Review of ‘Know the Creeds and Councils’ by Justin L. Holcomb

Know-the-Creeds-and-Councils Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Know the Creeds and Councils by Justin L. Holcomb “aims to provide an accessible overview of the main creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils of Christian history.” In this, he mainly succeeds, giving chapter length-treatments of the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds; the councils of Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople, Carthage, and Orange; and the Council of Trent and Second Vatican Council (for Catholicism) and the Heidelberg Catechism, Thirty-nine Articles, and Westminster Confession of Faith (for Protestantism).

His choices regarding what to include and exclude will not please all readers, however. Specifically, he excludes major Lutheran documents (such as the Augsburg Confession) but includes the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Lausanne Covenant. These choices make sense in terms of the author’s personal commitments as an evangelical Episcopalian priest with Reformed theological sensibilities as well as his probable readers’ theological sensibilities. Nonetheless, they leave readers with a hole in their understanding of historic Protestantism.

Regardless, I think this volume is a worthwhile read. American evangelicals, as religious populists, often have historically thing understandings of Christian doctrine. Holcomb’s book usefully introduces such readers to the richness of the Christian tradition, reminding them that they have inherited “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 5). He explains the development of key Christian doctrines and shows how doctrinal considerations are relevant to life. This book is perfect for use in Sunday school classes, small groups, book clubs, and individual self-study.

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Review of ‘A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible’ by Leland Ryken

 Literary-FormsLeland Ryken, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

In the introduction to this marvelous little book, Leland Ryken makes a distinction that helps explain why his book is necessary. Some people, he notes, argue that “the literary forms of the Bible are only the forms in which the content comes to us.” By contrast, he argues that the Bible’s literary forms are “the only form in which the content is expressed.” He concludes: “Without form, no content exists. Form is meaning. Meaning is embodied in form.”

If Ryken is correct—and I think he is—then we must pay attention to genres, literary techniques, motifs, archetypes and type scenes, figures of speech, rhetorical devices, stylistic traits, and formulas, for these literary forms are the vehicles by means of which biblical authors, inspired by God, expressed theological, historical, and moral content. Failure to understand the literary form correctly may result in a failure to understand the Bible correctly. We should not interpret a parable as a historical narrative, to cite an obvious example. If we do, we misunderstand both.

The handbook presents literary forms in alphabetical order, beginning with “ABUNDANCE, STORY OF” and ending with “WORSHIP PSALM.” For each form, Ryken provides both definition and example. Most of his entries are noncontroversial, though I think “PARABLE” might ruffle a few pastoral feathers, since it argues that parables are “usually allegorical,” in the sense that “numerous details in most of [Jesus’] parables stand for something else.” My guess is that readers will agree the substance of Ryken’s remarks, even if they chafe at his use of the words allegory and allegorical.

Ryken’s entries, “COMEDY” and “TRAGEDY,” point to architectonic truths about the literary form of the Bible considered as a whole. “It is a commonplace of literary criticism,” Ryken writes in the former entry, “that comedy rather than tragedy is the dominant form of the Bible and the Christian gospel.” Why? “The story begins with the creation of a perfect world. It descends into the tragedy of fallen human history. It ends with a new world of total happiness and victory over evil.” By contrast, as Ryken writes in the latter entry, “The materials for tragedy are everywhere present in the Bible, but the Bible is largely a collection of averted tragedies—potential tragedies that are avoided through human repentance and divine forgiveness.” The biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption encodes a comic worldview, a hopeful story with a happy ending. No wonder joy is the predominant response to the gospel whenever it is preached!

Those wishing to study the literary forms of the Bible in greater depth can turn to several other works by the same author, including: How to Read the Bible as Literature, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, Ryken’s Bible Handbook, and Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, which he co-edited with James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III.

Finally, on a personal note, I was a student of Ryken’s in his classes on British Literature and Milton at Wheaton College (Class of ’91). I enjoyed those classes thoroughly, despite the bullwhip. (Don’t ask!) And I continue to profit from his many writings on the literary qualities of the Bible.

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Review of ‘How We Got the New Testament’ by Stanley E. Porter

How-we-got-the-new-testament Stanley E. Porter, How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

How We Got the New Testament by Stanley E. Porter deals with three important issues: (1) the text of the New Testament, specifically, whether it can be reconstructed reliably from the thousands of later manuscripts which are our only record of it; (2) the transmission of the New Testament in its early years; and (3) the translation of the New Testament into languages other than Greek in its early years, as well as into English in the last five centuries.

