Select Page

BLOG

Book Briefs Interspersed with Life Lessons: April–August (Part II)

Here’s Part Two of my book briefs, as promised.

John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? I’ll review this one differently. Follow along:

Background: Although sixty years ago they were singing a different tune, nowadays the majority of non-conservative OT scholars claim that there is nothing unique about Israelite religion. Building upon the work of Harvard Divinity School professor G. Ernest Wright, a previous generation of OT specialists argued that “the differences between the Israelite way of thinking about reality and the way in which Israel’s neighbors approached that topic were so significant that no evolutionary explanations could account for them” (11). Now they claim that Israel’s Scriptures are shot through with myth just like the nations that surrounded them.

Definition of myth: Nailing down a definition of myth is not an easy feat.[1] After surveying all the options on the table, Oswalt offer his own definition: “myth is best characterized by its common understanding of, and approach to, the world,” and labels this understanding of myth “continuity.” By this he means that everything in the world is connected (44–46). In contemporary jargon we might say that the countries surrounding Israel were either pantheistic or panentheistic (49). This led worshipers to believe that they could manipulate the deities by participating in certain rituals (55). In this respect, Israelite religion was different from that of its neighbors because the God of the Bible reveals himself as desiring mercy and not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6 et. al.). Worshipers could not manipulate God by going through the religious motions. Rather, the sacrifices one offered must be expressions of a worshiper’s heartfelt devotion to God.

Some OT scholars argue that while Israel employed myth in its early years, it eventually set this aside and opted to write more straightforward history (think Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles).[2] On this front Oswalt says OT scholars must ask why: If one assumes that Genesis and Exodus are myths—that is, not factual accounts of what actually happened—then why did Israel stop writing myths? And more to the point: Why did all the surrounding cultures continue to employ it? Oswalt insists that OT scholars cannot overlook this point. They must answer the following question: If Israel was not unique, then why did they change their methods while everyone else around them kept on with business as usual?

Similarities between Israel and other ANE Cultures: What about the similarities between OT religion and that of the surrounding nations? Here’s the short answer: Superficial similarities do not mean substantial agreement. True, Israel shared similar characteristics and practices with other ANE cultures—law codes, sacrifices, and ritual cleansings—but these similarities are not the main issue. As Oswalt asserts, “What is significant is the way in which the Israelites utilize these features in a belief system that is radically different from anything around them. . . . [W]hat is significant about Israelite religion is not that some unique idea appears, but that the whole way of thinking about reality is unique and that it is absolutely thoroughgoing in the Bible” (92).

Bottom Line: I found this book insightful in many ways, but I doubt it will change the minds of those convinced of the opposing position. As I already mentioned, sixty years ago OT scholars held that Israel’s religion was utterly unique, but now believe otherwise. What brought about the change? If you assume it was because new evidence was unearthed you’d be wrong (12ff.). Oswalt surmises that the shift in belief was due to the transformation in thinking that took place in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States of America, which brought with it a rejection of authority and a repudiation of revelation.

Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson’s book is a one-stop-shop introduction to the main issues swirling around the current transgender debate. In it he summarizes and rebuts the arguments advanced by transgender activists as well as provides first-hand testimony from those who have “de-transitioned”—that is, those who either started hormone treatment but opted to stop, or who underwent gender reassignment surgery but afterward regretted doing so. (For some reason, the media doesn’t share their stories.) Additionally, he also delves into what makes us men and women, explains why children should not receive puberty blockers or hormone therapy, and argues that society should not go along with the transgender revolution. As you might imagine, activists have trashed his book (especially Andrea Long Chu, albeit briefly.)

But their critiques are unjust. Contrary to their descriptions of Anderson’s tone, he writes with empathy throughout. Chu and others, however, interpret everything through the lens of power and therefore assert that Anderson and company are guilty of “peddling bigotry under the guise of concern” (apparently Chu and his coterie are gifted in clairvoyancy). The goal of the book isn’t to change the minds of transgender activists but to inform open-minded people of what’s at stake in the discussion of transgender rights. The crux of the issue is this: Since those on opposing sides in this debate inhabit two entirely different moral and epistemological universes, resolution will not be forthcoming. And therein lies a life lesson: Moral disagreements are irresolvable so long as participants in a given discussion do not share the same first principles.

Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. I offered an extended analysis on this book here.

