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Book Briefs (January–April 2020)

Here’s a look at what I’ve been reading since the beginning of this year! Enjoy!

Justin Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction Since this was one of the most read books of 2019, I made my purchase and started reading it on January 1 of this year. In brief: After surveying the craziness of his life as a missionary and the consequent burn out it precipitated, Earley sought to better order his life by setting limits. He constructed a rule of life consisting of practices that he (at least in theory) said he valued. He came up with a list of eight: 1) Kneeling prayer three times a day, 2) one meal with others—for sure with the family, but possibly with others throughout the week; 3) one hour with phones off each day; 4) Scripture before phone in the morning; 5) one hour of conversation with a friend; 6) curate media to four hours; 7) fast from something for twenty-four hours once a week; 8) Sabbath. Lurking behind these disciplines is the wholesome conviction that habits both form and shape desires and character.

Robert Letham, Systematic Theology. Letham’s systematics text is the first one I’ve ever read straight through, from start to finish. As with any book of this length, its “chock-fullness” of information requires time to process and digest. Still, Letham does an admirable job of getting to the point, highlighting the salient features of each doctrine, surveying the necessary history, drawing attention the relevant figures and positions, and then providing his own critique and delineation of the topic. My guess is Reformed seminaries will be assigning this text in the not-too-distant future.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena. So . . . yeah . . . Bavinck’s (1854–1921) pretty much my favorite theologian. Dipping into his four volume dogmatics plunges readers into an encyclopedic mind. His knowledge of every theological loci (or doctrine) is astounding; his engagement with the primary sources is off the charts; his command of the early church fathers, medieval theologians, Reformation, as well as post-Reformation theologians is mind boggling. There’s simply no way around it. I know of no contemporary theologian who even comes close. While his mastery is impressive, it often makes for tough reading since, for some reason, Bavinck felt the need to respond to every single living theologian of his day! Nevertheless, reading Bavinck’s assessment and constructive proposals are worth it.

In what follows, you’ll note that I’ve been on something of a patristic kick as of late.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching. Irenaeus (AD 130–202) both unveils and argues for a Christocentric reading of Scripture, as he highlights the trajectory of the Old Testament and demonstrates how Christ is the fulfillment of prophecy and the centerpiece of God’s revelation. Reading firsthand his explanation of how the obedience of Christ on the cross undid Adam’s disobedience in the garden was memorable. Noteworthy, also, is Irenaeus’s insistence that the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ are essential to biblical Christianity. In denying the veracity of these events, liberals and progressives place themselves outside the pale of historic Christian orthodoxy. Denying these essential truths while simultaneously identifying oneself as a Christian is the height of intellectual dishonesty.

St. Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. Reading this later patristic theologian (AD 580–662) ushers readers (particularly evangelical Protestants) into a mostly foreign world. His concepts of deification (what Protestants call “sanctification”) and impassibility may prompt a good deal of head-scratching and take some time to process, but understood within the wider framework of his theology and the Great Tradition, they make sense. Other than these oddities, everything else is par for the course: He locates Christ’s incarnation in an explicitly Trinitarian matrix, noting that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one essence (127). He depicts Christ as the new Adam and thus “the bearer and pioneer of eschatological humanity” (36). Because of who Christ is, Maximus urges readers to surrender their lives and will to the only one who can eternally satisfy (52–53).

St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ. Considered Cyril’s (AD 378–444) mature theological response to Nestorius (AD 386–451), whose views were deemed heretical since they divided Christ into two persons—one human and another divine. In this brief reply, Cyril appeals both to Scripture as well as prior patristic writings in order to demonstrate how and why Nestorius’s views were not in line with historic Christianity. Nestorius’s blunder, in short, was the same as other heretics’: Trying to squeeze the triune God of Scripture into the confines of what his own logic could manage. As Cyril noted, however, the divinity and humanity of Christ come together in an “incomprehensible union without confusion or change” (77)—hence the phrase “Hypostatic Union.” In keeping with almost all theological disagreements, Cyril and Nestorius sparred over theological method as well as biblical interpretation (36–37). Whereas Nestorius appealed to human logic and reason, Cyril countered by appealing to Scripture, arguing that human logic is no indicator of what a sovereign God can and will do (note how the Christian worldview has its own metaphysic).[1] Further, while Nestorius appealed to Scripture to support his views of Christ (not unusual since every heretic cites Scripture), Cyril rebutted that he failed to properly locate the incarnation in the Trinity’s wider program of redemption. Briefly: While God cannot die, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who assumed a human nature could die. Still, even this requires careful reasoning, since it is the person of Christ who dies, not the divine nature. Christian orthodoxy holds that in the incarnation the eternal Son of God assumed into union a human nature, not a human person (the latter is the heresy of adoptionism). Further clarifying matters, historic orthodoxy maintains that the Son and the assumed human nature are the same person, not two distinct people (as Nestorius’s views implied). This language employs the theological grammar established at Nicaea, where the distinction between natures and persons was hammered out on the anvil of controversy.[2]

James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. Since this will definitely be one of the best books I’ve read all year, I’ll refrain from elaborating too much. Suffice it to say that everyone should purchase this book immediately and give it a careful read. In short, Dolezal contends (persuasively, in my judgment) that the classical conception of Christianity is superior to contemporary evangelical modifications since the latter opens the door to error in our understanding of God. 

Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method. A brief yet helpful overview of the historical-critical methods, highlighting both the historical precursors as well as the application of the model in biblical interpretation. The pertinent points are as follows: Krentz notes that the historical-critical method is a “secular” mode of biblical interpretation (48), a “child of the Enlightenment” (55, 85, “dominated by Troeltsch’s principles”) that patterns itself after the scientific method (58 [“scientific objectivism,” 74]). Due to these presuppositions, “Christianity loses its uniqueness,” (56) and the Bible is “naturalized”—that is, the supernatural is dismissed out of hand. Furthermore, proponents of this method urge its practitioners to begin with “methodological doubt” (55), which in turn “makes every individual event uncertain” (55). Given these presuppositions, theological or transcendental reasons of causation are disallowed (58, see footnote 1 below). Despite these wholesale rejections of the Christian worldview, many of its purveyors still consider themselves Christians, assuring students and readers alike that history is irrelevant to faith. Thankfully, Krentz (who refrains from giving his position or laying his theological cards on the table) has the intellectual honesty to note that such a portrayal of Christianity is not animated by a concern for apostolicity, but is more akin to philosophical existentialism (74).[3]

John Webster, Holiness. Webster frames his discussion under the rubric of “a trinitarian dogmatics of holiness” (1), and begins by providing a theological rationale for what follows, titling his first chapter, “The Holiness of Theology.” After providing a definition of revelation and properly situating human reason in the traditional categories of creation, fall, and redemption, Webster provides a constructive proposal regarding the place of human reason in the theological enterprise. Briefly: While God gifts image-bearers with reason to the end that they might intelligently hear and heed his commands (their “reasonable service of worship” [Rom. 12:2]), as a consequence of the fall, it is now under the dominion of the prince of darkness, until set free by the Triune God of nature, grace, and glory. In regeneration God overthrows opposition to himself, transforming once hostile foes into bond slaves who now gladly relinquish their intellectual autonomy, offering their mental energies to the service of the King. Additionally, Webster lays out a biblically informed theology of God’s holiness, spotlighting how it does not lead to aloofness, but to the execution of a redemptive plan whereby he brings ruined and rebellious sinners into his presence through the substitution of his beloved Son, culminating in the visio dei.[4] Such extravagant grace elicits heartfelt praise. To think: God implements a redemptive plan that consists of his righteous Son procuring salvation for rebels who become sons of God by grace—all of which results in a redeemed people.

Matthew Henry, The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Heart. In this volume, Matthew Henry (1662–1714)—perhaps best known for his massive commentary on the whole Bible—explains and applies 1 Peter 3:4 (“let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious”), providing specific ways and contexts in which believers might display these virtues. Pervasive throughout is the belief that God’s grace transforms our character, which manifests itself in concrete ways—namely, our temper, deportment, and communication with others: “[T]he work and office of meekness is to enable us prudently to govern our own anger when at any time we are provoked, and patiently to bear out the anger of others that it may not be a provocation to us” (22).

Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance. Similar to Dolezal’s volume above, this will likely be on my top ten list of 2020 reads. Watson was a Puritan pastor and theologian (1620–1686), a gifted writer, whose pen dripped with simple yet wondrous prose.* Given the contemporary revulsion to doctrine, if the title tempts readers to avoid picking up the work, know that it’s based off a sermon series. Some of my favorite lines are the following:

“Till sin be bitter Christ will not be sweet” (63).

“A hard heart is the worst heart” (83).

“Conscience is a bosom-preacher” (90).

“A repenting person fears and sins not; a graceless person sins and fears not” (94).

“The burden of sin is always worst when it is felt least” (109).

