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.



Mormon & Evangelical Conversation: a book review

In another recent review, I faulted the authors of a recent apologetic resource for their tone (though I signaled my substantial agreement with their claims and theological commitments). Talking Doctrine: Mormons & Evangelicals in Conversation is an altogether different approach. Edited by Richard Mouw, Reformed theologian and past president of Fuller Seminary and Mormon theologian Robert Millet, Talking Doctrine is a window into a interfaith dialogue that has been happening between Mormons and Evangelicals for the past fifteen years. Because this volume has contributors from both groups, the concerns of both Mormons and Evangelicals are articulated; yet there is something else too. Each contributor has sought to listen charitably to the other and friendship and trust has grown across the theological divide.

The book’s two parts give us an overview of their discussions and some of the sticking-points for each community. Part one examines the ‘nature of the dialogue.’ The contributors summarize their dialogue and offer autobiographical reflections about what the conversation has meant, and can mean for each their communities. In part two, the authors share the mutual understanding (yet continuing disagreement) on specific doctrinal issues.

When these Mormon and evangelical scholars first met, they regarded each other with mutual suspicion. Both groups have grown used to the other making assumptions about the veracity of  their faith experience (terms like ‘cult’ and apostasy have been bandied about). And yet as they sat down to these conversation and really tried to listen to what the other group actually believed, a surprising common ground emerged. Craig Blomberg, observes:

We have recognized that the most effective forum for mutual understanding comes when we agree that none of us in our joint gatherings will try to proselytize the other, though what two of us might decide to do in some entirely private conversation elsewhere is entirely up to us. At the same time, we have all expected that our communities would continue to proselytize each other actively, but that they need to do so with much greater awareness of each other’s beliefs, misunderstandings, stereotypes, ‘red-flag’ issues and the like (34).

There was not a single convert to Mormonism or evangelicalism in these gatherings. Each participant was (and is) immersed meaningfully in their group’s theological and religious culture. However real change happened.  The evangelicals realized their own characterization of the Mormons as believers in ‘works righteousness’  The conversation revealed a mutual commitment to the efficacy and finality of Christ’s atonement and his work on the cross. The Mormons affirmed their belief in divine grace (especially Camille Fronk Olson’s essay).  This gave the evangelical contributors pause about making declarations on the eternal salvation of their Mormon friends. At the same time, several Evangelicals recognized the Mormon critique of their lack of theological unity and a central authority.

Certainly sticking-points remain and the evangelicals (or Mormon) participants would not commend the others’ faith to seekers. What has emerged from dialogue is not bland relativism of theological commitments but mutual respect and understanding.  As J. Spencer Fluhman (one of the Mormon scholars) says:

We’ve all found it  much more difficult to dismiss a theology when it is embodied. Perhaps some of our evangelical counterparts are even less convinced that we’re real Christians. But I doubt it.  I am sure of this: I would  be perfectly comfortable  with Richard Mouw or Craig Blomberg or Dennis Okholm answering questions about Mormonism in the press or in print.  I would expect them  to be clear about positions they disagree with–heaven knows they have been clear with us–but I know my name or my faith is safe in their hands. The dialogue has been demanding and it has forced some tough questions, but for the most part I have been moved by the displays of generosity and humility on both sides (31).

Without summarizing all of the essays or content of this book, some of the stand-out essays I enjoyed are: J. Spencer Fluhman’s essay on his experience of the dialogue and Blomberg’s dream for future dialogue (both cited above), Dennis Okholm’s essay on ‘apologetics as if people mattered’ more than arguments, Gerald McDermott‘s essay on the nature of serious (rigorous), devout (where each contributor is committed to their faith) and Holy dialogue (aimed at proper understanding and encounter with God), Sarah Taylor‘s autobiographical essay about learning respect for the faith of Mormons while attending BYU as an undergrad, Camille Fronk Olson‘s exploration of the doctrine of grace in Mormonism and Robert Millet’s essays about authority and revelation.

This gets an enthusiastic five stars and I am excited to see where this conversation will go!

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

Why Wesley matters to the non-Wesleyan: a book review

John Wesley is one of the great Evangelical voices of Christian history. But when a self-consciously Reformed publishing company (Crossway Books) published a book surveying Wesley’s theology, I was somewhat suspicious.  If an Arminian press (or even a Lutheran press) published a book on John Calvin, I would have similar suspicions. Thankfully the author, Fred Sanders, is an able and sympathetic interpreter of Wesley’s theology.  Wesley’s Arminianism is not the focus of Wesley on the Christian Life.  Sanders spends little time discussing Wesley’s views on predestination, but turns his focus towards Wesley’s practical, pastoral theology. This does justice to Wesley’s theological output. Wesley was not a systematician. Instead he wrote in response to occasional issues. His Standard Sermons are where he did his best and most important theology (and these sermons were bolstered by his brother Charles hymns).

There are ten chapters, each delving into an aspect of Wesley’s legacy. Sanders begins his survey of  with a brief biography which illustrates the importance of Wesley and the influences upon his theology.  In chapter two and three, Sanders than turns attention to Wesley’s theology of New Birth and the significance of ‘heart religion.’ Wesley’s theology of new birth, shows his continuity with the wider evangelical movement.   Against the cold orthodoxy of his age, Wesley’s ‘heart religion’   demanded real affection and personal faith. Orthodoxy should never be cold, it should fill the heart with joy at all God has done on our behalf in Christ! Chapter four  examines the place of pride 1 John had in Wesley’s theology (Luther’s go to book was Galatians, Calvin Ephesians and everyone read Romans), but he does show how Wesley makes use of Paul’s theology as well (there is no canon within a Canon here).  In chapter six, Sanders discusses Wesley’s reaction to the language of ‘imputed righteousness,’ what he ultimately affirms about it and where he finds the language dangerous (Wesley feared anti-nomianism).  Chapter seven discusses Wesley’s ‘means of Grace.’  Wesley was against mysticism that denied the centrality of Christ and his work and quietism which caused people to withdraw from community. He commended regular spiritual disciplines and participation in the Eucharist as a way that the Grace of God meets and refreshes the soul.

The most controversial aspect of  Wesley’s theology is his language of ‘perfection.’ In chapter eight, Sanders describes what Wesley means (and doesn’t mean) by perfection and uncovers popular misunderstandings. He distinguishes Wesley’s theology from many of the movements which have enshrined their own understanding of this. Chapter nine discusses Wesley’s catholic spirit, his willingness to work alongside and affirm other Christians with whom he disagreed with doctrinally. However there are limits to Wesley’s ecumenism. Chapter ten describes the Trinitarian aspects of Wesley’s theology. Wesley did not extend the right hand of fellowship to Arians, Deists and Socinians.

Sanders has done a masterful job of re-introducing Wesley to those outside the Methodist/Wesleyan universe.  Wesley was once read by Reformed and Arminian alike. The young, restless and reformed just might need a shot of holiness from the English speaking world’s most famous Arminian. What Sanders does here, is make Wesley tenable to them. While Calvinists will continue to balk at Wesley’s  views on predestination and sanctification, there is much in Wesley that all Christians would and should agree on. Sanders demonstrates that much of Wesley’s piety was a recovery of Puritan spirituality. The difference is that Wesley did not dissent, but ensconced his theology within the Anglican church.

I think there are limitations to Sanders’s account. I think he assumes a largely Reformed audience and so makes an effort to build bridges between the eighteenth century arch Arminian and contemporary Calvinism. However, I think Pietism played a larger role in shaping Wesley’s theology than Sanders describes. When Sanders describes the Moravians, their chief importance seems to be their pointing Wesley to Luther. However, the pietists were the great purveyors of heart religion, and I think that this needs to be drawn a little more firm. Also, I think this book only goes part way towards recovering Wesely’s sacramental theology. I agree with Sanders’s placement of the Lord’s Supper as ‘a means of Grace.’ Yet the high sacramentalism of Wesley is sometimes forgotten by his followers (the way Calvinists seldom read what Calvin said about the table).

But with this, I am more stating the limits of this text, than I am criticising Sanders. Books, even good books, can’t say everything, and if they did no one would read them. This is a book which gave me a greater understanding of Wesley’s theology and ongoing importance. It made me want to read some Wesley for myself, and it gave me a hunger for a deeper faith and a more generous spirit. This is truly a win for a book on historical theology. I give it five stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy in exchange for my review.