Worthwhile Reading…For Some: History, Law and Christianity

history_law_christianity_cover_courstesy_publisherMontgomery, John Warwick. History, Law and Christianity. Corona, CA: NRP Books, 2014 (prior edition copyrights were 1964, 1991, and 2002). Paperback. 102+xv pages. ISBN 978-1-945500-01-5.

While my philosophical and theological commitment are not Montgomery’s—I am an increasingly committed presuppositionalist; he is the quintessential evidentialist—I still found History, Law and Christianity worthwhile, if occasionally disagreeable, reading. Though its evidentialist stance—which is blatant, persistent, and uncompromising—would make me uncomfortable giving the book to non-Christians, I can recommend it to presuppositionalist Christians looking for a rigorous yet concise overview of the evidentialist viewpoint. Christians already committed to evidentialism, of course, will welcome addition of this risen-again classic to their libraries.

The book comprises two sections, one on “Historical Evidence” (1-44), developed out of a series of lectures Montgomery gave in response to Professor Avrum Stroll’s “Did Jesus Really Exist?” lecture (reproduced as Appendix A, 79-93) and one on “Legal Evidence” (45-76), originally a chapter in a book on human rights. In addition to these main sections, the book includes a 2014 foreword by Craig A. Parton (ix-xii), a 2001 introduction by Montgomery (xii-xv), two appendices (A, already mentioned, and B, a letter from Edwin M. Yamauchi [95-6], related to textual criticism), and a list of suggested readings (97-102). History, Law and Christianity has no index.

Parton’s foreword, which nicely summarizes Montgomery’s approach in the book’s two main sections and clearly sets forth his evidentialist philosophy, contains one remark meriting comment. Parton writes: “with respect to probability reasoning, Montgomery presents the position that the case for Christianity is ultimately a case based on establishing the facticity of certain events….If certain events did not occur, Christianity is a sham. Period. Facts never rise to the level of formal, mathematical proof….100 percent certainty only comes in matters of deductive logic or pure mathematics.” So, he concludes, “One weighs probabilities, looks at the facts…, and then a decision must be rendered. One must never demand of religious claims a level of certainty not demanded in any other domain” (xi, emphasis Parton’s). Interestingly, Parton does not say that if certain events did occur, then Christianity is true or likely true; instead, he emphasizes what would falsify Christianity. Also noteworthy are this statement’s placement of ultimate responsibility for determining the likelihood that Christianity is true on the human individual and its assumption that “a decision must be rendered,” that is, that agnosticism is not an option. Also interesting is the assertion, not argued but assumed, that an individual “must never demand of religious claims a level of factual certainty not demanded in any other domain” (xi).

Both the idea that one is obligated to make a choice on this subject, and that the choice one makes must not require of religious claims any greater factual certainty than one expects of other domains (determination of the best diet to follow, say), seem open to challenge. On the latter, it seems people routinely, and rightly, require different degrees of factual certainty in different domains depending on how important it is to them to ensure right decisions and avoid wrong decisions in those domains. When a decision involves minimal inconvenience and little risk, and where changing one’s mind later is easy, we invariably demand far less factual certainty before making a choice than when a decision involves a high level of inconvenience or much risk, or where changing our minds later might not be so easy. Religious commitment, if one takes it seriously and tries to apply it to one’s life, ranks very high in inconvenience. Because it requires significant changes to one’s life, serious religious commitment ranks low on the easy-to-change-later scale. These aspects of the religious domain seem to favor the common practice of requiring a higher level of certainty before one will commit to a religion than one requires to, say (to stay with our prior example), commit to a certain dietary regimen. Pascal’s Wager, on the other hand (to import something not mentioned by Parton or Montgomery), suggests that, when risk is considered, one might be well advised to lower rather than raise one’s requirements when dealing with religious questions; applying Pascal’s prudential reflections to the religious pluralism of today, one might be best advised to simply compare the claims of various religions and embrace the least unlikely, even if one deems its likelihood quite low. If ultimate responsibility lies with individuals, then practical concern for their own welfare should perhaps incline them to set the bar of factual certainty lower than Parton and Montgomery (“Montgomery stresses,” Parton notes approvingly, “that the ‘burden of proof’ is actually on the Christian to establish the case for Christianity” [xi]). From a practical standpoint, Pascal’s Wager also seems to favor Parton’s and Montgomery’s assumption that “a decision must [or at least should] be rendered,” since there is nothing to be gained by failing to embrace any religion—aside from transitory freedom to indulge proclivities at odds with the religion one finds most likely true, of course. (I suspect neither Parton nor Montgomery would appreciate my introduction of Pascal here, even if it does strengthen their argument.)

Montgomery’s 2001 introduction (xiii-xv) gives readers additional early indication of the philosophy driving his approach. Concerning the book’s first, historical, section, Montgomery recalls (not for the last time) how when he “argued [in a debate] that so good was the historical picture of Jesus that, to eliminate it, one would have—literally—to throw out one’s knowledge of the classical world in general, Professor…Stroll replied, ‘Fine, I shall throw out my knowledge of the classical world,’” to which the chairman of the classics department at the professor’s school strenuously objected (xiii). The consistent indication of all references to this episode is that one should think, “Oh, what a silly man Professor Stroll was being to a adopt such high evidential requirements as to negate all we know about the classical world in general.” The assumption throughout is that the “knowledge of the classical world in general” asserted by historians cannot possibly be subject to philosophical challenge or any doubt meriting the label “reasonable.” Stroll’s willingness, at least during this impromptu response, to extend his skepticism about the historical Jesus to ancient history more generally, rather than being lauded as at least self-consistent, is lifted up to ridicule. The presuppositionalist must wonder, however, whether a radical skepticism about history, even more radical perhaps than what Stroll was willing (if only momentarily) to adopt, might not in fact comport better with a worldview lacking biblical Christian presuppositions than does the comfortable self-assurance of secular historians. On Montgomery’s account, it is historical method in general that is most trustworthy; the assertions of Scripture merit trust only as they can be substantiated by historical method.

Another interesting item in the introduction concerns the second section of the book. Concerning that section’s original role in a book about human rights, he writes: “The logic is that, if the only possible foundation for human rights is transcendental and revelational (as I show), it is imperative to demonstrate evidentially that God did in fact reveal himself in the human sphere” (xiv). The presuppositionalist in me immediately wonders what the foundation is for trust in evidence and human demonstration. Granted one is only justified believing in human rights if one can show a transcendental basis for this belief, is it not the case that trust in the human faculties that perceive and interpret evidence also requires transcendental justification? If one is permitted to take the reliability of these human faculties (sense perception, reason) for granted, why shouldn’t one take the rights for granted, as well?

Finally, in his brief dismissal of Postmodernism, Montgomery says that “if the Postmodernist were correct, no practical knowledge, based on experience and evidence, would be possible.” Montgomery finds this objectionable because “No one in reality ever lives this way” and “Each and every one of us must assume the reliability of our evidential examinations of the world in order to live in it” (xv). This is true enough, but practical necessity is not proof of truth. Presuppositionalist hero Cornelius Van Til once pointed out (as is often noted) that, though unbelievers can count, they cannot account for their counting—and this, on Van Til’s understanding, shows that there is something wrong with unbelievers’ whole approach to knowledge. If one adopts Montgomery’s approach, one simply dismisses this as silly because, as a matter of practical living, no one ever doubts his ability to count or thinks that ability needs to be accounted for if it is to be justified and its conclusions called “knowledge.” Since practical living in the world requires that we assume the reliability of our counting—that we trust the intellectual faculties that enable us to count—the whole question of whether our trust in ourselves fits with or contradicts our comprehensive belief system (worldview) may simply be ignored.

The first section of the text proper, “Historical Evidence,” includes five chapters. The first chapter, “Who Is Jesus Christ?” (3-5), notes that Montgomery and Professor Stroll agree that the truth or falsity of Christianity is a matter of facts, both agreeing with Millar Burrows that any who would claim “the affirmations of Christian faith…are not dependent on reason or evidence” are in error and that “Any historical question about the real Jesus who lived in Palestine nineteen centuries ago is therefore fundamentally important” (5, quoting Burrows’ 1958 More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls). The second chapter, “Four Historical-Philosophical Errors” (7-10), faults Professor Stroll’s “Did Jesus Really Exist?” (79-93) for the following errors: (1) relying on judgments by certain modern “authorities” rather than following “The proper scholarly procedure [which] is, of course, to face the documentary problems directly, by way of the accepted canons of historical and literary method” (7); (2) neglecting primary documents, particularly Paul’s letters (which predate the Gospels) (8-9); (3) reasoning in a circle by first assuming miracles impossible then, on the basis of this assumption, identifying miracles in the Gospels as evidence that they are untrustworthy as historical documents; and (4) suggesting that first century “messianic fever” makes plausible the legendary elevation of Jesus to Godhood and Messiahship, even though “Historically it can be proven beyond question that, on every important point, Jesus’ conception of himself as Messiah differed radically from the conceptions held by all parties among the Jews” (10). Within the evidentialist system of assumptions—where reference to “accepted canons of historical and literary method” never prompts the response, “Acceptable to whom? Acceptable on what transcendental basis?”—these chapters are persuasive. One might wonder whether one should ever claim a matter of history “can be proven beyond question,” of course.

The third chapter, “Are the New Testament Documents Historically Trustworthy?” (11-20) seeks to show that, in terms of “the tests of reliability employed in general historiography,” the documents making up the New Testament merit acceptance as generally reliable historical documents. Montgomery wishes to emphasize that, in this approach, “we do not naively assume the ‘inspiration’ or ‘infallibility’ of the New Testament records….We will [instead] regard the documents…only as documents, and we will treat them as we would any other historical materials” (11). While some of us see nothing naïve about taking God’s own words, which as such deserve greater trust than any alternative authority we might use to show them trustworthy, as our ultimate and starting authority, there is nothing necessarily wrong with exploring, as an intellectual exercise, where a different ultimate and starting authority and alternative starting assumptions lead. In Montgomery’s case, we begin our investigation by “naively” accepting the reliability of our various faculties, the correctness of the methods agreed to by members of the historians’ subculture, and the correctness of applying to God-breathed (or, in terms of this approach’s working assumptions, potentially God-breathed) writings the same rules of analysis found correct and reliable when applied to merely humans writings. The tests to be applied are these: (1) the bibliographic test, “analysis of the textual tradition by which a document reaches us” (11-13); (2) the internal evidence test, in which one assumes that “one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies,” then examines the document for such disqualifying properties (13-15); (3) the external evidence test, which compares what the New Testament documents say with what can be learned from “inscriptions and other independent evidence,” such as secular historical accounts and writings of early church fathers (15-17). In terms of the assumptions adopted, those of historians, Montgomery makes a strong case that the New Testament documents are indeed reliable historical documents, and so must be taken as seriously as any other historical documents when determining what the Jesus of history actually taught and did. Montgomery’s treatment also includes a refutation of form criticism, a critical methodology on which Professor Stroll relied heavily (form critics were his preferred “modern authorities”) (17-19). Naturalistically biased and radically subjective, the methodology proves lacking in redeeming qualities. One possible, if weak, challenge one might offer to Montgomery’s arguments would concern test 2 (internal evidence). The innocent-till-proven-guilty assumption underlying test 2 is surely the most practical if one wants to draw historical conclusions from ancient documents, but it is hard to see how one can refute someone who adopts a contrary guilty-till-proven-innocent “hermeneutic of suspicion.” If someone fails to apply an even hand, treating some ancient documents as presumptively doubtful and others as presumptively trustworthy, he certainly must be called upon to justify or abandon his bias. Radical skepticism toward ancient documents in general, though irksome and impractical, seems harder to refute.

Chapter four, “God Closes In” (21-31), reemphasizes some of Montgomery’s basic assumptions and approach and shows that the the main New Testament documents, those shown historically reliable in the prior chapters, portray Jesus as someone who presented himself as, and was believed by his followers to be, God himself. Montgomery emphasizes again that “the documentary attestation for these [the New Testament] records is so strong that a denial of their reliability necessarily carries with it total skepticism toward the history and literature of the classical world” (21). He also asserts, in accord with earlier statements, that his “line of argument…depends in no sense on theology. It rests solely and squarely upon historical method, the kind of method all of us…have to use in analyzing historical data” (21). As at the start, Montgomery admits no authority more ultimate than historical method, no theological or philosophical foundation logically prior to historical method, nothing upon which historical method depends for its justification. Historical method, apparently, is worldview-neutral, a final authority all can and must trust, since (it is assumed) it is simply unacceptable either to adopt a stance of total skepticism or to “naively” treat God’s own words in Scripture as one’s starting point and ultimate authority. Only one’s own assumed-reliable faculties and what they, under the guidance of accepted historical methodology, can do with evidence may rightly serve as one’s ultimate authority. Whether or not one agrees with Montgomery’s evidentialist philosophy, one must grant that the historical case for Jesus’s having claimed, and his followers’ having believed him, to be God is as well supported as many alleged ancient events no one, save the occasional radical skeptic, sees any reason to doubt. Those who grant the validity of historical methodology do seem obligated to accept that Jesus’s claim to be God was not a legendary invention or a misconstrual by loyal but not-too-bright followers.

Chapter five, “An Historian’s Appeal” (33-44), discusses the four possibilities given Jesus’s claim to be God: (1) that Jesus made the claim dishonestly, and so was a charlatan; (2) that Jesus believed he was God when he wasn’t, making him a lunatic; and (3) that Jesus never actually made the claim, but that “his disciples put this claim in his mouth,” making the disciples liars, crazy people, or not-too-bright exaggerators; and (4) Jesus made the claim and the claim was, and is, true. Montgomery, of course, argues for 4. Since Montgomery has already shown that the historical evidence strongly favors belief that Jesus did in fact claim to be God, all that remains to be shown in this chapter is that there are good historical reasons to believe that he in fact is God. After examining alternatives 1 and 2 and finding them wanting (33-40), Montgomery sets forth what he considers the best historical evidence that Jesus was (is) is fact God: historical evidence that Jesus’s resurrection really happened (40-3). Since he has already shown that the New Testament documents are historically reliable, the main burden of Montgomery’s discussion at this point is to urge the illegitimacy of an arbitrary bias against the possibility of a miracle like the resurrection. His fundamental idea is that “The only way we can know whether an event can occur is to see whether in fact it has occurred” (41), which he maintains (with supporting quotations from historians) is the standard assumption of the historical methodology he takes for granted (41-2). Claiming that an event well substantiated in reliable historical documents, such as Jesus’s resurrection, could not have happened because it violates “natural law” is, he holds, not permissible (41). Since even laboratory scientists cannot simply rule out data because they judge it “impossible” given what they believe the laws of nature to be—otherwise, how would incorrect beliefs about the laws of nature ever be falsified?—Montgomery’s refusal to permit naturalistic bias into historical investigation strikes me as both plausible and persuasive (at least within the evidentialist presuppositional framework that he shares in common with secular historians).

From the historical likelihood that Jesus’s resurrection actually occurred, Montgomery infers that Jesus was (is) in fact God as he claimed to be. As Montgomery sees it, “we must go to the one who rose to find the explanation” of the resurrection, and Jesus’s explanation, “though we may not like it, is that only God himself, the Lord of life, could conquer the power of death” (42). This last step in Montgomery’s argument seems quite weak. So far as I can see, we have no reason to assume that the subjects of rare occurrences should invariably possess special insight into the nature or cause of those occurrences. The lucky single survivor of a plane crash seldom is the best suited to explain why he happened to survive; if anyone could tell us (which is unlikely), it might be someone who could infer from the pattern of wreckage and the black box data that this passenger just happened (in terms of relevant physical laws) to be in the perfect location in the plane to beat the odds. (Arguably, this would answer the question of how rather than why. The why would remain a mystery absent revelation from the divine Interpreter.) That the lucky individual in question did in fact survive the crash could be historically verified, drawing together eyewitness accounts of his boarding the plane, airline ticketing and boarding data, eyewitness testimony to the recovery of his injured but living body from the wreckage, and post-crash hospital records. If the individual had predicted the plane would crash and he would survive, and had added the claim that this miraculous survival would validate his claim to be God, would most of us be inclined to conclude the man’s claim to be God was in fact validated by the “miracle”? In a religiously-neutral environment lacking at least certain monotheistic presuppositions, I’m not sure we would.

Say we imagine a New Age universe where individual consciousness influences the fabric of reality in weird ways. In such a universe, believing oneself God so strongly as to believe one will rise from the dead (or just survive a plane crash) could very well be the cause of one’s actually rising (or surviving). Since our “knowledge” of the past is limited to the small sampling of past facts for which current evidence remains (most past facts have left no sign in any written or archaeological record; just think for a moment of how many people have lived and how many events have occurred of which there is today no evidence at all), we really can’t assert that other resurrections have not occurred. Who knows? For that matter, most current facts remain inaccessible to human observers because the universe, assuming there is only one, is very large and we, even as we extend ourselves with various measuring devices and assumption-dependent inferences from what those devices record, are very small. Once one jettisons the biblical Christian presupposition that the creation is necessarily uniformly ordered, lawful, and intelligible because no other sort of universe fits with the God Scripture describes and in whom we place our faith, one is under no compulsion to grant that uniform order, lawfulness, or intelligibility extend beyond one’s own little area of observation and one’s own brief period of observation—and even that seeming uniformity and lawful intelligibility might be the delusion of misleading faculties rather than anything genuine, much less anything necessarily universal or permanent. In this order of things, references to “sanity” and “lunacy” are meaningless, so considering Jesus a “lunatic” for thinking himself God would be no slight.

If this kind of thinking strikes us as ridiculous, a radical violation of “common sense,” that is only because we live in a culture that, however secular it may aspire and strive to be, is still very much influenced by a long Bible-influenced Christian heritage. Even cultures without our Western Christian background have their ultimate origins in peoples exposed to God’s spoken revelation to Noah and his forebears, and to traditions (however corrupted) about the nature of the world and past events originating in the same common background of all humankind recorded in the early chapters of Genesis. If one can genuinely break away from the assumptions this background makes seem so natural, as one really should if one does not accept the Bible-believing Christian worldview with which these assumptions fit and in terms of which they find their justifying explanation, weird New Age ideas and a host of other modes of thought begin to seem plausible. Of course, this seeming plausibility never rings wholly true, since all humans are prevented by God’s common grace from wholly blinding themselves to God’s self-revelation in the world around them and within themselves. Still, some people seem able to take such “ridiculous” thinking very seriously, at least when it comes to choosing their “spiritual” beliefs (and preferred entertainments).

Exploration of the “ridiculous” thinking that a consistently non-Christian “neutral” autonomous perspective makes plausible aside, Montgomery himself actually makes at least one broad philosophical observation that effectively strips the resurrection of its Jesus-really-is-God-as-he-claimed evidential function. He writes:

But can the modern man accept a “miracle” such as the resurrection? The answer is a surprising one. The resurrection has to be accepted by us just because we are modern men—men living in the Einsteinian-relativistic age. For us, unlike people of the Newtonian epoch, the universe is no longer a tight, safe, predictable playing field in which we know all the rules. Since Einstein, no modern has had the right to rule out the possibility of events because of prior knowledge of “natural law.” The only way we can know whether an event can occur is to see whether in fact it has occurred. The problem of “miracles,” then, must be solved in the realm of historical investigation….And note that an historian, in facing an alleged “miracle,” is really facing nothing new. All historical events are unique, and the test of their facticity can be only the accepted documentary approach we have followed here. No historian has a right to a closed system of natural causation, for as the Cornell logician Max Black has shown, the very concept of cause is “a peculiar, unsystematic, and erratic notion,” and therefore “any attempt to state a ‘universal law of causation’ must prove futile.” (41-2, ending with quote from Black’s 1962 Models and Metaphors)

The ironical quotation marks in this passage, around “natural law” and “miracle,” in combination with all that the passage asserts, perhaps say more than Montgomery should have said if he wanted his use of the resurrection to prove Jesus’s Godhood to appear valid on a worldview-neutral, universal basis. On this “modern man” understanding, what have customarily been called “miracles” are now mere rare events, things unpredictable from the patterns of regular behavior we have so far observed in nature (patterns of regularity we formerly thought expressed “natural law”), but still part of the infinite realm of possibilities: “For the critical historian nothing is impossible” (42, quoting Ethelbert Stauffer’s 1960 Jesus and His Story). If one embraces this understanding, it seems strange that one should also hold to the assumption that all that happens must be explainable, so that all one must do is (1) determine the most probable explanation from among those so far proposed, then (2) embrace that explanation as correct. A universe unburdened by law-limited possibility and clear rules of causation permits countless unique events wholly impossible for humans to explain. Absent the lawful order presupposed by those with faith in the biblical God (albeit a lawful order more complex and less intuitive than once supposed), events and phenomena like resurrection, spontaneous healing, accurate awareness of distant and future people and events, are neither impossible nor proof of divine intervention: they’re just weird, and weird stuff happens.

Montgomery closes his historical section with an appeal. Siding with “Heidegger, Sartre and other contemporary existentialist” in the belief that “all life is decision, and no man can sit on the fence,” condemning noncommittal agnostics and noting that “The atheist at least has recognized the necessity of taking a position on ultimate matters” (43), Montgomery asserts that “all of us, must make decisions constantly, and the only adequate guide is probability—since absolute certainty lies only in the realms of pure logic and mathematics, where, by definition, one encounters no matters of fact at all” (44). Presumably, Montgomery does not claim “absolute certainty” that “the only adequate guide” to decision making is probability; yet, oddly enough, he does not tell readers how probable it is that “the only adequate guide [in decision making] is probability.” “If probability does in fact support [Jesus’s] claims…then we must act in behalf of them,” he concludes, noting how Jesus himself maintained that one was either for or against him (44). Of course, one must accept Jesus’s claims before one accepts Jesus’s assertion that one must choose for or against him, mustn’t one? As well, oddly enough, Montgomery says “we must act,” not “we probably must act.” More accurate than any of these (and recalling my mention of Pascal) might be, “if we are concerned about our own welfare and thinking pragmatically, we should act.” This may not be as strong an appeal as Montgomery intends, but it is not without force.

The second section, “Legal Evidence” (45-76), contains a single chapter, “Christianity Juridically Defended” (47-76). Montgomery’s evidentialist stance remains evident, and is made even more explicit, in this final chapter. Even revelation is not certain truth, as the presuppositionalist would hold (God’s word “is truth” [John 17:17]), but a set of “revelational truth-claim[s]” to be validated by “the very reasoning employed in the law to determine questions of fact” (47). The “testability” of Christianity’s truth claims is central: “the truth of its absolute claims rests squarely on certain historical facts open to ordinary investigation” (47). Montgomery, following Mortimer Adler (and many others), finds appealing “the legal standards of proof by preponderance of evidence and proof beyond reasonable doubt” (50). Since “Legal rules of evidence are a reflection of ‘natural reason’” (50, quoting a 1978 article by Jerome Hall), one who assumes “natural reason” trustworthy (if in need of some methodological rigor to minimize errors) will naturally find its methods appealing. From within the biblical Christian presuppositionalist framework, there is much to be said for use of this mode of reasoning when investigating historical questions. From a perspective providing no metaphysical justification for trust in “natural reason,” on the other hand, its value isn’t as clear.

The concepts of “preponderance of evidence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” strike the presuppositionalist as not so obvious and unproblematic as evidentialists like Montgomery suppose. It is certainly true that a finite body of evidence may, as it is most naturally interpreted by most persons who deal with it, seem on balance to better comport with one “here’s what happened” story than another. So, “preponderance of the evidence,” as a shorthand for “preponderance of the most natural interpretations of such limited evidence as is currently under consideration,” is a real phenomenon. That the body of evidence under consideration is always a sampling of an infinite universe of evidence that currently does or once may have existed, some of which might not be irrelevant to the current question, seems to require making all “preponderance of the evidence” decisions provisional, assuming one cannot simply remain agnostic on a given question. On the basis of whatever evidence one has available at a certain time, one makes provisional decisions, decisions perpetually subject to revision or replacement in light of new evidence (or reconsideration of one’s interpretation of the old), when one must; at other times, one may admit agnosticism. All this hinges, of course, on the legitimacy of trusting how most persons “most naturally” deal with given evidence. This equates to a trust in natural human faculties upon which human interpretation of evidence depends. The presuppositionalist asks: Is trust in these faculties (sensory, perceptual, intellectual) justified in terms of any and every worldview? If one does not presuppose that the biblical Christian view of things is true, if one does not even presuppose (say) the truth of some more generalized monotheistic system, is one justified simply trusting that these natural human faculties can generally be trusted? Doubt that this is the case seems warranted.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” seems more obviously worldview-dependent, since it hangs entirely on one’s conception of what is “reasonable” when it comes to doubt. Within the Christian framework, where human faculties are known to be given by a truthful and loving God and so to be generally reliable (only “generally” reliable because our fallen state makes them subject to misuse, including misuse of which the misuser may be unaware), the “reasonable doubt” concept makes perfect sense and can be heartily embraced. All persons should indeed be able to come to agreement on what sorts of doubts are and are not reasonable within this worldview. Can any coherent idea of when the real doubts of any person cease to be “reasonable” be formulated on worldview-neutral grounds, however? Since to be worldview-neutral is to be without grounds of any sort for any ideas (so says the presuppositionalist), the answer seems to be “no.” If I doubt and take my doubt seriously, who are you to tell me my doubt isn’t “reasonable”? What puts me under any obligation to accept your idea of the “reasonable”? For that matter, why do I even need to accept the idea that being “reasonable” is the only thing that makes a doubt worth taking seriously? What if I doubt this faculty reason itself? Why shouldn’t I: it’s just a chance-evolved faculty, after all, or so I’m told. Yes, yes, these sorts of questions, which challenge reason itself while continuing to utilize reason (taking for granted, for instance, that there really is a difference between “accepting” and “rejecting” an idea, which presupposes the law of contradiction), are (in terms of reason) “self-referentially incoherent.” However, if one’s worldview provides no basis for trusting such human faculties as reason, there is nothing necessarily wrong with being self-referentially incoherent; for all one knows, only self-referentially incoherent statements can be true. Yes, this kind of thinking is “nuts,” but that’s the point: worldview-neutral thinking is nonsense. Who are you, anyway, to claim being “nuts” or “nonsense” is undesirable? (By the way, some might prefer to speak of the human faculty as “reasoning” or “rationality,” and to use “reason” to refer only to the abstracted description of how that faculty may be properly exercised. Referring to the faculty itself as “reason,” as in such phrases as “deliverances of reason,” is well established, however.)

