Book Review – The Quest for the Trinity

    I recently attended a session on the doctrine of the Trinity. As we walked out of the classroom, one student, confused and frustrated, said, “Can anyone tell me what ‘person’ means?” The doctrine of the Trinity is undoubtedly one of the most challenging doctrines for Christians. The dense concepts of the doctrine such as diversity-in-unity and unity-in-diversity or the classical language of Greek ontology (e.g., ousia and hypostasis) present challenges to many Christians who want to understand this doctrine. As a result, the doctrine of the Trinity has often been eclipsed by the doctrine of God. Indeed, the doctrine was perceived as illogical and useless, especially during the 19th century. Yet, the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity is immense because it is the basis of our Christian belief and has implications for all other doctrines of Christianity.

    The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012) by Stephen R. Holmes is a timely and helpful resource. Holmes’s approach to this important issue is unique and goes against modern trends in Trinitarian studies. One might have expected that Holmes would argue how the modern Trinitarian doctrine has overtaken the accounts of the earlier tradition (e.g., person over substance, communion over monarchy) or praise the implications that modern trinitarian theologians draw out of the doctrine (e.g., the Trinity as a model of human society, the Trinity as a model of ecclesiology, etc.). In much of contemporary writing on the Trinity, the focal point is modern trinitarian theology rather than the tradition.

    But Holmes takes the opposite position and contends that modern trinitarian theology fails to be consonant with the tradition. He argues, “I see the twentieth-century renewal of Trinitarian theology as depending in large part on concepts and ideas that cannot be found in patristic, medieval, or Reformation accounts of the doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 2). To support his claim, in chapter 1, Holmes introduces several modern trinitarian theologians and examines their ideas about the Trinity, starting with Karl Barth. In so doing, he delineates how the doctrine has become detached from the traditions (e.g., in the concept of personhood, the relation of God to the creation, etc.). In chapter 2, Holmes examines the Bible and argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is supported by scriptural evidence.

    From chapter 3 to chapter 7, Holmes provides historical presentations of the development of the doctrine. In chapter 3, Holmes focuses on early patristic developments in the doctrine and examines the ideas presented by Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian. In chapters 3 and 4, Holmes examines the debates in the fourth century concerning the divine essence and nature. In chapter 5, Holmes dedicates nearly the entire chapter to Augustine. Augustine is perhaps the anchor of Holmes’s trinitarian theology. Holmes closely examines De Trinitate to explore Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, while attempting to defend him against charges brought by recent scholars (e.g., the late Colin E. Gunton and Robert Jensen) on the ousia-hypostasis distinction and vestigial trinitatis. In chapter 7, Holmes surveys the medieval doctrine of the Trinity on issues of how to understand unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity among the persons of the Trinity.

    Chapters 8 and 9 record developments in anti-Trinitarianism. In the sixteenth century, a small group of Christians began to question the doctrine of the Trinity. By the beginning of the 19th century this view had become widespread. As a result, the doctrine was considered useless orthodoxy: “Persons and nature [were] no longer meaningful or useful terms” (p. 190). Hence, the “doctrine of the Trinity stands in need of re-narration” (p. 190).

    Yet this “re-narration” has appeared in modern views of the Trinity in which God is no longer metaphysical, but moral and personal. Neither is God immutable; on the contrary, this personal God acts toward the creation for the ultimate goodness of the world. Yet, Holmes finds this modern movement of a personal God troubling because the modern concept of person clearly shows diversion from the traditional teaching of the Trinity. He states, “The practice of speaking of three ‘persons’ in this sense in the divine life, of asserting a ‘social doctrine of the Trinity,’ a ‘divine community’ or an ontology of persons in relationship’ can only ever be, as far as I can see, a simple departure from the unified witness of the entire theological tradition” (p. 195). Thereby, Holmes concludes that modern trinitarian theology fails to remain in the tradition.

