Leithart's Reading Notes Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 13 October 2010 08:03

Greed is one of the seven deadlies, but it’s bloody hard to get it right.  On the one hand, it can be defined so tightly that only the most dastardly are guilty of it.  Define it as insatiable desire, and you’ll get the response: “My desires are far from insatiable.  I’d be plenty satiated with a billion and a beach house.  And throw in a Bentley.”  Define it as ruthlessness, and most greedy behavior slips through the strainer.  On the other hand, if you define it too loosely, it verges toward Gnosticism; any desire for or pleasure in creation begins to look like greed.

Moore Theological College professor Brian Rosner skillfully moves through this mine field in his Beyond Greed (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2004).  Picking up on Paul’s claim that “greed is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5), on which he has written a monograph, Rosner describes greed under the headings of inordinate love, misplaced trust, and forbidden service.  Jesus connected the idolatry of mammon to having an “evil eye” that doesn’t let in any light (Matthew 6:23).  Greed is so subtle that even the idolater often fails to catch himself in his idolatry, especially so in our culture that encourages us to admire those who lay up treasures on earth.  Drawing on church fathers, Puritan writers, as well as Scripture, Rosner’s description of greed is penetrating enough to pull back the veil on this “secret idolatry.”  He includes a few penetrating pages on the religion and spirituality of contemporary materialism.

At the same time, Rosner emphasizes that “things are to be heartily enjoyed as part of God’s good creation,” and he’s pastorally savvy enough to know that “contentment” can become a cover for laziness.”  “There is nothing commendable or spiritual in being satisfied in a monetary situation which does your dependents harm, if there is something which can be done about it.”  Idolatry should have no place in the church, no matter how secretive or culturally acceptable.  Instead, the church should cultivate an alternative set of attitudes and practices regarding money and wealth.  The antidote to grasping greed is cultivating contentment, and the antidote to hoarding greed is generosity and hospitality.


Suzanne McDonald’s Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) is a rich book.  McDonald, who teaches at Calvin College, begins by affirming some basic Reformed distinctives: Election determines the shape of God’s relation to the world; election is unconditional; God chooses some and not others, and this choice is prior to any acceptance, actual or foreseen; both the initiation of faith and its perseverance are gifts.

Then she launches out on a complicated journey.  There is a lot here: Summaries of the doctrine of election in John Owen and Karl Barth, including a critique of Barth’s doctrine for underplaying the Spirit’s role in election; a provocative exploration of the biblical theology of election, relying on Christopher Seitz and N. T. Wright; reflections on the relationship between election and the “perichoretic personhood” that constitutes the image of God.

Against Barth’s ambivalent universalism, she stresses that election is particular: Only those in Christ by the Spirit can be called “chosen.”  Only the believing community is elect.  Yet she also argues that, given that election is election to representation, all humanity is held provisionally in Christ awaiting the consummation.

She wants Owens’ pneumatology without his double predestination, but when she’s all done, she’s not sure she can detach the two: “both individual double predestination and [Barthian/Origenist] apokatastasis [universalism] are possible” in the framework she develops.  She admits that her treatment tilts in Barth’s direction and shifts the emphasis from traditional Reformed theology: “Whereas with the historic Reformed position, the central mystery of election is why God has determined to save some but not others, for election to representation, as for Barth, the central mystery is whether any will ultimately be excluded.”

McDonald’s eschatological reserve is more reserved than Scripture.  To the questions, “Is there a lake of fire?” and “Is anyone going to be in it?” the Bible’s answer is clear: Yes, and yes.


At nearly 1000 pages, Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, 2010) is big, though not as big as the five-volume original.  Not that it’s too big: Who deserves a gigantic book more than the gargantuan Dostoevsky?

The blurbs on the back cover are frenzied, but Frank’s biography lives up to its hype.  Frank has pored over every available document connected with Dostoevsky and provided a vivid portrait of the man and his tumultuous life.  More than that, the biography is a history of Russian intellectual life in the crucial period between 1820-1880, and since Russian intellectuals drew so much inspiration from the West, it is virtually an intellectual history of Western Europe as well.

It is a life and works biography.  Frank includes substantial chapters on each of Dostoevsky’s novels.  These not only recount the publishing history, but offer substantial and detailed readings.  Frank is a judicious critic, sensitive to Dostoevsky’s layered ironies and fully conversant with his intellectual context.  He knows that Christ is the beating heart of Dostoevsky’s life and work, and he does not shy away from pointing that out again and again.

I’ve not read nearly enough literary biographies to say, as some reviewers have said, that Frank’s is the best ever written in the genre.  I can say it is hard to imagine a better

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