Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Crucified on a Boogie Board

John Pavlovitz has written a blog post that has been reprinted by Relevant, and because of that it has been given a great deal of visibility. In the article Pavlovitz proposes to extract from the “crucifixion” of Rob Bell some sort of lesson about modern Christianity. When he begins with the words “It’s often been said that we Christians eat our own,” you know that his argument is definitely going to involve playing the meanie card. You can almost write his conclusion for him.

Lots of bands have a way of manipulating the audience into demanding that they come back for an encore. One of my favorite recordings is of one of U2’s live shows where Bono just says, “Let’s cut out all of the encore stuff where we leave and then you cheer for us to return and instead, we’ll just play the rest of our set.” I love it. So refreshing, honest, and respectful of the listeners' time.

I want to do something similar. There’s a script I’m supposed to follow in order to establish with the reader that I’m winsome, friendly, a nice guy. If I don’t, then anyone who reads this will just say that I’m another hater and that my opinion can be written off (hopefully not — this is the same crowd that supposedly loves dialogues, after all). I’m sorry, I sort of want to do the whole thing where I apologize for all the “mean” people in Evangelicalism (God knows they’re out there!) and where I say some of the good things that Bell has done and talk about how Oprah’s not so bad. However, before this post is over, you and I know that I will, of course, end up doing the predictable thing where I say, “But…” and then disagree. Let’s skip all that. I’m a nice guy, it’s true… yada yada yada… Please love me!

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to what I really want to say: If there has been a “crucifixion” of Rob Bell (and I’m not exactly sure that his new TV show, nice beach house, boogie board, and nights sitting barefooted with Jack Johnson around the fire pit really feel all that much like being crucified —I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been crucified before. Maybe it’s not so bad.), what it says about modern evangelicalism is not that evangelicals are big meanies who punish those who go against “the script” as Pavlovitz puts it. Rather, the supposed "crucifixion" of Rob Bell shows that theology does still matter to large segments of the church, and that leaders within evangelicalism believe, by and large, that some subjects are still worth contending for. Now that seem like the more charitable conclusion to be drawn here.

Over and over again throughout the article, Pavlovitz dodges the substantive problems that people have been bringing up with regard to Bell's two-plus year old book. For instance, when he discusses the Love Wins episode, his conclusion is not that Hell (sans post-mortem salvation) is evidently something that most evangelicals today believe is taught in Scripture but Rob Bell denied that important belief. Such a conclusion would be far too accommodating and wouldn’t fit Pavlovitz’ goal of trying to shame Bell’s dissenters and lift up Bell as some sort of martyr dying upon the altar of questions and confusion.

Instead, he concludes that Bell’s error was that “he didn’t stick to the script” (ah yes, so many blog posts and books talked about how “off-script” Bell had gotten…). Or as he puts it elsewhere, “He only asked people, to ask the questions.” It’s such a cliche. And I don’t even think that the emergent crowd really can possibly believe its own press at this point, either. Do Bell’s readers really think he was “only” asking questions? I read the book numerous times over. The book is filled with propositional statements intended to inform the reader and to persuade of his position that post-mortem salvation is a live possibility. He quotes church fathers and does word studies — all in order to dislodge from his readers the historic orthodox (such a dirty word!) position. Bell had a case to make and he did his best to make it. As did the best of those who responded to him (Kevin DeYoung, for instance).

In another place Pavlovitz reductively states that “[Bell] simply reached conclusions that he isn’t supposed to reach, and that really pisses off Church people.” (Wait, Bell reached “conclusions” in his book? I thought he was just asking questions…) I can only speak for myself and those immediately around me, but the whole Bell situation never "pissed" me off; rather, it was a doctrinal error to be addressed that morphed more recently into a sad cautionary tale.

In addition, Pavlovitz' statement ignores the fact that the best people who wanted to engage with Rob Bell did so with references to the issues at hand, not with regard to the narrative that he wasn’t in line with. Let me give you an example: When Francis Chan wrote Erasing Hell, his argument was not, “But Rob Bell isn’t saying what he’s supposed to say!” (in fact, I’m not even sure he mentions Bell by name). Instead, the argument was, “Here’s what Scripture says, and here’s why the denial of this thing that Scripture says is detrimental to the faith.” Will Pavlovitz allow someone to disagree with the substance of what Bell has to say without taking personal pot-shots and calling him a “venom-peddler”? If he is a magnanimous Jesus person who wants to occupy the moral high ground here without slipping into obvious and radical hypocrisy, he really ought to give Bell’s dissenters the benefit of the doubt.

It would have been more honest for Pavlovitz to simply say, “Look, Bell took a chance and told us what he really thought of the possibility of salvation after death, and his view clearly hasn’t caught on.” That, at least would be a simple but fair reading of the situation. Instead, he characterizes Bell’s dissenters as “venom-peddlers” (a “venomous” phrase if there ever was one) and calls them “unforgiving” (has Rob Bell even asked for forgiveness? Pavlovitz states quite clearly that he has not).

This narrative coming from whatever wing of evangelicalism Pavlovitz, Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, etc. think they speak for is unsustainable. The only way to have a whole movement centralized around questions without answers, the sound of one hand clapping, and books written like haikus is to have a prior, assumed orthodoxy to leech off of. Evangelicalism as it currently exists has sustained itself on the remnants of an orthodoxy that has been its lifeblood for all of its existence. Eventually, if this crowd has its way, and all the meanies go home and stop caring about doctrinal health in their churches, well there won’t be an orthodoxy left to feed on. It will just be history to study and reminisce about. At that point, what will their movement be? I can’t answer that question completely (I might suggest they start by looking at the mainline denoms), but the words “healthy,” “sustainable,” and “robust” are hardly what come to mind.

Friday, October 10, 2014

7 Ways I Get My Kids to Listen Carefully During Scripture Reading

I used to be afraid to read stuff in the Bible to my kids (ages 8, 5, 4, and 1). I thought it would bore them and then they would beg me not to read the Bible to them ever again. If this happened, I feared that they’d be inoculated against Scripture for the rest of their lives. Because of this concern my routine was to pick a story from the Bible that I thought they'd find interesting and then read it to them. I cherry-picked what my kids were getting, assuming that I knew what they would and would not like.

A few months ago, however, I ran out of novel ideas. Favorite narratives and stories stopped just popping into my head and my creative juices started to dry up. So I did what any red-blooded Reformed pastor in training would do… I gave up and just started reading the Bible straight through. A few months into our experiment we have read the entirety of Genesis all the way through Deuteronomy. This next week we’re going to have a “Peutateuch Party” so they can celebrate reading the Torah together as a family. They love it—which honestly surprised me. In fact, they love it so much that if there is a night when I might try to skip the reading they will get very upset and even cry. They find all of it interesting—even the laws about stoning disobedient children or the death-penalty for man-stealing in Exodus 21 (it led to a discussion about slavery that I should have expected).

One night, after reading some of these laws in the second half of Exodus, Amos asked me, "Can we even use these laws today?" I hesitated but decided not to avoid what could have been a complex discussion. Because of Amos’ tricky question we got to discuss in very simple language the three-fold division of the law. I then asked them to put what we’d talked about into practice by helping me see the moral law in the prohibition against cursing one's parents or premeditated murder. The fact that the discussion went so well showed me that I have really underestimated my children, and wish I had started reading straight through the Bible with my them sooner. I wonder if there aren’t more parents out there who are short-changing their children as well.

Here are seven simple things that have helped me with bedtime Bible reading. Perhaps you will find some of them to be helpful as well:

1) Before I start reading, I run back over what we read the night before. I fight to keep their minds in the narrative flow. Reminding them and forcing them to remember begins to engaging them in what comes next before you even read it aloud.

