The Insanity of God - A Review

“Is Jesus worth it?”

That is the question that Nik Ripken’s book, The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected drives his readers to ask. It’s a story that Christians in a Western context should ask themselves regularly, realizing that the costs of following Jesus are so much lower in our context than in many others around the world. Ripken’s book is a reminder of the huge cost so many believers are paying for their faith, and that, without question, Jesus is worth it.

The book begins by telling part of Ripken’s story. He came to Christ as a teenager from a dysfunctional family and immediately felt called to ministry. After attending a Christian college, where he met his wife, Ruth, he landed in seminary. After getting married and graduating, the Ripkens pastored several churches in the United States until they felt an unmistakable call to cross-cultural missions.

Their story is not atypical among young missionaries. They fell in love with the people at their first assignment, but could not remain there. For the Ripkens the problem was a low resistance to Malaria that threatened the lives of the whole family. After spending some years working in one of the black districts in South Africa (prior to the end of Apartheid), they felt called to go someplace where the gospel had not been or, at least, where it was not readily available.

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So, the Ripkens began to serve as relief workers in Somalia during that bloody civil war. This opened Nik’s eyes to the horrific persecution meted out on Christians in many Muslim nations. When the Ripkens lost a son, in part due to lack of sanitation and adequate medical conditions, it led them to ask that fundamental question: “Is Jesus worth it?” It also led them to begin to ask questions about how to help Christians undergoing persecution thrive.

Approximately half the book is dedicated to the Ripkens, which is a worthy read. The latter portion of the book focuses on what the Ripkens learned from persecuted Christians.

After a furlough, Nik began to journey around the world to places like the former Soviet Union, where the persecution had just recently been lifted. The stories he tells of the cruelty applied to pastors and lay people are agonizing, but there is an unmistakable power in those stories that remind readers that Jesus is worth any price we could possibly pay.

Then, when Ripken spent time in China and in some Central Asian countries where persecution threatens the daily lives of Christians, the stories of courage, faith, and perseverance emerge with breathtaking clarity and compelling power. Jesus is worth it. These people know it. We too often forget it.

The Insanity of God tells important stories about the persecuted church. These stories do not lead to voyeurism, however. Instead they offer a compelling and convicting call to pray for the persecuted church and to use our freedom to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For American Christians caught in the belief that church is a nice extracurricular activity, or a place where they can go to learn some morals, The Insanity of God is a wakeup call that the gospel is worth any cost. Our primary concern in life should not be when our next luxury vacation is, but how we can more effectively live for the name of Christ.

The Storm-Tossed Family - A Review

Families are under attack and the only hope for them is to be reshaped by the cross of Christ.

That might sound like a reactionary statement, which could be accompanied by a decline narrative and commentary on how much worse things are today. However, as a central idea of Russell Moore’s recent book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, he provides evidence that the family has always been critical and has always been a spiritual battle ground.

Moore writes, “Family can enliven us or crush us because family is about more than the just the life cycle of our genetic material. Family is spiritual warfare.”

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The spiritual importance of the family is made evident in the pages of Scripture. Even before one of the Ten Commandments anchors the family in the very character of God, we read of Satan’s attempt to disrupt the first family by tempting Eve to sin. Shortly after that we read of one brother killing another out of jealousy. The Bible is clear that the family is a focal point for satanic attack and that the disruption of the family is one of the clearest evidences of sin in the world.

Logically, we must ask why that is.

Again, Moore helps to explain, “The family is one of the pictures of the gospel that God has embedded in the world around us. Through a really dark glass, we can see flashes in the family of something at the core of the universe itself, of the Fatherhood of God, of the communion of a people with one another.”

The balance of the volume explores the nature of the family, the corrosive ideas that are negatively impacting our families, and offers a better vision for the good of the family.

The Storm-Tossed Family is reasonably comprehensive. After introducing the concept of family being spiritual warfare Moore begins by identifying points where contemporary culture conflicts with a cross shaped vision of the family, tearing down mistaken ideas and offering a better version of the family.

This process begins with Moore’s affirmation that the Kingdom of God is the primary concern of Christians, not the family. Here he is debunking the dangerous idea that the function of the church is somehow social or political—to preserve the nuclear family—rather than spiritual.

The most important distinction in that important, but secondary, concept of the family is that the family is a picture of the gospel, not the gospel itself. No one comes to Christ because they see a strong nuclear family. They come to Christ because they recognize their need for a savior and the hope that he offers.

Additionally, Moore deconstructs one of the ongoing myths of Christian sub-culture by reminding readers that the church is a family. Thus, the hyper-territorial parenting styles that are a fairly common occurrence in children’s church and the preference of “family time” over church activities in all or most cases represents a deviation from the pattern outlined in Scripture, particularly the New Testament.

Subsequently, the place of singles in the body of Christ becomes less questionable. No longer is the local church projected as a way to support the nuclear family in a hostile world. It does that, to be sure, but the primary purpose is to be a family to exemplify the gospel. Thus, singles are an integral part of the body, not a loosely attached appendage consigned to a class of misfits on a Sunday morning.

The themes that Moore tracks down are plentiful, and the above paragraphs provide just a few examples. He also delves into human sexuality, pointing out where the church has conceded a great dal of ground to the world around—we are, as Moore has argued frequently, often simply slow-moving sexual revolutionaries. As long as we are a few decades behind society, we feel like we are being sufficiently conservative. The point, however, is not to be conservative per se, but to be biblically faithful.

The Storm-Tossed Family is an important book for our age. Moore manages to highlight errors prevalent in even the most theologically orthodox churches while holding firm to the positive patterns of family that are indicated (though rarely exemplified) in Scripture. The connection between the gospel and proper function of the family is, without question, the central theme of this book.

The good news in this book is the good news: Christ came to redeem us from our sin. One of the most affirming and reassuring anecdotes in this book is of a man, realizing he had failed often and significantly as a father, being told that Christ would redeem his failures. The message is not that it is ok to fail, as if all the wrong we do will be undone, but that in Christ all things will work together for good. Repentance is real, powerful, and effective. God doesn’t change the past, but he will redeem it through the blood of Christ. That is the sort of hope that all of us imperfect people need to hear about.

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

A Book for Our Times

Trevin Wax is among the most astute cultural commentators of our day. It is not uncommon for a thorny question to arise in the public square only to find he has dealt with it concisely and clearly on his blog the next day. He reads the culture well, understands a biblical worldview well, and writes very well.

This is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel is no exception to Wax’s normal standard of clarity and excellence. In this volume, Wax considers eight significant myths that are especially significant to the present milieu, unpacks them and their significance in our world, and shows how a biblical worldview undermines them. In each case, Wax seeks to show how authentic Christianity has a better answer to offer than the cultural myth.

SUMMARY

Wax dissects eight myths that are cultural flashpoints. In the first chapter, he shows how the smartphone functions to alter our perception of reality. Smart phones tie us in to the world around us, make us feel smart because we find information quickly, and allow us to expose every moment of our lives (really just the good ones) to the world in an instant. In Chapter Two, Wax tackles the storytelling of power of Hollywood. He avoids the typical moralistic finger-wagging about too much sex and focuses on the power of story and the greater imaginative scope available to those with a regenerate mind.

Next Wax examines the faulty pursuit of happiness, which is often based more clearly on a goal destined to fail us. Instead, Wax notes that the Christian gospel offers us hope apart from the usual trappings of happiness our culture advertises. Chapter Four wrestles with the myth that consumerism will make people happy. This is the cause of so much heartache and misery in our world, but Wax reveals how it pales in comparison to our hope in Christ.

In the fifth chapter, This is Our Time, deals with the sense of dis-ease Christians often have in the world. The myth is that we should feel at home in this present world, but Wax shows how we should always long for a perfect future not to try to make our world like a supposedly great past. Chapter Six tackles the modern myth that marriage is fundamentally about human happiness. Instead, Wax demonstrates that, as God intended it, marriage is about sanctification and giving glory to God.

Chapter Seven offers a reflection on the changing standards for sex in our culture, noting that self-control and chastity have become insults rather than virtues for society. Wax argues that sex cannot be both everything and nothing as culture claims, but that it must serve the purpose ordained by the Creator if it is to satisfy. In the eighth chapter, the author takes on the pervasive myths of eternal progress and constant decline. Both narratives are compelling for different reasons, but they often distract from our true hope in Christ.

ANALYSIS

Books that provide cultural critique are a dime a dozen. They have been standard fare for theologically conservative Christians for decades. When I inherited my grandfather’s library, I got dozens of books that had scathing critiques of the culture of previous decades.

In most cases, those critiques were just and warranted, but This is Our Time does something many cultural critiques fail to do: it explains why the gospel is better. That is what makes Wax’s book so helpful; it exposes the myth as a fraud and tells the true story in a deeper, more powerful way.

By telling the gospel truth instead of simply condemning, Wax equips his reader to share the good news. He fills out the necessary understanding of repentance, which is turning away from wrong doing and pursuing the good.

By writing such pointed cultural commentary, Wax has produced a volume that is a treasure for our time. The downside is that This is Our Time is distinctly time-bound. In twenty years, the volume will provide an excellent example of how to write cultural critique for the benefit of the church, but its shelf life as an antidote for the ills of our age is limited.

Therefore, people should snap up This is Our Time in the near term. Read this book. Talk about it in your small groups and consider not just the content, but the way Wax has put together his critique. This volume is a gift to the church, but it needs to be read in our day if it is to have its best impact.

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

Enduring Truth - A Review

Aaron Lavender of Carver Baptist Bible College, Institute, and Theological Seminary has recently released a book with B&H Academic that, I believe, provides a much needed word for all Christians of all times. His book is directed toward the particular context of improving the theological quality of African American preaching, but most of the examples and lessons are applicable to any ethnic context.

Summary and Analysis

Enduring Truth: Restoring Sound Theology and Relevance to African American Preaching contains four content chapters bookended by an introduction and conclusion. Lavender begins by addressing the problems he sees with biblical preaching in African American pulpits. He notes that many African American churches have suffered due to the segregation of theological training and social segregation over the previous generations. As a result of many theologically conservative colleges and seminaries excluding or restricting access by African Americans, Lavender argues some bad theological tendencies have developed. He describes a significant mishandling of the Word of God that is widespread and has lead to the propagation of Black Liberation theology and the Prosperity Gospel instead of sound, biblical teaching. In other cases, showmanship and style have replaced substance in African American pulpits. This amounts to a crisis in African American churches.

In Chapter Two, Lavender moves to discuss the goal. Having stated the crisis, he unveils a vision for exegetical preaching, including its importance and its methodology. This chapter is concise and worthy of reading by prospective preachers of any ethnicity. In particular, Lavender tackles the issue of single versus multiple meanings as it pertains to exegesis of Scripture. Progressive evangelicals regularly assault conservatives for believing there is one primary meaning intended by the God-inspired authors of Scripture. Lavender defends the singular intended meaning, but also clearly notes that a given text may have diverse implications and applications in varying context. Lavender handles this issue and other similarly complex issues clearly, carefully, and concisely, which help to make this a good introductory volume.

Lavender builds a brief theology of preaching in the third chapter. Here he moves the reader to understand that preaching is more than simply regurgitating the results of Bible study, but it is a performative act in which the clear content of Scripture is presented clearly as a message of good news to a particular audience. However, Lavender cautions against preaching turning into a performance: “[The preacher] has not been called to entertain or mesmerize his listeners.” Instead, he should seek to reprove, rebuke and exhort. Scripture is to be the center of the preaching, because it is the message of Scripture not the charisma of the messenger that is intended to reshape the lives of the listening congregation. In this chapter, Lavender also considers some elements of preaching that are unique to an African American context. He evaluates both the strengths and pitfalls of “whooping” (“when the preacher’s words begin taking on a musical quality”) and “participatory proclamation” where the congregation is vocal in response to the preacher’s message. The purpose of this chapter is to frame a vision for expository preaching within the particular contours of the African American context.

Chapter Four closes the body of this brief volume by discussing the ever important search for relevance in preaching. In this chapter the author skims the surface of postmodernism, providing a critique that should keep the biblically informed from delving into the allure of epistemology murkiness. Lavender also discusses the importance and dangers of contextualization, which functions as further buttressing against a full-throated Black Liberation theology. Lavender urges his readers to contextual well, but cautiously. Seeking to apply the Scriptures to the lives of the hearers without diminishing the central message and authority of the Word itself is a challenge that every faithful preacher must navigate carefully. Lavender provides sound advice for his audience. This chapter concludes with a question an answer section, with a variety of seasoned African American preachers explaining their approach to the craft of preaching.

