EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea:
The Protestant Revolution—A History From the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Alister E. McGrath
HarperOne, 2007

Biblical Authority After Babel
Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Grand Rapids, Brazos, 2016

These are two books which should be read together. First, McGrath: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea is a large book and a big read, but, for anyone interested in the history of non-Catholic Christianity it is profoundly interesting. McGrath is a meticulous scholar and his research has taken him all over the world. It is a book of scholarship but not written for scholars but rather an attempt to identify the inner principles and dynamic that have driven the vast array of non-Catholic ministries since the Reformation.

The dangerous new idea is of course the principle that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. This was the idea that drove first Luther in Germany, then Tyndale in England to translate the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into German and English respectively. But who now had the authority to interpret the Scripture as they read it their own language and who had authority to define the faith of the church? Institutions or individuals? Who has the right to interpret its foundational document, the Bible? Uncharted and dangerous waters lay ahead.

C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

Alister McGrath
Hodder & Stoughton, 2013

I confess: I have never been a big fan of C. S. Lewis. My early attempts at reading his apologetic writings foundered on the register of his prose. In my undergraduate evangelism, I was trying to present the truths of Christian faith in a vernacular that could easily be understood. Lewis seemed to move in a different direction. So I was taken aback then when I lived in a graduate student dormitory at Yale and got to know a non-Christian friend who voraciously read anything by Lewis that I could lay my hands on. The time had now come to get serious with the Apostle to the Imagination.

So I read the biography of Lewis by Alister McGrath, called C. S. Lewis: A Life, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2013. Though intimidating by its size, I discovered that its thick pages, frequent photos, and penetrating analysis of Lewis’s life and times made it a much easier read than I anticipated. In fact, McGrath has inspired me to dig deeper. It takes the normal shape of a chronicle, starting with Lewis’s birth in 1898 and early life in Northern Ireland, and ending with Lewis’s death in November 1963, the same day on which JFK was assassinated. McGrath alerts us to the fact that Lewis disengaged from Irish politics in the 1920s when his identity was increasingly English. His service in World War I and call to explain Christian faith on the BBC during the darkest days of World War II portray him not as an absent-minded professor but as profoundly immersed in the vicissitudes of the life of the nation.

Impossible People:
Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization
Os Guinness
IVP, 2016

The theme of this book is the necessity for Christian courage today in the struggle for Western civilisation. The title Impossible People comes from a term used of the reforming 11th-century Benedictine monk Peter Damian, who courageously stood for truth, integrity and the moral standards of the Christian faith at a time in the church was compromised by a culture of corruption among church leaders. Many were involved in immorality, homosexual practice and paedophilia. Simony was rife. Damien was known as incorruptible, unbribable and uncompromising in his opposition. The authorities described him as ‘that impossible monk!’.

Guinness believes that Christians today have to become like Peter Damian, for we have become too complacent and compromised by our culture. He sees this moment as a crisis, a showdown, for the church, particularly the Western church and also for Western culture. What is at stake is the victory or defeat of the long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths, the two defining faiths of the West. The attack comes from what he calls progressive secularism. This is the push to marginalise or exclude Christianity from the public square of community debate, politics, public policy and legislation. The Christian faith is the particular target because of a resentment of perceived past power over culture, public morals and values.

Guiness describes a number of other forces that are currently arrayed against Christianity. First, nihilism—the loss of a sense of ultimate meaning which in turn leads to a loss of hope and then despair. Contemporary nihilism is partly a product of postmodern relativism about truth and morality. This could lead to a social degeneration where the West collapses from within. The second force is the very opposite of the first—a new secular optimism. This is driven by an over-confidence in our increasing technological mastery and our subsequent ability to create a new world and a new humanity—a world of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, guided evolution and genetic manipulation. The third of the other threats is the re-emergence of cultural Marxism. Its theory of power as oppression calls for the exercise of power to be resisted and overturned. On this theory, cultural elites hold power and control the masses, not only economically, but culturally. They determine morality, social norms and values. As part of this cultural elite, the church is forcing a certain view of morality and truth on society, so its cultural power must be broken and overturned. The question of power is a recurring theme of this book and Guinness evokes Nietzsche‘s dictum that man’s impetus is ‘the will to power’. This view of power is a key reality in this struggle and only God, through the gospel, can redeem and transform it. Fundamentalist Islam is the fourth force he mentions.

Guiness avows that if these anti-Christian forces prevail, they will return the West to the philosophy, ethics and lifestyle of the first century pagan world that Christianity was born into, and which it originally transformed to become the influential force in developing Western civilisation. ‘We are not simply the guardians of some of the best of the past’, he writes, ‘but pioneers whose task is to stand against the world for the future of the world.’ Guiness poses three great questions, the answers to which he claims will decisively shape the future of the world in the next generation. These are: 1. Will Islam modernise peacefully in the end? 2. What faith or ideology will replace Marxism in China? and 3. Will the Western world recover or completely sever its Christian roots?

The third question is Guiness’s main concern. In the final chapter he invokes Churchill’s WWII appeal to the US to abandon its isolationism and provide the resources England desperately needed to defeat Hitler: ‘Give us the tools to finish the job’, said Churchill. At that time, the US did give the tools, and the Nazis were defeated. The tools Guiness appeals for today’s fight are, first, an understanding that power is a key issue behind many of the forces at play and a lively sense that unless we renew our personal knowledge and experience of God’s spiritual power, we will be ineffective in this struggle no matter how courageous we are. Paul teaches that the gospel ‘is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe’ (Rom 1:7). Second, we need to be alive to the ancestry of the ideas around us. To counter the forces ranged against us we need to understand the ideas that generate them, so that we can confront those presuppositions lying behind the forces producing particular social effects. Third, we need probing cultural analysis. We need the ability not simply to describe and critique the culture we are living in, but also to gauge its impact on us, on our thinking and behaviour. Finally, Guinness suggests that ‘what we need above all in the church today is for each Christian to have a profound personal knowledge and experience of God himself and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures as his authoritative Word. No one and nothing can replace those essentials.’ This is a challenging book and will make a great resource for a small group discussion series. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and a closing prayer.
Peter Corney, Vic.

Known by God:
A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity
Brian Rosner
Zondervan, 2017.

This remarkable book combines Biblical truth, personal honesty, theological reflection, Biblical theology, contemporary relevance, and pastoral usefulness! Brian Rosner points out that though ‘self-knowledge’ is frequently recommended, being known by others is vital for human life, and being known by God is of central importance. And again, while we might rightly focus on ‘knowing God’, the deeper truth is that God knows us.

He shows us the ways in which we naturally define and understand ourselves, and then shows us what the Bible teaches about human identity. Next, he unpacks the rich Biblical theme of being known by God in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. This includes belonging to God, being chosen by God, being a child of God and being remembered by God. It also includes being known by Christ, being known by God in Christ, and recognising our family likeness to God and to Christ. He then explores the themes of shared memory and defining destiny, as we are shaped by the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, and await our resurrection bodies. Rosner then reflects on how being known by God shapes our lives in humility, comfort, direction and purpose. The book concludes with 8 things we should do if we want to know ourselves as we are known by God.

If God, Then What?
Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins and Redemption
Andrew Wilson
IVP, 2012

In jaunty, full caps font the testimonials on the back cover of If God, Then What? declare it to be ‘a real page-turner’ and ‘powerful, compelling stuff’. You can’t blame the publishers for wanting to talk it up, but I couldn’t help but feel this would be a classic case of overpromising and underdelivering. How on earth would a book on apologetics manage to be ‘dazzingly good’ when dealing with stale, academic topics like epistemology and cosmology? Thankfully, it’s everything the cover boasts and more. The prologue begins: ‘I’ve only been in trouble with the law three times, and each time it has been in America.’ (p. 10). Wilson has a way of story-telling that draws you in and propels you forward. The book feels conversational, but not annoyingly so, since he’s not so much trying to chat to the reader as he is wondering aloud to himself. It’s a refreshing and disarming technique.

For example, in dealing with epistemology (the study of the nature and scope of human knowledge), Wilson doesn’t mention the term, instead he tells an hilarious anecdote about a home intruder that introduces his reflection:

‘A little while back, I was thinking this stuff through, and so I did a thought-experiment to see how it worked in practice, and wrote it all down. The thought-experiment was this: how do I know that I ate cornflakes for breakfast this morning.’

By addressing fundamentalism and epistemology in the first two chapters, If God, Then What? positions the reader simply to be open-minded about what follows as the book tackles topics including the existence of God, the human mind, the ‘problem’ of miracles and the reality of evil and death. Of course, Wilson doesn’t make the journey that joyless; the chapters have titles like ‘Galactic roulette’ and ‘A hornet in the icing’. It’s fun, pleasurable reading that deals with huge topics in a quaint, identifiably British manner. I loved it. Wilson’s writing is easy and accessible but avoids being reductionistic, and he often digresses to discuss objections or present alternative explanations in their best possible light. His arguments therefore feel robust, and reasonable, and not easily dismissed.

Despite all the advantages of Wilson’s method and style, it’s worth considering what the book doesn’t do. While God in his kindness may achieve this, it doesn’t aim to convert anyone. Its more modest goal seems to be to open readers up to the possibility of God and that he might have done something incredible and redeeming for our world. As such, it doesn’t ever appeal to the authority of the Bible or even mention it. In this sense it fails to give readers an encounter with Jesus through God’s word. It’s also true that Wilson’s chatty, thinking-aloud device works better for the philosophical topics in chapter 1-5 than when he turns to the theological topics of sin and redemption. Somehow the truths of the gospel are too specific to just reasonably wonder your way to. Who would imagine the cross and resurrection, for example?

Nevertheless, I think this book fulfils a crucial function in the overall task of sharing the gospel. I found myself thinking of several friends who would not easily agree to read the Bible with me, but who might be willing to read If God, Then What? And if they did, I think they’d be disarmed and confronted, and perhaps moved to consider the possibility of redemption. As an ice-breaker for the sceptical, it’s the best I could imagine. I think it achieves this because it has a real sense of discovery, as if Wilson expects the reader to be changed as they think these topics through. You get a sense of what the book feels like in Wilson’s own summary of the experience in the final chapter:

‘Writing this book has been something of a journey for me, literally as well as metaphorically… I peered into glass cases in Dublin, read academic tomes on first-century history in Oxford and Cambridge, reflected on what was wrong with the world in Zimbabwe, and daydreamed about what a redeemed earth might look like in Samoa, Tuscany and New Zealand’ (pp. 152-3)

You really do end up feeling as though you’ve travelled the world with your friend Andrew and stayed up late having conversations with him about life, the universe and everything. Ultimately, I’d love to introduce my friends to Jesus, but I can see how it could help if they chatted with Andrew first.
Jeff Hunt, WA