Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Theology of the Westminster Standards

The Theology of the Westminster Standards by J.V. Fesko
J.V. Fesko, professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in California provides for readers a thorough understanding of the aims, intents, and theology of the Westminster Standards in his The Theology of the Westminster Standards.  With an eye toward history, theological debates within the Reformed world, and the emphasis that such Reformers such as John Calvin had upon the Westminster Divines (see pg. 50), Fesko’s book is a delight to read and investigate. 
What makes Fesko’s book so unique?  For one, Fesko does not fail to provide objections to his theological statements and set forth arguments against objections with sound research and historical context.  In writing about the Holy Spirit convincing a person of the Divine authority of the Scriptures, Fesko writes (67),
“Some have argued that this list of proofs for the divinity of the Word represents a turn toward rationalism, a departure from the simple faith of the earlier Reformation.59 But such a characterization fails to consider three key points. First, one must consider the Confession’s insistence upon the necessary and prerequisite work of the Spirit: “Yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and Divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witnesse by and with the Word, in our hearts” (1.5). The Confession rests the belief in the Scriptures not upon reason but upon the internal witness of the Spirit.”

The work of the Spirit is primary to convincing a person of the divine nature of Scripture, yet rational proofs corroborate the testimony of the Spirit.  Fesko mentions Calvin and William Whittaker as also providing rational proofs for the divinity of the Scriptures, while holding these proofs as secondary in nature to the Spirit’s work (68).  Why is this so important?  For one, Fesko brings out the Confession’s proper emphasis that the Spirit’s work to convince people of the Scripture’s true nature coincides with the way the Scriptures speak of the Spirit’s work.  Reason is used by Paul at Athens to convince the Athenians of their need for salvation, yet when the Scriptures are spoken of, they are written in the context of the Spirit’s work in convincing men and women of the their truth.  Not only does the Confession seek to be consistent with the way in which the Spirit works in the lives of people, but the Confession also emphasizes the veracity of the Scriptures by bringing out the logical way the Spirit’s work is portrayed in those same Scriptures.

Secondly, Fesko zeroes in on the discussion the members of the Westminster Assembly had regarding the moral law and the covenant structure of the Bible.  Instead of offering a view that emphasizes two covenants of grace, the Confession promulgates one covenant of grace, differing in substance.  This answer was in objection to the thinking of Tobias Crisp, who although accepting the twofold covenantal scheme (covenant of works and grace), nevertheless sees Christ absent in the first covenant and fails to see the moral law as binding on believers today.  This last element of excluding the moral law from present day living disturbed members of the Confessional assembly to no end, therefore, the reason to include elements of the moral law was for them a matter of biblical fidelity and offering a counter view to Crisp.
I really enjoyed this book and will go back to as I look at the Confession in my own Presbyterian denomination.
Thanks to Crossway for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong

Hearing the mantra that religion is the cause of many wars on this Earth and poisonous to humanity is echoed among those who reject religion and also those who question religion’s capacity for goodness.  Karen Armstrong, in her new book, Fields of Blood, tackles the muddy relationship between religion and violence with care, probing early sources, but also judiciously reflecting on the nature of religion, its relationship to violence, and looking at violent activity being caused by other sources.  In turn, Armstrong makes a case that pointing to religion as the sum reason why wars take place is not only simplistic but doesn’t fit the records we find.  Noting the ample supply of food in Jericho in the ninth millennium BCE, Armstrong writes, “Warfare would not become endemic in the region for another five thousand years, but it was already a possibility and from the first, it seems, large-scale violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft (13).”
Pointing out that religion isn’t the one and only source of violence doesn’t excuse it from promoting violence through the centuries.  Upon ascending to the Persian throne, Darius I combined three themes in his leadership that caused his enemies to fear him; namely, “a dualistic worldview that pits the good of the empire against evildoers who oppose it; a doctrine of election that sees the ruler as a divine agent; and a mission to save the world (122).”  This religious, economic, and power hungry impulse was central to Darius’ insistence that he would unite the world, bringing happiness to those who lived in his empire.  Furthermore, we see this kind of dualistic mentality carried out in the early stages of Roman rule.  Armstrong contends that, “Rome’s fully professional army became the most efficient killing machine the world had ever seen (131).”  Laying bare the enemy was part of the Roman mission, leaving nothing but the land and sea. 
   Armstrong also weaves together the themes of religious conviction found in the Civil War.  Writing about this she notes, “The Civil War armies have been described as the most religiously motivated in American history (295).”  Northern and Southern victories would rally the people around political ideals that were held to be ultimately the hand of Divine Providence.  Mark Noll has written in his book on the Civil War that the greatest theologian of the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln.  With national fasts, prayers, preachers thundering from the pulpit concerning the war, the Civil War imbued the strong sense that religion has played in America’s history, especially its wars. 

            Tracing religion and violence through India, China, Europe, and North America, Armstrong writes with keen eye towards the foundational sources of religion and politics that have shaped the conversation between religion and violence.  You won’t agree with everything here, but you are bound to learn much and be illuminated by this discussion.
            Thanks to Blogging for Books and Alfred A. Knopf for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) by Christian Rudder
  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, can these social media engines really tell us something significant about race, dating, and sexuality?  In his new book, Dataclysm, OkCupid founder Christian Rudder sets aside the notion that only larger polls such as the Gallup Poll can adequately express cultural and social data.  Instead, Christian looks at social media outlets like Facebook, that run the gamut from rich to poor, black to Asian.  He writes, “More than 1 out of every 3 Americans access Facebook every day.  The site has 1.3 billion accounts worldwide.  Given that roughly a quarter of the world is under age fourteen, that means that something like 25 percent of adults on Earth have a Facebook account (20).”  If this proliferation of Facebook usage accounts for much of what our culture deems acceptable and noteworthy, then Christian is right, we better take a closer look at the data.
    One of my favorite parts of the book comes in the chapter entitled Writing on the Wall.  Rudder examines some recent studies on linguistics, especially the connection between word length in Hamlet and Wodehouse compared to one’s Twitter account.  One of the things that came out of these studies was that, “Twitter does not change how a person writes.  Among the many examples tracked, if a writer uses “u” for the second person in e-mails or text messages, she will also use it on Twitter (61).”  The old adage that people who use Twitter to write in concise phrases down dumb the English language might not be so true.  Later on, he writes, “The best messages, the ones that get the highest response rate, are now only 40 to 60 characters long (66).”  The length of a Twitter comment or message doesn’t necessarily mean that a quick response is guaranteed nor does it guarantee grammatical accuracy. 
  Although I really enjoyed this book, I think some of the ways Rudder interprets the data are a bit overreaching.  Take for example, Rudder writes, “What’s more, that 1 in 20 ratios is consistent from state to state, meaning that same-sex desire is unaffected by a man’s political and religious milieu (176).”  Now, I get the point that he is making, namely that external factors should not weigh into the discussion concerning same-sex attraction.  But making this point about external factors also does not point to internal factors that could have a facto to play in the discussion, beyond just a genetic thing.  Namely, family life relationships, mental and emotional struggles, all these internal things also play a part in the debate about same-sex attraction.
   I really enjoyed the book and am glad that someone as bright as Christian Rudder is taking the social media we all use every day and putting it to use statistically.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Crown Publishers for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Good God, Lousy World, & Me

Good God, Lousy World, & Me by Holly Burkhalter

How does a journalist with a skeptical eye and a quick wit find peace with God?  In this new book, Good God, Lousy World, & Me by Holly Burkhalter, advocate for government relations for IJM, she tells her story of wrestling with God, examining the fractures of sin in the world, and coming to see that hope is not lost, because believers in the world do make a difference.  Early on she talks about her perspective of believing in God by writing, “I was sick with fury.  To me, believing in God was not only foolish, but it would have felt like I was breaking faith with all those Rwandan children, women, and men he had abandoned (7).”  The perennial question, “Where is God in the midst of suffering and evil atrocities,” was one that Holly personally wrestled with as she investigated some of the deadliest situations in the world.

