9781596382176

John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. November 2013. 1280 pp. Hardcover, $49.99.

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Back in the fall, P&R Publishing was gracious enough to send me a review copy of John Frame’s latest 1000+ tome. Not only have I been reading, but several guys in the systematic theology read-thru have as well (see my post on Sunday Night school).

In order to give myself time to read through the book, and to interact with a little more depth, I thought I’d do a series review. The idea is that it will run in parallel to the series review of Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology, which also came out last fall (see my intro post, and the first part of the review).

But, Frame’s is much longer, and contains more sections, so here’s what the series posts will look like:

  • Introduction
  • The Biblical Story
  • The Doctrine of God Part 1
  • The Doctrine of God Part 2
  • The Doctrine of the Word of God
  • The Doctrine of The Knowledge of God
  • The Doctrine of Angels and Demons
  • The Doctrine of Man
  • The Doctrine of Christ
  • The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
  • The Doctrine of the Church
  • The Doctrine of the Last Things

Alert readers might notice that several of Frame’s systematic sections share titles with full length books in his Lordship series. Frame knows what you’re thinking and so he just goes ahead and clears things up in the preface:

Certainly these earlier books have been a great help to me in writing this one, and readers of those books will see here a basic continuity of thought and approach. They might even suspect (rightly) that in many places some text has been cut and pasted from those past books. But I have tried to do more than to summarize the big books and to expand chapters of the smaller one [his Salvation Belongs to The Lord]. Rather, I have tried to rethink everything to make it more biblical, clear, and cogent (xxxi)

What I’ve read so far is original material, but looking at the sections on the Word of God and knowledge of God, much of the material is similar, but it is very condensed. This still leaves his section on the doctrine of God at almost 500 pages (the largest of the book). This is compared to the section on angels and demons coming in at under 20 pages (similar incidentally to Horton’s treatment).

Typically, I’d expect that the the areas of systematic theology that an author has extensively treated elsewhere will be stronger than others (very true of Horton’s work). This also appears to be true of Bird who is light on philosophical foundations and epistemology, but heavy on Christology (which he has published several books on). It is hard to say at this point if it is a detrimental defect, but it is certainly a weakness if a one is attempting to systematically treat all the topics (though I realize there is some justification for less space on angels and demons than other doctrines).

In any case, I’ve enjoyed the opening two sections and am looking forward to reading the rest in community and offering up thoughts to you here. It’ll probably take until later this fall to finish, so hopefully you’re willing to commit to the long haul.

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It’s been about 3 years since I started regularly reviewing books on my blog. I’ve read a good many books in that time span. Along the way, I’ve had to make several course corrections and still continue to do so. When it comes down to it though, most of the course corrections can be boiled down in way or another to fighting what I like to call “book lust.”

In some ways book lust is just a byproduct of being a bibliophile, but in other ways, it is a way for lust to run around un-checked in your heart under false pretenses. I think it is fair to say lust is a human problem, not just a guy problem, and for some guys it’s not the Victoria’s Secret catalog that is the big problem, it is the Spring Release catalog from their favorite publisher. 1 And perhaps this is worse since alarms would go off if a good Christian husband signed up to receive the Victoria’s Secret catalog, but we wouldn’t bat an idea if he regularly gets multiple catalogs from book publishers.

At this point, some of you are thinking, “what kind of weirdos is he talking about?” Others are thinking, “What kind of sorcery is this that allows him to read my mind?” If you’re in the former category, you could just skip this post (unless someone you know is afflicted with book lust). If you’re in the latter category, here are 3 ways you can fight against this tendency. I am speaking specifically to people who are book reviewers, but it could apply to anyone who geeks out about books.

Don’t Say Yes To Every Free Book

For book reviewers, you are usually initially limited to blog tours and book reviewer programs. These are often narrow in their availability. In the case of blog tours, you are at the mercy of whatever the particular publisher wants to put a tour together for. For the reviewer programs, it is usually a narrow selection as well, but at least there are multiple options at a time. In both cases though, the limited availability may tempt you to just request whatever you can because, hey, free book!

Don’t do this.

First, you’re setting a up habit (indiscriminate book requesting) that will come back to bite you when you have more options on the table. It might not seem like you’ll get to that point, but if your faithful in your reviewing and your traffic goes up, you’ll probably find yourself in a position to request books from bigger publishers and they’ll actually send them to you.

Second, you’ll end up reading some less than stellar (read: boring/pointless) books. Because of the nature of book reviewer programs and blog tours, you have to read and review that particular book if you want to get another. If you don’t look before you leap (or research before requesting), you’ll end having books to read and interact with that really aren’t worth your time.

Third, if you practice indiscriminate book requesting, you are probably fostering book lust. You are putting yourself into a position to apply your desire for instant gratification to receiving free books that you wouldn’t actually pay for otherwise. If you wouldn’t buy it, don’t request it for free. You’re just after a free book, and that’s how addicts think.

Don’t Request Books Primarily To Build Your Library

When I first got into reviewing books, it was a more tight financial time. I was in my last year of seminary, and there was no book budget (which was a mistake). I could buy books I needed for school, but if there were books I wanted, my options were the library or requesting them for review. After we moved for Florida, the library got smaller (not mine, the seminary I had access to), but my requests got larger. Ali was glad I wasn’t spending money on books, and I was glad I was getting free book and building my personal library.

