Saturday, December 06, 2014

Persuasive Preaching. R. Larry Overstreet.

When I read a book such as this one, I am reminded of the real diversity that exists in American evangelicalism at both the theological and at the practical level. Dr. Overstreet writes to an evangelical context in which the invitation, which used to be the standard close to the worship service, is disappearing. Overstreet laments this loss, attributing it to the loss of the view of preaching as intended to persuade. According to him, that view has been replaced by the view that preaching is merely to inform. If there is no persuasion, there is no need for commitment.

Overstreet aims to correct this “informing” view of preaching by demonstrating that the biblical view is that preaching lies between manipulating and informing in the region of persuading. Overstreet devotes the bulk of the book (Part 2) to demonstrating this. His approach is what I would call “word study exegesis”—that is, the point is proved by studying every word that is relevant to the issue in its every occurrence. The result is, perhaps, convincing, but it is also repetitious and tedious. It strikes me that he would have been better advised to select two or three key passages and deal carefully with them, rather than to heap up verses.

He devotes Part 3 of the book to presenting different ways of structuring a persuasive  message. Again, it seems to me that these suggestions are particularly aimed at a distinct evangelical subculture, with its own distinct view of preaching. Certainly the material is helpful, but it is available in almost any introductory book on preaching.

Before reaching his conclusion, Overstreet does have a helpful chapter on the Holy Spirit in preaching. The conclusion brings us back to the invitation. Apparently Overstreet thinks that persuasive reaching will be ineffective without a concluding invitation to seal the deal. Here, I fundamentally disagree.

This is not a bad book. Nor is it a good book. It aims in part to restore a practice that the church is better off without. The more helpful material in the book has been said innumerable times elsewhere, so it’s not clear to me why the book was necessary. But maybe that’s just because I don’t share Overstreet’s evangelical subculture.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November 19, 2014 at ETS

I had the privilege of hearing four excellent papers this afternoon related to Old Princeton.

The first was from Annette G. Aubert, titled "Old Princeton and Transatlantic Theology." She dealt with the German connection that Old Princeton had, as several of the Old Princeton faculty studied in Germany, and in the seminary journal introduced many of the German developments to American audiences. For this paper, she focused on the influence of E. W. Hengstenberg. This paper was related to her recently published book, The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century American Theology, which is reviewed here: Anyone who has read Hodge's systematic theology knows how often he references German theologians. This provides a corrective, and new areas of exploration, for those who think Old Princeton's sole connection to Europe was Scottish Common Sense realism. Aubert is a lecturer in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The second paper was by Bradley Gunlach of Trinity International University, titled "Adam and Eve at Old Princeton." After dealing to some extent with Hodge and Warfield, he focused on three lesser-known Princetonians: George McCloskey, C. W. Hodge, Jr., and William Brenton Greene. He outlined their struggles with trying to determine what views regarding evolution and the origins of Adam and Eve were allowable within an orthodox doctrine of Scripture. It is clear that while they were more sympathetic to evolution than some of their conservative Reformed descendants, there were yet bounds that could not be crossed. It was also suggested that many of today's Reformed folks who lean toward theistic evolution really find very little to no support from Old Princeton, contrary to what you might read.

The third paper, titled, "Charles Hodge on the Separation of Church and State," was by Gary Steward, a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was a helpful presentation, showing some of the difficulties that Hodge had in trying to maintain a "spirituality of the church" doctrine along with a commitment to a Christian America.

The final paper, "Warfield's Doctrine of Scripture Revisited," was by Fred Zaspel, already well-known for his book The Theology of B. B. Warfield. It was a clear and helpful presentation of Warfield's doctrine, sprinkled with plenty of quotes. Zaspel also commented that while Warfield is perhaps best known today for his statement and defense of inerrancy, that was not his primary area of interest. While he published some 1,500 pages dealing with the doctrine, he published considerably more on Christology and soteriology.

All in all, it was a profitable afternoon.

Those interested in copies of the papers (only Steward distributed copies of his full paper) should contact the authors directly.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

John V. Fesko, Songs of A Suffering King

This is a brief devotional book that deals in sequence with the first eight Psalms. The treatment of each psalm follows the same order. First, Fesko presents the psalm in its original context: “What was occurring in the life of David to occasion the psalm?” Second, he considers the connection of the psalm to Christ: “In what way does the psalm speak of Christ?” Finally, he considers the connection of the psalm to the church. In this last section he primarily considers the application of the psalm to the individual believer, as can easily be seen by reading the conclusion to each discussion. Fesko also provides each devotional with some questions for further study, and a metrical version of the psalm so that it might be sung.

For the most part, it is a helpful set of devotions. I do have some concern with a statement he makes in the Introduction. He says, “First, the entire Psalter is connected to the person and work of Christ” (2). He defends this by an appeal to Luke 24:44. Such an appeal (and it is common among Reformed thinkers today) strikes me as reading too much into Jesus’ statement. Jesus is not saying here that each and every passage in the Old Testament refers to Christ, though that seems to be how Fesko takes it. It’s also the reading that David Murray in his book Jesus on Every Page takes. The result of such an approach, however, tends to produce a certain amount of fanciful exegesis in pursuit of the goal of finding Jesus in every text. Fesko effectively admits this, for example, in his comments on Psalm 3. In drawing parallels between David and Christ in this psalm, he says, “The parallels are not precise—they usually are not—but it was Jesus who was the  Messiah, and throughout his life there were those who sought to kill him” (41). The fact that the parallels are usually not precise should caution us about an undisciplined eagerness to find Jesus in each and every Old Testament text. 

I can give this book a limited recommendation, urging the reader to read with care. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reading Through the Psalms in 30 Days

This plan gives the reader about the same amount to read each day. The reader will also notice that I have divided Psalm 119 so that one section of the psalm is read each day for 22 days. It seems to me that this gives the reader time to savor the psalm a little bit at a time. Otherwise, the variations get lost in reading through it in one or two days.

Day 1: Pss 1-7; 119:1-8                                 Day 16: Pss 74-77; 119:121-128
Day 2: Pss 8-14; 119:9-16                            Day 17: Pss 78-80; 119:129-136
Day 3: Pss 15-18; 119:17-24                         Day 18: Pss 81-85; 119:137-144
Day 4: Pss 19-22; 119:25-32                       Day 19: Pss 86-89; 119:145-152
Day 5: Pss 23-28; 119:33-40                      Day 20: Pss 90-95; 119:153-160
Day 6: Pss 29-33; 119:41-48                       Day 21: Pss 96-102; 119:161-168
Day 7: Pss 34-36; 119:49-56                       Day 22: Pss 103-105; 119:169-176
Day 8: Pss 37-39; 119:57-64                       Day 23: Pss 106-107
Day 9: Pss 40-44; 119:65-72                       Day 24: Pss 108-112
Day 10: Pss 45-49; 119:73-80                    Day 25: Pss 113-118
Day 11: Pss 50-55; 119:81-88                     Day 26: Pss 120-129
Day 12: Pss 56-60; 119:89-96                    Day 27: Pss 130-136
Day 13: Pss 61-66; 119:97-104                   Day 28: Pss 137-142
Day 14: Pss 67-69; 119:105-112                  Day 29: Pss 143-146
Day 15: Pss 70-73; 119:113-120                  Day 30: Pss 147-150

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Biblical Portraits of Creation, Walter Kaiser and Dorrington Little

This is a very useful little book. It is taken largely from sermons by the two authors. Kaiser, of course, is the well-known Old Testament scholar and emeritus president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Little is the senior pastor of the First Congregational Church on Hamilton, MA. In the book, they trace the theme of creation (and new creation) through Scripture by focusing on selected texts. Obviously Genesis 1 is included, as well as such other passages as Proverbs 8, Psalm 29, and Psalm 104. With regard to new creation, Little deals with Matthew 1 and 2 Corinthians 4 and 5. Kaiser deals with Isaiah 65 and 66.

The author gives an exposition of each passage, ending each chapter with a restatement of the conclusions and a list of study and discussion questions for small group use. The chapters are directed primarily to the non-professional, and are written accordingly. Contrary to what some might think, it is much more difficult to write for a popular audience than it is for a technical one, as a great deal of attention has to be paid to keeping the language clear, and explaining any technical terms that must be used. Both authors are to be commended for meeting this exacting standard.

The book concludes with an appendix, which is essentially a reprint of Kaiser’s article “The Literary Genre of Genesis 1-11,” which initially appeared in 1969. In this article he argues for reading Genesis 1-11 as straightforward “historical narrative-prose.” I think the article is convincing. However, such self-identified evangelical scholars as Peter Enns (formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia) and John Walton (currently at Wheaton College) are currently insisting that Genesis 1-11 (especially Genesis 1-3) is really myth. I think the article would have been strengthened if Kaiser had rewritten it in order to take the views of Enns, Walton, and others into account. But that is a relatively small complaint.

By and large, I have no hesitancy in recommending this work for personal and/or group study on the doctrine of creation as set out in many key biblical passages.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Christian Reading List for Atheists

In a day when Christian bookstore shelves are loaded with the likes of Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen, it is not surprising if atheists tend to think of Christians as either non-intellectual or outright anti-intellectual. However, it is somewhat surprising that the new apostles of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are so profoundly ignorant of the Christian intellectual tradition. In the spirit of enlightenment, I offer the following admittedly eccentric and selective bibliography for the study of atheists (and under-educated Christians) who need to be more familiar with the Christian intellectual tradition.

