Review: From Plato to Christ

From Plato to Christ, Louis Markos. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A discussion of the most significant ideas of Plato, summarizing his works and the influence Platonic thought has had on Christian theology.

One of the things readily apparent to anyone who reads the theology of the church fathers is their indebtedness to the Greek philosophers, and particularly Platonic philosophy. Eusebius even believed that Plato’s work was a preparation for the gospel.

In this work, Louis Markos does two things. One is that he offers an introduction to Plato for those unfamiliar with him (and a good refresher for those of us who are). The first part reviews his major works and the key ideas that early Christian thinkers believed anticipated the coming of Christ. Of particular interest is the Cave and the rising path from the shadows of the forms to the forms in all their perfection, the sum of goodness, truth, and beauty. All this serves as a basis of our moral awareness and striving, and may become the basis of our awareness of our need for grace. He understood that we are both physical and spiritual beings. In The Laws Plato comes near a Christian understanding of a God intimately involved in his creation and a cosmology with which Christians deeply resonated. Markos notes where Christians part ways in the Platonic idea of the transmigration of souls, the relative denigration of the body, and the inferiority of women (although I suspect this also had an influence on Christian theology that Markos doesn’t discuss).

The second half of the book treats the Christian thinkers who draw upon his ideas beginning with Origen, the three Gregorys, Augustine, Boethius, and Dante, and more recently, Erasmus, Descartes, Coleridge, and finally C. S. Lewis, whose Professor Digory remarks in The Last Battle as they go “further up and further in” that “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato.”

The work also includes a bibliographic essay, not only of works drawn upon but comments on works and editions the reader may consult who wants to explore the connections of Greek thought and Christianity further. One of the most attractive things about this work is that Markos makes such a prospect inviting.

Aside from acknowledging some of the clear places Plato got it wrong, and some of the erroneous conclusions Origen reached, the book takes a very positive view of how Plato may prepare one for Christ. This may well be the case but I wish Markos would have dealt more with those who question the influence of Greek thought on Christian theology. While this engagement no doubt contributed to the spread of the gospel, the views of the body, the view of women, the “gnostic,” anti-material character of Christianity that led to a divorce of work and worship, of physicality and spirituality, are downplayed if acknowledged.

This needn’t detract from Markos’ argument. Plato undeniably influenced Christian thinkers through history, and if for no other reason (and there are other good reasons) ought to be read. At the same time, syncretism is not just a phenomena of modern missions. Christians have always faced the challenge of how to contextualize without compromising. They have always believed God has both left a witness to God’s self, and yet this is never unalloyed. I wish Markos would have done more with this which would have enhanced the instructiveness of a fine work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Majority World Theology

Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Context, Edited by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A global collection of scholars discuss the major doctrines of the Christian faith considering the history of doctrines, the scriptures, and cultural contexts.

Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Newman, Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper, Bavinck, Berkhof, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, Henry, Erickson, Bloesch, Hauerwas. These were some of the formative influences in my theological thinking. All male. All White. All Europeans or Americans. Many of my generation thought, and may still think that what they produced is Christian theology.

The global Christian church has gone through a massive transformation over the last fifty years as the locus of Christianity has shifted both south and east. Equally, in the American context, Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous theologians are speaking, teaching, and writing of the bearing of Christian theology on their distinctive cultural contexts. Many women have joined their male counterparts. What those of my generation, race, and gender thought was the conversation increasingly is part of a much larger conversation. As a student, we prayed and mobilized to reach the nations with the gospel. Now, increasingly, the nations are evangelizing the West and both challenging and enriching our understanding of the faith. I’m delighted I’ve lived to see this, which is what makes me so excited to review this significant volume.

This actually represents a compilation of six books, representing six annual gatherings focusing on the major theological categories of Trinity, Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Each of the six sections is introduced with an overview of the contributions for that section. This is followed by chapters written by theological scholars from every part of the world, eight chapters per section except for the final section on eschatology which has seven. The first chapter in each section surveys the historical tradition, usually the only one written by a Euro-American. The contributors affirm a commitment to scripture, tradition, and their own cultures. Having worked through this massive volume, my general sense is that the contributors hit all three of these marks and stretched my own thinking about such things as the honoring of ancestors and the meaning of one’s land. Due to length, I cannot discuss every contribution but I thought I’d highlight some of those I most appreciated from each section.

Part One: The Trinity Among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World

Gerald Bray’s chapter on the Trinity is a masterly summary of outstanding clarity. It was delightful to read Randy Woodley offering an Indigenous American perspective, considering Indigenous ideas of deity and offering a framing of the Trinity as a “community of the Creator, existing eternally in shalom relationality.” I appreciated the care of Natee Tanchanpongs in evaluating various Asian Reformulations of the Trinity, holding orthodoxy and cultural formulations in a creative tension.

Part Two: Jesus Without Borders: Christology in the Majority World

Several of the chapters evaluated various Christologies from each continent. I appreciated Stephen Ezigbo’s discussion of African christologies by the categories of neo-missionary christologies, ancestor christologies, and revealer christologies. The second half of this section is more topical. Aida Besancon Spencer offers a sensitive discussion of the veneration of Mary vis a vis Christology. I also appreciated Yohanna Katanacho’s chapter on reading John through Palestinian eyes and the themes of holy space, holy time, holy experience, holy people, and holy land.

Part Three: The Spirit over the Earth: Pneumatology in the Majority World

I especially valued the articles that bookended this section by Amos Young and C. Rene Padilla (who recently passed). Then Wei Hua offers a thoughtful discussion of how ancestor commemoration may be integrated into Christian faith through the transforming work of the Spirit.

Part Four: So Great a Salvation: Soteriology in the Majority World

Milton Acosta offers a thoughtful discussion of salvation in the Latin American context where material and spiritual concerns often clash in “From What Do We Need to Be Saved? Reflections on God’s Justice and Material Salvation.” Elaine W. F. Goh’s “Qohelet’s Gospel in Ecclesiastes: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; 7:15-22; and 11:1-6” draws together solid exegesis, tradition and Asian cultural insights in a credible argument for reading the gospel out of Ecclesiastes.

Part Five: The Church from Every Tribe and Tongue: Ecclesiology in the Majority World

Peter Neyende offers a thought-provoking reading of Hebrews centering on the church as the assembled on Mount Zion, which he believes a far more compelling model for the church than the family. Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking essays of the whole volume was Munther Isaac’s “Ecclesiology and the Theology of the Land: A Palestinian Christian Perspective.” speaks powerfully of what it means to be a church in an occupied land and a vision of living on a land “where people of all ethnicities and social backgrounds are treated equally.”

Part Six: All Things New: Eschatology in the Majority World

James Henry Owino Kombo’s “The Past, the Present, and the Future of African Christianity: An Eschatological Vision for African Christianity” considers how eschatology addresses concerns of ancestors, life, death, the intermediate state and Christian hope. Finally, Shirley S. Ho, in the concluding chapter discusses the affinity for Judeophilia of the Taiwanese, and how this misses the focus on the victory and reign of Christ.

This book might serve as a good text or supplementary text for a Christian doctrine or systematic theology sequence. It is also a helpful introduction for many of us educated on a diet of white, male, Euro-American theologians. It introduces us to scholars who are in vibrant conversations, whether we are listening or not. A strength of this work is its engagement with rather than wholesale rejection of the theological traditions of the church. It also explores cultural issues that are becoming increasingly relevant in the multi-cultural West. It models cross-cultural conversations about theology that evidence both our common faith and rich diversity. And it is a one-volume introduction to the global theological voices with whom we may want to become better acquainted.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Last Things

the last things

The Last Things (Contours of Christian Theology), David A. Höhne. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A theology of the last things that is Trinitarian in focus, centered on the exaltation of the crucified Lord, and the preservation of the believer.

There are many books about the last things or the end times. This work takes a different approach. The author contends that the Lord’s prayer is an eschatological prayer, that the focus of each of its petitions is the full realization of the kingdom of God in the person of the crucified and risen Lord through the work of the Holy Spirit. This includes the preservation, purifying, and protection of those whose hope is in the crucified and risen Lord.

The book is written for those (all who have ever believed in Christ), are living in the Middle. It is both about what God has promised us for the future but how this is already being fulfilled in our lives. It concerns how God has already established a relationship and a people, and how we will one day be perfected.

The chapters focus around each of the petitions in the Lord’s prayer. At the same time, he discusses these through the lens of interacting with Karl Barth’s theology of the Word and Jurgen Moltman’s theology of hope. The first three petitions for the hallowing of the name, the coming of the kingdom, and the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven are the what, how, and why of God the Father’s purposes through the Son in the Spirit. The prayers for daily bread, for forgiveness, and for deliverance focus around what we need to make it to the resurrection, and our eternal glory with Christ.

