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.

Book Review: Defending Constantine

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  • Paperback: 373 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Christian Book Distributors
  • Author’s Website


  • “What is a Christian view of politics?” “Does the church have political power?” “If so, how should we Christians exercise such political power in order to advance the Kingdom of God?” Questions like these naturally come to mind when we think about the relation between the church and politics. There is no easy answer for such weighty questions. In this book, Peter Leithart looks for the answer in Constantine. Perhaps, for many, it is a surprising place given the fact that Constantine’s accomplishments as emperor are often overshadowed by questions about the sincerity of his faith. His defense of Constantine is twofold: First, he aims to defend Constantine by refuting scholars who accuse the emperor of being a tyrant, egoist, opportunist and the like and by providing a “fairly fair account of Constantine’s life and work” (10). Second, he argues that “Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice” (11).

    In the first part of the book, Leithart presents his scholarly interpretation of what kind of Christian emperor Constantine was. He begins with the background of how Constantine rose to power as emperor and describes how he changed Rome. Leithart states, “He [Constantine] was a sincere if somewhat simple believer. He knew some portions of the Old Testament and perhaps the basic outline of biblical history, and he could summarize the story of the Gospels. For Constantine, God was a providential Judge who supports the righteous and destroys the wicked, and he believed that the church had to be unified if it was going to offer pleasing worship to God” (302). Leithart demonstrates solid scholarly work in his interpretation of historical writings to present a fair portrayal of Constantine. Yet, it is fair to say that his own voice seems to overtake the voice of Constantine from time to time.

    In the latter part of his book (Chapters 12 to 14), Leithart engages with John Howard Yoder, whose work in pacifism has received considerable attention and who also coined the term “Constantianism,” which is defined as “a set of mental, spiritual and institutional habits that gets into the blood of careless Christians” (310). His engagement with Yoder is delightful. His criticism of Yoder, as Leithart clearly states, is not mainly historical, but theological. Still, Leithart argues that Yoder gets fourth-century church history completely wrong: He misconstrues his “entire reading of church history which is a hinge of his theological project” (11).

    “He [Yoder] argues that the early church was uniformly, or almost uniformly, pacifist and that Christians who served in the military would have been excommunicated . . . the evidence for Christians in the army in the mid-second century represents an accommodation to worldliness, a sign of drift and ultimately apostasy . . . Constantine consolidated and institutionalized this drift into a centuries-long apostasy” (258). However, Leithart asserts that the historical evidence is too ambiguous to make such a judgment call. Instead, Yoder’s rather hasty judgment may show that his historical interpretation is motivated by his Anabaptist background, instead of a fair examination of the historical evidence.

    Yet, Leithart sympathizes with pacifism. Not with the same intensity as Yoder, of course, but he agrees with Augustine that “One does not pursue peace in order to wage war, he wages war to achieve peace” (337). And this is indeed what we see in the Bible: “The Bible is from beginning to end a story of war” (333) to bring the world the benefit of peace. In this way Leithart shows his appreciation of Yoder. In fact, agreeing with Yoder, Leithart contends, “If there is going to be a Christian politics, it is going to have to be an evangelical Christian politics, one that places Jesus, his cross and his resurrection at the center. It will not do to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount with a wave of the hand (‘that’s for personal life, not political life’) (332). However, for Yoder, this cannot be accomplished with the help of empire, while for Leithart it is plausible because God finds His vessels in unlikely places.

    In conclusion, I believe that what these two theologians seek is the same: To advance the Kingdom of God. Yet, they differ in how to achieve this end. As a student of theology, I find myself in basic agreement with Leithart. Although I disagree with a number of points that he makes throughout the book, I agree with his basic principle: God can use empire, government, and social institutions to advance His Kingdom, as Scripture supports. Yet, I am not fond of Leithart’s interpretation of the Bible as a story of war. I agree, though, that a canonical reading of the Bible is a crucial key to understanding how we should participate in advancing the Kingdom of God. For this, Jeremiah 29 is crucial. How should we understand “seek the welfare of the city?” Perhaps, if we examine Jeremiah 29 in light of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-28, and the new earth and heaven of Revelation 21-22, we may come to see that God also brings redemption to this fallen world and we are to participate in this redemptive work of the created world (Rom 8:19-21). As William T. Cavanaugh rightly states, “If the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday during that period, we must find ways to appreciate Christendom.” It is plausible to conclude that Constantine was one of God’s vessels to advance the Kingdom of God.

    — Reviewed by Naomi Reese

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Worshipping with the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (November 2009)
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  • Christianbook.com
  • About the Author
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    Worshipping with the Church Fathers is the third volume in a series from IVP Academic. The earlier two volumes are Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (1998) and Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (2002). The working title of the upcoming fourth volume is Living Ethically with the Church Fathers.

    The volume under review can be divided into three main sections. The first section is a treatment of the church fathers’ views on the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Hall initiates his discussion of the sacraments by acknowledging that “some readers, particularly those from an evangelical background and perspective, may find themselves surprised, bewildered and perhaps troubled to discover that the church fathers thought, lived and worshipped sacramentally” (21).

    Hall gives good examples of the hermeneutic that the church fathers employed as they sought to understand the sacraments. I’ll label this hermeneutic principle metaphorical extension. By that, I mean that he gives many examples of how the fathers looked for references, for instance, to water beyond the immediate context of baptism in order to understand baptism (30 ff). This approach seems mystical or esoteric to modern readers, but that is another matter. “We must first have listened carefully to the text, entering willingly into its rhyme and reason, before we have the right to disagree” (16).

    The second section, on prayer, is the largest of the three. In fact, the title of the book was originally Praying with the Church Fathers (12). In my opinion, this section was also the strongest. Drawing heavily on Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Tertullian and John Cassian, we learn how the fathers answered questions many of us encounter. Questions such as: What is prayer (85 ff)? How can we pray without ceasing (113 ff)? How do we avoid distractions while praying (91 ff, 132 ff)? Why do my prayers go unanswered (155 ff)?

    Hall closes the book by looking at the ascetic practices of the Desert Monks. Much of his attention is directed towards Athanasius’ Life of Antony, which is to be expected. However, he also references many other fathers and mothers, such as Abba Issac and Amma Matrona. One perspective that was new to me was that they were not withdrawing into the desert to escape the world; instead, they advanced into the desert as an assault on the Kingdom of Satan. The wilderness was thought to be Satan’s territory in their worldview—Jesus had encountered Satan there, after all. Another valuable offering from this section was the discussion of acedia (laziness, sloth) and gluttony and the willingness to confront these sins which too often we tolerate at our peril.

    Again, the author recognizes that some of what the fathers say will “remain foreign—even loony—to us,” but encourages us to listen and learn from them rather than discount them completely (249). He also suggests that his non-sacramental readers visit a more sacramental service in order to more fully understand the world and worship of the church fathers.

    Reviewed by Adam Reece

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy

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    Book Review — The Passionate Intellect

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  • Hardcover: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (July 2010)
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  • Alister McGrath’s Website
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    I recently had the opportunity to review Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect. The book, subtitled “Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind,” explores the practice of Christian theology and its relevance to the modern church and to Western culture. It is based on lectures and addresses given over the course of several years by McGrath, a Christian apologist and theologian who has gained public recognition as a speaker and author. Dr. McGrath’s credentials as a former atheist and an accomplished academic theologian with doctoral degrees in molecular biophysics and divinity give him a unique perspective in discussions of science, atheism, and Christianity.

    The first chapters of The Passionate Intellect primarily discuss the functions of theology as an aid to faith and understanding for the individual and the benefits of theology for the Christian community. The combination of the academic writing style and the subject matter made this part of the book a difficult read; analysis of a field of study is, to me, less engaging than the field of study itself. However, McGrath communicates very clearly his passion for a relationship with God that transcends intellectual understanding. Theology for McGrath is not merely a dry study of the history or meaning of God’s actions in this world, but a pursuit that should “leave us on our knees, adoring the mystery that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.” He advocates a theology that is rooted in a personal desire to know God more deeply, is useful to the church, and that informs apologetics and evangelism. For the church as a whole, he argues that theology can hold the church to a dynamic orthodoxy, making religious truth accessible to a changing culture while remaining faithful to original apostolic teaching.

