Can We Trust the Gospels? - A Review

Are the gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ reliable?

That, perhaps, is the central question that every Christian must ask. The accounts in the Gospels are, after all, accounts of the most important events in the Christian faith. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then we have no hope beyond this life. If that is true, he argues, then we are most to be pitied. The truthfulness of the Gospels is a question that every Christian must consider, which has implications for the validity of faith itself.

Peter Williams of Tyndale House in Cambridge asks this all-important question in his book, Can We Trust the Gospels? His answer is accessible, informative, and helpful to those that are willing to take up and read this concise book.

Given the number of apologetics books on the market that deal with the reliability of Scripture it might seem that Williams’ book would be simply another entry into a crowded field. However, Can We Trust the Gospels? is offers a fresh approach to an enduring question. It is one of those rare popular-level books that caused me not simply to nod along in agreement but to look up and wonder why I had never thought of that before. It is, in short, an important book that will remain useful for decades.

The reliability of Scripture is a well-worn topic, especially in evangelical circles, so many of the chapter topics will appear familiar to the experienced readers. Williams begins the book by asking what non-Christian sources from around the time the Gospels were set say. The basic concern is to see whether historical accounts corroborate the information in the Gospels. As many other writers have noted, there are a number of non-Christian writers whose work supports the historicity of the gospel accounts.

Williams also highlights an argument that is less common among defenders of Christianity: The historical accounts support the rapid spread and increasing popularity of Christianity (with all of its supernatural beliefs). Approximately 30 years after the death of Christ there was a reasonably large population of Christians in Rome, as well as throughout much of the Roman empire. All of them attest to believe similar supernatural ideas about Jesus Christ, which undermines the argument made by some critics of Scripture that ascribing miracles to Jesus and affirming his deity were late revisions of Christianity. That idea simply does not match the historical truths surrounding the spread of Christianity, as attested in hostile, non-Christian witnesses.

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In the second chapter, Williams provides evidence that the four Gospels were likely historical documents, written by people close to Jesus. These records were widely disseminated throughout the known world within a century or two of Christ’s death, which is record time for ancient manuscripts. Significantly, this mass distribution and frequent translation occurred before there was a central authority within Christendom to manipulate the message of Scripture, which undermines one of the most common attacks against the historicity of the Gospels.

Further attesting to the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts is the minor details embedded within the books. Williams illuminates many examples in his third chapter. Historical books, especially in the ancient world, that were written by people unfamiliar with the actual places, typical names, and unusual customs of that place and time. The Gospels validate each other by their particularity in geography, which often overlaps, but their differences also support their validity as independent witnesses. The pattern of knowledge and included details supports the authenticity of the Gospels.

In Chapter Four, the book discusses the undesigned coincidences in the Gospels. The books will include the same characters in different scenes, but with the same characteristics. This also includes overlap with non-Christian sources. Williams here provides evidence that either the Gospel authors were corroborating to write realistic fiction or they were telling stories they believed were true from different perspectives. They may have known of each other’s writings, but even if they did, the unity in the diversity is uncanny given the literary genres of the day.

The fifth chapter asks whether the Gospels record Jesus’ actual words. Williams argues that there is good reason to believe that what we have in Scripture is a faithful presentation of Jesus’ actual teaching, not ideas put into his mouth centuries after. They may not be the exact words, since direct quotation was not considered necessary for accuracy in ancient records. However, there are clear signs in the language recorded by the Gospel authors of the authenticity of their recorded speeches.

Chapter Six explores the question of the quality of the manuscripts. Here Williams documents the massive number of available manuscripts and, amazingly, their consistency across languages, regions, and time. Significantly, these factors make the hypothesis that there were major theological changes imposed on the texts highly unlikely.

The seventh chapter is very brief, arguing that there are formal contradictions within the work of Gospel writers. These were often designed, according to Williams, to cause readers to think more deeply about the potential meanings of the words involved. He writes, “These formal contradictions do show that the author is more interested in encouraging people to read deeply than in satisfying those who want to find a fault.”

Chapter Eight is a brief conclusion that sums up the broader arguments. Basically, Williams has been making the argument that it is much more likely that the Gospel accounts are trustworthy accounts of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of a man named Jesus from Nazareth. The logical contortions one must go through to believe that all of the Gospel-stories are just made up to gain control is much more difficult that simply taking the four Gospels, with their miracles and all, at face value.

Williams sets out to show that there are good reasons to believe in the authenticity of the Gospels. He is careful not to claim a cast-iron case. Instead, he shows the credibility of the texts we have today, which is a strong argument for the day.

This book is a welcome addition to the large field of textual apologetics volumes on the market. Can We Trust the Gospels? stands out because it presents different, more nuanced arguments than many other similar texts make. The book is remarkably accessible, carefully nuanced, and well-researched. This should be a vital resource in the libraries of pastors, scholars, and lay-people for generations.

Can We Trust the Gospels?
By Peter J. Williams

Becoming a Smarter Digital Citizen

Technology is amazing. In my life, I’ve seen the advancement of personal communications at a pace and to a degree that I would never have guessed was possible within my own life. I scoffed at the people who told me when I was a teen that television would be replaced by videos streamed on the computer. That was incomprehensible to me, since the internet was so limited as a resource then. I still remember having someone from the city (Buffalo) come out to do a demonstration of the internet at my rural school. They showed us ERIC and we were supposed to be amazed. Given that I was young, I didn’t recognize the potential of a database that would index academic articles, and the platform was extremely limited in comparison to contemporary tools.

Fast forward a few decades and now we are surrounded by a sea of digital influences. I read most of my news online and the news that I do read often depends on the people I follow on social media. I too rarely actually go to the landing page of any website, including those sites whose content I regularly consume.

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However, since I get the majority of my content through social media, that makes me vulnerable to manipulations in the algorithms. This is because, in order to keep us addicted to their content, social media platforms distort the way information is displayed on their pages. There are complex calculations running in the background to ensure that you see your cousin’s pregnancy announcement when it pops up, but only get one link to that article that everyone is reading. Also, if they think you will be offended by that popular article, they might just not show it to you.

