Guest post: Robbie Pruitt on A.W. Tozer

Magnificent Monograph Monday this week features a guest blogger, Robbie Pruitt. I have guest posted on his blog (My Two Mites) before, and today he posts here. It’s a review of Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer. Robbie is a gifted youth minister, teacher, poet, reader, writer, and friend.

Nothing is more important than a right understanding of God, or “thinking rightly about God.”  In Knowledge of the HolyA.W. Tozer states, “The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men.”  Tozer is addressing idol worship that many fall into by thinking wrongly about God.

It is into this reality that Tozer speaks in Knowledge of the Holy, which is an excellent study of the attributes of God. (See pdf of book here.)  Tozer describes in detail the importance of thinking rightly about God, going so far as asserting, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  When it comes to our thinking about God, everything is at stake.  We must think deeply and accurately about God if we are to know Him and worship Him rightly and truthfully.

According to Tozer, when we think about God, we are using the language and the concepts that our finite minds can grapple with.  Our understanding of God is limited, as God is infinite and we are finite.  We are also unaware of the fullness of God as there are attributes we have not had revealed to us yet, and which we do not currently have the capacity to comprehend.  Tozer says, “We learn by using what we already know as a bridge, over which we pass to the unknown. It is not possible for the mind to crash suddenly past the familiar into the totally unfamiliar.”

While Tozer is acutely aware of the magnitude of his subject, God, he is not deterred from writing a most excellent reflection on the attributes of God that we can understand and contemplate.  An attribute, simply stated by Tozer, is “whatever may be correctly ascribed to God.”  While there is ample evidence to conclude that what we do not know about God is vast, there is so much about God’s character and nature that we can accurately know.  To begin with, we can know His attributes, and we can ascribe these attributes to Him with confidence.

In thinking about the enormity of God, Tozer is quick to warn against idolatry and thinking wrongly about God.  He says, “To think of creature and Creator as alike in essential being is to rob God of most of His attributes and reduce Him to the status of a creature.”  We must not think of God in “human” terms, though we are using human brains and creation and are reasoning, to contemplate the essence of God.  In thinking of God we must proceed cautiously, reverently and prayerfully, in faith and in love, as we rest in God’s divine revelation to us.

If we are not cautious, the dangers are clear.  We can think of something less than God and find ourselves in idolatry, worshipping something less than God.  Tozer says, “If we insist upon trying to imagine Him, we end with an idol, made not with hands but with thoughts; and an idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.”  The other danger in thinking about God is attempting to manipulate, control, or manage God, which essentially places us above God as “god.”  Tozer describes this phenomenon this way: “Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms.  We want to get Him where we can use Him, or at least know where He is when we need Him.”

We must look to God with great anticipation and appreciation of God’s revelation to us.  It is adequate.  God has revealed Himself to us and God is knowable.  God, in His great love and mercy, has revealed Himself to us in His son Jesus and we can know Him in faith and in love.  Tozer asserts, “In Christ and by Christ, God effects complete self-disclosure, although He shows Himself not to reason but to faith and love. Faith is an organ of knowledge, and love an organ of experience.”   We can know God and we can experience God.  This revelation of God is a great mercy to us and is a gift to us in Jesus Christ, through His Holy Spirit, which leads us into all truth.

As Tozer says so eloquently, “For while the name of God is secret and His essential nature incomprehensible, He in condescending love has by revelation declared certain things to be true of Himself.”  These truths of God are, indeed, His attributes, and we can know them and study them.  Knowledge of the Holy is a great tool for this study as we seek to come to know the eternal, magnificent, and indescribable God that we seek to worship rightly.

An attribute study is a great way to come to know God more deeply and is a great way to explore the richness of the Scriptures in a more non-linear approach.  Knowledge of the Holy covers some essential thoughts and attributes of God, as well as doctrines, that every Christian should think about.  As Tozer rightly points out, “The study of the attributes of God, far from being dull and heavy, may for the enlightened Christian be a sweet and absorbing spiritual exercise. To the soul that is athirst for God, nothing could be more delightful.”  As we seek God and seek to have our thirsts for Him quenched, this book, in addition to Scripture, prayer, and community, is a great place to start.

A thorough reading of Knowledge of the Holy highlights so many truths about God.  We are plunged into the depths of God’s character and nature and are left in a state of awe and worship in the presence of an awesome God.  While we will spend a lifetime and an eternity seeking to know God completely and to worship Him rightly, we can know God and worship Him now.  To quote Tozer one last time, “To our questions God has provided answers; not all the answers, certainly, but enough to satisfy our intellects and ravish our hearts. These answers He has provided in nature, in the Scriptures, and in the person of His Son.”  How marvelous it is to wonder at His greatness and to think rightly about our God!

frameworks (How to Navigate the New Testament): a review

Why the book frameworks? Author Eric Larson says,

frameworks, quite simply, is a book about Bible navigation and context, material that’s designed to build your confidence in your ability to negotiate the text and understand it. Think of it as a guidebook, a Bible companion, written for anyone who would like to have a personal biblical tour guide. This book can be used for self-study, in small group discussions or in classrooms to set the context for Bible reading and to lead you through it.

The emphasis in the book is on presentation and memorability. Larson uses rich and beautiful imagery (and “lots of refreshing white space”) to create a book that has a good home on a coffee/display table. Yet he doesn’t neglect solid content around each biblical book, either.

The introduction is short and sweet and covers essential territory like who the writers were, literary divisions of the book, and an especially helpful 7-part “Navigating Jesus’ Ministry” section with simple maps and narrative highlights. After an introduction to the New Testament in general, each book of the New Testament has these 10 sections: introduction, theme, purpose, outline, verses to note in that book (the best part of frameworks, I thought), navigation (a page of things to look for when reading a book-well done), unique things about that book, recap, questions, and a verse to apply right now.

There is a sample pdf of the table of contents and introduction here.

Charts, tables, photographs and other graphics are a strong point of this book. Some are as simple as this historical timeline, which is visually appealing:

Or take this visual outline of the book of Luke, from p. 92 of the book (and posted on the author’s blog):

(The spelling error in ascension is corrected in the book.)

This book will answer many questions people had about the New Testament but were afraid to ask–one of its intended purposes. For example, in Larson’s introduction to the Gospels (“Biographies of Christ”), he writes about the “four living creatures” that many have understood to represent the Gospels. (Lion, Ox, Man, Eagle.)

I’ve always seen Mark associated with the lion, but Larson has the lion with Matthew, the ox with Mark, the man with Luke, and the eagle with John. He notes that this is the order of the four living creatures in Revelation 4:6-7. But the order as it appears in Ezekiel 1:1-14 is what I’ve seen more typically, where it’s human, lion, ox, and eagle. I understand that Christian tradition varies here a bit.

This is not a huge deal, but it is indicative of a larger trend in the book–nuance seems to be prioritized at times less highly then presentation. Larson’s laudable goal is to engage “anyone who would like to have a personal biblical tour guide.” It’s about “navigation and context,” but readers will still want to look elsewhere for greater detail and clarification on some matters.

As far as a New Testament framework goes, Larson’s 4-1-9-4-8-1 scheme did not immediately strike me as easily memorable. He divides the NT this way:

  • 4 biographies of Christ
  • 1 history book (Acts)
  • 9 letters of Paul to the churches
  • 4 letters of Paul to people
  • 8 general letters
  • 1 book of prophecy (Revelation)

This is less memorable than the 4-1-21-1! chant I’ve used with young people. (See the pdf of it here, from Center for Youth Studies.) Larson’s 4-1-9-4-8-1 does have the advantage of dividing up the 21 letters/epistles into their types/authors, but as much as I wanted to latch on to 4-1-9-4-8-1, I never quite did. This is not too say it’s a bad thing to use; it is to say a reader might not pick it up as easily as some other NT “frameworks.”

One other critique I offer is that, although I appreciate the approach of using visual imagery and stories and examples rooted in culture to try to connect the ancient text to today, sometimes the connections feel a bit stretched. For example, the photograph accompanying the “history” title page (for the book of Acts) is an unfinished attic with a sawhorse in it and a window with light coming through. It’s a beautiful image. But what’s it trying to evoke? The upper room? The light as the Holy Spirit? Okay, but why the sawhorse? Other such images left me curious as to why they were selected, or how they were meant to visually reinforce the author’s text.

Similarly, while the story about Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller to begin the book of James is itself inspirational, its application to James and his audience sure felt reach-y. That James’s “self-indulged spiritual children” were “behaving badly and desperately need a spanking” is an odd way, indeed, to describe things! James would have never “spanked” his listeners. I know the author doesn’t mean that literally, but that image was distracting. I often found myself reacting this way in the introductions to each of the books.

