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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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.

Long Before Luther

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As expected, 2017 resulted in lots of new books and studies related to Martin Luther, his fellow Reformers, and the Protestant Reformation.  It was the 500th anniversary of that turning point in history, in case you missed it.  The story, always a good one, was told over and over again of how Luther discovered God’s grace, how he labored to put the Bible into the hands of common Christian folk, and how he railed against abuses and scandals within the established religious structure of late Medieval Christendom.    We sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and marveled at the speech ending with “Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders” (“Here I stand, I can do no other.”).  As the year came to an end, we were able to once again credit Luther with the practice of having lighted Christmas trees.

Of course, every historical event is more complicated than the fun telling of the story.  Good guys are rarely purely good guys.  Easy victories were never easy.  Rousing speeches did not always rouse.  The differences between winning causes and losing causes in history is often a matter of perspective and interpretation.  Luther had faults, which is kind of like saying Switzerland has mountains.  Whether it was inconsistencies, outright acts of wickedness, stubbornness, or German-ness, Luther was a man of his times and a sinner in need of grace.

While we Protestants celebrated, we knew that there were large swaths of people who profess to be Christians who were not and would not join in.  Place them where you will, they include a large number of different views and experiences.  In most cases, I would simply say, “You are missing a great party.”  But there is the occasion for asking ourselves why they didn’t join in.

In the wave of new books related to the Reformation that came out in 2017, one short and less impressive fellow is a work titled Long Before Luther by Nathan Busenitz.  Let me explain the phrase “short and less impressive” first.  There are some new and weighty biographies of Luther that I have stacked on my desk in front of me.  These include popular author Eric Metaxas’ work on Luther, another book titled Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree,  one called Martin Luther: Renegade and Profit by Linda Roper, a collection of essays on Luther called The Legacy of Luther whose contributors include the recently deceased R. C. Sproul, and I don’t have all the new Luther books.

Add to that some hefty books such as Carlos Eire’s Reformations and the deeply theological study called Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, edited by Matthew Barrett and yet another book with a similar title called Reformation Theology: A Reader with Primary Sources and Introductions, edited by Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Roberts.

Shorter and more scholarly, academic, and narrowly focused books have also been showing during the past year dealing with Luther and the Reformation.

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Shyly stacked among all these books is Long Before Luther, a paperback published by Moody Publishers,   with the list price a mere $13.99.

Yet in many ways, this quiet little collection of quotes and explanations that go for 190 pages (with another 50 pages of notes) is the key to this whole issue of the Protestant Reformation.

Simply put, did Luther (or Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger, Knox, Zwingli or Cranmer or any one else) come up with something new?  If Luther “invented” a religion, he still gets in the history books and can take his place alongside of Mohammed, Joseph Smith, or anyone else who had some series of experiences and ideas that attracted follower.

“But Luther’s views sprang from the Bible!” you might say in response.  Certainly, yes and amen, and that is why we cry “Sola Scriptura.”  But we all know people who huddle up with their Bibles, maybe eschew all churches, despise creeds and confessions, and come up with original stuff from the Bible that just ain’t so.

Suppose I were to stand up to preach in a church and began with these words, “I am going to share something from the Bible that is brand new.  No one has ever discovered this before.” I would hope that the elders would be moving in position quickly to take me out of there, kicking and screaming, if necessary.

Over 2000 years into Christian life, doctrine, and practice, neither you nor I are going to discover something brand new.  We may have some useful, innovative, creative explanations or applications.  We may be able to benefit from theological, archeological, or linguistic discoveries of recent decades (see Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm).  We might conclude that key leaders in church history, be they Reformers or Puritans or Westminster men, were in error on a point.  But to imagine that we can be original discoverers is quite scary.

Luther was an Augustinian.  He, in time, left the Roman Catholic Church, but he never left Augustinianism.  He was taught and grounded in the Church Fathers.  Therein lies the importance of this book.

Being saved by grace and begin justified by faith are ways that salvation is described after Luther and on into our time.  But that way of seeing, understanding, exegeting the Bible were not inventions or constructions of the 16th century.  With 25 pages devoted at the end to just quoting the sources, this book anchors Luther in the tradition of the Faith Once Delivered to the Saints.

It should be no surprise that Augustine is the key background figure in this work.  Marco Barone’s book Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross is an in-depth study of the Luther-Augustine connection, but Busenitz’s book is a good overview of Luther’s debt to Augustine.

This is the kind of history that encourages.  God gave us His Word.  The early Church Fathers, fallible though they were, upheld the Word.  At various times in history, key doctrines have been warped, obscured, and denied.  But the Word pops back up, new, powerful, alive.  The crowd of witnesses from the long halls of church history are all there rejoicing that what they knew, we know, and what we know, others will know.

Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel From Christ to the Reformation

What more Reformation-centered than Lutheran Theology?

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This is THE year to be reading, studying, writing, and teaching about the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s.  October 17, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the event we often refer to that heralded the beginning of the revolt of Martin Luther and many others in his wake against the corruptions of the established Church.  Just as the Reformation itself resulted in a tidal wave of publications, the 500th anniversary is spurring the writing and printing of many books on Martin Luther himself, the Protestant Reformation as a whole, the theology of the Reformers, and the other greater and lesser known leaders.

The Reformation 500 celebration is really an enjoyable event for me.  I have been planning some special activities for several years in advance.  Here they are:

  1.  Buy books on the Reformation.

2.  Read books on the Reformation.

3.  Talk even more than usual about the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and related people and events in class.

4.  Repeat steps 1-3 often.

I am giddy with excitement over all this.  Truth be known, I started celebrating at least a year ago.

Part of the joy of this year’s readings is going down unexpected paths.  Recently, I posted a blog about two books that are both real challenges on aspects of the Reformation.  The first is Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition.  The second is Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross by Marco Barone.  Both books took me way beyond the familiar story to some new ground.

       

Earlier in the year, I read Calvin and the Whigs: A Study in Historical Political Theology by Ruben Alvarado.  This book was an eye-opener and one that called for quick repeat reading.  The impact of Calvin on political thought has been a long-time topic of interest for me.

Not every book has been in the challenging to really tough range.  Just this week, I finished reading Erwin Lutzer’s Rescuing the Gospel.  This is quite an enjoyable retelling of the story of the Reformation from Luther to Calvin and on to their heirs.  Very basic, very well told, this book was a refresher course, but yet another case of reminding me of why I love this period of history so much.

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Along this year’s Reformation journey, my friend George Thompson commented on his enjoyment of a book simply titled Christology by David P. Scaer.  This is Volume VI of a series called Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics. The books in this series cover such topics as baptism, eschatology, church, Gospel and the means of grace, and the Trinity.  Short–barely over 100 pages,  this book covers a wide range of theological issues related to Jesus Christ, including the Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Death and Resurrection, and offices.

Dr. Scaer distinguishes between Lutheran confessional views and those of modern theologians and theologies.  In fact, the first chapter deals with Post-Enlightenment era Christologies.  But he also deals with Lutheran differences from Reformed views.  Many of these portions of the book were new and surprising to me.  Since the comments and coverage are brief, I was neither convinced nor deeply informed by what was said.  But I think the purpose of this book, and most likely the whole series, is to introduce or review essential dogmatic positions held by confessional Lutherans.

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In some ways, this book might seem to represent what many people dislike or fear or distrust about that field of study called “Theology.”  On the one hand, people sometimes refer to dry, dusty theological tomes.  I reckon they exist.  On the other hand, I was involved in a discussion recently (with my college age daughter) about how theology students in college are often cynical people.  If that is so, we can say to the cynic, “You are so pessimistic, cynical, and sarcastic that you should major in theology.”

Let’s stop that train immediately.  I found this volume to be densely and tightly written, but far from dry or dusty.  Any Biblical, sound, orthodox theological work dealing the God who made us, the Christ who saved us, and the Spirit who fills us should leave us prostrate in the dust.  Simply put, if someone cynical is a theology student, they are a total, abject failure (even if they are on the President’s list at college).

But what about the arcane doctrines that separate certain Reformed theologians from their Lutheran counter-parts?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on other things?  Well. yes, maybe we should be focusing on other things, but that depends upon who “we” are.  I am a history and literature teacher.  That is my main focus, and those fields have their own internal, highly complex topics of study and thought.  Theologians have the task of going to the roots of issues.  They need to “major on minors.”  We certainly hope that they are not all head and no heart (if such were possible), or so deep and complex as to not understand the common man in the pew.  But theology–trying to wrap our puny minds around our great God is not child’s play.  (But even that is not to say that children at play display lots of theological truths.)

Luther changed the world.  His followers–whether they call themselves Lutherans, Evangelicals (which is what the early Lutherans called themselves), Reformed, Protestants, non-denominational (which is odd since you have a name that means no name), or simply Christian–need to celebrate this year what Luther started 500 years ago.  That includes at least giving some nods toward the Church that is affiliated with his name and theology.

Christology is a fine study.  Challenging to both heart and mind, it will remind the reader of the great freedom in the Gospel.  Part of that freedom is the freedom to ponder and study all aspects of who Jesus is.

The St. Andrew Seven–First Glances

 

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Truth be known, I have often been the kid at the back of the classroom.  Rather than sitting on the front row, taking notes, listening intently, I am sitting at the back of the room and gazing about absent-mindedly.  When the pressure is on–meaning the assignment is due tomorrow or I am on the verge of failing–I get busy.  Bottom line:  I am usually a bad student.

Case in point:  For years–at least a decade or more–I have heard George Grant wax on and on about Thomas Chalmers.  Then the front row students ask, “What should I read to learn more of Chalmers?” Meanwhile, I am wondering how much longer until class is over.  Repeatedly, in lectures, asides, personal exhortations, and the like, Dr. Grant says,

“The first book that I always send readers to is the short profile by John Roxborough and Stuart Piggen entitled, The St. Andrew Seven  (Banner of Truth).  Though not entirely about Chalmers (most of the text is devoted to six of his students and the way he influenced the trajectory of their lives and ministries) it is nevertheless the best single, accessible work available in a modern edition.”

The front row students hypervenilate until their copy of the book is in their hands.  And, they are anxiously awaiting that still future event where some mega-work on Chalmers by Grant himself arrives in print.  Meanwhile, on the back row, all I hear is that there is some book called Seven Saints Named Andrew, which I confuse with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (a movie), which I might watch instead of having to read the book.

Then a copy of the book arrives in the mail.  That is like a note sent home to the parents.  So, with the pressure on, I have finally begun to plod my way through this massive 150 pages tome with no pictures.

First observation:  A telling story appears about Chalmers in the early days of his ministry.  Although he was employed as a pastor, he was quite interested in a position teaching mathematics at the University of Edenburgh.  His view was  that “after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties,” a minister could enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science which his taste may engage.”

In popular terms, and some people actually think this, the preacher only works one day a week.

Twenty years later, and we might add, much sanctifying grace later, Chalmers wrote:

“What are the objects of mathematical science?  Magnitude and the proportion of magnitude.  But then…I had forgotten two magnitudes.  I thought not of the littleness of time.  I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”

It takes time–of which there is too little–but the kid at the back of the room does finally hear something,

The Works of John Knox–“Some Books are to be tasted….”

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Not knowing the library policies in heaven or the new heavens and earth that come later, I have to content myself with only tasting some books.  In some cases, a book has a limited use, and the dipping into it now and again is to fulfill such needs.  We call them reference works, and that includes dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauruses, and some Bible commentaries.  There are plenty of biographies, histories, books on economics and politics, and theological works that will only be used in the manner of checking the table of contents, then the index, and then scanning the pages for some pertinent quote or information.

The light use, occasional use, or call it underuse of a book is no bad reflection on the worth of a book or its author.  There is the matter of time, add to that specialization, add to that the tyrannies of the moment, add to that the human capacity or incapacity to absorb the contents.  I have books and particularly sets of books that I will never likely read and certainly not master cover to cover.  They are dearly loved…yes, loved…not merely liked or found useful or found attractive on the shelf.  My four volumes of Herman Dooyeweerd’s New Critique of Theoretical Thought is non-negotiable when considered as a possession (although I would probably yeild it if one of my children were kidnapped and NCTT were part of the ransom).  Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization gets read in bits and pieces, but it is indispensible.  The same can be said Calvin’s Commentaries, Calvin’s Letters, Magnalia Christi Americana, the works of Shakespeare, any literary criticism written by Cleanth Brooks, and my two great volumes of T. S. Eliot.

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Dooyeweerd’s New Critique was published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publications during the early 1970s and was almost given away at one time.

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Another treasured collection I have is the six volumes of The Works of John Knox, published by Banner of Truth.I supposed that if Banner were to publish the London telephone book, I would want a copy.  There books are quality on the inside and out.

But it is not just the quality, shelf appeal, and grandness of this set as a collection of boards, ink, and paper.  These are the works of the Other John of the Protestant Reformation.  We are talking John Knox, who was as much an influence on American history as was George Washington. (Debate or consider that statement later.)  Knox was a trench fighter, a survivor, a front line Reformer.  Scotland, or at least the Scotland of the 1500’s-1600’s, bears his brand, but he was also pivotal in Reformation battles in England and in Continental Europe.

It is incredible that he survived imprisonment on a Spanish galley ship.  Even more incredible is his surviving numerous conflicts with the reigning powers of both England and Scotland, particularly Queen Mary Stuart.

How did such a man ever find time to read, think, write, and preach?

We might have expected a volume or two of his works to survive, but we have six large volumes.  Okay, one of them does contain a biography, but even then, we have lots of Knox material to taste, chew, and even digest.

I am currently reading his largest work, which is titled History of the Reformation in Scotland.  It extends through the first two volumes of this set.  I suspect it will take quite a while and may never be completely read by this poor pilgrim.  But whether I get through 50 pages or 500 or all 3824 pages, I will find quite a bit that will delight, inform, correct, and encourage me.

There is a further obstacle to reading these books.  The language of Knox, which precedes the King James Bible and is dominated by Scotification (to coin of word) of the English language.  Reading Knox is not as difficult as reading Chaucer in the original, but more difficult that reading the KJV or Shakespeare.  The key to breaking the language and spelling code is reading it aloud and phonetically.  When sounding the words out, most of them become readily familiar.  This does raise the challenge level for these books, but it also adds to the beauty and setting.

It should be noted that anyone wanting to read Knox’s account of the Scottish Reformation can do so in a shorter and modernized version, found HERE and also published by Banner.

I will conclude this brief discussion of The Works of Knox with a few quotes which I enjoyed during my morning readings.  I am beginning in the midst of a sentence and the preceding portion was a list of charges brought against Scots who had begun seeing great flaws in the Medieval Church.

“By these Articles…may appeir how mercyfullie God hath looked upoun this Realme, reteanying within it some sponk of his light, evin in the tyme of grettast darkness.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Amen, and may God retain some “sponk of his light” on us in our time.

Speaking of his mentor/hero and martyr Patrick Hamilton, Knox said, “The zeall of Goddis glorie did so eat him up, that he could of no long cintinuance remain thair (in Wittenberg, Germany), bot returned to his countrie (Scotland, whair the brycht beames of the trew light which by Goddis grace was planted in his harte, began most aboundantlie to burst forth.”

From A Brief Treatise of Mr. Patrick Hamilton, Knox’s mentor, as found in Volume 1:
“The Gospell, is as mooche to say, in our tong, as Good Tydingis: lyk as everie one of these sentences be–
Christ is the Saviour of the world.
Christ deid for our synnes.
Christ offerred him selve for us.
Christ bare our synnes upoun his back.
Christ bought us with his blood.
Christ woushe us with his blood.
Christ was maid dettour for our synnes.
Christ hath maid satisfictioun for us and for our synne.
Christ is our rychteousness, oure wisdome, our goodness.
Christ is ouris, and all his.
The Father of Heavin hath forgevin us for Christis saik.”