Book Review | Engaging Theology (A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Introduction) by Ben C. Blackwell and R. L. Hatchett

I’m happy to offer a positive review for the relatively recently published book, Engaging Theology: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Introduction, by Ben C. Blackwell and R.L. Hatchett. The formatting of the text is beautiful and easy to follow, the writing is personable, interesting, and accessible, the theology is both deeply orthodox and broadly ecumenical, and I’m confident that this would be a great resource for all those wishing to learn more about the Christian faith – whether for use by church leaders for lay classes or by universities for a variety of undergraduate theology courses.

I myself have taught introductory Christian theology courses for many years as well as upper-level Systematic Theology courses and have yet to come across a textbook as unique and valuable as this work from Blackwell and Hatchett – both beloved professors at Houston Baptist University’s School of Christian Thought. Engaging Theology is the textbook I wish I could have been using for many years prior to its publishing. For university professors and administrators, I think it compares most closely to something like the excellent work of Beth Felker Jones’ Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically. While I have used and still appreciate her work, I do think Blackwell and Hatchett’s contribution is even more practical and relevant, while also grounding theology a bit more deeply in important historical and biblical contexts.

I’ve now had the opportunity to utilize Engaging Theology as one of my textbooks for an upper level Systematic Theology course and the students universally found it as insightful and interesting as I imagined and expected that they would. It’s clearly a theology textbook written by professors with countless hours of classroom experience behind them who hoped to craft the type of introductory text to Christian theology that they knew would serve their students most effectively. Mission accomplished.

It’s very well organized book with each chapter following a key theological topic through four distinct sections: 1) Story, 2) Doctrinal exposition, 3) Contemporary Theological Relevance, and 4) Practicing the Faith.

The chapters begin with an engaging account of ancient and modern stories of theologians and theological movements that both immediately illustrate the importance of the doctrine being discussed while also priming the curiosity of the reader. As one example: the story of Augustine and Pelagius perfectly sets the tone for the chapter on Salvation and Christian views on grace.

Blackwell and Hatchett then move on to the primary section of each chapter: a thorough (yet balanced) exposition of the key doctrinal ideas and terms for the topic at hand, with special attention given to areas of ecumenical agreement and detailed accounts of the key issues that constitute debate among various denominations or theological camps of Christians. The book does an excellent job of anchoring these doctrinal expositions in the narrative of Scripture and following the theological development of the orthodox faith throughout the history of the church. Likewise, there are a wide variety of diagrams, illustrations, and tables that really help summarize the information being presented.

The final two pieces of each chapter really set this textbook apart from others on the market with their focus on the contemporary theological relevance as it relates to Christian traditions like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as other world religions and relevant cultural movements. For example: in the chapter on Humanity and Sin, they briefly address the issue of human modification and transhumanism/posthumanism, highlighting key questions and areas where the theological tradition of Christianity might be able to converse with these continuing movements. Likewise, the chapters almost always “stick the landing” by suggesting concrete and practical ways to live out the theological topics being discussed. One more example will suffice: in the chapter on Revelation, Engaging Theology isn’t content with vague appeals to study the Scriptures but instead thoughtfully walks the reader through ways of meeting God in the Scriptures, practicing historical spiritual disciplines like the Lectio Divina, and engaging a discussion about and issuing an invitation to praying the psalms.

Engaging Theology uses language simple enough for the new Christian looking to learn more about their faith (the Glossary of Key Terms is very helpful in this regard) and yet also has enough depth to it to challenge upper-level undergraduate students in their theological educations. I highly recommend it and look forward to continue to using it as a textbook for my own theology courses, both at the local church I pastor and at the university where I have the occasional opportunity to teach theology courses.

Note: I received this book from Zondervan Academic as an exam copy to both use as a textbook and in exchange for an unbiased review.

