White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

(Late) Summer Reading–Nancy Guthrie

(Nancy Guthrie is the author of O Love That Will Not Let Me Go and the Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament Bible study series (www.seeingjesusintheoldtestament.com)  In addition to teaching opportunities at her church, Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Nancy speaks regularly at conferences and events around the country.)

Nancy GuthrieWhat are you reading right now?

My stack of books has three categories—the books for my current seminary class, books I’m reading for my current writing project on the prophets, and the manuscripts I’m reading for endorsement requests. I’ve gotten to read several terrific books in the biblical theology category over recent weeks from this endorsement request stack including David Murray’s forthcoming Jesus on Every Page (Thomas Nelson, August release), and Jim Hamilton’s What is Biblical Theology? (Crossway, November release), as well as Name Above All Names by Sinclair Ferguson and Alistair Begg (Crossway).   I have to admit that I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the publishing process when I received the request from the publisher to consider offering an endorsement for Begg and Ferguson’s book. These are two of my most respected mentors-from-afar in regard to handling and communicating the scriptures with a sense of the big story of the Bible. They are also two of my favorite people. So when I received the request my thought was that while they have little to gain from my endorsement, I am quite sure I have plenty to gain from reading this book.  Since this was a book I knew I would want to read as soon as I got my hands on it, I was glad to get to read it in advance. However, I read it quickly in its manuscript stage in the press of other projects. So I’ve been glad to have some time to work through it more slowly and thoughtfully now that the printed book is in my hands.

 

Why’d you pick that book?

I grew up in Sunday School and have studied the Bible most of my life. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to listen to preachers like Ferguson and Begg who present the scriptures with a sense of the Bible as one grand story of God’s redemption of all things through Christ. My own publishing projects over the past five years have been my way of re-orienting the way I read and understand the Old Testament, moving away from using the characters and situations of the Old Testament as moral or faith lessons and instead seeing the beauty of the person and work of Christ throughout. I’ve learned a lot, but I still have plenty to learn—not only about how to understand these things in the scriptures, but also how to communicate them clearly and simply to others, which is just what this book does like few others.

 

What’s the best part of the book so far?Name Above All Names

While the presentation of the person and work of Christ in these short seven chapters is profound and fresh, it is also personal and easy-to-follow. Its chapters trace Jesus as presented in the scriptures as Seed of the Woman, True Prophet, Great High Priest, Conquering King, Son of Man, Suffering Servant, and the Lamb on the Throne. And while the scholarship is sound, it is never technical. This is a book I could give to someone who has never heard of biblical theology and when they finished they would have a sound sense of biblical theology without ever hearing the intimidating term. And while reading the book would cause them to think about the story of the Bible in new ways, mostly it would call them to worship the God of the Bible.  One of many “Aha!” experiences for me came early in the book in the chapter about Jesus Christ as the Seed of the Woman, which says that Adam was created to be the gardener, but that he failed. It then goes to the resurrection of Christ when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and didn’t recognize the resurrected Christ, “supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:15). The book reads: “The gardener? Yes, indeed. He is the Gardener. He is the second Man, the last Adam, who is now beginning to restore the garden.” While certainly I had seen the garden at the beginning and ending of the story of the Bible, I had never before seen Christ as the Gardener, there in the center of the story, beginning his work to restore and renew. But I won’t forget it.

 

What’s the worst part of the book so far?

I have only one beef with the way Begg and Ferguson put the book together. I don’t know for sure which one to credit with this brilliant Gardener insight and so many others throughout the book. They don’t identify themselves as to who is speaking and so refer to people they both knew, and experiences they both had, using phrases such as, ‘in one of our churches” and “one of our children.” Because these two pastors each have so much wit and personality, their own charming humor, and of course their own unique experiences and acquaintances, every time I came across one of these personal references I would have preferred to know who was speaking. But I suppose it helps that even though I don’t know who is speaking, I can hear the same accent in my head. More than that I recognized the same love for Christ and ability to call to me, as the reader, to see Christ in all of his sufficiency and to love him with all of my heart.

(Late) Summer Reading–James K. A. Smith

(James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview.  He is the author of a number of books including Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition and, most recently, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.  He also serves as the editor of Comment magazine.)

James-K_A_-SmithWhat book are you reading right now?

I’ve finally moved James Bratt’s biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013) to the top of the stack.  I’m not sure that Jim ever envisioned this as a “beach read,” but in fact I enjoyed reading it while decamped on the gorgeous sands of Grand Haven, Michigan, our very own “west coast.”  That I eventually dozed off is no commentary on Bratt’s prose, which is far from soporific.

Why’d you choose that particular book?