It is by no means necessary to get into this kind of presuppositional discussion with every non-Christian. Most non-Christians in our culture are still sufficiently under the influence of our biblical Christian heritage to make a purely evidential appeal like Montgomery’s very effective. The one danger (not an insignificant one) is that persons who embrace Christianity on these grounds will never wholly and humbly, as trusting children (Matthew 18:3-4), submit to Scripture alone as their ultimate authority (more precisely, as the only infallible, sufficient, and clear verbal communication from their actual ultimate authority, the Triune God). A whole range of failures of professing Christian to “speak the same thing” and “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10) can be traced to the failure of many to place their every thought under Scripture’s authority (2 Corinthians 10:5). On Montgomery’s evidentialist understanding, autonomous non-Christian thought is not fundamentally in error, in error even where it seems to reason correctly because its reasoning does not cohere with its professed starting assumptions and overall belief system, but only fails to go far enough or draws some incorrect higher-level conclusions: “At one point in his speech [in Athens], Paul asserted that human life is a product of divine creation, ‘as even some of your [Stoic] poets have said’ (Acts 17:28), thereby making clear that classical natural law thinking was correct as far as it went….Its completion could be found in Jesus” (48; “Stoic” clarification Montgomery’s). (Paul’s pointing to something the pagans believed as in fact true, which Paul knew to be the case on biblical grounds, is construed by Montgomery as Paul’s way of saying that the pagans’ belief was justified on the grounds of their pagan presuppositions and the “natural law thinking” by which they supported the belief in terms of those presuppositions. This construal is not necessary, nor does it seem likely. Affirming that someone’s belief is true implies no endorsement of his way of arriving at that belief.) If one embraces Christianity with this understanding, one naturally will see no need to radically reconstruct one’s cognitive structure on a rigorously biblical basis. The “faith” one possesses in this case is wholly the product of one’s autonomous reasoning on neutral grounds, independent of God’s verbal revelation. It is the product of human decision based upon probabilistic reasoning about evidence, a reasoned commitment to what one judges most likely true in terms of the evidence one has so far considered. This cannot be a “faith that is so firm ([as] Job’s) that it excludes the slightest shadow of doubt and persists even in the face of evidence that [in writer Jerome Hall’s opinion] on rational grounds is plainly [read: seemingly to Hall] contradictory” (50, quoting Hall); so, naturally, Montgomery writes, “We are not persuaded that Job’s faith was quite as firm—or as irrational—as Hall suggests” (50 n.56). The association of doubt-free firmness and irrationality here is telling: “faith” of this sort is always a provisional thing, a tentative human opinion subject to revision in light of potential future evidence.

Is such “faith” the faith through which God saves, faith that is not of ourselves but is “the gift of God,” faith that is not produced by any human work and so about which no human “should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)? “Faith” established and maintained on Montgomery’s grounds certainly seems like a human work and cause for boasting. Even persons who have not authored “more than sixty books in six languages” and do not hold “eleven earned degrees” as Montgomery does (back cover) seem well within their rights to boast if their skill in reasoning and talent for sifting through and assessing evidence have allowed them to establish and maintain the faith through which God effects salvation. Without their cleverness, after all, God would be powerless to save! Could it be that so many professing Christians spend their entire Christians lives with nagging doubts and uncertainties about the most fundamental matters, and that so many other professing Christians wholly abandon the Faith, because the only “faith” they ever have is this autonomously established and maintained thing, what some call “reasonable faith,” that has never saved (never been the means through which God effected the eternal salvation of) anyone? This evidentialist “faith” might often serve as a form of preparation for salvation, as something God finds useful to include in the lives of some of his elect before he grants them new life and saving faith, but the evidentialist idea that this autonomously established assent, even when combined with willful commitment to begin ordering one’s conduct along Christian lines, is in fact saving faith, seems incorrect.

If saving faith, true faith, is not voluntary human commitment to a course of action or lifestyle based on rational assessment of public evidence, what is it? Consider this definition (perhaps a bit rough and preliminary): the faith through which God saves his people by grace, “saving faith” for short, is the product of grace alone, an undoubting trust grounded firmly in God-given awareness of indubitable spiritual truth. This faith is wholly consonant with all rightly interpreted evidence, to be sure, but it is not “based on” evidence; rather, it is the basis upon which one trusts one’s God-given senses and the sensations they receive, one’s God-given perceptual apparatus and the evidence it constructs from sensations, one’s rational faculty and how it interprets such evidence, and so on. The saved believer does not trust his God because he first trusted his own faculties and the world around him and, given this starting point of self and world, came to consider God probably real and his Word probably trustworthy; instead, the saved believer, by God’s grace, trusts God and his Word first of all and most of all, and on this basis trusts his faculties to the extent God’s Word seems to justify and understands the world to be what Scripture helps him understand it to be. (The ordering here is a matter of logical priority, of what justifies what, not of temporal ordering. Temporally, many who end up true believers may not initially realize their only good reason for trusting their faculties is their faith in the God who gave them those faculties.)

No “leap of faith” is proposed here: the idea of a “leap of faith” owes to the understanding of saving faith as a human work. On this understanding, since evidence of Christianity’s truth never rises to a level compelling assent—alternative explanations are always possible, even if not very plausible—one must invariably “leap” beyond the evidence to the wholehearted, permanent commitment that is saving faith. Those whom God sovereignly saves make no such leap; if there is a chasm between human-formed opinions and saving faith, then it is God alone who bridges the gap: true believers do not leap over the chasm; they are thrown (or flown) across it.

This issue aside, the final section is neither more nor less persuasive than the one preceding it; in essence, it is the same argument from a different angle. One thing it does add is an illuminating discussion on handling testimonial evidence (54-63), which is, of course, the sort of evidence we find in the New Testament. The bottom line here is that dishonest, or even just inaccurate, testimony could not have stood up to the hostile challenges of Christianity’s formative years. Eyewitnesses who rejected the Faith were around at the same time the eyewitnesses who accepted it were promoting it and making their various claims, such as that Jesus had risen from the dead and been seen by multiple persons on multiple occasions after doing so. This chapter could have the added benefit of warning off potential perjurers: lying is a much more complicated maneuver than telling the truth, and the attorney(s) cross examining you are well trained to trip you up; best not try it.

As in the first section of the book, Montgomery here infers Jesus’s Godhood from his resurrection, holding that “Surely, if only Jesus was raised, he is in a far better position…to interpret or explain it” (74). This assertion is no more evidently true or likely here than it was in the historical section. This section adds the inference that, since Jesus has been shown to be God, the “stamp of approval” he places on the Bible should prompt us to place our trust in the Bible as infallible. Presumably, this trust should only be as strong as our trust in the evidentialist arguments up to this point; so, “place our tentative trust in the Bible as probably infallible” would probably be more accurate wording for what Montgomery believes he has proven we should do.

On balance, then, History, Law and Christianity is interesting, worthwhile reading. Though its commitment to evidentialism does not allow me to recommend it to non-Christians or Christians not well established in a thoroughly faithful, Bible-based, presuppositionalist way of thinking, I think it good reading for committed Bible believers whose grounding in faithful presuppositionalism is firm enough to permit exploration of the evidentialist perspective. Committed evidentialists, of course, will love it. I’ll pray for them.

This review will also appear, abridged and less nicely formatted, on Amazon and, in more abridged form, on GoodReads.

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Comprehensive, Informative…Inconsistent, Flawed: 40 Question about Creation and Evolution

Janus_coin_public_domainKeathley, Kenneth D., and Mark F. Rooker. 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution. 40 Questions, series ed. Benjamin L. Merkle. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2014. Paperback, 430 pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-2941-5.

Introduction: General Overview and Assessment

In this book, a fairly comprehensive survey of debated questions related to creation and evolution, particularly as those questions are addressed by evangelicals, authors Keathley and Rooker (hereafter, K&R) survey and assess the various extant opinions in a manner that attempts, more successfully in some chapters than in others, to be “fair and balanced” rather than polemical. K&R’s efforts at fairness and balance notwithstanding, reading the whole 40 Questions text (hereafter, 40Qs) does give one a clear impression of what views K&R prefer in debates about how the early chapters of Genesis should be read, how or if the dominant opinions of contemporary scientists should affect biblical hermeneutics, how important it is to take or not take a strong position on these issues, and how this should all affect one’s approach to apologetics.

If the impression one gets from reading 40Qs is correct, K&R’s judgment is that, at present, the most natural reading of Scripture is still biblical creationism (BC). (This is the terminology I and others advocate because it places proper emphasis on what motivates BC: humble, childlike submission [Matthew 18:3, etc.] to the plain or natural sense of Scripture, even when considering historical and scientific questions. The authors, in agreement with dominant usage, call this young-earth creationism, or YEC. In this review, I will use the terminology I advocate.) The only biblical difficulty they agree exists for this reading (the only one not resolved fairly easily, at any rate) is the great deal of activity that seems to have taken place on the sixth day of the creation week. Most alternative readings of the Genesis creation account (such as the day-age, temple inauguration, gap, framework, and historical creationism theories) show themselves, in the chapters (“questions”) that discuss them, to be fraught with more significant biblical difficulties than BC’s too-much-stuff-on-day-six issue. Though the authors commend the more Bible-centered of these alternatives (historical creationism comes to mind), Scripture itself prevents them from claiming that any non-BC position fits Scripture so naturally and well as BC. Notably, however, a metaphor-for-literal-but-ineffable-pre-Fall-reality theory is not criticized, but only presented as a “mediating” view open to persons who are persuaded that the Genesis creation days must (because of the demands of biblical wording and context) be understood as normal-length days (164). (The lack of significant criticism of this “mediating” position suggests that it might be the OEC position that the authors presently deem most cogent. One must wonder, though: what exactly does a metaphor communicate if the literal reality it is alleged to describe is wholly beyond verbal description?) Also notably, K&R, like such past opponents of BC as Gleason Archer, do sometimes call the BC reading “cursory” or the like (I believe Archer’s term was “superficial”), even though their own chapters studying the various approaches show that BC has strong biblical justification on close reading, not just when reading is “cursory.” Since this is not a “Genesis debate” book, and since chapters are not specifically assigned to one author or the other, this inconsistency of tone is troubling. Readers are informed early-on (23) that each author “leans to” a different position, one (Rooker) toward BC (“YEC”) and one (Keathley) toward OEC, but nowhere is it suggested that either author disagrees with what they have chosen jointly to assert in their 40Qs collaboration.

While K&R generally (“cursory reading” inconsistency aside) seem willing to grant the Scripture-alone case to BC, they also clearly believe that scientific support for BC is scarce to nonexistent: they think that BC is and, one gets the distinct impression, should embrace being a “fideistic” position that is simply untestable because it relies on miracles like the global Flood and an initially mature creation with “apparent age.” Old Earth Creationism (OEC), on the other hand, has (they believe) very strong scientific support (even if various systems offered to go with OEC don’t seem true on biblical grounds alone). Evolutionary Creationism (EC), while it can claim the support of most of the scientific data that K&R believe supports OEC, has considerably weaker biblical justification than non-evolutionary OEC. In fact, the authors seem inclined to think that progressive creationism (God created intermittently over long periods, with limited “evolutionary” development of creatures occurring during times when God wasn’t creating) fits better with the scientific data than does full-on evolutionism (whether that of EC or Darwinism, the latter of which K&R judge an ideology unsustainable on either scientific or philosophical grounds). On related matters: (1) though they admit BC’s belief in a global Flood has good biblical support, they consider the local Flood theory rational and acceptable on biblical grounds, and they are unpersuaded by the scientific (geological) case for the global Flood (and seem to wish BC-motivated Flood geologists would just knock it off and admit their view is fideistic and impossible to support scientifically); (2) they endorse the idea that the Genesis genealogies contain gaps of unknown duration, ruling out strict chronology based on those genealogies.

Clearly, a good deal of research and thought has gone into this text. As a result, it does contain much useful information. Its identification by name of advocates of various viewpoints, and its references to key texts and articles promoting those viewpoints, are two examples that may alone make the book a worthwhile purchase for some readers and for libraries. Researchers will find the lack of a subject index annoying, I think, though the main topics can readily be located using the table of contents (9-10). No doubt the lack of an index of persons mentioned will also displease some. (These indexes are lacking in my complimentary review copy, at least. Perhaps some future printing will include them.) Nevertheless, persons desiring a comprehensive survey of currently debated issues might decide that 40Qs serves their purposes nicely. I can only give the book a mildly positive rating (three stars on the standard five-star scale), however, because (1) a fundamental aspect of its overall approach is deeply flawed; (2) its treatment of BC, and of the Bible-believing presuppositionalism (BBP) that often goes with it, is unsatisfactory (as to BBP and BC generally, and in failing to address a longstanding BC concern with terminology); and (3) it has other shortcoming that might be noted. ^

Fundamental Flaw in Overall Approach ^

A fundamental aspect of 40Qs that seems especially flawed is K&R’s attempt to frame the differences between advocates of BC, OEC, and EC as disagreements over “apologetic approach” only. These three viewpoints, which all adopt very different approaches to God’s infallible written Word, are included in a list of “apologetic approaches” along with Intelligent Design (ID), which takes no position at all on God’s Word (nor, in fact, on whether the “intelligence” inferred to lie behind certain phenomena in nature is the God of the Bible). Disagreements about how God created, or about what Scripture means when it touches on the subject, K&R maintain, are disagreements about “apologetic approach,” apologetic strategy, only. If it is a variety of “creationism,” it is apologetic approach, not doctrine. Only the question of whether God created is a matter of doctrine, “the doctrine of creation”; everything else is just strategy (“approach”). To be more precise, the “doctrine of creation,” as K&R describe it, includes the following propositions: God created the world out of nothing; only God is eternal, meaning creation began in, and includes, time; God is distinct from creation; God did not create out of necessity; God did not have to create this particular world, but chose of his own free will to do so; God created a world that is consistent with his nature and character; God is sovereign over the world; God continues to be actively involved with the world, being not only its Creator but its Sustainer.

Even on the expanded “to be more precise” description of “the doctrine of creation,” however, the idea that “everything else is just strategy” is neither persuasive nor plausible. Everything that Scripture teaches, all that is directly stated or that “by good and necessary consequence” may be inferred from what is directly stated, is doctrine. When people disagree about what Scripture may be claimed to teach or imply, as when people disagree about whether or not God really did create absolutely everything in the space of six days of the sort experienced in a normal week (Exodus 20:9-11), their disagreement very definitely is doctrinal. This is why many churches include specific positions on the issue in their doctrinal statements. If two BC advocates disagree with one another about whether they should (1) do an internal critique of an opponent’s worldview, pointing out how it takes for granted presuppositions that actually don’t fit with it but are “borrowed” from the Bible-believing worldview, or (2) draw upon ID arguments to show how the presuppositions that opponent takes for granted make God’s existence impossible to deny rationally, that is a difference over apologetic strategy. Disagreements about how scientific data should be explained in the Bible-first BC context may also be deemed differences over apologetic approach, as may differences between approaches of any two OEC advocates. If one Christian thinks the Bible must be humbly accepted in its most natural sense and the data of science interpreted in light of that sense (BC), whereas another thinks the data of science has a natural (objective, worldview-neutral) sense in terms of which an unclear Bible must be reinterpreted (OEC, EC), that is a difference over doctrine.

Even so, I appreciate K&R’ effort to show that Christians who fail to embrace BC do still agree with biblical creationists on the doctrine that God created. (All aspects of the “to be more precise” description of the doctrine noted above may be seen as implicit in the “God” part of the identifier “doctrine that God created,” since it is understood in context that the God of the Bible is in view, and the “to be more precise” points simply unpack what being the God of the Bible entails.) Where they disagree is on the doctrine of how God created. It is misleading to call either of these separate doctrines “the doctrine of creation,” but that is what K&R have chosen to do. Perhaps this is longstanding usage, but that doesn’t make it any less misleading. The debate here is definitely a matter of doctrine, not just apologetics. By adopting the usage they do, K&R bias their presentation in favor of those who, in complete disagreement with advocates of BC, claim the Bible doesn’t mean to say anything about how God created, only that he created. This biased and misleading framing of the issue makes 40Qs, for all its wealth of information and critical reflection, a deeply flawed book. It is also strange, since K&R do not themselves seem to believe that “the Bible doesn’t mean to say anything about how God created, only that he created.” When one’s desire to be irenic and make peace between disagreeing Christians (a laudable motive, no doubt) makes one introduce biases into one’s work that contradict one’s own convictions, might it be said that peacemaking has been carried too far? Of course, my impression that K&R do not themselves believe “the Bible doesn’t mean to say anything about how God created, only that he created” could be mistaken; perhaps one or the other of them believes exactly that. Were this the case, the bias would then be less strange, though no less objectionable.

Unsatisfactory Treatment of Biblical Creationism and Bible-Believing Presuppositionalism ^

Presuppositionalism ^

The book is also flawed in its consideration of BC and BBP. K&R observe that “most” BC advocates are presuppositionalists, often to a degree K&R think verges on, or passes wholly over into, the “blind faith” of fideism. They write: “The presuppositionalist believes that the validity of one’s presuppositions must eventually be tested by using the laws of logic and be demonstrated by a consistency with the evidential findings. Fideism, by contrast, does not believe one’s presuppositions can be tested” (20). Were presuppositionalist pioneer Cornelius Van Til and his star pupil, Greg Bahnsen, available for comment, I think they would find this description objectionable. By insisting that presuppositions must be tested for “consistency with the evidential findings,” for instance, K&R disallow any form of “presuppositionalism” that is more than evidentialism with some presuppositional analysis thrown in. As for testing “using the laws of logic,” the stance of Van Tilian presuppositionalists (the only “real” presuppositionalists were one to ask the late Dr. Bahnsen) is that the Christian worldview with its BBP is the only belief system with which trust in the laws of logic makes sense, the only system that can account for those laws. Calling them “laws” or suggesting they be used to “test” anything before one has adopted BBP is, on Van Tilian grounds, nonsense.

Okay, I just threw around some terms I should probably clarify. First, I spoke of “the Christian worldview with its BBP.” Van Tilians will typically just say, “the Christian worldview,” and leave it at that, though the growth in popularity of that term among non-Van Tilians inclines me to think “with its BBP” must be specified. Words like “worldview” and “presuppositions” are used very freely in discussion of these issues, so perhaps I should clarify them also. Sometimes it sounds like the two terms are meant as synonyms. A worldview, however, is a comprehensive belief system: it includes and owes its existence and content to some set of presuppositions (or, as some, though not usually Van Tilians, put it, an unproven and unprovable set of axioms), of which adherents of the worldview may have little conscious awareness (prior to careful and uncomfortable reflection), but it is not limited to those presuppositions. The correctness of presuppositions cannot be tested by any worldview-neutral (“objective”) criteria because, simply put, there are no such criteria. All criteria express and function within worldviews. K&R’s suggestion that presuppositions must be tested for compliance with “evidence,” thus, misses a fundamental point of BBP. Presuppositions can be tested, but not by “evidence”: they can be tested for whether or not they cohere with the worldviews of which they are a part. When a worldview and its presuppositions cannot be brought into coherence, either through modification of the presuppositions to fit the rest of the worldview, or through modification of the rest of the worldview to fit the presuppositions, the worldview fails. The faith of Christians who advocate BBP is that every non-BBP worldview, including “Christian” worldviews that reject BBP in favor of the presuppositions of secular empiricists, Thomistic philosophers, or others, will fail upon analysis, whereas the BBP worldview will not. (Typically, as I’ve noted, BBP advocates speak simply of “the Christian worldview.” This usage is misleading, however, since persons who do not embrace BBP also speak of “the Christian worldview” as they incorporate limited presuppositional analysis into their non-BBP work. Since true Christians share many important beliefs in common, speaking of “the Christian worldview” is very tempting. As is clear from K&R’s text, however, Christians’ comprehensive belief systems, their worldviews, differ in ways that are not insignificant.)

Another term that requires comment is “evidentialism.” This is the term Van Tilians have typically applied to the approaches of those who reject BBP. This simple terminology doesn’t always satisfy those to whom it is applied since they, thinking solely in terms of apologetics, know approaches among them vary, from “minimal facts” historical apologetics, to basically Thomistic “classical” apologetics, to properly “evidentialist” apologetics that John Locke might have embraced. For Van Tilian BBP advocates, however, broader questions of epistemology, of how one can rightly claim to know anything at all and how one should go about managing one’s beliefs in view of this, cannot be placed in a separate compartment from one’s apologetics. When one adopts BBP, one cannot separate “doctrine” and “apologetic approach” in the way K&R do: doctrine is all that Scripture, rightly understood, teaches, and this is foundational to and determinative of one’s apologetics.

To highlight just how different BBP is from the empiricist-leaning way of thinking that is the automatic, seldom-questioned, default cognitive strategy in our post-Enlightenment culture, one only need survey K&R’s frequent use of phrases like “evidence indicates,” “evidence points in the direction of,” and “scientific data shows” in contexts of naïve acceptance, with no hint of uncertainty that data and evidence really do “indicate” and “point.” Such statements reflect what Van Til identified as biblically-unsound belief in “brute factuality.” This belief posits a realm of neutral or objective “facts” or “data” that “speak for themselves”: “data” or “evidence” that “points” in some direction. Adherents of BBP reject the idea that God’s creation contains any such brute facts. Facts and interpretations can be distinguished and talked about separately, of course, but facts are never free of interpretation. Every fact, or datum, or evidence any human person perceives or thinks about will inevitably be perceived or thought about in terms of some interpretation or other, in obedient submission to God, in rebellion against God, or (most commonly in the non-idealized real world) in an inconsistent mixture of submission and rebellion. In terms of BBP, the previously quoted phrases must be reworded if they are to be accurate: “evidence, as I select and interpret it in accord with my believing or unbelieving or inconsistent presuppositions, indicates”; “evidence, as I select and interpret it in accord with my…presuppositions, points in the direction of”; and “scientific data, as I select and interpret it in accord with my…presuppositions, shows.” To drive the implication of these statements home more clearly, they may be reworded as follows: “my presupposition-guided selection and interpretation of evidence indicates” or “…points in the direction of” or “…shows.”

Concerning “presupposition-guided selection…of data,” this doesn’t have to involve self-serving selectivity that intentionally ignores data that one hasn’t yet figured out how to fit into one’s way of thinking. Though evidentialists on every side of every debate invariably complain about the other side’s selective use of available data, the reality in the for-all-practical-purposes infinite created realm in which we live (finite from God’s perspective [Psalm 147:4], infinite from ours) is that there is always infinitely more data out there than any evidential “cumulative case” argument takes into account (K&R speak positively of cumulative case arguments in various places in 40Qs), and any item in that infinite mass of mostly-unknown data might confound even the most seemingly airtight evidential argument. To a few of us, “cumulative case” arguments, and induction (empirical reasoning) in general, seem to take advantage of the finitude of human awareness to make people feel like they “know” things it isn’t possible to know on empirical grounds—at least absent some big assumptions one isn’t entitled to make lacking a prior justifying revelation from God. Thus, a major problem with many uses of the book of Scripture / book of nature approach (according to which humans are to acquire and integrate knowledge from these “two books”), which K&R identify as the view of all who believe rightly interpreted nature and rightly interpreted Scripture must agree (“concordists”), is that, whereas Scripture is a finite collection of words breathed out by God for the purpose of communication, nature is a so-far-as-humans-are-concerned infinite collection of entities, phenomena, and regular patterns of activity (“laws”) meant to glorify God and to astound and humble his creatures, no doubt, and to make known some broad truths about God (he is powerful beyond imagining and so on), but not to communicate a specific body of verbal truths. Biblical creationists don’t mind the “two books” metaphor (they are concordists), but the typical approach of OEC advocates like Hugh Ross (whose name and arguments appear frequently in 40Qs), read too much into the “two books” metaphor, as K&R seem to recognize (126).

As persons with evident presuppositional commitments to some degree of worldview-neutral “brute factuality,” K&R find the uncompromising commitment of biblical creationists with their BBP irksome, likening it to the equally irksome bias of Darwinists: “Both [adherents of BC and Darwinism] refuse to let the empirical data cause them to step away from their original philosophical commitments.” On the bright side, they add, “Theistic evolutionists [EC adherents] and [non-evolutionary] old-earth creationists [OEC adherents], by contrast, most readily allow the scientific data to affect their respective interpretive models” (18). Why refusal to step away from an original philosophical commitment to belief in “brute factuality” and the empiricism that goes with it is more laudable than refusal to step away from primary commitment to God’s own words in Scripture in their most natural sense, without importation of extrabiblical information no original recipient could have known, is unclear. But such is K&R’s assessment of the situation.

For BBP adherents, in contrast, essential to both biblically correct doctrinal beliefs and God-honoring apologetics is the bringing of one’s intellectual life, in particular one’s presuppositional framework and the comprehensive worldview growing out of it, into conformity with—into childlike, trusting submission to—God’s verbally-expressed and infallible revelation, the Bible. On this view, one must not simply take for granted the epistemological assumptions and cognitive strategies one’s culture happens to have made the unquestioned defaults of most people including oneself. (I believe students of the Sociology of Knowledge call these a culture’s “plausibility structures.”) Believing Bible study (to borrow the title of an old book), and consistently faithful study of every topic, requires a thorough bottom-up reconstruction of one’s thinking. (Plausibility structures must be restructured to conform with Scripture, not taken for granted.) In my view, this process doesn’t rule out, as an apologetic exercise, engaging in evidentialist explorations of where the unquestioned defaults in a culture happen to lead; it does, however, rule out making such explorations the basis of one’s doctrine, of one’s interpretation of Scripture; much more does it rule out making such evidentialist explorations the basis of one’s faith.

