Friday, October 28, 2011

Christians and Halloween

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Suggestions for “Doing Theology”

In a previous post I outlined several of the main theological disciplines for “doing theology.” I had a few questions regarding suggested books for these disciplines, so I’m going to mentioned a few books with brief explanations. There are numerous books out there on these topics, so feel free to mention others. I’m going to limit myself to 3-4 per topic (maybe!), and explain why I listed them.

Exegetical Theology

The classic book on Greek (New Testament) exegesis is Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis. Fee’s book examines the main components of exegesis when examining a particular text: structure, grammar, words, background, and other aspects of exegesis. Although Fee’s is the classic that has been used in New Testament studies, I really like the new book edited by Darrell L. Bock and Buist M. Fanning, Interpreting the New Testament Text: Introduction to the Art and Science of Exegesis. Go to the link and take a look at its table of contents. They explain exegesis and then provide various examples from different scholars. The counterpart to Fee’s book is Douglas Stuart’s Old Testament Exegesis. Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching is a book that moves more in the direction of taking exegesis toward the goal of preaching and teaching. Finally, D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies teaches sound exegetical principles while warning about the various fallacies that are often committed in the process of exegesis.

Biblical Theology

The classic work of Reformed biblical theology is Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology. This is a book everyone should read on this topic as it demonstrates the fundamentals of this discipline. More recently, Graeme Goldsworthy has contributed several helpful books to the topic of Biblical Theology. I would suggest According to Plan. He not only articulates the method of biblical theology, but he also provides a structure of Biblical Theology for the whole Bible. A smaller book that applies Goldsworthy’s method is Vaughn Robert’s God’s Big Picture. Goldsworthy has other books on Biblical Theology and preaching, prayer, and hermeneutics. I think The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology is a book that anyone interested in actually “doing” Biblical theology should own. It actually covers the topics Vos and Goldswrothy cover, and it provides other resources as well.

Systematic Theology

Where should I begin for this discipline? There are many great systematic theologies available. If you are new to systematic theology, try something like Bruce Milne’s Know the Truth, or Wayne Grudem’s smaller Bible Doctrine. Both of these books provide the large structure of systematic theological categories, but on a smaller scale than larger works. Louis Berkhof’s work Systematic Theology is still a Reformed classic because he covers everything in a traditional manner in one volume. Everyone should own this volume. For newer works, I really like Michael Horton’s Christian Faith. But my favorite systematic theology has now become Herman Bavinck’s four volume Reformed Dogmatics. If you could only buy one, and you wanted readability and a comprehensive treatment, spend the money on this one.

Historical Theology

For a good basic work, take a look at Alister McGrath’s Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. A good recent work is Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology (this is actually something of a companion to Grudem’s large Systematic Theology). For those wanting more detail, Jeroslav Pelikan’s five volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine is the work to get. Here are the individual volumes:

Philosophical Theology

This might not be a topic of interest to many, but it has been crucial for the development of doctrine, as well as the interface of Christianity and culture. One of the places to begin is with the author Diogenes Allen who has two helpful books on this topic that complement each other. Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology provides just what the title says: readings from important sources in the development of theology, such as Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, and others. His other book, Philosophy for Understanding Theology, explains how various philosophers influenced the development of theology. For example, chapter 1 is titled, “Plato: The World is the Handiwork of a Mind.” I think his two books are a good introduction to the intersection of philosophy and theology. If this area is of interest and you want to move beyond these two works, be sure to search for some of the works on natural theology. Blackwell is about to come out with a paperback version of their Companion to Natural Theology, and Alister McGrath also has some recent books on the topic of natural theology as well. Also, take a look at The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, edited by Thomas P. Flint and Michael C. Rea.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mormonism, Democracy, and the Urgent Need for Evangelical Thinking

by Albert Mohler

Monday, October 10, 2011

Predictably, Mormonism is in the news again. The presence of two members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints among contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination ensured that it was only a matter of time before Evangelicals, along with other Americans, began to talk openly about what this means for the nation, the church, and the stewardship of political responsibility in the voting booth.

There are numerous ways to frame these questions wrongly. Our responsibility as evangelical Christians is to think seriously and biblically about these issues. The first temptation is to reduce all of these issues to one question. We must address the question of Mormonism as a worldview and judge it by the Bible and historic Christian doctrine. But this does not automatically determine the second question — asking how Mormon identity should inform our political decisions. Nevertheless, for evangelical Christians, our concern must start with theology. Is Mormonism just a distinctive denomination of Christianity?

The answer to that question is definitive. Mormonism does not claim to be just another denomination of Christianity. To the contrary, the central claim of Mormonism is that Christianity was corrupt and incomplete until the restoration of the faith with the advent of the Latter-Day Saints and their scripture, The Book of Mormon. Thus, it is just a matter of intellectual honesty to take Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, at his word when he claimed that true Christianity did not exist from the time of the Apostles until the reestablishment of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods on May 15, 1829.

