Book Reviews


Michael Licona’s magnum opus on the resurrection, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, is a must read for those who are interested in the historical evidence for the resurrection.  It has some overlap with other great works on the resurrection such as N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of Godbut it is distinct in that it begins with an examination of history and method (philosophy of history) before examining the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and drawing any conclusions.  Licona explores the nature of historical knowledge (what can be known) and historical methodology.  He even assesses the source material (canonical as well as non-canonical material) to determine each source’s value for the investigation.  Finally, he gets to the heart of the matter by determining the historical facts, and then assessing competing hypotheses to determine the best explanation.  All 600+ pages are worth your attention!

I recently finished reading Greg Koukl’s new book, The Story of Reality.  In fact, I read it twice – and I rarely read a book more than once.  Koukl contends that while most Christians know most of the bits and pieces of the Christian worldview, few know how to put those pieces together in a coherent fashion to form a truly Christian worldview.  They may have a lot of knowledge about the Bible’s contents (micro-level understanding), but few understand the overarching Biblical storyline (macro-level understanding).  The Story of Reality sets out to tell that story, breaking it up into five major areas: God, man, Jesus, cross, and final resurrection.

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Need to Know about Qur'anIslam is the second largest religion in the world, and growing rapidly.  As such, it’s important for Christians to have a basic understanding of this formidable religion, and in particular, it’s sacred text, the Qur’an.  Christian apologist, James White, has written an excellent book – What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an – that provides Christians with a basic understanding of the Qur’an, focusing on the topics that divide Muslims and Christians.

White begins the book by making a case for why Christians should concern themselves with the teachings of the Qur’an.  From there, he provides a broad overview of both Muhammad and the Qur’an:

  • A brief sketch of Muhammad’s life and the origin of Islam
  • According to Muslims, the Qur’an was written by God from eternity past and merely dictated to Muhammad by an angel over a period of 22 years. As such, it is inerrant.
  • The central tenet of faith for Muslims is the absolute numerical oneness of God (tawhid), and a confession that Muhammad is His greatest and last prophet.
  • The worst of all sins is to associate anything with God (shirk), so the Christian claim that Jesus is God is shirk.

While White’s book is not written as a refutation of the Qur’an’s claims to be divine revelation, there are a number of points raised in the book that expose the Qur’an’s claims as false:

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SoulUntil relatively recently, most people believed that human beings are constituted of both body and soul.  With the rise of materialism, Darwinism, and neuroscience, however, this notion is under scrutiny and dismissed by most secular thinkers as ridiculous.  The notion that humans have souls is tantamount to a “ghost in the machine,” as British philosopher Gilbert Ryle put it.

The existence of the soul is important to Christianity for a variety of reasons.  First, the Scriptures teach that humans have souls.  If we don’t, then Scripture is wrong.  Second, if humans lack souls, then there is no life beyond the grave (at least prior to the resurrection).  But apart from the Bible or human tradition, why should we think the soul exists?  That is the subject of J.P. Moreland’s newest book, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters.

This is not the first book Moreland has written on the subject, but it is the first book that is easily accessible to a lay audience. In less than 200 pages, Moreland lays out the case for the existence of the soul, the nature of the soul/consciousness, and the afterlife. He manages to examine the Biblical teaching on the topic as well.

While the modern tendency is to reduce the mind to the brain (appealing to neuroscience for empirical evidence), Moreland argues that this is manifestly false because mental properties are not identical to brain properties.  If mental properties cannot be reduced to physical properties, then the mind is not a physical thing, but an immaterial substance.

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God's BatallionsI have always heard the Crusades were an example of Christian imperialism, greed, intolerance, and involved all sorts of injustices and evils against Jews and Muslims that have served as a source of bitterness between Christians and Muslims ever since.  After reading, God’s Batallions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark, I realize that this story of the Crusades is not one that matches the historical record.  Among other things, Stark argues for the following propositions:

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Darwin_DoubtFor the previous installments: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Chapter 17

In this chapter, Meyer asks whether it is possible that the cause of the Cambrian explosion is an intelligent agent rather than naturalistic processes.  He argues that it is, and that the design hypothesis is better supported by the evidence than any naturalistic hypothesis.

