Weightlifting for Theologians–Christmas Suggestions

In the great tradition of Augustine’s City of God, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and Puritan William Gurnall’s Christian in Complete Armor, theologians continue to combine weghtlifting and reading into one activity.  We can all be thankful for the short treatises (some merely 400 pages), for handily carried paperback books of a hundred pages or so, and for the many thin volumes that load our shelves and fill our minds.  Some short books, like J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, carry weight beyond their few pages.

But there is something daunting about a 1000 plus page work on a single subject.  Of course, the single subject might be something like systematic theology, so it calls for an abundance of print.  I like the look, the feel, the heft of a huge theological tome.  It looks good on the shelf and is tantalizing when wrapped and placed under the tree.

How does a person read such books?  I must confess to not successfully making my way through many of the theological hefties from cover to cover.  I have actually come to the view that such books are best read, by me at least, in portions.  In some cases, I may read a particular portion many times.  A thousand page book can be viewed as 10 hundred page studies, or as four 250 pagers,  or a thousand one page devotions.  Most such lengthy theological studies do not demand a complete reading.  Note well that what is true of a theological study is not the case for a novel.  Histories vary:  Some can be profitably read in portions, while others call for completion.  For those who successfully swallow the whole huge books, more power to you.  I will have to settle for enjoying reading the big books in portions and will have to wait until heaven to finish my reading.

This post, like several recent ones, is a Christmas suggestion list.  I hope all the theologians, theologian-want-to-be’s, and those like me who are dependent on theologians for guidance will find some big, weighty, lenthy, in-depth books will find one or two of these books under their trees or ripping through their stockings.

Weighing in at 1060 pages, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life is edited by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones.   The Puritans were masters of theology both as doctrine and as practice.  The Puritans were academically trained, theologically astute, and classically well read, but they wrote and preached for the man in the pews.  They had a firm conviction that Christianity was to be life consuming and heart changing.  Since at least the 1970s, there has been a surge of Puritan reprints.  Some of the reprints were facsimiles that were incredibly hard to read, but many were retype cast and sometimes even modified in language, spelling, and grammar for modern readers.  Some of the best works regarding Puritanism, in my opinion, have come from authors who themselves gleaned the Puritan works and wove the quotes and ideas into modern books.  A Puritan Theology consists of long discussions and explanations of Puritan views on doctrine and life followed by selections by the Puritan authors.  Any chapter or portion can be read as a stand-alone study.  I would be quick to grab any book that Joel Beeke has written or contributed to.

Here is another 1000 plus page book:  The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton, a professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California.  This book and the one below was published by Zondervan.  This past summer, I read through the first chapter of this book–twice.  It was an excellent study of theological and philosophic currents of the past several centuries.  This is a weighty book by a prolific theologian.  Because this is more a book for the theology student and the serious pastor/reader, Dr. Horton produced a smaller, but not small, and simpler, but not simplistic, book titled Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples.  I read through a chapter or two of that book back last spring and liked it as well.

 Sad to admit, Calvinists have lots of disputes.  We must grant that men with deep convictions and exacting approaches to Scripture, doctrine, and life must inevitably find areas of disputation and argument.  The knowledge of the Church and the advance of the Faith and the purity of the Truth is dependent upon these confrontations.  Dr. Michael Horton, along with some of the other professors at WTS–Escondido, have had some serious theological differences between their school of thought and other Reformed theologians, thinkers, and writers.  We must note right up front that no one in these disputes is questioning whether Jesus is God, the Bible is God’s Word, or Jesus rose from the dead.

John Frame is one theologian who has had serious differences of viewpoints with Michael Horton.  You are reading this on the web, so you can easily Google the names of the authors and the web-sites and the reviews and issues.  I have read on some of these matters, and I tend to favor John Frame in these matters.  But I largely am avoiding the conflicts.  I just want the books.  I just want to know a little bit of what these men know.  In my personal Christian walk (and crawl) and my pastoral duties, I need to be aware of the issues, but I am not a partisan, a co-belligerent, or a combatant.  I will freely glean from both sides, and in this case, from both Michael Horton’s and John Frame’s systematic theologies.

Only one problem:  I don’t have John Frame’s new systematic theology yet.  But I will, God willing, and I can recommend it based on the man and my previous encounters with him and his work.  This book is yet another heavy.  It is 1280 pages. In the past years, John Frame published his three volume Lordship series, a profitable set, which are all sizeable books.  Then P & R Publishers produced a massive Festschrift for Dr. Frame from his many admirers, fellow students, and colleagues, titled Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame.

Speaking the Truth is Love is a great collection of essays on a wide range of topics.  Since Dr. Frame’s theological interests and vision has been broad, so is that of his followers.  I read quite extensively from this book a few years back and would profit from another visit.

It is amazing that the Reformation was so centered on the doctrine of Scripture and yet the heirs of the Reformation have so often attempted to water down, deny, or radically re-interpret the centrality of Scripture.  It was Loraine Boettner’s chapter on the inspiration and authority of Scripture that first sent me tumbling down from self sufficiency to a reliance upon Scripture.  It was the old stalwarts of the Reformed faith, such as Benjamin Warfield, Charles Hodge, J. Gresham Machen, and John Murray who convinced me of the authority and centrality of Scripture.  But the battle for the Bible never ends.  This new and very large book is a powerful new addition to the corpus of books on the Bible.  I have yet to start gleaning from this work, but I prize it none the less.  Thy Word is Truth contains 1392 pages.

The hardest part of Calvinism has been long disguised in language and misunderstanding.  The doctrine was called Limited Atonement.  The best example of the way it was viewed was from Mark Twain’s account of the sermon in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  There, the narrator says of the preacher that he presented “an argument that dealt in limitless fire and brimstone and thinned the predestined elect down to a company so small as to be hardly worth the saving.”  Along with that is the notion of the “Chosen Few” or the warped notion that God drags the elect into heaven kicking and screaming at being forced into heaven.

That day of caricature, misunderstanding, and poor labeling is hopefully ending.  Calvinism has been undergoing a surge of reawakening and popularity for several decades now.  From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, includes lots of the newer and younger theological minds as contributors.  As I indicated in a sermon a few weeks back, “this is not your father’s Calvinism.”  (The original ad from GM was about the Oldsmobile.)  This book opens the door for a new generation grasping the incredible beauty and efficacy of God’s saving work.  How appropriate that the Foreword to this book should be written by the inimitable J. I. Packer, whose essay titled “An Introduction to the Death of Death in the Death of Christ” was a short and pivotal work that helped spark the Calvinistic revolution of our time.  This great book, published by Crossway, is a mere 768 pages.

This list could go on and on, for I have not yet talked of Herman Bavinck, Jonathan Edwards, the two volumes of Christian  Apologetics: Past and Present, the Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker and of Francis Schaeffer, or Martin Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on Romans.  But I will close with a book that I have found quite delightful.  It is another Crossway title and is titled The Theology of Benjamin Warfield by Fred G. Zaspel.  At several points in my life, Benjamin Warfield has stepped out of the past and ministered to me.  This book was a help in reviving my interest in theology and Warfield himself several years back.  It is easy to read from and use for reference.  I wish I had a dozen of them to give away.

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