Contending For The Faith: Lines in the Sand that Strengthen the Church
Contending for the Faith: Lines in the Sand that Strengthen the Church offers a well-argued response to many of the contemporary issues facing the church in an increasingly pluralistic and postmodern environment. The book is comprised of twenty-five articles, chosen from over two hundred, which were written independently over the span of Reymond's teaching career. Some have been previously published, but others are being printed for the first time. Mentor, an imprint of Christian Focus Publication, has compiled Reymond's essays in order to supply readers with a Biblical and Reformed apologetic response to topics such as Creation, Election, Hell, the Person of Christ, and Islam, just to name a few. These essays display Reymond's commitment to engage theologians and pastors who hold a variety of systematic perspectives, including those who hold his own. There is a greater sense of authenticity to Reymond's arguments when one recognizes that advocates of a traditionally Reformed approach to the Scriptures are no less immune to his critiques than those who teach liberal or neo-orthodox interpretations.
The variety of topics explored in this book is both a strength and a weakness of this compilation. While the diverse scope offers something for everyone, I found myself longing for a stronger sense of cohesion among the articles and wondering why some of these particular articles were chosen. As an editorial alternative, perhaps Reymond, rather than simply choosing all twenty-five of the essays from his existing writings should have limited the scope of this book a bit by choosing those essays he deemed most essential and then supplementing them with new material. This would have allowed for a breadth in scope, while providing a greater depth in his critiques. An additional weakness resulting from the lack of cohension of this book is that the intended audience seems to vary from article to article. The preface mentions that articles were either published in academic journals or developed for Reymond's seminary lectures, yet certain articles appear to be aimed at laymen while others will be of much more use to seminarians and pastors. Readers may find themselves satisfied at some points but at other points feeling as though the discussion is incomplete. Contending for the Faith, nevertheless, offers a compelling defense of the Reformed interpretation of the issues addressed.
The space granted to this review will not permit me to discuss every chapter, but I would like to highlight a few of the most notable chapters. In Chapter 1, Reymond sets the tone for the entire volume. He challenges theologians and pastors to work diligently and passionately in applying their theology to contemporary debates, lest the church betray its call to shepherd those under its care or abdicate its duty to proclaim God's truth to those presently outside of God's fold. Reymond embarks on the journey of effectively applying his theology, not only by appealing to the system of traditional Reformed orthodoxy, but also and most importantly by attempting to demonstrate the trustworthiness of his claims from Biblical exegesis. He deals honestly with both the strengths and the weaknesses of those whom he critiques, avoiding the temptation to create theological strawmen out of his opponents. Another element which adds to the success of Reymond's arguments is the pastoral tone which is evident in his writings. His tone conveys a sense of graciousness, which is an essential aspect of a truly effective apologist. The only possible exception to Reymond's cordial manner is his reply to Dr. Robert H. Schuller's response. Overall, however, Reymond's pleasant sincerity allows the reader to examine the facts of his argument without having to wade through unnecessary sarcasm or overly dramatized condemnations.
God's creation is the subject of Chapters 2-4, the inclusion of which is not surprising given the increasingly volatile nature of the debates surrounding creationism. Reymond offers sound Biblical advice for those who find themselves drifting to and fro in the turbulent waters of the creation debates. He avoids the pitfall of entering into discussions on creation without allowing for the "mystery" of the Biblical creation narrative. Reymond recognizes that the purpose of the Genesis creation account is to inspire worship rather than simply provide a chronological and scientific description of the universe. Both seminary students and laymen will find these three chapters extremely insightful.
In Chapter 7, Reymond demonstrates superb skill in revealing the soteriological heart of the exodus redemption, after which, in Chapter 8, he proceeds to tackle the doctrine of unconditional election as it relates to God's gracious dealings with the people of Israel. Reymond successfully preserves the orthodox position, which states that God must have sovereign governance over all His creatures if He is to bestow salvation which is truly unmerited (108). In this analysis, Reymond acknowledges the connection between election and assurance, but should have supplied more detail to prove why and how election is so essential to discovering a firm ground for personal assurance. I agree with Reymond that the Biblical doctrine of election is foundational to discovering the final ground and certainty of one's faith (103) and was eager to see how Reymond would explain the application of election as a means of building confidence in God's gracious promises, particularly since many people in Reformed churches seem confused regarding how election relates to their faith and assurance. However, rather than guiding the reader to see the complimentary nature of these two doctrines, Reymond expects that the reader to make the connections implicit in his argument. Reymond states that "Christians too may be assured that, God having set his love upon them from all eternity by his sovereign purposing arrangement, nothing will be able to separate them from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (110) without providing the premises which led to this conclusion. Thus, the connections between election and assurance should have been more fully developed.
One of the more controversial points in this book is Reymond's understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. In Chapter 10, he defends himself against critics who claim that in his book, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, he advocates an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. Reymond clarifies his position in a helpful way and maintains that subordination refers to the covenantal dynamic between the three Persons of the Godhead. He does believe that the covenantal (economic) outworking of the Trinity should reveal something about the essential nature of the Trinity, but wisely counsels his readers not to venture into philosophical speculations and to be content with an element of mystery.
Chapters 16-18 were among the most profitable chapters in the book. Reymond's treatment of Brunner, Barth, and Bultmann furnishes the reader with the information necessary to formulate an educated response to the theology of these three extremely influential theologians. He calls attention to the key historical and philosophical factors which shaped much of the theology of the 20th century, but also points out where the theological rubber hits the road. For example, Reymond explains, "Brunner's problems all stem from his refusal to admit the existence of objective truth in the inscriptured revelation of God and his correlative definition of truth in terms of subjectivity or inwardness" (235). It becomes evident that the subjectivity of Brunner's method is his Achilles' heel because it negates God's effort to break into the world and provide an opportunity for an encounter with God. Reymond rightly concludes, "God cannot reveal himself unless man apprehends the revelation, and the decision to apprehend the revelation remains ultimately man's decision" (233). Regarding Barth, Reymond demonstrates how Barth supplants the Reformers' decretum absolutum by arguing that it is only Christ's incarnation which truly reveals "the will of God." Barth, in contrast to Calvin, opposed the notion that a secret will of God existed apart from what could be deduced from the incarnation. Consequently, Barth not only denounces the traditionally Reformed view of election, but, as Reymond states, reduces the suffering which Christ endured on the cross to "little more than revelatory of the depth of the humiliation resulting from God turning into his opposite, namely, the creature" (275). In his analysis of Bultmann's theology, Reymond exposes the futility of Bultmann's concept of kerygma. Bultmann defines kerygma as "the act of God," a key concept in his efforts to demythologize the Bible and afford a pathway to discover kerygma and an existential experience with God (284-285). Kerygma, according to Bultmann, is buried in myth; however, without a clear explanation of what is myth and what is kerygma, individuals are dependent on Bultmann's interpretation to determine the authentic kerygma. As a result of Bultmann's reliance upon his own subjective speculations, the true proclamation of God in Christ is buried even deeper. Reymond's summary of Brunner, Barth, and Bultmann provide readers with examples of what happens to theology when it becomes driven by an agenda rather than Biblical truth. He reminds us that Christians must remain unashamedly committed to receiving our theology from God's Word and avoid recreating God in our own image.
In Chapter 23, Reymond examines the growing group of individuals who, although they consider themselves evangelicals, teach a form of universal salvation. Reymond effectively exposes the fundamental anthropocentricity of those who advance this idea of evangelical inclusivism. Unfortunately, the underlying assumption of evangelical inclusivists is that God exists for us, or when stated more bluntly, human beings are God's idols. He would save all men even if it meant that He must deny attributes of His own nature. One of the presuppositions driving evangelical inclusivism is the notion that God's love is principally defined in terms of God's relationship with His creation. Evangelical inclusivists overlook, however, that John's declaration that "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16) was true of God before He created. In other words, the origin as well as the expression of love must then be theocentric. Understood rightly, then, God's love and efforts to save sinners must be considered in conjunction with the preservation and propagation of God's glory. Reymond reminds us that in order for God to grant salvation without faith, as evangelical inclusivists propose, God would be forced to deny His holy nature, which would destroy the very foundation of salvation. Christians must cultivate a passion to see the lost saved--as a consequence of our passion to see God glorified, not at the expense of it.
Again and again, the Bible testifies to Jesus' desire to befriend "sinners" for the sake of the spread of God's kingdom. The "sinners" of Jesus' day were the tax collectors and prostitutes. Blinded by pride, the Pharisees condemned these groups of people, while ignoring their own need for cleansing. In the final chapter of his book, Reymond exhorts evangelicals not to fall into the post-9/11 trap of Pharisaically identifying Muslims as the new "sinners" who are excluded from the possibility of benefiting from Christ's redemption. Evangelicals in America have been guilty of using the tragedies of 9/11 as an excuse to perpetuate a holier-than-thou attitude. We must remember that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23), and that includes all categories of people, including ourselves. Reymond reiterates that Christians have a responsibility to lovingly, honestly, and winsomely engage Muslims, and avoid allowing a sense of Nationalism to misguide our efforts to extend the kingdom of God.
In a world that is increasingly reluctant to take a stand for the Biblical teaching, I heartily recommend Dr. Robert L. Reymond's book, Contending for the Faith: Lines in the Sand that Strengthen the Church. This book provides sound advice for Christians on a variety of contemporary issues, and will serve readers well as both a reference tool and as a discussion starter. Written with the same precision and academic quality as readers have come to expect from Reymond, Contending for the Faith demonstrates the relevance of theology in a way that makes it intriguing and accessible to all readers.
Robert L. Reymond / Scotland: Mentor, 2005
Review by Hunter M. Bailey