Discovering Isaiah by Andrew Abernethy

Much can be said about the use and abuse of words like “theology” and “theologians.” I think R. C. Sproul nailed it with his book titled Everybody’s a Theologian.

We have to hasten to add that we are not all good theologians, nor have any of us arrived. Theology is the study of God, the Bible, and things pertaining to such. In one sense, theology can be expanded to all areas of life and thought. We often refer to such things under the title of Worldview. Or we can study doctrines as they have unfolded in church history, creeds, confessions, controversies, and key thinkers. We often refer to that as Systematic Theology. Or we can trace the development of doctrines through the Biblical texts (with some interactions with post-Biblical developments). That is what is called Biblical Theology. Most often, the average Joe/Jo in the pews reads Christian books designed to help him or her to be a better Christian, witness, parent, spouse, church member, prayer warrior, etc. That is often called practical theology.

Be able to label or read or master theological texts should never be the goal, but those things happen in the process. Theology should make us better Christians–whether we preach, teach, or simply live the faith among our neighbors.

In some upcoming posts, I want to call attention to some of my recent and upcoming or in-progress reads in theology. I hope these books are not simply going in my head one way and then out the other. The heart is a resistant and lazy thing.

Today, I will begin with a book on a great Old Testament prophet–Isaiah.

Discovering Isaiah: Content, Interpretation, Reception by Andrew T. Abernethy is published by William B. Eerdmans.

Back in December, during the Advent Season, I began reading this book along with Isaiah from the Bible. Sometimes the lengthy Old Testament book has been called the Fifth Gospel. But due to its length, complexity, and prophetic style, it is generally known by many Christians only for a few key passages. Some of these passages are often recited during the Advent Season or during Easter season. For many of us, the sixth chapter is well known, and that familiarity was aided by R. C. Sproul’s beautiful explication of it in The Holiness of God.

In spite of the difficulties and length of the book, it is well worth studying. Isaiah was the best poet in the Old Testament with the possible exception of David. But again, the poetic content, merged into 66 mostly lengthy chapters become a difficult challenge for our Bible readings. As the Ethiopean eunuch in Acts told Philip, “How can I understand unless someone helps me?” And he was reading from Isaiah.

Andrew Abernethy is an associate professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Discovering Isaiah is his third book on the topic of Isaiah. Note well that this book is not a commentary. The one wanting to do a chapter by chapter or verse by verse study will need to look at Abernethy’s bibliography or elsewhere. (I would highlight the commentaries by J. A. Motyer and E. J. Young on Isaiah.) Abernethy’s books on Isaiah are thematic studies.

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom is published by InterVasristy Press. It is also a fine study and I hope to review it more later.

Discovering Isaiah deals first with how the book was received, taught, and understood throughout church history. Some might think this is not relevant, but it helps us to not only understand the book, but understand how the book has been understood throughout the years. Truth is not relative, nor is the Bible changeable in meaning, but we are relative and we are changeable. As of late, I have struggled with many troubles (loss of job and school, health breakdown, and loss of my father-in-law), and I have been reading both the Book of Job and some books about Job. They speak to me in a different way than when I was living through easier times.

Likewise, we are going to find themes resonating with us in our times that differ from those of earlier commentators. We need their perspective, and we need our own reflections.

The main emphasis of the book deals with the major themes of Isaiah. First, the reader gets some of the history. Isaiah is a book that has a place in the historical and Biblical timeline and it contains primary source history material. In fact, Isaiah demands a knowledge of kings and events in Israel and Judah, as well as geography, kings, and events of the Ancient World of the Middle East.

My favorite chapter, echoing Sproul’s work, is titled “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Both devotionally and theologically (or if you don’t mind this language, speaking to the heart and to the mind), the emphasis on the Holiness of God is a central theme of the book. Isaiah the man gets his commission from God in chapter 6, when he has a vision of God’s holiness. This holiness, this otherness, this weightiness of God is a powerful concept in Scripture.

