Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts

Thursday, October 31, 2019

DBH That All Shall Be Saved: Another Heretical Review

A few days ago I had a crazy idea. I wanted to spend roughly two minutes thumbing in a review of David Bentley Hart's latest (theological) book, That All Shall Be Saved. (I say this because he released a delightful children's book shortly after its release.) My review is nothing special. Although, admittedly, I'm the only person I know of in the cosmos whose basic disagreements with DBH, where found (which are not many), are slightly endorsed, albeit in a cheeky way, by himself in the book, and yet simultaneously and bombastically denounced within the same pages.

Perhaps, when all of the ridiculous invectives against Hart and the unapologetically childish cries  about the "heresy" of Apokatastasis across social media become a faded memory over the next year, I will muster enough energy to write a detailed, chapter by chapter response, showing that my own heretical critique is actually as reasonable, if not more so, than Hart's. 

But for now, this brief review will have to do. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: Mysterious Apocalypse, by Arthur Wainwright

Mysterious Apocalypse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are so many books about John's Apocalypse, yet this one is supremely helpful in a wide variety of ways. By far the most valuable aspect of this book is Wainwright's meticulously detailed and organized survey of the Church's (widespread) interpretation of John's Apocalypse, from the 1st through 20th century. Do you want to know the earliest forms of premillennialism, postmillennialism, and every other "ism" (including many cult interpretations/movements?) in Church history (both east and west)? Look no further. Are you interested in knowing how the "historicist" or "preterist" positions began to take root in church history, and for what purposes those socio-political interpretations were originally introduced? Look no further. It's all here in this gem of a book. This is truly an excellent book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Five stars all the way.

Book Review: The Theology of the Book of Revelation, by Richard Buckram

The Theology of the Book of Revelation

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was fortunate (?) enough to read this in less than 24 hours as I rested sick in bed (but could not sleep). So not much of the Bauckham's theological nuances slipped past me.

It's most noteworthy aspects are its 1) speculation about first-century interpretation 2) trinitarian threads of emphasis and 3) balanced theonomic (but non-reconstructionist) motifs in relation to holy warfare and Christocentric "witness" (i.e. martyrdom).

The only major disagreement I had with Bauckham is his repeated insistence that John's Apocalypse has absolutely nothing to do with the tumultuous Jewish wars (causing strife among christian Jews as well), the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and the end of the old covenant "creation." He places a lot of emphasis on the new covenant kingdom already being inaugurated, but he insists that the first century audience of John's Apocalypse would not have considered Jerusalem and Herod's Temple as a center of power or idolatry (and hence, could not have been mistaken for any "beastly" figure in Revelation). To Bauckham, all of the beastly images have to do with powers and idols of the early/ancient Roman Empire.

Even though that is a significant disagreement i have with the book, I would still highly recommend it for its clarity and exegetical balance. I think it steers much of contemporary speculation about John's Apocalypse in a healthier direction than all "futurist" (pre-millennial) views offered today. It also steers clear of the unhealthy "dominionist" abuses far too often emphasized among postmillennialists, as well as the cerebral pietism highlighted among amillenialists. I suspect that if Bauckham were asked what his own personal "millennial" position was, he would respond by pointing out how insignificant the theological implications of the millennium are when compared to the rest of the book's much clearer theological implications

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review: For the Healing of the Nations, by W. Bradford Littlejohn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good introduction by Escalante. The first two essays by Bratt were very insightful, using Kuyper as a principled model of christian activism. The third essay by Hutchinson was tediously arranged with copious amounts of Latin, but insightful. Perhaps it's best to summarize Escalante's introduction as witty, Bratt's essays as ennobling, and Hutchinson's essay as brain candy for christian literature nerds and ethicists.

Moving on to other contributors in the book, Dr. Tuininga wrote a good, but somewhat "soft" essay about John Calvin's eschatology. Fulford's essay about Calvin's views pertaining to resistance against tyrants was outstanding.

O'Donnell's essay about Scott Oliphant's critique of Bavinck--particularly Bavinck's cognitive foundation for philosophy--was really disappointing, actually. I was particularly bothered by some cheap shots at Van Til's epistemology (Oliphant being a defender of Van Til) because even if Oliphant's semantics are not as precisely delineated as O'Donnell prefers them to be, Van Til did, in fact, address O'Donnell's concerns. See Van Til's Apologetic (by Greg Bahnsen) for further clarification about the way in which Van Til intentionally did not adopt classical epistemological distinctions to limit what he believed to be a better and more Scripturally justified epistemology. (That is not to say that Van Til didn't utilize classical philosophical distinctions at all either; he just didn't limit his own explanation of scriptural language and concepts by those classical distinctions.) So O'Donnell makes some simple mistakes concerning charges against Van Til, especially as he (O'Donnell) claims Van Til related the principle of "Sola Scriptura" with epistemology [e.g. O'Donnell, p. 151, implies this about Van Til's apologetic: that "Sola Scriptura is ...the principium unicum for all knowledge theological or otherwise." However, Van Til's apologetic was that Scripture alone is sufficient in and of itself to justify--at a foundational level--any and all necessary pre-existing conditions for rational human thought and discourse. That is to say, without the rational God of history revealed in Scripture, apologetics would not be possible epistemologically. Sola Scripura--not SOLO Scriptura--is, according to Van Til, the principium unicum for all foundations of knowledge, not "knowledge" generally, "theological or otherwise."] All of this made me suspicious about what O'Donnell overlooked or presumed concerning Oliphant's point.

In the end by beef with O'Donnell was this: He attributes to Oliphant's allegedly poor epistemology a problem of "Van Tilian hypochondria" which seemed to me to be a misunderstanding of Van Til (even if O'Donnell's assessment of Oliphant is correct).

On a more positive note, Miller's essay about the exegetical roots of VanDrunen's R2k project is absolutely outstanding. I actually consider that essay to be immensely helpful, both for its christological arguments against R2k, but also for its exegetical refutation of Kline's contribution to the R2k problem.

Auten's essay about the Rushdooney's influence upon American Christian Reconstructionist movements (in religion and politics) is also very well done. And finally, Minich's essay on infant baptism in relation to a "nature and grace" scheme was also helpful. I was not entirely convinced of Minich's arguments, myself holding a very different perspective of sacramental efficacy than him. However, considering that his Reformed-Calvinist distinctions regarding the "visible and invisible" church are very clear and minutely detailed, I'm sure they will be considered immensely valuable to future generations within that school of thought.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Review: The Temple of Jesus' Body, by Alan Kerr

The Temple of Jesus' Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once in a great while I stumble across a book that deserves 6 out of 5 stars, and this one is it. (The last one like it was "The Tabernacle Pre-figured" by L. Michael Morales.) What makes this book so great are a number of factors. For starters, it's a Sheffield/T&T Clark/Bloombury Press book, aka highly academic, but it's also highly readable. The author doesn't blast page after page with complicated jargon or references to sources that aren't readily accessible; instead he works a steady pace, page after page, introducing the reader to the idea of the main thesis, using scripture and contemporary rabbinical sources.

Also, what he inserts at a steady pace is golden. Because the thesis of the book is that Jesus fulfills Old Covenant temple typology, and that John's Gospel was written convey that very clear message, he begins with a section discussing the significance of the Gospel being written shortly after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 A.D., and how Jews responded to the destruction of that Temple. In contrast with that, John's Gospel is set up to teach that destruction as a necessary consequence of covenant infidelity; nevertheless hope is offered in the new Temple, the temple of Jesus' Body, which also was destroyed, but also raised to greater glory.

Theologically, this book is fascinating. One of my favorite aspects of the book is how the author tries to clarify some of the goofy looking parts of John's gospel. For example, chapter one has this really goofy [at least I think so], out of place conversation between Jesus and Nathaniel (John 1:43-51). Nothing seems to flow together well. He insults Nazareth for no apparent reason, gets complimented by Jesus, is seen sitting under a fig tree, and then suddenly comes to believe Jesus is "The Son of God"! The narrative seems choppy and forced, and the reader is left wondering if it's supposed to be as cryptic as it appears. However, its choppy feel is not so choppy to me anymore after reading Allen Kerr's explanation of it's connection with the surrounding narrative (and it's temple typology). Indeed, Kerr's contribution to the exegesis of the first five chapters of John's gospel are worth the price of the book. (And this book is pretty pricey!). Thankfully Kerr surveys much more than just the first five chapters.

Kerr also contributes significantly to the conversation about temple festivals and priestly activity in John's gospel. However, Kerr remains focused on how John seems to have used those themes in connection with temple typology. In this area, one observation that stood out to me was Kerr's explanation of Jesus' footwashing, and how many factors within that narrative section (and yes, he deals with literary structure!) allude to Jesus' footwashing rite as a priestly rite of preparation for entering the temple.

Bottom line: read this book if you're interested in John's gospel and temple typology. You won't be disappointed.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 19, 2014

Book Review: The Bible Tells Me So (by Peter Enns)

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read ItThe Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of factors affect the amount of stars I give each book: readability, the depth of research involved (footnotes/endnotes/bibliography/appendices), logical argumentation (to support the entire thesis), the goal or aim (telos) of the book (plot development), good humor/sarcasm, author's temper, etc... Peter Enns deserves 5 stars for every one of these factors except logical argumentation. For that, he deserves 4 stars at best. (To be fair, though, it's not as though Enns is being illogical; the book is actually very logical).

There are a handful of places in which Enns takes for granted certain controversial scholarly conjectures without much elaboration (e.g. "insufficient" evidence for a worldwide flood and certain ancient battles recorded in Joshua, Jesus being a Pharisee, the Four gospels being written after 70 A.D. by people who were not eye-witnesses of Jesus, non-mosaic and post-exilic authorship of Pentateuch--not simply a post-exhilic redaction of mosaic authorship, etc.), and I think that definitely weakens his thesis significantly; but since he includes a detailed list of recommended reading--some of which I have also read and would recommend--I figured it was reasonable to give give him 4 stars for that.

Admittedly, because his thesis is NOT about disproving the Old Testament's historical accuracy entirely, but rather is about helping Christians in their faith by reading their bible more honestly in light of scholarly research--in light of a God who is sovereign and perfectly comfortable with allowing whatever historical and scientific inaccuracies are there (from fallible human authors)--no one should be surprised to find out that Enns took certain scholarly conjectures for granted as he compiled the book.

Enns is an exceptionally talented communicator of complex historical and theological ideas, and for that alone this book is worth reading. He does promote an evangelical message of unwavering faith in Jesus Christ alone, the God of the Bible for salvation, and for that he should be commended. To be clear though, Enns considers the first seven books of the Old Testament scriptures as ancient near eastern myth, and the remaining books of the bible (including the New Testament) to be subject to scholarly scrutiny regarding its historical accuracies as well. For many Christians, this will become a stumbling-block to their faith in Christ; however I can imagine the opposite occurring as well. I imagine many well-educated Christians becoming invigorated by Enns message about the faithfulness of the God of the Old Testament, Jesus the Messiah, and the work of His Holy Spirit in renewing creation.

