Michael Bird’s recent work, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, departs from the typical organization of systematic theologies by intentionally structuring his systematic around the gospel. That is, he defines the gospel in the prolegomena, and then he seeks to connect each heading of theology to the gospel. Thus the table of contents flows as follows:
Part 1: Prolegomena: Beginning to Talk about God
Part 2: The God of the Gospel: The Triune God in Being and Action
Part 3: The Gospel of the Kingdom: The Now and the Not Yet
Part 4: The Gospel of God’s Son: The Lord Jesus Christ
Part 5: The Gospel of Salvation
Part 6: The Promise and Power of the Gospel: The Holy Spirit
Part 7: The Gospel and Humanity
Part 8: The Community of the Gospelized
Putting aside the major distinctives of his work, this approach is what defines Evangelical Theology. Thus in discussing “Why an Evangelical Theology?” Bird explains his approach:
“In terms of Christian theology, the gospel is the glue between doctrine, experience, mission, and practice. I submit that an authentic evangelical theology should be a working out of the gospel in the various loci of Christian theology (i.e., the topics in theology like the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, the church, last things, etc.) and then be applied to the sphere of daily Christian life and the offices of Christian leaders. The gospel is the fulcrum of Christian doctrine. The gospel is where God meets us and where we introduce the world to God. So my task is to lay out what a theology driven and defined by the gospel looks like. I will defend the view that at its essence theology is the art of gospelizing, that is, making the gospel shape our thinking, praying, preaching, teaching, and ministering in relation to God.” (Kindle Locations 297-303).
Bird sees this approach as having particular relevance for what he calls “post-denominational evangelicalism,” in that he sees a gospel-centric approach to systematic theology can help evangelicals keep primary and secondary (and tertiary) theological matters separate, and thus provide a new gospel basis for unity.
Insofar as the central thrust of his approach, I have two primary thoughts: (1) I’m intrigued by his restructuring of systematics around the gospel. Given the considerable emphasis on gospel centrality in many avenues of evangelicalism, intentionally approaching systematics with this in mind seems to have some prime facie appeal. (2) I have some doubts about whether this really changes anything in terms of systematics because the overall flow of the systematic is still quite similar, and also because even how one defines the gospel is affected by the other loci of systematic theology (e.g., he uses a definition from N.T. Wright as his starting point, which may not exactly rally the evangelicals around his approach). Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see the response and extension of the conversation that he has raised through this approach.
In terms of some other notes about this volume, here are a few distinctive features of the book.
(1) Bird is a New Testament scholar, rather than a systematician. One of the helpful implications of that is that in numerous places he spends more time examining biblical texts and images relating to key facets of systematics than some others do. This is not to say he doesn’t engage with other theologians; he relates his approach to church tradition and history and a wide range of theologians regularly. The ration of exegesis to engagement with theologians is perhaps uneven in certain parts of the book, but given that it is only an introduction, that is to be expected.
(2) Bird takes a rather interesting smattering of positions in the book: he advocates Amyraldianism, premillennialism, a preterist reading of Matthew 24 (but not Revelation), unity between Baptists and paedobaptists (while himself advocating paedobaptism), rejection of the active righteousness of Christ (at least in its usual formulations), allegory as possibly legitimate interpretation, Christus Victor as the integrating and overarching model of the atonement, and many others.
(3) Bird writes in a mostly engaging, at times amusing style. From little sidebars entitled Comic Belief to various theologically comedic quips, he tries to keep the reader’s interest. But this is also at times left aside for statements like this, “Fourth, an integral feature of discipleship is anastasity” (Kindle Locations 10083-10084). While I appreciate his generally readable style, I’m not sure that using such a term along with the claim that it is an “integral feature of discipleship” fits with that style. Nonetheless, given the massive undertaking that is a systematic theology, a little unevenness in style is probably reasonable.
