Book Review: Against Calvinism by Roger Olson

In a for and against series of books, Dr. Michael Horton and Dr. Roger Olson both came out with a book on Calvinism. I read Dr. Michael Horton’s book first and I wasn’t surprised to find that it was a solid defense of Calvinism. I wish I could say that Roger Olson’s critique of Calvinism was as solid as Horton’s defense, but I’d be lying if I did.

On Page 23, Dr. Olson writes:

“I believe someone finally needs to stand up and in love firmly say “No!” to egregious statements about God’s sovereignty often made by Calvinists…God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst. I have gone so far as to say that this kind of Calvinism…makes it difficult(at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil.”

As if no one has ever came at Calvinism before. There are non-Calvinists from all denominations and walks of life that critique and/or are hostile towards Calvinism. Olson was definitely not the first to step up nor will he be the last. Olson’s confusion on the identity of the Calvinist God is an old argument, at least as old as John Wesley, who made the same objection. Olson reasons that because Calvinists “attribute everything to his will and control” then it would be hard to tell the difference.

Calvinists of old have already addressed this issue, but it deserves to be said again. Some theologies hold too high of a view of the devil. We are not in some gnostic manichaeism, where God and the Devil are in a conflict dueling it out in some type of dualistic battle. In reality, the Devil is nothing but a pawn in God’s chess game.

You will often see those with a high view of the Devil attribute things to him that the Bible never does. I’ve seen social media posts blaming the devil for pretty much anything. While I don’t think Dr. Olson would blame the devil if he dropped his hot pocket, I think his objection is cut from the same fabric of this type of thinking.

On Page 24, Dr. Olson states:

I have no interest in man-centered theology; I am intensely interested in worshiping a God who is truly good and above reproach of the Holocaust and all other evils too numerous to mention.

This ladies and gentleman, is what we call an appeal to emotion. While Olson says he has no interest in man-centered theology, he is obvious that his standards of “good” and “above reproach” are entirely based on a humanistic understanding of these terms. How does the Arminian escape the evil of the Holocaust? Is the God who valued free will more than the Jewish people (and others) more worthy of worship?

The rest of the book consisted of Dr. Olson talking about some key figures of Reformed theology (Calvin, Beza,  Edwards) and going through why he disagrees with the five points of Calvinism. To avoid making this post very long, since this is a book review and not a robust theological debate: Dr. Olson on page 140 states:

Steele and Thomas claim support for limited atonement in biblical passages…however, even a cursory glance at these passages reveal they do not limit the atonement but only say it is for and applied to God’s people.

Newsflash Dr. Olson, that is limiting the atonement in one way or another. Unless the assumption is that every single person is “God’s people”, when you say it is applied for God’s people (with the implication that those who are not God’s people are excluded) you’re limiting it to those who God has elected. The debate is to be had on the conditions (or lack thereof) on which God elects people.

Dr. Olson’s book was filled with emotional rhetoric and he didn’t really bring any new objections to Calvinism.

Book Review: Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust

Jennifer Wright Knust is assistant professor of religion at Boston University, specializing in New Testament, biblical studies, and early Christian History. She’s also an ordained American Baptist pastor, who holds a doctorate in religion from Columbia university and a master of divinity degree from Union theological seminary.

With all these impressive accomplishments. Dr. Knust should not be taken lightly.

First of all, the title is very clever, since the book is about the supposed contradictions in the Bible about sex and desire.

On page 2, she recounts the story about Jesus and the Tax Collectors and Prostitutes and she states:
We all understood exactly what this biblical passage meant: we were supposed to be nice to tax collectors and prostitutes if we had the misfortune to run into one”

This is unfortunate that she was taught this at just 12 years old. We often wrongly want to put ourselves in Jesus’ sandals when we read that story but in reality, we are the tax collectors and prostitutes.

She then paints the story of Jezebel as a sort of victim of God on page 3, with the rhetoric that she was just a “slut” who “got what she deserved.” Bringing in foreign gods and the fact she was murderous may have had something to do with it, rather than just her seductive nature.

