At times, old historical writings get the reputation of being impenetrable. This may be due to historical differences, the foreign style of writing, a poor translation (or lack of any translation), or the overwhelming options for historical writings. This is quite unfortunate, as these writings are rich with insight and continue to be relevant for the present.
John Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017; source: publisher) is a simple remedy to these types of concerns. Extracted from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, this little work has continued to be published as a standalone work since Calvin’s lifetime. Through the editorial and translation work of Burk Parsons and Aaron Denlinger, we have a very readable translation of this short but perceptive work on the Christian life (the previous English translation was less than acceptable).
As summer is fast approaching, here are the books on my shelf waiting to be read!
1. Irena Backus, Leibniz: Protestant Theologian
Though best known for his philosophy, Backus offers a different perspective by examining Leibniz’s theology. Backus works through the relationship of Leibniz’s Lutheran theology and his philosophy, leading up to the Enlightenment.
Why are we here? Where did we come from? Who are we? What is the meaning of life?
These questions are common enough in our twenty-first-century context. And yet, the latest bestseller is not always the best place to find helpful answers to these questions. One place to go to think through these and related questions about the problems of our world is J. H. Bavinck’s The Riddle of Life (trans. Bert Hielema; Eerdmans, 2016).
This thin volume (less than one hundred pages) was first published in 1940 and was written some time before that. The author, J. H. Bavinck, was a Dutch missionary and missiologist who served in Indonesia and taught in the Netherlands. He was also a nephew of the eminent theologian Herman Bavinck, author of Reformed Dogmatics. And his book offers winsome wisdom on common questions from a past period to ours.
In my review of Mark Noll’s book, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, I described Noll’s discussion of how American colonists transformed the sola scriptura principle of “the Bible supreme” into “the Bible only.” That story recounts some negative consequences of such a shift and also raises certain theological questions beyond the purview of Noll’s book. In Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015), Michael Allen and Scott Swain make a similar observation about Protestants, but they look at it from the viewpoint of theologians, pointing to dangers with sola scripture from a Reformed point of view and addressing some of the very theological issues raised in Noll’s book (though not interacting with his work directly).
What exactly do they mean by the term catholicity? They explain that they understand catholicity not in the narrower sense of Roman Catholic but in the early-church sense of the church catholic, or the church universal. As J. Todd Billings describes in his afterword to the book, this approach to theology is catholic in the sense that “it gives a Trinitarian (Nicene) account that holds to the cosmic centrality of Jesus Christ as the mediator between Creator and creation (Chalcedonian)” (152). Those who appreciate the discipline of church history can likewise appreciate their desire to root their modern theological program in the theology of the ancient church councils.
Pentecostal Outpourings Reformed
The Reformed tradition is not the first thing that comes to mind when reading the words Pentecostal Outpourings (Reformation Heritage Books, 2016; source: publisher). When I came across the title I immediately thought, perhaps this is a historical work on the rise of the Pentecostal church. Maybe even a contemporary study of the globalization of Pentecostalism. It was a surprise when I read the subtitle, “Revival and the Reformed Tradition.”
In most Reformed circles, revivals are little discussed and unfortunately experienced even less. This is not universal across all Reformed traditions. Growing up in a Korean-American Presbyterian church in the suburbs of Chicago, revivals were very much real and ongoing. However, there does not exist a widespread Reformed discussion of revival in the current church. It seems that this is the first objective of Pentecostal Outpourings. The authors are reintroducing revival within a Reformed context.
The task of narrowing down centuries’ worth of “masterpieces” in a “best of” list is not one I would like to undertake. Deciding what is a masterpiece is a struggle in and of it itself, let alone having to provide a definitive list. Terry Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (Baker, 2015; source: publisher) is a balanced choice of art, literature, music, and film.
Following a chronological ordering, Glaspey begins with the Christian catacombs of Rome (75 Masterpieces, chapter 1). From the second century to the fifth, the underground maze served as a communal burial ground for Christians in times of peace and persecution. Images such as the good shepherd decorated these grounds as a sign of life after death.
Some people refer to the Holy Spirit as the “neglected” member of the Trinity. Certainly, all three persons in the Godhead have been given short shrift at different times and among different groups in the church. But in their history, Protestants can find many who explored the nature and work of the Spirit, though perhaps none more thoroughly than the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian John Owen (1616–1683).
In his later years, Owen penned several treatises beginning in 1674 that were later drawn together in one volume under the title Pneumatologia, or Pneumatology. Some have called this book the best work on the Holy Spirit in the history of the church.
What model of the Trinity did Jonathan Edwards employ in his theology? How did Edwards’ Trinitarianism shape the rest of his theological program? How did Edwards’ emphases on the end for which God created the world, religious affections, and the remanation of God’s glory cohere in this New England divine’s creative mind?
Kyle Strobel, Assistant Professor at Biola University, explores these questions—and many related lines of inquiry—in his work Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation, vol. 19 in T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Ian A. McFarland, and Ivor Davidson (London: T&T Clark, 2013; source: publisher). In Strobel’s volume, readers will find an erudite treatment of Edwards’ theology that explores and reframes the details of his thought in the light of his Trinitarian and redemptive emphases.
We live in a world of suffering, though those in the twenty-first–century West admittedly enjoy many material, medical, and technological luxuries that make life easier than it is for many around the world today. Still, when we suffer, our gut reaction is often to complain and ask, “Why?”
Nearly four hundred years ago, a Puritan housewife faced severe trials and suffering in the wilderness of colonial America. Anne Bradstreet (1612/3–1672) too sought answers about illnesses, traveling dangers, and the deaths of young grandchildren. As she reflected on the difficulties in her world, she framed her thoughts using the metaphor of pilgrimage.
When hearing the word “prophet,” there are a wide range of responses. What may come to mind are images of a spiritual leader with the gift to see into the future. Another common reaction may be to think of the Old Testament prophets who condemned the wrong-doings of ancient Israel and exhorted them to follow after God. In a different direction, the term may be taken negatively, as charlatans who deceive others with their claims of supernatural power.
Jon Balserak approaches the subject of prophet in conjunction with John Calvin in John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet (Oxford University Press, 2014; source: publisher). I looked forward to reviewing the work after benefiting greatly from Balserak’s earlier work Divinity Compromised: A Study of Divine Accommodation in the Thought of John Calvin, a comprehensive assessment of Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation. In the present volume, Balserak addresses Calvin in the role of a prophet, particularly, Calvin’s own self-identification as a prophet.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Scott Manetsch, Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (and one of my former profs), give a lecture on “Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability in Calvin’s Geneva.” This lecture is part of the “Scripture and Ministry” lecture series at the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding.
In the lecture, Manetsch made good on years of painstaking research on John Calvin and his associates and successors by discussing some of the takeaways for the church today. Avoiding both antiquarianism and presentism, he first gave listeners a rich description of pastoral ministry in Geneva as molded by Calvin and his fellow pastors and then discussed ways we can learn from them—positively and negatively—for today.
As debate over worship styles continue, and what has been dubbed the modern worship wars remain a heated issue, I would like to offer two pieces of advice from those who have gone before us. The first comes from the great reformer John Calvin and the second from C. S. Lewis.
Those looking for a text addressing the history of Calvinism, marked by its thoroughness but also approachability, need not look any further than D. G. Hart’s Calvinism: A History (Yale, 2013). The volume covers matters from the Reformation to almost the present day. At the same time, Hart writes in a clear and precise manner, not overburdening the reader with an onslaught of facts and events. The work provides a wonderful narrative of not only the history of Reformed theology but also the story of Calvinism.
In addition to familiar topics such as Calvin, Scotland, Kuyper (see my review of Bratt’s biography), and the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, Hart addresses a vast amount of unfamiliar Calvinistic history. His treatment of the Reformed church in Germany is quite good. The discussion of Reformed and Lutheran relations is also very interesting. Lastly, Hart discusses the Reformed church in countries not often dealt with, such as Hungary, and Reformed missions into countries such as South Africa and Korea.
Summer is always a great opportunity to catch up on some reading. Here is my top ten reading list for this summer.
1. Tim Townsend, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis
The work is an account of an army chaplain commissioned to minister to the Nazis held at Nuremberg. Sure to be thought-provoking.
Given my previous review of George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, in which he concluded the work with a Kuyperian approach to religious pluralism in the public sphere, it seemed fitting to take a look at James D. Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013).
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was born to a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Following his father, Kuyper studied theology at Leiden and then entered the ministry. In addition, he served as the longtime editor of De Heraut and De Standaard, in which he contributed many articles promoting his reformed theology. In opposition to political and ecclesiastical authority, he founded the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880, where he served as a professor of theology. As the leader of the Christian Anti-Revolutionary Party from 1879 to 1920, he lobbied for public funding of religious schools and educational reform. As member of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, he took office in the Dutch Parliament and became the country’s prime minister from 1901 to 1905. In 1898 he travelled to America to give the Stone lectors at Princeton Seminary. Amidst his duties as editor, theologian, and statesman, he was a prolific writer, earning him the title father of Neo-Calvinism.