Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Write-Up: Come, Let Us Eat Together

George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez.  Come, Let Us Eat Together: Sacraments and Christian Unity.  IVP Academic, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

The basis for this book is lectures that were delivered at the 2017 Wheaton Theology Conference, by theologians with Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox backgrounds and affiliations.

The sacraments divide a lot of Christians.  There are Christians who believe that the “real presence” of Christ is in the Eucharist, as the bread and the wine in some manner become the body and blood of Christ.  There are other Christians who do not believe in the real presence, seeing the bread and the wine as symbolic, and the Lord’s supper primarily as a memorial service.  Some Christians believe that communion should be open, offered to everyone; other Christians hold to closed communion.  There are Christians who accept the baptism of infants, while other Christians deem such a baptism to be invalid, upholding the baptism of believers alone as legitimate.

A key question that looms in this book is, with all of these divisions, how can the church be one body?  Some contributors, particularly some of the Catholic ones, are rather pessimistic.  They believe that Catholics must not share a communion service with Protestants who reject the concept of the “real presence,” for both have radically different understandings of communion.  Other contributors look for an element in their own tradition, past or present, that may permit them to build bridges with Christians who have different views.  For instance, an Eastern Orthodox contributor proposes that perhaps understanding all of the mechanics of communion is not necessary for the communion to be efficacious to a believer.  A Baptist states that earlier Baptists had a stronger sacramentalism than the symbolic, memorialist view of the Eucharist that Baptists later embraced, a sacramentalism that believes that God is present in the sacrament and that the sacrament conveys divine help.

In the process, this book discusses the importance of communion, as well as other topics.  One essay focuses on the importance of loving the body of Christ (the church) when taking communion.  Another, drawing from John Chrysostom and John Wesley, wrestles with the tension between taking communion in a state of spirituality, and taking it out of a need for Christ due to one’s inherent unworthiness.  Another contribution mentions the scholarly debate about whether the risen Christ’s breaking of bread in Luke 24:30 pertains to the Eucharist; more than one contributor highlights the importance of the preaching of the Word preceding communion, as occurs in Luke 24, where Jesus opens the two men’s minds to the Scriptures, before breaking bread with them.  There was a chapter about how the Lutheran emphasis on grace influenced Christian art in Italy, including the art of Catholics.

The book also had anecdotes, which personalized it, and yet the anecdotes served to raise profound questions.  For instance, there was the story of one contributor, who had an idea to serve oreos and apple juice to other young Christians for communion, and the Catholic woman who later became his wife questioned that practice.

One has reason to be pessimistic that the differences within Christendom can be overcome or resolved, yet this book does well to ask if there are bridges that can be built.  The book is also edifying and informative.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Church Write-Up: The "Other Sheep" (John 10:16)

At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s Bible study this week, the pastor was talking about John 10, in which Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.  In v 16, Jesus states:

“And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (KJV).

Who are the “other sheep”?

I first encountered this verse when I was thumbing through the TV Guide back when I was a child.  There was an advertisement for the Book of Mormon, and it was saying that the “other sheep” were the followers of Jesus in the Americas around the first century C.E.

A friend of mine said that the “other sheep” were people in other religions.  This was his personal solution to the theological problem of non-Christians going to hell: that there were people in other religions who heard Christ’s voice, even if they may not have known explicitly about Christ.

At some point, my conclusion was that the “other sheep” would be the Gentiles, who would be included into the church alongside Jewish Christians.  In the Word Biblical Commentary, George Beasley-Murray argues that such an interpretation coincides with themes in the Gospel of John:

“If salvation is ‘of the Jews’ (4:22), it must first come to the Jews, and then proceed from them to the nations (significantly it was in that context that Jesus was described by Samaritans as the Savior of the world, 4:42). So here, in the context of Jesus as the Shepherd of God’s flock and in conjunction with his intention to lay down his life for the sheep, we learn that he has sheep of other folds than Israel’s. The death of the Shepherd embraces all people (cf. 11:50–52, also 3:16; 6:51; 12:20, 24, 31–32)…The mission to the nations is that of Jesus, continuing his mission to Israel’s fold. As he was sent by the Father on mission to Israel, so he will conduct his mission to the nations through his disciples (so 20:21; the thought is embodied in Matt 28:18–20, ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations … See, I am with you always …’; similarly in terms of action, in the longer ending of Mark at 16:20).”

At Bible study, the pastor shared two other interpretations.

