In order to keep these blogs manageable, I’ll break them up into two posts. As always, my aim in sharing my reading with you is in hopes that you’ll find something that tickles your fancy.
Now on to the books!
John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason – Consistent with all of his publications, Webster flexes his theological muscles in his typical stately prose. Better than this, of course, is that his book tunes hearts to sing our triune God’s praise, and for that I’m grateful. It’s been said that John Webster is probably your favorite theologian’s favorite theologian—and that seems about right to me. He may not always be easy to read, but it’s worth the effort.
Augustine, On Grace and Free Will – In this short volume (91pp.), the Doctor of Grace sets out to reconcile God’s sovereignty with free will. While affirming that biblical commands imply freedom (5, 11, 14, 71), he also contends that obedience requires grace (19, 21, 41, 54, 62, 73). Willpower, therefore, is insufficient; instead, “grace makes us lovers of the law” (73). Thus, although God commands obedience, joyful compliance necessitates regeneration. Augustine found strong support for his views in the prophet Ezekiel, noting that while in Ezek. 18:31 God demands, “make yourselves new hearts,” in 36:25–27 he promises to provide what he commands (cf. also Deut. 30:6). For Augustine, this gratuitous promise signifies unregenerate humanity’s inability to will itself into a regenerate state. As for reconciling God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, Augustine adopts what contemporary theologians label the “compatibilist” position. Why? Even though human beings make countless choices throughout their lives, Scripture nowhere imagines that those decisions are independent of God’s sovereign plan for the world. Only God is a se—independent, and aseity is an incommunicable attribute! Along these lines, Augustine cites Rehoboam’s decision to heed the unwise counsel of the younger men, leading ultimately to the division of the twelve tribes: “So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the LORD that he might fulfill his word, which the LORD spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite . . .” (1 Kings 12:15, emphasis mine). Augustine cites numerous passages that make the same point, especially as it relates to the death of Christ. Despite the fact that Herman Bavinck’s treatment of this topic is the best I’ve read, Augustine’s work is one all serious theological students should consult.
Augustine, Soliloquies – So far as historians can discern, Augustine coined the word soliloquia, meaning “speaking alone,” or “conversations alone.” In this volume, then, Augustine aims to comprehend the immortality of the soul as well as the marks of a successful quest for truth by means of internal dialogue. Given the structure of the work, readers may struggle to follow his train of thought. Nevertheless, three of Augustine’s musings struck me. First, Augustine prays to know God and know himself (55). In this prayer, he voices a singularly important truth: Personal transformation requires self-knowledge. While God ultimately brings personal renewal, overcoming entrenched sinful patterns demands sustained attention. Tracing our destructive behavior back to the lies that gave rise to their actions culminates in intelligent repentance. Such a practice—inconvenient and painful as it may be—mortifies sinful patterns and issues forth in new habits. Second, in one of his prayers, Augustine refers to God as the “true and complete life, in whom and by whom and through whom lives all that is truly and completely alive” (21). In this utterance, Augustine calls attention to God’s independence, self-sufficiency, and perfection. Since God is immutable, in him “there is no conflict, no confusion, no change, no want,” but instead, “perfect harmony, perfect clarity, perfect stability, perfect abundance, perfect life” (22). God’s complete self-sufficiency ensures that his blessings flow from a heart of pure charity. Third, Augustine makes the seemingly counterintuitive claim that obedience to God’s laws is an expression of human freedom, rather than a constriction of creaturely autonomy (23): “the law of God is not an alien or distant imposition on human action”; rather “it reflects the true nature of humanity as the rule and order of their true being as creatures who are brought into existence by God their Creator and called into covenant by their Lord (cf. Ps. 119:73). Far from seeking to repress or to oppress humanity, then, the law seeks to defend and preserve their freedom, dignity, and interest.”
Augustine, Trilogy on Faith and Happiness – This book is comprised of three works: 1) The Happy Life, 2) Faith in the Unseen, and 3) The Advantage of Believing. I’ll take them each in turn here. The Happy Life consists of a three day conversation Augustine has with his mother, Monica, and several of his friends. Throughout the course of the exchange, Augustine theorizes that unhappiness is the result of living in fear of losing what one possesses (47). Consequently, happiness must consist of that which endures. Augustine then argues that happiness is found in wisdom (51, 52), and since Scripture identifies Jesus as the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:30), happiness is found in him, and secured through faith in Christ.
Faith in the Unseen is a brief apologetic tract designed to convince non-Christians to turn to Christ. Readers of this volume will notice that many of the apologetic arguments that fill contemporary works are found in this brief treatise penned by Augustine sometime before AD 400.
Finally, in The Advantage of Believing, Augustine seeks to convince his friend Honoratus to leave Manicheasm and embrace the Catholic faith. Since the Manicheans undermined God’s Word by “tearing apart the Old Testament” (102), Augustine provides a crash course in hermeneutics so that Honoratus can understand Scriptural teaching. Proper interpretation is insufficient, however; one must approach Scripture in a “spirit of devout respect” (113), as well as purify oneself from moral filth (136) and resist the “ambitions of darkness” (102). Since inquirers will likely not have all of their questions answered, they must learn the difference between studiousness (which is a virtue) and curiosity (which is a vice). Arriving at the truth, therefore, entails 1) Believing in order that one may understand, 2) purifying oneself morally, and 3) submitting oneself to the authority of the catholic church.
Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life – Framed around a typical day, Warren paints a picture of what the Christian life can be. Rather than trying to manufacture spiritual highs, a better approach is to breathe in every moment of life, receiving it as a gift from our heavenly Father. In light of this, Warren invites readers to learn to enjoy making your bed, drinking your coffee, washing the dishes, and—yes—even changing diapers. While beneficial in many ways, those not familiar with liturgy or the church calendar may not appreciate this book.
Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope –Weaving together historical insights, philosophical concepts, cultural commentary, and Scripture exposition, McCullough surveys how human beings have coped with mortality, and then provides the biblical remedy—the gospel of Jesus Christ. While God’s blueprint consists of anchoring our identity in his beloved Son, we have cast aside his authority and opted to make meaning for ourselves. McCullough illustrates this with a vivid analogy: We’re like a condemned prisoner etching the words “I was here” in our cell wall (98). Viewing our work as a platform to establish our awesomeness, we get busy making a name for ourselves, hoping that it will quiet the voice of our inner taskmaster. But, alas, we will all die and be forgotten. A key component to the good life, according to McCullough, is death-awareness. We need to talk about it, come to terms with it, live in light of it, and know that Christ conquered it: “If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us” (28). While not littered with elegant prose, poetic beauty, or mic-dropping sentences, McCullough gets the job done. We’re headed to a deathless world where everything sad will become untrue and what we love will never be taken from us.
 Paul T. Nimmo, “The Law of God and Christian Ethics,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 293, emphasis mine.
 In my judgment, the best essay on this topic is John Webster, “Curiosity,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 193–202.
 For more on the habits that make a good theologian, see John Webster, The Culture of Theology, eds. Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), Ch. 6, esp. 143–147. Cf. Herman Witsius, On the Character of a True Divine: An Inaugural Oration, trans. John Donaldson (1675; Edinburgh: Cross Reach, 2017).