Re: “this process doesn’t rule out, as an apologetic exercise, engaging in evidentialist explorations of where the unquestioned defaults in a culture happen to lead.” This would also apply to subcultures, such as those of historians and practitioners of “origins science.” (Origins science makes inferences about the past from evidence in the present. Operational science, based on present-day observations, proposes theories that make predictions that can be tested through repeatable experiments. The former gives us colorful stories about the evolution of stars, planets, and life; the latter gives us cars, airplanes, medicines, and other useful things. This distinction, especially favored by BC advocates, is mentioned at various points in 40Qs.) One can deny persuasive historical “proofs of the resurrection” by rejecting the presuppositions that make historical knowledge possible; if, however, one insists on holding on to those presuppositions, one is obligated to take seriously historical arguments favoring the claim that Jesus’s resurrection really happened. One can deny the persuasive force of ID’s fine-tuning argument (397-407) by jettisoning presuppositions essential to the practice of origins science (trust in the laws of probability, for example), but if one insists on retaining these presuppositions one must also contend with the inferences to intelligence they seem to demand. These arguments are no substitute for believers’ whole-person commitment to Scripture’s authority over their presuppositions and every thought and action, but I see no harm in their utilization as mental exercises when dealing with unbelievers who embrace the presuppositions of the relevant subcultures.

So, getting back to the topic at hand, on K&R’s account, one may only avoid being a “blind faith” fideist by embracing evidentialism. The only way for BBP adherents to not be fideists, in other words, is for them to become evidentialists who use analysis of presuppositions as part of a broader evidentialist approach. “Brute factuality” must be one’s ultimate authority or else one is a fideist. Personally, the label “fideist” doesn’t bother me since, freed of the scholarly pompousness of Latin, “fideism” is just “faith-ism,” and surely faith-alone Bible believers should find this label less offensive than “empiricism,” “rationalism,” or “scientism.” (It sure beats “agnosticism,” which is the label I’d still be applying to my own “belief” system had I never happened upon BBP.) Is faith that precedes and informs one’s approach to “evidence” rightly labeled “blind”? Only on presuppositionally evidentialist grounds. From the BBP perspective, considerations of “evidence” unguided by Bible-informed faith are what should be called “blind.”

In terms of BBP, then, a Bible-believing Christian should never grant that “evidence” or “data” could call into question the comprehensive Christian thought system grounded in Scripture (the BBP Christian worldview). The presuppositional framework that determines one’s worldview also determines what one labels “evidence” or “data” and how one may and should interpret that evidence or data. In the BBP system, the Bible is the ultimate authority, so the lesser authority of interpreted natural evidence (“natural revelation”) will always be understood in light of the Bible. (More precisely, the Triune God speaking in Scripture is the ultimate authority. Since in Scripture alone God speaks clearly, verbally to his people, it is Scripture alone that effectively functions as Christians’ ultimate authority.) For them, to force upon Scripture any interpretation not evident from Scripture itself as its original believing recipients could have been expected to understand it, such as an interpretation guided by contemporary secular interpretations of natural (scientific) evidence (as secular thinkers understand “evidence”), would be to set up something other than Scripture (in this case, “scientific evidence” as secularly construed) as the ultimate authority. (Direct “experiences of God,” by the way, would have the same epistemic status as the experiences yielding scientific evidence: one could not use them to justify reinterpretation of Scripture; instead, one would have to both validate and interpret them on the basis of Scripture.) Biblical creationists committed to BBP are quite capable of modifying their views on the basis of evidence, biblical evidence. Other “evidence” won’t do.

As already noted, BBP adherents believe that all worldviews other than the Christian (the BBP Christian) will prove, upon analysis, to fail, if consistently maintained, to provide the necessary grounds for rational thought or the intelligibility of anything. Often they will claim that this “proves” Christianity or the Bible true, or that this is “proof that God exists.” Neither of these claims is true, of course, since it is possible to embrace irrationality and unintelligibility. The choice one is presented with is between (1) the Christian system and all that goes with it (the Bible as ultimate authority, etc.), and (2) ultimate skepticism (skeptical even about itself), meaninglessness, chaos…madness. Showing someone that this is the choice they must make, which is all that presuppositional appeals can do (if one agrees that they can do this), does not “prove” anything. Unpleasant and impractical though it may be, impossible to live by as it clearly is, 2 is an option. It is intellectual and emotional suicide, true, and actual physical suicide is not unlikely to follow, but these undesirable implications following choice 2 do not “prove” choice 1 “true.” Ultimate authorities, and the presuppositional systems (and so worldviews) that arise out of them, cannot be “proven,” because they are themselves the basis and provide the criteria for all acts of proving conducted within them—and there are no acts of proving that do not take place within and in terms of a given worldview. If this is fideism, then we might all lament that the human condition is one of inescapable fideism, a state wholly repulsive to our prideful, would-be autonomous spirits. No amount of lamenting will change our situation, however.

Terminology ^

K&R’s treatment of BC also proves unsatisfactory by failing to acknowledge an issue of terminology that many BC advocates consider very important. Though they identify Answers in Genesis (AIG) as the leading BC organization (16), K&R neither adopt nor comment upon that organization’s rejection of the terms “macroevolution” and “microevolution,” and in fact later adopt those terms (without mention of BC objections) in their discussions of evolution and ID (Questions 32-40, 313-407, opting for the hyphenated versions of the terms, “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution”).

AIG repeatedly emphasizes the importance of avoiding these terms. On their “Terms to Know” page (accessed 17 April 2015) they identify each as “a term used by evolutionists,” clearly implying that non-evolutionists should avoid the terms: “Macroevolution is a term used by evolutionists to describe the alleged, unobservable change of one kind of organism to another kind by natural selection acting on the accumulation of mutations over vast periods of time”; “Microevolution is a term used by evolutionists to describe relatively small changes in genetic variation that can be observed in populations.” In a no-byline 2009 post (“When Do False Dichotomies Ever Mesh?” dated 04 July 2009, accessed 17 April 2015), objection to the terms is again emphasized. Describing how a reporter misunderstood both Creation Museum displays and explanatory remarks by Dr. Andrew Snelling, this post notes how the reporter’s article “imports something Answers in Genesis does not say and actually recommends against: the microevolution/macroevolution dichotomy. [Reporter Kenneth] Chang’s disproof of that dichotomy demonstrates just why we don’t use it: ‘If dog to fox is microevolution, then it seems that hominid to human would also be microevolution,’ he writes.” The next paragraph adds: “What really matters is not the size of changes, but rather whether changes add information to a creature’s genome. Observational science tells us that all the ‘evolutionary’ changes we observe either keep genetic information constant or reduce it. That’s the opposite of what molecules-to-man evolution would require.” The misleading terminology resulted in Chang “looking at all changes equally” and so failing to see that “the issue is the origin of genetic information, which has only been observed to originate from an intelligent source.”

2011 and 2012 posts by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell further emphasize AIG’s objection to the terminology (“Flies with Lice,” dated 28 May 2011, accessed 17 April 2015; “Salmon: Rapid Evolution,” dated 28 July 2012, accessed 17 April 2015). In the former, Mitchell objects to identification of “speciation,” formation of new species, as “macroevolution,” since it is within-kind variation that does not involve (so far as anyone has observed or can demonstrate) addition of useful genomic information. In the latter, Mitchell writes: “Implicit in the term microevolution…is the idea that the sorts of change observed in the salmon could eventually add up to produce non-fish, given enough time. As creation scientists, therefore, we tend to avoid the use of the term microevolution because evolutionists often say that macroevolution—the supposed evolution of one kind of organism into another—is just ‘microevolution writ large.’ In other words,” she clarifies, “they tend to use the observable and often rapid occurrence of genetic changes and variation within created kinds of organisms as evidence that new genetic information can be acquired to enable evolution of new kinds of organisms.” After noting how K. Giberson and F. Collins use just such reasoning (citing their The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions [Downers Grove: IVP, 2011], 45), Mitchell writes: “Macroevolution, however, has not been observed. Mutations may certainly contribute to genetic variation, but they represent a loss of information….And since the reshuffling of existing genetic information and its mutations does not provide the information to evolve new organisms, it is not logical to use observable microevolution [including speciation, as she notes in the 2011 post] as evidence for the occurrence of unobservable macroevolution. Such a ‘proof’ is analogous to…expecting to profit by selling all products at a loss but making up for losses in volume.”

Nor is this objection to the terms at all new. In a book excerpt dated 1994, Dr. Gary Parker writes: “in an attempt to be as ‘nice’ as possible, I used to say I accepted ‘micro-evolution’….But then a friend cautioned me that that could be confusing. Saying I accept micro-evolution, a ‘little evolution,’ might make some think that if only I believed in enough time, a little evolution (‘micro-evolution’) would lead to a lot of evolution (‘macro-evolution’). Nothing could be further from the truth”; rather, “great variation within kind (‘micro’) by itself could never, even in infinite time, lead to macro-evolution.” He adds a bit later: “God seems to have endowed the first of each created kind with dazzling genetic variability and the Hardy-Weinberg Law, the fundamental law of population genetics, acts to conserve that created variability.” Further along, he adds (now speaking specifically of humankind’s potential for variation): “To the extent that these things depend on gene combination….God’s plan at creation is still unfolding before our very eyes. That’s not evolution (adding something not there before), that’s ‘entelechy’—creativity written ahead of time in the fabulous genetic code of DNA!” (“Chapter 2: Mutation-Selection in Biblical Perspective,” dated 01 January 1994, part of Parker’s book Creation: Facts of Life: How Real Science Reveals the Hand of God, accessed 17 April 2015).

If K&R really want to present the BC position fairly and accurately, and if they really consider AIG the leading BC organization, it’s difficult to see how they could simply ignore this longstanding concern with terminology. Also, K&R adopt objectionable definitions of the objectionable terms. “Macro-evolution is understood to be significant innovations which produce new species,” whereas “Micro-evolution occurs within prescribed limits” (313). Note how these definitions fail to address biblical creationists’ concerns: they focus solely on the size of changes, not on the fundamental nature of them (whether changes involve introduction of useful new genetic information); also, they suggest that speciation equals macroevolution, something specifically objected to in Dr. Mitchell’s 2011 AIG post. By rejecting or ignoring BC’s focus on created kinds in favor of the secular focus on species, K&R introduce a notable bias into their presentation. Since one can fairly easily imagine a detrimental mutation in an isolated population yielding a “new species” incapable of breeding and producing fertile offspring with others of its kind, speciation seems a pretty low bar for “macro-evolution” (nor am I sure taxonomists limit their application of variant “species” identifications to populations that could not interbreed if they were relocated to a shared environment). Of course, K&R require “significant innovations which produce new species,” so “new species” not resulting from “significant innovations” could be said not to qualify. Still, the way the definition is phrased will suggest to most readers that production of “new species” just does involve “significant innovations.”

Other Shortcoming that Might Be Noted ^

Additional reasons for dissatisfaction with 40Qs might be noted. For instance, K&R suggest that BC advocates who utilize “mature creation” arguments are being inconsistent when they also point to “evidence” of the global Flood or a young earth. This suggestion grows out of the assumption that any maturity in the initial creation requires comprehensive maturity in the same. The only support offered for this assumption is that the first person to propose a scientifically motivated “mature creation” theory (Philip Henry Gosse, writing in 1857) held to such a comprehensive view. This argument isn’t at all persuasive. Why should the initial creation have had to be “mature” in all respects? Why should a BC feel bad about invoking the “mature creation” idea as a possible explanation for only some data? Is there no biblical basis, or Bible-based philosophical basis, for believing certain aspects of creation are more likely to have been created mature than others? K&R’s all-or-nothing approach seems entirely unjustified.

As an increasingly committed adherent of BBP (albeit BBP of a somewhat idiosyncratic and still developing form), I do confess to dissatisfaction with the evidentialist tone of some biblical creationists. As I’ve noted, evidential appeals within a presuppositional framework, conducted as exploratory exercises for apologetic purposes, are not problematic. Even Bahnsen allowed for evidential “debris clearing,” so long as it did not involve setting aside one’s BBP. Still, I admit I would prefer that BC adherents, and everyone else for that matter, make their presuppositional commitments more clear when they enter into debates.

Alas, BC advocates vary in how presuppositional or evidential they sound when presenting BC. Among such advocates, Flood geologist Andrew Snelling tends more toward the evidential side of things. Some years back, when I was transitioning from the evidentialism-fundamentalism of adolescence into the agnosticism-sometimes-atheism of early adulthood, I sent a letter to the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) expressing doubt about the possibility of making the Bible the foundation of all one’s thinking, something Henry Morris (I believe) had urged readers to do in an Acts & Facts or Impact article. I believe it was Dr. Snelling who wrote back to me with a complimentary letter expressing agreement with my generally evidentialist sentiments (if I do not misremember the letter or misconstrue its meaning). The big problem with maintaining “faith” on evidentialist grounds, I found, is that the strength of such “faith” never exceeds the confidence one has in one’s own intellectual powers and in the comprehensiveness of one’s facts and arguments. For my part, I’ve since decided that the widespread commitment to evidentialism among evangelicals like K&R indicates just how prevalent intellectual pride (I Corinthians 8:2) is in evangelicalism, particularly among its leaders and in the halls of Christian academia. What else but such pride would make apologists think “reasonable faith” something deserving greater emphasis than “faithful reason”?

My digression aside, I do find that a fundamental BBP manifests itself even in Dr. Snelling’s writing. “So why would hundreds, indeed thousands, of highly-trained scientists,” he asks, “not only believe Genesis to be reliable history, but base their scientific research on the details and implications of that history? Their acceptance of the Bible in its entirety as a record of the true history of the world,” he answers, “stems first and foremost from their Christian convictions” (Andrew A. Snelling, Earth’s Catastrophic Past: Geology, Creation & the Flood, v. 1 [Dallas: ICR, 2009], 3). In Dr. Snelling’s case, the undercurrent of BBP is subtle and (in the portion of his book I’ve so far read) unacknowledged as he reviews “the scientific evidence that has convinced many today…that Genesis must be taken seriously as literal history” (Ibid., 10). Noting that “science cannot directly observe what happened in the past, so all we can do is infer from the evidence we observe in the present,” he seeks to show only that we are “entitled to conclude that evidence we observe today is consistent with what has been faithfully recorded for us by God in Genesis 1-11” (Ibid., 10-11). Had he yet committed fully and consciously to BBP, he would say instead that “evidence we observe today may be interpreted in a manner consistent with…Genesis 1-11,” since raw data or evidence is entirely meaningless, neither consistent nor inconsistent with anything, until it is given significance and relevance through interpretation. (Technically, since everything is exhaustively interpreted by God, it all does have meaning. However, until we learn and embrace God’s interpretation for ourselves, any piece of evidence we deal with is meaningless to us.)

Snelling’s emphasis on how “science cannot directly observe what happened in the past,” which reiterates above-quoted remarks by Mitchell, brings up another disappointing bias in 40Qs. This bias is relatively mild compared to biases already noted, but it does add to the cumulative case (!) that K&R fail in their effort to be fair and balanced. They write: “Astronomy is unique among the natural sciences. Unlike geologists or paleontologists, astronomers do not merely use empirical data to construct theories about the past. When they look into their telescopes, astronomers do empirically observe the past” (215). This is not true, as I’ve heard biblical creationists point out on more than one occasion. K&R have here uncritically adopted an assertion OEC advocates, like unbelieving scientists, frequently make, but which a moment’s reflection shows to be untrue. Astronomers do not “observe the past”; they observe the effects that arriving light (electromagnetic radiation) is having on their telescopes in the present. They observe light reaching us now; they do not observe where and when the light originated. Both belief that events viewed in the night sky really occurred at some point in the past, and belief that those events occurred at a time in the past inferable from their distance and the speed of light (taking for granted that the speed of light is and has always been constant, this being a “law of nature” repeatedly confirmed and never falsified by human observers), are both inferences about the past from observations in the present. Many may think it silly or irrational to question these inferences, but surely clear thinking is not helped by refusal to admit that they are inferences.

One might also object to K&R’s suggestion that rejection of BC poses no threat to Christian spiritual life because so many prominent Christian leaders and scholars of the past and today endorse other viewpoints (201-2). Whenever the trends of thought in a culture or time tend in a direction other than a consistently biblical one, as they certainly have done in the West since the Enlightenment, the possibility must be entertained that Christian thinking, even the thinking of generally (even impressively) consistent believers, goes astray. A certain “secularism” in the thinking of B. B. Warfield (one of the examples K&R mention), for instance, was nicely documented by the late Dr. Theodore Letis (Van Tilian Lutheran) during his tragically-shortened academic career (Theodore P. Letis, The Ecclesiastical Text: Text Criticism, Biblical Authority and the Popular Mind, 2 ed. [Philadelphia: The Institute for Renaissance and Reformation Biblical Studies, 2000], 1-29, 50-8). Hero worship and misplaced trust, where respected leaders and subject-matter experts are treated as more certain and reliable authorities than God’s own Word, have been problems in the Christian community since the beginning (1 Corinthians 1:12). K&R’s “name dropping” refutation of biblical creationists’ worries can only contribute to the problem.

Persons with theological convictions similar to my own might also object to the book’s apparent endorsement of the “free will” answer to “the problem of evil,” at least to one aspect of it. While discussing the role of creation in the overall narrative of Scripture, K&R summarize a set of arguments or assertions offered by Augustus H. Strong in support of Christian optimism. The second of Strong’s four points they summarize as follows: “Second, sin has its origin in the free choices of the creature. God is in no way the origin of moral evil” (53, citing Strong’s Systematic Theology [Valley Forge, Judson, 1907], 405). Countless debates and texts indicate that most Christians find such an assertion perfectly acceptable. For better or worse, I do not. Moreover, were I an atheist or agnostic (both of which I professed to be at one point), I would find it an outrageous cop-out. If A is the origin of B, and B is the origin of C, then A is necessarily the ultimate origin of C, isn’t it? As comprehensively sovereign Creator and Sustainer of everything, God is the ultimate origin, and so ultimately responsible, for everything, moral evil perpetrated by his creations not excluded. Trying to speak of the God who creates, sustains, and sovereignly directs all things as merely “allowing” or “permitting” moral evil while not being the ultimate origin of, and person ultimately (though not directly) responsible for it, either implicitly compromises the “Godness of God,” or is fundamentally incoherent.

This does not mean that God is morally evil. If God sovereignly ordains that beings he has created should perpetrate moral evils (by their own free choice, not under compulsion, but still by eternal decree), all that is needed to free God from the charge of moral evil himself, or of approval of moral evil, is that he have a morally sufficient reason for ordaining what he has. The old Calvinist way of parsing matters, by speaking of God’s decretive will (what God actually foreordains, being all that comes to pass, including moral evil) and preceptive will (what God through his revelation shows to be right and good and desirable according to his holy character, the standard after which all creatures who would serve him should strive and by which all shall be judged), is perhaps as good as any. For those of us unwilling to make created beings more sovereign than God in any sphere, such as by making them rather than their Maker the ultimate origin of moral evil, the various “free will” evasions of God’s ultimate responsibility for absolutely everything ring hollow and invariably prove unsatisfying. They strike us as just one more manifestation of the contemporary tendency of Christians, particularly of those who consider themselves apologists, to emphasize reasonable faith (faith based upon and directed by independent, autonomous human reasoning) at the expense of faithful reason (reason based upon and directed by Bible-based Christian faith). Rather than seeking a Christian worldview foundation for their philosophy and science, such persons often believe they must have a philosophical or scientific (empirical) foundation for their Christian worldview.

This particular “shortcoming,” mentioned only in this full-length version of the review here on the Pious Eye site, has not affected my rating of the book or my willingness to recommend it. It does seem to me to merit comment, however, mainly because it is an issue I’m personally obsessed with—er, I mean, greatly interested in.

Closing Thoughts: A Suggested Rule of Thumb & Review Conclusion ^

A persisting difficulty for Bible believers trying to sift through works on Genesis, scholarly and otherwise, is that a large percentage of such works rely upon presuppositions contrary to those consistent Bible believers must embrace. One Bible-believing presupposition often contradicted is that our God who is truth and cannot lie must have breathed out his words in their original context intending that those who originally received them, if they were obedient to him and truly wanted to understand, would understand. The meaning of God’s communications through Scripture could be missed by the original recipients due to hardness of heart, due to sinful inclination to believe what God’s own Spirit was telling them was not so, but the original recipients would not misconstrue God’s meaning because they lacked some special knowledge, such as that provided by modern science, that would unlock a meaning they’d missed. (The sole exception would be communications originally given with the understanding that they were to be explained later; perhaps some prophetic passages fall into this category. Note, however, that faithful original recipients would understand the to-be-explained-later status of such communications, and that it is the completed Sacred Text itself that provides the keys to understanding these communications correctly when the time comes.) Many superficially plausible and persuasive theories, whether concerning interpretation of Genesis or other issues (interpretation of passages in Scripture addressing the roles of men and women in the family and church, say), may be quickly dismissed by simply taking a few moments to perceive that they reject this fundamental presupposition. It is neither possible nor desirable for Bible believers to give every theory a fair hearing and detailed analysis: If a theory contradicts fundamental presuppositions of Bible belief, it may rightly be dismissed without further study.

On the subject at hand, then, it seems to me that any proposal for interpreting the Genesis creation account, and the later worldwide Flood account, must be able to answer “yes” to the following question: “Can I believe everything the original recipients of this account (in Moses’s day) would have believed upon hearing it and still hold to the interpretation I’m proposing?” It also seems to me, given this, that any analysis of proposals for interpreting the Genesis creation account and worldwide Flood account must address this question for each of those proposals, rejecting as unworthy of Bible believers’ consideration all proposals for which a sincere “yes” answer is not possible. A great deal of confused insertion of post-biblical notions and information into one’s Bible reading might thereby be prevented. Would any hearer of the worldwide Flood account in Moses’s day have thought the Flood Noah faced was only local? Would any hearer of the Genesis creation account in Moses’s day have though that a long gap fell between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, or that the “days” of the creation week were very long periods of time, or that the story was just an instructive “literary framework” that could not be taken to speak of real past events? If it cannot be plausibly argued that a proposal is compatible with the original recipients’ understanding of God’s communication to them through these accounts, the proposal in question needn’t further concern the sincere Bible believer. It is dead on arrival.

Had Keathley and Rooker adopted this rule of thumb before writing 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution, it would be a much shorter book, and one more consistently useful to committed Bible believers trying to bring all their thinking into alignment with Scripture as their ultimate authority. Of course, that isn’t how academic publishing works. Since it is an academic rather than popular or devotional work, I can only fault 40 Questions for its failure to be as impartial as is might have been, for failure to present the biblical (“young-earth”) creationist perspective as well as it might have done (though it does make more of an effort to do this than many books on the topic), and for other imperfections I’ve noted (and some I haven’t mentioned). Purchasers will find it interesting reading with quite a bit of useful information. Provided they read it critically, the book might also serve as a decent (though maybe not the best) introduction to the creation/evolution topic for persons new to the topic or new to books espousing views on the topic other than their own.

Abridged versions of this review will also appear on GoodReads and, less nicely formatted, on Amazon.^

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Pious Thinking: God’s Battle Plan (Saxton Review)

gods_battle_plan_cover_courtesy_publisher_1200x1200cropSaxton, David W. God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015. Paperback. 145+vii pages. ISBN 978-1-60178-371-4.

Contemporary rediscovery of the intellectually rich yet rigorously practical work of Puritan thinkers continues. Pastor David W. Saxton’s God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation is a welcome addition to the growing body of works presenting aspects of Puritan thought and practice to today’s Bible-believing public.

It seems obvious—it is obvious—that merely reading the Bible and listening to sermons will have no lasting effect unless one follows-up one’s reading and listening with protracted, reflective, application-oriented thinking about what one has read and heard. Obvious as this is, such extended thinking, biblical meditation, is frequently neglected. (I initially included “biblically-sound Christian music” as among the things one could not benefit from without biblical meditation, but it occurred to me that meditation in fact must precede and direct one’s identification of music as biblically-sound. Of course, sadly, this can also apply to sermons.) In God’s Battle Plan for the Mind, Saxton’s “goal…is to convince God’s people of the absolute necessity of personal meditation” (2), and thus to overcome the neglect.

In Chapter 1, “The Importance of Recovering the Joyful Habit of Biblical Meditation” (1-14), Saxton suggests that the “shallow spirituality” and “weak, meaningless religion” that dominate today’s “anemic Christianity” owe largely to Christians’ failure to bring their thinking (and through it, their emotions or affections and their will) into conformity with God’s (Bible-revealed) thinking through consistent, disciplined practice of biblical meditation (1-2). To practice biblical meditation “means to think personally, practically, seriously, and earnestly on how the truth of God’s Word should look in [one’s] life” (2). Properly pursued, such meditation “imprints and fastens a truth in the mind” and “drives a truth to the heart” (6, quoting Thomas Watson). It’s effectiveness in bringing not only intellect or understanding, but also affections and will, into greater conformity with Scripture owes, in the Puritans’ thinking, to the reality that “Affections always follow the rate of our thoughts, if they are ponderous and serious [as opposed to light or superficial thoughts lacking sustained focus and care, which affections might not follow]” (7, quoting Thomas Manton).

Edmund Calamy, Saxton adds, “wrote that for meditation to be biblical, it must pass through three doors to be any good—the door of understanding, the doors of the heart, and the doors of conversation (lifestyle)” (9). Lifestyle or practice, of course, is a manifestation of will, an expression of decisions or resolutions that alone evidence the state of one’s will. “Heart” here, unfortunately, seems used as a synonym for emotions or affections, potentially misleading usage given the scriptural indication that one’s “heart” or center not only feels but thinks (Proverbs 23:7) and understands (Psalm 49:3; Proverbs 2:2). This raises an issue that causes me mild discomfort. In places, Saxton seems to embrace today’s sharp division between “mind” and “heart” (note headings on 31), treating “mind” as a synonym for intellect or understanding and “heart” as a synonym for our non-intellectual faculties, emotions and will, alone (51-2, for example). I’m not sure if this not-entirely-biblical dichotomizing accurately expresses the Puritans’ thinking or reads today’s sharp dichotomy into Puritan expressions not meant in quite that way. My hope, as one uncomfortable disagreeing with the Puritans (given their greater piety), is that what someone like Calamy had in mind when he distinguished “understanding” and “heart” was the difference between superficial or initial intellectual consideration and deep, in-the-heart intellectual consideration. The idea would be that in one’s heart, in the center of one’s being, intellect/understanding, emotions/affections, and will/volition all interlock and influence one another, with the meditative ideal being to progressively reform all three faculties through the meditative work that begins in the intellect. The undesirable alternative would be intellectual consideration that does not reach beyond the surface of the self (or soul or mind), where intellectual activity may not affect emotions or will (or even deeper intellect) in any lasting way.

