Transhumanism and the Image of God - A Review

Transhumanism is a term that will be unfamiliar to many Christians, but will become increasingly important in the coming years. Transhumanism, simply defined, is “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.”

For some, this term conjures images of Darth Vader, the Borg from Star Trek, or the dystopian world of The Matrix. However, the reality is that transhumanism is around us, is much more pervasive than we often believe. To some extent, all technological innovation leads to changes in humanity, but that pace appears to be accelerating.

Our smartphones are changing the way that we focus, constantly dragging our attention away from more significant things to the trivial. Social media is functionally altering the way that we socialize with one another. We tend to focus on documentable events rather than companionable experiences. The internet and the availability of search engines are modifying how we value knowledge of facts.

In his recent book, Transhumanism and the Image of God, Jacob Shatzer shows that transhumanism is with us now and, to some degree, inescapable. At the same time, it is our responsibility as Christians to begin to ask questions about to what degree we can accept the changes demanded by technology and to what degree we ought to resist them.

At its most radical level transhumanism includes the intentional tampering with the human genome. The groundwork for a radical reimagining of the possibilities for this sort of tampering is being laid in China, for example, where recently human brain genes were put in rhesus macaque monkeys. Or, pig brains have been kept alive––to some degree––after they have died. These are experiments whose long term goal is to push back death for humans, perhaps even leading to eternal life.

Shatzer rightly unpacks some of the potential ethical questions that are folded in questions like these. For example, the ability to tamper with the human genome and “improve” it might have consequences we have not yet anticipated in terms of mutation. It would be rather cruel to modify particular humans into a form that undergoes excruciating pain beginning at age 30 or has increased opportunities for psychoses. These are the sorts of consequences we might not uncover until we have already cursed a generation to such an unfortunate and unnecessary fate.

Even without unforeseen consequences that impact the modified humans directly, such practices raise ethical concerns about how technological mutation of certain humans might leave those who can’t afford the modifications (or are unwilling to tamper with humanity) as a permanent sub-class to the new generation of Supermen. Thought experiments regarding such modification always begin with the “common good” in mind, but history has shown that concern for genetic improvement tends to end poorly for those perceived as second-class humans. Additionally, he rightly notes that, “We in the West spend on Botox while others throughout the world lack mosquito nets to help protect from malaria.”

But the main point of Shatzer’s book is not to raise alarm about some dystopian future but to point out the many ways even Christians within our culture adopt technology and adapt to its demands without ever considering how we are being changed and whether or not the technology is good. We often never ask the question of purpose and value. Instead, we focus on the marginal benefits or novelty of the given technology. As a result, many of the men in the church are addicted to internet pornography, millions of Christians spent hours on their phone pointlessly scrolling and almost no time in prayer or Scripture reading, and we are damaging our bodies through sedentary lives inspired by technology. These are real consequences, right now. These are realities we need to wrestle with.

Transhumanism and the Image of God is a reminder that we need to reconsider what it means to be human. It is a call to reconsider what this life is about and in what ways technology is distorting the created order or masking its goodness. The book is carefully written and simply explained. Although it was published by IVP Academic, it is well within the difficulty range of laypeople who regularly read.

Shatzer’s book deserves a wide reading. This is the beginning of an important conversation; one that Christians cannot afford to sit out. Pastors and other church leaders should read this as they consider the way they are shaping liturgies and the structures of their church programs. Parents should read this book to begin to evaluate what sort of humans we are raising. We cannot afford to drift with the rapidly shifting technological currents, otherwise we will wake up in a few decades unable to recognize the sorts of humans we are and what we have done to the generations that come behind.

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

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers - A Review

Often, when reading Church History, I get the impression that things are pretty much the same as they ever were. This idea was brought to a head recently, when I read Christopher Hall’s book, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Hall is an expert in Patristics. This is the fourth in a series of volumes that synthesize the thought of Church Fathers on particular aspects of Christian thought. The present volume is a book about ethics. Although technology has changed, the topics of concern for the early church often have close analogies to the topics of our day.