There is no question that the social media platforms are manipulating the content that gets displayed. That, at some level, might be considered tolerable (since they own the platform) and some might believe it is relatively benign (I do not). But there is a deeper problem: the manipulation of algorithms by people that want to do us harm.

In a multipart series, Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day has researched the manipulation of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube by bots and bad guys. I’m linking here to the series, with a brief synopsis of each video, because I believe that this is content worth sharing and considering as we learn how to live within our present digital culture.

The Art of Digital War

Because of his former day job, which involved working alongside the military on weapons systems, Sandlin was afforded a unique opportunity to engage some experts on the future of war and how cyber warfare will play into the way that wars will be fought or avoided in the coming decades. This video is a key part of understanding why the manipulation of social media feeds is worth the money and time invested in it.

Manipulating the Big Three Platforms

Some of these videos are a little long, but I found them very engaging. What is most helpful is that Sandlin was given access to experts from YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook who are trying to combat the rise of bots and overtly hostile actions. I have my own concerns about how our digital overlords are using their self-granted, self-regulated powers, but it is worth seeing how the algorithms are being manipulated to better understand the world in which we live.

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The Problem with Your Newsfeed

Although this video was released before the three-part series on the manipulation of particular platforms, but it provides a very helpful guide to being a better digital citizen. Sandlin talks to someone who works through a process of validating information before sharing it, and tries to teach us to do the same. If we all followed this sort of process, instead of simply sharing something that made us feel the right way, then false information would not be disseminated so regularly.

Sandlin also recaps why carefully parsing any links that you might share is so vitally important, because so much of the contemporary divisiveness and viral disruption of communities depends on false, or at least biased, information getting out into the main stream very quickly.

Conclusion

I’m writing on a website that has no paper counterpart, so obviously I’m not ready to step out of the digital world. A lot of the views for this website come through social media sharing and from search engines, so it isn’t in my interests to jump ship just yet.

However, we really do need to think about how the new information economy is shaping how we learn, see, and understand the world around us. We need to recognize that even more than the biased, but more benign forms of censorship and self-promotion inherent in commercial media, the rise of the portability of digital tools makes it easy for a relatively small, hostile actor to significantly influence the course of societal debate.

Being a good citizen in a digital world is part of being a good neighbor. Part of being a good neighbor is learning how the bad guys work (and the not-so-bad guys that are just as manipulative) so that we can resist unhelpful misinformation and reinterpretation in a rapidly changing environment.

Some Thoughts on Christian Ethics

As an ethicist, I often get asked whether something is good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy. It is more common for me to be able to answer a clear “no” than for an absolute “yes.” In fact, many times my response is a very robust, “It depends.”

Whether something is morally praiseworthy depends on more than the act itself. It also depends on the circumstances and the reason for the action, at least. Processing moral events in our lives through three particular considerations is the start of the ethical decision-making process. We need consider at least the action, the circumstance, and the reason behind it.

Triperspectival Ethics

I believe that some version of a triperspectival approach to ethics is the most helpful. The most prominent advocate for triperpectival ethics is John Frame, but the foundations of the system are built on a much earlier theological tradition.

The Heidelberg Catechism, asks this pertinent question in question 91:

Q. What are good works?

A. Only those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition.

There are three basic elements to this: (1) done out of true faith, (2) conforming to God’s law, and (3) done for God’s glory. For each action we need to consider the action itself, our reason for doing it, and the circumstances in which we do it. For example, eating shellfish is morally permissible, since Christ declared all food clean. However, if you believe you are sinning by eating shellfish because you misunderstand the law, then by violating your conscience you are sinning; your attitude is set against God. Or, if you eat shellfish in the knowledge that it is morally permissible to eat, but you do it to show how spiritual you are or simply out of gluttonous motivations, then you have stepped into sin.

All moral acts have at least these three components: (1) the action, (2) the circumstance, and (3) the reason. The first question to ask is whether the action is morally permissible. If Scripture puts it out of bounds, then it is sin to voluntarily perform the action. This is a fairly simple process, typically, but not always.

The second question is whether the circumstances support that act being just. So, for example, if I kill someone out of self-defense, Scripture makes clear that is not sin. However, if I kill an innocent person, then the same physical act becomes sin. Or, as another example, sex is a morally permissible action, but only with my spouse in the bounds of marriage. Who I am and what the situation is makes a difference as to whether something is morally permissible.

The third question is whether the motive is correct. If I kill someone in what appears to be self-defense, but I’ve really wanted to kill him for years or at that moment I hated him because of whatever he did, then that would be sin. If a couple has sex within the bounds of marriage but the man’s mind is solely on his own satisfaction and not on the glory of God and the good of his wife, then that sexual act became sin for him.

Nearly everything we do is tainted by the reason or motive for which we do it. That is the power of sin in this world and our lives. Repentance and prayer must be an ongoing process, because even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon quickly become tainted by our sinful motivations. Thank God for the cross.

A Case Study

For those still concerned that triperspectivalism is a form of moral relativism, I assure you it is not. However, I will offer a more complete example to illustrate the process.

If a hardworking janitor at the local hospital dresses in scrubs, goes into the maternity ward, and delivers a baby, we would consider that a morally impermissible event. Most of us would nod our heads in agreement if we saw the headline, “Hospital Janitor Gets 25 Years Baby Delivery.” That janitor is not the appropriate individual to perform the function of the doctor.

However, if we simply change the situation a little, the expert cleaner goes from criminal to hero. Consider the alternative situation where the same janitor helps a woman deliver her baby on a remote stretch of highway when her car had broken down. The action was the same, the individuals were the same, but the circumstances changed the situation radically. What would have been deemed a criminal action in the hospital is a heroic action for that janitor when there is no doctor available.

These are the two layers that the law and human society can consider. The action and the circumstances are the only things that we can measure and judge. However, God’s judgment goes a layer deeper, which further enhances Christian ethics.

To be a praiseworthy action, the action must be in accordance with God’s law, supported by the circumstances, and done with the appropriate motivation. If the heroic janitor delivered the baby on the side of the road for his own glory, with a view to getting into the newspapers, then that is a societally beneficial action, but it becomes sin in the eyes of God.

The Pervasiveness of Sin

Moral relativism tends to minimize sin by arguing that circumstances make an otherwise impermissible action permissible. Thus, some argue that killing a human is sin, but there may be circumstances (e.g., self-defense) in which it is permissible. Triperspectivalism takes the opposite approach. It argues that there are many events which may be morally permissible, but that other factors may make them morally impermissible.

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Killing a human is not sin in and of itself, otherwise God would be liable to the charge of sin, because there are unquestionable examples of God ending the life of a human in Scripture. However, killing an innocent human is a sin. Thus, murder is prohibited, while being a combatant is not. And yet, simply donning a uniform is not enough to make killing an enemy combatant morally praiseworthy. If a soldier kills for the joy of it (i.e., selfish pleasure) or out of pure hatred, then that event has become sinful and must be repented of. We must consider the action, the circumstances, and the motivation.

Similarly, sexual intercourse is not inherently sinful. Intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily sinful either, since the victim of rape is not responsible for the action being perpetrated on his or her body. However, willing sexual intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is sinful because the circumstances violate the norms of God. And yet sex within the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily without sin. Even with the correct action and circumstances, if the event occurs out of selfishness (e.g., a concern only for one’s pleasure), then it is morally impermissible and therefore sinful.

The reality is that most of what we do is tainted by sin. Even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon is often done with, at best, mixed motives. Our hearts are idol factories. We often do “good deeds” as much to get noticed or receive thanks as to honor Christ. The God of the universe is a jealous God, he will not share his glory with his creatures (Is. 42:8).

Total depravity is real. Sin taints every aspect of human existence. Aside from our blatant violations of God’s laws, our motives are likely never pure. This enhances the miracle of grace. We must continually repent of our sin and strive to serve faithfully, but ultimately any praiseworthiness of our actions is due to God’s undeserved grace toward us. Much like a child bringing a shaky drawing to a father, our actions are little more than colorful scribbles. Yet, out of love for us as adopted children, he takes messy works done imperfectly from a heart of faith, sees them as good in Christ, and puts them on the refrigerator. This is why Hebrews 11 extols imperfect people who did imperfect things for doing them through faith.

Ultimately, we are incapable of doing good outside of the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Our worthiness is not based on doing good works (though we should strive to do them), because to do so might lead us to believe we should get to heaven. We can’t do truly good works anyway, because of our sin. However, God has called us to live faithfully and to strive to be holy, just like him. That command leads us to reject obviously sinful actions and circumstances and to pursue actions that do not violate clear revelation of Scripture. At the same time, we must recognize that on our best days we are but sinners whose only hope is the substitutionary death of Christ.

Conclusion

Christian ethics is far from a simplistic set of cases where going to movies is bad, but reading the Bible is good. Both are likely to be tainted by sin. The truth is that we are much worse that we like to believe we are. Our sinful actions and attitudes should continually cause us to repent, turn back toward God, and place our hope in Christ for forgiveness of our sin.

Christian ethics should never lead us to be triumphalistic––that is, to look down on others who commit obvious, public sin––but should push us toward repentance. The judgment on those of us who are redeemed, who have been given the Holy Spirit, and yet who continue to be selfish would be much greater than those without that gift, were it not for the cross.

Warrior Children of the Conservative Resurgence

Every year just prior to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention bloggers fire up their keyboards and social media warriors stretch their thumbs in preparation for a raging, virtual street brawl. This unhealthy fist-fight between brothers and sisters in Christ is usually over second or third order doctrines: shades of difference in soteriology, application of complementarian principles, or the way an entity is applying the gospel to life.

In recent years, for example, there has been concern over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission working for religious liberty in a case in New Jersey. (The primary concern was that this pertained to religious liberty for Muslims instead of for Baptists.) A few years ago, the biggest battle was over “Calvinism” in the SBC and the “Calvinist takeover.” (This is hilarious, because to someone within a denomination in the direct line of the Reformed tradition, no Baptist could ever really be a Calvinist. In contrast a Nazarene friend from Oklahoma referred to all Baptists as Calvinists because of the doctrine of eternal security.)

The reality is that the difference between the two factions in both of these fights is relatively minor, especially when considered by those outside the camp. The tragedy is that the divide is pitched as cause for a winner-take-all battle to the death, where the gospel will be irrevocably distorted if the “right” side doesn’t win right now.

Public Consequences for the Ongoing Civil War

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Even if the substance of the fights is not terrifically significant, the consequences of this infighting are very great.

First, battles over relatively minor differences are often fought in such a way that reconciliation afterward is difficult. Most of the arguments made are not about substance, but about the character of those who do not agree.

Second, an in a related way, these battles tend to polarize the discussion because of the terms of the debate. People will defend their own position bitterly and stridently because they feel like they are personally under attack (and often are), which often pushes them farther away from the center and from their original position. Or, sometimes, it leads people to argue against the position they previously held because they can’t abide the vicious misrepresentations offered by others who hold it.

Third, the battles are conducted in public, allowing the name of Christ to publicly shamed. When people hurl literal slander and unwarranted anathemas at other believers, it is ugly. The public shame of believers arguing in public is, it seems, part of the reason Paul urged Christians not to sue one another:

If any of you has a dispute against another, how dare you take it to court before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Or don’t you know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the trivial cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels—how much more matters of this life? So if you have such matters, do you appoint as your judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame! Can it be that there is not one wise person among you who is able to arbitrate between fellow believers? Instead, brother goes to court against brother, and that before unbelievers! As it is, to have legal disputes against one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves do wrong and cheat—and you do this to brothers and sisters! (1 Cor 5:1–8, CSB)

Fourth, the public nature of the battle, its vitriol, and its pettiness give support to the argument of the so-called Moderates who left the SBC that the fight was primarily over power, not Scripture as it was described. The Moderates point at the present squabbling and, by ignoring the historical reality of the debates during the Conservative Resurgence, say that the earlier battle is the same as these battles: Much ado about nothing.

Is Today’s Infighting like the Conservative Resurgence?

If I were someone outside the SBC, especially someone who believed that the so-called Moderates really had it right and the Conservative Resurgence was all the fault of the “Fundamentalists,” then I would see a whole lot to support my opinion. That would especially be the case if I were ignorant of the actual arguments during the Conservative Resurgence.

The Conservative Resurgence was a battle waged over the nature of Scripture and its place within the church. The Conservatives were those who argued for the inerrancy of Scripture––that the Bible is truthful and, in the original manuscripts, entirely accurate; Scripture is thus authoritative for doctrine and life for the local church. The so-called Moderates espoused a range of views from a non-confrontational inerrancy (i.e., Scripture is wholly true, but there is room for disagreement) to various stages of modernistic denials of the truthfulness and authority of Scripture.

One of the most significant differences between the Conservative Resurgence and the ongoing fight is that there is almost no doctrinal space between those on either side of the debate. For example, in the recent intra-complementarian debate in the SBC, both parties agree that the role of pastor is reserved for males. They disagree about the degree to which women can participate on the platform during congregational worship.

In another fight, there is vitriolic anger being hurled against individuals and groups that argue there is racial injustice in some systems in the United States and that the gospel has implications for fighting against those injustices. The opposite side seems to be most opposed to engaging the topic using language grounded in the Christian tradition and from within distinctly gospel-centric organizations; the major point of contention seems to be the overlap between non-Christian (and sometimes anti-Christian) language about systemic racism and concern that a focus on the implications of the gospel (which may be debated) will overshadow the actual gospel.

There are good concerns on both sides for both of these issues. For example, whether women should preach on Sundays is an important debate to have. However, it would be helpful to have a debate about it rather than simply attacking those that disagree as departing from foundational doctrines of the church without significant evidence. Given that figures like Bertha Smith (who pushed Adrian Rogers to engage in the Conservative Resurgence) and Lottie Moon (who lamented the lack of male missionaries) both were theological conservatives who valued the inerrancy of Scripture and sometimes spoke to churches on Sunday, the issue for the SBC is not as clear cut as it might seem on its face.

It may be that there is a means to gain knowledge from women in a congregational setting without violating the holy writ. However, the debate is being pitched as if the only two options are an absolute denial of the differences between males and females functionally or that women may contribute to congregational worship only as backup singers for the worship band. Both positions are caricatures.

Most of the current debates––whether over the ERLC’s work on religious liberty, the pursuit of a more just society, or a woman speaking in a local church––are about the way Scripture ought to be applied rather than a foundational debate about the nature of Scripture. This is not another Conservative Resurgence.

Double-Talk and the Current Controversies

Another major difference between the ongoing infighting and the Conservative Resurgence is that during the Conservative Resurgence the institutions of the SBC were aligned in positions that were fundamentally opposed to the majority of the individual members of churches aligned with the SBC. This disparity was no more apparent than in the use of Double-Talk by the seminary faculty when speaking in local churches: there was a fundamental difference between the actual doctrine the professors held and what they communicated to the people in the pews who had not been (in their minds) sufficiently enlightened to appropriate progressive doctrine.

There is no question that many of the faculty at SBC seminaries during the middle of the 20th century had abandoned basic biblical doctrines and appropriated a modernistic, progressive form of Christianity. Ralph Elliot, the professor who wrote the Genesis commentary that catalyzed the Conservative Resurgence, has admitted that he and others intentionally obfuscated what they really mean when speaking to congregations. This was called Double-Talk or, in Orwellian fashion, doublespeak.

Recently accusations about the same issue have arisen regarding discussions of social justice at my alma mater, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This was particularly accelerated when a New York Times article was edited in such a way to make it sound like Walter Strickland was using double-talk to import controversial ideas of James Cone into his conservative-sounding teaching, particularly with regard to the idea of liberation within Black Theology.

Strickland wrote his dissertation on different schools of Black Theology, some of which are theological problematic and some of which are not (or at least much less so). As much as James Cone got wrong about Christianity, there are elements in Cone’s approach to race as a distinct social issue that are helpful in highlighting ways the Church (broadly speaking) has failed to appropriately engage in racial reconciliation.

To read the backlash over a quote in a newspaper, it would seem that Walter Strickland must be teaching Critical Race Theory and espousing distinctly progressive doctrines from his lectern each time he leads a class at the seminary. That is distinctly not the case; he and I have had conversations about the topic and, even if we disagree on terms (particularly redeeming the use of the term “liberation theology” in light of the negative connection with a revisionist school of theology), we agree on substance. More importantly, Strickland fully supports the BF&M 2000 and orthodox Christian beliefs about identity and anthropology.

The real substance of concerns over the recent media article is that Strickland might be leading his students to interact critically and thoughtfully with people that espouse theology incompatible to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

However, engaging with other theological traditions in a confessional environment is what healthy denominational seminaries do. It is much better to build a scaffold to understand the distinctions between our understanding of Scripture and other traditions in an environment where expert help is available. It would be tragic to lead people to believe Baptist theology has nothing to say about race. This could leave them to look for a way to deal with racial injustice from sources that undermine Christianity, believing those sources to have the only means to engage the issue. If certain themes from controversial theologians (like Cone) make it into the seminary classroom through men like Strickland, it is almost certainly in the form of “he got this right, but there are some problematic issues over here.”

A critical approach to different theological traditions in the seminary classroom is not double-speak like the bad old days. We become better theologians when we interact with dissenting voices critically, but respectfully. For example, the fact that I have been influenced in some ways by progressive theologians, especially since I write and think about environmental ethics a great deal, does not take away from my criticality when they apply incorrect doctrines to the issues.

Common grace is real. Sometimes non-Christians and even progressive Christians see things in a way that can illuminate our own blind spots. Engaging with them critically is not double-talk, it is the essence of scholarship. That is what good seminary professors are supposed to do.

Proving the Moderates Right

Controversies often draw battle lines in odd places, and they can tend to push people to defend positions they would not otherwise tolerate. In fact, the ongoing bile being spewed against Southern Baptists who lean toward a softer complementarianism has cause me to want to defend the position, even though I do not agree with it. There is a certain dishonesty in the misrepresentation of their position as “liberal” or “egalitarianism.”

As someone who loves truth, I want to step in and clarify the position, because what they are really saying is something less than the error of functional egalitarianism, which denies that God-given gender differences have implications for our roles in embodied service to God. Hard egalitarianism denies the functional differences called out in Scripture (or redefines them as specific to the patriarchal cultures in which the authors of Scripture lived and worked), whereas the current debate merely broadens the opportunities for females to teach within the local church setting under the authority of male overseers. One need not agree with either position to see there are clear differences between them.

The inability of many opponents of this softer complementarianism to deal with the actual arguments being made by those that hold those views is a mark of intellectual laziness and, in many cases, blatant dishonesty.

The so-called Moderates during the Conservative Resurgence argued that Conservatives were (1) reactionary, (2) mean-spirited, (3) anti-intellectual, and (4) more concerned about power than truth. If the ongoing debates are any sign, then they may have been correct, if not about the original participants in the Conservative Resurgence, then certainly about the warrior children of the conservative resurgence.

Truth is a worthwhile pursuit. In fact, I hope my life is defined by the pursuit of truth. However, sometimes the quest for truth is merely a poorly disguised excuse to fight. Once one victory is achieved over one issue it is easy to seek the next fight with the person closest to hand that holds any different positions. The sad result is often perpetual warfare and a continual splintering of formerly healthy alliances.

John Frame wrote an engaging chapter in a Festschrift for Alister McGrath called “Machen’s Warrior Children.” In that essay Frame outlines 21 different schisms that have occurred among conservative Presbyterians. He notes that what started out as a worthwhile battle––the battle over Modernism––morphed into a street brawl over relatively minor theological differences. He also explains that the nature of the debates has been one largely characterized by anathematizing one another when disagreement happens. In other words, Christianity is defined so narrowly that to disagree about anything is to be unorthodox. Frame recounts the sad fact that those who had initially been allied to push back against clear error continued to tear each other apart all in the name of finer and finer points of “truth.”

Right now Southern Baptists are facing their own train of schisms with anathemas hurled over points that should be debated rather than divided. In recent years we’ve seen arguments about the relative role of Calvinism in the SBC, over support for religious liberty beyond Christianity, regarding the need for racial reconciliation, dealing with the possibility of private prayer languages, surrounding the selection of material to sell in the LifeWay stores, and on and on. There have even been pitched battles over the size, complexity, and financial burden of State Conventions.

All of these issues deserve consideration and I have positions on all of them, but none of them actually divide Christians from non-Christians. And, oddly enough, I find myself in agreement with different clusters of Southern Baptists on several of the issues. The problem is not a fairly clear delineation over whether Scripture is true and authoritative for church practice, as it was during the Conservative Resurgence, but over how we live out our mission in the world. Certainly, this is important, but I do not believe it warrants the level of argument currently being offered.

At this point, the warrior children of the Conservative Resurgence are proving the “Moderates” correct: For some people, it’s more about the fight than it is about truth and the furtherance of the gospel.

Concluding Thoughts

If we are to continue as a convention––that is, a relatively loose coalition of churches centered on cooperation for missions––we have to value the gospel over worldly victory.

It might also help if those on either side of the debates took a moment to consider Paul’s words to the church in Corinth:

But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. (1 Cor 5:11)

There are a whole lot of people who have fallen into the category of “verbally abusive” in these latest debates, which makes one wonder if fellowship with them is wise, or, as Paul seems to indicate here, consistent with biblical Christianity.

NOTE: This article has been edited since the original post for clarity and to correct a few typographical errors. No changes to substance or content have been made.

In Search of Ancient Roots - A Review

There have always been some evangelical Christians that decide to swim across the Tiber to join the Roman Catholics. That trickle has, according to some commentators, become a steady stream, especially among younger evangelicals. I’ve met a few people that have converted to some form of liturgical worship, like Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, and their reasons have tended to be similar.

In general, those that convert were involved in pop evangelicalism, which is usually high on hype and low on content. They were often nonplussed by the flashy, non-substantive style of the young, tanned mega church pastors that some people find so motivating. Largely it was concern that many of these forms of evangelicalism had few connections with ancient Christianity, were willing to renovate doctrines or push them to the background in order to draw a crowd, and had more of an affiliation to the dis-ease causing contemporary culture than anything like the pre-modern vision of the world the gospel calls us to. Those that I’ve spoken to that have jumped connected to Roman Catholicism have done it because they recognize that, in many ways, many “conservative” evangelical churches are really only a bad budget year from compromising critical Christian doctrines.

I share many of the same concerns about much of evangelicalism. There are altogether too many pastors that are more modern or postmodern than Christian. There is way too much time spent in trying to run the most efficient church and fundraising campaign, and too little spent asking what holiness looks like. There are streams of evangelicalism that function as moral therapeutic deists. This is true. However, the answer is unlikely to be found in a version of Christianity that claims to have hit peak revisionism 500 years ago, instead of one that is now going through many of the same struggles. (Never mind the more recent evolutions in Roman Catholic dogma.)

Kenneth Stewart, professor of theological studies at Covenant College, is helpful in his 2017 book, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis.  Since one of the arguments that many Roman Catholics use against Evangelical Christianity is that it is a novel invention from about 500 years ago, Stewart evaluates that claim deeply and others along the way to show that while various forms of Protestant Christianity are far from perfect, the claims of novelty and disconnection with ancient forms of Christianity are unfounded.

