Kingdom Triangle: Book Review

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Book Review

(Update June 27: Hear J. P. Moreland discuss this book on Converse With Scholars.)

I had to read twice through J. P. Moreland’s newest book, Kingdom Triangle, before I could even begin writing this review. This is not my usual experience with reviews. This book, though, is so packed with rich thought that knowing where to begin has proved to be a challenge. I’ve decided to jump straight to the easy part, which is my overall evaluation:

Get yourself a copy and read it, then read it again. Get your friends to read it. The legs of Moreland’s “Kingdom Triangle” may–or may not–be the three most important things Western Christians must do to make a difference in our world. Two of them, however, are very likely the things we have been most severely lacking.

J. P. Moreland is widely known as a gifted evangelical philosopher and apologist. I have benefited greatly from his previous work, especially Christianity and the Nature of Science, which has informed much of my basic thinking on science; his early apologetic work Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity; and the philosophy text he co-authored more recently with William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. I had a preview of part of Kingdom Triangle’s message through his interview, with Greg Koukl, on the Holy Spirit’s advancing work in the world (mp3 podcast: control-click or right-click to download, and fast forward to the second hour). I’ve been recommending that podcast to many people in the months since I heard it. So I was eager to dive into this book.

The difficulty in reviewing it comes from the breadth and depth of its material, tightly packed into just over 200 pages. One could approach it from a number of different angles. It’s a book about the Christian mind, and how to develop it for true discipleship. It’s a book about God’s power in the world. It’s a book about how to recognize and recover genuine happiness. It’s a book about the Great Commission, written by a former Campus Crusade for Christ staff member. It is a book about God’s Kingdom being realized–partially, at least–on earth today. In lieu of those, though, I’ll call on Moreland’s own opening and closing metaphor: the Christian life is a powerful, satisfying, truth-based drama in a world gone thin and empty.

Western culture is pervaded with scientific naturalism and with postmodernism. The first of these strips the world of spirit, the other of knowledge. Both take away the hope of ultimate, transcendent meaning. Naturalism denies there is anything more to life than what we can touch and see, and postmodernism says there is almost nothing beyond ourselves that we can truly know. Moreland tells how that “thins” our lives, for example on page 23, where he writes:

Under the influence of naturalist and postmodern ideas, many people no longer believe that there is any ultimate meaning to life that can be known. These folks–and they are legion–have given up on seeking that meaning and instead are living for happiness. Today, the good life is a life of happiness…. ‘Happiness’ is a good thing, all things being considered,. But if it is overemphasized or made the focus of one’s life, it leads to depression a loss of purpose in life, and a deep-seated sense of fragmentation. In short, it ruins your life. Why? For one thing, there are more important things in life than being happy. There is a larger meaning and a bigger purpose that should be our life’s aim. Put simply, we are wired for more than happiness. We are made to live for God’s honor by learning how to become spiritually competent, mature members of his Kingdom and to make that Kingdom our primary concern.

This has special significance in light of his having previously co-authored, with Klaus Issler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life. He is hardly opposed to happiness; instead he is distressed by false (and therefore ultimately unsuccessful) pursuits of it.

Regarding this spiritual competence he has much to say, and it starts with knowledge, the first leg of the “Kingdom Triangle.” (He spoke in 1994 on a closely related topic.) To be competent is to have progressed satisfactorily in an area of knowledge. Spiritual competence, then, is not best seen as exclusively a matter of faith or belief, but especially of knowledge. Moreland does not belittle faith or belief by this emphasis, but strengthens them. “Faith” is too often thought to be a matter of opinion, value, preference; a choice divorced from real knowledge. Josh McDowell speaks of some who say they know the Bible is true “because I have faith in it!” Such “faith” is divorced from actual thinking and knowing, and is distant from historic conceptions of what faith is. Moreland urges us to recognize that Biblical faith is built on actual knowledge: knowledge of God, knowledge of what is ethically real and true, knowledge regarding wisdom and the truly good life. Our knowing can be with confidence: we can (and should) know that we know.

Very strong counter-cultural words, these are. He’s trying to wrestle spiritual knowledge back to the status it had before it was denuded through scientism and secularism. Even Christians have been fooled into thinking that faith is something to be set against knowledge rather than upon it. To correct this he goes into the most philosophically technical passages of the book, exploring what knowledge actually is, how we can distinguish it from opinions or values, and how we can have confidence in it. It is not a full-blown epistemology, but it’s a fair introduction. (The material will challenge many readers, but as Moreland insists both here and elsewhere, that’s good for us. Extensive questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter can facilitate this work.) This is not a book of apologetics–though there are motions in that direction, in his critique of secular worldviews–but it provides essential perspective for viewing and handling the knowledge we gain through apologetics.

Competence extends also into developing the skills of Christian living. The second leg of his triangle, “Renovate the Soul,” has received more attention in the church than the other two, and though Moreland devotes a chapter to it, he directs the reader to other sources for more, especially Dallas Willard and some of the devotional classics. His treatment of how disciplines can help us tame the “flesh” (Biblically, the seat of sinful habit) is fresh and intriguing. I never would have thought of it in comparison to tennis training as he does! His support of Christian counseling and spiritual formation is encouraging; God didn’t plan for us to grow on our own.

These first two themes, knowledge and spiritual disciplines, are pretty much expected fare from a Christian philosopher. The third leg of his triangle, as he acknowledges, is not. This third leg is the advancing of the Kingdom of God by God’s working supernaturally in signs, wonders, and miracles.

Here I have a different kind of affinity with what he is teaching, which goes back many years. His thinking on this seems to have been largely formed by the Vineyard Churches’ openness to God’s work. The first Vineyard Church, in Anaheim, California, was led by the late John Wimber. Together with missiologist C. Peter Wagner, Wimber taught a controversial class at Fuller Theological Seminary called “Signs, Wonders, and Church Growth,” of which I audited a couple sessions in the early 1980s. I was attending a Sunday School class taught by Wagner around that time, and my roommate and close friend, George Eckart, was perhaps Wagner’s closest associate in these matters, other than Wimber himself. (George wrote the appendix to Wagner’s 1988 book, How To Have a Healing Ministry Without Making Your Church Sick.) I experienced God’s healing through George’s prayer one evening, an instantaneous release from a violent recurring cough caused by chronic bronchitis. I appreciated the way Wimber, Wagner, Eckart and others combined solid Biblical theology, avoiding some common charismatic errors, with an expectation that God would still work in power today.

We Christians are supernaturalists, after all, as Moreland gently reminds us. He speaks sensitively to Christians who believe that God’s miraculous works ceased long ago, and then turns around and addresses Pentecostals who have made experience far too much the center of their theology. In the center is the belief that God is still God, and his Bible is still our authority.

God is working powerfully around the world. I encourage you to listen to the podcast I already linked to, in which Moreland shares many of the same stories that are also in this book. The urgent question for Western Christians is, why isn’t God doing this in our part of the world? There seem to be two answers: one, Christians have been infected by our naturalist culture, so we’ve trained ourselves not to expect God to work in supernatural ways; and two, we’ve also trained ourselves not to see it or discuss it when he does.

In reality, God is doing more of this among us than we’ve realized. Christianity is growing worldwide at a pace we Westerners are hardly aware of (Phillip Jenkins calls it the most significant social phenomenon of the late 20th century). Some researchers estimate that since 1970, the number of born-again Christians with a vision to reach the entire world for Christ has increased by a factor of ten, from 71 million to 707 million. Estimates are, says Moreland, that up to 70% of that growth is fueled at least in part by God working signs of power and love. It’s not up to us to make God work in that way, but there can hardly be anything wrong with asking him for it. He has been answering prayers like that in ways most of us have hardly recognized.

Recovering the Christian mind, renovating the soul, seeing again the Spirit’s power: in a world grown thin, Kingdom Triangle offers real substance. I expect that twice through this book will not be enough for me–I’ll back in it again before much time goes by.

Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power, by J. P. Moreland. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. 201 pages plus annotated bibliography, notes, and indices.

 

Note: This article was originally published on my previous iBlog platform. It is one of a select group of articles I’m including here on the WordPress platform.