Porter concludes that the New Testament text can be reconstructed reliably, with 80 to 90 percent being “established…regardless of the textual variants present in the manuscript. Moreover, the variants tend—with a handful of notable exceptions—to be minor, neither changing the meaning nor the orthodoxy of the text. With this in mind, Porter takes Bart Ehrman of Misquoting Jesus fame to task for the “unwarranted sensationalism” of that books’ argument.

Regarding the transmission of the New Testament, Porter argues that it is possible “to trace the development of the four Gospel and Pauline letter corpora back to the second century.” He argues that there is some evidence that “the remaining parts of the New Testament [e.g., the catholic epistles] were also being gathered during this time.” This has implications for discussions about the canonicity of the New Testament, though Porter doesn’t explicitly discuss issues of canon. The fact that post-Apostolic Age Christians routinely collected the four Gospels and Paul’s letters (and perhaps the other New Testament writings) indicates, in my opinion, that they held these works in particular regard.

The final chapter, after briefly surveying the early history of translating the New Testament from Greek into other languages and the more recent history of English translations, surveys various issues in the debate over translation theory. Porter demonstrates that the debate is more complex than formal equivalence vs. functional (or dynamic) equivalence. Evangelicals who are accustomed to the polemics between ESV and NIV proponents will discover how difficult translation really is.

In the Introduction, Porter writes, “I conceive of my audience for this book as…an inquisitive and generally well-educated and thinking Christian audience, ideally though not necessarily with some formal theological education.” As an ordained minister with a graduate degree in theology, I think Porter has misestimated his readership. This book will profit theological students and seminarians primarily, though it also makes several proposals scholars might find helpful. Students especially will benefit from the studies Porter so helpfully documents in the footnotes. However, a general Christian audience will likely find themselves unfamiliar with the background knowledge Porter assumes his readers know and some of the terminology he uses, as well as confused by the ins and outs of the academic debates Porter occasionally weighs in on. (Though, as an American, I must concede that general Christian readers in Canada may be better informed than counterparts in the States.)

Even with that qualification about readership, however, How We Got the New Testament is a fascinating, erudite study that I enjoyed and recommend.

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Review of ‘Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus’ by Jonathan Leeman

 Church-MembershipJonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). Hardcover / Kindle

What does it mean to be a member of a church? To answer that question, you must know what the church is. And to know that, you must understand who Jesus is.

The New Testament speaks of Jesus in political terms: He is “Lord” and “Christ,” the one who announces and enacts the “kingdom of God.” On this understanding, the church is an embassy of the kingdom in the midst of a hostile world. Members of that church, then, are “citizens” of the kingdom of heaven, “resident aliens” in the earthly communities where they live.

Of course, the New Testament uses other metaphors to describe the church as well, e.g., body, bride, temple, family, vine, etc. But the kingdom metaphor is the one that Jonathan Leeman emphasizes in Church Membership. He defines the local church as “a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances” (p. 52). Church membership, then, is “a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church” (p. 64).

There is much to recommend in Leeman’s brief treatment of church membership. For one thing, he helps us see both the essentially communal nature of Christian commitment as well its political implications. There is a reason why totalitarian governments target the Christian church for persecution: Its worship of Christ as Lord relativizes the government’s authority and draws limits to its exercise of power.

Although Leeman didn’t touch on this point, his understanding of church as an embassy of heaven also undercuts efforts in our own country to turn America into a Christian nation. If Leeman is right, this effort is clearly fallacious, for Christian nationalism moves the representation of God’s kingdom from the church to the nation. Nationalism becomes the communal expression of Christian faith, which explains why so many American Christians can see the church itself as optional, but get very upset if you question the benevolence of the American experiment.

The essentially communal nature of Christian commitment, as Leeman presents it, also explains a feature of the New Testament church that is absent from most American churches today: church discipline, up to and including excommunication. If Christ is Lord, if the church is his embassy on earth, and if citizenship in heaven requires both doctrinal and ethical commitments, then it stands to reason that affirmation of citizenship by the church can be revoked for both heterodoxy and immorality. See Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 for relevant biblical treatments of this neglected aspect of American Christianity.