*An example of Watson’s beautiful prose: “Worldly joys are soon gone. Such as crown themselves with rosebuds, and bathe in the perfumed waters of pleasure, may have joys which seem to be sweet but they are swift: they are like meteors, which give a bright and sudden flash, and then disappear. They joys which believers have are abiding; they are a blossom of eternity, a pledge and earnest of those rivers of pleasure which run at God’s right hand for evermore” (A Body of Divinity, 271).


[1] A comprehensive Christian worldview entails an explicitly Christian metaphysic. Theologian John Webster (1955–2016) rightly questioned why Christian theologians would adopt a “naturalist metaphysics of inquiry” into their theological method. After all, the Christian worldview repudiates the Kantian phenomenal/noumenal scheme. See, e.g., Michael Allen, “Toward Theological Theology: Tracing the Methodological Principles of John Webster,” Themelios 41:2 (2016): 217–237, esp. 231. Also, a must-read in this regard is John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson & Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 62–92.

[2] For further reading on this topic, see the following: John J. O’Keefe, “Impassible Suffering? Divine Passion and Fifth-Century Christology,” Theological Studies 58 (1997): 39–60, where O’Keefe advances the compelling thesis that the Christological debates in the early church were more about divine impassibility than the humanity of Christ. See also Paul I. Kim, “Apatheia and Atonement: Cyril of Alexandria and the Contemporary Grammar of Salvation,” in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, eds. Mark Husbands and Jeffrey P. Greenman (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), Ch. 11; Donald Fairbairn, “Patristic Exegesis and Theology: The Cart and the Horse,” Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007): 1–19; idem, “Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50:2 (June 2007): 289–310. On the “person-nature” distinction, see Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), Ch. 7. For historical background on these councils, see Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), especially chapters 2–6.

[3] Also helpful for historical details and analysis is Richard Lints, “The Age of Intellectual Iconoclasm: The Nineteenth Century Revolt against Theism,” in Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), Ch. 9, esp. 284–285.

[4] For a fine understanding of what it means for God to be holy, see Peter J. Gentry, “The Meaning of ‘Holy’ in the Old Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 170 (2013): 400–417.

O What Their Joy and Their Glory Must Be

This past Sunday during my sermon on Matthew 8:1–17, the main point I sought to bring out was: Since Jesus came not only to redeem a people but to renew creation, he demonstrates his Messianic authority by healing the sick and liberating the oppressed. Simply put, he gives us a foretaste of the kingdom in the age to come.

Whether in the prophets, the gospels, or Revelation, God in his kindness pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse of what awaits us.

But not only do we find this in the inspired writers of Scripture, we also find the church’s poets, philosophers, and theologians doing this. One such philosopher/theologian was Peter Abelard (1079–1142). His poem “O What Their Joy and Their Glory Must Be,” captures the unbridled joy of the church triumphant. See if it doesn’t prompt you to praise or move you to meditate on the glory that awaits us:

O what their joy and their glory must be,
Those endless Sabbaths the blesséd ones see;
Crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest:
God shall be all, and in all ever blest.

What are the Monarch, his court and his throne?
What are the peace and the joy that they own?
O that the blesséd ones, who in it have share,
All that they feel could as fully declare!

Truly, “Jerusalem” name we that shore,
City of peace that brings joy evermore;
Wish and fulfillment are not severed there,
Nor do things prayed for come short of the prayer.

There, where no troubles distraction can bring,
We the sweet anthems of Zion shall sing;
While for thy grace, Lord, their voices of praise
Thy blesséd people eternally raise.

Now, in the meantime, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh,
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

Low before him with our praises we fall,
Of whom and in whom and through whom are all;
Of whom, the Father; and in whom the Son;
And through whom, the Spirit, with them ever one.

The Book and the Prayer Card

Thumbing through my book of Jane Kenyon poems
there it was.

I see it nearly every day, but this morning
the words on the old prayer card–written who knows when–
waltzed off the 3X5 and pierced my heart
suffusing it with serenity.

He never fails.

Scripture’s sublime majesty satisfies the longing soul,
restoring wonder, banishing fear, and making alive.

“Unless YHWH builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless YHWH watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

A Word in Season: A Brief Reflection on Isaiah 31:1–32:20

God always meets us in our hour of need, addressing us with a timely word designed to instruct and heal. As we assume the posture of a servant-student, inner stillness surges forth as a consequence of being undone and made whole by our handsome King.

I write as a witness to this truth. He met me this morning in Isaiah 31:1–32:20.

Note the context: Judah is in the midst of a serious, life and death, national crisis (sound familiar? Could this possibly be more relevant?). The Assyrians, Medo-Persians, and Babylonians are the major world powers of the era. To whom will Judah turn for help? Will they repent and turn back to God? To Isaiah’s dismay, Judah is looking to Egypt for rescue.

Times of personal or national crisis reveal where our hope truly lies. Since the story of the Old Testament saints is the story of us all, we learn that our natural propensity is to rely on something or someone other than God. Through the prophet Isaiah, however, God calls us to look to him, to trust in him, to rely on him, and to hope in him. Turning away from the God who is life itself always leads to death and disappointment.

Who or what are you ultimately trusting in? Trust in the God who reigns.

In the midst of these uncertain times, God reigns: “Never panicking, never at a loss of what to do, calmly in charge, perfect in wisdom, precise in action” (Alec Motyer). God’s fatherly reign evokes heartfelt trust, resilience, and unity. We must unite (even from a distance) to pray together, serve one another, and open our eyes to the needs around us. Call your brothers and sisters in Christ. Check in with your neighbors. Express gratitude to those working long hours, stocking shelves, and delivering groceries.

Finally, in spite of the current social disruption, continue to let new world impulses govern your life. Lay up treasure in heaven, invest in eternity (Matt. 6:19–21), fix your eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2). We are not orphans, he will return (John 14:18), and we will see him face-to-face: “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty” (Isa. 33:17).

Reading Suggestions during Your Quarantine

What are you going to do with all your free time? How about read some books!!!

I put together a list of books, sermons, and articles you might want to read:

In general, I’d say you can’t go wrong with anything by Sinclair Ferguson or Stephen Wellum. But if you’d like to get started, check out Ferguson’s The Whole Christ or Wellum’s God the Son Incarnate.

Most recently I enjoyed James Dolezal’s All That Is in God and the late John Webster’s Holiness (both are more advanced and require slow, careful reading, and [probably] rereading).

For something both theological and practical, you might try Thomas Watson’s (1620–1686) A Body of Divinity. Don’t let the fact that it was published in seventeenth century deter you. Watson writes simply, beautifully, and practically. I recently finished his Doctrine of Repentance, and it solidified my sense that Watson may be one of my favorite writers.

Probably the best historical book I’ve read in the past few years was Harry Stout’s The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. Don’t let the title intimidate you. Stout is a masterful writer and is engaging throughout.

Although I don’t share his theological convictions, I appreciated Barry Hankins’s book Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

Additionally, one that I think American evangelicals should read carefully is Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American ChristianityI don’t think you can understand American evangelicalism unless you work through this volume. Also, since most American evangelicals have a limited (and often skewed) understanding of church history, you might want to use all this extra time to carefully peruse D. H. Williams’s Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. Note: More people should read Williams’s books.

Admittedly this is a bit dated now (it was published in 2016), but if you haven’t read Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, you might enjoy it. (If you’d like my brief summary of the book, contact me personally and I can email it to you.)

With respect to ethics, you might want to check out Denny Burk’s What Is the Meaning of Sex? 

For cultural issues, see Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God.

Two of my favorite are John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence and Richard Sibbes’s The Bruised Reed. Maybe challenge yourself and work through Augustine’s Confessions. (Make sure you get this translation.) If none of those tickle your fancy, perhaps consider reading these sermons by Jonathan Edwards. If you don’t want to spend the money (or Amazon can’t get to your house fast enough), I would recommend reading the following sermons by Edwards: “The Excellency of Christ,“God the Best Portion of the Christian,” or “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth.”

But you also can’t go wrong reading Spurgeon’s sermons as well, in particular, “Sweet Stimulants for the Fainting Soul,” or “Israel’s God and God’s Israel.” One of his most moving sermons (which he preached after a local disaster) is “The Wailing of Risca.”

If you’d like to work on your prayer life, I always recommend that people start with Paul Miller’s A Praying Life

If you want to identify personal weaknesses and cultivate virtues, read Rebecca DeYoung’s Glittiering Vices

Lastly, since the Coronavirus is doing a superb job of reminding us of our mortality, you might want to check out David Gibson’s Living Life Backwards

Challenging Essays
George Weigel, “A Better Concept of Freedom”

Scott R. Swain, “That Your Joy May Be Full: A Theology of Happiness”

Jane Kenyon, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems.

Mary Oliver, Devotions.

Leland Ryken, ed. The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems.