Book Review – Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Interest in the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains strong among evangelicals, and several recent books have explored his life, ministry, and theology. IVP Academic has made a notable contribution to these studies with their volume Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture. Each spring, IVP Academic co-sponsors the Wheaton Theology Conference at Wheaton College. This book originated from the conference held in 2012 under the same title. The focus of the conference was an examination of how Bonhoeffer’s theology, education, and life experiences influenced him to become a preacher and theologian whose faith in Christ directed him to the public square. Thus, this book helps us see how Bonhoeffer engaged with culture as a theologian of the cross. Abraham Kuyper famously wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Likewise, Bonhoeffer saw every aspect of culture and society to be a place where the resurrected Christ is to be exalted.

In this volume, ten evangelical scholars unfold the views, thoughts, and theology of Bonhoeffer in areas such as technology, politics, and the Christian academy, among others. Although all of the essays are insightful, some pique more interest than others. For example, in chapter 1, Philip G. Ziegler approaches Bonhoeffer as a “theologian of the Word of God” (p. 34). He argues that the core of Bonhoeffer’s theology stems from his theological conviction that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ who is the Word incarnate. Hence, “Christian dogmatics must . . . cleave to the confession that Jesus Christ is God and admit that ‘the is may not be interpreted any further’” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer understood that “the work of the present Word is always world-making” (pp. 35-36). To find the relevance of theology in worldly affairs, one must acknowledge how the Word continues to work among us in order to restore what was fallen due to the sin of the first Adam.

In chapter 3, Reggie L. Williams examines how Bonhoeffer’s encounter with the Harlem Renaissance influenced his views on race and argues that “Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the race divide in Harlem was a vital piece of his later politically inflected Christian witness in Germany” (p. 62). Williams contends, “Christ entering into the suffering of the outcasts and marginalized is a theme that resonates with Bonhoeffer’s Christology as he would develop it in the years ahead. Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer not only agreed with this christological theme as the mode of Christ’s existence in the world but also with the ethical imperative for real Christian discipleship” (p. 71). In my opinion, this chapter is the best in the book. In fact, Williams’s essay was received enthusiastically by the audience at the conference, and he received a standing ovation—a rare event at a theology conference!

In chapter 6, Joel D. Lawrence, in response to Bonhoeffer’s view of the church (“‘The church is church only when it is there for others’” [p. 113]), presents a question: “How does the church become the church for others?” (p. 114). Lawrence focuses on Bonhoeffer’s theology of confession in which Bonhoeffer argues for “the concrete discipline that is essential for the community who would move from the cor curvum in se [the heart turned in on itself] to being for others” (p. 121). In confession, there is life again because we die to sin through confession and, in this act, the church will conform to Christ. Lawrence concludes, “We must ask with Bonhoeffer: Is the lack of life in the church today connected to disregard for confession? Is there no life today because there is no death?” (p. 129). Lawrence thus calls for a true theology of confession in order for the church to exist in the form of Christ—to be there for others.

There is much to commend in this book. It serves not only those who are interested in Bonhoeffer, but also those who are interested in cultural engagement—how Christianity can bring human flourishing to society and culture. In this sense, the conference and book are an attempt to examine what we can learn from Bonhoeffer to make Christianity relevant to our contemporary society. As the church faces issues that arise within our society, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings inspire us to remain faithful to Christ, the Word incarnate, while we engage with culture in order to bring human flourishing to society.

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

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics – May 2013

God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered CultureRon Highfield (IVP Academic, February 2013) *

Does God’s all-encompassing will restrict our freedom? Does God’s ownership and mastery over us diminish our dignity? The fear that God is a threat to our freedom and dignity goes far back in Western thought. Such suspicion remains with us today in our so-called secular society. In such a context any talk of God tends to provoke responses that range from defiance to subservience to indifference. How did Western culture come to this place? What impact does this social and intellectual environment have on those who claim to believe in God or more specifically in the Christian God of the Bible? Professor of religion Ron Highfield traces out the development of Western thought that has led us our current frame of mind from Plato, Augustine and Descartes through Locke, Kant, Blake Bentham, Hegel, Nietzsche–all the way down to Charles Taylor’s landmark work Sources of the Self. At the heart of the issue is the modern notion of the autonomous self and the inevitable crisis it provokes for a view of human identity, freedom and dignity found in God. Can the modern self really secure its own freedom, dignity and happiness? What alternative do we have? Highfield makes pertinent use of trinitarian theology to show how genuine Christian faith responds to this challenge by directing us to a God who is not in competition with his human creations, but rather who provides us with what we seek but could never give ourselves. God, Freedom and Human Dignity is essential reading for Christian students who are interested in the debates around secularism, modernity and identity formation.

God or Godless?  One Atheist.  One Christian. Twenty Controversial QuestionsJohn W. Loftus and Randal Rauser (Baker, April 2013)

Perhaps the most persistent question in human history is whether or not there is a God. Intelligent people on both sides of the issue have argued, sometimes with deep rancor and bitterness, for generations. The issue can’t be decided by another apologetics book, but the conversation can continue and help each side understand the perspectives of the other.
In this unique book, atheist John Loftus and theist Randal Rauser engage in twenty short debates that consider Christianity, the existence of God, and unbelief from a variety of angles. Each concise debate centers on a proposition to be resolved, with either John or Randal arguing in the affirmative and the opponent the negative, and can be read in short bits or big bites. This is the perfect book for Christians and their atheist or agnostic friends to read together, and encourages honest, open, and candid debate on the most important issues of life and faith.

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character DevelopmentPhilip E. Dow (IVP Academic, April 2013)

Templeton Foundation Character Project’s Character Essay and Book Prize Competition award winner! What does it mean to love God with all of our minds? Our culture today is in a state of crisis where intellectual virtue is concerned. Dishonesty, cheating, arrogance, laziness, cowardice–such vices are rampant in society, even among the world’s most prominent leaders. We find ourselves in an ethical vacuum, as the daily headlines of our newspapers confirm again and again. Central to the problem is the state of education. We live in a technological world that has ever greater access to new information and yet no idea what to do with it all. In this wise and winsome book, Philip Dow presents a case for the recovery of intellectual character. He explores seven key virtues–courage, carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, curiosity, honesty and humility–and discusses their many benefits. The recovery of virtue, Dow argues, is not about doing the right things, but about becoming the right kind of person. The formation of intellectual character produces a way of life that demonstrates love for both God and neighbor. Dow has written an eminently practical guide to a life of intellectual virtue designed especially for parents and educators. The book concludes with seven principles for a true education, a discussion guide for university and church groups, and nine appendices that provide examples from Dow’s experience as a teacher and administrator. Virtuous Minds is a timely and thoughtful work for parents and pastors, teachers and students–anyone who thinks education is more about the quality of character than about the quantity of facts.

Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem – Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evan, & Paul Copan, eds. (IVP Academic, April 2013).

The challenge of a seemingly genocidal God who commands ruthless warfare has bewildered Bible readers for generations. The theme of divine war is not limited to the Old Testament historical books, however. It is also prevalent in the prophets and wisdom literature as well. Still it doesn’t stop. The New Testament book of Revelation, too, is full of such imagery. Our questions multiply.

  • Why does God apparently tell Joshua to wipe out whole cities, tribes or nations?
  • Is this yet another example of dogmatic religious conviction breeding violence?
  • Did these texts help inspire or justify the Crusades?
  • What impact do they have on Christian morality and just war theories today?
  • How does divine warfare fit with Christ’s call to “turn the other cheek”?
  • Why does Paul employ warfare imagery in his letters?
  • Do these texts warrant questioning the overall trustworthiness of the Bible?

These controversial yet theologically vital issues call for thorough interpretation, especially given a long history of misinterpretation and misappropriaton of these texts. This book does more, however. A range of expert contributors engage in a multidisciplinary approach that considers the issue from a variety of perspectives: biblical, ethical, philosophical and theological. While the writers recognize that such a difficult and delicate topic cannot be resolved in a simplistic manner, the different threads of this book weave together a satisfying tapestry. Ultimately we find in the overarching biblical narrative a picture of divine redemption that shows the place of divine war in the salvific movement of God.

