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Book Briefs

Feb 18, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a book blog. Here are some of the books I’ve read over the past couple months.

Lee Lofland, Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers (Writer’s Digest Books, 2007). Written by a cop turned writer, this is a fascinating look at how police officers are trained, what they do, and how they think. Lofland overturns a number of myths (like cops shooting to wound, or firing warning shots, or going through the Miranda routine as they cuff someone). As Americans continue to wrestle with issues surrounding law enforcement and race, we would do well to understand the basic of how things work (or are supposed to work). The chapters on the police academy, officer equipment, and search and arrest procedures were especially helpful.

David M. Kennedy, Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America (Bloomsbury, 2011). Read this book. I doubt anyone will agree with everything in the book, but I’d be surprised if someone can’t learn anything from it. In my case, with little education and even less experience regarding violence in inner-city America, I felt like I was learning on every page. I hope to write a longer review in the weeks ahead. For now I’ll just say that the chapter “Across the Race Divide” helped me understand why my Black brothers and sisters are so wary of law enforcement in this country and why those Christians I know on the law enforcement side are so upset when they get painted as the bad guys. Kennedy’s book is part memoir, part sociology, and part activism. His analysis makes a lot of sense to me.

Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Crown Business, 2014). As always, business books like this must be read with a discerning eye. I find that best-sellers in the “personal success” genre are almost always long on over-simplification and short on gospel wisdom. This doesn’t mean they are useless. Far from it. Maybe it’s just an indication that I’m still learning the lessons from Crazy Busy, but I appreciated the relentless reminder to find what is most important, focus on this one thing, and say no to almost everything else.

Oliver Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Fortress Press, 2014). I already wrote a longer review; here was my conclusion: “This is not the first book I’ve read by Oliver Crisp, nor will it be the last. Even when exploring ‘liminal places,’ his theology is deeply informed by and respectful of the Reformed tradition. This work is no exception. The history is informative, the breadth of knowledge striking, and the arguments provocative. One can learn much from this book. My main complaint is that in the two instances meant to make the case for ‘deviant Calvinism,’ the first example (libertarian free will) is not really Calvinist and the second example (hypothetical universalism) is not all that deviant.”

Lee Gatiss, For Us and For Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry (The Latimer Trust, 2012). A brief book filled with excellent work in each of the categories mentioned in the subtitle. This is a thoughtful, learned, and readable introduction for anyone trying to sort through the questions “For whom did Christ die?” and “What did Christ’s death accomplish?”

 

Gary Steward, Princeton Seminary (1812-1929): The Leaders’ Lives and Works. I love to read about Old Princeton. Here’s my blurb for the book: “Gary Steward is to be commended for providing an intelligent and edifying introduction to the theology and leaders of Old Princeton. Part biography and part doctrinal exploration, this volume can be profitably used both by those familiar with the Alexanders and Hodges and by those meeting them for the first time. The tone is warm and balanced, the content rich and accessible, this historical work careful and illuminating. I hope pastors, students, and anyone else interested in good theology and heartfelt piety will ‘take a few classes’ at Old Princeton. This book is a tremendous resource toward that end.”

Clarke D. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade (Encounter Books, 2013). Based on a quarter-century of research, Forsythe offers an impressive, if at times disheartening, look at the legal, personal, and cultural issues that led to the legalization of abortion in America. Without ever sounding shrill, cantankerous, our alarmist, Forsythe explores a number of medical myths and judicial irregularities surrounding Roe. If you think Roe was a mistake, you should probably read this book. If you think it wasn’t, you definitely should.

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Away from the Body and at Home with the Lord

Feb 16, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

do-we-go-to-heaven-when-we-die_472_337_80In recent years a new pet peeve has arisen in some quarters of the church. I have often encountered, and not uncommonly from good evangelical brothers, an objection to casual references about “going to heaven when you die.” No doubt, much of this angst has trickled down from N.T. Wright, who expresses concern (in every book I’ve read from him) that traditional Christians have not allowed for God-rescuing-and-renewing-the-cosmos theology to really permeate their thinking. We’ve imagined an ethereal eternity of strumming harps and floating around in the great by and by. We’ve neglected the promise of resurrection. We’ve forgotten the hope of heaven come to earth.

Fair enough. I wholeheartedly agree that salvation is about more than being beamed up into the clouds. And yet, the whole heaven thing is pretty critical to folks when they come to their last breath. Dying saints may find it encouraging to know that the whole cosmos is going to be renewed at the end of the age, but they also can’t help but wonder what the next moment will be like when they reach the end of their days.

Where we go when we die is one of the most important questions a pastor has to answer. Good news about what God promises to do years or centuries from now will not suffice. It isn’t enough to tell our people that they’ll live in a new world at the renewal of all things. They want to know what tomorrow will be like. Will they be with Jesus in paradise or not? Paul talked about the heavenly dwelling waiting for him once he died (2 Cor. 5:1-10) and the joy he would have to depart and be with Christ (Phil. 1:19-26), so we ought to have no shame in glorying, as the saints for two millennia have done, that after death we live with God in heaven.

