Reading for the Heart, the Mind, and the Short Distance Between the Two

SUMMER BOOK LOOKS #2

Summer mornings are great.  Sunlight is peering through the windows announcing a new day.  The coffee maker sits anxiously awaiting my pushing the button.  The reading chair is all ready for my morning venture.  As Matt Perman has said, “The most important principle for being productive is Bible reading and prayer, before the day begins, every day.” When that is done, I turn to the ever increasing, sometimes dangerous high and tilting, stack of books to be read, scanned, started, or just handled.

Here are some of the current and upcoming reads:

 Keith Sewell

I am currently reading Keith Sewell’s new book The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock Publishers.  On the publisher’s website, the book is listed as “history.”  It is that, but more.  It is also a theology work and an examination of contemporary Christianity.  But things never just happen, for they are all results of historical processes.

From the title, one might have two questions.  First, why “crisis”-singular, rather than “crises”-plural?  There are many problems within Evangelical circles and many books detailing the problems.  George Barna created a cottage industry of books detailing views, trends, and attitudes within the circles of professing Christians, many of which are troubling.  Second, if there is a single crisis, what is it?  Ask me that question next week when I am deeper into the book.

Dr. Sewell, with whom I have corresponded on several occasions, offers these reflections from a strong vantage point.  He was born and raised in Great Britain, then he taught history for some years at Dordt College in Iowa, and after retirement, he moved to Australia.  His church affiliations have included the Church of England during his upbringing, was part of Reformed churches (of Dutch variety) during his years at Dordt, and  now worships with Anglican Parish Church in Australia.  His labors and travels have also taken him to other parts of the world, particularly areas that have connections with the British Empire.  Also, Dr. Sewell has written a book on the overly ignored Christian historian Herbert Butterfield.

In the opening chapters, Sewell deals with the interaction (sometimes more a reaction) of Christianity with the prevailing philosophies of the Greco-Roman world, meaning primarily Platonism, and the different approaches to Scripture’s authority within the branches of the Protestant movement during the Reformation.

This book is challenging.  Warning:  Don’t drink de-caf coffee while reading this.  I will post an update on this book soon.

Know the Bible Now is published by Concordia Publishing House.  Concordia, to no surprise, is a Lutheran based publisher of books, commentaries, Bibles, and study helps.  I am certain that they will be unveiling quite a few great works next year during the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation.  While they target conservative Lutherans, they publish quite a few works that are useful for people who designate themselves as Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical, or the simple word Christian.

This book is very basic, very much aimed at young readers or people new to the Bible, and helpful for people needing, as the sub-title indicates, a visual overview of the Bible.  In other words, this book is probably needed by the people who sit on both sides of you and on the rows in front of and behind you at church, and you probably need it too.  Just yesterday, Sam Murrell, a preacher and teacher in a Christian school, and I were talking about how little basic Bible knowledge many children have who have grown up in church and who attend Christian schools.  We are better at swearing on a stack of Bibles than demonstrating a simple knowledge of the Bible.

This book is full of charts, short Bible selections that capture big themes, and well done art.  If there were no other recommendation, the fact that Paul Maier, a fine author and editor of Christian works, has written the foreword to the book.

B & H Publishing Groups is one of the best Baptist publishing houses around today.  Like Concordia, they do a wide range of books and materials aimed at a particular segment of the Christian community, but still really useful for the greater Body of Christ.  I recently read The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves and am now about one-third of the way through Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George.

Reeves’ book is recent, introductory, and brief.  George’s book is a 25th Anniversary reprint (which came out in 2013), more advanced, and nearly 400 pages long.  As stated earlier, next year–2017–marks the 500 Year Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (assuming we can agree on it “beginning” with Luther’s tack and hammer event in Wittenberg).  If Bible illiteracy is a problem, as indicated in the review above, historical literacy is a greater problem.  If there is a crisis or many crises in the evangelical world, as indicated in the first review, those crises are only going to be understand by some serious historical reading.

