Three Worthy Reprints–Machen, Kuyper, and Groen Van Prinsterer

You cannot possibly keep up with all of the really fine books that are being written today by serious, capable Christian pastors, teachers, and theologians. I know and experience that frustration constantly.  Besides, theological books are only one component in the vast university of knowledge that many of us need to attend.  Books on history, classics of literature, and political and economic studies abound as well.

The problem gets worse, not better, when we realize that along with the many good books available, there are many older works that simply cannot be neglected.  I don’t have a magical formula for solving either yours or my own reading problems.  The best I can do is to simply plug along, reading a half dozen or so books at a time.  In some cases, I am getting 20 pages read a day, but in other cases, I am getting less than half that amount.  Some get started and set aside, and they may not be picked up for a very long time.  Some get lost in the stacks.  Some seem better suited for a different time.

These are the problems that are associated with modern American abundance.  In some places, books are few and far between.  In some places, serious students have to master a second or third language to access the books readily available to us. We here in the English speaking world are inundated with reading material, and that should make us thankful.  Our thanksgiving should also include giving thanks for the availability of three Reformed classics from three different publishers in recent months.

Christianity & Liberalism: Legacy Edition

It just makes sense that the new Legacy Edition of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism has been published by Westminster Seminary Press. It was Machen who led the movement that founded Westminster Seminary.  And it was this book, originally published in 1923, that clearly marked the dividing line between the historic and orthodox Christian faith from its deviations of that time.

I first became aware of this book when a college student I knew was reading it for a class by Professor Henry Wood at Texarkana College.  The class was on the second half of American history, so I was puzzled why a “religious book” was being read for the class.  The girl explained that it fit in with what was going on in American history during the time period.  I was pretty sure that I knew a lot about American history, but was clueless about this.

The importance of Machen’s book became clear over the next year or so after I took Professor Wood’s classes.  I cannot remember when I first read Machen myself, but I am certain that I have read this book a couple of times over the years.  The first thing to be clear on is what the Liberalism is that Machen is contrasting with Christianity.  He was not talking about politics of his time or ours.  He was, at the same time, a man of conservative and slightly libertarian political convictions.  In this book, however, he was dealing with theological liberalism.  The liberals, or higher critics, were embracing modern thought, Darwinian naturalism, and then-current scientific beliefs with reckless abandon.  Their heirs are still among us.

This book laid down the distinction between what Christians have historically believed and what the Liberals were proposing.  Machen’s contention was that their beliefs were not simply another brand or way of thinking Christianly, but that they were positing an entirely different religion.

Adding the value of this new edition is a section called “The Legacy of Christianity and Liberalism by the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary.”  This consists of some 17 short essays on different aspects of Machen’s work.  So, don’t just rush out and find an older copy of this book or pull your copy off the shelf, get this new work.

Lectures on Calvinism

Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper has also been around in many editions for many years.  This new edition, published by New Liberty Mission and distributed by American Vision, has been modified slightly to improve readability. Don’t worry, for this is not a paraphrase or abridgement of the original book.  It is a translation that has some slight changes in punctuation along with some much needed footnotes.  Kuyper gave these lectures in 1898.  He refers to many things in his time that we are not generally aware of.

This book is the foundational read for each and every book that seeks to present a “Christian Worldview.”  It is astounding how prevalent that phrase is now.  When I was a young pup, very few people would have used that phrase or known what it meant.  Interestingly, Kuyper actually used a phrase that is translated “Life and World System.”

This book stumped me some years ago because I quickly grew used to equating Calvinism with “the Five Points of Calvinism.”  I was devouring everything I could find on understanding and defending those Five Points.  But Kuyper’s lectures had six points, and there was no TULIP or similarly description of Calvinistic soteriology.

Many, although fewer than in the past, stumble, balk, snort and kick, and object to the word “Calvinism” itself.  When Kuyper gave these lectures at Princeton in 1898, people of varying theological positions knew exactly what he meant by the term and how he was using it.  Especially at Princeton Theological Seminary, the use of the term Calvinism was helpful shorthand for a system of beliefs, more or less articulated by Calvin and his heirs.

In our day, the controversy over the contents of this book revolve around what is called the “Two Kingdoms Theology” and its counter-part, which is often referred to as Kuyperian theology or Augustinian theology.  There are plenty of books to read on this where you can witness the clash of swords as Calvinist battles Calvinist (or Lutheran battles Calvinist).  For a short, sweet deathblow to the Two Kingdoms view, read Brian Mattson’s Cultural Amnesia.

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I have read and used Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism many times.  I have several editions of it, as well as Peter Helsam’s Creating a Christian Worldview (written about Kuyper’s book), Kuyper in America (about Kuyper’s experiences while here in the States giving the lectures), and a Dutch edition of the book.

This book is critical to all who are teaching in Christian schools.  This book is valuable to all pastors and teachers in the church.  This book is necessary for us in our times as we struggle to figure out how to have a Christian influence on our culture.

Unbelief and Revolution is by Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and is translated by Harry Van Dyke.  The book is published by Lexham Classics.

I first encountered Unbelief and Revolution many years ago when there were only two portions of it available in English. Groen (which would translate as Green in English) was largely unknown in America both in the theological and historical worlds.  I suspect that is still the case, although less so and to our shame since his works are much more available in English.

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Groen is the Dutch counterpart to Edmund Burke when it comes to the French Revolution.  Meaning, the French Revolution is often heralded as a great event in history, a liberating event, a demolishing of old and antiquated ways, and of establishing a new order.  Sure, there was an excess of beheadings, but as Lenin would later say, “To make an omelet, you must break some eggs.”

I realize at this point that this book sounds like a work of specialized interest for students of history.  It is that, but it is more.  Groen was not giving a history of the French Revolution, but was examining its cultural, philosophical, and theological underpinnings.  If nothing else, this work helps teach us to go beyond mastering the facts and trying to discern the foundational beliefs in a movement.  And, this is not a simplistic “Christians didn’t pray enough” approach to what was a world-wide revolution.

Translator Harry Van Dyke writes in the Introduction:  “The central message of the book is that the French Revolution is not actually over but lives on in its ideas, and these ideas are dangerous for society.  This book makes a compelling case for challenging the ‘permanent revolution’ in which Western Civilization has engaged since the 18th Century Enlightenment.  Our culture, according to Groen, is increasingly in the grip of an intellectual and spiritual revolution that has put secular humanism in the saddle and repeatedly wreaks havoc with the created order for humanity and society.”

On the cover of the book is a short statement from George Harinck saying, “Very relevant for today.”

I would love to take (or teach) a course on the revolutions of the 18th–20th centuries.  I would require that James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men and Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution be required reading, but first on the list would be Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution.

Get and read these great reprints!

 

Morning Reads and Evening Reads of Late

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The beginning of the day and the ending of the day are for me the two best reading times.  They call for different kinds of books, and I usually have a half dozen books going.  Some get more attention, others less.  Some fit the niche perfectly, while others are hard to adapt to.  Much always depends upon alertness and relevance, but some authors, as we all know, lure us more easily within their pages than others.

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I am currently working through a book titled Reading Acts by Joshua W. Jipp.  This book is published by Cascade Books, which is part of Wipf and Stock.  This study is not a commentary, but rather a thematic examination of Acts.  Luke, the author of both the Gospel account and Acts, was a superb stylist and writer.  Themes overlap both of  books in the Bible.  It is all too easy to be doing the daily Bible reading through Acts and not catch some of the recurring and developing ideas.

One might wonder at times why Paul repeats his own salvation story three times, or more particularly, why Luke records this.  Today, I read the part of the book detailing Paul’s Mediterranean journey to Rome, with a his side visit to the Island of Malta.  Jipp’s discussion of this was incredibly edifying and enjoyable.  Those chapters can create a panic for the preacher who is suddenly faced with a long narrative and is puzzled by this seeming detour from the story.  Far from being an unnecessary rabbit trail, this story is rich in metaphor and meaning.

Delightful book that should precede and then be used within a study of Acts.  Joshua Jipp is Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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The Essential Karl Barth: Reader and Commentary is compiled and edited by Keith L. Johnson and is published by Baker Academic.

