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Christ and Culture Revisited
Christ and Culture Revisited
by D. A. Carson
Edition: Hardcover
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great contribution by Carson, July 25, 2008
In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr penned his now classic volume, Christ and Culture. In it he sought to explore the "enduring problem" of the "many-sided debate about Christianity and civilization". In an attempt to come to terms with this complex and important issue, he presented various models of this relationship.

The result was his famous fivefold reply: Christ against Culture; Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox; and Christ the Transformer of Culture. Each of these models he describes in detail, and he notes both strengths and weaknesses to the five options. He suggests that believers will have to make up their own minds as to which is the preferred option.

In Carson's new volume he seeks to carry on from where Niebuhr left off. He begins by assessing his work and the five models. He rightly notes that for Niebuhr the real issue is not so much how Christianity relates to culture, but "two sources of authority as they compete within society, namely Christ ... and every other source of authority divested of Christ". And Niebuhr is especially thinking of secular or civil authority here, Carson reminds us.
Carson also notes some weaknesses in Niebuhr's important volume. He did a good job of aligning various historical figures with the five models, but sometimes the fit is far from precise. For example, while Augustine or Calvin may well fit in the transformationist model, they do so only partially. And Tertullian cannot consistently be seen as fitting in the opposition ("against") model. And so on.

Carson then discusses the biblical plotline, and what are some nonnegotiable elements of the biblical worldview. He rightly notes that we do very much have a responsibility to our surrounding culture. Believers have a relationship with God "in the context of embodied existence". Indeed, as image bearers of God, we have "responsibilities toward the rest of the created order - responsibilities of governance and care".

He discusses the fall and sin, and the call of Israel. But he notes that with the arrival of Christ, something new entered human affairs: "up to that point in history, religion and state were everywhere intertwined". This was just as true of Israel as with the surrounding pagan nations.

But when Jesus announced that we should "give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" he initiated a whole new paradigm. Prior to Jesus there were no genuinely secular states. All nations were involved with gods. Jesus was the first to highlight that there are two separate and distinct realms here. They of course overlap, but are not identical.

Thus there has always being - even if imperfectly - church-state divisions within Christendom. Islam of course has never known this dichotomy, nor does it want to. And Carson reminds us that in the words of Jesus we have real differentiation between Caesar and God. However, Jesus intended that God should have the pre-eminence.

Of course how all that fleshes itself out in the daily life of both individuals and nations is the big question - the sort of question that Niebuhr sought to address. And that is what Carson seeks to further explore in this book.

Other theological givens must inform our thinking on this issue. For example, the now commonly accepted understanding of believers "living between the times" comes into play here. We live between the inauguration of Christ's kingdom, and its consummation. Thus we live in both the old age and the new age, and tensions abound.

In the light of this biblical truth, believers should neither expect utopia on earth, nor settle for corrupt and unjust rule. We can fight for justice, although realising that perfection can never be achieved in a fallen world. Our ideals must be tempered by realism.

Carson examines other issues, such as the postmodern understanding of culture. In contrast to the cultural relativism that characterises postmodern thought, Carson argues that biblical motifs regarding culture must be adhered to. These include the awareness that there is a mixture of good and evil in every culture, and that all cultures ultimately stand under the judgment of God.

Of course the biblical belief in, and understanding of, absolute and universal moral truth makes it possible for us to evaluate and assess every culture. We can determine, albeit imperfectly, how close to, or how far away from, a culture is in relation to God's moral standards.

Carson also devotes substantial chapters to the concepts of freedom, democracy, secularism, church and state relationships, and power. Democracy, for example, is a great good, but it is not the Kingdom of God, and is limited in many ways. A healthy democracy depends upon a shared set of values and beliefs. But when this unity is frayed, then democracies tend to unravel. And as democracies disintegrate, stronger and more intrusive state powers are needed to hold things together.

With the West quickly abandoning its Judeo-Christian roots, there seems to be little on the horizon to takes its place in terms of holding a nation together with a common core of beliefs and values. As people in a democracy increasingly disagree on what is the good or what it means to be free, the state steps in more and more, and people become less free.

The only real check to unrestrained statism and state power is the biblical notion that God alone is the ultimate authority, and no man-made authority should overstep it bounds. "The doctrine of God reminds us that we are not ultimate: God is" says Carson. And the "doctrine of creation tells us that we are not our own: we are responsible to the One who made us".

In the end, says Carson, Christianity cannot be reduced to merely privatised religion, and we have obligations to both the state and the surrounding culture. But a Christian's ultimate loyalties are with God, and he must be preeminent in everything.

Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism
Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism
by Christopher W. Morgan
Edition: Paperback
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The case for exclusivism, July 24, 2008
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Biblically Christianity is clearly exclusivist in its insistence that Christianity is the one true religion, and that Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation. This is not exactly what a multicultural, pluralistic society wants to hear. But it is what biblical Christians are obligated to proclaim.

While it is obvious that many non-Christians (whether religious or nonreligious) will find the exclusiveness of Christianity's truth claims to be burdensome and objectionable, there are some Christians who also question the traditional understanding.

Some evangelical Christians, for example, have sought to widen the parameters when it comes to who can be saved and how. It is to these sorts of issues that this book is addressed. Eleven meaty chapters written by nine biblical scholars tackle the many complex issues involved.

Traditionally there have been three main approaches to these issues. The exclusivist camp argues that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour, and salvation only comes in response to the Gospel of Christ. The inclusivist camp argues that Christ is indeed the only Saviour, but people can be saved apart from hearing the Gospel message. Pluralism teaches that there are many religious roads to God.

This volume argues that the consistent Biblical position is that of exclusivism. It mainly interacts with other Christians who seek to argue for the remaining two positions, especially the inclusivists. Many of the leading evangelical inclusivists are those associated with the open theism movement. Thus open theists such as Clark Pinnock and John Sanders receive a great deal of attention in this volume, along with others. Terrance Tiessen, an inclusivist of the Reformed persuasion, also gets a wide hearing.

Morgan does a good job in his opening chapter listing the various details and nuances of the main positions involved. Indeed, he admits that the three traditional camps may be insufficient, and breaks things down into nine specific positions.

Daniel Strange offers a helpful overview of the claim that general revelation (God's self-disclosure in creation and conscience) is sufficient to condemn sinners, but not sufficient to save them. The special revelation of God (his Word and Jesus Christ) is necessary to make salvation possible to fallen mankind. Key texts such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1-2 are carefully examined, along with inclusivist assessments of them.

Walter Kaiser looks at salvation in the Old Testament, and argues that so-called holy pagans or believing Gentiles were saved just as we are, by response to the specific revelation of God. True, the OT saints did not have a clear understanding of Christ and his work, but they did have Yahweh's self-disclosure in general, and his specific revelation of a promised Saviour, going back to Genesis 3:15.

Eckhard Schnabel discusses how the Bible understands other religions. He reminds us that both Israel and the early Christians believed that competing religious worldviews were false religions and manmade belief systems. They both also recognised the spiritual dimension to other religions, which includes some elements of the demonic and satanic

William Edgar examines the charge that exclusivism is unjust. In his discussion he covers a number of major issues such as theodicy, the nature of evil, the sovereignty of God and the entrance of sin into the world. He reminds us that if God saved no one, he would still be absolutely just and fair. But the fact that many are saved speaks to the great mercy and grace of God.

Other chapters examine such topics as the nature of saving faith, the necessity of preaching the Gospel, and the missionary heart of God. The authors here argue that the best thing we can do for those who are worried about the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel is to encourage them to be more active in proclaiming the Gospel to all mankind.

A concluding chapter deals with notable objections to the notion of exclusivism, such as the fairness and justice of hell, and various pastoral concerns

In sum, there is a wealth of biblical, theological and hermeneutical material covered here, which is presented in a fair and gracious manner. Extensive quotations from, and arguments by, the inclusivists are presented and carefully dealt with. The authors meticulously and graciously interact with the inclusivists, but make it clear that the exclusivist position seems to best do justice to the biblical data.

And they make clear the priority of the Christian Gospel, and the urgency and importance of worldwide evangelisation. While a number of other volumes have covered these topics, this is perhaps the best recent volume to present the biblical and theological case for exclusivism. An important and vital volume.

New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ
New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ
by Thomas R. Schreiner
Edition: Hardcover
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77 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A first-class NT theology, July 14, 2008
This is certainly the newest and perhaps most comprehensive New Testament theology to come from the conservative/Evangelical camp. Other recent volumes include those by Achtemeier, Green and Thompson, (Introducing the New Testament, 2001); Marshall (New Testament Theology, 2004); and Thielman (Theology of the New Testament, 2005).

Older but still helpful volumes include those by Ladd (1974); Hasel (1978); Guthrie (1981); Morris (1986); and Caird and Hurst (1994). Of all these volumes, Schreiner's is certainly the most extensive, reaching nearly 1,000 pages.

Most NT theologies approach the task in a book by book examination. Some take a more topical/thematic approach. Schreiner combines the best of both worlds. He looks at major NT themes, such as God, the Kingdom, Christology, sin, salvation, eschatology, and so on, but does so by focusing on main author clusters, such as the Synoptics, or Luke-Acts, or Paul, or John, etc.

Thus all the main themes of the NT are capably dealt with, but the canonical structure to the NT is not lost. As to the centre of NT theology, Schreiner states his view in the opening lines: "NT theology is God-focused, Christ-centered, and Spirit-saturated, but the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit must be understood along a salvation-historical timeline; that is, God's promises are already fulfilled but not yet consummated in Christ Jesus" Indeed, the subtitle of this book is Magnifying God in Christ.

Schreiner is of course a leading NT scholar, and relatively youngish (54). He lectures at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has penned a number of helpful volumes in the past, including an important volume on Pauline theology (2001), a major commentary on Romans (BECNT, 1998), and various volumes on issues in Pauline thinking.

Indeed, like Frank Thielman, he has written much on the place of the law in Pauline thought. His The Law and it's Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (1993) is an important contribution to this debate, as is Thielman's 1994 volume, Paul and the Law.

Thus his understanding of the place of the law in the whole of the NT is quite helpful, and his discussion on this vital topic - like that of other topics in this volume - is informed both by the latest scholarship, as well as pastoral concerns. Indeed, his examination of NT ethics is also very useful, dealing with how the NT writers inform us of how God's people are to live in God's world.

Theologically, Schreiner is conservative and moderately Reformed. But he is judicious in handling varying points of view, and does a good job of allowing the NT writers themselves to determine the flow of theology in this volume.

That he is not a hard-core Calvinist is evident in various ways, including his treatment of the warning passages in Hebrews. For example, he takes it that those being warned about falling away are in fact actual believers, and that they can indeed turn away from their salvation.

His conservatism is seen in various places, for example, in his treatment of women in the church and in the home. He takes the complementarian (or traditional) position here, as opposed to the egalitarian (or liberationist) view. Of course such controversial issues will result in differing opinions, but as mentioned, Schreiner is fair to his debating partners in these various discussions.

Altogether, this is really an outstanding volume, covering all the bases, and providing both theological detail as well as the big-picture framework. It is a solid work by a solid NT scholar, and well worth a careful read. Pastors, students and scholars alike will benefit greatly from this tremendous work.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 18, 2013 9:39 PM PST

The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World
The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World
by David F. Wells
Edition: Hardcover
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More great insights from Wells, May 26, 2008
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David Wells has trained his incisive intellect on the big issues of theology, the life of the church, and the state of contemporary culture for decades now. A theologian with a keen interest in how the church is faring in modern culture, Wells has written much about these vital themes.

Indeed, his previous four volumes on these themes have all been very important contributions to the field. Specifically, No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), Losing Our Virtue (1998), and Above All Earthly Pow'rs (2005) have offered detailed assessments of, and reflection on, the crisis of truth in the life of the church, the rise of the therapeutic culture, and the decline of the Evangelical church.

This newest volume continues to explore these themes, and serves as sort of a summary volume for the preceding four. One difference is that, unlike the others, no footnotes or bibliography is included here. Otherwise it takes up where the others have left off, and explores some more recent developments, such as the rise of the emerging church movement, and its postmodern tendencies.

All of these themes - and more - are carefully examined in this very important volume. Wells is a theology lecturer, so his first love and concern is the vital role theology and teaching play in the life of the church. But he is also a careful student of culture, and is able to both discern the various cultural trends, and to note their impact on the church.

Thus he really offers a sort of prophetic perspective on the church, calling it back to its roots, and warning of where and when it strays from its moorings. Consider how the church has so strongly mirrored the world in the way it views success in terms of marketing strategies, numbers, and sales pitches.

In his chapter on the marketing of the gospel, Wells argues that what we have is `Christianity for sale'. As any good marketer knows, the customer is king, so give them what they want. That may work well in secular businesses, but it is disastrous for the church of Jesus Christ.

Christianity is about who God is, and what he thinks. It is not about us. But modern evangelical megachurches and seeker-sensitive services tend to get it back to front. We put the seeker in the primary place, and God is lucky if he even gets second spot.

Says Wells, all this does is produce a "Christianity lite" church. All it offers is a watered down, weak, anaemic and seeker-friendly gospel; one that does not make any demands on us, or expect us to actually change in any way. It is all about what benefits the consumer can get out of the deal.

The problem with this is those attending such churches "are now like any other customers you might find in the mall. Displease them in any way and they will take their business elsewhere". So the pressure is on church leaders to make things consumer friendly - just like outside the church. So they get rid of the pews, the crosses, the preaching, the old hymns, and so on

Entertainment and therapy are offered instead, and the gospel gets watered down so as not to offend. So instead of hearing about sin separating us from a holy God, and worthy of punishment, unless a substitute is found to take our place, we hear instead about what we like most: ourselves.

We hear about how we can be better selves. We learn about self-esteem and self-fulfilment and self-actualisation. It is all devoted to self, and Christ and the cross are relegated to the sidelines. "Make it as easy on the mind as a relaxing show on television. Only give something that works. Do not talk doctrine. Do not hold forth about anything that takes serious effort to believe. Do not sound churchy."

What is left is simply a religious version of the world. Instead of "sola Scriptura", all we really have is "sola cultura". The surrounding culture has won, and the church has simply become a pale imitation of it.

Obviously in such a setting, truth becomes a major casualty, as does doctrine, church discipline, the preaching of the Word, discipleship, and the demands for holiness. Instead the whole package becomes centred on us: our wants, our needs, our longings.

We forget about what God wants of us, demands of us. We forget about the costly nature of Christ's sacrifice for us, and the call for us to imitate our master. Gone are the notions of self-denial, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. In their place we have a self-centred gospel that put us at the centre of attention.

In seeking to be relevant and seeker-sensitive (which is not a bad thing in itself), we have simply truncated the gospel and sold our spiritual birthright. Business and marketing techniques have their place in the world of commerce, but not in the church.

Only by letting God be God, and letting the Gospel once again shine through our teaching and our lives, will we be able to really impact a needy world. Gimmicks and techniques will not cut it. The vision of the Reformers, based as it was on the person and work of Christ, and the authority of Scripture, must be our central focus. Everything else is just a distraction.

David Wells is to be congratulated for reminding us of these timely truths. It is simply basic Christianity that he is reminding us of. But when the basics have been lost, then they need to be reaffirmed loudly and clearly. And Wells has done just that in this invaluable book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 30, 2008 10:30 AM PST

how great is our GOD
how great is our GOD
DVD ~ Louie Giglio
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The heavens declare the glory of God, May 15, 2008
This review is from: how great is our GOD (DVD)
This DVD is a recording of one of Giglio's recent public presentations, and covers similar ground to some his earlier talks, including his "Indescribable" DVD. It is a quite moving and powerful presentation. Just the complexity and size of the universe is so very mind-blowing, and the way it is presented here really makes one appreciate the grandeur and wonder of our creator God. Making use of amazing NASA colour images of the cosmos, Giglio unpacks biblical themes which remind us not only of the greatness of God, but of the amazing fact that we have cosmic significance in this vast universe.

Indeed, in this DVD he goes from the majestic to the miniscule. We tour the solar system, and we also tour the smallest components of the human body. Those who like the big ticket items of science, such as astronomy and cosmology, will marvel at the images of our solar system. And those who are in awe of the tiniest of what life is all about will be fascinated by the inner workings of cellular life, and what the molecular biologists are telling us.

Consider our universe. The sun, which is 93 million miles away from our earth, is so large that 960,000 earths could fit inside it. And that is just a relatively small star. Betelgeuse, which is 427 light years away, is twice the size of the earth's orbit around the sun. It is so humongous that 262 trillion earths could fit in it.

The largest known star is Canis Majoris. It is so incredibly massive that seven quadrillion earths could fit inside it. Yet the same God who breathes out the stars from his mouth (Psalm 33:6) is the one who cares intimately about us, and seeks to rescue us. As Giglio puts it, the star breather has become the sin bearer. The universe maker is also our redeemer.

Giglio reminds us that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth. This quick look at the vastness of the known universe must humble us, and cause us all to bow down and worship the creator of all things. The heavens certainly declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).

But we are also fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Our beginning lies in one microscopic cell from our mother, and one from our father. These form one new cell, with a totally new and unique set of DNA. It contains three billion characters of code. This one tiny cell contains all the information and instructions needed to produce us.

This one cell divides, and soon an embryo becomes a baby which becomes a child which becomes an adult. The single cell now gives way to 75 trillion cells in the human body. Every one of these cells has all three billion bits of our genetic code. Every three seconds 50,000 cells die and are replaced in our bodies.

We are truly amazing creations of a truly amazing creator God. Giglio takes these marvelous truths of science and ties them in with biblical lessons which should encourage and stimulate us all. This is not dry science but living lessons from both the Word of God and the world of God. The two bear witness to each other, and give us a picture of an amazing God, and of us, the crown of his creation.

There might be one weakness of the DVD however. Giglio uses the cross-shaped protein molecule Laminin and the cross-shaped center of the black hole in the Whirlpool galaxy to argue for divine signatures in nature. But he may just be reading too much into things here.

Presumably many other cross-shaped items appear in nature, both big and small, which have no special Christian meaning or purpose. We need to be careful not to put all our apologetics eggs into this one basket. Perhaps this is all just a case of unnecessary speculation and wishful thinking. Was this important protein molecule specifically designed in the shape of the cross by God as a witness to Christ and Calvary? Perhaps. But then again, it may just be the way it looks, with no further significance than that.

And if it was meant to be some kind of signpost to God or source of comfort to believers (along with the black hole cross), then over 99 per cent of Christians (in history past) would have missed out on them, since they are both quite recent discoveries.

But don't let that detract from the overall value of the DVD. I still recommend that believers have a look at it. This DVD, like his others, is well worth viewing and sharing with your friends. In an age of secularism and cynicism, we need to be reminded of the greatness and grandeur of God. And we need to be reminded of how remarkable it is that we are made in the image of this awesome God.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 20, 2009 12:43 PM PST

Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be
Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be
by Ted Kluck
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27 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic and much-needed resource, April 24, 2008
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This is an excellent and much-needed assessment of the emerging church movement. While D.A. Carson and R. Scott Smith both offered very helpful critiques of this movement in 2005, this new book is really quite superb in giving us a balanced appraisal of, and serious warning about, the emergent movement.

Consistent with postmodernism, the emerging church folk have a strong dislike of rationality, theology, and propositional truth. They look down on dogma, rules, teaching, preaching, boundaries and doctrine. While they reject some things we should reject - legalism, unloving judgmentalism, head over heart, and so on - they have a tendency of throwing the baby out with the bath water. In reacting to one extreme, they go way over to another extreme. What is needed is biblical balance, not wild pendulum swings.

Consider the issue of our knowledge of God. The emergent crowd generally argues that we should be content with mystery, wonder and questions. We cannot pin down God and he is too big to be put in a theological box. That all may be true, but they go to unnecessary extremes here. Emergent leaders "are allowing the immensity of God to swallow up His knowability. In good postmodern fashion, they are questioning whether we can have any real knowledge about God in the first place."

But God is a God who reveals himself, who speaks, who acts, and discloses truths about himself to finite mankind. If God does not have a problem with this, why do the emergent leaders? Sure, we only have partial knowledge of God, but we can still have true truth about God.

Many emergent leaders argue that we can know God personally, but we cannot know him propositionally. We can have a relationship with God, but we cannot really know too much about him. But this is just plain silly, as well as unbiblical. How can a man love his wife, for example, while knowing little about her? Knowledge about others is necessary in order for us to have a relationship with them.

Similarly, the emergent crowd makes much of relationship over against rules and regulations. Do's and don'ts and laws just don't cut it anymore. Instead, Christianity is all about love and relationship. But as the authors rightly remind us, relationships must be guarded and preserved by rules: "Try telling your wife after you've had an affair, `Come on, I thought our marriage was about the relationship, not all these do's and don'ts'."

Emergent leaders also buy the whole postmodern idea that we are only left with interpretation. The emphasis of the deconstructionists is that we can never really know what the author intended. All we have is our own subjective understanding.

The emergent infatuation with deconstructionism is dangerous business indeed. By abandoning any sure word, by saying we are only left with interpretation - not final truth - the emergent crowd is leaving us all in a sea of relativism and uncertainty. But God is quite able to communicate to us and to use words in such a way that are understandable and meaningful.

Of course we all misinterpret things, because we are fallen and finite. But Scripture throughout insists that there is real meaning in the text, that is can be communicated to us, and that we can have some genuine understanding of it, albeit in a limited and not exhaustive fashion.

But if we can never be sure about anything, why do the emerging leaders seem so certain about what they are trying to tell us? The authors remind us that the emergent leaders want to tell us that our traditional understandings (for example, about hell, exclusivism, the nature of the atonement, etc.) are faulty, yet they somehow seem certain about this, and that their alternative understandings are the ones to adopt.

They say traditional evangelicals have been misinterpreting the Bible, all the while saying we can never really know that any interpretation is true. Sorry, but you can't have it both ways. If anything goes in interpretation, then why should we heed the emergent leaders any more than, say, Paris Hilton?

The authors point out that the emergent writers confuse humility with uncertainty. They think it is a good thing that we are not dogmatic, but instead live with ambiguity, mystery, doubt and questions. Indeed, many of them equate faith with doubt. They dislike hard and fast theological systems, and they dislike those who claim to have some solid handle on the truth, equating that with pride and intolerance.

But that does not square with the Biblical writers, especially the early apostles. They claimed to have the truth, to know the truth, and to proclaim the truth. They proclaimed the gospel as certain truth, and were willing to die for their strong convictions. But the emergent crowd wants us to hold onto things so loosely and so tentatively that one must ask, what gospel are they in fact offering to people?

"The apostles never preached with the double-talk and ambiguity you find in so many emergent books" the authors state. And the idea of a non-doctrinal Christianity - the no-creed-but-Jesus mentality - is simply the stuff of old-fashioned theological liberalism. It is weak and wishy washy, and converts no one.

The emergent gospel leaves a lot to be desired. Many in the movement have real trouble with saying Jesus is the only way to salvation; are squeamish about propitiation; dislike talk of hell; and have a very low view of Scripture. It is really quite identical to the old theological liberalism. "The only difference is that the old liberalism accommodated modernity and the new liberalism accommodates postmodernism."

The books of McLaren, Bell, Pagitt, Kimball, Jones and others will undoubtedly continue to sell well, and their conferences will probably still be sell-outs. But it is a movement that is in urgent need of balance. And this book is an excellent resource in helping to bring about that balance. It has a message that desperately needs to be heard.
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The Shack
The Shack
by WM. Paul Young
Edition: Hardcover
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11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very helpful book, but not without some shortcomings, April 10, 2008
This review is from: The Shack (Hardcover)
The two mega-themes of this novel are the love of God and human suffering. Those are about the two biggest topics around. As such, this book is an attempt at theodicy: justifying the ways of God in the face of suffering and evil in the world. It is no small task, and it is as old as the book of Job, penned perhaps three millennia ago.

