Review: None Greater

none greater

None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, Matthew Barrett (Foreword by Fred Sanders). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Drawing on classical and reformed theology, discusses the perfections of God, that set God apart from all else.

It seems a common tendency in Christian preaching, and even in our informal conversations, to try to “bring God down to our level.”  Christian Smith, in a study of the religious beliefs of American teens, coined a term to describe the God of many: “moral therapeutic deism.” In this system, there is a belief in a God who made the world, who wants us to be nice and fair, the purpose of life being to feel happy and good about oneself, God only gets involved in our lives when we need God, and that good people will go to heaven when they die. Such a God is nice, domesticated, and mostly irrelevant to our lives. God is like us, only a bit better and maybe more powerful.

The classical theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, and those in the Reformed tradition of the author thought quite differently. For them, God, as Anselm put it, is “someone than whom none greater can be perceived,” hence the title of this work. While God may have certain communicable attributes like love, that are evident in part in human beings, God’s incommunicable attributes are utterly unlike any other creature and set God apart as incomparably greater than human beings.

It was this God that Matthew Barrett discovered in college when he read Calvin’s Institutes, and the other theologians mentioned above, opening his eyes to the glory and majesty of God. His hope in this book is that through a study of God’s attributes, particularly those dealing with the incommunicable perfections of God, to sow the same sense of wonder in his readers, inviting them to give up their domesticated versions of God for the incomparably greater undomesticated God of scripture.

The first three chapters of the book lay groundwork. First he explores the incomprehensibility of God, that we may speak of attributes, but none of us may see or know God in God’s very essence. It is not that God in unknowable, because God makes God’s self known through God’s works. He discusses how we may speak of God in analogical language as revealed by God to us, and sometimes in anthropomorphic language of hands, eyes, even wings, none of which are true of God’s essence. Most of all, we must recognize that God is infinite in God’s perfections, and without limits–a staggering realization for finite and imperfect creatures.

The remainder of the book discusses the perfections of God:

  • God’s aseity or self-existence independent of all of creation.
  • God’s simplicity, that even when we speak of various attributes, these are not “parts” of God but compose a seamless whole.
  • God’s immutability, that God does not change, grow, improve, or diminish, which is a tremendous comfort.
  • God’s impassibility, that God does not experience emotional changes, both settled in his promise-keeping love, and holy wrath toward evil.
  • God’s eternity, that he is timeless and not exists in the eternal present.
  • God is omnipresent: not bounded by a body, infinitely present.
  • God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnisapient: all-powerful, all knowing and all-wise.
  • God is both holy and loving: the high and lifted up God Isaiah sees, who cleanses his mouth and takes his guilt away and lovingly commissions him.
  • A God who is jealous for his own glory, inviting us into a similar jealousy for the glory and reputation of God above all in our world.

I found this discussion far from the “sterility” often found in such treatments of the attributes of God. Barrett helps us understand how each attributes both feeds our worship of God and is of great consolation to the believer. For example, the aseity of God means that the gospel depends on a God who does not depend on us. He deals with questions that may arise, such as how we can speak of simplicity and yet believe in a triune God. He differentiates an immutable God from one who is rigidly immobile. He deals with the classic conundrum of God creating a rock so big he cannot lift.

His discussion of impassibility is particularly intriguing in taking on Jurgen Moltmann’s “suffering God.” Yes Christ in his humanity suffers, but God does not suffer, God redeems. God is not like the family suffering over a family member trapped in a fire, but rather the fireman who has the capability and compassion to enter the burning building, enduring the flames and the smoke, to rescue the loved one. I’m not sure I buy this, and it seems these ideas are framed in either/or terms, not admitting the possibility of both/and, or the possibility of a quality of suffering in the God of eternal love who from eternity both purposed creation and the redemptive work of Christ.

This is a highly readable contemporary rendering of classical theology. It has become popular to bash classical statements of theology. Often, what is being bashed are caricatures. Here is the real stuff, articulated clearly and winsomely. I didn’t agree at every point, but found myself again and again marveling at the greatness of God and challenged to consider the ways I’m tempted to domesticate God. That, I think, is what makes for good theological reading and may be found here.

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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: The Givenness of Things

The givenness of things

The Givenness of ThingsMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays drawn from various lectures questioning our prevailing ideas through the lens of John Calvin, and others in the Reformed and Humanist tradition.

If you have read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, you have the sense that there is a world of theological thought undergirding her narratives, particularly reflected in her lead character, Reverend John Ames. To read her essays is to enter into that rich theological world, and the extent to which this woman reads.

It is also to experience a voice that seems from another time, questioning our prevailing ways of thought. Like C. S. Lewis, Robinson is a reader of old books, particularly old theologians like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, and she allows these voices of another time to question our accepted ways of looking at things.

One example is the essay from which the title of this collection is drawn, “Givenness.” The essay focuses around the ideas of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections and the intrinsic character of the affections of love, joy, hope, desire, and others in our experience of faith. Here, and in other essays, she argues against the scientific reductionism that reduces the affections to the firing of neurons. Similarly, the opening essay on “Humanism” describes the glories of the works of the mind that came out of the Renaissance, and challenges the reductionism that would explain all of this through evolutionary mechanisms and physical processes. It is not that she is anti-science. It is obvious that her reading includes and delights in a great deal of science writing. It is the scientism that asserts hegemony over all domains of human experience to which she objects.

The book consists of seventeen essays, most with one word titles like “Reformation,” Servanthood,” or “Limitation.” Perhaps the most striking for me was her essay on  “Fear.” These statements were particularly arresting:

“First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind….As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls” (p. 125).

She explores how this drives the fearful nationalism evident even when she was writing these essays, and the stress on preserving and extending the Second Amendment in the acquisition and proposed “right” to concealed carry. She also wonders about the financial interests exploiting this culture of fear.

Her essay on “Theology” explores not only theologians like Jonathan Edwards, but the theological content of the plays of William Shakespeare (whetting my appetite to read some Shakespeare). She explores particularly the ways Shakespeare handles reconciliation and matters of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

These are simply tastes of what you will find in this rich collection representing Robinson’s thought. Prepare to read rigorously, and to explore the intellectual by-paths Robinson will take in exploring an idea. One must pay close attention to follow the thread of her arguments. Again, like Lewis, one has the sense that she brings everything she has read to anything that she says.

Finally, the book concludes with a two-part conversation with Barack Obama while he was president. As much as anything, he is interviewing her and what a delight to listen in on this wide-ranging conversation between two literate persons. One of the moments that reflected one of the president’s deep regrets was his struggle to close the gap between Washington and Main Street, the ways we engage with each other in everyday life, and the distance between that and our political discourse–our compassion toward the needy near us and our fears of “them” — a comment evoked by Robinson’s essay on fear.

One might critique her essays as reflecting a very Euro-American focus and a lack of engagement with writers outside the Western theological, philosophical and literary canon. There may well be some validity in that critique, but perhaps she is doing something very similar to those calling for other voices, in drawing on voices no longer a part of our cultural discourse, and who speak to our contemporary ideas from another perspective, and from another time.

 

Review: Philosophy of Revelation

Philosophy of Revelation

Philosophy of Revelation, Herman Bavinck (edited by Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, foreword by James P. Eglinton). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018 (Originally given and expanded from Stone Lectures in 1908).

Summary: A new annotated edition of Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck’s 1908 Stone Lectures at Princeton, arguing that revelation is a warranted basic belief.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch Reformed theologian, writing mostly in Dutch, from the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. With the translation of his Reformed Dogmatics in 2003, studies of Bavinck’s work has flourished. This work represents an expanded version of Bavinck’s Stone Lectures at Princeton, first translated in 1908 by Geerhardus Vos. Two contemporary Bavinck scholars recognized the importance of this work to discussions of Reformed epistemology, and have given us this new annotated edition of the work. The annotations to the work are found in the footnotes and address everything from alternate translations of the text to explanations and context for Bavinck’s arguments, a tremendous asset to any modern scholar-theologian studying Bavinck. This is particularly important because Bavinck is engaging philosophers, scientists, and historians of his day, who are often not a part of contemporary academic and theological discourse.

