Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: The Incarnation of God

Superlatives have an unfortunate prevalence in too many Christian sermons and books: “This is the most” whatever. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard misplaced ‘greatest’ and ‘worst’ and ‘most needed’ and ‘biggest cause’ phrases attached to silly and nearly neutral issues—and if not neutral, leastwise secondary, tertiary, or implicative ideas. And so when authors Clark and Marcus describe the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology, you might expect some rolling of eyes or tongue-biting grunts of semi-affirmation. After all, how can the incarnation supplant ‘the cross and crucifixion of Christ’?! Or even the resurrection: isn’t foundation the honor Paul accords to resurrection in I Corinthians 15?... or is it? After all, isn’t Paul’s argument concerned with bodily resurrection for all the saints?

Well, fortunately for you, Clark and Marcus have handled this disagreements with tact and love in their case for the Incarnation of God as The Foundation of Evangelical Theology—released tomorrow in their Crossway book by that title.

The preface describes the full context and impetus for this book as well as its intended audience, but suffice it for this review to quote their thesis:

The incarnation of God, therefore, is the supreme mystery at the center of our Christian confession, and no less at the center of all reality. Consequently, all conceptions of reality that fail to see and savor that all things hold together in Christ, and the he is preeminent in all things, can never be anything but abstract conceptions of virtual realities—that is, invariable hollow and ultimately vacuous concepts pulled away from reality.

[This book is]…noncomprehensive and nonexhasustive…. Its aim is to explore the relation of the incarnation to other major facets of the Christian faith, demonstrating that Christ holds together, and should indeed be preeminent in, the whole of our Christian confession.

And does their thesis hold? Argument after argument, I believe it does. In the pages of this book Clark and Marcus deliver to our hearts and minds the mystery of the incarnation—offering honor and glory to our Triune God in exposition of the incarnation in relation to Triune being and work, soteriology, ecclesiology, marriage & sex. I found myself, several times, wiping tears from eyes as I was confronted with the beauteous gospel of our incarnate Christ. Now, I understand that each person is dynamic and that the same truth or event can effect different results in the individuals; and so maybe my interaction with this book was a timely interruption from our wise and loving God, but I anticipate that there are far too many who share my current theological context—one lacking the robust glory of the incarnation—so while I cannot guarantee this book will be life changing, neither can I affirm and support the publication and wide-dispersion enough! I intend to order multiple copies to hand out to friends and leadership in my church, and I would encourage any thoughtful Christian to pick up a copy for themselves.

Two more notes:

(1)   What sets this book apart from others (especially those) about the incarnation? I believe the distinguishing mark of this work is the way the authors reveal the interweaving nature of all theology. What we believe about the incarnation has direct implications on what we believe about salvation and the church. It also reveals what we believe about the Trinity—which is a bold statement, but one the authors do not shy away from. We know God as Trinity, they argue, only because the Son came in human flesh and revealed the Father and Spirit to us. This line of argument—the interweavingness of theology—can have some pitfalls, of course: namely determining a priori what ‘must’ be resultantly true and determining therefore what ‘must’ be essentially true, but I do not think Clark and Marcus fall into this potential trap. And I think they do not do so because of their great esteem for the giants of theological history. Every chapter is filled with excerpts and quotes from the church fathers and reformers, all of which show their own reliance on Holy Scripture.

(2)   My professor and friend once reminded his class that no book can be perfect, and so no book review should lack a suggestion for improvement. Here’s mine: the authors occasionally fall into a type of preacher speak/mnemonic device which seems trite in the face of the profundity. Setting apart ‘atonement’ as “at-one-ment” each time it comes, while a helpful reminder, can be a bit too childish at times. There was another term where something similar was employed, but I’ve forgotten it now. And hopefully the childishness of my own critique only underlines the timeliness and helpfulness of The Incarnation of God’s entrance into our Christian sphere.

Our Triune God is honored and magnified as the personal God who communicates himself to us in the very human flesh which we indwell east of Eden. He has taken this sinful flesh upon himself and marched us into the Father’s presence where we experience the love which the Father has for the Son with overwhelming interpenetration. It is scandalous! And it is the very heart of the gospel.
Be sure to check out my blog for specific interaction with some of the ideas presented in this book.

I received this book as part of Crossway's Beyond the Page program; this review is my own.

This review is crosslisted on Goodreads and Amazon.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Cheers to Saint Patrick?

On comes another "Holy Day" which has been adopted into our culture with new and unprecedented celebrations of vices rather than virtues. So I offer you an excerpt from Ted Olson and Mark Galli's 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. May this brief history assist in honoring our glorious Christ who has redeemed and will soon return. May your mugs be full in the joy of the King who became a slave for your sake.