I don't think it is fair to rate this book poorly (with one or two stars) simply because I think it contains significantly debatable arguments. It was very enjoyable to read. I read it in two days. It was that enjoyable; and no book that enjoyable deserves 1 or 2 stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, by John Searle

In Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, John Searle challenges dualistic philosophical theories in how they address the conceptual structure of human institutional reality. His concerns are with the creation and maintenance of the distinctive features of human civilization, and in particular the mode of existence of institutions such as civil governments, families, schools, trade unions, investment firms, social clubs, etc., which he contends is based on one formal linguistic mechanism called a Status Function Declaration.
Given Searle’s repeated commitment to the “basic facts” of the Darwinian theory of Evolution (pp. 61, 65, 66, 68, 76, 84), upon which he says “our mental life depends” (p. 4), I admit that because I don’t personally accept those “basic facts” as truth (which he self-consciously makes no attempt to offer any epistemic justification for anyway; see p. 6), I think there are some troubling, and even insurmountable, obstacles laid at the foundation of his philosophy of society. Nevertheless, Searle offers an intriguingly logical and essentially linguistic structure of human institutional reality worth serious consideration.
Searle theorizes that all institutional facts are derived from the collective recognition or acceptance of declarative speech acts that assign both status’ and functions to entities (i.e. things and persons). These speech acts are called Status Function Declarations. Searle even contends that “all of non-linguistic human institutional reality,” such as a belief, perception, desire, and intention, is “created by Declaration” (p. 16). These Declarations “change the world by declaring that a state of affairs exists and thus bringing that state of affairs into existence.” (p. 12). Searle says this reinforces his point in earlier works that “all of institutional reality is created by linguistic representation.” (p. 14). To explain what he meant by those Declarations, Searle leads his audience on a lengthy trek into linguistic categories and sub-categories until the reader is drowned in elaborate philosophical distinctions and terminology, and left desperate for some tangible examples of application to save them from total despair. Fortunately for those who wade long enough, Searle offers enough interaction between his theory of linguistic representation and common social concerns (e.g. the essence of political power and human rights) to serve as a life-jacket around his theory. One still needs to cling to his theory in order to keep their head above water.
            Searle begins this journey by asking such questions as, “How is it possible in a universe consisting entirely of physical particles in fields of force that there can be such things as consciousness, intentionality, free will, language, society, ethics, aesthetics, and political obligations?” ... “This is,” after all “the single overriding question in contemporary philosophy.” (p. 4). He begins answering this question with a description of the human capacity for consciousness:
Our capacity for consciousness and other mental phenomena is the result of long periods of biological evolution. Collective mental phenomena …[is] derived from the mental phenomena of individuals. This same pattern of dependence continues higher as we see that social institutions such as governments and corporations are dependent on and derived from the mental phenomena and behavior of individual human beings. This is the basic requirement of our investigation. …We have to show how everything we say is not only consistent with but in various ways derived from and dependent on the basic facts. [p. 4; Italics are original]

