Thursday, March 27, 2008

Book Review of "The Kingdom Triangle" by J.P. Moreland (corrected)

[This was just published at Denver Journal.]

J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle: Recovering the Christian Mind. Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.

J.P. Moreland is a highly esteemed, well-published, and extremely active Christian philosopher. For years I have profited greatly from his books and articles, and for fifteen years I have used his books as texts for courses at Denver Seminary. Unlike many Christian academics, Moreland maintains a passionate concern for the church, evangelism, and the state of culture at large. To that end, he divides his writing and speaking between the highly academic and the more popular or semi-academic. In so doing, he is able to build a bridge between scholarly pursuits and the questions and concerns of laypeople. Os Guinness refers to this area of endeavor as “intermediate knowledge.” While proponents of intermediate knowledge are few, the need for such is great. Few non-philosophers are likely to read Moreland’s book on universals, for example, but many thoughtful Christians will be drawn to his other books, such as Love Your God With All Your Mind (NavPress, 1997), which is a stellar apologetic for a robust and spirit-filled engagement of the intellect for the glory of God, the good of the church, and the winning of the world.

Moreland’s new work is both profound and controversial. The controversy will largely stem from his endorsement of the charismatic dimension of Christian experience. It is highly unusual to find an analytically trained philosopher with a Th.M. from Dallas seminary who endorses the “third wave” form of the charismatic movement!

Kingdom Triangle is a passionate and knowledgeable summons to the church to engage God, the world, and the self in a deeply biblical and profoundly meaningful manner. To this endeavor, Moreland brings the resources of philosophy to bear fruitfully on the exigencies of the Kingdom of God. This is both rare and wonderful. The book is divided into two sections. The first explains “the crisis of the age” in America and the West in general. The second section gives the answer: a kingdom triangle of intellectual engagement, spiritual formation, and supernatural spiritual power.

In explaining the contemporary crisis, Moreland writes that we have moved from the “thick” world of the biblical worldview to the “thin” worlds of naturalism and postmodernism. A biblical worldview provides the knowledge of God, existential meaning, and authentic drama to all of life. We are creatures of a good and holy God, placed on earth to manifest the virtues of the Kingdom of God. We are immersed in and engaged with a life and death struggle with the forces of evil, yet God is our strength and hope. We are not groping in the dark, but have been given knowable truth in Scripture and elsewhere.

But both scientific naturalism and postmodernism—each in its own way—eviscerate the world of any objective meaning or genuine drama. Naturalism denies the reality of anything outside of what materialistic science can observe. The cosmos is reduced to merely material properties. All must be explained by impersonal change and necessity. There is no soul, no God, no angels or demons, and no afterlife. As Peter Berger put it, it is “a world without windows” because the universe is self-enclosed. Morality is not rooted in the Designer and in human nature, but is merely the result of natural selection. Knowledge is limited to what can be known through scientific methods (scientism).

Postmodernism recoils from the aridity of scientific naturalism and tries to find meaning in the meaning-creation of communities and individuals. Like scientific naturalism, it denies that there is any objective meaning to life, but instead of trying to find meaning in science, it affirms the contingent constructions of human beings, variously situated. Each community—or person—has its own narrative or language game, none of which is superior to any other, but all of which are acceptable. However, there is no objective meaning to be found and no knowledge of objective reality to be had. While scientific naturalism is a form of realism (we can know something of objective reality, which is only material), postmodernism is a form of nonrealism (there is no objective reality, scientific or otherwise, to know). Both deny the knowledge of God.

These two worldviews rob us of objective moral values, the dignity of human beings, and any concrete hope for our existence. As a result, instead of moral agents deeply rooted in objective reality, we find around us—or even within us—“empty selves” that are restless, easily distracted, infantile, and narcissistic. Moreland ardently argues that both worldviews are both empty and false. Christianity not only provides meaning and drama for life, but is true and rational and knowable. The knowledge of God is available to errant humans. While the book does not give a full-fledged apologetic for Christianity or against scientific naturalism and postmodernism, it does powerfully demonstrate the intellectual weaknesses of these two worldviews with respect to epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.

In the second half of the book, Moreland advocates the kingdom triangle as the proper response to “the crisis of our age.” The first leg of the triangle is the recovery of the Christian mind. As a Christian philosopher and apologist, Moreland is in an exemplary position to offer advice. We must reclaim Christianity as a knowledge tradition; that is, we must not be content with leaps of faith or merely true beliefs about God and the Bible. To acquire knowledge we need to justify our beliefs (in various ways). Moreland provides a short but clear run down on various ways to know things and the importance of the mind to the Christian life. (On this, see also his book, Love Your God With all Your Mind, as well as James Sire’s Habits of the Mind [InterVarsity, 2000].)

The second leg of the kingdom triangle is the devotional life or spiritual disciplines. Moreland advocates the classical disciplines of retreat (such as solitude) and engagement (such as service) and speaks of ways one can understand the heart or affective side of one’s personality. This interior understanding of the affect has become important to Moreland in recent years. From his own experience, he speaks of the need not only to apply the mind to the things of God, but also to bring one’s emotions under the Lordship of Christ. Some may find his “heart meditation” a bit strange, since it emphasizes focusing on the heart muscle itself as a place of emotion. However, there is nothing necessarily New Age or otherwise dangerous about such a meditation if it is done prayerfully and thoughtfully. Nevertheless, this practice may not be appropriate or helpful for everyone. If so, one may ignore it, and I am sure Moreland would not mind. My lone criticism of this chapter is that it did not emphasize adequately the neglected discipline of prayer with fasting. If the essence of spirituality is denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus, then there is no better way to deny ourselves in an age of over-indulgence and narcissism than to deny ourselves food in order to give ourselves more fully to the Lord.

“The restoration of the Spirit’s power” fills out the last leg of the kingdom triangle. Although Moreland graduated from a seminary that teaches that the supernatural gifts of the spirit (such as healing and prophecy) have ended (cessationism), in the past few years he has experienced some of these gifts himself and has reevaluated what the Bible teaches on these matters. He has come to believe that this dimension of Kingdom living is crucial if we are to respond effectively to the deadness and darkness of our time. I completely agree. While Moreland does not give a detailed exegetical or theological argument for the ongoing manifestation of supernatural gifts, he points out that the old cessationism has been losing its credibility among many, that Christians in the global south are experiencing these gifts in powerful ways, and that he himself has experienced or witnessed the miraculous dimension of the Kingdom of God in the past few years. What Moreland advocates is not classical Pentecostalism or the Charismatic renewal of the 1960s and 1970s, but the “third wave” approach of the Vineyard movement. This is an orientation that does not emphasize a second “baptism of the Holy Spirit” or insists on the speaking of tongues. It rather seeks God’s supernatural agency for healing, prophecy, and other signs and wonders.

Although I am also a proponent of signs and wonders as part of the dynamic of the ongoing manifestation of the Kingdom of God, I wish that Moreland had given a few more warnings about potential and actual abuses in these areas. Moreland alludes to the dimension of spiritual warfare, but one wishes he had fleshed out this aspect of Kingdom living in more detail, since the contemporary world is awash in false forms of religion that are inspired by “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). But to his credit, he provides references to works that tackle this area.

Kingdom Triangle has many strengths and no significant weaknesses. Moreland writes with a confident, compelling, and courageous voice. He does not avoid strong judgments when he deems them necessary. This may be off-putting to tender souls accustomed to terminal tentativeness in Christian writing, but it should not be. Moreland has paid his dues and knows of what he speaks. For example, as a robust proponent of Intelligent Design, he refers to theistic evolution as “intellectual pacifism,” since it gives so much ground to Darwinism, a naturalistic understanding of biology that is not warranted by the facts. Likewise, Moreland has no patience with Christians who adopt postmodernist views of truth or knowledge, because such an approach marginalizes Christianity as merely another language game or perspective on reality. Christianity is, rather, a knowledge tradition that can and should be rationally defended according to objective principles of rationality. Moreland is not afraid to offer tough judgments against elements of popular culture—such as celebrity-ism and sports worship—when they reveal the hollowness and shabbiness of lives poorly lived (see Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17).

If read, pondered, preached, taught, and applied, the teachings of Kingdom Triangle could spark revival, reformation, and reform in the church, as well as in the world at large. This is a triangle that Christians must not ignore.


Peter Malik said...

seems to be another significant addition to my "to read" list.

Glen Davis said...

I didn't know you were a proponent of spiritual gifts in the church today. I'm encouraged to learn it. Is there a place you've written more extensively about this?

Yossman said...

I have to get this book.

Another Academic 'Third Waver' is David Pawson (UK). His Book 'The Normal Christian Birth' is worth reading. It offers a thoroughly biblical view on regeneration that integrates repentance, faith, water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

You're correct on the need for immediate knowledge, i.e. the need for building a biblical worldview in the mind of every believer.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I have not written more extensively on the topic of spiritual gifts. See also Craig Keener, "Gift and Giver."

Kevin Winters said...

Actually, it does have one primary weakness: the majority of the so-called postmodern thinkers named by Moreland do not fit his summary of so-called postmodernism. Sure, there may be some in the wider culture who are relativists in his sense, but such are deviations from the primary thinkers who are their supposed 'patron Saints.'

Yeah, it's the same schtick I usually use, but that doesn't make it any less true. The understanding that Moreland and most other Evangelicals have of Derrida, Foucault, Heidegger, or Nietzsche (common names dropped as prominent postmodernists, hence supposedly relativists) is faulty at best, philosophically irresponsible at worst.

By all means, fight relativism; Derrida, Foucault, Heidegger, and Nietzsche would. But at least put in the work to understand prominent philosophers before you throw them into a category that is essentially equated with relativism.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

None of those appear in the index to Kingdom Triangle, Kevin. You are still attacking my Truth Decay!

Kevin Winters said...

That's odd, because Derrida appears on pages 78 and 229, Foucault on 78 and 230, Heidegger on 78 and 230, and Nietzsche on 66, 77, 78, 232, and 233. All in the index and named in the book, along with Wittgenstein, Kuhn, and Lyotard.

You are right, though: the same criticism can be leveled against your book. I've begun to research all of the most prominent Evangelical works on postmodernism, currently by looking at the sources used. I find it interesting, for example, that most of your primary sources in Truth Decay are from Rorty and Nietzsche whereas, with Derrida, only one of the four references are a primary source and the other three are either quoted or cited in other works. Similarly with Foucault: of the six sources you cite, two of them are primary, one of them is cited in another text, one is a text critical of Foucault, one is a quote from another text, and the last is a 5-page Encyclopedia entry on Foucault (though I've never seen any philosopher, analytic, Continental, pragmatist, or whatever, adequately summarized in five pages).

It is true that one can never cite all the relevant sources or all the works that have contributed to one's understanding, but the lack of primary sources seems to indicate what I've been trying to say: Evangelicals who criticize prominent so-called postmodern thinkers just aren't familiar with their work or the best scholarship available about them, with the exception of Rorty who is the royal whipping boy because, among the lot, he actually *is* a relativist. Again, there are those in the wider culture who are relativists in the sense that you and Moreland discuss, and they should be addressed thoroughly and with acumen, but it doesn't extend to the majority of the primary thinkers that you cite.