Tuesday, July 11, 2017

If Wodehouse had been a modern American Christian

Flags Out Front: A Contrarian's Daydream by Douglas Wilson

This is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. It is funny and engaging all the way through.

It concerns a fictional fundamentalist Bible college in the American South (called Choctaw Valley Bible College), and its mild-mannered president, Dr Tom. One night a prankster switches the flags at the front of the college so that the Christian flag is higher than the American flag (see the cover illustration). Dr Tom decides to let it remain like that, and a controversy ensues.

Flags Out Front is all about what being a faithful Christian looks like in modern America. Wilson makes the point that faithful Christians will have enemies on both the left and the right of politics.

Wilson includes plenty of humorous asides, and has obviously been inspired by P. G. Wodehouse in both his plot and his choice of words. This book has instantly become one of my favourites.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Not your grandmother's theonomy

The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God's Law of Liberty by Joel McDurmon

Although it's not really clear from the title, this book is about theonomy, which McDurmon defines as "the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today" (p. 17).

The key phrase here is "including some civil laws". This is a reasonable definition: non-theonomic Reformed people would say that no civil laws remain obligatory for today (only, perhaps, the principles behind the laws). But in his discussion of which civil laws remain obligatory, McDurmon departs in a significant way from older Theonomic writers such as Rousas Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary North.

In chapter 3, McDurmon argues that crimes relating to worship (e.g. idolatry and blasphemy) and sex (e.g. homosexuality and adultery) carried the death penalty in the Old Testament because of the concept of herem, in which things that could contaminate Israel needed to be destroyed. McDurmon argues that this no longer applies today. Although he isn't clear on this point, he seems to suggest that they should not even be crimes today (though of course, they are still sins). Later in the book he says that in a "properly theonomic society", the government "would have little to do with sex or marriage" (p. 94).

In chapter 4, McDurmon argues that all other Old Testament death penalties (e.g. for rape and kidnapping) still apply, on the basis that the penalties were an expression of God's perfect justice. Yet this does not sit easily with what was stated in the previous chapter: the death penalty for blasphemy was also a just one, yet McDurmon says it no longer applies. In any case, McDurmon's position represents a significant (and very conscious) departure from traditional theonomy.

Finally, with regards to practical application, McDurmon correctly notes that the Great Commission includes a command to disciple the nations, and teach God's law to entire societies rather than just individuals (p. 104). Yet it seems he has a defective view of discipleship. Discipleship, among other things, encourages inner conviction rather than just behaviour modification. That also applies in "teaching the nations". So when McDurmon says  that Christians "should always lead opposition to any and all taxation" (p. 112), one can't help but feel that he has misplaced priorities and is fighting the wrong battles.

The Bounds of Love is an interesting read but not really a book I would recommend.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A significant contribution to historical theology

The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity by Thabiti M. Anyabwile

This is a book of historical theology. It looks at theological development among African-Americans from 1600 to the present day. There are not a lot of early African-American theological writers, but Anyabwile does a fine job of introducing the reader to men like Jupiter Hammon and Daniel Payne, as well as bringing out the theology present in slave songs and testimonies.

As the title indicates, Anyabwile argues that the history of African-American theology is a story of decline: from orthodox Calvinism through Arminianism and Pentecostalism to full-blown liberalism and prosperity theology. One interesting reason given for the rise of liberalism in African-American circles is that "most theologically conservative seminaries adopted the racist segregationist policies and attitudes of the time" (p. 205).

Each chapter of the book covers a different area of doctrine: revelation, theology proper, anthropology, christology, soteriology, and pneumatology. Ecclesiology and eschatology are glaring omissions: Anyabwile says only that outlines for these chapters were "left on the cutting room floor" (p. 241).

Perhaps the most striking thing I read was that in the era of slavery, black people were often stereotyped, but they did not respond by stereotyping white people themselves: "the folk theology of slaves proved resilient against tendencies to denigrate white people as a class or to make pejorative associations with white skin color" (p. 113).

The Decline of African American Theology is a helpful an interesting book, and makes a significant contribution to the discipline of historical theology.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Some good points, but based on an unconvincing hermeneutic

Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William J. Webb

This is a book arguing against smacking (spanking) children. Webb particularly interacts with organisations such as Focus on the Family, which advocates smacking, but suggests a parent administer no more than two smacks at a time. Webb argues that such an approach is not "biblical" at all, in the sense that it has moved beyond what he calls the Bible's "concrete specific instructions". Webb points out that the Book of Proverbs encourages using a rod on the back, rather than a hand on the bottom. Webb than says that the way Focus on the Family has moved beyond the Bible is a good thing, and we should go even further, following the Bible's own trajectory towards a more gentle approach. Webb calls this a "redemptive-movement hermeneutic".

Firstly, the book has a rather condescending feel about it. Webb is constantly "commending" corporal punishment advocates for going beyond the Bible, when they would argue, of course, that they are faithfully following the principles laid out in Proverbs. Webb also notes that he used to believe in smacking, but now he knows better.

Secondly, Webb focuses his attention on a narrow band within the broad spectrum of Christian smacking advocates. He seems to have no knowledge, for example, of Michael Pearl, who does indeed argue for using a "rod". Maybe he knows about Pearl but considers him too fringe or discredited to be worth mentioning. In any case, different pastors, authors, and parents apply the biblical teaching on smacking in different ways (this article from Capitol Hill Baptist Church mentions a plastic spoon), and it's not clear that the Focus on the Family approach can be said to be representative. Webb struggles to articulate what could be wrong in using  an actual rod. The only arguments he gives are: (a) it gives him a feeling of revulsion, and (b) even Focus on the Family avoids it.

Thirdly, at the heart of everything he says about smacking is Webb's redemptive-movement hermeneutic. It's the idea that we look at how the Bible's approach to a certain issue is different to that of the surrounding culture. (In this case, ancient Egyptian and Babylonian laws.) To put it bluntly, we see how the Bible has improved upon that, we discern the direction that the Bible takes us, and go further in that direction. This sounds a lot like improving upon the Bible, and it is. Webb's hermeneutic fails to take into account that in Christ we already have God's fullest revelation. For more details, see Thomas Schreiner's review of Webb's earlier book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.

I was all set to give this book a two-star rating, but Webb includes a postscript in which he gives an excellent overview of "alternative" disciplinary methods. Regardless of whether one agrees with smacking or not, there is a lot of helpful parenting advice here. That was good enough to lift the book up to three stars.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Shrill and contradictory

The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Sydney Anglican Church by Muriel Porter

This book is a critique of Sydney Anglicanism. It is written in rather a shrill tone, and Porter makes no attempt to be objective (p. 6), or even fair: if she misrepresents her opponents, it is their fault for being unclear (p 7).

As the title suggests, Porter argues that the doctrine and approach of the Sydney Anglicans is a form of Puritanism. She note that they emphasise the Bible, and want to reform church practice along Scriptural lines. This causes them to jettison cherished practices (such as the wearing of vestments) as well as reject new things like the ordination of women.

And this is the strange thing about this book. One moment the Sydney Anglicans are criticized for being reactionaries who are breaking with historic Anglicanism, the next moment they are taken to task for living in the past. One is reminded of G. K. Chesterton's comments in Orthodoxy (though it must be said that Chesterton was no friend of the Puritans himself):
Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short... One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall.
And like the critics that Chesterton talks about, Porter does not mind contradicting herself. Without any awareness of the irony involved, she writes against those who "want to turn the clock back" and on the very same page (p. 8) says that she writes the book "in loving memory of the vibrant mainstream Anglicanism of the Sydney Diocese of my childhood, my first spiritual home, which is now well and truly buried."

