Man the decks matey it’s time to talk about the Canon: A book review

 

Canon Revisited cover How did the New Testament Canon come to be and why should we regard it as authoritative? My own denomination has historically affirmed scripture as’ the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct,’  but is this position defensible?  Where does biblical authority rest if the canon was decided upon by the church.

Michael Kruger, professor of New Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary, has written a lucid and helpful examination of issues surrounding the formation of the canon and argues convincingly for a self authenticating model of the New Testament canon.  Kruger is remarkably gregarious in his approach, often affirming the good in the models he opposes while trying to establish a model of canon which is both faithful to scripture and tradition and  can stand up to critical scrutiny.  If you read one book about canon formation this year, this book should be it.

The book is organized into two parts. In part one, Kruger presents and evaluates various approaches to Canon formation. In chapter one he critiques ‘community determined models’ which argue that the basis of a book’s canonicity is solely determined by the book’s recipients (the church or faith community).  Of course there are a wide range of community determined approaches: historical-critical, Roman Catholic, Canonical criticism, and Existential/Neo Orthodox.  Because of the range of approaches and brevity of Kruger’s treatment, he runs the risk of oversimplifying but is generally fair and well documented in his treatment of each model (even separating out the strand of Roman Catholic teaching which seems to affirm his self-authenticating approach from the strand which places the authority of scripture as subservient to the authority of church). In Chapter 2 he critiques the historically determined models (canon within a canon, or criteria for canonicity model) which argue that the historic, apostolic origin of the books in question are the sole basis for their place in the New Testament. Over and against these approaches Kruger presents the Self-Authenticating model (chapter 3) but he draws generously on the insights from both the community and historic models.  His self authenticating model has three features:

  • Providential exposure (only the books the church has or have been exposed to can be considered for canonization
  • Attributes of Canonization (the New Testament books have a ‘divine quality,’ they are recieved corpoartely and affirmed by the church at large and they have apostolic origins).
  • The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit confirms the authority of a book and it’s place in the canon for believers.
In part 2, Kruger looks more in depth at the attributes of canon (second in the series above) in order to articulate more fully what he means by each and answer particular ‘defeaters’–scholarly arguments against each of these elements. This gives part 2 of the book a sort of apologetic feel (obviously you need to account for counter arguments in all academic discourse but Kruger places himself firmly on confessional grounds). In articulating the divine attributes of Scripture, Kruger points to the beauty and excellence, the power and efficacy and the unity and harmony of scripture. By beauty and excellence, he isn’t referring to literary style or rhetorical flare but the manner that the Bible puts forward the beauty and excellence of Christ.  The divine stamp is further evidenced in the power of scripture as a means of grace for people and providing  authority in action. God is also seen in the Divine unity of scripture,  doctrinally, in articulating  the whole redemptive story, and structually. This doesn’t mean that each book does not have their own peculiar emphasis and distinctives but that together they present a full picture of who God is and what he is doing in our world.
In articulating the apostolic authorship and the reception of the canon Kruger sets up a rational for trusting the authority of the canon and is able to demonstrate that those who question the canon, have not removed all rational basis for believing in it.
On the whole, this is a carefully reasoned and accessible presentation of issues surrounding the Canon. I think Kruger does a very good job of articulating his case and I am in substantial agreement with him.  In an era where the authority and truthfulness of the New Testament is often questioned, a book like this provides a powerful apologetic. I highly recommend this book, particularly for students and ministers who are faced with questions and are looking for solid answers for why we trust our Bible and not every other unearthed gospel.
Thank you to Crossway books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Unashamedly Bearable: a Book Review.

R. T. Kendall, former senior minister of Westminster Chapel is a Charismatic-friendly old school Evangelical from Kentucky. On all counts he’s felt the public stigma for being who he is, living out his faith, and holding the convictions he has. Being a Christian does not win favor in business, in academia or in the wider-culture (but it could get you elected). Kendall wrote this book to get Christians to embrace the stigma that comes from living lives faithful to the Gospel. To this end, I commend much of what he says here.

I think most people reading this would find points of disagreement with Kendall. I name two. I think his summary of the gospel is reduces the truth, and I think he is too instrumental in his discussion of suffering for the sake the of gospel.

Kendall defines gospel as “the good news that Jesus died and that His death turned God’s wrath away from our sins and satisfied His justice. (43).” Beyond overemphasizing penal elements of the atonement, this summary of gospel reduces it to Christ’s death with no mention of his incarnation, his fulfillment of Israel’s story, his resurrection, the political implications that Jesus was King and Caesar is not, etc. While I certainly agree with Kendall that Christ died to affect our salvation (and personally trust in that fact), reducing the gospel to questions of eternal destination obscures the implications of the gospel for our earthly life. The good news is that Jesus is King and has a kingdom and this calls into question all other powers, principalities and dominions. By embracing a richer and fuller view of the gospel, the stigma of following Christ actually increases. People are not as upset by my assurance of salvation as they are by my contention that America is not, nor ever was, a Christian nation (Canadian readers substitute province for nation and Alberta for America).

Concerning Kendall’s instrumental view of suffering, Kendall says, “The greater the suffering the greater the anointing; the greater the anointing, the greater the suffering. By this I simply mean the promise of a greater anointing is on offer when you suffer for the shame of Jesus’ Name (78).” In the Bible anointing indicates a setting a part for special office, such as priest or King; in charismatic circles anointing is short-hand for some combination of spiritual power, authority, blessing or giftedness. While I think it is certainly true that God blesses those who willingly suffer to remain faithful to him, I am wary of pointing to suffering for the gospel as a means of gaining ‘anointing.’ Certainly I like the way Kendall exhorts us to suffer for Christ and not chase the comfort of the prosperity gospel, but I am skeptical of suffering to get God’s blessing.

But perhaps Kendall mediates against the wrong appropriation of his message, by insisting that we should suffer ‘for the gospel’ and not for our idiosyncrasies. At one point he says:

If I offend anybody I pray it will only be because of the sheer word of God in an atmosphere of love–the Gospel, the person and work of Jesus Christ and all that encourages us to true godliness. I do not like to offend at all, but if I do cause offense I do not want it to be because of my weird personality, my eccentric habits, my foolish points of view that have nothing to do with sound theology, my unguarded comments in the pulpit, my political opinions, the color of my shirt, my insensitive comments to you about your lifestyle or my being nosy regarding your personal life. (99)

He exhorts us to let the Gospel and our convictions regarding the Word of God offend and not our own abrasiveness.

I appreciate Kendall’s pastoral and practical insights and appreciate the thoughtfulness he brings to his writing (sometimes missing among fellow charismatics). I have friends that would enjoy and find this book challenging and helpful, and other friends who would find this book quaint and reductionist. I think it’s a little of both.

Thank you to Chosen books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

The ECC, Spener, the Bible and Me.

Since moving back to the states after both getting Masters of Divinity degrees from Regent College, my wife and I have attached ourselves to an Evangelical Covenant Church. We have begun to really love the Covenant for its stances on justice, the ordination of women, its sacramental theology and the value it puts on scripture. In many ways we feel like we have found a theological home with the Covenant and we are not kicking against the goads.

Recently my wife has taken a job at our church, and though I have yet to find a ministry job anywhere, I sense that God has led us here and I am in the right spot. Late January I took a couple of classes in Chicago (hence the blog hiatus) and am still really happy with this church.

One of the things about the ECC, is they really own their Pietist heritage. The denomination grew out of a Swedish Pietist revival movement and it is pretty central to who they are as a denomination and how they understand themselves. I know that in some theological circles, Pietism is looked down upon for its navel-gazing interiority and legalism. It is true that Pietism has at times devolves into an unhealthy mysticism and legalism but at its core there was a spiritual vitality which manifested itself in graciousness and social justice. The early Pietists met in coventicles (small groups) to study the Bible; these groups themselves were not culturally monolithic but broke with social conventions and broke down socio-economic and gender barriers. Likewise many of the early Pietists were social activists and not mere mystics. This is a great heritage.

SPener Phillip Jacob Spener is credited as the founder of Pietism (though he drew on earlier spiritual writings). His Pia Desideria is the classical work of the early movement. As I have read some of the writings of the early Pietists I came across an essay by Spener titled The Necessary and Useful Reading of Holy Scripture. I went to seminary and know how to read my Bible well employing various exegetical tools (translation, word studies, discourse analysis, historical and cultural background studies, etc.), I can synthesize insights from various hermeneutics perspectives (patristic, higher criticism, feminism, post colonial, literary, structuralist, poststructuralism, etc.) but Spener doesn’t address the tools as much as he the disposition of the Bible reader. He argues that to read with understanding the following are necessary components(my paraphrase):

    1. To understand scripture we need heartfelt prayer. The act of reading and praying belong together.
    2. To understand scripture (and pray effectively) we need a repentant heart. An unrepentant heart doesn’t really want God’s will and so can’t understand scripture
    3. To understand scripture we need to take what we read and practice it. Sometimes we only understand scripture when we get it into our bones.
    4.To understand scripture we must read attentively. Spener is saying by this point that there are treasures in scripture for both the simple and the wise, but they will not show themselves to the person who is not really looking for them. If you aren’t looking you won’t really see.
    5. To understand scripture we need to listen for God’s general word and his immediate word. That is, what does this scripture say in its original context and to people across time and space and what does it say to me in my context. I find myself wanting to quibble with Spener’s language on this point, but I think his point holds true. The Spirit who inspired the text has a general meaning and ‘word for today’ for the one who reads it.

This disposition was not explicitly taught to me in seminary though I think in general my professors would affirm a prayerful,repentant, active, attentive, and discerning disposition. Okay they all would affirm that, though they might argue with Spener’s specific articulation of that. Certainly the tools of exegesis and various insights into the nature of the text help shape our understanding and these are important, but not instead of reading expecting to hear God speak.

One of the exciting things for me about church these days is I am part of a church which approaches scripture with this sort of reverence and expectancy. As we prayerfully attend to the Word, our own condition and faithfully seek to live out what we read there, God reveals himself to us.

The Spirit You Didn’t Know: A Book Review of Who is the Holy Spirit? A Walk with the Apostles

Who is the Holy Spirit? YongThis is my fourth review of Paraclete Press‘s series of guides on the Holy Spirit. The other books I reviewed, each of the authors seek to articulate their understanding of the Holy Spirit from their own theological tradition (Jewish, Orthodox and Protestant). While the author of Who is the Holy Spirit?, Amos Yong, is deeply formed by the Charismatic and evangelical tradition this book examines the Holy Spirit by providing a close reading of the book of Acts and supplemented by material from Luke. The effect is that Yong is able to draw out some of the social and political implications of who the Spirit is and his activity in the world.

Right now, some of you may be saying, “the Holy Spirit I know, but who is Amos Yong? Why do I need to read this book?” Amos Yong is one of the most well-known and respected Pentecostal scholars working today. He is the J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach (as a graduate of Regent College, we call this the other Regent). Because Regent University was founded by Pat Robertson some may be tempted to write it off as a ‘right-wing institution’ but Yong’s analysis has implications for people on both the right and the left (note: I actually have no idea what Yong’s politics are, I just want to make sure you don’t think you know what he’s gonna say before you read the book).

This book came to fruition when the acquisitions editor at Paraclete Press read an article by Roger Olson in Christianity Today entitled, “A Wind that Swirls Everywhere: Amos Yong Thinks He Sees the Holy Spirit Working in Other Religions Too (note: the back of the book mistakenly attributes the article to Yong, but it is an article about Yong).” In response to this idea, Amos Yong went to work on exploring the material on the Spirit in Luke and Acts for a Sunday School class at his church. Who is the Holy Spirit? is divided into 39 chapters covering all of Acts and selections from Luke, and a discussion guide for each chapter.

Acts has been fertile ground for Charismatic reflection. Personally I have read through Acts to see evidence of the Spirit, miracles, to discover how to do (be) the church and to explore missional implications. What sets Yong’s book apart is that he focuses not only on where the Spirit is invoked, but what the Spirit evokes. He doesn’t just point out the Spirit’s presence but he asks us to open our eyes to discover that the scope of the Spirit’s work is bigger, more inclusive than we sometimes imagine. Yong writes:

I now believe that the Spirit is at work not just at the level of the individual but also at the level of society and its various political and economic structures; not just the otherworldly, spiritual level but also at the this-worldly level of the material and concrete domains of our lives; not just in and through the church but also in and through wider institutional, cultural and religious realities. In other words, I now think the world of the Holy Spirit is much wider than I’d guessed, and that the work of the Spirit is to redeem and transform our world as a whole along with all of its interconnected parts, systems and structures (x).

And so, Yong sets out to answer the question of Who is the Holy Spirit? not by giving us doctrinal formula and propositional truth, but by paying careful attention to the narrative of Luke-Acts and showing us the Spirit’s work. He explores how the Spirit brings and is bringing about the full promise of the Kingdom of God, how the Spirit overcomes divisions of language, ethnicity, nationality, gender and class, and how the Spirit brings about new freedom and liberation. This isn’t a denial of the Spirit’s individual and personal work within the human soul, but he probes the narrative also for wider socio-political implications. Acts provides rich fodder for reflection as he explores how the church is born through the Spirit’s work in overcoming divisions of language and culture at Pentecost and the Spirit keeps impelling their witness outward from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Each chapter explores a text (or set of texts), discovers what it is saying, the implications of the Spirit’s work, and explores the implications for our own context.

I found this book refreshing! Too often confessional scholars examine spiritual realities in the text while critical scholarship focuses on the political aspects of the early church. It is exciting to read a Bible study which explores both of these poles. Yong’s bibliography, while only showing the references he deems ‘accessible,’ displays his willingness to tackle the issue and draw on a wide range of scholarship. As this is not a scholarly book, there are no footnotes. Most people probably like this better, but I missed them and my reading would have been enriched by knowing where he drew various aspects from and being able to chase things back. But lucky for me, this isn’t the only thing Yong has written on the topic, and I will get my chance.

Yong’s critics (even Olson) point out that his views weaken the need for evangelism by de-emphasizing Christian particularity and paving the way for pluralism and syncretism. This seems hardly fair. By rooting his reflections in the book of Acts, Yong is able to affirm both the continuities and discontinuities between other religions and the gospel. Yong says:

If the work of the Spirit brought about renewal, restoration and re-appropriation of all that was good and true in the social, cultural, and religious spheres of human life, it could also be seen from another perspective that the coming of the Spirit turned the world upside down in each of these domains of human endeavor. Continuity or discontinuity, when and how? These are questions that require ongoing discernment of the Spirit’s presence and activity(160)

This has implications for how we engage in mission. We do not dismiss other religions out of hand as utterly false; we do look for evidence of where the Spirit is at work (like Paul in the Aeropagus).

This book would be great for personal reflection, or as a curriculum for a small group Bible Study. I certainly think it would inspire a rich discussion of the Spirit’s role, presence and work in our lives and in the church. I am not sure that Yong answers, or intends to give us a firm answer to the question: Who is the Holy Spirit?. Instead through his calling to attention the widening scope of the Spirit’s work, he helps us to see that the Spirit is bigger and more wonderful than we have previously imagined.

Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition: A book review of the Giver of Life

This is the third book in Paraclete Press‘s Holy Spirit series which I have reviewed. I now feel like I can say a little bit about the series and what I have appreciated about it (you can read previous reviews here or here). If you are really only interested in the orthodox tradition, skip the next few paragraphs and my review there.

First of all, each of the authors in the series embody their particular tradition. Rachel Timoner wrote Breath of Life to present a Jewish understanding of the spirit of God and she continually references the rabbinic tradition and Jewish history to explicate her points. In presenting Protestant views of the Holy Spirit, Edmund Rubarczyk describes individual thinkers, how they challenged prevailing views (protested) and their impact on our understanding of the Spirit. I didn’t see how each of their approaches embodied the traditions they were describing and representing until I read Fr. John Oliver’s description of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox tradition. A prayer from the orthodox liturgy frames the entire structure of the book and Father Oliver’s reflections. Not only do each of these authors describe the Spirit through the lens of their tradition, but the unique spirituality of each tradition informs their approach.

Secondly, I applaud the ecumenism of each author. They write from their own spiritual tradition, and do not sacrifice their own identity. It is in offering the insights of their own traditions that each author has contributed to a deeper understanding of the Spirit for us all. Too often ecumenical dialogues and discussion of God devolve into what we can all minimally affirm and doesn’t value the unique contributions. It is so refreshing to read a series on the Holy Spirit where each author is true to their theological convictions but presents them in a winsome and engaging way, offering them to the wider church (or in the case of Timoner, beyond her own religious faith). When unique visions are offered, they are given here without polemics.

Third, all of these books are thoughtfully engaging but accessible to the general reader. This is sometimes a hard balance, but each of the author manages to convey something of substance without getting mired in academic discussions and over complicating the matter. Nor do they retreat to shallow waters. I commend the whole series to you, on to the review:

The Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Tradition

Father John Oliver is priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, TN and is a graduate and (former?) faculty at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary as instructor of Old and New Testament and American Religious History. My first exposure to him was through the Hearts and Minds podcast. John Oliver Here he explores what the Orthodox church’s understanding of Spirit, exemplified by quotations and stories from the Christian East. But more than that, this book is an exercise in prayer. Maximus the Confessor (580-662 C.E.) somewhere said, “Theology is prayer and prayer is theology-Theology without prayer is demonic.” Thus it is fitting that reflection on the Spirit in the Orthodox tradition is given within the context of prayer. Each chapter begins with this epigram:

O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity,and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.

This ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit, often uttered for Morning and Evening prayer, frames the reflections in this book with each chapter reflecting on a phrase from the prayer. Here is the table of contents which shows how Oliver breaks the prayer up:

1. O Heavenly King
2. The Comforter
3. The Spirit of Truth
4. Who Art Everywhere Present and Fillest All Things
5. Treasury of Good Things
6. Giver of Life
7. Come Abide in Us
8. Cleanse Us From Every Impurity and Save Our Souls
9 O Gracious Lord

By probing this prayer, Oliver is able to both probe Orthodox reflection on the Spirit and the grandeur of all the Spirit is and does. In these pages the Spirit emerges as creator and king, God’s comforting presence, the Spirit of Truth who exists in unity with the Father and Son, as both transcendent and immanent, as giver of gifts and God’s abiding gift, the one who brings life, as the one who cleanses our sins and brings us to perfection in God, the gracious God who leads us from our depths to new heights. Along the way, Oliver quotes some of the great saints of the eastern church, quotations and stories and shares how the sacraments nourish life in the Spirit for the faithful.

There is a lot to chew on. I personally love patristics and was pleased to read many quotations from the early church (Cappadocians and desert Christians are well represented). I am not Orthodox, at least with a capital ‘O,’ but loved the prayerful framework and the Spirt in which Oliver offered this to the wider church. There is little I would disagree with in the book, even if my own emphasis would be somewhat different. Oliver stays clear of theologically contentious matters (i.e. he discusses the Nicene Creed but doesn’t pick a fight with the West for changing it) but gives us something that is both true to his theological tradition and instructive for us all. Thus far, this is my favorite book in the series!

Next week I will review the final book (to date) in Paraclete’s Holy Spirit series: Amos Yong’s Who is the Holy Spirit? I am very excited about this because Amos Yong is one of the most well respected Pentecostal scholars and I am sure that his exploration of the Spirit will widen our vision for who the Spirit is and all he does for us!

[Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me with a review copy of Giver of Life and the other books in this series in exchange for my review. I was not instructed to write a positive review but an honest one, which I have done here.]

The Holy Spirit in the Protestant Tradition: Book Review of The Spirit Unfettered

After reviewing Breath of Life: God as Spirit in Judaism, Paraclete Press graciously allowed me to review other books in their Holy Spirit series (You can read my original review of Breath of Life here). For my second review from the series, I read a book reflecting on protestant views of the Holy Spirit. As a Protestant, this is where I live, so some of it was familiar terrain. Yet I appreciated Edmund Rybarcyzk’s guidance in exploring the history of Protestant thought on the Spirit.

http://ep.yimg.com/ca/I/yhst-38174537758215_2191_74440273Rybarczyk

Rybarczyk, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, Associate Professor of historic and Systematic Theology at Vanguard University and former managing editor of Pneuma: The Society for Pentecostal Studies, presents here a broad overview of protestant understanding of the Holy Spirit by profiling different protestant theologians. With the exception of chapter two (which focuses on the 16th Century Anabaptists), each of the chapters profiles different protestant theologians and examines their contribution to our understanding of the Holy Spirit. The chapters are as follows:

1. Martin Luther
2. The Sixteenth Century Anabaptists
3. John Wesley
4. Friedrich Schleiermacher
5. Abraham Kuyper
6. Karl Barth
7. J. Rodman Williams
8. Jurgen Moltmann
9. Wolfhart Pannenberg
10. Clark Pinnock
11. Michael Welker

This list, though not exhaustive or comprehensive does hit many key theologians who reflected on the reality of the Spirit. Personally my list would have also included Calvin (whose understanding of the sacraments was that the Spirit mediated the presence of Christ in the ecclesia), Pietists and some Anglican theologians, and Miroslav Volf, but as a whole, Rybarczyk’s group has a nice balance between Lutherans, Reformed and free church theologians and so provides a nice balance overall.

Rybarczyk’s outline traces the history of Protestant pneumatology. In the first half of the book (Luther to Barth) traces the story from Luther’s musing on the nature of salvation, protestant accounting for subjective ‘spiritual’ experience, and reflection on God’s personhood and sovereignity. The second half of the book shows how in the late 20th Century, Pneumatology explored different avenues and directions.

The Story Rybarczyk tells begins with Luther’s musings on the nature of salvation and sanctification and the Spirit’s role. The Anabaptists, Wesley and Schleiermacher each, though in significantly different ways, talked about how the Spirit mediated the felt, subjective experience of the faith (i.e. Spirit guiding believers, sanctifying us, and ‘God-consciousness). Kuyper responded to this subjectivity by emphasizing the cosmic scope of the Spirit’s work in transforming culture for the common good. He also emphasized the historicity and objective elements of the Christian faith and argued that the Spirit made these ‘subjectively alive.’ Barth in turn, also reacted against the subjectivity of Schleiermacher by approaching theology from above, focusing on God and Trinity and God’s sovereignty in salvation. According to Barth, believers share in God’s story by being baptized by the Spirit into Jesus’s identity and story, His community and his mission.

In the late 20th Century saw the maturation of pentecostal and Charismatic scholarship as exemplified by the Reformed Charismatic theologian J. Rodman Williams who explored the experiential dimension of life in the Spirit. Moltmann further probes the cosmic and contextual understandings of the Spirit’s work in this world. Pannenberg’s approach upholds the Spirit’s creative work his approach is more rationalistic and far less subjective than any of the other theologians in this study and he cautions an over emphasis on the Spirit to the exclusion of Jesus (both are central). Pinnock’s approach blurs categories and draws an expansive vision of the Spirit’s work in creation and redemption. Welker doesn’t restrict his reflection on the Spirit to Biblical revelation (as would Barth) or theological literature, but seeks to discern the Spirit’s presence with science and philosophy. Moltmann, Pannenberg, Pinnock and Welker are all ecumenical and expansive in their exploration of the Spirit.

This book provides quite a survey of protestant visions of the Spirit! I found it helpful, even though the size of the book and accessibility of its prose, dictated that the exploration of each thinker was much more general than it was in-depth. At times I found Rybarczyk’s theological eye oversimplified historical matters (as in the case with his brief chapter on the wildly divergent 16th century Anabaptists). But in the main, he was fair and judicious in his analysis of each thinker’s theology of the Spirit. Certainly I have flagged several of these theologians to delve into more deeply as I seek to deepen my understanding and experience of the Spirit.