Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My Slender Apparatus

"What are those ministers to do who have a slender apparatus? By a slender apparatus I mean that they have few books, and little or no means wherewith to purchase more. This is a state of things which ought not to exist in any case."

Charles Spurgeon, Letters to My Students

I love books. I preached a message several years ago that I titled, "Read Books," and I believe that reading is an important spiritual discipline. There are a couple of interesting blog posts related to reading. T.B. Vick has an obsession with books, and a bookseller in Kansas City has a particularly morbid way to promote reading. Though I wouldn't say my apparatus is particularly "thin," I am becoming more and more frustrated at just how many books I need to buy but just can't afford. Ben Meyer's list of must-read theology books is only adding to my frustration. What am I to do?

Spurgeon gives seven suggestions to those with a slim apparatus:
  1. Purchase only the very best. "If he cannot spend much, let him spend well."

  2. Master those books you have. "A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, lapping at them, as the classic proverb puts it "As the dogs drink of Nilus."

  3. Do a little judicious borrowing. By judicious, Spurgeon means that you must return your books to their lenders if you hope to borrow more. Libraries are my friend. (I just feel like I can't thoroughly digest a book without being able to make notes in the margin.)

  4. Spend much time with the most important book, the Bible. It is so easy to become consumed with books about the Bible that we fail to turn to the Bible itself. One goal of theological reading should be that when we return to the biblical text we are able to read with greater understanding.

  5. Make up for lack of books by much thought. "Without thinking, reading cannot benefit the mind."

  6. Keep your eyes open. Be observant of your world.

  7. Learn from people around you:

  • Study yourself. "Study the Lord's dealings with your own souls, and you will know more of His ways with others."

  • Read other people. "A man who has had a sound practical experience in thing of God Himself, and watched the hearts of his fellows, other things being equal, will be a far more useful man than he who knows only what he has read."

  • Learn from experienced saints.

  • Learn from inquirers

  • Learn from those who are about to die.

And we might well add reading blogs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Is Islam Evil?

I am hearing the question, or rather the affirmative answer, coming up from a lot of places right now. Rabbi Avi Lipkin, for instance, thinks Judaism = good; Christianity = good; Islam = evil, evil, evil. At school my friend Silas is convinced that Muslims are unknowingly worshipping Satan. Read his letter to the editor of his undergrad paper to get a feel for who he is. Even when I disagree I really enjoy letters like this. Most recently, Derek told me he's convinced that Islam is demonic. (I was supposed to play lead guitar with Derek at Bobfest this weekend, but my wife's grandfather died a couple days ago, so we will be traveling to the funeral this weekend instead.)

So concerning Islam, I am just a little uncomfortable with what seems to be the party line among my friends. I want to at least express some reasons for being uncomfortable.

Ten years ago, my wife and I spent two weeks in Israel. Two sites in Jerusalem struck me in particular, and in a way they seem to serve as metaphors for religion. The first site was the church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This is a picture of the inside the church. The church is built over the site traditionally associated with Jesus' crucifixion, preparation for burial, and burial site itself. It is one of the most spiritually oppressive places I have ever visited. There is only one entrance/exit to the church, so one can easily feel "trapped" after entering. The entire building is dark. The air is thick and stale, as if layers and layers of incense have never fully dissipated but continue to linger for months. At the spot that is thought to be the site of crucifixion, people were on their knees to touch and even kiss a rock in the ground. I'm not sure if it is the inappropriate veneration of the saints and relics (which I can't help but view as idolatry) or the morbid fascination with the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, but the place just gave me the creeps. I felt like I was walking into a den of religious demons.

The second site was the Dome of the Rock, pictured here. In contrast to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome was bright, it was peaceful. In the middle was a rock - an ugly rock, to be sure, but just a rock. Nobody was kissing it or touching it to gain indulgences or transferred holiness or any such drivel. I thought to myself, if I had to pick one of the two places to pray for an hour, the Dome wins hands down. I was quite surprised since I had always bought the party line that Islam was pure evil.

What does it prove? Nothing directly, I suppose. But I have to consider this fact: Observant Muslims pray and worship several times daily to the creator of the Universe as the creator of the Universe. Even if their conception of who that creator is is vastly mistaken, would not the creator of the Universe receive their worship? And even if they have a radically different understanding of the character and attributes of the creator God than I do, would not the same creator God receive their worship just as he receives mine? Just because it is quite clear that Muslims and Christians have extremely different conceptions of God, it does not seem to follow that we worship a different God who stands behind those conceptions - it only follows that one or both of us are wrong in who we perceive God to be.

Keith Ward, in his excellent defense of religious beliefs, Is Religion Dangerous?, says, in religion should be a primary goal. By education I mean providing a reasonably balanced view of the tradition, its history and its variety, giving a fair assessment of its place in global history, and making clear the necessity of reflective and self-critical thought in religion. There are plenty of Muslims who do this. Al-Azhar University in Cairo, perhaps the most famous Muslim university, provides such and education, and its scholars are, unsurprisingly, regarded by [militant Islamic] followers of Qutb with loathing and contempt. It is important to deprive those who fear scholarship in religion of social prestige and religious status. This is another reason why, incidentally, attacks on religion by those who think it is all blind and thoughtless provide support for the fundamentalists. For such attacks undermine the possibility of reflective theological thought as effectively as the diatribes of fundamentalists.

There are all kinds of questions going on here. In my camp the most common objection is that you cannot be saved through Islam, only through Christ. Without seeking to minimize that issue, it is important to recognize that the issue of whether Islam is evil is different question entirely.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Value of Scholarship

"The killing fields of Cambodia come from the philosophical discussions of Paris."
Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (p.7)

Ideas matter. That's why theology matters. What we believe determines our actions.

Derek recently loaned me The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Wright traces militant Islam to the writings of Sayyid Qutb in the mid 20th century. What I find most shocking is that he spent quite a bit of time in the US. He was appalled at the lack of morals he observed, and especially the vain philosophies undergirding them. He in turn has influenced people from three generations (so far) to become terrorists. Theology really can change the world - for good or evil. There is no reason that Christian theologians cannot have the kind of (positive) impact on the world that Qutb's (negative) theology had.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Book Meme

Halden at Inhabitatio Dei tagged everyone who reads his blog with this book meme.

How many books do you own?: About 1000.

Last book I read: The Epistemology of Religious Experience by Keith Yandell

Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me: (In the order I read them)
Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism
Richard Shweder, Why Do Men Barbecue?: Recipes for Cultural Psychology
Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology
N.T. Wright, The Last Word
Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology (which I'm currently reading)

And now to tag five people: Freely I received; freely I give. If you read this consider yourself "tagged".

Monday, May 07, 2007

A Visit from the Mormons

I had a couple of Mormon agents stop over a couple days ago. Have you ever noticed how they never go by their first name, only by their title, elder so-and-so? They seem almost like agents from the Matrix, so I just started calling them agents.

At church we just finished a video series on Mormonism, which is perhaps a bit more fundamentalistic than I am comfortable with, but it still presents a lot of good information. Anyway, I had to let them in, having just seen the videos. I wasn't expecting them to be very open to what I had to say, but I wanted to at least try to find out why someone would believe such rubbish.

Since I have been dealing with epistemological issues recently, I was especially interested in what reasons they give for their faith. For both of the young men it all came down to, "I read the book of Mormon and I had a good feeling about it." Only one of them had experienced the "burning in the bussom," and that back when he was eight. The other converted from Roman Catholicism (with his mom) as a teenager. I asked questions like, "What makes your conversion experience different from a Muslim who reads the Koran and has a good feeling about it?" The only answer they had for me was that you just have to read the Book of Mormon and God will make it clear to you if you sincerely ask Him.

I am more convinced than ever that any truth-claim that is based on fideism (1)must be rejected as a claim to knowledge, and (2)leads to the logical problem of pluralism.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Roman Catholics

I just don't get it when people convert to Catholicism. I had a ministry friend who did it a few years back and it really freaked me out. Now I am a bit more understanding I suppose. Now Frank Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society, has just announced becoming a convert, or perhaps a re-vert, since he was a Catholic as a child. I have begun to understand some of the reasons for becoming a Catholic - for instance it is easier to accept the selection of a canon of scripture on the basis of tradition if one recognizes tradition as a legitimate source of authority. So I am perhaps more Catholic-friendly now than I once was. (I no longer wonder about whether it is even Christian or not.) But I still have several knee-jerk reactions:

1. There are better reasons to think the unity of the church is spiritual rather than organizational.

2. If I was inclined to doubt point 1, I would be more inclined to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy than Roman Catholicism.

3. Despite the standard Catholic defenses of the doctrine, I cannot accept prayer to saints as anything less than idolatry.

4. If point 3 is true, it is even more true of Mary-veneration.

5. Roman Catholicism is not properly contextualized within it's indigineous cultures. Thank God for Vatican II which allowed for the saying of mass in the vernacular. Pius XXIII seems to be pushing the tide back. His recent encyclical, for instance, encouraged the use of the latin mass and promoted Gregorian chant as the most appropriate music for worship. I see this as absolutely contrary to the catholic (small-c, as in universal) nature of the gospel. Pentecost, by its nature, should lead us to affirm diversity in language and culture.

Friday, May 04, 2007

There is a fun little online test Which theologian are you? Of all the tests like this I have taken, this one seems the best so far.

I scored as Jürgen Moltmann. The problem of evil is central to my thought, and only a crucified God can show that God is not indifferent to human suffering. Christian discipleship means identifying with suffering but also anticipating the new creation of all things that God will bring about.

Jürgen Moltmann


Charles Finney




Friedrich Schleiermacher


Karl Barth


John Calvin


Paul Tillich


Jonathan Edwards




Martin Luther


The test made me choose a tiebreaker between Moltmann and Finney in order to choose a winner, but I think they're probably both equal. I might have more points of agreement with Schleiermacher than Barth, but I would weight my agreement with Barth higher than Schleirmacher. Similarly, my agreements with Edwards are more important than my agreements with Tillich, so I would like to swap those. Let's leave Augustine at the bottom of the list. I'm surprised Luther came out so low, since I have such a respect for him, but I'm probably too influenced by the New Perspective on Paul.

created with

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Lots of people hate the doctrine of inerrancy these days. Chris Tilling takes time to defend people who believe it, though rejecting the doctrine itself. I just want to offer a few brief thoughts.

1. A year ago, I thought one's position on inerrancy was very important theologically, and was leaning towards rejecting it. These days I am much more favorable to the doctrine but I think it is relatively unimportant. What one believes about inerrancy is less important than, say, what one believes about believer's/infant baptism.

2. Nobody in the blogsphere seems to like the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. But I don't think it's affirming everything people think it's affirming. For instance, in article XVIII: "We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture." It is wrong to hold scripture to a standard that it is not setting for itself, such as accurate chronology or exact qutoes. This point alone allows us to avoid the difficulties Lindsell encountered when he was forced to assume that Peter denied Jesus six times.

3. Note too article X: "We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original." Yes, there are copyist errors. Check out Ben Witherington's comments in response to Bart Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus.

4. Vanhoozer, according to his speech-act hermeneutics, suggests that a doctrine of infallibility is perhaps more important than a doctrine of inerrancy. There is much more that is important in scripture than the propositional truth it conveys. Through scripture the Holy Spirit exhorts us, encourages us, questions us, commands us, etc. Much more than simply giving us true information (though certainly not less, as Paul Helm seems to misunderstand), the scriptures give us everything we need to walk out our covenant relationship with God.