Karl Barth is one of the biggest names in Twentieth Century theology.  For me, he was a name that quickly showed up on the enemies lists based on who I was reading when I first started reading theologians.  Two of my theological heroes, Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, wrote books examining, critiquing, and arguing against Barth and those who were embracing his theology.  Quite often his name showed up in a list consisting of Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich.

Being focused on studying history and literature, but reading theology on the side, I was too busy trying to get grounded in the basics of Reformed theology and thought to read the Germans and other theologians of varying positions.  That was not a bad approach.  Over the years, however, I continued to read quotes from Barth that were, without question, really good.  No surprise since many bad thinkers have turned apt phrases.

In the past several years, I have slowly lurked into the corpus of Barth’s writings.  His sermons on World War I, titled A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s World War I Sermons, was a very useful account of a man who went against many of his peers and who opposed the German actions and entry into war.  Also, his Epstle to the Ephesians was a rich study.

This book begins with a useful biographical sketch of the man and his theological development.  He lived in the midst of peril and was strong in condemning the social and theological evils of his time.  He first made an impact on the world when he published his commentary on Romans.  The second chapter of this book is a lengthy selection from that work.

I seek to read with discernment and with a willingness to be instructed.  That should be the goal whether it is Barth or Calvin or Spurgeon that we are reading or our local pastor who we are hearing.

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The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Times by Will Durant is simply fun.  This short book contains Durant’s picks for the greatest thinkers, poets, books, civilizational achievements, and dates for all time.  Whether we agree with him often or rarely does not matter, this is a delightful excursion through the thinking of a man who had an encyclopedic knowledge of history without any taint of dullness.

Durant was an optimistic Humanist.  That optimism along with his barbs against Christianity (wherein he sees Calvin and others as having skewered the teachings of Christ) is more amusing than irritating.  And it is offset by the enthusiasm of his lists and his assumption that we all love to know, just as he did.

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Venice Saved by Simone Weil is published by Bloomsbury Academic.  This work, appearing in English for the first time, was translated by Silvia Panizza and Phillip Wilson.

Simone Weil is one of the many voices from the Twentieth Century who spoke prophetically and wisely about the times and cultural challenges of her day.  Her days on this earth were short–1909-1943.  Her life was difficult for she was in France when it was conquered by the Nazis.  Although she was of Jewish heritage, she moved toward the Christian faith.

She is one of the subjects of Alan Jacobs’ remarkable book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.  Reading about her there and also reading an essay she wrote about education all led me to wanting to know more about her and her writings.  She was not a playwright, but she did work on a play that was never finished.

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Venice Saved deals slightly with history, but is better seen as a commentary on Weil’s own times–World War II.  The story is simple and the meanings of different statements are transparent in their application to her times.  Venice was a beautiful city that was on the verge of a takeover by its enemies.  But isn’t our culture always standing on that same precipice?

This delightful book has a lengthy and somewhat tedious series of introductory essays by the translators.  I plodded through them and found them helpful, but I think they may be better read after I finish the play in a couple of days.

Time and length fails me from being able to highlight my evening reads, but I will list them.

The Pioneers by David McCullough.  Good story by a great historian.

Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and Liberation of France by Peter Caddick-Adams.  Hefty and good reading.

Ben Hur by Lew Wallace.  Rich in details about the ancient world.

Mustang by John Dwyer.  Sequel to Shortgrass.  Set in World War II.

The Other Woman by Daniel Silva.  Great spy novel by the master of that genre in our times.

Reason and Worldviews by Owen Anderson

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First, I must begin with a warning:  Do not attempt to read Reason and Worldviews with decaf or weak coffee.  Make it stronger than usual.  Avoid distractions.  Don’t confuse this book for a morning devotional.

Reason and Worldviews is by Owen Anderson, assistant professor of Integrative Studies at Arizona State University.  It is published by University Press of America.  It bears the very descriptive subtitle Warfield, Kuyper, Van Til and Plantiga on the Clarity of General Revelation and Function of Apologetics.  

Often my book reviews are tied to some experience I have had in my life.  In this case, I read a couple of essays around the years 2008 and 2009 that rekindled my interest in my first experiences in confronting Calvinistic or Reformed theology.  On the one hand, there were those many Bible flipping evenings where I was reading Boettner, Pink, Steele and Thomas, and others and looking up the proof texts for Calvinistic soteriology or views of salvation.  But prior to those experiences and subsequent to them as well were explorations into the Calvinistic worldview.