 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation. I can’t say it better than Gayle Doornbos: Bavinck’s doctrine of God is like no other. Not in the sense that it’s a departure from the classical tradition, but in that it is far richer than most evangelical accounts. As with the other volumes in his dogmatics, the one word that best summarizes this work is comprehensive. To give you an idea, I took fifty-one pages of notes! The sheer magnitude of the book precludes any succinct summary. Instead, I’ll simply say this was the best book on the doctrine of God I have read and plan to revisit it frequently. By far, my favorite section of the book was Bavinck’s treatment of God’s omniscience, especially his engagement with Molinists and their theory of middle knowledge. According to Bavinck, the problem with proponents of middle knowledge is that they want to try to bring together two mutually exclusive views—libertarian freedom and exhaustive foreknowledge (202). They argue that a person’s decisions are entirely free, the human will is indifferent, and therefore in no sense determined. But if that’s true then God’s foreknowledge cannot be exhaustive. As Bavinck notes, humans receive their “being” and their “being able” from God. But according to the theory of middle knowledge, “It [the human will] sovereignly makes its own decisions and either accomplishes something or does not accomplish something apart from any preceding divine decree. Something can therefore come into being quite apart from God’s will. The creature is now creator, autonomous and sovereign; the entire history of the world is taken out of God’s controlling hands and placed into human hands. First, humans decide; then God responds with a plan that corresponds to that decision” (201). In light of the foregoing, Bavinck wonders, “What are we to think, then, of a God who forever awaits all those decisions and keeps in readiness a store of all possible plans for all possibilities? What then remains of even a sketch of the world plan when left to humans to flesh out? And of what value is a government whose chief executive is the slave of his own subordinates? . . . In the theory of middle knowledge, that is precisely the case with God. God looks on, while humans decide” (201). In sum, tolle lege!

Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Problem with Socialism. Currently serving as an economics professor at Loyola University, Maryland, DiLorenzo wrote this book in light of a 2015 yougov.org poll, which indicated that 43 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 to 24 had a favorable opinion of socialism—indeed, a higher opinion of socialism than they did capitalism. Given these approval ratings, DiLorenzo provides a basic introduction to socialism, along with brief snippets of its—how do I put this delicately?—less than stellar historical pedigree.

Briefly: While college students roar with approval when Bernie Sanders and others promise free education and healthcare, they should recall a rather important fact: nothing the government provides is free (3, 99). “Single-payer healthcare” means tax payer healthcare, which means higher taxes. True, these same crowds gesticulate gleefully when politicians vouch to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for these “entitlements,” but they should at least know that high income earners find ways around progressive income taxes, which means the tax burdens are placed on other earners (136). Additionally, these responses ignore decades of research demonstrating that government-run monopolies reduce the quality of goods and services, and are also less efficient (4, 44). Also, the fact that the ruling class in socialist countries are exempt from their own policies should be a sign that something isn’t right (104)! In all socialist countries, the common people live in poverty while elites enjoy privileged lives (7).

Speaking of elites, intellectuals and professors at leading universities tend not only to sing the praises of socialism, but also view it as their responsibility to help usher society into this state of utopian bliss (see Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society for a comprehensive analysis). DiLorenzo, for his part, argues that this explains why socialism attracts unethical leaders. It requires someone willing to impose his or her will on others, all the while promising, “Trust me, this will be good for you!” For the socialist, the ends justify the means. Hence, violence is permissible in order to get the job done.

And there’s no getting around the evidence. The body count in socialist regimes is staggering:

USSR: 20 million deaths.
China: 60 million deaths.
Vietnam: 1 million deaths.
North Korea: 2 million deaths.
Cambodia: 2 million deaths.
Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths.
Latin America: 150,000 deaths.
Africa: 1.7 million deaths.
Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths

(Numbers cited in The Black Book of Communism published by Harvard University Press)

George MacDonald, The Diary of An Old Soul. A year’s worth of mesmerizing poems sure to capture the heart’s longing for the transcendent. I loved it. Here’s a snippet:

How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to other a sinking heart;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some; to some the shaking dart.

To some thou giv’st a deep unrest—a scorn
Of all they are or see upon the earth;
A gaze, at dusky night and clearing morn,
As on a land of emptiness and dearth;
To some a bitter sorrow; to some the sting
Of love misprized—of sick abandoning;
To some a frozen heart, oh, worse than anything!

To some a mocking demon, that doth set
The poor foiled will to scoff at the ideal,
But loathsome makes to them their life of jar.
The messengers of Satan think to mar,
But make—driving the soul from false to feal—
To thee, the reconciler, the one real,
In whom alone the would be and the is are met.
 