    From these first chapters, McGrath moves into a discussion of engaging with our culture. For me, McGrath’s strength lies in these subjects; he tackles the supposed conflict of science and religion, the implications of Charles Darwin’s ideas, and the “new atheism” with thoughtfulness and an impressive command of both history and the natural sciences. He criticizes the dogmatic assumptions inherent in the arguments of scientific atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins, who argue that good science is incompatible with religion. In this section, McGrath devotes a well-balanced chapter to the implications of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species for the Christian faith. In my opinion, the most fascinating chapter in the book follows the chapter focusing on Darwin. In chapter nine, “Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution,” McGrath describes the conclusions that Augustine (354-430 A.D.) drew after much reflection and study of Scripture regarding God’s creation of the universe. Of course, Augustine was not responding to Charles Darwin or his work (Augustine predated Darwin by fifteen hundred years or so), but his conclusions are remarkably applicable to the current creation debate.

    The last several chapters focus on the new atheists’ metaphysical and sociological arguments, and their intellectual heritage. McGrath thoroughly addresses the new atheists’ assertion that “religion poisons everything,” a sound bite coined by Christopher Hitchens (2007) asserting that religion is responsible for most of the social ills in the world. This popular argument most commonly blames violence (particularly wars, terrorism, and abuse) on religion. The author dismantles the argument piece by piece, drawing from history, philosophy and sociological research to support his case.

    Alister McGrath is reasonable and meticulous when discussing the history and sociology of Christianity, enthusiastic about science, and passionate regarding the prospect of a life spent getting to know God. The Passionate Intellect is the product of a believer who expresses his faith with intellectual integrity and a remarkable command of the historical and scientific evidence. This book is a valuable resource for Christians seeking to clarify their thinking on the issues at the intersections of science, modern atheism, and Christianity. The Passionate Intellect is confirmation that a vibrant intellectual life is fully consistent with a deep faith in God.

    — 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.  Desmognathus now blogs at Fish Nor Fowl.

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Book Review – Healing for a Broken World

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway Books
  • Amazon
  • DVD & Study Guide
  • Much is being written these days on the relationship between Christianity and politics, especially in the light of the decline of the religious right. The more enlightened of these articles and books avoid simply defending either the Republican or Democrat party line, but instead seek to apply biblical principles to public policy and civil society. One recent book that does this well is Steve Monsma’s Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy. Monsma is a former state senator, emeritus professor of political science at Pepperdine, and currently senior research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College.

    The book is divided into two parts. Part one sets out four principles from Scripture that Monsma believes are the most relevant for thinking about public policy. These principles are creation, sin, and redemption; justice; solidarity; and civil society. The first principle is drawn from the early chapters of Genesis and portrays the nature of our world and the human condition: God instructed human beings to multiply and subdue the earth (the cultural mandate). But man fell, and God is now in the process of redeeming humanity, as well as every aspect of His creation. (I appreciate this reformed approach to redemption, which includes all of creation, and doesn’t focus solely on human souls—important as that is.)

    The second principle (justice) indicates that “God has instituted governing authorities and their public policies to work against evil and to promote justice in society” (p. 49). The third principle is solidarity, which is the obligation God has given every person to love their neighbor as themselves (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8). The final principle draws on Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty,” which holds that God has established several domains of human society, each of which is authoritative in its own realm. Chief among these domains are the government, the family, and the church. Since each sphere possesses its own authority, it is wrong for any one sphere to usurp the authority of another—for example, for the government to usurp the authority of the family, or the church to usurp the authority of the government. These four principles, Monsma contends, are those that should guide a Christian approach to public policy.

