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I thought I would share three texts that have served most foundational for me in my theological development. Each of these texts was assigned to me by my former Historical Theology and Ethics professor in seminary, Ron Frost. I was privileged to serve as his teaching fellow and, as a result, became mentored by him. I will say that without Ron Frost at the seminary, my time at seminary would not have been as great as it was (and that’s saying a lot because so many of my other seminary profs were excellent in their own right, and in their own ways). But the texts that remain formative for me are these:

J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrine: Revised Edition.

Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Relgious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe.

And as supplementary readings (although I read the whole thing):

Geoffrey Bromiley’s Historical Theology: An Introduction.

You will notice that these are all historical theology related. I continue to maintain, that without having a foundation in the classical sources (so a reified ad fontes or ‘back to the sources’), and without having a grasp of their general doctrinal frameworks and trajectories, that it will be nay impossible for genuinely Christian theological development to take place. I take this as a given just as we find this sort of sentiment implied by the Apostle Paul when he writes in Ephesians 4: “11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ ….” This is a basic or fundamentum reality for me as a Christian; I believe we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, and we are given a theological imaginary to think from thence.

So, I commend these texts to you. They will open you up to the ‘sources’, and allow you to engage in constructive theological theology in ways, that outwith, will not be possible. We see the dangers of people who attempt to do theology without this requisite background; they end up engaging in thought that is unmoored from the foundations that Jesus himself has offered his church, with the intention of causing edification and growth into the grace and knowledge that he himself is.

Ironically, I am often thought of us as a “Barth blogger,” or a “Torrance blogger,” and I’m fine with that. But it should be known that this only reflects the tip of the ice-berg for me. Years ago, when I first started blogging (in 2005), I might have been known as a “Luther blogger, Calvin blogger, or Sibbes blogger,” respectively. Typically my blogging is driven by whatever I’m reading at the time (as so many of you know by now). But in general Barth and Torrance have come to dominate the types of posts I generate; pretty much, because I have adopted that ‘tradition’ (and it is a tradition, just as much as the Thomist or Bavinckian or Calvinian are interpretive traditions in their own right) as my interpretive tradition. But, again, all of that is chastened by the sources. I have not lost sight of those, nor have I become a progressive-modern-liberalesque theologian who sees the past as a naïve and a pre-critical time (even if it was pre-critical … which actually is where its value is); least not in the pejorative sense that these former theologians see it as. Ultimately I will follow the theologians who point me most to Jesus Christ, no matter what period I find them in. I might be critical of some of the metaphysics as they are received by many these days; the metaphysics of say the mediaeval periods etc. But I can also critically recognize that these theologians were doing the best they could with what they had materially and formally available to them. I can recognize that they had the same impulses I have, in the sense that they wanted to magnify Jesus for the church in the sort of edifying ways that Paul refers us to.

Pax Christi.

 

 

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My long time blogging friend, [W.] Travis McMaken, PhD Princeton, and the one who originally introduced (along with Halden Doerge–almost on the same day, it was ordained) me to Thomas Torrance, is having a westminsterkarlbarthwriting contest for his blog. The winner will get a  copy of The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth. Here’s what Travis writes in the first half of his post alerting us to this contest:

That’s right, folks! This is your chance to win a free copy of the newly publishedWestminster Handbook to Karl Barth (WJK, 2013) edited by Richard Burnett. This looks like a very handy volume for folks starting out in Barth studies, or who are interested in a more thematic presentation of Barth’s thought.

Westminster John Knox was kind enough to send DET a review copy of the book. Luckily for you, gentle readers, they did so about a week after I had received my pre-ordered copy. So now I’m giving you a chance to get a free book. Here’s how this is going to work…

To become eligible for the prize, you will need to send a short (500-750 word) “essay” (blog post, etc.) in response to the prompt:

Why and / or how (i.e., in what manner) should Karl Barth remain an important theological voice in 21st century theology? (click here for the rest of Travis word’s)

So if you are a budding Barth scholar in the making, or just want to know more about Karl Barth and his theology out of intrigue; then I challenge you to submit a short essay (I mean really, 500 words is a page of written script … so not much) to Travis, and his blog Die Evangelischen Theologen; you just might become the lucky winner of a brand new shiny copy of The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth. Good luck, and godspeed!  Oh, and don’t shoot your eye out kid …

In our online age there seems to be a ‘click’ approach to our Christian reading practices, and in ways, I see no problems with this at all. But, there is also potential for problems associated with this ‘click’ approach. If we are reading someone (like N.T. Wright et. al.) just to be considered part of the crowd or part of the cool kid’s group; we are missing the boat. I think we need to read where our interests genuinely lay. If we are interested in reading Augustine, or James Cone, or whomever; then we ought to. If we are reading things or certain people simply to impress other people, then let us be anathema! I think there is an ethic to reading (see Vanhoozer), and as Christians we ought to be genuine readers, for genuinely Christian reasons. Clearly, we might be spurred on to read someone (like Wright) to be part of the cool kids, and then as we are actually reading him switch over to genuine interest in what he or she is materially communicating; the Lord can transform and reverse all of our ill-conceived intentions.

Furthermore, if we all are click-readers, and are reading the same things; how are we supposed to minister to each other as the body of Christ? This is my biggest concern with ‘groupie-reading’. Not only is it not Christian by persuasion and mode, but it also creates gaps in the body of Christ. Maybe if we were more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading, more in step with Him, we would sense His leading and direction into reading someone or something else; by so doing, we just might be surprised by what He has waiting for us, buried, as it were, in the dusty pages that the cool kids might not be reading.

Anyway, this is just another one of my rants & reflections. I have been feeling more and more convicted every day to be serious about what I am doing; to be intentional (I actually don’t like that little word, it is still so trendy, but it captures what I mean). Being an online participant has the effect of abstracting, at least, my life into a virtual mumbo-jumbo mode of abstraction that has no real touch-down in the concrete real life world I inhabit day in and out (in the home and at work in particular). It is time to stand up, once again, live boldly, read boldly, and actually participate in the vicarious humanity of Christ that grounds my life by the recreative power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I feel like chucking all my books and reading, but then I realize that that would be stupid. Reading good theological books is not the problem. Wanting to be a cool kid can be a problem (theology of glory). Reading good books (that are intended to explicate Scripture and the implications of God’s life in Christ) without prayer and passionate action is a problem. It is this reality, these problems, that motivated me to write this post on an ethic of reading as a Christian.

I am just starting to read a brand new translation of Jacobus Arminius’ Declaration of Sentiments in W. Stephen Gunter’s Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and jacobus_arminiusTheological Commentary (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012). I’ll let you know what I find out.

I am also reading another book I’ve been wanting to read for a bit now; Kenneth J. Stewart’s Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011). You’ll be hearing some things about this one too, I’m sure.

And then I am revisiting a book that I read some essays from in the past, a book edited by Maarten Wisse, Marcel Sarot & Willemien Otten, entitled: Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt (Netherlands: Brill, 2010). I bet you can’t wait to hear from this one 😉 !

And finally, something that is directly in the realm of biblical studies; Francis Watson’s Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith (London • New York: T&T Clark International, 2004). I look forward to this one alongside the others! I hope I can make it through this one in the next 6 weeks (it is rather long, 500 pages). You should expect to hear from this one too.

I often check out books from my theo library that I don’t always have the time to totally finish. I am hoping that with this new crop that is different! I don’t even know why I am driven to study and read like this sometimes; all I can think is that the Lord has wired me this way, and thus it is my favorite way to think that I could potentially come to know him even better as I partake of the riches that he has bequeathed to his church through her teachers. The only missing piece to this is that I need someone to share this with, and since I don’t have a classroom of my own; well, you all are the ones I share with then.

Let me clarify something about my blogging, at least. I have recently receive an email from someone, and one of the reasons he mentioned that he does not blog is because for some reason he thinks it has to be of the upmost quality (writing), with the apparent precision and accessibility of a formal writing project or teaching session (or something). I don’t approach my blogging that way, you’ll have to forgive me. I use this place more than anything as a place to cycle through my raw thinking as I read things. I try to write in an interesting and provocative way, but that is not always the foremost impulse that shapes what comes out in my posts; my own understanding of the material under my consideration is what is mostly at stake. Just to be frank. I am thankful for all of you readers, but just so you know what drives my blogging, and then the subsequent stuff you end up reading here :-).

*Repost on John Calvin number seven. I have decided to selectively repost some of my John Calvin posts and not all of them. This book by Julie is awesome (and is on my re-read list). By the way, Julie Canlis also offers an excellent chapter in Myk’s and my book; her chapter therein is entitled: Living as God’s Children: Calvin’s Institutes as Primer for Spiritual Formation.

Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension by Julie Canlis (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6449-9 (286 pages)

Julie Canlis has offered Calvin studies, in particular, and the Christian Church, in general, a classic before its time (given its relative “newness”). She masterfully seeks to introduce a theme, a doctrinal milieu for Calvin that simply is original; yet not novel. Her book, “Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension,” depicts a Calvin who has his theology shaped, heavily, by a doctrine of participation and ascent. Her book is organized accordingly: She lays out the logistics of the body of the book in her Introduction, which involves (i) ‘partcipation and Christianity’, (ii) ‘participation as a valid Reformed category’, (iii) ‘participation and Irenaeus’, and (iv) Calvin and Irenaeus (pp. 1-21). She then begins to develop what she highlights in her introduction in Chapter 1, entitled — Ladders of Ascent: A Brief History; the breakdown of the chapter is as follows: (i) ‘Greek itineraries: Plato’s Ladder and Plotinus’s golden circle’, (ii) ‘Christian journeys: Origen, Augustine, Aquinas’, and (iii) ‘Calvin’s paradigm of ascent’ (pp. 25-42). Chapter 2, Creation: The Ground and Grammar of Ascent, is framed by two sections: (i) Eternal mediation of the Word’ and (ii)’The mediator and the garden’ (pp. 53-74). Moving into Chapter 3, Christ: The Ascending One, Canlis unveils the descent and ascent of Christ with the theatre having been set by ‘Creation’ in the previous chapter; this chapter progresses thusly: (i) ‘The bidirectional itinerary of God’, (ii) ‘The descent of Jesus: His earthly humanity’, and (iii) The ascent of Jesus: His continuing humanity (pp. 89-112). Prior to discussing Irenaeus as Calvin’s foil and discussion partner in chapter 5, Julie moves skillfully into Chapter 4, The Spirit: The Eucharistic Ascent where she discusses the centrality and natural place this takes through Calvin’s schema of ‘union with Christ’ and ‘participation’ as a central component of his theology; this chapter discusses: (i) ‘Discipleship’, (ii) ‘Adoption’, and (iii) ‘The eucharistic ascent’ (pp. 123-159). She changes gears as we enter into Chapter 5, The Ascending Vision of Irenaeus; who she has already noted, back in chapter 1, serves as a helpful voice when engaging Calvin’s ‘ascension theology’; since Irenaeus not only represents an ealry corollary and cooridinate voice to Calvin’s in this area, but as we will see in chapter 6 — somewhat of a corrective (by way of complement) to Calvin, in regards to Calvin’s sometimes binary and almost “Platonic” like dualistic language (esp. when it comes to the eucharist, but also relative to his “theological anthropology”). Chapter 5 unfolds: (i) ‘The ascending economy of Adam’, (ii) ‘The ascending economy of Christ’, and (iii) ‘The ascending economy of the Spirit’ (pp. 173-210). Finally (in a good and crescendo kind of way) we come to Chapter 6, Reforming Ascent: Irenaeus, Calvin, and Christian Spirituality; this was well worth the wait, herein, Canlis orchestrates in symphonic tempo the voices of both Calvin and Irenaeus. She presents Calvin as the star of the show, highlighting all of the previous points she had developed throughout the body of the book; but as the co-star, she uses Irenaeus tenor like voice to bring harmony to Calvin’s theology of ascent in ways that are both historically tuned, but more constructively balanced in way that both Calvin and Irenaeus are allowed to shine with their respective strengths and weaknesses given their proper air time. The chapter breaksdown: (i) ‘Backward and forward with descent and ascent’, (ii) ‘Recapitulating ascent in Calvin’, (iii) ‘Participation and its challenges, and (iv) ‘Ascent, Calvin, and contemporary spirituality’ (pp. 229-245). She closes out the work with a dense Bibliography (pp. 253-272) and helpful Index of Names, Subjects, and Calvin’s Works (273-283) — respectively.

General Impressions

Julie Canlis’ book will rock your Calvin and Calvinistic world (if you have one). She offers a Calvin who is Pneumotologically shaped, and who really sounds less like the “Calvinism” that followed him; than ever before. The Calvin presented by Julie certainly fits the ‘Confessional Calvin’ that Charles Partee introduced us to in his (2008) ‘The Theology of John Calvin’ offering. She presses the ‘centrality’ that union with Christ & Participation with Christ played in shaping Calvin’s overall project; and she does this in a way that is not polemic, nor does it overtly engage the pictures of Calvin painted by folks like: Richard Muller, Carl Trueman, and David Steinmetz respectively; all of these scholars have sought to place Calvin in his “context” which does away with notions of Calvin that might portend a ‘centraldogma’. Interestingly, while Julie avoids this rather polemically charged venue of discourse; what she ends up doing is demonstrating that in fact Calvin does have a “core” (or center) that drives his overall theology, viz. his ‘theology of ascent’ (which is simply grounded in his “union with Christ” and “participation” with Christ theology).

Beyond all of this, what I found most refreshing was the koinonial-relational (Trinitarian) shape that Canlis develops relative to Calvin’s theology. She demonstrates, that while certain categories of Platonism (like ascent) were present (linguistically) in Calvin’s theology; that in the end, Calvin out-paces such things precisely because of his commitment to biblical and Trinitarian and Christian concepts that slight the metaphysics provided by Platonism. This is where Irenaeus becomes a very helpful interlocuter to Calvin; Canlis fruitfully notices and develops that one of the points of contact between both Calvin and Irenaeus is their overt and explicit Biblicism. This allows both men to escape the tendencies to slip back into the kind of Platonic metaphysicalism that folks like Osiander fell into in the attempt to talk about Christ’s divinity and humanity.

I would highly recommend this book, I give it 5 out of 5 stars; it will change your life (not an overstatement).

PS. This book is her PhD dissertation which she did under Alan Torrance at the University of St. Andrews (2005). While it is clearly a critical and academic work, the style is both pastoral and even devotional. I think any engaged Christian — layman, pastor, or scholar — will benefit immensely from this book!

  • Barth’s Christology by Cornelius Van Til (actually, this one is read, it’s only a quick 29 pages)

Here’s the last paragraph of the essay (booklet):

[T]hus the Christ who symbolizes this idea of man’s virtual omniscience and a God who knows not himself is the projection of would be autonomous human experience: It is the belief in this sort of Christ that leads men to think that they have done justice to God and Christ while in fact they are still under their condemnation and wrath. The Christ of Barth’s theology is a false Christ, a meaningless mirage, and devoid of ability to give sinners any help. But it is the only Christ that men can find if they will not submit their thinking to the obedience of Christ as he speaks in the Scriptures. (p. 29)

  • Christianity And Barthianism by Cornelius Van Til

Here’s Van Til in the preface:

[T]he present writer is of the opinion that, for all its verbal similarity to historic Protestantism, Barth’s theology is, in effect, a denial of it. There is,  he believes, in Barth’s view no “transition from wrath to grace” in history. This was the writer’s opinion in 1946 when he published The New Modernism. A careful consideration of Barth’s more recent writings has only established him more firmly in this conviction. (p. vii)

There you have it. I plan on posting some of the stuff from Van Til on Barth. There are plenty of things that are perfect bloggy material provided by his essay (booklet) Barth’s Christology. Van Til continues to be the great defeater of Barthianism for some within the post Reformed orthodox camp today (mostly by those who attend and teach at Westminster Theological Seminary). Even what I know of Barth, which has some depth at this point (relatively speaking), Van Til’s points fall flat (in his little booklet tract against Barth’s Christology). My “e-friend” Darren Sumner recently took Van Til to task hereI wish more folk would pay attention to critiques of Van Til, but instead those who follow Van Til seem to continue to follow the notion that Barth is a demon and not a saint—which ultimately is scary!

This looks like an interesting book, The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love by Greg Forster. Ted Kluck has a review of the book over at The Gospel Coalition’s Website (just click on The Gospel Coalition). Here’s a quote from the book that Kluck puts in his review of the book:

Few would disagree with the statement that a true Christian is a person who clings for salvation, not to the church; not to the sacraments; not to the Bible; not even to the proclamation of the gospel or the believer’s belief in it; but to the cross and the empty tomb. Calvinism is just the systematic application of this truth in all doctrine, piety, and life. If you make this truth your theological touchstone and resolve to reject everything that comes into conflict with it, and carry out that resolution consistently, you will find yourself a Calvinist.

I will definitely be giving this new book a read! The above sentiment, in the quote, sounds all too common to these ears. I can recall engaging with many many Calvinists over the years, and amongst most of them; their most common refrain was the sentiment sketched above by Forster—i.e. that they simply read the Bible for all its worth, took it to heart, and they came out a Calvinist. Of course, I’ve heard Arminians say something similar to their Arminianism, and Charismatics, likewise; etc. There must be something more to this; something more than simply ‘the systematic application of this truth in all doctrine, piety, and life’. This reminds me of when Charles Spurgeon famously said:

I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.(From A Defense of Calvinism.)

But, really, it can’t be this simple; or everyone who genuinely read the Bible would pop out a Calvinist. There obviously is something more at play, but what? Kluck notes something else in Forster’s book that I find particularly troubling—indeed, because I think it is an accurate and true sentiment—Kluck writes of Forster’s book:

As young Calvinists there are a number of markets that we’ve “cornered” in recent years. We’ve pretty much locked down the “knowing our theology” market, we almost single-handedly killed the emergent church a few years ago, and we’re beginning to see Calvinists influencing broader non-historically-Calvinistic denominations and universities. These are all good things, because as the author effectively explains, Calvinism isn’t a “brand” or a list of points, it’s a framework for understanding scripture and the Bible that results in the greatest possible amount of truth, comfort, and joy. Yet the question remains: Are we living joyful lives?

Boy, I find this really troubling! Especially when Kluck wrote this, “and we’re beginning to see Calvinists influencing broader non-historically-Calvinistic denominations and universities.” This is true though, and movements like The Gospel Coalition are making great strides in seeing this kind of American Calvinist push through … even in non-Calvinist denominations, as he notes.

Once I read this book, I’ll give some kind of report on it here at the blog. What we need is to get our book out for you all, then The Joy of Being an Evangelical Calvinist will bring the kind of perspective we all need!

Here’s what I am currently reading while not blogging 😉 :

Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels by Craig A. Evans

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

Church Dogmatics IV/I The Doctrine of Reconciliation by Karl Barth

The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation by Christian D. Kettler

Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ by J. Todd Billings

And rerereading: Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ by Thomas F. Torrance

And in my Bible reading I am currently in Jeremiah as I continue my read thrus (this is my 27th time) [I always am concurrently reading whatever book I feel like from the NT as I do my read thrus which average about 3x thru in a year]

That’s the run down.

Jackson Baer

What The Hell: How Did We Get It So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and the Message of Love

Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press Inc., pp. xii.+139. Paper. $7.70

I want to thank Jackson Baer for promptly sending me this review copy from his own resources. The following review ends up being a bit critical of Jackson’s presentation, but I want him to know that I still respect him as a brother in Christ; even though I disagree with him. Ultimately, as you will read throughout the review, my disagreement with Baer—in regard to his book—is not as much with his conclusion (although I am not in total agreement with him, and I am not an Evangelical Universalist), but with his form and method of argument (or non-argument). I realize that Jackson Baer is not pretending to be a scholar, and that he obviously writes for the lay people amongst us; but even so, in the end, his method is more than I can bear (pardon the pun). You will have to read the rest of the review to find out what I am talking about. It is rather long (approx. 2700 words), but I wanted to be as thorough and fair to Jackson as I possibly could.

Jackson Baer is a former Youth and Teaching Pastor in an Evangelical church. He was released from his duties as a result of his belief that the doctrine of Hell does not include the Traditional teaching that it involves Eternal Conscious Torment. According to Baer, he wrote this book after spending four years of intense study to understand whether the traditional doctrine of hell was accurate, relative to the teaching of Scripture. Jackson Baer has an undergrad degree from a Bible College, is married with four young children. Baer is not an expert, a trained theologian, or biblical exegete; this reality should be brought to bear as the reader interacts with what Baer has put to print. The following is a review of Jackson Baer’s recently released (self published) book, What The Hell: How Did We Get It So Wrong? Eternity, Grace, and The Message of Love.

The book is made up of eleven short chapters; the total length of the volume is a hundred and thirty-nine pages. There are no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliographic material at the end of the book. The reader should understand that Baer’s book does not intend (it appears) to provide any global arguments, any engagement of recent or past scholarship (biblical or theological), any appeal to the original biblical languages, nor any sense of duty to accurately engage this hot issue in a way that reflects serious, objective, well thought out arguments. In other words, Baer’s book reflects more of a diary of his own personal struggle through the important issue of whether or not the traditional teaching of hell is viable. With that noted, let us enter into the body of Baer’s book.

Chapter 1 is titled, Stuck in Traffic: When One Hour Feels Like Forever. The title, straightforward as it is, identifies Baer’s primary purpose; he is seeking to suggest that time is relative, and thus the punishment of an eternal conscious torment in hell is not necessary in order for God to provide a just punishment for someone’s sins. Baer engages in anecdotal stories in order to “suggest” (versus argue) his point. At the end of this chapter Baer offers one more anecdote about how hell need not literally involve eternity in order to be hell. In the anecdote he is noting a plane trip he made from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon; he gets stuck next to a chap who will not shut up. Baer uses this to describe how time and hell might relate to each other. We jump into the story as Baer is exiting the plane. He writes:

[I] didn’t want to bash this guy because he was obviously lonely. But as soon as he got off that plane all I could think was, “I’m free!” I felt like I had just finished a prison sentence and was tasting freedom for the first time in years. I was so grateful to be out of that seat. I said to myself as I walked into the airport, “That guy just convinced me that Hell is not eternal.” (p. 22)

Other than the humorous nature of this story; it serves to illustrate a very serious point that Baer is contending with. That is, that hell requires the belief that it involves an indefinite period of eternal conscious torment. Baer seems to want to suggest that hell can be temporal conscious torment, and still be hell. Chapter 2 is titled, You Speak Greek, I Read English. In this chapter Baer seeks to describe and argue how semantics, linguistics, and grammar work in the Bible. This is a key chapter for Baer, it is here where he attempts to relativize the biblical language of  words like eternal, fire, and more. Since Baer does not know Koine Greek (New Testament Greek), he relies on Young’s Literal Translation. The YLT translates the Greek word, found in Matthew 25:46, αíων, or aeon as ‘age-during’; instead of as eternal. Baer takes this translation as a repudiation of the normal translation of eternal; and thus he sees this as a way to understand this passage as denoting a quality instead of a quantity of existence. Or, that hell does not need to be understood as a literal place of eternal conscious torment; instead it could be a place of temporal conscious torment (so ‘age-during’ instead of eternal). I am giving Baer a charitable reading here (I think). Baer presses this as an opportunity to highlight how modern, contemporary translations are ultimately biased (and thus interpretations); and thus the serious Bible student (English speaking only) ought to refer to an “unbiased” translation like Young’s Literal Translation supposedly represents. Chapter 3 is entitled, Gehenna, the Grave, and the Invention of Hell. A very self-explanatory title; here Baer seeks to deconstruct the ‘traditional’ understanding of hell by explaining the way words like ‘Gehenna’, ‘the Grave,’ came to be interpreted as Hell. Baer argues that these words should be understood  in metaphoric ways, and  that it is a mis-translation (and thus interpretation) to translate these words with the signifier as ‘Hell’. His basic point is that this serves to mis-lead people into teaching that hell is taught in the Bible, when in fact the word hell is never used. He wants Bible students to refer back to the literal language (i.e. YLT), and thus disassociate ourselves from a doctrine that the New Testament in particular never teaches. Chapter 4, Good Dad v. Bad Dad, is a chapter that argues a fortiori of sorts; Baer argues that as a good earthly father, he will protect his children at all costs. Similarly he argues; that if this is true of earthly fathers, how much more must it be true of the Heavenly Father (p. 53-4). Chapter 5, entitled, What About The Old Testament, suggests that the God of the Old Testament is harsher than the God of the New Testament, and that the God of the Old Testament requires a works-righteousness salvation; while the New Testament is salvation by grace. Baer writes:

. . . The Old Testament is full of stories where people are sacrificing animals to atone for their sins. It’s a work based faith that required men and women to make a sacrifice in order to be forgiven from their sins. It also shows the darker side of God where He wipes out complete nations and seems harsher than most New Testament portrayals. (p. 69)

Baer continues along this line of thought; his method seems to be one where he is trying to provide a plausible account for how we should understand the apparent disparity between  the ‘harsher’ God of the Old Testament, with the God revealed in Christ in the New Testament. He seems to think the best way to understand the dealings of God in the Old Testament is to see them as metaphorical; he writes:

. . . Another thought is that many of the stories are simply metaphorical and didn’t actually happen. This belief might sound heretical to some Christians but it’s also a valid interpretation. (p. 69)

Baer then ties this into the way Jesus taught, parabolically. Baer seems to be suggesting that the ‘genocidal’ God of the Old Testament can be the God of grace in the New Testament; if we understand some of the ‘harsher’ language in the Old Testament as hyperbolic or parabolic. Thus the language should be understood in way that presents God as someone who is intensely adverse to sin, and not actually a mean, wrathful God—the kind of God who would condemn people to an eternal conscious and tormenting place known traditionally as, Hell. Chapter 6 is, All Merciful Now, Pent Up Rage Later? Here Baer asks his most pivotal question (according to him); it is: Why would God be forgiving here on Earth but extremely harsh and final in his punishment after death? (p. 77) In this chapter, Baer engages multiple passages of scripture—Ephesians 2:4-5; I Chronicles 16:34; Pslam 136; Titus 3:4-7; II Thessalonians 1:9; I Thessalonians 5:9-10; Matthew 18—to suggest (argue) that God’s mercy and grace far over-shadow God’s wrath and sense of justice towards sin. This chapter is Baer’s attempt to appeal to God’s nature, which as Baer would argue, means that God is not vindictive or wrathful forever; and Baer believes that the traditional doctrine of hell portends otherwise. Chapter 7 is labeled, When a Metaphor’s a Metaphor. Again, this is straightforward and self-explanatory. He tackles metaphor and its usage in scripture; he seeks to deconstruct the reality of a literal place called hell by ascribing it to the literary form of metaphor. Baer says it best when he writes of the dominical teaching of Jesus found in Mark 9; note, Baer:

[W]hen you are reading metaphorical language, you have to study it to see what the author was truly saying. In that same passage from the book of Mark, we see Jesus talking about being in danger of Gehenna (incorrectly translated as Hell) if you are not turning from those sins. This metaphorical language shows us that there is a punishment for sin and we are in danger of that punishment after we die. Did I miss the part about eternal torment and burning Hell for all of eternity? I didn’t miss it because it’s not there. Jesus didn’t say that, not even metaphorically, several times. That shows me that punishment for sin will not be pleasant but that there is also hope. God’s judgment is a serious thing to encounter. (p. 90)

Chapter 8 is titled, Aren’t We Forgetting Something? I Didn’t Ask To Be Born . . . . His basic suggestion in this chapter is that none of us chose to be born; so therefore, how would it be fair for God to then condemn us to hell? Baer intones that it is not fair and further, that this is incommensurate with God’s nature and demonstration of grace.  Baer writes, “Why would He not be merciful on judgment day, after a person’s time of punishment and correction? Why would he choose for someone to be born, live their life, and send them to Hell for eternity?” (p. 102) He follows this question, with many other skeptical questions about the fairness of God sending people to hell. You will have to read the book to find out what those are. Chapter 9, It’s Either Good News or It’s Not, continues to ask questions about God’s fairness; if in fact there is a literal place known as hell which lasts forever. His basic premise in this chapter is an “all or nothing” proposition; either the Gospel is good news or not. For Baer that means that everybody is included in the life everlasting offered by the Gospel; and not the eternal condemnation of hell (that would be bad news, and according to Baer negate the Good News). Baer writes, “If the Good News of Jesus Christ is only saving 10-20% of the world’s population, like most Christians estimate, then the news is good for a very small percentage of humanity and horrific for the majority of mankind. It’s either good news or it’s not.” (p. 110) The rest of the chapter follows this kind of “logic.” Chapter 10 is entitled, The Battle of Epic Proportions. In this chapter Baer engages the book of Revelation. Baer believes that “if” Revelation is an actual book that should be included in the Canon [he is ambiguous on his belief here, he appeals to the early Luther who questioned this book’s inclusion in the canon of Scripture (p. 124)—and then he questions the clarity of this book given its notoriously enigmatic history of interpretation (p. 129)], then it might teach that hell involves eternal conscious torment. But he elides this, again, by suggesting that the book of Revelation is a crux interpretum, and thus should not be appealed to in establishing doctrine. Baer seems to be appealing to the analogia scriptura (or fidei), where scripture should interpret scripture (the more clear interpreting the less clear); although he does not identify this, in explicit terms, as his approach at this point. Finally he closes this chapter by pointing the more motivated reader to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), where he notes that, “PBS online has a great article on the history and facts about the book of Revelation.” (p. 129) Baer’s method in this chapter seemed to be to marginalize the clarity of Revelation, since if taken too literally it would seem to articulate that hell is eternal conscious torment. Chapter 11 is the final chapter of the book, and it is entitled, Restoring a 57’ Chevy. Baer uses this image [the 57’ Chevy] as a picture of what God does; he restores. Here, Baer, presents the Good News, the Gospel Message. Baer makes it clear that while he rejects the Tradition of the historic Christian Church on the doctrine of Hell; that at the same time, he still affirms the historic teaching of Christendom, that the only way to have a relationship with God is through faith in Jesus Christ! Baer is hopeful!

Strengths

The primary strength of Jackson Baer’s book is that it has the potential to cause Christians to return to scripture once again, and test to see if what Baer is asserting is true. Baer is able to write in a way that the reader will feel his heart, passion, and burden to get scripture right. Throughout the book Baer continuously references scripture after scripture; seeking to prove his argument from the holy writ. This book illustrates what it looks like for a non-specialist to engage a timely topic of our day in a heartfelt way.

Weaknesses

Jackson Baer, throughout his book, engages in fallacy after fallacy. This review has already run way too long, so I cannot illustrate this any further at this point (you will simply have to read the book to find out what I mean). He poisons the well, engages the genetic fallacy (over and again), sets up straw men, and probably the most prominent fallacy in Baer’s argument is ‘question begging’ (petitio principii). Baer overstates his case, many times, in order to undercut the traditional teaching of hell. In other words, he is so focused on deconstructing the doctrine of Hell, that he, in the process, tarnishes the integrity of the scriptures (even though he also wants to affirm that). Furthermore, Baer, undercuts the readers ability to trust modern biblical translations; again, simply so that he can make his point about hell (i.e. he believes that modern translations are more akin to interpretations, thus his appeal to a literal ‘translation’ “Young’s Literal Translation [which is actually a terrible literal translation]). There is also a prominent factual error that runs throughout Baer’s book; on pages 40, 124, and 127 he refers to the book of Revelation as apocryphal literature, instead of what it should be, apocalyptical literature—this error does not inspire confidence in the rest of Baer’s research. Finally, for this review, Baer runs rough-shod over any kind of scholarship. He ignores all of the history of interpretation, and only makes cryptic allusions to the history on this issue. This is a great oversight, and in my mind discredits the entire book (with everything else just noted).

Recommendation

As I wrote at the beginning of this review; this book would be more in the genre of diary, and personal reflection on how Jackson Baer has worked his way to his position on the traditional teaching on hell. If you are interested in understanding Jackson Baer’s road to a Christian Universalism, of sorts (he never self-identifies this way); then I could recommend this book to you on those merits. If you are seriously interested in reading a book that critically engages this issue, in a way that reflects careful thinking and argumentation; then I cannot recommend this book to you. For that I would recommend Gregory MacDonald’s (aka Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist. In fact, I would recommend that the author of the book under review here (if he has not), read MacDonald’s book. I think Baer would agree with what I have written here, after he does that.

Reading Jackson Baer’s book, “What The Hell,” and the fact that my brother is about to read, and my mom has already read Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist; has made me return to MacDonald’s book to review and reconsider his argument for a Christian Universalism. It is obviously not the majority report amongst the history of interpretation in the Christian Church, but it is not without historical precedent; nor does it necessarily require that it be considered heresy (maybe just heterodoxy, at most).

What I want to highlight in this post is how Parry seeks to argue for universalism through biblical exegesis. In his book he works through all the difficult passages and classic passages that “seem” to teach about a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. But Parry isn’t totally on the defensive, which is one of the things that make his book so good; he also offers his positive case for Evangelical Universalism. To get a flavor of this let me quote Parry’s closing paragraphs of his exegesis of Colossians 2:15ff; he is using this universalist passage to provide framework and scope for the rest of his argument and biblical theology of Evangelical Universalism. He writes:

[W]hat we find in Colossians, then, is a theology that locates the origin of creation, the revelation of God, and the salvation of the world in Christ. It recognizes the massive rupture introduced into the world through sin, and it sees the solution to this problem in the death of Christ. It requires a response of obedient faith to share in Christ and in the inheritance of eternal life. It offers no hope of a nice God letting everyone into heaven no matter how they live or what they believe. However, in spite of that, it holds before us a confident hope in the salvation of the whole creation. It is God’s covenant purpose that his world will one day be reconciled in Christ. For now, only the Church shares in that privilege, but this is not a position God has granted his people so they can gloat over the world. On the contrary, the Church must live by gospel standards and proclaim its gospel message so that the world will come to share in the saving work of Christ. This is the outline of the evangelical universalist theology I wish to commend to the reader. . . .

This chapter has set out to argue that Colossians works with a vision of reconciliation for the whole creation. We have seen that this vision is perfectly compatible with a strong doctrine of sin . . . , with a Christ-centred account of salvation, with the necessity of faith, with the current division between the elect and those lost in sin, and with a high ecclesiology. This vision, I suggest, can provide the contours for an evangelical, gospel-centred universalism. . . . [Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), 52-3]

This gives a sense into how Parry communicates, and how he will be proceeding in presenting his case for what he calls, evangelical universalism.

Without a doubt this is a controversial issue, and something that, probably most Christians know very little (to nothing) about. If you hold to the ‘Traditional’ view of hell (“Eternal, Conscious Torment”); then you need to read Parry’s book! I would imagine most Evangelical Christians wish that Eternal Conscious Torment hell was not a reality; well, MacDonald’s book provides argument that articulates a view that says that you don’t have to believe in ECT. In fact, if you are going to follow the Bible, according to Parry, then you must reject ECT.

What do you think about this stuff?

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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