Tag Archives: church

Book Review: Five Views on the Church and Politics, by Amy E. Black, editor

Five Views on the Church and PoliticsPart of Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, Five Views on the Church and Politics includes perspectives on the church and politics from five traditions, as well as an introduction and conclusion by editor Amy E. Black. Views and authors include the following (as labeled in the text): Anabaptist (Separationist) – Thomas W. Heilke; Lutheran (Paradoxical) – Robert Benne; Black Church (Prophetic) – Bruce L. Fields; Reformed (Transformationist) – James K. A. Smith; and Catholic (Synthetic) – J. Brian Benestad. The authors were asked to provide the following for their respective tradition’s view of the relationship between the church and governmental politics: a brief historical development, it’s view of the role of government; how Christians should engage and participate in government, and a short case study illustrating the latter. A response from the other authors follows each of the main essays.

This book really is about tradition. There is little to no biblical reasoning for these positions (the Anabaptist tradition does point back to Jesus, his example, and his words in the Sermon on the Mount). The essays may be summed up as follows: Anabaptist: because Jesus via Yoder; Lutheran: because Luther; Black Church: because oppression(?); Reformed: because Calvin via Kuyper; Catholic: because popes and unquestioned documents. Responses are hardly engaging with respective essays, usually boiling down to something akin to, “I read it, and now here’s what my tradition says.” Heilke and Smith do appear to be more honest and sincere in their essays and responses and engage better than their peers.

Black misses the mark altogether, introducing the text with extreme bias and poor exegesis. On the first page, she quotes a 1994 commentary on Jesus’s response to paying taxes (Matthew 22:21), stating, “With this reply, Jesus refused to take a side in the fierce political debate of his day over the poll tax and ‘implied that loyalty to a pagan government was not incompatible with loyalty to God’”(7). What?! Jesus implies nothing of the sort—he does, however, say something to the contrary concerning two masters (Matthew 6:24). In fact, we couldn’t even substitute “fealty” for “loyalty” in the quote and come out any better. Black’s skewed perspective comes out in the conclusion when she misattributes commonalities among all represented traditions, seemingly ignoring or misrepresenting that for which she is not in favor, and promotes the perpetuation of a two party system (Democratic & Republican) in American government as if those parties are all that matter.

This is a very disappointing addition to the Counterpoints series. I cannot recommend the whole of this book for any worthwhile purpose.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Zondervan via NetGalley.

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Book Review: The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson

The Pastor TheologianIn The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, Hiestand and Wilson add to the ongoing argument in favor of the need for pastor-theologians, noting the unhealthy dichotomy perceived by modern Christians wherein pastors are seen as preacher-counselor-managers and theologians are seen solely as university academics. Bringing more specificity to the conversation, the authors promote what they call ecclesial theologians over local and popular theologians. They do, however, go on for six chapters before finally nailing down in the seventh exactly what they believe an ecclesial theologian is and/or ought to be, also noting that they are pilgrims on this journey and are contributing to a conversation that they hope will continue into the next generation in a hopeful resurgence of pastor-theologians.

So, what is an ecclesial theologian according to Hiestand and Wilson? Before stating what it is, they note what it is not—or, perhaps more appropriately, what it is more than. They write, “The local theologian is a pastor who provides theology to a local congregation; the popular theologian offers more widely accessible theological reflection for a broader swath of the church; and the ecclesial theologian gives theological leadership to other theologians and scholars, all the while keeping a close eye on genuine ecclesial (as opposed to academic) concerns” (17). So, the authors do not mean to say that an ecclesial theologian does not care for the local congregation, nor does he refrain from writing for a larger Christian audience or the academy; they claim that ecclesial theologians are first pastors to their local congregation and then contributors to ecclesial scholarship with a primary focus on the church and leaders therein rather than the academy. Pulling from church history, the authors bring forth Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin as examples of their ideal ecclesial pastor-theologians, citing N. T. Wright as perhaps the best example of in our time—at least for a number of years before Western Christian culture seemingly eventually forced a decision to be either an academic or a pastor, Wright prayerfully landing back in the former.

If one is so inclined, one may skip straight to the seventh chapter for the authors’ detailed explanation of what an ecclesial theologian does via the following subheadings: The Ecclesial Theologian Inhabits the Ecclesial Social Location (88), Foregrounds Ecclesial Questions (90), Aims for Clarity over Subtlety (92), Theologizes with a Preaching Voice (93), Is a Student of the Church (94), Works Across the Guilds (96), Works in Partnership with the Academic Theologian (97), and Traffics in Introspection (99). This is all encouraging and helpful. So, how does one become an ecclesial theologian? The authors’ strategies are listed in chapter 8: Strategy One: Get a PhD (104); Two: Staff to the Vision (107); Three: Get Networked (108); Four: Guard Your Study Time with a Blowtorch (110); Five: Read Ecclesial Theology (and Other Stuff) (113); Six: Refer to the Place Where You Work as “Your Study” (116); Seven: Build Studying-and-Writing Time into Your Schedule (117); Eight: Recruit a Pastor-Theologian Intern (118); Nine: Earn Buy-In from Your Church Leadership (120); and Ten: Let the Necessity of Love Trump Your Love of Truth (121). Though surely helpful for some, this, in culmination with terminology and implication found in the rest of the book, is where I want to push back on the authors and hopefully encourage the pastor-theologian conversation to move in a more holistic and biblical direction.

 

This book is written on behalf of “evangelicalism” for a “resurrected vision” from the past. I note three significant problems stemming from the authors’ perspective:

One: What is evangelicalism? There are a plethora of definitions, no few of which claim to be “the one” from popular pastors and scholars, but the one common denominator I have found is that all who claim this guild are “Protestant” (most nondenominational churches who claim the same title still function and promote theology from their founders’ Protestant heritages and traditions).

Two: If Protestant, then is a pre-Reformation vision desirable? This is not intended to speak from my own convictions, but rather question the foundation of the vision put forth. I’m looking for consistency here. If the authors are speaking for protestant evangelicalism (they do not include their Catholic and Orthodox contemporaries in the discussion), then they must recognize the hurdle before them in convincing Protestants that Catholic and Orthodox history and theology matter and can be helpful, as I believe they are. However, if we’re going to drop denominational labels and ties and look at our history by recognizing that from which we came, for which I am in favor, then why refer to “evangelicals” and “evangelicalism” and perpetuate an “us vs. them” mentality?

Three: The authors make two assumptions. First, they assume there was an “ancient vision” and that it wasn’t simply an organic development with cultural and societal variables, two of the most notable affecting the rise of notable “pastor theologians” being widespread illiteracy and the Constantinian shift. Second, again missing problems and difficulties with Christian culture, the authors assume churches are business establishments of hundreds to thousands of members with boards, staff, and a convoluted understanding of the term “pastor” itself. This perpetuates the problem of North American churches and their international plants that places more emphasis on a branded institution than the body of Christ.

 

I applaud the Heistand and Wilson for contributing to this ongoing conversation and pushing it forward in specific ways. I now pray the Spirit guides us further with a more holistic and less taxonomical view of the body of Christ.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Zondervan via NetGalley.

Book Review: The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, by Peter J. Leithart

The End of ProtestantismUnity in the church is a passion of mine. So, when Brazos Press asked for participation in a book launch for The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, how could I resist such a title? I’d not heard of the author, Peter J. Leithart, but I looked forward to reading his thoughts on our common ground.

As is the foundation of many of our efforts toward unity in the church (both local and universal), Leithart’s first sentence references Jesus’ prayer in the garden before his crucifixion where he asks the Father that his disciples be united. Shortly thereafter: “Denominationalism is not union. It is the opposite. It is the institution of division. Our friendliness is part of the problem. It enables us to be complacent about defining ourselves not by union with our brothers but by our divisions” (4). Yes! But he continues: “My agenda will make Protestant churches more catholic … I call this ecclesiology and this agenda ‘Reformational Catholicism’” (6). And this is where I let out a sigh, not of relief, but of disappointment. To be clear, his first statement does not imply that churches ought to be more “Catholic” in the Roman sense; he means, rather, that they should be all-encompassing, the general definition of the term. However, his use and interchangeability of “catholic” and “Catholic” in the text do not aid in this clarification, especially since he has labeled his vision of the universal church as “Reformational Catholicism.”

The way Leithart envisions the universal church is fairly detailed. It will include a highly liturgical (meaning more of a “high church” liturgy) service (30) with “energetic” music “accompanied by strings, horns, and drums” (31) where everyone wears white robes (32) and “will use wine, not grape juice,” with the Lord’s Supper (196, n.8). Local churches will be labeled according to their location or a saint (26, with no reasoning for the “saint” part), include stained glass (32), and be lead by a single ruler (33). There’s enough in these few selected details to give the perception of another “made in my image” denomination and enough fodder for people to argue over for days. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming, but what we do with those dreams can be helpful or devastating.

Leithart rightly encourages throughout the text that we work through our disagreements in order to be more unified and that denominations encourage the opposite (e.g., 77–78). What I find to be a foundational disagreement I, and likely many others, have with Leithart is what we do with the following: “The true church, it is said, is an invisible reality that can coexist with visible conflict, division, estrangement, and mutual hatred. That certainly was not Paul’s perspective” (18). While concurring with his critique, I do not believe, as he argues, that the universal church must look and act the same in all places at all times. Conformity and unity may be brothers, but they are not equal. We can both agree that denominational justifications based on this distinction still fail to acknowledge the real division perpetuated therewith, but that does not mean there can be absolutely no difference in those who are unified. Leithart’s dream church does not, for example, take into account the likely inability of some churches to have buildings (not that they are even necessary) or the financial means to maintain stained glass, instruments, and white robe trappings. And what about those who face real persecution and the threat of violence and potentially death just for meeting? If one is to dream up what the universal church will look like before Jesus’ return, it must be practical and take into account a still broken world. Therefore, I maintain that unity can exist without universal conformity. There are some things on which we must necessarily conform (e.g., teaching that Jesus is Lord), but much of what we do and how we do it cannot be codified (e.g., how we love our neighbor) and those differences do not necessitate a new denomination. I hope we can agree that the Spirit may lead two people in two different directions in how they glorify God: one will stay and the other go, one will speak and the other stay silent, and one will die and the other run for his life. We see this in the book of Acts.

For a book that claims universal unity in the church and rightly pushes against American denominationalism, it is actually too American in its focus to be universally beneficial. This is one I want to like so much more than I do, and one I want to dislike more than I do. I’m torn. Perhaps the project we have would have been better approached as The End of American Denominationalism. So, this is where I’ve landed with The End of Protestantism: It is a great contribution to the conversation on unity in the church, one that is obviously in need of more dialogue even after reading this book.

 

Who is the book for? In my estimation: Church leaders, Christian educators and students.

 

For promotional material (video clips, images, etc.): www.theendofprotestantism.com.

Book Review: Women in the Church (Third Edition): An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, editors Andreas J. Köstenberger & Thomas R. Schreiner

Women in the ChurchCrossay recently published the third edition (1995, 2005, 2016) of Women in the Church: An Interpretation & Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 by editors Andreas J. Köstenberger & Thomas R. Schreiner. This is not a collection of articles from differing positions; to the contrary, it intentionally and thoroughly espouses a complementarian position by all contributors. This volume focuses more on attempts to thwart the ever-increasing egalitarian position rather than provide sufficient and convincing arguments for its own. (I’ve read elsewhere that the second edition was better at arguing for rather than against, but I have not read that edition) I believe the volume as a whole “fails to convince,” as is often stated about opposing positions, often using probably, likely, and most likely in reference to its own arguments when denouncing other positions that do the same. An inherent problem in these varying hermeneutics is a lack of verifiable absolutes; the complementarian position here goes with “majority rules” and ignores exceptions when trying to understand the Greek texts, using history only when suitable for its needs while chastising opposing positions for doing the same.

There is much focus on single words & phrases in 1 Timothy 2:9–15 without properly addressing the whole of Scripture and its intended trajectory. Appealing to a “plain sense reading” of verse 13, it is assumed that there is an intended creation order of male authority and female submission (are we also to assume this order in the new heavens and new earth?), and therefore no reason to address the whole of Scripture. The final chapter is a roundtable Q&A in which the editors ask people for their thoughts on several issues, but only includes complementarians already in agreement on virtually anything of importance, meaning the entire “discussion” is unhelpful and pointless. Everyone skirts around what women should or should not wear, ignoring a “plain sense reading” of verse 9, while assuming any good Christian using rigorous biblical exegesis will agree with the “plain sense reading” of verse 13.

