The Pastor of Kilsyth by Islay Burns

The Pastor of Kilywyth: The Life and Times of W. H. Burns by Islay Burns is published by The Banner of Truth, one of the best Christian publishers in our time.


I suspect that many well read Christian folks will see the title and author of this book and say, “Never heard of them.”  I was one such reader, having never heard of W. H. Burns, who pastored in Kilsyth (in Scotland) or of his son and biographer Islay Burns.  That is actually a reason for wanting and needing to read this book.  We can all fall for the very inaccurate idea that God has worked through Luther, Calvin, Knox, Edwards, and Kuyper in the past and is working through the big name pastors in the present, but the rest are merely filler for the Kingdom advances.

Having recently finished reading and reviewing A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry Matters in Forgotten Communities by Stephen Witmer, I have been thinking about the small, obscure, unknown, often undesired, and underrated areas of service in God’s Kingdom.  I confess to being in awe of the big names from past and present and astounded by the mighty works of Spurgeon, the Hodges, Kuyper, and others.  Rightly so, but that overlooks the many pastors, leaders, teachers, missionaries, and faithful Christians whose only written biographies are the dates on their tombstones.

There is another hindrance to this book:  Style.  First published in 1860, this book reads like all too many biographies of that time.  Many bore titles like “The Life and Letters of ****.”  The books are short on actual probing into the thoughts, struggles, and conflicts of the subjects, but are strong on their virtues, spiritual attainments, and often wordy letters and sermons.  This doesn’t appeal to the modern reader, nor does it dig much into the person being examined. Some might call it hagiography, which means writing of the lives of the saints.

This style does not suit modern scholarship.  It contains a lack of dimensions of the complexities of a person’s life.  It verges toward flowery and noble language.

But I commend these types of books.  The style may be a challenge for those of us who have been influenced directly and indirectly by the likes of Ernest Hemingway’s prose style, Freud’s psychoanalytical probing, and modernity’s quest to puncture every heroic figure from the past.  The biographers were never seeking to tell the untold secrets of their subjects.  They were writing biographies with pastoral intent.  Their Scriptural touchstone is Hebrews 11.

Cultivate a love of this style of writing.  Cultivate an appreciation of these types of biographies.  Cultivate a hunger for this type of spiritual nourishment.

I should add that the main motivation for me to embrace the book was the words on the dust jacket from Iain Murray:  “One of the best Scottish ministerial biographies.”  Add a second witness:  George Grant, a preferred author, preacher, teacher, who called The Pastor of Kilsyth one of the best book he read this year.

William Hamilton Burns (1779-1859) pastored in the Scottish community of Kilsyth for most of his working life. Islay Burns writes of his father: “He preached the Word; dispensed the sacred supper; warned the careless; comforted the sorrowing; baptized little children; blessed the union of young and loving hearts; visited the sick, the dying, buried the dead; pressed the hand, and whispered words of peace into the ear of mourners, carried to the poor widow and the friendless orphan the charity of the church and his own; slipped in softly in some happy home and gently broke the sad news of the sudden disaster far away; lifted up the fallen one from the ground, and pointed to Him who receiveth the publicans and the sinners….”

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This very aptly constitutes the main and most necessary labors of the typical pastor.  Even if he is also a renowned scholar, even if he is employed elsewhere during the week, even if he has numerous other labors and distractions, these things define ministry.

Scottish church history is still a puzzle to me at points.  I don’t always understand the church structures and polity, the conflicts and divisions, and the customs that were all familiar to the Scots of the past.  This does not prevent the reader from finding many points of similarity between Burns’s day and ours.  However, there is a degree of intensity that recurs in these accounts.  My own spiritual life seems really paltry, weak, and thin compared to what the people in that day and time thought, believed, and said.  Maybe there is an exaggeration in the writing style of that time.  But perhaps there is a greater minimization of Christian living in our time.

So, we need regular workouts with books like this.  It should not be dismissed as quaint history, but be viewed as a plan for our own spiritual exercises.  God’s Kingdom is made up of the obscure, the forgotten, the little known, but what a blessing when one such pastor gets better known some 150 plus years after his life.

And what was said of W. H. Burns be said of many of us: “He was a peculiarly attractive representative of a type of the Christian pastorate which is rapidly becoming obsolete–that is of the quiet, steady, ongoing, conscientiously diligent and calmly earnest country minister, at once the father, the counselor, and the friend of every man, woman, and child within his parochial bounds.”

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A Big Gospel in Small Places by Stephen Witmer

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Born and raised about six miles out from De Kalb, Texas, I have spent most all my days in small places.  De Kalb, back in those prosperous days, had a population of something over 2,000 in the city limits, but most folks lived out of town.  I did spend two years languishing in Little Rock while I attending college at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  During my first year of teaching, I went to Avery, Texas, which was even smaller than De Kalb.

It was while I was in Avery that I read a short novel titled I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven.  That novel tells the story of a dying young, inexperienced Anglican priest who is sent to a remote village in Canada to minister.  That story, with some obvious differences, beautifully resonated with me and my own experiences that year.  The priest in that story learns the culture, fears, habits, and struggling faith of the people he is called to minister to.

For the next sixteen years, I lived and worked in the rural community of Genoa, Arkansas.  I bought ten acres of land and built a log cabin on it.  That home is still the ideal in my heart and memory.  (I dream of getting that house back, but sadly wake up and remember that it burned a few years after I sold it.) Genoa School, where I taught history, was a rural school that still took a day off in November for Deer Day.

Since 2000, we have technically lived in the city limits of Texarkana, Arkansas.  We actually live on a five acre piece of land (call it a farm, if you are imaginative). There are people with cows and horses around us.  People fire guns at all times and no one notices.  We burn brush in our field and hope that the authorities don’t notice.

Since I left my parents’ home in 1976, I have been part of four different small churches.  All four of my past congregations would have fit into one of the larger churches in the area with plenty of seats left over.

The past couple of weeks, I have read Stephen Witmer’s book A Big Gospel in Small Places:  Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters.  This book is published by IVP.

Let me cut and paste the answer to your question: “Who is Stephen Witmer?  Here goes:  Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship, Massachusetts, and is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also the cofounder of Small Town Summits, an organization that serves rural churches and pastors.  Witmer is the author of Revelation: a 12-Week Study, Jonah: Depths of Grace, and Eternity Changes Everything. He has written for Bible Study Magazine, Reformation 21, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God. He lives in Pepperell, Massachusetts,  with his wife, Emma, and their three children.

As you can see from the bio, there are some real substantive reasons for me to dislike Stephen.  First, he is from, not just the North, but New England–Maine and now Massachusetts.  Second, he has an enviable resume and academic accomplishments.  Third, he is still young.

In spite of all that, I must confess to having really enjoyed this book.  I enjoyed it because it brought to light and reinforced a great need in the churches of our day.  Many young pastor-candidates should prayerfully and carefully read this book.

Granted, most people now live in the larger cities and suburbs of America.  Granted that the greater numbers of people, resources, activities, and ministry opportunities are in the larger cities.  The flyover parts of the country are large swaths of darkness from the window of the airplane as it gets beyond the east coast and heads west.

More can be said and noted about small town people.  Happiness for many a youth growing up in the confines of small town America is seeing that city limits sign in the rear view mirror (a reference to the Mac Davis song “Happiness was Lubbock, Texas in My Rearview Mirror”).  The city lures many away.  Most never return.  Some of those who stay don’t have very happy results.

There is a mythological small town America.  Some of us unthinkingly embraced it by thinking that Mayberry, North Carolina really existed.  For me, I embraced it wholeheartedly when watching “The Waltons” on television for years and then watching them again on DVD with my children.

