Tag Archives: Books published in the 1970s

Review: Spiritual Authority

Author: Watchman Nee was a Chinese church leader and teacher. In addition to serving tirelessly in the Chinese church, he was an extremely prolific translator, and a huge quantity of his talks were transcribed into books.


Spiritual Authority (1972) is a series of twenty messages originally delivered in Chinese in 1948 in Guling (Kuling), China, for the training of Christian workers. The book has been translated into Korean, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian, and Finnish. The first half of the book was reprinted from 1988 as Authority and Submission.

Spiritual Authority begins with a famed quotation from Romans, which is integral to the book:

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God . . .

Romans 13:1, King James Version

Nee establishes authority first and foremost as an attribute of God (ch. 1), and then reviews a series of instances of rebellion against God’s authority (ch. 2–3). He finds godly submission exemplified in King David (ch. 4), in Jesus to the Father (ch. 5), and in our obedience (ch. 6). God’s kingdom is established by obedience (ch. 6). God’s authority has three types (ch. 7), all of which believers are called to obey. Nee later goes over rebellion in even more detail (ch. 8–9). The second half of the book (ch. 11–20) goes over qualifications of delegated (spiritual) authority and is essentially an extension of what is found in the first half; at some point, the book gets quite repetitive once you have accepted its main premise that we are called to (almost unconditionally) obey both “God’s authority” and “delegated authority”.

The conceptual problems with this book, as I see it, fall into three groups:

  1. The conflation of different types of authority;
  2. The contradiction of different types of authority;
  3. The conditions of human authority.

All Authorities Lumped Together

The crux of the book is the wholesale conflation of various different types of authority. In chapter 7, he explains the concept of “delegated authority” or “representative authority”. He says that delegated authority falls into three types:

  1. Authorities in the world (i.e. civil authorities)
    “God is the source of all authorities in the universe. Now since all governing authorities are instituted by Him, then all authorities are delegated by Him and represent His authority. God Himself has established this system of authority in order to manifest Himself. Wherever people encounter authority they meet God.” (p.59)
  2. Authorities in the family (i.e. husbands over wives, parents over children)
    “God has set the husband as the delegated authority of Christ, with the wife as representative of the church.” (p. 63)
  3. Authorities in the church (i.e. elders, and men generally)
    “God sets in the church authorities [i.e., elders, ministers]. . . They are the ones whom everyone should obey. The younger ones in age must also learn to be subject to the older ones.” (p. 65)

There is no recognition by Nee that different authorities obtain in different areas of life—though God supersedes all of them. Throughout the book, Nee toggles freely between God, parents, priests, prophets, kings, magistrates, and others as broadly comparable examples of “authority”. This painting with a broad brush is highly problematic—surely obeying civic authority should not be viewed as equal to obeying your priest or pastor. Look at his list of examples of rebellion from chapters 2 and 3:

  • The fall of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3)—against divine authority
  • The rebellion of Ham (Gen. 9)—against parental authority
  • Strange fire offered by Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10)—against divine authority
  • The reviling of Aaron and Miriam (Num. 12)—against Moses
  • The rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16)—against Moses and Aaron

You may notice two things: first, these rebellions are against several different types of authority; second, they all take place under the Old Covenant.

Obviously, disobeying God’s own words may be viewed as rebellion (Adam and Eve, Nadab and Abihu). Moses carries multiple types of authority and had a very special status in the entire Old Covenant, as the giver of the Covenant of the Law itself. It is no surprise that disobeying Moses carries divine wrath; he was to be “as God” to Pharaoh. I’m not sure “rebellion” is the right category for the sin of Ham, however shameful. It is difficult to draw a direct line from any of these stories to my own position relative to my pastor.

It is no coincidence that all Nee’s examples of rebellion take place in the Old Testament. Nee is formulating principles towards church practice in respecting ministers, but he’s using examples that have little to do with delegated authority in the New Testament church. This is rather out of place, since Nee and his movement put so much stock in making their church just like the New Testament.

When Authorities Contradict: Righteous Disobedience

The entire argument also unravels when one type of authority is in contradiction of another. The prophets routinely preached against kings and went to spiritual battle against civic authorities and even wicked priests, at great danger to themselves (e.g., Jer. 1:18, 26:12, Ezek. 21:25–26). Were they in “rebellion”, too, since they disobeyed delegated authority?

Moreover, why would God himself set up these wicked kings and priests? And why does he call his prophets to prophesy against “his delegated authority”? Why does one God-given authority contradict another God-given authority? Nee offers no answers here. And it is not only relevant for long-dead prophets: Nee barely touches righteous civil disobedience such as that enacted repeatedly by Brother Andrew.

