The Fullness of Christ in the Early Church: a book review

One of the theology profs at my grad school used to say something like, “All the new heresies are the old heresies with fresh make up and a mini skirt.” Leaving aside his troubling gendered association of apostasy, his point is a good one: there is nothing new under the sun, there are simply variations of an old theme.

9780830851270This is demonstrated in The Earliest Christologies: Five images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age James Papandrea, associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary,  explores the various views of Christ in the second and third centuries (before Constantine and councils). Some thinkers in the area were Adoptionists, denying the divinity of Jesus; Others were Docetists, denying  Christ’s humanity. The middle position was Logos Christology—affirming Jesus Christ’s full  divinity and humanity and paving the way for Nicea and Chalcedon.

Papandrea explores five images of Christ in the early church. He distinguishes two different types of adoptionists: Angel Adoptionists and Spirit Adoptionists. The Angel Adoptionists held that the human Jesus was rewarded by God for his perfect obedience and given an indwelling angel. This happened proactively at the moment of his conception because of God’s foreknowledge (25-26).  Thus they accepted the Virgin Birth but neither the man (Jesus) or the indwelling angel (the Christ) were considered divine (27). They accepted the gospel of Matthew as canon and prominent teachers include the author of The Shepherd of Hermas and Lucian of Antioch (Arius’ teacher) (29-30). With this Christology, salvation is based on merit and human effort (31). Little is known about the actual lifestyle of the Angel Adoptionists (31).

Most adoptionists were Spirit Adoptionists, believing that Jesus became the Christ through the anointing of the Spirit at his Baptism (35). This gave Jesus power to perform miracles in his ministry; however the Spirit withdrew at Jesus’ passion (35). Thus the union of human to God was temporary, focused on the concept of anointing rather than indwelling (35-36). They likely used an edited form of Matthew’s gospel, excising the birth narratives (39)  The Spirit Adoptionists affirmed the preexistence of the Spirit, safegarding Jewish monotheism by removing Jesus from the realm of divinity (42). Jesus was just a man filled by the Spirit, and as such not unique (36).  Adherents of Spirit Adoptionism included Theodutus the Elder, Theodutus the Younger and Paul of Samasota (36-37). As with the Angel Adoptionists, Spirit Adoptionists were ‘optimistic about human nature’ advocating strict  adherence to the Jewish law (41). This manifested itself as a strict asceticism among adherents, vegetarianism and the use of water at the Eucharist (43).

The Docetists were also (broadly) of two types: those that denied that Jesus had a body at all (Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism),  and those that thought Jesus had a “ethereal” body which appeared human (Hybrid Gnosticsm. Hybrid Gnosticism (or quasi-docetism)  developed somewhat later, possibly in conversation with the mainstream church and a concession that Jesus did seem to actually have a body (70)  Both forms of gGnosticism demeaned matter in favor of the ‘spiritual,’ though in practice it manifested itself differently. Those who thought that Jesus’ body was an illusion, denigrated their bodies as evil and practiced asceticism (64). The Hybrids were more hedonistic, though possibly no-more than Roman society at large (82-83).  Neither type of docetist believe in Jesus humanity. Thus he has no birth,  or resurrection. Jesus was simply the offspring of gods in a polytheistic pantheon.

Papandrea presents Logos Christology as ‘the middle way’ between adoptionism and docetism:

Logos Christology, as the middle way between these alternatives, refused to allow either of Jesus Christ’s two natures to be diminished. Logos Christology embraces a full divinity that is preexistant and a true humanity with a real human body. This is a hristology of descent because the divine Logos starts out in the dine realm as equal to the Father and descends to humanity to take on our human condition (Phil 2:6-8). Furthermore Logos Christology refuses to separate Jesus from “the Christ” as though they were two separate entities, but rather consider the whole incarnate Jesus Christ as one person. (88-89).

Thus Logos Christology affirms Jesus humanity and that he is the divine Son of God, his bodily resurrection, his virgin birth, his incarnation. The practical payoff of this view is a belief in the doctrine of grace, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, resurrection and the dignity of creation. Rather than legalism or a strict asceticism, Christians could have a more balanced approach to their bodies and matter (104).

Papandrea’s final chapter explores why Logos Christianity won, instead of these other alternatives. But he also show how these early heresies had a legacy. Adoptionism evolved into Arianism in the forth century (119). Docetic Gnosticism paved the way for modalism (120). In his final pages he observes the modern forms of Adoptionism and Doceticism (125-127). Modern day modalists and practical docetists in the church, continue to deny the dignity of embodied life. Adoptionism is seen in contemporary scholarship that draws a strong distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” (125). Old heresies remade for today.