In doing this, I found book lust will lead you to exploit your connections to get the biggest books you can simply because they are free. The books in the picture above are the first “big” books that I got from a publisher. I requested them because a) I wanted to add them to my library, and b) because I wanted to see if I could get them for free. As you can see, I did get them, but now I had to fulfill my responsibility to review them. 2

Needless to say, requesting books to build a library isn’t actually economically in your favor. To pick just one pictured, Waltke’s OT Theology took a long time to read. The book is only $30. I spent more than $30 worth of my time reading and reviewing it (and I didn’t even read it cover to cover to do the review). Economically, I actually took a loss, but in doing so, I fed my desire for instant “free” book gratification.

Don’t Try To Stay on The Cutting Edge of New Books

A big part of reviewing books is reviewing new books. You can easily lapse into a desire to not only get more and more free books, but can also feel like you have to always have the latest and greatest. Unfortunately, this fosters a kind of latent chronologically snobbery where you are most interested in books just published or soon to be published (since that’s all you can request) and you tend read less and less books that have been around for a while and proven their credibility and value.

Every time you read a brand new book you are taking a risk that it is a waste of time. If the book is 30 years old, you can probably figure out the value before you read it. If it is 30 days old, you’re limited to the blurbs (which are always positive) and you really have no perspective on the lasting value. If your goal is to stay on the cutting edge of the latest and greatest, you’re training yourself to devalue the past and to always be looking for the latest and greatest, which let’s face it, is just textbook unchecked book lust. There is no contentment, there is just the desire for newer, better, and more.

There are probably more ways to fight book lust, but in my own experience, following these steps has proven helpful. Probably during the first year and a half I was reviewing regularly, I was doing the opposite of all 3 of these things.I gradually moved away from each, and hopefully I’ll continue to grow and be able to enjoy reading and reviewing books without unknowingly fostering book lust.

Notes:

  1. There is certainly a connection between the two, and this is not to say a guy who lusts (in a non-sexual) way over the new book releases is doing that instead of lusting over beautiful women. It is to say that leaving lust un-checked in one area of your heart invites it to also proliferate in another.
  2. I treat all requests made on my end as a contract to actually review the book to some extent if it is sent to me. Looking at the books in that picture, I had instantly had a lot of reading on my hands.

51mhKP0nmCLAndrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, October, 2013. 172 pp. Paperback, $20.00

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Andrew Louth is professor emeritus of Patristic and Byzantine studies at Durham University, England. Conveniently, he is also a priest of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh (Moscow Patriarchate), serving the parish of Durham. Basically, in Durham, he is like the N. T. Wright of Eastern Orthodoxy (except with a better beard and more exotic wardrobe).

This book “originated as a series of monthly public lectures delivers in the academic year 2011-2012 at the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Theology (ACEOT) in the Faculty of Theology in the Free University of Amsterdam” where Louth happens to be a visiting professor (and I should note, has a different cover than the one I pictured, but I like this picture better). Because he works smarter and not harder, “the lectures were, from the beginning, intended to be turned into the chapters of a book” (xi). The result still “retains some of the informal tone,” and Louth hopes you will be indulgent (you should).

The opening chapter raises the question of starting point. As Louth had noted at the end of the introduction, “the experience of martyrdom and persecution has been the crucible in which Orthodox Christians have found their faith refined” (xx). Moving  from this, Louth notes that an introduction Eastern Orthodox theology may involve learning dates, facts, and concepts along the way, but “at its heart it is an introduction to a way of life” (3). Appropriately, Louth’s introduction is a “personal” introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy as a way of “thinking and doing, being and praying.”

Chapter 2 then jumps headlong into the question “who is God?” Louth starts with Christ, moves to the Trinity, then to the Spirit, before returning to refine his Trinitarian dogmatics (which naturally includes a discussion of apophatic theology).

Chapter 3 is on the doctrine of creation and the discussion delves into everything from creation ex nihilo, the distinction between God’s essence and energies, sophiology, and angels and demons. It is a wide range of topics, and I found the discussion of sophiology particularly interesting.

Chapter 4 is on Christology. His trajectory starts with the Gospels, and then goes resurrection then cross. He wedges a discussion of the apostolic witness in between, but the bulk of the chapter is a discussion of the early church councils on Christology (which is interesting to get an Eastern Orthodox perspective on).

Chapter 5 is on sin, death, and repentance and presents a non-Augustinian understanding of the root (ancestral sin instead of original sin). Adam and Eve figure prominently, but in Louth’s account, it is not pivotal that they be strictly historical. He notes the controversy about this, but in the Eastern Orthodox account of sin’s transmission, it isn’t necessary to have a historical Adam and Eve. Death is seen as the central plague of human existence rather than sin, and the resurrection triumphs over death chiefly. Also, there is more continuity in Orthodox thought with man’s nature and the animals, so evolution per se doesn’t cause as much cognitive dissonance. Louth neither affirms evolution nor denies Adam as a historical figure, but just points out the Orthodox framework doesn’t consider these points as controversial as an evangelical framework does. Lots of food for thought here, and something I might return to at a later date.

On the heels of this discussion, chapter 6 is on humanity, specifically, humans as created in the image of God. This is a hugely important topic with Eastern Orthodox theology so it is the predominant focal point. The last part of the chapter draws out implications for an Orthodox understanding the church as a community if its individual members are God’s image bearers.

This provides a nice segue for the next two chapters. The first, chapter 7, is on the sacraments as well as the importance of icons. This is one of the longer chapters in the book, yet I was a bit disappointed in all of Louth’s constructive work on icons he doesn’t deal with objections to them, specifically, the how their use in Orthodox worship doesn’t violate the second commandment or diminish the incarnation (the latter being something they hold in very high esteem). I suppose given the nature of his work (being mostly constructive), he didn’t feel obligated to deal with standard evangelical objections. In any event, I understand the whole argument a bit better, though I am still uncomfortable with it (which is why I’m not Eastern Orthodox).