The great danger of the church’s essentially communal nature is authoritarianism, where the church itself exceeds the limits of its authority. Overbearing pastors, nosy elders, members who want to major on doctrinal minors and promote church conflicts to get their way—all these are the temptations and downsides of the understanding of church Leeman proposes, as he himself acknowledges.

The question, then, is how Christians steer a middle (and biblical) course between individualism on the one hand (where church membership is undervalued) and authoritarianism on the other (where church leadership abuses followers in a pursuit of power). The key, if I understand Leeman correctly, is to keep the gospel central to our practice of church, through biblically grounded preaching and the practice of Christian ordinances (baptism and communion).

Leeman’s church tradition is baptistic, and this informs his understanding of church and membership at points. As a Pentecostal whose fellowship (the Assemblies of God) has been influenced by Baptist theology and ecclesiology on a number of points, I can appreciation this while also realizing that non-baptistic Christians might parse things a bit differently.

Nevertheless, on the whole, I think Leeman is right to emphasize the essentially communal nature of Christianity, especially when American Christianity is so voluntaristic and individualistic. I do wish that he would’ve spent more time exploring how other metaphors might expand, modify, and even soften the understanding of church that arises from giving the kingdom metaphor pride of place. And I do worry that some pastors and church leaders will abuse their positions of authority and cite Leeman’s dictum that the church is “the highest kingdom authority on earth” as their justification.

Still, American Christians have swung so far in the direction of individualism—with all the doctrinal and ethical chaos which it entails—that a move toward an essentially communal understanding of Christian faith, especially one that strives to be gospel-centered and biblically well founded, should be applauded.

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Review of ‘D. L. Moody–A Life: Innovatory, Evangelist, Worldchanger’ by Kevin Belmonte

 D-L-MoodyKevin Belmonte, D. L. Moody—A Life: Innovator, Evangelist, Worldchanger (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

The life of D. L. Moody is a quintessentially American and evangelical one.

Born in 1837 in Northfield, Massachusetts, Moody worked hard, moved west to Chicago, Illinois, and rose from poverty to prosperity in his early 20s. That’s the American part of his story. Had he stuck with business, he would today be remembered as a millionaire alongside Marshall Field, with whom he in fact lived at a boardinghouse on Michigan Ave.

But God had other plans for his life. Moody had converted to Christianity in Boston through the personal ministry of a Sunday school teacher named Edward Kimball. In Chicago, his landlord, Mrs. Peterson—known to boarders as Mother Peterson—encouraged him to get involved in Sunday school work. In the nineteenth century, Sunday school was part spiritual instruction and part social work. Moody didn’t feel qualified to teach, but he would round up young boys and bring them to the Wells Street Mission.

In due time, he and J. B. Stillson went to a slum known as Little Hell and started a Sunday school in an abandoned freight car on North State Street. The ministry grew, lives were changed, and Moody, though a layman, increasingly threw himself into the work of ministry. Moody declined armed service in the Civil War, due to his “Quaker” or pacifist beliefs, but he became a de facto chaplain to Union soldiers in Illinois and elsewhere, caring for the spiritual and physical needs.

By the end of the war, Moody, now married, realized that God wanted him to pursue gospel ministry full time. Giving up the 19th-century equivalent of a six-figure salary, Moody drew upon his abundant reserves of salesmanship and entrepreneurialism to evangelize Chicago for Christ. This led, in due time, to the formation of what is now Moody Bible Church, Moody Bible institute, and scores of other evangelistic and humanitarian missions. After the 1871 Chicago Fire, Moody moved his base of operations to his hometown of Northfield and there, without ever losing interest in Chicago or its ministries, started the Northfield Seminary and Mount Hermon School to provide, respectively, young women and young men without means the opportunity to have a decent education.

During this period, his effectiveness as an evangelist brought him grown renown, and he traveled throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, preaching Christ. His evangelistic work was innovative, interdenominational, and made effective use of music through his close cooperation with Ira Sankey. Their hymnals sold over a million copies in their lifetimes, the entire proceeds from which went to fund evangelistic and charitable enterprises.

Moody’s theology was of the “mere Christianity” variety. He worked across denominational lines and was respected, among evangelicals, by both Methodists (Arminians) and Presbyterians (Calvinists). Unlike some evangelicals of that day, he even had kind things to say about Catholics, many of whom held him in high regard. His sermons were simple, common-sense affairs, focused on the love of God and practical Christianity and illustrated with vignettes drawn from everyday life. He preached to society’s high and low alike, calling for conversion and reminding all to help the poor.

That’s the evangelical part of Moody’s story.

Kevin Belmonte’s new biography of D. L. Moody is a fast-moving character study of America’s most famous late-19th-century evangelist. In a bibliography, Belmonte points to several academic treatments of Moody’s life. His own work, however, is popular in character and inspiring to read. What a wonder Moody was, in his own day, and what an inspiration to our own.

Another publisher—InterVarsity Press—has a multivolume series entitled A History of Evangelicalism. Successive volumes focus on representative figures of evangelicalism across the agesVolume 3 focuses on Charles Spurgeon in the United Kingdom and Moody here in the States. At the start of the 21st century, and after reading Belmonte’s book, I wonder who will be American evangelicalism’s Moody today—the embodiment of its evangelistic zeal, entrepreneurial innovation, and social-reform tendencies?

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Review of ‘Integrity at Stake’ by Rollie Dimos

 Integrity-at-StakeRollie Dimos, Integrity at Stake: Safeguarding Your Church’s Honor (Ozark, MO: Rollie Dimos, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

There are many ways to defraud a nonprofit organization, such as a church or a charity. Rollie Dimos provides case studies of at least nine ways in his new book, Integrity at Stake. Thankfully, he also demonstrates how simple internal controls can reduce the incidence of fraud and insure that donations make their way to their intended beneficiaries.

Dimos is director of Internal Audit for the Assemblies of God (USA) and a certified fraud examiner and certified internal auditor. This book arises out of his years of experience in the nonprofit world. If you are a pastor, board officer or member, or staff accountant at a local church, reading this book will help you safeguard your church’s finances.

The fallout of fraud in a church’s finances has both short- and long-term consequences. In the short term, fraud embarrasses the congregation, tightens a church’s finances, harms ministries, and entangles the church in legal controversy. In the long term, fraud destroys the church’s honor, making donors doubt whether their money is going to ministry purposes and blackening the church’s reputation in the eyes of the community.

The answer to fraud can be summarized in three terms: accountability, transparency, and internal controls. As Dimos writes:

I encourage churches to embrace accountability and transparency, two essential keys that will minimize risk and help your church fulfill its mission. And by adding a few simple internal controls, you will increase the accountability and transparency of your nonprofit organization, bring integrity to your financial operations, and in my opinion, characterize biblical stewardship! (p. 10)

Don’t let fraud ruin your ministry! Buy this book and make accountability, transparency, and internal controls hallmarks of how your church handles money!

P.S. Full disclosure: I am a friend and colleague of Rollie Dimos at the Assemblies of God (USA) national office, but I work in a separate, non-finance related department.

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Review of ‘Same-Sex Marriage’ by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet

Same-Sex-Marriage Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

On September 21, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law, which Congress had passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities (85–14 in the Senate, 342–67 in the House). Section 3 of that law provided a legal definition of the words marriage and spouse for federal laws and regulations: “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled Section 3 unconstitutional by a 5–4 vote. And although DOMA was enacted with significant Democratic congressional support and signed into law by a Democratic president, the current Democratic party platform explicitly endorses “marriage equality.”

The enactment and demise of Section 3 of DOMA illustrate the tectonic shift in U.S. public opinion regarding same-sex marriage particularly and homosexuality generally. Over the past two decades, public opinion has become increasingly favorable to both. The Pew Research Center has tracked public opinion on these matters since 2001. Its polling data show a reversal of fortunes for the anti- and pro-same-sex marriage positions. In 2001, the public opposed same-sex marriage, 57–35 percent. Now it favors same-sex marriage 52–40 percent. Furthermore, the trend line of opinion regarding same-sex marriage is increasingly favorable in every demographic category: generation, religious affiliation, political party, political ideology, race, and gender.

This tectonic shift in U.S. public opinion and law is dispiriting to those of us Christians who affirm the biblical and traditional understanding of marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman. Given the way this understanding has shaped marriage law in America, the rapid shift of opinion represents more than political or legal defeat. It represents a cultural defeat as well.