The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All?John Leslie & Robert Lawrence Kuhn, eds. (Wiley-Blackwell, April 2013)

This compelling study of the origins of all that exists, including explanations of the entire material world, traces the responses of philosophers and scientists to the most elemental and haunting question of all: why is anything here—or anything anywhere? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not nothing? It includes the thoughts of dozens of luminaries from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Leibniz to modern thinkers such as physicists Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg, philosophers Robert Nozick and Derek Parfit, philosophers of religion Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, and the Dalai Lama.

  • The first accessible volume to cover a wide range of possible reasons for the existence of all reality, from over 50 renowned thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, and the Dalai Lama
  • Features insights by scientists, philosophers, and theologians
  • Includes informative and helpful editorial introductions to each section
  • Provides a wealth of suggestions for further reading and research
  • Presents material that is both comprehensive and comprehensible

Mind, Brain, and Free WillRichard Swinburne (Oxford University Press, May 2013)

Mind, Brain, and Free Will presents a powerful new case for substance dualism (the idea that humans consist of two parts–body and soul) and for libertarian free will (that humans have some freedom to choose between alternatives, independently of the causes which influence them). Richard Swinburne argues that answers to questions about mind, body, and free will depend crucially on the answers to more general philosophical questions. He begins by analyzing the criteria for one event being the same as another, one substance being the same as another, and a state of affairs being metaphysically possible; and then goes on to analyze the criteria for a belief about these issues being justified. Pure mental events (including conscious events) are distinct from physical events and interact with them. Swinburne claims that no result from neuroscience or any other science could show that interaction does not take place; and illustrates this claim by showing that recent scientific work (such as Libet’s experiments) has no tendency whatever to show that our intentions do not cause brain events. He goes on to argue for agent causation, and claims that–to speak precisely–it is we, and not our intentions, that cause our brain events. It is metaphysically possible that each of us could acquire a new brain or continue to exist without a brain; and so we are essentially souls. Brain events and conscious events are so different from each other that it would not be possible to establish a scientific theory which would predict what each of us would do in situations of moral conflict. Hence given a crucial epistemological principle (the Principle of Credulity) we should believe that things are as they seem to be: that we make choices independently of the causes which influence us. According to Swinburne’s lucid and ambitious account, it follows that we are morally responsible for our actions.

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Book Review – Delighting in the Trinity

Author Michael Reeves tackles what is perhaps at once the most familiar, most complex, and even the most puzzling Christian doctrine: the Trinity.

He begins by acknowledging that even the words “God is a Trinity” evoke stiffness, a dogma that seems irrelevant. In contrast, he points out, “God is love” brings out warm feelings, something most can relate to, and want to.

And then he says it: “God is love because God is a Trinity.”

Reeves states his overall theme early: “Christianity is not primarily about lifestyle change; it is about knowing God.” And this current flows through the book. What is this God like who invites us to know Him? And what difference does it make that He is a triune God rather than a single-person god?

Comparing the Lord God of Israel to single-person deities is one of the most interesting aspects of Reeves’s work. It is true that because we are used to fitting “God” into our own expectations, the idea of “Trinity” or a “triune” being is awkward at best. We prefer the single-person deity as an entity much easier to understand. Yet a comparison of other gods and the Lord God of Israel reveals some widely differing beings.

For example, according to the Qur’an, Allah “begets not, nor is he begotten”—a strikingly different being than one we know as Father. And God couldn’t be a Father without having offspring.

Marduk, in Babylon’s creation story, creates human beings so he and the other gods can have servants to rule over. Reeves invites readers to take this further. If a god is a solitary being, he has no one to love (in contrast to God the Father, who was loving the Son before creation); he can love himself, but that’s a selfish love. A single-person god must, by his essence, be all about self-gratification. How could a solitary deity be loving when love involves another? Remember that the Son in the Trinity came to serve others, to give up His live for many.

Reeves turns to Aristotle’s god. If being good involves being good to another, how can a solitary god be good when there is no one to show goodness to? Aristotle determines that the universe exists right alongside God, so he gives his goodness to it. But Reeves concludes that this reasoning means that for God to be himself, he needs the world. He’s dependent on it to be who he is; this god of Aristotle’s is good, but not necessarily loving.

If at this point you’re reminded of your freshman introduction to philosophy class, I encourage you to stay with it. Reeves is making the point that before creation, our triune God was neither lonely nor in need of gratification, for He was eternally loving His Son in the Spirit.

Since in a single-person god system, the god would have created beings in order to rule over and be served by them, sin would thus be about behaving and acting wrong. A single-person god might offer forgiveness, but not make us his children (because he wouldn’t be a father). This god’s beings might live under his protection, but he wouldn’t offer closeness.

The author returns to Allah, a single-person god. His only “companion” in heaven is a book, the Qur’an. This is a book, a word that is about him, just a thing. In contrast is our triune God—and this is a lovely truth beautifully expressed by Reeves—who gave us His Word, which is His very self: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He didn’t just drop a book from heaven, He came Himself. So the Father sends the Son, the Son makes the Father known, and the Spirit makes the Son known through Spirit-breathed Scriptures.

God invites us to know and love Him, not just live under His rule; if He did, then only outward behavior would matter. And because it is not outward behavior that is the problem, but what we desire—usually ourselves—the Spirit gives us new hearts.

Reeves continues on the theme of knowing this God who is bursting with fullness and sharing and fellowship, and asks who could prefer a leaner, stripped-down version, i.e., the single-person variety who offers a dull version of religion. And later in the book he reflects on the type of God he’d want to emulate. Would it be a self-contemplative one like Aristotle’s? a cruel deity? Or a triune God to whom love and relationship are central to His being?

The author comments on Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in which He requests that His followers “may be one as we are one.” What is oneness? To a single-person god such as Allah, oneness means sameness. He says, “the once diverse cultures of Nigeria, Persia, and Indonesia are made, deliberately and increasingly, the same.” But oneness for the triune God means unity. Jesus is praying that His followers be united, but not all the same.

I’m not sure I agree with this contention, but it’s an interesting point.

Reeves’s explanation of God’s wrath is one of the best I’ve read. He says that prior to creation, when the Father was loving the Son, He was never angry—there was nothing to be angry about until Adam and Eve sinned. Anger toward evil is how a God who is love responds to evil: because evil harms us, the created beings He loves, responding with anger is the only possible way He can respond. Most explanations of the wrath of God start and end with His holiness (which isn’t wrong), but this one looks at it from the aspect of God’s love.

The author touches upon the evergreen topic of those who just don’t believe in any god, but believes that the antitheists’ problem is not with the existence of a god, but with the character of the god they presume. He said that those who don’t believe often describe the deity they don’t believe in as cold, selfish, greedy. And, Reeves allows, “if God is not a Father, if he has no Son and will have no children, then he must be lonely, distant, and unapproachable; if he is not triune and so essentially unloving, then no God at all just looks better.”

A book titled Delighting in the Trinity must by its essence be a little ethereal; after all, no one can physically see these beings. And is such a discussion useful, or is it just something Christians talk about over coffee or in conjunction with that intro to philosophy class? Does it matter? Let’s consider the book’s subtitle: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. Interesting. Different. Intriguing. Not a book about doctrine per se, but a true introduction to what makes Christianity different from any other belief system: its triune God.

For the very bones of the Christian faith are the greatest commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. These suit a triune God and His outreach to us, His sharing of Himself. It makes becoming like such a God a “warm, attractive, delightful thing.”

I recommend this book without qualification. I didn’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions, nor was I easily able to follow everything he wrote, but his contentions are well expressed, and his treatment fresh.

Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics

* Thinking About Christian Apologetics – James Beilby (IVP Academic, 2011)

“Most introductions to apologetics begin with the “how to” of defending the faith, diving right into the major apologetic arguments and the body of evidence. For those who want a more foundational look at this contested theological discipline, this book examines Christian apologetics in its nature, history, approaches, objections and practice. What is apologetics? How has apologetics developed? What are the basic apologetic approaches? Why should we practice apologetics? Countless Christians today are seeking a responsible way to defend and commend their faith. If you are one them, Thinking About Christian Apologetics is the place to start.”

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* Monopolizing Knowledge Ian Hutchinson (Fias Publishing, 2011)

“Can real knowledge be found other than by science? In this unique approach to understanding today’s culture wars, an MIT physicist answers emphatically yes. He shows how scientism — the view that science is all the knowledge there is — suffocates reason as well as religion. Tracing the history of scientism and its frequent confusion with science, Hutchinson explains what makes modern science so persuasive and powerful, but restricts its scope. Recognizing science’s limitations, and properly identifying what we call nature, liberates both science and non-scientific knowledge.”

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* The Moral Argument – Paul Copan and Mark D. Linville (Continuum, 2013)

“The Moral Argument offers a wide-ranging defense of the necessary connection between God and objective moral values, moral duties, proper function, and human rights. It presents several versions of the moral argument for God’s existence; a survey of the history of the argument, including the more recent work of Robert Adams, John Hare, John Rist, and others; an assessment of competing meta-ethical views that attempt to ground or explain ethics; a defense of moral knowledge; and an assessment of the Euthyphro Dilemma (and related objections) for any theistic conception of moral values. The book will examine—and find wanting— various non-theistic alternatives to ground or explain morality.”

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* Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality – R. Scott Smith (Ashgate, 2012)

“Philosophical naturalism is taken to be the preferred and reigning epistemology and metaphysics that underwrites many ideas and knowledge claims. But what if we cannot know reality on that basis? What if the institution of science is threatened by its reliance on naturalism? R. Scott Smith argues in a fresh way that we cannot know reality on the basis of naturalism. Moreover, the “fact-value” split has failed to serve our interests of wanting to know reality. The author provocatively argues that since we can know reality, it must be due to a non-naturalistic ontology, best explained by the fact that human knowers are made and designed by God. The book offers fresh implications for the testing of religious truth-claims, science, ethics, education, and public policy. Consequently, naturalism and the fact-value split are shown to be false, and Christian theism is shown to be true.”

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Defining Success in Apologetics

How do we know when we’ve been successful in our efforts in apologetics?  Do we judge success by whether we gave compelling and convincing arguments?  Or does it depend on the response of the person we’re sharing with?  James Beilby explains why neither of these is a good measurement for success in apologetics.

“While the quality of one’s arguments is certainly not irrelevant, this is also not the most important feature of apologetics.  After all, it is possible to give profound and logically persuasive arguments but do so in a way that is arrogant, dismissive and thoroughly un-Christlike.

Similiarly, while in one sense apologetics should be focused on the response of one’s interlocutor, it is possible to achieve a positive response through manipulation or shoddy arguments that will, upon closer inspection, fall to pieces.

Consequently, apologetics success is best understood as faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  In our apologetic endeavors, we are called to be faithful to Christ in at least three senses.

  • First, what we say should accurately represent who Jesus is, what he taught and, specifically, the good news he brought to the world.
  • Second, the way we do our apologetics should augment our arguments, not detract from them.  We must defend Christ in a way that fits with Christ’s message.
  • Finally, we must be faithful to God’s purposes in specific situations.  In some cases, apologetics appropriately and naturally leads to an offer for a person to commit her life to Christ, but in the vast majority of cases, our apologetic endeavors are a small step in a person’s long and winding journey that one hopes will culminate in relationship with Jesus Christ.”

— from Thinking About Christian Apologetics: What It Is and Why We Do It (IVP Academic, 2011), 22-23.

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Book Review – Worshipping with the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (November 2009)
  • Amazon
  • 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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