Review of ‘What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?’ by Brian Han Gregg

what-does-the-bible-say-about-sufferingBrian Han Gregg, What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

“Suffering is one of the great universals of human life,” Brian Han Gregg writes in What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? For the Christian, the experience of suffering poses a difficult theological question: “Why has my God, who is both wholly good and completely powerful, allowed this to unfold?” To answer that question, Gregg turns to the Bible and outlines its response.

Or perhaps I should say responses (plural), for Gregg argues that “there is no single way forward,” as far as the Bible is concerned. Instead, it includes “a number of different responses to the problem of suffering, and we do ourselves and the Bible a great disservice by adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.” He compares the “biblical witness” to a “talented choir” that sings in a “complex harmony.”

According to the Bible,

  1. “[S]uffering may be punishment from God” (e.g., Deuteronomy 30:15–20).
  2. It may result “from the sinful choices of others” (e.g., Genesis 4:1–8).
  3. Regardless, “God’s redemptive power is stronger than the suffering that afflicts us” (Genesis 45:4–8).
  4. Suffering can be “the work of Satan…to cause [us] to fall away from Jesus” (Luke 22:31–34).
  5. Sometimes, we must humbly accept “the mystery of suffering,” which is beyond our power to comprehend (Job 40:8–14).
  6. Often, suffering takes place “within the context of God’s redemptive purposes” (Romans 8:18–25).
  7. Other times, it plays “an important role in our spiritual growth and development” (Hebrews 12:1–13).
  8. On occasion, God himself uses suffering “to test our faith” (Exodus 17:1–7).
  9. On other occasions, we experience “the power of God’s new life” only when “we embrace suffering in solidarity with Christ in his death” (2 Corinthians 4:7–12).
  10. At all times, “God is our comfort in the midst of suffering” (2 Corinthians 1:3–7).
  11. “We are invited to join [Christ] in emptying ourselves for the sake of others so that we might also share in his glory” (Philippians 2:5–11).
  12. Our suffering participates in “God’s own suffering as it unfolds in the already and not yet” of the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:24).

When we realize the “complex harmony” of the Bible’s message about suffering, we shy away from simplistic answers about suffering. For example, sin—whether ours or someone else’s—is sometimes the cause of our suffering (answers 1 and 2), but not always (answer 5). The temptation Satan uses to trip us up (answer 4) can be the test God uses to build us up (answer 8). The number of different responses to suffering requires that we use discernment when counseling the sufferer, lest we misdiagnose the cause of their suffering and prescribe the wrong treatment for it.

While these twelve responses differ among themselves, they have this in common: “Each…draws us back to God,” Gregg writes. “Together they encourage us to seek him in the midst of our suffering so that hope may be reborn.”

What Does the Bible Says About Suffering? is a short-but-wise book. Pastors will find it useful in their preaching and counseling ministries. Similarly, small groups and book clubs will find that it generates helpful conversations about the church’s response to suffering. I highly recommend it.

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Review of ‘Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?’ (revised edition) by John Fea

John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Few questions in American politics generate as much controversy as the relationship between church and state. On one side are Christian nationalists who contend that the nation was founded on religious principles. On the other side are secularists who argue it was founded on Enlightenment principles. The controversy between them is evident, most obviously, in the seemingly endless First Amendment cases brought before our nation’s courts to determine whether that amendment’s “establishment” and/or “free exercise” clauses have been violated. But behind the evident legal controversy lies the latent historical controversy, in which the same contending parties dispute the facts and significance of the Founding Era.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea is an excellent introduction to that question and should be read by both Christian nationalists and secularists alike, for it corrects the historical errors both sides commit and draws a balanced portrait of the role religion did (and did not) play in the American Founding.

In the Introduction to the book, Fea—an evangelical historian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania—explains why the question the title of his book asks is so controversial, namely, because both sides to the controversy are seeking a “usable past” to buttress their side in contemporary political debates. Historians, he goes on to argue, should avoid such present-mindedness and seek to understand the past on its own, often complex terms.

Fea then unfolds his argument in three parts:

Part One examines the history of the idea of Christian nationalism from the ratification of the Constitution (1789) to the present day. Chapter 1 examines the dominance of evangelical Christianity in America from 1789 to the end of the Civil War. Chapter 2 surveys the different concepts of Christian nationalism at play in post-bellum society until the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). Chapter 3 continues the story until 1980, focusing especially on how Christian nationalism affected mainline Protestantism, American Catholicism, Cold War religious unity, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emerging Religious Right. Chapter 4 looks closely at that last group, noting the resurgence of conservative, evangelical Christian nationalism since 1980.

