Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Elaine Graham on Public Theology

Elaine Graham, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age (London: SCM, 2013), xxvii + 266pp.

I am grateful to Third Way for providing a review copy of this book. A version of the below review (painfully limited to 900 words) was first published in the January 2014 issue of the magazine.

Public theology, according to Elaine Graham in this rich and full treatment, ‘draws its agenda from matters of public concern beyond the Church and, similarly, seeks to communicate its deliberations back into wider society’. Christians engaged in public theology thus find themselves between the ‘rock’ of faithfulness to inherited traditions and the ‘hard place’ of openness to a diverse and critical public domain.

But the ‘rock’ and ‘hard place’ of the book’s title also have to do with the post-secular age in which public theology now takes place. Conventional secularization theories hold that as societies modernize they become less ‘religious’ – in levels of affiliation and belief, in the strength of religious organizations, in the political and cultural prominence of religion in society. Yet, for all that, religion remains a potent force, interest in personal spirituality is strong, and global migration has fostered religious diversity. Graham is careful to note that this does not represent a reversal of secularization, still less a religious revival, since secularist discourse remains vibrant. Instead, we are witnessing ‘an unprecedented convergence of two supposedly incompatible trends: secularization and a new visibility of religion in politics and public affairs’ – what Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and other leading social theorists are referring to as the emergence of a ‘post-secular’ society.

So, the first part of Graham’s book helpfully teases out the complexity of the post-secular moment, where Christian engagement in public life has to navigate between the ‘rock’ of religious resurgence on the one hand and the ‘hard place’ of secularism on the other.

Part Two then essentially explores options for how Christians might respond to the changing presence of the role of religion in public life. In classic liberalism, the public theologian ‘translates’ – using publicly intelligible criteria – the Christian faith for those who are not believers. Public theology is ‘bilingual’ in that it draws from its own tradition while listening to and being understood by others. The risk here is when the attempt to find common ground involves dismantling the integrity of Christian witness.

As Graham notes, one response has been to root public theology in the specifics of ecclesiastical practice, where the church serves the world best not by providing a religious footnote to secular concerns but by living out its own calling. Broadly representative here is the post-liberalism of George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas along with the Radical Orthodoxy movement associated with John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock, Phillip Blond, and others in broad sympathy with such perspectives, including Luke Bretherton. The fear here, though, is that the church places itself above criticism and loses its footholds in the public realm. While appreciating the emphasis on practice and the everyday faithfulness of the church, Graham thinks the projects of bilingualism, mediation and apologetics of the liberal model are not so easily dismissed.

Nor does Graham hold out much hope for the ‘micro public sphere’ of conservative religion. Here she outlines the actions of a small number of Christians in the UK who have brought high-profile legal cases against their employers, claiming to have experienced persecution for expressing their faith in a work context. Those who advocate this ‘evangelical identity politics’, as Graham describes it, depict themselves as a beleaguered remnant under attack from the dark forces of an aggressive secularism, and seem more interested in defending lost privilege than social justice or the common good. Gratifyingly, Graham recognises that evangelical political behaviour operates across a broad spectrum, and that many evangelicals are world-affirming, seeing cultural engagement as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The final part of the book turns to more constructive proposals, as Graham seeks to recover a view of public theology as Christian apologetics. She takes her cue here from Max Stackhouse, but rightly points to a rich tradition of those who from early days offered a defence of the church’s relationship to public life, right back to the New Testament itself. This is not apologetics of the ‘propositional-evidence-that-demands-a-verdict-closely-followed-by-a-prayer-of-commitment’ sort. Rather, it involves dialogue and persuasion – and imagination – seeking to make a plausible case in terms that can be grasped by others.

In particular, it will be an ‘apologetics of presence’, concerned with seeking the welfare of the city (akin to the call to the Judean exiles in Jeremiah 29:7), ‘contributing critically and constructively (in word and action) to a flourishing public square’. There are resonances here with two recent works that don’t appear in the book: Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), and James Davison Hunter’s, To Change the World (Oxford: OUP, 2010), the latter advocating a ‘faithful presence’ in society.

