“What a Piece of Work is a Man”–Studies in Theological Anthropology

 

 

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.

Psalm 8:4-6

What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving,
how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension,
how like a god!

William Shakespeare, Hamlet , Act 2, Scene 2

Truly the study of humans is among the most profound, deep, enriching, challenging, and worthwhile pursuits.  Most of us in our professional lives as well as our day to day living are continually studying both ourselves and others. At every stage in life and family, the topic is renewed and expanded and the perspective is widened.  Marriage changes our understanding drastically.  Children expand that understanding in even more ways.  Self-reflection involves a series of affirmations or denials that all contribute to the topic.

The term “Theology” means the “study of God.”  Much of theological study involves in depth examination of Scripture and historical theological developments regarding who God is.  But in the broader sense, we use the word theology to refer to a series of studies that include not only God Himself, but the created order.  Highest in that order is man, meaning in the older sense, mankind or people.  The beautiful opening line of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion says, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.’

I have recently been blessed by the challenge of working through three outstanding studies on the doctrine and nature of human anthropology.  First of all, I recommend all three books highly. They are not repetitions of one another, but the contents complement one another.  I did not set out to read these three books in an academic quest for studying humanness.  My reading plan is far too haphazard to be the result of a logic on my part.  But it has happened to me, and I could wish it to happen to others.

Reenchanting HumanityA Theology of Mankind

Reenhanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind by Owen Strachan is published by Mentor, which is an imprint of Christian Focus Publications.

This book is very basic, sound, and suited for regular readers, laymen, high school students, and perhaps college students in their first couple of years.  Topics include creation, fall, and redemption, as expected, but also particular subjects including work, sexuality, race and ethnicity, technology, and justice.  Each of those latter topics are hot spots in modern discussions.  Obviously, there are a wide range of views and speculations on these issues, but that does not mean that there are not basic and foundational truths to start with.  Strachan neither skirts the controversial issues nor does he waver from having a solid and traditional Biblical defense.

Some friends criticized this book as being a bit shallow.  Well, maybe.  But that depends on who the audience is.  I found the book to be both informative and spiritually moving.  In other words, theology and devotional reading met and ministered to me as the reader.  And there is always the need for good statements of basic truths and teachings.

This is a book that I would love to teach to a high school group or a Sunday school class.  At the same time, it was a very enjoyable morning read.

Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity by Herman Bavinck is published by Baker and is the first of three volumes.

See the source image

 

Herman Bavinck is currently a rock star among Reformed readers.  His books are being published, republished, translated, discussed, and promoted with unwavering zeal.  Now, along with the books by Bavinck, there are a number of studies appearing where scholars are analyzing and discussing him.  While he was never completely disregarded in the Reformed world, the degree of attention he is now getting is amazing.  I have previously posted a discussion of him and some of the many books that are now available.  I am currently reading off and on from The Wonderful Works of God, and it may well be the best Bavinck book to start with.

Bavinck is weighty and scholarly, but not impossible to read.  All he calls for is a bit of patience, a reasonably slow pace, strong hot coffee, and a mind ready for work. This first volume is…no surprise here…on ethics.  But such a topic so overlaps the study of man, mankind, humanity, people-persons that it is worthy to be used alongside the other two books listed here.

Any study of anthropology from Christian foundations has to examine what we were created to be like, how that changed due to the Fall, and how that has changed again due to redemption.  This is not ivory tower philosophy or dry-as-dust theology.  These matters are the nuts and bolts of Christian life and thought.  From here, one gets an understanding that should emanate from the pulpit, define the Humanities, impact the social order, and permeate every area of life and thought.

As my previous post indicates, one ventures here not just in reading some old dead Dutchman named Herman Bavinck, but in “Scaling Mount Bavinck.”

An Introduction to Theological Anthropology:  Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine by Joshua R. Farris is published by Baker. Academic.

Image may contain: text that says 'An Introduction to Theological Anthropology HUMANS, BOTH CREATURELY AND DIVINE JOSHUA R. FARRIS FOREWORD BY MARC CORTEZ'

When I first received my review copy of An Introduction to Theological Anthropology, I began second guessing myself for requesting it.  I really try to avoid asking for review copies of books that I think I will find too shallow, too technical, or disagreeable.  I thought this book would be way over my head, far above my reading ability, too deeply theological for my tastes, and too unfamiliar as a topic.

I was right.  And I am loving this book.  Yes, at times my comprehension of the discussion falls to a flat zero while Dr. Farris buzzes right on along tossing out terms and views that I know nothing of.  Some mornings, the caffeine in the coffee cannot quite energize me to the level of the book.  But so often, I have found myself very moved in the heart and challenged in the mind to think on topics that have never resonated quite this way before.

One of the saddest parts (and don’t bother to mourn for me) of being a book reviewer is that there is a drive to finish and post a few comments.  But this is a book that a reader needs to go through from start to finish, and then start over again with a pen and paper in hand.  Or he or she needs a group to study with.  Or maybe, one should just pay Dr. Farris to give lectures and reading assignments from the book.

One of my recurring thoughts on this book is about how vital this topic would be not just to a trained or aspiring theologian, but to a trained or aspiring student of philosophy.  I have spoken, as an outsider, about the need for, the growth of, the advance of Christians in philosophy and Christian approaches to philosophy.  And humans are central to our study of philosophy.  One thing that has dawned more slowly on me is that it is not just theologians and philosophers who should study “Humans, both creaturely and divine,” but also historians, literary scholars, psychiatrists, teachers, business people, and everyone else whose lives touch humanity.

What about preachers?  One of the questions I keep asking while reading this book is the old saying, “Will this preach?”  I don’t think, on the one hand, that many preachers will be stealing long passages from this book to incorporate into their sermons.  But the book’s discussion of the Incarnation worked me over.  I would not dare read those portions on the morning before giving an Advent sermon.  If I did read them at that point, I would not step into the pulpit.  But I would read and reread and think on these passages in my own study, which should be filled with sermons directed to my own mind and heart.

This is rich stuff. I have no doubt that some scholars and students more familiar with the sources cited and the topics addressed will have some fascinating tug of wars with this book.  “Farris did not adequately address such and such.”  “His treatment of this or that did not reflect a proper understanding of the whatever position.”  That is fine, for that is the world of some people, and such clashes of iron sharpens the clashed against iron.  But that is not my world.

For me, this book is once a again a work that impacts both head knowledge and heart direction.

Great books–all three.  Certainly, different strokes for different folks.  All three are evidences of God’s abundant blessings via the publishing world for us today.

 

 

 

Christian Essentials: The Ten Commandments and The Apostles’ Creed from Lexham Press

The Ten Commandments: A Perfect Law of Liberty is by Peter J. Leithart

The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism is by Ben Myers

Both of these volumes are part of the Christian Essentials series published by Lexham Press.

 

Thank God for the massive, weighty, richly voluminous weight-lifting theological books available to us in our times.  My bookshelves are literally sagging from these huge volumes often surpassing the 1000 page mark.  From the past and the present, great works of theology have been made available to us in these times.

Yet many of us have to confess that we have bookmarks sticking out in the first chapters of these books.  Or we have cheery picked a chapter or two for particular reading.  Or we have made it through only the first volume of a multi-volume set.  Or we have read the endorsements and blushed with shame that we have not been able to echo the words of J. I. Packer or Joel Beeke about the value of some great theological treasure.

Praise God for our partially read books, our unstarted books, our good intentioned book reading, and our failed efforts to persevere.  Bit by bit, we have tasted great works.

But let us also give thanks for those books that are easily read from cover to cover.  And thanks be given for the short summaries, the “concise brevity,” to use Calvin’s words, and the books that are so easy to buy, carry around, and not only start, but finish.

Lexham Press published books of all sizes and shape.  Abraham Kuyper’s Honey From the Rock  is a physically big book from Lexham Press, but so are John Frame’s We are All Philosophers

and Nature’s Case for God: A Brief Biblical Argument.

 

               

Besides the differences in size and topics, these books also display the variety of theological angles that Lexham Press books are providing.  Travis James Campbell and his study titled The Wonderful Decree: Reconciling God’s Sovereign Election and Universal Benevolence and Michael Heiser’s books such as The Unseen Realm and Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the  Powers of Darkness are in the Lexham line-up.  At the same time, there are a number of rarely seen books by a few of the great Dutch theologians and thinkers such as Kuyper, Geerhardus Vos, and Groen van Prinsterer.

Then there is this fine series called Christian Essentials.

These books are short, well-bound hardbacks that address key elements of Christian doctrine and life.  They are also deceptive!  One thinks that he or she is going to skip along through a nice, devotional read, but instead, the reader discovers a deep wellspring of theological practice and thought.  Short books, to be sure, but books that are far from light and fluffy.  Readable, yes, but also deeply connected to Faith and Life.  Practical, yes.  Teachable, yes.  Understandable, yes, assuming one is in a good solid church that is supplementing a life of Christian doctrine and practice.

I read Ben Myers’ Apostles’ Creed a year or more ago.  Sometime after reading it, I pulled it off the shelf again to borrow heavily from in preaching a sermon on the Creed.  (I never got past the words “I believe” from the opening of the Creed in my sermon.) This Creed is one that all Christians should believe, embrace, and recite.  Growing up Methodist, I learned it from childhood.  Recently, Al Mohler, a Southern Baptist theologian, wrote a book on the same creed.  (Mohler’s book is good, but Myers’ book is better.)

A few months back, I received a copy of Peter Leithart’s The Ten Commandments.  I have met and heard Dr. Leithart and have read quite a few of his many books.  Hop on board the Leithart train and you will be taken on a wild and surprising journey into theology, liturgy, literature, and more.  He is, quite simply, too smart.  (Read jealousy into that statement.)  He is also a good writer.