Part Two answers a question: “Was the American Revolution a Christian event?” Chapter 5 shows that both Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were explicitly, legally, and institutionally Christian communities with established churches, but that the nature of their establishments varied widely and their actual practice often fell well short of Christian ethical norms (as, for example, the practice of African slavery and ill treatment of the aboriginal populations). Chapter 6 argues that the intellectual underpinnings of and justifications for the American Revolution were based more on secular Enlightenment ideas than biblical principles. Chapter 7 extends this argument by showing how pro-revolution clergy often read those Enlightenment ideas into their preaching of the Bible, rather than deriving their preachments from biblical principles.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 examine the form of religion that influenced the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, respectively, and note the controversies over religious freedom that gripped the colonies during these years. The God of the Declaration (“nature’s God”) is ambivalent, capable of being recognized by both Christians and Enlightenment theists alike. (For an excellent study of the common theological ground between these two groups during the Founding, see God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd.) The Articles of Confederation left the establishment or disestablishment of religion in state hands, with Massachusetts retaining its established Congregationalism (until 1833) and Virginia disestablishing its Anglicanism through the yeoman efforts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, against the contrary efforts of Christian nationalists such as Patrick Henry. Regarding the Constitution, Fea notes the irony that leading Christian nationalists—such as Patrick Henry, again—were anti-Federalists in the ratification debates precisely because the Constitution did not acknowledge the nation’s Christian heritage. And he concludes by discussing what Jefferson’s “wall of separation” did and did not mean at the time.

Part Three investigates the religious beliefs of George Washington (Chapter 11), John Adams (Chapter 12), Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 13), Benjamin Franklin (Chapter 14), and John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams (Chapter 15). Of these, only the last three can be considered “orthodox” in Christian doctrine and practice. Fea describes Washington as a latitudinarian Anglican more interested in religion’s social utility than in Christian doctrine or practice. Adams is a “devout Unitarian,” Jefferson a “follower of Jesus” who separated the supernatural husk from the moral kernel of Jesus’ life and teaching, and Franklin as an “ambitious moralist.” They disagreed on doctrine but agreed on one thing: “religion was necessary in order to sustain and ordered and virtuous republic” (a point which Kidd also argues in God of Liberty).

I highly recommend Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to all readers, but especially to those interested in the debates surrounding the role of religion in our nation’s history and the contentious issues of church-state separation. It is clearly organized, well written, thorough in its research, and judicious in its conclusions. It will—or should!—complexify the simplistic historical interpretations of both Christian nationalists and their secularist opponents. Such complexification, I hope, will tamp down the fires of contention and lead to greater cooperation as both religious and secular Americans see their stake in our collaborative national experiment.

The revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? features a new cover, corrects mistakes in the previous edition, updates the bibliographies at the end of each section, and includes an Epilogue that discusses new developments since the 2011 publication of the first edition. Otherwise, the text is the same as the first edition.


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P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with John Fea on the book.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at

Review of ‘Growing Young’ by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin

growing-youngKara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

“Multiple studies highlight that 40 to 50 percent of youth group seniors—like the young people in your church—drift from God and the faith community after they graduate from high school.”

Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin cite this statistic at the outset of their new book, Growing Young. The statistic alarmed me both because I am a minister concerned about trends that affect the church and also because I am a father concerned about the faith journeys of my own children. If you share my concerns, I encourage you to read this book, which outlines “6 essential strategies to help young people discover and love your church,” as the book’s subtitle puts it.

Those strategies emerged out of an intensive four-year research project led by Powell, Mulder, and Griffin under the auspices of the Fuller Youth Institute in Pasadena, California. The authors all work for FYI. If you’re interested in research methodology, make sure to read the Appendix.

What the research did not reveal was as interesting to me as what it did reveal. In the first chapter, the authors briefly outline “10 Qualities Your Church Doesn’t Need in Order to Grow Young.” That list includes:

  1. A precise size
  2. A trendy location or region
  3. An exact age
  4. A popular denomination…or lack of denomination
  5. An off-the-charts cool quotient
  6. A big, modern building
  7. A big budget
  8. A “contemporary” worship service
  9. A watered-down teaching style
  10. A hyper-entertaining ministry program

Some churches effectively engaging young people had these ten qualities, others didn’t. In other words, they weren’t necessary or sufficient for engaging young people.

So, what did the research reveal? It showed that churches that are “growing young” make six “core commitments”:

  1. Unlock keychain leadership. Instead of centralizing authority, empower others—especially young people.
  2. Empathize with today’s young people. Instead of judging or criticizing, step into the shoes of this generation.
  3. Take Jesus’ message seriously. Instead of asserting formulaic gospel claims, welcome young people into a Jesus-centered way of life.
  4. Fuel a warm community. Instead of focusing on cool worship or programs, aim for warm peer and intergenerational friendships.
  5. Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere. Instead of giving lip service to how much young people matter, look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource, and involve them in all facets of your congregation.
  6. Be the best neighbors. Instead of condemning the world outside your walls, enable young people to neighbor well locally and globally.

