The Dark Side of Discipleship | Book Review

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wrote,  “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

Gary Tyra carefully avoids both errors in The Dark Side of Discipleship. He offers a realistic but not sensationalistic perspective on how Christians should “deal with the devil” as they pursue “spiritual, moral, and missional faithfulness” to Jesus Christ.

Tyra is professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University of Southern California and an ordained Assemblies of God minister.

He divides The Dark Side into four parts:

Part One examines “the devil’s reality, origin, nature, and deal (what he’s about).” In conversation with contemporary scholarship, Tyra affirms the traditional view that the devil is a fallen angel. Citing Scripture, he shows that the devil’s “primary goal is to keep human beings from entering into, and then enduring in, a restored, intimate, interactive, life-story-shaping, fruit-bearing relationship with their creator.”

In Part Two, Tyra identifies four strategies the devil uses to achieve his goal: seduction, deception, alienation, and temptation. The devil directs these strategies against “the four cardinal components of the Christian life”: worship, nurture (i.e., teaching), community, and mission, respectively.

Tyra’s emphasis on missional faithfulness is especially helpful. Too often, church discipleship efforts are inward-focused, but following Jesus requires an outward focus, too.

After all, as Tyra summarizes the matter, Jesus’ mission was twofold: “revelation and redemption.” He came to show humanity “who God truly is and what he’s really about.” More than knowledge, however, Christ came to effect a restored relationship between “fallen, sinful humankind (and all creation) to its Creator.”

Christ now sends the Church into the world with this redemptive message. A failure of mission, then, reflects a failure of discipleship. To follow Jesus, disciples must follow Him to the lost whom He came to save.

In Part Three, Tyra outlines seven “spiritual warfare moves” to resist thedevil’s strategies. Spiritual warfare is a hot topic in Pentecostal and charismatic circles these days. Unfortunately, some spiritual warriors exhibit the excessive interest Lewis described — going well beyond biblical revelation and into the region of human imagination. By contrast, Tyra hews closely to key biblical texts, especially Ephesians 6:10–20, highlighting their “pneumatologically real” aspects.

Pneumatological realism — which Tyra explores at length in a previous book, Getting Real —  “insists that, rather than conceive of the Holy Spirit as a philosophical concept or impersonal force that is simply presumed to be at work in believers’ lives, he can and should be known and interacted with in ways that are personal, phenomenal, and life-story-shaping.”

For Tyra, Christians deal with the devil most effectively by drawing ever closer to Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, in Part Four, Tyra turns to an apologetic question: Given the devil’s destructive goals, why does an all-knowing, all-powerful, completely good God allow him to operate? Philosophers refer to questions such as this as “the problem of evil.”

Interacting with open-theist theologians particularly, Tyra advances “a biblically informed theodicy that retains the emphasis [open theists] place on the relational nature of God, but doesn’t require a revised understanding of his foreknowledge.” Moreover, he believes this theodicy “encourages an enthusiastic participation in what the Bible portrays as God’s defeat of Satan.”

That defeat is God’s final word about the dark side of discipleship. In this life, we cultivate what Tyra calls a “lifestyle spirituality” of spiritual, moral, and missional faithfulness to Christ through an ongoing experience of the Holy Spirit. All the while, whatever difficulties we encounter, we retain hope because we believe the truth of Paul’s words:

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).

I recommend The Dark Side of Discipleship to church leaders and church members. It offers a faithful, Pentecostal perspective on a controversial topic. Reflection questions at the end of each chapter make it ideal for use by small groups and book clubs.

Book Reviewed
Gary Tyra, The Dark Side of Discipleship: Why and How the New Testament Encourages Christians to Deal with the Devil (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. You can also listen to my Influence Podcast with Gary Tyra about the book here.

P.P.S. This review appears in the January 2021 issue of Influence magazine and is posted here by permission.

The Dark Side of Discipleship | Influence Podcast

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” wrote C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. “One is to disbelieve their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

With Lewis’s insight on the need for a balanced view in mind, in this episode, I’m talking with Gary Tyra about what the Bible teaches Christians about why and how to deal with the devil.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, and your host.

Gary Tyra is professor of Biblical and Practical Theology at Vanguard University of Southern California, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and author of The Dark Side of Discipleship, recently published by Cascade Books.

P.S. You can read my review of The Dark Side of Discipleship here.

An Introduction to the Theology of Religions | Book Review

The world into which Christianity was born was a religiously plural one, and the world in which Christians now live continues to be so. Although various religions exhibit similarities to one degree or another, they also embody deep differences about the authoritative sources of knowledge and the nature and means of salvation. How should Christian theologians make sense of these similarities and differences?

Answering that question is the task of the theology of religions, which Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen defines in this way:

Theology of religions is that discipline of theological studies which attempts to account theologically for the meaning and value of other religions. Christian theology of religions attempts to think theologically about what it means for Christians to live with people of other faiths and about the relationship of Christianity to other religions (20).

While Kärkkäinen notes that “in principle,” non-Christian religions could develop a theology of religions specific to their own beliefs and practices, as of 2003, little work had been done in this field by those religions. Instead, he writes, “Christian theology of religions is by far the most developed type of theology of religions” (21).

An Introduction to the Theology of Religions thus surveys Christian assessments of other religions in the Bible and across two millennia of church history. It focuses its attention most on the assessments of churches and individual theologians in the twentieth century. Kärkkäinen’s survey unfolds in four parts: (1) biblical perspectives, (2) historical developments, (3) current ecclesiastical approaches, and (4) current interpretations by individual theologians.

The book has three virtues: scope, depth, and typology.

Scope: The book sketches how Christian churches and individual theologians have evaluated the plurality of religions from the biblical period to the present day. This results in a typology, discussed below, that shows how theological arguments and themes recur throughout the centuries.

Depth: The bulk of the book focuses on ecclesiastical statements and individual theologians in the twentieth century, especially the latter. Part Three goes into detail about official documents from the Roman Catholic Church, the worldwide Anglican communion, mainline Protestantism, the Free Churches and the evangelical movement (between which there is a large degree of overlap), and the ecumenical movement, devoting a chapter to each. Part Four considers the writings of 21 individual theologians, again devoting a chapter to each. All the theologians are male, and most are white and Western.

Typology: Kärkkäinen develops a fourfold typology that he hopes to replace the conventional one. The conventional typology characterizes theologies of religions as exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist. It was developed by an advocate of pluralism, and advocates of exclusivism especially feel that it is tendentious and denigratory of their position. In its place, Kärkkäinen typifies theologies of religions as ecclesiocentric, Christocentric, theocentric, and realitycentric. He then correlates this fourfold typology with the conventional one, defining each type:

  1. Ecclesiocentrism. This is the exclusive attitude, according to which religions are not salvific or even necessarily conducive to the search for God, and salvation can be found only in the Christian church, the locus of faith in Christ.
  2. Christocentrism. This is the inclusive approach, according to which Christ is the Savior but the benefits of his saving work may be found outside the Christian church and Christian religion. However, whoever is saved is only saved through the work of Christ.
  3. Theocentrism. This is the pluralistic paradigm, according to which Christ is one savior among other savior figures and not an exclusive one. In this view, God alone stands at the center. The various religions, Christianity included, represent many ways leading to God.
  4. Realitycentrism. This is yet another step from theocentrism, the route taken recently by [John] Hick, among others, according to which the center of religions is not a God or gods but an ultimate reality (however that is named). Some extreme pluralists seem to shift to this orientation, but at this moment the shape and content of this option are still quite vague and undefined (25).

Following the survey of historical developments in Part Two, Kärkkäinen concludes that exclusivism and inclusivism best typify Christian responses throughout history. He writes:

To set the record straight: there have not been (at least to my knowledge) any self-pronounced “pluralists” among Christian theologians before the time of the Enlightenment—even universalists such as Origen attributed the salvation of all to the purposes of the Christian God, the only God. But neither is it the case that a more inclusivist attitude has not existed all through the history (107).

Later, he notes that these positions are prevalent among very different audiences:

Interestingly, numerically there are two giants among ecclesiastical opinions: the Roman Catholic Church’s inclusivism and the quite exclusivistic stance held by evangelical, Pentecostal/Charismatic and (other) independent churches. Pluralism governs the academy, but in the pews these two other views predominate (160).

Notice in these quotations that Kärkkäinen reverts to the conventional typology. This happens throughout the book. Although his fourfold “-centrism” typology has many strengths, it seems that that the conventional typology remains the standard way of describing the various theological positions, both at the time of the book’s publication and today, 17 years later.

Nevertheless, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions is to my knowledge the best overall introduction to this topic, so I recommend it to interested readers.

Book Reviewed
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Becoming a Church that Crosses Racial and Economic Divides | Influence Podcast

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”

King said this about race in 1963, but it is still largely true today. According to sociologist Michael O. Emerson, a multiracial or multiethnic church is one in which at least 20% of attendees do not belong to the majority race or ethnicity. In 2019, just 23% of churches crossed that threshold.

And there is evidence of a growing class divide in church attendance, with working class Americans less likely to attend church than middle class Americans, at least among whites.

The questions pastors and other church leaders need to ask themselves is this: Does this concern me? And what can I do about it? Those are two questions, among others, that I am asking David Docusen in this episode of the Influence Podcast.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, and your host.

David Docusen is author of Neighborliness: Finding the Beauty of God Across Dividing Lines. A credentialed Assemblies of God minister, he has 20 years of ministry experience as a pastor, church planter, and community developer.


The Law of Innocence | Book Review

A man is pulled over for driving without a license plate after leaving a bar. The officer notices a liquid dripping from the man’s trunk, and it looks like blood. Claiming exigent circumstances, the officer puts the man in custody and opens the trunk.

Three problems: There’s a dead man in the trunk of the car. Its driver is famed criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. And Haller is innocent.

But how can he prove his innocence with a dead man in his trunk, a former client who owed him money and whom ballistics show was murdered in his own garage?

That’s the question Michael Connelly sets out to answer in The Law of Innocence, the 6th novel in the “Lincoln Lawyer” series featuring Mickey Haller and the 35th novel in what might be called “The Bosch Universe,” featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosch, LAPD detective Renee Ballard, and former assistant district attorney Jack McEvoy. One of the benefits of this universe is that as Bosch ages, Connelly can introduce new characters (i.e., Ballard) in an organic way, keeping readers’ interest in the series. I know I’m hooked on the Bosch universe, having read every one of Connelly’s novels.

The Law of Innocence, like the other books in the series, is a page turner because it posed an interesting question and held my interest throughout as it unraveled the answer. So, if you’re hooked on the series, you’ll definitely want to read this one too. Like all the Lincoln Lawyer books, it offers a fantastic perspective on how a criminal defense attorney uses legal (and legally questionable) moves to derail a prosecution.

The fact that Haller’s freedom is on the line adds poignancy to the story, even though readers know from the start that Haller is innocent. I have only two criticisms of the book:

First, even though it was a page turner, I found myself turning some of the book’s pages more slowly than others. There were several stretches where I began to think that Connelly’s 400 or so pages could have been made a bit more concise.

Second, I’m still wrestling with Connelly’s solution to the problem. I’m trying to figure out whether I think it’s believable or whether I think it’s a bit too deus ex machina.

Regardless, I enjoyed the novel and look forward to reading whatever story Connelly has waiting in the wings.

Book Reviewed
Michael Connelly, The Law of Innocence (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Tempered Resilience | Book Review

Leadership is difficult under the best of circumstances. Under the worst of circumstances — say, a global pandemic combined with state-mandated lockdowns — it can push leaders to the breaking point. To avoid breaking, leaders need to develop resilience.

According to Tod Bolsinger, resilience “is not about becoming smarter or tougher; it’s about becoming stronger and more flexible.” In his new book, Tempered Resilience, Bolsinger outlines  for Christian leaders “a process of reflection, relationships, and practices during the act of leading that form resilience to continue leading when the resistance is highest.”

Bolsinger is a speaker, executive coach, former pastor, and author who serves as associate professor of leadership formation and senior fellow for the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

He begins the book by defining leadership as “the transformation and growth of a people — starting with the leader — to develop the resilience and adaptive capacity to wisely cut through resistance and accomplish the mission of the group.” This is a helpful definition for two reasons.

First, in the context of a local church, this understanding of leadership reminds pastors their job is to accomplish the mission of the community they lead. Their job, according to Ephesians 4:12, is to “to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service.” Leadership, in other words, is not so much what the leader does, but what others do because of what the leader does.

Second, Bolsinger’s definition emphasizes the development of character, especially in the leader. Leading people through change is not a connect-the-dots picture. Anyone can draw a line from 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and so on. Real life is not that simple. There are neither numbers nor dots. So leadership must focus on the development of the character of the leader.

That character is tested when the people begin to resist change. And people always resist change. When they encounter resistance, leaders often experience “failure of nerve” or “failure of heart.”

Bolsinger contrasts those two failures this way: “If failure of nerve is being too soft and accommodating to lead change, then failure of heart is becoming so hardened and brittle that leading the change process is changing the leader for the worse.” Resilience is the ability to bend but not break

So, how do leaders develop that capacity?

Using the forge as a metaphor, Bolsinger describes resilient leadership development as an ongoing, fourfold process of “heating, holding, hammering, and tempering.” If you’ve ever seen blacksmiths at work, this process is easy to picture in your mind. Blacksmiths place an ingot of steel in the fire, grab hold of it with tongs to pull it out, hammer it against the anvil, then stick it back in the fire. Then they repeat the process.

Applied to leadership rather than steel, the forging process looks like this:

  • heating “through leading and reflection”;
  • holding “through personal and professional relationships”;
  • hammering “through spiritual practices and the practice of leadership”; and
  • tempering “through rest and slow release of leadership responsibilities.”

Notice that in the heating and hammering phases of the process, resilient leaders emerge “through leading” and through “the practice of leadership.” There are some things you can only learn by doing them. Leadership is one of them. Resilient leaders lead by leading and then by learning from their successes and failures.

This past year has been difficult for many reasons: impeachment, pandemic, civil unrest, natural disasters, a presidential election. It has left many hoping next year will run its course more quickly and smoothly.

Without claiming the mantle of a prophet, however, I wonder whether American churches will face different but equally challenging circumstances in the coming year. What if church members have grown accustomed to not attending church and don’t come back? What about the increasing numbers of “nones” who have neither a formal religious affiliation nor a felt need to get one? What about a culture that seems increasingly post-Christian, and in some cases even anti-Christian?

How will all these challenges — and many, many more — affect the cause of Christ in America?

I can’t answer that question. But I can say with a high degree of confidence that those churches that thrive in challenging times will be led by resilient pastors who bend with the circumstances, but never break from the gospel. Those churches will adapt and grow.

That being the case, you might want to read Bolsinger’s book.

Book Reviewed
Tod Bolsinger, Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review originally appeared at

Encountering Religious Pluralism | Book Review

Christianity was borne into a religiously plural cultural environment. It emerged from the womb of Judaism (that itself had multiple forms) into the world of polytheism, imperial cults, and mystery religions. This required Christians to make sense of their faith vis-à-vis these others faiths. This obligation still rests on Christians, for globalization has put us in constant contact with religious (and nonreligious) “others,” whose beliefs, behaviors, and forms of belonging often differ significantly from our own.

Over the last few decades, three basic theologies of religion have emerged among Christians. Exclusivism is roughly the position that Jesus Christ is ultimate in terms of both revelation and salvation. One must have faith in him to be saved. Outside of him, no one is saved. Inclusivism agrees on Christ’s ultimacy, but it also affirms that truth can be found in other religions and that some who have not heard the gospel through no fault of their own may experience salvation because of their positive response to what natural revelation they had. On this view, no one is saved apart from Christ, but some may be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ.

Pluralism is roughly the idea that all religions are revelatory and salvific to basically the same degree. Just as all roads lead to Rome, so all religions lead to Heaven. Today, pluralism is the ethos of globalized societies as well as an ideology that relativizes the exclusive (and inclusive) claims of any particular religion. Among self-identified Christian theologians, the most comprehensive presentation of pluralism is John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion of Religion, whose subtitle, “human responses to the transcendent,” epitomizes his argument.

Encountering Religious Pluralism by Harold Netland is a critique of religious pluralism generally, and Hick’s version specifically, as well as an explanation of why pluralism has become so widespread, not merely in the academy but also in popular culture. Part One offers the explanation, while Part Two outlines the critique. The book is well worth reading. If not the definitive refutation of Hick’s pluralism, it certainly constitutes one of the most thorough rebuttals.

Netland summarizes Hick this way:

At the heart of his model are three claims: (1) that there is an ultimate reality to which the different religions are legitimate responses, (2) that the various religions are historically and culturally conditioned interpretations of this reality, and (3) that soteriological transformation is occurring roughly to the same extent within the major religions. Therefore, the various religions are to be affirmed as equally legitimate religious alternatives, with preferences among them largely being functions of individual characteristics and social and cultural factors (221).

Netland later summarizes his critique of Hick this way:

Given that his proposal is a second-order theory intended to account for the first-order data from the religions, the adequacy of his theory depends largely upon two factors: (1) the accuracy with which his theory reflects, and the ease with which it can accommodate, the data from various religious traditions, and (2) the internal consistency of the theory itself. I will argue that Hick’s model is fatally flawed on both accounts (232).

The central problem with Hick’s model is that it is, ironically, insufficiently pluralistic. It is reductionist and reinterpretive. As Netland states the matter, “although it purports to be an explanatory model that accounts for the data from the various religious traditions, it does so by reinterpreting the actual beliefs and practices of the religions in ways unacceptable to orthodox practitioners of the religions themselves” (232).

Sumner Twiss has defended Hick against the charge of reductionism by distinguishing “descriptive” and “explanatory” reductionism. He argues that Hick has not engaged in the former kind of reductionism—i.e., Hick does not incorrectly describe others’ religious beliefs and practices. According to Twiss, Hick does engage in explanatory reductionism, but this is not particularly controversial, since all explanations are reductive to one degree or another.

Netland identifies the flaw in this defense, however, by comparing pluralism with “religion-specific explanations” (RSEs, 233). All religions attempt to explain the existence of other religions, and then critique them. Netland summarizes the problem with Hick’s explanatory reductionism this way:

… the adequacy of an RSE as a general explanation of other religions will depend upon the justification one has for accepting the religious worldview from which the RSE emerges. This must be established on other, independent grounds apart from the RSE itself. But we do not have an analogous case with Hick’s model. One does not first establish the justification for his proposal and then from within the theory provide an explanation for other religions—Hick’s proposal is that explanation. As such, the adequacy of his model is in large measure a function of its internal consistency as a theory and its capacity to account for the first-order data of the major religions without distorting them in the process (234–235).

Seen in this light, Hick’s model only works because it radically reinterprets basic tenets of other religions in order to fit the model, rather than changing the model to fit the basic tenets of other religions. So, for example, Netland argues that “each tradition ascribes ultimacy to its own particular conception of the religious ultimate,” but Hick’s model reduces each claim to ultimacy to “merely a penultimate manifestation of what is truly ultimate—the Real” (235). For example, the Christian claim that the Holy Trinity is ultimate must be reduced to a human response to the divine on an equal footing with other religious claims to ultimacy, even though practitioners of the religion due not agree with Hick’s reinterpretation of their ultimacy claim.

The other basic shortcoming of Hick’s model of religious pluralism is its internal consistency. Two issues arise here, specifically. First, Hick correctly notes that some religions have a personal ultimate (e.g., Christianity) and others an impersonal ultimate (e.g., certain strains of Hinduism and Buddhism). According to Hick, both what he calls “personae” and “impersonae” characterize the Real. This creates a problem of consistency, according to Netland, “due to the undeniable differences among such images of the religious ultimate” (238–239). Netland asks: “Can one seriously maintain that the ontological implications of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the divine as Yahweh, the ontologically independent personal Creator and righteous Judge are compatible with the monistic implications of the Hindu notion of nirguna Brahman or with the ontologically ultimate image of sunyata (emptiness) in Zen?” (239). Not without setting logic to the side, it seems.

No wonder, then, that over the course of his writings, Hick placed “increasingly greater emphasis on the theme of ineffability, so that the Real is said to be utterly beyond the range of human conceptual and linguistic categories,” writes Netland (243). There are at least two problems with Hick’s version of ineffability: First, it is self-referentially absurd. “If this were the case, Netland writes, “then at the very least ‘the property of being totally beyond conceptual and linguistic categories would apply to the Real, thereby refuting the original claim” (243).

