muscle and a shovel by Michael Shank

Having grown up with much of the mindset reflected in Muscle and a Shovel, there is a large part of me that genuinely wishes things were as simple as the book suggests. A detailed critique would run longer than the book, so let me just highlight some categories of concerns:

Muscle shows little self-awareness of the system of interpretation (hermeneutic) it uses and takes for granted. That system (the evangelical, republican hermeneutic of 18th and 19th century America) includes, among other things, Aristotelian logic, Enlightenment rationalism, and a “tripartite formula” of command, example, and necessary inference, all of which taken together assume a status on par with the Bible itself. Readers thus run the risk of unwittingly giving that hermeneutic divine weight, with the consequent risk of reconciling themselves, not to God, but to the “system.” When that happens, faith in the system (the hermeneutic) easily substitutes for faith in God, and conversely, offenses to the system (the hermeneutic) are taken as offenses against God Himself. Thus the only possible reason for a person willfully and persistently taking a position contrary to a conclusion derived from the system (the hermeneutic) has to be malicious intent to pervert the clear word of God.

Muscle also reflects a common, but false notion that present-day churches of Christ can escape their origin within the 18th and 19th century American Restoration Movement by mimicking certain details of the NT church. But an Elvis Presley impersonator will never actually “become” Elvis no matter how well he impersonates him— likewise, no religious group today can actually “become” the NT church simply by mimicking “approved examples,” etc. distilled from the NT in accordance with the arguably “man-made” hermeneutic (above).

The book’s proof texting is breathtaking in its disregard for context and rules of logic. It makes little if any distinction between interpretation and application and routinely takes biblical passages as if they were written directly to modern-day readers.

Preoccupation with order of worship distorts interpretation; e.g., one is supposed to believe Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 are talking about Sunday morning worship rather than all of life. And Paul’s collection for the saints in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-2) and the early disciples coming together to break bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) are understood as “God’s commands.” I’m not saying these verses are irrelevant to present-day practices, but they aren’t as straightforward as the book suggests and they certainly don’t justify the kind of condemnations the book brings down on those who reach conclusions not in accord with the Church of Christ (CofC) hermeneutic.

Most disturbingly, the fruits of all the proof texting are not directed toward the legitimate pursuit of a unity of mind within a specific congregation or group of churches, but are instead, most often deployed to deny the Christian identity of other individuals and other groups. It’s as if someone were awarded a pin for humility and has chosen to not only wear it proudly, but to also use it to deny humility to anyone who doesn’t have the same pin. The point here is that it’s possible (even easy) to use everything from baptism to church names in ways that falsify the divine significance of these things. Churches of Christ seem to do that a lot.

Every form of Western Christianity has its Scholastic enthusiasts. See the chart below for an overview.

history of scholasticism
Click for larger image

Muscle exemplifies the CofC’s embrace of Scholasticism, especially in its preoccupation with systematizing Christianity in the areas of order of worship, order of salvation, and church polity. But Scholasticism and pluralism don’t mix, and so it’s really hard to imagine how this book could possibly survive the ferocious debunking that goes on within the present-day pluralistic culture if not for the CofC’s equally fierce compartmentalization of religious life apart from secular life.

The biggest problem with the book though is not its values but rather the order of those values. What kind of people does such an order attract? What kind of people would such an order shape? I would hope to draw and shape people with religious concerns that are much deeper than order of worship, order of salvation, and church government.

Even so, every Christian begins his or her journey from an imperfect starting point, and I would say many people could do a lot worse than beginning with Muscle and a Shovel. In that regard, I would pray that the book be a grand success in reaching those people whose particular life experiences make them especially receptive to its priorities. I would also pray that those people be able to work past those priorities without delay or disenchantment.

See the preceding review posted on for a discussion of the above between me and the author.


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2 Comments on Review: Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank

  1. Glenn Dowling says:

    While I am a baptized, obedient, believer, I would tremble to suggest that is why I am saved as Muscle and a Shovel” teaches. ” 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 I obey and follow Jesus Christ out of love and gratitude – not because his finished works needs anything more. To add to Christ’s work on the cross “man’s efforts,” as Paul charged and warned the Galatian church is “another gospel” and should be “accursed. Shank’s work was done in earnest but misguides readers to believe it is by their continued good works they will be saved. That could not be further from the truth.

    • wtb says:

      Hi Glenn,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you are on the right track.

      A couple of points you may find useful:

      1. Check out the New Perspective on Paul. The first point is righteousness in the NT is first relational (justification) and then moral (sanctification). It can be encapsulated by saying, “right deeds flow from a right relationship.”

      2. The Reformers projected the works-righteousness of the Catholic Church onto Second Temple Judaism. The real problem, in contrast, with the Pharisees was not works-righteousness, but rather the use of “works of the Law” as markers to demarcate Judaism as a divinely appointed ethnic religion giving preference to Jews.

      3. Dump the theory of imputation. Incorporation is entirely sufficient to explain justification. Faith in Jesus confers relational righteousness (justification) and the work of the Spirit brings about sanctification.

      Thanks again!

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