In November I read some books. And as with any book I read or listen to—the majority of what follows are books I’ve listened to and taken notes on—they help me understand God’s Word and God’s world. For matters of personal record-keeping and public commentary, I share a few thoughts on each book. If you have read any of these, or books like them, I welcome your feedback. Please put it in the comment section below.
Bible and Theology
Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism by Kevin T. Bauder, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., John G. Stackhouse, Jr., and Roger E. Olson. Edited by Andy Naselli and Collin Hanson.
In Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, co-editors, Andy Naselli and Collin Hanson, have assembled a collection of essays that outline the unifying and dividing features of evangelicalism. Admitting the inherent challenges of defining this movement, Kevin Bauder, Albert Mohler, John Stackhouse, and Roger Olson define their positions as Fundamentalist, Confessional Evangelicalism, Generic Evangelicalism, and Postconservative Evangelicalism, respectively. And over the course of this introductory work, the reader is introduced to a number of the complementary, contrasting, and competing views of various evangelicals. As I listened to this volume, here are a number of the points I found interesting and/or helpful.
Fundamentalism by Kevin Bauder
- Representing fundamentalists, a category that has had tenuous relationship with evangelicals, Kevin Bauder makes some of the most helpful observations in the book.
- He distinguishes fundamentalists from hyper-fundamentalists, and admits that Bible-believing fundamentalists (not hyper-fundamentalists) are making some new connections with doctrinally conservative evangelicals.
- His chapter is well-received by the others and promises fruitful dialogue with doctrinally-committed evangelicals.
Confessional Evangelical by Albert Mohler
- Evangelicals have used set theory to argue two kinds of evangelicalisms. Conservatives typically call for a bounded set, whereby certain doctrines or practices are out of bounds. Progressives more often focus on the centered set, without defining boundaries. Mohler calls for both, and employs his theological triage to explain where some of boundaries come in.
- This is helpful and challenging. Because evangelicalism is a movement, not a denomination, it is difficult to say who has the authority. This is the same point that Molly Worthen makes (see below).
- In response to Mohler, Kevin Bauder provided some of the most insightful reflections on evangelicalism and fundamentalism. For instance, he made the distinction between Neo-evanglicalism and Confessional Evangelicalism that arose during the battles for inerrancy in the years after Fuller embraced infallibility over inerrancy.
- John Stackhouse then critiques Mohler and his confessional evangelicalism because he does not cite any creeds or confessions. This is ironic and shows, in my estimation, why confessional evangelicalism needs to ground itself in a local church with historic creeds. This has often been a weakness among neo-evangelicals.
Generic Evangelicalism by John Stackhouse
- While arguing for a basic penal substitutionary atonement that evangelicals can affirm, Stackhouse defines evangelicals sociologically more than theologically. But this lack of theological definition invites problems.
- For instance, the loss of doctrinal commitments has allowed fractures in the evangelical movement. For example, Bauder responds that there was a doctrinal commitment in the beginning phases of the evangelical movement. Over time, however, as evangelicals sought a place at the table, this subsided. They wanted to work within main stream institutions. This push towards mainline denominations alienated fundamentalists and divided evangelicals as well (neo- vs. confessional). It also shows how the progressive evangelicals rose to prominence.
Post-conservative Evangelicalism by Roger Olson
- Roger Olson wants to define evangelicals by their personal experience of regeneration. This is helpful, but it then moves to denying the place for church confessions and creeds. If someone asks him what he believes he has his own personal statement of faith. This leads to a hyper-individualism that places experience over ecclesial confession.
- Additionally, in answering the question about Open Theism, Olson makes room for “heretics” to be evangelicals. He wouldn’t put it this way, but he makes space for Open Theists and others who deny the classical tenets of Chalcedonian Christology and Theology Proper to remain evangelicals, even if they hold views deemed heretical. Such is the way he places experience over doctrine.
All in all, these four essays and there responses provide a good survey of the evangelical landscape. And in summarizing the book, Naselli and Hanson offer a charitable way to engage them and think about them. Under eight headings they list the following points. Cited in full, with an number of ellipses:
1. Not all evangelicals will identify with one of the four views in this book. . . . This book’s title may give the impression that it presents the four views on evangelicalism, but the four views are merely four major views, not the only views.
2. Sometimes we aren’t talking about the same thing when we talk about evangelicalism. So defining it is crucial to productive dialogue. . . .
3. Some evangelicals who do identify with one of the four views in this book will quibble with the way this book presents their view. For example, some fundamentalists may question whether the idea of fundamentalism that Bauder defends actually exists today in any substantial movement, and some postconservatives may not state the implications of their view so forthrightly.
