The Essential Jonathan Edwards by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America's Greatest Theologian

As an incurable reader, I often find myself stumped over what kind of book I need to read next.  My tastes range from theology to literature to history to politics to poetry to philosophy to biography and more.  I could almost paraphrase Will Rogers and say, “I never met a book I didn’t like.”  I have met a few that were not to my liking, but I am prone to find something of use in even the worst of readings.

My morning reading time is when I focus on Biblical and theological books.  If a book is devotional, without being fluffy, and enlightening, it makes for a good start for the morning stack of books.  I have about an hour to read and usually read a chapter or about 10 pages from each of 3 or 4 books.  (This method works well for me.)  After the book aimed at the heart, I am more ready for the book aimed at the mind.  So, a book applying Bible teachings might be read from first and then followed by a bit more weighty theological reading.  The preferred third book is usually more focused on Christian worldview thinking.  It might be on history, education, current issues, philosophy, or some other area.  It might or might not be a specifically Christian book.

This brings us to the topic of The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney.  This book is published by Moody Publishers.

In light of the different types of books I like to read in the morning session, The Essential Jonathan Edwards can fit into any of the categories.  The breadth of the approach of the book itself is similar to the breadth of the subject.  Jonathan Edwards is acclaimed as one of the great preachers of all time.  He is also one of the great theologians.  He was also a prolific writer.  He is recognized for his contributions to the field of philosophy.  He is studied for his views on any number of topics, both those pertinent to his times and to ours.

As the subject of biography, Edwards’ life is also rich.  He lived in colonial America during a period that was just past the heyday of Puritan thought and just before the period leading up to the American Revolution and War for Independence.  I will assume for the moment that the term “American Revolution” refers to the change in thinking and outlook that developed prior to any shots being fired at Lexington and Concord, and I am borrowing this definition from John Adams.  Back to Edwards:  He was a major figure in the Great Awakening.  Along his labors were limited geographically to a small part of New England, his role through his preaching and writing explained, furthered, and cautioned against aspects of the revival.  He was the spokesman for this side of the Atlantic.

His marriage and family are models for both understanding American culture and for spiritual edification.  His tumultuous relationship with his Northhampton congregation is insightful into the workings of colonial communities and all too familiar territory for many pastors and their churches.  Edwards was briefly connected to the still new Princeton University and had been educated at Yale.  His life shows the richness of potential opportunities in the colonial period even accounting for the particular genius and gifts of the man.

The most scholarly and library-bound academic wanting to grapple with theological conundrums (like free will and Original Sin) can study Edwards alongside the more profound student of philosophy, especially the one interested in American contributions.  But the pastor can also find Edwards a helpful mentor giving encouragement to his soul as he prepares sermons and lessons for his congregation.  Again, the study of Edwards is a hall filled with treasures.

So where do you begin?  Or how can you access the wealth of Edwards’ life, faith, and thought?

The Essential Jonathan Edwards is an excellent place to begin.  The book contains an account of Edwards’ life, but it is only partially a biography.  Much of the focus is on the teachings of Edwards.  The book is heavy laden with quotes and lengthy ones at that.  It doesn’t take many lines of reading Edwards to realize that this guy cannot be skim read.  He is not impossible or overly technical, but his language is rich and detailed.  While the entire book reveals biographical details, the first section is more largely focused on his life.

The authors cover a number of larger and then more particular topics in subsequent chapters.  The second section of the book is on the topic of Beauty.  As has been noted, some of the higher, more liturgical churches focus on beauty in their church buildings and liturgies.  The Protestants who are more in the tradition of Edwards in terms of evangelical emphases have overlooked the topic of Beauty.  (As a former pastor, I am asking myself, “When did you preach on the Beauty of God, of Christ, of the Church?”)

The third section focuses on the Good Life.  This is yet another case of the authors bringing an unused phrase into Christian thinking.  Living the Christian life is the good life.  Man’s chief end is enjoying God forever, which does not mean that we start when we get to heaven.  Edwards wrote, “God in seeking his glory, therein seeks the good of his creatures: because the emanation of his glory (which he seeks and delights in, as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory) implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creatures.” (Found on page 199)

The fourth section deals with a troublesome issue in Edwards’ ministry and in our times.  Statistics show certain numbers of people who are Christian by profession.  Church rolls show smaller groups of the same.  Yet nominalism, that is, being Christian in name only, is a huge problem.  Protestants like to think it is merely a Roman Catholic problem.  Within Protestant groups, one group will wag their heads at another for this plague, but the truth is that it hits ever section of Christianity and every church.  If you don’t know of where to locate the dangers of nominal Christianity, begin by looking in a mirror.  I am not saying that you and I are believers in name only.  But I do know it is a real threat to me.  Those of us in Christian works (and I teach in a Christian school) can easily confuse occupation with salvation.  The problem beset Edwards both in the times of his grandfather’s Half-Way Covenant approach and in his own dealings with a congregation that fired him.

The final section deals with heaven and hell.  Edwards is once again a needed instructor to our times.  Because Christianity offers so much in this world, we can easily undervalue what it teaches about the world to come.  And the doctrine of Hell is just uncomfortable.

I recently posted a blog review highlighting a number of books on, by, or about Edwards.  For the reader wanting to meet the great theologian, this is the book to start with.  For the reader who has already read a lot by and about Edwards, this book is also a great read.

In Defense of Theology by Gordon Clark

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Gordon Clark was a man at peace with waging war for lost causes.  It was not due to a myopic understanding of reality.  Nor was it a penchant for picking the losing side of cultural tides.  And it was certainly not from a desire to simply get beaten up.  Clark was heavily grounded in a truth that was not in vogue, not avant garde, not popular, and not accepted in his time.  Fundamentally, Clark believed that “God has spoken.  More completely, God has spoken in the Bible.  More precisely, what the Bible says, God has spoken.”  Professionally, he was a philosophy teacher.  Because of his particular philosophical premises and approaches, he was also a theologian.  People in both groups chafed against his views, but for Clark, theology was, as is often said, “the queen of the sciences and philosophy was her handmaid.”

His brand of theology was that formulated by Protestants, particularly those who followed in Calvin’s stead, and more particularly, the theology inscribed in the Westminster Standards.  His philosophy was rooted in the same sources.  For such reasons, he has been called “The Presbyterian Philosopher.”  That, of course, is the title of Douglas Douma’s definitive biography of Clark.  In terms of his life, Clark spent his days at his desk writing, in classrooms lecturing, and in Christian circles discussing, defending, and debating theological and philosophical issues.  A family man, he enjoyed time with his wife and two daughters, playing chess, and painting (which he worked on but never became proficient at doing).

Most Christians today are unfamiliar with Clark.  Most Christian bookstores do not carry his books. Many pastors are unfamiliar with his work.  Yet, when R. C. Sproul was asked what theologian of our time would be read in 500 years, he answered, “Gordon Clark.”  The fact that his books are not the most popular, most read, and most often quoted says more about problems of our times than it does about the man himself.

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In our theology class at Veritas Academy, we recently read Clark’s short book In Defense of Theology together.  I know that this was a challenge to the students because, even after having read it few years prior to this year, it was a challenge to me.  Clark was a precise and clear thinker, but not one who could write on a popular level.  His writings take some work, but with some persistence and a few helps, reading Gordon Clark can be quite rewarding.

Clark’s main contention in the book is that theology is something all Christians should both respect and learn from.  While he devotes portions of the book to answering atheists and Neo-Orthodox people, he returns frequently to his primary audience.  He wants regular Christians to read the Bible with some theological skills.  While he was an intellectual and an academic, his goal was edification of the believer and not simply the accumulation of knowledge.  Clark affirms, “Scripture tells us about God; therefore, we should study it.”  This will entail learning verses relating to a particular topic.  While memorization is good, it is also necessary to mentally bring the verses together to make a whole or more complete thought on the topic.  Here again, the message is that theology is essential.

Much of the Bible is given in historical narratives.  Other parts consists of laws or poetry, which is sometimes called wisdom literature.  Theology takes place when the reader “connects simple historical events with their theological significance.”  One might think of the progression of rulers and prophets in such books as First and Second Kings.  On the one hand, such stories are full of interesting figures and ups and downs of Judah and Israel, both politically and morally.  Theologically, however, the events pertain to God’s covenant with Israel, the promise of a Messiah to come, the keeping of God’s law, and the providence of God. So, a person can read the Bible while professing to steer clear of theology, but to understand the Bible, to see it as a whole, theology is necessary.

While Clark is concerned about the average man in the pew who may not think theology is necessary, he also sees the need to address those opposed to theology on other grounds.  In our day, there have been several public figures who have attained status as our public atheists.  This is a far cry from the day when the late Madelyn Murray O’Hara was the key spokes-person (loud mouth) for the cause.  Clark died before the current figures were prominent, but the arguments against atheism are pretty much the same old recipes.  Of more concern to Clark were the Neo-Orthodox and, in particular, Karl Barth.  The German Barth had a major impact on lots of evangelicals in the United States.  The Barthian tidal wave was slow in coming due to the necessity of translating his work from German to English.  (On might think further translation was still needed from English to comprehensible English.)  Along with Cornelius Van Til, Clark was incensed by the pattern of Neo-Orthodox theologians undermining the language and meaning of theology and undercutting the authority of the Bible.  (For more on this, see Douglas Douma’s essay found HERE.

A key chapter in A Defense of Theology concerns logic.  Clark not only wrote a book on logic, but he was driven by the topic.  In short, he believed that God is logical, God’s Word upholds logic, and that logic can be used to unlock or defend Scriptural doctrines. In a discussion of logic, Clark shows how logic undergirds key passages from the Bible.  He is convincing in making the case that Christians should be able to use skills honed in logic to work through the Scriptures.

Gordon Clark was not a popularizer or an easy author to read. He lived and battled in a time when Reformed theology was relegated to the sidelines or consigned to the dustbin of history.  I doubt that his books ever sold in large numbers, but he plugged away, writing, teaching, and adhering dogmatically to the truths that sparked the Reformation and that are founded on the Bible.  Trends come and go.  They did before, during, and after the time of Gordon Clark.  He didn’t budge.  He was steadfast and unyielding.  Perhaps he could have soften a few edges, and in our time, that might be advisable in our times.  But God raised him up in a different era.  Nevertheless, the books remain ready and waiting for us to read and use in our times, in our circumstances.

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September Days and Morning Reads

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September begins with the promises of adding riches untold,
and the pocketbook may not change in the slightest.                    
Jose de la Casa
The grass is too high, getting tough, growing slowly, and a bit brown from the heat and lack of rain.  School has started.  Nights a bit longer now, and there is a promise of cooler weather not so long from now.  Personally, I wish time were moved six to eight weeks back and I were stuck, isolated, abandoned with only my family and lots of books at some beach house overlooking the incoming waves or some cabin in the mountains with a valley to see from the back porch.  But that didn’t happen in June or July or August, so I accept the inevitable–September.  But as De la Casa noted in the quote above, there can be riches found in the month of September.
Of the making of study Bible in our times, there is no end.  That is not given as a complaint, but as a thanksgiving. I have often read the concern about study Bibles which says that people will be prone to read the notes in the Bible and accept them as being on a par with Scripture.  My problem is not anywhere near that.  I am prone not to read the notes at all.  In fact, my preferred daily reading Bible has no notes or added materials, except maybe a paragraph introduction before each book.
But there is a place and use for a study Bible that contains lots of cross references, explanatory notes, extensive introductions, and other helps.  (All of the extras can be used for reading during bad sermons.  Just joking.)
The Worldview Study Bible is published by B & H Publishing, an outstanding source for Christian books and Bibles.  For high school or college students, this would be a great resource.  The translation is the CSB, which is produced by B & H (or Holman as the Bible arm of that company is called).  Others more qualified can weigh the merits or problems with the CSB translation.  I can lament that we have the NKJV, ESV, NIV, and now the CSB, along with many others, that are making a common Bible among Christian folk nearly impossible.  I can give a somewhat approving nod to those who prefer the King James Version (while separating myself from those who contend that the devil is the source of all other translations).  Hey, we live in a time of many sound, conservative, evangelical Bible translations.  That is not exactly the stuff of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs caliber problems.
The key feature of this book is the inclusion of large number of essays dealing with Christian worldview issues.  I know there is some debate back and forth over the concept or limitations of teaching about having a Christian worldview.  I know that sometimes we have used the term as a way of importing a somewhat Americanized and politically conservative way of thinking into our Bible studies.  I know that the term Christian worldview can be trivialized and separated from other aspects of the full orbed Christian life. But I still like the term.  I still buy, read, and borrow from books promoting a Christian worldview for interpreting every area of life and thought.  I am a Kuyperian, a devoted fan of David Naugle’s book Worldview: The History of a Concept, and a promoter of Christian education that teaches worldview thinking.
The topics in this study Bible range from theological issues like inspiration and inerrancy to social issues like recreation, careers, LGBT concerns, and more.  Science issues relating to creation/evolution debates and gender debates are included.  Essays on philosophy, politics, economics, music, and other such ideas are also here.  The essays are authored by some leading Christian teachers, pastors, and writers, and they are placed throughout the Bible in places that tie in with the themes of each book.
I have just begun to harvest the fruit of this fine study Bible.  Those looking to understand what is meant by having a Christian worldview or those who are teaching others would enjoy this work.
(I will confine my comments on the other books in the picture to a sentence or two.  More detailed reviews will come later.)
Every Moment Holy is published by that delightful and creative group known as The Rabbit Room.
This is a beautiful book both in outward appearance and in content.  Buy it for someone for Christmas, but get at least 2 copies because you will want to keep one.  It consists of prayers for every moment, time, and circumstance.
My morning history study is Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American War for Independence. Edited by Glenn A. Moots (author of Politics Reformed) and Philip Hamilton.  While this is a slow and studious read, it is a great look behind the battles and leaders of the American War for Independence that considers the books, ideas, philosophies, and ethical concerns relating to that war.
Martin Luther's Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle To the Galatians (1535)
Martin Luther’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535) is published by another new publishing group, 1517 Publishing.
Translated by Harloldo Camacho and with a foreword by Michael Horton, this big book is even bigger than it is. (Yes, I know that is awkward phrasing.)  At 557 pages, this book is the Protestant Reformation, the 5 Solas, the confession of what we believe.  A historical document–yes–but also a great study into a pivotal teaching of the Bible.  Praise God for this new translation.
Two days now into reading Eternity is Now in Session by John Ortberg, published by Tyndale Press.
We are not just waiting to get to heaven so all will be experiencing eternal life.  It is here and now and eternal matters are not just some heavenly idealistic realm but are for here and now.  Powerful and instructive.
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After a few unexplained delays, I am now reading Atheism on Trial by Dr. Louis Markos.  If he writes it, I want to read it.  He is both a gifted writer and an engaging (irrepressible) speaker.  This book is no fluff work on current atheist evangelists, but is a serious look at atheism and its related philosophical and scientific ideas as found in the ancients, in philosophers of past centuries, and in the current discussions.  Published by Harvest House Publishers.
Lectures on Calvinism
I am always glad to see another edition or promotion or quote from Abraham Kuyper’s lectures at Princeton in 1898 that have sometimes been called the Stone Lectures or more commonly Lectures on Calvinism.  Going back to the topic of Christian worldview thinking–this book is the foundation of all the modern applications.  Brilliant.
Thanks to American Vision for publishing this new edition of a Christian classic.  An added feature or benefit is that this edition contains some slight alterations in punctuation so as to make the text flow.  Kuyper is not an easy read, and so having a few modernizations to style issues is a help. In my opinion, Lectures on Calvinism is one of the most important books ever.

Christian Leaders of the 18th Century by J. C. Ryle

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Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century by J. C. Ryle is published by Banner of Truth.  This book is one of the many Ryle volumes that Banner has reprinted.  These reprints include Holiness, Knots Untied, and Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels.  It would probably not hurt your pastor’s feelings if you bought him the “Ryle Clothbound Set” .  (If anyone buys me the set, I will reimburse you with the copies of several of the volumes I already have in either Banner or other editions.) Iain H. Murray’s biographical work J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone is also a delightful book (along with everything else that Murray has written.)

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I might have titled the book under review a bit differently.  I would suggest it be called Eleven Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century along with One from the Nineteenth Century.  That title is too long, but it reflects the fact that the reader gets lots of insights into the Christian mind and character of the author, Bishop J. C. Ryle.

Let me begin my review with a different approach.  These are Augustus Toplady’s four main points about preaching.  Most of us know Toplady primarily for his hymn “Rock of Ages.  The following is from page 352 of the book.

  1.  Preach Christ crucified, and dwell chiefly on the blessings resulting from his righteousness, atonement, and intercession.

  2.  Avoid all needless controversies in the pulpit; except it be when your subject necessarily requires it, or when the truths of God are likely to suffer by your silence.

  3. When you ascend the pulpit, leave your learning behind you; endeavour to preach more to the hearts of the people than to their heads.

  4. Do not affect much oratory.  Seek rather to profit than to be admired.

These four points were not only at the heart of Toplady’s preaching, but were central to all the leaders who were the subjects of this biographical study.  The past was no more totally Christian than the present is totally non-Christian.  The Eighteenth Century, the 1700’s, began as a time of Christian and evangelical drought and deprivation.  Scarcely a century after the waves of Puritan revivals, the faith had largely stagnated into Deism, formalities, and works righteousness for the churched folks.  For the unchurched, many of whom were poor, ignorant laborers, gin and immorality were dominant.

God sent revival to the British Islands.  The book begins with two chapters describing the cultural and religious conditions before and when the revival movement came.  The first two leaders in this book are also the best known:  George Whitefield and John Wesley.  Each man’s story is a fascinating portrait of how God works to save sinners and raise up preachers.  How odd that Whitefield was first lead by the Wesleys while at college, but then became the first of those three (John and Charles Wesley and himself) to be awakened to real, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and of the new birth.  Whitefield was the first to do something utterly shocking:  Preach outside the walls of a church building.  He ruffled lots of clerical feathers in the process.

Of course, he and his dear friends, the Wesleys, parted and sparred over Calvinism.  I first became aware of this while in my freshman and sophomore years of college.  Actually, what I became aware of was that there was a man named Whitefield (too often ignored in Methodist circles where I grew up) and Calvinism.  I read Wesley’s sermon on Free Will and then Whitefield’s answer.  Whitefield drove Wesley off the field in that battle.  Wesley’s greater skills at organization and administration enabled the Wesleyan branch of Methodism to trump the Whitefield branch.

To a large degree, Whitefield was buried in church history until Arnold Dallimore penned the first volume of The Life and Times of George Whitefield.  During those same decades, books like Ryle’s Christian Leaders were not handily available either.

Lest my proclivities make this a Whitefield versus Wesley/Calvinist versus Arminian post, Ryle always stated his commitment to a Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture while commending men who differed.  His chapters on Wesley and John Fletcher, another Arminian, were included to highlight great preaching and the godly lives of these men.  In regard to Augustus Toplady, who could often be the John Robbins of his day, Ryle notes that he was sometimes a bit too caustic in his attacks on Arminianism.

Whitefield, Wesley, and Toplady were the only three of the eleven that I was familiar with.  The other men covered are William Grimshaw, William Romaine, Daniel Rowland (I think I had heard of these three a few times), John Berridge, Henry Venn, Samuel Walker, James Hervey (not the scientist), and John Fletcher.  They were all great preachers and/or solid writers in their day.  They were all Church of England men, as was Ryle.  Most were highly educated.

Perhaps the most fascinating common trait was that most entered the ministry without a clear grasp of essential, evangelical, and Biblical doctrines. In their early sermons and ministries, we can say that, at best, they were muddled in their thinking.  Did they even know God at those times?  Were they saved, to use more contemporary language?  Were their doctrines sound and orthodox?  These questions involve some heart issues we cannot determine.  But in their early days, their beliefs were incomplete and defective.  It is utterly astounding how God reached each of these men (and no doubt, many others) in divers times and places and awakened their minds to the beauty and power of the saving grace of God.

For certain, these were not men to hide their lights under bushels.  Quite the contrary, in each of the eleven stories these men pastored congregations, parishes, or whole lands (as in the case of Whitefield and Wesley) where they preached and preached and preached.  In several cases, if they did not literally die in the pulpit, they preached themselves and worked themselves into early graves.  Zeal for God’s House, Name, and Saving Grace consumed them.

Let me slip on my history teacher’s mantle for a moment:  This type of biography is often called Hagiography.  Hagiography (and I don’t like the sound of the word) is biography that describes the life of a saint or that idealizes the subject.  Modern biographies written by authors aptly trained in historical studies tends to be more realistic, gritty, psychological, and objective.  For some particular cases in point, compare Dallimore’s biography of Whitefield with Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father or compare Iain Murray’s Jonathan Edwards with George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards.  (I like and have read all four works mentioned there.)

Sometimes, I found myself wishing that Ryle’s subjects could say or write something that didn’t sound overly stilted or spiritual.  It seems as though none of these men said things like, “It has been a rough day and I have a headache.”  Instead, they said things like, “I am been buffeted hither and yon by the storms of life, yea even by Satan himself, and I feel pain in my head reminding me of my own unworthiness and weakness in the flesh.” I like the heart of that last statement and subscribe to the need to think more Christianly, but sometimes feel that these men are too marble-like and ideal to have been flesh and blood folks like me, my pastor, my friends and brethren.

C. S. Lewis gives us the best reason for reading this book I can think of (and it makes me wonder if he read any of his fellow churchman of an earlier generation, Bishop Ryle).  It is from his oft quoted and reprinted essay “On the Reading of Old Books.”  He writes,

Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

Reading this book–Christian Leaders in the Eighteenth Century–did not leave me thinking, “This is how it (Christianity) should be done.”  It did leave me with lots of convictions, reminders, a few laughs, and a desire to see ongoing revival and reformation in our day.  When and as God sends revival into 21st century North America, Brazil, England, Africa, etc.,  it will not look like the world Ryle described.  But there is so very much found in this book that will be found whenever and wherever God pours out waves of revival and raises up Christian leaders.

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Theological Preaching–Rich and Deep

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I still have not recovered from something my college student daughter TaraJane told me a few months back.  She said that theology majors in college that she knew were the most cynical students around.  By that, she went on to explain that they were critical, negative, and generally contrary in their views on church, the Bible, God, and life in general.

I think that theology students should be giddy most of the time.  That is not because the study of theology is light and breezy, but because it exposes the heart and mind to an incredible array of richness concerning God, the Bible, the Kingdom of God, salvation, truth, mankind, and all of life.

I am, at best, only one who dabbles in theology.  My training, college education, and main work experiences have not been in theology per se.  I am a history teacher, a literature teacher, an administrator in a Christian school, and a book reviewer.  But I have also been a pastor/teacher/elder for several decades.  I have no formal theological training, but have played on the scrub teams for years by reading lots of books, listening to sermons and lectures, and acquiring a working familiarity with theology.

One of the too often used descriptions of theology is that the study is dry and dusty.  Granted that is possible.  All fields involve some archived information that is a labor to wade through.  Some writers are technical and analytical in ways that prevent them from being readily readable.  Often theologians, like scholars in all fields, write for an audience of peers and develop a language that the insiders are familiar with but that stumps the novice or newcomer to the studies.  When you are reading and thinking, “I don’t know what this book is talking about,” you may simply not know enough of the background.  Be slow to condemn, but don’t be ashamed to be baffled.

But is theology just an academic, scholarly, intellectual pursuit?  Of course, it can be.  The same can be said for the Battle of Gettysburg.  At its best and in terms of its primary purpose, theology is designed not to equip brainy, intellectuals who are Christian with an outlet for their mental synapses.  Rather, theology is to minister to, teach and instruct, comfort and confirm the Christian sitting in the pew on Sunday and working at the factory, elementary classroom, hospital, or home on the weekdays.

We are all theologians, as has been often said.  That is, all people are invovled in the study of God, or if you prefer Dr. Roy Clouser’s term, a Divinity Belief.  By that, everyone has something they embrace that gives definition, meaning, and direction to all they do (or don’t do).  So the believer is a theologian and should be striving to be a better theologian.  Theology, by definition, is the study of God, and the the newest convert and the youngest child in the congregation should be embracing theology.  Think for a moment at how profound the song is that proclaims, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

I want to call attention to two books I read over the past several months that are made up of incredibly rich theological discourses.  The chapters in these books were given as sermons and talks.  I find myself feeling dizzy at the thought of giving a talk on the high level of the contents of these books.  Yes, there are some things hard to understand.  No, these are not the works for a new and unread Christian to pick up.  But everytime I think back on either of these works, I remember just how they were packed full of soul-nurturing, mind-pleasing, convincing and convicting truths.

These two books are pictured below.  The first one is High KIng of Heaven: Theological and Practical Perspectives on the Person and Work of Jesus.  It is edited by John MacArthur.  Contributors include Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Michael Reeves, Mark Jones, Stephen Lawson, and many others.  These men are some of the foremost preachers and teachers in the various branches of Reformed and Evangelical Christianity.  Published by Moody Publishers and The Master’s Seminary, the book is hardbound and affordably priced.

The second book is Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting? Collected Sermons by John Murray.  It is published by Westminster Seminary Press.

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Let me begin the examination of these two books by discussing John Murray himself.  Murray was a Scotsman and was primarily a teacher of systematic theology.  He fits my favorite image of a true Scots Calvinist:  He was stern, serious, somber, and searching.  Add scholarly to that list.  His major works are Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics.  He also wrote a powerful commentary on Romans, and his various writings were collected together by Banner of Truth into a four volume set of the Collected Writings of John Murraywhich is temporarily (we hope) out of stock.

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On different occasions, Murray did do some pulpit supply.  In the case of these sermons, which were preached to small congregations in Canada and the Scottish Highlands, Murray was filling pulpits during his summer breaks from seminary.  Most of these sermons were transcribed from audio messages.  As is noted in the editor’s comments, a sermon read does not contain the emphases and style and passion of the spoken message.  Nevertheless, the the theological ground covered in this collection is vast.

The first seven sermons are from Romans.  They might serve as a helpful overview of Murray’s commentary, and one would wish we had a collection of sermons covering all of Romans.  Since Romans deals so intricately with salvation including justification, sanctification, election, and so on, Murray beautifully explains these doctrines.  The next eight sermons are from various texts, mostly from the New Testament.  The final selection is Murray’s charge to Edmund Clowney, who was taking on a theological chair at Westminster.

This book has been very beautifully crafted.  See the pictures connected to the link above.  It can be read in part or in whole, beginning with any one of the sermons.  It is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and hope to read from again and again.

High King of Heaven can be classified under the topic of Christology.  The various contributors, I believe, gave these messages at a conference.  (I am wondering how it would be humanly possible to get all these men together and have this many fine messages.)  The sections of this books are as follows:

Part 1: The Person of Christ

In this section, Michael Reeves begins with “The Eternal Word: God the Son in Eternity Past.”  Paul Twiss follows with “Son of God and Son of Man.” Mark Jones, author of Knowing Christ, speaks on Isaiah 50 and the topic of “The Son’s Relation with the Father.”  Subsequent chapters are the Virgin Birth, Christ as the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and Christ as head of the Church.

Part 2: The Work of Christ

Messages in this section are on the different phases of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascensioin, and second coming.

Part 3:  The Word of Christ

This portion includes a discourse called “No Other Gospel: The True Gospel of Christ” and another on the completion of the New Testament Canon.  Two subsequent portions cover the relation of Christ to the Old Testament.

Part 4: The Witness to Christ

Another look at Christ and in the Old Testament starts off this section.  It deals with the account of the Road to Emmaus and Jesus’ teaching about Himself “beginning with Moses.”  The message of Hebrews that Christ is better and is the final word is the subject of the second message here.  Albert Mohler deals with the believer’s witness in an ungodly world, and Paul Washer addresses suffering for Christ.  The 22nd message is “Around the Throne: the Heavenly Witness of the Redeemed in the Work of the Lamb.”  The final chapter is by John MacArthur and is called “Do You Love Me? The Essential Response to the High King of Heaven.”

Twenty three messages, all focusing on different Bible passages, with little of no repetition, differences, or diversions–this book is a gem for theological study, devotion, or sermon preparation.