Conclusion

At under 100 pages of text, this is the sort of resource that could be useful in mentoring prospective young preachers in any context, but particularly within an African American context.

One of the clear messages that I received from this volume as a white evangelical Christian is that within the African American context, Aaron Lavender has the same concerns about biblical fidelity and faithfulness to the message of Scripture that I have had in a predominately white context. As we continue to work toward racial reconciliation, this makes it clear that conservative Christians of various ethnicities should be able to work together in the common cause of redemption of biblical preaching, even when styles and techniques differ.

Finally, this is an important book that should be read across ethnic lines. Within the African American context, it will provide a focused critique and corrective to possible errors. Within the majority evangelical context, it has the potential to provide an introductory understanding to some of the distinctive aspects of African American preaching (like “whooping” and congregational response), which can seem distracting initially, but which have a historical and theological foundation within that tradition. If you are a white evangelical seeking to be a bridge builder to theologically aligned African Americans in your community, this book will help you understand their context better.

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

The Professor's Puzzle - A Review

There are very few jobs where someone recently from their training does not feel inadequate and somewhat unprepared. This occurs even in training nuclear operators, where we spent thousands of hours practicing in a simulator, studying the facts behind systems, and performing tasks under the supervision of qualified operators. Despite all of the practice, operators consistently reported that on the first day on the job on their own they felt nervous.

In the case of college professors, unlike many other professionals, the complaint is much more valid. This is because PhD programs focus on expertise in the field instead of pedagogy. In other words, the prospective professor learns the subject matter and not the means to explain it well. This is a benefit when it comes to doing scholarly research and writing, but it does not prepare PhD candidates for one of the most important tasks in their academic careers: teaching students.

Michael Lawson’s recent book from B&H Academic aims to fix that problem, specifically for professors teaching in a Christian context. The book he’s written, The Professor’s Puzzle, is a gift to the church because it fills in significant gaps that PhD programs leave out. He’s written a book that will help recent graduates, whether they come from a seminary or a university.

Summary

In ten chapters, Lawson manages to at on the major skills that are neglected by most doctoral programs. In Chapter One he builds a philosophy of education, which is frequently skipped. Then, in the next chapter he outlines the basics of the integration of faith and learning. Lawson’s version of faith and learning integration goes well beyond slapping a Bible verse onto the syllabus but shining the light of the gospel on the whole educational experience.

Chapter Three gives an overview of several significant learning theories. Given the diversity of opinions on this topic, Lawson’s chapter is obviously not the final word, but he is balanced and informative. In the fourth chapter, Lawson outlines a method for outlining a syllabus, which is a skill that many new faculty lack. Lawson lays out the basics of course design in a single chapter; I’ve taken and witnessed many professors late in their careers who could benefit from reading and applying that chapter.

The fifth chapter continues the pedagogical theme, discussing degrees of mastery of content and introducing Bloom’s taxonomy. In Chapter Six Lawson discusses managing a classroom, which includes the layout of the classroom, the volume of content in the course, and the flow of the class time. This chapter is, perhaps, a concentration of the most important aspects of teaching that many new professors may have never encountered before receiving their hood and guild card. In the seventh chapter, the assessment process is discussed. This includes assessment of the students, assignment of grades, and assessment of the course.

Chapter Eight touches on basic instructional techniques. Lawson does not call for killing the lecture, but he does recommend doing something besides merely lecturing. The ninth chapter deals with the relational skills that are particularly important for the Christian professor. As fellow believers or as witnesses to unbelieving students, Christian professors have the responsibility to engage their students on a personal and spiritual level. In the final chapter, Lawson presents some of the realities of university life to the young professor. These include budget concerns, enrollment, advising, tenure, etc. All of the things that keep the administrators up and sometimes bleed into faculty life more than they’d like. The book then closes with three appendices with examples and additional information to augment the earlier discussions.

Critique

I have been a professional instructor (in commercial nuclear power, not academia), a longtime student, and an administrator in higher education. This book is a condensation of much that I wish all faculty knew. It does not provide the definitive word on any topic, but it does touch on most of the major topics.