Meyer looks closely at how historical science works.  It is different than physics and biology because you cannot experiment on the past.  What you can do, however, is develop multiple and competing hypotheses to determine which is the best explanation for the evidence at hand (inference to the best explanation).  One of the best ways to test competing hypotheses is on the basis of their causal adequacy; i.e. is the proposed cause adequate to produce the effect in question?  Remember, we have to explain the origin of biological information.  What sorts of causes, now in operation, are known to produce information?  Only one: intelligent agents.  If the basis of life is information, and the only known cause of information is intelligence, then it follows that an intelligent agent is not just the best explanation for biological information, but the only viable explanation. (more…)

For the previous installments: part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Chapter 14

Darwin_DoubtIn principle, a neo-Darwinian explanation of the origin of new body plans can only work if body plans are wholly determined at the genetic level.  If sources of information other than DNA are substantially responsible for the formation of body plans, then at best neo-Darwinism is inadequate as a holistic explanation for the diversification of life, and at worst it is simply the wrong explanation altogether.

Once again, modern discoveries in embryological development have discovered that there are many factors other than DNA that play a critical role in embryological development.  For example, it’s been shown that in many organisms, you can completely remove the DNA from the developing cells and the embryo will continue to develop up to a certain point.  If DNA alone was responsible for embryological development, this should be just as impossible as driving a car without gas.  If the car is driving, and there is no gas in the tank, then clearly something other than gas must be powering the car.  The same is true of embryological development.  While DNA is necessary to embryological development, it is not sufficient in itself.  There are sources of power other than DNA that are critical to the development of the organism.  Scientists call such sources “epigenetic information,” meaning it is information beyond the genetic information coded in DNA.

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Darwin_DoubtFor the previous installments: part 1, 2, 3, 4.

Chapter 12

Scientists largely ignored the mathematicians who pointed out the seeming impossibility of creating new genes and proteins because the mathematical equations of population genetics pointed to a nearly limitless creative power of random mutations.  Given known mutation rates, population sizes, and reproduction rates, there seemed to be no end to what evolution could accomplish.  The problem with this conclusion is that population genetics is based on some assumptions that we now know to be false.

When the neo-Darwinian synthesis (the idea that evolutionary change is driven by natural selection acting on random genetic mutations) was formulated in the 1930s, biologists did not yet understand the structure of genes.  Watson and Crick would not discover the structure of DNA and the digital code it uses to build proteins until 1953 and beyond.  Prior to this, genes were only understood functionally as those entities that determine visible and selectable traits such as eye color and the number of toes on our feet.  It was assumed that single genetic mutations could alter genes in such a way so as to produce a new function, and that one gene could be responsible for building a complex structure.  Given these assumptions, it’s easy to envision an organism slowly improving one mutation at a time.  Today, however, we know that these assumptions are patently false:

  • Hundreds of proteins are often required to create a complex system. To build that system would require changes to hundreds of genes.  Furthermore, because the function of these systems depends on the coordination of several well-matched parts, these new proteins (or proteins with new functions) must arise at the same time.[1]
  • To change or improve the function of a single protein typically requires multiple, coordinated amino acid changes, which in turn requires multiple, coordinated changes in the DNA. Because the new function depends on the coordination of multiple mutations, every mutation must be present in the protein at once.

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Darwin_DoubtFor the previous installments: part 1, 2, 3.

Chapter 9

In the early 1960s, MIT professor Murray Eden set his mind to discover whether neo-Darwinism could account for the origin of new organisms.  He knew life was based on a genetic code, and based on our shared experience of all other coded systems, he assumed the sequence of nucleotides was absolutely critical to its function.  If you start adding, deleting, or moving pieces of a digital code, for example, the meaning (function) is degraded or even lost.  If we can’t create a better program by randomly adding, deleting, and moving pieces of digital code, why think a Darwinian process that makes random changes to the DNA code could build better and novel organisms (indeed, why think a coded system could ever be built by random processes to begin with)?

In 1966, Eden and other colleagues convened a conference at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia.  The conference was titled “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution.”  The conference sought to explore the creative power of natural selection acting on random mutations.  Those present recognized that there are an enormous number of ways to combine amino acids together to form protein chains.  And while they did not know precisely how many combinations could result in a functional protein compared to those that could not, they did know the number of functional combinations was extremely small.

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Darwin_DoubtFor the previous installments: part 1, 2.

Chapter 6

If common ancestry is true, we would expect the evolutionary tree of life (TOL) based on animal morphology to line up with the evolutionary TOL based on molecules, but they don’t.  In fact, there is no one TOL based on morphology or one TOL based on molecules.  There are multiple TOLs.

Interestingly, a comparison of different genes from the same organism can result in different TOLs for that organism.  The same is true of morphology.  For example, when the TOL is constructed based on germ-cell formation (which is basic to the evolutionary process because it underlies reproduction, and we would expect for all organisms in a branch of the TOL to have the same germ-cell formation) it leads to one TOL, but this TOL differs radically from TOLs constructed based on body-play symmetry, the number of primary tissues, or the mode of development.

Looking at the Cambrian pyla specifically, there is no one TOL showing what the ancestry looked like leading up to the Cambrian.

Convergent evolution is a word to describe how similar morphological features develop in different species, where that feature was not shared by their common ancestor.  There are many examples of so-called convergent evolution.  But convergent evolution undermines the presupposition underlying the theory of common descent: similar homology indicates similar ancestry.  Convergent evolution demonstrates that homological similarities do not necessarily imply a common ancestry.  Convergent evolution negates the logic of the argument for common descent from homology.

Chapter 7 (more…)

Darwin_DoubtFor the previous installment, see here.

Chapter 3

In 1995, Chinese scientists discovered even older Cambrian fossils near Chengjiang, China.  At this site, even more Cambrian phyla and species were uncovered.  This discovery also put to death the most popular form of the artifact hypothesis.  One can no longer claim that the Pre-Cambrian lacks the Cambrian ancestors because the ancestors were too soft (no exoskeleton) or too small given the fact that the Chinese researchers discovered fossilized sponge embryos which are both microscopically tiny and entirely soft-bodied.  They were preserved so beautifully that they were even able to see them in the midst of cell-division and identify the nucleus of the cells.  Of course, even before this discovery, we knew that soft-bodied animals could be preserved in the fossil record since filament-shaped micro-organisms had already been discovered in the Precambrian, and many other soft-bodies animals, organs, and anatomical structures in both the Cambrian and Precambrian.  According to Simon Conway-Morris, the Burgess Shale (Cambrian) contains 70K+ specimens, and 90% of them are either entirely soft-bodied or have a thin skeleton.  The fossils discovered by the Chinese contained even more soft-body animals and preserved eyes, intestines, stomachs (and even the contents in the stomachs), mouths, and nerves.  Furthermore, it would be impossible for some ancestors of the Cambrian phyla to function without their hard parts (such as an exoskeleton).  They would have to have evolved together, and thus we would expect to find those ancestors in the Precambrian.  If the Precambrian could preserve soft, tiny organisms, then why don’t we find the transitional forms leading up to the Cambrian phyla in the Precambrian?

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Darwin_DoubtI may be a bit late to the party, but I’ve finally gotten a chance to read Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Darwin’s Doubt.  Having read his previous book, Signature in the Cell, I had high expectations, and Meyer did not disappoint.  Darwin’s Doubt takes a look at the longstanding enigma of the Cambrian explosion – a very brief time in history in which the majority of all major animal forms abruptly appear in the fossil record with no trace of simpler ancestral forms.  Darwin recognized the problem the Cambrian fossils posed to his theory, but thought future discoveries would solve the problem.  After 150 years, the problem hasn’t been solved.  Instead, it’s been made more acute.