I understand that some good Christians have an underdeveloped eschatology that rarely touches on crucial New Testament themes. But many of these same Christians have a sweet and simple longing for heaven, a commendable confidence that because of Christ they will, in fact, die and go to a better place. Correcting eschatological imbalances is good, but not if it means undermining or minimizing one of the most precious promises in all the Bible; namely, that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Even the intermediate state is indescribably good–better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord is how Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:8).

In trumpeting the good news of cosmic renewal let us not lose sight of the hope that anchors the believer in hard times and is the reality awaiting us on the other side of suffering and death: we really do go to heaven when we die.

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The Most Glorious Cure

Feb 13, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

No one plans to be a widow at twenty-three.

Tomorrow I will preach at the funeral of Elliott Preston Orr, a young man from our congregation who died of cancer last Friday. Elliott grew up in North Branch, a small town in Michigan’s Thumb. He came to Michigan State University in the fall of 2010. At the end of his freshman year he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, cancer in the bone. After months of chemotherapy and radiation, he was cancer free.

For a time.

In the summer of 2013 doctors discovered the cancer had come back, and was worse than before. Not knowing what the rest of his life would be like, except that it would almost immediately include another battery of grueling treatments, Elliott and his fiancee decided to move up their wedding so they could find out together what “for better, for worse” really meant. On July 18, 2013 Elliott married his childhood sweetheart Christina Skelton.

I got to know Elliott and Christina as college students in our campus ministry, Spartan Christian Fellowship. In a church our size, there are lots of students I don’t know very well and some I never meet. But I’m glad to have known Elliott. He and Christina were in our home many times. Along with the rest of our church, we prayed for them often. They were (and are) easy people to like and to love. Elliott was smart, friendly, funny, un-anxious, warm-hearted–a good friend and a godly Christian.

We’ve had people die in our church before. Every life has been precious. Few have been so young. Few have been the object of so many prayers. We prayed for Elliott for years–special services, congregational prayers, elder visits, and a near endless supply of petitions for friends and family. God did not give us what we prayed for, at least not everything we prayed for, at least not now.

Hundreds of people–maybe close to a thousand–will gather in The Thumb tomorrow for a funeral they prayed they would not see. And yet, mingled in the midst of much sorrow, will be brilliant sights and sounds of joy. Not only to remember a remarkable young man, but reflect on the faith he so powerfully displayed and to worship the one he so fully trusted. I wish you could have met Elliott. You would have been better for it. Despite the mouth sores, despite the excruciating pain, despite the paralysis, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20-21).

Tomorrow will be about Christ. Those were Elliott’s wishes. During his illness, he wrote a poem which is a powerful reflection of who he was and who Christ is.

People say with albeit good intentions
That if God heals me then His glory will be shown,
But people often hesitate to mention
The other side of His omniscient throne.

For God to show His power through healing
Would be glorious if it were His will,
But it would also be maybe too appealing
For perhaps my faith would stand too still.

For in truth I want all to realize in whole
That I care not what this ailment does
Because I truly believe in full
That God knew it all before it was.

And in trusting Him I would gladly endure
One thousand years of agony and strife
In order to witness the most glorious cure
Of Christ coming into just one more person’s life.

Elliott fought the good fight. He finished the race. The last time I spoke to him–a few days before he passed away–he talked about caring for his dear wife and longing for heaven. I asked him what song we could sing. He said, “In Christ Alone.” Very fitting. That’s how he lived, and that was the comfort in which he died.

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No Grey Area

Feb 11, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

There is nothing gray about whether a follower of Christ should see 50 Shades of Grey. This is a black and white issue. Don’t go. Don’t watch it. Don’t read it. Don’t rent it.

I don’t even want to talk about it. Another blogger and I went back and forth for several weeks about how we could write a satirical review panning the movie and skewering those who think they need to see it in order to be relevant. We couldn’t do it. There was no way to make the humor weighty enough to sufficiently condemn such a vile film.

And no, I haven’t seen the movie. I haven’t watched the trailer either. I haven’t read a single page from the book. Reading about the premise from Wikipedia and the IMDb for two minutes convinced me I didn’t need to know any more. Sex is a wonderful gift from God, but like all God’s gifts it can be opened in the wrong context and repackaged in ugly wrapping.  Violence against women is not acceptable just because she’s open to the suggestion, and sex is not open to all permutations, even in an adult relationship. Mutual consent does not a moral philosophy make.

Sex is a private matter to be shared in the privacy and sanctity of the marriage bed (Heb. 13:4). Sex, as God designed it, is not meant for actors who pretend (or not) that they are making “love.” The act of conjugal union is what married couples do behind closed doors, not what disciples of Jesus Christ pay money to watch on a screen the size of your house.

As I’ve said before, we have to take a hard look at what we put in front of our eyes as men and women seated in the heavenly places (Col. 3:1-2). If 50 Shades is a problem, by what standard do we give ourselves a pass on the rest of the sensuality we freely consume? To be sure, awareness of sin is not by itself the problem. The Bible is full of rank immorality. It would be simplistic and morally untenable—even unbiblical—to suggest you cannot watch sin or read about sin without sinning yourself. But the Bible never titil­lates with its description of sin. It never paints vice with virtue’s colors. It does not entertain with evil (unless to mock it). The Bible does not dull the conscience by making sin look normal and righteousness look strange.

Christians shouldn’t try to “redeem” 50 Shades of Grey. We should not get cutesy and advertize a new sermon series on “50 Shades of Grace.” We should not give both art and holiness a bad name by thinking that somehow something as dark as 50 Shades is worth viewing or worth reviewing. According to Paul’s logic, it is possible to expose sin and keep it hidden at the same time (Eph. 5:11-12). “A good man is ashamed to speak that which many people are not ashamed to act” (Matthew Henry).

Some movies do not deserve sophisticated analysis. They deserve sober repudiation. If the church cannot extend grace to sexual sinners, we’ve lost the heart of the gospel. And if we cannot tell people to stay away from 50 Shades of Grey, we’ve lost our minds.

 

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Yeah, Well, But What About the Crusades?

Feb 09, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

crusadesWe are coming up on a thousand years, and Christians still haven’t made up for the Crusades. No matter how many times Billy Graham makes the most admired list, we’ll still have the Crusades to deal with.  When President Obama encouraged humility in denouncing ISIS today in light of the Crusades from close to a millennium ago, he may have been making a clumsy moral equivalence argument, but he was only voicing what many Americans (and many Christians) have articulated before. Remember the faux confessional booths from way back in the 2000’s when Christians would apologize to non-Christians for the Crusades? If there is one thing in our collective history that we cannot apologize for enough it is the history conjured up by pictures like the one in this post.

Yet, for all the times we’ve lamented the Crusades, how many of us know more than two sentences about them? Isn’t it wise to know at least a little something about the Crusades before we borrow them to get an advanced degree in self-recrimination?

A few years ago I picked up a copy of The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden, a history professor at Saint Louis University.  It’s a fascinating book.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more, but not too much (it’s only 225 pages), about the Crusades.

What Are We Talking About?

The Crusades refer to a series of military expeditions over several centuries, beginning with the First Crusade in 1096 through the end of the Fifth Crusade in 1221, and continuing on in more sporadic fashion up until the Reformation.  The term “Crusade” is not a medieval word.  It is a modern word.  It comes from crucesignati (“those signed by the cross”), a term used occasionally after the twelfth century to refer to what we now call “crusaders.”  Contrary to popular opinion, the Crusades did not begin as a holy war whose mission was to convert the heathen by the sword.  In fact, very few of the crusaders saw their mission as an evangelistic one.  The initial purpose of the Crusades, and the main military goal throughout the Middle Ages, was quite simply to reclaim Christian lands captured by Muslim armies.

The popular conception of barbaric, ignorant, cruel, and superstitious crusaders attacking peaceful, sophisticated Muslims comes largely from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Talisman (1825) and Sir Steven Runciman’s three-volume History of the Crusades (1951-54), the latter of which concludes with the famous summation now shared by most everyone:  “the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.”

Scott and Runciman did much to shape the entirely negative view of the Crusades, but it isn’t as if they had no material to work with.  The Crusades were often barbaric and often produced spectacular failures.  Children died needlessly.  Coalitions splintered endlessly.  Jews were sometimes persecuted mercilessly.  Ancient cities were ransacked foolishly.  And on occasion (e.g., the Wendish Crusade) infidels were forced to convert or die, while the crusaders holding the swords were guaranteed immortality.  In short, many of the Christians who went to war under the sign of the cross conducted themselves as if they knew nothing of the Christ of the cross.

But that’s not the whole story.  The Crusades is also the story of thousands of godly men, women, and children who sacrificed time, money, and health to reclaim holy lands in distant countries overrun by Muslims.  The Christians of the East had suffered mightily at the hands of the Turks and Arabs.  It was only right, it seemed to medieval Christians, to go and help their fellow Christians and reclaim their land and property.

Not What You May Think

Many crusaders were knights (and their families) who left lands and titles.  They saw their journey to the Middle East as an act of piety, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the center of the earth and the center of their spiritual world.  To be sure, the crusaders could be arrogant and savage, but they could also be pious, compassionate (e.g., the Hospitallers), and courageous.

And they did not always fail.  The First Crusade, unlike most of the others, actually worked.  Against all odds, a fractious group of Christians made their way from Western Europe to the Middle East and conquered two of the best-defended cities in the world (Antioch and Jerusalem).  Their triumph was nothing short of remarkable, and for the crusaders, it signaled nothing less than the hand of God restoring his city to his people.

A popular poem of the fifteenth century captured the heartbeat of the crusading spirit:

Fifteenth century/ Our faith was strong in th’ Orient/ It ruled in all of Asia/ In Moorish lands and Africa/ But now for us these lands are gone/ ‘Twould even grieve the hardest stone…We perish sleeping one and all/ The wolf has come into the stall/ And steals the Holy Church’s sheep/ The while the shepherd lies asleep/ Four sisters of our Church you find/ They’re of the patriarchic kind/ Constantinople, Alexandria/ Jerusalem, Antiochia/ But they’ve been forfeited and sacked/ And soon the head will be attacked.

We are right to deplore the cruelty meted out by crusading Christians, but should not ignore their plight.  Christians lands had been captured.  Surely, they thought, this could not stand.  For an American, it would have been as if Al-Qaeda sacked Washington D.C. following 9/11, set up shop for Bin Laden in the White House, and turned the Lincoln Memorial into a terrorist training center.  It would be unthinkable, cowardly even, for no one to storm the city, liberate its captives, and return our nation’s capital to its rightful owners.  We should never excuse the atrocities that occurred under the banner of the cross during the Crusades, but we should, at least, take pause to understand why they set out on what seems to us to be a fool’s errand.

We should also resist the temptation to blame present day Muslim extremism on the Crusades.  This is not to say that the Crusades don’t loom large in the Islamic consciousness.  It is to say that this was not always the case.  The Crusades were always a big deal in the Christian West, but for Muslims, as late as the seventeenth century, it was just another futile attempt by the infidels to halt the inevitable expansion of Islam.  From the time of the Prophet Mohammed through the Reformation, Muslims conquered three-fourths of Christian lands.  Once the Muslims united under Saladin, the crusaders, themselves divided, were no match for the armies of Islam.

The Crusades were not a major factor in shaping the Islamic world.  The Crusades were just another unsuccessful attempt to thwart the spread of Islam.  The term for the Crusades, harb-al-salib, was only introduced in the Arab language in the mid-nineteenth century, and the first Arabic history of the Crusades was not written until 1899.  Because the crusades were unsuccessful, they simply did not matter much to Muslims.  But all this began to change when European nations colonized  Muslim nations and brought their schools and textbooks which hailed the gallant crusaders and heroic knights who tried to bring Christianity and civilization to the Middle East.  Like sports, like war, like life–when you’re winning, you don’t care who’s losing; but when you’re losing, it matters a lot who’s beating you.

A Little Caution Goes a Long Way

The point of this article is not to make us fans of the Crusades, but to make us more careful in our denunciation of them.  We fight for nation-states and democracy.  They fought for religion and holy lands.  Their reasons for war seem wrong to us, but no more than our reasons would seem wrong to them.  Madden writes:

It is easy enough for modern people to dismiss the crusades as morally repugnant and cynically evil.  Such judgments, however, tell us more about the observer than the observed.  They are based on uniquely modern (and, therefore, Western) values.  If, from the safety of our modern world, we are quick to condemn the medieval crusader, we should be mindful that he would be just as quick to condemn us.  Our infinitely more destructive wars waged for the sake of political and social ideologies would, in his opinion, be lamentable wastes of human life.  In both societies, the medieval and the modern, people fight for what is most dear to them.  That is fact of human nature that is not so changeable.

Maybe the crusaders can teach us something after all.  Maybe their example can force us to examine what we hold most dear. In America this may be freedom, democracy, and a hard fought peace in a world of terror. In the church, we will establish different priorities.

We are in a battle and the Master has called us to fight–not with the weapons of the world, but with the word of God and prayer; not against our neighbors, but against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Some things are worth fighting for. Some things are worth dying for. Our land? Perhaps. Our Lord? Always. So let our struggle be valiant, our suffering be purposeful, and our strategy be Christ’s, who triumphed over the enemy not by taking life, but by giving his own.

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The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

Feb 06, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Andromeda Galaxy

We can scarcely imagine the galactic grandeur of God.

Our sun is a mere 93 million miles from earth. If the earth were the size of a grape fruit, the moon would be a ping pong ball about 12 feet away, the sun would be a ball of fire as big as a four story building a mile away, and Pluto an invisible marble 37 miles out.

If we wanted to travel to the sun, and we went in a plane going 500 miles an hour, it would take 21 years to get there. If we went to Pluto, we would be in the air for more than 900 years.

If we flew on the same plane to the nearest group of stars–Alpha Centauri, only 4.3 light years away–it would take 6 million years. By comparison, the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way-the Andromeda Galaxy-is 2.5 million light years away, or 15 quintillion miles (15 with 18 zeroes). Our trip to Andromeda by plane would take 4.2 trillion years.