Lest we consider ‘presence’ too acquiescent, Graham is clear on the Christian calling to speak truth to power in continuity with early apologists, and the challenge not just of belief but of justice – not just to convince the non-believer but to liberate the non-person. The church, then, is not merely a passive presence, but the ‘sign and sacrament of God’s redemptive presence in the world’. As Graham suggests, this is likely to happen most effectively not only where churches equip their people to give an account of themselves in society, but which support the everyday witness of the laity in their secular vocations, where the grassroots practices of discipleship spill over into active citizenship.

Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation

B&H has announced the launch in 2015 of ‘Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation’, a new 40-volume commentary series covering the Old and New Testaments. T. Desmond Alexander, Thomas R. Schreiner, and Andreas J. Köstenberger are general editors for the series, and the first volume by Schreiner on Hebrews is due to be published in February 2015.

According to the series preface, the contributors are ‘united in their high view of Scripture, and in their belief in the underlying unity of Scripture, which is ultimately grounded in the unity of God himself’, each exploring ‘the contribution of a given book or group of books to the theology of Scripture as a whole’.

‘The major contribution of each volume... is a thorough discussion of the most important themes of the biblical book in relation to the canon as a whole. This format allows each contributor to ground Biblical Theology, as is proper, in an appropriate appraisal of the relevant historical and literary features of a particular book in Scripture while at the same time focusing on its major theological contribution to the entire Christian canon in the context of the larger salvation-historical metanarrative of Scripture. Within this overall format, there will be room for each individual contributor to explore the major themes of his or her particular corpus in the way he or she sees most appropriate for the material under consideration.

‘What distinguishes the present series is its orientation toward Christian proclamation. This is the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation commentary series! As a result, the ultimate purpose of this set of volumes is not exclusively, or even primarily, academic. Rather, we seek to relate Biblical Theology to our own lives and to the life of the church.’

Monday, 29 September 2014

Daily Dose of Greek

Robert Plummer, Professor of New Testament as Southern Seminary in Louisville has launched Daily Dose of Greek, designed ‘to provide ongoing accountability to busy pastors to read Greek daily and progress in their ability’, but which will undoubtedly be of value to others too.

Those who sign up receive via email a two-minute video every day for five days a week, in which Plummer talks through a single Greek verse (currently heading through 1 John 1).

The website also contains 25 short videos on learning Greek, along with a section of resources.

Friday, 26 September 2014

International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38:4 (October 2014)

The latest issue of International Bulletin of Missionary Research carries the feature articles noted below addressing the issue of ‘Mission and Contexts’.

Here’s the opening paragraph from J. Nelson Jennings’ Editorial:

‘A person’s understanding of Christian mission – whether as evangelism, evangelization, witness, proclamation, prophetic dialogue, service, or whatever else – is inexorably intertwined with that person’s context(s). Likewise with anyone’s practice or reception of mission. The significance of context applies also to a whole people’s understanding, practice, and reception of Christian mission. Our multifaceted settings shape how mission is conceived, conveyed, and caught.’

Volker Küster
Intercultural Theology Is a Must

Gloria S. Tseng
Revival Preaching and the Indigenization of Christianity in Republican China

Andrew M. Eason
The Strategy of a Missionary Evangelist: How William Booth Shaped the Salvation Army’s Earliest Work at Home and Abroad

Thomas Kemper
The Missio Dei in Contemporary Context

Madge Karecki
A Missiological Reflection on “Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes”

Samuel Escobar
“Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes”

Stephen B. Bevans
“Together towards Life”: Catholic Perspectives

Juan (John) Stam
My Pilgrimage in Mission

Charles W. Forman
The Legacy of Charles W. Forman

David B. Raymond
The Legacy of Samuel J. Mills Jr.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Bavinck Review 5 (2014)

The Bavinck Institute have just made available online volume 5 of The Bavinck Review. The contents are listed below, with the summaries of the main articles taken from Laurence O’Donnell’s editorial. Individual articles are available here, or the entire issue can be downloaded as a 13.2 MB pdf here.



Bert de Vries
What Kuyper Saw and Thought: Abraham Kuyper’s Visit to the Holy Land
With the mind of an archeologist, the eye of a photographer, and the heart of a Reformed Christian, Professor Emeritus de Vries leads us back to the early twentieth century where we trace Abraham Kuyper’s footsteps in the sands of the Holy Land as he recorded them in his travelogue, Om de oude werldzee. In response to Kuyper’s enthusiasm for sacred soil, orientalist biases, and colonialist notions that come to light along the way, de Vries asks us to consider how much of what we think about Palestine-Israel today has been inherited from Kuyper and his contemporaries a century ago.

