June 18, 2014

You Say Bayzel, I Say Bazzle

Christian Focus Publications has a well-earned and valued reputation for publishing books that they think should or could usefully be read, rather than simply making cold economic decisions about what they think is most likely to be snaffled up. This approach includes republication of valuable, previously out-of-print works, and the commission of new material such as this book, 'Basil of Caesarea' by Marvin Jones - one of a new series about the Early Church Fathers ("early Christian authors who wrote between the close of the first century...and the middle of the eighth century..."; Michael Haykin, from the Series Preface).

As someone who has an interest in history and a desire to know more about Christian and church history, this is a book and a series that appeals to me. After all, you wouldn't recommend a book like this to someone who is yet to be introduced to church history because there would be too few frames of reference to make sense of it. I wasn't expecting a narrative roller-coaster, or anything eye-poppingly surprising - just a little more filling of the gap, some greater insight into how we got to the middle ages from Jesus' time, that would make more sense of what took place in the pre-Reformation era. I also figured it might help motivate me into a more in-depth look at the early church and 'dark ages' of the first millenium.

The book gets off to a rocky start for me though, as on the strength of the above somewhat general and underwhelming definition of early Church Fathers quoted above, Haykin immediately complains in his Series Preface that "Far too many Evangelicals in the modern day know next to nothing about these figures...I suspect that such ignorance is quite widespread among those who call themselves Evangelicals - hence the importance of this small series of studies on a select number of Church Fathers, to educate and inform God's people about their forbears in the faith".

So here I am, having decided to read this book, being berated - or so it feels - for the fact that I haven't already read about Basil of Caesarea. At best, the criticism seems ill-aimed. Haykin gives no reason why such Christians ought to already have such knowledge (presumably he believes that to be self-evident) - he doesn't give any hint as to the importance of these particular forbears to help us understand how knowledge of them might be useful, whilst also seeming to call into question the right of people to call themselves Evangelical if Basil of Caesarea is not a familiar name to them. Unlike, apparently, in years past, when good Christians "knew and treasured the writings of the ancient church". It's one thing to complain about the arrogance of assuming that all things modern are superior to all things ancient (see CS Lewis on 'chronological snobbery'), but it's repeating the same error to suggest that we must read ancient things because...well...they're ancient, which appears to be the reasoning we're given here.

I'm going on about this because it really put me off the book, even though the author of the preface is not the author of this book. Paige Patterson's Foreword to this volume I found far more instructional, and gave a good idea of what the value of its pages might be in giving valuable lessons and warnings to churches and individual Christians alike.

And the book itself is clearly valuable. It goes into some detail about controversies that raged in the first centuries about the nature of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in particular. Controversies in which Basil of Caesarea played a useful part in standing up for Biblical principles that were not always popular or widespread. And in standing up for a focus on Biblical morality, in which regard we can be reassured that as godless as the current age seems, it is not the first time that previously 'Christian' nations have plunged headlong into self-idolising pursuits.

I like that the book is concise; tightly-packed, but concise. I like the little inserts with definitions of key words (even though on occasion they seem incomplete, such as when the 'filioque' definition, over which the church split in 1054, gives only one side of the debate).
I appreciate the author's desire and ability to take lessons from 1,700 years ago and plant them in our everyday, though the leap from historical event to modern application was occasional made with frustratingly little unpacking of the issues - inevitable perhaps, when trying to keep the book readably short.

And yet I found the book somewhat hard going, in part because of it's assumed knowledge. By way of illustration, here are the opening words of the book, with my comments interspersed:

"The year was AD372 and the political climate [what was it like?] of the region of Cappadocia [where's that?] was such that a confrontation [between whom?] was imminent. Valens [who's that?] had struck terror in the hearts of Nicene Orthodox [who are they?] pastors. He persecuted them, banished them, and even martyred some of them. In 372, his target was Caesarea [where's that?]. Only one person stood in his way, a man of remarkable integrity, profound ministry accomplishments, and a man who, by his strong confidence in God, could defy the Emperor - Basil of Caesarea...The modern person may find it difficult to understand the dynamics of the problem. However, the issue of Arianism (to be discussed later) [no, tell me now or there may not be a later!] was at the forefront of a political and ecclesiastical agenda."

The opening felt like I'd missed the introduction that wasn't there, and I was a little lost by the end of the first page, and the book continued in my opinion to be caught slightly between the two stools of introducing Basil to people with little knowledge of the era, and going deeper for those with a good working knowledge of the times. Both I think can be done, without significantly expanding the book. Even a map, glossary and list of key characters at the end of the book would have significantly helped.

The structure of the book also had me somewhat confused. Most particularly when my Kindle version had me at 33% - a paragraph on 'Continuing Theological Development' - when suddenly, "Basil did not have a healthy body as he was ill most of the time...He died at the young age of 50...". What?! How? Perhaps I could have seen that coming if the biography section was light on theology, but we had already been given linguistic details around first Arian controversy on the nature of Christ, and suddenly Basil is dead and the rest of the book is organised into theological issues. The second Arian controversy is dealt with in one of those theological sections, whereas the book would be far easier to comprehend, in my opinion, if the either had stuck to either a narrative flow (weaving both Arian controversies into it) or a theology-based approach to Basil's life.

And yet, notwithstanding all of that, the book does achieve notable and important goals: reasons for humility about today's Christianity, inspiration to live more clearly and directly for our Saviour, and warnings about how faith-destroying heresies can come from within the church. The fact that these lessons come from a largely ignored portion of our history, make them all the more compelling. And for those reasons, I both recommend the book and look forward to the rest of the series, including the also newly-published 'Patrick of Ireland' by Michael Haykin.

I'll just skip the Series Preface next time...

************************

This review was provided by Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for a Kindle version of the book.


April 29, 2014

Not Taking DeYoung At His Word

Being English, I'm somewhat leary of popular Pastors writing books that seem to be going over
ground so well-trodden that visitors have to be re-routed to avoid erosion - it seems a little too commercially driven, and unnecessary. When said book is a weeny little thing about such a monumental and wide issue as the whether and how of reading the Bible, I dial down my
expectations. The subtitle of, 'Why the bible is knowable, necessary, and enough, and what that means for you and me' almost made me laugh: all that in 113 pages of large-fonted, wide-spaced, small-paged writing?!

Except that I've experienced Kevin DeYoung's brain through his preaching, and it's a very big brain, directly connected to what seems to be an extremely pastoral heart. And...well...at the T4G conference where I bought it, it was on special offer, and I managed to pick up a free 'Scripture Cannot Be Broken' t-shirt.

And that's how my natural skepticism and concerns about commercial opportunism were overrode largely by a big discount and a free t-shirt.

DeYoung divides his book clearly and logically, with four of the eight chapters devoted to the Bible being 'Enough', 'Clear', 'Final' and 'Necessary'.

The chapter on Biblical clarity stood out, particularly DeYoung's helpful definition:
"The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is not a wild assertion that the meaning of every verse in the Bible will be patently obvious to everyone. Rather, the perspicuity of Scripture upholds the notion that ordinary people using ordinary ;means can accurately understand enough of what must be known, believed, and observed for them to be faithful Christians."
DeYoung then carefully but quickly defends that against mystical, Catholic and pluralistic objections as well as demonstrating - just as crucially - why we should care about the whole issue. I love the way he takes apart the 'Six blind men and an elephant' story that is often patronisingly used as proof that truth and meaning is up to us as readers:
"For starters, the whole story is told from the vantage point of someone who clearly knows that he elephant is an elephant...[and]...What if the elephant talks?...would the six blind men be considered humble for ignoring his word?"
The Bible claims truth, clarity and objectivity for itself so if you want to deny all that, you are left with a limp and useless God of your own making, not the creator of the universe who saves his people from their sins. 

The other area that I found particularly interesting, because I knew least about it, was in exploring Jesus' view of the Bible, most particularly how he submitted to it and used it as the clincher in a number of arguments. "Jesus may have seen himself as the focal point of Scripture, but never as a judge of it. The only Jesus who stands above Scripture is the Jesus of our own invention", which led the author to say almost in closing,
"The unity of Scripture also means we should be rid, once and for all, of this 'red letter' nonsense, as if the words of Jesus are the really important verses in Scripture and carry more authority and are somehow more directly divine than other verses..."
Not that you need to throw out your red-letter Bibles, but...y'know...be careful with them...

DeYoung helpfully closes with an Appendix about the 30 books he has found most helpful on this topic (yes, he reads a lot), and has graded them Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced for us normal folks to pick from accordingly.

This is a book for anyone, but more particularly for everyone, and left me feeling not merely more intellectually bolstered in my faith, but encouraged and enthusiastic. The writing is clear, he doesn't waste time, but gives you easy-to-read, solid material to reflect on. And next time DeYoung writes something that seems a little commercially driven and unnecessary, I'll know better.

Especially if it comes with a free t-shirt.


April 22, 2014

Postscript to 'Britain is Not a Christian Country'

By way of a postscript to yesterday's post:

'...Farooq Murad, from the Muslim Council of Great Britain, said: "No one can deny that Britain remains largely a Christian country, with deep historical and structural links with the established Church. The 2011 census indicates that more than 60 per cent of the English self-identify as Christian. We respect that."'

Islam is a culturally expansionist religion, but not an evangelistic one. When a country is deemed Islamic it is critically important for them that the WHOLE country is Islamic. Non-Muslims are therefore seen as a destabilising and anti-country influence in many Islamic nations, and goes some way to explaining why converting from Islam is punishable by death according to the Qu'ran.

The problem is that because Muslims regard Britain as a Christian nation, it allows them an excuse to claim Christianity is nonsense - they don't judge it by the Bible (or even by Christians), but by the sleaziest and most corrupt elements of society. I kinda wish the 2011 census had been so worded as to show something closer to reality - one in which a small minority of people self-identified as Christian. It would clear some of the weeds that get between Muslims and seeing Jesus for who he really is.

Last word here goes to Anil Bhanot, of the Hindu Council UK, whose insight and historical awareness appears to exceed that of the 'Offended 50'. He said he is "grateful" for Christianity’s inclusive attitude towards other religions...As long as religion is not imposed there is no problem."

April 21, 2014

Britain is Not a Christian Country

David Cameron recently decided to make the statement that Britain is a "Christian country", which it quite clearly isn't in any functioning way (even though many of its underpinning laws and practices are Christian in origin). The Church of England, for example, contains many great and godly men, women and churches but is riddled with godless leadership that has surrendered God for a mess of pottage. And the idea of believing in the Bible may not have been less popular in the last 500 years - either in church or the wider society.

1728 engraving of Esau selling birthright for a "mess of pottage"
Never the less, Cameron offended a lot of people for whom labels are important, such as a group of
50 scientists, authors and academics who found such talk to be "fostering alienation and division". Well, if division means people having different views, then yes it did. But apparently a democracy is now only really a democracy if everyone thinks the same things. Orwell's prediction might have been 30 years ahead of itself, but the thought police are increasingly a reality.

They (that is, a certain brand of secularist) trumpet the increasingly pervasive idea that "we need to be building a strong shared identity in an increasingly plural and non-religious society" (Professor Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist, science broadcaster and President of the British Humanist Association). In truth, the last thing they want is a shared identity or a pluralistic society in which secularism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, animism, flying spaghetti monsterism, communism, fascism and other worldviews share equal status, rights and privileges.

They suffer instead from the idea that their own personal view - secularism - is the one and only objective truth from which everyone else varies, against which everything must be measured, and to which everyone else must submit. We are allowed no other objective truths than that because secularism is right. And we know that it's right because a.) it just is, and b.) everything else is silly.

It's OK for example, to believe that there is a creator God, objective morality, eternal consequences to our sin, that a Saviour gave his life to rescue mankind...so long as you don't tell anyone. All non-secularist credos are tolerated only in so far as they don't threaten the secularist credo...which basically leaves you with secularism itself, and Buddhism which isn't so much a system of belief as a lifestyle. 

