A Reason To Believe

Thinking About Religion, by Richard L. Purtill (Prentice-Hall, 1978, 175pp., $5.95 pb), is reviewed by Michael H. MacDonald, professor of German and philosophy, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, Washington.

According to the author, Thinking About Religion is intended to serve introductory classes in religion and philosophy of religion. Yet Purtill’s book neither treats numerous facts concerning the various religions, nor is his major emphasis the usual range of topics dealt with in such books. Rather, Purtill is most interested in why people hold any religious belief at all and whether there is rational justification for claiming one set of beliefs instead of another.

Purtill’s background is an interesting one. He has written several books on logic, ethics, and religion, some of which are standard texts in philosophy and religion classes across the country. More recently, he completed his first novel. This rather unique combination of logician and poet is put to good use in Thinking About Religion, for Purtill introduces each chapter with a short story or parable, which he uses as a springboard to discuss the chapter topics. His imagination baptized, one of Purtill’s most successful chapters is his last one. Here he speculates about life after death, telling through concrete experiences what might be some characteristics of the afterlife. Purtill suggests how the “eternal life view” can provide answers to several theological and philosophical problems.

Much of Purtill’s attention in the book is given to a defense of the kind of religious belief that has been most influential in the Western world: the Judeo-Christian view, including Islam. He is not content, as some religious believers are, to call the debates a draw. After examining the pros and cons of religious belief and unbelief, Purtill shows that the believer has a more reasonable interpretation of our total experience than does anyone else. He is well aware, however, that rational arguments do not necessarily bring us to the God of Christian faith and experience.

Those who maintain that clear thinking brings one to the threshold of belief will welcome this book. Purtill argues his case well and helps counter the new irrationalism today, which substitutes subjective feelings for sound thinking. In this sense Richard Purtill writes within the tradition of Elton Trueblood and John Stott. Thinking About Religion is thus an excellent book for any serious reader who wants a better reason for the faith that is within him.

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Lewis The Theologian

Real Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Works of C. S. Lewis, by Leanne Payne (Cornerstone Books, 1979, 198 pp., $4.95), and C. S. Lewis on Scripture, by Michael J. Christensen (Word Books, 1979, 120 pp., $6.95), are reviewed by Donald T. Williams, instructor of English grammar and composition at the University of Georgia, Athens.

The growing flood of secondary literature on C. S. Lewis seems to be turning into new channels, moving from general treatments of Lewis as apologist or man of letters to more narrowly focused expositions of Lewis’s views on particular questions of theology. As the two books before us illustrate, the stream does not always flow in these channels with the same depth or force.

Payne’s thesis is that the key to Lewis is his view of reality as incarnational, and that his effectiveness is “rooted in a living and comprehensive understanding of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of the very being of the Christian.” Payne admits that the Holy Spirit is present only implicitly in Lewis’s work, but too often her only way of making the Spirit explicit is simply to assert that it is so. It is often hard to tell whether we are reading an exposition of Lewis’s theology of the Spirit or a development of Payne’s concept of the role of the Spirit in a sacramental world, highly informed by Lewis’s metaphysic, and liberally illustrated from his writings. The book seems to me to be predominantly the latter, and as such it is not without value, though it is certainly mistitled.

More competently written is Christensen’s account of Lewis’s views on Scripture. He presents Lewis as a model for a mediating position in the midst of current controversies within evangelicalism over the doctrine of inspiration. Christensen’s treatment of Lewis’s position is mostly accurate, and it is specially valuable in that it relates Lewis’s particular statements about Scripture to his more general views on literary criticism, myth, and so on. More problematic are his attempts to relate Lewis’s views to the present inerrancy debate. Christensen rightly points out positive lessons that conservative evangelicals could learn from Lewis: the importance of genre for interpretation, the need for an imaginative as well as an intellectual response to biblical images, the danger of making either response independent of the other. But, unfortunately, Christensen shares both Lewis’s own naiveté concerning what is at stake in the doctrine of inerrancy and his confusion over what the doctrine actually affirms. His survey of the question of inerrancy in church history is too sketchy to warrant the conclusions he draws from it; he unfairly implies that inerrancy is a characteristically fundamentalist and not an evangelical doctrine; he repeats the absurd non sequitur that inerrancy denies the humanness of Scripture; and he, like Lewis, totally ignores our Lord’s own attitude toward the total trustworthiness of the Bible. But with all these crucial weaknesses Christensen’s book is one that deserves to be read. Lewis has much of positive good to teach us about Scripture and how to read it, and Christensen, despite his uncritical approach, can help us appropriate some of those lessons.

