Ron Highfield, a religion professor at Pepperdine University, thinks that even among people who believe in God, there is a suspicion that he might notRon Highfield, a religion professor at Pepperdine University, thinks that even among people who believe in God, there is a suspicion that he might not always have their best interests at heart. Although they might be reluctant to admit it, they think that God might come between them and being truly happy, and so they hold him at arm’s length. There is a deep, and at times unacknowledged, fear that God will make them do things they don’t want to do, like become a missionary in some godforsaken corner of the world.
Highfield has written God, Freedom & Human Dignity to calm those fears and give us a more accurate depiction of God than we are likely to get from quotes we see on the Internet, much popular Christian literature, and indeed, some churches. In part one, he tells the story of how we came to have such a “me-centered” self as our cultural default. He draws on the work of philosophers Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre to show that our modern understanding of the self roots human dignity and freedom internally: in the self and its autonomy. If we understand our dignity and freedom to be rooted within, then we will inevitably see God as a threat to our true fulfillment. Even if we acknowledge God, we treat him as a sort of superhuman vending machine that we can attempt to cajole into doing our bidding. He is the means to another end, rather than an end in himself.
In part two, Highfield looks at the “God-centered” self, and shows that “the view of God, freedom and dignity brought to life in Jesus Christ addresses the pain and paradox of the human condition and secures the hope that we will experience our true greatness and inherit our promised glory” (113). He argues that dignity is not something that humans inherently possess, but instead is something that is conferred on us by the fact that we are loved. This love is not human love—which can decrease or ultimately cease—but God’s eternal, unchanging love. Likewise, freedom is not the ability to do what we like whenever we like, because not all of our momentary desires arise from our true selves. Rather, freedom is “the power to live as we were created to live and to be what we were meant to be” (183). Freedom has a goal beyond mere autonomy, and if freedom is not exercised toward that goal, it is not true freedom. Again: “Even if circumstances permit us to act for our self-realization, that is, to do what we want, we are not genuinely free in those acts unless we want the right thing. You cannot be free in willing evil because the desire for evil keeps us from realizing our true selves” (189).
This is a powerful book, and it strikes at the heart of why the very thought of God in our modern world leaves so many people cold—even some people who believe in God. When I first started the book, I thought the central question Highfield was responding to—”Is God a threat to my happiness?”—was strange. Nobody really asks that question, do they? I still think that most people do not ask that question in so many words, but I do think that in many people there is a vague uneasiness that God might not want for me what I want for me. This is an excellent book for anyone who struggles with that kind of uneasiness.
On the other hand, I think there is another issue in how our “me-centered” selves think about God that Highfield did not address. It is the sense that God is not “other” at all: he wants me to be happy the way I define “happy,” i.e., by giving me whatever my me-centered self wants. This book addresses well the concerns of those who might see an all-powerful God as a threat, but what about those who have such little awe for God that they have domesticated him? It isn’t fair for me to ask Highfield to address a different set of questions in an already strong book, but I do think that this would be fertile ground for a different book.
Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. ...more
There has been a recent rash of books about the gospel. There’s Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, J.D. Greear’s Gospel, Andrew Farley’s The NakedThere has been a recent rash of books about the gospel. There’s Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, J.D. Greear’s Gospel, Andrew Farley’s The Naked Gospel, and Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Gospel?, among others that I’ve probably left out.
What sets this book apart from the rest? I can’t say, because the only book I’ve read on the above list is The King Jesus Gospel. But I can tell you what makes this book interesting.
The idea behind The Explicit Gospel is that, even for many people who grew up going to church, and are still part of a church, the gospel is implicit. It isn’t talked about; it’s “understood.” Which means that it’s not really understood at all.
Matt Chandler, the main preaching pastor of The Village Church in Texas, (along with co-author Jared Wilson) sets out to correct that with this book. He divides the book into three main sections: The Gospel on the Ground, The Gospel in the Air, and Implications and Applications. The gospel on the ground is how the gospel affects individual lives: we are each separated from a holy God by our sins, and we need Christ as a mediator to rid us of our sins. The gospel in the air is how the gospel affects the entire universe: God created a good creation, which was marred by human sin. God’s plan is to reconcile the world to himself, and ultimately remake creation into a new heavens and new earth. In the final section, Chandler talks about the dangers of gospels that dwell on the ground and in the air too long, and finally draws a sharp distinction between the real gospel and moralism, which is often substituted for the gospel when it is not made explicit.
What I loved about this book is that is a fine attempt to keep together two sides of the gospel that are sometimes separated. The gospel isn’t just about salvation, and but it isn’t the gospel apart from salvation. The renewed creation is a huge part of the gospel, but God’s salvation of sinners shouldn’t be forgotten in the grand vision of the renewed creation. They are both essential.
All the same, I think it is safe to say that this is not a presentation of the gospel that all Christians would resonate with. It is distinctly Reformed, with Reformed understandings of God’s glory and sovereignty. Chandler takes a view of the first chapters of Genesis that he calls “historic creationism,” which sees the amount of time described in Genesis 1:1–2 as indeterminate, but the seven days described in the rest of Genesis 1 as literal 24-hour days. There were also one or two issues mentioned in the last part of the book where I thought Chandler was being less than charitable toward those with whom he disagreed. I probably agreed with about 95% of what Chandler was saying, but there was 5% where I thought, “This could be seen in a different, but still biblically faithful, way.”
I don’t dismiss this book because of that 5%, though, and neither should anyone else. The Explicit Gospel is a great reminder of two things of which the Church in the United States is in constant need to be reminded: salvation and the renewal of creation are essential parts of the gospel, and moralism is not.
Note: Thanks to Crossway for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review. ...more
All too often when we think of idolatry, we imagine ancient people literally bowing down before a statue. That is not all idolatry is, says Tim KellerAll too often when we think of idolatry, we imagine ancient people literally bowing down before a statue. That is not all idolatry is, says Tim Keller, and idols are alive and well in the modern world. "A counterfeit god," Keller says, "is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would hardly feel worth living" (xviii). The only way to get rid of them is to replace them; not with other idols but with Jesus, the only God worthy of our worship. Fascinating and convicting....more