No doubt this is a minor point. But, since I agree with Saxton on all major points, I can only offer criticism on such minor ones. I would prefer to avoid using “mind” to mean only intellect, since “mind” is really all that one is that is not physical (hence the use of “mind and body” to designate one’s entire person). I would also be happier if Saxton had selected his quotations and written his exposition in a way that more carefully and consistently avoided suggesting that the common heart-mind or heart-head dichotomy is acceptable or biblically sound. While intellect, emotions, and will clearly are faculties that can be discussed and analyzed separately, the scriptural picture seems to be that one’s “heart” is not a subset of these faculties but the deepest and truest part of all of them. This truth seems the whole justification for believing that focused and sustained intellectual activity, thoughtful meditation on the content of God’s written Word, can be relied upon to influence, not only how one thinks, but how one feels and what one wills and does.

Chapter 2, “Unbiblical Forms of Meditation” (15-23), contrasts biblical meditation with meditative practices growing out of Roman Catholicism (17-19) and Eastern religions (19-21), and with non-biblical thinking more generally (21-23). The fundamental problem with Roman Catholic meditative practices, says Saxton, is that “Whenever any notion or form of spirituality fails to be tied back to the written Word, the end result inevitably tends toward unbiblical mysticism and religious sentimentality” (17-18). In a footnote, he add this: “Mysticism promotes having spiritual experiences with God apart from one’s mind governed by the objective, written truth of Scripture. It is prevalent within Roman Catholicism as well as in the charismatic and Pentecostal movements” (18 n10). A note in a later chapters offers these additional thoughts: “Mysticism teaches that the Holy Spirit bypasses man’s intellect, dealing directly with his emotions without the means of God’s written Word” (43 n43). The latter note seems to make “mysticism” and “religious sentimentality” synonymous in away the former note does not. Does Saxton believe everything one can label “mysticism” is in fact purely a matter of emotions or sentiment? My own understanding is that mystics claim to have had experiences they cannot satisfactorily describe in words and which they believe exceed the intellect’s ability to comprehend (except, perhaps, in some imperfect and partial, perhaps misleading, way). While moderns who think emotions are the deepest and most central part of people, that they are the human “heart,” may consider mystical experience emotional, I don’t know if this characterization accurately captures what all persons claiming mystical experiences have meant to claim.

In any case, it might be asked whether human experience of God really is limited entirely to experience through “the means of God’s written Word,” as the phrasing of the second note suggests. Every Bible believer must join Saxton in insisting that all alleged spiritual experiences be tested, and interpreted, by “one’s mind governed by the objective, written truth of Scripture.” In fact, I would assert further that all human experiences, even the “purely physical” ones from which we (for example) construct scientific and historical theories, must be interpreted under Scripture’s guidance. Even so, none of this seems to rule out the possibility of mystical experiences that really are direct, entirely unmediated experiences of God. It might be that one can make a biblically-sound case that direct experiences of God cannot today occur except through “the means of God’s written Word.” Saxton, however, has not made this case, perhaps assuming that his Reformed readers will take it for granted. This is another minor point of dissatisfaction for me.

Saxton’s primary example of “Far Eastern religious practices” labeled “meditation,” what he considers “pseudomeditation practices” (20), is Transcendental Meditation (TM). (He also mentions yoga.) Whereas biblical meditation “seeks to fill one’s thoughts with Scripture,” TM “includes a practiced passivity of thinking and emptying the mind of itself” (20) that, advocates claim, “allows your mind to settle inward beyond thought to experience the source of thought—pure awareness, also known as transcendental consciousness” (19, quoting the Maharishi Foundation Web site). Such practices, Saxton believes, “open the mind to spiritual predators by creating a kind of mental vacuum” and involvement in them, he adds, “ends in people making their own reasoning [better: intuition?] an absolute truth and their personal god” (20). Many in contemporary America, of course, have accepted the idea that practices such as TM and yoga can be treated as “nonreligious” methodologies for achieving various ends, such as (my examples) better health, more positive emotions, or enhanced mental function. (The latter is most commonly claimed for “Mindfulness” meditation, a practice that involves focusing on present experience in a detached, non-analytical, non-judging, appreciative manner.) The thinking behind this, I suppose, is that these practices grow out of past trial-and-error learning that might, even if its religious motivations were in error, have alighted upon techniques with beneficial effects that can be reliably reproduced by practitioners who question or reject the religious or metaphysical beliefs historically motivating or associated with the practices. In Saxton’s judgment, the effects of these practices are anything but beneficial. More importantly, they are not biblical (true) meditation and Christians must take care not to confuse the latter with the former.

On the subject of non-biblical thinking more generally, Saxton notes how both sinful thoughts (21-2) and trivial or earthly thoughts (22-3) can take the place in our minds of proper biblical meditation. “We must realize,” he emphasizes, “that we are responsible for straying or sinful thoughts” and so strive to keep our minds “focused on those matters that honor the Lord” (22).

Chapter 3, “Defining Biblical Meditation” (25-32), further elaborates on the meaning of biblical meditation, discussing the relevant Hebrew (25-6) and Greek (27-9) terms, quoting a number of Puritan definitions of “meditation” (29-30), and providing some further description of the “ingredients” of biblical meditation as the Puritans understood and practiced it (31-2). This very useful chapter, which makes clear the biblical justification and Puritan understanding of meditation as (for example) “a steadfast bending of the mind to some spiritual matter, discovering of it with our selves, till we bring the same to some profitable issue [practical personal application]” (30, quoting Isaac Ambrose), does seem to dash my earlier-expressed hope that I could maintain my understanding of “heart” and “mind” without disagreeing with the Puritans. Oliver Heywood, for example, seems to treat “working…upon the heart” and “impressing…on the will and affections” as equivalent phrases (quoted on 31-2), which would in turn imply that he did not consider intellect or thought an operation of the heart. Additionally, Henry Scudder speaks of “the mind or reason” (quoted on 32), clearly indicating he restricts the meaning of “mind” to intellect or understanding alone. I’m not persuaded that this is the best usage, and I can’t be sure it obtained in the writings of all Puritans, but is does seem that the dichotomy so prevalent in our day is pretty close to what at least some Puritans had in mind. This has the unfortunate tendency (it seems to me ) to suggest that emotions and volition are more fundamental and central than intellect or thought, so I might wish that Saxton had chosen to modify or correct the Puritan usage somewhat. Whether this minor matter will concern any other reader, I am curious to see.

Chapter 4, “Occasional Meditation” (33-44), discusses a type of biblical meditation meant to allow us to “grow in grace during the many hours when we are unable to study an open Bible” (33). The basic idea is to train oneself to find illustrations of scriptural truths in the objects, occurrences, and activities of one’s daily life. “Occasional meditation…is a way of spiritually viewing normal, everyday experiences” (35), in other words. Of course, one must be sure to ground such spontaneous meditation in actual scriptural truths, not to let one’s imagination run away with one (43-4). Thus, such meditation does not replace, but depends upon and requires, more regular and planned meditation and ongoing study and memorization of Scripture (44).

Chapter 5, “Deliberate Meditation” (45-9), concerns the more regular and planned meditation one most naturally thinks of when reviewing earlier-discussed definitions of biblical meditation. “Deliberate meditation,” Saxton states, “is really the foundation of a godly person’s thinking and Christian practice” (46). Such meditation, he adds, is divided into the categories of direct meditation and reflexive meditation. Direct meditation involves “a mind that focuses complete attention on meditating on something outside of oneself, such as the Word of God or some great truth” which “would, in turn, direct the believer’s path in the right moral choices of life” (47); this sort of meditation is pointed to, Saxton relates, in Joshua 1:8. Reflexive meditation adds to this rigorous reflection on one’s own response, in terms of all one’s faculties and one’s outward actions (previously performed and planned for the future), to the biblical truths one has come to apprehend through direct meditation (47-8). Such reflection is only complete when it leads to tangible results: resolutions and the actions that follow. It is, thus, “a persuasive and commanding act, charging the soul in every faculty, understanding, will, affections, yea, the whole man, to reform and conform themselves to the rule, that is, the will of God” (49, quoting Scudder). “Thus,” Saxton summarizes, “in direct meditation, the believer digs out the treasure of God; but it is in reflexive meditation that he brings this treasure home to his own soul in a practical, personal way” (49).

Chapter 6, “The Practice of Meditation” (51-64); Chapter 7, “Important Occasions for Meditation” (65-73); and Chapter 8, “Choosing Subjects for Meditation” (75-93), discuss the practical aspects of biblical meditation identified by their respective titles. These chapters provide excellent nuts-and-bolts guidance for incorporating the discipline of biblical meditation into one’s life. Edifying reading, these chapters (like others) are replete with interesting and helpful quotations from various Puritan authors. Though in places it may seem like Saxton does little more than string many quotation together, he does so in a manner that communicates the most relevant Puritan insights effectively and efficiently. From seeing what source materials get quoted most frequently here, one can also decide which of those sources one might wish to read in their entirety. In the case of primary Puritan sources, one notes, copious follow-up reading is as close-to-hand as a Web search. (Of such sources, the few I’ve so far looked for can all be found online as freely downloadable PDFs or other e-books. The Internet Archive is an especially helpful starting point for searches.)

Chapter 9, “The Reasons for Meditation” (95-103), presents “some of the reasons why each believer should be regularly meditating upon God, His Word, and His works” (95) under the following headings: “The Christian’s Work and Duty Is to Think upon God with Praise” (95-6), “Meditation Follows the Example of Christ and Other Godly People” (96-7), “Meditation Is God’s Own Command Given for a Believer’s Good” (97), “Meditation Is Necessary for a Believer to Know God’s Word Well” (98), “Meditation Assists Believers in the Duty of Prayer and All Other Means of Grace” (98-100), “Meditation Applies the Scripture to Redeeming the Time with One’s Mind” (100-1), “Without Meditation, One Cannot Become a Godly, Stable Christian” (101-2), and “Christians Meditate Because God’s Word Is a Love Letter to His People” (103). One particularly noteworthy statement in the chapter, under the “…Is Necessary for a Believer to Know God’s Word Well” heading, is the following: “One of the modern believer’s plaguing sins is possessing only a superficial knowledge of the Bible….This brings widespread lack of discernment throughout the modern church. Deliberate meditation upon Scripture builds a habit of thinking through decisions in a biblically thoughtful manner. Christians easily fall for all kinds of errors because they lack this practice” (98). Also noteworthy (and quote worthy), under the “…Become a Godly, Stable Christian” heading, is this: “Meditation should be seen as a positive assault against sins in one’s life—it works with the goal of replacing them with truth and sincerity. Meditation is how lasting change, progressive sanctification, and victory over sin take place. It is the replacement of vain thoughts with the renewal of the spirit of one’s mind (Eph. 4:23)” (102). This chapter provides solid motivation to undertake and/or continue practicing biblical meditation.

Chapter 10, “The Benefits of Meditation” (105-14), further motivates the Bible-believing reader to begin or continue on the path of biblical meditation by describing some of its benefits. Among these are that it (to quote portions of the section headings) “Deepens Repentance” (105-7), “Increases Resolve to Fight Sin” (107-8), “Inflames Heart Affection for the Lord” (108-9), “Increases Growth in Grace” (109-10), “Provides Comfort and Assurance to the Soul” (110-2), “Creates a Life of Joy, Thankfulness, and Contentment” (112-3), “Deepens and Matures a Christian’s Experience” (113-4), and “Improves the Knowledge and Retention of God’s Word” (114). While the to-me-irksome assumption that the human “heart” is all about emotions or affections, while “mind” is just another word for the “merely rational” stuff of intellect (109), continues, Bible believers certainly should desire for their “Heart Affection[s]” to become “Inflame[d]” for our “consuming fire” Lord (Deuteronomy 4:24), just as they should long (and strive) to see their heart thoughts and heart choices conformed to the intellectual content and moral directives and principles of Scripture. One statement in the chapter that struck me as particularly worth marking down is this: “Henry Scudder taught that meditation practically changes and fashions a person ‘so that God’s will in his word and your will become one, choosing and delighting in the same things’” (107).

Chapter 11, “The Enemies of Meditation” (115-27), deals with various excuses (115-23) and hindrances (124-7) that can prevent one starting or interfere with one continuing the practice of biblical meditation. These vary from simple busyness, to a meditation-averse temperament, to unwillingness to endure the feelings of guilt resulting from the sins in one’s life, to the various distractions and entertainments so prevalent, and either demanding or beckoning, in our day. “We live in a day of pervasive mental distractions,” Saxton observes. This day has such “conveniences” as “Cell phones [that] provide instant communication…homes…[with] immediate access to hundreds of television channels[,] Rock music [that] pulsates in every building we walk in….Satellite radio….[and] the Internet. What,” asks Saxton, “is the result of all these so-called conveniences? We now have a society of distracted thinkers who are surrounded by a culture whose practices run counter to a thoughtful life of biblical meditation” (124). An accurate observation, no doubt; tragically, however, it exceeds 140 characters and so cannot hope to be attended to by contemporary readers. I appreciate it, however; hence the quotation.

One additional statement might merit comment. Saxton writes: “Why does a person find time to watch a two-hour movie and yet not find time to read God’s Word and meditate upon it? It is because he simply does not see the value in it and is unwilling to spare the time for it” (118).While non-meditating movie viewers should reflect carefully on their priorities, fairness might incline some to wonder if the “because” offered here is the only possible one. To read and meditate on God’s Word in a focused, attentive manner requires mental energy and alertness that is not necessary for passive viewing of a movie. It seems possible that some view movies because they lack the energy for anything but such a passive activity. Of course, given the content of today’s movies, Christians are ill-advised to view any of them when they are not alert and ready to critically assess the movies’ content in light of Scripture. The answer, perhaps, is for Christians in such a depleted state to replace the movie they planned to watch with a meditation-preparatory nap.

Chapter 12, “Getting Started: Beginning the Habit of Meditation” (129-32), is brief. It advises those getting started in biblical meditation to pray for God’s assistance getting started and continuing the practice of meditation (129-30), and to be prepared for and persevere through difficulties (130-2).

The final chapter, “Conclusion: Thoughts on Meditation and Personal Godliness” (133-8), offers closing thoughts under the following headings: “Meditation is Essential as God’s Means for Progressive Sanctification” (133-4), “Meditation Replaces the Love of Entertainment with Love of Christ” (134-5), “Learning to Enjoy Meditation” (135-6), and “Making Meditation a Priority in Life” (137-8). The chapter gives readers some additional motivation and practical guidelines for practicing biblical meditation. One quotable reads as follows: “The battle against sin starts in the mind—the thoughts or what one dwells upon. This is why meditation is so important. It is God’s ordained plan for biblical thinking, renewing the mind, overcoming sin, and thus growing in[to] greater Christlikeness” (133).

The book also includes a bibliography of primary Puritan sources (139-42) and secondary resources (142-5), which should prove helpful to those wanting to read further material on the subject once they have finished God’s Battle Plan for the Mind.

Overall, this is an excellent, edifying book that I’m happy to recommend.

This review will also appear, less nicely formatted, on Amazon and, in abridged form, on GoodReads.

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The Gospel. Clear But Maybe Too Simple: The Evangelism Study Bible

evangelism_study_bible_cover_courtesy_publisherThe Evangelism Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. Hardcover. 1564+xiii pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-2662-9.

Last time I visited my local Christian bookstore, I admit the one thought that didn’t occur to me was, “You know, what we really need today is a new study Bible.” In addition to believing there might be a few too many study Bibles on the market already, I tend increasingly toward the conviction that commentary and study materials should be printed separately from the Sacred Text itself. But the title of this one, The Evangelism Study Bible (TESB), intrigued me, so I accepted the publisher’s kind offer of a review copy.

There are many things I like about this Bible. It has a respectable-length concordance (1412-1534); the Zondervan maps are nice (1549-1564); emphasis that “It is not a prayer that saves you. It is trusting Jesus Christ that saves you. Prayer is simply how you tell God what you are doing” (1537) is welcome; I also like the choice of Bible version (New King James [NKJV]) and the decision not to impose “the oldest and best manuscripts say otherwise” assertions on readers (at least, no such appear in the notes for John 8:3-11 or 1 John 5:6-8 [1172, 1377] ). As well, various items emphasized in the footnotes and features are sound and greatly welcome, among them the following:

  • Emphasis that baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs at the moment of salvation and is not some later occurrence (1161, note on John 1:33);
  • Identification of special adoration offered to Mary as inappropriate (1117, note on Luke 1:48);
  • Straightforward repudiation of contemporary health-wealth heresies (206, note on Deuteronomy 28:1-68);
  • Pointing out of the reality that one’s only chance to come to Christ and be saved is during this earthly life (1140, note on Luke 13:25);
  • Refusal to shy away from or seek to evade the reality of God’s directives concerning the handling of cities turned to idolatry (193, note on Deuteronomy 13:14-15) or concerning war against the pagan inhabitants of Canaan (224, feature);
  • Some quite sound statements on God’s sovereignty, such as “Salvation from start to finish is of God. Only He can cause us to see our need. Only He can birth us into His family” (1160, note on John 1:13; see also 319, feature, point 4), “God is sovereign and does all things for His glory and the good of His people (see Rom. 9:18). According to His will, He has mercy on some and hardens the hearts of others” (62, note on Exodus 7:3), and “God is sovereign and in complete control….Sooner or later we will see that in everything that happens, God knows what He is doing” (160, note on Numbers 22:9-24:25);
  • Identification of miracles or signs as something God graciously does, not something any unbeliever has a right to expect or demand (64, feature; see also 368, note on 1 Kings 18:36-37);
  • Straightforward statement that “God’s creation was perfect and without sin” (2, note on Genesis 1:31), a reality one cannot fit with various “alternative” readings of the Genesis creation account that place death and disease (and thorns and thistles and so on) in the world before Adam and Eve’s fall into sin;
  • Its call for Christians to influence, not to be influenced by, the non-Christians with whom they interact (19, feature; 260, note on Judges 11:3), and its warning that Christians should take appropriate action to correct the problem if they find themselves “slipping spiritually when…around unbelievers” (1058, feature);
  • Its recognition that “Good intentions are not enough in our worship of God. God expects us to follow his instructions” (317, note on 2 Samuel 6:7);
  • Its emphasis on the need to “Focus on obedience, not outcomes” (366, feature, emphasis removed);
  • Its recognition of the focus on teaching or doctrine in the passage about knowing false prophets by their bad fruits (1055, note on Matthew 7:16-20, cross-referencing Luke 6:43-45);
  • That it notes how “heart” in Scripture typically “does not mean either the physical organ that pumps blood or our emotions alone” but “the inner person, the ‘self’ made up of intellect, emotion, and will that is the center of a person’s mental and spiritual life” (294, feature), a reality the popular “heart vs. head” dichotomy causes some to miss.

I worry, though, that the Bible’s gospel presentation may go too far in its effort to simplify and may in fact end up promoting a variety of easy believism where professing Christians feel secure while all that distinguishes them from unbelievers is assent to certain historical propositions and a desire to be rescued from the consequences of sin.

During my short-lived adolescent conversion to freewill-with-eternal-security Baptist fundamentalism, I conceptualized “the plan of salvation” as “Admit-Repent-Believe-Receive”: (1) admit you are a sinner worthy of hell and incapable of saving yourself; (2) repent of your sinfulness and sins, desiring to turn from them and turn to Christ; (3) believe that Jesus is the Christ, God the Son, as he claimed to be and that he died and rose again to save you; (4) by a conscious act of will, place your trust in (“make a commitment to”) Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Another, (5) rest assured that you are now saved and can be sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven, could have been added. While, from the perspective of human experience (“phenomenologically,” if you wish to sound learned), all these things may happen when persons are truly converted, this conceptualization does seem to make salvation a human work brought about by acts of will and thought.

Today, with both my adolescent “dry ground” conversion and early adult profession of non-belief behind me, my understanding of the plan of salvation would run more like this: (1) sometime during the period of preparation that is your entire life as an elect soul God loved prior to true conversion (“foreknew” from eternity), be made spiritually alive by God’s sovereign grace in a manner one can never exactly pinpoint in time and knows occurred only by its effects (as one knows the reality of the wind by its effects); (2) seeing the truth of the gospel, of Christ’s claims and promises, of your sinfulness and dire need, desiring to turn from your sins but knowing Christ alone can make this possible (at the point of conversion and at all points thereafter), trust in Jesus Christ alone to save and progressively sanctify you ; (3) realize that the true conversion that happened in 2 was the result of 1 and is something for which you can take no personal credit, and that the same is true of your ongoing transformation in sanctification (knowing that sanctification, like initial conversion, is by grace through faith, and that all true faith, whether initially saving or progressively sanctifying, is entirely a gift of God); (4) find assurance in the promises of Scripture and in the tangible evidences of God’s ongoing work of sanctification in your life.

Neither my adolescent nor my present understanding quite matches “The Gospel. Clear and Simple” (back cover) set forth by TESB. My adolescent understanding was closest, and similarly focused on the human side of things (human understanding and faith commitment), but still fell short of TESB’s minimalism. In TESB’s formulation, those to whom you as a Christian speak, if they would be truly saved through faith in Jesus Christ, need only be made to understand three things: “First, your listeners must know they are sinners. Otherwise, they will never see their need for Christ. Second, they must know that Jesus died for their sins as their substitute and rose from the dead. Finally, they must understand that God is asking them to trust in Christ alone to save them” (1064, feature). A desire to be rescued from the consequences of one’s sins, once one has been made aware that one is a sinner and that there are consequences, joined to a willingness to have Christ serve as the means of rescue, once one has been made aware that Christ is available so to serve, is all that is needed for that faith through which God saves: “because Christ was perfect and took our punishment, we can go to heaven when we die if we trust in Him alone” (280, feature).

What of repentance? What of actually wanting to turn from your sins and so on? In a feature entitled, “Is Repentance Essential to Salvation?” (concerning Luke 24:47), TESB offers this response:

The meaning behind the Greek word for repent in the New Testament is “to change one’s mind.” It is not an additional requirement for salvation over and above faith alone in Christ alone. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. In order to trust in Christ, people must realize their sinful condition that separates them from God and recognize their need for a Savior. They must “change their mind” about whatever is keeping them from trusting Christ, or what they are currently trusting in, and trust in Christ alone to save them. When they trust Christ, both repentance and faith have taken place. (1157)

This “understanding of repentance” is thought to best comport with the seemingly synonymous use of “believe” and “repent” in various contexts dealing with salvation (comparison of Acts 11:18 and 16:31 is offered as an example). Constraint of “repentance” to a “change of mind” about whom or what one trusts to save one, not about one’s rebellion against God and the sins expressing it (including, but not limited to, trust in false saviors), is repeatedly emphasized by TESB’s notes and features. For instance, concerning Jesus’s call to “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), the notes state: “The term repent means ‘to change one’s mind.’ Believe means ‘trust’ (see Acts 16:30-31). Jesus asked His hearers to change their minds, turn from whatever they were trusting in (good works, religious background, etc.), and place their trust in Him” (1091).

Now, that whatever constitutes saving faith in Christ includes within it true repentance, or that whatever true repentance is necessarily incorporates saving faith—that one who truly repents truly believes savingly, that one who truly believes savingly truly repents—doesn’t seem too controversial. The idea that repentance means a “change of mind” doesn’t seem all that controversial either, though contemporary connotations of “mind” as having to do solely with intellect or cognition, with “head knowledge,” might make it less than ideal. The idea that, in order to manifest true repentance, all one must change one’s mind about is what one trusts for salvation, from one’s own works or religious practices (or whatever) to Jesus Christ alone, does seem controversial. If one does not change one’s mind about one’s sin, seeing it as the defiance of God’s rightful Lordship that it is, if one does not repent of sin’s rebellious defiance of God’s Lordly authority, thereby granting that Christ (as God) is one’s rightful Lord to whom one, in true repentance that alone shows genuine trust, now bows in total submission—if one’s “repentance” means a “change of mind” less radical than this, if it means only trusting Christ to save one from the penalty of wrongdoing without acceptance of the reality that Christ only saves those he owns and that those he owns have given themselves over totally to his authority (so that discipleship is not optional and possible but mandatory and inevitable for the truly saved)—can one’s “change of mind” be considered biblical repentance?

In line with its constrained understanding of repentance, TESB is careful to emphasize the distinction between salvation, or entering the faith, and discipleship, or living the faith. Reformed believers, of course, emphasize the distinction between justification (God’s declaring to be just those for whom Christ died) and sanctification (God’s making progressively more like Christ those already justified), and this justification-sanctification distinction does seem related to TESB’s salvation-discipleship distinction. God’s ongoing work of sanctification is what Christians experience as discipleship, and the closest Christians get to directly experiencing their justification, their movement from the state of spiritual death and condemnation to spiritual life and justification, is their coming to faith in true conversion (their “getting saved”). In Reformed understanding, however, sanctification never fails to follow justification; anyone who truly “gets saved” also, inevitably, undergoes discipleship. TESB disagrees: “A disciple is ‘a learner’—someone who, having trusted in Christ, follows after Him. All Christian should be disciples, although all Christians are not [more clearly: not all Christians are] disciples” (182, feature). And, of course, “we can never lose our salvation (see John 5:24)” once we have it (212, note on Deuteronomy 32:15). That truly saved persons might be found living in ways indistinguishable from unsaved persons is often emphasized.

