Dream with Me - A Review

John Perkins is a hero of the faith. I have little doubt that within a few decades he will be featured in biographies written for children as an example of someone who did a great work for the glory of God.

His is far from a household name in many circles, unfortunately. In fact, it has only been in recent years that I’ve encountered his story which typically isn’t flashy, but exudes the powerful, life-changing reality of the gospel.

For those new to John Perkins’ story, he is an African American man from Mississippi. If that doesn’t tell you enough, know that his brother was killed by police officers decades ago, he himself was severely beaten while in police custody, and his son suffered mightily as one of the forerunners of the school integration efforts in the ‘60s.

This is a man who has every reason to be bitter, angry, and to despise whites. He’s been given reason upon reason to reject the offers of reconciliation and partnership from the ethnic groups who were responsible for so much of his pain.

He has not reacted that way, though. Perkins came to Christ as the result of his son’s invitation to attend Sunday School. Hearing the gospel turned his heart away from the natural bitterness of his experience and led to the changed heart who has influenced many for Christ. It also set in motion the work Perkins has done in making society more just.

His recent book, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, is an autobiography. At 86 years old, Perkins offers this book as a self-conscious reflection on how God has worked in and through him for decades. The volume has fourteen chapters, which move in roughly chronological fashion. The chapters are thematic, telling pieces of Perkins’ story, along with a great deal of thoughtful reflection along the way.

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Like most autobiographies, the best parts of this book are not the histories that he recounts, but his explanation of his perspective. Listening to an aging man explain why he did some things and not others, and what he would have done differently is pure gold. This is distilled, bottled wisdom for those who are fortunate and diligent enough to read it.

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is Perkins’ reflection on some of the sources of the vicious discrimination African Americans faced prior to and during the civil rights movement, when public displays of racism were tolerated and encouraged. Perkins notes that some of the worst racial violence came from poor whites in the South—people who were in much the same economic straits that many blacks were in during that time. However, those poor whites had something that the blacks didn’t—white skin.

Instead of commiserating and cooperating with people in similar economic straits, some poor whites cashed in on the only asset they possessed—the cultural cache of being white—using it to gain positions of relative power, like prison guard, deputy sheriff, etc. They also took opportunities to reinforce their “superiority” over people of color, living out the idea that pushing someone else down could lift them up. The reality, of course, is that such actions simply made everything worse for everyone.

Perkins is able to reflect on this condition retrospectively with grace. He’s a better man than I am, I’m sure. Instead of being angry about how poorly he was treated and how much pain many whites caused his family and friends, Perkins demonstrates a gospel-fueled love.

That’s a big piece of Perkins’ life message and the message of this book. Love, the sort of love that comes from the regeneration of hearts by the love of Christ and the power of the gospel, has the power to change things. It’s easy to forget that. Or, perhaps it’s hard to believe that when crowds are shouting at you, death threats are coming, and you simply want the equal justice the law requires. In Dream with Me, Perkins gives an example of what it looks like.

I’m not always a fan of autobiographies, but this is a book that deserves to be read. It will serve as an encouragement and lodestar for many engaged in the slow moving process of gospel reconciliation.

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

Revitalize: A Book for Every Church Leader

While I was working on my MDiv, I was regularly surprised by the lack of men who were eager to become pastors in the local church. Even in my seminary classes, most of my fellow students were more eager to lead worship, work in parachurch ministries, or lead a youth group than to be the senior pastor of a church. Among those that actively desired to be pastors, most either wanted to get called by a healthy, growing church or plant their own.

The one job no one ever expressed any interest in was taking a position at a dying church and attempting to revitalize it. Much better, most argued, to let the sick churches die and plant new ones. This idea was supported by the real statistic that church plants tend to be more effective at reaching the lost. On the other hand, other statistics argue in favor of revitalization: billions of dollars in buildings and other assets simply waiting to be sold off when the last member of a dying church kicks the bucket and millions of people, many spiritually dead, sitting in the pews of those buildings thinking their meager giving and occasional participation in church life count for something with God.

