Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

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Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?  Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Alan Thornbury is published by Convergent Books.  Dr. Thornbury has worked and taught at Union College in Jackson, Tennessee and King’s College in New York City.  He currently serves at the New York Academy of Art.  A few years back, he wrote a fine study of Carl F. H. Henry, titled Recovering Classical Evangelicalism.  My comments on that book can be found here.

My attraction to this new book was based on the skills of Thornbury the author.  Of Larry Norman, I knew little.  Back when my son Nick was at Wheaton College (2011-2015), I found some Norman CDs at a local thrift shop where I often buy books and music.  I called Nick and asked him about the music.  “Get them,” he said.  “Norman is the father of Christian rock.”  So I bought them and passed them on to Nick.

I was in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but I was not of the 60’s and 70’s.  It was not a spiritual retreat, but a cultural one.  I marched to a different drummer.  More exactly, I marched to a fiddle and steel guitar.  I not only listened to country music, but I listened to what even then was the older, more rooted country music of the 1940’s–early 1960’s.  The defining rock music of that era was all a blur.  I vaguely knew some of the names and was exposed to bits of the music, but generally gave it very short shrift.

By the mid-1970’s, I had become a Christian and by 1977 became Reformed.  I added classical and Big Band music to my list of preferences, but apart from a Beach Boys album, I still had little contact with rock music.  My early exposure to what people called Christian Rock was totally unappealing.  (Oh yes, I did really like the Christian-like/lite B. J. Thomas record.)  It was only after having a student directed seminar on music of the 60’s-70’s (with some really bright kids that year at Genoa School) that I was exposed to rock.  Later, as in much later, my son Nick developed into both a musician and musical scholar.  He taught me to like such radical groups as Simon and Garfunkle.

All of this is to say that began this book with little background experience.  End result:  What a fascinating story of an incredibly gifted artist who devoted his life and energy to serving God.  Up close, like all close examinations of we who are recipients of grace, is the story of a complicated, contradictory, sometimes confused, and struggling man who, nevertheless, blazed a trail for Christian music.

In spite of the fact that Elvis Presley had strong Christian roots, many evangelical people had little regard for the more edgy types of music in the 1960’s.  Conversion to Christ was supposed to result in a person leaving behind the music and hippie, rebellious, long-haired culture, communes, and life-styles of the times.  There were standards and mores neatly defined by traditional Christian culture.  Pressing the limits was not considered a good sign.

We have to reset our mental frameworks to look back at that time.  Remember that Francis Schaeffer, soon to rise as an intellectual leader of evangelicals, was way off the mark because he actually watched movies, listened to popular music, and looked at modern art with an attempt to be constructively critical.  Worldview was the not the way of those times; rather, it was world retreat.

The song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music,” from which the book gets its title, tells it all:

I want the people to know
That He saved my soul
But I still like to listen to the radio
They say that rock and roll is wrong, we’ll give you more chance
I say I feel so good I gotta get up and dance
I know what’s right, I know what’s wrong and I don’t confuse it
Why should the devil have all the good music
I feel good every day
‘Cause Jesus is the Rock and He rolled my blues away

Being a trail blazer, being on the cutting edge, pushing the envelope all meant that Norman faced lots of rough waters.  Christian folks often disliked the music (and hair).  Non-Christians were a bit nervous about the religious message. But Norman pressed on.  He sang and talked.  Sometimes his talk was more radical than his music.

Overall, Larry Norman was an incredibly talented musician, artist, producer, and creator of a whole new style.  At the same time, living when he did and how he did, he was sometimes a real kook.  He had two unsuccessful marriages.  His first wife, a model, was way off the spectrum of sanity.  Some of his friends and associates were loony as well.

Larry Norman needed a strong pastor, accountability group, godly wife, and more thorough theology.  He would have been a better man if all those factors had been in place.  That is all just to say that he is just like the rest of us.  To the end, despite some real stumbling and misguided efforts, he sought to serve God in his singing and performances.

Post Script:  I am now listening to and learning to like his music.

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Ned Christie: The Creation of an Outlaw and Cherokee Hero–review coming soon

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New book from the University of Oklahoma Press.

Ned Christie was a ruthless outlaw who left a trail of death and violence all over the eastern portions of the Indian Territory in the 1880’s-90’s.  The violence of the area has been portrayed in the book True Grit as well as in both movie versions of the book.  But whereas that story is fiction, the sordid career of the outlaw Ned Christie is confirmed in history books.  Folks breathed easier when Christie’s corpse was displayed alongside the marshals and deputies who brought him in to Fort Smith–dead.

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The story of Christie’s gang and brigandage is recounted in various histories of outlaws, the violence of the regions west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and tales of criminals who were regarded by some as Robin Hood-type figures.  The historical accounts are then backed up by the newspaper sources from the times that excited readers as they told of Christie’s exploits, escapes, and final demise.

There is only one problem with the legend of Ned Christie, Cherokee warrior:  It is wrong.

