Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction

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Here is the truth of the matter:  We are all new Christians.  It doesn’t matter if you were converted last Sunday or fifty plus years ago.  We are all arriving at the party (okay, let’s say fellowship meal) long after it began.  This means that we are going to be constantly surrounded by a discussion where we are lost as to the issues.  We miss the inside jokes.  We don’t understand the words and concepts being used.  We don’t know who the others are talking about.

Christianity has been running strong for over 2000 years.  (We could extend that time even longer and include the Old Testament saints.)  The most basic and important means of catching up is reading the Bible. But no one does or can read the Bible without help.  During all the years the Christian faith has been spreading, there have been teachers and preachers whose gifts and ministries from God has been helping people understand, see, and apply the Word of God to all areas of life.  As in any field, there are good and great examples.  Some people have been so dominant in the field of Bible study and theology that their names and influence continue to this day.

I know there are plenty of people who are simple folk and who are busy with jobs and families or maybe hindered from pursuing the Bible and theology in depth.  I am not judging nor condemning them.  But people who can read, people who master computers, video games, sports trivia, and other mind-centered fields of interest can also get grounded in the Bible and theology.  This is not being said in order to just fill in some intellectual niche in the life of educated people.  Instead, this is a great need in the Church.  It is a great need in the local church you are attending.

Most of us are part of churches or church traditions that are small creeks.  In so many ways, a creek can be a really fascinating place.  (I lament no longer owning land that had creeks running at both the front and back of the property.)  But if we never explore and find the river that the creek flows into, we are missing something.  And that river itself then leads to a bigger river and on then to the ocean.

 

Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction by Kenneth Richard Samples is an invitation to explore past the pleasant creek and see the flowing rivers and vast ocean of God’s Kingdom through history.  This book is published by Reasons to Believe, a Christian organization devoted to strengthening believers in doctrines, apologetics, and a world-view of Christian thought. Ken Samples is a senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe, along with being an adjunct instructor of apologetics at Biola University.  He has authored several books prior to Classic Christian Thinkers, including Without a Doubt and 7 Truths That Changed the World.

Classic Christian Thinkers covers nine Christian scholars:  Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis.  Of course, part of the fun of this book is raising questions like “Why did you leave out (fill in the blank)?” or “Why is (fill in the blank) included?” I admit to be a glutton for books with a group of theologians, pastors, preachers, or writers we should know.

This book keeps the focus narrow enough so that we can actually get some depth on the scholars in the line-up.  Samples has designed the book as a launching pad.  It is well and fine to read the book and be able to say, “Anselm…Yes, I have heard of him.”  But there is a need to dig deeper and read the nine men in this book.  Samples gives short biographical sketches of the men, followed by a description of key doctrinal positions or insights, distinctive ideas, and contributions to the Christian Church as a whole.  Lots of other details are presented, including a few main writings, a defining quote, a timeline, and resources for further study.

This book is the theological equivalent to the Fodor’s travel books.  In other words, this book is to be followed up with an actual journey after reading.

Sometimes, looking over the vast writings of an author is intimidating.  But many authors can become familiar by reading shorter works or short selections from works.  Augustine’s Confessions, which Samples and I both love, is not too long or too hard to read.  Luther’s Small Catechism, recently translated and published by Paul Rydecki, is short and very readable.  Wading into the wide river is not too hard to do, especially if you take advantage of guides like this book.

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One additional advantage of this book is that it forces us to stop thinking so provincially and so denominationally.  God has moved across a wide spectrum of beliefs and theological traditions across time.  We who are Protestants feel quite comfortable with Luther and Calvin, but they were both nurtured by the Church Fathers, which includes such men as Augustine and Anselm.  Thomas Aquinas may be one of the defining theologians in the Roman Catholic tradition, but many men, like R. C. Sproul, have gleaned richly from his writings.  Blaise Pascal is an interesting case study because he was French and, therefore, almost automatically Catholic, but he is connected to the Jansenists who were very thoroughly Augustinian.  As for C. S. Lewis, he is God’s gift to all believers.

I have often thought in recent years about the decision that John Piper made in his early theological studies to pick and master one theologian.  In terms of where I am, I think I must be content to be a dabbler in many theologians, historians, novelists, poets, and philosophers.  But books like this remind me that there is a need to get the basics and then follow the stream to where it leads to the rivers.

 

Fiction Readings of Late

 

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First, I will begin with a defense for, a plea on behalf of, an apologetic regarding reading fiction.  On second thought, naw, I won’t.  The convinced are already singing in the choir and the unconvinced are trying hard enough to read all the non-fiction, biographies, histories, and theology they possibly can.  Still, I feel a bit of pity for the person who does not enjoy a good novel–often.

