Dogma & Greg: a ★★★★★ book review

I was interested in reading Brian Matz’s Gregory of Nazianzus because Nazianzus is the Cappadocian father whose works I am least familiar with (though I don’t want to feign expertise on the other two). In seminary I had the opportunity to read Basil, and read  a number of Gregory of Nyssa’s. The only Gregory of Nazianzus I read was his five Theological Orations  which I read for pleasure on my own time. They were interesting—witty, theologically erudite, and well crafted. However, I am no scholar and felt like the best way for me to get a handle on Nazianzus is to find a wise guide.

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Brian Matz (PhD, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Saint Louis University) is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri associate professor of the history of Christianity. He wrote a dissertation on Gregory of Nazianzus at Saint Louis University (of which this text is partially adapted).  In this book, Matz provides a biographical sketch of Gregory (chapter one) before examining the importance of purification as a central theological motif for this Cappadocian (chapter two). Chapters three through six explore the theme of purification in four of Gregory’s orations (Oration 2, 45, 40, and 14). As part of Baker Academic’s Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, series eds.), this book has a particular eye for Nazianzus’s use of Scripture.

Matz argues convincingly that purification is the key to understanding. Chapter two of this volume,  provides a broad overview of Gregory’s preaching of purification (or spiritual healing). Matz illustrates Gregory’s terminology and his understanding of the practice and process of purification (i.e. self discipline, ascetical practices, cleansing the senses, acts of mercy, contrition, fasting, celebrating holy festivals, desire to know God, the purifying fire of difficult circumstance, baptism, the Eucharist and piety). He then describes the benefits of the purification of the soul: knowledge and contemplation of God, divinization, becoming a recipient of heaven, undermining evildoers and the devil, escape from the torments of judgement, esteem in the community, etc. Finally, Matz examines the role that pastors, the Spirit, and Christ play in leading a soul through the purification process in Gregory’s thought.

Matz’s discussion of the four orations illustrates how Gregory works out this theme pastorally (oration 2), in contemplation (oration 45), in his understanding of baptism (oration 40), and in care for the poor and vulnerable (oration 14). Most these orations are available to the general reader free online (or for a nominal fee on Kindle as part of Phillip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection). Oration 14 can be found as part of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Select Orations (Catholic University of America Press, 2004). Not having access to the latter volume, I read the other orations in Schaff (in my case, through my Bible software program).

I really enjoyed this book and thought Matz did a wonderful job of walking the reader through Gregory’s exegesis. Nazianzus was less fanciful than Nyssa in terms of allegory, but made great use of the Canon (particularly found of the Psalms and Matthew, but drawing on a good swath of the biblical material). Like his Cappadocian counterparts, Nazianzus is Christological and Christocentric in his interpretation.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for anyone interested in a short, attainable introduction to Gregory. ★★★★★

Note: I received a Net Galley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Public Theology as Pastoral Ministry: a book review

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan aim to recover a theological vision for pastoral ministry. The Pastor As Public Theologian diagnoses our contemporary anemia as “[t]oo many pastors have exchanged their vocational birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34; Heb. 12:16): management skills, strategic plans, “leadership” courses, therapeutic techniques, and so forth”(1). Pastors are recast as CEOs, therapuetic gurus, managers, life coaches, community activists, storytellers, political agitators and a host of other images borrowed from secular culture (7-9). With the bifurcation of academic theology from practical disciplines, pastors increasing are leaving theology to the academics and rooting their identity in these secular cultural images.

9780801097713So Vanhoozer and Strachan propose recovery. The publican theologian is a scholar saint deeply invested in people’s lives, sound doctrine, and biblical faith. They unfurl their proposal with a brief introduction (written by Vanhoozer), an examination of biblical and historical images for pastoral ministry (Strachan), and an exploration of the purposes and practices of pastoral theologians. Vanhoozer and Strachan point out the pastor’s role as an organic intellectual who builds up the body of Christ (22). Theology is too important to leave in an ivory tower. However, Strachan and Vanhoozer are both career theologians and not pastors. Between their chapters are short reflections by twelve other scholars: mostly pastors (with the exception of Cornelius Plantinga), all male, and generally Reformed. These little snippets provide an ‘on-the-ground’ view of how these ideas work out in real life. These are written by people like Josh Moody, Gerald Hiestand, Melvin Tinker, Todd Wilson, Jim Samra, Wesley Pastor, Kevin DeYoung, David Gibson, Bill Kyes, Guy Davies, and Jason Hood.

Strachan is professor of theology and church history at Boyce College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His contribution to this book explores biblical and historical images for pastoral theologians. In chapter one, he looks at the Old Testament and how Yahweh’s wisdom, truth and grace was mediated to the people through kings, prophets, and priests. While acknowledging differences between Old Covenant contexts and New Testament and contemporary realities, Strachan uses these images (of priest, prophet and king) to give us a biblical theology of the theological office in the pastorate. In chapter two he gives an overview of church history, highlighting the importance of theology  in the tradition for pastoral work. Early church theologians, Reformers,  Puritans and the leaders of the First Great Awakening (especially Jonathan Edwards), and Neo-Evangelicals like Harold Ockenga all prized the practical importance of good theology for ministry and mission; however,  Medieval Scholasticism divided theology and ministry (76-77) and contemporary populists placed no premium on theology for practical ministry (86-90).

Vanhoozer’s chapters present the fetures of their positive proposal. He argues that pastors are generalists who use theology to help form people in Christ’s image:

Christian theology is an attempt to know God in order to give God his due (love, obedience, glory). Jesus Christ is in the thick of it: he is both the ultimate revelation of the knowledge of God and our model of how rightly to respond to this knowledge. Pastoral-theologians, too, are in the thick of it: they represent God to the people (e.g. through teaching by word and example) and the people to God (e.g. through intercessory prayer). Changing a lightbulb is child’s play compared to teaching people to walk as children of the light (Eph. 5:8). Far from impractical, the pastoral-theologian is (or ought to be) a holy jack-of-all-existenital-trades. (104).

Vanhoozer than presents a compelling vision of the pastoral theologian’s task: expressing the gospel , with biblical, cultural and human literacy, with wisdom and love in the image of Christ. “What are theologians for? What is the distinct service of the pastor-theologian? We reply: for confessing comprehending, celebrating, communicating and conforming themselves and others to what is in Christ” (125). In chapter four, Vanhoozer walks through the peculiar tasks of pastoral ministry (i.e. evangelism, counseling, visitation, preaching, teaching, liturgy, prayer, apologetics) and show how public theology enriches and enables real ministry.

This is a well reasoned account of the importance of theology in pastoral ministry, one in which I am in deep sympathy. Studying is spiritually formative for me, so I resonate with Vanhoozer and Strachan recovery of a robust theology for ministry.  My own ideas of pastoral ministry have been shaped by my reading of Eugene Peterson. As I read this book, I thought of Peterson as the public-theologian par excellence. He certainly embodies the sort of combination of thoughtfulness, active attention and pastoral concern that Strachan and Vanhoozer describe and argue for.

Nevertheless I found this book limited in a couple of respects.First, I am on board with this vision but I have served and attended churches where good theology was not valued. What this book doesn’t do is present a way to bridge the gap from the modern therapeutic/CEO models of ministry to their public theologian proposal. More work needs to be done on how this works out practically, especially in churches and contexts that ‘don’t get it.’ Second, for a book that includes contributions from fourteen people, it is exceptionally narrow. White. Protestant. Reformed. Male.  Calvinists aren’t the only Christians who value theology and the life of the mind.  Methodists, Radical Reformation churches, and Pietists deserve their due (there is one Evangelical Free Pastor, so Pietists are marginally represented). Women and minorities would bring different perspectives and concerns. I wish that Vanhoozer and Strachan widened their net beyond their own boys’ club.

But these demurrals aside, I liked this book, agreed with it and find aspects instructive for ministry and mission. I give this four stars.

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

Christianity & Religious Diversity: a book review

There is an increasing awareness of religious diversity in the West due to globalization. Harold Netland, professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is someone with keen insights into the implications of the modern religious climate for those of us with Christian commitments. In Christianity & Religious Diversity he untangles issues facing Christians today.

Netland states that this is not an introduction to religion, but “a  selective treatment of issues related to religious diversity and Christian commitment” (xi).  He divides his exploration of the topic in two parts. In part one,  he explores the nature of religion in the modern, globalizing world. In part two, Netland discusses ‘Christian Commitments in a Pluralistic world.’ Part one describes the lay of the land, and part two is designed to help Christian religious philosophers, missionaries and apologists navigate it.

Part one begins with Netland recounting recent academic debates about the nature of religion, its definition and its relationship to culture.  He observes several important features of our contemporary religious climate: (1) a direct link between a religion, worldview or culture cannot be assumed; (2) religion and culture cannot be reduced into each other; (3) religions and cultures are fluid and change overtime; (4) People have already had multiple cultural identities, and increasingly people have multiple religious identities too (35-39). Chapter two explores the way that modernization and globalization have changed religious commitments by making choices available while simultaneously eroding our epidemiological certainty.  Chapter three examines Buddhism and the way it has adapted with modernism and globalization. Chapter four shows how Jesus Christ has been adopted by many different religious  and cultural traditions. Examples include the Hindu Renaissance (such as Mahatma Gandhi’s use of Jesus), John Hick’s pluralism and Shusaku Endo’s novels.

Chapters five through seven of part two deal with the problem of making Christian truth claims in a pluralist age. Chapter five answers the question, “Can All Religions Be True?” [Spoiler Alert: No]. Chapter six explores the notion of ‘Christianity as the One True Religion’  and chapter seven talks about the reasons for belief in a diverse age. Netland, earned his doctorate under John Hicks and he unpacks many of the the problems with Hicks pluralism. Netland’s final chapter forms a conclusion to these essays. Netland urges missionaries, apologists and evangelists to  both remain faithful disciples of Jesus and to be good neighbors, respectful in dialogue with those in other faith traditions.

Netland is brilliant at synthesizing the literature from diverse disciplines such as philosophy of religion, missiology, sociology, economics, biblical studies, and theology.  He offers a comprehensive analysis of our post-colonial, global religious landscape. Anyone interested in the effects of Globalization on religion will find this book informative.  Netland’s prose is careful and circumspect and what I appreciated most was his descriptions of religious trends. This will be most useful for apologists and students. I give it five stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review

Reading Barth with Charity: a book review

Certainly George Hunsinger is a charitable reader of Barth. You’d suspect so. He is well known as a Barth scholar and has been president of the Karl Barth Society of North America since 2003.  He knows Barth’s theology well and the subsequent literature on Barth.  However Reading Barth with Charity: a Hermeneutical Proposal takes aim at several less charitable readings. Namely, Hunsinger takes on the Neo-Barthian revisionists for misrepresenting Barth’s theology and then calling Barth ‘inconsistent.’ At issue is whether or not Barth believes, as classic theists do, that the Trinity is the antecedent to the election of Jesus Christ or subsequent to it. The revisionists say that the category of Christ’s election is of preeminent importance in Barth  and therefore gives shape to the economic Trinity. So Hunsinger takes on the major revisionists: Bruce McCormack, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Daffyd Jones.

In his introduction, Hunsinger summarizes what he means by reading with charity. What he is arguing for is a reading which seeks to understand Barth’s point of view, starts with the assumption of truth and internal coherence, seeks to resolve and seeks to resolve apparent contradictions (xii). Hunsinger identifies the following critera to assess the revisionist position:

  • Does it seek to understand Barth’s theology in its strongest form before subjecting it to fundamental criticism?
  • Has it truly sought to understand Barth before picking out supposed difficulties and contradictions?
  • If apparent contradictions are discerned (as they are), has an active attemt been made to resolve them in Barth’s favor?
  • If no such attempt has been made (as it has not), does not a certain presumption exist against this interpretation?
  • Finally, do the revisionists honor the principle of humanity, or do they seem to adopt an attitude of condescension toward the writer whose views they are considering?
  • In short, are the revisionists entitled to their key claim that Barth’s view on election and the Trinity, when taken as a whole, are “inconsistent”? (xiii-xiv).

One major  point that Hunsinger demonstrates is that the textual Barth (what Barth actually wrote) contradicts the revisionist claims about the Trinity and election. Hunsinger documents repeated statements from Barth as early as 1932 and as late as 1968, when Barth died, evidence that in Barth ‘election presupposes the Trinity, rather than constitute it (52).  The claims that the revisionists make of Barth’s inconsistency, seem to be (at least in how Hunsinger presents it) ways of dismissing the claims of this actual, textual Barth.

Hunsinger  identifies several points of agreement with the revisionists. He reads them charitably, though he vehemently disagrees with their reading of Barth and identifies points of sloppy reasoning. He praises them where he thinks they read well and sensitively (especially Jones, who advocates a soft revisionist position). Hunsinger also demonstrates Barth’s metaphysical eclecticism. Barth held, at least in some form, an Anselmian ‘Perfect-Being’ theology. However he also draws on the actualistic Hegelian model. He affirms a classical Chalcedonian account of the Incarnation, but not in  way that made the incarnation ‘static and immobile.’ There was an ongoing process of incarnation (162-63)

This is a book of analytical theology and the ordinary reader may wonder why it matters at which point in eternity God elected Jesus Christ as the savior of humanity. I think Hunsinger frames well what is at stake. If the election of the Son dictated the make up of the Trinity than the constitution of the Godhead is subsequent to the plan for human redemption. If the Trinity is presumed first than the Godhead acts in freedom to redeem humanity. This seems to be a more consistently Barthian claim and have a better rational basis. The Son exists in eternity as the logos asarkos before he is the incarnate one (logos ensarkos).

I give this book five stars because I think that it is a important scholarly book for clarifying Barth’s theology. No doubt the revisionists named by Hunsinger will make a response which will further the debate and clarify it further. If you are not aware of at least the broad contours of the debate you will find this book difficult despite its brevity (about a 180 pages). So I recommend this only for the serious student of Barth.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Accept no Substitute? a book review.

In recent years the idea of substitutionary atonement is often attacked. Substitution is the hallmark of classic Protestant thinking about the way Christ’s cross saves us from our sins; however many are questioning whether the language of substitution does adequate justice to Christ’s cross and biblical theology.  In Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul, Simon Gathercole surveys the contemporary discussion on substitution and its merits, the strongest exegetical challenges to the doctrine, and examines two key texts from the Pauline literature that explore the nature of substitution in Paul’s thought (1 Corinthians 15:3 and Romans 5:6-8). Gathercole is not attempting to eradicate the insights of substitution’s critics. He merely seeks to demonstrate that the language of identifying, representation and apocalyptic views of Christ’s atonement do not do full justice to the totality of the atonement or Paul’s theology of the cross. Gathercole is bringing the notion of substitution back to the table so we can see a richer picture of Chris’t work.

This book originated as an SBL paper in 2006 which underwent revision as Gathercole presented the material as a  academic lecture series  at three different institutions (Concorida, Biola and Acadia). Published here as part of the Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology series (ed by Craig Evans and Lee Martin McDonald), it still maintains the accessibility necessary for a public lecture format (10). Gathercole, here, is as brief as he is suggestive of the ways substitution rounds out our contemporary understanding of the atonement.

After an introduction, Gathercole’s argument unfolds in three chapters, a brief excursus and a conclusion.  In his introduction, Gathercole describes the importance of substitution for both Christian doctrine and pastoral care (14). He defines substitutionary atonement as ‘Christ’s death in our place, instead of us’ (15). While substitution is associated with penal models, Gathercole untangles this, claiming, “Substitution is logically distinguishable from related concepts such as penalty, representation, expiation and propitiation” (18). He t sharpens the idea of substitution by profiling the distinctions between substitution and penalty (18-20), representation (20), propitiation (21-2) and satisfaction (22-3). This helps set limits on what Gathercole’s claims in this essay. It is conceptually possible to speak of punishment, representation, divine appeasement and satisfaction apart from the idea of substitution. Substitution does not necessarily entail all (or any) of these other ideas. Gathercole closes his introduction with a survey of various contemporary criticisms of subsititutionary atonement (i.e. that it is a legal fiction, an immoral doctrine, its rejection on philosophical and logical grounds).

In chapter one, Gathercole turns to what he feels are three strongest antisubstitutionary exegetical cases for the atonement. He profiles the Tübingen understanding of representative ‘place-taking,’  Morna Hooker’s Interchange, and apocalyptic deliverance. The Tübingen school (building on the work of Gese and Hofius) describes Christ’s death through the lens of the Day of Atonement rituals (Lev. 4-5, 16). In the sacrifice of the bull and the goat, the priest and the people were invited to identify in the sacrifice through the laying on of hands. In a similar way we are set free by identifying with Christ in his sacrifice (36-7). Hooker’s interchange emphasizes our union to and participation with Christ in his death (41). The apocalyptic view focuses on how Christ’s death sets us free from the powers (46). Gathercole praises each of these approaches for the way they handle some biblical texts and describe aspects of the atonement; however, he also observes where each fails to do justice to everything that Paul says on the atonement. One area that he critiques  all of these approaches is in their failure to grapple with how Christ saves from our ‘sins’ (individual infractions) and not just our ‘Sin’ (our condition).

Chapter two and three provide the exegetical case for where Gathercole sees the language of substitution in Paul. Chapter two focuses on 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our Sins according to the Scriptures.” Chapter three explores the vicarious death of Christ as described in Romans 5:6-8, “For although we were weak, yet at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Between these chapters is a brief excursus on why if Jesus died in our stead, we still die. Gathercole argues convincingly that 1 Cor 15:3 builds on the notion of substitution with Isaiah 53 in the background whereas Romans 5 describes vicarious atonement with Roman and Greek parallels in the background.

Gathercole isn’t out to debunk contemporary discussions of how we participate in Christ’s death and his atoning sacrifice. He has no bone to pick with idenitfication, representation or Christus Victor undderstandings of the atonement. What this essay highlights is the way these, in various ways, fail to describe all that happens in the atonement (and even all that Paul has to say about it). Nor is Gathercole foisting on us an either/or understanding where we ought to see the atonement as substitutionary only. Rather he helps us see a fuller picture of the atonement where in a very real way, Christ died so we don’t have to. This book helps illustrate the richness of God’s work in Christ. Personally I found it helpful because while I appreciate some of the developments in atonement theology, I’ve found the blanket criticisms of all things substitutionary puzzling. Another insight I gained from the way Gathercole profiles the alternative views, is he shows how a totalizing vision of the atonement determined what a passage is allowed to say. When our conceptual framework is too rigid we fail to see the full richness of what is described in Paul’s theology (or other writers). Gathercole has a fuller atonement theology because he allows for the diversity in the meaning of Paul’s material. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

The Strange and Difficult Testament: a book review

The Old Testament is Scripture, but not easy reading. It is full of disturbing passages, strange laws and unsavory characters. Anyone who would dare take up and read will be faced with questions, interpretive challenges and hard texts. Matthew Richard Schlimm has written an entertaining and informative book exploring the difficult questions and  how to read the Old Testament well. This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities is basically a undergrad level exploration of the First Testament. It was as fun to read as David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, though far more comprehensive. Schlimm doesn’t cover the wisdom literature or prophets much, but he does a good job of exploring law, narrative and various themes that run through the Hebrew Bible. His purpose is not to make the Old Testament simple for us to digest, but to help us grapple with it in a more substantial way.

