucid, even-handed, and gracious as his latest book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care. Right off the bat, I have to say that the book's simple title betrays it's scholarly depth. Collins's does not pull any punches in carefully examining a variety of facets related to the historicity of Adam and Eve. However, despite the its depth, the simple title correctly portrays the book as accessible and engaging, which is perhaps its greatest strength. Collins does a fine job of distilling difficult concepts into their most basic form, succinctly summarizing complex issues without losing the required nuance. This is a book that every Christian can and should read.

However, for many Christians, discussions related to the origins of man are uncomfortable, to say the least. For some, the near-constant bombardment of "naturalistic" propaganda from the scientific establishment is enough to make them cower in shame, content to hold fast to their "traditional" understanding of human origins while intentionally cultivating a functional ignorance related to modern science's "findings," in fear that such "findings" might prove a death blow to their cherished beliefs (I've been there).

Some Christians lean too far in the other direction, abandoning the biblical text in favor of more recent scientific theories. They view Genesis as an old book full of old myths that do little more than provide us with an interesting (yet unhistorical) back-story to the Jewish people.

Finally, there are some Christians who see modern science as generally in conflict with the biblical witness. They often look at science and boldly declare that it changes nothing about the way they read the Scriptures, because to allow science to induce a revision of our "traditional" interpretations would be tantamount to usurping the authority of Scripture. Additionally, these people generally hold to an extremely literalistic interpretation of the creation account, dismissing literary and historical considerations in favor of a more "plain reading" of the text. Although Collins ultimately agrees with this camp in regard to the historicity of Adam and Eve, he would probably disagree with their basic perspective on the relationship between science and the Bible.

Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? answers all of these people in the same way: "the traditional understanding of Adam and Eve as our first parents who brought sin into human experience is worthy of our confidence and adherence" (133). Now, of course there is a lot that goes into that statement, and when Collins mentions the "traditional understanding" of Adam and Eve, he is speaking about what he calls, "mere-Adam-and-Eve-ism" (see below), not necessarily all that has been associated with the belief in a literal Adam and Eve throughout history. This allows room for a variety of theories about what actually took place and how it happened all those years ago. But, the core point remains nonetheless: Adam and Eve did really exist and it does matter.

Goal

To that end, Collins is unambiguous about his goal in writing the book:

"My goal in this study is to show why I believe we should retain a version of the traditional view, in spite of any pressures to abandon it." (13)

However, this does not mean that he forces his view down the readers' throat. Rather, Collins has written a carefully structured book, with a very specific focus and outline. He fairly presents many different viewpoints, praising their strengths and criticizing their weaknesses in turn. Collins adds that his goal is, perhaps more foundationally, "to help you think these matters through for yourself," (20). My experience in reading the book proved this to be true. Collins respects his readers and lets his well-reasoned arguments do the persuading, allowing room for disagreement and ambiguity where the "evidence" is less certain.

Scope

Collins limits his discussion to "mere historical Adam-and-Eve-ism" (borrowed from C.S. Lewis's "mere Christianity"), thus not significantly dealing with many related issues, such as the age of the earth, the origin of Adam's body, the meaning of the "image of God," the means by which sin affects all people and the exact impact of that sin, etc. Although each of these important topics is commented on from time to time, they do not fall into the primary purview of the book, as Collins does not consider agreement on them "crucial for the traditional view" he advocates (14).

This limited focus is actually quite helpful, in my opinion. It enables the author to remain "on target" in discussing the many intricacies related to the book's main question. Although at times I found myself wanting more in regard to specific issues mentioned only in passing, Collins regularly cites his own work (Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary and Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?) and the work of others, so interested readers know where to look for more information.

Structure

Collins breaks his book up into four main sections:

1. The Shape of the Biblical Story
2. Particular Texts that Speak of Adam and Eve
3. Human Uniqueness and Dignity
4. Can Science Help Us Pinpoint "Adam and Eve"?

In the first section, Collins's frames the discussion of the historicity of Adam and Eve in the overarching storyline of the Bible, demonstrating that there are serious problems when one attempts to remove Scripture's origin story from it's truly foundational place in the biblical narrative. One interesting point (which he devotes an appendix to) that he makes is that Genesis was designed to contradict the prevalent Mesopotamian worldviews of the time, providing an alternative set of values for the people of Israel to adhere to.

The second section deals with the specific biblical texts that refer to Adam and Eve. It is in this section of the book that Collins's abilities as a Hebrew scholar can be clearly perceived. He examines passages from the Old Testament, the Gospels, the Pauline corpus, and elsewhere in the New Testament, honestly exegeting the text and drawing conclusions about the authors' perspectives on the creation account. Most fascinating was Collins's brief look at extra-biblical second temple Jewish literature, which he argues provides valuable clues regarding how to understand the biblical creation story. It is my opinion that Collins successfully makes his case from the passages he cited.

In his third major section, Collins argues that reflecting on human uniqueness and dignity provides us with important help in understanding Adam and Eve. Specifically, he looks at the image of God in man and universal human experiences (like yearning for justice). This chapter, in my opinion, is his least convincing one. However, I applaud his efforts to consider the whole range of evidence in coming to a conclusion about Adam and Eve.

