Adriaen van der Donck by J. van den Hout

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Adriaen van der Donck: A Dutch Rebel in Seventeenth-Century America is the first book by J. van den Hout, an independent scholar.  It is published by Excelsiior Editions, an imprint of the State University of New York Press.

I have taught history for over 35 years, so I know how the teaching process goes.  Huge swathes of historical events, often covering decades, have to be summarized, characterized, and finalized in a short time.  Even if one were teaching a more specialized course, it is still the same.  A class on World War II will most likely skip the Aleutian Campaign which reclaimed the only U. S. soil that the Japanese captured.  Unless one is using Thomas Cutrer’s fascinating book Theater of a Separate Warthe Trans-Mississippi portions of the American Civil War will get only a glance.

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Colonial American history is a wide world of experiences, time, personalities, and events.  I know this because I took both under graduate and graduate level courses on colonial history (and loved them both).  Try as I might to get through the colonial period in my classes, I usually get or risk getting bogged down in Puritans of New England, the Great Awakening, or the French and Indian War.

Even with my propensity to get lost in the 13 to 21 English colonies, I really give short shrift to Spanish, French, Swedish, Portuguese, and Dutch colonizing.  (Russian colonies on the west coast don’t even get a glance.)  The history of the colony of New York  always includes a bit of the background relating to it originally being the New Netherlands and New York City being New Amsterdam.  For trivial pursuit sake, I mention that Wall Street was an original fortification by the Dutch.  Later, in literature, the Dutch show up again with the writings of Washington Irving.

The one name that our American history texts usually include for the Dutch settlements is Peter Stuyvesant.  No doubt Stuyvesant was a powerful and influential colonial leader, comparable to such men as William Bradford and John Smith.  In the typical history class fly-over, Peter Stuyvesant and New Netherland colony are synonymous.  But history is always far more complicated, complex, interwoven, and intricate than our breezy lectures imply.

Hence the importance and interest in this biography of Adriaen van der Donck.  Early in life, he emigrated to New Netherland and was successful as a farmer, colonizer, and government official.  Like most of the Dutch from his time and place, he was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.  His wife, however, was an English woman.

Colonial life was as prone to controversy, political strife, and differing opinions as life in our times.  Van der Donck found himself at odds with some of his political peers and superiors on several occasions.  Rather than being one who would “go along and get along,” he was, as the subtitle notes, a rebel.  Ultimately, his conflicts took him back to Netherlands where he made appeals regarding conflicts that he has with Stuyvesant.  This did not go well for him and resulted in him being detained for a longer period from his farm and family in the New World.

A Description of New Netherland (The Iroquoians and Their World)

The delay gave him time to make one of his more notable contributions to American colonial history.  He wrote a work about the colony the Dutch had claimed.  Titled A Description of New Netherland (in English translation), this remains the best and most extensive description and discussion of the Dutch colony.  Or we should say, the short-lived Dutch colony.  The English, whose possessions surrounded New Netherlands, forced the colony to surrender to the crown, so New Netherland became New York.  Van der Donck himself, after his delayed return to his home,  Although he was both sympathetic and understanding of the Native Americans in the area, he was apparently killed during an uprising.

There are a few places in New York where bits and pieces of his name and legacy remain.  The city of Yonkers is part of his original land grant.  A down town plaza along the Saw Mill River has been named Van der Donck Park.  His book on New Netherlands, which contains his vision for what the area could become, is available and in print.

One expects that a book of this sort will mainly be read by upper level and graduate level history students in college courses focusing on colonial America or on Dutch immigration.  That’s fine, but I hope a few others stumble across this book.  It is a fascinating story about a skilled man mostly unheard of who made a contribution to what became New York and the United States.

Post Script:  One of the benefits of reading biographies is the anecdotes that shed light on times past.  Van den Hout, the author, tells about a conflict between a man named Kieft who had a feud with one of the ministers.  She writes, “In his long-running feud with the Reverend Bogardus, he was reduced to attempting to disturb the church services by whatever means possible.  He, along with those who did not dare cross him, went so far as childishly interrupting the sermons with stomping, singing, dancing, even resorting to drum rolls and cannon fire”  (page 70).  Having labored for years as a pastor, I am thankful to have not had any similar experiences.

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Summer Mornings with Strong Coffee and Stronger Theology

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Summer–When morning starts and ends when I want it to.

There is nothing like gazing out from the porch and seeing the waves break on the sea while enjoying the cool morning breeze and a cup of hot coffee–with a book in hand.  I say there is nothing like that because I don’t have that kind of experience.  I have not seen a body of salt water in ten years and have not sat out on a porch in the mornings for that long as well.

But I still enjoy mornings.  I am thankful for a time to read the Bible, work through a small part of a large stack of books, gulp coffee down like a truck driver, and keep the dog entertained by throwing her chew toy across the room.  There are always more books than I can handle.  My mind is constantly overloaded.  Conviction runs high.  I resolve to be different, after repeated failures.  And the morning starts slipping away.

Here are some of the recent reads–finished in some cases, while in progress in others.

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I reviewed the book Reflect by Thaddeus Williams just a short while ago.  I don’t mind repeating that this was a delightful read and it filled the heart and mind with lots of sound, practical Christian thinking.  Mark this one for a second and third reading in the future.

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The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism by Ben Myers is published by Lexham Press.  I have come to recognize Lexham Press as “a name you can trust” when it comes to solid Christian literature.  This book is no exception.