Author, historian, and scholar Devon A. Mihesuah has labored to set the record straight in her account of this Cherokee leader titled Ned Christie: The Creation of an Outlaw and Cherokee Hero.  Her book proves one vital truth in the realms of Clio’s Muse (meaning history).  That truth is this:  History may or may not repeat itself, but historians repeat each other.  (This saying is attributed to Max Beerbohm, Oscar Wilde, and a number of others–see here.I first heard it from Dr. Gary North.)

On the one hand, the Ned Christie story might be relegated to the obscure and unimportant files of historical studies.  It attracts attention for those of us who enjoy Arkansas history.  The whole saga of “Law West of Fort Smith,” which is the title of a history of the area as well as the backdrop to True Grit, attracts attention due to lawmen, bounty hunters, and Judge Isaac Parker.  That region is a real wild west story, filled with outlaws, heroes, good lawmen, bad lawmen, gun fights, and hangings. (Who can forget Judge Parker’s saying, “I never hanged a man.  The law did.”)

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Or the story might be noticed as part of the long, sad plight of the Cherokee people.  After being forced from their homelands in Georgia and the Carolinas, they suffered untold miseries on the Trail of Tears.  Their relocation in Indian Territory was no happy ending.  Struggles and difficulties and divisions remained.  Some Cherokees joined the Union forces in the War Between the States, while others allied themselves with the Confederacy.  Cherokee leader Stand Watie holds the distinction of being the only Native American to be a general in the Confederate Army and for being the last Confederate general to surrender.

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General Stand Watie, Confederate States of America

Whatever angle one looks at, the history of the Cherokees, like that of many other tribes, is a tragedy.  There is no need to bring out faults on the part of the Indians in North America.  Two cultures clashed and the stronger culture won.  Both were made up sinners, and usually the stronger force has sins or sin opportunities that are greater than the weaker side.

Ned Christie was not a perfect man nor was he the Robin Hood figure some tried to make him.  He was also far from being a savage or uncivilized man.  He was a member of the Cherokee council and an adviser to the tribal chief.  He was also educated, lived in a house, and was a working man who supported his family.  The Cherokee were divided over different issues, including whether to support Oklahoma statehood (Christie didn’t) and over the degree to which the white culture should be embraced.

When Deputy U. S. Marshal Dan Maples was fatally shot, Christie, along with other Cherokees were in the general vicinity. With little or no clear evidence as to who did the shooting, blame came to rest on Christie.  In a more perfect world, he could have surrendered himself, gone to Fort Smith, gotten a good defense lawyer, produced witnesses, and walked.  But the possibility of getting a fair trial, of being able to get his witnesses to Fort Smith, and to survive jail in Fort Smith prior to the trial were slim to none.  So, for five years, he evaded the law.

During those five years, newspapers had a heyday reporting on the exploits of Christie and his cohorts.  “Fake news” is a term thrown around a lot today, but in the day of Ned Christie, it happened repeatedly.  After all, violence and mayhem create more interest than more mundane events in life.

It all ended, in a sense, when lawmen surrounded Christie’s home, dynamited the place, and gunned the Cherokee man down.  It actually really didn’t end there.  Christie’s corpse was displayed at Fort Smith for all to see.  His teenage cousin was sentenced to prison and later died in an asylum for “insane” Indians.  And Christie’s name and family were left to suffer.

History is about truth seeking.  Professor Mihesuah has done a fine job of clarifying the record on a sad story from history. As Herman Melville’s narrator says at the end of “Bartleby,”  “Ah humanity.  Ah Bartleby.”  To which we add, “Ah Ned Christie.”

 

Reformed Dogmatics by Vos

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A few years back, Lexham Press published the first of five volumes of Reformed Dogmatics by Geerhardus Vos.  We must grant that this publishing event probably didn’t shake the Christian community nor did the book reach the New York Times best seller lists.  I don’t think those who labored to translate Vos’ notes from Dutch to English nor those who labored to put the book into print were expecting a tidal wave response.

Look at the title itself:  Reformed Dogmatics.  Look at the author:  Geerhardus Vos.  Volume One contains the additional words Theology Proper in the title, and that also would not have drawn a crowd.  With the publication of this volume with a limited appeal, Lexham Press went on to complete the set.  Now, instead of one book with an unappealing title, by a largely unknown theologian, there were five volumes that more than quadrupled the content and raised the price.

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There is a valuable lesson in all of this.  Here it is:  There is an important distinction between the popular and the valuable.  Put another way, there are books and ideas that capture the moment and for a time create a buzz.  And then there are other books and ideas that are founded on more lasting and weighty foundations.  In our town, the fair comes around each September.  Quickly, the rides and concession stands are filled with blazing lights and loud music.  The crowds–for a week or two–flock to the fairgrounds in large numbers, juggling cotton candy, overpriced drinks, and tickets while lining up for the thrill of a few minutes of being slung around.  In contrast, there are the more permanent places where stately buildings and solid institutions are established way before the fair hits and continue on after it leaves town.

