January 29, 2012

30-Second Book Reviews

As I plow through these books on the hit list, several of them have left me without too much to say about them, or in some cases so much to say that I just can’t bring myself to take the time to write about them. These aren’t necessarily bad, but I’m going to give my 30-second take on them rather than a full review.

  Jesus Christ: The Prince of preachers – Learning from the teaching ministry of Jesus by Mike Abendroth

This is an attempt to extrapolate principles from the teaching ministry of Jesus that can guide us in how we preach and listen to sermons. Each chapter contains a section explaining what Jesus did, a section applying it to preachers and teachers, and a section applying it to the listeners of sermon. Overall, the principles laid out were good and sound as far as they go, but the book read a little more like an outline than anything else. There were a lot of bullet points, with a short amount of  discussion on each one. The sections on application to the listener were the most uniquely helpful, in my opinion. While there are many excellent books on preaching biblically, there is much less discussion of the responsibilities that the Bible lays on the hearers of the Word and this helps fill that gap.

  What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe

The idea for this book takes a page out of It’s A Wonderful Life, asking what would the world be like if Christ had never been born. A book that actually pursued that line of reasoning would be quite intriguing itself. Based on the content of this book, I’d suggest a better title would be Is Christianity Good for the World?, since that is essentially what’s being argued. I think the book successfully identifies influences in several areas of life that we (generally) take for granted as good but often fail to realize that they were a product of a distinctly Christian view of the world. For that reason alone, it may be beneficial for Christians to read and reflect on. However, due to the limited space afforded, each of the discussions lacks a certain amount of depth and an interaction with dissenting views or alternate theories. The other thing that’s not always clear is the distinction between something that is a direct product of Christian belief, something that was accomplished by Christians, and something that arose out of a Judeo-Christian society but may not be directly attributable to Christianity. Perhaps a good survey, but you’ll need to look elsewhere for a more rigorous analysis and defense.

  Refuting Compromise: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of "Progressive Creationism" (Billions of Years) As Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross by Jonathan Sarfati

The goal of this book is to refute the old-earth creationist views put forward by Hugh Ross, et al., and to defend in their place young-earth creationism. The two avenues of attack are biblical interpretation and scientific data. I don’t have enough knowledge of the science to analyze the arguments he makes, though there have been several Christians who have challenged the validity of the scientific analysis in this book. Probably the strongest part of the book is the defense of the idea that the six days of Genesis 1 are intended to mean six days. However, Sarfati does not seem to acknowledge the presence of other old earth views which do accept a plain language interpretation of Genesis 1 but do not have a problem with a very old earth. An example of this would be the phenomenological view as explained by Edgar Andrews in the last chapter of Who Made God?, or the Historical Creationism of Sailhamer, or others with similar approaches. All things considered, saying that anything other than young-earth creationism is a capitulation to godless science and a compromise of faithful exegesis is ungracious at best. It ignores the large number of biblical scholars who are committed to inerrancy and letting the Bible declare its own position, yet who do not agree with the position advocated by Sarfati.

Reading this book and some of the scientific criticisms it received reminded me of this quote (and warning) by Augustine:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although 'they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.'”

January 14, 2012

Frank Senn: Protestant Spiritual Traditions

  Protestant Spiritual Traditions by Frank Senn (1986) – 3.5 out of 5 stars.

