February 27, 2010

A New Kind of...? (part 6 - The Gospel)

McLaren's fifth question, addressed in chapters 14 and 15, deals with the content of the gospel.  As we might expect by now, he picks up some aspects of the gospel and leaves others out.  The problem is that the part he leaves off is crucial.  McLaren only mentions justification when he sets it against the concept of the kingdom of God.  He doesn't see the gospel as dealing with the problem of sin and human rebellion.  Rather, for McLaren, the gospel is the message about God's peace-making kingdom of liberation.  It is, of course, a false "either/or" to set the Pauline doctrine of justification against the good news of the kingdom in the gospels.  They work together and do not contradict.  McLaren seems to miss this, though. 

He likes to speak of entering the kingdom and of the gospel as bringing a new birth.  The problem, once again, is that there is no clear reason why new birth is needed.  If a person is not naturally a sinner, then why do they need to be born again?  If they are not dead in sin and tresspasses, why do they need regeneration. 

McLaren is using traditional language, but he is using it with new meaning, which he reveals when he says,
"No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!" (140).
In this scheme, repentance and regeneration are not elements in a divine work of grace to transform spiritually dead sinners to spiritually alive and justified believers.  For McLaren, repentance and regeneration involve getting one's act together by adjusting one's way of life.  This, of course, is not Christianity.  Christianity has never been a matter of simply getting our acts together and joining Jesus in his mission.  Christianity has always been about the reality that we are incapable of getting our acts together.  We cannot make him the object of our allegiance unless he makes us the object of his redemptive, covenantal, bringing the dead to life, justifying, sanctifying, and God-glorifying love in his substitutionary death and resurrection.  McLaren's gospel is no gospel at all.  It is not news about something that has happened; it is advice about how to live.  But the heart of Christianity is not how we live.  The heart of Christianity is what Jesus has done for us and in our place.  McLaren has moved himself in theological liberalism and historic Pelagianism, neither of which are authentic Christianity.  McLaren's new kind of Christianity is nothing new; it is old-as-the-fall moralism. 

I don't want to be misunderstood.  The message of the kingdom of God in the Lordship of Christ is essential to the gospel.  But half a gospel is no authentic gospel.  The way into the kingdom is through the grace of justification accomplished on the basis of Christ's death and resurrection in our place and for our sins.  McLaren rightly emphasizes the theme of kingdom, but when he sets the kingdom against justification, he neuters the gospel and walks away from Christianity.

February 26, 2010

A New Kind of...? (part 5 - Jesus)

McLaren next devotes two chapters to the Jesus question, and I was pleasantly surprised by much of what he said.  In chapter 13, he works mainly with John's gospel to paint a picture of Jesus which focuses largely on Jesus' work in inaugurating a new creation.  McLaren is reacting against some views of Jesus which see him as only having come to save souls from hell.  I agree with McLaren that Jesus should be understood as having come to do more than save people from hell, but I also believe he did not come to do any less.  Drawing particularly on Genesis and the prophets, McLaren outlines Old Testament themes that are developed in the fourth gospel highlighting Jesus' work to bring about a new creation.  I didn't find much to argue with in McLaren's assesment, though I did find it incomplete as a statement on the person and work of Christ.  He deals with Christ's work of new creation, but he pays little attention to Jesus' death as purchasing forgiveness for sin.  I imagine this is because he has written the fall out of the story choosing to summarize the biblical story as "creation, liberation, peace-making" rather than as "creation, fall, redemption."  If the fall does not figure into the scheme, then the traditional understanding of Jesus' substitutionary death finds little place.  This, of course, is a mark against the author.

This leads to a further problem with McLaren's understanding of Jesus within his understanding of the biblical narrative.  He wants desparately for Jesus to be seen as the great worker of new creation, but it is hardly clear in his scheme why new creation is needed.  In the traditional scheme, new creation is the clear answer to the fall and the curse that came with it.  Human rebellion plunged creation into a state of decay that was not originally natural to it.  If this problem is to be dealt with, universal renewal of creation is the only answer.  But McLaren has replaced fall with liberation and redemption with peace-making.  But if the great story doesn't have a fall, then from what do we need liberating?  If creation has not suffered an ontological change due to the sinful rebellion of human beings, then why does it need to be ontologically renewed?  McLaren rightly focuses on new creation as the biblical solution to the problem; the problem is that he has lost sight of the problem.

February 25, 2010

A New Kind of...? (part 4 - God)

McLaren's third question has to do with whether or not God is violent.  He readily admits that he is highly disturbed by many images of God that involve divine smiting, genocidal conquest, and quasi-geocidal flooding (99).  He resolves this issue within the hermeneutical framework outlined in the earlier chapters on the Bible..  If the bible is really a library of cultural perspectives on God that mature over time, then the earlier and more disturbing accounts of divine wrath and punishment can be seen as immature, incomplete, and often incorrect steps on the way to a correct, mature, and enlightened understanding of who God really is.  He sees passages like the flood narrative as immature human attempts to grapple with who God is.  He also rejects the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment.  At least four problems arise in McLaren's account of the biblical text with regard to God's character.

First, McLaren is looking for moral examples in the Old Testament judgment narratives like that of the Noahic flood.  He is worried because this text and others have been used to justify genocide.  If God sometimes wipes out entire races of people, well, then it must be okay to do that.  The problem with McLaren's reading, and of those against which he is reacting, is that they approach the Bible as a handbook for moral living, which it manifestly is not.  Since some parts of the Bible don't fit McLaren's morality, he has to find ways to explain them away.  But the flood is not set up as an example of how we should live and conduct ourselves with regard to other peoples or races.  The flood narrative is a declaration of the deep wickedness of human sin, the justice of God in judging the deep wickedness of human sin, and the great mercy of God for preserving a remnant instead of wiping out the human race for its deep wickedness and sin.  We are not supposed to come to the flood narrative and look for the "moral of the story."  We are supposed to come to the flood narrative and see a God who takes wickedness seriously and justly judges it.  We are also supposed to see a God who uses one family to bring salvation to the sin-torn world. 

McLaren's mistake is that he responds to the moralistic approach with a cultural library approach rather than a biblical-theological approach.  The biblical theological approach asks what this text tells me about God and God's self-revelation in Christ.  The text tells us that a just God cannot allow sin to go unpunished, and it witnesses to Christ in that he took our punishment in his death.  The text tells us that God is perfectly holy, and it witnesses to the obedience and sinlessness of Christ as the perfectly holy revelation of God.  The text tells us that even in judgment, God is merciful, and that, in Christ, God extends mercy for salvation through judgment.  The Noahic flood does not give us immature human speculation about God; it gives us an image of God whose standards of righteousness are to be taken seriously, and who is committed to the redemption of his creation.

Second, McLaren finds himself so deeply offended by a God who judges an entire race because McLaren has no doctrine of sin.  Remember, he has written the Fall out of the story.  In his scheme, human beings are not under the curse of a holy God for their transgression, they are on an evolutionary journey towards maturity.  They are not in need of redemption and deliverance through judgment, they are in need of enlightenment through conversation.  When the deep and total nature of human sin and rebellion is understood in light of the profound and glorious holiness of God, then the flood narrative reveals a God who is not only just but deeply merciful.

Third, McLaren's doctrine of God (yes, he has doctrines as well, even if they are false) demonstrates the failure of his interpretive approach to the Bible.  If the Bible is a collection of evolving understandings of God, the earlier of which are incorrect and immature, then the reader must choose the biblical texts that he thinks evidence the most mature understanding of God.  In this approach, the reader stands as the enlightened judge of scripture, and scripture is not able to function as a guide, let alone an authority.

Fourth, McLaren says that Jesus is the most mature and greatest revelation of a nonviolent God.  I guess he missed those several passages where Jesus uses the fear the destruction of body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28) where worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:48).  The Greek term translated as "hell" in both of these texts is the word geenna (Gehenna), which is the perpetually burning trash dump outside the city that was cursed because a couple of Judean kings sacrificed their children to pagan false gods there.  Whatever you call it, the context indicates that it involves the destruction of the soul and the body in a perpetual fire.  The imagery is intensely scary, especially for those, like the disciples, who grew up taking their trash to the Jerusalem city dump.  No matter how much it may offend Brian McLaren, Jesus is using the fear of violent punishment to motivate repentance.  I'd like to see McLaren fit that into his reading of gentle-meek-and-mild-moral-example Jesus.  Maybe he's reading one of those color-coded Bibles.  You know, the ones where they give different colors to the various words of Jesus to indicate the probability of whether he actually said what the text says he said.

February 24, 2010

A New Kind of...? (part 3 - Bible)

In chapter seven, McLaren strikes out against those who read the Bible as if it were a legal constitution.  He decries the ills that have been promulgated under this hermeneutical scheme.  I am sympathetic to some of his worries.  The denominational equivalents of supreme courts are clearly not in line with biblical teachings on church order and discipline. 

Rather than a legal constitution, McLaren proposes that the Bible is "the library of a culture and community - the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (81).  Libraries, McLaren argues, can be both authoritative and contain different views.  In fact, McLaren defines a culture as, "a group of people who say different things about the same things."  Thus, the so-called librariness of the Bible leads one to expect it to have inconsistencies. 

To begin with, McLaren's definition of a culture is so inadequate that it is edging toward ridiculous.  A group of people who say different things about the same thing?  A simple thought experiment will demonstrate the problem with this definition.  Say you take a Saudi Muslim and an American Christian and put them in a group.  Then ask them both a question about who God is.  The Muslim might say God is one and entirely transcendent.  The Christian might say God is triune and both imminent and transcendent.  Here we have a group of people saying different things about the same thing, and they clearly do not share the same culture. 

Beyond this, McLaren's approach to the Bible is incoherent.  His understanding of the Bible as a cultural library leads him to expect internal inconsistency in the scriptures.  However, he still wants to say that the Bible functions to uniquely guide the church unlike any other written work.  The problem should be obvious: how can a text that gives contradictory and inconsistent counsel been seen as a trustworthy or even adequate, let alone unique and inspired, guide for anything? 

A simple example will demonstrate the problem.  McLaren raises the issue of scriptural instruction relating to one's enemy.  He points out that Matthew 5:44 tells us to love our enemies, while Psalm 139:19 tells us to hate them.  The problem is that McLaren is approaching this question with a flat hermeneutic.  He is not taking into account genre, context, or the progressive nature of revelation.  He is not stopping to ask whether or not the ocassion of hating one's enemy is held up as worthy of imitation.  Any first year seminarian knows that the Psalms are not intended to be read the same way the historical narrative of the gospels is intended to be read.  McLaren's flat approach to scripture falls flat on its face.

In his scheme, scripture is not really the guide no matter how much he says it is.  When McLaren comes to the text and finds alleged inconsistency or contradiction, then he himself must stand over the text as a judge.  He chooses the text by which he would like to be guided.  He is the final authority.  His experience, emotions, and presuppositions rule over the text as he chooses which bits and pieces he likes and which he does not.  This is the wolf of arrogance wearing the sheep's clothing of false humility.

McLaren's problem is that he sees the Bible as a conversation, and in this regard, he has recast the scriptures in his own image.  The Bible is not a conversation, it is revelation and proclamation.

Studies in Gloucestershire

Today is an exciting day.  This morning I mailed off my letter of acceptance for an offer to do Ph.D. studies at the University of Gloucestershire.  My proposal is for a thesis titled Resurrection and the Life of Holiness: Sanctification as Inaugurated Eschatology in the Letters of Paul.  I'm really excited about this project because it combines two areas of great interest for me that have been somewhat neglected in recent Pauline scholarship.  With all the emphasis on issues surrounding justification and law in Paul over the last several decades, major themes like resurrection and sanctification haven't gotten a great deal of attention, particularly with regard to their relatedness.  I'm also excited because working on sanctification will allow me to look at the Pauline framework of a distinctive emphasis in my own tradition, which is Methodism.  I will be pursuing the degree on a part-time basis which is desirable because it will allow me to keep my appointment here in Jay.  Gloucestershire has a scheme for international distance learning which involves minimal residency time for part-time students.  I will probably travel to the University annually for intensive supervision; the rest of my work will be done from home with lots of email communication with my supervisor.  I decided this was the best route to go since I don't intend at this point to move into a teaching post later.  My long term plan is to continue as pastor of a local church, and I don't want to take leave from that role at this time.  My supervisor will be Andrew T. Lincoln, who is Portland Professor of New Testament Studies and has written both on the later Pauline letters and John's gospel.  I'm looking forward to working with him.  Of the schools that allow the distance learning option, I think our Lord has been kind to allow me a place in a strong program.  Work commences in October!  I'm looking forward to it.

A New Kind of...? (part 2 - Bible)

Having rejected his faulty Greco-Roman interpretation of the historic Christian reading of the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption, McLaren proceeds in chapters 5-8 to cast a new vision for how the Bible should be read and appropriated.  His vision is organized around three main biblical narratives.