Second, I will describe in great detail the various shades, levels, degrees, and genres of fiction.  By that, I mean the literary classics, the newer works that are literary, the form-novels, escape reading, historical fiction, and so on.  On second thought, naw, I won’t do that either.

So, I will describe a few novels I have read of late and sing a bit of praise on their behalf.

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I first took notice of this book after seeing that an old friend from Monroe, Louisiana, Robert McBroom, was reading the book.  Like me, Robert is a southerner through and through, an Agrarian, and a Calvinist.  So, when I found a like-new copy of this book at a thrift store, I snatched it up and then piled it up with dozens of other books.  Then it occurred to me one day that I should read it.

Kristen Hannah is not a new author by any means, but she is new to me.  This is a great, though very sad–at points, story.  Set in Alaska in the early 1970’s and 80’s, it deals with a family undergoing a series of hardships.  Some of the hardships are environmental (surviving in Alaska), some are historical (PTSD from Vietnam experiences), some are social, some economic, and, even though Hannah may have not intended this, some or all are theological.

The key messages from this book:  The importance of community and of forgiveness. The harsh world of Alaska demanded community, and that can be seen as a metaphor for our lives here.  The people who bond together are an unlikely group, but each has his or her own gifts and strengths that contribute to survival.  Forgiveness is the overwhelming theme of the book.  In our world, forgiveness doesn’t always happen when and to the degree it needs to, and some of those who need forgiveness the most are never brought to the point where they see that need.

I don’t want to imply that fiction is read so that lessons or theological truths can be derived from stories.  But glimpses into life reveals lessons and theological truths.  And stories often convey those messages powerfully.

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Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy and Becky Hepinstall proved to be a very fine novel.  Set in the Civil War, two sisters go into the Confederate Army posing as men.  It actually did happen quite often in that and other wars.  This story is filled with pain, suffering, love, and attempts to make sense of life in a fallen world and in the midst of a brutal war.

Concerning the authors, Kathy Hepinstall is a novelist with several successful works to her credit.  Becky Hepinstall is a college history major whose contribution to this book was the historical details.  Amazing teamwork from these two Texas women.

I don’t purposely seek to read either historical fiction or Civil War novels, but I have ended up reading quite a few through the years.   My favorites are The Unvanquished by William Faulkner and None Shall Look Back by Caroline Gordon.  Of course, such books as Gone With the Wind cannot be ignored, and over the years, I have enjoyed teaching Killer Angels to many classes.

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Somewhere this past year, I was reading an article that recommended two Christian authors–Marilynne Robinson and Amor Towles.  I read and loved Gilead, Home, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson a few years back, and I have bought her essay collections.  I hope she wins a Nobel Prize for Literature soon.  Amor Towles was a totally new name for me.  I am still not certain why he was recommended as a “Christian” author.

This summer while making an mostly unsuccessful hunt in a used bookstore in Denison, Texas, I came across one of Amor Towles’ two novels–Rules of Civility. Diving in, I found the time, the setting, the characters, and the topic of the book uninviting. In other words, Towles is not a southern author.  His book is told from the viewpoint of a woman named Katey Kontent who is living in New York City in the 1930s.  The uninteresting book kept drawing me deeper and deeper into the story.  At some point, I realized that I was in the grip of a very skilled writer and a novelist with lots of promise.

I don’t have Towles’ second novel, A Gentleman from Moscow, but I am sold on his writings.

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C. J. Box is top shelf.  I have now read nearly all of his Joe Pickett novels–out of order.  I have nearly all of his novels in nice hardback editions, and one autographed copy of Winterkill (replacing my trade paper copy). Box writes murder mysteries and good ones.  His central character is Joe Pickett, who is a game warden, husband and father to three girls, and a often stumbling man who persists in finding the ugly truths others cannot see.  He also has an amazing friend named Nate Romanowski, who I want for a personal friend. The stories are set in Wyoming and in modern times, but the books have a powerful western feel.  In fact, Box and Pickett may actually overuse the term “Get western” when speaking about events that are about to involve a shootout or the like.

Is Box writing “literature”?  Probably not, but he writes good stories with a powerful human dimension.  As a character, Joe Pickett is a lot like Sheriff Walt Longmire over in neighboring Montana.  I wish those two guys–Pickett and Longmire–could team up at least once.  (How about that Mr. Box and Mr. Craig Johnston–if you are reading this blog?)

I started the Pickett novels somewhere in the middle and based reading on whichever books I had.  As is often the case with series, the earlier books are harder to find in hardback editions (unless one is willing to shell out some big bucks). Having now read all of the earlier books, I can soon get to his latest in the series–The Disappeared.