There are a number of books, as one might guess, on the Ten Commandments.  On the one hand, I tend to shy away from some of the ones that would be more popular, trendy, and designed to go after our cultural enemies.  Note that I would probably agree with most of the content of such books, but would still not prefer to be reminded that statistical numbers and Hollywood culture are cringy signs of a culture that hates God.

My two previous and preferred books on the Ten Commandments are as follows:  I love R. J. Rushdoony’s classic Institutes of Biblical Law.  This book is large, detailed, profound, thoughtful, and revolutionary.  More than any other work I know, it expands and applies the commandments to all of life, culture, thought, politics, and society.

The second volume I like is Thomas Watson’s Ten Commandments.  This book is, in Puritan fashion, aimed at the heart.  It is rich, devotional, and filled with practical exhortations.  If you want to like the Puritans, read this book.

Now, my favorite Ten Commandments book has a third member:  Leithart’s book.  At the end of each chapter, I found myself wondering how anyone could have packed so much into so few pages.  This book is a not a call for posting the Commandments on the lawn of the city square.  Nor is this book one that places the Law of God in a museum for New Testament believers to tour and take selfies in front of.  The Law is applied to people in Christ because they are in Christ and the Ten Words are from God.

Great books–The Christian Essentials are wonderful studies, preaching and teaching tools, family worship materials, and reads.

 

 

 

Paul versus the Philosophers and America versus the Just War Tradition

Image may contain: 1 person, text

These two excellent morning readings of late are on very different subjects, consisting of multiple contributors, and both enriching.

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

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context is edited by Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones and is published by InterVarsity Press.

The overwhelming criteria for my reading plans is that a particular book is close at hand.  I could wish that I had a drive to master particular topics and could read with a greater goal in mind.  But I accept my gadfly reading program and often surprise myself at how themes and commonalities crop up in spite of my non-intentions.

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy

I have been repeatedly made aware of how deficient my own education has been due to a lack of philosophy studies.  I have majors in history and English, but was never required to study philosophy.  It is inescapable for both of those fields.  I have also been involved in studying the Bible and theology since my late teen years.   I served as a pastor in the past and am still a teacher in a classical Christian school.  While philosophy and the Bible are not equal, any serious student of the Bible and theology must, as in MUST, study at least some philosophy.

This is not a case where one must go on a difficult journey to find someone, somewhere, who has written something on the connection between the history of philosophy and the history of the Church, or philosophical issues and theological issues, or of philosophers who were also Christians.  You want to get books on philosophy and Christianity?  Better get a large bookcase and a big budget.

The great thing about Paul and the Giants of Philosophy is its accessibility.  Each chapter takes one of the philosophers of the Greco-Roman world and presents their views on a topic and then contrasts those views with Paul’s writings.  There is more interaction between Paul and the philosophers in the Stoic tradition rather than examinations of Paul’s writings viewed in the light of “The Big Three,” meaning Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  Certainly, more in-depth, scholarly, weighty, academic books can and have been written.

But this book is readable, enjoyable, and geared toward the non-expert.  I firmly believe that my philosophy professor and student friends and son would find reading this book profitable, but it is geared toward those of us who read Paul a lot and Stoics rarely.  But, for those who wish to know more, each chapter ends with suggested readings giving both primary and secondary sources for the more serious pursuit of the topics.  And each chapter has some discussion questions as well.

I believe that this would be an excellent book to use in a college philosophy survey.  It could also be used in any course studying Paul in his historical and cultural context.  Some groups would enjoy this for a series of Sunday school lessons or as a book club read.  And, with strong, hot, black coffee, it is wonderful for morning reading.

See the source image

I usually begin with some readings related to the Bible and theology, and after that, I like to read something that fits into the broader Christian worldview perspective.  This is what led to my reading of America and the Just War Tradition.

America and the Just War Tradition

This book is like a long trip for a child.  What was overwhelmingly attracting me was the chapter by chapter survey of the various wars that the United States has fought in, beginning with the War for Independence and going up to current engagements in the War on Terror, meaning Iraq and Afghanistan.

But before one can get into the fun stuff, there is a long chapter written by the editors, Dr. Hall and Dr. Charles, titled “The Just War Tradition and America’s Wars.”  These 50 pages constitute what could be a short book on its own.  We all have a sense of certain wars or aspects of wars being just or unjust.  We all have a list of do’s and don’t’s about what is allowable in war.  On the one extreme, we would find pacifists who would eschew all wars.  There is within the Christian tradition a great amount of history and theology to support such a view.  As one whose military “experience” consists only in teaching about war, I have a heart-felt desire for pacifism.  But it is not easily sustained in light of real world conditions.

On the other hand, you would find extreme nationalist views which would justify any and every war that America or some other country of one’s origins has fought.  I find a certain sympathy with that position as well.  We honor the military men who, as we say, fought for our liberties and right to be free.  But exactly what liberties and freedoms for us were they fighting for in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and possibly some or all of the others?

The weighing out of justice or injustice in war is not merely a matter of gut reactions or simplistic patriotic urges.  The Just War Tradition largely grew out of the context of Western Civilization, or we could even say Christendom.  The greatest philosophers and theologians have thought seriously about the ethics of conflict on both a personal and nation-wide level.  Growing out of the thinking of such people as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, philosophers have agreed (always a slippery word to use) on what constitutes justness before, during, and after war.  The Latin phrases which permeate this book and topic are Ius ad bellum, Ius in bello, and Ius post bellum.  

Ius ad bellum, justness before war, begins with just cause, which is followed by just authority,  and right intention.  Ius ad bello, justness in war, hinges on discrimination and proportionality.   Ius post bellum deals with how the results are handled, what happens to the people and countries that were defeated, and what follows from that war.

As might be guessed, a war could be started for wrong reasons, conducted honorably (according to the criteria), and ended well.  Or you can mix and match the ingredients in a wide variety of ways.  As helpful as the criteria are, such things are not always clear cut.  War is so horrible that it sometimes seems insane to try to make it a subject of calm, reasoned discourse.

I majored in history in college.  I have taken courses that have included or primarily focused upon the wars of the United States.  I would guess that I have a thousand books dealing with war.  But this book revealed how little I actually understood or had been subjected to understanding the historical, philosophical, and traditional views of Just War.  That is the long journey that the reader has to take before getting to “the answers” in the chapters on America’s wars.

To quickly comment upon the wars, each chapter has a different contributor.  I honestly think there is not a bad or weak essay in the lot.  Part of the delight in this book is the cases where I was surprised or even shocked by the views of the authors.  I would tend, for example, to find the American War for Independence just and defensible, but Dr. John D. Roche thinks not.  Amazing argument, this chapter didn’t convince me, but it did humble me a bit. Many chapters later, I thought that there was little or no way to defend the American experience in Vietnam, but Mackubin Thomas Owens’s chapter blew me away.

As indicated in the review above regarding the Bible and philosophy, history teachers must study philosophy.  Just War is a philosophical and ethics related tradition and a theological concern as well.  Studying this book will not give you the set of pat answers to why this war and not that one was right or wrong.  But it will give perspective.

History teachers, read this book.  As a further note, it is chocked full of other reading suggestions on both the specific wars and on the topic in general.  I am convinced that I must acquire Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars.  Also, I am confirmed in my conviction that Mark David Hall is one of the best resources for serious historical and political studies in our time.  I learned of him last year from political theorist Koty Arnold just after Hall’s book Did America Have a Christian Founding? was published.  I am now on a quest to obtain and read all that Dr. Hall writes.

Image may contain: 1 person, text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church by David S. Steele

No photo description available.

The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church by David S. Steele was published in 2019 and is available through Amazon.

A few months ago, Dr. David Steele sent me a copy of his latest book The White Flag.  Being the diligent and quick book reviewer that I am, I was able to turn to this past week to read it.

First of all, I think it is good and necessary that pastors write.  David is senior pastor of Christ Fellowship in Everson, Washington.  This is, I believe, his third book, and the other two are on Martin Luther and John Calvin.  Pertaining to the topic sentence of this paragraph, I believe that writing, on the one hand, is a good discipline for pastors.  (I often cringe when I know that teachers assign themes and papers, but never write such things themselves.)  But more than just the discipline and focus that writing entails, it is good for a congregation to have written messages from their pastors and leaders.

Preachers are, whether they wish to acclaim the title or not, public theologians.  So, their writings need to address both doctrinal positions of their church, but also the greater cultural issues swirling around and affecting the minds of people both in and out of the congregation.  Also, written articles, newsletters, and, even better, books by the pastors enable the congregation to share, evangelize, and edify those they come in contact with.

Second, David has addressed some vital topics here in this book.  Scrolling through Facebook (with both the good and bad benefits of such), I am constantly made aware of heretical preachers, misleading theological deviations, denominational fights, and, in short, surrenders to the wrongful ideas that are battering the walls of the church.

The history of Christianity is a history of all too many surrenders.  As a student of history, I have read many accounts of armies surrendering.  Some surrenders were long overdue, but what is painful to read about is where an army surrenders unnecessarily.  (I am thinking here of the British surrender at Singapore in 1942.)  In contrast to the debatable historical examples, the church need never surrender its claims before the threats it faces.

The dangers can be put into two categories:  Outward dangers and Inward dangers.  The Outward dangers are probably the easiest to confront and are the least likely for the church to embrace.  In recent years, there has been a resurgence of atheism with several key figures who are the public apologists for such positions.  In my youth, that role of public atheist was carried on by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, who was something of an obnoxious buffoon. The big names today are more formidable.

The idea of a church surrendering to atheism is absurd.  (That doesn’t mean that it may not have happened in some case or another.)  Even the far from Fundamentalist or Evangelical churches in your community are not likely to hire an atheist pastor.  In past decades, most of Christendom was pretty firmly against the then-present threats of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism.  There were compromises, sell-outs, surrenders, etc., but it would not be expected that a church today would tolerate swastika or hammer and sickle symbols in their presence.  And thankfully, even in some of the whitest of Southern churches, the KKK is not welcome.

These outward threats, which must still be identified and confronted, do not constitute the greatest dangers.  Don’t look, in other words, over the wall of protection at the raging worldlings out there.  As the old Pogo cartoon character said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The key word in understanding what Dr. Steele addresses is compromise.  The middle and largest section of the book examines compromises.  No, neither your church nor mine will tolerate an atheist, Communist, Nazi, Mafia don, KKK member, or whatever else, but we are all susceptible to compromising what we believe, what the Scriptures teach, and what churches have historically affirmed.

I recognize that finding a balance is sometimes tricky.  Maybe some issues would be easier to confront if we just adopted a full-fledged Amish approach and cut off the world and most modern gadgets.  While I admire much in such separatist and pietistic efforts, I don’t think such an approach is reasonable or Biblical.  On the other extreme would be an antinomian embrace of “Christian liberty” where “all things are lawful” (wrenched out of context) and we get to enjoy “all this and heaven too.”  That would also allow for a libertarian Christianity that boldly proclaims in creed:  Whatever!

The solution is embarrassingly simple.  Adhere to the historic, creedal doctrines of what the Bible is, who God is, what Christ is, what faith is, and how we should then live and worship.  Yes, we will have some brush-ups and spats between ourselves and others.  Dr. Steele is a Baptist, while I am a Presbyterian. We can have a water fight at some point, but there are just too many clear and agreed upon doctrinal immovables for the two of us, and for Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, and creed affirming Christians to join together on.

Finally, I found myself thinking, while reading this book, that I may not tend to raise the white flag of surrender, but I am all too willing to seek detente.  That term, going back to the 1980s, refers to mutual coexistence.  On the one hand, I don’t want to fall into the mean-spiritedness that Christian convictions can wrongly cause us to embrace.  I want to have friends and connections with people on the other side of issues.  I wish every solid standing Christian could have a friendly relationship with at least one atheist, Muslim, LGBTQ person, and a dozen varieties of heretics.  How else can we share the Gospel with them?

But I don’t want to reach the point of affirming to myself that my friend X is Y, but I can accept that because of Z.  We recently watched the movie made about the life of Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist, whose life was overwhelmingly difficult because of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  There were many wonderful things included in this movie about this man, including his lifelong atheism.  I can’t give him a free pass because of his rejection of even a mere belief in theism.  Nor can I overlook the soul killing heresies or unbelief or wrongful lifestyle choices of people around me.  Compromise does not just lead to surrender:  compromise is surrender.

David Steele’s book contains some vital reminders for us.  It is as timely as the daily news, but its message is far more lasting.

God Sings by Douglas Bond and Sing! by the Gettys

See the source image

The term often used is “worship wars.”  Along with a hundred thousand other doctrines, practices, and preferences that divide Christians, we are prone to take up the sword and shield against, not our many enemies comprising the world, the flesh, and the devil, but each other.  The Church today not only cannot unite on many doctrinal fronts, but it cannot unite over who is going to lead the music and what music it is that is being led.

I don’t want to sound like I am minimizing the implications of the war for the keyboards and soundboards.  Important doctrines and actions are at stake here.  In the worst cases, we must love the singer, but hate the song.  Much singing and music should create as a collateral grace, amazing patience.  Flannery O’Connor tells in a letter of a man who was converted after attending church with his wife for years.  “The preaching was so bad,” he said, “That I concluded that there must be something important to all of this to cause people to keep coming.”  Maybe the same can be true of music.

I admit that I don’t want to wade into the worship wars battlefield.  I have fought with the brethren over Calvinism, baptism, the eldership, tongues, theonomy, weekly communion, congregational rule, charismatic gifts, church discipline, the application of Old Testament laws, the Sabbath, the role of women in the church, and more.  On some of these issues, I know I have been right at some point because I have been on both sides of the arguments at some point.  And I have not successfully avoided the sharp points of spears and barbs in fights over music.

But I would like to cross by on the other side of the road while the wounded musician lies there, beaten and robbed of his lyrics.  I will hope for a Samaritan heading to Brentwood, Tennessee will do what I don’t want to do.  Call me war weary, if you like, or maybe just a passive coward, if you prefer.  I confess that I really don’t know what to do to change music in the Sunday morning hour where we are all united in our being divided.

So, as a partial concession to the need to engage, I will comment on two excellent books on the music issue.  Read carefully, lest my tongue-in-cheek comments be taken for serious reflections and my serious reflections be taken for veiled attempts to rival the Babylon Bee.

See the source image

God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To) by Douglas Bond is published by Scriptorium Press.  Check out Mr. Bond’s website (click HERE)   where you can either order two copies of this book, or get the book along with a free CD called Rise and Worship, containing hymns he has written.

Douglas Bond is best known for his cottage industry that produces Christian historical fiction.  While many of his books are geared toward younger readers, they are enjoyable for readers of all ages.  His novels War in the Wasteland (set in World War I) and The Resistance (set in World War II) are recent works of his that I have read, enjoyed, and reviewed in the past year.  His book Hostage Lands, set in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, is a delightful book my junior high class and I read together.  It was that reading experience that cause me and Douglas to “Bond” as reader and writer.  (Yes, I know that was awful.)