On page 5, we run into her boldest claim thus far, she states:
The Bible fails to offer girls or anyone a consistent message regarding sexual morals

She goes on to mention how Song of Solomon encourages premarital sex. There is a few problems with her claim. First, there is no indication that they weren’t married. There is no indication they ever had sex, merely they were expressing their desire too. Third, she totally ignores the allegory between Christ and Church in the Song of Solomon. All Dr. Knust reveals is that Song of Solomon seems to praise premarital sex.

She goes on to mention the story of Judah, who solicited a prostitute that turned out to be his daughter-in-law. I’m surprised as a scholar she wasn’t able to make the distinction between something the Bible mentions and something the Bible approves of. Descriptive and Prescriptive texts are different. Could you point out where Judah is praised for his functionally incestous interaction?

She then claims on page 5 that “The Bible does not condemn prostitution…at least not consistently”

The supposed inconsistency is that the Bible mentions favored figures like Judah and David who engage in sexually immoral acts, but the Bible also condemns these sexual immoral acts. The poor Bible, how we will ever reconcile the Bible mentioning immoral acts yet condemning them elsewhere? Besides, you know, understanding the categories of descriptive vs prescriptive. Can you point out a Bible text where God encourages prostitution and then condemns it elsewhere? That would be a contradiction that you’re so desperately looking for.

On page 23, Dr. Knust repeats that old meme that became popular on the now defunct social media platform “Vine.” Where a student asks Christian educator Bonnie Park “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” and she replies “Well, I guess you’ll just have to prepare to die.”

Obviously this educator was out of line and was not prepared to answer that question. Her answer is ridiculous and it is not as if those of us who view premarital sex as a sin all believe that way.

She later corrects herself and recognizes that Song of Solomon is poetic and is open to many interpretations and is honest enough to say hers is not obvious from the text. (pg. 26-32)

She repeats the old refuted meme of Jonathan and David having an erotic attachment and Ruth and Naomi also were probably in love with each other. Because no one can have a close relationship without being secretly in love, right? (Dr. Gagnon addresses this issue.)

She assumes that because there is a development in doctrine on marriage, where divorce Jesus says he only allowed divorce for “hardness of hearts” this must mean that the Bible contradicts itself. She uses this same logic regarding the levitical laws. Temporary restrictions for ceremonial reasons apparently have to be universal to not contradict in the mind of Dr. Knust. (pg. 72-76)

She essentially mocks the idea that the Church is God’s wife on pg. 117. Referring to the unfaithful Israel as “God’s whore.”

On pg. 160 she talks about the angels desiring human women in Genesis 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. Too bad she didn’t Dr. Michael Heiser on this issue, it would have saved her the confusion. She struggles with the idea that the angels are the linchpin of Paul’s argument for the veil. She however, maintains that this is Paul arguing for the veil. She even quotes Tertullian, who holds that Paul’s argument is in fact that the angels want to have intercourse with human women. Today, we understand the history, that Hippocrates theory of “sperm hair” explains Paul’s argument. 

When Paul says “Does not nature itself” he is trying to get across two things. First, he is pointing to the natural order, in regards to Genesis chapter 1. Secondly, he is referring to nature as in the natural sciences, which the science at this time was Hippocrates “sperm hair” theory. Whether Paul sincerely believed in this theory is unknown, but what we can suggest is that it is very possible Paul used a scientific belief at that time to illustrate godly morality. To me, Paul using a false scientific belief is no different than Paul using pagan poetry to illustrate a point.

She brings up a lot of good questions to consider. There are good arguments to be made about some of the issues she brings up. A lot of the ideas already have serious objections. However, in some attempt to make it readable to a general audience, I think Dr. Knust has removed too much solid argumentation from her work. This reads like a Patheos blog rather than a scholar. You can do better, Dr. Knust!

Book Review: A Hellacious Doctrine by Evan Minton

Hell, one of the controversial topics in the Bible and a cause of a lot of emotion. I recall when Jonathan Edwards preached Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, his most popular sermon and probably the most popular sermon ever delivered in America. In it was a vivid description of hell that was practically art and like all good art, it was able to immerse the hearer or reader with the reality of hell so much so, that people fainted while he preached.
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Book Review: Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne

Faith Vs. Fact, a provocative title to catch the attention of the reader. Like clickbait, I found that this book was all style and no substance. Now, to avoid the impression that this college freshman is critiquing someone well-studied in their field as if he knows better, I’m not purporting to know more than Dr. Coyne as he is a Harvard graduate and a great biologist, his book Why Evolution is True is great! However, this book doesn’t live up to the hype that Richard Dawkins and online atheists seem to indicate.
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“Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God” Book Review

Sinners in The Hands of a Loving God the provocative re-writing of the title of Jonathan Edwards famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a book written by Brian Zahnd. I saw this particular book at my local library, the title caught my attention and after the initial eye roll, I checked it out.

