June 28, 2008

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger Olson

Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology is a descriptive and prescriptive account of the move of some evangelical theologians to what has come to be termed a "postconservative" style of doing theology. Olson finds himself among this growing group, and seeks to set out the methodology that underlays this shift. Thought that may in fact sound a bit dry, Olson in fact turns in a compelling story of the development of a new brand of evangelical theology.

He begins by identifying just what this "postconservative" theology is by first describing "conservative" theology. He lists ten characteristics:

1. Correct doctrine as the essence of Christianity.
2. Revelation is primarily seen as propositional.
3. There is the tendency to elevate some tradition to the level of magisterium.
4. Suspicion of the constructive task of theology.
5. Evangelicalism is a bounded set: people are either in or out.
6. Many who call themselves evangelicals wouldn't be considered evengelical by conservatives.
7. High levels of suspicion toward modernity and postmodernity in favor of the ancient or traditional.
8. Tend to think that it is possible to do theology relatively uninfluenced by culture or history.
9. Tendency toward harsh, polemical rhetoric, staying close to fundamentalist roots.
10. Tends to be done "in the grip of fear of liberal theology" (25).

After setting the stage with a sketch of "conservative" evangelical theology, he moves briefly through a discussion of shared ground, before then beginning to explicate the "style" of theology that he terms postconservative. It is in fact the task of the rest of the book to lay this out, but some major trends and themes can be listed as distinctive (in essence, they are the flip sides of the ten things he has pointed out about conservative evangelical theology listed above). Some of the important aspects might be layed out as follows (the choice and numbering are my own:

1. Consider relveation's purpose to be transformational more than informational.
2. The constructive task of theology is cointinuing; there are no "closed, once for all systems" of theology that have perfectly enshrined the truth about God (55).
3. Concern about the deep roots of conservative evangelical theology in modernity and the desire to move beyond foundationalism.
4. See evangelical theology as a "centered set" rather than a "bounded set"; that is, less focus on who is in and who is out and instead focusing on who is closer to the center and who is moving away from that center. This includes some comfort with ambiguity that is often lacking in conservative evangelical theology.
5. Recognize that the core of evangelical faith is spiritual experience rather than doctrinal belief. This doesn't mean it doesn't have informaitonal content (it's not merely generic belief itself or belief in some anomalous "ground of being") but that this language is "second order," the communal expression of the experience of God in revelation.
6. While tradition is greatly respected, it is not enshrined as definitive; this means systems and theologians of the past can be helpful and essential conversation partners but the assumption should never be made that they have provided final formulations equal to the status of scripture or fully authoritative as interpreters of the Scriptures.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Olson fleshes out these elements of the postconservative style of theology, looking often at important postconservative thinkers who embody these trends. This includes frequent discussion of Stanley Grenz, John Franke, F. LeRon Shults, and Kevin Vanhoozer as especially lucid expositors of this style of theology. He also undertakes detailed discussions of some proponents of the conservative style, such as D. A. Carson, and Carl Henry, with frequent references to Charles Hodge.

For myself, I have found Olson's vision to be a compelling one, in that he illumines many of the weaknesses that I myself have found with traditional "conservative" evangelical theology, such as it's seeming obsession with who is in and out, and it's often harsh polemic tone in discussions within and outside the evangelical family, and with its sole focus on proposition in revelation. As Olson points out, even taking these points, one is still "conservative" in the larger scheme of theology; they don't make one a "liberal," in any meaningful way (contrary to what many "conservative evangelical" theologians might claim). I think this great book shows the promise of evangelical theology as a vibrant and faithful exponent of the faith into a new century. It makes a great intro to these important themes and to the theologians who are on the cutting edge of evangelical thinking about God.

I Want to Believe, Mel Lawrenz

Mel Lawrenz is pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin (thanks to Elmbrook Church and Pastor Lawrenz for the review copy; HT: Scot McKnight for spreading word of the offer). In I Want to Believe, Lawrenz sets out to offer a guide for belief in God in our pluralistic and agnostic age. This involves some basic and careful apologetics, some study of comparative religions, and some great pastoral reflections on the nature and content of the Christian faith.

The basic premise that Lawrenz starts with is that we all have a need for God. For Lawrenz, we are "born believers. It's just simply how we're made" (8). God created us for relationship with him, and it shows in how we're made and how we experience the world. As humans, we feel mortal (and why shouldn't we, Lawrenz points out, because we are), and we look for structure and meaning in life. This doesn't mean belief is easy, but in some way it is "natural" (my word, not his). He writes, "Believeing in God is not like a scientist trapping an animal in a cage to bring back to the laboratory for further study and tests. . . . God caries us away" (17). Later, he illumines the fact that belief goes beyond understanding, and that's okay. Because belif is where "the Made and the Eternal" are conjoined, and if we come to a point where we fully understood it, then belief would be about us and what we do. But it's not; it's about God.

Throughout the rest of the book, Lawrenz does a very fine, pastoral job of working out what it means to believe, as humans, as citizens of a pluralistic world, and finally, as followers of Jesus Christ. This involves discussions of doubt (a chapter worth the price of the book), atheism, Islam, and the specifics of the Christian faith, to name a few of the topics he brings in.

Lawrenz book might be termed apologetics-lite, in a sense, but that is meant in the best possible way. He doesn't get bogged down in philosophy or argumentation but instead helpfully touches on many of these themes but moves beyond them to God and what it means to be in relationship with him. I think this great little book makes a user-friendly introduction to belief in the modern world, and I wouldn't hesitate to hand it to someone searching for faith, or even decidedly not searching for it.

The Nature of the Atonement, Bielby and Eddy

In The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, four scholars are asked to put forth a comprehensive understanding of what they consider to be the foundational metaphor or central thrust of the New Testament's teaching on atonement. They are then asked to interact with each of the other three author's views, facilitating a dialog between the different views and accentuating both commonalities and disagreements. The four scholars and views are as follows:

Gregory Boyd, Christus Victor
Joel B. Green, Kaleidoscopic
Bruce Reichenbach, Healing
Thomsa Schreiner, Penal Substutition

Because of the nature of the book, that is, that each scholar is already abridging an in-depth discussion in their short essays and that each scholar interacts with the others, I will simply restrict my review to some brief comments of evaluation and commendation.

In most evangelical circles, it would seem that the penal substitution view holds sway as the dominant (and sometimes almost the only) view. And Thomas Schreiner does an admirable job of displaying the deep scriptural roots and theological reasoning that make this such an important view. Greg Boyd, in what was maybe for me one of the strongest pieces, displayed the deep scriptural roots of the Christus victor model, showing the importance of victory of death and evil for biblical thinking about sin and salvation. Bruce Reichenbach ably deploys arguments for the healing aspects of atonement, emphasizing forgiveness and reconciliation as part of this understanding. Joel Green's essay was also very strong, emphasizing that the context of Jesus' death and the purposes of God are two essential aspects of thinking about the atonement. This leads him to assert that no one metaphor or model will fully illumine the significance of Christ's death, nor will any one model necessarily be the best way to speak the truth of Christ's death into our cultural setting today.

Each author does their view justice, in showing the deep logic that underpins it and the way the atonement fits within a larger Scriptural and theological framework. Each author also sets out to show how their view sets the foundation for or interacts with other views and metaphors, which make up subsidiary ways of speaking about Christ's death. For this reason, I think this book makes a great entry point into this lively and important dialog about the work of Christ and the nature of the atonement. It deals deliberately with the text of the New Testament and also, in less depth, with the historical interpretations and understandings of Christ and his death.

June 25, 2008

The inspiration of a prophet

Leslie Allen writes of divine inspiration and the prophets as he speaks about the prophet Joel:

"The formula of prophetic revelation lays the initiative and onus upon the divine side of a confrontation between man and God. Many of the pieces in the book take the form of utterances spoken by the prophet, while less than half the material is represented as coming from the divine 'I.' Nevertheless, in this respect form is no guide to theology, affirms the heading [Joel 1:1, which reads "The message of Yahweh received by Joel son of Pethuel."]. The messages transmitted by the prophet, whether formally in his own name or in his Master's, bear the stamp of the divine will. Quite obviously the heading reflects a conviction that Joel's words, which comprise the 'word' or message of Yahweh, have a continuing relevance for the people of God.
"The statement that the divine word 'came to' or was received by Joel indicates that the prophet was no mechanical medium in the process of God's communication with the religious community. He had a responsible role to play, a role no one else could discharge in exactly the same way. God was to use Joel's special gifts, insights, and background, and ally himself with this unique personality in the incarnation of truth."

--Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 45.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about inspiration and what it means for how we understand the Bible, and this little piece of insight from Allen's commentary on Joel beautifully illustrates the divine and the human in inspiration, acknowledging the necessarily divine imprint upon God's inspired Word, while also acknowledging Joel's essential and pivotal role in that same communication. It's also interesting that he makes reference to the "incarnation" of truth. Is Allen to be ousted just as Peter Enns from evangelicalism and its institutions?

June 21, 2008

Considering Hell

Scot McKnight recently (that is a couple weeks ago) pointed to a discussion in The Christian Century concerning Hell. Having read Dante's Inferno this past year, I've been thinking afresh about what Christians should do with the doctrine. This great piece invites eight theologians from Martin Marty to John Franke to weigh in on what the place of hell should be in modern Christian thought and proclamation. Each piece is very thoughtful, and points to the importance of not allowing past abuses to marginalize this important facet of the Christian faith.