    I appreciate Holmes’s viewpoint very much, and I share some of his concerns (e.g., over divine simplicity, the divine essence, and personality). Yet, I am not sure if I am ready to write off what modern trinitarian theology has accomplished since Barth. The bottom line of the debate in this book seems to me, after all, the same familiar debate over ousia vs. hypostasis. Holmes is a Western theologian. Just as the Western church formulates the Trinity with an emphasis on God’s essence (ousia), Holmes’s theology starts with essence. But this view seems lacking in light of God’s subsistence as three persons, being in communion. To be a person is to be more than an “individual intelligent substance” (p. 195). As the late Colin Gunton argued, God is a being in communion; therefore, He is relational. And this God has relation to His created world through the two hands of the Father, namely the Son and the Spirit. If so, it is imperative to understand this personal aspect of the trinitarian God. The task that is given to modern theologians, as Holmes also argues, is to develop the concept of person while remaining faithful to the tradition. For a thought-provoking treatment of the Trinity that challenges the status quo, I highly recommend this book.

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Between Babel and Beast

Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective by Peter J. Leithart (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) is a thought-provoking book for Christians who want to be the light and salt of the world today. This volume is a follow-up to his previous book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2010). For those who read Defending Constantine, this book presents us further opportunity to catch a glimpse of Leithart’s dynamic, yet rather unconventional mind on the very important topic of cultural engagement. For those who have not had a chance to read Defending Constantine, you can find my review here.

In part 1, Leithart presents a survey of biblical accounts of empires, from the pre-flood cities of Cain and Lamech to the fall of Babylon in Revelation. What underlies this survey is his conviction that “Politically, the Bible is a tale of two imperialisms” (the Abrahamic and Babelic empires) (p. xi). To some extent this part is a presentation of an “empire-centered” hermeneutic: The entire framework of Leithart’s interpretive process is centered on “empire.”

Leithart holds that after the long succession of empires beginning with Babylon and ending with Rome, Jesus as the Son of Man received the kingdoms of the earth (e.g., Persian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman) and as the Ancient of Days gives them to His faithful disciples. Hence, He is imperium-in-se who replaced the ancient system (Israel in empire) with a new, “Abrahamic empire” which marked the end of “Israel-in-Empire, οικουμηνη.” And the embodiment of Jesus’ Abrahamic empire is none other than the church. It is no longer the earthly empires that protect God’s people from destruction. “Instead, the church as the fifth empire keeps its doors open day and night so that kings from across the sea will be able to enter and pay homage to the Son who reigns from Zion” (p. 51).

In part 2, Leithart examines “Americanism,” which he defines as “the fundamental theology of the American order, a quasi-Christian, biblically laced heresy” (p. xii). While part one is a biblical presentation of empire, part two is a historical presentation of empire—how Christendom, “God’s imperium,” lost its metapolitical framework of Christian politics to secular politics over the centuries and how this contributed to the birth of “Americanism.”

Leithart argues that “God’s American Israel” was a phrase that was a “fundamental paradigm to help early American settlers understand their role in God’s history” (p. 67). The Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that they were the modern-day Israel who were led by God to an unknown land for divine purposes. Their mission therefore was to serve and advance the Kingdom of God as bearers of freedom and justice. Consequently, the distinction between Christianity and their political agenda (freedom and justice) became fuzzy. America soon began to use its military power to impose its philosophy on the world. In the end, Leithart concludes, “Early in our history, we did not have the power to impose our will on the world. But as our power increased, Americanism was there, able to impel a Babelic form of imperialism” (111).

In part 3, Leithart examines how America succumbed to Americanism and “freely consort[ed] with beasts if it [would] serve our political ends” (p. xiii). Attention is given to political and military dealings and economic policy in the 20th century to argue that America stands between Babel and beast. Leithart’s words are alarming. He states, “Babel-like, we believe we have brought history effectively to its conclusion: American democracy is everyone’s tomorrow. Babel-like, we want everyone everywhere to confess with one lip our American creed of liberty, democracy, and free markets. Babel-like, we are anxious until everyone looks like us . . . until we can force most everyone to play by our rules” (p. 134).

In conclusion, Leithart calls for a repentance of being Americanists. American churches should “teach and preach from a de-Americanized Bible, one that understands that the imperium of the church [“Jesus is an imperator” and the church is “God’s imperium”], not American hegemony, fulfills the hopes of Israel” (pp. 151-152). He argues that the church should not discourage Christians from participating in government or the military. Yet, the church should encourage Christians to participate in a way that changes America and turns her resources and power to justice, charity and peace.

