Four Helpful Books on Scripture

In the past year, I have read four excellent books on the doctrine of Scripture. I thought I’d pass some recommendations on to you.

D.A. Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture, compiled by Andy Naselli (Crossway, 2010). This book brings together a variety of essays, articles, and even book reviews that Carson has written over the years. Carson deftly addresses such issues as inerrancy, hermeneutics, and the relationship between biblical and systematic theology. I had a chance to review this book for Southeastern Theological Review, and in my review, I wrote “Carson’s book deserves widespread adoption in college and seminary classes and universal inclusion in pastoral and even local church libraries. It is that good. Whether read in its totality or spot-read along and along, Collected Writings on Scripture is that rare volume that is essential to any minister’s bookshelf. I give it my highest recommendation.”

Mark D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture, New Studies in Biblical Theology (IVP Academic, 2006). I recently read this helpful book as I was considering the best way to teach on the clarity of Scripture in my systematic theology class at First Baptist Church of Durham. Thompson discusses this perennially controversial topic from a biblical, theological, and historical perspective. He engages modern challenges raised by philosophical hermeneutics, as well as classic arguments against perspicuity raised by Roman Catholic thinkers such as Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine. He also critiques unhelpful approaches to biblical clarity that some Protestants advance, particularly versions grounded more in modern views of private autonomy than biblical theology. Thompson concludes that God has given us human language as a gift. When we read the Bible in faith and in conversation with the community of faith, we can understand the Scriptures.

Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (IVP Academic, 2009). Ward’s book, which I led a group of students through in my weekly Theology Reading Group, is a constructive appropriation of speech-act theory by an evangelical and inerrantist pastor-theologian. His view of Scripture is robustly Trinitarian and is in dialog with the best of the Protestant theological tradition, with emphasis on the Reformed Orthodox thinkers of the seventeenth century, the Princeton theologians of the late-nineteenth century, and the Dutch Reformed theologians of the early-twentieth century. If, like me, you like Kevin Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine, then I suspect you will appreciate Ward’s creative restatement of the historic Protestant doctrine of Scripture.

John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Webster’s short monograph was also served up to the Theology Reading Group. Webster’s view of Scripture is also thoroughly Trinitarian and emphasizes the role the Bible plays in the believing community. His emphasis on the holiness of Scripture is also a welcome contribution. His chapter on how the Bible should be used in theological schools is perhaps worth the price of the book. Unlike the other authors, however, Webster is far more Barthian in his understanding of inspiration, making him hesitant to identify the very words of Scripture as God’s word. Nevertheless, for the discerning (and patient) reader, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch offers many helpful insights about Scripture, tradition, and the church.

Rob Bell, meet Clark Pinnock

I just finished reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In short, Bell makes the case for a post-mortem opportunity for those who didn’t receive the Gospel during their earthly lives. His gift at turning a phrase helps to hide the weaknesses of his arguments. Take for example his handling of our Lord’s denunciation of the cities of Capernaum in Matt 10 (“It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you”). Bell interprets Jesus to be teaching that there still is hope for Sodom and Gomorrah. Oh come on. It’s hard to take this stuff seriously.

I found myself thinking, “Clark Pinnock did a much better job arguing for all this.”

Pinnock, who passed away last August after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 73, was by far the most articulate and forceful recent evangelical voice for embracing inclusivism, annihilationism, and the possibility of salvation after death. In his A Wideness in God’s Mercy, Pinnock takes basically the same position as Bell, but with arguments more cogent and well thought out. When one considers where he was theologically at the end of his life, it’s difficult to believe that Pinnock started his theological career as an arch-conservative, inerrancy-affirming, 5-point Calvinist. Pinnock’s theological journey was one of the more convoluted odysseys in evangelicalism.

Years ago, when I was a theology student in the doctoral program at Southeastern studying under Paige Patterson, I was digging through Dr Patterson’s personal files which were located (at that time) in SEBTS’s archives. I stumbled across the class notes he had taken while he was a student at New Orleans Seminary (circa1969). He took Clark Pinnock’s classes often. As Dr Patterson explained to me, the conservative, early Pinnock played a formative role in his theological development; and in ways I am not at liberty to elaborate on a blog, Clark Pinnock rescued Paige Patterson from some very unfair treatment at New Orleans Seminary.

In those days, the liberal element of the New Orleans faculty viewed Paige Patterson as a “fundamentalist troublemaker,” but he and other conservative firebrands knew they had an ally on the faculty in Clark Pinnock. Pinnock had studied under F. F. Bruce at the University of Manchester, and was recognized by both friend and foe as a brilliant scholar. He presented a clear, logical framework for adhering to the Bible’s infallibility and defended the doctrine of the inerrancy in an environment where such views were ridiculed. Bible believing students loved Pinnock while many of the other professors considered him a loose cannon.

Perhaps he was a loose cannon; he certainly careened across the theological landscape. I wish that Dr Pinnock had continued to hold to a consistent doctrine of biblical inerrancy through the remainder of his academic career. Alas, he did not. His early works, A Defense of Biblical Infallibility (1967) and Biblical Revelation (1971) are classic presentations of the historic doctrines of biblical authority, infallibility, and inerrancy. However, though the 1970’s and 80’s Pinnock’s view of Scripture shifted, and he argued instead for what might be called an inerrancy of purpose.

Other changes followed. He moved from Reformed theology to classic Arminianism and eventually to Open Theism. Pinnock advocated neo-Pentecostalism and third wave theology. And as I said before, he embraced inclusivism, annihilationism, and post-mortem evangelism. For conservatives within the SBC that he had helped in the early days of the controversy and who had counted him as an ally, Pinnock’s theological wanderings were difficult to watch.