In this volume, Hall summarizes, compares, and contrasts the teachings of various early Christian authors on martyrdom, wealth and poverty, war, sex and lust, marriage, entertainment, and the development of character. There is little doubt that Hall has chosen his topics wisely, which saves us the work of weeding through contextually dependent passages, but it is also clear that the wisdom of the ancient has a great deal of benefit for contemporary readers.

In C. S. Lewis’ preface to On the Incarnation by Athanasius, he commends his readers to read old books to help break through the blind spots of our time. On the Incarnation is an excellent book for that introduction because it is a timeless work that both helps undermine the arguments about doctrinal innovation (at least with respect to core doctrines like the incarnation), but also because that particular volume is lucid and, in a good translation, exceedingly easy to read. There are, however, some Patristics works that are not as clear, no matter what the translation says. Also, as Phillip Schaff’s monumental set of the collected works of the early church shows, the volume of writings is more than most of us mere mortals can manage in one lifetime. Hall’s synthesis helps break through that feeling of being overwhelmed.

At the same time, Lewis also warns of reading books about ancient authors. On the surface, it seems like he is warning us against book like Living Wisely with the Church Fathers, but on further consideration that is not clear. First, Lewis did not argue against reading new books, but merely against not reading old books. Given that wrote a few new books himself and a masterful book about old books (his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature), that cannot have been his intent. Rather, he is arguing against reading new books about old books as the only point of contact with those earlier works. It is clear from Hall’s interaction with the Church Fathers that his desire is for his readers to go beyond his own works and to return to the sources. At the same time, he is offering helpful pointers to lead readers through the sometimes-tangled forest of antiquity.

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 In this volume, Hall serves as an advocate for the blessings of reading our theological predecessors. He does not gloss over the inconsistencies between authors and eras, but highlights the difference, showing, in part, how they arrived at opposite conclusions. By doing so Hall defeats the often triumphalistic proof-texting that goes one when someone finds an early author who agrees with them. One would think that tendency would have been defeated by Peter Lombard’s Sentences, but pacifists, abortion advocates, economic socialists, and their opponents still find pleasure in vindication when someone ancient says (or appears to say) exactly what their side is thinking. That becomes harder when one encounters opposing perspectives from eras adjacent or contemporary to those of the ancient author--clearly, there was more debate than many of allow. Hall points toward the consensus that arises at times and the need to read the full context to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the earlier reasoning when disagreement exists.

What is clear, however, is that the most enduring writings from Church History pull people outside themselves and cause them to look for the common good. The value in reading Church Fathers is not to find the killer proof-text, but to figure out how someone with vastly different cultural blind spots arrived at the conclusion they did and how that can inform our own thinking. This book is helpful because it leads us to do just that.

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers
By Christopher A. Hall

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

The Morals of the Story - A Review

The focus of apologetics as it is presented in evangelical contexts tends to be on evidential arguments like the historicity of the Bible and the credibility of the resurrection of Christ. These sorts of arguments are helpful when someone finds themselves somewhat attracted to Christianity but incredulous to its supernatural claims. Such apologetic arguments are important, but a different approach is warranted in a culture that no longer views Christianity as plausible.

The recent book, The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God, presents a traditional but less common apologetic approach designed to demonstrate the plausibility of Christianity. The argument of this volume is abductive—that is, the Baggetts make the case that the Christian God is the best explanation for the moral consistency of the world and the latent human awareness of moral demands. This approach, known as moral apologetics, essentially points to our shared sense of morality and expectation of justice and argues Christianity offers the best hope of making sense of it.

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The book is intriguing, not least because it was written by a husband and wife team. David Baggett is professor of philosophy at Liberty University. Marybeth Baggett is a professor of English at Liberty University. Their combined expertise helps make this a philosophically sound volume rich with literary illustrations that augment the basic argument that humans have a latent sense of the moral that needs explaining.

