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Ladling up some good stuff, an author interview
Tom McCall talks about his new book, authored together with Caleb T. Friedeman and Matt T. Friedeman, *The Doctrine of Good Works*
It’s August, friends, which means many of us are thinking about school. (I hope I’m not too late in taking the kids to buy supplies! Will all the good notebooks be picked over?) Blessings to all who are preparing to teach, learn, shepherd kids and students, and embrace the world of knowledge in whatever context you find yourself in!
Today’s interview is with the always thoughtful Tom McCall, who shares with us about his new book, written together with Caleb T. Friedeman and Matt T. Friedeman, The Doctrine of Good Works: Reclaiming a Neglected Protestant Teaching (224 pages, from Baker Academic).
The book’s description:
In Titus, Paul says Christ redeemed a people “zealous for good works.” Despite this declaration and others like it, the doctrine of good works has fallen on hard times in contemporary Protestant theology and practice. At best, it's neglected--as in most systematic theologies and in too much church teaching. At worst, it's viewed with suspicion--as a threat to salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
In this important work addressing a significant gap in current theological literature, the authors argue that by jettisoning a doctrine of good works, the contemporary church contradicts historical Protestantism and, more importantly, biblical teaching. They combine their areas of expertise—exegesis, systematic and historical theology, and practical theology—to help readers recover and embrace a positive doctrine of good works. They survey historical Protestant teaching to show the importance of the doctrine to our forebears, engage the scriptural testimony on the role of good works, formulate a theology of salvation and good works, and explore pastoral applications.
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The interview follows:
BFJ: The cover image is a ladle; what’s that about?
TM: To be honest, I didn’t choose the cover. The press did. But I do like it. The ladle is a symbol of good works. Think of it as an instrument for serving soup or a cup of cold water—and also a way of receiving.
BFJ: Why did you write The Doctrine of Good Works?
TM: One big motivation for me was my concern that a lot of contemporary evangelical theology sees the work of God in salvation as almost completely disconnected from good works. Many evangelical Christians do good things, of course; they are generous and volunteer and go on mission trips and all that. But at most they see these as a reaction of gratitude for salvation, and in many cases good works are seen as either irrelevant to their salvation or as actually dangerous.
My experience—as a pastor and professor—leads me to conclude that very few Christians see our good works as participation in God's work, as active involvement in God's work in us and with us and through us. The negative side of this is all too obvious in many cases; we tell earnest Christians that salvation is about what happens after they die and that good works in this life are not part of what it means to be saved... and they believe us and live like it. So there is an immediate pastoral concern, and it extends to the plausibility and attractiveness of Christian witness.
So that's one side of it. The other angle is more scholarly. My work in historical theology has explored certain themes in early modern Protestant scholasticism, and when I started reading Reformed and Lutheran theologians on good works I remember thinking “why doesn’t anyone talk about this stuff?” And then: “this is so relevant to the life of the church today!” And... that’s where the book came from. I recruited Caleb and Matt to work with me, and this book is the result.
BFJ: Give us the short version: what’s the book about?
TM: This book is about the proper place and importance of good works in the Christian life! The point is that good works really are good—an essential part of what it means to be a Christian.
BFJ: Share a detail you’re fond of from the book?
TM: One feature that makes this text unusual as a theology book is that it includes a very substantial discussion of pastoral or practical theology. I really like that, and it gives us a glimpse of contemporary churches that are really committed to doing good works—imperfectly, of course, but really doing it.
BFJ: I love that so much. I wish more theology were unafraid of the pastoral and the practical. Is this book only for Wesleyans?
TM: There isn’t anything distinctly Wesleyan about this book. Not at all. We scarcely mention Wesley. The conversation partners from the tradition are mostly Reformed with some Lutherans and Anglicans included. What we are doing here is (largely) common ground with Protestant scholasticism and confessionalism.
BFJ: What do people mistakenly assume when they hear about your book?
TM: I’m not yet sure, but I worry that some people will assume that we are trading one mistaken view (that good works don’t really matter and aren’t an essential part of what it means to be saved by grace) with another mistaken view (that we somehow gain merit or earn salvation-points by our good deeds). This is not what we are saying! The good news about good works is something else entirely.
BFJ: Are there difficulties in the spiritual life that your book can help to address?
TM: I hope that it helps us reconnect who we are in Christ with how we live in the real world. So many Christians—especially conscientious Christians—are tempted to try to impress God or earn something. So many others—especially those who are not so conscientious—are tempted to blow off concerns about good works as legalistic. And I think that we are all tempted to compartmentalize our lives into “spiritual” and “real-life” categories. I think that a better understanding of the doctrine of good works holds promise for all of us.
BFJ: If you could gift everyone with one insight from The Doctrine of Good Works, what would it be?
TM: To see that the life of works of piety (worship that is centered on love of God) and works of mercy (service centered on love of neighbor) is the good life!
The authors, from left to right: Thomas H. McCall (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is Timothy C. and Julie M. Tennent Professor of Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky; Caleb T. Friedeman (PhD, Wheaton College) is David A. Case Chair of Theology and Ministry and associate professor of New Testament at Ohio Christian University in Circleville, Ohio; Matt T. Friedeman (PhD, University of Kansas) is John M. Case Chair of Evangelism and Discipleship at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
BJF: How has your spiritual life and prayer life changed as you’ve matured?
TM: My deepening understanding of the Christian life as life in union with Christ and empowered by the Spirit both challenges and encourages me. What we do for God and neighbor isn’t an exercise in trying to impress God or earn moral credit. It is the joy of being included in what the Triune God is doing in the world —working in us by working through us and with us.
BFJ: What would your 10-year-old self say if he learned you’d grow up to write about this stuff?
TM: Well, when I was 10 I was planning on being a cowboy. So I'm not sure what 10-year-old me would say about this.
Coming soon! The relaunch of the Church Blogmatics theology & fiction book club with me and Christina Bieber Lake. Our previous reads were Jack by Marilynne Robinson and Exhalation by Ted Chiang. Watch for updates here at Church Blogmatics and sign up here. We’ll announce our fall book selection soon!
Many thanks to Tom for sharing with us! Buy the book here.
Grace and Peace,
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