Me thou hast given an infinite unrest,
A hunger—not at first after known good,
But something vague I knew not, and yet would—
The veiled Isis, they will not understood;
A conscience tossing ever in my breast’
And something deeper, that will not be expressed,
Save as the Spirit thinking in the Spirit’s brood.

Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. A helpful introduction to classical theism. Although promoted as being in the vein of an R. C. Sproul kind of book, I can’t say I agree. Barrett is helpful at many points, but he doesn’t write as clearly as Sproul did.

John Webster, The Culture of Theology. Edited by Ivor Davidson and Alden McCray, this volume consists of a series of reworked essays and unpublished lectures by Webster. While covering a range of topics, my favorites were his entries on the character and habits of a good theologian and the humility required for a right reading of Scripture. For Webster, the Christian theologian must pursue 1) the fear of God, 2) a teachable spirit, and 3) freedom from self-preoccupation (11). As for the appropriate way to read the Bible: Since Christian theology arises out of the “shock” of the gospel (43), discharging our task properly calls for roots in astonishment (60–61). And whereas the fallen intellect inclines toward Scriptural manipulation in order to undermine and domesticate the Bible, the believing heart adopts a hermeneutic of humility, and in turn, is accosted by God, and consequently slain and made alive by him.

Thomas Watson, All Things for Good. A theologically weighty and practically pungent meditation on Romans 8:28.

Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Similar to Murray’s book above, go here for a more in depth analysis.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Those genuinely interested in this topic should consult Bruce K. Waltke, “Myth, History, and the Bible,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), Ch. 18.

[2] Some OT scholars say there is nothing of historical value in the OT until the time of David and Solomon—hence the minimalist, medialist, and maximalist positions with respect to OT history. See C. Hassell Bullock, “History and Theology: The Tale of Two Histories,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, eds. David M. Howared Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2003), Ch. 4.

Review of Stephen Bronner’s Book on Critical Theory

Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

First, about the author: Bronner is Distinguished Professor of political science at Rutgers University. Second: Given his prescriptions about how to apply Critical Theory in the present cultural moment, he’s a full-throated supporter of this social philosophy. Third: In what follows, I lay out the hallmarks of Critical Theory by way of summarizing Bronner’s treatment and then conclude with my concerns.

Hallmarks of Critical Theory (CT):
SubversionBronner begins by linking the subversive element of CT with the origins of philosophy, dating back to Socrates (1). (Note: Bronner calls CT subversive, not me.) According to Bronner, subversion is necessary in order to undermine and upend the exploitation and repression “embedded” within Western civilization (1). Proponents of CT aim to empower victims of exploitation through “consciousness, education, and practical experience” (19).

MarxismCT was “conceived in the crucible of Marxism” (2), but since it is concerned with politics and culture rather than economics, it was eventually called “Western Marxism” (3). Karl Kosch and Georg Lukács provided the intellectual firepower behind what became known as the “Frankfurt School” (3).

SkepticismAdvocates of CT are deeply skeptical of tradition and claims to authority (1). (Again, these are not my words, but Bronner’s.) Given this entrenched skepticism, “Western Marxists were intent upon questioning hegemony” (18).

(Note: In contemporary culture, Critical Race Theory (an offshoot of CT) places white, heterosexual, cisgender, native born, able-bodied men at the top of the hegemony.)

Confronting society’s powerbrokers is necessary because they will always affirm the existing social order and resist its dismantling (20). For this reason, some forms of CT promote the use of violence in order to accomplish their objectives. I came across this view several months back as I read Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America. Meredith Talusan, a writer who identifies as a transgender author and intersectional journalist, argues that resorting to violence is necessary since “people in power have no motive to change their ways unless they feel threatened.”[1]

Capitalism = Alienation and Reification, which are the causes of human misery Alienation describes the psychological effects of exploitation, while reification is the process by which people become commodities. Exponents of CT argue that alienation and reification are the natural consequences of capitalism since it treats human beings instrumentally, that is, as means to an end—the end being financial profit (44). Additionally, the existence of an exploited class demonstrates that liberal republicanism has failed to achieve its Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity (43, 44, 54).

The only solution is to abolish capitalism: “The proletariat must now understand itself as the subject of historical action . . . whose purpose is the abolition of alienation and class society” (46).

LiberationThe need of the hour is revolution, which arises in the hearts of the disenfranchised. In classical Marxism this would be the working class. But for Western Marxists the disenfranchised would be “[w]omen, people of color, gays, and anti-imperialist movements at the periphery of the system” (90–93).

CosmopolitanismCosmopolitanism “views the world as a unitary global society in which the individual rights of people take precedence over the sovereign rights of territorial states.”[2] This view stands in contrast to communitarianism, which “views the world as a society of nation-states in which the primary responsibility of such states is to protect and enhance the rights and well-being of its own people while also caring for all people.”[3] Although he doesn’t use the language, Bronner makes plain that defenders of CT support an open border policy with respect to immigration. Hence, after appealing to Immanuel Kant’s definition of cosmopolitanism as the ability to feel at home everywhere, Bronner writes: “Today, the ethical imperative is to make the Other feel at home where we are” (121).

UtopianismBronner reports that all members of the Frankfurt School “showed an explicit interest in abolishing not merely social injustice but the psychological, cultural, and anthropological sources of unhappiness” (25). Whereas capitalism thrives on the concept of scarcity (which Herbert Marcuse believed was being “artificially maintained,” 72), “Utopia is the denial of this [scarcity]” (73). In the wake of the revolution envisioned by Marxists, scarcity will be overcome “and individuals [will] cease to view one another in instrumental terms. People are placed before profits, work turns into play, and a new sensibility takes shape that is almost biologically repulsed by cruelty, exploitation, and violence” (73).

Thankfully, Bronner admits that every attempt at implementing socialism has resulted in the exact opposite of its ideals. Usually the outcome was a bloody mess. One wonders, then: Why put forth this utopian ideal? Simply put, because it creates an avalanche of momentum: “The great movements were never inspired, and the barricades never mounted for purely pragmatic reasons. . . . Utopia has an existential component: it is the ideal for which countless individuals have proven willing to die” (77).

Concerns:
Religion is a problem – While he does not speak for all who champion CT, Bronner is quite clear: “religion remains the opium of the masses” (118). He continues: “the material critique of alienation is grounded in the critique of religion, and attempts to romanticize faith tend to reproduce the alienation that critical theory intended to overcome” (118, emphasis mine). Since the goal is revolution, competing allegiances must be sundered.

Additionally, for Bronner and other CT enthusiasts, religion is a no-no because it is authoritarian and thereby stifles individual autonomy (117).

Christians buying into CT should beware of this fact.

Utopia and Cosmic Justice – Whereas Christians look for cosmic justice in the age to come, CTers believe that if their policies are implemented rightly, we can start the parade now. Human misery will vanish, they maintain, once capitalism is crushed.

This explains Marx’s angst at the presence of the poor working class. In his mind, inequality of outcome is an indicator of systemic injustice. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer (44). Plus, he held that caring for the less fortunate superseded making profits.

As I’ve written elsewhere, humane treatment of all image bearers is a must. Further, caring for the poor is a biblical injunction. Still, while the Bible commands sacrificial love and casts a robust vision of human flourishing, it nowhere promises the end of all injustices before the eschaton. Given this reality, Marx’s assumption that the presence of the poor necessarily entailed injustice is unwarranted.

But beyond the biblical vision, economist Thomas Sowell has demonstrated in multiple publications that income disparities are multifactorial and not necessarily the result of wealthy people abusing the less fortunate.[4] Further, Sowell argues, “The all too familiar cliché about ‘the paradox of poverty in an affluent society’ is a paradox only to those who start with (1) a preconception of an egalitarian world, in defiance of history, and (2) a disregard of the arbitrary nature of the government-defined word ‘poverty.’”[5]

We might also ask how the poor have fared in socialist countries throughout history. Remember: Marx’s critique of liberal republicanism was that it failed to achieve its Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Fair enough.[6] But does anyone actually believe that socialist countries did? Again, let’s look at the numbers one more time:

USSR: 20 million deaths.
China: 60 million deaths.
Vietnam: 1 million deaths.
North Korea: 2 million deaths.
Cambodia: 2 million deaths.
Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths.
Latin America: 150,000 deaths.
Africa: 1.7 million deaths.
Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths

(Numbers cited in The Black Book of Communism published by Harvard University Press)

If you haven’t already, read Armando Valladares’s Against All Hope and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichthe latter of which Yevgeny Yevtushenko said “had the effect of a political bomb” for the Soviet Union.[7]

True, capitalism is imperfect. But the question we must ask is: Compared to what?

Sowell reminds readers:

“If the aversion of the intelligentsia to the level of inequality in the United States were shared by the poor in other countries, it would be hard to account for the long-standing, massive and sometimes desperate efforts of poor immigrants from around the world to reach America.”[8]

One final point: In order to usher all of humanity into a state of happiness, defenders of CT must assume that everyone shares their definition of happiness. But history does not bear this out. Actually, where it has been tried—the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cambodia, and Cuba, just to list a few—not only did mass executions numbering in the millions follow, but people fled the countries in droves.