It was first introduced to me with the German word Weltanschauung.  That mouthful was explained as meaning a world and life view or a comprehensive view of all things from a particular viewpoint.  God grabbed me by the mind and did not let me go.  I had the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, but the life of the mind was pretty mushy, vague, and vulnerable.  A Fifth Column of Presbyterian and Reformed warriors, including Gregg Singer, R. J. Rushdoony, Gordon Clark, Francis Nigel Lee, H. Van Reissen, and Phillip Edgecombe Hughes sidetracked me and forever changed my way of thinking.

That was the 1970’s and it was, to repeat myself, the years 2007 and 2008 when I re-engaged with the thinking that had created this initial effect.  There were men, like those mentioned above, who were not exactly the public intellectuals because most of the world–both secular and religious–either did not know they existed or they ignored them.  But they reached a remnant of thinkers, and like a stone tossed in a pond, the ripple effect spread out widely.

I had the opportunity to give a series of talks in Newport Newes, Virginia and later in Alaska in 2008.  My series in Virginia was titled “Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers During the Wilderness Years,” and in Alaska, my topic was “Dutch Worldview Thinkers.”  I loved the subject (if I may call it that) and have continued to read on the various influential Reformed theologians and philosophers who have grappled with the issues of modern thought.

When I first saw the title and subtitle of Reason and Worldviews, I was sold on the book.  Being a more specialized monograph, it bears a high, but not prohibited price.  So, it took me a while to get the book, and this past few weeks, I have been reading it.

The word “Apologetics,” which appears in the subtitle, is a rather broad word within Christian thought.  I have and have read dozens of books on apologetics, which is the field of defending the Christian faith.  Many books focus on the range of arguments Christians confront in the classroom, in conversations, and in our culture.  Hence, such books teach provide us foundations for believing the Bible, answering objections, and dealing with stumbling blocks to the faith.

This book, however, is dealing with much more difficult issues.  Christian theology has not merely brushed up against the field of philosophy, but has confronted and, we might say to some degree, converted it.  Or at least, it has taken thought captive–as Paul admonishes us to do in II Corinthians 10:5.  For many years, Princeton Theological Seminary was the center of Christian philosophical thought as well as theological thought.  Harvard had caved;  Harvard Divinity School hired Ralph Waldo Emerson to teach whatever it was that he believed.  Yale had waffled.  Princeton stood as the bulwark of Christian thought.

Truth doesn’t change, but the way we present the truth changes.  We teach our young children truths, but we expand and adapt these truths to fit their minds and lives as they grow up.  The issues confronting Princeton changed through the years, and sad to admit, but Princeton changed as well.  That is another story, but as long as the Hodges and later Benjamin Warfield occupied key positions, Princeton was a ruling force.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield is the key Christian theologian/philosopher in this study.  He wrote on a wide range of theological topics, although many have lamented that he never compiled all of his thinking into a systematic theology.  To some degree, this has been remedied by Fred G. Zaspel’s book The Theology of B. B. Warfield.

In Anderson’s study, Warfield is examined for his approach to the issue of how we know God, how we interpret revelation of God, and to what degree man is excusable or inexcusable from life experiences.

Warfield had a beloved friend and fellow theologian across the pond named Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper was a key figure in the theological and political world of the Netherlands.  He was invited by Warfield to give the Stone Lectures for the year 1898.  Those lectures were published and have been reprinted many times under the title Lectures on Calvinism. While Warfield and Kuyper could walk arm in arm on many issues, they had different approaches to apologetics and how unbelievers were to be confronted and held accountable.

 

In time, a young Dutchman and immigrant to America, attempted to bring the differences of Warfield and Kuyper together.  His name was Cornelius Van Til, and he is well known in Calvinistic circles for presuppositional apologetics.  For many, Van Til has provided the definitive and last word on apologetics and how the unbeliever thinks and/or suppresses the truth.  At the same time, in good old Calvinistic fashion, some fellow believers rank Van Til’s thinking somewhere below that of Joel Osteen.

Others have grappled with these issues as well.  Two of the big names in Christian philosophy in our day are Nicholas Wolterstorf and Alvin Plantinga.  Plantiga has promoted the position that Christian belief in God is warranted belief.  In other words, we Christians are just a bunch of simple minded crazies. (Okay, well some of us are, but not all.)

Each variety of thought–Warfield’s, Kuyper’s, Van Til’s, and Plantiga’s–has attempted to deal with some difficult issues, and each has its limitations.  As a way of bridging some of the gaps here, Anderson proposes that we seriously examine the much neglected idea of Natural Theology.  In his conclusion, he brings us back to Warfield who was, in many ways, closer to the answers found in Natural Theology, than some of the others.

“Ben,” you ask, “Do you even know what you are talking about?”  Okay, I admit it.  I walked out to the pool expecting to wade, but I got thrown into the deep end–again.  Owen Anderson is not teaching basic swimming lessons.  He had to pull me out of the water several times, in fact.  But he ends each chapter with a series of questions.  On my next reading, I want to have those questions in view as I read.  And he includes a really useful glossary of terms and key people mentioned in the book.

This is not, as I said above, a morning devotional.  Nor is it a fast, once through and then shelve, book.  Who needs it then?  First, people like my son Nick and many others I know who study philosophy, but who have a theological grounding.  Second, pastors and teachers who need to branch out beyond their sermon helps.  Third, Christians who have been given the blessings and gifts of the enjoying the life of themind.  Fourth, me.

I deeply love Warfield, Kuyper, and Van Til.  I suspect that the more read of Plantiga, the more I will love him.  But this is more than just hero worship (of which I am often guilty).  There is the great concept of “Glorifying God and Enjoying Him Forever.”  Forever doesn’t begin when we arrive in heaven.  Enjoying God–even to the extent that it means examing the heights and depths of philosophy and theology–begins now.

 

Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education

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As I was reading through this book, I kept putting what I was reading back into a different time and historical situation.  This book, in other words, reminds me of the time before the Protestant Reformation.  I am thinking specifically of the pre-Reformers like Erasmus who called the Roman Catholic Church to account for its many errors and deviations.  Even Luther’s beloved 95 Theses were not a Protestant systematic theology.  He was arguing as a Catholic against Catholics. It is a story that can be found in many places and circumstances.  Huge entities develop huge mechanisms containing huge faulty practices.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower:  The Moral Mess of Higher Education by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness is published by Oxford University Press.

Both authors are scholars and academics.  While I think they may be of a more conservative bent than many academics, this book is a not a diatribe against ideological Leftists in the universities.  Nor is it an indictment against moral problems that so often dominate campus life.  Nor is it an attack on any specific university.

Instead, the authors examine several matters that appear in the world of universities across the land.  There are problems relating to the numbers and influences of the administrative side of university life in contrast to the number of faculty and students.  Administration, like government bureaucracy, always finds a need to expand.  Much of the cost of college is related to paying those who are far removed from the classroom.

But faculty are not exempt from the process of growing the numbers.  Required courses, general education requirements (gen ed classes), and other means are used to add course upon course and requirement upon requirement.  It hurt to read it, but the gist of these concerns related to English and composition courses in the colleges.  Of course, we always want to think that college produces well rounded people with appreciation for a wide range of learning and with much needed skills in writing.  And, we want to think that college training is pre-job training so that the graduate leaves the classroom for the workplace with scarcely a bobble.  The authors dissent from these assumptions.

Why?  Students graduate, but still have to be trained for their specific jobs.  Much of what is learned is forgotten within a few years.  And college students cheat, and they cheat a lot.  The thinking and reasoning skills of even most college educated people are still deficient.  Prior to this problem, those who write the materials promoting their particular colleges inflate the effects that college will have upon the students.

It was interesting to me to listen to my older son comment upon this book.  He read through it with hardly a pause and then pronounced it good.  So good, in fact, that he wished he had read it, he said, before he ever went to college.  It didn’t poison his attitude because he is entering graduate school this coming fall. I read through the book at a slower pace and wondered how applicable much of it was.  It has been too many years since I was a real college student. (I did take a graduate course this past spring.)