Searle claims that all of human language is derived from individual human consciousness and behavior, yet he insists that the nature of reality consists as one unified whole, not two, as Dualism contends (i.e. one part of which is physical and another is mental). In Searle’s mind, because all human institutions are derived from collective consciousness and behavior, there must be a single unifying mechanism between the creation of all institutional reality from individual human consciousness. The path of Searle’s book takes us directly en route to discovering this mechanism.
Searle journeys further by delineating six important “notions” that relate to this singular mechanism. These notions are essential to making sense of his investigation. The first related notion is what Searle calls a basic Status Function. Status Functions are “the glue that holds society together” (p. 9). Such functions are conceptually imposed on objects and people, and their functionality requires that there be a collectively recognized status that the object or person has. It is “only in virtue of that status that the person or object can perform the function in question.” (p. 7). As an example of this, a Status Function of a person would be the function of the President of the United States. An example regarding an object would be the function of a twenty-dollar bill (p. 7).
            The second related notion is Collective Intentionality. Status Functions can only work to the extent that they are collectively recognized, and so they are “created by collective intentionality” (p. 9). There must be a collective acceptance or recognition of the object or person as having that status. One does not need to approve the Status Function of a thing in order for it to be collectively accepted or recognized (p. 8). It is only in virtue of collective recognition that a person is the President of an institution, or a piece of paper is a legal-tender twenty-dollar bill. Searle says that the conceptual gist of Collective Intentionality can be compared to playing in a symphony (p. 45). All intentionality, whether collective or individual, exists only inside individuals’ human brains, and yet collective intentionality not only needs my performance from intentions in my brain, but the total collective performance of others in that symphony (institution) as well.
The third related notion is Deontic Power, which is a way of describing the human capacity (and phenomena) to function as though social commitments such as rights, duties, obligations, and requirements exist. For Searle, all Deontic Powers are created and maintained by Status Functions (pp. 9, 24).
The fourth related notion is Desire Independent Reasons For Action which, in brief, is the result of recognizing the Deontic Powers of social institutions (p. 9). Once people collectively recognize or accept the Status Function of a person or thing (for example, that Joe Shmoe is the CEO of a corporation), certain Deontic Powers are generated as a result (for example, obligations to not take, relocate, and use the CEO’s leather chair without his permission). Once those Deontic Powers are recognized, they provide individuals with reasons for acting that are independent of their inclinations and desires. An individual may desire to borrow the boss’s nice leather chair for a while, but once the obligation to not take it or use it without permission is recognized, Desire Independent Reasons for Action are generated. These reasons affect the success of all Collective Intentionality, and therefore all Status Functions.
The fifth related notion is Constitutive Rules. This is important because, according to Searle, “an institution is a system of constitutive rules …that creates the possibility of institutional facts” (p. 10). Accordingly, Searle makes a distinction between rules that regulate and rules that constitute, so as not to confuse the two conceptually. Regulative rules have a form like “Do X” or “Do X, Y, or C.” Constitutive rules, on the other hand, have the form “X counts as Y in context C” (p. 10). When applied within institutions (such as the CEO of a corporation), because Joe Shmoe satisfies certain social conditions (X), he counts as the CEO (Y) of a specific corporation (C). This means that Constitutive Rules bring further Status Functions into existence (p. 10), thereby providing further opportunities for Collective Intentionality to play its part in the maintenance (or breakdown) of an institution.
Finally, the sixth related notion is Institutional Fact. Institutional Facts are to be distinguished from “brute facts” (p. 10) that simply exist with or without human consent, such as the fact that the Sun exists, whereas Institutional Facts exist only because of human agreement or acceptance. For example, the Institutional Fact of a twenty-dollar bill does not have intrinsic value (i.e. purchasing power), but rather is valued according to the Collective Intentionality of its institution.
All of this prepares us for diving into some deeper aspects of Searle’s general theory. According to Searle, all human (social) institutions have institutional facts, and all institutional facts must be derived from the collective recognition or acceptance of declarative speech acts (i.e. Declarations) that assign both status’ and functions (i.e. Status Functions) to entities (i.e. things and persons). Institutional Facts do not exist without this logical structure, therefore, Institutions rise and fall, come and go, live and die according to this structure. They exist and are maintained because “we” create and maintain them. “They” exist because people agree or accept them based on Declarations about them, representing “them” as existing and thus bringing “them” into existence. It is—rather shockingly, I might add—a purely subjective existence of something that society treats as objectively existing. To illustrate further, consider that the sun shines every day without Collective Intentionality being involved at all. This is because it is a “brute fact” of reality, totally independent of human agreement or acceptance; yet compare this with the Institutional Facts of a “twenty-dollar” sheet of green rag cotton linen. That rectangular piece of linen is viewed by all Americans as “money” and not a mere sheet of rag cotton. This green “twenty-dollar” sheet is a very different “fact.” It is an Institutional Fact. But where did that fact come from? And why is it that a book written by John Searle is exchangeable for a “twenty-dollar” sheet of rag cotton, but not for one on which I hand-painted the words “twenty dollars”? That green linen sheet of rag cotton with the words “twenty-dollars” stamped on it (or hand-painted) is not intrinsically valuable, and “we” know this. We know this because with the collective recognition or acceptance of declarative speech acts that assign the Status Function “twenty dollars” to a green linen sheet of rag cotton comes the subjective existence of “money.” These insights, I think, should have an enormous impact on the way people recognize or accept social reality (or at least the perceived reality of social institutions). It should also help us rethink and revalue the role that institutions play in maintaining social reality.
There are many other implications of this theory as well. One other important implication is that all human institutional reality must necessarily be the product of language. This is significant because it means all institutional “life”—all human interaction—depends upon language. Indeed, for Searle, language is itself the most fundamental institution and from it all other human institutions are created and maintained. Every day, human beings live with and according to all sorts of institutional facts (e.g. the facts that a single “twenty-dollar bill” can be exchanged for Searle’s book) without ever considering that they all come into existence because people collectively agree that they exist. Only when Collective Intentionality breaks down because the Constitutive Rules are violated and Deontic Powers broken does an institution and it’s Institutional Facts break down with it. Yet without language, Searle argues, even these notions are impossible. This, I admit, is a profound insight.
