Book Reviews

Review of ‘Mark Through Old Testament Eyes’

A Review of Mark Through Old Testament Eyes by Andrew T. LePeau, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017, 352 pages, paperback 

This book by series editor Andrea LePeau is the first in a set of volumes that will explore the influence of the Old Testament upon the writers of the New Testament books.  This influence, it is believed, is not only in the way in which certain passages are quoted and used in the New Testament, but also how minds stocked with Old Testament stories, texts, and theology brought that multi-layered influence into their books through structure, allusion, typology and motif.  Especially important to this point of view is the way the Hebrew Scriptures are employed to point to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes.

LePeau can turn a phrase and his work is very readable and easy to follow.  He is well read and he brings much to his task, though the book is not designed to be academic.  The book includes a running commentary with notes on backgrounds and Old Testament motifs and allusions interspersed.  Generally speaking he has done an excellent job with the commentary part of the book.  This (major) portion alone ought to recommend the book to preachers and teachers.

Going back to the premise of the series, the first thing which came to mind when I read the title and the way LePeau understands it was the question of whether this will indeed be a commentary on how the Old Testament effected the inspired writers (25), or whether it will be a work more about how the way the New Testament authors supposedly used the Old Testament.  The former understanding places the spotlight on the expectation taught in the Scriptures (e.g. Matt. 19:28; Lk. 1:31-33; 54-55; 68-74; 19:11; Acts 1:6; 26:7); the latter on a brand of theological interpretation.

I have to admit that as my eye passed over the list of contributors to this series I was not encouraged.  The names I read all believe that the Old Testament needs to be read in light of the New Testament in order to be rightly interpreted.  What this actually means is that a particular understanding of the New Testament is being read back into the Hebrew Bible so that the prophecies and promises found therein are reformulated so as to be fulfilled at Christ’s first coming and in the Church.  Gary Burge, for example, who will produce the Galatians and Ephesians volume, is a sure-fire bet to teach a reinterpretation of the Prophets and a “kingdom-now” supercessionist eschatology.

In his introduction LePeau likens the incorporation of Old Testament elements into Mark to the way directors include allusions to other films and directors in their movies.  I think this is an unfortunate illustration, for the movies themselves can be perfectly well understood without the allusions being seen by the viewer.  This is in fact what I think is often the case with the New Testament books.  If the reverse is the case, and these pointers are essential to the right comprehension of a New Testament book, then we are in the position of having to say that the real meaning of these books is at least partially hidden; or was until the recent work of men like Richard B. Hays (e.g. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels), or Joel Marcus (The Way of the Lord), uncovered them.  I am very uncomfortable with that, firstly because if you take this view then you are saying something about the clarity of Scripture; that it has been pretty unclear for millennia.  You cannot effect the clarity of Scripture without meddling with the sufficiency of Scripture.  Second, I firmly believe that both Testaments are understandable as they are without searching out deeper meanings.

As an example, LePeau believes that Mark is alluding to Exodus 23:20 in Mark 1:2.  I do not.  Neither do I believe that just because John the Baptist was a wilderness dweller that we should automatically recall the Exodus.  While I certainly hold that Jews could recall a context or verse from its half-mention, that does not mean the full context or verse is intentionally being referred to.  What the text is saying in context is the prime determiner of meaning, not a motif or type that a scholar thinks is the actual meaning.  An instance of this is the Table (6.1) on page 127 where supposed parallels between Mark 6 and Psalm 23 are drawn.  He veers into allegory in the process.  I am thoroughly unconvinced.  He really has to push the boat out a long way to find connections.  This sort of motif-finding is misleading, and it detracts from what Mark is actually saying. (more…)


“Leaving Mormonism” – A Review

I was sent this book (and another that I must review soon) before Christmas and the publisher, quite understandably wishes me to review it.  I am very happy to do so since this is a fine resource

A Review of Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed Their Minds, edited by Corey Miller & Lynn K. Wilder, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 311 pages, paperback, 2017

This book is an great idea.  Four former Mormons with academic credentials and a passion for the truth write about why they left Mormonism and add a critique of it from their own perspectives.  Each writer communicates clearly.  None is mean spirited in their criticism of their former belief, though all are keen to inform readers not only of the errors of the Latter-Day Saints; errors which lead to a particular worldview, but also of the chameleonic nature of Mormon teaching as it seeks to adapt to criticism and exposure.

Corey Miller’s chapter, “In Search of the Good Life” asks whether experiencing the good is objectively possible under Mormon teaching.  His answer begins with his personal testimony of being a Mormon with descendants reaching all the way back to acquaintances of Joseph Smith himself.  His essay deals with the nature of Mormon testimony and the difficulty of achieving “salvation.”  Miller is a philosopher and has provided excellent notes to go with his essay, even briefly outlining Alvin Plantinga’s response to de jure objections to Christian faith in his Warranted Christian Belief (70 n.41).

