Review: Middle Knowledge

middle knowledge

Middle KnowledgeJohn D. Laing. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An exposition and defense of the doctrine of middle knowledge, also known as Molinism, and arguments for why this best addresses other theological issues.

God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Somehow both logic and experience witness to the truth of both and yet how the two may be understood together has been one of the toughest questions facing theologians and Christian apologists. A truly sovereign God has both the knowledge, indeed foreknowledge, and power to accomplish God’s will. If this is so, in what sense can humans be said to be free? On the other hand, humans often act in ways contrary to God’s will, sometimes in horribly evil ways that inflict great suffering on others. If God has the power to stop this, why doesn’t God? How can we say God is both good, and powerful.

One of the ways some theologians have responded to this question is to advance the idea of “middle knowledge.” The name comes from the idea that this is knowledge that is in the middle of, or between God’s natural and free knowledge. God’s natural knowledge is both necessary and independent of God’s free will, that is what God knows by his nature. God’s free knowledge has to do with his choices in creating and is contingent and dependent upon God’s free will. Middle knowledge is between these two in that it is both contingent, having to do with what God would do if various states would obtain, but also independent of God’s free will in being “pre-volitional.” What this means is that God is able to pre-know the various counterfactuals of human freedom and choose to act in creation in ways that effect his will through the actions of creatures who act freely.

This work by John D. Laing unpacks this theological approach, also called Molinism after Luis de Molina, the Jesuit theologian who first propounded these ideas, and defends it against both Calvinist and Arminian objections (which he often associates with Open Theism, an association that some may challenge). He begins with introducing different models of providence (process theology, open theism, Calvinism, theological fatalism, and middle knowlege) and the assumptions these make about God’s omnipotence and omniscience and about human freedom. He then explicates the doctrine of middle knowledge and the ideas of counterfactuals and probable worlds so critical to this approach.

He then addresses three problems that are raised with the opponents, the conditional excluded middle problem, that Molinism leads to determinism, and what Laing believes the key objection, which is the grounding objection–that there is no ground or guarantee of the truth of counterfactuals of freedom in either God or the person. In a separate chapter he also deals with the circularity objection.

Following this, Laing applies the doctrine of middle knowledge to our understanding of other Christian doctrines: divine foreknowledge and creaturely free will, predestination and salvation, including discussions of atonement and the relationship of regeneration and faith, the problem of evil, inerrancy and inspiration (particularly as this bears on the idea of verbal plenary inspiration and the freedom of the writers of scripture), and questions of science and theology including questions about God’s involvement in physical processes and how an intelligent designer might be at work through mutations and how one might account for creaturely flaws. What Laing seeks to do in each chapter is to show how middle knowledge is the best construct providing explanations of the ways of God in the life of his creatures.

Two final chapters consider the biblical support for middle knowledge over and against Open Theism and Calvinism, and the ways middle knowledge provides existentially satisfying answers to a number of aspects of Christian living: unfulfilled prophecy, petitionary prayer, evangelism, discipleship, having a God worthy of worship, dealing with end of life issues, and the end of all things.

Laing, who also wrote the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Middle Knowledge, is one of the leading proponents of this theological approach. He engages carefully with critics, notably Open Theist William Hasker. He both answers objections and advances arguments for the explanatory power of the Molinist approach, while being honest about places, like the problem of the Holocaust, where all explanations struggle. This may be one of the best single author works on Molinism, or middle knowledge apart from the writings of Molina himself. Laing does careful philosophical work in this book, so be prepared for some heavy lifting in understanding counterfactuals, possible worlds, and the like.

I’m not sure at the end of the day whether I am convinced. I’m always a bit suspicious that explanations that reconcile God’s sovereignty and human freedom give away too much of one or the other or both. Perhaps I’m a bit more comfortable leaving the apparent contradiction between these two unexplained and unreconciled. But Laing has given me a good deal to think about, particularly in his discussions of inerrancy and inspiration, and his discussion of science. I certainly understand the idea of middle knowledge and the claims of its proponents far better because of this work. Definitely worth digging into if you care about questions of human freedom and divine sovereignty.

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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: Theologies of the American Revivalists

theologies of the american revivalists

Theologies of the American Revivalists, Robert W. Caldwell III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study, not so much of the history, as the theologies underlying the different revival movements in America from 1740 to 1840.

There have been various studies of the histories of particular revival movements in American religious history. What Robert W. Caldwell offers in this work is a comparative study of the theologies of the different revivalists. Undergirding the preaching and methodologies of these revivalists lay considerable thought about the theology of the human will and the sovereignty of God, on how widely the salvation of Christ extended, on the length of the conversion process and a tension between systematic theology and plain reading of scripture.

In seven chapters, Caldwell outlines the theologies of various key figures representing different schools of thought, or religious bodies. These include:

  • Moderate evangelical revival theology. This stream of Puritan Calvinism included George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and notably, Jonathan Edwards. Preaching focused on the law, bringing people under conviction of sin, pursuing “means of grace” as one sought conversion, and finally the consolation of assurance. This process was often emotionally intense and protracted.
  • Free grace revival theology. Andrew Croswell and other radical evangelicals rejected the use of “means of grace” and lengthy conversion processes. They emphasized responses of faith to the Christ who loves, and whose salvation was for the world, by “right.” Conversions were intense, certain, leaving no room for doubt, and quick.
  • Edwardsean Calvinist revival theology. Successors of Jonathan Edwards focused on Edwards idea that people have a natural ability to embrace the gospel, even if morally disinclined to do so. This had ramifications for the understanding of original sin, atonement, and, justification. Conversions continued to be lengthy events, culminating in a “disinterested” spirituality that accepted and even could worship God for his just judgment of oneself as a sinner, leading to the apprehension of God’s grace.
  • Methodist Arminian theology emphasized the love of God, the offer of salvation to all, and the freedom of the will to believe. Conversions were both emotional events and quick, with teaching that encouraged progress to Christian perfection.
  • Early American Baptists. They did not have a single revival theology but different leaders adopted one of the above approaches.
  • Taylorism, or New Haven theology. Nathaniel William Taylor further emphasized both the sinners ability to repent, and the ways in which the means of grace might eradicate selfishness in the sinner even prior to regeneration.
  • Charles Finney’s revival theology. Finney built on Taylor, emphasizing the sinner’s ability to respond to the command to repent and elaborating the means of grace systematically in what became called the “new measures.” Finney asserted that three processes were at work in the conversion process: the work of the Spirit, the work of the minister, and the work of the convert.

Caldwell also discusses two critical responses to these revivalist theologies. The first was that of the Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who believed these revival theologies deviated from classic Calvinism in the direction of Pelagianism. They emphasized the quieter means of the influence of the Christian family. The second was the restoration movement led by Stone and Campbell that eschewed theological systems for the plain teaching of the Bible and the actions of belief, repentance, and baptism affirmed in scripture as resulting in regeneration.

I thought Caldwell’s exposition quite clear as to each of the theologies coupled the key figures, their ideas, and the theological implications of those ideas. Each chapter provides a summary of salient points that allows for good review of the chapter. I wondered about the focus on the conversion theologies associated with the revivalists. While this was a significant aspect of revivals, equally significant was the awakening of those who had already believed to spiritual vitality. Apart from the focus on Wesleyan perfection, this aspect was not addressed. Richard Lovelace’s classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life gives a much fuller account of the renewal of the church in revival.

I appreciated Caldwell’s closing comments on the importance of revival theology in the church today:

“A robust revival theology, one that intimately unites head and heart, Scripture, proclamation, and life, would certainly help galvanize preaching, capture the religious imagination of the lost, and aid in imparting a theological vision that draws sinners to life and raises up God-glorifying disciples” (p. 229).

Caldwell’s work offers a rich account of how those who have gone before us have conceived of these things, as well as pointing us to primary sources for further study. He helps us see that, beyond the emotion and the changed lives of the successive waves of revivals, there were prayerful and thoughtful human agents whose understanding of the ways of God in salvation shaped and energized their preaching and pastoral ministry.

Review: Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son, Haley Goranson Jacob (Foreword by N. T. Wright). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: An in-depth exploration of the meaning of Romans 8:29b-30, arguing that conformity to the image of the His Son has to do with our participation in the Son’s rule over creation, which is our glorification.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:29-30, English Standard Version

Generations of believers have thrilled to the language of this passage in Romans 8 and its description of the glorious destiny of believers to be conformed to the image of Christ the Son. But what does that all mean? This was the question Haley Goranson Jacob asked, and the answers she found in commentators, when they did address the language of “conformed to the image of his Son” and “glorified,” was all over the map. That question became Jacob’s dissertation study, and subsequently this book.

Jacob contends that instead of some form of spiritual, moral, physical or sacrificial conformity or a reference to a shared radiance with Christ’s glory, this verse points to our participation in the exalted calling of Christ as the last Adam and glorious king to rule with him over the creation as his vicegerents. And she argues that this is what it means for us to be glorified–to share in the Son’s glorious rule over creation.

Jacob makes a careful case for her thesis. She begins by a study of the background of the use of cognates for “glory” in the Septuagint and Apocalyptic literature, applying semiotic theory, and concludes that while there are varied usages, the most common, whether applied to humans or God is not radiance or splendor, but rather on exalted status or honor. She turns to Romans, noting echoes of Genesis 1:26-27 and Psalm 8, in the glory of the Son, the lost glory of humanity’s dominion over creation, and its restoration through the work of Christ. To strengthen the link between Christ the Son and humanity, she looks at the language of participation in Paul’s writing and contends that it is participation in the vocation of Christ, both in suffering and in exaltation over all creation.

Having laid this groundwork, she turns to Romans 8:29b-30. First she looks at the language of Sonship, and the echoes of the promised Davidic King and the last Adam. He is the firstborn, the first raised from the dead of a large family who rules over the creation he has redeemed. Believers participate as adopted sons in this rule and share in his glory–are glorified. One of the distinctives in Jacob’s argument is that she argues for the truth of this in the present and that we already participate in the Son’s work of redeeming a groaning creation, that this is the purpose Paul speaks of in Romans 8:28, that we participate in the working for good of all things.

The prospective reader should be warned that this is scholarly work, the turning of a doctoral thesis into a book, and that there is extensive use of Greek, and some Hebrew in the text. Nevertheless, Jacob’s writing is clear and her argument is set forth step by step for the reader to follow. Her intent is not mere scholarship, but scholarship in service to the church and the edification of believers.

Jacob’s point is not to deny the reality of moral transformation in Christ but to set it in the context of a larger vocation–to participate with the family of the redeemed in the rule of Christ over all creation, both now and in the new heaven and earth. This work challenges us to lift our eyes from our own spiritual progress, to the exalted Son, and the work he calls us to join him in. This is a calling to become who we were created, and then redeemed to be–image bearers who with mercy and love, care for the very good creation. The implication of this understanding extends meaning to all of our work, and has implications for the groaning creation in environmental crisis. To realize that all this comes through the foresight and wisdom of the exalted Father ought swell our hearts with renewed love and deepened affection toward the Father, Son, and Spirit whom we worship with wonder at the incredibly rich life we’ve been called to share.

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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: Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal

evangelical sacramental pentecostal

Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for why the church at its best ought to embrace an emphasis on scripture, on baptism and the Lord’s table, and on the empowering work of the Spirit.

Don’t you hate it when a set of choices are presented to you as mutually exclusive options, when all are good and possible together? For example, apple pie or ice cream, or more seriously, being pro-life or pro-creation care. Gordon Smith contends that this is often the case with the three emphases of his title. Often, churches are either evangelical, that is scripture or Word-centered, or sacramental, emphasizing baptism and the Lord’s table, or pentecostal, focusing on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in worship, witness, and growth in Christ-likeness. Smith asks, and then asserts, why shouldn’t the church be all three?

Smith begins his discussion with John 15:4, exploring what it means to abide in Christ as Christ abides in us, and how this is fulfilled in the grace of the Word written which witnesses to the Word Incarnate, in water, bread and cup that includes and nourishes us in Christ, and the Holy Spirit through whom Christ indwells us. He then traces the outworking of all this in Luke and Acts. He goes on to explore in the work of John Calvin and John Wesley, how the grace of God comes to us in all three of these ways. He then focuses a chapter on each of these “means of grace,” both elaborating how each has been expressed distinctively in the life of the church, and how they function in tandem with the other two.

  • The evangelical principle is rooted in the truth that God speaks in creation, in his Son, through the apostles and prophets, through their message inscripturated, and through those who proclaim the word in witness and instruction. Word and sacrament complement each other as those who hear and believe are incorporated into the church through baptism, and those who are taught of Christ are then nourished on Him at table. Likewise, the Spirit illumines our reading, our study, preaching and hearing of scripture, so that the Word becomes alive, convicts, and warms our hearts.
  • The sacramental principle reflect the material, enfleshed nature of creation, the Incarnate Son, and the visible body of the church. Visible symbols of water, wine, and bread are Christ-ordained gestures that speak of our inclusion in and ongoing fellowship (communion) with Christ. They visually demonstrate the message of the gospel but also have no significance apart from the words of institution. Likewise, these acts are not our acts but are “in the Spirit” and depend on the Spirit’s work to accomplish in us what they signify.
  • The pentecost principle reflects the immediacy of our experience of God through the Spirit, where the realities of scripture and sacrament are experienced. Smith talks about the two “sendings” of scripture and advocates that we need to experience both the redemptive work of Christ and the indwelling and empowering work of the Spirit through whom the fruits of Christ-likeness, as well as power for witness are fulfilled.

While I fully affirm Smith’s argument, I hope readers will not be put off by the three key words of the title. “Evangelical,” “sacramental,” and “pentecostal” all have negative connotations, that reflect abuses and failures of the church, but are not inherent in the principles these words represent. I think few would object to the idea that people are called to Christ and conformed to his image through the ministry of the Word, that they are included and nourished in Christ through baptism and the table, and that they are empowered for growth and mission through the Spirit. Smith puts it this way in his conclusion as he describes the new Christian:

“This new Christian would very much be a person of the Scriptures–knowing how to study, read, and pray the Scriptures and how to participate in a community that is formed by the preaching of the Word.

The new Christian would recognize the vital place of the Lord’s Supper, within Christian community, as an essential means by which the Christian meets God, walks with God, grows in faith, and lives in Christian community.

And, of course, the new Christian would know what it means to live in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, and bear the fruit of the Spirit.

In other words, the Christian would be evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal. And the evidence of such would be that they live with a deep and resilient joy, the fruit of a life lived in dynamic union with the ascended Christ.”

Would we want any less, or other for new (or all) Christians? We do well, I think, to weigh the argument Gordon Smith makes, and consider where, in each of our churches, we may more fully lay hold of all Christ has for us. And it just may be that in so doing, we may more closely approximate the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” reality we profess in our creeds.

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.