Book Plunge: Journeys of Faith

What do I think of Robert Plummer’s book published by Zondervan? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Journeys of Faith is about prominent Christians going to a different faith tradition within the Christian community. Each one tells their story and then there is someone who gives a rejoinder followed by a response from the original writer. The four views presented are Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and Anglicanism.

In terms of debate style, I thought the most convincing essays were done by Francis Beckwith for Catholicism and Chris Castaldo for evangelicalism. I thought Wilbur Ellsworth glossed over many of the doctrines of Orthodoxy that I have a problem with. Lyle Dorsett for Anglicanism did give a great piece about it, but I just found it odd that Anglicanism was included and there wasn’t really much to argue with. Still, when talking about transformative stories, his is probably the most incredible.

As for responses, those often weren’t as good. I thought Gregg Allison responding to Catholicism and Brad S. Gregory responding to evangelicalism were both weak responses. Allison seemed to have a prepared statement for Catholicism. While I thought the information was good, it did not interact with Beckwith’s points well. I don’t think Allison even mentioned Beckwith by name once.

In Castaldo’s piece, he had talked about how a problem he had with Catholicism was shown by Peter Kreeft. Kreeft talked about students who come to Boston College. He asks them why they should get to go to Heaven someday. Most of them say something about how they are doing their best and trying to be a good person. He said nine out of ten of them don’t mention Jesus Christ at all. The lack of hearing the gospel is something Castaldo is concerned about.

Yet you get to Gregory’s reply and Castaldo is only mentioned once by name from what I recall. A point like this was not interacted with. If you are a Catholic writing a response to an evangelical, you want to hit at the areas of concern for evangelicals. Hearing the gospel is a big concern for evangelicals.

Instead, Gregory gave what seemed also like a prepared statement and went on about how you need an infallible interpreter. I find this an incredibly weak position since it treats the Scriptures like a postmodern document that no one can understand. Second, there is not given any reason why it has to be the Roman magisterium that is this interpreter. Why not Orthodoxy or Mormonism or the Watchtower? All of them claim to have the word from God on the Scriptures.

Fortunately, all the participants in the discussion did get along. There was no claiming that XYZ was a heretic or anything like that. This is a true discussion in ecumenicism. It is the way it should be done. We need to be able to come together and discuss our differences.

A format like this is also incredibly helpful because if you get a book on Catholicism or Orthodoxy or Evangelicalism or any other position, well, of course, it could sound convincing! It’s always convincing if you only get one side of the argument. A work like this gives you both sides of the argument. This is the kind of approach that is needed.

I encourage those looking into these questions to read material like this.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Orthodox Way

What do I think of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

My wife has been looking into the Eastern Orthodox Church. While at the church once, I asked the priest if he had any book in the church library he would recommend to help me understand Eastern Orthodoxy. He recommended I get The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware.

So I went and got it. I came home and went through it over the next few days. I have to say in many ways I was….disappointed. I was expecting to find a lot that set apart the Orthodox as unique in comparison to Protestants and Catholics. I really didn’t. I found a whole lot of theology, but it was theology I could say for the most part I agreed with.

Something that I think honestly happens with many people, not all but many, is they move from a Protestantism that is shallow and find an Orthodoxy that is deeper, without realizing that much of the theology is still a theology that is common to all traditions. It is rooted in Scripture and in natural theology. For me, at a book study with men of the Orthodox Church Wednesday night, I found myself talking about how with most people, I will keep my talk simple about God, but when I’m with my theological friends, I will talk about simplicity, impassibility, and the hypostatic union. I don’t think many there knew what I was talking about either. One said so explicitly and no one disagreed. Could it be the problem is more how deep someone is willing to go and this is a problem in all traditions? If we acknowledge it’s the same God in all traditions, no one can really lay claim to a deeper theology.

I had hoped to find more on history and how the Orthodox came to be, but that was lacking. Like I said, most of the theology I found no problem with. Some things I would have phrased differently. Ware does rely on the Fathers a lot more than I would as well.