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The Waltons went to church on Sundays, except for the dad.  They had meals together.  Every Thursday night they faced a life-threatening crisis, often tied to the Great Depression and the impending Second World War.  By the hour’s end, they had resolved the problem, finding the answers in faith, family, and traditional values.  As the show concluded, the family members called out “Good nights” to one another.

The problem is that small town America is not Walton’s Mountain from the television show.  While their lives were far from perfect, small town and country people with values rooted in the heartland are warped, struggling, failing sinners.  Some of the sin problems that are endemic in the cities of America are just as bad or worse in small communities.  Farm living and nice friendly neighborhoods do not impart grace.  (To what extent they may restrain sin depends on other factors.)

Most small community pastors are going to live and die in obscurity.  They are going to minister to a small bunch of stumbling and sometimes crazy folks.  They are not going to get rich, build a huge church, or establish a number of viable Christian institutions.  They may not even succeed as pastors (whatever that may mean).

There are enough warnings and exhortations in this book to scare many away who need to be scared away. They are given not as horror stories or “Do Not Enter” signs, but as check lists.  One should never enter the pastorate with unrealistic rosy expectations.  Optimism yes;  extreme idealism, no.

Pastors, students aiming at ministry, and church planters:  Read this book prayerfully and along with others with whom you can discuss it.

But what about the rest of us?  I mean those of us who are not pastors, not aiming to be church leaders, and not residing along the backwoods highways and byways of America?

This book still has lots to say.  First of all, we need to know about the greater challenges facing American Christians.  Millions of people live outside the major population centers.  They are not all “Good Country People” (to borrow from the title of Flannery O’Connor’s ironic story).  Second, the oft repeated idea that the faith was originally and strategically planted in the major cities of the Roman Empire is misleading.  There might be better reasons for planting churches in Dallas, Texas and Little Rock, Arkansas than Old Washington, Arkansas, but any idea that capturing the cities first is THE Biblical strategy is strongly refuted in this book.  Third, many of us live in areas that are not exactly rural or small town, but not exactly at the center of culture and modernity.  My city of Texarkana is a small city.  I live on five acres of land on the edge of the city limits.  I go to a small church.  Most churches are small churches.  Some of the best ones are very small.  So, the book applies here as well.

God’s blessings on this book and author.

A Big Gospel in Small Places


The Opening of the Calvinistic Mind

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It was the probably the fall of 1977, and I was taking the second half of Western Civilization under Professor Henry Wood.  He assigned us a reading, with a “free will” choice of either Freud by R. J. Rushdoony or Nietzsche by H. Van Riessen.  Along with one other student, I chose the Nietzsche volume.  It was a slim book of some 51 pages, but it was not fast or easy read.  I think I must have read through it twice and underlined and marked it heavily.  Alas, I cannot find that copy of my book.  Mr. Wood quizzed me and the other fellow in a small goup discussion.  It was an exhilerating educational experience and resembled what I think happens in English college settings.

Nietzsche was part of a series of books called “Modern Thinkers” which was part of a collection called “An International Library of Philosophy and Theology.”  These books were published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, which also published books under the label of Craig Press.  I had already entered into that world that I have called Calvinia.  I had read John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits and A Theological Interpretation of American History by C. Gregg Singer, This Independent Republic by R. J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the Problem of Origins by P. E. Hughes, and the two books that sealed my future, Studies in Theology and The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner.

Although my future studies in college would contain much that was good, true, and beautiful, I did not experience the consistency, rigor, and direction of a real Reformed, classical, or Christian education through the classes I was taking.  In other words, I would take a fine college class, but have to study on my own to bring it into a perspective that was Biblical and Reformed.  I truly envy those today who are getting far better exposure to the greatest books and ideas through their college experiences.

James Jordan wrote of the Calvinistic world of the 1970s in his outstanding essay titled “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind.”

I think my take-away on Jordan’s essay was different than his main intent.  What it did was it reawakened my own mind–circa 2007–of the Calvinist thinkers that had impacted my life and imprinted their thinking on my mushy mind.  I immediately went into a book buying and reading frenzy, gathering up every Presbyterian and Reformed title from those years and authors that Jordan mentioned.  I gave a lecture series in Newport Newes, Virginia to a group that was titled “Calvinist Worldview Thinkers During the Wilderness Years,” another series in Alaska called “Dutch Thinkers,” and I wrote a number of essays, some published, on Dooyeweerd, Rushdoony, Singer, and others.

I was continually amazed at that time at how Bryce Craig, encouraged by R. J. Rushdoony and others, had published book after book that had little or no chance of reaching a wide audience.  And he published them with ugly covers and other less than appealing features. “Who was out there reading these books?” I wondered then and now.  Most Calvinists I knew read books on theology, the Bible, preaching, church, etc.,  but not on worldview issues, philosophy, and culture.

I am still bound and determined to acquire all of the books that are listed in the picture above.  I wish I could go back in time and get them for those prices.  Thankfully, P & R would send out sale sheets every month, so I did buy lots of them.  I probably have about half of the books in that picture.  That comes from the back inside cover of the Nietzsche volume.

All of that is prelude to this:  Presbyterian and Reformed shortened its name to P&R Publishing, and it has had much better cover designers than in the past.  P&R publishes lots of books with a much wider appeal than it did in those early days.  This is helped by the fact that the Calvinist reading audience or broader Evangelical reading audience is greater.

A few years back, P&R began a series called “Great Thinkers.”  Like the older “Modern Thinkers” series, these books are relatively short (less than 150 pages) and are geared toward serious, though not necessarily expert, readers.  And this is not another set of books about our favorite Christians, such as C. S. Lewis and company.  Many of the books are about thinkers who are not Christian or not Reformed, evangelical theologians.  If you impacted the greater culture and world of ideas, you might just be included.

I only have two of the books in this series:  Thomas Aquinas by K. Scott Oliphint and, as of this week, Francis Bacon by David C. Innes.  As might be expected, I am in great distress and anxiety that will not cease until I have the whole series, including the forthcoming volumes.

I use Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? as a teaching tool to introduce my students to a wide range of theologians, political leaders, philosophers, artists, and other influential people.  To some degree, I am teaching them “just” a list of names, book titles, and movement.  This is Trivial Pursuit, random bits of information, and for sure, oversimplifications.  That is good.  That is where we start: Names, titles, movements, bullet points.

Then we move on.  I am all for the students (starting in high school and continuing through college) diving into all or large portions of the greatest thinkers and books of all time.  But even reading a couple of hundred pages of Calvin or Aquinas or Marx might not enable you to get the overall picture of their worldview.  And books about thinkers are often longer, more technical, and more difficult than the author’s own writings themselves.

Here is the beauty of these kinds of books:  Short, scholarly, serious, and readable.

Footnote:  I bought the volume Francis Bacon simply because David C. Innes wrote it.  His book Christ and the Kingdoms of Men is one of the best books I have read this year.

When History Meets Religion and Philosophy

I sometimes decide to intentionally read several related books and to study a topic in depth.  Usually, I never get past the first book in the plan.  However, I often find that I am reading several related books over a short period of time that all complement each other on the topics at hand.  This has been the case with three recent readings.

I read and reviewed Did America Have a Christian Founding? by Mark Hall just a few weeks ago.  While reading the book, I used a Youtube session where he discussed his book for my government class.  We skipped over and examined the chapter on religion and the courts in our textbook.  Dr. Hall took me along familiar paths and showed me new things.  This book is a much needed, compact, direct hit on the myths that permeate our textbooks and society.  While dealing with the Founders, it is as or more relevant than the evening news for understanding American culture.  He is not advocating “turning the clock back” or trying to impose some sort of Puritan theocracy on the current nation.

But ideas have consequences, as we often say.  So do history lessons.  Teach the wrong lessons and you get the wrong consequences.  That underscores the importance of this book. Did America Have a Christian Founding? is published by Thomas Nelson.

I am currently about two-thirds through America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation by Thomas S. Kidd.  This book is an excellent survey of the religious experiences of the peoples who have lived in this country.  I have no idea how Dr. Kidd, who is pouring out books right and left, manages to cover as many topics over a period of several hundred years as he does.

Of course, if someone wants to know about a group, religious leader, or event in depth, this is not the book.  It is a fast and furious survey, hitting the key events, naming significant leaders, and including the vast spectrum of beliefs both Christian and other.  This would be an excellent book to supplement a college American history course.  By the way, Dr. Kidd has written a new and highly touted history of the United States.  I wish I could have read something like this earlier in my own career.

America’s Religious History by Thomas S. Kidd is published by Zondervan Academic.  There is also a video available where Dr. Kidd lectures over the contents of the book.

In a related, but far more challenging area is The Declaration of Independence and God:  Self-Evident Truths in American Law by Owen Anderson.  This book is an in-depth study of the philosophy that led to the self-evident claims in the Declaration of Independence.  As a student of history, I am continually embarassed and shocked by how little I was exposed to the philosophical debates and concerns through the ages.  Sad to say, historians will tend to fall back on “this happened and then this happened and then this next thing happened.”  True enough, but not enough.

For all of the faults and simplistic contents in Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, it stands out for weaving in–imperfectly–the philosophies, ideas, worldviews, and presuppositions of the ages of history.  This book by Dr. Anderson narrows that topic down to the ideas contained and presupposed in the Declaration of Independence.

I wish Dr. Anderson would write a book that basically surveyed the philosophical ideas that have impacted different eras of American history.  In part, he has done this.  Jefferson relied on certain beliefs found in sources like John Locke or Thomas Reid.  But Ralph Waldo Emerson and others changed the rules of the game. Darwinism brought further changes, as did beliefs coming out of liberal theology and more recent ideas.

So, when the topic of when a fetus becomes a person arose in the Roe v. Wade case, the climate of the court and the times did not lead the justices to examine what Jefferson or the Founders said and accept them as the final authority.  But Jefferson’s formulation itself was lacking.  What is exactly self-evident?

Dr. Anderson’s book raises the bar of the studies of American history as presented in the first two books.  I am still grappling with his teachings and writings.  The fault, alas, is in the reader and not the writer.  Nevertheless, I feel a real gap in my own understanding has been revealed.  Glad to have read this book and look forward to reading it again.

The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law by Owen Anderson is published by Cambridge University Press.


So You Want To–the first two installments–by Brian Daigle

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Brian Daigle is a big man who writes small books.  There is a method to his madness.  I am proof of the pudding, for I have read his small books.  But the main appeal is that he is writing these books to target people who are looking for a plan of action.  Brian, by the way, writes from a plethora of experiences.  He has started and leads a Christian school in south Louisiana.  He has spoken across the land to educators and interested parents.  Also, he has read deeply and widely in all the areas associated with classical education.

The classical Christian school movement is still relatively new.  Relatively because it really started picking up steam in the 1990s.  A number of now older men and women found themselves questioning education, Christian school alternatives, and the needs of our children.  Names started popping up all over the place; that is, names like Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, John Milton, and others who were known for their writings in literature and other areas were also people who addressed education.  There was a question that arose regarding not what these people wrote or said, but how were they educated?  Hence, an obscure essay by a woman mainly liked for being a murder mystery novelist suddenly became a cornerstone for a movement.  I am referring, of course, to Dorothy Sayers and her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

Many of us dove into classical Christian education little prepared, little aware, and less equipped for the task that needed.  But as G. K. Chesterton, another favorite in CCE circles, said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”  So, we began doing something worth doing and often doing it badly.  But, hop in the pool and flail your arms long enough and you just might learn to swim.  Then, find a swimming coach and watch amazing things happen.

Twenty plus years after the reawakening, the 95 Theses posted to the door of modern education, and we are still a small movement.  But people keep having babies and going to church.  Some, not enough, see that what is taught in church and in the Bible and what is taught on the other days of the week ought to mesh together.  If one is to trump or undergird the other, it should be the church and Bible, rather than the school and culture.

Here is where So You Want to Start a School is needed.  I strongly advise you not to run before you walk, or to start a school before you know what it is that you are starting.  And the “you” I am using better be the plural, as in “Y’all” (meaning “You all).  A bad Christian school, started because of public school violence or Common Core Curriculum or evolution in textbooks, might be worse than the disease.  This book is 65 pages long.  That is just the right length for you to read 3 times before talking to other concerned people.

You will make mistakes in starting a Christian school.  (Some involve hiring practices; some involve admissions; some involve thinking this can be done without paying teachers; some involve doctrinal confusion; and the list never ends.) So, at least make sure that you have worked through the issues in this book and can head off or minimize the lurking disasters.

On the other hand, there are Christian schools that have been around for a while.  Sometimes, I hear of a Christian school that is “just like our schools use to be.”  Well, if “Happy Days” (the television show) is your model, go for it.  Public school with a chapel, public school with a Bible class, public school where evolution is not taught, and the like may be enough for you.  (And I think we should have a serious talk, if so.)  And above all, if you are motivated by having your kids kept in an environment where only “our kind of people” are present, referring to race, let me make this clear:  You are in sin.  But I digress.

Some Christian schools or people associated with them have seen some of the features in the classical Christian school movement and find it attractive.  First of all, don’t add the word “Classical” to your school or curriculum.  I can call myself General Ben House, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have never spent a day in the military (and have not shot a rifle in years).  Second, don’t think that your school can do what it does, but just add a classical track onto its curriculum.  If it is Latin you want to teach, or logic, or if you want to add a few more classics to the reading list, do so.

Transforming a traditional Christian school into a classical Christian school is more than a few minor adjustments.  Read the book.  Brian got carried away and wrote 79 pages this time.  Plan on it taking a year or so for you/y’all to get acclimated to what you are even talking about.  There is a cost involved.  Compare it, if you will, to transitioning from being a single guy to a married man with four children.  (That process took me 11 years.)

Thanks Brian Daigle for taking up the standard and leading the next generation of classical teachers, boards, and schools.  How about a book called So You Want to be a Classical Teacher?  next?  Or, So You Are Finding Classical Education Difficult?  Short books, with Calvin’s preferred “lucid brevity”:  That is your calling, along with the 94 other things you are doing, for now.


Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant

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You cannot escape the presence of Thomas Aquinas.  He dominates discussions theological and philosophical.  Besides often being heralded as the theologian among Catholics, there are plenty of Protestants who are admirers and students of Thomistic thinking.  Norman Geisler and R. C. Sproul both professed a great love and appreciation for Aquinas.  Will Durant grumbles about it, but lists Aquinas as one of the top ten thinkers of all time.  Peter Kreeft has taught many to swim in the shallow end of the Summa Theologica by writing a book called The Summa of the Summa and then a shorter one titled A Shorter Summa.

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Quite often we learn of Aquinas from the passing references.  In the midst of a chapter on the Middle Ages, or the Church before the Reformation, or in surveys of philosophers and thinkers, Aquinas is neatly summed up in a few sentences or maybe even a paragraph or two.  And quite often the bullet point one line explanation is that Aquinas was a Catholic theologian who took the writings of Aristotle and wove his theology into Aristotle’s Greek philosophy.

So, read Aquinas and you get Christianized Aristotle.  Or you get Aristotelean Christianity.  At any rate, the Christian world was left with a muddle until the Protestant Reformers came along and took us back to the roots.

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Now, I don’t have any quarrel with the Protestant Reformers and certainly rejoice in the truths they quarried from their intense study of the Bible from sources as close to the original as possible.  And I don’t doubt that there are aspects of Aquinas that I would disagree with and/or find as less consistent with the Bible.  But we need to beware of the brief explanation of detailed, voluminous, and weighty theologians that are summed up and dismissed in a few sentences.  The summaries may be right or wrong, but for sure, they get repeated over and over again until they are accepted as the official explanation.

At this point in my career, I don’t expect that I will ever read deeply into Aquinas.  I do need to read some of his writings, and I do need to read some serious studies about his theology and philosophy.  Summa Theologica is regularly counted as one of the great works of theology.  Some of his other books are often mentioned as well in a number of places.

For these reasons, I am glad to see books like Never Doubt Thomas:  The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant by Francis Beckwith appear.  Never Doubt Thomas is published by Baylor University Press.

Dr. Beckwith is eminently qualified to speak on the topic of Thomas Aquinas.  Growing up Catholic, he became an evangelical.  In some cases, some of his Catholic leaders could not answer his questions, and in some cases, he did not follow what they were suggesting.  His interest in Aquinas was peaked when he discovered that  one of his mentors, Norman Geisler, was an admirer of Aquinas.  Geisler was not alone among Protestant theologians who have high regard for Aquinas.  R. C. Sproul considered Aquinas, along with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, to be a favorite theologian.

In this book, Beckwith grapples with several issues where he thinks that Aquinas’ thinking is a needed help for Christians today.  First up is the topic of Natural Law and Natural Theology.  I confess to being a novice here and in many other areas, but I continue to read from theologians, philosophers, and friends who are addressing these matters.  It may seem like a minor matter, but I am convinced that it would not be discussed so often by serious Christians were it peripheral.

The next major issue addressed is “Aquinas as Pluralist: The God of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.”  This was my favorite chapter.  I did, and I think I still do, disagree with Dr. Beckwith and, by extension, Aquinas.  But this chapter was so well written and so helpful that I found myself greatly appreciating it and wondering if I am wrong.  I do think that the question is one that has to be nuanced, expanded, and explained when we discuss it.  And neither Beckwith nor Aquinas is saying that a person is alright being either Jewish, Muslim, or Christian.  That chapter does what good writing and thinking ought to do.  It makes us re-examine our own thoughts and question our own formulations of issues.

Beckwith then addresses some concerns about Intelligent Design.  In short order, issues regarding Creation and how God created and matters relating to evolution and Darwinism are addressed.  Personally, I don’t mind the claims of Creationists.  By don’t mind, I mean that I find the arguments compelling and compatible with my reading of Scripture.  I know that Creationism is a minority view even within evangelical circles.  People advocating Intelligent Design have been useful allies and incredible scholars, in my opinion.  I have never wanted to fight the public school battles over what is and what is not allowed or advanced in science classrooms.  My view is that teaching Creation or Intelligent Design or exposing students to such views are well and good, but unless the Incarnation is proclaimed, public school education is essentially atheistic or agnostic.

Beckwith, again via Aquinas, unearths some problems with Intelligent Design.  His recurring contention is that Aquinas has some ways of addressing the issue that are more helpful in the debate.

The last chapter really surprised me.  Beckwith grappled with and opposed some of the Protestants who love and use Aquinas.  He believes that the late Dr. Geisler and Dr. Sproul both went a bit too far in making Aquinas a proto-Protestant.  Again, I am sitting on the sidelines watching a debate where I know little about the content and what is being contested.

Sometimes, we read books and come away fully convinced or reassured of what we believe.  That experience is a good one, but not quite adequate.  I don’t even know how much I don’t know about Thomas Aquinas.  With my studies in history and literature and my advanced age, I will not likely become even a first grader in the school of Thomistic thought.  But I do hope that some of my students will advance beyond me.  I don’t want to be the one sentence expert; that is, the person who dismisses a great and profound thinker with a one-liner that is itself inaccurate or misleading.

I will end with a quote from Beckwith and then one from Thomas himself.

Beckwith writes:

“No serious Christian–especially one with philosophical dispositions–can read Aquinas without being impressed by not only his intellect and philosophical acumen, but also his encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture, which permeates every page of his monumental Summa Theologica.”

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

“Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct to please you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope for finally embracing you.”  (page 113)

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Never Doubt Thomas

Did America Have a Christian Founding? by Mark David Hall


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For me, the issue was settled back in 1975 when I first started reading about the Calvinistic influence on American history.  There was a history professor at our local community college who was the most scholarly teacher on staff and a thorough-going Calvinist.  A friend told me to take his class because “he teaches the Five Points of Calvinism, and you need to know that for American literature.”  She was right, for American literature is a tug of war between Calvinists (beginning with the Puritans) and those retreating from Calvinism (from Hawthorne to Twain to Crane to Hemingway).

Since 1975, the issue has been raised in a number of ways regarding the question of America’s founding.  Did America have a Christian founding?  By founding, do we mean colonial America or the independent American Republic?  What does it mean that America did or did not have a Christian founding?  And, what difference does it make now?

I am guessing that I have read or heard over 100 full length books, essays, and lectures on the topic of Christianity and America.  I even gave a few of those lectures and have written on it myself in my book.  So,  Mark David Hall’s newest book Did America Have a Christian Founding?, published by Nelson Books, is a welcome guest to the discussion.  But Dr. Hall is not a late arrival to the party.  He has written and contributed to more than a dozen books on the relationship between religion and politics.  These studies include a thorough study of Roger Sherman, who is often overlooked among the Founders and yet was a solid believer.  This book, therefore, is not an author’s exploration of new ground, but rather the scholarly contribution of one who has combed the sources repeatedly.

I will not at this time attempt a chapter by chapter survey of the book, but will instead focus just a bit on the opening chapter.  The issue is Deism.  I once heard someone say, “Whether history repeats itself is not clear, but historians repeat each other.”  Both specialized books and monographs and history textbooks assure us that by the time of the American War for Independence and the writing of the Constitution, Deism had supplanted Christianity as the prevailing religious and philosophical worldview.  And, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and a few other key figures were all basically card-carrying Deists.

This whole contention is problematic.  (I have long waited to use that stuffy word “problematic.”)  There was not a denomination or church group that adhered to the title Deist, but that is not the real issue.  The language attributed to Deism and that attributed to Christianity is identical at points.  I might say, “It is going to rain today.” One might interpret that to mean that I believe that the falling of rain is not the direct intervention and providential control of weather by God, but is the acting of laws of nature that God created, but doesn’t direct minutely.  Should I say, “God is going to send rain today”?  Nothing wrong with that.  As James 4:15 points out, we ought to couch all of our language in terms that indicate God’s present, active control.

I don’t think James is giving us a directive so that we have to be this mechanical.  But there should be an underlying presupposition, a worldview, a philosophy of life, that indicates and reinforces our conviction of God’s presence.  Yet, the Founders were not writing about an “it” or a force or laws of nature.  They used terms like Providence, Governor of the Universe, Architect of the world, and so on.  This language was no more denying orthodox Christianity than my saying “Jesus is Lord” denies the Trinity.

A few people of the time did prescribe to Deism.  These included such men as Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine.  Allen, best known now for his name being attached to furniture, played a minimal role (heroic though it was) in the war.  Paine was a brilliant, quirky wordsmith with erratic tendencies.  The “best known” Deists, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were either the two worst Deistic hypocrites of all time or were personally inconsistent in their practice.  R. J. Rushdoony demolished the myth of Franklin’s and Jefferson’s Deism for me when I read the first of This Independent Republic decades ago.

Dr. Hall begins each chapter with a list of quotations from prominent historians and sources that go against his theses.  He provides more quotes and references in the ample endnotes to the book.  Then, he begins systematically answering and refuting the claims.  There are no strawmen here.  The best and most reputable scholars only are allowed in the ring in these matches.

I highly recommend this book.  If you are a history teacher or student, get it immediately.  If you are a pastor, get it quickly.  If you are a patriot, get it soon.  If you cannot buy it right now, ask your personal Santa Claus for the book.  Don’t end 2019 without this work in your hands and on your shelf.