4. In a broad sense, this book presents two views on evangelicalism rather than four. Views 1 and 2 (fundamentalism and confessional evangelicalism) are close to each other as are views 3 and 4 (generic and postconservative evangelicalism), and the distance between views 1–2 and 3–4 is significantly greater than between views 1 and 2 or 3 and 4. . . .
6. All four views agree that some people and groups who identify with their position may be poor examples and/or propagators of it. Some adherents are more winsome than others.
7. Judgmentalism is not exclusive to any particular view. It is easy to criticize people for their judgmentalism, especially those to the right of you, but everyone can be guilty of it. . . .
8. Few people consider themselves extreme. People commonly frame issues in a reductionistic way slanted in favor of their argument: (1) there are twits on the left and (2) wackos on the right, but (3) unlike those extremes, there’s my reasonable middle way. Lyrics from a 1973 Stealers Wheel song come to mind: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” And when defending your view on the spectrum of evangelicalism, there will always be someone to both the left and right of you.
Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Peter Enns, Michael F. Bird, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and John R. Franke. Edited by J. Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett.
In the same series, we another volume dedicated to the question of biblical inerrancy. Few topics are more important, or debated, among evangelicals than the doctrine of inerrancy. And in this multi-author book, we get five arguments related to inerrancy.
Two of them, in different ways, argue for inerrancy (Mohler and Vanhoozer). Two views argue against inerrancy (Enns and Franke). And a third position, that of Michael Bird, largely agrees with the doctrine, but does not like, what is in his mind, a parochial and American definition of the word.
In reading the book, or listening to the audio lectures based upon the book, the reader will get a sense of some of the most important questions related to inerrancy. For instance, what is being affirmed by the word “inerrancy”? Is every word in Scripture without error, or only the main ideas? Is this a new concept? Or an America doctrine, invented by the theologians of Princeton? Or does it go back to the time of Augustine (and before) as Kevin Vanhoozer labels his view Augustinian?
These questions, plus arguments against inerrancy based upon purported inaccuracies and unethical commands in Scripture, are all addressed in this book. As I read the book, I came away with a few impressions.
1. Of the two defenses of inerrancy, I found Vanhoozer’s more persuasive as he addresses the subjects of literary theory and genre. As he has noted elsewhere, a proper view of inerrancy must consider how Scripture works. If we bring improper expectations to the text, i.e., wrong questions, we will get wrong answers. And thus, his theological method is, in my estimation, stronger than Mohler’s.
2. It is important to argue for inerrancy as a doctrine that goes back to the early church. Thus, even if the English word, “inerrancy,” has not be en vogue for twenty centuries, it is possible to establish that the early church believed in both the veracity and faithfulness of Scripture. The early church recognized errors in the manuscripts, but they regularly defended the Bible as without error. Thus, the doctrine of inerrancy is not a novel doctrine, but one that stands upon the shoulders of Christians throughout the century.
3. Inerrancy does not deny difficulties—ethical or literary—in the text. It does call for readers to examine, and cross-examine, the text. Whereas Peter Enns is quick to point to the archaeological problems with Jericho, the ethical problems of the “Canaanite genocide,” and the literary problems comparing Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:6. For discrepancies like this, Enns reject the doctrine of inerrancy. To his points, we find responses by Vanhoozer in the book, but we also find a significant hermeneutical divide—Do we read Scripture with faith or with suspicion?
The (post)modern approach to Scripture reads the Bible as any other book and one that is guilty until proven innocent (read: human until proven divine). Yet, a proper reading of Scripture is one of faith. And with faith seeeking understanding, there are good and satisfying answers to Scripture’s problem texts. But again, a willingness to receive these answers depends upon the faith of the interpreter.
4. Specific to Michael Bird, he denies the Chicago statement. Or at least, he says that the Chicago Statement is “one way” to describe scripture, but it’s not the only way. Certainly he is right in this assessment, but his charge that the statement’s American provenance does not stand up.
First, in the last century, the arguments against inerrancy in America have been most prolific. They are not unique to America; most have come from German scholarship of the 18th and 19th centuries. But in America, skeptical accounts of Scripture have flourished. Hence, it has served the church universal to have this technical statement defending Scripture. Certainly, other traditions can come up with other statements, but that does not deny the ministerial aid of the Chicago Statement.