For instance, in a feature on “How to Reach Children Who Are Rebellious,” TESB advises: “Do not confuse entering the Christian life with living the Christian life. Seek to determine if the problem is that they have not trusted Christ or simply that they are not walking with Christ. To do so, ask two questions: (1) What are you trusting to get you to heaven? and (2) Are you growing as a Christian?….There is a possibility that they have missed the simplicity of the gospel. There is also a real possibility that they have trusted Christ but strayed from Him” (334, emphasis removed). In response to this, one might ask: “If all that one must trust Christ for is to get one into heaven, in what sense is living in continued sin and making no effort to become more like Christ in this life a straying from him, so long as one continues to trust him alone to get one to heaven (as one goes on living in the same sinful way one always has)?” If the repentance included in true faith (trust) in Christ does not necessarily include repentance for, and genuine (God-given) desire to turn from, that rebellion to obedience, if all one must repent of is trusting in other means of salvation, then nothing one does while continuing to believe that Christ alone will save one from the eternal consequences of one’s sins can be called a “straying,” can it? So long as one maintains faith (as TESB defines it) in Christ alone for salvation from damnation, one can’t be said to have “strayed,” though one might be said to “miss out” on the “privilege” and “rewards” of discipleship. One could only be said to have “strayed” if one lost one’s faith, though even this would not change the reality that one once had truly trusted in Christ and been eternally saved. Perhaps, then, we may all look forward to fellowshipping with Bart Ehrman in the age to come, even if he remains an apostate until death.

“We must allow for those who have genuinely trusted Christ but gotten so far out of fellowship with the Lord that they appear to be non-Christians,” TESB adds in a “How to Respond to Someone Who Is Saved and Still Sinning” feature (340). Further: “When people trust Christ, they should develop a consistent prayer life, learn to love others, and locate a Bible-teaching church. But none of those actions are a basis for assurance of salvation. God offers us a gift—eternal life. When we receive it by trusting Christ, we are saved. The issue of eternal destiny is settled” (1166). This last feature, “How to Give a New Believer Biblical Assurance of Salvation,” suggests walking new believers through John 5:24 and eliciting affirmations from them, such as in response to the query, “Did you believe what God said and trust Christ as your Savior?” (Ibid.) Joined to TESB’s constrained understanding of the repentance that true faith in Christ implies, where trusting Christ as Savior does not imply submitting to him as Lord, has the interesting implication (it seems) of declaring truly saved every person who ever sincerely wishes to be saved by Christ from damnation, even if no sanctification at all, no lasting change of any sort, ever follows that initial profession. How this fits with verses like Philippians 1:6 is unclear, but if one’s goal is to have as many people as possible comfortably sure they will end up in heaven, TESB’s presentation achieves the goal admirably, albeit not so effectively as universalism.

(While granting that “The fruit of repentance is a changed life” or “Good works” [1050, note on Matthew 3:7], TESB seems unwilling to treat this fruit as an inevitable result of true repentance and so a valid test of the genuineness of alleged repentance—and so, further, a valid source of assurance that one has indeed sincerely repented and been saved. While often emphasizing, as preceding examples show, that truly saved persons might be found living in ways indistinguishable from unsaved persons, TESB does not seem to set a time limit on how long truly saved persons might live this way. It does, however, sometimes note the “danger of…divine discipline” [212, note on Deuteronomy 32:15] that attends such bad behavior. That saved persons should be subject to divine discipline for not progressing in discipleship or sanctification seems in itself proof that faith that is saving includes awareness and acceptance of (submission to) Christ’s Lordship and his absolute right to one’s complete obedience in all things. Persons called upon merely to trust Christ to save them from hell and guarantee them heaven with “no strings attached” are not given proper opportunity to “count the cost,” to rightly understand the radical commitment that true repentance, true faith, genuine trust in Christ requires of them. So it seems to me, at any rate.)

C. G. Kromminga’s article on “Repentance” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2 ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) offers some useful thoughts on the words for “repent” and “repentance” in the Greek New Testament. Having noted that the verb (metanoeō; repent) occurs 34 times and the noun (metanoia; repentance) 23 times, and after some discussion of specific uses and related terms, Kromminga writes:

Metanoia…is used [in certain verses] to signify the whole process of change. God has granted the Gentiles “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), and godly sorrow works “repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10). Generally, however, metanoia can be said to denote that inward change of mind, affections, convictions, and commitment rooted in the fear of God and sorrow for offenses committed against him, which, when accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ, results in an outward turning from sin to God and his service in all of life….Metanoeō points to the inward conscious change while [a different term] epistrephō [return, turn, be converted] directs attention particularly to the changed determinative center or all of life (Acts 15:19; 1 Thess. 1:9).

This standard reference, at least, thinks the “change of mind” involved in biblical repentance concerns more than whom or what one is trusting to save one from the just consequences of one’s misdeeds. When simplification and clarification turn into misrepresentation, one has gone too far. TESB seems to have gone too far.

TESB’s unwillingness to see discipleship as an inevitable result of genuine trust in Christ, and so dependable evidence that one is truly saved, makes for some awkwardness in the distinction drawn between salvation and discipleship. For instance, concerning Matthew 16:24-27 (cross-referencing Mark 8:34-37 and Luke 9:23-25), TESB notes: “Jesus describes the requirements for discipleship, not salvation” (1069). These verses include the following statements: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (verses 23-24). Now, if discipleship is an inevitable result of salvation, then it makes sense that one who fails to follow Christ in discipleship should be spoken of as losing his “life” and his “soul.” But making this fit with the idea that discipleship is possible but not inevitable for the truly saved forces one to read the passage in some awkward and unnatural manner (such as, “well, the ‘life’ and ‘soul’ of the Christian who does not become a disciple are ‘lost’ in the sense that they lack the value and vibrancy they could have had”). The only way to have all the relevant verses about initial salvation and the discipleship that follows, or about justification and sanctification, hang together without strained readings of one set of verses or another, is to hold that the one (true faith or trust, including repentance; initial salvation; justification), if genuinely present, never fails to be followed by the other (true conversion followed by growing obedience; discipleship; sanctification).

While TESB’s simplified gospel presentation does eliminate submission of one’s will to Christ’s Lordship from saving faith and the true repentance that goes with it, making the obedience of progressive sanctification or discipleship merely possible for true believers rather than inevitable, TESB, in fairness, does not at all intend to encourage disobedience. That Christians “should” obey God is emphasized throughout the notes and features. Two examples among many are these: “Christians should respond to God’s righteousness and live in obedience to God’s revelation through the Scriptures” (186, note on Deuteronomy 6:25); and “God’s standard is that we obey whole-heartedly” (226, feature). I’m pleased that TESB emphasizes this, but the difficulty created by allowing true salvation and complete lack of discipleship to coexist does not go away simply because one tells professing Christians they “should” be obedient, “should” seek to do God’s will out of gratitude, or “should” pursue discipleship because it offers eternal rewards not otherwise obtainable (true and noteworthy as these all are).

Its constrained view of what saving faith with true repentance includes is the main aspect of TESB that doesn’t work for me. It is not the sole aspect I have difficulty with, however. One additional area of difficulty worth noting is that TESB stands very firmly on the side of universal or general atonement (Christ died as an atoning substitute for all human individuals without exception, not solely for those who will actually be saved), as well as on the side of saying that God desires to save every human individual, including those who will ultimately end up damned. Select indications of these are the following: “1 Timothy 2:4 assures us He [God] ‘desires all men to be saved’” (62, note on Exodus 7:3); “He [Jesus] died for every person in every community” (125, feature); “It took His [God’s] all-righteous Son to atone for an all-sinful humanity” (204, feature); “God’s love is for ‘whoever’—anyone, anytime, and everyone, everywhere” (274, note on Ruth 1:22); there is “no one on earth whom He [God] is not interested in saving” (354, note on 1 Kings 8:41-43, 60); to ensure you have correct motives when sharing the gospel with unbelievers, TESB advises, one thing you should ask yourself is, “do you genuinely want to see them reconciled to God forever because Christ has already paid for their sins?” (381, feature); “What Jesus did on the cross, He did for everyone” (1249, feature).

Those of us who believe that Christ died as an atoning substitute only for those who would actually trust in him and be saved (particular atonement) are very uncomfortable making the target of Christ’s atoning work “humanity” or “every person in every community” or “everyone.” One might theorize that Christ died even for non-elect persons (persons who will never accept him and will end up eternally separated from God) in the sense that his death justifies even God’s non-saving graces (“common grace”)—life and enjoyment rather than immediate hell, rain and sunshine, limited expression of fallen tendencies, retention of some ability to express created giftedness in a positive way, and so on. Even if one finds this theory plausible, finding justification in Jesus’s sacrifice for God’s this-worldly benevolence toward the non-elect does not come near to saying that Jesus paid the full penalty for the sins of those who will end up paying for their own sins in eternal separation from God. For one thing, God’s perfectly just nature would not permit such a double payment. If Christ died savingly on behalf of all, then all will be saved. If not all will be saved, Christ could not have died savingly on behalf of all.

Likewise, those of us who believe that God’s sovereign counsel always comes to pass, that what God wants or is pleased to have happen invariably does happen (Isaiah 46:10; see also Ephesians 1:11), cannot be at ease saying that that God “is interested in” or “desires” to save even persons whom he ultimately will not save. To TESB’s identification of 1 Timothy 2:4 as assuring us that God desires for all human individuals to end up saved (a desire that will ultimately be thwarted), a Reformed study Bible answers: “This does not mean that God sovereignly wills every human being to be saved (i.e., that God saves everyone). It may refer to God’s general benevolence in taking no delight in the death of the wicked, or to God’s desire that all types of people (v. 1 note) be saved (i.e., God does not choose His elect from any single group)” (New Geneva Study Bible [Nashville: Nelson, 1995], 1909, note on 1 Timothy 2:4). The referenced “v. 1 note” reads as follows: “As can be seen from the next expression (‘for kings and all who are in authority’), this [“all men” in v. 1] does not mean ‘every human being,’ but rather ‘all types of people,’ whatever their station in life” (Ibid., note on 1 Timothy 2:1).

As it happens, the cited TESB reference to 1 Timothy 2:4 follows a statement straightforwardly recognizing that God “According to his will…has mercy on some and hardens the hearts of others” (62, note on Exodus 7:3). “At the same time,” it immediately adds, God desires for “all men to be saved.” Seeking no resolution for the apparent contradiction, TESB finally states that “God desires that we obey Him, not that we must understand all of His ways” (Ibid.). Certainly, there is a place for humbly accepting that God has not always provided enough information for us to resolve apparent tensions between scriptural assertions. Given that references in Scripture to “all men” or “everyone” so often refer to “all” persons making up some group under discussion or to select representatives of “all” groups from whom representatives might be drawn, it isn’t obvious that 1 Timothy 2:4 is an instance where such humble acceptance of tension is required. Even if one rejects such harmonizations as the New Geneva Study Bible’s, belief that in some mysterious way God “desires” for all persons to be saved (even though he has not ordained that they will be) doesn’t make sense of the idea that Christ in fact died as an atoning substitute on behalf of all persons, since not all persons will be saved (Matthew 7:13-4, John 21:8).

A final aspect of TESB with which I’m uncomfortable is its use of the weary religion-relationship dichotomy that has become so popular in certain circles (1061, feature; 1112, feature). In this way of speaking, “religion” becomes a shorthand for trusting in rules and regulations to make you acceptable to God, for relying on adherence to certain rules of conduct or ritual practices or such to save you. Reference to “the Christian religion,” “the religion of Christ,” or even “true [rather than false] religion” goes out the window as one comes to view “religion” as pure evil. People who get into this way of speaking squirm at any mention of “religion” is association with their Christian beliefs and practices. True Christian faith, this way of thinking holds, must be exclusively about personal relationship between the believer and Christ; rules of conduct, mandatory or recommended practices, ceremonies to teach one’s intellect and to train one’s will and emotions, and all other things rightly labeled “religion” must be avoided like the Ebola virus turned airborne. Religion, bad; relationship, good. The worst thing about this terminological revolution is that it makes nonsense of much fine Christian literature of days past that uses “religion” as a positive term. I am saddened to see this dichotomy find its way into another published work. To those who say, “Come on, David, that’s way too minor an issue to include in your review,” I can only respond that they might be right. Still, contemporary animus toward the word “religion” strikes me as misguided and unhelpful.

Overall, then, my feelings about this study Bible are mixed. While it has many positive qualities, it goes astray on its topic of central focus, the gospel, by representing saving faith and true repentance as less than they are (as less than I have come to understand them to be, at least). While it isn’t a book I would purchase or recommend others purchase, it also isn’t a book I would caution strongly against purchasing.The choice is yours.

This review also appears, less nicely formatted, on Amazon, and will appear, in abridged form, on Goodreads.

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Permission to Avoid Permission to Doubt

permission2doubt_cover_courtesy_publisher_excerptSullivan, Ann C. Permission to Doubt: One Woman’s Journey into a Thinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. Paperback. 173 pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-4366-4.

Ann Sullivan’s Permission to Doubt might best be described as a personal memoir, reflection, and self-help book that dabbles in apologetics and hermeneutics. Fairly effective on the personal sharing and reflection side, the book offers standard fare on the self-help side, is fairly superficial and cursory on the apologetics side, and is often troubling on the hermeneutical side. The book’s ostensible purpose is to get readers to accept and explore their doubts, discern their doubts’ types (spiritual, intellectual, emotional), and effectively deal with them (working through or seeking treatment for them, as appropriate). These might be laudable ends, particularly if one could speak of “owning” or “admitting” one’s doubts rather than of “accepting” them or of “giving oneself permission” to doubt. Sullivan’s method of pursing these ends, however, does not seem particularly praiseworthy or deserving of imitation. On balance, the book does not strike me as something Bible-believers need or would benefit from and, in spite of having been provided a free copy for review purposes, I cannot recommend it. (In fact, the book has made me tentatively decide to decline all future offers of review copies from Kregel. Time seems better spent reading solid Bible-believing works of the past, such as those reprinted and offered free of charge by Chapel Library.)

While I cannot recommend the text, I can think of a few groups that might find Permission to Doubt worth reading: (1) personal acquaintances of Sullivan who want to show their support; (2) noncommittal professing Christians who prefer a minimum of required doctrinal beliefs, who like to be free to “interpret” Scripture in the broadest possible variety of ways, and who want these preferences affirmed; and (3) persons who happen to have personal experiences similar to Sullivan’s (past experience with an anxiety disorder, being raised Christian but spending much of adult life doubting and finally committing to a minimal set of “essential” beliefs, and so on) and who like reading the stories of persons with backgrounds resembling their own. I suppose an additional group, (4) women with a bias in favor of anything taught by other women, could be included, but I remain hopeful that such a group is more legendary than real.

Beyond these groups, there might be isolated individuals who would find portions of the book worthwhile. If you believe your doubts may be due to a disorder in your brain chemistry, you might welcome encouragement by the book’s self-help side to take antidepressants (assuming you haven’t read Kirsch’s The Emperor’s New Drugs or find it unpersuasive, and assuming you don’t fear such medications might make you feel at ease with beliefs and behaviors the Holy Spirit wants you to find uncomfortable). If you think that dismissing as unimportant doctrines you’re unsure about is one good way to deal with doubts, you might find the book’s hermeneutical side appealing (this might, in fact, make you part of group 2 in the preceding paragraph). If you feel God’s own words in Scripture have less persuasive force than theistic proofs, historical research, and your own reasoning, but you’ve yet to read anything at all about apologetics, you might find the book’s apologetics side agreeable, though too cursory to actually persuade you of anything. If hearing others’ personal stories of doubt tends to allay your own doubts (or at least make you more comfortable with them, if you think your doubts are something it’s good to become comfortable with), then you might like Sullivan’s personal sharing and reflection.

Were the book only a story of personal difficulties and doubts and eventual recovery, Sullivan’s story might well merit recommendation. A woman who suffers thirteen years from panic attacks brought on by an undiagnosed heart condition (18) who, after a long “dark night of the soul” her own physiology pushed her into, ends up a successful speaker at women’s conferences and leader of a large women’s ministry at her church: this is Hallmark movie material. Sullivan, however, has taken it upon herself to teach, and that makes the substance of her teaching, and the presuppositions and attitudes guiding her approach, the necessary central focus of any assessment of the book’s value.

Before exploring the “troubling” aspects of the text that prevent me from recommending it (or, rather, one troubling aspect that well illustrates what I find most unsatisfactory in Sullivan’s approach), I should at least note what the division between spiritual, intellectual, and emotional types of doubt is all about, since the book is structured around this division.

What Sullivan labels “spiritual doubt” is, in the terms Reformed Bible-believers would use, the doubt that results from innate human depravity. Sullivan opts for the following description: “the discomfort that surfaces because of the inability for good and evil to comfortably coexist” (34). One’s sinful choices interfere with one’s ability to believe the truth that runs contrary to them, resulting in doubt. As suits the Thomistic and evidentialist slant of her apologetic preferences, Sullivan does not question the sincerity of intellectual doubts. Intellectual doubt, in Sullivan’s way of thinking, asks honest questions that must be resolved by factual information and rational argument. The final sort of doubt, emotional, is a feeling of uncertainty produced by the negative emotional state accompanying suffering and difficulty, disease, or whatever. Each type of doubt, Sullivan believes, requires a different sort of handling. The book’s self-help side has most to say about dealing with (or treating, or perhaps just waiting out) emotional doubt; Sullivan’s sharing and reflection also have relevance. The book’s apologetics side addresses (in cursory fashion) intellectual doubt. (Her apologetics discussion also makes reference to Pascal’s Wager. I would note, since Sullivan’s presentation does not, that, properly understood, Pascal’s Wager is more relevant to spiritual or emotional than to intellectual doubt. As a “proof” or “evidence” of God’s existence, Pascal’s Wager is, of course, fallacious. That a belief has pragmatic benefits does not make it any more likely than not to be true. As a way to probe human motivations and to prompt commitment to what one already knows or believes or suspects is true, however, Pascal’s Wager has great value.) Sullivan deals with spiritual doubts mainly through the self-reflection and sharing and the hermeneutical sides of the text; while her beliefs in prayer, the need to seek greater closeness to God, and the need to find guidance in Scripture are (broadly speaking) on target, her handling of Scripture is often troubling, carrying with it attitudes and assumptions that reduce Scripture’s ability to provide sure guidance by portraying full submission to all that it says on every topic that it covers as unnecessary or even objectionable.

Reformed Bible-believers, as it happens, would see spiritual doubt as lying behind most or all apparently intellectual and emotional doubts, and would see study and submission to Scripture, prayer, and similar “means of grace” (as some like to put it) as the key curatives for every “kind” of doubt. The different “types” of doubt are, to this way of thinking, just different ways that fundamental depravity, human rebellion against God (and so against his authoritative Word), expresses itself. This view would emphasize that the fact that God continues to reach out to his elect who doubt, that he does not punish them for being “of little faith,” does not make doubt laudable or something to be encouraged. One author’s words on God, belief, doubt, and Scripture capture the sort of commitment of oneself to God and his Word that this view calls for:

If I truly believe in God, then God is more real to me than anything else I know, more real even than my faith in Him. For if anything else is more real to me than God Himself, then I am not believing, but doubting. I am real, my experiences are real, my faith is real, but God is more real. Otherwise I am not believing but doubting. Yet even in my doubting I do not doubt as unbelievers do. My doubts are real, my sins are real, my fears are real, my discouragements are real, my anxieties are real. But God is more real even than all of these dark shadows. I cast myself therefore on that which is most real, namely, God Himself. I take God and Jesus Christ His Son as the starting point of all my thinking. For this is faith. To ignore God and take my own experience as my starting point would be doubting. (Edward F. Hills, Believing Bible Study 3 ed. [Des Moines: The Christian Research Press, 1991], 56.)
As John Calvin observed, the Scriptures are the spiritual eyeglasses which enable our sin-blinded minds to see aright the revelation which God makes of Himself in nature. Also, the Scriptures are the key which unlocks the mysteries of history and reveals to us God’s plan. And finally, the Scriptures are that pure well of divine truth to which the preachers of the Gospel must continually repair and fill their silver pitchers. The Scriptures, therefore, are the foundation of faith. In them alone God’s revelation of Himself is found unobscured by human error. (Ibid., 4.)

Early in the text, while offering support for her idea that asking doubt-born questions about one’s faith, “challenging a belief system” one may never have seriously examined (17), is something laudable that she believes can result in a “strengthened” faith (18), Sullivan points to 1 Thessalonians 5:21, Acts 17:11, and Colossians 2:8, asserting that in these verses Paul “encouraged people to think outside their comfort zone and ask questions” (21). Interestingly, the theme uniting all these verses is that one’s investigations and question-asking, one’s every thought, must be directed by the truth that is Christ, the truth that comes to believers through the God-breathed words of Scripture (see also 2 Corinthians 10:5). This doesn’t look like encouragement to seek answers to doubt-prompted questions from sources outside Scripture (rational reflection on “religiously neutral” premises, scientific or historical investigation, reflection on one’s life experiences and exploration of one’s feelings, and so on). Instead, it look like something more in line with Hills’s perspective (just quoted): a call to bring one’s thoughts and feelings into conformity with Scripture by investigating what Scripture says in answer to one’s questions and committing oneself to treat what one finds, and the God who lies behind it, as “more real” than anything else, bringing one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions as much into conformity with Scripture as one can.

As I’ve noted, the (for want of a better identifier) hermeneutical side of Permission to Doubt “is often troubling.” Sullivan adopts what is a pretty standard strategy in our day (perhaps a good reason to focus most of one’s reading on books not written in our day). First, she suggests that the only beliefs about what Scripture teaches that are essential, that matter enough to merit resolute commitment, are those directly related to salvation, those that are “salvific” (93). She then maintains that such essentials are “few,” that nonessentials (or “gray areas”) are many, and that we should all just get along and “celebrate” our doctrinal “diversity” (92-4). If one wishes to make one’s living speaking to groups of Christians with varying viewpoints, or writing books to be read by the same, this Christian version of the “coexist” bumper sticker (you know, the one where each letter of the word “coexist” is the symbol for a different religion) is no doubt good success strategy. But are we really to believe that the God who inspired and preserved for our use this large collection-of-books book, this Bible that many Christians think it is a big deal to read through once in a year, only considers essential such content as he could have fit into some gospel tracts or a volume of Cliffs Notes? When humans take it upon themselves to create this sort of “canon [of essentials] within the canon [of mostly nonessentials],” humble submission to God’s words does not appear to be what’s going on. Softening one’s stance on the clarity and sufficiency of God’s words in order to more easily and agreeably accept and even celebrate the diverse opinions of fallen human beings does not strike me as quite so laudable or humble as some think. But, then, this is only my opinion.

Naturally enough (I almost said, “Naturalistically enough”), Sullivan sees interpretation of the Genesis creation account as one of the nonessentials, bringing up the popular assertion that “in the Genesis account, the word yom, which is Hebrew for the word day, can refer to an age of time or a literal twenty-four-hour period. Both uses of the word are legitimate” (94). Really? While both yom and the English “day,” as Sullivan and others recognize, have a range of meanings in various contexts, this reality does not permit one (as Sullivan assumes) to choose whatever meaning in the range one wishes in any particular context. Is imposing the “age” (“long time period” or “indefinite time period”) reading of yom (“day”) permissible in the context of the Genesis creation account? Biblical Creationists say no, and I remain persuaded that all persons not set on trying to make the Bible fit with secular scientific theories should agree. You may disagree, but don’t ask or expect persons convinced that Scripture speaks clearly on the topic to “celebrate” your contrary viewpoint because in this case, so you say, what God says through Scripture is “nonessential.”

I won’t rehearse arguments about the use of yom with ordinal (creation days 2 through 6) versus ordinal (creation day 1) numbers (if you’d care to review them, see Jonathan Sarfati’s Refuting Compromise [Green Forest: Master Books, 2004], 76-8). I also won’t dwell on the question of how a God-breathed Exodus 20:8-11 fits with a “days as long ages” reading of the Genesis creation account (or with other alternative, non-historical readings of that account). Instead, I’d like to take readers through a thought experiment. Open your Bible to the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1:1-31). (I prefer the King James or New King James, but I’m not familiar with any translation that alters the implications of this exercise.) Read through the account, changing the label of each “day” there from “day” to the following vague locution that captures as much as possible of the semantic range of the word as it is used in various contexts: “time period.” For example, read verse 5 of the King James account as follows: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first [time period].” After you’ve read through the passage as modified, proceed to the next paragraph of this review.

Now, setting aside any knowledge you might have of currently-dominant scientific theories about the origin of earth and the creatures that inhabit it (and related efforts to assign ages to rocks and fossils using decay rates of various isotopes or the like), forgetting what views your peer group or family or favorite Christian leaders happen to promote, and going to the text only with such awareness of the world as you know the original recipients of this inspired account must have had, ask yourself: What “time period” is referred to in this context? Note the “evenings” and “mornings” with each numbered day, for example. Are “long age” days plausible here? I can see no legitimate, honest way to take “time period” here to mean anything but a time period of “ordinary day” length. The “well, yom here could mean long periods of time” argument is impossible to take seriously if one wishes to honor the text as God wrote it.

The “diversity” of opinion on this issue, therefore, does not look to me like something Bible-believers should “celebrate.” Nor does this subject seem “clearly gray” (92). By the way, when Sullivan identifies issues such as this, issues that she believes are nonessential and uncertain, as “clearly gray,” she claims the very sort of “black and white” certitude that she condemns others for claiming (Ibid.). Were Sullivan to speak consistently, she could only speak of “seemingly gray” or “potentially gray” areas. “Personally, I’m still not sure about this subject” would be still more exact, but such a statement would not allow Sullivan to condemn as closed-minded (167) those who see as “black and white” (requiring resolute commitment) issues she considers “gray” (permitting freedom to adopt or not adopt a variety of equally good or equally bad viewpoints). This seems to go beyond permission to doubt by making doubt a requirement: If you don’t doubt the Genesis creation account as written (or doubt the host of other doctrines Sullivan thinks you should be uncertain about), or if you see something amiss when others doubt it (or them), you merit condemnation.