Everything after a book’s introduction is generally solid–and creative. In Mark, for example, Larson has a selection of verses from that Gospel that he has the reader “read…without stopping to take a breath.” He puts in bold words like “at once,” “quickly,” and “immediately” (a favorite of Mark’s). Then he concludes, “If you feel out of breath, congratulations. Mark has succeeded in brining you into his fast moving narrative.” I thought this was a great way to draw the reader into the fast-paced action movie that Mark often feels like.

I like the approach to this New Testament introduction; it’s creative and will reach a larger audience then some less visually-oriented books on the same subject. The short descriptions of each book are generally solid, but the occasional lack of nuance and informal tone distracted me at times as I worked my way through the book. (In other words, as with any book, this one should be read critically.)

Yet I do think Larson’s efforts will guide the reader into deeper engagement with the biblical text. His emphasis on what to look for in a book, pulling out and quoting specific verses, and his constant admonition to “Read It!” are refreshing. He even gives an estimate for how long it takes to read through a book at a casual pace, which is an enormous aid to anyone who will commit to sitting down and doing reading through God’s Word.

I received a free copy of frameworks for review purposes. Thank you to the author and publicist for the chance to review it.

A wife for Jesus?

Front of papyrus fragment, Karen L. King, 2012

Did Jesus have a wife? Does it matter?

In the last two days I’ve seen about 50 Facebook status updates from friends and groups I follow, each with their own take on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” papyrus that Harvard Professor Karen L. King recently announced. (Nerdy grammatical excursus: King has titled the papyrus with Jesus’s, but I follow Strunk and White and prefer Jesus’.)

The Harvard Divinity School press release is here. It begins,

Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, Harvard Professor Karen King told the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies today.

The papyrus has been dated to the 4th century and is written in Coptic, the alphabet of which has overlap with the Greek alphabet. King has postulated, in fact, that the Coptic in this little fragment may have translated a Greek original.

The key quote from the papyrus is translated, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….'” It then gets cut off. Go here for a full translation, as well as helpful Q&A with Professor King.

It seems to me there are two primary questions on folks’ minds right now. First, is this thing real or a fake? Second, did Jesus have a wife, or could he have?

In pursuit of these questions, I spoke with two Professors of Biblical Studies at Gordon College, a top Christian liberal arts school, located just north of Boston. Was Jesus married?

“Is there anything in the Gospels that would give us a hint he was married? I don’t think so,” noted Professor Marvin R. Wilson. “If he was married, how come he says to his beloved disciple at the cross, ‘Take my mother,’ not ‘Take my wife’?”

The significant woman in Jesus’ life, for whom he is looking out in his final hours, is his mother Mary, not a wife.

All the same, Wilson said, “It’s a good question. One who had no marriage would certainly have been the exception. We have an exception in Jeremiah, but that was a divinely commanded celibacy.”

Wilson noted, however, that the assertion that Jesus had a wife is still an argument from silence. “Certainly he had a wonderful ministry with women. We know the 4th century was a time of theological clarification (Council of Nicea) as well as turbulence. This Coptic text may have represented a small sect of aberrant Christians that had broken away from the larger–yet still emerging–traditional community.”

Is there much at stake in the question of whether or not Jesus had a wife?

“Certainly I don’t think any key issues of the Christian faith are at stake here. If Jesus had a self-imposed celibacy because of the work he was called to accomplish, that would make him unusual, but not unique.”

Professor Steven Hunt noted, “There’s so much we don’t know about it yet. It’s apparently a very small fragment.”

Regarding the authenticity of the papyrus, he added, “I’m perfectly willing to go with [Professor King] and say that it’s an authentic fragment of some document that’s now lost, but it’s probably speaking more to the nature of debates in the 3rd and 4th century about sex and marriage… it’s almost certainly not giving us accurate information about the historical Jesus.”

More interesting than the fragment itself, Hunt noted, is the question, “Would Christians be troubled to find out Jesus was married? The fact that many would, may really be quite suggestive, especially if their reaction was rooted in a negative attitude toward bodily existence in general and sexuality in particular.

“So, while there’s no good historical evidence that he was [married], from my perspective,” Hunt said, “it’s not really theologically problematic to suggest that he could have been. Since the Bible affirms the essential goodness of marriage and sexuality, what would be the problem with that?”