Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part Two

Mitchell_review_20190919Ben Mitchell.[1] 2013. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton: Crossway.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A key insight in my personal study of ethics is simple. Because everyone interprets an event through their own lens, ethics focuses on interpretation. Whose interpretation has the most merit and why?

Introduction

In his book, Ethics and Moral Reasoning, Ben Mitchell writes:

“Although every person may pursue the human telos, Christians enjoy the aid of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who motivates them both to will and to do God’s God pleasure as they follow the path of the Lord Jesus.” (97)

If Jesus is my measure of everything in life—Jesus is my denominator—then with the help of the Holy Spirit I am better able to navigate our shark-infested world than by adopting any ethical school of thought, no matter how sophisticated.

In part one of this review, I give a general outline of Mitchell’s work. In part two, I will summarize his views on biblical, enlightenment, and Evangelical ethical thinking.

Biblical Ethics

Biblical ethics is important enough to Mitchell that he about a third of his book to it written in two chapters. In his chapter on the Old Testament, Mitchell starts by surveying a number of hot-button issues, including:

  • Marriage and family
  • Labor and vocation
  • Sanctity and dignity of human life
  • Infanticide and abortion
  • Gladiatorial brutality
  • Gender equality
  • Racial equality (32-38).

Many of these issues were axiomatic until the demise of Christendom within the last generation. In the absence of consensus on basic issues, church teaching on these issues cannot be assumed. Pastors find themselves triaging fundamental church doctrines against an increasingly more limited attention span of their congregations and frequently open hostility to many traditional interpretations of scripture.

After surveying these issues, Mitchell moves to examining each of Ten Commandments (38-52). Mitchell offers these general insights into the Commandments:

  • The law expresses general principles, not case law.
  • The law is given by God himself.
  • Any offense against the law is an offense against the law giver.
  • Biblical law is the foundation for Western jurisprudence (38-39).

This last point is important. Questions about biblical law’s applicability have the potential to cascade through the rest of Western jurisprudence.

In his discussion of the New Testament, Michell focuses on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and initiates a discussion of natural law. He writes:

“To claim that there is a natural law is to claim that there is a normative moral order governed by that law, not by mere convention or mutual agree.” (61)

This is no small point. In putting forward new teaching on homosexuality in the church, denominations offering this teaching are disputing the doctrine of natural law (and the divine inspiration of scripture) that binds us irrespective of public opinion or the ruling of church leaders.

Enlightenment Ethics

Concerning the Enlightenment, Mitchell writes:

“Can we be good without God and his revelations? Many thinkers of the Enlightenment thought so. The religious wars in Europe from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries did not leave people flush with confidence that agreement on faith, ethics, and politics was possible. The Enlightenment or age of reason was in many ways a response to this dilemma.” (65)

The idea that truth could be discovered independent of theological assumptions, while novel, proved impossible to validate philosophically. Secularism has proven to be a Christian heresy, quite unworkable when separated from its Christian foundations because other foundations cannot be found or are typically arbitrarily inserted. If this is unclear, ask yourself what justification exists for human rights, absent being created in the image of God and being loved by God.

Evangelical Ethics

For Mitchell, evangelical ethics stems from God and scripture. He writes:

“The Bible is the norming norm or revealed basis for evangelical reflections about the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is against the canon (rule) of Scripture that evangelical seek to compare and contrast all moral teaching.” (77)

Citing Kyle Fedler, Mitchell outlines these guidelines for interpreting scripture:

  • No single method for the use of scripture is adequate.
  • Whenever possible, the Bible should be read in its historical and cultural context.
  • Not all scripture carries the same normative weight.
  • Although Scripture is primary, normative, and authoritative, it is not our only source of guidance and wisdom. (93-95)

The evangelical rule, in so many words, is: the Bible says it, that settles it. However, scholars like Fedler suggest that in practice this rule is hard to apply rigorously.

Assessment

Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide is a gem. It provides a short, concise statement of a Christian ethical perspective.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.uu.edu/programs/stm/faculty/ben-mitchell.html

Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part Two

Also See:

Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part One

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1 

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part One

Mitchell_review_20190919Ben Mitchell.[1] 2013. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton: Crossway.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My interest in ethics dates back to when as a young man I faced the Vietnam war and the draft without a clear understanding of what I was dealing with. What does God require of us here and now, in this situation, and why? Questions of life and death tend to grab you by the throat and refuse to let you go.

Introduction

In the preface to his book, Ethics and Moral Reasoning, Ben Mitchell writes:  

“Few people need to be convinced of the importance of ethics. We live in a tragically flawed world where we are confronted daily with moral failures…This book is a guide to thinking about the good.” (15-17)

He goes on to write:

“Jesus described a trinity of moral relationships—to God, to others, and to self. These three relationships were to be ordered by the virtue of love. Importantly, when one of these relationships becomes disordered, the others are affected.” (19)

Nouwen (1975, 20) refers to these three relationships as movements of the spirit, suggesting that what we believe and what we do are closely related. Much of what we do arises, especially in a professional sense, arises out of our identities.

As Christians, our identity naturally flows from our understanding of who Jesus is. Mitchell’s commitment to a Christian ethical understanding is summarized as:

“Although every person may pursue the human telos, Christians enjoy the aid of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who motivates them both to will and to do God’s God pleasure as they follow the path of the Lord Jesus.” (97)

In his final paragraph he asks: “What does it mean to be truly human?” (98) The answer to this question often given by Christians is that we more closely reflect the image in which we were created (Gen 1:27).

Background and Organization

Ben Mitchell has a doctorate from University of Tennessee, a masters of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a grade of Mississippi State University. He is currently on the faculty at Union University in Tennessee. His focus is bioethics and he is widely published.

Mitchell writes in six chapters:

  1. “The Challenges of a Relativist World
  2. The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 1
  3. The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 2
  4. Enlightenment Ethics
  5. Evangelical Ethics
  6. Using the Bible in Moral Decision Making” (9)

These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and acknowledgments and followed by conclusions, an appendix, questions for reflection, a timeline, glossary, resources for further study, and two indices. In his scriptural index, the vast majority of citations are from Genesis (creation), Exodus (Ten Commandments), and Matthew (Sermon on the Mount).

Confronting Relativism

Concerning the pervasive influence of relativism, Mitchell observes:

“relativism is morally crippling because relegates ethical discussions to the personal, private, and subjective, and to the realm of mere preference.” (34)

He terms this view normative ethical relativism because it suggests not only what is, but what should be. Citing Louis Pojman, it stands on two premises: the diversity thesis, that “right and wrong differ from person to person and from culture to culture”. And the dependency thesis, that “morality depends on human nature, the human condition, or specific sociocultural circumstances, or a combination of all three.” (24-25) The diversity thesis is not normative, but simply observes that ethical practices differ between cultures. Mitchell devotes more attention to the dependency thesis.

Mitchell outlines five weaknesses of the dependency thesis that we care about:

  1. Majority opinion can be wrong. For most of human history, the majority of people supported the institution of slavery.
  2. Moral error is not possible, if the dependency thesis is true. Child sexual abuses is always wrong, irrespective of cultural context.
  3. Moral reform makes no sense if relativism is true. Abraham Lincoln had no basis for criticizing slavery or Nelson Mandela for criticizing racial segregation, if relativism is true.
  4. What is does not imply that it should be. Just because some Islamic and African nations practice female genital mutilation does not imply that is should be.
  5. Relativism confuses moral practices and their underlying values. Signs of disrespect differ by culture, yet every culture honors respect. (27-29)

Citing James Q. Wilson, Mitchell observes that “every culture shares the values of sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty” (30) suggesting that we share common moral values even if they are expressed differently among cultures.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I give a general outline of Mitchell’s work. In part two, I will summarize his views on biblical, enlightenment, and Evangelical ethical thinking.

Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide is a gem. It provides a short, concise statement of a Christian ethical perspective.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.uu.edu/programs/stm/faculty/ben-mitchell.html.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part On

Also See:

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1 

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

James W. Thompson. 2011. Moral Formation according to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of Holy God poses a special problem for Christians because of original sin. Sin not only mucks up the workings our lives like molasses poured into a car’s gas tank, it stinks up the place polluting our emotions and minds much like molasses as it burns. We love the wrong things like an addict lusting after drugs and think like criminals avoiding the sunlight that might expose their crimes. In the midst of our fallen state, Christ redeems us and the church aids in our formation as Christians. But how?

Introduction

In his book, Moral Formation according to Paul, James Thompson begins with this goal:

“Although I hope that this book has contemporary relevance, my primary task is not to ask the hermeneutical questions about the many moral questions that now confront us, but to grasp the specific shape and inner logic of Paul’s moral instructions.”(ix)

Thompson observes that Paul never uses the word, ethics, and only once uses the common Greek term, virtue. (2-3, 59, 107) Instead, Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin (Rom 3:10; 155, 208) and focusing on sexual immorality in his vice lists. (17) Unlike the Greeks, he did not advocate that sin could be overcome through human effort. (148) Like other Diaspora Jews (those outside of Israel), Paul turned to the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26) for guidance (133).

Paul Focuses on Formation

Paul’s teaching stands out from most ancient writers. Thomson writes:

“Paul’s major challenge as a missionary and planter of churches was to ensure the moral transformation of his communities. His task was not only to make converts, but to re-socialize them and provide a common ethos and shared practices.”(207)

Rather than emphasize the static view of Rudolf Bultmann (before and after faith), Thompson sees Paul teaches that we stand between conversion and the return of Christ (the end), an emphasis on the journey of faith (1, 61). Thompson writes: “Paul does not speak of ethics as such, but of how to walk, the primary term for ethical conduct.” (61) This suggests that telos, not identity or duty, drives Pauline ethics.

Summary of Paul’s Teaching

Thompson views 1 Thessalonians as a window into the content of Paul’s teaching, which he refers to as catechesis (preparation for baptism). He makes three points:

  1. “This catechesis involved first the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Thes 4:14) …
  2. Second, Paul consistently places the story of Jesus and the readers’ own experience within the narrative of Israel, providing a symbolic world and an identity (e.g. 1 Thes 4:5) …
  3. Third, Paul appeals not only to the story of Jesus to shape the moral conduct of his communities, but also to the Torah. (207-208)

Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin. (Rom 3:10; 208)

Holiness as a Pauline Distinctive

While the Jewish community set itself apart from gentile communities through its dietary laws and Sabbath practices, Pauline communities distinguished themselves through holiness. Thompson writes:

“Having provided the community with an identity as God’s elect and holy people, Paul extends the sphere of holiness from the cult to matters of sexuality, distinguishing the holy people from the gentiles.”(76)

Paul’s use fo the term, saints, and referring to the church as the called out ones (ekkesia) furthermore distinguishes Christians a the holy ones and identifies them with ancient Israel (54-55). 

Background and Organization

James W. Thompson received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University, teaches at at the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and is the author of numerous books. He writes in eight chapters:

  1. “Ethics in Hellenistic Judaism: Maintaining Jewish Identity in the Diaspora.
  2. Shaping an Identity: Moral Instruction and Community Formation.
  3. From Catechesis to Correspondence: Ethos and Ethics in 1 Thessalonians.
  4. Pauline Catechesis and the Lists of Vices and Virtues.
  5. Paul, the Law, and Moral Instruction.
  6. Paul, the Passions, and the Law.
  7. Putting Love into Practice.
  8. Ethics and the Disputed Letters of Paul. (vii)

These chapters are proceeded by a preface, abbreviations, and an introduction. They are followed by a conclusion, works cited, and several indices.

Assessment

James Thompson’s Moral Formation according to Paul is a scholarly assessment of Paul’s ethics. It is well-written and documented resource for pastors, seminary students, and scholars of Paul’s work.

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my career as an economist I frequently borrowed analysis and conclusions from other fields, such psychology, sociology, and history. The more widely I read, the more obvious it became that different fields approach similar questions differently, use different terminology for the same issues, and not necessarily aware of findings outside their specialty. Problem is especially prevalent among practitioners not familiar to scholarly research techniques.

Introduction

In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. Here In part two of my review, I will organize my comments about his more important arguments in parts one and two. In Part three of this review, I will finish RSL’s parts two and three.

The Good Life

RSL begins his discussion of the good life by talking about welfare and what improves. He defines “instrumental goods”that are“valuable because of the good things they bring about.” Those things are“intrinsically valuable” or“valuable in their own right.” Instrumental goods help us acquire things that are intrinsically valuable. (23)

RSL goes on to define hedonism, which is a philosophy focused almost exclusively on what makes us happy—the only thing that is intrinsically good. Hedonists distinguish physical pleasure from attitudinal pleasure. Hedonism in the West began with the Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341-270 BC; 24-25).

RSL offers a wide range of criticism of hedonism in the form of arguments why pursuing happiness is not logical.  An example is the “Paradox of Hedonism Argument:

  1. If happiness is the only that directly makes us better off, then it is rational to single-mindedly pursue it.
  2. It isn’t ration to do that.
  3. Therefore, happiness isn’t the only thing that directly make us better off.”(33)

RSL sees both premises (1, 2) are true, therefore the conclusion (3) must be true. He gives the example of a professional golfer who wants to improve her swing, but focusing on it makes it harder to do so. (33)

Other arguments against hedonism include the problem of people who enjoy doing evil things to other people and of people are equally happy but one person’s happiness is based on false beliefs (I will win the lottery tomorrow) while another is based on true beliefs (I just got my paycheck; 36-37). In like manner, RSL handicaps self-interest as a goal and other desires.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing

 Part two of the books is by far the longest involving 13 chapters and roughly 260 pages. Several arguments are worth highlighting.

Morality and Morality

In chapter 5, RSL highlights divine command theory citing a dialogue between Plato and a fellow by the name of Euthyphro who says that “piety is whatever the gods love.” To this, Plato asks:“Do the gods love actions because they are pious, or are actions pious because the gods love them?” (67) If the former, then the pious reasons are sufficient; if the latter, then the gods are acting arbitrarily.

As Christians, we believe that God is a god of truth, not arbitrary fiat, so we mostly argue the reasons rather than divine command. Still, we normally believe that the Bible summarizes truth making the search for reasons a secondary concern.

Natural Law

In chapter 6, RSL introduces natural law theory which:

“tells us that actions are right just because they are natural, and wrong just because they are unnatural. And people are good or bad to the extent that they fulfill their true nature—the more they fulfill their true nature, the better they are.”(77)

This argument is frequently cited to oppose suicide, contraception, and homosexual activity as immoral. (86) RSL finds this argument unconvincing in the case of abortion (a fetus is a human being, killing humans is immoral, therefore abortion is immoral) and homosexuality (marriage is for procreation, procreation requires a man and woman, therefore other sex is immoral) because the morality argument is primarily based on an arbitrary definition (86-89).

Consequentialism

In Chapter 9, RSL describes consequentialism as “an action is morally required just because it produces the best overall results.” (122) Utilitarianism, which stands behind many economic theories, is a form of consequentialism. (123) This theory is attributed to John Wesley and Methodist social activism owe much to this theory. (120) Potential problems with consequentialism arise because of measurement problem and because maximizing benefits sometimes leads to cases of injustice—RSL cites the cases of vicarious and exemplary punishment. (151)

Social Contract Theory

In chapter 13, RSL outlines social contract theory that argues that moral rules are objective and based on the benefits of cooperation, given free choice and rational behavior. The alternative is a state of nature where everyone is at war with everyone else (199). Given the horrors of war, cooperation enforced by an impartial, professional police force is worth the limits placed on individual freedom.

What rules would evolve from such a social contract? RSL writes:

“prohibitions of killing, rape, battery, theft, and fraud, and rules require keeping one’s word, returning what one owes, and being respectful of others.”(201)

The laws would reflect the rules that a free and equal people would accept. (205) Protests against particular unfair laws would be accepted provided that protestors could demonstrate that they tried to change the law and worked primarily within in the system (206).

Problems with social contract theory arise when some people refuse to pay their fair share (free rider problem; 209) or when fundamental values are in conflict, such as in decisions of war and peace and the care to be given to the poor (215). The scope of the moral community—who has rights?—is also a hot button issue. (216) The current discussion over allowing felony criminals the right to vote is such a hot button issue.

 Assessment

In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.

Footnotes

[1]http://philosophy.wisc.edu/people.

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

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Living Expectantly

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Moral confusion pervades postmodern culture. This confusion directly threatens our persons and our way of life. While the Christian starts every conversation about morality with God, we can just as easily begin by observing that morality reflects not only a divine edict but the revealed experience of human beings struggling to make sense of life and survive in a sinful world. 

Normalization of Drugs

While our minds normally gravitate towards immoral sexual activity when moral confusion is discussed, the normalization of drug use probably makes the point even more clearly. According to a recent survey by the federal government:

“In 2014, 27.0 million people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days, which corresponds to about 1 in 10 Americans (10.2 percent). This percentage in 2014 was higher than those in every year from 2002 through 2013.” (CBHSQ 2015, 1)⁠1

What is the response of the body politic to this serious social crisis? Because most drug use involves marijuana, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington DC have as of this date legalized recreational use of marijuana.⁠2 This response suggests that, in spite of the negative medical impacts of marijuana use and almost universal opposition from police departments around the country, a majority of voters in these states approve of these legal changes.

Negative Impacts of Drugs

While we might have a “open minded” discussion about the morality of consuming illegal drugs, the criminal activity associated with providing these substances is devastating communities throughout Central American and has led to historically high levels of illegal immigration into the United States in recent decades. The inability of young people and rural people to pass random drug tests has made it difficult for American companies to recruit employees, especially among defense contractors. The flip side of this recruiting problem is that many Americans have systematically precluded themselves from a high-paying job in their chosen field or in their local community because of drug use.

Why the moral concern about drug use? Employers want nothing to do with drug users because drug use impairs mental concentration and is often associated with criminal activity, depression, and suicide. Record drug use is not incidentally associated with a thirty-year high in suicides (Tavernise 2016). Reinforcing this observation, alcohol intoxication is reported in about half of all suicides (Mason 2014, 34).

Christian Ethics

Christian ethics starts with God in whose image we are created (Gen 1:27). In the Old Testament God interacts with his people primarily through the giving of covenants. After a second giving of the Ten Commandments, we find God revealing his character to Moses:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6)

This description of God’s character provides a context for interpreting the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, but for us as image bearers it also gives us a template for ethical behavior. Jesus endorses this image ethic in the Lord’s Prayer when he prays: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10)  The Apostle Paul says it even more directly: “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1)

Later in Matthew when Jesus tells us to love God and neighbor (Matt 22:36-40), we embody this love first by imitating God’s ethical character and then by sharing this character with our neighbor. Remember that mercy, grace, patience, love, and faithfulness all require an object. The obvious object here is our neighbor because how exactly are we to show mercy or grace to God?

Role of Risk in Ethics and Judgment

Circling back to the moral confusion in postmodern culture, Christians are often accused of being judgmental and many are. But judgment and discernment differ substantially. As Christians we discern that most immoral behavior is also risky, suggesting a direct link with how we were created. 

Risk is an expected loss. In a sense, most moral behavior works like the premium on an insurance policy that protects us from a knowable and avoidable loss. Most people hate paying insurance premiums until they experience the loss for themselves. 

If we discern that a behavior places someone at risk of a future loss, we should inform them humbly of our insight, be it from scripture or life experience, and pray that they will not incur the loss or, should it be incurred, that they will turn to God in their loss. Such prayer leaves room for God’s sovereign grace and, if we are humble about it, we may also gain the confidence of that person in dealing with future issues.

Christian Distinctive

What sets Christians apart from others, especially secular people, is that we live, not expecting death, but expecting Christ’s return. Life is not a risk; it is an opportunity to prepare for our ultimate homecoming. We live life taking chances for the kingdom and leaving room for joy, because we know the end of the story is in Christ.

References

Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ). 2015. Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Health and Human Services (HHS) Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50). Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data. (Cited: 18 October 2018).

Mason, Karen. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Footnotes

1 This citation continues: “The illicit drug use estimate for 2014 continues to be driven primarily by marijuana use and the nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers, with 22.2 million current marijuana users aged 12 or older (i.e., users in the past 30 days) and 4.3 million people aged 12 or older who reported current nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers.” (CBHSQ 2015, 1)

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decriminalization_of_non-medical_cannabis_in_the_United_States.

Living Expectantly

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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