And that's OK.

I mean, it's not OK, because secularists are wrong and their wrongness has devastating eternal consequences. But it's natural to want your worldview to be the dominant one, because the world is more comfortable for you when your worldview dominates.

I totally understand why a secularist wouldn't want prayer or Bible teaching in schools, any more than I want Satanic rituals in the workplace. It makes perfect sense - and it's actually more honest and more caring for secularists to campaign to eradicate religion from public life, because if you really believe that religion is terribly harmful, why would you tolerate it? Not withstanding the irony that those most concerned about the brainwashing of young innocents are the ones who most closely resemble the Orwellian thought police... Whereas Christianity teaches tolerance for people of all other religions, alongside the freedom to tell them about God and the Bible, and to have them tell us (with equal certainty) about what they believe. 

What is disingenuous is to want that eradication of public Christianity, to campaign for it, and then pretend that all you want is equality of views, or a "neutral" culture. Secularism isn't neutral or default, it's secularism.

My concern with Cameron's statement is not that he's trying to deceitfully claw back some of that little block of voters called evangelicals - it's too late for that. My concern is more that he thinks it will - that Christians are holding onto the idea of Britain as a Christian country, as a kind of touchstone for their faith. Either because they think it's their right to have their views enshrined in public life, or because they think that if Britain is a secular country, then it means God has abandoned it.

Neither is true. What we're witnessing though, is an atmosphere in society more toxic to Christians, and a lot more akin to what it was like 2,000 years ago when rumours went around that Christians were cannibals, albeit mercifully without the torture and killings that accompanied those accusations.

Besides, who cares what David Cameron says about Christianity, and who cares whether he or any secularists think Britain is 'Christian', or even 'christian'? What matters is that we "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).

Maybe then, in God's grace and in God's time, Britain may become a Christian country.

April 14, 2014

Reflections on T4G

This year's T4G conference in Louisville (8th-10th April) entitled 'Unashamed of the Gospel' brought together 7,000 attendees to the worlds worst-named sports arena - 'The KFC Yum! Center'. Anything positive taking place in a venue with that name is a bonus, and this year's edition of the biennial conference certainly had a lot of bonuses.

Worship was led by Bob Kauflin as before. He leads very well, though I found it disconcerting that he did so from a grand piano, in the middle of the arena rather than the front. It gave his voice a
disembodied quality for the 1,000-2,000 of us in front of him, though it was a boon for the guy whose Ecuador football shirt reflected so brightly in Bob's stage lighting that I was reaching for my Geiger counter.

Some highlights from the plenary sessions, with links to the audio:

Thabiti Anyabwile on, 'The Happiness of Heaven in the Repentance of Sinners'.
Repentance is increasingly thought of as unnecessary, Thabiti pointed out, even though it is "the goal of the gospel". He was disarmingly candid about his own struggles with personal evangelism, while issuing the uncommon challenge, "Do we approach evangelism expecting to share in the heavenly joy?"

Matt Chandler: 'Christ is All'
"For you to be a beast in the pulpit and scared of your neighbour helps no-one", was coupled with the timely advice, "Don't get tazed by an air marshall", as he invited us to be bold - but not obnoxious - in sharing the gospel. He shared his personal go-to passage of Job 38 for those times when he slips into self-sufficiency. Wonderfully counter-cultural reminder that actually we DON'T have what it takes to persevere, but God does and he will share it with us.

Mark Dever with a title so long it needs an exposition all of its own.
In a fallen world, some fears come true, and yet our fears tend to lie to us about how important they are. Satan uses truths about terrible events to build the lie that God has abandoned his people.

Kevin DeYoung's title was even longer and more deeply encoded than Dever's
This wasn't some rabble-rousing, locker room team-talk designed to make us amped up about the Bible's inerrancy. Rather, it was a logical and relentlessly Biblical explanation of the inerrancy of Scripture that made us...amped up about the Bible's inerrancy.
One of his closing points addressed the nonsense about accepting Jesus' words but not the rest of the what the Bible says, as DeYoung pointed out that Jesus doesn't stand above Scripture, he obeys it and fulfils it.

