Category: tolle lege book reviews

Tolle Lege: John Calvin- For a New Reformation

John Calvin

Just in time for Christmas!  I’ve been waiting to say that ever since I read how much Calvin hated this holiday :). Maybe hate is a strong word but he certainly wasn’t the fan Luther was.  Consider the following excerpt from Calvin’s 1551 Christmas Day sermon:

Now, I see here today more people that I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel. Did you think you would be honoring God? Consider what sort of obedience to God your coming displays. In your mind, you are celebrating a holiday for God, or turning today into one but so much for that. In truth, as you have often been admonished, it is good to set aside one day out of the year in which we are reminded of all the good that has occurred because of Christ’s birth in the world, and in which we hear the story of his birth retold, which will be done Sunday. But if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beasts. For when you elevate one day alone for the purpose of worshiping God, you have just turned it into an idol. True, you insist that you have done so for the honor of God, but it is more for the honor of the devil.

Let us consider what our Lord has to say on the matter. Was it not Saul’s intention to worship God when he spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, along with the best spoils and cattle? He says as much: ‘I want to worship God.’ Saul’s tongue was full of devotion and good intention. but what was the response he received? ‘You soothsayer! You heretic! You apostate! You claim to be honoring God, but God rejects you and disavows all that you have done.’ Consequently, the same is true of our actions. For no day is superior to another. It matters not whether we recall our Lord’s nativity on a Wednesday, Thursday, or some other day. But when we insist on establishing a service of worship based on our whim, we blaspheme God, and create an idol, though we have done it all in the name of God. And when you worship God in the idleness of a holiday spirit, that is a heavy sin to bear, and one which attracts others about it, until we reach the height of iniquity. Therefore, let us pay attention to what Micah is saying here, that God must not only strip away things that are bad in themselves, but must also eliminate anything that might foster superstition. Once we have understood that, we will no longer find it strange that Noel is not being observed today, but that on Sunday we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and recite the story of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. But all those who barely know Jesus Christ, or that we must be subject to him, and that God removes all those impediments that prevent us from coming to him, these folk, I say, will at best grit their teeth. They came here in anticipation of celebrating a wrong intention, but will leave with it wholly unfulfilled.

—From Calvin’s sermon preached on Christmas day 1551 in John Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, trans. Benjamin Wirt Farley (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003), 302–04

Even though the above quote isn’t from the new book from Crossway, “John Calvin: For a New Reformation,” it’s timely topic gives us a glimpse of this polarizing figure whose life and works have become so recognizably relevant to the church today.  Now, to be honest, as relevant as Calvin may be, it was the other names on this volume that first drew my attention.  I mean to see the late R.C. Sproul’s name right on top as author of the afterward almost made me cry.  Editors Derek Thomas and John Tweeddale explain in the preface,

In this book, leading Reformed pastors and scholars reflect on the significance of the ministry and teaching of John Calvin for the church today (9).” 

The pastors and teachers–Stephen Nichols, Robert Godfrey, Steven Lawson, Burk Parsons, Joel Beeke, and Keith Mathison, just to name a few–who author this book weren’t just what drew me to it, they prove to be its greatest strength.  You know what it’s like listening in to a bunch of friends and family members all sharing about the same loved one and starting to feel like you know that person so much better just from hearing others’ anecdotes?  This book is like that.  Only all the friends and family members are actually scholars on the subject.   But their genuine love and respect for the man shine through on every page.

What sets this biography apart from others is the format. Each chapter is written by a different author bringing a fresh perspective, a new voice and angle on Calvin’s life, works, and teachings.  That said, it also might be it’s greatest weakness, which honestly doesn’t detract much from the quality of this work.  Because you have so many authors contributing, sometimes they repeat facets of Calvins life and influence.  There is often a sense of being reintroduced to the subject matter each time you start a new chapter.  But this is a small price to say for the diversity and depth of perspective.