Or to take another example, Porter appeals to the "openness characteristic of historic Anglicanism" (p. 4) but then dismisses the 39 Articles as "the product of compromise" (p. 16).

But the most disappointing thing about this book are the insinuations. Porter is quite willing to insinuate baseless allegations by asking loaded questions (pp. 37 and 126). This really is a dreadful book. Porter obviously has the cause of women's ordination close to her heart, but she has done this cause no favours by writing this volume.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sad in a number of ways

The Death of a Church by Carl McIntire

This book is a critique of the Confession of 1967, adopted by the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a denomination that later formed the PC(USA). McIntire had left this body more than thirty years earlier, as a result of the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy, and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The first half of the book goes through the 1967 Confession section by section, while the second half of the book provides a historical (but intensely personal) overview.

Much of this book is an insightful assessment of theological liberalism, and the language that it uses. McIntire notes that Christ's death is called a "mystery", when the Bible says no such thing: "God has been careful to present in detail the full and glorious meaning of this one act of reconciliation when Christ died upon the Cross for the sins of men" (p. 39). McIntire goes on to suggest that calling it a "mystery" is a "simple device for denying the Gospel and obscuring the meaning of the Cross" (p. 42).

McIntire also points out that the new ordination vows being brought in at the same time no longer ask ministers if they believe the Scriptures are the Word of God, but merely whether they accept them to be "by the Holy Spirit God's word to you". The capitalization, McIntire argues, makes a world of difference.

Yet there are a number of things in the book that leave a bad taste in one's mouth. Even as an Australian, I found it hard not to cringe when I read "this revolutionary program, which the Negroes are promoting" (p. 92). Then, as McIntire relates his own struggles, he takes aim at Francis Schaeffer and Robert Rayburn, who split away from the Bible Presbyterian Church in 1956 to form a new denomination that would later become the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, which in turn merged into the Presbyterian Church in America. Schaeffer and Rayburn, claims McIntire, "have gone back on the faith they once professed", and their church has a "socialistic structure" (p. 167).

This was my introduction to Carl McIntire, who died in 2002. We can honour him as a warrior for the faith, but some of his attitudes and priorities sadden me.

The book is available in full here.

Friday, December 26, 2014

But what does "biblical" mean?

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

In this memoir, Rachel Held Evans describes how she spent a year trying to live "biblically" as a woman. She tried to follow the Bible's instructions to women as "literally" as possible.

Evans is a little vague about why she did this. She notes that she has been accused of mocking God's Word, but doesn't respond to the criticism, except for saying that it made her doubt herself (p. 4). She seems to have undertaken the project as a way of demonstrating the foolishness of trying to follow the Bible exactly, and the inconsistency of those who try.

For example, the subtitle indicates how she called her husband "master". This comes from 1 Peter 3:5-6: " For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear."

Now, Evans has missed the point of the passage. Peter does not tell women to call their husbands "lord"; he tells them that they should have "the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit" (v. 4), and to follow the example of the "holy women of the past". He then mentions a specific instance from the life of Sarah (Genesis 18:12), and says that women should be daughters of Sarah, not necessarily in calling their husbands "lord", but in "doing what is right and not giving way to fear".

Has Evans missed the point intentionally? Is she saying that the word "biblical" has no meaning and that we all pick and choose what verses of the Bible we want to obey? Well, the entire book revolves around this slippery use of the word "biblical".

Two examples of this slippery usage will suffice. Evans writes to a Jewish friend to get advice about following the Old Testament food laws. She notes that she didn't want to follow the rabbinic tradition, "after all, this was my year of living biblically, not my year of living Talmudically" (p. 157). But then, on the very next page, she decides to stick to all the dietary laws found in the Old Testament, including "no mixing of meat and dairy". Well, that's not in the Old Testament; that is merely a Jewish tradition. Does Evans not realise this? It appears she is confused about what is in the Bible and what isn't.