The first thing I noticed was that Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey reviewed the book favorably. Sarah Bessey being the author of the book “Jesus Feminist” and Rachel Held Evans being someone I responded to already when she said that Calvinism made her cry. So, it was no surprise that her review and praise would be featured in a seemingly anti-calvinist book.

The next thing you will find is that the foreword was written by Wm. Paul Young, who wrote the Shack and Lies we Believe about God, in which the latter he admits to being a universalist. (pg. 118) These associations mentioned below do not make Zahnd automatically wrong, but I think I could reasonably assume how the book was going to go based on who likes his work. (1 Corinthians 15:33)

Young goes on to figure out the great question of why Edwards could paint such beautiful pictures of God such as in his work “Charity and its fruits” but portray a vindictive God in his sermon. Young went on to blame this sermon on Edwards personal issues, such as being ostracized by his own congregation (due to his insistence on fencing the Lord’s table) and his advocacy for the indigenous tribal people, specifically the native americans.

It’s a foreword, so I don’t expect Young to interact on a deeper level than what he did say, however, it seems a bit disingenuous to not acknowledge that there are plenty of Christians who argue that God can be just and wrathful and loving at the same time, God isn’t limited to one attribute.

In the first paragraph, Zahnd recounts the time about his little arts and crafts project, where he used photocopies of Edwards sermon and made his own little booklet complete with highlights and all. That actually sounds pretty cool to me, I may copy his idea and do that myself someday. However, he ends the paragraph by referring to those as his “ANGRY GOD days” in comparison to his “Loving Father” days apparently. I suspected that I would encounter this false dichotomy often throughout this book.

On page 3 he made a statement that made me want to facepalm:

“If Edwards could scare people into repentance , maybe I could too. Evangelism by Terrorism. Conversion by coercion.”

This is not only a pitiful exaggeration but it misunderstands the sermon entirely. Edwards was not in the pulpit with a scary mask on trying to scare the unbelief out of people, he was merely telling people of the reality of what scripture teaches. His imagery was vivid and poetic, that is probably why it resonated in the mind more than your average matter-of-fact sermon. To compare poetic language that is simply restating truths of the Bible to “terrorism” is absurd, there is no comparison.  As far as coercion, the sermon is just words, Mr. Zahnd, no one was forcing anyone to do anything. They willingly attended the service, they willingly heard the words and they willingly reacted the way they did.

Zahnd then insults the literary nature of Edwards writing by finding it strange that Edwards sermon is taught in schools as a good example of descriptive writing. Here’s the thing, even if you don’t agree with the method of preaching or the doctrine Edwards is defending, it would be far from reasonable to deny that his writing was anything short of descriptive.

 Zahnd then quotes Edwards famous spider portion of the sermon, but doesn’t understand the disconnect when he makes snide remarks such as it making God into some “sadistic juvenile”. If Zahnd would have read Edwards observations on Spiders, he would realize that Edwards found their intricate webs as evidence of their design by God and that he thought they were a beautiful creation. This isn’t some “you’re like a bug, gross!” childhood insult, it actually has a double meaning. Today, we commonly have people who like and people who dislike. Spiders are commonly disliked but some people like them. What makes spiders worthy of dislike? Well, they scare people. So, as an analogy, your appeal that Edwards scared people into the kingdom would be equivalent to you calling him a spider. Edwards is using this same type of analogy when he compares us to spiders. Not that we scare God obviously, but that our sin is as repugnant to God as someone who hates spiders.