“In light of this reality,” Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet write in their new book, “Christians should shift their mindset from preserving or conserving to proposing and building. Christians should no longer wish for a massive judicial or political victory to save marriage. When an institution has been culturally compromised the way marriage has been, it cannot be saved. It has to be redefined and reestablished” (pp. 86–87, emphasis in original).

McDowell and Stonestreet divide their book into two parts. Part 1, “What Marriage Is and Why It Matters,” offers biblical and prudential arguments for understanding marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman. Their biblical case focuses on the Genesis creation accounts (Genesis 1–2), which Jesus affirmed as normative for believers in Matthew 19. They identify three “essential characteristics” of marriage: (1) union, (2) procreation, and (3) permanence. Interestingly, they don’t discuss the biblical passages that proscribe homosexual behavior. This is the right move, in my opinion, because marriage can be positively defined without reference to proscribed sexual behaviors.

McDowell and Stonestreet’s prudential case builds on an argument made by Maggie Gallagher: “Sex makes babies. Society needs babies. Babies deserve mothers and fathers” (p. 44). As they explain it, “societies have a vested interest in the process that most often produces children. That’s why every society cares about sex. Societies also have a vested interest in supporting an environment that best rears children. That’s why every society cares about marriage” (p. 45).

If the traditional view of marriage acknowledges the essential connection between sex, procreation, and marriage, the revisionist view of marriage denies it. As same-sex marriage proponent E. J. Graff puts it, “Allowing two people of the same-sex to marry shifts the institution’s message… If same-sex marriage becomes legal, that venerable institution will ever stand for sexual choice, for cutting the link between sex and diapers.” Similarly, Andrew Sullivan writes, “From being a means to bring up children, [marriage] has become primarily a way in which two adults affirm their emotional commitment to one another” (p. 60).

Stated this way, readers should be able to see that the revisionist view predates advocacy of same-sex marriage by many decades. Long before gay activists began to champion same-sex marriage, advocates of the so-called “sexual revolution” were advocating changes to opposite-sex marriage, emphasizing sexual choice and emotional commitment, while simultaneously untying the knot of marriage, sex, and procreation. The results of that emphasis are all around us: sex outside of marriage, widespread use of contraceptives and abortifacients, the prevalence of nonmarital childbirth, no-fault divorce, etc. Same-sex marriage is the fruit of the sexual revolution, then, but not the root of it.

Part 2, “What We Can Do for Marriage,” offers practical suggestions for how the Christian church can go about rebuilding a culture of marriage in America. To me, the most interesting suggestion is the authors’ call to repentance in chapter 9. “If, in response, we spend the next 20 years point out discrimination and lost religious freedoms to the world without addressing concerns in our own community, we will become our own worst enemies. It’s time to take a long, hard look inward, admit our shortcomings and ask forgiveness from God, from each other and, where appropriate, from the gay community. There is no path forward to building a strong marriage culture that does not begin with a revival of God’s people to His design for marriage” (p. 100, emphasis in original).

That revival means we must address the practices of nonmarital sex, cohabitation, and nonmarital childbirth within the Christian community, not to mention of divorce. It also means that we need to address unbiblical attitudes and actions toward homosexual people. What might those be? McDowell and Stonestreet provide a list of questions:

  • Have we told inappropriate jokes that dehumanize gays and lesbians?
  • Have we treated some persons differently because of what we knew or suspected about their sexual orientation?
  • Have we listened as someone entrusted us with his or her deep struggles and sexual identity or behaviors, only to break off the relationship in disgust and fear?
  • Have we slandered others, whether or not they’ve slandered us first?
  • Have we spread gossip?
  • Have we condemned another, using their homosexual sin to justify and coddle our own heterosexual sin?
  • Have we re-tweeted or re-posted harsh and uncharitable words about the gay community on Facebook?
  • Have we physically or emotionally abused someone because they identify as gay? (p. 106)

McDowell and Stonestreet offer many other suggestions for building a culture of marriage in the United States, but their emphasis on repentance is both welcome and the best place to start. Didn’t Jesus himself say, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3–5)?

Same-Sex Marriage is a short book, written to persuade the average Christian and thus ideal for use in Sunday school classes, small groups, and book clubs. Its tone is consistently gracious. It touches on the main points of the argument about the nature of marriage without getting bogged down in details. A short list of books for further reading would’ve been helpful, though readers who want to study the topic at greater length can mine the endnotes for that information.

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