Bauckham’s thesis: there’s strong evidence the four gospels are “closely based on eyewitness testimony of those who personally knew Jesus.” The whole book forcefully and, let’s say, nonchalantly (can’t think of a better word) lays out a compelling case. I don’t call this a book review, because the author of this book is very much a scholar, and it would take someone else of that scholarly caliber to truly review the book.
But here are a few other things I liked:
~Proper historical argumentation. Bauckham argues purely as a historian, not as a theologian or even a Christian apologist. I wouldn’t be able to tell if he was a Christian on this book alone (as an aside, he is), even though his thesis, arguments, and conclusions are very compatible with it. As a history major myself, he writes exactly in the ideal of how I was taught to write: Masterful use of primary and secondary sources, tight analysis, studious citations, and attention to detail. ( Some folks criticize it as having too much detail, or “weeds” – but this is dead wrong. Don’t we have enough other sloppy pop-history with more holes than swiss-cheese already? I didn’t find unnecessary “weeds” of detail in this book.)
~Oral history. Bauckham brings a good deal of clarity to the oral background of the gospels. Scholars of every stripe agree that the gospel’s content was told orally before it was written down. Bauckham argues that these ancedotes shouldn’t be considered in the genre of “oral tradition,” as many scholars have done, which disengages the stories from the historical events they are meant to tell of. The term “oral tradition” refers to stories that happened in prior generations, perhaps going back centuries. Since the stories were told and re-told frequently within the same generations as the events, and getting the actual facts about Jesus right was important to early Christians, the stories should be considered as oral history. He gives good evidence and nice surveys of relevant literature on this… as with everything else.
~First century name statistics. He demonstrates that what we now know of 1st century names fits well with the name statistics in the gospels. The proportions of common and rare first century names in Palestine are the same as those in the gospels, in some cases to 1% difference. This suggests that the gospels were first century literary creations concerning real first century people in real first century events.
~Comparisons between the gospels and ancient historiography. The charge against the gospels as being written by people biased toward Jesus with a biased agenda would be very odd by ancient history standards. For ancient historians, hearing from someone who actually lived and experienced the events was what was valuable, not being a dispassionate observer. By these historiographical standards, the gospels have a definite weight to them, though the format of the gospels has some differences from other histories of the time. Bauckham argues the early Christian historian Papias held John’s Gospel as the prime example of a piece of polished history, while other synoptic gospels, particularly Mark, were still in the form of a historians’ rough notes and anecdote-collections rather than polished history. Which leads us to:
~Mark’s Gospel from accounts of Peter. Bauckham argues that Mark’s Gospel is really the collection of stories from Peter, which Mark wrote down. He reveals that Peter as a character is more heavily involved in Mark than any other gospel, and through Mark’s utilizing of the literary technique of inclusio (Peter is the first disciple to show up in the story and the last one mentioned), he demonstrates Peter to be the source of the material. Bauckham notes that Mark’s unusually frequent plural-to-singular constructions fit perfectly with Mark writing down Peter’s spoken-word stories. For example, Mark 11.12: “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he [Jesus] was hungry.” This is exactly how someone would tell the story if they were there with Jesus: “One the following day when we came from Bethany, he was hungry.” Mark would simply have changed the plural from the first person to third person. Bauckham spends some time on Matthew and Luke as well.
~John’s Gospel as Testimony. Bauckham points out that John’s Gospel is very comparable to what ancient historians would shoot for. It is sharply organized, in chronological order, and very smoothed out compared to the somewhat looser collections of anecdotes in the synoptics. He demonstrates that the author of this gospel meant for this to be an eyewitness account to Jesus: for instance, the numerous hints that he is the ideal witness to be telling these things (a witness to the cross itself), and again, the inclusio technique – he is the first and last disciple mentioned in the book.
~Memory. He has a great section on studies old and new on memory – how reliable it is, what people tend to remember, and how this compares with the gospels. He notes that gospels contain stories of things we would expect people to remember vividly – people tend to remember unusual events, events connected with strong emotions, monumentous/life-changing events, etc. His case-study comparisons between holocaust testimonies and gospel testimonies were fascinating.
… There’s more, including the unreasonableness of the form criticism method in gospel studies, the importance of testimony in epistemology, etc. but I can’t reproduce the whole book for you. On the other hand, some cons:
~Light on Matthew and Luke. Bauckham doesn’t spend as much time on Matthew and Luke as I expected. He dwells on Mark and John a bit more. Indeed, those are the most important two to focus on, since Matthew and Luke were based off of Mark anyway, and John is its own unique piece. But I would like to have seen more on Luke especially.
~Thin threads of arguments. A lot of Bauckham’s arguments depend on certain interpretations of things that may be easy to break down or dismiss. For example, he does excellent analysis and argumentation from fragments of Papias, but some of it seemed tenuous. That said, a lot of ancient history is well-reasoned guesswork anyway, this book was no exception. I had a difficult time coming up with counterarguments to even his more tenuous threads.
~Which John? He spends two chapters defending John the Elder as the author of the Gospel of John, not John the son of Zebedee. This isn’t really a con I suppose, I just disagreed in the end. I must say, it is the best case for this view I’ve ever read. He argues that this John was indeed a disciple of Jesus, probably from Jerusalem, who was not one of the Twelve but among those other close disciples of Jesus. Whichever John wrote it, they’re giving eyewitness testimony.
~Slow going. My main problem with the book is this: it is often very difficult to read. Many sentences are long, dense, and awkward. Stringy sentences are a little too common. Nothing grammatically wrong (that I found anyway), just things like prepositional phrases in weird places, etc. I wish the editor would have smoothed it out a bit. I read it best when I had a few focused hours straight to get into the mindset of his writing style.
This book is a worthy read. I recommend it ideally to anyone who is a good reader and has some prior background in some of these things. But these things are important enough for anyone. So, whoever you are, take on a challenge!
Here are some quotes (though the nature of the book doesn’t lend itself to many good short quotes):
“As I shall argue in this book, the period between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths” (8).
“Only by failing as a disciple could Peter come to understand the necessity for the Messiah to take up the cross.” (179).
“Good historiography has two main characteristics: truth and artistic composition, and Papias claims both of them.” (218)
“We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.” (346).
“Participant eyewitness testimony has a special role when it comes to events that transcend the common experience of historians and their readers. The more exceptional the event, the more historical imagination alone is liable to lead us seriously astray. Without the participant witness that confronts us with the sheer otherness of the event, we will reduce it to the measure of our own experience. In such cases, insider testimony may puzzle us or provoke disbelief, but, for the sake of maintaining the quest for the truth of history, we must allow the testimony to resist the limiting power of our own experiences and expectations.” (492).
“Eyewitness testimony offers us insider knowledge from involved participants. It also offers us engaged interpretation, for in testimony fact and meaning coinhere, and witnesses who give testimony do so with the conviction of significance that requires to be told. Witnesses of truly significant events speak out of their own ongoing attempts to understand.” (505).
The late Anthony Flew (11 February 1923 – 8 April 2010) was a philosopher and something of a genius. He was an atheist philosopher for most of his career and a notable one. By notable, I mean he even invented new arguments against God’s existence, writing many books. However, with increasing advances in science and philosophical arguments for God’s existence, Flew changed his mind to become something of a Deist. This book is the story of how this happened.
Flew’s oft-repeated matra is “follow the evidence wherever it leads” and maintains the importance of being open to changing your mind if the evidence blows that way. I appreciated his candor on this.
The book begins somewhat autobiographically with good bits of philosophy thrown in, an aspect I really liked. I had some schooling on philosophy and philosophers reading this book. He has great discussions on free-will and determinism, as well as some overview of his past debates and writings, all telling the story of his intellectual journey.
Then he launches into the reasons why he changed his mind: His first reason is mainly the argument from design. The new findings of science on the complexity of life and the ultimate rationality of the universe seen in the laws of nature were major proofs of a rational Designer for Flew. Another was the so-called fine-tuning argument. This says that the universe and its laws are specifically designed and tuned for human life on earth. He then goes on into the problem of the origin of life and the complexity of the DNA molecule and how impossible it is for life to come about by itself. He proceeds from there to the cosmological argument (that due to the law of cause-and-effect, the universe must have a cause, a starter for the big bang would most reasonably be God), and its further development by philosophers David Conway and Richard Swinburne that he found very sound. Flew wraps it up defending the coherency of God as an explanation and a few conclusions.
The two appendices are excellent. One is by Roy Abraham Varghese, who helped Flew write this book (Flew was in his eighties at the time), interacting succinctly and powerfully with the “New Atheists” arguments. This alone is excellent and he broke some new ground for me. The second appendix is by N.T. Wright on the arguments for the self-revelation of God in human history through the resurrection of Jesus. Flew doesn’t believe that God has revealed himself in any way (Deist), but he thought Wright’s argument was fascinating and “the one to beat.” While Flew dismissed it as deficient for him at that time, he was still open to the possibility. But again, Wright had a very hard-hitting article for how short it was.
I’m being vague though – it’s better just to read it. It impressed me enough for a 5/5. This is among the top-ten books I’d recommend to anyone (not just eggheads). It’s only a 213 page simple, yet complete, sum-total of the arguments for God’s existence. Before people make definitive decisions about theism and atheism, this sort of book is the minimum that should be read on the pro-God side, and may be all you need for this side (The door-stop books Swinburne and Plantiga write simply cannot be read and understood by everyone… or rather, your average person just won’t). It also won Christianity Today’s book award, so I’m not alone.
It should be noted though, Flew was not a Christian or a believer in an afterlife. Nonetheless, Christians find it useful (not surprisingly), as would Muslims, Jews, Zoroasterians, etc. But really, I think anyone would find it thought-provoking on life’s most important question – is there a God? It’s worth the investigation.
“Progress in philosophy is different from progress in science, but that does not mean it is therefore impossible… To the extent that these things are accomplished with better reasoning and greater effectiveness, progress will be seen – even as consensus and persuasion remain elusive and incomplete.” 41
“I therefore put to my former fellow-atheists the simple central question: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?’” 88
“Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature.” 88-89
“The important point is not merely that there are regularities in nature, but that these regularities are mathematically precise, universal, and ‘tied together.’ Einstein spoke of them as ‘reason incarnate.’ The question we should ask is how nature came packaged in this fashion. This is certainly the question that scientists from Newton to Einstein to Heisenberg have asked – and answered. Their answer was the Mind of God.” 96
“Those scientists who point to the Mind of God do not merely advance a series of arguments or a process of syllogistic reasoning. Rather, they propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision that I personally find compelling and irrefutable.” 112
Introducing Wright’s article: “I think that the Christian religion is one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul.” 186-187
I picked up this book as soon as I saw it. The title intrigued me, and I love Ravi Zacharias, the Indian Oxford graduate who travels as an itinerate speaker, apologist, and evangelist for Christ. Also, at several low points I’ve gotten the feeling that Christianity has failed me; and certainly many other people have left Christianity totally with some story of how inadequate this religion was in one way or another. Ravi’s aim is to discuss this question with just such people.
I liked the tone of the book. Ravi is both sympathetic to the straggler and uncompromising in his convictions. I found this commendable because it is not easy to strike that balance. It is easy to try to be so sympathetic that you compromise truth to make them feel better, but this doesn’t do anybody a favour. It is also easy to say with a hard-nose “this is how it is” without any sympathy.
My favorite chapters were the ones on who is Jesus, does prayer make any difference, and points of tension, which was about the tensions of life and how Christianity handles them. That chapter had a good sections on pain, loneliness, and sexuality. Ravi’s approach is to expound beautifully on what Christianity is, and how it answers our deepest needs.
On the negatives side, this is not a definitive defense of the Christian faith if that’s what your looking for. Ravi speaks in generalities rather than specific details, does not have much in the way of analytic argument, and tells many stories and illustrations, or “fluff” if you’re looking for carefully crafted, to-the-point arguments. But I don’t think that was Ravi’s intention. He is basically expounding on various aspects of the Christian faith in a way that is keen to the questions of disillusioned, yet open and sensitive people.
So, I think this book will only convince a certain kind of person. Someone who is already open-minded and has a keen sense of feeling, longing, and sensitivity; Who is doubting or has left the faith for emotional reasons.
It definitely made a surprising impression on me that is hard to describe. Ravi’s strengths as a communicator is to show the existential strengths of Christianity, and this book was him at his best in doing so. It’s worth a read!
“The skepticism about God arises from what we perceive as unanswered questions about life. But in spite of our skepticism, our hearts still beat with those persistent, unanswered longings, and in desperation or cynicism our minds continue to ponder the deep issues of our existence.” (p 27)
“Not only did he [Jesus] love every human being, especially the downtrodden; the core of his message is that he came to embody the rejection and suffering of every person who has ever lived.” (p 38).
“The language of lust and the language of love are much the same. Both say ‘I love you,’ but one says it for a night and the other for life.” (p 46)
“We resist pain because we think of the ‘now’ rather than of life’s ultimate purpose; Jesus endured pain in order to restore ultimate purpose to us and to our existence.” (p 110).
“To all the searches of men and women, boys and girls, kinds and emperors, cities and realms for another way to assuage their thirst for the eternal by any means other than what God has provided – digging their own streams or denying the existence of eternity or giving themselves full autonomy – the Lion of the tribe of Judah revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Bible says, ‘There is no other stream.’” (p 146).
“The paramount need in the church today and in the individual Christian is the indwelling presence of God.” (p 156).
The basic premise of the book is that there are five “postures” of life in relationship to God: Life over God, life under God, life from God, life for God, and life with God. He details everything wrong with religion (including Christianity) with the first four prepositions in relation to God:
1) Life over God is an attempt to make life controllable – follow certain principles and God will automatically bless you. “The mystery and wonder of the world is lost as God is abandoned in favor of proven formulas and controllable outcomes.” The “Church is a business” mentality fits nicely into Life over God. 2) Life under God “sees God in simple cause-and-effect terms – we obey his commands and he blesses our lives, our families, or nation.” Just find what God wants and do it so God will do good things for us. 3) Life from God is essentially an interest in God only to gain benefits from Him, not God Himself. How God can bless me is the first concern. Health and Wealth/Prosperity Teachers view God like this. 4)Life for God is a posture bent on serving God in some way, working hard for him and being “expended accomplishing great things in God’s service.” God himself is lost for the sake of the work.
The book points out the flaws in making these four postures the primary postures in life toward God, and advocates for the fifth posture – life with God. Adam and Eve were created to be with God, but the fall severed this. Then the whole story from Genesis to Revelation is God reconciling humankind back to being with Him as companions again. Jesus died and resurrected for us that we may be with him. Revelation ends with God dwelling with his people forever. Life with God is the point.
The fundamental premise of the book is so appealing: God wants a relationship with us. This isn’t something a posse of postmoderns cooked up; it’s a very ancient, biblical idea. It is amazing how frequently “with” and God are coupled together in the Bible. I noticed this little preposition more in my Bible reading since starting this book, and God “with” people is definitely very common.
At one point in the book, Skye spends some time on the “New Atheists,” writing that they’re really attacking these other religious postures, but refuse to grapple with the idea that God desires to be with us. Many objections to the Christian way and oddities in the Bible are given a hearty rejoinder when you have this perspective (as I’m finding from reading The Christian Delusion alongside With, but that’s for another day).
So many parts of this book are just beautiful. I loved the chapter “Life with Hope.” He brings out the ancient imagery of the sea representing darkness, chaos, and evil — then how God demonstrated His power over these forces, whether by saving Noah’s family from the flood or opening up the Red Sea for the people of Israel.
This book is more than about the various postures people have toward God and the one you should have. It is a book about what God is like. It portrays God as an incredibly Grand Character, whose love is big, whose desire for a real friendship with us is deep, who is the kind of friend we really need. And when you see what an incredible Being God really is, the correct posture – with God – is easier to slip into.
I think he left out some qualifiers in discussing the various postures. Some of them are clearly found in the Scripture – people are to live lives for God (2 Corinthians 5.15), and under God (1Peter 5.6). Those are completely valid prepositions to describe human relationship with God. Yes, God’s goal may be “life with God,” but this is accomplished to its fullest by living our life on purpose for God, submitting under God, etc. I wish Skye made this clearer.
For example: the “Life over God” people’s focus on principles. He criticized the view that if we follow xyz principles found in the Bible, God will automatically bless us. He contends the Bible is NOT a book of mere principles. Skye is right, but the Bible does contain principles! Cursory reading of Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Pslams reveals this. Principles aren’t bad. The problem becomes when we make it all about principles and not about God. God has ordained reality to be a certain way, and many principles are generally true even when practiced by pagans. For instance, the Bible contains principles for a strong family. The early Roman Republic didn’t have the Bible but still gained a great and strong empire, in part because they so happened to follow good family principles.
Also, there’s repetition and a great bit of overlap between the four postures. A lot of times the chapter on “Life over God” sounded a lot like the chapter on “life from God.” But this is not a big deal. He’s using these phrases as a simple but powerful teaching tool, and there is a good bit of overlap in these concepts anyway.
Last, some parts really could have used more interaction with the biblical text. For instance, he has a marvelous section on how eternal life’s experience starts now, not when we die. He could have looked at John 5.24 or 11.25, or at least put it in parenthesis to back it up.
But in the end, I highly recommend reading it. I got this as an e-book for free from Nelson Publishers through the Booksneeze.com program, in exchange for a review of it on this blog. (I wasn’t required to give a positive review). If you have a blog, you can apply to get the e-book free. If not, get it anyway. It’s a book you will want to read.
Included here are a few of many great quotations. I cannot provide a page number due to the format of the e-book, but I’ll note the chapter.
“Fear and control are the basis for all human religions.” (Ch. 1, Life After Eden)
“Although fear and pain were not originally part of God’s creation, he nonetheless uses them to call us back to himself. These unpleasant realities of our world make us long for something better; they make us search for a beauty behind the shadows.” (Ch. 4, Life From God)
“God may be shouting with his megaphone through our pain, but consumerism would have us put on our headphones and crank up the volume on our iPods.” (Ch. 4, Life From God)
“This call to dwell or abide is an ongoing state of being, not an invitation to chat once in a while.” (Ch. 6, Life With God)
“Identity is not something that can be fully revealed in this age, and it is not a quest that we can complete on our own. Identity is something that our Creator alone can bestow on us. As we journey through this life, we may catch glimpses of who we are – sinner, servant, manager, or consumer – but these are only broken images in a dim mirror. Our true selves cannot be discovered by living under, over, from, or for God. It is something that will only be revealed when we are fully with God.” (Ch. 9, Life With Love).
I didn’t know what to expect in picking up this book. I believe N.T. Wright’s theology has some serious deficiencies, but I really appreciate his excellent scholarship on some things (especially on Christ’s resurrection). But overall, I’m very glad I read it.
The Challenge of Jesus basically addresses the issue of the quest for the historical Jesus (Jesus the man, the historical figure rather than the Jesus of dogma and theology), as well as how this directly and freshly relates how we live our lives today. Wright believes that investigating Jesus in his historical context does no violence to the Faith: Jesus “has his feet solidly planted in first-century Palestine and yet rings deeply true to the resurrected Christ of Christian belief, worship, and experience” (backcover).
I liked the entire premise of the book – that Christians should pursue seeing Jesus as the man of history in his first-century world in order to know God more deeply and learn how to live in our postmodern age. Wright argues that because of God’s glory revealed in Jesus, Jesus’ centrality to Christian mission, and our imperative to pursue truth and loyalty to Scripture, we’re obligated look to the real Jesus of history. I was a history major in college, thus I’m always frustrated by theologians who downplay the importance of history and narrative, instead focusing on the abstractions and philosophical categories of theology. Just because people misuse history to diminish Jesus does not mean we cannot use history to discover more truth about Jesus. After all, the historical Jesus is the same Jesus we worship.
I liked how Wright counter-acted revisionists of the historical Jesus — while at the same time mostly ignoring them! He only occasionally mentioned the “Jesus Seminar” authors, but using the internal character of the Gospels, Second Temple Judaism literature, and other background knowledge, Wright decisively rebuts their theories. This is a very nice feature and puts a positive face on the book that will make its message and truth appeal to more people (in particular, those who dislike the whole idea of “debate”).
I did learn some valuable things from this book I did not know before. The contrast between Jesus and the Jerusalem temple was a powerful and very compelling evidence that Jesus believed himself to be divine. The Jewish self-understanding of exile and Kingdom/Messianic hope was also informative, as was his chapter on the resurrection (not surprising, that being Wright’s forte). Furthermore, he describes biblical and theological truths in an inspiring and rich vocabulary (in contrast to some theologians who seemingly even try to sound boring).
On the negative side, there was much I honestly didn’t like about the book. While I did enjoy the historical bent Wright took, he uses it to come up with interpretations of Jesus’ parables and other things that virtually no one in church history has taken, and his reasoning for taking those interpretations does not always follow. He lacks tight argumentation. He applies 1st century texts and events to the biblical text and events without giving warrants on why those 1st century backgrounds should be applied in the way Wright is applying them.
Case in point: Wright notes a passage in Josephus’ works where Josephus was telling a brigand leader to “repent and believe in me” to lay down his rebellion against Rome. Wright notes the similarity of the Greek sentence to Jesus’ own teaching of “repent and believe,” and makes the conclusion that Jesus’ kingdom message was one of political bent and against war with Rome. While I find that comparison between Josephus and Jesus’ statements informative and worthy of further study, he makes a big logical jump here.
Wright’s hermeneutics have weaknesses - he leans toward heavily allegorical rather than plain-literal interpretation. The Bible certainly has many parallels, types, and allegories, but may of his connections are a bit of a stretch, and he’s a more dogmatic on them than he should be. He takes some shots at Premilennialists and to my surprise, brings up some of his “New Perspective on Paul” soteriology into the book, which seemed out of place.
Things like this made many portions of the book less helpful, and I was unsure about recommending it until I came to the last two chapters on applying Jesus to today, especially this postmodern world and the chaotic changes going on. The last two chapters are excellently written, wise, and tremendously inspiring. They alone make me want to buy the book now (I borrowed this copy from a library). Wright is strong on practical, all-encompassing applications, the joy and anticipation of the future, what the historical Jesus can bring through us in ministering to people in the postmodern culture, and connecting our vocation with biblical truth. It really impacted me and helped my spiritual life this whole week.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book, but not to a new believer. If you already have a holistic grasp on the Bible, theology, and hermeneutics will you better appreciate how wonderful and fresh Wright’s insights are… and discern some of his craziness!
Here are some highlights from the book:
“We can categorize the challenged of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to historic Christianity in terms of its asking a necessary question in a misleading fashion” (19)
“Jesus took his own story very seriously. He would turn the other cheek; he would go the second mile; he would take up the cross. He would be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He would be Israel for the sake of Israel. He would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.” (85).
“The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is made known.” (94-5).
“If, therefore, Judaism did indeed have a great incarnational symbol at its very heart, namely the Temple, then for Jesus to upstage the Temple, to take on its role role and function and to legitimate this with Davidic claims, meant that Jesus was claiming that he rather than the Temple was the place where and the means by which the living God was present with Israel.” (111).
“My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding through Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross — and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentered around that point.” (123-4) [very much in the spirit of John 1.18]
“Suppose Jesus’ execution was not a clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax. Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all. Suppose this was, after all, how exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven, how the kingdom was to come.” (162).
“The individual existential angst of the sixties has become the corporate and cultural angst of the nineties. The human beings who could not pull themselves together in the 1960s have become the human societies that cannot pull themselves together in the 1990s… The Christian answer to it is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is of course love. The radical hermeneutic of suspicion that characterizes all postmodernity is essentially nihilistic, denying the very possibility of creative or healing love. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we find the answer: the God who made the world is revealed in terms of self-giving love that no hermeneutic of suspicion can ever touch, in a Self that found itself by giving itself away, in a Story that was never manipulative but always healing and recreating, and in a Reality that can truly be known…” (170).
“When God does what God intends to do, this will be a fresh act of grace, of radical newness. At one level it will be quite unexpected, like a surprise party with guests we never thought we would meet and delicious food we never thought we would taste. But at the same time there will be a rightness about it, a rich continuity with what has gone on before so that in the midst of our surprise and our delight we will say ‘Of course! This is how it had to be, even though we’d never imagined it.’” (179-180).
“Bearing God’s image is not just a fact. It is a vocation” (183).
“We can and must as Christians within a postmodern world give an account of human knowing that will apply to music and mathematics, to biology and history, to theology and chemistry. We need to articulate, for the post-postmodern world, what we might call an epistemology of love.” (195)
I’ve come across one of those rare books that would be of great benefit to anybody. In No Condemnation, Dr. Michael Eaton studies “the biblical, theological, and historical dimensions of assurance in the life of a Christian believer. He challenges both traditional Arminian and Calvinist views, in which salvation and good works are too tightly bound together, by drawing a clear distinction between salvation and reward.” (From backcover). Eaton argues that the quest for assurance of salvation is impossible in the excessive introspection of traditional Calvinism and in the fear for loss of salvation in Arminianism. It must be found by faith alone in the Christ who died for you personally, apart from our works, apart from the Law of Moses.
I met Dr. Eaton at the Free Grace Alliance conference in Dallas (which I wrote about previously). I was impressed with him as a person, preacher, theologian, and all-around authentically-living Christian. He is very humble in person but a powerful preacher and speaker at the pulpit. His style is to combine Truth-proclamation with obvious joy and passion, a characteristic I’ve always liked in preachers (Similar to the style of John Piper and Chuck Swindoll, versus more reserved like Haddon Robbinson or aggressive like John MacArthur). Dr. Eaton is from the UK but has pastored and remains heavily involved with the Chrisco Fellowship of Churches in Kenya. Eaton is not only a pastor but a heavy theologian and prolific author.
- Exegesis of Scripture. What I loved most about this book is its focus on the biblical text. I did not agree with all of Eaton’s conclusions and interpretations, but his use of Scripture is far more than most other popular Christian books, even books I’ve read by proponents of strong exegesis (Al Mohler comes to mind. His books look to Scripture, but not near the extent Eaton does here). Usually the only books you see like this are actual commentaries. Eaton goes through the entire Epistle to Galatians, Gospel of Matthew, and Epistle to Hebrews, selected portions of Genesis, John and Romans and many other passages.
- Honesty. Eaton became a Christian as a teenager, was discipled in the Calvinist/English Reformed tradition, and taught their doctrine of assurance based on works and a Limited Atonement (among other things). From pastoral experience and study of Scripture on his own, he went from a Limited Atonement to Unlimited Atonement position, and changed his mind to say that assurance is based on Christ’s work and promise, not works. (He shares the story of his shift in an video interview HERE). His view of assurance and the atonement is very common in dispensationalist faith traditions, but Eaton is not a dispsenationalist, or even a pre-millennialist (as far as I understand). He broke rank with his tradition to stand alone in what the text taught in keeping with his conscience. He is still a Reformed Calvinist (he calls his view “Encouraging Calvinism” versus “Developed Calvinism” ), but has modified his theology by studying Scripture on his own.
- The section answering N.T. Wright’s “New Perspective on Paul” theology was the best critique I’ve seen of Wright in so few words. I have not seen Piper or Carson’s own superb critique’s handle Wright’s main problems so succinctly as Eaton. Eaton’s angle of attack using both Scripture and historical background literature is devastating to Wright’s view. The first edition did not have this, but I’m very glad it is included in the revised and expanded edition I have. For those of you familiar with the NPP, this alone is worth the price of the book.
- Background and research. He interacts well with a wide variety of commentators and theologians old and new, represents other viewpoints fairly and completely, works through the history and development of given ideas, and has significant historical background.
- Good content on the concepts of oath, covenant, and Torah in the Old Testament text and times. Much of this was new ground for me and I learned valuable things through this study. I do not totally buy his conclusions on God’s oaths. But he makes a compelling and well-argued case that the Torah was a legal document for Israel more than a personal, moral one, and is now totally abrogated with the coming of Christ, though the whole moral character of the law is “fulfilled accidently” — and then some — through the working out of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life.
- Systematic and logical order. If Eaton has several points or conclusions to make, he numbers them so! (See examples in quotes below). This makes his book so much easier to follow and enable me to clearly agree/disagree with what he’s saying.
- While Eaton holds to the inspiration of Scripture, his view on authorship is not as conservative. He talks of “Paul’s editor” and the like. I myself do not see how a letter claiming to be written by Paul can really be someone else and still be the inspired, infallible word of God. Eaton’s understanding is indeed a common view among Christians, but I found it unnecessary to see parentheses and phrases with “editor” in them.
- Lack of depth on a certain passages. I understand the book only has so much space, but a few more pages on kingdom entrance/inheritance and gehenna would have been helpful. He suggests gehenna is not hell but the “fire” mentioned in 1Corinthins 3.15 burning up our works. He made some inconclusive statements on this that left me confused. Whether gehenna means hell or something else has a huge effect on how you interpret the Gospels, so I would have liked more on this.
… and not much else! This is among the best books I have ever read. He offers something very near the “Free Grace” view of salvation, assurance, and reward, and argues it with a compelling and certain force. I learned much from this book, and Eaton really gave me a joy and gratitude toward God, His Son and His grace. Read it!
On Galatians: “What are Paul’s governing principles here? (i) Faith in Jesus is adequate for the living of the Christian life without submission to Mosaism. (ii) Turning to the the law is really a form of panic. Abraham was momentarily fearful that merely trusting the promise concerning the seed, the seed would not come. Something similar happens when one turns to the law. It means turning away from a simple trust in Jesus to self-justification and self-sanctification by the flesh. (iii) To turn to the law can only produce bondage…” (170)
“The Spirit’s leading will always be along the pathway of love. His leading will not contradict the moral aspects of the Torah although it will go beyond them.” (176).
“We can profit from what Wright says positively (that justification needs presentation in light of wider issues, cosmic salvation, social relationships and the like) but in my view he must be repudiated on what he denies.” (242).
“In the New Testament, assurance of salvation is not a sign nor a duty, but a fact!” (256).
“Eternal life is more than justification-forgiveness. It is the experience of life, the ‘life of the age to come’, which is known even in this world.” (286).
“The ground of salvation is at one and the same time the ground for assurance. Faith is an assurance about Jesus. Its immediate consequence ought to be an assurance about oneself. To counsel the doubter will involve no more than drawing out what is implicit in their assurance concerning Jesus.” (310).
“We must not fear rewards – as if they will lead us back into justification by works. It is by mercy alone that God brings his people to salvation, but he asks for works of gratitude and he encourages us by the knowledge that they will be rewarded. . . they are largely a matter of receiving honour from Jesus, and being prepared to serve him yet more. Can it ever be wrong to want Jesus’ ‘Well done!’?” (326).
“I doubt however whether it is possible to practically hold the viewthat it both is and is not possible for the Christian to lose salvation. In practice the fear that it is possible will override the conviction that it is not.” (375).
“What paradoxes! Amazing grace and profound challenge; incredible assurance yet awe-inspiring responsibility; freedom to be myself yet the knowledge that Jesus achieves it all in me. Here is a theology that motivates but does not discourage – a theology of encouragement. But is this not the gospel? I believe it is.” (393).
This isn’t an academic theological treatise, but contains a more devotional quality of reflections on the Christ of the Gospels. Yancey brings in his personal journey to grasping Jesus as well as some of the journeys of others, including literary greats such as Leo Tolstoy and Shusaku Endo.
Yancey’s journalist background is obvious. He is great writer! He paints stunning word pictures and presents the profoundness of Jesus with power and impact. He works his way through Christ’s life chronologically, picking out highlights, insights, and general truths from Jesus’ birth to resurrection, telling many anecdotes along the way.
Yancey seems to enjoy emphasizing how different the true Jesus is from our expectations. He gives criticism of those who have misunderstood Jesus – including himself. Yancey has a humility and self-effacement throughout. This makes his contentions with others ( The Christian Right, Revolutionaries, etc.) tied to looking at ourselves to see how we impose our own expectations on Jesus to make him fit us, rather than making us fit to Jesus.
Yancey also gives considerable attention to the problem of suffering and evil, something about which he has written extensively already (Where Is God When It Hurts, etc.). He stated the problem very well and notes how Jesus answered it superbly.
I didn’t care for some things in the book. For instance, he seems to have pacifist interpretations of certain verses, something with which I would respectfully disagree. Calvinist folk wouldn’t like his discussions on free will, which I would admit is a little over-stated at times.
That said, the book is an easy and pleasant read that exalts Christ and attempts to look at Him for who He really is. I came away in awe of God, which makes it de facto a good book. I would recommend it to anyone.
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
“If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.” (quoting Walter Wink).
“The only time Jesus met with powerful political leaders, his hands were tied and his back was clotted with blood. Church and state have had an uneasy relationship ever since.”
“The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous. And if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact, he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Faith does not spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith ” Theodore Dostoevsky.
“Jesus miracles, they note, do not usually contradict natural law but rather replicate the normal activity of creation at a different speed and on a smaller scale.” (quoting C.S. Lewis).
“Jesus knew that spiritual disease has a more devastating effect than any physical ailment. Every healed person ultimately dies. Then what? He had not come primarily to heal the world’s cells, but to heal its souls.”
On reading in the Gospel about holy week: “[E]ach time I feel swept away by the shear drama. The simple, unadorned rendering has a grinding power. I can almost hear a base drum beating dolefully in the background. No miracles break in, no supernatural rescue attempts, this is tragedy beyond Sophocles or Shakespeare. The might of the world, the most sophisticated religious system of its time allied with the most powerful political empire arrays itself against a solitary figure – the only perfect man who’s ever lived. Though he is mocked by the powers and abandoned by his friends, yet the gospels give the strong ironic sense that He Himself is overseeing the whole long process. He has resolutely set his face for Jerusalem knowing the fate that awaits him. The cross has been his goal all along. Now as death nears, he calls the shots.”
“As Jesus used supernatural power to set right what was wrong. Every physical healing pointed back to a time in Eden when physical bodies did not go blind, get crippled, or bleed nonstop for 12 years, and also pointed forward to a time of recreation to come. The miracles he did perform, breaking as he did the chains of sickness and death give me a glimpse of what the world was meant to be, and still hope that one day God will right its wrongs. To put it mildly, God is no more satisfied with this earth than we are. Jesus’ miracles offer a hint of what God intends to do about it. Some see miracles as an implausible suspension of the laws of the physical universe, as signs though, they serve just the opposite function – death, decay, entropy, and destruction are the true suspension of God’s laws. Miracles are the early glimpses of restoration. In the words of Yorgan Multman, ‘Jesus healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly natural things in a world that is unnatural, demonized, and wounded.”
“In a sense, the paired thieves present the choice that all history has had to decide about the cross.”
“The problem of the church is no different than the problem of one solitary Christian. How can an unholy assortment of men and women be the body of Christ? I answer with a different question – how can one sinful man, myself, be accepted as a child of God? One miracle makes possible the other.”
On the cross: “In the most ironic twist of all history, what Satan meant for evil, God meant for good… In that act of transformation God took the worst deed of history and turned into the greatest victory.”
I’ve finsished reading the book by K.P. Yohannan Revolution in World Missions. It’s excellent! Very eye-opening as far as what is happening on the ground in Asian countries with Christianity. I was already aware of this new movement, but the book fleshed it out and is a much bigger movement than I realized.
~Educational. It reveals a level of revival in Asia (specifically India in this book, understandable since that is the author’s nationality) that is unlike anything the western church ever expected. Believers who are thoroughly Indian are taking a message that is thoroughly Christian to a far vaster extent and degree of success than many western missionaries. This is not some foreign western religion. Faith and love in Christ is internalized in these dear brothers and sisters and inspiring them to share it with their own people. Indians often will listen to one of their own more readily than they will listen to a foreigner. This is reality. This is the revolution in the missions movement that early missionaries hoped and dreamed would happen and is now here, and one the Western church must be aware of and readily partner with.
~Equality. K.P. does a good job in breaking down western ethnocentrism in missions. He makes it clear that nationals have the same capability and demand the same respect as westerners. We can partner with them in support, but respect their authority over their own affairs rather than domineering our way into their work.
~Encouraging. It is thrilling to see that the Great Comission is being carried out, disciples are being made, and the kingdom of God is expanding. The examples the Indian evangelists provide in their extreme sacrifice are an inspiration, and should give cause of praise to God.
~Criticism of “social gospel” surplanting the saving gospel of Christ. It is powerful coming from an Indian who has lived and seen and experienced the poverty of his people, yet is adamant that the gospel must keep priority to meet the real spiritual problem rather than helping temporary physical problems at the expense of the gospel. There is a danger of people becoming “rice Christians,” or those who become Christian to reap the benefits of social help rather than out of commitment to the person of Christ. Helping the poor to eternity is more weighty than helping the poor to a full stomach, even though both are commanded by God. All too often the eternal is lost in the service of the temporal. It should not be this way. K.P. knows what it’s like to be poor, yet to him the great value is preaching Christ, whether you have anything to offer them physically or not.
~The main problem I found with the book is the implicit and explicit discouragement to western missionaries. The idea that I got was, “Hey Western Christians, we’re taking care of it, don’t need to send anyone else.” Some of this is certainly valid, especially in his argument about how some areas are so anti-American it would be counterproductive to have American missionaries there. At the same time, K.P. refused to accept donations that would allow involvement of an American on the board of a new Bible school. He said this was in the name of autonomy of the nationals, but I have a hard time seeing how having just one American brother on such a big board would do harm to this. Also, his descriptions of western missionaries are almost always negative: such stories as missionaries who live in extravagence and even have servants when the people they “serve” are poor and destitute. This is outright shameful and I deplore that any such person should even be called a missionary; yet he gives no positive examples of western missionaries today, and only one positive example in praising William Carey from the 1800s.
K.P. does address the question “Is there still a place for Western missionaries?” but he is vague on what role they can actually play. He gives three roles (p 216-217), but two are not really missionary roles: the West has “technical skills” and short term teams that can be utilized. Technical skills help isn’t disciplemaking. And short-term team volunteers there for mere days or months aren’t what you’d call “western missionaries.” The only role that really answers the question is his mention of the totally unreached peoples without even national Christians to draw missionaries from, such Afghanistan, where missionaries from anywhere can be used. But this is not fleshed out much.
~Comes down hard on the west. I can easily see how he can do this: he came from poverty and spent his early years in poverty as a young evangelist; then when he came to the US he saw the excesses and millions of dollars spent on things like high-tech church buildings and the complacency so prevalent among American Christians. He also came from a country that has been raked over by western colonialism, and I infer it is still a healing wound. Sometimes the book bordered on being overly critical. I left feeling guilty of being an American.
Take this criticism lightly. I have tremendous respect for K.P. It is hard to critique anything concerning someone who was starving, emproverished, and persecuted physically for the sake of the gospel in India. I have never done that. He sold his possessions to get money to start his mission, “Gospel for Asia.” I have never done that either.
But my main concern is that we keep our focus on the Great Comission. Western Christians intent on missions should not be swayed away from missions from reading this book. It is an exciting revelation of what our glorious God is doing in the world to redeem lost people, and may re-direct ideas on where Western missionaries can go, since some places honestly would do better with a national than a westerner. But let’s not shirk our responsibility. We can support the nationals with our money and prayers, but as John Piper has said, let’s not merely distantly send money and let them do all the sweating, bleeding, suffering and dying alone. That is a new elitist racism in itself.
It’s a must-read, but not without having greater context than what he gives here. But you must understand, it is completely understandable if he overcorrects. The western church has been ridiculously blind in the most important areas of missions and the book is meant to shake that up.
With that, I thought I’d include a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
“It amazed me, though, that these buildings had been constructed to worship Jesus, who said, ‘The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath no where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). In Asia today, Christ is still wandering homeless. He is looking for a place to lay his head, but in temples ‘not made with human hands.’ Until they can build a facility of their own, our newborn Christians usually meet in homes. In non-Christian communities, it is often impossible to rent church facilities.” (p 45).
“Humility is the place where all Christian service begins.” (65).
In America “The typical media testimony goes like this: ‘I was sick and broke, a total failure. Then I met Jesus. Now everything is fine; my business is booming, and I am a great success.’ It sounds wonderful. Be a Christian and get a bigger house and a boat and vacation in the Holy Land. But if that were really God’s way, it would put some believers living in anti-Christian and in the Two-Thirds World in a pretty bad light. Their testimonies often go something like this: ‘I was happy. I had everything – prestige, recognition, a good job, and a happy wife and children. Then I gave my life to Jesus Christ. Now I live in Siberia, having lost my family, wealth, reputation, job, and health. Here I live, lonely, deserted by friends. I cannot see the face of my wife and children. My crime is that I love Jesus.’” (97).
“The only trouble with half-truths is that they contain within them full lies.” (105).
“If we intend to answer man’s greatest problem – his separation from the eternal God – with rice handouts, then we are throwing a drowning man a board instead of helping him out of the water.” (109).
“When all is said and done, the bottom line must be ‘the poor have the gospel preached to them’ (Matthew 11:5). If that is not done, we have failed.” (129).