Reason and Worldviews by Owen Anderson

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First, I must begin with a warning:  Do not attempt to read Reason and Worldviews with decaf or weak coffee.  Make it stronger than usual.  Avoid distractions.  Don’t confuse this book for a morning devotional.

Reason and Worldviews is by Owen Anderson, assistant professor of Integrative Studies at Arizona State University.  It is published by University Press of America.  It bears the very descriptive subtitle Warfield, Kuyper, Van Til and Plantiga on the Clarity of General Revelation and Function of Apologetics.  

Often my book reviews are tied to some experience I have had in my life.  In this case, I read a couple of essays around the years 2008 and 2009 that rekindled my interest in my first experiences in confronting Calvinistic or Reformed theology.  On the one hand, there were those many Bible flipping evenings where I was reading Boettner, Pink, Steele and Thomas, and others and looking up the proof texts for Calvinistic soteriology or views of salvation.  But prior to those experiences and subsequent to them as well were explorations into the Calvinistic worldview.

It was first introduced to me with the German word Weltanschauung.  That mouthful was explained as meaning a world and life view or a comprehensive view of all things from a particular viewpoint.  God grabbed me by the mind and did not let me go.  I had the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, but the life of the mind was pretty mushy, vague, and vulnerable.  A Fifth Column of Presbyterian and Reformed warriors, including Gregg Singer, R. J. Rushdoony, Gordon Clark, Francis Nigel Lee, H. Van Reissen, and Phillip Edgecombe Hughes sidetracked me and forever changed my way of thinking.

That was the 1970’s and it was, to repeat myself, the years 2007 and 2008 when I re-engaged with the thinking that had created this initial effect.  There were men, like those mentioned above, who were not exactly the public intellectuals because most of the world–both secular and religious–either did not know they existed or they ignored them.  But they reached a remnant of thinkers, and like a stone tossed in a pond, the ripple effect spread out widely.

I had the opportunity to give a series of talks in Newport Newes, Virginia and later in Alaska in 2008.  My series in Virginia was titled “Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers During the Wilderness Years,” and in Alaska, my topic was “Dutch Worldview Thinkers.”  I loved the subject (if I may call it that) and have continued to read on the various influential Reformed theologians and philosophers who have grappled with the issues of modern thought.

When I first saw the title and subtitle of Reason and Worldviews, I was sold on the book.  Being a more specialized monograph, it bears a high, but not prohibited price.  So, it took me a while to get the book, and this past few weeks, I have been reading it.

The word “Apologetics,” which appears in the subtitle, is a rather broad word within Christian thought.  I have and have read dozens of books on apologetics, which is the field of defending the Christian faith.  Many books focus on the range of arguments Christians confront in the classroom, in conversations, and in our culture.  Hence, such books teach provide us foundations for believing the Bible, answering objections, and dealing with stumbling blocks to the faith.

This book, however, is dealing with much more difficult issues.  Christian theology has not merely brushed up against the field of philosophy, but has confronted and, we might say to some degree, converted it.  Or at least, it has taken thought captive–as Paul admonishes us to do in II Corinthians 10:5.  For many years, Princeton Theological Seminary was the center of Christian philosophical thought as well as theological thought.  Harvard had caved;  Harvard Divinity School hired Ralph Waldo Emerson to teach whatever it was that he believed.  Yale had waffled.  Princeton stood as the bulwark of Christian thought.

Truth doesn’t change, but the way we present the truth changes.  We teach our young children truths, but we expand and adapt these truths to fit their minds and lives as they grow up.  The issues confronting Princeton changed through the years, and sad to admit, but Princeton changed as well.  That is another story, but as long as the Hodges and later Benjamin Warfield occupied key positions, Princeton was a ruling force.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield is the key Christian theologian/philosopher in this study.  He wrote on a wide range of theological topics, although many have lamented that he never compiled all of his thinking into a systematic theology.  To some degree, this has been remedied by Fred G. Zaspel’s book The Theology of B. B. Warfield.

In Anderson’s study, Warfield is examined for his approach to the issue of how we know God, how we interpret revelation of God, and to what degree man is excusable or inexcusable from life experiences.

Warfield had a beloved friend and fellow theologian across the pond named Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper was a key figure in the theological and political world of the Netherlands.  He was invited by Warfield to give the Stone Lectures for the year 1898.  Those lectures were published and have been reprinted many times under the title Lectures on Calvinism. While Warfield and Kuyper could walk arm in arm on many issues, they had different approaches to apologetics and how unbelievers were to be confronted and held accountable.