This book is a very attractive, small hardback.  It would make a great gift.  The small size and short chapters should not blind us to the weighty content.  Phrase by phrase, the author takes us through the Apostles’ Creed by examining the Scriptural underpinings of this statement of belief.  Added to that, Myers quotes a number of the Church Fathers (meaning the primary theologians, pastors, and authors from the first five centuries of Christian history) to buttress his arguments.

Myers emphasizes that the use of the pronoun “I” is essential in this Creed. While it does point to a personal commitment to the truths therein, Myers says that the “I” is the “whole company of Christ’s followers” and that “nobody is invited to come up with their own statement of belief.” I found that idea quite impressive. A whole chapter is devoted to this opening word “I.”

This book handily bridges the gap between the daily devotional books aimed at the heart and the weighty theological books aimed at the head.  This is a great introduction, review, study, daily read, or family book for Christians.  If someone wants a more thorough background study and theological examination of the tenets of the Creed, look elsewhere.  This work is short, but weighty.

Post Script: One of the great and slow working blessings of growing up in a rural southern Methodist Church in the 1960’s and 70’s was the use of the Apostles’ Creed. Along with Wesleyan hymns and the Lord’s Prayer, this Creed kept the church anchored when some of the cultural currents were pulling it adrift.

After I was converted and embraced the Christian faith, I realized how I had been catechised and discipled by the Creed. “I believe” as we say in this “historic confession of the Christian faith” was a matter of layering. As a child, I was taught to believe it. In my adoloscence, I was reminded of it again and again. In my later teens when I came to believe it, I was, to my surprise somewhat grounded in things that I did not know I knew.

Because of my grounding in the Creed, I always have to have a copy of it when we were saying in the Presbyterian church I was a part of. The reason is that the older language of “the quick and the dead” and a few other older expressions were too deeply ingrained in my mind. I can only wish that I had lots more such thoughts ingrained there as well.

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Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought is by Oliver D. Crisp and Kyle C. Strobel.  This book is published by Eerdmans.  I am still in the beginning stages of getting into this book.  There are at least two levels of books that are appearing about the great Colonial American theologian, preacher, and philosopher Jonathan Edwards.

On the one hand, there are some fine books about the man as a Christian model, preacher, defender of Reformed theology, husband, father, and writer.  Thanks to Iain Murray’s great biography of Edwards and John Piper’s innumerable references and quotes and recommendations, Edwards is much more read and loved and appreciated than ever before.  For a period of time, he was forgotten in most Christian circles.  Literature books would often include his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” which usually served as a “No Trespassing” sign to further interest in the man.  That changed, and thanks again to the men named above and others for bringing about that change.

On a different level, Edwards has been the subject of serious academic, intellectual, theological, and philosophical study.  It was Perry Miller, God’s unbelieving pawn, who spawned a flurry of interest in Puritans in general and Edwards in particular about two generations ago.  By the grace of God, Christians began playing some serious catch-up and have re-examined Edwards’ thinking and have produced a wave of studies on him.  Perhaps the best and most accessible Edwards biogrpahy is the one done by Christian historian George Marsden.

Add to this, Yale University Press began reprinting or publishing for the first time “The Works of Jonathan Edwards.”  Priced and packaged for scholars and university libraries, this 29 volume endeavor has fueled lots of Edwardian studies.  (No, I don’t have them.  Yes, I will take them if you buy them for me.)

Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought is in the category of more serious studies.  Don’t start here if you just want to enjoy reading about his life or his wife (and there I would recommend the book Marriage to a Difficult Man by Elizabeth Dodds).

The chapters in this book include the following:  Intellectual Context, God of Beauty and Glory, God and Idealism, The Atonement, and Becoming Edwardsean.  The authors are professors of systematic and spiritual theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and Biola University.  From my pre-reading in the book, I am expecting lots of heavy lifting.

To help with that task, I am looking forward to yet another work about Edwards that is published by Eerdmans.  Titled The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia, this 647 page work is edited by the respected church historian Harry Stout.  It just got opened yesterday, so will have to tout its contributions to Edwards’ scholarship in a later post.

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Reflect by Thaddeus J. Williams

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Reflect: Becoming Yourself By Mirroring the Greatest Person in History by Thaddeus J. Williams is published by Weaver Book Company.

First, let’s deal with my anger issues.  I did not know this book existed, nor did I know that Thaddeus Williams existed until a month or two ago. Here I am, slogging my way through this world, slipping and falling, sliding and failing, distracted by one worldly pursuit after another, wallowing in near illiteracy, and all the while, this book was out there.  I have already rebuked two friends, Andrew Sandlin and Brian Mattson, for writing glowing blurbs for this book, but not informing me of how good it is.

Related to all this, if Thaddeus Williams was really concerned with us mirroring Jesus, he should have personally flown across the country and hand delivered this book to me.  The fact that he did (or does) not know me is irrelevant.  This is a book I needed.  If it could be put in liquid form, I would have an IV attached to my arm and have the book fed to me that way.

Second, this book threw off my morning reading rituals.  I usually read only about ten pages a day in several different morning reads.  In this case, I would find myself reading and reading and reading until I was too full.  I was gulping this book down in whole chapters at a time.

Third, the cover art itself is worth the price of the book, especially for those of us who are always wanting to know who’s who in the world of Christian thinking and living.  By the way, inside the book is a numbered list identifying the 48 distinguished contributors to the book.  (Almost that many key Christian leaders wrote favorable blubs for the book.)

Where else will you see Bonhoeffer and Johnny Cash side by side?  Or Lecrae the rapper in between Augustine and G. K. Chesterton?  Or Charles Darwin looking rather uncomfortable because he is next to Jonathan Edwards?  This isn’t just clever cover art.  Each of the theologians, Christian authors, musicians, and cultural figures are quoted in the book with their own words being used to buttress arguments about following the life, teachings, and work of Jesus Christ.

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Some, but not all of the supporting cast in this book about Jesus Christ.

The title Reflect is itself full of meaning.  I must admit that as a book reviewer (my idea of a sports activity), I am always pressed to read and finish rather than read and reflect.  But we all have our urgent tyrannies.  Sometimes the words, “Nice sermon, pastor” (or I prefer to say, “Better luck next time”) is all of our response or reflection on a Sunday sermon.  After all, the sermon is over at noon or slightly past that and the call of the stomach for food is all consuming.  We all live too fast and furiously too much of the time and don’t take time to reflect on the Christian life.

This book is not a remaking of the Charles Sheldon’s somewhat drippy book In His Steps which was premised on the statement of “What Would Jesus Do?”  There is something to be said about the recurring WWJD idea or, now what we would call a meme.  But WWJD has to be approached with discernment.  Don’t come after me with a whip and turn over my book table where I am offering copies of this book in the church foyer.

Thinking about Jesus brings us to the R in the word Reflect and to the first point of the book.  Reason: Mirroring the Profound Thinking of Jesus.  I probably have a hundred books related to Christian thinking.  From Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind to Herman Dooyeweerd A New Critique of Theoretical Thought to Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine to John Piper’s Think, I have been accumulating, reading, and using books showing how Christians ought to think.  After all, I am in the thinking business since I am a teacher.

What makes Williams’ chapter interesting (besides the fact that it is really interesting) is that his book doesn’t approach Christian thought and reasoning as an add on, or later chapter, in the process of following Christ.  He begins with this and then shows example after example of how Jesus won debates by using two successful keys:  Being right and using right reasoning.  After all, He could have turned his opposition into toads. (See the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? regarding the dangers here.)

The E in Reflect represent Emote:  Mirroring the Just Sentiments of Jesus.  I am enough of a crusty, old-time Calvinist to shudder when I am around too much emoting.  Modern Christianity, hand in hand with modern life in general, “thinks” emotion is thought, that feelings are doctrines, that being all heart is following Jesus, truth, and the American way.  The Christian doctrine of emotion, even that phrase sounds weird to me, is not to be Stoically cold and calculating to every event.  Jesus was an emotional man.  Being fully man and fully God, He is an emotional Person in the Triune Emotional Godhead.  When Williams talks about “outrage, passion, and joy,” he is describing aspects of the life of Jesus.  Theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and pastors such as Samuel Rutherford could write things that were downright embarrassing because they were so emotional in their devotion to Jesus.

F stands for Flip:  Mirroring the Upside-Down Action of Jesus.  As the criticism was made later that the apostles were turning the world upside-down by their teachings (Acts 17:6), so this could be made about Jesus.  Maybe we have read and heard the Bible stories too many times (let the reader understand), so we often are too used to, too comfortable with Jesus’ flipping situations, teachings, ideas, etc.

L stands for Love:  Mirroring the Radical Relationability of Jesus.  Once again, we are so accustomed to the use of the word “love” in a Jesus and church context that we forget how radical and challenging this is.

E stands for Elevate:  Mirroring the Saving Grace of Jesus.  I was so thankful for this chapter.  Here is why:  Basically, I believe in salvation by works plus grace.  Basically, I believe that while I might be a C- Christian, I am passing and will get promoted to heaven.  Grace always hits me hard and right between the eyes.  It corrects what is has already corrected a million times in my life and reinforces to me that Jesus saves sinners.  Saves, not just helps; saves, not just instructs; saves, not just supplements my own efforts.

Williams says, “To think, feel, act, and love in a Jesus-reflecting way is not challenging; IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. Anyone who thinks otherwise has either laughingly overestimated himself, or seriously underestimated Jesus. The distance between him and us is infinite. Thankfully, there is grace.”

C stands for Create:  Mirroring the Artistic Genius of Jesus.  This is the chapter (not to be read by skipping ahead) that I commend to all my artistic friends and family members.  Poets, musicians, artists, designers, and writers:  Take note how we as Christians are to follow Jesus as our Master Artist.  For a time, there were tables, chairs, or other items that Jesus the Carpenter had made.  No doubt these artistic works were well done, but Jesus the Artist, Designer, Author, Carpenter, Painter left us His magnum opus:  An empty tomb.  All the great paintings, all the fine poetry, and all the moving songs (“He’s Alive” by Dolly Parton is my favorite) and then realize that they are all covers, imitations, and copies of the original:  Jesus’ Resurrection.

T stands for Transform:  Mirroring Jesus in All of Life.  Transformation is an underused and overwhelming word in the Christian life.  As a Christian who uses the word “Reformed” to describe my theology, I really need to be a Transformed Christian more and more.  It is not a one time action, but a life-long process.

Since I have given all these spoilers, is there any reason now to read this book?  As my pastor Jared Gibson often says, “Are you crazy?” (Or the milder version, “Are you kidding?”).

Read, reflect, read again, buy copies and give them to those that need to read and reflect.