Again, love this author’s books, love Joe Pickett and his family.  And Box is a Presbyterian and the Pickett family are believers (although Joe sometimes cusses right smart.)

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Another writer that I have been working on getting to know is Alan Furst.  He is often proclaimed to be one of the best espionage writers.  Part of the attraction is that his books mostly set in the 1930s and then in the World War II era.  This sometimes means an unhappy ending as in the case of The Spies of Warsaw.  Despite the best efforts of French military intelligence officer Jean Francois Mercier, neither Poland nor France will be able to circumvent the history that actually happened during the years leading up to the attacks that began World War II.

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Perhaps this is enough for now.  I am looking forward to some future reads including The Resistance by Douglas Bond. I previously read Bond’s book War in the Wasteland, which is about World War I, and reviewed it on this blog.  I am watching the mailbox for The Resistance to arrive.  I also will be starting The Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer.  Both Bond and Dwyer are Facebook friends and brothers in Christ.  The Resistance and The Short Grass are set in World War II.  I am hoping that Lief Enger’s latest novel Virgil Wander is under the Christmas tree.

Also, I expect to be reading some Russian guys named Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn for school.

2-Book bundle-THE RESISTANCE & companion volume WAR IN THE WASTELAND

These two volumes are available from Douglas Bond’s website (www.Bondbooks.net) for $25.

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I have got to get this one read before the sequel comes out.

Reflect by Thaddeus J. Williams

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Reflect: Becoming Yourself By Mirroring the Greatest Person in History by Thaddeus J. Williams is published by Weaver Book Company.

First, let’s deal with my anger issues.  I did not know this book existed, nor did I know that Thaddeus Williams existed until a month or two ago. Here I am, slogging my way through this world, slipping and falling, sliding and failing, distracted by one worldly pursuit after another, wallowing in near illiteracy, and all the while, this book was out there.  I have already rebuked two friends, Andrew Sandlin and Brian Mattson, for writing glowing blurbs for this book, but not informing me of how good it is.

Related to all this, if Thaddeus Williams was really concerned with us mirroring Jesus, he should have personally flown across the country and hand delivered this book to me.  The fact that he did (or does) not know me is irrelevant.  This is a book I needed.  If it could be put in liquid form, I would have an IV attached to my arm and have the book fed to me that way.

Second, this book threw off my morning reading rituals.  I usually read only about ten pages a day in several different morning reads.  In this case, I would find myself reading and reading and reading until I was too full.  I was gulping this book down in whole chapters at a time.

Third, the cover art itself is worth the price of the book, especially for those of us who are always wanting to know who’s who in the world of Christian thinking and living.  By the way, inside the book is a numbered list identifying the 48 distinguished contributors to the book.  (Almost that many key Christian leaders wrote favorable blubs for the book.)

Where else will you see Bonhoeffer and Johnny Cash side by side?  Or Lecrae the rapper in between Augustine and G. K. Chesterton?  Or Charles Darwin looking rather uncomfortable because he is next to Jonathan Edwards?  This isn’t just clever cover art.  Each of the theologians, Christian authors, musicians, and cultural figures are quoted in the book with their own words being used to buttress arguments about following the life, teachings, and work of Jesus Christ.

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Some, but not all of the supporting cast in this book about Jesus Christ.

The title Reflect is itself full of meaning.  I must admit that as a book reviewer (my idea of a sports activity), I am always pressed to read and finish rather than read and reflect.  But we all have our urgent tyrannies.  Sometimes the words, “Nice sermon, pastor” (or I prefer to say, “Better luck next time”) is all of our response or reflection on a Sunday sermon.  After all, the sermon is over at noon or slightly past that and the call of the stomach for food is all consuming.  We all live too fast and furiously too much of the time and don’t take time to reflect on the Christian life.

This book is not a remaking of the Charles Sheldon’s somewhat drippy book In His Steps which was premised on the statement of “What Would Jesus Do?”  There is something to be said about the recurring WWJD idea or, now what we would call a meme.  But WWJD has to be approached with discernment.  Don’t come after me with a whip and turn over my book table where I am offering copies of this book in the church foyer.

Thinking about Jesus brings us to the R in the word Reflect and to the first point of the book.  Reason: Mirroring the Profound Thinking of Jesus.  I probably have a hundred books related to Christian thinking.  From Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind to Herman Dooyeweerd A New Critique of Theoretical Thought to Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine to John Piper’s Think, I have been accumulating, reading, and using books showing how Christians ought to think.  After all, I am in the thinking business since I am a teacher.

What makes Williams’ chapter interesting (besides the fact that it is really interesting) is that his book doesn’t approach Christian thought and reasoning as an add on, or later chapter, in the process of following Christ.  He begins with this and then shows example after example of how Jesus won debates by using two successful keys:  Being right and using right reasoning.  After all, He could have turned his opposition into toads. (See the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? regarding the dangers here.)

The E in Reflect represent Emote:  Mirroring the Just Sentiments of Jesus.  I am enough of a crusty, old-time Calvinist to shudder when I am around too much emoting.  Modern Christianity, hand in hand with modern life in general, “thinks” emotion is thought, that feelings are doctrines, that being all heart is following Jesus, truth, and the American way.  The Christian doctrine of emotion, even that phrase sounds weird to me, is not to be Stoically cold and calculating to every event.  Jesus was an emotional man.  Being fully man and fully God, He is an emotional Person in the Triune Emotional Godhead.  When Williams talks about “outrage, passion, and joy,” he is describing aspects of the life of Jesus.  Theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and pastors such as Samuel Rutherford could write things that were downright embarrassing because they were so emotional in their devotion to Jesus.

F stands for Flip:  Mirroring the Upside-Down Action of Jesus.  As the criticism was made later that the apostles were turning the world upside-down by their teachings (Acts 17:6), so this could be made about Jesus.  Maybe we have read and heard the Bible stories too many times (let the reader understand), so we often are too used to, too comfortable with Jesus’ flipping situations, teachings, ideas, etc.

L stands for Love:  Mirroring the Radical Relationability of Jesus.  Once again, we are so accustomed to the use of the word “love” in a Jesus and church context that we forget how radical and challenging this is.

E stands for Elevate:  Mirroring the Saving Grace of Jesus.  I was so thankful for this chapter.  Here is why:  Basically, I believe in salvation by works plus grace.  Basically, I believe that while I might be a C- Christian, I am passing and will get promoted to heaven.  Grace always hits me hard and right between the eyes.  It corrects what is has already corrected a million times in my life and reinforces to me that Jesus saves sinners.  Saves, not just helps; saves, not just instructs; saves, not just supplements my own efforts.

Williams says, “To think, feel, act, and love in a Jesus-reflecting way is not challenging; IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. Anyone who thinks otherwise has either laughingly overestimated himself, or seriously underestimated Jesus. The distance between him and us is infinite. Thankfully, there is grace.”

C stands for Create:  Mirroring the Artistic Genius of Jesus.  This is the chapter (not to be read by skipping ahead) that I commend to all my artistic friends and family members.  Poets, musicians, artists, designers, and writers:  Take note how we as Christians are to follow Jesus as our Master Artist.  For a time, there were tables, chairs, or other items that Jesus the Carpenter had made.  No doubt these artistic works were well done, but Jesus the Artist, Designer, Author, Carpenter, Painter left us His magnum opus:  An empty tomb.  All the great paintings, all the fine poetry, and all the moving songs (“He’s Alive” by Dolly Parton is my favorite) and then realize that they are all covers, imitations, and copies of the original:  Jesus’ Resurrection.

T stands for Transform:  Mirroring Jesus in All of Life.  Transformation is an underused and overwhelming word in the Christian life.  As a Christian who uses the word “Reformed” to describe my theology, I really need to be a Transformed Christian more and more.  It is not a one time action, but a life-long process.

Since I have given all these spoilers, is there any reason now to read this book?  As my pastor Jared Gibson often says, “Are you crazy?” (Or the milder version, “Are you kidding?”).

Read, reflect, read again, buy copies and give them to those that need to read and reflect.

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Book Reviews Due

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Don’t talk to me about the splendors of the Renaissance, nor about the glories of the printing press of the Reformation, nor about the Puritan Revolution.  They all pale beside what is going on today.  When I first embraced Reformed theology in the late 1970’s, it was possible to keep up and or at least be aware of most of the major publications.  Back in those days, Puritan-Reformed Books (in Delaware) was a clearing house for the many and varied Reformed publishers and titles.  There were a couple of newsletters and magazines of a Reformed variety that were chocked full of material as well.

I thought I was overwhelmed back in those days with reading challenges and opportunities.  That was a trickle.  We are living in a tidal wave.  Via the internet alone, one can access more Reformed theological works than one could find by shopping and mail ordering in the 1970’s.  Today, there are more reprints, more new books, more new publishers, more sources for out-of-print books, more PDF’s, more used book sellers, and more of everything a serious reading Reformed Christian would want.

