Sunday, July 31, 2016

To What Extent Is Scripture Revelation?

To what extent is scripture revelation? That may seem like an obvious answer for most of my readers, who would probably reply, "All of it, of course." That's what the 2 Timothy 3:16 suggests, a favorite verse for evangelicals– but still a good verse. My question that I pose here is not one to which I will provide an answer; I don't know what the answer is. My purpose in posing it is twofold. First, 2 Timothy is probably not actually talking about the whole of the Christian canon; it's more likely talking about the Old Testament, the only thing that the earliest church had as scripture. Second, how do we reckon with statements in the New Testament– scarce in number, to be sure– that essentially tell the reader/hearer that what is being said presently is not [direct] revelation, but is only an opinion? 1 Cor. 7:25 is an excellent example. It reads, "Now concerning the virgins, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy." Paul explicitly says that he has not been told this by the Lord (i.e., through revelation), which suggests that the rest of what he says he has in fact received from the Lord (cf. Gal. 1:11-12; cp. 1 Cor. 15:3). How are we to name what is claimed to be opinion in distinction from revelation as revelation? Inspiration is not in question here. I have no problem saying that this was inspired by God, that the Holy Spirit intended for this to be written. But in what way is it revelatory? Is what follows to be considered normative? Is revelation the condition for normativity?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Review of Rescuing the Gospel by Erwin Lutzer

Erwin Lutzer’s seventeen chapter book, Rescuing the Gospel, presents a very, very brief overview of the four branches of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century (Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, and Anabaptists) and the significance of this Reformation for today. It is a quick, easy read and should take no more than two or three days for anyone who reads at a moderate speed. Aesthetically, the book is appealing. The dust cover is colorful and inviting, the font is attractive, large, and highly readable, the pictures are vivid (and are far better than those I was able to take when I was at those same locations in the summer of 2015), and the binding is solid and does not appear as if it will come loose any time soon. There are, however, endnotes. Anyone who appreciates good research and checking sources– such as myself– will be frustrated by this. I don’t know anyone who likes flipping all the way to the back of the book to see from where a quote is derived.
The map of the Holy Roman Empire on the two pages preceding the title page is extremely helpful as a reference, and readers will wish to make frequent recourse to it as various cities– such as Mainz, Wittenberg, Augsburg, Geneva, Z├╝rich, etc.– are mentioned throughout the volume. Geography does not feature a very prominent role in the narrative that Lutzer lays out, but the map is nevertheless helpful and gives readers a picture of the world of 16th Century Europe.

The first chapter presents the corruptions that had infiltrated the church and the desperate need of reform that presented itself: simony, papal corruption, lecherous priests. The second chapter discusses the proto-Reformers Jan (which he spells ‘John’) Hus and John Wycliff. In this chapter, I think he makes too much of Wycliff’s influence on Hus and, then later, Hus’ influence on Luther. They remain, however, important historical figures and a testimony to the desperate need of reformation writ large in the Church. The next ten chapters are dedicated to Luther. Luther was certainly an important and interesting figure, certainly the most fun of all the Reformers to read, but this book is overwhelmingly disproportionately weighted toward Luther’s life, work, and impact. Then there is a chapter dedicated to Zwingli, a chapter dedicated to the Anabaptists, two chapters dedicated to Calvin (one for his life and ministry and a second for the lasting impact of his theology), and a final chapter assessing the Church-universal’s state and whether the Reformation is over.

I think the book succeeds on multiple levels. Most importantly, a great amount of historical detail is summarized in plain, simple English and presented clearly, if not thoroughly. His description of the Catholic “Babylonian Captivity” or the Avignon Papacy (i.e., the period in which there were simultaneously three popes) was confusing– but, then again, so was the period. Still, Lutzer does a rather magnificent job situating Luther– though, not so with the other so-called Magisterial or Radical Reformers– in his place and time. Lutzer should be commended for writing a book so clear for his target audience (the average evangelical layperson) about an epoch with such a complicated and intricately connected history. My assessment of this book is that it succeeds excellently at what it aims to do: present the basic story of the Reformation to church-goers today and describe what Lutzer believes to be its continuing significance.

