Review: The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Christopher R. J. Holmes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores what we mean when we say God is good, contending that God is essentially good, that this is why the Psalms focus so much on the goodness of God, and how Thomas Aquinas may prove quite helpful in our reading of Psalms and understanding of God.

You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes.

-Psalm 119:68, ESV

This verse serves as the kernal or core of the argument of this book. The author’s contention is that God is goodness, and that this attribute, among all the others, is pre-eminent in the Psalms. Futhermore, because God is essentially good, his acts are simply an extension of his being, particularly all that God has done in creation. Because God is good, we exist. Furthermore, while there are some qualities that are particular to persons of the Trinity, goodness is common to the persons of the Triune God as one undivided essence. Consequently, particularly as creatures fallen away from God’s original goodness and restored through Christ, we cry out “teach me your statutes” that we might understand how to live into the goodness of God.

Holmes begins this argument with a discussion of the simplicity of God–that God is his attributes. These qualities do not exist apart from God but because God is these qualities. However Holmes argues for a particular understanding that goes back to Thomas Aquinas, rather than Karl Barth, whose theology serves as a reference point for much contemporary theology. His approach that is compatibilist rather than dialectic, where God is known by what God does. Holmes would argue for a much more seamless connection between who God is, what God does, and who we are and are becoming (if I understand this distinction correctly).

In subsequent chapters, Holmes explores how saying “you are good” is to describe a “pure act of being that is God.” He argues for the unity of God’s essence as good as prior to the Trinity. For God to “do good” is a reflection of the God’s being as pure act. God’s goodness is generative and results in a good creation.

The chapter on evil is striking as Holmes make the argument that evil is not a “something” but a “nothing,” a corruption of good. We recognize our need for help, leading to our cry to “teach me your statutes,” that mirror the goodness of their source. He explores how the incarnation of the Son uniquely communicates the goodness of God to us. He then concludes with an exploration of how the goodness of God leads to our perfection.

It is frustrating to try to summarize such a rich work in a few paragraphs. This is a work to be read slowly and savored. Sometimes a single sentence would stop me dead in my tracks, moving me to reflection and then to praise. One example was this: “God loves us by willing good to us, so much so that he conserves and perfects us in the good he is.” Another, from his chapter on creation: “Creation is radically contingent and has no other reason for being than God’s great goodness.” The effect was not simply intellectual illumination, but a response of turning to praise for yet another facet of God’s infinite goodness.

The challenge of this work, is that there is so many sentences of this character, really one after the other, in this work. It is rare that I have encountered writing of such precision, depth and elegance. It brings to mind the summer I spent reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for its combination of intellectual rigor and devotional warmth. Like Calvin, Holmes is a pastor-theologian and brings to his readers both the carefulness of a scholar and the passion to lead us to more deeply love the good and beautiful God. Unlike so many books that are “chop steak” theology, this is filet mignon, to be eaten in small slices savoring each bite, each chew, for the rich and juicy fare that it is.

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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: Political Church

Political Church

Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Jonathan Leeman. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Explores the nature of the church, arguing that it is a political institution that serves as an embassy of the kingdom of God, with implications for both its internal life and its engagement with the nations and governments of the world.

It seems that the relationship of church and state, which we often frame as spiritual versus political, and organic versus institutional, is a perennial discussion. In this work, Jonathan Leeman does a fine-grained analysis of both the biblical material concerning covenant-redemptive history and studies of the new institutionalism and turns much of the traditional schools of thought on their heads, arguing that both church and state are political and institutional, that our separations of spiritual and political realms don’t wash, and that our liberal idea of religious freedom ends in the destruction of religious freedom. He argues that both church and state function under the rule of God, albeit under different covenants and functioning in different “ages.” He contends that there is no neutral public square but that it is a battleground of the gods and that the state, ordained by God, either acting in accord with God or self-justifying.

Intrigued? I found myself growing more and more intrigued as I followed his carefully reasoned argument to its conclusion and thesis about the nature of the church. Leeman writes in his Introduction:

“Yet the primary claim of this book is that the local church is just such a political assembly. Indeed, the church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographic space but from across eschatological time.

“In other words, this book is concerned with the biblical and theological question of what constitutes a local church. The answer, it will argue, is that Jesus grants Christians the authority to establish local churches as visible embassies of his end-time rule through the “keys of the kingdom” described in the Gospel of Matthew. By virtue of both the keys and a traditional Protestant conception of justification by faith alone, the local church exists as a political assembly that publicly represents King Jesus, displays the justice and righteousness of the triune God, and pronounces Jesus’ claim upon the nations and their governments.”

Leeman begins by calling into question our conceptions of politics and institutions arguing for a broader conception of politics that includes the church, and that an institutional understanding of the church’s life is warranted in scripture. A political institution is “a community of people united by a common governing authority,” and he applies this both to church and state.

His next four chapters explore a politics of creation, fall, the new covenant, and the kingdom. He argues that the state operates under the Noahic covenant and has delegated authority to maintain the social order in the present age while refraining from enforcing belief, or impinging upon religious liberty, rooting religious liberty in an absolute standard, rather than in the conflicted conscience of liberal democracy. The church, foreshadowed by Israel, operates under the new covenant as ambassadors of the coming age, ordering its own belief and practice through the “power of the keys” while announcing the coming rule of Christ and its character to the nations.