The second, chapter 8, is on liturgy proper. While he does explain the liturgy of the Orthodox service, as well as the liturgical calendar, Louth goes beyond just that and establishes an understanding of time and space in which to make sense of this flow of worship life. Basically he highlights the importance of understanding time as cyclical (though not in denial of its linear nature) and that having a “participatory theology” lends itself to a repeating cycle of church liturgical life.

The final chapter, chapter 9, is as expected, on eschatology. As you might guess, Louth is not a dispensationalist, though pinning him down in an evangelical scheme might be difficult. The discussion of the chapter deals with where the entire world is headed (universal eschatology), where each of us is headed (individual eschatology), and then problems in eschatology (the word “millennium” is not used, but in a pinch, Louth would probably fit a post-mil framework). He briefly discusses purgatory (and denies it), and then ends the chapter pointing out that the hope of universal salvation lingers within Eastern Orthodox, fits much of the theological emphases, and even has major defenders in recent years. And with that, the book is done.

Louth closes out with recommended readings for those who want to dig deeper, and then lists the books he referred to. Though he has been writing in pretty plain and easy to follow English, reading this book was somewhat like visiting a foreign country (I suppose that’s the point). It is at least visiting an entirely different theological culture. We share much in common (especially in Christology and Trinitarian theology), but differ noticeably in other areas (the transmission of sin, the nature of liturgy, the hope for final salvation for all). But just like visiting other cultures broadens your own horizons, familiarizing yourself with a different take on Christian theology broadens your theological horizons.

One thing that stood out to me as I read Louth’s work is how liturgical the whole thing was. By that I mean he quotes from prayers and liturgical readings at length to make many of his points. He is as we might say, “steeped” in the liturgy of his own church. Though an academic, he is clearly also clergy and his pastoral nature comes out in how often he points to common liturgical elements (common to the Orthodox at least) to draw out what he is saying or hammer a point home. In the same way a Reformed theologian might refer to WCF or Heidelberg, Louth refers to the liturgy. It was motivating to me to be able to draw on something similar to that in my own theologizing, but I sadly, do not have anything like that because of where I go to church.

In any event, I found this an interesting and profitable read. It is a good starting point for understanding Orthodox theology and there is plenty of direction at the end for anyone who wants to read further up and further in. If you’re intrigued by Eastern Orthodoxy and would like to learn more from someone who is steeped in its theology and liturgy, this a great book for doing just that.

b95f2af6488511e2918122000a9f0a12_7If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I review a few books here and there. It wasn’t always this way, but at least the mid-point of seminary, it’s been a pretty regular (if not the only) feature of my blogging activities.

For me, it all started because I got interested in the John Piper/N. T. Wright controversy (among others) and also had the opportunity to do a couple of book reviews for class assignments. The result was the first several book reviews I ever published:

This was merely a sometimes feature at this point, but then I found out if you asked publishers for a book, they might send it to you in exchange for an honest review. The first one I contacted and got involved with was Crossway, soon followed by IVP AcademicKregel, and New Growth Press. Later I would get connected with Baker AcademicEerdmansP&R Publishing, and Zondervan and I was off and running.

In another post, I explain a little more about that process in 3 easy steps. Elsewhere, I give much more detail about the actual requesting and reviewing process. As part of an on-going attempt to blog through the ins and outs of book reviewing, I wanted to offer a caution about the initiation process and offer you an opportunity.

First, I think everyone should be adept at doing a book review. Maybe not journal article level critical reviewing, but everyone should be able to read a book, explain concisely what it is about, and then think critically about the contents, offering an evaluation of some sorts. If you’re a blogger, you should do this from time to time whether or not publishers are sending you books.

Much of the draw for me getting into book reviewing was the “freeness” of the books, but I was also keen on sharing books with others. I like to think of myself sometimes as a book consultant. I was doing that on some level for my classmates in seminary since I had a reputation for reading over and above the required amount. I often got asked if I knew of a good book on __________. I usually did (and sometimes more than one), and enjoyed sharing that knowledge.

This of course is textbook maven activity, and if that’s you, you’ll probably enjoy the whole book reviewing process. If that’s not you, you might not want to jump into the deep-end of the book reviewing. Yes getting the free books is nice, but unless you really like sharing about books you’re reading, you might not enjoy the strings attached to those free books.

I found it to be burdensome at times myself, but that was from mistakes I was making that I’ll share with you next Friday. The upshot was that I learned my lesson and can now share it with you. Book reviewing is good skills to have, but doing it a ton isn’t glamorous, and it’s necessarily something you should aspire to unless you’re really committed. I think when it comes down to it, being a “book reviewer” isn’t something that you should want to be a singular activity (or something you put on your resume). For the most part, I’ve been using the process as a placeholder for doctoral work, and when I actually start that, the book reviewing will taper way off.

Anticipating that, I’m taking steps to diminish the amount of review related reading I do, and that also means less reviewing. This probably won’t be noticeable until June or so, and that’s where you come in (this is the opportunity I baited you with a few paragraphs ago). To fulfill my obligations to review certain books, but to also curtail the amount of reviewing come summer, I’ve decided to offer you the opportunity to do the reviewing for me. The idea is that I’ll showcase other reviewers during the month of June (alongside a couple of other scheduled review series posts). I haven’t quite decided on the exact books to send out, but I’m willing to part with several of the free books on my shelf in exchange for you putting together around a 1000 word review. I’ll post the review here, but also link to your site.

If you’re reviewing with a publisher that you haven’t worked with before, this could be your “in” to get started into more reviewing. If this interests you, contact me through the contact form below and we’ll hash it out over e-mail. The only requirements are that a) you actually read the book and submit a review to me by June 1st and b) you are already a blogger and have done a book review or two before.

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J. Merrick & Stephen J. Garrett eds. Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, December, 2013. 336 pp. Paperback, $19.99

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Rather than simply give a review of this book in a single post, I’ve decided to do a series review:

Today is kind of an overview, introductory post of sorts. Inerrancy is quite the hot topic, and the release of this book coincided with the topic being the theme of this year’s national ETS meeting. There was a panel discussion by the contributors to this book and you can download that online if you are interested.

In the introduction to this book, editors Merrick and Garrett lay the foundation of inerrancy’s role as a doctrine. Their specific concern is to locate it in relation to other doctrines. As they explain,

We wonder if there are some unintended consequences to misplacing the doctrine of inerrancy, that is, extracting it from its context of teaching about Holy Scripture and locating it at the beginning of a doctrinal statement. Placing inerrancy at the fount of doctrine can suggest things about the nature of doctrine itself. It can indicate that doctrines are merely facts or theories. Doctrine of course accords with reality, but it is not a mere fact. (13)

They then locate inerrancy as part of a doctrine of Scripture, and part of a larger doctrine of revelation. They then explain that “one of the aims of this book is to restore focus on these doctrinal issues so that debates about inerrancy enrich evangelical theology and faith, facilitating deeper understanding” (21). With this focus, contributors were asked to treat four topics (22):

  • God and his relationship to his creatures
  • The doctrine of inspiration
  • The nature of Scripture
  • The nature of truth

Contributors were also asked to develop their position on these issues in reference to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). They were also asked to submit 3 texts that they believed constituted a challenge to inerrancy. The texts needed to be drawn from 3 categories:

  • Those dealing with the factuality of Scripture
  • Those dealing with canonical coherence
  • Those dealing with theological coherence

The resulting texts are Joshua 6, Acts 9:7 vs. Acts 22:9, and Deuteronomy 20 in relation to Matthew 5. For the contributors, the editors selected two systematic theologians (John Franke and Kevin Vanhoozer), two biblical scholars (Michael Bird and Peter Enns), and one historical theologian (Albert Mohler). When their contributions came in and were reviewed, the resulting outline was created:

  • Perspectives on Inerrancy and The Past (Mohler and Enns)
  • Inerrancy in International Perspective (Bird)
  • Perspectives on Renewing and Recasting Inerrancy For Today (Vanhoozer and Franke)

On Twitter, I quipped that you could review the book as follows:

This of course was after reading Mohler’s essay and the responses, but I think it will hold as we work through.

Taken together, the contributions create a project that the editors think “must be regarded as a first step towared disentangling inerrancy as the primary link to evangelical identity” (24). Their hope is that “this will generate new conversations about inerrancy that consider previous questions as well as new ones, enriching the lives and faith of evangelicals” (25). Finally, the conclude:

This book is not an end in itself but a means to an end, that end being a charitable, fruitful conversation designed to enrich the life and faith of evangelicals. Our hope is that its readers will gain a sense for the theological and hermeneutical decisions on which fresh conversations need to take place, for the health and vitality of evangelical faith. (25)

We’ll see whether they move in that direction or not as we work our way through. The plan is post once a month until I’ve covered all the contributors. Next up then, look for the post on Mohler’s account of inerrancy and the pushback on February 13th.

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I recently finished reading Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien. It is an excellent book if you like Tolkien and are interested in his ideas. Even if you are not, it is still excellent. As the framework for his book, Kreeft highlights 11 areas of philosophy and 50 questions that Lord of The Rings deals with. Though he notes that this list is far from a complete introduction, it is nonetheless a “representative sample of the most important of them [the questions to be asked],” and specifically, “the ones that make the greatest difference in our lives” (27). So, if you could highlight 50 questions to spend the rest of your life answering, here they are (and you can read Kreeft’s book to see how Tolkien, and Lewis would answer them):

Metaphysics

  • How big is reality?
  • Is the supernatural real?
  • Are Platonic Ideas real?

Philosophical Theology

  • Does God exist?
  • Is life subject to divine providence?
  • Are we both fated and free?
  • Can we relate to God by “religion”?

Angelology

  • Are angels real?
  • Do we have guardian angels?
  • Could there be creatures between men and angels, such as Elves?

Cosmology

  • Is nature really beautiful?
  • Do things have personalities?
  • Is there real magic?

Anthropology

  • Is death good or bad?
  • Is romance more thrilling than sex?
  • Why do humans have identity crises?
  • What do we most deeply desire?

Epistemology

  • Is knowledge always good?
  • Is intuition a form of knowledge?
  • Is faith (trust) wisdom or ignorance?
  • What is truth?

Philosophy of History

  • Is history a story?
  • Is the past (tradition) a prison or a lighthouse?
  • Is history predictable?
  • Is there devolution as well as evolution?
  • Is human life a tragedy or a comedy?

Aesthetics

  • Why do we no longer lover glory or splendor?
  • Is beauty always good?

Philosophy of Language

  • How can words be alive?
  • The metaphysics of words: Can words have real power?
  • Are there right and wrong words?
  • Is there an original, universal, natural language?
  • Why is music so powerful?

Political Philosophy

  • Is small beautiful?
  • Can war be noble?

Ethics: The War of Good and Evil

  • Is evil real?
  • How powerful is evil?
  • How weak is evil?
  • How does evil work?

Ethics: The “Hard” Virtues

  • Do principles or consequences make an act good?
  • Why must we be heroes?
  • Can one go on without hope?
  • Is authority oppressive and obedience demeaning?
  • Are promises sacred?

Ethics: The “Soft” Virtues

  • What is the power of friendship?
  • Is humility humiliating?
  • What should you give away?
  • Does mercy trump justice?
  • Is charity a waste?