But Bond is not stranger to the subject of music.  He has written biographies of John Knox and Isaac Watts, both being part of the “Long Line of Godly Men” series published by Ligonier Ministries. (Outstanding series, by the way.)  Moreover, anyone who has been a Christian for a long time and has had the occasion to sit in a variety of Christian worship services and conferences acquires a wide range of experiences with music.  Although music often is done almost as the opening act to a sermon or lecture, it is, upon reflection, more than that.  It is not merely an appetizer before the main course of a meal.

Side note:  We have attended services where the music part was referred to as “the worship” while the preaching that followed was…well, I am not sure what.  We are worshiping while we sit under the preaching of God’s Word as much or more so as when we are singing or listening to singing.

Bond suffers from the same possible tendency as I do:  Grouchy old man syndrome.  I am a bit older than he is, but his hair is totally white!  It is easy to write off the old, curmudgeonly Calvinist who is against everything except for some sparse, cold, doctrinally obtuse worship service.  So, one picking up his book and giving it the quick glance might conclude:  Here is another old man who is railing against the very thing we need to draw the young, unchurched into our churches.

I assure you that the description above is not who Douglas Bond is or what he seeks in his book.  (Whether it describes me or not is a different story.)  God sings.  Read Zephaniah 3:17.

“The Lord your God is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

Music is essential to sound worship.  Musical lyrics are doctrinal.  Music teaches, which means that it can build up or lead astray.

I have experienced both the unsingable, overly long, ancient church hymns that leave me cold and the loud, overly repetitious, shallow, syrupy creations that pass for music today.  All old and staid or all new and hip are not the choices.  But we do need to be singing doctrinal truths that are well written, learn-able and teachable, singable and delightful.  As Douglas Bond points out in example after example, such hymns have already been written in the past and they are still being written in the present.

God Sings! is good, convicting, and convincing.  Everyone on the church staff needs to read and discuss it.

See the source image

I picked up a copy of Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church by Keith and Kristyn Getty a month or so ago at my son Nick’s house.  I took it home with me to finish reading it.  Nick said, “It looks like one of those coffee table books.”  By that he meant the type of Christian fluff that has large print, double to triple spacing, with little text and even less content.  I agree, for I did not expect to find much beyond a bit of light topping in the contents.

However, this book is a solid study–yet very readable–that is calling the Church to do something radical: Sing!  I have experienced (even with limited travels) too many cases where there is a loud performance group (called the Worship Team), plugged in instruments, words flashed on a screen, and a soundbooth working overtime to mic the singers, but only the tiniest of sound coming from the congregation.  I have watched my wife and children, all trained musicians, stop even trying to sing the randomized melodies of the shallow songs.  I myself refuse to go along with the “repeat 20 times” of a song.  I abhor the moment when the oft sung refrain is sung yet one more time quietly for some emotional effect.

But even as hard hearted as I can be, I am always moved when I hear and feel the surge of volume coming from a congregation singing the hymns.  Sometimes the effect is from the large size of the congregations (where I am visiting), but usually it is the participatory engagement rather than the numbers that affect the songs.

Read both of these books.  Distribute copies of them if you are able.  Pray for a revival of congregational singing of solid hymns old and new and yet to be written.

Post Script:  Incremental steps are often good.

  1.  Turn down the volume of the mics on the singers up front and turn way down the volume of the instruments.  (I am not talking to first rate pipe organ players!)
  2.   Introduce and learn a solid hymn or two.
  3. Be patient with enduring old favorites that are weak (like “The Old Rugged Cross”) or new favorites that are shallow (“Bless the Lord O My Soul”).
  4. Teach on the importance of good hymnody.
  5. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that a U2-type concert will grow your church into stalwart Reformed soldiers.
  6. Allow songs to convey their messages.  Songs dealing with sin and the death of Christ don’t need to be set to dancing jig tunes.

 

 

 

 

Lexham Press’ Best of Christianity Today

 

See the source image

I was born in December of 1955 and Christianity Today first went out in October of 1956.  It would be many years before I gained even a shadowy awareness of the rise and travails of Evangelicalism within the Christian faith.  I was raised in the Bible Belt and most of my elementary teachers attended either the same Methodist Church I attended or went to Baptist churches in the community.  We prayed in school or at school events and the Christian undercurrents were still going strong.  In time, I became aware of a preacher named Billy Graham, mainly because his televised Crusades interrupted the regularly scheduled evening line-up of shows.

In my college years, 1974-1978, I became increasingly aware of the issues that had confronted Christians in previous decades and that were continuing to confront Christians.  Early on, I came to know enough well read, usually college educated, Christians so that I never believed or assumed that the mind and the faith were on different spheres.  My goodness, all it took was one struggling read through Gregg Singer’s Theological Interpretation of American History and R. J. Rushdoony’s This Independent Republic for me to embrace the powerful floodlight of the Calvinistic worldview.

At times, over the years I subscribed to Christianity Today.  My lapsed subscriptions were usually due to my paltry funds for magazines.  Also, I did not have easy access to the magazine in a library since public schools didn’t subscribe to many publications and certainly not a Christian one.

Along with my occasional reads from the magazine itself, I would hear and continue to hear about and read criticisms of the magazine.  Is it any wonder that a publication that seeks to speak for a large segment of professing Christians receives lots of criticism?

Most often in these times, I only hear about the magazine if something is published that outrages Christian conservatives or if an article appears that “we” really like.  The cover posted above highlights an outstanding article in the magazine by Dr. Louis Markos that praises the work of classical Christian education. As a teacher in a classical Christian school and as a fan of Dr. Markos, I loved the article.  There have probably been quite a few other articles that I would love, as well as some I would totally disagree with or just be indifferent to.  By the way, the conflicts related to Christianity Today are not new.  R. J. Rushdoony locked horns with the editors many decades ago when they published an article about William Faulkner.  And in this case, I respectfully and fearfully disagree with Rushdoony.

In the early decades of the magazine, the towering figures in the Evangelical world were being published in the magazine.  (Yes, in ever area, we always can enjoy sitting around complaining about kids nowadays and how the old days were better.)  Without creating or demanding theological conformity on every point, Christianity Today attracted lots of top notch Christian theologians, authors, and preachers who wrote fine articles addressing current issues with ancient wisdom.

Lexham Press has been wooing and winning my heart for several years now with their publications of great works by some of those amazing Dutchmen such as Geerhardus Vos, Abraham Kuyper, and Groen van Prinsterer.  If that was all that they published, I would be plenty happy with them.  (And even happier when the day comes when I buy the entire set of Kuyper’s works.) But they keep doing more and more.  I feel like a young theology student in Geneva during the days of Calvin and Farel. (Besides having many good pastor/theologians to listen to daily on podcasts/morning sermons, the printing presses were going non-stop in that town.)

One of the most attractive, irresistible, and enduring series of late is called Best of Christianity Today.  

First came Christ the Cornerstone: Collected Essay of John Stott.

Alongside of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott was one of the greatest preachers and writers on Christian theology in the British Isles and across the English speaking world during the Twentieth Century.  I have probably a dozen or more of his books, but not near all of them.  He was solid in theology, a fine writer and stylist, and a powerful communicator.  As with everyone (except me), there are errors or glitches in his theological understanding, but the man was a giant. And while quite learned and educator, he was not a theologian who wrote for theologians.  He was a pastor, first to those within earshot and then to those who read or still read his works.

Second in the series is Architect of Evangelicalism: Essential Essays of Carl F. H. Henry.

Carl F. H. Henry was never the effective, easy communicator that Stott was.  But he was regularly regarded as being one of the serious heavyweights and key intellectual Christian thinkers of his times.  Like his teacher Gordon Clark and like some of his contemporaries, such as Rushdoony, Francis Schaeffer, and Henry Van Til, Henry taught lots of Christians how to think, how to expand their minds beyond church issues, and how to confront cultural and philosophical issues of the times.

Henry’s main work is a massive six volume set called God, Revelation, and Authority.  Few will be those hearty enough to plow through the volumes.  In fact, one admirer said of Henry, “It is too bad that no one has translated his works into English.” (An obscure joke since he wrote in English.) For a time, it seemed as those interest in Carl Henry faded away, but I detect a renewed interest in our times.  Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism:  Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry awakened my interest in him several years ago and sent me scurrying to my library to rediscover several read and unread volumes I owned.

Any book that is highlighting the writing of the giants of the past, even the recent past, are a blessing to the Christian community.

The third volume in the “Best of Christianity Today” series is Basics of the Faith: An Evangelical Introduction to Christian Doctrine, edited by Dr. Henry.

This volume is a collection of articles by a host of authors who constitute the “Who’s Who of Evangelicalism” of the 1950s and 1960s.  Contributors include Philip E. Hughes, John Murray, Cornelius Van Til, F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, and many more.  While not a systematic theology, the essays cover a series of topics one would find in ST.

The key benefit in this book, as well as the series, is that these are relatively short essays.  Many readers are daunted by heavy books, long chapters, and the high mountain ranges of theological and Christian study.  But we can all read an article, an essay.  Of course, no short essay can cover the vastness of a topic, but we are finite.  The magazine and these writers were speaking to the Christian community.  You will likely dislike the fluffy Christian books as much as I do. You may break out into a sweat or hives when trying to negotiate with the contents of a serious, somber, searching theologian who is assuming that you have attended as many seminary courses as he or she has.

Here is the middle ground.  Add to that, these books are beautifully hardback works that adorn the shelf as well as fill the mind.  And for those of you who like, and I hate to say it, there are digital copies availabe to adorn your digital devices.

Great series.  Must haves.  Easy accessible reads.  Admirable authors.  Lovely bindings.  Thank you Lexham Press for this publishing venture.

 

Swimming In The Deep Waters of Theology

 

See the source image

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

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

Krause Springs

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

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

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

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

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

The Feasts of Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Opening of the Calvinistic Mind

See the source image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant

See the source image

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

See the source image

See the source image

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

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

See the source image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beckwith writes:

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

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

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

See the source image

 

Never Doubt Thomas

New Titles from InterVarsity Press

 

See the source image

There is a down side to being a book reviewer.  “Time’s winged chariots” are rarely allow me the privilege of merely enjoying a book.  I need to get it finished. I need to post a review.  I need to share that review on Amazon and Goodreads.  I need to assure the publisher that I am worth their efforts to supply me with the goods.

In days past, there was a world where time could sometimes stand still while I dug deeper and deeper into the books at hand.  There were always more to read and stacks of unreads, but there was a time carved out for the book in front of me, a conversation with the author, and a slipping away from the constraints of time and time’s tyrannies.

That idyllic memory aside, I must highlight a few reads from recent weeks and months from InterVarsity Press.

Disruptive Witness

Just this morning, I finished reading Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble.  (Published by IVP.)

One of my favorite things about IVP books is that so many of them are aimed at middle-level serious readers.  Some, alas way too many, Christian books are fluff.  I despise their large print, double spacing between lines, and easy, sweetened, and calorie free content.  On the other hand, there are tomes and monographs where Christian scholars and academics toss boulders back and forth, laden with footnotes, foreign sources, and theological underpinnings that leave me quaking on the sidelines.  Many of IVP’s titles are academic, scholarly, serious, and yet very readable by laymen and non-academic folk.  They are challenging, but accessible.  This book is one such case.

Do I need to argue the case that we live in a “distracted age”?  I have no assurance that you will even finish reading this blog post (in spite of its brilliance) because it is so easy to click to something else.  Digital things, the cyber world, and gadgets have compounded the distractions in a world already inhabited by machines, schedules, and pressures that prevent us from engaging ourselves with our Creator, His Creation, and our fellow men and women.  Even in sitting still long enough each morning for a week or two to listen to Alan Noble’s case, I found myself wanting the easy list of bullet points.  “Write the chapters, Alan, and then give me a list of 5 simple things to do.”  Although Noble gave plenty of suggestions and exhortations, he did not give me the Cliff’s Notes version of applications.

In what should not surprise us, one of the key emphases of his book was on worship.  Without slipping over between the trenches of the worship wars, I will summarize his arguments by saying that he calls for us to have real, participatory worship that is not geared toward imitating the world.  He also calls us to observe the creation.  I own five acres of God’s earth.  Of course, I am really only a steward of it, but even with land, I am all too prone to slip right past the wonders and awe of God’s creation that surrounds me.

One final note:  For at least the 10th time (maybe 20th time or more), I find an author who borrows heavily from Christian philosopher Charles Taylor’s work A Secular Age.  Glad I have that book; wish I could get serious about reading it.

In Search of the Common Good

A few weeks ago, I read In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador.

Both Meador and Noble are young authors and thinkers.  Their youth has not prevented them from thinking of some issues and concerns that call for wisdom and discernment.  Meador’s book is a call for community.  His discussion of the “fractured world” is not all that different from Noble’s discussion of a “distracted age.”  My problem with community and connectedness is that it sounds like something that was just fine back in the days of slower moving automobiles, party-line telephones, and long established neighborhoods.  But the fact that that world changed doesn’t mean that we as people have changed.  Christians are often as rootless and clueless as the worldlings next door.

We are also often as lonely and fractured as those outside of Christ.  There is always that nagging concern that we are getting more and more things, and that the things we are getting are better and better, and yet, we are more isolated, more unconnected, more fractured than ever.

Just make this easy on yourself:  Get both of these books and read them one after the other.  The hard part will be making the life-style changes and implementing a different outlook.  These are not two old men remembering the good old days.  These are young Christian men with young children who are seeking to find those practices rooted in Scripture and tradition that will enrich our lives.

On the other hand, Eugene Peterson was an old man and is now home with God.  The term paralleling with “fractured world” and “distracted age” that shows up in his book is “instant society.”  A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society has been reprinted in a finely done hardback “Commemorative Edition” by IVP.

I first read this book several years ago and was delighted to see it reprinted.  Re-reading it was a joy as well.  Peterson’s book is actually a running commentary on the Psalms of Ascent, those being Psalms 120 through 134.  He presents each psalm through a discussion of its meaning and application.  This is not an in-depth Bible study, nor is it a quick devotional.  Once again, it fulfills that middling operation.  Each discussion is filled with typical bits of Peterson’s allusions to literature, personal anecdotes, and insights into the meanings of the passages.

The amazing thing is that the remarkable title comes from an unlikely source–Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”  As Peterson notes with a chuckle, no doubt, Nietzsche was probably turning over in his grave to see his very used being used by a Christian pastor and author and being read by Christians for over forty years now.