On Page 4, Zahnd questions whether God abhors sinners (Hey, Zahnd read Psalm 11, Proverbs 15, Romans 3, Romans 9, or Revelation 2 sometime) and scoffs at the idea of an eternal hell calling it “God’s torture chamber” and “the eternal auschwitz”. Besides being a disgusting comparison, the major difference is that we are all guilty before God (Romans 3:23) and the Jewish people were innocent against the depraved behavior of the Nazis in the concentration camps. You should probably apologize to people affected by the holocaust for comparing some mere words about Hell you disagree with to such a horrific event.

On Page 5, Zahnd refers to Edwards sermon as a “Horror-genre sermon” which I find funny but also kind of agree with because the reality of Hell is horrific but also because horror is my favorite genre, so it makes sense why I like it. (besides the fact that it is merely teaching biblical truth.)

Zahnd shows a misunderstanding when it views sermons like the one Edwards famously preached as a way to “scare someone into the altar call” perhaps not realizing that Charles Finney popularized the altar call and that Edwards would have been against such emotional manipulation. (Even though I’m sure you will accuse him of it for writing the sermon.)

Zahnd consistently repeats the false dichotomy that a God who desires to show his just wrath can’t also be a loving God. This limiting concept is due to Zahnd’s apparently applying over-anthropomorphism to the emotions of God as if they were filled with the faults that humans have. It reeks of Greek mythology level of reasoning, where a God can only have one feature, “The goddess of wisdom” or “the god of war.” In page 18, he reviews some biblical passages that are very clear that God is wrathful or displaying wrath and chocks them up to metaphor. How convenient that something that would contradict your entire premise for the book is a metaphor.

On page 34-35, Zahnd gives a nod to his master, Marcion, in disparaging the old testament and seeking to run away from any idea that God had commanded the slaying of the Canaanites and used the example of Jesus not reading the vengeful part of Isaiah’s text, the implication he gives is that Jesus was different and that God’s intention wasn’t vengeance.

Vengeance is mine saith the Lord

Vengeance is wrong, saith the Zahnd

 Zahnd tries to deny that he is anything like Marcion on page 60, but he ends his defense of himself by admitting that “I don’t regard the old testament as the perfect revelation of God” though earlier he says he believes its the word of God, I wonder how its the word of God and also not a perfect revelation from God? Inquiring minds would like to know. Chapter 4 in his work can be summed up as “hey this thing happened in the Old Testament” “But man, God is love!”

Page 101 Zahnd attempts to critique Calvin’s view of the cross, but he ends up Roger Olsoning it and just calling God a moral monster for pouring out his wrath on Jesus in our place. (Because that totally didn’t happen, right?) He says “Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic” Well, Jesus is innocent, we are guilty, what exactly happened on the cross, Zahnd? What was in that cup that Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t have to drink?
On Page 145, Zahnd denies that those who reject Christ will go to hell, because his feelings or whatever.

In the final paragraph, on page 207, Zahnd attempts to use Edwards words against him. That every tree that does not bear fruit will be axed down. He tries to reverse it and say that the tree of Edwards preaching, a.k.a. The “poisonous tree of angry-God theology” is now gone from his life in favor of being in the hands of a loving God. He started with the false dichotomy and ended with it, I congratulate him on his consistency to this fallacious premise.

In reality, God is love, God desires to show his wrath and God is not a moral monster. I will not pretend that there are easy answers to these questions, but what Zahnd presents is emotion over fact, false dichotomies and snide jabs at people who actually believe things in the Old testament aren’t just all metaphors when it contradicts “muh love” theology.

Constructive criticism is supposed to say something nice  too. So, Zahnd, the cover was nice. Read More

The Shack is Wack: Book Review

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young has caused its fair share of controversy since its release. I never cared enough to follow the outrage train down pointless lane, so I just took what everyone was saying with a grain of salt. While looking at a thrift store, a copy of the shack caught my eye. For just two dollars, I could find out what all the hoopla was about.

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Darth Vader Did Not Die For This: A Review of Darksiders by Justin Perks

Think of a really good science fiction novel. What popped into your mind? Ringworld by Larry Niven, Wool by Hugh Howey or maybe one of the classics like 1984 by George Orwell? Well, you’re in for a treat. Because I’m going to present you with a science fiction novel that is on the artistic level of the Room starring Tommy Wiseau. What I mean is, it’s a good meme and so bad that it has some redeeming qualities, like making me laugh a lot.
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