I hope to use Reeves’ Unquenchable Flame in my Modern World Humanities course.  It is the best overview of the Reformation I have read in recent years.  For the student, it is a great introduction, and for the teacher, it is a great review, and for a class, it is a fine overview.  From the introduction by Mark Dever (a selling point for anyone who knows his work) to the body of the book, this work is highly favorable to the Reformation.  But it recognizes flaws, faults, and failings as well.  The Reformation is complicated, and historians can ask whether it was successful, necessary, over, or still going on.  But students have to begin with the basic information.  Start here if you have not read on that portion of Church and World History.

Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers is a book I would assign if I were teaching a college level course on the Reformation, the 1500s, the Modern World, early modern Europe, or church history.  I would sneak in a recommendation for it if I were teaching on a number of other unrelated topics.  This book has chapters of 50 plus pages in length–mini-books, in other words–on each of the Reformers.  The first long chapter in this book, corresponding to the first short chapter in Reeves’ work, is on the Medieval world prior to Luther and Calvin.  While each of the chapters provides biographies of the Reformers–Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Menno Simmons, and Tyndale–the focus is on the theological views and actions of the men and those in their circles.

I have read many books on the Reformation and the Reformers.  I have many more that I have only scanned or used for reference purposes.  Don’t ask which 2 or 5 or 20 are the most important.  I could not say, but I will say that if a serious student is to have only 2 secondary sources (for I assume all serious students would have Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Calvin’s Institutes, and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer), these two would set them on the right track.

[Is it a tribute to the Methodist Ecumenical Movement of the 1960s that has caused me–a Presbyterian–to be reading from an Anglican with Dutch Reformed affiliations, a Lutheran work, and the work of two Reformed Baptists? ]

Strong Morning Coffee and Stronger Morning Theology

I love mornings.  I only wish I had two hours instead of one to enjoy the great pleasure of a strong cup of coffee and a good book.  My morning routine begins with turning the coffee maker on and doing my Bible reading.  After the Bible reading, the coffee is ready and the first book is started.  I usually read 10 to 20 pages of about 3 books on the morning stack.

Sinclair Ferguson, a Scotsman who had spent lots of years pastoring and teaching in the U. S., is one of my favorite writers.  I first heard of him and actually heard him many years ago at a conference in Pensacola, Florida.  He spoke there on the Book of Ruth.  Or as he called it Rrrrrr-uth, with his Scottish accent.  He is a representative of the best of Scottish Reformed preaching and teaching.  Last year, I read his book In Christ Alone and thorougly loved it.

This book, however, is of a different nature.  This was some tough theology, for it was an examination of an older theological work titled The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher.  In its time, some 250 years ago, the Marrow controversy created quite a stir among the Scottish ministers.  Formost among the defenders of the Marrow proponents was Thomas Boston, pastor and author of the Reformed classic Human Nature in Its Fourfold State.

While this is not a fluff book, it is an amazing work, as Tim Challies has noted HERE.  What Ferguson does is to take this old, largely forgotten and obscure controversy and explain in an understandable way.  But his goal was not simply to weigh in with clarity on a historical theological dispute. Instead, he makes it pertinent to modern Christians.  Legalism still affects the Church and the Christian community.  Many think that antinomianism (without law) is the opposite reaction to legalism.

In other words, a person goes from obeying a set of partially Biblical and partially man-imposed laws as a means of or proof of salvation.  It is easy to see how this morphs into works-salvation.  In reaction to this, other Christians oversell grace and freedom in Christ and open the door to any kind of living or acting.  “We are not under law, but under grace.”

Ferguson contends that the opposite of legalism is not antinomianism, but rather is grace.  Also he contends that legalism and antinomianism are not opposites, but are quite closely connected.

Tim Challies writes, “The core issue was whether or not a person must first forsake his sins in order to come to Christ. The Marrow Men, those who agreed with Fisher’s book, believed that this demanded works as a precursor to faith and was, in that way, opposed to the free offer of the gospel. Their opponents taught that the gospel should only be offered to those who were beginning to show evidence of being among God’s elect.”

I commend Challies’ review as a fuller explanation of the problem and as a short way of getting to the heart of this book.  This work is not a “once through rapidly” kind of read.  I already look forward to reading this book again, perhaps supplemented by some readings in both Fisher’s original work and Boston’s work.

Joy Comes in the Morning

For many years, I was a night owl.  I thought going to bed early meant 11 p.m.  I loved the quiet reading time between 10 and 2.  My mind seemed more alert and the noises of the day had faded, and it was the best time of the day.  I still don’t go to bed early, and I still enjoy the nightly read.   I must confess that I like to use the late night reading hour for thriller novels and fun histories.

My prime reading time is in the mornings.  Something changed in my sleeping and waking habits over the decades.  Sleeping until 8 o’clock is now considered as sleeping the day away.  It rarely happens.  Going to work has been the prime agent in my change, but whatever the causes, I now enjoy morning reading time most of all.

Coffee is a prime catalyst to both getting awake and enjoying the books.  My usual pattern is to begin with reading from the Bible (right now, I am in Numbers), then I read from a Christian book or two, and if time is available, I finish out with something related to history, literature, or education.

Below is a list of some of the worthwhile Christian books I have read during these morning sessions over the past 5 or 6 months.  I am only listing books that I have completed and would eagerly read again.  In fact, most of these are definitely on the re-read list.

God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth by G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim
This is a very study of the recurring Biblical images and uses of Eden and the Temple.  While we might think Eden is confined to the first 3 chapters of Genesis and that the temple is described in only a few portions of the Old Testament, these authors show the pervasive and recurring use of the images of both.  Just consider the subtitle:  God is expanding Eden to the whole world.  This is a call for Godly worship, evangelism, and Christian conquest.  This book will be re-read, but only after I have read  Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery by G.K. Beale and Benjamin Gladd and Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission.

The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament by Edmund Clowney
This book has been around for quite a long time; in fact, this is the 25th anniversary edition.  Like the book by Beale and Kim, this book surveys the Old Testament for a recurring theme.  In this case, it is Christ who is found in the Scriptures.  As the picture on the cover of the road to Emmaus reminds us, the Scriptures–Old and New–speak of Christ.  This book and the previous selection complement each other.

The Unfolding Mystery, 25th Anniversary Edition

The Case for the Psalms by N. T. Wright                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Earlier this year, I decided to do some on-going reading and studying of the Book of Psalms.  A previous blog post highlighted the two great resources, one by the Lutheran Concordia Press and the other by Premier Printing, remain as great resources for reading and singing Psalms.  Then I heard several recommendations of N. T. Wright’s book on the Psalms.  I am not one of the big followers of Bishop Wright, and I did stand next to him in a discussion after hearing him speak once, but I recognize him as one of the great theologians and writers of our times.  Highlighting his gifts is his ability to write good theology for regular readers.  He will make you think about the subjects in some new and helpful ways.  This was a good read, and I look forward to reading it again.

Voicing God’s Psalms By Calvin Serveld                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Calvin Seerveld’s best book is Rainbows for the Fallen World:  Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task.  Why it is not more widely read, reprinted, and distributed is a puzzle to me.  This volume is handy.  Seerveld has grouped the Psalms and other psalm-like Bible passages into several categories.  He has brief introductions to the topics and then presents his translations (sometimes loose) of the passages.  I got this book off the bargain pages from Christian Book Distibutors.  It was a double blessing–cheap cost and beneficial reading.

For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, edited by Storms and Taylor
Like many collections of essays, the content varied.  While I might not reread this book in its entirety, there are plenty of essays that would be worth repeated readings.  The contributors represent a wide range of modern Calvinistic thought, and the book overall is a great tribute to a great preacher.

On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor by Clay Werner
Getting worn out, worn down, burned out, and sometimes burned up is not unusual for pastors and people in church work.  As the old saying goes, “There is no hurt like a church hurt.”  Church life and work hurts often and a lot.  Those of who who have labored in ministry strain under the pressures of maintaining the necessary public face of the job, holding our families together, ministering amidst disappointments.  In this book, Clay Werner had to take some time to recoup his heart and mind.  His counsel is beneficial.

On the Brink

Calvinism in Times of Crisis
This old book is a collection of talks by such men as G. C. Berkouwer, H. G. Stoker, and others in Grand Rapids in 1946.  The contents are both weighty and dated, but these men were solid Calvinists who were applying the Faith to the then current crises. I was impressed with how many staunch Calvinists, many of Dutch heritage, who were holding the fort back in 1946.  The first half of the 20th century, including the many ways that World War II burdened the faith, was a not a great time for Reformed theology.  But these men were faithful.

My copy of this book is not as nice this one. This picture is of a copy available from a wonderful bookstore called Yeoman’s in the Fork, just south of Franklin, Tennessee.

The Sermon on the Mount by R. J. Rushdoony                             A few years back, I preached through the Sermon on the Mount, and in the process, collected and read through quite a number of books.  I just recently received this brief study by the late Dr. Rushdoony of Chalcedon Foundation.  Rushdoony always has insights, sidelights, and applications that most others miss.  This book is good for a short study, a refresher course on the Sermon on the Mount, or as an aid to serious study.

Sermon on the Mount, The

What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
I read this book last year and went to Matt Perman’s lecture at the ACCS conference in June in Dallas.  After hearing his talk, I realized that everything he says is useless unless the hearer or reader makes a serious effort to implement his suggestions.  When I re-read this book some time back, I determined to try to apply what he says.  This is a very good book, worth multiple readings and applications. God grant that I keep my mind on what he says and make some visible improvements.

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness                        Some years back, I read Guinness’ book The Call.  I find him a powerful writer.  His interweaving of literature, history, and culture into the topics not only makes his writing very readable, but it broadens the applications.  This fine work is a must read for apologetics, rhetoric, and Christian interaction with culture.

Our Faith by Emil Brunner                  Since I read and reviewed  Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal by Alister McGrath, I thought I should read something by Brunner. This is a very basic, almost catechetical study of Christian doctrines.  I always thought that Brunner was one we should maintain a good distance from, but I found this book instructive and well written.  As a Calvinist, I nodded in agreement throughout most of the book.  His opening chapter sounded like Van Til.

Preaching by Tim Keller                                       This is one of the best books I have read this year. It is, to borrow a term from the famous wrestler Ox Baker, a real heart-punch. Very relevant and applicable to all types of proclamations.  At this time in my life, I am doing very little preaching.  I hesitated before buying this book, but the name Keller drove me to buy and read.  He makes a good point that preaching in the pulpit on Sundays is only one aspect and kind of preaching.  Keller has endnotes that are complete essays and great additional reads.  I loved this book.

Appraising Emil Brunner Before Reappraising Him

I don’t read and review books for a living.  Rather, I live to read and review books.  Someday, I may drop the habit for something less strenuous, like maybe camel training or swimming with sharks.  But for now, this is what I do.

I was excited to receive a copy of Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal by Alister McGrath a few months back.  It was the author McGrath, rather than the subject Brunner that drew me to the book.  McGrath has written dozens upon dozens of books on theological and biographical subjects.  He can, as in the case of this book, write for a more specialized audience (me being an exception) or for a broader Christian audience.  His recent biography of C. S. Lewis is a case of his more popular writings.  While C. S. Lewis: A Life is written for all types of readers and fans, McGrath also did a follow-up work titled The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewiswhich is more expensive and devoted to the unfolding development of Lewis’ ideas.  (The multi-faceted Lewis was both a scholar of the highest order and a popular novelist and apologist.)  As if that wasn’t enough, McGrath also did a fun looking volume titled If I Had Lunch With C. S. Lewis.  [Reader take note:  I do not own these latter two volumes.  It is currently ranked as a problem in my life, but could be elevated to a crisis at any time.]

                             

I have also enjoyed other volumes by McGrath, including The Twlilight of Atheism and Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution from the 16th Century to the Twenty-First Century.  I also have his biography of John Calvin and his book titled Heretics.  (And for any mean-spirited readers, they are not on the same subject.)

Needless to say, if you look at the range of McGrath’s writings, my paltry collection is the tip of the ice berg.  I am sure that there are things that McGrath believes or has written that should cause us all to gasp.  I know Iain Murray has some reservations about him, and I highly respect Murray.  But I never assume that McGrath is adding volumes on to the canon of orthodoxy.  I do believe he is a very productive and faithful servant of God.

Concerning Emil Brunner:  I was not able to read this book as a re-appraisal of Brunner.  I knew too little about him, so it was an appraisal.

Brunner existed in a foggy bit of theological European history in my mind.  He was Germanic and his name started with a B.  So, there was Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann.  You could add Bonhoeffer to the list, but Dietrich emerged from the pack with such books as Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.  German theology ranged from the arcane, like Keil and Delitzsche, to the insane, like Strauss and Feuerbach.  The German higher critics scaled the heights of academic acumen and brilliance, but shed orthodoxy to make the climb possible.  Aspiring American theologians crossed the great pond to study theology in the German universities.  German academia ruled the world in a way that the Third Reich never came close to equalling.  Sad to say, many believing students of theology returned to the American theological scene much better grounded in German language and thought, but spiritually blinded in heart and mind.  In turn, their contagion spread to American churches and seminaries.

J. Gresham Machen was an exception in that he survived his German pilgrimage, as did his mentor Benjamin B. Warfield.  Their students and followers, including such men as Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, waged war against the bad aspects of German theology.

I have told this story in simple form and really didn’t understand it much more than what is stated above.  A few years back, I read Eric Metaxas’ enjoyable biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I love the Bonhoeffer life story (tragic as it is) and enjoyed the book, but felt extremely uncomfortable with it.  Then I read historian Richard Weikhart’s critique of the book.  Basically, Metaxas cast Bonhoeffer as an American evangelical.  The murky depths of German theology was made to be like the clear–shallow–waters of American evangelical theology.

Others have made similar mistakes when they assume that German theological scholars were all bad guys  (or heretics, if you prefer).  Bonhoeffer wrote some good books, but some things that are questionable, to say the least.  Barth held some unorthodox views.  I would not want a Barthian as a pastor, but would not rule out reading or hearing from one.  On some matters, Barth was very good.  In the overall context of the theological liberals of Barth’s time, he was a knight in shining armor.

Bultmann is still off limits for my theology.  If McGrath writes a book titled Rudolph Bultmann: A Reappraisal, I would give it a hearing, but until then, I am still wary of him.

Brunner, however, was just a “B” name German (actually he was from Switzerland) linked in time and place with the others.

This book was an incredible eye-opener for me.  Brunner was a theologian of some depth, and some of the issues on which he and Barth sparred are still lost to me.  He held some wrong views on matters, and were he and I having lunch together, I would feel compelled to tell him so.  But he was a solid believer on the essentials.  He wrote and spoke orthodox truth.  He rightly recognized the evils of Naziism (which was next door to him) and Communism.  He understood that Christianity should impact culture.  He valued preaching and church life.  He loved and proclaimed Jesus Christ.

I will try to follow this post with some details from McGrath and Brunner.  I did read a book titled Our Faith by Brunner so that I could build upon this intellectual biography.  The book is a bit high priced, so I hope it comes out in paperback.  It is a worthy read.  It is one of the best books I have read this year.

Brunner, left, and Karl Barth, right. They sometimes had cordial scholarly exchanges, but sometimes were at loggerheads with each other. When Barth learned that Brunner was dying, he wrote a very kind note to him.

 

God’s Songbook, Prayer Book, and Daily Devotional

I began a project at the beginning of this year that I hope I never complete.  I am wanting to read more and more from the Book of Psalms.  While all of the Bible is God’s Word and is profitable for teaching, instruction, correction, and training in righteousness, there is an accessibility to the Psalms that is unsurpassed.

Whether a person is reading one psalm a day or more, that book of the Bible provides lots of direction, consolation, and encouragement.  On the one hand, there is the range of emotions and reactions of the psalmists, David and others.  These verses range from exuberant joy in serving God to severe depression, fear, and questioning.  Unlike the tendency toward the sentimental and syrupy in all too many modern songs and sentiments, the psalms are fresh, bold, manly, confrontational.  They have more the feel of Aslan than a kitty cat; they are filled with roaring, not purring.

The Psalms are also a prayer book.  We all fall into mindless repetition or self-centered want lists in our prayers.  On the one hand, God hears our stumbling prayers and the Holy Spirit corrects our spiritually mangled grammar and syntax.  On the other hand, we need to pray more Biblically.  The psalms are for praying.  When the enemies assailing the godly in the psalms don’t sound like the particular battles we are facing, we need to realize that quite often the psalms are prophetically describing what Jesus actually experienced.  The Book of Psalms in our Bibles may be several hundred pages away from the bitter details of Christ’s sufferings and death on the cross, but the experiences of the psalms are depictions (trailers, to use the movie term) of what Jesus endured on our behalf.

The Psalms are a song book.  For some churches and for many years, hymnals were Psalms recast into meter and music.  We tend to have a few songs in our hymn repertoires that emerge from the Psalms, most often Psalm 23.  But why do we not have 150 plus songs echoing the Psalms?

Near the end of last year, I received a copy of the Concordia Psalter from Concordia Publishing House.  The picture above doesn’t do this beautiful little volume justice.  Concordia is the publishing arm of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  As such, they publish a wide range of conservative Lutheran books and study materials.  As most of you know, I am Presbyterian and Reformed and am not a Lutheran in the specifics of my theology or worship.  But I love and have profited greatly from the books and materials from Concordia Publishing House.  (I even like the Martin Luther action figure!)

The Concordia Psalter is a gem.  It is a beautiful, handy, leather-type collection of the Book of Psalms.  Each psalm is preceded by a few bars of music.  I suppose the idea is to be able to chant the Psalms.  We don’t generally quote Johnny Cash songs or Christmas carols; rather, we sing them.  I like the idea of singing the Psalms.  I reckon it would help us memorize the contents and internalize the words.

There are also brief prayers at the end of each psalm.  These prayers were compiled by the Reverend F. Kuegele.  As part of my morning devotions, I was reading one or two psalms a day along with these heart-searching prayers.

This book is perfect for mornings, evenings, family devotions, and other times we can carve out for hearing God’s Word.  The book is just perfect for taking on a trip.  It would also make a great gift.  There are several plans given in the beginning of the book to show how the Psalms can read over 30 days or read over a two week period.

Since this book is published by our Lutheran brethren, it is fitting to quote from Brother Martin:

The Psalter is the book of all saints, and everyone, whatever his situation may be, finds psalms and words in it that fit his situation and apply to his case so exactly that it seems they were put in this way only for his sake.

Amen, Dr. Luther!

As if this one new Psalter is not enough (God always overspends on our behalf!), Premier Printing, LTD, out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has published a beautiful edition titled New Genevan Psalter.  This collection is a hymn book for singing the Psalms.  The Psalms are recast into meter and expanded into verses with music for singing.

I am  still getting acquainted with this volume.  But it doesn’t take much looking to see its worth.  It, too, is a beautiful small book.  (Books typically have aesthetic qualities.)  This book is rooted in Calvin’s theology and labors to inculcate psalm singing in his congregation in Geneva.  We have to remember that the Reformation was a revolution in church music as well as in theology.

For more on this Psalter and the history and use of Psalms in worship and Christian living, take note of this blog by Dr. David Koyzis, who is both a Christian political scientist and a strong advocate of the Psalms.

Let’s hear what Calvin himself says about the singing of Psalms:

What is there now to do? It is to have songs not only honest, but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him. Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.

This can be found in Calvin’s preface to the Genevan Psalter he implemented in his congregations.

So, Calvinists and Lutherans of the world unite:  Let us sing, pray, and proclaim the Psalms.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year…And Day

The title above, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year…And Day,” refers to the days, like today, that follow Christmas.  The thing most wanted during the holiday rush, from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, is a time of rest and reflection.  There are moments and hints of rest and reflection along the way, but they are usually just that, moments.  We have Christmas concerts and programs to prepare for and attend, Advent sermons and worship services, gift buying, decorating, and many other things to rush about taking care of.  All that would be fine if the rest of life could come to a halt, but December is also the time for semester tests.  So the pace accelerates, with only occasional slow-ups.  To a large degree, at least for a school teacher, the whole frantic pace comes to a sudden stop on the evening of Christmas day.  Evenings and mornings on the days ahead will be, I hope, a time of slow, quiet, unrushed enjoyment.

Last night, I enjoyed watching “The Homecoming.”  It is a  yearly event for me.  I not only watch the movie, but I read the book.  (This was the subject of my last post on my former blog, and it can be read here.)

This morning, I resumed reading two books, complemented with coffee.  As I have often said and blogged, I need a book that is primarily prying into my soul and another that works the mind.  In the best of books, each pattern occurs.  I am given information and knowledge, but am also stirred and convicted.

Here are the two current reads:

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson was originally written in 1980.  I recently picked up a copy of the 20th Anniversary Edition, which came out 20 years and a hundred thousand copies later.  This book is a series of studies, probably originally sermons, on the Psalms of Ascent.  This means Psalms 120-134.  They were usually recited by pilgrims on their way up, hence ascent, to Jerusalem.  These Psalms are short, memorizable, varied as to content, and immensely connected to all the joys, troubles, travails, encouragements, and steps along the way of faith.  We are all on spiritual journeys.  Hopefully, we are all on journeys of ascent.  These Psalms are much needed by the church and are needed by individual Christians for praying, meditating, and applying.  This book is what I use to start my morning reading.

Preaching: A Biblical Theology is by Jason C. Meyer and is published by Crossway Books. I should certainly hope Pastor Meyer has a Biblical theology of preaching because he is occupying the pulpit of Bethlehem Baptist Church which was formerly held by John Piper.  Piper wrote the foreword to this book, so he approves the man.  This is a serious and weighty study of preaching.  The man needing some easy numbered steps to facilitate sermon prep will find little here to help.  Meyer devotes a large portion of the book to a survey of the role of God’s servants and ministers of the Word in the Bible.  Meyer makes, repeats, and applies three points throughout the book.  He states, “My thesis is that the ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word.”  Note the three points:  Stewardship, Heralding, and Encountering.  This book is both mind-provoking and heart-convicting.  I will be reviewing it in more detail later, but for now, I will have to be content with reeling in conviction.  I should also point out that a large section of the book focuses upon expository preaching.

Any Christian could profit from reading Eugene Peterson’s book.  Meyer’s book is directed toward preachers in the pulpit and in training (and those of the former category should also be in the latter.  The strong coffee that accelerates the mental processes is your choice.

Covenantal Apologetics

I have two tendencies toward the subject of apologetics, and both have to be severely tempered.  First of all, apologetics is a field of study, a sub-set of theology, a close companion (we hope) to evangelism, that focuses upon defending Christianity.  It is the answering of the claims against faith and presenting the Christian faith as the answer.

One of my tendencies is to get too drawn in to the subject.  One good apologetic study, and Dr. Oliphint’s book is a good one, leads to another.  I could delightfully get lost in the recommended readings from this book.  I have quite a few books on apologetics, and that collection includes quite a few books I read and usually enjoyed in the past with many more that have never been given the reading they deserve.  Christian apologetics studies include both those answers that we give to the unbelievers, the skeptics, the opponents and the intramural debates among believers as to what methods and means of apologetics we should use.   Like I say, I could get lost in the pages and never step outside the door again. (Don’t tempt me.)

The other tendency I have is to wish to stay away from apologetics.  To use some oversimplified language, apologetics appeals to the head, while other types of Christian books appeal to the heart.  I really need to read books on prayer, Bible study, pastoral ministry, and preaching.  (Listen to the loud “amen” from the congregation on that last one.) I really need more on the spiritual disciplines.  I need Bible studies that help me glean more from Jeremiah, which I just finished, and Ezekiel, which I will soon start.  And boy, do I ever need to be a more dedicated husband and father.  These needs outweigh my need to answer the materialist, the naturalist, the atheist, Muslim, Hindu, or liberal theologian.

I think that when I really face the question of whether to read for the mind or the heart, whether to focus on apologetics or practical Christianity, to be more edgy at confronting the world or more pastoral, the answer is unequivocally clear.  God says, “Yes.”  It is imperative that pastors and teachers be grounded in the defense of the faith.  Most other Christians need some grounding in apologetics as well.  As has often been pointed out, the primary audience, the main group in need, in apologetics is believers.  We Christians need to be reminded and assured that Christianity can answer the counter-claims of the unbelievers.  At the same time, as situations and forums present themselves, Christians need to be able to speak boldly to non-believers and objectors regarding the faith.

In some cases, unbelievers are genuinely stumped over what we believe.  They are not innocent, but it is easy to believe that faith is the opposite of reason, that religion is non-rational, and that Christianity is foolish if you have been inundated with such teachings.  If Richard Dawkins says that anyone who does not believe in evolution is “ignorant, stupid, or insane,” the unbeliever swallows that creed sooner rather than later.  Again, I am not excusing those living in a sea of unbelief for developing unbelieving gills.  We have to remember that some people simply have not heard reasonable, credible, and intellectual arguments for Christianity.

The hostile unbeliever is a much harder person to confront.  In many cases, unbelievers are bullies who have not encountered strong apologists for the faith.  Years ago, a man told me he had never read an intellectual book about Christianity.  I gave him a Francis Schaeffer book, but he never responded to it.  (And Francis Schaeffer, wonderful as he was, was not and did not see himself as the intellectual defender of the faith.)

Covenantal Apologetics by Dr. Scott Oliphant of Westminster Theological Seminary builds upon the apologetical principles of Oliphint’s predecessor at Westminster, Dr. Cornelius Van Til.  There are a series of debates and discussion that often ensue when one mentions Van Tillian apologetics.  I am generally favorable to Van Til’s approach, but am not insistent on it being the exclusive approach.  I do believe that it is too easy for Christian apologists to get too caught up in debating methods in Jerusalem and not stepping out into the streets of Athens to confront the lost and skeptical.

Dr. Oliphint lists Ten Tenets upon which he bases his approach and his book.  (Thanks to Justin Taylor for posting them on his blog.)

  1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.
  2. God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.
  3. It is the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.
  4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.
  5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.
  6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see truth for what it is.
  7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
  8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, and the like that it has taken and wrenched from their true, Christian context.
  9. The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
  10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.

I slowly read Covenantal Apologetics during September and October.  I really feel that this book must be read again soon.  Apologetics is not light reading.  Even the strong coffee each morning didn’t unlock enough of the brain for me.  Reading this book caused to survey what other Oliphint books I had.  I reckon I will need to read them also.

Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology

The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture For Defending Our Faith