Towards Believing Rightly

“What we find when we read the story of the wilderness temptations closely is that Satan is not so much tempting us to disbelieve as to believe unfaithfully. Again and again, he entices Jesus to use God’s word against him, to claim God’s truth in a false way. And the same holds true for our temptations: Satan wants us to take God’s promises to mean what they do not in fact mean, so that we are confused about what we can and should expect from God. 

Perhaps that is where we too often find ourselves: believing strongly — but in misunderstandings of God’s word. We trust God as provider, but rely on our own sense of need. We trust God as healer, but assume we know what health is. We trust God as deliverer and protector, but expect that deliverance to come on our own terms and in our own time. In these and in countless other ways we are so much of the time taxed by false expectations and bad desires, waiting on God to do what God is not going to do — at least not in the way we expect it to be done. And so we move from suffering to suffering, from frustration to frustration, from disappointment to disappointment, not because God is unfaithful, but because our expectations of God are stubbornly perverse. We have turned the bread of God’s promises into stones of distrust. 

What are we to do, then? How do we right our expectations? We must contemplate the living God as he has made himself known to us in Christ. And we must give time for that contemplation to convert our imaginations, to free us from the illusions that blind us and from the passions that enslave us.” – Chris E.W. Green

[From Surprised by God: How and Why What We Think about the Divine Matters, pp.39-40. These short theological essays are devotional, wise, and challenging. I highly recommend this book for all.]

Book Review: A Week in the Life of Rome by James L. Papandrea

IVP has a new addition to their “A Week in the Life of” series with this new work from James L. Papandrea. A Week in the Life of Rome combines a fictional story with non-fictional aspects taken from both scholarship and biblical texts. To be perfectly honest, I am not usually a fan of historical fictions and was surprised with how much I enjoyed this book (it was quick read for me as I found it to be quite the page-turner).2482

The story largely centers on the many tensions that were part of everyday life for a Christian (or soon to be convert) in the Roman Empire. The patron-client system is well illustrated, along with pretty accessible details of what life in ancient Rome was often like. Apart from the educational aspect of this book (and there is a good amount to learn for those unfamiliar with historical and archaeological research), the story shines brightest in its ability to highlight the incredibly emotional and almost impossible situations one faced while trying to remain a Roman citizen and also be a faithful follower of the Way. In particular, the difficult struggle one of the main characters has over whether to give his son over to a “tutor” (which often involved sexual relations between men and young boys) was powerful. It really captures, in a situation that most can deeply empathize with, the real problems the early Christians faced when choosing faithfulness to Jesus over the Empire and its culture. The dangers were real and life-threatening, unlike many of our contexts today.

I think many will enjoy the book who are interested in learning more about what Rome was like in the first century and what it would have been like to live a Christian life in such a world. Pick up a copy, especially if you enjoy these types of books.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review.


