Book review of Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster

streams of living waterA mature faith

One of the marks of a mature faith is that it is sufficiently secure to explore other Christian traditions and discover in them good which they can incorporate into their life without losing their roots in the essentials of faith in Christ. One of the early steps we can take to hop out of our wells and widen our appreciation of the larger body of Christ is to read this interesting book. It is substantial without being too academic. It will give you food for thought, and stimulate desire for holistic growth.

General content and development

The author identifies six traditions from the various movements in church history and categorizes them according to their unique emphasis in faith and practice. They are the contemplative, the holiness, the charismatic, social justice, the evangelical, and the incarnational. He argues that the essence of these major traditions find their embodiment in the person of Jesus, and since we are called to follow Him, these traditions and practices are to be nurtured in the life of the believer and the church. He unpacks each tradition by using 3 persons as illustrations: a historical figure; a Bible character; and a contemporary person. The he describes the tradition and lists its strengths and perils and suggest practical applications.

One example of how he develops his subject is the charismatic tradition where he first uses St Francis of Assisi as the historical figure that epitomizes this stream; and then St Paul the apostle as the biblical example of the charismatic; and finally, James Seymour, the leader in the Azusa Street outpouring, as a contemporary example. Next he shows how the tradition is supported by scripture. Moving from this base, he lists charismatic strengths, one of which is empowering to serve; and a list of perils, one of which is rejecting the rational and intellectual. Finally he gives practical suggestions of how to be more open to follow the promptings of the Spirit.

Debatable choices and Third World absence

Naturally it is debatable who would be the best candidate to represent each stream. For example, the use of St Francis to illustrate the charismatic tradition could just as well, or even better represent the social justice tradition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer could be a candidate for social justice instead of holiness. I would have thought someone like bishop Oscar Romero should not be left out of the book completely. He should at least appear in the list of notable figures and significant movements in appendix B. Sadly sterling Asian men of God like Watchman Nee, John Sung, Bakht Singh and Wang Ming Dao were conspicuously absent.

The book does not sufficiently argue the how and why he arrived at the six traditions and not one less, or one more? Could there have been an additional tradition that did not make the list and why not. It would have been enlightening and more convincing if the reader had some access to the arguments, even if only in an appendix.

An incomplete end?

The conclusion was too abrupt. He could have debated about whether the Bible posits an ideal of every Christian having all these six traditions in full mature expression, or whether what is seen of the six traditions, and in Jesus is meant to be expressed not through the individual, but through the corporate or community expression of the Body of Christ, whether in its local expression, or in the universal expression. It would have been good for the author to identify the contemporary situation: are all streams represented in today’s church? Which denomination is displaying which tradition best? And discuss if what God intended is actually having different members or “tribes” of his worldwide church displaying these streams in varying strengths so that together they present the fullness and the ideal.

A good and important read

However what I like about the book are many. This book has broadened my perspective and understanding. The natural tendency is to be entrenched in our own tradition and to denigrate those of others. Reading this has deepened my appreciation of the richness of the faith that the Lord of history has deposited into the life of the church over centuries, a treasure not to be despised.

Another asset is how the author shows that the various strands are inter-related to each other. Out of a rich contemplative life would flow a life of holiness and the charismata of the Holy Spirit. Logically too such a person would have power to be and to live compassionately. Justice and compassion cannot go without the evangelical witness of the Gospel message. And all these traditions must be embodied in people who live ordinary everyday lives and this is the incarnational tradition. What a joyful dance the inter-relationships point to!

richard j fosterRichard J Foster is a well known author of best selling books like “Celebration of Discipline”, “Prayer” and other books on spirituality and spiritual disciplines. The tradition that nourished him is the social justice tradition of the Quakers. There are Quakers of the more liberal sort, and those that are very evangelical, and he belongs to the latter.

This is also one book where I read all the appendices. The summary of church history from the lens of the six traditions and the list of notable persons and movements in history was a different approach I liked. And though they were not as exhaustive as I would prefer it to be with respect to Asian and African representation, they helped to strengthen the author’s thesis. I have benefited much from reading this book and will explore further its proper application to life.

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“Destined to Reign” book review by Dr Gordon Wong

d2rI came across this review written by Dr Gordon Wong, Old Testament professor with Trinity Theological College. There is wisdom to be gained from reading and reflecting on what he has to say about Joseph Prince’s teaching in his book “Destined to Reign”.

I recently read the book Destined to Reign (2007) by Joseph Prince, the senior pastor of New Creation Church. When I conveyed some of my thoughts on the book, one of my pastoral colleagues thought it would be helpful if I shared them with more Methodists. Let me begin by saying that Pastor Prince’s emphasis on grace has been a great blessing from God to many. My nephew and cousin belong to New Creation church and have grown immensely in their relationship with God. My prayer is that God will use Prince’s gifts of preaching to even more blessed effect as he allows the Holy Spirit to convict him (graciously, as always) of areas that could be improved. I hope my comments below will be helpful towards that end.

1. Prince’s teaching on God’s Grace and Anger

His emphasis on grace has led some to accuse him of giving Christians a licence to sin. He vehemently rejects this criticism (e.g. p. 30) and explains that a person who has properly experienced grace is one who is inspired and empowered to turn away from sin.

What I like: the book’s stress on the power of God’s grace is correct. The grace of God in the Bible is meant to inspire holiness, and not allow sinfulness. The book’s strong emphasis on grace is true to the Bible. Self-condemnation and guilt are real problems that afflict many people today, and the message of God’s grace is truly good news.

What I had reservations about:
In stressing grace, the book appears to suggest that God no longer gets angry with Christians. If this is what it really means to teach, then this is not biblical. On p. 41, read: “We do see God being angry in the Old Testament, and in the book of Revelation, where his anger is toward those who have rejected Jesus. But for you and me, believers in the new covenant, we are not part of the Old Testament and we will never be punished because we have already received Jesus. As believers, God is no longer angry with us because all His anger for our sins fell upon Jesus at the cross.”

I suspect (and hope) that what the book really means is that God’s anger is not the type that takes delight in condemning us and pointing out how horrible we are. Also, I think (and hope) that what the book means to say is that God’s anger and punishment on believers does not result in the loss of eternal salvation. But to say the above is very different from saying that God gets angry only with unbelievers and never with true believers (p. 41), or to insist that “the Holy Spirit never convicts you of sin” (p.134). Does the Bible really say that God never gets angry with believers anymore? In the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), God is presented as getting angry with believers. For example, the letters to the 7 churches (i.e. people who profess to be believers) in Revelation 2-3 include a lot of stinging rebuke and condemnation from Jesus himself, including the use of threats of punishment and judgement. (I find attempts to say that the “churches” in Revelation do not really refer to believers as far-fetched.) God Himself seems to punish two professing believers Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. Isn’t this an example of the Holy Spirit, through Peter, convicting Ananias and Sapphira of their sins? Or must we assume the (not so gracious) judgement that Ananias and Sapphira cannot have been true believers?? For argument’s sake, even if they were not true believers, they were certainly in the church assembly. So there is place still for Spirit-inspired preaching for the conviction of sin within church walls. There may be many “believers” like Ananias and Sapphira who need the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin and our need for grace. Perhaps the book could have made a clearer distinction between divine anger at Christians that results in the loss of eternal salvation (which is what he is most concerned to speak against) and divine anger at Christians that aims to correct and discipline (which he seems to reject). To be fair, Prince does accept the positive idea of child discipline or training (pp. 65-67), but he rejects any association of this discipline with the words “anger” or “punishment”.

God’s anger was, and can still be an expression of His love and grace, just like a loving mother who sometimes scolds her child. (Prince is, hopefully, only joking when he implies, p.37, that children will become schizophrenic if parents sometimes express happiness and at other times anger!) To say that God will never get angry or punish believers anymore may promote (unwittingly or mistakenly) a distortion of the Bible’s teaching about God’s grace. God’s anger is an expression of His love and grace towards his children. Prince would perhaps do better to speak of righteous anger (Ephesians 4:26) versus unrighteous anger. God never gets (unrighteously) angry with us, but loving grace demands a place for righteous anger as long as His beloved children still need discipline.

2. Prince’s teaching on Law

The book is very strong on rejecting the value of the Law in the OT as being of any positive help for Christians. For example, on p.120 there is a section entitled “The Ten Commandments Kill” and it says that these commandments are “the ministry of death”.

What I like: I think (and hope) that the book is trying to say two biblical things about the Law. Firstly, it may be warning us that the Ten Commandments can be used or preached in a condemning way that destroys the soul of people and makes them cringe in fear or turn away from God as a harsh Master. This is a good biblical warning. Secondly, the book’s description of the Law as a ministry of death rather than life correctly describes and reinforces the biblical view that obedience to the Law cannot lead us to receive salvation. It is correct and very good of Prince to speak against those who are “trying to use the Ten Commandments to remove their sins” (p.124). We are saved by grace, not by obedience to the Ten Commandments or the Law. If these two points represent what Prince teaches on the Law in the Bible, then this is good and biblical.

What I had reservations about: That the Law can be preached and understood in such a way as to promote soul-destroying guilt and deeper condemnation is certainly true. Prince is to be commended for eloquently highlighting this biblical warning about the danger of the Law, and stressing the wonderful grace of God that forgives us all through Christ. But while there are many who need this message of God’s grace-filled forgiveness to save them from their guilt and despair over sin, there are many others who need the message of God’s grace-filled discipline and rebuke to save them from presumption and indifference to sin. Prince’s emphasis on free and full forgiveness is very good at helping the former, but not so good for the latter. Does Prince believe that guilt is the only problem people have because of sin? If so, that would present an incomplete picture. Sin does not only imprison us in guilt; it also lulls us into indifference and presumption. The Bible addresses both these effects of sin. The book appears to suggest that there is no way of preaching the Law in a graceful manner in order to set us free from our sinful indifference and presumption.

Similarly, Prince is correct to stress that the Law cannot save or justify, but his writings give the impression that the Law has no other positive function except to prove that we cannot be saved by it. But the Law in the Bible is also presented as a positive expression of God’s grace in telling us what God desires. But because Prince contrasts Law and Grace in this manner, he gives the impression of implying that the Law has only the negative value of telling people that they cannot be saved by their attempts at obedience to the Law. The Law certainly does perform that valuable function, but it does much more as well. It helps us know what is good in God’s eyes. The book is weak on emphasising the ongoing value of the Law for both Christians and unbelievers.

To be fair to this book, there are certain parts of the Bible that also speak in similarly strong negative tones against the Law (e.g. most of Galatians and parts of the books of Romans and Hebrews). But this negative view is balanced out in other parts of the Bible that are very positive about the Law (e.g. Jesus in Matt 5:19-20; James 1:25; Psalm 119 etc.). In other words, the Law as a means of salvation is spoken of very negatively in the Bible, but the Law as a means of showing us God’s pleasure or desire for our lives is spoken of very positively. The book seems to emphasise only the negative picture of the Law. Doing so would fail to do justice to the biblical balance which speaks also of the ongoing positive value of the Law for Christians. Paul, himself, could sum up the Law very positively as teaching us to love one another (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8,10).

3. Prince’s teaching on Healing

Healing is a big topic in the Bible, and it is not the main theme of Prince’s book. But from the little he says in his final full chapter “Good Things Happen” (pp. 287ff), Prince relates testimonies of people who were healed when they received the grace and forgiveness of God. He also states that “once you know that you have been forgiven of all your sins, past, present and future, the healing of all our diseases follows” (p.290).

What I like: I think Prince is correct to say that the Bible speaks of a God who heals our diseases, and this is a true expression of the forgiveness and grace of God. Physical healing is taught and prayed for and experienced in the Bible.

What I had reservations about: Whilst the book speaks of Bible passages where physical healing is expected and takes place, it says nothing about the passages that accept (without surprise or anguish) that miraculous physical healing did not take place e.g. 2 Tim 4:20; Philippians 2:25-27; 1 Tim 5:23; Gal 4:13-14. Incidentally, Galatians 4:13-14 tells us explicitly that Paul did have a bodily sickness which resulted in the greater good of the Gospel being preached contra Prince’s statement that “Paul did not suffer any sickness or disease” (p. 71). The problem is not so much with what Prince affirms viz. that healing is a blessing from a God who is full of grace; the problem is with what he omits to affirm viz. that physical illness without healing on earth can also fall within the gracious providence of God. The Bible teaches us both to pray for physical healing and to be prepared to endure illness with patient endurance. The victorious Christian life is one that remains faithful to God in both times of abundance and poverty, in sickness or in health, for richer or for poorer (cf. Philippians 4:12-13). I do not know the ministry of Prince well enough to be sure of what he really thinks about healing on earth. Perhaps if you listen long enough to his sermons, you may be able to make a fairer assessment. Does he preach to help Christians cope with the onslaught of poverty and illness, or does he speak only of removing sickness and suffering by effortless faith? We need both messages, because that is the balance we find in Scripture.

In general, most preachers are prone to partial teaching. We all tend to favour one side of the balance more than the other as a result of our personal experience of God’s dealings with us. The danger comes when we imply that the side we prefer is the only true side of biblical truth!

May God grant us wisdom and discernment as we seek to live in ways that befit those who have been saved by such a wonderful grace as that which our Lord Jesus has lavished on us.

Postscript: There are several places where I do not agree with Prince’s interpretation of the Bible verses (e.g. pp. 124f on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; p.263-65 on the cold, hot and lukewarm Laodiceans in Rev 3:15-16), but these are disagreements over the interpretation of specific phrases that can commonly be found amongst devout Bible teachers. My comments above focus on some major issues that discerning Christians should reflect on more carefully.

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“The Shack”: an Asian pastor’s opinion


Surprise runaway bestseller

I have just finished runaway bestseller “The Shack” by William P. Young. I like the fact that it was a self-published book and no established secular or Christian publisher wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. So with $300 and a word of mouth marketing strategy and the power of the internet, the book remained number one on the New York bestseller list for months. It has sold 11 million copies and has been translated into about 30 languages. Everybody loves an underdog who becomes top dog story, including me. It gives us hope.

It took me some time to read the book. It was passed to me in July by a pastor friend during my vacation at the OMF bungalow. I finished the book only last week.

Its a fictional novel that conveys truths about the triune God, suffering, forgiveness, how God wants to heal and relate to us. I would rate it 3 out of 10 as literature, but 8.5 out of 10 for its power to connect with the post modern soul.

Opinions are poles apart

I googled to read up what others have said about this book. I already heard that the book drew lots of bouquets as well as bricks. Many wrote heartwarming testimonies of life changes while others burned it at the stake. Even among well known pastors, professors and writers the opinions are poles apart. Eugene Peterson, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver said, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” did for his. It’s that good.”  Michael W. Smith, songwriter and singer said, “The Shack will leave you craving for the presence of God..” Dr Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said, “This book contains undiluted heresy”  and Mark Driscoll, the famous pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle said, “Regarding the Trinity, it is actually heretical.” I have no idea what Simon Cowell said.

Right-brained and left-brained opinions

The opinions of these esteemed men displayed the contrast in views of the right-brained and left-brained readers. The former two read with right-brained creative, intuitive, arty eyes and interpreted it according to its genre, giving it its due artistic latitude, leaving the soul of the book intact. The latter left-brained folks dissected the book with logic, reason, systematization and and the surgeon’s knife of doctrinal precision, identifying the viruses that made the cadaver infectious. The former helps us to see possibilities, gives us the freedom to explore and seek truth, to struggle with dissonance, be frustrated with ambiguity, and search further until conviction grows. The latter seems to stifle exploration of faith, and want to keep everybody safe, orthodox and sound in the doctrine – and that is not all wrong either.

Connects to the postmodern mind

The Shack has a great appeal to this post-modern generation and attempts to answer questions they are asking about suffering, God, the afterlife, church, truth, life and forgiveness. It connects powerfully at gut level. Unlike left-brained, linear books that turn off a visual-fed people with rigid deduction and patronizing didactic outlines, the Shack is more like Jesus’ way of communicating eternal realities: the story. It is a doorway inviting people to explore theology, yes, I said theology. Today people only want pragmatic and practical lists of “how to” sermons and books.  There is a dearth of thinking and meditating about God, doing theology as laypeople. This book has the potential of tempting laypeople to leave the shore of shallow Christian cliches’ and sail beyond familiar waters. I would urge you explore this ocean with a reliable map or navigator.

To read or not to read

Should I read the book? Don’t be swayed by the opinions and reviews of others. Get one and read it yourself. Enjoy the ride with the first read, and if it doesn’t spoil the fun, underline the parts that make theological statements and struck you . In your second reading, go to those highlighted portions and compare it with a left-brained, conservative viewpoint (this is the map) like this detailed review done HERE by Tim Challies, and have a lively discussion or meditation with yourself, a friend or a group. Do not be afraid of theological exploration and debate and ambiguity. Let the journey enrich and deepen your faith.

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