I guess if you knew I attend a Presbyterian church, you might be surprised that I’d deliberately buy and enjoy a book titled Against Calvinism, but then, I didn’t choose my church based their view of soteriology. In fact, I don’t even think I realized Presbyterians tended to be Calvinists until fairly recently. And since my church doesn’t teach much in the way of explicit Calvinism, I’m perfectly fine staying there.
Actually, I don’t know that I’d flee a church simply for embracing Calvinist doctrine, though I find it basically repugnant and can’t really see why anyone would be attracted to it. Actually, I’m fully aware of the attraction of systematic theology, but I think it’s on balance a bad thing. (But that’s probably a post for another time.)
No, I’ve never been to seminary. No, I’m not an ordained minister, so everything you read here is completely from a lay level. And if you’re inclined to dismiss whatever I write as the ravings of an Average Joe veering toward heresy, I couldn’t really blame you. In fact, I’ve considered writing a post titled “The Heresies I Currently Embrace” or “Let Me Count the Ways I’m Not Orthodox.”
Calvinism’s core teachings, at least as regards soteriology (doctrine of salvation) can be summed up in the well-known acronym TULIP:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
These are the famous Five Points of Calvinism, and they actually follow quite logically from one another. In a nutshell, it goes like this:
Man is totally depraved and incapable of looking to God for salvation. Therefore, God must elect those he wishes to save. He is able to save completely those he chooses to save, so the atonement purchased with Christ’s blood was intended only for the elect. Those he elects, he draws irresistibly to himself, and they will all endure to the end.
You can’t really take any of the points away and keep the system coherent, so you’re pretty much in for a penny, in for a pound.
Yes, I’ve studied Romans. I did a whole semester on it in college. I don’t see any of five points in Scripture, and I’ve looked. And yet Calvinism is enjoying a huge resurgence these days, led by such teachers as John Piper, Kevin DeYoung and Mark Driscoll. Smart guys, all of them.
I have a way of finding books to reinforce my prejudices, and Roger E. Olson’s Against Calvinism was just what the doctor ordered. (Actually, I didn’t need any reinforcement here, because I’ve heard the arguments for Calvinism and just don’t find them convincing. Though I may at some point read For Calvinism. If my better judgment doesn’t hold.)
The most pressing problem with the Calvinist system according to Olson (and I have to agree with him) is divine determinism. This is the notion that God controls absolutely everything that has ever or will ever happen. From his chapter titled “YES to Sovereignty, NO to Divine Determinism”:
In short, the Calvinist account of God’s sovereignty given earlier in this chapter inevitably makes God the author of sin, evil, and innocent suffering (such as the children of the Holocaust) and thereby impugns the integrity of God’s character as good and loving.
The idea of a God who is meticulously controlling everything is strange to me and reminds me of what I’ve read of the God of Islam. If he chooses to save some and damn others, then rewards those he chose to save and punishes those he excluded, it’s hard to find that either comprehensible or attractive in any way.
Of course, Calvinists claim that only their system is God-centered, and it certainly is. It’s just that it paints God as basically unloving as far as I can see. If God will irresistibly draw all those he chooses to save, and if they are all guaranteed to actually be saved, why would he not save everyone?
The plain fact of the matter is that the doctrine of irresistible grace, without universal salvation which most Calvinists reject, leads to the “good and necessary consequence” that God is not good and not loving.
I’m not totally onboard with universalism, but I’m much more attracted to it than the idea that God doesn’t even want to save everyone. I’m totally with Olson on this point:
Calvinism makes it difficult to recognize the difference between God and the devil except that the devil wants everyone to go to hell and God wants many to go to hell.
It’s harsh, but there’s no getting away from it. And yes, the obvious answer from a Calvinist might be, “But you don’t think God is able to save everyone he wants to save.” Of course, it’s simply not true. I believe God truly wants all to be saved but he chooses to limit himself and allow free agents to resist him. He could overcome their free will if he wished, but he has chosen to allow humans to choose to love him or resist him.
I’m not going to go on a crusade against Calvinism. I know some lovely Calvinists. I may not understand why they hold their beliefs, but I don’t question their sincerity.
Well, I’m sure this won’t anger everyone. But I suspect it’ll raise someone’s hackles.
I’ve finally caught up with my reading list thus far, but I’m chasing a couple of titles for the next few weeks. Not sure what I’ll finish first, but I imagine it’ll be less controversial than my last couple. (I just got a copy of The Day of the Triffids, and I’m really geeked about that.)
(Warning: Theology book review. And also a bit of gushing.)
Steve Gregg’s Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel commentary is such a great book that it easily overcomes the two colons in its title. His latest work, All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views on God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin is likewise awesome enough to overcome the terrible title and awkwardly long subtitle that includes the words “Final Solution.”
His Revelation book took a controversial topic (interpretation of Revelation) and set it out in such a logical and balanced way as to be an indispensible tool for studying that most difficult of books. In the same way, this book lays out an evenhanded look at the three views of Hell taught by evangelicals today.
As I mentioned above, the title is terrible, and Steve himself has said as much on the Rethinking Hell podcast. It’s not the title he wanted, and it implies that his book might be a sister book to Randy Alcorn’s excellent but imperfect Heaven. No, Steve isn’t discussing the nature of Hell so much as its purpose. So while there isn’t much time given to “are there real flames?”, the entirety of the book deals with the bigger questions like “Is Hell forever?” and “What does Hell say about the nature of God?”
For those not in the know, who might have been raised thinking there was the Christian view and then a variety of heretical views, the three views taught by respectable evangelical scholars are:
- Eternal Conscious Torment, aka Traditionalism
- Conditional Immortality, or Annihilationism/Conditionalism
- Universal Reconciliation, or Restorationism/Christian Universalism
Most assume that #1 is the only biblical view. Quite simply, that’s just incorrect. Steve Gregg rightly shows that far from being unbiblical, the other two views can actually marshal more scriptures in their favor than can the Traditional view. Of course, theological arguments aren’t won or lost on the strength of the numbers of verses supporting them but on the proper interpretation of all the scriptures.