Although I appreciated Leithart’s scholarship and presentation of this important topic, a few questions need to be raised. I am not certain about Leithart’s three types of world empires: Babel, Beasts and Guardians of God’s People. Leithart argues extensively that the Babylonian, Persian, and Roman empires fit into this last category, Guardians of God’s People—though he admits they were not this exclusively. Yet, as the Bible attests, God can use even the evil of the world to advance His Kingdom. As God used the ravens to feed Elijah, which were considered by the Israelites to be an unclean and detestable bird, God can use the most detestable thing in the world to bring glory to Himself.

Further, while I am in basic agreement with Leithart that God can use empire (along with other human institutions) to advance His kingdom, I am not certain I would agree with Leithart that empire is the ideal vessel to achieve this end. As mentioned above, God can use the most detestable thing to accomplish His purposes. In fact, Jesus called some of those who prophesied in His name “evildoers” (Matt 7:21-23). In this sense, Leithart’s concepts of an Abrahamic empire, the church as God’s empire and the fifth empire may be an oversimplification of admittedly complex biblical accounts of historical empires.

In my view the real gems of this book are found in parts 2 and 3. Leithart’s warnings to American Christians are shocking: “What if America is herself locked in the ancient logic, the satanic cycle? What if Americanism, increasingly detached from the checks and balances that orthodox metapolitics provides us, has left us prey to the same sacrificial dynamics as Islam” (p. 81)? I grew up in Japan where imperialism ruled about 100 years. For me at least, America is the country that heroically ended Japanese imperialism that contributed to two world wars and resulted in the exploitation of other Asian countries. But, the same America is the country that brought devastation and indescribable human suffering to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus I agree with Leithart that “America stands ‘between Babel and beast’” (xiii). Yet, I believe that Leithart’s message can also speak to Christians around the world—after all, we human beings are so easily blindsided by our own good that we often overlook our own evil in pursuing our goals. How easily we imprison the prophets. I appreciate Leithart’s challenging warnings, and therefore highly recommend this book.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

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Book Review — Early Christian Thinkers

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Originally published in the Expository Times, this collection of essays edited by Paul Foster explores the life and thought of twelve pre-Nicene Christians. Many of these thinkers you would expect to see, such as Origen and Irenaeus. However, some of them may surprise you, such as Perpetua.

One of the strengths is that the variety of authors results in a less formulaic presentation from essay to essay. However, this also results in unevenness in the writing. Some of the essays were page-turners, while others were a chore to finish. Fortunately, there are only a few that were in the latter category.

Another nice feature of these articles is the juxtaposition of introduction and scholarly dialogue. Many articles give a clear statement of established facts, but also follow up by advancing scholarly opinions on more recent academic debates or textual analysis. For example, Rick Rogers proposes that Theophilus of Antioch’s To Autolycus is more protreptic than apologetic in nature, and Paul Foster discusses the textual criticism surrounding the work of Tatian.

I was also pleased to see that many of the authors showed a connection between these ancient writers and contemporary thought, such as Denis Minns’s observation from Irenaeus that “written documents do not carry their own tools for interpretation with them” (42). That’s a good word for those who fail to realize that any interpretation (of Scripture or any other communication) relies on an interpretive framework.

I was excited to see the Perpetua included in the list. The introduction states, “Her inclusion among other figures is not due to the attempt to embrace the feminist agenda for its own sake, or to feign some other type of ‘trendiness’” (xv) and acknowledges that she “may not have been the greatest theologian” (xvi). However, Sara Parvis’s essay failed to convince me that Perpetua belonged in this collection of significant thinkers. There was just too much supposition and extraction necessary to make a solid case for Perpetua as a thinker.

All things considered, Early Christian Thinkers is a welcome contribution for those interested in a more scholarly introduction to the lives and legacies of a handful of early Christian theologians who have left their mark on the church and her theology.

- Reviewed by Adam Reece

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Clouds of Witnesses

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Perhaps forty or seventy or a hundred years from now, someone will pen a valuable book about Christians who are living in places such as Iran or Syria or Tunisia today.

Like the seventeen men and women profiled in Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Clouds of Witnesses, many of the subjects of this future work will be individuals who will have held fast to the faith despite being at odds with their national culture; a culture that seems inhospitable to Christianity and where one might assume the church will never thrive.

Shi Meiyu was raised by parents who were early Chinese Christian converts. She studied medicine at the University of Michigan, one of the first women to enter a coeducational medical program. She returned to China and was instrumental in developing a hospital and training nurses—nurses who had far more responsibility than their counterparts in the United States.

Shi Meiyu required that her nursing students be trained as Christian evangelists as well as medical professionals.

