Wells: Character and Personality Differ—We Should Care Why

Virtue_review_04302015David Wells. 1998.  Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most painful lessons that I learned as a parent was that I could not assume that what I taught my kids would be reinforced by lessons in church, school, and other forums, like multi-media. While some might say that I was simply naive, my role as a father providing for the family was distracting enough.  Many of my peers failed to keep up financially with their parents—even after sending their wife out to work—in the face of stagnating and falling family incomes [1].

Some of the costs of this fight in our generation to defend living standards have been increased divorce, stressed out parents, and a lack of consciousness on how to deal with it.  In this context, moral training mostly fell through the cracks because, like other forms of education, moral training requires  time, money,  effort, and good role models in the community.  Meanwhile, multimedia provided scores of really bad role models and the internet provided a haven for care and feeding of some rather dysfunctional youth subcultures [2].  It is accordingly not surprising in a social and economic sense that we have seen a rapid decline in morality during this generation.

In his book, Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, David Wells documents this decline in morality from a theological perspective.  Wells writes:

“In this engagement, I shall argue, that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation.  That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing:  functionally, we not morally disengaged, adrift, and alienated; we are morally obliterated…In our schools…we shifted from teaching character formation to values clarification…Our children are not only more lawless in school…but are too often without any apparent moral consciousness regarding their actions.” (13)

In order to experience a decline in morality, one needs to articulate a standard for behavior.  Wells writes:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues.  First Plato and then Aristole talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues.  These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control)…The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived…The character of which we speak here is not simply the cultivation of natural virtue but the intensely conscious sense of living morally before God.” (14-16)

Wells provides a whirlwind review of the past 2,000 years of moral development.  However, most of the real change is very recent and revolves around the postmodern assault on the existence of objective truth.  If there is no one truth, then there can be no one set of virtues and no one ideal character type.  Wells observes that “postmodern critics oppose Christianity not because of its particulars, but simply because it claims to be true.” (19).

David F. Wells[3] is the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systemic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA and one of my own professors[4].  He writes Losing Our Virtues in 6 chapters proceeded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and index.  The 6 chapters are:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualties,
  2. The Playground of Desire,
  3. On Saving Ourselves,
  4. The Bonfire of the Self,
  5. Contradictions, and
  6. Faith of the Ages (viii-ix).

Wells is author of a number of books, including: No Place for Truth (1994), God in the Wasteland (1995), and Above All Earthly Powers (2005).

An important insight that Wells offers is also one difficult to understand fully.  He writes:

“…I shall develop the argument that this difference [between classical morality and postmodern morality] has produced a shift in the way that the moral is experienced.  It is a shift from guilt in the classical stream to shame in the postmodern.  However, it is shame in a uniquely contemporary way. It is not shame of being exposed before others because our individualism gives us permission to do whatever we like and whatever gratifies us provided that it…is legal.  There is, as a result, very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed.  It is, rather, the shame of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation.  It is shame that is far more psychological in nature than moral.” (34-35)

Wells sees guilt as “normally the emotional response to our violation of a moral norm” and shame is “our disappointment with ourselves that we are not other than what we are” (130).  Citing Dick Keyes, Wells writes:

“our inability to deal with shame and guilt right at the heart of our problems in identity. Identity is a matter of knowing who we are, both as human beings and as individuals, and through this understanding arriving at some internal cohesion and coherence.” (131)

If we do not know who we are, then we cannot say who we are not.  The identity problem accordingly spills over into our actions through an obvious lack of boundaries—as people do what feels good without guidance, an incredible number of crimes (abuse, corruption, drug use, mass murder…) and perversions (pedophilia, suicide, gender confusion…) come into view at rates unprecedented in recent history.  This is not just a measurement problem [5].  Historically, our morality lined us up with God’s immutable (unchanging) character—but if we cannot line such things up internally today, then how is it possible to act coherently in the external world? [6]  And what exactly does the church itself teach about morality today?

When I think about David Well’s Losing Our Virtue, I remember his distinction between character (internally defined and evidenced) and personality (externally defined and evidenced; 96-105)—television shows today mostly ignore the former and extol the latter.  Knowing the difference is one reason why David Well’s Losing Our Virtue is a book deserving of a deep read.


[1] Rather than upward mobility, this generation has mostly faced downward mobility both financially and socially.

[2]  For example, the goth subculture is probably the best known (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goth_subculture).   The emo subculture glories suicide ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emo).  For a list of subcultures in the United States, see: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_subcultures).

[3] http://bit.ly/1DF8i0q

[4] My pastor and I are both students of Dr. Wells, though about 30 years removed. I will always remember Dr. Wells for gently disavowing me of the notion that theology begins and ends with the double love command (Matt 22: 36-40).

[5] Before the advent of co-educational dormitories on university campuses, for example, women and men did not live in the same building and access was tightly restricted.  The ability to misbehave in any way was much less likely.  The number of date rapes was accordingly not substantially underestimated in those years—it was variance around a much lower base.  The rise in the number of rapes is accordingly due to cultural changes, not measurement error.

[6] Making things worse, postmoderns do not believe in one objective truth.  In effect, they deny that a single line up with God is even possible.  Therefore, morality is inconsistent with their worldview.

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Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3

Longfield_Pres_Con_04062015Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Go to Part 1;  Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Scot’s Confession of 1560, which is included in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), outlines three conditions for a true church[1].  A true church is one where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly administered.

Fundamentals of Faith

When the PCUSA abandoned its ordination requirements centered on the 5 fundamentals of the faith in 1925, it effectively lost the ability to distinguish itself as a true church as defined in its own confessions. The boundaries between church and society were fuzzed because of doctrinal diversity and with the passage of time the fuzz grew as elders were elected and pastors ordained that held increasingly diverse views.  In effect, Presbyterians began a transition from being a reformed, confessional church to being a church united primarily in a common polity [2]. This fundamental change, which is often misunderstood and frequently denied, Longfield articulates primarily in terms of the person of a pugnacious son of the South, J. Gresham Machen.

Longfield sees Machen differing from his opponents in the Presbyterian controversy in a number of ways, most importantly philosophically.  He writes:

“The education Machen received at Princeton complemented and refined the religious heritage of his boyhood.  Like the Thornwellian theology of the Southern Presbyterians, Princeton held tightly to the doctrines of the Westminster [confession] divines undergirded by Common Sense philosophy and the Baconian method.  The Princeton Theology insisted on the primacy of ideas in religion and stood firmly for a strict doctrine of biblical inerrancy.  Additionally, Princeton adhered to the traditional Reformed belief that Christians must strive to bring all of culture under God’s rule….Princeton was a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy in an increasingly hostile world…” (40)

Old School Presbyterianism, as articulated by James Henley Thornwell was strictly confessional and viewed theology as “a positive science grounded in observation and induction, consisting of facts arranged and classified according to the necessary laws of the human mind.” (33) This philosophy, known as Scottish Common Sense Realism, maintained that: ”we can and do know the real world directly through our senses… [and that] Anyone in right mind… knew that the objective world, the self, causal relationships, and moral principles existed.” (34)[3]  Following Thornwell, Machen firmly believed that once the facts were known irrefutable conclusions (events not interpretations) could be drawn (222) [4].

Machen’s focus on correct doctrine, as embodied in the confessions, flowed immediately from his philosophical presuppositions (223). Obviously, from Machen’s perspective, deviating from correct doctrine was not only wrong; it was immoral, because it led one away from God.  In some sense, a liberal was anyone who deviated from correct doctrine.

Robert Hastings Nichols, a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, drafted a formal statement of the liberal positon in the PCUSA in 1923. The paper, which argued for theological diversity within the bounds of evangelical theology, evolved into the Auburn Affirmation and was endorsed by 174 signatories (79).  The affirmation basically said that 5 fundamentals of the faith offered only one theory allowed by the scripture (77-79).

In other words, for the liberal no one, objective reality existed—history was not a matter of facts, but of interpretations (89). The emphasis was on religious experiences, not historical events such as found in the Bible (90-91).  Writing about Henry Sloane Coffin, Longfield writes:  “the Bible was not the ultimate authority for the Christian, Jesus alone was the Word of God; the Bible simply contained the Word.” (91)

At the end of Presbyterian Controversies, Bradley Longfield prods the PCUSA to “affirm a normative middle theological position with clear boundaries.” (235)  The focus among evangelicals on the inerrancy of scripture and the doctrine of divine inspiration of scripture provide the boundaries on Biblical interpretation suggested.

The weakness in the evangelical position is philosophical:  very few PCUSA pastors and theologians today subscribe to Scottish Common Sense Realism.  If to be postmodern means to believe that scripture can only be interpreted correctly within its context, then we are all liberals in a Machen sense [5].  A strong, confessional position requires philosophical warrant—a philosophical problem requires a philosophical solution—which we can all agree upon[6].  In the absence of philosophical warrant and credibility, the confessions appear arbitrary—an act of faith [7].  In a practical, denominational sense,  the philosophical diversity that characterizes the denomination makes it unlikely that boundaries can be agreed upon even if those boundaries are based on a shared history.

Clearly, Longfield’s book is an interesting read, very relevant to current controversies, and certainly worthy of ongoing study.


[1] “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” (PCUSA 1999, 3.18)

[2] In 2012 at the General Assembly in Pittsburg, PA (which I attended), for example, the stated clerk opined before the entire body that the Book of Order need not comply with requirement of the Book of Confessions. They served different functions. This opinion paved the way, in part, for that body to endorse the ordination of homosexuals.

3] Very ironically, from the perspective of the liberal-fundamentalist divide, Scottish Common Sense Realism was foundational in the development of the scientific method. By contrast, the liberal philosophical position, borrowing heavily from Darwinian evolution—hence, the term progressive, actually undermined scientific advancement inasmuch as it came to question the existence of objective reality—a trend in thinking that later matured into postmodernism. If one does not believe in one, objective reality, then why invest time and money in researching it?

[4] William Jennings Bryan, for example, also maintained that “true science and the bible could not disagree.” (56)

[5] The other tell that one has slid into a liberal leaning is the focus off of theology and onto experience.  Liberal theology focus on feeling rather than thinking which reflects a debt to the romanticism of the 19th century.  For the liberal, God is experienced through feelings, not through the mind.  This makes it unreproduceable among and between individuals.  By this lining of reasoning, we can have common experiences of God through service, crises, and mission trips, but we will have trouble describing what just happened.  This makes agreement on and adherence to language, creeds and confessions difficult.  Words denoting theological concepts become squishy. We like feeling words like progress, spirituality, and love which are hard to define; we have trouble with thinking words like creed, morality, and duty which have specific content.

[6] Plantinga (2000) attempts to fill this philosophical gap by offering the concept of warrant.  He argues from a postmodern perspective that warrant is a reasonable standard for justifying Christian  belief.  The modern perspective of requiring logical proof, which is also not attained by the critics themselves, is argued not to be a reasonable standard on which to base judgment.

[7] My belief is that the existence of one God is obvious from the existence of only one set of physical laws in the universe.  In some sense, the existence of one objective truth immediately follows from God’s immutability.  Relative truth is more of an optical illusion.


Plantinga, Alvin. 2000.  Warranteed Christian Belief. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3

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Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 2

Longfield_Pres_Con_04062015Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Go to Part 1;  Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

After sensing a call to pastoral service in 2004 my first response was to attend an inquirer’s weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in Princeton, NJ. I was never more excited in my entire life. Still, tension clouded my excitement—I had waited months to attend the Passion of the Christ produced by Mel Gibson with fellow seminarians.  Who would come with? On Saturday night when 60 inquirers were asked who wanted to attend only one other student responded. (The others preferred to attend a play named after a female body-part[1]). I eventually wrote PTS off my list of prospective seminaries, but not for a lack of interest[2].

My Saturday night disappointment at PTS trivially highlights tensions in the PCUSA that were already evident in the 1920s. Longfield highlights 3 significant disputes within the church over the period from 1922 through 1936: ordination requirements, the mission of Princeton Seminary, and the orthodoxy of the Board of Foreign Missions (4).  Let me address each briefly in turn.

Ordination Requirements

Longfield dates the Presbyterian controversy to a sermon preached by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick on May 21, 1922 at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City entitled:  “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (9)  The sermon turned on knowing the difference between a fundamentalist and a liberal Presbyterian.

At that time, a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) had to subscribe to the 5 fundamentals of the faith:

  1. The inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus;
  3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Christ died for our sins);
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
  5. The miracle-working power of Christ (9, 78)[3].

These requirements were instituted in 1910 by the General Assembly of the PCUSA.  Thus, a fundamentalist was not a pejorative term at that point; it simply meant that one met the requirements for ordination.

By contrast, Fosdick saw liberals as: “sincere evangelical Christians who were striving to reconcile the new knowledge of history, science, and religion with the old faith.” (9).  The liberal view of scripture was not inerrancy, but “the progressive unfolding of the character of God and that development, not supernatural intervention, was God’s way of working out his will in the world.” (10) Note the influence of evolution on the liberal interpretation of scripture (12-15).

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Fosdick resigned his pulpit at First Presbyterian Church on October 22,1924 to avoid censure (126-127), but was immediately called to pastor Park Avenue Baptist Church[4].  Notwithstanding, in 1925 a special commission of the General Assembly relinquished the 5 fundamentals of the faith as an ordination requirement (161).  Moderator Charles R. Erdman engineered the change out of a belief that:  “Christian living had precedence over matters of precise doctrine…any man good enough to go to heaven…is good enough to be a member of our church” (141-142). In other words, practical theology trumped systematic theology—previously the hallmark of reformed theology since the reformation.

Reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary

The College of New Jersey (later called Princeton College) was chartered in 1746 on account of the expulsion of a young student named David Brainard from Yale College who said in private conversation that one of his tutors had “no more grace than a chair”.  Brainard had the support of the Presbytery, but Yale refused to readmit him (Piper 2001, 128, 156)[5].  In 1812, Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) was organized separately from Princeton College, in part, because modern universities no longer considered theology one of the sciences and certainly not “The Queen of the Sciences”, as it was known in the Middle Ages[6].

Throughout its history PTS defended Old School Presbyterianism which taught strict Calvinism[7], opposed the teaching of Darwin, and defended scriptural inerrancy (22, 133).  Princeton Theology, as it was known, made PTS the standard-bearer of fundamentalist theology in the PCUSA.  The point man during this controversy was Professor J. Gresham Machen who described PTS as “a lighthouse of orthodoxy in an increasingly secular world.” (169)

J. Gresham Machen

After the General Assembly abandoned the 5 fundamentals of the faith in 1925, attention shifted to PTS and Machen, who had so staunchly defined those fundamentals. Having lost the battle in the denomination, Machen’s promotion to Professor of Apologetics and Christians Ethics at PTS, which had been offered by the board of directors, would not likely be confirmed by the General Assembly (161,163).  In 1926, the General Assembly appointed a special committee to study at PTS.  In 1929, the General Assembly adopted a reorganization plan which strengthened the office of the president and merged the board of directors and the trustees into a single committee.

While no changes were proposed to the PTS charter or mission, the new committee included two liberals (out of 33) who had signed the Auburn Affirmation (a liberal manifesto; 173).  Machen and three other PTS faculty members responded by leaving to organize a new seminary to carry on the traditions of the Old Princeton known as Westminster Theological Seminary which was set up in Philadelphia, PA (176).

Board of Foreign Missions

Foreign missionary activity reached an all-time high in the late nineteenth following the formation in 1886 of the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), essentially the missionary agency of the Young Men’s Christian Organization (YMCA).  SVM’s founding following a call by Dwight Moody to: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” (18, 185).  Between 1886 and 1936, roughly 13,000 missionaries were recruited. An important leader in the SVM was Robert E. Speer who personally recruited 1,100 undergraduates for missions during his last two years at PTS (186).

Speer was a charismatic and pragmatic leader.  Longfield writes:

“Speer’s emphasis on a simple Christocentric gospel, conducive to Christian unity and missionary success, his disparagement of systematic theology, and his understanding of the church as a missionary body persisted throughout his career.” (188)

Speer’s theological pragmaticism likely alienated him from Machen who in 1933 organized an Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, a move opposed by Speer.  The Independent Board was eventually shut down by the General Assembly (180).  Speer retired in 1937.

Longfield dates the close of the Presbyterian Controversy in 1936 following Machen’s death in 1935 and the formation of the Presbyterian Church in American in 1936 (213).  While in this review  I have focused on the decisions reached during this controversy,  Longfield goes further.  Part 3 of this review will look at the ideas motivating these decisions and some of their implications.


[1] The Vagina Monologues (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vagina_Monologues).

[2] I was working full-time in federal service at that time.   PTS and the other Presbyterian seminaries focused on providing a full-time, residential seminary experience.

[3] Also see: Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 2 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Tp).

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Emerson_Fosdick

[5]Today, we might describe that tutor as an atheist but in 1746 such a charge would be considered slander even if true.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology

[7] Calvinists subscribed to a systematic understanding of theology summarized in the acronym, TULIP. TULIP stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints (Sproul 1997, 118).


Piper, John.  2001.  The Hidden Smile of God:  The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books.

Sproul, R.C. 1997. What is Reformed Theology:  Understanding the Basics.  Grand Rapids:  BakerBooks.

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Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 1


Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 1

Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Go to Part 2;  Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Have you ever experienced a déjà vu moment?[1]

Reading good historical accounts can give one a sense of being a fly on the wall or even participating actively in the moment. The sense of lost opportunity or lost glory pervades the work.  For Bradley Longfield’s The Presbyterian Controversy, the past ominously informs the present like it only happened yesterday [2].

Presbyterians in Conflict

Longfield (3) writes:

“The mainstream churches in America today face a serious crisis…Through the reasons for this hemorrhage in membership are many and complex, one contributor to the decline noted by analysts is the nebulous doctrinal identity of the churches…Without clear theological boundaries distinct from the ideals of the surrounding culture, the churches have been increasingly subject to cultural currents…The roots of this nebulous identity lie, at least in part,  in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s. The churches in the 1920s, in response to the growth of liberal theology and the resultant reaction of fundamentalism, chose to allow for diverse doctrinal views in order to preserve institutional unity.”

So what was the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s? Who was involved and why do we care?

Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

Longfield (4) chronicles:

“From 1922 until 1936 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) was wracked by conflict.  Sparked by a sermon of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick [3], a liberal Baptist preaching in a Presbyterian pulpit, the Presbyterian controversy raged for fourteen years over such issues as ordination requirements, the mission of Princeton Seminary, and the orthodoxy of the Board of Foreign Missions.”

The controversy raged among leaders of the PCUSA denomination, including: J. Gresham Machen, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Sloane Coffin, Clarence E. Macartney, Charles R. Erdman, and Robert E. Speer. Longfield tells this tale by examining the biographies and thinking of these six men (5).

Why do we care?

The PCUSA crisis today is rooted in decisions made in 1925. Still, the same struggles persist as if the controversy occurred only last week.  The question is: what fruits arose from the decisions made in this prior controversy?[4]

When Bradley J. Longfield wrote The Presbyterian Controversy, he was a visiting professor of American Christianity at the Duke University Divinity School, where he received his doctoral degree.  He is currently Vice President and Dean of the Seminary and Professor of Church History at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary [5].  This book is written in 9 chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue, including:

  1. The Conflict Erupts: Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Presbyterian Church,
  2. Gresham Machen: Princeton Theology and Southern Culture,
  3. Williams Jennings Bryan and the 1923 General Assembly,
  4. Henry Sloane Coffin and the Auburn Affirmation,
  5. Clarence E. Macartney and the 1924 General Assembly,
  6. Charles R. Erdman and the 1925 General Assembly,
  7. The Reorganization of Princeton and the Birth of Westminster,
  8. Robert E. Speer and the Board of Foreign Missions, and
  9. The Close of the Controversy: The Entanglement of Religion and Culture (ix).

The epilogue is followed by notes, a bibliography, and an index. The book cover depicts a group picture of the 1927 General Assembly of the PCUSA.


Longfield is an interesting read and a thorough biographer.  For each personality chronicled in his history, he discusses their personal background, education, the background of parents, idiosyncrasies, and influences. In part 2 of this review, I will look at the particular controversies—ordination requirements, the mission of Princeton Seminary, and the orthodoxy of the Board of Foreign Missions—and in part 3 of this review, I will review the lessons learned.


[1] Yogi Berra’s famously said: “It’s like deja-vu, all over again”. In French, déjà vu literally means—already seen—so his malapropos was hilariously redundant (http://bit.ly/1HK0wbJ).

[2] Savage( 1996, 84-85) writes:  “In the rehearsal story, the individual tells a story out of the past.  Through hearing it, the listener can become aware that the event retold contains the same themes as the current problems facing the person.” Savage, John. 1996. Listening and Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

[3]  “Shall the Fundamentalists Win”(9).

[4] Jesus warned:   “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”  (Matt. 7:15-20 ESV)

[5] http://udts.dbq.edu/aboutudts/facultyandstaff


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Murrow Invites Churches to be Man-friendly

David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to ChurchDavid Murrow. 2011.  Why Men Hate Going to Church.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the big advantages that I experienced growing up in the church arose as I got older.  In college when life was forever confusing, I had a rough idea of what it meant to be a faithful and successful 21-year-old, a faithful and successful 25-year-old, a faithful and successful 30-year-old and so on.  I also learned what it means to be a godly man.

How did I know?  I knew because I had seen others in those age groups and I watched who succeeded and who did not.  I knew this first hand—my parents did not need to tell me.  My story about the 3 kinds of people—those that never learn, those that learn from their own mistakes, and those that learn from other people’s mistakes—came from observing people in church.  Healthy churches are churches where everyone—all age groups, men and women, and races/ethnicities—worships together.  Unfortunately, such churches are not the norm.


In his book, Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow writes:

“New research reveals the importance of men to congregational vitality and growth.  Almost without exception, growing church draw healthy numbers of men, while declining congregations lack male presence and participation…Men are the world’s largest unreached people group” (xii-xiii).

Why do we care?

Murrow writes:  “It’s no coincidence that the nations in which Christianity was the freely chosen religion of men are also bastions of tolerance, charity, and political stability.” (xii)

A lot is at stake in raising the issue of men’s participation in the church, but there is also a lot of resistance to talking about it.  Murrow writes an entire page listing things that the book is NOT about—at the top of the list is blame.  He refuses to spend any time blaming anyone (not men, not women, not pastors) for the gender gap—his purpose is:  “to illuminate the problem and seek solutions” (xiv).

What is the problem?

Murrow writes:

“According to polls, 90 percent of American men claim belief in God.  Five of six call themselves Christians. But just two out of six U.S. men claim to have attended church in the previous week. Some experts believe the true number is fewer than one in six.” (13).

While men and women are roughly split evenly in the population, 61 percent of those in the pews are women and only 39 percent are men (14).  For African American congregations, the numbers are even more skewed with 75 to 90 percent of those attending church being women (16).  If saving men’s souls does not inspire sufficient concern, then think about money—the absence of men hurts church giving [1].

Gender Gap Not New

The gender gap is not a new problem. Recent changes in gender politics in the church are accordingly not the primary reason for the problem. Citing Leon Podles, the gap has been growing since the thirteenth century, but widened dramatically in the nineteenth century when male intellectuals began: “…publically rejecting religion as superstition or myth.” Meanwhile, working class men had to leave their homes to work in industry (55-56) [2]. What remained in the church were women, children, and elderly men (57). Pastors confronted with a female audience increasingly softened the preaching, music, and theology to suit their audience. And, of course, less manly men found their way into the pastorate. Each of these proclivities alienated men who did come to church.

Again, why do we care?

Murrow writes:

“So men avoid church [like they avoid a prostate exam]—and suffer for it.  Men are more likely than women to be arrested, die violently, commit and be victims of crimes, go to jail, and be addicted.  They also die more often on the job, have more heart attacks, commit suicide in greater numbers and live shorter lives than women…If men want to avoid these pathologies, they should go to church.  Studies indicated that churchgoers are more likely to be married and express a higher level of satisfaction with life.  Church involvement is the most important predictor of marital stability and happiness. It raises most people out of poverty.  It’s also correlated with less depression, more self-esteem, and greater family and marital happiness.” (23)

Young Women

It is interesting that my wife, who is Muslim, pushes our daughter harder than I do to attend church—hoping that she will meet “someone nice”—something never said about attending a local mosque even though either option is equally convenient.  What happens if my daughter goes to church and does not meet any “nice, eligible men”? Obviously, both the church and the family are hurt when this happens…as a father, I really do feel that pain [3].

What can be done about it?

Murrow focuses on giving “men opportunities to use their skills and gifts” (202).  The typical church, in his opinion, focuses on offering men opportunities to join in activities that women are more comfortable with (201).  He makes his point by offering the following hypothetic church announcement:

“As of next month…we are canceling the nursery and Sunday school. We will no longer offer weddings, baptisms, baby showers, or funerals [feeling not doing events].  We will be dropping our choir and pulling out of our partnership with the soup kitchen.  Instead, we’re going to minister in a new way.  Our children’s ministry will be based on sports leagues. We will offer free automotive repairs to the working poor.  We will provide carpentry, plumbing, and electrical upgrades to senior’s homes.  We will deploy our member as security ambassadors, walking the streets of high crime neighborhoods. And our mission team will dig wells in Honduras.” (201).

He then asks how women might feel about such changes.

Suggestions for Ministry

Murrow offers a boat load of suggestions on how to refocus to make men feel more like part of the church team. Interestingly, nowhere does he say that the pastor has to be a man. Instead, he suggests a boy band up front in worship, male parking attendants, male ushers, wide-screen television, prayer huddles [not circles], signs [men hate asking direction], and get rid of the banners [they bring a nursery setting to mind] and robes—real men don’t cross-dress or want to. Some of these suggestions lean into working-class, male stereotypes a bit but the point is valid—the church should not alienate men unnecessarily.


Author David Murrow is a marketing professional and has studied anthropology.  He has worked in as a television producer, writer, speaker and government spokesperson[4]. He is not a pastor. At the time of writing, he was from Alaska (where else?) His book is divided into  25 chapters and 3 parts:

  1. Where are the men? (1-45),
  2. Church Culture versus man culture (53-115), and
  3. Calling the church back to men (125-219).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by notes.

Why Did I Read This Book?

This book was recommended to me by my homiletics professor [6] who was at one point active in Promise Keepers (a recent group attempting to fire up men for the Gospel) [6]. The homiletics connection is that pastors cannot preach a generic sermon to generic churchgoers—we all come to the Gospel with a different identity, which includes gender.

Wake Up Call

For me, this book was a wake-up call—churches that do not strive to maintain a balanced demographic may not be around in the future. For Murrow, balance means taking men’s sensitives and talents into account.  In his final chapter—a church for everyone—he talks about a female pastor in Illinois who actually had a church with more men than women. In talking about how she managed to cultivate this outcome, she said:

“Other than the Bible, your book has shifted the way I do ministry more than any other book…As I write liturgy and prayers and sermons, I’m thinking, How would a guy like a bricklayer, a farmer, a mechanic, or a line work hear this?” (220-221)

I am not sure that her church is a church that I would choose to attend, but it is interesting that Murrow’s work has born such obvious fruit. This book is a great read and may expand your understanding of how your church can reach more people—even men.


[1] Murrow quotes an honest pastor:  “When Sally comes to church and Sam doesn’t, you get the tithe off the grocery money.  When they come together, you get the tithe off the paycheck.” (26). While the analogy is a bit dated, the underlying concept remains valid.

[2] By 1830, Charles Finney noted that the majority of church members were women. (56)

[3] Murrow candidly remarks that young men today are especially challenged attending church today because in our highly sexualized culture, attending church is a de facto admission that you are “not getting any”.

[4] http://bit.ly/1EkC9C7

[5] Dr. Rodney Cooper.  From 1995-1997, Dr. Cooper served as the National Director of Promise Keepers.  (http://bit.ly/1P3fqdE)

[6] https://PromiseKeepers.org.


Podles, Leon . 1999. The Church Impotent:  The Feminization of Christianity. Dallas:  Spence Publishing.

Murrow Invites Churches to be Man-friendly

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Nouwen Ministers Out of Pain

Henri Nouwen, Wounded HealerHenri J.M. Nouwen. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig  1972). New York:  Image Doubleday.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Many call stories recited by pastors started at the foot of a hospital bed. Mine did. Others have suffered chronic illness of a sibling or child.  Been there.  Awareness of our own pain helps us appreciate the pain of others (4).  Lived it. I first read Henri Nouwen’s book, Wounded Healer, in the years before attending seminary.  Reading and understanding did not, however, immediately go hand-in-hand.

Lost Transcendence

Thinking in terms of the scientific method, the hardest step in problem-solving is often defining the problem—defining the problem in such a way that further inquiry is both doable and productive [1]. For Nouwen, the core problem of postmodernity is a lost sense of God’s transcendence (20-21).  Citing Robert Jay Lifton, modern people are characterized by historical dislocation, fragmented ideology, and a search for new immorality (12). Nouwen sees these characteristics as more lost connection with the past or the future (12-13), lost belief in objective reality (15), and lost meaning in the traditional symbols of the church (18-19).  This lost sense of transcendence leaves the postmodern person only able to perceive an “existential transcendence”—a kind of breaking out of their private lives to get lost in mysticism or revolutionary causes (20-23).  He sees Christianity itself through a dual lens of mysticism and revolution; conversion is itself a personal revolution (23).


Churches are clearly experimenting with this idea.  Pub ministry offers a kind of bottled mysticism [2]; mission trips present a “revolutionary” breaking of the routine; all sorts of “causes célèbre”, however kinky, give people a sense of being “edgy” or “revolutionary” giving a dull life some sparkle.  The problem with this sort of transcendence is that it is not transcendence at all.  Nouwen’s existential transcendence is more a kind of participatory immanence than transcendence—transcendence is a divine attribute, not a human one.  Only someone lost to themselves or lost in themselves requires surrender to an external “cause” or mountain top experience.  Existential transcendence is an ersatz sense of the divine, not divinity in the usual sense [3].

Still, Nouwen is onto something significant here–the church’s task is to point to God both in our daily experiences of life and in our mind’s eye.  God is not dull and boring; we are negligent disciples if we make him appear that way.  The Psalmist writes: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” (Ps 33:3 ESV) Tension, however, exists in existential transcendence between reflecting the divine image (Gen 1:27) and reaching for one of those shiny apples (Gen 3:6).

Case Studies

Nouwen makes use of two important case studies.

The first case study is more of a description.  He describes a troubled young man named Peter.  Peter is 26, drifting through life, having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality—likely a psychiatric patient (7-9).  Nouwen writes:

“Peter was not torn apart by conflict, was not depressed, suicidal, or anxiety-ridden.  He did not suffer from despair, but neither did he have anything to hope for…Perhaps we can find in Peter’s life history events or experiences that throw some light on his apathy, but it seems just as valid to view Peter’s paralysis as the paralysis of all humans in the modern age who have lost the sources of their creativity, which is their sense of immorality [transcendence].” (17)

Peter is a kind of archetype—perhaps a younger Henri Nouwen.

The second case study is what chaplains refer to as a verbatim—a case study of a pastoral visit that went poorly which is discussed in a chaplain group as a learning tool.  The case is of a middle-aged blue collar worker, plagued with loneliness and despair, in the hospital for surgery who is visited by a young seminarian and later dies in surgery (56-58).  How might this pastoral visit gone better?  Had the chaplain dealt more effectively with the man’s loneliness and despair, would the man have survived? (72)

Principles of Leadership

Out of this impressive case study, Nouwen derives 3 principles of Christian leadership:

  1. Personal concern;
  2. A deeply-rooted faith in the value and meaning of life; and
  3. Hope that always looks for tomorrow, even beyond death. (76)

It is a bit odd at this point that a Catholic priest, like Nouwen, would not draw his principles of leadership more directly from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For example, What leads us to be concerned? Why does he reference faith in life rather than faith in Christ?  What leads us to look beyond death?[3]  Maybe his principles have a biblical origin, but we will never know from his meditation.


Nouwen does give us some origins.  His title, wounded healer, is drawn from a story recorded in the Jewish Talmud about the coming Messiah.  Nouwen writes:

“The Messiah, the story tells us, is sitting among the poor, binding his wounds only one at a time [unlike others who bind them all at once], always prepared for the moment when he might be needed” (88).

Nouwen sees one of the greatest wounds being loneliness which is compounded for the minister by professional loneliness—more a sense of being irrelevant (89-93).  Nouwen sees our own woundedness as helping the minister to connect with the suffering and offer them both hospitality [a safe space to share] and community (93-99).  In this way, the minister empowers the suffering to confront their own issues and find peace with God (Psalm 95:7; 102).


Henri Nouwen’s book, Wounded Healer, deeply influenced me early in my seminary career, in part, because of my own experience of loss and pain. His lost sense of transcendence troubles me now that I understand better what he was saying and what he was not saying. Where is God in his pain? How can a priest be so radically alone? These are troubling questions for a book so influential among pastors and seminarians.  Nouwen redeems his own pain through ministry, but one gets the sense that he is still ministering out of his own anti-strength, strength not Christ’s.  Still, his writing is ever-fresh and his case studies are helpful and will be of interest to seminary students for years to come.


[1] The steps in the scientific methods are:  felt need, problem definition, observation, analysis, decision, execution, and responsibility bearing.  See:  Stephen W. Hiemstra, “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management, Society of Actuaries, June 2009 (http://bit.ly/1H0Vt68).

[2] http://PubTheologian.com

[3] The idea of approaching God through human experience runs counter to scripture.  God stands outside of time and is holy in the sense of set apart—he must approach us, we cannot approach Him.  In the Tower of Babel story (Gen 11), for example, God comes down and laughs at the people trying to build a tower to heaven.  The uniqueness of Christ arises is that in Christ God comes to us.  With spiritual disciplines, we strip away impediments to God approaching us, we do not ourselves approach God.  This is one aspect of God’s sovereignty.

[4] In my own experience, Catholic priests more typically focus on administering the sacraments in a hospital setting and leave pastoral visits to the laity.  However, Nouwen was writing in 1972 when things may have been different.

Nouwen Ministers Out of Pain

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Cross and Guyer ID Behavioral Traps


Cross and Guyer ID Behavioral Traps

John G. Cross and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is morality?  Why engage in conversation about moral behavior?  Why are some people unable to cope with the normal challenges of life while others avoid self-destructive behavior?  In their book, Social Traps, John Cross and Melvin Guyer suggest that many aspects of morality arise from weaknesses in the behavioral decision processes that we all normally employ.

Cross and Guyer write:

“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’.  Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards.  Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.” (3-4)

In other words, the normal learning process—do more of what feels good; do less of what feels bad—breaks down. Obvious examples of this problem include smoking, drug use, and sexual immorality.  Cross and Guyer want to know what causes these deviations from rationality (7).  Why do rational people engage in silly habits? (v)

At the time of this writing, John Cross was an economist and Melvin was a social psychologist who worked at the Mental Heal Research Institute at the University of Michigan.  Their book is written in 8 chapters, including:

  1. Introduction;
  2. Taxonomy of Traps;
  3. Time-Delay Traps;
  4. Ignorance Traps;
  5. Sliding Reinforcers;
  6. Who Got My Reinforcer;
  7. Stampedes; and
  8. Judicial and Legislative Escapes (vii).