The book is laid out in very logical format, as you’d expect if you read Revelation: Four Views. It starts off by introducing the topic and explaining why it’s important. The long and the short of it is that the nature of Hell says something about the nature of God.
The one fact, above all others, which I have desired to get across is that our view of hell is inseparably joined to our view of God. I believe that many Christians have simply assumed that they already know what the Bible teaches about hell, and have formed their notions of the character of God to accommodate their theory. My suggestion is that this is doing things backward.
Steve then continues into some basic background on the issue, including a discussion of Lazarus and the Rich Man (about which I blogged some time ago), how best to understand the important words Gehenna and Aionios, and a chapter about the views of the early church (spoiler alert on that: all three views were represented).
Having laid the groundwork for a more specific discussion of each view, Steve then takes each view in turn, first presenting a positive case for each, then cross-examining each from the perspective of the other views. In each section, he heavily quotes supporters of the various views.
One thing I particularly admired about this book, especially given the dreadful title, was the clever headings for each view:
- First, the Bad News (Traditionalism)
- The Bad News is Not As Bad As You Thought (Conditionalism)
- The Good News is Better Than You Thought (Universalism)
BTW, I’m crediting Steve with the clever heading titles and giving him a pass on the book title, since I know he doesn’t like it, either.
I can say that I find the book evenhanded, but it’s mostly because I’m not committed to any of the views. Oh, I’m pretty solidly against the Traditional View, and this book certainly didn’t push me one way or another on that, but I really haven’t decided between the other two. I’ve read both cases, and they each have their strong points. I certainly hope the Restorationist View is correct, as I’d imagine most would hope. But I remain unconvinced by it, even though I’m certainly open to it.
I’m sure someone coming from a solidly Traditionalist perspective could find it outrageous that the other two views are even treated as orthodox or evangelical, and that makes me a little sad. I won’t pretend to respect that kind of lack of genuine introspection.
With regard to Traditionalism, I appreciated this quote:
A number of the points made in favor of the traditional viewpoint depend heavily upon traditionalist presuppositions being read into the texts. With very few exceptions, the passages presented as evidence are assumed to support the endless duration of conscious punishment, without the passages actually making any direct reference to such a concept.
I think this is largely accurate. I think a person undertaking to read the Bible through for the first time after having been raised in the church already has a solid idea of what Hell is like. So it’s perfectly understandable that they’d read that into the text and never question their starting point. The same could be truly said for a number of other positions commonly held today. (For that matter, someone raised Universalist or Annihilationist could have the same issue.)
It’s tough to reevaluate our basic assumptions and let the text speak for itself. It’s actually quite painful when you find that your long-held views aren’t as obvious as you once thought. And changing your views doesn’t always go over with your family and friends:
….”reformed and always reforming”…is an ideal more easily affirmed than followed, since intellectual inertia is often strong, and the tradition is often embraced by those whose approval has some impact upon our social acceptance, our finances, our reputations, and our careers. To be “always reforming” is an excellent way to guarantee that we shall offend the maximum number of our conservative friends.
And yet it’s a worthy endeavor, and it’s the reason I read through the Bible every year. My changing views aren’t a result of ignoring the scriptures; they’re a result of reading them. Still, though, I appreciated this tidbit Greg Boyd linked to. It’s in an article by Roger E. Olson titled “How to Solve a Theological Dilemma when Scripture Doesn’t Clearly Solve It” (emphasis added):
8. Back to fundamentalism versus non-fundamentalism: A fundamentalist will reject this entire method of solving theological and doctrinal dilemmas because it admits ambiguity in the Bible about even some important theological and doctrinal issues which is impossible from a fundamentalist point of view. Many non-fundamentalists will also reject this method for a very different reason: they are so comfortable with ambiguity (and perhaps afraid of fundamentalism) that they don’t feel any need to settle doctrinal and theological issues about which the Bible is not crystal clear. Both approaches have problems, however. The fundamentalist approach leads to numerous schisms and divisions to say nothing of imposing personal opinions on the Bible and making all doctrinal and theological issues equally important. The opposite approach leads to warm, fuzzy spirituality devoid of cognitive content and leaves inquiring minds without satisfying answers.
All that being said, I highly recommend this book. It’s a terrific resource and would make a great group study that would likely spur healthy (and loud) dialogue). But I also recommend, as Steve would (and does, frequently, on his radio program), a thorough reading of the whole Bible. It takes time, but it’s worth the effort.
Next up, it’s Alas, Babylon, which is a re-read for me of a very classic post-apocalyptic book. I’m also reading Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, and Letters from a Skeptic (no longer free, but under $4 from B&N and Amazon as an eBook).
If you got this far, you must be a good friend of mine. Probably with initials CK.
(Warning: theology post. Long one. Also, sentence fragments.)
For the first half of this book, I was considering titling this review "This Book is Real (But I Hate That I Read It)," but the latter half of the book brought it back around to being basically a worthwhile read. So I'll start with the positives, I guess. Kind of a good news/bad news thing.
The good news is that Brian Jones is a decent writer, and he clearly communicates his passion for evangelism, and the second half (maybe the last third) is all about that topic. His advice on loving people, chilling out, and winning people not through bouncing Bibles off them but by being normal and engaging with them genuinely, was top notch. The kind of common sense that's not so common. If that's what the book consisted of, I'd probably give it very high marks.
In addition, the autobiographical parts of the book were interesting and engaging and generally drove the narrative of the book. So that's good, too.
Lastly, it's a short book. A couple of hours would be sufficient to read it cover to cover. Me likee short books.
(One more thing: it was free from the NOOK store. Now it's something like three bucks.)
Unfortunately, there was also the main topic of the book. Now, I've undergone something of a conversion on the topic of hell over the last decade or so, essentially since I started reading through the Bible every year. As I read and re-read the Bible, I didn't find the Eternal Conscious Torment view (hereafter called the Traditional view) there. I found the passages I'd always assumed taught it, but when I started to realize how the language of the Bible worked, I found I couldn't stick with the Traditional view.
This didn't mean I rejected hell altogether, of course. The Bible is pretty clear on hell's existence, but what exactly it involves is harder to pin down. Is it a fiery furnace? There are passages that seem to indicate so. But then there are the passages that refer to it as darkness. Fire. Darkness. Not generally considered synonymous. And what about all that language about perishing and destruction?
I eventually realized that the Traditional view is probably wrong, but wasn't sure which other view is correct (also, I discovered that other views existed). I read a bit about Annihilationism/Conditionalism (I'll stick with Conditionalism hereafter) and found it pretty much explained all the relevant passages, and then I read about Christian Universalism (Universalism for short). I didn't find that latter view quite so convincing, but I still found it persuasive (and still do). I haven't really settled on which one I take, but I lean toward Conditionalism on my pessimistic days and Universalism on my optimistic ones. But the Traditional view is just gone. I understand why people believe it, but I just don't see it taught in scripture.
Again, a Conditionalist can believe in hell. They believe the lost go there. They believe the lost suffer and then cease to exist. Universalists can believe in hell. They believe that the lost go there. They believe the lost suffer there and can eventually be saved and brought to repentance. But they can both believe in hell.
Brian Jones doesn't think either group believes in hell. For him, apparently, if you don't accept all of the Traditional view, you're not only disbelieving what is an essential tenet of the faith, you're actually sinning.
At its core, believing in hell is an obedience issue, not a theological issue.
Okay then. For me, it's basically theological (I'll acknowledge some philosophical reasons, too, but they're minor). I have a Bible, I read it, and I don't find the Traditional view. I don't believe this is a sin. And I'm really not sure there's such a thing as a sin of disbelief.
The problem here is that if you're going to assert that it's a sin to not believe the Traditional view, you need to actually show that it's true. Jones takes a few pages and lays out his case. It's essentially this:
Jesus employed the most graphic language to describe what hell is like: fire; eternal fire; destruction; away from his presence; thrown outside; blazing furnace; darkness; eternal punishment; weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I omitted the scripture references for the sake of brevity here, but let me just say this: I'm not disputing any of these sayings, though I'd point out that many of them are teaching about Gehenna, which can be understood as referring to hell. It can also be understood as the language of judgment and death. There's also this: even if every one of these sayings refers to the nature of hell, they can all be understood in a Conditionalist way. There's nothing about any of them that is incompatible with that view. And perhaps only one or two of them could be a challenge to a Universalist interpretation.
But Jones brushes aside Conditionalism by taking a poke at Clark Pinnock, asserting that he'd veered from clear Biblical teaching. (Again here, I keep looking and not finding the Traditional view taught clearly.) He apparently doesn't consider a hell that will one day be empty (after either the damned are annihilated or redeemed) as "real hell."
Worse than his lack of honest dealing with Conditionalism is his dismissal of Universalism by way of a straw man argument:
(In discussing something he asks a friend who doesn't believe in hell:)
…I always ask him a simple question for which he has no answer: "If everyone goes to heaven after they die, and the point of Christianity is to do good on earth, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross?"
He's never provided an answer.
Because there isn't one.
Really he's kind of begging the question here. Universalists (I assume his friend is one) don't necessarily believe that "the point of Christianity is to do good on earth. Instead, the idea might be that the point of Christianity is to enter God's Kingdom now and live in it forever. One can't join it now if they wait until after death. That's how time works.
I could have enjoyed a book that tackled the topic of hell from a Traditionalist angle if either ignored the other views held by evangelicals or dealt with them in a straightforward way. No, actually, I'd have insisted on the latter. I think the attempt to write a brief book resulted in a worse one than it might've been.
If this is the best you can do in engaging those who disagree with you, it's a real shame:
If there is no hell, then giving less than our best to our faith makes perfect sense.
Right, and since the homework isn't graded, there's no reason to do it, is there? Mastering the material would make no sense. And if my dad won't spank me, disobedience makes perfect sense. Because he's certainly not worthy of my respect and obedience if he's not going to beat the tar out of me.
Using hell as a disincentive to a sinful life is appealing to the lowest common denominator. The fact is that Christians should be motivated to live godly lives not out of fear of hell but in gratitude for, well, everything else. Just as a son should obey his Father out of respect and love, and not merely out of fear of getting whipped. This is obvious, isn't it?
When the disciples started preaching in the Book of Acts, they didn't call people to repent and avoid hell. Instead, they told them Jesus had risen from the dead, was the Lord of All and commanded them to follow him. They didn't threaten the crowds with hell, they promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Even going back to Matthew's mention of the name Jesus (Joshua), it's said that he was so named because he would "save his people from their sins." Notice no mention of saving them from hell there.
I'm not going to dissect the rest of the book. I wrote down a ton of notes, but I'm tiring of this now. But I have to mention something else, because it's disturbing.
As I mentioned, I have some philosophical reasons for rejecting the Traditional view. I don't believe it matches with the character of God as revealed in the Bible.
Exodus 34:6-7 (ESV)
6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."
Now, I get that the whole third and fourth generation thing looks nasty, but it has a fairly obvious interpretation, namely that Israel disobeyed and was booted out of the land, which affected several generations. And it's worth pointing out that when they repented, God brought them back. So the punishment wasn't without a positive outcome. It showed that God's justice and mercy are both in play. Contrast that with this:
The real God, the Deity we only catch a quick glimpse of in the pages of Scripture, is infinitely more bloodthirsty, vindictive, genocidal, pestilential, sadomasochistic, and capriciously malevolent than human language could begin to express.
I don't even really know where to start here. I wouldn't actually consider any of these words as apt descriptors of God, though I guess an argument could be made for genocidal. I guess, depending on how you view the historical narratives about the conquest of Canaan. And I must assume Jones meant "sadistic" instead of "sadomasochistic" here. Otherwise, ick. Capricious is another word I'm not sure means what he thinks it means. ("Given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior.") And malevolent means evil. This is a thesaurus fail of the highest measure.
But maybe this was just a random brain dropping or free association gone wrong. Or, maybe not:
…until you understand how violent and inhumane God really is, how utterly wrathful the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ can become, you'll never feel the urgency to help your non-Christian friends escape his detestable clutches.
We're going with detestable and inhumane, are we? I'm not suggesting we never talk about the wrath of God, but inhumane? Really? Detestable? And this is someone we're supposed to love?
I don't subscribe to the idea that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament. I know there's some rough stuff in the OT, and I definitely wrestle with understanding some of it, but I look to Jesus to see God. As the writer of Hebrews says:
Hebrews 1:3 (ESV)
3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Exact. Imprint. Jesus isn't inhumane or detestable, and certainly not capricious or sadistic. Neither is God the Father.
Jones was using this brutally inappropriate argument about how horrid God is to encourage what he calls "apocalyptic urgency," or the overwhelming desire of Christians to see non-Christians saved. In his view:
Christianity is about helping people get to Heaven.
I'm afraid I couldn't disagree with this more. Find me this in the Bible. Christianity is about bringing people into the Kingdom now, giving God his due glory, and making "his Kingdom come, his will be done" here. Getting to Heaven, or more appropriately, the resurrection from the dead, is certainly the hope of the Christian, but if it's all about getting to Heaven, what's the purpose of converting now rather than on our death beds? (This kind of turns around his argument against Universalism.)
I'm no scholar. I'm a guy who reads his Bible and tries to understand it. I also read other books. I've never read a pro-Traditionalist book, and I probably should. I've also not read a pro-Conditionalist one, so my tentative acceptance of that position can't be blamed on my being the easily-suggestible type. I'm looking forward to Steve Gregg's forthcoming book on the Three Views of Hell, because I think it will help me clarify my own position on this topic. But I have no doubt that there are good Christians out there who hold all three positions. Some of them are wrong. I might be wrong. But the fact that I reject the Traditional view doesn't make me less likely to try to reach people.
Ultimately, I'll take the good advice on evangelism Jones included in this book, and leave the rest.
Did I go on long enough, do you think? I deleted several paragraphs, too. Enjoy it while you can, because I'm about to do a three week hiatus from basically all online pursuits except Words with Friends. Road trip!
In the meantime, I'll hopefully be finishing Longitude, another 13 in '13 title, and I've got a couple of other titles (150 or so) on my NOOK to keep me company on our trip. Maybe I'll queue up a few or scrawl a capsule review using my NOOK Color's brutal web interface. That'd be worth seeing.
I also solemnly swear not to be this verbose all the time.
I read all the time. I do my Bible reading first thing in the morning, generally before breakfast and over coffee (on coffee days, at least). Thenn between checking my work email and getting ready for the day, I'll often read a few pages in whichever book I'm enjoying (which is sometimes difficult if I'm reading seven of them!)
I read when I'm in a long line (or even a fairly short one), or when walking in from my car on days that aren't too rainy (NOOK Color stands up to a bit of precip without too much trouble and certainly better than a paperback does), and before bed and pretty much anytime I've got time. And sometimes when I don't.
But the sad reality of life is that it interferes with my reading, and I'm forced to point my eyes in the direction of less interesting but more profitable things (if we're counting earning a living as profitable compared with reading!). Fortunately, this non-reading time often allows my ears to take up the slack.
It's true that I listen to a dozen or so audiobooks during the year, but they're not a consistent thing. I'll often listen to during my commute (which isn't long, so it takes a while to plow through) or at my desk, or while working in my kitchen (yes, I cook). But I also listen to a variety of podcasts and radio shows of varying frequencies. Here's a quick list, with subheadings:
Science: (I'm looking for more of these, so recommend away.)
Star Talk Radio (~weekly)– This is Neil deGrasse Tyson's radio show, dealing generally with subjects germane to astronomy or astrophysics, but also veering into other sciences and topical issues. Science funding is one of his hobby horses, and I have to say he's got me on his side when it comes to increasing government expenditures for science. (If they'd stop wasting it on the Department of Education, maybe we'd have some leftover…)
The Guardian Science Weekly Podcast (weekly) – This one covers a range of subjects, and I pick it up when the introductory blurb looks good and ignore it the rest of the time.
Love, Sex, Death and Books (in its own good time)– Dan Wilbur of Better Book Titles hosts this intimate (often quite intimate) show with an author or authors, and despite my initial misgivings of Dan as a host, it's a terrific podcast. Warning: content may be unsuitable for the easily offended. Look at the title and consider.
Baseball: (I won't even pretend I'm interested in other sports.)
Behind the Dish (weekly but should be more frequenterer)– Keith Law's excellent snark-filled weekly baseball show, this is my new "Move to the top of the queue" show. (Previous holder of that title: Baseball Today---dearly departed---whenever Keith was on.)
Baseball Tonight (daily) – The successor to the departed Baseball Today, how we miss it, and not entirely equal to it. Buster Olney may not be the host Eric Karabell was, but he's had some terrific interviews on the show thus far. (His interview about hitting with Joey Votto a couple of weeks ago was awesome.)
Rob Has a Podcast (bi-weekly-ish) – File this under guilty pleasures. This is where I get my Survivor/Amazing Race recaps and commentary, from none other than "the smartest player to have never won Survivor," Rob Cesternino.
Sci-Guys Podcast (couple of times a month) – All things science-fiction, from TV to film to books, this is another one I take in now and then depending on the topic(s). I also like to tune in for Short-Shorts with William Van Winkle (I knew him when…).
Unbelievable (weekly) – Justin Brierley's terrific UK apologetics show, typically featuring a Christian and non-Christian in dialogue on a range of topics. Always interesting.
Rethinking Hell (no discernable schedule but still awesome) – This one is dedicated to defending the Evangelical Conditionalist view of Hell (sometimes called Annihilationism).
Woodland Hills Church Sermon Podcast (weekly)– Greg Boyd's challenging teaching. Sometimes I don't want to listen, which normally means I should.
The Preterist Podcast (all too infrequent) - Dee Dee Warren ably defends the partial-preterist position on interpreting Bible prophecy. Especially recommended if you don't know what I'm talking about.
Any other podlisteners out there? Did I miss anything?
I've got a bit of a problem here: I can't stop reading new books. Oh, I'm fine with doing a bit of shift-reading of disparate titles, say a science title and a theology title, but this is getting ridiculous. Most of the time when this happens, I'll eventually focus on one book to the exclusion of the others, but it's not happening thus far. So here's the list:
This is the only title I'm reading from an author I know personally. I had the pleasure of serving in the music ministry at my church with Tyler on many occasions, and his book is important and worthwhile. I'm really not giving it the attention it deserves.
One of two science titles on this list, this book started off as a very promising read but has unfortunately bogged down as I think any title about String Theory will. Bummer, that, but I'll slog through. Definitely best read in shifts.
Remember when I mentioned science and theology pairing nicely for shift-reading?
Ender's Shadow, by Orson Scott Card.
This is my current read-aloud with the Pancake Eater. He recently read Ender's Game, so I thought I'd give him a slightly-edited reading of Bean's story. It's my third read-through of this one, which is interesting since I've read Ender's Game only four times in print. (Audio puts EG well over the top, though.)
This one really lends itself to shift-reading as each chapter stands alone. Plus, the title. Srsly. I'll try not to shift-read this one with the Holiness book. Probably makes sense.
BTW, I picked it up on the NOOK $2.99 and Under list. (Technically it's named "Under $2.99," but my title is more accurate.)
Farside, by Ben Bova
Another $2.99 and Under pickup. I've never read any Bova in print, though I enjoyed Jupiter on audio even though I hadn't read the rest of his Planet Series. This may be the next book to get most of my attention.
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination, edited by John Joseph Adams
Another cheap ($1.99) pickup, this one's pretty much entirely awesome, an anthology of short fiction by a variety of genre authors. Perfect for shift-reading.
Yes, the $2.99 and Under list is working me over. Is it any wonder that only one book on this list actually used to be a tree?
Out of This World, by Clive Gifford
This was a free pickup from the NOOK Store, and I'm previewing it for the boy, as it's a young adult treatment of astronomy.
(Edit: Since I started writing this post I've actually finished this one. So this is the complete list of things I was reading when I started writing this.)
The Bible (ESV)
For the second straight year, I'm reading the Bible on my ESV app. I generally read before breakfast, usually five chapters of the OT and a Psalm (then moving on to other Poetical books as I finish them), subbing in the NT once a week for the OT. It gets my through the whole thing by early November most of the time.
I go through periods each year where I'm reading a handful of books, and then other times when I basically shelve everything in favor of a succession of individual reads. I find that I progress a little more quickly with the parallel reading than when I go serial, so I'll try to hold off on the switchover. (Usually it happens in the summer.) If anything's going to get shelved for the duration (and possibly permanently), it's usually about the time I switch to serial reading.
Anybody else have trouble with multiple-personality-reading-disorder? Or does the idea of parallel reading freak you out? How about shift-reading? I'm personally a huge fan of it, though it doesn't work so well with fiction. But since I'm about fifty-fifty on fiction and non-fiction, it works for me.
I'm thinking I may do a quick post on the Podcasts I enjoy, so you'll be able to see what I do with my brain while I'm not reading. (Hint: It's very similar to what I do with it while reading.)
Anyone familiar with my book reviews knows I'm a big fan of well-written books on science topics. And theology topics. And, well, most others. But science and theology are two of my interest areas. Most books on science don't really have anything to do with theology, and most theology books don't really cross over into science. But on the topic of origins, be it human origins or the history of the universe or life on earth, you're going to run into some theological topics.
I've previously written that Francis Collins and Karl Giberson's excellent The Language of Science and Faith was the best book I'd read on the topic of Origins. But I think I'm now going to give the nod to Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, by Loren and Deborah Haarsma, if only for the fact that it's so well organized and accessible.
The book is structured for group study, and I'd actually love to go back through it in that setting. The authors carefully examine all the major issues you'd want covered in a book on this topic: sources of knowledge, the age of the universe, the age of the earth, evolution of plants and animals, common ancestry, and evolution of humans.
But the key thing this book does is to take each scientific topic and present the range of views about them, critiquing them from a scientific point of view and analyzing their theological implications. For instance, in the chapter about the age of the universe/earth, the Young Earth, Old Earth, Gap Theory and other views were explored. The analyses are consistently thorough and engaging, and while I can’t objectively say it’s even-handed, it sure seemed like it to me.
I bought this book from the NOOK Store after seeing it recommended on the BioLogos site (I even found the specific blog post!) as a good place to start for reading about "Science and the Bible," and it definitely lived up to the billing. You might guess from the fact that their book was featured on the BioLogos site (and the fact that Deborah is a senior writer for that site) that the conclusions lean toward Evolutionary Creationism. You'd be correct. However, the book is adamantly opposed to evolutionism, the atheistic worldview proposed by Richard Dawkins and his ilk.
I really can't recommend the book highly enough, and it's one I wish all pastors would read just so they'd better understand the topic. I particularly enjoyed Chapter 6, which discusses non-Concordist views of Genesis (views which don't attempt to fit the Bible to the scientific evidence, as opposed to something like the Revelation Days approach of Fountains of the Deep). The description of the Ancient Near East cosmology common at the time of the writing of the Old Testament was really interesting.
I've seen that Peter Enns (another BioLogos guy) has a new book out titled The Evolution of Adam, dealing only with the theological implications of evolution on the doctrines dealing with the biblical account of the first humans (the Fall, Original Sin, the Atonement), and I may have to pick it up. Origins gave that issue a nice thorough overview, but it's only whet my appetite for more.
If you're interested in this book, you can download a sample chapter at the book's website. I also found a relatively short lecture from the authors, in which they discuss the major issues in the book in a kind of quick overview (okay, it's an hour, but that's short!). Check it out below.
Next up, it’s The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Boy Who Loved Batman.
Warning: Theology Book Review! If Christian Theology isn't your thing, I'm totally fine with you reading my previous two reviews of baseball books. If baseball isn't your thing, we probably shouldn't hang out.
My views on eschatology (And here's the litmus test, because I'm not defining that term. So I guess this post is for insiders only.) have been described as "weird," though I always insist that my views are in fact in the majority. Just not amongst contemporary American evangelicals. Their loss, I say.
The problem is that I find the whole Pre-Tribulation Rapture thing to be escapist nonsense, not really backed up by scripture. I try to be charitable to those who hold this view, but I can't help but think they take it because they haven't actually read about any of the other views. (I don't think I'm coming across as charitable here. But I seriously don't think this stuff is worth dividing over. Arguing over…definitely.)
I grew up under Dispensational Premillennial teaching (think Left Behind), and have vivid memories of watching (and having the excrement scared out of me) by the film A Thief in the Night. For years afterward, I'd worry I'd been left behind any time my parents were late getting home. Even now I typically remark "I thought I'd missed the Rapture again" when I have to wait on a Christian friend. (Though to be fair, I do my share of Rapture-scaring other people if they think the way I do. My bad.)
When I got to college and started studying my Bible, and more so since I've started reading the Bible every year, and not just my Bible but commentaries and theology books, I've found there's a lot more out there than the Tim LaHaye take on things. So I went from Dispensational Premillennialism (invented in 1830) to Amillennialism (the majority view throughout most of history, and the majority view currently except perhaps in America). But I never gave Postmillennialism much thought.
I suppose I should define some terms here. Dispensationalists look for a secret Rapture, followed by the Tribulation, then the Second Coming, then the thousand year Millennium in which Christ reigns from Jerusalem. Postmillennialists believe the Tribulation is in the past and the Second Coming will occur after the reign of Christ in the Millennium (it's a spiritual reign). Amillennialists believe basically the same as the Posts, but with the Millennium instead being an undefined period we call the Age of the Church. (I learned from Wilson that most modern Posts take an indefinite period for the Millennium, too.)
The main difference between the A's and Posts is that the Posts believe the Gospel will essentially win, and the vast majority of the world's population will become Christian. It's extremely optimistic, and that's why Douglas Wilson terms the view "historical optimism" in Heaven Misplaced: Christ's Kingdom on Earth. The altered term draws attention away from the Millennium, which he describes as "a thousand years of peace that Christians enjoy fighting over."
(I've neglected to even mention Historic Premillennialism here since it's somewhat lesser known, but as it's title implies, it's got more of a pedigree to it than Dispensationalism does. I've unfortunately sort of thrown out the Millennial baby with the Dispensational bathwater to this point. I'll have to read up on it eventually.)
Some weeks ago, I watched and very much enjoyed "An Evening of Eschatology," hosted by John Piper. It was a panel discussion with three Reformed theologians debating the various Millennial views. I'm not a fan of Reformed Theology in general, but I was most impressed with Douglas Wilson, so I requested his book through InterLibrary Loan.
Heaven Misplaced is a nice, short book setting out a logical and Biblical argument for the historical optimism position, and while I can't say I'm entirely convinced by it, Wilson's arguments are certainly persuasive. I find myself entirely in agreement with him on the subjects of Biblical interpretation. That is, that we should interpret the Old Testament the way the New Testament writers did. His chapters titled "And the Stars Fell from Heaven" and "666 and All That" should be required reading. Yeah, that good. You get a taste of some of it in the video, if I recall correctly.
As good as the Biblical evidence is for the Postmillennial view, it's tough to look at the world and be really that optimistic. Though I've said in the past that on my optimistic days I'm a Postmillennial Universalist. That's not most days, mind you. But I hope that way.
By the way, Wilson is a Calvinist, and therefore not a Universalist. Just wanted to make that clear. But the cynic in me thinks that hoping for the Post view is a kind of soft Universalism. "Okay, so most of the people who ever lived weren't part of the Elect, but at the end, most everyone will be." Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! I'm not actually implying that Wilson is anything but honest in his eschatology. It's just that I think the doctrine of unconditional election stinks, and I don't think the idea of the ultimate triumph of the Gospel in Postmillennialism overcomes the stench. (And yes, I'm familiar with the scriptures used to defend the odoriferous doctrine.)
But the core point he makes about the progress of the Gospel is a good one. Much of Jesus' teaching involved the Kingdom slowly growing and filling the Earth (Dispensationalists completely screw up the interpretation of the Kingdom parables). Is it so far fetched to think that the progress of the Gospel will continue to grow and succeed?
Do I really believe that, prior to the return of Christ, the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea? Do I really believe that all the nations of men will stream to their Lord and savior, Jesus Christ? Do I really believer that Jesus Christ is the desire of nations? I really do.
I'm not totally there, but I'm certainly willing to hope he's right.
The other main point of the book, and of Postmillennialism, is that Christ is reigning now from Heaven and will eventually bring Heaven to Earth. That's where the title, Heaven Misplaced, comes from. As he puts it in the video I linked, "Heaven is not my home, I'm just a-passing through." (BTW, Rob Bell has made this point several times in his books, but he's too controversial to have people recognize he's right about it.) We don't hope to escape the Earth and flee to Heaven. We anticipate Christ returning from Heaven to make his dwelling with us on a New Earth.
If you've never read much on eschatology, or if your reading has been one-sided, I highly recommend Douglas Wilson's little book. It'll give you a different perspective.
I had to get this book through InterLibrary Loan because my library didn't have it. What it did have was Collision, a documentary following Wilson and Christopher Hitchens as they debated around the country. Highly recommended. Douglas Wilson is a smart dude and an excellent debater. He also has one of the greatest blog names in history (Blog and Mablog, definitely an inside joke for eschatology wonks.)
Next up is probably Jumper, a rare To Be Read list pick, and interesting science fiction.
Note: If you click through and buy this book or anything else linked to Amazon, I'll receive a very small amount of money. But you owe me that, don't you think? You were having trouble sleeping and I helped, after all…
Do not adjust your monitor! This is truly a Theology Thursday post for the second consecutive week. I used to be a bit more consistent in posting these, but I've found that this year I just don't have much to say.
Sometimes these posts just fly off the fingers. I'll read a passage, think a bit about it, jot down a note or two here and there, and then sit down and bang it out in fifteen minutes. Other times, I'll ramble for a bit, take a detour into some meanderings, then digress my way back to the main rat hole, then shelve the idea for a month or ten, then delete the whole thing and start again, then rename it, then shampoo it vigorously with Pert Plus, making sure to rinse and repeat, and then just end up posting a book review. I have some potentially awesome posts still waiting for that second shampooing.
I actually like to write theology posts soon after I've read a passage, but sometimes my schedule slips by a bit. A good-sized bit. In this case, I think I started working on this thing back in March or so, right about the time I read Love Wins. And certainly this post is germane to that topic, or at least to answering a common objection to alternate views of Hell (other than Eternal Conscious Torment). So, let's begin.
(Actually, I think this fits just fine, as my latest book review went with Luke 15. Here we're in Luke 16. Didn't plan that.)
One of the objections commonly raised to any expression of doubt in the doctrine of Hell as Eternal Conscious Torment is that Jesus clearly taught more about Hell than Heaven. Now, I don't agree with this. In fact, I'd argue he didn't teach about either very much. (For a quick rebuttal of one popular "teaching about Heaven" passages, refer to a previous post of mine.) But let's not get off track here.
Whether Jesus taught much about Hell isn't really the question. The question is, "What did Jesus teach about Hell?" If we eliminate all the passages about Gehenna, which may or may not be about Hell (read my take here), there's not much left over. But what is left over is pretty important. Of course, I'm talking about The Rich Man and Lazarus.
Now, some people think that Jesus is here telling a commonly-known tale, much like someone today might recite one of Aesop's Fables, without any implication of the story's being true. But I'll concede, for the purposes of this post, that Jesus was teaching about an actual case of two actual men. So, a quick recap (or go read it yourself):
A Rich Man and the beggar at his gates (Lazarus) both die after living very different lives. Lazarus is carried to a place of comfort, the Rich Man to a place of fiery torment (noted as Hades in the Greek). The Rich Man is in a bad way and, seeing Lazarus, asks Abraham (who evidently is in charge of the nice place) to have Lazarus drip some water down to him. Abraham replies that he had all the comfort he's going to have during his life, and that there's no way to go from one chamber to the other. The Rich Man then begs to have someone sent to warn his brothers of his fate, but Abraham replies that they have the Bible and should already know about it (and this is the point of the teaching, BTW).
So, what do we have here? Well, it certainly seems to imply that there's punishment for evil people. But, in fact, it also basically implies that it's about being rich or poor that lands you in one place or the other. It almost looks like karma, because there's no commentary whatsoever on the faith of either Lazarus or the Rich Man. But that's neither here nor there.
Those who take an Eternal Torment view of Hell will tell you that this story proves their point. But if we step back for just a minute, I think it'll be clear that it teaches no such thing.
You may be thinking, "Umm, Seth, it seems to totally teach that, bro. Serissly."
Yeah, but it really doesn't. The key thing to keep in mind here is that if we're talking about Hell, we're talking about something that takes place after the Final Judgment. True, there may be some kind of pre-Hell for the damned before the Resurrection, and this story is a pretty good indication that there is. And I do not have an issue with that. Whatever the state of the damned is before the Resurrection doesn't really matter to any of the views of Hell. Universalists, Annihilationists, and (insert clever "ists" term for people who hold the traditional view, ooh, maybe "Traditionalists") can all accept the idea of a temporary realm of torment between now and the Resurrection. (This is not to imply that all people agree on this, but it's well within the range of belief in each camp.)
There's really no argument that Jesus is referring to a post-Resurrection timeframe, is there? The Rich Man has brothers alive on Earth. Case closed. And not only is this before The Resurrection, but it's before Christ's Resurrection. I'm not sure it matters, but thought I'd throw it out there.
Jesus' Teaching on The Rich Man and Lazarus says not one word about the state of the unbeliever after the Final Judgment. I'm actually really curious if anyone disagrees on this point. Feel free to jump in, because I definitely want to be corrected if I'm off base. But let's stay on topic if we could. And by that, I mean this post is not about the couple of verses in Revelation and other places that also seem to imply a fiery Hell. Deal with this story and hit me with your best shot.
Now, let me be clear. The Bible seems to teach that there is some kind of punishment after death for the damned. The question is still, though, what is the result of that punishment? Is it never-ending? Does it end with the damned being consumed (my tentative position), or is it rehabilitative, resulting in salvation for all (my position only on my most optimistic days)?
Another thing to note here. If you come at this from a Reformed perspective (which I don't, despite attending a Presbyterian church – Evangelical Presbyterian, for the record), you really can't take a Universalist position. I get that. It doesn't make sense for God to elect some to life and some to destruction if the destruction is only temporary. Agreed. It's the starting premise that we disagree on. But again, different topic for a different day.
I'm going to have a tough time finding a topic for next week. So don't look for a three-peat. But maybe I'll rinse off my old post "Can a Heterosexual Be Saved?" (How's that for a provocative title? Any clue why I've sat on it for a year or so?)
When I read The Language of Science and Faith, the authors made the point that when we consider the cultural and historical context of a Biblical passage, we don't necessarily overturn the plain meaning (plain from our perspective), but we definitely enrich that meaning. As an example, they used the Parable of the Prodigal Son and referenced Kenneth E. Bailey's beautiful The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants.
When I say beautiful, I certainly mean that the book has some lovely commentary on Christ's teachings, but it also contains the script for a wonderful play based on the parable, and absolutely stunning Arabic calligraphy heading each chapter. For those who don't know, Islam discourages sacred images of any kind, including sacred figurative art. But using the pen to instead make beautiful "pictures" with words was considered kosher (or should I say "halal"?).
This book pulls back the veil on the deeper meanings of the story, plain to the original hearers, which have been largely lost to Western ears.
Jesus spoke to a Middle Eastern peasant people. Even the educated would have had their roots in that peasantry. What lies between the lines, what is felt and not spoken, is of deepest significance. Indeed, it almost cannot be expressed because it is not consciously apprehended. What "everybody knows" is never explained.
The author has evidently spent a great deal of time in the Middle East (forty years), and in dialogue with Muslims has encountered the argument that the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches Islamic doctrine and demonstrates that God needed no cross to redeem mankind. On the surface, from a plain reading perspective, this actually seems to be true. The son goes astray, and the father restores him without punishment.
However, now that I've read this book, I know that there was a lot of suffering involved. I'm torn here as to whether I should spoil the lovely surprises, but suffice it to say that the Father in this parable steps well out of his slotted role in his society, taking on much of the shame that the sons should have borne. And this is another thing the book brings out: the parable is about two lost sons. The one who strayed while breaking the law, and the one who strayed while staying home and being, for all outward appearances, faithful.
Another thing I found just fascinating was the idea of the village and communal setting to the parable. I could well imagine the drama taking place basically under one roof, but Bailey makes it clear that everyone in the village had a role to play, whether as witnesses of the interactions between the father and his sons, or as a tormenter of the one who would dare come back after wasting his inheritance in Gentile lands. (The father spared his son this torment by his imprudent actions. Imprudent in the eyes of the villagers, that is.)
One last thing I'd never considered is that the parable doesn't really have an ending. The father goes out to reconcile with his older son, but that reconciliation doesn't happen, and this is the true message to Jesus' hearers. The religious authorities were the older son, questioning the way Jesus was merciful to the younger son. I'm not sure why I never saw this. Yes, Christ is merciful to sinners, but he also wants to save those who think they're already good enough. They just need to see their need.
I looked for this book at the library and didn't find it. Checked to see if it was available for the NOOK. Nope. I ended up getting it on InterLibrary Loan from my alma mater, George Fox University. Cool! But I'd gladly have paid for it if it'd been available as a NOOK Book. Because it'd be worth reading again.
Next up is one of remaining Library backlog books, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Probably next week though, as I haven't quite finished it.
(Warning: Theology Post!!! It's the return of the return of Theology Thursday! For this week, anyway.)
It's really my own fault. I know this to be true. I put that silly "Suggest a Topic" linky-do over there. I had to figure I'd eventually get a doozy. Naturally, it's from the same source as the Pacifism Post of 2011. So thanks, Jon, for reminding me of my limitations!
I delayed as long as possible, but I finally read 1 Corinthians in my yearly read-through, so I have to bite the bullet. The passage in question is 1 Corinthians 14:21-25, one of the most vexing in the entire Bible, and that's saying something. And Paul, in particular, can be quite vexing at times. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, he reminded us of why word processors are nice:
1 Corinthians 1:14-16 (ESV)
14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
With a good word processor, these three verses might've just been omitted. Or replaced by a simple statement that he's glad he didn't baptize too many of them. But he said it, his amanuensis recorded it, and so we have a very vivid picture of Paul's fallibility, at least in his memory.
I do have a point here, though, and that's that Paul's letters tend to be brain dumps. And while the argumentation and theology in them is often beautifully expressed, sometimes it's a nearly hopeless muddle. And before you throw something at me, let me clarify: I mean that his writings sometimes take a lot of effort to unpack. I'm a firm believer in the perspicuity of scripture, and not just because perspicuity is such an awesome word. (It means that the central meanings of Scripture are basically easy to understand.)
But Paul sometimes did his best to put some perspiration in perspicuity. And this passage is a major bit of sweatin':
1 Corinthians 14:21-25 (ESV)
21 In the Law it is written, "By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord." 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
Mmmkay. So tongues are a sign for unbelievers. But if an unbeliever comes into your church and everybody's speaking in tongues, he'll think y'all folks is crazy. So, which is it? I have a couple of thoughts, and you can add them to the vast highway pileup of other people's thoughts about this. And really it's two categories: 1.) Different kinds of tongues are in view, or 2.) It's a matter of interpretation (and I'll elaborate on this). Let's take them one at a time, shall we?
Different Kinds of Tongues:
I'm not sure anyone debates that the tongues mentioned in such places as Acts 2 are entirely different than those in view here. As I wrote a while back (wow, three years), I think that the gift of tongues on the Day of Pentecost was more of a gift given to the hearers than the speakers. So when Paul mentions tongues as a sign, he's talking about its utility as a "universal translator" when preaching to unbelievers. Which is then contrasted with what's done for the edification of the believers in the church.
Yeah, but I don't buy it. So let's check out the other option.
It's the interpretation, stupid!:
I won't reprint the lead-in verses here, but in 1-20, Paul admonishes the Corinthians to only use the gift of tongues when someone can interpret. Otherwise, as Paul says, you're only building up yourself. So that's the key here. Paul goes on and on about how prophecy is better than tongues, but he also basically says that tongues with an interpretation is as good as prophecy.
5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
So what I think Paul means is that tongues by itself could be confusing/distracting/offensive to an outsider, but that tongues with interpretation is equal to prophecy. Again, "tongues" in this section means "uninterpreted tongues" and "prophecy" means "a word from the Lord, whether in tongues—but interpreted—or prophecy."
I'll now turn you over to Jon, who can tell me why I'm wrong. Be kind to me, Jon, I used to be taller than you. I really think that next time you suggest a topic, you get to guest-author a post here. So I can stop embarrassing myself. Either that, or I get to suggest a topic for you…hmm…
(By the way, anyone can jump in here. I realize I'm probably wrong, and I didn't even Google the question. I just shot from the hip. Feel free to opine.)