The next chapter is by LaTayne Scott, “I Was There, I Believed.”  She has been given enough room to write a long but interesting chapter consisting, as all the contributions do, of her testimony and an analysis.  Scott’s testimony is eloquently written and of real help for someone trying to understand the grip that Mormon culture exerts upon its members.  Of particular help in this chapter is the way the author persuades the reader to look upon Mormonism as a worldview with its distinctive (and false) approach to truth.

Lynn Wilder’s piece includes her discomfort at encountering many contradictions concerning things like racism and polygamy.  There is also her son’s story, wherein he was challenged while on mission to read the New Testament.  Upon returning to testify he got up and confessed that a person needed Jesus and Him alone (163).  This son, Micah, begged his parents to simply read the NT like a child would.  Wilder read John’s Gospel and her eyes began to be opened, though not for some time did she and her husband leave the fold (in 2008).  The “reasons” part of her article details numerous social problems with Mormonism, again focusing on racism and polygamy, but expanding on each.

The last of the four writers is the scientist Vince Eccles.  He became a rebel against religion after learning about his divorced mother’s being judged for some of her choices.  He writes about his fascination with parts of the Bible (e.g. Matthew and Exodus) and his investigations into the reliability of the Scriptures, but he does hold to a non-literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis, and to theistic evolution, and there are certainly one or two liberal-critical influences upon him.  He records crises of faith which even had him contemplating becoming an orthodox Jew.  He also seems to have universalist leanings.  Of the four authors in the book I felt Eccles was the least satisfying.  In fact, even though his essay is of interest, I think it was a mistake to include him in the book.

Miller and Wilder complete the book with a chapter on the New Atheism.  They inserted this chapter because many ex-Mormons become disillusioned and fall pray to the arguments of these people.  It’s a nice bonus at the end of the book.

This is an absorbing book, written with head and heart.  I liked the first two contributions to be the most helpful; the one by Eccles was a disappointment.  I think the book, Eccles’ chapter apart, is a very good buy.

Review of ‘He Will Reign Forever’ (Pt.3)

Part Two

This is the third part in what has become a four part review of this book.  I think the work is important enough as a Dispensational Biblical Theology to merit a piece of this length.  I hope you will agree.  

As Vlach entered upon the New Testament I was curious how much space he would devote to developing the message of Jesus in its pre-Pauline context.  That is to say, I wanted to see if he would trace the teachings of Jesus from its grounding in the prophetic expectations in the Old Testament and its effect upon Jewish hearers in the first part of the first century A.D.  I was not disappointed.

The author chooses the Gospel of Matthew as his frame of reference for understanding the kingdom aspect of Christ’s mission.  This was a natural enough choice, although the present reviewer is also a fan of the speeches in Luke-Acts for this purpose.  Of course, the selection of Matthew in no way eliminates interaction with the other Gospels, and Vlach picks up on some of the main kingdom emphases in Luke, especially the crucial Parable of the Nobleman in Luke 19:11-27(e.g. 357-360).  About 150 pages of He Will Reign Forever are set aside for the Gospels.  This allows Vlach to make the important textual and theological connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament around the Person of Jesus Christ and His kingdom understanding.  The work done in these chapters supplies the basic proof for the underlying accuracy of the book’s hermeneutical consistency.  At the risk of annoying some readers, this sort of work does not need to be done by those who automatically spiritualize the text whenever it threatens to unravel their view that Christ and the Church are what it’s all about.  Again, it is worth noting the clever use of non-evangelical scholarship to drive home the fact that the author is not making his points because of some blind allegiance to Dispensational requirements, but because this is what the text of Scripture itself is saying.

Jesus’ identification with Israel is seen as a main emphasis of Matthew 2 (262). The author handles the Hosea 11:1 quotation in two ways; first via reference to corporate solidarity, but then also by noting the probable source of the allusion to Numbers 23 and 24; a position vigorously argued for by the late John Sailhamer (263-264).  From there the “kingdom is at hand” passages in Matthew 3 and 4 are handled in chapter 16.  I fully concur with this quotation:

According to Matthew 5:5 kingdom blessings include inheriting the land, which is a physical blessing.  The view that Jesus is presenting a spiritual kingdom only appears more in line with a Platonic dualism between spirit and matter than a biblical worldview. (270, and something he returns to quite frequently in Part Three of the book).     

Along with rejecting the spiritualizing view of the kingdom Vlach is also unpersuaded by the prominent “already/not yet” so prevalent today, saying “it does not do justice to the full package of kingdom blessings presented by John and Jesus at the time of their pronouncements.” (270 my italics. cf. 271). 

In order to bring the cosmic drama between God and Satan into his discussion of the Temptation of Jesus the author deals with several Old Testament passages before tackling the Temptation itself.  He poignantly states, “The arrival of Jesus was an invasion of Satan’s empire.” (285).  He takes the opportunity to make important intertextual links in fleshing out the kingdom implications of Christ’s presence on the scene.  This gives him the opportunity to remind his reader of some of the ground already covered in the Old Testament sections.  I do wish that he had afforded himself the liberty to deal with the recent attempts of amillennial biblical theologians to quite irrationally identify “the anointed cherub” of Ezekiel 28 with Adam (281-282).

