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Book Review: “Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation” by Gavin Ortlund

Augustine looms large over the course of church history, and he’s frequently enlisted by people on various–and sometimes contradictory–sides of theological debates. Gavin Ortlund, in Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, seeks to show that Augustine’s doctrine of creation has much to teach us to this day about not just the theological underpinnings of a doctrine of creation but also humility in conclusions.

The first question to ask, though, is whether Augustine should be relevant to today’s debates over the doctrine of creation. Often, Christians today (at least in the United States) focus on heated discussions about evolution, death before the Fall, the historicity of Adam, and related issues. Much of the discussion is about science–or what counts as science. What can Augustine have to say to such debates, when he predated them by 1500 years? In one stirring account, Ortlund answers the question:

Imagine a young man in his late teen years. He has recently moved to the city to go to school. In the course of his study, he becomes convinced that the Genesis creation account is inconsistent with the most sophisticated intellectual trends of the day. He rejects the Christian faith in which he was raised, giving his twenties to youthful sins and worldly ambition.

Eventually, he encounters CHristians who hold to a different interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, and his intellectual critique of Christianity is undermined. He enters into a time of indecision and deep angst. His mother continues to pray for him. Finally, after much personal struggle, he has a dramatic conversion experience.

This is the testimony of St. Augustine…

Ortlund, 1

It’s a powerful introduction to the rest of the book, because as one reads it, it’s clear that it’s talking about a modern youth in college, learning about geology or evolution in depth for the first time. In fact, it’s Augustine, whose story parallels that of many today. His own struggles can help illumine some of the most controversial topics today.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Augustine brings, though, is a deep sense of humility regarding the creation account. Augustine certainly had strong opinions about how it could be read, but he also realized he could be wrong. Ortlund notes that Augustine emphasized the need to “patiently endure different (orthodox) views” and quotes Augustine’s warnings against presumptuousness of assuming one is correct and obviously so (91-92). Indeed, Augustine goes on to argue that “mischievous arguments” made about the meaning of the sacred text regarding Creation goes against the very purpose of their writing, namely, to produce charity in us (92-93). While he notes that there are some certainties regarding the creation texts, he also puts some of the most hotly disputed topics of our day into the “uncertain” category. For example, the meaning of the days in the Genesis text is one thing that he sees as uncertain, and it is clear that no one can rightly charge Augustine with allegedly giving in to some kind of “evolutionary viewpoint” as Christians who note the same today are often charged with (93-94).

Augustine’s patience and humility arises, in part, from a kind of pastoral concern for certainty (or lack thereof) regarding articles of faith. Ortlund writes, “Augustine can be open to uncertainty because he regards the purpose of theological inquiry to be godliness… we do not always know in advance what will lead to godliness, and so there should be an openness and humility in the posture with which we inquire about the doctrine of creation… Augustine[‘s] patien[ce]…. is [due to] his concern for the spiritual consequences of particularly interpretations. Thus, in the Confessions, he asks, ‘How can it harm me that it should be possible to interpret these words in several ways, all of which may yet prove to be true?'” (97, emphasis his).

The doctrine of creation itself is one Augustine wrote much upon and some of it helps highlight forgotten aspects of the doctrine in our own time. Whether it’s a concern for divine priority in creation (28ff) or Trinitarian agency (43ff); whether it’s the place of angels in creation (as the light of creation? see 125-128) or the importance of temporal beauty (154ff), Augustine’s insights will surprise readers at times while also directing potential further studies into the doctrine of creation.

Augustine also had points that are relevant to some of today’s hotly debated topics, though. For example, the question of animal death looms large in our own time due to charges about death before the fall and evolution, but Augustine, over a thousand years before Darwin, saw the death of Adam and Eve as something they “contracted” from the world that was already present in animals (154). This leaves open the possibility of animal and even pre-human death before the fall, so long as one is willing to have some sort of specially created or even made immortal human pair to have as an originating couple. Again, Augustine could not have been influenced by our modern science, so his insights into possibilities related to this and other topics allow us to glean a kind of unbiased view of the breadth of orthodox options in the modern creation debate.

Ortlund turns to questions of the Fall and evolution as well, noting that Augustine’s theology, while not developed to accommodate biological evolution, could certainly be developed in that direction. For example, Augustine argued that Adam and Eve held a “conditional immortality” that was, in part, granted through the tree of life (209).

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation is a work that can change the tone of the modern debates over creation. By asking an ancient interpreter not to weigh in on modern debates, but instead to speak to the doctrine of creation and then asking that doctrine some of the modern questions, Ortlund has presented a fascinating case for carefully reading and interacting with the text. I very highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Christianity and science, historical theology, or theological retrieval.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Genocide and the Challenge of Apologetics: Randal Rauser’s “Jesus Loves the Canaanites”

There are times we read things in the Bible and we blow past them, not registering the content as disturbing because we have absorbed some explanation for its content that automatically allows us to keep moving. Randal Rauser’s Jesus Loves the Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition confronts that practice in regards to the apparently genocidal passages in the Bible. Rauser analyzes the text from the perspective of international law in regards to the definition of genocide, compares it to the modern example of a close-in genocide in Rwanda, analyzes various apologetic approaches to the text, and finally, offers his own possible reading. Fair warning to readers- because the book discusses genocide, there is frank description of brutal violence, including violence of a sexual nature, and this includes discussions related to children.

For my part, Rauser’s powerful look at international law’s definition of genocide and application of the same to the text of Scripture is one of the strongest aspects of the book. Rauser notes that genocide does not necessarily require the intent to actually kill every single person of a demographic; rather, according to the definition of genocide, it also may simply be the action of removing or changing a group to ensure that group does not exist in an area. Rauser moves from the definition of genocide to its application in modern examples, and takes a very deep look at genocide in Rwanda. The reason he uses Rwanda as an example is because much of the killing took place up close and with weapons or implements used by hand (eg. a machete). This modern example, then, is closer to what would have occurred according to a plain reading of the narratives in the Bible.

Rauser notes the intense psychological distress not just upon the ones against whom the attack came, but also upon the perpetrators. This latter point is extremely important, and not one that I personally had reflected upon much. My own training in apologetics had inoculated me somewhat against the horrors of mass killing if one takes the texts at face value, but I had never before considered the immense psychological toll the killing would take upon the killers. Of course, now that I’ve written that, it seems obvious, but think about this, as Rauser does, in terms of the text. God has a chosen people whom he commands to destroy/remove an entire people group from the land in which they’re entering. After striking down tens or hundreds of individual men, women, and children with their own hands and whatever weapons they’d have had, their bodies covered with the blood of those who cried out for mercy, but were not spared, the Israelites are expected to have blissfully settled in and happily enjoyed their time in the land without ever a thought of the cruel, inhuman violence they had carried out to get there. It’s preposterous to think that could happen, and reasonable to assume the Israelites would have had an enormous amount of PTSD, sociopathy, and other mental health problems that would arise with their own actions, let alone the continued act of dehumanization or rationalization of their activity. This would surely have had a generations-spanning impact on the psychological health of the Israelite people, and thinking that God would have seen that as worth visiting upon God’s chosen people requires serious reflection.

By the time Rauer’s intensive analysis of the violence inherent in taking the text at face value is done, it is clear Christians options are somewhat limited. Though it is possible to bite the bullet and accept the immense mental damage done to a few generations of Israelites to secure the land for God’s people, it should cause extreme discomfort to do so. Hence, Rauser turns to various apologetic attempts to explain the text.

The first few attempts essentially accept the text as it stands and try to justify the violence. Thus, apologetic approaches that see the Canaanites as irredeemably evil or corrupting in influence against the Israelites argue that they had to all be killed in order to end this potential menace to their society. Of course, such an approach runs up against the problem of mental harm to the Israelites themselves, but it also seems quite extreme. Surely the sick and dying, the children, the infants do not pose such a threat to the incoming people of God! But according to this reading, they too must die. It seems cruel at best, but illogical as well. Attempts to argue for the truth of the text as just war reasoning also appear to fail. Readings of the text that see it as hyperbolic are somewhat less problematic, but Rauser points out that even most of these readings require acceptance of killing of the most vulnerable people in the land.

