Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Is the Reformation Over?

Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Baker Academic, 2005. ISBN: 0-8010-2797-7.

I was not sure what the book was about by reading the title. Were they saying the issues of the Protestant Reformation no longer exist. I am not assuming that there was only one reformation by using it in the singular. I understand that there were many Reformations: Catholic, Zwinglian, Lutheran, Calvinian, AnaBaptist, British. Do the issues that that divide the Chucrh no longer exist. This made me interested in what this book might want to say.

The subtitle provides a little more information: "An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism." What does that mean? So I picked up this book not sure of what I would get. One thing I did know is one of the authors of the book. Mark Noll is well-known as an excellent and thorough scholar. He recently wrote, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. My respect for Noll grew after reading this book. I think he shows great understanding and charity in evaluating Roman Catholicism according to evangelicalism. Some evangelicals might thought he went too far in his charitable view. I know some evangelicals who have told me that Noll is too Catholic which would surprise Noll. Please forgive me for not mentioning Nystrom more, but I am unfamiliar with her work and am not sure how much this book is shared by the two authors. All the book said that she was a freelance writer.

I found it interesting that the book is dedicated to J. I. Packer. It would be difficult to doubt the evangelical credentials of Packer. He, however, has received criticism with his work in Catholic-Evangelical discussions. An interesting part of the book is some of the responses by more conservative evangelicals like R. C. Sproul.

Is the Reformation Over? is a historical work which Noll is greatly qualified to accomplish with the knowledge of his historical work in other writings. It was very surprising how relations between Protestants have changed so much since World War II and Vatican 2. It was also encouraging to see Catholics and Protestants working together instead against each other. The authors in this book basically argue that relations between Catholics and Protestants are not like they "used to be."

The authors state that "by asking if the Reformation is over, we mean to use the classic ideals of the Protestant Reformation to measure contemporary Catholic Christianity. Sola scriptura (the Bible as supreme authority), sola fide (salvation by grace alone through faith alone), and the priesthood of all believers . . . were Protestant rallying cries" (15). The authors state that this book is intended to evaluate contemporary Roman Catholicism based on this criteria. In the conclusion the authors argue that the question of the book is not an easy question to answer.

The book includes an introduction and nine chapters. Chapter one offers historical evidence that the relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants have changed. For example, they participate in mission efforts together. Chapter two looks at the conflict between the two groups in the 1950s. The authors suggest reasons why the situation has changed more recently in chapter three.

The next four chapters is meant to "inform" the readers of many of the dialogues and agreements between Protestants and Catholics since Vatican 2. Chapter four gives a history of these ecumenical dialogues. Chapter five provides a guide and commentary on the Catholic Catechism. This was a most helpful chapter. It showed the core beliefs of Catholics and how much of this can be accepted by evangelicals. The authors believe that the Catechism "is the best pace to look when seeking to understand what the Catholic Church teaches and what Catholics believe. As mentioned earlier, much is the Catechism would be supportive of the evangelical tradition. In addition, the authors show what teachings Evangelicals can accept and others they will have problem accepting.

Chapter seven informs the reader of negative reactions to the ecumenical dialogues and agreements. After describing evangelicals less informed about what Rome teaches. The authors describe leading evangelicals who should know better. For example, the authors state that after the first Evangelicals and Catholics together was signed, R. C. Sproul said, "I am convinced as were the Reformers, that justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel and that Rome clearly rejects it" (187). This is after different groups of Protestants and Catholics have agreed on the definition of justification. There were also pressure put on evangelical signers of the document. Some of these signers later removed their names from the document. Noll even notes that he was one of the signers.

An additional bonus to the book is that it included an annotated bibliography. This would be helpful for someone who wants to go deeper in the subject. In the last chapter the authors wrestle with their question, "Is the Reformation over?" Their answer is it basically depends. They answer both yes and no. In addition, they suggest that this might not be the most important question.

I loved this book. It is one of the best books I have read on Roman Catholicism from the perspective of an evangelical. I admire Mark Noll's skills even more after reading this book. This book is well-researched and the authors make extra effort in being as objective as possible. A similar book that addresses the issues of this book from a Catholic perspective is William M. Shea's The Lion and the Lamb: Evangelicals and Catholics in America.   

Friday, August 8, 2014

Postmodernism 101

White, Heath. Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006.

White begins his book by asking the question, "Why read about postmodernism?" In answering this question he gives his motivation for writing this book. He kept hearing about postmodernism in various Christian "circles." There were Christians who wanted to understand these discussions, but did not know "what postmodernism was." Other Christians knew about it and wanted to "think more deeply" about how it could be applied to current Christian thinking. They were unable to do this without further knowledge.

White thought he could help different groups of Christians by writing this book. In Postmodernism 101 he seeks to explain what postmodernism is what issues it raises for Christianity in the twenty-first century. The author identifies himself as an evangelical Protestant in the introduction. He has written the book, however, for all types of Christians who have questions about postmodernism. White is a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He earned his doctorate at Georgetown University.

Postmodernism 101 is a quick and easy read. It is only 176 pages but it reads much shorter. The prose and presentation of ideas a are quite clear. The author uses many illustrations and examples to illustrate his points. He does a good job in explaining key ideas and people associated with postmodernism. His explanations how a certain postmodern idea affects Christianity is quite helpful. This book is meant for the reader with little or no knowledge of postmodernism. The author includes an annotated bibliography for further reading at the back of the book. This is a good first book to begin reading about postmodernism. Another good point of the book is how the author compares pre-modern, modern, and post-modern thought.

The book includes seven chapters: "Why read about postmodernism?; "Premodern and modern minds;" "The postmodern turn against reason;" "Truth, power, and morality;" the self; "language and thought;" "inquiry and interpretation;" "culture and irony;" and "history and hope.

In the chapter on premodern and modern, he narrates the transition "from authority to reason." This is characterize by resisting traditional authorities like the Church. In addition, he notes, "faith in the power of reason is the central pillar of the modern worldview" (37). It is quite ironic that it is faith in reason. In our own times, people are losing faith in reason. Like Chesterton said, it is believers who are defending reason. The next chapter describes how postmodernism makes a "turn against reason." Postmodernism believes the modern project has failed.

The chapter on "truth, power, and morality" describes the denial of absolutes by postmodernism. It is thought that absolutes give people power over other people and this power is used to abuse others. The author thinks this denial of moral absolutes is troubling. He gives reasons for the necessity of moral absolutes.

One of my favorite chapters was the one on "inquiry and interpretation." The author notes, "for postmoderns, no knowledge is fully reliable and no concepts are absolutely indispensable. The reader is probably aware of the many attacks against foundationalism and certainty. Many Christians have accepted these critiques. Another postmodern idea is that everything is a text and needs to be interpreted. The author spends much time in the chapter on how postmodernism effects the way we think about interpreting the Bible. One aspect is the postmodernism emphasis that there are multiple meanings in the text. This actually agree with the pre-modern view of multiple senses in the Bible. This is one of the longer chapters in the book.

Postmodernism 101 is written as an introductory guide to postmodernism. It is written at a level that the beginner should be able to understand the concepts explained. The annotated bibliography will be useful for the reader who wants to go deeper.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Contending for the Faith

Wood, Ralph C. Contending for the Faith: The Church's Engagement with Culture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2003. 218 pages. ISBN 0-918954-86-x

Ralph Wood in his book, Contending for the Faith: the Church's Engagement with Culture argues that churches must witness to the post-modern world. He believes that we are living in an "anti-cultural era: an era that is rejecting, with increasing vehemence, even the most basic requirements of life together and life before God" (1). He thinks the world is being "rebarbarized." The church can play a role in Christianizing the culture as it did in the Middle Ages. It can at least act as salt and culture to the culture. Wood notes, "The argument of this book is that Christian existence itself requires a culture: a realm where the most fundamental practices and doctrines of the church can be inculcated" (1). A the title implies the Church needs to engage the culture. One definition of engage is to "become involved in." The Church must not isolate itself from its culture. It must work within the American culture strengthening and transforming it.

Wood's goal is not to duplicate the work of H. Richard Niebuhr's, Christ and Culture. He is not going to offer one of the responses listed by Niebuhr. He thinks Niebuhr's book assumes that we live in a "Monolithic" culture. Wood thinks this is not true. Instead, the culture is "an immensely varied and dependent thing" (1). There are many cultures. He thinks the Church is called to create its own culture. He notes, "I will argue, in fact, that Scripture and Tradition provide the church with a distinctive kind of existence--with unique ways of birthing and dying, of becoming youthful and of growing old, of marrying and remaining single, of celebrating and sacrificing, of thinking and imagining, of worshiping the true God and protesting against false gods--and that these distinctive beliefs and practices constitute the church's own culture" (2). He denies that he is trying to create a Christian ghetto--Christian isolation from culture. Instead, the church will offer a culture that will revitalize the world. For example, the present culture seems to affirm death as shown in abortion and euthanasia. The Church will witness to the affirmation of life.

Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. He is the author of The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Cosmic Vision in Four American Novelists, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ Haunted South, and Chesterton: the Nightmare Goodness of God, and other published works.

The book includes ten chapters. Some of the major themes addressed in this work are: the Church and culture; alternatives to the current culture; problems with 'evangelical engagement with culture; Church's Colleges; "Creating a Christian Educational Culture;" skepticism and sentimentality; truth, beauty, and goodness; Christian Romance; faithfulness and piety.

Wood argues that the "church can best engage its individualist American culture precisely by seeking to remain uncompromisingly faithful to the community-centered Gospel" (78). This is in contrast to the failed liberal Protestantism that said the church must accommodate its message to the liberal culture. The author thinks we need something like the twentieth century Catholic revival and something the like the work of the Inklings--C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others. The author argues that writes like these and the fiction of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor have been "a source of theological vitality for evangelicals. Thousands of them have found, through Catholic figures such as these, that their own scholarly and church lives have been given theological rigor and depth" (81). This has been shown even in the work of Wood which has majored on Catholic authors like Flannery O'Connor.

In chapter five, Wood describes the challenges facing the Church's colleges. He describes the works of Burtchaell and Marsden which have documented the secularization of colleges and universities. Wood notes, "without rootage in Christian thinking--faith seeking understanding, the good of the intellect--Christian piety and morality eventually die, though they may thrive for a while" (87). This seems to imply that our culture is living on borrowed time. How long will the culture collapse because it has been separated from its Christian roots?

Another point made by Wood in this chapter are the importance of a Christian vision of education. He notes, "One evident result of an unabashedly Christian vision is that it enables the liberal arts to flourish as often do not in more secular settings" (91). Wouldn't it be better to champion the liberal arts in Christian colleges and universities than abandoning them like the secular universities?

In other chapters Wood argues for the importance of religious liturgy. In the context he discusses the importance of beauty and holiness in the context of worship. He also shows how even the "ugly" can be a vehicle to worship God. What we look as disfigured could be a picture of Christ. This reminds me of my reading from Nouwen this morning. He spent time working with the mentally handicapped. Many will not see a purpose for those severely handicapped, either mentally or physically. Nouwen tells how God uses these people to show Christ's love. They even teach us how to love. How often do the values of the world determine our own values? Why do we think people that are wounded are of less value than the successful and powerful in the world's eyes?

Wood's Contending for the Faithful is a good read. It shows how the Church can be more beneficial to the culture by being true to its own teaching. However, the main purpose to being faithful is to glorify God. As the Westminster confessions says that our first duty is "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Wood tries to lead a path between liberalism and fundamentalism. This book is written mainly for evangelicals. In it Wood encourages them to retrieve Catholic tradition, liturgy, and culture to revitalize their own tradition. It provides good advice on engaging the postmodern culture of our day.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Art of Reading Scripture

The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003. 334 pages. ISBN 0802812694

In the introduction, Davis and Hays note, "The difficulty of intepreting the Bible is felt not only in secular culture but also in the church at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Is the Bible authoritative for the faith and practice of the church? If so, in what way? What practices of reading offer the most appropriate approach to understanding the Bible? How does historical criticism illumine or obscure Scripture's message? How are traditional readings to be brought into engagement with historical methodologies, as well as feminist, liberationist, and postmodern readings? The church's lack of clarity about these issues has hindered its witness and mission, causing it to speak with an uncertain voice to the challenge of our time. Even where the Bible's authority is acknowledged in principle, many of our churches seem to have lost the art of reading it attentively and imaginatively" (xiv-xv).

These questions led the Center of Theological Inquiry (Princeton, New Jersey) to assemble fifteen scholars and pastors to meet "periodically over four years" to study these questions. They name this conversation "the Scripture Project." The project came up with nine principles of interpretation of Scripture. These nine "Theses" is described at the beginning of the book. Each of the essays address some or all of these principles. Here they are:

1. Scripture truthfully tells the story of God's action of creating, judging, and saving the world.

2. Scripture is rightly understood in the light of the church's rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.

3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.

4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.

5. The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.

6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God's redemptive action--the church.

7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.

8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.

9. We live in the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" of the kingdom of God; consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit's ongoing work in the world.

This volume gathered some of the best biblical interpreters of our day. The group includes Gary A. Anderson, University of Notre Dame; Richard Bauckham, University of St. Andrews; Brian E. Daley, University of Notre Dame; Ellen F. Davis, Duke Divinity School; Richard B. Hays, Duke Divinity School; James C. Howell, Methodist Pastor; Robert W. Jenson, Center of Theological Inquiry; William Stacy Johnson, Princeton Theological Seminary; L. Gregory Jones, Duke Divinity School; Christine McSpadden, Episcopal Priest; R. W. L. Moberly, University of Durham; David C. Steinmetz, Duke Divinity School; and Marianne Meye Thompson, Fuller Theological Seminary. These authors do not all agree with each other. However, they are unified by the Scripture Project and the Christian faith. They provide many different perspectives that will enlighten the reader. It is like going to a feast with many different dishes. I felt my faith challenged and engaged by these essays.

The book includes four parts: reading and teaching the Scriptures; "A Living Tradition;" "Reading Difficult Texts;" and "Selected Sermons." Some of the themes of the essays: teaching the Bible confessionally; the authority of the Scripture for the church; reading the Scriptures as a "cohereent story;" Patristic exegesis; model interpreters; Scripture reading and postmodernism; "embodying Scripture in the community of faith, and others.

There are many positives to this volume. I like the emphasis of reading the Scriptures in the context of the church. The authors accept the work of historical criticism but they want to go beyond it. They believe the scriptures is the book of the church. It is to be interpreted by the church. In addition, I like the emphasis on the multiple senses of the Scriptures. Readers will learn much here that can enhance their reading and teaching of Scripture.

One might think that because of the scholarly nature of the book that it is written for scholars. It is definitely not. I found the essays quite readable and enjoyable. I think the general adult reader should not have a problem of reading these essays. I especially like how these writers interpret the hard tasks of scripture like the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. There is much wisdom here in helping us to be better interpreters of Scripture. It was also helpful to see how Jewish scholars can help us interpret the Old Testament and make even the New Testament come alive. I might not agree with everything in this volume, but I agree with a lot of it. I found myself haven a deeper appreciation of Scripture from reading ths volume.