The Opening of the Calvinistic Mind

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beckwith writes:

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

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

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

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Never Doubt Thomas

New Titles from InterVarsity Press

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

The Identity and Attributes of God by Terry L. Johnson

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Every pastor, teacher, and serious Christian should have a healthy dose of Puritan theology.  Over and over again, I have heard it:  Read the Puritans.  Whole volumes have been written on the value of the Puritans.

But there is a problem.  It is not as though someone said to read the works of this author or that one.  But the call is to read “the Puritans.”  The Puritans of England, along with some of their heirs who paddled over the pond to New England, were among the more prolific, and sometimes wordy, writers that ever lived.  Sometimes their styles are dense, archaic, and too formal for easy reading.  But sometimes they are clear, crisp, and as pointed as a sharp knife.  But still there is the immensity of the task of even plodding through particular volumes, much less through whole sets, of Puritan works.

I suspect that there are more Puritan writings available today than at any time in history.  One of the main publishers of Puritan works has been the Banner of Truth Trust.

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The Banner, however, has no monopoly on Puritan reprints.  As a point to consider, you should be able to quickly judge the depth of a pastor by how many books he has on his shelves by Puritans and their direct theological descendants.  And you can make it a point to see how many Banner of Truth works he has. If his shelves are sagging from the weight of so many Puritan works, you can either buy him more or get him more bookshelves.  If his book collection makes you think of the wimpy guy on the beach before he embraced the Charles Atlas body-building program, you will know what to get him for Christmas, his birthday, and Pastor Appreciation month.

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The relentless accumulation of Puritan tomes doesn’t really solve the problem, however, of the immensity of the task of reading the Puritans.  For that reason, I want to strongly recommend The Identity and Attributes of God by Terry L. Johnson.  Yes, this is a Banner of Truth book.

Terry L. Johnson has read, gleaned, and cherry picked the Puritans with great skill.  This book of nearly 400 pages would be cut in half if all of his fine quotes from Puritans and their fellow travelers were cut out.  This book is a primer on what Puritans to read, which volumes to peruse, and what method to use to get the Puritans’ thoughts into your own heart and mind first and then into your preaching and teaching.  Names like Charnock, Sibbes, Trapp, Henry, Owen, Edwards, Poole, Bunyan, Watson, Gurnall, and Baxter become household names after just going a few chapters into the book.  Add to that, you get a number of other great Christian writers such as Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, A. W. Pink, James Henley Thornwell, and more.  Learning begins with lists and recognition skills.  I promise that if someone were to read this book and then pick a book every month by almost any of the authors quoted, he would have years of good reading choices.

All this being said, Johnson did not write primarily to introduce us to Puritans and other theological writers.  They are only eligible for being the supporting cast for this book.  The key theme, purpose, goal, and objective for the reader is to know God.

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It might seem like God is the Big E on the eye vision chart.  We might think that the pressing need in the church is to focus on family, marriage, the current cultural challenges, witnessing and evangelism, and many more practical things.  Of what practical use is hearing about the incommunicable attributes of God? This entire book seeks to answer that question.  A case can be made that all of the practical needs in the church, all of the cultural problems, and all of the defects in our theology stem from inaccurate, inadequate, and unbiblical views of God.

Pastor Johnson, who ministers in the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, originally set out to preach ten sermons on the attributes of God.  It didn’t turn out that way, for he ended up preaching 82 sermons in that series.  This book is the distillation of that series.  Whether one reads for devotional purposes, or desires to delve into theology, or seeks to find material for preaching and teaching, this book is a gem.

On the cover of a 1971 album, the rock group Jethro Tull described modern folks saying, “In the beginning man created God in his own image.”  This is not too far from a statement by Karl Barth: “I said concerning critical reflection that it cannot be good to reverse the order and turn ‘Thus says the Lord’ into ‘Thus hears man’….”  I have been convicted in paragraph after paragraph of this book that I may know God and be known of God, but I have taken the name, identity, and attributes of God far too lightly.

I highly recommend this book.  Thanks to Banner of Truth for publishing it and to Pastor Terry Johnson for laboring to write and share it.

