Saturday, July 12, 2008

Christianity & Liberalism

This wont be very popular but sometimes things need to be said. These are observations made with sadness.



[It seems that Dave Warnock, who didn't really appreciate my employers stance on penal substitution last year, doesn't like the network my church is part of either (newfrontiers and women). Mark Driscoll would observe that the Church of England is doing 'church as mirror', reflecting culture rather than being defined Biblically. Warnock is offended and exaggerates. Yes, newfrontiers (who just spent the last week on the end of Mark Driscoll's critiquing hand) says no to women elders, but it also says a massive yes to empowering women to do all kinds ofher ministries from the high callings of being a wife and mother to the equally beneficial ministries of prayer, prophecy and many other things in the life of a local church. The women I meet in our church are lovers of God's word who live brilliant lives for his glory. I can resonate with John Piper's observation of women in his church that, if he were not already married, he'd want to marry many of them himself. We're not being dinosaurs, we're genuinely seeking to be Biblical - as no doubt are some of those who dispute with us, though no doubt not all. ]

  • Thirdly, I've also found myself talking with various people about Rob Bell's take on Christianity, where truth is relative and doctrine is optional... Bell and those in his shack dominate the Wesley Owen Top 10 sales and recommendations...
Three issues: Gay Bishops, Women Bishops & the Emerging Church seem to be in essence the same thing, albeit in different clothing. In all of them the issue is: do we let Scripture speak for itself or do we read it through the changing tides of our culture.

(Not to say any of us approaches with neutrality, but to observe that sudden innovations in convictions that just *happen* to match the changing tides of general opinion and lack warrant in church history should be treated with at least *a little suspicion* before being embraced).

What we can observe is two different religions. One called Liberalism (that isn't half as new as it's proponents suggest) which is really humanity ruled by humanity, dressed up in 'christian' clothing... when it undressed it's just Modernism. The other is Christianity. J.Gresham Machen definitively identified these as two utterly different religions and he takes them down in his book Christianity & Liberalism:

"It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men."

The ministry of the Holy Spirit divides. Over the past 40 years that has been perceived as a division within evangelicalism between those who believe in certain ongoing work of the Spirit and those who don't. That division was unfortunate, messy and based in part on charismatic error and in part on non-charismatic reaction.

In the days ahead surely we're seeing a different divide - between those who are founded on the Bible (whether charismatic or not), and those founded on shifting sands. Then we find, as has been observed, a new uniting around core doctrines of the cross and scripture to which many are happy to sign up - as noted by the breadth of those charismatic and otherwise who endorsed Pierced for our Transgressions and New Word Alive over recent years.

That is sign for encouragment, but not presumption or arrogance or complacency. The direction of the Christian is a default to drifting away from the gospel, only the Holy Spirit's gracious ministry gets any of us moving in the direction of Christlikeness. Robinson, Bell & co provide a helpful challenge to examine my thinking afresh, to check my foundations, assumptions and opinions. I need to keep learning and growing. If I don't watch myself, and receive the support of my local church and remain open to critique I could find myself sliding into liberalism myself.

32 comments:

  1. Dave,

    I like your contrast between 'shifting sands' and 'bible based' but three things struck me:

    1. Don't you think it's a bit naiive to set it up as enculturated reading of the bible = flawed vs. our (non-culturally altered reading) bible based take on things. Don't we all read through culture? The point of difference is not whether we read through the shifting sands of culture, but whether we esteem the changing with the unchanging?

    2. You need to try and see past your own culture - and get the fact that not everyone explains and teaches doctrine like people in your world tend to. There are many ways to communicate, many ways to teach - you can find lots of kinds in the NT (exhortative, exegesis, persuasive, declarative, critical method). So just because someone doesn't refer in an explicit way to scripture, in terms of using a line by line exergesis approach doesn't mean that they are liberal heretics. I think this is where you are mistaken with Rob Bell in some ways. Okay, I'm not on the same page as him, but the Nooma stuff that I've watched 'Dust' and 'Music' wasn't heretical, and didn't throw out doctrine. I thought that there were other flaws, but throwing out doctrine. Are we talking about the same guy?

