New Year Morning Reads–2020

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I recommend my method of reading for only one person:  Me.  It might work for you, but most likely, everyone will find their better times, places, and selections that suit their style and needs.  But for me and for the present, this is how I am doing my morning reading time.  I am also using this as a way of promoting some of the all-too-many review books that I need to read, review, promote, and share.

One of my resolves for 2020 is to read and use more Bible commentaries.  Since I left the pulpit, I have largely ignored commentaries on the books of the Bible. Even when I was preaching, I was often hastening through a commentary more in search of a quick fix to my pulpit inadequacies than in growing in Bible understanding.  Amos, Jonah, & Micah is by JoAnna M. Hoyt and is published by Lexham Press.

This is a massive book and is a part of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) series edited by Wayne House.  Twelve volumes are currently available in this series.

I am studying the last part of this commentary–the Book of Micah.  I determined to read it from beginning to end and that meant plowing through the technical and background information.  Did I enjoy that part?  Not much, but I agree with what Matthew Kim said in his book titled A Little Book for New Preachers (IVP).  He says that the preacher must immerse himself in the background and setting of the book.

I am now going slowly through the commentary portion of Micah, chapter 1.  Small bits of study each day so far.  It will take a while, but I am determined.

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Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity by Herman Bavinck and edited by John Bolt is published by Baker Publishing Group.

I was so excited when this volume finally came out.  I was even more excited when my copy arrived.  And then…it sat on the shelf, it got covered up by other books, it enjoyed only a passing glance or two.  In my feeble defense, I did plug away at the background information, usually on Sunday mornings.

A second resolve I have this year is to read the longer and weightier books that often get started, but never finished.  I like the thought of getting a 5 books read instead of 1.  For that, I must repent and change.

Now that I am into this book, I am truly enjoying it.

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg is published by Regnery.

This is the kind of book I love.  It is a survey of history, philosophy, and theology that all tends toward an apologetic defense of the Christian worldview I embrace, teach, and read about.

The gist of this book is a refutation of a long-standing trope that reason contradicts faith.  Along with that is the notion that faith is a heart and emotion based feeling while reason is spawned by the mind.  Of course, Christianity gets jabbed in the process.

Building upon the work of men in the past like Christopher Dawson and Herman Dooyeweerd, echoing works like Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and R. J. Rushdoony’s The One and the Many, this book reclaims Western Civilization and its accomplishments.  The thought patterns of the West built upon Greek and Roman heritage in part, but even those civilizations had to be filtered through the lenses of Christendom.

Today, I was reading the portions of the book about Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.  Like any short treatment, more can be said, but we have to be grounded in the grammar of the subjects before we can delve more deeply.

America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U. S. Conflicts is edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles.  It is published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Here is another case of combined loves.  This book deals with American history, particularly the wars that have been waged, and it is written from a Christian perspective that examines the Just War Theory.

I recently discovered Mark Hall’s scholarship and writing as a result of reading Did America Have a Christian Founding?  Determined to read more of his writings, I discovered this book.

I am still in the introductory essay which Hall and Charles wrote.  This is good, but slow going.  More details later.

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans by Robert Elmer is also published by Lexham Press.

I reviewed this book a few days ago.  I try to read only a page or two of it with the hope of making the Puritan prayers my own.

The Hanging God: Poems and The Fortunes of Poetry in the Age of Our Unmaking are both by James Matthew Wilson, one of America’s premier contemporary poets.  The Hanging God is published by Wiseblood Books, and The Fortunes of Poetry is published by Angelico Press.

I am reading these two works for a number of reasons beyond just my responsibilities as a book reviewer.  I am using these two works as therapy so that I can recover from the often disastrous graduate course I took in the fall on poetry and literary criticism.  Let us just say that the study of literature is in danger in the modern secular universities, assuming that my experience was common and not unique.

The Fortunes of Poetry is tough reading at many points, so I suspect that I will need to re-read portions or get instruction from someone named Wilson on how to assimilate the information.

Note to blog readers:  Please don’t speculate that I am neglecting the foundational parts of morning reading:  The Bible and strong coffee.  The Book of Common Prayer is also being kept close at hand so that this Presbyterian who is a member of a Baptist church will be a better Anglican. (Thank you Zachary Jones.)

Also, thanks to my sister-in-law Toni Lemley who gave me the coffee cup with the old pickup truck on it.  I am not going to stop using it just because Christmas is nearly over. I also got a wonderful picture of old pickup trucks from my other sister-in-law Marla Robert.

 

Swimming In The Deep Waters of Theology

 

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One of the marks of a good book, in my experience, is the sense that while you are reading it, you know that you will need to read it again.  I am not talking about a book being unnecessarily obscure or difficult.  I am talking about a book having layers, having implications, having a depth that demands more than just the passing of the eyes over the pages.

On the one hand, swimming in deep water involves the same processes that are used in swimming in shallow water.  But the swimmer needs more resources, such as the ability to persevere, to tread water for a time, to come back up if the depth is too much to allow standing, and to not lose heart.  But remember that I am actually talking about reading, about which I have much experience, and not swimming, about which I have only desires and not abilities.

Krause Springs

I would like to highlight some recent readings that have depth.  Along with the books mentioned, I have an anxious stack of deep water reads that are calling out to me to dive in, regardless of the consequences.

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans, edited by Robert Elmer, is published by Lexham Press. This rather recent publisher is working hard to become one of my all time favorites with their publications of works by Abraham Kuyper, Geerhardus Vos, and Groen Van Prinsterer.  But along with the venerable Dutchmen, Lexham Press is putting out a number of other outstanding and attractive books.

This book is of superb gifting quality.  It is a beautiful hardback book that would adorn any coffee table, shelf, reading table, or ungainly stack of books (as is the case with most of my own books).  I apologize for not giving heads up about this book before Christmas.  If you have enjoyed such blessing-filled prayer and meditation works as Valley of Vision, published by Banner of Truth, or Every Moment Holy, published by the Rabbit Reading Room,you will love this book as well. The title itself comes from a Puritan who said, “That prayer is most likely to pierce heaven which first pierces one’s own heart.”

I include this book with the deep water theologies for one reason:  It is a slow, very slow, methodical book to get through.  This is not due to technical terms, theological allusions and references, or convoluted prose.  I had to read the first prayer several times and for several days. This material is rich, while my prayer life and thoughts are poor.  I know that I could, as a book reviewer, kick it into high gear and knock this book out quickly.  And there are good reasons to survey the book as a whole; however, the book cries out, page after page, for me to slow down, think, apply, re-read, and attempt to make these Puritan prayers my own.

And, if you are new to understanding the Puritans, God has a great gift in store for you.  And this gift is not one that you will use up even over a long lifetime.

The Feasts of Repentance

The Feasts of Repentance: From Luke-Acts to Systematic and Pastoral Theology by Michael J. Ovey is published by InterVarsity Press.

After I received this review book, I questioned my judgment in asking for it.  I shied away for a short while, thinking that unlike so many delightful reads from IVP, this would not be a book of interest.  But one day, I devoted a few minutes to glancing at it.  What caught my attention, first and foremost, was a description of the man that I shared with friends.  This quote noted that Dr. Ovey, who had recently passed away, was ” a biblical and systematic theologian with a deep pastoral concern ” from Australia.  He was still working on this book when he died. “The word most often used of him after his death was ‘kind. ‘”

I was deeply touched by that and desired that whatever I might attain as to understanding and knowledge would be trumped by a reputation for being kind as well.  The description of Dr. Ovey, given in the preface by a friend and colleague, led me to slowly dive into the book.

The first few chapters of the book are exegetical and text related looks at the theme of repentance in Luke and Acts.  One of the riches of the Gospels and of the Bible in general is that a teacher or pastor can call attention to a particular theme and lead us back through the familiar texts with a new and greater appreciation.  Of course, I knew that Luke and Acts both say something about repentance, but this study brought the content of that home in a much richer, way.

Subsequent chapters delve more deeply into repentance as a theological, Biblical, and pastoral topic.  As stated above, this is stuff well worth reading a second or third time.  This book would most likely appeal to theology students and serious pastors (and I hope that is the only kind) who are never satisfied with what they know about the different aspects of salvation.

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Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ by Matthew W. Bates is published by Baker Publishing Group.

I arrived at this party late, which is no surprise for those who know me.  This book is a follow-up to Bates’s previous book Salvation by Allegiance Alone, which is also published by Baker.  Early on, he notes areas where the more recent book clarifies or adds to the other book, but I was not able to engage in that part of the discussion.  (That also happens when you arrive late to a party.)

This book presents some rather strong cases for rethinking and restating some familiar truths and beliefs.  This book locks horns, gently but aggressively with some of my theological mentors such as John Piper and the late R. C. Sproul.  This book calls for some unconventional, but according to Bates, Biblical ways of understanding salvation. And this book provides the strongest bridge I have encountered for Christians of all orthodox heritages to recognize one another as believers, and by this I mean that Bates’s definition and explanation of being Christian brings Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, Reformed folks and Arminian/Wesleyans into the same big tent.  By the way, he does this without glossing over what he views as errors among some of the groups.

The main contention of this book is that the Greek word pistis, which we commonly translate as faith, is better translated as allegiance.  Okay, so what?, you might ask.  The point is that faith is often defined, documented, and defended as a personal response to Jesus that gives us a ticket to heaven when we die.  In contrast, allegiance is kingly, more comprehensive, more communal and corporate, and more focused on both the here and now as well as a future eternal state.

We don’t just “accept Jesus” (I am cringing while writing that) and then go on about our way.  Of course, those who have long emphasized Lordship in the controversies related to that term or who emphasize a Christian world and life view have already frequently pressed the point that salvation is not just eternal fire insurance.

Christ is King, and this is the proclamation that should be made in our preaching, teaching, and lives.  Just as when the Allies liberated Nazi-held territories, they were proclaiming that the land areas and people were now under American, British, or French rule, so we proclaim Jesus as the one to whom we owe allegiance.  We recognize in this that our allegiance, like our faith, works, and intentions, are weak, often faltering, often failing completely, but we still acknowledge Christ as King.

Everyone, except for me of course, muddles the definitions and explanations of salvation.  Catholics are a particular target among us Protestant folk.  Although Dr, Bates attained his Ph.D. from Notre Dame and teaches in a Catholic institution, he delivers some pretty hefty gut punches to the Catholic scheme of salvation.  Yet, I find his overall approach quite appealing since I know Catholics who affirm everything that I say in the Apostles’ Creed and who do not say that their hope is based on doing enough good stuff or lighting enough candles.

I have had to give some careful thought to what Bates says about election.  His focus is on God’s  predestination of the Church, the body of Christ–local and universal–rather than on individual believers.  Ephesians 1, a favorite passage among us Calvinists, is the passage under discussion in the book.  Even a longtime Calvinist like me has to consider ways that Ephesians 1 speaks corporately and not of individuals.  I do admit that we all read too much of the Bible as though it was God’s Word specifically to me, myself, and I rather than to God’s people in time and history.  My experience in reading this book was not one of complete agreement with every point.  I had lots of “Amens,” but quite a few times when I had to file away what is said so that I can think about it, preferably in the light of Bible reading.  That is, in my opinion, the mark of a good book.

Plenty of reasons can be added to what I have said above for reading and discussing this book.  I have been tossed and turned by a number of theological controversies pitting this group or faction against that group or faction.  The gunfire has usually been intense, has often included lots of helpful insights, and yet has usually resulted in Christians plunging swords into the bellies of each other while letting the stinking world go to Hell.

But surely we can read, disagree, think, modify, and expand our understanding of salvation.  I am not a theologian, so I cannot let go of the rope swing (see pictures above) and plunge into these waters.  But I can be blessed by those tidbits of wisdom I latch onto as a result of serious reading or an idle thought that comes from this book.

Read it and let me know what you think.  My thanks to a young, serious theology student, Timothy J. Martin, for calling my attention to this work.

Alas, there are more deep waters awaiting me on my “to be read and reviewed” shelf:

Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History by Darrell L. Bock and J. Ed Komoszewski

The Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy by James R. Payton, Jr.

Divine ImpassibilityFour Views on God’s Emotions and Suffering edited by Robert J. Matz and A. Chadwick Thornhill

Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency by Stephen Knott

The past two years have been enjoyable times for reading political history.  Watching the news and keeping up with current events is another story.  I have enjoyed reading the following political books during this past two years:

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman.  William Murray was a major political figure in Oklahoma history during the Twentieth Century, and for a time, he made it to the larger stage of American politics.  He vied for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1932, but was beaten by a man named Roosevelt.

A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt.  I really enjoyed this study of FDR’s religious faith.  He was a complicated figure, and FDR was impacted by God even though we might all find areas of glaring inconsistencies.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Ms. Goodwin is a well known and popular biographer of political leaders.  In this study, she parallels the lives and crisis of four Presidents:  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Fascinating and fun history, these men, like them or not, all had amazing stories leading up to and including their times in the White House

1917 Wilson, Lenin, and the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman.  This was a great book, but a disturbing one.  It left me disliking Woodrow Wilson more than ever.  I already disliked Lenin, but this just added fuel to that fire.

The True Flag:  Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire is by Stephen Kinzer.  This account of a literary figure and a political leader was quite good.  I love both men, but try to keep them at a distance.  The story here is not one that is flattering to Roosevelt.

Hamilton: An American Biography by Tony Williams.  Two things I remember about this book:  First, it is a good, brief survey and defense of Alexander Hamilton, the most controversial of our Founding Fathers.  Second, it was the beginning of a social media (Facebook) friendship with the author Tony Williams.  I now have all of his books.

In Defense of Andrew Jackson by Bradley Birzer.  Andrew Jackson has fallen on hard times in American society.  His presence on the $20 bill is soon to disappear, and he is routinely trounced by many.  But this book gives strong reasons why we should not be so quick to dismiss the man.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft by Lewis Lehrman.  This book is a interesting look at the personalities, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses of the two men responsible for leading the Allies during World War II:  Franklin Rooselvelt and Winston Churchill.  But it also describes those men, whose names are in every account of the two leaders, who worked alongside FDR and Churchill.

I wrote reviews on this blog for most of the books mentioned above.  Please search for those reviews if you want to know more.

My most recent read on Presidents and politics is also the best book I have read during the past two years on these matters.

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The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal by Stephen F. Knott is published by the University of Kansas Press.

This book surveys a number of Presidents from the past to the present.  This is not, however, a mere survey of Presidential lives or biographical sketches.  Dr. Knott strongly contends that the model was established by President Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.  A restrained and yet vigorous executive was conceived by Hamilton, and explained largely through his contributions to The Federalist Papers, and was executed through Hamilton’s mentor and boss, President Washington.

In contrast to Washington and Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson pushed and prodded more toward a majoritarian style of leadership.  This entailed pandering to as well as discerning what the majority of the people wanted.  In part, this seems like part and parcel of what I tend to like about the early era of American politics. Wars rage between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians.  These battles enlist historians, political theorists, political scientists, and the American public.  Many people may not realize how often they are reciting a Hamilton mantra or a Jefferson mantra.  The main thrust of our time is toward Knott’s view of Jefferson’s vision.

The main concerns that Knott has is toward a style of leadership begun by Jefferson and then extended in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson and from there expanded even more by Twentieth Century Presidents Wilson, both Roosevelts, and finally President Trump.  In part, it is based on using the Presidency as a means of dealing with personal vendettas. Knott gives praise to some Presidents who normally get less acclaim on the grounds that they were more careful to stick to the most basic duties, the Constitution, and not public opinion.  Some of his choices here include John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and Gerald Ford.

Part of the fun of this book is cheering and booing as Knott works his way through different styles of leadership.  His praise of Lincoln, while careful, was not satisfactory to me.  And I was really furious at his dealing with Andrew Johnson, but he marshalled enough evidence to make me cry “Uncle” at several points.  I will still credit Johnson with being on the right side of the battle against the Radical Republicans in Congress at the time with acknowledging that Johnson was not ever bit the racist Knott says he was.

The last part of the book focuses on more recent Presidents.  Patterns and expectations devolve upon the holders of that office.  More often than not, those patterns and expectations are derived from the examples of more popularity-based and programs-based Presidents.  All recent Presidents get a score card from their first 100 Days in office.  This goes back to when Franklin Roosevelt took office and he signed a flurry of legislative bills into law.  The time context–deep into the Great Depression–gave momentum to this activity.  But Presidents still get measured in comparison to that standard.

All Presidents have had enemies, and while the Nixon White House was condemned for its “enemies list,” such lists exist in every administration.  Some Presidents, those that Knott is most critical of, went after their personal enemies as well as those who opposed their programs.  President Jefferson famously and nobly said in his inaugural address, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.”  (Remember that Republicans of that time is the party that became the Democrat party in later years.) Shortly after taking office, however, Jefferson privately conveyed his wish to destroy the Federalist Party.  Andrew Jackson was the most vindictive man to hold office.  He entered office convinced that John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay had wickedly delayed him four years in getting there.  In time, he became a bitter foe to John Calhoun and every person in Washington who snubbed Peggy Eaton.  Deep in his psyche, he was loathsome toward the British and the Bank of the United States.

In spite of his spite, Jackson did quite a bit of good, in my opinion, not Knott’s.  I confess to having sympathy with some of Jackson’s rage, having agreement with some of his policies, and having some of the same suspicions as he had.  I also confess to having some sympathy and support for the current President, Donald Trump.  But Knott’s concerns about President Trump’s style, language, work pattern, lack of knowledge of the job, and unpredictability really uncovered some of the same, but not articulated concerns I have.

I know that when the President is criticized in conservative and Republican circles, people respond with “But Hillary.”  Mrs. Clinton was not the only alternative people had in 2016, and I am not talking about the near comic line-up of third party candidates.  The actions that forced us to choose between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were made in the cold snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and the myriad of primaries and caucuses along the way.  On that November election day in 2016, we were faced with two candidates who were prone to measure political actions by standards other than the Constitution, who were prone to vindictiveness toward enemies, who were quick to use harsh language describing those who disagreed, and who were bound to govern by appealing to their political bases far more than any moral compass.

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a history study.  But it is not just a collection of facts or interpretations over the past.  It is a call for some rethinking and debating about what we will do with this office in the future.  Is the soul of the Presidency lost?  Certainly, no one is going to win an election by promising to do less and less and to simply try to carry out the Constitutional mandates rather than election mandates.

The first step will be for us to read this book and others like it.  Agree with Stephen Knott’s assessments or disagree or both.  Political thought, which almost never occurs in the daily news accounts and discussions, will take us down the road to restoring civility and sanity to the process.  Books like this one give me some hope that all is not lost.

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.

 

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.

 

October Book Ends

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October is such a beautiful month, but it was not the most successful month of reading and reviewing books for me.  With a combination of books that I am bound to review, readings for my college class, readings for the classes I teach, and readings that are just things I want to read, the overall results fell short.  But I will post a few details of some of the books that some of you might like.

Joseph Minich first showed up on my reading radar a year or so ago.  He is part of a coterie of mostly young, all brilliant, and terribly serious theology and philosophy scholars who make up the Davenant Institute.  They pour out a book or two or three a month, either indidually or as group efforts.  I have read and reviewed several of them, and I have a stack of others that I need to work through.

For a good while, I shied away from this book Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism.  I am more prone to run into someone who is a fan of Lyndon Johnson than I am to run into an atheist.  The intellectual arguments and the apologetics responses are of mild interest.  I slightly envy those who battled in their own hearts and minds over whether or not God exists and then found themselves “dragged kicking and screaming” (in C. S. Lewis fashion) into theism and from there to Christianity.

Even before my sister pointed to house after house and told me that God was there, I believed in God.  I was 5 or younger when that event occurred.  I reckon that I am not a very deep, critical, or philosophical thinker.  I just don’t doubt God.  So, the challenge of atheism is not a primary issue.  But then along comes Joseph Minich.  He and I had been “friends” on Facebook for a good while.  He was, to me, one of those Davenant smarties who was working on a dissertation on something, somewhere.

He never “liked” or commented on any of my Facebook posts, and I rarely acknowledged his.  Then one day, I caught him in a grammar error.  It was the old “him and I–objective pronouns” problem.  I messaged him, rebuked him thoroughly, and pronounced that there was little hope for him unless he changed.  He repented of his grammar sins, and we became, in my opinion, fast friends.  Now, I count him among my favorite chums.

But what about the book?  This book is a short read, but it is not a breezy read.  Among other favorable attributes, Minich references a number of serious Christian scholars who deal with topics relatings to atheism, belief, secularism, the buffered self, and more.  Along with that, he also references other authors and books, such as John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies.  And in what is the ultimate test in our day and time, Minich quotes and references Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the books of James K. A. Smith amply.

Bottom line:  Belief is reasonable.  The challenge of modern atheism is more than matched by the response of modern belief.  The generation of Plantinga and Wolterstorff is passing away, and a new age of Christian thinkers is emerging.

Further note:  This is a book of a short enough length to get through quickly, but it does call for slowing down and re-reading.  Also, it is very affordably priced.

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The River of Immaculate Conception is published by Wiseblood Books.

As a collection of poetry,  The River of the Immaculate Conception by James Matthew Wilson, has one major flaw.  The book is really short.  The poems, however, are rich.  Reading modern poetry is a challenge because of the abandonment of the traditional forms along with the abandonment of the foundational truths that underlay poetry and poets of the past.

James Matthew Wilson goes against the tide.  These poems have historical and theological connections, and they are rooted in Wilson’s faith and vision.  “The Agnus Dei of Jacques Marquette” is a lengthy and beautiful work about the French Catholic explorer.  Usually, Marquette is paired with Louis Joliet, and together they explored and mapped much of the Mississippi River.  On the national level, the French were looking for the Northwest Passage as well as lands to claim and colonize.  In the broader providence of God, Marquette was bringing the Christian faith to the Native Americans.

Narrative and heroic poems have tended to be a thing of the past.  If an historical figure is the subject of a poem, he or she is an object of irony with subtle undertones dismissing their accomplishments.  Maybe the old type of Longfellow poetry hailing a Paul Revere does not need reviving, but then, maybe it does. I opt for the latter.

As is the case with many short collections of poems, one can read through these seven poems in one sitting and mark the book as read.  But in reality, these poems call for re-reading, ponderous reading, slow, aloud reading, and faith-filled reading.

Key quote to remember:  “Let crosses be upraised and idols downward hurled/  That all shall see his peace restored into the world.”

If you haven’t already discovered the poetry and essays of James Matthew Wilson, there is still time to be on the ground floors of his rise to literary fame.

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One of my recent night-time readings was Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It is at night, from a dangerously high stack of bedside reads, that I usually read histories and biographies.  I have acquired several of Goodwin’s biographical and historical books over the past several years.  She is a very popular and successful historian, although one who is also very conventional according to the tastes of our times.

In this book, she deals with four of our past Presidents and shows how they led the country during difficult times.  The subjects were Abraham Lincoln during the War Between the States and particularly the events related to the Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt upon his sudden ascension to the Presidency and his handling of the coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt and the First Hundred Days, and Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act.

The book consisted of three parts, each of which devoted a chapter to the four Presidents.  The first part was their childhoods, which were radically different due to Lincoln’s and Johnson’s humble and poor beginnings contrasted with the two Roosevelts who were born to wealth and prominence.  The second set of chapters dealt with early setbacks for the leaders.  The most fascinating account here was that of FDR’s battle with polio which crippled him and could have ended his political career.

The last section of the book dealt with how each leader handled a major crisis or two after they became Presidents.

I am certain that many would rush in to tell me a few or a lot of things wrong with each of these men.  I think I started studying them a good while ago, so I am not unaware of their faults or bad views or bad actions.  I wanted to see how they exercised leadership.  The book was helpful here.

A personally troubling thing about this book was my realization that none of these four men lived past age 64.  As I approach that age, I am increasingly aware of how little I have accomplished.

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Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Discerning the Times by Os Guinness is published by IVP.  

Carpe Diem begins with 14 pages of great quotes from all manner of past and recent thinkers from a wide variety of countries and cultures.  This is a book about time.  The concept of time itself is a philosophical and theological idea.  And then there is our use of it and our limited amount of it.

Os Guinness has written a number of books.  His best books include Dust of Death, The Call, and Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.  If I stumble across a book by him, I buy it and read it.

His writing is full of good references and stories.  In this book, a few of those stories are from his own dangerous background in China during World War II.  He is not overly theological or not exegetical at all in dealing with topics, but he is always unmistakably Christian.

This is a fine read for both devotional studies and serious thought.

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