From a Christian perspective, Mormonism is a new religion, complete with its own scripture, its own priesthood, its own rituals, and its own teachings. Most importantly, those teachings are a repudiation of historic Christian orthodoxy — and were claimed to be so from the moment of Mormonism’s founding forward. Mormonism rejects orthodox Christianity as the very argument for its own existence, and it clearly identifies historic Christianity as a false faith.

Mormonism starts with an understanding of God that rejects both monotheism and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Mormon concept of God includes many gods, not one. Furthermore, Mormonism teaches that we are now what God once was and are becoming what He now is. This is in direct conflict with historic Christianity.

Mormonism rejects the Bible as the sole and sufficient authority for the faith, and insists that The Book of Mormon and other authoritative Latter-Day Saints writings constitute God’s final revelation. Furthermore, the authority in Mormonism is mediated through a human priesthood, through whom God is claimed to speak directly and authoritatively to the church. Nothing makes the distinction between Mormonism and historic Christianity more clear than the experience of reading The Book of Mormon. The very subtitle of The Book of MormonAnother Testament of Jesus Christ — makes one of Mormonism’s central claims directly and candidly: That we need another authority to provide what is lacking in the New Testament.

The Mormon doctrine of sin is not that of biblical Christianity, nor is its teaching concerning salvation. Rather than teaching that the death of Christ is alone sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, Mormonism presents a scheme of salvation that amounts to the progressive deification of the believer. According to Mormonism, sinners are not justified by faith alone, but also by works of righteousness and obedience. Mormonism’s teachings concerning Jesus Christ start with a radically different understanding of the Virgin Birth and proceed to a fundamentally different understanding of Christ’s work of salvation.

By its very nature, Mormonism borrows Christian themes, personalities, and narratives. Nevertheless, it rejects what orthodox Christianity affirms and it affirms what orthodox Christianity rejects. It is not orthodox Christianity in a new form or another branch of the Christian tradition. By its own teachings and claims, it rejects any claim of continuity with orthodox Christianity. Insofar as an individual Mormon holds to the teachings of the Latter-Day Saints, he or she repudiates biblical Christianity. There are, no doubt, many Mormons who are not fully aware of the teachings of their church. Nevertheless, the doctrines and teachings of the LDS church are there for all to see.

It is neither slander nor condescension to state clearly that Mormonism is not Christianity. Taking Mormonism on its own terms, one finds a comprehensive set of teachings and doctrines that are self-consciously set against historic Christianity. The larger world may be confused about this, but biblical Christians cannot make this error, for we are certain that the consequences are eternal.

So, how do we move from this knowledge to the question of our social and political responsibility? Can a faithful Christian vote for a Mormon candidate?

It is on this question that Evangelicals must think forcefully, faithfully . . . and fast. We need to recognize that we are asking this question from a privileged historical and political context. For most of our nation’s history, voters have chosen among presidential candidates who were identified, to one degree or another, with some form of Protestant Christianity. To date, for example, America has had only one Roman Catholic president and one Jewish candidate for vice president as a major party nominee.

It can be argued that our contemporary political context puts greater emphasis on the religious identity of candidates at all levels than has ever been experienced in American history. Both major political parties have sought various elements of the religious electorate and have developed strategies accordingly.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Evangelicals stating a desire to vote for candidates for public office who most closely identify with our own beliefs and worldview. Given the importance of the issues at stake and the central role of worldview in the framing of political positions and policies, this intuition is both understandable and right. Likewise, we would naturally expect that adherents of other worldviews would also gravitate in political support to candidates who most fully share their own worldviews.

At the same time, competence for public office is also an important Christian concern, as is made clear in Romans 13. Christians, along with the general public, are not well served by political leaders who, though identifying as Christians, are incompetent. The Reformer Martin Luther is often quoted as saying that he would rather be ruled by a competent Turk (Muslim) than an incompetent Christian. We cannot prove that Luther actually made the statement, but it well summarizes an important Christian wisdom.

Furthermore, Christians in other lands and in other political contexts have had to think through these questions, sometimes under urgent and difficult circumstances. Christian citizens of Turkey, for example, must choose among Muslim candidates and parties when voting. Voters in many western states in the United States often have to choose among Mormon candidates. They vote for a Mormon or they do not vote at all.

Furthermore, we must be honest and acknowledge that there are non-Christians or non-evangelicals who share far more of our worldview and policy concerns than some others who identify as Christians. The stewardship of our vote demands that we support those candidates who most clearly and consistently share our worldview and combine these commitments with the competence to serve both faithfully and well.