Rauser’s ultimate approach is to see the text as something to formulate disciples who love God and neighbor. These texts, argues Ruaser, cannot be seen as straightforward narrative because “When contemporaneous documentation and archaeological evidence fomr the region do not support the claims of documents composed centuries later, the wise course is to go with the weight of documentary and archaeological evidence. And that means that we should conclude based on the evidence that the conquest of Canaan likely never occurred in the manner described” (Kindle location 4652). Though Rauser only briefly notes this documentary and archaeological evidence, this reader has read the same problem with a straightforward reading of the text elsewhere. It is worth wondering then, why the text was written. Rauser notes the difference between the intended meaning of the text and the plain sense reading of the text and argues that if we approach the text from a perspective of believers seeking wisdom, we can then see it as teaching us to love God and others.

Rauser’s approach, then, has at least some in common with the approach of Webb and Oeste in Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? (my review here). The latter argue that the text is intended to move readers towards redemption and an ending of war, though Webb and Oeste accept much more of the narrative as written as historical reality than Rauser suggests. Rauser interacts with some other views that are somewhat similar to his own, rejecting some aspects of each. For example, his overview of Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is largely positive, but notes that Boyd seems to fail to account for the lack of archaeological evidence in his own analysis.

What Rauser’s book does best, though, is force the problem for apologists. It is all too easy to look the other way when confronted by texts of horror in the Bible. Rauser turns a microscope on these texts and shows how they provide unique challenges for apologists. Additionally, he shows how most of the major options and explanations fail to account for the texts themselves in a satisfactory way. Much of this is through his analysis of moral intuition–we can sense when something seems off about a moral explanation. The alternative Rauser offers takes into account archaeological evidence as well as a few strands of explanatory power that have been offered through church history. Rauser’s account, I think, offers perhaps the only way to read the text faithfully while not subscribing to some kind of selective errancy.

Jesus Loves the Canaanites forces readers to look with open eyes upon the text of the Bible and think about in in far deeper ways than they may have done before. For that alone, it’s worth reading. But Rauser offers extensive interaction with and critique of apologetic methods, historical and modern, related to the biblical text. He also offers a possible solution to the text that maintains its integrity and inspiration. Much more could be said about Rauser’s various analyses of apologists, readings of the text, and own view, but this review should, hopefully, encourage others to go and read the book. It’s a must read for anyone wanting to look more deeply at these texts.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Reading Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship” by Derek W. Taylor

Derek W. Taylor’s Reading Scripture as the Church: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutic of Discipleship explores Bonhoeffer’s rich theology to answer questions about ecclesiology, hermeneutics, and missions.

Taylor first uses the introduction to present a central thesis: that hermeneutics is an ecclesial practice. We read texts in and for community. Bonhoeffer dedicated much of his theological energy and output to this notion, and Taylor brings it front and center throughout the book. For example, Taylor starts with discussion of Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being that reads it as part of the task of reading the church as under, in, and of Christ. Contrary to some, who shoehorn Bonhoeffer wholly into the role of a follower or disciple of Barth, Taylor notes that with Act and Being, Bonhoeffer identified as problematical Barth’s tendency towards anti-ecclesiology (35). Taylor brings Hans Urs von Balthasar into the conversation as well, noting that Bonhoeffer’s hermeneutic avoids passivity while also showing the word as a way to encounter Christ (33-36).

The church, however, must be wary of seeing itself merely as caretaker or ultimate interpreter of scripture. Instead, it is important to read scripture against ourselves. If we lose that ability, “Bonhoeffer warns, we end up remaking a God in the imago hominis” (49). It’s all too easy for the church or the individual to become comfortable with the text instead of letting it speak to and even, again, against us. Our desire to contemporize the text becomes dangerous as we tend to “echo interpretive interests brought to the text” instead of allowing the text to speak to us (50-51).

Reading scripture leads us to Christ, but Christ is present now. Bonhoeffer was powerfully aligned with seeing Christ as truly present among us in the church. This, moreover, leads to discussion of Christology, one which sees Christ as truly fully human and fully divine (73-75)–able to be with us now, truly present in sacrament (114-115). As an aside, Taylor’s discussion of meeting the risen Christ at the eucharistic table is powerful, but he seems reluctant to fully embrace the meaning of that presence–ending on the note that objective presence is ambiguous (though I may be misreading him here). One wonders how, if that present is ambiguous in an objective sense, the foregoing discussion of Christ being truly Christ today and in history and present makes sense. For Bonhoeffer, throughout his theology, remained a committed Lutheran, and would absolutely have affirmed the real presence of Christ in the Supper. Moreover, the point made earlier (73) about Christ being fully human and divine seems to obviate any supposed problems with that Lutheran doctrine.

Later, Taylor’s discussion of Bonhoeffer’s “religion come of age” is especially insightful. Instead of being a fully humanist or non-religious standpoint, Bonhoeffer seemed to see some of the “trappings” that others have enlisted his concepts in getting rid of as absolutely essential. Things like the Eucharist and Baptism remained central to Bonhoeffer’s theology (129ff). However, what Bonhoeffer was warning against was two problems: the first, a total retreat of the church to hide from the problems of the world; the second, a transformation of the church into one constantly chasing “relevance” and an apologetic agenda (128). These are what Bonhoeffer hoped to strip away in the church come of age. Some traditions of the church “lose their social credibility” but nevertheless, some “must be retained and sheltered against profanation” (130). We must “at all times ask, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?'” while recognizing our cultural context may dominate and change–for the worse–our answers to that question (131). Only a well-formed church community can help guard against these difficulties. The reductionist tendency to see Bonhoeffer’s theology as reducing Christ to the church is badly mistaken; instead, Taylor argues “Bonhoeffer’s imagination remains dexterous… [he] refuses to settle for an answer [to the question of “Where is the risen one now?”] that would restrict Christ’s movement. While some theologians proffer the ascension as a means of securing Christ’s location, Bonhoeffer recognizes that even though he has ascended, Jesus has not vanished into the heavenly realms. He continues to stride through history, fulfilling his promise to be with his disciples until the end of the age… So, where is Jesus? He is leading the church toward the kingdom. Bonhoeffer would answer, in other words, by pointing to the church while simultaneously pointing ahead of it” (132).

Bonhoeffer is not frequently considered as a theologian of missions, but Taylor argues that his hermeneutics must presuppose ecclesiology and that we have to seriously take the claim by some that “mission is the mother of theology” (200). Here, Taylor sees Bonhoeffer’s warnings against two kidns of churches as especially powerful. The dangers presented are a church that turns itself in and sets itself as a unique culture (the “culturalist option”) contrasted with the church that downplays its distinctiveness from the world for the sake of mission (the “secularist option”) (201ff). Bonhoeffer himself saw the church in the United States of his time as being guilty of the secularist option, but then saw it in his own church in Germany, something he worked against for the rest of his life (213ff).

Scriptural hermeneutics is difficult, anyone who tells you different is selling you something. (Forgive the reference to a great movie.) Bonhoeffer’s theological work constantly shows this as a difficulty. Poignantly, Bonhoeffer himself noted that even the things that seem easiest–like the command to love your neighbor–quickly become quite complex when it comes to asking what exactly is meant by that (must we change our neighbor? do we care for them bodily? etc.). A command to “love your neighbor,” as Bonhoeffer puts it, “does not say to us unequivocally: You should do this” (quoted on p. 257). This is, in part, why Christ has gifted us the church: as a community existing in and for Christ, we can work to understand the word of God. Then, we become disciples.

Reading Scripture as the Church is an insightful journey into Bonhoeffer’s theology that both readers new to Bonhoeffer and those who have studied his works for years will glean much of interest from. A careful, close reading of the text will yield much worth pursuing for any reader. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

All Links to Amazon are Affiliates links

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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