In a crowded Christian publishing industry, Crossway Books of Wheaton, Illinois, has recently positioned itself as the thinking Christian’s resource. I really appreciate this effort, because Christian literature has of late become inexcusably emotive. But for all the good they do, Crossway takes a terrible risk. In religion, as in politics, the more specific your statements, the more you give opponents a chance to object to.
Prolific Baptist theologian John Piper, with his assistant David Mathis, has edited the slim but rich Thinking. Loving. Doing. Utilizing Piper’s own densely scholastic but life-affirming ecclesiology, this volume unifies five celebrity Christians in a panel presentation on what it means to love God in thought, emotion, and action. Though perhaps incomplete, I predict this book will spark overdue debates in many Protestant congregations.
Rick Warren, Albert Mohler, and RC Sproul argue—in bold and diverse ways, from Socratic argument to dense academic lecture—that Christianity demands intellectual intensity. Unless we truly know Christ and His Word, we cannot act in keeping with His mission. Francis Chan and Thabiti Anyabwile say all earthly knowledge helps little if we lack a committed heart spurring us to action. After all, “the greatest of these is love.”
Piper himself advocates that knowledge and feeling matter little if they do not urge us to act. Of this book’s themes, I fear action is the most necessary in today’s rarefied Christian discourse, but the least discussed in this book. Protestants often descend into calls for civic action versus warnings against “works righteousness.” We need a sober discussion of what Christians should do. Perhaps this book will start that conversation.
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert try to close that gap in What Is the Mission of the Church? They believe that many emerging Christian leaders have promoted civic engagement over preaching the word. The church, they say, should reclaim its former emphasis on witness and evangelism, taking its cues from Christ’s public ministry, and those of the apostles. I find myself agreeing with these authors to a point.
That point comes when they apply appalling sophistry to dismantle the scriptural readings supporting liberation theology. This form of Christianity arose in Latin American Catholicism, but has found a recent toehold in African American Protestantism. DeYoung and Gilbert insist that Christ’s promise of “good news to the poor” and “release [to] the captives” is only spiritual, and political involvement cheapens the Gospel.
This lopsided gospel only makes sense to anyone who has never been poor or oppressed. Early Christianity gained ground specifically because it gave people hope—and not just that they would go to heaven when they die. These authors’ call for renewed evangelism is timely, as American Christians have grown timid about speaking Christ’s truth. But their relegation of any other mission to the chosen few is, I fear, dangerous.
Splitting the difference between the above books, Bill Clem’s Disciple summons professing Christians to look at where we derive our identity. Too often, we want to call the shots for God, deciding what God wants us to do. We have a therapeutic view of Christianity, expecting God to fix our hurts and work on our schedule. But Christ calls us to give ourselves over to God’s will; only then will we find the completion we seek.
Our identity, our community, and our mission—in short, the topics Piper et al. discuss—must come ultimately from Christ revealed. Our common complaints about God (why is there evil? why do my desires conflict with Scripture?) set us up as our own small gods. When we live as disciples to Christ, rather than slaves to our own short-term goals, we have a life full of meaning, and a mission stuffed with purpose.
I do have a problem with Clem’s vision of discipleship. Though authority comes ultimately from Christ, we do not apprentice directly to Him. Barnabas had Paul. Aquinas had Albertus Magnus. Martin Luther King had Howard Thurman. We learn to see our Heavenly Father through an earthly father (or mother) figure. I wish Clem addressed this topic more directly in his otherwise excellent guide to theology.
All three of these books have problems. All three miss the question behind the question at least once. But they also attempt to advance the Christian discussion. Too many publishers today seem content to speak the obvious or tell us what we already know. That’s why I like Crossway: when they fail, it’s because they take bold chances that would frighten most other current Christian publishers.
Prior reviews of Crossway titles:
Larry Woiwode, Words Made Fresh
Tom Nelson, Work Matters