A particularly striking conclusion is that it is the local church that is the focus of this work, and the only meaningful place, in Leeman’s argument, that functions as a kingdom embassy. Furthermore, he argues that the “power of the keys,” that is, the power both to admit people into membership and instruct them in truth, and to remove those who, by their lives, repudiate Christ’s rule, resides not in a single person or in a hierarchical structure, but in the congregation as a whole. This certainly is consistent with a “priesthood of all believers” theology, but I am troubled with what seems an inevitable consequence of his conclusion, the highly Balkanized kingdom of schismatic Protestantism. Are local congregations the only institutional manifestation of the kingdom?

His development of the idea of church as institution also bears on his discussion of justification and a difference with N.T. Wright. He would contend that covenant inclusion is not the definition of justification which he would maintain is being “declared righteous, but rather the institutional context of justification. This is one example of the careful analysis one will find in this work, in contrast with what Leeman believes is often fuzzy thinking. One also sees this in his critique of “advancing the kingdom” through social transformation without conversion. For Leeman, this begins with defining terms carefully, and distinguishing from notions that accrue more to liberal, Western ideologies than biblical theology.

This is a short review of a very long book. It is not possible here to “show all the work” in Leeman’s argument. His premises about politics and institutions and his covenant theology are key to that argument. It is particularly helpful in its conclusion that the church’s witness is a political act, in the ways it defines what both church and state do under a sovereign God. His discussion of the politics of forgiveness versus self-justification was another highlight for me in bringing to bear the distinctiveness of the Christian message as it bears on both church and public life.

In a time where political engagement tends consist of knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues, slogans and soundbites, and efforts to return America to some kind of mythical Christian age, Leeman challenges us to the hard thinking about what our proper role is in our churches, and a framework for how Christians involved with the state might act. Whether you agree with all of his conclusions, the process he uses to reach them will challenge your own thinking and assumptions.

Interview: Matthew Levering, Part Two

Levering-003-ART

Matthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Yesterday’s post included his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Today, he shares his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Bob on Books: Much of your work consists of teaching people who are being formed for the priesthood or other roles within the church. Why do you think theology is so important in that task?

Matthew Levering: Well as far as I’m concerned the answer is this. The life of the mind springs forth from the heart. There is a cry that comes out from people to know the truth about God and about reality. So there’s a deep desire. The problem is the intellectuals, as it were, in every culture, and certainly in our culture. You often find if you read the New York Review of Books or other intelligent things, that the intellectuals don’t seem to find Christianity very credible or attractive. I’m writing for people who are going to become Christian teachers, who at least have some interest in Christian teaching of some kind, whether it’s becoming pastors, priests, or lay leaders in the community. I’m writing for teachers, essentially. It’s a little like Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The idea is that you teach the teachers. From the deep questions that arise very passionately from within, I go and seek out other teachers. I read their work and I put their work into my books and essentially hand on that way.

I’m trying to show that there’s a wonderful Christian conversation about these questions. I’m inviting young people, who are starting out with me, beginners like myself, into this conversation which is so much fun, which is so rich, really so glorious. It’s really so much more fun and beautiful and true than you might get if you just read the works of popular intellectuals. To be in Christ is such a glorious thing and the truth of it is simply stunning and rich and wonderful. But it is something that involves an intellectual labor, a labor of mind. We’re being taught by teachers and then sharing what teachers have taught us. I want to be part of that conversation in Christ with fellow Christians.

Bob on Books: I work in a ministry that tries to connect that conversation with some of the wider intellectual conversations that go on in the academy. What have been your experiences of connecting the theological conversation to the wider conversations going on about the nature of human life and human flourishing and all the things that are explored in what may be called the secular academy?

Matthew Levering: Here’s kind of the secret to the whole thing. Honestly, my experience of being a theologian has been an experience first of all my own ignorance. I’ve felt often times a strong sense that I don’t really know how to even begin an answer to a question someone will ask me. That will be an inspiration to write a book. By writing a book, you are essentially learning from a bunch of other teachers and then sharing their wisdom.

The secret, the key thing, the unfortunate thing I’ve found that theology, as a Christian discipline–and I want to include myself very much in this–theology is in tatters. Now I’m not saying this of the seminary where I work now, which is a very wonderful place! I’m not saying theology is in tatters here. I’m essentially saying that theology as a discipline, as a whole, is a discipline that is at war with itself. The war that I would describe is a war over whether God has truly spoken. It is essentially the war that has been going on for a while between classical, liberal versions of Christianity where what’s really happening is we’re gesturing toward the ineffable. Different eras try to build authentic community and liberative praxis from human resources and gesture toward the ineffable, the mystery. That would be what I call classical, liberal Christianity. That’s sort of at war with a more counter-cultural Christianity rooted in a commitment to divine revelation–a sense of God pouring out his Word, and becoming incarnate, and God’s Word dying for us.

If you want to know what I’m talking about, a great book to start with is by a scholar named Garry Wills. He has a book called Why Priests? which is an amazing example of classical liberal Christianity. He’s a very learned man. By no means am I trying to impugn him. In the book, he feels a little defensive because he doesn’t want his Christian commitment challenged. If he’s reading this, I’m not trying to impugn Garry Wills! I’m just saying that when I read the book, there are strong resonances of my own knowledge of what I would call classical, liberal Christianity.

That’s the situation right now. Among theologians around the world, the guild of intellectuals, there’s a strong questioning of whether we can defend God truly speaking, or whether in fact it has been some second temple Jews gesturing to this, or whether it is some post-exilic competing priestly clans, or some kind of Greek influence on church leaders trying to take power in fourth century Roman empire. And so different forms of gesturing, however authentic they might be, their gestures, their language, it’s all very historically conditioned. So we now have our own gestures and language in which we can use Jesus as a liberative model, a model of love. You can see the benefit of that kind of approach to Christian theology because it makes Christianity more easily defensible. To people who challenge Christianity, they say “We don’t believe that either but we’re just gesturing, we’re building authentic community and gesturing, using Jesus as a liberative model, whatever happens to be in the zeitgeist. Morally, you can just adopt that and say, “That’s what we want too.” Jesus is a model of that, he is a Liberator.

What you lose, though, is the Savior from sin and death. You lose the communion with the Holy Trinity. You lose the actual sanctification of the communion with our divine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are inviting us into their communion here and now. You lose that [experience of] actually being transformed and that power of God’s Word and that challenge–that real challenge of holiness and that challenge that confronts us as sinners who are broken; and that challenge that confronts us with real mercy built upon the cross where God has come to a broken creation that refuses to love, and God has loved for that creation at the very place where we have refused to love, which of course is our dying. We can’t accept dying so we turn our backs on God, but God has come right into that context and loved us and saved us in that very place of death — praise be to God, praise be to Jesus!.

Theology, in my view, is under great strain. I recently completed a manuscript called Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? It’s not a popular apologetics. It’s written for scholars. It’s a work that hopefully could be read by others, but the main point is that unless you can get deep into the nitty-gritty, they’ll say “You’re just on the surface here.” The work of theology understood as responding to divine revelation is a very difficult labor. You have to listen to a lot of voices to make sure that you are not making claims that are too strong. You have to be very careful in listening to and hearing as many voices as you can, as many voices of other scholars and other thinkers. Within that, there is a strong defense that can come forth of the reality that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Theology, then, in my experience is a fragmented discipline. The answer to your question is that I focus my attention on speaking to theologians and attempting to strengthen theologians. I seek to strengthen the discipline. I’m including strengthening myself and my beloved fellow theologians and especially young theologians in training and therefore also pastors and priests–to strengthen them to know that the fullness of divine revelation and the full life of the critical mind can go together. That’s the key point that I’ve been trying to say.

Bob on Books: I speak often about my own work with grad students as connecting the love of God and the love of learning.

Matthew Levering: Yes, beautiful. Remember, when I’m talking about the love of learning, I’m talking about the critical kind where you ask difficult questions that can seem corrosive. I think all those questions have to be asked, to be gotten to the bottom of. We need to hear the voices of the many teachers who can teach us if we are willing to ask those deep questions. The point is that we don’t want to underestimate the discipline of theology. There are so many wonderful resources, even though I think at the current moment in some circles there is something of a crisis of confidence, and therefore the discipline itself needs a certain strengthening. I haven’t devoted myself to speaking outside of the discipline. I haven’t done that but would love to do it though!

Bob on Books: I might figure out a way to take you up on that!

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Books by Matthew Levering reviewed at Bob on Books:

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation (review)

Engaging the Doctrine of Creation (review)

Dying and the Virtues (review)

Interview: Matthew Levering, Part One

Levering-003-ARTMatthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed yesterday on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Today’s post will include his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Tomorrow, I will include his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. Both are lightly edited transcripts of our conversation.

Bob on Books:  You’ve written a lot of books and I wonder if you could talk about whether there is any thread or trajectory that ties together your scholarship?

Matthew Levering:  Certainly there is a desire to be touched by Jesus, to learn about Jesus from all angles,  and to learn about Jesus in his divine sonship and his relationship with the Father, his love for us, and to reach out to him through writing and thinking. That’s the motivating thing. There’s also a strong thing that moves me very deeply of bridging the elements of the Christian past with the Christian present.  I’m very interested in scriptural reading. I read historical critical biblical scholarship. A fun day is if I’m reading something from Augustine and then I read something from Richard Hayes and I make a connection between the two because there’s a sense of the fullness of Christianity, the wholeness, that I’m not getting stuck in any one century where I’m bringing together past and present. To me that’s the biblical office of a scribe. You bring old things and new. You offer them to fellow Christians as essentially a bringing together, a meditating on the scriptural word, but with all the centuries involved or as many as possible.

And it is bringing that word of God, that Living Word which is always new, always fresh, that has all the centuries and also an insistence that the passage of time has not distanced us from the actual gospel.  I’m very concerned that people say “well it was medieval or it was patristic, it was Reformation, it was this or that, it’s been distanced, it’s been separated from the Biblical word.” That would mean for me that God was not being faithful to his people during those time periods. In other words, to each generation, God is faithful to his people in giving the gospel to his people. So therefore, there must be a way to bring together all these diverse voices, to show their deep unity in Christ. You see what I mean?

Bob on Books: it sounds to me what you’re trying to do is to help people to see how this long tradition of scholarship hangs together.   That it is Christ who makes it hang together and reconciles all things. It seems like you’ve moved from your own encounter with Christ to helping others encounter Christ in this long tradition of people who have contemplated…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s exactly the goal but also with contemporary questions, with questions that we have today, whether it’s from Richard Dawkins who is so influential– all sorts of questions that we have today. I don’t really do what’s called historical theology, I did one book of historical theology but it was the most boring book I ever wrote!  For me, all theology is caught up with the now, because it’s the day of Christ, because he’s present, he’s living. We need to draw upon all the centuries, all the wisdom, that Christ has been giving his people. We need to hear those voices, and those voices are going to be able to help us as we speak today to answer and to proclaim Jesus.

Bob on Books: You’ve mentioned the questions that we ask today. Your most recent book Dying  and the Virtues seems to address a very important question about  death and about how death shapes how we live. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what you were trying to do in that book.

Matthew  Levering:  That’s wonderful, because I wrote that book after the book on creation which was about God the Life Giver and the pouring out of life. As I pondered on this, I thought I needed to write a book on dying. Included in dying I also included the fall of Adam and Eve. That was a topic in my creation book and so I had already in mind the question of death. In my creation book I include a chapter on the fall and on Christ’s atonement. These things are already somewhat present  in the creation book. But the main point I want to get across is that for me, I can’t think of death as an academic topic. Nor can I think of any topic as a merely academic topic. It’s always deeply personal for me. When people say the word “death,” when I say the word death, I think it’s very concrete for me in the sense death isn’t an abstraction, a concept. Neither is creation, the Trinity, or anything. When I think of death, when I think about the experience of the last moments, the last days, that feels very concrete. I feel very contingent even if I were to live 50 more years.  Death doesn’t seem a distant thing from me but a very present neighbor.

Bob on Books:  It’s the same transience you were talking about in your personal experience…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s it, the sense of transience.  I feel very strongly calling out to Christ Our Lord who dies on the cross for us.  I feel very strongly calling out to him saying “Lord, Lord is this really good? How could you leave me here to go through this threatening, this entering into darkness, a complete destruction of my bodily frame? How could this possibly be your will?” Calling out to Jesus and saying it’s good for you Lord, to be on the cross, and maybe we can build some booths around you like Peter and we can Rejoice that you have saved us Lord but now you’re surely not calling us to go through this Darkness, this sense of Destruction? My answer is surely not Lord! Surely not! Just like Peter saying by no means would the cross be good for the Lord.  

Bob on Books:  Connect up for me the idea of dying and the virtues–the two parts of your title.

Matthew Levering:  To give away the idea of the book,  it’s that God permits us to go through dying  because we need certain virtues. In other words dying is a crucial part of living and the process of dying begins everyday.  We need a set of virtues given our fallen condition. Even though we are redeemed we need to beg, we need to plead for these virtues. Dying is an instruction manual that teaches us to beg for what we actually need in order to flourish, what we need in order to be Christ-like.

Bob on Books:  I would assume that it has to do with faith, hope, and love?

Matthew Levering:  Yes it begins with faith hope and love. The first chapter is on the threat of annihilation. The first chapter is on love. I begin with the Book of Job where Job questions. I assemble a bunch of texts from The Book of Job where he questions whether God truly loves him. He remembers that one time that he and God were really close and that God seem to love him then. In fact God made him in the womb.  God knew him and crafted him. God built his flesh and bones. God loves him and put him in the community of people and God blessed him. Job cries out, “You’re not a lover, you’re a destroyer!” Job says that to God. I’m not quoting directly but he says “you’re there to destroy my flesh.”

This raises the question of love.  Does God love us? Do we love him? And can we love him given that our bodily frame is going to be destroyed. Do we love this God? Can we love him given that he seems to be threatening us? What kind of lover would allow us to go through this horrible misery and be destroyed? Does God really love us? Do we really love God? My main point is that we often don’t love God. We sort of fear God because we think he really doesn’t love us. He really doesn’t quite love us because he’s going to allow us to die. He’s going to humiliate us. In the end we’re going to be stripped and humiliated. So we love the God who sets us up on a pedestal and gives us a nice book by Eerdmans and stuff! We love that God but the God who sets us down and says you’re going to be stripped and humiliated– that God we don’t love. We don’t love the God of the cross. So we have to be turned around , we have to allow God’s voice to come through. Remember how God speaks to Job in the end. God says, “you don’t know my plan. You weren’t there. Were you there when the angels sang for joy at the dawn of creation? Do you know the power of the different created things?“

So God tells Job, “you just don’t know my ways.” And ultimately God’s point is that you don’t know the plan. The point that God has made to Job that Job understands is that God loves Job. God comes out and cares for Job and speaks to Joe.   God assures Job that his power to love is not going to be stopped by Death. The end of Job is like a blessing of resurrection, of communion in a certain way. It’s all really pointing to Christ where God shows who God is in the midst of death and resurrection in his perfect love. Since we’ve got to live it through Job, we’ve got to realize that we tend not to love God. We tend to love the God who is giving us blessings. But we tend to think that there’s this other God who is a humiliator, who is essentially going to abandon us.

Part two of this interview will appear tomorrow.

Review: Darkness Visible

Darkness Visible

Darkness Visible (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Karlo V. Bordjadze (Foreword by R. W. L. Moberly). Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017.

Summary: A study of Isaiah 14:3-23, considering textual and interpretive issues, and focusing on how this passage may be read as Christian scripture today.

How you have fallen from heaven,
    morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!
 You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
    to the depths of the pit.

–Isaiah 14:12-15, NIV

This passage, part of a larger text running from Isaiah 14:3-23, has been understood by many Christians, including John Milton in Paradise Lost (the source of this work’s title), as a description of the fall of Satan. This is less the case among recent interpreters, and this raises the question for Christians reading this passage of how we might read and appropriate this in a Christian context.

This work, an outgrowth of a doctoral thesis, offers perhaps the most careful analysis of this text I’ve come across. Bordjadze begins with a verse by verse discussion of the philological issues in the text and how various translators have handled these. Then in chapter 3 he zooms in on the meaning of mašal, which might be understood as parable or proverb but in this context is a kind of grotesque taunt against an egregious form of human exaltation over and against both Israel and Israel’s God.

Chapter 4 considers a reading of Isaiah 14:3-23 in the context of the imaginative world of the ancient Near East. He explores the resonances in the text with other ancient Near East texts from the Enuma Elish to the Epic of Gilgamesh. This sheds significant light on the language of the underworld and particularly the horror of not receiving a proper burial (v. 20). Chapter 5 then turns to questions of myth and history to understand the significance of the “morning star, the son of the dawn” and the possible historical referents to a Babylonian king. There is also the question of how this passage fits into the larger context of Isaiah 13-23 and the collection of Oracles Against the Nations.

Chapter 6 moves forward in history to consider the reception of this text by Christian interpreters in church history. Two key interpreters are considered. First is Origen, who introduces the idea that this text is about the fall of Satan, the origins of evil and the freedom of human choice. Calvin, concerned with portraying the sovereignty and providential care of God reads this passage very differently, recognizing first the historical context of Babylonian invasion, and then seeing this in the light of those enemies arrayed against the church, and God’s sufficiency to deliver. Bordjadze recognizes the common element in both of pastoral concern for the faithful in different contexts.

Finally, Bordjadze considers how the text might be read in Christian churches today. He considers two theological readings, by Walter Brueggeman, and by Christopher Seitz before proposing his own. Brueggeman sees this as the victory of God over a cosmic tyrant while Seitz reads this text in dialogue with Habakkuk 2 and Psalm 82 and the lament of “how long” will tyrants prevail, uttered both by the prophet and in the “council of the gods.” Bordjadze takes a different approach of contrasting the King of Babylon and Jesus as two ways of pursuing the imago dei–one of prideful self-exaltation followed by abasement and the other of obedient acceptance of abasement followed by the vindicating exaltation of the resurrection. He sees this text as a salutary warning against self-exaltation over and against the cruciform way of Christ, exalted by God as sovereign Lord.

In this he identifies more closely with both Origen and Calvin if not following either of their readings. He draws parallels between these ideas of exaltation and abasement with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and the ultimate abasements of self-exalting Morgoth and Sauron while humble hobbits and a scorned ranger are lifted up. It is a reading that raises the question for every Christian reader of which path we will choose, as well as comfort for those who choose the path of Christ while observing the apparent success, the raw use of power, and the arrogance of the self-exalting.

The careful textual, contextual, and theological work to arrive at this reading strikes me as a delightful model of rigorous biblical and theological scholarship in service of God’s people. There was a kind of “line upon line, precept upon precept” aspect to this work that reflected a scholar working deliberately, and yet with appropriate care, toward a clear conclusion. It both sharpened my own reading of the text, and led me into fruitful reflection on the message of this text for me as a Christ-follower. This is a work that both demands and rewards careful reading.

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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: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age

the image of god in an image driven age

The Image of God in an Image Driven AgeBeth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A collection of papers from the 2015 Wheaton Theology Conference focusing on how our understanding of “the image of God” shapes our understanding of what it means to be human, and how we ought perceive the images that pervade our lives.

The subtitle of this collection of papers from the 2015 Wheaton Theology Conference is “explorations in theological anthropology.” In other words, the thread that unites the essays in this collection is the exploration of what it means to be human, particularly in relationship to God. In particular, this is a wide-ranging, and yet, taken together, coherent collection of papers exploring what it means to say that human beings are made in the image of God. Although called a theology conference, the contributors are drawn from theology, English literature, history, and art.

The papers, grouped in threes are organized around four topics: canon, culture, vision, and witness.

  • Canon particularly explores how biblical themes inform our understanding of imago dei. Catherine McDowell focusing on creation and how we are God’s “kin” or children. William Dyrness on the Fall and the tension that exists between trajectories of life and death. Craig Blomberg considers the New Testament witness and particularly the understanding of the image of God as Christlikeness, reflectors of Christ’s glory.
  • Culture explores the connections between the idea of image, theology, and the arts. Timothy Gaines and Shawna Songer Gaines consider human sexuality, our sexualized culture, and how many works of Renaissance religious art, in portraying the naked human form portrayed human sexuality as a good gift of God. Matthew J. Milliner explores consumerist issues and how artists have often engaged in iconoclasm, in breaking false images, and the unique role Christians in the arts may play. Christina Bieber Lake, in exploring the persistence of the image of God amid the suffer in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–an exploration that left me wanting to read this work.
  • Vision explores the incarnation of Jesus as an icon of God, enabling us to see something of God. Ian McFarland explores the Eastern Orthodox theology of icons. Daniela Augustine discusses the work of the Spirit in transforming those who are in the image of God to grow into the likeness of God. Janet Soskice considers Jesus as the one through whom God spoke the world into existence and that our own capacities for speech image the speaking God.
  • Witness explores how Christians proclaim (or fail to proclaim) the Triune God. Soong-Chan Rah, in a particularly trenchant essay, explores the sad racial history of black and white in the U.S. and how the image of God has been construed in terms of “whiteness.” Beth Felker Jones attests to the power of Christian witness to the image of God to resist the commodification, sexual and otherwise, of human beings. Philip Jenkins reminds us of the global character of Christianity and prepares us for the new cultural expressions of peoples in the image of God.

Some conference proceedings collections seem lacking in cohesion. This collection, while reflecting diverse perspectives, offered, I thought, a coherent, yet multi-faceted exploration of the wonder of what it means to be humans in the image of God. The engagement with the arts, literature, and mass culture fulfills the promise of addressing our image driven age. The recognition of the image of God and the racial blinders that limit our vision of that image is a vital contribution to a broader theological anthropology.

Review: Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for EvangelicalsMark Galli. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: An succinct overview of the life and theological relevance of Karl Barth, particularly for contemporary evangelicals.

By most estimates, Karl Barth is considered perhaps the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. He commentary on Romans challenged the liberal consensus of his day focusing attention on the sovereignty of God rather than human standpoints. In his insistence on the sovereign initiative of God and Christ’s reconciling work, he clashed with Emil Brunner, Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. He stood as courageously as Bonhoeffer against Nazi totalitarianism, formulating the Barmen Declaration, and eventually losing his faculty position in Bonn when he could not swear loyalty to Hitler. He lived for the rest of his life an exile in Switzerland.

Yet evangelicals have often been uneasy about Barth. From the early opposition of Cornelius Van Til down to present day concerns about Barth’s view of scripture and fears of the universalist implications of his soteriology, many evangelicals have wanted to hold Barth at arms length. Mark Galli, as editor in chief of Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism, gets that, and yet offers in this slim volume a sketch of Barth’s life, and theological work, and what evangelicals might learn and gain from this, even if they retain their reservations.

Galli traces the theological development of Barth in the liberal protestant tradition shaped by Schleiermacher and his mentor Adolph von Harnack. He describes the “conversion” of Barth from a young social activist and socialist pastor through his study of Romans, and how the publication of his commentary on Romans rocked the theological world as he reasserted the centrality of God rather than human initiative, and God’s gracious action rather than even the best of human religious impulse. We trace his continued theological development as a professor first at Gottingen and then Bonn.

Galli shows us both the courageous and human side of Barth. He was one of the first to recognize the dangerous pretensions of Nazism and its insidious foothold in the German Church, and led the resistance to this in the formulation and promulgation of the Barmen Declaration, affirming the precedence of the sovereign God over any human sovereignties and that the church could not relent to political captivity to any ideology. This led to Barth being stripped of his teaching position, and his emigration to Basel, Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life.

The human side was what Galli concedes was his “emotional adultery” with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, his research assistant for many years. Despite the strains this placed on his marriage, he was unwilling to break off this relationship, and it seems that Barth and his wife Nelly eventually reached some kind of understanding. Even after Karl’s death, Nelly regularly visited Charlotte, an Alzheimer’s victim. This may say something of Nelly, about whom I wish Galli might have told us more.

It is impossible in a book of this length to adequately summarize the Church Dogmatics. Galli focuses on the two aspects that have often been of concern to evangelicals, and while not removing them as cause for reservation, he points out aspects from which evangelicals might learn. With regard to scripture, he acknowledges the problems of Barth’s position of God’s authoritatively revealing himself through a fallible scripture, yet he observes Barth’s Bible-centered practice, how extensively he cited scripture, and always with a view to it’s authority as God’s witness, not in criticism of its faults. He also tackles Barth’s ideas of “universal reconciliation.” He contrasts the Reformers “If you repent and believe, you will be saved” with Barth’s “You are saved; therefore believe and repent.” He sees in this a position that may have the promise of ending the impasse between Calvinist and Arminian positions, while acknowledging the further work that remains.

Finally, Galli takes up what he sees as a fundamental challenge to contemporary evangelicalism. In Barth’s unflinching commitment to the initiative of God, he sees a challenge to an evangelicalism at once focused on subjective experience and on human activism in doing good. He sees in these trends a theology not unlike that of Schleiermacher, even while clinging to evangelical affirmations. He trenchantly observes

The point is not to make a sweeping condemnation of evangelicalism, as if it were the epitome of nineteenth century liberalism. The point is not to look to Barth as our theological savior. The point is to suggest that the theology Barth eventually found bankrupt, and so ardently battled, is a theology we understand and identify with at some level. That we imbibe it unthinkingly is a problem, because as Barth’s theology demonstrates, it is an approach that brings with it a host of problems, problems that undermine not only the church’s integrity but especially its evangelistic mission” (p. 145).

Galli gives us a succinct biography that leaves us much to consider. Would we have Barth’s courage to stand against a compromised church and a powerful regime? What place does the “strange world of the Bible” have in shaping our world? How central in our thinking is God’s initiative in salvation? In Barth’s “no” to the natural theology of Brunner, and nineteenth century liberalism, do we also hear a “no” to our own generation’s human pretensions? Galli, a skilled editor, also serves us as a skilled writer, using few words to give us much to consider.

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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: Creation and New Creation

creation and new creation

Creation and New Creation, Sean M. McDonough. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017.

Summary: A work on the doctrine of creation with particular attention to the connection between the creation and the new creation in Christ, but also focusing on other aspects of creation including issues of time, space, Platonic ideas and their influence on the doctrine, in each case tracing relevant scripture, and the theological contributions of theologians from the fathers to the present day.

“Creation” over the past couple centuries has been treated more as a point of contention than as one of the significant doctrines of the church, explored for what it may reveal about God and God’s relation to his world, and humanity, our relationship to the rest of creation and why it, and we, exist. Yet, in recent years, theologians have been writing more and more about the connections between creation and the new creation in Christ.

Sean McDonough contends that this is, in fact, not a new development. He writes:

“The burden of the present volume is that this emphasis on creation and the new creation has been a feature of the doctrine since the beginning, whether it be in the eschatological reading of Genesis 1 that predominated at least until modern times, or the intertwining of the narratives of creation and redemption in thinkers from Irenaeus to Barth” (p. vii).

As promised, this volume, first a part of the Christian Doctrine in Historical Perspective series, and now published on its own, elaborates the connection between creation and the new creation in its first chapter, beginning with the New Testament connections back to creation from John 1 throughout the epistles and Revelation. McDonough then introduces us to the theologians from the fathers to the present who made this connection, and explores how the end will be like, and unlike, the beginning.

Building on this base, and having established the methodology of this volume, McDonough proceeds in subsequent chapters to explore often neglected matters such as who the God is who creates, why the creation, matters of time and space, Platonic ideas and how they relate to both process and structure of creation, the place of humanity in that creation, and finally beauty and the creation. McDonough reflects both upon biblical testimony and the wrestlings of theologians to articulate these aspects of the doctrine of creation.

We join these theologians in wrestling with some of the big questions of the ages. How do we understand the work of each person of the Trinity in creation in a way consonant with our Trinitarian theology? What does it mean that God created the world in freedom and did God create for redemption or did God redeem for his creation? How do we understand the when of creation with a God who is eternal and outside time. Similarly, where are we as creatures inhabiting space in relation to an infinite God who transcends that space? And where did the stuff of creation come from?

Platonism has had a big influence on the life of the church (for which I thought McDonough made a convincing case) and this is certainly the case as we discuss how ideas in the mind of God and the structure of creation correspond. Also, rather than creation being a once and for all event, we find revealed a process of continuous creation, “de-creation” and new creation in Christ. How does this process unfold in the material fabric of the universe? What is the role of human beings in all this, beginning with Adam (and what are we to think about a historic Adam)? What is our destiny as creatures in the image of God redeemed in Christ? Just how far are we warranted to take talk of “deification”? Finally, what does God the creator have to do with beauty? What does beauty have to do with the presence of ugliness in the world, and what can we learn from Christ’s redemptive work?

Part of the delight of this work is seeing contemporary theologians like C. S. Lewis, Karl Barth, and Colin Gunton in conversation with Athanasius and Irenaeus, Origin and Augustine, and down through the ages with Aquinas, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. We often wrestle with holding truths of Christ’s true humanity and full divinity in tension, or God’s sovereignty and free will. What this volume helped me see is how such things are rooted in creation, where the eternal God creates in time, where the God who is spirit speaks matter into existence, where God creates humans in God’s image, imparting a freedom that goes with that image while remaining sovereign creator. I realized afresh that as one human with a very puny brain, I am in the presence of things too wonderful for me, and yet to wrestle with such things, to listen to the conversation of others, is to think great thoughts of God, to stand in wonder afresh of God’s creative work, and to marvel that such a God would set his love and include in his purposes the likes of me! That is the value of reading good works of theology. That is what I found here.

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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: Restoring the Soul of the University

restoring the soul

Restoring the Soul of the UniversityPerry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman and Todd C. Ream. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Traces the history of the fragmentation of the modern university including its loss of soul, the impacts that this has on various facets of university of life, and the role theology can have in restoring that soul and healing that fragmentation.

One of the clearest conclusions in reading contemporary literature and analysis of higher education is that there is no clear idea of what a university is for. Or rather, there are multiple contested ideas from educating for citizenship, to provide the skills needed to work in today’s knowledge economy, to serving as a critical adjunct to that economy by working alongside government and industry to tailor curriculum to aid economic growth. Then there are the rare individuals who still insist that universities have something to do with helping young men and women explore life’s larger issues, life’s meaning and purpose, helping them live into what it means to be fully human and part of the human community.

The authors of this work, following Chancellor Clark Kerr’s description of the multiversity, propose that all of this is indicative of an institution that has lost its soul, that there is no shared animating purpose, no story that frames its sense of mission and its values. All the different constituencies that are competing to shape the university have fragmented and there is nothing to mediate between these fragmented identities.

The book consists of three parts. The first part traces the history of the university from its beginnings with Hugh of St. Victor and the University of Paris. The vision began with a vision of the academic castle with theology preeminent over the disciplines, in which learning occurred through both meditation upon and disputation around authoritative texts. Unfortunately, making theology preeminent tended to isolate theology from engagement with the other disciplines. This flaw widened as theology and philosophy became separate disciplines, increasingly not in conversation with each other. Then in the late 18th through the 19th centuries, European universities were increasingly controlled not by church, but by government. The beginnings of American universities seemed to hark back to the early vision. But after the Civil War, the European ideal of the research university and the rise of science took over. From a set curriculum, the elective plan proposed by Charles Eliot turned the university into an academic buffet of courses rather than a common curriculum. Universities became simply a collection of departments competing for students attentions leading to the secular multiversity of the present.

Part two explores the impacts of this fragmentation. First of all is the fragmentation of the life of a professor, torn between teaching, research, publishing pressures, and service, between one’s institution, and one’s subdiscipline. With no common story to give curricular coherence, curriculum increasingly is defined by majors with general requirements a faint echo of a once common curriculum. The competition for students leads to a rise of student services outside the purview of the faculty and a tension between curricular and co-curricular life. The growing size of universities, the expansion and sophistication of services, and government requirements add a new group of people to the mix, administrators. Lacking a significant narrative to bind the university together, athletics, and particularly football at many institutions serves as the multiversity’s new religion. The rise of new technologies and entrepreneurial figures has resulted in new delivery systems in online and for-profit education, challenging traditional models.

The last part of this work re-imagines what a university, particularly a Christian university, might look like if theology was granted a central and formative role in the life of the university. To begin with this assumes a willingness of theologians to open up their conversation to other academics and for academics in the other disciplines to be open to explore theological implications for the paradigms and practices of their disciplines. It means not penalizing theologians whose academic work reflects this interdisciplinary engagement rather than narrowly focus in their own theological sub-disciplines. Their vision goes far beyond a virtuous veneer to the standard practices of teaching, research and service. They write:

“Although we agree with the importance of practicing virtue in the academic calling, we contend that any approach to integrating virtue must not prioritize teaching over scholarship or service but should instead prioritize the role of the triune God and God’s theological story in defining, directing, and empowering the virtues that sustain excellence in these practices and help promote flourishing academic communities. We doubt broadly defined virtues on which we all agree can sufficiently reorient the academic vocation. After all, professors need a compelling identity and story that will motivate them to acquire certain virtues. Instead, Christians must think about virtues such as faith, hope, and love as well as other fruits of the Spirit, in the light of a theological narrative and realities that usually do not enter standard secular reasoning” (pp. 245-246).

The authors then explore how this reconsideration of theological narrative and reality shape academic disciplines, co-curricular life and academic leadership. The authors’ vision is that it may be possible, at least within Christian universities to recover the “soul” of the university in understanding how the Christian story informs all of life in the university.

In assessing this work, one must first acknowledge the valuable work the authors have done both in summarizing the history of the university, helping us understand how we have reached our present place, and the shape (or shapelessness) of the fragmentation that is the defining realities of our present-day universities, Christian, private, or public. They give us a valuable survey, which some will dispute in detail, but in broad outlines does much to inform someone wanting to understand higher education today.

For those working in the Christian college and university setting, what the authors assert should not be cause for much controversy, in principle. In fact, the forces that have shaped these schools as mirror images of the secular university are not insubstantial–whether we are talking about the shape of the theological guild, the disciplines, athletics (as the authors, two of whom are Baylor faculty well know), and the rising co-curricular bureaucracy. There is a need for a combination of humility and vision shared by university faculty and leaders from these various sectors if this is ever to have a chance of being realized. Perhaps it might grow from “test plots” where people with a larger vision come together.

What hope is there for secular, public universities? I cannot visualize an institutional transformation that “Christianizes” such places. But might it first of all be helpful for Christians within these “academic villages,” whether students, faculty, staff, or administrations to begin to think more rigorously about how the narrative of their faith ought to shape their daily life and presence in this place? Might there be significant value in private and, when appropriate, public conversations that reflect how theology might inform and enrich our inquiry and practice in every dimension of life? Might students, trying to connect the various “reality bites” of their lives find in the Christian story, the “liberating arts” (in the authors words) that bring coherence to both their studies and their lives? Might this collaboration of students, faculty, theologians, and ministry leaders cultivate a counter-cultural, lived story that in proximate ways witnesses to “the restored soul” that is the mark of the Christian story?

I cannot guess what difference this might lead to with these institutions. But Christians in these places must consider what story will shape how they live. The paucity or richness of the theological narrative that shapes these lives will determine whether they will be fragmented or will flourish. The case these writers make is one all of us working around the world of higher education will do well to heed.

 

Should We Let This Prisoner Out of the Academic Dungeon?

Hope_in_a_Prison_of_Despair

Hope in a Prison of Despair, Evelyn De Morgan [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Just what prisoner are we talking about, you might ask. I would suggest this is no ordinary burglar, extortionist, or murderer. Nor are we talking about your ordinary academic criminals–the plagiarizer, the reactionary, the transgressor who forgets trigger warnings. Rather, we are speaking of one who once occupied an eminent place in the order of the academy. Some would contend that this one gave a kind of order or coherence to the academy. So much so that this one was spoken of as Queen of the Sciences. Her name was Theology and she has fallen from the pinnacle of the university to the dungeon. Many don’t even wish to acknowledge her existence.

The image of theology in the dungeon is one I am borrowing from Restoring the Soul of the University by Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream. The authors explore the fragmented character of modern universities and college, referred to by Clark Kerr as the “multiversity,” and contend that this is a consequence of the dethroning of theology from her place as Queen of the Sciences. With this dethroning, they claim the university has lost the unifying story of God at the center that connects the various disciplines as elements of a common story. Their project is a modest one, to bring theology out of the dungeon and make her at least a conversation partner with other scholars in the Christian higher education context. No ambition proposals to “reclaim the nation’s universities for God!” here.

I find myself wondering if the theologians have come to like the dungeon, and perhaps have even ceased to see it as one. They have their own students, publishers for their books, journals for their articles, canons of scholarship, and academic conferences to celebrate and give structure to it all. There are subdisciplines within the theological guild, and conversations in a particular jargon only the initiated readily grasp–perhaps.

I’ve spent my career working in collegiate ministry in public university settings. From many conversations, my sense is that while most don’t want theology to be a Queen, there is an openness to theology as a conversation partner–particularly if that can be a real dialogue. Might those concerned with the interpretation of biblical texts have much to share and much to learn from those whose work is interpreting other kinds of texts, whether historical or literary. Might those who really have looked at the origin stories of scripture with a careful scholarly eye be the best to engage with those considering scientific studies of origins? Might those in health care benefit greatly from the wisdom those working with issues of formation have about seasons of life–how might we both live and die well?

I think the great fear in academia would be some form of asserting authority or re-asserting control. I think this is a needless fear. What is the danger in mutual inquiry and learning? What is the danger in humble listening to and instructing one another? Might there be “lost learnings” on both sides from which all might profit? And if there are fears about this happening in the public setting (although I’ve found this possible even here), why not start with schools affiliated with theological seminaries?

Universities arose out of cathedral schools and the idea that there was a fundamental unity underlying all knowledge arose from the belief that all knowledge had a common source and origin in a Creator God. Not all will agree with this today by any means. But is the idea one that should be confined to an intellectual dungeon? Should there not be a chance to see whether the prisoner in the dungeon has a cogent and coherent story to tell? And if the prisoner is given the chance, will s/he emerge ready both to listen and to speak?