Many other books could be added, and no doubt better selections are available. I deliberately avoided systematic theologies (except in the case of Aquinas) and tried to stick to more readily accessible material (except for Edwards, which is a tough read). I have also tried to reflect the broadness of the Christian intellectual tradition (though I haven’t included anything from Eastern Orthodoxy, simply because I am not familiar with that tradition). So if I didn't include your favorite book, make up your own list.

The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. No atheist critic of Christianity has earned the right to be taken seriously if he hasn't read the Bible cover-to-cover at least once. I’m recommending this particular edition for two reasons. First, it is the King James Bible, which is still a foundational piece of English literature. Second, it is really a reader’s edition; no commentary, no cross-references, just clear, single-column text.

Augustine, The City of God. Cultural criticism, systematic theology, biblical exegesis and more under one cover, by one of the finest minds of the Western tradition.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. I recommend the Concise Translation edited by Timothy McDermott. Aquinas summarized in 600 pages. Aristotle placed into the service of the medieval church.

Dante, Divine Comedy. Thomistic theology in the form of epic poetry. There are many good versions available, but I particularly recommend that done by Dorothy Sayers, originally published in the Penguin Classics series.

John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress. Puritan Protestant theology in allegory. Perhaps the greatest allegory in English literature. Available in many editions.

John Milton, Paradise Lost. “Justifying the ways of God to men.” Protestant theology in the dress of epic poetry. One of the greatest works of English literature.

Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will. Perhaps the finest philosophical theologian America ever produced. Here, a close and careful analysis of man’s choosing. Many editions are available, but the Yale University Press edition, though exorbitantly priced, has a very useful introduction.

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. One man’s journey from status quo British theological liberalism to the Roman Catholic Church. One of the great spiritual autobiographies.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. Classic Chesterton. Perhaps a favorite of mine because his tale so resonates with mine.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

More Thoughts on a Delegated PCA General Assembly

My previous post suggested four men (two TEs and two REs) from each presbytery as delegates to the Assembly. Responses have wondered about other ways of determining the number of delegates; for example, determining the number of delegates by the size of the presbytery or suggesting a much larger number of delegates. Also some suggested that one of the problems with preceding proposals for a delegated assembly was that men simply enjoy having the time to meet with other elders that they haven’t seen in a year.

While I recognize that some would like a larger attendance, even at a delegated assembly, four from each presbytery struck me as the right amount. It is a small enough number to enable the GA to function as a committee of the whole (in other words, no more “Committees of Commissioners”) and is sufficiently representative. In dealing with the “more representatives for larger presbyteries” question, it seems to me that the four per presbytery also avoids the problem of larger presbyteries having too much sway. In addition, the delegates from each presbytery would be instructed that they are going as representatives of the entire presbytery, thus perhaps giving greater representation to small churches.

In addition to the above, I would suggest that GA meet biennially. There is, as far as I can tell, no good reason for annual meetings. The reports and budgets of the denominational committees and agencies can be done on a biennial basis, as can review of presbytery records. In fact, having to submit records only every two years instead of every year may help some of our delinquent presbyteries come into accord with requirements.

As for the fellowship aspect of GA: if you take a look at the docket of GA, there is currently precious little time for fellowship, especially as each year the assembly seems to press harder and harder to get done before Thursday evening. As a result, fellowship takes place late, after the evening services, or it takes men away from the assembly itself, resulting in one-fourth to one-third of the commissioners commonly being absent from counted votes. My suggestion is that in the years between assemblies there be a “conference of presbyters.” It would be set up something like an academic conference. It would begin Monday evening with a plenary session presentation by someone picked by the GA on some topic relevant to pastoral work. Then, Tuesday through Thursday there would be smaller sessions, much like those currently done in the early mornings at GA. I would suggest two session periods each morning and one session period in the afternoon. There could be several alternatives at each of these periods, perhaps dealing with a general theme, but not required to. With only three session periods during the day, and with the evenings entirely free, there would be plenty of time for fellowship. Perhaps a final plenary session could close things out on Friday morning. REs would certainly be encouraged to attend, but since this is not a meeting of a court of the church, the presence or absence of REs would not be a problem. TEs could use this as a week of study leave, since the various presentations would be applicable to their pastoral labors.

This is admittedly a big-picture proposal. The devil is in the details, and perhaps these suggestions would not work. But unless we begin talking about alternative ways to doing GA, it is not going to improve.