Had it not been for the time I spent at FBC Durham under the supervision of Andy Davis, I might have ended up in the same boat. However, instead of rejecting the idea of church revitalization, I heard his story of God’s renewal of FBC Durham and met many who had walked with Davis through the process. It is that experience and vision for the renewal of a once-healthy local church that invigorates this recent volume from Baker Books.

Summary

Revitalize is divided into seventeen chapters. Each brief chapter focuses on a particular element of a holistic vision of church revitalization with bulleted points of practical advice related to the contents of the chapter. The first chapter emphasizes Christ’s zeal for revitalizing his church; this is not simply a quixotic mission of a man on a reclamation effort. Davis opens up with an overview of the book, which introduces each of the remaining chapters. Chapter Two continues on the introductory vein, outlining the nature of a healthy church, justification for revitalization, and the signs a church needs revitalized.

Chapter Three begins the practical portion of the volume. Davis exhorts his readers to embrace Christ’s ownership of the church; the church does not belong to the pastor or the congregation.  This attitude makes the rest of the volume possible. In the fourth chapter, Davis emphasizes the need for personal holiness and a proper view of the holiness of God. Chapter Five calls the pastor to find strength in God, not to attempt to win a victory through self-effort. The sixth chapter underscores the need to depend on Scripture for church renewal rather than a mysterious cocktail of programs.

In Chapter Seven Davis highlights the centrality of personal and congregational prayer to turn a church around. The eighth chapter explains the need for a clear vision of what a revitalized church should look like. Chapter Nine makes a case for personal humility in dealing with opponents of revitalization; Davis is clear that a proud pastor may win the battle, but miss the point in reclaiming a church. The tenth chapter calls the pastor to be courageous, even as he is humble. Patience is also a necessary virtue, as Davis notes in Chapter Eleven, so that significant capital is not spend making minor changes to the detriment of the greater revitalization project.

In the twelfth chapter Davis provides some advice on how to discern between big issues and little issues, which is essential if patience is to avoid becoming tolerance of evil. Chapter Thirteen exhorts the reader to fight discouragement, which is a real possibility in the face of human and satanic resistance.  The fourteenth chapter surveys the need to raise up additional men as leaders in the church to assist in the revitalization process and move the church forward in the future. Chapter Fifteen encourages the revitalizing pastor to be flexible with worship, but also to help keep the church up to date. In the sixteenth chapter, Davis hits one of his favorite topics, the two infinite journeys, which refers to inward holiness and outward obedience, both being markers of spiritual maturity. Chapter Seventeen is a brief conclusion pointing to the eventual renewal of all things, of which local church revitalization is a part.

Analysis and Conclusion

Every church needs revitalization, so this is a book for every pastor and church leader. The steps Davis outlines to help bring back a church to health are the ones every local congregation needs to do to stay healthy. This is the sort of well-reasoned, thoughtful volume that every aspiring pastor ought to read.

Davis strikes the right balance between recounting his own experience, drawing out important truths from Scripture, and providing practical steps. Church revitalization is not method-driven, it is Scripture driven. However, there are certain methods that will lend themselves to a higher probability of success.

Above all, this volume is an encouragement for the pastor or leadership team of the local church. Over and over Davis reminds his readers that a church that rejects Scripture is not rejecting the pastor, but God himself. None of this work can be done apart from the special work of God. These refrains run through the pages of Revitalize, exhorting the reader to continue striving in Christ and trusting in the work God is doing without becoming discouraged. Davis himself stands as evidence there is hope on the other side.

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

The Gospel According to Heretics - A Review

Have you ever wondered if Apollinaris was actually Apollinarian? Or how about Ebion? Was he really an Ebionite?

If you’ve ever dabbled in Christology or Church History, you’ve probably encountered these questions. If you haven’t been exposed to those intellectual concerns, then you may not have heard of such oddly named villains of the early church. However, these are perennial debated figures with often excoriated views.

In The Gospel According to Heretics, David Wilhite explores the panoply of historic heretics in one accessible volume. For the MDiv student in Church History I or whichever theology course covers Christology this is a goldmine of summary, analysis, and further footnotes.

SUMMARY

Wilhite covers ten different heresies in the ten chapters of his volume. There is a simple formula to each chapter, which is helpful for progressing through the text simple. He begins with a summary of what the accusers of the heretics said, then he breaks down what the available primary sources say the heretic taught. Next he outlines the orthodox response to the alleged teaching of the heretic.

The book progresses chronologically through the major heresies of the early church. It begins with Marcion, who is said to have argued that Jesus is a new and different God than the one of the Old Testament. The second chapter covers the Ebionite heresy, also called adoptionism, which denies the deity of Christ. In Chapter Three, Wilhite tackles the Gnostics, who denied the humanity of Jesus because of their stark dualism. The subject of the fourth chapter is the modalism of Sabellius, who allegedly argued that God exists as either the Father, Son, or Spirit at separate times. In Chapter Five the most famous heretic of all, Arius, is analyzed; the subordinationism attributed to Arius, which argues that Jesus was divine, but not quite equal with God forms the subject matter.

Wilhite comes down the backstretch of the volume with Apollinaris to whom is attributed the argument that Christ has a human body but a divine mind, which challenges his full humanity. Nestorius is the topic of Chapter Seven, especially his argument that the Son of God is a divine person that inhabits the human Jesus. In the eighth chapter the monophysitism of Eutyches is the subject matter; he is alleged to have taught that Jesus is half man and half divine and thus a sort of super-human hybrid. Chapter Nine takes on the iconoclasts who argued that Jesus must not be depicted, which seems to challenge the notion of an incarnate Christ. Then in the tenth chapter, Wilhite outlines the heretical Christology of Muslims, which portrays Christ as merely a human prophet and not divine. Finally, Wilhite concludes the book with a call for gracious interaction by both the orthodox and the heretical, though he recognizes that both exist.

ANALYSIS

The debate about whether the heretics discussed in Church History courses were really heretical is the subject of many seminary papers and late night debates over coffee. Wilhite does not definitively end any of those debates, but The Gospel According to Heretics does present a helpful tool for those discussions and papers (for any seminary students reading this).

Wilhite approaches his topic with the mind to revise the received traditional accounts. However, unlike other revisionist church histories, Wilhite is not out to argue that there is no orthodoxy. Rather, his argument is that there is an orthodoxy that Christianity should be centered around and the the early Christological debates helped in its formulation and documentation. It is simply that the historically accepted accounts of the heretics themselves may have been overblown. The doctrines the heretics represent are and were bad, but their locus is, perhaps, historically unrecoverable. This approach makes Wilhite’s book both edifying and informative.

The chief weakness of this volume is one that others may see as a strength. In some ways, Wilhite’s call to an irenic attitude toward contemporary heretics, in light of the perhaps wrong treatment of historical heretics, is a positive. However, there are situations in which a refusal of those in teaching positions to recant non-orthodox positions warrants vocal and vehement refutation. Wilhite is right to call for this to be handled as generously as possible, but in the face of a proud heretic, that individual may indeed need to be removed from positions of power, which in the case of a pastor or professor may cost him or her a livelihood. If legitimate heresy actually distorts the gospel, then it is a big deal and should be resisted accordingly, which seems to be downplayed in The Gospel According to Heretics. At the same time, Wilhite’s call for patience and humility is an important one to create the balance of speaking truth in love.

This is one of those books that has the potential to become a favorite textbook for years to come, if it remains in print. Wilhite’s careful research, vibrant writing, and simple outlines make this accessible volume a useful tool for years to come.

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

From Nature to Creation - A Review

In his recent book, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving our World, Norman Wirzba makes a case that much of the ecological degradation that has occurred and continues to occur due to a shift in the human relationship with the world around. His argument is that the shift from seeing the world as God’s creation to seeing it as mechanistic nature has allowed disregard for and utilitarian abuses of the environment to perpetuate.

Wirzba is Professor of Theology, Ecology and Agrarian Studies at Duke Divinity school. He is highly regarded among religious environmental ethicists for his expertise on this topic and his creative approach. This, no doubt, led to his inclusion in ongoing series from Baker Academic, “The Church and Postmodern Culture,” which seeks to engage timely topics in an incisive manner.

Summary

After an introduction, the book includes five chapters. Chapter One outlines the disassociation that many contemporary individuals feel from the world around. When Nietzsche declared God to be dead it reflected the attitude of many in the world, not simply the intelligentsia. However, when the concept of God faded from the forefront of society, so did the notion of an ordered creation. This allowed the value of nature to be reduced to its utility, whether aesthetic or functional. It also tended to accelerate the sense of separation that human had developed from the created order. The Enlightenment, as diverse as it was philosophically, had tended to treat the world mechanistically and humans as superior mechanism within it. This was accelerated by the so-called death of God, and this only increased the loss of a sense of place and order.

One response to the the rise of the idea of nature was a disassociation from it. A second was the idolization of nature, which Wirzba considers in his second chapter. In some interpretations, nature was viewed as a good in and itself and the preservation of it untrammeled by human hands an act of absolute necessity. On the hand, some idolized nature for the benefits they could extract from it. Modernity, according to Wirzba, resulted in the process of humans bestowing meaning to the world  instead of discovering meaning already in the world. This led to the ultimate idolatry, which is really worship of ourselves. Viewing the world as God’s creation prevents such a perversion.

In Chapter Three, the point is that creation must be perceived as it is and that the process of rightly interpreting the world around is a necessary part of the human experience. Disassociation from the world around, which has been encouraged by many forms of technology, clouds people’s perceptions. It is thus necessary for Christians in particular to seek to gain, as much as possible, God’s perception of the world and its value. By seeing the world as it is and as it is meant to be, the idolatrous turn can be reversed.

The fourth chapter details the importance of regaining a sense of our status as creatures. Perception helps to prevent the negative development of idolatrous attitudes, but humans are only situated in the world properly when they understand themselves as creatures made by God. In this chapter, Wirzba pushes for an agrarian understanding of the world, claiming that a greater connection with the soil is both biblical and vital to rightly understanding the world. He also ties the understanding of creatureliness into good eating habits, which are contemplative of the food eaten and the time, space, and community of the eating event. This sort of romantic solution to the environmental problems will resonate with hipsters and others who are pushing through the postmodern milieu. Whether it will truly help stem environmental degradation is another issue.

Finally, Chapter Five focuses on thankfulness as “the most fundamental and honest expression of what it means to be a human being, because it is here, in the thanksgiving act, that people appreciate and attempt to live into the knowledge that life is a gift.” (131) Wirzba blames a lack of gratitude on the use of money instead of trading. Currency increases the exactness of transactions, which thus leads to a sense of completion rather than open ended thankfulness. The reduction of the environment to its monetary value, as it sometimes is in cost benefit analyses, also reduces the notion that creation is a gift from God. Wirzba comes back again to the notion that gardening helps restore a sense of thankfulness for creation since, after all, the gardener can do nothing to actually grow the plants. An attitude of thankfulness is at the heart of a right understanding of the created order according to Wirzba.

Analysis and Conclusion

Although this volume is short on practical application, it is a fine text and conveys many ideas that are worth mulling. Wirzba’s diagnosis of the problem is especially astute. Environmental degradation occurs when there is a sense of disassociation from the creation. It’s just dirt. Or, it’s only a bird. That sort of mechanistic understanding undermines compassion for other living creatures and a theocentric vision for seeing God’s handiwork in all of creation. As such, this is a worthy contribution to the series and an important book to read.

However, there are points in the volume where Wirzba—who is an good scholar—gets sloppy. For example, he makes a bold assertion: “Many theologians believe bodies to be something that must be finally overcome and left behind.” (21) The trouble is that he cites none of them. In fact, I’ve been looking for someone to make that argument so that I can include it in my dissertation. The sad fact is the no orthodox theologian actually believes that.  I have been unable to uncover a single one, though I am hoping that I find someone. It may be a sentiment in the pews of some churches, but it is certainly not a belief that is widely believed by theologians.

In another place, Wirzba appears to misrepresent the atonement, which is no small criticism for a Christian volume.  He writes, “The reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth that the Christ-hymn in Colossians describes happens through the blood of Christ’s cross, which means it happens through the self-offering life that Jesus demonstrated in his ministries of healing, feeding, exorcising, attending to, and touching others.” (24) He is exactly correct that the reconciliation of all things happens through Christ’s blood on the cross. He would have been correct to argue that the nature of that reconciliation was demonstrated or illustrated by the way Christ lived on earth. The context is talking about living on earth and not waiting to get plucked out of physical existence, but this passage makes it seem that Wirzba is moving the atonement from Christ's substitutionary death to his obedient life; both are  important, but the penalty for sin was paid in blood, not servitude. It may be that this is simply worded poorly, but the atonement is one area that clarity is worth every moment spent.

These problems are significant. However, they do not undermine the overall value of the volume. This is an important entry in an ongoing conversation and Wirzba’s argument of the importance of understanding the essence of creation as a gift from God carries significant weight. Thus this volume has a place in the library of those seeking a deeper understanding of the contemporary issues in Christian environmental ethics.

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

The Pastor as Public Theologian - A Review

Can there be such a thing as a pastor-theologian? What would that look like in practice? Would attempting to be a practicing, professional theologian take away from ministry to the congregation?

These are some of the questions Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan attempt to address in their recent book from Baker Academic, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.

Definitions are important here and the title is somewhat misleading. The phrase “public theologian” conjures the image of a predominately Christian society with the theologically astute sage devising and proclaiming theological concepts to the broader society. There is an element of this in the definition offered by Vanhoozer and Strachan, but not in the idealistic sense that desires a theonomic society.

In contrast, the public theologian in this volume is one that does theology primarily for an audience other than the academy or personal enrichment. Instead, the public theologian does his theology for the church primarily, to build up the body of Christ and present clear theological truths to those who lack formal training in the subject. At times this individual may contribute to academic conversations or to broader societal discussions, but the primary public is the redeemed souls within the walls of the church. By the definition offered, the pastor as public theologian studies in private, but practices and proclaims theology openly through his ministries of Word and deed.

The introduction lays the groundwork for this discussion. Vanhoozer explains his vision of the pastor theologian, arguing that such a vision existed in reality in earlier days before the contemporary management movement. In Chapter One, Strachan provides an overview of leadership patterns throughout Scripture. His conclusion is that although the title and some specifics of the roles have changed, there has been a consistent emphasis on theological leadership among the leaders of God’s people. In Chapter Two, Strachan surveys the historical role of the pastor (or priest) in leading his people theologically. His historical conclusion is that until very recently the local congregational leader has served as a theological shepherd of the church.

The book shifts, then, from an argument for the pastor as public theologian to an explanation of what that looks like. In the third chapter, Vanhoozer unpacks the purpose of the Pastor-Theologian. He argues that a primary role of the pastor is to illuminate the present culture in light of Scripture for the edification of the local church. This is designed to lead people toward the glory of God and result in evangelistic fire. Seminaries, therefore, should be primarily educational institutions rather than practical training centers. Despite the intellectual rigors necessary for the pastor-theologian, Vanhoozer argues in Chapter Four that the pastor maintains the roles of disciple-maker, evangelist, catechist, liturgist, and apologist. This should all be enhanced by his fervent study of Scripture and theology. The conclusion of the volume lists fifty-five theses on the pastor as public-theologian, which are all drawn from the text. If you have only a few minutes to grasp the content of this book, read the final chapter.

Vanhoozer and Strachan have managed to produce a reasonable, well-balanced book. There are testimonies and practical instructions written by pastor-theologians interspersed between the chapters. These men provide guidance and background that compensate for the fact that the authors are both professional theologians. Because of the mixture of theological interpretation and practical guidance, this book is extremely useful and will help shape evangelical theological culture in the future.

This is a text that is targeted toward pastors that have the training and desire to engage in theology already. It is also helpful for congregations attempting to understand the work their pastor-theologian should be engaging it. This text reveals that the Christian tradition demands much more than preaching a felt-needs sermon on Sunday and doing some counseling and hospital visitation during the week. The pastor should be doing theological work to translate that information to his congregation to disciple and form them.

The most significant weakness of this text is that it is not as helpful for the pastor who wants to be a thorough-going pastor-theologian but lacks the training and finds little opportunity to get that theological education. The vision of a pastor-theologian is good, but there is a shortfall in helping men transition into that role. It may be that a second edition can include an appendix or that a second book on the topic might be in order.

The Pastor as Public Theologian is well-written, succinct, and clear. It presents the vision of the pastor-theologian in the present context, but grounds the vision in Scripture and the historical witness of the Church. This is a volume that will have a place in future discussions among pastors and should be examined by seminary professors and administrators as they shape their curricula in hopes of preparing men to better serve the Church.

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision
By Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Owen Strachan

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

Leisure and Spirituality

There have been dozens of books published on the doctrine of work in the past few years. These books are part of a larger resurgence in interest in engaging the culture in all of life, particularly through vocation as Christians seek to break down the sacred/secular divide in their lives.

 On the other hand, there have been few books published on rest, leisure, and recreation from Christian thinkers. Some of those that have picked up the topic of rest, like Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance, tend emphasize opposition to economic systems rather than presenting a comprehensive biblical perspective on the subject. This has given rise to an imbalance which has left some Christians wondering what they should do with their free time, and perhaps whether they should have any.

 As such, Paul Heintzman’s recent book from Baker Academic, Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives, is a welcome addition to the topic. This is the most ample, comprehensive presentation of a Christian perspective on leisure I have encountered. I do not expect it to be surpassed in the near future.

 Summary

 In Part One, Heintzman surveys current concepts of leisure as well as the actual state of leisure time in the West. Part Two is an overview of historical understandings of leisure. The reality, Heintzman points out, is many myths about the amount of leisure time people have now compared to other times in history are unfounded or rely on mistaken terms. In fact, the concept that we have more leisure time than previous civilizations is founded largely in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, during which time lower classes spent nearly all their time in work. According to Heintzman’s history, many earlier civilizations had more frequent opportunities for leisure.

 The third part provides a biblical background to leisure. Here Heintzman has carefully outlined the texts in Scripture that relate to leisure, including discussions of the Sabbath, the concept of rest, and touching on other work/recreation topics. It is in this section Heintzman connects the whole Christian life, including leisure, to spirituality. His development of the Sabbath shows that in part, the day of rest was designed to be spiritually refreshing, not just a legalistic observance. Part Four then summarizes scholarship on the doctrine of work, laying out a biblical vision for work in a single chapter.

 Part Five critically explores Christian perspectives on leisure, arguing the concept has often been misunderstood. At times, errors relating to the concept of leisure have led to guilt over any sort of rest and recreation. Heintzman carefully and concisely critiques these errors throughout history. He then seeks to positively articulate a positive ethics of leisure, which he builds off of the Golden Rule. The final section, Part Six, Heintzman unites the concepts of leisure and spirituality. He provides examples of ways that leisure is significant for spiritual growth and points the reader to growth in Christ through those things. Heintzman closes the volume with a summary chapter that illustrates his ideal work-leisure balance through the life of one of his mentors whose life holistically blended a sense of vocation and faithfulness, which allowed smooth transitions between leisure and work.

