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Review: “Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism” by Catherine L. Kelsey

Book: Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism: The Interpretation of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of John by Catherine L. Kelsey. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Pickwick Publications [LINK]

Overview: Catherine L. Kelsey is one of the leading scholars of Schleiermacher in the English-speaking world. This book is the published edition of her dissertation, which establishes her reputation as a careful and generous reader of Schleiermacher. The book examines Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the Gospel of John and the fundamental interaction between preaching, dogmatics, and Biblical criticism. Along the way, it presents an accurate picture of Schleiermacher’s significant presuppositions and theological convictions. It is a valuble study, clearly articulated and convincingly argued.


Three critical focuses of Schleiermacher’s theology are carefully examined in this study: his preaching, dogmatics, and biblical criticism. The second is often the most frequently discussed, but in this text all three are given their due consideration, bringing much-needed attention to Schleiermacher’s preaching and Biblical scholarship. Kelsey stresses the interconnection of all three, and she articulates the significant presuppositions guiding Schleiermacher’s thought.

An appropriate quotation from Schleiermacher at the beginning of the first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book:

I know of nothing better to desire for my life than the uniting of the podium and the pulpit. 1

Kelsey briefly states the purpose and goal of the work: “The chief purpose of this study is to investigate more closely the relationship between historical-critical interpretations, dogmatic interpretations, and faith interpretations of Jesus Christ.” 2 She stresses how these interpretations are not linear but are interactive. The result is a masterful study of all three interpretations of Christ in Schleiermacher—which occasions his work as a preacher, dogmatician, and biblical scholar—and the various ways in which these disciplines interact and correspond to each other.

One of the most fruitful discussions comes from chapter three, where Kelsey provides an introduction to three of the major presuppositions of Schleiermacher’s theology. These are the presuppositions she considers essential:

  1. “It is apparent to all who come into the sphere of Jesus’ influence that he is the Redeemer.” 3
  2. “Redemption is availible through the redeemer prior to his death and resurrection.” 4
  3. “Redemption is directly associated with incorporation into a community of Christians.” 5

These concisely present the core drives behind Schleiermacher’s theology, particularly his Christology. For example, presupposition number one explains why Schleiermacher placed significantly less of an emphasis on the death of Christ for redemption than he does on His life. Kelsey then makes a connection between Schleiermacher’s preaching, with these three presuppositions as its basis, and his dogmatics. This results in a careful reading of Christian Faith in the light of Schleiermacher’s preaching, in chapter four.

Finally, Kelsey examines Schleiermacher’s Biblical criticism, particularly his Life of Jesus lectures. One of the great values of this chapter, besides its nuanced reading of Schleiermacher’s lectures, is how well Kelsey defends Schleiermacher’s work against his critics. Because of the publication history of Schleiermacher’s Life of Jesus, it has become common to disregard his scholarship as inconsistent or non-historical. However, as Kelsey argues, a more careful reading reveals the benefits of Schleiermacher’s approach, even if modern historical research would invalidate some of his claims.

Overall, Kelsey offers a helpful interpretation of Schleiermacher’s multi-faceted theology through her study of these three aspects, and her work is notable for returning Schleiermacher’s preaching and Biblical criticism to a place of honor, alongside the (rightly deemed) significance of his dogmatics. The interaction of all three is important for reading Schleiermacher, as she masterfully argues in this text.

Conclusion: As a careful study into Schleiermacher’s work as a preacher, dogmatician, and Biblical critical, this study is of great value. However, it is also a great text for introducting some of the key presuppositions and drives behind his thought. Thus, it may be read as an introductory text, especially with how clear and articulate the style is.

Click here to purchase a copy of Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism by Catherine L. Kelsey. 

My thanks to Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers) for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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Notes:

  1. Cited in Kelsey, Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism, 1
  2. Ibid., 2
  3. Ibid., 67
  4. Ibid., 68
  5. Ibid., 70

“Schleiermacher: The Psychology of Christian Faith and Life” by Terrence N. Tice (Review)

Book: Schleiermacher: The Psychology of Christian Faith and Life by Terrence N. Tice (Mapping the Tradition Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Lexington Books / Fortress Academic (an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.) [PUBLISHER’S LINK]

Overview: While there is some value in Terrence Tice’s new book, I am conflicted to recommend it. On the one hand, the translation of one of Schleiermacher’s sermons into English is a great benefit, and in some of the sections, Tice writes with helpful insight into the life and work of Schleiermacher. On the other hand, the book lacked any clear vision, which made the text feel more like a collection of rambled, underdeveloped thoughts than like the scholarly resource I expected.


Terrence N. Tice is widely considered to be among the foremost Schleiermacher scholars alive today. His work as a translator has been an invaluable resource to the English speaking world. In my own reading of Schleiermacher, I quickly came to discover that any text with Tice’s name on it is worth my time, and I have rarely been disappointed. Regrettably, this book is an exception.

The main issues I have with the book is predominantly editorial: it lacks vision and clarity. But in spite of these difficulties, Tice’s brilliance as a scholar and his insight into Schleiermacher’s life and work still shines through. Accordingly, my overall impression of the book is mixed.

We will start with some of the things that could have been better about the book, and conclude with what I found valuable about it.

A lack of clear and direct vision was perhaps the greatest fault of the book. The chapters had little to no clear intentionality, nor did any major theme arise to indicate its overall goal. Accordingly, a large portion of the book comes off like the ramblings of a brilliant scholar who would have benefited from some editorial input. Many of the ideas in the book are poorly underdeveloped. If these were the off-the-cuff notes from a lecture, then it might have been acceptable; but it is not. I am not sure what guidelines were being followed. But no matter what they were, they were muddled and unclear, and it resulted in a book that could have been something far better but which, sadly, fell drastically short.