    Part two seeks to apply these four principles to several pressing issues in our world today, including church and state, life, poverty, the environment, human rights, the needs of Africa, and war and terrorism. On the issue of abortion, for example, Monsma points out that justice requires that human life, which is made in God’s image, should be protected by law. At the same time, Christians and others in our society should stand in solidarity with pregnant women facing difficult circumstances and seek to help and support them. In terms of civil society/sphere sovereignty, private organizations are typically better equipped to offer emotional and spiritual support, while government agencies are often better placed to provide monetary assistance, housing, and job training (though there may be exceptions where organizations can also contribute to these).

    Yet challenges and gray areas remain. To what extent should a society attempt to restrict abortion? Should exceptions be made for the health of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, or when the fetus is severely deformed? Are conservatives willing to support assistance programs for low-income families that will discourage women from having abortions? Are liberals willing to extend their concern for children to the womb?

    Monsma frequently raises difficult issues such as these in each of the chapters in part two, which I appreciate about the book. I believe his four biblical principles are compelling and important, though others, no doubt, could be added. He does a good job of consistently applying these criteria to the problems he addresses, while also highlighting some of the ambiguities that arise in trying to construct a consistent Christian public policy.  At some points I felt that references to relevant political philosophy would have made for a richer discussion (for example, in defining terms like “justice”), but Monsma was keen to keep the discussion concrete and practical (p. 50).

    The relationship between Christianity and government is a difficult and complex topic, and there are no easy answers. But the principles Monsma suggests are indispensable to the discussion, and deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition.   Anyone interested in the intersection of Christianity and politics will find this book helpful, especially since the author has wrestled with many of these issues firsthand.

    — Reviewed by Chris Reese

    * Thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy.

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    Book Review – Uncommon Decency

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  • Paperback: 187 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (August 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Richard Mouw’s blog
  • At the heels of the January 2011 shootings in Tucson that left six dead and many wounded has come the suggestion that our manner of discussing the issues of the day has become acrimonious.

    Comments citing the “vitriol that comes out of certain mouths” and “level of angry rhetoric,” and pleas to “bring down the rhetoric [that] . . . has become pervasive in our discussion of political issues” have abounded in the days after the tragic event.

    Is our age more caustic in our treatment of political and cultural disagreements than previous ones? Probably not. But the question of how to address differences has recurred.

    Richard J. Mouw’s newly revised Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (InterVarsity 2010) is a welcome discussion on . . . discussion. How should anyone, specifically Christians, present opinions about the issues of the day? We need to start with our own sinfulness and others’ humanness, and recognize that many issues are not easily resolved. Accept that we can learn from someone we disagree with. Even pray for the welfare of Babylon, Mouw advises, citing Jeremiah’s injunction to the exiled Israelites: “Seek the welfare of the city . . . and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4–7).

    Mouw tackles some of the familiar topics we tend to be uncivil about, but avoids clichéd responses. For example, he raises the concept of pluralism—a topic conservative Christians sometimes view with dismay, as though such a reality is detrimental to our practice of the faith. He lays out a reasoned and interesting conclusion, though, as to why Christians actually ought to embrace a pluralistic society.

    A strength of the book is his inclusion of issues within and without the church, discussions among believers, and between Christians and those who aren’t. He says Christians often become polarized—and may embrace polarization—even concerning different approaches to sharing the faith. We can obey the call to spread the gospel even while we listen to others, sincerely aim to understand them better, and even to get their perspective on us. Sadly, much incivility occurs within churches, whether in a local church setting or in a public denominational split.

    He recognizes the difficulties of engaging with culture without compromising convictions and offers examples of those whose road can be bumpy while doing so. His chapter on “When There Is No ‘On the Other Hand’ ” expands on this theme. Mouw’s approach to issues is nuanced, and he recognizes that “there will come times when civility alone is not adequate for dealing with our differences.”

    The chapter on whether or not hell is uncivil is fascinating.