In this book, Frank Senn attempts to provide a survey of spirituality in the major traditions which make up Protestantism today. He defines “spirituality” as “communion with God and the way of life which emanates from that.” The approach he takes is to solicit an essay from a representative within each tradition (with Senn providing the Lutheran perspective). This allows each tradition the ability to express its own distinct voice on the subject of spirituality.The goal is not to outline the doctrinal distinctives of each tradition, or to provide a complete history of the origination and development of each tradition, but to provide a look specifically into the approach of each with regards to prayer, faith, public worship, and private devotion. The focus for each is on the founders or key influences in each tradition to provide a view of their spirituality in its original form. The motivation for this is to provide a perspective which may call some back to their origins. Senn writes:

“The essays are offered in the conviction that Protestants and non-Protestants alike will appreciate a survey of the spiritualities which have nurtured the faith and life of so many adherents who have contributed in a formative way to Western, and especially North American, culture. At the same time it may be that many Protestants who are searching for a deeper spiritual life will find what they are looking for at home as well as abroad. It may be that what passes for the copy in current circulation betrays the original. For this reason the essays emphasize the experiences and reflections of the “founders” of these spiritual traditions – e.g Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simons, Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican divines and mystics, Richard Baxter, Philip Jacob Spener, John Wesley, and others. Communities in search of renewal need to begin by returning to their origins” (5-6).

The traditions represented are Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican, Puritan, Pietist, and Methodist. Most of the essays are about 40-50 pages long, except for the Reformed and Puritan essays which were much shorter at 25 and 18 pages, respectively. Not all of the essays were of equal quality nor equally clear.

In my opinion, the strongest was Senn’s, which provided a well-balanced view of Lutheran spirituality, touching on the mystical and ascetic aspects of Luther’s spirituality, Lutheran liturgy, the sacraments, catechism and hymnody, prayer, devotional literature, and the tradition’s emphasis on discipleship and cross-bearing.

The remainder of the essays were helpful to varying degrees and together provide an interesting view of the way these various traditions have arisen from and influenced one another. From these essays and also general observation, the Puritan and Pietist streams seem to have had the most far reaching influence, affecting aspects of life (whether cultural or religious) in each of the other traditions. Perhaps the most insightful observation of all the essays was the idea that Puritanism could accurately be described as an application of medieval monasticism to all of life. Glenn Hinson writes:

“Puritanism was spirituality. Puritans were to Protestantism what contemplative and ascetics were to the medieval church. They parted company with their medieval forbears chiefly in the locus of their efforts. Where monks sought sainthood in monasteries, Puritans sought it everywhere – in homes, schools, town halls, shops as well as churches. Sometimes knowingly, at other times unknowingly, they employed virtually the same methods monks used to obtain the same goal – “the saints’ rest,” heaven, or “full and glorious enjoyment of God.” Like the monks, they were zealous of heart religion manifested in transformation of life and manners. Impatient for unreserved, enthusiastic embracing of the covenant. Everything they did, they did with solemnity and determination” (165).

This book would be a helpful supplement to a study in historical theology or church history, and gives much needed insight into the similarities and differences in the way your neighbor at the Protestant church down the street worships Christ.

January 8, 2012

Len Deighton: Blood, Tears and Folly

   Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II by Len Deighton (1993) – 3.5 out of 5 stars

This book was a readable and interesting look at several facets of World War II. Focusing on the period from the start of the war up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Deighton attempts to present a objective look at what happened and analyze the factors contributing to the outcome. The material is arranged topically, beginning with the naval battle in the Atlantic, moving to the German conquering of Europe, the war in Italy and North Africa, the battle of air forces, the German assault on Russia, following by the Japanese war in the Pacific.

There is a lot of material covered in this book. It was tedious at times, particularly if you’re not a war history buff, but it was quite informative. He does not provide a dry recounting of events but traces back to the root of the conflicts and provides an analysis of why things happened the way the did, and what might have been different.

This account of WWII left me with these impressions:

Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to be manipulated by those who have. Reading Deighton’s account of World War II, it was apparent that there were many lessons from the the first World War that went unlearned by the British but were heeded by the Germans and this gave them a distinct advantage as a result.

The failures and setbacks (both of the Allies and the Axis) were most often attributable to failures in leadership, the lack of which was a key factor in there even being a war on the scale that there was. In recounting the route of the British and French forces in 1940, he writes:

“The Allied defeats in 1940 were not due to a failure of quality or of quantity. Their air forces were very big and had many well designed aircraft. The French air force had well over two thousand modern fighters, more than twice the number deployed by the Luftwaffe. The French army had excellent tanks and more of them than the Germans and British put together!

