Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How to Think Theologically

Howard W. Stone & James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically. Fortress Press, 2006. 2nd edition. 142 pages.

Stone and Duke do an excellent job on teaching us how to think theologically. You might ask the questions, What is thinking theologically and why should we do it? Isn't theological thinking what theologians do. I am glad you ask. The Bible teaches us that we are to apply its teachings to every area of our life. James tells us that we are do be doers of the Word and not hearers only. Thinking theologically is required of all Christians. The authors note, To be Christian at all is to be a theologian. There are no exceptions. Basically, theological thinking is the art of thinking about the Christian faith and how it applies to life.

Howard W. Stone is Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Pastoral Counseling at Brite Divinity School. He has written multiple books including Depression and Hope. James O. Duke is Professor of History of Christianity and Historical Theology at Brite Divinity School. He has written Makers of Christian Theology in America.

How to Think Theologically is divided into nine chapters plus an introduction. Chapter one provides a general groundwork for the book. It presents three main ideas: faith, understanding, and reflection. The authors distinguish embedded theology from deliberative theology. Embedded theology is our daily encounters with our Christian faith, "formal and informal, planned and unplanned." Deliberative theology is our reflecting on our embedded theology. The authors state, "Deliberative reflection questions what had been taken for granted. It inspects a range of alternative understandings in search of that which is most satisfactory and seeks to formulate the meaning of faith as clearly and coherently as possible" (17).

Chapter two define theology. The authors think theological thinking is a craft. It includes interpreting "the meaning of the Christian faith;" correlating interpretations; and assessing the interpretations and and correlations. All of these characteristics are part of reflection. The next chapter provides information on the resources of theological thinking: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The authors present the method of theological thinking in chapter four. The method is covered in the rest of the book: the Gospel, the Human Condition, vocation, theological thinking within community, and the Holy Spirit.

The authors do a great job in explaining theological thinking for the church members of Christian churches. In other words, the reader does not need seminary training to understand the book. The authors provide illustrations and examples throughout the book. They include additional readings at the end of each chapter. I recommend this book for all Christians who are serious about the Christian faith.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Connecting Your Work to God's Work

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work by Timothy Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. 288 pp.

Every Good Endeavor is an excellent presentation on what the Bible says about work and how to apply its teaching to our job. Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in New York City. He has written many books on the Christian faith including Reason for God. Alsdorf worked for twenty-five years in the high-tech industry before being hired by Redeemer Presbyterian church to lead its Center for Faith & Work. She writes about her experience in the foreword of the book. She notes, After struggling with her own "call to serve God in business," she was give the opportunity to help others to live out their vocational calling.

In the introduction, Keller quotes from Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart: "To make a real difference . . . [there would have to be] a reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one's own advancement" (1-2). Keller in this book seeks to recover the idea of work as a calling or vocation. Keller illustrates his point by commenting on J.R.R. Tolkien's short story "leaf by Niggle." He suggests this story shows how we can connect our work to God's work. Every Good Endeavor  seeks to answer three questions: What is your motivation for working? Why is work so difficult? "How can we overcome the difficulties and find satisfaction in our work through the gospel?"

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Keller presents "God's Plan for Work." The topics covered are work's design, work's dignity, work as cultivation and service. The second part discusses the problems of work. Two of these problems of work can be selfishness and making work an idol. The third part applies the Gospel to our work. One of the ways he accomplishes this is by connecting work to a Christian world-view. He makes three points: The whole world is good. The whole world is fallen. The whole world is going to be redeemed. One can see several conclusions from these points. God created the world. He meant for us to cultivate and develop it. Though it is fallen, we are called to work with God in redeeming it.

Every Good Endeavor is a good presentation of a Christian view of work. It shows how work can be calling and through our work we can serve others. It helps to restore the reformation view of work as a calling. It also helps us to see that there is no divide between sacred and secular. What we do in the world is God's calling as much as what ministers do in the church.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Christianity and Scholarship in the Public Square, the Guild, and the Church

For the Whole Creation: Christianity and Scholarship in the Public Square, the Guild, and the Church, John Stevens Paul and James old, editors. Valparaiso University, 2010.

What does the Gospel have to do with the intellectual life? What role should Christianity play in the Public Square, academic disciplines, and the Church? How should the Gospel shape the work and life of scholars? These and many others questions concerning how Christian scholars do their work are addressed by scholars from different disciplines and faith traditions. These papers are the result of a conference for the Postdoctoral Fellows Program at Valparaiso University. The four main topics addressed by these papers were: The Christian Academic and the Public Square, The Christian Academic at Home: Finding the Balance, The Christian Academic and the Professional Guild, and the Christian Academic and the Church. All of the papers are thoughtful expressions of their topic that will stimulate Christian reflection on how to pursue Christian scholarship in the Public Square, the Guild, and the Church.

The essays are followed by Mark R. Schwehn's Keynote Address which title is "Embracing Wisdom." Scwehn's major text is Sirach 6:25-28:

My child, from your youth chose discipline, and when you have gray hair/You will find wisdom./ Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might./ Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get/Hold of her, do not let her go./ For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.

The author thinks that most academics today would object to the idea "that the quest for wisdom is the proper business of the college or university" (118). Most would think that the objective of the university is the "pursuit of specialized knowledge, or the advancement of science, or service to society through scholarship, teaching, and professional formation." Many will think that is the job of religion or that it is an unreachable goal. The author provides three reasons he thinks that Christian academics should see their work as a quest for wisdom. First the Ph.D should mean that we are lovers of wisdom. The second reason "comes to us by virtue of our spiritual/geographical location at the intersection of the ways to and from Athens and Jerusalem" (120). We are inheritors to two different wisdom traditions: Athens and Jerusalem. Both of these traditions are opposed "to the comparatively narrow tradition of scientific rationality that governs and informs so much of higher learning today" (121). The third reason for the quest of wisdom is our "sense of vocation." Dietrich Bonhoeffer "insisted that we Christians have but one call, and that is the call to follow Jesus unconditionally" (122). We are to serve our neighbor through our work. We must pursue our work at a calling. Schwehn notes, "We will and we should spend most of our time working within the narrower domains of our specialties and sub-specialties. But we must, especially in these times, be ready to stand up for the good of our disciplines, and of the larger field of higher learning of which these disciplines are parts, for, in other words, the continuing search for wisdom" (123). Despite the idolization of specialization,  the need for asking the big questions remain. Christian Academics have a role to play in the Public Square, the Guild, and the Church.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Decision Making and the Will of God

Gary Friesen with J. Robin Maxon, Decision Making and the Will of God. Multonomah Books, 2004. Revised and updated edition. Originally published in 1980. 526 pages. ISBN: 9781590522059

Decision Making and the Will of God was originally Friesen's dissertation for his Ph.D in Biblical Studies which he turned into a controversial book in 1980. It was controversial because it examined the traditional view (Bull's Eye theory) and found it biblically deficient. This edition published in 2004 is a revised and updated edition. It is a stronger book. I liked the first book, but the second book strengthens or at least makes clearer many concepts of the wisdom view. In addition, the second book uses fewer pages to describe the traditional view and more space on presenting the wisdom view. It is a much improved book.

Part one presents a brief outline of the traditional view. It includes two chapters. The first chapter presents a fictional story of seeking guidance and the second chapter describes the traditional view. The traditional view teaches that God has three wills: sovereign, moral, and individual. God's individual will includes four elements: 1. A detailed plan for all decisions in a believer's life. 2. The believer is able to find and know it. 3. Believers are expected to find it as part of the Christian life. Believers can miss it by failure to discover and obey it. The individual will of God is discovered through the Bible, circumstances, inner impressions, counsel, desires, common sense, and supernatural guidance. Often it is taught that God leads through inner impressions or experience of inner peace.

Friesen critiques the traditional view in part two of the book. He does not believe three wills are taught in the Scripture. He argues that the will of God is what is revealed in the Bible. He does not believe the Bible teaches the "dot" theory. The idea that there is only one spouse, one job, one place picked out to live. In addition, he critiques the idea that God leads us through impressions. He says, impressions are impressions, influence by many factors. He argues that "impressions are not direct revelation and thus cannot give certainty" (97).

Friesen describes the wisdom view in part three. He describes four principles: 1. Where God commands, we must obey. 2. Where there is no command, God gives us freedom (and responsibility) to choose. 3. Where there is no command. God gives us wisdom to choose. 4. When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good. In part four he applies the general principles to specific decisions: Should I get married? Who should I marry? Should I go into the ministry? What vocation should I choose and others. In appendix one he provides reviews of books on knowing God's will by Henry Blacaby, Jack Deere, Tim Lahaye, Elisabeth Elliot, Charles Swindoll, Dallas Williard, John MacArthur, J. I. Packer, M. Blaine Smith, Bruce Waltke, James Montgomery Boice, Sinclair Ferguson, Os Guinness, James Petty, and  Haddon Robinson. This edition includes a study guide for studying the book in a group.

Decision Making and the Will of God"s length might cause some people to avoid it since it is over 400 pages. I think it is well worth the effort if someone is willing to tackle it. A similar smaller book is Haddon Robinson's Decision making by the book. This revised and updated version has made a good book even better.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Finding God's Will, Part 5

Here I Am: Now What Should I Be Doing? by Quentin J. Schultze. Baker Books, 2005. 109 pages. ISBN 0801065453 $12.50

Here I Am: Now What on Earth Should I be Doing? by Quentin Schultze is both similar and different from the three other books I earlier reviewed on knowing the will of God for one's life. It is similar because it addresses similar questions of the earlier books: What is God's will for my life? What does he want me to do with my life. It is different because it has a different slant on the subject. It distinguishes vocation (calling) from station, the places we live out our callings. Your stations include "jobs, situations, and relationships." These stations may change every day. Schultze, a professor at Calvin college for over thirty years draws on both his experience of teaching and mentoring college students at Calvin and his own personal experience of following God's call.

Schultze asserts that our primary call is to follow Jesus Christ. We do this through serving others in all of our life's stations. A big part of our call is being care-takers. We are to care for others faithfully wherever God stations us. We are also part of God's plan to renew all things. The author notes, "The Bible says that each of us is called to care for God's world. The Old Testament defines this caring as 'being a blessing to others.' The New Testament focuses on 'loving God and neighbor.' God calls his people of all ages to be sacrificial care-takers, not to selfish career-seekers" (9). Schultze's emphasis on doing the will of God in our current situation is helpful. Too often we focus on the future when God's will lies clearly at hand.

The author believes that "our calling is a life-long process of connecting our shared vocation with our individual stations" (10). In other words, we are to work out our salvation in all of our stations. Our stations will change throughout our life, but our call to follow Christ in all our stations will not.

The book includes eight brief chapters. Chapter one discusses identifying our vocation and stations. The author states that God's call is "more like an unfolding relationship than a carefully planned trip" (13). As declared in the title, we make ourselves available to God. Chapter two tells us how to join God in the renewing of all things. We are to apply our faith to the world. We must live in the world and make a difference. The author notes, "whether we work in education, business, medicine, counseling, or recreation, we can by grace participate in God's renewal of a broken world" (26). Other chapters discuss monitoring our heart, caring for others and our stations, celebrating leisure, "flourishing in communities," friendship, hospitality, being a good neighbor, and leaving a legacy.

This brief book of 108 pages can be read quickly, but will provide much benefit to the reader. Any person seeking to know God's will for her life would not want to overlook this book. The author's emphasis on being faithful to our current situations is a good corrective to overemphasis on future-oriented thinking. In addition, he provides examples and insight on how to make the important decisions that all college students must make.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding God's Will, Part 4

I love Kevin DeYoung's title for his book on finding God's Will, Just Do Something. This title explains a major thrust of his book. He wants to prevent people from being passive waiting for some sign from heaven on what they need to do. The author states, "You'll find in this book some of the typical will-of-God fare--how to make wise decisions, how to choose a job, whom to marry, etc. But answering these questions is really not the aim of this book. My goal is not so much to tell you how to hear God's voice in making decisions as it is to help you hear God telling you to get off the long road to nowhere and finally make a decision, get a job, and, perhaps get married" (14).

An alternative title on the cover of the book is interesting too: "How to make a decision without dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, random bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky, etc." DeYoung presents an alternative way on finding God's will. It is similar to Gary Friesen's Decision Making and the Will of God. DeYoung divides the will of God into three parts: God's will of decree which is God's sovereign will, what He has ordained to happen. The second part is God's will of desire. This is the revealed will of God in the Bible. It includes all the commands He has given us to obey. The third part is the "will of direction." This is God's individual will for our life. Does God have a specific plan for our life the author asks. He answers in the affirmative. We can often see this will as we look back on the path we have taken. I often comment I see God's will in the past as I see how he has led me. The author cautions us, "But while we are free to ask God for wisdom, He does not burden us with the task of divining His will of direction for our lives ahead of time" (24). In other words, we are not called to figure out God's secret plan before we make a decision.

The author provides good insight on his chapter are challenges to God's direction. He states that we want to know God's will for us because we want to please God. This is good. He lists some other reasons we seek God's will of direction. One reason is that we are "timid." He means that we are fearful of making a decision because of the consequences. We want to know perfectly before we make a decision. However, that is not how it works in the real world. We walk by faith, and not by sight.

Another reason we seek God's will of direction is because "we are searching for perfect fulfillment in this life" (29). If we are not finding perfect fulfillment in our job, relationships, then we must not be in God's perfect will. The Bible does not teach that our pilgrimage in this world will be a place of paradise. Instead, it teaches that we will experience, struggles, disappointment, and persecution. The author think this way of thinking is caused by the current culture. Another challenge is that we have so many opportunities and choices. Having so many choices paralyze us from acting because we do not know what is the perfect choice. He also thinks another reason is that we are cowardly. We are unwilling to take a risk.

Another problem the author points out is that we do not distinguish between moral and nonmoral decisions. We tend to focus on nonmoral decisions in our search for God's will. Most of our decisions are made about nonmoral matters. For example, what color socks should I wear today? Which college should I attend? Who should I marry? What job should I choose? I think you get the picture.

The traditional approach to seeking God's will seem to imply that God is hiding his will from us. DeYoung argues that it accuses God of being "sneaky." He answers that God does not hide things from His people. another problem is that the traditional approach "encourages a preoccupation with the future" (46). DeYoung notes, "We don't just want His word that He will be with us; we want Him to show us the end from the beginning and prove to us that He can be trusted. We want to know what tomorrow will bring instead of being content with simple obedience on the journey" (47). This focus on the future causes anxiety, discomfort, and frustration. Maybe, we are not getting a sign from heaven because God has already shown us how He wants us to live and has given us freedom to make decisions based on wisdom.

The author lists two other problems with the traditional approach to guidance. First, it "undermines personal responsibility, accountability, and initiative"; second, it "enslaves us in the chains of hopeless subjectivism." Too often we blame God for our poor decision and do not take personal responsibility for them. We can learn from our mistakes. It also prevents taking personal initiative. It makes us passive waiting for some sign. People are actively doing something when God calls them to a specific task. "How can I know God's will" seems to the wrong question. The better question is how can I make wise decision. He quotes from Haddon Robinson: "If we ask, 'How can I know the will of God?' we may be asking the wrong question. The Scriptures do not command us to find God's will for most of life's choices nor do we have any passage instructing on how it can be determined. Equally significant, the Christian community has never agreed on how God provides us with special revelation. Yet we persist in searching for God's will because decisions require thought and sap energy. We seek relief from the responsibility of decision-making and we feel less threatened by being passive rather than active in making choices" (51). This does not mean that God's word has nothing to say on how we live our life. DeYoung notes, "But when it comes to most of our daily decisions, and even a lot of life's 'big' decisions, God expects and encourages us to make choices, confident that He's already determined how to fit our choices into His sovereign will" (51). It is a call to be active, not passive in our decision making.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Finding God's Will Part 3

We are faced with decisions everyday. As committed Christians we want to honor God in our decisions. Some of us fear missing God's will. We struggle with discerning God's will for our life. Does God have an individual will for us? How do we make good decisions that honor God? This struggle to know God's will seems to have started in the nineteenth century. Before that time people had little choice in many of the decisions we now have the freedom to decide for ourselves. J.I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom seeks to answer the questions we have about finding God's will in their book, God's Will: Finding Guidance for Everyday Decisions. This book was previously published under the title Guard Us, Guide Us. It seems to be the same book published under a different title.

