October 22, 2017

Recommendations and Reviews: From Eternity to Here by Frank Viola; Jesus On Death Row by Mark Osler

From Eternity to Here, by Frank Viola

Let’s be honest.

Guys like me- ordained in the traditional church, collecting a paycheck from the traditional church, investing a significant portion of our life in the traditional church- are supposed to be put off by Frank Viola’s entire project. And depending on what you’ve read by or about Frank Viola, that may be exactly how you feel: defensive about an “open” house church model that dismisses traditional denominations as a selling out of the church.

Viola’s work makes us defensive and rightfully so. Of all the contemporary critics of the traditional church, Viola has been the most effective. He’s not ranted and railed. Instead, he’s done the hard scholarly work to make his case, and offered a full and complete discussion and informed experience for his own model.

But what’s been missing in Viola’s project has been an extensive and foundational Biblical underpinning; specifically a foundational understanding of the church. With From Eternity to Here, Viola has given us that foundational Biblical discussion of the church, and in a compelling and creative way.

From Eternity to Here is a very different book from Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church. It takes three major Biblical themes- marriage, house and family- and explores them extensively and in detail for what these themes have to say about the church. It’s an excellent Biblical study, with hundreds of Biblical connections and insights that tie these great themes together.

Viola hasn’t written a Biblical theology or a narrative approach to the Bible. He’s written a Biblical theology of the church, focusing on those themes with the most influence on how the church sees itself.

I was taken aback with how much I liked this book. I read it quickly, and I’m going to read it again. Why? Because if there is a book on the Jesus-shaped church that I could recommend to everyone who identifies with my description of that journey, this has easily cleared the bar as my first choice. Not because I would sell all that I have and follow Frank Viola into the organic church movement, but because the way in which Jesus Christ dominates the ecclesiology is exactly what so many of us are searching for in the evangelical wilderness.

Viola is generous with his debt to mentors and teachers, some of whom will be new discoveries to some in this audience. The name Watchman Nee causes me some concern, but I’m not as concerned with where all of the sources for these Biblical themes come from as I am in whether the end result expounds all of scripture in a Christ-centered way. That is exactly where Viola succeeds. This is a uniquely original comprehensive tour of the threads that hold the Bible together.

I was most impressed with Viola’s compassion for the church and for the Christians who love the church. He understands how the church and the individuals who make it up have been hurt, abused and sold out. He understands how shabbily the bride of Christ, the house of God and his children have been treated. If nothing else, a reader will come away from this book enjoying and reveling in the love that God has for his people.

From Eternity to Here releases on March 1, and is available from Parable.com.

Jesus On Death Row by Mark Osler

Here we have a rather unusual book that many in the IM audience will find fascinating. It is an examination of all the issues related to the arrest, trial and sentencing of Jesus, using these events as a way to examine practices in the U.S. justice system, particularly as they apply to death penalty cases.

Mark Osler is a professor of law at Baylor Law School in Waco, Texas. He’s been a prosecutor and consultant in many cases, particularly in the area of sentencing. Osler is a Christian and a Southern Baptist.

The fact that Osler is a Southern Baptist teaching at a Texas Baptist law school, but writing a book for Abingdon, a United Methodist publisher, tells you a bit about what’s going on here.

Osler isn’t a Biblical scholar, and he’s completely up front about that. He lists his scholarly sources in the introduction. (He leans heavily on Raymond Brown’s Death of the Messiah.) He is a legal scholar and an experienced prosecutor, which comes through in every chapter.

The reason you won’t find this book published by Holman is that Osler is making a strong argument against capital punishment, based substantially on the abuses observable in the arrest, trial and sentencing of Jesus.

If you are looking for an in-depth examination of the last hours of Jesus, this book really has little to tell you that you can’t find elsewhere in more detail.

If you would like to engage the issue of abuse in the justice system, the mistreatment of prisoners, the failures and shortcomings of the courts, the motives and behavior of prosecutors and judges, the role of the crowd and the abuses possible in capital punishment, then I highly, highly recommend this book.

Osler is a good writer, using lots of anecdotes, understandable research and convincing logic. Even if you believe in some form of capital punishment, you’ll benefit greatly by examining the system and the experience via the familiar case of Jesus.

Great study book for anyone in the legal or law enforcement profession or preparing to serve there.

Cokesbury is a good place to buy this book.

Comments

  1. Osler is a brave man to question the death penalty a) in Texas and b) among Southern Baptists. It sounds like a good book.

  2. P.S. Sorry of this is a tangent, but what’s your issue with Watchman Nee?

  3. I think there is some unsound teaching in Normal Christian Life, but I’m going on the reviews and responses of my mentors there.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation on Viola’s new book and I may purchase it. It sounds like it is a scholarly work in the spirit of a Howard Snyder. I have some mixed feelings about Frank Viola and it may be the same type of visceral churning that you (and I) get when he mentions Watchman Nee.

    On the positive side,I feel that he strikes a cord with me (and maybe many people) when he describe his early awkwardness with the traditional church. I sense the same harmony when he discusses church history and the problem with the incorporation within the traditional church of extra Biblical cultural and philosophical practices and beliefs. Culture is of course is often amoral in itself unless it is presented as a Biblical mandate.

    To borrow from, then pervert, a quote from a Billy Graham movie, I have this “Church-shaped void in my heart” I’ve had parts of the void met in various places and various times but never completely met. Viola (in his other writings) seems to mirror that longing in way that I feel a kindred spirit. However, I’m at a point though, I feel content that it may never be filled this side of the new earth and God’s kingdom here, but maybe someday (this side of that) I will be surprised.

    I feel the most visceral churning, and my skepticism antennas go up, when I read is incredible accounts of demonic exorcisms and etc. Why? Not that I don’t believe that it could happen today or for any theological reason. But, I’ve lived through a period of my own Christian upbringing when we experienced these types of sensational events. Looking back, I now realize (and even then realized) that it was one of the most emotionally and intellectual dishonest times of my life.

    My fellow believers and I would testify in church of incredible experiences . . . people levitating as demons came out . . . while I knew in my heart of hearts that we were deeply embellishing. When I hear equal sensational stories I have to wonder if they are not in the same world as I was. I also believe that when Christ confronted evil in scripture is was with much more authority absolute resolution (and with less theatrics) than the weak ebb and flow between good and evil that Viola describes (see: http://www.ptmin.org/LeavingInstitutionalChurch.pdf ), which could have been lifted from the script of The Exorcist.

    So, I’ll put that book on my reading list . . . but not near the top. Thanks.

  5. I just ordered the book.
    I’m a Christian lawyer age 50, who was once heavily involved in capital litigation, and the experience turned me against the death penalty. Reasonable minds may differ on the penalty’s usefulness, but I learned long ago that too many American Christians accept it as an article of faith, citing Genesis 9:6, etc., with hardly any interest in learning how incredibly difficult it is for a typical jurisdiction to impose death fairly.
    Those years in litigation were an awakening for me, because I began to understand that it can be impossible to legislatively address a moral matter. That is, it’s one thing to baldly assert that you’re for the death penalty, or against, say, abortion; it’s quite another to write and enforce legislation that effectively carries out that belief.
    I’ve digressed, but I’m exicited to learn that a Chrstian author has done more than write yet another polemic about a Death Penalty that does not exist in any American jurisdiction, but rather has addressed it as it exists. It is, therefore, not surprising that he comes down against it.

  6. It must be hard to be Pro Life and yet pro death penalty. To use the trial of Jesus as an example of anything legal must be a stretch. The kangaroo court that tried Christ was against Jewish laws.
    Shame on any publisher so narrow minded as to refuse to publish on political grounds.

  7. I didn’t mean to imply that he was refused. I’m sure he never submitted it to Holman. It’s more likely that Holman would publish the Origin of Species than it would publish anything questioning the death penalty.

