Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself

(Posted by Paige)

Two curious questions for you:

One, in your church, who has responsibility for choosing and vetting the material used in Bible studies or classes for women? I know that some churches have pastor or elder-led systems of review in place, and some not so much.

Two, if you are someone who has this responsibility, are there any titles – whether written for popular audiences or specifically for women — for which you would appreciate a sound and careful review, so that you do not have to read the books yourself?

Putting together a Library of a website with resources for Christian literacy, and hoping to include a shelf of Reviews of Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself. Give me some suggestions! (Some of these are truly painful to read – so this is Christian service in action! :)

At Long Last!

We have been waiting for a long time for this theologian’s major works to be translated. Now, thanks to David Noe, we have an excellent beginning. Junius was an extremely important and well-known theologian during the time of Protestant Scholasticism. His debate with Arminius is not without irony, since, at the time, it was Junius who was well-known, while Arminius was a nobody. Now, everyone thinks it is the other way around. It is time to resurrect Junius and put him back in the mainstream of the Protestant canon of authors. This particular treatise is very important because of two main reasons: Junius clearly and eloquently articulates the archetypal/ectypal distinction in theology. Secondly, it was Junius’s Prolegomena here that formed the foundation for most prolegomena to follow. Tolle Lege.

Douglas Bond hit it out of the park in Grace Works!

Posted by Bob Mattes

Bottom line up front: Take a little of your Christmas cash and buy this book, then read it cover to cover. The gospel is under attack on many fronts, even from those with advanced degrees who claim to be Reformed. Mr. Bond sets record straight in the modern battle over the gospel of grace.

I have to admit my skepticism when I first received a copy of Douglas Bond‘s Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t). In this day and age, we see the free use of euphemisms like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic or accountable to the people. The history of the Church records power and sovereignty of God in preserving Christ’s bride, but it also contains the record of heretics and their heresies that claimed to be true to the Scriptures whilst gutting the gospel of grace.

Douglas Bond’s book, though, remains true to its title and will prove to be a great blessing to the modern Reformed church if widely read. Mr. Bond serves as a ruling elder (RE) in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and writes as one with first-hand experience with the errors that he corrects in his book. Given the presbytery in which he serves, I have no doubt of what he sees on a regular basis. Overall, RE Bond displays an excellent knowledge of both church history and current controversies over the gospel.

Grace Works! provides an easy read. RE Bond broke the book into seven parts, each with several short chapters that end with discussion questions. Thus, the book would make an excellent Sunday school or small group resource. RE Bond wrote Grace Works! for real people in real pews, easily digestible yet powerful in its defense of the gospel of grace. You won’t find any clever, human “cutting-edge” theology here, just the matchless gospel of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

RE Bond starts the book by appealing to history to show that any church can lose the gospel, and very quickly. He cites Calvin and Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ demon from The Screwtape Letters, to illustrate Satan’s scheme for undermining the gospel down through the ages and even today. The strategy never changes because people never change. RE Bond doesn’t speculate or pontificate, he cites specific examples from church history of the slide into apostasy, of which there are no shortages. The worst of it lies in the fact that when a denomination slides into apostasy, it puts the orthodox on trial, not the heretics.

RE Bond hits the nail on the head on page 30 early in the book:

In our hatred of strife and controversy and in our love of peace and unity, we Christians sometimes play the ostrich. We hope controversy and gospel attack will just go away; we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to us.

Those of us in the PCA have seen this time and again. I saw a popular teaching elder who started a secret political party in the PCA turn around and publicly declare as “cowards” 29 ordained church officers who together took a public stand against serious gospel error. The sizeable audience apparently missed the blatant hypocrisy displayed, but then it wouldn’t be polite to question a popular teaching elder, would it? The orthodox make easy targets because they just won’t change or compromise the gospel of Christ. How intolerant are the orthodox!

RE Bond goes on to lay the groundwork by clearly explaining the gospel from Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The gospel presents the matchless grace of God freely given to all those who will trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone – how simple! Yet, sinful human beings prefer to obtain their salvation the way Smith Barney claimed they made their money, the old fashioned way – by earning it.

Then in creeps the mixing of works into justification, replacing  or “augmenting” grace with some form of legalism. RE Bond does a great job of tackling the errors and consequences of legalism. He adroitly covers the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the confusing of justification and sanctification, the Scriptural use of law and gospel, the proper place of faith and works, and the correct rules for Biblical interpretation – the analogy of faith.