One view states that Jesus is speaking about believers outside of Jerusalem, which may be where Jesus is when he speaks John 10:16.  He may mean believers in Galilee, for example.  My problem with this view is that John 10:16 states that the sheep WILL hear Jesus’ voice.  The believers in Galilee already heard it.

Another view is that John is countering isolationism within the church at Ephesus, where he pastors.  There may have been division among Jewish and Gentile Christians, in which case John is encouraging unity; this interpretation would coincide with the idea that Jesus is speaking about the inclusion of Gentiles into the church in John 10:16.  Alternatively, the Ephesian church may have wanted nothing to do with other churches.  The pastor said that the Missouri Synod Lutheran church rejects such isolationism, in that it recognizes the baptisms of other Christians: in short, a person who wants to join LCMS and was baptized already as, say, a Methodist does not need to be rebaptized.

There are limits to this policy, however.  On its web site, the LCMS states that it does not recognize the baptisms of people in non-Trinitarian churches; there, it was talking about the former Worldwide Church of God, but what it said would presumably include Jehovah’s Witnesses, or oneness Pentecostals.  A person wanting to join LCMS, after having been baptized in those churches, would need to be rebaptized.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Write-Up: Seekers, by R.A. Denny

R.A. Denny.  Seekers (Mud, Rocks, and Trees, Book 2).  Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Seekers is the second book of R.A. Denny’s “Mud, Rocks, and Trees” series.  Zoltov is the evil ruler of Tzoladia, and the heroic refugees of the first book are continuing their quest to that region.

Seekers was interesting particularly because of its religious element.  I critiqued the first book of the series by saying that I did not recall it clarifying what was at stake in terms of the characters’ religious beliefs.  The second book explored that territory a lot more.  The heroic characters explicitly rely on the high God Adon.  A new syncretist cult is set up in a region, as it merges deities and promotes human sacrifice.  The old pagan cult is somewhat romanticized in this book, while still rejected.  While the new pagan cult is depicted as horrible, the book still provides a rationale for its positions.

There were compelling aspects of the story.  The lormonkeys were continually looming in the background, adding a sense of tension.  The end of the story, “Welcome to Tzoladia,” was dramatic.  Characters also surprised other characters, who stereotyped them in reference to their specie or group.  There were some elements of the story that I did not understand: the people who were hibernating, and the people who wanted to kill the people who were hibernating.  The lack of understanding may be due to my inattentiveness, but perhaps some recap would have made that aspect of the story clearer.

The pictures of the main protagonists at the beginning of the book were definitely helpful, as they laid out the type of species they are and assisted me in having a mental picture of them as I read.  The pictures provided a comfortable lead into the story.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author.  My review is honest.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book Write-Up: Eternity with God, by Erwin L. Lutzer

Erwin L. Lutzer.  How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God.  Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Erwin Lutzer has long been the senior pastor at Moody Church in Chicago.  In How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God, Lutzer tackles the issue of assurance of salvation: How can a Christian know for sure that he or she is saved and will not go to hell after death?

Lutzer refers to New Testament passages, such as Matthew 7:21-22, which seem to indicate that there are people who think they are saved but actually are not.  What, then, is the requirement for salvation?  Drawing from Pauline and Johannine writings, and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:10-14, Lutzer argues that one must trust in the imputed righteousness of Christ to be saved.  One accepts Christ’s sacrifice for sins on one’s behalf, which brings divine forgiveness of sin (past, present, and future), and one accepts God’s free gift of imputed righteousness: God treats the sinful believer as if he or she lived the spiritual quality of life that Jesus lived.  This differs from trusting in one’s good works, which fall short in the face of God’s holiness.  Lutzer sounds like a Calvinist in that he argues that the Holy Spirit needs to awaken and spiritually resurrect a person for that person to have saving faith.  Lutzer also addresses the issue of assurance and what to do with doubt.  He is critical of looking primarily at one’s good works for assurance, yet he believes that a holy life should play some role in encouraging a person that he or she has been saved.  Lutzer has a poignant chapter on doubt, as he discusses how a person can doubt his or her salvation yet have saving faith, and posits that doubt can play a constructive role in a Christian’s life.  Throughout the book, Lutzer argues that trust in Christ is what saves, not rituals such as baptism, and he maintains that the salvation of the believer is eternally secure: it cannot be lost.  In the final chapter, Lutzer lucidly responds to objections to such positions, as he offers alternative interpretations of Bible passages that have been cited in favor of contrary views.

The book is not incredibly deep, and Christians who have been around the block may not find much that is new in what Lutzer has to say.  For me personally, the chapter on doubt provided helpful insights, even though Lutzer seems to vacillate between saying that believers can look at the quality of their spiritual lives as the fruit of salvation and a ground of assurance, and saying that this is not a helpful or biblical way to seek assurance.  Lutzer writes in a friendly, inviting tone, as is often the case, and he tells stories of people with struggles and problems, whom he has tried to help.  He also offers compelling historical anecdotes.  All of this adds a tone of compassion to the book, which lightens it somewhat, since it does contain the disturbing message that non-Christians will suffer torment in hell for all eternity.  Lutzer also did well to encourage Christians to let the Holy Spirit work in others rather than trying to force them to believe.

There were things that Lutzer said that initially sounded convincing, but were not as much so after some thought.  For instance, Lutzer addresses the question of whether Ted Turner is saved even though he is no longer a Christian.  Can a person apostasize and still be saved, since eternal security holds that a Christian cannot lose his or her salvation?  Lutzer’s conclusion is that Ted Turner may not have had saving faith at the outset but may have trusted his works and misunderstood the Gospel.  Maybe there is something to that, but there are plenty of people who did believe the right things (or say that they did) yet apostasized from the faith.  That needs to be considered.

In terms of biblical exegesis, Lutzer was a mix of rather convincing, not overly convincing, intriguing, and mildly disappointing.

On where he is rather convincing, Lutzer points out that Hebrews 10:10, 14 states that Christ has perfected the sanctified for all time in arguing for eternal security.  Lutzer notes Paul’s strong contrast between receiving salvation by faith in God’s grace and trusting in good works.  He interprets Jesus’ statement about being born of water and spirit (John 3:5), not in reference to water baptism, but in reference to Ezekiel 35:25-26, in which God promises to sprinkle clean water on the Israelites to cleanse them of their impurities and to give them a new heart and spirit.  There, Lutzer argues, the water is spiritual, not physical.

On where he is not overly convincing, Lutzer states that the unprofitable servant of Luke 19:22-24 is still saved, yet does not reign with Christ, even though the unprofitable servant in a similar parable is cast into outer darkness and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30); the servant there does not appear to be saved.  In trying to explain Hebrews 6, which some interpret to mean that Christians can lose their salvation, Lutzer vacillates between saying that the apostates were unbelievers, and saying that they merely lost temporal blessings but not their salvation.  Lutzer does gymnastics to explain away I Peter 3:21’s statement that baptism saves.

On where he was intriguing, Lutzer interprets passages about the Son of Man denying or being ashamed of people, not in reference to the straying Christians losing their salvation, but in reference to them losing a heavenly reward.  Lutzer makes a fairly decent case that Revelation 3:5 does not mean that God will blot some Christians out of the Book of Life.  In arguing against the idea that Acts 2:38 presents baptism as a prerequisite for salvation, Lutzer argues that the baptism in that verse is parenthetical: its verb is singular, whereas the verbs about repentance and receiving forgiveness of sins are in the plural.  This is an intriguing suggestion, but the reason that the verb is singular is that Peter there is telling “each” (singular) to be baptized.

On where he was disappointing, there were so many passages that could be addressed.  Lutzer seemed to be saying that a Christian could murder someone, die, then go to heaven.  How would he address I John 3:15, which affirms that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him?

Something that I found ironic: In Christ Among the Gods, Lutzer argues against Christian inclusivism by saying that God does not necessarily act according to our standards of fairness.  God permits inequalities in terms of people’s access to the truth.  For Lutzer, those who lack access to the Gospel may still be going to hell.  In Eternity with God, however, he seems to suggest that the Gospel is more inclusive than other religions: Lutzer inquires why God would only allow the religious into heaven.  For Lutzer, God would not, and the Gospel provides salvation to the struggling and the grossest sinner.  In both cases, Lutzer is saying that explicit belief in Christ is essential for salvation; it is just that, in the latter, Lutzer seems to be implying that the Gospel is about God making salvation easier for people.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Church Write-Up: Belonging, Biblical Criticism

Here are some items for my Church Write-Up on last Sunday.  I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, one of its Sunday school classes, and the “Word of Faith” church.

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church told a story about when he was a junior college student, and he believed that he was being asked to help coach the high school speech and debate team.  He concluded that he did not particularly want to relive high school, so he told the teacher that he was not interested.  The teacher replied that she is glad that he let her know, but she was not going to ask him to be coach in the first place.  He felt rejected, as if he were unwanted and did not belong.  The pastor speculated that perhaps this was what Adam and Eve felt after they ate the forbidden fruit and were naked: alone and rejected.  But God has sought to restore the relationship through Christ and lavishes love and forgiveness on us: it is not just a layer of icing on the cake, but dumping the whole batch of icing onto the cake.  Rejecting God’s love and choosing to be alone (apart from God) is mortal sin.

At the Sunday school, a similar point was made.  A lady who teaches school was saying that she tries to remind her students and peers that it is not all about one person, that there is a bigger picture.  The teacher of the class then inquired if people who try to make everything about themselves are not getting the affirmation that they need.

At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor was talking about Ephesians and the Christian’s identity in Christ.  God says Christ is Savior and healer, and that means we are saved and healed.  The Christian church is based on this, as no one person is deemed to be superior to another.  Christians encourage each other about their identity in Christ.  And two Christians with little in common in terms of background actually have more in common than they do with those who share the same background: their identity is rooted in Christ.  It is nice when things can work out that way.

B.  There were comments that were made about the history and origins of biblical books.  The “Word of Faith” pastor was saying that Luke-Acts was written to assist Paul’s lawyer in Paul’s defense before Rome.  Its point was that Christianity was not a suspicious new cult but was a religion with a history, rooted in Judaism.  This is actually a common viewpoint.  N.T. Wright mentioned it in his biography of Paul.  A host on a TBN program referred to that view.

The teacher of the Sunday school class said that the story of Job was around for centuries as a wisdom tale, before it became canonized.  It became canonized during the Babylonian exile, when the Jews experienced suffering and sought to account for it.  There may be something to that, on some level.  The Anchor Bible Dictionary article dates the Book of Job to the sixth century B.C.E. on the basis of linguistic evidence, while acknowledging that the story may have existed before that.  Ezekiel 14:14, 20, presumably written in the sixth century B.C.E., mentions the character of Job, perhaps indicating that he had become renowned.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Book Write-Up: God's Mediators, by Andrew S. Malone

Andrew S. Malone.  God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood.  Intervarsity Press, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Andrew S. Malone teaches biblical studies at Ridley College, which is in Melbourne, Australia.  This book, God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood, explores the concept of priesthood in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Malone’s treatment of the concept of priesthood in the Hebrew Bible is flatter than his interaction with the concept in the New Testament.  Malone ignores or downplays diversity within the Hebrew Bible, as he maintains a Christian interpretation of it.  Some examples:

—–Malone neglects what many scholars regard as a distinction between the views of P and Deuteronomy on the priesthood, with the former privileging Aaronides and the latter affirming that all Levites can serve as priests.

—-Malone, to his credit, does attempt to support his view that the Hebrew Bible envisions a union of the monarchy and the priesthood into a single office, with interesting arguments.  In doing so, he implies that the Hebrew Bible foreshadows Jesus, the priest-king.  In adhering to this thesis, however, Malone appears to minimize the biblical passages that sharply distinguish between the two offices.  Malone downplays King Uzziah’s illegitimate attempt to usurp a priestly function in II Chronicles 26.  In addition, Jeremiah 13:19-21 seems to treat the restored Davidic monarchy in the eschaton as distinct from the restored Levitical priesthood.  Malone largely treats that passage as an indication that there is hope for the priesthood, notwithstanding its spiritual failures, and Malone probably believes that this hope was fulfilled in Jesus.  Malone neglects the part of the passage about the Davidic monarchy and the priesthood being distinct.

—-Malone argues that Isaiah 66:21 depicts Gentiles serving as priests of Israel in the eschaton.  He believes that this relates to the inclusion of Gentiles into the church in the New Testament.  But what about Ezekiel 40-48, which depicts a restricted priesthood (the Zadokites) in the eschaton?

—-Malone contends that Israel was a priestly nation (Exodus 19:6) in that Israel was to teach the nations about God.  A la I Peter 2:9, Malone maintains that this mantle has fallen to the church, which includes Jews and Gentiles.  Malone attempts to argue that Exodus 19:6 means what he suggests, but there really is not much (if anything) in Exodus that explicitly suggests that Israel’s role as a priestly nation relates to some mission on her part to teach the nations about God.  It could simply relate to Israel’s role as a nation that worships God, an argument that Malone mentions.  Malone is much stricter when deciding whether or not to apply the concept of priesthood to other biblical themes, than he is when he considers Israel’s mission to the nations to be priestly.

In his treatment of the New Testament, Malone is more sensitive to biblical diversity, and he is slow to apply the concept of priesthood where he does not believe it is explicit.  Malone argues against the idea that Jesus performed a priestly function in his earthly ministry, according to the Gospels.  He does not believe that I Peter depicts Jesus as a priest, but rather as the sacrifice offered by the priestly church.  He does not see much of a concept of priesthood, in reference to Jesus or the church, in the Pauline writings.  And he argues that Jesus is the high priest in Hebrews, but that the church does not perform a priestly function in that particular writing.  A lot of Malone’s comments on the New Testament seemed to splash cold water on intriguing ideas, by showing that they do not work.  Still, he is to be commended for his judicious scholarship, in these discussions.

Malone’s treatment of the Hebrew Bible had some bright spots, as his treatment of the New Testament had some dim spots.  His discussion of the Hebrew Bible argued that passages about communicable holiness are not about that at all.  Malone offers a definition of holiness—-as closeness in proximity with God—-that makes sense.  Malone also wrestles with the question of whether Adam and Eve were priests in Eden, and he does not accept a view simply because it is appealing.  In terms of the New Testament, Malone stated that Christians are closer to God than the priests and Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, but he should have explained the nature of that closeness: what Christians have that people in the Hebrew Bible lacked.  Can Christians pray?  So could people in the Hebrew Bible.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book Write-Up: Winner Is: The Truth

Claus-Peter Ganssauge.  Winner Is: The Truth, Novel about Science, Faith and Love.  2015.  See here to buy the book.

This book is a translation of the German book, Illusionen—-Visionen, Roman vom Zweifel, von der Liebe und der Hoffnung.  Its author, Claus-Peter Ganssauge, has worked in various businesses and has written three other books.  The author grew up in Nazi Germany and confesses that he admired Hitler when he was a child, but he says that he was shocked to learn the truth, and since then he has “mistrusted all ideologies and religions.”

The story is set in a small town near a jungle in Brazil.  Jack’s father is a renowned Ethnologist.  While his father exposed him to religion, specifically the religion of one of the tribes, he never taught Jack about Christianity.  Jack goes to a priest to learn more about Christianity, but Jack also seems to gain knowledge on his own.  Essentially, Jack argues against much of what the priest is saying.  Meanwhile, the priest has an attractive housekeeper, Angela, and she and Jack have sex.  Jack appears to inspire some sort of Reformation, a version of Christianity that values the humanitarian teachings of Jesus and recognizes the wisdom of the Bible while dispensing with traditional theism and Christian doctrine.

Overall, the nature of the dialogue between the priest and Jack is that the priest spouts a bunch of dogmatic platitudes, and Jack dismisses them as lacking proof.  The priest was sincere, but the dialogue would have been more interesting had the priest been a philosophically-trained Jesuit.  The priest attempted to present some rudimentary form of apologetics, but most of the time he spouted platitudes and castigated Jack as a blasphemer.  It is also unrealistic that the usual village-atheist arguments, which have been around for a long time, would spark some massive Reformation.  As for the sex scenes, there was not a whole lot of romance leading up to them.  I thought of the scene in Family Guy in which a cave-man goes up to a cave-woman and propositions her with “You, me, sex.”

The book also read rather awkwardly.  The author confesses that he used translation software, but he also says that someone edited the book.  The book reads, though, as if it had been put into an old version of Google Translate.  And there were times when the translation seemed to be making the opposite point to what the author probably intended.

There were parts of the book that resonated with me.  I have been watching the National Geographic series, “One Strange Rock,” and it talks about the violent, cataclysmic origin of the earth and the moon.  I wonder why God would create this way, and Jack apparently had a similar question.  There was also a spiritual insight about something mysterious being behind the cosmos.  Jack also raised an interesting question about the nature of the Bible, for the priest was claiming that the Bible was inspired by God, on the one hand, while maintaining that biblical authors relied on oral tradition, on the other hand.  How the two fit together is a profound question.  The book also contrasts (correctly or incorrectly) Paul’s depiction of the Holy Spirit with the traditional doctrine of the Trinity.  Some of Jack’s objections were rather silly, though, as when he wondered how prayer could travel through the galaxies to reach God.

I appreciate the author’s task of honestly sharing his thoughts, even if the book did not particularly dazzle me.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author.  My review is honest.

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