The first is the narrative of Genesis.  This narrative, McLaren states, is not about a God who angrily consigns his creation to the cosmic trash bin, as if this were ever an orthodox Christian position.  Rather, it is about a God who creates a world full of change, becoming, evolution, and liberty.  The human creatures in this world disobey God and are, thus, pushed from the garden from life as hunter-gatherers to life as agriculturalists. 

So, McLaren recasts as progress what has historically been understood in terms of "Fall."  The curse of Genesis 3 has been reduced to mere consequences for bad behavior.  While human disobedience does have negative effects like murder and corruption, its not all bad because humanity is progressing from hunter-gatherers to nomadic herders to agriculturalists to city dwellers and finally empire builders.  Instead of being about human alienation from the God who is life due to rebellion, in McLaren's scheme Genesis 3 is about socio-economic progress.

As the Genesis story progresses, McLaren rightly highlights God's mercy for clothing and protecting Adam and Cain as well as rightly empasizing God's kindness in sparing Noah from the flood.  The problem is that he passes over those passages which indicate how seriously God takes transgression which must be dealt with if we are to have a biblical understanding of God's holy character.  Yes, God spared Noah in his kindness, but God also wiped out every other living being on the planet in judgment for their wickedness.  McLaren happily glosses over this grim feature of the text concluding that Genesis is "a story about the downside of 'progress'" (14).  His reading leaves out significant aspects of this text bending it out of shape from a story of humanity spiraling down into degradation to a story of "progress."  The suggestion is so absurd it is virtually impossible to take it as a serious reading of the text. 

The second major narrative is that of the Exodus in which, according to McLaren, God sides with the oppressed and vulnerable to set them on a journey towards freedom and peace.  While God certainly did side with the oppressed, it is worth pointing out that he sided with them in accordance with the promise he made to Abraham to give him a mutitude of descendants.  McLaren likes to emphasize how deeply God gets involved in the human plight.  And this is a feature of the text that will make it popular.  People like the idea of God getting involved.  And they should, because God has gotten involved.  McLaren brings in aspects of biblical truth but recasts them in a surprisingly modernist model of progress.  The presence of some truth gives it an appearance of biblical fidelity.  But a careful reading of McLaren in contrast to the Bible demonstrates that his reading of scripture fails to do justice to the text.

The third major narrative is the hope for a peaceful kingdom.  Here McLaren goes to the Davidic kingdom and the prophets as looking forward to a world of peace and harmony.  Again, this is indeed a biblical vision of the future, and it is one that God is, in some ways, implementing in the present.  However, McLaren takes Isaiah and turns him into an ideological platform for a liberal socio-political agenda.  Texts that refer to the youthfulness of the one hundred year old are recast as calling for the protection of vulnerable people particularly through the means of a good health care system.  While this is important, it is hardly what is going on in Isaiah.  Isaiah's vision of new creation is not primarily about socio-political fixes to various problems.  It is about God's ultimate dealing with the human problem, namely sin and death.  Creation wide discord and death are the result of sin, but McLaren has written sin and the just punishment of death out of the story.  This is why he can't read Isaiah rightly.  Isaiah is dealing with the problem in Genesis that McLaren has rewritten as progress.  Isaiah is casting a vision of a day when one hundred years old is youthful not because the elderly have good health care but because God has exiled death and the one hundred year old is going to live forever as a result.  McLaren's reading strips the text of its great hope for an ultimate restoration of the created order and replaces it with a hope for best-we-can-do sorts of fixes in the present.  That, of course, is not to say that we don't need to protect vulnerable people.  It is to say that Isaiah is speaking of something much bigger than McLaren can see.

Ultimately, while McLaren chastises a so-called fundamentalist reading of the Bible as ethical imperative, he essentially does the thing he rejects.  McLaren is arguing for a distinct moralism that sees the Bible as providing a plan or vision for implementing goodness and justice among the peoples of the earth.  He wants the biblical values of goodness and justice to be the interpretive key for understading the Bible.  The problem is that ethical imperatives for goodness and justice are not the center of the Bible.  The central story of the Bible claims that human beings lack the ability to do justice and goodness and stand in need of a rescuer to restore them to a state of goodness.  The problem is that McLaren has already rejected this reading of scripture, and in so doing, he has jackhammered the foundation for any hope of a world in which justice and goodness reign.  The gospel that Jesus dies for our sins and was raised bodily from the dead is the central story of the scriptures, and goodness and justice can only reign in a world where Christ, the good and just One, reigns supreme.

February 23, 2010

A New Kind of...? (part 1)

When I began reading Brian McLaren's new book, A New Kind of Christianity, I planned to review it here upon finishing the entire work.  However, after reading four chapters, I've realized that the issues raised by this book need to be addressed in more depth than a single blog post can provide.  So, I'll be addressing the issues in a series of posts as they arise during my reading of the book. 

It is commonly said that a book shouldn't be judged by its cover.  And while I liked the cover of McLaren's book, the first page of the preface disturbed me by declaring, "the Christian faith in all its forms is in trouble" (xi, emphasis original).  I was quite surprised by this all encompassing claim.  Really?  In trouble in all its forms?  This strikes me as a rather hasty generalization that is hardly accurate.  When I encounter such an unsubstantiated claim on the first page, it does not give me a great deal of hope for the strength of the rest of the book. 

After the preface, McLaren goes to give some introductory and autobiographical information about how he came to the conclusion that current Christianity is such a mess.  He gives away some of his prejudices early indicating a distaste for creed and doctrine.  He is not so interested in systems of beliefs as he is ways of believing.  I'm not all that sure what he means by "ways of believing."  I assume it will be explained as the book progresses.  At this point it seems to indicate an emphasis on authentic and irenic interaction among those with whom one disagrees.  I'm not all that sure why that is incompatible with doctrine, but McLaren plays the two off one another anyway. 

The book raises ten questions in two parts.  The first part appears to be more theologically oriented while the second looks to address more practical issues.  We shall see when we get there. 

Chapter four jumps into the theological issues head first asking the question: "What is the overarching story of the Bible?"  McLaren explicitly rejects the historic understanding of the Bible telling the story of creation-fall-redemption.  His characterization of the model he rejects leaves much to be desired.  The bulk of the chapter is devoted to the way in which McLaren understands the Patristic period of church history as being corrupted by a combination of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy.  By Platonic, McLaren is focusing on the concept of the ideal forms and the ultimate unity of reality bound up in those forms.  By Aristotelian, he is focusing on the dynamic quality of changing things which is seen as essence of reality.  This is the old problem of the one and the many.  How do you account for both unity and diversity in the same universe?

McLaren is arguing against what he calls "conventional Christian theology" (43).  In this so-called conventional theology creation is seen as a Platonic state of static being which is corrupted by the fall (which McLaren doesn't take as biblical) into an Aristotelian state dynamic becoming.  This state is hated by the static Neoplatonic God (McLaren calls Theos) who finds a way to rescue some by means of violence returning them to a state of pristine static being while condemning the rest to a morphed version of the Greek Hades.  This so-called conventional theology is anti-creational, anti-story, anti-material, anti-becoming, etc. 

The problems with this scheme are significant.  While the Patristics did adopt some Greek language, they did not adopt the historic meaning of that language in any unqualified way.  For example, they used the language of "person" to describe the diversity within the Trinity.  They used the languge of "being" to describe the unity in the Trinity.  In this way they dealt with the problem of the one and the many in a way that never occurred to the Greeks, nor could have in their worldview.  Remember, the reconciliation of the one and the many was a problem for the Greeks, not for the Christians, at least not long term anyway.  So, the early church used the Greek language, but they radically transformed the concepts.  McLaren's dualistic characterization of early Christianity as playing the one against the many is simply incorrect.  Another problematic example for McLaren comes with the formulation of the doctrine of the incarnation.  Once again we have the problem of the one person of Jesus and the dual natures of Christ, the one and the many.  The church fathers utilized Greek language, but their combination of unity and diversity in the incarnation is neither Platonic nor Aristotelian.  McLaren's argument simply doesn't deal with the historical evidence.  He primarily refernces secondary sources in the notes and provides no interaction with Christian primary source material in the body of the text and only superficial references in the notes.  Its hard to make a case against history when you demonstrate no evidence of actually having read it. 

Furthermore, the dualistic accusation leveled at so-called conventional theology of salvation off to immaterial heaven away from the corrupt material of creation is problematic.  Granted, there are plenty of Christians who are rather Platonic in their thinking that the goal of Christianity is to be swept from the earth to a disembodied spiritual experience in heaven.  The problem is that this folk religion is neither orthodox nor historic Christianity.  The creeds strongly affirm the resurrection of the body with the implication that matter in itself is not evil but the object of God's redemptive purposes.  Historic evangelical theology likewise has affirmed the establishment of God's kingdom on earth at the consummation of God's purposes in history.  This is hardly the dualism that McLaren describes. 

To sum up, McLaren's argument is both misleading and misdirected.  It is misleading with regard to early Christian theology.  It is misdirected in that it ought to be directed toward erroneous understandings of Christianity rather than historic and orthodox Christianity.  I suspect, unfortunately, that many of McLaren's readers may not be well read in the early church fathers and, thus, unequipped to read this book critically.

February 21, 2010

Saturated but Illiterate

We live in a day in the United States when it is easier to gain access to a Bible than ever before in any place or time in history.  We have Bibles in genuine leather, bonded leather, hardback, or paperback.  We have them in a variety of colors and designs.  You can get a firefighters bible, a feminist bible, a green bible, an archaeological bible, a military bible, or a teen study bible.  Bibles come with or without red letters.  You can get an NRSV, NLT, NASB, ESV, NIV, or TNIV.  There are shelves and shelves of bibles out there in most bookstores, be they Christian or secular, available for purchase, and if you can't afford one, you could probably go into most churches and they'll give you one for free. 

In light of this reality of bible market saturation, it is amazing that we live in a day when biblical literacy is at an all time low.  In the 18th century, non-Christians recognized the most subtle biblical allusions.  In our day, many people don't even know who Jesus is.  Not long ago my father-in-law told me about a little boy in New York who went into a Roman Catholic church for the first time and was curious to know who the man on the plus sign was.  This child is not unique. 

Bibles are available in this country.  They are out there.  The thing to see, though, is that without a deep love of God's life-giving word, market saturation will do us no good.

February 20, 2010

Piper and Willimon on Preaching

John Piper is a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis with a strong Calvinistic soteriology.  Will Willimon is a United Methodist bishop in Alabama with a Wesleyan-Arminian soteriology.  Despite their different theological traditions and frameworks, they both have deeply Christ centered and God saturated understandings of preaching. 

Piper's book, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, is divided into two parts.  The first outlines a trinitarian understanding of preaching and aims to answer the question of why God should be supreme in preaching.  The four chapters in the first part were originally delivered as the 1988 Harold John Ockenga Lectures on Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Comprised of three chapters originally delivered as the 1984 Billy Graham Center Lectures on Preaching at Wheaton College, the second part looks to the ministry of Jonathan Edwards for guidance in the task of making God supreme in preaching.

The Willimon book, entitled Proclamation and Theology, is shaped around the concept of the Word to articulate theological task of preaching.  Claiming that "a sermon is a speech that is more," Willimon takes the "more" as the purpose of his book (2).  He sees preaching as a theological act whereby God does business with people through words. 

Given the differences both in theology and polity between these two men, this review will focus primarily on what they have in common with regard to their understandings of preaching.  I intend to briefly highlight three commonalities in their thinking.

1. Neither Piper nor Willimon give take much interest in rhetorical flourish in preaching.  They are both far more interested in the grace of God that is extended in the act of preaching.  In Willimon's view, the discipline of homiletics places too much emphasis on matters of style and technique.  He believes that any problem in preaching today is theological and and is best solved not by becoming a smoother speaker but by simply making God the subject of the message.  Piper's appreciation for and dependance on Jonathan Edwards belies his view on the matter.  Edwards' preaching was not characterized by great rhetoric or engaging style.  Rather, he focused on the theological content of his preaching and God was both present and at work. 

2. Both authors see the death and resurrection of Christ as the basis for preaching.  Piper takes on this matter in chapter two.  He argues that the cross exalts the glory of God and breaks down the pride of man.  The cross is the place where God's righteousness is vindicated and human sin is dealt with.  Preaching the cross brings a glorious and righteous God together with sinful man.  Likewise, Willimon sees preaching essentially as heralding the resurrection of the crucified Messiah.  Preaching is about declaring the salvation that God has accomplished in Christ on the cross and it means that salvation is in God's hands (69).

3. Both see the scriptures as authoritative in setting the agenda for and the content of preaching.  Willimon is particularly critical of preaching that attempts to be relevant by addressing the felt needs of the congregation rather than declaring what God has done in Christ.  Piper agrees saying, "It is not the job of the Christian preacher to give people moral or psychological pep talks about how to get along in the world (15)."  Rather, he sees the preacher's job as declaring the majesty and glory of God every week.  This can only happen if the scriptures that are the self-revelation of God are central to the preaching agenda.

At the end of the day, it is encouraging to see to preachers from different theological traditions come to similar conclusions on preaching.  Preachers from each of these traditions would do well to read both books.

God's Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts

It is well known that present day generations have significantly less familiarity with and understanding of the Bible than previous ones.  Many do not understand the overarching themes which unify scripture.  Our biblical education often consists of disjointed instruction in this or that story with little or no help on how it all ties together.  It is this problem which the discipline of biblical theology aims to deal with, and Vaughan Roberts' book God's Big Picture is an excellent introduction to the discipline.  The book is written on a popular level and isn't loaded down with technical terms and discussions.  Overall, it provides a very readable and understandable framework for understanding God's work in history to bring about the salvation of his people. 

The book is organized around the biblical concept of God's kingdom, which Vaughan understands to be "God's people in God's place under God's rule and blessing" (21).  Those familiar with the literature in the field will see the authors dependance on the work of Graeme Goldsworthy (Gospel and Kingdom, Paternoster, 1981), which Vaughan happily admits.  The eight chapters trace the concept of God's kingdom from Genesis through Revelation.  Since it is a work on biblical theology, signficant emphasis is given to the way the Old Testament witnesses to Christ.  Vaughan very capably leads the reader through major issues that give unity to the biblical text.  Each chapter helpfully includes at least one Bible Study to further develop the issues raised in the chapter.

The weaknesses in the book are few.  Sometimes I thought he was pressing the idea of the Church as the "new Isreal" a bit too hard, rather than seeing the Church as the incorporation of the nations into Israel (111).  This is a minor issue though.  Also, my guess is that Roberts is a Calvinist, but it is not overt in the book.  This book would function as a fine text in a local church adult education course on biblical theology.  The weaknesses are certainly no reason not to benefit greatly from this text.

Living as Aliens - Aliens from What?

In 1 Peter 2:11, Peter speaks of his audience "as aliens and exiles."  This language has often been used to foster a dualistic approach to Christianity that sees believers as exiles on earth from their heavenly home.  The idea is summed up in the old gospel tune, "This world is not my home, I'm just passing through."  The problem arises when an escapist theology develops in which believers are simply biding their time until they are whisked off to heaven and away from this earth.  In such a framework, there is little to no thought given to the bodily resurrection or the new creation.  This perspective is radically dualistic and deeply unbiblical.  So, from what are Christians alien and exiled?  Peter gives three indications as to what he means, none of which have anything to do with our residence on the planet Earth. 

First, as aliens and exiles Peter encourages his hearers to "abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul" (11).  For Peter, this alienation and exile is to be understood in terms of the flesh or the life lived apart from the Spirit of God.  Unbelievers live in one way and nurture certain desires.  Believers are to live another way resisting ungodly desires which destroy their lives.  So, this exile is couched not in terms of where we live but of how we live, whether we live lives of godly character and holiness.  Christians are exiles because we are not at home with the values and desires of unbelievers.

Second, Peter instructs the aliens and exiles to live "honorably among the Gentiles (or nations)" (12).  Once again, the issue here is character.  Peter's hearers are interspersed among the nations and he expects them to live a certain way.  Specifically, he expects them to live lives that glorify God.   The reference to the nations does not indicate that they are not at home on the planet.  It indicates that their honorable living sets them apart from those unbelievers amonst whom they live.  Once again, the matter of distinction and alienation is a matter of character, not location.  We are aliens becuase our living is distinguishable from the unbelievers all around.

Third, Peter exhorts his hearers to live honorably so that their deeds will glorify God when he comes (12)The perspective here is not one of escapism.  Rather, Peter, with the rest of scripture, looks forward to the day when God's glorious presence will be manifest on earth to reign and judge without hindrance or opposition.  If God is coming to earth, one should not be hoping to escape it.  If God is coming to the world, then it will be both his home and the home of his people. 

Christians are not exiled from heaven on earth.  For Peter, Christians are exiles with regard to the values, desires, and character of those who do not belong to Christ.  We need to recover the concept that God made this world, declared it good, and is committed to its redemption.  He is working to restore it.  He has no plans to destroy it.  We are going to be here for a very long time, forever in fact, as will our Triune God who made us for fellowship with himself on this planet.  This earth is definitely our home.

The Way Back

More for Graeme Goldsworthy:
"The 'law' given to the first Adam, the first son of God, was broken, and mankind was thrown out of the garden into the wilderness.  The law given to Israel, the son of God, was broken, and the nation was thrown out of its promised land into the wilderness of exile.  A last Adam came as the truly obedient covenant partner of God, signifying his identification with a people that desperately needed his help.  We can almost hear heaven's sigh of relief, 'At last!  A true son of God.' 'You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased' is God's word of approval.  Then this true Adam, this true Israel, goes out into our wilderness to be tempted and to be victorious, so that he might make for us a way back into the garden of God" (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 159).

February 19, 2010

Heterodox Hymnody - Who Crucified Jesus?

I was in a worship service recently (not at the church I serve) when one song that included this line was sung: "You crucified your Son for me."  My initial reaction was, "AHHHHHH!"  My follow-up reaction was, "OH NO!"  My third reaction was to jot it down so that I could remember and comment here on the importance of orthodox theology in our worship music be it traditional or contemporary.  

So, did the Father crucify the Son?  The answer to this question is a resounding "NO!"  The best place to go in the scriptures is Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 2.  Peter says, "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (23, emphasis added).  A few quick observations are in order.  Peter says plainly to his audience, the men of Jerusalem, that they crucified and killed Jesus.  Their "lawless hands" are the agent in the crucifixion.  They are responsible for his blood.  The crucifixion was an act of lawlessness.  God cannot be the agent of a lawless deed.  The crucifixion was a sin.  God cannot sin.  Yes, the crucifixion happened as part of God's plan for human redemption, but this does not make him the agent in the crucifixion.  The thing to see here is that God can and does use sinful human agency within his providential plan for the salvation of sinful human beings.  To say to the Father, "you crucified your Son for me," is to attribute wickedness to the Holy One, and is abject sin, even if unintentional and the result of muddy thinking.

Now someone might respond that this is a matter of artistic license and the song makes us feel good and its not that big of a deal anyway.  Who died and made me the doctrine police anyway, right?  I wonder, though, how we would respond to a song that included a line that thanked the Father for dying on the cross (the heresy of patripassianism) or one that thanked the Father for changing hats and coming as the Son (the heresy of modalism).  What if a song denied the dual natures of Christ or the divinity of the Holy Spirit or the Incarnation or the Ressurection?  Would we go on singing glibly and enjoying the tune of heterodoxy?  We might, since few present day Christians have much of an education in historic heretical positions. 

If our music is to honor God, then it ought to be doctrinally accurate.  I don't care how hip the tune is.  We have substitued error and treacle for biblical and traditional orthodoxy.  If our music does not reflect the truth of God's person and the holiness of his character, then it is neither true nor beautiful nor worship.  When people leave a worship service, they more commonly leave humming the tune of the music rather than reflecting on the thesis of the sermon.  Our songwriters must think of themselves as theologians of the most practical sort.  They have a great deal of influence in the thinking of the church. 

February 18, 2010

Biblical Theology and the Local Church

I'm reading Graeme Goldsworthy's Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans 2000), which is worth quoting at length.  He writes:
"Jesus didn't invent biblical theology.  He showed himself to be real subject of the biblical theology that had been developing ever since human beings first received revelation from God.  He thus established biblical theology as the key to understanding the Scriptures, for he is the salvation-historical event that gives significance to all others.  While the Old Testament is everywhere eloquent in describing the sovereignty of God in history to work out his purposes, Jesus declares that he is the goal of that sovereign working of God."

"In light of this it is nothing short of astonishing, in fact appalling, that evangelical biblical theology is so little appreciated by evangelical preachers.  The front line of adult Christian education in churches ought to be a comprehensive course in biblical theology.  This is not likely to happen while our theological seminaries do not make Biblical Theology a key required course in any diploma or degree curriculum.  The idea that evangelical pastors can be sent to have ministerial oversight of the congregations without first having a solid grounding in biblical theology is one of the scandals of our time.  Show me a church without a good appreciation of the Old Testament and biblical theology and I'll show you a church with a weak understanding of the gospel" (52, emphasis added).
At least two items are worth brief comment:

1. I agree that it is vitally important to have a strong biblical theology at the heart of local church ministry.  I also agree with Goldsworthy's implication that most churches do not generally have a strong biblical theology at the heart of their ministry.  Gaining ground in this area will be difficult and will require both pastors and congregations to be patiently willing to work hard and study the scriptures to gain a greater understanding of God's work in salvation-history, which, of course, is worthy of diligent study.  Like all hard work, this will not come easily.  But it must come.

2. I also agree that seminaries ought to have required courses in biblical theology.  This would likely entail doing away with some of the so-called "practical" courses that students are presently required to take in order for seminaries to maintain the approval of the Association of Theological Schools.  This also raises the further question as to whether seminaries ought to be responsible for the theological education of the clergy.  In the New Testament, ministerial training took place within the context of local ministry.  This takes us back to the first point, though.  If local pastors and local churches had a stronger empasis on biblical theology, they would be better equipped to provide pastoral training and education.

February 17, 2010

The Sorrow of Sin and the Hope of Reconciliation - A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:2

King David had been called a man after God’s own heart. He had known God’s protection, God’s kindness, and God’s abundance. He was popular. He was powerful. He was prosperous. But he was not above the possibility of transgression. One day he awoke in the afternoon. As he walked out on the roof of his house, he saw a woman named Bathsheba bathing in accordance with ritual purification regulations. David desired her, and instead of running from temptation, he inquired about the woman and had her brought to him. She became pregnant with David’s child, and to cover the transgression David conspired to have her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. After Uriah’s death David took her into his house to be his wife she bore him a son.

After the birth of the child, the Lord God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David about his sin. Nathan knew that if he simply confronted the king in a straightforward manner, the king would certainly have difficulty hearing the word of rebuke. It had been at least nine months since David’s offense. It is not hard to imagine that he had found plenty of ways to justify his sin. So, the prophet tells the king a story. It is a story about two men, one rich and one poor. The poor man’s only possession was a little lamb. He had bought it, raised it alongside his children, and treasured it as his own. A day came when the rich man needed to prepare a meal for a traveler. Instead of slaughtering one of his many animals for the meal, the rich man stole the lamb that belonged to the poor man, and prepared it for his guest.

When David heard this story, he was enraged and cried out to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.” The words had hardly left the king’s lips when that long prophetic finger pointed at the king and Nathan declared, “You are the man!” David had been brought face to face with the reality of his transgression and the depth of his sinful heart.

Ash Wednesday is about coming face to face with the reality that we are sinners. We come into the world as sinners. We come before God as sinners. And like David, we desperately need his forgiveness. We need his mercy. We need his great and glorious grace. Ash Wednesday is about sorrow, sorrow over our deep sinfulness before God. But it is also about hope, hope that in Christ Jesus we may have forgiveness and be reconciled to our God and granted righteousness in his sight.

That is the hope presented in 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul says, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Central to the mission of the church is this ministry of reconciliation in which we all are called to a restored relationship to God.

Now if the Word of God declares that we stand in need of reconciliation, it necessarily implies some questions. Why do we need reconciliation? How are we to be reconciled to God? When should we desire this reconciliation take place? Paul has answers for each of these questions.

Why do we need reconciliation?

The answer to this question is simple. We need to be reconciled to God because we are sinners. Like David, we have transgressed his commands and broken his laws. This problem goes much further back than David, though. The problem goes all the way back to our first parents Adam and Eve. You see, God made a covenant with Adam. A covenant is an agreement between two parties administered by a sovereign king with attendant blessings and curses. In Genesis 2:16-17, God tells Adam that he can eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If he eats of this tree, God says, he will die. There is an agreement between two parties, God and Adam. It is administered by the sovereign God of creation. The curse is death. The implied blessing is obedience. In chapter 3, we are told that Adam did indeed disobey God and eat from the forbidden tree. He broke the covenant and the curse of the covenant came upon him. The problem does not stop there, though. You see, Adam represented all of humanity in the covenant. And, as a result, the curse of the covenant came upon every one of his descendants. We are his descendants. We are under the curse of sin and death because we are part of the human race represented by Adam in the covenant with God. We are born in a state of sinfulness and in a state of rebellion. This problem extends to every human being. The scriptures say that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We have all broken God’s law. And the consequence is death. Why do we need reconciliation? It is because we are in Adam and, as a result, we are sinners and deserve the wrath of the only holy and righteous God.

How are we to be reconciled to God?

Paul answers this question in verse 21. He says, “Fore our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The transaction described in this verse is commonly known as “the great exchange.” Christ, who knew no sin, who was perfect in every way, was made to be sin for us. This does not mean he became a sinner. It does mean that our sin was reckoned to him or credited to his account. He took our place on the cross. Our sin deserves the just wrath of the holy God. Christ took that wrath upon himself. He did this so that we could be granted the righteousness of God. In the same way that Christ did not sin in order to be sin for us, this righteousness is not composed of our righteous acts. Rather, it is a righteousness standing that is granted to us on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross where he took our sin upon his shoulders. He took our sins and gives us his righteousness. He died our death and with his resurrection gives us his life.

In doing this, he established a new covenant. We became sinners through our covenant relationship with Adam. If we are to be righteous, we need a new covenant and a new representative. Christ is giver of a new covenant and he represents all who respond to him with faith. This is why Paul says in him we become the righteousness of God. To say that we are in him is to say that he is our covenant representative and, as such, he gives us his righteous standing before God.

The announcement of this great work of God in Christ is the gospel. And the only response to the gospel is faith, full confidence in Christ and Christ alone for our righteous standing and our salvation. How are we to be reconciled with God? Only through the great exchange whereby Christ takes our sin and grants us his righteousness, which is received through faith in his name and his gospel.

When should we desire this reconciliation?

The only answer that scripture gives to this question is now! Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:3 that, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” This is a matter of life and death, eternal life and eternal death. So, the matter is an desperate one. You can hear the urgency in Paul’s writing. Now is the day of salvation.

We live in a world where we like to keep our options open. We like to see if any better offers will come along. We want the best deal and so we don’t want to commit to one thing too quickly. That is not the way to approach the issue of reconciliation with God. The time is now. Be reconciled to God. He is calling now. Come to him now.

David composed the 51st Psalm after Nathan the prophet confronted him about his sin. In it, he expressed his deep sorrow for his sin. He cried out to God for a clean heart, for a washing, for restored joy, and for reconciliation. The Psalm moves from sorrow to hope, from confession to salvation. That is what Ash Wednesday is all about.

We gather here and take these ashes upon our foreheads to acknowledge that we always come to God as sinners. We come in sorrow and with repentant hearts, for we have sinned greatly and we deserve God’s wrath. But we also come in hope, because Christ was made to be sin for us so that in him we could become the righteousness of God. Taking a smudge of ash on your head does not gain favor with the Almighty. It is, rather, a sign of living faith that sorrowfully acknowledges wrongdoing and humbly seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. Our hope is in Christ, in his death and resurrection. We come as a visible profession of faith and hope in his name and in his gospel, by which we are being saved.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

February 13, 2010

General Call or Special Call?

If I understand them correctly, Calvinists maintain that within the general call of the gospel to all who hear it, there is a special call by which the Holy Spirit effects regeneration in the elect.  Arminians disagree with the notion of a special call and on biblical grounds.  In the parable of the sower and its explanation (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus teaches that the word is sown like seed, but it falls on different types of soil that represent the responses of different people to the gospel.  Some hear the word and Satan takes away what is sown.  Some hear the word and receive it with joy but only for last for a little while.  Some hear the word but are lured away by the desires of the world.  In contrast to the first three, the last group hears the word, accepts it, and produces fruit - thirty, sixty, or one hundred fold.  One important feature to see in this parable and its explanation is that the same word is sown in each type of soil.  There is no special seed that goes to the soil that bears fruit.  Likewise, there is no special call that awakens the elect.  The same gospel and the same call goes out to different people.  It bears fruit in their lives on the condition of faith; they must hear and accept the gospel, the very same gospel that those who persist in unbelief hear.  In the parable, the difference is not the word; the difference is the soil.  The condition of election is not a special call; the condition of election is faith, the acceptance of the sown word.

February 9, 2010

Healthy Churches...Healthy Members

Every Christian should be committed to the health of his own local church.  Likewise, every Christian should be committed to his own health as a church member, as well as to the health of his co-members.  Here are two little books written with aim of nurturing healthy churches and healthy members.  Both books are written on the presupposition that churches do not primarily need more programs, campaigns, and gimmicks.  Rather, churches need to hear God speak, and God speaks through his Word, the Bible.  If a church and its members are to be healthy, the scriptures must be central and authoritative.

The first is Mark Dever's What is a Healthy Church? (Crossway 2005).  The book is organized into three parts, the first of which sets out to introduce the reader to a basic theology of the church and to make the case that churches should aspire towards health.  The second part and third parts outline what the author takes to be "essential" and "important" marks of healthy churches.  Dever is interested in drawing attention to those matters that are normally neglected.  As a result, he doesn't spend time arguing that a healthy church emphasizes prayer.  Rather, he devotes his pen to the essential marks of expositional preaching, biblical theology, and a biblical understanding of the gospel.  The important marks include chapters on conversion, evangelism, membership, church discipline, discipleship, and leadership. 

What is a Healthy Church Member? (Crossway 2008) by Thabiti Anyabwile is a companion volume to the book by Dever, with whom Anyabwile served as assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  Presupposing that healthy churches are made up of healthy members, Anyabwile takes uses each chapter to apply Dever's "marks" to the lives of individual members.  Thus, the chapters claim that a healthy church member is an expositional listener, a biblical theologian, gospel saturated, an evangelist, etc.  Anyabwile adds a tenth chapter on being a prayer warrior.

Both authors are pastors of Baptist churches, and the distinctives of their tradition come through in their writing.  This does not mean, though, that the principles outlined in these books are not widely applicable across the denominational spectrum of Christianity.  Also, both authors have Calvinistic understandings of salvation.  Fortunately, this does not pervade the texts and is likely to go largely unnoticed by those not familiar with the finer nuances of the debate.  All in all, pastors would do well to distribute these books widely in their churches, not least among the leadership.  These two brief but powerful books should be standard reading in every local church.  

February 6, 2010

The Worst In Us

I'm reading Will Willimon's Proclamation and Theology tonight and was so intrigued by this quote that I thought I would share it here.  He says:

"If Christ had not preached to us, presumably we would have little reason to crucify him.  His sermons, in a sense, brought out the worst in us.  He told us the truth about God, and we hated him for it" (56).

Well, preachers, here's a new line for your sermon evaluations.  Here's a new take on Christ likeness.  Do your sermons bring out the worst in your people?  If so, it is for one of two reasons.  You're either a really bad preacher...or a really good one.

Why I'm not a Universalist - Resistible Grace

I tend to think that Universalism - the view that God will eventually save all people not condemning any - is probably more widespread than many people suspect.  Some move from Calvinism to Universalism because they think if a thoroughly good God monergistically saves people, then he must do that for all.  Some Arminians may tend towards Universalism because they emphasize God's love for all people.  If God loves everyone, then will he not ultimately save everyone?  In this post, I intend to show that Universalism is incompatible with Arminianism.  I will do so by highlighting the incoherency of attempting to combine Universalism with one of the primary tenets of Arminianism, namely resistible grace.

Universalism is incompatible with the biblical and Arminian doctrine of resistible grace.  To be a Universalist you must believe that God will one day save all people.  This means that God will one day have to overcome their resistance to him.  If he does not, then theoretically the salvation project could go on infinitely.  If God is to save all, and if we are to have any sort of biblical eschatology with bodily resurrection for those who are in Christ, then God must eventually overcome the resistance of those who persist in disobedience and unbelief in order to transform them into the likeness of the resurrected Christ.  Even if there is the opportunity for post-mortem salvation (which is unbiblical), these persons could resist forever.  God would eventually have to overcome their resistance.

Arminianism holds that grace is resistible. God, by his gracious call in the gospel, enables human beings to respond in faith, but he does not force their conversion.  In this sovereignly chosen framework, God will not save everyone.  If he did, he would have to break through their resistance and coerce their wills.  The Arminian vision of resistible grace is incompatible with Universalism.

So, to answer the question as to why I'm not a Universalist (other than that it seems quite incompatible with scripture), I'm not a Universalist precisely because I'm Arminian.  Univeralists must be committed to a Calvinistic model of irresistible grace.  I believe with all Arminians that grace is indeed resistible.  God will not overcome the wills of those who persist in unbelief.  Thus, if there is ever to be a consummation of the kingdom of Heaven, it regrettably cannot include all people who have ever lived.

A Student's Guide to Classics by Bruce S. Thornton

This incredibly brief survey (92 pp.) will orient the interested novice to the general contours and situations of the Greek and Latin classical authors.  This volume is organized according to ancient genres and covers, among others, epic, poetry, drama, prose fiction, rhetoric, and history.  Each section introduces the major figures in Greek and Latin and often highlights one or two major ideas of their work or significant features of their legacy.  The student will not only encounter important authors but will become acquinted with important terminology which is defined in a non-technical manner.  Don't come to this book for detailed treatments of the relevant material; that is not its aim.  Students will find it useful as a starting point with regard to which books to read first in each genre.  The survey concludes with a section of recommendations for further reading which includes some secondary sources along with suggestions for preferable translations of primary sources.

One nice benefit is that Thornton sometimes points towards fields that overlap with the classics.  For example, students of American history will find it important to read the classical authors who influenced the founders of the United States and their ideas about government and liberty, which include but are hardly limited to Demosthenes and Polybius.  Similarly, by studying the classics Christians will find a great deal of material which provides a context for reading the scriptures, which were penned in the classical world.  An example would be Aristotle's treatment of hamartia  in his Poetics, the word that New Testament authors use for the idea of sin.  Christians will find it beneficial to contrast and compare the pagan and Christian understandings of sin.

The book comes in a series published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute called ISI Guides to Major Disciplines, which are "reader-friendly introductions to the most important fields of knowledge in the liberal arts" (back cover).  The "Guides" are part of ISI's Student Self-Reliance Project, which is "an integrated, sequential program of educational supplements designed to guide students in making key decisions that will enable them to acquire an appreciation of the accomplishments of Western civilization" (91).  Their web resources provide information on shaping a personal curriculum for self-study along with information on choosing the best colleges for studying the liberal arts.  It looks to be quite helpful material.

February 5, 2010

The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

With The Prodigal God, Tim Keller maintains both rigorous doctrinal orthodoxy and a deeply compassionate call to repentance and redemption in Christ for a rare combination after which every Christian speaker and author ought to strive.  This is the first of Keller's books that I've read, and I found it to be an enjoyable and sastifying experience.  Keller writes well.  His conversational style causes the reader to feel like he is being addressed by a trusted grandfather who loves enough to be brutally honest and cares enough to do it with great kindness.  At least two features of the book are worth extended comment. 

First, the book is an extended exposition of the story commonly known as "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," which is found in Luke 15.  Keller's treatment of the parable is outstanding.  His interpretation is sensitive to the first century context.  He does not sentimentalize the parable by merely using the wayward son as a universal example of how everyone must come back home to God.  Instead, he wisely shows that both sons in the story are lost, each in a different way.  The truly prodigal one is the father who showers them both with extravagance. 

Keller's interpretation is also commendable for the balance maintained between the individual and cosmic levels of the parable.  Yes, the story is about individual redemption for both the wayward libertine and the self-righteous Pharisee.  But the parable also tells the larger story of the human race's exile from the garden of God.  It is not merely a story of individual salvation, but of cosmic redemption through Jesus Christ for all of the sin tainted creation.

Second, as indicated above, Keller does a fine job of maintaining rigorous doctrinal orthodoxy.  A few examples will do to demonstrate. 

Consider the author's treatment of sin.  Keller suggests that the popular concept of sin as rule breaking doesn't really do justice to the biblical doctrine.  Now when I hear of an author who wants to posit an alternative view of sin, I usually prepare myself for a truncated view.  However, Keller does nothing to lessen the gravity of transgression and the seriousness of sin's consequences, namely alienation from God.  He suggests that sin is really a matter of the much deeper issue of self-righteousness.  In this understanding of sin, one can keep every rule and still be deep in sin, because the central issue is trusting oneself for salvation rather than Christ. 

Also worthy of commendation is Keller's treatment of the Christian hope.  He steers clear of any neoplatonic pie in the sky ethereal escapism.  With the Old and New Testament prophets, Keller outlines a vision of a very material and this worldly salvation.  He is firmly committed to the divinely declared goodness of creation and points forward to the ultimate end of humanity's exile from the garden when the city of God fills the earth and access to the tree of life is restored.  The goal is the very material wedding feast of the Lamb, as indicated in the feast hosted by the prodigal father in Jesus's parable.

I cannot give this book a higher recommendation.  It is an outstanding introduction to the essentials of the Christian faith.  Christians and non-Christians alike will benefit from this lucid text.