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Myron B. Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern ContextGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, June, 2013. 192 pp. Paperback, $19.99

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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!

Myron Penner is an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Edmonton, Alberta. 1 He has previously taught at Prairie College and Graduate School as well as editing Christianity and The Postmodern Turn: Six Views. 2

Overview

In the End of Apologetics, Penner is writing in order to effect a paradigm shift in how we approach apologetics. Rather than strictly calling for an end to apologetics across the board, he is hoping for an end to a certain approach to apologetics that (to him) doesn’t seem to work in the postmodern context we find ourselves in.

In the conclusion to his introduction, Penner says,

I am writing this book from the vantage point of a member of the Christian community – the church – and I write it for my own edification as well as that of the church catholic. This is therapy as well as theory. I trust it will be obvious that, while I am engaging in a polemic against a certain form of Christian apologetic discourse, my ultimate goal is to open a pathway for faithful witness, not to close down its possibility. As Jacques Derrida noted that his deconstructive project was a labor of love, so too this book is written to build up, not (just) tear down. My hope is the exhortative function of this book will speak also to those who profess no faith – a word of woe to (some of) those within the church, and a word of witness to those outside it (19).

As readers will see in the first chapter, the particular form of Christian apologetics is so-called “classical apologetics” and the figure who is the point of departure is William Lane Craig. Since Penner has accepted much of the postmodern critique of the modern epistemological framework, he doesn’t want to see Christian apologetics held captive to this way of thinking:

The degree to which contemporary apologetics (and apologists) share this aim of modern thought and attempt to make Christian beliefs rationally warranted (or justified) according to the modern project in terms of OUNCE ["objective-universal-neutral-complex" Penner's shorthand for the modern philosophical paradigm], is the same degree to which they are a version of secular apologetics. I use the term “secular apologetics” for this kind of project because this sort of apologetics does not need to appeal to a higher transcendent ground for Christian truths and instead justifies them exclusively in immanent human reason. This is, in other words, exactly the kind of reason-giving practice one would expect to find in the modern secular condition (36).

Penner goes on to explain in the second chapter that he thinks this approach to apologetics “subtly undermines the very gospel it seeks to defend and does not offer use a good alternative to the skepticism and ultimate meaninglessness of the modern secular condition” (49). It is here in this chapter that Kierkegaard starts making regular appearances as a conversation partner. Particularly here he is invoked to clarify the distinction between a genius and an apostle (the former being bad, the latter of course being good). We are tempted by the modern philosophical paradigm to approach the apologetic enterprise as “geniuses” with all the answers, instead of being apostles who are sent with a message and are merely the messenger. Along this line of thinking, Penner suggests that “Christianity, then, is much more a way or an invitation to live (walk, grow) in the truth than it is a doctrine or set of beliefs (a position) whose truth we can grasp and cognitively master, as the modern apologetic paradigm seems to imply” (66). As he then concludes, “I am against the apologetic culture of experts that is funded by the modern secular condition, with its assumption that genius is the highest authority for belief and the reasonability of a belief – and my ability to demonstrate it – is the only thing that makes something worthy of my acceptance” (72).

In chapter 3, Penners turns from deconstructing the genius approach to reconstructing an apostle’s approach. Here, he wants to place edification at the center of inquiry, rather than reason giving or arguments. Edification, in Penner’s estimation, is of fundamental importance to the apologetic enterprise. Given that, you can see how he wouldn’t be keen on debates and the typical apologetic encounters. As he puts it,

If our approach to Christian belief is not to remain lost in epistemological abstraction and objectivity, and if we are to find a prophetic model of witness that will be able to come forth as edification – as a spiritual activity that is itself an expression of faith – then our account of Christian belief will need to be couched in terms of an ethics of belief and not just an epistemology (91).

From here, he introduces the role that irony plays in apologetics. Penner wants irony introduced as a way of exploiting the discrepancy between the agreed rules for rational discourse and how things really are (92). When used prophetically (as in how the prophets used it), it can be a way forward for us in a postmodern context to embody the Word that we announce (101). Ultimately, Penner would like the focus to be on the ethics of belief rather than the epistemology of belief.

In chapter 4, Penner continues his case that witness to the truth as something edifies you entails recommending it to someone else a potentially true or edifying for them as well (111). The main focus of this chapter is reframing our understanding of “truth after metaphysics.” In other words, how to think of truth without objectifying it. His goal in the chapter is to “redescribe truth from the perspective of subjectivity so that it is immune from the charge of arbitrariness, relativism, or denial of objectivity (or what passes for that)” (129). Penner wants to actual have both together, that is a chastened approach to objectivity that is sensitive to the subjective nature of knowing.

In chapter 5, he moves on the politics of witness, which he sees as more appeal and less coercion. He wants apologetics to be “person-preserving” rather than running roughshod over others in the pursuit of “victory,” and so commit “apologetic violence.” Throughout this chapter, the focus is on how to actually pursue apologetics given the qualifications he has spent the book nuancing. As he finally concludes,

My aim in this book is to place us in a position to acknowledge the topsy-turvy fragmentation of our (post)modern world that has gone down the rabbit hole with Alice, without trying to deny or suppress the unsettling nature of our contemporary situation. I think it can be shown that it is a fundamental mistake for us, at this juncture, to carry forward the modern paradigm and mount a damage control operation that attempts to make sense of and control the chaos by reconstructing Christian belief in terms amenable to the modern epistemological project (171).

Strengths/Weaknesses

A major strength of Penner’s book is his clarity of writing. He is dealing with complex subjects and does so in a very accessible way. Another is his clear love for apologetics, and spreading the truth of Christ in a way that is person-affirming. You can see that like Derrida, his is a labor of love. Finally, he provides concise critiques of some of the excesses of modernity, and to the extent that Christians have bought into them and/or wedded them to their apologetic approach, Penner’s book provides a good corrective. In some ways, I’m sympathetic to his project, since a major motivational factor is to actually make apologetics more effective, rather than eradicate it. But, sympathetic though I am, there are a few weaknesses worth noting.

First, though Penner uses Craig’s entry in the Counterpoints Five Views on Apologetics, he seems wholly unaware of the presuppositional approach, much less practitioners like Van Til, Bahnsen, or Frame (not to mention Edgar, or Oliphint). Van Til was critique modernity before postmodernity was even around, so many of the critiques leveled against Craig’s approach wouldn’t fly when dealing with presuppositional or covenantal apologetics. I think it is a better way forward in the postmodern context, and Penner’s work would have been stronger had he interacted with this approach at all, either to critique it from his vantage point, or distinguish how his approach is different/better.

Second, without being simplistic, I think Penner’s approach is self-defeating. I have a hard time not seeing Penner writing a book full of epistemological arguments to be doing some of the very thing he says not to do. In his apologetic for a certain type of apologetics, Penner doesn’t follow his own advice, and really couldn’t given the nature of book writing. While I think much of his advice for actually doing apologetics can be helpful (and even imported into a different epistemological framework), the act of encapsulating his arguments into a book is seems to undercut his consistent application of his own approach to knowledge, argumentation, and apologetics. I doubt Penner would agree with this assessment, but I also don’t think he is fully broken out of the modernist framework he is trying to encourage others to break out of.

Conclusion

Though I enjoyed this book, I don’t know how much an impact it will ultimately have on me. Had I been a sold-out disciple to Craig’s Classical Apologetics, this book might have produced more cognitive dissonance on my end. As it is, I found myself saying, “Yes, but..” a lot as I read. I like much of what Penner said, and am sympathetic with his motivations, but ultimately, I don’t find his solution convincing. His diagnosis didn’t take full account of the different ways to approach apologetics without capitulating to the modernist project and his own attempt to move forward didn’t quite break free either. In the end, postmodernism is something all Christians need to reckon with, especially when it comes to apologetics. Penner’s book provides some insights, and is especially helpful when it comes to apologetics on a personal level that is sensitive to the existential issues involved. Put into a different epistemological framework, one that is neither modern nor postmodern, but rather covenantal, his wisdom will get the most mileage in actual apologetic encounters.

Notes:

  1. Canada
  2. Which is on my shelf waiting to be read

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Looking back at last year’s resolutions, I would say I did a fair job of realizing them. If you’re curious, here’s what they were:

I say all this as a setup for for my list, which as it stands, is just a bunch of abstractions:

  • Be more thankful
  • Pray more
  • Spend less $$ on books
  • Sharpen up my Greek and Hebrew
  • Read differently
  • Spend less time online (or spend wiser time online)
  • Write more original content (and possibly a book)
  • Start a family (or more accurately, get some affairs in order to start trying)
  • Lead Ali better at home
  • Be more relational
  • Disciple more
  • Get in musical shape and learn more songs
  • Get in physical shape and lose some weight

The strike-throughs are ones that I think I made significant progress in over the course of the year. In the vague, undefinable way they are stated, it is much easier to check them off. Had I said “lose 10lbs,” I couldn’t check that off, but I remained in better shape over the fall, didn’t get sick, and stuck with getting to the gym to exercise regularly, something I had failed to do the previous 2 falls.

The areas I failed were sharpening my Greek/Hebrew, writing original content (as in posts like this vs. book reviews), being more relational, and discipling more. The starting a family thing is something Ali and I changed our mind on, mainly because I applied to start Ph.D work this fall. I’d rather wait and give more details on that if I get accepted, but she was offered a job that she would love to do, and so rather than quitting work to start having kids, we’re going to see if I can get through Ph.D work first. We might decide to start having kids before then, but that depends on whether a couple of other teaching gigs I’m applying for come through.

Going back then to resolutions, Ali and I had both put several better life habits in motion through the fall, and both agreed this past year was our best year yet. Because of that, we didn’t see the need to make any radical resolutions. Regardless of what you think about the whole New Years resolution business, I think it is good to take stock and examine your life on a regular basis and make any necessary adjustments. The beginning of a new year is a great time to do that, but isn’t the only time. Your motivation behind the resolutions can be off, but abuse doesn’t cancel or negate proper use.

That being said, Ali and I really just made one resolution for the New Year, and really mainly for the first 90 days:

  • Get up every week day at 4 am.

This of course is no easy feat. It means getting in bed around 8:30 Sun-Thu nights. But, after the first week, the payoff was worth it. By getting up at 4 and going straight to the gym, we both were able to exercise more, and I was able to get quite a bit of work done every morning before 8am. It also allows Ali and I to pray together before she goes to work, which is something we had wanted to do be doing but hadn’t because of her work schedule (she is usually at work at either 6am or 5am). Now, by getting up earlier, we are settling into being on the same rhythm, exercising together, and praying together to start the day.

We already had alarms going off at 5, but for Ali that meant snoozing for a bit and then rushing to get out the door on time without time to make breakfast. For me, it meant snoozing for a while and then maybe falling back asleep. Now, we get up exercise, eat a healthy breakfast, pray, and then start our day by 5:30. We set our phones over on a table in our bed room so we have to actually get out of bed to turn them off and then once we’re up we immediately turn on all the lights and start changing clothes. Before our bodies can protest, we’re in the car making the less than 5 minute drive to the gym, and before 4:15 we’re already working out.

We found during the first week it set our days in motion better, and by Friday night we weren’t totally exhausted. Also, we are both using Saturday as a Sabbath, so there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. It probably also helps that we are sticking to a stricter diet and so eating at home more than out, but our overall energy level is up, which of course leads to more energy for building other habits.

Getting up at 4am might not work for everyone, but I imagine for most people, you probably could get up a little earlier on the weekdays and start your day better than you currently are. Even if you don’t feel like you’re a morning person, you can change to become one if you really want to. I didn’t always get up early. I became a morning person gradually over the course of working at Lowe’s and Starbucks, as getting up early by compulsion gradually turned into getting up early by choice. Maybe try getting up an hour earlier than you normally do (and maybe going to bed earlier too) and see how that goes for a few weeks. The trick is to set an alarm and actually get up when it goes off instead of snoozing. You’ll find you end up having more time to more important things, something you could harness to develop other goals in your life. I’m hoping to utilize my extra morning time to work on projects that would leak into the late afternoon so that that late afternoon time might be used for things like discipling more in the coming months. As that develops, I’ll be sure and keep you posted.

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I’m very overdue for a post on reading and reviewing books. I spent most of December reviewing books, so that’s probably why. If you’re keeping score at home, the last post was on the bibliographic details. Before that, I explained the three types of book reviews I typically do. For other posts, you can check back with the table of contents.

This post goes more in tandem with the post about how Goodreads meddles with my reading habits. The question left unanswered was “Just what are those reading habits?” Goodreads will tell you what I’m currently reading, but this is how I track what I plan on reading (rather than using Goodreads “To-Read” section).

I’ve tried many different things, but the basic way I keep track of what I want to read is through the Clear App (pictured above). I’ve found since I’ve started doing this I have a better focus for my reading and it helps keep curiosity in check (an issue I’ll talk about in another post soon). There is some consistency in the above outline and the current setup of the book review page. There the categories are:

  • Apologetics
  • Biblical Theology
  • Christian Worldview
  • Christian Living
  • Commentaries
  • Historical Theology
  • Hermeneutics
  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
  • Philosophy
  • Practical Theology
  • Systematic Theology

For actual reading purposes, I’ve simplified it, and here’s what that entails

Biblical Studies

This includes almost everything Bible related. I don’t differentiate between Old and New Testament like I do in reviews, which is more to help you find things. Biblical theology falls under this category, as does any commentaries I might be working on. Typically though, I don’t just read commentaries. If I am, it is because I’m working toward a review, or because I’m doing research for a pastor’s sermon. Sometimes, it is for my own class prep, but if that’s the case, I’m using the introduction not necessarily planning on reading the entire book.

Christian Living

This is my list for all things practical when it comes to the spiritual realm. I distinguish Christian living and practical theology by seeing the former as more directly application based, and the latter being more on the theoretical side. Paul Tripp might be an example of someone who bridges the gap, but on this scheme, his books would more readily fall under Christian living. If it is more theological, even though it is about the Christian life, I would probably file it under the theology list.

Hermeneutics

This gets its own list primarily because it is of special interest. I could file this under Biblical Studies, but I’m reading on the more philosophical side. Anything on the theological interpretation of Scripture falls under here, but so does the recent collection of essays by Anthony Thiselton which are more philosophical than theological (though there is both). This probably qualifies as my special research interest, and I’m gathering a general idea of what I might like to write a dissertation on. Hence, separate list from other reading.

Philosophy

Though my review habits don’t include a lot of philosophy, it has its own list on here because it is something I enjoy reading, and may potentially be reading much more of it in the coming days (I’ll explain later). So far this year, I’ve read 3 books with the word philosophy in the title, and used my Amazon Gift Card to get several more. Also, given the nature of much of the apologetic reading that I do, most of it would be filed here.

Theology

Theology on this breakdown is all theology except for biblical. I consider that more a part of biblical studies, but it could just as easily be put here. Instead, I put titles here that are more overtly theological. Mostly it books dealing with the topics of systematic theology, but I also include heavier practical theology titles, as well as historical theology. Given the way the lists are setup, it is pretty easy to distinguish between what falls under this heading and what fits under a different one.

Worldview

This is kind of catch-all category. On the book review page I call it Christian worldview because the books that I review come from Christian publishers. Here, anything that is aimed at shaping the way you look at the world falls here. So this would include psychology books, leadership books, literature books, as well as some how-to books that don’t fit under Christian living (like a book on writing better or dieting). The idea is that these books are not primarily drawing on Scripture and are not primarily theological or philosophical. That makes it a kind of non-fiction grab bag, but so far it works well.

Review

Now, what you cannot see in the screenshot above is that I have a separate list called “Review,” which is just what it sounds like: all the books that I have to read and review. Because you’re curious, currently the number is 18. Regardless of what type of book it is, if I’m reading it for review purposes, it goes on that list. I tend to order the books in priority, but there is generally no set due date, so I do some shuffling (almost every day to be exact).

Overall, I found this system a good way to keep running lists of my reading intentions. This keeps it organized somewhere outside my mind, so I really don’t fret or worry about when I’m gonna read what or whether or not I’ll finish a book in time. If there is a set due date, I’ll make it a to-do item in my 2Do app. If not, I’ll just read what I see fit in the spare time that I have (which is usually before most people wake up). If you’re really interested in reading and reviewing books, you need some kind of system to keep track of what to read and when. This is what works for me. If you give it a try, let me know how it works for you!

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The day has finally come to start working our way through Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. It’s a couple months since I introduced you to it, and since then I’ve been getting ahead in my reading so I could do about a section a month until we finish up. You can refer back to the introduction to see the table of contents for the upcoming review sections.

Bird’s layout is somewhat unusual (to me at least). His book is broken up into 8 parts (covering traditional systematic theology loci), but within the parts, we have sections more so than chapters. I mean I guess they can be considered chapters since there is a page break with a new header. But, at the same time, the footnotes run continuously through each part. So, in section 1.2 below, the first note is note 15, not note 1, which is what I’d expect if it were a new chapter. This has no bearing on the material, just something I thought I’d throw out there as an introduction. In each post I make, I’ll make headings out of the section titles, and then offer quotes and comments below each.

§ 1.1 What Is Theology?

The opening section is short (less than 3 pages), but in it, Bird makes two important distinctions between theology and other disciplines like philosophy and religion. First, “theology is not the study of ideas about God; it is the study of the living God.” Second, “theology is studied and performed in a community of faith” (30). Because of this, “to do theology is to describe the God who acts, to be acted upon, and to become an actor in the divine drama of God’s plan to repossess the world for himself” (30). This also means that “theology is the task for disciples of Jesus to begin excavating the manifold truth of the gospel and to start reflecting the spiritual realities that the gospel endeavors to cultivate in their own lives” (31).

§ 1.2 What Do You Have to Say before You Say Anything?

The next section is a good bit meatier. The title is perhaps a more understandable way of saying “prolegomena.” Bird first surveys prolegomena in church history, especially in light of the Enlightenment. But, wisely he notes

It might seem clever to try and outplay Modernity at its own game. It is perhaps a necessity to take captive the usable elements of modernist philosophy and to press them into the service of Christian theology. Charles Hodge and others made a jolly good attempt at precisely this kind of theological project. He and others tried to walk the line between being in Modernity but not of Modernity. The problem is that they allowed Modernity to define the rules of the game. They enabled Modernity to set the agenda for theology, including its beginnings, task, and method. They also ran the risk that the failings of Modernity with its claim to unbridled access to absolute truth could also become the failings of Christian theology. By showing that the Word of God aligned with “reason,” they were in the end subjecting the Word of God beneath reason. (37)

This leads to a discussion of Barth, and then onto postmodernity.

Next, Bird explains why we need a prolegomena in the first place. Bird’s project uses the gospel as its prolegomena:

The evangelical theological project is to construct and live out a theology that is defined by the good news of Jesus Christ. If we accept the premise that the gospel is the most significant story in the life of the church, then evangelical theology should accordingly be a theology of the gospel. (42)

§ 1.3 What Is the Gospel?

This naturally leads to a discussion of what the gospel is. Bird quotes N. T. Wright’s definition approvingly:

The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord. (47)

Then, he lists 6 features from the biblical testimony:

  1. The gospel is the message of the kingdom of God
  2. The gospel includes the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and exaltation
  3. The gospel announces the status of Jesus as the Son of David, Son of God, and Lord
  4. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles is intimated in the Old Testament
  5. The response that the gospel calls for is faith and repentance
  6. Salvation is the chief benefit of the gospel

The definition Bird then gives is:

The gospel is the announcement that God’s kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord and Messiah, in fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. The gospel evokes faith, repentance, and discipleship; its accompanying effects include salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (52)

§ 1.4 The Necessity and Goal of Theology

In this section, Bird lists 5 reasons theology is necessary:

  1. To provide clarification and unity to the diverse body of biblical materials
  2. To respond to the ever-evolving challenges of being a Christian in our contemporary culture
  3. To be a necessary part of discipleship in the church and an important element of our witness to the world
  4. To maintain the integrity of the faith that we profess against incursions from both inside and outside the church
  5. It is our task to tell the story of God, to show where we fit into that story, and to decide how to live out that story appropriately

With this in mind, Bird sees the goal of theology as “our attempt to deepen our relationship with God by having a more profound knowledge of his person and workings” (58).

§ 1.5 Is Theology Possible?

Yes.

§ 1.6 Sources for Theology

Bird unpacks 4 sources for theology:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Nature
  4. Experience

Culture, in Bird’s estimation isn’t a source of theology but rather “the embedded context in which theology takes place” (76) He spends the bulk of the chapter on the the 3 sources besides Scripture, mainly since they need the most nuance and explanation.

§ 1.7 Toward a Gospel-Driven Theological Method

Here, Bird takes on naive biblicism. He sides with Vanhoozer over and against Grudem. This helpfully distinguishes his approach from another major systematic theology written by a New Testament scholar. I would tend to agree with Bird myself, though I can sympatize with Grudem’s concerns. However, when your theological method leads you to deny attributes of God that have a long history of affirmation, you might need to tweak your method.

Bird next explains how he thinks theology should be done:

  1. Define the gospel (which he has already done)
  2. Identify the relationship of the various loci of the gospel (which he has done in his table of contents)
  3. Embark on a creative dialogue between the sources of theology (which he will start to do next section)
  4. Describe what the loci look like when appropriated and applied in light of the gospel.

He then concludes, “what I am offering in this book is not the final and definitive application for each subject area. This volume is simply the first steps toward thinking aloud about how we perform the divine drama in the communities of faith that we find ourselves in” (83).

§ 1.8 A Final Word

The final word is a page long, and the page opposite it offers a summarized “What To Take Home” section that is a snapshot of the material covered. I’ve kind of elaborated on that in what I offer above.

Overall, I like the start to this systematic. It is a little light on epistemology and other related issues for a prolegomena, but I like that Bird makes the gospel foundational. I also like his fourfold use of sources in theology, and his general thoughts on the nature of theology are refreshing. While there could be much more here about bibliology and the nature of Scripture, the topic is not completely ignored. The opening part sets the agenda for the rest of the book, and I’m looking forward to what it has to offer.