The two weaknesses of the volume are that it has limited advice for online instruction and it does not cover academic assessment of student learning. Lawson does address online some, but it feels like the discussions of online are tacked on the end of the chapters. There is room for more development here. Additionally, Lawson talks some about assessing learning, but given the pervasiveness of assessing Student Learning Outcomes, it would have been beneficial to discuss that more in detail here. In this regard, however, I may be overly biased as I am a Director of Assessment.

These weaknesses are minor in comparison to the extraordinary breadth of information that Lawson covers. This is a one-stop shop for the new Christian professor. It should become part of PhD curricula across the country, particularly at seminaries. Lawson’s vision for teaching the whole student and integrating knowledge with a distinctly Christian worldview are more important today than they ever have been.

This is the sort of book that should be included in courses at Christian seminaries and universities that deal with pedagogy. I am recommending it for my university’s new faculty orientation next year. Faculty who are early in their career should pick it up and read it this summer; it may provide the solution to various problems both inside and outside the classroom. The Professor’s Puzzle is not a volume that will lead to high volume sales to the general Christian population, but it should be a keystone in the library of most young Christian academics.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was granted by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel - A Review

If you are a Christian struggling with how to find a way to positively engage the world around you while remaining orthodox, then Russell Moore’s book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, is for you.

Moore has been on various news outlets over the past few years as a spokesman for conservative evangelicals, particular for the Southern Baptist Convention. If this has caused you to wonder what he is doing and why he says the things he says, then this book will be helpful for you, too.

Avoiding Twin Dangers

Moore is outlining the twin dangers of Christian engagement in the public square. On the one hand, it is easy for Christians to become like grumpy old people telling kids to get off their lawn. On the other hand, it also easy for Christians to leave unexamined many of the ills of society as long as it doesn't directly impact them. We can’t afford to fall into either one of the errors if we are going to reach the world with the good news of the gospel.

The thing that keeps us from falling into either of these errors is a proper understanding of the gospel. Moore begins by discussing the culture shift that has pushed Christians from the center of the cultural conversation to the prophetic edges. He is careful to note this reality reflects the fact that the values coalitions of previous decades sounded very Christian without actually being converted by the gospel. As the conversation shifted away from something that resembled a Christian ethic, the Christians that remained faithful to the gospel seemed to have two options: either compromise or get left out of the conversation. This is a false dichotomy.

Gospel Foundation, Contemporary Issues

Early on in the volume, Moore digs into the meaning of the gospel. He makes it clear that the gospel isn’t about either personal salvation or social justice; it’s about both. If the Christian church loses its understanding of personal conversion and individual redemption, she loses one of the cornerstones of the gospel message. Salvation is not based on redemption of the whole, but on Christ’s atonement for the individual. At the same time, if Christian individuals miss the central redemptive themes of historic Christianity, which offers a strong dose of the pursuit of justice in society, then they miss out on some of the key implications of their own gospel conversion; redeemed individuals seek to redeem society.

With both these aspects of redemption in mind, Moore addresses a number of major issues that are central to the contemporary cultural discussion: immigration, religious liberty, and family stability. These are social issues that tend to divide Americans from each other and are the topics that commonly lead to calls for compromise and accusations of a lack of compassion.

Convictional Kindness

This is where Moore’s call for convictional kindness comes in. Convictional kindness is standing firm on ethical norms without shame, while confronting the angry accusations of the surrounding world with a gentle spirit. The conviction is birthed from confidence in the objective moral order in creation that is witnessed to by the special revelation found in Scripture. It requires rational, well-thought through positions that are both coherent and correspond to the truth in God’s creation. Kindness is built on the understanding of our own personal need for redemption. We, too, are growing, learning people who have pasts that we may have forgotten. Those that we disagree with, even those waving fingers and shouting in our faces, are people made in the image of God who deserve to hear the message of redemption. That’s a message they won’t be able to hear if we are shouting back. In fact, joining in the shouting will keep our “conversation partners” from hearing both our arguments on the issue and the message of the gospel.

Moore’s overall argument is hugely important as Christians seek to be salt and light in a world that (still) desperately needs the gospel. He also makes subtler points that are even more significant for Christians to hear. For example, in discussing the issue of gun control or gun rights he explains that there is no single Christian position. He has a position, which he does not articulate, but he notes more significantly that no one can speak for an official Christian position. There are certainly moral elements to the question, but at the same time the bulk of the argument is prudential and legal. It would be unethical to leave loaded guns within the reach of toddlers, but the capacity of a magazine and the process for background checks for weapons are prudential questions. This doesn’t mean that the question is not significant, but that we should be careful about promoting our preferred position as a gospel truth when it isn’t. Doing so encourages wrangling within the body of Christ and it largely discredits the message of the gospel because the faulty logic is apparent to any who care to see it. In this example, the Second Amendment is a benefit of being American, not a right imbued by the gospel.

Conclusion

Onward has been published at a time that conservative Christians in America feel like they are under assault because anything resembling a Christianesque ethic is being pushed farther toward the margins. Moore helps by explaining that Christianity has always been strange and that we should continue to cling to our strangeness. We have to articulate the gospel in our homes, in our churches, and in our culture if we are to have an impact. Moore’s book is an encouragement to continue to live faithfully in private and in public, but with a confidence founded on the truth of the gospel not fueled by a majority in the polls. 

The Baptist Story - A Review

There has been a need for a new textbook on Baptist History for some time. Leon McBeth’s book, The Baptist Heritage had its day, but his presentation of Baptists was slanted toward his perspective on a number of issues. Also, McBeth’s book was published in 1987 before the culmination of the SBC’s conservative resurgence.

As such, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement is a welcome volume. Three historians collaborated to write this 300-page volume. Anthony Chute serves at California Baptist University, Michael Haykin teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Nathan Finn recently left Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for Union University. The collaborative effort is helpful on a textbook that covers hundreds of years of data because each man has a different area of expertise.

The Baptist Story aims to tell the tale of Baptists from their beginnings to the present in an irenic matter. Besides eating, Baptists excel at quibbling over seemingly trivial matters. The priesthood of all believers (or freedom of conscience) has at times given rise to a contentious spirit in some. The three authors of this work seek to give an even handed explanation for the origins of Baptists, the historic soteriology of the Baptists, and some of the social ills that Baptists have tolerated or even aggravated. This is neither a whitewashing nor an exposé.

Summary

The book contains three sections. The first section deals with Baptists in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is the period of Baptist beginnings, through a time of persecution and possible extinction. At the end of that period, however, Baptists were growing and beginning the modern missionary movement in hopes of taking the gospel to all parts of the globe.

In section two, the authors trace Baptist History through the 19th century, which was a time of rapid expansion and rise to prominence of the Baptists. In particular, the low-church approach of Baptists with little requirement of formal education of clergy allowed a more rapid growth. It also led to theological ignorance, which made Baptists subject to fragmentation and heresy in the face of the challenges of Modernism.

Section three documents the twentieth century through the present. The impact of the World Wars, the Social Gospel, and Liberation Theology are all documented in these chapters. So is the continued growth of Baptists in most lands. The book would be remiss if the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention were neglected, so thankfully the coverage of that important topic is adequate.

The fourth section outlines some of the basic beliefs of Baptists: those things that make Baptists distinct from other denominations. This final section is the only prescriptive section of the volume; the remainder of the volume is fairly even-handed historical description. Even in this prescription, though, the authors are attempting to describe what has historically made Baptists different. It is apparent, though, that many of these things are also held to be good by them.

Analysis

The greatest contribution of this volume is that it provides an updated resource for those seeking to teach or understand Baptist History. Nearly thirty years after McBeth’s book was published, it was beginning to fall out of favor in many circles. Bebbington’s volume, Baptists Through the Centuries, will likely remain popular. However, The Baptist Story provides a different perspective on Baptists that may be more helpful for American students and better adapted to the college level.

This volume has explanatory power. It is readable and informative. It explains the Baptist movement without devolving into petty critique and promotion of factions. This is a book that explains the Baptist story in a global context, shedding light on the 1/3rd (or so) of worldwide Baptist believers that live outside of the United States. As such it serves to explain the American story and illuminate the global story beyond a missionary narrative. This is a book worth owning.

The Baptist Story aims to be a college level textbook and to provide visual cues along the way. There are textboxes with primary source quotes and pictures of key individuals and locations throughout the text. In addition to these graphics, it would have been beneficial for the volume to include charts and timelines that provide visual representations of the historical progression of Baptists. The Baptist history is complex, so that there is a constant battle between sorting information topically and chronologically. Timelines and charts would have helped readers navigate the transitions.

Another potential improvement for a second edition would be to add a glossary with some of the key theological terms. This is not a theology textbook, it is a history. Still, when concepts like the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology are mentioned, it would be convenient to have a brief explanation close at hand. It is impossible to understand the history of a religious movement without a firm understanding of some contours of the theology. A future edition could be enhanced by supplementing the text with a brief theological glossary.

Conclusion

This is an outstanding overview of Baptist History. I wish it had been published when I took my Baptist History nearly a decade ago. I read thousands of pages of primary sources to gain a similar understanding of the sweep of Baptist History. It is my hope this book will find a prominent place in theological education of Baptist students in the future, as well as in local churches as a means to explain how we got where we are.

The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement
$36.99
By Dr. Anthony L. Chute, Dr. Nathan A. Finn, Michael A. G. Haykin

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

A Theology for the Church - A Review

A Theology for the Church
$42.98
B&H Academic

Only seven years after the first edition of Danny Akin’s A Theology for the Church, B & H Academic has issued a revised edition. I read the first edition when it came out  and have been interested to see what changed. 

One of the best changes about the book is the formatting. The revised edition is a larger format with more information on each page. Personally, I find this change beneficial and the newer edition feels like it has more room to breathe. For the seminarian reading thousands of pages, typeface and formatting really do make a difference.

Updates and Revisions

Four chapters saw significant changes in this revised edition. The theological method chapter was replaced by a newly written chapter by Bruce Ashford and Keith Whitfield. They commend a missional approach to theology, which tries to root the study of theology in the greater picture of God’s redemptive work through the whole of Scripture. In my opinion, this is a helpful approach, as it avoids some systemic pitfalls that come from an overly emphatic interest in some particulars of Scripture over others. It also tends to avoid the abstraction that is native to some philosophical approaches to theology.

Chad Brand’s chapter on the work of God is a helpful new chapter. Additionally, David Dockery revised his chapter on Special Revelation and John Hammett updated his chapter on the Doctrine of Humanity. These new chapters include more recent scholarship and some improvements over the previous offerings. In particular, Hammett’s chapter shows the fruit of his ongoing work toward a monograph on the Doctrine of Humanity.

Approach and Content

The chapters are staged to ask for main questions, in this order: “(1) What does the Bible say? (2) What has the church believed? (3) How does it all fit together? and (4) How does this doctrine impact the church today?” Scripture is given preeminence in the discussion, but not to the exclusion of history, system, and application. This is a healthy thing and helps make the volume a valuable introductory resource.

Each chapter has a separate author, so this is a Systematic Theology text by committee. Beginning with four constant questions helps prevent this from becoming a structural Frankenstein. Akin and the other editors did well to ensure the chapters stay true to the formula, which provides cohesion in the chapters. One real advantage of this approach is that the authors often specialized in the topics on which they wrote. It also means they were able to drill down into one doctrine and do more thorough research (or as thorough research in a shorter time) than one theologian could do in a comparable volume. Each of the chapters, then, is lively and well researched.

Analysis

There are two weaknesses of this approach. First, the theological diversity of the authors prevents it from being a truly systematic theology. In other words, each author has his own theological system that he brings to the table. While there is unity in this diversity, it is a somewhat less cohesive unity than would be possible with a single authored Systematics. The second weakness is that the writing style of each chapter is different, which it makes it harder to get into a reading groove. This can make sustained reading somewhat more laborious.

Despite these weaknesses, which are native to the approach and not problems unique to this volume, the diversity adds value. Not only, as discussed above, does it allow for more thorough and timely research, but it ensures that one individual’s system does not overrun the text. While there are distinct advantages to single authored Systematics, in the sometimes divisive world of Baptist thought, it is good to see men with different perspectives on a host of issues working together to do theology for the church.