As a member of the Christian Reformed Church and a Christian scholar at Calvin College, an institution nourished by Kuyper’s legacy, reading this book is pretty much an occupational requirement.  But like the law of love, it is a happy obligation!  Abraham Kuyper was a remarkable individual whose life makes for a compelling story: a convert from bland liberalism, he went on to become an influential pastor, newspaper editor, theologian, and statesman (serving as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905).  My own thought is deeply indebted to Kuyper and his heirs, but I knew the ideas and not the man.  But my interest is not just antiquarian or a biographical fascination: I’m also intrigued to see how a Christian like Kuyper operated in the public sphere—a public sphere that was increasingly secularized and pluralized, and thus beginning to look more and more like the world we currently inhabit.  I’m intrigued to see if there are lessons to be learned here, including lessons to be learned from Kuyper’s failures.

Abraham-Kuyper

What’s the best part about it so far?

Well, first and foremost, I have to say that Bratt’s prose is lively and engaging, characterized by a verve and wit that he exhibits in person as well.  One of Jim’s best friends, the film scholar Bill Romanowski, recommended that Bratt organize the biography like a screenplay, and I think that’s reflected in the book’s dramatic pace.  Second, Bratt’s mastery of the archival materials is remarkable.  For example, Bratt goes back to early sermons and captures their key themes in ways that bring Kuyper to life beyond his published legacy.  But I also love it that at the same time he draws on Kuyper’s love letters to his fiancée, then wife, Jo.  As Bratt puts it, “Father Abraham” was a romantic in more ways than one.  Finally, so far I have learned the most from Bratt’s ability to locate Kuyper in the social, political, and intellectual context of 19th century Europe.  It is far too easy to read someone like Kuyper anachronistically, reading him as if we were just a contemporary American.  Bratt’s biography is an important antidote to that.

 

What’s the worst part about it so far?

I don’t think I’ve encountered a “worst part” so far.  I would just say this: I can already feel a certain theoretical frame that Bratt brings to the story of which I am a tad suspicious.  I’m just a little worried that the “true” heirs of Kuyper are going to be progressives, whereas “right wingers” (as Bratt puts it, gratingly) are going to turn out to be unenlightened repristinators.  I’m suspending judgment until I’m finished the book, but I’m on the lookout for an interpretive frame that might load the dice just a bit.

WHI-1167 | A Christian Witness to Israel

What do contemporary Jews believe about the Messiah? How should Christians talk to their Jewish friends about Jesus? We are joined on this episode to think through these issues by David Zadok, Pastor of Grace & Truth Church outside of Tel Aviv, and the Field Director for Christian Witness to Israel.

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(Late) Summer Reading

The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of DistractionLiving in a housing community that boasts a pool and a spa, and in a city where the beach is a twenty-minute drive away, I have almost no excuse for not finishing my summer reading.  It happens every year—the list gets longer and longer, the titles are more ambitious, and the books go unread.  The reasons why are easily guessed—I have Netflix and an iPhone, and (more to the point) at the end of the day, I’d rather catch up on Mad Men than read War and Peace.  

Earlier this year, at the suggestion of our producer (himself a voracious reader), I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  It was a great book, but one point he made stood out to me particularly—the American reading public is under the distinct impression that reading is something that is ‘good for you’; that it refines the intellect and stimulates the aesthetic sense, and that it is primarily for this reason that people ought to read.  While Jacobs agrees with this, and acknowledges that reading for self-improvement is and can be beneficial, he’s concerned about the troubling effects this attitude tends to have on the reading public in general.  He acknowledges the helpful pointers and principles in Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler’s venerable How To Read A Book, but he questions the tone in which they discuss the purpose of reading.  The grave, almost severe manner in which they stress its educational and spiritual value leaves the impression that reading is first and foremost the duty of every intelligent person.  According to Jacobs, this idea permeates the pragmatic American conscious, which has little use for reading per se.  The mindset that reading is something we ought to do for material benefit rather than personal pleasure has, in Jacobs’ estimation, allowed a particular group (the so-called ‘Vigilant school’) to convince readers that they (Harold Bloom and Thomas C. Foster, specifically) ‘are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts’.  Jacobs believes that their strictures are more of a hindrance than a help:

“There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that Bloom’s approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—‘Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works’—or it can terrify them—‘How can I be worthy of this high calling?’”

The best reason to read, according to Jacobs, is because you want to.  Read at Whim, he says.

“Don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout.”

There’s a great deal to be said for eating organic greens, and I for one have a deep attachment to my elliptical trainer, but the point is well-made.  While I’m a firm believer in the benefits of intellectual exertion for the sake of personal improvement (as is Jacobs), his exhortation to read books for the pleasure they provide is helpful and timely—there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to read and wanting to have read, and in our competitive, image-driven culture, the lines get blurred very easily and very often.

