T h e o • p h i l o g u e

Home » Posts tagged 'book review'

Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: Holiness and Ministry by Thomas B. Dozeman

Here is a critical book review (in PDF version) I have written of the following book: Thomas B. Dozeman. Holiness and Ministry: A Biblical Theology of Ordination.  New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.  Although I try to give credit where credit is due, ultimately I found Dozeman’s biblical theology unsatisfying because of the way he rigidly separates Moses’s priestly and prophetic callings, then fills these artificially reconstructed categories with preconceived ideas about human experience (which ideas he then also reads back into the texts of Torah).

Book Review: Participatory Biblical Exegesis by Matthew Levering

The following is a book review of: Levering, Matthew. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 310 pp. For the audio version (which has a more elaborate conclusion) click the play button below or download it to your itunes.  For a PDF version of this book review, click here.

Levering’s proposal in Participatory Biblical Exegesis poignantly addresses what R.W.L. Moberly calls “a curious situation” in Christian biblical exegesis (2). Modern Christian biblical interpretation has heavily relied on historical-critical methods that tend to preclude interpretations that invoke the most important divine and spiritual realities to which the biblical texts refer (2).  Since historical-critical inquiry and discovery has proven fruitful for a fuller understanding of the linear-historical realities of the biblical texts, rather than propose something less than historical-critical methodology, Levering hopes to redeem the valuable finds of historical-critical methodology for Christian interpretation by proposing something more: a broader understanding of history as including also a participatory dimension (1).

His proposal is that history is not merely linear-historical but also metaphysically participatory (finite participation in divine being).  Therefore in order to do justice to the human and historical aspects of exegesis, Levering argues that one must go beyond the linear-historical dynamics of the text to account for the realities beyond the words (the res, 11).  The ultimate argument of the book, then, is about the nature of history (3).

The Advent of Historical Critical Methods

Chapters one and two seek to demonstrate the “gradual displacement” of the patristic-medieval participatory approach to scripture (14). Levering hopes to shine light on exactly why history came to be conceived as purely linear-historical and divine realities as extrinsic.  This metaphysical shift takes place in “the Scotist rupture” of the fourteenth century (19).  Scotus rejected the Platonic understanding of participation and the Aristotelian understanding of ultimate teleology that Christian theology had, up to this point in history, largely appropriated in Christian theology (19).

After locating the origins of the modern understanding of history in medieval nominalism, Levering hopes to show the implications such a view of history has for biblical exegesis.  He does this by looking at how biblical commentary of the same text (John 3:27-36) drastically changes over time, starting with Aquinas’ exegesis that illumines the participatory elements of historical reality (25) and ending with modern modes of biblical exegesis that marginalize all such approaches (53).  For Christian interpreters, “commentaries do not [easily] blend history and theology” because the modern idea of history makes history “exegetically problematic” (52).

Participatory Biblical Exegesis

In chapter three, as Levering begins to offer a vision for participatory biblical exegesis, the real concerns come to the fore as he warns that notions of history and biblical interpretation that do not involve recognition of divine realities are ultimately “anthropocentric (and thus, from a Bible’s perspective, idolatrous)” (64).  Renewing the tradition of patristic medieval participatory biblical exegesis, on the other hand, offers Christian interpreters the sorely needed “theocentric model of biblical interpretation” (64).  Levering marshals the brilliance of St. Augustine’s insight into the nature of teaching: “all teaching is about res, realities” and therefore, “in order to understand true teaching one must learn how to judge the relative importance of various res, so as to be able to get to the heart of the teaching” (65).  To do otherwise would be to cling to “created realities, loving them without reference to their Creator”—a “doomed enterprise” that confuses the means as above the end (65).  (Here is the real heart of Levering’s proposal; the rest of the book is historical/theological/exegetical troubleshooting. In this chapter, most of his ideas find expression.)

The ultimate end of all teaching “aims at building up love of God and neighbor in ecclesial communion” (68). Humility requires that one recognize the “norm of Scriptural reading” of the Body of Christ (68). The scriptures ultimate telos (my word, not his) is to mediate an encounter with God: “’existential’ participation” that amounts to God’s own teaching which “re-orders” one’s loves (69).  This effectively reverses the hermeneutical priority from linear-historical to existential-participatory (69).  The author then further expounds on this key idea through Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture as “transformative sacra doctrina” (71) that must be understood as a unified whole rather than “a mere repository of facts and ideas” (75).

In the second half of chapter three, Levering is forced to take the reader a step back from the euphoric teachings of Augustine and Aquinas to revisit the muddled issues of contemporary biblical interpretation (76).  Levering by then, however, has made his point well: linear-historical tools cannot be employed in a “neutral” fashion (77): they either include or preclude the divine realities as part of real history.  Levering claims not only that a participatory mode of exegesis is necessary for discerning the divine res, but he makes the further claim that this approach is “required to account for even the linear-historical complexity of the biblical texts” (77).  But is such a participatory perspective able to capture fully the “unsystematic” messiness of human authorship and intention?

Levering argues that his approach does not demand “that all biblical authors/redactors, working in various genres, are saying and intending the same thing,” but only “that Scripture’s human authorial teachings and intensions be recognized as belonging to the participatory framework—divine revelation and inspiration—of the Trinitarian doctrina” (80). Problematic passages must be governed by the schema of doctrina, which includes abandoning a particular explanation of any passage “if it be proved with certainty to be false”  (81).  Levering backs this claim by appealing to Dei Verbum’s doctrine of inspiration that claims that Biblical interpretation “seeks salvific truth” (83-84).  This chapter concludes by an affirmation of the “centrality of God the Teacher, in whose teaching exegetes participate” (89).

God as the Teacher

Chapter four is concerned with affirming the necessary locus of receptivity to God the Teacher—the “divinely ordained fellowship” (90).  Here Levering is concerned to show that his proposal is more promising for finding common ground for dialogue with Jewish interpreters than the “comparative textology” of mere historians who ignore the divine and ecclesial aspects of biblical exegesis (96).  The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, in spite of its “good job” in some respects, is troubling on account of its “presumption of a solely linear-historical model” to both Jews and Christians who see Scripture as more than just “ancient texts” (96).  To do justice to real history, including the “communal participatory appropriation” of Scripture, biblical interpretation must heed the communal traditions in which the biblical texts are “operative” (99).  This aspect of historical transmission should distill the fears of “total semantic indeterminacy” (100).  To ignore communal interpretation is fatal because the true meaning of Scripture is “embodied” in this “communal, intellectual, moral, and liturgical” history (104, 102).

Communal Context of Kenotic Love

As we discover in chapter five, for Levering, the communal teaching of the Christian church that sets the context for all exegesis is “kenotic love” that includes “cruciform peace” and is therefore more promising that the Spinozian undermining of ecclesial authority (140).  In the end, Levering comes through with a robustly Christian biblical exegesis that “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” in ecclesial communion, understands the fullness of sacred scriptures because it participates in the realities to which they refer—specifically the “Christological plan of human salvation” (143).

Conclusion

Levering’s narrative of the origins of modern notions of history will need to be evaluated by interested historians, and his peculiar Platonic understanding of participation (though nowhere extensively explained) may not be shared by all Christians (although some account of our participation in God is indeed necessary).  Certainly, however, Levering has exposed a naïveté in Christian biblical exegesis by showing the woeful inadequacy of any interpretation that does not take the divine realities into account as real history.  In this respect, his work is a brilliant myth buster, forcibly deconstructing the illusion of neutrality in historical-critical methods that exclude the divine realities in history and perhaps an eye-opener to what should be more obvious to those who cherish this aspect of Scripture above all else.  This insight is especially relevant to those who use the historical-critical method in apologetic postures.