The solution is not the abolition of the university.  Reforms are always difficult and are usually rejected.  Think again of the comparison to those who tried to instigate reforms in the Roman Catholic Church.  But criticisms must be made.  This posting of some dozen or so theses on the door of the modern university will hopefully lead to some serious dialogues and, after much angst, change.

The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson

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How did it happen?  Even more important, how did it turn out the way it did?

Thirteen colonies with a few other colonial settlements banded together to take on the world’s most powerful military, naval, and economic power.  Even within the colonies, there were enough Loyalists to prevent a victory from occuring.  Sometimes, deep reading into the history of an event reveals so many flaws, faulty assumptions, and bursting of myths as to damage the story overall.  But in this case, with the brush strokes revealing the darker and uglier hues, the overall story is still one that astounds and amazes.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson is the first of a projected three volume Revolution Trilogy.  This first volume has raised a high bar, but based on Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (based on the American experience in World War II in Europe), this series should be definitive.

The big challenge for the Patriots was creating a military adequate to take on the British.  There were many untried men who rose through the ranks. Some achieved success, some failed, and some perished before they could fulfill their potential.  Even George Washington was a newcomer to the kind of leadership that was expected of him.  It is difficult for us to grasp that the position that George Washington holds in our nation’s memory could have been held by Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, or even Benedict Arnold.  However, it is hard to imagine how any of those three could have risen to the level that Washington did.

As time and circumstances caused Washington to develop the cat and mouse strategy, he had to learn while on the job.  The Americans were often dealing with short enlistments, lack of equipment, poor organization, and no money.  The military career of Washington is one of many defeats and near disasters punctuated by one set of major victories in the middle of the war before his climactic win at Yorktown.

Another aspect of the war that is often overlooked is that there were far more than a mere thirteen colonies in the New World.  Some of the colonial outposts joined alongside the 13, such as Vermont and Franklin (eastern Tennessee).  Other colonial settlements, such as Canada resisted.  Had Canada joined the lower coastal colonies or had those colonies conquered Canada, the outcome would have looked drastically different.

The campaign to capture Canada is one of the great ventures in the war.  It turned out to be a disaster, but such a fate was in the balance for much of that campaign.  Richard Montgomery is among the names of the forgotten from that campaign.  Had he won, he would be heralded as one of our great founders. His death cost the Patriots a key leader.  But another strong fighter, Benedict Arnold, proved himself a scrappy field commander in that campaign.  It is astounding how close he came through his exploits for the Patriots to being one of our most revered heroes.

As a history teacher, I know how the story that this book tells progresses.  Admittedly, I learned lots of names that I had either never noticed or had overlooked. Certainly, I found many pages of material that refreshed my understanding of what happened in the battles for New York and New Jersey. Surprisingly, I learned quite a bit about our adversary–King George III.  But something happens when I am reading a book like this.  It becomes like a mystery novel, and I find myself wondering how it will end.  Surely, I thought many times while reading this book, the Americans are going to lose this whole war.  Knowing the end didn’t keep me from suspending disbelief in the events as they were unfolding in the narrative.

Another aspect of the book that was very enjoyable and typical of Atkinson’s writing was the inclusion of many eye-witness accounts.  Many heart-rending excerpts were included from letters of those who died in the battles.  Attitudes and perspectives of the soldiers bring the war the war home in a way that the broad overview cannot.  This was a war that pitted men of honor and principle on both sides against each other.  That does not negate the fact that being war, some ugly things happened that go beyond the already awful nature of warfare.

Of course, all my fellow history teachers and serious students will want to read this book.  But I think that those who simply like a good story that is non-fictional would like it as well.  Let’s just get to the point:  This is a book for Americans.  With all of my attraction to books on the Civil War Between the States and the World Wars, this is the war that made America.  The heritage is a not pure and faultless, but it is still amazing.  More important than the evening news is the story of our founding.  Here it is, or at least, here is the first third of it.

Congratulations to Rick Atkinson on completing this first volume and on (I am predicting) winning yet another well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

The British are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

 

 

A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin by David S. Steele

When a book ministers to us is as important as how it ministers to us.  Just as some sermons strike some of us as adequate but are life changing to others.  So it is with books.  At this age and stage of life, I read many books that are merely affirming what I have long since believed.  Of course, the reminders are good, and every book will reveal some aspect of a truth or event that I did not know.

This brings us to my discussion of a new, brief book titled A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin by David S. Steele.  

My knowledge of John Calvin began in the fall of 1974 when I was taking an American history course.  The professor, who was both a well read history teacher and pastor, lectured on the role Calvin and Calvinism played in the settlement of the American colonies.  He also assigned a book for us to read titled John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits by C. Gregg Singer.

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This book changed my life in numerous ways.  It humbled and, in fact, humiliated me as a pseudo-reader and history student.  It reworked the way my mind handled thought and reading material.  And it challenged my whole way of thinking about religion.  My initial conclusions were that Calvinism impacted early American history and that it was wrong.

I remember finding a book in the college library that brought me great consolation.  I don’t remember the title, but it assured me that the God of Calvin was not at all like Jesus.  I found peace, but only for a season.  In short, by the summer of 1975, I was in full scale retreat from Calvinism, and before the summer was over, I had been defeated and enlisted in the other side.

Singer’s book was a study of the impact of Calvin on various areas of life and thought and on various nations and cultures.  I had never thought of Christianity being anything beyond religious and heart practices and moral values.  Book after book followed, but mainly what happened was that I became a Berean without knowing it.  Let’s just say that if you are going to be a Calvinist, you better be a Berean first and foremost.

It was another David Steele, along with co-author Curtis Thomas, who helped cement some life-changing doctrines into my life and mind through their compendium of Scriptures and historic testimonies of the Calvinistic doctrines.  Their book was titled The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Defended, and Documented.  It is still in print in a much expanded edition.

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What I needed then and what David S. Steele has provided now is a look at another and very indispensable part of theology:  Holiness and Christian living.  My main criticism of A Godward Gaze is that it appeared some 45 plus years later than it should have.  I needed this book in 1974 and 1975, while I was struggling with finding the proof texts of the Five Points or trying to answer this or that objection.

A Godward Gaze is not a biography of John Calvin.  It does contain many biographical details, beginning with a sketch of his life and conversion.  Nor is this book a defining, defending, or documenting account of the major teachings of Calvinism.  It does contain many points that are built upon Calvinistic, and we believe, Scriptural presuppositions.  This book is what is says:  A look at how Calvin the man, among others, looked to God for personal sustenance and faith.

Let’s emphasize what is vital for both John Calvin and others who are Christians:  John Calvin loved the Lord Jesus Christ.  Yes, Calvin was logical, theologically rigorous, strong-armed when dealing with heretics, moody on occasion, afflicted in personality especially when overwhelmed by physical ailments and physical enemies, and fallible.  He was a sinner saved by grace.  He was also a man that God raised up and equipped to teach others.

The story of Calvinism is sometimes thought of as having three branches:  Docts, Kuyps, and Piets.  The Docts are those who gravitate toward theological doctrines; the Kuyps are those who follow Abraham Kuyper and seek to think in terms of a Christian worldview; and the Piets are those who emphasize Christian piety.  (I think D. H. Hart may be the one who devised this way of viewing Reformed folk.)  There need not be a decision made as to which we should choose.  All three are part of the full-orbed Christian life.

The focus, however, of A Godward Gaze is on the life of holy, dedicated pursuit of God.  The many people who are approvingly quoted in this book, including John Bunyan, John Newton, Steven Lawson, John Frame, and others, are in sync on the need for Christians to have a Godward and God-centered gaze and pursuit in their lives.

So, I needed this book 45 years ago.  Thankfully, I did get enough exposure from preaching and reading to offset some of my Calvinistic cage-stage zeal.  I suspect that the holiness centered thrust of this book would have been as puzzling to me for a time as was other theological revolutions I was experiencing.

Even today, people who define themselves or who are defined by others as Calvinists need this book.  I certainly do wish to better understand and explain the extent of the atonement to people around me, but it is more important that I am focused on the unlimited grace that God shows sinners and has shown me. Calvinistic youth can be snotty, if they work a bit on doctrine.  Calvinistic churches can be a bit stuffy.  Calvinist thinkers can be condescending.  It is not that such behavior reflects badly on John Calvin, but rather that it reflects badly on Calvin’s Savior.

Maybe the book is both 45 years late and just right in time for me.  I heartily recommend this to you.

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