I would encourage anyone tempted to take Bell’s position to consider the sad twists and turns of Clark Pinnock.

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 5): The Danger of Seeking Academic Acclaim

Ps. 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments.”

Titus 1:7-9: “For a bishop must be blameless…a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught….

Sometimes seminary people forget that theology is primarily a spiritual task, done for the glory of God and the good of his church. If you are at seminary for any other reason, you should re-assess your calling. Looking back on the period of time during when I decided to come to seminary, I think I can gather together my various reasons for coming to seminary and distill them into one sentence: I wanted to be fully prepared to study, preach and defend God and his Word, in season and out. This was, I think, the right reason to come to seminary and for the most part I have maintained that desire. However, along the way, there have been times that other desires have trumped that one. Allow me to illustrate.

During my second year of seminary, I realized that I loved theology. I enjoyed studying, discussing, and debating theological method, the classical loci, contemporary theology, philosophical theology, and everything else in between. My favorite place to study was the Caribou Coffee on Falls of the Neuse Road. I spent hours there, reading and studying, and engaging in debate sessions with the other students who gathered to study and drink $3 coffees. It was “Theology on (Caraffe) Tap,” Southeastern style. In those days, Open Theism was the rage and it seems that we were all whipped up in a French-Canadian frenzy over the theological infelicities of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and company. During Ph.D. studies, my mind turned to George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Brevard Childs, and the Yale School, as well as John Milbank and the oh-so-Radically Orthodox. I began attending ETS as well as AAR. I wanted to keep up with everything that was going on in the field of theology.

As I began working on my dissertation (the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on late 20th century Anglo-American theology), I found myself talking with a whole new group of people. Almost none of them were Southern Baptist and not too many of them were evangelical. Overall, it was a great experience. I was forced to think rigorously like never before, as all of my assumptions were being challenged. It was during this time that I remember finding myself in discussion with several of the AAR’s big stars (I had interviewed one of them for my dissertation) and, for the first time in my life, I shrunk from defending my convictions. The discussion had turned toward the subject of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, with evangelicals being on the receiving end of more than a few belittling comments for believing such poppycock. And I did something that I had never done before: I stood there and said nothing. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with keeping one’s mouth shut at the appropriate time. But I kept my mouth shut for the wrong reason and at an inappropriate time. I was silent because I didn’t want to be looked down upon or condescended toward, and probably also because I was afraid of being “shown up,” unable to stand toe-to-toe with the big guys. There is a name for the malady from which I suffered that day: fear of man. With the choice between fearing God and fearing man, I chose the latter rather than the former.

Fear of man is especially dangerous to the theologian because theology is a spiritual task. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10). Theology is done primarily for the glory of God and the good of his church. That is why the qualifications for teachers (1 Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5-9) are primarily spiritual, not intellectual. Paul does mention the ability to teach (which implies analytical and communicative ability) but most of the qualifications he gives are ethical in nature. In order to be a good theologian, one must be godly. In order to see clearly, one must walk closely. That is why there are many simple believers who know God better than many learned theologians. I suspect that my father and mother (who never earned college degrees) walk more closely with the Lord than I and therefore in some ways are better theologians than I. Theology and godly living enforce one another.

During the encounter I mentioned above, I demurred when given the opportunity to speak my convictions about God and his Word, and I did so because I was seeking the acclaim of the academy rather than the pleasure of God. And the acclaim of the academy will likely never come to one who confesses that the Christian Scriptures are ipsissma verba Dei (the very words of God). Rather than receiving acclaim, one is likely to be put in the dunce’s seat and told that he is not allowed to play in the “big boy” sandbox.

Maybe you have never been tempted to hedge on one of your convictions, but there are other ways of seeking the acclaim of the academy. I have seen more than a few students make an idol out of their grades. “No,” you say, “I would never do that.” Really? Have you ever found yourself going to professors more than, say, once a year, and asking for your exam grade or paper grade to be adjusted? Do you talk trash about teachers under whom you do not receive an A? Are you more concerned about the grade you received than the knowledge and virtue you gained? Are you willing to neglect your family and your church in order to receive a high grade or the respect of your students or professors? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, there is reason to examine your heart.

For other students or professors, academic idolatry takes the form of high-brow theology and preaching. Do you find yourself theologizing or preaching in a way that is not helpful for the church? Are you unable to preach the Word in a way that ministers to a congregation of believers who do not have a college education? Do you find yourself looking down upon, or being frustrated with, the beliefs and practices of “simple” Christians who have no inkling about the regulative principle, the mid-trib rapture, or the Evangelical Theological Society? There are few things more distasteful than a seminary student (or professor) who is unable to enjoy ministering to God’s people at whatever level of education (theological or otherwise) they might have.

If you have read this blogpost and realized that, in one form or another, you struggle with idols of the academy, here are a few suggestions:

  • Commit to studying God’s word with affection for him and his church, and a willingness to be subject to Scripture, even when your convictions conflict with modern or postmodern sensibilities.
  • Commit to treating your seminary classes as an act of worship. Never allow yourself to sit through a course in theology, biblical studies, missions, or whatever, with an attitude of indifference.
  • Commit to reading God’s word and listening to the teaching of God’s Word (whether at home, in Old Testament class, in chapel), with a concentrated faithfulness, with a disposition to obey.
  • Read the text of Scripture thoughtfully and prayerfully, meditating upon it, before taking a theological position or applying it to particular situation.
  • Resolve never to theologize or preach unless you are actively seeking to glorify God and strengthen his church.

Theology is a spiritual task, one done for the glory of God and the good of his church.