In a literary twist, the Baggetts constructed the book in three acts. The first act introduces the basic outline of moral apologetic arguments and the history of moral apologetics as a valid approach. Between the first and second act, there is an excursus, which the Baggetts call an intermission, that deals with the Euthyphro dilemma in technical detail. In some sense, the handling of resolution of that famous philosophic dilemma (or trilemma) is the ground on which all moral apologetics—indeed, a robust Christian ethics—is founded.

Act two engages arguments for and against a moral apologetic on the topics of goodness, obligations, knowledge, transformation, and providence. These are common points of friction between moral apologists and their critics. Act three functions as a thrilling conclusion, wherein the Baggetts tie their arguments together to present one brief, cogent case. The book closes with two brief recaps, which the Baggetts call an encore and curtain call.

The Morals of the Story is an important volume in our time because of the shift of the main points of contention against Christianity. No longer is it sufficient to establish basic facts—the resurrection, the possibility of miracles, the historicity of the narrative accounts—we are in an era where the plausibility of a source of moral authority outside of ourselves is not a shared assumption. It is exactly this barrier that moral apologetics seeks to break down. The Baggetts have presented a clear case, which does not prove conclusively (by their own admission) the reality of the Triune God, but it makes a strong case that the common experience of a moral conscience among all humans points to a central reality and source of moral authority beyond humans, which they hold to be the God of Christianity.

There are various points at which many readers will disagree with the Baggetts, but the book is constructed in a manner that disagreement at points does not undermine the integrity of the overall arguments. With few and minor exceptions, the Baggetts have argued cautiously, which makes their case worth engaging even if it the reader does not fully agree by the end of the volume. The Baggetts acknowledge the room for disagreement with their argument, which makes the whole of the case more convincing and the reader-author debate much more congenial throughout.

This book is written at a level that anticipates some familiarity with basic philosophical arguments. The Morals of the Story would be useful in an upper level undergraduate course or in graduate studies, or for individuals with some background in philosophy. For that audience, it is an entertaining read with a mix of humor, anecdote, and illustration. The text is seamlessly edited so it is not evident if there were different authors for different chapters, though the richness of the literary references would seem to reveal the handiwork of Marybeth Baggett, with her background in English literature. This is a solid and enjoyable team effort.

The Morals of the Story represents a significant and winsome entry in the field of apologetic literature. This book should prove useful for years to come in equipping the Church to engage a sometimes apathetic world with the truth of the gospel and the reality of a morally consistent, holy God.

The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God
By David Baggett, Marybeth Baggett

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

Our Deepest Desires - A Review

There are a variety of ways of doing apologetics. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, apologetics is the process of offering a defense for something. In this case, I am using the term to refer to a defense of the Christian faith.

Some rely on evidential apologetics, which certainly have a place. This is the sort of approach that Francis Schaeffer and Lee Strobel are known for. Sometimes this form of apologetics comes in the form of historical analysis, like the process used by people such as Mike Licona. Sometimes it focuses on a forensic examination of biblical texts.

All of these are valid ways of explaining the validity of Christian belief.

In his recent book, Gregory Ganssle makes a case for the Christian faith in a different way, namely by explaining how the Christian helps make sense of the world, and does so better than any other faith system. His title, aptly chosen, summarizes the point of the volume: Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations.

At its heart, Christianity is not simply a mythology tacked on to typical human experience, it is the best explanation for everything that exists. In other words, people should be Christians because Christianity is the most satisfying account of the universe, including human nature and everything that entails.

Ganssle’s volume is brief, and is divided into four parts, with a separate introduction and epilogue. Each of the four parts consists of three chapters.

Summary

Part One deals with persons. The Christian faith entails the belief in persons who are eternally in relationship one with another. This helps to explain why we humans, who are created in the image of God, long for relationships and only flourish within relationships with other persons. It also supports our natural sense of the importance of human persons. We do amazing things for other people, especially people we love. This makes sense if the Christian depiction of the world is true.