Some, of course, evade the creation account’s literal meaning in other ways, such as by making the account an instructive “literary framework” or even a “myth” meant to communicate something “true but not historically literal.” These evasions allow yom to be understood as context requires while the passage as a whole is treated as a story Christians needn’t consider in their assessment of secular scientific theories. I’ve yet to see a good argument that those who received and believed Exodus 20:8-11, and sought to obey it through literal observance of a weekly sabbath, could have understood the Genesis creation account as something other than literal history (prefacing more literal history running seamlessly through the rest of Genesis and into Exodus), but at least these alternative readings do not require unnatural insertion of weird meanings into the “time periods” of Genesis 1. (Though Sullivan brings up the yom argument when discussing the Genesis creation account, she does show a willingness to treat stories that Genesis appears to present as straightforward history, in the middle of an ongoing this-really-happened narrative, as something other than what they appear, suggesting, for instance, that she doesn’t care “Whether one takes…literally or not” the Tower of Babel narrative [61].) Obsessing on the idea that “the Bible was never intended to be a science book” (162) misses the point. If the Bible is intended as an understandable communication, and if truths it communicates have relevance to scientific questions, then Bible-believers are obligated to let those truths guide their approach to the various claims made by scientists and stories told in the name of “science.”

But, you point out, there are fine scholars and brilliant thinkers who endorse each of the alternative interpretations of the Genesis creation account. Doesn’t that mean we should keep our minds open and willing to accept these interpretations, as Sullivan advises? Well, you must make your own judgment, of course. If you think that the opinion of a fine scholar and brilliant thinker, who happens to be a sinful created being just like yourself, makes the words of God less clear (Genesis 3:1), by all means “keep an open mind.” To my eye, though, the passage says what it says, and I can see no good, God-honoring reason to force upon it an interpretation no original recipient would have taken seriously. What professed authority, Scripture or the “fine scholar and brilliant thinker,” will you treat as ultimate?

This way of thinking, of course, is anathema to “celebrate diversity” sorts like Sullivan. (Am I extreme to suggest that Bible-believers should respond in kind, treating Sullivan’s “celebrate diversity” attitude as anathema?) She writes: “More than one Christian has earned the label [close-minded], generally because they are white-knuckle-clinging to an opinion about some interpretation of the Bible. Whether it’s a problem with hairstyles, dress codes, marriage and divorce, or even evolution, some believers have completely forgotten about grace and the fact that they may not have a corner on all absolute truth. God is, after all, a bit outside our human understanding” (167). The conclusion of this statement shows a fundamental confusion. The question is not whether God is beyond human understanding, but whether God’s inspired Word is. If it is, it has failed as the God-to-his-people communication it was intended to be. If Scripture is not beyond human understanding, then persons who stand faithfully by what they understand the Bible to clearly teach—even while “broad-minded” sorts like Sullivan object and accuse them of close-mindedness, arrogance, or “white-knuckle-clinging”—appear to me more true to the biblical model of faith than Sullivan’s doctrinal minimalism and “celebrate diversity” dismissiveness. (How persons who trust what Scripture says are supposed to have “forgotten about” a “grace” that Sullivan thinks she remembers is unclear. It is also interesting that, in spite of Scripture’s fairly prominent coverage of marriage and divorce—in directives, principles, and instructive true stories—Sullivan apparently thinks marriage-and-divorce guidance in Scripture is no more clear than guidance concerning hairstyles and dress codes. Her desire to limit Scripture’s applicability to a very narrow set of what she personally deems “essential” is…stunning.)

Sullivan also remains noncommittal on other issues, such as whether those who reject Christ can expect eternal punishment or annihilation (79). Apparently, it is her belief that if professing Christians disagree about something, then it must be the case that the issue in question is “not fully clear,” which implies one should not “come down hard” for a given position, since such lacks “intellectual integrity” (Ibid.). If disagreement among fallen humans is indeed proof that God’s words on a subject are unclear, then this might be a sensible way to think. Alas, the “if” in this “if…then” seems quite unlikely given all that Scripture has to say about fallen humans.

Sullivan’s attitude toward Scripture, and toward Christians who believe it clearer and more broadly authoritative than she does, makes Permission to Doubt a book every Bible-believer should grant themselves permission to avoid. Better resources are plentiful. I commend them to you.

This review also appears, less nicely formatted, on Amazon, and will appear, in abridged form, on Goodreads.

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Christian Bioethics: A Useful Survey

christian_bioethics_cover_courtesy_publisherMitchell, C. Ben, and D. Joy Riley. Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families. B&H Studies in Biblical Ethics. Daniel R. Heimbach, Series Editor. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2014. 207+xiv pages. ISBN 978-1-4336-7114-2.

Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families, by C. Ben Mitchell (Ph.D. and professor of Moral Philosophy) and D. Joy Riley (M.D. with Bioethics M.A.), is described by its publisher (B&H Academic) as a “needed guide for pastors, clinicians, students, and laypeople” (back cover) that hopes “to help readers discover how biblical theology, Christian ethics, and contemporary science and medicine intersect in the real world where people are making life-changing decisions” (2). Unlike some collaborations, this one maintains a distinction between each author’s contributions by adopting a dialog format said to “let readers eavesdrop on their conversation” (back cover), though some readers may find the format contrived in places (if my reading experience is any indicator). For instance, at one point, Riley concludes her survey of “a part of the medical landscape” with a series of questions for Mitchell, one of which is “What does the Bible say about the nature of human life?” (54) Now, Mitchell is a Professor of Moral Philosophy whose University of Tennessee Ph.D. study included “a concentration in medical ethics” (back cover); he does not (so far as the text indicates) teach Theology or Biblical Studies. Neither readers nor Riley seem to have a reason to assume Mitchell knows more about what the Bible teaches on this subject than Riley does. Yet this transition in the text has Riley deferring to Mitchell as though his greater biblical expertise can be assumed. This makes the dialog format feel contrived.

(Please note that my only point here is to highlight the occasional unnaturalness of the dialog format. I don’t mean to call into question either author’s right to argue from Scripture. The Bible is God’s communication to all believers, which we can assume he wrote and preserved in such a way as to ensure and maintain its ability to communicate, not a text meant to be understood only by specialists, assumptions of contemporary scholarism and expertism notwithstanding.)

Christian Bioethics is part of the B&H Studies in Biblical Ethics series, edited by Daniel R. Heimbach. This series, Heimbach relates, aims to help meet today’s “critical need for scholarship, instruction, and application of Christian ethics in ways that equip Christian men and women to engage the surrounding culture in prophetic moral witness,” a need created by an environment of “widespread moral confusion and denial of moral authority,” where “claims to objective moral authority and understanding are openly contested…more than any other aspects of Christian faith and witness” (xi). While I do not always find the dialog format effective, and though I am not perfectly satisfied with Mitchell and Riley’s arguments at every point, I can recommend the text as a solid, helpful survey of (and introduction to) bioethics.

The text begins with introductory and foundational material, comprising the Introduction (1-5) and first two chapters (9-42; Part I of the text, entitled “Christian Bioethics”). The Introduction notes Mitchell and Riley’s starting assumptions (Christian worldview, historic orthodoxy, necessary coherence between Scripture and science because “all truth is God’s truth”) and explains the book’s organization (inspired by Theologian Nigel Cameron), which divides treatment of issues in bioethics into “Taking Life” (Part II; chapters 3-4), “Making Life” (Part III, chapters 5-7), and “Remaking/Faking Life” (Part IV, chapter 8). (A Conclusion follows these main sections.) Sufficiently strict Biblical Creationists, those inclined to challenge proposals of “gaps” in the Genesis genealogies, may be uncomfortable with the statement that “surgical interventions date back to around 9000 BC” (1), which takes secular dating methods for granted. Such persons might even be mildly uneasy with the failure of Mitchell and Riley to note Scripture’s primacy (the ultimateness of Scripture’s authority) when they describe “science and faith, medicine and theology” as “realms of knowledge” or “sources of truth” (5).

Some remarks on each chapter follow, under headings for each of the text’s larger divisions (parts).

Part I: Christian Bioethics ^

Chapter 1, “Which Doctors? Whose Medicine” (9-23), like remaining chapters in the book, begins with a case study, followed by “Questions for Reflection” (9-11). Here, the case study concerns a doctor who gives a patient a dose of morphine that the doctor knows will have “the inevitable…effect” of killing that patient in a situation where the patient’s desire for or consent to such an “assisted suicide” is ambiguous. Discussion of this case leads to reflection on the Hippocratic Oath, which is little used today, and the history of the Oath and of medicine in the Christian West (how the Oath was Christianized by the tenth century, how Christian faith motivated care for the ill and the founding of hospitals, and so on) and of related ethical debate and the development of a separate field of bioethics. Mitchell and Riley, finding common metaphors for physicians (parent figures, warriors against illness, technicians engaged in curative problem solving) unsatisfactory, propose seeing physicians as primarily persons necessarily of good character (who have learned and manifest the virtues of compassion, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, integrity, and self-effacement) in trust-based relational covenants with their patients. They advocate a return to “the higher moral ground” once exemplified by the Hippocratic Oath; only through such a return, they maintain, can we “achieve the proper ends of medicine” (22).

Chapter 2, “From Ancient Book to the Twenty-First Century” (25-42), discusses how to apply the teachings of Scripture to ethical questions arising out of contemporary life science developments that Scripture’s original recipients could scarcely have imagined. After rejecting possible approaches to Scripture that would be too one-dimensional and simplistic (treating it as solely a collection of rules, “eternal laws,” to follow; treating it as a repository of universal moral principles only; and viewing it exclusively as “a grand narrative, a sacred story” that calls for “situating oneself in the story and living accordingly”), Mitchell and Riley propose a composite view that combines the insights of all the one-dimensional approaches, recognizing that “God’s moral instruction comes to us in the form of commands and principles and is also revealed [through the biblical narrative] in Christian virtues and examples.” They label this approach “The Bible as Canonical Revelation of Divine Commands and Christian Virtues” (31). One particularly noteworthy statement in the chapter is Mitchell’s description of the meaning of 2 Peter 1:3: “In other words,” he writes, “God has not left his people without guidance in every area of life. Although the Bible is not a science textbook, its message speaks to the deep underlying values that can guide decisions about scientific matters Although the Bible is not a manual of medicine, its truths may be applied to medical decision making” (28).

The chapter includes basic discussion of hermeneutics, bringing to readers’ attention such common principles as “whenever possible Scripture should be read in its historical and cultural context” (33; hermeneutical discussion in this chapter relies heavily on Kyle D. Fedler’s Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality [Louisville: WJK, 2006]). Readers worried by the Introduction’s failure to emphasize the primacy of Scripture will welcome the statement here that “Scripture is primary, normative, and authoritative,” even if they are unexcited by reiteration that the Bible “is not our only source of guidance and wisdom” (33). The chapter’s conclusion, however, may revive such readers’ discomfort. The authors write: “Christians must read and interpret two books of revelation: the book of God and the book of nature….God has made himself known in Scripture and in nature….Thus, in order to understand God’s revelation most fully, we study both the Bible and nature, written revelation and created revelation” (40-1). Further: “At the end of the day, we affirm the coherence of truth; all truth is God’s truth. Christians have nothing to fear from truthful science, and science has nothing to fear from faithful biblical interpretation” (41). While there is certainly nothing objectionable about seeing Scripture and nature as in some ways analogous, the identification of both Scripture and nature as “books” does risk implying that Scripture (which is verbal) and nature (which is not verbal) are equally clear and that information humans derive from Scripture has no greater authority than information they (believe they) derive from nature. Such “two [equally clear] books” thinking has led some individuals, on the basis of their “reading” of the “book” of nature, to impose upon portions of Scripture interpretive schemes that would never have occurred to its original recipients (and that often seem strained and bizarre). I discern no evidence of such error in Mitchell and Riley’s discussion, but I would welcome more careful emphasis on how the clarity and authority of God-breathed Scripture surpasses the nonverbal ambiguity and “mixed signals” of fallen nature.

Part II: Taking Life ^

Chapter 3, “The Sanctity of Human Life and Abortion” (45-65), describes the various types of abortion, explains the meaning and implications of belief in the sanctity of human life, and shows how that belief is justified and informed by the scriptural teaching that humans are made in the image of God. The bottom line: “the witness of Scripture and the testimony of the early church are that every human being, from conception through natural death, is to be respected as an imager of God whose life has special dignity” (59). In addition to the church history alluded to in this quotation, the chapter looks at some pre-Christian Hebrew thought and summarizes the history of abortion legalization that reached it permissive peak with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton rulings.

Overall, this is a solid and helpful chapter. Mitchell’s description of the metaphorical use of reins or kidneys (“inward parts”) in Hebrew poetry particularly catches my attention: “In Hebrew poetry,” he writes, “the inward parts were typically understood to be the seat of the affections, the hidden part of a person where grief may be experienced (Job 16:13), where the conscience exists (Ps 51:7), and where deep spiritual distress is sometimes felt (Ps 73:21)” (57). At first blush, the implication seems to be that “inward parts” parallels popular English usage of “heart” (in contrast to Hebrew usage, where “heart” includes what English usage calls “head” or “mind,” at least if Proverbs 23:7, which places thinking in the “heart,” is any indicator). However, though Mitchell does cite Psalm 51:7, he does not discuss Psalm 51:6, which indicates that the “inward parts” may also house “truth” and “wisdom,” which would seem to require some “head” or “mind” cognitive capacity in the “inward parts.” None of this is central to the point of the chapter, but this disconnect between the Bible’s picture and our modern way of thinking, with its distinction between (metaphorical) “heart” and “head,” merits reflection.

In one of his other contributions to the chapter, Mitchell makes an interesting reference to “the person of the trinitarian God.” This reference to the Trinity as a single “person” appears on the same page as reference to “the person of Jesus” (54). If the reference to the Trinity is not a typographical error where “persons” or “personhood” or “personal nature” is meant, we have here the suggestion that the triune God is one person who is at the same time three persons, an idea much less obviously coherent than the more standard “three persons, one God” (as a shorthand for “three distinct personal subsistences, one divine essence” or the equivalent; see W.E. Ward, “Hypostasis,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2 ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001], 583).

Chapter 4, “Human Dignity and Dying” (67-104), addresses end-of-life issues, most notably “euthanasia.” Though once called “passive euthanasia,” the “removal of life-sustaining treatments like breathing machines and technologically or ‘artificially’ administered nutrition and hydration” is now “a separate category in ethics discussion” since “most people recognize that a time can come for removing technology, with proper consent, so that the dying process can proceed” (91-2). Forms of euthanasia still generally called such are “voluntary active” (physician assists at patient’s request), “nonvoluntary” (physician effects without patient input), and “involuntary” (physician kills patients against patient’s wishes) (Ibid.). While noting that “early theologians were consistent in their insistence that suicide was sub-Christian at best because hope and love sustain patience” in the midst of suffering (102), the chapter fails to directly address what seems to me the most fundamental issue in debates over suicide, euthanasia, and other end-of-life issues: Who owns humans’ bodies and lives? The biblical answer would seem to be that God, their creator, does. The dangers that what begins as voluntary may become involuntary (97), and that healers who also function as killers could hardly be trusted (98), do not provide nearly so certain a foundation for opposing euthanasia and suicide as does uncompromising affirmation that humans do not own their lives and bodies (or the lives and bodies of others), but are only stewards of them for the God who made them and who places strict limits on how they may be used. The former dangers call for safeguards (a “euthanasia provider” career separate from healing medical practice, laws to ensure consent); the latter affirmation forbids willful life-termination, with or without consent, unless authorized by God himself (as in Genesis 9:6, for example).

Because advocates of euthanasia generally justify it as a way to relieve suffering, a fair portion of the chapter is committed to clarifying what is meant by “pain” and “suffering” and to developing a theological and philosophical understanding of “the problem of suffering” or “the problem of pain.” Two aspects of this discussion leave me less than entirely satisfied. First, while laying out a “Taxonomy of Suffering” (based upon work by Daniel P. Sulmasy), Mitchell (presumably following Sulmasy) seems to confuse finitude and fallenness. For instance, “pangs of conscience, remorse, and guilt” are described as an “experience of personal moral finitude” (79). (Note that it would be better to speak of “awareness of guilt” as the thing causing “pangs.” Guilt is a judicial state: one has done wrong and merits punishment. Whether one has any “pangs” about it or not, one’s state of guilt remains unchanged.) Scripture does not teach that being finite, being created beings rather than God, is in itself sinful. Moral failure owes to fallenness (a corrupt will, corrupt inclinations, leading to corrupt actions), not to finitude. No doubt there are times when humans feel “pangs” about such things as “limited individual capacity for good” (80), but moral understanding (understanding of what thoughts, feelings, and actions are right and moral or wrong and sinful) is not enhanced by labeling non-sinful results of finitude “moral failure.”

The other unsatisfying aspect of the discussion is the attempt at theodicy (justifying God’s ways to humans). The chapter offers the standard “free will” defense of God’s justice: “The consequences of the fall into sin being what they are, any day without suffering is a day of grace and mercy….If one begins with the assumption that suffering is endemic to the human condition, then there can be no such thing as ‘pointless’ suffering. [How it is that something being “endemic to the human condition” means it cannot be “pointless” is unclear.] This is not to argue that suffering is to be sought but that suffering is deserved. God is just in allowing suffering. In other words, the important question is not, Why do bad things happen to good people? But, Why do good things happen to bad people?” (82) Or, in the words of Philosopher Peter Kreeft, suffering (and sin and death) “are from us, not from God; from our misuse of our free will, from our disobedience” (81, quoting from Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense of Suffering [Cincinnati: Servant Books, 1986]). This approach to suffering has long been very popular. I confess, however, that it hasn’t worked for me for some time. If one is comfortable making human free will ultimately determinative of whatever comes to pass, if one doesn’t mind treating God’s sovereignty as something that works with or works around free creaturely decisions over which God has no control, and if one is comfortable embracing a justification of God’s ways to humans that Scripture itself never teaches and in fact (in the book of Job) seems to suggest goes beyond the prerogative of creatures, one might find the “it’s all about human free will” explanation satisfactory. If, on the other hand, one believes that God is truly and completely in control, that his sovereign eternal decree includes free creaturely decisions (that creaturely freedom is secondary and derivative, not ultimate; that “freedom” as commonly conceived does not exist for created beings), one will not be so satisfied.

Even if one doesn’t find the argument objectionable because of how it seems to limit God’s sovereignty, the book of Job still looms. While it is no doubt true that humans in general are sinful and that sinfulness merits suffering, it is evident to the God-given (though fallen and so not always reliable) moral sense of almost everyone, and it seems clearly taught in the book of Job, that some people suffer more (and some less) than justice would dictate. Of course, any sin against our infinite and perfectly holy God seems to merit infinite suffering, so that it would be impossible for any human to suffer more than, or even as much as, deserved. Still, Job suggests this line of thinking may be inadequate: Rather than inspire a theodicy justifying his ways to humans, God chose to inspire a book that essentially says, “Where do you created beings get off asking for a theodicy?” (See also Romans 9:19-24)

Part III: Making Life ^

Chapter 5, “Infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technologies” (107-27), discusses such things as in vitro fertilization (IVF), use of donor sperm and eggs, and surrogacy. It grapples with the ethical issues resulting from these developments in terms of the already-developed understanding of the sanctity of every human life and the awareness “that pregnancy occurs at fertilization rather than at implantation [of the new life in the uterine wall]” (113). This is an informative and useful chapter. Since the reality that sacred human life begins prior to implantation is emphasized, in order to show the wrongness of “reproductive technologies” that end up never implanting and finally destroying “excess embryos,” the chapter might have taken a few sentences to note how “the abortion pill” is not the only medication that can end a pregnancy already in progress, since this is also how some standard “contraceptives” can end up working. (Never mind that this contradicts the “contraceptive” label, presumably used because the drugs do prevent conception or fertilization some of the time.)

Chapter 6, “Organ Donation and Transplantation” (129-48), discusses ethical issues related to organ donation. Because most organ donation (donation of non-paired organs) requires a dead donor (at least for now), this is the chapter where questions about when and how to label someone “dead” are addressed. Whereas prior to ability to measure brain activity the standard for determining death was cessation of heart and lung activity (nicely comporting, one notes, with the biblical idea that “the life of the flesh is in the [circulating] blood” [Leviticus 17:11]), cessation of brain activity (either of the whole brain or only of areas deemed essential to human consciousness) has more recently been considered an acceptable standard. One particularly interesting revelation of the chapter is that it is not unheard of for persons declared “brain dead” by multiple doctors to recover (135-6).

Chapter 7, “Clones and Human-Animal Hybrids” (149-65), discusses cloning, including that involving placing nuclei of one species into the enucleated (nucleus removed) eggs of another species to create “hybrids.” (Whether experimentation retaining nuclear material from two species has also been attempted is not clear from the chapter.) This chapter especially well illustrates the morally confused thinking dominant in contemporary secular culture, since the legal environment sees no problem with creating human embryos (or human-animal hybrid embryos) through cloning for experimental purposes or medical use (“therapeutic cloning”) but (so far) tends to strongly condemn and forbid implanting cloned human embryos in human wombs to live and mature (“reproductive cloning”). One especially interesting item discussed in the chapter is the creation of embryos from gametes of three persons (what the chapter calls “Embryos with three parents”) as a way “to avoid mitochondrial diseases” (160). Since mitochondria are passed from mothers to children separate from the nuclear DNA to which both parents contribute, one could prevent inheritance of mitochondrial defects from a mother with a mitochondrial disease by transferring the nucleus of the mother into the egg of a donor (whether this would be done before or after fertilization is not stated). “The resulting child,” Riley summarizes, “would have the chromosomes (nuclear DNA) of his/her mother and father and the mitochondrial DNA of the egg donor [“second mother” if one accepts the “three parents” description]” (160-1). Mitchell and Riley see this as ethically problematic and fear a “slippery slope” to “designer children” (161), but I confess it sounds to me closely analogous to organ transplantation. The blueprint of what makes a person a person, and makes a given individual the “child” of two other individuals, would seem to be the nuclear DNA; “transplant” of the rest of the cell from an unfertilized egg with healthy mitochondria doesn’t (at present) strike me as ethically problematic or as creating a child with “three parents.” In any case, Mitchell and Riley believe that “all human cloning should be forthrightly banned,” as should creation of “human-animal hybrid embryos” (165), and their case against most aspects of these practices seems sound.

Part IV: Remaking/Faking Life ^

Chapter 8, “Aging and Life-Extension Technologies” (169-83), discusses efforts to extend the human lifespan or, more audaciously, to achieve immortality and to surpass other human limitations (mental, physical), through various means (health maintenance through nanotechnology, slowing or arresting the process of “growing old,” transfer of human consciousnesses into robots or virtual environments, technological enhancement of human mental and physical capabilities beyond natural limits, etc.). In the chapter, Mitchell sets forth the position that “Aging is not a disease to be cured but a reality of the human condition to be celebrated,” offering Proverbs 16:31 as support for this view (179). I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by this line of reasoning. In our fallen context, where the only alternative is to die young (perhaps because one does not follow the longevity-friendly “way of righteousness”), living to a gray- or white-haired old age (perhaps as a result of following “the way of righteousness”) is indeed something to be celebrated. But this fact doesn’t quite identify any of the “negative” aspects of aging as preferable to (were it possible) retention of the optimal capacities of one’s “prime” for a longer time. Whereas some transhumanist aspirations doubtless violate Christian morals (and will be proven incompatible with humans’ created nature), the quest to extend lifespan, to slow or stop (or reverse or repair) the negative effects of aging, does not strike me as fundamentally different from the broader efforts of medical and related sciences to reduce the effects of the fall on human life and health.

One reason I think the discussion goes astray is that “aging” is used so freely today as a shorthand for the negative (degenerative) effects of aging. Thus, the chapter can conclude by lamenting how our culture “has come to loath every facet of aging” (183). Is this true, though? One facet of aging is the acquisition of experience and, ideally, of wisdom. Does our culture, does anyone, really “loath” this? Even those who most pine away for lost youth dream of reliving it “knowing what they know now.” The other facet of aging is the deterioration that results as bodily self-repair falls progressively behind degenerative processes. Those who dream of “curing aging” probably shouldn’t use the term “aging,” since they have no desire to eliminate growth in experience and wisdom. For instance, the late Roy Walford (died 2004) thought degeneration and death unfortunate because acquiring the experience and wisdom to live well takes so much time: “It’s a shame to die so young, because it takes so long to learn how to live” (Foreword to Brian Delaney and Lisa Walford’s The Longevity Diet [New York: Marlow & Company, 2005], xiv). Trying to figure out why bodily self-repair inevitably falls behind degeneration, and to determine if there are ways to keep self-repair ahead of degeneration for a longer time or indefinitely (by “fixing” whatever aspect of the human organism prevents self-repair from keeping up or by supplementing self-repair with technology, as in speculations about what could be accomplished by “nanobots”), may indeed be a quest destined to fail (177), but it does not strike me as dehumanizing or necessarily unbiblical. Degeneration and death are results of the fall, not essential qualities of being human. Scripture does suggest, of course, that physical death, and so the degenerative processes that bring it about, is a mercy: living forever in our fallen state, it appears, would not be a good thing (Genesis 3:22-24). Still, there is nothing in this to suggest that much longer lives would be a problem (the long lives in Genesis are never identified as problematic simply because long), and many Christians might rather wait to be translated at the Second Coming than endure degeneration and death.

Conclusion ^

The Conclusion, “Preserving Our Humanity in a Biotech Century” (185-97), offers some final thoughts, such as endorsement of pregnancy care centers as a way to oppose abortion by making it easier to “choose life” (191). In their plea for “Humanity over Efficiency,” Mitchell and Riley set forth the strange claim that “When we rob ourselves of all opportunities to find social meaning in social eating, we rob ourselves of our humanity” (193). Apparently, there is a whole book dedicated to this argument (Leon R. Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature [Chicago University Press, 1999]; cited on 193). I can’t help thinking there must be better examples of ways to affirm our “embodied” God-given human nature than social eating, but that’s the example Mitchell and Riley chose to emphasize. Whatever.

The book, as a whole, makes persuasive arguments on most points and provides adequate coverage of the range of issues in contemporary bioethics. It is worthwhile reading, particularly for those who have not previously studied the issues. Its use as an introductory text is enhanced by a listing of “Additional Resources” at the end of each chapter. Finally, those seeking information about specific topics will appreciate the name and subject indexes (199-207).