In Part 6 of Grace Works!, RE Bond then deals with current errors creeping into the conservative Reformed denominations, including the mythical “objective covenant”, confusion on the sacraments, and final justification. He does so without naming names, although anyone who has been paying attention to the last 20 years or so can easily fill in the blanks. RE Bond clearly demonstrates the corrosiveness of those who take an oath that the Confessions contain the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture, yet write and teach against those same Confessions and doctrines. He also cautions against the “fine print,” where officers espouse orthodoxy but then caveat with fine print that guts the orthodox statement. I’ve seen this myself during Internet debates and even in church trials. As RE Bond quotes from various sources on page 222:

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

RE Bond encourages us, citing the apostle Paul, to be Bereans. Don’t accept the clever words or “cutting-edge” theology of PhD holding teaching elders at face value. Dig into the Scriptures and the Confessions to see if they are right. Paul commands us to do no less. We’ve seen several prominent examples in the PCA of officers denying errors at trial that they later lead and teach openly in seminary-like settings after their acquittal. The Enemy stands proud of such tolerance.

Grace Works! closes by encouraging readers to catechize their children, to actively teach them what Scripture teaches about the gospel of grace. If we don’t, apostasy is just a generation away. RE Bond lastly encourages us to stand in unity on the gospel and the law of Christ, the means of grace rightly understood and administered, and in our Reformed Confessions without small-print caveats. Only then will our denominations remain orthodox for the next generation and those to come.

Your church officers need to read Grace Works! Your congregation needs to read it. And not just read it, but stand for the gospel of grace and teach it to your congregations, your children, and you children’s children.

Full disclosure: Bob received a courtesy copy of this book from P&R for review.

Change of Publishers

Well, the Word Biblical Commentary series has gotten a facelift. Instead of being published by Word Publisher, they are now being published by Zondervan. I just received the first volume of the Zondervan era. And it has everything that I have come to expect of Zondervan books: thoughtful content, lousy binding materials (are the folks at Zondervan completely allergic to Smyth-sewn bindings?). The boards feel wimpy, and the book looks like a knock-off of a better original. The only positive from the change that I can see is the addition of footnotes (the format while under Word Publishing did not have footnotes, and the text was therefore quite cluttered). The added sections in this book (it is a revised edition of a commentary originally published in 1986) are printed on gray-tinted pages, which looks and feels weird, even though the potential positive of it is that you can see at a glance whether the section was added or not. Publishers like Zondervan need to get it into their heads that commentaries are used far more than most other kinds of theological reference works. Thy need to be built like tanks (and most of the WBC is built extremely tough; only a few were glued). This one is so not.

Bernhardus de Moor, Volume 1 Available

It is with great delight and eager anticipation that I announce the publication of volume 1 of Bernhardus de Moor’s Continuous Commentary on Johannes a Marck’s Compendium. I should point out that the volume 1 of Dilday’s translation does not equal the entirety of volume 1 of de Moor’s work. My understanding is that it will take several volumes of Dilday’s translation to equal one volume of de Moor. Here are some things that Richard Muller says about this work:

De Moor’s efforts did for late Reformed orthodoxy what the massive system of Quenstedt did for Lutheranism in the concluding years of the seventeenth century: the work was so exhaustive and so complete in its detail and bibliography that it virtually ended the development of Reformed doctrine in the form of orthodox system (PRRD I.83)…De Moor’s work…provides evidence of the stubborn survival of theological orthodoxy, long after its era of dominance, into an otherwise rationalist era, without the loss of its scholastic balance on the issues of faith and reason, philosophy and theology, and without the loss of its scriptural principle (PRRD I.118)…massively erudite (PRRD I.146).

Tolle Lege.

A Great Book for the Burned-Out Pastor

The author of this book is a pastor in the same Presbytery where I labor. He is the chairman of the shepherding committee in the Presbytery, and this book certainly helps explain why. Clay is a warm, pastoral man with a heart for hurting people. I heartily recommend this book to any pastors who are discouraged and beaten down with the routine or with crises in the ministry. This book is also a good antidote to the almost universal naivete afflicting good-hearted young men as they come out of seminary ready to fix all the world’s problems (if only the stupid world would listen to them!). Heck, I would even recommend it to pastors who are doing just fine, so that they stay that way!

Clay is certainly honest about his own journey, which makes the book all that much more interesting and compelling. The first five chapters are diagnosis, and the last five are solution. The diagnosis section is painful but healing to read. Chapter 3 comes to mind. Here are a few things that zapped me: “It’s as if God has been saying, ‘Clay, let my people go!'” (p. 51). “Yet we often want to press fast-forward on our ministry remote and make people mature faster and our churches grow quicker because we so desperately want these things now” (44). “Constant conflict made me seek comfort anywhere I could find it, especially in a quiet office with a closed door in the safety of reading books” (60). “Resurrection power may heal the hurt, or it may simply give us the strength to endure. Either way, resurrection power meets us in our weakness” (85). “[T]he love inside of our hearts can be padlocked, whereas our anger often has a hair trigger” (89). The book is well-designed to make a pastor feel really, really guilty, and then really, really forgiven in Christ.

I don’t have any quibbles with what he says. There are a few things that I would like to see in, say, a second edition of the book, or a “revised and expanded” edition (or a second book!). Of course, one can’t say everything in one book, and this is Clay’s first book. One question that nagged at me throughout the book was this: how do we pastors get this grace, when we are the ones “dishing it out”? I don’t mean that we are the source of grace, of course. But how do we get the benefit, for instance, of the Lord’s Supper and of the sermon, when we are the ones presenting those things to the congregation? This goes along with a parallel concern: I would like to have seen more emphasis on the means of grace, and how those factor in to relieve the burdened pastor. A second thing I would like to see addressed is the day off. How do we see our roles on Sunday? As work, or as our part in the worship services? And then, what do we do for a day off during the rest of the week? A third thing is coordinated with the last chapter. He has an admirable and biblical emphasis on pursuing unity (unity achieved is a great stress reliever!). What I would like to see is how that relates to the pursuit of truth and purity of the gospel. How do we avoid burnout, for instance, when we are fighting wolves in sheep’s clothing? What about the temptation to avoid conflict about gospel issues for the sake of our own comfort and avoiding burnout? What is the difference between pursuing our own comfort versus avoiding burnout? I would love to see these questions answered, if not by Clay, then by someone building on what Clay has done here.

This is a great little book. It doesn’t take long to read (and it is, by and large, well-written). It lays a great foundation for thinking about the ministry in a grace-driven way. It deserves a very wide readership by pastors of all stripes. Tolle lege.

A Very Disturbing Book

Today I read this book. It was extremely disturbing to me. It was disturbing, not because I disagree with it, but because I was so shocked by it. I had been used to thinking about the reasons our children leave the church in this way: we haven’t trained them in apologetics, and so when they leave for college, their faith is attacked, and they do not have the weapons at hand to defend their faith, and actually share the gospel. To a certain extent, I think the previous analysis is still partially correct, but it has received a large wake-up call corrective from Ken Ham. His thesis, based on the research of Britt Beemer, is that very few people who leave the church do so because college started them on the road to doubt. In fact, they were already gone! Their doubts started (in 88% of the 20-year olds who were interviewed!) in middle school and high school. Folks, we are losing our children long before college.

I received a further shock upon reading his statistics on Sunday School, and his analysis of why Sunday School, even when conducted by faithful, truth-telling folks, is not helping in this matter. The problem with many Sunday Schools is that they tell a story that is not really addressing the narrative they receive from the secular world even in middle school. Sunday School winds up being about faith, whereas school is about life and facts. In other words, our middle and high school Sunday School curricula, while often faithful to the texts, do not teach the texts apologetically! They hear from scientific teachers, and are typically unable to distinguish between the science of present phenomena and the science of origins (if there even is such a thing!). If science is correct in matters related to rockets, cell phones, robots, organic chemistry, mathematics, and biology (to name only a few fields), then mustn’t it also be right in matters of origin? Certainly not. However, our children are not receiving the message on these matters. The other problem with Sunday School is that parents are often abdicating their home responsibilities with regard to spiritual matters because “the children will learn it in church.” Ken Ham is not advocating the abolishment of Sunday School, and neither am I. But we do need to rethink what we’re doing in Sunday School. Ham argues that we need apologetics much earlier, and that the apologetics needs to address human origins in ways that directly challenge what our kids are hearing in school.

We need to talk about origins, and here’s why. An erosion of faith in the authority of Scripture is taking place. Ken Ham argues that it starts with the age of the earth. If science has proved that the earth is old, then in the minds of most folks, that disproves the Bible’s account, which then must turn into myth. Yes, yes, there are the day-age view, the framework view, and the analogical day view of Genesis 1 and 2. Most people are not able to make such fine distinctions in their head between interpretation and fact. Their minds will not typically jump to the idea that their interpretation of the Bible must alter. Instead, the Bible must go. The erosion starts in Genesis, but never stops there.

Now, Ham’s analysis is much more sophisticated than I have here laid out (and the complete results of the survey are included in the back for the benefit of statisticians). I am simplifying to give people a flavor for the whole. It is a very quick read (I read it in less than 2 hours). I think we need to heed its warnings, and its proffered solutions.

Bowled Over

I just got this commentary in the mail today. I do not get bowled over very often when it comes to commentaries, but this commentary was an enormous surprise to me. The International Critical Commentary series has the following characteristics: extreme technical detail; moderate to strongly liberal perspectives; little to no interaction with conservative writers; comprehensive in scope (with the exception of the conservative writers); little to no concern with systematic theological concerns. The only really notable exception that I know of to this trend besides the new Allison commentary is Cranfield’s masterwork on Romans. Allison’s work reminds me strongly of Cranfield.

For those of my readers who have any familiarity with the ICC at all, can you imagine an ICC volume that cites the following authors (many of them favorably!): Thomas Manton, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Francis Turretin, John Owen, A.W. Pink, Jonathan Edwards, John Gill, Matthew Henry, Johannes Piscator, Martin Bucer, W.G.T. Shedd, William Pemble, John Newton, Martin Chemnitz, and Wolfgang Musculus? And yet, Allison does in this commentary on James. I’m not saying that that makes him a conservative Presbyterian. I haven’t read his conclusions on the section 2:14-26 to know exactly where he comes out on that. His work with W.D. Davies on Matthew is similarly exhaustive, but is moderately liberal. Be that as it may, he drops all those names mentioned in his history of the intepretation of 2:14-26, along with dozens and dozens more from every theological persuasion. Folks, even if Allison is not conservative, he is listening to us. He writes in his preface: “I have aspired to read as many relevant books and articles, of whatever date and provenance, as possible, including much outside the usual scope of standard academic study” (p. ix). Indeed, he has! His efforts are extremely refreshing and will not go unnoticed, I hope, by the Reformed world.

What amazes me so much about this commentary is that Allison does not shrink from engaging in systematic theological categories and ideas (and theologians!). It would, of course, be difficult to avoid this in the difficult passage 2:14-26. However, he doesn’t just dip his toes into the theological arena: he dives in with full force! Surely, if a conservative Reformed pastor is going to read just one commentary that might be outside his tradition, he should make it Allison. What a tremendous work of scholarship. I am bowled over. Since he has done us conservative Reformed folk the courtesy of reading our works, we should definitely return the favor.

On Peer-Reviewed Scholarship and Self-Criticism

I see a growing trend/problem in today’s scholarship. Authors are becoming less and less likely to submit their manuscripts to anyone who would disagree with the main thesis of their work. They are not submitting their materials to those who would be their staunchest critics. This is in keeping with the growing self-idolization of scholars, who quite often think that if they say it, then it is true. This is pride and egotism at work, not humility and desire for truth. Scholars are motivated by whether they can sell the book, or whether they can gain prestige as “the world’s foremost authority” on the subject. Of course, rarely can those two things both be accomplished in one book. They usually try for one or the other. But their motivation is incorrect. The true motivation of the scholar must be the glory of God, which is only to be gained by the pursuit of truth.

Truth must be tested by all those who oppose it. This is why God has given the tremendous gift of heresy to the church: to test the truth in the church so that the church will know why it does not believe X, and instead believes Y. I would even say that the Holy Spirit uses heresy more often than almost any other goad to get the church to realize what the Bible really says. I remember well Ligon Duncan’s rule of thumb in reading the early church fathers: when they are responding to heretics, they are generally on target. When they are not, watch out!

If we are really after the truth, and not just our own prestige, then surely we should submit our materials to the very best and brightest critics of our position on the matter in question. It is a humble thing to do, and it is a wise thing to do. Two examples of this, one positive and one negative, will help illustrate: when Peter Enns published his book Inspiration and Incarnation, he did not submit the manuscript to those of the faculty of WTS who would have opposed his main theses. As a result, the book suffered from lack of probation, if you will. The book has a certain anemia about it that bears the mark of musings, but not of tested scholarship. On the other hand, when John Piper wrote his book critiquing N.T. Wright (The Future of Justification), he sent the whole manuscript to none other than N.T. Wright himself, surely the very best critic who opposed Piper’s position that Piper could find! This shows not only humility on Piper’s part (notice that in N.T. Wright’s response to Piper, entitled simply Justification, he did not extend the courtesy back to Piper, which says a lot about Wright’s ego, in my opinion), but also a desire to get at the truth, and to have it tested against the most rigorous standards possible.

Of course, there is an additional side benefit to doing this sort of thing. If and when the scholar is published, he will already know the vast majority of ways that his book could be criticized, and will therefore not be very surprised by any of the book reviews (except perhaps the positive ones!). Some scholars have been known to sink into a deep depression because their work was not well received, and because they were shocked at the reception it got. This is their own fault for peddling a book to stroke their own ego, and to feed their own idol: the fear of man.

Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae

Now, there’s a catchy title! It has such a familiar ring about it, doesn’t it? Now that everyone knows precisely what I am talking about…

This is a massively huge project (a 10-volume work), of which the director of the program (Christian Locatell) is trying to assess interest. It will need a fair bit of support for the project to get underway. Polanus’ work is nothing more or less than a complete compendium of Reformed theology from the period of Reformed orthodoxy. This work has been buried in the mists of obscurity before now, but it was a very important work indeed in its time. Polanus is one of the most-quoted sources in Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. So show your support for this work, and help get some of the riches of Reformed orthodoxy in print in English!

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