Bavinck’s basic argument, anticipating the work of Alvin Plantinga, is that revelation is a warranted basic belief. The lectures argue this inductively from the disciplines of philosophy, natural science, history, religion and religious experience, culture, the Christian faith, and our teleology, our understanding of the future. Revelation in its general form (the things we can’t not know), and particularly around religious experience and Christian faith, special revelation, are shown to be basic to human experience and actually foundational to science, history, and philosophy.

Bavinck writes in a period where modernism had theology on its heels. Scientific research exalted the materialistic, rational explanation of all. What I was most intrigued with in the work was how Bavinck anticipated much of the developments of the last one hundred years in the movement from materialism to various forms of pantheistic monism in shaping our view of reality. Bavinck is one of the first I have observed to address the questions of the one and the many and how revelation, and the Christian faith offers the only satisfying explanation about connections between material and spiritual reality, and the sources both of oneness and true diversity. He is also prescient, in his discussion of revelation and the future, in anticipating the eugenics movement, and more recent efforts in genetic modification or even trans-humanism, human efforts to control our future.

The strength of this work is the basic argument Bavinck is making, and its connection to later thinkers from Van Til to Plantinga and Wolterstorff. An important aspect of this philosophy of revelation is the argument for how revelation serves as the basis of the coherence of all intellectual inquiry. This is desperately needed good news for our modern, fragment university world, as well as our fragmented modern lives, and even sense of self.

Sometimes, Bavinck’s engagement with scholars of his day makes it harder for those of us unfamiliar with them to keep track of his argument. The annotations are quite helpful in this regard. While it may have felt like meddling in the text, some form of subheadings or marginal summaries would have been helpful to this reader in keeping track of the thread of his argument. In some cases, such as critiquing Darwin, it felt that he might have been relying on apologetic arguments of his day that are less helpful with the advances of biological science. I realize that such a criticism simply reflects the problem of engaging any scholarly work from one hundred years ago.

None of this takes away from the compelling case he makes for a warranted basic belief in revelation, addressing both the philosophy of revelation, and the philosophy of revelation. We continue to live and move and work in an incoherent culture that divorces reason and revelation. Bavinck offers a significant extended argument for reconciling these, summarized well in one of his concluding statements:

“Revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture form, in alliance (verband) with each other, a harmonious unity which satisfies the requirements of the intellect and the needs of the heart alike.” (p. 242)

[By the way, don’t overlook the editors explanation, in their introductory essay (pp. xxxii-xxxiii), of the use of Piet Mondrian’s work on the cover of this work!]

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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: Essential Writings of Meredith G. Kline

Essential Writings of Meredith G Kline

Essential Writings of Meredith G. KlineMeredith D. Kline (Foreword, Tremper Longman II; Biography, Meredith M. Kline; Introduction, Jonathan G. Kline). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017.

Summary: A collection of articles by Meredith Kline spanning Genesis to Revelation, and the author’s academic career characterized by biblical insight and theological integrity within a Reformed perspective. 

Meredith G. Kline (1922-2007) was a professor of Old Testament perhaps best known for one of his early works, Treaty of the Great King (1963). Drawing on discoveries in Hittite treaty forms, he contended that the structure of Deuteronomy reflects the structure of treaty covenants of the Second Millennium BC, lending support for traditional dating as opposed to a late date at the time of Josiah’s kingship.  He was also author of The Structure of Biblical Authority (1975), an important contribution to the discussion of the doctrine of scripture.

This new collection of articles gives us the “essence” the work of Kline, and introduces him to a new generation of students of scripture, aided by a biographical sketch by his son, and an introduction by his grandson, both who have followed in his steps as Old Testament scholars. In reading these articles, that essence consists in scholarly rigor and precision and a capacity to reach novel conclusions and fresh insight that remain consistent with Reformed theological orthodoxy, and centered around the redemptive work of Christ and redemptive purpose of God.

Part One opens with two essays on Creation, centering on details like the lack of vegetation on the earth due to it not having yet rained and there being humans to cultivate the earth. The effect of these essays is to argue against a literal creation week on the basis of the Genesis text, and that there is no inherent conflict between biblical and scientific accounts of origins.

Covenant, Law, and State are the concerns of Part Two. Kline finds a basis for the common grace of the state in God’s promise to Cain. He questions traditional interpretations of Genesis 6:1-4, arguing these are tyrannical kings using their prerogatives for various illicit unions, including polygamy. He argues that the two tables of the law are actually two copies of the law, the sovereign’s and the vassal’s. He looks at laws around lex talionis and miscarriage, and what they reveal about the life ethic of scripture (while noting that abortion was unthinkable in this culture).

Part Three centers on Faith, the Gospel, and Justification. It begins with a careful study of Abraham’s ” Amen” in Genesis 15:6, considering its use throughout the Old Testament, contending that this was indeed a declaration of faith in God and God’s promises by which Abraham is justified by God. The next article proposes Exodus as the basis for the Gospel genre. Finally, in “Double Trouble” he argues that the doubles in scripture concerning penalties are not multiplications but rather the penalty mirroring the offense (a “double” as it were).

Under the theme of “Redemption,” Part Four begins with an essay on Passover, which Kline argues is better understood as “cover-over.” One of the most interesting essays in the collection was an argument that in Job, Satan is the one who in fact is the object of a “trial by ordeal.” Finally, in an article that like many moves back and forth throughout scripture, Kline considers the messianic imagery of the rider of the red horse in Zechariah 1:8.

Three of the four essays in Part Five concern the resurrection, and particularly the hope believers have of being immediately in the Lord’s presence upon death, what Kline sees as “The First Resurrection” in Revelation 20:4-6. The second and third articles are connected, with the third a rejoinder to a response by Ramsey Michaels. I wish in this case that Michaels’ response could have been included so the reader could follow the discussion. The final makes the proposal that Har Magedon is actually Har mo’ed or the Mount of Assembly, and is sited at Mt Zion/Zaphon (cf Psalm 48).

While he questions traditional readings, often drawing on lingual-cultural insights, he tests interpretation of particular texts against the whole of scripture and moves from biblical to theological exegesis in a way that consistently witnesses to the redemptive, Christ-anticipating arc of the text. It is a consistent challenge to bring fresh insights to the study of the biblical text without drifting away from orthodoxy. I thought these articles a good example of scholarship that flourished within that tension. There is also an unspoken testimony to the integrity of his life and work in this book with three generations of Klines, all Old Testament scholars, contributing to this book. Not a bad scholarly legacy!

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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: Called by Triune Grace

called by triune grace

Called by Triune Grace (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Jonathan Hoglund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: A monograph exploring the doctrine of effectual calling and how it is that God’s speech brings about our regeneration and conversion.

Jonathan Hoglund considers the Reformed doctrine of “effectual calling” one that has not received the kind of attention it is due in our understanding of God’s saving work in Christ. Hoglund offers this definition of effectual calling:

“The effectual call is an act of triune rhetoric in which God the Father appropriates human witness to Christ the Son in order to convince and transform a particular person by ministering, through the presence of God the Spirit, understanding and love of Christ” (p.8).

There are several important ideas in his definition that Hoglund elaborates in this work. First is the idea of focusing on calling, and the idea that just as through the Triune God’s word, creation came into existence, likewise through what Hoglund calls triune rhetoric, converting change or regeneration is brought about in the lives of individuals. One of the striking ideas this involves is that as people speak of Christ and proclaim the gospel, God’s voice is heard affirming that “Jesus is your saving Lord.”

Second is the idea that this is triune rhetoric. Using rhetorical theory, Hoglund proposes that God the Father is the ethos of this saving call that comes in the context of God’s covenantal saving purposes. God the Son is the content or logos of this saving call, and the Holy Spirit is the pathos of this effectual call in illumining and persuading effecting faith in the hearer of this call.

Third, Hoglund considers how persons are transformed. What is the converting change or regeneration that occurs in the individual whom God effectually calls? Hoglund considers how this call eventuates in faith in Christ and how one is united to Christ. Looking at New Testament testimony, one also sees an eschatological or epochal change in those who are a “new creation” and enter into the blessings of this “age to come.” The idea of “spiritual resurrection” is explored and the transformation of one’s affections and dispositions.

Along the way, after laying out the ground work in his initial chapter and the contribution of the Canons of Dort in elaborating the relationship of calling and regeneration, he proceeds to consider calling in Paul, various Reformed ideas of the content of the call before making his own proposal and a couple chapters on illumination and calling. Two chapters follow on new birth and resurrection. Then, key to his thesis, he elaborates his ideas of triune rhetoric and converting change. A concluding chapter on God’s call and the church also serves to summarize his argument.

This work builds on the scholarship of Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier around speech-act theory and rhetoric as well as connecting back to other Reformed thinkers. One of the distinctive contributions this work makes in an age of subjective experience is to affirm the truth of conversion being rooted not in our experience but in God’s persuasive communication, mediated through human witnesses. It reminds us of the tremendous privilege those of us who speak God’s message have, of the Triune God speaking in and through our words. It encourages our hearts that our awakened faith in the promises of God and our awakened love toward God are the evidence of God’s persuasive intent to call us to be his own, and not simply subjective impressions.

This is a theological monograph and calls for close reading, especially in the sections on speech act theory and rhetoric where the author is working out his ideas on effectual calling as triune rhetoric. Whether you embrace a Reformed perspective or not, I believe a close reading will reward one with a richer perspective on the work of God in conversion as people come to faith, and the privileged role human witnesses may play. It left me praising God, in the language of the book’s title, for God’s grace-filled calling of me to Himself through Christ by His Spirit and all this has meant and will mean.

Review: Saving Calvinism

Saving Calvinism

Saving CalvinismOliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: An exploration of the breadth of theological resources, including alternate theological positions, within what is often thought to be the narrow bounds of Calvinism.

Oliver Crisp asks us to imagine taking possession of a huge old mansion with many rooms and only exploring a few of those on the ground floor. He thinks that is the situation today for many who tout “the Reformed tradition.” He writes:

“Returning to our example of the old mansion that is only partially occupied. Reformed theology has many rooms that the current generation, the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ of whom Collin Hansen writes, have not explored. Sometimes this means that what goes under the name ‘Reformed theology’ is actually only the downstairs rooms we occupy. There is much more to explore and much more to learn. Some of that task will enrich and enliven us. But sometimes we will be faced with a broadening of our views on matters we thought the Reformed tradition had closed down or narrowed. Often in popular culture today Reformed theology is thought to be a cold, narrow thing. If this volume goes some way toward addressing that misperception by helping its readers to understand how expansive and encompassing Reformed thought actually is, it will have done its job” (p. 17).

In the words of Thomas H. McCall, ““Oliver Crisp wants to save Calvinism—from some of its most impassioned proponents.” Another way of putting it is that Crisp wants to show how Calvinism is far more than TULIP, an acronym that stands for what are often thought to be the defining beliefs of Calvinism–total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Crisp argues that there is so much more to Calvinism, and that even some of these defining beliefs are understood in differing ways among confessional Calvinists.

In Chapter One, he takes on TULIP and shows the broader context of creeds and confessions and doctrine concerning the church, sacraments, and the authority of scripture in an ever-reforming church. Chapter Two explores the doctrine of election and a positive account of this doctrine that comforts rather than arouses dread by exploring the timelessness of God, a supralapsarian view of election, that God ordained the incarnation, and chose us in Christ prior to, rather than after the fall and that the incarnation from creation on was essential in uniting us with God. In Chapter Three, he shows differing positions on free will held by Jonathan Edwards and John Girardeau and addresses the question of how any of these views might be held without making God the author of sin.

Calvinism is often thought to be sharply antithetical to any version of universalism. In Chapter Four, Crisp observes that there were a number of Reformed theologians including William Shedd and Benjamin Warfield who held that the majority of humanity would be saved. This was not a hopeful universalism, but rather an optimistic particularism, rooted in the power of God, his desire that none would perish, and the inclusion of whole classes in the saved of those incapable of belief. Chapter Five turns to the theology of the atonement, classically thought to be the doctrine of penal substitution. He allows that this has been a view held by many, but that other, particularly older writers going back to Anselm held to the idea of satisfaction, that the divine Son who dies satisfies the justice of God, not as punishment in our place but as an act of merit. He also looks at views of penal nonsubstitution and non penal substitution, showing that one single model does not dominate. Finally in Chapter Six, he takes on the issue of the “limited atonement,” setting forth ways in which a hypothetical universal atonement may be possible within Reformed theology.

All this is to demonstrate the breadth, depth, and diversity within the Reformed tradition. I suspect that there will be those who read this account of Crisp’s book who will repudiate that account and insist that Calvinism is “this and only this.” What Crisp has done is not to relativize Calvinism, but to challenge its reduction to “five points” and the concealment of the diversity of ideas that have historically characterized Reformed theology. For those repelled by the perception of Calvinism as narrowly and reductively  uniform, this concisely written text might suggest that one look again or more closely and that there are greater riches in this tradition than often thought. One would also hope this might be true of the “young, restless, and Reformed” crowd, that they will indeed at least explore the other rooms and floors of the great mansion of Reformed thought, discovering there are yet great riches than they imagined.

 

Review: Common Grace and the Gospel

common-grace

Common Grace and the GospelCornelius Van Til (foreward and edited by K. Scott Oliphint). Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015 (2nd edition).

Summary: A collection of essays by presuppositional theologian Van Til with introduction and annotations by K. Scott Oliphint, articulating Van Til’s understanding of a Reformed doctrine of common grace, engaging views of others in this tradition that differ from his own.

Cornelius Van Til represents a stream within the Reformed theological tradition known as presuppositionalism. At the risk of oversimplifying, this stream contends that it is impossible to argue from human reason to the existence of the Triune God and the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation. Van Til would contend rather that it is by these realities, revealed by the witness of the Spirit alone to the elect, that it is possible to understand everything else about God, about human beings made in God’s image, God’s work in the world and through Christ, and the destiny of both the saved and the lost.

Common grace is often advanced as a counter to these ideas, that there are things that may be known of God common to the experience of all human beings. In part, the appeal of this is a response to the Reformed idea that God saves some, and not others, simply by his sovereign will, apart from human choice. It allows that humans may contribute something to their salvation, or alternately their damnation on the basis of this knowledge–an idea held in various ways in both Wesleyan and Roman Catholic circles.

In this collection of essays, recently re-issued with a quite helpful introduction to the thought of Van Til by editor K. Scott Oliphint, a student of Van Til, we have a chance to see the arguments against this idea, consistent with Van Til’s presuppositionalism. Van Til would argue, as I understand him, that common grace is simply God’s love for all human kind made in his image before the fall. After the fall, this “knowledge of God” is something fallen human beings suppress as they assert their own autonomy. The assertion of autonomy fundamentally shapes how we know, or epistemology such that we can know neither God, nor his world or purposes, apart from the sovereign grace extended to the elect in salvation. Van Til would go so far as to say that even in supposedly “neutral” fields of science, for example, the different ways of knowing of autonomous man versus the elect rule out a “common ground” around common grace.

In these essays, it is interesting that while he clearly sees his own position as consistent with the Reformed tradition over and against the Wesleyan (Arminian) or Catholic positions, his criticism is actually most pointed toward others in the Reformed tradition from Kuyper to Barth to Bavinck to Hoeksema. A common criticism is that while they affirm Reformed orthodoxy, they open the door to rationalism in their view of common grace and undermine the sovereign grace of the gospel.

Reading all this has a bit of a feeling of listening to arguments from another time, although I am well aware of those in the Reformed tradition who continue to be vociferous in their advocacy. Yet there are several things I appreciate in Van Til. One is an unwillingness to try to rationalize some of the very concrete language of scripture around these things in ways that minimize logical conflict. Another is a sensitivity to how both Greek and Enlightenment thought often creep into theological formulations. Furthermore, as this bears on the work of the apologist, I, like Van Til, have found that rational proofs for God largely confirmatory for Christians but unhelpful, apart from the witness of the Spirit in engaging those who do not believe. The question of what might be called “incommensurable epistemologies” seems more challenging. In many discussions, it does seem like there is a certain amount of common ground, as well as incommensurable aspects. How, theologically, do we account for both?

This is a collection of essays, which means that there is overlap (probably helpful in understanding Van Til) as well as engagements with particular thinkers, many who may be unfamiliar to the reader, although Oliphint’s annotations help. The most engaging for me was Chapter 6, “A Letter on Common Grace” in which Van Til lays out his ideas of common grace while engaging his critics.

For those who are not sympathetic to the Reformed tradition, it is easy to dismiss a thinker like Van Til. But his influence extends to the present through theologians like John Frame, and the late Francis Schaeffer as well as in the work of many in Reformed seminaries across the country. It is a perspective that would inform the thinking of many in The Gospel Coalition. Reading Van Til reminds me of the continuing challenge of thinking clearly and living consistently with “the faith once delivered” and yet living with grace and compassion toward all. I know little of his personal life and ministry but I miss the latter in this example of Van Til’s writing. Conviction and compassion are hard to hold together, yet those who follow the Christ who came full of grace and truth (John 1:14) are called to no less.

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

 

 

Review: Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians

 

Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians

Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians, Oliver D. Crisp. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015.

Summary: By comparing Edwards writing on various theological themes, Crisp underscores Edwards work as an original thinker and constructive theologian, building on a Reformed base, but even pressing the limits of orthodoxy in some of his work.

It has been more and more common to read statements about Jonathan Edwards describing him as America’s greatest thinker or at least greatest theologian. In some ways, it is quite gratifying to see him recognized for something more than an excerpt from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which should be read in its entirety, at very least.

This book helps make the case for his greatness as a thinker. Sometimes, he might simply be considered as one of those “Reformed guys.” Oliver Crisp explores how Edwards was not simply a confessional theologian but rather one who brought this theological heritage in conversation with the philosophy of his day. Crisp does this by bringing Edwards into dialogue with other theologians around particular theological foci: with Anselm on the doctrine of God, with Arminius on Creation, Girardeau on Free Will, and Bellamy on the Atonement.

For example, Edwards was far less cautious than Anselm on the question of what may be known about the nature of God by reason. His Trinitarian doctrine presses the distinctiveness of the persons to a degree that is in tension with his views of the simplicity or non-composite nature of God. In the case of Arminius on creation, Arminius is show to be orthodox, with the allowance for “middle knowledge,” while Edwards preserves the sovereignty of God through a view of creation that is “moment by moment” where reality is a serial collection of God’s creative acts, which opens Edwards to the charge that he is a panentheist (the cosmos exists within God who is greater than creation).

In the comparison of Edwards and Girardeau, Crisp argues that Edwards opposition to libertarian views presses moral responsibility totally onto God, going further than the Reformers. Edwards endorsed Bellamy, even though Bellamy supported the idea of unlimited atonement, that Christ died for all, not simply the elect. Crisp believes that Edwards may have this as innovating within the Reformed tradition.

The concluding chapter of the book returns to the tension between Edwards avowed commitment to the simplicity of God and the implications of his occasionalist view of creation that implies at least a panentheism or even verges at times on pantheism, plainly outside the pale of Reformed orthodoxy. Unless you were to dispense with the occasionalism, the alternative might be a slightly less simple view of God, allowing for a succession of God’s thoughts within the unchanging and undivided essence of God.

What Crisp points up is how Edwards in his theological writing engages in constructive theology in conversation with the philosophical currents of the day. He might at points be one of the most “unorthodox” of those within the Reformed camp, coming up with his own formulations of the doctrines of creation and articulations of the relations of the persons of the Trinity. And because of this he is a model both of the task, and perhaps the challenges of this kind of theological engagement.

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Review: The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction

The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction
The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction by James W. Skillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In our current toxic political climate one might ask the question, “can anything good come of politics?” James W. Skillen would answer that affirmatively. His main contention is that to be created in the image of God means, among other things, that we are political creatures and that political life, along with things like work and family, is part of God’s creation intention for us. It is not a consequence of the fall. Like other aspects of the human condition, political life certainly has been distorted by the fall but part of our call as the redeemed is to bring a redemptive influence into political life.

After laying out the biblical basis for this position in Part One, Skillen goes on in Part Two to survey how the church through history has addressed itself to this question. He covers Augustine’s two cities, the ascendancy of the church over civil government, and the splintering of authority and the two kingdom approach of the Reformers, particularly Luther. Finally he moves to the contemporary scene and the influences of Hobbes and Locke on the American Experiment.

Along the way, he engages the Anabaptist alternative of Hauerwas and Yoder and others that advocates for the kingdom of God as its own political entity and that the church, which is called to peace, should abstain from political engagement which inevitably requires the use of force in restraining evil, including lethal force. He argues that while this may allow the church to maintain its purity, it raises questions about the character of a God who ordains government to restrain evil through the power of the sword. My difficulty with this contention is that these questions are unavoidable no matter whether you are Anabaptist or not and go back to the question of why God permits evil at all. However, like those who would ascribe to some form of just war theory and who take this seriously, he argues that many instances of warfare do not meet this test and should be opposed by Christians.

This last is covered significantly in the third part of the book where Skillen engages the questions of how Christians engage in politics. He explores hot button issues like marriage, family, economics, and the environment. Because this book is an “introduction” he covers a lot of ground. His most interesting sections to me were his discussions of citizenship and the responsibilities all of us have in a republic, and his thoughts on politics in a globalized setting–avoiding nationalism and one world government options while allowing for various regional and other international regimes to deal with the international issues that are inevitable. In this discussion he argues that our situation is not one of a clash of civilizations between country blocks but rather competing claims within many of our countries: secularism, Christianity, capitalism, Islam to name a few.

The one thing I found most impractical was his proposal for “proportional representation” in the House of Representatives of national parties based on voting percentages for each party in elections. What he is trying to do is create a context where parties address national concerns rather than simply being split into electoral base politics. What seems to have a better (though still a long shot to me) chance is redistricting reform that requires districts to make geographic sense and to be demographically representative of a state’s population as far as that is geographically possible. The current gerrymandering of political districts means that one only need cater to one’s base to get elected rather than representing all the people. At least both Skillen and I agree on the problem that makes the House so dysfunctional.

On balance, this is a helpful proposal for how Christians might think about political life and exercise redemptive influence in politics. The most important part of this book is his argument for politics as a result, not of the fall, but the creation. His survey of historical positions is also helpful. His exploration of contemporary issues seemed somewhat cursory, even though he is thoughtful and nuanced. Yet he shows some of the directions Christians might go in pursuing these issues in greater depth.

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