The topic of miracles is well handled in chapter 18, which focuses on Matthew 4:23-24.  I very much liked the description of miracles as “acts of restoration” (296).  That is good theology.      (more…)

Review of ‘He Will Reign Forever’ (Pt.2)

Part One

As the author comes to the Prophets, he gives his reader a summary of the overall message of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel:

Israel was being judged and dispersed to the nations for covenant disobedience, but in the latter days Israel would be regathered and restored to her land and experience New Covenant blessings, both material and spiritual, under the leadership of the ultimate Son of David.  As a result, the nations, who will be judged for a time, will also benefit from the reign of Messiah, and the restoration of Israel and become the people of God alongside Israel in an earthly kingdom. – He Will Reign Forever, 145

This coherent statement reflects well the theological orientation of the Major Prophets, and not a few of the Minor Prophets too (e.g. Hosea, Micah, Zechariah), and represents a sort of stasis in the prophetic word whether before or after the Exilic period.  From a straight reading of these books the themes of punishment and end-time restoration under the coming King, with benefits extending out to the nations are prominent features in the Prophetic picture.  From their point of view, there is no inkling that what they had to say was communicatively in need of transformative re-readings in light of what was to come.  Although it is not his stated intent, Vlach does pause long enough to interact a little with amillennialist Sam Storms (176-177), noting in particular that as well as morphing the prophet’s apparent meaning, “this perspective underestimates what Isaiah’s audience was capable of grasping.” (177).  Indeed, some who would spiritualize the words of the Prophets sound rather patronizing in their opinions about the inability of OT saints to know the meaning of what they were hearing.

Especially notable in this section are Vlach’s explorations of particular prophetic passages.  Isaiah 2 gets an excellent extended treatment (147-154), which includes a section on whether the Church is envisaged in Isaiah 2.  Another text receiving more than usual attention is the so-called “Little Apocalypse” in Isaiah 24-27 (164-167).  Jeremiah 18 also receives welcome consideration (182-183), while certain important themes are dealt with in footnotes; for example, the throne of David (137 n.21), the role of the “law” (149 n.10), and the preservation of animals under the auspices of the covenant with Noah (158-160).

One obviously has to pick and choose when writing on the Prophets, but I think the author does enough with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to establish their unified “kingdom voice”.  He takes care to note that in saving the nations God does not redefine Israel (164, 170-171).  When addressing the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 he shows that the Servant is also the coming King (156).  He states,

Isaiah’s depiction of the Suffering Servant also shows that the objective basis for the kingdom of God is atonement for sin.  There is no kingdom or participation in the kingdom without the cross.  No kingdom without the cross (Col. 1:20). (156).

Here one is waiting for a New covenant section which enlarges on this important insight.  Once “the objective basis for the kingdom” is established, how does this translate into God’s obligations to His people?  What is the kingdom that they may reasonably expect to see?  The author does of course make it clear that the kingdom promises mean what they say (e.g. 160), but the objective basis is covenantal, and therefore hermeneutical.  Vlach is a theologian, and one of the best that Dispensationalism has to offer.  Perhaps I am being unreasonable, but this passage gives one an opportunity for driving home the literal cross literal crown view of prophecy at a time when evangelical writers are falling over one another trying to turn Old Testament prophets into social reformers and voices of conscience. Notwithstanding, on the next page (161) I was happy to read a reference to the “second exodus” motif which actually interprets it as a real second exodus.  And when the Servant is brought up a little further on He is seen as representative of Israel and so the guarantor of Israel’s covenant rights (169-170), not as the lone true Israelite in whom a “New Israel” can be recognized.  The intermediate kingdom is the one most often spoken of by the prophets.  Vlach is careful to notice that this kingdom will include death and sin, although not with anything like the scale and devastation seen today (e.g. 133, 173-175)

Jeremiah is a book that it is easy to get lost in, due to its arrangement and length.  The challenge for the Dispensational interpreter, for whom outlandish spiritualizing of the eschatological details is not an option, is to say enough to give a proper impression of the extremely important Christology of Jeremiah – which is virtually all kingdom oriented – while tying in the New covenant implications in which they are embedded.  Jeremiah’s position as a pre-exilic and exilic prophet must be understood, for he brings together strong Deuteronomic threads and projects them into the post-exilic era, thus showing the continuity of Old Testament prophecy better than perhaps any other book.

Again Vlach’s sense of proportion does not fail him.  His treatment of Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation” (chapters 30 – 33) hits the highpoints, stressing in particular the “five covenants” that are brought together in this crucial section.


Review: ‘He Will Reign Forever’ by Michael Vlach (Pt.1)

A Review of He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God, by Michael J. Vlach: Silverton, OR. Lampion Press, 638 pages, hdbk.

Dispensationalists and open-minded amillennialists know that a book or article by Michael Vlach is going to be worth reading.  His contributions are always well thought-out, and his style is usually analytical yet easy to follow.  He has written several useful works, including Has the Church Replaced Israel? and a recent e-book, How Does the New Testament Use the Old Testament?   This book, running for more than 600 pages, is his most ambitious yet.

