Penal Substitutionary Atonement is Still Valid, Despite Mass Incarceration

This post is a second part of a review of a recent volume arguing against mass incarceration. I elected to post this portion of the critique separate from the initial summary review because the primary issue of the book is important and the positive potential of the book in facilitating a discussion of mass incarceration should not get buried by the significant problems in the theological argumentation of the book. However, the overall argumentation of the book against penal substitutionary atonement, which is a large portion of the second half of the book, deserves further critique.


There are several significant flaws in the latter portion of the recently released book, Rethinking Incarceration. The first problem is methodological, the author relies almost exclusively on secondary and tertiary sources for historical data. Gilliard makes sweeping generalizations about, for example, the Puritans while only citing one source two or three times in a particular chapter. This pattern is repeated with his survey of the history of the penal substitutionary atonement, which he erroneously begins with Augustine. In his summary of the atonement in the writings of Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Aquinas, Gilliard cites Thomas twice from an original source. He uses quotations from the others but draws them from secondary sources. This is problematic because it is clear in his summary of the doctrine, that Gilliard does not adequately understand the doctrines that he is critiquing and is relying on the interpretations of others to formulate his argument. There are several points where the theology he is describing is unrecognizable to someone familiar with the primary sources.

A second major problem is also methodological and has to do with an overreliance on a few preferred sources. In the chapter on early American prison reforms, the author cites one book by Jennifer Graber so many times that it is unclear what independent thought went into the chapter. It also raises the question why a young associate professor in a religion department at a Texas state school should dominate a critical chapter of the volume, which is intended to substantially transform the contemporary understanding of a central Christian doctrine. Additionally, when the same chapter uses the term “Protestant reformer” repeatedly to refer to Quakers engaged in work toward prison reform, rather than to refer to the Protestant Reformers as they are commonly understood, it leads to questions about the author’s basic understanding of theology. The theological analysis of the entire section is also made less plausible by the failure to deal with the important question of (a) whether Quakers are actually Christian, (b) if they are Christian, whether they can assumed to be Protestants (unless that means simply not Roman Catholic), and (c) given their marginal nature within the Christian tradition due to heterodox beliefs, whether the work of the Quakers can be considered representative of the broader Protestant tradition. It is not clear whether this analytical ambiguity is native to Gilliard or if it resides in the only published monograph of his major source.

 Used by CC License:

Used by CC License:

The second point leads into a third problem, which is a failure to deal with any counter arguments. Gilliard stacks up a lot of arguments against penal substitutionary atonement, but because he uses critics who do not actually hold to penal substitutionary atonement to prove his point, none of his criticisms stick. Additionally, a casual reader should be left with questions about why one would hold to the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement when Gilliard has arrayed such a strong group of quotes from people that oppose it, which may be the purpose of writing this sort of book. The major issue is that his failure to engage proponents of penal substitutionary atonement means that his thesis is largely based on hearsay and, based on the evidence he provides, is not logically valid.

In order for the theological argument in Rethinking Incarceration to be valid, it would need to have several coherent premises:

P1. Mass incarceration is a problem.
P2. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is theologically incorrect.
P3. Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory necessarily leads to mass incarceration.
C1. Therefore, to solve the problem of mass incarceration, Christians must abandon Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

Gilliard does an adequate job, especially for a popular level book, in supporting premise one, which is an important accomplishment.

However, because of the weakness of the research, as represented by the book he has written, Gilliard provides very little support for premise two. He has amassed a number of voices calling for a doctrinal distortion of Christianity and mashed in some unsupported theological statements from his own perspective, but he never actually engages with an adherent of this one particular theory of the atonement.

In lieu of researching the position that Gilliard is critiquing, he substitutes assertions like the following paragraph:

“Penal substitution is a reductionistic theory that forsakes the embodied life, ministry, and relationships of Jesus, reducing Christ’s body to punitive surrogacy. Penal substitutionary says Jesus merely came into the world to clean up our mess. Outside of establishing the possibility of reconciliation (not by love), nothing else about Jesus matters, not the Spirit descending on him after his baptism, his inauguration of the kingdom of God, or his calling and sending of the disciples.” (pg. 159)

Notably, this paragraph is not a summary of a lengthy argument on this point, but a representative sample of the critical engagement offered in this volume.

The presentation Gilliard offers is certainly reductionistic. While it would be fair to say that at times evangelical Christians pay too little attention to other valid theories of the atonement, there are few, if any, Christians who would recognize their theology in the summary statements Gilliard offers. Even without raising the level of expectation of this popular level book to that of a scholarly monograph, it is fairly clear that Gilliard did not do his homework and is relying upon his readers to be similarly theologically ignorant.

The evidence Gilliard provides for premise three, however, is even less helpful. At best, Gilliard’s argument that penal substitutionary atonement theory necessarily leads to mass incarceration is based on an association between correlation and causation:

P4. Some people that have been disinterested in the problem of mass incarceration (i.e., conservative evangelicals) hold to the penal substitutionary atonement.
P5. There are people who are engaged in the problem of mass incarceration who deny the penal substitutionary atonement.
C2. Therefore, belief in the penal substitutionary atonement causes people to be disinterested in the problem of mass incarceration.