There is a remnant who have labored to preserve the writings of theologians like Geerhardus Vos, Francis Turretin, B. B. Warfield, and many more.  The labors have been put forth to reset or translate or even discover the writings of men of old and see that they are available for readers today.  Sure, there is a place for antiquarian interest in old books.  “Look what somebody said back in 1890?” someone might say, after finding a long lost work.  It is a type of literary archaeology consisting of fragments of books from ages past.

Modernity or post-modernity or whatever term describes the present can also exert itself in a love for the latest scholarship.  Once upon a time, Karl Barth rattled the entire evangelical world, but his day came and went to a large extent.  Various new ways of interpreting, systematizing, and understanding the Bible capture the flags on even the most staid of seminaries and create a gush of energy to further develop whatever the zeitgeist of the day happens to be.

Why did anyone bother to wade through reams of lecture notes and dated materials of a long deceased Dutchman?  Why did a small publishing house–which most likely has few huge subsidies or best sellers–labor to produce a set like this in fine, hardbound volumes?

Is it better because it is old?  The idea “the old is better than the new” can be just as flawed as the passion for the latest new thing (as described above).  The question still remains of why this set?

Having now completed reading Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One, Theology Proper, I will venture around with some answers.  Let’s start with the word “Reformed.”  I live in an area where that word is either confusing, misunderstood, or strongly rejected by some who do understand it.  It is one of the richest words in our theological history.  That being said, sometimes those of us who apply the term to ourselves (as in “I am Reformed” or “I am a Reformed Christian”) badly handle the gold treasures we have discovered.

The word “Reformed” used as an adjective to modify terms like Christian, churches, or theology dates back to the Protestant Reformation.  This past year–2017–marked the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s act of posting his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg.  Neither the 5 Solas of the Reformation nor the 5 Points of Calvinism capture anything other than a portion of what is contained in the theological heritage of all things prefixed by the word “Reformed.”  To grasp the extent of the wealth of riches contained in the history of all theological things labeled as “Reformed,” one must think of discovering a huge treasure. (I am thinking of the final scenes in the movie National Treasure.)

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Or, more closely aligned to the experience, imagine a huge library filled with all manner of great books.

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When I am extolling all things that are connected to the Reformed faith and Reformed theology, I am not unaware of how often and in how many ways, that heritage has been misused, abused, and badly represented by us (I am Reformed in theology) and wrongly maligned by others.  That is another topic.  Vos was European, Dutch in fact.  The use of the word Reformed (Hervormd) was not being waved as a flag to provoke enemies.  It simply stated a respected theological tradition.

The word “Dogmatic” or “Dogmatics” is less familiar to even most Christians.  Usually, describing someone or some belief as “dogmatic” is somewhat negative.  It implies an unwillingness to move or stubbornness.  To describe a person as dogmatic in his beliefs is not a compliment. But in the broad field of theology, dogmatics is a good and necessary part of a whole Christian’s system of thought.  Theology itself or theological training sometimes involves courses in systematic theology,  biblical theology, and dogmatic theology.  Other courses might be focused on pastoral theology, practical theology, etc.  Theologians can delve into the precise differences in approach to systematic, biblical, and dogmatic theological studies.

The precise definition of “dogmatic” is “inclined to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true.”  Even the most open-minded, gentle, non-controversial, easy-going, quick to listen Christian had better have some dogmatic theology under his belt.  Such is essential to being grounded, settled, unmoved in the Faith.  Dogmatic theology is why we recite the catechism, read from our respective confessions, learn the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, and drill certain beliefs into our own heads and the heads of others.  Even if taking dogmatic positions turns into occasions of being called narrow-minded, close minded, a bigot, etc., it has to be done.

Now, concerning the author himself:  Geerhardus Vos.  He was never a flashy, charismatic leader in either his native Netherlands or his adopted land, the United States.  Perhaps his wife is better known than he is.  Catherine Vos’ Child’s Story Bible has been a popular book for many decades.

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Geerhardus Vos was a theology professor at old Princeton Seminary.  His colleagues were such men as B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen.  His friends included Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.  Those he influenced included such men as Cornelius Van Til.  He wrote some weighty theological books, such as  Pauline Eschatology and Biblical Theology:  Old and New Testaments.  Some of his theological articles have been collected and published in other works.

Vos’ primary claim to fame is being called “the Father of Biblical Theology.”  It is a bit much to say that he invented that field of study, but he did make it a more specific academic and theological discipline.  As a writer, he was not flashy or popular, but studied and careful and detailed.  As a personality, he seemed rather quiet and unnoticeable.  When the great controversies erupted at Princeton Theological Seminary after the death of Warfield, Vos remained at the seminary rather than leaving with Machen and company.

Vos was anything but a liberal, nor was he even moderate on such things.  Maybe it was a matter of age or personality, but he stayed at Princeton until his retirement a few years later.

The life of Geerhardus Vos, when such a book is written, will not be a page turner.  But he was a faithful Christian man and scholar.  And he was deeply immersed (figuratively speaking, my Baptist friends) in the theological heritage and Reformed traditions of the Netherlands.  In the spirit of Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization and Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World, a book does need to be written about how the Dutch created theological wonders of the modern Christian world.

Everything said up to now deals with the set before it is ever opened.  But since this blog post has already gotten a bit long, it will be better served for me to discuss the contents later.

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A Church You Can See by Dennis Bills

“It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  That popular saying well describes many places we might go to on vacation, but it also applies to the way many people view church membership.  They might rephrase it like this:  “Churches are nice places to visit, but I would not want to be committed there.”  There are many cultural and spiritual battles we face in our day.  No Christian can dispute that the family is under attack.  For this reason, you can fill shelves with books on marriage and family issues.  No Christian can dispute that we are engaged in a multi-front culture war over issues that seemingly didn’t exist a century ago.  No Christian can dispute that major institutions in our society are reeling and rocking from corruption, wrong directions, unbelief, and evil.

Yet we rarely hear this being given as an answer:  Go join a church.  Even many of the better or more energetic evangelistic groups have often been neglectful of church membership.  The word “Christian” is used as an adjective for all types of things–many of which I approve–but is not used as frequently to describe or modify the word “church.” Church life is an appendage for some.  It can be a cross to bear.  Or it might be an added feature, just like tinted windows on the car you buy.

The word “church” itself can be used to name a building (like the one in the picture above), a denomination, a spiritually amorphous group of both living and dead Christians, a large historical group (like the Catholic Church or Anglican Church), a place to go (as in, we go to church each Sunday), or any assembly (in the more etymological meaning of the word).

A Church You Can See by Dennis E. Bills is a much needed book for Christians.  It is a book about building a church and the architecture of a church.  Let me clarify that quickly:  The book is subtitled Building a Case for Church Membership. This book is not about the best way to construct a physical building or design that building for acoustics or seating or multi-functional use.  This book is about the absolute necessity of Christians being tied to, committed to, joined to, and dedicated to a particular local group of fellow believers in order to live out the Christian life.

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Before hitting a few key points in Pastor Bills’ book, let me line out the case for not joining a church.  First, no church is perfect, nor will any church fit your particular beliefs in every detail.  Second, church membership will not save you.  Third, many churches are routine and tradition-bound.  Fourth, there are all kinds of ways you can serve God without being a church member.  Fifth, where does the Bible say that you have to be a member with your name on a roll in a church?  Sixth, what about all those people who are in situations (like health, geographic location, in military service, in prison, etc.) who cannot be in church?

Some really strong arguments can be crafted from those six points and others as well.  But, the bottom line is that being committed to, being a member of a church is absolutely essential.  (Exceptions, such as health, geography, job, access, are just that–exceptions.)  While neither Pastor Bills nor I can cite a verse that says “All God’s people must have their names inscribed on the rolls of a local assembly of fellow believers,” the New Testament presupposes church membership at every stage.

The New Testament letters are written to churches and church leaders.  The Book of Acts is a book about church planting.  The Gospels are written to instruct believers in churches. The gifts, spiritual and otherwise, and teachings are all used in church settings.  Not a single word is directed toward Christian schools, Christian music groups, Christian bookstores, Christian political parties, or any other group prefixed by the word “Christian.”  While I strongly believe that all those Christian-oriented groups or causes should exist, they grow out of the church community and are not equals or peers with it.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are also church-related.  I hope that sentence bothers you.  I hope it sounds a bit like it was just an add-on to what the church does.  I intentionally sought to do to two things:  One is raise the eyebrows of discerning readers and echo the verse in Genesis 1 that casually says, “He made the stars also.”

Baptism–lay aside the matters of mode and subjects–is essential, absolutely commanded, defining, and not negotiable for one who professes faith in Christ.  (Yes, I understand that if your hands and feet are pierced with nails and the Roman government is in the process of killing you, you can appeal directly to Jesus.)  Baptism is a work and ordinance of the church.  Along with that, the Lord’s Supper–laying aside more details about frequency and what elements are used–is a part of the Christian life in the same way that breathing is part of physical life.  I hate when someone says that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are just symbols.  If I tell a woman that my marriage ring is just a symbol, I hope someone bashes me over the head.  (I expect my wife to do so.)  In the example I use, a marriage ring really means that I am married, but it is a tradition.  How much more are baptism and the Lord’s Supper real and vital since they are established by Christ Himself?

In A Church You Can See, Bills walks the reader through the stages of building a house or other structure.  This metaphor is carried through the whole book to teach different aspects of church membership.  This book, while good for individual reading, would really best be used by teachers and elders to instruct Sunday school classes or membership classes.  It is clearly written, very practical, heavily laced with Scripture passages, and intended to result in the reader either joining a church or becoming aware of the meaning of church membership.

Pastor Bills (and I would emphasize that he is an ordained Presbyterian minister in West Virginia) writes from a Presbyterian and Reformed perspective.  Those who might not line up with him on all points (meaning that they are not Presbyterian or Reformed) will still find this book incredibly useful and instructive.

This book can be purchased through Amazon for the ridiculously low price of $5.99.

Along with this book, I will mention two others I like that deal with church life.

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My former pastor Curtis C. Thomas, who also co-authored The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Documented, and Defended, wrote an incredibly good book on living the Christian life in the local church.  Titled Life in the Body: Privileges and Responsibilities in the Local Church, it was the book I often gave to people who were considering church membership when I was a pastor.  Filled with short chapters, this book is also a great individual read or source for a group study.

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Stop Dating the Church: Fall in Love with the Family of God by Joshua Harris is a vital wake-up call for believers who are shirking their responsibilities toward local church membership.  It is an easy, light, but convicting read.

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Along with building a case for church membership, churches need to buy a case for church members.

 

Calvin, Vos, and Theological Rappelling

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Rappell: noun, 1931, “mountaineering technique for descending steep faces,” from French rappel, literally “recall” (Old French rapel), from rapeler “to recall, summon.” The same word had been borrowed earlier (1848) to mean “a drum roll to summon soldiers.”

I am not known for being a risk taker.  In fact, I am very sedentary.  Heights for me pertains to bookshelves.  Adventure usually means drinking a third cup of coffee.  Camping and canoeing were once high on my agenda, but they have been replaced by less challenging events like napping and reclining.

I do most of my risk taking with books.  I really ought to stay on the lower, more level grounds, but I am all to prone to reach out, up, over, and beyond what I am able to take in.  When I can, I understand.  When I cannot understand, I seek to appreciate.  Sometimes, it helps when there are guides and support along the way, but I still stray outside my mental comfort zone.

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My recent morning readings have included two really useful books, but two books that are not quick, simple, or easily mastered works.  Reading often is best done when the right book meets the right set up.  For example, many books are great for easy chair reading.  Some are just right to tag along on trips to have handy for short snatches while waiting in line or sitting in a car while the wife runs into the grocery store to pick up a few things (meaning at least one full grocery cart full of stuff).

Other books are just right for reading in bed at night.  Nothing clears my mind of school related problems like a good spy and espionage novel.  Whenever Gabriel Allon or Mitch Rapp plug a few holes in a terrorist who has been threatening Israel or America, I can relax and get ready to sleep.  Many biographies and histories are great for bedtime reading.

Most of my theological reading is done in my comfortable chair where I am flanked by a cup of coffee.  This reading is done in the early morning.  (The amazing thing is that I was a night owl for years and not a morning person.)

But some books require enough mental heavy lifting that a different set up is needed.  In these cases, the book or books need to be spread out on a table with other resources close at hand.  If theology is the topic, a Bible must be there for reference, reinforcement, clarification, proof, or even correction.  The coffee–and the stronger and hotter, the better–still needs to be present.  So does a pen or pencil and some means of making notes.  (If music is desired, it probably should be Bach or Vespers by Rachmaninoff.)

Recently, I began reading two such challenging books in the morning session.  One is Knowing God and Ourselves by David Calhoun.  This book is published by Banner of Truth.

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Over the past years, I have read several books by David Calhoun.  His two volume history of Princeton Theological Seminary, also published by Banner of Truth, is a great read on the history of theology in America.  It could have been said, “As Princeton goes, so goes the nation.”  The story of Princeton as a theological bastion and then battleground is well told in these two moving volumes.

Calhoun told a similar, but much shorter story in his book Our Southern Zion:  Old Columbia Seminary.

This Banner book recounts the ups and downs of Southern Presbyterianism as found in Columbia.  I did not recognize as many names, but still enjoyed this contribution to our theological heritage.  A book that Calhoun edited and wrote part of is Pleading for a Reformation Vision: The Life and Selected Writings of William Childs Robinson. Robinson was a professor at Columbia and a Reformed scholar and author during the 20th century.

Knowing God and Ourselves is a completely different type of work from the historical and biographical writings of Calhoun. Now a professor emeritus of church history from Covenant Theological Seminary, he continues to write and share his wisdom during his remaining years.  This book grew out of courses he taught on John Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Note that the subtitle of this book is Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.  That in itself contains several key features.  We ought to be reading Calvin’s Institutes.  Yes, I am referring to those of us who are often called Calvinists (either as a compliment or an insult–I take the first).  We don’t need to read Calvin to shore up our arguments on the 5 Points of Calvinism (which are not easily found in the index or table of contents of his works).  We don’t need to read Calvin in order to be a tribe of Calvin-bots who go around citing him like little Chinese kids use to do with the writings of Chairman Mao.

Instead, we need to read Calvin because his Institutes were written to devotionally and intellectually grow God’s people.  He intended his work of “concise brevity” to be a handbook to help new, young, eager Christians to get acclimated to the things of God.

“Dry, dusty theology” (a phrase I detest) and Calvin’s Institutes have no point of contact.  Nor is his work a field guide for the seminary level graduate student preparing for a lifetime of being a seminary level Christian.  Calvin was writing a book for street Christians, for regular Joe’s who sit in the pews, and for struggling pastors who labor over open Bibles.

Right now, I am reading the book from cover to cover.  The chapters and topics are easily read.  The quotes from others are rich.  Each portion begins with a quote from Calvin himself, another quote from a Calvin scholar or student, a specific reading assignment from The Institutes.  And that is followed by a pertinent Scripture text, a defining quote from the reading assignment, and a prayer from one of Calvin’s many writings.

Whether it is this coming summer or next fall, I hope to begin my second use of this book.  At that time, I will be at the table with the Bible, pen, paper, and The Institutes.  I will be using yet another great Banner work, the new translation of the 1541 Institutes.

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Another challenging book I am currently working through is Reformed Dogmatics: Volume One: Theology Proper by Geerhardus Vos.  This volume, along with the remaining four volumes of the set, was only recently translated and published by Lexham Press.

Geerhardus Vos is a big name in the history and pursuit of Reformed theology.  He is Dutch.  For reasons that continue to amaze me, the tiny and largely below sea-level nation known as the Netherlands has produced a larger than expected number major thinkers in this world.  One might throw out names like the philosopher Baruch Spinoza or the physicist Niels Bohr, but most of my interest has been focused on the theological minds that have emerged out of Dutch history.  These “theological thinkers” (which describes a broader swath than just saying “theologians”) include historian Groen van Prinsterer, political and theological leader Abraham Kuyper, theologians Herman Bavinck and G. K. Berkouwer, and Christian philosophers Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven, and art critic H. R. Rookmaaker.

The flowering of Dutch Calvinism spread to the New World as well.  Bands of Dutch Calvinists came to this country at various times.  Many maintained deep connections to their Dutch culture, language, and religion.  Louis Berkof was a major Dutch theologians whose books are still devoured by eager Calvinists.  So are the works of Cornelius Van Til, the apologist and key promoter of the concept of presuppositionalist apologetics.

Geerhardus Vos was a Dutch transplant to the New World.  He taught for a time at Calvin College and then moved to Princeton.  His is sometimes regarded as the “father of modern Reformed Biblical theology.”  Not a light thinker, Vos is not as popularly read as some of his theological peers like Kuyper or colleagues like Benjamin Warfield or Van Til.

Some of the lag time for Dutch theologians is due to their major works being written in their native language.  It has only been in recent years that Herman Bavinck’s mutli-volume Reformed Dogmatics has been accessible to English-only/mainly readers.

Reformed Dogmatics, 4 Volumes - By: Herman Bavinck

Now, in addition to a load bearing shelf carrying Bavinck’s volumes (and don’t forget to add the one volume summary and some more recent additions of essays), one can also have five volumes of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics.

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Vos’ work grew out of courses he taught on systematic theology.  He follows a method of questions and answers.  The works were probably assigned as readings rather than given as lectures.  The Q and A’s format is very precise, careful, and exhaustive.  Each section of Volume One could easily be made into a short handbook on the topic covered.

Volume One’s topics are

The Knowability of God

Names, Being, and Attributes of God

The Trinity

Of God’s Decrees in General

The Doctrine of Predestination

Creation

Providence

Vos explains the doctrine, lists key Bible verses, and often either buttresses his argument from Calvin or other sources, or answers objections or refutes other views.  One has to be careful in reading the book, for Vos will give a sentence or a viewpoint which he goes on to refute.

This is the kind of hard work that pastors and teachers need.  I hope it doesn’t just go on in seminary classes, especially in light of the fact that many of us have never attended such classes.

Being grounded calls for lots of review.  I have been what I am for so many years that I have ceased to think about many doctrines and teachings that I once sweated blood over.  A careful examination of the 40 pages of study of the Trinity is a good exercise for my mind.  But it is also good for the heart (to make that oft used distinction).

Because of the format, Vos’ writing has little flow or elaboration.  There are plenty of other places to find such.  This volume is for the slow, detailed climber.

Michael Horton describes these Vos writings as being “like a lost Shakespeare play recently discovered.” Well said.

 

The Christ-Centered Expositor by Tony Merida

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My step-mother used to refer to men who were “trying to make a preacher.”  I also remember reading a book where young candidates for the ministry were said to be “tolerated” by the congregation.  There are numerous gifts that pastors need to have or that the session of elders need to have.  But whoever is standing behind the pulpit or lectern or is up front of the congregation with his mouth open  needs to be well equipped.

Lots of good men are not good preachers.  Lots of men who are capable of getting through a sermon and edifying a congregation once are not apt to be at that task every week or very often.  Bad preaching comes in lots of varieties. Church life and Christian living depend upon more than just preaching, but preaching is a vital ingredient for both the church as a body of Christ and the individual living for Christ.

Preaching depends upon certain God-given gifts.  Absent these gifts, a man is not likely to ever “make a preacher.”  But most men who have been “tolerated” by a congregation or homeletics class will have some skills that need to be honed for regular preaching and teaching.  A Charles Haddon Spurgeon breaks all the rules.  He skips Bible college and formal training; he enters the ministry at a very young age; he preaches from particular verses or even parts of verses; and he is incredible.

Message to all of us:  Look in the mirror; listen to a tape or podcast of your sermons; ask a few objective members of the congregation; and embrace this truth: You ain’t Spurgeon.  Most of us ain’t Tim Keller, Mark Dever,  John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Alistair Begg, or Sinclair Ferguson.  Feel free to fill in the name of any other great preacher.  But you probably ain’t him either.

But God never calls men to greatness.  The Apostles, as they stumble through the Gospel accounts, appear more often as buffoons, immature and jealous boys, and intellectual lightweights.  The most academic and scholarly of the New Testament writers, Paul, was not a powerful orator, by his account.  He could put people to sleep by his sermons!

God calls fallible, but transformable men to ministry.  But they have to learn.  They need mentors.  Some of their best mentors will be long-since dead men of old.  Some of them will be their teachers or previous pastors.  Some will be current authors.

Men going into ministry need to read good books on everything and every aspect of Christian life and thought.  This includes books on preaching.  The Christ-Centered Expositor by Tony Merida is at the top of my list for books for pastors at all levels to read.  This book is published by B & H Academic, which has become one of my favorite publishers. They are currently publishing the Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon series and Stewart Kelly’s book Truth Considered and Applied which I have reviewed and praised in previous posts.

One of the main thrusts of this book is that preaching need to be expository.  By that, we mean that the preacher should explain the meaning of the text he uses for the sermon.  The sermon should illuminate the text and the text should determine the content of the sermon.  Want to preach on a topic?  Don’t go and find a Bible verse that includes a slight reference to the topic and then go merrily along your way.  Don’t “use” the Scriptures, but teach them.

Quite often expository preaching will entail teaching and preaching through entire books or lengthy passages.  So be it.  That is what is needed to teach the people the Bible.  The Bible is not a set of aphorisms.  Even Proverbs is not just a random list of neat sayings.

The first half of the book, however, is not devoted to teaching the preacher how to preach or construct sermons.  The first seven chapters are in a unit titled “The Expositor’s Heart.”  There is no sermon worse than a sermon delivered by an unfaithful man.  Part of what makes ministry so hard is that the preacher has to spend all week preaching to himself before he can preach for a half-hour to hour to others.  As preachers know, if your upcoming sermon is on joy, you will experience the most joyless week ever as your prepare for it.  Same for patience.  Same for just about anything.  God’s training camp is not for sissies.  It’s not for tough men either.  Only a Christ-centered Spirit led life can enable any man to survive his own soul and preach to others.

The second half of the book is titled “The Expositor’s Message.”  If the first half needs to be read on one’s knees, the second half needs to be read with a pencil, paper, and open Bible.  God just doesn’t give messages.  Yes, I believe that I could stand up right now and preach a message.  But if the message turned out to be any good (and I know God can and does use really bad messages as well), it is because of years of study, reading, listening, and practicing.

Merida emphasizes two key parts of the sermon preparation.  The first is called the MPT.  That stands for the Main Point of the Text.  It is not the main point I want to make in my sermon, nor is it some main point my congregation needs to hear.  It is the Main Point of the Text.

Second, there is the MPS, which is the main point of the sermon.  Having three points, many subpoints, alliterative lists, and the like may or may not be useful.  But a sermon should have a main point, a main take-away.  It needs to be clear and needs to be repeated in the sermon.  I have heard many tolerable to decent sermons that seem not to have had a main point or a memorable main point. I have probably preached too many sermons where the main point either didn’t exist or was obscured along the way, or was not made perfectly clear.

Pastor Merida is well grounded in the best writing on pastoral ministry and preaching around.  He highlighted many books I read and loved along the way.  Some of these include John Stott’s Between Two Worlds and Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students and Lloyd-Jones Preaching and Preachers.  He also quotes and recommends quite a few other books I would be lunging after if preacher were still on my job description.

Most books like this one appeal only to actual preachers or preachers-in-training.  Well grounded people in the congregation need to occasionally read a book like this.  Those (of us) who are sermon listeners, rather than sermon makers, could benefit from being better equipped to know what we are looking for.

As Helmut Thielicke said, “Sell your shoes and buy Spurgeon.”  I would add this:  “Sell another pair and buy The Christ-Centered Expositor.

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

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Political books abound.  Political books by conservative authors and publishers abound.  I steadfastly avoid at least ninety-nine point nine (99.9) percent of them.  I avoid the books that are written in the heat and issues of the moment.  The only point of interest for me is wondering how they get written so fast.

I avoid, reject, and almost abhor political books that feature pictures of the author on the cover.  In fact, the books where the author’s picture is the cover are effectively “Keep Out” signs for me.  If I want such a book, it is easy enough to find it a year or so later in the bargain or used book bins.  But usually, a year later, such books are no more relevant than last week’s newspaper.

To a large degree, I also avoid the people who are considered the media representatives of conservatism today.  Sad to say, most of those who have radio and television spots as conservatives are devoted to ranting endlessly, to defending President Trump shamelessly, and beating dead horses furiously.  Yes, such voices often say true things and things with which I agree.  But I find little of interest in tide of cultural or social or media conservatism.

The hype of the day, the popular cries of the moment, and the trending internet stories can easily obscure real political thought.  Magazines such as National Review are a welcome relief to such trendiness and trite fluff.

We have been cursed with living in interesting times.  I have yet to figure out what happened in the 2016 election.  The political successes and failures of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump all astound me.  Everything I predicted was wrong.  But I am in good company there.  Everything just about anyone predicted was wrong.

The greatest consolation in this political climate can be found in going back to the roots and sources of our world. Many times I am reminded of the wisdom of the Roman historian Livy:

“The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”

But the study of history, roots, and original sources is never to be done as a way of escape from the current age or as an excuse for pining away for the good old days.  We live in an age where the cracks in the foundation are showing badly.  The structures of our world cannot stand.  “The centre cannot hold,” as Yeats said in “The Second Coming.”

For these reasons, reading Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen is both a relief and a source of hope.  Dr. Deneen is a professor of political science at Notre Dame University.  This book, published by Yale University Press, has been subject to many book reviews and discussions.  Dr. Albert Mohler, a leading evangelical intellectual, interviewed Dr. Deneen in an enjoyable discussion found HERE.

With all the commentary (both favorable and critical) and buzz about this book, I could easily say:  “Read the book while I start my second reading of it.”  If all my ________________ (millions, thousands, hundreds, dozens, or 5) followers did that, we would all gain from the process.  And I am going to read the book again (after having finished it today).

The first key point to take note of is that the words Liberal and Liberalism are not just descriptions of the Left Wing of the Democrat Party (yes, I know that the right wing of that party died years ago).  Why Liberalism Failed is not a boast-filled celebration of the defeat of Madame Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer,  and company.  It is not an attack on the media, the education system, the Washington establishment, or any of the usual targets of the political news.

The words “Liberal” and “Conservative” are best seen as relative terms, like tall and short.  Directly stated, both the Democrat and Republican parties, both our modern day liberal and conservative spokespersons, both the left and the right are part of the greater tradition of Liberal Thought in the West.  Remember that the word “Liberal” was often used in Europe to describe those who wanted more political freedoms and less governmental interference.

Anyone wanting to see Democrats and the media bleed need to look elsewhere for a book to read.  That is not to say that there is not a lot of bloodshed in this book.  But it is the West, the American system, the Founding Fathers, and the core values of what many of us hold that are shown to have gaping wounds in this book.

Second, there were three great ideologies in the twentieth century:  Fascism, Communism, and Liberalism. Fascism failed when the combination of Allied armies (made up of a coalition of Liberal Democracies and a Communist regime) crushed Mussolini’s Italian Empire and Hitler’s Third Reich. Victor Davis Hanson’s remarkable book The Second World Wars retells the story of the fall of Fascist regimes.  (Franco’s Fascist regime lived on until his death and the transition of Spain back to a more constitutional monarchy.)  Communism died or continues to die more slowly as a result of its own internal failings as well as the success of the West both militarily and economically.

Liberalism survives, but as Deneen notes, it has failed.  It is not outward armies and empires at the gates that threaten Liberalism.  It is its own successes.  Liberalism has created a people and a mindset that believes certain premises about life and government and society that have long-term detrimental consequences.  It has created a view of government and actual governments that have become all reaching, all encompassing, and all promising.

I was made more aware of one of the saddest facts I know:  Changes in political parties do not change our overall culture and government.  That being said, I will still hope for and vote for a dozen future Ronald Reagan-types over the alternatives, but the problems are not skin deep or Washington-centered.  We have installed a government of consent that consistently and naturally overflows its boundaries.  We can vote ourselves the largess of government-controlled money and controls.

Years ago, I read Herbert Schlossberg’s book Idols for Destruction.  That influential book still resonates with me.  One of the idols of our age is our own combination of government, society, and culture.

Third, the book is not without hope.  Deneen cites several authors who have probed these issues.  Wendell Berry of Kentucky has written both essays and fiction that provide a glimpse of a better way of life.  With all its limitations, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher also has some really helpful guidelines.

There is no big meta-solution issuing from the bowels of a centralized order to solve our problems.  That is the problem.  It will take a large degree of self-control, self-government, family life, church life, and local focus to start the long march back.  Wait, I meant the long march forward.  Deneen strongly asserts that no one can sensibly try to move us back in time or back to some pristine age.  There is wisdom in the past, but the movement is forward.

Christians, read this book.  Your family and local church, the education of your children, and the culture you create in small societies is vital to the future.  Yes, read this book while I get started back on my second reading.

I received this fine book as a review copy from the publisher.  As such, I am not bound to review it glowingly, but I have by personal conviction.  I recommend you buying a copy because it is both a great read and is affordably  priced.

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