He Shall Reign Forever is Dr. Vlach’s attempt to write a whole Bible biblical theology; something that Dispensationalists, in whose company the author counts himself, have often shied away from, although commendably the author does not structure the volume around “dispensations.”  What we get is a must-have piece of biblical theology.

Vlach has taken as his central idea the theme of God’s Kingdom.  There is no argument here with the choice.  It is perhaps the primary theme of the Bible (25-26).  But the Kingdom of God has proven to be a very mutivalent concept in the hands of Bible scholars (e.g. 29-30, 32).  Therefore, any writer who wants to put out a big book on the Kingdom has his work cut out for him.  The question is, how to both persuade the reader of ones own take while showing why other views of the subject – e.g. the Kingdom is the Church, or the Kingdom is the inheritance of the Church – fail in their understanding of the Scriptures (e.g. 16).

Although there is some interaction with other positions, the writer is clear that what he is concerned with is a positive presentation of his view of the kingdom (17 n.11).  Vlach offers what he calls “a new creationist perspective” (11), by which he means that the Bible presents the Kingdom as the goal of creation.  This is in opposition to a “spiritual vision model” (12), which tends towards spiritualization.  As the title suggests, the Christocentric thrust of Scripture features strongly, but without the debatable practice of seeing Jesus in every verse.

The author affirms the continuity of God’s plan in line with His promises.  The spiritual promises of inward renewal have been shown to have had literal fulfillment.  So too will the physical promises (14, 49).  The form that this takes is “fulfillment of the particular (Israel) leads to fulfillment of the universal (the world)” (15 – all italics are those of the author).

There are five parts to the storyline of the Bible (23).  The first is pivotal:

the kingdom is present with creation as God the King of creation tasks his image-bearer, man, to rule and subdue His creation.

This linking of eschatology to creation is vital for the future of premillennial eschatology, as it prevents one dealing with the Last Things independently or lastly , as so often happens in Dispensational publications.  His definition of Kingdom as “the rule of God over His creation” (30) reinforces the need for a biblical theology of the Kingdom.  With the concept of the “mediatorial kingdom” (via Alva McClain) wherein God rules via man, providing the mode of Kingdom rule (ch. 3).

I should insert here that even though I would not disagree with Vlach that the Kingdom is primary as a theme, and I would even say that “covenant” is subordinate to the aims of the Kingdom (26), I do not think that that the Kingdom theme as Vlach sees it is established outside of God’s covenants.  He quotes Goldsworthy to this effect (26 n. 10), although ironically in the piece he cites; “The Kingdom of God as Hermeneutic Grid”, I believe Goldsworthy gets things exactly the wrong way round.  It is the covenants which provide the interpretive grid for the Kingdom idea to fully emerge (though see 28 n. 14).  This is why the present writer advocates a “biblical covenantalism” as the backbone of proper hermeneutics.

The second chapter seeks to establish the methodology of the rest of the book.  Adequate grounds are given with good examples.  I heard echoes of some of my own emphases in this chapter: like the stabilizing authority of the covenants (42), the objection that if the original audience couldn’t know the path of fulfillment the revelation could not have been for them (42), the problem with a hermeneutics geared mostly to the first coming (43 n.21), and the fact that spiritual qualifications precede and guarantee literal fulfillment  of God’s promises (44).   Vlach does not need me to tell him these things, but I was very pleased to see them stressed.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis is where the rationale for Vlach’s five parts of the Bible Story must be established.  He does this in chapter 4, “The Kingdom and Creation (Genesis 1- 11)”.  Good creation, fall, and the foundational first (Noahic) covenant are handled neatly, so that the transition into Genesis 12 and following flows logically and inevitably.  I think the author does a great job in these pages, achieving the programmatic cohesion that exists from the flood to the call of Abraham.  This is a skillfully written chapter; the best in the Old Testament portion of the book. (more…)

Review: Martin Luther – A Spiritual Biography

Review of Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography, by Herman Selderhuis, Wheaton; Crossway, 2017, 347 pages, hardback.

Quite rightly, in view of the historical and spiritual importance of the Reformation, there have been a spate of books about Martin Luther; this year, and indeed this day, being the five hundredth anniversary of the event that sparked the movement into flame – the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses onto the church door at Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517.

The author of the present book, Herman Selderhuis, has distinguished himself with his work on John Calvin, including a study of Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms and The Calvin Handbook.  He has also written a similar biography to this on John Calvin.

The very first thing I want to say about this biography of Luther is that it is very well written.  Selderhuis has a plain, pithy and subtly tongue-in-cheek style that really makes the material flow.  The second thing I would say is that this is not biography lurching into hagiography.  The book presents the Reformer as a very flawed but endlessly fascinating individual.  Luther was, for example, proud (179) and stubborn (181).  His greatest sin was undoubtedly his anti-semitism (286-288).  Even though there is some mitigating evidence provided by Ernest Schweibert’s The Reformation, who states that four times Luther sought to employ Jewish instructors of Hebrew at the university, there is overwhelming evidence that Luther’s attitude towards Jews was bigoted and ungodly (Further confirmation of this can be found in the first chapter of Hans-Martin Barth’s very fine The Theology of Martin Luther).  And even though it is anachronistic to blame Luther for the use made of him by the Nazis, the fact that his invectives could so easily be utilized makes it difficult to remove the odium that has subsequently been heaped upon him.

It is a testament to the many-sided character of the man that Martin Luther is still eminently inspirational and worth reading about.  He was a man of decisive character and great courage, being able to go against convention for conscience sake.

The world was a different place then.  Satan and demons were at large everywhere:

Miners, who worked in darkness deep underground, were terrified at the thought of meeting an evil spiritual being. (21)     

As for God, He was too lofty, too holy, and far too demanding for any sinner to know if he had done enough to receive his grace (e.g, 63), although after his trip to Rome he began to have doubts (71).  His lectures in theology and the Bible from 1513 to 1517 saw him searching for and developing a distinctive theology of grace which eventually found its center in God’s offer of righteousness in Christ (89, 108).  The whole thing is so well summarized at the start of chapter 6 that I quote it below.

A society that was based on the conviction that people have to restore their relationship with God changed radically when a new foundational conviction emerged: that God in Christ accomplished everything.  God’s justice was no longer the threat that drove someone to pursue a morally upright lifestyle, but rather, it was a gift that motivated people to gratitude.  This theology, this new relationship between God and people, removed the logical basis of the mass, pilgrimages, veneration of relics, celibacy, monastic life, purgatory, preoccupation with the salvation of the dead, and the all-encompassing and supreme position of the church.  Luther’s theology brought something totally different from what previous attempts at reformation had sought.  The fact that God provided righteousness instead of requesting it made it necessary to reconsider the church, preaching, lifestyle, marriage, education, politics, heaven and hell, death, and the Devil. (135-136).

This really was a sea change in European culture.  The knock-on effects are still being felt in our day.

Along the way Selderhuis dispenses with a few of the myths surrounding Luther’s oath to St. Anne in a thunderstorm (43-44), that Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German, and even the fact that Luther himself almost certainly did not nail the 95 Theses to Wittenberg Church door.  The Theses were nailed to the door, but it would have been a student who would have been entrusted to put them there (100).  Whatever romantic notions have to disappear before these details, the main facts are unaltered.

The author is an expert in the Reformation and he moves with ease from one personality or to another and one stage of Luther’s career to another.  He provides his information in such a winning way that I have to agree with Michael Haykin’s assessment on the flyleaf: “This is how biography should be written.”

Crossway Publishers (who provided me with this copy) are to congratulated for producing such a readable Life of Martin Luther.

Review – Darwin’s House of Cards

A review of Tom Bethell, Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey Through The Creation Debates, Seattle: Discovery Press International, 2017, 293 pages, pbk.

The widespread public acceptance of biological evolution in Darwin’s day was probably a product of the simultaneous faith in Progress.  Darwin’s theory was accepted as readily as it was because it shared in the general belief that things were getting better.  It’s not that the organisms themselves were being swept along, but that European and then American intellectuals believed that everything was improving. – 256

This is the way Tom Bethell ends his entertaining book attacking the reigning scientistic consensus of evolution.  Darwin’s House of Cards is a fully up-to-date survey of the mechanics and effects of evolutionary theory; a theory which Karl Popper concluded was “not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program” (14).

As to the general optimism which provided the conditions for the enthusiastic acceptance of Darwinism in the middle of the nineteenth century, Bethell writes,

[A]s I hope to show in the following chapters, the science of neo-Darwinism was poor all along, and supported by very few facts.  I have become ever more convinced that, although Darwinism has been promoted as science, its unstated role has been to prop up a philosophy – the philosophy of materialism – and atheism along with it. (20).

In the nineteen chapters which follow the author reports on and dismantles numerous evolutionary claims and “evidences”, showing among other things that common descent, natural selection, and random mutations are either pure fiction, tautological, or terribly over-plugged.  He challenges the dogma of the tree of life, noticing along the way biochemist Craig Venter’s denial of it (53-54), and paleontologist Colin Patterson’s frank admission that the nodes in the tree of life diagrams are always empty (55-56).  Why?  Because there is no real evidence for it.

Speaking of Patterson, who was chief paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London until his death in 1998, Bethell interviewed him several times, and chapter 12 reviews those conversations.  Although Patterson remained a thoroughgoing evolutionist, he came to the opinion that it conveyed no scientific information at all.  As Bethell reports it, he said that scientists could do very well without it (149).

In the same chapter we are told about two world-renowned experts in their fields who admit that the funding for their respective fields is minimal compared with digging up fossils.  Nevertheless, both said that “you don’t find out much from fossils”, and that they could find out much more by studying living things (146-148).

This book’s short chapters are so well written that the author is able to cover a great deal of territory in a relatively short space.  This means that along with the usual problematical areas for evolution; natural selection (chapters 5 & 6), the fossil record (chapter 11), homology (chapter 9), DNA and Epigenetics (chapter 15), etc., he also tackles less well documented issues like extinction (chapter 7), and convergence (chapter 10).  There is also a useful chapter about Richard Lenski’s long-term experiments with E-coli (chapter 16).

As to homology, for example, he notes, the propensity of naturalists to invoke design while supposedly trying to explain it away.  Homologists, or those who rely on them, often write of the relative similarities in structures from different organisms without being forthright enough to declare that these similar features often are derived from different sets of genes! (109-112).

To take a few more examples, despite the recent demonizing of humanity and our deleterious influence on nature by many progressives on the left, no one knows why extinctions happen (86-92).  As for “convergence”, the belief that differing species evolve similar traits due to their experiencing the same kinds of environmental and ecological pressures, evolutionists again beg the question.  Evolutionists have tended to substitute their imaginations for proof, and nearly always simplify extremely difficult matters in the process.  So on page 119 Stephen Jay Gould is quoted as saying that in certain flying creatures, “highly adaptive forms that are easy to evolve arise again and again.”  Bethell responds that if flight is so easy to evolve, “Someone should tell Boeing engineers how that was achieved.”

As we’re on the subject of engineering, chapter 13 is given over to “Intelligent Design and Information Theory.”  At the start of the chapter Bethell mentions the work of Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Douglas Axe (155-161).  He deftly dispatches theistic evolutionist Kenneth Brown’s attempt to oppose Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity” findings (155-156), and then states the obvious truth that, contrary to creationism, “Intelligent design theory… does not identify a designer, any more than we can identify the designer of Stonehenge.” (157).  Why then the resistance to ID?  For instance, citing Wikipedia’s slanted presentation:

Numerous attempts have been made to change…derogatory comments, but all such changes are promptly reversed on Wikipedia – sometimes within minutes. (161)

The thought-police are very active.  But of course the reason has already been given.  The reigning view of the intellectuals is naturalistic atheism.  Therefore, the facts will always be made to comport with the theory, however vicious the contortions have to be.  Chapter 14 describes the link between “Darwinism and the Philosophy of Naturalism.”  This chapter includes a good discussion of freewill, or the denial thereof by many of these “Freethinkers”, although the irony of their calling themselves by this term seems to be totally lost on most of them!  Bethell’s responses to this are effectively structured around the work of Michael Egnor and Thomas Nagel.


Book Review: Douglas Axe’s ‘Undeniable’

A review of Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed, New York: HarperOne, 2016, 304 pages, hdbk.

Readers of Stephen Meyer’s two important books, Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, will know the name of Douglas Axe.  Axe’s work on probability theory and gene folding feature quite prominently in those works.  This book is a compliment to Meyer, but it is also a companion to William Dembski’s books like The Design Inference and No Free Lunch.  I suppose the nearest thing to it is Dembski’s book Intelligent Design.

But Undeniable is not simply a repetition of the type of arguments one will find in those books.  In the first place, Axe’s main concern is to provide Joe Public with an assuring and accessible guide on his own ability to detect invention no matter what the Science pundits tell them.

This book tries to get behind the sane intuition all of us have that incredibly complex functionality is not and can never be a result of any kind of unguided randomization.  It never is in our day to day experience of living.  Only in the imaginings of those who cannot see the difference between a scientific pronouncement and a metaphysical one does the idea gain currency and the power to veto competing ideas.  But this so characterizes the furtiveness of the spokespeople who try to shove evolutionist just-so stories down the throats of the populace, without facing the arguments brought against them.  The author thinks evolution is wrong; that it “can’t possibly be defended as clearly and convincingly as it can be refuted.” (59).  I’m on board.  I’m also totally fine believing that “Atheists have a pronounced leaning toward scientism” (7), which explains why they slide so easily from science-talk into bad philosophizing.

Axe engages the reader with what he calls “common science”.  Common science is the sort of enterprise we all do to get along in life.  And we do it by following a “design intuition”, and by inventing stuff.  The author believes that “everyone validates their design intuition through firsthand experience”, and he thinks this validation is of a scientific nature (60).  He sounds like Thomas Kuhn when drawing attention to pressures among the scientific class to conform to an institutionalized agenda (54); like Michael Polanyi when he says that prior understanding is essential for deeper knowledge (61), and gets a little Aristotelian (in the right way) when he quips that little actions are meaningful when “they produce a significant end”, one that clearly looks intended (67).

Axe is good at giving analogies to help his reader grasp his thesis.  He speaks about the discovery of “a revolutionary new soup” (16).  This “oracle soup” when cooled reveals instructions for constructing a helpful new gadget, and it does it every time it cools down!  Skeptical?, the author asks, that’s because this fabled soup goes right against our design intuition.  We will just not accept that physical laws plus chance as explanations for the miraculous qualities of oracle soup (18).  Common science stops us from settling for clearly obvious nonsensical answers – if we heed it. But just here problems arise.  What if nonsense is what you need in order for the world to be the way you would like it?

We should by all means trust the scientific community to tell us how many moons orbit Neptune or how many protons are packed into the nucleus of a cobalt atom.  Why would anyone distort facts of that kind? Matters where everyone wants to see things a certain way, however, are a completely different story. With those we should always apply a healthy dose of skepticism. (38)

In chapter 6, “Life is Good”, the writer refers to what he calls “Busy Wholes” and “Whole Projects”.  Whole Projects are the result of bringing many smaller things together in just the right way.  “Busy wholes” are the things which, when properly combined, make up a “whole project.” (69).  “Busy wholes tackle their projects by breaking them down into smaller projects in an organized way.” (70).  This means that we intuit complex wholes as “projects”, and such things “ought to be so” (76).  He gives the example of the pandas thumb, a favorite target of evolutionists of dysteleology, or bad design.  But Axe observes simply that,

I find myself evaluating the people rather than the panda.  None of these people, however earnest they may be, have any deep grasp of the principles of design and development underlying sesamond bones or thumbs, to say nothing of pandas. (78).

Because they eschew teleology, and are often not skilled engineers, those who complain about the pandas thumb are not saying anything of value.  (This same attitude holds true when it comes to information theory).  To sum up,

When we see working things that came about only by bringing many parts together in the right way, we find it impossible not to ascribe these inventions to purposeful action, and this pits our intuition against the evolutionary account. (87)

He poses a central question: “whether evolutionary theory is more in touch with our observations than our design intuition is” (88).  The book argues strongly that the answer is No.  The evidence is stacking up in favor of an agreement between the evidence and our design intuitions. (more…)

Wm. Paul Young’s Problems with the Truth about God (Pt.2)

Part One

Universal Salvation

When I speak of Young’s universalism I am not referring to the belief that Jesus Christ provided an atonement for every sinner; a position which I hold.  I am instead talking about the liberal theological teaching that God will save everybody, whether or not they have placed their trust in His Son.

Because of the author’s encounters with hurt and pain it is understandable that he has searched for a god who is safe and accepting.  In his striving to push past the debilitating burden that bitterness carries with it, perhaps he has embraced a god that characterizes his wish to move on and forgive – everyone?  One can’t be sure.  But Young wants to remove what he sees as the hard edges off of the traditional concept of God:

Every human being you meet, interact with, react and respond to, treat rudely or with kindness and mercy: every one is a child of God.  If we considered that we are all together members of one family, might we care for one another with more consideration and kind intention?  Every human being is my brother, my sister, my mother, my father… a child of God (206)

Naturally, he has just appealed to Paul’s statement before the Areopagus in Acts 17:28-29 (though he also grabs at Ephesians 4:5-6, which is aimed at Christians, for help).  Once more his inability to read the Bible coherently is troubling. When Paul quotes the pagan poet Aratus in Acts 17:29 he is not using him to teach that we are all adopted into God’s family, no matter what we believe.  If that were the case he certainly wouldn’t have spoken of future judgment and demanded repentance (Acts 17:30-31)!

What the quotation above demonstrates is that Young conceives of humanity as a set that is properly related to its Creator.  we’re all one big family, but we don’t treat each other like we should.  Of course, this is a logical result of his thinking about sin in Pelagian terms as ignorance and bad habit.

Here’s the truth: every person who has ever been conceived was included in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. (119) 

If we take Jesus seriously, then we are not dealing with outsiders and insiders; we are dealing with those who are seeing and those who are not seeing, trusting and not trusting. (55)

Since we are “all on a journey”, a continuum, it is wrong, says Young, to think in terms of believers and unbelievers (57).  In actual fact, he assures us that since we are created in the image of God, “the truth of your being looks like God” (229).  Our violence, insensitivity, arrogance, and selfishness are a result of our lack of understanding of the central truth of our being in and like God.

If you think this is starting to sound slightly panentheistic, or at least that Young’s god is just a big kiss (to borrow Joseph Parker’s term), I think you are hearing right.  This is the way Young’s theology is tending, and I expect him to veer in that direction in the years to come.  You’re okay even if you didn’t cut it in this life.  Young opines,

I don’t think God would ever say that once you die, that your fate is sealed and there is nothing that God can do for you. (182)

Well that’s nice.  But we ought to make sure that we are taking Jesus seriously like the author tells us to. The Lord Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), which included an intentional betrayal (Jn. 13:11).  He said that the world, that is, the ungodly rebellious people whose thinking is not subordinated to God’s revelation, hated Him (Jn. 15:18).  He excoriated the religious leaders with language which was unmistakably non-inclusivist.  He called some of them children of the devil (Jn. 8:44), and the Apostle John broadens the category considerably (1 Jn. 3:10).  It takes no real effort to discover that the Lord’s attitude to “insiders and outsiders” is at variance with Wm. P. Young.

He that is of God hears God’s words: you therefore hear them not, because you are not of God – John 8:47   

A person who refuses God’s words is a person who is “not of God”.  To this the rest of the New Testament clearly agrees (e.g. Mk. 4:11; Eph. 2:12; Jam. 4:4; Jude 4, 18).  How, for instance, can you wring a positive message out of this?

Serpents, brood of vipers!  how can you escape the condemnation of hell (gehenna)? – Matthew 23:33     

Young’s idea of taking Jesus seriously is to ignore what Jesus says wherever His words cross Young’s idea of what Jesus should be like.  It’s all of a piece, the view of sin, the universalism, including postmortem redemption, the transformation of hell into love’s fiery embrace; these are all the family of products which Young’s concerted lack of attention to God’s words yields.  It is undiluted liberalism. Promising people that they are adopted into God’s eternal family just on the basis of their humanity is as big a lie as could be told.  The god that sustains his doctrines is not the true God of the Bible. (more…)

Wm. Paul Young’s Problems with the Truth About God (Pt.1)

A Review of Wm. Paul Young, Lies We Believe About God, Simon & Schuster, 258 pages, pbk 

Wm. Paul Young is best known as the author of the astoundingly successful book The Shack.  He has also written two other works.  All his books deal with pain and suffering and seek to offer hope.

Unfortunately, Young’s brand of hope, although it presents itself as Christian, and indeed has been understood as such by many, is not anchored in the biblical portrait of God at all.   This book, Lies We Believe About God lays bare Young’s understanding of some of the central tenets of Christianity for all to see.  Those of us who were unhappy with the portrayal of God in The Shack have had our suspicions vindicated.  Young’s conception of God is very unbiblical.

Where He is Right

Saying that this book contains a false view of God is not the same as saying that it is entirely false.  He has some strong words for the word-faith people (86-87).  He correctly states that for God to change this world into a monument of His grace “speaks volumes” about His character (39).  He is also spot on when he says that we are all individuals and God will relate to us as such (158), and in his insistence that we have intrinsic worth (32).  There are a few things in the book where the author makes a good point or two.  He can get you to agree with him.

More than once the honest reader will acknowledge that Young has described an issue well.  Not in-depth to be sure, but he has sounded the right note.  His aim is clearly to try to make God less like a cruel schoolmaster or an ever wakeful pedant, just waiting for us to trip up so we can be sorted out, or at least reasonably ignored.  God is approachable.

The School of Pain

It does not take long to gain a genuine pity for Young.  He has suffered.  Moreover, a lot of his suffering has come, directly or indirectly, from the hands of those who should have known better.  His father was emotionally abusive (29-32, 209-212)  His parents were missionaries to West Papua, New Guinea, where Young grew up and from where he was wrenched to go back to his parents’ homeland in Canada (165-166).  From watching an interview with Young I discovered that he had been physically abused by the natives in West Papua within a stone’s throw of his neglectful parents.  At a young age he was packed off to boarding school where he was similarly mistreated.  There are some poignant lessons for missionaries and mission boards in Young’s stories, not least of which is that one can hardly claim to be doing God’s work when your children are mistreated, neglected, and even being exposed to danger and trauma while you are “building the kingdom.”

You can see that I have sympathy for the author, and any reader would.  It is not that his parents were “bad people” (although his father comes across as quite odious).  But they do appear to have been pretty clueless and even heartless in several crucial areas.  Young has had to try to manage his distress more or less on his own while still believing that God is good.  But I must return to that point presently.


The book has lots of stories.  That won’t surprise anyone who knows anything about modern Christian publishing.  Many of them are affecting.  For example, there is a great story about his mother’s rescue of a “not viable” baby, and how he was given back to his parents grew, eventually becoming a pastor (chapter 7).

The real stories are mixed with the made-up ones from Young’s books, and together they create the emotional undercurrent the book relies on to “support” the author’s views.  Indeed, it became clear to me that the 28 “Lies” he presents us with find most of their traction from these anecdotes; not from the Bible.

All that said, then, it’s time to examine the many theological problems with this book.

The Theological Errors in the Book

The heresies in Lies We Believe About God come thick and fast.  They are embedded in the sympathy- rousing narratives of the book.  As he puts it,

Each chapter refers to a statement I once believed and from which I have transitioned. (18)

I have no intention of going through all of the “lies”.  From hereon in I shall concentrate on what I think are his most destructive ideas.

  1. Pelagianism

I’ll start off with the claim that the real trouble with us is not that we are born sinners.  No, “we have become blind in the deceit-darkness we believe.” (36).   “Pride is a sin because it is a denial of being human” (227).  Here is an even more definitive assertion:

Yes, we have crippled eyes, but not a core of ungoodness.  We are true and right, but often ignorant and stupid, acting out of the pain of our wrongheadedness, hurting ourselves, others, and even all creation.  Blind, not depraved, is our condition. (34-35)

Then comes an attempt at scriptural logic:

Remember, God cannot become anything that is evil or inherently bad … and God became human. (35)

Of course, this is rank Pelagianism pure and unalloyed.  The belief that we are all inherently good deep down, and that our “sins” come about because of ignorance or our environment or whatever is the common currency of every religion and worldview but one: Biblical Christianity.   (more…)