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With thanks to Connie from Crossway for a review copy of this book, and special thanks for your patience. 

Once in a while I run across a book that I want to read slowly and carefully, taking in the good, wrestling with the parts I’m unsure of and weighing the arguments of the author against the Word of God.  God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment by Jim Hamilton is one of those books.  I received this book before my son was born, and now he’s 18 months old.  I had a big move in the middle and actually restarted the book, hence the long delay.

The truth is I could probably write 100 pages on this book, but no one would sit through that.  So I’m opting for a 2-part review instead.  The title of the book is Hamilton’s main thesis, that the central theme of biblical theology is ‘God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.’  But Hamilton tries to accomplish more than this.  So my approach is the following: this review will focus on a few aspects of the book not directly related to his thesis, and the next one will interact exclusively with his supporting arguments for his thesis.

Structure and Overview of Books

Hamilton pays careful attention to the structure of bibilical books, often giving very helpful overviews of each book.  Sometimes he nails it, particularly in the OT.  On the macro-level, for example, his rundown of the flow of the 5 ‘Books’ of Psalms is excellent, helping the reader see more than a random collection of songs but an intentional (albeit implicit) storyline presented in the Psalms.

On a slightly less macro-level, I didn’t buy his Revelation chiasm (although it’s intriguing) but his ability to distill the central teachings of the book in a short amount of space was remarkable.  On a micro-level, his discussion of Isaiah 40-55 (in particular chapter 40) was refreshing and convincing (making it all the more strange that chapters 56-66 received less than a page- did he tire?).

But there are times Hamilton is less strong in this area.  For instance, in his introductory comments on Matthew’s Gospel, he notes the major shifts (at 4:17 and 16:21) and their impact on how we read Matthew.  But in his actual discussion of Matthew, he doesn’t follow this at all, making me wonder why those turning points are mentioned as anything more than a minor curiosity.

In the section on Acts, the Holy Spirit doesn’t get nearly enough attention considering his central role in the book and the crucial events in chapter 15 received 2 sentences (compare that to his nearly masterful treatment of Acts 7, which was 3 pages).  And when it comes to the NT epistles, Hamilton essentially restates the contents of the books rather than focusing on their flow of thought, to the point that I wondered why I was reading his book rather than simply picking up the NT itself.

All in all, I appreciated his discussion of structure and summaries of each book.  He is especially strong in narrative (which is the majority of the Bible) and handles the prophets well.  I’ve heard it said Hamilton’s book could also double as a good Bible introduction.  I’m not sure it should be the primary book used for that purpose, but it does fit the bill (maybe Hamilton ought to write one).

Extra-Curricular Discussions

Like many writers, Hamilton has trouble passing up an opportunity to comment on his favorite ‘pet’ topics, whether or not they are related to his thesis.  Depending on your perspective, these little tangents will either infuriate you or get you pumping your fist.  Examples include baptism and election/predestination, but there were two in particular that detracted from the book.

Anti-“liberalism”- Hamilton occasionally takes potshots at (unnamed) ‘tenured theologians’ at schools such as Yale, Princeton, Duke and Fuller (pp525-526), in particular for those holding anti-imperial readings of NT passages.  In Hamilton’s view, they go directly against passages such as 1 Peter 2.  Now, I tend to agree with Hamilton’s conclusions that there is not a strong anti-imperial focus in the NT.  But, I have two issues with Hamilton’s treatment of the topic:

1) If one were introduced to the topic through this book, they would come away thinking there are only two camps: those who reject biblical teaching on this matter; and those who accept the biblical teachings (and Hamilton falls into that camp, of course).  Is there no nuance?  Is there no argument to be made in favor of those who see anti-imperial readings?  Why was Jesus killed on a Roman cross?  Or why was Paul eventually killed by the Romans?  Or why does Revelation come down so hard on the Roman Empire?

2) To take shots at scholars without really naming them or interacting with their arguments is, at best, cheap.  Either give a respectful, detailed critique of their position, or leave it out.  The latter would have been a wiser course of action.

Complementarianism– Hamilton rarely misses a chance to point out the need for women to submit to men.  The issue here isn’t his complementarianism, it’s that it receives a disproportional amount of space.  For example, more is said about 1 Tim 2 than about 1 Cor 12-14 (or the Holy Spirit in Acts), even though the latter passage is arguably more central to its letter and is, at the very least, longer and thus arguably deserving of proportionally longer treatment.

In one case, Hamilton’s complementarianism skews his reading of an entire book, a reading not required by his complementarian viewpoint.  After reading his discussion of Esther (pp320-322), I came away this with basic moral point: submission is more important than purity.  Who cares that Ahasuerus was an immoral pagan king who wanted to give Esther ‘a try’ before he committed to marry her?  Esther needed to submit to him (and Mordecai) in order to be blessed by God.  Premarital sex and marrying a pagan?  Not nearly as bad as not submitting to a man (who wasn’t even her husband, might I add).  It was, quite frankly, hard to read this section.