Although Protestants will perhaps wish to dispute his argument for ecclesiologically governed interpretation, I would argue (as a Protestant) that such Protestants engage in performative contradictions anytime they use the word “heretic.” Although Levering’s work still leaves certain questions unanswered, it appears to be more suggestive than comprehensive, inviting other Christians to join him in rethinking an authentically Christian hermeneutical framework that does not shy away from all useful critical tools but keeps the divine realities central to the task of interpretation.

by Bradley R. Cochran

Feminist Theology is Alive and Well: A Critique of Johnson’s Book “She Who Is”

Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1999.

41A2YC0RQZL._SL210_

Feminist theology is not dead. Although Johnson’s book was written a long time ago, her arguments for a feminist reform have been well received over the years and still stand as perhaps the most reasonably argued feminist position available for Catholics. Compared to other feminist reform proposals, her project is very modest. Her ideas have had plenty of time to percolate the church and the Catholic authorities have not taken any disciplinary action against her. In fact, she was invited recently to The University of Dayton (a Catholic school that I presently attend) to give talks on her classic book (i.e. given a chance to promote her theology).

Apparently, whenever there is a new reform ideology floating around “out there” in the Catholic world of theology (especially those seen as having an influence—i.e. feminism), Roman Catholics like to ask the question whether such new ideology is ressourcement or aggiornamiento with respect to the Tradition (Catholics like to use big Latin words to describe relatively easy concepts, and I explain my understanding of them below). We must remember that for the Catholics this includes Scripture because it was the Tradition—not scripture itself—that delineated and codified the canon.

NOTE: From here on out I will not capitalize “tradition,” but I mean to refer to the broad theological tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Perhaps because I am not cognizant of the technical ways in which these terms are understood by Catholic theologians, ressourcement and aggiornamiento appear to me to be greatly overlapping categories. For the sake of my present thoughts, however, I will assume that ressourcement involves—at least to some degree—the replacement of the “old” interpretation with a “new” one, in which case the old paradigm must be undermined to give way to the new.  For the sake of my present thoughts I will also assume aggiornamiento to be less threatening to the “old” way of interpreting the tradition by understanding it more like a further enlightenment of the implications of the old.

I will now seek to give an answer to the question of whether Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is (see publication info above) is ressourcement or aggiornamiento according to a Catholic model of authority.  I will conclude that certain aspects of Johnson’s project can be seen by Catholics as a harmless enlightenment that advances the existing tradition (aggiornamiento), while other aspects of her proposal appear to undermine aspects of that tradition and could therefore be considered a reinterpretation (ressourcement).

Areas of Johnson’s Project Compatible with Catholic Tradition 

At times Johnson appears to understand herself as engaging only in an attempt to balance out the traditional male imagery of God with an equal amount of female imagery that helps plunge the depths of the divine mystery—which would appear to be simply a way of adding more wisdom to the existing tradition (aggiornamiento).  For example, consistent with the tradition she understands that gender language about God is only metaphorical—not literal (5-6). God is not a male.  

NOTE: She doesn’t like the irony of saying “He is not male,” which language she believes undermines the point!  She prefers “Godself” to “Himself.”  

Along with tradition she admits that metaphors (and all language about God) can never fully exhaust the mystery of the divine reality and therefore all language is inadequate (7). She hopes to make the tradition a land of plenty for feminists who are turned off to it, “consolidating” its gains (12). A good example of such consolidation is Johnson’s application of Irenaeus’s axiom Gloria Dei vivens homo (the Glory of God is the flourishing of humankind) to the female gender (14). In this case, she simply applies tradition in a new direction without undermining it.

She explicitly delineates her aim in terms of “a new interpretation of the tradition” (18) and a “hermeneutical retrieval” of ancient texts (which I assume includes scripture as well as extrabiblical tradition). While anxious to correct sexism she nevertheless does not take this to the extreme of denying all differences between men and women (32).  The most important distinction she makes is this: she is not advocating a negation of male imagery (which is used in the tradition) but only pleading that such imagery not be understood literally or used exclusively (to the marginalization of female imagery) or patriarchally (33).