As a middle-aged man with three young children at home, I felt especially challenged by the second and third commitments.

Empathize with today’s young people. All people—me included—struggle with questions of identity (“Who am I?”), belonging (“Where do I fit?”), and purpose (“What difference do I make?”). But for a variety of reasons, today’s young people wrestle with these questions earlier, longer, and more intensely than previous generations. Churches who effectively engage today’s young people don’t make fun of or get exasperated with their struggles. Neither do they alleviate the wrestling with fluff or entertainment. Instead, they empathetically listen and respond with “grace, love, and mission.”

Take Jesus’ message seriously. The authors note that sociologists of religion have “identified the de facto religious belief system of teenagers today as moralistic therapeutic deism.” Basically, many of today’s young people think that God exists (deism) and wants people to be nice (moralistic) and happy (therapeutic). Beyond that, God isn’t much involved with or concerned about people. Unfortunately, many churches reinforce moralistic therapeutic deism by reducing Christianity to a behavioral code.

By contrast, churches that are growing young are making three key shifts:

  1. Less talk about abstract beliefs and more talk about Jesus.
  2. Less tied to formulas and more focused on a redemptive narrative.
  3. Less about heaven later and more about life here and now.

This doesn’t mean that growing-young churches have ditched abstractions, formulas, or heaven, by the way. However, their emphasis is on who Christ is, what He has done for us, and how He wants us to act now in light of that. This is a biblically rooted, orthodox, and active faith.

As I read these chapters in particular, I kept asking myself: Do I empathize with young people in my church? With my own kids? Am I taking Jesus’ message seriously myself? Is this reflected in how I interact with young people in my church? With my own kids? When you read Growing Young, you may be challenged by a different set of the core commitments. I have highlighted the two that challenged me in order to give you a taste of how the details the authors provide for each commitment.

So, who should read Growing Young? Frankly, whoever cares about young people—clergy or laity, paid staff or volunteer, young or old. I’d especially encourage senior pastors to read it, however. They’re a church’s primary vision caster, mission bearer, and values leader. Engaging young people today can’t be delegated (or relegated) to the junior high, high school, college, and young adults ministries. Growing young must become part of the church’s culture.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

P.P.S. You might also want to check out my Influence Podcast with Kara Powell. We talk in greater depth about the book.

Review of ‘Does God Love Everyone?’ by Jerry L. Walls

CASCADE_TemplateJerry L. Walls, Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What Is Wrong with Calvinism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). 

The past two decades have witnessed a resurgence of Calvinism among American evangelicals. This resurgence is especially evident within the Southern Baptist Convention, which historically has been and still is divided over the issue. However, it has also made its presence felt in Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God, which do not have historic ties to Calvinism.

By Calvinism, I mean specifically the doctrine of salvation that is commonly explained by means of the acronym, TULIP:

  • T = Total depravity
  • U = Unconditional election
  • L = Limited atonement
  • I = Irresistible grace
  • P = Perseverance of the saints

In the seventeenth century, Jacob Arminius—a Dutch Reformed theologian—set forth a different understanding of salvation that has been called Arminianism after him. It is sometimes explained by means of the acronym, FACTS:

  • F = Freed by grace to believe
  • A = Atonement for all
  • C = Conditional election
  • T = Total depravity
  • S = Security in Christ

In Does God Love Everyone? Jerry L. Walls—an evangelical philosopher—outlines an argument against Calvinism and for Arminianism. Its strength is that it focuses on the central point of the disagreement between them. Walls writes:

The deepest issue that divides Arminians and Calvinists is not the sovereignty of God, predestination, or the authority of the Bible. The deepest difference pertains to how we understand the character of God. Is God good in the sense that he deeply and sincerely loves all people?

According to Walls, the answer of Arminianism is “Yes.” The answer of Calvinism is “No.” As Calvinist author Arthur W. Pink put it in The Sovereignty of God: “When we say that God is sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whom he chooses. God does not love everybody…” Walls argues that Pink’s statement is characteristic of Calvinism, even if it’s stated with a bluntness uncharacteristic of most Calvinists.

To see why this is so, consider the argument Walls makes:

  1. God truly loves all persons.
  2. Not all persons will be saved.
  3. Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you properly can.
  4. The well-being and true flourishing of all persons is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.
  5. God could give all persons “irresistible grace” and thereby determine all persons to freely accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.
  6. Therefore, all persons will be saved.

Clearly, this set of propositions contains a contradiction between 2 and 6. Both Calvinists and Arminians affirm 2, however. They’re not universalists, in other words. Similarly, both affirm 4.

So, how do they resolve the contradiction? Arminians do so by denying 5. They deny, in other words, that grace is irresistible.