This is a not uncommon theme in the book—many of the individuals profiled expected that Bible teaching and training of Christian workers would be paired with their efforts in social areas—and vice versa.

The account of Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922) is virtually un-put-downable. The journey of this woman of India to faith in Christ did not happen easily, nor all at once. But her conversion and commitment were solid.

Ramabai had a life of incredible experiences and achievements, among which was the publication of The High-Caste Hindu Woman. This work helped educate Americans about the plight of Hindu women, many of whom faced a bleak life. Using proceeds from her book, she aimed to reenter their world in order to bring them hope. She began a school in Bombay, using some ingenious and bold methods to act within a Hindu social system to read aloud and introduce Christian Scriptures to students.

These few words can’t do her story justice, nor can they tell of the culture of the Hindu world she had been born into and knew so well. When you pick up Clouds of Witnesses, turn to her story first!

In addition, you won’t want to miss:

• Byang Kato, who noted that Christianity is deeply rooted in African history, and who outlined four workable, long-term goals for the church on this continent

• Sun Chu Kil, whose conversion and life during times of great national change in Korea greatly influenced the church there today

• Yao-Tsung Wu, who was so impressed with the Sermon on the Mount that it became the basis of the view of social justice he developed for China so all could have enough.

Readers may find some of these richly detailed narratives, with their abundance of unfamiliar proper names, places, and events a bit difficult to follow. But nevertheless, they’re interesting and worth pursuing.

Countless Christians are laboring within their own cultures today—some in hostile climates where we wonder how the church can ever grow—bringing hope, reform, the Word. Their stories, too, should be told one day this side of heaven.

Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review: Getting the Reformation Wrong

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Getting the Reformation Wrong is a lucid and well-written work, one that everyone with an interest in early Protestant history ought to read. It’s literally flawless.

Okay, that was an overstatement. But Jim’s book is very good and, in my view, achieves well what he set out to accomplish. As the title suggests, Getting the Reformation Wrong is a corrective, and as such it does not survey the broad sweep of Reformation history so much as retell select portions of it. The book is not intended to replace overviews like Owen Chadwick’s The Reformation, in other words. Instead, it drills down into areas of common misunderstanding and, undergirded by recent scholarship, unearths a picture that’s messier and less simplistic than popular historiography about Protestant triumph over Catholic corruption would suggest.

That’s not to say that Jim is polemic throughout the book. His tone is calm and—in the vein of his subtitle, “Correcting Some Misunderstandings”—somewhat understated. He’s in command of his material, but he doesn’t bash the reader with it. If he has an axe to grind, it isn’t with younger Reformed enthusiasts (as I feared when I first saw the book’s title) but with poor history.

Some examples of misconceptions his book corrects:

· The Catholic church was hopelessly derailed before the Reformation

· Protestant theology arrived fully formed and the Reformers agreed on all important points of doctrine

· The doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura were understood as making good works and tradition irrelevant

· Today’s Baptists are direct descendants of Reformation-era Anabaptists, who were themselves a readily definable group

· The counter-Reformation was a Catholic backlash against Protestantism without any reforming aims of its own

In place of these misconceptions, Jim sketches a Catholic church longing for change and revitalization before, during, and after the Reformation, a vast and diverse church incorporating both virtue and venality. The Reformers as a group were prone to disagreement and had no idea where they would end up, theologically or ecclesially, when they began their remonstrations. Sola fide and sola scriptura eroded over time, to the point where Martin Luther wouldn’t recognize much of what is proclaimed under their banners today. Some Baptists have little in common with Anabaptists apart from adult baptism, the counter-Reformation was a vital revivification movement in its own right, and so on. Myth-holders have little ground left to stand on by the time Jim is finished.

The strength of Getting the Reformation Wrong is Jim’s accessibility; he makes his points with the ease and graceful prose of someone who knows his material inside and out. However, my one complaint with the book is that most of the misconceptions he overturns simply aren’t taught in college or seminary classes, nor are they common in good histories. They may be popular-level misunderstandings, but as noted earlier, this book isn’t meant to be a primary text on the Reformation. No one who has read a good introductory text holds to these misconceptions any longer, so who exactly is Jim’s book for? I wonder if the type of volume he’s written accidentally misses those readers he most wanted to persuade.

Nonetheless, Getting the Reformation Wrong is both expert and readable, and Jim is a deft guide through some of the complex currents and theologizing of the Reformation. I highly recommend this book.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked with Jim on past projects.)

— Reviewed by Madison Trammel.  Madison is a digital acquisitions editor at Zondervan.

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

Keeping Your Faith Strong in College

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Christian students in the world of college are often faced with a variety of unique challenges as they progress on their educational journey. Yes, college is first and foremost a place in which to receive an education; however, the opportunity it represents also comes with some interesting social and spiritual situations with which Christian students must be able to engage. In other words, it can be an eye-opening, and sometimes shocking, experience.

As you go through your college experience, sitting in lectures, eating at the food court, working out in the student center, and socializing during the weekends, take a moment to consider the following tips to help you keep your faith in college.

Walk With Christ In All That You Do

The most important part of maintaining your faith in college is that you continue your daily walk with Christ. In everything you do, you should somehow involve God, whether you are taking care of the laundry or preparing for a big exam. If you can continue your routine of faith, then you will have the benefits of your faith with you all throughout your college experience. This means praying routinely, attending services, and taking other daily faithful steps on your journey through college.

In my case, I made sure to run with Christ. I went to a small liberal arts college and joined the cross country and track teams. My being a member of the distance squad meant that, unlike my freshman year roommate, I had to wake up early every day, especially in the hotter months, in order to get to morning practice. Some of my favorite memories of college consist of my early morning wakeup ritual; I had a comfortable chair that I had purchased from a thrift store, and each morning as I put on my running shoes and tied the laces, I said a quick prayer of thanks and asked for Christ to bless my day and accompany me on my morning run, whether it was to be a long, steady ten miler or a track workout.

Seek Fellowship With Other Christians

In addition to maintaining your own personal faith routines, you should strive to seek out fellowship with other Christians on campus who can support you. Join a local church or religious group on campus. Attend a Bible study or other fellowship activity. It’s important to surround yourself with a core of friends who can also help you grow in your faith. Together, you can form a core to which you can turn during the inevitable storms.

In fact, this idea of fellowship led me to meet my best friend. Through a mutual acquaintance, we both met each other in a Friday morning fellowship at a local Christian coffee shop. The theme of that semester’s fellowship was to challenge ourselves to find closure to some past troubling aspect of our lives; it was to be something we could not imagine doing without Christ’s help. In my case, I was to contact my ex-boyfriend from high school, whom I had not spoken to in over a year, in order to make things right. In my roommate’s case, she was to write an essay about her father, who had died in a car accident when she was in high school. Through that fellowship program, we met each other, supported each other, and eventually became lifelong friends. I was able to make amends with my ex, and she eventually wrote a short story about her father. Without our fellowship, we each would not have grown to become better and stronger Christians.

Participate In Community Service

While college campuses are great reflections of the diversity of the real world, they can also be a little disconnected from that real world, the world in which your faith will do its work one day. Therefore, in order to also educate yourself about the world beyond college, you should consider engaging in community service. By getting out and helping the community beyond school, you can interact with people beyond simply college students and professors and begin to understand how others experience life. Furthermore, your actions can help others who are in greater need.

I engaged with the local community by volunteering at a soup kitchen for a project in an English class devoted to reading and writing about the marginalized figures of our society. At the soup kitchen, I met a man who called himself Red; he had been homeless for fifteen years. We spent a few days talking about his past, and while I never outright tried to impress my beliefs upon him, since he already considered himself to be a Christian, I do believe that my caring for him and speaking with him helped him. I felt as though Christ was working through me in those conversations, however minutely.

I found each of these activities helpful to keep my faith strong in college. Which ones have worked best for you?

—Lauren Bailey is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys writing about online colleges. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: blauren99@gmail.com.

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Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott

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  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Author Faculty Page
  • Q and A with the author
  • The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald R. McDermott is an excellent resource for those who are interested in understanding how theological thinking has been influenced and molded by Christian tradition. In recent years, I have come to see how a theology student can benefit from studying historical theology. Of course, I don’t believe that historical thinking can play a magisterial role in place of Scripture. Yet, we can learn a great deal from those who went before us (including mistakes that they made), and better understand where we are today. Alister McGrath notes, “Part of our theological method must include an examination of the past to understand how we came to be where we are.” In other words, theology is not simply about giving priority to the Bible; it is also about valuing and interacting with the ideas scholars derive from their engagement with tradition. As Graham Cole summarizes, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking …. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.” Suffice it to say that McDermott’s book succeeds in answering these concerns.

    What distinguishes McDermott’s book from others and what I thought to be very beneficial is the format that he applies to each chapter. Each chapter starts with a biographical sketch of the theologian, telling a story about that theologian’s life, and then introduces main themes of that theologian’s thought. Then, McDermott zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that theologian and provides an analysis of it. I really appreciated this format. It helps me to see the bigger picture of how each theologian came to form his particular theological thinking, how he reacted to the theological trends of his day and how such events informed and influenced his view of Scripture, etc. As a result, it demonstrates the interesting journey of the theologian’s mind to his particular thinking.

    Another strength that comes from the format is that since the author keeps it uniform throughout the book, it was easier to compare one theologian to another. This is nicely done especially between Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subjects of beauty, human experience (feeling) and reason in doing theology. To give another example, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues for the feeling of absolute dependence as the essence of religion (reacting to the Enlightenment), while Karl Barth turned attention to God’s self revelation in the Bible. Yet, Barth did not seem to exclude the significant aspect of human experience or feeling in doing theology, since his view of Scripture is that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its readers. Interestingly, Edwards saw both feeling (affections) and thinking (cognition) as important aspects of religion. In my opinion, Edwards has the most balanced view on this important subject.

    An additional strength of this book is that McDermott did not neglect to include the viewpoints of contemporary systematic/historical theologians such as Alister McGrath and Timothy George. For example, McDermott cites McGrath in the section on Luther’s theology of the cross. This is an excellent example of how past theology can continue to influence contemporary theologians and how the interaction of past and present can further unfold God’s message of the cross.

    I enjoyed this book very much. One thing that I wondered before reading it was how he chose these eleven theologians. What were the reasons behind his selection? McDermott says that it was purely his personal preference. Whatever the reasons, I found it a good selection and I believe McDermott succeeded in accomplishing his purpose for the book: “I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. . . . An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired”(11).

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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    Book Review — Global Awakening by Mark Shaw

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (May 2, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Mark Shaw’s faculty page
  • Q&A with Mark Shaw
  • Global Awakening by Mark Shaw is a work far from the kinds of books I normally read. Normally, one can find me with my nose buried in books on philosophy of religion or systematic theology. While it may not be evidenced in the works on my own site, my undergraduate background is in social studies, social sciences, and history. Global Awakening is one of the few Christian works I’ve read which focuses on historical, sociological aspects of religion.

    Mark Shaw identifies several crucial theses throughout his work, but the primary question he addresses is this: In an age in which secularism is supposed to dominate spirituality, how is it that Christianity has made such leaps and bounds globally? The fact that Christianity has experienced major resurgences in the past century is evidenced in the sociological data: “Africa went from ten million Christians in 1900 to four hundred million in 2000. Pentecostalism went from a handful in 1906 to half a billion worldwide by the century’s end. The center of Christianity shifted from North America and Europe to Africa, Asia and Latin America” (11).

    The book’s layout is interesting in that the conclusions are presented almost immediately within the first chapter and followed by the evidence from various case studies across the world and throughout the 20th century.

    Shaw argues that “[g]lobal revivals . . . are at the heart of the global resurgence of Christianity” (12). Revivals themselves can be viewed as a way of “updating of the church leading to new engagement with the surrounding world” (15). Shaw argues that there are various dynamics and aspects of revivals. These dynamics are: 1) personal liberation: both leaders and followers testify to freedom from spiritual bondage, 2) eschatological vision: a bold vision of God bringing His kingdom, 3) radical community: victims become members of the family, and 4) evangelical activism: spreading this revival to new places (17-18). Shaw notes that revivals often arise out of conflict (19).

    There are also cultural (people, faith, and justice), historical (problem, paradigm, and power), and global and group dynamics to revivals (20ff). The cultural dynamics often link Christianity to racial justice, a newfound faith, or a people group struggling with conflict. Historical dynamics reflect the way the revival grows and becomes institutionalized. Finally, global and group dynamics outline the way the revival integrates new members. Shaw writes, “As historical movements, revivals begin with problems. . . . Out of the ashes of the old springs the new. New leaders emerge and form a movement. . . . If the movement can resolve those clashes, it then moves outward to alter the social, spiritual, and cultural landscape of the surrounding world” (29).

    Shaw then moves into case studies, through which he develops his conclusions and arguments further. He leads off with the Korean revival which started in 1906. This revival, he argues, turned globalization into glocalization (that is, an integration and adaptation of a global faith for a local community) (52). He then turns to revivals in Africa, which demonstrate the importance of leaders in revivals (64). Next, he argues from the revival in 1930s India that “no conversion is complete without the conversion of the church” (90). The revival in Uganda provides a background for Shaw’s interesting argument that “Conservative churches tend to grow over time because they offer more and can therefore demand more of their members” (110); they offer, pragmatically, a “better value.” The revivals brought about in America by Billy Graham show a large problem remaining in churches in the States: pluralism. In a pluralistic society, should all share resources for the sake of “mission and witness” or should each privately conduct her own missions (131)? Brazil demonstrates the “power” dynamic of revivals: the protestant revival and emergence clashing with the Catholic powers that be. The working towards unity in Brazil presents a wildly altered spiritual landscape (156-157). Finally, the reverse mission of Africa (African missionaries going out to other parts of the world, rather than vice versa) and the emergence of China as a Christian powerhouse (estimates of house churches range from 10-80 million members) point to a spirit of missions and growth that may become exponential in the 21st century.

    Shaw concludes from all of this that Global revivals are “charismatic people movements that seek to change their world by translating Christian faith and transferring power” (198). Secularization does not seem to be leading to a destruction of religion, but rather breaking apart of theocracies and church control over governments (211).

    Overall, Shaw argues astutely for his points and brings to light many facts and examples which will be interesting for Christian readers. I believe the most important part of Global Awakening, however, is the feeling of global community Christians can have upon reading works such as this one. Shaw ably demonstrates that Christianity is not in danger of dying, but rather in “danger” of breaking open a new era of spiritual revival. This era will foster social and spiritual renewal on an epic, global scale. The coming decades will see an even greater resurgence of spiritual revival across the world. What can one say to this but “Thanks be to God!”

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. writes on Christian apologetics, philosophy of religion, and theology at http://jwwartick.com.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.


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    Review of John Stott’s “The Radical Disciple”

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  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (May 2, 2010)
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  • When I first opened The Radical Disciple, I wasn’t expecting to be captivated. It’s an unassuming little book, brown and white, with a subtitle that sounds suited to an academic publication and a Table of Contents that consists of a terse series of one-word chapter titles. In the text itself, the writing style is simple and direct; this is not stylish or witty prose. Eight chapters, preface, and postscript take up fewer than 140 small pages.

    As I read, though, I was won over. In the book, Stott explores eight aspects of Christian discipleship which are often neglected in today’s church. The eight aspects include nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death. Each individual reader will probably be struck by the application of several of these to his or her own walk with Christ; readers will probably also hold a variety of opinions as to which of these aspects is most egregiously neglected in Christian circles. The chapter on creation care seems to me to be the most surprising inclusion in a book on discipleship; placing stewardship of the earth in such a prominent position among our duties as followers of Christ runs counter to many of our political and social currents. The sections on nonconformity, simplicity and balance are strikingly relevant to individual lifestyles and to the life of the church. The final chapters on dependence and death are especially poignant to me as I face the aging and illness of a beloved family member who is, thankfully, a devoted follower and lover of God. In those chapters, Stott discusses not only physical dependence and death, but spiritual life and death and emotional dependence. A passage about dependence gave me food for thought:

    “We come into this world totally dependent on the love, care and protection of others. We go through a phase of life when other people depend on us. And most of us will go out of this world totally dependent on the love and care of others. And this is not an evil, destructive reality. It is part of the design, part of the physical nature that God has given us.

    “I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else. I’m happy to carry on living so long as I can look after myself, but as soon as I become a burden I would rather die.’ But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others. You are designed to be a burden to me and I am designed to be a burden to you. And the life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of ‘mutual burdensomeness.’ ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).”

    John Stott wrote The Radical Disciple as his final published book at the age of eighty-eight. This is the kind of book that one would expect from an evangelist and author who is nearing the end of an earthly life spent following Christ. With simplicity and a quiet boldness, he passes this reminder to the church: that we are called according to God’s purpose, and that purpose requires us to be imitators of Christ who are set apart and yet engaged in our world.

    — Reviewed by Desmognathus.  A follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for this review copy.

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