Here’s what I’ve been reading over these few months.
Here’s what I’ve been reading over these few months.
Every person lives by a worldview. Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew explain how one’s worldview impacts life: “A worldview not only describes the world for us, but also directs our life in the world. It not only gives us a perspective on how the world is…, but also acts as a guide for how the world ought to be and how we ought to live in the world”). Thus, every decision in life is, to one degree or another, is rooted in the soil bed of one’s worldview. The authors, realizing the great need for a faithful explication of the Christian worldview, wrote a book that though introductory, nevertheless covers a wide range of material. In the end, their purpose is simple: “to get [Christians] … excited about the scope of the gospel and breadth of their callings.”
The authors present a very thorough biblical worldview—from creation to sin to restoration. In this task they excel superbly. They show how God created everything with order, goodness, and beauty. Man, though created by God in his image (“God makes a finite and creaturely ‘stamp’ of himself”) willfully rebelled and thus ushered in sin and death. In contrast to this Christian worldview, they present the “Western story” that has so shaped our society in various ways throughout the centuries. The roots of the Western worldview were thoroughly pagan; and the puzzling thing is that the gospel was introduced in this culture. While there is great danger in this cultural accommodation, there is also the great potential for “faithful contextualizations” of the gospel message. Every culture faces this sobering dilemma; and yet there is no escape. The great wonder is that the gospel is transcultural; it does not need a specific culture to thrive, but so engages and adapts in any culture.
The interesting observation is the degree to which the Western worldview has been influenced and indeed enriched by the Christian worldview. As mentioned above, the inescapable danger is of so adapting to a culture that one loses any distinctive mark of Christianity. What Goheen and Bartholomew attempt to do, is to trace each of the historical periods, analyze their particular strengths and even their weakness, and also examine how the church reacted to it, where faithfully or not. Doing this well helps us be faithful in our day.
The reader must come to grips with the fact that while there are many noble aspects to affirm in the various competing worldviews, there still remains the inconsistent, self-contradictory, and indeed damaging implications of these worldviews. For example, Romantic humanism rightly saw the incongruities with the Enlightenment and therefore reacted against the Enlightenment’s outward engagement by turning inward (human emotion, imagination, creativity, and instinct). As Christians, we can affirm the honest, level-headed critique of the naïve optimism of the Enlightenment with the messianic hope in liberalism/Marxism, and even the acknowledgement of the “darker side” of the human heart. Yet, Christians must jettison the notion that answers to life ultimately lie with the self, with the ever-changing subjective inclinations of the human heart.
The implications of the authors’ arguments are great. Again, one’s worldview shapes every facet of life—nothing is left unchecked. For the Christian, then, our acceptance of the Christian worldview directly informs and guides how we operate a business, or involve ourselves in politics, or engage in sports, or perform music, or contribute to scholarship, or serve in education. These are but a few areas of contemporary life that the authors expound upon. The beauty of it all it in seeing how the gospel intersects every dimension of life. As Christians, we do not—or should not—operate with a compartmentalized gospel.
This book serves as a great guide for Christians to biblically and critically think on how best to serve God with the limited time each of us has in this life. While the church could easily become ingrown in order to maintain a semblance of fidelity, the need of the hour is for the church is to not only shine on Sunday mornings, but as Christians scatter in their spheres of influence Monday through Friday they can be clear witnesses of gospel-saturated lives.
That said, are there any weaknesses? Where the authors get the larger metanarrative right, I believe they miss out some of the particulars of the true mission of the church. Absent from the discussion is the need to evangelize and calls others to trust in Christ. Heavily indebted to N.T. Wright, there is great emphasis on the Lordship of Christ over the totality of life, but as John Piper has noted, how is Christ’s lordship any good to one who is not reconciled to him by faith. Therefore we must call others to turn from sin and toward Christ, not just be part of his story.
Is Herman Bavinck relevant today? Carl Trueman seeks to answer that in an excellent Themelios editorial (vol. 25, no. 3, June 2000, pp. 1–4). According to Trueman, Bavinck’s theology possesses the following strengths:
(1) Bavinck’s theology is unashamedly conducted within the context of faith and on the basis that the Bible is the revelation of God.
(2) Bavinck’s theology is rooted in exegesis.
(3) Bavinck’s theology is informed and intelligent in the manner in which it deals with alternative viewpoints.
(4) Bavinck takes seriously the need to articulate the faith in a manner which respects the historic doctrinal trajectories yet which addresses contemporary intellectual and social patterns of behaviour.
(5) Bavinck’s theology is shot through with the fire of personal devotion.
In sum, Treuman urges us theological students to read him and re-appropriate his theological methodology in own day:
“Read him; reflect on what he is doing; consider how the same principles might be worked out in theological studies today. It might just save your soul as it once saved mine; and it might just give you a vision for the role of theologians and theology within the life of the church which challenges the way you work at the moment. Theological students have both a great privilege and a great responsibility because of who they are and what they know. This should excite you, set your hearts on fire, send you out into the world and the church rejoicing in the good news which you, of all people, should know back-to-front and inside-out. Theological study is a moral, an intellectual, and a spiritual challenge, a challenge which men and women like Bavinck accepted in their own day and fulfilled to the best of their ability.”
Read the rest of Trueman’s unpacking of these points here.
Trust me: this entire post is worth reading!
Once I asked my mom if she ever looked back with nostalgia on the heady time of her courtship and newlywed life with my dad.
“Not really,” she said. “Why would I want to go back to a time with less love? I loved your dad so much on the altar, but really, it was just a tiny drop, a tiny drop in the ocean compared to what I have now.”
Did she mean, I asked, that because she and dad had spent twenty years caring for and serving each other, she objectively knew she was loved and did love more than in the days of early passion?
“There’s that, of course. But it’s also just that when I look at him, I feel a thousand times more love than I did then. I know, because I remember.”
Read the rest!
Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. Dutton, 2014. 321 pp. $26.95
That was Tim Keller’s advice to pastors who desire to write. And he would know, since by my count, Keller has written nine books in the last two and half years. Talk about prolific writing!
Keller’s latest work is simply entitled Prayer. As he explains in the introduction, his aim is to combine the theological, experiential, and methodological in one book (1). He wants to drive home that prayer “is both conversation and encounter with God” (5).
We must know the awe of praising his glory, the intimacy of finding his grace, and the struggle of asking his help, all of which can lead us to know the spiritual reality of his presence. Prayer, then, is both awe and intimacy, struggle and reality. These will not happen every time we pray, but each should be a major component of our prayer over the course of our lives. (5)
Keller begins by acknowledging that he “discovered” prayer in the second half of his life with a series of moments: his teaching through the Psalms, the events of 9/11 (his wife implored him to pray together every night), and after his treatment for thyroid cancer (9ff.). This book, then, is the fruit of what he learned and what over the years, in both reading and in practice, he has discovered. Rather than giving a thorough review of this work, I will simply offer a couple of points that landed powerfully on me.
Warmth and Light
Keller repeatedly emphasizes the need for both sound doctrine and vibrant devotion—or what John Murray called “an intelligent mysticism” that steers clear of cold assent to truth on the one hand and passion devoid of truth on the other. Keller writes,
That means an encounter with God that involves not only the affections of the heart but also the convictions of the mind. We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a life filled with spiritual power and experience. They go together. I was not being called to leave behind my theology and launch for ‘something more,’ for experience. Rather, I was meant to ask the Holy Spirit to help me experience my theology. (17)
Prayer, according to Keller, is a way to experience one’s theology. Using the thought of John Owen, Keller writes that “we must be able to existentially access our doctrinal convictions. If doctrinal soundness is not accompanied by heart experience, it will lead eventually to nominal Christianity … and eventually to nonbelief” (180). Of course, there is also a danger in other direction where affections “outrun” light. Despite this caution, both Owen and Keller agree that it is better to have more light than truth. I was surprised by this point and suspicious at first.
If we are going to be imbalanced, better that we be doctrinally weak and have a vital prayer life and real sense of God on the heart than that we get all our doctrine straight and be cold and spiritually hard. (182)
Perhaps it was the inner Pharisee in me or the instinctive Protestant rejection of my childhood Roman Catholicism, but I squirmed at this notion, especially when Keller encourages us to read “the medieval mystics with appreciation but also plenty of caution” (184). But after reflection, I came to understand what he is saying. He quotes Carl Trueman: “If the theology [of the medieval mystics] often leaves much to be desired, it would seem that the answer is not to reject the ambition of the mystics but to combine this ambition with appropriate theology” (184).
Augustine, Luther, and Calvin
After constructing a theology of prayer in the first five chapters, Keller tackles the more practical components of prayer. For this he enlists three seminal figures—three “master teachers of prayer” (108). In chapter 6 he looks at the the letters of Augustine and Martin Luther on prayer and in chapter 7 he highlights Calvin’s 5 rules for prayer. These two chapters distill a treasure trove of historical wisdom regarding the practice of prayer. But perhaps most illuminating is chapter 8 wherein Keller focuses on each line of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. Like before, he incorporates insights from all three theologians. I will highlight one insight.
Calvin, in his concluding remarks on the Lord’s Prayer, notes that the prayer as a whole was given to us in the plural form—“Us.” As such, “the prayers of Christians ought to be public … to the advancement of the believer’s fellowship” (118). According to Michael Horton, Calvin believed “public ministry shapes private devotion, not vice versa” (118). Keller underscores this well:
Prayer is … not a strictly private thing. As much as we can, we should pray with others both formally in gathered worship and informally….
C. S. Lewis argues that it takes a community of people to get to know an individual person. Reflecting on his own friendships, he observed that some aspects of one of his friend’s personality were brought out only through interaction with a second friend. That meant if he lost the second friend, he lost the part of his first friend that was otherwise invisible. ‘By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.’
If it takes a community to know an ordinary human being, how much more necessary would it be to get to know Jesus alongside others? By praying with friends, you will be able to hear and see facets of Jesus that you have not yet perceived…. Knowing the Lord is communal and cumulative, we must pray and praise together. (118-119)
This is a timely word in our individualistic age. Private prayers are to be shaped by the corporate worship of God’s people. Each Lord’s Day as we gather with the church, we are learning how better to seek the Lord in secret.
It is a disservice to leave the review here. Keller’s discussion on the “touchstones of prayer” (ch. 9) merit more attention. His final section on “doing prayer” (chs. 12-14) are chock-full of wisdom. His concluding chapter on daily prayer provides some helpful and varied patterns of prayer that all readers can incorporate into their lives.
Even his endnotes deserve mention. In almost all cases I prefer footnotes over endnotes, yet in this work I appreciated how the endnotes allowed for an uncluttered and undistracted reading. But I made it a point to read all 386 of the endnotes afterward and I learned several things: (1) Keller has thought about prayer for many, many years (hence there’s wisdom when he says to wait until your 50s to write books); (2) Keller has done extensive, eclectic reading on the topic of prayer and has gained wisdom from many streams; and (3) Keller is extremely thorough in his presentation without being cumbersome (some endnotes can be articles unto themselves).
I devoured this book in a matter of days. It is the kind of book that invites multiple re-readings since we never master prayer. Keller showed me how cold I often am before the Lord (seen in an impoverished and anemic prayer life), but he also pastorally pointed to a better way to truly experience “awe and intimacy” with God. Frequently I was compelled to close the book, apply its rich truths, and seek the Lord in secret—and with God’s people. If it has the same effect on others, I think Keller—and the Lord—will be pleased.
In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank Dutton for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
“At the merely natural level, we are all dull and are served well when language claps its hands and wakes us up to pay attention….
“The point of this book has been that finding worthy words for worthy discoveries not only helps others feel their worth but also helps us feel the worth of our own discoveries. Groping for awakening words in the darkness of our own dullness can suddenly flip a switch and shed light all around what it is that we are trying to describe—and feel. Taking hold of a fresh word for old truth can become a fresh grasp of the truth itself. Telling of beauty in new words becomes a way of tasting more of the beauty itself.”
John Piper meditating on and interpreting Luke 12:32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Piper: “Do not fear. God is our Shepherd, our Father, and our King.”
This is a great encouragement and a great model on how to do personal Bible study.
Owen Strachan, professor of theology at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, offers these great points of advice to men preparing for ministry:
“Stay close to your family. Focus far more on being an excellent husband and father than anything else. You’d think this advice would be old hat, but I’m just 33 years old and have already seen numerous colleagues and friends fall out of ministry due to infidelity. It takes your breath away. It also makes you realize that you are not far from the same end.
“Luxuriate, exalt, and lose yourself in the life of the mind. Do not make the very common mistake of thinking that pastoral ministry is a retreat from thinking and pondering. It most certainly is not. The American church is in the midst of a theology famine. It needs excellent, soul-feeding preaching that is both theologically rich and boots-on-the-ground practical. See yourself as a small but vital part of solving this major problem. The pastor used to be a thinker. He should be again in our day.
“Preach well and study hard, but make sure you allot a good portion of your week to meeting with your people. You can by no means meet with everyone, so let that be said right up front. But if you lose that instinct, if you find yourself wanting to get away from the sheep, then hit the alarm. Pastoring is people work. It has to be. The pastor is not everyone’s personal discipler in a 1-on-1 sense. Preaching yields tremendous opportunity for discipleship in a group sense. But if a pastor is not doing some counseling and discipleship, something is off. Pastors are not theological resource providers; they are shepherds. If they are not directly shepherding some part of the body each week, I fear that they have transitioned out of biblical pastoral ministry.
“Feel no pressure at all to reinvent the ecclesial wheel. Gorge on the wisdom of the past like a hipster who was barred from their favorite foodie locales for a year and is now released to eat. Concentrate less on being the next Young Gun Pastor Sensation and more on attaching yourself to an ecclesial tradition that is tested by time, faithful to Scripture, and affords you opportunities to partner in the gospel to push the gospel to the ends of the earth.”
(via Am I Called)
Scott R. Swain. Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation. New York: T&T Clark, 2011. 168 pp. $27.95.
This slim academic book is gold. It is well written and conversant with a wide-ranging collection of ancient and contemporary theologians (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Barth, Bavinck, Vanhoozer, Webster, Gentry, Peterson, et al.). His discussion on the inspiration, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture is grounded and precise.
One element I appreciated is his emphasis on the exegete’s own heart toward the Lord in the task of interpretation:
- “We do not stand over [the Bible] as interpretive lords. We do not sit beside it as interpretive equals. We kneel beneath it as interpretive servants. The Lord looks upon the one who trembles at his Word. Therefore, the stance of biblical interpretation is humble attentiveness and the goal of biblical interpretation is obedience: ‘speak, Lord, for your servant hears’ (cf. 1 Sam. 3:9ff).” – p. 76
- “There is a real sense … in which our capacity for understanding Scripture grows along with our capacity for obeying Scripture.”
Perhaps most helpful are the final two chapters on reading Scripture “as an act of covenant mutuality.” In these chapters he highlights the “rule of faith” and the “rule of love.” I wasn’t entirely convinced by the various “dogmas” we should subscribe to, but it was good fodder for thought. Swain’s presentation of the four “phases” of interpretation—prayer, explication, meditation, and application—ought to be instilled in every student of Scripture.
One final word: Swain identifies himself with the TIS movement (Theological Interpretation of Scripture). The movement as it currently stands is broad on the theological spectrum—it has Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants, and evangelicals. I’m wary of TIS and afraid that will move people away from “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” but this work presents the movement at its best.
** Rob Plummer, professor at Southern Seminary, has a helpful chapter on TIS.
Eugene Peterson’s advice to seminary students:
“I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.
“The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want. And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.”
(via Jonathan Merritt)