An example that is rather humorous to me is the appearance of a Donald Trump reference. It is an example of a random thought that appears in the book, but one that never develops into anything of substance. In chapter 3 we stumble upon this sentence: “Now an obviously potential fascist global billionaire leader of the ‘free world’ has been running for President of the United States under auspices of one of the two major parties.” 1 This remark does not seem to fit within the context of the chapter, which is a reflection on the reception of Schleiermacher’s thought in America. The paragraph this sentence appears in ends with a series of questions following the notion of a divided nation: “How will Schleiermacher’s thought be received in the United States of America and elsewhere in the years ahead?” 2 No clear answer is given, except for a hint towards Schleiermacher’s proto-ecological theology—something I would have been more than excited to read about, but nothing of substance is ever developed. It seems like an attempt to be speculative about the future state of America and Schleiermacher’s influence in it, but it offers little regarding what that might actually look like.

Many more examples such as this one could have been avoided with proper editorial guidance. As a whole, much of the book falls flat because of its lack of vision. Whether the editor is to blame or not is beyond me to say, but what I know about Tice makes it seem like either a blunder on his part (which seems unlikely) or editorial. I am hoping it was the latter.

But we will move on from the negatives because, in fact, there is value to be found in the book.

The most significant contribution the book offers is its new translation of a Christmas sermon Schleiermacher preached in 1820 entitled, “The Transformation That has Begun From the Redeemer’s Appearance Upon the Earth.” Tice uses this sermon as an introduction to Schleiermacher’s entire life and thought. And it is, indeed, one of Schleiermacher’s better sermons (from those I have read in English). 25% of the book is made up of this sermon and Tice’s notes about it. So as it stands, this makes it a valuable publication.

Schleiermacher’s sermons are hard to come by in English, and so this is why it is such a value (especially to us non-German readers) to have a new one made available. At the present moment, most of the English translations of Schleiermacher’s sermons are out of print, which makes it costly to obtain a copy. One such collection of sermons I have wanted to read for a while now, but it is currently $150 used and $450 new. So a new English translation of one of Schleiermacher’s sermons is of great value.

And as I said above, despite the editorial problems the book has, Tice’s insight still shines through on occasion. Chapter one is a rather strange introductory reflection, but it still offers some helpful points, including what seems like Tice’s attempt to summarize the “basic presupposition of Schleiermacher’s life and work.” 3 I found that the endnotes of the book were sometimes better than the main text itself. One example is an endnote, in chapter one, where Tice points out that Schleiermacher’s continued engagement with Scripture as a preacher and an exegete bore the most significant influence on his dogmatics (13 n11).

Chapter three reflects on Schleiermacher’s influence in America. Tice was a co-contributor to a three-volume series that examined this subject in detail 4, and this chapter seems like a brief “SparkNotes” version of that book. I have not read that three-volume text, so I learned a few surprising things from the reflections in this chapter. Two notable individuals whom Tice names are Howard Thurman and Charles Hodge (surprisingly). Tice dubs Thurman the “quintessential home-grown Schleiermacherian theologian in America during the twentieth century.” 5 This is on account of his depth of spiritual understanding, which included his fight for social justice that later inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Interestingly, King also seems to have been influenced by Schleiermacher, and a quick search in the MLK Jr. archives shows many references to Schleiermacher.

That Schleiermacher had some influence on Charles Hodge was surprising to learn. Hodge’s Systematic Theology is a classic text of Reformed theology from Old Princeton, though he is seldom perceived as a friend to Schleiermacher. But Tice notes how he tended to veer towards Schleiermacher’s place of experience, despite retaining an orthodox Reformed theology.

Chapter 4 offers a reflection on Schleiermacher’s On Religion. Tice gives a summary of each speech, and he corrects a few misreadings of the text. Some of these remain undeveloped, but others were helpful.

Chapter 5 ends the book with a rather strange, imaginary psychoanalysis of Schleiermacher’s final days. And then a series of random thoughts about how one might construct a biography of Schleiermacher is submitted, though again without being fully developed. The tendency to throw out an idea but to leave it undeveloped is a major flaw of the book.

Conclusion: Overall, I am disappointed with this book because of the high expectations I have for Tice as a scholar due to his previous work. It lacked vision and clarity. It could have been organized much better. And while there were many hints of insight, I wish they were more fully developed. However, in spite of everything, there is still value in the text, most of all in the translation of Schleiermacher’s sermon into English. The combination of the books expensive cover-price ($85) and the aforementioned editorial issues makes it difficult for me to recommend this book without much hesitation. However, if you happen to have access to the book through your library or through inter-library loan, then by all means, give it a read for yourself. It does offer value, just not as much as I was hoping for.

My thanks to Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group for a physical copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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Notes:

  1. Schleiermacher, 51
  2. Ibid., 52
  3. Ibid., 1
  4. Schleiermacher’s Influence on American Thought and Religious Life in three volumes
  5. Schleiermacher, 51

Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1 (Review)

Book: Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1, 1959-1962 ed. by Eberhard Busch [Amazon link]

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press [Publisher’s link]

Overview: A straight-forward, engaging collection of conversations, Q&As, and interviews, Barth in Conversation was a joy to read. This text is essential for students of Barth’s theology, whether you are new to it or already well acquainted with his work. Some of the most common questions asked about his theology receive direct, off-the-cuff answers, offering significant insight into his thought.


I’ve read a lot of books from Barth, but this one has earned a place among my favorites. I know I will be returning to it often.

This book collects interviews, conversations, and Q&A sessions which Barth gave between 1959-1962. This includes those from Barth’s visit to America. Notably, it records his Q&A sessions in Chicago and Princeton.

There is much to celebrate about this text, but I think its true value comes from the frank and direct answers Barth provides to some of the most common questions asked about his theology. These include answers to questions regarding universalism, hell, election, the Bible, communism, Billy Graham, Rudolf Bultmann, and the objective work of Christ.

To give you a taste, here are some notable quotes I enjoyed from the book:

[On Billy Graham:] I don’t think the Christian doctrine should be held like a pistol at man’s breast. Christian faith begins with joy and not with fear. Mr. Graham begins by making people afraid.

[On the Bible:] The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God.

[On the virgin birth:] I think I have good reasons not to discard Jesus’ virgin birth. But when someone is offended by it, I would not say, ‘You are, therefore, not a Christian.’

[On the experience of salvation:] I do not deny the salvation experience. I wouldn’t think of doing that! The salvation experience is that which happened on Golgotha. In contrast, my own experience is only a vessel.

[On politics:] There is no possibility for a Christian to retreat from the political aspects of life.

[On military service and the bomb:] In the first three centuries it was impossible for a Christian to become a soldier. Today we are not yet that far again, but we are underway toward this goal. It must start with the fight against the atomic bomb.

[On the horrid conditions of American prisons:] These small cages were, for me, the sight of Dante’s Inferno on Earth.

[On his “unorthodox” reading of Calvin:] Calvin is in Heaven and has had time to ponder where he went wrong in his teachings. Doubtless he is pleased that I am setting him aright.

[On existentialism and Bultmann:] If I had to choose between the liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher and that of Bultmann, I would, without hesitation, return to Schleiermacher. If liberalism at all, then let it be as Schleiermacher understood it! […] Existentialism is an arid affair.

[On alternative careers:] If I were not a theologian, I would like to be a traffic policeman. […] And perhaps it wouldn’t be so far from what I am doing now, Church Dogmatics, because dogmatics is also a kind of traffic police, showing where to go.

And this was probably my favorite quote from the volume:

I am not certain about my certainty; I do not believe in my own faith; rather, I believe in that which God has done in Christ. This is the great wonder, namely, that I am permitted to believe in something that stands high above me, something that came from God to me, never something that I have in my pocket. I can orient myself always and only on the cross on Golgotha.

I also spent the last few weeks writing a series of blog articles which discuss quotes from the book. These include:

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?”

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall”

“The Bible is not Sinless”

As you can see, this volume is a treasure-trove of thought-provoking insights. The clarity and frankness of the text is also a great benefit for newcomers to Barth. The editors did a great job providing all the necessary background information, too. Overall, this book is a tremendous resource.


Conclusion: I highly recommend this volume. If you are at all interested in the theology of Karl Barth, then this book is an essential addition to your library. For an insightful look into Barth’s thought, but also for frank answers to some of the most common questions regarding his work, this is an incredibly valuable text. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Click here to purchase Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1

And keep an eye out for Volume 2, which is available for pre-order and out in September.

My thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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“The Eternal Covenant” by Daniel James Pedersen (a Review)

Book: The Eternal Covenant: Schleiermacher on God and Natural Science (Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann) by Daniel James Pedersen [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Walter de Gruyter [PUBLISHERS LINK]

Overview: An excellent and carefully written study, Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant is indispensable for serious scholars of Schleiermacher’s theology. The arguments are masterfully constructed and logically presented as the book moves from one point to another before arriving at an impressive conclusion.


I must admit, I am a newcomer to the world of Schleiermacher. My interests in theology have tended to revolve around Karl Barth, but it is also because of Barth that I feel inclined to dive into reading Schleiermacher. So far, I can make no claims of mastering even the smallest aspect of Schleiermacher’s theology, but I have come to thoroughly enjoy him and am beginning to recognize his mountainous significance.

Even though I have only begun to explore the vast literature surrounding the great 19th century theologian, I have no doubt that Daniel James Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant should be counted among some of the best available. It is possible that some of the more nuanced points went over my head, but I found it so masterfully argued that I could not help but to be impressed.

It was certainly a challenging book to read, but in a good way. There are books that are difficult because they are so poorly written, but then there are book that are difficult because they are so precisely articulated and carefully constructed that you can’t help but feel challenged by their depth. This book is undoubtably the latter.

The text reads somewhat like a hike up a mountain. There is a logical procession from step to step, as every chapter draws out important insights taking us one step closer to the peak (to the book’s conclusion). Like a hike up a mountain, the middle chapters were the most challenging, yet they were also quite essential to the whole. Here Pedersen examines at great length the necessary scientific and philosophical contexts so that we might properly grasp what Schleiermacher means by the eternal covenant. This includes fascinating discussions of evolution, Kant, nebulas and the stars, Leibniz and Clarke, miracles, Divine necessity, and Spinoza. But as fascinating (and well articulated) as these sections were, they certainly demand much from the reader. At the time of reading these, it could be easy to think it will not pay off in the end—kind of like how a climber might not see the point of scaling yet another cliff until they see the peak—but once the conclusion is reached, it all becomes clear. It is well worth the effort it takes to get there.

I say all this because it is important to be clear about precisely what sort of book this is. It’s not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the impatient who are unwilling to put in the conceptual work of each step. But neither is Schleiermacher, really. And do you really want to spend your time reading books that never challenge you, that merely support your own presuppositions? It is challenging to read Schleiermacher, as well as Pedersen’s book, but it is also well worth the effort.

Pedersen sets out to clarify what Schleiermacher meant by an “eternal covenant between the living Christian faith, and completely free, independent, scientific inquiry, so that faith does not hinder science and science does not exclude faith.” 1 Pedersen thinks that this eternal covenant has been misunderstood, both its content and its basis, and argues for a new understanding of it.

The conclusion Pedersen arrives at is best appreciated in its own context, by first reading the chapters which proceed it. So I will not spend any time in this review explaining what precisely his conclusion is. Instead, I want to highlight an important insight Pedersen stresses in his book that I think is well worth repeating, especially as it relates to how we should read Schleiermacher.

As a student of Barth’s theology, Schleiermacher was often presented to me in a subjectivist light, but this has been widely debunked by scholars of his theology. Part of the problem is too much of a focus on the controversial introduction of his theological masterpiece, Christian Faith. But as Pedersen notes, “Like a word, the meaning of Schleiermacher’s introduction is its use.” 2 It is the actual material content of Schleiermacher’s theology that should interpret the method, not the reverse. This is extremely important, since interpretive errors have arisen from attempting to read his content in the light of his method, while in fact his method is best understood in the way it is implemented.

In this sense, Pedersen’s book is not only an excellent study on the eternal covenant, but a fantastic example of how to properly read Schleiermacher. There are so many unscholarly opinions about Schleiermacher that circulate in books and in classrooms (I have been party to some of these errors myself!), but Pedersen’s book presents an account that is truly faithful to Schleiermacher’s theology. As such, if we want to learn how to read Schleiermacher by example, then Pedersen sets a very high standard worth following.

Conclusion: While the price and difficulty of this book might lead novices to avoid it, serious scholars of Schleiermacher will do so only at their peril. There is little doubt in my mind that Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant will become indispensable for future scholars of Schleiermacher’s theology. A book of such careful attention and articulation can hardly be ignored. And as a novice in the world of Schleiermacher myself, I would also hope that other newcomers would take up the task of learning from Pedersen’s book, even if it demands much patience and diligence. I know I learned a great deal from reading it, and plan to return to it in the future as I continue to read (and eventually write about) Schleiermacher.

Click here to purchase The Eternal Covenant by Daniel James Pedersen

My thanks to Walter de Gruyter and Daniel Pedersen for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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Notes:

  1. On the Glaubenslehre, 64; quoted in Pedersen, iBooks loc. 17
  2. The Eternal Covenant, iBooks loc. 49

“The Transformative Church” by Patrick Oden – a Review

Book: The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (Emerging Scholars) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Fortress Press [LINK]

Overview: Oden’s book is broken up into two parts. The first addresses Moltmann’s theology as it relates to the Church, and the second engages that theology with contemporary Church movements, such as the Emerging Church. As a study of Moltmann’s thought, this book soars as a careful look at Moltmann’s key interests and by providing a much needed focus on Moltmann’s ecclesiology.


I read this book primarily for its first part, which studies Moltmann, and my review will therefore focus on Oden’s work on Moltmann’s theology. While it should be noted that the second part was indeed fascinating, I am less capable of commenting on its success than I am on the first part.

Oden states the overall goal of the book as follows:

“By putting together the practical expressions of transformative churches and the systematic insights of Jürgen Moltmann, it is my goal to begin to construct a more adequate transformative ecclesiology. More than this, however, I also seek to imbue the transformative church conversations with theological intent, seeing their practices as being much more than church growth techniques, or attributes of a narrowly defined practical theology. By bringing these writers and thinkers into conversation with Moltmann, my goal is to substantiate their practices as being themselves topics of theology. Just as hope became a topic in theology, I assert so also should other practices of the church, because they are first expressions by God to the world. All theology, in such an approach, is practical. We are to be hospitable, for instance, because God is hospitable. We are to welcome strangers, for instance, because God is the welcoming God. Our practices illuminate our expressed theology, incarnating continually Christ’s identity into this world.” 1

There are many publications available that focus on Moltmann’s first two books, Theology of Hope and The Crucified Godbut there has sadly been less of an interest in Moltmann’s profound contribution to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church), which was the focus of his third book, The Church in the Power of the Holy SpiritOden’s study provides a much needed contribution to correct this problem, and shows exceptionally well the importance of Moltmann’s understanding of the Church as an essential aspect of his overall theology. Just as hope and the suffering of God are essential to nearly every work Moltmann wrote, so his understanding of the Church is integral to his whole theology. Oden reveals this in his careful and thoughtful study of Moltmann’s major works.

Oden writes his study with an attention to detail as well as an approachable style, which makes this book a helpful guide to Moltmann’s theology, as well as a fascinating look into a dialogue possible between his work and the different models within the Emerging Church (Oden lists four variations).

In a section directly dealing with Moltmann’s The Church in the Power of the Holy SpiritOden provides a helpful reflection on the political action of the Christian community, particularly as it relates to the call for the Church to care for the oppressed and the weak:

“In light of the cross, political action is always ‘from below,’ which is the only form of action that itself resists becoming oppressive because it stands with the outcasts and rejected. As a messianic people, those in the church do not identify with the powerful or seek symbols of strength and wealth to legitimize their claims for the kingdom, but instead share solidarity with the people who have no power.” 2

“This means that the fellowship with Christ does not simply encourage including the poor in our services or reaching out to them or giving them what we think they require, acting in paternal ways. Rather, this fellowship insists on involving ourselves in true solidarity, seeing them not as objects to fix but as people included in our fellowship, the fellowship of Christ. … Indeed, it might even be said that it is not our choice to include them in our fellowship with Christ but to seek their fellowship so as to be included with Christ who is already with them.” 3

This example shows how well Oden is able to highlight important insights from Moltmann’s theology for the Church today. This was the case for nearly every section he wrote on Moltmann’s thought, in which he carefully and clearly articulates the important points from each of his major books. I enjoyed this book very much, and found these sections to be very insightful for a better understanding of Moltmann.

Conclusion: Oden’s book is well worth reading, not only for the first part which masterfully deals with Moltmann’s theology, but for the whole premise of the book which strives to provide a transformative model for the Church. I’d recommend it both for those interested in how Moltmann’s theology might work in a dialogue of this sort, but also for those searching for a good overview of some of his essential convictions from the perspective of his ecclesiology.

Click here to purchase a copy (Amazon)

My thanks to Fortress Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

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Notes:

  1. Kindle loc., 206
  2. Kindle loc., 1581.
  3. Kindle loc., 1597-9.

“Theology as Hope” by Ryan A. Neal (a Review)

Book: Theology as Hope: On the Ground and Implications of Jürgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope (Princeton Monograph Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Pickwick Publications [LINK]

Overview: Theology as Hope is a carefully written, thoughtful book, which studies Moltmann’s major “Contributions to Systematic Theology” within the light of his theology of hope. For Neal, this is Moltmann’s chief method, “theology as hope.” While he is ultimately critical of the success of Moltmann’s project, he nevertheless provides a fair and helpful reading of his work.


I was impressed by this book. It is a clear overview of Moltmann’s theology from the conviction that his central method is “theology as hope.” while I wouldn’t call it an introductory study, it still gives a nice overview for those who might have a decent grasp already of Moltmann’s thought, but who perhaps have a few questions about precisely what Moltmann means. (Though Bauckham’s work will always be the standard for secondary literature on Moltmann.) Notable is his clarity in dealing with Moltmann’s controversial “social doctrine” of the Trinity. He provides a helpful response to critics of this notion that I thought was very well put together.

Another strength of this book was Neal’s ability to recognized nuances in development in Moltmann’s theology, so that he often made note of the precise areas where Moltmann progressed in his theology, or acted in a self-correcting manner, or when he flatly changed his mind. It is very helpful to read Moltmann within this context, because some of his earlier work is admittedly “one-sided” and it becomes useful to see where and how he corrects some of these tendencies. This is perhaps the greatest value I found in reading the book, as Neal pays careful attention to these details.

One such example is to examine how Moltmann expands from The Crucified God into The Spirit of Life with a more precise understanding of God’s involvement in the cross. Neal writes:

“While the central question of CG [The Coming of God]: ‘what does the cross mean for God?’ was only answered in a discussion of Father and Son… In SpL [The Spirit of Life], however, Moltmann seeks a specific answer in pneumatological terms… In SpL he is exercised by the ‘seldom asked’ question: how does the Spirit relate to the cross?” (185)

Neal notes that Moltmann draws upon his “social understanding of God’s triunity, stressing the three subjects rather than their unity.” (187) Therefore, the Trinitarian dimensions of the cross are more clearly articulated. Whereas previously Moltmann had a limited understanding of the Spirit’s involvement in the crucifixion, now Moltmann expands into a fully Trinitarian interpretation. Neal summarizes this as follows:

“1. The Father… is the ‘rejecting Father.’ First, the Father does not hear the prayer of the Son in Gethsemane, and then on the cross is continually silent as he abandons the Son to death. So, the Father suffers as the one abandoning his Son.

2. The Son… is the abandoned Son. The first part of his plea to the Father (Abba): ‘remove this cup from me’ goes unanswered, while the second half ‘yet, not what I want, but what you want’ is answered according to the Father’s will. So, the Son suffers actively as the one who both ‘through the eternal Spirit offers himself without blemish to God’ and passively as the one abandoned by his Father.

3. The Spirit… is the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit suffers, but does not die and is ‘Jesus’ strength in suffering.’ Thus, the Spirit is the ‘real determining subject of this special relationship of Jesus’ to God, and of God’s to Jesus.’ Accordingly, the Spirit ‘frames the Son’s response: ‘not my will, but thine be done.’ The Spirit also ‘reveals to Jesus the ‘will’ of God.'” (187-8)

The first and second proposals are included in Moltmann’s The Crucified Godbut this third aspect is where Neal sees as a development (and improvement) upon his theology of the cross. I’ll have to go back and re-read the sections he refers to in order to understand all the points here, but it was interesting to see this development spelled out so carefully. There are various other comments Neal makes that are helpful in this same regard, as he expertly traces Moltmann’s development on numerous issues. Perhaps this is just something I have not yet studied for myself as fully, but it struck me as a valuable aspect of the book.

Neal’s conclusion in the book was also interesting to read, though he takes a critical tone on the success of Moltmann’s theology of hope which I’m not quite sure I can follow. In a poor restatement of Neal’s conclusion, it seemed like his conclusion was that Moltmann’s theology of hope fails to be a theology of hope and is more accurately a theology of certainty (especially in Moltmann’s explicit universalism). Thus, he criticizes Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and his Coming of God perhaps the most strongly.

Conclusion: Generally speaking, I enjoyed this book for how carefully and thoroughly Neal wrote, as well as the attention he gave to the development of Moltmann’s thought. I’m not wholly convinced by his conclusion, but I found my understanding was challenged by it. I think this fact is a great sign of a successful book on Moltmann, since he was himself so dedicated to theology as a dialogue, or as he called it “an adventure of ideas” in which his “whole concern has been, and still is, to stimulate other people to discover theology for themselves” (Experiences in Theology, preface).

Click here to purchase Theology as Hope by Ryan A. Neal

My thanks to Pickwick Publications and Wipf & Stock Publishers for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

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Our God Loves Justice by W. Travis McMaken (a Review)

Book: Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken (AMAZON LINK)

Publisher: Fortress Press (PUBLISHERS LINK)

Overview: McMaken’s introduction to the political theology of Helmut Gollwitzer is overflowing with thought-provoking insights, careful explanations, and important implications. I found the book easy to read, but tremendously helpful as both an introduction to Gollwitzer but also to why a Christian can (and should) be a socialist.


W. Travis McMaken’s Our God Loves Justice has been highly anticipated by those familiar with his popular theo-blog, Die Evangelischen Theologen (DET). 1 I was very excited to have the opportunity to read and review it. I brought it with me on my vacation to Portugal this past week. The strength of the book and the depth of its insights can be illustrated by the fact that I spent a great deal of my time thinking about the book as I walked along the beautiful streets of Porto and Lisbon.

The book is divided into five chapters, with two appendixes. I’ll briefly go through each chapter to give you a taste of this excellent study.

