Housewife Theologian and Extravagant Grace
February 27, 2014
Aimee Byrd. Housewife Theologian: How the Gospel Interrupts the Ordinary (P&R, 2013), $12.99.
Barbara Duguid. Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness (P&R, 2013), $12.99.
As a pastor I am always keen to commend good books written by women. Two recent books have been brought to my attention, both by P&R Publishing: Housewife Theologian by Aimee Byrd and Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid.
"This book is for women," so begins Aimee Byrd. Thus, as a man, I may not be the best person to review this book, but I am a pastor, and therefore welcome good, theologically accurate books for women. In Housewife Theologian, Aimee Byrd attempts to bring these two words together to provide a guide for how women, particularly housewives, can understand the world in a theological way since all Christians are necessarily theologians (p. 12).
This book discusses how women are to think theologically about womanhood (ch. 1), beauty (ch. 2), knowledge (ch. 3), sexuality (ch. 4), doctrine (ch. 5), hospitality (ch. 6), service (ch. 7), sin (ch. 8), and idolatry (ch. 9). Moreover, the relationship between church and culture (see chs. 9-12) also receives consideration by the author. These topics are discussed in twelve chapters - the perfect number for a group of women to meet together once a month for a year, or however they see fit. The book can be used with a journal, and each chapter has questions at the end for further discussion, though the author (intentionally, I think) does not provide answers in her book to all of the study questions that she raises. Not surprisingly, there are many questions that I was totally unable to relate to as a man (for example, see first question at the top of p. 92).
As far as theological issues go, there are no areas where I find myself in strong disagreement with the author. In fact, there are places where I learned a lot, and I'm thankful for a woman's perspective on the topics raised in this book. I'm grateful that she sees theology as practical (p. 157), a point that needs repeating often. The author displays a great deal of learning, not only by addressing topics such as the beatific vision (pp. 47-49) in relation to beauty (ch. 2), but also by quoting from authors such as Augustine, Jeremiah Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, and Colin Gunton. (Maybe the discussion of divine poēsis is a little too obtuse, see pp. 98, 109, 161). A bibliography at the end would have helped show how wide-ranging the author's research is!
Certain chapters will appeal to readers more than others: it all depends on whether you are a man or woman, and your own context, personality, etc. I deeply appreciated her discussion, "Your Real Self-Image" (pp. 73-74), where she notes that many housewives are sometimes tempted to acknowledge they are homemakers, but they "also do such and such" (p. 73). Moreover, she adds, "In our feminist culture, it is not savvy to define ourselves through our marital relationship with a man" (pp. 73-74). Her chapter on hospitality (ch. 6) was very helpful, too, and in it the author humorously claims to make a "killer chocolate chip cookie" (p. 124). On a more serious note, she also addresses hospitality in terms of its biblical-theological context, and all that this demands, including the need to refuse such to false teachers (p. 127). Incidentally, my wife doesn't wear perfume, or make-up, or lip-gloss, so she was unable to identify with Byrd's modus operandi toward the end of page 127. However, I'm sure her husband Matt is happy with her beautifying habits.
The final three chapters bring home the importance of connecting what it means to be a "housewife theologian" in the context of the church and the world. A failure to clearly drive home the ecclesiological implications for being a godly housewife would be no small error. But Byrd does not make this mistake, and readers will find her last three chapters theologically enriching as she draws on several Reformed thinkers - well, not Mr. Stellman anymore (see p. 190), regrettably - to highlight that our identity, whether as a woman or a man, is in Christ in the context of the church. Some readers might not agree with her understanding of the two kingdoms, though I do not think she overstated matters.
The final chapter (12) points out that the Christian life is not easy, but a costly one that housewives particularly will understand. This especially is the case as they try to live and think theologically in a world where such remains a rare phenomenon indeed. For that reason, I am happy to commend this book to both pastors and women as a faithful guide on Christian living.
