Long Before Luther [A Review]

34525486“Was the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone an invention or a recovery?” Though Protestants might easily dismiss that question, it would be foolish to do so. The Roman Church asserts that this doctrine that is so central to Protestants is an innovation, and that we have thus been living in error for the past 500 years and need to return to the straight and narrow path found only in Mother Church.

It does not help, of course, that Protestants (and especially evangelicals) can sometimes act as if the modern Church just sort of appeared out of thin air without caring one bit where it came from. Slightly better (but only slightly!) is the belief that the true Church only arose 500 years ago when Luther posted his theses. This is not, however, how any of it works: we came from somewhere, and in one way or another we must reckon with our history.

In a peculiar and ironic way, this narrative of Church History is one that the 16th century Reformers like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli would themselves reject. While they did believe that there was corruption and theological infidelity and corporate sin in the Church that needed to be repented of, this was not a task of reinventing the Church or starting a new Church; their aim was to come back to the historical teaching of the Church. As Fred Sanders has recently put it, they intended to be more catholic than the Roman Church would allow them to be.

It is thus with great pleasure that I learned about Nathan Busenitz’s new book, Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel From Christ to the Reformation. There have been hundreds of books published this year in honor of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s theses, but this one stood out to me precisely because it works so powerfully to confront this false notion that the true Church was dormant or dead until the 16th century.

Structure

Busenitz focuses in specifically on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith with the intention of refuting the Roman Church’s claim that it was an innovative doctrine, having no historical precedent. He begins by looking at the scriptural warrant for the doctrine and then proceeds to examine the doctrine in theologians before Augustine, in Augustine himself, and then in later medieval theologians such as Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Throughout the whole book Busenitz stays rooted in primary sources, only leaning upon secondary sources to supplement his interpretation or to interact with others who read the sources differently than he does. Given that Busenitz holds a doctorate in church history and patristic theology, the section on the pre-augustinian Church and on Augustine himself are much stronger than the last section on the post-augustinian Church. That’s not particularly a bad thing, but it’s worth noting because there is certainly far more that could have been said about the medieval period than is spoken of here.

Areas of Improvement

Let me reiterate that I am so deeply thankful that this book has been published; Protestants could stand to have a lot more books like this on our shelves. That being said, I see two primary areas where this book could have been considerably strengthened: its doctrinal focus and its engagement with detractors and critics.

Doctrinal focus. In one sense, one has to commend Busenitz for his laser focus on a single doctrine for an entire book-length project; it would be easy to go a mile wide and an inch deep, and because he doesn’t do that he is able to interact extensively with primary sources. That’s pretty rare in popular-level evangelical books, and it’s wonderful that he does so.

Nonetheless, justification by grace through faith is not an adequate summary of everything the Reformers were trying to accomplish, and focusing only on this one doctrine exposes Protestants to the criticism that we only care about getting people saved without investing much thought into the life and function of the Church, and how individuals fit into the whole. Yet for Luther, Cranmer, Calvin, and the rest, the doctrine of soteriology was only part of the project of reformation.

In the medieval point of view, what distinguished the true Church was apostolic descent (can we trace a spiritual genealogy all the way back to the NT?) whereas for the Reformers the true Church was marked by the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and, for the Reformed at least, the right exercise of Church discipline. Right preaching of the Word came from the ad fontes impulse to dig back down to the primary sources rather than relying on millennia of interpretations instead. They weren’t abandoning Church history, but they were returning it to its proper place. Long Before Luther expressly does not intend to tackle all of that, but I cannot help but feel the book is a bit lopsided as a result.

Engagement with detractors and critics. Having only relatively recently begun to dig into patristics and reformation theology myself, I am in no way qualified to make judgments about whether Busenitz interprets the sources fairly or not. I imagine that most readers of this book will be in the same boat, and for the most part we are required to simply trust that he is not just lifting quotes out of context and using them as proof texts. That’s a scary place to be as a reader, and I imagine his case would have been rhetorically strengthened had he engaged opposing viewpoints more thoroughly.

To be fair, he does do some of this: on p. 25 he uses Alister McGrath’s contention that sola fide is an innovative doctrine as a springboard to get into his argument. In the section on Augustine he gives ample time to the argument that Augustine believed in sola caritate iustificare (“justification by love alone”) rather than by grace through faith alone. Given that the entire book is a defense against the accusation of theological innovation, though, I would have hoped to see this sort of interaction throughout more of his argumentation. This would have also increased the size of the book, but it would have been worth it.

Conclusion

It’s a rather short book weighing in at just over 160 pages minus notes and appendices, and seems to be targeted at the armchair theologian; it’s not as technical as historical theology can get, but I could imagine it going over the heads of some readers who have never read much in this vein before. My criticisms aside, I really do appreciate this book and Busenitz’s zeal to see a Protestant Church more connected to and grounded in its own history.

You can pick up a copy on Kindle for about $9, or you can purchase it from the publisher for roughly the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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Humble Roots [A review]

There have been (at least) two trends in my life over the past few years: first, I have grown rather weary of the endless parade of devotional books marching forth from evangelical printing presses, and second I have felt more and more of a desire to be out in my garden planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering, and planning. I tire of devotional literature not for any lack of good intention on the part of the publishing houses, but because so much of it seems to simply trot out the same clichés and formulas as the last 100 books. This has, in turn, led to my reading of far fewer books per year than in the past and thus spending more time out in the garden. To be fair, not all of the blame rests on the publishers; I tend to read books more quickly than they deserve, and my perception of their value might have been higher if I had read them more slowly.

513mja5ds-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_I still keep tabs on new books, however, and when I saw the publisher’s description of Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots, my interest was piqued to a degree that my cynicism could not repress. The premise is simple: growing fruits and vegetables and tending the land are activities that teach us much about what it means to be humble. In eleven chapters, Anderson walks through her experiences living in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cultivating the ground with her husband.

Chapter 7, “Vine Ripened,” is in my opinion the most excellent chapter of the book. The luscious-looking plump, red tomatoes in the store are not actually ripe but merely gassed to appear as if they are. Those tomato varieties are not cultivated for flavor but merely for their looks and for their ability to withstand long treks across the country in semis. In the same way, many of us approach life and maturity this way; the virtues we admire in others tend to be whether they are attractive or whether they say things we agree with. If someone knows the “right” people or espouses the right ideas, then we think of them as mature or worthy of our admiration. Anderson challenges this notion and suggests that perhaps the reason we see so many failures of character in the church (and even in the wider world) is because we prize superficial maturity rather than something deeper.

Horticulture is the thread tying the whole book together; this is largely a strength, but sometimes teeters on the edge of becoming cheesy. What saves the book from going there is the fact that Anderson is actually conversant in the language of the garden, and is not simply rummaging for illustrations out of a book or off the internet. She knows what she’s talking about, whether the subject is character or apple trees.

I must say that all in all, this is one of the better books I have read this year. The vine ripened tomato analogy I shared above is something I have been ruminating on for weeks and will likely stick in my consciousness for years to come. You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $7.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Sacrament of Evangelism (book review)

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.The Sacrament of Evangelism

Evangelism. The word, as a general rule, strikes a note of distaste into everyone’s hearts. Christians hate doing it and non-Christians hate when Christians do it. So whether we admit it or not, the truth is that most of us Christians figure out spiritual-sounding reasons for why we don’t share the good news of great joy with those who need to hear it. “It’s not that I’m not into evangelism, it’s just that I’m more into relational evangelism. You have to have a relationship with someone before you can talk about Jesus with them, and that takes time!” That’s what we say to alleviate our feelings of guilt for not sharing the gospel with people that we don’t know well. “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words, man.” That’s what we use to justify why we don’t ever talk about Jesus outside of our super-safe small groups. I don’t disagree with the actual content of those statements too much, but the problem is that I’ve seen myself and others use them all too often as little more than excuses.

To be clear, I’m not trying to set myself up as a judge over my fellow Christians. I wouldn’t even really consider myself much of a gifted evangelist, but I have had ample experience sharing the gospel in a wide variety of contexts and I’d like to think I’ve learned a lesson or two along the way. Lesson 1: evangelism just plain kind of sucks for the first 500 times you do it. It’s rife with fear, rejection, and competition until you begin to get your sea legs for it. Lesson 2: evangelism is just plain awesome if you can do it in full remembrance of who you are in Christ. If I know that my self-worth is found in Jesus and only Jesus, then rejection loses its sting. If I know that I am fully loved by Christ and that nothing I do/don’t do can change that, I lose the motivation to get notches on my belt and the only reason left for me to do it is to share the hope I’ve found. But there was one lesson I had never realized in all my evangelistic experiences before: evangelism is not about convincing or converting: it’s about seeing God demonstrate his power a la 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.

Authors Dr. Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie explore this concept throughout their book, encouragingly reminding us that God is not asking us to use evangelism to invite others to church; on the contrary, God is inviting us to come with him in evangelism and see him work. They describe a sacrament as a mutual effort of us humans responding to God’s presence, and so the overarching point of this book is not to offer Christians some new method of evangelism or a surefire tool to convert lots of people. Instead, they simply offer a new way of looking at evangelism that is simultaneously less frightening and more joyous. The book is broken up into four sections of five chapters each, and intentionally remains fairly theoretical until the very last section.

The first section lays a groundwork for the Christian who doesn’t have much experience with evangelism and gently sets itself up as a guidebook for the journey of becoming a more faithful evangelist rather than a textbook for evangelistic theory. In addition, the book is seemingly intended for use in a small group study and has discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Strengths

The second and third sections get a bit more philosophical/theological as the authors first seek to remind us of our identity and position in Christ and then give us deeper philosophical connections that you could make with a non-Christian to help them draw closer to Christ. In my opinion, these sections are the greatest strength of the book. People come searching for truth at all levels of philosophical abstraction from the very practical (“You’re saying God won’t let me have sex with my boyfriend?”) to the incredibly abstract (“Shouldn’t we reject the plausibility of religion, given its lack of empirical evidence?”). Having an apologetic background for when you’re hit with those questions can be quite helpful in dismantling barriers, but usually leaves you in a reactional position.

The authors seem to sense this and offer a way to play a more initiative, active role by having a conversation about the longings we all feel and using it for bridge-building to get to Jesus. If you can help a person understand their own unmet need poignantly enough, you usually don’t have to fight very hard to get to the gospel. And how do we do that? We listen: “Those who are genuinely interested in others often gain a hearing for themselves. We will need, of course, a growing understanding of the nature of life. We cannot effectively talk with others if we do not have something worth saying” (140). This isn’t some sort of reverse-psychology ploy to get people to listen to us. We listen because we actually do care. What I personally found most impactful from the book was a quote from art historian Hans Rookmaaker: “Christ did not come to make us Christian; He came to make us fully human.” In other words, we don’t have to be recruiters or salespeople! How freeing is that?

Critiques

The last section aims to be helpful in a very “how-to” sense, giving advice about what to talk about and how to follow up with new believers. I would recommend the book to anyone who is frustrated with what evangelism is to them right now, but I do have a few reservations. First, while I think the overall concept of viewing evangelism as a sacrament is brilliant, the writing doesn’t really do it as much justice as it deserves. The first third of the book isn’t edited well and feels awkward and stilted to read. The fact that there are two authors adds to the awkwardness–every time they introduce an illustration or example, it’s prefaced with “One time Jerry did…” or “In Stan’s experience…” which makes it feel distant and second-hand. The intended audience of the book seems as unclear as the authorship. Before I opened the book I thought it was aimed at people who had no experience in sharing the gospel, but then in the first section they say, “You can always find faithful stalwarts willing to step out in faith to share the good news. (Because you are reading this book, you may be one of them.)” None of these are major critiques, but they dulled the sharp end of the book.

My one major critique with the book sits on a philosophical difference of opinion: “Ultimately we are called not to be active, to be fruitful. Fruitful disciples not only actively tell and demonstrate the gospel, but they also see people respond to both the message and the messenger” (71). I personally believe the exact opposite: that we are called to be faithful (“active”) stewards of the good news we’ve received, but that Christ is the one who is responsible for saving people. Not us! To say that we’re culpable for seeing people be saved when we can’t actually save them seems utterly insane. Not only that, but it sets up an unspoken quota that determines whether we’re fulfilling our calling or not. If I preach the gospel every day into the lives of my non-Christian friends, and I do everything I’m “supposed to” and yet I don’t see any of them respond then I must conclude that I’m a failure and not living up to my calling. If I only lead one person to Christ in my life, then I’m also a failure since they say I’m supposed to see “people” (plural) respond. That being said I think you likely will see people respond if you’re faithful in sharing the gospel, but to guarantee it if you’re doing it right stinks of works-based religion that steps beyond scriptural command. I used to feel such pressure and so I would press non-Christians to pray to receive Christ even when they still seemed pretty unconvinced in their hearts that Jesus is Lord, just so that I wouldn’t feel like a failure.

Even though it was just one sentence in a whole book, it taints the whole in my humble opinion. I’d still recommend it, but not as heartily as I want to.  You can find it at Amazon for $11.