 

In time, a young Dutchman and immigrant to America, attempted to bring the differences of Warfield and Kuyper together.  His name was Cornelius Van Til, and he is well known in Calvinistic circles for presuppositional apologetics.  For many, Van Til has provided the definitive and last word on apologetics and how the unbeliever thinks and/or suppresses the truth.  At the same time, in good old Calvinistic fashion, some fellow believers rank Van Til’s thinking somewhere below that of Joel Osteen.

Others have grappled with these issues as well.  Two of the big names in Christian philosophy in our day are Nicholas Wolterstorf and Alvin Plantinga.  Plantiga has promoted the position that Christian belief in God is warranted belief.  In other words, we Christians are just a bunch of simple minded crazies. (Okay, well some of us are, but not all.)

Each variety of thought–Warfield’s, Kuyper’s, Van Til’s, and Plantiga’s–has attempted to deal with some difficult issues, and each has its limitations.  As a way of bridging some of the gaps here, Anderson proposes that we seriously examine the much neglected idea of Natural Theology.  In his conclusion, he brings us back to Warfield who was, in many ways, closer to the answers found in Natural Theology, than some of the others.

“Ben,” you ask, “Do you even know what you are talking about?”  Okay, I admit it.  I walked out to the pool expecting to wade, but I got thrown into the deep end–again.  Owen Anderson is not teaching basic swimming lessons.  He had to pull me out of the water several times, in fact.  But he ends each chapter with a series of questions.  On my next reading, I want to have those questions in view as I read.  And he includes a really useful glossary of terms and key people mentioned in the book.

This is not, as I said above, a morning devotional.  Nor is it a fast, once through and then shelve, book.  Who needs it then?  First, people like my son Nick and many others I know who study philosophy, but who have a theological grounding.  Second, pastors and teachers who need to branch out beyond their sermon helps.  Third, Christians who have been given the blessings and gifts of the enjoying the life of themind.  Fourth, me.

I deeply love Warfield, Kuyper, and Van Til.  I suspect that the more read of Plantiga, the more I will love him.  But this is more than just hero worship (of which I am often guilty).  There is the great concept of “Glorifying God and Enjoying Him Forever.”  Forever doesn’t begin when we arrive in heaven.  Enjoying God–even to the extent that it means examing the heights and depths of philosophy and theology–begins now.

 

Jonathan Edwards–Recent Books on His Life and Thought

 

John Piper has often recounted the story of one of his seminary professors advising him to devote his studies to the Bible and one theologian whose thought he would seek to master.  Piper chose Jonathan Edwards.  Other men of God that I know have done similar things. Baptist pastor Fred Zaspel has devoted lots of study to Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield and has written two fine books on Warfield.  George Grant has collected and read almost everything written by and about Scottish preacher, author, and theologian Thomas Chalmers.  Douglas Douma, still a young man, is rapidly advancing toward being the key authority on philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark.  Bradford Littlejohn has already produced a number of volumes on the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker.  And Joel Osteen has extensively studied and spoken about the theological insights of Joel Osteen.

I confess that I have been way too much of a gadfly to have mastered any theologian, philosopher, or historian.  I think I have some sort of advanced ADD because my interest and focus will be intense for short bursts of time, and then I am off in a totally different direction.  But I keep trying.  I also think that the advice Piper received was good.  And the choice Piper made–that of studying Edwards–was good as well.

The current popularity of Edwards is an amazing phenomena in our time.  It is the result of the contributions of at least four unlikely team players and a university and quite a few publishing houses.  The four men involved are Perry Miller, Iain Murray, George Marsden, and John Piper.  Miller was a historian and an unbeliever who went against the history department druthers of his day and decided to study Puritans.  He did not agree with Puritan theology or their worldview, but did find them to be worthy of more serious academic consideration.  He single-handedly revived Puritanism as a field of academic pursuit.

Iain Murray shares my characteristic of being widely focused on lots of key figures in church history.  Some years ago, he wrote a laudatory biography of Jonathan Edwards for Banner of Truth. Murray never wrote for scholars, but for thinking Christians.  He did not sugarcoat his subjects and create pious plastic figures, but his biographies were designed to instruct and model Christian living,  sound doctrine, and better preaching and teaching.  His biography won many over to Edwards or put more life into the pictures we had of this man.

George Marsden’s later biography of Edwards filled in the gap left by Murray by providing a more scholarly, academic study of Edwards’ life.  I don’t know of any two other biographies that better complement each other than Murray’s and Marden’s books on Edwards.  John Piper brought Edwards back into the pulpit and Christian conference.  With a style far from Edwards’ reserve and manner, Piper–with passion and emotion–shared Edwards’ thoughts, words, and ideas.  The fire that burned in Edwards’ life and beliefs might not have appeared so hot and blazing had it not been for Piper.

The university that came to the forefront is Yale which began the vast project of producing modern editions of Edwards’ writings.  Yale’s Works of Jonathan Edwards number twenty-six printed volumes and many more on-line volumes.  We often use blanket statements to describe modern secular universities and modern scholarship.  Truth is that many great Christian books are published by secular university presses.  Whether those behind the books share the lack of Christian beliefs like Miller or whether they are true believers and scholars is beside the point.  The books are there.

As you can see from this PARTIAL SELECTION from my own collection, I have accumulated quite a few books on Edwards.  If I could start over again, I might choose him as Piper did, but would probably still be a gadfly flitting from Edwards to Kuyper to Warfield to Calvin to more recent writers.  But I do intend to learn more of Edwards.  On one side of eternity or the other, I hope to get a greater vision for the grandeur of God and His saving work.

Here follows a few short comments on the review books I have (and am behind in reading) on Edwards:

Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought is by Oliver D. Crisp and Kyle C. Strobel.  It is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.

One of the essential things about studying Jonathan Edwards is that the vast pool of Edwards’ thought and Edwardsian studies consists of a deep end and a even much deeper end.  Edwards was a first rate preacher, but also a top notch theologian and philosopher.  This study is not for the beginner, the novice, or the one who heard of Edwards from a Piper sermon and wants to know more.  This book requires strong black coffee, maybe with a shot of espresso.

Both authors have written other books on Edwards and have interacted with fellow scholars.  This book is on the deeper end of the pool.  In my morning readings, I prefer to start with a very accessible book that is ministering to both heart and mind.  After reading and while starting on the second cup of coffee, I can then trudge through this kind of work.

The opening chapter is on the intellectual context of Edwards.  Studies generally try to figure out where he is in the Reformed and Puritan realm and where he is engaging in more of the then-current Enlightenment thought.  Subsequent chapters deal with “God of Beauty and Glory,” “God of Creation,” “The Atonement,” and then two very inviting chapters titled “Becoming Beautiful” and “Becoming Edwardsean.”

Also published by Eerdmans is The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia, edited by Harry S. Stout.

This is not a read from beginning to end work, but is a work that can be dipped into randomly or used for specific research.  The list of contributors is a “Who’s Who” among contemporary Edwards scholars. That in itself is impressive to me.

Just flipping through the book, I come across articles about Calvinism, economic thought, Jerusha Edwards (Jonathan’s daughter), King George’s War, Mahican (Stockbridge) Indians, and more.

This book is a goldmine for the history and literature teacher (like myself) who teaches about Edwards and for the preacher and theology students who studies Edwards.

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

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeny.

I think that this introduction book is more geared to the student and pastorally inclined reader than the one above.  Edwards is not a lightweight, but he is worth the effort and a book like this will help the reader get a grasp on his theology.

Since I just got this book and have barely had time to read anything but the preface, I will hold further comments until later.  But the preface by the authors and the foreword by Piper have whetted my appetite.

Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards by Owen Strachan is published by Tyndale.

Who would have guess a hundred years ago that a day by day devotional reader consisting of Jonathan Edwards’ words with a brief commentary and Bible verse would be published?  This book is just right for all of us who want and need to be guided by Edwards, even if it is just being spoon fed in small portions.

I have for years complained about daily devotional books.  Granted there are plenty of sappy, light, fluffy, sugary devotional works that have been filling Christians with an appearance of substance.  But with books like this, even I must admit that the reader of a short devotional can take in some good theology.

Owen Strachan, the author, is the co-author of the book above and one of the contributors to the Encyclopedia.  

Be patient with me, gentle blog readers, for it may be well into the new year before I can come by with having completed or having read extensively in these and a few other books on America’s greatest theologian, greatest philosopher, and one of its greatest preachers.

 

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.

 

 

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.

cover image for Knowing God and Ourselves

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.

Image result for vos reformed dogmatics

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.

 

Shaking and Shifting the Paradigms–The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser

Image result for unseen realm book

Good Bible teaching takes us down familiar paths and shows us new things.  That is not an original thought or sentence, but rather one that I heard years ago and have often repeated.  It is for me a very good way of defining what I have experienced in reading The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser and published by Lexham Press.

I am on my second reading of the book. The first reading was slow and the second one may be slower.  This is a path breaking book.  It is challenging because it addresses issues that are not usually tackled and has some approaches that are far from conventional.

Notice the subtitle to the book:  Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible.  Worldview is a recurring theme of many Christian discussions in our time.  As a Christian educator, I have been drenched with books, lectures, and information regarding having, developing, detecting, fine tuning, and defending a Christian worldview.   Debates about how and how much aside, the question is “Do we really have a supernatural worldview of the Bible?”

What other kind of view could we have as Christians?  It is possible to read the Bible for years and typically overlook or sidestep certain passages, details, and content.  In many cases, this is because there are things mentioned that just don’t open up to easy answers.  For example, consider the Nephilim of Genesis 6:1-4.

“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (Genesis 6:4 ESV)

Or consider Psalm 82:1:  God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.  (KJV)

These passages and others create challenges in that the usual method of comparing text with text doesn’t easily yield answers.  But Heiser believes and supports the idea that these passages are not just weird quirks in an otherwise sensible story.

Much of his book concerns God’s council with spiritual, even divine beings, who serve God, confer with God, listen to God, interject their own comments, but who ultimately are under God’s total providence and power.  This is not polytheism, for God alone is God, as the Scripture consistently affirms.

This book is neither brief nor easy.  I recommend it, but warn the reader to take time, think carefully, have the Bible handy, and be ready to do some brain changing thinking.

Morning Coffee with Packer and Ryken–A Country for Old Men

Call it the joy of creation, the newness of day, Sabbath rest, or, to use a theological term–common grace.  Mornings can be delightful.  After years of being a night owl, I have morphed into a morning person.  I don’t wake up, however, ready to talk and be active.  I wake up ready to listen and to take in the awakening power of a good book and good coffee.  (Alas, coffee lovers, I usually have to resort to Folgers due to economics rather than preference.)

But I never drink alone in the mornings.  It is the company that enriches the experience.  Of late, it has been two older men, two elderly gentlemen.  They are both pillars in the Kingdom of God, both faithful saints who are running still, with the blessed finish line in sight.

I am speaking of J. I. Packer and Leland Ryken.

  

Both have spent decades writing, speaking, and teaching God’s people how to better grasp the Bible and Christian doctrine and how to live the faith in all areas of life.  I have stacks of books these two have written, and I have a quest to obtain whatever volumes are missing from my collection.  Dr. Packer, now age 90 and suffering from blindness, is an Englishman who has labored long in North America.  Dr. Ryken is professor emeritus at Wheaton College.  I regret never having met Dr. Packer.  That will likely have to happen on the other side of the divide.  I did meet Dr. Ryken back in 2011 when my son Nick entered Wheaton College.  Nick and I both plotted and schemed for him, a freshman, to get to take Dr. Ryken’s class on Shakespeare.  (We knew he would be retiring soon.)  After we met the esteemed doctor of literature, Nick accused me of being like a 15 year old girl meeting Justin Bieber.  “What did he write?” I asked.

Dr. Leland Ryken, Ben House, and Wheaton freshman Nick House at Wheaton College in August of 2011.

Leland Ryken has written quite a few books on literature, Christian thinking about the arts, and on the Bible.  J. I. Packer has written quite a few books on Christian topics ranging from his classic Knowing God to the book that tackled a tough subject Fundamentalism and the Word of God and an even tougher subject Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.  Again, if either of them wrote, I want to read it.

Recently, Dr. Ryken wrote a biography of J. I. Packer, titled J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (and published by Crossway).  This book, along with a book by Sam Storms titled Packer on the Christian Life, immediately raced to the top of my want list.  Both are now safe on the shelf, or rather, in the case of the Ryken book, safe on the book stack.

Ryken’s biography could easily be the race through, gulp down, read really fast kind of book.  It is that good.  But, I am savoring it.  At this point, I am only reading it in small bits and pieces on Sunday mornings.  (I did start a book by J. I. Packer today for daily reading.)  I don’t want this opportunity to visit with two of my heroes to happen and be over too quickly.

Yesterday’s reading concerned Packer’s education at Oxford.  Ryken’s description of Packer’s classical education is a good testimony to that type of educational training.

Ryken writes,

“Although Packer gave priority to the Christian side of life… he was not impatient with the time he spent on Greek and Latin language study and the reading of masterworks in those languages.  Packer had come to enjoy the Greek and Latin languages, finding that they ‘have their strengths and fascination,’ with the result that mastering them provided ‘a rather good feeling.’…By his own testimony, he ‘had the ability to become a classical scholar’….But the bent of his being following his conversion was in the direction of Christian scholarship and ministry.”

On a different vein, Ryken relates the way that Packer viewed himself during his college years.  Packer said that he was immature, an oddity, bad at relationships, an outsider, shy, introverted, and awkward.  He was “an eighteen year old oddball…emotionally locked up.”

Wow!  God is great.  There is hope for us all.

What a delight to live for a short time each Sunday morning in a country for old men.