Papandrea has produced an accessible guide to these early Christologies. It is an introductory overview, so could certainly be more detailed at points; yet Papandrea does give a good analysis of the controversies and the implications for sotierology and anthropology. This would be a good supplementary text for a systematic or historical theology course. It also has the advantage of describing the significance of these histories for today. As a pastoral leader, this book clarified my understanding of the roots of contemporary issues facing Christology in the church.  I give this four-and-a-half stars.

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



And it was Very Good: a ★★★★★book review

A number of recent publications have helped us enlarge our frame of what the gospel is beyond ‘pie in the sky in the great by-and-by.’ Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel (Waterbrook Press, forthcoming June 2016) is one such book. Harper helps us see the expansive implications of the biblical concept of shalom (peace). Our contemporary concept of peace is deficient—our imagination forged in the eras of Cold War stalemates and our tenuous Post-9/11 world cries for ‘peace in the middle east.’ The biblical concept of peace is more robust than the mere cessation of conflict. It involves good news to the poor and oppressed, justice for all, and “God’s vision for the emphatic goodness of all relationships” (14-15). In short shalom means that everything wrong can be made right.

27177624Harper’s voice is one I trust. I have read her online articles at Sojourners (where she is the chief church engagement officer), and The Huffington Post and I follow her on social media. With Leroy Barber she was on the ground in Ferguson training clergy on how to respond to the crisis. She is a passionate advocate for social justice tackling racism, economic injustice and systemic oppression. As an African American woman she brings perspective and insight to these issues; however, what also makes The Very Good Gospel so very good is her deeply rooted faith and her serious engagement with biblical theology.

Harper draws on the insights of Walter Bruggemann (who writes the forward), Miroslav Volf, and a host of other scholars, commentators and researchers). In this book she unfolds the biblical concept of shalom. She explores what it means to live at peace with God, and to live at peace with self,  to have real peace between the genders, to live at peace by exercising proper dominion in creation, to bring peace to broken families,  to have real peace between races and nations, what it means for Christians be witnesses to God’s kingdom peace, and to have peace in the face of death.

This book goes a long way toward helping us see how robust Shalom really is. Harper blends personal anecdotes from life and ministry with biblical theology and astute cultural analysis. She shares some of the ways she has seen (or experienced firsthand) the lack of peace, and where shalom has burst into our broken world. She has practical suggestions for how to live into God’s kingdom shalom. Harper shares painful moments and touching and poignant parts of her own journey (such as her final goodbye to fellow evangelical justice advocate Richard Twiss). This is a very good book and it oozes good news. Read it. I give it an enthusiastic five stars! ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review.


The Shame in Our Game: a ★★★★★ book review

Shame is  a major part of my own journey. As a kid, I was a classic underachiever, and even today I still hear, in my mind, my parent’s “you have potential” lecture and feel like I’m not measuring up. I also carry the burden of past mistakes, vocational frustrations, and family secrets. I am ashamed for being forty without making an indelible mark on my world. I feel shame acutely when social interactions turn awkward and I feel disconnected from others. Is it me? 

4433Yes, of course it is. But it isn’t just me. Shame is part of your journey too. Psychiatrist Curt Thompson wrote The Soul of Shame : Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves to address our common sickness:

Shame is something we all experience at some level, some more consciously than others. Of course there are the obvious examples: times we’ve felt everything from slight embarrassment to deep humiliation. . . .But many of us also carry shame less publicly, often outside the easy view of even some of our closest friends. Losing a major account at work. The breakup of a marriage. Our child’s seeming disinterest in school. A boss whose motivational tactic is to regularly compare your work to that of someone who is outperforming you. Any of these more common scenarios carry the burden of shame in ways that we work hard to cover up.  And our coping strategies have become so automatic we may completely unaware of its presence and activity (21).

Thompson defines shame as more than  simply ‘just a feeling’ but a belief that: ‘I am not enough; there is something wrong with me; I am bad or I don’t matter’ (24).  This is profoundly isolating and demeaning. Shame is that part of us which tries to destroy our soul and derail our story.