I found this the hardest “read” in the series. I think this has to do with the author’s engagement with Barth and Moltmann throughout, and a conscious effort to emphasize the work of the persons of the Trinity throughout. The introduction to the series speaks of making this accessible to educated laypeople. The author appears to assume a familiarity with Barth and Moltmann that may be true of seminarians, but probably only a minority of others. I founded the presentation stronger where the author connected themes in the Lord prayer to the rest of scripture, establishing the eschatological “arc” of this prayer.

I had looked forward to the completion of this series, this “last” volume of which had been long-awaited. While there were elements I appreciated, particularly the structuring of the work around a prayer many of us pray daily or weekly. But I had hoped for more in a series that had set a high standard of theological reflection accessible to the educated layperson. What the book did make clear is that we will not be disappointed by the God who keeps all his promises both for the exaltation of the crucified and risen Lord, and the resurrection hope of we, his people.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the VirtuesMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of scripture, theological resources, and contemporary writing that considers the virtues that help the Christian believer to both live and die well.

Death is something we don’t like to talk about and much of our culture lives in a conscious effort to deny that all of us have a terminal condition. Sooner or later, we will die. From exercise to diets to medical breakthroughs to transhumanism, we are trying to extend our lives. Sometimes, we just keep ourselves too busy to think about it. Yet the refusal to face our deaths leaves us and our families unprepared when the time comes. More than this, it leads us to neglect important virtues important for both how we live and when we die.

This last is the focus of Matthew Levering’s book. Levering, a Catholic theologian, explores nine virtues through multiple lenses of scripture, theological writing, and contemporary sources: love, hope, faith, penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage. I found time and again that his explorations brought fresh insights to familiar passages, and new perspectives I had not previously considered.

Levering begins with Job and the fundamental fear and objection Job raises–that God would annihilate the existence of one who loves him. In God’s answer, really God’s questions, Job understands that a God who can so create and order and sustain the world may be trusted, against the horror of death, to lovingly sustain him, inviting him to live a life of love. He goes on in chapter two to consider sources from Susan Sontag and David Rieff to Josef Pieper and Robert Bellarmine and how they address the existential questions death poses of meaning in our lives, where we find the will to live, and how we might live in hope, believing and meditating on the unseen realities both of the souls we possess and the promises of our future state. Chapter three, then, focuses on faith through exploring what it is that dying people want through the work of a doctor and a hospice worker who describe the longing for closure, for reconciliation with oneself, with people, and for some, with God. Jesus, whose life and death make reconciliation and communion possible, calls us to meet him, and find in him these deep longings through faith.

I had never thought of Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 as a speech of penitence but rather one of indictment. Levering invites us in chapter four to see instead Stephen speaking prophetically in deep penitence for Israel’s sins as well as in gratitude for the grace that is greater than our sins. He then turns (chapter five) to the dying gratitude of Macrina, sister of Gregory of Nyssa. He writes:

“Gregory and Macrina complicate this notion of ‘dignity’ and of ‘hope.’ Macrina shows that ‘who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity.’ But dignity does not reside in our achievements and merely human relationships. Macrina’s ‘dignity’ consists primarily in her participation in the church’s liturgical life, through which the people of God offer themselves in Christ as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and which extends itself in works of mercy. Prayerful praise and thanksgiving stand at the core of Macrina’s conception of human dignity” (p. 98).

Her participation in this rich liturgical worship both enables her to live with thankfulness in life but with gratitude that she shares in the resurrection to come. Our identification with Christ and his people in both penitence and gratitude leads us into solidarity (chapter six), the experience of finding comfort in our own suffering in our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ, and compassion for the sufferings of others through our communing with Christ’s sufferings.

But why does death so often involve suffering, sometimes severe? While many of us long for a peaceful passing, this is often not granted. In chapter seven, Levering looks at Mark 10:45 and the idea of ransom as a kind of tribulation by which Jesus delivers Israel out of the exile that was a consequence of her prideful rejection of God. He explores Aquinas and how suffering, both the humbling of Christ, and the stripping us of the things by which we find honor, call us into a “new exodus” of humility that is the way of salvation. Humbling leads to surrender (chapter eight), the readiness to offer up our lives to God, a surrender we often fiercely fight. The sacrament of the anointing of the sick helps us in this in reminding us of the healing work of Christ in us, to which we surrender ourselves in death that we may be raised up in Christ. Finally, in chapter nine, Levering considers the courage involved in bidding goodbye to life as we know it. He considers the work of Richard Middleton and Paul Griffiths, one emphasizing the continuities of our future state with this life, the other the discontinuities. Courage is to face this fear of this unknown future and to “boldly go” in the promise of Christ.

Levering’s argument throughout this book is that we do not merely need these virtues in our dying hours, but that these are the virtues Christians are meant to live by. Throughout, he articulates a vision of these found in union in Christ and nourished by the liturgical and sacramental life of the church, as we live into the story of scripture, finding our own story in its pages.

While some aspects of Levering’s treatment are distinctively Catholic, as would be expected of a Catholic theologian, the existential questions he explores through secular as well as Christian writers remind us of the stark realities with which all of us must deal. His focus is one all who name Christ can affirm, our union with Christ, our fundamental belief in a God who is love, and the virtues that follow. Levering opens up a conversation we desperately need to have in the church: what does it mean to die well in Christ? It is needed not only to aid us in our final days, but also because we cannot truly understand what it is to live well in Christ, until we have understood what it is to die well in Him. The conversation has been going on for centuries, even millenia. In the pages of Levering’s book, we join those from Job to Aquinas to Mother Theresa who have wrestled with these realities and lived virtuously in the face of death through their faith in God and union with Christ.

Look for an interview with Matthew Levering in an upcoming post.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: An Introduction to Christian Worldview

an introduction to christian worldview

An Introduction to Christian WorldviewTawa J. Anderson, W. Michael Clark, and David K. Naugle. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A work designed for classroom or personal study, defining the idea of worldview and its importance, delineating the Christian worldview and responding to critical objections, and outlining and critiquing other major worldviews according to criteria established in the first part of the book.

I was first introduced to the idea of worldview in the summer of 1974 during my collegiate years. I heard an early presentation of the ideas that would form the core of James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door (now in its fifth edition). These gave me a critical tool as a student studying in a public university. Sire’s seven basic worldview questions helped me read critically the different texts of my courses and discern the different ways of seeing and engaging the world reflected in those texts. Not only that, I found I could apply these ideas as I watched films, or advertising, or engaged with different-believing friends. Worldview helped me understand why people would talk past each other on issues like abortion or sexual ethics. As you can see, “thinking worldviewishly” was, and still is, a powerful tool in my “intellectual workshop.”

This new work, designed to serve as a textbook for a college-level course on Christian worldview, builds on the work of Sire and others. It is organized in three parts. The first introduces the whole subject of worldview, dealing with definitions and what the authors consider the four major worldview questions that are important to answer:

  1. What is our nature?
  2. What is our world?
  3. What is our problem?
  4. What is our end?

The authors go on to discuss how worldview operates in our lives. They discuss confirmation bias, experiential accommodation, and how worldview shapes our pool of live options. They note circumstances under which we adjust our worldview or even convert, noting that this is more likely when our worldview assumptions are unexamined, which leads to a discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of worldview study. The final chapter in this part focuses on the critical work of worldview analysis–how worldviews hold up under scrutiny. Three criteria are developed:

  1. Internal consistency: logical coherence.
  2. External consistency: evidential correspondence.
  3. Existential consistency: pragmatic satisfaction.

These criteria are then applied to analysis of both the Christian worldview and the other major worldviews discussed in the book.

Part two focuses on the Christian worldview. First it is considered narratively around the story of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification, with a preliminary discussion of revelation. Then, using the four worldview discussion questions noted above, Christianity is discussed propositionally. One thing I noted, which may be a defect of the four question schema, is that significant space under “what is our nature?” is devoted to God’s nature. Certainly this is necessary to understand our nature, but it suggests that a prior question, like Sire’s “What is prime reality–the really real?” may be an important one to ask. I found this so with the other worldviews as well. The third chapter in this part then uses the three criteria of worldview analysis to critique Christian belief. Numerous possible objections are considered, particularly that of the problem of evil, and responses are given.

Part three then considers western and global alternatives in two chapters with a propositional description of each worldview using the four worldview questions followed by use of the three analytic criteria on each worldview. The western worldviews considered are deism, naturalism, and postmodernism, and the global alternatives are Hinduism and Islam. It was striking to me that 125 pages are devoted to the Christian worldview, and less than 100 to the other five considered in this book. Far more space was spent both in outlining the Christian faith, and responding to possible critiques. It might have been interesting to have a response from proponents of these other worldviews to the critiques of those worldviews, as was the case in the objections raised to the Christian worldview. That would “keep it real.” Space limitations may have come into play and the authors may have deemed it more important that Christians be able to understand and defend their own worldview.

The conclusion challenges people to embrace a consistently Christian worldview, rejecting various “worldlyviews”:  scientism, hedonism, consumerism, blameism, apatheism, dogmatism, universalism, functional atheism, and conformism. This list acknowledges the growing realization that worldviews, as they discuss in the beginning, are not mere matters of propositions but also the orientation (conscious or not) of the heart.

This work incorporates several elements that make it particularly useful as a text. Sections conclude with reflection questions on what one has read. The end of each chapter includes as “mastering the material” section identifying key learning objectives for the chapter, a glossary of terms possible term paper topics from the chapter, and a core bibliography for the chapter. The text includes occasional sidebars illustrating concepts from film or contemporary culture.

This work is clearly designed as a text for a “worldview academy” or Christian college course on worldview. I think it could also be used individually or in a collegiate ministry or adult education context. It is a valuable work in helping students identify the “unexamined,” both in terms of Christian faith, and other worldview assumptions and heart orientations intermixed with these. While I would add a question on prime reality, the four questions and three analytic criteria are clear and memorable. For those who would teach or lead courses, I hope either written materials or live representatives of other worldviews might engage the critiques of those worldviews in this book. This happens all the time in graduate student education, and the Christian student will be better prepared for this eventuality if they are exposed to it as undergraduates.

Consciously examining one’s worldview, learning to think critically about worldviews, and think Christianly, and bringing Christian assumptions to all of life have been a powerful influence in my own life. A resource like this, far more systematic than my initial exposure to these ideas (a talk drawing on a seminar Sire had given before his book was first published) can’t help but equip students to think rigorously about these matters. Hopefully this will bear much fruit in discerning reading, viewing, and acting, and in engaging the views of others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.






Review: Ethics at Work

ethics at work

Ethics at WorkTheology of Work Project. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017.

Summary: A discussion guide outlining a Christian approach to ethical decision-making in the workplace based on three principles: commands, consequences, and character.

What does Sunday morning have to do with 8 to 5 Monday through Friday (or whatever our working hours may be)? For many Christians that lack of connection between our worship and our work eventually leads to questions either about the truth and reality of our faith, or the possibility of living Christianly in the workplace.

The Theology of Work Project, the developers of this discussion guide and numerous other related resources, are thoroughly committed to the idea that our faith and our work life may be seamlessly connected. On their “about” page, they describe the vision of the Project in these terms:

“The vision of the Theology of Work Project is that every Christian be equipped and committed for work as God intends. A Christian approach makes work more meaningful and productive, benefits society and the people we work with and for, gets us through the challenges we face on the job, draws people to Jesus, and brings glory to God.”

This guide is designed for Christians in the workplace interested in developing a Christian framework of ethical decision-making. It consists of 21 half-hour lessons grouped into seven sections. Each lesson provides short readings (one page or less) with a few biblical texts, interspersed with “Food for Thought” sections, and a concluding prayer. One thing I like is the “less is more” approach that seems to me realistic to accomplish in a half hour discussion over a lunch break or before work.

After exploring some different popular proposals on ethical decision-making, the guide develops a “three-legged” stool approach around the following:

  1. Commands: is there a relevant biblical command to obey or something to avoid.
  2. Consequences: how will the various parties involved be affected by the possible choices?
  3. Character: What kind of person do I want to be or become?

Under this last “leg”, the writers adopt three key aspects of the character of God which scripture calls us to live by, first proposed in Alexander Hill’s Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace (Hill was the former president of InterVarsity/USA). These are holiness, justice, and love, and need to balance each other.

The guide also introduces a case study developed through the different lessons. A Christian auto dealer (“Wayne”) sells a used car that is in good operating condition with no know defects. Just over a year and over 13,000 miles later, the owner contacts him about transmission problems and asks what he will do to fix it. Subsequent lessons apply the different principles and trace out “Wayne’s” process in reaching a decision about how he will deal with this customer.

While written specifically for use with workplace groups (there is even a section on “Wisdom for Using this Study in the Workplace”), I also think this could be highly useful in adult education courses in churches and with Christian groups in business schools, particularly for those who have already had work experience. I would also highly recommend supplementing the material in this book with resources from the Theology of Work Project website, which includes commentaries related to a theology of work from every book of scripture and a number of other articles on related topics.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Speaking of Homosexuality

Speaking of homosexuality

Speaking of HomosexualityJoe Dallas. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: A point by point refutation by a former gay activist of the arguments against the church’s traditional view of homosexuality.

I feel that I should begin this review with something of a “trigger warning.” In coming months I will be occasionally reviewing books on the discussion going on between what might be called the “traditional” and “affirming” camps within the Christian community with regard to homosexuality. The warning is that probably no one who follows this blog will agree with all or even any of the books reviewed on this subject. Truth is, I probably won’t either, or will not agree with all that I read. I don’t read only things with which I agree. For some, this is a matter associated with deep and complicated emotions and experiences, and if this is too sensitive, it’s OK to take a “pass” on these posts.

Now, down to the review of this book. Joe Dallas, its author is a self described “former gay activist” who, because of his faith in Christ turned from homosexual activity, eventually married, is the father of two children and in his writing and ministry deals with homosexuality and others issues related to sexuality from a traditional Christian perspective. I would characterize this book, unlike some others, as less pastoral and more polemical. Dallas writes and formats the book to address the arguments against a traditional view of homosexuality and respond to them. Each chapter follows a format of statement of a traditional view, what he calls “revisionist” arguments against that view, then traditional responses, and concludes with talking points. It reminds me a bit of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica!

After an introduction that talks about misconceptions and presumptions both traditional and “revisionist” communities have of each other and the need, and difficulties, of moving beyond politics and rhetoric to relationship, he has two more chapters that lay groundwork for what is to follow. One is to identify who he is speaking to:  militants, millenials, those in the Mainstream, Revisionists, friends and family. In reality, I suspect it is mostly other “traditionalists” who will read the book. The other is to identify his “rules of engagement”: speak clearly, appropriately, empathically (1-3), concede what’s true, consider what’s possible, watch the apologies, recognize and point out diversions. On apologies, he would say we should own our own sins against LGBT persons but not apologize in vague terms for the whole church.

Then he takes up a series of issues that often arise in arguments against the traditionalist position:

  • Are people born gay?
  • Sexual orientation cannot be changed.
  • Same sex marriage and the Bible.
  • Homophobia, Hate, Hypocrisy, and Harm
  • Can someone be gay and Christian?
  • What was Sodom’s sin?
  • Homosexuality and Leviticus
  • Jesus and Homosexuality
  • Paul and Romans
  • Paul and arsenokoites

I cannot summarize the arguments of each chapter in ways to do them justice. He would contend that whether people are “born gay” or not is immaterial to the validity of the traditional teaching. Not all our inborn tendencies should be indulged. Perhaps more controversial yet is his argument that some forms of change therapies, voluntarily pursued by the person and not under pressure, should be permitted. Perhaps most telling is his rhetoric against homophobic and “hate” labels. He believes that to think a behavior is wrong does not necessarily imply fear or hate if no signs of fearful or hating behavior accompany these beliefs.

The last five topics turn to the biblical arguments, stating both traditional and “revisionist” arguments with good citations of their works. Dallas provides a relatively concise summary of the discussion, albeit one that favors his view strongly, as one would expect.

My sense is that Dallas’ book is a recognition that, given the shift in cultural opinions, and the wide acceptance of LGBT sexuality in society, anyone who still holds a traditional view and who affirms this personally or publicly needs to be able to clearly and compassionately give reasons for those views, if given the opportunity. Negative prescriptions of “what not to do and who not to do it with” just don’t cut it.

At the same time, I just don’t think the argument format of a book like this cuts it with millenials, even if they would agree theologically with Dallas. The tone, albeit a compassionate one, feels very much like the conversation those of the boomer generation have had (mostly within traditionalist circles) for thirty years around these issues. It seems to me that there is a relational dimension for millenials who have grown up around “out” LGBT persons, and a differing understanding about sexuality more broadly to which this feels a bit tone deaf.

The question in the end, of course, is who is right in these matters? If the traditionalist position is right, as Dallas argues, it cannot be minimized as a “non-essential” because in the end this leads to the adoption of revisionist theology, which he sees happening not only in mainline but also in evangelical communities. To shift to a “revisionist” or “affirming” understanding may just seem to be conforming to the wider culture and an expression of compassion, but it also means a break with twenty centuries of orthodoxy, as well as the convictions of much of the church in the majority world. That is no small thing, and calls not merely for sentiment, but good arguments where people listen to scripture, each other, and the Spirit of truth. Whether you agree with Dallas or not, given his personal narrative, and experience working with these issues, his arguments are important to heed as part of this larger conversation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Theology in the Flesh

Theology in the Flesh

Theology in the FleshJohn Sanders. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.

Summary: A survey of how the field of cognitive linguistics lends insight into how we understand theological matters ranging from morals to the nature of God to understanding the Bible.

There are some who would deny that it is possible to speak of God, who is “wholly other.” Any speech about God, to them, would be to make God in our image. Some would allege that is all that we ever do. However, others, who believe we exist in the image of God, would say that we are both like and unlike God, and that some form of communication about God rooted in our “like-ness” may be possible.

John Sanders does not try to argue this matter, but rather helps us understand that any talk of God or other religious subjects such as truth, morality or the Bible, is deeply rooted in our embodied nature and even the kinds of bodies we have. As bipeds, we have a vertical orientation (up and down) and a front and a back associated with movement forward or in reverse. He contends that our embodied character, including our perceptual apparatus, are the tools we use to perceive and communicate anything. We don’t have a separate apparatus for religious perception and communication. He believes we do well to draw on the field of cognitive linguistics, which studies that interaction between language and our thought processes in how we make meaning of our world, shaped by our embodied nature and informed by our particular cultural setting. He would contend this is critically important to how we understand the nature of truth, morality, the Bible and God, and how we speak of these matters and the differences we have with each other.

The book consists of three parts. The first lays out basics of cognitive linguistics, with a particularly helpful chapter on metaphor, which helps one understand how large a role metaphor and other figurative language plays in our everyday communication and that often metaphor communicates both more fully and more accurately than a “literal” statement. In this section we are also introduced to image schemes, frames, and other conceptual tools used by cognitive linguists. The second is an exploration, using cognitive linguistics, of how, in general, our understanding of truth, how meaning is perceived differently in different communities and why differences in moral thinking arise.

The third section, then focuses in on Christian reasoning about doctrines, the Bible and the nature of God may be understood through a cognitive linguistic lens. For example, the section on Christian doctrine looks at the different metaphors for sin, salvation, and divine judgment. The chapter on the Bible explores how our cultural frames shape our reading of the Bible, using the example of how different cultures read passages on anger and distress. The chapter on God observes how “anthropogenic” if not anthropomorphic our language about God is.

Sanders does not advance particular theological positions. Nor does he make a case for cultural relativism. Indeed, Sanders observes both universal or nearly universal ways we frame certain things such as God and heaven being “up,” as well as how our cultural frames, uses of metaphors, and so forth, lead to different perceptions of the same phrase in scripture, for example. It is here, Sanders argues, that a grasp of cognitive linguistics, and using this as a tool in cross-cultural (or cross-era) conversations may be important to better understanding of each other or even shared understandings.

Certainly not all theological or interpretive or ethical discussions may be resolved on these terms. But the reminder that how we make meaning of language is inextricably connected to our embodied nature and our cultural frameworks should contribute to a kind of epistemic humility in conversations that foster at least greater understanding, if not always agreement. That, it seems to me, would be an advance in theological as well as in other forms of conversation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: The Cross of Christ

The Cross of Christ
The Cross of Christ by John R.W. Stott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is the best book we have read in this group.”

So commented a faculty member recently in a campus book group that discussed Stott’s book. And we’ve discussed some pretty significant books by the likes of Augustine, Pascal, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Barth, and others!

I think what marks this book by John Stott, that I first read when published nearly 30 years ago, is a combination of theological clarity and pastoral application that help one deeply root one’s understanding of the work of Christ on the cross not only in belief but in Christian devotion and practice.

The book consists of four sections. The first is introductory, “Approaching the Cross” and explores the centrality of the cross in Christian belief and practice and considers why such an instrument of torture would become so central that it even shapes the architecture of our great cathedrals. This leads to a focus on why Christ died, considering not only the historical events but the deeper reasons in the purposes of God and the need of human beings.

This brings us to what I think is the central section of the book, which is appropriately enough titled, “The Heart of the Cross.” It is here that Stott carefully lays the groundwork for his defense of the substitution as foundational to our understanding of how Christ atoned for sin. But this isn’t Jesus simply “taking one for the team” that leaves itself open to questions of divine child abuse. Allow me here to quote Stott at some length:

“Our substitute, then who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man, and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to dissociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.” (p. 156 in the 1986 edition)

The third section then moves on to describe “The Achievement of the Cross” in the salvation of sinners, the revelation of God, and the conquest of evil. Particularly striking was his focus on what we see of the glory, justice, and love of God coming together in the cross. Equally wonderful is his explanation of how the victory of the cross frees us from wrath, sin, the law, and death.

The last section then considers “Living Under the Cross.” He begins with a discussion of how we are a community of celebration and how our worship and the Lord’s table indeed celebrate the work of the cross. I was surprised in this chapter with the extended discussion of differing views of the eucharist where he distinguishes Anglican from Catholic practice. He then moves to how the cross helps us understand ourselves as both sinners and redeemed and of great worth in a way that releases us for great service. This even empowers us to love our enemies and find meaning in suffering.

Stott then concludes with a summary of the pervasive influence of the cross in a chapter that summarizes the book using the letter to the Galatians as a means of review.

What John Stott gave us here, as in all of his writing is a theologically rich but evangelically orthodox account of the cross. He is gracious and pastoral and yet willing to surface theological differences and to clearly set forth arguments from the scriptures for his own positions in a way that demarcates the matters that need to be honestly faced if the Church is to be one not merely in sentiment but truth. Above all, he shows us how the work of the cross is indeed central to the message and life of the Church when we may be tempted to get caught up in moralism, activism, or speculative theology. This may be a word we need as much in our day as when Stott wrote in 1986.

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Review: The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls

The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls
The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls by Elizabeth Gerhardt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a war going on that knows no national borders or physical territories. It is a war that occurs in clinics, ritual ceremonies, sweatshops and brothels, college campuses and religious homes. It is a war against half of the planet’s population. It is the war against women. One manifestation of this war is that there is not a woman I know who feels safe walking alone at night. Sometimes the warfare is expressed “merely” in leering looks or harassing comments. But the war is far more serious in many parts of the world.

In some cases, girls do not even have the chance to be born or are killed shortly after birth. Female genital mutilation is practiced in many parts of the world, affecting both sexual intimacy and exposing women to problems with infection and incontinence. Women are trafficked for sex and labor in forced servitude. Rape is used as a tactic of war. And sadly, even in homes of church leaders, women and girls are exposed to physical and psychological abuse and this has too often been justified or covered up by religious leaders.

In the first part of her book, Elizabeth Gerhardt chronicles both the current extent and historical roots in societal, political and religious contexts of the violence against women that scars or takes their lives. What must be faced is the complicity of many churches in this violence, sanctioning cultural rituals like female genital mutilation in some contexts, or in attributing blame to women when they are abused by husbands with no repercussions or discipline toward the husband.

This is not just an advocacy piece however. Gerhardt, as a theologian, believes that the church’s response to violence in various forms against women must be shaped and informed by the central reality of Christian faith–the cross of Christ. In the cross, we see the identification of the Son of God with those who suffer violence. In entering into the suffering of those who have faced such violence, we walk in the way of the Savior who suffered. In understanding that the cross is the Triune God’s just response to human sinfulness and injustice, we are challenged both to repentance and advocacy on behalf of and care for those who suffer injustice and resistance toward the political structures and persons that perpetrate that injustice.

Gerhardt considers Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany as a model of this Christ-shaped response to evil. She traces the three-fold response of advocacy, care, and resistance in which the Confessing Church and Bonhoeffer participated and its confessional roots. And she applies this as a model for how the church in various countries may respond today whether in denouncing abusive patterns in marriage, supporting micro-finance efforts that help women experience economic independence that makes them less vulnerable to abuse, or in forms of resistance to corporate or governmentally supported attacks upon women.

My one question in this treatment is what the cross means for the perpetrators of evil against women. Perhaps this book was more or less silent on this issue so as to make unequivocal its advocacy for women and the Christian implications of the cross for them and for the church. But it seems that something needs to be said of both the cross’s implications of judgment against evil and the possibility of repentance, forgiveness and transformation of the worst offenders. This can’t be spoken of lightly in a way that sweeps violence under the rug. It means confession of wrong-doing, legal consequences, restitution where this is possible, and a reformation of life and in the treatment of women.

This consideration aside, Gerhardt’s book is a singular and important contribution to a uniquely Christian response to the global concern of gendercide. So often, Christian activism is not grounded in Christian belief but rather a kind of “us too” response. Hopefully books like this can help galvanize a response in the church that contributes to protecting the lives of women and girls and pushing back the individual and structural forms of oppressive injustice afflicting our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

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