Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has stirred up quite the storm of strong criticism and counter-criticism from various evangelical Christian reviewers. As one Gospel Coalition reviewer astutely noted, “Not surprisingly, many Christians have been harshly critical because the film is insufficiently faithful to the biblical source. And also not surprisingly, many others have over-praised the film, I think, more as a counter-reaction to the responses of their fellow Christians than to anything they found on the screen.”
I will attempt to “walk between the raindrops,” so to speak, in this brief review.
There are a host of easy targets for criticism in the film, such as the anachrony of including Tubal-Cain or the insertion of the half-baked-yet-somehow-overcooked fallen angels (the “Watchers”) or the producers’ environmentalistic emphasis. However, the strongest criticisms have been reserved for the portrayal of Noah himself. As Al Mohler put it in his review, “Aronofsky introduces Noah as a kind and caring family man, but his divine assignment turns the movie’s Noah into a sociopathic monster. At this point the movie veers into a radical distortion of the biblical account. Noah is now depicted as a madman ready to murder his own grandchildren in order to end humanity and rid creation of the human threat… This not only misses the point of the Genesis narrative, it corrupts it. Aronofsky is telling a truly fascinating story in these segments of the film, but it is not the story of Noah as found in the Bible. Totally missing from the movie is the understanding that God is simultaneously judging and saving, ready to make a covenant with Noah that will turn the biblical narrative toward Abraham and the founding of Israel.”
I have nothing but respect for Dr. Mohler and while I completely agree with him that this portrayal of Noah is a distortion of biblical history, I also must disagree with his final assessment. The understanding that God is simultaneously judging and saving is not “totally missing” from the film – it just appears that Dr. Mohler is totally missing the point of this particular depiction of Noah.
Despite their love and care for life of all kinds, Noah recognizes that he and his family have the same nature and commit the same sins as the people whom God will destroy in the flood. If God is destroying all sinners, why should Noah and his family be spared? At a superficial level, Noah’s anti-natalism is a logical conclusion from the premises of his particular stripe of environmentalism. People harm and ruin creation (including each other), so the only way to save creation is to destroy all people.
But, at a more significant level of the story, the filmmakers are producing a theodicy. God destroyed the world, killing (nearly) everyone because they are sinners and we are amused by the special effects. Noah vows to kill his grandchildren because they are sinners and we become sickened and call him a “sociopathic monster.” But Noah’s opposition to human life mimics God’s opposition to human life – it’s anthropomorphism.
At the climax of the film, Noah stands with his knife hovering over his newborn grandchildren, ready to kill them. The dramatic tension builds – everybody familiar with the story knows this wasn’t in the Bible, so nobody knows what this fictional Noah will do. And he relents. He throws the knife into the ark and the babies live. When asked later why he chose not to kill the children, Noah responds, “When I looked down at them, all I had in my heart was love.” God’s electing love is the ultimate reason that his wrath was not poured out upon Noah and his family – depicted vividly, if imperfectly, by Noah’s mercy.
The filmmakers’ repeated emphasis on the lineages of Seth and Cain (the seed of the woman and the serpent, respectively [Genesis 3:15]) sets the table for this revelation of God’s electing love as the basis for mingling mercy with wrath – He looked down on his children and had nothing but love in his heart. The use of theological anthropomorphism is always a risky decision. God frequently used anthropormorphic language in his self-revelation in Scripture – and it is frequently misunderstood by interpreters. I suspect that many reviewers of Aronofsky’s Noah have misunderstood his use of anthropormorphism as well. I think once one recognizes this literary device at work in the film it helps to redeem what would otherwise be a confusing and troubling addition to the narrative of Noah and the flood.
Doriani, Daniel M. Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application. Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing, 2001.
Putting the Truth to Work is a helpful book which presents practical approaches and theoretical methods for developing faithful biblical applications in sermon preparation and delivery. The author provides an introduction to hermeneutics with an eye toward developing sermon applications. Once the groundwork has been laid, he then develops distinct plans for applying unique genres of Scripture in a Christocentric fashion.
Dr. Daniel M. Doriani was a professor of New Testament, Dean of the Faculty, and Vice President of Academics at Covenant Theological Seminary in Missouri from 1991 to 2003. He transitioned into the senior pastor role at Central Presbyterian Church (PCA), a 1700-member church in Clayton, Missouri. Last year, he returned to Covenant Theological Seminary as Vice President of Strategic Academic Projects and professor of theology. He has authored many books on a variety of subjects, including hermeneutics, homiletics, and some New Testament commentaries.
“If a teacher’s ultimate crime is to propound heresy, the penultimate crime is to make biblical truth sound boring” (121). This book is strong medicine for an epidemic of boring preaching. Putting the Truth to Work is written in two sections, divided by a brief interlude. The first section of the book focuses on the nature, sources, and methods of discerning biblical applications. The second section gives plans for applying narrative, doctrinal, and ethical texts, considers issues with applying these texts Christocentrically, and concludes with a method for selecting a sermon text.
The initial chapter dialectically considers three proposed theories for interpretation and application. The thesis is the traditional view that exegesis precedes application in a two-step process, so that application rests upon exegesis. The antithesis theory proposes to erase the distinction between meaning and application, since “Scripture itself links interpretation with relevance” (20). On this view, exegesis is inextricably linked to application, such that meaning is application. Finally, the author proposes a synthesis of these two theories as “a permeable barrier between exegesis and application” (22). This “fuzzy boundary” maintains the primacy of exegesis in the applicative task, but also acknowledges the interdependent relationship between meaning and application. The author then argues that a theory of application is both necessary and desirable, and that a consideration of the communicative context is also essential to the nature of sermon application.
The second chapter develops a God-centered theology of application, using Scripture’s own use of Scripture, particularly Jesus’ use of Scripture in the Gospels, as an exemplar. Jesus’ example gives us insight into the proper use and the misuse of the Bible in application. Christ demonstrates what Paul later asserts in 2 Tim 3:16-17, that all Scripture is profitable.
The following chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the role of the interpreter in the interpretive and applicative tasks. The author outlines a general model for application which displays the various interrelations between the text, the interpreter, and the audience. Doriani then examines the different perspectives on reading a text, the relationship between knowledge and action, and the hermeneutical spiral—all within a discussion of the courage, character, and credibility necessary to faithful biblical application. This chapter is simply brilliant.
The fourth chapter discusses the seven biblical sources of application: rules, ideals, doctrine, redemptive acts in narrative, exemplary acts in narrative, biblical images or symbols, and, finally, songs and prayers. The author highlights that this list is not co-extensive with the genres of literature found in Scripture, though there is significant overlap. A rubric is also provided for discerning twenty-eight options for the relevance of a text.
Then the next chapter gives four aspects of application for consideration. These are four categories of questions which should be highlighted for the audience in the development of applications. The preacher should consider questions about duty, character, goals, and discernment for the audience. These four categories of questions combined with the seven sources from the previous chapter form the rubric of twenty-eight relevant applications for a given text. The tendency of many evangelical preachers is to ask duty-related questions, to the detriment or disuse of character, goal, and discernment-related questions. The author suggests “going beyond law” (98) is crucial to faithful biblical application.
The final chapter of the first section further considers the use of the four categories from the preceding chapter. The author considers the misuse and the proper use of each of the categories of questions, and also provides a two-page critique of utilitarianism in preaching.
After an interlude which briefly reminds the reader about the importance of proper interpretation and understanding contexts (biblical and homiletical), the second section of the book begins with a plan for applying narrative texts. The types of narrative (drama, reports, speech stories) are surveyed and the components of dramatic analysis are rehearsed. The remainder of the chapter gives specific examples of narrative analysis from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Acts. The following chapter gives six theses to correct certain misbegotten theories on interpreting and applying narrative texts.
Chapter nine gives a plan for the application of doctrinal passages by proposing “a check list for preachers” (225-6) and surveying several case studies in doctrinal sermon application.
The next chapter presents a plan for applying ethical texts. Biblical law can be applied identically, analogously, and typologically (241). Seven questions for “harder cases” are considered and then applied to two test cases from the Mosaic law. The subsequent chapter considers issues faced in applying ethical texts. The author suggests that the three uses of the law and the tripartite view of OT law are useful pedagogical and interpretive tools for the preacher, with some noteworthy caveats.
The twelfth chapter provides a review of the preceding chapters inasmuch as they were pertinent to a consideration of Christocentric preaching. The author presents Christocentric application as a way of bridging redemptive-historical and needs-sensitive preaching. The final chapter of the book concludes with general principles for sermon text selection.
In evaluating Putting the Truth to Work two strengths and one weakness will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some concluding remarks which discuss the usefulness of this book.
This book will provide many readers with valuable insights for developing biblically-faithful sermon applications. Two strengths of this book are: the “how-to” chapters in the book (7, 9, 10, 12) give useful questions, case studies, and action steps for improving sermon application, and the third chapter weaves together the intellect and character of the interpreter in a brilliant, biblically holistic fashion.
The “how-to” chapters in the book give useful questions, case studies, and action steps for improving sermon application. In the preface, the author highlights the “how-to” chapters as the “capstone” of the book, because they review the theoretical chapters while exemplifying how to compellingly present Christ to the audience (9). These chapters are the result of over two decades of academic ministry and nearly a decade-and-a-half of pastoral preaching ministry. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these chapters for a young, inexperienced preacher like this reviewer.
For example, Chapters Ten and Eleven function together as a strong corrective for moralistic/legalistic preaching, for merely redemptive-historical application, as well as the often oversimplified relationship between law and grace. One on side are preachers who struggle to find applications which are anything more than an injunction to “do better,” and on the other side are preachers who struggle to present applications which are anything more than an encouragement to “believe more.”
Doriani tells the former, “Not all Christians who want to obey know how to do it,” and the latter, “…however, sophisticated we are, there is a time to tell people what to do.” He continues, “If a theologian thinks people need metaphors and not mandates, he ought to get out more often” (263-4). These two chapters contain principles which can help set pastors free to preach the gospel as spiritually transformative in specific ways.
The third chapter weaves together the intellect and character of the interpreter in a brilliant, biblically holistic fashion. The third chapter of the book highlights several major theoretical issues in hermeneutics by considering the character and virtue needed to rightly resolve these issues and faithfully apply those resolutions. Many readers will find the practical chapters of the second section of the book to be worth their weight in gold; however, this theoretical chapter would be worth the price of the book, even if its cost was its weight in gold!
Theoretical texts on hermeneutics will often discuss the distinctions between a critical, dialogical, and submissive view of reading Scripture or present a particular perspective on the nature of the hermeneutical spiral. Homiletical texts will often discuss the importance of the biblical qualifications of eldership or the role of a preacher’s character in ministry. Doriani manages to weave theory and virtue together in a holistic manner that demonstrates how fluidly he is able to move between the ivory tower of academics and the concrete jungle of pastoral ministry. Readers will benefit greatly from his insights.
Despite providing a host of insights on the nature and task of biblical application, this book also had some weaknesses. One weakness in this book was the inclusion of a critical analysis of Christopher Wright’s view of biblical law.
The inclusion of a critical analysis of Christopher Wright’s view of biblical law. As the author is concluding his evaluation of the relative merits and demerits of the classical tripartite view of the OT law as moral, civil, and ceremonial, he takes an aside to briefly discuss Christopher J. H. Wright’s five-part view of the OT law (273-5).
Wright seeks to situate his taxonomy of OT law (civil, family, cultic, criminal, and charitable) within its redemptive-historical epoch (creation, fall, redemption, new creation) in order to emphasize the unity of divine revelation while putting a finer point on the distinctions between various biblical laws. While this gives an interesting scholarly brief on a way of potentially improving upon the classical tripartite division of the OT law, there is very little payoff for the reader with regard to the thesis of the book and chapter—namely, the application of ethical texts.
The point of the analysis is that “all laws retain some form of authority,” (275) but this point is almost lost in the tangential discussion of Wright’s view after the lengthy pedagogical and apologetic discussion of the tripartite view. In the opinion of this reviewer, the point could be made more clearly and directly by foregoing the analysis of Wright’s view. Admittedly, this is a relatively minor editorial criticism.
Putting the Truth to Work is a book which this reviewer will return to in the future as a resource for developing biblical applications in a variety of creative but faithful ways. This book stands as a testimony to the reality that all Scripture is profitable and applicable. It also functions as a guide for how to discern those applications in practice. Faithful application of this book will result in faithful application of Scripture, to the glory of God.
So there have been some recent articles written from a Christian perspective criticizing Disney’s movie Frozen. Apparently, “worldview analysis” is just a code word for a list of things in pop culture that Christians should and shouldn’t like. You can listen to a certain song just as long as you frown and shake your head during the relativistic refrain. And warn your children about the boogeyman, Moral Relativism.
Look, moral relativism isn’t an intellectual danger. It’s an experiential one. When a cartoon character sings, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me,” it is painfully obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense that she is making a rule which is either right or wrong. It’s laughably self-refuting. Lamentably, we live in a society where that modicum of common sense is more elusive than a Chupacabra. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s pretty easy to teach my children to see that relativism is self-refuting. Now if I could just teach them to share…
Moral relativism is just the sewage which many of the fish in our society have mistaken for fresh water. All they’ve ever swam in is sewage so they don’t know the difference. Take them out of the sewer and plop them in the river and they may gasp and flop for a bit, but eventually they catch on and swim along with the current. Sins (of all kinds) are the real issue; moral relativism is just the way some sinners convince each other that the stupid things they’re doing are actually intellectually defensible. It’s a defense mechanism against the conscience. It’s a symptom, not a disease. I’m not worried about my kids becoming moral relativists; I’m worried about them becoming unrepentant sinners.
So, that being said, rather than a passing nod to the self-sacrificial love shared between the sister-protagonists in the film and a jeremiad about a relativistic song lyric, I would hope for a more compelling analysis from Christian reviewers. People steeped in the richness and depth of the themes, types, symbols, and narrative of Scripture should be able to draw more value from such a film than even its creators realize is there.
For example, Queen Elsa’s freezing powers are a metaphorical extension of her emotions. There’s a dynamic of fear and love at work in her powers. When she’s afraid, she loses control — when she learns to love, she regains control. Now, my daughter will never build a frozen palace of isolation as a result of living in fear — but that’s exactly what her loneliness may feel like if I don’t teach her how “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
In the movie, the young princesses are playing together and Elsa displays a natural control over her powers (read: emotions). She builds a winter wonderland to share with her sister, Ana, in one room of their castle, but she becomes afraid when her sister moves too quickly and accidentally strikes her sister in the head with an icy blast. Their parents, the king and queen, rush them off to see some magical trolls in the woods who fix Ana’s frozen mind and replace her memories of Elsa’s powers with fun memories of playing in the snow. The troll prophesies over Elsa that her powers (read: emotions) are both beautiful and dangerous, and that she must learn to control them or they could destroy her.
This is a reality that we all face, young ladies especially. Emotions are beautiful and dangerous aspects of human nature. It’s a beautiful emotional response when Ana sacrifices her life for her sister, and Elsa’s fear dangerously isolates her from everyone that she loves. Her father’s response to the troll prophecy is to take measures to teach her how to control her “powers.” In order to protect her, so he thinks, he locks the castle gates, removes most of the staff, isolates the sisters from each other, and Elsa is kept in her room where he teaches her to conceal her powers. “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show.” Teaching little girls to fear and conceal their emotions is a mistake. That’s not love. And it sets them up for failure in every relationship of any kind that they will ever have. Don’t do it, Dads.
Notice that every time Elsa demonstrates some control over her powers she is moving toward someone she loves, and every time she loses control she is moving away. Even when she finally lets her powers free, singing “Let It Go,” she’s not experiencing real freedom. She’s enslaved everyone in her kingdom under a frozen winter wasteland just so that she can finally release her powers. Isolation can feel like freedom for a moment, but the fear and loneliness remain. Only love casts out fear and love is reciprocal, not reflexive. A little girl’s emotions need to be loved, not feared, if she is to learn to love rather than fear. And only a father who has dealt with his own emotions at the cross of Christ will be able to give the love that a beautiful and dangerous little girl’s heart needs.
It’s ironic to note how many Christian reviewers responded out of their fear of relativism, when the point of the film was that love overcomes fear. As a father, I see Frozen as an opportunity to teach my daughters about their emotions and I see a cautionary virtue tale for fathers everywhere (the king also failed to teach his younger daughter to guard her heart, as she “falls in love” with the first prince she meets). However, I’m not interested in wasting the time I have with my children fussing about moral relativism, when I could be teaching them how to love… which I’m going to go do now instead of just writing a blog about it.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” -Frederick Buechner.
Johnson, Dennis E. Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007.
Him We Proclaim is a paradigm-shifting book which presents an extended case for Christocentric preaching as an entailment of an apostolic hermeneutic. The author seeks to build his homiletical practice upon a distinctive hermeneutical theory which challenges various other perspectives. This project is accomplished by appeal to the discernible hermeneutical practices of the NT authors.
Dr. Dennis E. Johnson is a professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. He is an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The concentration of his research, study, and teaching has been in the area of New Testament exegesis (particularly the interrelation of the two testaments of Scripture) for nearly two decades, but he has spent the latter portion of his career writing and teaching on the application of biblical studies to the practice of ministry within the local church and the larger culture.