“Some said it was a victory won by the close coordination of air and ground forces, a triumph for radio communication and ruthless aggression. But the collapse of Britain and France was mostly the outcome of the West’s profound failure in political, industrial and military leadership. The men with the authority to write specifications had not done it well enough: and the designers were not skilled enough. Education at all levels of British society was not good enough. Those who had become used to easy profits from outmoded factories failed to meet the nation’s needs. There had been no political will to stop Hitler at a time when he would not have dared to go to war. The military leadership, from top to bottom, had been totally outclassed on the battlefield.” (211-212)

Though generally a well-established fact, the book gives a striking account how na├»ve the political leadership was leading up to the war, and documents the many mishaps throughout. Folly seems to be the focus throughout, as Deighton seeks to dispel myths and correct popular conclusions regarding why things happened the way they did. Deighton’s look should be considered objective in the sense the sense that he does not shy away from being critical of the decisions of leadership or strategy, or pointing out apparent incompetence. However, he still writes as an Englishman being critical of his own nation’s performance while accepting that the Allies were nonetheless well-intentioned.

In many of the accounts, particularly with regards to the war on the seas, the reader is left with the impression that it was the Germans who lost the war more than the Allies who won the war. The unpreparedness of the West was apparent throughout, and you can’t help but conclude that this was a war that either should not have happened or could have been a much smaller conflict. There was a real sense in which the fear of war and turning a blind eye let to a much larger and much bloodier conflict than any could have imagined.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an account of WWII, but it reminded me of the horror which was that war and the one preceding it. The number of lives lost in 7 years – 20+ million military deaths and 50+ million civilian deaths – is simply inconceivable. The brutality on the battlefield was great, but the brutality extended well beyond the battlefield. This was in a world that thought it was done with war following the Great War of 1914-1918. That should serve as a sober warning to those who would think that such atrocities and violence are not possible in our time, a mere 60 years later.

January 1, 2012

Walter Kaiser: The Messiah in the Old Testament

  The Messiah in the Old Testament by Walter Kaiser, Jr. (1995) – 4 out of 5 stars

The question of the relationship between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, and how the authors of the New Testament understood and used the Scriptures, has received a lot of attention over the years. There has been a heightened interest in the past few years with a large volumes of work being done in area Biblical Theology. This is an important question for Christians since we hold that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel concerning a coming Messiah and the salvation of the world. When Jesus and the apostles claim that everything which had come to pass among them was in fulfillment of that which was promised in the Scriptures, and they cite those Scriptures as authoritative witnesses, then it’s imperative that we also seek to understand for ourselves in order to continue faithfully presenting the good news of Christ to the world as they did.

Walter Kaiser’s objective in this book is much narrower than comprehensively addressing the issue of how the Old and New Testaments relate. He seeks to address specifically the concept of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Contrary to the claims of some recent scholars who have argued that the OT does not actually make any explicit Messianic claims and that any such ideas must be read into the text, Kaiser is defending the traditional Christian understanding that the OT does contain Messianic promises and that the NT authors were not reading into the text. He sets out to demonstrate that the OT, when taken on its own terms and in its own historical context, looks forward to the coming Messiah.

He begins by surveying the methods that have been used to interpret passages which the NT treats as Messianic. He identifies seven approaches which he says have been found lacking:

  1. Dual meaning – The texts had a literal, historical meaning, but also a later fuller meaning which could be Messianic.
  2. Single meaning – There was only one (non-messianic) meaning and the Messianic meaning was dogmatically imposed on the text.
  3. New Testament meaning – Wherever there was a challenging text, the NT was allowed to serve as the final arbiter of meaning.
  4. Developmental meaning – Allowing for only a single meaning within the times and circumstances of the original prophets but to say more when filled out by Christian doctrine.
  5. Goal meaning – Christ was the goal of prophecy in the sense of uniting all the disparate strands and filling them with meaning
  6. Relecture meaning – The NT read earlier prophecies in a new way and filled them with new meaning.
  7. Theological meaning – Christ was the fulfillment of Israel’s history, but only in a theological sense.

Kaiser argues that all of these have a fundamental flaw in that they only focus on either the initial historical word or the ultimate fulfillment, and ignore the working out of the promise in the history of Israel. He proposes approaching these texts as promises revealing a single, unfolding plan and not just as a collection of individual predictions. He states:

“The promises of God were interrelated and usually connected in a series. They were not disconnected and heterogeneous prognostications randomly announced in the OT or arbitrarily chosen for use by the NT. Instead, it is amazing how the depictions concerning the coming Messiah and his work comprised one continuous plan of God. Each aspect was linked into an ongoing stream of announcements beginning in the prepatriarchal period, supplemented by the patriarchal, Mosaic, premonarchial, monarchial, and prophetic periods, down to the postexilic times of Israel’s last leaders and prophets. The promise was a single one; yet it was cumulative in its net results. Indeed, its constituent parts were not a collection of assorted promises about a Messiah who was to come; instead, they formed one continuous pattern and purpose placed in the stream of history.” (29)

He limits the scope of the book’s treatment to those prophecies which he considers direct predictions of a future personal Messiah, foregoing discussion of indirect prophecies concerning a Messianic age. He also avoids delving into the issues of Messianic typology and foreshadowing in the people and institutions of Israel. I think I would take issue with some aspects of Kaiser’s hermeneutic approach, and I have some quibbles about specific interpretations on some of the texts covered in the book, but this is a great contribution to the discussion and a helpful treatment of a large number of Messianic texts. I’d recommend reading this from Kaiser in addition to representatives of several other evangelical approaches to interpreting the OT in relation to the NT, such as Sailhamer (Meaning of the Pentateuch; see also The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? by Michael Rydelnik), Beale (New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New), Clowney (The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament; see also Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures by Dennis Johnson), and Leithart (Deep Exegesis:The Mystery of Reading Scripture).

The book’s discussion of the texts begins in Genesis and then progresses through the OT, era by era, providing an insightful analyses of 65 major Messianic prophecies, showing the unfolding of God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. From the very beginning, the hope of Israel was in the promise of God to deliver them through a coming redeemer. He would be the offspring of Eve who would crush the serpent; God himself who would take up residence in the tents of Shem; the offspring of Abraham who would bless all the nations; the ruler from Judah whom all nations would obey; the Star rising out of Jacob and conquering Israel’s enemies; the Prophet like Moses to whose word the people would be held accountable; Job’s Arbitrator, Witness, Redeemer, and Mediator; the Anointed of the Lord who judges the ends of the earth; the faithful High Priest with an eternal house; the Son of David who reigns over an eternal kingdom; the conquering and enthroned ruler in Zion; the Stone that the builders rejected; the faithful One betrayed by his closest friends; the innocent One who dies unjustly and is raised again; the bridegroom; the triumphant King who distributes gifts to his people; the great Teacher; the new and better David; the house of David; the Branch of the LORD who was born of a virgin, whose name is Wonderful Counselor; the Lord’s faithful servant with a global mission, who is rejected by men, suffers vicariously for their sins, and proclaims the good news to the nations; the one who name is “The LORD our Righteousness;” the Priestly King over all nations; the Good Shepherd; the One who unifies the nations; the Son of Man who will be anointed ruler; the Desire of Nations; God’s signet ring; the One who was pierced and on account of whom all the tribes of the earth will mourn; the Messenger of the Covenant in whom the faithful delight; the Sun of Righteousness.

Typing this up reminded me of these two videos: