Embracing Contemplation | Book Review


If Christian book publishing trends are any indication, contemplative spirituality is a hot topic among Christian readers — hot in the dual sense that it arouses intense interest as well as intense opposition. Proponents claim it is an ancient Christian practice capable of deepening a person’s love for God and neighbor. Opponents counterclaim that it is biblically subpar, smacks of medieval Catholicism, and opens the door to New Age mysticism.

In Embracing Contemplation, John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel assemble a team of theologians to assess the appropriateness of contemplative spirituality for evangelical Christians. These various authors examine the Bible, church history, and the writings of contemporary authors and arrive at a measured appraisal of contemplative spirituality. Coe and Strobel conclude: “contemplation and the contemplative life is fundamental to the maturing Christian life.”

This approval of contemplation should not be interpreted as a blanket approval of everything that calls itself “contemplative spirituality,” of course. In his chapter, “The Controversy Over Contemplation and Contemplative Prayer,” Coe identifies forms of contemplative spirituality that are “sub-Christian.” Similarly, in “A Distinctively Christian Contemplation,” Glen G. Scorgie differentiates authentically Christian contemplation from what is found in other religions.

Because contemplative spirituality is often seen as a Catholic practice, several authors show how Protestant Reformers and well-known evangelicals practiced a gospel-based form of contemplation. This includes three “Johns” whose evangelical credentials are not in dispute: John Calvin, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. See Ashley Cockworth’s “Sabbatical Contemplation?” for Calvin and Tom Schwanda’s “To Gaze on the Beauty of the Lord” for Wesley and Edwards. Of particular interest to Pentecostal readers is Simon Chan’s chapter, “Contemplative Prayer in the Evangelical and Pentecostal Traditions.”

Throughout the book, the authors do a good job of placing evangelical theological commitments at the forefront of the conversation about contemplative spirituality. What is consistent with those commitments is allowed; what isn’t is discarded. This measured approach is better than a knee-jerk rejection or simplistic embrace of what passes for contemplative spirituality today.

Book Reviewed
John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel, eds., Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Christian Spiritual Practice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission. It appeared in the May-June 2019 issue of Influencemagazine.

P.P.P.S. I interviewed John Coe and Kyle Strobel in Episode 175 of the Influence Podcast, which you can listen to below:

Advertisements

Is Contemplative Spirituality Christian? | Influence Podcast


If Christian book publishing trends are any indication, contemplative spirituality is a hot topic among Christian readers — hotin the dual sense that it arouses intense interest as well as intense opposition. Proponents claim it is an ancient Christian practice capable of deepening a person’s love for God and neighbor. Opponents counterclaim that it is biblically subpar, smacks of medieval Catholicism, and opens the door to New Age mysticism.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to John Coe and Kyle Strobel about whether contemplative spirituality is Christian, and if so, how. Coe and Strobel are professors at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Both are active in the university’s Institute for Spiritual Formation, Coe as the director and Strobel as a teacher. They are the editors of Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Christian Spiritual Practice, published by IVP Academic earlier this year.

RESOURCES MENTIONED IN PODCAST

P.S. This episode of the Influence Podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Nature of Hell | Book Review


The Nature of Hell is a report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) published in 2000. It outlines points of agreement and disagreement among evangelical Christians in the United Kingdom about “whether hell is a realm of everlasting conscious punishment for each individual who goes there, or whether the suffering of the unredeemed in hell will eventually result in their extinction” (pp. xiii–xiv). The former position is named “traditionalism” and the latter “conditionalism.”

Historically, traditionalism has been the majority position in Christianity generally and evangelicalism specifically. However, in the decade prior to the report, some evangelicals in both the U.K. and America had begun to advocate conditionalism, most prominently John R. W. Stott and most prolifically Edward W. Fudge. ACUTE argues that one can be an evangelical in good standing and advocate either position, even as it urges both sides to come to agreement on doctrine.

Although the report is by U.K. evangelicals for U.K. evangelicals, it is a worthwhile read for American evangelicals too. The topics and authors on both sides of the debate are the same, after all. What I appreciated most about the report is its calm, measured consideration of complex issues, its irenic tone, and its call for evangelicals to continue working together to achieve one mind doctrinally, rather than “merely acquiescing in their disagreement” (p. 135).

Here is the table of contents for the book:

  1. Introduction: Evangelicals and the Debate About Hell
  2. Background Issues in the Hell Debate
  3. Hell in Scripture: Identifying the Relevant Texts
  4. Traditionalism and Conditionalism in Church History
  5. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: I. Defining the Main Positions
  6. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: II. Key Exegetical Issues
  7. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: III. Key Theological Issues
  8. Practical and Pastoral Aspects of the Hell Debate
  9. Hell and Evangelical Unity
  10. Conclusions and Recommendations

Here are the 22 specific recommendations the report makes (pp. 130–135):

  1. All human beings must face death….
  2. After death, all human beings will be resurrected to face the final judgment of God….
  3. God has revealed no other way to salvation and eternal life apart from through Jesus Christ….
  4. In his sovereignty, God might save some who have not explicitly professed faith in Jesus Christ…e.g., the unevangelised [sic], children who die in infancy, or those who have severe mental disabilities…. In particular, we can find no convincing warrant in Scripture for ‘post-mortem’ or ‘second chance’ repentance. We also reject the teaching of universalism, which holds that all will be saved regardless of their commitment to Jesus Christ….
  5. Bearing 4 in mind, Christians should conduct mission and evangelism on the basis that proclamation and demonstration of the gospel are the definitive means by which God intends to save people and make disciples of all nations….
  6. Hell is more than annihilation at the point of death….
  7. As well as separation from God, hell involves severe punishment….
  8. There are degrees of punishment and suffering hell related to the severity of sins committed on earth….
  9. The Bible describes hell as a realm of destruction. Evangelicals, however, diverge on whether this destruction applies to the actual existence of individual sinners (eventual annihilation), or to the quality of their relationship with God (eternal conscious punishment)….
  10. Evangelicals diverge on whether hell is eternal in duration or effect….
  11. God’s purpose extends beyond judgment to redemption of the cosmos….
  12. We urge church leaders to present biblical teaching on hell to their congregations, and to relate it to their ongoing ministries of personal visitation, evangelism and social action.
  13. We commend sensitivity and discernment in presenting the message of hell—particularly to those for who commitment to Christ is uncertain or unrealised [sic]….
  14. When Christians have died, we encourage declaration of their heavenly inheritance in pastoral care of their bereaved relatives and friends, and in the conduct of their funerals or cremations.
  15. Where the relationship of a deceased person to God has been unclear, or even apparently hostile, we would caution against explicit pronouncement on that person’s eternal destiny….
  16. We encourage theological colleges and related Christian organisations [sic] to train church leaders to a high standard of biblical preaching, teaching and pastoral care in matters related to hell….
  17. We urge evangelicals involved in religious education in schools to ensure that modules on Christianity include presentations on death, judgment, heaven and hell.
  18. We recognize that the interpretation of hell as eternal conscious punishment is the one most widely attested by the Church in its historic formulation of doctrine and in its understanding of Scripture. We also recognise [sic] that it represents the classic, mainstream evangelical position.
  19. We recognise [sic] that the interpretation of hell in terms of conditional immortality is a significant minority evangelical view. Furthermore, we believe that the traditionalist-conditionalist debate on hell should be regarded as a secondary rather than a primary issue for evangelical theologians….
  20. We understand the current Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith to allow both traditionalist and conditionalist interpretations of hell….
  21. We…recognise [sic] that the majority of those who have published as ‘evangelical conditionalists’ have strong evangelical credentials, and have in particular demonstrated a genuine regard for the authority of Scripture.
  22. We encourage traditionalist and conditionalist evangelicals to pursue agreement on the matter of hell, rather than merely acquiescing in their disagreement….

In the nineteen years since this report was published, conversations about hell have continued among evangelicals. Unfortunately, traditionalists and conditionalists have not arrived a doctrinal unity in this matter. It may be that “merely acquiescing in their disagreement” is the most that can be hoped for, just as the debate between Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals has not made any fundamental progress since the Sixteenth Century.

Also, since 2000, universalism has made inroads among evangelicals, largely through the influence of Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, and other “evangelical universalists” who believe that all will eventually come to faith in Jesus Christ, either in this age or the age to come. Hell, according to them, is rehabilitative rather than retributive. These universalists make both biblical—especially Pauline—and theological arguments for their conclusions. Were ACUTE to issue a new report in 2019, it would have to pay more attention to this development.

Book Reviewed
The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (London: ACUTE, 2000).

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

The Color of Compromise | Book Review


Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is a difficult book to read. The difficulty does not result from a complex argument or dense prose, for the book’s argument is simply and straightforwardly made. Rather, the book is difficult to read because of its subject matter, namely, white Christian complicity with racism throughout American history.

“Historically speaking,” Tisby writes, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”

Tisby makes his case by means of a historical survey of people and events from the colonial era to the late-twentieth century. “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality,” Tisby quotes historian Carolyn DuPont in summary, “they often labored mightily against it.” Did you know, for example, that…

  • George Whitefield—the famous evangelist — urged the colony of Georgia, which had been founded as a free territory, to allow slavery. A large part of his motivation was the financial viability of his Bethesda Orphanage, which could be run more cheaply with slave than with paid labor.
  • Prior to the Civil War, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations split into Northern and Southern branches because of the issue of slavery. Leading Southern theologians, such as Robert Lewis Dabney, defended white supremacy and slavery on providential and biblical grounds: “Was it nothing, that this [black] race, morally inferior, should be brought into close relations to a nobler race?” (emphasis added).
  • According to historian Linda Gordon, “It’s estimated that 40,000 ministers were members of the Klan, and these people were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people to join the Klan.” She’s referring to the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which began in the early twentieth century and spread throughout the North as well as the South.
  • A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, spoke in opposition to desegregation at the 1956 South Carolina Baptist Convention. Desegregation was “a denial of all that we believe in,” Brown v. Board of Education was “foolishness” and “idiocy,” and anyone who advocated integration was “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” First Baptist was the largest Southern Baptist church at the time. For many decades, its most famous member was the evangelist Billy Graham, whose personal views were more moderate than Criswell’s but who stopped short of advocating civil rights for black Americans.

These are but four examples of white Christian complicity with racism, which I have chosen because of their relevance to white evangelical Christians. There are many other examples from across the spectrum of American Protestantism. It is sometimes forgotten, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to mainline Protestant ministers and a Jewish rabbi. If you’re looking for a searing indictment of white moderates, consider King’s words:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Of course, there were white Christians throughout American history who opposed racism. But Tisby’s disheartening survey suggests that they were exceptions rather than the rule. As a Pentecostal, for example, I am unaware of any leading white American Pentecostals who publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement during the crucial decade between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

I don’t always agree with Tisby’s reading of the historical evidence. The closer in time he drew to the present day, the more I found myself saying, “That’s not how I would read that particular incident.” The value of Tisby’s survey is that he places those incidents in the light of larger historical forces, showing continuity between them and the past. As a white reader, I found this broader historical perspective forced me to go back and take a second look at how I had been interpreting those more recent events.

So, why bring up this history of white complicity with racism now? While great strides in civil rights have been made over the decades, racism still exists and disfigures American society. “History and Scripture teaches [sic] us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance,” writes Tisby. “There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.” The Color of Compromise tells a hard truth, but one necessary to hear if racial equity is to be achieved in the Church or in America.

Tisby closes his book with practical suggestions. I don’t agree with all of the particulars, but his thoughts about “The ARC of Racial Justice” are an “entry point” for those on a journey to racial equity. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. Become aware of the issues. Build relationships across lines of race and ethnicity. And commit to concrete action…such as reading this thought-provoking book.

Book Reviewed
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

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

What’s Driving Christianity’s Global Growth? | Influence Podcast


In this episode, I talk to Brian Stiller about five drivers behind Christianity’s explosive growth worldwide.

Stiller is a global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, and author of From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, recently published by IVP Books.

To learn more about Brian Stiller, visit BrianStiller.com.


Episode Notes

  • 00:00 Introduction of podcast
  • 00:45 TruFire Sunday school curriculum sponsor ad
  • 01:08 Introduction of Brian Stiller
  • 01:18 What From Jerusalem to Timbuktu is about
  • 03:30 Evangelicalism’s explosive growth over the last century
  • 05:46 An overview of the five drivers behind this growth
  • 07:28 Driver #1: The Holy Spirit
  • 11:57 Drivers #2 and 3: Bible translation and indigeneity
  • 19:19 Drivers #4 and 5: Engaging the public square and holistic ministry
  • 24:29 Hopeful or fearful about Christianity’s future?
  • 27:39 How to follow Brian Stiller or the World Evangelical Alliance online
  • 28:20 Conclusion

Basic Christianity | Book Review


What does it mean to be evangelical? Derived from the Greek euaggelion — “gospel” or “good news” — the word describes things that are related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Since the Reformation, it has been used as shorthand for Protestants generally. With the Great Awakening, it began to be used of a specific type of Protestant: Bible-based, Cross-centered, conversion-required and action-oriented.

Now in the United States, the word more often than not is used to describe a brand of partisan politics, at least in the popular press. This is unfortunate, because the gospel itself cannot be reduced to partisan politics. It is bigger and more fundamental than that. John Stott’s Basic Christianity helps readers remember this by outlining a truly evangelical understanding of Christianity.

Stott writes: “Christianity is a rescue religion. It declares that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. This is the main theme of the Bible.”

Over the course of 11 short chapters, Stott covers who Christ is, the nature and consequences of sin, the atoning work of the Cross, and the necessity of responding to Christ personally.

In the Preface, Stott pens this brief description of basic Christianity:

We must commit ourselves, heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly, to Jesus Christ. We must humble ourselves before him. We must trust in him as our Savior and submit to him as our Lord; and then go on to take our place as loyal members of the church and responsible citizens in the community.

Over the course of its nearly 60 years in print, Stott’s little book has found a remarkably broad audience — internationally and ecumenically — and for good reason. It is biblical, orthodox and evangelical in the best sense of the word. I recommend it highly. An individual can read it profitably, but I think the best way to read it is with a group. The third edition helpfully includes group discussion questions at the end of the book.

Stott first wrote Basic Christianity in 1958 for a British audience. It has been revised twice, in 1971 and 2008. As far as I can tell, this 2017 Eerdmans reissue is nearly identical to the third edition. Changes include a new cover and minor reformatting of the text. The biggest change is that all Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the 2011 edition of the New International Version.

 

Book Reviewed:
John Stott, Basic Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

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.com review page.