Friday, April 11, 2008

Two books

Some amateur jottings on two recently read books...

The Wondrous Cross - Stephen HolmesThe Wondrous Cross, Stephen Holmes

Holmes is both a Baptist pastor and lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, and has been labelled as one of the most thoughtful young British theologians by others. Using recent debates regarding the atonement in the UK as a starting point, Holmes defends penal substitution but argues that we need many complementary descriptions to describe salvation, or as Scot McKnight has put it elsewhere, "stories of the Story". As such, his book reads more like positive statement rather than a defensive reaction, although he does not shirk from engaging various objections to a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross.

Written for the layperson and a model of brevity at only 130 pages, Holmes starts by reviewing the biblical material on the cross in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, before moving on to how the atonement has been viewed throughout history. He then paints a mutifaceted view of the cross before defending the "story" or "metaphor" of penal substitution, and ending with how we should speak of and live under the cross.

There is a lot to like in this book. Its length means that it is not offputting to the average churchgoer, and Holmes is like a patient, laidback teacher with no axe to grind. He is also very restrained in many of his conclusions (sometimes too restrained!), frequently showing how the language of the Bible and of the early church fathers lead to the ways we can understand the cross without necessarily being over-dogmatic about it. Holmes is not afraid to invoke "mystery" and his overriding concern is finally, to move us to worship rather than complete understanding (although he does not pit the two against the other). His emphasis on the many stories/models/metaphors of the cross is to be welcomed as there is some grain of truth in the charge that some evangelicals emphasise penal substitution to the exclusion of other models. Other highlights include his dismantling of the common myth that the tradition of penal substitution started with Anselm and his discussion of God's identification with us.

Its very brevity can also be a weakness however. His 2 chapters on the biblical text often leaves the reader wanting more. And while he explains that he leaves out references because the book is for a general audience (i.e people like me!), it means that one has to take his word for it in the historical section. Finally, Holmes argues that the story of penal substitution needs to take a backseat in today's culture, which has largely lost any notion of sin and guilt. This is a wrong move, I think, whereby the surrounding culture has been allowed to take the upper hand over the biblical material. The images Scripture uses of the cross are surely not arbitrary and cannot be so easily tossed aside in the name of contextualization, for losing the story of penal substitution could have distorting effects on the other stories. He is surely right in his reading of today's culture, but I think the right move therefore is not so much to relegate penal substitution to the periphery, but to find creative ways to express this afresh, as well as to interweave it with the other stories. (See for eg., Romans 3:21-26 and Colossians 2:13-15)

Nonetheless, this is an ideal book for many who have perhaps vaguely heard and been disturbed by some of the discontented rumblings over the atonement in recent years. I will also continue to recommend Mark Meynell's Cross-Examined as the best introductory book on the cross.

Evangelicals in the Public SquareEvangelicals in the Public Square, J. Budziszewski

J. Budziszewski, a well-regarded professor of government and philosophy and also known to many as Professor Theophilus (formerly of Boundless, now at TrueU), examines evangelical political thought in the 20th century through 4 key exponents: Carl Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer and John Howard Yoder. His main task is to open the door for more sustained reflection on a specifically evangelical political thought. This is followed by rejoinders by four scholars, each of whose area of expertise is on one of the four men above.

Budzizewski starts off with an opening chapter where he outlines the distinctives of an "evangelical" political theory. All political theories must satisfy the criteria of having an orienting doctrine (a guide to thought), a practical doctrine (a guide to action) and a cultural apologetics (a guide to persuasion). He then gives us some principles derived from the Bible, before noting that Scripture does not give us a comprehensive doctrine of politics. As such, he argues, this needs to be augmented by an understanding of general revelation and natural law.

He then provides an overview of the thought of the four aforementioned thinkers, showing where he agrees and appreciates them and then critiquing them, often from a specifically "natural law" perspective. As I do not have any background in political theory and very little idea on the specific issues at play, I did find this hardgoing at times, although Budzizewski is a clear communicator and provides very helpful explication. I learnt more about Kuyper's sphere sovereignty, for instance, and saw where Yoder was going off-base more clearly. This book is not a substitute for reading the primary texts themselves, such as Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism or Yoder's Politics of Jesus. However, I can imagine it being a very illuminating commentary if read alongside them. Although the United States obviously provides the backdrop for a lot of the discussion, this did not prove to be a hindrance.

The rejoinders are a bit of a mixed bag. The respondents agree with some of the thrusts of Budzizewski's portraits and critiques and disagree with others. William Edgar's rejoinder on Schaeffer is particularly strong and easy to follow, and David Weeks on Carl Henry is also competent. John Bolt's response on Kuyper is quite dense, while Ashley Woodiwiss on Yoder is just too short.

I picked up this book hoping to learn a bit more about an evangelical approach to politics. Budzizewski's opening essay is very good and accessible to anybody and I am sure I will be looking it up from time to time by way of reminder. The overviews are helpful if you're looking for a historical approach and have already have some grounding in the questions of politics being discussed (eg. the place of the state or the limits of civil liberty). Those looking for something more systematic and introductory will still glean helpful bits here, but will be less likely to be find this book ideal. Nor will those looking for specific proposals on public policy be likely to turn to this book as their first port of call.

So I did learn a bit from this book, but I wasn't quite the right audience for it!

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