Review of ‘Hidden in Plain View’ by Lydia McGrew


Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Chillicothe, Ohio: DeWard, 2017).

Are the Gospels and the Book of Acts historically reliable? Its authors certainly thought so.

For example, Luke stated that his Gospel narrated “things … handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–2). Far from taking this eyewitnesses testimony for granted, however, he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3–4).

Similarly, John’s Gospel ends with these words from its final editors: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). The “disciple” was an eyewitness, in other words, and his unnamed editors (“we”) vouched for his testimony. As in Luke, the purpose of the goal of this testimony was faith: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

In the modern era, skeptical Bible critics have challenged the historical reliability of the first five books of the New Testament. They allege that contradictions both within and between the Gospels and Acts — and what is known about the time from external sources — call the plot of New Testament history into question. The defense of the New Testament’s historical reliability has thus revolved around demonstrating that its accounts of Jesus’ life and of the history of the Early Church are internally coherent and externally corroborated by known facts.

Lydia McGrew offers a third line of defense in her new book, Hidden in Plain View. According to her, “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels and Acts suggest that the events they report are historically accurate because they rest on eyewitness testimony. She defines undesigned coincidences this way:

An undesigned coincidence is a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned by the person or people giving the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

McGrew outlines 47 such coincidences in the book. For brevity’s sake, let me focus on just one. Each of the Synoptic Gospels offers a list of the 12 apostles: Matthew 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; and Luke 6:14–16. These lists differ in some details, especially the order in which the writers present Andrew’s, Matthew’s, and Thaddeus’ names. And while Matthew and Mark refer to one disciple as Thaddeus, Luke refers to him as Judas, even though they’re most likely the same person.

The most interesting difference between these lists is grammatical. Mark and Luke connect each name using the Greek conjunction kai (“and”). So, “Simon and James and John and Andrew, etc.” in Mark and “Simon and Andrew and James and John, etc.” in Luke. This emphasizes the disciples as individuals. Matthew, on the other hand, uses kai to connect six sets of names. So, “Simon and Andrew, James and John, etc.” This emphasizes the disciples as pairs.

Matthew doesn’t explain why he lists the disciples as pairs, but Mark 6:7 offers a plausible suggestion: “Calling the Twelve to him, [Jesus] began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.” In other words, Matthew’s list most likely reflects the pairs of apostles that Jesus sent out in ministry, a pairing that only Mark mentions in an unrelated passage. We need both Gospels to see the whole picture.

Admittedly, this is a small detail. The historical reliability of the New Testament does not depend on this one undesigned coincidence. Still, the undesigned coincidences pile up, as McGrew demonstrates in her book. They revolve around incidental details, which suggests that they are not the results of a hoax, since hoaxers wouldn’t be so subtle. And while, theoretically, one could argue that such coincidences really are the result of pure luck, only the foolish gambler would place money on that table.

No, undesigned coincidences, taken cumulatively, suggest that the accounts of events in the Gospels and Acts have the ring of truth. They agree, not because a trickster designed them to agree (hoax) or because they just happen to agree (luck), but because they reflect the testimony of people who were there and whose reports of detail have made their way into the published narratives.

The argument from undesigned coincidences thus adds a third line of argument to those who would defend the Bible’s historical reliability: coherence, corroboration and coincidence. This third line of argument is not new, interestingly enough. It was pioneered in the 19th century by British apologists such as William Paley and J. J. Blunt. Lydia McGrew is to be congratulated for reviving it for use against the skeptical arguments of our day.

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

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

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#InfluencePodcast with Lee Strobel


Over at InfluenceMagazine.com, I have an episode of the Influence Podcast with Lee Strobel about six strategies for raising the evangelistic temperature of your church. Lee is a New York Times-bestselling author–most famously of The Case for Christ, forthcoming from PureFlix as a movie–and director of the Center for Strategic Evangelism at Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas. Take a listen!

 

 

Review of ‘Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal’ by Gordon T. Smith


Gordon T. Smith, Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2017).

A few years back, I made friends with some young men who were leaving the Assemblies of God (my denomination) for the Episcopal Church. They had grown up in AG congregations and attended AG schools, but they felt something was missing. That something was tradition, liturgy and the sacraments.

Growing up in an AG church in the 1970s and 80s, I knew people whose spiritual journeys were moving in the opposite direction. They were leaving liturgical churches and joining Pentecostal ones because tradition, liturgy and the sacraments seemed like lifeless forms compared to the life-giving power of the Spirit they experienced in the Charismatic Renewal Movement.

And then there were the Baptist Calvinists I debated online who argued that Pentecostalism was overrun by touchy-feely emotionalism, health-and-wealth hucksters, and preaching that’s Dr. Phil and Oprah and Tony Robbins with a patina of Bible proof texts. They thought we’d lost the gospel — and, as a result, lost everything.