The authors note the current situation: "During the past century and a half, the topic of guidance from God has become a focus of just such fear in many Christian hearts" (10). The authors believe that individuals basically believed that God in his sovereignty was working out His perfect plans for their life. They think that in the aftermath to the birth of pietism two things went wrong: "First, the notion spread that getting and following direct guidance from God, as something above and beyond making commonsense decisions in Christian terms, was a matter of great importance in the Christian life. Second, God's plan for the Christian individual's life came to be thought of like a travel itinerary in which making planned connections is crucial and missing a connection wrecks the plan and spoils the rest of the journey" (10). One can see how these two things could cause fear and anxiety for the Christian seeking God's guidance. They could expect divine guidance for every little decision they make. It would lead to depending on subjective feelings or putting out fleeces or some special sign on what God wants them to do. One problem we would never mature in our decision making. God does not want us to be robots.

 Packer notes the consequences of this type of thinking: "In consequence, fearful (fear-full) and perplexed anxiety with regard to decision making became widespread among evangelical people. Believers felt unable to make far-reaching decisions until they had received some special personal indication from God as to what they should do. Fear of making what from God's standpoint would be wrong commitments vocationally, professionally, socially, relationally, and matrimonially induced a kind of inner paralysis that resulted in good and desirable commitments not being made, because people could not bring themselves to make any commitments at all" (10) which turns out to be a decision. Does God really want to paralyze our decision-making capability? Something seems to be wrong. It would seem that unless God tells us otherwise he expects us to make wise decisions based on His moral will and in submission to His sovereign will.

One unique feature of this book is that the first chapter emphasizes that we are God's covenant people. We are the sheep and He is the Shepherd. This chapter includes a detailed exposition of Psalms 23. The authors emphasize that "He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake (v.3)." Chapter two quotes a favorite poem of mine by JOhn Henry Newman: "Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead thou me on!/ The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead Thou me on!/Guide thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me." I think this poem suggest that the future is in God's hand. We can trust Him to guide us. He will provide what we need to make each day's decision. He wants us to use what He has provided for our guidance: reason, the Bible, counsel from other Christians, wisdom and common sense. We expect our children to grow in wisdom in making good decisions. We are co-workers with God. The authors give us the way for wise decision making: "But the wise Christian seeking God's guidance doesn't start with impressions and subjective fantasies. Wise Christians start with the written Word of God, which they receive as their guidebook, as from the hand of Jesus Christ himself. We make our decisions in the light of what Scripture actually says and then, following on from that, in the light of wisdom that comes to us as we soak ourselves in God's word" (59). Other resources for following God's will for your life are being in good spiritual health, counsel from mature Christians, following good role models. and guidance from the Holy Spirit. God is our Good Shepherd. He will guide us and he will correct us when we get off track.

Packer lists some tips for following God's Guidance:

  1. What is the best I can do for God?
  2. Submit to the teachings of scripture. Some of these are to love God and our neighbor.
  3. Follow examples of godly Christians in the Bible.
  4. Use wisdom in making decisions. Draw on the counsel of others.
  5. Listen to what God may be speaking to you in your heart.
  6. Experience God's peace that He provides
  7. Observe the circumstances
  8. Do not expect guidance before the decision needs to be made.
  9. Be open to God guiding you to something you would not choose.
  10. If you make a bad decision, it is not the end of the world. We learn from our mistakes. We grow in skill as we apply scripture to our daily lives.
In the appendix, the authors include words from John Newton on the subject of "Divine Guidance." 
God's Will: Finding Guidance for Everyday Decisions is a good guide to understanding how to follow God's direction from life. It is both biblical and helpful. The writing is good and easy to understand. The authors provide examples to illustrate their point. One thing was not quite sure about. The authors note we are not to trust impressions or subjective feelings. But they state that God's peace confirms his guidance. Packer notes, "The gift of God-centered pace of heart as we contemplate and embrace the best, wisest, and most God-honoring option open to us is God's ordinary way of confirming to us that we have attained the wisdom that we sought by observing circumstances, praying for a clear head and discerning heart, searching the Scriptures, consulting experienced friends, and thinking hard before the Lord" (236). I do believe that if we do these things God will guide us. Much of how people seek guidance seems more like paganism than Christianity.