These chapters are preceded by a brief preface and followed with a bibliography.

The example of smoking is instructive. Cross and Guyer write:

“The pleasures associated with smoking have a physical presence and immediacy that is entirely absent in the case of its other consequences.  Moreover, any avoidance which might be induced through threats of future punishment is further reduced by the fact that the punishment by no means occurs with certainty, making it possible for the smoker to avoid even the anticipation of pain with the rationalization that that sort of thing only happens to other people.” (4)

Here we witness a breakdown in incentives to smoke or avoid smoking because the rewards and punishments of smoking are separated in time. The reward is immediate while the punishment is in the distance future (19)[1]. Consequently, if a behavioral decision process is employed—do more of what feels good and do less of what feels bad—people will decide to smoke and to suffer the consequences later.

Cross and Guyer see warnings of future problems less effective than structuring incentives—rewards and punishments—to fit the behavioral decision process (14).  The heavy excise taxes on cigarettes are an example of this principle in practice because prospective smokers will be less likely to smoke if they have to pain a heavy tax today when purchasing the cigarettes. In an ideal world, the excise tax could be raised to the level of the present value of future social costs incurred through elevated lung cancer deaths (50).

Moral behavior starts with rational thinking and requires avoiding behavioral responses where short-term incentives lead to long-term negative outcomes [2].  Morality is accordingly a sign-post that warns the individual of future consequences of choices in the present that carry uncertain risks. Removing present penalties for immoral choices (for example, removing excise taxes on cigarettes) simply raises the probability that errors in judgment will occur.

A socially-significant example of this breakdown in behavioral decision-making occurred in the recent housing crisis. In the 1990s and early millennial period, longstanding lending laws and regulations prohibiting lenders from making sub-prime home mortgages were relaxed. This change in law and regulation allowed lenders to earn high fees for selling mortgages to poor and minority individuals who had a high probability of not being able to repay the loans [3].  The present incentive to do these deals was high for both borrower and lender. Yet, the prospect for future financial problems was also high.

Cross and Guyer’s analysis suggests that  such risky lending choices should be limited because of the breakdown in normal incentives to behave prudently in making decisions about mortgages.  This was the law before the changes and it became the law again after the financial crisis.  Unfortunately, many people lost their life savings and many financial institutions were bankrupted during the crisis.  For observers in the finance industry, the crisis was expected—the only uncertainty was when it would happen.

Traditional morality concerning drug  use and human sexuality work much the same way.  Drug users get hooked on the highs; later, they overdose trying to maintain the highs.  Premarital sex or having multiple partners is fun short-term, but the result longer term can be unwanted pregnancy, social diseases, and bad choices in relationships.  In a permissive society, the costs of poor decision-making are borne by those who lack discipline and fall into such traps.  Unfortunately, others are hurt by their bad choices.   What child wants to be borne with birth defects or without a father?

Traditional mortality is time tested—is 2,000 years enough of a test?—which is why it has not gone away in spite of the many attempts at technical fixes, like unnecessary medical interventions.  Is it any wonder that Jesus warned against false teaching: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin [that is, encourage people fall into social traps for the sake of their own personal freedom, money or political gain], it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt 18:6 ESV)

Still, traditional morality and Christian morality overlap, but do not contain one another.  Traditional morality, for example, includes revenge—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—but Christian morality does not.  Christian morality recognizes that pain is not limited to the body or even the mind.  Our relationship with Christ is for us the tree of life—anything that cuts us off from Christ is a threat to our salvation.  Social traps are not the only traps.  Therefore, Christian morality is not necessarily subject to redefinition with changes in medical advances or social convention.

John Cross and Melvin Guyer’s book, Social Traps, changed my attitude about the question of moral instruction and the role of institutions, like the government and the church, in guiding society through difficult decisions.  It is good read and well worth the time.  The life you save may be your own.

[1]“…lengthy time lags may prevent learning altogether.” (19)

[2] If a plus (+) is a benefit and a negative (-) is a cost, the structure of incentives over time for social trap can be illustrated as:  ++++++++———-.  The benefits convince one to get involved even if the costs are illusive or occur in the distant future.  Debt works this way which is why a prudent borrower will focus borrowing on investments, not consumption.  Borrowing to buy a house or to get an education (investments) within your means is prudent; living day to day off a credit card (consumption) is not prudent.

[3] After the Great Depression and other experiences, federal and state laws and regulations forbid the sale of  sub-prime mortgages to borrowers if their financial capability to repay the loans was weak.

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Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 3

Vanhoozer_review_04042015Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (Go to: Part 1  or  Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What does it mean to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the postmodern context?

Ironically, the problem of finding meaning in a postmodern world points to God.  Framing a faithful response to the postmodern dilemma consumes more than half of Vanhoozer  book.  He  writes:

“Derrida’s announcement of the death of meaning alerts us to the indispensable tie between literary theory and theology. Deconstructionism, wholly inadvertently and with some irony, proves that God is the condition for the possibility of meaning and interpretation.” (198).

Following Plantinga, Vanhoozer believes:

“…we as Christians have both a right and a responsibility to begin our reflections about God, the world, and ourselves from Christian premises.  To this list, I now want to add meaning. My contention, briefly stated, is that because the undoing of interpretation rests on a theological mistake, we need theology to correct it. Second, I will argue that Christian theology, not deconstructionism, is the better response to the ethical challenge of the ‘other’.” (199)

His response therefore begins with the question:  “What happens if we begin with explicitly Christian assumptions about reality, knowledge, and ethics?” (200)  Vanhoozer organizes his proposal in terms of the author, the text, and the reader.

The Author

If God is the ultimate author of scripture, then paraphrasing Proverbs 1:7 Vanhoozer writes:  “the fear of the author is the beginning of literary knowledge” (201)[1].  Citing Ricoeur, Vanhoozer writes:

“To consider the text as an authorless entity is to commit what Ricoeur himself calls the ‘fallacy of the absolute text’…Strictly speaking…texts do not have intensions, nor do they act.  We do not ascribe agency to texts, nor do we praise or blame books; we rather direct our praise or blame to their authors.” (216)

In other words, Vanhoozer writes:  “the author is not only the cause of the text [that it is], but also the agent who determines what the text counts as [what it is].” (228)

Vanhoozer spends an enormous amount of energy reviewing the literature on speech acts.  He writes that: “to respect the moral rights of the author is essentially to receive his or her communication, not revise it.” (202)  Understanding speech acts is one way to receive this communication. The need to respect the author is no less for the ultimate author of scripture. Vanhoozer’s writes:

“My thesis is that the ‘fuller meaning’ of scripture—meaning associated with divine authorship—emerges only at the level of the whole canon…the canon is a complete and completed communication act, structured by a divine authorial intention.” (264-265)

We resurrect divine authorship by consulting the full counsel of scripture.

The Text

The idea that a text can have meaning and understanding that meaning are two different things (281)  Vanhoozer posits that:

“…the text can be a source of evidence and a means of knowledge not only about an author…,but also about what the author feels, knows, observes, and imagines.  Indeed, much of what we have in texts is testimony to something other than themselves or their authors.” (282)

To interpret is to make a claim and be willing to defend it (292).

Vanhoozer reviews a number of views of how to interpret and perspectives on dealing with disagreement. What is more interesting, however, is his view on the nature of the church. He writes:

“..the church represents that community of interpreters who share a primary concern for the Bible’s literal meaning.  It may also be because the church is that community in which the interpretative values—intellectual, ethical, and spiritual—are cultivated…literary knowledge is not simply a matter of having the right descriptions but also having the right dispositions.” (320)

Vanhoozer also explains the doctrine of “sola scriptura” as:

“a reminder that textual meaning is independent of our interpretative schemes and, hence, that our interpretations remain secondary commentaries that never acquire the status of the text itself” (321)

He sees “scripture interpreting scripture” as consistent with “sola scriptura” (331).  According to Vanhoozer, we redeem the text with:  “Correct interpretations describe the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that guided and shaped the text as a communicative act.”  This is what he means by a “thick interpretation”.  By contrast, a thin interpretation is necessarily abbreviated or reductionistic (332).  He rounds out his discussion of redeeming the text with comments about genre.

The Reader

Vanhoozer is interested in an ethical response of the reader.  He writes:

“Some of the radical-response critics have concluded, consistently enough, that the role of the reader is to play, and to create.  There is no need, they urge, to go beyond aesthetics to ethics.” (368)

Vanhoozer reforms the reader in 4 steps:

  1. Distinguishing using, criticizing, and following a text;
  2. Reading involves implied moral rules;
  3. Honoring the limits imposed on interpretation by the text itself;
  4. Rooting the interpretation in the theology and spirituality of the reader (368-369).

He likens the church as an interpreter of scripture to a musician who is an interpreter of a score (441).  He sees the sins of interpretation as pride and sloth (462).

Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is there a Meaning in This Text? is a good read.  If you are able to spend the time to study it thoroughly, it will form you.  And you will never look at the Bible in quite the same way.


[1]The biblical cite is: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Pro 1:7 ESV)


First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics. 2002.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic.

“Body-Piercing, the Natural Sense and the Task of Theological Interpretation: A Hermeneutical Homily on John 19:34”, Ex Auditu 16:1-29

“Imprisoned or free? text, status, and theological interpretation in the master/slave discourse of Philemon,” pp. 51-94 in Adam, Fowl, Vanhoozer, and Watson, Reading Scripture with the Church.

“Ezekiel 14. ‘I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet: divine deception, inception, and communicative action,” pp. 73-98 in Michael Allen, ed., Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives (T & T Clark)

“Ascending the Mountain, Singing the Rock: Biblical Interpretation Earthed, Typed, and Transfigured,” Modern Theology 28/4: 781-803

“Theological commentary and ‘the voice from heaven’: exegesis, ontology, and the travail of biblical interpretation,” pp. 269-98 in Eckhard Schnabel, ed., On the Writing of New Testament Commentaries: Festschrift for Grant R. Osborne on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday (Brill)

“‘Exegesis I know, and Theology I know, but who are you?’ Acts 19 and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” in Darren Sarisky, R. David Nelson, and Justin Stratis, eds., Theological Theology: Essays in Honor of John B. Webster.

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 3


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Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 2

Vanhoozer_review_04042015Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (Go to: Part 1 or Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Each of Vanhoozer’s three aspects of interpretation—author, text, and reader—have been subject to postmodern “undoing”, leaving interpretations to seem arbitrary and subject to manipulation. Vanhoozer writes:

“…the very meaning of ‘interpretation’ has shifted; instead of being a knowledge claim concerning some discovery one has made about the meaning of the text, interpretation has become a way of referring to what the reader makes of the text.  The new-fashioned interpreter recognizes no reality principle (the way it is), only the pleasure principle (the way I want it to be) (38).

Who then is responsible for the consequences of such interpretation for the church and society after the text has been deconstructed and discredited?  Vanhoozer discusses implications of deconstruction for the author, the text, and the reader.


In some sense, the author is to the text as God is to creation.  Vanhoozer writes:  “The author is the one who originates…Authorship implies ownership” (45-46) The author instills both authority and meaning to a text.  When in Genesis we read:

“Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Gen 2:19 ESV)

When God, the author of creation, delegates the task of naming the animals to Adam, Adam is functioning as an co-author and regent over creation.  This is why, for example, the word, authority, includes the word, author.

Vanhoozer writes:

“The author is the foundational principle in what we might call the traditional metaphysics of meaning.  According to this standard picture, the author is the sovereign subject of the sign, the one who rules over meaning, assigning names to things, using words to express thoughts and represent the world…Derrida’s deconstruction of the author is a more or less direct consequence of Nietzche’s announcement of the death of God (48).

Clearly, if the voice of the author is obscured either deliberately or by the text itself, then the attachment of the text to a particular social reality is severed and its authority impugned. Who said X, Y, Z?  We clearly care who said what [1].

Closely tied to the author’s ability to express intention or meaning is the idea that an independent reality exists that can capture and carry that meaning.  Vanhoozer writes:

“‘Realism’ is the metaphysical position which asserts that certain things are mind independent. Hermeneutical realism is the position that believes meaning to be prior to and independent of the process of interpretation. For the ‘naïve’ realist, there is a perfect match between language and the world…For the non-realist, on the other hand, human language and thoughts do not correspond to objective realities or to stable meanings.” (48)

Following the work of Jacques Derrida, “deconstruction is a painstaking taking-apart, a peeling away of the various layers—historical, rhetorical, ideological—of distinctions, concepts, texts, and whole philosophies, whose aim is to expose the arbitrary linguistic nature of their original construction.” (52)  Such analysis can yield new insights and interpretations or it can obscure the author and the intent of the author.  Vanhoozer observes:  “If there is no Author, then every interpretation is permitted.” (98)

The Text

In postmodern thinking, texts and books are distinguished.  Vanhoozer writes:

“Whereas the book resembled an unchanging substance, the text is more like a field of shifting forces. Whereas the book can be studied as though it were a discrete object at some distance from the interpreting substance, the text only comes to light as it is observed from some distance from different points of view.” (105)

The idea that the Bible as a book is unified by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit means that it is a discrete unit with meaning beyond the words found in particular chapters.  Thus, a book can have a stable meaning, if we believe in an objective reality and find unity in the authorship of the Holy Spirit. This idea, however, is taken as a theological assumption in postmodern thinking, which questions such assumptions.

Citing Gadamer and Ricoeur, Vanhoozer (106) notes that: “meaning is the result of a two-way encounter between text and reader.”   In this sense, the postmodern sees no stable meaning. Rather, Vanhoozer reports:  “the text is a network of signs and other texts, radically open and indeterminate.” (111)  Meaning requires a context (112).  Because deconstructive literary criticism places no priority on particular contexts, anarchy rules (138).  The idea of dismantling texts in playful interpretation gives no comfort when, having deconstructed the biblical text, nothing is offered to replace ita kind of theft of meaning and security.  Despair is substituted for purpose like a thief steals a purse yet there is no accountability (182-185).

The Reader

Vanhoozer observers:

“…if the author is not the origin of meaning and if there is no such thing as ‘the sense of the text’, then meaning must be the creation ex libris of the reader… Meaning in the age of the reader is located neither behind nor in the text, but rather in front of it … Every literary theory is ultimately a theory about reading. Moreover, to say whose reading counts is ultimately to invoke an ethics, perhaps even a theology, of interpretation.” (148)

Vanhoozer further writes:

“Every reader is situated in a particular culture, time, and tradition.  No reading is objective; all reading is theory-laden.” (151)

It is at this point that cultural presuppositions become important.  If I only read books that were discussed on Oprah’s website, it is more important to know how Oprah picks her books than to know about my own tastes and preferences [2].

Having convinced us that understanding biblical interpretation in the postmodern age requires a sophisticated knowledge of philosophy, where does that leave the anti-intellectual majority of postmodern people? Clearly, the potential for manipulation is far-reaching—especially outside the church where there no presumption of an omnipresent, benevolent God. Is it any wonder that our young people are enormously skeptical of all forms of authority and leaving the church?


Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Is There a Meaning in This Text, gives us a clearer picture of what all the shouting is about in biblical interpretation.  This second part of my review outlines Vanhoozer’s problem statement of our current dilemma. In part 3 of this review, I will examine Vanhoozer’s proposal for how to respond to this dilemma.


[1] Postmodern fights over the authorship of a biblical text frequently infer that the author’s words were “redacted” which implies that only subset of the text has authority over today’s reader. The fact that different critics find different ways to redact a particular text, the idea of placing oneself under the authority of scripture is practically impossible or, alternatively, one can claim that one believes in the authority of scripture but never have to actually change one’s behavior to comply with “authorative” texts.

[2] http://bit.ly/1O4lWC6

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 2

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Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1

Vanhoozer_review_04042015Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (Go to:  Part 2 or Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Biblical interpretation has become a contact sport. The Bible has been the center of the Christian faith since the fourth century and is still today the most widely read book on earth.  Most cultural disputes either originate in biblical interpretation or are mediated by it. How then are we to read and understand the Bible properly?  Even before seminary, my own quest to answer such questions brought me to Kevin Vanhoozer’ book, Is There Meaning to This Text?


Vanhoozer starts off with some very interesting observations:

…many of the contentious issues at the heart of the current debates about biblical interpretation, about interpretation in general, and about postmodern interpretation in particular, [are] really theological issues.  I began to see meaning as a theological phenomenon, involving a kind of transcendence, and the theory of interpretation as a theological task.  Instead of a book on biblical interpretation, therefore, I have written a theology of interpretation…the serious student of Scripture needs to develop an epistemology (theory of knowledge) and hermeneutic (theory of interpretation)…not only epistemology, but [also] metaphysics and ethics of meaning (9-10).

Say what? Perhaps it is easier to start with a question.  For example, in scientific study, where do the hypotheses and assumptions come from that are needed before applying logic? Or, in terms of faith, does one need to be a Christian to read the Bible properly?[1] Vanhoozer asks: “What does it mean to be ‘biblical’?”(9) These are not questions easily answered no matter how you stand on the issue of faith. Yet, we cannot proceed in any serious study of the Bible without implicitly or explicitly having an answer.  Clearly, Vanhoozer has taken on an interesting and intrinsically difficult task.

Vanhoozer is ultimately writing a study on hermeneutics—“reflection on the principles that undergird correct textual interpretation” (19).  As he parses this subject, he sees interpretation involving three philosophical issues:  “the nature of reality” [metaphysics], “the possibility of knowledge” [epistemology], and “the criteria for morality” [ethics].  Vanhoozer sees these three questions motivating a fourth:  “What does it mean to be human, an agent of meaning?” [anthropology] (9)[2].

Literary Criticism

Twentieth century philosophy has focused on the problems posed by language (17). The Bible is a book which implies that Biblical interpretation is a form of literary interpretation or “literary criticism”.  Citing Kierkegaard’s reading of James 1:22-27[3], when we read the Bible, do we see in it only ourselves, perceive it to be a love letter, or take it as a royal edict? (15-16)

Vanhoozer sees literary criticism evolving through three stages:  author, text, and reader (25).

  • In the first stage, that of the author, the focus is on the author’s intent in writing (25). Who was the author and what was his audience?  Knowing the author ties the text to a time, place, and social context.  As Christians, we see the hand of God working through particular authors to bring us into closer relationship with Him.
  • In the second stage, that of the text, the focus is on the text itself and how it is to be understood (26). Reformers, such as John Calvin, naturally looked to the Bible itself in understanding a particular passage.  The idea was that scripture can interpret scripture; an unclear passage may be more clearly discussed elsewhere in scripture. As Christians, we intuit the presence of God in a particular text knowing God’s expression in other texts.
  • In the third stage, that of the reader, the focus is on the reader’s context—an inherently ethical question (27). When we consider the question—what does this passage mean to me?—we expect to get different answers because our contexts differ.  Yet, as Christians, we also expect continuity in our reading of scripture with other readings through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

In this latter respect, Vanhoozer writes: “My thesis is that ethical interpretation is a spiritual exercise and that the spirit of understanding is not a spirit of power, nor of play, but the Holy Spirit” (29).  As you might imagine, there is a lot to unpack in this one sentence!

Who is Kevin Vanhoozer?

Vanhoozer is a professor of systemic theology at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois right outside of Chicago[4]. He writes Is There a Meaning in This Text in four parts:

Introduction (Theology and Literary Theory)

  1. Faith Seeking Textual Understanding

Part One (Undoing Interpretation: Authority, Allegory, and Anarchy)

  1. Undoing the Author: Authority and Intentionally
  2. Undoing the Text: Textuality and Indeterminacy
  3. Undoing the Reader: Contextuality and Ideology

Part Two (Redoing Interpretation:  Agency, Action, Affect)

  1. Resurrecting the Author: Meaning As Communicative Action
  2. Redeeming the Text: The Rationality of Literary Acts
  3. Reforming the Reader: Interpretative Virtue, Spirituality, and Communicative Efficacy

Conclusion:  A Hermeneutics of the Cross

  1. A Hermeneutics of Humility and Conviction

In his part one, Vanhoozer seeks to interpret the postmodern hermeneutics as Christian theologian. In his part two he offers an alternative hermeneutical approach (25). These chapters are followed by a bibliography, a name index, and a subject index.


Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text is a book that seeks to explain what “all the shouting is about” in Biblical interpretation [5]. That makes this book must-read for seminary students and working pastors. Be prepared to be challenged both in your knowledge of philosophy and hermeneutics.  In parts 2 and 3 of this review, I will look in more depth at Vanhoozer’s review of postmodern hermeneutics and his proposed hermeneutic.


[1] The 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm thought so.  Anselm famously spoke of the priority of faith in seeking understanding. If faith must precede understanding, how can it be “objective”?   (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anselm).

[2] My book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality (T2Pneuma.com), also considers these four questions—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and anthropology—in trying to understand Christian spirituality.

[3] “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.  But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.  If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  (James 1:22-27 ESV)

[4] http://bit.ly/1GiDzNF

[5] I knew that Dr. Butterfield was a serious scholar when I noticed Vanhoozer on her list of readings (87-89; review: Butterfield Journeys from PC to JC; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-wj).


Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. 2012.  The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert:  An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.  Pittsburgh:  Crown & Covenant Publications.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2014.  A Christian Guide to Spirituality.  Centreville, VA:  T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1

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