I have come to realize that each of these people had a point. The gospel is central. The sacraments are important. Pentecostal experience is vital. The question Gordon T. Smith asks in his new book is why Christians identify as one or another. Why must we choose to be evangelical or sacramental or Pentecostal? Why can’t we be all three?

Smith argues that each is necessary to an “ecology of grace,” which he describes as “…a dynamic, a kind of eco-system, with distinctive contours that brings us to an appreciation of the very way that grace functions, with a generative counterpoint between Word, sacrament, and the immediate presence of the Spirit, with each known and experienced in the fullness of grace precisely because this is how grace works.”

He goes on to define three principles that should exist in every church.

  1. Evangelical Principle. “Scriptures play an animating role in the life of the church, not in a secondary sense, but as a primary means by which the church appropriates and lives in the grace of the risen and ascended Christ.”
  2. Sacramental Principle. “God is revealed and God’s grace is known through physical, material reality, including, most notably, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”
  3. Pentecost Principle. “[T]he Christian life is lived in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit and that is experienced immediately.”

Put that way, the necessity of each principle seems almost self-evident, at least to me. Think of Acts 2, a passage we Pentecostals love. It begins with the disciples’ experience of the Holy Spirit (verses 1–11), continues with Peter’s Scripture-filled sermon that calls hearers to repentance and salvation (verses 12–40), and concludes with the description of a Church that, among other things, baptizes converts and shares the Lord’s Supper among disciples (verses 41–47). In other words, the Acts 2 Church was Pentecostal, evangelical and sacramental.

Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal is a short work readers can finish in a couple of hours. It is a suggestive treatment of the issues rather than a definitive one. And, no doubt, readers will find nits to pick — points where Smith doesn’t do their tradition full justice, in their opinion.

Still, it is an important book that left me longing for a church with an ecology of grace that includes Word, sacraments (or ordinances, as Pentecostals like to call them) and Spirit. If the Acts 2 Church embodied all three principles, shouldn’t contemporary Acts 2 churches do so, too?

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P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

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Review of ‘Saving the Bible from Ourselves’ by Glenn R. Paauw


Glenn Paauw, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

What is the Bible? What are we supposed to do with it?

The standard way to answer these questions is to outline what Scripture says about itself. A key prooftext is 2 Timothy 3:15–17. According to Paul, Scripture is “holy” and “God-breathed.” We’re supposed to use it to “make [us] wise for salvation” as well as for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training” so that we can be “equipped for every good work.” Wayne Grudem’s classic article, “Scripture’s Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture,” assembles a formidable array of such prooftexts and is well worth reading.

Glenn R. Paauw (pronounced “pow”) takes a very different approach in his thought-provoking book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves. He begins with how publishers format our Bibles rather than how Scripture speaks about itself. Why? Because, to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, the medium shapes the message.

To see this, take out the copy of the Bible you read and open it. My guess is that it has, at minimum, two columns per page, chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and footnotes. If it is a study Bible, it has all that plus book introductions, thematic articles, study notes, maps, diagrams, charts, tables, pictures and a handy concordance at the end to help you find the verses you’re looking for. Chances are, there are more words per page devoted to commentary on Scripture than Scripture itself.

I don’t know about you, but the only kinds of books I read that have all those features are textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, technical manuals and the like — reference books, in other words. If the medium shapes the message, then how publishers format our Bibles subtly but persistently teaches us to approach the Bible as a reference book. Approaching the Bible as a reference book is both overwhelming and underwhelming for readers, however.

 

Approaching the Bible as a reference book is both overwhelming and underwhelming for readers, however.

 

The more information publishers cram onto a page the more overwhelming Bible-reading becomes for the average reader. As Paauw puts it, “We have effectively buried the text and blinded readers with data smog.” I didn’t realize how smoggy my Bible was until I started using the ESV Reader’s Bible a couple years ago. That version presents the biblical text in a single column on the page and deletes chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and footnotes. Prose sections are formatted in paragraphs, and poetic sections are formatted in stanzas. The result is a Bible that is beautiful and pleasing to read.

Paradoxically, however, the reference-book Bible is also underwhelming to the average reader. The standard Bible-publishing format has taught us to think of God’s Word as an encyclopedia of divine quotations organized around topics. Want to know what the Bible teaches about X? On this approach, all you need to do is look up X in the index — I mean, concordance — and find every verse where Scripture mentions it.

The problem is that not every bit of the Bible is as inspirational or as quotable as every other part. My dad graduated from a Christian college. Many of his friends signed his yearbook with a biblical reference, for example, “Jane Doe, John 3:16.” They didn’t quote the verse because most of the time, it was so well known that they didn’t have to. My dad — kidder that he is — signed his name with Exodus 22:18. Had anyone bothered to look up that verse, they would’ve found that it read, in the immortal words of King James, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

My dad’s antics make me laugh every time, but they also raise a serious question. If we have been subtly but persistently taught to read the Bible as a reference book of inspirational quotations, what do we do when discover that it contains Exodus 22:18? Or long stretches of ancient history? Or laments and imprecations? Or hard words from Jesus? Or challenging theology in Paul? Or the entire Book of Revelation?

Rather than approaching the Bible as a reference book — which both overwhelms and underwhelms the average reader — how about approaching the Bible without all the reference-book paraphernalia and the interpretive assumptions that go along with? What might reading such a Bible look like?

Paauw describes the resulting Bible this way: “a Bible that is presented as literature, eaten in natural forms, grounded in history, inviting in its narrative, restorative in its theme, engaged in community and honored in its aesthetic presentation.”

In other words, it’s a Bible with clear, easy-to-read pages rather than data smog. It’s a Bible attentive to the fact that prose looks different on the printed page than poetry, and that different literary genres have different interpretive rules and practices. When we read it, we encounter what Karl Barth called “the strange new world in the Bible,” attentive to the fact that God revealed himself to particular people in particular times and particular places, but in such a way that He changed them, their age, and their culture. Reading becomes a matter of seeing the Bible’s individual stories (about Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul) contributing to the Big Story (creation, fall, election, redemption, glorification) that touches on every aspect of our lives. Moreover, rather than reading the Bible as isolated individuals, we remember that God desires to save a people for himself, and thus read it as a fellowship of the redeemed.

 

This is an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and habit-reforming book.

 

You’ll need to read Saving the Bible from Ourselves to understand what Paauw is proposing in detail. Speaking for myself, I found his book eye-opening, thought-provoking, and habit-reforming. I recommend it highly, and I’ll no doubt read it again.

But before you go out and purchase Paauw’s book, let me encourage you to pick up a reader’s version of the Bible. Crossway publishes the ESV Reader’s Bible. Zondervan publishes The Books of the Bible, which uses the NIV. (Paauw served as a consultant on this project.) If not a reader’s version, at least pick up a single-column Bible that isn’t a study Bible. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find it easier to read the Bible for longer periods of time, and you’ll start to notice details that had escaped you before.

Second Timothy 3:15–17 is right, of course. The Bible is “holy” and “God-breathed.” It is “useful” in equipping us “for every good work.” Unfortunately, we’ve smogged up God’s Word with all the human additions we print on its page, making it harder to read and understand. It’s time to save the Bible from our well-intentioned publishing efforts, and Glenn Paauw’s book is a big step in the right direction.

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P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here with permission.

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with Glenn R. Paauw.

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

Review of ‘Basic Introduction to the New Testament’ by John Stott


John Stott, Basic Introduction to the New Testament, revised by Stephen Motyer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2017).

Reading the New Testament well requires seeing the forest and the trees. The trees are the analysis of individual paragraphs, sentences and words — an analysis best performed by commentaries on individual books. The forest is the synthesis of the meaning of entire books and authors — an undertaking best performed by introductions.

John Stott’s Basic Introduction to the New Testament is a forestry manual, a trustworthy synthesis of the message of Christianity’s foundational authors. First published in 1951 as Men with a Message, then revised by Stott personally in 1964 and again in 2001, this new edition was undertaken by Stephen Motyer at Stott’s invitation. The book’s nine chapters examine the “man” and the “message” of Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts, John and the Johannine letters, Paul, Hebrews, James, Peter and Revelation, respectively. Stott originally wrote a non-technical introduction for a broad audience, and Motyer retains Stott’s concision, apt phrasing and overall perspective, even as he adds details here and there based on more recent study.

I foresee several uses for this book. Christian individuals might find it helpful as a complement to their devotional reading, which is tree-work. Stott will show them where a tree lies in the forest of a given author or of the New Testament as a whole. Christian groups — say, a Sunday school class, small group or book club — could use Stott as part of a class on how to read the New Testament. And preachers should find it helpful as they work their way through an expository sermon series on a specific book.

However used, this new edition of Basic Introduction to the New Testament was a delight to read, and I highly recommend it.

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

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

Review of ‘Keeping Faith in Fundraising’ by Peter Harris and Rod Wilson


Peter Harris and Rod Wilson, Keeping Faith in Fundraising (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

What Christians believe should shape how Christians behave…at least that’s what I’ve always been taught. And yet, after 25 years of church ministry, I have often observed Christian leaders — myself included — fail to integrate faith and the mundane tasks of ministry. Peter Harris and Rod Wilson have witnessed that same failure by Christian leaders — themselves included — when it comes to raising money for ministry, so they wrote Keeping Faith in Fundraising.

The book is not a how-to manual, at least not if how-to is defined by maximal dollars raised through minimal effort. If you’re looking for that kind of book, look elsewhere. Or better, start with this book and then decide whether the maximal-dollar-minimal-effort approach is appropriate for Christian ministry.

Instead of writing that kind of how-to manual, Harris and Wilson turn to the apostle Paul for insight about how to get money Christianly, that is, in a way that is congruent with the gospel. They identify seven themes in 2 Corinthians 8–9 that are central to Christian philanthropic work. For each theme, they identify a guiding question to help Christian fundraisers recalibrate their work for Kingdom ends.

Here are the seven themes and guiding questions:

  1. Integration: “Are our Christian commitments and beliefs fully integrated into every aspect of our fundraising endeavors?”
  2. People: “In our work of raising funds, do we see people as being of much more value than the money they provide?”
  3. Work: “Do we position our fundraising work in the bigger story of God’s work in the world?”
  4. Success: “In the kingdom work of fundraising, is the financial outcome the only measure of success and failure?”
  5. Need: “If we emphasize the needs we are seeking to meet, do we risk negating God’s calling and priorities for both asker and giver?”
  6. Method: “Does an overemphasis on techniques in fundraising blind us to the reality that both askers and givers need to pay careful attention to the call of God in the process?”
  7. Money: “Do we understand money simply as a transaction in the fundraising process or as something transformative for all concerned?”

Keeping Faith in Fundraising is a short, nontechnical book. Harris and Wilson are mature Christian leaders with decades of fundraising experience. In many ways, their book raises more questions than it answers. Even so, I found their thoughtful approach to the topic helpful. Sometimes, it turns out, it’s more important to ask the right questions than to have ready-made answers, which is exactly what this little gem of a book does.

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

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

Review of ‘The Good of Giving Up’ by Aaron Damiani


Aaron Damiani, The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent (Chicago: Moody, 2017).

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a 40-day season of fasting formalized by the Council of Nicea is A.D. 325, though based on precedents from the second century onward. Lent is observed by many, though not all Christians. Indeed, during the Reformation, Protestants objected to the way the Roman Catholic Church had turned Lent (and many other Christian traditions) into a form of works-righteousness. Some Reformers worked to restore Lent to its original purpose (e.g., Anglicans and Lutherans), but others dispensed with it entirely (e.g., the Reformed and Anabaptists).

As a Pentecostal, I belong to that wing of the Reformation that dispensed with Lent (and many other Christian traditions) entirely. And yet, over the past few years, I have found myself fasting something for Lent—whether a food item or an activity—to focus more closely on Jesus Christ. Not only that, I have found fellow Pentecostals picking up other Christian traditions that they find helpful to the life of the congregation. At church I attend, for example, we observe Advent the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.

Please don’t misunderstand me! Pentecostals have no biblical obligation to observe Christian traditions. Both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul warned about the potential abuse of human traditions. To the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8). And Paul said, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

By the same token, however, the Bible doesn’t prohibit Christians from observing traditions simply because they’re traditional. Jesus himself, for example, participated in “the Festival of the Dedication” (John 10:22), better known to us today as Hanukkah, a festival that celebrated the dedication of the Jerusalem temple in 164 B.C. and thus came into being well after the final book of the Old Testament had been written. Similarly, most Pentecostals hold special services on Christmas and Easter, even though the New Testament nowhere commands us to set aside December 25 or one Sunday in spring to commemorate Jesus’ birth and resurrection, respectively. The crucial question of any tradition is whether, to use Paul’s language, a tradition is based on merely “human tradition” or “on Christ.”

With that in mind, I’m happy to recommend Aaron Damiani’s The Good of Giving Up, a short book about Lent. Damiani is an evangelical Anglican and pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago, Illinois. The book is published by Moody Publishers, a reputable evangelical book company also in Chicago. Damiani divides his book into three sections: (1) “The Case for Lent,” which includes answers to common evangelical objections to Lent; (2) “The Path of Lent,” which focuses on making Lent a season of focused fasting, prayer, generosity, and confession of sins; and (3) “Leading Others through Lent,” which offers practical guidelines for leading children and congregations through the Lenten season. Throughout the book, he focuses on how Lent helps us better experience the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he is very attentive to the work of the Holy Spirit in helping us fast, pray, give generously to others, and confess our sins. As a Pentecostal, I was especially heartened by repeated references to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Again, no Christian is biblically obligated to observe the tradition of Lent. Even so, Aaron Damiani shows why this season of prayer, fasting, generosity and confession is a good idea, and how you and the church you lead might put it into practice.

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

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

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