Category Archives: Text Book

To Flourish or Destruct by Christian Smith

Smith, Christian. To Flourish or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 342 pp. $45.00. Purchase at Amazon or on Kindle for less.

Introduction

Christian Smith may not be known to many readers here at Christian Book Notes, but at least one of his key phrases he has developed is. If you have ever said or heard the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” then you are somewhat familiar with Christian Smith. This phrase, coined in 2005 was popularized in his work Soul searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In 2010 he published another volume, What is a Person? that is the forerunner to To Flourish or Destruct. You can find all of his other books here.

Dr. Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. It is here that he directs the Center for the Study of Religion and Society. You can read more about his work on Critical Realism here.

Summary

Divided into 9 chapters over 278 pages with 56 pages of end notes, this is not going to be a Sunday afternoon leisurely read. After introducing the subject matter and reason for writing this book, Smith looks at the basics of what he calls Critical Realist Personalism. This is where I was introduced to his work on What is the Person? The second chapter lays a foundation for rethinking why we do what we do, or what are the motivating factors for the actions we take.

Chapter three is an argument against social situationism (relativism) and chapter four offers a historical look at the various theories of human nature and motivation that have found traction in sociological studies and understandings of the person.
In chapter five, Smith begins to unpack the paradigm shifting understanding of personalist theory and how and why we are motivated to action. This is contingent upon his understanding of human goods (which he finds six) and interests that exist across time and cultural boundaries. Chapter six, the shortest chapter, explains how and why we must be motivated toward flourishing as a person and consequently as a society. He spends the last chapter seeking to understand failure, destruction, and evil.

Review

First, please allow me to say that this review for this website will not do justice to the critical review that is necessary for a work of this magnitude.

Second, I am not going to get too technical in this review, but you must understand that this is very much a technical book. It is more a college level text book dealing with social theory.

I picked this book up to read along with a friend who wanted to understand Personalism. He explained to me that it was helping him to understand the importance of the second greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (see Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39). As I read the first 35 pages or so, I could see hints of this.

I was not prepared, however, for the paradigm shifting view of the person versus the individual. He argues, “To be a person…is to exist and operate as a governing center of consciousness and action oriented toward pursuing certain purposes” (p. 42).

As he unpacks this definition, albeit briefly (which is why I purchased What is a Person?), he moves to what I believe is the linchpin of his entire argument. He explains why humans should never be called individuals because, “The individual is not what a human being is, but rather a construction of a misguided theoretical tradition, foisted upon humanity by intellectual visionaries and ideologues” (p. 48). I wrote in the margin that the individual is sovereign and independent and can be abstracted while the person is dependent and is an intimate reality.

This was a watershed moment for me in that I hadn’t realized how deeply influenced my way of thinking was as I wrestled with the Imago Dei. In other words, this theory of Personalism is the outworking of understanding what it means to be created in the image of God. Furthermore, as you read his brief historical overviews, you will quickly understand that we have all been impacted by the individual view of sociology because it is taught in every single high school and college introductory level class as it has been the prevailing view for over 150 years.

My greatest critique of the book is Christian Smith’s obstinate refusal to apply the Christian worldview as the foundation for this argument. I have talked with him and he assures me he offers his reasons in a couple debates, but at the time of my writing this review, I have not been able to read the abstracts of those debates.
All throughout the book I have struggled with the theological aspect of Personalism and, according to the end notes, seems to be largely rooted in the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Personally, I find this theory to be rooted in Scripture. What has most amazed me is as I did my research I found that this view was held by many of the leaders in the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s as well as some mainstream Christian denominations and Roman Catholic theologians.

Regardless of this critique, Smith tackles the problem of evil as well as the solution of love even though most sociologists shy away from both discussions.

I will surely continue unpacking what I have read for a long time to come. It has already helped me to understand and see the world from a new perspective…one I thought I had but did not.

Recommendation

My point in writing this review is to bring attention of this view to a wider audience. I believe many conservative evangelicals, and I dare say many in the Reformed community, would do well to read this book. While it is not written from a theological perspective, Biblical Christian theology is inescapable. It has proven to be a paradigm shifting book for me and a book that I have told others has already been one of the most non-theological books I have ever read.

If you are a Christian who enjoys thinking hard, I highly commend this book to you. I have not found a better and more accessible treatment of the subject matter yet, but I am looking.