But this is par for the course with cultural elites, as Thomas Sowell has documented extensively.[9] They write and speak as if they know better than the average person and view their calling as one of leading people toward liberation. Oddly enough, however, while they portray themselves as being “for the people,” they do not seek to preserve their autonomy.[10]

A sovereign state is required – Since purveyors of CT are convinced that their policies are good for society, Bronner says a sovereign state is required to enforce their ideas (118). Indeed, in light of the fact that all relationships are shot through with power dynamics, and power will always be a reality of life in this world, what is necessary is for the right group to be in power (122). In short, advancing the cause of CT is imperative if society is to reach a state of utopian bliss. The exercise of violence may be necessary in order to achieve the vision, but the end result is worth it: The powerful must finally be accountable to the powerless (114).

As Phillip E. Johnson observes:

“If one has as expansive a vision of what social justice requires as [Leon] Trotsky did, one has to be prepared to go the distance with thought reform, firing squads, concentration camps and other mechanisms of terror. . . . To a radical redistributionist it is the pain of the poor that counts, and to heed the protesting squeals of the exploiters is mere squeamishness that leads to more misery in the end.”[11]

Conclusion
As a worldview, Critical Theory provides a coherent lens through which to see and interpret reality. It checks all the boxes, furnishing devotees with a creation, fall, redemption, and consummation narrative. But despite its coherence, it departs from the biblical plotline on multiple fronts—from its profile of humanity, to its depiction of salvation, to its portrayal of the beatific vision.

For these reasons, I cannot embrace it and would advise my fellow Christians to read and listen to critical theorists with caution.

_____________________________________________

Sources:

[1] Meredith Talusan, “We’ve Always Been Nasty: Why the Feminist Movement Needs Trans Women and Gender-Noncomforming Femmes,” in Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, eds. Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding (New York: Picador, 2017), 197.

[2] Mark R. Amstutz, Just Immigration: American Policy in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Sowell, Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 141.

[5] Ibid., 174.

[6] For America in particular, see Shelby Steele, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[7] Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Introduction to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, trans. Ralph Parker (New York: Signet Classics, 2008), xvii.

[8] Sowell, Wealth, Poverty and Politics, 194.

[9] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

[10] Ibid., 94, 105.

[11] Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 120, 121.

Book Briefs Interspersed with Life Lessons: April–August (Part 1)

In order to keep these blogs manageable, I’ll break them up into two posts. As always, my aim in sharing my reading with you is in hopes that you’ll find something that tickles your fancy.

Now on to the books!

John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason Consistent with all of his publications, Webster flexes his theological muscles in his typical stately prose. Better than this, of course, is that his book tunes hearts to sing our triune God’s praise, and for that I’m grateful. It’s been said that John Webster is probably your favorite theologian’s favorite theologian—and that seems about right to me. He may not always be easy to read, but it’s worth the effort.

Augustine, On Grace and Free Will In this short volume (91pp.), the Doctor of Grace sets out to reconcile God’s sovereignty with free will. While affirming that biblical commands imply freedom (5, 11, 14, 71), he also contends that obedience requires grace (19, 21, 41, 54, 62, 73). Willpower, therefore, is insufficient; instead, “grace makes us lovers of the law” (73). Thus, although God commands obedience, joyful compliance necessitates regeneration. Augustine found strong support for his views in the prophet Ezekiel, noting that while in Ezek. 18:31 God demands, “make yourselves new hearts,” in 36:25–27 he promises to provide what he commands (cf. also Deut. 30:6). For Augustine, this gratuitous promise signifies unregenerate humanity’s inability to will itself into a regenerate state. As for reconciling God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, Augustine adopts what contemporary theologians label the “compatibilist” position. Why? Even though human beings make countless choices throughout their lives, Scripture nowhere imagines that those decisions are independent of God’s sovereign plan for the world. Only God is a se—independent, and aseity is an incommunicable attribute! Along these lines, Augustine cites Rehoboam’s decision to heed the unwise counsel of the younger men, leading ultimately to the division of the twelve tribes: “So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the LORD that he might fulfill his word, which the LORD spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite . . .” (1 Kings 12:15, emphasis mine). Augustine cites numerous passages that make the same point, especially as it relates to the death of Christ. Despite the fact that Herman Bavinck’s treatment of this topic is the best I’ve read, Augustine’s work is one all serious theological students should consult.

Augustine, SoliloquiesSo far as historians can discern, Augustine coined the word soliloquia, meaning “speaking alone,” or “conversations alone.” In this volume, then, Augustine aims to comprehend the immortality of the soul as well as the marks of a successful quest for truth by means of internal dialogue. Given the structure of the work, readers may struggle to follow his train of thought. Nevertheless, three of Augustine’s musings struck me. First, Augustine prays to know God and know himself (55). In this prayer, he voices a singularly important truth: Personal transformation requires self-knowledge. While God ultimately brings personal renewal, overcoming entrenched sinful patterns demands sustained attention. Tracing our destructive behavior back to the lies that gave rise to their actions culminates in intelligent repentance. Such a practice—inconvenient and painful as it may be—mortifies sinful patterns and issues forth in new habits. Second, in one of his prayers, Augustine refers to God as the “true and complete life, in whom and by whom and through whom lives all that is truly and completely alive” (21). In this utterance, Augustine calls attention to God’s independence, self-sufficiency, and perfection. Since God is immutable, in him “there is no conflict, no confusion, no change, no want,” but instead, “perfect harmony, perfect clarity, perfect stability, perfect abundance, perfect life” (22). God’s complete self-sufficiency ensures that his blessings flow from a heart of pure charity. Third, Augustine makes the seemingly counterintuitive claim that obedience to God’s laws is an expression of human freedom, rather than a constriction of creaturely autonomy (23): “the law of God is not an alien or distant imposition on human action”; rather “it reflects the true nature of humanity as the rule and order of their true being as creatures who are brought into existence by God their Creator and called into covenant by their Lord (cf. Ps. 119:73). Far from seeking to repress or to oppress humanity, then, the law seeks to defend and preserve their freedom, dignity, and interest.”[1]

Augustine, Trilogy on Faith and HappinessThis book is comprised of three works: 1) The Happy Life, 2) Faith in the Unseen, and 3) The Advantage of Believing. I’ll take them each in turn here. The Happy Life consists of a three day conversation Augustine has with his mother, Monica, and several of his friends. Throughout the course of the exchange, Augustine theorizes that unhappiness is the result of living in fear of losing what one possesses (47). Consequently, happiness must consist of that which endures. Augustine then argues that happiness is found in wisdom (51, 52), and since Scripture identifies Jesus as the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:30), happiness is found in him, and secured through faith in Christ.

Faith in the Unseen is a brief apologetic tract designed to convince non-Christians to turn to Christ. Readers of this volume will notice that many of the apologetic arguments that fill contemporary works are found in this brief treatise penned by Augustine sometime before AD 400.

Finally, in The Advantage of Believing, Augustine seeks to convince his friend Honoratus to leave Manicheasm and embrace the Catholic faith. Since the Manicheans undermined God’s Word by “tearing apart the Old Testament” (102), Augustine provides a crash course in hermeneutics so that Honoratus can understand Scriptural teaching. Proper interpretation is insufficient, however; one must approach Scripture in a “spirit of devout respect” (113), as well as purify oneself from moral filth (136) and resist the “ambitions of darkness” (102). Since inquirers will likely not have all of their questions answered, they must learn the difference between studiousness (which is a virtue) and curiosity (which is a vice).[2] Arriving at the truth, therefore, entails 1) Believing in order that one may understand, 2) purifying oneself morally, and 3) submitting oneself to the authority of the catholic church.[3]

Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday LifeFramed around a typical day, Warren paints a picture of what the Christian life can be. Rather than trying to manufacture spiritual highs, a better approach is to breathe in every moment of life, receiving it as a gift from our heavenly Father. In light of this, Warren invites readers to learn to enjoy making your bed, drinking your coffee, washing the dishes, and—yes—even changing diapers. While beneficial in many ways, those not familiar with liturgy or the church calendar may not appreciate this book.

Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living HopeWeaving together historical insights, philosophical concepts, cultural commentary, and Scripture exposition, McCullough surveys how human beings have coped with mortality, and then provides the biblical remedy—the gospel of Jesus Christ. While God’s blueprint consists of anchoring our identity in his beloved Son, we have cast aside his authority and opted to make meaning for ourselves. McCullough illustrates this with a vivid analogy: We’re like a condemned prisoner etching the words “I was here” in our cell wall (98). Viewing our work as a platform to establish our awesomeness, we get busy making a name for ourselves, hoping that it will quiet the voice of our inner taskmaster. But, alas, we will all die and be forgotten. A key component to the good life, according to McCullough, is death-awareness. We need to talk about it, come to terms with it, live in light of it, and know that Christ conquered it: “If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us” (28). While not littered with elegant prose, poetic beauty, or mic-dropping sentences, McCullough gets the job done. We’re headed to a deathless world where everything sad will become untrue and what we love will never be taken from us.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Paul T. Nimmo, “The Law of God and Christian Ethics,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 293, emphasis mine.

