What Onward is About

Onward by Russell Moore is a call for American evangelicals to engage the culture in a way that is faithful to the Gospel. American culture has changed. It is no longer allied with Christian values. The Bible Belt is collapsing. In Moore’s view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For too long American culture has embraced Christian values while simultaneously rejecting the Christian Gospel. This has created a cultural Christianity that is a perversion of the true faith, a moralism that exalts Jesus as right or correct, without submitting to him as Lord. “We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The closeness of American culture with the church caused many sectors of the American church to read the Bible as though the Bible were pointing us to America itself.” (p. 7)

The demise of the Bible Belt and American Christianity is an opportunity too good for the Church to miss. This allows for a sort of purification of the Church in America, a disentanglement from partisan politics and ethnic nationalism. The end of American Christianity ought to open the eyes of Christians in America that our country is not, and really never was, Christian. Rather than clinging to the last vestiges of political influence, we ought to turn our attention to true Gospel influence, which is far bigger than any political party’s platform. In a particularly prescient passage, Moore writes, “If politics drives the gospel, rather than the other way around, we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts and serially-monogamous casino magnates and prosperity-gospel preachers are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do the gospel. They are, after all, ‘right on the issues.'” (p.32) In the wake of the election of President Trump, and the strong evangelical support that helped get him into office, this passage cuts to the core of what is wrong with American Christianity.

Keep Christianity Strange Onward by Russell MooreThe thematic thrust of Onward is made clear in a pithy statement, written in bold letters, on the back cover of the book: Keep Christianity Strange. Calling to mind bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird,” Moore urges us to recover the peculiarity of the Gospel. When culture faith become entangled, it is always faith that suffers. The Christian faith lost its peculiar power in America precisely because it became normal. As Moore writes, “The church of Jesus Christ is never a majority – in any fallen culture – even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us. The Scripture speaks of a world system that is at odds with the kingdom, a world to which we are constantly tempted to pattern our own intellects and affections after, until we are interrupted by the ongoing transformation of the kingdom.” (p. 29) The systems of the world are always antichrist; they are always inimical to the Gospel and the transformative work of the Spirit. This was as true in ancient Rome as it is in modern America.

Continue reading

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

What the Book is About

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is a survey of the greatest thinkers of the early church on a broad range of subjects. Each chapter is dedicated to a single topic, such as the Trinity, virtue, politics, or apologetics. Wilken artfully weaves thoughts from at least two primary writers in each chapter, diving to the depths of the issue, offering the wisdom of the ancients to a modern audience. Wilken is careful not to rely on the same thinker over and over, so the audience is treated to a wide range of authors, including Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, and others. He admits, however, that there were four giants, so to speak, to which he returned more often than the rest: “Origen in the third century, Gregory of Nysa in the fourth, Augustine in the fifth, and Maximus the Confessor in the seventh.” (p. xix) Any student interested in learning from the great masters of the Church would do well to start with these four.

As noted above, Wilken’s approach is to tackle one issue in each chapter, and to do so under the guidance of two ancient writers. While he does not typically quote any author at length, he pieces together their thoughts and gives them flesh through his own prose. The reader may be left with the hunger to hear more directly from Origen or Augustine, but the effect is to give the audience the best of their thoughts in modern formulations. A typical example can be taken from the first chapter, which dealt with the Christian concern of apologetics.

In the debate between Christian thinkers and their critics the central issue was where in the search for God reason is to begin. Christians argued that Christ had brought something new; the life he lived, though fully human, was unlike that of anyone who had lived earlier. …For the Greeks, God was the conclusion of an argument, the end of a search for an ultimate explanation, an inference from the structure of the universe to a first cause. For Christian thinkers, God was the starting point, and Christ the icon that displays the face of God. “Reason became man and was called Jesus Christ,” wrote Justin. Now one reasoned from Christ to other things, not from other things to Christ. In him was to be found the reason, the logos, the logic, if you will, that inheres in all things.-The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 14-15

In taking this approach, the reader must trust that Wilken has done his homework, and is faithfully presenting the thoughts of each author. While I often found myself longing for lengthier quotations, I came to conclude that Wilken’s approach was best. Nearly two thousand years separate my mind from the ancient author’s words. In such a sweeping survey, it is helpful to have a learned mediator bridge the gap between the style of their writing and the form of prose which best suits modern readers.

Continue reading

Ideal Church

There is no such thing as an ideal church. Well, there used to be one. It was the last perfect church left in the whole world. Everyone treated each other with kindness and respect. No one argued. They all agreed on the music style, the mode of baptism, and the color of the carpet. But then I started attending, and now it has all kinds of problems. Sorry.

Okay, so none of that is true. But what is true is that I love the Church. Not just my church, which I love very much, but the Church – the worldwide body of Christ. I haven’t always loved the Church, and I haven’t always wanted to be a part of it, but I can no longer deny that, despite it’s many flaws, there is nothing greater on the face of the earth than Jesus Christ’s Church. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always follow Jesus well. But we are God’s plan, the way he has chosen to work in the world. For or better or worse, God loves the Church, and is committed to her. And for that reason, the Church is the hope of the world.

As I read about the life of the early church, I’m struck by how widespread the propaganda against her had become. The Romans accused Christians of atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Many able Christian writers and thinkers pled the case of the Church, refuting the false accusations, and demonstrating that Christians were the kind of people Rome should want in its empire. One of these writers was the anonymous person who wrote the Letter to Diognetus.

I’ve already written about some of the treasure I’ve found in this ancient writing, but I wanted to share what this author has to say about life in the early church. He gives us a vision for how an ideal church can live in, and relate to, an antagonistic society. This wisdom is a part of our faith heritage, and can be very instructive for us today.

Continue reading

The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart

What the Book Is About

In The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart makes a compelling case for classical theism. Drawing from a wide array of sources, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu thinkers, Hart weaves together their most basic theological strands into a beautiful tapestry of the divine. With tremendous respect for the past, he reaches back into the Middle Ages and the classical period to to pull together a grand vision of God who is “the unity of infinite being and infinite consciousness, and the reason for the reciprocal transparency of finite being and finite consciousness each to the other, and the ground of all existence and all knowledge.” (p. 324)

As well as Hart makes the case for classical theism, he also builds a powerful case against atheistic materialism and Naturalism. He asserts that “materialism is among the most problematic of philosophical standpoints, the most impoverished in its explanatory range, and among the most willful and (for want of a better word) magical in its logic, even if it has been in fashion for a couple of centuries or more.” (p. 48) There are many reasons for this in Hart’s mind, but perhaps none more potent than the need for a “necessary reality,” or in other words, something that does not depend on anything else for its existence.

Continue reading

Benefit of the Doubt by Greg BoydWhat is faith? What does it mean to have great faith? What does faith look like in our relationship with God? What is the nature of our relationship with God? These are the questions that drive Greg Boyd’s book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty. Part theology, part philosophy, part auto-biography, Boyd takes the reader on a journey of exploring the nature of biblical faith, contrasting it with the certainty-seeking faith he sees in many believers today.

Boyd argues that the problem with faith today is that it is most often expressed as an intellectual, or psychological, certitude. Using the metaphor of the “Strength Tester” carnival game, Boyd writes that the goal for many Christians today is “to hit a faith mallet as hard as you can in order to send the faith puck up the faith pole to get as close to the certainty bell as you possibly can.” (26) Faith has become the removal of, or the resistance to, doubt. The greatness of our faith is directly related to how certain we are about various beliefs; and God, of course, will reward our great faith by answering our prayers and showering us with blessing. Our relationship with God, then, is entirely dependent upon how certain we are in our minds that various things are true.

In chapter 2, Boyd gives eight compelling reasons why this approach to faith is misguided and unbiblical. While each of his objections to certainty-seeking faith give cause for reflection, I found the third objection quite compelling: “It replaces biblical faith with magic.” Some would immediately object to this statement, but I think there is deep truth in this statement. What, after all, is magic? Boyd defines it this way: “Magic is generally understood to involve people engaging in special behaviors that empower them to gain favor with, or to otherwise influence, the spiritual realm in order to get it to work to their advantage.” (38) Certainty-seeking faith aims to make God act on our behalf (through healing, perhaps). It is a means to an end. “One of the many differences between ‘magic’ and biblical faith is that magic is about engaging in behaviors that ultimately benefit the practitioner, while biblical faith is about cultivating a covenantal relationship with God that is built on mutual trust.” (39)

Continue reading

Page 2 of 13123410...Last »