Overall, I think Searle’s concern with the creation and maintenance of societies’ distinctive linguistic features is a valid one. What is declared and what we accept or recognize to be today actually does shape future civilizations. When a teacher assigns homework, an office manager fires someone, or a Pastor absolves sinners, a liturgy of language is shaping classrooms, corporations, and congregations. However, I think another important question—a more fundamental one—deserves to be asked (and answered), and that is: Is human language itself the most fundamental institutional reality? So far my comments have neither affirmed or denied this claim of Searle’s. Yet, I am concerned that Searle’s affirmative argument raises more questions than it helps to answer. If all human reality is, as Searle contends, merely the natural outgrowth of more fundamental physical, chemical, and biological phenomena, it is impossible for there to be a pre-linguistic analogue for Declarations (which is what leads Searle to conclude that human language is the most fundamental institutional reality). But if human reality is the outgrowth of what God declared all things to be (Gen. 1:1-2:4), from beginning to end (Isa. 46:10), and is maintained in existence by the infinite and eternal communication of Father, Son, and Spirit, then that God is also the pre-linguistic analogue for all Declarations, and His language, His speech, Himself as the Word in the beginning of all creation really is the most fundamental institutional reality. It is only because of sin that the Triune existence and personal involvement of God is suppressed in the minds of men (Rom. 1:18-21), and therefore does not share that most honorable Status Function in society.
As a Christian, I believe a Biblical worldview allows one to justify Searle’s linguistic paradigm with more clarity and sense. Within a Biblical worldview, a Creator-God who is the Word is presupposed (John 1:1) and that Word has spoken all things into existence. From these “basic facts,” divine speech acts and collective intentionality within the Trinitarian community of Father, Son, and Spirit would be the ultimate source from which all human language structures are derived. Indeed, the incarnation of the Son confirms this personal solidarity of God with human institutional reality (Col. 1:15-20). One reason why the existence of all human society presupposes language is because the God who speaks all things into existence really does exist and all things are maintained by His Word (Matt. 4:4; 8:8; Jn. 1:1; 17:17; Rom. 9:18; Heb. 1:3; 4:12; 11:3; I Pet. 1:25; II Pet. 3:5-7). Furthermore, God’s Word teaches that He made mankind uniquely to image Him in the world. So, if people seriously considered the logical structure of Searle’s general theory in connection with God’s Word, they could see another corollary—a corollary between God creating institutional reality through speech-acts and His image bearers naturally doing the same thing. It is only because Searle presupposes an evolutionary origin of all language (which he suggests has come from some kind of prelinguistic hominid), the notion of a transcendent “Word” is never seriously considered.
Another aspect of Searle’s theory worth further reflection from Christians is his notion of Deontic Powers. Searle argues that Deontic Powers are an essential byproduct of language (p. 82), are “conventionally encoded” within institutions, and must be publicly assumed in order for them to exist (p. 84). In fact, he argues that all deontology is collectively created by humans and nothing more (p. 84, c.f. p. 107). What this means is that human rights are nothing more than an institutional status imposed upon human beings, i.e. they are nothing more than Status Functions. This, I believe, is another fundamental flaw of his theory. For Searle, people must collectively accept a constitutive rule in order for there to be such Deontic Powers (e.g. human rights and obligations). But this presupposes what I believe is a major mistake: that no Deontic Powers can be absolute. They can’t be absolute because no singular unifying standard of authority exists in a world of purely physical, chemical, and biological processes. Surely there can be real authority, not simply perceived authority, but all social authority must be collectively intentional and must not transcend institutional reality. Consequently, Searle reasons as though the legitimacy of all human rights changes from institution to institution, depending on the vast power or force of the collective intentionality involved. But again, it’s important to recognize that this is presupposed, not proven, by Searle, and therefore he cannot allow the conceptual possibility of human rights and obligations that are not publicly recognized or accepted. However, if the personal involvement of the Triune God of Scripture in all human affairs is indeed a “basic fact” of life, these issues must be approached differently. With that fact presupposed instead, all individual human beings have rights and obligations derived from His Word which are not mere Status Functions of society. There is a personal God who declares certain things to have rights and corresponding duties toward Him and that which images Him. God declares the boundaries of what is morally obligatory and permissible upon all human beings because they image Him. God declares His own unchangeable character to be the standard for the rights, duties, and obligations He wants man to honor and uphold so that all people can image Him properly. Of course, Searle quickly brushes off any association between Deontic Powers and Divine will, and the belief that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” (p. 107). These beliefs in the supernatural, he says, “are almost certainly false” (p. 107).
Ironically, Searle repeatedly distinguishes between true and false “facts” and “beliefs” which can be collectively recognized, and he encourages his audience to identify with the ones that are true. Indeed his entire theory concerning Deontic Powers necessitates this distinction in order to be persuasive. Yet in no way, shape, or form does he account for why anyone is morally obligated to believe in what is true, as opposed to what is false. His theory rests on man’s capacity to recognize and accept truth in its mode of existence, and the presumption that, collectively, people ought to believe in it. That is a huge epistemic failure on his part. In contrast, these conditions are satisfied within a Biblical worldview.
Finally, Searle invites critique in his view of the relationship between Deontic Powers and political power (ch. 7). In Searle’s mind, the civil government is recognizably the ultimate institutional structure in most societies (p. 161), and therefore is the ultimate system of Status Functions—the collectively intentional sovereign institution (p. 163). Although Searle offers a variety of beneficial insights concerning the relationship between collective belief and political power, this portion of his thesis rests too heavily on the naturalistic presumption that all deontology is collectively created by humans and nothing more, and that all human rights and obligations are mere Status Functions and nothing more. So ultimately, what Searle contends for is a theory that unifies all institutional immorality, all political tyranny, all destructive Collective Intentionality, all Desire Independent Reasons for unjust action, and all Institutional lies under the rubric of natural and biological consequences. For a supernatural worldview such as the Christian one, this is unacceptable because it rejects the possibility of God as the Sovereign Institutor of all, thus taking away any need for His Son to save people from their sins (Col. 1:13-14) and any need for His Bride—the Church—in the world. For He declared the Church to be an institution of salvation, health, and life that reconciles not only all nations into Him, but social status’ as well (Gal 3:28), thus remaking the social world after His own image.
In conclusion, I think anyone who seriously considers the magnitude of institutional reality to be the same as Searle considers it to be, and who is committed to depending upon the singular mechanism underlying its creation that Searle investigates in this book, has to be careful and considerate of Searle’s presuppositions. Searle’s purely naturalistic presuppositions are not entirely inconsequential to his overall theory. Nevertheless, his theory has offered an intriguing solution to the dilemma of a dualistic conception of institutional reality worth further development and application.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Tim Gallant, Paul's Travail: A Reintroduction to Galatians