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Beauteous Truth by Joseph Pearce

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I hear it continually.  It is a lament, a regret, a wish.  It comes from parents.  It comes from teachers.  It even comes, occasionally, from students.  “I wish I had read more.”  ” I wish I understood the classics.”  “I wish I had a better education.” And so it goes.  Part of the pain of adulthood is the realization that “time’s winged chariots” are near.  Part of life’s wisdom is the realization that we may never get to read and enjoy and discuss the best that has ever been written or thought.

There are many encouraging exhortations that can be given.  And the available resources are overwhelming.  But the doing, that’s the rub.  (Already, two literary allusions have crept in “on little cat feet”–now making it three allusions–and do you recognize them?)  Yes, get started.  Read a classic.  Buy some books.  Turn off those digital devices.  Get off social media and the internet (except for this blog).  But beware:  Acquiring a well-tempered literary and classical mind is no easy task.  So, I will offer yet another resource, but a vital one.

To be educated, not for the sake of a resume or to be primly snotty, but for the joy and blessing of cultivating the mind is a process.  One of the vital steps is to get around people who make you feel uncomfortable, near illiterate, maybe even stupid. Then keep your mouth shut and listen.  Listen and listen and listen.  If there are groups of actual people you can spend time with who can elevate your mind, great.  If not, there are book.  Even if you are around the well-grounded in thought, you simply must read.

Joseph Pearce needs to become your buddy, and his books need to be on your shelves.  He will never know how much or little you know, because you are just listening, or actually just reading.  He is not an academic who has lived his life in a library.  He has spent time in jail in his radical, un-Christian, racist days.  Since he was found of God and renounced his past ways, he has been a quick study.  With the zeal of a revolutionary and street radical, he has become a revolutionary for a different cause:  Glorifying God by enjoying the great works of literature, especially those written by Christians.

Beauteous Truth:  Faith, Reason, Literature, and Culture is published by St. Augustine Press.  A little plug here for St. Augustine Press:  The books coming from this source are incredible.  You may never see them in your local large chain stores or even in Christian book stores, but don’t ignore the tidal wave of books from this press.

This book consists of 76 essays.  Most of them are but a few pages.  It took me a long time to read this book because my preferred method was to read just one essay a day.  By “just listening,” the reader will become more and more acquainted with G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc,  C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Graham Greene, Roy Campbell, Ronald Knox, Dorothy Sayers, Christopher Dawson,  T. S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, John Henry Newman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and several other recent (as in late 19th through 20th century) authors.  A literary education begins with learning the geography.  The map-quest shows how Chesterton leads to Lewis and Lewis leads to Tolkien and so on.  Pearce is well equipped on this front because of his book Literary Converts.  

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Literary Converts is the second book by Pearce that you should read.  But it was the first book by him that I read.  It is a must for English majors and teachers, Lewis and Tolkien fans, cultural critics of the past two centuries, historians, and pastors.  While much of the 20th century seemed to be a time of the sun setting on the United Kingdom, God was raising up a bevy of writers who were penning the best essays, poems, dramas, theological works, and novels that were Christian.  Beauteous Truth contains fragments (not splintered fragments, however, Mr. Tolkien) of the stories in Literary Converts.

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Also, Pearce has written biographies Chesterton, Tolkien, Belloc, and Solzhenitsyn.  Get them!  I try to get and read everything by Joseph Pearce.  I keep hoping to meet him some day as well.  He is a tireless defender of the good, the true and the beautiful and is a gifted writer and advocate.

Along with the more recent writers that Pearce discusses, he also brings in others from the literary canon.  So, he discusses Dante (one of his favorites),Shakespeare, Chaucer, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Richard Crashaw, John Donne, Charles Dickens, and many, many more. He also frequently discusses Oscar Wilde, yet another subject of a Pearce biography.  Pearce seems to be grounded in the whole panorama of European literature.

An additional strength to this book is that Pearce is a Christian and the gist of his writing is about Christian connections.  His theology and mine differ on too many points to even begin discussing.  He and I can banter about all that on the fourth or fifth time we get together in the future.  To be sure, there are plenty of writers who were not Christian, who were writing long before Christ, or who have been anti-Christian.  As R. C. Sproul has said, all literature is about someone running from God or running to God.

I was only vaguely conscious of the Christian scope of literature while I was studying history and English in college.  I was blessed by some good literature teachers, especially Dr. Rosalyn Knudson at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who taught a courses that included Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spencer’s Fairie Queene, and Shakespeare’s plays.  Later, I begin to think of Christian literature as being the enjoyable, but light novels of Frank Peretti.

Some of the world-changing works I read were the books by Cleanth Brooks, Louise Cowan, and Leland Ryken.  As I was getting immersed, sprinkled, and poured in terms of Christian literature and culture through teaching in a classical Christian school, I was making more and more connections, faster and faster.  Joseph Pearce’s books were a catalyst for those heady days.

It is easy enough to look on-line and see the table of contents of this book, so I will not try to reproduce it here.  But be ready:  Some essays that sound less interesting due to the titles will be mental game changers.  Some will leave you thinking, “I don’t know what he is talking about.”  That is okay because we want to learn from people who have read, thought, and sought more than we have.  Some will be disagreeable.  That is okay as well.  Good, educated disagreements are part of education.  Many will be humbling.  Some confirming.  All worth reading.

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Knowing God, Ourselves, and also John Calvin

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I really want to become guilty of something I have been accused of in the past.  Sometimes when discussions would arise and morph into arguments, someone would say, “You have been reading too much Calvin.” The charge has been made using other terms as well.  “You are reading and getting your ideas from the words of men.”  “You have become programmed like a logic book.”  Perhaps the most accurate criticism was simply, “You are crazy.”

I did not embrace Reformed theology, sometimes called Calvinism, by just hearing men.  Logical programming has never been my abiding characteristic.  Going insane has always only a short trip.  “You are following the words of men” is an odd criticism because whoever is saying that to me is giving me words of a man (using “man” in the now archaic sense of “person”).

Agree or disagree, my understanding of Reformed theology came from the old fashioned method of looking up lots and lots of Bible passages.  Yes, it was from books written by men that I was getting the listings of Bible verses.  Loraine Boettner caused me lots of angst, joy, irritation, joy, unbelief, joy, belief, and then more joy.  Then along came the book The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Documented, and Defended by David Steele and Curtis Thomas.  With a minimum amount of defining and defending, the bulk of the book was Bible verses supporting each contention.

Before Reformed theology, I never really understood how to read, study, and work through the Bible.  Reformed theology made me a student of the Bible.  For a time, I thought all Calvinists agreed on everything.  (Pause for a minute or two of laughter.)  In time, I realized that all true Calvinists or Reformed folk really just centered on one narrow, limited, restricted doctrine–the Bible is the Word of God.  The Bible Alone–Sola Scriptura–was the hallmark.  Yes, we (the Reformed) fall short of our principle; yes, we interpret;  yes, we put spiritual blinders on;  yes, we sometimes inadvertently use old creeds, confessions, and “words of men” to bolster some weak arguments.  But the touchstone still stands:  Scripture Alone.

Now, back to John Calvin.  First of all, Calvin was the last person who would have wanted a whole movement to be named after him.  Second, he didn’t devise the handy-dandy TULIP or 5 Point Summary of Salvation.  Third, he was not a Johnny Calvin-One Note who found predestination and election in every verse.

He wrote a simple Bible study guide for young believers.  Keep in mind, he was given the gift of teaching and writing, and he was compelled by circumstances to teach, speak, preach, or write to fellow believers about doctrines of the Bible.  Throughout his ministry, much of his work was focused on verse by verse teaching of the Bible.  From those lectures, sermons, and writings, we have a huge corpus called Calvin’s Commentaries along with collections of sermons that are still be translated into English.

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But his initial theological work was the study guide for major Christian beliefs, commonly known as Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This book started out as a short treatise of a few hundred pages, but throughout his life, Calvin continued to revise this book.  In the English editions, Calvin’s Institutes appears as a thick one volume or two still hefty volumes of some 1000 pages.  The two best known translations is the older Henry Beveridge translation and the 20th century Ford Lewis Battles translation.  (I like both and have used the Beveridge for teaching because it was more affordable.)

My favorite translation is the Banner of Truth edition.  Called “Calvin’s Own ‘Essentials’ Edition, this beautiful volume was translated by Robert White and was made from the French edition in 1541.  This book is 842 pages and is hard bound with the quality that Banner of Truth fans know quite well.

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Although Calvin’s Institutes, taken as a whole, is a massive work, it can be read as a series of shorter books.  Overall, it follows the outline of the Apostles’ Creed.  The book is surprisingly readable and understandable.  Calvin was writing to his congregations and readers; he was not writing for a theological text for theological academics (not that they cannot read it profitably as well).

Over the years, quite a number of guide, helps, outlines, and commentaries have been written for use alongside of Calvin’s book.  I have picked up at least four or five of these types of books through the years.  Having a guide, a mentor, a teacher is always helpful.  The Ethiopian eunuch asked the question that all real students ask repeatedly:  How can I understand what I am reading unless someone guides me?”

Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally by David B. Calhoun is a recent publication by Banner of Truth.  How can I say this without exaggerating?  Here goes:  This is a great book.  It ministers to mind and soul.  It guides the reader through the main headings of Calvin’s Institutes while giving delightful quotes from other Calvin scholars and writers, supplying Bible verses, and heart-directed comments.

While designed as a book to accompany the reading of the Institutes, it can be read as a stand alone volume.  Whether the readers is looking for history, biography, theology, Bible teachings, and key topics regarding Calvin’s theology, it is here.

Notice the key words in the subtitle:  Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.  Calvin’s mission statement on life was having a heart centered, empowered, propelled, and driven by a love for God.  His key objection to the many theological enemies of his time was that they were not Christ-centered.  Church work was all about making people believe, trust, love, and obey Jesus more and more.

Quite frankly, Calvin often reads more like a pietistic mystic than like a Calvinist.  He is like the praise and worship part of modern worship services, except that instead of loud amplified music and repeated (too many times) choruses, there is strong theological, Biblical truth.  His writings are Christ-centered and Christ-consumed.  And along with, before, or after reading Calvin, read Knowing God and Ourselves.

Additional recommendation:  I first became aware of David Calhoun’s writings when I read the first of his two volume story of Princeton Seminary.  I love that set, which is a Banner of Truth publication.  Then later, I read, reviewed, and loved his shorter volume on Columbia Seminary and his biographical and editorial work highlighting the southern Presbyterian theologian William Childs Robinson.

While these books might seem to be of interest only to Presbyterians studying their own history, the works reach to a wider range of concerns.  The history of Presbyterians in the 18th-20th centuries in America echo, explain, and chronicle the ups and downs and downs and downs with a few later ups of our country.