 

The Theopolitan Vision by Peter J. Leithart

The Theopolitan Vision by Peter J. Leithart is published by Theopolis Books, an imprint of Athanasius Press.

Dr. Leithart is the President of the Theopolis Institute, which is a study center for “Biblical, Liturgical, and Cultural Studies.”  He has authored an incredibly large of books on Biblical, theological, and literary topics.  I have and have read a number of his books, but I way behind on having everything he has published.  His productivity simply astounds me.

On the one hand, doing a promotional review of a Peter Leithart book is both certain to succeed and to fail.  Leithart, as well as his friend and mentor James B. Jordan, have lots of fans, followers, and students who would buy print copies of their grocery lists if such were available.  I understand, for I am that way about certain authors.  On the other hand, there are those who immediately link Leithart with various positions he espouses or with people he is associated with and would flee from any suggestion of reading his books.  I am not able to address either group, and that first one probably has already devoured this book.

I am not equipped to be contentious or even capable of deep critical thought.  When my wife and I go to a concert and listen to skilled musicians, we talk about them on the way home.  I am usually saying things like, “They are really good.”  My wife, on the other hand, is saying things about the technique,  interpretation, dynamics, and execution of the music.  I nod and assume she is right and try to figure out if she also thinks they are really good.

There are many theologians, philosophers, political and social commentators, literary critics, and historians that I learn from without being able to plunge to the depths or climb to the heights of their thought.  Nor do I reject them because of a point of contention here or a quibble there.  I write this post, therefore, to ask readers to glean the pages of The Theopolitan Vision.  If you want to know which sentence caused me to cringe or which paragraph put a grumpy face on me, message me.  Overall, the book was encouraging, enlightening, and much needed among God’s people.

Many years ago, I was reading heavily from books emerging from the various corners of the Christian Reconstruction (Theonomic) movement.  For a time, the centers of these productions were coming forth from Chalcedon in California, from Tyler, Texas (for a short season), and from American Vision in Georgia.  In spite of the many good and serious works these Recons were writing, there was an ongoing criticism.  It was that their books, and especially those of Dr. Rushdoony in California, were weak on the local church.

Maybe they were, or maybe they were just focused on some overlooked areas of Christian cultural engagement.  A movement will tend to morph in several directions.  There are always those who try to maintain the original ideas and concepts, and then there are those who push the boundaries and maybe even redefine them. us

I don’t know the exact role of Peter Leithart from those Recon days.  There are quite a few Christians who found the Recon movement helpful without embracing it.  I think that defines me, and I think it defines such people as Leithart, George Grant, Andrew Sandlin, John Frame, John Barach, Mickey Schneider, and others.  In the second tier of Reconstruction authors was James B. Jordan.  For a season or two, he worked for Chalcedon, and then he departed. (Departed being a nice way of saying that he was fired.)  Dr. Jordan, an acquaintance of mine, greatly influenced Leithart.

Within the ranks of those who might have been immersed in Reconstruction thought in the 1980s, we now find many who now have a heavy emphasis on the local church, church life, and liturgy.  In our day, we find a wild enthusiasm for many elements of Reformed theology that is often joined with many contemporary, popular, and crowd-centered ideas about the Sunday worship service.  It is not all bad, but it is not all good either.  I pastored for several years in a Presbyterian church with a very traditional service, and after I stepped down as pastor, I was still in charge of the worship service.  I thought the order of service to be quite good, Biblically rich, and fulfilling.  Nevertheless, for a host of reasons, the church faltered, failed, and then closed.  I still love the liturgical practices of those days.

The Theopolitan Vision is not a manual for worship services.  Leithart would direct you to Jeffrey Meyers’s useful book The Lord’s Service for that (and I found Meyers’s helpful but not convincing). I would direct you to John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth.  Instead, this book, as the title indicates is a vision of what church life should be.  Leithart directs a large part of the book to the role of the pastor, who is to be the prime (or maybe sole) worship leader.  He also presses upon the people in the pews how they are to worship and participate.

We can, so easily, minimize that hour or so we spend worshipping.  We can, while worshipping, find ourselves so distracted, so lulled by the repetition from week to week, and dulled by our own lethargy that we miss what a powerful impact worship has.  Every area of life and thought is to be brought under the dominion of Christ, but central to all that is church life and worship.

Leithart explains the vision as follows: “So the Theopolitan vision isn’t a vision of pastoral ministry alone.  It’s a vision of the church in the world and of the church’s mission in and to the world. It’s a vision of the church, the whole church, as God’s heavenly city on earth.”

There is nothing wrong with the sentiment of the song that says, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be,” but if we are not experiencing something really, really close to that in worship, then “Houston, we have a problem.”

Of course, it is easy to read a book with some attainable, but rare ideals of church life and find yourself nit-picking the problems in your own congregation. (Avoiding in the process your own eye logging industry.)  Whether pastor or pew sitter, you will find your own church service, congregation, and church life wanting.  Leithart says that if you find your own church indifferent or hostile, pack up and leave immediately and find the ideal church.  No!  He does not say that.  Instead, he says, “If the church is faithful to the gospel, start by giving thanks for the congregation, pastor, and church….Thank God for their faithfulness, for their ministries and evangelism, for the truth that is communicated.” Amen!

I would love to see Christians reading this book who are not in sync with Leithart’s doctrines and practices.  I would love to see Baptist, non-denominational, charismatic, and people-friendly pastors and others gleaning from this book.  Many would read it and conclude, “Here is how we are going to do what he says.” That response, I think, would be quite joyous to me, and I think Peter Leithart would like it as well.

Apostle of the East: The Life and Journeys of Daniel Little

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Apostle of the East: The Life and Journeys of Daniel Little by Russell M. Lawson is published by St. Polycarp’s Publishing House.

One of the amazing features of book publishing today is the number of small, independent publishers.  Of course, the big names such as Random House (no relation to me), Harper & Row, Penguin, and others still produce many books.  Of course, university presses are pouring out more books than can possibly be comprehended.  Of course, the best sellers and the books most commonly found in the chain bookstores are from the New York based big companies.

But behind the scenes, off the main book interstates, and obscured by their very obscurity, small publishers are producing fine quality works on topics that will never break through the charts, reach the New York Times book reviews, or make millions for their authors or publishers.  Small niches–they are.  But they are filling in some vital gaps, reaching remnants of people who can search through the thousands of books at Books-A-Million and find nothing worthwhile.  Some of these small presses focus on reprints of classic works of literature, history, or theology.  Some focus on theology.  Some on history.  Some produce works of fiction and poetry.

When we discover one of their books, we often realize that we not only had heard of the publisher, but we may not even remember where we first heard of the book.  Perhaps it was on Facebook that I first stumbled across a book by an author I did not know, about a man I had not heard of, and published by a Christian group I was not aware of.

But the results of those fortuitous finds, or we might say providential blessings, can be quite rewarding.

Apostle of the East: The Life and Journeys of Daniel Little filled in a wide gap (of which there are many) in my understanding of colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary American history.  We hear so much about the 13 Colonies on the eastern seaboard.  It was only by a few encounters with George Grant’s lectures that I realized that there were far more than 13 colonies, many of which chose not to join in the fracas of the 1770’s.

The current state of Maine is identified on the colonial maps as being part of Massachusetts colony and state.  In fact, it did not become a state until 1820 when it was brought in to maintain the slave and free state balance due to Missouri’s quest for statehood.  The narrative flow of history books focuses on the westward movement which then leads to the Northwest Ordinance, Manifest Destiny, the settlement of the states beyond the Appalachians, and then to the cultural divides between the northern, southern, and western states.

Maine crops up with the Missouri Compromise.  Perhaps, if one if reading about General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, either in biographies or in the novel Killer Angels, his service as an educator, soldier, and politician will relate back to Maine.  Then there is the famous quip made during the 1936 election campaign where Franklin Roosevelt trounced Alf Landon.  The statement was “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”  (Sometime prior to that, the saying was “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”)  One cannot forget that Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican and a woman who showed up in the fight for the Republican Presidential nomination fight in 1964, was from Maine.  (Barry Goldwater won that contentious fight, and it would be interesting to consider how history would have been different if he had put Sen. Smith on the ticket instead of William Miller.)  Later, Ed Muskie, another Senator, Vice Presidential candidate, failed Presidential primary candidate, and Secretary of State was from Maine.

The state is obscure to me, and its early history was a total blank.  But it was an outlet for the many thousands of people on the eastern coast.  Why, with New England winter’s and rugged soil, they ventured even further north is a puzzle to me.  But they did.  And there, they encountered various Indian tribes, particularly the Penobscot tribe.  These settlers were the children of the folks who settled the established New England colonies, but the distance they moved separated them from the culture, religion, and civilized ways of Boston and its environs.

Apostle of the East tells the story of one man’s experiences in bringing the Gospel to settlers and Indians in Maine.  Daniel Little lived from 1724 to 1801.  He lived, therefore, during such events as the Great Awakening, the French and Indian War, the prelude to the American War for Independence, the war itself, and the time when the Constitution was written, ratified, and put into effect.  Most of these events were outside of his own direct involvement, but he was not without contact with them.

Although he pastored a couple of churches in the Maine territory, he spent a good many seasons traveling throughout the region working to spread the Gospel, evangelize Indians, and establish churches and schools.  Most of the English colonists were folks who had drifted far from places where churches were found.  Prone to squabbles and deviations from Christian practices, they were–to use Flannery O’Connor’s words–Christ-haunted if not Christ-centered.  Dealing with the Indian tribes was a harder challenge.  For one thing, there was the continual problem of land dealings.  Dealings is a nice way to describe the efforts of the stronger white ruling folk to impose boundaries on the Indians.  Along with that, many of the tribes had been influenced by French Catholic mission works.  Trying to differentiate between French Catholicism and British Protestantism was a challenge, and many Indians were plenty satisfied with their own beliefs.

Although missions were his main passion, Little was also interested in science and exploration.  In the area he was in, that meant scaling mountains.  As a trained minister, he was a teacher and educator, a theologian, and a scientist in the tradition of the day.

In several cases, Dr. Lawson, the author, describes how Little’s theology changed.  He writes, “Little’s simple piety in a God who blesses all of the Creation led him to move increasingly from New England Calvinism to a more Universalist mindset.  Feeling that anyone could be saved spurred Little on to bring the Good News to the ignorant, the wayward, the Catholic, the Indian.”  I find this passage both troubling and unclear.  I think the author did a fine job of recounting the many journeys of his subject, but a better theological analysis is missing from this book.  I would have preferred an approach more like a George Marsden could have given.

Universalist is not explained, nor do I think that New England Calvinism is understood.  Jonathan Edwards was very much the Calvinist who preached the Good News to all sorts of people and even did mission work among the Indians.  There are too few excerpts from sermons and letters for the reader to make any judgment on Little’s theology.  (And Calvinism, although mentioned several times, is not in the index.)

Anyone wanting to grapple with the theological developments in New England will find little help in this book.  On the other hand, it is a interesting and enjoyable account of a man who gave himself unstintingly to church planting and missions.  As I said earlier, it does turn the focus from the westward movement of the nation to the most north-eastern portion.

Also, there is another fine point of interest in the book.  Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a powerful short story called “The Minister’s Black Veil.”  Little was taught for a time by a Harvard-trained pastor named Joseph Moody, who was overwhelmed by the emotional weight of his work.  The author writes, “He felt completely completely inadequate to represent the Lord of the Universe to his small parish.  This inadequacy translated into an overbearing weight of sin upon him.  Unable to look his parishioners, or anyone else, in the eye, as if he were looking God Himself in the eye, Moody veiled his face in public, ate alone, and eventually decided he could no longer serve as pastor.”

 

The Essential Karl Barth

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The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary by Keith L. Johnson is published by Baker Publishing Group.

Karl Barth was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century.  He remains one of the more controversial theologians as well.  I have no way of knowing how much influence he still has or will have over the next few decades.  Theology is not my field of specialty.  I watch the high dives while wading in the shallow end of the pool.

I figure that many pastors, teachers, and theology students are not all that different from me in their familiarity with Barth.  We have heard the name.  Often it is resounding in phrases like “Bultmann, Barth, and Brunner.”  Add Tillich to the mix and you have the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who either spread wisdom throughout the Christian world or who spread evil.

In my background in very conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles, Barth (and company listed above) were not admired and were seen as the enemy of orthodoxy.  Two of my great theological heroes, Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til (pictured below), both wrote books critiquing…let’s be more blunt…critically condemning Barth’s theology.  These two men, dogmatic as they could be, were not simply off on a rant.  There were elements in Barth’s theology that were not merely different perspectives on truth, but were undermining of the same.

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I must confess that in my life experiences (which have been limited), I don’t recall ever running into a bona fide Barthian.  I don’t recall hearing him quoted either.  That was all true for many years, until one occasion when I was working on a lesson prior to Easter.  I needed a quote from a heretic who denied the resurrection.  I went in search of Barth denial and was struck by the fact that he affirmed it.  I mean a bodily resurrection of Jesus the God/Man and not some mystical sense of “the spirit and teachings of Jesus lives on.”

It was around this same time that I learned that my friend P. Andrew Sandlin, a man who had worked alongside of R. J. Rushdoony, was an admirer of Barth.  And then, the more I searched for the quotes on all subjects, the more I discovered that Barth didn’t just happen to say something true and good every now and then, but he did so often.

Karl Barth wrote a large number of books, many of them quite weighty and lengthy.  He was a dominating theological force both in European and North American circles.  If you go around the theological blocks a time or two, you will encounter quotes, references, critiques, praises, and condemnation of Barth.

I often think (and maybe regret) that I did not pick a particular theologian or Christian thinker to be to focal point of my own reading and study.  Instead, I have flitted from branch to branch, reading a book by this person, a biography of another, and many quotes and references to all the big names in Reformed circles with a few outside those confines.  If I could pick the theologian to study and devote years to trying to master and understand, it would not be Barth.

That is why books like The Essential Karl Barth are so useful and necessary.  I ascribe to the idea that most pastors need to be theologians and scholars.  Books such as The Pastor as Public Theologian by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan address these issues.

Along with the near impossible task of keeping up with the latest theological trends, ideas, and debates, there is the need to be aware of the past teachers and leaders of the Church.  Very certainly, I would put Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Hodge, Machen, and a few others before Barth, but I would not leave Barth out.

One of the most helpful and instructive things about The Essential Karl Barth is the work that Keith Johnson put into giving a helpful sketch of Barth’s life and times at the beginning of the book and then giving descriptions and footnotes to the selections he includes.  I am sure that real Barthians will grimace over what is left out, but I find the amount of information helpful.  In other words, sometimes I have no idea what problem or people Barth is writing about, but the notes set the context and explain what is going on.

I know this for certain, Barth is usually labeled as Neo-Orthodox.  Although he called himself Reformed and he fit into the Reformed tradition in some ways, his theology put him at odds with the more strictly and historically Reformed people that I am associated with.  But he was strongly opposed to the theological liberals of his day.  He was not on a mission against American evangelical or fundamentalist thinking; rather, he was going full throttle against those who denied the supernatural God and the Bible.  He believed that Jesus was the God/Man and that He rose from the dead.  He affirmed much that we believe, and his enemies were those that we would oppose.

I remember reading from John Warwick Montgomery an account of him going to hear Barth speak in Chicago.  Montgomery, a very solid Lutheran, opposed Barth’s theology.  But on this occasion, he was in Barth’s corner as he listened to him skewer the theological liberals.

Paperback Preaching in Hitler's Shadow : Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich Book

 

A final point is actually one of my main reasons for being interested in Barth.  He opposed World War I and preached against it.  Then, in the 1930’s, he began speaking out against and criticizing the German Christian movement.  He is often remembered and praised even by his critics for signing the Barmen Resolution.  Alongside other Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul  Schneider, Martin Niemoller, Barth saw the sham of identifying German nationality and culture with Christianity.  Being Swiss, he was able to escape from Germany.  After the war, he labored to restore the crumbled foundations in European Christendom.

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