Irresistible grace is part and parcel of Calvinism, however. It’s the I in TULIP. That means Calvinists must deny either 1 or 3. That is, they must deny either that “God truly loves all persons” or that “Truly to love someone is to desire their well-being and to promote their true flourishing as much as you properly can.” As noted above, Arthur W. Pink clearly denied 1. (Walls quotes Calvin himself to similar effect.)

Contemporary Calvinists rarely deny 1, however. Instead, they affirm that God truly loves all persons. For example, D. A. Carson affirms that God loves everyone in the sense that He exercises “providential love over all that he has made” and adopts a “salvific stance toward his fallen world.” However, Carson denies that God gives everyone the “particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect.” It’s hard to square this “love” for “all persons” with the definition of love in 3. A God who could but chooses not to bestow “particular, effective, selecting love” on everyone does not “truly” love them because He does not seek their eternal “well-being” and “true flourishing.”

Walls suggests one further wrinkle when he discusses John Piper, probably the best known Baptist Calvinist. Walls argues that Piper denies 5, not by ditching “irresistible grace” but by suggesting that God has a “greater value” than salvation. Such as what? Piper writes, “The answer the Reformed give is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Rom. 9:21–23) and the humbling of man so he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Cor. 1:29).” Because of this “greater value,” it seems that Piper denies God “could give all persons ‘irresistible grace’ [to be saved].” Some evidently must be condemned for God’s glory.

In order to maintain God’s sovereignty in election then, or to promote God’s glory, Calvinism denies that God loves everyone in the truest sense. Like Walls, I find this denial difficult to swallow. A god who can save all but chooses not to is not the God whom the Bible reveals, a God who is love (1 John 4:8).

Walls’ book is a brief outline of a much larger argument. Those looking for a more detailed argument should pick up his Why I Am Not a Calvinist, coauthored with Joseph R. Dingell. But that argument, even in outline form here, is difficult to rebut, as far as I am concerned.

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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at

What I’m Reading Today

American Views on Terrorism: 15 Years after 9/11

“When asked how likely they think they would be the victim of a terrorist attack, most Americans believe they are either “not really” (52%) or “not at all likely” (20%) to be victims. However, almost a quarter believe it is “somewhat likely” (23%). This is a relatively large number…”

‘Consensus Statement’ to Force MDs to Kill/Abort

With Wesley J. Smith, I’m flabbergasted by a recent bioethicists’ statement that suggests physicians should not be given a conscientious exemption from participating in euthanasia and abortion, where those practices are legal.

Massachusetts: Churches may be covered by transgender discrimination bans, as to ‘secular events’

When it comes to banning discrimination against transgender persons, Eugene Volokh points out “where these rules are headed.” Hint: Some church events will be treated as public accommodations.

Free Webinar Links Pornography and Sex Trafficking

“The Religious Alliance Against Pornography (RAAP) and guest presenter, Dr. Sandie Morgan, will host a free webinar at 12 p.m. (EDT) Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, and 9 p.m. (EDT) Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, to present the link between pornography and sex trafficking. Designed to empower faith communities to integrate strategic action plans to educate and protect children and families, Morgan will take an in-depth look at the fantasies of pornography that drive purchasers and lure victims into sex trafficking.”

Choosing a New Church or House of Worship

What do Americans look for when searching for a new church? According to latest report from the Pew Forum: “Americans look first and foremost for a place where they like the preaching and the tone set by the congregation’s leaders.” That’s news you can use.

The New Stealth Translation: ESV

Scot McKnight detects unwarranted complementarian-friendly translation in the new ESV Permanent Text Edition (2016).

Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church Ranked America’s Largest Megachurch With 52,000 Weekly Attendance

And it’s not the only megachurch that’s gotten mega-er. There’s a downside, however: “With the rapid growth of megachurches in the United States, a negative relationship between size and frequency of attendance could serve to accelerate aggregate declines in attendance,” according to Socius, the journal of the American Sociological Association.

The Secret Jews of The Hobbit

Meir Soloveichik argues, “The dwarves of Middle Earth, the central characters of one of the most beloved books of all time, are indeed based on the Jews.”

Inside the World’s Only Surviving Tattoo Shop For Medieval Pilgrims

I don’t have any tattoos (and don’t really want one anyway), but that 300-year-old stencil of St. George killing the dragon is pretty cool…

The Vatican unseen: inside the secret world of the workers – a photo essay

Because even the floors of St. Peter’s Basilica need an occasional waxing…

The Radical Impermanence of the World and the Permanence of Christian Love


Today is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. The Friday after 9/11, I wrote this devotional for my church. Providentially, in this devotional, I was working my way through 1 Corinthians 13 that week, Scripture’s “love chapter.” I’m reposting that devotional today because, fifteen years later, it still expresses my heart and mind in the light of that horrific event.