Scientists are increasingly coming to recognize that Darwin’s theory cannot explain the Cambrian explosion.  Some are proposing alternative, naturalistic explanations.  Others see the Cambrian explosion as powerful evidence for the intervention of an Intelligent Designer nearly 550 million years ago.  Who’s right?  Darwin?  The Darwin doubters?  Intelligent Design theorists?  Stephen Meyer walks the reader through the evidence, and then evaluates competing explanations to see how they stack up against the evidence.  It should be no surprise to those who know Stephen Meyer where the book concludes.  The question is how he gets to his conclusion.

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Christian Ethics GeislerChristian Ethics by Norman Geisler was written in 1989.  I’ve known many people who have read this book over the years, but never bothered to do so myself until I saw it on sale for a deep discount!  I found it to be a great introduction to ethical systems and pressing moral issues.

Geisler starts by looking at various ethical systems such as antinomianism, situationism, utilitarianism, generalism, and variations of absolutism (these are the names he gives these views, which are not exactly my preferences).  He concludes that the Bible teaches a deontological view of ethics.  When it comes to the question of whether moral duties ever conflict and how we are to respond, he argues for the “greater good” view in which moral conflicts are real, and we do the greater good when we choose to lesser of the two evils.

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God ForeknowA couple of years ago a friendly soul purchased Steven C. Roy’s book, How Much Does God Foreknow from my Ministry Resource List.  Other research, however, prevented me from getting to this book until now.

As the title implies, the purpose of the book is to explore the question of God’s foreknowledge. It is meant to be a critical evaluation of open theism, which is the view that God cannot know the future, free choices made by moral agents because the future does not exist. One of the strengths of Roy’s work is that he interacts directly with Open Theists, quoting them at length.  This avoids the potential for constructing a straw man argument, and allows the reader to consider Open Theists arguments for themselves.

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Visual History of KJVWhen the KJV turned 400 years old in 2011, there were a number of books published to celebrate and explore this historic, influential translation. One of those books was A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Story of the World’s Best-Known Translation by Donald L. Brake.  I picked it up earlier this year via a scratch and dent special through CBD, and I’m glad I did.  It is chocked-full of interesting (and not-so-interesting) information about the history of the KJV.

Brake covers everything from the impetus for the translation to its modern form.  He begins with a brief overview of the history of the English language and the first English translations of Scripture.  Politics and religious factions caused a tug-of-war when it came to the production and acceptance of new translations.  No English translation gained universal acceptance. While the KJV did not immediately gain the adoration of all English speakers, within 30 years it had supplanted most other prior translations, and only continued to gain more and more market share until it became the standard translation in the English speaking world with no serious challengers until the late 19th century.

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Universe from NothingLast year theoretical physicist and atheist, Lawrence Krauss, wrote a book titled A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. As the title suggests, Krauss wrote the book to answer the age-old question of why there is something rather than nothing. The book was heralded by many atheists as the definitive answer to theists who claim God is necessary to explain the existence of physical reality. Indeed, in the afterward Richard Dawkins claimed that Krauss’ book devastates theistic arguments based on cosmology just as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species devastated theistic arguments based on design in biology. Other reviewers, however – including scientists, philosophers, and theologians – beg to differ. Having read the book myself (not just once, but two times now), I can see why they were less than impressed with Krauss’ argument.

While my overall assessment of Krauss’ argument is not positive, truth be told, most of the book was quite enjoyable and informative.  That’s because the first 2/3 of the book is a lesson on the historical development of modern cosmology.  Krauss doesn’t make his case for why there is something rather than nothing until the last four chapters.  Unfortunately, that’s where the book falls apart.

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In the Beginning We MisunderstoodMost books dealing with the proper interpretation of Genesis 1 attempt to do one of two things: show how Genesis 1 cannot be reconciled with modern science, or show how Genesis 1 can be reconciled with modern science.  Some try to show that Genesis presents us with a young universe, while others try to show that Genesis presents us with an old universe.  Either way, it is presumed that Genesis 1 intends to present us with a scientific description of how God created (order, duration, etc.). 

In their new book, In the Beginning…We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context, coauthors Johnny Miller and John Soden argue that this presumption is false, and concordism is a misguided hermeneutical approach to Genesis 1.  Discussions over the meaning of Genesis should not be driven by scientific questions, but by literary questions.  Our interpretation of Genesis should not be determined by our views about science, but by the text itself.  Why even think that God meant to provide a scientific description of creation?  The most important question to ask is what Moses meant when he wrote the creation account, how his readers would have understood it, and what practical impact it would have for them given their unique historical situation.  How did it prepare them for the theology and religious practices they were familiar with in Egypt, as well as those they would encounter in Canaan? 

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cold-case christianityJ. Warner Wallace is a retired cold-case homicide detective.  For the first 35 years of his life he was a staunch atheist.  Using his detective skills, however, he began to examine the NT gospels.  To his surprise, he found them to be trustworthy accounts based on eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus Christ.

Wallace recently published his first book, Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels, detailing the evidence that convinced him the Gospels were reliable accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Each chapter begins with an evidential principle derived from his experience as a detective, which is then applied to the Gospels.

Here is chapter-by-chapter overview:

Chapter 1 – Question your presuppositions about God.  All of us have bias.  Examine your bias to see if it is valid and true.  Keep an open mind.

Chapter 2 – Abductive reasoning.  What is the best explanation of the evidence?  Distinguish between possible and probable/reasonable (applies this to the alternative, naturalistic explanations of Jesus’ resurrection).

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Christology and NTI purchased Christology and the New Testament by Christopher Tuckett a couple of years ago, but just finally got around to reading it recently.

This book takes a look at the subject of Christology, but from a purely Biblical perspective (no post-apostolic theological development or creedal affirmations are considered).  Tuckett, who teaches NT at the University of Oxford, looks at how each NT author presents Jesus, particularly through – but not limited to – their ascription of various titles to Jesus.  While Tuckett is liberal in his theological conclusions (and it’s not even clear that he is a confessing Christian), his presentation of the Biblical data is quite good.  He has a great way of bringing out the Christological emphasis of the different NT authors/books.

If you are looking for a good introduction to NT Biblical Christology, this is a good resource.

9780805447576_cvr_webA while back someone purchased The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes for me from my Ministry Resource List, for which I am always grateful.

I do a lot of reading, and had a number of books to get through before this one.  I had requested the book because it came highly recommended as a great resource on the subject, but to be honest, I was not on-the-edge-of-my-seat-excited to read it.  Like every other theologian, I am not equally interested in every theological topic, and the Lord’s Supper has never ranked too high on my list of theological priorities.

I grew up Catholic.  Communion was something we participated in weekly.  I never understood what it was all about, and didn’t care to.  It was just a ritual I went through (including the ritual of trying to get that sticky wafer off of the roof of my mouth with all sorts of clever tongue contortions).  When I converted to Pentecostal, I went from celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly to bi-annually or annually, so I had even less reason to give the topic much thought.  Sure, I studied the various positions and the historical debates on the nature and purpose of the Supper in seminary.  That piqued my interest a bit, but more from a historical perspective than a personal interest in my own practice of the Supper.  I saw the Supper as a memorial, through that we should do it (and more frequently than we usually do as Protestants), but never got much out of it personally.  Then, I read this book.  It has greatly enhanced my appreciation for the importance and significance of this ordinance instituted by none other than Jesus Himself.  There are many nuances to the Supper that most of us pass over.  This book draws them out.

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