In Part One, Stewart explores the question of the Evangelical identity crisis. He begins by showing connections between the current Evangelical movement and earlier mini-reformations and revivals that pushed back anti-Christian traditions that confused the gospel. He also begins to wrestle with the question of authority: whether the Bible is authoritative or the interpretation of a select group of self-selected gate keepers. Finally, this section discusses the reality that doctrines have developed throughout Christian tradition; they were not handed down on stone tablets on a mountain. As a result, throughout Christian history, there have course corrections, adaptions, etc. Even within Roman Catholic teaching, there has been ongoing adaption as the Pope or various councils reject former teachings, adapt them, and propose new doctrines (Like the relatively recent addition of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the infallibility of the Pope). A trip across the Tiber is far from a trip toward rock solid connection with the original Christian past.

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The second part explores the use and evaluation of Protestant Christians to pre-Reformation Christianity. With the exception of the modern period, in which much of Protestantism became infected with the same sort of Enlightenment rationalism that much of the rest of the world did, it turns out that Evangelicals have engaged the early Church Fathers fairly consistently. Stewart shows how reliance on the Apostolic Fathers has shaped ongoing Protestant doctrinal debates. There is more continuity with traditional Christianity among many faithful evangelical Christian traditions that some Roman Catholics will admit.

In Part Three, Stewart defends the Protestant Christian faith, by tracing out the problems with the Apocrypha and its limited authority before the Council of Trent. He also considers the attractiveness of different forms of monasticism, whose contemplative life is another draw for many young Christians. Then, he closes this section by evaluating the history of arch-convert John Henry Newman, whose famous quote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” is used as a cudgel to prove that people who reject the authority and adaptations of the Roman Catholic church are ignorant or the real history of the church. The problem, as Stewart shows, is that this statement comes from a book that Newman had to demur about, because it was written before he converted away from Protestant Christianity. Additionally, Newman scholars continue to show that Newman never left behind his believe in the primary authority of Scripture, which is significantly different than official Roman Catholic doctrine.

The book concludes in Part Four considering whether Christian Unity, which many desire, is dependent on all Christians bowing to the Bishop of Rome as the supreme representative of Christ, or whether some form of unity can be established on those biblical truths are commonly held. Second, Stewart considers whether there can be true unity when the vastly different positions on the question of justification by faith or by works is considered. Finally, Stewart closes with some thoughts on how evangelical churches can be more connected with the global church and the ancient roots of Christianity and thus stem some of the concerns expressed by young evangelicals who are drawn across the Tiber.

This book is helpful because it presents a calm rebuttal to the claims made against Protestantism that often go unchallenged. Many of the reasons people list for converting to Roman Catholicism are, in fact, not as valid as they suppose. This book is a bit dense to hand a young undergraduate caught up in the pomp and smells of a high Roman mass, but it is powerful. Pastors and parents dealing with children drawn to Roman Catholicism may find this a very useful resource for engaging in discussions with information that evidentially rebuts propaganda used to draw people toward Rome.

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

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be - A Review

Sin. It’s one of those topics that we are all skilled in the practice of, but often try not to think about a whole lot. Too often, our concept of sin is narrowed by a set of concerns for personal redemption and our consideration of its devastating power is abbreviated by the belief that our sin has been paid for at the cross by Christ.

This thin conception of sin has devastating effects on Christian engagement in society and the degree of empathy many Christians have for those who commit obvious, flagrant sins. Cheap grace can only abound when the severity and pervasiveness of sin throughout our individual lives and the fabric of society are underappreciated.

The tragedy of much contemporary and theologically orthodox Christianity, particular among evangelical Protestants, is that a faulty definition of sin has led to thin ethics. Sin is sometimes popularly perceived of as something that is paid for by the cross and then entirely behind the Christian. To a degree this is true, Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross provided a path for the elect to be redeemed. Forgiveness for sin is now available for those that repent and put their faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as the hope for eternal life. All of this is true, but it neglects some of the ongoing effects of sin in even the lives of Christians and especially in the world around us.

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Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, is an important book for understanding the nature and effects of sin. The book was originally published in 1995, and won multiple awards. It is both excellently written and exceedingly positive. This is the sort of book that should remain in print because of its enduring value as an accessible and theologically precise systematization of the doctrine of sin.

The key concept for Plantinga is Shalom. The Hebrew term shalom refers to holistic flourishing of the world across multiple dimensions. From a human perspective, shalom entails right relationship with God, non-human creation, and humanity. This flourishing existed only for a short time in the beginning of creation, which we see described in Genesis 1 and 2. We have the promise that it will exist later in the New Heavens and New Earth, as depicted in prophetic passages like those at the end of Revelation and in several sections of Isaiah. We live in a world right now that has had its shalom disrupted.

With the idea of holistic flourishing in view, the concept of shalom becomes both clearer and more complex. Sin is no longer a transaction between God and humanity alone, but a transaction that has implications for a whole web of relationship. Ultimately, sin’s penalty is due to the offence of God’s character (Ps 51:4), but its substance may be primarily disruption of the human-creation or human-human relationship.

When we begin to understand that sin is a disruption of shalom, the cycles of Judges begin to make sense. The people of Israel were oppressed, the repent, God sets them free, they fall into sin. That sin has both personal implications (separation from God) and social implications (disruption of systems and relationships). Thus, we can see that God might be justified in desiring to begin society all over again if “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. . . . For all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” (Gen 7:11–13) Sin isn’t just a personal violation of God’s law, it also entails distortions of all of human relationships.