This review also appears, less nicely formatted, on Amazon, and will appear, in abridged form, on Goodreads.

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Non-Apostolic Deformation Debunked: A New Apostolic Reformation? Reviewed

nar_cover_courtesy_publisherGeivett, R. Douglas, and Holly Pivec. A New Apostolic Reformation? A Biblical Response to a Worldwide Movement. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014. 254 + xvii pages. ISBN 978-1-941337-03-5.

In my reviews, I generally try to avoid hyperbolic statements like, “every Christian should read this book.” In the case of R. Douglas Geivett and Holly Pivec’s A New Apostolic Reformation? A Biblical Response to a Worldwide Movement, that statement could be merited. Some dangerous and heretical claims are gaining traction in the Christian community, particularly in Pentecostal and Charismatic (hereafter, P-C) circles, and A New Apostolic Reformation? provides detailed description of the movement promoting these claims (what it teaches, who leads it, what organizations promote it) and offers sound biblical responses to them, maintaining throughout a charitable and moderate tone.

The general approach of the text is straightforward. After relating key historical and biographical information about the movement (showing its significant size and influence), Geivett and Pivec set forth its most problematic teachings and the justifications NAR’s leaders offer for those teachings, contrast NAR teachings with the views of more traditional or mainstream P-C believers (using the Assemblies of God denomination as their example), and offer Bible-based criticisms of the NAR teachings. They are careful not to enter into the debate over “cessationism, the view that the miraculous gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 are no longer active in the church,” holding that “Whether the miraculous gifts are ongoing or not has no bearing on the arguments of our book” (xiv) and believing that “NAR deviates from classical Pentecostal and charismatic teachings” (xiv). This strategy of carefully distinguishing between NAR and non-NAR (“classical”) segments of the P-C community makes A New Apostolic Reformation? suitable reading for both persons within that community, which has so far been most susceptible to NAR’s influence and so is most in need of the book’s warnings, and those without, whether full cessationists-in-principle, who find P-C claims both incredible and unbiblical, or mere cessationists-in-practice, who’ve just never yet seen any P-C claim they thought sufficiently justified to merit their assent. (In case you’re curious, I’d identify myself as a cessationist-in-practice with strong leanings toward cessationism-in-principle.)

The main text may be divided into four sections. The first section, comprising chapters one through three (“What Is the New Apostolic Reformation?” [1-8]; “Massive Size and Growing Political Influence” [9-18]; and “Mainstreaming the New Apostolic Reformation” [19-29]), provides a general overview of NAR and an introduction to its history, leading figures, and so on. The second section, spanning chapters four through nine (“NAR Apostles: The Generals” [30-44]; “NAR Apostles: A Closer Look” [45-55]; “Apostles in the Bible: The Twelve and Paul” [56-66]; “Apostles in the Bible: The Other Apostles and False Apostles” [67-76]; “NAR Apostles Compared to the Bible’s Apostles” [77-84]; and “Testing NAR Apostles” [85-95]), examines and refutes NAR’s teaching that an authoritative office of apostle, falling short of the authority of the Twelve and Paul only in its ostensible lack of freedom to add to the canon of Scripture, has been restored to the church in our day. The third section, including chapters ten through fourteen (“NAR Prophets: The Secret Intelligence Agents” [96-104]; “NAR Prophets: A Closer Look” [105-118]; “Prophets in the Bible” (119-127); “NAR Prophets Compared to the Bible’s Prophets” [128-137]; and “Testing NAR Prophets” [138-149]), discusses (and shows in error) NAR’s teaching that the contemporary church is also seeing the restoration of an office of prophet with the same authority to speak new revelation to all believers (and to nations, etc.) as that held by the most august Old Testament prophets. The fourth and final section, made up of chapters fifteen through nineteen (“Strategic-Level Spiritual Warfare” [150-165]; “A Biblical Analysis of Strategic-Level Spiritual Warfare” [166-172]; “Unifying the Forces through Apostolic Unity” [173-180]; “A Miracle-Working Army: NAR Teaching on Miracles” [181-193]; and “A Biblical Analysis of a NAR Miracle-Working Army” [194-202]), looks at and shows biblically unsound various NAR practices and related beliefs (practices and beliefs NAR’s “prophets” and “apostles” have “revealed” in their authoritative fashion), such as “spiritual mapping” (as construed by NAR) and the casting out of “territorial spirits.” Additional materials include a preface by coauthor Pivec on behalf of both writers (xiii-xvi) and a brief conclusion (203-4); three appendices concerning, respectively, “The Great Chain of Prophets” (205-8), “Todd Bentley’s Commissioning and Apostolic Decrees” (209-11), and “Prominent NAR Networks” (212-17); as well as a lengthy bibliography (219-236) and indexes by persons’ names (237-40), by subject (241-9), and by scriptures cited (250-4).

The first section (1-29), as noted, provides an overview of the NAR movement’s history, names some of its prominent leaders and affiliated organizations, and relates some of its history. This sections answers the question, “What is NAR and why should I care?” or, alternatively, “Why should I bother reading this book?” NAR, “also sometimes called the apostolic-prophetic movement” (1), claims, in common with various earlier groups (such as “the Irvingites of the 1830s…the Apostolic Church of the early 1900s….the African Independent Churches movement, which began around 1900….[and] the post-World War II Latter Rain movement” [3-4; paragraph break removed]) to “restore the offices of apostle and prophet” (3). (Throughout the text, Douglas and Pivec emphasize that NAR holds to the present-day restoration of “offices,” meaning authoritative and “formal” governing offices, of apostle and prophet. They contrast this with P-C belief in the ongoing existence of apostolic and prophetic “ministry functions” not tied to formal offices. Persons who reject P-C claims altogether, of course, typically see even the “ministry functions” as no longer extant in their original form.) Today’s NAR began, this section relates, with a resurgence of Latter-Rain-movement-like belief in present-day prophets and apostles in the 1980s, a resurgence in which the so-called “Kansas City Prophets” (Bob Jones, Paul Cain, and John Paul Jackson) played a leading role, helped along by then-pastor of the Kansas City Fellowship, Mike Bickle, who would later found the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and who has become quite influential. Some noteworthy NAR leaders the section identifies include Bickle (as noted), C. Peter Wagner (whose status as a “church growth expert” probably makes him the NAR leader best known by those of us outside NAR), Bill Johnson, Lou Engle, Bill Hamon, Rick Joyner, Cindy Jacobs, Ché Ahn, and Jack Deere. Some noteworthy NAR organization include (as noted) IHOP, The Call, Bethel Church (in Redding, California; pastored by Bill Johnson), Harvest International Ministry, Generals International, and Destiny Image Publishers. An additional publisher, though not officially NAR, that has helped promote NAR is Charisma House, one learns in this section. One also learns that, in addition to gaining credibility by association with various non-NAR leaders and organization dedicated to “socially conservative” action in the realms of politics, society, and culture (persons and organization of the “Christian Right”), NAR has gained credibility by having its books endorsed by leaders considered “mainstream,” such as Jack Hayford (who has also spoken an NAR conferences), and published by mainstream publishers, such as Thomas Nelson and Bethany House. Readers of this section will be left with no doubt that NAR, unlike any “fringe” movements that preceded it, is large and influential and, if it be in error (as Geivett and Pivec show that it is), very dangerous to Christ’s church. (The final appendix, “Prominent NAR Networks” [212-17], adds to the persons and organizations identified in this section.)

Geivett and Pivec’s demonstration of NAR’s dangerous divergence from orthodox Christian doctrine begins in earnest in the second section (30-95), which deals with NAR’s teachings concerning restoration of the office of apostle. Central to this section is detailed discussion of just what the Bible teaches about “apostles” and how this teaching contradicts NAR’s claims; logical critique of the internal coherence of NAR’s claims also plays a role. The New Testament, Geivett and Pivec show, uses “apostle” in more than one sense. Holders of the authoritative office of apostle, which is what most of us think of when we hear the word “apostle,” are what Scripture calls “apostles of Christ.” These are apostles “of the formal kind—including the Twelve, Paul, probably James, and all the other apostles to whom Christ appeared following his resurrection” (77). Apostles of this sort served a foundational role in the church and do not exist today, this section demonstrates, contrary to NAR’s claims. A second sort of “apostles,” persons whom Scripture calls “apostles of the churches,” do not hold formal governing offices or authority; rather, they are apostles “of the functional kind” (78). That is, they are persons gifted to serve certain ministry functions, such as those of church planters and missionaries. In the P-C context, “apostles” of this type may be expected to perform “signs and wonders” (work miracles as part of their outreach to previously unreached populations); outside the P-C context, no “signs and wonders” are expected (except such as might result from from the faithful prayer of any true believer seeking to do God’s will). Such “apostles of the churches,” who carry none of the special authority NAR grants to those it labels “apostles,” are the only sorts of apostles whose ongoing existence can be supported from Scripture, Geivett and Pivec show. (The section notes how some scholars provide more detailed breakdowns of types of “apostles,” but the basic two-type division is the most evident and important. Essentially a title for “persons sent,” the characteristic distinguishing types of apostles is by whom they are sent, either by Christ through direct in-person appointment, or by Christ’s human representatives in the churches.) The section also includes correction of NAR’s erroneous use of Ephesians 4:11, Ephesians 2:20, and 1 Corinthians 12:28 to support belief in present-day “apostles of Christ.”

An important part of this section concerns the danger NAR’s belief in a present-day apostolic office poses to Scripture’s authority. (The same dangers arise from NAR’s belief in a present-day prophetic office, the subject of the book’s next section.) It is here that NAR’s professed views fail to cohere with the real implications of those views. The official NAR position is that “present-day apostles cannot add new revelation to the canon of Scripture”; however, they “can receive new revelation that supplements Scripture so long as it doesn’t contradict it” (49). (I note that one only need supplement what is not itself sufficient. Any claim to present-day revelation, even if it does not assert the far-reaching authority of NAR revelation, implicitly denies that Scripture is sufficient in itself, that the believer who studies Scripture is thereby “throughly furnished unto all good works” [2 Timothy 3:17]. Since Geivett and Pivec adopt a moderate stance that allows for at least some present-day revelation, they do not make this argument.) One way NAR leaders have attempted to show their apostles’ revelations do not usurp Scripture is to identify their authority as limited to a certain sphere (a church or network of churches, say). Such leaders as C. Peter Wagner, however, fail to stick to this idea, claiming that there are at least some present-day apostles whose revelations apply to the whole church. “The existence of such [what Wagner calls] broadband apostles undermines Wagner’s claim that apostles cannot write new Scripture…,” Geivett and Pivec write. “In claiming to give new revelation that is binding on all Christians, are they not claiming, in effect, that their revelation should be treated on a par with Scripture, even if their words aren’t physically appended to a Bible?” (84)

The second appendix, “Todd Bentley’s Commissioning and Apostolic Decrees” (209-211), adds to this section’s refutation by showing NAR’s belief in the ability of present-day apostles to make “decrees” with God’s own authority, (in the words of C. Peter Wagner) “not asking God to do something” but “declaring with the authority of God, that such-and-such a thing that we know to be the will of God will happen” (209). This appendix shows Wagner making such a decree, then having events thereafter transpire quite opposite to the decree he supposedly uttered with God’s own authority. In more traditional parlance, I note, Wagner’s false decree while claiming God’s authority would be called “tak[ing] the name of the LORD thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11).

In the next section (96-149), Geivett and Pivec analyze and refute NAR’s teaching about present-day “prophets.” This section opposes NAR’s claim that there exists a present-day church office of “prophet of God” while leaving open the possibility that more standard P-C belief in non-office-holding “prophetically gifted individuals” might be valid (128). The authors are careful to avoid the cessationist-continuationist debate, writing, “Can people today have the gift of prophecy? Cessationists say no, if the gift includes continued provision of revelation, either for the church or individuals….But continuationist say yes, that people today can be prophetically gifted in the sense of receiving new revelation from God. And they don’t believe that the exercise of their gift threatens the authority of Scripture” (Ibid.). While they grant this question is “fascinating,” Geivett and Pivec note, “we will not attempt to answer it in this book because it is beyond the immediate scope of our topic” (Ibid.). Though they indeed do “not attempt to answer” the question, they do (perhaps inadvertently) reveal some bias in favor of the continuationist view, stating that “While there is a scriptural basis for an ongoing gift of prophecy, there is no basis for a present-day office of prophet that governs the church or prophets who prophesy to nations or give new truths” (137; 138 has similar wording), rather than using more neutral wording like, “While those who believe in an ongoing gift of prophecy can plausibly claim scriptural support, those who believe in a present-day office of prophet…cannot.” (One can guess from my prior parenthetical on the sufficiency of Scripture that I fall into the cessationist camp here. Even if the “new revelation” one claims to receive only provides practical guidance to some individual in a specific life situation, it still seems to me that by providing such “revelation” one is saying that Scripture by itself is not sufficient to “throughly furnish” that individual for “all good works.” I would allow reference to current-day pronouncement as “prophetic” whenever they accurately set forth the meaning of already-written Scripture or rightly apply Scripture to contemporary circumstances, but the “gift of prophecy” here would obviously be quite different from any “new revelation” variety.)

Complete avoidance of the cessationist-continuationist debate is an interesting strategy. While it may disappoint resolute cessationists, I’m inclined to judge it a wise approach given that P-C believers are currently most at risk of “conversion” to NAR, so that it is most important that A New Apostolic Reformation?’s warnings make it onto their reading lists. In addition to a Scripture-rich refutation of NAR’s erroneous viewpoint, this section also notes numerous inconsistencies in the NAR perspective. For instance, though NAR prophets are granted authority to give “thus saith the Lord” prophetic directives “to individuals regarding their personal lives,” NAR leaders invariably grant “that NAR prophets can err” (136). This inconsistency continues in NAR leaders’ appeal to Wayne Grudem’s P-C position on New Testament as opposed to Old Testament prophets. Grudem, the text notes, “agrees [with NAR leaders] that New Testament prophets are not expected to be one hundred percent accurate in their prophecies.” Unlike NAR leaders, however, who “teach that New Testament prophets have the same level of authority as Old Testament prophets and that they hold a formal governing office,” Grudem “maintains that New Testament prophets need not be one hundred percent accurate since they do not have the same level of authority as the Old Testament prophets and do not hold a formal governing office in the church” (139). NAR leaders, then, grant their “prophets” Old Testament prophetic authority without Old Testament prophetic accuracy. Making a persuasive case that NAR can’t have it both ways, Geivett and Pivec proceed to show how NAR “prophets” fail biblical tests for true prophets (138-47) and show why some alternative tests suggested by NAR leaders should not be used (148-9).

One alternative test, proposed by Bill Hamon, particularly caught my attention because it so well comports with the approach to the faith I’ve found exemplified in (some) P-C acquaintances. This “inner witness test” is, in Geivett and Pivec’s opinion, “frankly subjective and oddly spiritualistic,” at least as Hamon applies it (he makes it much easier for the “inner witness” to confirm prophecies true than to reject them as false) (149). While there doesn’t seem to me anything innately problematic in believing that the Holy Spirit witnesses to what are truly God’s words (and withholds or witnesses against what are not God’s words), so that (for example) true believers over time came to accept the canonical books of the Bible (and divinely-sanctioned readings therein) and to reject other books (and unsanctioned variant readings), human fallenness and fallibility mandates that such witness be subject to confirmation by the wider believing community (true Holy Spirit witness will persuade large numbers of believers over long periods) and (where possible) by external and public evidences. (I realize scholars prefer to emphasize the objective “tests of canonicity” as the basis for accepting certain books and rejecting others, but I think these tests served to confirm acceptance already achieved through the Spirit-guided consensus of common believers, not to bring about that acceptance in the first place. I also think that textual criticism went astray when it followed the lead of critical scholars and began rejecting readings long accepted by the Bible-believing consensus. While “Scripture never says to test prophecies by an inner witness” [148], I don’t think Hamon is entirely wrong to see the fact that the Holy Spirit “beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” [Romans 8:16] as favoring the idea that the same Spirit “beareth witness” about other things, in particular affirming God’s words so that their divine origin is immediately evident to faithful hearers. Even if it is true that God’s Spirit witnesses to God’s words, however, this doesn’t necessarily support Hamon’s ideas about how the Spirit’s witness may be identified.) Hamon’s idea is a little different than the one that “doesn’t seem to me…innately problematic,” however. What Hamon supports is a test that is individual, subjective, and emotional to the point of being anti-intellectual. Hamon proposes an “inner witness” made up of subjectively interpreted “sensations.” Whereas false prophecies might prompt (in Hamon’s words) a “nervous, jumpy, or uneasy feeling, a deep, almost unintelligible sensation that something is not right,” true prophecies might prompt (also in Hamon’s words) “a deep, unexplainable peace and joy, a warm, loving feeling” or even “physical sensations that occur in the [to quote Hamon] ‘upper stomach or lower chest area’” (148).

Some might wish to grant that if the Holy Spirit were witnessing to one’s inner self in some way one might well expect this witness to manifest in the form of subtle inklings or positive or negative emotions, which might in turn cause physical symptoms like one’s “heart” (or perhaps “lower chest area”) being “strangely warmed” (to borrow often-quoted wording from one historical figure’s experience “witnessing” to his true conversion). That “Mormon[s] claim that God confirms the truth of the Mormon faith by giving people a burning sensation in their bosoms” (148) would make one doubt that such sensations should be trusted absent external confirmation, but one might still wish to allow that some such experiences could really originate with God’s Spirit. Hamon, however, proposes elevating emotion and sensation above rational thought. He wants to ensure that we who would test prophecies by the “inner witness” are (in Hamon’s own words) “more in tune with out spirit [which Hamon associates with emotions] than with our thoughts [which Hamon attributes to a “soul” separate from the “spirit”]” (148) because “Our head may [wrongly] say, ‘No’ while our heart [rightly] says ‘Go’” (149). (As an aside, I note that in Scripture “heart” includes “head”; the common heart-head distinction Hamon deploys, which treats “heart” as emotional and not intellectual, is unbiblical.) “By encouraging people to turn off their thoughts and to ignore their opinions,” Geivett and Pivec remark, “Hamon is repudiating their God-given ability to evaluate prophecies critically” (149). (I would prefer that Geivett and Pivec add “in light of Scripture” here, since some who reject the inspired content of Scripture do so on the basis of critical evaluation. It may, however, that the authors hold to the view that Scripture need only be accepted insofar as it passes humans’ critical tests; this view is not so uncommon among Christian scholars as simple Bible-believers might expect.) While the skeptical (scientistic secular) attitude, which holds that such experiences as perception of the Spirit’s “inner witness” must be interpreted naturalistically (or, if no plausible naturalistic interpretation presents itself, “passed over in silence” until advancing science makes sense of them), is unacceptably biased, the wild credulity found in some circles, such as NAR, must be eschewed. If humans have spiritual “senses,” they are no less worthy of presumptive trust than any other of our faculties; but all our faculties, including (and especially) our rational or intellectual faculty, must be used in concert, each correcting the deficiencies of the others, to learn truth. Geivett and Pivec rightly criticize NAR’s failure to correct errors of feeling and imagination with the intellect.

The first, and in my judgment best, appendix, “The Great Chain of Prophets” (205-208) adds to the case against NAR’s view of prophets. I like this appendix so much that I recommend reading it first. This appendix sets forth clearly the scriptural pattern, which invariably has the end of one period of “universally authoritative revelation” (207) preceded by a foretelling of the next period of such revelation. Thus, Malachi (4:5), last prophet of the Hebrew Bible, points to John the Baptist’s Elijah-like preparation for Jesus’s arrival as inaugurating the next such period, and between Malachi and John the Baptist no such such revelation comes. In like manner, the New Testament’s final book points to “two witnesses” presaging Jesus’s return (Rev. 11:506, 9-10) as inaugurating the next such period, meaning that with the completion of Scripture’s final book began a time like that between Malachi and John the Baptist, where “universally authoritative revelation has ceased.” So, “As we await the next great event on God’s revelatory calendar—the return of Christ—we do well if we give ourselves to the careful study of Scripture, and look not to so-called new truths from present-day prophets” (208).

The final section (150-202) shows that NAR strategies and practices, such as “confronting territorial spirits directly” (167) , and related teachings, such as that “the end-time church will perform miracles unprecedented in terms of their grandeur and frequency” (194), have “no biblical basis” (167). One noteworthy statement in the section points out, specifically in the context of Bickle’s interpretation of Luke 18:7-8 as mandating “24/7 prayer rooms,” how “NAR hermeneutics” typically “neglects context and ignores alternative, more plausible meanings” (199). What was evident in Hamon’s subjective test of prophetic utterance (the “inner witness” test) proves broadly typical of NAR’s approach to belief and practice: subjective individual judgment is given free reign; testing by reason in light of carefully studied Scripture (faith-based critical analysis) and testing against the Spirit-guided judgment of fellow believers over the course of time (respect for historical orthodoxy) are rejected in favor of trust in individual judgment treated as divinely authoritative (since it is the judgment of an individual who claims to be an “apostle” or “prophet”). This persuasive section merits close study, particularly by anyone who finds NAR appealing.

One especially remarkable aspect of NAR discussed in this section is NAR’s emphasis on a “unity” that deemphasizes doctrinal correctness in favor of broad permissiveness, provided one “submits” to so-called apostles and prophets in service of strategic objectives meant to forward “God’s” kingdom. As with other aspects of NAR, this one does not stand up to Geivett and Pivec’s critical analysis in light of Scripture. This particular aspect of NAR also raises in my mind at least one question that Geivett and Pivec do not discuss, but which (for me) would alone be sufficient to make me reject NAR. That question is: If God were indeed going to appoint apostles and prophets with the same authority to rule and speak on his behalf as the Old Testament prophets of God and New Testament apostles of Christ, wouldn’t the God who inspired Scripture use that opportunity to correct doctrinal errors among his children and bring all true believers into agreement on the correct interpretation of the entirety of his Book, to unity in knowledge and faith? Setting aside what one deems “secondary” or “non-essential” doctrines in order to pursue common “primary” or “essential” objectives is a pragmatic strategy made necessary by human fallenness and fallibility; it is certainly not the mark of persons speaking for the perfect and unerring God who must value very highly everything he chose to set down in Scripture. Persons appointed and directed by, and receiving fresh revelation from, God surely would not adopt the pragmatic permissiveness of profit-driven businessmen and power-driven politicians as NAR’s leaders have done. Clearly, it is this-wordly drive, not divine direction, that motivates NAR’s leadership. Geivett and Pivec do not go so far as to say this, of course, preferring to work from the assumption “that leading NAR figures are believers and genuine disciples of Jesus, and that their intention is to do the will of God in their lives and in the world” (xiv). Bible-believing readers will, I predict, find this assumption very difficult to credit once they’ve seen the sorts of claims “leading NAR figures” are making. One will search Scripture in vain for any example of false prophets or false apostles being identified as sincere or “genuine disciples,” after all.

Overall, then, A New Apostolic Reformation? is excellent and worthwhile, even essential, reading. I can’t claim to agree with or endorse everything in the book, however. For instance, since I believe that Scripture teaches particular atonement (Christ died for the sins of specific individuals who will be saved, not for all individuals regardless of whether they will ultimately be saved or not), I cannot endorse the authors’ reference to Christ’s “death for the sins of all humanity” (57-8). (Granted, one might speak of Christ dieing for “all humanity” in the sense that he died for elect individuals in “every tribe and nation,” for “all” in the sense of “all types”; still, this isn’t how “all humanity” will be understood by most readers.) Nor am I (yet) persuaded that the involvement of New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) leaders in the “Christian Right” activity in which many of us Bible-believers are also involved (and which we think NAR leaders did not originate but are trying to hijack) makes locutions like “reclaiming the culture for Christ” and “fighting the culture war” dangerous “triumphalism” that “comes perilously close to spreading” NAR’s heretical doctrines (171). I’m not even sure I wish to grant advocates of NAR exclusive use of the term “dominionism” (150), since belief that the dominion mandate (Genesis 1:26, 28) calls those who would obey God to “take dominion” in a comprehensive way that entails much more than “evangelism and world missions” (150) is not limited (nor do I believe it originates with) advocates of NAR.

I’m also not entirely comfortable with Geivett and Pivec’s constrained description of Scripture’s perspicuity or clarity. While refuting professed “prophet-apostle” Bill Hamon’s (44) suggestion that Martin Luther’s reading of Ephesians 2:8-9 as teaching justification by faith alone owed to “prophetic illumination” of “a new, hitherto disguised sense” of the text, they write the following: “Protestants have emphasized the perspicuity of Scripture, the doctrine that, in matters concerning salvation, the teaching of Scripture is clear, plain for all to see, if they can but read the Bible for themselves” (134). Note the “in matters concerning salvation” proviso. Whether or not Protestants have typically emphasized that Scripture’s clarity is limited to “matters concerning salvation,” this understanding seems to me too restrictive. The entirety of Scripture, not just verses about salvation, is a communication (set of communications) from a perfectly truthful God who would neither lie nor intentionally mislead (the latter being a variety of lying) and who omnisciently foresees and sovereignly “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11) in the entire sweep of history, including the rise, ongoing development, and degeneration of the various societies and cultures into which he breathed this communication and through which he preserved and preserves it. Though this fact is seldom emphasized, God knew when he inspired Scripture into those cultures he prepared for the purpose (among other purposes he had for those cultures) what later cultures he planned for his Book to communicate into. This situation, it seems to me, calls for an understanding of Scripture’s perspicuity more comprehensive than one limited to the subject of salvation alone. How much more comprehensive may be open to debate, as may be what we mean by perspicuity or clarity (in many scriptures, including some about salvation, we probably don’t mean “easy” or “obvious”), but “salvation alone” seems too constrained.

These points are peripheral rather than central to A New Apostolic Reformation?’s refutation of NAR, however. Besides, my idiosyncrasies are such that were I to insist on perfect agreement with my beliefs before recommending a text, I would never be able to recommend any book unless I had written it myself (and had done so recently enough to have not changed my mind about anything). My disagreement with these few peripherals aside, A New Apostolic Reformation? is an outstanding book; it is well researched and cogently argued, with an orderly, easy-to-follow presentation (with summaries at the end of each chapter, concise recapitulation of key points at appropriate intervals, and so on). I commend it to you.