Part Two outlines how goodness factors into our desires and how Christianity fulfills our desire for goodness. Everyone wants good things. This, of course, is something of a tautology because we often define what we want as good and good as something we want. There is, however, a great deal of commonality among humans as to what is considered good, setting aside matters of taste. And, if critics are honest, they can often discern that something is good, even if they don’t like it. Consider, for example, classical music. Someone way strongly prefer Jazz but still be able to recognize the excellence of an orchestral performance of a great work of music. Also, consider that as bad as we often feel about the world, it is amazingly good. There is too much goodness in the world for it to be an accident. Ganssle argues that the goodness we desire and often find is best explained by Christianity.

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Part Two outlines how goodness factors into our desires and how Christianity fulfills our desire for goodness. Everyone wants good things. This, of course, is something of a tautology because we often define what we want as good and good as something we want. There is, however, a great deal of commonality among humans as to what is considered good, setting aside matters of taste. And, if critics are honest, they can often discern that something is good, even if they don’t like it. Consider, for example, classical music. Someone way strongly prefer Jazz but still be able to recognize the excellence of an orchestral performance of a great work of music. Also, consider that as bad as we often feel about the world, it is amazingly good. There is too much goodness in the world for it to be an accident. Ganssle argues that the goodness we desire and often find is best explained by Christianity.

The third part discusses beauty. Much like goodness, beauty is commonly sought and found more frequently than we can admit. Christian teaching holds that beauty both honors God and points us toward God. Beauty is superfluous, it is unnecessary, but it is an amazing gift from God. When we yearn for beauty or find it unexpectedly, we should see the reflection of the Christian faith.

Part Four covers the relationship between the desire for freedom to Christianity. Humans, universally, long for freedom. Even advocates of oppressive economic systems like socialism typically claim their desire to force others to live according to certain social dictates is really an attempt to free others from want and desire. Freedom is a universal desire. Often, we find that freedom in knowledge of truth. We want to know what is. We long to understand. That’s the foundation of modern science, of poetry, and of so much that we do. Humans also hope for freedom in the future. That hope is explained by Christianity. Our innate human desire for freedom is best explained and fulfilled by the radical reality of the Christian faith.

Analysis and Conclusion

Certainly, the above four paragraphs fail to do Ganssle’s volume justice. His well-crafted essays build a cogent argument and make a compelling case for believing in Christianity. He shows why it is so satisfying to be a Christian.

This volume is encouraging to those in Christ, who struggle with faith and are sometimes looking for a deeper sense—beyond the evidential proofs—of why Christianity is compelling and true.

Our Deepest Desires may also be a useful volume to put in the hands of someone who does not find the point and counter point of apologetics arguments helpful, but needs to see the grandeur of Christianity.

Ganssle’s volume deserves a place in the library of the Christian. In fact, in some locations, this volume may be best bought in quantities for distributions for those exploring the Christian faith.

The portrait Ganssle paints of Christianity is beautiful and compelling. It is a delight to read and will bear re-reading in the future.

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

A Recent Book on the Ten Commandments - Review

The Ten Commandments, known among Bible scholars and theologians as the Decalogue (literally, ten words), are a significant focus of the Christian ethical tradition. In popular American culture, they are often seen as the epitome of biblical ethics. Some, misunderstanding the nature of the gospel, will state they are good with God because “they follow the Ten Commandments.” (If you haven’t encountered this, you haven’t shared the gospel in the so-called Bible Belt.) One cannot understand Christian ethics without delving into the text and interpretation of the Decalogue.

As a result of the importance of the Ten Commandments in the Judeo-Christian ethics, the study of the topic continues at a steady pace. David Baker’s recent book, The Decalogue: Living as the People of God, represents one of the more recent entries into the ongoing discussion.

Summary

The structure of The Decalogue is simple and straightforward. Part One has four chapters that survey the background of the Ten Commandments, including their shape, form, origin, and purpose. Part Two has a chapter on each of the first five commandments; this section focuses on loving God properly. Part Three discusses the last five commandments; these chapters emphasize loving neighbor. The fourth part consists of a single chapter that attempts to further develop the idea that the Ten Commandments are applicable to contemporary life.

