It's not often I get a scoop. Usually I'm the last person to know about everything. However, I happened to get a book in the post yesterday which isn't officially published until 8th March, so for once I'm a little bit ahead.
The book in question is Frank Viola's From Eternity to Here: Rediscovering the Ageless Purpose of God (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009). No, I don't know the author, nor do I have an 'in' with the publisher; I simply pre-ordered the book from the Bookdepository and it turned up in my letterbox yesterday morning. (To be fair, books are often available a wee bit before their publication dates, so I'm sure there are already a good number of other copies floating about out there).
It was with mixed feelings that I read the book and that I now review it. I both liked it and didn't. Despite what they say, I do have somewhat of a tendency to judge a book by its cover (What?, you say, How can a responsible teacher say such a thing?; well, it's simply that I have a huge pile of books I need to read and tons more I really should read, so the covers are one way of sorting through and prioritising.) Of course by the cover, I don't just mean the picture on the front. Aesthetically this book is rather pleasing: I like the design. So that part of the cover won me over. The front and back covers also made it clear that the book was about God's eternal purpose: again, a plus point. However, the other aspect of the "cover" (and in this case I need to put cover in inverted commas, as it was really inside at the front), and probably the more important one to me in judging the merits of a theological book, is the praise given to the book by other well-known writers (I'm not really sure what this is called - reviews??). Of course you can tell that a book is super-academic theology when it doesn't have any of these little reviews at all (think Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series), so obviously they aren't the be all and end all of choosing a book to read next. Rather it is that, when there are little reviews, I like to look and see who gave them. If a book has little recommendations from Wayne Grudem, J. I. Packer, Michael Horton, C. J. Mahaney, Mark Dever and people like that, then it's probably worth reading. However this book, despite having 4 full pages of recommendations, was recommended mostly by people I had never heard of; and those among them whom I had heard of didn't really entice me to read. Recommendations from Brian McLaren (of Emergent church fame) and Greg Boyd (of Open Theism) do not usually give me the impression that I'll have a great liking for a book.
However, I persevered past the recommendations and read the whole book in one evening (granted, I stayed up until half past one to finish it!). That's the first thing I need to say about the book itself (as opposed to its cover and frontmatter); Viola writes in a way that keeps your attention. This is not the sort of book where you are always flicking looking to see how many more pages until the end of the chapter so that you can go and make a cup of tea and have a biscuit. In fact, I have to admit that, as I was reading I was so carried away that I twice let my cup of tea go cold!
Added to the fact that he kept my attention was the subject matter of the book. As I have already mentioned, this book is about the Eternal Purpose. Viola writes:
We Christians have a great need to be delivered from the tunnel vision of the present and discover our place in the eternal drama of God's ageless purpose. Standing at the center of His purpose is the church. (pg. 105)
Here, I wholeheartedly agree; thus I applaud Viola's aim in writing. Finally a contemporary book that's easy to read and will appeal to my generation (I'm only 26 you know; although personally I tend to like older writing) which brings God's eternal purpose into focus and will help people catch sight of its importance. Yet, despite the noble aim, I'm just not sure that this is really that book.
The problem, I think, is that Viola doesn't quite bring God's eternal purpose into focus. Rather, he's looking at it through a faulty prescription and so things are just that bit out of focus. And it is this fuzziness that leads to Viola's problems in the book.
Viola's faulty lenses seem to come from his equation of the church with God's eternal purpose. At first I didn't see any problem with that; it's not quite the Apostolic way of expressing things, but he's not Apostolic, so his non-Apostolic perspective would no doubt lead to different ways of expressing the concept. Yet, having now read his whole book, I see the importance in the distinction made in Apostolic thought between the church and the eternal purpose; yes the two are intimately and inseparably connected, but it seems preferable to say with the Apostolics that the church is the instrument of the eternal purpose (see W.A.C Rowe, One Lord, One Faith, pp 82-83). In the words of Dr Greenway (a former principal of the Apostolic Church Bible College in Penygroes):
for the Church there is an eternal purpose, because the Church has to fulfil an eternal destiny. As to what is involved in this purpose we have no full knowledge ... It is a purpose which finds its centre in the person of 'Christ Jesus our Lord.' (Dr Greenway, Lectures on Ephesians, Lesson 4, pg 4)
Thus, although it may be a rather fine distinction, it seems that we are on safer ground to say that the Church is the instrument of the eternal purpose rather than to directly equate the church with the eternal purpose. Why?, you ask; does it really matter? Well, yes; and it is Viola's book that has really convinced me of the importance of this distinction, for his equation of the two leads him, eventually, to confusion between Christ and the Church.
How does Viola confuse Christ and the Church? He does so through his interpretation of the Totus Christus, the whole Christ made up of the Head and the Body. Now, don't misunderstand me, I am not disagreeing with the doctrine of Totus Christus; rather I think that it is a doctrine which much of evangelicalism and pentecostalism has lost and needs to regain. What I am disagreeing with is Viola's interpretation of the doctrine. For, you see, the doctrine of Totus Christus is one that is very easily distorted in unbiblical directions. Although the Scriptures are clear about the vital connection between Christ the Head and the Church, His Body, and the fact that to persecute the church is to persecute Christ (Acts 9:4), the Bible also maintains the distinction between the Creator and His Creation. Viola, on the other hand, writes that:
Jesus Christ is virtually indistinguishable from His church. (pg. 231)
and further that:
From God's perspective, Christ is no longer a single person. He is a corporate person. Christ and the church are a single reality. The church is the bottom half of Jesus Christ. (pg. 267)Put another way, the church is the rest of Jesus Christ. (pg. 270)
Here Viola is going too far! Yes the church is the Body of Christ and is indwelt by Christ and intimately linked to Him as her Head, but she is also distinct from Him.
Underlying Viola's confusion of Christ and Church is a faulty Christology. Viola doesn't seem to have any place for the continuance of the hypostatic union after Christ Ascension (or perhaps even after His resurrection; Viola can be a bit ambiguous, but I have tried to give him the benefit of the doubt). He claims that, in the church:
The literal body of Jesus Christ had returned to earth. And it expanded. (pg. 235)
At best, this demands some sort of Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ's human nature, yet in light of other comments he makes, it would appear to deny that Christ still has a physical body.
Jesus Christ is now in the Spirit. And He craves expression also. He seeks to make His life visible through a many-membered being. (pg. 236)
This is an implicit denial of Christ's continued humanity; Christ is seen as needing the church as His body because he no longer has a physical body. If this is not what Viola meant, I wish he had been more clear.
This faulty Christology leads to a confusion between Christ and His Church; between the Head and the Body. In turn this leads Viola to a precarious position regarding our future.
Your destiny is to be fully united with Christ and lost in God in inseparable oneness. (pg 126-127)The church was created to be an active participant in the impenetrable mystery of the Trinity. (pg. 232)
Here Viola completely confuses Creator and Creation. Yes, the Bible teaches union with Christ and it hugely important, but Viola turns it into being absorbed into God; that means we no longer exist! The second quote almost seems to want to bring the church into the Trinity as a fourth member of the Godhead! I'm sure this isn't really what Viola wants to say, but it is the way it reads. This is a point that all preachers should bear in mind; we need to be very careful what we say, as a little exaggeration on our part can lead those who listen or read into a lot of problems.
There are some other problems in the book too, but this review is already quite long enough and I think I have got to the heart of the matter. Viola's book had a great deal of potential. to a discerning reader it could still be a very good read and is certain to help readers think about the importance of God's eternal purpose. However, there are just so many problems. I desperately want it to be the book it could be; a fascinating read that introduces a new generation to the wonder and importance of God's eternal purpose; but it simply isn't. Viola's view of the eternal purpose is blurry; skewed by His faulty Christology and confusion of Creator and Creature.
There is much that's right in this book; but there is also much that's wrong. Yet maybe it will be an encouragement to an Apostolic author to take up the challenge to write the book that this could have been and present to a new generation a view of the grandeur of God's eternal purpose seen through correctly prescribed lenses, where the vision is clear and in focus.