Him We Proclaim is a two-part book with two valuable appendices included in the text. The first part seeks to build a hermeneutical case for what the author calls “apostolic, Christocentric preaching.” (Kindle Location 488) The case is built upon a consideration of the NT authors’ manner of reading, quoting, and applying the OT in their apostolic preaching and teaching—what emerges is a starkly Christocentric way of reading the OT canon. The second part of the book draws out and exemplifies homiletical practices from the hermeneutical principles detailed in the first section.
The first chapter highlights three ways in which a wedge has been driven between the Old and New Testaments in contemporary evangelical hermeneutics—one wedge from Enlightenment-influenced biblical criticism, the second from the literalistic hermeneutic of dispensationalism, and the third stems from religious pluralism. The author also introduces his thesis that while the theology of the apostles has been maintained their interpretive methods have been abandoned by contemporary evangelical scholarship. Finally, he discusses the breach between the academy and the church, addressing the divide between biblical scholarship and gospel proclamation. Having introduced these issues, the author seeks to reunite these estranged brothers by appeal to the hermeneutical and homiletical model of the apostles.
The second chapter seeks to set hermeneutical boundaries for the combinational approach suggested in the first chapter by considering certain priorities and polarities in preaching. This chapter lays the biblical foundation for the author’s walk through the hermeneutical spiral, from text-to-hermeneutics-to-homiletics and back again. It also “provides a sympathetic but critical hearing to rival homiletic approaches… noting both the strengths and potential weaknesses of each.” (530) The author surveys and evaluates a broad swath of evangelical homiletical practices using a taxonomy of three categories: preaching to convert, to edify, and to instruct. Everything from seeker-sensitive “felt needs” models to the homiletics of nouthetic counselors and redemptive-historical preaching models receives critical but fair analysis in this chapter. The author presents and promotes a combinational approach, using Tim Keller’s preaching as an example.
The next chapter considers the purpose of preaching by examining Paul’s theology of preaching. The purpose of Paul’s preaching (taken from Col 1) was to “present everyone mature [or ‘perfect’] in Christ,” (1108) which implies something about the identity and needs of his audience as well as the content of his gospel message. Paul also mentions the price of suffering paid by the preachers of the gospel, as well as the divine power operant within them. Drawing on Paul’s teaching in Col 1 while incorporating examples from apostolic preaching throughout the first century, Johnson presents the “four motifs—purpose, listeners, content, communication tasks—[which] are the heart of this book.” These four motifs, combined with the price, power, and responsibility of preaching, “are essential to a full-orbed understanding of apostolic preaching.” (1530)
The following chapter gives a historical survey of how this apostolic model of preaching has fared throughout the history of the church’s practice. Johnson outlines how apostolic preaching passed through stages of complication, chastening, rejection, and recovery. According to the author, this homiletical method was first “complicated” by the patristic and medieval penchant for an imaginative expansion upon the allegorical reading of the biblical text. The Reformation perspective is brought in to appropriately chasten the excesses which had already developed out of ancient exegesis, as well as to contradict the rising extremes of individualism which characterized the Radical Reformation. This individualistic reading opened the doors in many ways to the rejection of apostolic preaching by the influence of the Enlightenment upon various forms of biblical criticism. Apostolic preaching was eventually recovered in the twentieth century by Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos and has been preserved and developed since then within certain Reformed evangelical circles.
The final chapter of the first section is apologetic in nature and considers the various challenges which this preaching paradigm commonly faces. Most of these objections reflect contemporary iterations of the various schools of thought surveyed in the prior historical chapter, such as the influence of historical criticism or misgivings about the unity of Scripture. He directly responds to the various positions of Beale, Dodd, Longenecker, Gadamer, Enns, Kaiser, and McCartney, respectively, and concludes that even the grammatical-historical method needs to be corrected by apostolic interpretive methods.
The first chapter on the practice of apostolic, Christocentric preaching marks the Epistle to the Hebrews as an epistolary sermon, evaluating it as a paradigm case for preaching while the theological foundations of apostolic preaching are discussed in the succeeding chapter. The last three chapters of the book walk through the centrality of Christ in all of Scripture, giving specific aid in how to prepare and present sermons from each testament—preaching the promises of the OT and the Promise Keeper of the NT. These chapters demonstrate that the book’s theory is solid, its apologetic is reasonable, and the theory can be practically implemented by pastors within their own congregations. This section of the book strongly resembles a homiletical how-to manual, with many valuable principles and practices explained. Seeing the application of the author’s interpretive framework applied to the diverse literary genres of specific texts of Scripture is most helpful and persuasive.
Finally, two appendices are given. The first appendix walks through the author’s model “from text to sermon,” and the second provides several exemplary sample sermons which apply the methods outlined in the book.
In evaluating Him We Proclaim two strengths and one weakness will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some brief concluding remarks which discuss the overall value of this book.
This book will provide many readers with a paradigm shift in hermeneutics, homiletics, and the relationship between the two. Two strengths of this book are: the inclusion of condensed but significantly detailed conclusions at the end of each chapter, and the author’s concise but thorough reading of the history of biblical interpretation.
The inclusion of condensed yet significantly detailed conclusions at the end of each chapter. Each chapter in this book contained significant engagement with the biblical text, history, hermeneutics, theology, and the practice of biblical proclamation. The author is strongly suited for in-depth textual analysis as well as addressing the broad-reaching implications from the text for the theory and practice of preaching. His apostolic, Christocentric, redemptive-historical, missiologically-focused, grace-driven paradigm for interpreting and preaching the text of Scripture leads readers deeper into the text and more broadly across the theological landscape of contemporary preaching.
At the close of each of these significant and insightful chapters, the author manages to present a densely compressed outline of the chapter which still provides significant detail regarding the matters discussed in the chapters. The author has a gift for expounding upon biblical truths at length and with great benefit to the reader, then providing a brief conclusion which perfectly summarizes all of the complex issues already addressed.
The outlines in each conclusion are particularly helpful for students. This reviewer often creates similar outlines while reading books for reviews or studying for examinations, but soon discovered my own outlines to be superfluous given the author’s condensed, detailed concluding summaries.
Concise but thorough reading of the history of biblical interpretation. The fourth chapter of the book, “The Complication, Chastening, Rejection, and Recovery of Apostolic Preaching in the History of the Church,” is virtually worth the price of the book alone. In contemporary evangelical circles it is common to ignore or criticize the patristic and medieval readings of Scripture based upon caricatures and myths associated with the hyper-allegorization of those periods in the history of exegesis. Johnson does not present these reductionistic oversimplifications, but gives a sympathetic-yet-critical analysis of the history of biblical interpretation. In the use of a brilliant metaphor, he applies the term “complication” in a double entendre as a descriptor for the developments in exegesis in the church during its first millennium—complicated “in the sense of an increase in complexity of method and of meanings and, metaphorically, in the medical sense of an adverse development that threatened the health of the ‘patient.’” (1787)
Johnson recognizes the common convictions held by patristic, medieval, and Reformation exegetes regarding the divine inspiration of Scripture and the value of the entire canon as an interpretive horizon. He also notes appropriately that both “allegory and typology are subcategories of metaphor and points on a continuum.” (1854) He brings a fresh perspective to an analysis of the differences between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of interpretation while incorporating the Reformation perspective as a helpful chastening on the excesses which developed in medieval exegesis.
It is odd for some contemporary conservative scholars to focus so heavily upon the typological aspect of the OT while denying that the difference between allegory and typology is a matter of degree rather than kind. The author’s perspective on this subject is refreshing and a helpful corrective to certain imbalances in the larger Protestant tradition of biblical interpretation, remaining faithful to the teaching and example of the Apostles despite certain contemporary trends toward a merely literary reading of the text.
Despite providing a depth of insight on the twin subjects of hermeneutics and homiletics, this book still contained certain weaknesses. One weakness of this book was its omission of any discussion of the role of ethics as derived from Scripture for the purpose of preaching.
The omission of any discussion of ethics as derived from Scripture for the purpose of preaching. Johnson presents a well-rounded, well-reasoned case for an apostolic reading and preaching of both testaments of Scripture, emphasizing Christ, redemptive history, missions, and the grace of God. The emphases appropriately reflect the canonical perspective of Scripture, but leave one glaring omission: ethics.
Many controversies have roiled in the history of the church down through to this very day regarding the relationship between law and gospel, the role of the OT law, the doctrine and various models of progressive sanctification, as well as the ethics of the NT, such as the role of the Sermon on the Mount in relation to the Pauline epistles.
Johnson advocates a redemptive-historical reading of Scripture and distinguishes it from the errors in certain dispensational approaches, but never refutes the Theonomic Reconstructionism still present within his own Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He condemns moralistic preaching, but provides little by way of an alternative method for grounding the imperatives of Scripture. He gives a brief discussion on “Preaching Christ to Effect New Creation Transformation” which contains the twin principles that “apostolic application builds exhortations on grace” and “displays the texture of renewal in the image of God,” (4727-4895) but such a brief treatment barely scratches the surface of the ethical questions mentioned above. Such a weighty and controversial subject deserves further treatment in an otherwise nearly comprehensive work.
Apostolic preaching must not only extol the grace of the gospel, but also must clearly explicate the nature of the ethical freedom found in Christ. While the author has given an excellent treatment of the subjects addressed, leaving the question of ethics largely untouched is a significant lacuna in a text on preaching the whole counsel of God.
Him We Proclaim is a well-argued, thorough analysis, apologetic, and exposition of a fully biblical school of interpretation which provides greater insight and clarity to the nature and the task of biblical exposition. The book is historically informed, exegetically-grounded, reasonable, and any interlocutor (from whatever perspective) will have a weighty task in seeking to refute Johnson’s strong case for apostolic hermeneutics and homiletics. God willing, this book will be widely read among the preachers of God’s Word to the benefit of His people.
The Great Commission Resurgence is a collection of essays written by a “Who’s Who” of prominent Southern Baptists, compiled and edited by Chuck Lawless and Adam Greenway. Chapter contributors include the editors, as well as Johnny Hunt, Ed Stetzer, Thom Rainer, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, David Platt, Tom Ascol, Jerry Rankin, J. D. Greear, Daniel Akin, David Dockery, and a host of pastors and professors from large and influential churches and institutions across the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
The book was the result of the recent discussions surrounding a potential “Great Commission Resurgence” within the SBC, wherein Southern Baptists have voted en masse to redouble their missionary efforts, even going so far as to consider a significant denominational name change from “Southern Baptists” (a distinctively colloquial, traditional North American designation) to “Great Commission Baptists” (a title which bears more global significance and cross-cultural appeal).
The unifying theme of this book is an effort by the various authors to contribute to a missionary work which achieves as much global success as the SBC’s “Conservative Resurgence” accomplished denominationally. Many of the architects of that resurgence were contributors to this book as well, seeking to discern and apply the proper methods to attain a greater missionary zeal across the denomination.
The first section of the book discusses “Where We Are” for the SBC as a denomination. Ed Stetzer’s initial chapter outlines and surveys the denominational decline and demographic changes across the SBC, along with some helpful interpretive notes regarding the most likely reasons behind the dwindling numbers in memberships, baptisms, and effective evangelistic churches. The second chapter is Thom Rainer’s evaluation of similar demographic and survey data accompanied by his proposed rationales for the decline in evangelistic effectiveness of SBC churches, as well as his brief suggestions for reversing the downward trends within the denomination.
Nathan Finn follows the current demographic chapters with a history of the SBC, maintaining a close eye on details pertinent to the ways in which missionary zeal has waxed and waned over time, as well as the various social, political, and theological conditions which played a role in the denominational evangelistic developments under discussion. Albert Mohler follows Finn with a historical analysis of his own, but for the purpose of considering and evaluating the future of the SBC, discussing how its past and present trajectories could mean the denomination is at a significant tipping point for future faithfulness or failure.
The second section of the book is entitled “From The Word” and surveys the biblical and theological vision and motivation for global evangelization. Russell Moore casts a theological vision which demonstrates the reciprocal relationship between faithful theology and the Great Commission. David Platt gives an exegetical chapter on the motivations for enduring suffering for the sake of missions as an emulation and participation in union with Christ. Al Gilbert also outlines the broad scope of biblical theology pointing to the Great Commission.
The third section, “For The World,” is a missiological continuation of the theological discussions from section two. Bruce Ashford’s chapter contributes a missiologically-focused theology (complementing Moore’s theologically-focused missiology). Jerry Rankin provides a perspective on the global Christian movement from his view as President of the International Missions Board (IMB). Jeff Iorg gives a continental perspective on North America as a missions field, a chapter which will be challenging to the fundamentalist leanings of many traditional Southern Baptists’ in their relationship to contemporary culture. This section is rounded out by Al Jackson’s call to consider the antithesis between pursuing the “American dream” and the necessary practical steps in promoting a Great Commission Resurgence.
The fourth section, called “Via The Church,” gives ecclesiological and pastoral considerations for a Great Commission Resurgence. In many ways this section presents where the “rubber meets the road,” beginning with a chapter on the need for pastors to function, not merely as pulpiteers, but as personal evangelists—for the sake of the church as an evangelistic organization. This is followed by David Allen’s chapter on the pulpit as a place for evangelism and as a great opportunity to preach zealously for the Great Commission. Troy Bush discusses the effects of urbanization on our culture and the needs peculiar to reaching people living in that context. J. D. Greear completes this section with a chapter on church planting and community as the mediums for the multiplication necessary to a surge in evangelism and missions.
Finally, the last section provides “The Way Forward” with some methodological considerations. Daniel Akin provides his principled vision in one of his trademark lists, giving necessary axioms for fulfilling the Great Commission. Ed Stetzer and Philip Nation issue a warning order to many of the “old guard” Southern Baptists regarding the need for generational cooperation if the SBC is to succeed in matching the vision being cast for a Great Commission Resurgence. David Dockery gives insights on the nature of maintaining theological distinctives while still cooperating in missions with those with whom we disagree on non-essentials. Finally, Adam Greenway completes the work with a summary and some concluding remarks.
In evaluating The Great Commission Resurgence two strengths and two weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some brief concluding remarks which discuss the overall effectiveness of this text.
This book provides a series of chapters which are a variation on the theme of seeking to inspire greater missionary zeal across the SBC. Two strengths of this book include: the variety of authors employed in collaborating on this work and the authorial and editorial dove-tailing of various chapters.
Variety of authors employed in collaborating on this work. The perspectives represented in this text incorporate many influential leaders in the Conservative Resurgence of the late twentieth century, such as Al Mohler or Tom Ascol, as well as fresh perspectives from budding young pastor-theologians, like David Platt and J. D. Greear. Pastors, professors, researchers, and denominational leaders each present their own helpful and distinctive perspectives on the historical, denominational, global and theological realities associated with the desired outcome of a Great Commission Resurgence in the SBC.
There are some authors who would disagree with one another about various points of theology or philosophy of ministry or academic practice. Despite these disagreements in what most Baptists view as non-essentials, these authors have collaborated to produce a thorough and provocative text on what the future may hold for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Authorial and editorial dove-tailing of various chapters. Several of the chapters fit neatly together, each chapter reciprocally illuminating the other. One example would be the unanimity of purpose but difference of emphasis between Russell Moore’s theology-centered view of the Great Commission and Bruce Ashford’s missiologically-centered view of theology as the driver behind a Great Commission Resurgence. A further example was David Platt’s radically motivating chapter on suffering and sacrificing like Christ for the sake of missions which dove-tailed cleanly with Al Jackson’s evaluation of the unique difficulties associated with following a lifestyle of support for a Great Commission Resurgence or chasing the classical “American dream” of prosperity and comfort.
Despite providing many thought-provoking and exciting perspectives on the proposed Great Commission Resurgence, this book also had some noteworthy drawbacks. Two weaknesses of this book were the presence of significant overlap in content between certain chapters and the absence of any female contributors.
Significant overlap in content between certain chapters. In a compiled, edited work such as The Great Commission Resurgence, there is always the possibility that two non-collaborating authors will write two separate chapters which overlap significantly with each other, especially when writing on a distinctly specific topic such as the current evangelistic and missionary efforts within the Southern Baptist Convention. In that event, rigorous editorial work would require a re-write from one (or both) authors or the removal of the overlapping content.
Specifically, Al Mohler’s historical section of his chapter follows immediately on the heels of Nathan Finn’s chapter on the pertinent history of the Southern Baptist Convention as it pertains to the Great Commission Resurgence. While it is Mohler’s common practice to provide a valuable historical context for his cultural and denominational analyses, in this instance much of the initial section of his chapter was a mere rehearsal of material already outlined and discussed in Finn’s preceding chapter. In a four hundred page compilation on a fairly narrow topic, some greater editorial concision would be greatly appreciated by many readers.
No female contributors. Sometimes it can be a mistake to criticize a book for certain omissions which are not directly germane to the subject of the text; however, when one considers the increasing number of wives and single women serving in the IMB as well as the role of the Women’s Missionary Union in the SBC, it clearly would be valuable to hear from a female perspective on the future of the denomination as it pertains to a Great Commission Resurgence.
This book provides a valuable collection of evaluations and prescriptions for seeing the Lord work a Great Commission Resurgence in, through, or possibly even in spite of the Southern Baptist Convention. The overall effect of the book upon the reader is the production of a prayerful hope that the Lord will work his will on earth as He does in heaven until every tribe, language, people, and nation has bowed the knee before King Jesus.