  8. iMonk, could I follow up and ask you to say more about unsound teachings of Watchman Nee, whether in the Normal Christian Life or elsewhere? Also, could you say a little about how Viola refers to Nee in the book?
    I don’t know much about Viola, but I remember hearing that he was strongly influenced by Nee’s views, and was at some point involved in the “local church” movement of Witness Lee, who was considered Nee’s successor.

  9. I don’t know any specifics. It’s been years, but various mentors that I respect have, done through the years, warned me off of The Normal Christian Life. I’d have to go digging to find much more.

    I do know that I have been very surprised at how many people write me and tell me that all house churches are heretical and cultic. It’s very odd.

  10. I kinda like Nee & The Normal Christian Life. I mean, I have the same issues with Nee that Bono does (no really), and really it’s the same issues I have with any Plymouth Brethren-influenced folks; an unhealthy understanding of ‘the world’ and aversion to it that can lead to a kind of matter-hating gnosticism. But! I’d say that’s ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ in Nee’s writing. (His trilogy ‘The Spiritual Man’ is way more hard-core in this regard – kind of ascetic – but he himself renounces this work later in life) I think you should read ‘The Normal Christian Life’ for yourself, Michael. Or better yet, ‘Christ: The Sum of All Spiritual Things’ (It’s shorter) You might be surprised. All I know is, a man who planted more churches in his lifetime than the Wesley brothers shouldn’t be too quickly discounted.

    And I agree with you about Viola’s book – I think ‘From Eternity to Here’ is his best.

  11. In case you thought I was making that stuff about Bono & Nee up, here’s a piece from an interview:

    “In November of 1982 you, The Edge, and Larry Mullins announced to your manager that you didn’t want to tour in support of your second LP, that the rock world was at odds with your Christianity. What happened?

    We were just being pulled in two different directions. A lot of it was based on the idea of the ego. We’d been reading a lot of Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian mystic. His idea was: “Unless the seed shall die and be crushed into the earth, it cannot bear fruit.”

    Rock ‘n’ roll had this idea: “It’s me!” You know, “Look at me, ’cause I’m looking at you, motherfucker!” Like, “Out of my way, looking out for number one, ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction!'” Watchman Nee’s attitude to that would be: “So what? What’s so important about you anyway?” (laughs)

    So it was like we were being torn in two. We felt almost subconscious pressure being applied to us by a lot of people we looked up to within that spiritual community that we were in and out of. In the end, I realized it was bull$#!t, that what these people were getting close to with this idea was denial, rather than willful surrender. It was denial, which is the next-door neighbor to self-flagellation, and that awful idea that “through pain is gain.” Yes, there is pain. Yes, you may gain from it. But you don’t get into your car looking for a traffic jam. (laughs)”

    – from Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/media/1989/05/bono-bites-back

  12. Two other interesting articles covering the Bono-Nee connection: http://www.interference.com/8537-interview-steve-beard-writer-of-bonos-chapter-in-spiritual-journeys

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/march/29.37.html

    And finally, this new blog post looking at Nee’s possible lyrical influence of the single from U2’s new album, “No Line on the Horizon”:

    http://davewainscott.blogspot.com/2009/01/watchman-nees-boots-from-future-meet-us.html

  13. I actually bought The Natural Christian Life in a Lifeway store at the DBC convention last November (go figure), but I haven’t had a chance to read much of it due to classwork. Now I am kind of curious. But it will still have to wait.

  14. I think it is quite biblical to be “pro-life” and “pro-capital punishment”. To lump abortion and the death penalty into the same group seems a little simplistic to me. Is ending the life of an unborn child really the same as ending the life of a convicted murderer?

    It is because life is precious and a gift from God that the murderer’s life should be taken, and the unborn baby’s should be preserved.

    imonk, I am not trying to hijack the thread, feel free to edit this if you want.

  15. prolife and pro death penalty says:

    I agree with cey. Abortion and the death penalty are apples and oranges.

    In California there was a man who was executed a few years ago. He was already serving life in prison. He arranged for a hitman to kill several people (including witnesses in his trial) on the outside.

    If he’s already got life in prison, what are you going to do to penalize him? Take away his TV privileges? Of course such a man should be executed.

  16. Yes, abortion and capital punishment are not the same thing, but that doesn’t automatically mean opposition to one equates to support of the other.

    I oppose both.

    I am a convicted murderer. At least that’s how I understand what Christ said about me in Matthew 5. BTW, I’m also a confirmed adulterer.

    We seem to forget the call to forgiveness when it comes to the “really big” sins. I’m thankful that God in Christ doesn’t look at me that way. And whether or not the “guilty” ever come to know Christ or even admit to what they’ve done does not empower me to determine which sins get which punishment in this life.

    And please, before you start quoting various old testament scripture from the “eye-for-an-eye” point of view, please also tell me how you’re doing with following 6th-day Sabbath rules, tithing, and dietary laws before you go cherry-picking the bits that support your opinions.

    When the Amish community (openly, freely, and without condition) forgave the man that murdered their children in a one-room schoolhouse in 2006, I was thunderstruck. I don’t know if I could be capable of such forgiveness, but I would aspire to.

    If you want to support lawmakers that will enact or protect capital punishment laws – go right ahead, I won’t stop you and that’s your right as a voter. Please know that I will be respectfully countering your vote at the poles. If on the other hand, you want to make capital punishment some sort of holy crusade that the church has been called to champion, I cannot support that.

  17. Ed
    Is it really just to allow the murderer to sit in prison for the rest of his life? And how did we arrive at the conclusion that this is just? Life imprisonment for pre-meditated murder is certainly not Biblical.

    The death penalty discussion is not “New Covenant vs.Old Covenant” it’s simply a part of the created order. It was in place before God gave the Law to the Israelites at Sinai.

    The idea that almost everyone believes that criminals ought to be kept from the rest of the population in some manner points to the idea of an intrinsic hunger for justice of some kind. Obviously there is much disagreement over what constitutes a crime and what prison should be like etc. but most Americans would say that a person who commits cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder ought not to be able to breathe free air for a very long time.

    Where does that idea come from? If, in fact it comes from the Creator Himself, then ought we then to find out what He thinks about murder and justice?

    So then why is one particular form of “taking a person’s life away” any better then execution? Who decides that life in prison is more just than execution?

    What about those who believe that we can “fix” or “heal” murderers and then release them back into society?

    C.S. Lewis in his book God in the Dock asks the question whether it is the Justice system or a hospital?

    Who is deciding what happens to criminals?
    What are they basing their decisions on?
    Are we in the business of “fixing” people or of making sure that justice is served?

  18. Since I’m sure someone will ask, here is the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty:

    2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

    2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

    Source: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a5.htm

  19. For what it is worth, I have read a lot of Nee’s writings and a lot of it is shady, but from what I remember of it The Normal Christian Life was a very good and sound book.

    From what I understand many of what are sold as Nee’s books are just other people’s compilations of sermons, lectures, ect. Who knows how much they are edited or added to.

  20. Mark Osler says:

    iMonk–

    Thank you for your kind review of my book. I do think you very much got what I was trying to say– and that I’m not a theologian but a layperson struggling with scripture in my vocation.

    One bit of clarification– I am a Baptist, but my church is not a part of the SBC. Baylor, also, is independent of the SBC. Abingdon was the first publisher I offered the book to, on the advice of friends who had published there, and they have done a great job with it.

  21. Dear iMonk. I am humbled by your review of my new book. Thank you so much. “From Eternity,” in comparison to all my others, is the closest to my heart and the most important, I believe.

    I feel that God’s Eternal Purpose (Eph. 3:11), which is by Him, through Him, and to Him, is the central motif of Scripture, yet we hear so little about it today in so many circles.

    A few words about Watchman Nee that may help. Nee was one among many people who had some influence on certain parts of the book. T. Austin-Sparks (“The School of Christ”) and DeVern Fromke (“Ultimate Intention”), as well as a host of other theologians, past and present, did as well.

    Nee is often confused with one of his disciples, Witness Lee. Lee started a movement that in the minds of many people who knew Watchman Nee, departed from Nee’s teachings. Therefore, Nee and Lee ought not to be confused. As Kierkegaard once said, the worse thing to befall humans are disciples. They tend to be far more extreme than their mentors.

    Nee’s book THE NORMAL CHRISTIAN LIFE is heralded as a classic in the deeper Christian life genre. I have never heard anyone in any Christian circle denounce it. It’s a beautiful treatment of the book of Romans. He has one chapter in it on the eternal purpose which is remarkable.

    I hope you will read it, as I’m quite curious to know what in it would cause someone to not recommend it.

    I would recommend NORMAL CHRISTIAN LIFE along with SIT, WALK, STAND — which is a wonderful little exposition on Ephesians — to any Christian, whether new or mature.

    The book that Nee wrote that is often discouraged is called SPIRITUAL AUTHORITY. Some folks in both South America and in Florida in the 1970s took the teachings in that book on “delegated authority” and spawned a movement that damaged countless souls. That’s one book of his that I would not recommend to people.

    Incidentally, someone mentioned THE SPIRITUAL MAN. Nee never retracted or denounced what was in that book. He affirmed the content later in life in fact. He simply observed that the weakness of the book was that it was too complete and comprehensive, and that the Holy Spirit’s way is never to analyze everything in the spiritual walk, reducing it down to intellectual understanding.

    If anyone has read the book (it can stop a Sherman tank!), they will understand that sentiment. Nee had a brilliant mind, and he was able to break down profound spiritual truths into segements and categories. That was a strength as well as a weakness.

    Other than that, some may object to Nee’s teaching that human beings are tripartite … spirit, soul, and body. His ecclesiology was also heavily influenced by the Plymouth Brethren, though Nee himself was not sectarian. (Some movements that owed much to him after his death became very sectarian, unfortunately.)
    None of the above is reflected in “From Eternity” by the way.

    In short, Nee’s grasp of the centrality of Jesus Christ, the importance of the church in God’s plan, and the Christocentric exposition of Scripture are his strong points, I feel.

    He also understand God’s sovereignty and gave one of the most moving messages on John the Baptist. He tells the story of John being a prisoner, and coming to a point of doubt about Jesus … “Is this the One?”. And then the Lord’s word coming to him, “Blessed is he who is not offended in me.” To follow a God that sometimes we just do not understand and who refuses to meet our expectations. It’s a brilliant message. So much so that others have reproduced it and written books based on it.

    In terms of the centrality of Christ and the importance of “life together” in the church, Nee’s work is similar to both Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in those two areas; he was not neo-orthodox).

    All told, Nee’s emphasis on the importance of the church and Christ’s centrality in God’s plan had some influence on my book.

    Thanks again for such wonderful words on “From Eternity.” I’m truly honored.

    Your brother,
    Frank

  22. I was already going to order Franks book and now I will for sure. Thanks for the good review.

  23. my stack keeps growing.

  24. I believe that no Christian can read Watchman Nee with an open heart and an open Bible and not thank the Lord with tears for the work He did through that brother. He writes with as much spiritual insight as any Christian writer that I have ever read. Frank, when people ask me my views on the Church, I generally, after about an hour discussion end up recommending two books to them. On the negative side of the institutional religion I suggest Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and on the positive side of genuine New Testament Christianity I suggest Concerning Our Missions by Watchman Nee (also published under the titles Rethinking the Work and The Normal Christian Church Life).

  25. FYI, you can read The Normal Christian Church Life, as well as many other Nee books, for free online at ministrybooks.org.

  26. T. Austin Sparks is someone who is way too overlooked.

    His book “God’s Spiritual House” was my introduction to him. Highly recommended. You can read this and The School of Christ online:

    http://www.austin-sparks.net/english/books/school_of_christ_the.html

    http://www.austin-sparks.net/english/books/gods_spiritual_house.html