    Mouw supports his reasoning with historic persons and contemporary examples, remaining thoughtful and fresh throughout. He concludes that “without grace, civility cannot endure.”

    Uncommon Decency is a welcome addition on how to discuss issues, get involved with others, address matters and persons with civility; a sensible, pleasing, and challenging read, highly recommended.

    —Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Book Review – Generation Ex-Christian

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  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers (October 1, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Drew Dyck on Twitter
  • Recent statistics on the religious commitments of young people are alarming. Surveys show that 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claim no religion, and 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the ages of 18 and 22. The church is losing its youth at a disturbing rate. But behind every statistic is an individual story, and Drew Dyck contends in Generation Ex-Christian that most of these “leavers” fall into one of six broad categories: Postmodernists, Recoilers, Modernists, Neo-Pagans, Rebels, and Drifters.

    He devotes a chapter to each, which includes a description of the category, interviews with those who fit the category, and advice for how to reach out to each type of leaver. I found the interviews compelling and appreciated how they brought what could be merely abstract concepts to life. If you’ve spent much time sharing the gospel with different kinds of people, you will quickly recognize many of these “types” of non-believers (though Dyck acknowledges that every person has a unique story).

    I was most interested in the Modernists leavers, who appear for the most part to be new atheists. As part of his research for this group, Dyck attended a meeting of the Wheaton Atheists Group and describes his interaction with the skeptics there. One of the members, a young man named Dan, admitted that he had grown up in the Assemblies of God and had just recently left the faith.

    What had caused his crisis of faith?

    “I always believed the earth was 6,000 years old,” Dan said bitterly. “But now I know it’s not.”

    For years Dan tried desperately to maintain his belief in the young earth theory. He read material from Answers in Genesis, a Christian apologetics organization, consulted his pastor and people in his church. But ultimately he said he just couldn’t deny what he saw as the evidence that the world was much older than 6,000 years.

    “That’s when I realized that Christianity just wasn’t true,” he said.

    Inwardly I cringed at the false-alternatives scenario that Dan had set up in his mind. For him, one geological question (which the Bible doesn’t even address explicitly) was the deciding factor for faith.” (79-80)

    I cringe as well when I hear those kinds of stories and lament the fact that peripheral matters like the age of the earth are taken to be reasons for rejecting the gospel. But I’m discovering that these kinds of stories are common.

    Another atheist, Shane, had been drifting from his Christian faith for some time. What pushed him over the edge was the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

    “I’ve heard this from people in the atheist community, over and over again. September 11 made us all realize that you can’t be a fence-sitter on this issue. We realized that religion is causing these problems. It’s holding belief in things which are not empirically verifiable. That’s what’s wrong.” (104)

    Dyck ends the chapter with several pieces of good advice for reaching out to Modernist leavers. He encourages listening carefully and asking questions of skeptics, and not assuming common ground that doesn’t exist (e.g., the belief that the Bible is reliable or inspired). Relevant and suitable questions to ask include those that encourage a skeptic to follow the logical consequences of their worldview, including the loss of objective meaning and morality (some skeptics will deny this, but many don’t and readily admit it).  It will likely be necessary to point out the consequences of adopting a non-God worldview.

    Dyck also wisely encourages Christians to confront atheists with the fact that they themselves have a worldview that requires defending and offering good reasons for. In my experience, the majority of atheists believe that their skeptical position is somehow neutral ground that requires no justification to hold. But as long as anyone is making a positive claim of any kind (e.g., God doesn’t exist, Christianity is false, etc.), he or she is under the same obligation as the Christian to provide reasons and evidence for their claim. If someone just doesn’t know, then they should adopt the agnostic, rather than the atheistic, viewpoint.

    The other chapters of Generation Ex-Christian are as good as this one, so I heartily recommend this book, especially to those who need help understanding and reaching out to the leavers they know.

    The first chapter can be downloaded here.

    — Reviewed by Chris Reese.  In the interest of full disclosure, I work for Moody, the publisher of Generation Ex-Christian.

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