Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Contrasts Review: Doctrine and Demons

Something new for a new year:
A Contrasts Review is where we contrast very different kinds of material
to better understand them all.

Baker, Robert C., General Editor. Charles P. Schaum, Contributing Editor. Lutheran Spirituality: Life as God's Child. St. Louis: Concordia, 2010. 301 Pages. Paper. $14.99. (Special offers available.) (LHP)

Engelbrecht, Edward A., General Editor. The Lutheran Difference: An Explanation  and Comparison of Christian Beliefs. St. Louis: Concordia, 2010. 602 Pages. Cloth. $29.99. (Sale: $20.00.) (LHP)
Richards, Larry. Earthbound (The Invisible War Series, Volume I). Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2009. 277 Pages. Paper. $16.99. (N)

Richards, Larry. The Day of the Others (The Invisible War Series, Volume II). Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2009. 261 Pages. Paper. $16.99.  (N)

Richards, Larry. The Blind Prophet (The Invisible War Series, Volume III). Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2008. 283 Pages. Paper. $16.99. (N)

Richards, Larry. The 69th Week (The Invisible War Series, Volume IV). Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2009. 286 Pages. Paper. $16.99. (N)

Richards, Larry. Possessed (The Invisible War Series, Volume V). Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2010. 286 Pages. Paper. $16.99. (N)

Richards, Larry. The Third Temple (The Invisible War Series, Volume VI). Unpublished advance manuscript. See also: (N)

I read fiction. I read theology. I spend a lot of time in God's Word as a Lutheran Christian. And my interests build on my experiences as a history major. 

I got into history because of a science fiction genre called "alternate history." What does this mean? Well, this is where to put all of the stories about the "what ifs" of history. What if the Confederacy won? What if Hitler won? What if the American Revolution failed?

To put the best construction on it, Larry Richards' The Invisible War Series is alternate history. That's the only way I can make sense of it and find the positive. He makes assumptions about angels, demons, salvation history, and Christ that I cannot agree with on the basis of Holy Scripture, not to mention the Lutheran Confessions. I can appreciate the author as an intelligent, prolific, articulate, and passionate Christian, but I cannot recommend or endorse The Invisible War Series. If I suspend what I know about the Bible, angels, demons, the End Times, and Israel, then I began to appreciate the story as a six-volume work of religious fiction. Richards does not do what Dan Brown attempted to do with his prefatory statements about Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code. Richards' fiction appears to be a confession of his theological worldview in print.

A book review is not a complete theological analysis or critique of every assertion or error. Reviews, especially in blogdom, are nowhere near long enough for that purpose. I owe it to our readers, as well as the publishers and authors we review to explain why, at least in part, we cannot give their products a favorable review.

That is the origin of our new Contrasts review. I'm reading several books at once as a reviewer. Two resources from Concordia were on my stack at the same time. 

This book [The Lutheran Difference] began as a popular 18 booklet Bible Study series. In this new work, we gather together all the rich content of the series, order it around the Nicene Creed, and present it in one accessible volume so readers can access the facts they need.

As Lutherans interact with other Christians, they often find themselves struggling to explain their beliefs and practices. Although many Lutherans have learned the “what” of the doctrines of the Church, they do not always have a full scriptural foundation to share the “why.” When confronted with different doctrines or denominations, they sometimes cannot clearly state their faith—much less understand the differences. (publisher's website)
As popular as Bible Studies are by a respected publisher, no one congregation usually sees every series, nor ever study in a great series like The Lutheran Difference. I commend CPH for the high quality and wide variety of faithful studies that clearly and respectfully show were the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith differs from (and sometimes agrees with) other Christian traditions. Most importantly, this series showed how Lutheran Christianity is most faithful to the Scriptures and the mind of Christ. Further, I am thrilled to be the owner of this series on CD-ROM. This is how our congregation did the Holy Baptism study last fall.

Concordia is a pioneer in digital resources. One could also purchase the original booklets, download the studies from their website, or purchase the new hardcover edition.

What a genius idea: Take one of the best Bible Study Series ever produced and flesh it out into text between a hardcover to make it an accessible multi-generational resource. I think of it as an updated topical version of the old blue Popular Symbolics.

Of particular interest to me while reading the fiction series mentioned above was topic five, "Angels and Demons" (147ff). It offers correction to the false teaching that people become angels when they die (152), the erroneous understanding of Genesis 6:2 that would allow for angel/human interbreeding (154), as well as possession and hell (169, et al).

In addition, topic eighteen covers "End Times," a necessary inoculation and antidote to rampant predictions about the end of the world, the rapture heresy (543), dispensational premillennialism, the need to rebuild a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and other challenges to historic Biblical amillennial Christian teaching.

As I mentioned before, the format is topical:
  1. God's Word
  2. Law and Gospel
  3. God the Father
  4. Creation
  5. Angels and Demons
  6. Marriage and Family
  7. God the Son
  8. Justification and Sanctification
  9. Predestination
  10. The Holy Spirit
  11. Daily Prayer
  12. Baptism
  13. Confession
  14. The Lord's Supper
  15. Priesthood and Ministry
  16. Vocation
  17. Worship
  18. End Times
The individual topics are structured in a multi-session/chapter format, with "Engaging this topic," "Lutheran Facts," Bible, Denominational "Comparisons" based on the major branches of Christendom, and "Point to Remember" subsections. Charts, references, and a handy "Lutheran Summary" with references from Concordia the Lutheran Confessions conclude each topic.


No wonder The Lutheran Difference in hardcover was added to The Essential Lutheran Library!

Do you want a closer relationship with God? Are there days when you feel far away from him? Instead of depending on your own strength, learn to depend on His!
This book, adapted from the popular Bible study series of the same name, explores the rich depths of a distinctively Lutheran spirituality. In Baptism founded upon God’s Word, the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Lord proclaims His victory over sin, death, and the devil. From there flows the proclamation of His Gospel and the administration of His Sacraments. It is through these means presented within the liturgy of His Church that Christ communicates not merely spiritual energies, an emotional high, a method of reasoning, or a stringent morality, but He truly communicates Himself—God in human flesh.

This book is a how-to for Lutherans wanting more out of their spiritual life written by respected Lutheran scholars. It will help leaders in the church discover reachable goals to strengthen their own faith and help others grow strong as well.
Contents Include:
  • Preface
  • Abbreviations
  • Word: God Speaks to Us
  • Prayer: We Speak to God
  • Confession: God Gives Us Truth
  • Cross: We Suffer with Jesus
  • Witness: We Share Our Faith
  • Vocation: God Serves through Us
  • Community: We Are Not Alone
  • Promise: God Is for Us
  • Glossary
  • Scripture Index (publisher's website)
I had not previously used these studies with a congregation, but had studied several of them personally. 
"Spirituality" can be a very unhelpful term theologically. It can be very emotive and "touchy-feely." I love that Dr. Veith helped redeem this term in our circles through the modern classic, The Spirituality of the Cross. Lutheran Spirituality deals with suffering and life in this world from a grounded theological perspective, but is not simply a doctrine book. It is a friendly resource that deals honestly with life's challenges. Theology, applied, is very practical. Justification and sanctification are to be distinguished, but both are to be affirmed. Christianity is baptism lived out. Consider:
Sin always robs us of joy, whether we are wallowing in guilt and shame, hiding from others, or are anxious over getting caught. In fact, getting caught is the first step toward freedom. When our sin becomes public, the silence of the secret has been broken, and now a word of forgiveness can be spoken and heard. Having been forgiven, David is now in a position to teach others as well (Psalm 51:13). As long as we are bound up in a sin, we will attempt to justify ourselves and futilely try to atone for our sins. Such sacrifices God does not desire. He desires instead broken and contrite hearts (verse 17). Having been forgiven and set free, we are then in a position to offer right and pleasing offerings of thanks to God (269-270).

Scripture is extolled (13). Readers are taught to distinguish between Law and Gospel (18). Prayer is rejoiced in as a privilege (42) and not a means of grace, Christians are taught to "return to the baseline of the forgiveness of sins" which leads us "back into the world where we live in our various callings" (77). LS affirms the mission of the Church to proclaim both Law and Gospel (94), and to continue the fight against Pietism and for private confession (101). Witness and pure teaching are not mutually exclusive (153ff, et al).

Importantly, readers are taught the Theology of the Cross, that life is messy, and suffering helps us better understand our crucified High Priest. We endure the cross because we are Christians (113). "Hip" Christianity is much like the Peter of Matthew 16 who cannot reconcile Jesus with a cross (cf. 114). We suffer in vocation, face trials of many kinds, and are tempted (128). We are to speak out against "godless laws and practices" and "be willing to accept the punishment [of the state] and martyrdom rather than obey a godless law" (196). 
Readers are directed back to Bible, Catechism (201), and prayerbook/hymnal as the foundation of our piety. Jesus is at the heart and center of Christianity. "The Good news of Jesus is the good news of God's promises kept (257).

Lutheran Spirituality looks like a companion volume to the popular CPH offering Lutheranism 101 and would function well in that regard. It would also be a great resource to support the LCMS Emphasis for the Church: Witness, Mercy, Life Together (221, et al). The Glossary, like that of The Lutheran Difference, is particularly strong.

Both Lutheran Spirituality and The Lutheran Difference helped me be more clear about what exactly was troubling to me in the fiction of Larry Edwards.

There's a war going on. It's an invisible war; a war between good and evil, waged in a hidden realm. There Satan and his demons wage continual warfare against God and his angels. This unseen struggle affects each one of us. . . for the prize to be won is the hearts and minds of human beings.
Welcome to the realm of angels and demons, where occult forces battle to blind, to oppress, and to possess human beings. Welcome to the Invisible War novels, tales that chronicle the cosmic struggle of demons vs angels from Creation to the end of time-and beyond.
The Invisible War novels trace the struggle between good and evil, God and Satan, from Creation to history's end. Drawing on the Old and New Testaments and the demonology of ancient as well as contemporary civilizations, these novels provide unique insight into to impact angels and demons have had in history, and the impact they have on our lives today.
(series website)

Dr. Richards speaks about the series on YouTube

In brief, here are the names of the six individual volumes with my major concerns about each:

  1. Earthbound asserts that there were eons (back cover, 5, 33, 37 et al) of time (and death and evolution) between Satan's fall and the creation of Adam and Eve. This is unacceptable to me on the basis of the clear Hebrew text of Genesis 1-2 and the word for "day." I cannot accept such a rewrite of ancient history, the Fall into sin, and demonology.
  2. The Day of the Others "chronicles the in-between years of the Creation account and the Flood" (back cover, et al). One will read about the beginnings of idolatry and false worship (6). I had to take some time off from the series after the gruesome incident on p. 149. The fatal flaw of the book is the plot that demons and humans interbred to give rise to a hybrid Nephilim. Why couldn't the sons of God be believers and the daughters of men be unbelievers (cf. Proverbs)? "Sons of God" are often angels in Scripture, but not always
  3. The Blind Prophet is a retelling of the Babylonian exile during the time of Daniel and Ezekiel. Zaki, which means "pure" in Arabic, is the name of the main character. It is the strongest of the series so far. It does set the stage for volume four with an interesting take on the prophecy of Daniel and the timing of its fulfillment. The author and I do not share a the same worldview on prophecy, but I can appreciate the moments of realism in this volume.
  4. The 68th Week is the best of the series in my opinion. Its weakness is the connection to the rest of the worldview of the series as a whole. The focus is often on Jesus. Satan and Myrdebaal return as major characters. Richards provides suspense in his artful retelling of a harmony of Gospel events. The major "veil" of the retelling is the use of more authentic period names for the human characters. Yeshua is Jesus.
  5. Possessed, volume V, jumps to modern times and provides a courtroom drama not unlike Peretti's Piercing the Darkness. Yes, the author is creative and original in many respects, and there is no overt plagiarism, but the situation and its resolution bored me the first time and did so again.
  6. The author was personally very gracious and accommodating in providing a pre-publication digital copy of The Third Temple. I'll be honest: I didn't read it word-for-word. Why? It read too much like my least-favorite series, Left Behind, and asserts the need for a Third Temple. The fundamental question for me is this: Is Jesus also the Savior of the Jews, or is there another Covenant for them?  Jesus Christ is our 100% Savior, the One Savior for all humanity (Acts 4:12), our True Man, True God, Prophet, Priest, King, and Temple (John 2). Not all who are genetically part of the people of Israel (Romans 8-11) belong to the new Spiritual Israel of Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2) in Christ Jesus. A Third Temple is a denial of Calvary and  a refutation of the curtain of the temple torn in two. God has not rejected His ancient people (Romans). He has provided them a Messiah in Yeshua. Some of His ancient people rejected Christ Jesus, but not all. A million Jewish Christians were known at the end of the First Century A. D. 
The writing of the series is part Frank Peretti, part Dan Brown, part Lewis (cf. Screwtape), part Bible Scholar.  Richards excels when he creatively tells the Bible story according to its own detail, particularly when he presents Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins. His writing is weakest when non-Biblical or anti-Biblical details become the main plot lines, obscuring God's grace and mercy in salvation history, as well as clouding his presentation of who Jesus is and what He has done for humankind. An overemphasis on "principalities and powers" can be unhealthy. Peretti hasn't been spiritually edifying for me in that regard, either.

Doctrine matters because truth matters (John 17:17, et al). Demons matter because these fallen angels wish us destruction and eternal separation from God.  We are to be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Spiritual warfare is real. The Devil must be resisted.

I highly recommend Lutheran Spirituality: Life as God's Child  and The Lutheran Difference: An Explanation and Comparison of Christian Beliefs. They are resources for the battle!

We must never forget that Christ, the Lion of Judah, is greater than the roaring lion of 1 Peter 5.

I Thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.

Luther's Small Catechism

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.