It is hard to come up with anything radically new on such age-old questions. And Young generally reiterates basic Christian truths that evangelicals for quite some time have tried to present. He just does this in a new, more forceful and moving fashion.

The heart of this is that God is overwhelmingly a God of love, and everything he does is done out of supreme love. There is an eternal love relationship between the members of the Trinity, and that love oozes out toward us, his creatures.

The God of the Bible is a God of love, and yet is also a sovereign God. Thus He is in charge of all that happens, and nothing surprises him or is outside of his knowledge or purposes. But he is not directly the author of evil. God hates evil and injustice and cruelty far more than we ever will. Yet somehow he is able to work his purposes out of what seem to be the most dark and hideous situations. God can and does bring good out of evil.

Indeed, the incredible deep love of God for us is a major theme of this book. Again, it is an old Christian truth, but one vividly rendered even more real in the form of this work of fiction. God is absolutely crazy about us.

But, says Young, knowledge and awareness of this love is greatly distorted and clouded by our own selfishness, sin, and sense of independence. We think we can find joy anywhere but with our creator and redeemer. But that is just not possible. And often it is the hardships and agonies of life that drive us away from self back to the source of true joy, peace and happiness.

An important part of the book's value lies in something almost all Christians must have desired upon many occasions: to have a face to face encounter with the living God. Young seeks to paint a picture of what such an encounter might look like here and now. And thus the value of the fictional approach - to make more real certain spiritual realities which we already know through works of non-fiction.

However there are some concerns as well about the book. Usually they come in the form of having certain biblical truths neglected or sacrificed in order for Young to stress his main theme - the love of God.

By so stressing the love of God, there is always the tendency to get the Biblical portrait of God out of kilter. God is love to be sure, but he is also holy, just, righteous, and so on. Often these other attributes get lost or minimised in a strong emphasis on the love of God. And Young at times seems to move in this direction. Fortunately, he will balance things out on most occasions, thus preventing any real concerns about heresy (which already some are expressing about this book).

But such an emphasis on love and relationships as being the heart of what Christianity is all about can lead to antinomianism and an unbalanced view of the workings between law and grace. Both are given by God, and both are used in his purposes. Young's idea here seems almost to be that we must choose one or the other, that they are polar opposites.

Scripture has a very high view of law. Sure, law cannot save us, but law is from God, and reflects who he is. No one is saved by keeping rules, but once saved, out of gratitude we do seek to keep the rules that Christ and the apostles have laid down for us. By so emphasising love relationships (which admittedly, many evangelicals need to hear again and again), Young seems to throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes loving relationships are at the heart of what God wants for us, but it is not at the expense of seeking to obey God and what he asks of us.

Another area which will bother some is the way the Trinity is presented in the book. The idea of any sort of hierarchy in the Trinity is slammed here. Now that happens to be a position that some good evangelicals hold to. Most however would probably argue that there is some sort of hierarchy in the Trinity - certainly not a hierarchy of essence or nature, but of role or function.

But having said all that, I think that on the whole this book may achieve a lot of good for the Body of Christ. This book may well help many in bringing them much closer to God. I hope that it does.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 31, 2008 8:47 AM PDT

Embryo: A Defense of Human Life
Embryo: A Defense of Human Life
by Robert P. George
Edition: Hardcover
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great resource, April 6, 2008
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In this important volume two philosophers with interests in bioethics and law make the case for the moral worth of the human embryo from non-religious grounds. The case instead is made with a combination of science (biology, embryology, genetics) and moral philosophy.

Thus this book covers a wide range of topics, and deals with the various technologies that threaten the human embryo, from abortion to cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Much of the discussion focuses on the scientific questions: what is an embryo, how is it formed and developed, and so on.

The authors show that at fertilisation a new and distinct human organism comes into existence. The newly formed zygote is genetically unique, and its sex is established. This newly formed zygote is genetically distinct from either of its two parents.

When sperm and oocyte unite, there is a new human individual which comes into existence. It is a "single, unified, and self-integrated biological system", argue the authors, which is on a "developmental trajectory" toward a mature stage of human being.

The authors remind us that the zygote is no longer some functional part of either parent, but a "unique organism, distinct and whole, albeit at the very beginning of a long process of development to adulthood". All the mother does from now on is provide nutrition and a safe environment for the embryo to grow.

And this growth is internally directed. It contains within itself all the "genetic programming and epigenetic characteristics necessary to direct its own biological growth". It is a complete or whole organism, in the very early stages of development. And the changes from embryo to fetus to child to adult, etc., are simply changes in degree, not changes in kind.

Thus the scientific question is easily answered. This is a wholly new and distinct genetic individual. And it of course is fully human. But questions arise as to whether this new human embryo is in fact a person. Here the authors move from science to philosophy.

For science cannot answer these sorts of questions. Thus the need for moral philosophy. And here the authors take on all the leading critics of the personhood of the human embryo. Peter Singer, Lee Silver, Judith Jarvis Thompson, Michael Tooley and others are all interacted with.

Drawing on a rich history of philosophical discussion, going back at least to Plato, the authors seek to establish the substance or essence of an entity, in distinction to its various characteristics or properties. Distinction, in other words, must be made between the kind of thing an entity is, and its accidental or contingent properties. For example, being left-handed or red-haired is not an essential feature of peronhood, but is simply an accidental property.

Utilitarian and consequentialist definitions of personhood fail to make this important distinction. Thus personhood is tied up with functionality and activity, instead of one's innate nature or essence. So persons are described as those with sentience, or self-consciousness, or various other functions. But the authors argue that the utilisation of these accidental properties is not the same as our fundamental nature or substance.

The various abilities to reason, communicate, make free choices, and perform other functions of course are not fully formed in the embryo, or even in a young child. They take time to mature and properly develop. But the capacity to perform such functions is with us from the very beginning. Each new human being "comes into existence possessing the internal resources to develop such capacities".

Thus human beings live personal lives, argue the authors. These lives are "characterised by a certain range of potentialities, which need not be fully instantiated or realized all at once or to the same degree in all cases".

The bulk of this book then takes on the various arguments made against the personhood of the embryo, and these functionalist definitions of personhood. Various philosophical and moral challenges and objections are carefully dealt with. Specific issues such as brain death, twinning, natural embryo loss, lifeboat ethics, surplus embryos, and other problems are discussed in detail. Challenges from cloning and other new reproductive technologies are also addressed. Finally, political, technological and cultural recommendations are made, based on this understanding of the complete humanity and personhood of the human embryo.

This is a very fine book that covers most of the bases in what is often a highly emotive and controversial debate. The scientific, moral and philosophical case for the worth of the embryo is here clearly and dispassionately made. The authors have produced a welcome addition to the growing body of pro-life literature.

Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus
Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus
by Nicholas Perrin
Edition: Hardcover
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A helpful critique of Ehrman, March 31, 2008
It is common today to question not only what we know about Jesus, but how we know about Jesus. The critics and sceptics argue that we can't really know the real Jesus, because whatever he said and did has been lost in translation. The early followers of Jesus have so corrupted the original words and deeds that they are beyond knowing.

Many have been taking this line of late. One who has had a New York Times best seller in this regard is Bart Ehrman. His 2005 volume, Misquoting Jesus, has sought to argue that we are left with only doubt and uncertainty about the real Jesus.

Perrin, a lecturer in New Testament at Wheaton College, and former research assistant to N.T. Wright, takes on Ehrman in particular and the sceptics in general in this useful volume. He does so by offering an easy to read account of various themes: history, theology, hermeneutics and textual criticism.

Perrin notes that his journey of faith is the opposite of Ehrman. Perrin started off an agnostic but eventually became an evangelical Christian. Ehrman began as an evangelical but is now an agnostic. Perrin describes his spiritual journey, and along the way shows how most of the major themes of Ehrman and the sceptics are simply mistaken.

Consider the nature of the four Gospels. Are they selective accounts of the life of Jesus? Yes. Does that mean they are therefore unreliable? No. Perrin reminds us that all historians are selective, and therefore interpretive. There is no such thing as purely objective history. But being interpretative does not equate to being fast and loose with the facts of history.

The Gospel writers clearly wrote with a theological purpose in mind. But they also wrote with a high view of history. Theological and historical purposes can combine in the Gospel accounts, with no loss of factual accuracy.

Ehrman tries to make a false dichotomy between seeing the Gospel writings as either the words of God or the words of men. But Christians have always held that they are both. The biblical understanding of inspiration contains both elements, just as does our understanding of the person of Jesus as being both fully human and fully divine.

Perrin also looks briefly at the claims of some radicals who doubt that Jesus even existed. These claims are quickly dismissed. First, no serious New Testament scholar anywhere denies the existence of Jesus. Second, the claim of critics that Christianity simply borrowed from other pagan mystery religions is fraught with danger.

Borrowing always takes place to some degree, but that does not minimise the truth claims of Christianity or imply bare dependency. If Christianity is in fact true, we would expect the faith to "resonate with the deepest longings of humanity," says Perrin, "using some of the very same imagery that humanity has latched unto in order to express those longings". Third, the similarities are at best superficial, not deep-seated.

So too are the supposed similarities between the various Gnostic gospels and our canonical Gospels. The biblical Gospels were all penned within the first century, just decades after the life of Christ. The Gnostic gospels were primarily second and third century documents.

The Gnostics taught that the body was bad, and the spirit had to be liberated from it. The Christian Gospels teach the importance of the body, and the fact that God became flesh (the Incarnation). Gnosticism teaches salvation by special knowledge and ideas. Christianity says salvation comes by God coming in the flesh, and living among us, dying and rising again.

Perrin argues that Ehrman not only exaggerates the frequency of textual corruptions, but the implications of those as well. For example, we have serious questions about less than one percent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark. And textual criticism is helping us to continue to get a better handle on the original texts. The transmission of the words of Jesus may not be perfect, but it is certainly adequate.