 It wasn’t until Holly and her husband John decided to adopt a four month old from China, Grace Bofa that Holly’s outlook changed.  She writes, “It wasn’t a prayer exactly, but it was the beginning of a different way of thinking about the world and about God.  Whoever created Gracie, saved her life when she was found at one week of age, and brought her to us in the middle of China as a tiny, breathtakingly  lovely baby had to be very, very good.  I didn’t know whom to thank, but I was overwhelmingly grateful (8-9).”  The adoption of another child, going to St. Peter’s Catholic Church for nine years before she became a Christian left an indelible mark on Holly’s life.  Yet, it was also Gary Haugen, the founder of IJM who answered Holly’s questions, and led her to see that God was not finished with the work Holly was doing and that IJM would do for those burned by war and violence.  As Holly puts it, “As he put it, God has a plan to fight injustice, and that plan is us – he people.  There is no Plan B.  With a careful study and proclamation of the Scripture on justice, Gary began to open for Holly the way God feels about injustice and what we should do about it.  The beauty about Holly’s conversion is that “she stumbled across a good God in precisely the places I had cursed him for abandoning (17).”  In the midst of Rwanda, Kosovo, and Auschwitz, many find enough reason to curse God and die, yet for Holly, these places were reminders that God will wipe away tears from every eye and that her work for justice was necessary for God’s work on Earth.

Another beautiful section in the book comes for the chapter entitled The Noise in My Brain.  Three deeply faithful people, a Ugandan land mine survivor, a Roman Catholic bishiop, and a heart-on-her sleeve evangelical doctor began to share their stories, their lives, and the way God had intervened to heal them.   Holly steers clear in the book of having all the answers to suffering and pain in the world, but she brings us closer to see that God is in the midst of these things through his people.  From the wonderful gift of a dog (80), to the gift of seeing two beautiful adopted children grow up, Holly has seen her faith grow in the midst of a fallen world.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Convergent for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

So-Called Christian

So-Called Christian: Healing Spiritual Wounds Left by the Church by Jim Turner

There is self-destructive spirit within the church today that is doing untold damage to believers of every stripe.  Pastor Jim Turner in his new book, So-Called Christian seeks to explore these wounds that the church has caused its members and move toward a more healing approach to church.  What did Jim miss on his journey as a Christian about the church, namely that, “The most basic truth: that real, Spirit-begotten Love produces Unity among brothers and sisters, and that Christian Unity is the burning passion of Christ (16).” 

Jim places the weight of the disease that is destroying the church not at the hands of liberal education, socialistic governments or Hollywood culture but in the heart of the church itself.  It is suffering from an autoimmune disease (23).  How does this take place?  Jim locates Man’s Sinfulness as primary at the root deterioration of the Church, but also proposes solutions that ‘overcome the effects of the disease,’ and that the gospel gives us hope for a powerful and healthy church (25).  In the appeal for doctrinal purity, some members of the body of Christ have willingly thrown down flaming verbal arrows at other believers, in turn, deeming other believers as the enemy.  The carelessness of our words often causes division among brothers in Christ, therefore, when to speak and what words we use are very important for the purpose of Christian unity (30-31).  One of the bold sections in the chapter Just Ignore It: It Will Go Away points to the perilous road of aligning ourselves to much on one person.  The sections reads, “When we invest too much confidence in a single teacher, we risk clouding our judgment and creating divisions in the body(36).”  I would submit that when we also put too much confidence in one specific doctrine or doctrinal system we run the risk of creating divisions in the body of Christ.  Far more than just our words, our attitudes about these issues create tension, anger, and disillusionment with other believers.

What I really enjoyed about this book is the way Jim brought us around face to face with Jesus concerning unity.  He writes, “The unity of the Church is THE PROOF to the world that God the Father sent God the Son and God the Father loves the world….A unified Church shouts sacrificial love to the world (46-47).”  Later on Jim writes, “To be accepted in the beloved is our undisputed position in Christ (see Eph. 1:1-14).  Living out this practically is our calling (101).”  Our union with Christ pushes us into unity with other believers because we have a kind of hope that does not disappoint, and secondly, our genuine relationship with believers is built on that eternal hope that can never fade or perish. 

Worth mentioning, Jim includes Dr. Norman Geisler’s article in an Appendix, “The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith,” (Christian Research Journal, volume 28, number 5 (2005).

Thanks to Ambassador International for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.