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.

Knowing God, Ourselves, and also John Calvin

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I really want to become guilty of something I have been accused of in the past.  Sometimes when discussions would arise and morph into arguments, someone would say, “You have been reading too much Calvin.” The charge has been made using other terms as well.  “You are reading and getting your ideas from the words of men.”  “You have become programmed like a logic book.”  Perhaps the most accurate criticism was simply, “You are crazy.”

I did not embrace Reformed theology, sometimes called Calvinism, by just hearing men.  Logical programming has never been my abiding characteristic.  Going insane has always only a short trip.  “You are following the words of men” is an odd criticism because whoever is saying that to me is giving me words of a man (using “man” in the now archaic sense of “person”).

Agree or disagree, my understanding of Reformed theology came from the old fashioned method of looking up lots and lots of Bible passages.  Yes, it was from books written by men that I was getting the listings of Bible verses.  Loraine Boettner caused me lots of angst, joy, irritation, joy, unbelief, joy, belief, and then more joy.  Then along came the book The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Documented, and Defended by David Steele and Curtis Thomas.  With a minimum amount of defining and defending, the bulk of the book was Bible verses supporting each contention.

Before Reformed theology, I never really understood how to read, study, and work through the Bible.  Reformed theology made me a student of the Bible.  For a time, I thought all Calvinists agreed on everything.  (Pause for a minute or two of laughter.)  In time, I realized that all true Calvinists or Reformed folk really just centered on one narrow, limited, restricted doctrine–the Bible is the Word of God.  The Bible Alone–Sola Scriptura–was the hallmark.  Yes, we (the Reformed) fall short of our principle; yes, we interpret;  yes, we put spiritual blinders on;  yes, we sometimes inadvertently use old creeds, confessions, and “words of men” to bolster some weak arguments.  But the touchstone still stands:  Scripture Alone.

Now, back to John Calvin.  First of all, Calvin was the last person who would have wanted a whole movement to be named after him.  Second, he didn’t devise the handy-dandy TULIP or 5 Point Summary of Salvation.  Third, he was not a Johnny Calvin-One Note who found predestination and election in every verse.

He wrote a simple Bible study guide for young believers.  Keep in mind, he was given the gift of teaching and writing, and he was compelled by circumstances to teach, speak, preach, or write to fellow believers about doctrines of the Bible.  Throughout his ministry, much of his work was focused on verse by verse teaching of the Bible.  From those lectures, sermons, and writings, we have a huge corpus called Calvin’s Commentaries along with collections of sermons that are still be translated into English.

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But his initial theological work was the study guide for major Christian beliefs, commonly known as Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This book started out as a short treatise of a few hundred pages, but throughout his life, Calvin continued to revise this book.  In the English editions, Calvin’s Institutes appears as a thick one volume or two still hefty volumes of some 1000 pages.  The two best known translations is the older Henry Beveridge translation and the 20th century Ford Lewis Battles translation.  (I like both and have used the Beveridge for teaching because it was more affordable.)

My favorite translation is the Banner of Truth edition.  Called “Calvin’s Own ‘Essentials’ Edition, this beautiful volume was translated by Robert White and was made from the French edition in 1541.  This book is 842 pages and is hard bound with the quality that Banner of Truth fans know quite well.

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Although Calvin’s Institutes, taken as a whole, is a massive work, it can be read as a series of shorter books.  Overall, it follows the outline of the Apostles’ Creed.  The book is surprisingly readable and understandable.  Calvin was writing to his congregations and readers; he was not writing for a theological text for theological academics (not that they cannot read it profitably as well).

Over the years, quite a number of guide, helps, outlines, and commentaries have been written for use alongside of Calvin’s book.  I have picked up at least four or five of these types of books through the years.  Having a guide, a mentor, a teacher is always helpful.  The Ethiopian eunuch asked the question that all real students ask repeatedly:  How can I understand what I am reading unless someone guides me?”

Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally by David B. Calhoun is a recent publication by Banner of Truth.  How can I say this without exaggerating?  Here goes:  This is a great book.  It ministers to mind and soul.  It guides the reader through the main headings of Calvin’s Institutes while giving delightful quotes from other Calvin scholars and writers, supplying Bible verses, and heart-directed comments.

While designed as a book to accompany the reading of the Institutes, it can be read as a stand alone volume.  Whether the readers is looking for history, biography, theology, Bible teachings, and key topics regarding Calvin’s theology, it is here.

Notice the key words in the subtitle:  Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.  Calvin’s mission statement on life was having a heart centered, empowered, propelled, and driven by a love for God.  His key objection to the many theological enemies of his time was that they were not Christ-centered.  Church work was all about making people believe, trust, love, and obey Jesus more and more.

Quite frankly, Calvin often reads more like a pietistic mystic than like a Calvinist.  He is like the praise and worship part of modern worship services, except that instead of loud amplified music and repeated (too many times) choruses, there is strong theological, Biblical truth.  His writings are Christ-centered and Christ-consumed.  And along with, before, or after reading Calvin, read Knowing God and Ourselves.

Additional recommendation:  I first became aware of David Calhoun’s writings when I read the first of his two volume story of Princeton Seminary.  I love that set, which is a Banner of Truth publication.  Then later, I read, reviewed, and loved his shorter volume on Columbia Seminary and his biographical and editorial work highlighting the southern Presbyterian theologian William Childs Robinson.

While these books might seem to be of interest only to Presbyterians studying their own history, the works reach to a wider range of concerns.  The history of Presbyterians in the 18th-20th centuries in America echo, explain, and chronicle the ups and downs and downs and downs with a few later ups of our country.

Knowing God and Ourselves is a different kind of book, however.  It is a first rate study and great for directing the heart and mind to God.  God’s blessings on Dr. Calhoun whose health is not good, but whose faith is strong.

 

 

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.

Cover image for John Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion'

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.

Reformed Dogmatics, 4 Volumes - By: Herman Bavinck

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