Thompson explores the neuro-biological and psychological roots of shame, and points to the practical and theological resources which will bring us healing in the book’s nine chapters.  Chapter one provides a working description of shame (quoted above). Chapters two and three examine shame from a interpersonal neurobiological (IPNB) approach, discussing how shame works in the brain, and in relationships.  This includes biochemistry, the history of attachment, past experiences, etc. Chapter four explores the fact that we are story telling creatures. When shame reigns unchecked, we inhabit one sort of story. Chapter five examines the biblical narrative, especially Genesis 3 where shame corrupted ‘God’s intended creation of goodness and beauty.’

Chapter six begins to unfold the resources for healing: vulnerability and community. We feel shame in the areas that are most vulnerable; the power of shame is broken in us when we allow ourselves to be known. Thompson’s counsel to one client addressed her shame:

It makes complete sense that you would feel vulnerable. This is the feeling that shame activates and that everyone feels to some degree when they are on the verge of being known in what they anticipate may be an unsafe space. To allow yourself to be known is very hard work. (119)

He calls this ‘the gift and terror of being known.’ There are no guaranteed outcomes in how other people will respond to us, but by learning to share ourselves, the power of shame is broken. In chapter seven Thompson explores how sharing ourselves in community can gives us the strength and imagination to counter our internal shame narratives. Ultimately we need to make the shift from the story shame is trying to tell in us, ‘back to the story that is true, the story God is telling at that moment’ (141).  A committed group of people who will tell us the truth about us, and our behavior, and won’t turn and run from us in those moments when we are wrong, are people who can be used by God to heal our shame (144).

This communal burden sharing which allows us to conquer shame is described further in chapter eight, especially in relation to our ‘primary communities of nurture’: family, church, and schools.  I gleaned some insights here on how to  speak to my own kids without re-enforcing their shame. Chapter nine, explores the new vitality in vocation we experience as we experience healing.

Shame is something of a ‘hot topic’ lately. Many of us have read Brené Brown’s books or seen her popular TED talks. Thompson draws on Brown and builds on her insights, but his approach is different. Brown’s writing is more self revelatory, Thompson tends to share stories from his counseling of others. This is also a self-consciously a Christian, theological approach to  the topic of shame, so Thompson explores relevant scriptural passages and the ways in which church aids in the healing process. This is an integrated Christian approach to shame which makes use of the best insights from neuro-psychology.

Vulnerability and community is sound advice. It is also difficult and risky. There are parts of my soul I had to learn to let people know and was lucky enough to have friends who didn’t bail on me for sharing my twisted vulnerable self. Whatever inner healing I have experienced, it is in this knowing and being known by others. However it still takes risk and I have also learned that not every listening ear honors brokenness. The key to Thompson’s model, is a commitment, loyalty and acceptance. Without these, there is no nurturing community to reveal our deep shame.

This is a compelling read and worth spending some time on. The back of the book has questions for discussion and a bibliography of related resources. I recommend it for anyone who has wrestled with shame from past wounds or has experienced the fear of being found out.  There are plenty of insights on how to nurture healing in others as well. I give this five stars: ★★★★★

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




Praying to the Spirit: a prayer book review

I’ve become quite the fan of Jack Levison. I’ve read a couple of his books, Fresh Air and Forty Days with the Holy Spirit [as I write this review, Fresh Air  and Forty Days are both only $1.99 on Amazon!].  Fresh Air is the popular level version of his scholarly tome Filled with the Spirit. Forty Days with the Holy Spirit is a daily devotional with scripture, devotions, space for reflection and prayer. I find his writing both insightful and personally, spiritually enriching. Reading Levison I’ve been blessed with a greater understanding and a deeper experience of the Spirit. His newest book, Holy Spirit I Pray is a book of fifty prayers, which invites readers to  pray to Spirit.

Holy Spirit I Pray by Jack Levison

In his introduction, Levison writes, “A book of prayers to the Holy Spirit, even a slender one is an oddity. While they probably exist, I know of no others. In a modest way this book is unprecedented” (introduction, p.5).  Nevertheless, Levison notes the long tradition of addressing the Spirit in prayer (i.e. liturgical prayers, prayers of Christian saints like Hildegaard of Bingen, or the Cappadocians). So while books of this kind are somewhat novel, praying the prayers in this volume, is joining in the chorus of Christian tradition.

The fifty prayers in this volume are composed by Levison. Each is paired with a relevant Bible passage. These are presented without comment or reflection. Instead Levison uses his introduction to unfold several  concepts to help orient readers toward prayer: the meaning of ruach (Hebrew for Spirit, wind breath), the nature of the Spirit’s filling, and the Spirit’s eagle-like-brooding (vii-xi). These are important concepts which Levison explores more in-depth elsewhere. What he says here is brief, but explicates what you need to know to fully appreciated his prayer-metaphors and the connections he makes. Continue reading Praying to the Spirit: a prayer book review

It’s Heaven, I Promise: a book review

Christians believe in Heaven.  It is our final destination at the end of life, our After-After-Life, our great hope for eternity. Nevertheless we don’t all believe the same things about it. Popular images of heaven depict a whole lot of harp playing up  there on those billowy white clouds.Our images of heaven and the after life are formed from pop-culture–movies, books, comics–and medieval art and literature. In contrast, Scot

The Heaven Promise
The Heaven Promise By Scot McKinght

McKnight wrote The Heaven Promise to give us a picture of our Christian final hope, drawn  primarily from the pages of the Bible.

It was perhaps only a matter of time before McKnight tackled the topic of heaven. Several years ago, this New Testament scholar and popular blogger and author, took on Reformed evangelicalism for reducing the gospel ‘to going to heaven when you die’ (See The King Jesus Gospel). However McKnight never repudiated heaven; his problem was with the ways the gospel (and heaven) were relegated to the afterlife.

McKnight divides The Heaven Promise into four sections. Part one is essentially an introduction to the question of heaven, our assumptions about the afterlife and where we got them. Part two looks deeper on what the Bible says about heaven: that it is promised to us by God, that this promise is sealed by Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, that a bodily resurrection awaits those who share in Christ’s resurrection, and that heaven begins wherever the reign of God is. Part three unfolds six promises about heaven:

  1. God will be God (present in all his glory, majesty and power).
  2. Jesus will be Jesus (central to everything as a reflection of the God of heaven).
  3. Heaven will be a utopia of pleasures
  4. Heaven will be eternal life
  5. Heaven will be a global fellowship
  6. Heaven will be the eternal beloved community

These six promises will have implications for what heaven will be like and for how we live our lives now.

Part four was the part of the book I read first. It is kind of a FAQ  section. McKnight tackles ten questions people have about heaven. He answers questions about near death/out of body experiences, heavenly rewards, ‘who get’s in,’ God’s fairness, family in heaven?, children who die, cremation, purgatory and pets. In his final question “Why Believe in Heaven?” he gives  a personal account of his belief in heaven.

I found this to be a well-written account of heaven grounded in biblical theology. McKnight has a gift for presenting complicated but important theological ideas in language that ordinary readers understand.  In a few places, McKnight challenged my reading of particular passages and what that tells about heaven (i.e. he gives a fresh interpretation of Jesus’ confrontation of the Sadducees).

McKnight doesn’t simply rehash Bible verses  about heaven. He talks about the implications of what our vision of heaven should have for our day-to-day life. For example, his chapter on the eternal beloved community (chapter 13) expounds on how the Bible’s last book describes the end of the exploitation and injustice of Babylon. McKnight knows we aren’t there yet. We live in a world with food deserts and unjust incarcerations (McKnight gives examples of each). He suggest that our heavenly vision of Justice and Shalom should cause us to seek to live out heaven now. For McKnight heaven isn’t just ‘pie in the sky when you die’ but a vision we live towards.

This is a popular level book, so not exhaustive. You may not agree with Mcknight on every point. But if you want a book that gets you excited about heaven and presses into the implications for life, this one is great! I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah and the Blogging for Books Program in exchange for my honest review.



Mission is Habit Forming: a ★★★★★ book review.

As I write this review we are a week into 2016. Many people have already had their resolutions wrecked on the reef where good intentions and harsh reality meet. Most of these New Year’s resolutions are about personal development: losing weight, exercising more, mastering a new skill, etc. What about making habitual changes that will make you a more compelling force for God’s Kingdom mission in the world? Can we pursue the sort of life change which will impact others?

4115blqt1al-_sx430_Enter Michael Frost. A popular author, speaker and cofounder of the Forge Mission Training Network presents the five habits of highly missional people and a simple plan of how to incorporate them into your life. Surprise the World! exhorts us to live questionable lives–“the kind of lives that evoke questions from [] friends,  then opportunities for sharing faith abound, and the chances for the gifted evangelists to boldly proclaim are increased” (5). Frost argues that we are not all gifted evangelists, but we support the work of evangelism as we live the sort of lives that invite questions from our neighbors and friends.