A second example of the slippery use of the word "biblical" is in Evans' discussion of female victims in the Bible. She refers to them as "victims of biblical misogyny" (p. 47). Here the word "biblical" appears to mean "described in the Bible". But the Bible certainly isn't approving of the actions of rapists like Amnon. Evans says that women like the Levite's concubine of Judges 19 were "crushed at the hand of patriarchy" (p. 66). But there is nothing in the text to suggest that "patriarchy" is to blame; indeed, in this particular case the woman could better be described as a "victim of anarchy".

In this, and in many other places, Evans fails to grasp the difference between an indicative and an imperative. Just because the Bible describes a particular action or practice, it doesn't mean that Christians are to copy the action or follow the practice. So when Evans notes that "advocates of biblical patriarchy" do not appear to be "taking multiple wives" (p. 52), she is both misreading the Bible and misunderstanding her opponents. The Bible tells lots of stories of polygamy, and none of them present the practice as worthy of emulation. Almost always some trouble comes out of it. And even if we were to say that it was still allowed today, it doesn't follow that we should be doing it. You may believe, for example, that ("biblical") slavery could still be practised today, but it doesn't follow that to be "consistent" you should take some slaves yourself. 

It's this very issue of consistency that Evans seems to be exploring in this book, but she fails to demonstrate that anyone is being inconsistent. Time and again, she mentions various "opponents" (my word, not hers), but evidently has not grasped the reasons for or the implications of her opponents' views. Sometimes she makes totally unfounded accusations, such as saying that "those who seek to glorify biblical womanhood have forgotten the dark stories" (p. 66). Evans also fails to grasp the history of interpretation of the Old Testament throughout the history of the Christian Church. Mainstream Christianity has never said that we should adopt Old Testament practices completely. In this way, Evans is responding to a straw man.

Evans also lacks hermeneutical sensitivity: a number of times she engages in a "flat" reading of the text. Her statement that a man's "procreative prowess is listed by the writers of Scripture as one of his most worthy virtues" (p. 58) is an obvious misreading, while her comment that "Jesus showed little regard for the Levitical purity codes" (p. 169) fails to take into account that Jesus told the healed leper to go to the priest (Mark 1:44) in obedience to Leviticus 14.

Thus, throughout A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans misinterprets Scripture, in failing to properly understand and apply the Old Testament. She misunderstands the people to whom she is (presumably) responding, especially those in the "biblical womanhood" movement. And she misuses key words, such as "biblical" and "literal".

Evans explicitly identifies herself as feminist. I think it is also fair to describe her as "post-evangelical", though she doesn't use that phrase. Not only does Evans show a defective interpretation of Scripture, she also has a defective view of it. She talks about "how insufferable I found the apostle Paul's rambling prose" (p. 121). She rejects the unity of Scripture, referring to the Bible's "cacophony of voices" (p. 294). This leads her to reject a unified concept of what it means for anything to be "biblical".

It should be noted that there are some good exegetical insights in this book. I appreciated her description of the militaristic language of Proverbs 31 (p. 76), and her comment that "most of the Bible's instructions regarding modesty find their context in warning about materialism, not sexuality" (p. 128). It was also very encouraging to read how the project exposed her and her husband's prejudices, particularly in regards to conservative Christians (p. 130).

Evans is strongly egalitarian in regards to male-female relationships. She notes that she undertook this project "looking for permission" to lead and speak (p. 296). She concludes by affirming that her calling "is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus" (p. 295). And yet the entire project revolved around assuming (pretending? modelling?) a hierarchical marriage relationship (p. 302). Is that what Evans thought was biblical? Presumably not – the book seems to present a reductio ad absurdam argument. Evans is attempting to show that it's either (a) not really in the Bible, or (b) irrelevant for modern-day Christians.

Thus, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is almost wholly ironic. In this way, Evans is a clear example of what happens when evangelicals embrace postmodernism.