Patrick is remembered today as the saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland (not true), the teacher who used the shamrock to explain the Trinity (doubted), and the namesake of annual parades in New York and Boston. What is less well-known is that Patrick was a humble missionary (this saint regularly referred to himself as “a sinner”) of enormous courage. When he evangelized Ireland, he set in motion a series of events that impacted all of Europe. It all started when he was carried off into slavery by Irish raiders.

Escape from sin and slaveryA 16-year-old Romanized Briton, Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief whose opponents’ heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master’s pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger, thirst, and isolation. A nominal Christian to this point, he now turned to the Christian God of his fathers for comfort.
“I would pray constantly during the daylight hours,” he later recalled. “The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more. And faith grew. And the spirit roused so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less.”
After six years of slavery, a mysterious, supernatural voice spoke to him: “Soon you will return to your homeland.”
So Patrick fled and ran 200 miles to a southeastern harbor. There he boarded a ship of traders bound for Europe.

Return to the homelandsAfter a few years on the continent, Patrick returned to his family in England—only to be called back to Ireland as an evangelist.
“I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut … and they cried out as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”
Whether Patrick was the first missionary to Ireland or not, paganism was still dominant when he arrived. “I dwell among gentiles,” he wrote, “in the midst of pagan barbarians, worshipers of idols, and of unclean things.”
Patrick’s mission faced the most opposition from the druids, who practiced magic, were skilled in secular learning (especially law and history), and advised Irish kings. Biographies of the saint are replete with stories of druids who “wished to kill holy Patrick.”
“Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity,” Patrick wrote, “but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.”
Patrick was as fully convinced as the Celts that the power of the druids was real, but he brought news of a stronger power. The famous Lorica (or “Patrick’s Breastplate”), a prayer of protection, may not have been written by Patrick (at least in its current form), but it expresses perfectly Patrick’s confidence in God to protect him from “every fierce merciless force that may come upon my body and soul.”
There was probably a confrontation between Patrick and the druids, but scholars doubt it was as dramatic and magical as later stories recounted. One biographer from the late 600s, MuirchĂș, described Patrick challenging druids to contests at Tara, in which each party tried to outdo the other in working wonders before the audience. Patrick, the legend says, won, as God killed several of the druids and soldiers:
“The king summoned his council and said, ‘It is better for me to believe than to die.’ And he believed as did many others that day.”
Yet to Patrick, the greatest enemy was one he had been intimately familiar with—slavery. He was, in fact, one of the earliest Christians to speak out strongly against the practice. Scholars agree he is the true author of a letter excommunicating a British tyrant, Coroticus, who had carried off some of Patrick’s converts into slavery.
“Ravenous wolves have gulped down the Lord’s own flock which was flourishing in Ireland,” he wrote, “and the whole church cries out and laments for its sons and daughters.” He called Coroticus’s deed “wicked, so horrible, so unutterable,” and told him to repent and to free the converts.
It remains unknown if he was successful in freeing Coroticus’s slaves, but within his lifetime (or shortly thereafter), the entire Irish slave trade had ended.

Self doubtDespite his success as a missionary, Patrick was self-conscious, especially about his educational background. “I still blush and fear more than anything to have my lack of learning brought out into the open,” he wrote in his Confession. “For I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.”
Nevertheless, he gave thanks to God, “who stirred up me, a fool, from the midst of those who are considered wise and learned in the practice of the law as well as persuasive in their speech and in every other way and ahead of these others, inspired me who is so despised by the world.”
Over and over again, Patrick wrote that he was not worthy to be a bishop. He wasn’t the only one with doubts. At one point, his ecclesiastical elders in Britain sent a deputation to investigate his mission. A number of concerns were brought up, including a rash moment of (unspecified) sin from his youth. His Confession, in fact, was written in response to this investigation.
If Patrick was not confident about his own shortcomings, he held a deep sense of God’s intimate involvement in his life. “I have known God as my authority, for he knows all things even before they are done,” he wrote. “He would frequently forewarn me of many things by his divine response.”

“Flame of a splendid sun”According to the Irish annals, Patrick died in 493, when he would have been in his seventies. But we do not know for sure when, where, or how he died. Monasteries at Armagh, Downpatrick, and Saul have all claimed his remains. His feast day is recorded as early as March 17, 797, with the annotation; “The flame of a splendid sun, the apostle of virginal Erin [Ireland], may Patrick with many thousands be the shelter of our wickedness.”
It will always be difficult to separate fact from fiction in the stories of Patrick’s biographers. It is historically clear, however, that Patrick was one of the first great missionaries who brought the gospel beyond the boundaries of Roman civilization. According to tradition, only Ireland’s inaccessible south remained untouched by his work by the time he died.
Patrick also became the model for later Celtic Christians. He engaged in continuous prayer. He was enraptured by God and loved sacred Scripture. He also had a rich poetic imagination with the openness to hear God in dreams and visions and a love of nature. Hundreds of Celtic monks, in emulation of Patrick, left their homeland to spread the gospel to Scotland, England, and continental Europe.

Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, “Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 229–231.

The quoted book is available from most major online bookstores, and I highly recommend adding it to your library.
Faithlife: Logos | Amazon Smile | Barnes and Noble | Christian Book Distributors

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review: Roman Catholic Theology and Practice

Allison provides another positively excellent contribution to the multi-faceted Christian world. I imagine that all three major branches of Christianity will greatly benefit from his careful and gracious work in Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. How can I review in only a few paragraphs this much needed book weighing in at 496 pages?

Book thesis:
[This book] seeks to accomplish two things: first, to note with fascination and appreciation the commonalities between Catholic and evangelical theology… and second, to examine the differences between the two, demonstrating how Catholic theology and practice at these points of divergence do not conform properly to Scripture.

Allison elaborates further upon his methodology:

[he] will propose for the purpose of understanding and assessment an approach that considers Catholic theology as a coherent, all-encompassing system with two major features: the nature-grace interdependence, that is, a strong continuity between nature and grace; and the Christ-Church interconnection, that is, an ecclesiology (a doctrine of the church) that views the Catholic Church as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus Christ. These axioms will also be assessed.

Indeed this holistic view of the Catholic faith is desperately needed for those who wish to think honestly and truthfully about their estranged heritage. Allison posits a two-fold axiom upon which the rest of the Catholic faith depends. Quoting one thinker he states that this [or these] is “perhaps the only theological topic in which Catholic and Protestant thought have gone their own ways, passing like ships in the night, with no sense of common problems and standards of judgment.” We must consider the Catholic faith as a unity, not as series of unconnected statements that can be argue tit-for-tat as if we are already operating on the same basis. Indeed, much of Catholic theology makes sense within its system, and to argue from a Protestant theological system against minor points does no good when the Catholic system necessitates those very points. The army of Sparta is strong because they hold together, and even if one is removed, he is replaced by  another—the whole system holds itself together. Allison offers a valued critique to the two-fold axiom of Catholic systematic theology as the start to the book; only then can he rightly wade into the maelstrom to point out flaws in the particulars.

Allison opens each section/chapter with the Roman Catholic view, highly substantiated with footnotes from the catechism itself, and then follows it with an evangelical assessment of the views in question—first through notes of “intrigue” (areas of agreement) and then through notes of “critique.” Each critique section includes reference to one or both of the axioms which Allison has dealt with separately in a presuppositional critique, as well as following detailed logical and biblical criticisms. I must say that Catholic theology and practice has never before made as much sense to me as it does now.

There is hardly room for improvement throughout, which is quite a statement considering its length, breadth, and nature! And yet I believe it holds true. I think there is a slight misunderstanding of thought in two places, but which does not bear much upon anything else. For example Allison critiques the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ in the mass (which he is at pains to explain the Catholics do not view as re-sacrifice), and argues against their understanding of the eternal nature of the sacrifice—because the sacrifice was unbound by time it can be presented again in a different time. In the course of his argument he cites the institution of the Lord’s Supper as evidence: it could not be the re-presentation then when Christ had not yet been presented at all—meanwhile forgetting that timelessness works in both directions (or perhaps better, no directions because it is without time). However this slight flaw in argument is by no means the lynch pin of an adequate critique, and Allison’s case by and large remains sound.

His thesis is supported in every chapter. His tone is cordial and serious—noting that the issues at stake are quite serious and not at all inconsequential. After spending so much time invested in this book, it feels abrupt to end the review without further comment, though I believe it necessary. So I will leave you with a few concluding personal reflections:

The areas of divergence are really quite significant; not something small to be glossed over.

But there is also much insight to be found in the Catholic faith which can be affirmed (even as it is/not found in prominent evangelical theology).

I want a similar assessment of the Orthodox faith and the Pentecostal faith.

Where do we go from here in work with Catholics? Do we primarily work for them or alongside them?

I received an electronic copy of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment from the publisher as part of Crossway’s Beyond the Page program. My thoughts are my own.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

New Sermon available!

New sermon available from East Hills Community Church on the passage

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
(James 1:12-18 ESV)

Use this link to retrieve the notes from the sermon series: Godly Living for Dummies.

Visit my 'sermon page' to glimpse other expositions.