Review of ‘Doubt, Faith, and Certainty’ by Anthony C. Thiselton


Anthony C. Thiselton’s Doubt, Faith, and Certainty is not a practical book. It does not teach Christians how to overcome their doubts, increase their faith and achieve certainty. Instead, it examines the definitions of each of those three terms, painting a complex, nuanced portrait of them using the colors of Scripture, theology and philosophy.

The author is professor emeritus of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham, England. He is best known for his books on hermeneutics or interpretation, especially The Two Horizons. In addition to his hermeneutics books, he has published New Testament commentaries and several volumes on theological topics.

Thiselton opens the book by noting, “It is a practical disaster that in popular thought some view all doubt as a sign of weakness and lack of faith; while others, by contrast, extol doubt as always a sign of mature, sophisticated reflection.” Something similar could be said of the terms faith and certainty. By contrast, Thiselton’s “simple message” in this book is that “none of these terms has a uniform meaning, or has a uniform function in life. They have a variety of meanings.”

Doubt, Faith, and Certainty’s purpose is to tease out their various meanings and functions. While defining terms is not, in and of itself, a practical enterprise, Thiselton states that it nevertheless constitutes “an immensely practical and potentially liberating pastoral and intellectual issue.” Read the book for yourself to see whether and how that’s true.

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Book Reviewed: Anthony C. Thiselton, Doubt, Faith, and Certainty (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

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

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

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Review of ‘Gunmetal Gray’ by Mark Greaney


Lee Child says, “I love the Gray Man.” If you like Child’s Jack Reacher novels, you might like Mark Greaney’s Gray Man novels. Both feature a loner with ties to the U.S. government who is known — or in the Gray Man’s case, hired — to mete out rough justice.

Gunmetal Gray finds Court Gentry—aka, “Gray Man”—tracking down a renegade computer hacker for the Chinese Ministry of State Security. At least that’s what he tells them. In reality, he’s running an op for the CIA to find the hacker and deliver him to the U.S. so it can exploit his knowledge of China’s cyber vulnerabilities.

Then the Russians show up. Then a beautiful woman. Then Gray Man finds out the CIA is lying to him. And then things get really complicated.

Mark Greaney is a master when it comes to writing action and suspense. The problem with this novel and the others in the series is that Court Gentry is hard to empathize with, at least in my opinion. Jack Reacher, by contrast, is a gregarious extrovert compared to him.

Additionally, Reacher’s “cases,” if that’s the right word to use, involve real people being abused by powers greater than themselves. By contrast, Gentry operates in a world where even the “good guys” aren’t that good.

So, while I found myself turning page after page when I read Gunmetal Gray, wondering how — and worrying whether — Court Gray would get himself out of his latest scrape, I couldn’t say that I sympathized with his cause. In sum: The book is an eminently readable thriller, even if its protagonist isn’t the most likable guy.

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Book Reviewed: Mark Greaney, Gunmetal Gray: A Gray Man Novel (New York: Berkley, 2017).

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

 

#InfluencePodcast with Mark Batterson about ‘Play the Man’


My friend Mark Batterson has a forthcoming book: Play the Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be. Its release date is May 2, 2017, and its publisher is Baker Books. In this Influence Podcast, I talk to him about the book, about how biblical manhood doesn’t mean women can’t lead, and about how to help raise sons to become good men. Take a listen!

My Article on Foster Care, Adoption, and Leadership


My article, “What Foster Care and Adoption Taught Me About Life and Leadership,” appeared today at InfluenceMagazine.com. Follow the link to read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

And so, my wife and I found ourselves providing full-time care to other people’s kids. (Did I mention that they were girls? In diapers?) We found ourselves downtown, in a government building, interacting regularly with people struggling with addiction, joblessness and homelessness. It was a far from the comfortable, middle-class, suburban life we had grown up with, and that we had, in turn, created for ourselves.

It was hard. (I’ll get back to that in a moment.) But the key thing I learned in the process is that we’re supposed to use our privilege. In contemporary public discourse, the word privilege is a dirty word, something that’s supposed to be checked rather than used.

I agree that privilege should be checked if it’s used for self-aggrandizing purposes. If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, don’t look down on others because they use plastic utensils when they eat. Know what I mean?

From my perspective, though, if you won the birth lottery — if God has providentially blessed you in many ways — then you’re supposed to spend your win on behalf of others. According to Paul, that’s the example of the Lord Jesus Christ himself:

who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6–8).

No matter how many times I read these verses, I can’t get over the staggering fact that Christ used His privilege for us. He put His equality with God in service of sinful humanity, for whom He died.

What privilege do we have that we’re willing to use in service of others?

Review of ‘Call for the Dead’ by John Le Carre


Call for the Dead is John Le Carre’s first novel, and the first of eight novels featuring George Smiley, a career British intelligence agent. In it, Smiley investigates the suicide of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office employee Smiley had just cleared of disloyalty. The more he investigates, however, the more he comes to believe that Fennan was murdered. But why? And by whom? Answering those questions take Smiley into the murky territory of espionage during World War II and the early Cold War period.

This is the first Le Carre novel I have read. I like to start at the beginning of a series in order to follow the personal evolution of the lead character. Call for the Dead is short and gracefully written, and it kept me turning pages from the time I sat down with it till I finished the book. I will definitely move on to the next book in the series, which is ‘A Murder of Quality.’

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

Review of ‘Short Sentences Long Remembered’ by Leland Ryken


Leland Ryken, Short Sentences Long Remembered: A Guided Study of Proverbs and Other Wisdom Literature (Wooster, OH: Weaver, 2016).

For the past six months, I have read one chapter of Proverbs every day as part of my daily quiet time. Proverbs is delightful, instructive, and challenging, not to mention occasionally repetitious and boring. Sometimes, it also seems to make promises that real life doesn’t bear out. “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked” (Proverbs 10:30). In my experience, that’s not always true (even if it is often true or eschatologically certain).

Leland Ryken’s Short Sentences Long Remembered describes itself as “a guided study of Proverbs and other wisdom literature.” Ryken is professor of English emeritus at Wheaton College—my alma mater, and I took classes on English literature and John Milton from him. His focus is on the proverb as a literary genre.

The proverb genre is found most prominently in Proverbs (the book), but it is also present in the Bible’s other books of “wisdom literature,” (e.g., Ecclesiastes, James, etc.). Its core is a simple, epigrammatic sentence. In poetry, the proverb most often appears as a two-line unit, with the second line paralleling the first in some way. Over time, the poetic forms of the proverb become longer and more complex. In prose, the proverb is part of a paragraph that spins out “a series of individual thoughts related to it.”

Short Sentences Long Remembered can be read profitably by an individual or a group. It includes interpretive exercises in each chapter, titled “Learning by Doing.” Most of the examples are drawn from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James.

The book does not deal with the theological tension in wisdom literature between the promise of divine blessing for righteousness (Proverbs) and the experience of suffering by the righteous (Job). Indeed, Job doesn’t factor into the book at all. So, if you’re looking for a theological introduction to Proverbs, this is not the book for you.

If you’re trying to understand the proverb literarily, however, this is a good book to start with. I do wish, though, that Ryken had included a “For Further Reading” section in the book, so people could move from his introduction of the topic to more advanced works on the subject.

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

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.

#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.

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

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