Rescuing the Bible from Them Catholics?: a book review

Erwin Lutzer is the pastor of Moody Church, one of Evangelicalism’s storied congregations, and has been for some thirty-six years. He is a featured speaker on three Christian radio programs and the author of many Christian books.  In Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation, Lutzer applies his craft and skill as a Bible teacher and author to exploring the importance of the Protestant Reformation for Western History and the Church and  its ongoing lessons it  us as we seek to live faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ today.

9780801017131Lutzer  begins by describing the the moral corruption and theological issues facing the Catholic Church in the centuries leading up to the Reformation and early attempts to bring about reform (i.e. John Wycliffe and John Hus). He then devotes nine chapters to describing Luther and the rise of Lutheranism before exploring other Reformers. He apportions a chapter each  to Zwingli, the Anabaptists, Calvin and Calvinism. His final chapter poses the question, ‘Is the Reformation Over?” and explores aspects of the Reformers message that Lutzer feels are ripe for recovery.

The first thing to note about Rescuing the Gospel is that it a beautiful book Colored pictures adorn the pages. Paintings, maps and artifacts illustrate the material. On a whole, this book is aesthetically pleasing. It is also well written. Lutzer is a gifted teacher and he tells a good story. His prose is warm and engaging. He doesn’t delve into the complexities of Luther’s pyschological character, but focuses on Luther’s contribution to Reformation and the main events of the period. This is a popular level history and Lutzer does a good job of describing events and setting them in context.

Nevertheless, Rescuing the Gospel has several limitations. First it is limited by Lutzer’s source material. Lutzer, does have a smattering of sources from recent decades (notably, James Kittleson’s Luther the Reformer, 2003), but for the most part, his sources are at least thirty years old. Much of the material is drawn from Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (1950) and The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1952).These are good books, but dated. As such, Lutzer does not demonstrate any engagement with contemporary historical scholarship of the period he is describing. This is a popular lever history, so of course Lutzer doesn’t have to be the consummate scholar of the era, but I wished he demonstrated more awareness of current discussions.

Second, this book is limited in its scope. It is a book about the Reformation, but it restricts itself to the Protestant Reformation of continental, Northern Europe. This makes it really WASPy. The Roman Catholic Church had their own reformation (or Counter Reformation) which addressed which responded to some of the abuses of power, scandals and problems in the Catholic church and their own spiritual movements (i.e. Carmelites, Jesuits, etc). These are treated only incidentally or not at all. But Catholics aren’t the only ones short shrifted. The story of the Reformation in the British Isles is told in all of three pages (178-180). That’s a page and a half for Scotland and a page and a half for Anglicanism and the Puritans (sorry Baptists). This means Henry VIII’s Brexit from the European Union (of Roman Catholicism) is barely mentioned.

Third, this book is limited by its author’s  generosity with other theological perspectives. Lutzer is generous when it comes to his descriptions of Luther and the Reformers, always careful to set their foibles with in their own historical contexts. For example, Lutzer condemns Luther’s anti-Jewish remarks as despicable and ‘anti-Christian,’ but states they rested on his commitment to ‘right doctrine’ rather than a desire for ‘pure blood’ (116) and he asserts that Luther would have opposed Hitler if he lived in the days of Nazi Germany (a curious piece of what if history) (117). Also he describes Calvin’s participation in Servetus’s execution, as a minor role, and he emphasizes Calvin was a creature of his time (167-168).

However, Lutzer is not quite so generous with the Catholic Church. His chapter on Luther’s 95 theses, Luther’s initial ‘protest’ against indulgences, describes the role indulgences played in Catholicism and the role it still plays in contemporary Catholicism (24-26). So from the outset we know his purpose is showcase the continuing error of Catholicism. Lutzer’s final chapter is devoted to describes the great divide between Catholic and Evangelical theology and the way ecumenism waters down the gospel. He is critical of ecumenical statements like the Evangelical and Catholics Together document (1994) or the Lutheran-Catholic Concord (1999) compromises a robust understanding of Justification ‘by faith alone’ (188-189). He spends several pages railing against Catholic dogma and practice including things like Mariology, transubstantiation, indulgences,  veneration of the saints,  and superstitions  (192-198).  This is much more sophisticated and evenhanded in its critique than a Chick tract would be, but it does paint a grim picture of the state of Roman Catholicism today.

I am not  Roman Catholic and I did find myself nodding along with several of Lutzer’s critiques. Theology matters and we ought to be able to discuss these issues openly and honestly in dialogue with our Catholic sisters and brothers. However :Lutzer’s broad-brush of ecumenism makes it sound like the  evangelical signers and endorsers of Evangelicals and Catholics Together cared little for right doctrine and good theology. Does J.I. Packer have a watered down understanding of  Justification by Faith Alone? Does Thomas Oden? Richard Mouw? How about Os Guiness? These are scholars with passion, intelligence and good theology. These are men of fervent (evangelical) faith. They have not given way to error because in a joint-statement with Catholics they chose to emphasize our shared heritage with the Church Universal. Lutzer is passionate about right doctrine but is doggeredly determined to fight the old fundamentalist fight against other branches of the Christian faith. Catholicism is but one error that he thinks evangelicals ought to combat:

Martin Luther had to rescue the gospel from the distortions of Catholicism; in some sense, our task is more difficult than his. We must rescue the gospel from Catholicism along with a host of other movements, such as fraudulent, so-called evangelicals whose entire television (or internet) programs are dedicated to “health and wealth” theology with special “breakthroughs” promised to those who send them money. We have to rescue it from theological liberals who deny the supernatural character of the Christian faith. We have to rescue it from false religions that compete for the allegiance of men and women.(200)

I share with him his concern for truth, but his lack of generosity signals a troubling tone. I can’t really endorse this book, though I can’t say wholly disliked it either. Lutzer does highlight the Reformation’s legacy and draw attention to issues that matter. I give this two stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

A Happy Church for Grumpy Gus: a book review

Joy is an essential characteristic of the Christian life. However happy Christians are in short supply. Author and pastor Tim McConnell wrote Happy Church to call Christians to reclaim happiness as our birth right. This happiness is not dependent on ‘happenings.’ McConnell has in mind a “thicker happy than the superficial sentimentality of the moment”  (20).  The happiness he is talking about is rooted in the joy of the Lord and being glad in Christ.

9780830844562McConnell describes the radical joy available to us as the people of God. This means the joy found in Christian community, in being satisfied by the Word,  entering into worship and praise of God, having a joyful prayer life, knowing the role of laughter in the life of faith, being filled with ‘limitless hope’, participating in the mission of joy among the suffering, and anticipating the future feast that awaits us (and we taste some now!).  The theological realities that McConnell describes (i.e. our access to God in prayer and praise, our sharing in God’s life and mission, our hope amd confidence in God’s Word) are all causes for deep wells of gladness. God has given us Life abundantly and we share it with Him forever!

So this is a good book; however when I see the title ‘Happy Church,’ it makes me feel like a grumpy Gus. I have been in too many churches where in the name of Christian joy a happy face was painted on circumstances that weren’t too chipper. I say yes to joy,  but I worry about how an emphasis on happiness obscures authenticity and our willingness to enter into the pain of others; I say yes to gladness, but I also think we need to name grief and provide space for lament. I say yes to happiness and contentment if it doesn’t hide anger at injustice and a holy discontent with a world where hope is too often deferred.

Thankfully I think McConnell’s call to happiness is not a call to painted smileys and emotional dishonesty. The happiness he describes is rooted in a deep confidence in God, his word, and the hope of Christ’s coming kingdom but he never pretends pain isn’t real. In these pages he describes the experience of joy in the midst of difficult circumstances. McConnell writes:

To celebrate happiness is not to discount sadness. To take up the mission of joy is not to dismiss the reality of suffering. We need to talk about the happiness that mourns. We need to talk about the smiles and the laughter at the bedside of the dying. WE need to know the happiness we are seeking and finding in Christ doesn’t burn off like a mist when hardships come. There is a kind of happiness that mourns, but at the very same time it has the power to overcome mourning (133).

So there is no need to be a grumpy Gus. Though sorrow may last for a night, joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5)! I recommend this book for anyone that needs to remind their face that the gospel is good news all the way through and that Jesus desired that our joy would be complete (John 15:11). I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

Vegangelism Expolosion: a book review

Vegangelical: How Caring For Animals Can Shape Your Faith is a rare book. Evangelicals may be  known for their social concerns, but care for animals doesn’t usual make a blip on our radar. But this book is rare for another reason. Sarah Withrow King has written a book that is warm, accessible and challenging and theologically robust. She is an animal rights activist who has worked for PETA and is now the deputy director of the Sider Center of Eastern University and the codirector of Creature Kind. She has a masters of theological studies from Palmer Theological Seminary. In Vegangelical she weds social concern with astute theological analysis.

240_360_book-1935-coverPart one of King’s books explores the theological foundations for veganism and animal care. Rather than start with the dismal reality of how animals are treated in our culture (and trust me she gets there) she begins with an exploration of what it means to be made in the image of the Triune God (chapter 1), the biblical concept of dominion and stewardship (chapter two), and the biblical injunction to love the other (chapter three). In part two, King explores our relationship with animals in the home and wild, our use of them in research and for food and clothing.

King builds her case for animal care in our being made in the image of the Triune God. This means she explores what kind of God the Trinity is and the implications of what it means for human persons to be like this God. This involves an examination of history of sacrifice in worship of this God, as well as trajectory of the Cross. “How can God—whose nature is to be in relationship and who desires that the work of his hands be restored—insist that humans kill animals as a condition to their approach, when the act of killing is the ultimate severance of relationship between victim and killer, between killer and the killer’s self (for surely everytime we take a life we turn further inward)?” (47). She argues that the sacrificial system in the Old Testament was a visceral reminder of the broken relationship between God and Creation caused by human sinfulness. However, “Jesus’ sacrifice restored the break and bridged the deep divide that sin created, so we no longer need to feel the blood on our hands, we no longer need to break a neck, we no longer need to be the cause of fear and suffering in our approach to God” (48).

King’s look at the concept of dominion and stewardship includes what it meant for God’s people to ‘fill the land and subdue it’ in the Old Testament. While the language of dominion and subduing implies domination and control to modern ears, King advises that we view human dominion in light of both what it means to be created in God’s image and God’s intent for creation (61). When we do this, we are drawn to protect, cultivate the earth in order to ensure the flourishing of all life. King concludes her theological case for animal care bu insisting that we think of it in terms of care for the other. Quoting Volf, “God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model of how human beings should relate to the other” (72), King argues that the implications of this challenge extend to our care for the animal Kingdom as well.

The second half of this book explores the ways humans use (and abuse) our animal neighbors. This includes cruelty to pets, a billion-dollar-breeding industry which results in the commodification and objectification of animal lives, circuses, animals, hunting, animal vivisection and experimentation, and the inhumane treatment and environmental impact of using animals for our food and clothing. King shares her own story of moving towards veganism and animal activism and how she has learned to navigate these issues as a person of faith.

For the past several Lenten seasons I have done a meatless (or near meatless) Lent. I have done so while also exploring some of the issues that surround our industrial agricultural complex, the treatment of animals and consumerism. As a result our family has reduced our intake of meat, though there are ebbs and flows in our practice. I like a good burger and meat is the centerpiece of family feasts. As I read through Veganelical I am convinced that people like King who take a courageous, counter-cultural stance against the comodifaction and abuse of animals occupy the moral high ground. I know some of the issues but don’t live up to my ideals. I feel the prophetic challenge  to live more consistently by King’s book. I am not totally where she is at,  but I think she is right to raise the issue and root her concerns biblically and theologically. I am a sympathetic reader even if I read parts of this book while eating a fast food taco.  I give this four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from Book-Look Bloggers and Zondervan in exchange for my honest review.

Recovering the Priesthood of All Believers: a book review

Protestants champion the priesthood of all believers. But what does this mean? What are the implications and obligations of such a  priesthood? How is that ordinary Christian re-present Christ to one another and the world? In Representing Christ: A Vision of the Priesthood of All Believers, Uche Anizor and Hank Voss explore the meaning of the priestthood of all believers through the Bible, by engaging  Martin Luther (the historic Protestant who championed this doctrine), Trinitarian theology and discussing the practical role and function of the priesthood.

9780830851287Anizor is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot. Voss is the national church planting director for World Impact. Anizor writes the first three chapters. Chapter one forms an introduction, chapter two examines the biblical case for the priesthood of all believer, chapter three looks at historical theology, with an eye trained on Martin Luther. Voss writes the next three chapters. In chapter four he explores how Trinitarian theology gives shape to the way we live out the priesthood of all believers. Chapter five explores seven central practices of the Priesthood (drawn from Martin Luther). Chapter six forms a conclusion for this study.

Anichor and Voss bring their particular strengths to their sections. Anizor roots the concept of the ‘Royal Priesthood’ in more than just sparse references to the priesthood from 1 Peter and Revelation (1 Peter 2:4-9, Rev. 1:6;5:10). Instead he sketches a robust biblical case for the priesthood of all believers rooted in the priestly function of human image bearing (Genesis 1-2), the role of Israel’s priesthood (cf. Exodus), Christ’s priesthood foretold (i.e. Psalms, and prophetic literature)  and enacted (the gospels) and the church’s participation in the priesthood (1 Peter, Paul’s epistles, Hebrews, Revelation). His chapter on Luther shows the centrality of the concept in Luther’s works (especially in a piece called Concerning the Ministry) Anizor identifies seven priestly practices: (1) Preaching and teaching the Word, (2) Baptizing; (3) Administering the Lord’s Supper; (4) Binding and Loosing Sin; (5) Prayer; (6) Sacrifice; (7) Judging Doctrine (76). Anizor is critical of scholars who would see the ‘priesthood of all believers’ as the invention as an ‘imaginary’ or ‘mythical’ doctrine invented by the likes of Jakob Spener, the founder of Pietism (58). So he focuses his historical exploration on explicating Martin Luther, though he does identify several antecedents to Luther.

Voss’s chapters have a more practical focus. He aims to show what this priesthood looks like in how we live it out. His chapter on Trinitarian theology opens with this assertion, “The most important thing about us is the God we worship, and the God we worship will determine the kind of royal priesthood we become” (85). Voss distinguishes a Christocentric-Trinitarian priesthood of all believers from other approaches to the priesthood of all believers (i.e. Mormonism, Islam) which exhibit a different character. Our worship as priests is” directed to the Father”, “performed as service in Christ,” and “joins in the Spirit’s witness in the world” (91). Voss also identifies ways the priesthood has gone awry because of an over emphasis on one member of the Trinity to the exclusion of other Trinitarian persons (103). Monopolizing ministry to the Father might result in clericalism(103-105). An exclusive emphasis on being ‘in Christ’ may cause believers to become atomistic individualists in living out the priesthood or collectivists that deny the unique contributions of each person in the body of Christ (105-107). An over emphasis on the blessings of the Spirit may give way to egotism (08-109).  A mature priesthood will keep the persons of the Trinity in balance as they seek to worship God and mediate His presence to the world.

Chapter five revisits Luther’s seven ministry practices and shows how each is an important part of the priesthood of all believers ministry and witness (drawing on Dallas Willard’s language of vision, intention and means). Luther’s seven practices are described here as: (1) Baptism, (2) Prayer, (3) Lectio Divina, (4) Church Discipline, (5) Ministry, (6) Proclamation,  and (7) the Lord’s Supper (118). Voss demonstrates how these practices share in the Trinitarian life and explores their implication for the priesthood of all believers: baptism is our commissioning in the priesthood,  prayer and lectio divina direct us towards the Father, church discipline and ministry show us how to be in Christ in community, proclamation is our participation in the Spirit’s witness, the Eucharist is the culmination of our priestly practice, causing us to rember, forgive, give thanks, be in covenant, experience nourishment, and anticipate the fullness of the kingdom (122-44).

This is a short, meaty book on what the priesthood of believers is. My small critique is that I wish the look at the priesthood of believers did more than pay homage to Luther. Pietists, Baptists, Anabaptists,  Methodists have each contributed to our contemporary understanding of the doctrine and I would like to see their contributions explored more. Of course a book cannot do everything and showing that Luther (the protyptical Protestant) held this priesthood of believers goes along way towards their aim of recovering a robust theology and practice for today’s Protestant evangelical. I recommend this book for students, pastors and lay leaders who wish to recover a fulsome vision of what it means to be the priesthood of believers. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

 

 

dirty_dishes

Prayer: Confession I

Bringing Confession Home

My life is displayed when You drop by:

our shoes piled haphazard at the door, kids’ toys

and clothes on the floor, the paper unread but

spread across the coffee table, the shelves teem with debris,

and countertops covered with dishes—my sink overflows.

 

We are past pretense, You and I;

You know who I am, not what I pretend.

My detritus divulges an inner chaos—

a cluttered heart, a spirit stifled by stuff.

Gather these fragments and see

all I love and I long to be.

 

Create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit in me.

So when You come to my door and knock

I may welcome You in without shame.

 


 

*Dirty dish picture from Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Dirty_dishes.jpg

 

420px-durer_adoration_of_the_trinity_01

Prayer: Adoration

My mother was the organist and choir director at our church, so I grew up somewhere near the third pew. During worship, my eyes followed my father’s finger through the hymnal. We sang: Crown Him with many crowns the Lamb upon the throne and Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. I sat squirming through longwinded pastoral prayers. I stood for gospel readings, I endured the public shame of children’s sermons in the chancel. When the children were dismissed from the worship service, I went to children’s church where I sang songs, made crafts and listened to Bible stories. We learned about God, faith and prayer.

At some point I was taught to pray using the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. It was my formula for faithful discourse, and a way for checking off all the boxes so that I knew I was praying well.  Adoration meant praising God for who God is. When I felt I had sufficiently declared to God His own innate wonderfulness, then I could move onto the next item on the list. Adoration, Confession and Thanksgiving were all prerequisites to Supplication—when I finally got to bring my needs and the needs of others to God.

My childhood church taught that I ought to give glory to God and schooled me in the grammar of prayer. I doubt seriously that I was ever taught to go through the letters of ACTS, checking them off as boxes. But the order was held Sacred: Adoration was endued with significance, placed first, in emphasize that our adoration of God precedes all else in prayer.

Later, I discovered my prayers flowed in reverse. I knelt needy and thankful. I confessed. And then on some days, as I bowed my head in prayer, I caught a glimpse of God’s glory. Praise would pour out of me. Adoration for God was no longer something I conjured up to make sure I was performing rightly my religious duty. It was wonder—awe at God’s presence–calling my heart to worship. My own existential need would bring me to prayer, when I pressed upstream, Adoration is where my prayers led.


Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God records a similar movement in the Christian life.  He identifies four degrees to our love for God: loving God selfishly; loving God mindful and thankful of His care for us, loving God for his own sake, and finally loving ourselves solely in God alone (chapters VIII through X, XV).  Human love begins naturally self-referential and self-centered. We love the benefits the Other brings to us. Like babies crying for mother’s milk, we love others because they do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We approach God the same way, loving what we can get from God.

Then our heart enlarges. First we see our own persistent indebtedness, we love and trust God as our light and salvation (Ps. 27:1), and we are filled with joy because “the Lord has done great things for us” (Ps. 126:3) Then we start love God, not for his benefits but simply for who God is in Himself. I think it is significant that Bernard treats the second and third degrees of love together. The line between thankfulness and pure adoration is permeable. In our final phase, our love of self is transformed: we care for ourselves solely in God. Bernard notes our journey from needy supplicant, confessing and thankful to one adoring. Adoration may precede all true prayer, but this is not where we begin. In God, it is where we end.


I was twenty-three when I visited the People’s Republic of China.  It was my first trip out of North America. With typical nationalistic and ethnocentric blinders on, I regarded my hosts with suspicion, especially in the realm of spirituality. The official religion of the PRC is atheism. Temples and shrines still bear the scars of the Cultural revolution: broken statues, battered structures and bullet holes in the sculpted reliefs. I have heard of a growing and vibrant Christian presence in China, but at least on the face of things, the culture appeared thoroughly secular.

This bothered me.  Never before had I been jealous for the worship of God, but at every museum and historic site I was told the tale of the human triumph of Communism against the shallow religiosity of tradition. Of course there was plenty in my own culture that mitigated against the true worship of God, but I needed an outsider perspective to begin to see it.

I was musing on this while riding a bus through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia when I heard the bleat of sheep in the distance. The words of Jesus play in my mind, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). I lifted my eyes to take in the great expanse of the rolling hills. I was given a beatific vision of our Creator. In a moment when all I could see was a culture trying to move past its gods, I was arrested by creation’s song of praise to its Creator. I was overcome, adoring, I worshipped.


Adoration is our appropriate response from us when we see God for who God is.  Prayer is where we meet God and our adoration bears witness to this encounter.  One who prays but doesn’t praise has yet to meet God. The worshipper enters the heart of true prayer.  My childhood lessons and my adult prayers are both right: Adoration precedes everything else; adoration is the culmination of our time in prayer.  Prayer was not a stream flowing one way or the other but meeting with God in a whirlwind where everything always circled back to praise.

I first learned to adore God somewhere near the third pew of my childhood church. I have grown since then and understand more what adoration means. I’ve been instructed by Scripture and the Christian tradition. I’ve met God in prayer and my heart has been drawn into praise. However, I have yet to mention my most important teachers: my children.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).  He praises a child for his humility and commends us to learn from children. In the Psalm 131 we are given a picture of what adoration looks like—a weaned child content to sit with her mother.

I am not a mother myself but I remember gathering each of my children as babies to comfort them from crying, only to be met with a look of disdain. I was the wrong one. I had no milk to offer.  I could change diapers, distract them with play and give them comfort, but I could not feed them.  There were moments when that was all that mattered.

But when my children were weaned and something different played in their eyes.  They no longer craved only mother’s milk. My daughters would look at me adoringly, smiles in their eyes.  They would come close and sit with me, just to enjoy being with me. My four-year-old son would interrupt stories, activities,  and even stern lectures just to say, “Dad. I really love you.” As I look in their eyes, enjoy their presence, and hear their wonderment in their voice., I understand more what adoration is, and what our adoration of God should look like.  

Of course this stage doesn’t last. My kids will soon see my faults and no longer be overawed by me. My eight-year-old daughter has now entered the stage where I begin to embarrass her in public (usually on purpose).  I am a poor substitute for God.  As they grow to adulthood, their wonder and sense of awe for me diminishes. Appropriately so. But I hope they grow as I am growing too, who sees God through the eyes of a child—in humility and wonder, in awe, adoring.

 


 

*painting above by  Albrecht DürerThe Adoration of the Trinity (or Landauer Altar), 1511.