Causal claims that move from doctrine to application are notoriously hard to defend for several reasons. Among them are the reality that many people do not always live consistently with the implications of the doctrines they believe. This may be because they legitimately disregard their doctrine for convenience, or it could be because they simply have not worked out a particular implication of their doctrine. Thus, for example, someone may have legitimately sound theology, but fail to recognize an inconsistency due to his or her cultural blinders. A second reason it is difficult as a critic to sufficiently defend causal connections between doctrine and a particular act is that, if the act is truly reprehensible, those who hold the doctrine would be able to articulate a reason certain doctrines do not lead to certain outcomes.

Gilliard is unable to overcome either of these difficulties because he fails to do the basic work of interacting with the primary sources (or anyone critical to his position) to develop his claim. In other words, Gilliard provides absolutely no evidence from the population he is critiquing to substantiate his claim. This makes his unconvincing plea to abandon the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement even less compelling than it otherwise would be.

A major problem in this volume is that the theological argument is driven by the desire for a different ethical outcome. That is, Gilliard is asking his audience to reject penal substitutionary atonement because it leads to systemic injustice, by his account. However, if penal substitutionary atonement is true and it leads to mass incarceration, then the logical conclusion is that mass incarceration is right.

As I have argued elsewhere, theology must precede ethics. When ethics becomes the motive force of theology, it often leads to different and increasingly severe doctrinal errors in other areas.

More significantly, making such fallacious arguments, particularly when attempting to convince the audience to abandon traditional Christian doctrines, often leads that audience to reject both the revisionist theology and the ethical claims that are obviously driving it. In other words, Gilliard risks causing a critical audience to reject the proper concern for the systemic injustice of mass incarceration by unnecessarily (and incoherently) tying a particular doctrine to a particular ethical outcome. It leads the people being criticized to make the opposite assumption that, since penal substitutionary atonement is biblically faithful, if it leads to mass incarceration then mass incarceration must be acceptable. This is similar to the effect the repeated efforts of revisionist Christians to criticize the theology of orthodox Christians into supporting the environment; the result has been a disinterest or outright aversion to proper biblical stewardship of creation. We can hope that Gilliard’s poor argumentation does not lead to the same effect on the issue of mass incarceration.

To continue to raise point after point where the argumentation of this volume is insufficiently supported risks digressing into abusive fisking. It is sufficient to say that this is another attempt to subvert the orthodox Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that has been done so poorly as to potentially hinder the author’s cause of theological revision.

Wealth is Good....When it has a Purpose

There is a prevailing myth among some in society that wealth is always a sign of virulent greed and that those who accumulate wealth have unjustly taken from others. There is sometimes truth in that; there are many times that people use unjust means to gain or hold their wealth. It would be wrong to draw from the abusive behavior of some that money is evil or being rich is a sin.

However, sometimes when people rightly argue against one wrong idea they fall into the trap of arguing for the opposite and equally wrong idea. Such errors are just as dangerous for people and societies as the ones that are rejected.

 Used by CC License. Chainsaw by Aardvark Ethel.

Used by CC License. Chainsaw by Aardvark Ethel.

Money is not evil, but the love of it is the root of all evil. Being rich is not a sin, but it can open the door to a lot of misery in this world. Wealth is not good in an of itself, it is good when it is directed toward its proper purpose of glorifying God by helping people flourish.

Wealth is like a power tool. When a power tool is used for the purpose it is designed, then it usually produces a better result in a shorter amount of time than doing the same task by hand. However, when the wrong tool is used for the wrong purpose, terrible things can happen.

For example, a chainsaw can make cutting down a tree much quicker and easier than using an axe or a good old fashioned buck saw. But if that same chainsaw is used trimming toenails the results could be disastrous.

The comparison seems silly, but illustrates the purposeful nature of a powerful tool. The chainsaw was created for a purpose, which is not personal hygiene.

Everything God created was created for something. The world works best when we use created objects for their intended purpose.

Wealth can be an outstanding tool for encouraging human flourishing if it is used for that purpose. It can be a danger to people’s well-being if it is used or sought after for the wrong reasons.

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he warns the young pastor to be content and not to chase after money. Though Timothy was a pastor, that warning is echoed throughout Scripture for all Christians to heed. Paul writes,

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:6-10, ESV)

It’s dangerous to get caught into the trap of loving money and pursuing it as an end in itself. That is the essence of greed. As Paul notes, the love of money can cause people to “wander away” from the faith. That it, not to reject it out because it is wrong, but to neglect it because something else—the pursuit of riches—seems more important.

There is more to Paul’s warning, though. People that become greedy and come to love money fall into “senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” When money becomes the focus of our desires, it can draw us away from God and cause us harm in this life.

Paul doesn’t leave us without something positive to focus on, though. He goes on to urge Timothy to seek something better:

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. (v. 11)

Some might think that Paul’s command to “flee these things” refers to money and see it as a call to poverty. That doesn’t make sense, though, since the phrase refers to plural objects to flee from. Most likely, Paul is urging Timothy to flee from the desire to be rich and the harmful traps it leads to.

More importantly, however, Paul gives Timothy something to focus by pursuing spiritual disciplines. He urges Timothy to become more like Christ.

Paul’s message here is not that the material world is evil, but, rather, he is echoing Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount:

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33)

In other words, make the worship of God and the flourishing of people the main focus in your life and the other parts will fall into place. Money can be a useful tool to build church buildings, to feed the hungry, to invest into businesses that encourage cooperation in society, and to educate your children, to keep you fed and warm when you can no longer work. However, when money becomes the object you worship and ultimately pursue, it’s like using a chainsaw to trim your toenails.

The Character Gap - A Review

Sometimes psychological findings are presented as if they are deterministic: Murderers kill because they have a particular personality. Thieves steal because their minds work a certain way. Mothers love their children because of predetermined evolutionary conditions of our ancestors’ ancestors. Those who are obese have something their chemical makeup that makes them eat too much. Thus it has always been, and thus it shall ever be.


When information is presented this way, it often leaves readers under the impression there is no path toward forming character. Behaviorally, our DNA is our destiny. This puts Christians, among others, in a spot of trying to argue against the trends of science because we believe that people can and do change. Thankfully, there are ongoing discussions in moral psychology and cognate fields that seem to point toward the possibility of real change and not simply coping strategies.

Christian Miller’s recent book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, is a prime example of using the empirical data from psychological research to show how humans can become better people. His presentation indicates that there are certain character traits tied to particular vices and virtues, but he also extends hope that character can be formed through purposeful effort.

The book is broken into three distinct parts. Part One contains two chapters and offers an introduction into the ongoing research on character and its importance. Chapter One deals with a basic overview of character. Chapter Two describes why character is so important.

Part Two consists of five chapters; it describes the shape of character in the modern world. In the third chapter, Miller shows the conditions that encourage people to help others. Chapter Four delves into the character that enables some people to harm others spontaneously and other people to be willing to harm with only minor encouragement. This chapter explains some of the results from the infamous Milgram experiment, and more recent research that continues to support those earlier conclusions. The fifth chapter surveys the psychological roots of lying, especially the motivations that undergird it. Interestingly, people tend to lie more to those to whom they are closer. Chapter Six explores the foundations of cheating. He shows that we are all likely to cheat at times, but rarely cheat as often as we have opportunity. In the seventh chapter Miller ties these elements together. The results of his research indicate that most of us believe we are good and virtuous, but very few of us are. We are not typically as bad or as good as we have the opportunity to be.

Had Miller left the book at that point, it would have been very unsatisfying. However, Part Three of the book is an explanation of how humans can improve their character. Chapter Eight gives several examples of ways that character can be shaped, like doing nothing, labeling people as virtuous, and “nudging.” These techniques have been shown to have some effect in some cases in resulting in better behavior, but they rarely result in exemplary moral character. The ninth chapter offers multiple stronger methods for shaping character. Having (and being) role models, choosing better situations (aka, avoiding temptation, and being self-aware are three of the more promising means of shaping character positively.  Chapter Ten works through character formation in a Christian context, where Miller shows how a healthy Christian community, informed theologically, can engender improved character in people. It is encouraging that he allows space for sanctification through the Spirit, though, understandably, he does not delve into the mechanics of that process.

The Character Gap is an encouraging book in several ways. It takes the evil in the world seriously, recognizes the bentness of humans, and unveils the reality of our own inconsistencies. Thankfully, however, he does not leave the reader in the muck and mire, but offers legitimate ways to improve. For non-religious readers, this will focus on structuring life toward community or self-chosen goals. For religious readers, the norms are already provided, but the empirical data he provides can inform the selection of behaviors. For example, the reluctance to help is often driven by others not helping. The logical response (if we want to be helpers) is to seek to always be the first to offer help or actually help and to surround ourselves with people who are helpers. Miller highlights the importance of creating structures that encourage good behavior, which is why our Bibles should be placed in prominent places: not so that we show off the Word to others, but so that we are more likely to partake of the divine revelation ourselves. There are dozens of other examples of ways that empirical data can shape how we structure our lives to help form us for good in this volume.

One of the more interesting aspects of this volume--which I’ve discovered to be consistent within the fields of organizational, behavioral, and moral psychology--is the promotion of a three-part character. According to Miller, someone who is virtuous, (1) does good actions, (2) does those actions in the right circumstances, and (3) does good actions for the right reason. True virtue is founded on a pattern of behaviors with these three elements. This is particular interesting as this formulation echoes the triperspectivalism of John Frame and the ethical framework of David W. Jones. The names for the aspects are different, but the parts correspond. This may be empirical evidence for the validity of these ethical schemas.

The limitations of this volume are caused by its format. The Character Gap is a popular level book that summarizes and makes accessible some of Miller’s more academic research. As such, there are times where the reader has to take Miller at his word, because the evidence is buried in a source called out in an endnote, and that source is barricaded behind a pricy paywall. However, it seems that Miller is arguing in good faith and so many of his conclusions are so commonsensical that there is little reason to doubt his findings. This is a helpful book that will inform the casual reader and can point the more engaged student toward further study.

Christian Miller has produced an excellent, accessible volume on human character. His arguments are well-supported, lucid, and offer hope for progress in character formation. Miller’s book should inform future discussions in Christian ethics and, perhaps, raise interest in the psychological study of character among moral theologians.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Evidence that Demands A Verdict - A Review

Evidence that Demands a Verdict is a title well known to many Christians. The book was originally published in the early 1970’s by Josh McDowell as a source book for Christian apologetics. It both presents arguments and points readers toward more in-depth arguments for the truthfulness of Christianity.

Given the four decades since the book’s original publication, many of the sources in the first edition are outdated. Over time, arguments change, new evidence for or against positions is considered, and scholars on all sides of the debate reframe their thoughts.

It was high time for this book to be updated. This year, Josh McDowell and his son, Sean, have released an expanded and updated version of this classic work on apologetics. This volume adds the credentials of the younger McDowell to the senior's extensive apologetic experience. The younger McDowell is an apologist, serving on the faculty of Biola University.

About the Book

Evidence that Demands a Verdict is the sort of book that defies concise summary. At over 700 pages, it makes a satisfying thunk when set on the table. That alone may be enough to add gravity to the claims of a budding apologist. It has a helpful table of contents with chapter abstracts, as well as subject and author indices, which keep this tome from being unwieldy.


The arguments are laid out in logical chunks in outline format. This makes the book suitable for research, though it might make cover-to-cover reading more difficult.

The McDowells have covered the major questions of Christian apologetics. They invest five chapters discussing the historical reliability of Scripture. Eight chapters help demonstrate the historicity of Christ and his resurrection. There are thirteen chapters dedicated to the reliability of the Old Testament. The last major section includes six chapters arguing that truth is possible, with an attempt to counter certain claims of postmodernism.

The beauty of this book is that it has been well seasoned over decades and targeted to engage ongoing discussions charitably and at the point of contention. This enables the arguments in this volume to cover a great deal of territory in relatively brief space, which may seem amazing, given the length of the book.

That the authors have covered such broad ranging topics in such a short space is a gift to Christians seeking to understand the major points of the plurality of debates about the truthfulness of Christianity and, hopefully, engage their skeptical friends with the truth of Scripture, especially the gospel. This really is a good, first stop for a number of excellent arguments.

At the same time, the target audience (regular Christians) and the brevity of some of the discussions sets the volume up for its likely criticisms. There is no doubt the war drums of some Christian philosophers will be beaten as they line up to critique some of the interpretations of the volume. For example, the section on postmodernism is an easy target since the subject matter has more publicized versions than the number of scholars that have argued for it. This makes every generalization about the subject a target for critique, and, since many postmodernisms conflict with one another, there is no safe ground to argue against the general drift of thought. (Part of the joy of being postmodern seems to be the ability to say your critics don’t get it as you smile smugly.)  If readers accept that the chapters in this volume are introductory and not exhaustive, this book stands up to reasonable scrutiny.

Uses for the Book

It is unlikely that most people will read this volume cover to cover. It is constructed like a reference book and will serve that purpose well.

At the same time, the length of the chapters would make it useful for study with a group of young Christians. It is unlikely any group would make their way through the entirety of the volume. However, it would be a helpful resource to introduce someone to some of the credible arguments for Christianity.

The book might serve well as a secondary volume in an apologetics course at the college or seminary level, with some assigned readings chosen to introduce particular topics. Again, it would be difficult to get through the whole volume in a semester or year.

The most important use of this volume is as a way to self-equip for the ministry of evangelism in a skeptical age. The chapters are useful for buttressing the faith once delivered to all the saints. They are also helpful in showing how to frame an argument against the common objections to Christianity. This is a handy resource for a Christian engaged in the Great Commission.


Evidence that Demands a Verdict is a classic work. The updated edition has done exactly what it should do: added new arguments, updated sources, and retained the positive qualities of the original.

This is a book that should be in church libraries, on the shelves of pastors, in the homes of Christian parents, and among the recommended resources for new believers.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Reflections on "The Souls of Black Folk"

The quality of classic books varies based on a number of factors. Some old books stick around and continue to be read because they have historical value—they tell us something about how a particular group thought or lived at a given time. Some old books remain popular because they are foundational—they are so regularly referenced and alluded to by later literature that they are necessary for understanding culture. Some old books deserve to be read because they are fine literature and point effectively toward the good, true, and beautiful.


I recently picked up W.E.B. DuBois’s classic volume, The Souls of Black Folk, because I believed it fell cleanly into the first category. It might one day fall into the second category, but I hope that we don’t need it to. I was pleasantly rewarded while poring through the book to realize it also fell into the third category as well. The Souls of Black Folk is an important piece of history, but it is also a beautiful piece of literature, too. That made this book an enjoyable (if convicting) read.

DuBois is best known to many of us because many cities and towns have an urban renewal center named after him. He was an influential voice for the rights of African-Americans and the pursuit of racial justice.

The Souls of Black Folk was originally published in 1903, nearly 50 years after slavery had officially ended in the U.S. However, this was also decades before the Civil Rights movement really got popular traction. The shame is that in many ways, despite the clear advances in legal rights for African-Americans, the situation has not changed nearly as much as it should in the past century.

The book centers around a major problem in America. The problem is the color-line. Or, more properly, the place of people of color in a land that does not seem to want them. As DuBois writes,

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

That is a simple vision and one that should have come to pass long before this day. In some ways it has come to pass and things are hopeful. In other ways, if we are honest, it is a long way away.

The book as a whole traces out DuBois’s critique of the situation. It is filled with beautiful prose and clear evidence that DuBois had a fine mind and good education. DuBois provides a survey of the progress and sometimes lack of progress of blacks in the South. In some cases, they had advanced and were prospering. In other cases, the intentional roadblocks and legalized (or overlooked) abuses had managed to keep African-Americans back. His book is a short study in the need for careful study and the avoidance of generalizations.

This volume also offers a balanced criticism of whites. He notes,

First, it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly. The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it. Furthermore, to no class is the indiscriminate endorsement of the recent course of the South toward Negroes more nauseating than to the best thought of the South. The South is not “solid”; it is a land in the ferment of social change, wherein forces of all kinds are fighting for supremacy; and to praise the ill the South is to-day perpetrating is just as wrong as to condemn the good. Discriminating and broad-minded criticism is what the South needs,--needs it for the sake of her own white sons and daughters, and for the insurance of robust, healthy mental and moral development.
To-day even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others – usually the sons of the masters – wish to help him rise. . . . To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh indiscriminately against “the South” is unjust. . . [but to critique those worthy of it is an imperative duty.]

In DuBois’s approach we see neither toleration of injustice, nor unfair animus toward those who did not create the problem. There is a message for a wide range of readers in DuBois, which should urge us to make things better without blaming those who did not cause the problem in the first place, even if they benefited from it.

One does not need to agree with all that DuBois writes to benefit from this book. This is the sort of book that, even if you disagree, makes you better because you have to explain why. For example, DuBois takes a somewhat dim view of Christianity in the book. There may have been good cause, particularly as Christians did not represent Christ well in many cases. But even though I disagree with his final analysis, his critique is written well and in good faith.

The Souls of Black Folk is the sort of book that is easily read in a few days and much easier to read than to read about. It is a book that should be more regularly included in reading lists, since it is clearly written and balanced in content it could easily be digested by a high schooler. This is a volume that gives insight into our time specifically because things aren’t as much better as they should be. For that reason, it is exactly the sort of critique of our thinking that so many of us need.

The Souls of Black Folk
By W.E.B. Du Bois

Rethinking Incarceration - A Review

Mass incarceration is a significant problem in the United States. The sheer number of people who are currently in the custody of the various levels of government is staggering. According to one advocacy group, approximately 2.3 million Americans were in some form of corrective custody in 2017. This is a dramatic burden to the population through expended tax revenue, but has an even greater cost for the families of those behind bars, for the communities decimated by this phenomenon, and the individuals who will be permanently marked with the status of ex-con or felon.


The problem of mass incarceration is complicated by unequal racial outcomes, which indicate that approximately 1 in 3 ethnic minorities will pass through the judicial system and spend time in some form of corrective custody. This inequity helps continue the perpetuation of negative images of minorities and accelerates what amounts to a downward spiral in some communities. A large number of minorities are imprisoned; therefore, they are perceived to be dangerous, then they are watched more closely and given fewer breaks, which leads to a larger number of incarcerations. This has negative effects of the general population’s perception of minorities and the perception of the judicial system and police force by minorities. Add in some cases of real corruption and legitimate hostility on both sides and you have something like the stand off we find ourselves in now with people arguing about the importance of black lives versus blue lives.

With that background, the recent volume by Dominique Dubois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, is timely and takes on a very important topic. The book consists of two parts.

Part one lays out various aspects that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, with chapters on the war on drugs, a history of racial bias in law enforcement, an overzealous enforcement of law, issues with mental health and immigration, and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This portion of the volume is largely sociological and helpful in highlighting important elements of a significant source of injustice in our nation.

Part two is a theological argument intended to move readers of the volume to a doctrinal foundation that Gilliard believes will undermine mass incarceration. In this section, Gilliard offers chapters on Quaker involvement in American prisons, prison chaplaincy, penal substitutionary atonement, restorative justice, and a concluding plea for activism in dismantling mass incarceration. This section of the volume is less helpful and less well done.

There are two apparent theses in this book. First, that mass incarceration is a problem with underlying systemic injustices in the American legal system. Gilliard handles that element of the book well. He researched that section well and puts together a solid argument that has potential to convince a skeptical reader.

The second thesis of the book is that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the cause of the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, Gilliard’s attempt at supporting this thesis is, at best, poor. By any fair measure, the theological argumentation of this section of the book is anemic and riddled with fundamental methodological errors, many of which should have been corrected prior to this book’s publication. These errors and the nature of Gilliard’s plea for rejecting the substitutionary atonement significantly diminish the value of this volume, in some cases making it more likely to cement bias against judicial reform among some conservative Christians than convince anyone of the issue’s importance.

Rethinking Incarceration is a useful book in that it raises awareness of a significant issue of systemic injustice. The work Gilliard does in highlighting the racial aspects of the history of mass incarceration is helpful. Unfortunately, by introducing a second thesis and calling for a rejection of a common, orthodox theory of the atonement and by doing so very poorly, Gilliard undermines the good work he does in the beginning of the book. My hope is that a better book from a more careful author will follow this book and lead to a continuing and more theologically robust discussion of this vital topic.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Celebrating Black History Month

Now that February has kicked off, social media streams are sometimes sprinkled and sometimes filled with celebrations of or objections to Black History month. For many, the celebration of Black History month is warranted and natural, but for others, there are questions why any special celebration is necessary.

History of Black History Month

Though it has its roots in the beginning of the 20th century, the first official celebration of Black History month was in 1976. Every president since that time has renewed that declaration.

The purpose of the first Black History month was to recognize the progress that the United States had made toward the fulfillment of the humanist ideals that framed the American Revolution. As Gerald Ford noted in his declaration:

The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.
I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.

Forty-two years later, there are some Americans who question the need to continue to celebrate the month, because they believe that the errors of the first two centuries of American history have largely been amended. However, a realistic look at the social and economic realities of our nations shows that even if the legal abuses of the Jim Crow era, post-bellum culture, and legalized slavery have been corrected, the long-term impacts continue.

Why is Black History Month Necessary?

Black History month, therefore, still serves to remind us of what ought to have been, what can be, and the work that is left to be done.

I am a man.jpg

Additionally, Black History month reminds us that despite the barriers placed in the way of success, progress, and achievement of African-Americans, these Americans still accomplished impressive things. The imago Dei can overcome, no matter how difficult other humans try to suppress its outworking.

Different groups will no doubt draw different themes from the celebration of Black History month. However, one dominant theme Christians—especially white Christians—can draw from the celebration of this month is how a bad doctrine of anthropology taints the water of society.

Consider that at the core of the abuses of Black Americans is and has been the denial of their full humanity. There is a reason civil rights protesters carried placards and wore signs declaring “I am a man.” This was not simply a political statement, but a profoundly theological one. As a nation, the United States neglected to acknowledge the full humanity of African-Americans. This was explicit in some of the early rhetoric supporting chattel slavery, where the ensoulment of dark skinned persons was denied as a way to justify not evangelizing them at first. Blacks were not simply treated like animals, they were described as animals--sometimes from the pulpit.

The celebration of the beauty of blackness, the accomplishments of African-Americans, and the distinct sub-cultures within the tapestry of African-American culture is good and right because it is a celebration of the full humanity of dark skinned humans. Black History month gives people of all skin tones opportunity to celebrate that goodness, even if it different than our own sub-culture's. It is a way to celebrate the common standing with a group whose humanity was previously denied.

Black chattel slavery as it existed in 19th century America was particularly damnable because it actively denied the humanity of the slaves, and of all people of color. This is why the comparison of other ancient slavery (e.g., the objection that all ancient cultures owned slaves) does not diminish the moral blindness and perfidy of slavery as it existed in the pre-Industrial West.


But still, once the humanity of African-Americans was begrudgingly acknowledged by the abolition of slavery and eventually the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, much of the Land of the Free perpetuated the statutory abuse of humans by creating the Jim Crow laws. These are laws that in retrospect appear to be as preposterous as the school-kid fear of getting cooties. Think about it, whites were so disgusted with African-Americans they created separate water fountains so they wouldn’t get infected with blackness. More likely it was simply a way of showing that despite the legal acknowledgement of the humanity of African-Americans, whites could still deny them recognition of that fact.

The inefficiency and foolishness of these immoral actions will not cease to be an embarrassment to the United States. However, like all errors, it should spur us to do better. We can't overcome the embarrassment by ignoring the failures of the past, but only by doing much better in the present and future.

Black History month forces those of us in the majority to remember the foolishness of our forebears and to work to do something better in the future. Black History month also allows us to remember the amazing work of men and women who resisted injustice to accomplish significant goods, like the women depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, or like George Washington Carver, or like thousands of others who accomplished so much despite being oppressed.

Black History month is, in many regards, a celebration of the greatness of humanity. As often happens, the greatness of humanity is also demonstrated in stark contrast to the depravity of humanity. Don’t let the color of your skin allow you to miss the greatness of one group because your own group happened to be the villains in this story.

How to Celebrate Black History Month

Although there are and always will be ideological abuses within the groups that participate in celebration of any public movement, whether that is the environment, racial pride, or advances in workers protection, we should not fail to legitimately celebrate good things.

Celebrating Black History is celebrating the triumph of humanity. It requires remembering a not-too-distant past that is embarrassing, but which we never want to see again. Thus, a dive into African-American poetry, gospel music, and unique technological inventions of our fellow citizens does not need to fall prey to unhealthy identity politics, but should be a legitimate thankfulness for the persistence of impressive people in the face of significant opposition.

If our African-American neighbors happen to draw especial encouragement from this month, that is good and natural—it is empowering and encouraging to realize that your family has done something good and great, because it teaches you that you can, too. It does whites no harm to have African-Americans built up. There is an infinite supply of happiness in the world, which only grows when we share it.

Just as we celebrate the theological accomplishments of the early Reformers, so we should celebrate the accomplishments of people of color in the United States. Neither group is or was perfect, but the world is better for what they have done.

So, celebrate Black History month no matter the color of your skin, because as African-Americans advance, the whole of society gets stronger. That is a good thing.

Economics of Neighborly Love - A Review

Our economic activity, when done properly, is primarily about loving our neighbors. Neighbor love is not merely a description of so-called spiritual activities, like those done under the umbrella of a local church. Rather, neighbor love should shape everything we do in the home, in the marketplace, and in our neighborhoods.

In a helpful, recent book, Tom Nelson helps bring theology and economics together in a way the average Christian can understand it. His volume, The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity, weaves together many of the themes in the Faith and Work movement in a single, digestible bundle.

Nelson’s basic assumption is that we live in a fundamentally economic world. His is not, however, an attempt to reduce humans to homo economicus. Instead, he argues for understanding humans to have the imago Dei, which leads to a demand to live compassionately among others. His basic argument in the entire book is that the best workers make the best neighbors, as long as they are working for reasons that matter.

Humans are made to flourish. Part of that flourishing is having our material needs met. Another component of flourishing is pursuing a purpose higher than ourselves. Work is a primary means by which humans flourish.

One sign of flourishing (though not the only or even best sign) is material wealth. Such wealth is a resource to be stewarded for the glory of God and the good of neighbors. It is neither the reward for holiness as the prosperity gospel argues, nor is it intrinsically evil. It is a simply one way that God provides for humans to be fruitful.

