Reformed Dogmatics by Vos

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A few years back, Lexham Press published the first of five volumes of Reformed Dogmatics by Geerhardus Vos.  We must grant that this publishing event probably didn’t shake the Christian community nor did the book reach the New York Times best seller lists.  I don’t think those who labored to translate Vos’ notes from Dutch to English nor those who labored to put the book into print were expecting a tidal wave response.

Look at the title itself:  Reformed Dogmatics.  Look at the author:  Geerhardus Vos.  Volume One contains the additional words Theology Proper in the title, and that also would not have drawn a crowd.  With the publication of this volume with a limited appeal, Lexham Press went on to complete the set.  Now, instead of one book with an unappealing title, by a largely unknown theologian, there were five volumes that more than quadrupled the content and raised the price.

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There is a valuable lesson in all of this.  Here it is:  There is an important distinction between the popular and the valuable.  Put another way, there are books and ideas that capture the moment and for a time create a buzz.  And then there are other books and ideas that are founded on more lasting and weighty foundations.  In our town, the fair comes around each September.  Quickly, the rides and concession stands are filled with blazing lights and loud music.  The crowds–for a week or two–flock to the fairgrounds in large numbers, juggling cotton candy, overpriced drinks, and tickets while lining up for the thrill of a few minutes of being slung around.  In contrast, there are the more permanent places where stately buildings and solid institutions are established way before the fair hits and continue on after it leaves town.

There is a remnant who have labored to preserve the writings of theologians like Geerhardus Vos, Francis Turretin, B. B. Warfield, and many more.  The labors have been put forth to reset or translate or even discover the writings of men of old and see that they are available for readers today.  Sure, there is a place for antiquarian interest in old books.  “Look what somebody said back in 1890?” someone might say, after finding a long lost work.  It is a type of literary archaeology consisting of fragments of books from ages past.

Modernity or post-modernity or whatever term describes the present can also exert itself in a love for the latest scholarship.  Once upon a time, Karl Barth rattled the entire evangelical world, but his day came and went to a large extent.  Various new ways of interpreting, systematizing, and understanding the Bible capture the flags on even the most staid of seminaries and create a gush of energy to further develop whatever the zeitgeist of the day happens to be.

Why did anyone bother to wade through reams of lecture notes and dated materials of a long deceased Dutchman?  Why did a small publishing house–which most likely has few huge subsidies or best sellers–labor to produce a set like this in fine, hardbound volumes?

Is it better because it is old?  The idea “the old is better than the new” can be just as flawed as the passion for the latest new thing (as described above).  The question still remains of why this set?

Having now completed reading Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One, Theology Proper, I will venture around with some answers.  Let’s start with the word “Reformed.”  I live in an area where that word is either confusing, misunderstood, or strongly rejected by some who do understand it.  It is one of the richest words in our theological history.  That being said, sometimes those of us who apply the term to ourselves (as in “I am Reformed” or “I am a Reformed Christian”) badly handle the gold treasures we have discovered.

The word “Reformed” used as an adjective to modify terms like Christian, churches, or theology dates back to the Protestant Reformation.  This past year–2017–marked the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s act of posting his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg.  Neither the 5 Solas of the Reformation nor the 5 Points of Calvinism capture anything other than a portion of what is contained in the theological heritage of all things prefixed by the word “Reformed.”  To grasp the extent of the wealth of riches contained in the history of all theological things labeled as “Reformed,” one must think of discovering a huge treasure. (I am thinking of the final scenes in the movie National Treasure.)

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Or, more closely aligned to the experience, imagine a huge library filled with all manner of great books.

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When I am extolling all things that are connected to the Reformed faith and Reformed theology, I am not unaware of how often and in how many ways, that heritage has been misused, abused, and badly represented by us (I am Reformed in theology) and wrongly maligned by others.  That is another topic.  Vos was European, Dutch in fact.  The use of the word Reformed (Hervormd) was not being waved as a flag to provoke enemies.  It simply stated a respected theological tradition.

The word “Dogmatic” or “Dogmatics” is less familiar to even most Christians.  Usually, describing someone or some belief as “dogmatic” is somewhat negative.  It implies an unwillingness to move or stubbornness.  To describe a person as dogmatic in his beliefs is not a compliment. But in the broad field of theology, dogmatics is a good and necessary part of a whole Christian’s system of thought.  Theology itself or theological training sometimes involves courses in systematic theology,  biblical theology, and dogmatic theology.  Other courses might be focused on pastoral theology, practical theology, etc.  Theologians can delve into the precise differences in approach to systematic, biblical, and dogmatic theological studies.

The precise definition of “dogmatic” is “inclined to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true.”  Even the most open-minded, gentle, non-controversial, easy-going, quick to listen Christian had better have some dogmatic theology under his belt.  Such is essential to being grounded, settled, unmoved in the Faith.  Dogmatic theology is why we recite the catechism, read from our respective confessions, learn the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, and drill certain beliefs into our own heads and the heads of others.  Even if taking dogmatic positions turns into occasions of being called narrow-minded, close minded, a bigot, etc., it has to be done.

Now, concerning the author himself:  Geerhardus Vos.  He was never a flashy, charismatic leader in either his native Netherlands or his adopted land, the United States.  Perhaps his wife is better known than he is.  Catherine Vos’ Child’s Story Bible has been a popular book for many decades.

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Geerhardus Vos was a theology professor at old Princeton Seminary.  His colleagues were such men as B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen.  His friends included Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.  Those he influenced included such men as Cornelius Van Til.  He wrote some weighty theological books, such as  Pauline Eschatology and Biblical Theology:  Old and New Testaments.  Some of his theological articles have been collected and published in other works.

Vos’ primary claim to fame is being called “the Father of Biblical Theology.”  It is a bit much to say that he invented that field of study, but he did make it a more specific academic and theological discipline.  As a writer, he was not flashy or popular, but studied and careful and detailed.  As a personality, he seemed rather quiet and unnoticeable.  When the great controversies erupted at Princeton Theological Seminary after the death of Warfield, Vos remained at the seminary rather than leaving with Machen and company.

Vos was anything but a liberal, nor was he even moderate on such things.  Maybe it was a matter of age or personality, but he stayed at Princeton until his retirement a few years later.

The life of Geerhardus Vos, when such a book is written, will not be a page turner.  But he was a faithful Christian man and scholar.  And he was deeply immersed (figuratively speaking, my Baptist friends) in the theological heritage and Reformed traditions of the Netherlands.  In the spirit of Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization and Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World, a book does need to be written about how the Dutch created theological wonders of the modern Christian world.

Everything said up to now deals with the set before it is ever opened.  But since this blog post has already gotten a bit long, it will be better served for me to discuss the contents later.

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A Church You Can See by Dennis Bills

“It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  That popular saying well describes many places we might go to on vacation, but it also applies to the way many people view church membership.  They might rephrase it like this:  “Churches are nice places to visit, but I would not want to be committed there.”  There are many cultural and spiritual battles we face in our day.  No Christian can dispute that the family is under attack.  For this reason, you can fill shelves with books on marriage and family issues.  No Christian can dispute that we are engaged in a multi-front culture war over issues that seemingly didn’t exist a century ago.  No Christian can dispute that major institutions in our society are reeling and rocking from corruption, wrong directions, unbelief, and evil.

Yet we rarely hear this being given as an answer:  Go join a church.  Even many of the better or more energetic evangelistic groups have often been neglectful of church membership.  The word “Christian” is used as an adjective for all types of things–many of which I approve–but is not used as frequently to describe or modify the word “church.” Church life is an appendage for some.  It can be a cross to bear.  Or it might be an added feature, just like tinted windows on the car you buy.

The word “church” itself can be used to name a building (like the one in the picture above), a denomination, a spiritually amorphous group of both living and dead Christians, a large historical group (like the Catholic Church or Anglican Church), a place to go (as in, we go to church each Sunday), or any assembly (in the more etymological meaning of the word).

A Church You Can See by Dennis E. Bills is a much needed book for Christians.  It is a book about building a church and the architecture of a church.  Let me clarify that quickly:  The book is subtitled Building a Case for Church Membership. This book is not about the best way to construct a physical building or design that building for acoustics or seating or multi-functional use.  This book is about the absolute necessity of Christians being tied to, committed to, joined to, and dedicated to a particular local group of fellow believers in order to live out the Christian life.

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Before hitting a few key points in Pastor Bills’ book, let me line out the case for not joining a church.  First, no church is perfect, nor will any church fit your particular beliefs in every detail.  Second, church membership will not save you.  Third, many churches are routine and tradition-bound.  Fourth, there are all kinds of ways you can serve God without being a church member.  Fifth, where does the Bible say that you have to be a member with your name on a roll in a church?  Sixth, what about all those people who are in situations (like health, geographic location, in military service, in prison, etc.) who cannot be in church?

Some really strong arguments can be crafted from those six points and others as well.  But, the bottom line is that being committed to, being a member of a church is absolutely essential.  (Exceptions, such as health, geography, job, access, are just that–exceptions.)  While neither Pastor Bills nor I can cite a verse that says “All God’s people must have their names inscribed on the rolls of a local assembly of fellow believers,” the New Testament presupposes church membership at every stage.

The New Testament letters are written to churches and church leaders.  The Book of Acts is a book about church planting.  The Gospels are written to instruct believers in churches. The gifts, spiritual and otherwise, and teachings are all used in church settings.  Not a single word is directed toward Christian schools, Christian music groups, Christian bookstores, Christian political parties, or any other group prefixed by the word “Christian.”  While I strongly believe that all those Christian-oriented groups or causes should exist, they grow out of the church community and are not equals or peers with it.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are also church-related.  I hope that sentence bothers you.  I hope it sounds a bit like it was just an add-on to what the church does.  I intentionally sought to do to two things:  One is raise the eyebrows of discerning readers and echo the verse in Genesis 1 that casually says, “He made the stars also.”

Baptism–lay aside the matters of mode and subjects–is essential, absolutely commanded, defining, and not negotiable for one who professes faith in Christ.  (Yes, I understand that if your hands and feet are pierced with nails and the Roman government is in the process of killing you, you can appeal directly to Jesus.)  Baptism is a work and ordinance of the church.  Along with that, the Lord’s Supper–laying aside more details about frequency and what elements are used–is a part of the Christian life in the same way that breathing is part of physical life.  I hate when someone says that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are just symbols.  If I tell a woman that my marriage ring is just a symbol, I hope someone bashes me over the head.  (I expect my wife to do so.)  In the example I use, a marriage ring really means that I am married, but it is a tradition.  How much more are baptism and the Lord’s Supper real and vital since they are established by Christ Himself?

In A Church You Can See, Bills walks the reader through the stages of building a house or other structure.  This metaphor is carried through the whole book to teach different aspects of church membership.  This book, while good for individual reading, would really best be used by teachers and elders to instruct Sunday school classes or membership classes.  It is clearly written, very practical, heavily laced with Scripture passages, and intended to result in the reader either joining a church or becoming aware of the meaning of church membership.

Pastor Bills (and I would emphasize that he is an ordained Presbyterian minister in West Virginia) writes from a Presbyterian and Reformed perspective.  Those who might not line up with him on all points (meaning that they are not Presbyterian or Reformed) will still find this book incredibly useful and instructive.

This book can be purchased through Amazon for the ridiculously low price of $5.99.

Along with this book, I will mention two others I like that deal with church life.

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My former pastor Curtis C. Thomas, who also co-authored The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Documented, and Defended, wrote an incredibly good book on living the Christian life in the local church.  Titled Life in the Body: Privileges and Responsibilities in the Local Church, it was the book I often gave to people who were considering church membership when I was a pastor.  Filled with short chapters, this book is also a great individual read or source for a group study.

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Stop Dating the Church: Fall in Love with the Family of God by Joshua Harris is a vital wake-up call for believers who are shirking their responsibilities toward local church membership.  It is an easy, light, but convicting read.

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Along with building a case for church membership, churches need to buy a case for church members.

 

Calvin, Vos, and Theological Rappelling

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Rappell: noun, 1931, “mountaineering technique for descending steep faces,” from French rappel, literally “recall” (Old French rapel), from rapeler “to recall, summon.” The same word had been borrowed earlier (1848) to mean “a drum roll to summon soldiers.”

I am not known for being a risk taker.  In fact, I am very sedentary.  Heights for me pertains to bookshelves.  Adventure usually means drinking a third cup of coffee.  Camping and canoeing were once high on my agenda, but they have been replaced by less challenging events like napping and reclining.

I do most of my risk taking with books.  I really ought to stay on the lower, more level grounds, but I am all to prone to reach out, up, over, and beyond what I am able to take in.  When I can, I understand.  When I cannot understand, I seek to appreciate.  Sometimes, it helps when there are guides and support along the way, but I still stray outside my mental comfort zone.

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My recent morning readings have included two really useful books, but two books that are not quick, simple, or easily mastered works.  Reading often is best done when the right book meets the right set up.  For example, many books are great for easy chair reading.  Some are just right to tag along on trips to have handy for short snatches while waiting in line or sitting in a car while the wife runs into the grocery store to pick up a few things (meaning at least one full grocery cart full of stuff).

Other books are just right for reading in bed at night.  Nothing clears my mind of school related problems like a good spy and espionage novel.  Whenever Gabriel Allon or Mitch Rapp plug a few holes in a terrorist who has been threatening Israel or America, I can relax and get ready to sleep.  Many biographies and histories are great for bedtime reading.

Most of my theological reading is done in my comfortable chair where I am flanked by a cup of coffee.  This reading is done in the early morning.  (The amazing thing is that I was a night owl for years and not a morning person.)

But some books require enough mental heavy lifting that a different set up is needed.  In these cases, the book or books need to be spread out on a table with other resources close at hand.  If theology is the topic, a Bible must be there for reference, reinforcement, clarification, proof, or even correction.  The coffee–and the stronger and hotter, the better–still needs to be present.  So does a pen or pencil and some means of making notes.  (If music is desired, it probably should be Bach or Vespers by Rachmaninoff.)

Recently, I began reading two such challenging books in the morning session.  One is Knowing God and Ourselves by David Calhoun.  This book is published by Banner of Truth.

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Over the past years, I have read several books by David Calhoun.  His two volume history of Princeton Theological Seminary, also published by Banner of Truth, is a great read on the history of theology in America.  It could have been said, “As Princeton goes, so goes the nation.”  The story of Princeton as a theological bastion and then battleground is well told in these two moving volumes.

Calhoun told a similar, but much shorter story in his book Our Southern Zion:  Old Columbia Seminary.

This Banner book recounts the ups and downs of Southern Presbyterianism as found in Columbia.  I did not recognize as many names, but still enjoyed this contribution to our theological heritage.  A book that Calhoun edited and wrote part of is Pleading for a Reformation Vision: The Life and Selected Writings of William Childs Robinson. Robinson was a professor at Columbia and a Reformed scholar and author during the 20th century.

Knowing God and Ourselves is a completely different type of work from the historical and biographical writings of Calhoun. Now a professor emeritus of church history from Covenant Theological Seminary, he continues to write and share his wisdom during his remaining years.  This book grew out of courses he taught on John Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Note that the subtitle of this book is Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.  That in itself contains several key features.  We ought to be reading Calvin’s Institutes.  Yes, I am referring to those of us who are often called Calvinists (either as a compliment or an insult–I take the first).  We don’t need to read Calvin to shore up our arguments on the 5 Points of Calvinism (which are not easily found in the index or table of contents of his works).  We don’t need to read Calvin in order to be a tribe of Calvin-bots who go around citing him like little Chinese kids use to do with the writings of Chairman Mao.

Instead, we need to read Calvin because his Institutes were written to devotionally and intellectually grow God’s people.  He intended his work of “concise brevity” to be a handbook to help new, young, eager Christians to get acclimated to the things of God.

“Dry, dusty theology” (a phrase I detest) and Calvin’s Institutes have no point of contact.  Nor is his work a field guide for the seminary level graduate student preparing for a lifetime of being a seminary level Christian.  Calvin was writing a book for street Christians, for regular Joe’s who sit in the pews, and for struggling pastors who labor over open Bibles.

Right now, I am reading the book from cover to cover.  The chapters and topics are easily read.  The quotes from others are rich.  Each portion begins with a quote from Calvin himself, another quote from a Calvin scholar or student, a specific reading assignment from The Institutes.  And that is followed by a pertinent Scripture text, a defining quote from the reading assignment, and a prayer from one of Calvin’s many writings.

Whether it is this coming summer or next fall, I hope to begin my second use of this book.  At that time, I will be at the table with the Bible, pen, paper, and The Institutes.  I will be using yet another great Banner work, the new translation of the 1541 Institutes.

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Another challenging book I am currently working through is Reformed Dogmatics: Volume One: Theology Proper by Geerhardus Vos.  This volume, along with the remaining four volumes of the set, was only recently translated and published by Lexham Press.

Geerhardus Vos is a big name in the history and pursuit of Reformed theology.  He is Dutch.  For reasons that continue to amaze me, the tiny and largely below sea-level nation known as the Netherlands has produced a larger than expected number major thinkers in this world.  One might throw out names like the philosopher Baruch Spinoza or the physicist Niels Bohr, but most of my interest has been focused on the theological minds that have emerged out of Dutch history.  These “theological thinkers” (which describes a broader swath than just saying “theologians”) include historian Groen van Prinsterer, political and theological leader Abraham Kuyper, theologians Herman Bavinck and G. K. Berkouwer, and Christian philosophers Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven, and art critic H. R. Rookmaaker.

The flowering of Dutch Calvinism spread to the New World as well.  Bands of Dutch Calvinists came to this country at various times.  Many maintained deep connections to their Dutch culture, language, and religion.  Louis Berkof was a major Dutch theologians whose books are still devoured by eager Calvinists.  So are the works of Cornelius Van Til, the apologist and key promoter of the concept of presuppositionalist apologetics.

Geerhardus Vos was a Dutch transplant to the New World.  He taught for a time at Calvin College and then moved to Princeton.  His is sometimes regarded as the “father of modern Reformed Biblical theology.”  Not a light thinker, Vos is not as popularly read as some of his theological peers like Kuyper or colleagues like Benjamin Warfield or Van Til.

Some of the lag time for Dutch theologians is due to their major works being written in their native language.  It has only been in recent years that Herman Bavinck’s mutli-volume Reformed Dogmatics has been accessible to English-only/mainly readers.

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Now, in addition to a load bearing shelf carrying Bavinck’s volumes (and don’t forget to add the one volume summary and some more recent additions of essays), one can also have five volumes of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics.

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Vos’ work grew out of courses he taught on systematic theology.  He follows a method of questions and answers.  The works were probably assigned as readings rather than given as lectures.  The Q and A’s format is very precise, careful, and exhaustive.  Each section of Volume One could easily be made into a short handbook on the topic covered.

Volume One’s topics are

The Knowability of God

Names, Being, and Attributes of God

The Trinity

Of God’s Decrees in General

The Doctrine of Predestination

Creation

Providence

Vos explains the doctrine, lists key Bible verses, and often either buttresses his argument from Calvin or other sources, or answers objections or refutes other views.  One has to be careful in reading the book, for Vos will give a sentence or a viewpoint which he goes on to refute.

This is the kind of hard work that pastors and teachers need.  I hope it doesn’t just go on in seminary classes, especially in light of the fact that many of us have never attended such classes.

Being grounded calls for lots of review.  I have been what I am for so many years that I have ceased to think about many doctrines and teachings that I once sweated blood over.  A careful examination of the 40 pages of study of the Trinity is a good exercise for my mind.  But it is also good for the heart (to make that oft used distinction).

Because of the format, Vos’ writing has little flow or elaboration.  There are plenty of other places to find such.  This volume is for the slow, detailed climber.

Michael Horton describes these Vos writings as being “like a lost Shakespeare play recently discovered.” Well said.

 

The Christ-Centered Expositor by Tony Merida

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My step-mother used to refer to men who were “trying to make a preacher.”  I also remember reading a book where young candidates for the ministry were said to be “tolerated” by the congregation.  There are numerous gifts that pastors need to have or that the session of elders need to have.  But whoever is standing behind the pulpit or lectern or is up front of the congregation with his mouth open  needs to be well equipped.

Lots of good men are not good preachers.  Lots of men who are capable of getting through a sermon and edifying a congregation once are not apt to be at that task every week or very often.  Bad preaching comes in lots of varieties. Church life and Christian living depend upon more than just preaching, but preaching is a vital ingredient for both the church as a body of Christ and the individual living for Christ.

Preaching depends upon certain God-given gifts.  Absent these gifts, a man is not likely to ever “make a preacher.”  But most men who have been “tolerated” by a congregation or homeletics class will have some skills that need to be honed for regular preaching and teaching.  A Charles Haddon Spurgeon breaks all the rules.  He skips Bible college and formal training; he enters the ministry at a very young age; he preaches from particular verses or even parts of verses; and he is incredible.

Message to all of us:  Look in the mirror; listen to a tape or podcast of your sermons; ask a few objective members of the congregation; and embrace this truth: You ain’t Spurgeon.  Most of us ain’t Tim Keller, Mark Dever,  John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Alistair Begg, or Sinclair Ferguson.  Feel free to fill in the name of any other great preacher.  But you probably ain’t him either.

But God never calls men to greatness.  The Apostles, as they stumble through the Gospel accounts, appear more often as buffoons, immature and jealous boys, and intellectual lightweights.  The most academic and scholarly of the New Testament writers, Paul, was not a powerful orator, by his account.  He could put people to sleep by his sermons!

God calls fallible, but transformable men to ministry.  But they have to learn.  They need mentors.  Some of their best mentors will be long-since dead men of old.  Some of them will be their teachers or previous pastors.  Some will be current authors.

Men going into ministry need to read good books on everything and every aspect of Christian life and thought.  This includes books on preaching.  The Christ-Centered Expositor by Tony Merida is at the top of my list for books for pastors at all levels to read.  This book is published by B & H Academic, which has become one of my favorite publishers. They are currently publishing the Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon series and Stewart Kelly’s book Truth Considered and Applied which I have reviewed and praised in previous posts.

One of the main thrusts of this book is that preaching need to be expository.  By that, we mean that the preacher should explain the meaning of the text he uses for the sermon.  The sermon should illuminate the text and the text should determine the content of the sermon.  Want to preach on a topic?  Don’t go and find a Bible verse that includes a slight reference to the topic and then go merrily along your way.  Don’t “use” the Scriptures, but teach them.

Quite often expository preaching will entail teaching and preaching through entire books or lengthy passages.  So be it.  That is what is needed to teach the people the Bible.  The Bible is not a set of aphorisms.  Even Proverbs is not just a random list of neat sayings.

The first half of the book, however, is not devoted to teaching the preacher how to preach or construct sermons.  The first seven chapters are in a unit titled “The Expositor’s Heart.”  There is no sermon worse than a sermon delivered by an unfaithful man.  Part of what makes ministry so hard is that the preacher has to spend all week preaching to himself before he can preach for a half-hour to hour to others.  As preachers know, if your upcoming sermon is on joy, you will experience the most joyless week ever as your prepare for it.  Same for patience.  Same for just about anything.  God’s training camp is not for sissies.  It’s not for tough men either.  Only a Christ-centered Spirit led life can enable any man to survive his own soul and preach to others.

The second half of the book is titled “The Expositor’s Message.”  If the first half needs to be read on one’s knees, the second half needs to be read with a pencil, paper, and open Bible.  God just doesn’t give messages.  Yes, I believe that I could stand up right now and preach a message.  But if the message turned out to be any good (and I know God can and does use really bad messages as well), it is because of years of study, reading, listening, and practicing.

Merida emphasizes two key parts of the sermon preparation.  The first is called the MPT.  That stands for the Main Point of the Text.  It is not the main point I want to make in my sermon, nor is it some main point my congregation needs to hear.  It is the Main Point of the Text.

Second, there is the MPS, which is the main point of the sermon.  Having three points, many subpoints, alliterative lists, and the like may or may not be useful.  But a sermon should have a main point, a main take-away.  It needs to be clear and needs to be repeated in the sermon.  I have heard many tolerable to decent sermons that seem not to have had a main point or a memorable main point. I have probably preached too many sermons where the main point either didn’t exist or was obscured along the way, or was not made perfectly clear.

Pastor Merida is well grounded in the best writing on pastoral ministry and preaching around.  He highlighted many books I read and loved along the way.  Some of these include John Stott’s Between Two Worlds and Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students and Lloyd-Jones Preaching and Preachers.  He also quotes and recommends quite a few other books I would be lunging after if preacher were still on my job description.

Most books like this one appeal only to actual preachers or preachers-in-training.  Well grounded people in the congregation need to occasionally read a book like this.  Those (of us) who are sermon listeners, rather than sermon makers, could benefit from being better equipped to know what we are looking for.

As Helmut Thielicke said, “Sell your shoes and buy Spurgeon.”  I would add this:  “Sell another pair and buy The Christ-Centered Expositor.

The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre

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There is a big part of the topic of apologetics that doesn’t apply to me.  Maybe I am dimwitted, gullible, and shallow.  I don’t deny those things.  I believe the Bible.  I believe the words of Jesus.  I believe the historic and creedal teachings of the Church (in the broadest universal sense).  I have no more problem believing in the virgin birth of Christ than in the non-virgin birth of myself, my children, and others.  I believe Christ rose from the dead.  I am a creationist and pretty much in line with fundamentalists, except that I am not premillennial.

In matters where I have doubts, I simply shrug them off as a personal failing.  Like the people of Pennsylvania that former President Barack Obama, I simply cling to guns and religion.  Well, actually, I cling to coffee, books, and religion, but I basically fit alongside of those political Neanderthals as depicted by the Enlightened One.

Nevertheless, I have long loved and studied and read on Christian apologetics.  I have loved that area of study since I first discovered it many years ago.  I love it too much to take sides.  By that I mean that I love Van Til and Gordon Clark.  I love the approach by Greg Bahnsen and that of R. C. Sproul.  I love Classical Apologetics, Theistic Proofs, Evidentialists, and simple home-grown personal testimonies.  Correcting my words above, I actually do take sides:  I do favor the views of the presuppositionalists, but will still employ examples form Evidence That Demands a Verdict.  

Back in December, I started a book titled The Case for Christ:  The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ by Brant Pitre.  I was reading it as a spiritual prop to all of the non-spiritual pressures of the Christmas season.  It filled that need, but it did much more.  The reading of the book was a heart and mind exalting experience.

On the one hand, I was convinced of nothing I didn’t already believe.  But I was strengthened, confirmed, and made incredibly joyful of the “faith once delivered for all the saints” (Jude 3).  But the field of apologetics, as defenders of the faith would say, is not primarily to convince the unbeliever, but to comfort and strengthen the believer.

My initial attraction to this book was that it had an afterword written by Bishop Robert Barron. I had read and reviewed a book featuring Barron titled To Light a Fire on the Earth.  My review can be found here.

Wanting to learn more of Barron, I was interested in this book primarily for that reason.  Dr. Pitre lives in my neighboring state of Louisiana and is a professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.  Besides being an academic professor, he is a best selling author.

This book begins with a central issue:  Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be God?  Again, I never lay awake at night wondering about that.  But it is a stumbling block for many.  And it is a contention that is raised by folks in the liberal wings of the Christian umbrella.  Granted, I have long since embraced J. Gresham Machen’s teachings in Christianity and Liberalism and have dismissed the theological liberals as being outside the pale.  But the broader religious community, which includes all varieties of Christian-adjective groups, teach, write, suggest, imply, and slip in doubts and questions about this.

Heresies are a great blessing to believers.  For by them, Christians are forced to wake up, drink stronger coffee, and pull the Bibles down from the shelves and start digging.  The result is not capitulation, defensive retreats, or fear.  Rather, the result of battling a heresy is clarification of the truth.

Bart Ehrman is the prime target of this book.  Ehrman, who is–sad to say–a Wheaton graduate, is a popular writer whose claim to fame is debunking the faith he once embraced (sort of).  He is a good writer.  I read a book titled The Gospel According to Judas.  The fragment that is attributed to Judas is ridiculous, but it is a valuable piece of ancient Gnostic material.  Bart Ehrman’s essay on the Judas fragment was outstanding.  Eherman’s labors, however, are usually aimed at undermining the confidence of believers.

His books, along with contentions of professors of religion, created a crisis for Pitre when he was a student.  But there is a valuable lesson for any Christian who is troubled by “the latest discovery regarding Christianity.”  It is this:  There are no new arguments against Christianity under the sun.  For this reason,  Pitre ably assembles the teachings of Church Fathers and others from 2000 plus years of whipping heretics to pin Ehrman and others in quick knock-out matches.

A good and Christ-centered stroll among the Church Fathers is almost always a blessing.  This is especially true if you have a guide who knows the Fathers and knows the best quotes and references.  But that is not the greatest strength of this book.

We Protestants are a folk who love the Solas of the Reformation.  It all begins and even ends on Sola Scriptura.  Praise God for Church Fathers of all 2000 years of winning arguments.  But our first, primary, and actually only defense is found in Scripture.  It is here that Brant’s work was so helpful to me.  By going straight from one Bible verse, story, or teaching to another, Brant emphasizes, teaches, reinforces, and shouts aloud that Jesus Christ is God, that Jesus Christ claimed to be God, and that Scripture teaches that message clearly and forcefully.

Don’t wait until the Advent season to read this book.  For those who like spiritual reading during Lent, there is still time to delve into this work.  But best of all, it might be just the book to read on Easter and the days following when we celebrate that Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, Very God of Very God, rose from the dead and lives and rules forever.

Post Script:  I am obliged to confess that I received this book as a review book and am not obligated to praise it to the hilt.  The high regard is the result of my being unable to restrain myself.

Damning Words–a Biography of H. L. Mencken

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“Love him or hate him” goes a frequent saying.  But with H. L. Mencken, it is possible to do both.  He was a vicious attack dog toward Christianity and religion in all forms.  He could unleash powerful vitriol against the American South, working class people, American culture, and America in general.  But he was also capable of being incredibly funny, engagingly readable, and often right on target.

The life of Mencken is told in the book Damning Words: the Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken by Dr. D. G. Hart.  It is published by Eerdmans and is part of their Library of Religious Biography series.  (I have quite a few volumes of that series.)  Dr. Hart has previously written such fine books as Calvinism: A History and biographical studies of J. Gresham Machen and John Williamson Nevin.

Mencken was and never ceased to be a newspaper man, a journalist, a scribbler in the heat and passion of the newsroom working to get the latest edition out.  He was a cynic, a curmudgeon, a skeptic, a doubter, and a critic.  He could find the worm in every apple of pleasure.  It is apt that the cover of this book pictures him sitting in front of a typewriter.  That is where he lived so much of his life.  But it was far from being a dull or limited life.  He dwelt in the fascinating world where words live and meet, join together, reproduce, and create new sentences, paragraphs, pages, and ideas.

Maybe more than any other American, he should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He would have rejected it if he had won, by the way.  Worldly and brazen in many ways, Mencken spent much of his life living with his mother and taking care of her and other family members.  For a few years (after he turned fifty), he was happily married.  His wife, Sara, was ill when they married, and they knew it would be a short-lived marriage.  He was nevertheless devoted to her.

Perhaps one of the most attractive things about Mencken was his opposition to the New Deal and to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  He was largely what we would call a libertarian.  At the same time, he was out of touch with the nation and its economic crisis in the 1930’s, so he really never grasped what was going on in the hearts and minds of the populace.  It was this same willingness to venture opinions when they went against the grain that gained him friends and foes and cast him in many battles of the times.  Mencken’s life, as the title suggests, is a study of the times in which he lived and the religious issues of that age.

The big religious conflict that Mencken was associated with was the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.  For a number of reasons, Mencken loathed William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan, a 3 time Democrat Presidential nominee and loser, was a prominent evangelical and opponent of Darwinism.  A great orator in his day, he was not on his best game at the Scopes Trial.  While he was bested by Darrow on the witness stand, Bryan grasped some of the more dire implications of Darwinian thought.  Implications is a mild term considering some of the actual statements found in the eugenics-oriented biology texts of that time.

In Mencken’s eyes, Bryan could do nothing right.  Bryan’s death almost immediately after the trial ended did not elicit any sympathy or kind words from Mencken.  Along with the attacks on Bryan, Mencken went after various forms of the Christian faith of his time. Granted, there were aspects of Victorian moralism that were held up as Christian, but were not really defining of the Faith.

Mencken was a street fighter in many of his literary battles.  He railed against enemies high and low, in general and in particular. His forte was the newspaper column.  In fact, he is the prototype of many today who write columns bewailing various cultural and political issues.

But Mencken was also a largely self-taught scholar.  At several points, Hart reminds us that Mencken had only a high school education, and the school he attended was vocationally based.  From his youth, he read.  All of his life, he cultivated a rich harvest with words.  His book The American Language was and still is a major linguistic source.  He wrote several volumes that were loosely constructed as memoirs of his life.  He also published many of his columns in book form.

At a time when few Americans were reading Friedrich Nietzsche (okay, few have ever read Nietzsche), Mencken wrote a book analyzing the German philosopher.  Prior to that, he had written a book about the plays of George Bernard Shaw.  One wonders what Mencken would have done if he had pursued a higher education and landed a safe position in academia.  (Translate that as “he would be forgotten today.”)

Any reading of the life of Mencken is bound to give moments of joy alongside of some very sad thoughts.  Mencken’s last years–particularly 1948 to 1956–were quite depressing.  A stroke had impaired his ability to read and write, but he lived on.  His literary and newspaper careers had faded along the way.  The Great Depression and World War II changed the world and his reading public.  Making matters worse, Mencken was German by heritage and disposition.  While no defender of the Third Reich, he was out of step with the times.

Lots of writers, particularly journalists, enjoy their day in the sun. Later, they are forgotten.  Who still reads William Allen White, Richard Harding Davis, or Edward R. Murrow?  But Mencken is still read, loved, and quoted.  He is often good for a quote.  There is no way I would teach on Puritanism without referencing his quip:  “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

I don’t agree with it, but I always get a chuckle out of it.

A year or so ago, I wrote two article for PorterBriggs The Voice of the South titled “The Skeptic and the Theologian” that can be found here and here.  

In these two articles, I dealt with Mencken and a fellow citizen from Baltimore, theologian J. Gresham Machen.  I wish I could have read Hart’s book before I wrote the articles.  I don’t think it would change any content, but it would have enhanced my love for Mencken’s gifts and sorrow over his views and life.

 

 

The Bible Unfiltered by Michael Heiser

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The Bible Unfiltered by Michael S. Heiser is published by Lexham Press.  Never heard of Lexham Press?  Then you are in for a treat.  They are publishing a wide range of top notch Christian books, including works by such pillars of the Reformed faith as Abraham Kuyper and Gerhardus Vos.  They are also publishing works by contemporary authors and theologians on Biblical and worldview issues.

Never heard of Michael S. Heiser?  Then you are in for another treat.  Dr. Heiser’s website features articles, resources, and podcasts on his Bible research and teachings.  This past year I read The Unseen Realm, a best seller work also published by Lexham Press.

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The Unseen Realm was highly recommended by several people I know, so I got the book and read it.  It is challenging, often convincing, and always fresh and Scriptured-centered.  By Scripture-centered what I mean is that Heiser is very honestly and directly trying to uncover what the Bible says.  Does he always succeed? No need to answer that, but he always tries.

Our problem as Bible readers, sermon preparers and sermon listeners, and Bible students is that we can never approach the Bible objectively.  We are finite, and we live (in most cases of those reading this) in the United States in 2018.  We are culturally conditioned.  We are not just conditioned by the culture around us.  In fact, we are often alert to the perils of modern society, Hollywood, secular humanism in the recent forms, and the like.  But we are conditioned by Western Culture, by the last 2000 years of Greeks, Romans, Carolingians, Catholics, Protestants, Puritans, Colonists, English speaking peoples, Enlightenment thinkers, converts during the Great Awakening, Calvinists, Arminians, Dispensationalists, Post-millennialists, Dutch theologians, and all sorts of others  tweaking and touching our way of thinking, processing information, and coming to settled opinions.

That is not all bad.  I wish I some of those listed above influenced me more.  But what we all have to do is to keep going back to the Bible, ad fontes, and seeking out what it is saying to those to whom it was written and when it was written.  Research into the ancient languages and cultures (Greek and Hebrew, but also the neighboring tribes) is a growing and expanding field.  Don’t forget that Medieval people often knew of Homer and his epics, but the actual texts went underground for centuries. The same has happened with other realms of languages and knowledge.

This detective work is Heiser’s specialty.  He digs, discovers, and offers new interpretations.  That is the strength and enjoyment of his work.

Concerning the book at hand–The Bible Unfiltered–let me make some observations.

First, I read the book last year in November.  I read it dutifully as a book reviewer and enjoyed it, but delayed getting a review together.  This past week, I started re-reading the book and am enjoying it as more than a book-reviewing duty. It can be read and re-read with enjoyment and profit.

Second, it is unusual in a few respects.  The Unseen Realm calls for the reader to gear up and do some heavy lifting, but The Bible Unfiltered is much lighter and easily read.  It would be great as a prelude to reading Heiser’s more challenging work or as a follow up.

The chapters are all short–usually 3 to 4 pages.  It could be read as a morning devotional, but unlike most devotionals, this one would feed that part of us that fits under “loving God with all our minds.”  Don’t assume that mental growth is not connected to spiritual growth.

This makes the book a delight for the “I’m too busy to read theology” person.  This book is good, sharp punches rather than a long drawn out match.

Here are the topics for the first long section of the book:

  • Part One: Interpreting the Bible Responsibly
    • Serious Bible Study Isn’t for Sissies
    • Getting Serious—and Being Honest—about Interpreting the Bible in Context
    • Sincerity and the Supernatural
    • Let the Bible Be What It Is
    • Bad Bible Interpretation Really Can Hurt People
    • Unyielding Literalism: You Reap What You Sow
    • Everything in the Bible Isn’t about Jesus
    • Bible Reading and Bible Memorization Are Not Bible Study
    • Marxism and Biblical Theology Aren’t Synonyms
    • How to (Mis)Interpret Prophecy

In my re-reading, these are the ones that are freshest in my mind.  My thought on the first one, which is on serious Bible study, is that I need to read that to my theology students and to myself often.  In these short chapters, Heiser knocks the props out from under many false or unthought-out ideas.  The chapter on bad Bible interpretation discusses past bad uses of the Bible to justify race-based slavery (sons of Ham).  “Unyielding Literalism” lays flat an overly simplistic approach we often fall prey to.  The portion on Marxism and theology struck me as a bit dated.  Does anyone still see Marxism as an application of Christian community?  But it never hurts to chop the head off of a dead snake.

I did not readily agree with “Everything in the Bible Isn’t about Jesus.”  I mention that as a selling point, not a turn off.  It just so happens that I am currently reading a book titled The Christ-Centered Expositor  by Tony Merida.  He is teaching pastors how to make preach with Christ as the message, no matter what the text.  Is he right or is Heiser? Well, it is not that simple.  Both men point out ways that well-intentioned expositors can make connections that just aren’t there in the text.  So, even the chapter I question still provides me some cautions in my own Bible readings.

On the one hand, I would love to jump right in and finish reading number two of The Unfiltered Bible during this coming week.  With sixty chapters and 230 plus pages, it can be read quickly.  But I prefer to keep it handy, to use it as the book to carry to an appointment, to read in short snatches, to use for nutritious snacking.  However, one read it, it is a fine work.