Miscellaneous

Tables & Charts– Included in the book are dozens of helpful charts and tables which aid the reader.  He was especially strong in the Pentateuch, such as connecting Eden and the Tabernacle (p74), Abrahamic blessing answered Genesis 3 curses (p82) and so on.  At other points he compiles related concepts into charts, such as all the doxologies in the NT (pp538-539).

Translation & Writing Style- Hamilton opts to use his own translation, supplementing it with the ESV.  For the most part, then, everything sounds like the ESV.  There is one case, however, where he translated something that made me chuckle aloud to myself.  I’m still not sure how a warrior can ‘innocently’ shoot an arrow in battle, but Hamilton thinks it can happen (2 Chron 18:33-34, p349).

I’ll point out that I never really caught any typos, other than Onesiphorus is called ‘Onesimus’ on p508 (discussing 2 Tim 1:16-18).  The lack of typographical errors is a rather noteworthy achievement given the size of the book.  Well done, Crossway.

Concluding Thoughts (Non-Thesis)

Hamilton includes a lot of wonderful things in his book that are not directly related to his thesis.  There are benefits and drawbacks to this approach.  The upside is that he can unlock treasures in Scripture for the reader that make the book very exciting.  It also makes his book useful on a couple different fronts.

The downside is that he all-too-easily distracts from the purported purpose of the book.  It’s a shame, really, because he makes some fine points on almost every page.

In Part 2 of this review I’ll deal directly with Hamilton’s thesis and the evidence marshaled in its support.

Blurbs- Oh, How I Loathe Thee

I’m not sure how many people judge a book by the blurbs found on it, but I pray that number dwindles greatly.  Because frequently, perhaps more often than not, they are misleading, particularly if they are written by a well-known scholar, author, pastor, etc.

Case in point: a while back Justin Taylor, one of the most popular bloggers in evangelicalism, highlighted a new book put out of IVP, The Roots of the Reformation.  The author, G R Evans, is apparently a well respected Cambridge medievalist.  Taylor includes in his post 4 endorsements of the book, two of which were particularly glowing:

“G. R. Evans is one of our finest scholars, and she has written a superb book placing the story of the Reformation in the wider context of Christian history. Comprehensive, well researched and readable.”

—Timothy George, general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture

“Briskly and breezily, but very efficiently, medievalist Gillian Evans here surveys Western Europe’s changing and clashing views of Christianity from the fourteenth century through the seventeenth century. This large-scale introduction is certainly the best of its kind currently available.”

—J. I. Packer, Regent College

But, a month later and Taylor (admirably) issued a ‘mea culpa‘ for implicitly endorsing this highly-praised book.  Why?  What changed his mind?

Because an expert on the subject matter of the book in question actually read the book carefully.

Carl Trueman wrote an absolutely devastating review of the book, pointing out numerous (and I mean numerous) embarrassing errors that undermine the credibility of the book, and thus, the author and those who praise it so unreservedly.  How devastating is this review?  IVP has opted to pull the book off the shelves, revise it (in time for the fall semester, although I wonder if any professor will opt to use it now) and give free ones to those who purchased the 1st edition.  You can read their letter here.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the damage done here.  No one’s salvation is at stake.  There won’t be a generation of scholars who will screw up basic facts about Calvin, Luther and the rest of the reformers.  The 2nd edition will fix the errors and the world will move on.

But I have to wonder about the endorsers, particularly the two I quoted.  Was Packer right when he said the book is “the best of its kind currently available?”  Are the other options so awful that Evans’ book is, in fact, better?  I highly doubt it.  The better question is: did Packer read the book?  Or, perhaps, is Packer qualified to write an endorsement for a book on the Reformation?

Same goes for Timothy George.  He said this book is ‘well researched.’  Did George read the book?  Is he qualified to make such a claim about the book?

I’m being a bit sarcastic.  Both Packer and George are highly qualified scholars.  Their credentials speak for themselves.  They ought to be able to read a book on the reformation and determine its value for classroom use.  But the only real explanation for their high praise is probably the simplest: they didn’t read the book carefully.  Trueman can’t be that much better of a scholar to be able to see frequent errors while they are not.  If so, they aren’t the scholars we all think they are.

So what’s the point in trusting blurbs for a book?  If you can’t trust J I Packer and Timothy George, then who can you trust?  I’ve read too many books that received high praise, only to read the book and wonder if the endorsers actually read it.  But often times it’s a matter of opinion to a certain degree.   In this case, it’s plain and simple.  The book had so many errors it has to be pulled off the shelf.  This isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of getting basic facts correct.  IVP shouldn’t be the only ones apologizing here.

I’m not the first to note the uselessness (or at least, the limited usefulness) of book blurbs.  Nick Norelli makes the same point here.  Esteban Vazquez (the only blogger to blog less than me) nail it pretty well here.  Or even better, read this.

Anyway, to bring my rant to a close, it’s disappointing to have your suspicions confirmed: sometimes (oftentimes?) endorsers don’t read carefully the book they are endorsing.  The quicker we all realize this, the better off we’ll be.  But we’ll be even better off if endorsers stop doing it altogether.

The Multifaceted Gospel

There has been quite a debate in recent years over the definition of the word ‘gospel.’

Now, right there many of my readers (if I may be so bold as to presume multiple) are ready to write this off as another instance where scholars waste time and ink arguing about things we already know.  After all, the gospel is about how a person gets saved and has a relationship with God.  Why complicate something so simple a child could understand it?

Problems with the Popular Conception

The critique of this concept of the gospel has already been leveled by many people.  Here are some of my issues with it, in no particular order:

1. Why are the Gospels called “Gospels?’  The standard definition doesn’t fit this usage.  “How You Get Saved, According to Mark.”  Sorry, doesn’t work.  Because if that were the case, I’m not sure why we have 4 different Gospels.

2. It doesn’t quite fit with the OT usage of the word (or at least the Greek word, euanggelion).  Take, for example, Isaiah’s usage of it in Is 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1 (paying attention to the surrounding context, of course).  Those passage, indeed, most of Isaiah 40-66, are about God rescuing, restoring and re-establishing the nation from their exile.  That, of course, includes individuals, but that’s not at all the focus.

3. It doesn’t always fit the NT usage, either.  Some frequently point to Romans 1:1-4.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Again, the standard answer can’t simply be substituted and work well.

4. Nor does it fit too well with Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The gospel here is not simply having the debt of sin paid for and the promise of relationship with God.

5. Or consider Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17:22-31).  There is no mention of Jesus dying for our sins so we can have eternal life.  I want to be clear, though: I think what we have here is a condensed version of Paul’s interaction with the Athenians.  I have serious doubts he went too long without mentioning the cross of Christ.  But, it is interesting that Luke doesn’t include that aspect of Paul’s proclamation in this passage.

Okay, we could probably multiply passages and the like, but I think I’ve proven my point.

Where the Popular Conception Is Right

On the other hand, though, those who want to diminish the individual aspect of the gospel- that we are sinners in need of good news that God has made a way for us to know and have a relationship with him- also fail to deal adequately with the biblical data.  One would only have to read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, where Paul clearly delineates the gospel he preached (here are vv3-8):

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”

So there it is, in plain language: Christ died for our sins, was raised from the dead and appeared to many of his followers.  That the biblical writers didn’t believe in or emphasize individual salvation is a wrong-headed idea, considering one of them once wrote “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

So I don’t want to appear as if I’m saying the traditional definition of the gospel is wrong.  It’s just that it doesn’t exhaust all that the Bible says the gospel is.  It’s not simple, it’s simplistic.

Keller & Gathercole on the Gospel

I want to highlight two resources, one of which I only recently learned about.  First, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s (free!) talk, appropriately called “What Is the Gospel?”  My coblogger, Brian, recommended it to me with this sales pitch: ‘it was like hearing the gospel for the first time!’  The second, recommended by Keller, is an essay by NT scholar Simon Gathercole called “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom” (this is a pdf, HT: JT).

Both of these resources take a careful look at the biblical material, but are by no means technical.  Anyone can use them, most probably should.  Keller’s talk if about 49 minutes, whereas Gathercole’s essay is 17 pages (with huge margins).  In the meantime, I’ll highlight the keys points.

Keller gives 3 aspects to the gospel, all of which are important and irreplaceable.

1. The Historical Aspect (the gospel events).  “The gospel is news about what Jesus has done, not primarily advice about how to live.”

2. The Sonship Aspect (the gospel identity).  The gospel is about a status you receive now, not just a reward you receive later.

3. The Kingdom Aspect (the gospel administration).  “The gospel is a completely transformed reversal of the world’s values, not just strength to live according to the old values.”   Also, this aspect is about God making this world a great world again.

Gathercole’s essay deals with the question of what is the gospel in Paul’s writings and in the Gospels, and are they ‘different gospels.’  Here is his summary of Paul’s gospel: “the gospel is God’s account of his saving activity in Jesus the Messiah, in which, by Jesus’ death and resurrection, he atones for sin and brings new creation.”  In other words, the gospel is about both who Jesus is (his identity) and what he has done (his work, which includes both salvation for people and bringing about a new creation).

Regarding the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), Gathercole doesn’t try to ‘over-harmonize’ them with Paul.  They are different, as seen in the usage of the phrase “the gospel of the kingdom,’ which isn’t not prevalent in Paul.  But while the linguistic ties aren’t always there, the basic thematic outline of the gospel is the same in both sets of writings:

The unity of their presentations of the gospel can be seen in the broad outlines of these three key themes: (1) the identity of Jesus as Messiah, (2) his work of atoning sacrifice and justification, and (3) his inauguration of a new dominion.  These lie at the heart of the apostolic gospel.

What both Keller and Gathercole do well is note the ‘broad gospel’ without losing focus on the individual aspect of it.  While their three categories don’t exactly match up, it’s actually pretty close.  What I like about them both is this: they keep the big picture (new creation/dominion) and the narrow picture (forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ death and resurrection), but also tie it in to the historical events recorded in the Gospels about Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah would would restore not only them, but the nations of the world (Is 49:6).

One Last Bit of Wisdom from Keller

Some would, understandably, ask how this should affect our proclamation/sharing of the gospel.  After all, the 4 Spiritual Laws are nothing if not easy to share and understand, why make it harder by having to include everything in one shot?

I recommend Keller’s blog post here.  Among other things, he notes that the biblical writers themselves rarely include everything about the gospel in a one-stop shopping manner.  Even before twitter, we were accustomed to trying to make everything ‘short, sweet and to the point.’  But maybe we’d be better off casting a full blown gospel vision before people rather than aim for pithy.  For a people who have lost even the basic biblical categories (sin, justice, forgiveness, etc), this might be exactly what we need to do.

The Future Glory of Todd MacDonald

I just received an e-mail from a friend of mine informing me that Todd MacDonald, a friend from seminary, passed away last week after battling cancer.  You can read his obituary here and see any other updates on his website.  This is obviously incredibly sad news for those of us who knew Todd.  For me personally it hit me because I had planned on e-mailing Todd this morning to see how he was doing.  Now I know.

I had highlighted Todd’s album, Pilgrims Here, a couple years back, and in that post I briefly mentioned the impact Todd had on my life.  I wanted to take a second and honor Todd again.

I e-mailed Todd way back in March of 2009.  I had been trying to find a way to contact him to tell him about how a random theological conversation at Brian’s (my coblogger) wedding had helped change my life.  While I was searching for contact info (on the internet) I discovered that he was battling cancer.  I’m grateful for the chance to tell him this before he passed away, and for the random e-mails we shared over the past 3 years.

This is a portion of the e-mail I sent him 3+ years ago:

Do you remember being at Brian Marchionni’s wedding a few years back (almost 5, now)?  You and I discussed theology for most of the reception, which was a pretty dorky thing to do.  But, you spent a lot of time convincing me of your reading of Romans 7, specifically that it doesn’t deal with a regenerate man but an unregenerate man.  Seems fairly innocuous, but it ended up being an important time of my life.

One thing that no one knew about me in seminary is that I struggled greatly with depression.  I felt hopeless in the face of it, and felt as if I could never overcome my sin that was largely responsible for my depression.  Basically, in my mind, in the battle between my flesh and the Spirit, I felt as if the flesh would always win.  But after our conversation, I went back and read the NT again to see what I thought about what you said.  It opened up a new world for me, one that actually had hope and I began to believe that sin actually was defeatable.

I’m not saying the change was overnight, but I can honestly say that our conversation that night was a major turning point for me in my battle with sin and depression.  It’s weird, seminary students have theological conversations on a daily basis, but only a small percentage actually make a difference.  This is one that has had a profound impact on me, and I’m grateful to you for your insight.  It truly changed my life.

I’m actually teaching on this tonight.  I’ve been telling people for years now that our conversation that night at Brian’s wedding changed my life, but about a month ago I realized that you probably had no idea; I had decided I needed to write you and tell you.  Soon after that, I found out you’re sick, and was heartbroken.  So, I’m writing to let you know how much I appreciate you and how thankful I am that God crossed our paths at just the right time.  Now that I’m on the “other side” of my depression battle, I can clearly see that you were an instrument in the hands of God, even without knowing it.  God truly is amazing!

Now that Todd has temporarily lost his battle with cancer, I reflect on that conversation (now almost 8 years ago) and can’t believe how far the Lord has brought me.  I don’t want to overstate things in the wake of his death.  Todd and I were not best friends.  He wouldn’t have put me on his short list of closest buddies.  That conversation was not the single most important event in my life.

But it would make the Top 10 major events in my adult life, truth be told.  It was a significant turning point, one, as I said, I frequently pointed to in my teachings about overcoming sin (even before I found out Todd was sick).  I know Todd was grateful that I let him know about this.  He even joked that he was probably fueled by pride in trying to convince me of his position (he didn’t even remember the conversation, as we probably had so many).  Whether or not that’s true, I’m grateful we talked.

So now we await the glorious future of Todd MacDonald.  I’m sad he’s passed, happy he’s not suffering now and excited that there is the hope of the resurrection to come.  Todd MacDonald will one day return, not in a cancer-ridden body, but one transformed into a glorious body like that of our Savior’s (Phil 3:21).  While I have no doubt his suffering was immense, and the suffering his family now endures is unquestionably heavy, I also know that those “present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).  Amen and amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

I have a great appreciation for Carl Trueman.  For those who don’t know, Trueman is a theologian and historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary.  He also blogs regularly at Reformation21.  He is one of the wittiest and most insightful writers out there, one from whom I’ve learned much.

Part of what I like about Trueman is that he is unabashedly Reformed.  It’s not that I agree with his positions, but I admire the man for the fact that he has strong convictions, doesn’t mind stating them strongly and, it seems, he appreciates when others do the same.  I like people who know where they stand and hold to it firmly, as well as grant you the right to do the same.

Then there I times I shake my head.  Like yesterday, when I was reading this post on an unfortunate incident regarding a church suing a former member.  The context of that post isn’t my concern here (since I agree with Trueman, save for the following points).  But in it he makes a statement I’ve heard/read from him previously: “The church is marked by two things: the word and the sacraments.”

This is, of course, a classic Reformed position, so he’s not stating anything new here.  And since I went to a Reformed seminary, I’m well aware of the arguments in favor of it.  I don’t necessarily disagree with “the word” part of the statement, though Trueman and I might not see eye-to-eye on how it’s carried out.  Most Reformed folks I know would stress the preaching of the word- one guy standing up in the front and the congregation listening, with very little interaction otherwise.  That, to me, is not necessarily bad, in fact, it’s mostly a good thing, but it’s not exactly what the NT writers had in mind.  There was some of that style of preaching, to be sure, but there also seemed to be a bit more interaction happening, too.

Anyway, I find his statement regarding the centrality of the ‘sacraments’ (and the term he uses next, ‘means of grace’) to be the most problematic.  This is the mark of the church?  I’m not sure if a person who has never read the NT before would come away with these two points as the marks of the church.  What about love (Jn 13:35)?  What about obeying the commands of Jesus (Jn 14:23-24)?  What about living lives of faith?  It seems to me that Paul thought faith set the church apart from others.

What about believers helping fellow believers financially, practically, etc?  In fact, that shows up more often in the NT than the Lord’s Supper does.  Why doesn’t that make the Top 2 Marks of the Church?

Or, perhaps even more egregious, how about the fact that the very presence of God who was present at the beginning of creation now dwells in the hearts of his people individually and among his people corporately?  You mean to tell me that someone read the NT and came away thinking that the Holy Spirit is not the mark of the church?  God himself dwells among us!  After all, it is the Spirit’s presence in our corporate worship that ought to make unbelievers “fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you!'” (1 Cor 14:25).  If that isn’t something that marks off the church, I don’t know what is.

I want to be clear.  I’m not down on the so-called ‘sacraments,’ or as I state here, my inner Baptist prefers to use the term ‘ordinance.’  In fact, I’d argue baptism and the Lord’s Supper are undervalued in the modern church.  I’m a proponent of weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (though I’d stress more ‘supper’ than a cracker and juice).  I have very strong feelings about baptism, not just the mode but also its importance.

But what I think Reformed theology has done in general, and Trueman in particular, is give a good thing too high a place in the life of the church.  It is, in my opinion, very difficult to get from the NT that the two primary marks of the church are the word and sacraments.  The first, as I said, is defensible, depending on how we define it.  The second is a harder case to make.

Contest Entries and Hot Issues

The big headline in 1996 was that Barack Obama wrote that he supported same-sex marriage.  Apparently he’s voiced this support again more recently, which I didn’t know because I’ve been comatose in an isolated concrete bunker at the earth’s core for a month.  One particular reaction to his (re)announcement has caught my eye, and I’m submitting it as my entry for this year’s “Most Post-Modern Thing You’ve Ever Heard” contest (or MPMTYEH, pronounced “em-pum-TEE-ah”). For what it’s worth, my entry last year, “All religions are basically the same” narrowly lost to “That’s true for you, but not for me.”  It was a shame, really; I should have won.  MPMTYEH is so subjective now, almost as if there’s no absolute standard by which to judge the entries…

Anyway, the statement?  One supporter encourages Obama after his announcement with the phrase, “Stand in your truth!”  I can probably explain this statement away as simply meaning, “Stand up for the things you believe in” or something like that, against which I take no issue.  However, the word “truth” really bugs me, not unlike last years MPMTYEH winner, “That’s true for you, but not for me.”  The encouragement implies that Obama’s “truth” is distinct from somebody else’s “truth.”  Thus the concept of truth is made subjective, as if we make our own truth.  This is, of course, false.  If you disagree with me, consider that my truth is that we don’t make our own truth. Q.E.D.

My second contest entry this year also (purely coincidentally) involves the issue of homosexuality.  I’m submitting this into the 2012 “Four Words I Never Thought I’d See Together” contest (FWINTIST – “fuh-WIN-tist”).  My entry is “St. Augustine Gay Pride.”  The context is the gay pride day taking place in the Florida city named after Augustine.  Granted, this doesn’t sound alarming.  On its own, however, it is quite shocking.  I was never terribly close to Augustine of Hippo, as he tended to hang out with an older crowd than me (i.e., people long dead), but I’m pretty sure he never thought he’d see his name followed by “gay pride.”

Regarding actual non-snarky commentary about gay marriage, these days I’m most impressed by the prescience of Francis Schaeffer, who back in the 70’s (or perhaps earlier) noted that in a society without absolutes, society becomes the absolute.  For my money, this is precisely what is happening with same-sex marriage.  American societies are gradually reaching the point of saying that they define what marriage is, and many of those societies are concluding that marriage includes same-sex couples.  An ancillary observation by Schaeffer was that erasing absolutes would still leave two: Personal peace and affluence.  In other words, the two things people will continue to cling to in the absence of other absolutes are their own personal peace and affluence.  I have found the personal peace aspect of this relevant to the debates about same-sex marriage as well, since I’ve often heard the (weak) argument, “It’s not hurting anybody; let them marry.”  What’s ultimately being said here, in my opinion, is that it’s not bothering me (personal peace), so let them marry.  Again, the absolute is still rooted in the individual.

We tend to stray from topics like homosexuality here at BBG, but not for lack of conviction about the issue, or for lack of confidence in our position.  Rather, I’ve yet to see any fruitful exchange about such emotionally charged issues take place on a public blog.  If you want to see flame wars, hate speech, deep irony, and a bunch of people writing things they’d never actually say with no real exchange of ideas, look at the comments after a CNN article on homosexuality.  This is what we do not want BBG to become.

It will come as no surprise to our reader(s?) that this author does not support same-sex marriage (cue sound of can of worms opening).  After all, this is Boston Bible Geeks, not Boston Secular-Humanism Geeks, or something like that.  As such, my feelings on the matter stem from the fact that the Bible is authoritative in my life: It defines marriage for me, and I can find no compelling evidence that marriage was purposed for same-sex couples (or polygamy, by the way).  As for whether or not we should legislate Biblical principles, frankly, the best arguments I’ve read about same-sex marriage have nothing to do with the Bible, religion, “the sanctity of marriage” or anything like that, such as the exchanges regarding natural law here, here and here (lots of reading, but also thorough, intelligent writing on the subject showcasing opposing views).   While I’m linking articles, from a Christian standpoint, Collin Hansen at TGC has written a reaction to Obama’s announcement here, which is also worth reading.

I’d be happy to discuss privately over e-mail anyone who wishes for an actual “conversation.”  It would be an interesting social experiment to see if two adults could disagree about something so controversial and remain friendly.  Perhaps we might even learn something from each other, and even grow to understand differing views without the noise of the media, blog trolls, or quick, superficial, straw-man dismissals.  For the subject matter at hand, this would be a good thing.

Not a rock, but The Rock

After telling about a tourist who once said about the famed Plymouth Rock “It’s a rock!  Nothing ever happens to it,” Sean McDonough concludes his sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 with this:

We tend to look at God the same way- a big, immobile passive boulder who’s just kind of there.  He’s a rock- whatever happens to him?  But the true and living God has shown himself in Christ both in the past- in the wilderness- but also in the present in our life corporately in the church.  He has shown himself to be a God who is near us, a God who walks with us through our troubles, who provides for our needs at every level, a God who responds to us when we call out to him.  Indeed, a rock who let himself be split open so that his life-giving spirit might flow out to quench the deepest thirst of our hearts.

-Sean McDonough, sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, delivered on 6/28/09 at First Congregational Church in Hamilton MA

Some Thoughts on Job

I recently made a promise to a class at one of our church’s training schools to spend a little bit of time talking about the book of Job, <sarcasm> because if any book of the Bible can be discussed in a short amount of time, its Job </sarcasm>.  Of course, we ran out of time anyway, so I was unable to offer some thoughts on this ever-perplexing book.  In the interest of mitigating my risk of being known as a big liar, some thoughts  (i.e., my notes for the class) on the book of Job follow.

  • Job is largely a book of what Douglas Stuart calls, “speculative dialogical wisdom.”  This is evident in the long exchanges between Job and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu.  It is largely poetry, save the prologue, epilogue, and a brief sections that introduce the next speaker.
  • High-level structure of the book:
    • Prologue (Chs.1-2)
    • Job’s opening lament (Ch. 3)
    • Dialogue and dispute (3 cycles: Chs. 4-14, 15-21, 22-27)
    • Wisdom interlude (Ch. 28; unidentified speaker, perhaps the author)
    • Monologues (Job: 29-31; Eluhu: 32-37; God: 38-42)
    • Job’s contrition (40:3-5; 42:1-6)
    • Epilogue (42:7-17)
  • How has Job offended God?  Why does God speak to Him so harshly?
    • Job is calling God to account, most explicitly in 31:35: “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! / I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; / let my accuser put his indictment in writing” (emphasis mine).
    • This might remind us of Romans 9, esp. v.20: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (c.f., Is. 29:16; 45:9).  All of these texts speak negatively of the one who questions God in this way.
    • Bottom line:  It is completely backwards for us to question God – as if we’re His judge.
    • Note a distinction: questioning God can be demanding an answer from Him (implying that you think He’s wrong), or questioning God can be expressing a lack of understanding, and asking for clarity or peace.  I would content that only the former (Job’s response) is sinful.
  • How do the others (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) sin?  (Aside: It’s interesting that Elihu isn’t mentioned in the epilogue; some contend that because of this, his speech was a later addition).
    • Some of what they say seems right on, no?
    • Ultimately, the book teaches that nobody knows the mind of God.  All these characters offer answers as to why Job suffers, but they’re all wrong, supposing to know the answer Job seeks, but only God does.  P.S.: He doesn’t tell them, either.
    • N.b., An important life lesson here:  Don’t dare try to explain God’s actions unless its explained clearly in Scripture:  Talking about God’s plans in redeeming humankind is one thing, saying that hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on the sinfulness of New Orleans is egregious folly!
    • A funny paraphrase of something Stuart said, “We don’t even know what chipmunks are thinking, why should we think we know what God is thinking?”
  • More thoughts on suffering (tons more could be said):
    • Remember two “levels” to suffering:  The pastoral/emotional level, and the philosophical/intellectual level.
      • This should affect how we respond to people engaging with the problem of suffering.
      • If they just lost a loved one, we oughtn’t make the mistake of Job’s friends and theologize about it; this is rarely helpful at all.
    • By trusting God – not cursing or questioning Him – through suffering, we are glorifying Him.
    • Job makes as clear as any other book in Scripture that we won’t always know why or whence suffering; this doesn’t need to affect our response to suffering, which is the same whether we know why or not: Run to God.
    • We must never (ever!) forget the Christ when we suffer:
      • We cannot look at the cross and say that God doesn’t care, or love us with unfathomable love.
      • We cannot look at the cross and say that God is not just, and one who deals with evil, and will ultimately eradicate the suffering of those who love Him.
      • We must remember that God became man and suffered for us, so we wouldn’t have to.
      • I’ve always found comfort in an adaptation of an illustration by Alvin Plantinga:
        • The classic viewpoint of the problem:
          • A good God would not allow pointless suffering.*
          • There is pointless suffering.
          • There is no good God.
        • The viewpoint from the cross:
          • A good God would not allow pointless suffering.*
          • There is a good God.
          • There is no pointless suffering.
        • (*The statement “A good God would not allow suffering,”  is itself a highly questionable statement; one many accept without question, yet it is highly suspect.  E.g., as a good father, there are times when I allow my son to suffer.  There are actually some very compelling arguments for a good God precisely because evil and suffering exist; but that’s out of scope here).

I am officially no longer a liar :)  Of course, so much more could be (has been!) written about Job, evil and suffering.  I make no claim that this is a well-nuanced or complete treatment here.  Hopefully, however, it is helpful as food for thought, if nothing else.

Are We Actually Saved from Our Sins?

It’s been roughly a month now, but my mind keeps wandering back to a post I read by R C Sproul Jr. called “Five Evangelical Myths or Half Truths.”  In it, as you can imagine, Sproul writes about 5 sayings commonly heard in the evangelical world that either aren’t true at all, or aren’t completely true and thus potentially dangerous.  I agree, for the most part, with his disagreements on 4 of the 5, but the middle one is something he botches pretty badly, in my opinion.  I’ll quote it here:

3. “Jesus saves us from our sins.”

Well, no. It is absolutely true that Jesus saves us. When we face trouble, He is the one we should be crying out to for deliverance. But the great problem with our sins isn’t our sins, but the wrath of God. The trouble I need to be delivered from is the wrath of God. Hell is not my sins, but the wrath of God. We don’t need to be saved from our sins. We need to be saved from the wrath due for our sins.

Now, I can see what he’s thinking here.  He’s worried that if we focus too much on sin, we miss the fact that sin itself is an offense to God and justifiably incurs his wrath and punishment.  The wrath of God is a topic rarely addressed and taken seriously, and perhaps the precise wording he quotes – ‘Jesus saves us from our sins’- contributes to that neglect (although I’m not convinced).

But his approach is just as bad than the one he opposes.  ‘Jesus saves us from our sins’ is 100% true.  The problem is not in the saying itself, but in the fact that we don’t know just how true it is.

Sproul misdiagnoses the problem to begin with.  He wants to focus more on our salvation from the consequences of our sin (God’s wrath) rather than sin itself.  In my experience most evangelicals share that focus with him.  That is, when evangelicals talk about salvation, we are really referring to eternal salvation/salvation from hell/etc.  So while Sproul disagrees with wording of the above phrase (and I’ll agree wording is important), the basic intention is the same as what he means.

But Jesus actually does save us from our sins.  We have been set free from ‘the law of sin and death’ and sin has been condemned (Rom 8:2-3).  We have been set free from sin (Rom 6:7), are dead to sin (6:11) and are no longer under the rule of our old master, sin (6:14).  We used to be slaves to sin, but have been freed (6:17-18, 22).

So let’s get this straight: we used to be enslaved to sin, but Jesus has freed us from sin and bound us to himself.  Isn’t that, by its very definition, saving us from our sin?  How can Sproul respond to this statement with “well, no”?  Is he not perpetuating a half-truth himself?

Many Christians don’t take seriously enough that Jesus has actually saved us from our sins.  We are (rightfully) grateful for salvation from the consequences of our sin, but forget that there is a ‘here and now’ victory over sin that is made possible by the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ and the gift of the indwelling Spirit of God (Rom 8:3-4).

The best way to fight a half-truth is not to replace it with another one.  The best approach is to teach the whole truth, and in this case, not only to teach it, but to live it.  We have been saved from our sins and are no longer slaves to what once bound us.  Now, by the power of the Spirit, let’s live that truth out in our daily lives.

It is my custom to end the year with a “5 Favorite New Reads of the Year” post here at BBG, highlighting my 5 best books I read for the first time that year.  It’s not that they were published that year, I hardly have time only to read the latest and greatest (which cease to be the latest and greatest in short order anyway).  This year, however, is a little different.

I mentioned to Marcus the other day that I only completed 3 books this year, which upon further review isn’t true.  There’s one I have yet to finish, although I’m putting it on this list anyway because I’m almost done.  So I’ve actually only read 2 books from front-to-back this year.  With my family making a major move this year, there simply wasn’t time to read.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read this few books in a calendar year since I learned how to read.  Shoot, I used to polish of 3 books a week.  Granted, I was in middle school and they were the Hardy Boys, but still.  (Side note: I’m eternally thankful for Franklin W Dixon for introducing the phrase “Man alive!” into my vocabulary.)

So this year I’m only going to highlight 2 books for the year, with a look ahead at 2 more books that I’m looking forward to reading in 2012.

2. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James Hamilton

I’m actually working through this book (albeit very slowly) for a book review.  Quite honestly, I could write 100 pages on it.  It’s been one of the more interesting books I’ve read in a while, even though I have some big reservations at points.  I have a million (give or take) markings in the margins recording my thoughts and, sometimes, rather frank reactions.  Part of the reason why it’s so intriguing to me is that Hamilton has stated his thesis so strongly (that the center of the Bible’s theology is… well… read the title) that it’s fun seeing whether or not he can pull off a defense of it.

So I’ll give Jim Hamilton some credit.  He didn’t hedge his bets at all.  He’s making a big claim and he’s doing what he can to back it up.  He also includes a lot of other tidbits throughout the book, breaking up the monotony a bit, as well as distracting from his point.  All in all, I’m glad I’ve worked through it so slowly.  It repays careful reading.  You’ll have to wait for my review to see my final thoughts… if I ever get around to writing it.

1. T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, by Steve Smith with Ying Kai

This book is written by a veteran missionary and a Chinese church planter, detailing the method (T4T- Training for Trainers) used by Ying Kai which (in part) led to one of the largest church planting movements in the world.  It is no exaggeration that using this method has radically changed the work of many in cross cultural ministry.  It’s a convicting and convincing call to adjust ministry methods that are neither commanded in the Bible or demanded by necessity.

The strength of the book is it’s attempt to emphasize that there’s nothing new they’re promoting, hence the word “rerevolution” in the title.  It would be easy for some to slip this book from “very helpful and effective” to “don’t mess with it, it’s perfect.”  The latter would be wrong, but just as bad would be to breeze over it with some lame excuse of “that’s overseas, not the US” or “what about tradition.”  Smith and Kai try their best to root all of their suggestions in the Word, and even if they can’t convince you (or me) that it’s 100% what the Bible says, at least it’s biblically grounded and sound.

I can’t recommend this book enough.  I think it needs to be read more than once, and best if in a group of people who can beat the ideas around together, going back to the Scripture and praying through the method.

Now for what’s ahead…

Gregory Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology

It’s rare that I’m completely surprised by a Christmas gift, but this was one.  Beale’s strength is in connections between the Old and New Testaments, as well as eschatology, which for Beale go hand-in-hand.  Given the paucity of spare time in my life, I can’t imagine how long it’ll take me to read this book.  But I’ll give it a go.  I’m convinced that eschatology is more important in biblical theology than most Christians care to think, but I’m also convinced that biblical eschatology looks radically different from the eschatology commonly peddled in the church.  This book, hopefully, will help me sort through all that.  If I ever get around to reading it.

Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches

I know, I know.  This book is for mothers, not fathers.  But I am married to a mother of little children, so I’m only one step removed from the target audience.  If crusty old men can review movies for adolescent girls and get paid big bucks to do it, surely I can handle this.

Actually, my wife got this for Christmas and we decided we’d read it aloud together.  It’s short (just barely over 100 pages), fun (so far, haven’t read too far into it) and comes highly recommended.  I actually haven’t read a single parenting book, partly because I dread “how to” manuals.  This doesn’t seem like that sort of book, and I’m grateful.  Besides, my wife will be blessed by it, and her blessedness is in my best interest.

What books did you read this year?  Anything you’d recommend?