Summer–When Mornings Begin and End When I Want Them To
A sadness sets in as August slips away day by day. I remember the line “Spring comes with promises that summer never keeps.” Imperfect world, imperfect dreams, flawed hopes, and yet there is much to enjoy and rejoice in despite the shortcomings of life in this world.
I am a book reviewer. Fancy way of saying that I read. Something of an excuse for the towering stacks of books that exist in every corner of my life. June came with a long list of must reads, want to reads, need to reads, would be fun to reads, and re-reads. Lots of reading did happen, but lots of books still lie there with a sadness about them as they wait for the time when they will be picked up and read, or picked up and finished, or just picked up and noticed.
But a few books have made it. I do not, contrary to some folks’ thoughts, read all day or even most of the day. I read for an hour or more in the mornings. At some point in the reading time, the coffee drinking rites have been fulfilled and a hunger for breakfast exceeds the hunger for another page. Usually I never get back to the reading chair after that. (I do slip in a short read in the afternoon and turn to other books to read before going to bed.)
Knowing Christ was written by Mark Jones, a Christian writer and teacher who resides in Canada, and is published Banner of Truth. The man just turned 38 and he has a book that J. I. Packer wrote the Foreword to and that is published by the Banner. Meaning, many of the Banner books are works that were originally written anywhere from 100 to 500 years ago. A writer has to reach up to the league of a John Calvin, John Owen, or Jonathan Edwards to be in the Banner league. Mark Jones has written a book worthy of that league.
This book bridges two styles that are not easy to bring together. Some books are heavy on the theological side. Theology is a great area of study, but as an “ology” it can get quite complicated, technical, and arcane. Just as great minds delve into science and philosophy, many with great minds delve into theology. Their discoveries, insights, and formulations are profound, amazing, and yet often blinding to the man in the pew. On the other hand, many good and uplifting books are written that are light and easy to grasp, yet a bit too fluffy. Full of stories and quips and humor, they make for good reading without overly challenging either the mind or the heart.
In our day, men like J. I Packer, R. C. Sproul, and Tim Keller among others, have written books that can be profitably gleaned by the pastor/scholar who is at home in his book filled study but can also be read by the congregation members who have to squeeze in a quick bit of spiritual edification when beginning or ending the day. This book, Knowing Christ, is very much in that tradition.
A person could take this book and just read the quotes in it, ranging from John Owen, Stephen Charnock, Thomas Manton, and John Flavel to Charles Spurgeon, Geerhardus Vos, and Richard Gaffin, and find it a very delightful perusal. Or one could just go to the End Notes and find a reading list of theological books to occupy a lifetime. But to do that would be to miss the many comments that Jones makes and the way he threads the quotes from others and commentary from himself to explicate the opening Bible verses and themes of each chapter.
This is not, be warned, a read-once book. This is one worthy of many readings. I loved having it as a morning read as I allowed myself only one chapter a day. It could be read by beginning at any chapter. Reading this book makes me look forward to reading more of this author.
God of Our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church, edited by Bradford Littlejohn, is published by The Davenant Institute.
I read this book during my morning reads in July. Upon finishing it, I read it again in August. Some of the essays could be read a third time in September and on and on. These essays are not in the category of morning devotional reads or casual reading. These are scholarly interactions with contemporary (as in the last hundred years or so) trends in contrast with Classical Theism. As I have previously stated, this book is heavy lifting theologically.
Most of the discussions in this book are outside the scope and experience of the person in the pew and for many in the pulpit. Our tendency is to assume that if both laity and clergy (in large part) can get along without these matters, then they are unimportant. But it is often the case that a minor, obscure deviation or shortcoming in the realm of ideas has consequences that end up warping the greater whole. The purpose of scholars and scholarly pursuit, or in this case, theologians and theological disputations, is to clarify the truth. Hence, books like this and the other publications from the Davenant Institute are important for even those who never read or re-read them.
The first article in this book, a lengthy one, concerns Philip Melanchthon’s doctrine of God and is written by E. J. Hutchinson. In his major theological work, Loci communes, Melanchthon did not address or “reform” the doctrine of God. Centuries later, theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher sought to correct Melanchthon’s omission. To a large degree, Melanchthon’s omission was due to the already adequate formulations of the Triune God and the Incarnation embedded in creedal Christianity. The Reformation was a movement that was seeking to correct deviations found in the Church and not rewrite the whole of Christianity.
Major take-away for me: We read quite a bit about Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s Bondage of the Will, and a few other Reformation classics. Melanchthon remains something of an appendix to Luther. I know far too little about him.
The second essay in this book is “Natural Theology and Protestant Orthodoxy” by David Haines. This essays butts heads with some points made by Cornelius Van Til and Karl Barth. I enjoyed this discussion of what man can know about God based on Romans 1. Seeing Van Til teamed up with Barth in the heel corner is a matchup that even Vince McMahon couldn’t pull off.
Major take-away for me: Have I misunderstood Van Til and Van Tillians on this point of natural theology? I would like to read a rebuttal to this essay.
Essays following these include discussion of the meaning of eternity, the Eternal Subordination of the Son, Herman Bavinck and missional theology, Biblical inspiration, Trinitarian theology, and classical theism in an atheistic age. These essays presuppose some prior reading and tromping around in the theological world today. For example, the topic of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) has been written about and debated both for as the quest to better understand the Triune nature of God and as a model, rejected in the case of this essay, of the parallel gender roles in regard to the subordination of wives to husbands. Missional theology is the topic and title of several recent books, but I must confess to not even having a ticket to that show. The key theologian regarding Biblical inspiration in this book is the late John Webster, a name new to me.
Major take-aways for me: I am a history and literature teacher, so the debates–intramural and external–are outside of my usual life scope and sequence. But it is good to enjoy the reading, explore the debates, and at least get introduced to the names and terms common in theological parlance.
Final morning reading comments concern two books that have several common denominators. Hear My Son: Teaching and Learning in Proverbs 1-9 by Daniel J. Estes is published by IVP. The second book is The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results is by Tom Morris.
First, the Stoics. Morris’ book is a collection of quotes and commentaries on the three best known ancient Stoic philosophers. They are Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The purchase of this book sheds lots of light on my scholarly life: It was in the sale bin at that most intellectual forum, our own local Dirt Cheap store. I know I paid less than a dollar for the book. I may have paid as little as 15 cents for it.
Philosophy is a field of study that I am so interested in that I cannot resist buying books in that subject area, and on some occasions, I read them. My son Nick is a philosophy student, and each time I read something, I hope I can have a peer level conversation with him. Nevertheless, he generally runs circles around me regarding a book I have read that he only glanced at. Just goes to show that childraising ain’t easy.
No less a figure than John Calvin was devoted to the philosophy of Seneca. The man himself was fascinating. He was a sensible and brilliant man who worked for the Emperor Nero. As usual, at some point, Nero had Seneca removed–in every sense of the word. Brilliant men working for erratic political leaders is not unusual in history.
It was the remaining writings of this man that attracted a young French scholar who then wrote his first book on the Roman philosopher. I am sure that there are scholarly studies aplenty on Calvin’s use and thought in relation to his favorite Roman philosopher. I was just glad to get to know this old Roman a bit better.
My main connection with Epictetus comes from the recently deceased Tom Wolfe’s massive novel A Man in Full. It is a story of how a modern men, caught up in the ugliness of modern society, can be “saved” by reading Epictetus. To say more about Wolfe’s novel would be giving too many spoilers.
A few years back, I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. It is a thoroughly delightful and frequently edifying, encouraging, and informative study. My friend Brian Phillips has written an introduction to Marcus Aurelius himself and his book.
As far as worldly wisdom goes, as far as common grace goes, the Stoics are very, very often right on target in terms of coping with life. Not infallible, but still good. Morris’ book, even if it costs you more than a dollar, is a great study of the Stoics.
Daniel Estes’ book Hear My Son was recommended to me by Jason Atkinson. I assumed that is was largely a commentary in the traditional sense of Bible commentaries on the first nine chapters of Proverbs. I even looked to see if the next volume was out yet. But this is a focused study on the teaching and learning models given in the first 9 chapters. Proverbs 10-31 follows a patterns of wise sayings limited to one or two verses on a topic. In fact, chapters tend to cover a wide range of issues with no central theme (other than the general and foundational point about the fear of God being the beginning of wisdom).
This book is a good, but weighty work. If someone wants to enjoy some meditations on Proverbs, this is not the book. But for teachers, this book is a gem. Proverbs is filled with pedagogical insights and patterns. Keep the coffee hot and strong as you read this book. If you are a teacher, put it high on the list.