New Dictionary of Theology – Historical and Systematic Edited by Martin Davie, et al

New Dictionary of Theology – Historical and Systematic. Edited by Martin Davie, Tim Grass, Stephen R. Holmes, John McDowell, and T.A. Noble. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. 1,200 pp. $60.00. Purchase at Amazon for $40.94.
*Price subject to change.

Introduction

The first edition of the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, published in 1988 and edited by Sinclair Ferguson and David F. Wright was monumental at the time and remains the standard single reference work in systematic and historical theology.

Here in 2016, this standard has been substantially expanded from 738 pages to 1,200 pages and now focuses on a wider variety of theological themes, movements, and even those who are responsible for the past and current trends of theological thought. The name of this resource has been altered to show this expansion. It is now entitled The New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (NDTHS).

Summary

It is extremely difficult to summarize an encyclopedia. I will use what the publisher has on the back of the dust jacket.

From African Christian Theology to Zionism, this volume of historical and systematic theology offers a wealth of information and insight for students, pastors and all thoughtful Christians.

Over half of the more than eight hundred articles are new or rewritten with hundreds more thoroughly revised. Fully one-third larger than its predecessor, this volume focusing on systematic and historical theology has added entries and material on theological writers and themes in North America and around the world. Helpful bibliographies have also been updated throughout.

Over three hundred contributors form an international team of renowned scholars including Marcella Altaus-Reid, Richard Bauckham, David Bebbington, Kwame Bediako, Todd Billings, Oliver Crisp, Samuel Escobar, John Goldingay, Tremper Longman III, John McGuckin, Jennifer McNutt, Michael J. Nasir-Ali, Bradley Nassif, Mark Noll, Anthony Thiselton, John Webster and N. T. Wright.

This new edition combines excellence in scholarship with a high standard of clarity and profound insight into current theological issues. Yet it avoids being unduly technical. Now an even more indispensable reference, this volume is a valuable primer and introduction to the grand spectrum of theology.

Review

Not only has the book expanded by 33% of pages, the number of editors tripled from two to six. Originally, Sinclair Ferguson and David F. Wright were the editors. Now, we have Martin Davie, Tim Grass, Stephen R. Holmes, John McDowell, and T.A. Noble serving as editors. This is notable as the original two editors are noted as men of Reformed theology while these current six editors are noted more for their collective conservative theology. This immediately shows that the NDTHS is meant for a much wider audience than ever.

With over 300 contributors, this edition of the NDTHS is a resource for every Christian theologian whether they are liberal, Reformed, mainline, conservative, or whatever qualifier they choose. The work is simply a massive resource that will inform the pastor, teachers, student, or “mere” Christian on just about any subject found in historical and systematic theology.

Some of the additions have made this a greater global resource as they have added articles on African and Asian Christian Theology as well as Arab and Japanese Christian Thought. Given the ever shrinking world thanks to the Internet and air travel, this resource can be used to help prepare a missionary or even a pastor wanting to focus on a particular area of missions work.

New articles include a look at gender, post liberalism, analytic theology, and other issues that were not even on the theological radar in 1988. Again, this will help the Christian thinker to wade through countless articles, books, and blog posts by solid biblical thinkers and guide you to the most important documents and people through the bibliography after every article.

Further, by having so many contributors, the editors were able to pick and choose who wrote on which topic. This is key as you now have noted scholars writing on their specific areas of expertise. For example, noted church historian writes on the entry simply marked “history” while Mark Noll writes on B.B. Warfield.

I have mentioned already the bibliography at the end of each entry, but I would like to express how helpful this is for the reader. If you are beginning to build a theological library or you need to write a paper for Bible School or seminary level training, this can easily be your one-stop shop for figuring out what resources you need to aid in the writing of your paper.

Furthermore, the editors saw fit to include three tremendously helpful indices at the end. The first index is a list of the names mentioned in the encyclopedia. The second index is simply the various subjects covered. The third index is for the articles. These three indices combined will help you to find whatever it is you are looking for in this resource. If you cannot find it here, it is just not going to be found in the encyclopedia.

Recommendation

At $60, this is obviously a pricey resource. Given the quality of the contributors and the time-tested usability of the first edition, however, I do not see how any serious student, scholar, pastor, or Christian wanting to study theology more in depth can do without it. For many, they will prefer a digital option as the book does weigh 4 ½ pounds! Regardless, this will be $60 well spent as it continues the quality of reference works for which IVP Academic is most noted. If you have the first edition, give it to someone just beginning to build a theological library and purchase this second edition as it is truthfully that much better than the first.

Exploring Christian Doctrine by Tony Lane

Exploring Christian DoctrineLane, Tony.  Exploring Christian Doctrine – A Guide to What Christians Believe.  Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2014.  308 pp.  $30.00.  Purchase for less at Amazon.

Introduction

Tony Lane serves as professor of historical theology at the London School of Theology.  He has written a number of quality books (you can find many of them here) including A Concise History of Christian Thought and Justification by Faith in Catholic – Protestant Dialogue.  He is also a renown scholar on John Calvin.

Summary

The book is divided into seven major doctrinal categories.  They are: Method (Bible and speaking of God), Creation, Sin and Evil, Redemption: God and His Work, Redemption: Personal, Redemption: Corporate, and Future Glory (Eschatology).  In a very real sense, Tony follows a logical order akin to most systematic theologies.  Each chapter includes a set of questions that are meant to be introduced (though not necessarily resolved) in the specific chapter.  He also includes a particular question that is meant to be used as a catalyst to get the reader to think critically about the chapter and then he offers his answer though he is careful not to call it “the answer.”

Another key feature is his engagement of those who disagree.  These may be nonbelievers who disagree or even Christians who may disagree with his take.  He offers his reasons as to why he believes his perspective is correct (or at least more correct).  Yet another fun component is his extracts from various historic creedal statements and any errors we must seek to avoid when wrestling through a particular doctrine.  Also, in the same vain, he does not shy away from the tensions inherent within Christianity.

Finally, to drive home the personal implication of the importance of the doctrine, he sometimes offers his own personal speculations on the subject.  The final two elements of each chapter are arguably the most important. He gives an extract from a hymn, worship song or even a liturgy and then offers a prayer from a source like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Review

First and foremost, I want to commend Tony Lane for the tone of humility that is evident throughout the book.  He is writing to inform and instruct but he does so with simplicity, respect, and gentleness.  He never comes across condescending to those who may disagree nor does he come across as haughty or arrogant.  Rather, he merely lays out the historical facts and makes no apology for what has been historically accepted…good or bad.

His style and formatting is extremely engaging for the reader and helps the reader to feel as though she or he is carrying on a dialog with the author rather than the author teaching via monologue.  There are a number of resources that have been cited that will enable the reader who wants to know more about a particular doctrine do so with relative ease.

Furthermore, he introduces so many different doctrinal topics that one does feel as though they are drinking from a fire hydrant.  That fire hydrant, however, is controlled by 1) the author – he does not give too much information so as to hurt the brain and 2) the reader – you can simply put the book down and pick it back up when you are ready.  The truth of the matter is, this resource is very much an introduction to Christian doctrine.

Recommendation

There are a number of Systematic Theologies available today.  Yes, many of those are excellent and worth your time and money.  Tony Lane’s work is a bit different in that it is a genuine introduction and is meant to be a “tool-box” book that opens the door to many different areas of theological understanding.  I highly recommend Tony Lane’s Exploring Christian Doctrine to every Christian who wants to know more about the historic faith but does not know where to begin.

Text Book: British History by James P. Stobaugh

British HistoryStobaugh, James P. British History: Observations and Assessments from Early Cultures to Today.  Green Forest: Master Books, 2012.  $35.99.  Purchase at Amazon as a set.

Note:  This is a review on the student text book of this curriculum.  If you want to read a review on the student’s textbook, check out the review on World History.

Introduction

From the Website:

Teacher’s Guide: This convenient teacher’s guide is all a parent or teacher needs to easily grade the 11th grade student assignments for British History: Observations & Assessments from Early Cultures to Today. Assignments, learning objectives, grading criteria, and short essay questions for all 34 chapters are included. As the teacher, you will enjoy partnering with your student as he or she processes British history while developing or strengthening a Christian world view.

Summary

The teacher’s guide offers the condensed version of the text book sans the readings each day.  You have the “first thoughts” and the “chapter learning objectives” and then the various assignments for each lesson of each week.  Also, they include the answer for each question to the daily assignments.  Furthermore, the exam questions are included along with what would constitute an acceptable answer.