So what are the five habits of highly missional people? Frost proposes the acronym BELLS:

  • Bless— Words of affirmation, acts of kindness or gifts for at least three people per week (at least one who isn’t in your church).
  • Eat–Eating with at least three people (at least one who is not in the church).
  • Listen–Setting aside at least one period of time per week to listen to the Spirit in silence and solitude.
  • Learn–Spending time each week learning Christ through the gospels, the Bible, movies and film, good books, etc.
  • Sent–Journaling throughout the week about ways you have alerted others of ‘the universal reign of God through Christ.’

Conventional wisdom tells us it takes about six weeks to form and solidify  a habit. At least that is what a lot of sermons tell us. Frost thinks otherwise. Drawing on the insights of Jeremy Dean (author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits), Frost suggests  significant life change takes months of intentional practice (101). So he suggests structures of accountability he calls DNA groups (for Discipleship, Nurture, Accountability) which will hold each other accountable and encourage these missional habits for participants.

The gift of this book is its simplicity. Books on missional theology and ministry often present many fine ideas about what it means to be missional, often from a big-picture perspective. This book is super practical. It gives you a simple plan,–Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, Sent–which is sufficiently challenging to live out.

For me, to intentionally eat with and bless people in and out of church each week, plus set aside time to listen to the Spirit, Learn Christ, and journal through my experience in sharing God’s reign would mean major changes and greater intentionality in mission (and I like mission already).  There is enough  structure and flexibility in how to live these habits out that it adaptable to whatever context. I  also really appreciate the structure of DNA groups. I have little patience for accountability groups that focus solely on sin (as though that is the only thing important we have in common). Discipleship and nurture are essential as well for supporting the kind of life change that Frost suggests here.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to live missional lives. This is a fantastic goal for 2016. However I would suggest, don’t read these book alone. Read it with a friend, read it in a group, read it with those who will disciple you, nurture you and call you to account as you pursue the goal of living a questionable life. Five stars:★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of Surprise the World! from the Tyndale Blog Network. I was asked for an honest review.

The Path to Sexual Integrity: a book review

Michael Todd Wilson, is the co-author of Soul Virgins(Baker Books, 2006) and Preventing Ministry Failure (IVP, 2007). and a licensed professional counselor and has worked with men struggling in the realm of sexual sin.  Unburdened: The Christian Leader’s Path to Sexual Integrity is his new book, designed to help clergy, ministry leaders, and denominational elders work towards sexual wholeness.

9780830844326A 2009 study conducted by Texas Tech University revealed that out 460 male clergy, twenty percent accessed pornography at least twice a month (12). Earlier studies  showed that thirty-five to fifty percent of ministers struggle with pornography (13). Pornography is just one way that the sexuality of Christian leaders goes off the rails; pastors go to strip clubs, visit prostitutes on business trips, masturbate, have affairs, entertain lustful fantasy, etc.  Wilson observes, “There is not a one of us who doesn’t face real challengesto our personal integrity” (20). Though this manifests itself in different ways with each of us.

Wilson’s focus is on male sexuality. While he acknowledges that men and women are equally susceptible to sexual temptation, women were historically ‘most vulnerable emotionally and relationally,’ and men ‘tend more toward the visual and the physical’ (34). Wilson sees this changing in recent decades with what he calls “the masculinizing of femininity, and the feminizing of masculinity” (35).  However there is nothing practical  here for women Christian leaders. Wilson’s insights promote sexual integrity for male Christian leaders.

Wilson observes that men are put on the defensive and further isolated by the question, “Do you you struggle with sexual integrity?” He asks instead, ” How do you struggle with sexual integrity?” (12). Wilson aims at helping men press past their disconnection, isolation, pride and self sufficiency  in their struggle with sexual temptation to pursue a grace-based pathway to sexual wholeness.

Wilson explores the disciplines that will help  Christian leaders live lives of sexual integrity: the discipline of surrender (commitment to God’s plan for our sexuality and accepting corresponding systems of accountability), the discipline of radical honesty with self, the discipline of ‘non-ministry’ God time, discipline of body maintenance (proper sleep, nutrition and exercise).

Because Wilson emphasizes grace, he advocates small steps in each  of these areas and  honest disclosure when we fail. Three Appendices at the end of the book provide action steps for the strugglng, advice for mentoring other men along this path, and a bibliography of additional resources for sexual wholeness.

For those stuck in the throes of sexual temptation, Wilson has  a good deal of sage advice. He weds practical, psychological insights with biblical convictions. I think this would work well for a men’s group, a male small group, or  gathering of male Christian leaders. For these sorts of groups  this is a helpful resource. I appreciate Wilson’s strong emphasis on authenticity, relationship and grace. I give this four stars.

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