It should be clear from the outset that this book is a scholarly volume representing a specific approach of the Decalogue. Baker is a good biblical scholar and interacts with key textual resources and commentaries in laying out his argument. He provides some of the background on the textual history of the Ten Commandments, including how different denominations number them and how they divide up the tablets, but it focuses mainly on the text itself and not the traditional ethical interpretations of the Decalogue.

By focusing on the text of the Decalogue, Baker provides a resource that opens up the topic and introduces the Ten Commandments for a contemporary audience. He divides each of his chapters on a commandment into three basic parts: (1) Explaining the Ancient Near Eastern context; (2) Exposition of the commandment in the context of the Bible; (3) Some application of the text.

Analysis and Conclusion

In explaining his structure, Baker notes, “There are a good number of books with valuable insights concerning the relevance of the commandments, but these often lack a firm basis in the study of the text.” (pg. x) His observation is correct and his emphasis on trying to explain the text makes this volume a good addition to ongoing study of the Decalogue.

At the same time, the contemporary ethical application of the Decalogue is often best informed by the historical uses of the text. Baker’s volume lacks this theological history. For example, there is little interaction with the way historic confessions of the Reformation dealt with the Ten Commandments, and very little reference to significant sermons preached by pastor-theologians on the commandments. Baker did not set out to accomplish this is his volume, so this is not a fault, but those considering purchasing it should be aware of the limit of the scope.

Also, the explanation of the purpose of the Decalogue in chapter four is thin in comparison to many texts dealing mainly with the moral theological significance. He summarizes three views on how broadly the commandments were intended to be applied and settles on his preferred interpretation, which is that they apply to all of God’s people. Neglected in this discussion is the nature of the Ten Commandments, which informs their applicability. If, as some argue, the Decalogue reflects the very character of God, then they reflect a moral standard for all people. Baker moves beyond those foundational arguments too quickly, which, again, is largely a result of the scope. However, some of those discussions would have made this volume a more complete treatment of the topic.

Baker accomplishes what he set out to do. He effectively explains the context and text of the Ten Commandments. He also brings these divine directives into our time through contemporary application. His exegesis and synthesis of biblical scholarship on the topic make this a touchstone volume for future Decalogue studies.

This is not a comprehensive treatment, but The Decalogue, will make an excellent addition to a pastor’s library as an aid to sermon preparation. It will also make a strong complimentary volume to a biblical ethics course at the undergraduate or graduate level. Baker has done good work for the Kingdom in researching and writing this book.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. Also, purchasing the book through the above link will direct a small portion of the proceeds to supporting this website.

Wesley and the Anglicans - A Review

If you’re like me, you probably don’t know that much about how Methodism separated from the Church of England. There were a few minutes of discussion in my Church History II class about John Wesley trying to keep his people inside the Church of England, but having it fall apart shortly after he died. That’s about all I knew, though if you had asked me, I would have credited it to some of the theological differences between the Anglican communion and the revivalistic Methodists.

In his recent book, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism, Ryan Danker gives a much more nuanced account. Even if the origins of Methodism are not a major interest for you, this book is enjoyable for students of historical theology.

Danker’s argument, fleshed out in nine chapters, is that the the divisions between John Wesley and the Anglicans were much more than theological. In fact, they were not primarily theological. After all, the same Church of England that eventually spit out the Methodists remained hosts to some Unitarians and other heterodox (and perhaps some heretical) theologians. Instead, the chief points of dissent between the Church of England and Wesley were those related to politics.

Summary

Chapter One outlines the characteristics of English Evangelicalism, which included Methodists, but also included more traditional members of the Church of England and dissenters on the outside of the sanctioned church. The second chapter places Wesley within the context of English Evangelicalism. He lived on the edge of acceptable circles, given his seeming drift toward dissenting ecclesiology combined with a surprising desire to remain within the high church tradition. He was at once too radical and too conservative for many English Evangelicals.