Review

From the perspective of a teacher’s guide, there is everything here to aid the parent or instructor to teach the high school student British history.  Unfortunately, the major assumption being made in this is that the student is dedicated enough to persist in the class each day.  Sometimes this is a safe assumption.  Sometimes it is not.  Regardless, it must be noted that the parent will need to be more involved than just checking the answer to make sure the student is correct.

Recommendation

If you are teaching this curriculum, you will definitely need the teacher’s guide.  The curriculum itself is second to none.  I am again amazed at the pervasiveness of the course work.  I highly recommend this history curriculum for all high school students.

Text Book: World History by James P. Stobaugh

World HistoryStobaugh, James P. World History: Observations and Assessments from Creation to Today.  Green Forest: Master Books, 2012.  $35.99.  Purchase at Amazon as a set.

Note:  This is a review on the student text book of this curriculum.  If you want to read a review on the teacher’s guide, check out the review on British History.

Introduction

From the website:

Student book: Respected Christian educator, Dr. James Stobaugh, offers an entire year of high school world history curriculum in an easy to teach and comprehensive volume. World History: Observations & Assessments from Creation to Today provides challenging assignments for twelfth grade students. In this study, students will develop a Christian worldview while forming his or her own understanding of world history trends, philosophies, and events. This 288-page student resource should be used with the Teacher’s Guide. American History and British History are included in this comprehensive high school history curriculum for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades offered by Dr. James Stobaugh and Master Books.

Summary

The student text is divided into 34 chapters representing 34 weeks of class, a common school year.  Each chapter is further divided into 5 lessons each that run approximately 30 minutes per lesson.  The final lesson is an exam that tests the comprehension of the week’s work.  Each student will is responsible to complete all the assignments within the chapter on time.  This textbook is designed for independent study.  Each chapter has a short reading followed by critical thinking questions with some of those being specific fill in the blank style and others being more essay open-ended in which the student must assimilate all that was taught.

The book begins with the history of Mesopotamia and moves through the Old Testament looking at various world governments like Rome and Greece and into the early history of the Church.  Once the history leaves the parameters of the Bible, Stobaugh looks at particular countries each week.  For example, one week looks at Japanese history while another looks at Chinese history.  There are chapters on the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the World Wars and even the Jazz Age.

To read a summary of the teacher guide, check out the review on British History.

Review

I found the approach and breakdown of the various chapters to be fascinating.  For example, why include a chapter on the Jazz Age and not the Industrial Revolution (though there are chapters on the French and Russian Revolutions.  I will say that daily work is fairly deep and pervasive for each chapter.  I was impressed with amount of work necessitated to complete the daily studies as well as the extent in which the exams challenge the students.  I took a couple myself just to see and am not happy to report that I would’ve failed a couple.  (To be fair, I didn’t exactly do the homework assigned, either.)

For those wondering about the exams, they are found in the teacher’s guide so that the student cannot prepare and study throughout the week according to what will be on the test.  The exam questions could be just about anything from the week including some minor detail mentioned on day 1 that became a thread throughout the week.

Recommendation

On one hand, I am grateful I did not have this curriculum when I was in high school (public).  On the other hand, I regret not having this curriculum when I was in high school.  I am very impressed with the extent in which Dr. Stobaugh writes this history course.  Your high school student will learn far more about world history one time through this book than what many college students learn in their history class.

Word Studies Made Simple by Norris Grubbs and Francis Kimmitt

Word Studies Made SimpleGrubbs, Norris and Francis Kimmitt.  Word Studies Made Simple: How to Study the Bible in the Original Languages.  Mountain Home: BorderStone Press, LLC, 2012.  150 pp.  $24.95.  Purchase at Amazon for less.

Introduction

From the website, In Word Studies Made Simple: How to Study the Bible in the Original Languages, Grubbs and Kimmitt teach you the basics of Greek and Hebrew so you can have access to the finest in biblical studies resources. Then, they lay out a clear, concise method for performing word studies with Greek and Hebrew tools. Whether you already have a foundation in the biblical languages or don’t know alpha from aleph, if you have an interest in studying the Bible in more depth, this book is for you.

Summary

Divided into seven sections, fourteen chapters, and four appendices, the authors take the reader on a journey from no knowledge of biblical languages to a solid foundation in both Greek and Hebrew from which to build on for future study.  The first three sections deal with the Greek, that is, the New Testament.  They offer brief chapters on the Greek alphabet, nouns, verbs, and other elements of Greek grammar.  The fifth chapter offers tips on using an interlinear Bible (where the Greek and the English translation are side by side on the same page).  The final chapter of these first three sections get down to the actual process of performing a word study in the original language.

The next three sections bring the reader through the exact same process in the Hebrew language.  The final section, comprised of two chapters, offers practical advice and guidance on using word studies.  The appendices further the education by offering a sample word study on the word “faithful” found in Titus 1:6 and “He possessed me” in Proverbs 8:22.

Review

I must confess that I was skeptical in reading this book.  I am not a huge fan of word studies because of their abuse and the many fallacious doctrines and theology that finds their root in word studies.  After reading Word Studies Made Simple I am willing to give them another shot in limited doses.  I greatly appreciated the approach the authors took in setting up the process by which we should engage in word studies.  Rather than starting with the English, they argue that we are to start with the original languages (hence, the subtitle of the book!) and give credence to the context of each particular passage where the word is used.

They argue that you begin with the original language because various translations use different words for the same original Greek or Hebrew word.  Furthermore, they argue quite effectively that you need not be a Greek or Hebrew scholar to perform these in depth studies.  The tools they recommend are second to none and will provide much information into the “deeper meaning” found in many passages.

Also, their examples offered at the back of the book in the appendices help to illustrate in great detail how this really looks in the private study.  In essence, Grubbs and Kimmitt offer a seminary class that will equip the student of Scripture to plumb the depths of the Word of God for the cost of the text book only.

Recommendation

I highly recommend Word Studies Made Simple to anyone wanting to understand how to do word studies properly and faithfully.  Reading this work may lead to much more than just a better equipped student of the Bible.  It may be the foundation for someone becoming the next scholar.

Introducing World Christianity Edited by Charles E. Farhadian

Introducing World ChristianityIntroducing World Christianity. Edited by Charles E. Farhadian. England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 282 pp. $39.95. Purchase at Amazon for less.

Introduction

Introducing World Christianity is a set of seventeen essays detailing the origins of the Christian religion in five large areas which serve as the five parts of the book. The editor, Charles E. Farhadian serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. He has written or co-written four books all dealing with the influence of Christianity on the international scene. There are nineteen different contributors coming from a wide-range of background and theological influences.

Summary

Beginning in Part One, the reader is introduced to the influences of Christianity in Africa. The four chapters look at Middle Eastern and North Africa, East Africa, West Africa, and Southern Africa. Part two, the continent with the most history insofar as the church is concerned is the shortest. Here we have two essays on the continent of Europe which is broke down into Western and Eastern.

Part three discusses Asia. Here we find essays on South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. In Part four on the Americas, there is one essay on North America, Central America and the Caribbean, Latin America, and Brazil (a closer look at the Pentecostal influence). Finally, part five takes us to the Pacific. Here we look to Australia and New Zealand, Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. The book concludes with a chapter on World Christianity – It’s history, spread, and social influence.
The end of each chapter includes a list of books for further reading as well as copious end notes referenced throughout the chapter.

Review

Unfortunately, when reading a book on “world Christianity,” most editors and contributors paint with extremely broad strokes. This resource is no different. The brush used to paint this work is so broad as to include Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roman Catholics in the same lump as Protestant churches. Even there, certain denominations that would fall under the umbrella of Protestant but not necessarily biblical (i.e., they deny salvation in Christ, the Incarnation, the authoritative word of God, etc.) as all being a part of World Christianity.

The essays are great if understood from such a broad perspective, but for those who hold to an exclusive understanding of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ alone, they may find much to disagree with. Regardless, the essays will cause one to pause and reflect on how the world sees the Christian faith. This is a very good thing as those who hold to an exclusive understanding of the faith rarely take the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and peer at themselves from a different perspective.

Recommendation

At almost $40, not everyone will read this work. I do think, however, there is some merit in understanding how the world views Christianity at large. Because of that, I do recommend this resource with the qualification that the reader realize that this book is painting with extremely large strokes the Christian faith.