Category Archives: Theology

Book Review: Heaven on Earth: God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation, by Michael Battle

Heaven on EarthIn Heaven on Earth: God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation, Michael Battle unconvincingly attempts to harmonize the messages of Origen, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, with what he refers to as John’s “speculative” (105) vision of heaven and earth in the book of Revelation. Ultimately, this is a book about universalism and a realized eschatology (60, 82) living in community in an utterly selfless way to create heaven on earth. Battle argues that heaven is not some distant place in regards to space and/or time, but is in his words “an uninhibited God” (7), “where God is present” (19), and “the joy derived from interdependent persons who adore someone greater than themselves—God” (21); however, demonstrating the inconsistency found in his work, he also says it is a place we “go to” (171) that will be “everyone’s final destination and reward” (31). While he often redefines heaven in such a way that fits his argument on any given page with no regard to inconsistencies, taken in its totality, it appears that Tutu’s Ubuntu theology, “A person is a person through other persons” (135), is really Battle’s epitome of heaven on earth. (So enamored with Tutu, Battle writes as if South Africa’s example is going to save the world, all while ignoring rampant racism therein with a flip-flop of its past racial hierarchy.)

 

ORIGEN AND UNIVERSALISM:

Heavily influenced by and in agreement with Origen’s speculation about heaven and the origin of creation found in Origen’s De principiis, Battle believes everyone always existed with God before creation and that “God has given us earth to practice heaven again” (88) after having fallen from heaven due to selfish desires—earth, according to Orgien, was basically created because there needed to be a place to land from the fall. Battle continues, “On earth we are given a soul which is the ‘sliding middle’ in which choices are made. If we wish to attain transformation back into spirit, the soul must choose communal existence as opposed to individualism” (88). Yes, we must choose community, but not for the reasons found in Origen’s speculations. Whereas Battle thinks, “[Origen’s] genius is to show us that heaven can only be found in community” (90), I think it’s more appropriate to say that heaven exists as community—it certainly may not be found in just any community.

A further point of inconsistency: If this were true—if earth was created as temporary place to practicing being better in order to get back to a state of unity with God in heaven, thereafter eliminating the need and place of earth—I’m not sure why Battle found it necessary to include the following akin to ying yang philosophy: “heaven is unintelligible apart from earth; and earth is unintelligible apart from heaven. In other words, we need both of them to know each of them” (111–112). Perhaps he finds this to be a temporary necessity?

In an endnote from chapter eleven, Battle writes, “Origen uses an illustration of a student of geometry for hierarchy of souls (Princ. 1.4.1). Death does not finally decide the fate of the soul, which may turn into a demon or an angel. This ascent and descent goes on uninterruptedly until the final apokatastasis when all creatures, even the devil, will be saved” (187, n.7). Yes, the devil/Satan being saved is the only way Origen’s speculation could possibly come to fruition, and it appears Battle believes the devil will be saved. This is, however, an enormous monkey wrench even for Origen. While De principiis certainly implies the possibility, Origen never explicitly states that Satan will be saved. When pressed, Origen only goes so far as to concede its possibility while also stating, “Even one who has lost his mind cannot say this” (see Jennifer L. Heckart, “Sympathy for the Devil? Origen and the End,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 3–4. 2007: 57). Pressing further, Lisa R. Holliday writes, “By considering the devil within Origen’s stance on volition and the nature of the soul, it is clear that while the devil technically retained the possibility of salvation, he did not wish to attain it, due to the degree to which he pursued his own desires” (Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved?: Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon,” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1. 2009:1). The fact that even the Catholic Church deemed Origen a heretic for centuries is not mentioned in Battle’s argument, nor are the weightier points of De principiis that would likely cause many readers to stop reading Battle’s work altogether. While later absolved, Origen’s teachings on this subject were not.

It is my opinion that Origen did not really believe that Satan would be saved, and found himself in quite a quandary: to fully admit Satan could be saved would contradict Scripture and would have Origin deemed a heretic, which, as already noted, eventually happened posthumously simply based on his implications; but to flatly deny the possibility of Satan’s restoration would nullify his entire argument in De principiis. (Scholars often find themselves with this sort of conflict when confronted with compelling evidence contrary to their work, as if being academically honest and changing one’s position thereby negates one’s position and ability in scholarship. To be closed to correction and change is not very academic or scholarly at all, but the academy is strange and defensive thing.)

I hope Battle would be open to criticism and evidentiary change, but the following example of how Battle simply dismisses pushback with, “In any event,” leaves me doubtful:

Realized eschatology has gained some currency among biblical scholars in the United States. These tend to base their arguments, again, on the reordering of the Gospel material which then can be made to show that Jesus was a sort of Cynic teacher of social reform. My view, however, is based more on the notion that I attribute to Care Waynick, the Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis. Bishop Waynick heard that I was writing this book and offered me this insight: “[Jesus] said repeatedly that ‘the kingdom is among you.’” A critic could easily say that neither the bishop nor I seem to be aware that the passage we are referring to is unique in the Synoptic Gospels, occurring only in Luke 17:20–21: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom is among you [within you; entos hymon].” This passage has been much controverted, especially in the context of saying that Luke constructed his own version of realized eschatology. The sharp criticism comes: If one were to assume that Jesus made the statement in the passage and meant by it that there was no future coming of the kingdom, then how is the material that follows (Luke 17:22–37) to be read? Did Jesus also make the other, numerous, futuristic statements in the Gospels?

In any event, I am one of those people like Bishop Waynick who believe that Jesus did more than say the kingdom is among us—he actually came among us. In addition, not only did he come among us, he is still here. Those like Bishop Waynick and myself practice this presence regularly through the Eucharist and caring for the least in society. (82)

 

KINGDOM LIVING (HEAVEN ON EARTH?):

Battle rightly encourages his reader to be what many of us simply refer to as active citizens of the kingdom of God. Though not yet in its fullness, we are called to be witnesses to a real kingdom right now, not to coop our Christian identity into nationalism or focus merely on our personal salvation as if it could be disconnected from love of neighbor, which is very much a part of being a disciple of Jesus and kingdom citizen. He points out some proper concerns, such as, “We seem more eager to argue over passages of Scripture pertaining to sexuality than passages such as Matthew 5:38–45” (62), but he does tend to focus on communal care and acceptance of all people as they are to the exclusion of anything else we may find entailing a God-honoring life. The only sins Battle appears to be concerned with are racism, violence, and concern for oneself (individualism) to the exclusion of others. He certainly misconstrues the reason Jesus hung out with “sinners”:

Do not seek your personal salvation—in doing that we end up like those religious hypocrites that irritated Jesus the most. In fact, Jesus doesn’t get angry at those who seem to be most worthy of our anger—those who embezzle money (the tax collectors) and those who commit sexual sin (prostitutes and adulterers). These were Jesus’ best friends; he required from them conversion and fidelity. He became angry at the religious folk who sought only their personal salvation. (151)

Jesus wasn’t in the business of finding people deep in sin, becoming best buds, and telling them it’s all okay; he was changed lives by pointing them back to the way God intended us to be because he loved them. Nor was Jesus angry with people who wanted to be “personally saved,” though he did chastise folks for ignoring and oppressing others for selfish gain. To not be concerned about one’s relationship with God is, in fact, not honoring God.

 

CONCLUSION:

All in all, this book does not have as much to do with community in the book of Revelation as it does with an overly repetitive, argumentative soapbox against white, Western, fundamental, individualistic, liberal and conservative straw men with no introspection or self-criticism to be found. Here Battle should have listened to his own words: “Labels of conservative and liberal theologies only obfuscate arguments” (36). While reading this work was quite tedious and not at all recommended, I hope what I have read is simply the result of much frustration over the lack of love for one’s neighbor Battle sees and experiences on earth as it is now.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley.

Book Review: The Minister as Moral Theologian: Ethical Dimensions of Pastoral Leadership, by Sondra Wheeler

The Minister as Moral TheologianFor the aspiring, new, and even seasoned shepherd/pastor/preacher, I cannot recommend enough Sondra Wheeler’s The Minister as Moral Theologian: Ethical Dimensions of Pastoral Leadership. This is not a book on ethics, as some would academically approach the subject, although Wheeler does offer a brief primer on types and methods; it is an encouragement and guidebook on being ethical for those shepherding the church. Pastors are not merely prayers, preachers, and teachers; we are (ought to be!) shepherds who model the life of a disciple of Christ and guide others to do the same. This means we “walk the talk,” so to speak, and come alongside others—beginning where they are—and guide them in the same.

Life is messy and often encountered in the grey, which makes how we “do ethics” vitally important in our greater task. Regardless of how much some may want or force it to be, it’s usually not as easy as “yes or no” or “do this to fix that.” In such a small book, Wheeler helpfully discusses with much wisdom the “what, when, why, and how” of living, preaching, teaching, and counseling—or not, as the case may need be. While written in a way that often presumes a more traditional, western and liturgical church, particularly with clergy, its application is by no means strictly understood and confined therein. As a longtime pastor of smaller and home-based churches, as well as a mentor, teacher, and guide to those who come from other churches for pastoral care, I found Wheeler’s book to be an exceptionally helpful and encouraging reminder. I learned from her scholarship and wisdom, as I suspect will any reader open to Spirit of God.

Wheeler is already working on a follow-up, also to be published by Baker Academic: Sustaining Ministry: Foundations and Practices for Serving with Integrity. I look forward to reading that, too!

 

*I received a temporary, pre-published digital copy for review from Baker Academic via NetGalley.

Book Review: A Little Book for New Bible Scholars: Why and How to Study the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards & Joseph R. Dodson

A Little Book for New Bible ScholarsInspired by Helmut Thielicke’s popular publication from 1962, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, IVP Academic (of InterVarsity Press) has been putting out lengthier books—still quick reads—in it’s A Little Book for New [X]: Why and How to Study [Y] series. Thielicke’s work is so well done in that it shouldn’t be surprising to find it being quoted in these new books. So, what’s the point in trying to replace? I’m not sure that’s necessarily the intent, though some schools and classes may decide to go that route with their book requirements and recommendations.

The latest addition to the series, A Little Book for New Bible Scholars: Why and How to Study the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Joseph R. Dodson, is certainly not a replacement to Thielicke’s, but it is a welcome and helpful addition. Its helpful and encouraging contributions are often through narratives likely much more palatable and an easier introductory pull into the field for millennials than perhaps Thielicke’s language may be. It is also, as the title suggests, more specific to biblical studies than theology, a distinction students will (should) eventually learn. My only major criticism is on the awkward and uncomfortably forced chapter on equality wherein the authors encourage “female, black, Hispanic, and non-Western scholars to step up and do the hard work of biblical studies” (79). To be fair, it is a sincere and grace-filled attempt at inclusivity. As stated by one of the authors, “Sometimes white male scholars like me can be a jerk. (I may even have stated some things in this chapter in insensitive ways—forgive me.)” (87) That said, I would still recommend the book anyone interested in or considering academic Bible study.

 

Note: I have not yet read Kelly M. Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (2012), thus I am unable to speak to how his approach may or may not be different from Thielicke’s and what may or may not be gained from reading it in conjunction with others in this series.

 

*I received a temporary, unpublished digital copy for review from IVP Academic via NetGalley.

Book Review: Just Capitalism: A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization, by Brent Waters

Just CapitalismIn Just Capitalism: A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization, Brent Waters argues in favor of a transition from nation-states to market-states as our current best economic option from his perspective as a Christian moral theologian. Several problems quickly arise in this text. I provide the following examples:

 

Problems with Waters’ Method:

1) Beginning with the introduction and extending throughout the book, statistical data is manipulated to support the author’s argument.

2) The author’s arguments are overly simplistic, as he acknowledges throughout, but urges the reader to be patient because he will eventually bring it all together in a fuller and more convincing manner. He eventually does not.

3) Examples of others’ arguments are most often on extreme ends of spectra, would likely not be used by critical thinkers today, and do not adequately address concerns of nuance lacking in the author’s own arguments. All too often it is stated that there is not enough time or space to work out much-needed nuance and the reader is simply referred to a number of other texts via footnotes.

 

Problems with Waters’ “Christian Moral Theologian” Perspective:

1) “Human flourishing” is defined by a particular “Christian” economic and political view that is more “of this world” in favor of the “haves” obtaining more to potentially aid the “have nots” than it is about following Jesus in the kingdom of God as it is now. It is argued that all should be able to meet their desired needs and wants, that this is impossible within any nation or community anywhere in the world, and thus global trade is necessary for “human flourishing” as defined by the author. This is simply ignorant of how many places in the world function and assumes everyone’s “wants” are going to be “good.” This also makes unnecessary the provision of God over and above our own efforts, something for which God has often chastised his people.

2) It is rightly argued that affluence is not usury (obviously, by definition) and can, given the right circumstances, be a good. However, any Christian theologian should know and take into consideration that not all are set on the same path, that we are not all called to have “more than enough” in this life, and that living according to the Way is primarily seen by taking up one’s cross, living humbly, and following Jesus’ example of sacrifice, all while relying on God and not oneself for provision. This should not be taken to mean that we do nothing, but the arguments in this book have little to do with the potential workings of God and, subsequently, a “Christian” moral theology.

3) The reader is expected to take the author’s argument that the Spirit can work through capitalism and globalization as evidence for their being the best way forward. This argument, however, has been and is used for many programs and methods Christians desire to perpetuate and need to stamp with approval—a tactic of “the end justifies the means” that ignores the fact that God can and does work in the darkest places that we cannot even imagine without justifying that darkness as “the best way forward.”

 

Problems with Waters’ Idealism Conveyed as Pragmatism:

1) For the author’s argument to work, all of the world’s kingdoms and nations would need to move to market-states simultaneously and be concerned with one’s neighbor in the same manner (as argued, that would necessarily entail one taking care of oneself and making sure oneself has more than enough before aiding one’s neighbor). It is accepted that not everyone will act as a Christian and that people will be hurt and oppressed in this system, even by Christians, but that it will be a smaller percentage than any other conceived way forward.

2) Any system argued against can be (and often has been) in similar fashion to the author’s idealism and come out as “the best way forward.” If everyone cared for one’s neighbor as Christian’s ought, then Socialism and Communism could both potentially work quite well (remember, we cannot deny the Holy Spirit can work through [insert preferred system], right?)—arguably even better than capitalism given its bent toward greed rather than love of one’s neighbor. That is not to mean that all capitalists are selfish, greedy individuals, but it certainly opens the door to that possibility at least as much (probably more) than to loving one’s neighbor.

3) Given the author’s concerns for the neighbor, there are several non-capitalist and non-free-market exceptions that are found to be necessary goods for the overall system to work (e.g., a socialist education system and unspecified government intervention with trade, the environment, and community are included), which should prove obvious to any reader that the ideal system does not work if it cannot work.

4) The author admits in his final chapter that if he is wrong about the environment and the overabundance of natural resources believed to exist to provide for our ever-increasing selfish desires for more and more energy/power, his entire argument falls apart. I don’t think we need to wait to see the failure.

 

My wife is an economist; I’m a theologian. Though I have certainly gained insight into economic theory, systems, and jargon through my wife’s teaching and working through some of that with her in light of scripture, the lens through which I read this book is primarily that of a Christian theologian and what I believe to be honest, rational thinking. I concur with Waters that globalization can be a good and that giving people the freedom of choice and open borders (borders that are often militarily—or at least by the threat of violence—established) is a good thing. However, I believe this because God has given us all the freedom of choice and that violence is contrary to the way of Jesus (Waters comes from a more Reformed theological perspective, so we likely disagree on exactly what “choice” implies, and his pro-military stance is something I obviously believe to be contrary to proper Christian moral theology). I also don’t think this is something we can force upon others via one system or another. Entering the kingdom of God is voluntary (again, Reformed folks will disagree here); likewise, the way Christians live should demonstrate the same method of volunteerism.

 

Regardless of the system(s) in which we live, we (Christians) are first citizens of the kingdom of God who should love our neighbor no matter the degree to which we “flourish.” The ideal human flourishing described by Waters and many others awaits us in the gift of eternal life when there will be no more fighting, separation, heartache, or tears of any kind. Given the words of Jesus, I do not believe this can or ever will happen prior to his return.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley.

Book Review: Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, by Matthew W. Bates

Salvation by Allegiance AloneIt’s no secret in scholarship that the English language does not have words that carry the same meaning and connotation of the Greek word pistis and its various forms and conjugations; however, that doesn’t stop most from using “faith” in its place wherever found. The driving force of Matthew W Bates’ Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King is the reevaluation of pistis as “allegiance” rather than “faith” in its greater context. I do not doubt that many will find Bates convincing in this regard, especially those already aware of the political context of Scripture; however, there are several major points I find in need of revision in this thought-provoking work.

First, Bates argues that the oft used arguments for “salvation by faith alone” have not only been theologically wanting but also damaging to the way in which hearers may then perceive and read Scripture and live (or not) as citizens of the kingdom of God. Studying in both Presbyterian and Catholic contexts, Bates feels he is uniquely positioned to speak in a bridging manner for Protestants and Catholics, particularly regarding the place of “works” or “living out one’s faith,” as some describe it, in conjunction with faith—or, as he argues, one’s allegiance to Jesus as Lord. His arguments are sound and point out philosophical, theological, and practical flaws on both sides of the traditional arguments that overemphasize faith or works in such a way that diminishes the other. However, after so doing, he comes back to “allegiance alone” (hence the title), perceivably unable to escape his traditional Evangelical roots, even after arguing for a much deeper understanding of an holistic life actively aligned with the king in mind, heart, and action. Perhaps this new phrase is intended to imply this holistic life, but his arguments against “faith alone” can be used against the reevaluated pistis phrase since “allegiance” may be easily misinterpreted and misused in time, as he has demonstrated the case to be with “faith.” I would encourage an holistic understanding and teaching of pistis, as does Bates, but without the wholesale removal of “faith” terminology, arduous as the task may be.

Second, Bates attempts to define the “gospel message” in its entirety according to eight foundational statements found in the Apostles’ Creed:

“Jesus the King
1. preexisted with the Father,
2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
3. died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
4. was buried,
5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
6. appeared to many,
7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
8. will come again as judge.” (p# unavailable, emphasis original)

There’s no doubt that these statements are either explicitly or implicitly made by Jesus and/or the apostles; however, I find his argument utterly unconvincing, stemming more from creedal theology rather than an holistic approach to the New Testament’s use of euangelion and its varied forms—basileia (kingdom) isn’t even included in Bates’ gospel message, that which is most associated with “gospel” in the New Testament.

Third, Bates argues that we are “idols of God” solely based on characteristic similarities between “image” and “idol” and the nature of idols in ancient Egypt as articulated by John Walton. No linguistic evidence is provided—contrary to the positive evidence for the pistis/allegiance argument—for a shift from “image” to “idol” in his desire to “restore the idol of God” (humans who properly reflect God, Jesus noted as being the prime and only perfect example this side of the new heavens and earth), but that does not stop him from making the switch and henceforth referring to those aligned with Jesus as idols. Not only is it unconvincing, I find no positive or helpful reason for its inclusion in the book. It simply appears to be an attempt to cram into the book a second linguistic wrench of controversy for the academy and ends up detracting from the greater message.

Finally, pairing “allegiance” and his “gospel” creed, Bates encourages Christians to use and recite the current form of the Apostle’s Creed as the true and proper “Pledge of Allegiance” with ever-increasing frequency in order to proclaim, teach, and remind people of the gospel (as defined by Bates) and with whom they are aligned. Certainly reciting and affirming creeds is not my dispute. They may proclaim truth and serve a purpose, and it’s the purpose and degree of complete truth claimed by the authors and perpetuators that I question. Bates is not the first to put forth an alternative pledge that counters those nationalistic in nature (Shane Claiborne being one of the most recent), and it sounds like a good idea. Jesus is lord; Caesar is not. We (well, some of us) get that. My reservations for using at least this pledge in particular (or really anything as the pledge) should be apparent in my questioning of Bates’ presentation of the holistic gospel message above.

Given the aforementioned observations and reservations, I find the overarching thesis to be an important one in need of further discussion within the academy and local churches alike. A proper understanding of the political context within and with which Scripture is written can only help us more fully understand whose we are, for whom we live, and what a life lived with that perspective may and ought to look like.

*I received a temporary, pre-published digital copy for review from Baker Academic via NetGalley.