Book Review

Facing the World

J. V. Fesko
Samuel T. Logan, Jr.
Wednesday, January 2nd 2008
Jan/Feb 2008

This volume is a collection of presentations that was delivered at the second general assembly of the World Reformed Fellowship (WRF) in 2006. The WRF is a network for communication and sharing of resources for a number of Reformed denominations, associations, local congregations, institutions, agencies, and individual leaders. According to the editor, this organization "fulfills the dream cherished by John Calvin in the 1500s, the Westminster Divines in the 1600s and George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in the 1700s of truly worldwide cooperation among the Reformed branches of the church" (13). To be a voting member of this organization, one must affirm a historic expression of the Reformed faith in the Gallican Confession, the Three Forms of Unity, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the London Confession of 1689, or the Savoy Declaration (15).

The overall theme of the book is one of exploring what global challenges face the church, and what opportunities, tools, resources, and responses the church can offer. The book is divided into four sections: theological foundations; practical applications-sharing challenges, sharing opportunities; and a final challenge, sharing burdens and opportunities with "mainline" and "separated" brothers and sisters (5-6). The essays cover a range of topics including the importance of evangelism, the need for unity, the conflict in the Middle East, the burden of global sex trafficking, modern paganism, the need for apologetics, the burden of HIV/AIDS, missions, ministry to the urban poor, ministerial spiritual formation, theological education, and radio ministry.

In one sense, reviewing this volume presents a challenge because there is a degree of unevenness among the essays. Some are more theological and well documented, and others are simple presentations reflecting thought upon difficult issues facing the global church. Nevertheless, one can evaluate the volume by noting the strengths and weaknesses as a whole rather than focusing upon any one particular essay.

The book's strengths lie in the expressed desire to face a number of difficult situations that confront the global church. For example, in the essay that covers the conflict in the Middle East, there are important points raised that all Christians should consider, such as the number of children killed on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle (55). For many Christians who automatically support Israel, it is important to consider that there are Palestinian Christians-not merely nominal Christians, but brothers and sisters in Christ-who suffer at the hands of Israel (63). There are also helpful resources in a number of the chapters of the book that help dissect the spirit of the age, modern paganism, and unbelief (81-122). There is also the challenge that seminary professors should consider teaching abroad in Africa or China so that seminary students outside the West can gain access to first-rate theological training (207). This is a simple way to augment the often modest training that students in other parts of the world receive.

The book, however, does present two fundamental weaknesses. First, in a number of places where one would expect to see the gospel of Jesus Christ explicitly mentioned as the key to confronting the challenges that face the church, one does not find it. In some places, it seems that the authors assume the importance of the gospel without actually making reference to it (19-29, 64-79). In others, however, there seems to be a greater emphasis upon social action rather than the propagation of the gospel. For example, in the chapter on HIV/AIDS the author states, "Young people are responding to government and church education to abstain, delay sexual activity, be faithful, and use condoms" (130). It seems here that there is a tacit approval that churches should be involved in sex education and even promoting safe sex with the use of condoms. To be sure, the author does call for the church to pray, for example, for the conversion of the AIDS-infected rapist and not just t he victim of such a horrible crime, and to preach God's love and forgiveness (132). Yes, the gospel should always be accompanied by a cup of cold water, a diaconal component, but it seems that the church's emphasis should be upon the ministry of Word and sacrament.

A second weakness is that it is difficult to discern in what way various presented solutions offer a distinctively Reformed response. For example, one author writes, "I am convinced that denominations are irrelevant to God as we head into a post-denominational twenty-first century…. We need to repent of our divisions and move past them" (232-33). In another chapter, one finds similar criticism of the multiplication of Reformed denominations through schism, and offers in response that the answer to such denominationalism might be through a "symphonic theology" (151). There are two stand-out exceptions, where one author calls for unity by maintaining the commitment to the Reformed creeds and confessions, and for more money to be spent on the translation of Reformed literature into other languages (45, 210). Yes, the Reformed community has been sinfully marked by schism; but denominations sometimes exist for a good reason, such as when mainline churches abandon the gospel. The biblically based theology of the Reformation should not be scuttled in favor of a watered-down pan-Protestant theology (e.g., 236). Misuse of the truth does not mean that setting it aside is the answer.

One can profit from reading this book because it will likely take readers beyond their own suburban microcosm or urban Western setting, and place before them the broader global challenges facing the church. At the same time, however, one also hopes that the WRF will make a greater effort to set forth not merely an evangelical but a Reformed response to these problems, one centered upon Word and sacrament.

Wednesday, January 2nd 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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