Based on the Amazon "reviews" and from P&R themselves, Duguid's book is selling very well, and its reception has been overwhelmingly positive. In the book, she aims to help Christians deal with their struggles, sins, defeats, etc., in several ways. First, she attempts to look at sin and sanctification in a manner faithful to the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith and their successors (p. 18). More specifically, Duguid uses John Newton's letters as a tool to try to diagnose and solve the various problems that consistently beset God's people in their different stages of the Christian life. A major theme that dominates the book concerns how God can use our sin for good, and how we should view our sin in light of how God views our sin. God remains in full control of every detail in our lives, and we should remember that glorious reality.
Duguid is candid and open about her sins. In almost all the chapters, she gives us insight into her specific sins. She helpfully notes that many churches today are not very good at being open about our sins (p. 26). In other words, we sing Newton's hymn, "Amazing Grace," but practically deny the truths about ourselves contained in the song by our refusal to be more open about our failures.
Chapters 2-4 address Newton's distinction concerning the different stages of Christians. There are "baby" Christians who have certain struggles (ch. 2), Christians who are "maturing" (ch. 3), and finally there are mature Christians (ch. 4). Each Christian has different struggles and views of the gospel. Thus, the remedies to each type of Christian are different. Incidentally, the author admits that she is not a "mature Christian" (p. 68), but instead "a maturing believer" (p. 69). The difference between the "baby" Christian and the "mature" believer is good theology, according to Duguid. The "mature" believer thinks differently about his/her sin, Christ, and the world to come (see pp. 48, 72-73).
The remainder of the book looks at key issues that Christians should understand well: God's purposes for his people (ch. 6), our sin (ch. 7), God's grace (chs. 8, 11-12), and the pain (and often futility) of our struggles (chs. 9-10). Throughout the book, the reader is confronted not only with the wisdom of Newton, but also the theology of Duguid.
The topics that Duguid confronts are the most sensitive theological issues that pastors and counselors deal with on a weekly basis. Thus, good answers to the problems of sin, guilt, discouragement, etc., are to be welcomed. Regrettably, this book is filled with too many theological errors for me to commend it as a faithful guide to the problems of sin and grace.
First, in the Preface, Duguid raises the question, "What if growing in grace is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ than it is about defeating sin?" (p. 18). This is a false dichotomy. Humility requires the mortification of our vicious pride. Dependence requires the mortification of our innate self-dependence. Just loving Christ is not enough; to love him we must mortify other loves (self, the world, etc.). When we love Christ we are able to mortify our sin; and as we do so we are better able to love Christ. John Owen's marvelous treatise on Romans 8:13 provides a more reliable guide on this point.
Second, Duguid critiques the idea that sanctification is 100% God and 100% us. She calls this "poor math" and "poor theology" (p. 124). Why? Because God always does his 100% perfectly, which means the reason we are failing is entirely our fault! She may be right about the poor math, but her critique of the theological truth is less than compelling. Professor Richard Gaffin has recently argued for the 100% + 100% principle in his book, By Faith, Not by Sight: "Involved here is, as it could be put, the 'mysterious math' of God's covenant...whereby 100% + 100% = 100%. Sanctification is 100% the work of God and, just for that reason, it is to engage 100% of the activity of the believer" (p. 83). Incidentally, the reader is left wondering what "equation," if any, Duguid thinks is the more biblically satisfying one: 50% God + 50% us? Is God not doing his 100% perfectly? Are we supposed to give 100%? Not only Gaffin but also many Reformed luminaries from the past, such as Jonathan Edwards ("But God does all, and we do all") and Charles Spurgeon ("paradoxes are not strange things in Scripture, but are rather the rule than the exception"), note the "mysterious math" of sanctification.
Third, Duguid's suggestion that God cannot be disappointed in you (p. 48) or your level of sanctification is not only unfaithful to the Bible and the Westminster Confession (11.5), but also Newton - the person who she is allegedly following (cf. Works, 2:488-89, 598, 3:625, 6:322, 467). There is a sort of "hyper-decretalism" that runs throughout the book (e.g., pp. 125, 205). Duguid affirms that "spiritual growth is not up to us" (p. 48) - a statement that is open to potential misunderstanding. The New Testament is filled with imperatives commanding us to "grow spiritually" (2 Peter 1:5; 3:18; Eph. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:2), while affirming that growth comes from God (Col. 2:19; Phil. 2:12-13). This is the "mysterious math" of sanctification that Duguid appears to reject.
Her point that God cannot be angry with us (p. 210) is an idea gaining popularity in some Reformed circles. Duguid contends that the Father does not punish us for our sin, "nor is he angry with us" (211). True, God is not angry with us in the sense that he is always angry with us, or to the point of condemnation (Rom. 8:1); but that does not mean that he is never angry with his children or that he never punishes them for their sins. Christ was displeased with the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3, just as he was with David (2 Sam. 11:27), and also certain Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:30-32). John Flavel distinguishes between "vindictive punishments" and "paternal castigations" - the latter, not the former, are true of Christians. John Calvin speaks of God being "wondrously angry" towards his children, not because he is disposed to hate them, but because by "frightening" them he humbles his people and brings them to repentance.
The idea running throughout the book that God is not disappointed in our sanctification rings hollow. This contention emanates from the "hyper-decretalism" mentioned above - a sort of fatalism. Indeed, God is not disappointed in our justification. And God is never frustrated in his purposes for us. But God may be disappointed in our holiness if we go through seasons whereby we presume upon his grace, neglect the ordinary means of grace, or sin willfully and grievously. When I repent I'm in a real sense disappointed in my lack of holiness - and rightly so! If God is never disappointed in his child's lack of holiness, then he isn't actually a very good Father (see Heb. 12), and we are not actually responsible agents in our Christian life.
Fourth, Duguid also presents a misguided view of the Holy Spirit's goal in our sanctification. She contends that if the Holy Spirit's "chief work" in sanctification is making us more and more sin-free, "then he isn't doing a very good job"; after all, she claims there are unbelievers who are "morally superior" to Christians (p. 30). This view makes a mockery of the New Testament's teaching on the moral difference between Christians and non-Christians (see Col. 1:21-22; Eph. 2:1-10; Rom. 6; 8:1-14), and it says things about the Spirit's work that I certainly would not. She contrasts this (wrong) view of the Holy Spirit's role in sanctification with her idea that if "the goal of sanctification is actually growing in humility and greater dependence upon Christ, then the Holy Spirit is doing an excellent job" (p. 61). So what if I am not living in great dependence upon Christ? Am I doing a bad job or is the Holy Spirit doing a bad job or is it both our fault (i.e., the "mysterious math")? Her book is written because people do not seem to be depending on Christ or growing in humility. But why write a book on this topic if the Holy Spirit is doing an excellent job in this area? Again, the two views of sanctification she contrasts become false dichotomies. They are actually the same thing, viewed from different angles.
In connection with this, the book contains some rather strange statements, particularly page 29. Consider the following: "If the sovereign God's primary goal in sanctifying believers is simply to make us more holy, it is hard to explain why most of us make only 'small beginnings' on the road to personal holiness in this life" (p. 29). What, then, is the point of sanctification if it is not being made more holy (i.e., like Jesus)? The Scriptures are clear on this matter (see Col. 1:22; Rom. 8:29; 1 Peter 2:24; Eph. 1:4; 2 Cor. 3:18).
In conclusion, the book starts out with a good idea: how can we, with Newton's pastoral help, deal with the various struggles in the Christian life, especially the serious problem of indwelling sin? And how do Christians deal with these problems in their different stages of their walk? Newton as a guide remains safe and reliable. But Duguid ventures too far away from Newton to her own theology - and drastically at times, it seems to me - without always giving proper citations for the ideas she is attributing to Newton (pp. 49-50).
I regret that this promising book has some flaws. And it is not easy to write negative reviews of anyone, much less a woman trying to help people deal with their various Christian struggles. In the end, readers will have to carefully weigh Duguid's claims with the Scriptures and the Reformed theological tradition she labors to adhere to.
Dr. Mark Jones is Pastor at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA)