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I’ve been reading… books on various theological topics

I’ve been reading… books on various theological topics

I’ve been reading… books on various theological topics

 This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series 2016 Reading Review

bibleWhy trust the Bible? (Greg Gilbert)

Let me start by saying that this little apologetic book is excellent. Lots of books on the reliability of the Bible have been written – and several were explicitly the basis of Gilbert’s material – but it was a great collection of the main arguments put forward in an accessible and readable way. Unlike other short books I have recently read on the subject (see 2014 reading review!) this is directed towards those who aren’t Christians, and provides a compelling, thought-through reason for accepting the validity of the biographies concerning Jesus’ life. The book doesn’t attempt to deal with the Bible as a whole, largely because acceptance of the gospels inevitably requires acceptance of the whole (see Gilbert’s logic to prove that point). What I particularly enjoyed of Gilbert’s work was that he didn’t stop at ‘historically reliable’, but pushed us on to a further chapter to see that, if they reliably record the resurrection of Jesus, the books of the Bible are ‘the written Word of God’. Read it, and pass it on.

worship1True Worship (Vaughan Roberts)

This classic is an important and simple introduction to the topic of worship, that helps to identify numerous ways in which we have let the word ‘worship’ drift from the way that the Bible talks about it. Robert’s work has been accused of suggesting that we do not worship when we gather together on a Sunday; I think that criticism is unfair. Rather, he wants to demonstrate that Jesus’ teaching on the subject was more freeing and more glorious than we make it out to be when we assume ‘worship’ means singing. Rather, worship is something we (should) do with our whole lives as Christians – including when we gather together week-by-week. If you haven’t done much thinking on the topic, or want to think about how singing fits into that broader context, this would be a great place to start.

plasticPlastic People (Pete Sanlon)

In a world so confused about gender and sexuality, it is hard to know quite how to engage the debate. Although less biblical than I’d hoped (Sanlon isn’t trying to deliver a comprehensive biblical theology of gender, but to unpick the reasoning of our culture), this book is tremendously helpful at exposing the narrative that stands behind the concepts of gender plasticity and a drive towards embracing everyone’s sexual and gender preferences. I was most helped by his recognition that the debate ultimately hinges on the definition of ‘freedom’; understanding such a concept biblically is needed for Christians to think rightly about the topic, and to respond winsomely and sensitively to the many within the church and without who have adopted its contemporary definition.

differentDifferent by Design (Carrie Sandon)

As I was giving teaching on sexuality and gender roles in February, this would inevitably be an important book to read – one of two that was released a few years ago to consider biblically the role of men and women. Sandom does this by sketching a theological overview of the Bible’s teaching in the area.

There are lots of great things about this book. I’m sure I’ll be unpopular for saying it, but I think Sandom has put together an accurate picture of the overall plotline of the Bible on this. During her soaring flight over the whole of Scripture, she pauses at moments to swoop in for particular attention on noteworthy passages, but has little time to ponder over any particular text in great detail – and this is a shame. It leaves me preferring Claire Smith’s “God’s Good Design” (whose sole focus is the ‘contentious passages’). I was also disappointed that, as with many of the things written in this area, it tends towards accepting some cultural stereotypes as universal truths (e.g. the expectation of particular characteristics in women which, to my eye, cannot be found in Scripture).

Nonetheless I think it was a good read – and a great book to read after Smith’s aforementioned contribution. Even while it seems more applied to women, an increasing awareness amongst men of the apparently counter-cultural nature of certain passages warrants proper attention to what God has spoken on this issue.

Some will object that this isn’t a balanced read – but it isn’t trying to weigh up two sides of the debate. With clear conviction of what God has spoken, Sandom lays out clearly the position she recognises that the Bible takes. Others may object to the irony of a complementarian woman publishing a book to be read by men (as well as women). In that case, let me invite more generosity to the nuance of the complementarian position!

If you’re unsure what the Bible teaches – or are astonished that any Christian could approach this debate with anything but an egalitarian position, a close look at the passages would be well helped by Claire Smith, and this book by Sandom would be a great follow-up.

jesus1A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Jesus Christ (Mark Jones)

I picked up this book for 2 reasons.

Firstly, I was to do some teaching on Christology and thought that a book which ran to about 75 small pages might be a helpful introduction to some of the key themes.

Secondly, I had read another book in the series, “A Christian’s Pocket Guide to the Old Testament”, and enjoyed it (even if coming to some different conclusions from the author).

But thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the introduction compellingly described the danger of focusing on the work of Christ (what He did) to the exclusion of the person of Christ (who He is). Though the Bible presents Christ often in terms of what He has done and its implications, we nonetheless love our Saviour because of who He is, not simply because of what He has done for us.

Jones’s work offered brilliant insight into some of the major issues at stake with regards to Christology, and was a particular help to me in describing some of the most important heresies that have arisen concerning Jesus over the past 2000 years. The ideas were in some instances new to me, and benefited from further thought, but seemed biblical at root.

My soap-box obsession with biblical vs systematic theology left me longing for a more biblically driven shape to the book, even if its conclusions were biblically true. Often questions and answers were driven by logical inference rather than the narrative flow and emphasis of Scripture. But such methodological objections seem unfair when the book never professed to offer anything other than systematics. As Carson reflected of a different book (Don’t call is a Comeback, see review below), to object on these grounds would be to ask the author to write a different book with different aims and intended readers.

In short, a great introduction to this important systematic topic.

jesus2The Man Christ Jesus (Bruce Ware)

This brilliant book is concerned to take a biblical look at the person of Jesus, and to supplement copious books on the divinity of Jesus with a look at the humanity of Jesus – something which the author suggests is a bigger emphasis in the NT. This book follows “A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Jesus Christ” (Jones) in suggesting Jesus’ ability to do things on earth is credited to the Spirit’s work in Him as a human, rather than His divinity. Ware is more nuanced, helpfully recognising that John’s gospel must credit much of His work to His divinity, but addressing the frequent discussion of Jesus’ humanity. There’s an enjoyable feature of application questions closing each chapter, thereby summarising the teaching and pushing to personal engagement with the realities which have been spoken – and, since the NT frequently presents emulation of Jesus, especially in His humanity, these chapters follow a similar pattern.

Some things are frustrating. A whole chapter on “wisdom” (ch3) decides to major on the working of the Spirit to bring about wisdom, by a tenuous and (to my mind) unproven link between ‘favour of God’ and ‘Spirit of God’ in Luke; the author then takes another step in assuming that the Spirit must have worked through the Word, in order to finally draw several applications towards the inseparable work of the Spirit and the Word. I agree with this (self-professed) conservative evangelical teaching, but find this tenuous logic frustrating!

The chapter on Jesus needing to be a man was rather frustrating (’12 reasons why he had to be male’); again, I agree with much of the theology, but felt like the method didn’t quite work.

The chapter on the atonement was brilliant, and really helpfully points out that the substitutionary death of Jesus must necessarily stand behind other facets of the cross – which he usefully proves exegetically, highlighting the centrality of substitutionary atonement in the very places where Jesus’ victory over Satan is spoken of.

It concludes with a glorious perspective on the resurrection, reign and return of Jesus. Fire in your bones kind of stuff. Come Lord Jesus!

comebackDon’t call it a Comeback (Various)

Carson’s review of this book includes the line, “I hope and pray that many Christians will buy multiple copies of this book so as to distribute it with generous abandon” – a review now appropriated by the book formed from its opening chapter, “Amaze them with God”. Including within the team authors such as Kevin DeYoung, Russell Moore, Tim Challies, Justin Taylor and Greg Gilbert, a list of the book’s writers is a veritable “Who’s who” of North American evangelicalism.

The chapters are easy to read, short, and provide good overviews of the topics considered. They demonstrate accepted evangelical theology in their respective areas, and successfully meet their aim of introducing Christians to the core principles and applications of the gospel. This isn’t “Two Ways to Live” but a broader introduction to evangelical theology – and a good one at that.

But I would stop short of endorsing the book with the same liberality as Carson may be mistaken for offering. The chapters were occasionally biblically sparse, or (in my view) offered emphases whose biblical basis seems lacking; to my (perhaps too critical) ear, the chapters on Vocation and Social Action, for example, conceded too much ground from the priority of explicit verbal proclamation of the gospel.

Carson’s fuller review is apposite – ‘It would be easy to bemoan topics not treated or criticize treatments not characterized by depth and nuance, but that would be nothing other than telling the contributors to write a different book, a book with quite different aims and intended readers. But any book that sets out “to introduce young Christians, new Christians, and underdiscipled Christians to the most important articles of our faith and what it looks like to live out this faith in real life” (DeYoung) calls forth my gratitude to God for the gifts and graces represented in these pages.’ Amen.

everlastingGodThe Everlasting God (Broughton Knox)

The doctrine of God, of course, is the most important subject that can be studied – and is the subject of this five-piece volume, considering what it is that we know about God from what He has revealed about Himself. While it cites scripture less frequently than I would prefer, Knox’s points are biblically saturated – delivering things that God has chosen to make clear, even if biblical proof of that is not always forthcoming. The discerning reader would do well to explore the Bible for such evidence, and find Knox reassuringly validated.

I was first alerted to this book because of the more bite-sized “The Everlasting Purpose”, reviewed elsewhere, which is chapter 5 of this longer (but by no means excessive nor exhaustive) volume. At 187 pages, it wouldn’t necessarily be the most obvious choice of books from which to select a chapter for independent reprint, but the roundedness of “the Everlasting Purpose” demonstrates the slight disconnectedness of the chapters in this book. They are not obviously building on each other, but exposing another aspect of the nature and purposes of God. That is, of course, not a criticism – but an important recognition in order to appreciate the book for what it is.

As mentioned in Tony Payne’s preface, this collection of lectures given several decades ago “is not a difficult book to read, but not a quick book to read either. The language is straightforward, but the ideas are probing, challenging, mind-stretching, profound.” I found it difficult to get my teeth into this book, but know it’s the kind of book that would reward a return visit. Philip Jensen’s cover recommendation is perhaps most appropriate: “Few minds have explored the depths of God’s revelation with such humble and innovative perception.”

peculiarFavourite: A Peculiar Glory (John Piper)

I’m always keen to find another book that helps us to love the Bible more – and that is self-evidently the purpose of Piper’s recent book, even if it stands as a subsidiary aim to his constant (and worthy) goal to see us “most satisfied in [God]”. His stated object in the book is to demonstrate how the Bible proves itself to be the word of God.

The book opens with a fascinating insight into Piper’s own journey to conviction of the authority of Christian Scriptures (Part 1), and a well-assembled apologetic for the particular books that comprise the biblical canon (Parts 2 and 3). The second half of the book (Parts 4 and 5) adopts a concern of Jonathan Edwards that the authority of the Scriptures should be self-evident to the common man, and suggests that the revelation of God’s glory is the means by which God confirms Scripture to anyone. Particularly, Piper suggests, this proof comes as He reveals His “peculiar glory” – not just how great He is, but the “paradoxical juxtaposition of seemingly opposite traits” (p217).

Perhaps my biggest criticism would be that the object of the book is driven by a practical concern, rather than the weight of Scripture; that is, Piper is concerned that intellectual proofs of Scripture’s authority exclude laymen – it must have been that God would provide an alternative means. However true that may be, it is an argument “from application” rather than from the concern of Scripture. To put it most bluntly, it doesn’t seem to me to be something the Bible is explicitly worried about. The danger of such an application-driven method is that it may lead us to find things that are not necessarily present in the Bible, or to emphasise things beyond the emphasis given to them in Scripture – and I fear that is the case here.

None of this is to deny that Piper observes good and true things in his tour through the Scriptures through the latter half of the book; merely that he arguably gives them greater emphasis than does the text of Scripture. Piper denies that he is describing “all the ways that God makes his glory appear glorious to our minds and hearts” (p217), but the chapters which follow and especially his conclusion are so determined to demonstrate His “peculiar glory” that it feels like this denial is overstated. After all, he concludes, “What has emerged, therefore, is that there is an essence or a center or a dominant peculiarity in the way God glorifies himself in Scripture” (p284). He has indeed shown numerous ways in which this emerges in Scripture – but what of His holiness? His omniscience? His omnipotence? Are these not deliberate and “unpeculiar” manifestations of His glory that are demonstrable in Scripture?

Moreover, the basic premise of his thesis is grounded in 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 (a quick look at the Scripture Index shows how disproportionately these verses are referenced). These verses speak of God’s glory shining into the hearts of individuals. But I haven’t yet been convinced that the “glory” in view in those verses is the “peculiar glory” after which this book is named.

Furthermore, he frequently returns to an illustration regarding the heart – “a template made for its counterpart, the glory of God” (e.g. p215) which, upon finding the glory of God in Scripture knows itself to be satisfied. While this may be true, I haven’t been persuaded by his choice of passages. It isn’t convincingly the concern of 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, which seems more concerned to validate the glorious message of the gospel in the face of blindness to such glory. The whole point of those verses is to validate ministry that goes unrecognised in the world – but the basis of such validation is not that a template has found its counterpart, but that God has done a miracle by opening blind eyes.

This criticism may all seem terrifically unfair – after all, I’m not denying that the basic premise of the book is true. It is clear that the Bible is self-authenticating to the heart of the believer – that much is clear from the bafflingly-unreferenced John 10:4; we hear His voice and recognise it! And it seems entirely plausible that part of this authentication comes through seeing the combination of God’s great meekness and majesty. What I’m denying is the emphasis this book gives to the concept.

Though widely praised as an inevitable classic in the making, I was left edified but tentative. In persuading me that the Bible is authoritative and glorious, Piper has done a terrific job. In introducing many of the intellectual arguments, I found it enormously helpful – and a useful point of reference. In seeking to push us further to see how the Scriptures themselves describe their self-authentication, he has started a wholly worthwhile discussion. But I’d love for the discussion to continue – not merely to explore the questions with which he closes the book, but to ask whether we might work harder at the basic premise of the book. God is glorified in Scripture, true – but not merely in His peculiar glory. Let us drink from all of its wells and worship God for all of His manifold excellence.

I was expecting a more contentious book; in fact it was far more nuanced. Well worth a read.

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