In 2016, Ben Giselbach released his first book in what appears to be a series titled ‘You Are a Theologian.‘ In the first book he notes that his purpose of this series is a response to the decline of faithfulness over the past few years within the Churches of Christ. There is often a cry for teaching fundamentals, but as Giselbach rightly points out this is usually a call for to teach on more controversial issues. While these issues aren’t wrong to study, I agree with Giselbach who writes “it is impossible to adequately teach these issues in a productive way without first teaching the truly fundamental matters underlying these issues” (v). What are the underlying issues? The understanding of what the Bible is, how it came to be, and how to properly read and interpret the text. In this book, Giselbach writes to help solve just that issue.
I don’t want to make this review long and complicated because the book isn’t either, and you don’t want to read a long boring book review, so let’s talk about what I liked about the book. First, the book itself has good design and really great quality. I’ve been very impressed by the quality of the books put out by many of younger preachers who are mostly doing it on their own (it’s reminiscent of the work done by Michael Whitworth of Start2Finish books). Second, I really like that Giselbach emphasizes the idea of all everyone being a theologian. While it can be a “smart and churchy” word, it simply means “how we view God” (1), and since everyone has a view of God, or talks about Him in some way, it is important to understand how to rightly talk about Him. Third, the book is just easy to read while tackling what can be pretty big issues. From how we got the Bible as it is today, to what it means when we say that the text is inspired, and how we can rightly interpret the text to understand what God desires His people to do. While these topics can be difficult, Giselbach presents them in a way that is easy to understand whether you’ve known these things for decades, or if you’ve never even picked up the Bible.
So while there was a lot I liked about the book, there were also some things I didn’t like. I knew that Ben and I stand on some different pages theologically going into this, so I don’t want to be picky and spend a lot of time on some of our differences in how we may interpret passages, or pick apart doctrinal conclusions that I disagree with. Instead I want to make note of some things that I believe take away from the book having a bigger impact. This section might seem a bit longer, but that will mostly be because it includes more quotes from the book. The main concerns I had with the book seemed to fall under the category of contradictions from Ben, mischaracterization of those who disagree with him, or what seems to be a misinterpretation of quotes he uses from those he disagrees with. Again, I won’t spend a lot of time on these as I don’t want to bash the book, but they might be something to be aware of.
There are a few times Ben seems to contradict himself, such as on page 81 when he talks about praying before studying. While addressing “Holy Spirit illumination” which he discusses earlier, he notes that this prayer isn’t the same as that where “it is falsely believed that the Holy Spirit will miraculously reveal knowledge to you that you were supposedly unable to read for yourself,” only to turn and write “in reality, by asking god to guide your study, you are asking for His divine providence to help you as you seek to apply His word to your life.” From my experience, most who claim that the Spirit helps with their understanding don’t mean it the way Giselbach presents it. Certainly there are those who believe that, but I don’t believe that it is the majority that do. At the same time, to suggest that we pray for God to act providentially is to call God to intervene in someway to provide us with knowledge that we don’t yet have. I don’t see his position as really being different from what most people believe as he presents it here. While there are other instances of this, this might be the most obvious one.
There are also times where Giselbach mischaracterizes those who disagree with his conclusions. Lines such as “If you believe one interpretation is as good as another” (80), or saying “but more often then (sic) not, critics of this method of interpretation are simply seeking license for what God has not authorized” (104). I believe this type of language takes away from the effectiveness of the book. First, most people don’t believe one interpretation is as good as another. If someone said that Jesus wept in John 11:35 because He was thinking about a commercial for abused animals on TV, no one would say, “Well if that’s your interpretation, then that’s fine!” Unfortunately many have taken the idea that while the text has one meaning we might not always interpret it right and there are multiple ideas that do make sense into some foreign idea that we can just make the Bible say what we want and everyone is cool with that. I’ve yet to read anyone, even the most liberal theologians, who would actually suggest that. Along with that comes the idea that people just wrongly interpret things so they can keep sinning with a clean conscience. This is a judgement of motives that Giselbach doesn’t have the ability to make unless someone explicitly states that’s why they’re doing it.
Finally, there are a few instances where Ben appears to misinterpret authors he uses to show flaws in their positions. On page 5 he writes about those who would read the scripture and build doctrines from it in the same way as a brain surgeon who doesn’t care about the actual proven way of doing it, but just does whatever he feels once he’s in your skull, or a contractor who builds a house on a whim, rather than by a plan. This is coming from an earlier quotation of liberal theologians Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet. While I’m sure I disagree with these authors on many things, the quotes Giselbach used don’t appear to be suggesting what he claims they do, that they just believe what they believe about God and the scripture based on a whim. Rather they seem to be criticizing, in the given quotes at least, the notion that just because a highly educated theologian (or a group of them even) once wrote a book that said “this is the truth and the only truth” doesn’t make it so. I think that is a fair statement to make. Another instance pops up on page 102 with a quote from Hal Hougey, which Ben says promotes an idea that loving God “somehow excludes obligation” to obedience. Hougey notes how “our service to God is our response in love to him who first loved us, not the obeying of commands simply because they are there to obey.” Well, isn’t that what God wants us to do? The scripture as a whole talks about obeying God because He has loved us and pulled us out of darkness. We see this in Exodus 19 before God even gives any of the Ten Commandments to Israel. Ben notes John 14:15 as proof that Hougey is wrong, but I only see that as strengthening Hougey’s argument. We obey God because we love Him, but why do we love God? Because He first loved us. While I don’t want to judge motives, it sometimes seemed as if Giselbach was willing to ignore what these verses actually say (though their larger context may prove his assessment right), though I don’t want to speculate on how or why this happened.
So we’ve gotten through the good and the bad, so the most important question is if I would recommend this book? The answer is yes, that I would. Ben’s writing style and use of quotes when it comes to addressing those he disagrees with is a bit troubling (and I know I struggle with the same issue quite often), but fortunately it doesn’t show up too often. While some may disagree on some of the finer points of the hermeneutics chapter, it does do very well at presenting some much needed topics in a way that is easy to understand and present to others. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series to see where he takes it.