On Putting Theologians on the Proper Shelf

(Posted by Paige Britton)

It’s been in my mind for some time now to write a summary review of John Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic, 2009). I’ve found the book a fascinating read, though provocative on several counts, and I have been looking forward to hearing Reformed reactions to it. But since it’s quite a tome (612 pages) and somewhat tedious in a ramblingly scholarly way, it isn’t exactly something you would grab for a good beach read; and as Sailhamer is writing from outside Reformed circles (he’s currently a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary), it may yet be a while before it registers amongst Reformed critics. So I thought to speed things up a bit with some chapter summaries, which I hope to offer here over the course of this winter and spring.

Meanwhile, though, I wanted to open the floor to thoughts (and soapboxes) on Sailhamer specifically, and also on the more general question of how we evaluate whether a Christian writer is worthy of our time and attention, particularly when we find that their thinking differs markedly from our own. When, I wonder, do we decide someone is just plain not worth listening to? When, on the other hand, do we decide to take a writer (whether scholarly or popular) “with a grain of salt,” sifting his work and gleaning real profit while also setting aside (or arguing with) the less helpful bits? I suspect we each end up answering these questions in our own way; still, it’s likely there’s some basic wisdom we could share around.

My controlling metaphor for this sort of decision is putting theologians on the proper shelf. Now, I know my theological collection is small potatoes compared to, say, Lane’s; but hey, already it boasts a shelf of Annotated Volumes! These are the books that have irked me so much that I’ve talked back in the margins and all the other blank spaces, books that I would never recommend to others, books that have narrowly missed defenestration.

Most of my AV’s so far are easy targets, read because somebody ought to do so with a critical eye – Beth Moore’s Breaking Free, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, Randy Alcorn’s Heaven (perfect example of how one should not write a serious book – 70% speculation largely supported by hefty quotes from one’s own works of fiction), etc. The need for foils in an article on elder-led churches brought me some startling works by Frank Viola and George Barna, and curiosity to some dreadful things by Ruth Haley Barton and one Groothius or another. You get the picture.

As my own theological awareness has grown, so has the shelf, as I’ve applied myself to critical reads of more scholarly things. But now the job is trickier. Sure, some books practically shelve themselves: I have an old copy of Daniel Day Williams’ The Spirit and the Forms of Love, given to my parents when he baptized me (and kudos to you if you know what brand of theology he promoted in the late ‘60’s!)…a more Annotated Volume than Pete Enns’s Inspiration & Incarnation I do not possess…and N. T. Wright’s Justification would be there, if I hadn’t had to return that copy to my pastor (marginal notes and all).

But other works and authors are not so straightforwardly “bent,” to borrow Lewis’s word: Do I re-shelve Stott for his soft stance on hell? Packer for signing ECT? Willard and Foster for caring overly much about individual spiritual formation? Willimon for being Methodist? Lewis himself for suggestions of Purgatory and “anonymous Christianity”? Bauckham for pleading a non-apostolic author of John? Do all of Wright’s works have to go the way of Justification, or may I yet weigh each one’s merits individually?

Obviously our bookshelves are going to be full of volumes that are, like our churches, “more or less pure” and “subject both to mixture and error” (WCF 25.4f). It’s no surprise that we’d have to take along some salt in our pockets whenever we sit down to read. (And I find I’m much more likely to reach for the salt than I am to pan a writer for a particular theological quirk. Though maybe that’s just my own theological weakness!)

So it will be, I think, with Sailhamer. I’m not nearly ready to put this tome on my Annotated Volume shelf; but you might wish to suggest otherwise, based on his past writings or whatever you discover about this one. Go for it.

And tell us what’s presently on your “AV” shelf (whether it’s a virtual or a real one) – which books and writers are you ready to pitch through a window? Wisdom, passing thoughts, and soapboxes welcome.

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24 Comments

  1. greenbaggins said,

    December 13, 2010 at 11:50 am

    I have a lot of FV and NPP writers whose works deserve defenestration (great word, isn’t it?). Or, as Dorothy Sayers would put it, they should not be tossed aside lightly; they should be thrown with great force. I also have Barth; some of the works of Berkouwer deserve that as well. At the moment, however, I am more interested in reading the better books.

  2. December 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Paige, I’ve been deliberately putting off reading this volume. I have read, and give a qualified recommendation to, his The Pentateuch as Narrative. This work at least gives the reader an overall grasp of how the various parts of the Pentateuch fit together in a coherent fashion. But his view on Gen 1-11 is an act of desperation. Hence my hesitancy to devote the time right now to reading his Meaning of the Pentateuch.

  3. Cris D. said,

    December 13, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    PB: I would sign on with you on the Enns book, except I restrained myself from annotating my pastor’s copy. At times I thought I & I was surely a joke or parody. I simply could not believe such shallow and shoddy thought could come from a WTS faculty-member. I am still at a loss for why Mr Enns wasn’t tossed through a window himself by students. That’s a profoundly sad and puzzling line of thought.

    I’m currently reading Peterson’s Christ Plays in 10,000 Places. I appreciate it in small chunks. He’s quite the poetic speaker/writer. But I don’t care to have, shall we say, non-protestants, held up as examples of spiritualty.

  4. Cris D. said,

    December 13, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    BTW – it’s snowing in on your blog. Unless Strider or Boromir are going to be showing up, it would be best for the hobbits to shore up the roof and keep those flakes at bay!

    -=Cris=-

  5. Jeff Cagle said,

    December 13, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Salt, salt, salt. Right now I’m reading The Law is not of Faith with Murray’s essay on the Covenant of Grace in the other hand.

    On the “Don’t Let This Happen to You” shelf are Bultmann, Tim LaHaye’s Rapture Under Attack, and the Book of Mormon. And a really old copy of Dating With Integrity — anyone remember that one?

    Wright’s volumes are on one of my shelves, partly digested. One’s brain is full after p. 400 or so.

    The Federal Vision got a close read, as did The Case for Covenant Communion.

    In all things, the question is never “Is X a reliable theologian?”, but “How does what I’m reading square with Scripture?”

  6. David Gray said,

    December 13, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    >But I don’t care to have, shall we say, non-protestants, held up as examples of spiritualty.

    No Augustine for you then…

  7. Jeff Cagle said,

    December 13, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Chris, re: #4 — it looks like the Dunlendings keep the snow from piling up at the bottom. It’s a nice change from last year.

  8. steve hays said,

    December 13, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Jeff Cagle said,

    “And a really old copy of Dating With Integrity — anyone remember that one?”

    Is that about radiometric dating or boy meets girl?

  9. Jeff Cagle said,

    December 13, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    It was, sad to say, Boy Meets Girl. But under tightly controlled conditions. So that no-one gets hurt.

  10. paigebritton said,

    December 13, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Or, as Dorothy Sayers would put it, they should not be tossed aside lightly; they should be thrown with great force.

    LOL!

    (Mine have narrowly missed defenestration not because I have poor aim but because I have a hearty respect for the price of the windows.)

  11. paigebritton said,

    December 13, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Benjamin –
    But his view on Gen 1-11 is an act of desperation. Hence my hesitancy to devote the time right now to reading his Meaning of the Pentateuch.

    Yes, I’ve picked up some of that from reading others’ reactions to his earlier work. I don’t know the whole of his unusual reading there (yet), but as far as I can tell there is actually very little of it in MP. Here his fascination is with the deliberate structure of the text, and the theological implications of how the pieces are woven together. I’m a whole-parts-whole kind of thinker, so this stuff is fascinating to me. We’ll have to see whether it bears up to the scrutiny of his critics, though.

  12. paigebritton said,

    December 13, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Jeff -
    In all things, the question is never “Is X a reliable theologian?”, but “How does what I’m reading square with Scripture?”

    Yes indeed! That is the standard I hope to apply. And I should note that I don’t consider myself (or my judgment calls) above scrutiny either. (Though I am hopeful for readers with at least a bit of salt. :)

    Still, it does seem to me there is a time to say “X is NOT a reliable theologian, so I’m not going to waste my time reading him anymore” — or recommending him to others!

  13. Cris D. said,

    December 13, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    RE # 6 – David,

    No Augustine for me? I could go 2 ways in response. (1) But Augustine is the proto-protestant par excellence (Augustinian alliteration), so no problems.
    (2) I could simply shrug off Augustine as part of the whole medieval melt down of church history, wrap myself in my Reformation/Confessionalist-Reformed cloak and pretend there’s a direct line from the Apostles to that Reformation stance…
    But I don’t want to be that a-historical. On the other hand, I’m not responsible for what past generations did or didn’t know, so I can learn from them without being slavish about it.

  14. Andrew McCallum said,

    December 13, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Dating With Integrity — anyone remember that one?

    Jeff – Uggg, yes, remember it well Awful stuff! I keep it on my “warning to others to flee from the ideas contained herein” shelf.

    A couple of random thoughts about self-annotated books. I remember hearing an interview of Herbert Schlossberg who was bemoaning the fact that far too many Christians only read literature that reinforces their own worldview. So one of the things that I have always appreciated about Reformed camp is the tendency here to adopt a bring-it-on philosophy towards other worldviews. We cherish our AV shelves (well, at least most of works on them).

    And this relates to what C.S. Lewis says in his marvelous little essay, An Experiment in Criticism.. Lewis comments that far too often Christians begin to critique works of other theologies/philosophies (works on our AV shelf) before they have immersed themselves in the work under scrutiny and comprehended the mindset of the author. Lewis basically argues that the careful and thoughtful critic gains much more from such works than the critic who let’s the red ink fly mercilessly from page one onward.

    Cheers….

  15. paigebritton said,

    December 14, 2010 at 6:19 am

    Lewis basically argues that the careful and thoughtful critic gains much more from such works than the critic who let’s the red ink fly mercilessly from page one onward.

    Well, I got about 14 pages into Breaking Free before I let fly. That merciful enough?

  16. Andrew McCallum said,

    December 14, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Well, I got about 14 pages into Breaking Free before I let fly. That merciful enough?

    That sounds about like our reaction to Wild at Heart… although I would admit that I got quite a few laughs out of the selected passages my wife read to me. There seems to be a point at which an excessive amount of drivel achieves a certain level of entertainment.

  17. Richard said,

    December 14, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Hi Paige, just wondering if you have read Balentine’s The Torah’s Vision of Worship and if so what you thought of it?

  18. paigebritton said,

    December 14, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Hi, Richard,
    No, I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of it. (Is this in the “Related to Sailhamer,” “Take it with a Pinch of Salt,” or “Pitch it thru the Window” category? :)
    pb

  19. Bob S. said,

    December 18, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    A dead thread, but FWIW I for one did not appreciate Nick Needham’s special pleading showcased in Vol.2 of the WCF in the 21st Century, which at 84 pages was considerably longer by far than the majority of the other essays in the 3 volume series.

    Not only was the negligence of the primary documents – the rest of the Westminster Standards and the Minutes of the Assembly – incompetent if not criminal, he’s a baptist? What’s that all about? Was he a stalking horse for all the presbyterians who think he is correct, but wouldn’t dare to say so? Shame on them.

    As for John Frame, he’s a one man wrecking crew/disaster when it comes to anything on worship. Nobody else in our day has shredded the good and necessary consequences of the Second Commandment with such a glee and abandon of sincere biblical enthusiasm than the good doctor himself.

    While every good turn deserves a favor, I am loathe to waste the kind of money that they want for The Doctrine of the Christian Life and Prof. Frame’s exposition of The Ten (or was that Nine?) Commandments.

  20. paigebritton said,

    December 19, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Bob:
    Small revival of thread:

    So in your opinion, would anything Frame go on your “Absolutely Don’t Bother” shelf (were you to be handed something he’s written, since you wouldn’t waste your pennies even on a used copy from Amazon) or is there any merit to any of his writings at all?

  21. Bob S. said,

    December 19, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Paige,

    No, not anything by Frame and I’ll have to check if I can get DCL on amazon used for pennies by this time, but simply that whatever his respective excellencies – and Robt. Reymond in his systematics speaks highly of Frame’s apologetics – a hard argument can be made that he largely opened the floodgates for the assault on reformed worship (the RPW) in our day. That is no little thing.

    Further, the FV one, had roots in reconstruction and two, by and large copped Frame’s line on worship.

    True, all God’s children got feet of clay, there is only one righteous, even Christ, but nevertheless I’d be hard pressed to come up with one who has gloried as much as JF has in his reformed theological – nay, make that confessional – shortcomings.

    Short version: His deficiencies are so egregious, I have yet to avail myself of his excellencies. My bad? So be it.

  22. paigebritton said,

    December 20, 2010 at 6:34 am

    Bob,

    Thanks! I asked with the curiosity of the interviewer, not the challenge of the critic (though I am in the middle of Apologetics for the Glory of God at the moment! My bad? :).

    You wrote:

    Short version: His deficiencies are so egregious, I have yet to avail myself of his excellencies.

    This is where I was headed with my question, “When do we decide someone is just plain not worth listening to?” I think you’ve pinned it: It’s when the “exception” they are promoting so “strikes at the vitals of religion,” that we truly can’t just set aside one part of their teaching while gaining profit from the rest.

    So, e.g., Doug Moo’s read of Romans 7, which some have called “wrongheaded,” nevertheless doesn’t detract from the solid work he’s done with the rest of the epistle in his commentary, and doesn’t injure his offerings in other areas. But Enns’ evaluation of the Bible as just another collection of ANE mythology & 2nd Temple legends does such damage to his doctrine of Scripture that we can’t trust him to deliver on anything scriptural from a firm foundation of orthodoxy.

    Frame is, for me, a question mark in this regard: the red flags you raise are significant, and disappointing. Don’t know that I am able to say yet that they are so pervasive that they cancel out his solid teaching in other areas. I’ll read with caution (and salt!).

    pax,
    Paige B.

  23. stuart said,

    December 20, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Maybe my theological acumen is not what it should be, or maybe I’ve missed the point altogether, but I’d like to challenge the premise a bit. Not that I disagree fully with everything that has been said, but I would want to tweak the way this issue has been stated, especially as it was summarized in one of the comments above . . . “X is NOT a reliable theologian, so I’m not going to waste my time reading him anymore.” This summary strikes me as not quite hitting the target.

    First, we need to ask “reliable” in what sense? If we mean “reliable” in only one particular hermeneutical tradtion, then in all honesty we shouldn’t waste our time on a lot of writers (many, in fact who wear the label “Reformed”). If we mean “reliable” in the sense that the author really wrestles with the text of Scripture (even if such author lands somewhere different than we would), such a view might broaden our reading horizons a bit. Yet if by “reliable” we mean an author who wrestles with Scripture and the hermeneutical tradtions of the Church, then we might have to narrow down the list once again.

    With this in mind, I would say that if an author doesn’t really wrestle with the Scripture but runs rough shod over it or completely ignores it, and if that same author acts as if his own theological tradition doen’t exist and doesn’t try to interact with it (respectfully, yet not being afraid of critique), I would consider such an author “much less reliable” than an author who did the opposite.

    Second, the “waste my time reading” phrase is connected with the matter of purpose. What is our purpose for reading any author? Our own edification? To understand the bigger picture of an issue? To prepare for a sermon? To review a book in order to help others know its profits and/or dangers? To sharpen and challenge our own thinking? There are many reasons for reading a particular book, and the purpose for reading as well as the content of the book itself should dictate whether the book is a “waste of time.”

    I think understading our purpose in reading and understanding what we mean by “reliable” might help us not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. The issue of what to do with Frame is a good example of this. R.Scott Clark, who is no fan of Frame’s views on worship or of his triperspectivalism, still has some positive things to say about Frame’s work in the area of apologetics.

  24. paigebritton said,

    December 20, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks, Stuart! I do appreciate the nuances you offer here.

    I should probably have qualified that quick phrase with “I’m not going to waste my time reading ‘X’ for edification anymore” — e.g., someone who has departed so much from orthodoxy that to him the Scriptures are not the Word of God, or someone who has forfeited his role as a wise counselor by his ungodly behavior. In these ways he would have shown himself an unreliable guide. Make sense?

    But yes, there will be other purposes for reading even these folks, which is why I am not so very alarmed by the “foils” on seminary reading lists. It’s good to sharpen our thinking in argument with other minds sometimes.

    Paige B.


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