    3. The Christian response has too long concentrated on postmodernism and the will. Christians need to confront, and unmask liberalism - and not by simply reasserting the importance of doctrine, or authority of scripture. Which is what we tend to do. We need to help people to see why doctrine is true, help them to understand what liberalism is, why liberalism is bankrupt and why that matters. And we need to do this using logic and reason, not by simply asserting authority, E.G. The Bible says xxx

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  2. a. I knew you'd be the first to respond.
    b. i never said i wasn't prone to culture influencing me, i said the opposite - that i need to be aware of this and hear those who come from different angles, even Gene can serve me.
    c. both of us, all of us, need to get past our culture, celebrate our culture, and remember that scripture isn't all that difficult.
    d. really i can't see a defence for Bell that holds any weight. His videos fail by what they miss more than what they say, his books are deeply unhelpful. Emphasis matters a lot.
    e. I agree we need to unmask liberalism - this was part of what i was beginning to do, by starting out to show that Gene, Bell & co are really coming from the same direction rather than being different issues. hence some of the above nuances.
    f. thanks for interacting, please continue...

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  3. Tom,

    On point 3. Machen is your man. He was nearly taken in by the liberalism that he learned at Marburg under the vastly impressive Wilhelm Herrman. Get a load of this:

    "the great Dr. Herrman presented his position with such power I would sometimes leave his presence wondering how I could ever retain my confidence in the historical accuracy of the Gospel narratives. The I would go to my room, take out the Gospel of Mark and read it from beginning to end in one sitting--and my doubts would fade. I realized that the document could not possibly be the invention of the mind of a mere man."

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  4. Thanks Martin. Helpful quote. It's great to know the power and clarity of the word of God to authenticate itself!

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  5. Interesting to note that Machen doesn't deal with the doctrine of Scripture until chapter four of Christianity & Liberalism.

    With regard to the Emergent take on relating gospel & culture it is worth taking a look at Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Churches.

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  6. It is really quite amusing (due to being wholly inaccurate) to describe me as a liberal and a modernist.

    My position on gender issues is fully scripturally based - just a different interpretation to you. One I have studied over many years.

    Disagreeing with you on how we should interpret scripture does not make a person a liberal.

    It is hard to see why disagreeing with a very modernist Church network (New Frontiers) would make me a modernist.

    As for Rob Bell, I have been unimpressed with the teaching I have seen so far, certainly having seen nothing rigorous to respond to.

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  7. Just a small PS. Just in case the text leaves anyone thinking I am an Anglican, I am not, I am a Methodist. Yes and sad that I am the distinction matters to me (at least a little) :-)

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  8. DaveW,

    I do think there is a distinction, to some extent, between you and Gene. He explicitly says we can re-write the Bible, and you're saying that your conclusions come from the Bible. Seems to me a different heart approach. Likewise I'd hope that you'd see that newfrontiers, UCCF etc are seeking to submit themselves to the authority of Scripture. Short-term I think the WHY matters.

    Nonetheless I'm disturbed by the conclusions of your studies (as you are with mine)... I hope I'm not a liberal/modernist in coming to these conclusions about Atonement, Womens Ministry etc.

    I suppose the way forward is to do Timothy-style ministry and kindly teach with patience in view of our Sovereign God in hope that he will bring the other (or both of us) to repentance.

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  9. Bish,

    Thanks for linking to the Robinson article. I preached from John 16 and the apostles being guided into all the truth not so long back. One of the things I pointed to was the naive, but well meant, misuse of that text to us (when it was clearly for the apostles), and the vicious use of it as exemplified by Robinson.

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  10. DaveB,

    I absolutely do believe that New Frontiers and UCCF are wholeheartedly seeking to submit themselves to Scripture.

    But in your enthusiasm for doing do, in your eagerness and diligence I think you sometimes make the modernist mistake of believing that you are not interpreting the Bible from your cultural perspective but have the exact correct understanding - that there is only one meaning and you have it.

    That means these traditions (New Frontiers and UCCF) can seem very poor at accepting and including those whose understanding is different. Even recognising that their views might be valid and do not put them outside the faith (eg Mark Driscoll calling those who do not accept male headship non-evangelicals and nut jobs - and nobody from New Frontiers challenging that).

    These groups can therefore appear to dismiss the interpretation of others have who are equally determined to submit themselves to the Word of God, but who understand it differently.

    So for example. You believe the only way to properly value and submit to Scripture is to see it as inerrant. I believe that inerrancy is a modernist conception, it claims something for scripture that scripture itself does not claim. It does not allow us to take scripture properly as it puts the focus on legalistically trying to prove the unproveable rather than submitting our lives. For me inerrancy requires us to run away from the complexities and challenges of scripture rather than submit ourselves to it fully. (note that in my tradition submit is not normally used in this way, but the meaning is the there).

    I want to kindly teach patience and grace towards each other. But my difficulty is that I see your hard interpretation causing harm. Just as you feel I am letting the gospel go and am compromising on core beliefs I feel you are failing to show love and grace and acceptance to for example women with a call to ministry and also to homosexuals.

    For you it may feel that I have lost the foundations of my faith and am failing to submit to scripture. For me it feels as if you are failing to submit to the demands of Jesus that we find in scripture and it feels a little like Wilberforce battling against those in power built on slavery. No I am not accusing you of slavery, but I am saying that it is hard to show grace when struggling for those you believe suffering injustice at the hands of fellow believers.

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  11. DaveW, I find in any context it's hard to show real grace... :) In this one, though, as a 'woman with a call to ministry' I want to chip in my tuppence. I'm sure we'd agree that every Christian is called to ministry, whether male or female, or from whatever background, etc. We're called to serve God in serving the members of Christ's body, the church, and serve His world. We're called to do so dying to self in view of Christ, as we are in Christ. How should any of us express that service? How does any one Christian know how to minister with the gifts and graces God gives them? We look to His revealed will in Scripture to know how to live to please Him, to build His church - it's His plan to show His wisdom, after all: not to show ours. So I 'feel a call to ministry' - not only a call, but a burden, a compelling, from love of God and love of His people, to minister His word. How do I know this call? Because of His Spirit-breathed word, changing my thinking, transforming my attitudes. How do I act on this call? I look to His word for how to do so: because I'm convinced that God has spoken, and it is this Word that builds His church. So in the specifics, for me as a Christian woman, I'll seek to minister in my church and work in a way that pleases God. I'll look to His word to grow in knowing and being equipped for what that involves, and I'll look to the needs of my fellow Christians to serve them, under the God-given leadership of my church. My burden (or 'call' if you will) isn't a frustration, or quashed: it's a joy to serve and seek ways to serve. This is encouraged by my church, as we all look to the Bible to reveal God's will for His church. I've quite enough to do in serving God's people, under my church eldership as they also serve. But if I think I have a 'right' to exercise certain gifts as I like, or to dictate in what way I fulfil 'my calling', I'm going about it in an upside-down way, à la Corinth.

    Perhaps a problem often comes when church members other than the leadership do not / are not encouraged to minister the word to one another. Then it seems that anyone with a burden to minister God's word to one another to build up the church can only become a church preacher / leader! If the whole church serves one another, the question is not so acute, and more importantly, it's more like the body described in the NT.

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  12. étrangère,

    I am part of a Church where all are encouraged to minister to each other in service, in opening the word, in teaching etc. In our tradition that is a very important part of our identity.

    We find that in a church where the gifts of all are welcomed and celebrated that God does indeed call and equip women to roles of leadership, of being elders, of being preachers, of being ministers.

    Women do not have a call to lead or be a minister because they are not given freedom and encouragement to respond to God's call in other ways.

    Some women (and some men) have specific calls to leadership, to being a pastor. It is not really a matter of right, it is a matter of responsibility to the call and equipping of the Holy Spirit. But to deny anyone the opportunity to respond to the call God has put on their life is unjust and soul destroying.

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  13. Dave W,

    In fairness your last paragraph is a little muddled. If it is "unjust" then it is "a matter of right" and not just of responsibility.

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  14. Surely this muddies the issues...

    If the Bible says women can't be pastor-teachers/elders then God isn't going to call them to do it, whatever they or others think... Likewise, God wont call me to anything contrary to scripture.

    If on the other hand the Bible validates, permits and/or encourages women to be elders then such a call is entirely to be expected. But in view of the history of the church, the weight of burden is on those seeking to prove that case to demonstrate Biblically that this is the case.

    If the Bible says women can't be pastor-teachers/elders that doesn't at all mean they don't have a vital part to play in the body, even in some kind of teaching ministry... at the very least a woman can definitely teach other women, pray and prophesy in meetings of the church. Before we get onto the countless other ways of serving.

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  15. Well yes... "We find that..." is a subjective judgement. No-one round here is claiming complete objectivity, of course, but that's to dodge the question which still rests: what ultimate authority do we appeal to? Do we interpret Scripture by experience or strive to interpret &/ shape our experience by Scripture? To say that a woman experiences a call to church leadership in a position where she has teaching authority over the whole body is a subjective judgement, and when brought in the light of Scripture needs to be reinterpreted. She experiences a call to serve God's household, yes, so we look to Scripture to see how she should fulfil that call in a way that pleases God. We welcome the gifts and burden for ministry that God has given her and encourage her to minister with those gifts (teaching, encouraging, leadership, etc.) in a way fitting with what God has said in His word.

    It is more than a pity that so many men and women are in fact not encouraged to minister to one another in the body. But the solution to ministering the word to one another is not to ignore what God has said in that word about how we are to behave in His household! What we find in practice needs refined by Scripture.

    Thus your claim that, "Women do not have a call to lead or be a minister because they are not given freedom and encouragement to respond to God's call in other ways," is unjustified. I may have a 'call' to lead and minister, so I look to Scripture to interpret that call, because I know that my heart will twist even the best of desires to my own glory. The lens of Scripture tells me how to direct the gifts and burden God gives me to please Him, as part of His household, and I have joy in serving in leadership and ministry in some ways under my eldership. If we must stop speaking in generalities, for me at the moment that includes Bible study with students, Bible class / catechism with teens, children's talks (by far the most challenging!), evangelistic talks, and day by day involvement in homegroup, church discussions, leading in prayer, song, etc., outreach together, meeting with female students individually, mentoring female graduates, and generally being church - ministering and being ministered to by other members. This all under the authority of the male leadership of my church, with joy. Now I'm being stupid in listing these things - but I hope that I'm being "responsible to the call and equipping of the Holy Spirit" - knowing that his call and equipping will not be to do contrary to what He breathed out! Looking at God's word together, I'm open to correction and direction in these things from those who know me, especially in my church, more especially from 'older women' in the Lord, and most especially from my church leadership. I hate the false dichotomy of "different roles in the family => inequality & supression" vs. "same roles in the family => equality and embracing of gifts". It's untrue to Scripture and misrepresenting reality in both ends of the dichotomy.

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  16. Martin,

    I am not a fan of "rights" language. I don't see this as injustice because I don't see anyone has a "right" to be an elder/pastor.

    It is injustice because they have been called and equipped by God for this. We notice the examples in Scripture there of women serving as leaders ...

    DaveB,

    If God has called and equipped women in scripture for leadership then God will continue to call women. [dw as is happening]

    If God calls and equips women for leadership / teaching / ordained ministry / ... then we will see God bless their ministry when the Church accepts their God given call. [dw as absolutely is happening and is exciting and wonderful to see]

    If those in power in the Church (historically men) are willing to submit to scripture and allow it to challenge their power then they will hear the hitherto silenced voices in Scripture, voices of women among others.

    étrangère,

    Have you actually read a word I have written? Scripture is our ultimate authority (we follow the Wesleyan qudrilateral - Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience in that order).

    Your views are at least as subjective as mine. You write of your experience finding your call to ministry satisfied without leadership.

    You completely miss that it is the lens of Scripture (interpreted in the light of tradition, reason & experience) that is used to discern call to leadership in our Church.

    I have not talked about roles in the family. This is about submitting to the authority of Scripture and we absolutely understand that to mean that the call of God on women should be honoured as we recognise that all humans are created equal in the image of God (eg Genesis 1:28 a verse that is not in Mark Driscoll's bible).

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  17. "Genesis 1:28 a verse that is not in Mark Driscoll's bible"

    ...come, now... we simply don't need to resort to that kind of evidenceless claim. I thought you were admiting that we were each seeking to submit to scripture. Besides, his recent 58min sermon on that text ("Image: God Loves") probably denies your claim, especially if you meant 1v27.

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  18. DaveB,

    I am going by an earlier sermon from Mark Driscoll reported by Adrian Warnock. I blogged about them in

    What Driscoll really said about God and hate

    and also from CBMW

    Complementarian falsehood

    No invention.

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  19. DaveB,

    I also looked up some more Mark Driscoll stuff from my post last year. Choice quotes:

    - "The race is named man because men rule humanity."

    - "Mark's daughters love to shoe shop, the sons love war!"

    - "Fatherhood is to subdue the earth and fill it."

    - "Our wives are designed by God for us."

    Great scriptural basis to this teaching that was applauded at TOAM this year.

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  20. DaveW, of course I've read your comments here carefully, and am responding to them. I don't read your whole blog so didn't know your tradition's ecclesiology or hermeneutic: in an unlimited life I'm sure we'd be able to converse more fully to make up for that shortcoming, but sadly I was making do with replying to individual comments. This leads to some lack of understanding, perhaps, because I can't read your mind or know your church, but to accuse me of not reading a word you've written is a bit reactionary. Catch up more in the unlimited future, hm?

    So it was on the basis of what you'd written (and not written) here that I surmised that your [church's, as you said] secondary interpretative lenses of tradition, reason & experience (all good in their place) are becoming rather over-ruling in this matter. This because only reason (It's "sexist") and experience ("I know good female pastor teachers") could reinterpret Scripture ("therefore it was culturally limited") at this point. If I'm doing you wrong then say so - I'm not getting your Scriptural argument here so I'm having to try to fill it in from what you're saying and not saying. (And I'm over-using brackets... :))

    As for mentioning my 'experience', you missed my point. Because you were talking of such in your church, I made myself a fool in response. But this is not at all what my conviction is based on - it's a point I've reached way down the line from convictions forming. It was to serve as a counterexample to the experiential false dichotomising I hate to hear.

    As for family, I wasn't departing from the topic: it's a frequent NT image of the church and I meant nothing else. It's striking how we're called to be the household of God.

    Btw I've no idea what all Driscoll says and have no intention of reading it all to defend it, but it's perfectly consistent to believe in equality and difference of roles: in creation, in family, in God's family. Whether or not Driscoll does isn't particularly big for me.

    Now Machen I'd be up for discussing - perhaps I live in the past ;-)

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  21. Driscoll pushes the limits of language and humour sometimes - it's simply not fair to say that he's deleted verses from his Bible...

    Discussing Machen would be much more fun than discussing Driscoll.

    "The race is named man because men rule humanity." - maybe/maybe not..

    - "Mark's daughters love to shoe shop, the sons love war!" - and..?

    - "Fatherhood is to subdue the earth and fill it." - that needs context cos I'm not sure what it means.

    - "Our wives are designed by God for us." - Amen. And Praise him for his wonderful handiwork. Nothing oppressive in saying that.

    Thing is - no-one, not even Mark Driscoll, is going to defend every word that comes out of his mouth - and that doesn't necessarily mean publicly correcting every little detail. With all things you listen, you weigh, and you keep the good.

    All this debate is taking away the fairly obvious situation that Driscoll came in to critique Newfrontiers for how they're doing - not by imposing his views by giving things to consider. Driscoll is being mentored, Newfrontiers is being mentored - and both by people who they wont fully agree with... we're all works in progress.

    I'm not sure we're going to resolve the Bible questions quickly here...

    Someone, go, blog on Machen.

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  22. Nice discussion guys. I think étrangère could have a diplomatic gift.

    Can I just ask a question of clarification?

    Do you think that pastor-teachers and elders are the same thing?

    Because if you do, cough...ahem... they're not really the same thing in the NT. Dave B, you seemed to be using the two together as one and the same thing. Is that for convenience, or are you meaning to say that they are the same?

    In fairness to DaveW, some of the conversation could be read as he has suggested. You do really seem to be lumping egalitarians into the same boat as liberals. Are you meaning to do that? Perhaps a direct answer would help?

    Martin,
    I thought that the quote that you posted was exciting, but didn't go far enough. If it is to be taken as the core of Machen's response then it seems to leave Machen with a sub-par doctrine of creation, a Fideistic epistemology and a serious problem with intellectual honesty.

    I don't believe that was his situation, so perhaps his response was more than the quote alludes to, though as a starting point, it is pure joy. We like to think we are so rational don't we, but underneath it all, we choose (John 3:19-21) what we want and create rational architecture around that.

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  23. And great that there are faithful Anglicans behind such things as Pierced for our Transgressions and NWA!!!

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  24. Tom,

    Agreed Elder isn't the same as Pastor-Teacher... some might be Apostles or Prophets or Evangelists!

    I agree some of the terms have a gotten a bit muddied in the discussion.

    I'd love it if you could read Machen - no doubt the guy has some substantial weaknesses (as we all do), which probably contributed to his early grave, but he also seems to have some very profound observations on the areas where he is strong.

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  25. Tom,

    The quote from Machen was merely illustrative of his struggle as a young student, it is not indicative of his mature developed thought. He was hanging on by his fingernails in the face of a deeply impressive liberalism. It was not like the "corpse cold liberalism" of New England but had an ethical and spiritual dimension that nearly lured him on to the rocks.

    The liberalism that Machen encountered in Wilhelm Herrman was overpowering in the sincerity of its religious devotion to Christ, and yet Machen realised that his esteemed teacher believed hardly anything that was essential to Christianity.

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  26. Tom,

    Thanks for:

    "In fairness to DaveW, some of the conversation could be read as he has suggested. You do really seem to be lumping egalitarians into the same boat as liberals. Are you meaning to do that? Perhaps a direct answer would help?"

    So is there a direct answer? DaveB, étrangère?

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  27. How about... Egalitarian isn't isn't necessarily Liberalism, but it can/could be. But so could a Complementarian position. Heart/reasoning is the issue really more than the conclusions drawn. Though some conclusions seem inexplicable if someone is taking scripture seriously (i.e. Bishop Gene...)

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  28. Martin,

    Yes, right on! I'm feeling more and more like reading Machen. What would you guys recommend starting with. Where is he most concise? Where does he give his central thesis?

    Got page numbers?

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  29. Interesting flurry of comments.

    I can't help thinking though that the most important thing wrote so far was Dave Bish's "I need to keep learning and growing. If I don't watch myself, and receive the support of my local church and remain open to critique I could find myself sliding into liberalism myself."

    I need to remember that.

    Equally though we all need to see the warning in Martin Downes comment:

    "The liberalism that Machen encountered in Wilhelm Herrman was overpowering in the sincerity of its religious devotion to Christ, and yet Machen realised that his esteemed teacher believed hardly anything that was essential to Christianity."

    Let's not settle for the right doctrine without the right devotion either. There are dangers everywhere :)

    Sorry, I'm not really contributing am I? Just reflecting.

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  30. I don't know much about the sincerity of Wilhelm Herrman, but if the effect of his sincere religious interest in Jesus Christ, was nothing useful to the cause of Christ, then perhaps it was not sincere interest after all?

    "Faith [could you read: 'sincere religious devotion'?] is bowing before God." Francis Schaeffer

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  31. I think the warning from Machen concerned the stunning sincerity and warmth of a Christian religious devotion that was actually severed from Christ. Here was a liberal that really loved Jesus. Tragically it was the Jesus of his own making.

    Tom,

    Obviously Christianity & Liberalism is a good place to start. But it is well worth reading D. G. Hart's brialliant intellectual biography of Machen, "Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the crisis of conservative protestantism in modern America." The book is priceless for setting Machen within the intellectual, cultural and churchly conflicts of his day.

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  32. I second Martin on those 2, except that I'd add a 3rd (hey, they're only small!)
    Start with Christianity and Liberalism. Not one of his scholarly works by any means: a popular level polemic - but very much the concise heart of his thesis, as you wanted, and never really answered.
    Then the collection of addresses entitled God Transcendent, Banner, and I'd say
    only then the Hart bio (fascinating on more than Machen).

    Other popular level but slightly less popular ones are his Christian View of Man, and 'What is faith?', which I must get off my shelf and have a proper read of, given some comments in Hart...

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