Paul's Travail: A Reintroduction to Galatians

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a previous review of Gallant's book, These are Two Covenants, I gave a critical review, highlighting all of the pros and cons of that booklet. I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this commentary considering that it builds off of the essays found in that booklet. Much to my surprise, Gallant's latest release, Paul's Travail: A Reintroduction to Galatians, not only clarified most of my concerns (see my review of These are Two Covenants), but he also presented a verse-by-verse pastoral approach through Galatians that is both scholarly, accessible, and unique. In this work, Gallant provides many valuable insights regarding this very important letter from Paul. He also provides many helpful user-friendly tools for the average reader, including a summary of the entire letter, a fresh translation of the entire letter, a chronological table of the events surrounding the letter, and a clear introduction to the hermeneutical method employed in this letter. In addition to all of this great material, Gallant also offers numerous articles in the appendices related to biblical theology and typology. Even though some people may consider the hermeneutics employed in this commentary as somewhat of a novelty, this is the kind of commentary which every pastor and teacher of Galatians should have because it is so thorough, scholarly, and accessible. It is definitely a relevant "reintroduction" to Galatians.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Roland Allen's "Spontaneous Expansion of the Church"

The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: and the Causes which hinder it (Roland Allen Library)The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: and the Causes which hinder it by Roland Allen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Many of our missionaries welcome spontaneous zeal, provided there is not too much of it for their restrictions… Such missionaries pray for the wind of the Spirit but not for a rushing mighty wind. I am writing because I believe a rushing mighty wind, and desire its presence at all costs to our restrictions.” These words of Roland Allen encapsulate the main thrust of The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. Allen argues that modern missions and their highly organized methods and ethical restrictions have done much harm to the work of the gospel on foreign soil, and the appropriate reaction of the Church to such news should be to return to simpler methods of the apostolic age which encouraged spontaneous expansion. By “spontaneous expansion,” Allen means:
…[T]he expansion which follows the unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church for men who see its ordered life, and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share; I mean also the expansion of the Church by the addition of new churches (p. 7).

According to Allen, there is a necessary charm that accompanies one’s first reception of the Gospel, a charm which is only found among those who instinctively feel able and free to propagate their faith of their own initiative. No exhortation or organized method is given or needed to propagate such a faith. The Holy Spirit “converts the natural instinct into a longing for the conversion of others.” (p. 9). It is the simpler methods of the apostolic age which manage this spontaneous zeal the best. Instead of offering artificial programs with ready-made stereotyped answers, voluntary expression of one’s zealous faith is encouraged and directed by trained leaders with a kind of instruction that can be refused, so as to allow one’s zeal to share the Gospel to remain as genuine as possible. Instruction which cannot be refused by converts is likened to control, which detracts from spontaneous expansion. Along with the work of the Holy Spirit, the outcome of such missionary work, Allen contends, would be a self-supporting, self-extending, and self-governing church on foreign soil – a replica of the early apostolic mission.
     But according to Allen, this is not a common method among missionaries. Surely there was talk about, and hope for, such churches, but once organizations realized these expanding churches no longer needed their support, or that their organizations were no longer needed to maintain control, they “instinctively think of [this self-supportiveness]… as tending to disorder.” (p. 13). Allen argues that the “natural instinct” of all men “is not opposed to order,” nor is the Holy Spirit, and so any repression of this instinct for self-propagation, both individually and corporately, generates a “poisonous” stagnation of the true apostolic methodology of mission (p. 14).
     Two of the most serious aids in such repression are fear of endangering our doctrine (p. 43) and standard of morals (p. 60). Allen discusses the fear of our doctrine first. He argues that because there is always the potential of propagating heretical doctrine, new converts are discouraged from spontaneous activity and expected to maintain a certain standard of doctrine before teaching others about their faith. This fear, Allen argues, is more imperial than apostolic (p. 44) and generates a “terrible sterility” among converts (p. 47). Instead of teaching men to depend upon Christ as they understand his truth from their own spiritual relationship with Him, men are taught to depend upon men, i.e. trained teachers, and their doctrines. In the days of the early church, things were different, Allen says. The great heresies in the early Church did not arise from illiterate or untrained theologians spontaneously sharing and propagating their experience of faith, as is found with most converts on foreign mission fields; instead they arose from “the more highly educated and philosophically minded Christians” (p. 48). Such heresies grew out of intellectual theories of doctrine divorced from the type of experience which accompanies spontaneous expansion. “What we find it difficult to believe,” states Allen, “is that others can receive Christ and find salvation in Him unless they know, or at least in speech employ, our familiar doctrinal expressions” (p. 57). Allen does not deny that dangerously ignorant converts may accompany spontaneous expansion, or suggest that all fear of distorting sound doctrine is unreasonable fear. Rather, he contends that because the common conception of Christian doctrine is too intellectual, our fears of what may arise from spontaneous expansion are exaggerated (p. 53).
     When discussing the fear of endangering traditional morality, Allen presents a case that Christian missionaries impose definite rules of conduct (not just doctrinal belief) upon foreigners as though they were synonymous with the Christian standard of morality (p. 61). Allen focuses heavily on a real life concern that is common to missionary work in Central Africa (pp. 61-67): namely, imposing monogamy upon polygamous pagans as though monogamy was synonymous with Christianity. According to Allen, this imposition of a fixed moral standard of monogamous marriage is contrary to Scripture:
Unless we are prepared to accept the whole Jewish law in its entirety, there is no code of morals laid down in precise commands for Christians in the Bible as a whole, still less in the New Testament (p. 61). …Neither in the Gospels nor in any other part of the New Testament is any code of law laid down. That standard which we so often call the Christian standard of morals, simply does not exist in the New Testament” (p. 68).

The only standard which a person must meet to be considered a Christian and welcomed into the Christian Church is Jesus’ command to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself (p. 68). What that looks like is another matter altogether, for Jesus’ mission was “not to direct their conduct by external admonitions, but to inspire and to raise them by the presence and power of His Spirit given to them” (p. 68). By imposing fixed standards of morality upon foreigners as though obedience to such standards involves purification of the heart and soul, it is not possible for spontaneous growth to occur. Only stagnation will result (p. 73-74).
     Like the apostles of old, present-day missionaries should equip converts and set them free to expand the church without further complications such as discouraging oversight and restrictions (p. 144). New Christians must be left to learn what they can only learn for themselves, without actually being abandoned (p. 150). Indeed, to “watch and assist spontaneous progress is certainly not to abandon coverts to their own devices” (p. 154).
     If a bishop is seeking such spontaneous expansion, there are five activities which must be utilized to equip converts properly: (1) delivering the “tradition” which is represented in the Apostles Creed, (2) delivering the Gospel in such a way that men revere it and know it, (3) delivering the sacraments to the church, (4) ordaining ministers, and (5) making sure that new converts “understand the use of the Apostle’s Creed, the Gospels, the Sacraments and the Ministry, and then send word to the bishop.” (p. 150). According to Allen, it is this kind of leadership that is absolutely essential to the spontaneous expansion of the Church. With such unique qualities of apostolic leadership, spontaneous expansion can be maintained among the most illiterate converts and the poorest communities.

     In light of all this, I think there are as many positive aspects to Allen’s work as there are negatives. His insights concerning the natural instinct of men are profound, particularly those regarding illiterate people on foreign mission fields and their instinctive zeal to freely express their newly enlivened faith in Christ to others. There is no good reason to presume, from the outset, that illiterate people cannot or often will not bring a profound spiritual knowledge to others or contribute practically to the many important discussions concerning faithful Christian living. His insights regarding the church’s fear of endangering doctrine and its tendency to lord doctrinal traditions over disciples as a means of protecting others from falsehood are also profound. Leaders within a given Christian community frequently adhere to long-standing doctrinal traditions, and expect future disciples to adhere to them as well in order to be treated as a Christian and welcomed into their church; but such traditions cannot be what Allen calls “the Catholic doctrine,” which is the doctrine of all ages, the doctrine “of the primitive Christians as well as of us who live in this last age.” (p. 45). The Scriptures speak against such attempts to lord doctrine over other disciples, and leaders among the Christian community would be wise to heed such warnings (Matt. 20:20-28; 2 Cor. 1:23-24). If it is true that spontaneous expansion proceeds by an expression of experience more so than by mere intellectual assent to doctrinal traditions, many Christians traditions, including Allen’s Anglican ones, can learn a lot from Allen’s insights.
     However, I’m not convinced that Allen’s insights about Christian standards of morality are helpful or even accurate. For example, Allen repeatedly addresses his concerns about Christian standards of morality as being uniquely “western” (pp. 65, 66, 74), and all examples not explicitly labeled that way are still implied as “western” because they are countered with illustrations from eastern civilizations (Africa, Asia, etc.). But all the standards of Christian morality that he uses as illustrations are Judeo-Christian, not “western” in the historical sense of the term. Historically, western civilization ditched its “western” standards of pagan morality and adopted Judeo-Christian standards in its place. Allen’s critical label upon “western” standards of morality turns out to be more than a bit cliché. Furthermore, Allen argues that the Law of Moses is entirely inadequate to derive a Christian standard of morality. For example, Allen maintains that the apostle Paul “based his exhortation to the Corinthians to excommunicate the man who had taken his father’s wife” on the ground that such sexual habits were naturally and “universally recognized as evil” (p. 64). Yet, Paul repeatedly references and alludes to Torah throughout his letters; appeals to “universally recognized” conventions do not appear to be the basis for Paul’s exhortation. Rather, the statements of Yahweh in Leviticus 18:8 and Deuteronomy 22:30 and 27:20 seem to provide sufficient instruction for Paul to ground his decision. Although it is true that social and economic ramifications ought to be taken into account before imposing traditional moral standards upon pagan converts (precisely because Christian traditions might actually be unwise), Allen seems to have overlooked the need to distinguish between lowering traditional standards of morality and lowering God’s standards of morality. The thrust of his arguments against a “universally recognized” standard of God’s morality leads me to suspect that he would disagree that such a distinction is possible. But if such suspicions of mine are indeed correct, I would then wonder what makes him privy to the universal convention that he claims Paul used to recognize “evil” among the Corinthians.
     In conclusion, I think Allen’s concern for seeing the spontaneous expansion of the Church through the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than the expensive and programmatic methods employed among modern organizations, are ideal and worth serious reflection. Allen’s regard for the church as a catholic entity, and his insistence upon leadership that equips, encourages, and assists spontaneous progress is extremely important, too, and well worth the price of the book. For the missional-minded Christian, my greatest caution in recommending this book is Allen’s casual disregard for “western” regulations and Torah regulations altogether.

View all my reviews

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter & Matt Smay

The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community: The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading entirely through The Tangible Kingdom is like eating toast smothered in strawberry-habanero jam. It’s sweet enough to hold your interest to the last bite, yet hot enough to make people regret it the next morning. The Tangible Kingdom claims to be a book about re-creating the mission of Jesus, his apostles, and the early Christian churches, when, in fact, it’s really about creating an intuitively dreamy fad for those who have been disappointed with organized Christian religion in America. This is not to say it doesn’t make many valid points about, or provide any helpful insights for, reforming ugly habits of American evangelicalism. What I am saying is that the “incarnational presence” portrayed throughout this book is more anecdotal than ancient in its presentation.
      This book can be divided roughly into four sections. The first section (chs. 1-5) is about identifying the church’s negative impact in society, and it begins with the author’s own life experiences, focusing especially upon God’s call for him to lead potential God-seekers into something new, but not something entirely new:

“This type of new is about a returning. Returning to something ancient, something tried, something true and trustworthy. Something that has rerouted the legacies of families, nations, kings, and peasants. ….What we’re returning to has always been and must still be revolutionary. What we need to dig up, recover, and find again is the life of the Kingdom of Jesus’ community… the church.” (p. 10)

      The claim is made that there is a culture war brewing between two camps of Christians, and this book is admittedly bias toward one side (p. 20). In order to recover the life of churches today, Christians need to start doing things which the Church has not been doing, and stop doing things they have been doing (p. 12). For example, churches need to stop being like “Jerusalem Christians” (p. 19) who view Jesus “through their traditions and the literal interpretation of doctrine.” These types rely too much on sermons that focus on behavior (e.g. sin) and programs to transform people (e.g. Billy Graham crusades, Promise Keepers, Alpha, etc.). Instead of holding “doctrine so tightly that …the life of Jesus gets obscured” (p. 19), they need to be more like the “Galilean Christians” who engaged the world and “interpret[ed] the Bible through the life of Jesus,” focusing especially on the atonement, justice, mercy, love, benevolence, and advocacy for the poor, oppressed, and sinners. This, allegedly, will keep people from becoming “idolaters of the Bible” who “prioritize head knowledge over heart life” (p. 20). Church, doctrine, “Bible,” and keeping hostile people out of the Church must not be the goal of the gospel anymore. Instead the goal of the gospel should be to “start identifying ourselves with [hostiles], and allow Christ’s redemption to flow over all.” (p. 31).
      The second section (chs. 6-12) is about removing traditional obstacles that get in the way of this healthy “reemergence” of ancient faith (p. 38), especially the problematic “postures” which offend the status quo of potential god-seekers in the world. Instead of focusing on “communicating a message of truth to the world” (p. 41), the “most important thing” is whether or not unbelievers are attracted to embodied truth first, so they can become more willing to receive the truth later. (p. 41). Christians need to go back to the “fringe movement” of the “pre-institutional church” (i.e. before Constantine; p. 50) which followed the ways of Jesus and practiced the “art” of not feeling any compulsion to feed people spiritually while still being willing to look after their spiritual formation (pp. 53-55). “Church” needs to become what it allegedly once was: a people you belonged with instead of a place you went to (p. 55), a place that “was unique, intriguing, and attractive primarily because it called for inclusion of all people” (p. 70), advocating “love of all people regardless of past mistakes, sexual orientation, or political bias.” (p. 88). Instead of arguing philosophy or debating alternative religious viewpoints, Christians should simply “live a different story” and invite people to observe (p. 76) so “sojourners” can feel or see aspects of the gospel lived out (p. 95-96). The truly “missional” way is to look like a church on the outside, yet be a place that “anyone can come to and not feel any pressure at any level.” (p. 116)
      The third section (chs. 13-17) is about implementing “incarnational habits” to live by once the basic obstacles to “incarnational mission” have been removed. The authors offer four neatly alliterated points: leaving, listening, living among, and loving without strings. Leaving involves replacing Christian activities with time spent building relationships with the surrounding secular culture. Listening means regarding no one from a worldly point of view and showing sincere regard toward an individual’s experience, background, heritage, through which they process faith and belief. Living among means integrating one’s self and family into the fabric of society while “participating in the natural activities of the culture around you, with whimsical holiness.” (p. 136). Loving without strings means blessing others without any coercion, and helping the unlovable feel loved without any catch.
      The fourth section (chs. 18-21) describes what “incarnational community” looks like so it can be duplicated successfully throughout future generations. It covers the “primary spheres of Incarnational Community” (Communion, Community, and Mission; p. 148) and some general barriers (like mandating a “tithe” or encouraging weekly corporate worship, p. 168) that hinder these spheres from working properly together.
      I think the “sweet” aspects of the book expose Church-life as having a genuine crisis on its hands. Secularism does not take the Church seriously, and a significant reason for this is because Christians are often not compassionate and forgiving “friends of sinners” like Jesus or his apostles. Much of their “friendship” is programmatic at best. Even worse, many are obnoxious for God, lording their doctrine over others because in their minds the truth is obnoxious and sinners need their nose stuck in it to remember it well. Their benevolence often has strings attached too. Christians are often not invested in their own neighbor’s welfare, or integrated into the fabric of their own local community, and therefore are not salt and light within it. More care is given to believing what is right than doing what is good, which I believe is a soul-damning dichotomy; this book exposes that.
      However, I’m not convinced that the program espoused in this book truly represents an “ancient” tradition, which is what really “burns” the next morning. With a mere 42 passing references from Scripture, more than half of which are anecdotal or attached to some sloganized eisegesis (the most notable one being from John 8; pp. 44-45), the biblical arguments actually seem subversive of some ancient foundation stones, possibly without even knowing it. Most subversive, in my mind, was the extremely casual approach toward corporate institutional worship, as though it’s really less important to God than sipping a signature coffee blend while listening to a porn-addicted “sojourner” talk about the good old days of high school football. Although it is true that Christians ought to embody a deep and sincere sacrificial love for their porn-addicted neighbor—especially on the Lord’s Day—they must not forget that corporate institutional worship is a public expression that they are His Body and Bride, and they cheapen His Supper if they exchange it for a pumpkin spice latte and cranberry scone. It is wishful thinking to believe, as the book claims, that without ever encouraging “sojourners” to obey truth, you will usually get them to obey truth (p. 67).