Theological Preaching–Rich and Deep

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I still have not recovered from something my college student daughter TaraJane told me a few months back.  She said that theology majors in college that she knew were the most cynical students around.  By that, she went on to explain that they were critical, negative, and generally contrary in their views on church, the Bible, God, and life in general.

I think that theology students should be giddy most of the time.  That is not because the study of theology is light and breezy, but because it exposes the heart and mind to an incredible array of richness concerning God, the Bible, the Kingdom of God, salvation, truth, mankind, and all of life.

I am, at best, only one who dabbles in theology.  My training, college education, and main work experiences have not been in theology per se.  I am a history teacher, a literature teacher, an administrator in a Christian school, and a book reviewer.  But I have also been a pastor/teacher/elder for several decades.  I have no formal theological training, but have played on the scrub teams for years by reading lots of books, listening to sermons and lectures, and acquiring a working familiarity with theology.

One of the too often used descriptions of theology is that the study is dry and dusty.  Granted that is possible.  All fields involve some archived information that is a labor to wade through.  Some writers are technical and analytical in ways that prevent them from being readily readable.  Often theologians, like scholars in all fields, write for an audience of peers and develop a language that the insiders are familiar with but that stumps the novice or newcomer to the studies.  When you are reading and thinking, “I don’t know what this book is talking about,” you may simply not know enough of the background.  Be slow to condemn, but don’t be ashamed to be baffled.

But is theology just an academic, scholarly, intellectual pursuit?  Of course, it can be.  The same can be said for the Battle of Gettysburg.  At its best and in terms of its primary purpose, theology is designed not to equip brainy, intellectuals who are Christian with an outlet for their mental synapses.  Rather, theology is to minister to, teach and instruct, comfort and confirm the Christian sitting in the pew on Sunday and working at the factory, elementary classroom, hospital, or home on the weekdays.

We are all theologians, as has been often said.  That is, all people are invovled in the study of God, or if you prefer Dr. Roy Clouser’s term, a Divinity Belief.  By that, everyone has something they embrace that gives definition, meaning, and direction to all they do (or don’t do).  So the believer is a theologian and should be striving to be a better theologian.  Theology, by definition, is the study of God, and the the newest convert and the youngest child in the congregation should be embracing theology.  Think for a moment at how profound the song is that proclaims, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

I want to call attention to two books I read over the past several months that are made up of incredibly rich theological discourses.  The chapters in these books were given as sermons and talks.  I find myself feeling dizzy at the thought of giving a talk on the high level of the contents of these books.  Yes, there are some things hard to understand.  No, these are not the works for a new and unread Christian to pick up.  But everytime I think back on either of these works, I remember just how they were packed full of soul-nurturing, mind-pleasing, convincing and convicting truths.

These two books are pictured below.  The first one is High KIng of Heaven: Theological and Practical Perspectives on the Person and Work of Jesus.  It is edited by John MacArthur.  Contributors include Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Michael Reeves, Mark Jones, Stephen Lawson, and many others.  These men are some of the foremost preachers and teachers in the various branches of Reformed and Evangelical Christianity.  Published by Moody Publishers and The Master’s Seminary, the book is hardbound and affordably priced.

The second book is Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting? Collected Sermons by John Murray.  It is published by Westminster Seminary Press.

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Let me begin the examination of these two books by discussing John Murray himself.  Murray was a Scotsman and was primarily a teacher of systematic theology.  He fits my favorite image of a true Scots Calvinist:  He was stern, serious, somber, and searching.  Add scholarly to that list.  His major works are Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics.  He also wrote a powerful commentary on Romans, and his various writings were collected together by Banner of Truth into a four volume set of the Collected Writings of John Murraywhich is temporarily (we hope) out of stock.

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On different occasions, Murray did do some pulpit supply.  In the case of these sermons, which were preached to small congregations in Canada and the Scottish Highlands, Murray was filling pulpits during his summer breaks from seminary.  Most of these sermons were transcribed from audio messages.  As is noted in the editor’s comments, a sermon read does not contain the emphases and style and passion of the spoken message.  Nevertheless, the the theological ground covered in this collection is vast.

The first seven sermons are from Romans.  They might serve as a helpful overview of Murray’s commentary, and one would wish we had a collection of sermons covering all of Romans.  Since Romans deals so intricately with salvation including justification, sanctification, election, and so on, Murray beautifully explains these doctrines.  The next eight sermons are from various texts, mostly from the New Testament.  The final selection is Murray’s charge to Edmund Clowney, who was taking on a theological chair at Westminster.

This book has been very beautifully crafted.  See the pictures connected to the link above.  It can be read in part or in whole, beginning with any one of the sermons.  It is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and hope to read from again and again.

High King of Heaven can be classified under the topic of Christology.  The various contributors, I believe, gave these messages at a conference.  (I am wondering how it would be humanly possible to get all these men together and have this many fine messages.)  The sections of this books are as follows:

Part 1: The Person of Christ

In this section, Michael Reeves begins with “The Eternal Word: God the Son in Eternity Past.”  Paul Twiss follows with “Son of God and Son of Man.” Mark Jones, author of Knowing Christ, speaks on Isaiah 50 and the topic of “The Son’s Relation with the Father.”  Subsequent chapters are the Virgin Birth, Christ as the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and Christ as head of the Church.

Part 2: The Work of Christ

Messages in this section are on the different phases of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascensioin, and second coming.

Part 3:  The Word of Christ

This portion includes a discourse called “No Other Gospel: The True Gospel of Christ” and another on the completion of the New Testament Canon.  Two subsequent portions cover the relation of Christ to the Old Testament.

Part 4: The Witness to Christ

Another look at Christ and in the Old Testament starts off this section.  It deals with the account of the Road to Emmaus and Jesus’ teaching about Himself “beginning with Moses.”  The message of Hebrews that Christ is better and is the final word is the subject of the second message here.  Albert Mohler deals with the believer’s witness in an ungodly world, and Paul Washer addresses suffering for Christ.  The 22nd message is “Around the Throne: the Heavenly Witness of the Redeemed in the Work of the Lamb.”  The final chapter is by John MacArthur and is called “Do You Love Me? The Essential Response to the High King of Heaven.”

Twenty three messages, all focusing on different Bible passages, with little of no repetition, differences, or diversions–this book is a gem for theological study, devotion, or sermon preparation.

High King of Heaven: Theological and Practical Perspectives on the Person and Work of Jesus

How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch by Michael Douma

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Here is how the book begins: “In 1849 Gerrit Baay wrote that his Dutch colony of Alto, Wisconsin, required only three things: more Bibles, more song books for the church, and more Dutch women.” It is hard to resist such a delightful introduction like that to a book.
I am slowly getting into this book as a total outsider. I am not Dutch and have only had a few connections with Dutch folk in the Americas. The part of the south (northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas) where I live doesn’t have connections with the Dutch-immigrant communities of the midwest. My initial interest in “all things Dutch” came from Reformed theology. Alongside the Scots Presbyterians and the New England Puritans, the strongest impetus for Calvinism in America came from the Dutch. There were some leading Dutch Calvinists who bridged the gap–in terms of language, community, and particular ecclesiastical matters–between the British Calvinists and the Continental Calvinists.
Geerhardus Vos, Louis Berkof, and Cornelius Van Til were three key Dutchmen whose influence reached way beyond their native communities. Perhaps the biggest influence in spreading Dutch Calvinist thought was from the old Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield. It was his influence that not only kept Princeton Theological Seminary firmly Reformed but that also worked to bring Abraham Kuyper to the United States to speak. (Look up the book Lectures on Calvinism for more on Kuyper.)
Back to this book: The Dutch settled in communities and sought to maintain their Dutchness. Church was central to much of this, but language and tradition played its part as well. As the Dutch Consul in Milwakee, named G. van Steenwijk, said in 1854, “Every now and then one meets a countryman who does not belong to a Dutch settlement….”
Ethnic studies has not usually been my forte or interest, but this case study is fascinating. It is easy and unavoidable to get lost in the WASP culture of America or to note more influential groups like Irish Catholics, African-Americans, or Hispanics. As well as being a melting pot, in the traditional explanation of American ethnicity, we as a people have maintained lots of cultural and ethnic identities.
I hope to write more as I continue on in the book.
Two additional notes:
First, I received my copy of this book as a review copy from the publisher and am not required to write gushy, glowing things about it.
Second, Dr. Michael Douma, the author, and I have become friends through Facebook and other digital exchanges over the past year. As his friend, I am required to write gushy, glowing things about this book. Michael is a serious, somber, searching academic historian confined to libraries, research centers and classrooms. As such, he might appear to be a bit stuffy, but he is also a real frontiersman and outsdoorsman who lives in the mountains, herds cats, listens to bluegrass music, and keeps his wit sharpened to a fine edge.

On Reading Difficult Books–Geerhardus Vos and Rosaria Butterfield

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All books are not created equal.  Nor are all readers.  Nor are all reading times and places equal.  For a reading experience to really work, there have to be several factors all combining.  In short, there has to be the right time, the right book, and the right place.  Years ago, I started reading Against All Hope by Armando Valladares.  This is a triumphant account of a man who survived the horrors of living under Casto’s regime in Cuba, but it is grim reading.  At the time I started reading it, now forgotten troubles in my life convinced me to put it aside for a season.  I can also remember a time when I was very down about a number of things and G. K. Chesterton stepped in to fortify my faith and Arthur Conan Doyle provided me a Sherlock Holmes story each night to boost my spirits.  At one time, I kept James Herriot’s books close by and only read them when my mind was exhausted.

Over the past few decades, I have become a morning person and a morning reader.  The more difficult books are the ones that demand strong coffee and an alert mind.  But sometimes the caffeine quota just doesn’t jump start the brain enough for the book to resonate.  I urge all readers to be constantly searching for the right book for the right time.  Evenings for me are times for histories, biographies, popular fiction, and classics that are not overly demanding.  Books with short chapters work well to carry along when faced with sitting in a waiting room or being idle for a long time (like 5 minutes).

Along with all of that advice, I will venture into another description of books that does not have a single and univocal meaning.  What does it mean to say that a book is hard or difficult?  With all my previous comments about finding the right times, places, and books, I must solemnly add that sometimes we have to read and often we need to read books that are not page-turners, not overly gripping or consuming, and not at all preferable to the mind that seeks some ease.  Some of these are books that are assigned to us in classes.  As a teacher, I often find that the assigned text is vexing to read.  Why do I read it?  Because I assigned it and it is there.  Sometimes, yea even often, the greatest benefit of a book comes in having completed it.  Sometimes, our greatest reaction to getting through a book is “Boy, I’m glad that is over with.”

Some difficult books need to be read or at least attempted because we need what they contain, including the mental stretching due to the contents.  I am not refering to nightstand books or beach reading, but those works of history, philosophy, theology, science, economics, literature, and so on that we should read because of our callings and duties.  Some difficult books need to be read because we need the change that the book’s contents will provide for us.

I will now discuss two very difficult books that I have read this year.  They are totally different kinds of books and the difficulty level in each of them is drastically different.

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In the spring, I read Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics Volume One: Theology Proper.  All four volumes of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics are now in print, but I have only acquired and read the first one.  This set is published by Lexham Press.  The difficulty of it lies first in its format.  These works were put together from classes that the Dutch theologian (and later emigrant to the United States) taught in Dogmatic Theology.  The work is set up in a series of questions and answers. For example, chapter three begins a 38 page study of the doctrine of the Trinity.  It begins with this question: Why must we not seek a decisive proof for the Trinity in the Old Testament?  Vos follows with a three part answer and then moves on to the next question: What traces of the Trinity can we nevertheless discover in the Old Testament?  This questions gets a two paragraph answer.

Vos’ book ranges from detailed Bible supports for topics to short summaries of both inadequate and confirming theological sources.  I suspect that the Q & A format was what he expected his students to read through and think about, as well as research further.  It doesn’t seem to have been a lecture format. The format calls for time and attention to the Bible references and mastering the topics, terms, and theologians found in the content.  The difficulty of the book is that it calls for a slow and deliberate reading.  Of course, one can skip and skim to find the points of particular interest, but that is not the best use of the book.

Why read this book when other and more easily read books are available?  First, I will answer as a historian/history teacher.  Geerhardus Vos is a central figure in the story of 19th and 20th Century Dutch Calvinism that impacted both Europe and North America.  The pioneering figure in the movement was Abraham Kuyper, but Kuyper was not the first or the only key theologian or Christian worldview thinker from the Netherlands.  My historical studies have carried me from Arkansas to Amsterdam many times figuratively (although I can add that I once was in Amsterdam for a half hour on a plane flight).

Second, as a Christian teacher and one who has been involved in various ministry works, I need the challenge and first hand experience in reading the theological heavies.  Always balanced out with easier readings close at hand, reading the more challenging works is humbling and soul nurturing.

Third, as a Christian believer, I need to be reminded of the saints who have gone before, who labored long over an open Bible and the the theological classics, and who then left us things to read.  Biblical theology, be it deep and difficult, finally filters down into the most simple and basic of Bible truths.  For the simple “God is good, God is great” mealtime prayer or the children’s song “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” all contain incredibly deep, wide, profound, and world-changing theological assumptions and foundations.  I need to be reminded that the “faith once delivered to the saints” is adequate to answer any and all objections and is profitable for life.

And so, I have to tackle the books whose content is hard for the mind.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key

I finished a book today that will rank as one of the hardest I have ever had to read.  The Gospel Comes With a House Key is by Rosaria Butterfield and is published by Crossway.

This is the information about Dr. Butterfield from the publisher’s website:

Rosaria Butterfield (PhD, Ohio State University) is an author, speaker, pastor’s wife, homeschool mom, and former professor of English and women’s studies at Syracuse University. She is the author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered.

This book is a call for Christians to do more than simply share a bit of the Gospel with their neighbors.  It is a call for a radical embracing of neighbors, regardless of their beliefs and lifestyles, and share the Christian life and Gospel with them.  Much of the book centers around personal stories and accounts of the Butterfield’s neighbors and neighborhood.  This family has an open door, an invitation, a pot of soup, a cup of coffee, or even a spare room for any and every person who comes along.  The recurring story within this story is about a reclusive and odd neighbor called Mr. Hank.  In time, the Butterfields became friends with Hank, but after a time, he was arrested and imprisoned for running a meth lab.  That would have been experience enough to convince me to “build the wall ten feet higher,” to quote a Republican Presidential candidate from 2016.  Not so with this woman and her pastor husband and her homeschooled kids.  They did even more to share the Gospel with the man (who was converted after being imprisoned) and teach their neighbors to forgive a wicked neighbor.

As far as readability and narrative flow, this is an easy book.  The content is not hard, but it is the lesson that is still causing me pain.  At first, my reaction was “Stephanie and I just cannot do all of what this woman and her husband does.”  I was exhausted just reading about all the things she was doing.  It was like reading about Michael Phelps’ swimming practices.  “Nope, not me, all I can do is dog paddle.”

But slowly I am realizing that replicating the lifestyle and practices of this family is not what I need to do.  As is often said, “Do the next right step.” I suspect it may be many small steps along the way for my family–and especially the very introverted, reclusive me–to practice our own version of this.  But, my wife is already leading a small group of young ladies through the book Lies Young Women Believe by Nancy Demoss Wolgemuth.

Conviction hurts.  Hopefully it hurts long enough to result in a few changes.  The Gospel Comes With a House Key is not for the faint of heart or for the person who wants the Christian life to be segmented into a short two hours of minor inconvenience called church on Sunday mornings.  This book, unfortunately for staid and stubborn Christians like me, sounds a bit too much like Jesus of Nazareth.