 

There are two points made in the text (paraphrased and summarized below) that really need more attention if they are to be at all convincing:

1) Ephesus was not unlike any other Greco-Roman city, and therefore Paul’s words (their “plain sense meaning”) must be for all people at all times. There is much effort made to demonstrate the lack of uniqueness in the culture of Ephesus, but it wasn’t enough to demonstrate how Paul’s text can under no circumstances be culturally based.

2) Paul did not use the exact words and phrasing in this passage as he did in another passage that referenced husbands and wives, so the Greek text here must mean men and women even if used to refer to husbands and wives elsewhere. This is almost a side note in the text that is quickly brushed to the side. Again, there needs to be much more effort and evidence for this argument to convince.

(I received a digital copy of the book without page numbers, so forgive the lack of specific locations for references above.)

 

All in all, this volume is the most thorough of any complementarian arguments I’ve read in a single source, but it fails to convince on a number of levels in the same manner spoken of other positions. One section fervently appeals to the reader by pulling in references to a number of female PhDs that agree with the authors all at once, as if to say, “See! Smart women agree with us!” It was a low point in the text. This may be useful to students and scholars as a resource of the traditional complementarian position if they need one in their library.

 

For those interested, I read and addressed the text from a position of neither traditional complementarianism nor pure egalitarianism. I find fault with both extremes on some level, and reviewed this book as one expecting a thoroughly convincing exegetical argument, which I did not find.

 

*I received a complimentary digital copy of the reviewed book from Crossway through the Blog Review Program in exchange for this honest review.

Book Review: Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past, by Robert F. Rea

Why Church History MattersRobert F. Rea, a professor of church history, wrote Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past to fill a void he had in providing (primarily Bible and seminary) students with a resource that both explains the necessity of studying church history and instills a practical and encouraging desire to want to study it. I, too, have been hoping to find such a resource for students, so I was excited when I stumbled upon this one. After reading, I was hoping this book would be accessible to a broader audience than that for which the author intended. Granted, IVP Academic published it, but one can still hope, right?

The nature of the text makes me wonder for whom the book is really written. It seems as though it may be most helpful if taken before a history course, although without some knowledge of history one may be lost on some of the references. It’s rare that a Bible/seminary student would follow a strictly prescribed course schedule, so I’m not sure when this would be read—in some introductory course for the program, in another non-history course, or within the first week or two of a specific history course that may or may not be taken as the student’s first? Some people (like me) enjoy reading academic literature outside of educational institutions, but I don’t think this is one that’s going to be picked up by the average churchgoer who really needs something like this. So, when, where and by whom is it really going to be read? I don’t know.

 

The book’s sections and chapters are as follows:

Part One: How We Understand the Tradition

  1. What Is the Tradition?
  2. How Have We Understood Tradition Historically?
  3. How Do We Understand the Tradition Today?

Part Two: Expanding Circles of Inquiry

  1. Who Am I? Christian History and Christian Identity
  2. A Great Cloud of Witnesses: Christian Community Across the Centuries
  3. Accountability Partners: Sharing Accountability with Historic Christians
  4. Mentors and Friends: Historic Christians Broaden Our Horizons and Fill Gaps in Our Understanding

Part Three: Tradition Serving the Church

  1. Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
  2. Tradition and Ministry

 

“Part One” is fantastic and especially helpful in defining “tradition, traditions, traditioning, and Tradition” as they are used and understood among different Christian spheres, including why some people like and others oppose them. This is the most unbiased and informative section in the book, and that which I highly recommend to anyone.

“Part Two” begins with a helpful description of our spheres of influence and why it is important to become more aware of others, which should helpful increase our own spheres without being one who simply buys into anything and everything. However, the author’s particular beliefs in what is right and wrong about Christian history via specific examples begins to come out, though he never explicitly states the tradition from which he writes, perhaps distancing some readers and himself demonstrating why it is important to study church history—if one has read a good bit of history and understands more of the politicking involved in some faith decisions among some traditions he or she may see that there is more involved than just the Holy Spirit, and that power grabs sometimes win the debate, leading some to come to a different conclusion about the specific examples Rea uses.

“Part Three” takes an even more practical approach to the title’s question with an ever-increasing bias from the author’s own tradition.

If one is able to recognize the author’s biases and take them in stride, I believe this book can be quite helpful (again, if nothing else, especially “Part One”). However, as it is, the audience has been unnecessarily limited to students of particulars strains of evangelicalism, which is quite ironic given the broad spheres of past and present influence from which the author desires we pull in our understanding of the church and its continued direction.