Conclusion

Both editions of this text have been, as the title claims, A Theology for the Church. The preposition in the title is hugely important, as it is not a theology of the church or to the church, but one designed to be accessible for the church. In other words, unlike many Systematics, which are written by theologians for other theologians, Akin’s text was written with the intelligent but theologically untrained in mind. Thus it does not get caught in jargon and leave insider references unexplained. It is crafted so a person in the pew can pick it up and benefit from it. Because of that, it makes an outstanding introductory Systematics for a Bible college or seminary.

The one improvement that could be made, if there is another edition released, is to add a glossary to the back. While the indices are helpful and the chapters are written well, that would make this an even more beneficial reference volume.

If you are theologically inclined, or thinking about seminary in the future, this is a theology text I would recommend as a place to start. It is accessible, orthodox, and sufficient to make a sound beginning in the study of theology for the benefit of the church and the glory of God.

A Theology for the Church
$42.98
B&H Academic

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Christian Bioethics

The recently release book by B&H Academic, Christian Bioethics, is a good introduction to a series of very important issues that face the people in the developed world today.

Medical technologies seem to press ahead without regard to ethics. The only question that seems palatable to most people in this day is, “Can we do it?” Very few are asking the important question, “Ought we do it?”

The moral vacuum of the culture compounds this problem, as subjective concerns of emotion and desire are promoted in favor of an ethical schema that anticipates objective answers founded on God’s structuring of reality. Fortunately Ben Mitchell and Joy Riley have a more biblical approach.

C. Ben Mitchell has a PhD in medical ethics and has taught moral philosophy for a number of years in a Christian context. D. Joy Riley is an M.D., with an MA in bioethics. With a strong background in the theory of ethics and the technical arguments related to bioethics, Mitchell and Riley can speak with authority and expertise where many others would need to be more tentative.

The book is written conversationally, which makes it suitable for non-academic audiences. Indeed, the subtitle of the volume is, A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families. As an academic ethicist, this was one of the things I liked least about the book, but for the primary target audience, the approach is likely to be helpful.

The book consists of four parts. First, Riley and Mitchell begin by laying a foundation for Christian Bioethics. What forms of medicine are out there and how should we view them? How does Scripture speak to contemporary cases that are not clearly addressed? These are important questions that are well answered in the first two chapters.

Next, the authors discuss the sanctity of human life as it pertains to abortion and euthanasia. They explain these things in terms that are intelligible and helpful. In the third part, Mitchell and Riley discuss the ethics of infertility and assisted reproductive technologies. They also address the issues of organ donation, transplantation, and cloning. In the final section, the authors address the issues related to anti-aging technologies and the centrality of understanding and respecting our humanity in the contemporary age.

 The greatest strength of this volume is that it is written for a popular audience. It doesn’t use a lot of technical term, though it occurs in the context of a conversation between two experts. Based on my recent experience teaching ethics to laypeople, resources like this are necessary and helpful. Another strength is that each chapter has a series of references that can be used for further study and elaboration. This is again important as the overflow of information on the internet leaves us often wondering which expert we can trust and how someone got to their conclusions.

I am not a fan of written dialogue as an approach to moral reasoning. Thus, I find Augustine’s early philosophical works rather boring and less helpful than they might be. As such, I would have preferred it had this volume taken a more straightforward approach and presented the material in normal prose instead of relying on dialogue. However, this is a stylistic preference and not a rejection of the substance of the book.

 I commend this to readers who are looking for answers to some very important ethical questions. I plan on recommending it as a resource to people in my church who have questions about this topic. It is up to date and informative. It is written with a pastoral heart and academic acumen. It should be a trusted resource for the church for the near future.

Note: A gratis copy of this text was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down

Don’t read this book unless you are prepared to have your practice of faith challenged. When he titled this book Ordinary, Merida wasn’t describing what your ordinary life is, he was describing what your ordinary life ought to be.

It turns out that the biblical definition of ordinary is a lot different than how most of us normally life. According to Merida,

Ordinary is not a call to be more radical. If anything, it is a call to the contrary. The kingdom of God isn’t coming with light shows, and shock and awe, but with lowly acts of service. I want to push back against sensationalism and ‘rock star Christianity,’ and help people understand that they can make a powerful impact by practicing ordinary Christianity.”

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