Add to that this fact:  The broader Protestant evangelical community is far more open to and accepting of Calvinist authors and titles than was the case years ago.  One can enter a Christian book store today and walk out with arm loads of books by Spurgeon, Pink, Sproul, Keller, Mohler, Devers, Piper, and others.  Yes, some of us older, more crusty Calvinists can scoff at some of what might seem to be Calvinist-lite, new Calvinism, and a more congenial approach to Reformed theology.  Yes, I still like the unabashed pure strains found in Warfield, the Hodges, Machen, and Boettner.  But we are experiencing a tidal wave, as I said.  And it is not just here in the U. S. or in the English speaking world.  Almost daily, I am being encouraged by a hardy band of young, restless, Bible and theology-hungry Reformed Christians in Brazil.

Being a book reviewer in this day and time is both great fun and impossible.  I cannot even hope to get through all the books I need to get through.  Many that I read are of such a quality as to demand re-readings.  What a problem to give thanks for!

Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present is edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey and is published by New Growth Press.  This is a massive work, a treasure trove of theological wealth, a compendium of Reformation resources.  While daunting to behold due to its size, it is easily accessible because one can pick and choose where to begin.  There are 26 historical liturgies along with historical introductions.

This will be high on the list for summer reading and perusing.  Already this book is getting lots of attention in Reformed circles.  Yep, it costs a bit, but not too much considering the size of the book and quality of the packaging.

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Paul: A Biography by N. T. Wright is published by HarperCollinsPublishers.  You can listen to Bishop Wright discuss the book and subject here.  N. T. Wright has his ardent fans and bitter foes.  He has written an incredible number of both scholarly and more popular Christian works.  Paul’s Epistles are his specialty.

I profit from Wright’s books.  I do not profess to be a great student of his thought or system.  I read things that astound me by him and things that puzzle me.  His way of speaking and describing theology is not my way.  That, too, is a reason why I read him.

I have only glanced at this book, but am looking forward to delving into it in June.

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The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament is by Andreas J. Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles.  It is published by B & H Publishers, one of my favorites.

This is another hefty book, but it is, after all a textbook style “introduction.”  I lament not having had any formal study of theology and the Bible.  I continue to pick up bits and pieces of a theological understanding here and there.  While there are many New Testament textbooks, this is the one that I will be focusing on this summer.

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Saving Truth:  Finding Meaning & Clarity in a Post-Truth World by Abdu Murray is published by Zondervan.  Murray’s website for this book can be found HERE.

I am already well into reading this book.  It is yet another call to Christians (and any non-Christians willing to read this book) to be alert to yet another tragic turn in our culture.  The battle is for Truth itself.  It is not a new battle, but each generation has to fight this concern in another manner.  We are all subject to “fake news,” opinions posing as truth, attacks on truth, redefinitions of truth, and questions about whether truth even exists.

In the spirit of Christian cultural critics and observers like Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson, Os Guinness, and others, this book is a worthwhile examination of a key issue we cannot escape.

1917 Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Order

“Emerging from the forge of war in 1917 was the active role of government in every aspect of daily life, and the rising expectation that government can fix every problem and deal with every crisis from economic depression to childcare and climate change.” (Page 236)

This past year marked the 100th year anniversary of the Russian Revolutions.  Most of the applauding and celebrating came from those who rejoiced in the fall, rather than the rise of Communist Russia.  The Russian Revolution(s) is a story filled with all manner of drama, tragedy, near fulfillment of hopes, and unexpected turns of events.  It might have been simply a sideshow to World War I, but it became something much bigger, more enduring, and more terrifying.  The death count related to world-wide Communism has been listed as 100 million, and the count is not yet complete.

It is surprising that as 1917 was beginning, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin were still sidelined on the cataclysmic war that was engulfing Europe.  By the end of the year, they were the two prime movers and shakers in what was happening. There are, no doubt, plenty of books with plenty of positive things to say about Wilson and Lenin.  By no means are the two men just alike.  Herman notes clear differences as well as gifts and strengths of each man.  But as his subtitle indicates, the results of their tampering with the world, 1919 gave us a world recovering from war and preparing for decades of disorder and preparation for the next war.

The story of Woodrow Wilson is painful.  Brilliant, no doubt, Wilson was insufferable. His idealism was matched by a theological bent that convinced him that he was or his vision was God’s plan for the world.  He imbibed much from his upbringing in a Presbyterian manse, but he did not seem to be grounded in sound doctrine.  He did, for better or worse, want to avoid bringing the United States into World War I as a fighting power.  At the same time, he wanted to rise above the powers of Europe and the older ways of war and diplomacy and craft a more perfect world.  The key statement of his vision in found in the Fourteen Points.

Germany, reeling from the war by 1918, called for an armistice, hoping the 14 Points would work to their advantage.  They didn’t.  Wilson was as vindictive as he was idealistic.  But all that came out after the firing stopped.  Prior to that, the United States entered a war that it was totally unprepared for in 1917.  A year later, even with troops pouring into France, the U. S. was not producing equipment for its own still fresh men.  As a manager and administrator over a war government, Wilson was a disaster.

Lenin had plenty of problems of his own.  His return to Russia was financed and provided for by the German government.  As a measure to produce chaos behind the lines in the east, it worked better than any could have imagined.  Russia underwent its first revolution and toppled the Tsar in February.  In October, revolutionary actions finished off the provisional government headed by Alexander Kerensky, and moved the soviets into positions of power.

With Leon Trotsky overseeing the military, and a young Stalin perfecting ways of eliminating enemies (broadly defined), a totalitarian state was being put into place.  Everything that would, in time, characterize the Evil Empire (Ronald Reagan’s term) was started during this time:  acts of terror against the citizens, arrests right and left,  establishment of the Gulag system, and the implementation of a secret police (forerunner to the KGB).

Russia gave up tremendous concessions and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  This freed numbers of German divisions which were raced to the western front in a last attempt to end the war.  It almost worked.  But this part of history is chock-full of “almosts.”

Arthur Herman, author of quite a few fine histories, has done a magnificent job in telling a terrible story in a way that is gripping.  Full of insights, a few jabs at recent events, plenty of good narrative, this book will be a hard one to best in this upcoming year of reading.

 

Karl Barth–The Epistle to the Ephesians

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Karl Barth–What a topic to tackle.  He is more than a man, for he is a subject, a whole realm of discussion.  Ranked by some as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, he is despised by others for being a heretic.  His influence was great, but his legacy is and always will be under fire.

Here is the story of my slight connections with the esteemed Herr Doktor Barth:

I became a follower of Reformed theology around 1976.  I was not familiar with any theologians.  I had heard of Wesley, since I was a Methodist.  I knew of Martin Luther, but was unclear as to who he was.  Then I was suddenly pushed into the deep end of the pool and was surrounded by a such names as Hodge, Edwards, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, Kuyper, Berkof, Lloyd-Jones, Rushdoony, Boettner, Van Til, Clark, Machen, Spurgeon, and more.  These were all the good guys; they were our team.

My main focus in reading quickly became fortifying my grasp of God’s sovereignty and the doctrines of grace.  I was buying and reading books like crazy.  One of these best sources was a place called Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.  Each month, they sent out a one page (front and back) sheet advertising books.  At the bottom of the second page were the sale books.

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One such sale book was Karl Barth’s Theological Method by Gordon Clark.  I think I paid a dollar for the hardback copy of the book.  It went to my ever expanding shelf of books on theological matters and has relocated many times, but is still part of my meager library.

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Many years later, I bought Christianity and Barthianism by Cornelius Van Til.  I am sure I must have bought it because i) it was a book, ii) it was by Van Til, and iii) it was a big influence on R. J. Rushdoony.  It has lived its life among my other Van Til books.

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Then in some now-forgotten book purchase, I picked up a short biographical work on Barth by T. H. L. Parker.  I loved Parker’s biography of John Calvin, so I figured there was some worth to this book.

Thus, I was fully armed for any future confrontations with Barth’s theology and Barthians.  But I was living in southern Arkansas, teaching school in a rural public school and being active in two different Reformed churches in the area.  I encountered all manner of theological arguments and argued with many people holding a wide range of religious ideas.  BUT NOT ONCE DID I ENCOUNTER A BARTHIAN or even a person who had read or liked Barth.

One year, I was in search of quotes regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (I think it was in conjunction with a series of Sunday school lessons on the person and work of Jesus Christ.)  Having found great quotes by theological heroes, I thought I should snuff out a few enemy quotes.  To my surprise, I discovered that Barth believed in the resurrection of Christ.  As time went on, I found great statements by Barth on other topics.  I also began realizing his role in signing the Barmen Declaration and his opposition to theological liberalism.

While I still encountered writers who had serious disagreements with KB, I slowly realized that he was no simple “black and white” theological figure.  I probably have a half dozen or more books by Barth now.  But here is where I am in the process:

On the one hand, I know there are some serious flaws in his theology.  I am wary, suspicious, and untrusting of his writings in general.  What those flaws are, I cannot personally articulate.  I would be an easy knock-out in a debate with someone who had seriously read Barth.

On the other hand, I know that Barth is highly regarded, respected, and loved for his theological insights.  What those great insights are, I don’t know.  Barth is like a grand piano to me.  I know it is a fine instrument, but I don’t have the means of demonstrating it.

In terms of my position–not knowing much–I am a lot closer to many theology readers than one might think.

This past year, I received two review books that are new English publications of Barth’s writings.  The first was A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons.  This book is published by Westminster John Knox Press.

This is a really useful study of the period when World War I began, meaning the late summer and fall of 1914.  Many German pastors and theologians jumped on the war bandwagon and heralded the Kaiser’s troops as they marched off to glory.  More experienced slaughtered and horrors than glory as that war turned into a four year long trench-based battle of attrition.  Neither the causes nor conduct of that war were Christian, God-glorifying, or even in the best interest of the nations involved.

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Barth’s work is a remarkable look at a man who went against the times, against many of his teachers from the past, and against his culture.  Pastor to pastor, I would tell him that he preached too many sermons in his opposition to the war.  This series basically lasted from August through December.  His church was in neutral Switzerland, but the congregation must have had a basic sympathy to the Germans.

While Barthian skilled theology students might enjoy seeing hints of Barth’s later theology in this work, I read it as a history student.  I thought it was a great example of a pastor confronting current events from the pulpit while primarily seeking to minister to his congregation’s spiritual needs.

Soon after reading the World War I sermons, I received a copy of The Epistle to the Ephesians by Barth.  This book is published by Baker Academic.

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The back cover and blurbs. The front cover is at the beginning of this review.

The first fifty pages of this book consists of essays by the editor, the translator, and two scholars who discuss the lectures, Barth himself, and where his Ephesian lectures fit into his larger corpus of writings.  Barth was largely an academic theologian.  He was part of the long respected German theological tradition.  Remember that men such as J. Gresham Machen and Benjamin Warfield went to Germany to study theology, and while they rejected the theological deviations, they wanted to gain the academic training offered there.

Translation, a distance of a century, and changing theological currents all add to the challenge of reading Barth.  I am not a theologian by training, experience, or profession.  My academic training is more centered on history, so I am out of my league on these matters.  Still, I read some theological heavies for the same reasons that I listen to classical music, try to understand great art, and dabble in reading the great philosophers.

From my years of doing pastoral work and teaching in a Christian school, I have tended to go to the more accessible, readable, easy-to-find help sort of writers.  Stranded on a desert island, I would prefer the books of Sproul, Piper, or Grant to those of Barth.  But there is the need for me to tackle Barth on occasion.

The heart of this book is a series of lectures Barth gave during a winter semester at the University of Göttingen in 1921-22.  Most of the lectures were focused on Ephesians 1.  In fact, Barth scribbled notes in the margins of his lecture notes indicating that the class was complaining that he was too slow in getting through the book.  They were right.  After devoting many lectures to the first chapter of Ephesians, he then gives a brief survey of the remaining five chapters.

While reading this book, I was continually having to go back to the beginnings of the lectures where the Greek and English texts were located.  I can recognize very few words in Greek, and the lectures were detailed expositions of the Greek texts.  (Thankfully, the Latin phrases were all translated in the end notes.)

This was a plodding read, but IT WAS WORTH THE EFFORT.  In my previous experiences, this book would have not helped me find the quick exegesis, pithy quote, or keen insight into a verse to be lifted and used in a sermon.  But it is a good source for slowly, carefully thinking through this most rich chapter of God’s word.

Look for the scholarly reviews if you need to know the more academic theological assessments of this book.  I will close, however, with a quote or two that I found inspiring and helpful.

“And how astonishing that when the gospel of Israel’s Christ was directed to the whole world, it displaced so many rival claims at the time and met with such success!”  page 60

“The praise of God to which Paul refers is not a matter of course; it tolerates no rivals.  Such praise is directed to God, the Father of Jesus Christ, who reveals himself in his hiddenness and is the creator of all things.  It is an act of knowledge, of repentance, of transformed thinking.”  page 84

“How could the praise of God consist of words alone?  Words are inadequate, but so is action.  We can only cover our faces (‘crever les yeux,’ Calvin) and give God the glory.”  page 84

“It is utterly impossible that what the hidden God accomplishes in the person will not also have the greatest visible consequences in that person’s life.  It is utterly impossible for faith not to be accompanied by good works, as Luther says.”  pages 98-99

“Forgiveness is not a matter of merely excusing a person; the one who is forgiven is also made obedient.  The rule of God does not refer only to the dynamics of God’s action; God’s acquittal effects a corresponding dynamic in the creature, whose action is completely dissolved, reconstituted, and established on a new foundation.”  page 106

“How can we understand the meaning of the blood of Jesus, of his suffering and action in the passion, apart from the resurrection, which reveals their meaning?”  page 107

These are just a few of the many fine statements (often a paragraph or more in length) found in this study.

Post Script:  Recent articles dealing with Karl Barth’s life have contained the inexcusable story of his long-term affair with his secretary.  In short, he had a bad marriage, and he and his secretary lived in a sinful relationship (with his wife’s knowledge and, to some degree, acceptance).  This story is not hearsay, innuendo, or unprovable assertions.  No doubt this clouds the case for reading Barth.  I don’t blame anyone who refuses to read him or these books I have reviewed simply for that reason.

At the time I got these books, the affair was only a rumor.  It pains me when I read beautiful statements by Barth and realize his own failing.  Lord have mercy on all His people.

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God and Politics in Esther

God and Politics in Esther by Yoram Hazony is Cambridge University Press.  Dr. Hazony’s website is found HERE.

The author is a Jewish scholar who researches and writes about philosophy and theology, political theory and intellectual history. Hazony’s previous books are The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (Basic Books, 2000).  His next book is and will be completed with My next book is The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018).

This book on Esther is one I fear will not get enough attention from many of the circles I am in.  I am a Protestant Christian with Reformed and Evangelical ties.  I have lots of close connections with Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and Christians of other and non-denominational affiliations.  Hazony fits into none of those categories, nor is he Catholic or Orthodox, but is a Jewish scholar living in Israel with his wife and nine children.  He is highly recognized and respected in many circles, but, as indicated, overlooked in my world.

About the same time that I became aware of this book, a church in my town was having a Bible study for women on the Book of Esther.  I did not attend that study for obvious reasons, but was curious as to how it would differ from this book.  I think that Esther is capable of being taught from different angles to different audiences, so my point is not contentious.

Again, I would like to see Christians reading this book.  Here are the drawbacks, however:

  1.  It is published by Cambridge University Press.  For me, that is a major plus.  I am constantly amazed at the outpouring of books from university presses.  Certainly, there are plenty of astoundingly obscure topics that grow into books interesting to very small circles.  Such books will line the shelves mainly of university libraries.  But there are also a multitude of books for less specialized readers, but such books rarely appear on the bookshelves of our local book stores.
  2.  University Press publications tend to be highly priced.  I am usually dependent on review copies or used copies or university press sales for such books.
  3. It is not a conventional commentary and is not a Christian-directed book.  As noted, the author is Jewish.
  4.  This book is not all that easy to classify.  Does it go in the religion section?  Perhaps, since it is about the Old Testament.  Or does it belong in the political science area?  The word Politics is not just in the title, but is a vital part of the content.  The field of politics is itself an area of philosophy, so maybe the book should be wedged into the philosophy shelves.

Very rarely do Christian pastors preach from the Book of Esther.  It is relatively easy to construct a topical sermon or two from the book.  There are two key texts that “preach.”

One is Esther 4:14:  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

And the other is a phrase from Esther 4:16, which is her response to the verse above.  Esther says, “If I perish, I perish.”

But how would a pastor preach a series on this book which never directly mentions the name of God and that deals with so many intricate political problems?  My answer:  Read Hazony’s book.

Chapter 5, which is titled “Idolatry,” is worth the time and effort and cost of the book itself.  This is a book about bad leadership, false beliefs, and survival of faith amidst evil people.  Idolatry, while not overtly apparent as in the case of the Golden Calf, is nevertheless the great evil in this book.

Another key theme is that of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  This is a favorite Calvinist Sunday afternoon topic of thought or discussion.  J. I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is still a classic favorite.  Hazony does not take a view that is totally compatible to my Reformed disposition.  But he does offer some ideas–both acceptable and debatable–about the role that people must take without depending upon a Deus ex machina.

For years, Christians shied away from politics.  It is easy to imagine a church full of people in 1960 who were evenly divided over whether to vote for Nixon or Kennedy.  Some of the choices or races in recent years are harder for conservative Christians to grapple with.  Conservative theology and liberal politics are difficult to reconcile.  But so are conservative theology and conservative politics (at least in the popular sense of “conservative”).  Since Hazony is not American, his perspective is not directly connected to Democrats and Republicans, the American left and right, or to the issues confronting us.  That is a strength of the book.  He is not one of “us,” nor is he one of “them.”

We Christians believe in both the presence of God and the intervention of God in human events.  Yet, we too face a world and circumstances that causes us to question where God was when certain events happened or why God allowed (and/or purposed) such.  The easy answers are not found in this book, but it is a help along the way.

I hope someone out there buys and reads this book.  I hope some pastor preaches through Esther or someone teaches a Sunday school series through this.  (And I hope it is not just a women’s study.)

Thanks to my friend Paul David Robinson, a philosopher in the making and a brilliant fellow, for recommending Hazony’s book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture in a Facebook post.  That discovery led to this book.

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Yoram Hazony of the Herzyl Institute

My copy of this book is autographed! Thanks again to Paul David Robinson for commending this book.

Used copies of this book (and mine is a used copy) are very affordable.