In a fallen world, political questions are always contextual questions. With fear and trembling, matched with faithful biblical commitments, Christians must support and vote for candidates who will most faithfully and effectively meet these expectations. We must choose between real flesh-and-blood candidates, and not theoretical constructs.

Given all this, we would expect that, under normal circumstances, Mormon voters will support candidates who most fully represent their worldview and concerns. Given the distribution of Mormons in the United States, this means that many Mormons (who would probably prefer to vote for a Mormon candidate), often vote for an evangelical or a Roman Catholic candidate. The reverse is also true. Evangelicals in many parts of the United States vote eagerly for Roman Catholic candidates with whom we share so many policy concerns, and this is true also in reverse. In an increasingly diverse America, we will be faced with very different choices than we have faced in the past.

None of this settles the question of whom Evangelicals should support in the 2012 presidential race. Beyond this, those who support any one candidate for the Republican nomination must, if truly committed to electing a president who most shares their worldview and policy concerns, end up supporting the candidate in the general election who fits that description.

We are facing what are, for America’s Evangelicals, new questions. These questions will call for our most careful, biblical, and faithful thinking. We need to start thinking urgently — long before we enter the voting booth.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

because we are heard and accepted in the beloved Son of God

John Newton:
When we are deeply conscious of our defects in duty. If we compare our best performances with the demands of the law, the majesty of God, and the unspeakable obligations we are under; if we consider our innumerable sins of omission, and that the little we can do is polluted and defiled by the mixture of evil thoughts, and the working of selfish principles, aims, and motives, which though we disapprove, we are unable to suppress; we have great reason to confess, "To us belong shame and confusion of face."

But we are relieved by the thought, that Jesus, the High Priest, bears the iniquity of our holy things, perfumes our prayers with the incense of his mediation, and washes our tears in his own blood.

This inspires a confidence, that though we are unworthy of the least of his mercies, we may humbly hope for a share in the greatest blessings he bestows, because we are heard and accepted, not on the account of our own prayers and services, but in the beloved Son of God, who maketh intercession for us.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.

"Woe to those who are at ease in Zion..."

What do we say to our self-indulgence, our sloth, our love of ease, our avoidance of hardship, our luxury, our pampering of the body, our costly feasts, our silken couches, our brilliant furniture, our gay attire, our braided hair, our jeweled fingers, our idle mirth, our voluptuous music, our jovial tables, loaded with every variety of rich viands?

Are we Christians? Or are we worldlings? Where is the self-denial of the New Testament days? Where is the separation from a self-pleasing luxurious world? Where is the cross, the true badge of discipleship, to be seen--except in useless religious ornaments for the body, or worse than useless decorations for the sanctuary?

"Woe to those who are at ease in Zion!" Is not this the description of multitudes who name the name of Christ? They may not always be "living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry." But even where these are absent, there is 'high living'--luxury of the table or the wardrobe-- in conformity to 'this present evil world.'

'At ease in Zion!' Yes! there is the shrinking from hard service; from 'spending and being spent;' from toil and burden-bearing and conflict; from self-sacrifice and noble adventure, for the Master's sake.

There is conformity to the world, instead of conformity to Christ! There is a laying down, instead of a taking up of the cross. Or there is a lining of the cross with velvet, lest it should gall our shoulders as we carry it! Or there is an adorning of the cross, that it may suite the taste and the manners of our refined and intellectual age. Anything but the bare, rugged and simple cross!

We think that we can make the strait gate wider, and the narrow way broader, so as to be able to walk more comfortably to the heavenly kingdom. We try to prove that 'modern enlightenment' has so elevated the race, that there is no longer the battle or the burden or the discipline; or has so refined 'the world and its pleasures', that we may safely drink the poisoned cup, and give ourselves up to the inebriation of the Siren song.

'At ease in Zion!' Even when the walls of our city are besieged, and the citadel is being stormed! Instead of grasping our weapons, we lie down upon our couches! Instead of the armor, we put on the silken robe! We are cowards, when we should be brave! We are faint-hearted, when we should be bold! We are lukewarm, when we should be fervent! We are cold, when we should be full of zeal! We compromise and shuffle and apologize, when we should lift up our voice like a trumpet! We pare down truth, or palliate error, or extenuate sin in order to placate the world, or suit the spirit of the age, or 'unify' the Church.

Learn self-denying Christianity. Not the form or name, but the living thing. Let us renounce the lazy, luxurious, self-pleasing, fashionable religion of the present day! A self-indulgent religion has nothing in common with the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ; or with that cross of ours which He has commanded us to take up and carry after Him--renouncing ease and denying self.

Our time, our gifts, our money, our strength, are all to be laid upon the altar.

--Horatius Bonar