[2] In my judgment, the best essay on this topic is John Webster, “Curiosity,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 193–202.

[3] For more on the habits that make a good theologian, see John Webster, The Culture of Theology, eds. Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), Ch. 6, esp. 143–147. Cf. Herman Witsius, On the Character of a True Divine: An Inaugural Oration, trans. John Donaldson (1675; Edinburgh: Cross Reach, 2017).

Twenty-Five Quotes from Harry Schaumburg’s Book on Sexual Addiction

In one of our recent videos, Pastor Vinnie Cappetta and I discussed our favorite books on counseling. The third book I mentioned was Harry Schaumburg’s False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction. 

As I mentioned in the video, the book was so formative in my own life that I put together a list of my favorite quotes so I could find them with ease.

I pray that it’s a blessing to you:

“[I]n every relationship there is a feeling of inadequacy or shame. . . . We want to feel confident and in control, acting like people we really aren’t. We hope to impress people sufficiently so they will accept us in the way we deeply desire. We fear being ‘found out’ and losing relationships with others. We conclude that the people we interact with determine our personal value. We trust in the false gods of people who can let us down rather than recognizing that only God can give us ultimate value, experiencing legitimate shame because we don’t trust Him as Father, and choosing to depend on Him to meet our deepest needs for intimacy” (32).

“Either the deceitful heart can change, or Christian faith is just a lot of fanfare” (54).

“The essence of sin is autonomy from God, a failure to be dependent on Him” (60).

“Natural human desire becomes an evil desire when the desire has the objective of self-interest. . . . It is hard to see self-interest, especially in ourselves, when we hurt so much and just want what seems so legitimate—relief. But when we turn our own unmet legitimate desires into justifications to take matters into our own hands, we cross the line into evil desire” (63).

“God doesn’t promise to fulfill all our desires in this life. Only when we acknowledge our helplessness and our inability to meet our deepest needs can He pick us up, enable us see ourselves as we really are, and provide eternal restoration and healing” (68).

“The popular way of understanding what life is all about is to look at the human condition as defined by our own understanding rather than by God’s wisdom communicated through the Bible” (73).

“Frequently we do not see God being in the circumstance unless He is doing something that prevents the situation from happening or changing the circumstances” (86). . . We even go as far as expecting divine protection as an inalienable right” (144).

Many of us believe “that difficult situations place an obligation on God to respond according to what we define as necessary to our well-being” (86).

“To taste what we desire and don’t have is to know the level of helplessness that either moves us toward God or drives us toward insanity” (105).

“Most of us will discover that when we relate to others, even to a spouse we have promised to love and cherish, we do so with self-centeredness or self-protection. We don’t want to face the fact that we’ve failed to love our spouse in significant ways. That feels as if we’re beginning to crawl on our bellies into a dark cave. So we tend to believe in our own goodness” (106).

As you examine yourself and your motives, you’ll head in one of two directions. Either you will harden yourself to shore up your own defenses while you try to rely even more on yourself, or you will soften, allowing your self-reliance to seep away as you know God more intimately. This latter process will be painful, but it is only through the fire of such self-examination that any of us can be refined” (108).

“Many people want to be able to sin with impunity and still have God’s blessing on their lives” (134).

“Whenever self-interest remains a priority, biblical faintheartedness is the result. It is easy to feel sorry for someone, easier to feel sorry for ourselves. When our lives, and particularly our relationships are in total chaos, self-interest (taking care of ourselves) comes naturally. Trusting in God seems insane. More often than not, we define faith as seeing God in circumstances. But in chaos we never see God. Faith should be defined as knowing that God sees us in the chaos. Self-interest leads to self-pity, which leads to faintheartedness, not godly courage” (138).

 “The Bible never condemns us for admitting weakness. If anything, God condemns us for finding strength” (143).

Read the next three quotes carefully and perhaps pause to pray, asking God to search your own heart: “The deceitful heart comes to Jesus with preconceived notions of its own, which become fundamental heresies. The most common has to do with what Jesus will do. There is massive unlearning to be done at this point. Then, and only then, can we fix our eyes on Jesus, rather than on what He is doing in our lives” (144).

“Faith is very weak, if not impossible, when life is built on our own terms and conditions” (145).

“When we can unlearn our independence, we can learn to trust in God Himself, not in what He is doing or not doing. Such brokenness leads to humility, which sustains godly courage over the long haul” (145).

“Humility is a willingness to surrender our rights. If we are sorrowful and grateful and admit our utter dependence on God, then we become broken. Out of that weakness flows a humility of spirit that voluntarily gives up all the rights we have to ourselves. The choice comes down to finding our life and therefore losing it, or losing our life and therefore finding it. It takes godly courage to lose everything in order to gain everything” (146).

“The essence of sin is ‘I will never allow anyone to rule my life other than myself.’ That rebelliousness is alive in an outwardly good man or women, and in an outwardly bad man or woman. Remember, sin is not about behavior but about our defiant claim to the right to rule our own life” (159).

“Am I willing to trust God with my pain and disappointment, to allow Him to be the source of ultimate fulfillment in my life? Will I submit to Him all my desires and my needs for relationships?” (166).

O, how desperately we need to learn this! – “Obeying God is not a formula for God to provide you with everything you consider to be essential to your life” (192).

“Simply living by the rules, obeying, and doing what is right, doesn’t indicate a pure heart. Until we deal with our internal uncleanness, we shouldn’t be shocked at sexual misconduct within the church” (196).

We need to be able to answer the question seriously: “What has God really promised to do in your life?”  – “When we begin to believe that God’s plan for our lives is to improve our relationships and circumstances now, churches quickly fill with people who focus on the primacy of personal need, evaluate God’s goodness in terms of meeting those needs, and subtly move to justify anything that feels like it’s from God” (198).

“Self-justification comes easily when we start with our needs and define God as the resource who will meet those needs. It’s easy to view God as the One who heals those needs rather than the One who deals with the sin that leads to eternal, spiritual death” (198).

“God’s primary purpose is not to offset the pain of living in this sinful world. He doesn’t exist simply to solve each and every problem we face in this life—or even the ones we perceive will crush us. He calls us to become absorbed in fulfilling His will and purpose, to deny ourselves for the good of others and to His glory. Our joy should be in serving and loving God” (199).

“In many ways, the church falsifies spiritual reality by pretending that people’s lives can be nearly perfect in this fallen world” (214).

Okay . . . take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Some of those are hard to take in. I’m convinced, however, that a lot of our struggles as Christians (and non-Christians) stems from a misperception of what God’s ultimate plan is for us. If you’re anything like me, you need to go and spend some time alone with God, searching your heart, and asking yourself this question: Do I love God? Or am I using God to get something else besides God?

Thomas Watson on Love to God

I recently fell in love with my wife all over again.

As she bemoaned the scarcity of good Christian books, I handed her a copy of  the puritan Thomas Watson’s (1620–1686) The Doctrine of RepentanceShe read a few pages during her morning devotions the next two days. When I asked what she thought about the book, she replied, “The puritans are better than anything I’ve read. No one writes like this anymore.”

When she finished her comments, I told her, “I just fell in love with you all over again. Tell me more about how you love the Puritans.” (Yes, please pray for my wife. She has to live with me.)

I plead guilty to loving the Puritans. And after several years of reading a fair amount of Puritan authors, I’m pleased to announce that Thomas Watson is my favorite author. Not only is The Doctrine of Repentance filled with wonderful insights, but his A Body of Divinity is superb.

As of late, I have been working through his book All Things for Good—an extended meditation on Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

In chapter 4 he covers those all-important words “for those who love God.” While the chapter is fairly extensive, I’d like to share with you the three kinds of love to God that Watson sets forth. The following is taken directly from his book:

    1. There is a love of appreciation. When we set a high value upon God as being the most sublime and infinite good, we so esteem God, as that if we have him, we do not care though we want all things else. The stars vanish when the sun appears. All creatures vanish in our thoughts when the Sun of righteousness shine in His full splendor.
    2. A love of complacency [rest] and delight – as a man takes delight in a friend whom he loves. The soul that loves God rejoices in Him as in his treasure, and rests in Him as in his center. The heart is so set upon God that it desires no more. “Shew us the Father, and it sufficeth” (John 14:8).
  • A love of benevolence – which is a wishing well to the cause of God. He that is endeared in affection to his friend, wishes all happiness to him. This is love to God when we are well-wishers. We desire that His interest may prevail. Our vote and prayer is that His name may be had in honor; that His gospel, which is the rod of His strength, may, like Aaron’s rod, blossom and bring forth fruit.

May we love God in these three ways, and may it please him to draw out our hearts to him in ceaseless praise and sacrificial love.