Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Almost persuaded me, but not quite

Living in God's Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture by David VanDrunen

This book is a defence of the "Two Kingdoms" view of how Christians are to live in this world and relate to the surrounding culture.

VanDrunen argues against the idea that legitimate cultural activities are redeemed through the gospel. Whereas Al Wolters wrote a very helpful book called Creation Regained, VanDrunen sees his position as being "Re-Creation Gained": "Our cultural activities do not in any sense usher in the new creation. The new creation has been earned and attained once for all by Christ, the last Adam" (p. 28).

VanDrunen does not believe that the creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 still applies to Christians today; instead, Jesus has fulfilled Adam's obligations on our behalf (p. 50). Christ "does not restore us to Adam's original task but takes us to where Adam was supposed to arrive" (p. 59).

VanDrunen sees Christians and living in two kingdoms, each ruled by God. The first he calls the "common kingdom", and includes every human being. This is regulated by the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, but not, for example, by the Ten Commandments. The second he calls the "redemptive kingdom", and is to be identified with the church: "the church is the only institution or community in the present world that can be identified with the kingdom proclaimed by Christ" (p. 101). This is virtually the Roman Catholic view, although VanDrunen later clarifies this by saying that the church is not identical to the kingdom (p. 116). "Identified with" but not "identical to" is, however, a rather subtle distinction.

VanDrunen concedes that "the New Testament does not say explicitly that God still rules the broader cultural life of this world through the Noahic covenant," (p. 118) but suggests that "it does not have to" since it was to be a perpetual covenant: "while earth remains" (Gen 8:22). VanDrunen labours under the disadvantage of being forced to invent terminology: the Bible never refers to the "common kingdom".

In practical terms, this means Christians should not try to "take over" or "take back" politics or education (p. 125). Instead, we should see ourselves as exiles, just like the Israelites in Babylon.

VanDrunen writes very well, and his writing is saturated with Scripture. I appreciate his emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ and his high view of the church. Were it not for some obvious drawbacks, I would have been convinced of his view.

Firstly, VanDrunen virtually ignores the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). There, Jesus instructs his disciples in a way that is reminiscent of God's words in Genesis 1:26-28. Now it's quite clear that VanDrunen doesn't view it as supplementing or expanding the creation mandate, but it's disappointing that he does not deal with the text at all. The clear link between creation mandate and Great Commission is a significant argument against VanDrunen's thesis.

Secondly, in regards to education, VanDrunen argues that theology is the province of the redemptive kingdom, and all other areas of study belong to the common kingdom (p. 174). This does not account, however, for subjects on the borderline, such as church history. Is this something the church can teach, or not? It appears that VanDrunen's distinction between the two kingdoms may be rather artificial.

Individual parts of this book are, however, excellent, and I can endorse many of VanDrunen's conclusions while disagreeing with his thesis. For example, he rightly points out that "the church, acting officially through its deacons, has authority to do only the kind of diaconal work that Christ, speaking in Scripture, authorizes it to do" (p. 157). I can agree with that, precisely because I see a distinction between church and kingdom: there are works of service and cultural activities that constitute kingdom work but not church work. The church should focus on the ministry that Christ has specifically called her to do, but the work of Christians (both individually and in groups) goes far beyond that.

Living in God's Two Kingdoms almost persuaded me, but not quite.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

If Wodehouse had been a modern American Christian

Flags Out Front: A Contrarian's Daydream by Douglas Wilson

This is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. It is funny and engaging all the way through.

It concerns a fictional fundamentalist Bible college in the American South (called Choctaw Valley Bible College), and its mild-mannered president, Dr Tom. One night a prankster switches the flags at the front of the college so that the Christian flag is higher than the American flag (see the cover illustration). Dr Tom decides to let it remain like that, and a controversy ensues.

Flags Out Front is all about what being a faithful Christian looks like in modern America. Wilson makes the point that faithful Christians will have enemies on both the left and the right of politics.

Wilson includes plenty of humorous asides, and has obviously been inspired by P. G. Wodehouse in both his plot and his choice of words. This book has instantly become one of my favourites.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Not your grandmother's theonomy

The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God's Law of Liberty by Joel McDurmon

Although it's not really clear from the title, this book is about theonomy, which McDurmon defines as "the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today" (p. 17).

The key phrase here is "including some civil laws". This is a reasonable definition: non-theonomic Reformed people would say that no civil laws remain obligatory for today (only, perhaps, the principles behind the laws). But in his discussion of which civil laws remain obligatory, McDurmon departs in a significant way from older Theonomic writers such as Rousas Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary North.

In chapter 3, McDurmon argues that crimes relating to worship (e.g. idolatry and blasphemy) and sex (e.g. homosexuality and adultery) carried the death penalty in the Old Testament because of the concept of herem, in which things that could contaminate Israel needed to be destroyed. McDurmon argues that this no longer applies today. Although he isn't clear on this point, he seems to suggest that they should not even be crimes today (though of course, they are still sins). Later in the book he says that in a "properly theonomic society", the government "would have little to do with sex or marriage" (p. 94).

In chapter 4, McDurmon argues that all other Old Testament death penalties (e.g. for rape and kidnapping) still apply, on the basis that the penalties were an expression of God's perfect justice. Yet this does not sit easily with what was stated in the previous chapter: the death penalty for blasphemy was also a just one, yet McDurmon says it no longer applies. In any case, McDurmon's position represents a significant (and very conscious) departure from traditional theonomy.

Finally, with regards to practical application, McDurmon correctly notes that the Great Commission includes a command to disciple the nations, and teach God's law to entire societies rather than just individuals (p. 104). Yet it seems he has a defective view of discipleship. Discipleship, among other things, encourages inner conviction rather than just behaviour modification. That also applies in "teaching the nations". So when McDurmon says  that Christians "should always lead opposition to any and all taxation" (p. 112), one can't help but feel that he has misplaced priorities and is fighting the wrong battles.

The Bounds of Love is an interesting read but not really a book I would recommend.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A significant contribution to historical theology

The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity by Thabiti M. Anyabwile

This is a book of historical theology. It looks at theological development among African-Americans from 1600 to the present day. There are not a lot of early African-American theological writers, but Anyabwile does a fine job of introducing the reader to men like Jupiter Hammon and Daniel Payne, as well as bringing out the theology present in slave songs and testimonies.

As the title indicates, Anyabwile argues that the history of African-American theology is a story of decline: from orthodox Calvinism through Arminianism and Pentecostalism to full-blown liberalism and prosperity theology. One interesting reason given for the rise of liberalism in African-American circles is that "most theologically conservative seminaries adopted the racist segregationist policies and attitudes of the time" (p. 205).

Each chapter of the book covers a different area of doctrine: revelation, theology proper, anthropology, christology, soteriology, and pneumatology. Ecclesiology and eschatology are glaring omissions: Anyabwile says only that outlines for these chapters were "left on the cutting room floor" (p. 241).

Perhaps the most striking thing I read was that in the era of slavery, black people were often stereotyped, but they did not respond by stereotyping white people themselves: "the folk theology of slaves proved resilient against tendencies to denigrate white people as a class or to make pejorative associations with white skin color" (p. 113).

The Decline of African American Theology is a helpful an interesting book, and makes a significant contribution to the discipline of historical theology.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Some good points, but based on an unconvincing hermeneutic

Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William J. Webb

This is a book arguing against smacking (spanking) children. Webb particularly interacts with organisations such as Focus on the Family, which advocates smacking, but suggests a parent administer no more than two smacks at a time. Webb argues that such an approach is not "biblical" at all, in the sense that it has moved beyond what he calls the Bible's "concrete specific instructions". Webb points out that the Book of Proverbs encourages using a rod on the back, rather than a hand on the bottom. Webb than says that the way Focus on the Family has moved beyond the Bible is a good thing, and we should go even further, following the Bible's own trajectory towards a more gentle approach. Webb calls this a "redemptive-movement hermeneutic".

Firstly, the book has a rather condescending feel about it. Webb is constantly "commending" corporal punishment advocates for going beyond the Bible, when they would argue, of course, that they are faithfully following the principles laid out in Proverbs. Webb also notes that he used to believe in smacking, but now he knows better.

Secondly, Webb focuses his attention on a narrow band within the broad spectrum of Christian smacking advocates. He seems to have no knowledge, for example, of Michael Pearl, who does indeed argue for using a "rod". Maybe he knows about Pearl but considers him too fringe or discredited to be worth mentioning. In any case, different pastors, authors, and parents apply the biblical teaching on smacking in different ways (this article from Capitol Hill Baptist Church mentions a plastic spoon), and it's not clear that the Focus on the Family approach can be said to be representative. Webb struggles to articulate what could be wrong in using  an actual rod. The only arguments he gives are: (a) it gives him a feeling of revulsion, and (b) even Focus on the Family avoids it.

