Friday, March 25, 2011

Love Wins for all the fallen?

Forgive me. I couldn't resist writing this in my best Bell-style prose.

In this whole whirlwind that Rob Bell has stirred up, there is one group that has been conspicuously absent from the wide net of universalism that he and others have cast out.

One group that has been neglected.
Ignored.
And they cry out for their just defense.

I speak of course about Satan and the demons.

After all, if God is a God of love, and if he loves all of his creation, and if he wants to see it all brought into shalom, and if God will indeed reconcile all things unto himself, and if no temporary rebellion is worthy of eternal punishment—well then why not? But let me put it in Bell's own words:

At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God's presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most "depraved sinners" will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.

And so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody, because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a "renewal of all things," Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will "restore everything," and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ "God was pleased to . . . reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven" (Bell, 107).

We're told more (and more often) about the final state of rebellious human beings than we are about the final state of the demons. Especially by Jesus. So if God's love overcomes all that has been revealed about judgment toward fallen humanity, certainly it can do the same for the demons.

But if.

If one accepts the reality of wicked, fallen spiritual beings whose rebellion is as continuous and ongoing into eternity as their existence . . .

If one accepts the reality of a just judgment and eternal confinement and punishment of such beings . . .

. . . well then demons aren't the only ones who fit that description and deserve that end. It would seem to me that demons—more so than "those who have never heard"—have the better argument for the unfairness of the Gospel (since it in no way, shape, or form is available to any of them). Yet I don't hear anyone fighting that theological battle.

So can we expect Love Wins II: Stryper Was Wrong* any time soon?

Of course not. Because even though it's logically consistent with Bell's reasoning as to why all humans will be saved, that's just not good PR for the universalist camp. Or perhaps Rob doesn't actually believe that God's love wins out over all resistance and redeems all hard hearts.

Rob, for a universalist, that's not very inclusive of you.

*Sorry, that was probably a very obscure reference for many of you. Stryper had a hit album called To Hell With the Devil.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: The Christian Faith by Michael Horton

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way by Michael Horton is not your average systematic theology. It's not broken up into simple chapters ending in "-ology" like Christology, hamaritology, ecclesiology, and the like. Instead, Michael Horton means to tell a story because the doctrines of Scripture arise out of the drama of Scripture. Or as he puts it, "The Christian faith is, first and foremost, and unfolding drama . . . The great doctrines of the Christian faith arise out of this dramatic plot".

For these reasons, The Christian Faith isn't primarily a catalog to reference all the topics that make up your typical systematic theology. Rather, Michael Horton tells the story of God, from beginning to end. After an opening section covering the presuppositions of theology called "Knowing God", Horton shapes his systematic theology in a more narrative-like fashion around the following "chapters" of history:
  1. God Who Lives
  2. God Who Creates
  3. God Who Rescues
  4. God Who Reigns in Grace
  5. God Who Reigns in Glory
The benefit of an approach like this is that The Christian Faith doesn't read like a dry systematic theology. Instead, the very words that Horton uses to describe biblical doctrine and theology—words like "drama", "story", and "narrative"—are also perfectly fitting words to describe Horton's book. He also includes a lot of the history of theology, and does so in an equally engaging way. Names like Augustine, Barth, Berkhof, and Schleiermacher need not necessitate a dull read, and Horton soundly makes this point.

One caution: this book can be an intimidating read on a few different levels. The size itself (just under 1,000 pages) may keep more than a few from cracking the cover. And Horton is a scholar of not only theology but history and philosophy, so the novice may want to keep a dictionary (and a smart friend) nearby.

With those cautions in mind, I cannot recommend this book more highly. If you want a systematic theology that deals with each topic in its biblical, philosophical, historical context, Horton's The Christian Faith is first rate. While this book may not be the top choice for introductory theology, this book is like the best theological jawbreaker. Try and take it fast and it will break you. But take your time on it, savor it, and it will deliver a sweet payoff in the end.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Pastors, theologians, teachers, anyone looking for a systematic theology that's not dry

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"You're Being Very Un-Bell Here"

The following is a guest post from an old friend of this blog who still happens to have his login information. There may be a few more like this in the future. It's kind of a test run.
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What makes Martin Bashir's interview of Rob Bell remarkable is that Bell does not come off well in it. And that alone is very un-Rob Bell.

Bell's influence is built on controlled environments. He communicates creatively, and that is to his credit. The Nooma videos are great, at least in terms of production and often in terms of content. His public speaking gigs apparently are not your average sermon (though admittedly, I haven't watched). His books are visually appealing and provocatively titled.

Which brings up this point: as long as Rob Bell is in control of the production, he comes off as intelligent, gentle, and likeable. In a word, he's slick.

But then he goes on msnbc and Martin Bashir isn't buying it. That's not unique: plenty of us haven't been buying it for awhile. What is unique is that Bashir has the chance to ask pointed questions (not just weigh in on his blog, like the rest of us), and Bell looks positively uncomfortable. He is inarticulate. He talks in non-sensical (not merely paradoxical) circles. Bashir pushes, Bell tries to respond, and Bashir essentially says, "You haven't really responded at all. You've dodged my question, and as an interviewer, it's my job to get you to answer the question." But he simply cannot do it.

By the end, Bell looks like he got ambushed. I really wonder if he had any idea what was coming.

Here Rob Bell is forced to answer the hard-yet-oh-so-simple questions in an environment that he cannot control, and he is no longer winsome at all. He is confused and confusing.

And when a non-Christian sits across a table from you and asks you three times in a row on a nationally syndicated television program if it matters what you do with Jesus and you fail to give a clear answer, you frankly ought to be ashamed.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What Would Paul Do?

I was thinking about WWJD bracelets today (don't ask me how I got there) and I suddenly realized that, in so many instances, that question is irrelevant, verging on incoherent. Almost like asking, "What would my iPad do?" Jesus, while human, was (and is) also God and that makes the position from which he did and said everything completely other.

You see, I've been reading the Gospels a lot in the past two years and, as I take a mental inventory of all that Jesus did in his three years of ministry, I can't do most of it. For instance, Jesus forgave sin. Yet he affirmed the protestation from the Pharisees that only God can forgive sin. Jesus healed and even raised people from the dead. My track record in those two columns is nil. Jesus preached and spoke with authority, as one from God. Jesus walked on water. Turned water into wine. Cleared the temple. Fed thousands with a Lunch-able. You get my point.

So I was thinking—as heretical as this sounds—that a better question to ask yourself as a Christian is simply "What would Paul do?"

Hold on, before you pick up stones to stone me. Paul himself wrote "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). Throughout his teaching, Paul seemed to have an uncanny grasp of how the Gospel impacted our everyday life. It speaks into our marriages, our employment, our relationships. The list goes on and on.

So perhaps "WWPD?" is too near-heretical to be beneficial for most Christians. But I would suggest that there are better alternatives to WWJD that actually have biblically grounded answers we can directly apply to our lives. Try this one on for size: "Based on the Gospel, what would Jesus have me do?" So, does anyone want to buy a BOTG,WWJHMD? bracelet?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review: Science, Creation and the Bible by Carlson and Longman

"Theology and science are each seekers after truth". Richard Carlson and Tremper Longman III offer this simple yet profound statement in the introduction to their book Science, Creation and the Bible. The problem (and the reason a book like this would even be necessary) is that theologians and scientists are not always seekers after truth. Sometimes they are merely protectors of a certain paradigm or worldview. So it is refreshing when authors such as these two (a scientist and a theologian) are upfront about their worldview commitments:
We profess our deep commitment to Christian faith and the biblical teaching about creation. At the same time, we believe contemporary science addresses questions on how physical and biological processes began and continue to develop, while theology and philosophy answer why for the same questions. The creation-evolution conflict hinges on two issues: (1) the question of the trustworthiness of contemporary scientific understanding of the beginnings of the universe, the earth and life on the earth, and (2) the question of the faithful reading of the two creation passages in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25 in their literal or non-literal forms.
As you may have noticed, the broader word "science" in the title specifically refers to evolution as the book progresses. The authors are equally critical of both the Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design positions, drawing almost no distinctions between the two (a fact that adherents in both camps would resent, I'm sure). Evolution is not so much defended here as simply stated as fact and then shown to be compatible with the Genesis creation accounts. Or to say it another way, this book is not so much a defense of evolution as it is a defense of a non-literal reading of the creation accounts and their compatibility with evolution. However, this is not to say that only those holding to a position of theistic evolution will benefit from this book.

Chapter 3, "Biblical Interpretation", is alone worth the price of admission and will be beneficial for every Christian, regardless of your position on the origin of the universe. I also found their argument for a non-literal reading of the creation accounts did not necessitate evolution and was equally compatible with my own position of Intelligent Design. Overall, Science, Creation and the Bible is a very accessible book on the current origins debate and has something to offer everyone.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Anyone interested in the origins debate

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Quotes from Joel Beeke's message on prayer

Joel Beeke was the keynote speaker at the 2011 Desiring God Conference for Pastors this year. His message "Cultivating Private Prayer as a Pastor" was chock-full of quotes that I found challenging, insightful, and applicable to even the layman. Joel began emphasizing the dire importance of prayer by saying "Prayer is the most Christ-like thing we can engage in". I wanted to share some other great quotes from his message:
"Good prayers never come weeping home. I am sure I shall either receive what I asked—or what I should have been asking for in the first place." - Joseph Hall

"You can do more than pray after you pray; but you can't do more than pray until you pray." - John Bunyan

When asked how one could pray better in public, Charles Spurgeon responded "Pray more in private".

Luther, when asked why he always prayed aloud, said "I want even the devil to hear me pray".

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Book Review: Christ Among the Dragons by James Emery White

There have been well-publicized predictions in the past couple of years forecasting the demise of evangelicalism. These predictions have come from both within and without the church, ranging from InternetMonk.com's "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" to the New York Times Magazine's article "The Evangelical Crackup".

James Emery White is just one of the many who are not ready to call it quits just yet, as he demonstrates in Christ Among the Dragons. While we are fast approaching uncharted territory—hence the somewhat cryptic but intriguing title—While offers what he suggests are "introductory ways to regain our sense of true north in the four arenas that brought us together". He sums up these four arenas as follows:
  1. The nature of truth and orthodoxy
  2. Cultural engagement and the evangelistic enterprise
  3. Christian community and civility
  4. The identity and character of the church
White excels at describing the cultural climate and pinpointing the areas that seem to be both the locus of our division and the avenue through which we can bring new life to evangelicalism. I was less impressed, however, with the remedy for the diagnosis. As I finished the book, I came away with a vague sense that I was ready to do something but uncertain where to start. In fact, if Mr. White ever reads this review, I think a book solely expanding on the evangelical response in the four arenas of truth, culture, unity, and the church would be a welcome offering from his proverbial pen.

That disappointment aside, however, Christ Among the Dragons is a worthwhile and insightful diagnosis of both evangelicalism and the culture it is trying to reach.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Any Christian interacting with the popular culture

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.