One of my favorite bands is Porcupine Tree. Yes, that’s right, Porcupine Tree. The conceptual and sonic architect of the band is artist and producer Steven Wilson. These days, he is more focused on putting out solo albums, but they more or less still sound like Porcupine Tree so it’s all good. The above video contains a playlist to stream his most recent album Hand. Cannot. Erase. Below is the live version of the opening track from his previous album The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). If you’re curious about Porcupine Tree, try In Absentia, Deadwing, and The Incident.
You might not know this, but I watch quite a few YouTube videos. You might have picked up on this recently with the addition of Music Monday and Philosophy Friday which are primarily video based. Now, I’m going to start sharing my favorite three interesting/humorous videos from the week on Saturdays. This week, it’s the highlight reel of the Chicago Bull’s mascot Benny, the World’s Tallest Roller Coaster, currently under construction here in Orlando, and a compilation of what I hope are the worst of the worst when it comes to Russian dashcam crashes.
This video offers a good overview of Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. If you haven’t read it, you might be surprised at how theological the capitalist work ethic is according to Weber. You might also be surprised at how he sees Calvinistic theology motivating the desire to work.
While the video is a good overview of Weber, he was wrong, both on Calvin and on the connection between capitalism and Calvinism. A better resource for the connection between the isms is Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economics. Calvinism correctly understood and applied is good for the economy, but you’ll have to read the book for yourself to see the whole picture.
For the last three years, theologians have gathered in California for the Los Angeles Theology conference. This past year the focal point was the atonement. The first year, it was Christology. Last year it was the Trinity, and thanks to Zondervan, I’ve the published copy of the papers presented.
The opening chapter is by one of the editors/organizers Fred Sanders. He explains what Trinitarian theology is for, and how it interfaces with the Christian life. Because I know you’re curious, here’s what Sanders sees the doctrine of the Trinity doing:
- It summarizes the biblical story
- It articulates the content of divine self-revelation by specifying what has been revealed
- It orders doctrinal discourse
- It identifies God by the gospel
- It informs and norms soteriology
Sanders essays is follow by a more philosophical one by Thomas McCall that zeroes in on the doctrine of divine simplicity (known by the cool kids as DDS). This particular doctrine has fallen on hard times in recent years and McCall explores options for articulating the doctrine. He ultimately suggests the case against the doctrine hasn’t been proved decisively (59), but is open to reviewing and revising the doctrine in light of contemporary challenges.
The next three essays did not particularly grab my attention. I’m willing to say the fault is mine and not a design of the authors. Respectively, the essays are on the inseparable operations of the persons of the Trinity (Stephen R. Holmes, whose book was more riveting), an apophatic approach to political applications of the doctrine of the Trinity (Karen Kilby), and thinking more deeply about the nature of the mystery of the Trinity (Lewis Ayres).
The next essay revived my interest, both in the book and the subject. R. Kendall Soulen writes about the divine name, and particularly how Scriptures names the persons of God. He is inadvertently triperspetival when he offers his categories (116):
- Kinship terms – Father, Son (existential)
- Common nouns from everyday life – Word, Image, etc. (situational)
- The Tetragrammaton (normative)
We do well to keep all in mind says Soulen, and after reading this, I’m looking forward to getting a hold of his book on the subject.
The next essay is a discussion of obedience and subordination in Karl Barth’s theology (by Darren O. Sumner). It seems like a fairly significant study, but since I’m still getting my feet wet with Barth, I can’t really comment further. I mentally bookmarked the chapter and may return once I’ve waded through Hunsinger and some other works.
The longest essay comes next and is Kyle Strobel’s look at Jonathan Edwards’s (of course) Trinitarian aesthetic. I’m not sure I fully absorbed everything the first read through so I plan to return at a later time. His main point is that “Edwards’s conception of beauty is fruitful to ground the task of trinitarian theology as a distinctively affective discipline” (147). Or, “Edwards’s trinitarian aesthetics grounds theology as a contemplative discipline, ordered by the God of beauty, for the purpose of beauty.” The rest of the chapter develops and support this claim.