Thirdly, at the heart of everything he says about smacking is Webb's redemptive-movement hermeneutic. It's the idea that we look at how the Bible's approach to a certain issue is different to that of the surrounding culture. (In this case, ancient Egyptian and Babylonian laws.) To put it bluntly, we see how the Bible has improved upon that, we discern the direction that the Bible takes us, and go further in that direction. This sounds a lot like improving upon the Bible, and it is. Webb's hermeneutic fails to take into account that in Christ we already have God's fullest revelation. For more details, see Thomas Schreiner's review of Webb's earlier book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.

I was all set to give this book a two-star rating, but Webb includes a postscript in which he gives an excellent overview of "alternative" disciplinary methods. Regardless of whether one agrees with smacking or not, there is a lot of helpful parenting advice here. That was good enough to lift the book up to three stars.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Shrill and contradictory

The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Sydney Anglican Church by Muriel Porter

This book is a critique of Sydney Anglicanism. It is written in rather a shrill tone, and Porter makes no attempt to be objective (p. 6), or even fair: if she misrepresents her opponents, it is their fault for being unclear (p 7).

As the title suggests, Porter argues that the doctrine and approach of the Sydney Anglicans is a form of Puritanism. She note that they emphasise the Bible, and want to reform church practice along Scriptural lines. This causes them to jettison cherished practices (such as the wearing of vestments) as well as reject new things like the ordination of women.

And this is the strange thing about this book. One moment the Sydney Anglicans are criticized for being reactionaries who are breaking with historic Anglicanism, the next moment they are taken to task for living in the past. One is reminded of G. K. Chesterton's comments in Orthodoxy (though it must be said that Chesterton was no friend of the Puritans himself):
Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short... One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall.
And like the critics that Chesterton talks about, Porter does not mind contradicting herself. Without any awareness of the irony involved, she writes against those who "want to turn the clock back" and on the very same page (p. 8) says that she writes the book "in loving memory of the vibrant mainstream Anglicanism of the Sydney Diocese of my childhood, my first spiritual home, which is now well and truly buried."

Or to take another example, Porter appeals to the "openness characteristic of historic Anglicanism" (p. 4) but then dismisses the 39 Articles as "the product of compromise" (p. 16).

But the most disappointing thing about this book are the insinuations. Porter is quite willing to insinuate baseless allegations by asking loaded questions (pp. 37 and 126). This really is a dreadful book. Porter obviously has the cause of women's ordination close to her heart, but she has done this cause no favours by writing this volume.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sad in a number of ways

The Death of a Church by Carl McIntire

This book is a critique of the Confession of 1967, adopted by the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a denomination that later formed the PC(USA). McIntire had left this body more than thirty years earlier, as a result of the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy, and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The first half of the book goes through the 1967 Confession section by section, while the second half of the book provides a historical (but intensely personal) overview.

Much of this book is an insightful assessment of theological liberalism, and the language that it uses. McIntire notes that Christ's death is called a "mystery", when the Bible says no such thing: "God has been careful to present in detail the full and glorious meaning of this one act of reconciliation when Christ died upon the Cross for the sins of men" (p. 39). McIntire goes on to suggest that calling it a "mystery" is a "simple device for denying the Gospel and obscuring the meaning of the Cross" (p. 42).

McIntire also points out that the new ordination vows being brought in at the same time no longer ask ministers if they believe the Scriptures are the Word of God, but merely whether they accept them to be "by the Holy Spirit God's word to you". The capitalization, McIntire argues, makes a world of difference.

Yet there are a number of things in the book that leave a bad taste in one's mouth. Even as an Australian, I found it hard not to cringe when I read "this revolutionary program, which the Negroes are promoting" (p. 92). Then, as McIntire relates his own struggles, he takes aim at Francis Schaeffer and Robert Rayburn, who split away from the Bible Presbyterian Church in 1956 to form a new denomination that would later become the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, which in turn merged into the Presbyterian Church in America. Schaeffer and Rayburn, claims McIntire, "have gone back on the faith they once professed", and their church has a "socialistic structure" (p. 167).

This was my introduction to Carl McIntire, who died in 2002. We can honour him as a warrior for the faith, but some of his attitudes and priorities sadden me.

The book is available in full here.