Crossing the Finish Line; Back to the Starting Line

The Finish Line

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I confess that using athletic metaphors and illustrations makes me feel more physically fit.  So, instead of just sitting in a chair and reading, I am working out.  Instead of sitting at a keyboard typing, I am pumping up my heart rate.  The cup of coffee at my side is Gatorade in my mind.  Being in that mode and mindset enables me to share a few recent wins or finishes in the world of reading.  But every race won puts me in a new bracket, facing a new opponent, and needing to run harder, faster, and better.  (That last sentence nearly took my breath away.)

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Preaching Christ from Psalms: Foundations for Expository Sermons in the Christian Year by Sidney Greidanus was published this past year by Eerdmans Publishing Company.   With 615 pages, this book is moderately list priced at $40. Normally, I might complain about that sticker price, but I offer no objection.  First, book buyers routinely know how to search out the best prices on the market.  Check with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Christian Book Distributors, and other sources for good pricing.  Go to Allbookstores.com  for more comparisons.  I really encourage  Christian book buyers to buy from Christian book sellers and strongly urge you to make some (as in many) purchases from independent and small-fry book sellers.

That being said, $40 is a reasonable price for what all this book contains.  I started reading it last December.  I read and read, and for a few months put it aside.  Last month, I picked it back up and persevered to the end.  It is a labor, but it is the labor of mining gold.  I would buy this book just for the quotes and footnotes Greidanus included.  I would buy it just for the introductory chapters on the Psalms.  I would buy it just for his sermon expositions.  I would buy it for all the extras–theme, organization, context, uses in worship–he includes.  But a couple of Andrew Jacksons will net all of these things.

Whether one wants to use this book for preaching through the Church Calendar, or for some topic sermons, or for personal spiritual reading, this book is top shelf.  “If I were a rich man,”  I would buy a case of these books and hand them out to all preachers, teachers, and theologians that I know.  I am betting that this book wins high honors on the “Best Books of 2017” that I award each year.  I am convinced that I want to acquire and read more of Greidanus’ books.

The Taste of Sabbath: How to Delight in God’s Rest by Stuart Bryan is published by Canon Press.  Pastor Emeritus Mickey Schneider gave me this book a few years back.  It drifted from stack to stack and then was lodged somewhere in the deep recesses of my study building/book barn.  Last week, I was needing some study on the topic of the Sabbath because I was approaching two Sabbath encounters in Jesus’ life from Matthew 12.  For different reasons–some say Providence, others say disorder–I did not find this book in the study until it was too late to read through it.

I did begin it last week, and since it is a short book, it is now finished.  The Sabbath issue scares me a bit.  I have been in the middle of or on the edges of such discussions for nearly 40 years.  Christians have staked out at least 4 major positions on the relevance/irrelevance, abiding validity of/ending of, acknowledgement of/seriousness of what was the Jewish day of worship as it appears in the 10 Commandments.  I have held to–with varying degrees of commitment–at least 3 of the 4 major views.  (I have never been convinced to worship on Saturday.)

In the Reformed tradition, there is a lot of weight and weighty theologians in favor of what is sometimes called the Christian Sabbath and even the Puritan Sabbath. Each and every Sabbath concern is not addressed in this book.  It is a very positive, uplifting, and informative book that holds to an abiding, but changed Sabbath.  It is convicting, without being crushing.  Pastor Schneider, well known for his love of the Christian Sabbath, described this book as one of the best on the topic.

The fact that I read the greater part of it (and it is only 105 pages long) after my sermon is indicative of the fact that our thoughts on God’s Word and application do not end with the doxology at noon on Sundays.  Fine study.

The Starting Line

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Two books down.  Many more to go.

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Like the Shepherd: Leading Your Marriage With Love and Grace by Robert Wolgemuth with a foreword by Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is published by Regnery Faith.

Last summer, I took my wife, daughter, and sister-in-law to North Little Rock to hear Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth speak.  My wife, Stephanie, and sister-in-law, Toni, had long been followers of Nancy’s “Revive Our Hearts” ministry on the radio and had read her books as well.  I was interested in seeing her as well, but figured it would be a meeting dominated by Christian women. It was, but I wasn’t the lone male in the crowd.

Along with having instructed women in ways of serving God for years, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, as she was previously known, surprised the Christian world by getting married at age 56.  Prior to that, she was serving in the much neglected ministry that singles can and should have in the Christian community.  For years, she had been advising wives and mothers.  Her instructions were solid and Biblical.  After all, the central figure in the Christian faith was a single man.  (Guess who?)  Paul the Apostle may have been a widower, or he may have been single.  Many great servants of God, such as Augustine from of old and John Stott more recently, were single.  So was J. Gresham Machen, and for most of his life and writing career, so was C. S. Lewis (and John Murray).

Nancy married Robert Wolgemuth, who had lost his first wife a few years earlier.  They knew each other from their Christian ministries:  Both were writers and speakers on Christian living issues.  Mrs. Wolgemuth is a powerful and convincing woman of deep faith.  But she is a small wisp of a person who is easily overlooked in a crowd.  In contrast, Mr. Wolgemuth is a large man with powerful features.  His size and demeanor are intimidating.

To my surprise, both Robert and Nancy were at the meeting and both shared some of the experiences of being newly weds!  Biggest problem seemed to be that Robert rises early in the morning to write, while Nancy is a night owl.  Both were incredibly gracious and friendly to their listeners and readers.

Last spring, I bought my wife a copy of Nancy’s book Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together.  This is clearly a “woman’s book,” but I enjoyed the few times that Stephanie read aloud from it during our family times.

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I was glad to acquire a copy of Robert’s book when it was recently published.  I am reading it this week to help prepare my mind and thoughts for this coming Sunday–Father’s Day.  Of course, his book is on being a husband and not on fatherhood.  While those topics are different, I am convinced that the best thing I can do for my kids is to be a good–let’s hope better, much better–husband than I am.

The guiding metaphor in the book is the husband being the shepherd to his wife.  I am sure this book will not please too many feminists, but that is not the point.  I figure this book will offend, hurt, irritate, and slap me.  I need this book to sink in.  Great to be starting it now.  I will keep you posted on my progress.

Confessions Upon Discovering Robert Farrar Capon

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I admit it:  I was wrong. I simply did not buy Robert Farrar Capon’s books or read them.  I had what I thought were good enough reasons.  First of all, I had “not heard of him.”  Of course, you cannot actually say that you have not heard of someone when you are told of them.  But there is a sense that develops that everything worth knowing about–well, I already know about it.

Then there were the two witnesses on behalf of Rev. Capon’s books.  One was Randy Booth, who praised the books to the hilt in some blog posts a few years back.  But I discounted the praise and recommendations.  Mainly it was because Capon wrote extensively about food and cooking.  I don’t care much for either.  Rev. Capon was a pastor, author, theologian who wrote about fine foods, the right wines, and proper dining.  Randy Booth is actually a chef who does theology on the side.  I suspect he devotes no more than 60 to 80 hours a week to church and pastoral duties, leaving him the rest of the time free to creating and serving up meals.  Food always makes me feel a) guilty, b) sick, or c) disoriented.  So I pushed Capon over into the list of authors that include Martha Stuart and those Frenchmen who write about cooking with wine.

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In 2013 when Rev. Capon died, George Grant wrote something somewhere about Capon’s books and how good they were.  But I often find it worthwhile to disregard Dr. Grant’s book prescriptions.  Here is what I noticed:  When you randomly come up with a book and ask Dr. Grant about it, he says he read it, read several others by the same author, and prefers the works of someone else (whose works are out-of-print) to the author under discussion.  For example, I might ask, “What do you think of Orlando Figes’ book The Crimean War: A History ?”  He would answer, “It is okay, but Figes’ book Natasha’s Dance is, in my opinion, much better.  And on the Crimean War, I prefer Mark Adkins’ The Charge: The Real Reason Why the Light Brigade Was Lost.”

So, in spite of the “testimony of two witnesses,” I marched on my merry way sans Capon.  But then I was out hunting one day last winter.  In a particular place here in Texarkana, there was a store that had a selection of used books, and on this day, they were on sale for 50 cents each (or maybe a dollar–I cannot remember).  I bought several books, including a nice looking edition of Bed and Board by Capon.  It looks like the one below, except it does not have the ugly library markings.  It was cheap, in great shape, pleasant to behold, and might enable me to prove my indifference to the author’s works.

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In a further unprecedented situation, I started reading the book.  It is very disturbing to have one’s understanding of an author challenged by reading the author himself.  It is far better, from my personal experiences, to know about Plato, Aquinas, Edmund Burke, T. S. Eliot, John Calvin, and others by reading someone else’s extensive one page–or even better, one paragraph–description of them, especially if it is dismissive.  Reading authors is a troubling affair.

In the case of Rev. Capon, I discovered that this book, titled Bed and Board, which is about marriage and family, is witty, thought-provoking, ordinary–in the sense of the every day experiences contained in it, and totally realistic.  He actually describes the experiences of life as they are.  That sounds pretty miserable, except that he has such a facility of expression, such a different way of looking at things, and such a happy, healthy reminder of joys that the book makes you think you are seeing these things–such as having a wife, having children, living in confined quarters together–for the first time.  And, it is not just delightful prose, but solid Christian instruction as well.

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I did not mark in the book, for it is too nice looking a volume, but I did note a few passages.  Consider:  “The only available candidates for matrimony are, every last one of them, sinners.”  Pretty obvious, except that nearly 26 years of marriage and over 20 years of pastoral counseling reveal that sin is quite surprising to many when it shows up in their marriages.  It gets worse (or better): “The parties to matrimony should be prepared for its being, on numerous occasions, no party at all; they should be instructed that they will need both forgiveness and forgivingness if they are to survive the festivities.”  Yep and “amen.”

Then there is a reference to old books that I found appealing–since it was in my bailiwick:  After citing several older authors on marriage matters, he says, “Keep at it (that is, reading these books) until the horse sense that makes them ageless breaks through the oddness that makes them antique.  It is a tough job, and the devil has seen to it that most of the books are either out of print or mighty unattractive.”

That is a great statement about reading “old books,” which I am sure that C. S. Lewis would approve.  Thankfully, more and more such books are back in print and often in attractive, readable editions.

Concerning the Christian mind, or the ways that Christians think (or don’t), he says, “Of course, in religion and morals it (the Christian mind) tried to do its own cooking; but across the rest of life–schooling, housing, marrying, working, playing, spending–it has been content to buy whatever packaged mixes were available on the shelves of the secular idea market.”

And that leads to this: “The result is that Christians, who would like to think they were different, have only succeeded in making themselves indistinguishable.”

I could cite page after page of the book, but this is a blog, not a reprint.

So, I was wrong–again, as those closest to me would remind me.  I now must begin the difficult, but rewarding labor of hunting and gathering the books of Robert Farrar Capon.

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Arthur W. Pink and The Sovereignty of God

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I stepped right into the middle of a great revival in the 1970s.  I didn’t realize it at the time.  I thought I was veering off the main road onto an obscure, overgrown, largely unused country road.  At the time, it seemed lonely, odd, and extreme.  Marching to a different drummer had long been a practice in my life, or rather a disposition.  So, embracing a theology that was little known, little understood, and yet often vehemently opposed was not that hard to do.  But it take a cost.  It was not without some sacrifices and some life changes.  Some were good, and some were painful both then and now.

Around 1972, I had become a Christian.  Before that, my beliefs were foggy, undefined, mildly theistic, prudishly moralistic, works-oriented (I thought I was a good person–even better than most), and not very Bible based.  Little by little, through an experience while watching a movie, by listening to Jerry Falwell, by attending an outdoor revival with an evangelical Methodist, I became–to use my term then–more religious.

Then I confronted Calvinism.  It was easy enough to dismiss Calvinism with a few easy swats, thinking it was a gnat.  But have you ever tried casually swatting at an elephant?  To improve upon the image, have you ever tried swatting a charging elephant?

I think it is funny that God used two men with less than formidable sounding names to turn me from a spiritual jellyfish to a Christian man.  One man bore the given name of Loraine and the other bore the surname Pink.  Think of the sound of it:  Pink and Loraine.  Doesn’t sound exactly like a devastating spiritual tag team.  But it was.

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Loraine was Loraine Boettner.  He was a rather shy, retiring fellow who wrote 5 or 6 books, lived his retirement years on a farm in rural Missouri, and sold his books for a pittance to eager young students of theology.  My first Boettner book was Studies in Theology.  It wasn’t one of the five points of Calvinism or the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God that did a mental and spiritual make-over for me, however.  Instead, it was the chapters in that book on the authority of the Bible, followed by an in-depth study and description of the Trinity, and another in-depth study of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

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I think I was a believer before I read–consumed!–those chapters, but they constituted a conversion experience as well.  My mother, knowing I was a history major (and I was in college at the time), saw Boettner’s Studies in Theology on my desk.  “Are you changing your major?”  I don’t know what I answered (and graduated as a history major), but I knew something was changing that meant that everything was changing.

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I next read Boettner’s block-buster book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.  I still remember thinking that the title sounded promising.  To my mind, I wasn’t sure what this lady named Loraine did to it, but I was glad that someone had re-formed the doctrine of predestination.  But, to borrow from Batman, “Pow” and “Bam.” There wasn’t much left to me after I finished the second of the Boettner books.

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This revolution of thought and theology was all going on during the summer of 1976–the year of America’s Bicentennial.  It was during this time that I met my second Calvinist–Pastor Jimmy DeMoss.  A small man who is a tightly wound bundle of energy and an ex-Marine, Pastor DeMoss recommended The Sovereignty of God by Pink.  I think he just called him Pink.

It was many books later when I first acquired The Sovereignty of God by Pink.  Over the years, I ended up with quite a few books by Arthur W. Pink.  In many cases, his innumerable articles have been patched together to form a large number of collections.  He did several books in a series known as Gleanings, for example, Gleanings in Genesis, Gleanings in the Scriptures, and so on.  His little work Profiting from the Word is a classic “rip the layers off your heart” kind of searching and convicting work.  I rather grew to enjoy–and grow–from the cutting edge of the Reformation/Calvinistic/Reformed/Puritan approach of using the Bible to sear into the sins of the heart.  Pink’s book The Attributes of God ranks among his best.  As the title indicates, it tells us who the God of the Bible is.

I even have a volume of Pink’s works on order right now.  Hearing George Grant preaching on 1 John lead me to my usual question, “What are the best books on 1 John?”  To which Dr. Grant responded by mentioning a couple of authors, and then he said,  “The real treasure trove for this book (1 John) may be found in Arthur Pink’s massive work.  It is fantastic—as you might expect from Pink.”

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With quite a few Pink books scattered throughout my library, I am convinced of his worthiness as an expositor, commentator, and preacher of God’s Word.  At the same time, he has his limitations.  He recognized that due to the voluminous amount of writing that he did, that his views sometimes changed as the years went by.  Also, Pink could often spiritualize narrative portions of the Bible and draw good lessons from them that are not actually present in the text.  And he could jab, and I mean jab hard.  In his day, the Puritan works lay hidden in old libraries and book stores.  The works of Spurgeon were ignored.  The teachings of the Reformers were unheeded.  The pulpits of the lands (for Pink labored in many English speaking domains) were captured by theological liberals and higher critics in the worst cases.  In the best cases, the pulpits poured forth Arminian theology and messages designed to salve the emotional aspects of hearers.

God gave Arthur W. Pink a tough personality, a cutting edge, and a stubborn streak.  A milder man, a gentler message, and a smoother approach would not have carried in his day.

Arthur Pink’s greatest work and most abiding book is The Sovereignty of God.  Some years ago, Baker Book House published the book in hard cover, and quite a few copies were sold over the years, especially after Pink’s views became more acceptable (again) and interest rose in learning about the sovereignty of God.  Then Banner of Truth published a slightly abridged version of the book in paperback.  As usual, Banner did a fine job of putting together the more user friendly edition of the book, which excluded a couple of more difficult to digest chapters.  Banner of Truth also published Gleanings from Paul (in hardback), The Life of Elijah, Profiting from the Word, and some Pink titles translated into Spanish.

Life of Arthur W. Pink

Another Banner of Truth work is Iain H. Murray’s fine biography of Arthur Pink.  I am always partial to Iain Murray’s biography, and even though it has been many years since I read the book (which has since been revised and enlarged), I still remember it as a great read.

Often the word “dated” is applied to older books.  Perhaps that word is descriptive of much of Pink’s works, for he lived from 1886 to 1952.  The theological issues and battles have changed; the reception to Reformed theology is much improved; and the availability of good books has vastly increased.  I am sure that Mr. Pink would be amazed at the popularity of writers like R. C. Sproul, Tim Keller, and John Piper.  Going against the grain, as Pink did; adhering to a theology out of favor, as Pink did; and stubbornly standing alone, as Pink did, is not as necessary as it was in his day.  Besides, some of the more recent writers are better able to convey the great doctrines that are often opposed without being disagreeable sorts of preachers.

We are living in a new age as far as Reformed theology is concerned, especially as it relates to the Doctrines of Grace.  But there is a need to go back to the sources.  We need to read and promote the books and authors that carved out a niche for Calvinism back when Calvinism wasn’t cool.

The great Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave this advice to a young man in ministry:  “Don’t waste your time reading Barth and Brunner. You will get nothing from them to aid you with preaching. Read Pink.”  I do believe there is profit in Barth and Brunner, but for the best and most direct spiritual benefit, I agree, “Read Pink.”

Kyle Shepherd is a young man in a hurry.  He wants to see yet more good resources available to Christians, Christian families, homeschoolers, and others engaged in directly confronting and toppling the culture.  As the founder of a publication ministry called Visionarion Press,  Kyle promised several months ago to reveal a major publishing venture that would make a foundational work in Christian worldview thinking available again.

My mind was racing through a number of great books that could be secret reprint, but I guessed wrong every time.  Kyle Shepherd then announced that the book was Arthur W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God.  Even if you already have the book, you will want to get copies (plural) of this book for your library and others.  The new edition includes the following features:

Hardback, smythe-sewn binding to last for decades
Scripture & Topical Indexes
Unabridged
Modern typesetting for easy reading

Put this book high on your want list.  No, go ahead and put it in your cart and get this classic work today.

Contending for the Truth While Still Loving the Brethren

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I don’t know which is worse:  Christians fighting Christians, or embracing the idea that we should never talk about politics and religion because it divides us.  Christians must earnestly contend for the faith, and that means apologetic encounters with unbelief, but it also entails butting heads with fellow believers over differences.  Iron sharpens iron, but it does not do so when the two pieces of iron fail to get near each other and “dialog” (I cringe a bit over that word.)

I have been in many a Christian theological brouhaha.  Some were fun, some were mean, some inflicted wounds and causing pain for myself and others.  “Milquetoast for Jesus” is not a good stance to take, but neither is the tendency to see every hill as the place to die on and every difference as the fight unto death.

I am not without convictions.  Most of them are probably immovable due to 1.)  my age,  2.) the life/career/reputation investment I made to obtain those convictions, 3.) the practical benefits of not changing, and, most of all–hopefully, 4.) truly Biblical foundations and reasonable assumptions for those convictions.  I can repeat the creeds in church (Apostles and Nicene) without hesitation.  My biggest problem with the Bible is application, not accepting a total belief and trust in it.  I am more than comfortable with a number of descriptions that define me, such as Protestant, Reformed, Calvinistic, Presbyterian, Evangelical, and Biblicist.  I am deeply appreciative to and much influenced by Presuppositionalism, A- and Post-Millennialism, Theonomy, and more.  I have much admiration for and many take-aways from Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, George Marsden, Charles Spurgeon, R. C. Sproul, and many others.  I borrow heavily from Christopher Dawson, the Catholic historian, and others from his theological positions.

I think of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til as uncles.  I love both and would fail any major examinations explaining their views and differences.  I think J. Gresham Machen hung the moon.  I believe Jonathan Edwards is even greater than John Piper thinks he is.  Francis Schaeffer, R. J. Rushdoony, and Gregg Singer all shaped my understanding of history and culture, and Greg Bahnsen was a personal friend and mentor.

All of that is said, to introduce my latest and newest Christian friend:  Laurence M. Vance.  Also, I want to call your attention to his many books found on his web-site: Vance Publications.

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This connection was started due to my interest in Dr. Vance’s book The Other Side of  Calvinism.  This is a massive hardcover book, heavily documented, that seeks to correct and/or refute what has come to be known as Calvinism or Reformed theology.  In nearly 800 pages with heavy documentation, this book examines both the history connected to Calvinism and the particular doctrines, commonly called the Five Points of Calvinism.

 

Understand me, I am a Calvinist and have been so since 1976.  I have never wavered, rarely doubted, long since stopped questioning, and have long since felt solidified in this position.  My hall of heroes are largely made up of Calvinists, and I have paid some heavy prices along the way for my theology.  (Blunders and stupid things done in the name of promoting Calvinism on my part–well, that’s another story.)

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I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a Calvinist
And lovin’ the Calvinist ways
Pursuin’ the life of my theologian heroes
I burned up my teenage days
I learned all the rules of a modern day reformer
Hold on to convictions strong
Just take what you need from the books as you buy them
With the words of a imprecatory Psalm.
My heroes have always been Calvinists,
And they still are, it seems
Gladly, in search of, but one step in front of
Themselves and their theological dreams.
(With Apologies to Willie Nelson)

So why would I want this book?  I am sure that Dr. Vance has gotten plenty of letters, maybe phone calls, e-mails, and other communications desiring to correct him. Quite frankly, I am not interested in that.  He’s a big boy (with the degrees and a number of books that show his scholarship) and, as said earlier, there is a place for the debates, exchanges, and kingdom labors to better hone the truths of the Bible. But such debates are not what I need right now.  If Dr. Vance and I were neighbors, I would hope that we would be seriously talking (and often laughing) together as we sought to take the Gospel to our neighborhood.

I guess I have a hundred or more books to answer things he says, and from glancing at his bibliography, he did not write and later revise this huge book without extensively researching the topic.

Without conceding a single millimeter to skeptics who say we cannot know truth, I do believe that my own capacity to know and understand–to use the Bible and reason as both Loraine Boettner and Laurence Vance contend–is always in need of further labor, refinement, rethinking, repenting, and growing.  As a someone whose life labors consists of teaching, preaching, writing, and endlessly talking, I want to primarily be a listener and learner and not just a mouth.

The issues that divide Calvinists from non-Calvinists (whether they are or wish to be called Arminians is another story) are important.  We are talking about the nature of God and salvation and the revelation of the Bible.  Maybe I have been wrong for many years, although I don’t think so.  Or maybe I have been right but have not properly understood the grounds of what I am right about or how to communicate it.  Maybe, I have over-complicated simple truths and over-simplified complicated truths.

I teach children.  I preach to people of all ages.  James 3:1 says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”  Do I dare stand in front of a group without carefully hearing and studying all sides to an issue?  Do I dare assume that agreeing to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which I do adhere to, will get me off the James 3:1 hook?  No.

For that reason, I rejoice in having yet another hefty book to add to the shelves.  But it is one that is not just to give some balance to one end of the theological scale, but one to read, think about, pray over, and consider carefully.  So, thanks to Dr. Vance–in advance (no pun intended)–for your labors to write about your deep convictions.

And as Cornelius Van Til was fond of saying at the end of letters, “Soon we shall meet at Jesus’ feet.”  (Although I hope and pray that “soon” doesn’t mean before I get this and many other books finished and many other earthly tasks completed.)

Rembrandt and the Bible Combined

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The Return of the Prodigal Son, an oil painting by Rembrandt

I love bargains.  Love getting two objects for the price of one.  I am constantly hunting for ways to save money, especially when pursuing the great white Book Sale (an allusion to Moby Dick).  But I also love when I can learn two things at once.  Given my own difficulties in learning one thing and given that “time’s winged chariots” (an illusion to the poem “To His Coy Mistress”) I am doubly challenged here, but also doubly blessed when it happens.

This is one of the reasons I really enjoy Daniel Silva’s spy/espionage/adventure novel series about Gabriel Allon.  First of all, Allon is an art restorer by trade.  Each novel includes bits and pieces about his work in restoring fine pieces of art in churches across Europe and in his various studios.  But each restoration work gets interrupted by his other profession, which is in the Israeli intelligence community.

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Each book reveals some aspect of art, artists, art history, art thievery, and art restoration.  My grasp of the great artists is dangerously deficient, so I benefit from these details which play varying roles in the plot development.  (You might reckon that a book with the title The Rembrandt Affair deals with art.)  Along with the art lessons, I always pick up details about Israel, the Middle East, terrorism, counter-terrorism, and a host of other points relating to current world events.  Of course, it is the page-turning action that provides the main motivation for reading these books.  But, I do get two and maybe three benefits for the price of reading one book.

Recently, I was reading James V. Schall’s book Remembering Belloc.  Here is another “two for one” bargain and a treasure to boot.  First of all, Father Schall’s writings are always a delight and full of fun and wisdom.  Then his topic is Hilaire Belloc, who was an amazingly prolific writer of history, travelogues, poetry, and other topics.  Schall picks details from essays and themes from Belloc’s many works and restates Belloc’s points in his own manner.  Of course, while reading this book, I am wanting to put it down and read Belloc, but Schall himself is too good.

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Father Schall is always dropping hints, throwing out quotes, giving reading lists, and alluding to favorite authors in his writings.  You are always getting a grab bag full of new books to locate (most of which are actually old books) and authors to elevate to the “must read” stage.

This same “two for one” benefit can be found in reading any number of good writers, especially those who are great stylists.  I will never forget reading a Spurgeon lecture I disagreed with, but love because of how well it is written.  The histories and biographies of such authors as Max Hastings, Rick Atkinson, Bradley Birzer, and Paul Johnson are always UNSATISFYING, because when you read them, you automatically want to read more from the author and about the subject.

This past year, I read a book titled The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J. M. Nouwen.  This was definitely a “two for one” bargain.

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First of all, Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic, writes in the tradition of great Christian works of meditation.  No doubt he held to theological positions that I would rank anywhere from disagreeable to deplorable, but that is not relevant to the content of this book.  This book is about thinking spiritually about the story of the Prodigal Son.  It is, we might say, a Bible commentary or extended sermon on that event.  Being in the tradition of pietistic meditative works, such as On the Imitation of Christ and The Golden Book of the Christian Life (excerpted from Calvin’s Institutes), the book calls not for a mental connecting of theological dots, but for a heart-centered, soul-searching examination.

Second, the book is about the beautiful and rich painting by the Dutch Master Rembrandt titled The Return of the Prodigal Son (1661-1669).  I usually look at great paintings and respond with the profoundly insightful comment, “That’s real purty.”  (Let the reader understand:  For Southerners, “pretty” is an adjective, as in “I’m pretty hungry for biscuits and gravy,” while “purty” means having the quality of beauty.)

I know enough about art to know that the works of the Great Masters, such as da Vinci, Raphael, Vermeer, and others are great art.  I have enough understanding to appreciate what Jan van Eyck, Pieter Brughel, and others from the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance accomplished.  I can even recognize and enjoy the works of Vincent Van Gogh (especially after Don McClean’s song “Vincent”) and Manet (one of whose paintings I have a reprint of and use in class).  I even try to restrain myself when trying to figure out the message of Picasso’s works, and I have grown to better understand Gaugin’s “Whence, What, Where?” as the “stupid bird” says.

And I know that Rembrandt is a big name.  But I still struggle to get past the “That’s real purty” stage to being able to appreciate and internalize the works.  Then along comes Henri Nouwen and his book The Return of the Prodigal Son.  Nouwen loved the painting and received a print of it which he put in his office.  And he looked at it–often, a lot, and for long periods of time.  And he thought about it and meditated on it.

Nouwen brings the Bible and the work of art together in his meditations.  Step by step, he works through each portrait that appears in the painting, and there are six of them.  He considers them in the light of the brief details from the parable and then sees himself (enabling me to see myself) in each figure.  Love, sorrow, pain, repentance, mercy, wisdom, confusion, and a host of other emotions and reactions occur in this one setting.  Painted in his latter years, Rembrandt was biblical, autobiographical, and deliberate in his placement of every detail and in the more prominent or more subdued brush strokes in the painting.

Nouwen’s work is a great example of the Lectio Divina approach to Bible study and meditation.  It is also useful in realizing how to approach art.  Eugene Peterson’s book Eat This Book aptly prescribes this method of Bible reading.  (I have read Peterson’s book twice, I think, and need about 79 more readings of it.)

Recently, a new hardback twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Return of the Prodigal has been published by Convergent Press. Not only does this really nice book include the original, but it also includes a second Nouwen work titled Home Tonight.  I highly recommend this work.  It will be a blessing to heart, mind, and the senses.  It is great for morning study, with a Bible and cup of coffee at hand.  It is a book that I am not satisfied with by having read only once.

Also, the same publisher has another Nouwen book titled Love, Henri:  The Letters on The Spiritual Life by Nouwen.  Nouwen is well known for having given up a position in academia to minister in a home for special needs people.  He, himself, was far from perfect, but was a fine stylist in terms of writing and provides much that is engaging for the reader.

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Other books on art that I have read or acquired along life’s byways:

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Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible.  Short and by a non-specialist, this book is amazingly helpful for Christians.

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The picture is of an older edition of H. R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture.  This is THE book for Christians to study.  Rookmaaker is THE art critic for Christians to read.

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Anything Paul Johnson writes about is worthy, but art was his original call and interest.  Art: A New History is a big book by Johnson and only one of several he has done on art.  (Alas, I don’t have the others.)

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I have Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, but have not read it.  Schama is another case of a fine historian whose original expertise is in art.  I want every book Schama has written and would not mind having all his video productions as well.

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I recently acquired Essential History of Art.  It fits into the broad category of art histories and coffee table books.  I found it for a small price, and it looks to be a good primer on the subject.

Vasari’ Lives of the Artists has been around for years.  I acquired a decent copy some time back.  It is a minor classic in its field, although dated, and worth having for reading and reference.

Frank on the Prairie–And Being 12 Years Old Again

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I was recently listening to a cassette tape  from the Easy Chair series that R. J. Rushdoony did, often with Otto Scott.  In this talk, Otto Scott commented on Homer’s Odyssey, saying, “When I read The Odyssey, I am a twelve year boy old again.”  I loved that comment, even though I did not read and love Homer’s epics until much later.  For me, it is such books as Jesse Stuart’s Hie to the Hunters  that recreates that feeling.  There were other books I loved such as Smokey–The Cow Horse by Will James and The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat.

Also, every time I teach through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I find myself wishing I could sneak out the window of the classroom and go join Tom and Huck on Jackson Island and play pirates all day.

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A few years back, my son Nate and I enjoyed reading Scout: The Secret of the Swamp by Piet Prins.  Published by Inheritance Press, out of Canada, this series told of the adventures of a young boy and his German Shepherd dog Scout.  In spite of being a German Shepherd, Scout is totally committed to the Dutch people and the Christian family he is a part of.  Inheritance Press publisher Roelof Jannsen brilliantly published this book along with his catalog together.  It led to several good book purchases, including more volumes of the Scout Series.

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The book with a hook. Read it and you will want all of the series.

You might be surprised that I grew up in a home that did not have many books.  I only randomly and haphazardly picked up hints and helps as to what to read.  In our house, we had lots of old Reader’s Digest magazines, along with Texas Horseman magazines, and we had a copy of a book called None Dare Call It Treason, which always seemed scary to me.  I did check out books from the school library, but never read the Hardy Boys, any Henty books, Edgar Rice Burroughs, or other authors I should have digested before I went to high school.

Long life and a desire to learn calls for frequent repentance and acts of penance.  While I have acquired a decent amount of book smarts, there are still so many authors I barely know and book titles I may not recognize.  We won’t even begin to think about books I read that should be read again.

I recently received a beautiful little book titled Frank on the Prairie by Harry Castlemon with additional illustrations by Charles M. Russell.  The book is published by one of my favorite sources–the University of Oklahoma Press.

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The University of Oklahoma Press website states that they publish scholarly books, “especially Native American studies, classics, natural history, and regional interest titles.”  That is certainly true, and I have enjoyed many of the classical studies and the Campaigns and Commanders series, which has over 50 current volumes with more to come.

But they also publish books that the average reader, who has no academic pursuit in mind, can read and enjoy.  A few months back, I reviewed Horseback Schoolmarm, Montana 1953-1954, which I and my wife both thoroughly enjoyed.

Frank On The Prairie is also going to be a fun book.  (I am still early into it.)  It is a reprint (the original book came out in 1869) of an author of adventure books for boys named Harry Castlemon, who was the most popular author of boys adventure books in the late 1800s .  The review on the website says this:

The prolific author of the novel Frank on the Prairie, Charles Austin Fosdick (1842–1915), who went by the pen name Harry Castlemon, was one of Russell’s favorite storytellers. Castlemon’s book, which first appeared in 1868 as part of the Gunboat Series of Books for Boys, recounts the adventures of young Frank and his friend Archie as they travel across the Old West.

Charles Austin Fosdick, who wrote under the name Harry Castlemon

In this case, there was a boy named Austin whose uncle was Charles M. Russell, the man who was one of the greatest artists of the Old West.  Russell was also a fan and collector of Castleman’s “Frank Series” (there were at least 9 books about Frank).  Uncle Charles borrowed Austin’s book and later returned it with eleven watercolors and a pencil sketch detailing events in the book.

Western artist Charles M. Russell

I find myself astounded and in awe of that.  You see, I don’t really like loaning books unless the borrower is as careful as I am.  I sure don’t like when they mark up the book or do things to it.  (I don’t even want them to let sunlight get to it.)  But this would be like loaning a book of poetry to C. S. Lewis and having him return it with notes in it.  Or loaning a book on World War II to Churchill and him marking the places where he was present in the story.

This book is a great adventure story.  After all, if you have two young boys who are heading out west–the book depends heavily on Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail–and the book is not adventurous, then you ain’t no writer!

Add to that, the greatest artist of the Old West just happens to enhance the book with illustrations.  It just doesn’t get much better than this.  This fine book has been published now–illustrations and all–in a beautiful, facsimile hardcover edition.  This is a book for collectors, lovers of the Old West, lovers of boys adventure stories, and lovers of fine books.

Yea, it is not being given away, but it would be a great investment for any book lover and would be a great gift to young people who need some good reading.  It would also be good for all of us who want to feel like we are twelve again.

Proceeds from the book will go to the C. M. Russell Museum–The Art and Soul of the Old West in Great Falls, Montana.

Postscript:  Harry Castlemon wrote,  “Boys don’t like fine literature. What they want is adventure, and the more of it you can get in two-hundred-fifty pages of manuscript, the better fellow you are.”

Gordon Clark’s Many Books

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With thanks and envy to George Grant for use of this picture of his Clark collection.

If Gordon Clark has been somewhat forgotten, ignored, and overlooked in our times, we certainly cannot blame him for that.  He didn’t just write a book or two.  He wrote quite a few books and extended essays that were published in his day.  Since his death, many of his remaining unpublished and uncollected writings have been published in book form.  He was prolific and scholarly and able to comment on a wide range of topics.  All that being said, his works and thoughts have been neglected in the decades following his death.

How important was he?  When asked which theologian from our times would be read in 500 years, R. C. Sproul said, “Gordon Clark.”  (But don’t wait that long to start.) Why has his star dimmed or why is he not more noticed, respected, and read?  Read Douglas Douma’s fine biography of Gordon Clark, titled Gordon Clark: Presbyterian Philosopher, and it will detail the controversies, issues, and convictions that made Clark who he was but also contributed to his lack of popularity.

The Presbyterian Philosopher

I reviewed that book earlier this year and am still singing its praises.  However, in this post, I want to explore the roles of two men (primarily) and two publishing firms that promoted Gordon Clark’s books.

One of the most fascinating Christian works of the twentieth century was the creation of a publishing house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and later Nutley, New Jersey called Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.  It was started by Samuel Craig, himself an interesting man and author, and was continued by his son, Charles, and later, his grandson, Bryce.  The son was Charles Craig (1912-1983)–one of my heroes.

Charles H. Craig

Charles H. Craig approved and published books by a number of Christian scholars, most of whom were Reformed.

Mr. Craig must have had some really deep convictions about Christian books, doctrines, and thought, along with no sense of how to make money publishing books.  From 1957, when he took over the family business, until his death in 1983, Presbyterian and Reformed published a number of heavy, weighty, often lengthy, serious books on a wide range of topics.  Long before “Christian worldview” became a catchphrase among Christian schools, home schools, and Christian campuses, Craig was producing the works that provided solid intellectual foundations for Christian thought.  These were not books that would have appealed to a wide audience or that were easy beach reads.  (For example, one of the publications was a book by the late William Young, titled Hegel’s Dialectic Method: Its Origins and Religious Significance.)

I have heard that Craig himself was not a deep thinker or reader, but he certainly became the instrumental means of many Christian thinkers getting their ideas into print.  There was a time when creationism or creation science or 6 day creation had virtually no adherents or defenders in the evangelical publishing world.  Then Craig published The Genesis Flood, which has remained in print for over 50 years.  By the way, this event happened after R. J. Rushdoony read the manuscript (which other publishers had rejected) and pressed Craig to publish the book.

He also published the counseling books by Jay E. Adams, theological studies by Oswald T. Allis and Benjamin Warfield, historical studies by C. Gregg Singers, works opposing Communism on a Christian and philosophical level by James D. Bales (a Church of Christ scholar) and Francis Nigel Lee, books on Christian philosophy by William Young and David Freeman, books on eastern religions (such as Zen Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West by Lit-Sen Chang), Gary North’s books on economics, Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics, and many works extolling Calvinistic and Reformed views of salvation.

There was a whole series of relatively short monographs called the Modern Thinkers Series.  These books covered such people as Freud, Nietzsche, Toynbee, William James, Rudolf Bultmann, and others.  The authors of this series were among the top Calvinist thinkers of their age, including R. J. Rushdoony, H. Van Reissen, Gregg Singer, Gordon Clark, and others.  (This whole series deserves to be reprinted and packaged in a good hardback set.)  Another series was called the University Series:  Philosophical Studies, and those volumes, many of which I have acquired, are still great studies and were really helpful to me in years past.

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Men who later became associated with theological and cultural wars were published by Presbyterian and Reformed during those decades that James Jordan referred to in his essay “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind”  and that I referred to in past writings and lectures as “Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Years.”

High on the list of authors that P & R (which is both an abbreviation and now the new name of the company) published was R. J. Rushdoony.  In time, many would shy away from or attack Rushdoony over aspects of Christian Reconstruction.  But for a long time, P & R was publishing and promoting mind-changing and thought-provoking works by Rushdoony on American history, politics, science, overpopulation, education, philosophy, and theology.  In 1973, P & R published Rushdoony’s monumental work The Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume 1. P & R still carries that title.  (Regardless of one’s perspective, this book is essential reading and a necessary reference work.)

It was P & R that promoted most of the early English translations of the work of Dutch Christian Philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd.  Along with editions of In the Twilight of Modern Thought and The Christian Idea of the State, the four volume work entitled magnum opus, titled A New Critique of Theoretical Thought was a P &  R publication.  It was initially priced at a very affordable level and was later selling for less than $20 for the 4 hardback volume set.  Along with that, the same company published other books promoting and discussing Dooyeweerd’s thought (such as works by E. H. Hebden-Taylor) as well as books that were critical of Dooyeweerd and his followers.

The most surprising thing is that P & R became the main publisher for the famous “unpublished syllabi” of Cornelius Van Til, along with complete books of his thought, and works by his most famous fellow Presbyterian adversary Gordon H. Clark.

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A young Gordon Clark and a young Cornelius Van Til–both poring over books, life-long pursuits for both men.

Obviously, Mr. Craig was primarily interested in getting the ideas, debates, and discussions going among Christian students rather than taking a side and attempting to suppress one view or the other.  One would not have noticed in the P  & R catalogs that Van Til and Clark had waged a theological/philosophical battle royal.  Both authors works were published and both were devoted to many of the same topics.  Van Til wrote Christianity and Barthianism and Clark wrote Karl Barth’s Theological Method. Both men were strongly opposed to Barth’s theology and concerned about the popularity of his writings and thought among American Christian pastors and teachers.

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 Both jousted with and did mortal combat with atheism, Darwinian naturalism, and other non-Christian philosophies.  Both were highly critical of neo-Orthodoxy, Arminianism, and Catholicism.  Their books and subjects complemented each other.

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The University Series: Philosophical Studies of Presbyterian and Reformed, a.k.a. Craig Press, included several of Clark’s works.

A few of Gordon Clark’s books were published by Baker Book House and other publishers, but P & R was the main source for his books for many years.  Often the P & R titles were published under the name of Craig Press, which enabled more college teachers and non-Presbyterians to use the books.  In time–not sure of the exact time frame here–P & R changed its focus and began publishing more books designed to reach a wider audience.  The covers became more attractive, the topics were more practical, and the publication was no longer the hard-core Calvinistic scholarship center it had been from the 1950s-1980s.  This should not be taken as a criticism of P & R, nor should anyone think that P & R is not still publishing some great and weighty books.  See, for example, the works of John Frame (including his History of Western Philosophy and Theology), the books by and about Cornelius Van Til (including Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic), and books on a number of social, cultural, and theological topics.

Around 1977,  a man who had embraced Gordon Clark’s theology, philosophy, and apologetics began a publishing and study center in Unicoi, Tennessee.  His name was John Robbins, and he had already made his mark in areas of Christian writing and political action.  His doctoral thesis was on Objectionist author Ayn Rand.  Still in print today under the title Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System, it is the only book I have ever come across that gives a Christian critique of Rand, who remains popular in conservative and libertarian circles.

As Robbins was working through his own thoughts and ideas, he read widely in the tradition of philosophers who were political or theological or both.  Upon reading Gordon Clark, he had his “eureka” moment and fully embraced a Clarkian view of God and man and things.  As Clark’s books were going out of print, Robbins was able to take up the Clark banner and publish or reprint the books.

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The result is that more of Gordon Clark’s books are available today than ever before.  Robbins’ publishing house is called The Trinity Foundation.  Clark’s books are available in paperback, some in hardback, and more and more in digital formats.  With the publication of the Douma biography of Clark, we should expect more Christian readers to want to read the man’s own writings.

Be warned:  Gordon Clark never felt the need to apologize for God, side-step the Bible and its authority, or give a safe, mealy-mouthed answer to any issue.  He was dogmatic, assertive, and unswerving in his convictions.  It was not meanness or rudeness that compelled him to write in such a blunt, straight-forward way.  Clark was a man of deeply held convictions who would not or could not tolerate sloppy thinking.  I admit that I would never have approached Gordon Clark unless I were armed with a friendly bowl of chocolate ice cream.  And I would never ever attempt to play chess against him.

But the time is ripe to start grabbing up, collecting, and reading Gordon Clark’s books.  He will challenge even when he doesn’t convince.  He will set a high bar for Christian thinking.  His gift was not in writing in a winsome easy style, so be sure to have strong, hot, caffeine enhanced coffee, along with a pen and paper at hand.  Be prepared for a blessing, but one that will take some amount of labor to obtain.

Postscript:  John Robbins was Clark’s bulldog.  A gracious and generous man in the classroom (according to Nathan Clark George–grandson of Gordon Clark and student of Dr. Robbins), Robbins was also generous in distributing books.  My school has used Clark’s Logic, Machen’s Education, Christianity, and the State, and Clark’s short book God and Evil: The Problem Solved, all of which were provided free of charge by the Trinity Foundation.

Also, a few years before he died, Dr. Robbins published a book of economic essays he had written.  Some of these had previously appeared in the Trinity Foundation newsletter.  In one of his essays, Robbins referred to Hilaire Belloc as an American Catholic.  I emailed Robbins and told him that Belloc was an Englishman of French ancestry.  “I don’t want anyone attacking your essay because of a mistake.”  I admitted that I wasn’t sure whether or not I agreed with the essay or not, but I didn’t want Robbins’ argument sidetracked.

When that essay–now corrected–appeared in the book, my copy of the book was autographed with the inscription saying: “Thanks for saving me from conferring American citizenship on Hilaire Belloc.”

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The only picture of John Robbins I have ever seen on the internet. I wish I could have met him.