First, McMaken reflects on reading Gollwitzer in the context of America’s political and economical climate. Here McMaken shows why it is essential to read Gollwitzer today, and particularly why he hopes to initiate a conversation about his theology. This includes reflections on America’s economic inequality (think of the 1% vs. the 99%), as well as a history of Christianity’s problematic involvement with capitalism. This chapter makes it clear that right now is a critical moment in time for America, a kairos time, a fertile moment to act. McMaken begins with a clear statement:

“Helmut Gollwitzer was a socialist. He was also a Christian. And perhaps the most surprising thing, at least for those of us deeply embedded in white American Christianity, is that Gollwitzer was a socialist precisely because he was a Christian. This book tries to make sense of that ‘precisely because’ in Gollwitzer’s life and thought.” 2

Second, McMaken works through Gollwitzer’s fascinating life. This was an especially helpful chapter for introducing Gollwitzer and grasping the shape of his life and thought. I was deeply moved at times when learning about Gollwitzer’s courage, as well as the tragedies he faced. McMaken aptly titled this chapter “Grace upon Grace.” Certainly, Gollwitzer is worth reading not merely because of the fullness of his ideas, but also the fullness of his life. His closeness with Barth was also interesting to discover, such as learning that Barth spoke at his wedding and Gollwitzer spoke at Barth’s funeral. He was also Barth’s teaching assistant for a time. McMaken quotes a telling reflection Gollwitzer wrote towards the end of his life:

“the gospel has made me to constantly be a critical and admonitory voice against the severe injustices in our contemporary society… I am particularly thankful that I was allowed to be at the service of the gospel.” 3

The third and fourth chapters make up the center of the book, with Gollwitzer’s “political theology” and “theological politics” considered (respectively). Chapter three first traces Gollwitzer’s continuance of dialectical theology, and McMaken shows his expertise on the subject with a careful discussion of Barth and Bultmann. This leads to the conclusion that all theology is contextual theology, and therefore, that all theology is political. As McMaken notes,

“It is impossible to escape the political ramifications of our God-talk, even—and perhaps especially!—when we try to speak nonpolitically. It is simply impossible to do so. Either our theology supports the status quo, or it calls that status quo into question.” 4

In the fourth chapter McMaken continues to build on Gollwitzer’s theological background. For Gollwitzer, what is at stake here is “nothing less than the core concern of the Christian gospel.” Because the gospel demands “not mere intellectual assent, but embodied faithfulness.” 5 McMaken helpfully explains Gollwitzer’s understanding of socialism as it relates to the “true socialism” of the Kingdom of God. Bringing the discussion to its important conclusion, McMaken writes:

“Theological commitment to the true socialism of the kingdom of God and engagement with socialist analysis of capitalist social structures, which are antithetical to that kingdom, coalesce in Gollwitzer’s thought to make the fundamental point that Christians must take sides on political issues, and they must take the side of the oppressed. Many of those Americans today who think of themselves as Christians feel very uncomfortable when faced with this demand. As Gollwitzer correctly notes, however, taking sides ‘sounds terrifying only to him who is blind to the fact that the empirical church has actually always taken sides.’ Christians have, by and large, sided with the status quo. But the gospel’s call to repentant conversion—to metanoia—’reaches into the politico-social dimension,’ and ‘as long as we shrink from revolutionizing [that dimension], we have not really heard’ the gospel’s call. That is, we have not encountered the God who loves justice, and who is consequently served through the pursuit of political love.” 6

Fifth, McMaken concludes the discussion with Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). The church is to be both a “danger and a help” to the world. This follows naturally from the conviction that as Christians we must take sides on political issues. McMaken writes,

“Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is no help at all.” 7

The two appendixes in themselves are worth the price of the book, since here McMaken translates two essays by Gollwitzer which were previously unavailable to English readers. The first is the 1972 essay, “Must a Christian Be a Socialist?” The second is the 1980 theses, “Why Am I, as a Christian, a Socialist? Theses.” I enjoyed reading directly from Gollwitzer, and I thought the essays concluded the book perfectly. In the second essay, the collection of theses, Gollwitzer states his definition of socialism:

“A socialist maintains that a better society than the current one is possible and necessary.” 8

Conclusion: Our God Loves Justice is a timely book, excellently written, clear, and passionate. I have no doubt that it will initiate a conversation in America today about the theological necessity for political engagement, and it offers a convincing argument for the cause of justice sought after through democratic socialism. I strongly recommend you purchase a copy of this book and read it thoughtfully. Click here to purchase a copy (Amazon).

My thanks to Fortress Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

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Notes:

  1. LINK
  2. Kindle Loc. 134
  3. Kindle loc. 1135, quoting from Gollwitzer, “Skizzen eines Lebens, 341; see also 341″
  4. Kindle loc. 2365
  5. Kindle loc. 2950
  6. Kindle loc. 3875
  7. Kindle loc. 4526
  8. Kindle loc. 5486

Jürgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology: a Review

Book: Jürgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology: A Critical Engagement edited by Sung Wook Chung (Amazon link)

Publisher: Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers) (Publishers link)

Overview: This volume represents a fair and surprisingly appreciative engagement with Moltmann from the evangelical perspective. The weight of the book is on first understanding Moltmann before offering any criticism. As in any collection of essays such as this one, there are always essays that stand out among the rest. This volume is no different.


After I read the first essay in this book, written by Sung Wook Chung of scripture, I expected the rest of it to be largely negative. But I was pleasantly surprised. No essay is completely free from criticism, but the bulk of the essays fairly considered and appreciated the benefits of Moltmann’s theology.

It was a breath of fresh air. Most of evangelicals I’ve come across outright reject Moltmann as a heretic. They attempt to fit him into any number of labels (universalist, Marxist, open theist, etc.—however accurate or inaccurate) in order to downplay the significance of his thought. But this book does an excellent job truly celebrating the benefits evangelical theology might gain by engaging in a dialogue with his many contributions. If this book becomes a standard for the relationships evangelicals have with Moltmann, than there is tremendous hope for a profound future dialogue and mutual appreciation.

It did not surprise me at all to discover the first essay was on scripture, since evangelicals are known for their high regard of the Bible. Some of the most critical remarks were therefore against Moltmann’s theological method. Chung concludes this first essay with a remark that sets the tone well for the rest of the book: “…evangelicals cannot help maintaining an ambivalent attitude, both love and serious suspicion, toward Moltmann.” 1

The second essay was a sharp contrast against the first. Kurt Anders Richardson’s essay on “Moltmann’s Communitarian Trinity” was my favorite from the book. He treats Moltmann’s doctrine of the Trinity with the care it rightfully deserves. Many of the myths that surround Moltmann’s theology were dispelled.

One myth is Moltmann’s supposed Marxism. Richardson writes: “The Theology of Hope was actually a non-Marxist, Christian answer to Marxists.” 2 Richardson argues it is because many fail to understand the political background Moltmann writes within that they mistake him as a Marxist. He certainly appreciates elements of Marx, especially through his appreciation of Ernst Bloch; he is not, however, properly understood as writing a Marxist theology, but a Christian alternative to Marx.

Richardson also dispels the wrongful conclusion of patripassianism in The Crucified God. Patripassianism is an early modalist heresy that believed the Father suffered and died on the cross. Moltmann does argue for the grief of the Father in giving up His Son to death, but he does not confuse the death of the Son with the grief of the Father. The Son dies, and the Father suffers the loss of the Son. The label of patripassianism is wrongly applied, though some of the less attentive critics of Moltmann have jumped to that conclusion.

Against the charge that Moltmann is constructing an “extra-biblical” doctrine of the Trinity, Richardson writes: “This does not mean that Moltmann is thinking extra-biblically. On the contrary, there is much that is more biblical than the classic trinitarianism of speculative theology. It must be realized that all of the non-personal metaphors for Trinity are extra-biblical. What counts are the relational metaphors and signs of eternal relationships.” 3 This is a helpful clarification for critics of Moltmann’s “social” doctrine of the Trinity. He is thinking through with complete seriousness the doctrine of perichoresis, and as such Moltmann should be considered less speculative than those who argue for a metaphysical doctrine of God.

Richardson’s essay is a careful treatment of Moltmann’s thought, and certainly stood out as one of the best in the book. But I also enjoyed the Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s essay on Moltmann’s pneumatology.

The only real problem I have with the book is how repetitive it was, which made it rather boring to read even though each essay was so well written. This was because most of the essays repeated near identical biographical remarks or offered a short overview of his major books (or both). This made reading the essays, especially the first part of each, a chore. Even if I wasn’t familiar with Moltmann’s story or the development of his thought, I would find the repetition of this unnecessary. It is more of an editorial issue, however, and not directly the problem of the writers themselves. I wish the editor was more attentive to removing unnecessary repetition.

Conclusion: If this book is any indication of where the dialogue will go between Moltmann’s theology and evangelicals, then it is an excellent step forward. I recommend it for those who might find themselves on either side: whether you are an evangelical interested in Moltmann but unsure about him, or if you are appreciative of Moltmann but doubt there can be any evangelical dialogue, this is a helpful book.

My thanks to Wipf & Stock Publishers for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

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Notes:

  1. 16
  2. 20
  3. 32

“Trinitarian Grace and Participation” by Geordie W Ziegler: a Review

Book: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T. F. Torrance by Geordie W Ziegler (Amazon link)

Publisher: Fortress Press (Emerging Scholars series), 2017 (Publishers link)

Overview: Ziegler’s book is quite an achievement, with clarity and precision he embarks on the difficult task of exploring Thomas F. Torrance’s complex thought. The book emphasizes what Ziegler calls “a deeper strata of Torrance’s theology: his theology of grace, in which all other doctrines find their interior logic.” 1 This is a highly commendable and insightful reading of Torrance, recommended for anyone interested in his work.

Continue Reading…

Notes:

  1. Kindle loc. 200

The Bible is Not a Guide Book

Holy_bible_bookThis week I took the time to read Peter Enns fantastic little book, The Bible Tells Me SoIt has been a book on my reading list for some time, but it was recently discounted to $1.99, so I had to snatch it up. (As of my writing this, the book is still on sale. I highly recommend it!)

Today I wanted to discuss one of the main ideas of this book, one that Peter Enns kept returning to time and time again: the bible is not a Christian guide book, it is a story—it is the story of God’s people.

The B.I.B.L.E.

I’ve often heard this cheesy Christian phrase, that the bible is: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”.

I couldn’t have come up with a more inaccurate definition of the bible even if I tried. There are several issues here. First of all, the bible never says its a guide book. It doesn’t present a step-by-step solution to all your problems. And second, who says we’re leaving earth anytime soon? Won’t the Kingdom of Heaven be established here on this earth? It will be made new, but we can’t be too quick at leaving it behind. 1

And let’s be honest. The bible isn’t really a very good guide book, if it is one at all. It contradicts itself quite often, it tells a lopsided version of history, and sometimes even promotes murder, genocide, or slavery.

This phrase is an attempt to try and force a misbehaving bible to behave.

But what do we do when the bible just doesn’t behave like we want it to? When we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to ignore this fact. The bible doesn’t behave like a rule book, or even like a Christian guide book. It simply does not contain all the answers to life. The bible will not tell you who you should marry, if you should take that job or not, what city you should live in, if the carpet on your new home should be grey or beige, what investments you should make in the stock market, or what you should do with your life! As much as we pretend the bible can do all these things, it simply cannot. It is not the end all answer book for Christian living. We are living an illusion if we think it is.

But why do we continue to speak of the bible in this way? As if the bible actually contains our step-by-step guide for our lives?

In some ways, we probably do this out of fear. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our faith. We want easy answers, simple truths, and incontestable voices of reason. And most of all, we certainly don’t want to trust in the Holy Spirit! Please God anything but that! So instead of trusting the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to be our guide, we would much rather have a book answer all our burning questions. Because God forbid we learn how to think for ourselves or learn to lean on the wisdom of the Spirit in us!

We have tried to make God the Father, Son, and Holy Bible! But what a horrific disgrace to the God who loves us and has given us the gift of His Spirit. We have tried to replace our brains and the Holy Spirit in us with a non-thinking bible of simple facts and easy guides. But it simply will not behave as we would hoped it would.

Biblical realism

Rather than trying to fit the bible into what we think it should be, we should let the bible be what it actually is. The bible is a story. It is the story of the people of God, and the people of God are never without their flaws. Yes, the bible is inspiring, it is moving, and it is certainly inspired. However, the bible sometimes is really unsettling (like when God commanded the genocide of the Canaanites), or just plan difficult to reconcile with our modern world (like believing that a fruit is the cause of all our problems). But when we let the bible be what it is, we will learn far more from it than we ever imagined.

When you read the Bible on its own terms, you discover that it doesn’t behave itself like a holy rulebook should. It is definitely inspiring and uplifting— it wouldn’t have the shelf life it does otherwise. But just as often it’s a challenging book that leaves you with more questions than answers. 2

So here’s my not so radical thought: What if the Bible is just fine the way it is? What if it doesn’t need to be protected from itself? What if it doesn’t need to be bathed and perfumed before going out in public? 3

We should adopt this biblical realism in our approach to scriptures. We can certainly see that this book is inspired and God breathed, but that doesn’t mean we also can’t say that it has its difficulties. It is a historical book and we can’t pretend it isn’t by treating it otherwise. It tells of a people from a long time ago, and we have to let it be what it is without trying to tame it or force it to meet our expectations.

What if the Bible is just fine?

The bible is a challenging book, and the writers of the bible didn’t have all the answer. They, like you and me, are on a journey. This journey is just as much our story as it is God’s story, but this does not mean it is a perfectly accurate story. Peter Enns has a great little chapter heading called, “God Lets His Children Tell the Story”.  And this is exactly what the bible is about, especially its narrative. God has let his children tell the story of their journey with Him, and I think it’s because God knows that sometimes our journey can be more powerful than even the most accurate of facts (historical or otherwise).

Therefore, the bible has gone through this filter, the filter of God’s people telling the story. Accordingly, their culture, history, and personal experiences all come into view.

Is God always exactly as He appears to be in the Old Testament? Did God actually command genocide and murder? Not necessarily. Sometimes the bible has more to tell us about what the Israelites believed about God than what God is actually like. In Enns’ words:

These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time, but not for all time— and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up “explanations” to ease our stress. And for Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read— which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word. 4

The scriptures are like a good period piece. They sometimes say more about the people involved than the accuracy of their beliefs. The Israelites had a good understanding of God for their time period, and it was actually fairly progressive with their insistence upon monotheism. But their understanding of God is not a universal, be-all end-all truth about what God is like.

Only Jesus is the universal, be-all, end-all image of God.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Which implies that before Jesus, God was invisible to human beings. So even though the Old Testament claims at times to speak of God, it speaks only in shadows about God. The only concrete knowledge of God is found in Jesus.

The ultimate context of the scriptures is Jesus Christ. Christ is the controlling center of the scriptures. This idea was echoed in another recent article on Thomas F Torrance, where he writes: “Strictly speaking, Christ himself is the scope of the Scriptures, so that it is only through focusing constantly upon him, dwelling in his Word and assimilating his Mind, that the interpreter can discern the real meaning of the Scriptures.”

Jesus Christ alone is the scope of the scriptures, the controlling center of our thought about what God is like. Which means the bible is not this center. The center of the Christian faith is not the bible, it’s Jesus. Jesus alone is the revelation of God, the bible gives witness to this revelation, but in itself it is not this revelation. 5

So what then?

So what is the conclusion we should make from this? If we are to take up a realist relationship with the scriptures, emphasizing the person of Christ as our controlling center of thinking about God, then how do we now relate to the bible itself? In Enns’ own words:

This is the Bible we have, the Bible where God meets us. Not a book kept at a safe distance from the human drama. Not a fragile Bible that has to be handled with care lest it crumble in our hands. Not a book that has to be defended 24/ 7 to make sure our faith doesn’t dissolve. 6

The bible is where God meets us. It is where we read the story of God and of His people. It isn’t always perfect, or accurate, and often it can be difficult and challenging, but it is what we have. It is where God meets us. We don’t have to defend it, or wage war with it, or look to it and it alone as our source of guidance. We should examine the bible carefully, with reverence and appreciation, but also with realism. We cannot continue to place unrealistic expectations upon the bible, supposing it to be something it isn’t.

And when we do this, when we take the bible realistically, the bible will challenge us. It may not always comfort us, and it may very well unsettle us from time to time—but that’s okay. Christianity never came with the promise of simple answers or a step-by-step guide to life. It has promised to change our lives, to radically reshape our worldview, and most importantly, to bring us into relationship with God Himself. But none of these things are normal. So we have to be willing to let the bible bring a little discomfort from time to time, as we are faced with challenging stories about God and mankind. In these pages we hear the echo of our personal story, and on these pages through all the difficulties, we still met Jesus Christ the Son of the Father, our savior, our brother.

Why else would the Holy Spirit be called the Comforter, if we shouldn’t expect to be uncomfortable from time to time? Even, and especially, in the book about God’s interaction with sinful man?

The bible is not a guidebook full of easy answers. The bible recounts the story of God and human beings—fallible, sinful human beings. And as such, the bible is an amazing book. One we can appreciate even more when it’s understood correctly.

(I highly recommend Peter Enns book to you, and I think you should take advantage of this great deal before its gone.)

And on an unrelated note: my favorite book I’ve written, so far, We Belong: Trinitarian Good News, is available now for a discounted price: $4.99 for an eBook or $12.99 for a paperback copy. Get yours here.

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Notes:

  1. More on this from my (free!) book 10 Reasons Why the Rapture Must be Left Behind
  2. Enns, Peter (2014-09-09). The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  3. Ibid. p. 9. Bold mine.
  4. Ibid. p. 65.
  5. This is the purpose of my article The Bible is Inadequate (& That’s Why It’s True)
  6. Ibid. p. 232