This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

O God, grant us a vision of this city, fair as it might be: a city of justice, where none shall prey upon the other; a city of plenty, where vice and poverty shall cease to fester; a city of brotherhood, where success is founded on service, and honor is given to nobleness alone; a city of peace, where order shall not rest on force, but on the love of all for each and all. (Walter Rauschenbusch, 1861-1918)


If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13, NIV 1984)


The events of this week remind us of the radical impermanence of the world.

Who would have thought – on Tuesday, September 11, before 8:45 a.m. – that the day would end with the deaths of nearly 5,000 victims and the total destruction of the Twin Towers and the partial destruction of the Pentagon? Who would have thought that a peaceful nation would, within minutes, be transformed into a nation gearing up for war? Who would have thought that the terror visited upon other, distant nations would be visited upon us?

Life, strength, peace – gone in minutes. Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul articulates the permanence of Christian love in contrast to the impermanence of everything else. The Corinthian Christians needed to hear this message because they had elevated impermanent things – the gift of tongues – onto a pedestal that one day would topple over. Life passes. Strength passes. Peace passes. The gift of tongues passes, as do the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. But love remains.

We are like children, Paul writes, who grow up. Activities appropriate to youth are inappropriate for grown men and women. Privileges reserved for adults are unavailable to children. Our very speech reflects the change; the halting lisp of childhood gives way to confident talk of serious adults. Our thinking matures. We are born, we grow, we live, and we die. Life passes. But love remains.

Faith itself passes away, as does hope. They are necessary only as long as God delays the final establishment of his kingdom and we enter into his rest. We believe in and we hope for only until our faith becomes sight and our dream a reality. When that happens, we no longer know partially, we know fully, and are fully known. Faith and hope pass. But love remains.

Why? Love remains because God is the only permanent reality, and God is love. Classical theology defines God as the unmoved mover, the being who shakes the heavens and the earth without being shaken. More recently, Clark Pinnock has called God “the most moved mover,” in recognition that his heart of love beats for suffering humanity. God remains, and so love remains.

At this moment in our nation’s history, love is – at the very same time – both close to and far from our minds. When we consider the victims of these terrorists’ attacks, our hearts go out to them and to their families. Throughout the nation, citizens have generously donated their prayers, their time, and even their blood to help those who are suffering. This is good. This is human life as God intended it to be lived.

And yet, I have also heard voices raised in anger. Calls for merciless and indiscriminate war against the citizens of Muslim nations, regardless of whether they perpetuated or supported the men who terrorized us all on Tuesday. This is bad. This is human life as Satan intends it to be lived. Love for our enemies, which Christ commanded, is far from our minds.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for justice, and if justice must come through the prosecution of war, then so be it. But after war, then what? In his second Inaugural Address, at the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln expressed thoughts that we must keep in mind when we are done with our war: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Charity for all. A just and lasting peace with all nations. That is what God is calling us to help establish once the coming war is justly prosecuted. The battle passes away, but love remains.

Sic transit gloria mundi. But not the glory of God.


O heavenly Father, at whose hand the weak shall take no wrong nor the might escape from judgment; pour your grace upon your servants our judges and magistrates, that by their true, fruitful and diligent execution of justice to all equally, you may be glorified, the commonwealth daily promoted, and we all live in peace and quietness, godliness and virtue; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Thomas Cranmer, 1489-1556)

Review of ‘Mission in the Early Church’ by Edward L. Smither

Mission-in-the-early-churchEdward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).

The aim of Mission in the Early Church is “to begin a discussion about early Christian mission that will impact how we think about and approach mission today” (p. 1). Its author—Edward L. Smither associate professor of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina—pursues this aim by providing “an introductory reflection on some prominent marks of Christian mission in the early church” (p. 5), including suffering, evangelism, Bible translation, contextualization, word and deed, and the church. Smither’s treatment of these themes is brief, balanced, and readable.

Chapter 1, “Backgrounds,” summarizes “the origins and development of Christianity,” its “political and social contexts,” and “the currents of thought” it encountered during the period, A.D. 100–750. During this era, the church expanded westward through the Roman Empire as well as Eastward into Persia, Mesopotamia, and beyond. During the pre-Constantinian period, the “first Christians had expansionist tendencies without worldly power” (p. 16), as Smith quotes Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, experiencing repeated bouts of local persecution. “Constantine’s alleged conversion [in A.D. 312] certainly set into a motion a pattern in which kings converted and then directed or at least influenced their subjects to do the same” (p. 22). The entanglement of church and state in the West continued until the modern era. However, in the East, the church fell prey to the rising Islamic tide.” “Within a century of the death of Muhammad,” quoting Irvin and Sunquist again, “as many as half of the world’s Christians [who lived in the East] were under Muslim political rule” (p. 23). Throughout this period, Christians engaged “a variety of philosophies and religions” (p. 24), but especially Gnosticism, paganism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, non-Christian monotheisms (i.e., Judaism and Islam), and numerous Christian heresies.

The title of chapter 2 reveals its topic: “Who Were the Missionaries?” Smither argues that there is evidence in this period for “official, full-time evangelists who proclaimed the gospel publicly in the early church” (p. 31). However, the majority of missionaries were “bivocational,” including “bishops, teachers, philosophers, and monks” (p. 32). Smither uses the word bivocational in an unusual way, here, it seems to me. While evangelism may not have been the first item in these groups’ job descriptions, all of them were connected to the church in some way, so they were not bivocational in the sense modern Christians use it, i.e., having an ecclesial as well as a “secular” job. (Even the philosophers Smither mentions, for example, are men like Justin Martyr and Origen, who ran catechetical schools.) The truly bivocational missionaries, in my opinion, are the “businessmen and merchants, colonists, and soldiers” who “played a significant role in early Christian mission” (p. 43). Smith quotes Adolph Harnack in this regard: “the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries,” then comments, “it is not insignificant that the two largest communities in the early western church—Rome and Carthage—had undocumented origins” (p. 44).

Chapter 3, “Suffering,” that is not usually thought of in missiological terms by western Christians. Rather, we think of the suffering contemporary Christians endure in political terms, as a violation of their religious freedom rights. As Smither shows, however, “suffering [in the early church] did serve as a strategic means for the advancement of the gospel.” This happened because “the public context of persecution allowed Christians the opportunity to witness verbally about their faith and to clarify and defend the gospel.” Furthermore, given that the suffering was unjust, it “resulted in apologetics, written treatises that defended and articulated Christian belief.” A final effect of suffering was that it “invigorate[d] the church and its mission as martyrs were remembered on feast days, through sermons, sacred biographies (vitae) and even through the construction of churches” (p. 51).

Chapter 4, “Evangelism,” examines “how the early church approached evangelism” (p. 76). Although evangelism in the early church did not look like the altar call at a Billy Graham crusade, Smither contends that “early Christian mission was characterized by a great commitment to kerygmatic proclamation” (p. 89). Christians in this period were “integrated into the fabric of society” (p. 76), so evangelism took place among all classes. However, Smither pays special attention to the use of written testimonies (e.g., Augustine’s Confessions), and the church’s engagement with intellectuals, political leaders, and heretics.

The translation of Scripture is the focus of chapter 5. Following Lamin Sanneh, Smither refers to translation as “the vernacular principle,” i.e., “making Scripture available in the heart languages of the world’s cultures” (p. 92). He shows the vernacular principle at work in this period through the translation of the Bible into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and Ethiopic (Ge’ez). He concludes this section with a twofold irony related to Latin: “communities that translated Scripture into the local vernacular managed to avoid extinction, especially following the rise of Islam in the seventh century,” except in North Africa, which never translated Scripture into Punic and Berber, using Latin instead. This “helps explain why the church in North Africa went from being one of the fastest growing churches in the Roman period to virtually non-existent once the Arabs took control of the region.” Moreover, in the west, the Vulgate, which was commissioned to serve as “a vernacular translation” became “the standard Bible for the global church,” effectively stifl[ing] vernacular translation efforts until the fifteenth century” (p.107).

Chapter 7, “Contextualization,” examines “how early Christian missionaries articulated the faith through commonly understood ideas, by engaging sacred space, and through visual and work culture,” though it also notes “how the church failed at points to be indigenous in its message and approach” (p. 111). I was especially intrigued by Smither’s discussion of “visual and material culture” (p. 117). Columba’s mission to the Picts took up and transformed Pictish art forms. I couldn’t help but wonder after reading this section whether Christian approaches to contextualization focus too much on ideas and too little on sights and sounds.

Among North American evangelicals, the holism-priorism debate continues to divide evangelical missiologists. Holism refers to whether the church’s mission includes both gospel proclamation and social action. Priorism refers to whether proclamation has priority over social action within the church’s mission. Chapter 8, “Word and Deed,” examines this question, showing that “good works accompanied proclamation in early Christian mission.” Good deeds included “care for the poor, hungry, imprisoned, enslaved, and marginalized,” but it also included “ministry to those in need of healing and freedom demonic possession” (p. 128). Smither concludes that “there was little debate in the church over the relationship between proclamation and social action” (p. 146). As a Pentecostal, this chapter was intriguing to me for two reasons: First, the holism-priorism debate is alive in my own denomination, the Assemblies of God. After reading this chapter, I am strengthened in my own opinion that asking, “Proclamation or social action?” is a false alternative. Why not both? Second, it was encouraging to read about the continuing ministries of healing and exorcism in the early church. One wonders why, given this history, cessationism ever got off the ground, theologically speaking.