Moreover, it is inconsistent to charge the Chicago Statement with parochialism, all the while championing the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. We do not critique Nicaea because it was written at specific time to deal with a regional error. Instead, the church universal has benefited from its definitions. Similarly, the modernist controversy helped push for clarity in the doctrine of Scripture. Accordingly, the local provenance of the Chicago could serve the global church, if one permitted it.
To be clear, the Chicago Statement lacks the ecclesial backing that the Chalcedon Definition or the Thirty-Nine Articles had, but that does not deny its helpfulness. If anything, it could be conceded that the theological battles for the Bible in America provided a context to define Scripture that would serve the whole church. Eschewing this perspective is Bird’s prerogative, but I suspect it stems from a general and all-too-popular post-colonialism that sneers at the contributions of theologians who happen to be white, male, and American. However, if the Chicago Statement is taken face value, I believe it provides a robust and nuanced definition of biblical inerrancy.
In the end, these five views will introduce the reader to a host of arguments for and against biblical inerrancy. And for anyone seeking to understand the Bible and how to defend the Bible today, these essays would prove helpful.
Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology by J. P. Moreland.
After writing on the scientism that stands behind the Covid vaccines, I wanted to consider more fully the nature of scientism. To that end, I listened to J. P. Moreland’s 2018 book on the subject. Moreland (PhD, University of Southern California) is distinguished professor of philosophy at Biola University and has spent his life considering philosophy and science. And in this book, he provides an insightful summary of scientism, which begins with a helpful set of definitions of scientism. (N.B. These quotations actually come from a Crossway article entitled, What is Scientism?)
- “Roughly, scientism is the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality.
- “According to philosopher of science Tom Sorell, “Scientism is the belief that science, especially natural science, is . . . the most valuable part of human learning . . . because it is much the most [sic] authoritative, or serious, or beneficial. Other beliefs related to this one may also be regarded as scientistic, e.g., the belief that science is the only valuable part of human learning. . . .”
- “Strong scientism implies that something is true, rationally justified, or known if and only if it is a scientific claim that has been successfully tested and that is being used according to appropriate scientific methodology.
- “Weak scientism is still scientism, but it allows for more “wiggle room.” Weak scientism acknowledges truths apart from science, granting them some minimal rational status even if they don’t have scientific support. Nevertheless, weak scientism still implies that science is by far the most authoritative sector of human knowing.
Going far beyond definitions, Moreland shows how scientism has pervaded every area of our world, especially our schools. In his most fascinating chapter, he cites how sports and student life offices replaced the role of religion on college campuses. In its place, or because of its place, science and the social sciences filled in, so that by the 1950s, colleges were hotbeds of science and scientism. From this introduction to scientism, he goes on to explain its chief tenets. After which, he begins to dismantle them.
For Christians in the realms of education, science, and statecraft, this book is eminently helpful. But really, as science has and continues to become its own religion, the scientistic belief system of our secular age is one Christians need to know. We must be aware of its presence and how easily we can adopt its practices and beliefs. And then recognizing the religious element of science and scientism, we must repent (when necessary) and return to the Lord.
Importantly, Moreland is not anti-science. He actually shows how scientism is anti-science. And for this reason, among many, his book is worth reading.
History and Culture
Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter.
John McWhorter is a brilliant linguist and cultural commentator, and in his latest book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, he argues conclusively that “third-wave anti-racism,” or what goes by the term wokeness, is in a fact a religion. An opponent religion himself, as Denny Burk notes, McWhorter shows how this new “anti-racism” distinguishes itself from abolition and desegregation (first wave) and the elimination of racial prejudice (second wave), and has become instead a religion for “the elect”—his term for the religious zealots evangelizing this new ideology.
In chapter 1, McWhorter identifies the champions of race-based social justice as “the elect,” a term that fits, in his mind, black and white alike. And this identification of thought leaders as “the elect,” he moves in chapter 2, to discuss the religion they evangelize. Here are a couple notes:
- He argues that the elect will not see themselves as a religion, but in his view neither did the early Christians.
- In this new religion, there are certain postures of the body that the elect used to show their religious commitments. Hands up in submission to a higher power, or taking a knee to show their devotion are two examples.
- He also identifies priests, pastors, prophets in this religion. One example is Ta-Nehisi Coate, who is a priest carrying the credentials of a professor. In his famous article about reparations, McWhorter states that there was not a real political argument, but a well-crafted sermon.
- Continuing his theme, McWhorter states that the elect have a creation myth: Starting in 1619, the nation was founded on racism and slavery. And the revolutionary war was fought because Britain was seeking to establish abolition.