Finally, Collins looks at some of the scientific evidence, examining and evaluating a number of theories put forth by those who are attempting to do justice to the biblical text. However, Collins is careful to warn his readers of the risk of reckless concordism (trying to make the Bible and science "fit together") that "assumes that the Bible writer's purpose was to describe the same sorts of things as the contemporary scientist does" (107). This dangerous assumption, so often perpetrated by young earth creationists reading with an overly literalistic approach to the text, can have a detrimental impact on interpretive conclusions.

Perspective

One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Collins's measured perspective regarding the the many complex issues related to human origins. Collins does not fall into the "all or none" tendency so often advocated by those who regard the "correct" interpretation of the Genesis creation account as perfectly obvious (whether they are young earth creationists or unbelievers who write off the text as pure fantasy). Rather, Collins demonstrates that there are a range of viable theories about how to best understand what the biblical writer was trying communicate, and how that message can fit with the findings of modern science.

When Collins does lay down boundaries that must not be crossed, he does so humbly and graciously, and only after first meticulously demonstrating (from the biblical text, human experience, and science) why it must be so. The author's careful inquiry and gracious tone provides a model to be emulated. Too often, when emotions escalate (as they often do when discussing this issue), logical and exegetical fallacies begin to rule the day, and thus the biblical text is dishonored, even by those who claim it as their final authority.

Reading the Text "Literally"

More as a matter of personal interest, I was especially impressed with Collins's section on history, myth, and worldview story. He carefully defines what he means by each of these terms, venturing to explain some of the details related to reading the biblical text as a piece of carefully constructed literature. This entails study related to literary devices used in the text, the author's laconic style of writing, linguistic considerations, the author's worldview, and the readers' worldview. All of these factors contribute to a "literal" understanding of what the author wrote. Unfortunately, many people confuse a "literal" understanding with a "concrete" understanding, where all words are taken at face-value and are simply interpreted on a "plain reading," which is often insufficient when dealing with complex pieces of literature (like the book of Genesis).

Conclusion

Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? is an insightful book that has the potential to help many lay Christians navigate the often tumultuous waters surrounding discussions about humanity's origins. Although not comprehensive in dealing with all the important issues related to the biblical account, Collins's book is a valuable contribution to the conversation, especially in it's accessible depth and nuanced perspective. As I have already said, I think that all Christians would benefit from a careful reading of this book. At the very least, it will be a helpful tool in fostering productive discussions regarding this divisive issue.
Comment Comments (16) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 24, 2014 5:34 AM PDT


The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America
The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America
by Gabe Lyons
Edition: Hardcover
103 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Good, But Lacking Nuance, April 27, 2011
Gabe Lyons is tired of being embarrassed of the name "Christian."

Christian. It's a title that often triggers accusations of hate, arrogance, ignorance, exclusivism, and separatism, but Lyons is ready to take back the word and give it new (or, renewed) meaning. His desire, and that of many others, is that "the label Christian [would] mean something good, intelligent, authentic, true, and beautiful," (5).

In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons builds on where his previous book, UnChristian, left off. Instead of merely pointing out all the negative associations and stereotypes that many harbor against those who claim the name of Christ, Lyons offers a forecast in regard to the next generation of Christians. Lyons, who founded and leads Q, an online learning community dedicated to mobilizing Christians to advance the common good, is clearly passionate about his conviction that Christians must be a force for "restoration" in the world. It seems that his biggest "bone" with the traditional church has been the way she has largely removed herself from engaging with the prevailing culture, thus losing her restorative impact on the world.

He breaks up traditional "Christian Interaction with Current Culture" into two categories: separatist and cultural. Both of these camps, Lyons argues, is flawed. Rather, he argues that there needs to be (and indeed is) a third category: restorers. These are people who understand that "telling others about Jesus is important, but conversion isn't their only motive," people who see that "their mission is to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love," (47).

Lyons points to the history of redemption, emphasizing the beginning (perfection in the Garden of Eden) and the end (perfection in the new heavens and earth), noting that, "by truncating the full narrative [in our Gospel presentations], it reduces the power of God's redeeming work on the cross to just a proverbial ticket to a good afterlife," (51). This "full narrative," Lyons argues, entails a responsibility to seek the restoration of the world here and now. Agreed.

The rest of the book is a discussion of six essential characteristics that set the "next Christians" apart. They are:

Provoked, not offended
Creators, not critics
Called, not employed
Grounded, not distracted
In community, not alone
Countercultural, not "relevant"

I really don't have a problem with any of these "characteristics." They're all important and, I think, biblical (at least to an extent). However, Lyons often lacks nuance, painting vast numbers of people with the same broad brush. He constructs (and then knocks down) many straw men. I was continually frustrated by his unfair comments in regard to Christians' attempts to preach the Gospel. For example, he writes that "evangelizers" are Christians who are

"intent solely on getting people "saved." For the the evangelizer, recruiting others to the faith is the only legitimate Christian activity in the world. These Christians are motivated to "win souls for Christ," no matter who they offend. Wearing this calling like a chip on their shoulder, they might drop Jesus's name and the prospect of eternal damnation wherever they can get an audience," (35).

These types of comments are sprinkled throughout the book, and left me feeling disappointed.

Lyons also conflates the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ with the call to love our neighbors and seek justice. While these two issues are undoubtedly closely related (see Tim Keller's new book, Generous Justice), I don't believe they're one and the same. The term most often associated with this missiological trend is "mission creep" (Michael Horton addresses this exact issue in his new book, The Gospel Commission).

All in all, The Next Christians is a good reminder to love others, seek justice, and work for restoration around us. Lyons is right to object to a sectarian separatism that would "unplug" from the world and disengage with the lost. However, Christians must not downplay the central importance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our calling to make disciples, baptizing them into the name of the triune God, teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded. That is the great mission and calling of the Christian faith.


Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America
Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America
by Michael Yankoski
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.37
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5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful Call to Action, March 8, 2011
James writes that "religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world," (James 1:27).

With this central Christian truth in mind, Mike Yankoski and Sam Purvis set out on a journey to the streets of America, to live beside the poorest of the poor, in a world that exists right before our eyes but is often far beyond our understanding.

Yankoski recounts the first time his plan to spend five months living on the streets of America came to him. Under the Overpass is an incredible look into a world extremely foreign to most middle-class Christians. We know little of the plight of the homeless (and often care even less). Many of us live in towns where homelessness is not as prevalent (or at least, as visibly prevalent) as it is in larger cities. When we do come face to face with homelessness, we often assume that the homeless of America are lazy, drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, or that they have simply chosen to live on the streets. This leads us to adopt the (ungodly, i.e. not like God) mentality that says, "Their bad choices got them there, so I have no responsibility to help them."

The correction of this inverting of the Christian calling seems to be one of the main lessons of the book. We are all destitute in God's sight. We all come to Him dirty, broken, and with nothing to offer.

That's not to say that Yankoski is careless or naive in his calls for more involvement with the homeless, however. Throughout the book, Mike and Sam demonstrate a keen awareness of the very real and widespread addictions and sins that often plague those living on the street. However, their attitude is consistently one of love, respect, and personal engagement, rather than distanced judgment and condemnation.

Other lessons powerfully explored in the book are: the importance of truly relying on God's provision each and every day; replacing our attitudes of entitlement with attitudes of gratefulness; praying that God's will (and not our's) be done and meaning it; realizing that a person can be a Christian without conforming to many of our white, middle-class, suburban standards; giving even when it requires painful sacrifice; and not fooling ourselves into thinking that prayer is a substitute for get-your-hands-dirty service.

Yankoski also does a great job giving the reader a taste of what life on the street is really like - harsh, lonely, and discouraging. The many anecdotes and insights into daily life are extremely powerful and are a good reminder that when discussing the homeless, we are talking about real people, with real needs and emotions, living an extremely difficult and dehumanizing existence. Often their greatest need is that of friendship and acceptance.

I have to admit that before I began reading, I worried that the author would do one (or both) of the following things:

1. Harshly criticize the American church to such an extent that they actually disparaged the role that the church has played, and should continue to play, in engaging with the poor.
2. Emphasize the importance of meeting people's felt needs to such an extent that the Christian's call to preach the Gospel message was relegated to a position of secondary importance.

I am glad to report that neither of these fears proved true. Yankoski was consistently gracious and humble in his critiques of the American church, and was quick to point out examples of the church doing things right. His tone was consistently encouraging and constructive. At times, he was quite critical of the American church and Christians in general. But at other times, he highlighted positive experiences with Christians. For example, Yankoski recalls the story of a church leader who humbly apologized to him and Sam after treating them rudely and telling them they had to get off church property. The man, obviously feeling the Holy Spirit's convicting power, asked Mike and Sam for their forgiveness and treated them like brothers from then on.

Yankoski was also solid in his insistence that the most basic and important need of the homeless (and all people) is to be reconciled to God through the sacrificial death of Jesus. However, he never allows us to divorce the Good News about Jesus and the freedom He offers from the acts of love and kindness that His people are supposed to demonstrate. The message and the messenger go hand in hand. We can't offer someone the Gospel of Jesus Christ with any authenticity if we are unwilling to actually engage with them as human beings created in God's image.

Perhaps the most powerful section from the book was near the end, where Yankoski reflects on what he learned through this experience. Commenting on Deuteronomy 8:7-11, he writes,

"Suddenly the terrible dangers of lacking nothing came clear to us. Having everything "just because you can" is a trap. It numbs and blinds the human spirit. It can separate us from our calling and our privilege as Christians in this needy world. "Be careful that you do not forget..." [Deut. 8:11] In the weeks after we returned, Sam and I talked often about that. Again and again it seemed that the culture we had returned to knew how to enjoy God's material blessings, but had forgotten - or didn't care to know - how to use those blessings to help others in Jesus' name. We didn't want that to happen to us. Ever." (210)

Amen.


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