Influence Podcast with Tim Muehlhoff about ‘Winsome Persuasion’


Tim Muehlhoff is professor of Communication Studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and coauthor, with Richard C. Langer, of a forthcoming book from IVP Academic: Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World. It’s a good book, which I’ll review closer to publication date. For now, take a listen to my podcast with him for InfluenceMagazine.com:

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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?

_____
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.

Review of ‘The First Thanksgiving’ by Robert Tracy McKenzie


Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving and God and Learning from History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

This Thanksgiving, like millions of other Americans, I will sit down with family around a beautifully decorated table to eat a sumptuous feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. We will share stories of gratitude for God’s blessings throughout the year drawing to a close. And then we will watch football or—in my case, since I’m not a sports fan—take a long, postprandial nap.

What I will not do is think that our Thanksgiving celebration has anything to do with the Pilgrim’s “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. Not after reading Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving, which is equal parts a historical account of that feast and a theologically informed reflection on how Christians should (and should not) use the past. As he tells it, we don’t know much about the “first Thanksgiving” except that it probably didn’t occur in November, wasn’t eaten indoors, didn’t include turkey (but might’ve included turnip and eel), wasn’t a multicultural love fest (evidently, the Wampanoags just showed up, uninvited), and wouldn’t have been considered a day of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the first place. Moreover, the celebration of thanksgiving days was, for the first 220 years of American history, a New England phenomenon that wasn’t explicitly linked to the Pilgrim feast of 1621.

In short, most of what you think you know about the “first Thanksgiving” is bunk. But over the years, that bunk has been found to serve a variety of useful ends, underwriting Northern abolitionism, American individualism and religious freedom, and a providential reading of America’s Christian history, among other things. And that’s why the fiction continues to be promoted instead of the facts.

To think Christianly about the Pilgrims and their 1621 feast, we need to put these fictions aside and recognize the weakness of the historical accounts that promote them. And then we need to reflect on why we study this history anyway. “The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley once wrote; “they do things differently there.” That’s certainly the case with the Puritans and their Separatist brand of Protestant Christianity. Present-day Christians share the same faith, but they do not practice it in the same way. Both the similarities and the differences play a role in how we interpret and practice our religion.

For McKenzie, one of the key things that contemporary American Christians can learn from the Pilgrims is that “we are pilgrims too.” He writes: “to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies…American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ…We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of ‘survival, success, and salvation’ rests solely on our belong to Christ, not on our identity as Americans.”

Amen, and thank God!

Now, would someone please pass me another helping of mashed potatoes?

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

P.P.S. InterVarsity Press posted this funny little video about the “first Thanksgiving,” based on McKenzie’s reconstruction of it.

Review of ‘Getting the Reformation Wrong’ by James R. Payton Jr.


Getting-the-Reformation-Wrong James R. Payton Jr., Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2010). Paperback / Kindle

Every now and then, I hear friends describe—denounce, really—some book as a work of “revisionist history.” What they mean by that appellation is that the book contains a false account of the past. And while they may or may not be correct in their evaluation, what strikes me is their misunderstanding of the historical task. By nature, all historical writing is revisionist. That is, the task of historians is to revise our present understanding of the past through better methodologies and more accurate information. They don’t always succeed in doing so, but they (should) always try. Absent their efforts, we run the risk of misremembering the past and acting in the present on the basis of misleading, if not false, history.

In Getting the Reformation Wrong, James R. Payton Jr. engages in a revisionist history of the 16th-century Reformation in order to correct popular misunderstandings of that seminal movement, especially among North American evangelicals. Successive chapters deal with the following misunderstandings:

  • The Reformation did not originate de novo in the 16th century (chapter 1). Rather, the events of the 16th century built on the desire felt throughout Western Christendom in the preceding two centuries for reformatio in capite et membris—Latin for head-to-toe reformation. The reformers may have capitalized on this long-felt desire, but they did not create it.
  • The Renaissance and Reformation were not competing movements (chapter 2). Instead, they were complementary movements. Indeed, with the notable exception of Luther, most of the first generation of Protestant reformers were “humanists,” that is, advocates of a liberal arts education as opposed to a medieval scholastic education.
  • The Reformation did not emerge rapidly or smoothly (chapter 3). Rather, in the early years, different people were attracted to Luther for different reasons, not all of them having to do with justification by faith. For example, the Peasant Revolt drew inspiration from themes in Luther’s writings, even though Luther himself specifically—and forcefully—condemned the revolt.
  • The Reformers did not agree with one another (chapter 4). Indeed, their disputes were sometimes rancorous and led to longstanding rifts within the movement.
  • The Reformers did not dispute the importance of good works in the life of the Christian (chapter 5). They agreed that we are justified by faith alone (sola fide), but they also agreed that the faith by which we are justified is not alone. It produces good works.
  • Similarly, the Reformers did not think that the Christian life could dispense with church tradition (chapter 6). They believed in Scripture alone (sola fide) as the final, unquestioned authority in the life of the church. But they also believed that tradition (e.g., creeds, councils, confessions, etc.) could play a subordinate role.
  • Regarding the so-called “radical reformation,” Payton shows that 16th-century Anabaptists were not predecessors of Baptists, incorporated a broader range of groups than modern-day Anabaptists, and originated in multiple places, not just in Switzerland (chapter 7).
  • The Counter Reformation was not merely a response to the Protestant Reformation (chapter 8). Rather, based on a centuries-old desire for head-to-toe reformation, various Catholic reform movements spread up before, along with, and outside of the Protestant Reformation.
  • Late-16th– and early-17th-century Protestant scholasticism was not necessarily a natural outgrowth of the earlier Reformation (chapter 9). Rather, it represented a significant shift in methodology and emphasis.
  • The Reformation was not an unalloyed success, at least not according to the Reformers’ own stated goals (chapter 10).
  • Similarly, if we pay attention to the teaching of the Reformers, then we cannot see the Reformation as a theological norm or “golden age” (chapter 11).

This bullet-pointed summary of Getting the Reformation Wrong doesn’t do justice to Payton’s nuanced argumentation, though it alerts you to the topics he addresses. The book is gracefully written, fair-minded, and insightful on a range of topics. I was especially impressed by the chapters on the events preceding the Reformation (chapter 1) and on the Catholic movements for reformation (chapter 8). The desire for reformatio in capite et membris was both widespread and ecumenical.

Payton’s final chapter asks whether the Reformation was a triumph or a tragedy, and concludes that it was both. Triumph: “it rediscovered and boldly proclaimed the apostolic message, the Christian gospel.” Tragedy: “divisions among the Protestant Reformers have mushroomed among their descendants in contravention of the explicit words of Jesus Christ himself” (i.e., in John 17:20–21). “It is at least a horrendous anomaly,” Payton writes, “that the sixteenth-century Reformation got rid of the clutter that obscured the foundation of the Christian faith, only to have Protestants cover that foundation again with the clutter of our manifold divisions.”

To which this Protestant can only say: “Lord, have mercy!” And also, thank God for revisionist historians who bring such problems to light!

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

Review of ‘The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas’ by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak


The-Gospe-in-the-Marketplace Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014). Paperback / Kindle 

Among American evangelicals, it is a truism to say that America is fast becoming a post-Christian nation. The nation’s increasing diversity combined with the rapid rise of religious “nones” have resulted in a very different religious landscape than the one depicted in Will Herberg’s mid-20th-century classic, Protestant—Catholic—Jew, where those three religious constituted Americans’ religious choices. This new landscape requires evangelical Christians to adopt new methods in their evangelistic mission to the current generation.

Why? Because many of our methods assume that the people we are talking to agree with us on basic assumptions about the authority of the Bible, the nature of God, the necessity of atonement, and the reasonableness of faith. For much of American history, evangelism thus consisted of calling nominal Christians to practice a more authentic faith. In our increasingly non-Christian and post-Christian nation, however, it is unsafe to make any of those assumptions.

In their new book, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas, Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak examine Paul’s Mars Hill sermon (Acts 17:16–34) to see what insights the Bible itself supplies to evangelical Christians who wish to proclaim the eternal gospel in temporally relevant manner. Among Paul’s evangelistic sermon in Acts, the Mars Hill sermon best approximates our own cultural situation. Athens was a pre-Christian, pluralistic culture, whose religious and philosophical assumptions and practices differed dramatically from Paul’s. And yet, Paul found a way to speak meaningfully to the Athenians, affirming what he could in their culture, while providing a critique of those beliefs and practices that kept them from seeing their need for faith in Jesus Christ.

This dual-movement of Jesus-centered affirmation and critique will have a different flavor in 21st-century America, of course. But the logic of the approach will be the same.

  • Distinguish between persons and beliefs.
  • Describe the unknown God.
  • Point to signals of transcendence.
  • See evangelism and apologetics as interrelated process.
  • Challenge contemporary idolatries/ideologies.
  • Above all, point to Jesus as the climax of history and the fulfillment of our highest ideals.

As we follow Paul’s Mars Hill evangelistic methodology, we will find that some of our listeners will sneer, just as some Athenians sneered at Paul. But some will believe. It is for them that we must “become all things to all people so that by all possible means [we] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote yes on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘A Missional Orthodoxy’ by Gary Tyra


Unknown Gary Tyra, A Missional Orthodoxy: Theology and Ministry in a Post-Christian Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle 

According to research by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2012, from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians declined by 5 points, from 78 to 73. By contrast, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation increased by 4.3 points, from 15.3 to 19.6. The so-called “nones” described their religious preference as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” In contrast to “Christian” America, American “nones” are tend to be younger and more political liberal.

The decline of Christian affiliation, the rise of religious non-affiliation, and the attendant shift in political values constitutes a missiological challenge for evangelical Christians. How do we evangelize and disciple in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian? Gary Tyra sets out to answer precisely that question in his new book, A Missional Orthodoxy: Theology and Ministry in a Post-Christian Context.

Tyra is associate professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California, and an Assemblies of God minister. (Full disclosure: He is also a personal friend and an occasional contributor to Enrichment, a journal for AG ministers that I edit.) His previous books include The Holy Spirit in Mission, Christ’s Empowering Presence, and Defeating Pharisaism.

For Tyra, answering the missiological challenge of post-Christian America requires fidelity to two biblical imperatives: (1) “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) and (2) to “become all things too people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). These imperatives are reflected in the words orthodoxy and missional in the book’s title.

Although a Pentecostal, Tyra argues that fidelity to these imperatives ought to characterize evangelical Christianity generally, not just Pentecostalism. He develops this argument in dialogue with the writings of liberal Protestant Marcus Born and emerging evangelical Brian McLaren. He surveys their proposals on eight theological topics—Bible, God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, human beings, salvation, church, and eschatology—and concludes that they, in varying degrees, sacrifice the orthodox imperative to the missional imperative. In other words, so concerned are they to make Christianity relevant to a postmodern generation, that they—especially Borg–reformulate doctrines in ways that conflict with both the Bible and the Great Tradition of Nicene orthodoxy.

This doesn’t mean that Tyra is unsympathetic to their critiques, however. Indeed, Tyra concedes that they are correct in arguing that evangelical Christianity has sometimes sacrificed missional relevance to the demands of an arid orthodoxy. What makes Tyra’s missional orthodoxy such an attractive proposal is that it balances the imperatives of orthodoxy and mission in a way that steers between the Scylla of liberalism and Charybdis of fundamentalism.

Take, for example, the topic of Christology. Whereas liberalism tends to emphasize the humanity of Christ at the expense of (even in the rejection of) his divinity, fundamentalism tends to emphasize the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity. According to Tyra, missional orthodoxy exposes this as a false antithesis, for the Bible teaches and the Great Tradition codifies that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one person.

Or take the topic of salvation. Whereas fundamentalism tends to emphasize the cross as the atoning sacrifice by which God forgives our sins, liberalism tends to emphasize the cross as a moral example of self-giving love. Again, this is a false antithesis, for the cross is both of these things. The implication of this is that Christian mission includes both evangelism and social action.

Though I have simplified Tyra’s well-thought-out argument on these two topics for illustrative purposes, I think Tyra is basically correct in identifying the false antitheses that so often plague discussions of Christian mission generally and post-Christian mission specifically. Missional orthodoxy has the capacity “to be faithful to both the biblical text and the missional task,” as Tyra puts it.

In a book of this size, covering as much theological ground as it does, it is inevitable that readers will disagree with this or that conclusion drawn by Tyra. Nonetheless, on the whole, the proposal is so well-grounded in the Bible that evangelicals of many stripes can unite under the banner of missional orthodoxy, which I take it was part of Tyra’s hope for the book.

I only wish that Tyra had dialogued with representatives of the other side of the spectrum than Borg and McLaren. If, as Tyra contends, liberalism and fundamentalism are equal but opposite errors, it would be helpful to line them up side by side for purposes of contrast and comparison. My guess is that Tyra didn’t do this because at nearly 400 pages, A Missional Orthodoxy is already a long book, and because he had previously criticized fundamentalism in Defeating Pharisaism.

(For members of my Assemblies of God tribe, I should note that what Tyra and I mean by the word fundamentalism is different from what the word fundamental means in our Statement of Fundamental Truths.)

I heartily recommend A Missional Orthodoxy to evangelical pastors—especially younger colleagues—who are struggling with the challenge of ministering within an increasingly post-Christian society. I think it would make an excellent textbook in an undergraduate Christian theology class. And while I would love to see it read by laypersons in Sunday school classes and small groups, my fear is that its length will be daunting for the average parishioner. Nevertheless, as Jesus said in an entirely different context, they who endure to the end will be saved. Or at least rendered more missionally orthodox.

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

Review of ‘The First Thanksgiving’ by Robert Tracy McKenzie


images Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving and God and Learning from History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

This Thanksgiving, like millions of other Americans, I will sit down with family around a beautifully decorated table to eat a sumptuous feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. We will share stories of gratitude for God’s blessings throughout the year drawing to a close. And then we will watch football or—in my case, since I’m not a sports fan—take a long, postprandial nap.

What I will not do is think that our Thanksgiving celebration has anything to do with the Pilgrim’s “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. Not after reading Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving, which is equal parts a historical account of that feast and a theologically informed reflection on how Christians should (and should not) use the past. As he tells it, we don’t know much about the “first Thanksgiving” except that it probably didn’t occur in November, wasn’t eaten indoors, didn’t include turkey (but might’ve included turnip and eel), wasn’t a multicultural love fest (evidently, the Wampanoags just showed up, uninvited), and wouldn’t have been considered a day of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the first place. Moreover, the celebration of thanksgiving days was, for the first 220 years of American history, a New England phenomenon that wasn’t explicitly linked to the Pilgrim feast of 1621.

In short, most of what you think you know about the “first Thanksgiving” is bunk. But over the years, that bunk has been found to serve a variety of useful ends, underwriting Northern abolitionism, American individualism and religious freedom, and a providential reading of America’s Christian history, among other things. And that’s why the fiction continues to be promoted instead of the facts.

To think Christianly about the Pilgrims and their 1621 feast, we need to put these fictions aside and recognize the weakness of the historical accounts that promote them. And then we need to reflect on why we study this history anyway. “The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley once wrote; “they do things differently there.” That’s certainly the case with the Puritans and their Separatist brand of Protestant Christianity. Present-day Christians share the same faith, but they do not practice it in the same way. Both the similarities and the differences play a role in how we interpret and practice our religion.

For McKenzie, one of the key things that contemporary American Christians can learn from the Pilgrims is that “we are pilgrims too.” He writes: “to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies…American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ…We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of ‘survival, success, and salvation’ rests solely on our belong to Christ, not on our identity as Americans.”

Amen, and thank God!

Now, would someone please pass me another helping of mashed potatoes?

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

P.P.S. InterVarsity Press posted this funny little video about the “first Thanksgiving,” based on McKenzie’s reconstruction of it.

A Festschrift of Sorts for N.T. Wright by Critics Who Are Also Friends


 Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011). $24.00, 294 pages.

Jesus, Paul and the People of God publishes the papers presented at the nineteenth annual Wheaton Theology Conference, hosted by Wheaton College on April 16–17, 2010. It doubles as a Festschrift of sorts for N. T. “Tom” Wright, whose books—whether academic or popular—alternatively influence and infuriate their readers, especially their evangelical readers. Its authors, though sometimes critical of Wright’s theology, are also personal friends.

The book, like the conference, examined Wright’s theology of Jesus (Part One) and his theology of Paul (Part Two). Following each chapter, Wright offers a short response to the author of the chapter. At the end of each part, Wright outlines the evolution to date of his thinking, using a “whence and whither” formula. The book includes a “Subject Index” and a “Scripture Index,” both of which are helpful for academic readers. A select bibliography of Wright’s books and articles would have been helpful, but it is not included.

For me, Wright’s two “whence and whither” essays were worth the price of the book. Wright is a prolific author. His three-volume series, Christians Origins and the Question of God, contains 2,016 pages of densely argued prose. The “whence and whither” essays helped me understand the gist of Wright’s portrait of Jesus, how he reached his conclusions, and how those conclusions apply to the life of the church today.

Of the other essays, two stood out to me in particular: “‘Outside of a Small Circle of Friends’: Jesus and the Justice of God” by Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh and “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology.” The former offered a provocative (and controversial) reading of Jesus’ Parable of the Pounds that got me thinking about economic justice. The latter helped me navigate the debate between Wright and John Piper on the doctrine of justification by faith and suggested “union with Christ” as a point of rapprochement between the traditional Protestant doctrine and Wright’s own interpretation of justification.

Jesus, Paul and the People of God makes an excellent companion volume to InterVarsity Press’s book, Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (1999). If you are interested in the critical assessment of Wright’s work, especially from an evangelical point of view, these two volumes are a good place to start.

_____

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

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