- Additionally, there is also an original sin: white supremacy. And today, this sin is being taught in grammar schools across the country. He likens this catechism to a new Sunday school.
There is also an inspired canon: Ibram Kendi, Robyn D’Angelo, Ta-Nehisi Coates are the prophetic witnesses.
Citing Eric Hoffer: religions don’t need a God, but they do need a devil. Mcwhorter argues that the elect have that down.
There is more, but this gives a picture of what McWhorter observes. And, as far as it goes, he is right, wokeness is a religion. For him, such religion is a problem. For me, it is not that religion is a problem, but that this new racialized religion is a false religion. That’s the problem. Yet, acknowledging that McWhorter disagree on who Jesus is and what he has done, doesn’t deny all of the observations he makes.
For instance, following Glenn Loury, he identifies “Cancel Culture” as a modern witch hunt. And if the religious nature of Wokeness is not immediately evident, he points to way cities shut down everything for Covid, but gave permission given for the Black Lives Matter protests. This is purely religious, and it explains to the reader what we are facing today.
Indeed, McWhorter is not the only one to identify the crusade for social justice to a new religion. Voddie Baucham does the same. But what McWhorter does is to identify the religion as someone who is not religious, or at least is not Christian. And thus, his critique comes from the inside, not the outside, of the secular academy. And with great insight and insult (consider this quote: “‘We have become a nation of smart people, testifying that we get it, while peeing ourselves.”), he points out the fact that emperor has no clothes.
In fact, his most lasting contribution to the current debate may be his “catechism of contradictions.” He begins and ends his book with this list, which shows reveals the painfully inconsistent ways in which woke racism demands an impossible array of beliefs and practices.
** This table is compiled by Thomas Harper and adapted from Woke Racism (pp. 8–9).
All in all, McWhorter’s book is a withering critique of Critical Race Theory (he devotes a chapter to that subject) and the new religion of anti-racism that is sweeping the nation. And it is helpful not only for what it says, but for how McWhorter says it.
He repeats his desire to stand up against this new religion and not to give in to the “elects” demands. In this way, he shows more courage than many who are bowing the knee to the idol of skin color. And he does it in a way that might just speak to some who are not Christians, but who live, move, and have their being in secular and academic settings.
Reconstructionism: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism by Michael McVicar.
What is theonomy? Where did it come from? What has been its effect? And why does it matter?
In his critical history of R. J. Rushdoony and the ecclesio-political movement of reconstructionism, Michael McVicar gives a thorough history of the man who originated the idea of theonomy (N.B. Greg Bahnsen has been credited with the label “theonomy”) and the impact reconstruction has had on American life, politics, and churches. While only a small number of Christians hold to a theonomist position (see below), they have had an outsized influence especially with regards to home schooling and education. In his history, McVicar shows where this movement came from, how it grew, and who it influences. Along the way, McVicar engages the Reformed theology of Cornelius Van Til, the conservative movement known as a fusionism, and the internecine squabbles among fundamentalists and evangelists are mentioned. All of these played a role in shaping R. J. Rushdoony and were in return shaped by him.
In general, McVicar does a fair job chronicling the history and showing the motivations behind it. He is not unkind to Rushdoony, but he is not entirely sympathetic either. As a work of critical history, he is able to share the private letters of Rushdoony, and he shows how much his dominion-minded, postmillennial theology influenced various theologians and politicians. In short, if you are familiar with the history of evangelicals and/or conservative politics in the twentieth century, this book will touch on familiar subjects and offer new insights.
As a Reformed Baptist with amillennial convictions, I read this book as an outsider to Presbyterian life and postmillennial theology. Nevertheless, I appreciate the way Rushdoony and his heirs have taken the Bible so seriously, but I also disagree with how he reads the Bible and connects it to the world. I am not alone in my reservations. The reservations of this author come through in the book. And a recent review by Ian Clary of Reconstructionism provides an in-depth assessment of the book and the views theonomist views it addresses. He summarizes,
McVicar’s book is exemplary for its depth of analysis, setting its subject in his cultural context, with deft handling of the religious and political ethos of post-war America. It should be of great interest to those who, like I once did, got into Reconstruction through various avenues. Christian Reconstruction reveals the genius of Rushdoony, yet should warn the would-be theonomist of adhering to the movement wholeheartedly. It also serves as a rebuke to those whose hand-wringing over the theonomic overthrow of the church or society–the true nature of Rushdoony’s influence is both more and less than the fear-mongers realize, and as a failed movement, there is ultimately not much to fear. Students of American evangelicalism are also given an important look into the era with a book that has uniquely filled a gaping void. It will remain the standard socio-historical interpretation of Rushdoony for many years to come.
In response, Gary North, a key figure in the book has also written a lengthy response.
All in all, this book is a fascinating read and one that helps readers in 2021 better understand the way church and state relations have gone and should go. Moreover, this book opens eyes to what reconstructionism is and how it is grown and metastasized. Incredibly—at least to me—Rushdoony has had a large and lasting influence on many of the most important conservative movements in the last three generations. And so, for that reason, and others, this Reconstructionism by Michael McVicar is worth the read.
Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen (2013)
The history of American evangelicalism is fascinating to me and so is Molly Worthen’s book on the subject. While critical in many parts, she makes a case that neo-evangelicals and their Bible-thumping forebears, the fundamentalists, possess an intellectual life that is often under-appreciated. That said, she puts her finger on many ways competing factions among evangelicals have competed for authority and struggled to find a foothold institutionally and confessionally. Why? She argues that it is because evangelicalism has been an amorphous, confession-less, coalition-full, personality-driven enterprise, more than a denomination that hangs together by ecclesial history and doctrine.
A three-time graduate of Yale and history professor at North Carolina, Worthen has provided a thorough history of American evangelicals that covers everything from the fundamentalist movement to the formation of charismatic Catholics and every person from Billy Graham to R. J. Rushdoony. The breadth of the book is impressive. As Albert Mohler, one of her objects of criticism has noted, has observed, “In terms of its comprehensive grasp of the evangelical movement, its detailed research, and its serious approach to understanding the evangelical mind, Apostles of Reason stands nearly alone.” Accordingly, anyone studying the history of American religion, especially the history of evangelicalism is well-served by reading this book.
That said, Worthen’s evaluation of evangelicalism is generally critical and sometimes overblown. Still, some times original insights come from critics outside, and for me, one of the most illuminating insights that this book provided had to do with the Conservative Resurgence (CR).
In her discussion of that event, she noted the way the change in the Southern Baptist Convention came about through political stratagems and not anything like the First Great Awakening. In other words, the CR was less a revival and more a political machination. Seeking to honor God and reclaim truth, the men who led the CR employed political tactics, with prayer, to effect change—to replace the leaders who were championing liberal doctrine and ethics with another set of leaders who were committed to biblical inerrancy. From my perspective, the net result of the CR was good. However, Worthen’s critical appraisal should remind us that there is a difference between what God does and what man does.
More broadly, her book, which is encapsulated in its subtitle, shows the way power struggles have always been a part of the evangelical movement. In addition to the theological tenets of evangelicalism (Bebbington’s quadrilateral: activism, biblicism, conversionism, and crucicentricism), Worthen adds another trend in evangelicalism: its inherent instability due to its various and often conflicting ecclesial commitments. As Vanhoozer and Treier show in their book on evangelicalism, ecclesiology needs to play a more prominent role in our First Theology (the doctrines of God and Scripture), and Worthen’s book shows, from an historical perspective, why that is.
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman
The title says it all, except how James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States, transformed the presidency and the United States. That’s what the book outlines, as it argues that Polk was the last strong presidents before the Civil War, and one of the most effective presidents in US history.
Though he served only one term in office (1845–49), his presidency marked an increase in the power of the presidency and fostered a growing belief in America’s Manifest Destiny. Indeed, Western expansion was the key theme of his presidency, as he negotiated land deals with Mexico and England, to acquire California and the Oregon territory, respectively. Most importantly, it was under Polk’s administration that America acquired the gold deposits of California, a providential boon (says Michael Medved) that would establish the United States as the leading economy for the next century.
All in all, Borneman’s biography was an enlightening read, one that showed a president who accomplished all that he set out to do, and provided a benchmark by which to judge all future presidents (355). More broadly though, in the history of our country, Polk’s presidency is important because it helps set the stage for understanding “American Exceptionalism,” a point that John Wilsey makes in his book on the same subject. This exceptionalism has been a feature of American life in different ways and at different times, but importantly it arose in response to various features of history and providence. And during Polk’s presidency both can be seen.
Until Next Time . . .
In November, these are some of the books I read. A few more are still ongoing. Lord willing, I will be able to share next month. Until then, let me know what books you’ve read and are reading. What is worth the time. For truly there are many books not worth the time, but those books which help us understand God’s Word and God’s world are worth time. So let us continue to prize the Book of books and find others that help us to know the God who spoke the world into existence by his Word and who gave us a Book by which to know him.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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