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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Book Review – The Wonder of the Universe

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Books (February 2012)
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  • Imagine reading a book about science . . . and liking it.

    The Wonder of the Universe (Karl W. Giberson, IVP Books, 2012) offers a clear exploration of scientific discovery from the understanding the ancients had to the knowledge we have today to discoveries yet to be made.

    And yet as I read the words just penned—or computered—I realize they certainly do not reflect the wonder and joy I knew as I read this book.

    The book is about how science explores.

    The subtitle, Hints of God in Our Fine-Tuned World, might evoke from a Christian an expectation of a book about weird bugs, the eyesight of owls, whale song, how our bodies work just right. But instead, readers of this book are treated to a real discussion of how scientists learn, how they go “where the evidence leads,” how scientists want to get it right, that they are looking for truth.

    A Christian expecting validation of certain responses to some of the “I think I’m supposed to believe . . .” hot-button issues won’t find them here. Age of the universe? More than a cool billion, Giberson declares. Evolution? He states, “I argue that the history of life on this planet is neither random nor purposeless. In doing so, I start by accepting that the biological theory of evolution is basically true.” Climate change? Just a “handful of climate scientists . . . deny global warming.”

    Surprised? Read the book anyway. The Wonder of the Universe was not written to discuss the particulars of any given issue. It’s broader, and more inviting, than that.

    This book instead discusses how science works. At once interesting to a nonscientifically minded person like me and challenging enough for those who are of this bent, Giberson assures us that science does not constantly change, as some religious skeptics accuse. Rather, the “typical scientific advance is one that extends, encompasses, and absorbs rather than refutes old understandings.”

    The author is a scientist who is solidly Christian. What I gained from this book—besides the pleasure of reading something I usually wouldn’t and liking it—is that science is not to be feared, nor must it be either defended or denigrated. And thanks to this book, I’ve decided to stretch. I’ve got on reserve at the public library the author’s The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions.

    Imagine reading a book about science, liking it, and trying to review it. I wouldn’t know what angle to take, other than to absolutely recommend this one.

    Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – On the Way to the Cross: 40 Days with the Church Fathers

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On the Way to the Cross: 40 Days with the Church Fathers is a worthy resource for Lenten devotions.

Each selection starts off with a brief introductory verse(s) and continues to a prayer of confession—since Lent is a season of repentance—Scripture from John, reflections from church fathers, closing prayer (from early church writings), and suggested Bible passages for further reading . . . a structure, or rhythm, as the authors explain. By going through all forty days, the reader will cover the gospel of John.

Some of the individuals cited will be familiar to most: Augustine, Bede (the venerable himself), while other names and sources will be new to many.

Christians of virtually all stripes observe Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas. For Christians whose tradition does not especially follow a liturgical church calendar, On the Way introduces the discipline of Lenten readings and reflection.

Some say that putting a new initiative into practice for six weeks is enough to develop it as a habit. Six weeks of readings from On the Way to the Cross would be an excellent way for Christians who have lapsed in their daily reading of Scripture to recapture the pleasure. And for those who have been continually doing so, On the Way contains interesting and insightful offerings for further maturing.

On the Way to the Cross by Thomas C. Oden and Joel C. Elowsky with Cindy Crosby helps us connect with those who have come before, reflect with them, and allow their prayers to flow over us: “O Lord, bless all your people and all your flock.

Give . . . your love unto us . . . the sheep of your fold, that we may be united in the bond of peace and love . . . for the sake of Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep.” Amen.

Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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 – Generation Ex-Christian

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  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers (October 1, 2010)
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  • 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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    City of Man (with Download of Foreword and Preface)

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    I recently had the pleasure of editing City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner,  releasing October 1 from Moody Publishers.  In this volume, Gerson and Wehner draw on their experience as former White House staff, journalists, and commentators on religion (especially evangelicalism) to chart a new course for Christians to engage with politics in a post-Religious-Right era.

    Rather than focusing on specific strategies for influencing legislation or electing politicians, the authors outline broad biblical principles that should inform believers as they engage the realm of politics—the “City of Man” in the words of Augustine.  Such principles include fighting for human rights, defending life, supporting the family and other character-shaping institutions, and engaging with political and ideological opponents in a civil and respectful manner.

    What I most appreciate about City of Man is that it isn’t partisan in its approach, though both authors are well-known conservatives, but that it strives to present biblically and theologically sound first principles that apply to Christians of all political persuasions.  I believe the authors succeed, and I recommend this volume to any Christian looking for a deeper understanding of how the City of God relates to the City of Man.

    You can download the foreword (by Timothy Keller) and preface in PDF format here.

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    Book Review – The Making of an Atheist

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  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers (February 1, 2010)
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  • First, I should disclose that I agree with Spiegel’s thesis that “atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors, not a perceived lack of evidence for God’s existence. The atheist willfully rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. Thus, the choice of the atheist paradigm is motivated by non-rational factors” (113-114). I noticed the patterns first in the lives of Nietzsche (whom Spiegel mentions) and Foucault (whom he does not) prior to this reading.

    Spiegel expects that the idea will encounter resistance (and it probably will). He compiles previously released information and packages it for popular consumption, drawing significantly from Alvin Plantinga, Antony Flew’s “conversion,” and Paul C. Vitz. In fact, Spiegel does Plantinga the honor of dedicating the book to him as “a gigantic intellect with a humble heart.” Moreover, Spiegel maintains a humble tone throughout which honors Plantinga and is often lacking in apologetics.

    Spiegel’s goal is unique. He is not making a case for theism or defending it against the attacks of atheists. His argument is a flanking attack that responds to the “New Atheists” by calling into question the source of their unbelief.  Even though they claim their unbelief is rooted in reason, Spiegel sees the rational component of their unbelief secondary to their immorality or broken paternal relationships.

    He blends biblical ideas (Romans 1, Ephesians 4, etc.) and virtue epistemological concepts to produce an account of how behaving badly and thinking badly decay into a downward spiral of moral and intellectual blindness (particularly in the areas of ethics, theology, and human nature).

    For the link between atheism and broken paternal relationships, Spiegel draws heavily on  Paul C. Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless. “The lack of a good father is a handicap when it comes to faith (70),” but not an insurmountable barrier. While this link will likely be unpopular or attacked as irrelevant on ad hominem grounds, let’s not forget that non-theists have already applied similar psychoanalytical criticisms against theists. Furthermore, enough examples are given to give us pause to reconsider the role of a paternal relationship in shaping our perceptions of God.

    I think the value of this book is really threefold. First, it helps encourage believers that matters of belief and unbelief are not purely a matter of the intellect, but are issues of the heart and will. Secondly, it should remind believers to be sensitive to the things which may be going on in the hearts of the unbelievers they want to reach with the gospel. Thirdly, it is a call to unbelievers to consider non-rational factors that may be barriers to their belief in God.

    It is a witty, quick read and is worth the couple of hours invested. I hope it is read by many. If you are strapped for time, but the concept interests you, please check out the author’s blog post on the topic here.

    – Reviewed by (polymath) Adam Reece

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