I would have also liked to have seen more on some of my bigger contentions. I have a problem with the way that I see Mary and the saints treated in most non-Protestant traditions. I’m convinced the best way to honor the saints is not to pray to them, but to learn from their lives and seek to live like them as they live like Christ. I honestly think Mary would be aghast at the way she’s treated today. She would say that she’s just a servant and doesn’t deserve this kind of attention.

I also would like if we talk about the traditions to see the historical basis for them. When did they first show up? On what Scripture are they based? If I refuse to accept hadiths about Muhammad that come from 200 years later and even have names behind them, am I not inconsistent if I treat Christian traditions different?

Yet there were some points I did disagree with. On p. 46, Ware says that we as Christians affirm panentheism. He says God is in all things yet above and beyond all things. I understand what Ware is trying to say, but I would not say panentheism because that’s a different animal where often the world is seen as God’s body and God needs the world in some sense. God is in all things in the sense that He’s the sustaining cause of all things and all things are held together by His power (See passages like Hebrews 1:3 for example.), but He is not dependent on the world in any sense. I realize Ware would likely not disagree with that, but I think his phrasing here is quite bad.

On p. 110 he speaks about the Bible. He says that the Orthodox appreciate all the research and study into the Bible, such as redaction criticism and things of that sort, but we cannot accept it wholesale. Who does? Especially since scholars of all persuasions disagree.

Ware here deals with the idea of just a private reading of the Bible. To an extent, we would all discourage this. Even the Reformers wanted Scriptural interpretation to stay within the rule of faith. Sola Scriptura is often confused with Solo Scriptura. The Reformers did not oppose tradition as tradition. Tradition is not a bad thing, but tradition needs to be checked by Scripture.

An example can be the authorship of the Gospels. Some Catholics I have seen say that the names aren’t on the Gospels so you have to get that from tradition which means Sola Scriptura isn’t true. Let’s grant the premise for the sake of argument that the originals didn’t have names on them, although some scholars have questioned this. The difference is we do have these Gospels and we know someone or some people wrote them. We can freely accept the opinions of the church fathers and compare it with internal evidence for authorship. In other words, we have something that already needs to be explained. We didn’t make up the Gospels out of thin air.

Ware then goes on to say that the final criterion for Biblical interpretation is the mind of the church. Here, we run into a problem. I could just ask “By what criteria is the mind of the church the authority?” After all, Catholics would say you need the magisterium. Both groups claim you need someone or something outside of the Bible like that to help you understand the Bible, but upon what grounds is that someone or something chosen that is not question-begging? Both of them claim apostolic succession after all.

As a Protestant, I respond that the Bible is written in a way that much of it can be readily understood. Some is difficult and requires work, but to say that you can’t interpret it strikes me as incredibly postmodern, as if the words themselves don’t contain meaning that we can understand. Much of what I know about Biblical interpretation did not originate with these groups either, such as ideas about Genesis from John Walton or the honor-shame perspective of the Context Group of scholarship.

This is not to say I have a problem with going to the Fathers to understand the Bible. I don’t. Their words are important, but they are not infallible. For instance, I have at my house A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Recently, I had a discussion with someone asking if abortion was known in the ancient world. I said it was pointing to the Hippocratic Oath. I then decided to see what the church fathers said about sexuality and in the book looked up the section. The church fathers seemed to speak consistently that sex was seen as practically a necessary evil and to be used only for the purpose of procreation.

I find it unlikely that most devout Orthodox and Catholics would agree with this. Even Catholics have Natural Family Planning for families that want to avoid contraception, but want to avoid having children for whatever reason and still enjoy the gift of sex. I have also been told that the Fathers are premillennial as well, yet I am not that at all with an Orthodox Preterist interpretation.

I have no problem with saying that our reading should seek to get us to Christ and this is a danger of historical study at times that one can get to that position of proving something happened without showing why it happened. C.S. Lewis said years ago that some theologians work so hard to show that God exists that it would seem like He has nothing better to do than to exist.

In the end, I was wondering what about this was so much the Orthodox Way. Much of it could have just been called the Christian Way since much of the theology as I said I have no problem with. I have a problem with shallow thinking no matter what the tradition is. I think a lot of people can find a new tradition and think they’ve found something totally new lacking in their original tradition, without pausing to see if such a thing exists in their tradition. I have no problem with things like liturgy and such. I do have a problem when I see doctrines that I can’t find in Scripture and I have no way of verifying a tradition.

My research continues hoping to find more historical. I encourage people in whatever tradition they are in to go deeper. We met with a Catholic priest once on this journey who told my wife she will find what she is seeking if she just goes deeper in Jesus. With that, I think all three traditions of Christianity would agree. All of us need to go deeper in Jesus.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Deeper Theology

Are we staying in the shallow end? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

My wife has been looking into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy lately. This was really an area I never wanted to get involved in, but now I am. I want to know what claims she’s hearing and if I think they’re accurate or not. As it stands, I still remain a convinced Protestant, but I am noticing something.

While I think we Protestants have excelled at Bible Study, we’ve often neglected theology. We don’t really know much about what to do with our doctrine of God. We seem to treat the Trinity as this nice little doctrine that we keep around and we get out when we need to address Jehovah’s Witnesses.

My blog has been called Deeper Waters from the beginning because I think we have too often gone shallow. This has largely been due to a lack of discipleship on our part. We place a big emphasis on conversions. I really don’t like that term at all.

Imagine if we said we wanted to see more marriages. We worked to get people to the altar and to say their “I do” statements and then did nothing with them. Hypothetically, those people went back to live with their parents and never interacted at all.

We often do the same kind of thing with conversion. The goal is to get someone to walk down the aisle and say a prayer and make Jesus their savior. There is no investing in them. There is no training in them. There is no discipleship.

This isn’t an across the board condemnation. Of course, there are some churches that do this. There are far too many who do not. This is especially needed in an age where Christianity is being questioned left and right and most people don’t know how to make a basic defense of what they believe let alone know the basics of what they believe.

We often go to churches and sing songs about how Jesus is so important to us. Apparently, He’s so important that we don’t study anything about Him, learn about Him, read the Scripture that tells about Him, or think about Him much at all, except, you know, those times when we need something. Our Christianity is all about what Jesus does in our lives instead of what we do in His.

This is so even with our salvation. Many times, the goal of Christianity has been to get people to go to Heaven. While there, you will live forever and get to see your loved ones again. Oh yeah. God is there too, if that interests you and all. There is nothing about building up the Kingdom of God here. There is nothing about the difference salvation makes in this life. Paul said that if it is only for this life we have hope, we are above all men to be pitied. Paul knew we have hope for this life. Today could it be that Paul would write “If it is only for the next life we have hope….”?

What’s the solution?

It’s a really easy one. Return to deeper theology and study. This isn’t the area of only other traditions. Protestants in the past have done this. I suspect most of it is that here in the West, we have grown more individualistic and all about us. We spend so much time “listening for the voice of God” that we don’t really consider who it is we’re “listening” to.

At the Orthodox church, the priest told me to borrow if I wanted to learn from the library a book called The Orthodox Way. I have been going through it and wondering “Aside from a few secondary details, what about this is specifically Orthodox? I have no problem believing this about God as a Protestant.” I wonder how many people see this and don’t realize that other traditions can have the same views of God as well.

Our Christianity is supposed to be the central defining feature of our lives. Let’s make it that way. Let’s not drop our intellectual weapons. We can better know the God we say we love and serve by studying Him. A good spouse seeks to understand the other spouse so they can better love them. Should we not treat God even better?

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Changing Churches

What do I think of Mattox and Roeber’s book published by Eerdmans? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

This book is a look at how two Christian academics left the fold of Lutheranism and went to two other churches. One went Roman Catholic and the other Eastern Orthodox. Each of them writes three chapters in the book and the final is by a Lutheran academic who is still a Lutheran on why he’s just not sold on the point yet.