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Opening New Theological Ground

Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Volume Two: Life, Ministry, and Hope, by Donald G. Bloesch (Harper and Row, 1979, 297 pp., $14.95), is reviewed by David Foxgrover, chaplain and assistant professor of religion, Rockford College, Rockford, Illinois.

In his preface Donald Bloesch states with modesty: “My purpose is simply to spell out the core of the historic Christian faith from an evangelical and Reformed perspective.” However, it quickly becomes clear that Dr. Bloesch’s purposes are far more daring: he wants to “reconceive evangelicalism” by establishing a “catholic evangelicalism” that is faithful to its “historical roots” and to the “biblical and evangelical witness.”

Dr. Bloesch’s intention is “to open new ground” in four areas: the new birth, the gifts and ministries of the church, the millennial hope, and universal salvation. The book concludes with a review of evangelical distinctives and a delineation of a “catholic evangelicalism.”

What is the “new ground” Dr. Bloesch opens? In “The New Birth” the writer both affirms the necessity of the new birth (the old man “cannot evolve into the new”) and cautions against identifying the event of the new birth with stereotyped feelings or experiences. On baptism, Dr. Bloesch avoids the “traditional Catholic view” of an “automatic development from baptism to conversion,” but he affirms that baptism is a “means of grace by which the Holy Spirit … works within us.” Dr. Bloesch believes that one can recognize “stages” in regeneration, one of which is a “preparatory stage” wherein one is “already under grace, though grace has not yet fully possessed him.”

Regarding the “gifts and ministries of the church,” Dr. Bloesch states that preaching is not “dialogue” but a “means of grace,” and is careful to uphold the proper role of the sacraments; nonetheless, his description of “Reformed worship” does not jibe with an earlier statement that it is “not only the preached Word, but also the celebration of the sacraments that creates and sustains the fellowship of Christ.”

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In “The Priesthood of Believers” Dr. Bloesch does an admirable job of doing justice to “both cultic and charismatic dimensions” and the corporate nature of the church.

In “The Personal Return of Christ,” Dr. Bloesch acknowledges the place of realized eschatology, while stating without compromise: “… the consummation of history is an event still to take place in the future.” Christ’s coming will be bodily and visible, and will inaugurate a new heaven and new earth. After critique of traditional views, Dr. Bloesch advocates a “postmillennialism within the framework of a modified amillennialism” that conveys the “note of victory.”

For many, the most controversial chapter will be that on “Heaven and Hell.” For Bloesch, the Bible teaches both a “moral dualism” and a “universalism that envisions God’s grace as everywhere triumphant.” “Moral dualism” means that heaven and hell are not simply “states of mind” and that there is a “history of salvation and perdition.” “Universalism” means that “God’s grace ultimately will encompass the whole of creation, though this does not imply the actual salvation of every individual.…”

Bloesch wishes to avoid any conception that suggests that God’s justice and love are opposed to each other. Instead, God is “sovereign in his love.…” But, because God’s love cannot tolerate sin, hell is necessary: “It is not because God’s love is limited but because it is unlimited that hell as well as heaven is made necessary.” Bloesch then takes the argument to its conclusion: “Hell … is essentially the creation of a loving God for those who refuse the help offered to them in Christ.”

Dr. Bloesch hopes to bridge the barriers between evangelical groups and between Catholicism and evangelicalism, but at the same time he is clear that “catholic evangelicalism” is a “theology of confrontation as opposed to one of accommodation or … of correlation.” He has not only opened new ground, but has also offered a commendable example of the theological enterprise to which he calls us.

The Impact Of Premillennialism

Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875–1925, by Timothy P. Weber (Oxford University Press, 1979, 323 pp., $14.95), is reviewed by Joel A. Carpenter, professor of history, Trinity College, Deerfield, Illinois.

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“How do modern, educated people behave in a growingly complex industrial society, when they are firmly convinced that this age might suddenly be turned into the age to come by the personal return of Jesus Christ?” Prof. Timothy P. Weber, church historian at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, asks this behavioral question of people who hold a premillennialist world view. By focusing on those who hold to the dispensationalist version of that doctrine, which became widely accepted in American fundamentalism, he has made a valuable contribution to the cultural history of that movement.

To the uninitiated, dispensationalism is an arcane, unattractive theory of redemption history, but Weber outlines the system in a clear, straightforward fashion and explains its appeal to many conservative evangelicals. He then examines its effects on the personal lives of those who were caught in its tension, expecting the Second Coming at any moment while knowing that it might not happen in their lifetime. This tension produced an earnestness that reinforced waning evangelical mores and produced an urgency useful in promoting evangelism and foreign missions. It is no coincidence, the author contends, that many leaders in urban revivalism and the foreign missions movement of the era were premillennialists.

The second half the book examines the premillennialists’ confusingly ambivalent response to selected issues. Even though their eschatology predicted an inevitable cultural decline, and hence the ultimate futility of social reform efforts, many premillennialists engaged in social welfare activity.

In a particularly enlightening chapter, Weber shows that intrinsic tensions in dispensationalism led its devotees to the sad irony of showing more respect and concern for Jews and more interest in Zionism than other Christians, while expecting many Jews to join the Antichrist. Finally, the author surveys the role of premillennialists in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies. While covering no new ground here, he shows that premillennialist fundamentalists did not agree on their duty to their denominations in that “day of apostasy.” Some separated themselves, others fought for control, and many others quietly stayed put.

Weber’s major point throughout this fascinating excursion is that premillennialism did positively affect its adherents’ behavior, and that the apparent contradiction between their beliefs and some of their actions resulted more from the doctrine’s own flexibility and the pull of competing forces than from any inner dishonesty on the part of premillennialists. This helps explain some of their discrete actions and attitudes, but the author does not adequately pull these strands together. If Weber had kept this larger question in mind, the book would seem less a casual, if enlightening excursion, and more a systematic exploration.

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Thirty Years Of Evangelism

Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness, by Marshall Frady (Little, Brown, 1979, 546 pp., $12.95); Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World, by John Pollock (Harper & Row, 1979, 352 pp., $10.00); Billy Graham: Saint or Sinner, by Curtis Mitchell (Fleming Revell, 1979, 320 pp., $9.95), are reviewed by John Woodbridge, professor and chairman of the Department of History, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

In 1979, as if to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Billy Graham’s entrance upon the national scene, three books (among a bevy of recent ones about the evangelist) appeared. The first, Marshall Frady’s Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness, is probably in the tradition of William McLoughlin’s earlier critical interpretation, Billy Graham: Revivalist in a Secular Age, 1960. (See the CHRISTIANITY TODAY review, Nov. 16, 1979). John Pollock’s authorized study, Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World, and Curtis Mitchell’s Billy Graham: Saint or Sinner, clearly fall within the sympathetic or friendly camp. Author Frady finds much to regret in Graham’s multiphased ministry while authors Pollock and Mitchell defend and celebrate it. Working presuppositions apparently account for the author’s contrasting sentiments of appreciation.

Author John Pollock has envisioned writing the definitive biography of Billy Graham. With the full cooperation of the evangelist and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Pollock published Billy Graham (1966, reedited 1969), which treats the evangelist’s life and ministry until 1969. Pollock offers the present volume, Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World, as both an “inside story” and a history of Billy Graham’s ministry during the 1970s.

Rather than giving a detailed chronological analysis of the decade, Pollock fixes upon episodes he believes to be representative of Graham’s emergence from a national to a global religious leader. He discusses Mr. Graham’s evangelistic campaigns from Europe 70, held in Dortmund, Germany, to the evangelist’s visit to Roman Catholic Poland in 1978. That Graham’s ministry has become worldwide in scope becomes abundantly clear in Pollock’s presentation. That the evangelist himself remains a personable and humble servant of God is also amply documented.

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Very different is the approach of Marshall Frady. He charges that Billy Graham has preached a smooth and simple message, programmed to stir crowds but largely incapable of meeting the complex needs of lonely, anguished people. Whereas Frady portrays Billy Graham as living in a depersonalized and sanitized world of mass media evangelism, Pollock presents Graham as being sensitive to the various spiritual and material needs of hurting individuals, whether they be his own family members or perfect strangers. For Frady, the political demise of Richard Nixon, whose vision of America Graham allegedly shared, coincided with the denouement of the evangelist’s own golden age as a national figure. Pollock offers evidence that Graham’s ministry, far from cresting after Watergate, moves along at a steady if not quickening pace and with undiminished appeal.

Frady proposes that Graham became an eloquent defender of the establishment rather than a genuine prophet lashing out against the social sins of America. Pollock attempts to fend off criticism that the evangelist has been a doughty defender of the status quo. In reference to Graham’s attitude toward integration, for example, Pollock notes Daniel Moynihan’s remark to Billy Graham in 1973: “You and Rev. King, more than any two men—and, surely with God’s help—brought your own South out of that long night of racial fear and hate” (p. 127). On point after point, Pollock’s portrait of Billy Graham’s person and ministry clashes sharply with the one found in Frady’s biography. Although neither writer wrote specifically to address the other, their two volumes create a curious interchange in which Frady’s criticisms of Graham’s ministry are consistently parried and rebutted by Pollock’s praise and defense of that same ministry.

Evangelical readers will probably feel more comfortable with Pollock’s volume than with Frady’s: Pollock’s portrait of Billy Graham, the Holy Spirit-empowered preacher, resembles closely their conception of the evangelist. Moreover, the author uses categories of spiritual analysis that are familiar to them. Frady’s portrait has some disturbing features. He does profess genuine admiration for Mr. Graham’s personal warmth and goodness, and shuns intimations that would associate the evangelist with the haunting specter of Elmer Gantry. In addition, he avoids the scabrous excesses of a muckraker. But then Frady brushes a picture in which Billy Graham’s own spiritual experience and spiritual influence upon others are treated, not in their own religious terms, but essentially in psychological and sociological ones. Certainly, there is a place for the social history of ideas, religious or otherwise. But the biographer tends to rob Graham’s life experience and ministry of real transcendent elements. Whereas Frady acknowledges the sincerity of Graham’s faith that God is involved in his life and work, the author is quick to explain in human terms what Graham attributes to divine intervention.

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This aspect of Frady’s approach to Graham’s life and ministry reveals an unusual feature of the biography. In a curious way, Marshall Frady, himself, emerges as a central figure in the Graham story. He is the assured voice who repeatedly lets his readers know where Graham and others did right or how and why they went astray. He will determine when Graham is being helped by God or when human forces alone actually account for Graham’s success or failure. He repeatedly brings Billy Graham before the bar of his own personal judgment and sorts out the cosmic merits of other subjects’ activities. It is not surprising, therefore, that reviewers of the biography about Billy Graham often dedicate many paragraphs of their reviews to Marshall Frady, so powerful is the author’s stamp upon his narrative.

If Marshall Frady has not written the definitive biography of Billy Graham, is John Pollock in the process of doing so with his two studies on the evangelist, Billy Graham (1969) and Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World (1979)? An ultimate answer to that question should be postponed until Pollock has written his final work of synthesis.

Certainly, Pollock’s pleasant writing style is readable enough for such a biography. But Pollock faces several hurdles particularly hazardous for authorized biographers. First, he has privileged access to mountains of data coming from Billy Graham himself, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and other sources (p. viii). With one author’s energies and skills, will Pollock be able to sift through this vast documentation in order to paint a convincing and nonsimplistic portrait of the evangelist’s person and ministry? Second, does author Pollock possess the necessary psychological and emotional distance from Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that will permit him to assess critically the evangelist’s ministry and to recognize possible deficiencies in it? Third, will Pollock broach those questions that fascinate professional historians and religious sociologists concerning the complex relationship between evangelical Christianity and American culture? How author John Pollock comes to grips with these issues will probably determine the evaluation both evangelical and nonevangelical historians make of his projected biography. His two studies to date admit to considerable promise.

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In the third work, Billy Graham: Saint or Sinner, Curtis Mitchell has penned less a biography than an apologetic. He seeks to dampen “a fire storm of suspicion and derogation,” which, he says, “has threatened Billy Graham’s health, his mission, and his dreams.” Fearful that recent allegations in the press could cause serious damage to Graham’s ministry, journalist Mitchell decided to probe their sources and assess their accuracy.

Mitchell’s volume is helpful on several counts. It provides systematic refutations of many of the nagging criticisms of Graham’s ministry. Moreover, the book’s first-person narratives by the evangelist’s children are both inspiring and instructive. They reveal much about the deep spirituality of the flesh and blood Billy Graham.

Several structural weaknesses, however, sadly undermine the import of author Mitchell’s work. His central question, “Is Billy Graham a saint or a sinner?” is poorly construed. The either-or paradigm employed is simply inappropriate. Moreover, Mitchell does not afford his readers either footnotes or a bibliography. Professional historians and lay readers alike will find themselves frequently stymied if they want to evaluate the specific documentation upon which Mitchell bases his refutations.

The current quest to know the man, Billy Graham, behind the bigger-than-life image is a worthy one for Americans largely bereft of respected spiritual leaders in an anxious age.

A large audience probably awaits the biographer, who, sensitive to the subtle interplay between divine and human realities, will recount Billy Graham’s story with warm empathy, with consummate literary grace, and with sterling historical integrity. That will be a biography to read.

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