(4) While there are numerous examples of helpful, cogent argumentation, I must say that there are a few places where the arguments are quite weak in my opinion. His rejection of postmillennialism is what I would describe as a stereotypically stale approach to the question (“but everything in the newspapers is bad!” is one of his main arguments). His rejection of traditional covenant theology—in particular, of merit in the pre-fall covenant and consequent spurning of the active righteousness of Christ—seems to badly caricature covenant theology. He goes so far as to say that “The scheme of salvation in some covenant theologies, when reduced to its basic tenets, is essentially Pelagian” (Kindle Locations 4948-4949). He essentially eradicates a distinction between the pre-fall covenant between God and Adam and the post-fall covenant, which I know is popular in some circles currently. And given his lack of an essentially confessional approach to systematics, it shouldn’t be surprising. But I found the argumentation on that point particularly weak.
I’m curious to see how accepted this work becomes among evangelicals. I also hope to see critical and fruitful interaction between other scholars and Bird on his key proposal to make the gospel central to each area of systematic theology. And while I will recommend it as a great Reformed systematic theology, it does add to the evangelical conversation, and I’m glad that he spurred me on to think through classic theological issues in a new way at times.
In the recently released book, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, Michael Bird provocatively entitled his chapter, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA.” He introduces his chapter by saying this:
I will endeavor to show that while the American inerrancy tradition possessed a certain utility in the “Battle for the Bible” in the twentieth century, it is not and should not be a universally prescriptive article of faith for the global evangelical church. That is because the American inerrancy tradition, though largely a positive concept, is essentially modernist in construct, parochially American in context, and occasionally creates more exegetical problems than it solves. (Kindle Locations 2452-2456)
His basic point is that inerrancy, in the strict, technical sense it’s taken on as opposed to infallibility, though helpful in battling certain modernistic attacks against the veracity of Scripture, is ultimately an American construct that is not necessary for the preservation of belief in Scripture’s truthfulness. Of course, he discusses many facets of the inerrancy question, and he roughly ends up where someone like Al Mohler is, though he says some things that will make inerrantists like Mohler concerned.
However, regardless of whether Bird’s specific approach to inerrancy is correct or not, I’m particularly interested in his claim that it is not necessary outside of the USA. On the one hand, I am sympathetic to his concern that a statement drafted in Chicago decades ago be required in institutions and churches outside of America–and even the English-speaking world–as a test of doctrinal faithfulness. I do think it is better for churches in diverse contexts to each wrestle with the phenomena and trustworthiness of Scripture individually so as to put things in their own words in ways that address their contexts better than just translations of other documents. An example is that in Arabic, there are not separate words for “infallibility” and “inerrancy,” so it can be difficult to apply the discussion that happened in American to Arabic-speaking contexts in a one-to-one fashion.
However, I do also wonder if even Bird himself writes from a less than “global” perspective. I.e., he’s a white, middle-class scholar writing from English-speaking Australia. Not exactly representative of the “global south” of evangelicalism today. And given my own interest in Arabic-speaking contexts, I wonder if in areas dominated by Islam, if commitment to inerrancy may be seen on the same level as it was during the “battle for the Bible” several decades ago in the USA.
As Kevin Vanhoozer noted (and I greatly enjoyed his contributions to the book), if Starbucks is present, Ehrman and others are likely not far behind. It is common for Muslim apologists to use Ehrman and others in their attacks on Scripture. So it seems that formulating something akin to inerrancy may be necessary in many other contexts, even if it has not, up till now, been the or even a pressing issue in the majority of global evangelicalism.
Recognizing that inerrancy has been misused, though, I do think that something like Vanhoozer’s “well-versed” inerrancy is key, so as to make it something of actual use to the church as it wrestles with using God’s word in contemporary contexts.
So is inerrancy only necessary in the USA? I suppose the answer depends on what you mean by the question. If you mean that in some places, the same questions aren’t being asked of the text, and so getting into the details of inerrancy hasn’t yet seemed to be important, then sure.
But in an increasingly interconnected world, the very questions that inerrancy is meant to address (regardless of how precisely it has been applied by those claiming the label of inerrantists) will necessitate wrestling with how the truthfulness and infallibility of Scripture relates to any historical, geographical, or scientific data present in the biblical text (while recognizing that the Bible is not simply a book of history, geography, or science. So in that sense, the inerrancy question is globally important. I do, however, hope that inerrancy will be addressed well within diverse contexts without necessarily parroting the Chicago statement.
The first post this series looked at some particularly helpful areas of Keller’s Center Church, followed by a quick look at some challenging parts (whether they were challenging because they provoked disagreement or thought). This last post, similarly to the second, lists a couple disagreements and a thought-provoking area.
First, there seems to be an overemphasis on the importance of excellent arts in the church. Keller writes:
Urban churches must be aware of this. First, they should have high standards for artistic skill in their worship and ministries. If you do not have such standards, your church will feel culturally remote to the average urban dweller who is surrounded by artistic excellence even on the streets where talented artists sing and perform. (Kindle Locations 5005-5007)
There are a few reasons why this type of thinking makes me uncomfortable. I don’t see any description of worship in the New Testament in which there is a stress put on performance or really even music other than singing. Obviously, the commands to sing are very clear, but that emphasis seems to rest solely on the congregation singing. Before some jump on me here, no, I don’t hold to zero instrumentation in worship. But such instrumentation as is used should, in my view, be there to support the singing of the congregation, not to provide a performance. If that’s the purpose (and I’m open to admitting that a larger discussion could be opened on this, particularly given some of the descriptions of musical instrumentation in the Psalms), then is saying that urban churches cannot reach city dwellers without “artistic excellence” an adventure in missing the point? Knowing as well that Keller’s church pays musicians to reach this level of excellence, I wonder if it leads to not focusing on simply using the gifts of the people in one’s church, regardless of what they are, and instead looking for some external ideal?
Secondly, Keller provides some very helpful and challenging insights into the Christ and culture discussion, while yet tilting towards his own transformationalism. Keller does, unlike many participants in the Christ and culture discussion, look for the positive elements in each of four approaches (grouped together quite broadly): two kingdoms, relevance, counterculturalist, and transformationalist. He sees each approach as providing a valuable theme: the humble excellence advocated by two-kingdom theology, the common good emphasis of the relevance approaches, the church as counter-culture, and the distinctive worldview of the transformationalists. Each of these should be blended, he says, in order to develop a healthy way of living and ministering in a given culture (see the chart, location 6741 in the Kindle version). He also provides helpful questions for each approach to ask of itself in order to keep in on a proper trajectory. The overall orientation of the book is definitely transformationalist, so I’m not sure if in his approach elsewhere in the book he’s quite implemented the insights and benefits of the views described here, but nonetheless, he has provided much food for thought in this section.
Thirdly, Keller’s advocacy for commissioning of unordained lay leaders doesn’t seem to follow. Keller writes:
Churches that are solidly grounded in their historic tradition normally have a strong bias for the importance of the special office. They must actively seek to cultivate a greater appreciation for the dynamic and fluid nature of the general office. One way to do this is through the commissioning of unordained lay leaders and staff— men and women working alongside traditional ordained leaders. In this way, churches can honor both the dynamic and organizing work of the Spirit. (Kindle Locations 10063-10066)
While this is hardly a large piece of this book, it was something that stood out to me for two reasons. (1) Unlike many other parts of the book, there was no compelling argumentation given for this point. This seems uncharacteristic of his writing. (2) It seems to me that his suggestion–to commission unordained lay leaders–seems to accomplish the opposite of what he intends. If the goal is to encourage the laity to use their God-given abilities and gifts for God’s glory in the church, then how does creating a separate, not divinely-sanctioned “office” (the commissioned, not ordained), encourage lay service? In other words, if the point is that people don’t need to be in ordained office to use their gifts, how does creating another, “lower tier” generally encourage the laity to serve? It just doesn’t follow to me.
In my first post on Keller’s Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, I looked at some areas of Keller’s thinking that I found helpful to me personally. Even where I would take his conclusions in some different directions (though part of his point is itself that there should be a diversity of applications, depending on context), I found this work helpful in those areas. In this post, I would like to look at some areas that I would term “challenging.” Some of them are challenging because I think he’s right, but I know that changing my own life and approach to things would be painful and difficult. Others are challenging because I’m not sure that he’s right, and so I’m challenged to think through some of my own positions. So some of these really could have been included in the first post as helpful things, and some could probably be included in the last post on things that I disagree with. But nonetheless, here are some challenging things from Center Church.