The male metaphors are to be understood as designating relationships, not essence (34). She is not abandoning, for example, the Chalcedonian formulation, only correcting it against the abuse of arbitrarily transferring Jesus’ human gender to the his divine person when none of the other historical particularities of his human nature are considered transferable (35).  Her female imagery is often drawn from scripture itself (e.g. the housekeeper’s lost coin in Luke 15:4-10 [56]).  She does not ignore or deny, for example, scriptures metaphor for God as Father (80-81).  She does justice to proper theological distinctions between God’s presence and essence in male depictions of YHWH (106).

Johnson’s continued emphasis on paternal symbols as analogous of function and “not an ontological claim,” fits with the existing tradition—aggiornamiento (173). Likewise, her persistent criticism of Aquinas’ anthropology continues also to be a fair corrective (Aquinas thought females were inferior to males, 174). When she complains that the pneumotology of the Nicene Creed “did not receive attention commensurate with [its] confession,” her lament, I take it, could be shared by the most conservative of Catholics and is certainly no threat to the tradition (128). Just the opposite, her critical energy here is an aspiration to live up to this tradition. Her observation that Mary has stolen the spotlight from the Holy Spirit is fitting with the tradition also, which, though affirming that the Holy Spirit is God and Mary merely mortal, tends to let Mary wear all the outfits from the Holy Spirit’s wardrobe (129). This critique is sure to find resonance with Protestants such as myself who share similar concerns. At these junctures, Johnson’s critiques are inbounds and no one should pull the plug on her venture.

Aspects of Johnson’s Project That Undermine Catholic Authority 

On the other hand, Johnson at times appears to be undermining the tradition—in which case her project appears to overlap with ressourcement.

For example, she understands herself to be promoting an entire shift in total world view (6, 28) in which the Christian’s traditional use of divine imagery is “deconstructed” and heavily criticized (29). She is against the use of certain male images that (as inconvenient as it is for Johnson) are actually prevalent in the Christian tradition—God as the absolute king of the world, for example—decrying these images as inherently perverted even when understood in benevolent terms rather than tyrannical terms (20, 34, 36).

Contrary to Catholic tradition that saw Jesus as playing subordinate roles to the Father while still being equal in essence and glory, Johnson also understands roles of subordination to imply inferiority (23, 25). What does that say about Jesus?  Furthermore, since Jesus used almost exclusively masculine language for God (which is oppressive in Johnson’s view), it raises the question: “Did Jesus accommodate himself to a sinful and oppressive way of speaking about God?”  The implications of her ideology have dangerous implications here.

The tension between these two aspects of her project—undermining the tradition while at the same time attempting to cast her project as one that strengthens that same tradition—cannot be easily resolved.

If the tradition excludes women from certain responsibilities in the church, such as priesthood and bishopric, Johnson’s evaluation at places undermines this tradition and (therefore) proposes what we might call a censorious denunciation (or “reinterpretation,” if you prefer to be less candid) of the tradition (122). To depict the state of affairs more starkly: If her concept of “flourishing” includes women flourishing in these roles for which they have so far been forbidden by the tradition, she is accusing the Catholic church of blasphemy (168)!

Ironically, while she claims that “the crucified Jesus embodies the exact opposite of the patriarchal ideal of the powerful man,” she seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that the Sophia-inspired text of scripture (Sophia is Johnson’s favorite name for God) teaches that Jesus endured the suffering of the cross in order to purchase a people for his own possession (Titus 2:14) and, upon rising, take his seat at the right hand of God (Heb 12:2)—the place of kingly power that Johnson hopes the image of the crucified Christ will eradicate (161)!

Conclusion: Johnson = Typical Modern Theology 

Johnson wants to accept parts of the tradition that conveniently fit her feminist agenda and vehemently reject those that create problems for her agenda—even if they are at the heart of the gospel itself (not to mention the broader tradition). This fits the postliberal complaint to a tee (that modern theology wrongly tries to redefine God in keeping with their modern sensibilities, redefining everything to fit their agenda). The real question is: Is anyone really surprised?