Jordan Peterson, The Apostle Paul, Hierarchies, and the Fate of the Patriarchy

I have friends on both sides of the “Jordan Peterson” fan-club and the “Jordan Peterson” hate-club. I was recently talking to one of them about the existence, and perhaps inevitability, of hierarchies. I happen to think that much of the biblical texts make little sense outside of a robust ancient hierarchy. I’m less convinced of Peterson’s claim (as far as I call tell) that hierarchies are biological and a little more open to the idea that hierarchies are ontological (or at the very that they served an important intellectual foundation for pre-modern civilization, philosophy, and religion. Thanks, Charles Taylor.)
To be sure, I think the biblical authors’ views on God and social ethics, are built on a presumptions of hierarchy (notice: there is a large jump between a hierarchy and a patriarchy), partly because I’m not so sure that a lack of hierarchies was a live option in the philosophical or liturgical world of ancient people. I also wonder if the most basic of theistic convictions, that of a strong creature/creation divide, is possible without a hierarchy of ontology. (Before you sharpen the pitchforks, there is again a big difference from an eternal belief in or current support of the patriarchy).
As I’ve been thinking about these thing, I found the following quote from John M. G. Barclay fascinating:
“The second characteristic of Paul’s social strategy is that the hallmark of his alternative system of value is that it is directed specifically against rivalry: the greatest honor is for those who work against the competitive spirit of honor itself. Nearly all the characteristics catalogued as “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23) are directed toward the construction of community, from love downward. “Spirit-people” are so designated because they work with sensitivity to repair the community (Gal. 6:1-2). What counts among believers, according to Paul, is precisely the antithesis to arrogance and competition.
The rubric that governs the ethos of the community is a formula of reciprocity as creative as it is paradoxical. The Galatian freedom will not become an opportunity for “the flesh” inasmuch as they are “slaves to one another through love” (Gal. 5:13). This is a remarkable expression since it adjusts an inherently hierarchical relationship (slavery) not by canceling it, in the name of “equality,” but by making it reciprocal, a hierarchy that turns both ways…. The same structure of relations is outlined in the matching phrase in Gal. 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Burden-bearing, the world of slaves, is made a task for all, in relation to all. Submission to the interests of others is saved from becoming a charter for the crushing of the weak by being turned also into the reverse, such that service and honor continually exchanged. This reciprocity of relations, which does not eradicate but continually inverts a hierarchal order, is indeed the hallmark of Pauline social ethics, not only with respect to the church as a “body” (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-31) but also in marriage (1 Cor. 7:3-4) and in the continual competition to be the first not to receive honor but to give it to others (Rom. 12:10). This policy turns competition on its head. What matters is not to gain superiority but to cede it, and in ceding it to be honored in return. To this extent, Brigitte Kahl is right to point to Galatians 5-6 as evidence that Paul strongly resists the combative ethos ever present in Romanized culture — through Paul’s policy is less the eradication of hierarchy than its continual subversion.
(some emphasis mine)
John M. G. Barclay, “Grace and the Counter-Cultural Reckoning of Worth: Community Construction in Galatians 5-6,” in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, the Gospel, and Ethics in Paul’s Letter, ed. Mark W. Elliot, Scott J. Hafemann, N.T. Wright, and John Frederick (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 313.
Of course, questions remain:
1) This is very idealistic (as most of Paul’s pneumatological ethical instructions are). Can we expect this to work, outside of a Spirit-Surrendered individual who is embedded in a Spirit-Surrendered local congregation?
2) Does this really have anything meaningful say to secular discourse concerning just policies in a modern liberal democracy?
3) From the vantage point of a hermeneutics of suspicion, in what ways could this teaching (or interpretation) be used to continue to oppress the marginalized under the name of Jesus?
Overall, what are you thoughts on this reading of Galatians 5-6? 
How can you see this implemented in our churches?
How can you see this implemented, if at all, in our current political arena?


The gracefulness of God in disappointing us

“But we are too easily deceived by our desires – especially by our desires for the transcendence and eternity that determine the ultimate meaning of our lives. The Gospels teach us that many of those who crowded around Jesus, including some of his closest disciples and dearest friends, were drawn to him by false hopes and vain expectations. The hard truth is that we too often find ourselves attracted to what we wrongly think is God. At times, like Simon the Sorcerer, we come seeking God for those powers we find useful, imagining that by professing belief in God we have secured a resource that will afford us the life we want for ourselves (Acts 8:9-25). But for most of us, at least most of the time, the deception is far more subtle, less complete. Our desires are not so much out-and-out corrupt as ever-so-slightly bent. We delight in the justice of God, but at least in part because we imagine it means grief for our enemies. We delight in the power of God, but at least in part because we imagine it means we are protected from sufferings others have to face….

We are always, until the end, living at the risk of these deceptions and countless others like them. But we do not need to panic or to despair. If we desire what is good in ways that are not good, we can rest assured that God will gracefully disappoint us. If what we find delightful in God is in fact an illusion, God has promised to go on revealing his true beauty until we find that beauty truly desirable.” – Chris E.W. Green

[From Surprised by God: How and Why What We Think about the Divine Matters, pp.21-22. These short theological essays are devotional, wise, and challenging. I highly recommend this book for all.]