There are only two passages in Spiritual Authority where Nee mentions instances of righteous disobedience:

“The whole New Testament stands behind delegated authority. The only exception is found in Acts 5:29 when Peter and the apostles answered the Jewish council which forbade them to teach in the name of the Lord Jesus. Peter answered by saying, ‘We must obey God rather [than] men.’ This was due to the fact that the delegated authority here had distinctly violated God’s command and trespassed against the Person of the Lord.” (p. 72)

“Now was it right for Martin Luther to stand up and speak for the fundamental principle of justification by faith? Yes, for he was obeying God in standing for the truth.” (p. 109)

The first passage merely begs the question: how do we determine whether an authority has “distinctly violated God’s command”? Nee offers us no guidance there. He assumes that we can all agree on what “God’s command” is—whereas, respectfully, I would say that God’s Word needs to be interpreted, and it can be interpreted wrongly.

The commandment of God may frequently cause us to be in direct contravention of civic laws. Even today, as Nee himself experienced, millions of Christian believers live in areas where churches are illegal. Is there a “distinct command” to go to church on Sunday? How are these believers to obey both authorities, that of God and that of the government?

I should add, Acts 5:29 is far from the only case of Christian disobedience in the New Testament. We also have, before that, Peter and John to the rulers, elders and scribes (Acts 4:19–20). Jesus disobeyed the Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3).The martyrs of John’s Revelation certainly do not obey the “authority” of the beast (Rev. 13:7, 15). In the Old Testament, we also have the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:17) and Daniel’s prayer (Daniel 6:13). I’ve already mentioned the prophets who preached against wicked leadership. Finally, I can’t see a reason why Nee cherry-picks his examples of righteous rebellion from the New Testament and his examples of wicked rebellion from the Old Testament.

When Authorities Contradict: Wicked Obedience

Many passages in the book point to a dangerous concept of obedience that is static and unthinking, and for Nee, this includes delegated authority, meaning our pastors and Christian leaders.

“All who serve God must categorically refrain from making decisions on the basis of their own thoughts; rather, they are to execute the will of God.”

Spiritual Authority, p. 102

Such statements become rather extreme when the thrust of the argument is taken as a whole. 1) All authorities, including my pastor, are delegated authority. 2) I am never to rebel or talk back. 3) I should not even think about making decisions before obeying. This pattern obviously leads to a slippery slope of cult-like obedience.

He even goes on to thoroughly discourage believers from ever criticizing anyone in authority, since they would then be in the beginning stages of rebellion:

“He who is truly obedient will find God’s authority in every circumstance, in the home, and in other institutions. . . . Special attention must be paid each time words of reviling are uttered. Such words should not be idly spoken. Reviling proves that there is a rebellious spirit within; it is the germination of rebellion.”

Spiritual Authority, p. 32

This should certainly raise the hackles of many American readers, who are raised to believe that we can criticize even our our commander-in-chief with great freedom. There are principles here that are correct—in general, we should respect leadership, inside and outside the church—but Nee’s principles are given with no moderation whatsoever. This extreme position is what makes this book a dangerous form of teaching, and one that I cannot commend to any Christian disciple. We should not revile our pastors or leaders, but we are not under a yoke of law in which we can never disagree with them or speak ill of them. Pastors are human.

Conclusion: Authority Is Conditional

At its best, Spiritual Authority teaches Christians to respect established authority, including our church leaders and government leaders. At its worst, it has the power to prop up abusive, exploitative, pseudo-Christian leaders with an insidious double command to obey what they ask and not to complain or gossip against them. I remind all my readers that all Christian discipleship has an element of disobedience in it—”against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). Choosing to obey God at all costs often necessitates disobeying worldly systems and wicked leaders; this sometimes even includes Christian leaders, when they have gone astray.

The end of the matter is that all obedience to human authority should be considered as conditional. In general, I obey civic authority and follow the law; but if it contravenes my Christian convictions, I do not hesitate to disobey, especially in core matters of devotional life, Christian community, and preaching the gospel. Likewise, in general, I obey church authority and respect my church leadership. There are several issues in which I disagree with my church leadership, and these are open for discussion, but I do not constantly press the issue or work against my own pastor, like a mutineer. While we are working together for the gospel, I maintain a bond of peace and trust between us. But Nee rightly points out, if anyone in authority rebels against the authority that is above them, then by their action, that person loses my respect, and may lose his good standing or even position—and hopefully this would be proportionate to the disobedience. No one is above accountability, and that has never been the correct understanding of spiritual authority. May we rightly understand the conditions of spiritual authority.

Afterword: The Influence of Nee’s Culture

Though it does not fit with the rest of my review, something needs to be said about how Nee’s home culture influenced his biblical interpretation in this regard. China is known as being a culture that values honor and thinks somewhat collectively. In fact, these values have been measured by Geert Hofstede in his important work on cross-cultural communication. In Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions, China ranks very high for power distance (80/100), and very low for individualism (20/100). The United States is somewhat opposite, ranking low for power distance (40/100) and very high for individualism (91/100). “Power distance” is a dimension for how cultures differentially honor and obey leadership. It also correlates with appreciation of hierarchies. China’s very high rank means that Nee’s enforcement of hierarchies is following the stream of thought of his upbringing.

It stands to reason, then, that Watchman Nee wrote so strongly about authority because of his Chinese upbringing. His writings, though they are mostly good, plain teaching, are severely lacking in any cultural awareness, breadth of opinion, or tact. Or, as a friend once said, “Nee is great, but with him, everything is ‘my way or the highway’.”

Free Books by Arthur C. Custance (COMPLETE)

Arthur C. Custance (1910–1985) was a Canadian scientist and lay theologian. He may remind you of a medieval polymath for his breadth of knowledge. After receiving a M.A. in “Middle Eastern Languages” (the course of study included Greek, Hebrew, and cuneiform) in 1941, he completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology, but was denied graduation after his thesis approval because he believed in a literal Adam and Eve. He later obtained another Ph.D. in Education (1959). You can read more of his fascinating biography here.

Because of his broad interests, Custance’s writings are a wholly unique cocktail of theology, biology, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology. Even though these works are decades old, the quality of his erudition lends lasting value to most of his works. Most were part of “The Doorway Papers” series of monographs (1957–1972). These monographs are collected in loosely related volumes. Those who are studying creationism will find a treasure trove here!

I recommend in particular two books: The Seed of the Woman (his magnum opus) and The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation (“The Trinity in the Old Testament” and “How Did Jesus Die?” are both extremely interesting).

Does Science Transcend Culture? (PhD Thesis)

Evolution or Creation? (Doorway Papers #4)

The Flood: Local or Global? (Doorway Papers #9)

Genesis and Early Man (Doorway Papers #2)

Hidden Things of God’s Revelation (Doorway Papers #7)

Journey out of Time: A Study of the Interval Between Death and the Resurrection of the Body

Man in Adam and in Christ (Doorway Papers #3)

The Mysterious Matter of Mind

Noah’s Three Sons (Doorway Papers #1)

Science and Faith (Doorway Papers #8)

The Seed of the Woman: What God Had To Do To Make Our Salvation Possible

Sovereignty of Grace: A Study of Election and Predestination

Time and Eternity (Doorway Papers #6)

Two Men Called Adam

The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation (Doorway Papers #5)

Without Form and Void: A Study of the Meaning of the Hebrew Words of Genesis 1:1 and 2

For those interested, the ACOL website does list a few short articles that are not available online:

How to Evaluate Commentaries on Genesis (1957) [Wow, this would be cool to have.]
Some Hebrew Word Studies (1972)
When the Earth Was Divided: An Imaginative Reconstruction of Early History (1962)

Review: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Author: Madeline L’Engle is an award-winning novelist whose fiction reflects both her Christian commitment and her love of science. She is usually thought of as continuing a tradition of faith-informed fantasy fiction that begin with George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis.


A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) is the third installment of the Time Quintet, an award-winning fantasy fiction series for young adults. The series began with A Wrinkle in Time (1962), which won a Newbery Medal and other awards. (It is also sometimes just known as the Wrinkle in Time series.)

This book was a patchwork of overtly parallel subplots unrelated to the main characters, loosely tied by a poorly applied frame narrative. It was very difficult to extract one overarching theme (as could be done with Wrinkle or Wind in the Door).

I was also put off by the use of plot elements that resonated with reincarnation, possession, and telepathy. These elements are crucial to the narrative, and just get weirder and weirder as the story goes on. In my opinion, these are much cheaper than the refined, spiritually anchored sorts of magic-science present in Wrinkle.

After Charles Wallace “went Within” (possessed?!) a character from a thousand years before, the book lost me, and since it continued along that line for 80% of the book, I never really re-engaged with the plot. This was a confusing plot device which inexplicably destroys a sense of either volition (who is making the choices?) or continuity (what century are the choices being made in?).

In spite of all my pooh-poohing this novel, I do expect to attempt more of L’Engle’s books in the future. If you think I have missed something profound about A Swiftly Tilting Planet, please let me know in the comments!

Review: The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation

Author: Arthur C. Custance was a research scientist with an overflowing interest in anthropology, biology, theology, and biblical languages. He obtained his M.A. in Middle Eastern Languages in 1941, and completed his Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1954, though his degree was delayed five years by prejudice against Custance caused by his literal understanding of biblical creation. He conducted research in physiology for Canada’s Defence Research Board and wrote sixteen unique books, mainly on the intersection of biblical theology and modern science.

The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation (1976) is Book 5 of 10 in The Doorway Papers, a series of studies fusing biblical study with scientific research. Much of the series explores aspects of the Creation, Fall, and Flood in Genesis, but many other themes are included.

It is divided into essays, so the topics are related but you can easily read and enjoy any essay without the others. The individual essays are themselves divided into chapters, and some of them are quite long.

The essays in this volume are:

  • Longevity in Antiquity and its Bearing on Chronology: This is a great study of the genealogy of Genesis 5, with statistical and historical data to back up the claims of human longevity. While many claim that there is some numerical or scribal anomaly in the years of Genesis 5, Custance supports a literal reading.
  • The Nature of the Forbidden Fruit: It was probably not an apple—so what was the forbidden fruit? And how did it affect Adam and Eve when they ate it? Custance shows the effects that certain foods can have on humans.
  • If Adam Had Not Died: This essay reviews scientific concepts connected to the Incarnation of Christ. Included here are several intriguing and strange ideas about the physiology of Adam himself. Custance is looking at the immortal physiology of Adam as a precursor of the immortal life of Christ.
  • The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation: The titular essay connects the concepts of “the seed of the woman” in Genesis 3, the virgin conception of Christ, and the immortality found in Christ. This is one of the most important of the entire Doorway Papers series as it presents ideas related to core Christian doctrines (as opposed to, for instance, whether the flood was local or global).
  • The Trinity in the Old Testament: This is probably the best thing I’ve read on the Trinity. Custance shows that it was not a new idea to God, although maybe it was to man. Many great Bible references will show you that the Trinity is not a foreign concept to the Old Testament.
  • A Fresh Look at the Meaning of the
    Word ‘Soul’
    : Body, soul, spirit? It is not always clear in modern thought whether there is a difference between soul and spirit, but in the Old Testament there is a clear distinction. Custance offers a solid biblical study of how these terms are connected with bearings on the creation of Adam and the death of Christ. I don’t believe that Custance’s explanation differs too far from the detailed explanations offered, for instance, by Watchman Nee. For an interesting perspective from the Old Testament, look into the work of Robert Alter on this.
  • How Did Jesus Die?: This essay is a study of the physical causes of the death of Christ, centering on the possibility that Jesus died of a burst heart, an idea promulgated in 1871 by William Stroud. (Pioneer Library published Stroud’s book as an ebook.)
  • The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: In three chapters, Custance treats the “historical”, “theological”, and “experiential” aspects of the bodily Resurrection of Christ. This study is mainly theological.
  • The Unique Relationship between the First and Last Adam: This essay continues to develop some themes from the titular essay about Adam and Christ.

The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation is an important volume within The Doorway Papers, and in many ways it is a predecessor to Custance’s magnum opus, The Seed of the Woman.

Read: You can read The Virgin Birth and the Incarnation and Arthur Custance’s other works for free over at custance.org.

I read this book in 2006 and finished this review in 2021. I guess that tells you how memorable and unique the book was.

Review: God, Freedom, and Evil

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Alvin C. Plantinga is an American analytic philosopher.

Genre: Analytic philosophy.


God, Freedom, and Evil (1974) focuses on two important theological problems:

  1. The problem of evil, which Plantinga classifies as “natural atheology” (p. 5-64);
  2. The ontological argument for God’s existence, which Plantinga classifies as “natural theology” (p. 85-112).

In passing, Plantinga discusses verificationism (p. 65-66), and arguments about the incompatibility of divine omniscience and human freedom (p. 66-73). He also covers the cosmological argument for God’s existence, popularized by Aquinas (p. 77-80); and the teleological argument for God’s existence, (p. 81-84).

This book often summarizes from Plantinga’s earlier and longer work in God and Other Minds (1967); it appears that this book was written with a more popular audience.

Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense”

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is the most important part of this book. Some philosophers believe that this defense has effectively rebutted the problem of evil in philosophy.

The problem of evil (as stated by Hume and others) regards moral evil as incompatible with the existence of an utterly benevolent and omnipotent God. Plantinga points out that these propositions—God’s existence, God’s omnipotence, God’s benevolence and the existence of moral evil—are not explicitly contradictory. Some explanation is required to see that there even is a “problem” of evil, and certain presuppositions may be questioned. Plantinga uses the rules of logic to show that free will provides a plausible explanation for moral evil, even in a world created by an omnibenevolent God.

The gist of his argument is that it is possible that God, though omnipotent, cannot create a world in which all free actors always and necessarily choose to do good. For some Protestants, this may be a firm stance (i.e. a theodicy), but Plantinga points out that he does not need to prove this position. He only needs to prove that it is logically possible, and thus he uses the term ‘defense’ rather than ‘theodicy’.

Plantinga’s defense is thorough and grows in complexity. The lynchpin in his argument is what he calls “transworld depravity”: the idea that, if certain conditions are always met, a free moral agent may choose to do wrong in every possible world. “What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it wasn’t within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong.” (p. 48)

It should not be surprising that our own guilt frees us from laying an accusation against God. A way of restating the argument in simplistic terms is this: the problem of evil relies on the unproven premise that, if we were God, we could do better than God did (that is, by creating a world with either less moral evil, or no moral evil).

A Note on Omniscience and Freedom

Plantinga argues (against an article by Nelson Pike) that divine omniscience and human freedom are compatible. This is, of course, the classical Arminian position. Pike used an example similar to the following:

  1. Suppose that at a certain time (let’s say, Tuesday), God believed that Charlie Brown would kick Lucy’s football on Wednesday.
  2. Charlie Brown has true freedom to either kick or not kick the football.
  3. Charlie Brown’s choice on Wednesday cannot cause God to change his belief on Tuesday.
  4. Therefore, if Charlie Brown chooses not to kick the football on Wednesday, then God was incorrect on Tuesday—God forbid!

In a nutshell, Plantinga uses the idea of “possible worlds” to argue that God has infallible foreknowledge in every possible state of affairs. I noticed a disconnect here. Plantinga apparently denies the premise #3 above because he and Pike are viewing time differently.

Pike seems to be assuming a linear view of time, in which a past mistake cannot be corrected.

Plantinga seems to be assuming a non-linear view of time, in which the future is somehow visible to God, perhaps from some stance “outside of time”.

Oscar Cullmann’s book Christ and Time (1964) famously asserts that the Jews of Christ’s day had a linear view of time in which any kind of supertemporal abstraction was inconceivable. If Cullmann is correct, then the view asserted by Plantinga is not the traditional or biblical view, and we are left to amend either our view of God’s essential omniscience (i.e., by denying absolute foreknowledge) or our view of human freedom (i.e., by admitting Calvinistic determinism).

Affliction by Edith Schaeffer book cover

Review: Affliction (Edith Schaeffer)

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: Edith Schaeffer, co-founder of L’Abri, American missionary to Switzerland with her husband, Francis Schaeffer. Edith and Francis Schaeffer spent many years serving the Presbyterian church in Missouri and in writing children’s materials as missionaries before they stumbled into a mission to reach Europe’s intelligentsia, which became their full-time vocation and lifelong focus. Edith’s books are very different in tone from those of her husband—and they are at least as good, if not better.

Overview: Edith Schaeffer’s book tactfully and compassionately explores human affliction. Rather than presenting a central “theodicy” to explain evil or suffering, Edith focuses on practical, devotional thoughts that are central to biblical thought about suffering.

Meat: The chief insight of Affliction is that we are given a unique role in human history, a role that no one else can fill, and that suffering cannot take that away. The most important ingredients in life, its meaning and destiny, and the chief end of man, are unaffected by suffering.

A central metaphor for Edith Schaeffer is that of the tapestry: God is weaving our lives together into a redemptive history, and every unique story of faithfulness presents a special proof of God’s love and care—whether that faithfulness occurs in plenty or poverty, in joy or suffering.

Bones: I can add no criticism of her book, except that it took me so long to chew on all the material. It is dense with anecdotes, like its twin book, L’Abri.

Quotes: “Our personal afflictions involve the living God; the only way in which Satan can persecute or afflict God us through attacking the people of God.” (p. 27)

“The compassion and the tenderness of our loving heavenly Father will take forever to learn about.”

“Death is not to be taken as a ‘normal, beautiful release’ but as an enemy. It spoils the beautiful creation of God.”

Related: L’Abri.