I heard Reza Aslan in an interview on NPR a few weeks ago describing to a fawning* interviewer his book Zealot, a brand new title which purports to describe “The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” I got the definite impression that Aslan (what a sadly ironic name!) was parroting a liberal Protestant/secularist line on Jesus that is anything but newsworthy.
So I was a bit surprised to see Christian criticism of Aslan focus on his Islamic faith and his academic credentials. I won’t call either criticism fallaciously ad hominem, because I don’t think his faith is entirely beside the point, and a few comments he made to a Fox News interviewer about his scholarship did perhaps stretch the truth a bit. But only a bit—and on the other issue, in all the materials I’ve seen on Aslan’s book, I haven’t yet read an argument of his that sounded particularly Islamic (the top-rated Amazon reviewer says the same). It all just sounds like the Jesus Seminar.
For example, this kind of statement (from Aslan) is not exactly cutting edge:
[The Scriptures] are valuable in the sense that they reveal certain truths to us, but that the facts that they reveal are not as valuable as the truths are.
Here’s another liberal Protestant/secularist line:
[Jesus was a] marginal, illiterate, uneducated Jew from the low hills of Galilee.
I’m a little late on this, but Alan Jacobs—an amazingly well-read man, and a great writer himself—weighs in with some helpful points along the same lines as the one I’m making in this post.
Bonus: This would be a good time for you to re-read a great quote I posed a while back from Ian Provan. Here’s an excerpt:
The biblical stories about Israel, on the one hand, are approached with the maximum degree of suspicion in regard to the extent in which they truly reflect what happened. There is, on the other hand, a touching degree of (sometimes quite uncritical) faith displayed when it comes to modern narratives about this same entity.
*The interviewer asked Aslan, for example, “I wonder if there is another detail that you could share with us from your research—something about Jesus, his life, his growing up—that might run counter to popular conceptions of him.”
I’m reading through Scott Oliphint’s new Covenantal Apologetics. He’s one of the few people with the stature to propose that the name “presuppositionalism” be dropped—and he may very well be successful. But his approach is clearly in the same tradition. “Covenantal” is only a way of saying that all humanity owes a debt of obedience to God by virtue of His covenantal relationship with them as their Creator and Lord. So far I’m not seeing any good reason for dispensationalists to object to the substance of that claim, but they’re probably not going to like the moniker for other (understandable) reasons.
Here are Oliphint’s ten tenets for a covenantal apologetic:
- The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.
- God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.
- It is the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.
- Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.
- All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenant obligations.
- Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see that truth for what it is.
- There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
- Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus, every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, and the like that it has taken and wrenched from their true, Christian context.
- The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
- Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God. (55)
Oliphint in the first chapter several times makes a somewhat surprising admission, that presuppositionalists have been too busy for too long talking too much about apologetics rather than doing it. I snuck ahead in his book to see how extensive the “practice” sections of his book are, and it appears he’s trying to remedy this problem.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
For many years I have felt that canon was my Achilles’ Heel as a Protestant (wannabe) theologian. I felt the sting of the charge that I am a “fideist”—someone who chooses his authority arbitrarily, with no sound evidence to back it up. And I felt that sting because it’s one thing to make the Bible your authority and another to prove to a skeptic, even a “Christian” one, that these 66 books and no others are divinely authoritative. Where does the Bible itself ever present the final list of canonical books?
Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited has shod my feet with armor; now my heel feels much safer! His work is truly a tour de force, and I don’t toss out French appellations easily. What Kruger does is simple: he takes the theological and epistemological insights of presuppositionalism, an apologetic methodology which resolutely presses back to the Bible, and applies them to the question of canon.
You can hear the presuppositionalism in some of his opening words describing his work:
This volume is not attempting somehow to “prove” the truth of the canon to the skeptic in a manner that would be persuasive to him. Our goal here is not to find some neutral common ground from which we can demonstrate to the biblical critic that these books are divinely given…. The issue that concerns us here is not about our having knowledge of the canon (or proving the truth of canon) but accounting for our knowledge of canon. (21)
Kruger is eager to let the Bible speak in its own defense:
Most prior studies of the canon have provided precious little by way of the theology of canon and have focused almost exclusively on historical questions…. The theology of canon is viewed not as an “epilogue” to be addressed only after the formal investigation of the historical evidence is complete, but instead as the paradigm through which the historical evidene is to be investigated in the first place. (24)
I won’t go into great detail, but I’ll note that Kruger helpfully describes three major Christian models for understanding canon:
- The canon as community determined—this would include the Catholic model in which the church validates and therefore stands over Scripture, but it would also include the neo-orthodox model in which people experience God’s authority individually and existentially through encounters with the Bible.
- The canon as historically determined—this would be both the liberal Protestant model and the evidentialist model. We know what the books of the Bible are because they’re the books that became the Bible, historically speaking (liberal Protestants) or because of all the objective evidence to which we can point for proving that they belong there (evidentialists).
- The canon as self-authenticating—this is the model Kruger propounds. And what a great title for this chapter: “My sheep hear my voice.” Kruger points out that the previous two models (and all those contained within those two broad categories) “share one core characteristic. They all ground the authority of the canon in something outside the canon itself.” (88) Can you hear the presuppositional argument? “What is needed, then, is a canonical model that…seeks to ground the canon in the only place it could be grounded, its own authority. After all, if the canon bears the very authority of God, to what other standard could it appeal to justify itself? Even when God swore oaths, ‘he swore by himself’ (Heb. 6:13).
But Kruger isn’t a fideist:
We shall argue that when it comes to the question of canon, the Scriptures themselves provide grounds for considering external data: the apostolicity of books, the testimony of the church, and so forth. Of course, this external evidence is not to be used as an independent and neutral ‘test’ to determine what counts as canonical; rather it should always be seen as something warranted by Scripture and interpreted by Scripture. (90)
One more quote, striking at the essence of presuppositionalism:
How do we offer an account of how we know that an ultimate authority is, in fact, the ultimate authority? If we try to validate an ultimate authority by appealing to some other authority, then we have just shown that it is not really the ultimate authority. Thus, for ultimate authorities to be ultimate authorities, they have to be the standard for their own authentication. You cannot account for them without using them. (91)
Right: if God speaks, what are you going to do, run His claims through the NPOV community at Wikipedia? Are they neutral?
Kruger spends the rest of the book exploring three scripturally justified “attributes” of canonicity which allow the Bible to speak on its own behalf: 1) its divine qualities, 2) its apostolic origins, and 3) the corporate reception of the church.
This is an excellent book, a must-read. Kruger adeptly uses the Bible, stays up with current discussions, and brings in historical theology. My copy is absolutely filled with neon highlights. Kruger has performed a very important service for the church of Jesus Christ.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Like most of us, T. David Gordon is a professional media ecologist and a former conservative Presbyterian pastor.
Okay, perhaps that combination is not so common… And that’s just why Gordon needs to be listened to. His unique background leads him to insights that are equally atypical. Few but media ecologists would think to say, “The tools we employ both reflect our priorities and values and reciprocally shape our priorities and values (10). Few but pastors concerned about careful, respectful church worship would write a book telling the church, “We make song, and song makes us (10).
T. David Gordon is disturbed that “so many people effectively cannot sing traditional hymns (11). And he thinks he has an answer: Americans are so awash in pop music and it has so “seeped into our sensibilities…that nothing that antedates it really sounds like music to us (11). Not long ago, people simply could not be awash in any kind of music. They heard sacred music at church, folk music in local or family gatherings, and (possibly) classical music in more formal concert events. The radio added pop music, but made classical music more accessible, too. Today, however, it’s almost all pop, all the time. “We think we are choosing to listen to pop music, when in fact we are not choosing, any more than a Kentucky coal miner flatters himself that he ‘chooses’ English (15). Pop music is all we know.
What sensibilities does pop music engender, exactly? If pop songs make us, what are they making? What message are they sending?
It is not apparent to everyone that pop is sending any message apart from its lyrics; contemporary worship advocates, Gordon says, insist that music is merely a matter of taste. But it’s worship of the triune God! Could you imagine someone saying, Gordon asks, “It’s just the Lord’s Supper, after all; take a chill pill”? (25). Gordon thinks that contemporary music won the “worship wars” so quickly and decisively that most people haven’t even heard arguments from the other side. That’s in part because advocates of using pop music in worship have insisted they don’t want a war: it’s not worth fighting about; it’s just a preference.
But this is itself a fruit of the sensibilities pop music brings: “Pop music, largely created by and for commercial purposes, resist[s] serious analysis…. Commerce, then, has an enormous interest in our not taking such questions seriously (26).
But the universal cultural practice of making music is not insignificant, Gordon says, and surely neither is the question of how we worship God (27). God ordained music to be an element of our worship, so “worship song is both the remarkable privilege and the solemn duty of the redeemed” (31). It is our responsibility, then, to examine this issue.
However, ”A young person reared in anything like a typical evangelical church knows only two things: nineteenth-century, sentimentalist revivalist hymns, and contemporary praise choruses; and they think the argument against the latter is an argument for the former (42). But Bill Gaither and Fanny Crosby are not the heroes of hymnody in Gordon’s mind.
This book was in need of an editor who can read a whole book and keep the flow in mind. Gordon used the same examples (the church of the 1960s didn’t use the music of The Who to attract youth) and the same words (“to ask the question is to answer it”) in multiple chapters.
I also noticed a few examples of what I would call minor linguistic fallacies. For example, Gordon argued that the adjective old appears more often in the Psalms in an approving sense than the adjective new does. This may be true, but theology isn’t accomplished by nose-counting.
I also saw little to no awareness or discussion of what sacred music should sound like in other cultures. That seems to be a significant oversight, because it would put Western culture in helpful relief—and because a book which criticizes monogenerationalism so heavily shouldn’t be monocultural! It is not self-evident to me—to borrow a phrase Gordon used multiple times—that the Western classical tradition is the one appropriate source for all of the world’s church music (that is, I think I agree with the point but I need more help knowing why!). Sometimes Gordon seemed guilty of what one of his major sources, Ken Myers, has been accused of: cultural elitism. He does show sensitivity to the need to help Christians accustomed only to pop music to move beyond their cultural horizons, but what about country folks in the deep South, for example? Do we really expect them to make church music similar to the highest and best a city church can produce? Is it okay if their music never gets rid of a certain twang?
These are relatively minor criticisms that detract nothing from the power of Gordon’s positive insights. It is self-evident to me (ahem) that the field of media ecology yields significant insights that most of the church is still unaware of. Gordon follows in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan and (especially, I’d say) Neil Postman—holding our mass-media culture up to the light and showing us things we looked at (or perhaps through) a million times and therefore never saw. The basic insight that each medium carries a message—that, as John Dyer relates in his book on Christian media ecology, technology is not neutral—is incredibly powerful. It ought to become part of the intellectual toolbox of every educated Christian.
The two Gospel Coalition reviews of the book (one is very brief) both shy away from that conclusion. Kevin DeYoung simply finds Gordon’s polemic against pop unconvincing. Todd Pruitt offers a classic feint: it’s thought-provoking, even for those who don’t agree. But even Gordon doesn’t take his argument far enough—because he fails to fully bring in an important biblical theme. At the end of his book, he says that it’s not exactly wrong to have pop music in church, just not best (169). But doesn’t the Bible warn about worldliness in multiple places? If bringing music with an embedded anti-God philosophy into the church isn’t worldly, what is? Isn’t friendship with the world enmity with God (James 4:4)? Gordon’s argument that American Christians don’t know any better, that they didn’t exactly choose pop, mitigates their responsibility. But worldliness is still a serious problem that ought to be opposed everywhere, and Gordon’s book provides help in doing just that.
Preaching weekly through Genesis over the last year or so has given me a much deeper appreciation for the literary artistry of Moses. We’re in chapter 46, and I see better than ever that the themes of seed, land, and blessing are truly ubiquitous after chapter 12. They are key to understanding the details of the book.
I’ll give you an example: Joseph says that he was brought to Egypt to save much people alive (Gen 50:20). I always got that, and that is such a precious passage to me.
But I never noticed (till a literary master of Genesis pointed it out to me) that Joseph gave a more specific reason for his sojourn in Egypt in that earliest conversation with his brothers:
God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth. (Gen 45:7)
It was the protection and preservation of Abraham’s seed that God was most interested in—or at least first interested in—when He sent Joseph to Egypt “by the hands of wicked men.” His concern for the nations was not far behind, but that concern was to come to real fruition only later in God’s timetable. Genesis 12ff. is all about Abraham’s seed, his land, and his blessing (that last one in more than one sense).
Another example: Isaac’s conflicts with his neighbors over well-digging. I explained that as an indication that God was not giving Isaac the land yet. If he didn’t have peaceful rest in the land, he didn’t have the land.
In any case, “seed, land, and blessing” are permanently burned into my memory as irreplaceable hermeneutical keys—keys right there in the text—for understanding Genesis. I dare say that my hearers are tired of hearing me repeat them, but that they’ve seen their value.
God didn’t have to use an author highly educated in Egypt to produce the Pentateuch. But I can’t help but wonder what rhetoric lesson (or maybe example?) from an Egyptian tutor stands behind some of the skill with which Moses writes.
I shared with you not long ago MacIntyre’s opening illustration in After Virtue, an illustration drawn from Canticle for Leibowitz. In it, all scientists are killed in retribution for a nuclear holocaust. Over time, people try to regain the language of science. They have the vocabulary—neutrons, atoms, relativity, gravity—but they lack the framework in which those terms make sense. This is our moral world, MacIntyre argues (and I believe he’s right).
Here’s another illustration from MacIntyre getting at the same thing, an illustration from exotic Polynesia! I’ll let Alister McGrath make some good comments first and them summarize it for us:
I would like to reflect on their importance to the modern American situation, using Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue as dialogue partners. Bellah and his coauthors, surveying individualism and commitment in modern American life, concluded that morality was in a state of chaos. There is no longer any consensus. There is no common language of morality. There is no moral Esperanto, which can be abstracted from the moral traditions of humanity. Bellah quotes Livy’s reflection on ancient Rome: “We have reached the point where we cannot tolerate either our vices or their cure.” And MacIntyre, pursuing the analogy with ancient Rome a little further, declares that “the New Dark Ages are already upon us….”
The foundations of secular ethics are in serious disarray. The notion of some universal morality, valid at all places in space and time, has lost credibility. Secular ethics has been fascinated by the notion of moral obligations, based on the Kantian notion of a sense of moral obligation. But, as MacIntyre pointed out with great force, there are alarming parallels between the western appeal to a sense of moral obligation and the eighteenth-century Polynesian idea of taboo. Captain Cook and his sailors were puzzled by the Polynesian concept, which seemed quite incomprehensible to them. MacIntrye points out that the liberal notion of moral obligation is just as arbitrary as taboo. The difference is that liberals fail to realize it.
Alister McGrath, “Doctrine and Ethics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34: 2, 1991, p.155.
There are only two basic categories: the Creator and the created. If we do not worship God, we will focus on something in creation and elevate it to the status of divinity. We will worship a false god. Our intrinsically religious nature will never allow us not to worship. Either we pledge ultimate allegiance to Yahweh, the only true God, or we commit ourselves to some created thing and make a god out of it. We must choose one or the other, for we cannot live without a god, and we cannot have two—at least not for long.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Once upon a time, a fellow Christian young man, age 20 or so, like me, invited me to go witnessing in the downtown area where I live. We ran into a young lady who was reading Neale Donald Walsch’s then-popular Conversations with God, some of the worst claptrap ever to proceed from a printing press. I won’t give specifics, but as I began to speak my partner began to feel uncomfortable with my approach. Deeper than that, he disagreed with the doctrine behind it. And he felt the necessity to say so. In front of the girl we were witnessing to. I remember the incredulity on her face: “You guys don’t even agree on this?”
It’s a little disconcerting to see how apparently equally committed and intelligent Christians tear apart each other’s justifications of the Christian faith. So a book like this one is a bit sad, in a way. I’ll put my cards on the table right here by noting that this disagreement by itself disposes me toward presuppositionalism: if even Christian apologists can’t agree on the best strategy for defending and promoting Christian truth, then something deeper must be going on than what the eyes can see. All of these Christians have access to the same divine words and the same divine world. What causes them to come to different conclusions about how to persuade non-Christians to repent and believe the gospel? Presuppositions, I’d think.
Nonetheless, Habermas, Craig, and Feinberg (particularly the first two, for what it’s worth) did impress me with their acumen, and I’m glad I have their work at my disposal should I ever need it in apologetic conversations. This, I felt, was another reason to go with Frame: his view does a better job accounting for the value of the other views. A presuppositionalist should be happy to point to data in the world and show how they in turn point to God. Evidentialists, on the other hand, seem to dismiss—at least functionally—the importance of presuppositions in human thinking.
Finally, what conservative Protestant could not stir to hear Frame say in his concluding essay that “the most fundamental point of presuppositionalism is the application of sola scriptura to apologetics”? I’m with Frame in wishing the debate would go away; I don’t like disagreeing over evangelistic methodology. But I do feel I have to defend the authority of Scripture.
This book (and I’m sorry I didn’t mention Clark: I felt like his essay meandered too much) is an unfortunate necessity. May God use all of our faltering efforts, no matter what our apologetic perspectives, to bring His sheep into the fold.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Witty randomness submitted to an overarching point. That’s N.D. Wilson, and I’ve read both of his books in the witty-but-submitted-randomness genre (the other being Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, equally good).