(1) The Importance of Cities
Keller is known for many ideas; but his insistence on the importance of cities is perhaps one of his most well known. To be honest, I haven’t spent much time thinking about the importance of cities in the past. But Center Church does have me thinking about them more. In the past, when I’ve heard similar talk about cities, I’ve always thought, “But people need to be reached in the country and in the suburbs as well, so why should we make a big deal about the cities?” Keller’s answer to this objection is the following;
Cities, quite literally, have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on earth. How can we not be drawn to such masses of humanity if we care about the same things that God cares about? (Kindle Locations 3903-3905)
That is a unique and compelling way to think about cities. The big buildings aren’t the point. The masses of people (i.e., those created in the image of God) are the point.
However, Keller also talks a lot about the importance of cities as shapers of culture. He urges believers and churches to be involved in cities so as to pervasively affect the culture. Thus he advocates what can broadly be described as a transformationalist approach (more on this in the last post). If one doesn’t accept that approach to the Christ and culture question, then the force of that argument may be weakened considerably.
Sidestepping the transformationalist question briefly, though, I must admit that I was challenged to truly love the city (or any community) in which I am providentially placed–whether the goal is transformation precisely or not. This means being involved in it, wanting its good, and learning to appreciate the diversity and peculiarities of the city. So often–regardless of locale–in can be easy to criticize, complain, and lament, rather than appreciate, compliment, and participate. I know that this is something I need to work on personally.
(2) Working with People You Disagree With
Keller is also well known for his willingness to work with those outside of his Presbyterian, Reformed denomination. He summarizes his approach here:
Our goal as Christians and Christian ministers is never simply to build our own tribe. Instead, we seek the peace and prosperity of the city or community in which we are placed, through a gospel movement led by the Holy Spirit. Movements like these do not follow a “bounded-set” approach in which you only work with others who can sign off on nearly all your distinctive beliefs and practices. Rather it follows a “centered-set” orientation in which you work most closely with those who face with you toward the same center. That center is a classic, orthodox understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a common mission to reach and serve your city, and a commitment to have a generous, Christ-focused posture toward people who disagree with you. It’s a type of movement that is missional, integrative, and dynamic. (Kindle Locations 7208-7214)
Movements are characterized by a stance of generous flexibility toward other organizations and people outside their own membership rolls. Movements make the what— the accomplishment of the vision — a higher value than how it gets done and who gets it done. The vision encourages sacrifice, and members of a movement are willing to make allies, cooperating with anyone who shares an interest in the vision. (Kindle Locations 9873-9877)
And one final quote to emphasize his approach:
Openness to cooperation is another essential movement dynamic. Because members of the movement are deeply concerned with seeing the vision accomplished, they are willing to work with people who are also materially committed to the vision and share primary beliefs but who differ in preferences, temperaments, and secondary beliefs or are members of other organizations. Because institutions are more focused on protocol and rules than on results and outcomes, their members tend to look askance at groups or people who don’t do things in the same way. In the Christian world, this means Christian groups with movement dynamics are more willing to work across denominational and organizational lines to achieve common goals. (Kindle Locations 10126-10131)
I find this idea challenging for two reasons: (1) My tendency (from personality, theological conviction, and perhaps general stubbornness) is not to want to work with those that don’t sign on the Westminster dotted line with me. However, I have enough friends who don’t sign precisely on that dotted line, and I live in a place with a real dearth of such dotted-line-signers, and so I recognize that I need to continue learning how to work with others and work with them well. So I appreciate Keller’s encouragement to that end. And I appreciate that the overall vision–seeing an area reached with the gospel–is more important than seeing everyone accept my view on Christ and culture paradigms.
But having said that, (2) I’m not convinced that Keller demonstrates well how this actually works. In other words, he doesn’t offer very clear ideas on exactly how we determine with whom to partner. He seems to downplay the importance of his own tradition. Consider the following quotes:
How can a city’s churches become unified enough to be a movement of the gospel, even a movement of movements? They need to be part of a citywide movement of churches and ministries that exist in a supportive, mutually stimulating relationship. The assumption behind this idea is that no one kind of church — no one church model or theological tradition — can reach an entire city. Reaching a city requires a willingness to work with other churches, even churches that hold to different beliefs and practices — a view sometimes called “catholicity.” (Kindle Locations 10655-10659)
Because of this belief, Redeemer Presbyterian Church has for a number of years given money and resources to churches of other denominations that are planting churches. We have helped to start Pentecostal churches, Baptist churches, and Anglican churches, as well as Presbyterian churches. For our efforts we have received sharp criticism and a lot of amazed stares. We believe this is one clear way to practice the kind of catholicity that turns a city of balkanized Christian churches and denominations into a movement. (Kindle Locations 10685-10689)
All of this seems to beg the question as to which issues are secondary and which issues are key when it comes to sharing a theological vision for a city. In particular, for example, if Pentecostalism is built on unbiblical theology (which I believe Keller would admit), then is it likely that partnering with them in church planting (I’m not saying there can never be cooperation on anything) will ultimately lead to a sustainable gospel movement. If a gospel movement was among some members of a Roman Catholic church, would he cooperate with planting a Catholic church? What about a Mormon church? Where does it stop? If it’s purely about the gospel (and assuming some in these groups hold to it), why not? Were not other elements of biblical teaching given so as to protect the gospel? If we cooperate with those who deny some of those, is it not possible that we are setting up the movement for eventual gospel compromise? Despite knowing that I have a lot to learn in this area, these are the questions I couldn’t help but consider as I pondered Keller’s approach.
I should admit that Keller does give one brief piece of advice on some of the issues I raised:
But so is the opposite posture. It is important to be doctrinally vigilant and willing, when necessary, to respectfully contend for important theological truths when we believe that ministry partners are losing their grasp on those truths. A cowardly refusal to speak the truth in love is neither cooperative nor loving. The critical truths that ministry partners must hold in common should be clearly stated, and if there is movement away from them, there should be straightforward conversation about it. (Kindle Locations 10148-10152)
That is a helpful guideline. Nonetheless, it doesn’t really address what are the “critical truths” that the ministry partners should hold in common.
(3) Emphasis on Church Planting
I have long been convinced of the necessity of church planting in the work of gospel extension throughout the world. However, Keller brings many insights to bear on the work and necessity of church planting. The following paragraphs summarize some of his key insights:
So how many churches does your city need? The reality is that churches are institutions. Some of them endure because they are continually revitalized, but all of them lose some flexibility; many of them stagnate for long periods between revitalizations, and a certain percentage die every year. We have seen, then, that it requires at least modest church planting in a city just to keep the body of Christ from steadily declining, and aggressive church planting is needed to grow the whole body — meaning ten to twenty relatively new churches in relation to every hundred existing churches.
There is a problem with answering the question in this way, however. The goal should not be to conserve Christianity’s “market share” in a given area; it should be to serve, reach, and influence the entire city. How will this be done? Studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that if there is one church per ten thousand residents, approximately 1 percent of the population will be churchgoers. If this ratio goes to one church per one thousand residents, some 15 to 20 percent of the city’s population goes to church. If the number goes to one per five hundred residents, the number may approach 40 percent or more. The relationship of the number of churches to churchgoing people is exponential, not linear. 7 We should not, then, simply aim to maintain the church’s traditional place in a city or society. We long to see Christianity grow exponentially in conversions, churches, and influence in our city. While it requires many kinds of ministries to achieve this outcome, aggressive church planting is the trigger for them all. (Kindle Locations 10504-10516)
Of course, such an approach to church planting requires great commitment from existing churches and those who would plant them. But whether in the USA or elsewhere, I have been challenged to think more carefully about the necessity of church planting–since it is the only institution that has a God-ordained role in reaching communities for Christ.
Good books make you think, even when you do not agree with their conclusions. Tim Keller’s Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your Center is such a book. More than many other books I’ve read in the past, this one has spurred me to think not just about theology, but about life, ministry, and the connection between my theology, my context, and my ministry. Because this blog ultimately exists as a way for me to think out loud about the issues I’m process in my own head, I’m going to write three posts in order to reflect well on this book.
First, I’ll write about some things that I found extremely helpful: personally, pastorally, theologically, and ministerially. Then I’ll consider some things that I found challenging. Some of those were challenging because I’m not sure I agree with them; others because they challenge me (or the church in general) to change, and my own sinful heart resists that change. Lastly, I’ll reflect on a few areas that either had significant questions about or disagreed with. I hope that as I write out my reflections on all of this that my own thinking will be refined and strengthened as I ponder ministry in my context. Obviously much more could be said than what I will say, but these are at least some of the main things that struck me as I processed through Keller’s book.
(1) Success, Faithfulness, Fruitfulness, and Ministerial Competence
Early on in Center Church, Keller notes:
In reaction to this emphasis on quantifiable success, many have countered that the only true criterion for ministers is faithfulness. All that matters in this view is that a minister be sound in doctrine, godly in character, and faithful in preaching and in pastoring people. But the “faithful — not successful” backlash is an oversimplification that has dangers as well. The demand that ministers be not just sincere and faithful but also competent is not a modern innovation. (Kindle Locations 83-86)
I found this helpful for one basic reason: there are dangers in a “success = numbers” approach as well as a “faithfulness is all that matters” approach to ministry. The latter, at least in my world, is obviously a major problem. It is, however, a problem in that it can be only a partial truth. And of course, in anything like this, “faithfulness” needs to be defined properly. If it were defined in a full biblical manner, faithfulness would be all that matters. But sometimes when it is used, it can mean, “If I’m doctrinally faithful and I’m preaching every Sunday from the text, then if there’s no fruit, it’s not my fault.” And while that can be true, sometimes there is a missing link.
To take an absurd example from my context, if I’m praying, preaching, and am doctrinally faithful, but every time I preach the gospel, I use the wrong word for God, such that no one ever understands what I’m talking about, I think all would agree that my lack of knowledge of the language (a ministry skill) is causing a problem in my competence as a minister. If we extend that idea somewhat, we can say that ministerial competence (how to define that is of course a longer discussion) is a factor in discussions about fruitfulness in ministry.
In other words, if I see no fruit in ministry, I should look at, (1) am I being faithful?, (2) am I competent in ministry skills such as understanding the people I’m preaching to? Now, it’s possible that we answer “Yes” to both of those and must wait on the Lord for him to work. But I am grateful for Keller’s reminder not to stop at the first question, and go on to answer the second question before assuming I’m doing everything just fine.
(2) Connecting Theology and Ministry through Theological Vision
According to Keller, a theological vision “is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history” (Kindle Locations 272-273). It is the ”the middle space between doctrine and practice — the space where we reflect deeply on our theology and our culture to understand how both of them can shape our ministry. This leads to better choices of existing ministry forms, or to the development of promising new ones” (Kindle Locations 211-213).
The basic point, insofar as it goes, is helpful: in order to determine how to go about ministry in one’s community, making sure we’ve examined our theological underpinnings but also our particular context are helpful in determining how to go about ministry. For example, a common feature of American churches is often Sunday School either before or after the service. In my current context, I’ve never heard of such a thing existing. What are the reasons for that? Obviously, Sunday School is not a biblical mandate. It is a means of carrying out biblical instruction. Is there a cultural reason for it not existing here? If so, what other form would be most helpful for biblical instruction? Those are the types of questions that are key to ask.
(3) Gospel Renewal through the Ordinary Means of Grace
Part 2 of the book is on “Gospel Renewal.” The revivalist-skeptics are likely to get quite worried about what at times like some pro-revival language. But what I appreciated about this section was his emphasis that corporate gospel renewal is essentially a large number of people experiencing gospel renewal at the same time through the means of grace that God has ordained.
We ought to seek renewal through the gospel. We ought to pray and dream and hope for large numbers of conversions and changed lives. And we ought to seek that through the ordinary means of grace that God has provided, rather than through gimmicks.
(4) A Helpful Approach to Contextualization
While “contextualization” is a concept that worries many and can be easily abused, Keller makes two valuable contributions in this area. First, he argues convincingly that everyone contextualizes (2509), and therefore that we must consider how to contextualize well. All of us live within a particular context, and we explain the gospel and do ministry in that context. We are all affected by our culture, language, and history, and so we should not claim that none of those things affect our reading of Scripture and our practice of ministry.
Secondly, though, his definition of contextualization strikes me as nuanced and carefully formulated. Contextualization, according to Keller, is
giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them. (Kindle Locations 2251-2253)
Much of the book is fleshing out the statements in that definition. I’ve seen quite a few different definitions of contextualization in the reading I’ve done, but this one encapsulates some things I’ve been encountering in my context recently. In particular, the last part is a key thing I’ve considered lately, because some times I make appeals and arguments that sound very convincing to me, but my conversation partner finds uncompelling. Now, this could simply be because of a hard heart. But sometimes, I think it may simply be that I’m not using a type of reasoning that is compelling to him. That is something I will need to work on, and Keller’s unpacking of that statement is helpful in thinking through how to do so well.
To give an example of how Keller fleshes this out, he suggests that within any given culture, because of common grace, there are premises (or doctrines) that people will accept (even if they have no epistemological basis for doing so). He calls these “A” doctrines. There are other doctrines we can term “B” doctrines. These doctrines are not accepted by the people of that culture, but they flow from the basis for the A doctrines. That is, if one holds the A doctrines, he should hold to the B doctrines as well. Appealing to people to see that they are being inconsistent on those points then forms part of the arguments used to proclaim the gospel. That seems like a helpful way of fleshing out a presuppositional (or covenantal) apologetic in any given culture.
Of course, Keller said many other helpful things: an emphasis on prayer as a primary means of gospel renewal would be one that definitely stuck out. But the four above spurred me on to think more than most. In the next post, I’ll look at some challenging areas, both those that challenged me to think personally about how I should change, and others about how I wonder if Keller is exactly right.
Since time is limited these days, I am unable to write extended reviews of all of the books I’ve been reading. But in the interests of keeping the material in front of me, I though I’d write just a few brief notes on the books I’ve recently completed.
How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish
Fish’s book is incredibly insightful into the craft of writing. You might say the whole book is an extended celebration of good sentences. But nonetheless, that celebration bleeds over into helpful ideas on how to improve one’s writing. I only wish I had read it years ago.
Get Real: Sharing Your Everyday Faith Every Day by John Leonard
While there are parts of this book that make you scratch your head or even shake it in disagreement, overall, I think it is the most helpful book I’ve read on evangelism and sharing your faith. Leonard repeatedly shows how evangelism can be something that simply flows out of spirituality lived out in front of people. I find his approach both refreshing and encouraging. Despite the fact that Jesus (and the disciples) seemed to weave biblical truths and gospel challenges into the details of life, in the West we seem to have reduced it to something along these lines: “I will share these 4-6 points with you right now, and if I don’t make it through all of them I’ve failed…ok, I guess I don’t have time for that so I won’t say anything.” Leonard shows how to faithfully connect the gospel to real life all the time.
The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque by Sidney Griffith Harrison
This was a fascinating book, as it looks at how various Christian (primarily Arabic-speaking) authors wrote in the centuries following the life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam. Seeing how they responded to the rise of Islam and developed their theology during that period was helpful in understanding the Middle Eastern context better.
“The Church as the Image of the Trinity”: A Critical Evaluation of Miroslav Volf’s Ecclesial Model by Kevin J. Bidwell
It might seem a bit strange that I even read this book, but I did so for two reasons: (1) Given that I hope to embark on doctoral study soon, I am trying to dissertations (this is a published one), and (2) I have been interested in Volf’s work in the past. I have not studied Volf’s ecclesiology, but nonetheless this work was fascinating in that it provides a careful look at how theology is done in the academy today. Looking at the sources and assumptions on which Volf develops his ecclesial model, Bidwell is able to provide a compelling critique of (and at points, appreciation for) Volf’s work. The bulk of the work is looking at whether or not Volf’s ecclesial move from the Trinity (which he casts in egalitarian, social terms) to the church is sound. I found his critical evaluation both irenic and compelling.
The Gospel as Center by Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, et al
Looking at a number of key issues (issues which essentially define the Gospel Coalition), this work seeks to lay out biblical foundations for ministry. While there is nothing particularly new or earth-shattering, it was a helpful collection of essays on key issues such as the biblical story, the Holy Spirit, justification, ecclesiology, and the sacraments.