In sum, the journey from the words of Jesus to the Bibles we have today is undeniably a long and complex one. But we can still argue that the words and deeds of Jesus are for the most part faithfully contained in the New Testament writings. There is some static between what Jesus originally said and what we read today. But, as Perrin demonstrates, "Jesus' voice is preserved in the transmission".

This is not a detailed rebuttal of the Ehrman book. For that one should consult Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's `Misquoting Jesus' (IVP, 2007). Instead it offers a much broader look at the issues involved. It is a helpful volume both for believers and unbelievers. Although brief (just under 200 pages), it gives both groups some solid material to use in considering what Jesus is like and what he said, and how we can know that with a high degree of confidence.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
by Timothy Keller
Edition: Hardcover
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12 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superaltive effort, March 25, 2008
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Subtitled "Belief in an Age of Skepticism," this very important book is a welcome antidote to the many atheist titles which have appeared lately. It very admirably fulfils the twin tasks of apologetics: dealing with objections to, and misunderstandings of, the Christian faith, and presenting the attractiveness of it.

The first seven chapters deal with the most common objections and criticisms of Christianity that Keller, a New York City pastor, has encountered, while the last seven chapters very nicely lay out the case for the Christian worldview.

Ministering to secular, sceptical New Yorkers has meant Keller has had to answer thousands of questions about the faith. He is very well read, quite intelligent, and has a heart to reach out to the seeker and the sceptic. Thus this book is a great blend of dealing with matters of both head and heart.

Consider how he deals with some of the objections. The problem of suffering and evil is always near the top of such a list, and Keller does a good job in providing biblical responses to this issue. And he reminds us that unbelievers also have to deal with the problem.

Modern "objections to God are based on a sense of fair play and justice," says Keller. People strongly believe we ought not to suffer, die of oppression and hunger, and so on. Yet in the evolutionary worldview, death, destruction and suffering are fully natural - they are part of the mechanism of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Crap just happens, in other words, in a secular scheme of things.

Indeed, where does the sense of justice and fair play even come from, in such a dog-eat-dog world, where only matter matters? The believer, on the other hand, can account for both evil (we live in a fallen world) and goodness (we are made in the image of a good God).

Moreover, our God is not aloof from suffering, but has entered into the very heart of the human condition, experiencing to the full our pain and suffering. God does not abandon us in our suffering, but is in a very real sense present with us.

Related to this is the objection of how a loving God could send people to hell. But hell is ultimately a destination that people choose for themselves. Says Keller, "hell is simply one's freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity". People who seek to be free of God, - who is the only source of love, goodness, beauty and kindness - can follow that path. And that path does lead to hell, which is the place where God is not. As C.S. Lewis said, hell is the "greatest monument to human freedom".

And love and judgement are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin. If you really love someone, you get angry at whatever hurts and destroys him or her. One can rightly hate cancer for what it does to people. And sin is a spiritual cancer that destroys people. God's love for us must entail hating our sin which separates us from his love.

Keller also offers some positives of the Christian faith. Probably the most basic and fundamental good is the cross of Christ. It is here that justice and mercy fully meet. The demands of justice are fully met at Calvary, but in a way in which the grace of God can be freely extended to us, undeserving as we are.

Sin demands a payment. Letting criminals go scot-free is not justice. God did not let sin go unpunished, but allowed his own son to take our punishment, so that he might offer us forgiveness and hope. God himself absorbed the debt, so that we might be freely forgiven. But a huge cost was still paid.

God becomes human in order to "honor moral justice and merciful love," says Keller, "so that someday he can destroy all evil without destroying us". That last phrase is a tremendously profound Christian truth. As Solzhenitsyn reminded us, good and evil runs through every human heart. So how can a just and holy God eradicate evil without eradicating us?

The glorious exchange that took place at Calvary is the answer. "All real life-changing love involves some form of this kind of exchange". There can be no God of love, Keller reminds us, if we take away the cross. This is indeed the good news of the Christian worldview.

Keller also deals with the issue of human relationships, and the alienation and selfishness that destroys such relationships because of sin. God is above all a relational God. The three persons of the Godhead are involved in a free, loving relationship.

We were created to be part of that love relationship. The joy and love found in the Godhead has been extended to us. But that can only be received as we have relationship with God. But sin and selfishness destroy that joy and love, and trap us in alienation and despair.

God wants that love relationship restored, not just in the sweet by and by, but here and now. In this, Christianity is unique among all the world religions in offering hope and wholeness in this material world. Biblical salvation lies not in escape from the world, but in its transformation.

The Christian story is bigger than just having our individual sins forgiven. It is about putting "the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it".

A short review like this cannot do justice to the riches found in this volume. In 250 pages a very articulate, rational and compassionate case is made for Christian truth claims. This is a book to both strengthen the faith of believers, and help answer many of the nagging questions of sceptics and seekers. I heartily recommend it.
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