Ligon Duncan, whose sermon titles and deportment promise few thrills...
...and yet who always seems to deliver brilliant, pastoral exposition from the gut. I think his greatest achievement in this sermon was that he made getting to the gospel from Numbers 5 look easy.
"If you are going to bring people to Jesus, you need to know that he knows what to do with them when you do."
Oh, and he also took us to Hebrews 13:13, which I'm a sucker for...

John MacArthur: 'Mass Defection: the Great Physician Confronts the Pathology of Counterfeit Faith'
Looking at John 6 and the masses of people who left Jesus at the end of his message, MacArthur pointed out that "Nothing Jesus did offended them. What he said offended them. Don't make people accepting your gifts or service as accepting the gospel. Salvation is by believing the words".

Al Mohler spoke many highly educated and impressive sentences on, 'The Open Door is the Only Door: the Singularity of the Gospel in a Pluralistic Age'
Unfortunately for me, I didn't track with him very well. I think my struggle with listening to Mohler is that because many of his sentences are densely packed with meaning and implication, they take
time to think on, which distracts me from several subsequent sentences. Couple that with his weak spot of not giving us a clear structure to follow and my weak brain, and I get kinda lost...

John Piper was "Persuading, Pleading and Predestination: Human Means in the Miracle of Conversion"
Romans 9...Piper pondered...why is it there? Both at all, but more particularly at that point? Because if God is not faithful, all the encouragements of Romans 8 (e.g. "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus", v.1), mean nothing. If God was not faithful to the Jews, why would he be faithful to Christians? Romans 9 chronicles God's faithfulness.
What effect did the doctrine of unconditional election have on Paul's relationship to lost people?
It sustained him in his sorrow over lost fellow Jews, empowered his labours to persuade the lost to be saved, and impelled the earnestness of his prayer for the salvation of the Jews.

David Platt on 'Relenting Wrath: the Role of Desperate Prayer in the Mystery of Divine Providence'
Our prayers affect God's actions...said the reformed pastor. :) Focusing on Exodus 32 Platt showed us how God's perfections, plans and promises are unchanging, and yet his purposes are unfolding. Moses (and the Ninevites after Jonah's visit), fulfilled rather than changed God's plans. It was striking as he also took us through Acts, demonstrating how every major move of the gospel in that book came in response to prayer.
"God hasn't called us to watch history, but to shape history for the glory of his name."
"Let us not settle for prayerlessness, and so settle for powerlessness."

This was my fourth T4G, and the combination of fellowship, encouragement, great preaching and cheap books ensures I'll do my best to be there again in 2016. 






February 10, 2014

A Great Commenduction to Romans

Commentaries have a very bad name and no-one, it seems, wants to read them. I've been able to talk a

few of my non-preaching friends into reading a commentary, but on the whole my recommendation has been met with the kind of knowing smile I would give an astrophysicist should he or she claim that rocket science isn't really that complicated.

Which explains why both the author and the publisher are at pains to convince us that Tim Keller's new book, 'Romans 1-7 For You' "Is not a commentary", but rather "an expository guide". The intent is not to juice every syllable or leave no phoneme unturned in the search for meaning. Rather, Keller takes what Paul wrote, explains it a good deal without being exhaust(ing/ive), applies it to the every day, pokes at how you think and what you want, relates it with culture and leaves you with the distinct feeling that you understand and appreciate the text rather more after reading Keller's comments…I mean expository guide...than you did before.

I'm not sure you get to say it's "not a commentary" and follow that up within two paragraphs of the start of the book by helpfully explaining that, "Servant here is literally slave - doulos". Or pointing out, as he does, that "Much has been written about how to translate the word Paul uses here, hilastrion…" etc…
On the other hand, it's not a very detailed commentary, and certainly if you subsist on a diet of William Hendriksen (does anyone?) then you'll regard this as superficial.

So I'll just call it a 'commenduction'. Part commentary, part introduction. And really, it deserves its own word because I'm not sure anyone else has done this. There are introductions, there are commentaries for preachers, there are commentaries for the phoneme-splitting PhD-ers…The closest I've come to an engaging, well-written commentary before this is the 'Welwyn Commentary Series'. Most of those are simply expository sermons however, and are far less commentary-ish than what Keller's doing. Booksellers should ease their conundrum of where to put this book, but stocking it on the 'Christian Life', 'Bible Study', 'Small Group Studies', 'Commentaries' and 'Theology' shelves…that should cover it.

For normal people, this book will be a fantastic way of getting you into the book of Romans and getting it into you. For understanding what's going on behind the text as well as in it, and making you want to read your Bible more. It boldly and humbly and lovingly addresses personal, moral and societal issues such as homosexuality, and encourages you to sit under rather than on top of God's Word.

For preachers, it will do exactly the same thing. No-one's going to throw out their complete set of Lloyd-Jones commentaries as a result of this book and its presumed successor, 'Romans 8-and-some-other-chapters For You'. But possibly having not seen the wood of God's truth for the trees of Lloyd-Joneses comments, this may prove a blessing.

For small group leaders, it gives a great format for leading discussions (including questions at the end of each chapter), as do the first two books in this series: Galatians and Judges (I've greatly enjoyed leading my small group through the Galatians volume).

And there are enough piercing one-liners to keep Twitter feeds busy until the next volume is released. Not just twee throwaways, but as one friend doing counseling work put it to me, "If no Lewis quote is to hand, Keller is the next best thing". That is, short statements that open up deep truths and leave you thinking more deeply about the Word and how it impacts your life. For example, "If you don't understand or believe in the wrath of God, the gospel will not thrill, empower or move you", and "Faith is simply the attitude of coming to God with empty hands…[it is] only the instrument by which you receive your salvation, not the cause of your salvation".

I do have quibble on the content, which is where Keller says that "The main difference between a Christian and a religious person is not so much their attitudes to their sins, but toward their 'good deeds.' Both will repent of their sins; but only the christian will repent of wrongly-motivated good works, while the religious person will rely on them."

Doesn't that mean that the "religious person" - a non-Christian - has not in fact repented of their sins at all? The Pharisees and Judaisers being cases in point. I don't think the Bible leaves room for the notion of a truly-but-only-partially repentant person, and such a concept seems a little unhelpful, reducing repentance to something more akin to regret than genuine sorrow, a la 2 Corinthians 7:10 and godly v worldly sorrow.

All in all, the series is a great concept, and in this third book of the series Keller has in my opinion done an outstanding job of helping us better know and love what God said, who God is and what God has done.

January 3, 2014

Discipleship Focus for 2014: Personal Devotions

'Beating Satan to a Pulp', 'Redeeming the World a Million Converts at a Time', 'Conquering Spiritual Army on the Move'…those would make way cooler headings for 2014's Discipleship Focus here at
Google 'exciting personal devotions' and this comes up.
First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman.

Maybe one day I'll try and get away with doing that. But for now, what I'm excited about, what I hope you will be excited about, and what I think is most important is this: encouraging each other about our personal devotions.

It's like the accounting department of the corporate world though, isn't it? No-one ever launched a marketing campaign by punching the air and shouting 'we're gonna be ROCKING the book-keeping this year!!' while macro formulas flash across the screen and their air is filled with pounding music.

And whilst I'm not sure what it would look like to rock your personal devotions, I'm looking forward to what God will do this year as we make his glory our focus and look to serve him every day of our lives.

I don't know any Christian who has the devotional life they'd like to have, or think maybe they should have. Either we end up complacently thinking "hey, it is what it is", or we beat ourselves up endlessly for having failed to meet an arbitrary standard that keeps moving just beyond our reach.

So as we head towards the end of the first week of 2014, with new year's resolutions already mostly broken, let's encourage each other into the Word and into prayer - not by saying "you gotta do that", but by talking to each other about God. About who he is, what he's done, and the immense privilege of being his children.