High King of Heaven: Theological and Practical Perspectives on the Person and Work of Jesus

How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch by Michael Douma

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Here is how the book begins: “In 1849 Gerrit Baay wrote that his Dutch colony of Alto, Wisconsin, required only three things: more Bibles, more song books for the church, and more Dutch women.” It is hard to resist such a delightful introduction like that to a book.
I am slowly getting into this book as a total outsider. I am not Dutch and have only had a few connections with Dutch folk in the Americas. The part of the south (northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas) where I live doesn’t have connections with the Dutch-immigrant communities of the midwest. My initial interest in “all things Dutch” came from Reformed theology. Alongside the Scots Presbyterians and the New England Puritans, the strongest impetus for Calvinism in America came from the Dutch. There were some leading Dutch Calvinists who bridged the gap–in terms of language, community, and particular ecclesiastical matters–between the British Calvinists and the Continental Calvinists.
Geerhardus Vos, Louis Berkof, and Cornelius Van Til were three key Dutchmen whose influence reached way beyond their native communities. Perhaps the biggest influence in spreading Dutch Calvinist thought was from the old Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield. It was his influence that not only kept Princeton Theological Seminary firmly Reformed but that also worked to bring Abraham Kuyper to the United States to speak. (Look up the book Lectures on Calvinism for more on Kuyper.)
Back to this book: The Dutch settled in communities and sought to maintain their Dutchness. Church was central to much of this, but language and tradition played its part as well. As the Dutch Consul in Milwakee, named G. van Steenwijk, said in 1854, “Every now and then one meets a countryman who does not belong to a Dutch settlement….”
Ethnic studies has not usually been my forte or interest, but this case study is fascinating. It is easy and unavoidable to get lost in the WASP culture of America or to note more influential groups like Irish Catholics, African-Americans, or Hispanics. As well as being a melting pot, in the traditional explanation of American ethnicity, we as a people have maintained lots of cultural and ethnic identities.
I hope to write more as I continue on in the book.
Two additional notes:
First, I received my copy of this book as a review copy from the publisher and am not required to write gushy, glowing things about it.
Second, Dr. Michael Douma, the author, and I have become friends through Facebook and other digital exchanges over the past year. As his friend, I am required to write gushy, glowing things about this book. Michael is a serious, somber, searching academic historian confined to libraries, research centers and classrooms. As such, he might appear to be a bit stuffy, but he is also a real frontiersman and outsdoorsman who lives in the mountains, herds cats, listens to bluegrass music, and keeps his wit sharpened to a fine edge.

On Reading Difficult Books–Geerhardus Vos and Rosaria Butterfield

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All books are not created equal.  Nor are all readers.  Nor are all reading times and places equal.  For a reading experience to really work, there have to be several factors all combining.  In short, there has to be the right time, the right book, and the right place.  Years ago, I started reading Against All Hope by Armando Valladares.  This is a triumphant account of a man who survived the horrors of living under Casto’s regime in Cuba, but it is grim reading.  At the time I started reading it, now forgotten troubles in my life convinced me to put it aside for a season.  I can also remember a time when I was very down about a number of things and G. K. Chesterton stepped in to fortify my faith and Arthur Conan Doyle provided me a Sherlock Holmes story each night to boost my spirits.  At one time, I kept James Herriot’s books close by and only read them when my mind was exhausted.

Over the past few decades, I have become a morning person and a morning reader.  The more difficult books are the ones that demand strong coffee and an alert mind.  But sometimes the caffeine quota just doesn’t jump start the brain enough for the book to resonate.  I urge all readers to be constantly searching for the right book for the right time.  Evenings for me are times for histories, biographies, popular fiction, and classics that are not overly demanding.  Books with short chapters work well to carry along when faced with sitting in a waiting room or being idle for a long time (like 5 minutes).

Along with all of that advice, I will venture into another description of books that does not have a single and univocal meaning.  What does it mean to say that a book is hard or difficult?  With all my previous comments about finding the right times, places, and books, I must solemnly add that sometimes we have to read and often we need to read books that are not page-turners, not overly gripping or consuming, and not at all preferable to the mind that seeks some ease.  Some of these are books that are assigned to us in classes.  As a teacher, I often find that the assigned text is vexing to read.  Why do I read it?  Because I assigned it and it is there.  Sometimes, yea even often, the greatest benefit of a book comes in having completed it.  Sometimes, our greatest reaction to getting through a book is “Boy, I’m glad that is over with.”

Some difficult books need to be read or at least attempted because we need what they contain, including the mental stretching due to the contents.  I am not refering to nightstand books or beach reading, but those works of history, philosophy, theology, science, economics, literature, and so on that we should read because of our callings and duties.  Some difficult books need to be read because we need the change that the book’s contents will provide for us.

I will now discuss two very difficult books that I have read this year.  They are totally different kinds of books and the difficulty level in each of them is drastically different.

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In the spring, I read Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics Volume One: Theology Proper.  All four volumes of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics are now in print, but I have only acquired and read the first one.  This set is published by Lexham Press.  The difficulty of it lies first in its format.  These works were put together from classes that the Dutch theologian (and later emigrant to the United States) taught in Dogmatic Theology.  The work is set up in a series of questions and answers. For example, chapter three begins a 38 page study of the doctrine of the Trinity.  It begins with this question: Why must we not seek a decisive proof for the Trinity in the Old Testament?  Vos follows with a three part answer and then moves on to the next question: What traces of the Trinity can we nevertheless discover in the Old Testament?  This questions gets a two paragraph answer.

Vos’ book ranges from detailed Bible supports for topics to short summaries of both inadequate and confirming theological sources.  I suspect that the Q & A format was what he expected his students to read through and think about, as well as research further.  It doesn’t seem to have been a lecture format. The format calls for time and attention to the Bible references and mastering the topics, terms, and theologians found in the content.  The difficulty of the book is that it calls for a slow and deliberate reading.  Of course, one can skip and skim to find the points of particular interest, but that is not the best use of the book.

Why read this book when other and more easily read books are available?  First, I will answer as a historian/history teacher.  Geerhardus Vos is a central figure in the story of 19th and 20th Century Dutch Calvinism that impacted both Europe and North America.  The pioneering figure in the movement was Abraham Kuyper, but Kuyper was not the first or the only key theologian or Christian worldview thinker from the Netherlands.  My historical studies have carried me from Arkansas to Amsterdam many times figuratively (although I can add that I once was in Amsterdam for a half hour on a plane flight).

Second, as a Christian teacher and one who has been involved in various ministry works, I need the challenge and first hand experience in reading the theological heavies.  Always balanced out with easier readings close at hand, reading the more challenging works is humbling and soul nurturing.

Third, as a Christian believer, I need to be reminded of the saints who have gone before, who labored long over an open Bible and the the theological classics, and who then left us things to read.  Biblical theology, be it deep and difficult, finally filters down into the most simple and basic of Bible truths.  For the simple “God is good, God is great” mealtime prayer or the children’s song “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” all contain incredibly deep, wide, profound, and world-changing theological assumptions and foundations.  I need to be reminded that the “faith once delivered to the saints” is adequate to answer any and all objections and is profitable for life.

And so, I have to tackle the books whose content is hard for the mind.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key

I finished a book today that will rank as one of the hardest I have ever had to read.  The Gospel Comes With a House Key is by Rosaria Butterfield and is published by Crossway.

This is the information about Dr. Butterfield from the publisher’s website:

Rosaria Butterfield (PhD, Ohio State University) is an author, speaker, pastor’s wife, homeschool mom, and former professor of English and women’s studies at Syracuse University. She is the author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered.

This book is a call for Christians to do more than simply share a bit of the Gospel with their neighbors.  It is a call for a radical embracing of neighbors, regardless of their beliefs and lifestyles, and share the Christian life and Gospel with them.  Much of the book centers around personal stories and accounts of the Butterfield’s neighbors and neighborhood.  This family has an open door, an invitation, a pot of soup, a cup of coffee, or even a spare room for any and every person who comes along.  The recurring story within this story is about a reclusive and odd neighbor called Mr. Hank.  In time, the Butterfields became friends with Hank, but after a time, he was arrested and imprisoned for running a meth lab.  That would have been experience enough to convince me to “build the wall ten feet higher,” to quote a Republican Presidential candidate from 2016.  Not so with this woman and her pastor husband and her homeschooled kids.  They did even more to share the Gospel with the man (who was converted after being imprisoned) and teach their neighbors to forgive a wicked neighbor.

As far as readability and narrative flow, this is an easy book.  The content is not hard, but it is the lesson that is still causing me pain.  At first, my reaction was “Stephanie and I just cannot do all of what this woman and her husband does.”  I was exhausted just reading about all the things she was doing.  It was like reading about Michael Phelps’ swimming practices.  “Nope, not me, all I can do is dog paddle.”

But slowly I am realizing that replicating the lifestyle and practices of this family is not what I need to do.  As is often said, “Do the next right step.” I suspect it may be many small steps along the way for my family–and especially the very introverted, reclusive me–to practice our own version of this.  But, my wife is already leading a small group of young ladies through the book Lies Young Women Believe by Nancy Demoss Wolgemuth.

Conviction hurts.  Hopefully it hurts long enough to result in a few changes.  The Gospel Comes With a House Key is not for the faint of heart or for the person who wants the Christian life to be segmented into a short two hours of minor inconvenience called church on Sunday mornings.  This book, unfortunately for staid and stubborn Christians like me, sounds a bit too much like Jesus of Nazareth.