Rediscovering the Church Fathers is a convenient and accessible distillation of a selection of the important primary source documents from the first five centuries of church history. The author gives biographical sketches, theological overviews, and aids for properly interpreting and applying the writings of early Patristic writers such as Ignatius, Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose.
Dr. Haykin is a noteworthy professor with decades of teaching experience and an authoritative researcher in the Patristics with a Th.D. in Church History from the University of Toronto. He has also authored or edited over twenty-five books in history and theology. Engaging with his perspective will help evangelical readers to broaden their historical and theological horizons.
Contemporary evangelicalism often acts as though it was born yesterday—although Christianity is a strongly historically-rooted religion. The literature and music of the twenty-first century North American church is rarely more than a few decades old. The life-or-death theological controversies of yesterday are ignored while ancient errors are expressed by the latest hip Christian teachers as merely a “fresh perspective” on the matter. Rediscovering the Church Fathers offers a thorough corrective to the historical myopathy of our age. As the author says, “Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions that remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.” (17)
According to the author’s assessment, “Far too many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers.” (13) In his own words, he wrote this book to address the question, “Why should evangelical Christians engage the thought and experience of these early Christian witnesses?” (17) Haykin then provides solid reasons for studying the early church fathers, including: “to aid [the church] in her liberation from the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament; to refute bad histories of the ancient church; and to be a vehicle of spiritual nurture.” (28-29)
The author substantiates his case for studying the Patristics by providing a series of vignettes on the lives and theologies of various church fathers from the first five centuries of church history. The individuals included in this book are: Ignatius of Antioch, the author of the Letter to Diognetus, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil of Caesarea, and Patrick. There is also a concluding autobiographical chapter on the author’s own lifelong journey in Patristic studies, which highlights much of the fruit of this endeavor for his spiritual vitality and perseverance in faith.
The book is a helpful and brief introduction to its subject, weighing in at a mere 176 pages of text. It serves as an excellent introductory work due to the author’s ability to weave accessible language together with elaborative content footnotes and primary source citation. Even when the author diverges from common evaluations (as with his perspective on Origen’s hermeneutics) he does so without guile and thoroughly explains his reasoning.
Although this book is primarily introductory, it does offer trenchant insights for more advanced readers of church history as well. With only six case studies presented, the author foregoes providing large portions of biographical information, giving only as much as is related to the specific chapter topic. Given his extensive study in the primary sources, he also has the ability to quote and explain them in significantly condensed detail. As mentioned above, even when defending a contemporary minority report on Origen’s hermeneutics, the strength of his position is that it is drawn from the original sources, rather than the usual oversimplified regurgitations on the harmfulness of allegorical interpretations of Scripture. The author’s incorporation of over five hundred citations into such a brief introduction is just one piece of evidence which points to the book’s excellent scholarship.
The first survey chapter discusses the thought of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius’ letters provide some of the greatest extant insights on life for Christians in the post-apostolic era—a life marked by suffering and persecution. Ignatius wrote to encourage unity despite the threats of persecution, on one hand, and the false teaching of the Docetists on the other. His letters also reveal that Ignatius believed he was called to martyrdom, and he sought aid and support in his vocation.
Ignatius’ sense of calling to martyrdom has been the source of his strongest criticisms from some scholars, though Haykin interacts sympathetically with the bishop’s letter to the Roman church. The author provides significant linguistic background regarding the development of the term “martyr,” from mere “witness” to “bearing witness to the person and work of Christ to the point of death.” (34) He also gives the general historical background regarding the persecution of the first century church under the Roman Empire and outlines the details available regarding Ignatius’ own arrest. Ignatius’ letters are thus interpreted, not as the unbalanced thoughts of a mentally ill person (as some critics have suggested), but as the intense struggles of a man faced with death or dishonor, who chose to renounce his own life in imitation of Christ.
The next chapter presents the apologetic value of the Letter to Diognetus. The anonymous author of this letter seeks to persuade a Greco-Roman pagan, Digonetus, to embrace faith in Christ. The letter serves as an example of the piety and reason found among the apostles’ successors. It begins with a prayer that God would convert Diognetus, then proceeds into a diatribe against the distinct idolatries associated with both paganism and Judaism. This section is reminiscent of 1 Cor 8 and Acts 17, where Paul argues against the polytheism of the culture.
After completing his reductio against the rival religions of the day, the author of the letter begins to extol the majesty of Christ, presenting his case for accepting Christianity and rejecting its competitors. This case is built firmly upon the revelatory nature of Christianity, with Christ himself at the center as the pinnacle of divine self-revelation. Haykin helpfully points out that the only apparent weakness in the author’s case stems from his wholesale rejection of Judaism, leaving Christianity as something of a novel revelation—rather than being rooted in the prior revelation of the Old Testament. Despite this flaw, the letter presents a strong example of worshipful apologetics, what John Frame calls “a presuppositionalism of the heart.”
The succeeding chapter gives a very interesting presentation on the exegesis of Origen. As Shawn Wilhite points out in his review, “Modern interpreters of Origen frequently dismiss his hermeneutics without analysis.” In contrast, Haykin presents a more nuanced understanding of Origen’s three levels of Scripture interpretation, a view which has exerted influence upon biblical exegesis ever since (particularly the medieval Quadriga). Origen’s hermeneutic is not as easily dispensed with as its modern caricature and his understanding of allegory was not as central to his exegesis as some have claimed. He was the pioneering Christian exegete of the Old Testament.
The subsequent chapter surveys the Eucharistic piety shared by Cyprian and Ambrose. These two Latin Fathers played key roles in the development of the church’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, it was the drinking of communion wine which produced in Cyprian a “Eucharistic insobriety” distinct from worldly drunkenness, revealing to us the “richness of [his] experience of the Lord’s Table.” (96) This experience of the Eucharist was spiritually sobering, drawing believers’ hearts back to spiritual wisdom and away from the distractions of that age.
Ambrose of Milan was one of the key defenders of Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism. He found a Eucharistic typology in the OT accounts of Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine to Abraham. He also drew several arguments from OT miracles in favor of the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For him, the importance of union with Christ by faith was fulfilled in participation in the Lord’s Supper. He was also among the first to present an interpretation of the Song of Songs as an expression of the experience of the Eucharist.
Basil of Caesarea’s monastic reforms and influence in theological controversies are also discussed in their own chapter. He was influential in refuting Arianism and providing a defense of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against semi-Arians and the Pneumatomachians.
The final survey chapter provides an analysis of the mission of Patrick of Ireland. Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire, the influence of Christianity on the British Isles persisted, largely due to the legacy of Patrick’s missionary efforts. In his youth he was taken to Ireland as a captive, where he met the Lord and strove for daily communion with him while tending sheep. After escaping from slavery he pursued a theological education and returned to Ireland to preach to those who had formerly enslaved him.
His missionary zeal was driven in some part by his belief that he was living in the “last days,” a commonly-held view during the fall of the Roman Empire. He also had a dream in which God strongly called him to evangelize Ireland. Patrick speaks of thousands converted under his ministry, despite strong opposition from Celtic pagans. He was taken into captivity twice more and mentions being near death a dozen times. The Celtic church inherited Patrick’s missionary spirit, spreading the gospel throughout Western Europe for centuries thereafter.
The book concludes with a motivating autobiographical picture of the author’s own engagement with the writings of the church fathers, followed by two appendices. The first appendix acts as a beginner’s guide to reading the Patristics, while the second is a critical reflection on the influential text The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) by Jaroslav Pelikan.
In evaluating Rediscovering the Church Fathers, two strengths and two weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some brief concluding remarks on the overall value of the book.
This book provides evangelical readers with a valuable introduction to an era of church history which is often overlooked, if not altogether rejected as unhelpful. It deserves a wide reading. Two strengths of the book include: the author’s engaging writing style and the introductory chapter provides an excellent apologetic for reading early Christian authors.
Engaging writing style. The author’s writing style is engaging and personable throughout, but the introduction was particularly disarming, helpfully addressing the concerns which often preclude evangelicals from reading the church fathers. While the concluding chapter brings the book itself to an end, it also functions rather unexpectedly as yet another introduction. In this case, it introduces the reader to a lifetime of engagement in fruitful study of the church fathers. As will be discussed later, the editing of the survey chapters might have been stronger, but the introductory and concluding chapters were rhetorically brilliant, providing literary structure to a collection of otherwise seemingly unconnected chapters.
The book is structured to provide an introductory apologetic for evangelical readers to engage the church fathers, then gives a sample of the early Patristics with some aids in interpretation in order to whet the readers’ appetites, concluding with an appetizing example of a life lived enjoying the fruits of studying the early church fathers.
Excellent apologetic for reading early church history. While the primary content of this book is found in the survey chapters, the introductory and concluding chapters were worth the price of the book alone. As discussed above, in his introductory chapter the author provides a strong apologetic for studying early church history. Several of these points have already been highlighted in this paper, such as the way in which studying church history helps to illumine otherwise unrecognized presuppositions commonly held in our contemporary context.
A more potentially controversial assertion is that the writings of the Fathers will help to illuminate the intent of the NT authors. While the exegesis of the Fathers has often been disparaged, particularly in Protestant circles, it is an incontrovertible fact that the early Greek Fathers had a far better grasp of the Greek of the NT than contemporary scholarship (if only due to their historical proximity and common language). Haykin gives two brief but specific examples of ways in which the exegesis of the Fathers might act as a corrective to twenty-first century interpreters: the first regards Cyril’s understanding of 1 Cor 7:5 as a reference to liturgical, rather than individualistic, prayer; and the second draws insight from the Epistle to Diognetus for addressing the justification controversies associated with the New Perspective on Paul. (19-20)
The exegesis of the church fathers is a veritable gold mine of grammatical, syntactical, and linguistic aids for the contemporary exegete. As with mining, discovering this exegetical gold will be a process of hard work, heavy lifting, careful sifting, and thorough polishing—but well worth the efforts for the payoff of understanding the language of the NT with greater clarity and broader applicability.
Despite providing an insightful introduction and valuable survey, the book also had some drawbacks. Admittedly, these issues are comparatively minor in the context of the overall usefulness of this text. The many strengths of the book far outmatch its few weaknesses; however, two problems in this book include: discussion of certain subjects at a non-introductory level and the editorial flow of the chapters resemble six unrelated journal articles presented in succession rather than a single, continuous text on the subject.
Discussion of certain subjects at a non-introductory level. Allen Ray Mickle has argued in his book review that “the language and details offered put this book out of reach of most average Christians.” Mickle overstates his case, since the concept of the “average Christian” is fuzzy at best and what language is and is not “out of reach” for them is an even more subjective matter; however, there were still a few points in the text where more than an introductory familiarity with church history would be required in order to understand the author’s contentions.
An example of this problem occurred in the discussion of Origen’s theology, where the “uncreated/unbegotten” versus “created/begotten” debate in the Christological controversies of that time was mentioned without any explanation. (73) This is problematic, in part because the distinction is likely to be unfamiliar to most readers who are not already well-versed in the theological controversies of the early church period, but also because the term “begotten” is no longer commonplace in contemporary English discourse. The problem of discerning the definition of an unfamiliar term (such as “begotten”) is easily resolved by reference to a dictionary; however, many readers would likely be grateful for a brief content note on the nature and significance of the theological controversy mentioned.
Somewhat disjointed editorial flow. It is quite clear that the main survey chapters in this book are generally unrelated articles which have been edited together for a single volume. This was not deeply problematic for an introductory historical text such as this one, because it is based on selected writings rather than chronology or a unifying theme. The introduction and conclusion help to hold the book together and provide useful intratextual cataphoric and anaphoric references, respectively. Those chapters do provide some editorial cohesion (where there would have been little without them), but there was no engagement of the subject matter between chapters, even via footnote.
For example, the low views of Judaism found in the Epistle to Diognetus contrasts sharply with Origen’s devout exegesis of the OT, presenting an opportunity for greater critical engagement between the chapters at some level. This is a minor point of criticism in contrast with the overall usefulness of the book, and may simply be an example of certain strengths entailing certain other weaknesses.
This book was roundly successful as an engaging introduction to the Patristics. It provides vignettes which focus on some historically influential but contemporarily overlooked church fathers. More well-documented churchmen, such as Augustine and Athanasius, were omitted while the apologetic value of the Epistle to Diognetus and the hermeneutical influence of Origen was extolled.
The book fills a valuable niche in the broader category of church history, serving to “whet the appetite” for deeper reading in the Patristics. In a time when much of evangelicalism appears to have lost its historical roots, this book provides fresh discussions of some of the earliest leaders in the church, some of their theological insights, and devotional fervor drawn from their examples. May Rediscovering the Church Fathers be the gateway to many readers’ lifelong engagement with the faith of our fathers.
Frame, John. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1994.
Claiborne, Nathaniel. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Nate Claiborne, April 14, 2011, sec. 1. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://nathanielclaiborne.com/rediscovering-the-church-fathers/.
Mickle, Allen Ray, Jr. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Working Out Salvation with Fear and Trembling, June 8, 2011, sec. 1. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://allenmickle.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/book-review-rediscovering-the-church-fathers.
Wilhite, Shawn. Review of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, by Michael A. G. Haykin. Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 17, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 93.
J. I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God presents a model for the proper understanding of the relationship between the truth of divine sovereignty and the task of personal evangelism. This paper will argue that Packer’s model is broadly correct, but that his presentation regarding the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom is mistaken and unnecessarily confusing in one significant respect. A more clear and consistent argument is available for the conclusion he draws.
First, a summary of Packer’s position is presented with a subsequent critical evaluation of its strengths and weakness. Next, a stronger premise for Packer’s position is given as an alternative argument and its application explained, followed by some concluding remarks.
Packer immediately clarifies that his book is not about evangelism per se, but is “a piece of biblical and theological reasoning, designed to clarify the relationship between three realities: God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, and the Christian’s evangelistic duty.” (7) He then narrows the discussion to “God’s sovereignty in grace” as it relates to evangelism. (10) He aims to respond to a common criticism: belief in the sovereignty of God is in some way incompatible with motivation to evangelism.
Packer maintains that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are biblically complementary, but apparently contradictory. He resolves this contradiction through appeal to what he calls “antinomy,” which will be discussed in the critical evaluation below. He maintains that divine sovereignty, human responsibility, and evangelistic duty are all truths of Scripture which must be held in logical tension without sacrificing one for the sake of any others, because this tension is derived directly from Scripture.
In the critical evaluation of Packer’s position, this paper highlights two strengths and one weakness, respectively. These particular points of criticism have been selected for their relevance in building a stronger argument for Packer’s model, which will be presented thereafter.
Packer’s position exemplifies far more strengths than weaknesses. Two major strengths of his presentation include: his initial chapter is theologically and rhetorically disarming to many opponents of his view, and he draws a full-orbed biblical conclusion on the subject, making his application to evangelistic practice biblically faithful as well.
Disarming opening chapter. While there are some weaker points in Packer’s later discussion of his view, his opening gambit is rhetorically brilliant. He predisposes his audience to accept his later reasoning by presenting significant ways in which many already agree with his theology in their practice—people who pray for God to save others and those who believe God saved them implicitly believe in the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation.
Instead of presenting an opening polemic against his opponents or building a theological foundation for his own conclusions, he winsomely demonstrates that several major points of agreement across the Christian theological spectrum lead to his conclusion. So, rather than needing to build an entire biblical and theological case for his position, he merely needs to argue that consistent Christian belief leads to his position. His argument is a simple, but powerful appeal for Christians to be more consistent in faith and practice, holding the truths of divine sovereignty, human responsibility, and evangelistic duty together without compromise.
Biblically faithful practical application. Packer’s model of divine sovereignty and human responsibility seeks to be faithful to the biblical data, while maintaining the logical tension inherent in Scripture’s revelation of divine mysteries. He strongly cautions against jettisoning one divine truth for the sake of another simply because of the difficulties associated with finite minds seeking to comprehend infinite truths.
He rules out exclusive concern for either divine sovereignty or human responsibility, and points to one doctrine, rightly understood, as the corrective for misunderstanding the other doctrine. For, if God is not sovereign, to whom would man be responsible? “No revealed truth may be invoked to extenuate sin.” (34) Instead, God is sovereign, therefore man is responsible.
Despite the thorough faithfulness discussed above, Packer’s position also suffers from certain weaknesses. One of the weaknesses in his presentation is his obfuscatory, idiolectic use of the term “antinomy.”
Obfuscatory terminology. Packer models the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility as in “antinomy” to each other, though he modifies the term’s definition, using it to mean “an appearance of contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary.” (Emphasis added.) This definition is followed with an example of an antinomy taken from the physics of two models of light (from whence Packer likely appropriated the term in its standard usage). He then contrasts antinomy with “paradox,” which he defines as “a figure of speech, a play on words… that seems to unite two opposite ideas, or to deny something by the very terms in which it is asserted.” (19)
Granting a distinction between the terms, Packer’s definitions are simply incorrect and the ensuing discussion is needlessly confusing and obfuscatory. He presents an adjusted, idiolectic definition of “antinomy,” which strongly resembles the correct definition of paradox (“a merely apparent contradiction”), then presents a purely literary definition of “paradox” to contrast with his non-standard definition of “antinomy.” There is a long tradition in Christian theology of using the term paradox to refer to merely apparent contradictions between biblical doctrines (e.g. Trinity, hypostatic union). Packer’s confused and confusing presentation on this matter is inexplicable, given its elementary nature and his demonstrated intellectual acumen.
Further, deriving an antinomy in logic, mathematics or science can be a clue to problems with a particular model—meaning the model should be re-evaluated all the way to its fundamental axioms and possibly abandoned if the antinomy holds. The wave-particle antinomy Packer uses as an illustration was one of the contributing factors in adopting quantum (rather than Newtonian) mechanics as a contemporary model for physics. Mounting antinomies, like wave-particle duality, produced a Kuhnian paradigm shift in physics.
Packer asserts, against all reason, “What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it.” (21) While this is a common way that paradoxes in theology have been addressed by Christians, this is not how mathematicians, logicians or scientists approach antinomies. In the end, Packer’s attempt to re-appropriate the term “antinomy” serves to discredit his case and confuse readers, rather than giving it the credibility which he appears to believe he was borrowing from common scientific terminology. If wave-particle antinomy is analogous to Packer’s sovereignty-responsibility model, so much the worse for Packer’s argument for his paradigm and his practical advice to “learnt to live with it.” Fortunately, his theology is better than his lexical semantics and scientific analogies in this case.
Rather than resting on analogies and terminology borrowed from physics, Packer might have done better to derive his discussion of the paradoxical doctrine of divine sovereignty and human responsibility from the paradoxical doctrine of the Trinity—that God is one personal essence in three distinct persons. Essentially, if the doctrine of God is inherently paradoxical, then there will be elements of paradox present in every locus of theology, including our models of divine sovereignty, human responsibility, and evangelism.
This adjustment to Packer’s model has the benefit of being grounded in the Trinity, another doctrine to which all Christians subscribe alongside those mentioned in his persuasive first chapter. After rhetorically disarming his opponents by an appeal to their shared faith in God he should have continued to drive forward along these lines in his discussion of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, rather than relying on analogies and terms from science.
What practical effect does this change have on evangelism? It maintains a consistent, God-centered starting point for a model of evangelism which traces the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility back to the relationship between finite creation and infinite, Triune Creator. This model comports readily, then, with the content and approaches to evangelism found in John Piper’s God is the Gospel or Will Metzger’s Tell the Truth.
Packer’s conclusion is biblically faithful, his opening chapter is rhetorically brilliant, his theological model is correct, and his practical application is helpful, but some of his argumentation is weakened by the confusing misuse of certain terminology. A stronger argument for the same conclusion was presented based on standard definitions and confessionally orthodox Trinitarian theology, rather than non-standard definitions and an analogy from physics.
What is the gospel? Greg Gilbert provides an answer across eight brief chapters in his book entitled after that question. Writing for 9Marks Ministries, Gilbert is senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church. In this work he attempts to define the gospel as briefly, but still thoroughly, as possible.
The author begins with Scripture, foregoing a mere lexical word search on “gospel,” moving directly to the Pauline presentation of the gospel in Romans 1-4. This produces a gospel which can be reduced to (at bare minimum) four categories: God, man, Christ, response. While not all of these four categories need to be explicit in a gospel presentation (for the apostles’ teaching was never so formulaic or reductionistic), none can be completely absent either, without being less than the gospel of God.
These categories are briefly surveyed in the initial chapter then each receives further development and elaboration in its own ensuing chapter. God’s sovereign role as the righteous Creator is the fundamental building block for all of reality and for relationship to him. Man is created morally good, but rebels against God’s authority and sinfully severs the relationship between Creator and creature. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Jesus Christ the Savior is God incarnate and comes to endure penal substitutionary atonement in behalf of fallen, sinful humankind – suffering the penalty for our sin and exchanging it for the reward which his perfect obedience merited. This is grace, and humanity will respond to that grace in faith and repentance or in persistent sinful rebellion.
Three further chapters help to elaborate upon some of the implications of the gospel. Gilbert discusses the relationship between the gospel of the cross and the kingdom of Christ, showing that one’s response to the gospel is evidenced in one’s membership in the kingdom, particularly its current outpost in this world: the church. He then helpfully disambiguates several ideas which are often confused with the gospel and explains how the power of the gospel works in believers’ lives to produce obedience rather than license.
In evaluating What is the Gospel? three strengths and three weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, as well as questions which may remain for readers upon completion of the book.
This book presents much strength and will be useful in multiple teaching and witnessing contexts. Three strengths of this book include: condensed brevity, clear and helpful illustrations, and practical usefulness.
Condensed brevity. What is the Gospel? presents a brief, book-length argument for the centrality of the cross of Christ, with its many implications, as the beating heart of the gospel. The author does not merely cite a variety of biblical texts as proof for his theological conclusions, but persuasively, penetratingly argues for the incomparability of the cross of Christ. Eventually, language simply fails to supply adequate adjectives to fully describe the importance of the cross.
The initial four chapters effectively draw the reader in to the fundamental structures of the gospel. It would be difficult to remove any one of the four planks supporting Gilbert’s gospel presentation without losing an essential piece of the biblical portrayal of God in relationship with sinful man, saving us from his own wrath, and our necessary response to this good news.
The author clearly has strengths in distilling complex truths into simple (though not simplistic) language, developing helpful literary structures, from the sentence to the discourse level. He writes winsome, thought-provoking, evocative sentences which fit well within the entire discourse. It was a pleasure to follow such a focused, consistent argument on a single, vital subject.
Clear and helpful illustrations. The author has clearly studied and thought deeply on the subject of the gospel of Christ. Quotations and illustrations throughout the book were generally illuminating and strengthened the overall logic of the author’s arguments and their rhetorical force.
The illustrations also provided the sorts of strength which good stories and analogies always give: connection to the audience, practically and experientially relating sometimes abstract ideas to concrete realities, and providing food for further thought (not to mention being fun to read). Particularly enjoyable were the illustrations that many people view God as an “unscrupulous janitor” who merely sweeps sins under the carpet (42) and the idea that most people hold that human nature is basically pure, like perfect quartz covered in mud, rather than shot through with filth (54). The story of his son jumping into his arms at the pool (72) was also an apt analogy for his points on Christian living by faith.
Practical usefulness. The book is eminently readable and does not require a strong theological background to understand the points being discussed. Any issues raised are helpfully explained before being discussed, so the book does not require one to be a scholar in order to understand it. The book may often lead readers to worship the Lord after being reminded of the importance and the greatness of the gospel in fresh and vivid ways. It will also be a valuable resource for quotation in evangelistic sermon preparation and delivery. It is a book which will be useful to new believers, new church members, as well as the unconverted (I’ve given away a copy or two to unbelieving co-workers who expressed interest).
The most helpful section of the book may have been the discussion of “confusing sin with sins” (53-54). Oftentimes this can be an obstacle to someone’s understanding of the full-orbed teaching of the gospel regarding sin. The gospel doesn’t tell us “nobody’s perfect,” meaning that we all make mistakes but God loves us anyway. The gospel says we commit sins because we are sinners all the way down to our very nature and this state and behavior deserve the wrath of God.
It is difficult to discern any truly problematic weaknesses in the actual content of this book. Gilbert’s presentation is spot-on in many ways. Given the helpfulness of its directness and overall brevity, I hesitate to critique the book simply for not including portions on certain subjects germane, though not central, to the definition of the gospel. However, I see no better alternative. Three weaknesses of this book include: very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel, no mention of baptism as part of human response, and very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. To reiterate, these are relatively minor criticisms in light of the overall helpfulness of this work.
Very little discussion distinguishing religion from the gospel. This point is understandably left at the level of implication, noting the scope of the book and publishing space limitations, etc. However, given our current context in the West it may have already become necessary to explain the difference between the gospel and religious moralism. Tim Keller has often raised this point in his teaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Too often the true gospel is mistakenly reduced to some merely religious effort at making people more moral in some way, shape or form (better parents, better students, better citizens, better sex lives, etc.). The gospel needs to be helpfully and clearly distinguished from these sorts of misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Gilbert does not explicitly do so, which may prove problematic for some readers.
No mention of baptism as part of human response. Again, this may not be a necessary point in a book which is intended to purely answer the question “what is the gospel?” However, baptism is one of the first faithfully obedient acts which a believer takes and is one of the most significant events in a gospel-believer’s life. It also deeply signifies and symbolizes the gospel as portrayed in the Scripture and as experienced by the believer. It is requisite for church membership, and one might have expected at least a sentence or two on the subject, possibly in the chapter on human response or on the kingdom of Christ.