Second, and worse, the final basic claim of Hick’s model, about “soteriological transformation,” runs afoul of ineffability too: “If indeed the Real in itself is beyond moral categories, so that it is neither good nor evil, how can Hick use a moralcriterion in this manner?”—that is, in evaluating why Muhammad is a genuine prophet but, say, Jim Jones is not (245). In other words, Hick has to take sides, which means that pluralism doesn’t adequately and consistently explain diverse religious phenomenon.

After reading Netland, it seems to me that we can know “the Real” to a significant enough degree or we can’t. If we can, then we must find the religion that most closely aligns with it. But this involves judgment, choosing both for and against religious claims. Hick’s model claims to avoid this problem, but in the end, it’s just one model among many religion specific explanations, thus failing to oblige any religious believer to choose it rather than his or her own faith.

Encountering Religious Pluralism is a much broader book than I have portrayed in this long review, which is essentially a recapitulation of Chapter 7, “The Problems of Pluralism.” I have done this because Netland’s critique of Hick cuts to the heart of problems both with Hick’s model of religious pluralism, and others’. But the entire book is worth reading, and the final chapter sketches the outline of a Christian theology of religions.

Book Reviewed
Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Only One Way? | Book Review

Gavin D’ Costa, Paul Knitter, and Daniel Strange compare and contrast three models of how Christianity relates to other world religions in their book Only One Way? D’ Costa is a Catholic theologian and outlines the formal position of the Catholic church, which is inclusivism. Knitter also is a Catholic theologian teaching at a mainline Protestant seminary and presents a model common among liberal theologians, whether Catholic or Protestant: pluralism. Daniel Strange is a Reformed theologian with a Dutch Calvinist bent a model typically called exclusivism, though he rejects that label as denigratory.

D’ Costa summarizes the inclusivist theology of the Catholic church this way:

God through Christ is the cause of all salvation and the Church is Christ’s body on earth, the means by which all grace is mediated. How this grace might be meditated to those outside the Church is an area that is not defined or resolved, but that this grace is mediated to those outside the Church is a certainty. Catholics can be confident that non-Christians might be saved which is the solemn dogmatic teaching on this matter (22).

Knitter does not provide as concise a summary of his model of pluralism, but he outlines three assumptions that shape his thinking, all of which together lead to a denial of the uniqueness of Christianity vis-à-vis other religions. Essentially, then, he argues that different religions can be both revelatory and salvific.

Knitter’s three assumptions concern “how theology works,” “the role of language in theology,” and “two of the most challenging issues that confront Christian faith and life today” (47). For him, theology is “a mutually clarifying and a mutually criticizing conversation between Christian experience and beliefs on the one side and ongoing human experience and understanding of self and the world on the other side” (47–48). Regarding religious language, he believes that “all ‘God talk’ is symbolic” (49); consequently, “if all our words are symbols, then, in general, they should not be taken literally” (50). Finally, he identifies the need for interreligious cooperation and the alleviation of poverty, together with environmental protection, as the most challenging. He says these issues shape “the two criteria by which I will evaluate whether a Christian theology is both meaningful for our contemporary world and faithful to the message of Jesus: is it liberative [poverty/environmentalism] and is it dialogical [interreligious cooperation]?” (51).

Reflecting especially the influence of Dutch Calvinist theologians J. H. Bavinck, Cornelius Van Til, Strange offers this definition of his model:

… from the presuppositions of an epistemologically authoritative biblical revelation (itself presupposed on the self-contained ontological triune God who speaks authoritatively), I will argue that non-Christian religions are essentially an idolatrous refashioning of divine revelation, which are antithetical and yet parasitic on Christian truth, and of which the gospel of Jesus Christ is the ‘subversive fulfillment’ (93).

Strange goes on to advocate as “a holistic, transformative or integral approach to mission that recognizes, on the one hand, the spiritual and social dimensions of sin and idolatry and, on the other,, the scope of the gospel and its entailments to transform individuals, communities and cultures, spiritually, socially, economically, politically, and so on” (132).

Regarding evangelism specifically, he writes: “Given that eternal life is only to be found in the gospel of Christ, and that normatively this comes through the human messenger in this life, in terms of missionary activity, we must speak about the ultimacy of evangelism, that is, the verbal proclamation of the gospel message with the call for faith and repentance in Christ” (134).

Only One Way? unfolds in three parts: In Part 1, each author presents a “position paper” that outlines how his model treats the standard theological loci: “philosophical presuppositions, theological presuppositions, creation, fall, God, Christ, Trinity, salvation, eschaton, dialogue, social justice, and mission” (v). In Part 2, each author responses to the other two authors’ position paper. Finally, in Part 3, each author evaluates the other two authors’ responses. This format allows readers to see how the three models are similar and dissimilar, as well as to evaluate how each model holds up under criticism.

Interestingly, though the Catholic D’ Costa and the Calvinist Strange disagree (sometimes strongly) on various issues, they seem to hold more in common with one another than either holds with Knitter, even though both D’ Costa and Knitter are Catholic. Knitter himself recognizes this, writing: “if we line the three of us up on the spectrum that represents the Christian churches nowadays – with the liberal one on the left, the conservative Dan on the right, and the mainline Gavin in the middle – then it seems to me that the ‘middle’ is much closer to the right than to the left” (199).

The overall benefit of this book is that it shows how different Christian theologies of religion arise from different theological methods and philosophical assumptions. Tradition plays a significant role for D ‘Costa, human experience for Knitter, and biblical revelation for Strange, though to some degree, each author incorporates tradition, experience, and revelation into their argument. The fact that Knitter recognizes his distance from D’ Costa and Strange may point to the conclusion that in reality there are just two positions in a Christian theology of religions, one that recognizes the ultimacy of Christ, and one that does not.

The question on my mind as I turned the last page of this book was whether, in the end, the denial of Christ’s ultimacy even qualifies as a Christian theology. At the very least, it seemed to me to be a theology on the way out the door of the Christian house.

Book Reviewed
Gavin D’ Costa, Paul Knitter, and Daniel Strange, Only One Way? Three Christian Responses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World (London: SCM Press, 2011).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

How to Talk About Jesus | Book Review

Most people come to Jesus because of the witness of family or friends. Ordinary believers, then, make the best evangelists. In this book, Simon Chan offers eight tips for effective personal evangelism, which center on building friendships and living authentically. “In addition to our deliberate efforts to do evangelism—to create opportunities for evangelism—we just need to be Jesus, and evangelism opportunities may well come and find us in unforeseen and exciting ways.” A useful book for church members…and pastors too!

Here are the chapter titles and subtitles, which summarize Chan’s eight tips:

  1. Merge your universes: Evangelism is a lifestyle choice.
  2. Go to their things, and they will come to your things.
  3. Coffee, dinner, gospel: Find creative ways to do hospitality.
  4. Listen: The Golden Rule of Evangelism: Evangelize the same way you want to be evangelized.
  5. Tell a better story: Make them wish that Christianity is true.
  6. Tell them stories about Jesus: Scratch their itching ears with Jesus.
  7. Become their unofficial, de facto chaplain: You are their connection with the sacred.
  8. Lean into disagreement: For such a time as this.

Chan is also author of the seminary textbook, Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable (Zondervan, 2018). That book focuses more on how pastors can do evangelism.

Book Reviewed
Sam Chan, How to Talk About Jesus (Without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Christianity Encountering World Religions | Book Review

In Christianity Encountering World Religions, Terry Muck and Frances S. Adeney provide an “explanation of and argument for giftive mission” (7). They state their thesis up front:

Mission to peoples of historically resistant religions [i.e., non-Christian religions] could be made easier and more productive with the addition of a biblical metaphor for mission, the metaphor of free gift. Giftive mission, as we choose to call it, means that we are more than conquerors of other people, more than harvesters of souls, more than winners of metaphysical arguments: we are the bearers of gifts. We bring to the world the greatest of all gifts, the story of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ (10).

They organize their presentation of giftive mission in four parts:

Part 1 treats the context, text, and pre-texts of contemporary missions. The first is “the religiously plural context in which Christianity exists today” (15). Text is what the Bible says “about our responsibility toward people of other religions” (32). And pre-texts are “[c]ategories of thought, ways of learning, and personal idiosyncrasies” (51).

Part 2 identifies 11 practices that characterize giftive mission. For each practice, Muck and Adeney profile a Christian leader whose ministry embodied that practice, as well as a sidebar of an “antimissionary” whose work was counterproductive to genuine mission. Because Part 2 is the longest section of the book, it is worth naming and briefly describing each practice, together with its characteristic missionary and antimissionary:

  1. Universality: Reaching out to all, including Christians, with Paul as missionary and Jonah as antimissionary (79–91).
  2. Fellowship: Belonging precedes believing, with St. Patrick contrasted to Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (92–103).
  3. Localization: Focusing on questions and concerns of the local community, with the translation work of Cyril and Methodius contrasted to Bishop Wiching’s limitation of Bible translation and liturgy to Latin (104–114).
  4. Commitment: Holding ideas with conviction; acting decisively on those ideas; not letting those ideas be decisive, with Thomas Aquinas contrasted to Pope Innocent IV (115–126).
  5. Freedom: Honoring the principle of religious choice, with Bartolomé de Las Casas contrasted with Louis IX’s crusades and expulsion of Jews from France (127–137).
  6. Effectiveness: Allowing the context to determine the form of witness, contrasting Matteo Ricci with Pierre-Jean de Smet (138–149).
  7. Consistency: Striving for consistency between methods and goals, contrasting William Carey with Tomás de Torquemada (150–161).
  8. Variety: Communicating the gospel in many forms, with Catherine Booth contrasted to John Ryland (162–173).
  9. Respect: Not disparaging others in order to champion your own; not disparaging your own in order to respect others, contrasting William Sheppard with David de Silva (174–184).
  10. Charity: Loving those to whom we witness, contrasting Mother Teresa with King Richard the Lion-Hearted (185–197).
  11. Missional Ecumenicity: Practicing mission as the joint project of the church. Muck and Adeney present Billy Graham as the exemplar of this characteristic, but they do not name an antimissionary (198–209).

The authors conclude Part 2 with a chapter titled, “Jesus, Mission Innovator,” in which they provide this summary of his mission innovation:

Yet part of Jesus’ mission innovation was to make love of neighbor the standard against which all mission workers were to measure their successes and failures. And part of Jesus’ mission innovation was to define what Christian love was over against human love. Christian love begins with a love of God; love of our neighbor is then a reflection of that primary love relationship. Christian love is Christian because it is rooted in the love of God (215).

Part 3 describes a five-stage “spiral of knowledge acquisition” about other cultures, which is essential to the task of cross-cultural workers. These stages are 1) recognizing and understanding our past experience, 2) bracketing our convictions, 3) encountering others with openness, 4) evaluating through reengaging one’s convictions, and 5) integrating our horizon of meaning (224–229). This is not a one-and-done acquisition of knowledge; instead, it is a spiral that continues to broaden and deepen.

Regarding the fifth stage, Muck and Adeney note that “change occurs both in the people of the other culture who interact with the missionaries and in the Christians relating to the culture.” On the one hand, “The people are influence by the story of Jesus as it is related to them in culturally appropriate ways.” On the other hand, “The Christians are also changed by the character and forms of the culture they encounter” (227).

Part 4, finally, makes the case for giftive mission explicit. Noting that there are numerous biblical metaphors and metaphor clusters for mission activity (e.g., agricultural, military, architectural, athletic, economic), Muck and Adeney argue that “free gift” is an especially fruitful metaphor for contemporary missions for several reasons: It is biblical, it is universal, and it has local variations. They consider how giftive mission might vary in indigenous, Western, and Eastern gift-giving cultures.

An appendix helpful lists 239 “Biblical Interreligious Encounters” that are useful to readers who want to examine the biblical material for themselves.

On the whole, I thought Christianity Encounter World Religions was well written and persuasive. The 11 practices the authors identified, along with positive and negative examples of each, were helpful, especially to readers such as myself who are enmeshed in the pluralism and relativism of contemporary globalized culture. The interplay between the mission Jesus gave the Church and the world in which that mission takes place requires a frank recognition of both “competition” between Christianity and other religions, at the same time it necessitates “cooperation” with them (28–31).

Book Reviewed
Terry Muck and Frances S. Adeney, Christianity Encountering World Religions: The Practice of Mission in the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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