Other chapters focus on the Messianic King and the Suffering Servant. Although I am comfortable with both of those designations for Jesus, one must read Isaiah (and its companion volumes, meaning the Gospels) in the light of how these two designations are so different. Too often my Bible reading lacks the “Wow!” factor. I read the Scriptures dully and routinely, but I should be reading them in the way that a mathematician works out a complicated problem.

Perhaps one of the most obviously relevant themes in Isaiah is justice. Abernethy devotes a chapter to that topic. Justice and social justice have been tossed around in both Christian and non-Christian circles in lots of political and sociological contexts. Often more conservative Christians wince over hearing about social justice, and I reckon some more liberal Christians may think this theme is of utmost relevance from the pulpit and in society. Key issue and concern is for all of us to mine the Scriptures, to advocate for justice, and to be more theonomic in our vision for justice.

I preached through the first several (maybe as many as ten) chapters of Isaiah some years ago. I was sharing the pulpit with others, so I don’t really remember why I ceased or what my end goal was. The problem with tackling Isaiah when one is an expository preacher with a tendency to focus on small sections is the prospect of never finishing the book.

What I needed then and still need is a sense of the themes of Isaiah. That is what Abernethy has provided in this book. Read Isaiah. Read some of the many helpful commentaries if you wish. But during your reading of the prophet, read this book. After reading Isaiah, read it again.

Rigged by Mollie Hemingway: Election 2020

Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections by Mollie Hemingway is published by Regnery. Many of the best serious conservative books available today are from Regnery.

The Presidential Election of 2020. What can we say?

I am guessing that it will be twenty years or so before we can get some really good, objective accounts of what all really happened in that Presidential election. There were a number of happenings that will make that election memorable and historically interesting in ways that most elections fall short.

Nerves are still tender. Tempers are still flaring. Accusations are still flying. Feuds are still brewing. And families are still divided over what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and if it all really did happen.

First of all, let me do a bit of historical and political analysis. Joe Biden will be ranked as one of the most amazing candidates of all time. He was the oldest candidate ever; he got the most votes of anyone ever; he was a failed candidate in two prior election years and was not willing to test the waters in the year 2016; he not only lost the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary, but he trailed way behind in both; he picked a woman as the VP who is also a person of color and who was a critic of him during her short run for the Presidential nomination.

His campaign was, one would think, a model of how not to do things. He made fewer campaign appearances than any major party candidate since William McKinley’s front porch campaign of 1896. He flubbed speeches and lines on numerous occasions. He had as a slogan “No More Malarky” which should have been a fatal jab. He appeared, particularly to his opponents, to be having mental troubles due to age.

Yet he won. Joe Biden was rallied around by the Democrat power base and a significant number of primary voters and caucus attenders. He satisfied the party’s desire for a moderate, a soothing and calming man, a veteran of politics, and a candidate who could appeal to the traditional bases of the party.

Whatever one thinks or will come to think of his term in office, his capture of the Democrat nomination and winning of the White House will be studied for years with great amount of marvel.

Donald Trump will also be seriously studied by those who come along at a point where they are neither Trumpers, Never Trumpers, or Trump Haters. He was a businessman with no political experience who ran against the best line-up the Republican had fielded for years and won the nomination in 2016. Then, running a very odd campaign with few of the traditional methods, he defeated Hillary Clinton. It was the political upset of the century. Polls were wrong. News outlets were wrong. Both Democrats and Republicans were shocked.

Trump’s four years in office, his style, his successes and accomplishments as President will have to be addressed later. The 2020 campaign was yet another astonishing series of unexpected acts. President Trump continued having rallies amidst a wave of pandemic fears about large gatherings. He rarely wore the much talked about masks. He got Covid, recovered, and continued campaigning. He won more votes than anyone had ever won for the Presidency except for the man who defeated him. And that also meant that he won some 5 million more votes than he had in 2016. He also changed the demographics of voting patterns for the poor working class, Hispanics, and African-American males.

Yet he lost. In my opinion, he gets the primary blame for losing. I could detail serious mistakes and missteps he took in the campaign and in the Oval Office that mounted up to lose him a second term. To make matters worse, he failed all the way up to the end to do that which Americans expect their Presidents to do: Leave office gracefully.

Voter fraud, stolen election, cheating, lies, manipulation, and other key pejoratives became words being tossed about and then being censured or being labeled with warnings on social media. A new series of phrases entered the political currency: “false election claims” or “false narrative” or “discredited election views.”

I accept that Joe Biden is President. I pray for him, and I try–with great effort–to support him and respect the office. I abhor what took place on January 6. Anyone who wrongly enters into the halls of Congress should be tried and punished. President Trump’s words and actions, his blaming others, his disregard for precedent and procedures, and his outlandish behavior are all disgraceful.

I am trying to be a big boy about all of this. But I still confess to believing that the election of 2020 was not exactly a nice, clean, honest, transparent, imitable, pure event. First of all, I have read enough history to know that campaign shenanigans, dirty tricks, underhanded methods, fraud, lying, stealing, and corruption happened in the past. I have taught school long enough to know that kids in class will cheat, lie, deceive, twist the truth, lie for each other, and downright defy the authorities over schoolwork. I know human nature. I confess to believing in human sinfulness.

There is no reason to think that any election is pure. A book from years ago was titled It Didn’t Start With Watergate. I don’t have it, never read it, and am not interested in the book per se, but I buy the thesis.

I did learn a lot about politics from reading Robert Caro’s four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. And IT–being political corruption and wheeling and dealing–didn’t begin with LBJ.

No doubt political fraud and corruption has happened on the local level. The county sheriff, the big city mayor, the road commissioner, the state legislator, and even the local justice of the peace will possibly bribe, coerce, lie, misappropriate funds, abuse power, and more to gain, hold, or use power.

There are several ways that an election can be “rigged,” to use Mollie Hemingway’s term. First of all, and perfectly legal, is the setting of rules, regulations, and laws governing the campaign. Second, the use of media and advertising is critical to a campaign. A man can talk all day, but it is the 5 second sound-bite that hits the news. Third, one can control the counting of votes. Simple enough, one would think, but some votes will be, could be, or should be disqualified. Fourth, there is the use of outlying votes. This has reference to those late votes that may have been absentee ballots, far off precincts, or small stacks or boxes of votes lying around.

Honestly, if you have been up until 4 AM with the vote counting process and one candidate is 40,000 votes ahead, are you going to really be concerned about counting the last box that came in with a mere 10,000 votes?

Then in Presidential elections we have a further factor. Election day is early in November. A couple of weeks later, the holiday season hits. After that, in early January, Congress certifies the election and by January 20, the President is inaugurated. That really isn’t much time to sort out a tight election. It took a month for one state in 2000 (Florida) to get its votes recounted and ruled over by a court case. It took that long or more for just one Congressional district in New York to determine the winner.

Less than 50,000 votes determined the 2020 winner. Five states had results that were questioned. Only 3 flips were needed to change the outcome.

I suspect that when some really solid, academic, dispassionate, nonpartisan accounts are being written on this election, scholars will be heavily using Mollie Hemingway’s book. They may be using it as the doorway to what issues to explore, or they may use it as a basically primary source for the reaction and concerns. And Mrs. Hemingway may be one of those writers whose work is heavily used, borrowed from, and pored over without her getting much footnoted credit.

What I learned first of all about this book is that I know little about politics. We tend to think of election day and people voting and votes being counted. Behind the scenes, for months and even years in advance, teams of professionals are working on the laws, by-laws, legal issues, demographics, polls, studies, research, and other details that go into an election.

Hand it to the Democrats, they won the election big time long before the election in their use, contribution to, and control of election machinery. I live in a relatively small state (Arkansas) that is overwhelmingly Republican. Only Bill Clinton was able to carry Arkansas from the years 1980 through 2020. It flipped during those years from being a traditional Yellow Dog Democrat state to being a solid Red Republican state. I am certain that neither campaign invested many resources in the expected outcome in Arkansas.

Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Wisconsin were the primary battleground states. So was Florida, but it went strongly for Trump. So was Iowa, but Trump prevailed with a huge margin. North Carolina squeaked through for Trump. And Arizona turned out to be a battleground and an unexpected Biden win.

Funny things happened on the way to the White House. I still cannot figure how Arizona was called early in the evening, but the final vote was razor thin. And when I went to bed, I was confident of a Trump win. The last things I remember hearing was about his carrying traditional Blue/Democrat counties in Pennsylvania. He was leading in Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

I felt like the way Thomas Dewey must have felt on the morning of 1948.

I don’t reckon I would have been surprised if one of those late election night leads that Trump had vanished. But they all vanished. (“Grow up, Ben. Be a man.”)

Georgia was the last Trump plum to fall. The number of votes was huge nationwide. Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States. He was older in age than the old man he defeated and the other three living former Presidents.

Mail-in voting, the pandemic, vote counting, poll watchers, those mysterious black boxes in Georgia, the news stories that were touted that hurt Trump, the information (especially regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop) that was suppressed, the terrible debates, Russian interference, and more all turned the election of 2020 into a nightmare. Or maybe a deliverance. We don’t all agree.

I wish I could say that I read Rigged objectively, critically, and without taking sides. Truth is, the book made me mad. I am mad over what happened. Saying that, I will confess to being a Trump voter in both elections, but President Trump made me mad or disappointed many times. But something was rotten in the state of America.

Send me free copies of books that lay out the claims that all is well, all went well, and that the only thing we have to fear is Republicans themselves. I will read them. Correct me. I will stay quiet. But until then, my lurking fears continue.

Put Rigged: How rhw Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections by Mollie Hemingway before you ever go vote again.

Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen Z. Guelzo

Robert E. Lee: A Life by Allen C. Guelzo is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

General Robert E. Lee led one of the most interesting lives of anyone in American history. There are good reasons why biographies have been written about him for decades and why his face is so familiar to so many people. Those who love him and those who criticize him both agree to the pivotal role he played in the American story. His life is also one that is filled with tragedy. Where one locates or identifies the tragedy depends on other views or interpretations.

Allen C. Guelzo is a gifted writer and a prolific historian. Many of his books are on Abraham Lincoln, but he has written on a wide range of topics. His lecture series The American Mind, found in the Great Courses series, is outstanding.

It would appear as though the great man of history and a great writer of history had met.

The timing of this book has won it lots of applause. Several reviewers have praised it for being just the account of Lee that is needed in our current times. I used to wonder why biography after biography was written on historical figures. They were just repeating the same story, I assumed. But that is not the role of history, biography, historians, and biographers. As Dr. Tom Wagy so often reiterated, history is art. Each historian is painting the same tree but from a different perspective.

The men who knew Lee, who had fought alongside him, and who loved him had a perspective for their early biographies. And some were anxious to absolve Lee of blame for failures at Gettysburg and elsewhere. He was so highly regarded in the South after the war that most did not dare criticize him.

In later years, biographers catered to a desire of the American people to honor both Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln. These two men were the two heroes of American history, barring different stations and different views that had during the War Between the States. It became acceptable for a northerner, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, to praise Lee or for a southerner to admire Lincoln.

The Centennial of the War, the early 1960s, opened the floodgate for histories and biographies. With bits of partisanship, most authors tried to put all sides in the best light. Slavery was the albatross around the southern neck, while centralization of the government and the demolition of States’ Rights and the Constitution was the ongoing battle cry of those who favored the Confederacy.

Lee held his own against the years. Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume biography of Lee won a Pulitzers Prize, and he followed it with a three-volume work titled Lee’s Lieutenants. Freeman walked by a statue of Lee on his way to work each morning and saluted it regularly. Pictures of Lee could be found in colleges, public buildings, schools, and homes. His name graced many schools. Statues were erected in many towns. A university bore his name along with that of George Washington. Overall, he was honored for his character and studied for his military prowess.

A few critics came along and sought to puncture the “myth of Lee.” The book The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society by Thomas Connelly attacked both Lee’s reputation and his military style.

Lee Considered by Alan Nolan furthered this questioning of the man who was often hailed as the greatest of military geniuses. Then Michael Shaara wrote a novel titled Killer Angels. Basically, Shaara recast The Iliad and made James Longstreet into Achilles and Lee into Agamemnon. Lee, as fictionalized, was ailing with the heart condition that would take his life a few years later. He was unresponsive to Longstreet’s tactical wisdom and was religiously confident that God would grant him victory over “those people.” Perhaps in one of the greatest indignities of all, Martin Sheen was cast in the role of Lee in the movie version of that book.

When the prequel to that movie was made–titled God and Generals, based on the book written by Shaara’s son Jeff–Robrt Duvall portrayed a much more commanding Robert E. Lee.

Along with the never-ending debates on the causes, conduct, heroes, and villains of the war, a number of people began being interested in the religious commitments of General Lee and much of the Confederate army. A book collector in Virginia, named Robert Sprinkle, ventured out and reprinted a huge old volume titled The Life and Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson by Robert L. Dabney.

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was Lee’s most brilliant corp commander. Jackson was also a dedicated, unswerving Presbyterian. His faith was quite compatible to Lee’s Episcopal Christian commitments. Added to that was the fact that Dabney, the author of the Jackson biography, was a Presbyterian theologian whose works and name had vanished for a season.

In time, a number of books were written or reprinted that extolled the Christian faith and character of Lee, Jackson, and other Confederates, and that defended the Confederacy itself. Dabney and other Presbyterian Southerners were being read again widely due to reprints of their books and the revival of Reformed theology.

I mention all of this part of the story because it not only pertains to Lee but it explains my own life and attraction to Lee, Jackson, the Confederacy, and Calvinism. That being said, I would not equate Calvinism and the cause of the Confederacy. (There is too much here for me to digress into.)

The terrible summer of 2020 resulted in an unveiling of many horrible attitudes of American regarding race. The issues still divide the nation. In many cases we were not even able to communicate with each other. To go from saying “Black lives matter” to adding that “all lives matter” was controversial. In the midst of the riots, lootings, violence, racist attitudes, and more, there was and is no defense for the sinful conduct of all too many. Added to that, there is always the place for self-examination on even those matters where we think we are innocent.

But the summer of 2020 went beyond the calm and rational discussion. Statues were removed and many were defaced. Statues of Robert E. Lee were among the primary targets. They were dismantled and moved from public facilities. (One doubts that Lee would have ever wanted such monuments to himself.) In the extremes of passion, statues of other Americans who had owned slaves, not condemned slavery enough, or who had dealings with slavery were also removed or defaced.

All hung juries of the past that had failed to convict the Confederacy and all juries that had let the Confederacy off with a misdemeanor were themselves tried and found guilty. Lots of people were angry. I can try to understand the anger and passion of the times. If the unjust actions of police in some cases and of mobs in other cases were not enough, the whole country was shut-down with the Covid 19 pandemic.

In the quiet of a library or study, surrounded by books, the scholar cannot be immune to the boiling passions outside his office door. He has to ask not only what happened in the past, but “how is that past to be judged now, in the light of the current situation?”

Neither historians, nor scientists, philosophers, or accountants, are neutral and objective beings. As Herman Dooyeweerd surmised, we all have presuppositions and views that undergird our explanations of all matters.

Certain matters would impact those who had labored long on historical figures in American history, particularly those figures tied to American slavery and the War Between the States. One needs only look into recent biographies of John C. Calhoun, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Tyler to see the added portions recasting these men in darker tones due to their failures to embrace our “better understandings.”

Allen Guelzo has written a really well-crafted biography of Robert E. Lee, but it is premised on the idea that Lee was a traitor.

That’s a serious charge. If true, it doesn’t really matter much that Lee had done great service in the military for decades prior to the war. Benedict Arnold gets little praise despite his great service at the Battle of Saratoga. It doesn’t matter that Lee was a devout Christian, for he was a covenant breaker. It doesn’t matter that he was skilled on the battlefield, for he was doing evil.

Traitor is a term like heretic. Meaning, one should not toss it around lightly. In modern social discourse (which is not to be equated with polite conversation), people–usually for political reasons–are called traitors, Communists, Fascists, and worse with reckless abandon. But when one is writing serious history, this is a serious charge.

Basically, the stature of limitations has run out for an official charge against Robert E. Lee. Although he somewhat expected it, he was never jailed or charged or taken to court for treason. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned–and treated somewhat brutally–for his actions. With a team of northern lawyers preparing his case, he never had to step into a courtroom.

Secession was and is a touchy subject. The United States has supported and even encouraged acts of secession numerous times in our history, up to the present day. Texas and California both came into our Union following secession movements. Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries in particular were filled with secessions, unions, and redrawing of boundaries. Scotland nearly seceded from Britain just a few years back, and Britain seceded from the European Union.

Secession may or may not be a good idea in a particular time and place. (And Southerner that I am, I think the South’s actions were unnecessary and unwise.) But it is hard to make the case that secession is ever totally, completely, morally wrong. Added to that is the idea that while it was acceptable for the United States to add lands on to our possessions, it came to be considered wrong for those lands to be subtracted.

Lee grappled with secession as an issue. More than that, he opposed it. He denounced it as revolution. Later, when loyalty to his native state put him out of the Union, he defended both his state and the Confederacy with body and soul convictions.

Allen Guelzo faults Lee for not thinking as he does. Lee should have sided with the Union. Lee should have denounced slavery from Day One. Lee had, to borrow the words of the famous prayer, done those things that he ought not to have done and left undone those things he ought to have done. That is the historian/author’s prerogative. He can call his subject to account for his errors.

The issues, however, were rooted deeply in political ideas that don’t get much currency today. Personally, I can never bring myself to repeat the word “indivisible” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t know of anything or of any principle that makes this nation inherently incapable of being divided. And I don’t want it to divide!

Lee’s citizenship was restored posthumously in the 1970s by President Gerald Ford. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware was one of the supporters of the restoration. I don’t think this would happen now, for our political climate has overheated.

Regarding Lee’s life, Guelzo goes into great detail about Lee’s years as an army engineer. Perhaps more detail that most want to read. His chapters on the war and the battles seemed a bit scant to me, but he was seeking to write a one volume biography, and at 434 pages of narrative, it is rather short.

I was impressed with his views regarding why Lee was so determined to invade the northern states. I often want to jump back in time and convince Lee to hold off on those two disastrous campaigns. Guelzo makes a strong case that such was needed to bring the Union to the bargaining table.

I think Guelzo really misstated Lee’s religious convictions. This is surprising since Guelzo has written extensively on religion in American history and is, as far as I know, a professing Christian. Many, like me, have often been encouraged by quotes from Lee and examples from his life and character regarding the Christian faith. Guelzo doesn’t seem to be quite as impressed.

At the beginning of the book, Guelzo faulted some earlier biographers who hailed Lee as being a very transparent and easily understood man. The longer I live, the more I think that none of us is easily understood. Even with detailed accounts of our words and actions, we still have sphinx-like qualities that cannot be easily read or discerned. A bit of psychology, which seems to be a passion for some historians, might yield a few more answers. Lee was troubled his whole life by his father’s life-struggles and failures. Lee was economically vexed by his circumstances. Lee was tasked with an overwhelming military command with few resources. He did have the additional burden of a wife who suffered from arthritis.

But for some, those obstacles are part of what we see that makes Lee more than an historical figure. They are part of the reason why we hail as a hero, a model of the Christian gentleman, and as a knight in maybe not perfectly shining armor, but in battle-tried armor.

One of my favorite parts of the book is in the final section where Guelzo credits Emory Thomas’s book–Robert E. Lee: A Biography as being the “best and most balanced of any single-volume Lee biography.” Perhaps Guelzo should have said that in his introduction.

And lest I sound too harsh on Dr. Guelzo, I was moved enough to purchase his volume on the Battle of Gettysburg.