For the Life of the World - A Review

Miroslav Volf is a theologian that is always worth reading. Even when his conclusions are disputable, they are typically drawn from careful reason and charitably expressed. His latest book, coauthored with Matthew Croasmun, is no exception.

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For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference takes a critical look at the discipline of theology and how that field of study often misses the mark. In particular, the authors are critiquing the all-too-common reduction of theology to a cloistered, academic exploration. The thesis of this book is that theology ought to be done for the good of the world.

This book uses the term theology to refer to a range of disciplines that includes systematic theology, biblical theology, biblical studies, ethics, and other disciplines that naturally belong in a seminary or a divinity school.

In part, this book is another reflection on the shallow mind of our age. Too many people expend their numbered days chasing after frivolous goals without asking what is worth striving for. Volf and Croasmun argue that there is such a thing as “the good life” and that the function of theology is to explore what that looks like and communicate it to others.

However, theology is in a sort of existential crisis, as are many academic disciplines, because it has become more interested in scholarly navel gazing than fulfilling the purpose for which the theology was originally designed.  For some, theology has become a pure science that is studied for its own sake. Other see theology primarily as a means of gaining power and advocating for their favored groups. When these things become the primary goal of theology, they distort its actual purpose, which is to explore God and discover truth about the world.

The authors explore major themes in theology, including the study of God, redemption, etc. There are many valid themes for theology, but Volf and Croasmun argue that, ultimately, the main theme of theology should be human flourishing and should lead to “robust descriptive work oriented toward an actionable, livable normative vision of human flourishing.” This seems an honest and helpful assessment, since orthodoxy and orthopraxy are both essential attributes of the proper Christian life.

By making claims to truth and particularity, Volf and Croasmun leave the door open for criticism they are insufficiently broadminded. However, they take on this anticipated criticism by noting that pluralism is, to some degree, a desired end, since true faith is not social conformity by a personal response to the goodness of God. In addressing this topic, they open up the most interesting point for debate. They argue that the Christian life is improvised like an ellipse around two foci: Christ and one’s vocation and location. They state that there are multiple different ellipses that can develop that are all “valid” and that flourishing Christians will look differently based on a different vocation and location.

To a certain degree this is unquestionably true. The life of a first century Christian will, without doubt, look radically different from our own in a number of ways. The way faithfulness is demonstrated will vary based on circumstances. Even between contemporaries, there will be differences. For example, my wife’s faithful Christianity will look different than mine due to our different vocations. At the same time, Volf and Croasmun offer an analogy without noting that the goal of the Christian life should be to make our orbit as circular as possible. There may be multiple “valid” options for the Christian life, but not all are necessarily equally good.

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In the same chapter, the authors help explain the why some models of Christianity diverge more significantly from Scripture. They represent the relationship between the Life of Christ, which is the source of Christianity, and Ordinary Christians with a series of circles connected by arrows. The error in their model is found by differentiating the Life of Christ from the Bible and arguing that the Life of Christ influences the Bible, the Church, and Theology in different ways. This is a fundamentally flawed picture of theology, since the Life of Christ can only be mediated to the Church and theologians through the Bible, since the Bible is the only valid record we have of the Life of Christ. Volf is orthodox, and often very helpful, but this distinction helps understand why he and, often to a much greater degree, others find it possible to oppose the “True Jesus” to the rest of Scripture. The model leads to the possibility of prioritizing a part over the unity of the whole of the Bible.

The latter chapters of For the Life of the World offer encouragement for the theologian to live a life that reflects his or her theology and focused on helping others to live rightly before God. They more succinctly define theology here as “a way of life seeking understanding.” Such an approach helpfully breaks down the possibility of theology as pure science.  The authors are also careful to anchor their call to theology in a love of God that perceives truth as something concrete that ought to be presumed. Thus, pursuing love, peace, and joy as ends of theology cannot lead to vice indefinitely because these virtues are normed by truth founded in God.

This volume is a helpful book for amateur and professional theologians. Its value can be seen in their concluding sentences: “But though we are theologians for God’s sake, we are not theologians for God’s benefit. God doesn’t need theology. If anyone needs it, human beings do. Let us be theologians for the sake of the life, the true life, of the world.”

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

On Reading Well - A Review

It is a general rule that when Karen Swallow Prior writes something, you should read it. Her latest book, On Reading Well, is no exception.

In this volume, Prior brings her lifelong interest in literature, which has culminated in her work as a professor of English, and an interest in seeing people–particularly Christians–live ethically.

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Her thesis in On Reading Well is that careful reading of literature forms the human soul. Even books that were not written with a specific moral—and perhaps especially those not written with a specific moral—can be morally formative when the story is well-told. In one sense, we borrow the memories of the characters by living their experiences vicariously when we read carefully.

To carry out her mission, Prior selects twelve books that might find their way on the reading list of university syllabus in any setting, then explores their moral terrain. A clear message from Prior’s curated list is that we can learn from the human condition well explored, whether or not we agree with the theology of the author.

The literary discussions are framed in terms of virtues, with four chapters on the cardinal virtue, three on the theological virtues, and another five on what Prior calls the heavenly virtues. When the virtues are discussed as concepts with their substance filled from contemporary sources, such approaches often fall short of the mark. This structure works and is edifying, in part, because the content of these virtues is filled with substance from the Christian tradition, with influence from classical thinkers who have also influenced Christians throughout the centuries.

I have previously read most of the works Prior covers. In some cases, it has been several decades. There were four chapters on material I have never read (I won’t say which, lest some readers get judgmental.), but Prior’s careful discussion enables even an unexposed reader to gain from the chapters.

Readers will benefit more from the book if they have read all of the literature Prior discusses. Perhaps the most beneficial approach would be to read the particular work of literature just prior to reading each chapter. However, for those simply seeking to grow and better understand how humans ought to live, this book can stand on its own.

At one level, this is a book that teaches readers about ethics. At another level, On Reading Well is a warm invitation into the world of literature. This invitation is extended graciously and unpretentiously.

Reading literature is important for those seeking to really know people around them. This is especially true of pastors and theologians. As a theologian, I have found that my ability to empathize with others, to understand, and to explain hard concepts clearly ebbs and flows based on my reading. One might think this would have primarily to do with the theology that I read, but it has more to do with the literature that I am reading. Specifically, when I am reading imaginative stories (not all of which is quality literature), my imagination is invigorated. I am equipped with clearer illustrations of sometimes complex theological or ethical concepts. Often these are not drawn specifically from the book that I am reading, but simply a reflection of the pattern of thought that comes from reading a good story well told.

Prior taps into the link between the moral imagination and reading. We are formed by what we read and how we read. A subtext throughout this volume is the call to read and think carefully about the books we encounter. This is no guide to chugging through an arbitrary list of supposedly important texts, but a demonstration of the sort of thoughtfulness that should characterize the time we spend partaking of good books.

On Reading Well is enjoyable for its quality as a book in itself. For those who enjoy reading literature, it is a treat worthy of a fireside reading. This has a place in the library of homeschool families, where it shows what close reading looks like and may help some families move beyond the list of reading comprehension questions into discussions about the soul of the literature they encounter. Pastors can benefit from this by exploring thought beyond the bounds of commentaries, the latest non-fiction volumes, and even classical theological works. The church will benefit if the men called to preach are reading good books carefully, even if it does not lead directly to sermon references.

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

Biblical Authority After Babel - A Review

In the year Protestants are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many tend to review the Reformation as either an unchristian schism or a tragic necessity. These sentiments tend to obscure a more positive view that the Reformation was a much needed liberation of Christendom from the hegemonic theological and doxological distortions of the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity. As a result, a common mood is for Protestants to wring their hands and confess to divisiveness while Roman Catholics wag their finger at the destructive individualism and doctrinal plurality they argue is the necessary result of the five solas Reformation and the theological recovery movement known as the Reformation. Liberal Christians, both those who claim continuity with Roman Catholicism and those who chart their course by revising other theological traditions, tend to see the interpretive plurality that resulted from the Reformation as an indication that the main principle of the Reformers—namely, sola scriptura—is a fundamental failure and that Scripture is an insufficient foundation upon which to build Christianity.

In Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a positive case for Reformed Christianity built upon a robust development of the five solas. Vanhoozer unpacks his apology for Mere Protestant Christianity in five chapters with a separate introduction and conclusion. This book is a modified version of a series of lectures given a Moore College, the result is a more conversational and accessible volume than some of Vanhoozer’s other work, which is to say that this volume combined Vanhoozer’s academic rigor with clear, readable prose to create a much-needed tool and treasure for contemporary Protestants.

The body of this volume is comprised of five chapters in addition a substantive introduction and conclusion. Each of the five chapters highlights one of the five solas of the Reformation, though, as is clear from the title of the book, there is one sola to rule them all. Since sola scriptura is at the heart of true Protestantism, that idea functions as the glue that holds the entire volume together.

In the introduction, Vanhoozer begins by addressing the elephant in the room in considerations of contemporary Protestantism: Can separating from “The Church” ever be considered a good thing? He addresses some of the more common historical critiques of the Reformation, but remains confident that Protestantism was not fundamentally schismatic in its origins. Rather, Luther sought to reform Roman Catholic dogma because of severe errors in it and the Roman church forcefully rejected attempts at theological correction. Thus, Luther’s actions were not simply a protest against the error of the papacy. Instead, Vanhoover notes, “To protest is to testify for something, namely, the integrity of the gospel, and, as we will see, this includes the church’s catholicity.” (pg. 15) That catholicity includes more than the claims of Rome’s devotees to sole stewards of unqualified, universal truth. At the same time, Vanhoozer is critical of versions of Protestantism that have been divisive and individualistic in their interpretation, that is why he pursues the concept of “Mere Protestantism,” which is the sort of Protestantism that “encourages the church to hold fast to the gospel, and to one another.” (pg. 33). That vision, which Vanhoozer explores through his exposition of the five solas, is exactly why the Reformation was both necessary and good.

In Chapter One, Vanhoozer focuses on sola gratia, and by virtue expounds the gospel to his readers. Grace in the gospel is what ignites the Christian to God exalting praise, allows Christians to see the good in the world, and focuses the believer’s gaze eternally on the procurator and source of all grace—the Holy Trinity. It is God’s grace alone that enables fallible humans to have access to God’s infallible word and be able to comprehend any of it; the Spirit illuminates Scripture because of grace alone, which provides understanding of the path to salvation. Vanhoozer argues it is God’s grace alone to give Scripture and also to illuminate it that keeps the accusation of autonomous interpretation from being true among authentic believers.

The second chapter covers sola fide, which Vanhoozer uses to counter the argument that the Reformation begat skepticism. This accusation seems a bit strange, since the meaning of sola fide is “by faith alone,” which is used in reference to the sole necessary response to God’s gracious offer of salvation. In its original context, the term was meant to differentiate the gospel faith of the Reformers from the myriad of religious duties foisted on believers by the Roman hierarchy. Returning to the central theme of the place of Scripture, Vanhoozer is careful to show that the reading of Scripture encouraged by the Reformers was not one of skepticism, but of faith. Vanhoozer then considers several different hermeneutical methods and epistemical failures that are not consistent with biblical faith. Instead of subverting the authority of the church through private readings of Scripture, Vanhoozer argues the faithful reading of Scripture requires the authority of the God, working through the historic community of believers. It is God and his gift of Scripture—not the hierarchy of the Church—that are ultimately affirmed by faith alone. As Vanhoozer sums up, “True faith has to do not with anti-intellectual fideism or private judgment, then, but rather with testimonial rationality and public trust, the trust of God’s people in the testimony of God’s Spirit to the reliability of God’s Word.“ (pgs. 106-107)

Chapter Three digs into sola scriptura. Vanhoozer notes, “Sola scriptura is perhaps the most challenging of the solas to retrieve. Even many Protestant theologians now urge its abandonment on the grounds that in insisting on Scripture alone, it overlooks or even excludes the importance of tradition, the necessity of hermeneutics, and the relationship between Word and Spirit.” (pgs. 109-110) It is in the reliance on Scripture alone that those who regret the Reformation find the root of division. As Vanhoozer points out, however, divisiveness is driven more by solo scriptura rather than sola scriptura. The distinction is clear and obvious for those willing to consider it. Sola scriptura refers to relying on Scripture only as the primary authority in theology. There are other sources that inform theology, but those sources must be normed to the overarching authority of humans. This, of course, presumes the clarity, sufficiency, and coherence of Scripture. Vanhoozer discusses these, then he surveys other understandings of authority, but concludes that a robust understanding of sola scriptura brings Christians together, even simply in conversational disagreement, and that rejection of the concept through naïve biblicism and covert traditionalism is what leads to division.

The fourth chapter interprets solus Christus, which is the affirmation that Christ alone is the only mediator between God and humanity. In all practicality, this has sidelined the parish priest in Protestantism, since a sanctioned representative of the church is no longer needed for forgiveness of sin or receipt of grace through the eucharist. However, Vanhoozer argues that the priesthood of all believers has not minimized the significance of the local Church, as some claim (and as some flawed interpreters have posited). Rather, it has sanctified the lives of the lowly congregant, giving him or her a part to play in the divine drama coequal with ecclesial leaders in community with Christ. This means that local congregations have the right, privilege, and responsibility to rightly interpret Scripture and minister as the local instantiation of the body of Christ.

Chapter Five celebrates the final sola: soli Deo gloria. This is a fitting climax to the volume as Vanhoozer notes, “Soli Deo Gloria, like the other solas, is partially intended to exclude an error. In this case, what is excluded is not human works but the end for which we work: human glorification.” (pg. 182) The failure of the Reformers and their spiritual heirs is partially explained by the loss of unity around this concept, and the sometimes unwillingness to unite or work together due to human turf wars. Vanhoozer does not decry denominations; rather he rejects divisiveness due to human pride. Instead, he commends legitimate, gracious division of matters of interpretation, with an ongoing dialogical argument toward truth. Such dialog, conducted for God’s glory alone is a recognition of the authority of Scripture and the unity of the one, holy, catholic church. According to Vanhoozer, “The glory of mere Protestant Christianity is the conference and communion of holy nations, itself a gift that glorifies God in magnifying Jesus Christ.” (pg. 212)

This volume is just the sort of book needed for our present time. The term “evangelical” is quickly becoming meaningless as progressives deny the doctrinal content of the term and reject biblical authority. At the same time, it is being used as a vague political label that refers to a supposed conversion experience, but represents right wing politics. What Vanhoozer presents is a positive case for a properly evangelical, Mere Protestant Christianity, that rejects the divisiveness of the Roman Catholic tradition and pursues unity in the core of Christianity, which is the gospel.

Biblical Authority After Babel may be, without exaggeration, one of the most important books to be released in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Though Protestantism is not perfect, Vanhoozer explains the beauty and necessity of standing for truth against error and preserving the gospel for the sake of all.

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