The last time I dove deep into a biography of this magnitude was with Ian Murray’s “Jonathan Edwards” and I have to say, the multi-author format made this tome far more digestible than would seem possible at first glance of its 600 pages.  My rating for this gem is definitely “Share It.”  And if you’re feeling particularly mischievous, wrap it up as Christmas present when you do so.  Calvin would just love that.

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Even though I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher I am not obligated in any way to submit a favorable review.

Tolle Lege: Narrative Apologetics by Alister McGrath

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This is a story about a book.  It’s not just a review because that wouldn’t be quite winsome enough.  So a story it is.  Once upon a time I was a philosophy major and really caught up in the Christian apologetics scene.  It’s still a pool I like to dip my toe in now and again, so I was pretty excited to hear what Alister McGrath had to say about the subject.

The book (published by Baker, 2019) arrived after a summer spent contemplating two contrary viewpoints.  The first was espoused by a speaker who made the following assertion, “The entire Bible can be summed up in the statement, “What ever you are doing that’s right, keep doing it.  What ever you are doing that’s wrong, cut it out.”  The second viewpoint was from an Instagram video of a pastor catechizing his own grandkids with the question “What is the Bible about?”  To which they responded in unison, “Kill the Dragon. Get the Girl.”  Wow. What a stark contrast!  The first synopsis is purely moralistic and works oriented.  Most other religions out there could offer a similar summary of their own teachings.  The second is what McGrath would define as a narrative approach and focuses on the eternal gospel story.   I’m definitely on the same page as McGrath in that regard.  In adopting the religion of moralistic therapeutic deism, Christians have lost sight of the great drama of redemption which God ordained from eternity past, Christ accomplished on the cross and the Holy Spirit will complete in the church, Christ’s Bride.

Nothing gets me more excited than Christians– be they apologists, evangelists, pastors, conference speakers, authors, tweeters, teachers, parents, neighbors, or buyers and sellers in the market place– proclaiming the gospel to a hell-bound world.  In my lifetime there has been so much emphasis on means and methodology that the actual urgency of getting the message out there seems to have been lost.  I even heard a speaker say that 1 Peter 3:15 meant that we were ONLY to share OUR story with people who asked us about the hope we have.  Further, he claimed that Jesus Himself modeled this methodology by only teaching or healing those who came to Him first.  Not only is that patently false, it’s the poorest excuse for ignoring the Great Commission I’ve ever heard.  Will we really be able to say in our own defense of all our acquaintances sentenced to eternal damnation, “Well, they never asked. Sooo…”?

My concern with McGrath’s book is that his focus falls too heavily on the means and takes too lightly the urgency of the message. He really does offer a winsome approach to sharing the Gospel story, not failing to live up in any way to the promises of his sub-title, “Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith.”  He states his purpose in the very first sentence as aiming “to introduce and commend… an approach to affirming, defending, and explaining the Christian faith by telling stories (7).”  Bravo for “affirming, defending, and explaining the Christian faith!”  That puts him right in line with some of my other favorite apologists out there today (i.e. James White, Jeff Durbin, Ray Comfort, Mark Spence, Eric Hovind, Neil Shenvi, Sye Ten Bruggenicate, Alisa Childers and the rest of the Mama Bears).  I think several from the above list would also appreciate McGrath’s self-described “winsome and welcome” approach while several others would be encouraged by mainstream evangelicals to give said approach a try, rather than the “clinically rational approaches … [which] lack imaginative depth and emotional intelligence (8).”  In other words, there are winsome, story-telling apologists and there are apologists.

McGrath argues that “A narrative approach to Christian apologetics does not displace other approaches” but rather “is best seen as supplementing other approaches (8).”  I might be able to buy that except for that he argues later that “Narrative acts as both the medium and the message in Christian apologetics (15).”  That makes for a rather exclusionary statement.  One that he follows with the claim that “demonstrating the reasonableness or truth of Christianity does not always lead people to embrace it (15).”  This is true and is clearly supported by numerous Scriptural texts (such as these found just thumbing through the first half of the Gospel of John– 3:11,12, 5:36-39, 8:45-47, 10:24-26, 12:39) none of which are cited by McGrath. His next statement however,  lacks the same force.  “Truth is no guarantor of relevance. Veracity is one thing–indeed, a good thing.  Existential traction, however, is something very different (16).”  Where McGrath errs is in citing as an example 3 true statements involving measured rainfall, the weight of gold, and a certain Nobel Prize nomination.  These, he argues, “may be true yet possess little, if any, relevance for human existence… while they might be interesting, none of them probably makes the slightest difference to anyone (15).”

McGrath is correct in his appraisal but wrong in his application.  The examples he uses are indeed true, but they are not what one would call Gospel Truths, or doctrine, which is exactly why they lack any “existential traction,” not because they are set outside the context of a winsome narrative, as McGrath suggests.  If McGrath is correct in his definition of apologetics as “depicting its world of beauty, goodness, and truth faithfully and vividly, so that people will be drawn by the richness and depth of its vision of things,” rather than the traditional definition of “persuading people that a certain set of ideas is right (18),” then I can see why his winsome narrative approach is so crucial.

The problem is, though I agree on one hand that the Bible itself is made up of said narrative, and that we actually are but players in this great drama of redemption, I disagree that the manner in which the story is relayed has the power in and of itself to produce transformation in one’s life.  Romans 1:16 tells us that the Gospel itself IS the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.  But effectual saving faith is a gift of God, not a natural response to a well told story (see Romans 10:20).  McGrath solves this difficulty by arguing that we need to “move away from the traditional believers-nonbelievers paradigm to a new seekers-dwellers paradigm (99).”  The book of Romans again proves problematic here for in the 11th verse of the third chapter we read, “no one understands; no one seeks for God.”  Which is why we have to be super careful in distinguishing an intellectual acquiescence to the truth, and true saving faith.

McGrath is honest enough to acknowledge this danger, pointing first to his own conversion, which he describes as “an intellectual conversion, lacking any emotional or affective dimension (28) and later Dorothy Sayers’ self-criticism.  “She at times wondered if she had fallen in love with the intellectual pattern that Christianity disclosed, rather than with the central character of that narrative (115).”  These two testimonials are almost reminiscent of that of the demons in James 2:19.  One has to applaud McGrath for pointing out this pitfall in any approach to Christian apologetics.

Since we’re already applauding, I might as well wrap things up.  The end of the story is this:  I was excited about reading this narrative approach to apologetics because I thought it would be an effective counter to the pragmatic, therapeutic, moralistic nonsense which has so weakened the church in my lifetime.  But in the end I was disappointed by the emphasis on seeker-sensitive methodology and lack of urgency for the bold proclamation of the Gospel to a hell-bound world.  That’s my narrative and here’s my rating:

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Shelf it. At least till I run out of space in the M’s.

Even though I was sent a free copy of this book from the publisher, I obviously wasn’t obligated to write a favorable review.

Tolle Lege: “The Physics of Heaven” part 3

I’ve been putting this third part off out of dread of having to open up that sorcerers handbook known as “The Physics of Heaven” put out by the leadership of Bill Johnson’s Bethel Church, Redding.  It really has become a wearisome task but I aim to see it through.  You may ask why.  Go ahead.  I do every time I turn a page.  But then the glaring heresies that greet my eye provide the answer.  People I love have bought these lies.  And hundreds more in my acquaintance are entrenched in the worship culture mass-produced by this kind of teaching.  And all the while the one true God as revealed in the pages of His sacred scripture is misrepresented, maligned, and minimized.  You might think heresy is a strong word but here is what it means according to Oxford: “Belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (especially Christian) doctrine.”  And here are a few examples from “The Physics of Heaven”:

1. A new doctrine of angels: “God sends angels to run errands on our behalf.” The example given in the book is of an apostolic leader saying “God is beginning to release Kingdom building codes.”  Right after, an angel stood in front of Cal Pierce and said, “I’m sent by God to answer your question about the energy crisis.  I am the energy angel.”  This angel went back with Cal to his hotel room to talk about energy.  The angel showed him the plans for a “water car” on a scroll and also “shared how water produces energy and about Niagara Falls and how we can use water to produce power”(89,90). Now I’m pretty sure the concept of hydro-electric power showed up long before that so-called angel but the next level of this heresy is certainly brand new.

2. A new doctrine of God’s Word: “God’s Word is living and active and it will not return void”(92).  This is true.  Nothing heretical there.  But what follows is this, “What makes it not return void?  Angels” (92). Here’s their explanation:

“When you get the will or word of God in you, you have something in you of God that is creative.  When the creator releases a word, the word itself becomes creative.  Angels obey the sound of His word. When we speak His word, angels then take what we say to completion… they are waiting to for us to speak the sound of God’s word so that they can take it out to accomplish what He has sent it to do.  It’s our partnering with the angels and angelic activity that is going to cause sound to become creative.  Angels are around you to activate the revelation of the truth that you speak out into its creative form.  That’s why faith requires a confession–so that it can be heard.  Because Angels don’t know what you’re thinking, they’re waiting to hear what you’re saying.  So as we speak out the word that God has given us, angels will begin to bring it to completion and it will no longer go out void… That’s why the Word requires a sound” (92,93).

3. A new doctrine of the Holy Spirit:  According to “The Physics of Heaven, the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as promised by Jesus Christ was incomplete.  But “we are on the verge of experiencing Pentecost at a new level and in a new measure” (95).  Since we never got the fullness of Pentecost, since what Christ Himself promised was insufficient, here’s what we “really need”:

“What we really need is to experience something beyond the realm of mere proclamation.  We need to see and experience God with all of our spiritual, emotional and physical senses.  We need to be impacted with the same kind of ‘sound’ from heaven that penetrated the atmosphere on the day of Pentecost.  I’m weary of sermons and teachings that only restate our need for transformation.  What I’m hungry for is to experience something fresh from heaven.  Now! Not later!” (95,96)

4. A new doctrine of the fall and regeneration: Orthodox Christianity affirms that according to Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve committed cosmic treason against their Creator plunging the entire creation into immanent death and ruinous destruction, they hid themselves from the very God with whom they had perfect fellowship with when they heard the sound of Him walking in the garden. This has been the natural state of man ever since.  And unless He calls to us as He called Lazarus out of the tomb, we remain in that guilty state forever.  But “The Physics of Heaven” has a different story to tell:

“Through the ‘sound’ of God’s voice, divine energy was released, splitting the atoms and forming a heaven and earth suitable for the habitation of created man.  Not long afterward, this created man, Adam, also heard the sound of God’s voice in the Garden, beckoning him to a deeper relationship with his Creator.  All this tells me that a divine sound from heaven, or at least the sound of God’s voice, can cause mind-boggling phenomena to happen. In the case of Adam, hearing the sound of God’s voice was merely an invitation into a deeper realm of supernatural experience.  That which began as a sound, apparently, led to multiple expressions of seeing, feeling, sensing, and communicating with the Creator” (96,97).

After making a fallacious connection between “the sound of God’s voice to Adam” being “an introduction into other realms of encountering God, and the sound of the wind at Pentecost opening the believers “up to other realms of supernatural phenomena” the author ties both events to the experience of “synesthesia.”

“Synesthesia, ‘meaning to perceive together,’ causes a person’s neural pathways to be cross-wired in such a way that their five senses interact with each other.  This unusual mingling of their senses allows them to hear colors, smell numbers, taste sound, and so forth.  Considering the description of Pentecost in the book of Acts, it appears that a spiritual synesthesia of sorts happened on that day… a heavenly ‘sound’ can create a heightened level of synesthesia that opens our senses to extreme encounters with the supernatural… What if the men and women at Pentecost had only embraced what they heard?  It’s possible that they would have missed God altogether.  Instead, after hearing a new sound, they were willing to allow that sound to cause a synesthetic response in them.  Through this cross-wiring of their spiritual senses, the neural pathways of the spirit realm created a myriad of spiritual encounters.  This is the kind of heavenly sound for which I’ve been longing.  It’s a new sound that will trigger our senses to ‘hear’ what we see and ‘see’ what we hear… the more our senses are involved in receiving from Heaven, the more of God’s Spirit we will retain.  In this next move of the Spirit, I am convinced that our encounter with God will radically transform the realm of our senses.  This will be the second Pentecost… In light of this truth, we need to start training ourselves to hear from God with our entire being.  No longer should we limit the way we ‘receive,’ nor should we cling to the ways we’ve preciously ‘heard’ His voice” (97-99).

Beloved, the only thing that prevents a person from hearing the voice of God is the fact that they are dead in their sins.  And they remain dead in their sins because God has not called them out of the darkness of that sin-sealed tomb.  1 Corinthians 4:6 says that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  When God says ‘Let there be light!’ or ‘Lazarus, come out!’ or ‘Sinner, be born again!’ neither darkness, nor corpse, nor rebel has any ability to un-hear that voice.  Moreover, when a person is made alive through the quickening of the Holy Spirit, there is no partial quickening.  Jesus Christ promised the Holy Spirit in full and the Holy Spirit delivers in full.  There is nothing we can do to receive more or less of His presence any more than there is anything an unregenerate person can do to be made a little more alive or a regenerate person can do to be made a little more dead.  It is absolute heresy to say that “the more our senses are involved in receiving from Heaven, the more of God’s Spirit we will retain.”

5. A new doctrine of worship: It’s important to understand this one because many would argue that there’s nothing wrong with singing the worship music produced by people who subscribe to this New Age mindset.  I urge you to consider the way worship is perceived by the producers of this book, the same producers of much of the mainstream worship music filling our churches, airwaves, and playlists today.

“If the essence of everything is vibrational , then it is fair to say that everything carries its own sound… One of the greatest revivals in human history–the vibration of heaven in Acts–set all kinds of things in motion.  Why? Because, the 120 believers in the Upper Room didn’t get hung up on sound alone.  They let the sound take them somewhere else, triggering all their senses to the point that they were drunk from the vibration… I believe that many of the spiritual discoveries of the New Age movement could be likened to the time in the Old Testament when the Philistines stole the Ark of the Covenant from Israel. In both cases, then and now, that which belongs to the church fell into the hands of unbelievers.  So, in order to posture ourselves for the next move of God, like King David, we must take back what is ours.  Certain dynamics such as synesthesia, quantum physics,  and ‘vibrations’ are God-stuff, and we must not be afraid to seize what belongs to the Creator of all things… It shouldn’t be a surprise that David was a worshipping musician.  It was his worshipping spirit that played a big part in taking back the Ark.  This says to me that the coming sound of worship and warfare is going to be much more than we previously imagined” (102-104).

Here’s the goal of their worship folks:

“What if God chooses to speak more frequently in colors and numbers in this next outpouring?  What if he uses colors, numbers, smell, feeling and sound at the same time?  Or speaks to us in a combination of modalities that are physical, mental, and emotional, or even vibrational?  Are we really open to ‘new things’ in God?  The answer should be yes! And our cry should be, ‘Speak to us God!  We are now aware that You want to activate our spiritual and physical eyes, ears, taste, smell, and other senses.  No longer will we allow our minds to block out the sound of heaven because of our religious dogma.  We are committed to developing the sensitivity of our spirit, soul, and body, so that we can experience all the different ways Heaven expresses itself

As long a post as this has become, sadly it only covers 15 more pages of the book– which means in this section alone we’re averaging a heresy every 3 pages.

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Shred it.

P.S. I’m adding this link today because the Cultish podcast just released their 3 part series interviewing 2 former new-agers on their inside perspective on Bethel Church and the New Age.  They specifically reference this book! Click here to listen.