With that in mind, we asked a few friends of ours to discuss which books they picked up this summer, and tell us a bit about why they chose those books in particular, what they liked and what they didn’t like.  (Whether or not they read them for pleasure, personal edification, or morbid curiosity, we don’t know, but you can judge).  We’ll be posting them successively during this upcoming week, so stop by on Monday for to see what James K. A. Smith, Nancy Guthrie and few other friends have been ruminating on this summer.

Happy Reading!

WHI-1166 | Fine Tuned for Life

How does science account for the origin of life with all of its amazing complexity and wonder? Since life cannot be created in a laboratory, how do scientists attempt to explain that it came about by accident or chance? Joining the program to discuss this topic is Dean Overman, author of The Case Against Accident & Self-Organization, and Gerald Schroeder, author of The Hidden Face of God (originally aired April 10 & 17, 2005).

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‘In Christ Alone’ Didn’t Make the Cut

According to a recent Christianity Today online report, the worship song “In Christ Alone” didn’t make it in to the new Presbyterian Church USA hymnal.

Apparently, mention of God’s wrath being satisfied by Christ’s vicarious death was the sticking point.  The hymnal committee initially wanted to include the song, but asked authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend for permission to edit out the offending line.  Instead of “’Til on that cross as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied,” the committee wanted “’Till on that cross as Jesus died/ the love of God was magnified.”

Despite the fact that the new version still rhymed, the authors refused to grant permission.  Committee chair Mary Louise Bringle told The Christian Century that the “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would communicate the wrong message to worshipers about the meaning of Christ’s death.

The CT report referred to its cover story in 2006 on how a growing number of evangelicals “believe Christ’s atoning death is merely a grotesque creation of the medieval imagination.”  According to critics, it relies on the theory of the 11th-century  theologian, Anselm, who argued that Christ’s death satisfied God’s offended dignity.

The good news is that “In Christ Alone” is widely sung—in its original form—and that the authors refused permission to edit out its heart.  Yet the best news of all is that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:24-25).  To propitiate is to make satisfaction, to appease.

It is true that the 11th-century theologian, Anselm, emphasized Christ’s death as the satisfaction of God’s offended dignity, reflecting a more feudal concept of a king’s majesty needing to be defended.  However, the Protestant Reformers grounded satisfaction in God’s justice, righteousness, and love.  This is precisely how Scripture describes it.

So it is wide of the mark even historically to suggest that the doctrine of Christ’s suffering in the place of sinners, bearing their guilt before the face of the holy God, is a legacy of the medieval imagination.  Not only is it evident in the word “propitiation” (Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10); it is evident in the numerous references in the Gospels and epistles to Christ’s death for/in place of sinners.  Furthermore, this meaning is obvious in the sacrificial system at the heart of the old covenant, of which Christ’s work is the fulfillment.

There are many other things that Scripture says about Christ’s death.  For example, he disarmed the powers of Satan, death, and hell and purchased immortality for his co-heirs, as we are told in Colossians 2:15.  In the sentence immediately before it, Paul explains that is true only because in Christ’s saving work he has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (vv 13-14).

A lot more can be said, but perhaps the most important point is this: If Christ’s death is not a propitiatory sacrifice—that is, if its purpose is not to turn away God’s wrath toward us by his own bearing of our guilt in his body on the cross—then Golgotha cannot be the place where “the love of God was magnified.”

The majority on the PCUSA hymnal committee apparently favor the subjective or moral theory of the atonement: Christ died on the cross to show us how much God loves us.  Surely this display would persuade us to repentance.  To illustrate this view, Leon Morris used the analogy of a person responding to a drowning friend by jumping into the river and drowning himself. The demonstration might express one’s love, but it doesn’t do anything to actually save the friend.

Strictly speaking, Christ’s death has no significance for God according to this view.  He loves and accepts people regardless of their guilt. God has no enemies.  We may need to be reconciled to God, but God does not need to be reconciled to us.  We simply need to be reminded how much God loves us.  Thus, the death of Christ could only serve as an object lesson.  And what a cruel one indeed!  After all, if Christ’s death was unnecessary for satisfying God’s righteous law, then it is the symbol of senseless slaughter.

The Apostle Paul says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:8-9).  Christ’s death manifests God’s love for sinners only because it actually propitiates God’s wrath.  He took our place— fulfilling the law, bearing our sentence for violating his law—and thereby removed every legal basis for our condemnation.  It is this point that the committee voted to omit, and yet it is precisely what makes the cross the manifestation of God’s amazing love.

In other words, God’s love is manifested and magnified in Christ’s death only if it is more than a demonstration or object lesson.  Christ’s cross can be a demonstration of God’s love only because in it God reconciled enemies to himself forever.  “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10). Now that’s good news!