Knowing God and Ourselves is a different kind of book, however.  It is a first rate study and great for directing the heart and mind to God.  God’s blessings on Dr. Calhoun whose health is not good, but whose faith is strong.



The True Flag–Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain Lock Horns

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Reading, studying, and teaching history often leaves me feeling uncomfortable.  For certain, there are evil men and nations whose downfalls bring joy.  There are heroes and villains, good and evil, right and wrong categories that apply to certain historical events and characters.  Hitler and Stalin almost universally get bad marks for their beliefs and ideas.  Although many others’ crimes don’t have the numerical equivalency to those guys, blood is on the hands of many since the days of Cain.

History would be far easier to teach and explain if it were all Orcs trying to raid the shires of Hobbits.  Mordor is easy to villify and we rejoice when it falls.  We shout for joy when the White Witch’s reign in Narnia ends.  We sing in thanksgiving for the fall of the Belin Wall.  We are thankful when liberation comes to oppressed peoples.

But much of history is far more complicated because it is a clash of different perspectives.  Sometimes good and honorable men uphold dishonorable positions.  Sometimes less honorable men take the better course of action.  King George III and General Charles Cornwallis were both good men in their fields.  But, in the American story, there are the foes and are enemies to all that we hold dear in our founding era.  At the very least, history calls for lots of humility on the part of the student (who might also be the teacher) and for a willingness to listen and think and even change.

The True Flag:  Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire is by Stephen Kinzer, author and scholar.  It was published by Henry Holt and Company.

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This book focuses on the period of American history around 1898 and following.  It was in 1898 that the United States declared war on Spain for its abuses to Cuba and, more immediately, for the explosion on the U. S. ship The Maine.  That three month war was referred to as a “splendid little war.”  It lasted about three months.  In spite of many deficiencies in America’s preparation, capturing Cuba was an easy plumb to pick (that being written by someone who was not there).  The collateral results was that the U. S. also go control of the Philippine Islands and Puerto Rico.  Our acquisition of Hawaii was also in this same time frame.

The oppressive Spanish Empire, with the Black Legend as it was termed, lost the last of its overseas holdings.  Four hundred years of imperial oppression was ended.  Good triumphed over evil.  Freedom was on the move.  Well, not exactly.  Liberating Cuba was a feather in the cap of many of its supporters, but the Platt Amendment quelled the next logical step.  That would have been adding Cuba on to the United States as a colony.

Now, to do a momentary historical speculation, a bit of “what if” history:  The 20th Century might have been a bit better if Cuba had gone from being a Spanish colony to a U. S. territory and then a U. S. state.  There would have been no Bay of Pigs, no Cuban Missile Crisis, no Castro (and likely no JFK assassination), no Grenada or Sandinistas, and so on.  Florida would not have the huge Cuban community.  Instead, the state of Cuba would be an incredibly rich state with lots of income from cigars, sugar, and tourism, and the careers of Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would not have existed.

Historical speculation is fun and anyone can tag on whatever reasonable result they wish.  After all, if Winfield Scott Hancock had defeated James  A. Garfield in 1880, maybe the world would be far better today, or worse, or some mixture of the same.  But history has to deal with the realities.

Cuba was won, but what would the U. S. get out of this exertion of magnanimity?  The answer was the Philippines.  The most ironic, hypocritical, and unjustifiable action of the U. S. in that era was the taking of the Philippines.  Getting the deed turned over to the U. S. from Spain was not the problem.  The Philippines had its own nationals who were fighting for freedom from Spain.  To be liberated by a country whose founding Declaration of Independence was creedal conviction appeared to be a blessing.

The reality was a curse for those Filipinos who wanted independence in 1898.  The blight of Philippine occupation by military force created major dissension in America.  Here is where Mark Twain stepped in. Twain was highly critical of the interference of the United States into other cultures.  He was not a provincial at all.  His convictions were borne from his world-wide experiences.  As expected, his facility with language came in handy in this fight.

Theodore Roosevelt, for all of his good qualities, was jingoistic.  He embraced “the White Man’s Burden,” to use Kipling’s phrase.  He loved the idea of the United States spreading and imposing its ideals on others.  The Spanish-American war was his baby, so to speak.  The gains from that war were not to be trifled with or discarded.

The debates of the 1890’s and early 20th century are still going on today.  It is never simply a conservative versus liberal or Republican versus Democrat type of issue.  Currently, interventionism and global policing are the norms for the United States.  Whether U. S. actions have resulted in more benefits or harms depends on who is controlling the scales.

History, regardless of the claims of objectivity by historians, is inevitably moral philosophy.  This book is a great story of the conflict over right and wrong in regard to the Philippines.  Granting Philippine Independence in 1898 would have changed everything that happened over the next century.  Write or think through your own version of whether that story would have been better or not.

The True Flag is a worthwhile read for the history it covers and the issues it raises.

10 Things Every Christian Should Know for College

10 Things Every Christian Should Know for College by Austin Gentry is available from Amazon.

There are quite a few books and articles detailing reasons why college should not be the option for all young people.  The costs, with the added burden of loans, leave parents and graduates severely strapped economically.  The environment is rife with dangers and irrelevancies.  And, let’s admit it, a college degree can be an idol of a sort.  This is especially true is the college is prestigious or if the degree is fashionable.

Young people thinking of college, along with parents and teachers, need to be aware of the wider range of viable options in this world than just attending college.  That being said, many 18 to 22 year-olds will heading off to college in August. In my family, my oldest son graduated from Wheaton, my oldest daughter is attending John Brown University, and college is not out of the question for my two younger ones.  Both my wife and I are college graduates.

College is a big business in America, and, all criticisms aside, college is formative in the intellectual, social, economic, and spiritual lives of those who attend.  People enter college as professing believers in Christianity and leave with total unbelief.  People enter college as unbelievers or atheists or non-Christians and leave as solid Christians.  Pre-med students become literature majors.  Engineering students become artists.  Brainy, bearded, slightly edgy young men become philosophy majors.

College education provides networking opportunities, opens doors, forms life-long passions, creates friendships, and expands horizons.  A thousand anecdotes can be piled up to show the dangers and obstacles to body and soul in college.  There are, tragically, far too many funerals of young college students whose lives ended due to choices and events found on or near to college campuses.  Then there is the novel I am Charlotte Simmons by the recently deceased Tom Wolfe.  Written when Wolfe was in his 70’s, the novel depicts the sexually charged and degenerate culture of college life.

But another thousand anecdotes can be piled up in favor of college education.  I encountered Reformed theology in college.  I signed up for an American history class where I suddenly found myself grappling with a whole new way of thinking of God and the Bible.  Far from regretting my college years, I would like to relive aspects of that life.  I loved the lectures.  Writing papers was a painful but powerful experience.  The people I met and the things I learned were not just life changing, but life defining.  R. C. Sproul became a Christian while in college.  Headed down to buy a pack of cigarettes, a fellow student witnessed to him and Sproul began becoming the Sproul we all love and miss.

The pervasive power of college–like the white whale in Melville’s Moby Dick or the bear in Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses or the green light in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby–is inescapable and undeniable.  So, the need to enter college with the eyes and ears wide open and alert is all the more important.

For that reason, Austin Gentry’s book 10 Things Every Christian Should Know for College is an important read.  I would hope that some youth groups, small study groups, and Sunday school classes would be using this book.  It is to college what pre-marital counseling is to young couples eyeing the marriage altar.  And even for the student already in college, the book is a check list of important matters.  For teachers, like me, this is a book that I will need to keep handy and urge upon, or maybe force feed, to students.

I will briefly comment on the ten areas that Austin covers.  (I normally don’t call an author by his first name, but Austin is what Augustine’s close friends called him.  And Austin is a young, but not naive or inexperienced fellow.  I have the “advantage” of lots of years on him, but he has proven himself to be quite mature and realistic in dealing with these topics.)

The first large section of the book, or points 1-5, deal with the mind.  Kids heading off to college–You are going to experience having your brain fried, tossed, scrambled, smacked, warped, assaulted, or whatever other painful metaphor you want to use.

The mind and the heart are not separate entities inhabiting the same physical body.  What messes with your thinking will mess with your believing and living.  What messes with your beliefs and life will change your mind.

Professors are there because they are smart.  (Exceptions exist in some sense, but the guys usually know stuff.)  But most professors are specialists who are ignorant  in areas outside their bailiwick.  I remember really good history professors who would make really dumb statements about the Bible.  Unfortunately, pride goeth before and after tenure.  Professors often exude an air of respectability and brilliance.  As Austin points out, they are not omniscient.

Students need the intellectual stuffing knocked out of them.  Admit it, most young Christians really don’t know what they believe and why.  They have imbibed and embraced the faith because of family and friends and a good youth program and maybe a fear of going to hell.  The Bible tells us, “Don’t sweat the difficult doctrines.”  Right?  If you are using a King James, it will read “Sweatest not thou that which is weighty.”

I hope you didn’t believe that the Bible verse I quoted above actually exists.  Christians have been called to account in the Sanhedrin, the Areopagus, the arena, the courtroom, the gallows, and the classroom. When I first entered college, I remember hearing people say, “Well you know that not all of the books in the Bible are actually in the Bible.”  Not only did I not know that, but I had never heard it.  Supposedly everyone else already knew that there were numerous books that got kicked out of the Bible that really were just as much a part of “it” as the 66 finalists.

Many of the challenges to the faith that are premised with “We know” or “We now know” or “All educated people know” are bogus.  But even right now, I cannot readily answer every challenge to the faith that is brought up.  But college student, you are the new kid on the block, a novice, a light-weight, an amateur.  Embrace that.  Hear the objection and recognize that there has not been a totally new and unoriginal objection made to Christianity in ages.  Yes, the details change and new ways of thinking and new discoveries alter our approaches, but the objections have been there since the day Adam and Eve believed the lie.

And yet, one of Austin’s best points is that college students who abandon the faith usually don’t cave to the intellectual assaults.  Rather, it is the moral, social, and sexual detours that exact the highest cost.  In other words, the student doesn’t doubt the Bible because of philosophy class and then engage in recreational sex.  Instead, he or she opts for recreational sex and philosophy class suddenly gets more interesting because it explains or justifies the loss of faith.  “Thanks, I need that,” the student says who suddenly finds a lecture point, a paragraph in a book, a slight against Christianity, a psychological study, or whatever pays a bribe to the conscience.

The second large portion of the book deals with the need, as in ABSOLUTE NECESSITY, of church, community, fellowship, accountability, and walk with Christ.  In college, you will discover that you are really too busy and too tired to go to church.  That will never change in life.  Sleep in and slip away.  But it is not just the hour of sitting in a pew on Sunday mornings.  Christians must have other Christians.  That is not just helpful, but it is the heart of Biblical theology.

Close Christian bonds doesn’t call for what Austin calls “the Christian huddle.”  Every one in college needs a heathen friend.  (That is my saying, not Austin’s.)  This does not mean that we are to go out and act like heathens with those friends, but we need the benefits, common grace, and the education that comes from interaction with the world.  I know from both of my older children, that even on a Christian college campus, there are unbelieving or really messed up kids who are there.  Music groups, intramural sports, art clubs, and off campus events provide Christian students a way to live the faith in the world.

Check out Austin Gentry’s blog–found HERE.  Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.  Read his book in print…or on Kindle (I hate that word).  Read it before you or your kids head off to college.  Talk about it.  Watch for more from this young Christian who isn’t shy about proclaiming Christ.

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Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?

Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography is by Dr. Michael Licona, an Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University.  This book is published by the renowned Oxford University Press. Dr. Licona has also written The Resurrection of Jesus, Evidence for God, Paul Meets Muhammed, and other works.  His website, Risen Jesus, offers a number of resources and details about his ministry.

In my meandering book hunting, I came across Michael Licona’s works about a year ago.  It was yet another pleasant reminder of how God has raised up so many scholars and teachers in the Kingdom.  He is not a novice or new comer, but I was not previously aware of his work.  I continue to be impressed by Houston Baptist University because of the big names that are associated with that school.  Along with Dr. Licona, Dr. Louis Markos and Dr. Nancy Pearcey also teach there.  If I suddenly get an all expense paid scholarship to HBU, I will go just to take their courses.

Let me now speak about this particular study, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?

First, notice that this book is published by Oxford University Press.  I quickly snatch up and buy almost any book I find that OUP publishes.  If it is part of the “Oxford Book of ___________________” collection, I usually want it.  But most of my reading and collecting from OUP are in the fields of history and literature.

University Presses are astounding.  They publish far too many books for the average reader to even become aware of.  Yes, many are obscure, esoteric, and deeply academic studies.  Yes, many are priced way beyond the range of any but college libraries and wealthy folks.  But they also publish many readable histories, biographies, and other studies.

In spite of the paranoia we conservative Christians have, college presses publish lots of books that are both politically conservative and favorable to Christianity.  There are, in our times, way more than the 6,000 of Elijah’s time who have not bended their knees to Baal.  Then there are some folks who genuinely respect the academic and spiritual freedom of Christians.

Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers by Daniel Dreisbach, also an OUP publications, is one such example of a great study by a Christian scholar.  Dr. Thomas Kidd’s historical books are published by various secular academic presses.  Michael McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction:  R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism was published by the University of North Carolina Press. The University Press of Kentucky has published Bradley Birzer’s biography of conservative intellectual Russell Kirk and more recently has published Imaginative Conservative:  The Letters of Russell Kirk.  And the list goes on.

Second,  this book is a win/win for people who are in classical Christian education.  The reason is that at least a third of the book is a detailed survey of Plutarch’s Lives and some other ancient biographies.  The other large emphasis in the book is the Gospel accounts.  I suffered great embarrassment while reading about Plutarch’s Lives because it is a book I have read from, but have never read.  I should have long ago read it and should have been teaching it.  But here is a resource for that future eventuality.

Okay, I have read the Gospels!  The jist of this book is that the Gospel writers employed methods of writing that were common for the literary culture of their times.  Biographies in our time (20th/21st centuries) are of a different caliber than biographies of the past.  This is not a good versus bad pairing, but a “this is different from that” approach.  Just read a book a book on a historical figure written in the 1800’s and then read one written in the last twenty years.

Third, there is in the history of the past century or two what was called the Higher Critical Movement.  The force of this movement is still strong.  The higher critics seemed intent on not just scholarly study or literary/historical/theological criticism, but also undermining and attacking the Bible.

At the same time, although getting less attention, is what is sometimes called the Lower Critical Approach.  Studies of authorship, dating, context, and other topics is a legitimate way to critically study the Bible.  The word Gnosticism never appears in the Bible, but that was a cultural and philosophical movement that is under attack by the New Testament writers. Differences in Paul’s writings in Romans and James’ Epistle call for some serious and microscopic examination and study.

Fourth, this book takes the differences in wording, placement, context, and details found in the four Gospels and seeks to explain them.  Am I happy or convinced by all of Dr. Licona’s efforts?  No.  Quite frankly, I am usually content to read the Gospels with complete acceptance and don’t worry about reconciling differences.  But sometimes pastors, teachers, and scholars have to do the heavy lifting.  I would recommend that any reader who is feeling that the premises are shaky on this book should skip over to the Conclusion so as to better understand Licona’s perspective and method.

My first “go-to” book on this topic would be Vern Poythress’ Inerrancy and Worldview:  Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible.  But Michael Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels would not be far away.  There are, of course, a number of resources.  Remember Christian, the Bible is not a the new, little kid with glasses who is being bullied.  Christian theology and the Scriptures have endured and prevailed through many ages and battles.

Fifth, this book is not an easy read or a devotional read.  Granted, any study of theology can and should impact the heart as well as the mind.  Also, one might wish that they could get the basic sense of this work without having to wade through 36 accounts from Plutarch.  Hopefully, Dr. Licona will write a simplified version of this work for the more general reader.

But we need the scholars who are willing and able to give not just an example, but an entire book length case study of the topic at hand.  This book does exactly that.

I look forward to reading more from Michael Licona.

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Dr. Michael Licona from Houston Baptist University. “The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd.” Ecclesiastes 12:11.