Much like chapters 3-5, I wasn’t incredibly drawn into the discussion in the final chapter. But, if you’re interested the interface of the doctrine of the Trinity and current discussions in missiology, you might find it of more interest (and though this chapter wasn’t attention grabbing for me, some of Jason Sexton’s other work is).
On the whole, this is not a very extensive read, but it’s a worthwhile one. I’m looking forward to the next batch of essays from this year’s conference and will probably procure a copy of the inaugural year’s volume. Everything is more or less stand-alone, but fits together to offer kaleidescopic views of the place of a significant doctrine in current scholarship. Whether you’re interested in constructive dogmatics in general or the doctrine of the Trinity in particular, you ought to check this volume out!
Oliver D. Crisp & Fred Sanders, eds, Advancing Trinitarian Theology: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, November, 2014. 208 pp. Paperback, $22.99.
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy!
Early in his work, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts, Adonis Vidu notes, “While some excellent monographs have been written, few writers have embraced the task of writing a history of atonement theories” (xiii). In what follows, he doesn’t offer an exhaustive history, but does give a superb overview of the flow of thought. Vidu suggests, “the history of atonement thinking could be read as an ongoing conversation with the history of thinking about justice and the law” (xiv). As such, he attempts “to tell the story of atonement thinking by connecting it to the development of law-and-justice theories” (xiv).
He goes on to say, “the uniqueness of this book, then, is that it offers an interdisciplinary reading of the development of atonement theory from the perspective of its engagement with intellectual discourses relating to law and justice” (xv). Ultimately, “all atonement theories want to affirm that God preserves his justice in the process of redemption.” In that unity however, is the diversity of different conceptions of of justice as well as different philosophies of law. Vidu proposes to add some clarity to the current discussion by tracing the development of thought through church history.
In doing this, it becomes apparent that “conflicts over the meaning of the cross are in fact conflicts about the very nature and moral character of God” (xvi). Integral to understanding the character of God is understanding the divine attributes, and in particular the attribute of divine simplicity. Vidu explains:
In short, I will be appealing to the doctrine of divine simplicity and to the extraordinary import it has on the doctrine of the atonement. Thus the constructive dimension of this project consists in pointing out that understanding the “perfections of divine agency,” or divine simplicity, strictly qualifies the way in which we may ascribe actions to God. In relation to my own sympathies for penal substitution, divine simplicity rules out certain caricatures of this doctrine, both friendly and unfriendly (xvi).
In the overview that follows, Vidu divides the history of christian thought into five periods:
- Patristic (chapter 1)
- Medieval (chapter 2)
- Reformation (chapter 3)
- Modern (chapter 4)
- Postmodern (chapter 5)
In each chapter/period, Vidu selects key theologians that represent the thought of that period. While some may lament this approach, it makes the whole thing more manageable. Also, within each period, Vidu doesn’t seek to do constructive theology or provide biblical justification for each theory (xvii). Instead, his main focus is how the authors from each period interact with their legal context or prevailing philosophy of law. Because of that, this is much a survey of the thought on atonement as it is a survey of the development of legal philosophy.
Because of that, it is a rather dense read. This is a combination of the topic studied and the length of the chapters. But, as with many things, diligence in wrestling through Vidu’s work is rewarded. In particular, taking the time to work through the survey chapters prepares one best for his constructive conclusion in chapter 6 which focuses specifically on the relationship of divine simplicity and the atonement.
In the final chapter, Vidu notes several conclusions from his study (235-236):
- Politics and law deeply affected the historical development of the atonement
- Illuminating this connection leads to better recognizing the relationship between atonement and ethics
- Systems of justice and political configurations rest on explicitly theological assumptions
- The history of debate around atonement theory is really a debate about the nature of God
Flowing directly from this last point is the need to discuss in more detail how divine simplicity relates to the atonement. While on the surface it may seem that justice and love are the most pivotal attributes for understanding the atonement (239), understanding the atonement is attempting to understand how God acts, and God acts as a simple agent. Vidu explains:
To put it simply: God is not an agent like any other agent. In other words, God does not “do things” the way you and I do things. He has a unique relation to his actions. His actions spring uniquely from his nature. Finally, his actions have a unity about them not shared with other human actions. Often, however, when atonement theologians have sought to describe and explain the cross, they have made anthropomorphic assumptions about divine agency. The result has been idolatrous in ascribing to God certain qualities of human actors (240).