John Bolt
The Missional Character of the (Herman and J.H.) Bavinck Tradition
“Missional” is a buzzword in theology these days. But what does it mean? How is it defined theologically? In what sense is God on a mission? Should we replace ice cold, abstract “systematic” theology with white hot, relational “missional” theology? These are the questions professor Bolt addresses in his essay on the “missional character” of the Bavinck tradition. He presents a series of rhetorical questions to explain how Herman Bavinck (in dogmatics) and Johan Herman Bavinck (in missiology) together contributed a robustly “missional” voice within twentieth-century Protestant theological discourse and to suggest how that tradition offers wisdom that is still relevant for enriching “missional theology” today.

Gayle Doornbos
We Do Not Proceed into a Vacuum: J.H. Bavinck’s Missional Reading of Romans 1
How do Christians evaluate non-Christian religions? Gayle Doornbos looks at how J.H. Bavinck addressed this fundamental missiological question both psychologically and ultimately on the basis of his interpretation of Romans 1:18–32. She then offers several suggestions for how Bavinck’s psychological and theological insights can enrich current missiological discussions that flow out of the recent shift to the Triune-God-as-missionary-God paradigm.

John Bolt
An Adventure in Ecumenicity: A Review Essay of Berkouwer and Catholicism by Eduardo Echeverria
Professor Bolt’s ecumenical adventure introduces a longstanding friendship with a colorful criss-crossing of Roman Catholic and Neo-Calvinist traditions. What arises out of this friendship is the type of academic exchange that is at once amicable, critical, and real – a gift that invites the wounds of friend for sharpening and perfecting. Professor Echeverria’s close reading and patient analysis of Neo-Calvinist criticisms of Roman Catholic formulations of the relation between nature and grace will certainly interest if not challenge Reformed Protestants as will Professor Bolt’s frank assessment of where and how Echeverria’s critiques ring true in the Neo-Calvinist tradition.

In Translation

Herman Bavinck, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman
The Pros and Cons of a Dogmatic System

Pearls and Leaven

John Bolt
Bavinck as Pastor (1880–82)

Bavinck Bibliography 2013

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Mission Frontiers 36, 5 (September-October 2014)

The September-October 2014 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles looking at ‘Ethnodoxology: Worship and Mission for the Global Church’.

Guest editor Robin Harris writes:

‘Why is ethnodoxology a crucial issue for the Missio Dei in this century? Unfortunately, the commonly held misconception that “music is a universal language” has long blinded us to the need for contextualization of artistic forms of communication, including music but also extending to all other art forms. One of the stubborn obstacles to effective mission today is that we are not consistently communicating the gospel in ways that allow it to thrive in local soil. Through foundational articles, stories from the field, and practical how-to advice, this issue demonstrates the remarkable results of applying ethnodoxology principles in cross-cultural ministry.’

Individual articles can be accessed from here, and the whole issue (3.4 MB) can be downloaded as a pdf here.

In Days Like These

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

In the days when the judges ruled...
Ruth 1:1

For those who know what’s gone before, the first line of the book of Ruth – ‘In the days when the judges ruled’ – sounds ominous.

For this was an era of increasing religious apostasy, moral apathy, and unlawful violence. These were dark days of political, social, and spiritual chaos. As if to reinforce the point, the book of Judges ends with a downward spiral of breakdown in episodes of idolatry, lawlessness, and civil war. The horrific story of the gang rape and dismemberment of a nameless woman shocks us into realising how far the people of God have failed in their calling to be a holy nation, with everyone doing what is right in their own eyes (17:6; 21:25).

The opening of Ruth seems to take up where Judges leaves off – describing famine, death, widowhood, childlessness, and grief in quick succession – a world of anguish, every bit as dark and hopeless as what’s gone before.

And yet, a closer look reveals something different. Difficult to see at first, it becomes clearer as the story unfolds. In Judges, the major characters abandon their commitment to God and others. In Ruth, they gladly shoulder their covenant responsibilities. The shameful, violent treatment of a woman by men in Judges gives way to tender, honourable conduct towards women in Ruth, where men and women become partners in a common cause. In place of idolatry is integrity. In place of cruelty is compassion. In place of fear is faith.

And through it all, God works out his purpose with the inclusion of a Moabite ‘outsider’ into the fold of the covenant people – not only as one who is herself a sign of the fulfilment of his promise to bless the nations, but from whom King David – and Jesus himself – is eventually born.

For us too, the book emboldens us to see God at work in and through day-to-day events and relationships, new transitions and challenges, the common sorrows and joys we share with others – the grief that comes with death, the delight that comes with a new birth. The story told in Ruth encourages us to discern God’s ‘fingerprints’ in the routine of our own life. And to recognise that no act of kindness, no stand for what is right will go unnoticed as God gently nudges us towards his future redemption of all things.

Yes, even in days like these.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Journal of Biblical Counseling 28, 2 (2014)

The latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling is now available ($10 for a year’s electronic subscription of three issues), this one containing the following pieces:


David Powlison
The Personal God
The God revealed in the Bible is a person – in fact, “one God in three persons.” Because he is a person himself, he gets personal with each one of us. Powlison’s editorial recounts three stories that show God personally working in the lives of individuals.

Featured Articles

Justin S. and Lindsey A. Holcomb
Does the Bible Say Women Should Suffer Abuse and Violence?
The question posed by the title of this article might seem to be a rhetorical one. The answer of course is a resounding No, women should not suffer abuse and violence. But many women have been told to stay in abusive marriages and the Bible has been used to justify the advice. The Holcombs debunk this line of thought, unpacking biblical examples of proactive strategy and self-protective escape. They then offer concrete advice on how to minister to women in hostile marital situations.

Edward T. Welch
Ten Ways Ordinary People Can Help Those with Psychiatric Problems
The way we are to minister mirrors the way God ministers. This article shows how the normal, God-given ways of relating to people are the same ways we are to minister to those in the church who are deeply troubled, and often troublesome, due to psychiatric problems. Welch’s practical, field-tested advice can benefit every church by encouraging ordinary people to become inviting and helpful to strugglers and their families.

Michael Gembola
Quietness: A Lost Virtue in a Loud World
This article confronts a widely-accepted, rarely-examined social value – the “Extrovert Ideal.” Our society, and even the church, values and rewards those who are comfortable in the spotlight and gregarious by nature – and overlooks quieter, reflective types. But was this always the case? And is this value supported by the Bible? Gembola examines these questions and goes on to discuss some implications of both extroversion and shyness in interpersonal ministry.

Pierce Taylor Hibbs
A House Built upon the Rock: Finding Our Identity in Christ
People tend to base their identity (the essential “Who am I?”) on their feelings, thoughts and experiences. But Pierce Hibbs reminds us that the Christian faith builds on a different foundation. Our core identity – our essence – is defined by being in Christ, not by the sum total of feelings, thoughts and experiences. The world might think this restrictive, but it actually liberates and enables us to become who God made us to be.

William R. Edwards
Redirecting the Church’s Drama
The Apostle Paul had a sharp conflict with the church in Corinth and he wrote about in 2 Corinthians 7:2–16. In this article, Edwards likens Paul’s approach to a technique used in improv theater called “overaccepting” in which someone in the drama actively redirects the course of the story. By overaccepting, Paul carefully shifts the Corinthian church away from its preoccupation with the human problems and redirects the drama to God and his grace. Edwards offers some thoughts on how this can be used to help you to redirect drama in your church.

Steve Midgley
Conflict in Corinth: A Surprising Way to Build a Community
This article takes the same passage in 2 Corinthians and shows how Paul’s faith guides his intensely emotional involvement with the Corinthian church. Paul’s response to the painful conflict is the furthest thing from “clinical detachment” because he is able to care openly in pursuing their welfare. Based on this model for ministry, Midgley offers reflections on how to examine your own approach to conflict.

Counselor’s Toolbox

Benjamin Crawford
How to Help Counselees with Psychoactive Medications
Many counselees take psychoactive medications and many more consider it. This practical piece from Benjamin Crawford helps counselors support their counselees as they move through the decision-making process. He also suggests how to help a counselee monitor the effects of a medication, provides basic information on the most commonly-used psychoactive drugs, and lays out a few counseling implications.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Christian History Magazine on Callings

The latest issue of Christian History Magazine is devoted to Callings: Work and Vocation in the History of the Church’, exploring ‘how Christians have looked at vocation (secular and sacred occupations) throughout history’.

Here are some paragraphs from the Editorial:

‘Our subject is the myriad ways that Christian ”vocation” or “calling” has been understood throughout Christian history. The words are really the same – “vocation” has a Latin root; “calling” an Anglo-Saxon one – and both have been used from Bible times to our own to describe the summoning of Christians. But that summoning has raised many questions over the years.

‘Can one have a vocation to “secular” work, or is the word limited to the ordained and the consecrated? How can you tell what God is calling you to do with your life, your job, and your relationships? Does calling mean abandoning those things or fulfilling them differently? Is “vocation” synonymous with “occupation”? What does calling look like in a largely Christian world? And what does it look like in a largely un-Christian world?

‘The questions have been many, and the answers have been varied. At times Christians have emphasized the call to religious work over the call to work in the world, and at times they have risen up against that assumption. At times they have claimed that there are some professions a Christian cannot hold and still  be a Christian – and at times those professions have changed. At times they have understood their calling as building up the social order, and at times they have understood it as undermining the social order or tearing it down.

‘At their best, they have always remembered that the primary call on the life of all Christians is the call to follow Christ...’

The whole magazine is available as a 6.5 MB pdf here.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Centre for Public Christianity (September 2014)

Among other items of interest this month, The Centre for Public Christianity has a video interview with Craig Detweiler on ‘the positive and negative ways in which technology shapes our lives’.

Q Ideas on Culture

This week’s question from Q Ideas is ‘Why Should Christians Care About Culture?’

Several responses are offered here, including:

Andy Crouch and Gabe Lyons
Culture, Power and Institutions
We hear a lot of discussion in the church about how we should be engaging culture. What are we talking about, when we talk about culture?

Alissa Wilkinson
New Wine for New Wineskins: Highlights from Q Nashville
Before the first session on day 2 of Q Nashville even began, the joke was already circulating on Twitter: “Take a swig (of coffee) every time you hear the word ‘flourishing.’”

Comment Magazine
The Whole Big Ecosystem of Culture
All too often, students get involved in fellowship groups or other student ministries only for emotional encouragement. Of course we all need something like a pep talk now and then. But motivation is always toward something. Sheer enthusiasm for something vaguely Jesus-y leaves us vulnerable to cultural captivity.

Disappearing Cultures
Christians believe that humans are made in God’s image and in their diversity reflect his multifaceted character. The cultures they create, then, also can reflect the manifold richness of God, giving us deeper insight into what it means to be human. If those cultures disappear, we lose ways of coming to know God better. In this TED talk, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis talks about cultures that are disappearing from the earth altogether. Languages are disappearing, and along with them, entire ways of life that once existed are no more.

Makoto Fujimura
The Paradox of Beauty
Why should Christians care about culture? One reason is apparent: beauty is one of the most effective ways that God’s love reaches an over-politicized postmodern culture. In this excerpt from his talk at Q New York, artist and thinker Makoto Fujimura explores how beauty, cultural engagement, and love of neighbor are inextricably related.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Knowing and Doing (Fall 2014)

The Fall 2014 edition of Knowing & Doing – ‘A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind’ – from the C.S. Lewis Institute is now available online (here as a pdf), and contains the following articles:

Doug Greenworld
Waiting on the Lord While Unemployed
Doug Greenwold shares how his time without a job became a unique window for him to seek the Lord and sit at the feet of Jesus.

Alexandria H.
How I Lost My Boyfriend
Alexandria H. found that God had an entirely new calling for her as He gradually pulled her away from a cushy, simple life and is leading her to an entirely new adventure, teaching in Asia.

Thomas A. Tarrants, III
Loving God and Neighbor
Tom Tarrants explores how we are called to “Love God and Love Our Neighbor.” This greatest commandment is the foundation of our spiritual growth.

Fred J. Clark
Urban Plunge Reflections
Fred Clark shows how participating in the Urban Plunge as part of the Fellows Program gave him a new vision for helping the poor living within just a few miles of home.

Bill Kynes
Discipleship is a Team Sport
Bill Kynes describes in compelling terms how growing as a disciple requires working in community-being part of a team – as we learn to emulate others who are growing alongside us on this journey.

C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow Q&A
Interview with Rob Shepherd
Rob Shepherd tells, in an interview, how he is more equipped to live out his faith through his job as an airline pilot.