I consider myself a holder of Mere Christianity, but I can say easily the best church I’ve ever been to is a Lutheran church in Knoxville, TN called The Point. For Allie and I, one of the great highlights of getting to go back to Knoxville beyond seeing friends and family is getting to go to the Point again. It is hard for me to find a church that goes beyond the fluff that I normally hear, but the Point does that, while at the same time is able to speak to non-academics and give them a message they need to hear.

Something surprising in this work to me is how approvingly Mattox and Roeber speak about Martin Luther. At one point, I was wondering if Martin Luther was being nominated for sainthood by them. This is a relief in contrast to many of my Protestant turned Catholic friends who love to make posts and memes that poke fun at Luther.

Going through this book will certainly help one better understand the approaches. I do think there is indeed something to the doctrine of theosis talked about by Roeber. Unfortunately today, many people will hear theosis and think of the idea of divine exaltation from the Mormons.

I also do think Protestants need to have a good doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. I know when my wife and I got married, we came back from our honeymoon and went to our church. She had done something to her leg and wasn’t able to walk easily so she was in a back room during the service and watching it on a TV. When the time for Communion came, I, as a new husband, went and got the bread and juice for her and brought them to where she is since I think it was my responsibility to make sure she had that. I consider this a quite special memory.

My hesitancy comes in each case that while I learned much about each tradition, I do not see any reason yet to fully accept each tradition. I think it’s too easy today to engage in all-or-nothing thinking. It could be that theosis is right, but that does not mean that the Orthodox church is the true church established by Christ. It could be that Roman Catholics have a better doctrine of the Eucharist, but that does not mean that the dogmas about the papacy and Mary are accurate.

Much of the book is also about questions of justification and issues involving sexuality today. For justification, I do wish more would have been said about The New Perspective on Paul. This was something that deserves far more traction and I cannot say that justification is the main issue I have in the debates about Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. For me, the claims are largely historical. Can we historically establish with first or even second century evidence that this is what happened? Do we have any reason to believe that teachings that are held today in churches are teachings that were held by the apostles and first Christians?

For issues on sexuality, scandal has rocked all the branches of Christianity here, and this is not a shock. It’s not a reason to go from one denomination to another. You will find sinners and hypocrites in every single one of them. You will find people who do not take their religious life seriously everywhere. This is not the fault of any one church. This is the fault of people.

I appreciated the final contribution of Paul Hinlicky at the end about why he is still a Lutheran. I find his case interesting, but at the same time I wondered what this would have to say to people who are not Lutherans per se. I have said my favorite church is a Lutheran church, but I do not subscribe to it as interdenominational differences don’t really interest me as much. (So why read a book like this? Because I wanted to hear what Jerry Walls had to say and in doing research and preparing a podcast on it, I came across the book by Mattox and Roeber and wanted a counterperspective.)

Here’s the most important point however. I have a great memory of being in the chat service of PALtalk one evening and a Jehovah’s Witness was there dialoguing with myself, a Roman Catholic, and an Eastern Orthodox. It was just four of us and the RC and EO and myself were in great unison defending the doctrine of the Trinity against the Witness. This is how I think it should be.

I do not hold to Catholicism for instance, but I don’t have any patience for the idea that the Pope is the Antichrist. (Although as a preterist, I am convinced some popes have been antichrist.) I love my Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters in Christ. I have friends in each field. Are there some non-Christians in the folds of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy? Without a doubt. Just as there are some in Protestantism.

I do not doubt also that if Roeber and Mattox and I got together and chatted, there would be many issues that we would have good disagreements on and discuss them, but I think more of them we would be meeting and nodding our heads in agreement. Those are the issues that I have chosen to focus on. The secondary debates about our differences are good, but let us never let the secondary issues overpower the primary unity.

In Christ,
Nick Peters