From here, Vidu goes on to unpack a fairly traditional understanding of divine simplicity and then relate it to our understanding of God’s action in atonement. He defines divine simplicity as in relation to aseity and notes “the doctrine holds that, unlike human beings, divine attributes are not components of his being, but rather God is identical with all of his attributes” (241). Ultimately, “simplicity is an implication of the absolute aseity and sovereignty of God” (246). He then deals reasonably with some detractors to the doctrine before revisioning simplicity with three points (252-254):
- Simplicity is grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity
- Simplicity is a second-order doctrine (i.e. a way of holding attributes together)
- Simplicity does not have to be conceived in terms of pure act
He then begins his closing section by saying, “The thesis of this book is that in general we ascribe responsibility and describe actions in part on the basis of considerations about an agent’s character, his or her assumed intentions and possible reasons, power, and so on” (255). He then notes, “God is does not act in the same way we do. His agency and his actions are unique.” He then draws out some consequences for the doctrine of atonement given the simplicity of God:
- God never enacts certain traits more than others (257)
- We are not able to distinguish between parts and components of divine action in the same way as we do for human actions (258)
- God is not moved from wrath to mercy (262)
- The crucifixion cannot be separated from and given priority over the resurrection (263)
There is certainly much to wrestle with here. I’m not sure I’ve fully digested and appropriate Vidu’s insights, but the last chapter was certainly worth the price of the book in my view. I found this a hard book to work through in the early chapters but I was fairly captivated in the final chapter. This perhaps because I’m more naturally interested in discussions of divine attributes, particularly the more difficult and philosophical ones. A virtue then of this book is that it takes what may seem to be a merely philosophical discussion (“Is God simple, and what does that mean?”) and show how it relates to the atonement, which is hardly a mere philosophical discussion.
Because of that connection, I’d highly recommend this book for readers interested in the attributes of God and atonement theories. It is heavy slogging in the earlier historical chapters, but it helps provide a context for the constructive conclusions in the final chapter. I’ll be interested to see how this book affects future discussions when it comes to God’s action in Christ in the atonement. I’ll also continue to digest and return to Vidu’s work in my own labors to better grasp the nature of the atonement.
Adonis Vidu, Atonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Contexts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, August 2014. 304 pp. Paperback, $24.99.
Buy it: Amazon
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!
One thing that struck me after reading Tim Keller’s book on prayer was how much importance he placed on meditation. Not just meditation in the abstract, or even the secular benefits of it, but the practice of meditating specifically on Scripture as a prelude to prayer. He spent a good portion on the topic, but I could have used more, or at least a wider look at the subject.
Thankfully, David Saxton has supplied that study. In his God’s Battle Plan For The Mind, readers are offered one part historical theology and one practical theology. The goal, as Saxton explains, is
to convince God’s people of the absolute necessity of personal meditation. This book will motivate the believer to begin this work; teach practically how to meditate on divine truth; and guide in right patterns of thinking throughout the day. (2)
He then clarifies that while he is unpacking the Purtian practice, they are but a secondary source to the biblical teaching on the subject. The rest of the opening chapter explains the importance of recovering this habit in our Christian lives. Without meditation, we are ultimately taking in truth like someone who eats without chewing. Unless we take the time to meditate on what we read and listen to from God’s word, we won’t properly digest and apply the truth to our hearts.
In chapter 2, Saxton tackles unbiblical forms of meditation. He is primarily seeking to distinguish the biblical practice from Roman Catholic contemplative forms on the one hand and mystical Eastern religious practices on the other. Having done that, we then offers a positive definition of biblical meditation in chapter 3. It is essentially a spiritual activity of heart and mind which centers on dwelling on and delighting in God’s word (26).
Chapter 3 transitions briefly into the Puritan practice, but it chapters 4 and 5 that do the primary unpacking. In the first, Saxton uses Puritan writings to explain “occasional meditation” which can occur any time and anywhere. This kind of sporadic practice is subordinate to the more important “deliberate meditation” which is the focus of chapter 5. This is more in line with what Keller discusses and takes place at a specific place and time that one deliberately plans out. Ideally, in Puritan thought, this is part of one’s morning ritual to start the day. Or, in evangelicalese, it would be part of one’s morning quiet time.
This is dealt with in more detail in chapter 6 which gets down to the brass tacks of practicing meditation. The steps for effectively beginning this are (59-64):
- Praying for the Spirit’s help for fervency
- Choosing a Scriptural thought by Bible reading
- Questioning, considering, and examining oneself
- Concluding with personal application, resolution, and prayer
In chapters 7 and 8, Saxton discusses importance times for meditation as well as subjects for meditation. The latter primarily includes the examples of sin (in order to overcome it) and God (in order to find grace and help). Chapters 9, 10, and 11 give reasons, benefits, and enemies of meditation respectively. Reasons for meditation include (95-103):
- The Christian’s work and duty is to think upon God with praise
- Meditation follows the example of Christ and other godly people
- Meditation is God’s own command given for a believer’s good
- Meditation is necessary for a believer to know God’s Word well
- Meditation assists believers in the duty of prayer and all other means of grace
- Meditation applies the Scripture to redeeming the time with one’s mind
- Without meditation, one cannot become a godly, stable Christian
- Christians meditate because God’s Word is a love letter to his people
Benefits of meditation include deepening of repentance, increased resolve to fight sin, and inflamed heart affections for God among other reasons. As for the enemies, Saxton does a fine job of detailing the typical excuses/reasons Christians might have for not pursuing meditation, as well as reasons working against us that we might not be consciously aware of. I’ll let you read for yourself to see what those are. The final formal chapter (12) offers further motivation to begin the habit of meditation and the conclusion explores briefly the connection between meditation and growth in godliness.
On the whole, I found this book very helpful. It filled out more of what Keller was saying in his book by focusing on the breadth of Puritan teaching on the subject, as well as just in general giving more detail about the practice of meditation. While some might complain that this book is overly fixated on the Puritans, I would say (a) it is keeping with the aims of the book, and (b) they seem to be the ones who both took the practice most seriously and gave the most detailed instruction and encouragement for actually implementing it into one’s daily life. I personally need to grow tremendously in this area and will look forward to integrating the insights from Saxton’s book in the coming weeks and months. If you’d like to do the same, I’d highly suggest picking up a copy for yourself!
David W. Saxton, God’s Battle Plan For The Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, January 2015. 160 pp. Paperback, $18.00.
Read an excerpt
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Reformation Heritage Books for the review copy!
I’ve interacted briefly with several of Baker Books’ Teach The Text commentary series (Romans, Job, Luke). A couple of additional volumes have been added to the series since then and I’ve been able to get a hold of the one on 1 Corinthians by Preben Vang (NT prof at PBA). We are currently going through 1 Corinthians at our church and this volume has been marginally useful in preparing for that. I’m not currently leading a small group but am providing resources to the small group leaders to better understand the text and field questions that may come up in group discussion. This particular volume does not seem well-suited for that task, but given the title of the series, that’s probably to be expected.
As it stands, this volume is best suited for readers who want a overview of the text more in-depth than the ESV Study Bible notes, and with hints and directions for actually teaching the text in either a sermon or Sunday School form. Toward that end, the book is a success and would serve readers well who don’t have a lot of other resources at hand. In general, that is kind of where this series fits. It is a good homiletical commentary that helps flesh out the big picture of the text more than anything. I don’t consider it a primary resource for digging into 1 Corinthians, but it has come in useful here and there in preparing the material for our small group leaders.
Buy it: Amazon
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Baker Books for the review copy!
Another commentary series that I am much more enthusiastic about is Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. The most recent volume published is by Mark Strauss on the Gospel of Mark. At the Zondervan Academic blog, you can read several helpful posts on it:
- Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’s Story on Steroids
- Narrative Criticism and Mark: Approaching the Gospel as Story
- Mark’s Structure Isn’t What You Think It Is
As with the other volumes (James, Ephesians, Matthew, Galatians, Colossians/Philemon, Thessalonians, Luke, Acts, 1-3 John), this one excels in given the kind of detailed exegetical overview you’d be trained to do in higher level language classes at seminary (or at least at Dallas). I wish I’d had access to this when our church went through Mark several years ago. Even more so, I’d like to have had this available to consult in my second preaching class which had us preaching from Mark and Genesis
I think the particular strength of this book is Strauss’ understanding of the structure of the book (see above post) and how he applies that throughout the commentary proper. Mark’s Gospel presents a tightly structured story and readers and preachers would do well to understand how to follow the flow. Strauss’s work will provide the kind of exegetical and structural guidance to do just that.
Mark Strauss, Mark (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, October 2014. 784 pp. Hardcover, $42.99.
Buy it: Amazon
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy!
There was a lot of buzz about Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist back in the fall and it is still continuing. After reading it for myself, it is a combination of a great writer authoring an engaging narrative about an little known yet pivotal figure in 18th century England. Prior wrote her dissertation on Hannah More and now several years later has produced a popular level biography.
Hannah More was a pivotal figure in social reform in 18th century England. That statement probably doesn’t seem as revolutionary in 21st century America, but at the time it would have been fairly radical for a single woman to accomplish some of what More did. She began as a writer and then eventually an educator and abolitionist connected with William Wilberforce. She was also influential in improving literacy, so much so that it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say she “helped teach her nation to read” (162, also the title of chapter 10). More stands as an example of how to participate in cultural reform that springs from deep Christian convictions and because of that, she is example for good cultural engagement today.
In many ways, this is a book outside of my usual stream of reading. I don’t read many biographies, but I definitely should change that. I’m also not particularly up on my 18-19th century English history and social context. Prior’s book is not only a window into More’s life and development, but this historical and social context as well. As such, I found it an interesting read, but wasn’t as blown away or intrigued as I think many other readers have been. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why and still haven’t really settled on an answer. The book was definitely not boring, I just think because of the amount of hype attached to it, my expectations were too heightened. If I had just stumbled upon it on my own, I might have been more positive in my assessment.
Karen Swallow Prior, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, October 2014. 320 pp. Hardcover, $24.99.
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Thomas Nelson for the review copy!
One of my favorite theologians is Kevin Vanhoozer. Several years back I was able to read and review The Drama of Doctrine. Now, this past fall Vanhoozer released a sequel of sorts to that work. Though aimed at the more popular level, this book still has some substantial theological depth. Readers familiar with Vanhoozer should expect nothing less. Rather than simply boiling down The Drama of Doctrine to brass tacks, Vanhoozer has expanded and furthered ideas from that book in a fresh composition. If you’re familiar with The Drama of Doctrine, you’ll recognize similarities, but this isn’t simply an abridged version of that book.
Instead, Vanhoozer takes up the theatrical metaphor for understanding doctrine and digs deeper into how that affects our understanding of spiritual formation. The first part of the book relates theology and the theater. The second and more meaty part unpacks “how doctrine makes disciples and how disciples do doctrine.” Vanhoozer moves from an overview of contemporary culture to an overview of the drama of redemption. From there he discusses what it means to “put on Christ” within the larger metaphor and then how that impacts our understanding of the local church and ultimately our eschatological hope.
While there is much more to say, this is basically a preview review since I agreed to post a full review at The Biblical Counseling Coalition. It should be available later in the spring. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to simply pick up the book for yourself. If you find the ideas intriguing, you’ll find it well worth your time to explore Vanhoozer’s larger body of work, including the book that preceded this one.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing The Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, September, 2014. 298 pp. Paperback, $30.00.
Buy it: Amazon
Read an excerpt
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for the review copy!
When I was in high school, I not only played the drum set, but I learned how to play the marimba. I don’t think any videos survive. Also, YouTube didn’t exist anyway. But, if it had, and if I wasn’t homeschooled, I might have been involved in something like this:
For comparison, here’s the original of the first song they’re playing:
For more information, read the description of the video in YouTube.