June 20, 2008

Choosing a Virtuous President

CT has an insightful article this month about picking a president. It's basic premise is that we should strive to select a President who is virtuous, for it is the character of the person who becomes commander in chief that will be of decisive importance, more so than campaign rhetoric. They write, "In addition, campaign policies are illustrative at best and deceitful at worst. Politicians offer proposals that they very well know can never be enacted in the form proposed or have the effects they claim." We've been in the midst of heavy campaigning for about a year and a half now, and the campaign rhetoric has been ubiquitous. And we're only going to hear more and more as November approaches. But this thoughtful piece encourages us to think past rhetoric to character. Now, I'm not assuming that obviously slants the decision toward either McCain or Obama in this election, though in the end I will be making a choice for one over the other, and the issue of virtue will undoubtedly be an important factor. But I think it is vital to remember that it is the unforseen situations, the difficult and unpopular decisions, that will make or a break a presidency. And virtue (courage, hope, temperance) is essential to making those decisions when they come. I think this piece is a great example of reflective Christian thinking about electoral politics. Because Taylor and McCloskey point us toward the heart of the matter, the need for an upright, respectable, ably equipped person to lead our country. This doesn't mean policies aren't important: in fact, policy positions should reflect virtue. But campaign rhetoric and policy position papers aren't enough. It's real moral fortitued that is required, especially for one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

June 16, 2008

Lectures on Science and Theology

I'm always on the search for great lectures available on MP3 (and the availability of quality material seems to be endless). Today I have come across a trove of lectures made available by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. I navigated through Alister McGrath's homepage, which is itself becoming a great Web resource. Beyond McGrath's lecture on the anthropic principle and natural theology (I haven't listened to it yet, so no opinion yet, though I'm sure it will be exemplary), there are lectures by the likes of John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker on quite an array of topics relating to the relationship of science and religion/theology. I think this is such an important avenue of theological endeavor and appreciate much of the fruitful dialogue that has been developing over the last decades between these disciplines. Enjoy!

June 13, 2008


For a long time now, amazingly enough more than ten years, the theme of kenosis and God's self-limitation has been one that has held my rapt attention. It all started with a paper on God's hiddenness and Luther's On the Bondage of the Will, was further encouraged by Professor Ernest Simmons at Concordia College (Moorhead, MN), fully flowered in a senior paper and religion honors presentation in college, and was further developed with some investigation into Creation and Kenosis for a Masters' Paper. Much of my past work is reflected on my Web site, which contains both some more comprehensive statements and some fragments of further research and thought. But I think what has continued to hold my interest is how this theme, though much neglected in a lot of theological thinking, keeps popping up as a fruitful and important element in our doctrine of God and has important implications for theological thinking about a vast array of topics.

Most recently, I have been reading John Stackhouse's Finally Feminist, where God's self-limitation comes up as an important element in his reflections. He discusses the idea of progressive revelation, similar to William Webb's redemptive-movement hermeneutic. He recognizes that Scripture points us to an important understanding of God's providence that points to some measure of restraint or limitation in revelation: that is, that God often reveals his truth progressively, strategically, giving us only what we can handle or doing only so much to accomplish what he intends at that time. He concludes, "We trust that God's self-limitation is somehow for the greater good of his ultimate purpose" (40). In Jesus, God's kingdom decisively and revolutionarily breaks in to the world, but it doesn't do so completely and all at once.

I'd never explicitly connected self-limitation with a redemptive-movement hermeneutic, but it seems an essential move to making sense of the Scripture that God has given us. There is so much more to reflect on here, and I welcome your thoughts and reflections.

Some things that should be coming soon

Life with twin boys is a blast. Our twins, Paul and Lucas, are now eight months old, and they are still our little miracles, after coming three months early. But they are quite a testimony to God's faithfulness and are very healthy. But they do keep us busy. Thus, my pathetic excuse for being far too silent on my blog of late. I've actually been finding quite a bit of time to read lately, which has been great, but I haven't seemed to have the corresponding time to blog. So I've got a great pile of books to comment on in the next few days. I had a chance to read Four Views on the Atonement, a great little intro to an important discussion; Roger Olson's Reformed and Always Reforming; Alister McGrath's Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity; and I've also gone through most of David Wenham's Paul. So I'll be trying to round up some thoughts on these books in the coming days. There have also been some news items of note, including same-sex marriage in California, so there is plenty of room for comment as well. If only I didn't have to work . . .

Blessings to you all.

June 10, 2008

31 volumes of Barth

T&T Clark has announced on their blog (HT: Faith and Theology Blog) a 31 volume edition of Barth's Church Dogmatics that is forthcoming, following the new critical publication of the work in German. Honestly, I see a lot of merit in this, in that it could be more conducive to use in classrooms, but, wow, 31 volumes. Are they offering financing? I'm still scraping together to buy various used volumes of the old edition.