The concluding chapter, “Church,” looks at “how the church embodied and embraced mission” (p. 149). Smither argues that “church was central to mission in the early Christian centuries—both before and after Constantine. Though mission strategies changed over time and church forms looked different, there was never a time when there was church-less Christianity. The most visible expression of Christian mission was the church and the most powerful means for it was the church” (p. 162, emphasis added). It is often said that contemporary people like Jesus but not the church. The sentiment is understandable—given how often churches don’t act in a Christ-like manner. It still is wrongheaded, however. Christianity is a community that results from and engages in the mission of Jesus Christ himself.

Smither concludes Mission in the Early Church with a sentence worth pondering: “It is good to reflect on the church’s memory of mission and consider how it might shape us today” (p. 166). Reading Smither’s book deepened my understanding of this period in church history, but it also forced me to think about the same topics in my own ministry. Am I a missionary? How do I suffer? Am I evangelizing people who need Christ’s good news? How do I help people understand the Bible? Am I speaking to the unconverted in a way they understand? Is my verbal witness accompanied by good works? How do I lead the world into the body of Christ and the body of Christ back into the world? For me, Smither’s was a thought-provoking study well worth reading a second time.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Review of ‘NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible’ edited by John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener

NIV-Cultural-Backgrounds-Study-BibleNIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, ed. John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).

One of the fundamental rules of biblical interpretation is that the Bible should be read in context. A corollary to this is that taking the Bible out of context is a great error. Bible readers should strive to do the former and avoid the latter. Context changes everything, you see.

The problem is that our cultural context is not the cultural context of the Bible’s original writers, hearers, and readers. For example, the story of Abraham (Genesis 12:1ff.) took place 4,000 years ago. Abraham’s world was characterized by polytheism, concubinage, slavery, sacrifice (of both animals and children), and a pastoral economy.

Similarly, the story of the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1ff.) took place 2,000 years ago. It was a world characterized by Greek culture and language, Roman law and politics, Gentile polytheism versus Jewish monotheism, slavery, and very different assumptions than ours about the worth of women and children, among other things.

The differences between our cultural backgrounds and the Bible’s cultural backgrounds illustrate the truth of L. P. Hartley’s famous statement, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” To understand the Bible’s meaning here, we must understanding its meaning there.

Unfortunately, the Bible’s cultural backgrounds are often opaque to us. Its original hearers and readers would’ve picked up on the meaning of a given Bible passage immediately because they understood its culture from the inside. Contemporary readers have to work harder to understand a text in its original context.

There are numerous print resources help readers do this: anthologies of ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman literature, Bible commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias, histories of the biblical eras, archaeological reports, and scholarly monographs on a variety of topics. The libraries of Bible scholars and pastors usually contain books like these.

The average Bible reader often doesn’t have the time to read or resources to accumulate such a library, however. What they want is a reliable, affordable volume that explains the basics of the Bible’s cultural backgrounds. That’s why I’m so excited about the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, edited by John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener, and published by Zondervan.

Walton and Keener are respected Bible scholars, teaching Old Testament at Wheaton College and New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, respectively. Both are devout Christians with a high view of Scripture’s inspiration and authority. Keener is a fellow Pentecostal.

Both have devoted a significant portion of their scholarly careers to understanding the Bible’s cultural backgrounds. Walton served as general editor of The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Old Testament. Keener authored the IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament. Walton and Keener drew on these resources to write the Old and New Testament sections of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, respectively.

Here are some of the key features of this Bible:

  • Introductions to each book of the Bible
  • 10,000 notes explaining specific verses
  • 320 essays and 375 maps, charts, and diagrams that “summarize and explain important background information from Scripture” (p. iv)
  • The NIV Cross-center Cross Reference system and the NIV Concordance, both of which are common to all NIV study Bibles

The focus of this study Bible is the cultural backgrounds of the Old and New Testaments. Walton and Keener identify “three goals” in their introduction to the text:

  1. We study the history of the Biblical world as a means of recovering knowledge of the events that shaped the lives of people in the ancient world.
  2. We study archaeology as a means of recovering the lifestyle reflected in the material culture of the ancient world.
  3. We study the literature of the ancient world as a means of penetrating the heart and soul of the people who inhabited that world (p. x).

This focus on history, archaeology, and literature means that the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible does not address questions about the application of biblical teaching to today’s questions, as do many other study Bibles. Instead, its goal is to illuminate the meaning of the Bible in its original cultural contexts.

One of the paradoxical themes that emerges from such a focus is similarity and difference. Put simply, biblical religion displays both similarities to ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman culture, the cultural backgrounds of the Old and New Testaments, as well as differences from those cultures. Both are necessary to fully understand the Bible in context.

Let me illustrate this with two articles from the study Bible:

The first comes from the Old Testament. The religions of both Israel and other ancient near eastern societies involved animal sacrifices and food offerings. See the opening chapters of Leviticus for a biblical example of this. This illustrates similarity.

But differences emerge on close inspection—deep differences, in fact. An article titled “Great Symbiosis” (p. 186) explains:

In the ancient Near Eastern world, people believed that the gods were initially quite content to live without human beings… As time went on, however, they grew tired of feeding themselves, making clothes for themselves and building houses for themselves. Digging ditches for irrigation to grow crops was heavy labor.

They therefore decided to create humans as a slave labor force. The responsibility of humans was to care for the gods in every way. Rituals provided food and drink the gods. Temples provided housing. The gods then became dependent on people to provide the luxury to which they were accustomed and which they deserved. In turn, the gods would provide for the people (so the people could provide for them) and protect the people who were caring for them. This defined the codependent relationship between the gods and humans in the ancient world.

Besides the rituals and the temple building, the gods were interested in maintaining justice among the people, but not because the gods were inherently just or because of any sense of ethical right and wrong. Rather, the gods understood that if society was plagued by lawlessness, violence and disorder, the people would not be at liberty to carry out their ritual obligations. Thus there was a symbiotic relationship between gods and people…which was maintained for a smoothly operating ritual system, designed to keep the gods happy.

The “Great Symbiosis” describes the relationship between gods and humans in the ancient Near Eastern cultures surrounding Israel. It was fundamentally materialistic, concerned with divine and human needs for food and shelter, and it prioritized ritual over righteousness.

Israel’s theology, on the other hand, was primarily moral and prioritized righteousness—a divine attribute—over ritual. The article goes on to say:

The difference in Israel was that even though they offered sacrifices to Yahweh, Yahweh did not need these sacrifices as food. In his covenant with Israel he promised to provide for his people and to take care of them, much like other gods did. However, what he required of them was not care and feeding, but covenant fidelity. We could therefore say that the Great Symbiosis was replaced in Israel by the Covenant Symbiosis.

Here’s another example, this time from the New Testament. Between 1946 and 1956, scholars discovered 981 texts (or fragments of texts) in caves near the northern end of the Dead Sea called Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls include numerous copies of texts of the Old Testament, as well as texts describing the theology and practice of a sectarian Jewish group living in Qumran, probably the Essenes.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revolutionized our understanding of Second Temple Judaism, the period between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D., the period during which Jesus lived and the early church began. Scholars noted “significant examples of how the Qumran community parallels the New Testament church.” And yet, despite these similarities, the early church was also very different from the Qumran community. The article titled “Qumran and the New Testament” goes on to summarize the differences:

In sum, the Dead Sea Scrolls give us information on the kinds of issues of concern to Jews during the New Testament era: the identity of God’s true people, questions of ritual and purity, and the search for a fresh word of revelation in troubled times. But the community that emerged from Jesus’ teaching was radically different from that of Qumran. In many ways, Qumran depicts for us “the road not taken” by the early Christians (p. 1757).

Once we see the cultural backgrounds of the Bible, we realize that surface similarities often masked deep differences. Israel’s sacrificial system was similar to other ancient Near Eastern societies, but its theology was different. The early church’s worldview shared concerns with other Jewish groups, but how it addressed those concerns was different.

Although the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible does not focus on questions of application, it seems to me that understanding the similarities and differences of Israel and the Church to their surrounding cultures has enormous practical value. Christians today Christians cannot live in contemporary society without looking and sounding like our neighbors, to a great degree. And yet, there are deep differences. The goal is to be “in” the world without being “of” the world (John 17:13–19). Understanding how first Israel and then the Church struggled to be in-but-not-of helps us with our own struggle to do the same today.

Obviously, in a work of this size—weighing 4.3 lbs., this study Bible has 2,400 pages—a reader won’t agree with all the authors’ notes or essays. Walton and Keener take care to differentiate conclusions that reflect scholarly consensus from topics where there is a scholarly difference of opinion. Even so, I found my understanding of biblical passages enriched by encountering them in light of the history, archaeology, and literature of their cultural backgrounds.

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is available in print and digital formats. It is available in Kindle format for $14.99, in hardcover for $49.99, and in three leather-bound options for $79.99. The Kindle price is attractive, but I would recommend buying the hardcover or leather-bound copy. Yes, it’s a bit more expensive, but I think it’s much easier to use.

If you’d like to test-drive the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible before you buy it, I’d encourage you to visit the website, which includes a sampler of the print version of Genesis and Matthew. To see the layout of the Kindle version, click “Look Inside” on its page.

P.S. This review was cross-posted at

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

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