Lest Nelson be guilty of reducing flourishing to the accrual of wealth, he quickly explains that intimacy with other people, godly character, and productively contributing to the world around are vital ways that humans are fruitful. Being fruitful and productive are ways that we love the world around us by making this world a better place.

All of the productivity in the world does not do any good, however, unless it is directed toward our neighbors. Nelson explains a vision, consistent with Scripture, of how godly people can engage in a relatively free market for the glory of God.

One way humans engage wisely in economic activity is to be generous, using our wealth to provide the means for the church to do good works in the name of Christ. Another way is to actively pursue the good of the materially poor around us. In the process of helping the poor, however, a biblically shaped worldview recognizes there are forms of poverty that no amount of material support will resolve. People are desperately need of the gospel, so we are called to demonstrate it through our actions and verbalize it through our language.

As part of our economic activity, Nelson also urges Christians to fight economic injustice, to show grace to the communities around us. Most of all, people simply need to get moving. It is altogether too easy to stay cooped up in our homes, never meeting our neighbors, and thus never learning how best to meet their needs. By making personal connections and seeking the common good in all of our economic activities—not just the ones where we spend and earn—Christians can demonstrate what hope looks like to the world.

The Economics of Neighborly Love is the sort of volume that makes a great introduction to a biblical view on faith, work, and economics. Nelson shows how the ordinary lives of ordinary Christians can be leveraged to make this world a better place for the love of God and the good of our neighbors. He presents a practical vision for Christians to be salt and light in the world.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this volume is that there is a way for Christians to show neighborly love not despite our economic system, but because of our economic system. Though Nelson recognizes that sometimes sinful people oppress others in a free market economy, he also recognizes that freedom is an important part of allowing people to fulfill their potential as beings imbued with the image of God. The freedom within the market system helps make financial prosperity accessible to many more people, which helps provide the resources for many forms of productive engagement with society.

Nelson’s book, however, will fall short of its final purpose if it fails to encourage Christians to live their lives for the good of the world around them. This is a book that deserves to be read, discussed, and shared widely as the body of Christ seeks to fulfill the greatest commandment by living out the second greatest commandment in a world of people who desperately need to be loved. The Economics of Neighborly Love is a volume that needs to be applied wholeheartedly, too.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Letter to a Young Farmer - A Review

I was first exposed to Gene Logsdon in the 1990s when my father brought home a book from the library. It was recommended, I believe, by a columnist in the Buffalo News. In At Nature’s Pace, Logsdon presents his idea for the small family farm as a lifestyle and not merely a career choice. That book talks about the economic viability of small farms—particularly horse farms—arguing that success is, perhaps, more likely on a small scale.


In his recent, and final, book, Letter to a Young Farmer: How to Live Richly without Wealth on the New Garden Farm, Logsdon further develops some of his elegiac essays on the life of a rural farmer with something like an epistolary exhortation to someone who feels irrepressibly drawn to cultivate the earth. This is a collection of essays, with a conversational tone. Just the sort of tone you would expect if you stopped by to visit your aging curmudgeonly neighbor for a few minutes while leaning on his split rail fence. It is, in fact, the sort of book you would expect someone who claims to be a “contrary farmer” to write as a swan song. Logsdon has recently died and this book represents something of a last will and testament for the folks he’s been writing for during the past half century.

Logsdon’s writing style is comfortable and enjoyable to read. He adds a good dose of facts and figures, with a dash of common sense, and a large dollop of opinions. The mixture that results enables the reader to politely disagree at points while still enjoying the experience and getting some helpful information along the way.

Letter to a Young Farmer is not an extended argument, but a series of discussions that surround a cogent theme. This makes the book an easy one to read piecemeal over the course of several weeks or even months. There are essays about managing the politics and economics of a farmer’s market, about the uses and failures of big data, and about the joy of living in one local area for most of one’s life.

The central topic in all of the essays is how to make a go of it as a small farmer. Thus, the subtitle is more descriptive of the content than the title. Logsdon is not writing to the person who inherited a vast tract of land and is putting thousands of acres under plow. Neither is he writing to someone who is necessarily chronologically young. Instead, Logsdon is writing to someone who has decided to engage in agriculture on a small scale—often for the fulfillment of the act itself—who lacks the benefit of his decades of contrarian experience.

Some of Logsdon’s earlier books make is sound like the small farm is the only way to go. This book, however, is more balanced. Logsdon acknowledges that there are many ways to farm and many reasons to farm. Though he still acts as an apologist for the small, “garden” farm, he does not come of a polemical in this book as before. Just persistently contrarian.

Most of the wisdom in Letters to a Young Farmer represents the sort of common sense that seems so uncommon today. He argues that young farmers should avoid debt, diversify assets and income sources, save for the future, avoid social vices like smoking and drinking (they are exorbitantly expensive), minimize eating out and the purchase of non-essentials, build trustworthy relationships with mechanics and other service providers, live in a reasonable house, and so on. These lessons are essential for someone trying to build up a new garden farm, but they are equally useful for those who live in the suburbs—so much of the angst of the modern worker is due to grasping for a lifestyle that has been advertised on television.

The moral of the book, so to speak, is that life is much better when you live within your means and pursue contentment in the place you are. For Logsdon and many of his readers, this translates to finding satisfaction in farming 10, 50, or 200 acres. Often it means being content to do so while working another job, whether full-time or part-time. This is a book that marries up the idea of a sense of vocation with the sense of place.

Even if you aren’t a garden farmer—as I am not—this is an enjoyable book. Logsdon—a lapsed Roman Catholic—is somewhat caustic about the value and durability of Christianity, but if you filter his occasional snide remarks, what you have is a collection of essays that are a pleasure to read on a cold winter evening. The end result may well be a deeper appreciation for where you are, what you do, and perhaps a growing desire to plant a decent sized vegetable garden in your backyard.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Monetary Influences on the Reformation

Last year, 2017, was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Protestant Reformation. Many of us celebrated the restoration of the gospel as a core concern of Christianity. Others mourned the division of the unified body of Christ, thinking that Luther would have been better to simply let the status quo continue. The debate on the merits and necessity of the Reformation will certainly continue into the future. That debate should also include discussion of the reasons for the Reformation and the history leading up to the Reformation, both of which are often neglected.

According to some critics of the Reformation, it is as if Luther woke up one day in his monastery and decided to pick a fight with the Pope. That perspective is naïve and ignores the many real abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy leading up to the beginning of the German Reformation.

One of the major abuses of the Roman Catholic was the sale of indulgences. The Roman Catholic church still does deal in indulgences, though they have tightened up the rules since Luther’s day.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."

Basically, a Catholic who has been restored to a state of grace (i.e., gone to confession so the priest could forgive their sin) can get time off of their stay in Purgatory—an extrabiblical intermediate state, which souls allegedly experience before making it to heaven with time allocated according to the merits of the individual—by doing certain things. The idea is that beyond being forgiven their sins by Christ’s atonement, people need to pay for them by doing good works to pay off the debt they owe to God.

In Luther’s day, one of the main “good works” someone could do was to give money to the Pope for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther’s initial objections were not to indulgences per se, but to the impoverishment of the German peasants by sending the limited available German resources out of district to the posh palaces of the self-titled Vicar of Christ in Rome. The purchase of indulgences was a ransom of a soul from Purgatory.

Apart from the invention of Purgatory, the question remains how Roman Catholics came to believe that earthly wealth could be used to buy a better condition for souls. This is the question Peter Brown takes up in his 2012 book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity.

Early Christians, like Tertullian, believed in a bodily resurrection. That is, contrary to accusations that Christians are dualists, the Church has traditionally and consistently believed in a restoration of all creation in the eschaton. However, as they sought to differentiate the really holy people that died as martyrs from the average Christians, one of the myths that began to evolve was that some people got taken directly to heaven to be in God’s presence, while others would have to wait to make it as their soul was perfected. This idea, combined with the biblical image of human works being judged by fire (1 Cor 3:13), contributed to the development of a temporal period spent in a refining fire that would vary according to the earthly merits of a person whose eventual destination was heaven. Such a view enabled Tetzel’s infamous couplet, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”

There was more to the ransom of souls by money than simply the purchase of indulgences, though. As Brown notes, “Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, the churches increasingly became places where the rich members in the Christian communities of the West were able to flex the muscles of their social power. They did so mainly through donations designed to protect their souls and those of their relatives and loved ones.” Much of this protection came by endowing churches, funding masses to be said in honor of deceased loved ones, and giving money to the church in the name of the poor.

This belief that one could give to the church and receive quantifiable spiritual benefit in the form of time off Purgatory or a more likely entry to Heaven helped make the Roman Catholics one of the largest land owners in the world.

Contributing this belief was the idea that giving alms could atone for sins. According to Brown, “Augustine…insisted that almsgiving was an obligatory pious practice because it had an expiatory function. Alms atoned for sins.” His understanding of the trend in Augustine’s theology, which became more firmly established in later Roman Catholic doctrine, that something other than faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone could lead to salvation. This is profoundly different than the gospel that Paul outlines in his letters, hence the need for the Reformation.

There are certainly a number of factors that added to the evolution of works-based salvation. Much of the earliest extra-biblical literature of the Church, like the Didache, heavily emphasizes legalistic practices necessary for salvation. However, the idea that money could serve as ransom for the soul actually evolved from Jewish teachings drawn from Daniel 4, where some interpretations of the prophecy of Daniel have Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment being lightened by giving to the poor. For exiled Jews, this alleviated the tension of lacking a temple in which to sacrifice, and also, perhaps, contributed to the acceptance of the money changers in the temple that Jesus was obliged to clear out. The net result was the equation of atonement for sin with money, which Brown argues shaped later Roman Catholic doctrines.

Notably, one of the major reasons for Augustine’s emphasis on the necessity of giving alms was competition for the money of the rich Christians. The practice of the day was for the rich to give to enhance their local communities, typically through civic activity. Part of the reason for Augustine’s focus on alms (multiple sermons focused on giving to the poor through the Roman Catholic church) was an attempt to shift the culture away from civic giving to ecclesial giving. That emphasis based on the evolved Roman Catholic doctrines and then later was developed to include the practice of indulgences as was seen in the late Middle Ages.

Brown helpfully shows how Roman Catholic doctrine drifted from Scripture and evolved due to various social pressures and theological turns in Church History. In particular, his survey traces out that evolution from about 250 AD to about 600 AD, which represents the end of the ancient era to the beginning of the Middle Ages. His non-polemical exploration of the development of doctrines has explanatory power as contemporary theologians and religious scholars seek to understand the Roman Catholic understandings of the nature of wealth and the role of wealth in attaining the afterlife.