Schlimm’s twelve chapters take us through various issues that relate to the Old Testament. Chapter one discusses the uneasy history Christians have had with the Old Testament. Chapters two and three explores the creation account. Chapter four describes the ‘R-rated’ stories of the Old Testament’–the messy reality that the scriptures inhabit where even the saints behave badly. Here Schlimm describes how stories work on us as readers. For example, many failed attempts at reading through the Bible have been wrecked on the shoals of the book of Numbers. Schlimm is worth quoting at length:

As we read Numbers, we shouldn’t expect to feel uplifted. We shouldn’t look for inspiration. Instead, we should expect to feel like the Israelites did out in that desert wasteland. Ironically, you’re reading Numbers well if you’re sick of the characters and want to stop reading. You are reading well because in that moment you begin to understand in new ways what things were like for the Israelites and for God.

Through the trials of reading Numbers, we can emerge as better people. Someone might rattle off a cliche like “Count your blessings.” Or we might admit, when we stop and think about it, that complaining is not a great way to go through life. However, many of us need something more to put our grumbling aside.

When we read Numbers, something interesting happens. We are exposed to constant complaining. We are forced to suffer alongside Moses and the people. We grow sick and tired of their bitterness. And hopefully, complaints in our own mouths begin to taste like ash. (56)

Chapter five explores the violence in Old Testament texts, such as the imprecatory psalms and Joshua and Deuteronomy. Schlimm addresses several faulty premises that Christians bring to interpreting these texts: (1) that we should imitate Bible characters’ actions, (2) that we should imitate God, (3) that we should apply every text to our individual life, (4) that we should read individual passages in isolation from one another, and (5) that we should have an answer for every question raised by disturbing texts. Against these, Schlimm invites us to a way of interpreting passages that is humble, communal and dialogical.

Chapter six tackles gender and the role of women. Schlimm admits that the Old Testament is androcentric and sometimes misogynist; however he refuses to give up the sacredness gender or the sacredness of the Bible. He reads egalitarian texts like Genesis 1:26-27 in tension  with texts like Leviticus 27:1-8 where women are valued as less than men. Far from ignoring these texts, he grapples with the contradiction and asks God why a text like Lev 27:1-8 is in Bible. Schlimm goes on to explores the nature of Biblical law (chapters seven and eight), the multifaceted nature of truth (chapter nine), sadness and anger of God expressed in the Old Testament (chapter ten), God’s wrath (chapter eleven) and the authority of the Hebrew Bible (chapter twelve).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Schlimm imparts his love for the Old Testament. His prose is winsome. He doesn’t provide i easy answers on how to sort through genres, horrifying tales and difficulties. Instead he invites us to a conversation with the Old Testament where we name the exclusion of Ezra, place it conversation with the inclusion of Ruth (and the apostle Paul). Schlimm isn’t bothered by contradictions and the sometimes disparate witness of the Old Testament. For him it is bringing these texts into deep conversation and wrestling with them that we begin to see the truth about God and ourselves. Rather than avoiding strange and difficult texts, Schlimm posits that the texts that are most difficult for us, may be the texts that we most need to hear.

If you find the Old Testament difficult and are not always sure what to do with certain passages, this will be a good book for you. Of course by focusing on oddities and interpretive difficulties, Schlimm doesn’t spend as much space exploring covenant, mercy, and justice as he may otherwise. This would be a lopsided introduction to the Old Testament if read as a stand alone treatment, but for those who have read and struggle, this is pretty great. I give it four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review