Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book Review - Holtvlüwer’s Foundations: Sermons on Genesis 1-3

Late last year, Canadian Reformed minister Rev. Peter Holtvlüwer published a book of sermons on the first few chapters of Genesis. With respect to discussions we’ve had on our blog, it is clear that the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is very important for how we understand the doctrine of creation as well as how we frame conversations regarding Scripture and science.

And so we approached Dr. John Smith, professor of Old Testament studies at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, to undertake an academic review of Holtvlüwer’s Foundations: Sermons on Genesis 1-3. Dr. Smith received a Ph.D. in Septuagint Studies from the University of Toronto in 2005 after writing a dissertation on the Greek translation of the book of Psalms. He served as minister of the Word in Albany, Western Australia, for five years, until last year when he moved back to Canada with his wife Darlene and their three sons and two daughters. Dr. Smith retains his ministerial status with Providence Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario.

We are grateful for Dr. Smith’s engagement and careful review, which you can find in our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is given here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

John Piper’s Think: A Review

John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Crossway, 2010). ISBN-13: 978-1-4335-2071-6, 222 pages. Cloth $22, Paper $18. Reviewed by Frederika Oosterhoff.

“The chief end of man,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” A question that is often asked today concerns the relative role of the heart and of the mind in glorifying and enjoying God. Some Christians place much stress on the mind, on thinking and reasoning and logic. Concerned about attacks upon the Bible by unbelieving scientists and other secular trend-setters, they defend the faith by means of arguments. This approach, which is widely followed also in Reformed circles, falls within the category of apologetics (the reasoned defence of the faith) and worldview analysis.

The approach has biblical warrant. We are to love God with our mind (Matt. 22:37) and must be prepared to give the reasons for the hope we have (1 Pet. 3:15). When they are in discussion with unbelieving intellectuals, Christians should be able to debate with them on their ground. They owe this not only to the unbelievers themselves, but also to fellow-believers. In this tradition there is, however, the danger of intellectualism: of concentrating on the head and forgetting about the role of the heart. In view of this danger, other Christians downplay the role of thinking and instead stress the absolute pre-eminence of the affections, of feeling, doing, and experiencing — in short, of the heart. Although an important correction, this type of thinking runs the danger of anti-intellectualism.

Well-known evangelical author John Piper disagrees with these alternatives. In his new book Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (2010), Piper rejects “either-or” approaches in the matter of head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith. For him it is a matter of “both-and.” While convinced of the dangers of intellectualism, he just as strongly rejects anti-intellectualism, pointing out that the use of the mind is essential in the life of faith and discipleship. Rigorous thinking is “a necessary, God-ordained means of knowing God” and provides “the kindling for the fires of the heart.”Such thinking does not of course allow for neutrality and intellectual pride. The gospel demands God-centred, biblical, non-autonomous thinking, the sort of thinking that seeks reasons to treasure and desire God above all things.

The Christian mind

Piper is the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and has authored several books, including such bestsellers as Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (3rd ed. 2003), and Don’t Waste Your Life (2003). A Calvinist evangelical and a staunch believer in biblical infallibility, he is widely read also in Reformed circles.

The book now under review has a foreword by historian Mark A. Noll, a long-time friend of Piper and a fellow-evangelical. Noll himself has written about the need for deep, rigorous Christian thinking, most famously so in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). His concern there was with the weaknesses in evangelical thinking in the realms of “high culture,” such as philosophy, politics, economic theory, historical inquiry, linguistics, literary theory, the history of science, social theory, and the arts; in short, all the disciplines within the range of advanced, specialized, first-order modern scholarship. Quoting a Lebanese Christian scholar, Noll reminded his readers that “at the heart of the crisis in Western civilization lies the state of the mind and the spirit of the universities.” And therefore, “For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, the Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence” (The Scandal, pp. 25f.). (Noll tells us in the Preface to Piper’s book that he is preparing a sequel to The Scandal. Entitled Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, it is scheduled to appear later this summer. We hope to review it in due time.)

Whether or not Piper agrees with Noll’s message, his book is not about Noll’s type of high-level academic thinking. Unlike Noll, he also does not deal with controversial topics such as the debate on Genesis 1. But neither does he express distrust of modern learning and modern science. His message is of a different nature and applies to all believers, to non-academics as much as to academics. Even though he stresses the importance of thinking, his intention is at no point, as he assures us in the Introduction, to prove the superiority of intellectuals and establish the need for degrees. Nor is it to encourage intellectual endeavours like apologetics or worldview analysis. His concern is with the need for Spirit-enabled thinking in understanding the gospel, and that need is shared by learned and unlearned alike. Such thinking is a means (and an indispensable one at that) which God has given to all those who seek Him, no matter the level of their education.

With respect to the head versus heart controversy, Piper admits that the mind, while indispensable, is the servant of the heart. We are to worship and love God and to enjoy him, and this is first of all a matter of the heart. But empty emotionalism threatens if such love and joy are not awakened by true knowledge of who God really is. Though factual knowledge does not save, it is indispensable. Believers must know and study the contents of the Bible, for how can they believe and love a God they don’t know; a God whose revelation they do not bother to read and try to understand?


Piper gives a good deal of attention to the prevailing anti-intellectualism in the history of American evangelicalism. He quotes the remark by the early twentieth-century evangelist Billy Sunday (who expressed the feelings, he believes, of many evangelical Christians): “If I had a million dollars I’d give $999,999 to the church and $1 to education.” What was widely believed in Sunday’s time is still widely believed today. Postmodern relativism and pragmatism in fact underscore the message that knowledge and study and serious thinking have little or nothing to do with true faith.

In this connection Piper mentions some Bible texts that are often used as “pillars of anti-intellectualism.” Among them are Luke 10:21, where Jesus gives thanks that God has “hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children,” and 1 Corinthians 1:19,20, where Paul reminds his readers that God “will destroy the wisdom of the wise” and has “made foolish the wisdom of this world.” There are similar warnings about “knowledge” and “the wisdom of this world” elsewhere in the Bible — for example in 1 Corinthians 3:19, Colossians 2:8, and Romans 1:28.

Nevertheless, as Piper concludes, the overwhelming message of the Bible is that knowing the truth is crucial. This demands a diligent use of the mind, always with the realization that proper understanding is God’s gift. After all, Satan also believes the facts of the Bible and trembles. The use of the mind is necessary and indispensable, but it is not decisive. Decisive is the work of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating power. That alone gives certainty. Piper reminds us at the same time that the “wise and learned” of Luke 10 are not necessarily the educated, but the self-reliant and proud. And pride is no respecter of persons; the uneducated are not immune to it. And conversely, highly educated Christians can be found among the “little children” — namely among those who know that they have nothing to contribute to their salvation and are utterly dependent on the cross.