Book Reviews

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.  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.  He 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).

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.

Stories

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…)

Review: ‘The Spirituality of Paul’ by Leslie T. Hardin

Leslie T. Hardin, The Spirituality of Paul, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016, 190 pages.

This book is written in a lively and engaging style by a professor of New Testament at Johnson University in Florida, an institution connected to the ‘Stone-Campbell’ Restoration Movement. The University’s Statement of Faith expresses clearly the major bone of contention between Restorationist churches and Evangelical churches:

Faith, repentance, confession of faith in Jesus, baptism (immersion) and prayer are for the remission of past sins, and faith, repentance and confession of sins and prayer are for the remission of the erring Christian’s sins (Acts 8:22)

This is not salvation by grace alone through faith alone!  “Campbellites” (if I may employ the term without trying to be inflammatory), believe that one must be baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit.  Quite what Kregel Publications thought they were doing by issuing a book from such a source is beyond me.  This is not to say that the book is not without merit, nor indeed that the author should be ignored, but Christian publishers owe it to their readers to inform them about the authors they publish.  The statement reproduced above teaches a conditional or ‘maintained’ state of forgiveness.

Another feature of The Spirituality of Paul that raises some concern is Hardin’s endorsement of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’.  Citing E.P. Sanders he writes:

Jews believed they were saved by grace, and (as much research has borne out for us) maintained their status in the covenant by doing works of piety and holiness which upheld the covenant and demonstrated to the world that they were holy… Therefore, when Paul speaks about “works of the law” he’s primarily referring to Jewish traditions… The context makes more sense now in Ephesians, … that “it is by grace you have been saved…not by [Jewish-style holiness works]”… (36-37 Emphasis in original)

In the book Hardin covers various spiritual characteristics (e.g. devotion to Scripture, prayer, discipleship, evangelism, holiness), in an easy to read personal style.  Some readers (myself included) will not warm to Hardin’s approval of Richard Foster (14), but then again, they will appreciate the author’s candidness about the struggle of prayer (53-55).

The book is well informed and does contain good insights.  I like that he deals soberly with the miraculous and experiential aspects of day-to-day spirituality in Jesus and Paul (17-20), although I do wish he had refrained from calling these experiences by the term “ecstatic”, which is misleading.  There is a particularly good treatment of speaking in tongues in the chapter on Spiritual Gifts (esp. 131-134) and a fine chapter on the “value” of Christian Suffering.

Part of me wants to recommend The Spirituality of Paul, and the mature believer would find much of benefit in it.  But its author’s views on the role of baptism and the New Perspective persuade me to caution people about the book.

This book was provided by the publisher

 

“The Kingdom of Speech” by Tom Wolfe

A review of The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe.  Audiobook read by Robert Petkoff, 2016.

This little book by the novelist and contemporary commentator on modern culture Tom Wolfe is worth the attention of anyone interested in the enigma of language.  An enigma it is, more especially if one does not understand language as God ordained.  Wolfe would appear to be an example of this point of view.

So if Wolfe does not connect language to the Creator, but rather sees it as an artifact, an invention of man, what use is this book to the Christian reader?  My answer is in two halves.  In the first instance Kingdom of Speech is a good book because Wolfe puts his finger firmly (and repeatedly) on the problem of incorporating the realities of speech within the confines of evolutionary grand narratives, whether Darwinian or neo-Darwinian, it makes no difference, since he shows how all its champions come up empty-handed.  He shows further, with the assured poise of a well-read researcher, and in entertaining prose that the problem of accounting for speech has eluded and is eluding the brightest of the “brights” from Darwin down to Chomsky.  That story itself is worth getting the book for.

But an added feature is that in posing the problem, the author presents the enormity of the task for the evolutionary purists, and while doing so spells out the “achievement” that language and speech is.  Alongside of this there are diverting examinations of the sort of conformity-at-all-costs peer pressure which has been exercised within the academy since before the publication of the Origin of Species.  One more exposure of how utterly fallacious the picture of how cool and disinterested the scientific establishment has always been is always to be welcomed.

But the second part of my answer sounds a note of caution.  While Wolfe is rightly dismissive of the usual accounts of human speech in evolutionary dogma, he replaces it with Daniel Everett’s view of language as artifact, which, though an improvement, is nonetheless unsatisfactory.

The book can be roughly divided between the compelling story of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, which is the most entertaining part of the book, and the more contemporary tale of the supremacy of the armchair linguist Noam Chomsky and the rise of the young field-hardened pretender, Everett.  Wolfe is well aware that Chomsky is a patron saint of progressives as well as of the scientific who’s who, and he unleashes both barrels of his furious irony upon him (for those of you who cannot get enough of this cruel pursuit, may I recommend the appropriate essays in David Berlinski’s Black Mischief).

He contrasts Chomsky’s ivory tower approach to his subject with Everett’s more down to earth empirical studies.  Everett lived and worked among an obscure Amazonian tribe called the Piraha (pronounced Pea-de-hah) for many years.  These people have an accentuated view of present experience; they are the ultimate empiricists.  Everett, who went there as a missionary, lost his faith when he couldn’t provide evidence to the Piraha which they could comprehend, of Christ’s existence (of course, the reality of Christian truth claims, along with very many other things – like the year 1564, or tomorrow, or the existence of Antarctica -, cannot be decided within the limits of a strict empiricism, unless one has been to the Antarctic!).

Anyway, Everett’s work threatened to overthrow the Chomskian paradigm and has therefore been vigorously opposed.  Still, the outcome of all of this is that at the time of writing, the phenomenon of speech is a mystery.

I give the book a cautious recommendation.  What it lacks is a good critique of Everett’s epistemological assumptions and any interaction with his thesis that language is just a tool for getting communication done.  As such, The Kingdom of Speech seriously lacks a proper ending.  In sum, it is entertaining, informative, iconoclastic, but without any thought of exploring the deficiencies of the feeble-looking speech as artifact thesis.  From all the eulogizing of speech which Wolfe has indulged in inside the book, this is a grave omission.

‘The Case for Jesus’ by Brant Pitre – A Review

Book Review: The Case For Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, by Brant Pitre, New York: Image, 2016, 242 pages, hdbk.

I suppose that the first thing I ought to say is that this is not The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, nor is it related to the set of books spawned by it. This is a new work by a Professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

Coming from the desk of a Roman Catholic readers may want to question what I am doing even bothering to read it. My defense is that some Roman Catholic writers are well worth being acquainted with, and, in fact, ought to be read – though with the caveat that they are Roman Catholics. To name just a few, I think Jay Budziszewski is one of the best writers and speakers to recommend to a college student. Anthony Esolen and Benjamin Wiker are good guides on what to read and what not to read. Robert Barron, who coincidentally wrote the Afterword for the book under review, is worth your time on practically anything, creation and church doctrine apart. And a man who cannot find any benefit from G. K. Chesterton is a reflective sluggard indeed. Alongside of these Brant Pitre deserves a hearing, and especially this book.

The Case For Jesus is, I think, the very best book on its subject for a general audience. It is wonderfully written, very informative, conservative in its conclusions, and is a great faith-builder. Its thirteen compact chapters, which even with Barron’s contribution bring the book in at a mere 242 pages, including endnotes, comprise a consistent push-back against the slippery arguments of Bart Ehrman (Pitre’s main foil) and others like him.

The opening chapter sets the context for the discussions which follow. Of major concern to Pitre is the Telephone Game illustration of Gospel transmission used so effectively by the run of unbelieving scholarship. Anyone who has heard Erhman will be familiar with his mantra that the Gospels are anonymous, the titles we have being added much later. Actually, I have come across this belief even in evangelical authors. But Pitre dispatches this fiction very effectively – by a straightforward appeal to the facts. He points out in chapter two,

The first and perhaps the biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have. (15. Author’s emphasis).

The edifice which Erhman leans upon so heavily is made of air. All of the available manuscript and Patristic evidence points in the other direction. Erhman, a textual critic, is surely close to committing the unpardonable sin of his discipline – of ignoring all the textual evidence in favor of his preferences.

Pitre also asks how such well known and cherished writings managed to be copied and handled without their authors being identified. And how come there is complete unanimity in the ascription of the authors? (19).  Related to this is the question of the both internal (within the Gospels themselves) and external (writers outside the Gospels) evidence for whether we know who wrote the Gospels. These issues are covered in chapters three and four. Again, the evidence is “completely unambiguous and totally unanimous.” (39).

The fifth chapter ably handles the inaccurately called “Lost Gospels” while chapter six inquires whether the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biographies. This impressive chapter closes with a short discussion about whether the Gospels should be viewed as verbatim transcripts. The author decides in favor of the position that word-for-word accuracy is not always present but,

On the other hand, the historical character of the Gospels does mean that the authors intend to record the substance of what Jesus really said and did. (81. Author’s emphasis).

Chapter seven examines the dating of the Gospels. Pitre deals with reasons for fixing the Gospels with a late date and finds them to be seriously flawed (89). This excellent chapter finishes off what I might call the first part of the book. From then on the next six chapters focus on who Jesus is.  They continue the high standards set by “part one”. Along the way Pitre works with several prophetic chapters from the Book of Daniel (Dan. 2, 7, and 9).  On the whole he addresses himself to these chapters with real competence, and always conservatively. The ninth and tenth chapters are concerned with Jesus’ divinity, while chapters eleven and twelve deal with the crucifixion and resurrection respectively. The resurrection in particular is skillfully handled, with a fine exposition of “the Sign of Jonah”(185-190).

Fittingly, the final chapter is a brief meditation on the identity of Jesus Christ utilizing His question at Caesarea Philippi, “who do you say that I am?” We are left in no doubt about the answer:

In light of everything we’ve seen in this book, one thing is clear: if you are going to hold a theory that Jesus never claimed to be God, you had better be committed to eliminating a lot of historical evidence. (193. Author’s emphasis).

Indeed. Dr Pitre makes his case. And he is helped by a whole company of scholars, from Craig Keener, Richard Bauckham and Martin Hengel to John Meier and Joseph Fitzmyer, whose appearances are most felt in the endnotes.

So buy and read The Case For Jesus, digest its arguments, teach them to others. Do not commit the logical error of shooting the messenger because he is not a Protestant. The author has written a clever rebuttal to the croaking arguments of the skeptics, and I for one am very glad that he did.

Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches

Review: Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches by D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, editors.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2016, 501 pages.  

This book is a celebration of the work of Craig A. Blaising.  Though I am not a Progressive Dispensationalist, I do like Blaising’s writing.  He always approaches a subject from interesting angles, and usually makes important points.

The book is divided into the three sections of the subtitle, plus a beginning section on foundational matters.  The list of contributors is impressive and the table of contents is inviting.  But more important is whether the contributions are up to snuff.  On that score I can answer with a firm if not universal yes!  In this brief review I shall first turn to the most impressive essays and then say one or two things about what I might refer to as the more makeweight chapters.

First place for this reviewer goes to Daniel Block’s piece on Mosaic eschatology centered on the Book of Deuteronomy.  The essay presents a fine arrangement and handling of the salient texts, with good interaction with scholarship.  But its best part comes with the author’s treatment of Deuteronomy 4, 30 and 32.  This is an excellent piece of biblical theology.

Pretty close on its heals is the next chapter on “The Doctrine of the Future in the Historical Books.”  Although it did not interact with as many interpreters as Block, the writer, Gregory Smith, did use his limited pool of sources well.  He has many good footnotes, but too often relies on the same people (e.g., Merrill, Dumbrell, Kaiser, EBC).  This I think confines him to general conclusions instead of a decided stance.  He manages to convey the importance of the Davidic hope in the Historical writings, even if he leaves things a little open-ended.  Still, I learned a lot from Smith’s article and I recommend it.

The opening chapter is by Jeffrey Bingham and is a scholarly look at the answers given by the early church to the assailing of the two Testament canon by Marcion.  Bingham’s major thrust is that the Fathers recognized that theological continuity between the OT and NT was essential and also possible, whereas Marcion sided with a radical discontinuity (e.g. 45-46).  The article is informative and asks good questions, but Bingham runs out of space to answer them.  He does show, however, that the paths taken to minimize the perceived discontinuity problem are still with us and that Dispensationalism has not been given a fair hearing for its hermeneutical stability across the Scriptures.

John and Stefana Laing’s bold effort is entitled “The Doctrine of the Future, the Doctrine of God, and Predictive Prophecy.”  It ambitiously tries to bring the three ideas into unified focus and nearly succeeds.  It is well structured, well annotated, and well written.  Some of the notes were especially nice to have, either for apologetic or for theological purposes.  They include a lengthy footnote, for example, about the ecstatic behavior of pagan prophets in which they customarily lost control of their faculties (83 n.6).  This article, with its mix of thoughtful historical, theological and apologetic content, must have taken a lot of effort to put together within the imposed page limit.  For the most part I liked it, although I have to take issue with their repetition of the hackneyed line about the prophets being more ethical preachers (forthtellers) than predictors of the future (foretellers).  Sooner or later evangelicals will discover that the scholarly consensus has shifted back quite a bit.

I could write glowingly about several other pieces in this fine book.  George Klein on the Psalms, Mark Rooker on the Prophets, Glenn Kreider on the eschatology of Jonathan Edwards, and more.  Mark Bailey handles Dispensationalism well.  For readers interested in Jurgen Moltmann the chapter by Lanier Burns is a great one stop treatment, even if Barth and Pannenberg must be content with a brief but competent review by two German scholars.

I said I would refer to a few less impressive chapters.  For me Stanley Toussaint’s piece on eschatology and hope was just okay.  I was disappointed that he did not tie hope more poignantly to the resurrection.  Charles Ryrie wrote a short piece, “The Doctrine of the Future and the Weakening of Prophecy.”  I shall only say that if I ever reached his age I doubt that I could produce an essay as good as Dr. Ryrie, although I’m afraid it isn’t very good.  Finally, Albert Mohler on the application of eschatology to the contemporary situation was rather pedestrian.

But after all is said and done I can give this book my recommendation.  It is not only a tribute to a fine evangelical scholar, it is a collection of solid articles, some of them super, on biblical eschatology.

 

Review: Allen Ross on the Psalms (Vol.3)

A Review of Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 3 (90 – 150), Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1042 pages, hardback 

Finally we have the third and final volume of the Kregel Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms by Allen P. Ross, Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.  This one covers Psalms 90 through 150 and brings the complete set to three thousand pages.  The first two volumes were outstanding.  I have found that I turn to them first for exegetical and even ques to homiletical material (alongside VanGemeren in the EBC).

Although this review is on Volume 3, I want to say something about the other volumes.  Ross’s introduction in Volume 1 is a very helpful orientation to the Psalter, its forms, its themes, and its theology.  As with his outstanding book on worship, Recalling the Hope of Glory, he concerns himself in these books with the Divine – human encounter.  Take a look, for instance at Ross’s comments on Psalm 8 and Psalm 23 in the first volume, and Psalm 42 in the second, and see how Ross brings you into the context of the human author.  The author is a Bible conservative.  He is not interested in winning friends in the critical academy, although he is a first rate Old Testament scholar.

But my job is to comment mainly on this third volume.  At 1042 pages it is the largest of the three.  The page count includes an Index of Word Studies and a Select Bibliography but no Scripture, Subject or author indices.  Why not?  For no good reason that I can think of!  It is my only complaint with the book and it is not Ross’s fault, it is the publisher’s.  When Kregel make peace with practical common sense and start including proper indexes I will stop moaning about their lamentable absence.

What kind of Commentary is this?  It is first and foremost an interpretation of the biblical text.  That is to say, it is quite single-minded in its basic intent.  If you want to know what the text says, with some insight into what is going on, this is the book for you.  Other commentaries will need to be on hand for those concerned with the theological teaching of each Psalm or with detailed interaction with critical opinions, although Ross does discuss various matters to do with motifs, classification, and ideas about dating and purpose, together with furnishing his own translation.

Usability marks this series overall, and this work doesn’t waste the reader’s time.  This is what makes these excellent volumes for the preacher.  The footnotes are many but they do not overwhelm the student.  They do their job of informing and authorizing certain statements of the author.

The interpretations are coined with an eye for what they would have meant for the Old Testament Jew.  Thus, with the great Davidic Psalm 132 stress is laid upon the faithfulness of God to His covenant with David and how belief in God’s promise leads naturally to confidence in God.  David knows that his descendant will reign on his throne one day.  It is good to find a commentary that takes these things seriously without making them heavenly types.  The troublesome imprecation at the end of Psalm 137 is treated head on as a righteous supplication from those who have suffered or seen great suffering.  Meanwhile Psalm 119 is given 140 pages of exposition.

Allen Ross is one of Evangelicalism’s best scholars.  He has brought to conclusion his Psalms Commentary, and has produced arguably the best exposition of the Psalms available.

 

This book was sent to me free of charge by the publisher.

Merrill’s New Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles

A review of Eugene H. Merrill, A Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015, 637 pages, hdbk

Among readers of the Old Testament (you know, those creatures of legend that used to inhabit churches), the Books of 1 and 2 Chronicles would not rank too high on their list of favorites.  Even zealous preachers would, given the choice, prefer to go through 1 & 2 Kings rather than Chronicles.

But these neglected books (one book in the Hebrew Bible) are the only ones which traverse the entire history of Israel, even if they do so by concentrating mainly on the fortunes of the tribe of Judah, particularly the line of David, and the fate of Jewish worship under a succession of kings.  A key underlying theme concerns the self-identity of the Davidic monarchy as related to the Davidic covenant (see the excellent treatment of the Theology of the Book, 57-68).

Eugene Merrill was a wise choice to write the commentary.  Anyone familiar with his Kingdom of Priests will know about his attention to detail, faithfulness to the biblical text, and refusal to swallow the camels of historical criticism.  As the reviewer can personally testify, Dr. Merrill is a churchman, and his book is a fine exposition for the preacher and teacher of the Bible.

As is usual with this impressive series, the comments are deep enough to cover the important items: text, exegesis, explanation and application.  Merrill even includes twelve excurses on topics like “The Angel of YHWH”, two on “Holy War”, “Old Testament Historiography”, issues of chronology in relation to extra-biblical events.

For me the real treasure of this commentary are the chapters handling the “Theology of…” which close out each section.  These expand the fine summary in the Introduction and they deserve careful attention.  As 1 & 2 Chronicles are, first and foremost, theological histories, these chapters are invaluable.

In my opinion this is the best place to go to study these books, and to preach them!

Sad to say, the editing of the Commentary leaves a lot to be desired in the area of proofing of errors.  Also, once again for this series, there are no indexes, and there’s no excuse for that!

 

I received the commentary free from the publisher.

 

Science Versus Religion: A New Angle

The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 320 pages.

The battle between Science and Religion has been presented to the wider public as a struggle between reason and superstition.  In the present intellectual climate, where the ghosts of logical positivism have been far from exorcised from the corridors of scientific thinking, any countering of the reigning attitude is most welcome.  The volume under review is an absorbing historical account of the way the words scientia and religio have been used through time, and how they have changed their meanings since about the middle of the 19th century.  The book under review is scholarly yet readable, comprising six chapters, an epilogue, fifty plus pages of notes, and indices.

It may seem that a book-length study on two archaic words would scarcely qualify as a riveting read, still less that it would be of any relevance.  But Peter Harrison, who is a distinguished historian of science at the University of Queensland in Australia, has managed to produce a study which does both things.  The resultant work is a real contribution to the Science versus Religion debate; a debate that has been impacted to a large degree by its wrong understandings of the terminology.

In six well documented chapters the author ranges from ancient and medieval beliefs about the world and about a life well-lived to the changes in point of view ushered in during the 16th century and especially during the Enlightenment and its aftermath.  When we think of “religion”, or even “faith” today, we think about a certain tied-down set of beliefs.  This impression becomes stronger when it is contrasted with “Science” – the ideal of which (often portrayed by scientists themselves) is the dispassionate search for facts via detached experimentation and cool analysis.  But neither view, whether or not it is the correct definition of the words at the present time, should be thought to capture the mindset of most people, scientists included, prior to about 1850.  Harrison shows that before that time, and certainly before the Reformation had caught hold, the Western mind saw both scientia and religio in terms of development in the attainment of inner virtue (e.g. 47-48).  As he puts the matter later on, “Modern religion had its birth in the seventeenth century; modern science in the nineteenth.  Properly speaking, then, this belated appearance of “science” provides the first occasion for a relationship between science and religion.” (147).

From this point of view it becomes obvious that a critical delving into the past is essential to help in clearing away the rhetoric and the false assumptions which have accumulated over the past century or so.  The basic theme of the book is that there has been no “warfare” between science and religion; at least not until relatively recently.  The author’s object is to prove that, contrary to what is usually supposed, the two terms, “Science” and “Religion” have not traditionally described two distinct activities whose definitions have remain unchanged over time (6).  Rather, the two words share a mutuality historically; a shared trajectory which needs to be understood so as to bring balance to the present arena of conflict.

Briefly then, the word “Religio” was seen as part of the improvement of the individual, particularly in the cultivation of the interior live; of piety in other words (7).  The concern of the ancients as well as the Medievalists, was “for moral and spiritual formation” (40), more than to objectify doctrine.  Thus, “early discussions about true and false religion were typically concerned not with belief, but rather with worship…” (8).  Meanwhile “Scientia” was about the accrual of intellectual virtue through the use of good mental habits (11, 13, 15, 69).  This is part of the reason why modern appeals to Greek ideas of science to support the contemporary naturalistic consensus are totally misguided (25f.).  In fact, Harrison claims that these forbears saw theology as being an important part of science (31-33, 52).  The Stoics, for instance, held up theology as “the most elevated branch of physics.” (31).  This also means that attempting to read the Greeks as if they were on the same page as scientific naturalists simply ignores their understanding of natural philosophy (211 n.12 & n.14), and the different ideas of pagans and Christians as to the best means of pursuing spiritual growth (37f.).

Seeing Christianity as a way, even if it is the best way, of improving mind and soul, goes to explain the easy appropriation of pagan philosophers by the likes of Justin, Clement, and Origen (41).  Tertullians’s opposing Jerusalem and Athens might be thought of as a reference more to a “mode of life” than to doctrinal standards – a contention which, it must be said,  appears to be at odds with Tertullian’s argument in the Prescription where he insists that Christian truth “is our palmary [i.e. admirable] faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.”  Here I think Harrison overplays his hand, but he makes enough sense to contribute value to topic. (more…)