Catchup on Book Reviews, Not Fries

A student of mine recently said that she didn’t get a book finished because she didn’t have much free time. Hmmm. There are a number of problems with that statement. For one, time is never free. Second, one should not relegate reading to the leftover time we have after the “important” stuff is done. Third, students should get their assignments done.

And I have failed on that third point. I am hopelessly behind on writing and posting book reviews. This sweep of books and titles will be my effort to try to get caught up, even if points are taken off for the work being done late.

It was over a month ago that I ventured to review all of the books in the picture above. I only succeeded in getting the top four from the stack covered. So, let’s get after the rest.

Piercing Leviathan: God’s Defeat of Evil in the Book of Job by Eric Ortlund is published by InterVarsity Press.

In the summer of 2021, I had a mild case of the Job experience. Okay, it actually started in 2020 and continued through to the beginning of 2022. But, unemployment, health issues, and other crises brought me to consider our brother in suffering, patient and righteous Job.

I read Christopher Ash’s book Trusting God in the Darkness: A Guide to Understanding the Book of Job sometime over the last year. Ash has a fine commentary on Job, but this work is a short and easy study. I also read Job: A Philosophical Commentary by my friend Owen Anderson. Ash’s book is strong on the devotional side of Job, while Owen’s book helps differentiate the approaches that Job’s misguided friends gave him. And as the subtitle A Philosophical Commentary says, this book rightly puts Job in the field that those pesky Greeks think they should dominate.

Piercing Leviathan is neither a commentary nor a chapter-by-chapter survey of the book. The primary aim is to deal with the issue of what the oft mentioned Leviathan in the book is. Sometimes, commentators and readers have concluded that Leviathan was a whale or a dinosaur or a rhinoceros. But in the last chapters of Job, where God speaks and settles the issues that have been swirling around for nearly 40 chapters, the power of God’s creation has already been stated and presented as Exhibits A-Y. Just adding this big animal as Exhibit Z would not be the capstone, clinching argument. (Yet, I would affirm that if Ortlund is wrong, whatever God says is right.)

Piercing Leviathan is not a case of God telling the story that Melville will repeat and expand (and expand and expand and expand) in Moby Dick. In other words, it is not about the yuge task of actually subduing a white whale. Leviathan represents the forces and power of evil, the kingdom of Satan, the world that has been in rebellion against God since the beginning of time.

Job hears God’s presentation and is more than satisfied. Even though he gets full payment for damages incurred in the events, Job’s bowing before God was done in worshipful awe and not in a hope to gain some favor. One can realize that he was ready to go on with life as he had recently experienced it, full of confidence in the Goodness, Power, Holiness of God. Job had a glimpse of Ultimate Reality: God wins, Satan and evil lose. Cosmic war ends in no arbitration or settlement, but rather in total victory.

To be blunt: I now NEED the 3 volumes of Calvin’s Sermons on Job that is newly published by Banner of Truth. And, yes, I would not mind the John Calvin tumbler as featured and included in the Reformation Heritage deal.

You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World by Alan Noble is published by InterVarsity Press.

There is a bit of a reformation/renaissance going on at Oklahoma Baptist University these days. The first time I heard of that university, it was from a couple of friends who were swindled in attending what was supposed to be a college that was faithful to the doctrines and teachings of Southern Baptists. They were getting strong doses of liberal theology without the benefit of even a Karl Barth-corrective.

Reformation happens. Unbelief falters and stumbles and doesn’t deliver. God is faithful. A movement is sweeping across quite a few Christian campuses that is restoring the rightful places of Christian views of literature, philosophy, history, and even…theology.

Dr. Alan Noble and Dr. Ben Myers are two of the leaders of these efforts at Oklahoma Baptist University. Myers has written some fine works of poetry and about poetry. Noble has written several books about Christian living.

This book springboards off of the Heidelberg Catechism’s opening answer to the question “What is our only comfort in life and death?” Among other things, that answer states, “I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

The world always, and for certain in these times, asserts that we are our own. Political liberals state that mantra even as they ease our ownership titles over to state control. But on the political right, Randians, Libertarians, and others, in an effort to preserve individual freedoms, push the idea that we are our own.

Noble’s book uses the theme that we are not our own for some 230 pages. The applications and examination of the theme is far ranging. This is a useful book for discussion or even for some sermon preparation and use. As with Noble’s other works, it is written by an academic, but it is written for all types of readers.

Covenant and Election in the Reformed Tradition by David J. Englesma is published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association. Engelsma has written an incredible number of books published by RFPA.

This is one of two books by Pastor Engelsma that I received and am duty bound to review and am hopelessly behind on getting to. The other book is Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root.

I woke up one day in the middle of a pastors’ conference years ago and discovered that there was a movement called Federal Vision. The duties I had as a pastor of a church, the administrator of a school, the Humanities teacher at the same school, the husband and father at home, etc. kept me from getting involved and informed in the issues.

This theological tete a tete quickly became too heated, too involved, too loud, too distracting, too bizarre for me to wade into. I found it more my style to press on with my too many tasks until I suffered a full blown, much deserved physical and mental breakdown.

You can find more than enough attacks and defenses of Federal Vision online. I have a small stack of books that present defenses and rebuttals, and most are unread.

So, on the one hand, I simply do not and maybe cannot understand what is going on.

On the other hand, I did read a book by Gene Eward Veith on Lutheran theology that sounded almost identical to what I thought the FVers were saying. This led me to wonder why most Reformed and more Presbyterian folks who oppose FV views would possibly accept Lutherans (and Arminians and Dispensationalists and Charismatics) as brothers? I am assuming that they do accept them as such.

The driving gist of this book is that the most trusted, reliable, faithful Reformed approach is that Election precedes Covenant. I was swirling around and sinking during this whole discussion.

Obviously, from some of the reviewers who I have glanced at, this book is well done and a sound refutation of the position they oppose. Obviously, if you are reading what I have said, I am completely muddled as a reader. But here are my thoughts:

  1. I think Pastor Englesma should have focused the book on the topic of why he believes and affirms those confessional statements that say that election precedes covenant. Teach that truth as found in those statements.
  2. Potshots taken at FVers were usually in the form of jibs and jabs and insults. Insulting words do not an argument make.
  3. In the cases of Reformed people in the past, like Klaas Schilder, whose views Englesma opposes, he should have carefully stated their views and why he thinks they are in error.
  4. Above all, the book should deal more directly with what is plainly taught in the Scriptures rather than what is plainly stated in the historic confessions. Lest I be misunderstood, I love Reformed confessions. I have been using them to teach my evangelical, more fundamentalist, most likely Arminian students in the Bible class I have. But the confessions often build upon theological controversies of the days of yore and sweep past the reader of our times.

Okay, I have grown soft in my older years. Maybe I am embracing heretics, theological deviants, and corruptors of the Faith. Maybe I need to start denouncing someone. I did that for years. I was confrontational for years. I am either wiser now or wearier of battle or just off the grid theologically.

If one is wanting to wade into the Federal Vision versus Reformed Orthodoxy debate, here is a good book. As for me, let me try to explain and share the Heidelberg Catechism’s first question and answer with my students.

Subjects Theological and Worldview Oriented

During the summer days and weeks this year, I have been, as usual, reading through a number of books. Also, as usual, I have fallen way behind in posting book reviews and updates on my readings. I can’t blame the usual suspects from the past: administration duties at school, closing of the school (2020), health crisis (2121), vacationing, spending mornings overlooking the sand and the surf, backpacking in the Appalachians, or doing yardwork. I really don’t have an excuse other than a tendency to be lazy.

So get ready for a potpourri of books that have this in common: All are by and for Christians and all were on my unending reading stacks.

Let me start with When the Bluebonnets Come by John J. Dwyer. This book and the other works by Dwyer can be found HERE.

Sometimes I need to read a story that is pleasant and affirming. I appreciate the great works of 20th Century masters like Hemingway, Faulkner, and others. Dostoevsky is unsurpassed. Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper are both profitable challenges. But sometimes, I long for home, for childhood, for community, for local matters rather than epic challenges.

This book is set in Texas and in a small-town community. The dialog reflects how people talked that I grew up around. Most of the thinking, both good and bad, reflects how most people I knew thought. Yet, this is a novel, and there are several layers of conflict. At the heart of these problems are issues of faith versus the unbelief of the world around us. But even the faithful in this book stumble and struggle. And the “Christ-haunted” nature of the South, to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, seeps in in unexpected ways and places.

John Dwyer, a friend for certain, has most recently written the second volume of his history of Oklahoma. He has also written other books. My two favorites are Saltgrass and Mustang. He and I believe the same things, share the same loves, and are close enough alike in age and temperament to be brothers. He also fulfills some of my dreams. He not only wears a cowboy hat, but he has the real credentials. Best of all, John is a Christian whose writings don’t just slip a hint of Christianity into the middle of the stories, but are undergirded by Christian thought.

Read his books! If you want a pleasant vacation from your life struggles, read When the Bluebonnets Come.

Francis Bacon by David Innes is part of the Great Thinkers Series published by P & R Publishing.

I am long overdue writing a blog post heralding and praising the Great Thinkers series. This is a collection of some 12 books and still counting on philosophers, theologians, and key thinkers through the centuries. These works are analyses of the ideas, good and bad, by people who maybe were or were not Christians, but who have impacted the world around us.

If you need a quick biographical sketch of some famous thinker, go to Wikipedia or, if you are old fashioned, the encyclopedia. If you want an analysis of the ideas of great thinkers, get ready to be overwhelmed by the serious studies that are available.

What makes these books to differ? These books are all of readable length, meaning that they are less than 200 pages. Most important, they are written by Christian scholars in the Reformed tradition. The authors are people who are deeply embedded with people like Calvin, Bavinck, Van Til, and others.

Christian colleges need to have stacks of these books on the required reading lists and in their libraries. College professors who teach philosophy, history, theology, and even literature, need to have and to have read these books.

But beware: These works are not easy, “philosophers for dummies” types of reading. Every one of the volumes that I have read so far has swamped my philosophically limited brain. That’s okay. I’m a history and English teacher; I’m old; and I am slow witted. But there are plenty of you who need these books. The rest of us will just have to read them slowly twice and wait for someone to help us.

Francis Bacon, the subject of the book I most recently read, was a key thinker from England. We often pick up snippets of his witty sayings or read a paragraph about his contributions to the developing field of scientific research.

His claim to be a Christian fits into a context of Christian England more than it affirms a living and active faith in the man himself. The impact he has had on modern thought is enormous.

David Innes is also the author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men, which is a study of political thought and is another P&R publication.

Check out the Great Thinkers series. Read these books. Buy them for your college bound students.

One of the unsung publishing and writing heroes and scholars of our time is Ruben Alvarado.

Through his efforts and publishing company, Pantocrator Press, we have books like In Memory of Stahl by Groen van Prinsterer.

Because we “live in time so little time,” to use Robert Penn Warren’s phrase, we also know so little. That problem of finite time and ability has been compounded by the times in which we live. Christian thought and heritage have been ignored, muffled, misinterpreted, suppressed, and forgotten. Thankfully, we live in a time where we can now find the works of John Witherspoon. In my college days, such was not to be found; nor were biographies of him. Most people go through life and school without learning anything about the great Christians of the past and present. (Go ask your local philosophy professor about Gordon Clark and Herman Dooyeweerd.)

Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer was a brilliant Dutch historian and political thinker. His works, numerous in Dutch, are still slipping into English translations and being made available. Stalin-types might ask, “How many divisions do the Dutch have?” as a way of dismissing the contributions of the Netherlands. Well, not many divisions, but lots of great minds in philosphy and theology.

Friedrich Stahl was a Christian thinker and political leader in Prussia and Germany. Obviously, his thought lost out in time to the forces that led to Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and tragically to the Third Reich. But there was a time in which Stahl was a significant force for Christian political thought.

For those who think that this book written by one obscure Dutchman praising an obscure German is too far above their paygrade, I would suggest that you look into the works of Stahl published by Pantocrator.

If you are in any field of political thought or jurisprudence, this is a command, not a suggestion.

To better understand Groen van Prinsterer, one should race hurriedly to acquire a copy of Unbelief and Revolution, which is published by Lexham Press.

Lexham Press, a favorite of mine, has also published a beautiful collection of sermons by John Webster, titled Christ Our Salvation.

Also, John Webster was a theology professor, he very strongly believed, taught, and preached that “the Gospel is the heart of Scripture.” These beautifully crafted sermons, models of rhetorical preaching, are all deeply rooted in a theological unveiling and exposition of Scriptural truths.

As a preacher, it is hard for me to read someone like Webster and then venture into a pulpit. I can’t preach like he did, but I can be deeply enriched by reading his sermons. This book fulfills the daily need for a devotional jumpstart and incentive, along with the need for some theological ballast.

These sermons were preached to men in theological training, meaning men who would one day be preachers themselves. They are weighty, without being obscure or opaque. They are convicting, without being shallow. They are Christocentric, without being repetitive.

Great book for any serious Christian reader.

[I will write on the remaining books later.]

Ah! Bartleby! Ah! Humanities!

It is a trap. I am warning you, beware. When you undertake to read and teach a course focused on what we call “the Great Books,” “the Humanities,” “the Canon,” “the Classics,” or whatever term is used to classify “them,” you are entering into a never ceasing spiral.

I had hints, bit and pieces, excursions along the edges of a classically based education along the way. Some of the books were assigned in whole or were divided out in parts in literature class. Most were self guided reading that I did. I read some books because they were considered classics. I acquired and started (with varying results) many others because they were classics.

Having a number of English courses both as an undergraduate and graduate student, I got a decent exposure to authors like Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Solzhenitsyn, Moliere, Mark Twain, and a few others. But it was more like taking a first aid course than like being in medical school.

Then along came an essay by a little known (to me) British writer named Dorothy Sayers. Titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” it shook up my mind about the meaning of education. And I had been long in the trenches of the teaching profession at the time. Thankfully, I was given a reprieve after reading the essay and did not have to specifically apply it.

Fast forward a few years and a group of people in my church and I began seriously contemplating a way to create a school to educate a growing number of teen kids in the church. The classical Christian school movement was cropping up here and there, with a few books and essays and even some “how to” opportunities for the willing pioneers.

From classical Christian education emerged the idea of a Humanities program. I first picked up on the idea after coveting the Humanities courses that he has produced and shared with many Christian students. These courses are still available through Stirling Bridge Shop. A bit later, the Omnibus program started showing up in a series of what became 6 volumes of books dealing with a huge list of great books spanning the ages. This series is available through Veritas Press.

Quite simply, this method of educating blends the teaching of history and literature, as well as the Bible, political thought, theology, and art, into one integrated course. Too much of our learning has consisted of going from class to class, of closing one textbook and opening another, and of compartmentalizing knowledge. Focus and differentiation have places in the education process, but blending is a much richer approach.

These approaches, which I will call Humanities rather than Omnibus or Great Books, bring the classics front and center into the learning process. In this swimming pool, there are two ends–the deep end and the deeper end. And there are two ways to get into the water–the high diving board and the higher diving board.

The assumption is that you already learned to swim in the grammar and logic stages of the educational process. It is now time to take on some scary, challenging, difficult, but rewarding reading hurdles…or high dives to continue the previous metaphor.

Regarding which books to read, how many, where to start, I will say nothing. There are plenty of reading lists and guides available on the Internet. Also, much depends on the type of school, the type of students, the number of students, and the expectations of the parents and administration.

The accumulated rubble of our civilization is going to involve lots of digging and recovery efforts. So, don’t assume that you can reconstruct it all in a year…or a decade.

What follows are some suggestions for you to dwell on.

1st, Don’t assume you are qualified or ready or the best person for the task. Unless you are a C. S. Lewis or one of the Vanderbilt Agrarian scholars, you have not read enough or been trained enough for the job. Start with where you are, what you know, and with an eagerness to advance.

I am assuming that you are a fairly well-read person with a built-in love for reading. If not, why are you teaching such a course? (Why do you even exist?) Most of your reading has been fine. Many times you have read classics. You did read some things in college. You have forgotten much of what you read. Some classics that you read were not memorable to you. And you are embarrassed to admit how little you know. (I am, by the way, describing myself primarily.)

Most of us who find ourselves teaching a Humanities curriculum were not chosen from among a cast of giants. We are the Humanities teachers for reasons other than our impressive resumes and extensive knowledge of all the great books that have ever been written. It is okay. We start where we are. As long as you have today and maybe tomorrow, you can make some headway.

2nd, Don’t try to become the expert literary scholar in the summer months prior to the school year. If you want to go ahead and read The Iliad, do so. But you don’t have to master the curriculum before the students appear. Vital to teaching Humanities is the recognition that you are a fellow learner with your students. Many of my now favorite classics are books that I first read alongside students.

One thing that I still like to do is to read a book each semester or year with the students that I have not previously read or taught. (In some cases, I have previously read the book but it was years ago.) I treasure the heavily marked and annotated copies of books that I have covered numerous times (and panic when my personal copy can’t be found), but the exploring of new territory puts the teacher into the mindset of the student.

3rd, Don’t assume that you have to be the interpreter, the analyst, the expert, the sage on the stage, and the authority figure when you are teaching a classic. My students often make comments so amazingly profound that I slightly tint green with envy upon hearing them. Sometimes, my deepest thoughts are things like “Wow! That passage is really good” or “What in the world does this mean?” or “I got lost in thi section” or “Anyone have any ideas on what the author means here?”

There are experts. I love raiding and pillaging their insights. Sometimes, as all good cattle rustlers do, I brand them with my own Circle H brand, leaving students to think that I actually know something. But the students are not in need of an expertly crafted, deeply complex interpretation of what they read.

4th, Romance the book. Your job is not to make sure that your students can pass a matching characters and descriptions test or recite the major themes in the book. Your job is to enable the students to love the books. Sometimes romance just doesn’t seem to happen. So, at least, we as teachers must create a friend zone between the student and the book.

I prefer a student loving the book rather than knowing lots of facts about it and the author. When the book is Les Miserables, the atmosphere is ripe for true love. When the book is The Federalist Papers, the chance of wedding bells is less likely. But the teacher still has the task of seeking at least some appreciation.

5th, Don’t undertake too much. It took me a good while to trudge through Herodotus’ Histories. I would much prefer reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. Trying to take a group of kids through the long stretches, forced marches, and lengthy digressions of Herodotus was not a great success for me.

Should people read Herodotus? I reckon. History majors in college, like I was, should be required to read it and quite a few other classic histories. But in some cases, the whole book is not worth the time and capital it will take from your year of readings. In some cases, a few chapters will suffice. In some cases, a great work will need to step to the side for a lesser work. (I enjoyed using Ernle Bradford’s Thermopylae: The Battle for the West for getting the main contours of the story together.)

6th, Don’t undertake too little. By this, I mean that you should not slow down so that everyone can keep up and grasp it all. Honestly, you could spend a whole semester teaching A Tale of Two Cities. You could spend months on any Shakespeare play. You could spend days covering William Carlos Williams’ poem The Read Wheelbarrow.”

Teachers have amazing abilities to take that which is beautiful, enjoyable, and enriching and turning such into misery for the students. Keep up a good pace. Cut your losses. Move on to the next chapter, the next book, the next venture.

7th, Don’t overkill the idea that you are to present “the Christian interpretation” of every book or idea. Yes, a Christian worldview is essential to Christian education and thought. But literature can often be read as parables with morals attached. Certainly, one should, upon finishing The Great Gatsby not live like Gatsby, Daisy, or Tom, but the book is not a morality play. Nor is Hamlet. Nor is The Brothers Karamazov.

In some cases, and Gatsby, Hamlet, and Brothers K, are all open to Christian insights, you might not have a handy-dandy Christian spin on a work of literature or an event in history or an economic theory. Be patient. Listen to your students. Read a few experts. Search the web. You are a work in progress. Helen of Troy was beautiful long before either of us were born, so if we don’t have a definitive answer on some aspect of literature, don’t fret.

I confess that I really struggled with Sir Gawain and the Green Giant. The book was on a curriculum list that I used in a Medieval literature class I was teaching a small group in the past spring. I had previously read the book, but it had not resonated with me. I had to not only read through it for class, but had to read it a second time. And some of the best parts of the story began connecting.

8th, In teaching literature, if you and the class are not having fun, you are failing. I am anguished over the student who never connects, never falls in love, never embraces what I am teaching. We can’t seem to reach every last one of them. But there has to be an atmosphere of love and joy, of celebration and delight, of eagerness and expectation in the literature classroom. If they don’t love the poem you are teaching, then they should be at least loving the poem (or poesis) that you are. As a teacher, you become the spokesperson, the ambassador, the matchmaker between Homer, or Shakespeare, or Faulkner and your students. If they fall in love with the messenger (because you are a lovable, caring, passionate teacher) long before they fall in love with the message, you will succeed.

Reading More, Reading Fewer

I find myself often driven to read more books each month. On a low month, I might get 4 or 5 read. On a good month, I might get 8 to 10 read.

But I have committed myself to reading some books that I am duty bound as a book reviewer to read, but they are heavy, long books. They will damage the monthly quota. Meaning, I have a tendency to enjoy reading the book that can be easily read in a week or less. “Look at how many books I have read this month!” I tell myself.

There are more than enough short or medium length books lying around for me to read. But I have neglected the heavy weightlifting challenges in my perilous stacks of books surrounding me. I am now on a mission to read fewer books but to not neglect the huge books that demand some attention.

The Whole Counsel of God, Volume 3, God’s People in the Western World by Richard C. Gamble is published by P&R Publishing.

Several years ago, I bought volume 1 of this series. I think I got it because it was on sale, and since I had volume 1, I felt it necessary to get the second volume. In typical Ben House fashion, I put these two hefty volumes on a shelf and let them stand.

Volume 3 arrived some months ago with the command “Read and review.” I experienced a number of starts and stops in reading at, near, from, sort of in the book. But as June was coming to a close, I resolved that this book would be read from daily all the way through to the 1100 plus page ending.

This book is something of a survey of Western Civilization from a theological perspective. From the Greeks to the present, it gives summary accounts of the leading thinkers, issues, and events. While it is a massive book in itself, it can only graze over the surface of the topics.

All of that is to say that this is exactly the kind of book I tend to love and need. Pastors, teachers, and students need lots of surveys, lots of summaries, lots of bullet points, and lots of exposure to vast areas of knowledge. Just today, I finished the chapter on Augustine. I am neither an expert nor a total novice when it comes to Augustine. Some parts of the chapter were a recitation of details in his life and thought that I already knew, but the chapter went on to a relatively detailed account of his development of the doctrine of the Trinity and related issues.

My method of tackling this huge whale of a book is to attempt to read a whole chapter or at least 20 pages each day. Typically, the deeper I get into a book, the more I am prone to read.

I assume that one would be better off reading the previous volumes on the Old and New Testaments before tackling volume 3. But the last volume is a worthy stand-alone read.

I also assume that many students in Bible colleges and seminaries (especially those in the Reformed tradition) will be assigning Gamble’s trilogy so as to produce good minds and strong biceps. But for those of us whose seminary and Bible studies are located in our nearby bookshelves, this whole set is a worthy collection and challenge.

A Theology of Paul and His Letter by Douglas J. Moo is published by Zonervan Academic.

I received this review book somewhere back near the Christmas season. I have dipped into it on occasion and found tidbits to help along with whatever Pauline writings I was going over.

This book consists of lengthy studies into the theological views of Paul (to no one’s surprise). Pauline studies are a major field in theology. I don’t even begin to think that I can wade into the vast and richly rewarding field. I mainly try to collect some books and read things to supplement my own Bible readings and teaching opportunities.

The other large portion of this book consists of chapters devoted to the various epistles Paul wrote. One could read these as brief commentaries and overviews.

As I have already indicated, this book is a useful reference tool. Later this year, I do hope and plan on reading it from cover to cover.

The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings, edited by George Harninck, Marinus DeJong, and Richard Mouw is published by Lexham Press.

Some years ago, I stumbled into the Netherlands and discovered a world of wonder. I was not unfamiliar with the land and its history nor its theologians before those years, but it was only then (around 2005) that the depth and height and width of Dutch theology and philosophy began to unfold before my eyes. I had a few major opportunities to lecture on some of the great Dutchmen. Very soon, I was garnering everything I could find by and about Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Dooyeweerd. Pursuing any one of those men’s works is challenge enough. But more Dutchmen kept showing up at my door and hinting at insights they had into God’s World and Word.

I had already heard of Klaas Schilder. R. J. Rushdoony mentioned how grand and eloquent Schilder’s writings and sermons were. I acquired his famous three volumes on Christ in sufferings, trial, and death. I have, alas, used these volumes all too little.

I found myself feeling giddy when I first learned last fall that Lexham Press (a favorite publisher) was putting this volume out. It seemed like forever before it arrived.

Of course, the biggest delay in unfolding the treasures of the Netherlands is the time needed to translate the works into English. Herman Bavinck is becoming something of a theological rock star in Christian, particularly Reformed, circles. Geerhardus Vos is getting a wider and wider reception. The beloved trio of Groen, Kuyper, and Dooyeweerd have their ardent followers, students, and commentators. The Dutch-to-America transplants like Louis Berkof, Herman Hoksema, and Cornelius Van Til have their strong supporters, along with weirdly bitter critics. And I have to throw in the name of H. R. Rookmaaker with this all star cast.

With this volume, I think many more will become acquainted with Schilder. For those who are totally unfamiliar with the list of names I have been spouting off, I will guess you may be familiar with Corrie Ten Boom and her great story found in The Hiding Place. Men like Schilder, Rookmaaker, and Dooyeweerd were all dodging the Nazi Gestapo and trying to pursue their academic missionary callings in the worst of times. The Third Reich perished–praise God–and the Dutch Christian witness pressed on.

It may be that these Dutchmen will have a greater impact in these lands across the pond than they did in their own times and places.

The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck is published by Westminster Seminary Press and distributed by Westminster Bookstore.

Speaking of Dutchmen and Herman Bavinck, this book, one of many now available by Bavinck, is a real treasure. I started reading it a year or so ago. I suppose it got sidetracked by one of about 15 major crises that engulfed our lives here, starting with Covid.

I was really enjoying the book, but for reasons I can’t explain, I put it aside, intended to read more, covered it with layer upon layer of other books, moved it to another room and bookshelf, then moved it again, and again, and again.

Blame the reader, not the book. I do remember how the book was beautifully and gracefully unfolding systematic theology. A few weeks ago, I was preparing a sermon to preach on Trinity Sunday (June 11). I was combing through some systematic theologies for strengthening my own understanding. I decided to jump into the chapters in Bavinck’s work that deal with the Trinity.

This chapter, Chapter X “The Divine Trinity,” was pure gold. It was balm from Gilead. It was refreshing cool waters. It was a green pasture to lie down in. I didn’t preach the chapter for my sermon, but it was the preaching to the preacher that enabled me to preach a far less rich message.

This book is part of an on-going series from Westminster called The Westminster Seminary Press Set. I have all five volumes. These are reprints and updated versions of theological treasures in the Reformed tradition. If you don’t have any of them, buy them as a set. Otherwise, just complete your incomplete collection.

Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, Second Edition, by Douglas Groothius is published by InterVarsity Press.

Defending the faith is vital for the Church. I have long been reading and teaching Christian apologetics. The recent overturning of Roe v Wade brought many attacks from unbelievers to the forefront. While apologetics is a tool often used for students in Christian schools or perhaps for pastors, I am convinced that it is needed for the people in the pews.

In many cases, the individual believers will not know or remember how to answer some of the endless objections brought against the Christian faith. I typically try to comfort people by reminding them they need not panic. With over 20 centuries of battling unbelief, Christianity is no rookie in the ring. Someone, usually a bunch of someones, has answered the objections previously. This is not a new game.

I have yet to dig into this book, but it certainly looks and sounds like a winner.

Hopefully, I will be posting more updates on these books in the coming months. And, I hate to admit it, but I still have several other huge books that I need to at least start scanning and skimming.

Hemingway’s Widow by Timothy Christian

Hemingway’s Widow: The Life and Legacy of Mary Welsh Hemingway by Timothy Christian is published by Pegasus Books and distributed by Simon and Shuster.

All I can say in my defense is that I tried.

I first became interested in literature, meaning literary greats or classics, when I was a junior in high school (back in 1972-73). I started reading from lists of “must read books” and literary classics. When I heard the name of an author, I often then went to the library to find books by him or her.

I think my brother-in-law gave me a copy of A Farewell to Arms. I had previously gotten interested in World War I, and the book was a war story, right? A bit later, I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I can’t remember what other Hemingway books followed those early years, but I have read and reread many of his books over the course of years.

Amazingly, our small school library had a copy of Carlos Baker’s definitive biography, Hemingway: A Life. I devoured this huge book and was both attracted to and repulsed by the swarthy, hard-drinking, rough living, perverse, compelling, gifted, and astounding man.

Through the years, I have read several other biographical accounts of his life. Most recently, I acquired books about all four of his wives (plus a copy of the Baker biography). The first, and best, wife was Hadley Richardson. Her story became well known because of a fictional (yet basically accurate) account titled The Paris Wife. Then I found a copy of Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow, which is about wife number 2, Pauline Pfieffer from Pigot, Arkansas. Getting that book compelled me to purchase a copy of Gelhorn, the 3rd wife. How could I then resist reading about the last wife? (At least Hemingway didn’t have the same options Henry VIII did with wives whose usefulness had expired.)

Hemingway’s Widow, unlike the other books, is newly published. It is, as far as I know, the most complete account of the life of Mary Welsh. Mary’s story itself is an amazing success story. She worked incredibly hard in the male-dominated, competitive world of journalism. She was attractive, spunky, and hard-wired to achieve success. As World War II started, she was able to get located in London. The downside was the nightly bombings, but the plus side was the plethora of stories to be written. And Mary used her sex and good looks to acquire quite a few reporting opportunities.

In the course of her work, she happened to meet a popular, successful, and attractive American writer named Hemingway. In the loose morality of the time (our modern mores are not as recent as we may think), both Hemingway and Welsh began seeing each other, despite both being married. Almost immediately, Hemingway proposed marriage.

Both Welsh’s second marriage and Hemingway’s third were coming unraveled, and wartime Europe was a time for easy hook-ups, as we say now. The actual marriage between Ernest and Mary didn’t happen until after the war was over, but they became a couple.

Marriage to Ernest Hemingway had lots of perks. He was famous. He was financially successful. He was gregarious, fun to be with, fun to drink with, fun to travel with, and more. Besides, he had a fabulous home in Cuba.

Mary would stay with Ernest for the rest of his life. She became a reader, critic, editor of sorts of his works. She labored to get along with his three sons. She adapted to and grew to love the idyllic life in Cuba. She enjoyed the wealth, popularity, and lifestyle of her famous husband.

But her story is anything but a romantic “happily ever after” tale. Hemingway’s drinking was a real problem. It threatened his health, judgment, and disposition. His womanizing was no surprise. He was, we might say, “basically or somewhat or mostly” faithful to wife number 4.

And the two fought. Throughout the book, at many points in her life, Mary made plans to leave Ernest. Her career had been sacrificed for his. He could be terribly abusive verbally. In social settings, he was often deplorable. His roving eye, his unquenchable thirst for liquor, his moodiness, and his treatment of friends and family all made this gifted writer into a monster of sorts.

But who could give up the luxury of a beachside home in Cuba, travels around the world, abundance of worldly goods, an array of rich and famous friends, and the opportunity to live with a Nobel Prize winning author? Besides, when Hemingway would realize that he had pushed too many buttons, he was marvelous in apologies, often lavishing Mary with all sorts of gifts.

A big event in their lives was their African safari. Not only did it contribute to one of his lesser noted novels, The Green Hills of Africa, but it was an incredible hunting experience. Ernest and Mary both delighted in eating lion, which no African would have touched. And lots of animals were killed during these ventures. Hemingway was not merely hunting, for he was writing accounts for magazines about the hunts and was making money. Unfortunately, the African safari ended with two crashes in air planes that caused both short and long term damage to Hemingway’s brain.

Ernest Hemingway achieved some of his greatest honor when he won the Nobel Prize in 1952 and when his short novel The Old Man and the Sea was published. It represented the man at his height. Across the River and Into the Trees, which was Hemingway’s novel prior to The Old Man, was a flop.

But the pinnacle years were short-lived. Hemingway increasingly suffered from a number of health problems, either caused or contributed to by excessive alcohol and numerous concussions. With the physical breakdown came mental derangement. He became more volatile, more moody, very paranoid, and unstable. In large part, Hemingway suffered from depression. He, his father before him, his mother, and his siblings, had all been in need of some serious intervention and family counseling.

Treatment for mental troubles was barbaric in some ways to our times. Electro-shock treatments were administered to Hemingway several times. He became increasingly suicidal, which then resulted in his self-inflicted death in Ketcham, Idaho in 1962.

However much the Ernest and Mary marriage was a roller coaster during their years together, Mary was a devoted widow, defender, promoter, and advocate for her husband after his death. For years, she zealously defended the idea that his death was an accident while cleaning his shotgun. For the rest of her life, she worked hard to see that his books (some of which were unpublished) were put or kept in print and his legacy kept intact. She was vicious toward unfavorable biographers and critics, and she wrote her own account of their lives together.

Let me add a Christian postscript: I don’t wish to be come across as the moralist Christian pointing out the sins and transgressions of Ernest and Mary Hemingway. I found my heart filled with love, pain, sadness, and hurt while I read of their lives. Hemingway was a terrible son to his own mother (in great contrast to his literary peer and sometime rival William Faulkner). Hemingway was a poor father to his sons (with some exceptions in his practices) and a terrible, unfaithful husband. Mary was complicit in his sins. Their lives had more excitement and adventures than I will ever live. But their lives left me feeling a great and deep hurt. We are not put here by God to live as they did. And yet, they were so beautiful in so many ways.

The Medieval and Brilliant Mind of C. S. Lewis

The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind by Jason M. Baxter is published by Intervarsity Press.

Had C. S. Lewis been the ONLY Christian writer that God had given us during the 20th Century, we would still be able to count that time as a great outpouring of blessings. I cannot begin to name all of the great theologians, novelists, poets, philosophers, and other writers that God lavished and flooded upon us during one of the otherwise most violent centuries of all time.

Of the writing and making of books about C. S. Lewis, there is no end. That too is another blessing. Once you think you have learned quite enough about his life, mind, and writings, along comes another study that examines it all from another angle and reveals and enhances the depth and riches of his life’s work.

I knew that I would like The Medieval Mind of Lewis from the start: The title had his name in it, the term Great Books, and the word Medieval. But the book has a lot more depth than I first suspected. Although I don’t recall any teacher in any class that I had in college or graduate school courses ever mentioning Lewis, he was a top-notch scholar and a prime candidate for studies in the academic world. Much to the consternation of some disgruntled old profs and his now deceased colleagues, he was also an immensely popular writer.

I somewhat expected that this book would begin with a list of Lewis’ favorite books from that vast period of Medieval history and would then give delightful summaries and exhortations regarding such books. It does give some of his top reads, but it takes ideas from the books and develops what thoughts Lewis had on the subjects and how these ideas impacted his own writings.

For those of us who love lists, here are Lewis’ top ten books that he says shaped his life and vocation:

  1. Phantastes by George MacDonald
  2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton
  3. The Aeneid by Virgil
  4. The Temple by George Herbert
  5. Prelude by William Wordsworth
  6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
  7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
  8. Life of Johnson by Samuel Boswell
  9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams
  10. Theism and Humanism by James Arthur Balfour

(Just for the record, I only have 5 of these [2, 3, 4, 7, 8] and have only completely read 3 of the 5 [2, 3, 7]. I may have numbers 5 and 1.)

For a man who so highly treasured the Medieval period, this list might look confusing. Only Boethius is a Medieval author, but Williams’ book is about Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Lewis himself wrote two books about Medieval literature:

On the one hand, he was not merely stuck in the Medieval portion of the university library, poring over Medieval texts. It was more that the Medieval era, worldview, mindset impacted his way of thinking. He could embrace a book or idea, no matter how modern, that reflected some of the Theo-centric and Christian worldview of the Medieval era. And if it didn’t, he often found little to like about the book that hoisted its flags firmly on modernity.

His own books generally reflected or directly attributed the idea that he loved most from Medieval studies.

The Great Divorce by Lewis is one such example. In a sense, one could describe the book as a modern, highly condensed version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Baxter titled one chapter “Why Lewis Loved Dante.” That chapter reminded me all too painfully how much I have missed in receiving The Divine Comedy and The Great Divorce way too late in life.

Another book that gets much attention in Baxter’s study is The Consolation of Philosophy. What is so attractive, engaging, and sometimes frustrating about Boetheius is that he weaves theological and Biblical truths together. There are seams between the two, but they are not easily discerned. The stodgy Calvinist in me wants Boetheius to write The Consolation of Theology, but he didn’t. His Christian thinking was interwoven with “secular ideas.” Lewis helps us–not to clearly separate–but to enjoy both strands in Boethius.

No doubt the student doing research paper could find a useful quote or idea about one of the many Medieval texts discussed. But this book is primarily about how Lewis thought. He was as complicated and deep a thinker as he was expressive as a writer.

This book is fun, really fun. But it is not a fluffy retelling of Lewis’s life or writing career. I highly recommend it.

Knowing Sin by Mark Jones

Knowing Sin: Seeing a Neglected Doctrine Through the Eyes of the Puritans by Mark Jones is published by Moody Publishers.

Both in the academic world and the Christian community, Puritan studies have been on a rising trajectory for quite a few years now. Gone are the days when the history class stereotypes branded the Puritans as a fun-hating, dreary, morose, judgmental group of religious fanatics. Gone, hopefully, are the days when Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter was read as an historical document revealing the hypocrisy and meanness of the Puritans. Gone are the days when Puritan ways were celebrated for being eclipsed by the Enlightenment thought of their scientific and open-minded descendents.

I don’t want to suggest that all have climbed aboard the bandwagon. I am strongly suggesting that access to the riches of the Puritans is engulfing us.

The tidal wave of Puritan works has its own liabilities. I have gleefully placed quite a few sets of Puritan works on my heavy-laden bookshelves. Puritans were typically exhaustive (and exhausting) when dealing with spiritual topics. They wrote pages on what some modern might try to say in a sentence. They wrote whole books over what today’s preacher might reduce to three simple/simplistic points.

Wordy, yes. Endless, maybe. But it was not just flowery talk and verbal padding. They really studied, dug at, expanded, examined, meditated on, and applied passages and doctrines to the Christian life. They treated the Scripture as though its teachings really mattered. Hence the value of the Puritans.

“What Puritan books do you recommend?” “What should I read first?”, and similar questions often come up. I would mention that the serious reader rush over to see what Banner of Truth has reprinted and what Reformation Heritage Books is currently pushing. Just pick one or ten and start reading. I might be inclined to recommend Thomas Watson first or that so often read book The Pilgrim’s Progress. And if one wants to tackle Jonathan Edwards, there is plenty to choose from in very readable editions (unlike my two weighty small print Banner editions).

But the best way to meet the Puritans is through a mutual friend, or a mediator, if you wish, between us and those grand theologians. In the past years, two men who were legends in the Christian community were key modern Christian writers with Puritan connections. They were Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. I. Packer. They were both digging up and gleaning from Puritans back when the books were not easily found.

Along with them, and still living, is Iain Murray. Murray has helped promote Puritan writings and reprints for year at the Banner of Truth Trush. I am sure that there are quite a few others who have labored to put Puritan theology back on the shelves of pastors and serious Christian readers today.

Mark Jones is currently, perhaps, the best Puritans quoter, promoter, and expert. Theologically and academically, he has the tools to write those scholarly journal articles that most of us would never know existed. He has a PhD. from Leiden University, after all. But he writes for…me. (Maybe he has a picture of me at his desk to use when writing.) He knows I love books, love Puritans, love theology, and love to read, but that I am also untrained, a novice, and a man who would readily attain a 12 volume set of the works of Thomas Goodwin, but keep hesitating to take the plastic shrink wrap off of the books.

Knowing Sin is not just a handy collection of great Puritan quotes. The Puritans are called in a supporting witnesses to a number of areas that Jones focuses on in regard to the doctrine of sin.

Yet, we all know sin, right? Or we can answer as Calvin Coolidge did when he referred to his pastor’s sermon on sin: He was against it. And we routinely pray for God to forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses as we…this is the hard part…forgive others. And we can often name our sins: I got mad today; I spoke rudely to my wife; my mind wandered off when I was praying; or maybe it wandered off instead of me praying.

Key problem is that we deal with sin (and hence salvation) superficially. I can actually give some pretty good explanations and excuses for my sins. They really aren’t so bad, if only you knew my challenges. I confess I am a sinner, but I also profess to be living a relatively good life.

Puritans are surgeons. They don’t traffic much in Band-Aids and simple surface remedies. They hurt you. And Mark Jones doesn’t enter the operating room without a support staff of scalpel wielding Puritans.

There are 18 chapters to this book. Many of the chapter titles are witty plays on song titles and familiar sayings. Jones is pastoral and humble. He does not seek to set us straight, but rather he takes us along with him as he explores this really serious disease we have been forgive for and that still lingers.

Good and fast readers could probably knock this book out in a day or two. I strongly advise against that. One chapter a day is sufficient. Add thought. And prayer. And application.

Side note: Mark and I are not personal friends, but I have, many times, been uplifted by his delightful family posts on Facebook. He has strong views, as we Calvinists are prone to, but a gentle spirit. He has a beautiful family and a great ministry through writing and preaching. We are living in a great era and are also enjoying the past eras that had their own accomplishments.

Disclosure Statement: I received a copy of this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for a review.

Readings in American History

Reading, learning, and teaching American history is not an easy, one-time-through-the-book, course of action. Whoever thinks that history is an easy subject with just some dates and dead people’s names to memorize doesn’t understand serious historical studies.

Or maybe, I am just slow. Nearly 50 years after entering college to be a history major, I am still adjusting and re-adjusting my sites so as to understand what happened and why.

Here are three fine history studies that I recently read that have proven to be enjoyable accounts, but also site adjustments. Time is ticking too fast for me to assume that I will ever get a perfectly clear vision in this life of the subject I have devoted so many years to.

We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie is published by Intervarsity Press.

Books on the Founders–either as a group or as individuals–have been pouring off of the presses like a flood in recent years. With a popular musical highlighting the life of Alexander Hamilton, one can find all manner of praise, blame, friendships, discord, shenanigans, and noble actions among those men.

We the Fallen People adds a new perspective on this issue. One of the most important aspects of this book is its discussion of how the Founders embraced a Biblical view of human nature. At the same time, either their embrace of Original Sin, human depravity, or man’s propensity to evil was sometimes grounded in direct Christian influences, but at other times accepted from more secular traditions.

Those who want to recast the Founders as a school of divinity are, in spite of their intentions, misrepresenting the Founders. Nor are those who, as we often were taught in the past, indicate that the Founders were purely Enlightenment-based secularists.

The Founders and the documents they produced were geared toward a recognition of the sinful human nature to use the powers of civil government for ill.

And then the narrative changed! The prosecution calls to the witness chair General/President Andrew Jackson. The Era of Jacksonian Democracy turned the tables on many of the traditions, foundations, and ideas of the still-young Republic. In the Jacksonian narrative, the voice of the people was good. Jackson’s tendency was to villainize any who stood in his way. (Actually, he often preferred to shoot them.)

I have read several books over the past few years that have been very favorable to Andrew Jackson. A few others, like this one, are quite unfavorable. Call it a weakness in me, but I am often blown both here and there on Jackson based on the book I am reading. Much to the disappointment of many, I can never quite shake off an admiration for the man. Much to the disappointment of others, I can never fully embrace Jackson the man or the policies. (And he was a dedicated Christian with Presbyterian roots and convictions, which works in my favorable category.)

Dr. McKenzie is a history professor at Wheaton College. I think I met him when we took our son Nick to Wheaton some years ago. We the Fallen People is a useful study. I can see it sparking debates and affirmations in a good college-level discussion. It can also add lots of perspectives for the mere history teacher who is trying to race through the early chapters of the textbook. And it is books like this that caused me to never succeed in my attempts to race through such classes.

The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny is by Tony Williams.

Tony is a Facebook friend who has, over the past several years, become a real friend in many senses. I always enjoy his updates on his readings, the adventures of his family, the basketball exploits of his son Paul, and his helpful advice on books to acquire. If he and I ever join forces in a good used bookstore, we will certainly do some damage to the inventory.

I think I own copies of all of his books. In this case, I had a copy, but found this even better and signed copy in a thrift store. I don’t know what convinced Gloria to depart with her signed copy, but her loss is my really cheap, but valuable gain.

It is a shame that this book is not currently in print. It is a book for the times we are living in. It is a useful light on many of the issues we have been facing as a nation with an epidemic. If I had read this book years ago, I would have thought it good, but having read it in the light of the past two years’ experiences, I found it even better than expected.

History doesn’t, in spite of the popular saying, repeat itself. This book doesn’t reveal, like some Nostradamus-like prophecy, what we are going through. “History teaches us that…” is a usually vapid phrase. Usually, it is said to mean, “What I believe about things can be backed up by this historical anecdote.”

What history does is provide perspectives. Ours was not the first, nor the last, epidemic. The plethora of blame, false narratives, myths, and confusion of our epidemic are not unlike similar reactions in the past. Nor are controversies over the vaccines or innoculations.

The smallpox epidemic that hit Boston created a flurry of controversies between men of religion and men of science. You have all known this: Men of religion looked to faith and the Bible, while men of science looked to science and Enlightenment thought. The matter is settled. We religious folk need to humbly confess that we are a bit on the narrow minded side.

But wait! The story of this epidemic found that the premier religious leader, Cotton Mather, was no novice when it came to science (or theology). He was the key theologian who promoted the use of the controversial inoculations. Mather is given short shrift in all too many historical accounts. Even those who will tip the hat to Jonathan Edwards will still social distance themselves from both Cotton and Increase (his father) Mather.

Mather was a towering intellect. I confess to my shame to having read far too little of the massive Magnalia Christi Americana. I will take a cheap shot and blame my college history professors for not grounding us in the older historians.

Along with Mather, there was one doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, who advocated for and practiced giving inoculations. A more educated and prominent doctor, one William Douglas, who railed against inoculations.

The fur did fly in these fights. And these were not mere academic differences. Everyone in Boston was under threat. If you were immune (from an earlier bout with smallpox), you still witnessed family, friends, and neighbors suffering. And business suffered. Just as we experienced supply chain issues, Boston had such. Firewood, a vital necessity, became scarce. Wood-cutters were not interested in getting near town or getting the infection. Nor were ship captains anxious to land their loads of cargo at the port of Boston.

Mather, himself, witnessed deaths in his family and congregation. Not all were from smallpox, since diseases come in all shapes and sizes. He had to glean messages from Scripture that gave comfort to grieving parents, spouses, and friends. He had to preach when his own heart was broken from deaths of a daughter and grandchild.

Two other key characters in this narrative are the Franklin brothers. James Franklin, the older and less known of the two, used his newspaper to attack Mather, Boylston, and the concept of inoculation. Young Benjamin began writing a series of jibes under a pseudonym that poked at the clergy and others.

Time and more open views of science enabled Boston to recover from the epidemic. Mather lived out his rich life, weary however from his toils. Doctors and those who “followed the science” came to see how inoculations saved lives. The younger Franklin brother moved to Philadelphia and continued on his road to success as a man of both science and politics.

This is a rousingly good story, and it is history. And let me add, this book gives an honest, favorable, and affirmative view of Puritans and the society they established. All too often, I have read fine historians who seem utterly blind and ignorant when they venture into explaining theology or people of faith. Certainly, I would tweak a few sentences here and there, but overall, Tony Williams explains the Puritans and Cotton Mather in what I judge to be accurate terms.

Irreconcilable Founders: Spencer Roane, John Marshall, and the Nature of America’s Constitutional Republic by David Johnson is published by Louisiana State University Press.

I imagine that I have come across the name Spencer Roane during my years of reading. However, I had no conscious memory of the name or the man. And the name of John Marshall is large and bold in the outlines and teachings of American history and government.

Sometimes, it is the less known person, the second fiddle, who really plays a critical role in events. Sometimes, it is the case of the minor figure who saw events more clearly than the well-known names. I have discovered many such men and women in history who don’t get the shout-outs, the references, the honors due to them.

With just a few minor changes here and there, Spencer Roane could have been well remembered. He could have and probably should have been on the Supreme Court. He was occasionally mentioned as a Vice Presidential candidate, although that is no pathway to certain fame. There were those who also thought he was of Presidential timber. But the “What If’s” of history cannot be substituted for the actual events.

Roane’s political life was found in the Virginia Supreme Court. His major writings were opinions that were usually objections to the national Supreme Court’s ruling under John Marshall. Roane’s causes were the “Lost Causes” of Jeffersonian rule, States Rights, limited government, and judicial restraint. He opposed the ratification of the Constitution for the same reasons that many wise men of his day did. The “Anti-Federalists” have to take the side of the British in the War for Independence, Mexico in the Mexican-American War, the Confederacy in the Late Unpleasantness, and others who lost the battles or issues of their day.

It is easy enough to generalize American history as a progress where things got better and better. There is lots of progress in history. It is easy enough to see a destiny, manifest or unfolding, where America does prove to be a light on a hill for all the world to see. Both liberals and conservatives today point to particular events as evidences of right overcoming wrong, And people will gleefully sing of “God’s truth marching on” in the context of America’s actions.

But such rosiness is not usually good history. Nor is it good or accurate commentary on the present situation. Spencer Roane railed, wrote, and argued for a restraint of our judiciary that speaks to issues still being battled over today.

Just yesterday, a new justice to the Supreme Court was confirmed. It takes no insight to know that she will embrace John Marshall’s vision far more than that of Spencer Roane. And I might suggest that she could no more explain Roane than she could explain what a woman is.

This is yet another book, like the two reviewed above, that is more relevant than today’s headlines. Thankfully, a biography of Roane (a short 120 pages, with an additional 70 pages of his writings) will broaden knowledge of the man. I can hope that from this academic study, Roane’s presence in our country’s history and ideas will start seeping into more minds and causing his name to get a host of mentions. I hope future history teachers will learn of him earlier than I did.

Many thanks to my friend, Gordon “Koty” Arnold, one of the brightest young scholars I know, for calling my attention to this book.

The Reformation of the Church

The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues, edited by Iain Murray is published by Banner of Truth.

Let’s face it, some books call for a long, hard slog. I love page turners, meaning those books that are hard to put down. I find myself wanting to race to the end and yet dreading that time when the book is finished. Some books gain momentum as the reader progresses. I told my students who were assigned to read The Brothers Karamazov that the book would pick up the pace after the first 300 or 400 pages. (That is actually more true of other lengthy novels.)

But some books are hard reads. Some books demand commitment. Some books are a page-by-page, chapter-by-chapter task to read.

Yet, the slogging through a book is often needed. No, not everyone needs to slog. No, not every slog is worth the effort. And NO, NO, NO, a slog is not what is needed at the bedside for relaxation.

The Reformation of the Church is a slow, weighty, challenging read that is worth the slog. There are plenty of books out there that diagnose church problems, that recommend church strategies, that counsel and advise pastors and elders, that give quick easy encouragement to church leaders, and that are easy, teachable, sharable nuggets of help to all of us living in the world of church life. I have profited from many such books.

But our churches today are the products of long, hard, difficult battles over theology, liturgy, polity, and outside forces. The Reformation was not just about Martin Luther rediscovering the experience of personal salvation. His was the first (or arguably the 500th) domino to fall in a series that led to church and world-changing consequences for several centuries, including our own.

The essays in this book deal with some testy issues of days past that are not seemingly relevant to our times. The ministerial attire of English pastors was a battleground issue. Seems strange to me because I see good and godly pastors whose clothing styles range from overly casual to well-dressed to robes. But surplices and cassocks riled men of Puritan temperament.

That issue is not one where we see the lines clearly drawn today. Some of my Anglican pastor friends preach solid sermons, as do my more causally dressing pastor friends. But there was a need in the purifying battles of the post-Reformation period for reforms to be root and branch. We can all agree on the root reforms more easily than the branch reforms.

The chapter I am currently reading is on the topic of bishops and episcopacy. For clarification, I am a Presbyterian with low views of presbytery connections who is a part of a Southern Baptist church that seems to have no views of denominational connections. (Long story there that I will forego telling.)

“Bishops” is a biblical word that seems to be wrongly used by some and ignored by others. I am constantly astounded by churches that proclaim adherence to the Bible as the truth, but they ignore Biblical teachings and examples regarding ministry. Churches today often have a pastor and a staff of others that includes music ministers, assistant pastors, associate pastors, youth pastors, senior pastors, etc.

But what about elders? The eldership is not a vaguely mentioned, scarcely noticed concept in the Bible. The Reformers, the Puritans, the Covenanters, and their American heirs would never have skipped past such issues and raced on to make plans for a summer softball league. And the churches are groaning because we don’t have proper, Biblical leadership. And head pastors are flailing and failing because we have elevated their office to a multitasking monstrousity.

The Reformation of the Church is not going to be a chapter-by-chapter resource for quickly solving church problems. Most of what I as a former pastor and you as a pastor or layman are facing will not show up in black and white print in this book.

So why read it? Part of our problem today is simply that—it is a problem today. We have no historical depth, no rooted convictions, no history to guide us (other than last year’s business meeting minutes). We are thinking like Moderns. That also means that we are not thinking at all.

The Reformation of the Church should be either assigned as a whole or in part for students seriously studying church history. (Okay, that sold a few copies.) But men training for the pastorate should also read it. (Sales bumped up a bit.) The huge numbers of wide-eyed Christians who are part of “worship teams” should also read it in order to find the Reformation and Puritan roots of “worship teams.” (I don’t expect any rush to purchase from that statement.) The Christian in the pew might be okay with focusing on issues other than those in this book, but that is true only if he or she is in a church where the leadership understands this book.

One other reason for reading this book: Iain Murray is the editor of this work. He is the best popular church historian and biographer of our time. His many books have laid out the names and stories of many great leaders in church history particularly in the British Isles. His biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards are classics. His labors with Banner of Truth are sterling.

So, prepare to slog through the book. Read slowly and wonder how the seemingly arcane discussions of the past reveal weaknesses today that you and I have not taken seriously. This won’t necessarily be an easy read, but it will be profitable.

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.