However, given some of the on-going disagreements even among confessional Protestants regarding the subject (credobaptism vs. paedobaptism vs. Lutheran baptismal regeneration, etc.) and the historical controversies surrounding the subject (Catholic baptismal regeneration, Anabaptists, persecution of dissenters on the subject, etc.) it may have been too deep a topic to delve into without quickly getting in over one’s head (pun intended) and straying too far away from the subject under discussion, the gospel.
Very little explanation or argumentation in support of beginning at Romans 1-4 in defining the gospel. It may be easy for certain readers to understand Gilbert’s impulse to move immediately to the first section of a Pauline epistle when attempting to concisely, biblically define the gospel. However, he may be preaching to the choir with reference to such readers. There are four Gospels in the New Testament. Why not begin with one of them? The reader who might ask such a question only receives Gilbert’s provisional suggestion that the best approach to defining the gospel would be accomplished “by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. “ (27)
But why choose Romans 1-4 rather than James 2:14-16 or John 20:21 or a whole host of other places where the earliest Christians said things about Jesus? Clearly, Gilbert believes this passage most directly serves the purpose of defining the gospel, but there are some prior theological and methodological issues which drive him to that conclusion. Not all of those issues can be discussed, again, in such a brief volume, but it might have been helpful for some readers to understand more of Gilbert’s reasoning for beginning where he does in this regard.
After reading this book, many will be spurred on to further questions about the depth and riches of the gospel, as well as other implications surrounding the gospel and the Christian life. Particularly, readers may be left with questions about the relationship between the law of God and the gospel, which isn’t explicitly discussed. Readers will be grateful for Gilbert’s discussion of the absolute necessity of “pointing to Christ” on judgment day (82-83) as an ineluctable part of the gospel, but may be left with lingering questions about the commands of God and how to live as a Christian. Many other books have been written on those subjects and hopefully Gilbert’s book leads many readers on to pursue greater knowledge of God and His word.
(Dan Courtney is the President of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York. He lives near Rochester, NY with his wife, and has been active in the atheist community for several years. Dan blogs at http://underminingchristianity.blogspot.com/)
Dan’s Closing Statement
First, I want to thank Ben for participating in this debate. He has intelligently and articulately presented his position, and done an admirable job of expressing difficult concepts. Despite our fundamentally different perspectives, I hope that he has found this exchange beneficial.
Burden of proof
The weak versus strong atheism distinction is used by Ben throughout the debate. However, in the conclusion Ben takes a turn deep into ad hominem territory, by concluding that those who characterize atheism, in the broader sense, as a lack of belief in a deity have somehow done a disservice to atheism because “…this definition has the unfortunate consequence of downgrading atheists, in this regard, to the same noetic level as shellfish or a Chevy Lumina: they all lack a belief in God.” This bit of sarcasm is apparently an attempt to embarrass me into accepting an unwarranted burden of proof.
Ben is at least in good company in this burden shifting, as apologists such as Dr. William Lane Craig also spend considerable effort trying to place the burden of proof on the atheist. While the theist does not usually deny their burden in establishing the existence of God, they have good rhetorical reasons to place the burden of establishing non-existence on the atheist’s shoulders. In short, once the atheist accepts the burden, the theist can engage in a series of retreats for which the atheist is obliged to pursue ad infinitum. Take, for example, the analogy I gave to a commenter on this blog earlier in this exchange:
A man comes up to us and tells us that he met a man that is over 200 years old, is over 10 feet tall, and can stop the wind with his thoughts. Do you believe him? Since this is well outside of our experience, I would want some evidence before I even entertain the idea. When I ask to see the 200 year old man I’m told that I can’t be taken to him, and in fact I can’t be told where he is.
Is my disbelief/unbelief/lack of belief (whatever you want to call it) reasonable? Do I need to demonstrate that such a man does not exist to reasonably reject the claim? How would I prove this man does not exist? No matter where I look, there will always be some place unexplored.
Also consider the scenario playing out in court rooms all over:
In a court of law the jury is charged with determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant, right? Wrong. The jury’s one and only task is to determine whether the prosecutor has presented sufficient evidence to establish guilt. The verdict is either guilty or not-guilty. The defense attorney does not need to establish Innocence, but only that the evidence to convict is insufficient. So the defense merely needs to show that the prosecutor’s conclusion of guilt does not reasonably follow from his argument. If the defense does this, then in every sense, they have won the case.
Anderson by proxy
I was glad to see that Ben sought clarification from Dr. Anderson about my claim that Dr. Anderson’s own line of reasoning led him to the conclusion that “sin is intrinsically irrational”. But far from refuting my claim, this clarification simply reinforces the gaping hole in the Calvinist conception of the first sin. We could sum up the Calvinist dilemma as follows:
Premise 1: A sinning agent is one that freely chooses sin.
Premise 2: Adam did not freely choose sin.
Conclusion: Adam is not a sinning agent.
The first premise seems obvious enough, and follows from the concept of an agent as one that initiates an action of their own accord. The second premise is directly from Dr. Anderson’s paper Calvisinism and the First Sin, in which Dr. Anderson excludes Adam from freely choosing sin, “Surely to say that God foreordained the fall goes no way toward explaining why unfallen Adam would freely choose to sin.” “At this point I must confess that further answers escape me.” The conclusion logically follows from these premises. If Dr. Anderson is to assert that the Calvinist doctrine of original sin is rational, then he is must show how either the above premises or the conclusion is flawed.
To be fair Dr. Anderson states that Adam did sin, but he is unable to establish that Adam chose to sin, much less that Adam should be morally culpable for that sin. Indeed, the only one to have had a choice in the matter was God, whom Dr. Anderson implicates when he writes, “Calvinists can affirm that there is a sufficient ultimate explanation for Adam’s sin: God decreed it.” But according to Calvinist doctrine God is incapable of sin, and thus He is excluded from moral culpability.
So Dr. Anderson’s conclusion, “sin is intrinsically irrational”, applies both to Adam (as Dr. Anderson asserts), and to the Calvinist concept of sin itself. For Adam, sinning would be irrational because, as Dr. Anderson argues, Adam would not “freely choose to sin.” And the concept is irrational because there is no logical bridge between a morally perfect God and Adams sin. Nor is there a logical connection between Adam sinning and his moral culpability, or to Mankind’s subsequent culpability.
Ben contends that by pointing out contradictions in his definition of God, I am merely battling straw men. I am, according to Ben, “working without any familiarity with these terms in their theological senses.” This reminds me of an answer I received from a Catholic apologist when I asked him for evidence that the communion wafer transubstantiates into the body of Christ. He said that I wouldn’t find any physical evidence, but that there was theological evidence. How this is better than imaginary evidence isn’t clear.
Like theological evidence, “theological senses” or meanings apparently have a magical quality that make then indiscernible to non-theists. When I challenged Ben on “divine incomprehensibility”, it appeared that he was providing a translation of this theological term into non-theological language when he expressed it as “unknowable”. But perhaps this is not a translation, because Ben also disagrees with my understanding of “unknowable” as something that cannot be known. Maybe we could have both saved a lot of time if we had agreed to conduct the debate in English instead of some unfathomable theological variation thereof.
In repeating his definition of a person, “a rational, self-conscious entity”, Ben is being more than a little disingenuous. Ben is arguing for more than “a rational, self-conscious entity”; he’s arguing for a host of attributes wrapped up in an immaterial transcendent mind. It is these other attributes, which Ben insists belong to a “person”, that are not shared by our common understanding of the term. This minimalist definition of a person is akin to defining anything that is alive as a dog, and then insisting that the growth clinging to the underside of a rock is a dog. But just like “dog” conveys more information than just being alive, “person” conveys more information than simply “a rational, self-conscious entity”.
It’s perfectly understandable, however, that Christians would want to claim that God is “personal”. Humans are social animals, and we have evolved sophisticated means for interacting with other humans. In fact, human interactions have dominated our lives to the degree that we relate to non-humans in very human-like terms. Referring to God as “Him” or “Lord” or as a “person” may be a natural inclination, but it is simply a metaphor for reality itself. Calling God a “person” may have symbolic significance, but it is no more justified in real terms than calling Mother Nature or Father Time “persons”.
As with any debate, changing the other person’s mind, or even getting them to acknowledge a contradiction in their position is not the goal. The goal is to present issues to readers on both sides (or no side) that challenges their current view and assists in furthering their understanding of the world. Whatever you, as the reader, take away from this debate, I hope that you have benefitted from contemplating these issues.
In reviewing our exchanges, it seems clear that I have established that the theist has the clear burden of proof when claiming that a god exists. Not only has this burden not been met, but the definition of God that was presented is laden with contradictions and meaningless assertions such that we have not even established what God is supposed to be, much less whether such a thing exists.