Analysis

 This is the most thorough book on the concept of leisure available. Heintzman’s historical summaries bring together a number of streams of discussions in a comprehensive fashion. His biblical outline of leisure and rest covers the relevant passages in a manner that is fair to the text. This is a book that is both critical and constructive. In short, this is a reference volume that anyone interested in doing scholarship on work and leisure should own.

 Leisure and Spirituality is an adaptation of Heintzman’s master’s thesis. This explains the thorough scholarship, but it also gives the prose a sometimes ponderous feel to it. I would not provide this volume to the average church member as an introduction to the topic. While never laborious, the book is geared toward an academic audience that is familiar with the concepts. This does not diminish the value of the volume, though it does shape the audience.

 In sum, I recommend this book to those engaged in research on faith and work. Heintzman’s book is a key piece of scholarship that will be significant in the field for the foreseeable future. We should be thankful to Heintzman for his thorough and comprehensive portrait of the connection between leisure and spirituality.

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

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation - A Review

One of the biggest divides between Roman Catholics and Protestants has been the understanding of the relative weight of authority of the Church and Scripture. Roman Catholics have tended to have a very high view of both sources of authority with equal or nearly equal weight given to both when making doctrinal determinations. Protestants, with their famous motto sola scriptura have tended to minimize the importance of church tradition in understanding doctrine.

Many of the radical reformers (i.e., Anabaptists) and contemporary fundamentalists have clung to Scripture alone, when the reality is that suprema scriptura is probably more consistent with the intent and practice of the reformation. Scripture alone is the supreme authority in making doctrinal determinations. However, if Church tradition is entirely neglected and a foundation for doctrine is laid only on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, then Mormonism, the Campbellite doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and Charles Finney’s (near) Pelagianism is a likely result. “No creed but the Bible” is a warning sign that heresy is soon to come. This is a pattern that has been reinforced by Church History.

On the other hand, the approach Matthew Levering takes in Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture, is not correct. Levering is Roman Catholic. Therefore, when he finds a dual source for revelation in both the Church and Scripture, it is not surprising. His conclusions, like my own, were likely to go no farther than his presuppositions. However, Levering makes the case so clearly that, were I to be converted to a Roman Catholic understanding of revelation, this would be the sort of argument that I would find most convincing.

Summary

After the introduction, which surveys some of the previous academic volumes on this topic, the book is divided into eight chapters. In each of the chapters Levering explains how divine revelation is mediated by the Church through various means. Chapter One begins with revelation mediated through the outward motion of the Church as she fulfills her mission. As the Church participates in the self-denying missio Dei, she demonstrates the very nature of God to herself and the world. The second chapter focuses on revelation experienced through the Church’s liturgy, which is considered a demonstration of God’s character on public display.

Levering then shifts to treating revelation and the hierarchical priesthood, arguing that the accepted hierarchy of the Roman Catholic (and some “high church” Protestant denominations) affirms Jesus’ design for the Church, and represents divine revelation. This is, I think, the weakest of the chapters because there is no clear logical basis for this assertion. Chapter Four relates the relationship between the gospel and revelation. While Chapter One focused mostly on the Church’s collective demonstration of revelation through action, this section zooms in on the life of the individual as impacted by the gospel.

Chapter Five explains the necessity of Tradition and Levering’s belief that Church Tradition has been faithfully transmitted in much the same way Scripture has been transmitted. Levering seems to beg the question in this chapter, as can be seen in his introductory comments that “divine revelation has a specific cognitive content that must be transmitted. Tradition cannot be less than this.” This is valid in the way that Levering intends it only if you assume the premise he is trying to prove. The sixth chapter moves into the relationship between revelation and the development of doctrine, arguing that the Roman Catholic Church has, necessarily, been faithful in transmitting doctrine in the same manner that Scripture has been faithfully transmitted.

The next chapter deals with revelation and biblical inspiration. This is a more helpful chapter, though Levering’s conclusions concede too much ground. He points out the difference between modern expectations for historical and scientific accuracy, arguing for more latitude in interpreting Scripture so that contemporary hermeneutic constraints are not applied to an ancient document. At the same time, Levering’s approach allows the denial of the historicity of significant events without clear guidance as to how one would have faith in certain facts over others. Therefore, he affirms the historicity of the resurrection, which is of first importance, but the same arguments he uses to allow for denial of other historical events could be used to undermine that one. This is problematic.

Chapter Eight closes the volume exploring some of the relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and Scripture, particularly places where Levering believes such philosophical elements were imported (not merely referenced) in Scripture. His conclusion in this chapter is that “we should view Hellenistic philosophical culture as providentially providing the scriptural communication of divine revelation with some important and true insights about God.” It would be easy to overreact to this statement, because it seems to imply too strong a link between pagan philosophy and Scripture. It would be better had Levering nuanced his position to argue Hellenistic provided a helpful framework for expressing truths about God, which is more likely the case. In that sense, such philosophies shaped Scripture, but it does not seem they were a source for divine revelation, as it were.

Analysis

While I appreciate what Levering has done here I am unconvinced. His scholarship is of high quality and his summaries of many different thinkers are fair and accurate, however his case is built upon presuppositions he never adequately supports. His purpose is “to explore the missional, liturgical, and doctrinal forms of the Church’s mediation of divine revelation and to appreciate Scripture’s inspiration and truth in this context.” This is admirable, except that it assumes that the Church and the Church alone can mediate divine revelation. It also seems to imply that the Church has faithfully done so through its history. Levering provides no reason to suppose this is so and history, at least as seen from this Protestant’s perspective, seems to argue otherwise.

Additionally, in trying to argue for the consistent mediation of divine revelation through the Church as a close analogy to that mediation through Scripture, Levering does more to denigrate Scripture than to elevate the Church. He writes,

I agree with Gunton’s view that Scripture’s truthfulness does not depend on an absolute lack of any kind of error, just as I agree with his insistence that there has been no rupture in the mediation of ‘certain beliefs about God, Christ, salvation, the church and the work of the Spirit.’ (26)

 He goes on,

In my view, we need not claim for the later Church the same ‘relation to revelation’ as the apostles, but we can still argue that the Church, like the prophets and apostles, mediates divine revelation in the process of appropriating it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Without placing the Church over revelation, the Spirit can guarantee the Church’s preservation from error in its definitive interpretations of revelation––which differs from guaranteeing the truthfulness of everything the Church says and does. This perspective enables us to give due weight to ‘the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15). IN short, we can accept the existence of errors within the Church’s works and teachings over the centuries, so long as we do not suppose that these (reformable) errors produced a rupture, that is to say a false definitive doctrine about faith or morals in the heart of the transmission of revelation. (27)

I quote this section at length because it is assumed and not supported throughout the remainder of the argument. To my mind, Levering needed to show how this could be so. Instead, he assumes this and shows how he thinks it comes to pass. Hence the book has a great deal of explanatory power, but little chance of convincing those skeptical of this position. This, I think, is the critical weakness of the volume.

Overall, though, this volume is well written and may replace Avery Dulles’ book, Models of Revelation. Having done a fair amount of reading on this topic, it is the best explanation of a Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of Revelation I have encountered. I would recommend it to those seeking to meaningfully engage in inter-denominational dialogue on this topic. Levering is an excellent scholar, whose work on Augustine I have benefited from in the past. This book is a helpful addition to the discussion, but it is far from the final word.

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