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In 1973 R.C. Sproul’s first book, The Symbol, was published. It was an appropriate title, but not one that grabs attention. This book is now in its 4th edition, and has its 4th title. In 1982 it was released as Basic Training. And in 1998 it was released as Renewing Your Mind. It has been recently updated and released as What We Believe. This is probably the best title this volume has had because it goes straight to the point. The book is about the Apostles’ Creed and therefore basic theology for Christians.

While I have not read previous editions, which is surprising to me actually, this is not the same book. It is updated and interacts with some newer challenges and has contemporary illustrations. This book is very much what you expect from R.C. Sproul. He presents theology and philosophy (his undergraduate degree is in philosophy) in an understandable and interesting way. His purpose is revealed at the end of the first chapter:

“The following chapters offer a contemporary explanation of its teaching- not to give a historical exposition of each point, but to apply its basic tenets to contemporary faith-issues.”

This means it is not an exhaustive book. It does not get into all the historical controversies that it addresses. This is an introductory book. This is not Herman Witsius’ 2 volume work (my copy seems to be missing) or even Michael Horton’s book We Believe. It isn’t like Rooted by Cannata and Reitano with its missional focus either. This really is basic training. While I would be interested in many of the historical controversies the Creed addresses, not everyone is.

In basic training, a drill sergeant will deconstruct you before building you into a soldier. This book, in some ways, seeks to deconstruct elements of a non-Christian world view to build up a Christian one.

He begins with the words “I believe” to talk about what faith is. He talks about content, assent and faith. Faith is rational, not a leap into the existential dark. Saving faith looks to and delights in Christ. Faith is not superstition either, this is seen most clearly in suffering. Faith complicates life because it brings an ethical system with it. True faith will produce a changed life; an increasingly holy life.

“To say that faith is reasonable is not to confuse faith with rationalism. Rationalism emphasizes the mind’s ability to understand all reality without help.”

This is why R.C. says “Faith involves confessing more than professing; in the final analysis, it is a platform of commitment to the will of God.” The content of our biblical faith should fill our minds and find a happy home in our hearts so we become more like Jesus.

Faith is not faith in faith, but in God. Here Sproul stresses the need for content. He notes a rally by Louis Farrakhan where he was surrounded and applauded by a number of “Christian” pastors. The god Farrakhan believes in is incredibly different from the one “we” do. There is also existentialism’s impact on Christian theology that drove it to liberalism and the Jesus Seminar nonsense that robbed theology of its content.

From there he moves into how we can speak of God, and can’t. He discusses the hidden God who is also the God revealed. In the midst of this he brings out Moby Dick, one of his favorite novels and the subject of his dissertation.

“Our talk of him is legitimate because he has entered into the arena of human activity. We confess not only that there is a God, but that God can be known and that our knowledge of him can be meaningfully communicated.”

One of the challenges that comes up is creation. While he isn’t pushing a 6 24-hour day creation, he focuses on our dignity as a result of creation. The other option is chaos, the loss of dignity and of values. God is both above creation (transcendent) and actively involved in creation (immanent) thus ruling out panentheism and deism respectively.

He then moves into Jesus as the conclusive revelation of God. He briefly interacts with the contemporary attempts to remove Jesus from history or separate a historical Jesus from the church’s theology of Jesus. He focuses on many of the names of Christ to reveal who He is.

His chapter on the virgin birth addresses the challenges presented by the attack on miracles. He also defends the historic Christian view from the common rabbinic (and liberal) view that “alma” in Isaiah doesn’t necessitate a virgin birth. The New Testament, however, clearly does teach that Mary was. “alma” doesn’t exclude virginity, and Matthew’s account clarifies it.

One of the weak links in the book is the chapter on eschatology. He sticks closely to the Creed, but doesn’t really address any of the evangelical views that in competition with one another. Perhaps this reflects his earlier lack of commitment to a millennial position. There are a few other places where I wish he would offer greater clarity.

This is really a book for those who are new to their faith, or the Apostles’ Creed. While not necessarily simplistic, Sproul is introducing concepts to people. More advanced readers will not be challenged enough. But it is one to keep on hand to help those younger in the faith.

[I received a complimentary copy of the book for the purposes of review.)

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aka, the Virgin Birth.

It is listed as one of the 5 fundamental beliefs during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century.  Is it a fundamental belief?  It is necessary for Jesus to be conceived in this way if he is to be fully divine?

There are a surprising number of people who are saying it isn’t necessary.

Emergent (revisionist) pastor Rob Bell, in his book Velvet Elvis, stated that while he personally affirmed the virgin birth, it was not a necessary belief.  You don’t need the ‘spring’ of the virgin birth to ‘jump’ (cue the Van Halen please), so he says.  He includes some shoddy exegesis and historical context to make his point about why you might think Matthew doesn’t mean what we thought he meant.  Got that?

Easy for me to disregard Rob Bell; he doesn’t have conservative street cred.  But Michael Green, another story.  He wrote the commentary on Matthew in the Bible Speaks Today series edited by John Stott.  I’m reading this for my sermon series from Matthew this Advent.

Green covers the standard arguments against the virginal conception, and counters them pretty well.  Like Bell, he personally holds to the virginal conception.  But he didn’t stop there, and I was a bit shocked.

“However, it is only proper to say that there is nothing necessary about the virgin birth.  The deity of Christ is not inextricably tied to it.  God might well have entered  this world in the normal manner, or chosen some unprecedented way of becoming one of us.  He need not have come through a virginal conception.  The documents, however, assert that he did.”

This precisely where a good biblical and systematic theology save you from a mass of heresy.  Adoptionism (the view that God adopted the human Jesus to be his divine son) would be a denial of the Trinity.  Any other method would presumably include Joseph or other male.  If an ordinary man is involved, Jesus is born “in Adam”.  All who born of 2 human parents are born under the covenant with Adam (Romans 5) and are therefore subject to sin and death.  Jesus, in order to save other, must be free from sin and death.  He must not be “in Adam” as his covenant head.  He becomes the 2nd Adam, the head of a new covenant so that all who are in him by faith are delivered from sin on account of his obedience, death for sin and resurrection on our behalf.

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“We have to test everything.”  That’s what it says on the back of Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith.  That is completely consistent with 1 John (Test the spirits), and Isaiah (Unless they speak according to the Law and the Testimony they have not the light of day.).  I’ve heard a few Rob Bell sermons, and they were good.  I’ve enjoyed some of the Nooma videos.  Rob is great at asking questions.  My question is, what are his answers, if any?

Rob in fairly controversial, which in itself is not a problem.  Afterall, Jesus was controversial.  But is he controversial in the same way Jesus was?  Or is he departing from orthodox Christianity?  Or is he orthodox but leading others to ask questions without giving them biblical answers so they depart from orthodox Christianity?

Mark Driscoll pointed out some troubling statements in this book in his message at the Desiring God Conference (awesome message, which I listened to again yesterday during a walk).  My sister-in-law wasn’t too wild about some of Rob’s statements, so she gave me her copy.  Any quotes & notes will be from the paperback edition.

“As a part of this tradition (the Protestant Reformation), I embrace the need to keep painting, to keep reforming.  By this I don’t mean cosmetic, superficial changes… I mean theology… We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived and explained.”

Depends on what you mean by that.  If we are gaining a better understanding of biblical truth & contextualizing timeless truth, I can go there.  But to re-theologize, to invent a novelty (which Luther, Calvin et al did not do)… I cannot go there.

He sort of qualifies it on the next page (13): “It’s just that every generation has to ask the difficult questions of what it means to be a Christian here and now, in this place, at this time.”  Sounds like contexualizing, but he seems to bring us elsewhere at times.

On page 22 he talks about theology as the springs of a trampoline (hence the jumping man on the cover).  He talks about the trinity as a spring added later, that the church had existed for hundreds of years without.  Well, this would be a great time to talk about progressive revelation and how the church grew in its understanding of truth.  That is not the same as “adding it later”.  This makes it sound as if it was something men made up, rather than summarizing what the Bible says about God.  God is bigger than our words, but God uses words to tell us who He is.  As Calvin says, God lisps to us.  Language exists precisely so we can know God and how He saves people.

On page 26 he begins his section that drew Driscoll’s attention.  He relays a message he heard from a pastor who compared doctrines as bricks.  Perhaps this guy, not Bell, went with the metaphor of a wall.  I’m not wild about that metaphor, regardless.  Scripture uses the metaphor of a foundation.  If you start pulling bricks out of the foundation of your home, I’m thinking you’d be a little concerned.  Some bricks are more important than others.  Some bricks are essential to orthodox Christianity (God, Christology, doctrine of salvation etc.).  Some bricks are not essential (who should be baptized, or mode of baptism).  The brick he mentions is the virgin birth.  He affirms the virgin birth, but thinks that if we reexamine or redefine one brink/spring (page 27) it is not that big a deal.  Depends on the spring or brick.  If Jesus was not born of a virgin, we lose the God-man who was able to bear our sins on the cross.  Jesus becomes a great example, and that is it.  The virgin birth is very important!

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