The point to which Wilsons’ otherwise random stories and observations are submitted is right in the title: Death by Living. And it is ultimately a Christian point, though it would be hard for me to sum it up in a sentence. I’ll still kind of try: we’re all dying even as we live, our “heartbeats cannot be hoarded,” and we ought to live in light of the realities of Creation, Fall, Redemption. But that summary is far more linear than the book, and far less effective.
One regular feature of the book, the one that ended up being my favorite, was the collection of stories from all of Wilson’s grandparents, especially his two grandfathers. Stories about his kids were my second favorite.
Little theological insights were, um, also my first favorite. So let me offer just one example of each major category of thing I liked in the book:
Witty stories with a profound point:
In those early days, when story nights came, I would gather them around the youngest brother (still in crib captivity), and I would tell them some fatherly version of a tale from history or legend. They heard all sorts of things about dragons and wars and Samson and David and Moses and prophets and ill-behaved gods and men and women who weren’t scared of them. But after a while, on one particular night when my brain felt like a pre-squeezed lime slice, I decided that I wanted my spawn to be more active than passive, more invested in the stories. And so, as they gathered around, I told them they could each pick one character (or thing) and I would weave them all into a single story. The arrangement would (I thought) stimulate growth in everyone involved. They got to participate, and I got a creative writing exercise (along with a running start). And then they discovered hyphens. It was Lucia (then four) who introduced them to our little story sessions. Much to her older brother’s chagrin, she loved butterflies. But she didn’t love them exclusively. She loved unicorns (especially if they were part butterfly) and ballerinas (especially if they could turn into unicorns and butterflies) and princesses (so long as they knew ballet and could turn into unicorns and butterflies). Ameera (three) added slightly more courageous elements (puppies that could turn into nice girl dragons or clone themselves into whole packs of puppies that could turn into nice girl dragons). What could a brother do but play the game? Rory (five) struggled to counteract all the butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princessness with more and more gruesome monsters, hoping that his father would take the hint and allow the girlier elements in the story to be devoured—something I was simply unable to do (given that I wanted my daughters sleeping happily). Things collapsed around my ears. Yeah, I achieved my goals. My kids were involved, and I got help (and a little extra work on my narrative agility). But they weren’t supposed to be feeding themselves. And when they tried, it all turned into instant home-brewed irritation. Rory introduced the giant, creeping land squid that only eats butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princesses and puppies and girl dragons and can smell them anywhere and can’t die and can magically transport itself after its prey and is always really, really hungry. Seamus (one) deeply approved of this monster and displayed his approval with loud roaring. The sisters baulked at such a creature’s presence in any narrative ever, let alone their bedtime story. And then Rory profoundly disagreed with my authorial judgment that such a creature must be (somehow) vanquished. That night, no one went to bed happy, and I knew that I was done shirking. It was time to reshoulder the burden until their instincts had been better fed (and for longer). Stories are as hard to create as they are inevitable; good ones are as elusive as they are necessary to hungry souls.
Little theological insights:
Adam is given toil and sorrow all the days of his life. The kicker here is not the toil, and not even the sorrow. All the days of his life. His life now has days—welcome to mortality and the ticking clock.
Okay, one more little theological insight:
When faced with unpleasantness (trouble) there are only two ultimate responses (with many variations). On the one hand, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” On the other, “Curse God and die.”
Okay, just one more!
Atheism is not an idea we want fleshed out. Atheism incarnate does happen in this reality narrative. But it doesn’t rant about Islam’s treatment of women as did the (often courageous) atheist Christopher Hitchens. It doesn’t thunder words like evil and mean it (as Hitch so often did) when talking about oppressive communist regimes. His costume slipped all the time—and in many of his best moments. Atheism incarnate is nihilism from follicle to toenail. It is morality merely as evolved herd survival instinct (nonbinding, of course, and as easy for us to outgrow as our feathers were). When Hitchens thundered, he stood in the boots of forefathers who knew that all thunder comes from on high.
I almost accused Wilson of having more neologisms per page than the Urban Dictionary, but that would just be me trying to be as clever as Wilson and I had better not try. Instead it’s time for evaluation: I think you’ll love it or be cloyed by the third page. If the latter, don’t go on. If the former, join the club.
Thanks to NetGalley and Thomas Nelson for an advance review copy of this book. I encourage you to pre-order it. You don’t have a lot of heartbeats to wait till then.