Plantinga’s book begins from unquestionably orthodox foundations in the Reformed tradition. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be explores dimensions of sin as it is seen in both personal and social dimensions. He approaches the topic by describing sin categorically. It is a form of corruption, which requires a concern for spiritual hygiene. Its corruption permeates life and society. Sin is a parasite on the good in this world. It is an attack on God’s Kingdom and his common grace. Sin finds its way into human interactions and life in unbelievably difficult ways through addiction, a little-considered dimension of sin. (Usually addiction is dealt with as a simple failure in will-power.) Sin can also be a form of flight from the responsibility to deal with faults in shalom and neglecting our call to restore it.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a Christian classic. It’s taken me years to get around to reading it, but it’s a book that is consistently found in the footnotes of other significant texts. The book was named the Christianity Today book of the year for 1996, because of its theological acumen and its clarity. Plantinga’s book is one that is accessible to any reasonably theologically engaged Church members.

If this book were published today, it would likely be viewed with suspicion because it explores the social implications of sin. This begins to sound a bit too much like social justice for some people. If the fear of considering the impact of sin on holistic flourishing of creation by some Christians will have hugely negative influences on the ability of future generations of Christians to appropriately relate to society. We are already seeing this happen as younger generations, recognizing the implications of Christianity for social ethics, are drawn to non-orthodox versions of Christianity because (despite denying central tenets of the faith) they often have a better (or at least more engaged) attitude toward the social implications of Christianity.

The Crunchy Con Manifesto - A Proposal for Actual Conservation of Something

Conservativism is in crisis in the U.S. The term has become altogether too closely aligned with a form of political populism that has little to do with conserving anything of value. For many people on the political left and the political right, conservativism has become largely about listening to angry men in cowboy hats and pretty women in tight t-shirts rail against immigrants, gender revisionists, and “liberals.” Often there is also implicit support for large businesses which are always good for America (especially when they support grifters on the right), except when they lobby for socially progressive policies and for one of the groups that the cowboy hats and tight shirts are angry at. Other than moving society in the United States back to some apparently great condition that is never defined, only reminisced about, there does not seem to be a coherent theme to what passes for conservativism.

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In truth, both conservativism and liberalism, as they are used (but rarely defined) in popular discourse are forms of social progressivism. “Liberalism” focuses on achieving atomistic individual freedom to enable people to pursue whatever sexual goals they have and free them from the economic need to do work that aids society. This is often, seemingly paradoxically, pitched as part of the goal of economic collectivism (e.g., socialism) and moral totalitarianism (e.g., attempts to outlaw Christian sexual ethics). On the other hand, “conservativism” tends to be focused progress toward individual freedom to pursue economic goals and social structures that more closely relate to some earlier ideal, which are rarely defined beyond a desire for neighborliness. The progress of conservativism is achieved through lack of government regulation on the economy and fighting against social outgroups that themselves feel as if they are fighting for a place to exist.

Of these two forms of progressivism, I have a decided preference for the “conservative” form. There are obviously destructive elements in contemporary political liberalism that only willful ignorance of economics, history, and basic philosophical anthropology can overlook. However, similarly obvious blind spots exist on the political right, as well. My chief grievance against political “conservativism” as it is often presented is that there is nothing that it is trying to conserve. It is just progress in a different direction toward a goal that is just as undefined as the goals of the left.

As I’ve been exploring this dilemma of political homelessness, in part through the work of Patrick Deneen, though there are others, I discovered a book that Rod Dreher wrote in 2006 that presents a better vision of conservativism, in my opinion. At least, it forms a different starting place for dialogue about what conservativism ought to be aiming at. His book, Crunchy Cons, is a valuable book for those dissatisfied with where the GOP has gone, but completely appalled at the corrosive politics of the DNC, as well.

There are ten articles in Dreher’s “Crunchy-Con Manifesto” that I will quote in their entirety here. (After all, Dreher is the king of block-quoting other articles online, so he can’t mind too much if I take a couple of pages from his book.)

A Crunchy–Con Manifesto

1.       We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

2.       We believe that modern conservativism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

3.       We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity’s best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4.       We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America’s wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk identified as “The Permanent Things”––those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.

5.       A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

6.       A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract.

7.       Appreciation of aesthetic quality––that is, beauty––is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

8.       The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

9.       We share Kirk’s conviction that “the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. . . . The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10.   Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve it create anew.

Having sent a salvo against mainstream “conservativism” on the beginning pages of his book, Dreher goes on to journalistically explore people living out particular aspects of this manifesto. They tend to be (but are not exclusively) theologically conservative within their faith tradition, live within a large nuclear family, and community focused. Most significantly, the people Dreher interviews are focused on achieving a positive goal, not simply attempting to escape some negative restriction.

For those seeking an alternative response to contemporary political options, Crunch Cons may be the beginning point for future exploration. This is the book in which Dreher introduces the concept of the Benedict Option (I have not yet read his book), which he explored more fully in the hotly debated volume by that name. Although some of the content is dated, this book remains a good counterpoint for the GOP/DNC binary we seem to be stuck with, and may inspire a positive shift toward a conservative movement seeking to actually conserve something important.

Integrated Justice and Equality - A Review

Social justice is a contentious topic among Christians these days. A large reason for that is that the term has many and varied definitions. While the term was originally used to discuss ensuring actual justice within society, it has come to be interpreted as a means to privilege some ideological groups over others, to justify inherently unjust economic systems, and to excuse violence for certain, approved causes.

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 The corruption of the term has led it to be a polarizing phrase between theological stripes of Christians. Progressives who claim faith in Christ recoil when conservatives attempt to use the term to describe their efforts. Sometimes the affirmation of “social justice” leads Progressives to advocate for causes that undermine true justice. Those on the right often repudiate the term, even when the term is meant appropriately. Often the negative reaction to the term “social justice” leads conservatives to reject important works that are biblically warranted.

 In his book, Integrated Justice and Equality: Biblical Wisdom for Those Who Do Good Works, John Addison Teevan sets out “to encourage the good works of compassion that Christians want to do to make the gospel while differentiating between good works and social justice.” He notes that in order to do that, he must begin by disambiguating his terms. Throughout the text, Teevan is arguing for what he calls integrated justice, which is justice built on a traditional, biblical understanding of justice.

 In Chapter One, Teevan argues toward a biblical notion of justice, which is often significantly different than many perceive. Through historical argument, Teeven establishes his position that social justice is a term that originated outside of the church by those who found the work of the social gospel attractive, but liked even the traces of gospel that were left in the movement. He surveys the recent historical discussion, interacting critically with contemporary, conservative Christians. Chapter Two provides a survey in greater detail of understandings of justice, especially in those traditions that have impacted Western culture. In the third chapter, Teevan outlines the historical evolution of social justice, which he argues is largely rooted in Rawl’s understanding of politics. He also develops his critiques of social justice with the notion of a biblical, integrated justice. These two chapters provide the foundation for the rest of the volume.

 The remaining three chapters offer critiques of social justice, arguing it tends to undermine true justice, and bring the book to a close. In Chapter Four, Teevan critiques the notion that economic inequality is inherently unjust through practical examples of perfectly just inequality and the problems associated with attempts to create equal outcomes. The fifth chapter argues against redistributive economic systems designed for “fairness,” which often do not accomplish their stated goals. At the same time, Teevan is critical of capitalism, because he recognizes the limits of the economic system. All economic systems rely upon the virtue of the people. The final chapter brings together the concepts of the earlier chapters to outline specific warnings, conclusions, and practical applications for the reader. What he produces is a call to activism, but an activism grounded and controlled by the norms of Scripture and a traditional understanding of justice.

 This is a volume much more likely to convince the uncertain that to lead to converts. Those longing for a better society but who are repulsed by the gross depravity of much of the social justice movement will find an outlet to pursue true justice in this volume.

 At the same time, Teevan appears to concede the term social justice too quickly. Notably absent from his volume is a discussion of the development of the early Roman Catholic use of the term social justice, which was much more biblical than present parlance. It may be possible yet to redeem the term and turn it to good use.

 Overall, this is a much needed, accessible volume that is both biblically informed and economically accurate. Teevan provides a helpful critique of the social justice and gives a sound justification for his newly coined term. His critiques are honest and forthright. He does not demean, mock, or dismiss, which make this book a useful resource for the church. Additionally, Teevan moves beyond his critique into encouraging practical application, which is necessary to move conservative Christians from theory to action.

We Have Forgotten

We have forgotten that it is possible to be wrong without animus. This is why society is so terribly unforgiving.

We have forgotten that it is possible to disagree without despising. This is why our friendships are so fragile, sparse, and transient.

We have forgotten that it is possible to forgive without retribution. This is why the quest for social justice often turns to mobs and unrelenting abuse.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be correct without being in control. This is why politics has become the supreme interest in society.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be right about some things and wrong about others. This is why the list of acceptable voices from history continues to diminish.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be different without being degraded. This is why attempts to find equality lead to eradication of excellence.

We have forgotten that it is possible for cost and value to be different. This is why conspicuous consumption is still rampant.

We have forgotten that it is possible to be new without being better. This is why our hunger for more goes unabated and ancient books go unread.

Creation and New Creation - A Review

The doctrine of creation has largely been swallowed whole in evangelical and fundamentalist circles by questions of the age of the earth. For example, theology texts like, L. S. Chafer’s Systematic Theology, Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology, and Elmer Towns’s Theology for Today deal with the creation as a question of origins. For Chafer, this discussion is embedded in a chapter about the doctrine of man, rather than in a standalone chapter. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has a chapter on the doctrine of creation, but the questions he seeks to answer are, “Why, how, and when did God create the universe?”

These are not unimportant questions or unworthy of discussion. However, the age of the earth and the exact time that it took God to make something from nothing does not exhaust the depth of the doctrine of creation by a longshot.

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In a recent book published by Hendrickson, Sean McDonough does a masterful job highlighting the importance of the doctrine of creation, especially as it relates to the new creation. He rightly recognizes that God’s first creation project was always intended to simply continue into his future creation project, with ongoing creation (or providence) in the middle.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter One shows how closely the new creation is connected to the account of the original creation. The second chapter deals with the nature of God as creator, since it is vital to understand his nature to recognize the distinctions between him and what he has made. In Chapter Three, McDonough presents various theories why God made the world. In the fourth chapter, the topic of the relationship of time to the created order is considered.

Chapter Five considers the nature of creation ex nihilo, in particular evaluating the relationship of God to his creation. In the sixth chapter, McDonough discusses the influence of Plato’s dualism on the Christian tradition’s understanding of creation. In Chapter Seven, the question of how creation was made is considered. This leads McDonough to consider the place of humans within creation in the eighth chapter. And, in Chapter Nine, the beauty of the world and its value for God and as a testament to God’s goodness comes to the fore.

Creation and New Creation: Understanding God’s Creation Project is largely an expository book. McDonough presents a survey of Christian thinking, digesting theological writing from Irenaeus to Karl Barth. The overall position McDonough presents is well within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, and he handles those on the fringes fairly with appropriate criticism.

The most significant aspect of this book is that it serves as a reminder to Christians that creation is not something that happened at some hotly debated point in the past. Rather, creation began when God spoke all things into existence out of nothing, but it is ongoing as he sustains the world by the power of his word, and will eventually be brought to perfection in the new creation when all things are made new. This has been God’s plan from the beginning and it is so much bigger than an argument over the number of hours in a day, the compatibility of scientific theories of origins, and a discussion of human origins.

Connecting creation to new creation emphasizes the telos of this world. God intended his handiwork of a purpose, and it is trending in a particular direction. His will cannot be foiled. This is a liberating reality. It frees us to delight in the goodness he has created while looking forward to the beauty of the renovated creation, once the sin has been purged. This book is an important one, particularly for evangelicals, seeking to remediate the lack of vigorous treatments of creation in our tradition.

Creation and New Creation is a valuable book. McDonough writes well and demonstrates that he has done extensive research. This is a volume that will be best suited to people with theological training or extensive reading in their backgrounds. Those that are equipped to engage with it will find it well worth their while.

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