I just got a new book in the mail today, and I am looking forward to reading it. The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide by Gene C. Fant Jr. just came out from Crossway. Gene Fant was my British Literature professor at Mississippi College and has continued to have a huge influence on my life as a friend and mentor. He currently teaches literature and serves as VP for Academic Administration at Union University in Jackson, TN. I hope to give some thoughts on the book when I have an opportunity to read it. The book is available on Amazon and other retailers.
Joshua Harris, the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, has re-released a slightly updated version of his 2010 book, Dug Down Deep. The 2011 version includes a study guide for personal or group study. Harris is the author of several other books, including I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Boy Meets Girl, Not Even a Hint, and Why Church Matters. In this volume, Harris explores some of the foundational truths of Christianity while interweaving his own story of life and growing in faith.
The book begins with Harris’ personal story of coming to faith and realizing that doctrine and orthodoxy matter. He notes, “The irony of my story—and I suppose it often works this way—is that the very things I needed, even longed for in my relationship with God, were wrapped up in the very things I was sure could do me no good. I didn’t understand that seemingly worn-out words as theology, doctrine, and orthodoxy were the pathway to the mysterious, awe-filled experience of truly knowing the living Jesus Christ” (16).
After telling about his own journey, Harris discusses the basic doctrines of the Christian faith in a systematic, yet easily readable, fashion. He covers topics such as the Bible, Christology, the Atonement, Redemption, Sanctification, Pneumatology, and the Church. However, he does so with creative titles (“God With a Bellybutton” for Christology and “Changed, Changing, To Be Changed” for Sanctification) and plenty of stories to keep the reader’s attention. While he certainly does not go to the depths and length of discussion that classic systematic theologians (e.g., Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson) have in their books, Harris covers the basics and gives ample introductions to these doctrines. He also demonstrates the importance of these doctrines for the Christian life. It is obvious, and noted by one of the book’s endorsements, that Harris was aiming for something in the vein of J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. While this book will most likely never become an enduring classic like Packer’s, it does have the same readability and concern for doctrine that I found as a college student first reading Packer.
The weakness of the book stems from the intention of the project. Harris is light on some details of doctrine and heavy on personal stories, but this is the product of trying to reach the type of crowd that is uncertain of why they should study doctrine. This becomes extremely evident in his discussion of the Holy Spirit. After admitting to charismatic tendencies in his own theology, Harris states, “In case you’re feeling nervous about where I’m headed, let me assure you that I’m no longer interested in shocking people when it comes to discussing the Holy Spirit. In fact, I’m going to do my best to skirt the controversial issues associated with him” (176). For a surface discussion of theological ideas, this approach is probably fine; however, those interested in deeper discussions of theology will probably be a little disappointed.
The final chapter of the book is a much-needed admonition to all who discuss theology. The title of the chapter is “Humble Orthodoxy,” and Harris sets out to warn his readers from growing prideful in their new-found knowledge of doctrine. He writes, “Genuine orthodoxy—the heart of which is the death of God’s Son for undeserving sinners—is the most humbling, human-pride-smashing message in the world. And if we truly know the gospel of grace, it will create in us a heart of humility and grace toward others” (225). As a seminary professor who sees students go through various stages of pride and humility during their days in formal theological education (as I myself did), I wish everyone would take heed of the words in this chapter.
At the end of the day, Harris’ book is a worthwhile read. I approach some of these doctrines with slightly different interpretations (especially his discussion of the Holy Spirit), but the book serves as a good resource for why theology is important in everyday life, not just in the classroom.
With the United States involved in two declared wars against other nations and participating in armed “peacekeeping” missions around the Middle East, the question of the ethics of war and peace is a major discussion point in the American public. The interesting thing about war is that it often brings back into the public conversation topics that have been discussed for millennia. This is true of the ethics of war and peace, and specifically the just-war theory. At each major crossroads, the discussion is renewed, and people often approach it as a new doctrine when it has actually been around for more than two thousand years. J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy take advantage of this renewed interest in just-war theory in their book, War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective. Both authors are steeped in the just-war tradition, but they come from different backgrounds. Charles, who serves as director and senior fellow of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice, comes from a criminal-justice background and has written several works on this subject. Demy is a retired United States Navy commander and currently serves as associate professor of military ethics at the U.S. Naval War College.
This book follows a traditional question and answer format with over 100 questions addressed in its pages. Those questions are divided into six categories to provide structure for the book: Just-War Tradition and the Philosopher, Just-War Tradition and the Historian, Just-War Tradition and the Statesman, Just-War Tradition and the Theologian, Just-War Tradition and the Combatant, and Just-War Tradition and the Individual. For the most part, the book addresses the classical development of just-war theory through the obvious historical sources of Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas as well as the more recent influential work of Paul Ramsey and James Turner Johnson. For the just-war theorist already well-versed in the tradition, this volume does not add anything significant to the conversation. However, if one is new to the just-war discussion, this book provides a very approachable and thorough discussion of the topic.
Surveying the traditional principles of just-war theory, Charles and Demy provide useful descriptions of the principles of just war in the classic categories of jus ad bellum (literally, justice to war) and jus in bello (literally, justice in war). The jus ad bellum principles include just cause, right intention, proper authority, proportionality, last resort, reasonable chance of success, peace as the ultimate aim, and formal declaration of war. The jus in bello principles include discrimination (or noncombatant immunity) and proportionate means (159–73). The interesting addition that Charles and Demy make to this traditional development is the addition of a third category: jus post bellum (literally, justice after war). While the development of this category does not produce the sophistication of the previous two, it certainly is a noble consideration in the just-war discussion. The authors note, “Scant attention is generally paid to yet a third—and critically important—dimension of justice, namely, justice after war—jus post bellum. If, in fact, part of the moral efficacy of just-war thinking is right intention and a concern for the proper ends, then just post bellum considerations are requisite” (206).
The other unique contribution of this book comes in the final section—Just-War Tradition and the Individual. In this section, Charles and Demy bring personal application questions into the discussion. They ask questions about whether Christian love and charity prevent a believer from serving in war. They discuss the role of an individual accepting the government’s decision to go to war. They also consider the positions on war and peace taken by prominent twentieth-century theologians C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The final questions address common misunderstandings of the just-war tradition and deserve a brief overview. The most common misunderstanding that has been propagated recently is the idea that just-war theory works from a “baseline presumption against war or coercive force rather than against evil or injustice” (389). The authors argue that such a misunderstanding—the presumption against war—leads to a completely pacifist position. Instead, they argue that the presumption is against injustice which then requires the use of force on occasion in order to prevent injustice.
As noted above, this book does not bring much new material to the discussion of just-war theory, but it certainly provides an accessible approach to centuries of debate on the topic. For someone new to this conversation, it is a worthwhile read. Even for the student of just-war theory who has read the primary source material, this volume can serve as a valuable resource to refresh one’s mind on the issues without having to wade through pages of ancient literature. Overall, this is a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in the topic.
The problem of evil is one of the most pressing philosophical questions facing Christianity. The task of answering why evil exists if God is good has been the focus of many apologists. Unfortunately, much of the work on the problem of evil is just as difficult to read as the problem is to answer. The average reader may find himself drowning in a sea of philosophical argumentation into which even professional academics only carefully tread. By contrast, when someone attempts to develop a theodicy that is palatable for the average reader, it typically turns out to be less than satisfactory. For these reasons, the problem of evil remains an often unanswered question in the church pew or at the coffee shop. Norman Geisler has attempted to solve this conundrum in his book, If God, Why Evil?: A New Way to Think About the Question, by presenting a very readable, yet scholarly answer to the problem of evil.
Geisler divides the book into the major questions about evil—nature, origin, persistence, purpose, and avoidability of evil. Then he addresses some of the practical applications of the problem of evil, including physical evil, miracles, hell, and exclusivism. At the foundation of the book is a free will defense of the problem of evil. If one has read much of Geisler’s other 70 books, then one is most likely not surprised that he approaches the problem in that way. Even though the chapters are not full of references to other scholarly works, it is clear that Geisler has condensed his own thoughts on the issue to make the book clear, concise, comprehensive, correct, and comforting (10).
Each main chapter of the book begins with a syllogistic presentation of a problem related to evil. Geisler first addresses the nature of evil by posing the problem this way:
- God created all things.
- Evil is something.
- Therefore, God created evil. (17–18)
In keeping with an Augustinian approach to the nature of evil, Geisler then argues that the second premise is incorrect and that evil is actually “a real privation in good things” (25). This conclusion leads him to the origin of evil, which he argues is based in free will (28–30). Once Geisler establishes that evil originates in the free will with which God created humans and angels, he tackles the problem of the persistence of evil. Geisler believes that the argument against God from the persistence of evil “is one of the oldest and most difficult of all arguments” (36). At its heart, this argument asks why a good, omnipotent God has not destroyed evil. In answer to this question, Geisler proposes that “the only way God could literally destroy all evil is to destroy all freedom. However, to destroy all freedom is to destroy the possibility of all moral good. All moral choices are free choices” (38). Therefore, he believes that the question is posed in the wrong way. The way a Christian should look at this question is to ask whether or not evil is defeated, and Geisler’s answer is that evil has not yet been defeated, but it will be. In answer to the question of the purpose of evil, the author concludes that humans are unable to know all of God’s purposes, and that he has a good purpose in all things, even evil. Finally, he tackles the issue of the avoidability of evil. Geisler believes, “This present world is not the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best of all possible ways to the best of all achievable worlds” (68). In essence, a world without evil would be a world without free will, and Geisler believes that free will is a necessary element for a good world.
The book then moves from the major categories of the problem of evil to address the practical applications of evil, including physical evil, miracles, hell, and exclusivism. Geisler holds that physical evil, just like all other forms of evil, is the result of human free will and that God permits the existence of physical evil in part to accomplish his ultimate purposes. In response to physical evil, some have argued that God should miraculously intervene to prevent all physical evil. However, Geisler argues that “it is not possible to have a regular miraculous interruption of the natural order” (87). This would interfere with physical life, moral freedom, moral choices, moral improvement, moral warnings, and achieving the best world possible (87–91). The author then moves to address hell as an expression of God’s judgment. Some hold that the existence of an eternal hell denies the goodness of God, but Geisler argues that God’s justice, love, sovereignty, and human dignity demand an eternal hell (98–100). He also addresses several major objections to an eternal hell that have been offered throughout history. The main chapters of the book conclude with a discussion of exculsivism and universalism. He asks the question, “What about those who have never heard?” (115). In response, Geisler posits a very orthodox view on the exclusivity of Christ and rejects both universalism and inclusivism.
After the main chapters, Geisler adds three appendices that serve as more academic supplements to the content of the book. The first appendix offers varying views of the topic of animal death before Adam. Geisler never offers his own conclusion but provides various alternatives with both their strengths and weaknesses. The second appendix is a development of some of the classical arguments for God’s existence, including the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the moral argument. The final appendix is an in-depth critique of William P. Young’s book, The Shack.
Overall, Geisler superbly accomplishes his task of answering the problem of evil in a very readable fashion. Of course, there will be some who are not swayed by his free will defense, but his development of that particular defense for a general audience was excellent. The main drawback of the book comes only from the intended purpose of the book. Most works on the problem of evil provide ample documentation to historical and academic sources to build a case; however, Geisler provides only minimal references to other material. In fact, many of his references are to other books he has written. This is only a problem when this book is compared to other volumes on the problem of evil that are more academic in nature. Since Geisler was specifically trying to avoid an overly academic feel, the lack of outside references is understandable.
While this book may never become the standard academic reference text on the free will defense for the problem of evil, Geisler certainly accomplished his purpose. This is an excellent resource for the average reader looking for an understandable and easy-to-read book that will assist them in tackling one of Christianity’s most difficult questions.
In honor of Black History Month, I want to post a book review I wrote a couple of years ago on T.B. Maston’s classic volume, The Bible and Race. Maston was a long-time ethics professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This book was originally published in 1959, in the heat of racial tensions in the South. Within the predominately white Southern Baptist Convention, Maston’s words were years before his time.
In celebration of its Centennial, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has reprinted T.B Maston’s The Bible and Race as part of its Library of Centennial Classics. Maston held degrees from Carson-Newman College, Southwestern Seminary, Texas Christian University, and Yale University, and he taught Christian ethics at Southwestern until his retirement in 1963. The Bible and Race was written in the aftermath of the landmark Supreme Court school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education of 1954. As the birth pangs of the coming Civil Rights movement were certainly felt by the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention, Maston authored this volume to provide a biblical perspective on the “various aspects of the race problem” (vii).
In contrast to many current books on ethical issues, Maston presents a straightforward, biblical approach to the problem of racism by discussing eight biblical passages and their implications for the race issue. In each of these, he takes a biblical truth gleaned from a particular passage, introduces related passages where appropriate, and considers the impact each of these have on the issue of race.
Maston first attempts to reveal the biblical truths about man, and in so doing, dispel some myths that had been propagated regarding minorities. He lays a foundation in the first chapter with a discussion of the image of God from Genesis 1:27. Maston writes, “It is man, representative of all men, who is created in the image of God. The image is not restricted to red or yellow, black or white” (3). By laying the foundation that all men are created in the image of God, he is able to use subsequent chapters to dispel myths about minorities, including that God has limited where they can live (Acts 17:26) and that they are cursed by God (Gen 9:25). Finally, Maston asserts that many of the problems involving race have their foundation in a “we-you” mentality that is evidenced in the interactions between the Jews and Samaritans in Scripture (e.g., John 8:48).
Next, Maston reveals biblical truths about God to address racism. First, he declares from Acts 10:34 that God is not a respecter of persons and “does not look on or judge men by the color of their skin or by their general external conditions; he looks on the heart” (33). Maston’s greatest concern with this principle is that his readers would understand that salvation is open to all men, no matter what race, because God desires that all men should come to him. If Christians believe that God views men differently based upon race, Maston fears that the mission enterprise to other nations will be hindered.
Maston presents another truth about God as he writes about God and government from Romans 13:1–7. Since God has ordained government, men should obey it; however, no government has the God-given authority to prevent a Christian from proclaiming the gospel. The one significant shortcoming of this volume comes in the midst of this chapter, and is likely only painfully obvious in light of five more decades of tension in this area. Maston offers little practical application to the role of government and the response of the people to government as it specifically relates to racial issues. However, one must keep in mind that the work was written prior to the protests, demonstrations, and activities of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
Finally, Maston presents a biblical response to the race issue by discussing the key passages of Matthew 22:34–40 and Matthew 28:19–20. In the two chapters where he discusses these passages, Maston urges his readers to treat people of all races with love and to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. Maston believed that the race problem in America would have a direct impact on the spread of the gospel around the world. He asserts, “If Christians do not attempt honestly to apply the Christian spirit and Christian principles to race relations, how can they expect others to respect their Christian claims or to hear and accept the message they proclaim? The race problem is, in a very real sense, ‘American Christianity’s test case’” (95).
T.B. Maston’s hope was most certainly that in the fifty years after the publication of this volume, the strained racial situation in the United States would have been solved. While great strides have been taken to resolve many issues, racism is still a problem today. For this reason, Maston’s book is a crucial work in the field of Christian ethics. Although some of his terminology and applications are certainly dated, the ideas and concerns expressed in the text are just as relevant today as they ever were. For Southern Baptists, we should heed the words of one of our early pioneers in race relations as he writes, “We can safely imply from this statement by Paul [Col 3:10–11] that to the degree we have progressed in the likeness of our Creator, to that degree we shall be free from class and racial consciousness and discriminations” (10).
*This review was originally published by the Center for Theological Research. You can find it and other resources at http://baptisttheology.org.