Review: More Than A Carpenter

Author: Josh McDowell & Sean McDowell
Publisher: Tyndale House
Rating: 4/5 stars
Amazon Price: $6.11 (paperback)

Bottom Line

The McDowells give a terrific historical analysis of the historical Jesus. They list a great amount of evidence speaking to the authenticity of the Scriptures and the historical reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, especially considering how concise the book is. Before I had a chance to read this book, I first read Douglas Groothuis’ book, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faithand Gary Habermas’ book, The Case for the Resurrection of JesusThe McDowells’ More Than A Carpenter is essentially a condensed version of those two books. They list the same arguments and evidence as Groothuis and Habermas in a much shorter version for less patient readers (Groothuis’ and Habermas’ books are rather long, especially the former). More Than A Carpenter may be concise, but it is rich with evidence and sound, logical arguments. I would certainly recommend this book to any person struggling to believe in Christ whilst also recommending Groothuis’ and Habermas’ books for further reading.

Review

I have two gripes about this book. The first is that at the beginning and end of the book, the McDowells make the claim that Christianity is not a religion but a person: Jesus Christ. This is similar to the rhetoric shared amongst other evangelical Christians, “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” Yes, to be a Christian means to be in a reconciled relationship to God the Father through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but it is still a religion. Relationship and religion are not mutually exclusive. Jesus was a religious man; He grew up learning the Law (Luke 2:41-52).

Everything a Christian does is by nature religious. To be religious is to behave in a way that is congruent with what your belief system confesses. Christians in particular behave in a Christlike manner (hence the term “Christian”) according to what Christ and the apostles have handed down to the Church. The word “confess” comes from the Greek word ὁμολογέω (homologeo), which means “to say the same thing as.” We don’t just say, or confess, the same things as the apostles, but we also practice the same practices. To behave in a particular way with your confession is to have certain behaviours: practical behaviours and ritualistic behaviours. As Christians, our practical behaviours consist of doing good works for the benefit of our neighbour (Ephesians 2:10; James 2:14-17). Also as Christians, we perform specific rituals: prayer, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Confession and Absolution, and other traditions.

“Tradition” comes from the Greek word παράδοσις (paradosis), which in the literal sense means “handing down/over.” The Christian tradition—the Christian paradosis—is inherently religious. What Jesus handed down to the apostles and what they handed down to the Church are strictly religious: gathering together regularly for fellowship, worship, and to receive forgiveness of sins through Word and Sacrament. Evangelical Christianity puts a heavy emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ, but that is not how the Scriptures describe the Church. The Scriptures speak more on our relationship to one another with our confession of faith in Christ as the basis for those relationships. Yes, we each have a relationship with Christ in a way that’s personal, but Christianity is not a personal, individualised relationship. This privatised faith ideology we have is a uniquely Westernised way of thinking; it is in no way reflective of how the Scriptures delineate the Christian faith. The Scriptures are clear on Christianity being about bringing forgiveness of sins through Christ in His Word and Sacraments in a strictly religious sense, which is done in the Church; and “church” (ἐκκλησία, ekklesia), literally means “an assembly; the whole body of Christian believers.” Church, therefore, is a strict term for community. (The synonym for the Lord’s Supper, communion, should be a hint. In taking communion we do it as a community whilst making the same confession of faith. Biblically speaking, Christianity is a religious community of a particular faith that lives according to God’s story; it is not whatever you want to make of it in the privacy of your own home.)

Religion is not a bad word! I think evangelical Christians are so afraid to call Christianity a religion because secular culture is becoming more and more antagonistic towards religion in any form. Because of the rise of religious bigotry inherent in our culture, Christians are afraid to call Christianity what it is: a religion. That is, a religion that behaves in a particular Christlike manner according to what we confess in word and practice, particularly the traditions handed down to us first from Christ and then the apostles. This is not a “personal relationship”; it is deeply religious.

The other thing I want to gripe about is the decision theology language the McDowells use. This is also common amongst evangelical Christians, which comes from Arminianism. The idea is that when a person is saved, he or she “makes a decision” to “accept” Christ. You have to make a decision by yourself. In this way, you are contributing to your own salvation.

The problem with this is that it denies the effects of original sin. Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God has left our minds hostile to God (Romans 8:7). This is so severe that Paul says, “you were dead in [your] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). How can a spiritually dead person choose Christ without His grace?

Another problem with decision theology is that it teaches human beings get partial credit for their conversion. God does His part, and we do ours (this is called synergism, as opposed to monergism which teaches God alone does the conversion). This is in direct contradiction with Scripture, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We don’t choose Christ because as spiritually dead people, we cannot do such a thing. Rather, Christ chooses us (John 15:16). Conversion is God’s work alone, not ours. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Lastly, part of the McDowells’ decision theology language is Revelation 3:20. Josh McDowell says, “I could sense Jesus Christ at the door of my heart” (159). This is yet another evangelical interpretation error. Evangelical Christians, for whatever reason, interpret this as Jesus talking to unbelievers who have to “open the door of their hearts” and let Jesus in. The context of Revelation 3:20 not only suggests, but outright declares otherwise. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus is talking to a stagnant church, particularly Laodicea. John was writing these words on behalf of Jesus to a people who already knew Him. They can open the door because they already have the Holy Spirit, who alone gives us the ability to say “yes” to Christ. People without the Spirit (i.e. unbelievers) cannot do anything unless the Spirit livens them, because they’re spiritually dead.

Conclusion

Again, I would recommend this book to any person struggling to believe in Christ on a “rational” basis whilst recommending the aforementioned two books by Groothuis and Habermas for further reading. At the same time, however, I would also warn them against the false claim that Christianity is not a religion as well as the false doctrine of decision theology.

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