This review also appears, in abridged form, on Goodreads and, less nicely formatted, Amazon.

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Bitesize Rutherford Bio: Something to Chew On

bitesize_rutherford_cover_courtesy_publishe_1200x1200Hannula, Richard M. Samuel Rutherford: Lover of Christ. Bitesize Biographies. Darlington, England: EP Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-78397-018-6.

Richard Hannula’s Samuel Rutherford Bitesize Biography is an excellent brief introduction to Rutherford’s life, thought, and place in history. Suitable either as an easy point of entry into fuller study of Rutherford or as a quick standalone overview for the merely curious, the brief, easy-reading Samuel Rutherford provides more edification and instruction than its brevity and simplicity might lead one to expect.

Its structure is straightforwardly chronological, beginning with a brief Introduction (9-11) and Timeline (covering from the approximate year of Rutherford’s birth, 1600, through his death in 1661 and first publication of his letters in 1664), then proceeding through nine chapter spanning his life (17-132) and noting some key parts of his legacy (133-38). It closes with a listing of items “For further reading” (139-40), a listing that does not include Rutherford’s theological writings, which “are dense and daunting for all but the most intrepid of modern reader” (139), as one might expect given that “Condensing thoughts and brevity were not among Rutherford strengths as a writer” (102).

In addition to being a time when works of considerable “length and complexity,” such as Rutherford’s Lex, Rex, could find a wide readership (102), Rutherford’s era was one where someone who “was short, slight and preached in a high pitched voice…[that] some described…as ‘shrill’” could nevertheless become “known for his preaching” because (as Hannula explains it) he “vividly set Christ before his congregation, helping them to see Jesus Christ preaching, healing, bearing the cross, reigning in heaven and interceding for them” (32). This was definitely a time when substance trumped style, and reading Samuel Rutherford while aware of today’s culture might easily, were it not for the hardships and conflicts of the time, make one nostalgic for Rutherford’s day.

Many Christians today are comfortable simultaneously asserting that (1) salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and that (2) individuals must, by an act of will, receive or accept that gift in order to be saved. In contrast, Hannula’s wording when describing how a busy Rutherford at one point “managed to write a scholarly book against the teachings of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius” makes it clear that if salvation were in some way “dependent of man’s free will” then it would not be “wholly a gift of God’s free grace” (53). By implication, both Arminius’s teachings and today’s popular notion that “you must choose to receive the gift to be saved” contradict belief in salvation by grace alone. This implication will likely incline non-Reformed readers to judge Hannula’s wording biased, though to me both that wording and its implication appear sound.

Rutherford was clearly a believer in God’s sovereignty in salvation: “He taught that repentance unto life was completely a supernatural gift from God….Rutherford preached, ‘….No man can love Christ till He love him first, because our love of Christ is nothing else but an effect of His love to us….’” (36). In fact, “the irresistible grace of God in the salvation of sinners” was, in Hannula’s judgment, Rutherford’s “favourite theme” (117). He was also “well pleased with” the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism), believing “that all three documents presented an accurate summary of the central truths of the Bible (102-3). Doubtless, then, Rutherford also believed in particular atonement (Christ atones only for those whom God has ordained will be saved, the elect). Even so, Rutherford’s own words make clear that atonement that is particular (atonement “limited” in application to the elect) is in no way of limited value: “‘Millions of hells of sinners cannot come near to exhaust infinite grace,’ Rutherford taught” (35). Since some segments of contemporary Christianity insist on misrepresenting what Reformed people believe on this count, that Hannula’s text makes this clear is another reason it is worth reading (or giving as a gift).

While chapter-by-chapter summary of a brief chronological text would hardly be worthwhile, review of select topics on which a reading of Samuel Rutherford can provide edification and instruction might prove useful to potential readers.

One such topic is how Christians should handle trials or hardships. Rutherford’s own life was full of trials, “punctuated with tragedy, suffering and loss”: he was persecuted by authorities for his faith (called twice to trial, forced thrice from his pastoral duties), struck by debilitating and finally a fatal illness (the latter sparing him execution), having only one of eight children survive childhood, and having his first wife die early in her twenties (10-11, 46). His consistently sound and biblical teaching on the subject prepared both him and those he shepherded to handle trials rightly and for greatest benefit.

He preached that “the ill roads, the deep waters, the sharp showers and the bitter violent winds that are in our face, are of God’s disposing. We will not get a better road than our Lord allows us. He has called us to suffering, and not a stone is in our way by chance” (40, quoting Rutherford). (Similarly, Rutherford was sure that “all our [Christians’] troubles come through Christ’s fingers” [64].) Confident that all trials believers face “are orchestrated by God for their good” (66), that “God use[s] difficulties for the good of his children to teach valuable lessons,” Rutherford “strove to find God’s gifts hidden in his trials” (47) and helped those he counseled do the same.

James’s teaching that the believer facing trials should “count it all joy” (James 1:2) Rutherford internalized in a way Christians generally would do well to imitate. “‘O what owe I to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus!’ Rutherford proclaimed. ‘Grace tried is better than grace, an it is more than grace. It is glory in its infancy. Who knows the truth of grace without a trial? And how soon would faith freeze without a cross!’” (67) This forging through trial was no doubt seen by Rutherford as central and indispensable to sanctification, which he deemed a greater demonstration of Christ’s love for his people than even their justification (38). This is just the attitude we today should strive to obtain; perhaps reading this text will assist us somewhat in doing so.

Also instructive is Rutherford’s handling of emotions.

My own experience and temperament has made me suspicious of, even biased against, more obviously emotional Christians. I also get uncomfortable when sermons get too emotional. (Guess I’ll have to pass on the tent revival meeting). The tendency in our day to substitute feeling for thought, demonstrated in everything from how politicians get elected and legislation gets passed to what content dominates popular entertainment, makes believers in primacy of the intellect leery of highly emotional types. In our day, I’m not sure anything is more rare than persons who have brought their emotions into agreement with (Scripture-informed) intellect, who manifest consistently rational and rigorously critical (Bible-directed) thinking while retaining intense (but rightly directed, Scripture-compliant) emotions.

If Rutherford is any indication, persons who largely (though, of course, never perfectly) approached this state were not nearly so rare in Rutherford’s day. Though he could be “highly emotional” in his preaching (33, 35) and prayer life (82), and though he “knew that every Christian’s relationship with the Lord should have a strong emotional element, he warned believers not to put too much stock in the ups and downs of their feelings. ‘Believe Christ’s love more than your own feelings,’ he advised a parishioner. Your Rock does not ebb and flow, though your sea does.’ To another he wrote: ‘Your heart is not the compass that Christ sails by’” (64, paragraph break removed).

A final topic, or interrelated pair of topics, that proves instructive concerns the Christian’s handling of government, civil and ecclesiastical. Here the instructive value owes to the book’s ability to prompt useful reflection, not to promotion of a viewpoint Christians today should necessarily wish to adopt.

Neither Rutherford nor those who shared his views were persons inclined to encourage rebellion or disorder or to defy laws that their faith commitments permitted them to obey. While unjustly exiled from the Anwoth parish where he was pastor, for instance, Rutherford called only for “honest and lawful means” to be used in returning him to his pastorate, asking “friends to undertake a letter-writing campaign to convince Presbyterian nobles throughout Scotland to petition the High Commission for his release [from exile in Aberdeen] and return to Anwoth” (60). This orderly response to unjust exile is a far cry from the prevailing attitude of our day, where a minister justly banned from the pulpit as discipline for immoral behavior might well resume that pulpit in disorderly defiance of his denomination.

Similarly, though the imposition of episcopal ritual practices upon the Church of Scotland (in 1635) had been effected through a “book of canons…formed and adopted” in a manner that “violated the constitutional principles of the Church of Scotland” (by King Charles I’s royal authority through obliging bishops like Archbishop Laud and “English prelates”) which saw the General Assembly, not bishops or kings, as “the highest church authority” (70), even those (Rutherford among them) who rejected calls to compromise did not suggest (so far as Hannula indicates) that the illegitimate manner in which the canons were imposed was itself sufficient reason to defy them (69-71). Rather, their focus was upon the need to defy the canons because they required practices contrary to (not authorized by) Scripture. From his exile in Aberdeen, Rutherford warned his congregation in Anwoth to reject “any unbiblical practices,” informing them, “You owe no allegiance to the bastard canons; they are unlawful, blasphemies and superstitions. The ceremonies that lie in Anti-Christ’s foul womb, the wares of the great mother of fornications, the Kirk [Church] of Rome, are to be refused” (71, quoting Rutherford). While many Protestants today, even conservative Reformed ones, would not join Rutherford in identifying the Roman Catholic Church as “Anti-Christ” or “mother of [spiritual] fornications,” preferring simply to identify its doctrines and practices as unscriptural and so in error and to be rejected, we can certainly agree with Rutherford that a government that imposes unscriptural doctrines or practices upon believers must be defied.

In modern America, where free exercise of religion is taken for granted, we may find it difficult to fathom why King Charles should in this situation have “declared that anyone who refused to submit to his mandate regarding worship would be branded rebels” (73). (After all, we wonder, did not religious permissiveness, provided social order was maintained, contribute greatly to Rome’s longevity?) Yet, “At that time, the leaders of both church and state on all sides of the controversy thought that the unity, peace and blessing of the nation depended on religious uniformity,” so that one action of the General Assembly that met in December 1638 was to ask “the Scottish Privy council to pass a law requiring every adult in the country to sign the National Covenant” (77), which “Covenant [dating to a day in February 1638, when it was signed by hundreds of ministers and laypeople] included the primary beliefs of the Church of Scotland and the errors that they stood against” while promising “to honor and defend the king, but resist anything imposed on the church” (73). (Signers of this National Covenants were called “Covenanters.”) Thus, the Scottish Presbyterians, in their response to the king’s effort to impose his and the bishops’ version of Christianity on all through government force proposed to themselves use government power to impose a contrary version within Scotland.

The preference for uniformity (and openness to coercion) extended to questions of church polity. Present in an advisory (non-voting but actively participating [90]) capacity at the later (1643-47) meeting of the Westminster Assembly, called for by the English Parliament to “reform the Church of England” (89), “Rutherford and his Scottish partners championed Presbyterianism….insist[ing] that unity in church government on a Presbyterian system was needed throughout Britain” (92). “Presbyterian” here means, not just rule by elders in the local church (which can often be found in otherwise independent or autonomous churches), but church government with “a hierarchy of church courts which included ministers and [other] elders” above the elder-led local churches (93). Rutherford, like other advocates of Presbyterianism, considered this order “biblical and the most likely to preserve peace and purity” in the churches (93). “To Rutherford and the other Scottish delegates,” Hannula relates, “Independency posed the greatest risk to Christ’s Church. They feared that if each congregation was independent and unaccountable to a larger body, then anarchy would reign” (93). Fear of a certain sort of disorder, of course, was the reason Stuart kings like Charles “abhorred Presbyterianism”—thinking it “contrary to monarchy” (92), in part “because of its association with the Republicanism of Geneva” (92)—and preferred a monarchy-like episcopal (rule by bishops) order in the church (“no bishop, no king,” as some said at the time).

In response to both Presbyterians and Episcopalians, today’s Independents might wonder: Can God, through Scripture and his Spirit, be trusted to guide independent churches to remain obedient to the truth? If not, is there any evidence that higher church courts, hierarchies of bishops, or even Popes have tended more often to oppose and prevent doctrinal and moral drift than to encourage and accelerate them? The ongoing exodus of Bible-believing Presbyterians from an increasingly apostate Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not favor a “yes” answer to this question.

Rutherford stayed true to his conviction that Independency was dangerous and that uniformity must be achieved, even if that required coercion. In fact, he wrote an entire book in opposition to Independency. “In his book, A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience,” Hannula writes, Rutherford “argued against the Independents’ call for liberty of conscience, claiming it would lead to the disintegration of civil society. Rutherford urged Parliament to impose the true Christian faith in a unified national church, using coercion if necessary” (99). “This,” Hannula adds, “was the widely-held principle at the time in Britain and the Continent” (Ibid.), though the Independency-minded Baptist (and contemporary American) in me can’t help but wonder how someone who had his own exercise of religion so interfered with by government force as Rutherford had could persist in believing government, even such constitutionally-constrained government as Rutherford advocated in Lex, Rex (99-102), could safely be granted any authority in this area. But, then, persecution of Rutherford and other Covenanters was at the hands of royal authority, not representative government. Still, representative government is rarely more good and trustworthy than those whom it represents, and trusting that those represented by Parliament should remain reliable supporters of the true faith in perpetuity might show a lack of foresight.

This, of course, is a pragmatic rather than principled objection to religious establishment. Even if one believes government might legitimately (in principle) coerce external conformity to some religious viewpoint or set of practices, does one really want to risk (in practice) granting government (at whatever level) power to engage in such coercion, given that the perspective it favors today may be quite other than the one it favors tomorrow? Though reflection might lead one to reject rather than embrace Rutherford’s approach, reading about that approach does prove instructive by bringing to consciousness an issue that many Christians in the “secular West” may never have thought merited reflection in the first place. Its ability to prompt reflection on this topic is another reason, then, to read and share Hannula’s Samuel Rutherford.

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Handling Hardship: Sunukjian’s Invitation to James

invitation_to_james_cover_courtesy_publisher_1200x1200Sunukjian, Donald R. Invitation to James: Persevering Through Trials to Win the Crown. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014. ISBN 978-1-941337-25-7.

Invitation to James is part of a series on “Biblical Preaching for the Contemporary Church,” with current or forthcoming titles on James (the present volume), Philippians, the life of Jacob, Galatians, Mark, and Joshua. As such, its official purpose “is to offer models of the principles presented in the textbook” by the same author, Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance (xi, back cover). Like other books in the series, Invitation to James is a collection of “slightly edited” sermons that Sunukjian has previously preached (xi), aimed primarily at current preachers or preachers-in-training who might benefit from model sermons, particularly those who are using or have used Sunukjian’s textbook. Books in the series may even include “stage directions” at times (Ibid., emphasis removed), a phenomenon I noticed only once in Invitation to James (58).

Since I have not read Sunukjian’s textbook and do not preach, I cannot review Invitation to James in terms of its utility to students of Sunukjian’s textbook or to preachers. (Since this is the only book I have so far read by Sunukjian, I also cannot compare its usefulness to other books in the series.) Books created from expository (“verse by verse”) sermons do generally strike me as good reading for preachers, particularly for preachers who preach predominantly or exclusively topical (“pick and choose”) sermons, but I say this as a consumer rather than creator of sermons. I will therefore focus my review on the value of the text to Bible-believing readers more generally.

Overall, Invitation to James makes excellent devotional reading. Christians seeking clear and practical guidance in the application of God’s counsel to their thinking and actions will certainly find the book worthwhile. Whereas some treat James as “simply a loose collection of exhortations without…any overall unity” (1), Sunukjian presents James as essentially a handbook for responding properly and faithfully to, and so benefiting from, hardships. His overall stance is nicely summarized and persuasively supported in his brief introduction (1-4), though in truth the stronger support for accepting that James really is about “Persevering Through Trials to Win the Crown” is how this understanding illuminates James throughout the text.

The sort of difficulties James has in view, Sunukjian emphasizes, are “not…the results of your foolishness [or sin] or the normal challenges of life”; rather, “the kind of trials he’s talking about are those where you didn’t do anything to deserve such difficulty, and there isn’t anything you can do to stop it” (10): persecution at the hands of unbelievers, financial difficulties due to “economic forces outside your control,” physical difficulties due to disease or age, and the like. When believers find themselves in the midst of such hardships, they can be sure God is putting them through them for a good purpose, to make them more like Christ. Invitation to James works through the entire book of James in light of this theme, helping readers to discern what specific issues the Lord might be working on in their particular hardships, how they must respond if they are to derive the intended benefit, and so on. Some of these insights are things slow learners like myself have taken a very long time to figure out on our own, thus (perhaps) prolonging our hardships unnecessarily; Sunukjian’s text may help shorten the duration of some hardships by allowing believers to “get with the program” more quickly. (This isn’t to say that all or even most trials can be shortened by a proper response, only that some might be, since hardships only need continue until their purpose is accomplished.)

One thing I especially like about Sunukjian’s approach to James is the way it shows so much of the book to be an outworking or application of Jesus’s teachings in the gospels. While Sunukjian does not make these connections explicit, anyone familiar with the gospels is sure to notice them. (And surely one would expect such connections in a work by the Lord’s own brother [1].) For instance, Sunukjian’s discussion of James 3:1-12 (Chapter 7, “Tongue in Check,” 56-66) reads very much as an application of Jesus’s teaching on how one should not attempt to judge and correct one’s brethren until one has gotten one’s own life in order (Matthew 7:1-5).

I’m not perfectly happy with everything in the book, however. Though nothing in it troubles me greatly or would incline me to withhold my recommendation, a couple things in it trouble me a little and seem worth noting.

The first things that troubles me is a certain inconsistent bias first seen in Sunukjian’s treatment of James 2:1-13 (Chapter 5, “Impartial Love,” 40-49). Initially, Sunukjian offers the following description of James’s position on proper Christian impartiality: “If you are really committed to following Christ…and you find yourself in this situation—when the influential and insignificant, the attractive and unattractive, the rich and poor are both in your church—you must treat them absolutely the same. You must treat them equally, without thought of gain, without regard for any benefit you might receive. You must love them impartially….you must not show favoritism” (43-4). Again: “Do not treat people differently based on what you might get from them. Be absolutely impartial. Love them equally” (44). (It should perhaps be noted that “love” here, as throughout Scripture, points to committed benevolent action, to behavior, not to an emotional state. This definition of “love” is evident, though not explicitly stated, in this chapter. It is even more obvious in the next [Chapter 6, “Living, Loving, Lasting Faith,” 50-55].)

This is all very sound and biblical. Unfortunately, the rest of the chapter doesn’t quite live up to its own call for an impartiality that shows no favoritism and treats rich and poor “absolutely the same.” Instead, it shows a certain bias against the rich in favor of the poor. In order to correct a bias in favor of the rich that seems to have been prevalent among those to whom he is writing, James notes how certain “rich men” with whom they’ve dealt have in fact oppressed them, taken them to court, and blasphemed the Lord (James 2:6b-7; I’ve quoted the King James Version [KJV] wording; Sunukjian quotes the New International Version [NIV], which speaks of “the rich” instead of “rich men”). While I would see James’s point here as being that believers should abandon any thought that wealth is evidence of divine favor, as well as any deluded idea that just because someone is rich means he is going to help you in some way, Sunukjian sees James’s point as more broad. “James’s point here,” he writes, “is that more often the rich are the ones who have no use for God in their lives” (47). No doubt it is true that great wealth makes sinful (God-ignoring) self-reliance easier and makes more and bigger sins possible, so that the wonder of God’s grace is especially evident when the rich are saved (Matthew 19:23-6), but presupposing that rich persons, because they are rich, will “more often” prove ungodly, or that the poor will more often “have the richest and deepest walk with God” (46), is not impartial. God, indeed, has chosen persons who are poor to be “rich in faith” (James 2:5 KJV), but impartiality does not permit one to assume God “more often” chooses poor than rich or to assume that a given poor person is more likely a sincere believer than a given rich person.

Related to this, Exodus 23 contains an interesting pair of verses I don’t frequently see quoted together. The second of the pair warns one not to show bias in judgment against a poor person (v. 6). The first, however, and perhaps less popularly, warns one not to show bias in judgment for a poor person (v. 3). The New King James, as it happens, words the first verse in a way directly relevant to the issue of “impartial love”: “You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute” (v. 3). (The KJV warns one not to “countenance a poor man in his cause,” which perhaps makes the sort of bias in view even clearer.) Impartial love for persons irrespective of wealth does not mean preference for the poor over the rich. Impartiality in one’s judgment and treatment of rich and poor does not mean a biased starting assumption that the rich are innately more likely to sin than are the poor, or that the poor are innately more deserving of your time and attention than the rich. James’s remarks to correct a favoritism being shown toward the rich, and to refute any latent assumption that material wealth is evidence of divine approval, should not be taken as a warrant to routinely assume the worst about the rich. Yet, after a listing of stereotypical misdeeds of the rich and sinful (46-7), Sunukjian only grant that “not all rich people are this way” (47). Normally, when one says of a whole group that “not all” members of that group are a certain way, one means to imply that most persons in that group are that way. This is bias, not impartiality.

When Sunukjian takes up discussion of James’s imprecations against sinful “rich men” (James 5:1 KJV; NIV “rich people”), his lack of impartiality between poor and rich, his bias for the poor against the rich, still seems evident (Chapter 12, “Money Talks,” 95-104). The chapter, however, mainly provides guidance on how Christians can ensure that any wealth they acquire is earned honorably and used righteously, and what Sunukjian has to say on these topics is mostly sound and biblical. One example he offers of unrighteous (inappropriately self-centered) behavior someone with wealth might engage in does merit criticism, though. “In our day,” Sunukjian writes, “violence and injustice at the hands of the rich may be a bit more sophisticated [than that seen in 1 Kings 21 and Isaiah 5:7-8, discussed in Sunukjian’s prior paragraph], but it still occurs….[various examples, then:] Through turning apartments into condos, they evict elderly tenants and sell units for large sums, thumbing their noses at rent controls designed to protect the vulnerable” (103).

An endorsement of “rent controls,” combined with condemnation of property owners for opting to sell properties rather than continue to rent them out and maintain them after such controls have been imposed, is something I was a bit surprised to see showing up in a sermon. Now, if someone (or a group of someones, such as profit-seeking investors) purchases an apartment complex, his (or their) reason for doing so is typically the same as that motivating the rest of us to seek employment or sell products or services: to make money. What he plans to do with this money once he has it, whether or not he believes the Bible and will give the “between five percent and fifteen percent” Sunukjian says would show he is not an ungodly hoarder (99-100), cannot be determined from the mere fact that he owns an apartment complex. If government imposes a cap on the rent he may charge, he loses the ability to take advantage of changes in the rental marketplace to offset losses due to changes in the maintenance marketplace and in other marketplaces where he must spend his income. At some point, he may, even if he is a charitable man loath to harm his tenants, decide that shrinking profits have made the ongoing effort and expense too much to endure.

A Christian property owner financially capable of doing so might well wish, might in fact feel a moral obligation, to reduce profit or take a loss on a given rental property as an act of charity toward a fellow believer or even an unbeliever in dire financial circumstances. A preacher might even be right to urge such a choice on financially-capable Christian owners of rental properties. Prophetic witness to moral obligation is quite a different thing from endorsement of government short-circuiting of free market processes in service of (what are popularly called) “social justice” objectives, however. As well, endorsement of rent control seems morally suspect. As one writer observes, rent control is “legislated plunder of providers of rental housing” (Robert Batemarco, “Three Fallacies of Rent Control: We Can’t Always Have Everything We Want,” The Freeman, 01 June 1997, accessed on the Foundation for Economic Education [FEE]’s Web site 14 November 2014). In other words, it is theft from persons who have (unless some fraud can be shown) honestly acquired property at their own risk and expense. No matter how much they want to help vulnerable low-income renters, Bible-believers must oppose theft (Exodus 20:15, Deuteronomy 5:19). Any owner of rental property forced by government to charge less to renters than the market rate, or condemned by a preacher for refusing to retain ownership when denied freedom to charge market rates, might ask, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (Matthew 20:15b KJV).

As it happens, evidence does not support the belief that rent control helps the vulnerable anyway. The Mises Wiki offers the following brief summary of one study’s findings on the topic: “Rent control produces the opposite of promised results; it is an initially well-intentioned but ultimately destructive housing policy that actually reduces supply, hurts the poor and displaces the needy” (“Rent Control” entry on the Mises Wiki, accessed 14 November 2014, citing Rolf Goetze’s 1994 study, “Rent Control: Affordable Housing For the Privileged, Not The Poor,” to which a link is provided in the Wiki article). An Urban Institute writer draws the same conclusion from his survey of available data: “Given the current research,” he writes, “there seems to be little one can say in favor of rent control.” Still willing to help those in need, he asks, “What, then, should be done to help renters obtain affordable, decent housing? A better approach may be adopting policies that encourage the production of more diverse types of housing…, implementing strong regulations and practices to ensure housing quality and to protect tenants from abuses; and providing targeted, direct subsidies to people who need help paying their rents” (Peter A. Tatian, “Beware the Comeback of Rent Control: There’s very little evidence that rent stabilization protects poor or vulnerable renters,” CityLab Web site, accessed on the 14 November 2014). Not only is endorsement of rent control unbiblical favoritism, it is favoritism that fails to achieve its goal.

A second thing that troubles me is Sunukjian’s seeming willingness to treat statements by a “voice” in one’s head as a source of justified true belief, as something sufficient to let one say one “knows” something (121-2). Though a voice in my own head indicates that persons who in our day hear voices in their heads answering on behalf of God are just hearing their own thoughts, I will not assume this voice in my head has any special authority to overrule the voices in others’ heads. Instead, I will only assert that a subjectively-interpreted voice in one’s own head cannot be considered sufficient basis to justify any belief. Even if something the voice “predicts” actually happens, this doesn’t prove much about the voice unless (perhaps) the thing predicted is something extremely unlikely to happen by chance even given all empirical indicators one has observed consciously or might have perceived unconsciously prior to hearing (or imagining) the voice. (The “voice” that Sunukjian heard as a young pastor predicted passing of a kidney stone in a situation where I suspect a good percentage of stones, of both believers and unbelievers, end up passing. I leave it to statisticians to confirm or refute my suspicion.) I realize credulity when it comes to subjective experiences and impressions is common among Christians today, even among generally sound thinkers with extensive education, so that my objection to this minor point in one of Sunukjian’s messages may be judged bad form, but when I suggest to the voice in my head that I should just leave it out to make for a more agreeable review, the voice insists that would be unacceptable.

As I’ve said, however, these things that trouble me do not trouble me much. They are minor flaws, brief annoyances, in a quite edifying text I enjoyed reading and do not hesitate to recommend.

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