2) I read to them with the lights out. My goal isn't to put them to sleep, it's to free them from distractions. When the lights are on there are things to play with and siblings to torment. When the lights are out and they're laying in their bed, the distractions slip away - it's just them and the words you're reading. 
3) I read from my iPad (because it's really hard to read a regular book in the dark). A Kindle Paperwhite will work just as well. If you’re feeling daring use a flashlight, but be warned that they’ll want to take it from you and play with it. 
4) Don’t rush in your reading. It's better to be slow and clear than in a rush. Hurrying tells them that you're bored with what you're reading. Go slow and savor—even the weird stuff. Read it like it's important (because it is!). 
5) I stop a lot and try to say what's being said in a different way and get them to talk about it. Your goal isn’t to jam another reading into their heads—it’s to teach them the importance of Scripture and to start helping them to see it all from the big picture. Help them understand the Bible. Also, to keep them engaged, stop often and say their names and ask them questions as if you care what they think while you’re reading (because you do!). 
6) Constantly point out to them their need for Jesus and their own fallenness. When the men and women in the Bible constantly fail over and over again, don’t let it become a morality tale where your child stands in moral superiority over a fallen and failed person. Instead, point back to Genesis and remind them who their representatives were and that by nature we’re in the same boat as these fallen people. Then point forward and show them that all the while God was preparing a rescue in Jesus. 
7) Prepare for weird questions. The readings about man-stealing in Exodus 21 led to a frank discussion of slavery and how massive amounts of African people had been brought to America against their will as slaves. It’s admittedly not an easy conversation to have with little kids. Other times sexually explicit scenes come up via euphemisms. The story of Judah and Tamar is pretty difficult, and I’d be lying if I said that reading the story of Lot and his two daughters wasn’t super awkward. But the younger ones won’t get what’s really happening in those narratives, and the older ones may just have their opportunity for “the talk” arise out of a reading of the Bible (which, considering our culture today, sure beats the far inferior ways our kids could be learning this stuff).

It’s important to remember that the way you feel about the Scriptures will be the way your children learn to feel about them too. It isn’t your intentions they’ll pick up, it’s you're beliefs and actions. Children are very perceptive and can tell if you’re just teaching or reading to them out of duty. They can tell if you’re bored with what you’re reading, or if you are absolutely gripped by it. You may need to ask the Lord to help you to be transfixed by the passage you are reading so that your children can see the urgency of the message as well. There is nothing more powerful that you can do for your children than to teach them through your own affections, words, and actions that the Bible is the most important book they will ever encounter.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Concerning Prophet Fatigue

There's been a video circulating in Christian circles that is funny and at the same time calls out someone's erroneous teaching. It has 1.8 million views, and picks on a popular teacher. You know what's coming... a lecture on humility.

Every time that something sweeps through the Reformed blogosphere, whether it be the video of Bill Cosby telling Victoria Osteen what he thinks of her senseless babbling, or whether it's respectfully reported news of Mark Driscoll stepping down for a short period of time at Mars Hill, the response is predictable. A few days after the social media life-cycle has run its course, the humility contests begin. Blog post after blog post, social media post after social media post from guys who want you to remember that even if you do have good theology you're still no better than Victoria Osteen or even arguing that Christians are keeping people from coming to Christ with our public mockery of error when it happens.

There is almost a cottage industry of guys whose seeming job is to give everyone a lecture soon after any stretch of time when error gets publicly called out. Calling out the guys who call others out is a predictable (and absolutely ironic) part of the life cycle of any controversy in modern theological discourse, and I must confess, I'm fatigued by it.

We should want to be balanced in how we respond to errors within the Christian community, and I don't want to be known as a nasty old grump any more than the person next to me does. I also understand the desire of some to create balance in the world. After all, there's nothing classy or winsome about a dog-pile. We also do know that there are people out there who are just downright mean and give the healthy well balanced folks a black-eye. At the same time, in the book of Acts, after Paul called out Peter for his destructive decision to give the Judaizers the time of day, Paul didn't sit down and go, "Now listen, everyone. I know that was some nasty business back there, but let's just remember that we're all Judaizers deep down, etc..."

We get it, we get it... you're very humble and you want us to be as humble as you are. And someday we'll hopefully get there. But in the meantime, remember that in our own day and age, it's hard to be one of the "Truth Guys." Not only is it tremendously counter-cultural to care about truth (at all!) or to call out error, but when you do so you often risk get sniped by your very own or accused of pride. Just remember, "Humble Guys," you're no better than the "Truth Guys" when you call them out for calling others out.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fearing the God Who Rescues?

In Mark 4:35-41 we are confronted by the narrative of Christ’s stilling of the storm. It may be a familiar narrative, but if we pay close attention we will nonetheless be gripped by it. We should be especially keen to notice that the fear of the disciples is so intense that they even have the nerve to rebuke Jesus Himself. In their words we see that they believe they are going to die (see v. 38). Notice that when Jesus stills the storm and the danger has passed there is a new counter-intuitive reaction from the disciples: great fear.

Many have seen the numerous parallels between this miracle of Christ and the story of Jonah, but it is still worth mentioning, I think. Recall that in Jonah, as in Mark 4, there is a great wind (Jonah 1:4; Mark 4:37). In both storms an important passenger sleeps in the boat (Jonah 1:5; Mark 4:38). In Jonah the sailors “fear a great fear” while Christ identifies the disciples as “afraid” (Jonah 1:10; Mark 4:40). In Jonah the storm is eventually stilled by a work of God’s power, just as it is in Mark (Jonah 1:15; Mark 4:39). As a final parallel, notice that in Jonah the sailors don’t stop fearing after the danger passes. Instead, the passage says that their fear was transferred from the storm to Yahweh (Jonah 1:16). Let me suggest that this is precisely what happens in Mark 4:41.

This group of men believed they were going to die. I have had moments when I thought I was going to die and know from experience that this is a tremendous amount of fear. But to then be described after the danger has passed as being “filled with great fear,” that speaks volumes as well. This response isn’t unusual in the Gospel of Mark. It is common, when people have seen Christ’s miraculous work, for them to react with fear. (For example, Mark 5:15; 6:50; 9:6; 16:8)

The stilling of the storm was an extraordinary moment in the ministry of Christ and an amazing rescue, but the greatest rescue that God ever brought in Scripture was in the work of His own Son upon the cross. At the cross Christ did what he came to do, rescuing all of those who ever had or would believe on him (John 3:16). He brought peace with God. But there is a fearful aspect to the cross as well.

The cross does bring us peace with God, but it comes at great cost (Col. 1:20). God treated his own son as a sinner should be treated; He showed His Son no mercy. He showed the world how He regards sin. The cross is the rescue of God that says to us that God’s character is impeccable. It says that God will not be trifled with; he will not ignore evil; he will punish sin. Because of these things He is a God to be feared.

When you reflect on the rescue that Christ brings, what is your response? Is it serenity? Peace? Joy? Let me suggest that if you are in Christ those are all appropriate responses to the rescue that Christ has brought. But that response ought to always be tempered by the complementary recognition that God’s justice, holiness, and righteousness come out most clearly at the cross.

Those of us who stand at the foot of the cross should do so with mixed emotions. We’re right to rejoice and be glad. But we are also right to “fear greatly” when we gaze upon the suffering of the son even as it is the substance of our own rescue.

[This article was previously posted at the Christward Collective. You should check them out.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Seminarian's Perspective on the Logos Reformed Gold Package

Accordance and its Limitations
For the last three years I have been an Accordance (Bible Software) user. I use Accordance for all of my original language study and profit immensely from having such a powerful set of tools (most of which I have barely scratched the surface of) at my disposal. I also use it for reading commentaries alongside of my Scripture readings — and find these modules very easy to use together.

However, I also have some other things in Accordance that don’t work too well with the format. I have Calvin’s Institutes, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (2 Vol.), the writings of John Milton, St. Thomas’ Summa, and other miscellaneous works of theology. Accordance shows its strength both in its speed and when dealing with original language material, but it shows a massive area of weakness when it comes to handling or searching anything that isn’t Biblical material or commentaries. Simply put, in my opinion, Accordance just wasn’t made for reading most books. It's hard to search them, it's hard to navigate them, and it's hard to even open them to read them in the first place. I'm sure there is probably a way to bookmark my place in them, but I've never figured it out.

Logos Fills the Void
This is where Logos comes in. Logos is Bible software that’s been around for a long time, but with the release of the Reformed starter packages they have begun receiving some extra attention from Reformed bloggers like myself. I was recently given access to the Reformed Gold package by Logos with no conditions attached. That means that I don’t necessarily have to write anything nice if I don’t have anything nice to say. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t intend this to be an informercial. Instead, I want to offer some thoughts that may help you to decide if you should buy Logos — and especially the Logos Reformed Gold package.

Most of the students here in Seminary seem resigned to the fact that no matter how much they love paper books, or may bewilderingly associate electronic books with Gnosticism, they will probably need to get some kind of software to digitize their Bible study and reading. The question for most is if they need to commit to one particular format, and if so, which one? I won't give a firm answer to that question, but I hopefully have some helpful thoughts on the matter. After spending a couple years with Accordance and the last six months or so using Logos, I do want to mention the four advantages of Logos as I see them.

Four Strengths of Logos
First, Logos is the best for an all around library. I mentioned already that Accordance is a very weak format for reading anything that isn’t the Bible. Do not buy Accordance because you want a nice, portable version of Augustine’s Civitatem Dei that you can pick up, put down, and come back to later. The format (even in the portable iPad version) just does not work well for such books, nor does it have actual page numbers, making citation of books in Accordance, if not impossible, at least a huge pain in the neck.

This leads to my second point, which is that in contrast to Accordance, Logos gives you actual physical page numbers. This means that you don’t have to dig around for a new, funky 21st century citation style involving location numbers or anything like that. You just cite the page number of the particular edition you are reading in Logos. It’s all very nice. Also on that point, copying and pasting from Logos into a document you're working on automatically comes with the page citation in whatever format you set up (except for Pages, which evidently doesn’t like pasting citations). That’s very nice, and something that makes research papers that much less painful.

Third, searching within books in Logos is extraordinary. I have tried to do book searches in Accordance and have yet to figure out exactly how it works. As I’ve mentioned, the format just isn’t friendly to that kind of study. Maybe there are ways to do it in Accordance that I have yet to discover, but at this point I don’t do it. In contrast, once Logos has had a chance to compile its search library (which can admittedly take some time after each update, depending on the size of your library), it is very easy to search for scripture citations or references within all of your books and commentaries. Coupling this with the ability to group your books into “Collections” which you organize according to your own tastes, those with larger libraries can choose to only search for a particular reference in their Systematic Theology books or in their Biblical Theology books or in their Commentaries, making your searches as focused as you want. Learning to do collections isn’t easy, and involves digging around through web forums over at Logos, but once you’ve done it you will be glad you did.

Fourth, Logos has a really well-made iOS app. One of my classes for the Fall at RTS has us reading Andreas Kostenberger’s book A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. I thought about buying a used physical copy from Amazon but instead bought it for Logos at full price. Why did I do this? Well, frankly it’s a large book. It is a book I will be reading all semester long. I don’t like lugging around big books. I look forward to being able to go to school and conceivably sit down and just open my iPad Mini to get a bit of my school reading done. No pressure, just wherever I find myself to sit down and get in some reading. The iOS Logos app is the reason this is possible, and I like it a lot. Unlike the desktop version, which has a long startup time (hint: just never close it and leave it running in the background and then you won’t notice), the iOS version on my iPad Mini is snappy, fast, and involves almost no waiting. You can read your books without downloading them, just reading them in the cloud over Wi-Fi or you can download them to read later when you’re out in the boonies. However you use it, the iOS app is very good, minimally glitchy, and makes for a great reading experience. The desktop app is great for searching and studying, but the iOS app means that you almost feel you can sit down and enjoy the book as a book, not just dig through it for quotes or information.

The weakness of Logos is related to its strengths. It's great at searching what can be an incredibly large library of material, but that takes computing power and time. As such Logos, when it first starts up, can take several minutes if it hasn't been updated recently. Also, the original language modules in Logos, from my perspective, have a steeper learning curve than they do on Accordance. My final complaint, once again, relates to the size of the library in that looking for books is not intuitive. You have to know the name of the author to search for it, or you have to have used it recently and have your library set to show most recently used first. These aren't deal-breakers by any means, but they do mean that you will have to be purposeful in how you use the software.

What Kind of User Are You?
Perhaps a seminary student may have a friendly benefactor who wants to bless them with some Bible software and gives them a choice. If someone finds themselves in such a situation, which should they pick? Well my answer is that it depends on what they’re going to do and where their interests are. If you are into history and commentaries or systematics but aren’t much of a language guy, I actually think Logos is the best pick. But if you’re into the languages exclusively and don’t see yourself building much of a digital library I still might recommend Accordance (with a few language-specific modules) over Logos.

How I Balance Accordance/Logos
I will actually mention how I use my own Logos/Accordance set up, which is a bit of a hybrid. I use Accordance for my Bible study and language study. It’s fast and easy to use without a lot of bells and whistles (unless you want them). But I absolutely use Logos alongside of Accordance. The two are not enemies on my computer. I play to each of their strengths in the way that I use them. I keep a window open with my Bible study stuff from Accordance — and I keep another window open where I look through the many commentaries and systematic theologies that come with the Reformed Gold package. I see them as complementary.

Speaking specifically of The Reformed Gold package, it comes with so many books that it can almost be overwhelming. It comes with some really fantastic things such as Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, the Lewis Ford Battles translation of Calvin’s Institutes, as well as the complete works of John Owen, Louis Berkhof, John Bunyan, B.B. Warfield, and Richard Sibbes. It also comes with some extraneous stuff that I’ve never heard of but that I plan to explore when I find the time. Some of the material is a bit dated. For example, Kittels was a very impressive resource for a long time, but with the work of James Barr (see his book The Semantics of Biblical Language), it is now evident to modern students of Greek of the New Testament that the methodology employed in Kittel’s 10 volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is fundamentally flawed. It’s a valuable resource and still has value, for sure, but it’s also hardly cutting edge any longer.

Where to Start?
I can’t tell somebody what would be best for them, but I can hopefully at least give somebody an outline as to how to approach things. If someone is interested in the Reformed Gold package (or any of the packages for that matter), I would begin by going to Logos’ website and installing the free base app on their computer. Grab some of the free modules from their web page and start there. See if you like the program and how it runs. Try out the search functions for yourself. Fiddle around with the iOS app, which I do think will impress most who try it out. If you have the money and are looking to have a nice searchable library that you can take anywhere with you, Logos is a really strong choice that deserves serious consideration.

[Update (8/27/14)]: I would highly recommend reading the comments below by R. Mansfield, who is an employee of Accordance. He has corrected me on many of my statements regarding what Accordance can and cannot do. We would do well to remind readers that this perspective offered above is of an average user who has not taken any classes on either platform. My perspective here reflects my own "non-expert" experience with both, and so should be read in light of that.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Geerhardus Vos' 5-Volume Reformed Dogmatics May Surprise You

Geerhardus Vos wrote his Reformed Dogmatics in Dutch, by hand, in 1896. Fourteen years later some unknown individual transcribed Vos’ work into print in Dutch. For the last 103 years this printed work has been inaccessible to theology students who never got around to learning Dutch. It is to the high praise of Logos Bible Software that this important work of Reformed theology is now being made available in English. At this point, only the first volume, encompassing Doctrine of God proper and the first 80 pages of the second volume, dealing with Anthropology have been made available to those who have purchased this set.

Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics holds two big surprises for its readers in terms of its clarity and its format.

As to the first surprise: the book’s clarity. Amongst my fellow seminarians the name Geerhardus Vos conjures up impressions of great, rich biblical theology. But it also brings memories of a borderline incomprehensible writing style. Those who have read Vos’ Biblical Theology or his seminal Pauline Eschatology may relish the opportunity to learn once again from the master. They may not, however, be too excited about actually reading it, as Vos doesn’t have a reputation for being the most lucid of writers.

Because of this reputation, right out of the gate, the greatest delight I had from reading Reformed Dogmatics was in the undeniable clarity of the writing and argumentation that Vos employs. It is common to think of Vos as primarily a biblical theologian. His most important works that have been published so far have been in this vein. But the simple clarity of Reformed Dogmatics causes me to wonder if his true passion might have been in the systematics courses that he taught for so many years.

I am quite certain that Richard Gaffin deserves much of the credit for his work on the final form of the translation. I know that Dr. Gaffin is experienced at translating from Dutch into English, and his skills are put to excellent use here.

The second surprise of Reformed Dogmatics is its format. The book is not written in a traditional way (as one might find in say, Calvin’s Institutes or Bavinck’s own Reformed Dogmatics. Instead, the book is written in a question-and-answer format more similar to Turretin’s Institutes. At first I was distressed by this, feeling initially that I was reading class notes or scraps of ideas. This is thankfully not the case. When Vos gives a brief answer, it is welcome. And when he gives long answers it is because a lengthy case needs to be made. The format is welcome because it contributes to a sense that the answers have been carefully organized. I quickly grew used to it.

If I was to make one complaint (and this would be minor) it is that many of the questions that Vos raises are not symmetrical. There is something thoughtful and thorough about the sorts of questions that Turretin raises in his Institutes that seem to be missing in Vos’ own work here. This means that some subjects seem to be covered a bit more thoroughly than others. As an example, Vos asks the question, “How do you refute Sabellianism?” and he gives a four-part answer that is succinct, well organized, and exceedingly helpful. But there is no similar question for the converse error of Sebellianism—in this case Tritheism. This may be because tritheism simply is not a realistic option, but neither should Sebellianism be. In a systematic treatment, I do think that addressing this question would have made sense.

Vos was slightly younger than Herman Bavinck, whose own Reformed Dogmatics we know all too well. It seems that Vos’ discussions of numerous loci of theology (especially divine passibility and atemporality) line up very happily with those of Bavinck. If Bavinck reflects the mainstream of Dutch theological thought it would appear that Vos reflects a similar approach to theology, albeit with a different didactic method. Many students I have talked to find Bavinck’s discussion of some issues hard to follow, as he spends much time talking about other views before he gets to discussing his own view. In this respect Vos presents a contrast to Bavinck in terms of his brevity and clarity.

It is my hope that support and interest in Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics will continue to grow in the Reformed community. I am enthusiastic to have the guiding voice of Geerhardus Vos added to discussions not only of Biblical Theology but Systematics as well. It is a subject which Vos taught for many years and one which those of us who were not his students firsthand now know he was ably suited to.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Believing is Hard

Jamie Smith's book How (Not) To Be Secular is a shortening, a condensing, and an attempt at simplifying Charles Taylor's 900 page behemoth A Secular Age. I have only begun reading Smith's book, but something important has stood out regarding Taylor's approach. Taylor basically says that when most western people think of secularism today they're thinking of a neutral, nonsectarian space or standpoint. But Taylor says that society today is a different kind of secular -- what he calls "secular3." He says that a society is secular3 "insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested)."

This is a bit like the toothpaste in the tube problem. There was a time when exclusive humanism was implausible to the vast majority of people. They just did not live in a world where denial of the supernatural made plausible sense of the world to them. However, once exclusive humanism did become plausible, that humanism became an ever-present, haunting possibility. Christian belief has therefore become more challenging because other approaches to reality now exist as plausible alternatives which didn't exist before.

What Smith does early on in the book is point out that the problem of belief cuts both ways. Yes, it is harder to be a Christian today than it has ever been before, but it's also equally hard to be an unbeliever, too. He uses the work of David Foster Wallace as representative of the fact that life is much more muddy, grey, and difficult than either the New Atheists or Religious Fundamentalists would portray it to be. There is an ongoing transcendent haunting that takes place in the heart of the skeptic. People yearn for transcendence, but they largely despise the source of transcendence. This yearning for transcendence is everywhere around us and easily demonstrable. There is truly a deep, yearning hunger within humanity for more than what we can see. But there is a cynicism and an infectious pessimism that essentially says that we cannot have this transcendence that we want because we no longer find it to be plausible. This yearning, then, is interpreted by some (one thinks of Richard Dawkins) as a sickness or a parasite that humanity must find a way to shake.

Viewers of the TV show House may recall that the nihilistic lead character, Gregory House, goes into every situation with a head-first rationalism and almost always enters conversations with religious individuals trouncing them with rationalism and mocking them for their beliefs. But nearly every time he in some measure reaches the end of the episode and finds himself rebuffed for his cynicism and a bit in doubt about whether he really understands what life is like. This metaphysical tension never quite goes away on the show.

One episode in particular features a priest who doesn't believe in God. He is an atheist. In one poignant moment at the end of the episode, House, being his usual self, tells the priest, in spite of the massive amount of coincidences that went into his healing, "Don't worry your life will go back to sucking soon enough. Everything that happened can be rationally explained." To which the priest responds with a measure of doubt in his voice, "I know. It's just... a lot of coincidences." The atheist is shaken in his faith. The atheist, the skeptic, the unbeliever, will always be haunted by transcendence because he was made to know God and yet lives in a time in which it is culturally plausible to reject that being who can rationally account for transcendence.

This is what it is to inhabit the secular world today. It is hard to be a believer, sure, but it sure is hard to be an unbeliever, as well, constantly dogged by the memory of a transcendent and holy God. The people we meet need to hear that there are answers to their questions and they need to hear us without shame or embarrassment tell them that God's Word has the answers they are looking for. But they also need to hear us say that we know that the search for answers isn't always easy, and we don't always have the answers to every question, and that's okay. Part of the challenge of living in this day and age is that the answers don't always come easily.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: The Last Days of Jesus by Taylor and Köstenberger

Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor haven’t broken the world of scholarship wide open with The Final Days of Jesus (and that's a good thing!). They haven’t done anything controversial or scandalous with this book. They haven’t chosen to repeat the liberal skeptical tropes that we’re used to seeing from people like Bart Ehrman, and as such we’re unlikely to see Taylor and Köstenberger on the evening news or being interviewed on Nightline (is that show still on?). Instead, this book The Final Days of Jesus presents a helpful introductory timeline of the last week of Jesus’ life straight from the biblical record.

The book is organized by days of the week, beginning with Sunday, March 29th, A.D. 33 and going until Sunday, April 5th, A.D. 33. Each chapter contains the biblical material of what occurred on each day of the week leading to Christ’s death along with helpful commentary by Dr. Köstenberger. Just as an example of how the chapters are laid out, Friday, April 3rd A.D. begins with a section on the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. It is followed by all of the biblical accounts of this event from Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-52, Luke 22:47-53, and John 18:2-12. This is followed by a section of commentary on these events from Köstenberger and a map of the area of Gethsemane and showing the path that was probably taken from Gethsemane to the palace of the high priest. Next in the chapter comes the Jewish trial of Jesus with its relevant Scripture passage from John (since he’s the only one who records that event) just as the previous section was laid out and so on. In this sense, the book is interested in bringing out details, discussing harmonization issues, and keeping things as narratively driven as possible.

All of this does seem somewhat academic, I’ll confess. What comes out of the reading, however, is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to really drink up what the Scriptures say, laid out in a helpful, chronologically structured book. It isn’t long. It isn’t hard reading. It also isn’t excessively defensive in the apologetic sense (though harmonizations between accounts are dealt with, when necessary, in a secondary way), which I think your average reader will appreciate. They approach the biblical record acknowledging slight differences in the way the authors record the events. But they encourage readers to adopt “a charitable rather than critical reading,” which they say “demonstrates that the evangelists are each accurately referring to the same thing rather than contradicting one another.” This is a refreshing approach compared to the mainstream NT scholarship that dominates in the academy today.

Although I had this review written last week, I purposely decided to keep from publishing my review of it until after the Easter weekend. I’m a Presbyterian and we’re famously obnoxious for our rebellion against the church calendar (as well as publicly beating our breasts at times: "Thank God I am not like these other men who observe the church calendar!"). But my reason for waiting until after Easter was not to grate on the nerves of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who would expect this sort of thing to go online before Easter. Rather, I did it because this book isn’t just important to read at Easter. The death and resurrection of Jesus is not merely something to think about during the month of April. These events are central to the whole of redemptive history. They are the glue the holds the covenants of God and His promises of New Creation throughout the Old Testament prophets together. As such, they deserve our attention throughout the year. My hope is that Christians will be motivated by this book to not merely “get in the Easter spirit” during one particular season of the year, but that every Sunday would be an occasion for us to meditate and think upon the death burial and resurrection of Christ. A book like this is just the tool to help us do that. I commend this book to be used by Christians all year long.

[This book was provided by Crossway to me for review purposes.]

Friday, April 11, 2014

Book Review: New Testament Biblical Theology by G.K. Beale

A New Testament Biblical Theology was a book 22 years in the making. One could argue that Beale’s commentary on Revelation alone would be enough to cement his place of importance among the great exegetes (Reformed or otherwise) of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The commentary is an excellent picture of how to read the New Testament and Old Testament faithfully in light of one another. If this is true of his Revelation commentary, his New Testament Biblical Theology is further confirmation of the exegetical prowess of a theologian who no longer needs to prove himself.

Even beginning with the subtitle of this book, G. K. Beale makes clear that he is no dispensationalist. Rather, Beale (like Ridderbos and Vos before him) sees the Old Testament as something that is not to be set in contrast to the New. It is to be seen as a continuation or “unfolding” of what was already there in seed form in the Old. Of central importance to Beale’s project is developing upon Vos’ own conviction that the message of new creation is the central focus of the Old and New Testaments. He says explicitly where this volume stands in relation to Vos: “The present volume is my attempt to develop further Vos’ program, since he never wrote a full biblical theology of the NT” (20).

Beale spends the first chapter buttressing his own conviction of how the Old Testament “storyline” (5) can be summarized:
The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance his kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory (62).
This quote is crucial for comprehending the rest of the book. All parts of the OT, then, serve to move with and build upon this dominant, overarching metanarrative. Notice the eschatological tone that the Old Testament takes on when it is read in this light: the Old Testament storyline has direction, movement, and inertia, moving from creation, to fall, to new creation, and this tone dominates the rest of Beale’s work in NTBT.

This Old Testament metanarrative, of course, unfolds into the New Testament, which Beale summarizes as follows:
Jesus’ life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit have launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new-creational reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God’s glory (188).
The central theme of new creation isn’t replaced by this NT storyline, of course, but rather brought to fruit. The entire book is particularly interested in “trac[ing] out these major eschatological and biblical-theological notions” (188). The notion of “new creation” for the purposes of displaying God’s glory dominates the book, receiving special attention at the end in chapter 28.

Richard Gaffin, who was similarly building upon the work of Vos and Ridderbos, argued that “history has reached its eschatological realization in the death and especially the resurrection of Christ” (Resurrection and Redemption, 13). Beale is in agreement with this sentiment, and it shows in how he structures the remainder of the book. Out of the 10 parts into which the book is organized, the term “new Creation” appears in the title of 7, which are geared toward exposing God’s new creational purposes in different redemptive-historical areas. Beale doesn’t simply argue that new creation is central and then structure his work as though it were not so. Rather, for Beale the Old Testament, as well as the New, reveals the progressive outworking of God’s new creational purposes. In this schema, the death and resurrection of Christ become the inauguration of that new creational purpose, and the second coming of Christ becomes the consummation of that new creational movement. There is no downplaying the centrality of the resurrection to what Beale is arguing. Whenever the term “new creation” is used by Beale, it is nearly impossible to separate it from “resurrection,” although there may be redemptive-historical differences between them. There is not one without the other. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may already be a student of Beale’s predecessors.

If there is any misstep in the whole work, it may be in chapter 15, his chapter on the Inaugurated Latter-Day Justification. In one part of that chapter, Beale discusses the relationship of works to final justification. In the process, he makes an odd statement on page 518, where he says, speaking of Romans 2:3–10 :
It seems best to understand Paul’s statement in verse 13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” to refer to the final judgment when those who have faith in Christ and possess good works, though not perfect, will be “justified” or “vindicated” on the basis of those works (italics added).
Beale’s affirmation here that the final eschatological judgment will be “on the basis of” the believer’s good works rather than “in accordance with” the believer’s good works is difficult to reconcile with his prior affirmation of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to believers (see 471–477). When Richard Gaffin, who holds a similar view of final justification to Beale, speaks on the subject, he says what seems to be quite the opposite: “[I]n that future judgment, their good works will not be the ground or basis of their acquittal.” I will leave it to readers to make sense of how the rather odd statement in question fits into Beale’s overall perspective on justification; I am quite at a loss to discern the answer myself.

Even in light of the above-cited shortcoming, this book really is a treasure trove of biblical-theological and redemptive-historical insights. Reading this book during my first year of seminary was profoundly formative, and it increased my confidence that the Bible could be read as a whole elegant tapestry and not as a patchwork quilt. Even in light of the above-mentioned confusing statement regarding final justification, I would still recommend this work highly. The fact that this book is now available in a searchable format on Logos further increases its high value to both pastor and student. Even if one doesn’t plan to read it all the way through, it can be very helpful to use the Scripture index and see how Beale works with particular texts in their redemptive-historical context.

Being able to read the numerous Scripture references on the fly simply by hovering over them is a feature so exciting that I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I own a physical copy of this text, with highlights all over the place and writing in the margins, but the truth is that—at 1,000 pages—it’s quite cumbersome for a bus trip or even a ride across town in a backpack or briefcase. Being able to put this on my iPad with Logos, and read the Scripture references immediately within the text, all in a searchable and digital format, is well worth the repurchase price tag. If you have this book and find yourself using it already, don’t hesitate to pick it up on Logos.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Evangelicals Seeing the Fault Lines

Rachel Held Evans quit evangelicalism. For like, three days, anyway. But she's back now. Angered at the Christian response to World Vision's change/non-change of its policy on same-sex marriage, she is evidently apoplectic. "Instead of fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, I want to prepare tables in the wilderness, where everyone is welcome and where we can go on discussing (and debating!) the Bible, science, sexuality, gender, racial reconciliation, justice, church, and faith, but without labels, without wars." I've said this before, but this really just sounds like she's describing the liberal mainline churches. She wouldn't have to fight any culture wars over there, at least. They've already capitulated, so there's no war to be had. But I digress. That isn't to be my focus.

I'm intrigued by the idea of someone dropping evangelicalism. If RHE did "step away" from the evangelical table, how would that look any differently for her? The last I read, she doesn't even go to church (much like the Blue Like Jazz dude or Rob Bell or my friends who were reading Brian McLaren back when it was hip). There is no "evangelical roll call," after all, where you can remove your name. There is no President of the Evangelicals who will note your departure. It is no denomination with a written set of views that you can compare to see who does and doesn't belong. The idea of evangelicalism has really been precariously held together over the past fifty years with a bit of shoe-string and duct tape. As long as everyone who called themselves "evangelicals" believed and behaved like evangelicals were supposed to, the movement had some assumed identity.

But things have begun to visibly splinter. Some, such as RHE, desire to keep the name of 'evangelical' but allow and even celebrate unrepentant sinners (note that I say unrepentant). This has become something of a fault line for the movement. Others think that "the bible" itself is up for debate. Yet another fault line. Women's ordination... you guessed it. Fault line. Issue after issue have crept into the evangelical discussion until one day evangelicals raised their heads, looked around, and realized they were running a china shop over the San Andreas Fault line. The problem, of course, is one of definition. As Trueman tautologically put it, "If evangelicalism has no boundaries, then no boundaries [can be] transgressed."

Way back in the olden days (2011 to be exact) Carl Trueman released a prescient little book titled The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In that book he argued that evangelicalism is bound to fail as a coherent movement because it cannot agree on what the "evangel" even is. This problem will become progressively more evident as cultural pressures push in until some just can't take it anymore:
There may be a bright side to evangelicalism's decline. When the fog has lifted and it becomes clear that all talk of evangelicalism as a clearly defined movement was a category mistake...then new alliances may emerge...Once various groups are no longer competing for ownership of the evangelical brand, they might be able to assess one another in a less defensive manner...The cultural referee is about to call time out on evangelicals and evangelicalism, if not traditional religions entirely. No evangelical leader or organization can prevent it. The gay lobby, militant secularists, and atheists who deride any religious belief as distasteful will force Christians either into capitulation to their demands or a sectarianism that thrusts us to the margins. Abandoning the myth of the evangelical movement can only help us, as it will free us to be who we truly are and to speak the gospel in all of its richness as we understand it. This is what our day and generation needs. 
Carl Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, pg. 40-41.
Trueman is right. Groups who are not content to let evangelicals remain on the sidelines are forcing them to take sides on all of these issues. Some are capitulating or assimilating, following a hybrid, Borg-like ethic that (in their minds) looks like the old evangelicalism (because it embraces "love"!) but functions like moral libertinism (because it doesn't know how to tell anybody "no"!). The rest are left calling themselves evangelicals, functioning in the older ways with historical precedent, but all the while being slandered by the Borg (who claim to only want peace and no war) as unscientific, misogynistic, racist, justice-hating troglodytes. This uneasy union of evangelicals has been destined to fall because it is a boundary-less coalition without creed or confession or standards of any kind. It's been a gentleman's arrangement up to this point, you might say. RHE holds a significant voice within what one might call emergent evangelicalism. The fact that she spent three days wanting to get out of town over the evidently non-negotiable issue of gay marriage says something about how deep the fracture has grown.

I'm with Trueman. The sooner Christians realize that the term "evangelical" is empty, nebulous, undefined, and unhelpful, the sooner Christians can start to be honest about their views and engaging with one another in a way that allows authenticity and (almost paradoxically) less infighting.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Looking for Nutrition at the Drive-Thru

All over the Christian world, critics are rising up to discuss Darren Aronofsky’s new film Noah. Alan Kurschner says the film is straight-up blasphemy. Ken Ham complains that recommending the movie, at all, conflicts with Christian consistency in arguing against abortion. Barbara Nicolosi says that the film contains “dumb, oversimplified liberal utopia nonsense." The list of complaints goes on.

Just to show that I’m not a huge fanboy (nor a full-on hater) of the film, before proceeding further, I’ll post my response when somebody, elsewhere, wanted to know what I thought of it (especially with reference to Nicolosi’s piece linked to above):
I just saw it a couple hours ago. I loved the first 2/3 of the movie. It was a visual spectacle. We may never see the flood rendered in such artistic beauty and simultaneous horror again. There were scenes reminiscent of Gustav Dore's pictures of judgment. I also didn't mind the rock people. I look at this film as another flood story comparable to the Epoch of Gilgamesh. It isn't accurate, but it is an opportunity to think about God's wrath, about coming judgment, and about the truth that God really did wipe mankind from the face of the earth because of its evil. 
Also, the complaint that Noah is a left-wing "environmentalist" in the film ignores the fact that God placed Adam in the garden not to trash it and make it uninhabitable, but to have respect for it because he respected the creator. As Beale says in his New Testament Biblical Theology, Adam was placed in the garden to be a prophet, priest, and king. Part of his priestly duty was caring for the garden as well as the animals. The original environmentalist (properly defined, of course)! Frankly, the complaint that she makes calling it "oversimplified liberal utopia nonsense" shows that the one writing is more influenced by her own political tradition than what the Bible says about man's relationship to the creation. 
But the last 1/3 of the movie? A true mess. The decision to turn Noah into the film's antagonist was an interesting but horrible decision. Aronofsky must have seen it as an opportunity to explore Noah's motives or something, but it just came off all wrong. 
The story was already dark. Aronofsky made it unnecessarily darker. Although I sort of like the idea of a theatre full of nominally religious people looking for something "positive and encouraging" and instead being given an existential schooling. All in all, it was amazingly made, beautiful to behold, horrific in its depiction of judgment, and not such a great story by the end.
Although I’ve been interested in seeing the movie for years (ever since I heard it was being made) I am not a fanboy. I am critical of the film, but I try to criticize in a balanced way, keeping in mind that it is a movie and taking it for what it is intended to be. The criticisms I am seeing from many conservative bloggers (whom I do love and respect as my brothers and sisters in the Lord) remind me of the person who goes into McDonalds expecting a healthy, delicious, well-balanced meal containing all four food groups and then storming out in anger when they wonder why everything is greasy and there isn’t any tofu on the menu. The desire for good food is good, but they are looking for it in the wrong place!

Anybody who goes to see a movie (any movie)…a religious movie, a secular movie, a good movie, a bad movie… should not expect a heaping helping of truth. As with all art that is produced by sinners it’s going to get some stuff right and some stuff wrong (often intentionally so). Sometimes the art is self-consciously dumb like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. Sometimes it takes itself very seriously (think of Michaelangelo’s statue of David or every movie ever made by Christopher Nolan).

Furthermore, to accuse this movie of blasphemy seems a bit confused. Perhaps somebody wants to accuse Darren Aronofsky himself, personally, of blasphemy, but does he actually believe the things being depicted in the film? I doubt it. It's fiction. It doesn't say "based on a true story" in the credits. In fact, the only things that this movie and the Bible share in common are a flood and a few characters' names. I don’t think Aronofsky actually believes there were rock giants who protected Noah while he built the ark. He is a filmmaker, not a documentarian. A visual artist, not a journalist. A storyteller, not an eyewitness. And in the case of Noah, his storytelling isI would concedenot in top form. The director himself claimed that this is the "least Biblical biblical film ever made." Some have taken this as an opportunity to condemn the film, but in fact it shows that there is a self-awareness that this movie isn't trying to present the actual story, but a radical rewriting. In point of fact, this movie has more in common with Lord of the Rings than anything we find in the Bible.

While I’m at it, I want to just mention in passing that comparing a book to a movie is like comparing a painting to a statue. It’s two completely different mediumsboth art. To make a statue of the Mona Lisa might (and that's a huge "might") be interesting, but it would also be something completely different from the originalperhaps barely worthy of comparison.

I’m not interested in defending Noah as great art, or as an accurate religious statement. I don’t have to. It’s just a movie. It is not the preaching of the Word, it is not the Sacraments, and it is not prayer. These are the means that God has given his church for her edification and upbuilding. It is in these areas that Christians should demand theological integrity and where battle-lines should be drawn. If you are taking a youth group to this movie (or any movie) because you want them to be fed spiritually, you're out of your mind. (The same goes for taking them to Newsboys concerts as well, by the way.)

I’ve written previously that Christians expect too much from their music, and the same is true of movies. When you go to the Waffle House, expect waffles. When you go to the steak house, understand that they serve steak there. And when you go to a cinemaplex, whose walls are covered with posters with giant robots, wizards, and men shooting webs out of their hands, understand that this place is meant to do one thing well: entertain.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Keeping Your Head Above Water in Seminary

I won’t hold myself up as the pinnacle of time-management. I’m not perfect, and I don’t claim to be. However, I'm quite a few semesters into school and haven't lost my mind yet. I'm getting my assignments in on time and doing well in classes. I often get asked how I have time to read books beyond what we're assigned in class. I may be well-adjusted enough to give a few tips. I've had to become organized out of necessity. I'm the kind of person to get easily stressed out if I have too many things on my plate. I want to do everything well and if I know I have things undone it drives me crazy until they've been handled. My first tip, of course, is don't waste hours and hours of your time watching sports. If that's not enough, you may need to just read on and see the rest of what I say.

My first year of seminary was very stressful. This was for a variety of reasons - the same sorts of problems and concerns that occupy most seminarians that I hang out with, really. I’m not special or unique. But my prone-ness toward stress drove me to find ways to be more efficient with my time. Leon Brown has written a blog post where he highlights the importance of time management in Seminary. In light of the topic he’s brought up I thought that I would share a few of the most important practical changes (most of them tech-related) that I’ve made in my life that have been used by the Lord to maintain my sanity. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it is the big four.

When you click to read your e-mail, what do you see? Are there a couple that are waiting to be cleared out, or are there 3,000 that are there to stay? When I first came to seminary, after reading an e-mail I would just leave it in my inbox unless it was junk or spam. I didn’t sort it, and I relied on my memory when I needed to go back to something in an e-mail at a later date.

What changed my life was using an app that lets you file your e-mails you want to save, delete the ones that don’t matter or have your email sent back later. I use Mailbox for iOS. I won’t go on and on about this, but if you use an e-mail app that still leaves your inbox filled with thousands of e-mails you need another system. This program encourages you to have a zero inbox. Probably the most important thing about this program is that you can set the e-mails that you need to respond to later (but don’t have the time) to return to you at a later time when you can deal with it. It forces you to confront what is in your inbox. This means that any time there is something in your inbox, it is something that needs to be dealt with. It saves you time down the road and—more importantly—saves you from the mental energy of trying to keep track of e-mails you need to deal with in your mind.

The Seminarian’s Calendar
If you have a calendar app on your computer and aren’t using it, I don’t know how you get through the day. When I first started at RTS I didn’t do well with time management. I didn’t think very far ahead. I took the semester one week at a time and didn’t think much further ahead than that. It was a mess and resulted in a couple of final papers that had been cobbled together over the course of a couple weeks instead of being allowed to simmer throughout the semester. By the second semester, though, I’d figured out that I needed to sit down for a few hours with all of the syllabi from every class and write in the due dates for everything. Every reading, every paper, every quiz…everything. I use the default Calendar app on my Mac as well as a program called Fantastical.

One of the best things I’ve done with projects that are due at the end of the semester is to create an event at different stages along the process to confront me with reminders and set milestones. These events essentially ask me how I’m doing on assignment X or Y. You don’t want to turn in a last minute paper. Last minute papers stink. They smell like desperation and commentaries. Working on your paper at stages throughout the semester helps to prevent that.

As an example, I actually have a paper for Isaiah-Malachi that is due on April 11th. I created an event for Feb. 28th in Fantastical that says, “Have a thesis and outline written for Isaiah-Malachi paper.” I then created an event on March 21st that said, “Have rough draft written for Isaiah-Malachi paper.” These are stages in the creation of a paper that you don’t want to leave til April 7 to get started on. At this point, all I have to do for that paper is to go over the rough draft and clean it up. I’ve removed the stress from the equation by working on it in chunks through the semester. Use your calendar apps to keep you on your toes!

Also, when each week starts I go through and have every day planned out. I print out my schedule for my wife while walking through it with her. It helps her out and it gives me an opportunity to think about my week before it happens. I tell myself how to spend my day before it starts. If I followed my base impulses I’d just watch cats playing Super Mario Bros. on You Tube until it’s bedtime. Seminarians shouldn’t live like that. Every day that we spend is precious. There shouldn’t be wasted minutes. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be relaxation or times of rest. But it does mean that most of our time is already spoken for.

I don’t know if you should use Dropbox, or Google Drive, or whatever. I haven’t tested all of them. I use Dropbox and I’m happy with it. Several times a day I use Dropbox for at least something. I use it to e-mail class notes to a classmate who was sick, to check something from the class syllabus (you don’t just carry those around with you, do you?) on your iPad, to print off an assignment that’s due, or to open a PDF to study off of even if you forgot to transfer it before you left home.

Another reason to use Dropbox? Your computer could crash. How many semesters of work will you lose if your computer drops dead? Probably a lot. And that’s a lot of tears. Having a cloud backup is a nice cozy security blanket for your schoolwork. If you have a desktop computer at home that you use and a laptop that you also use, it keeps files between them synched constantly. No need to transfer files from one computer to the other. It’s a time saver. It’s a thought saver. With Dropbox you spend less time worrying about stuff and more time focusing on your projects, lessons, sermons, etc. that are keeping you busy already.

And while you’re at it, keep your Dropbox organized. Create a folder for each semester of the school year and subfolders within each of those for the classes you have that semester. Stay organized so that you have to use your brain less to remember where you kept stuff. Click on the picture above to get an idea of how I keep mine organized.

Half of time management is keeping yourself well organized. Know your week ahead of schedule. Know your semester before it begins. Know your long-term projects and create reminders to work on them throughout the semester. Do not save your papers until the week they’re due.

Be (willing to be) a B Student
I don't remember where I heard this, but somebody once told a group of seminary students, "For some of you, it would be a sin for you to not get an A. For others of you, it would be a sin if you did get an A." The point this person was making was that school is not supposed to be more important than everything else in your life. If somebody is capable of getting an A without upsetting the balance of the universe, they should aim for an A. But if getting an A means throwing your family under the bus or neglecting the church, you need to recalibrate things.

Use the extra time your efficiency is carving out to look at your kids. Talk to them. Hold them up in the air and stare at them. Kiss your wife. Be present. Be alive. Enjoy your family. Take them to church. Pray with them. Read Lord of the Rings with your kids at bedtime. Oftentimes seminary students wait until the semester is over to pay attention to their families. I don’t care if you’re taking 17 credit hours and preaching on the weekends, you probably need to come to terms with the fact that God didn’t call you to Seminary exclusively to be an A student. I’ve never heard of a church that wanted to know a man’s GPA from seminary before hiring him. God definitely called you to keep your family together and to minister to your wife. And while you’re at it, grit your teeth and let your wife go to women’s groups in the evenings when it’s possible. Watch the kids for her. Take a load off of her back. Give her one chance during the week to meet other people who aren’t little kids who want to watch Magic School Bus 24/7!

E-Mail inbox zero. Calendar apps. Dropbox. Be willing to be a B student.

That’s it. Those are the four things that have taken the chaos of my semester and given me some structure and stability. Everyone is different, and everyone’s personality requires different things to function well. For me, I can’t be thinking about a thousand things at a time. I can only be any good at one thing at a time, and that means bringing structure out of the chaos.

Know what your priorities are. Act in ways that move you towards accomplishing your priorities. Don’t play video games until the important stuff is done. Pray like you’re dependent on God (you are). Act like he holds you responsible (He does).

Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review: How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell

There are two kinds of seminarians: those of us who think they don’t need to hear what How to Stay Christian in Seminary has to say, and those who know they do. Many of us are part of that first group. We like the academic stuff, right? Give us a warm old Puritan before a modern Christian living book filled from beginning to end with stories and illustrations any day. We know how to talk about God’s grace. We know that we're sinners and can explain the ins and outs of the noetic effects of sin. Well if we know these things already, why should we read a book with a name like How to Stay Christian in Seminary? Isn't a book like this for somebody who just can't cut it? The answer is that, for the most part, as seminarians our biggest problem is not an issue of knowing.

As much benefit as seminary brings, it can also be dangerous for our souls. It’s true. If you’ve been at any seminary for any amount of time, perhaps you’ve seen temptations in your own lives unique to this particular season. We can be tempted to partition our lives into academic and spiritual compartments. We can also experience the temptation to "stuff your head with more than your heart can digest." We can even lose the vision of why we came here to seminary in the first place; the calling that brought us here to begin with. We may be tempted to neglect our families and simply bury our face in the books. "I'll see them when the semester is over," we may say. Hopefully these do not strike any of us as minor temptations.

The fact is, our professors try very hard to make these classes connect with our hearts and not only with our minds. They meet with us for prayer and to talk about spiritual challenges in our lives. Our participation in local churches encourages us to pursue intimacy with God through His Word and prayer. It also pushes us to be a part of the church and to serve her. Even with all of these positive influences, the temptations are still real, and often we need somebody who has been there before to gently prod, remind, and to warn us.

There are things which ought to penetrate the heart and practice of the average seminarian. This book is intended to help you, to identify potential problem areas, and to enable you to develop strategies and disciplines that can make seminary a time of growth instead of diminution. Yes, it’s a Christian Living book. No, it is not the hardest thing you’ve ever read. No, reading it won't necessarily give you the bragging rights you so deeply yearn for. But please understand—this book is written for you. None of us are too good to read this book.

How to Stay Christian in Seminary is currently on sale for $1.99 on the Kindle.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her

I have a confession to make. I might have been the worst arminian in the history of arminianism. Long before I knew what Calvinism was, and long before I’d ever heard of TULIP, I believed in a form of definite atonement (DA). I had reasoned that if God knew who was going to believe and who wasn’t, that Jesus must have only borne the sin of those he knew would eventually believe, otherwise hell would be populated with atoned for and forgiven people. Furthermore, I believed that Jesus’ prayer in the Garden for those who would eventually believe meant that he planned to only die for them on the cross. The difference between then and now is that I believed God’s knowledge of believers was based on a passive foreknowledge, not on any sort of decree. It was a terribly sloppy soteriology, and I had no worked-out doctrine of atonement to help me make sense of it all, but I do think this admission means I might have been the worst Wesleyan-Arminian that ever existed.

Many new Calvinists struggle deeply over the question of the atonement: was it universal, with the intention of trying to save all mankind, or was it specifically intended to redeem the elect? For me, this was a relatively inoffensive doctrine once I came around to the other four points of the beautiful flower of Calvinism. I found the idea of atoned for and forgiven people burning in hell be a far more unthinkable and offensive doctrine.

The editors of this present volume define definite atonement as follows: “in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit” (33).

In some ways its difficult to review From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (FHHCASH). The book is 700 pages, with 23 chapters written by 21 authors, each organized under one of four areas of interest. Part I is geared towards addressing historical concern in relation to DA. In Part II nearly 200 pages are devoted to addressing DA in regard to specific Scriptures. Part III is intended to deal with the systematic issues related to DA. Finally, Part IV of the book deals more closely with DA from the perspective of evangelism and pastoral care. The difficulty of reviewing stems from the variety of authors, the sheer number of chapters, and the fact that this is a blog post, not a theological journal that can run 30 pages in length and detail every argument. In the end, readers will have to forgive my brevity and resistance to summarizing every chapter.

All in all, I think that the editors plotted the map well when they considered the structure of such an ambitious book. One need only look at the Table of Contents to get the impression that the editors tried to cover definite atonement from as many relevant angles as could be done. My first impression of FHHCASH was to think of this as an introduction to definite atonement, which was a mistake. While there are certain chapters I would direct someone to if they wanted to understand the issues, the book can get quite complex towards the middle (as it should, for such an important issue). With regard to beginners, if one begins even with chapter 1, they will find that the authors assume a certain familiarity with the subject on their reader’s part. It is in that sense that I would probably recommend a neophyte begin at the end of this work; particularly the last two chapters. One of those chapters is by Sinclair Ferguson and addresses pastoral issues related to assurance and what bearing DA might or might not have on it. The other chapter is by John Piper and deals with the larger scale question of what bearing the truthfulness of DA has on the chief end of the church to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

One of the most important questions I asked myself while reading this book was whether the arguments of hypothetical universalists were being represented fairly. The authors are quite conscientious about using actual arguments from actual theologians with opposing viewpoints. Men such as Amyraut, John Davenant, John McLeod Campbell, Karl Barth, Bruce Ware, and Mark Driscoll are names that frequently come up throughout. They are quoted extensively and the authors seem to fairly engage with their viewpoints. I have read some reviews where others have said misrepresentations and caricatures are used in the more polemical sections of this book. The places where that may happen is in those sections where general perspectives (I'm thinking of a few places in Letham's chapter that stand out in my memory) are engaged with and not specific authors. I understand this temptation, but thankfully most of the polemics in this book are dealing with the actual views of actual theologians whose books are actually in print.

I already stood persuaded that definite atonement is taught in Scripture before I read this book. I am not an unbiased reviewer. That being said, I think this will probably become the book that opponents of DA will need to interact with in the future. Primarily, I think this is because From Heaven He Came and Sought Her engages with the best opponents of DA in a way that (I think) is fair, rigorous, comprehensive (in its scope), and pastoral.

Will the collective argument set forth in FHHCASH persuade those who hold to hypothetical universalism? Certainly not all of them. I know a few proponents of HU who are reading this book now, and I am quite eager to see how they interact with FHHCASH, and especially to see if they feel their best works were fairly engaged by the various authors.

If you already believe in DA, is there any reason for you to read this? I can think of a few ways that this book will function for those who have already come over to the good side of the force:

  1. You will come away from this book with a more robust understanding of Hypothetical Universalism. It’s more sophisticated than most of us give it credit for! It may surprise some of you to know that defenders of HU do more than just quote John 3:16 until their heads fall off.
You will come away from this book with a more robust understanding of Christ’s work on the cross.
  3. As you're reading this book you will probably find yourself worshipping the God who has perfectly purchased and atoned for his people. If you don’t then you’ve got some ice-cold blood running through those veins.
You will have a future resource for thinking about “problem texts” (we know they’re there!) that defenders of definite atonement need to be prepared to discuss.

I loved the book. I knew I’d love it before I read it based on other reviews, the blurbs, and the hype. There are weak(ish) chapters (Hogg and Haykin), there are truly informative chapters (Djaballah’s chapter on Amyraut—whose works are only available in French stands out, along with the chapter by Gattis on the debates at Dordt), and then there are chapters that are absolutely essential reading (Letham, Motyer and Garry Williams). Even the relatively “weak” chapters here are still important reading and helpful, but if somebody is going to browse the book and read some things and not others, I would make sure that Motyer’s chapter and Letham’s chapter receive their special attention.

As I said before, I strongly suspect this will become the go-to resource for years to come with regard to definite atonement. Believers in DA will find their appreciation of the atonement reinforced by this book. Opponents of DA will find numerous sparring partners here as well. The Gibson Brothers have done a great service to the church by editing this volume. Also, it’s officially the prettiest book that I own.

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