In Chapter Three, Danker surveys the vast array of pamphlets and tracts published about the Wesleys and by the Wesleys, which served to confuse people regarding the actual position of the Methodist movement about many issues. Fake news and propaganda had a place in this dispute as well. The fourth chapter considers the influence that political history in England had on the Methodist movement. As outliers on the ecclesial scale, the drift away from the Anglican communion caused many to remember the negatives of Cromwell and his revolutionaries. Indeed, there were echoes of ethical stringency among the Methodists that brought back unpleasant memories of Puritan political hegemony. This added to the negative view many had of Wesley and his followers.

Chapter Five reflects on the territorial tensions caused by Wesley and his large network of lay preachers. Parishes were generally divided by geographical boundaries, but Wesley’s unsupervised, unsanctioned lay preachers went to wherever their message was needed. This led to tension between Evangelical Anglicans who saw Methodist preachers making inroads in their territory, making it more difficult for them to reform. The sixth chapter documents how this tension was even increased as the Methodist lay preachers began to administer the Lord’s Supper, which was traditionally reserved for ordained clergy. This is a theological issue that gave momentum to the departure of the Methodists from the Church of England upon Wesley’s death.

Chapter Seven records the shifting political tide against the Methodists, as young men practicing some of the methodistic practices were expelled from state universities. This increased the attempts of the reform-seeking Evangelical Anglicans to distance themselves from the irregularities of Methodism and aided in the final alienation of Wesley’s tribe. Chapter Eight attempts to paint Wesley as a reformer in line with earlier forms of Christianity rather than the English reformation. Danker concludes the volume in the ninth chapter documenting Wesley’s final attempt to be reconciled to the Evangelical Anglicans, which eventually failed and caused him to drift farther from the Church of England.

Analysis

As a Baptist theologian reading about the life of Wesley and the split with Anglicanism, I found myself unfamiliar with some of the nuances of the history Danker expounds. His book, for me, was informative and engaging. It provides a gateway into the conflict of the origins of the Methodist denomination.

Danker argues his thesis well. He makes a solid case that there was much more to the division between the Wesleyan tradition and the Church of England than a dispute over Arminianism and Calvinism. (These are Danker’s terms on page 13.) Based on the story that Danker tells, it is clear that political tensions, territorial feuds, and a whole host of very human difficulties caused the final schism between the Methodists and the Church of England.

Whether Danker is right in his final analysis or whether he has overlooked significant evidence is a matter for the Methodists and Anglicans to fight out. I’ll bring my popcorn and enjoy the debate.

However, as a theologian and one who appreciates Church History, I applaud the care in Danker’s analysis to show that this is a complicated question. Too often history falls prey to the magic bullet explanation that neutralizes all counter arguments and makes simple that which is complex. That is what the Arminian/Calvinism split explanation has been for surveys of Church History and the reason for the Methodist exodus. Danker does well to show that there was much more at play. Humans are complicated creatures and our theological debates are often driven by more than simply the doctrinal question at hand. Here is a nuanced account of how one historical debate unfolded.

This volume could have been improved had Danker added a chapter laying out the accepted arguments for the split. He mentions in passing the soteriological explanation traditionally given in his introduction, but for those of us who have little background in Methodist/Anglican history, a bit more fleshing out would have been beneficial. That criticism aside, this is a helpful and interesting book that a student of Protestant Church History and Theology will likely find instructive and enjoyable.

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

Political Church - A Review

As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” By this metric our society is very diseased. Even given the special focus on politics caused by it being a Presidential election year, society is excessively focused on politics because our society is a festering wound of dislike and division.

One might think a book on political theology would simply contribute to the excessive focus on politics and the sickening mix of politics and religion that we are seeing with the Religious Left openly lobbying for their flawed candidates and the Religious Right arguing for theirs, too.

However, in the hangover from this election, the church will do well to pick up Jonathan Leeman’s recent book, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. This is the book on nutrition for the glutton suffering from indigestion after binging on junk food.

The thesis of Leeman’s book is that “the church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographical space but from across eschatological time.”

This would be a dangerous theory if Leeman were arguing that the church has the same political purpose as a parliament or congress. There is a difference between the church and the state; they have overlapping magisteria but different means of influence. Leeman’s vision of the church and the state is not of two kingdoms, but of a single kingdom with state and church reflecting the authorities of the current kingdom and the future kingdom, respectively. Leeman stands well within the Augustinian tradition via a deep interest, though not uniformity, with Oliver O’Donovan.

Summary

This is not an introductory volume on political theology. Leeman’s discussion is a distinct approach to the place of the church in contemporary politics, but understanding this volume requires a fair understanding of the various political theologies that he is critiques and is building upon.

At the same time, Leeman’s volume begins a step before many others do by addressing some of the basic questions that one must understand before attempting a political theology. The first two chapters of the volume address the important questions, (1) What is politics? and (2) What is an institution? The various meanings of these terms are discussed in some depth before moving on. Though Leeman leaves some flexibility in the terms for his own use, his discussions of historic definitions provide context for the remainder of the book.

The next four chapters outline a positive political theological using a biblical theology as a foundation. The chapters run along the progression of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

The chapter on creation places God at the center of all politics. He made this world and is the just and righteous judge of all things. It is his authority that is represented through the work of both the government and the church. The nature of politics is shaped by the nature of the creator God.

In dealing with the fall, Leeman goes beyond the actual original sin of the primal couple to discuss how falleness has influenced all human interactions since that time. Leeman walks through the biblical storyline to show how sin has influenced government and increased the need for its justice.

The chapter on the politics of the new covenant focuses on the ongoing need for the work of the cross to be done in public. This means repentance, forgiveness, and good natured striving for the common good. Leeman is careful to distance his view from theonomy. In fact, he notes that attempts to bring about the eschatological kingdom on earth now never end well. Instead, Christians should work to apply the gospel as much as possible to earthly situations as one would expect of citizens on the new covenant kingdom.

The last chapter deals with the politics of the kingdom. However, this doesn’t refer to the eschatological kingdom, but is an especial focus on the polity of the local congregation. Leeman exercises his Baptist muscles in talking about the importance of church membership, credo baptism, and right practice of the Lord’s Supper. These are elements of the church that prefigure the coming kingdom. By being faithful to justly administer its own borders, the church stands as witness to the kingdom that is to come. The church is a political body because its policies and ministry influence the world, though it begins at a very local, individual level.

Analysis

Leeman’s book is a helpful approach to political theology because it begins with the narrative of Scripture and asks what the text says about the church’s political engagement. By beginning with the ideas of Scripture and working out, he formulates a much more distinctively Christian political theology.

In other words, political theology generally begins with a vision of what good is, which is often derived from an interpretation of Scripture. However, most political theologies then apply an extra-biblical method to achieve the desired goods.

For example, the Social Gospel movement sought (or seeks) to bring about the kingdom largely through a Rawlsian approach to government that favors strong individualism and a preference for government engagement in solutions at nearly every level. This approach then creates an implicit need for the church to pursue justice by seeking greater government control and introducing more radical human freedoms. The church’s main role in this vision of political theology is as a lobbyist to influence the state’s earthly authority.

A similar criticism could be levelled against movements that are more theologically conservative, as well.

The point is that Leeman’s volume offers an approach that is designed to constrain the Church to her proper role in pursuing a right polity within her own area of influence. The message of the gospel as it is preached in the church should affect all of life, but the authority of the Church in the present age is somewhat limited. Leeman’s biblical theological approach to political theology helps to keep the church in her lane, and rightly focused on the gospel.

Leeman’s point is that the church is an inherently political institution. When it is functioning well, it cannot help but influence the world around with the message of the gospel. If the church fails to equip people and influence communities toward justice, as it is biblically defined, it has failed in its mission. However, when the church begins to engage in politics to increase redistribution of wealth through taxation or enforce certain moral codes through judicial means, then the church has exceeded its authority. Between these failures is the proper political role of the church.

This is a helpful resource for those who are familiar with the general content of political theology. Leeman’s approach is innovative and fresh. It is distinctly biblical. As such, it is a useful resource for those seeking to live rightly in our fallen world.

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