Historically, this book was occasionally frustrating, but those frustrations were typically easily forgiven given the book’s goals and target audience. Theologically, I wish Lutzer had been more thorough and somewhat more sympathetic and objective. Throughout the book, I found myself thinking, “This is a very Baptist account of history.” So it is. Lutzer is an evangelical Baptist and one can easily discern that throughout his discussions of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and contemporary Catholic theology. He takes Zwingli’s position as self-evidently the correct position without defending him. There is no real need for him to do so, since that is not the goal of this book, but the reader should be aware. It was also frustrating that Calvin’s eucharistic theology (i.e., theology of the Lord’s Supper) did not feature prominently in the discussion. With regard to baptism, he makes it seem as if Constantine were the reason that children were baptized in the early few centuries of Christianity (152-153). He also takes issue that baptism constitutes (at least at some level) Christian identity, even though credo-baptist (i.e., believer’s baptism) theology (historically) takes this just as much for granted as paedo-baptist (infant baptism) theology. This is why baptist churches do not (or, at least, are not supposed to) admit those who have not been baptized by immersion as believers to communion. He is correct that infant baptism played a role in stately affairs, but that is not the purpose for which it exists nor is that an appropriate interpretation of history. He also says this: “In the midst of this important controversy we must remember that infant baptism is not taught anywhere in the New Testament, nor has an instance of it been recorded in the Scriptures. In the book of Acts, adults were baptized in response to saving faith. And it seems clear that the mode of baptism was immersion.” First, I do think that the Bible teaches infant baptism. Assuming that the household baptisms in Acts didn’t include children is just as much an assumption brought from outside the text as assuming that they did include children. At best the evidence is ambiguous. Therefore, a theological argument will have to be made from the texts. That is not something that is required for this book, again, because that is not the aim. The second statement about the mode is inaccurate and ironic. It’s inaccurate because baptizo does mean “immersion,” but it also means wash. It is not clear that the mode of baptism was immersion. In fact, it’s clear that the mode of baptism was only sometimes immersion. One need only consult the early church fathers for such evidence. But second, it’s ironic because his concern with the mode of the Lord’s Supper is apparently irrelevant, since evangelical baptists almost universally use bread and grape juice, and it is actually certain that the original mode (from the first century until the prohibition era, really) was wine and bread. But that’s beyond the purpose of this review. I don’t think that Catholic theology today was given a fair hearing. Yes, purgatory was viewed as a fiery punishment during that period and proffered as such in order to get money from scared laypersons who would buy indulgences. But often today, it’s viewed as an extended period of sanctification beyond this present existence. It is the period in which those who have died are continued to be perfected before they enter into God’s presence. He also made it seem in the last chapter as if Catholics weren’t Christians or truly saved or whatever lingo one wishes to employ because their gospel is deficient. I’d say that their gospel isn’t deficient, but that their theology of salvation certainly is. Paul said that we were justified by faith alone. This faith is in Christ as resurrected Lord. It is not in justification by faith through Christ alone. Our object of faith is not a doctrine about faith. Our object of faith is Christ and Christ alone. That is something that I think evangelicals are constantly missing. But I do agree with him that there continues to exist a real divide between Protestants and Catholics, and that there is a great deal of theological reformation that needs to take place before the Church can truly come together again.

I do recommend this book to those who are unfamiliar with the Reformation, and, if they are unable to read the whole thing (although I don’t know why not; the book is less than 200 pages long), I would ask them to read at least until chapter 10, which was by far the best chapter of the whole book. The discussion of Luther’s successes and failures is invaluable, though certainly not exhaustive. Among those protestants and evangelicals who have little to no knowledge of the Protestant Reformation, I hope this book gains a wide readership.

*Disclaimer: This book was provided to me for free for review by the publisher and I was under no obligation to write a favorable review in return.

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