As of a few years ago, the farthest galaxy the Hubble telescope had been able to detect was 13 billion light years from earth. That’s 78 sextillion miles away (78 with 21 zeroes). It would take us 20 quadrillion years to get there flying in our 500 mph plane.

And this isn’t empty space. The universe is full of stars. Our galaxy has 150-200 billion of them, and the Milky Way is just one of 150 billion galaxies. There are more stars in the galaxies of the universe than grains of sand on the seashore. And Psalm 147:4 says “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.” Truly, the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). (And to boggle the mind on a molecular level, consider: the number of stars in the universe is smaller than the number of H2O molecules in ten drops of water.)

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11).

Facts about the “galactic grandeur” of God are taken from Sam Storms’ book One Thing: Developing a Passion for the Beauty of God, 85-103.

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The “Plus One” Approach to Church

Feb 05, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Pretty ChurchAre you just starting out at a new church and don’t know how to get plugged in? Have you been at your church for years and still haven’t found your place? Are you feeling disconnected, unhappy, or bored with your local congregation? Let me suggest you enter the “Plus One” program of church involvement.

I don’t mean to sound like a bad infomercial. Here’s what I mean: In addition to the Sunday morning worship service, pick one thing in the life of your congregation and be very committed to it.

This is far from everything a church member should do. We are talking about minimum requirements and baby steps. This is about how to get plugged in at a new church or how to get back on track after drifting away. This is for people who feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. This is for the folks who should make a little more effort before slipping out the back door.

The idea is simple. First, be faithful in attending the Sunday morning worship service. Don’t miss a Sunday. Sure, you may miss a couple Sundays during the year because of illness. Vacation and business travel may take you away from your local congregation several other Sundays too. But keep these to a minimum. Don’t plan all your cottage getaways over the weekend so that you miss out on your own church (and perhaps church altogether) for most of the summer. Don’t let the kids’ activities crowd out Sunday services. (What did Joshua say? “If soccer be god then serve soccer, but as for me and my household we will serve the Lord.” Something like that.) Don’t let homework or football or too much rain or too much sun keep you from the gathering of God’s people for worship. Commit right now that Sunday morning is immovable. You go to church. Period.

Now, add one more thing.

When you meet people who feel disconnected from church, start with this question: Are you committed to worshiping with us every Sunday unless you are providentially hindered? If they say yes, then move on to “Plus One.” Is there at least one other activity in the life of the church in which you are consistently and wholeheartedly participating? Usually the answer is no. Most people who feel disconnected from church feel that way because they have not made the effort to connect consistently. This doesn’t mean churches don’t have to do more to care for senior saints, singles, those with special needs, or any number of other folks in the church. This doesn’t mean pastors can say (or think), “It’s all your fault.” Sometimes it precisely the pastor’s fault. But I find that most often–not always, but normally–people who want to get involved, find a way to get involved through the existing structures of the church.

That’s why I say, be faithful on Sunday morning, plus one more thing. Personally, I’m partial to the Sunday evening service. I think it’s the easiest, most historic, and one of the most biblical ways to really get to know your church. In most churches, the evening service (if they have one) is smaller, more informal, and contains elements of prayer and sharing that may not be as present on Sunday morning. Plus, the time after the service is usually less rushed and allows for more genuine fellowship.

If Sunday evening is not an option, join a small group. (I reiterate: these are baby steps. I hope people in our church will participate in Sunday evenings and small groups.) If your church doesn’t have formal small groups, you could still invite a group of friends over every other week for prayer and fellowship. If that’s too much right off the bat, find a good Sunday school class and go every week. Or join the choir. Or get involved with the youth group. Or sign up to be a greeter. Or go on the men’s retreat. Or join the outreach committee. Or take the leadership training course. Or come to the prayer meeting each week. Or teach a kids class. Or volunteer with a local ministry your church supports. Or do Meals onWheels. Or join the softball team. Or do the mid-week Bible study. You get the idea.

Large churches have hundreds of Plus One opportunities. Even small church will have plenty to choose from. Make Sunday morning your first priority. Then try one more thing and stick with it for at least six months. Maybe you’ll realize the church is not for you. Maybe you’ll still need help getting plugged in. Maybe you’ll find it’s time to sit down in person with a pastor or elder. But I suspect you will find that you feel more invested, you’ve made new friends, and you’re eager to see Plus One become Plus Two or Three.

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Putting Sex in Perspective

Feb 03, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

WDTBRTAHIt’s been a mad dash, but I’m almost done with the book. I’m working with Crossway to finish up the editing process in the next two weeks. Lord willing, What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? will be released in April. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter entitled “It’s Not Fair.”

*******

I don’t deny these [verses about refraining from sexual intimacy] are hard sayings for people with same-sex desires and for their friends and family. Jesus had a fondness for saying hard things. He told his disciples it was not enough to simply confess the right things about the Messiah. If they were to be true disciples, they had to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him (Matt. 16:17, 23, 24). Try to save your life, and you’ll lose it. Be willing to lose your life, and you’ll find it (v. 25). The grace which leads us to say yes to our great God and Savior Jesus Christ also demands that we say no to ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2:11-14).

Dying to self is the duty of every follower of Christ. I have my own struggles, my own sins, and my own suffering. We all do. We have all been distorted by original sin. We all show signs of “not the way things are supposed to be.” We all groan for the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23). We all long for cre­ation to be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (v. 21). This does not minimize the struggle of those who experience same-sex attraction, but it is does maximize the ways in which we are more alike than different. Grief and groaning, longing and lament, sorrowful yet always rejoicing—it’s the life we live be­tween two worlds. The church has long known about the pain of persecution, infertility, betrayal, injustice, addiction, famine, depression, and death. The church is just beginning to learn about the pain of living with unwanted same-sex attraction. For a growing number of Christians it is part of their cross to bear.

And it should not be carried alone. Singleness—and that will be the path of obedience for many who experience same-sex attraction—does not mean you must live alone, die alone, never hold a hand, never have a hug, and never know the touch of another human being. If we ask the single Christian to be chaste, we can only ask them to carry that cross in community. Perhaps single is not even the best term for those whom we expect live a full life in the midst of friends and colaborers. If God sets the lonely in families, so should we (Ps. 68:6 NIV). There is no reason the dire scenes painted by the revisionist side must be realized. With openness about the struggle and open­ness toward the struggler, those Christians in our midst who experience same-sex attraction need not be friendless, helpless, and hopeless.

But, of course, none of this can be possible without uproot­ing the idolatry of the nuclear family, which holds sway in many conservative churches. The trajectory of the New Testament is to relativize the importance of marriage and biological kinship. A spouse and a minivan full of kids on the way to Disney World is a sweet gift and a terrible god. If everything in Christian com­munity revolves around being married with children, we should not be surprised when singleness sounds like a death sentence.

If that’s the church’s challenge, what’s needed in the wider culture is a deep demythologizing of sex. Nothing in the Bible encourages us to give sex the exalted status it has in our culture, as if finding our purpose, our identity, and our fulfillment all rest on what we can or cannot do with our private parts. Jesus is the fullest example of what it means to be human, and he never had sex. How did we come to think that the most intense emotional attachments and the most fulfilling aspects of life can only be expressed with sexual intimacy?

In the Christian vision of heaven, there is no marriage in the blessed life to come (Luke 20:34-35). Marital intimacy is but a shadow of a brighter, more glorious reality, the marriage of Jesus Christ to his bride, the church (Rev. 19:6-8). If sexual intimacy is nothing up there, how can we make it to be every­thing down here? It would be terribly unfair for the church to tell those with same-sex desires that they are not fully human and cannot pursue a fully human life. But if the summum bonum of human existence is defined by something other than sex, the hard things the Bible has to say to those with same-sex desires is not materially different from the hard things he has to say to everyone else.

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Monday Morning Humor

Feb 02, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

I know, everyone is showing Super Bowl commercials this morning. And if you’re not, you’re talking about last night’s game in Arizona. But speaking of Arizona, did you know how hot it’s been down there?

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A More Generous Calvinism?

Jan 30, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

In the last twenty-five years our understanding of the Reformed tradition has undergone a quiet revolution. With Richard Muller’s brilliant work on post-Reformation Reformed dogmatics leading the way, it is now widely recognized in academic circles (even if the insights are still making their way to the pew) that (1) Calvin is not the sine qua non of Calvinism, (2) that Reformed theology cannot be reduced to the central dogma of predestination, (3) that TULIP is a woefully inadequate summary of Reformed doctrine, (4) that Reformed scholasticism is a rich development of the magisterial Reformed tradition (not a compromised departure from it), and (5) that even within confessional Calvinism there is a surprising diversity of opinion on the substance and shape of key doctrines. In other words, Calvinism has many layers, many themes, and many voices. It is big, broad, and (with basic continuity) goes back a long ways.

But exactly how big and how broad?

For Oliver Crisp, the answer is bigger and broader than many people think. In his book Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, Crisp, a professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that “Reformed theology as it is usually reported today is not the whole story” (3). Crisp’s burden is to show that Calvinism “is still regarded too narrowly, even among those cognizant of the recent historical-theological reassessment of the shape and character of the early Reformed tradition” (236). Key themes have been written out of the received narrative (4). In particular, there is more “wiggle room” than has often been thought on things like libertarian free will and hypothetical universalism (239). Crisp’s aim is not to provide a complete account of Reformed theology, but to argue that within Reformed confessionalism there are often acceptably divergent ways of approaching the same problem (238). In short, this book is an attempt to redress imbalances in the Reformed tradition and present a softer Calvinism—one more mindful of forgotten themes and more open to minority viewpoints (240).

A Different Kind of Book

Deviant Calvinism defies easy description. It’s historical theology practiced by a systematic theologian with a bent toward analytic philosophy. Crisp thinks of the book as “a species of retrieval theology: seeking to retrieve the ideas of past theologians as resources for contemporary theology.” In this pursuit, Crisp exhibits remarkable skill and diversity of interests, writing thoughtfully on everything from the Bebbington Quadrilateral to the Westminster Confession to Amyraldianism, and on everyone from John Hick to John Davenant to John Owen. Despite the difficult intellectual terrain, Crisp, for the most part, wears his learning lightly, with a style that manages to be conversational, academic, and playful. No small feat.

Crisp’s approach, however, is not without drawbacks. For starters, the proliferation of new terms—is it the analytic philosophy talking?—can be distracting. At one point, in the space of a few pages, we are introduced to the “ordination-accomplishment objection,” the “divine-benevolence objection,” and “conditional ordained sufficiency” (192-194). I found these labels more confusing than clarifying. Likewise, because Crisp understands this work to be more retrieval theology than systematic theology, he often stopped short of reaching firm conclusions. So instead of finally coming down on the side of eternal justification, which he took a chapter to support, Crisp concludes that “there may be resources” with which to meet traditional objections against eternal justification and that applying “these insights to current ecumenical discussions” may open up “an interesting and potentially fruitful avenue of research” (69). Similarly, he will not finally say whether “deviant” doctrines like libertarian Calvinism and hypothetical universalism are right, only that they “raise interesting issues” (96) and “provide more resources for a version of the doctrine suitable to the contemporary theological climate” (211, cf. 233). Whether such studied ambiguity is a sign of epistemic humility or of pulling your intellectual punches likely depends on what the reader is hoping to find from a work of theology.

More critically, Deviant Calvinism is marked by a conspicuous absence of Scripture. Bible passages are referenced rarely and detailed exegetical work is non-existent. This is not necessarily a critique: there is a place for doing theological work through the lenses of history and analytic philosophy. But, again, the reader should be aware of what he is (and is not) getting into. For example, these few sentences discussing the possibility of universalism were telling:

Alternatively, Augustinians could fall back upon a biblical argument in favor of particularism. And this is what Augustinians typically do. However, as I pointed out in chapter 4, this is not a happy option for the Augustinian, because it generates an Augustinian problem of evil: if God could have created a world where God saves all humanity yet has not done so (because the Bible says God has not), why has God not done so? There seems to be no good philosophical reason for God’s not doing so, apart from the argument of Scripture, and a very strong moral argument for doing so. (137)

It would be unfair to think that Crisp does not care what Scripture thinks (and it should be noted that he ends up arguing against universalism), but there is no sense in this book that Scripture should get the final word on contested matters. If he were only writing for fellow academics, some of whom may not have any interest in what Scripture says, the approach would be understandable. But when the aim of the book is to convince those in the Reformed tradition that they have been too narrow, the approach seems misguided. I suspect the inconsistency is owing at least in part to the fact that this volume consists of Crisp’s chapters and articles pulled together from various books and journals whose intended audiences may not be the same as the audience for this book.

How Deviant?

Given Crisp’s goal of introducing a softer Calvinism with wider boundaries, it is surprising that most of the book does not exactly push at those boundaries. Half of the eight chapters do not do much to lobby for a “deviant” Calvinism. Chapter 1 argues for the important role experience plays in the formation of doctrine—a good reminder for some of our stodgy brethren, but as a general category hardly a controversial point. Chapter 4 makes a case for Augustinian universalism, which Chapter 5 goes on to rebut. Chapter 6 explores the inner logic (and striking contradictions) of Barth’s universalism. All are fascinating logical and historical explorations, but they do little to advance the main thesis of the book.

Of the four remaining chapters, Chapter 2 argues “that there is more to be said for eternal justification than is often thought” (68). To be sure, this is not the majority opinion of Reformed theologians (nor can it be supported by the Westminster Confession [WCF 11.4]), but even if we were to make room for eternal justification (and men as well esteemed as Abraham Kuyper have affirmed it), it is not clear to me who in the Reformed camp is clamoring to enter this room. The issue hardly seems pressing. Rather, the burden of Crisp’s plea for a more generous Calvinism seems to rest on two other points: a (partially) libertarian freedom of the will and a (possible) hypothetical universalism (Chapters 3, 7, 8). Almost all the wiggle room on Crisp’s wish list concerns these two doctrines.

Of these two points, Crisp’s chapter on libertarian Calvinism is the less convincing. According to Crisp, there is a hard determinism, a “folk version” of Calvinism, which maintains that because God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, we are never free to act contrary to God’s decretive will. Consequently, in this folk view, free will has no place in Reformed theology (75). Crisp calls this incompatibilism because it denies that divine determinism can mesh with human free will (77). This is where Crisp goes “deviant,” arguing that because the Westminster Confession teaches that man in his innocency had the capacity to do good or evil (WCF 9.1-2), the Confession must be affirming that the “human pair had free will consistent with alternate possibilities” (73). And once you have man at least sometimes operating with this libertarian free will, Crisp sees no reason to suppose we do not have significant freedom in most areas of life. Except for the decision to believe in Christ, which must be worked in us by God directly, Crisp believes that our wills are free and that this limited libertarian freedom is not excluded by Reformed theology.

The problem with this reasoning is that it confuses free will as a moral category with the larger questions of philosophical necessity and contingency. To recognize that Adam and Eve had wills which were not bound by sin to choose what is evil is not the same as saying their wills were not still subject to the all-encompassing ordination of God. Most Calvinists would reject Crisp’s incompatibilist label, for they very much see divine determinism compatible with human responsibility, not because the human will is undetermined (i.e., as the liberty of indifference) but because the will is not subject to external coercion or compulsion. We are not “senseless stocks and blocks” whose wills are overridden by force (Canons of Dort III/IV.16). For Calvin, the will, however bound to wickedness, is still self determined (Inst. II.iii.13; II.v.7, 14-15). Likewise, Turretin argued to the same effect by postulating six different types of necessity. The will can be said to be free even if it is bound by a moral necessity (along with the necessity of dependence upon God, rational necessity, and necessity of event) so long as it is free from physical necessity and the necessity of coaction. That is to say, if the intellect has the power of choice (freedom from physical necessity) and the will can be exercised without external compulsion (freedom from the necessity of coaction) then our sins can be called voluntary and we can be held responsible for them (Elenctic Theology, X.xii.3-12). While Crisp’s insistence that the God of Calvinism is not the direct cause of all things is a necessary correction to some folk versions of Reformed theology, his larger claim about the presence of libertarian notions of freedom in the Reformed tradition is unconvincing.

Crisp’s exploration of hypothetical universalism was more compelling, even if less radical than meets the eye. Canvassing the theology of the Anglican Bishop John Davenant (1572-1641), and borrowing from the seminal work Jonathan Moore has done on John Preston (1587-1628), Crisp argues that English hypothetical universalism—the belief that Christ died for all men on the condition that they believe—has a long history in the Reformed tradition and is not to be confused with Amyraldianism, a variant of hypothetical universalism which also called for a controversial reordering of the decrees. It is now widely believed that the Synod of Dort, while certainly not endorsing the position, left open a back door for delegates like Davenant who held to particular redemption for the elect and a conditional intent toward the non-elect.

Crisp’s historical work is well researched and his arguments carefully nuanced. Overall, he makes an important point. But I wonder if his conclusion is less envelope-pushing than meets the eye. In his recent book on the theology of the Westminster Standards, for example, J.V. Feskso (hardly a deviant Calvinist) reaches the same conclusion (187-203). This is not to discount Crisp’s contribution or the need for it to be heard. It is, however, to question how much generosity is gained by hypothetical universalism. After all, as Lee Gatiss has pointed out, Calvinistic hypothetical universalism is, in the end, still a variant of limited atonement: Christ died effectually for the elect and only conditionally for the non-elect. The conditional intent for the non-elect is not in place of particular redemption for the elect (as in Arminianism), but in addition to or prior to this effectual atonement for those who will believe (For Us and For Our Salvation, 99). What’s more, it is hard to see what concrete advantage accrues to the non-elect by saying Christ died for them upon the condition that they believe, when God does not in fact grant the gift of faith to any of the non-elect. This is the same point made by Dabney, whom Crisp employs in making the case for hypothetical universalism, when he observes: “To say that God purposed, even conditionally, the reconciliation of that sinner by Christ’s sacrifice, while also distinctly proposing to do nothing effectual to bring about the fulfillment of that condition He knew the man would surely refuse, is contradictory. It is hard to see how, on this scheme, the sacrifice is related more beneficially to the non-elect sinner, than on the strict Calvinist’s plan” (Systematic Theology, 520). Hypothetical universalism appears to do more for the Calvinist’s psyche than for the state of the non-elect. To be sure, hypothetical universalism—at least of the non-Amyraldian kind—has not been considered outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy, but this is owing to its congruence with stricter notions of particular redemption, not because of a marked departure from them.

Conclusion

This is not the first book I’ve read by Oliver Crisp, nor will it be the last. Even when exploring “liminal places” (3), his theology is deeply informed by and respectful of the Reformed tradition. This work is no exception. The history is informative, the breadth of knowledge striking, and the arguments provocative. One can learn much from this book. My main complaint is that in the two instances meant to make the case for “deviant Calvinism,” the first example (libertarian free will) is not really Calvinist and the second example (hypothetical universalism) is not all that deviant.

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