 

WHI-1165 | Stephen Meyer on Darwin’s Doubt

On this edition of White Horse Inn, we talk with Stephen C. Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell, and more recently, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. The focus of the conversation centers around Meyer’s thesis that neo-Darwinism cannot fully account for life’s origin or the sudden appearance of complex life forms that we find in the Cambrian explosion.

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WHI-1164 | Dogma, Part 2

On this edition of the program we conclude our two-part discussion of dogma. No one can really escape theology. Even the idea that the study of theology is a waste of time is a theological statement. At the end of the day, the question is whether our ideas about God match his own revelation of himself in Scripture.

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A Happy Birthday for the Heidelberg Catechism

I’ve just returned from Heidelberg, Germany, where I joined brothers and sisters from around the world to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.  In addition to illuminating papers and warm fellowship, we enjoyed one of the city’s several museum exhibits celebrating the anniversary.  Of special note was the Heidelberg Palace exhibit, “The Power of Faith: 450 Years of the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Frederick III, ruler of the Palatinate and imperial elector, was nicknamed “the pious” by fellow princes.  Embracing Reformed teaching, he was distressed with the low level of knowledge of even the basics of the Christian faith in his territory.  Drawing together the best theologians and pastors in the region, he oversaw (and even contributed to) the drafting of a catechism that would be taught in schools, churches, and homes.

Soon after publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was translated into various languages—including early modern Hebrew and Greek.  It soon enjoyed wide use in the English-speaking world as well.  Students learned this catechism at Oxford and Cambridge.  Today, it is more widely known and used in Asia, Africa, and the Americas than in Europe or even North America.  As my children repeat back the clear teaching of the gospel from this great catechism, I am reinvigorated in my own faith.

Yet in Germany itself, the story is rather different.

In Luther’s home state of Saxony-Anhalt, after nearly a century of atheistic indoctrination, only 19% of the population professes belief in God.  Yet even more tragic is the widespread unbelief in the west, under the auspices of a privileged but largely apostate Protestant Evangelical Church (EKD).  A union of Lutheran and Reformed bodies, the EKD and the Roman Catholic Church claimed 30% of the population each by the end of 2008.  Affiliation, however, may mean no more than having been baptized.  These Landeskirchen (established churches) continue to receive tax money to fund their undermining of the Christian faith.  In recent decades, there have been free (i.e., independent of the state) Lutheran bodies maintaining evangelical convictions, but Arminian Baptist and Pentecostal groups are much larger.

Across the nation, 45% say, “I believe there is a God,” while among the youth the percentage drops to 30%, and 34% are “unaffiliated.”    According to a 2010 Eurobarometer Poll, 55% of the total population claim to be atheists, agnostics, or “non-religious.”   Germany has always been the vanguard of intellectual, cultural, and religious trends on the continent.   What happens in Germany, for good or ill, has repercussions for the whole of Europe.

During my brief time in Heidelberg, I was impressed with the small group of committed believers who are longing and praying for a new Reformation.  Spearheading this event last week was the Free Reformed Church (Selbstündige Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche) in Heidelberg with the Rev. Sebastian Heck.   I joined North American colleagues Joel Beeke, Lyle Bierma, Jason Van Vleet, and Jon Payne in giving some papers on the catechism, but for me it was definitely more blessed to receive than to give.

Among other speakers was Dr. Victor d’Assonville, an astute Reformed theologian.  He leads a new seminary that holds great promise as a center for sound training of the small but growing band of future ministers, evangelists, and teachers.   Students come from Lutheran and Reformed backgrounds and I had the pleasure of getting to know some of them at the conference.  Many were raised in East Germany, where atheism was the state ideology.   I was deeply moved by their stories of coming to understand the evangelical faith against all odds (including their own churches) and the depth of their zeal, knowledge, and clarity.

In other travels, I’ve seen first-hand the remarkable blessing of God on his means of grace.  There is a hunger for Reformation Christianity around the world.  And yet the land of the Reformation is now largely pagan.  There is a great need for prayers and financial support for small but zealously faithful ministry in Germany.

If you would like to help this work in Heidelberg, or if you know anyone in the area who is looking for a good Reformed church, contact Sebastian Heck at sebheck@mac.com.   The nascent seminary there has enormous potential as a catalyst for long-range gospel ministry, but it is struggling to find the necessary resources in the short term.  If you have an interest in supporting this work, please contact Dr. Victor E. d’Assonville at vicdas@rtsonline.de.

WHI-1163 | Dogma, Part 1

Many Christians in our day avoid the study of theology in favor of more practical concerns. Dogma, they say, is for eggheads who wish to put God in a box. On the contrary, we argue on this program, knowing who God is and what he has done is the basis of Christian experience. We will discuss the impossibility of having a personal relationship with God if we don’t know anything about him.

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