Book Review: Seeing With New Eyes by David Powlison

Since I posted a book review on Jay Adams’ book Competent to Counsel entitled Psychology is the Devil: A Critique of Jay Adams’ Counseling Paradigm, it has been the most viewed post here at  T h e o • p h i l g u e.  On the one hand, I think the Biblical Counseling Movement has great potential and certainly beats compromised approaches to counseling that do not take the Christian Worldview seriously enough.  On the other hand, I also think that many who associate themselves with the BCM are plagued with a spirit of anti-science, and that sometimes those who are not a part of their movement interpret and apply the Bible in a way that is more biblically informed and scientifically aware.  Although not associated closely with BCM or the integrationist approach, Eric Johnson has presented by far the most balanced and sophisticated approach that anchors itself in a biblical worldview without bashing science and psychology.  I have learned, however, after reading more literature from the BCM, that not everybody thinks as dogmatically as Jay Adams (who endorses very negative and unfair critiques of Eric Johnson’s work).  Case in point: David Powlison and Paul David Tripp.  Although closely associated with the Biblical Counseling Movement, these authors are much more helpful in their application of biblical truth and much less polemic in their tone.  Below is a book review of David Powlison’s book Seeing With New Eyes.  I offer praise as well as critique.    

Powlison, David.  Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture.  Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003.  274 pp.  $10.49.

Seeing with New Eyes

 

Positive Summary

One of Powlison’s greatest advantages in his approach to biblical counseling is his desire to be somewhat systematic and comprehensive as opposed to merely pragmatic (3).  This project includes presuppositional candor and consistency.  He rightly perceives all counseling models as virtual pastoral care that ultimately seeks to diagnose and cure (3).  Because of this paradigmatic sensitivity and cultural familiarity, our author cleverly understands that although secular counseling models may have great insights into human nature and provide half decent advice, ultimately, because they fail to put God in the equation at all (much less at the center) they are paradigmatically hostile to the Christian worldview (4).  Such epistemic alertness has been the strength of the biblical counseling movement and is the foundational insight of this book. 

More important than systematic attempts to understand accurately is the author’s more ultimate goal of feeling appropriately.  Powlison is jealous not to sound “overly cognitive,” but emphasizes that the end goal is to “feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires” (10).  It is made very clear that our author’s rigorous method for dealing with the concepts of counseling is rigorous only because “seeing clearly, we can love well” (12).  The principle of getting “personal” in the application of biblical truth is part of the very fabric of every chapter (11, 37). 

Powlison’s motivational theory influences how he addresses every problem in counseling scenarios.  This applies not only to his belief that “we can be fundamentally rewired” but also his supreme insight into the biblical picture of human nature (147).  We all worship something because God designed us for worship; thus, every ethical problem is rooted somehow in our failure to have God-centered desires (147, 149).  The author also operates under the assumption that desires for good things such as family, friends and human love become sinful snares of idolatry when they are not subordinate to our desire to please God (151).        

 

Negative Critique

Our author has a “Christifying” modus operandi hermeneutical scheme worth noting, which scheme I am inclined to be skeptical about (26, 28).  He believes that the New Testament “alters” the Old Testament for pragmatic purposes (23, 25).  Paul uses the Old Testament pragmatically, not exegetically.  Even passages which do not originally have messianic overtones should now be understood primarily in terms of what they say about Christ (23-24).  I am skeptical concerning this hermeneutical approach because it seems to violate the theory of authorial intent, and so far, I have not seen a more comprehensive and sophisticated theory of inspiration than the Chicago Statement which works through the implications of authorial intent for the doctrine of inspiration.  I am afraid that Powlison, as something of a neo-Adams, has not developed a robust and clear hermeneutic for the BCM that does justice to the issues that inevitably arise in a uniquely Christian discipline of practical theology.  If Scripture is the foundation for counseling, consistency in hermeneutical precision is indispensible, yet Powlison’s theory of hermeneutics seems to betray the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy at the point of authorial intent.

Another question Powlison’s admonitions raise is this: “Is the style of Scripture inspired as well as the meaning which the style embodies?”  This question should be raised since Powlison asserts that not only “may” we communicate biblical truth in the way Paul did, but we “must do so” (29).  I would agree that we might take some cues from some of the various styles of communication found in the biblical authors, but Powlison seems to define fidelity to the meaning of the biblical text with fidelity the genre or style of the biblical authors.  Although Powlison attempts to state his understanding more modestly in his disclaiming section, his more modest summary of the argument does not live up to the bold claims which precede it (30). 

Furthermore, a similar mistake seems to be made when Powlison admonishes his readers to reinterpret their experiences in biblical categories.  In context, he really has in mind that we should think and speak of the human experience primarily in biblical language (152), yet he seems to violate his own principle by calling desires for things which are inherently good “lusts” (151).  We might ask, “When Paul uses the phrase ‘lusts of the flesh,’ does he have in mind things which are inherently good?”  Perhaps such a case could be made, but Powlison makes no such case.  Rather, he seems to be unconsciously taking the liberty to bend the language of the biblical text to better communicate a mature biblical category of idolatry (150).  Does fidelity to biblical meaning and truth necessarily entail using the exact biblical language, or is the meaning capable of being spoken in different words than those in our English Bible translations?  Since Powlison’s call to think in biblical categories winds up including the use of biblical language, although inconsistently, he seems confused about the nature of this distinction, which is an important one for defining “fidelity” to the Christian worldview.  How one understands the answer to these questions will have a major effect on whether one’s counseling model seeks to synthesize the insights of secular sciences with the lenses of biblical categories of meaning or reject these insights as “unbiblical” just because they do not go by the biblical labels.

 

Conclusion                       

I was challenged to appreciate the BCM more through reading Powlison’s views.  His views are more mature than those of Jay Adams.  Therefore, my sympathy with the movement has grown as a result of reading this book.  Although, in the footsteps of Adams, Powlison multiplies false dichotomy upon false dichotomy, his false dichotomies are less frequent and less dramatic.  Moreover, they are attended with a deeper level of insight that is more faithful to the biblical teachings than Adams’ analysis.                   

:: Fanaticism •r Biblical Spirituality? :: B••k Review

Unfortunately, I was required to read this book, A Pastor’s Sketches, in my evangelism class at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY.  The book is dangerous.  A poor example of evangelism, a pastor who mistakes Calvinism for the gospel, and is out of touch with biblical spirituality.  It concerns me that this book is required reading at Southern.  

58_200_3001

Spencer thinks we should be suspicious of someone’s coming to Christ in the midst of strong affections, for “when the affections take the lead, they will be very apt to monopolize the whole soul—judgment and conscience will be overpowered, or flung into the background” (175).  He calls this kind of phenomenon “fanaticism” (175).  Spencer believes that “the most clear perception of truth, the deepest conviction, is seldom accompanied by any great excitement of the sensibilities” (175).  9) It does not seem to be a good idea to Spencer, to present the doctrine of predestination at the outset to a sinner who still needs to learn repentance and faith (239).

Spencer here more than anywhere else demonstrates that he is out of touch with biblical spirituality.  This brief post is not the place for a lengthy discussion of emotions and their role in the Christian life (I do a little of that here), but I will mention a few things in passing.  

Part of conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit that causes the sinner to not only know they are sinful, but to feel contrition for their sin.  This feeling I believe to be necessary for true conversion.  When someone comes to Christ, it is not merely because they have understood doctrines, but it is because the Holy Spirit has wrought within them genuine affections for the person of Christ.   They ought to be overwhelmed with affection for the Savior, having seen Him for who He truly is for the first time.  How can such a vision not be attended with great excitement of the spirit of a man?  Also, joy is an essential aspect in conversion (Matthew 13:44).  Thus, we should expect strong affections to arise during conversion, and for the conversion of sinners to be accompanied by a “great excitement of the sensibilities.”  Conversion affects the whole person, not just the mind.  In fact, Spencer seems to be unconsciously aware of this reality, as he tells us he considers it part of his responsibility to impress truths, not merely on the mind, but on the “feelings” (52).    

::: Calvinism is not the Gospel ::: Book Review

If you go to Southern Seminary (like I do), you are required to take a class in evangelism, and it’s usually one of the larger classes since it’s mandatory for almost any tract.  If you take Dr. Beougher, he requires you to read a book called A Pastors Sketches.  It’s an old book written by a Presbyterian minister named Spencer who was known as the “Bunyan of Brooklyn.”  It’s basically his journalism about evangelistic encounters he has with people around Brooklyn and beyond.  The first “sketch” of an encounter was actually quite fascinating and helpful.  But as the book drags on, it becomes onerous to the critical reader in a variety of ways.  I will be exploring several dangers of this book that may be influencing and effecting seminary students at Southern in the next few posts.

58_200_300

 

Spencer, Ichabod.  A Pastor’s Sketches.  Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2001. Reprint 2002. 285. $12.95.

Danger 1: Calvinism is Not the Gospel

Spencer believes that part of saving faith and understanding is to understand “the entire depravity of the heart” (127, emphasis mine).  Reading between the lines that he is a Calvinist, believing the doctrines of grace, I assume he means by this that a person cannot be saved without an understanding of the doctrine of total depravity: “If he does not see that [the entire depravity of the heart], it is probable that he does not see his heart.  And hence his repentance, his faith in Christ, and his reliance upon the Holy Spirit, will probably, all of them, be only deceptions” (127, emphasis mine).  This perspective would explain why he is so intent on giving long indictment speeches to unbelievers (see “Election,” 230-255). 

He seems to further imply that one must not only believe the doctrine of total depravity for there to be certainty of his true conversion, but also the other four doctrines of grace: “My observation continues to confirm me more and more in the opinion that to experience religion is to experience the truth of the great doctrines of divine grace” (127, emphasis mine).  Because the following statement is made in the same context, it gives the impression that he considers these doctrines of grace, not as optional doctrinal positions, but as essential to Christianity: “And. . .I believed, and had always acted on the principle, that true experimental religion will always lead its subjects to a knowledge of the great essential doctrines of the Christian system—indeed, that to experience religion is just to experience these doctrines” (126).  This principle is also evident when upon testing some young men who had supposedly been saved through a “camp meeting,” he questioned the validity of their experience because they did not have all the right answers to his questions (129).

I can’t help but think Spencer’s approach in this respect is legalistic and dangerous.  Calvinism is not the gospel.  While I myself believe that the doctrines of Calvinism are biblical, I do not believe any one of them is necessary to believe as a prerequisite to true conversion.  If this were true, only Calvinists would be saved. (I’ve blogged about this before)  Also, Spencer’s glib outlook on so called “revival” seems to result from this false notion.  He says, “A true history of spurious revivals would be one of the most melancholy books ever written” (130).  He appears at one point to attempt making a distinction between a person having a technical understanding of such doctrines (which he names as human sinfulness, divine sovereignty, atonement, justification by faith, regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the constant need of divine aid) and a persons being “substantially right” in their minds “on such doctrines” (130).  However, it is not clear what the practical difference would be to him, especially since he was not satisfied with the answers given to him by the two young men in the chapter entitled “Excitement” (128-130).  Also, Spencer almost seems jealous when members of his attend “revival” meetings or go to another church to be taught.  In the section of his book entitled “Proselytying,” he immediately assumes that someone is “soliciting” them away from his preaching (182).  He judges the situation too quickly, assuming that if these revival attenders are not immediately converted to Christ once they have changed churches that it is “manifest” that whoever they have gone to hear is simply “tickling their vanity and pride” with their attention (183).  He seems pessimistic of all other churches but his own.  

%d bloggers like this: