A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (review)

A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised
Miles V. Van Pelt (ed.)
Crossway, 2016

biblical theologial introduction to OT

This is the first of two large (and expensive!) tomes from Crossway, covering both the Old and New Testaments and written by past and present Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) professors. Ligon Duncan writes in the preface ‘in many seminaries…there exists an unhealthy relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology, but at RTS we value both and want our students to understand their necessary and complementary value’. There is a wealth of reflection on the Scriptures between these pages, with the introduction by Van Pelt worth (nearly!) the price of the book alone. The argument for arranging the chapters by the division of the Hebrew Bible shows that even the way the Bible is organised is there to teach us something, which we often miss. In fact, the introduction left me wanting to immediately read Chronicles, a book written at the end of the Old Testament, which contrasts with Samuel & Kings deliberately to point readers forward to the coming Messiah. That is one of the strengths of the book – it leaves you amazed at things in the Bible you’ve perhaps never seen before. It also sparks thoughts as to how we should use various Biblical books. For example, if Ezra and Nehemiah are there to show that Israel’s return from exile fell short, are we missing at least some of the point if the only gospel connection we make from them is how we can spiritually rebuild churches? The book is thoroughly Christ-centred, taking issue with those like Howard Marshall who represents ‘a large portion of evangelicalism’ when he says that Jesus is not the principal subject of the Old Testament.
A few typos survive (eg 1995 for 1955 on p. 526) which is disappointing for a volume that clearly aims at permanence. The book does however earn marks for not transliterating Hebrew!
Much theological training these days does well at drumming into our heads the need to understand Biblical passages in the context of the book – this volume shows the value of understanding the books themselves in context of the whole Old Testament.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Did M’Cheyne really say…? (Part Two)

This is a long overdue follow-up to an earlier post where I questioned whether Robert Murray M’Cheyne ever said the words so often attributed to him: ‘My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness’.

Greatest need?
For a start, nowhere in M’Cheyne’s works does he ever use the phrase ‘greatest need’ (or ‘chiefest need’). The closest he comes is an 1836 diary entry where he writes: ‘Saw many wordly people greatly needing a word in season’ (Memoirs and Remains, p. 51)

Personal holiness
M’Cheyne did talk a lot about personal holiness:
– ‘I earnestly long for more grace and personal holiness, and more usefulness.’ (p. 150)
– ‘I ought to meditate often on heaven as a world of holiness,— where all are holy, where the joy is holy joy, the work holy work; so that, without personal holiness, I never can be there’ (p. 160)

He urged ministers and others to seek after holiness:
– To W. C. Burns: ‘I feel there are two things it is impossible to desire with sufficient ardour,—personal holiness, and the honour of Christ in the salvation of souls.’ (p. 241)
– To W. C. Burns: ‘Oh, cry for personal holiness, constant nearness to God by the blood of the Lamb! Bask in his beams,—lie back in the arms of love,—be filled with his Spirit; or all success in the ministry will only be to your own everlasting confusion.’ (p. 248)
– ‘Seek advance of personal holiness. It is for this the grace of God has appeared to you.’ (p. 254)
– ‘Seek much personal holiness and likeness to Christ in all the features of his blessed character. Seek to be lamb-like, without which all your efforts to do good to others will be as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ (p. 273)

– To Rev. Dan. Edwards: ‘It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.’
– ‘(4.) Lead a holy life.—I believe, brother, that you are born from above, and therefore I have confidence in God touching yon, that you will be kept from the evil. But oh! study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this, Your sermon on Sabbath lasts but an hour or two,—your life preaches all the week. Remember, ministers are standard-bearers. Satan aims his fiery darts at them. If he can only make you a covetous minister, or a lover of pleasure, or a lover of praise, or a lover of good eating, then he has ruined your ministry for ever. Ah! let him preach on fifty years, he will never do me any harm. Dear brother, cast yourself at the feet of Christ, implore his Spirit to make you a holy man. Take heed to thyself, and to thy doctrine.’ (p. 362)

– ‘Take heed to thyself. Your own soul is your first and greatest care. You know a sound body alone can work with power; much more a healthy soul. Keep a clear conscience through the blood of the Lamb. Keep up close communion with God. Study likeness to Him in all things. Read the Bible for your own growth first, then for your people.’ (p. 180)

The need of his people was also close to his heart:
– “What would my people do if I were not to pray?” (p. 61)

So lots of challenge – but no sign of the elusive quote!

Interestingly, Spurgeon quotes M’Cheyne in Lecture 1: The Minister’s Self-Watch (Lectures to My Students) where it would have been begging for him to use the ‘greatest need’ quote if it existed:

‘M’Cheyne, writing to a ministerial friend, who was travelling with a view to perfecting himself in the German tongue, used language identical with our own:—“…In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”’

Spurgeon’s wife writes in his autobiography: ‘Robert Murray M‘Cheyne used to pray:—“O God, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made!” and, to judge by my husband’s life, a similar petition must have been constantly in his heart if not on his lips.’

So if anyone ever finds it, or finds it cited earlier than Packer in 1992, let me know!

The Whole Christ (book review)

The Whole Christ: legalism, antinomianism and gospel assurance – why the marrow controversy still matters
Sinclair B. Ferguson
Crossway, 2016

whole christ

When publicly mulling over whether to write a review of this book, Mark Jones said ‘It is suicide if I have to write a critical review’. Thankfully I don’t face that dilemma, but what’s not to like about a book written by Sinclair Ferguson, with a foreword by Tim Keller and three pages of glowing endorsements headed by Kevin DeYoung? Alistair Begg says ‘this may be Sinclair’s best and most important book’. Derek Thomas says ‘this is one of the most important and definitive books I have read in over four decades’. David Robertson, although self-confessedly not a fan of Scottish Presbyterian theological debates (said when he was Moderator of the Free Church!), instantly dubbed it ‘the best theological book in 400+ years’.

There’s no doubt that there’s lots of good content in the book. The problem is that it seems to be based on a faulty premise. Ferguson seeks to use the Marrow of Modern Divinity to draw a safe path between the errors of antinomianism on the one side and legalism on the other. The only problem is the growing body of evidence to support the claim of a contemporary that the Marrow‘s author was a ‘sly antinomian’!

Of course, even if the book’s author wasn’t sound, it doesn’t make the book worthless. Nor does it impinge on the orthodoxy of men like Thomas Boston who rediscovered the book the century after it was published (and didn’t have the resources to study it in context that we do today). However it’s a bit like listening to a sermon point which follows a faulty illustration. The point may be right, but if those in the pews doubt the illustration, the power is lost. Furthermore, not realising the Fisher may well have been both an antinomian and a hypothetical universalist, perhaps leads to Ferguson being quicker to defend statements from the Marrow than he should. For example, while Ferguson accepts that John Preston may have been a hypothetical universalist, he defends Preston’s charge (quoted in the Marrow) ‘Go and tell every man, without exception, that…Christ is dead for him’.

Is this all just nitpicking and dealing in minutiae? Well sadly, all you have to do is go onto Amazon and see how quotes like that have been seized on by Hyper-Calvinists. While many of their criticisms of Ferguson’s books are based on their own faulty presuppositions, some of them are valid. Therefore a book which aims to promote the free offer of the gospel ends up giving ammunition to its opponents.

In one of his last posts on Reformation 21 before being forced to resign, Mark Jones acknowledged that in the book, Ferguson ‘makes many wonderful and much-needed pastoral insights’. However Jones then goes on to ask 5 searching questions about the Marrow controversy. They flag up issues which a book on the Marrow controversy must deal with, and this one largely doesn’t.

Ferguson complains in the book of ‘scholarship detached from both historical and pastoral reality’. There’s lots that’s pastorally helpful here – but the evidence suggests that the historical reality is a bit different than the author realises.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Living in the light (book review)

Living in the light: Money, sex and power
John Piper
The Good Book Company, 2016

living in the light

Books about money, sex and power are nothing new. While the world worships them, and many Christians are suspicious of them, John Piper wants to cut a middle course. He believes that God did not create money, sex and power simply to be a temptation – but he had good purposes in mind. And so while they can be icebergs on which our faith runs aground – they are also islands of refreshment. Above all, they exist so that we can show the supreme worth of God.

There is much that is helpful here in seeing the temptations of money, sex and power – and especially the sin behind the sin which causes us to abuse them – but also in how to use them for positive purposes. The book is also packed with helpful illustrations. For example, illicit sex is like the red numbers which a bedside clock shines onto his ceiling. Those numbers thrive in the darkness but when the sun comes up, they vanish. In the same way, when God’s glory is revealed and treasured, the power of sexual attraction is broken.

The reason there are so many books with similar titles is because these three topics are always relevant – Piper says that he finds it strange how many Christians pursue wealth, despite all the Bible’s warnings. This book will spark helpful thoughts for those doing talks or preaching on these topics. At £8.99 for 152 pages, it’s overpriced – however like most of Piper’s books, it’s available for free on desiringGod.org.

See also: Shane Lems has written a helpful review which interacts with some of the weaker points of the book.

Zeal without burnout (book review)

Zeal without burnout: seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice
Christopher Ash
The Good Book Company, 2016

zeal without burnout

Christopher Ash is convinced that ‘the best kinds of ministry are, more often than not, long term and low key’. That conviction led to him writing this book to try and help people stop crashing out of ministry due to burnout and stress. To try and separate the physical from the spiritual is the Gnostic heresy, so it’s futile to think you’ll prosper spiritually if your body isn’t getting the rest it needs. God knows we are dust – when he chooses us, he is under no illusions about who he is getting in his team.

At 120 pages, this would be a good book to give to anyone you were concerned was heading in a dangerous direction. It’s easy to read and is peppered with stories of people in a range of different ministries who have experienced burnout. It assures readers that it’s ok to take time off. In fact, Ash says we should rebuke fellow Christians who let slip how hard they’re working and that they haven’t had a proper day off in a while.

Rather than just dealing with the surface issues, Ash also tries to get to the true root of the problem: ‘when our joy comes from our gifts and our successes we will always be under pressure’.

Of course, not everyone in ministry is in danger of burnout. Stress can also be brought about by not properly using the time for work that we do have. Ash writes: ‘One key to a successful day off is six hard working days on!’ – making sure that we work when we work will make it much easier to stop when we stop.

Much of the book is just common sense, but its good to have it all winsomely and attractively presented (even if using a tilde for a hyphen is a bit off~putting). Ash flags up one big cause of burnout when he treats neglect of the Sabbath, though the chapter would be stronger if he treated it as a command rather than just a principle. It’s important to note that this isn’t just a book for this on the edge of a breakdown – the scary thing about many of those whose stories are recounted here is that many of they didn’t realise they were burnt-out or depressed until much later, and even argued against those who told them that they were. Burnout is a growing problem – this little book is one way to help guard against it in ourselves and in those we care about.

Brand Luther (book review)

Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation
Andrew Pettegree
Penguin, 2015

brand luther

Martin Luther’s life was never dull, so a boring book about him would be a crime. Thankfully, Andrew Pettegree has produced a barnstormer of a book which not only helps capture the excitement and upheaval of the Reformation years, but does so from a unique angle. Astonishingly, despite the settled assumption of the close relationship between print and the Reformation, there has been little scholarly attention devoted to the Wittenberg printing industry. This is something which Pettegree seeks to correct. As he does so, a picture emerges in which Luther doesn’t just benefit from the rise of the print industry as a spectator, but who deliberately, indeed ‘instinctively’, tailored his writing to benefit from it. In a rebuke to churches who are happy to put out mediocre leaflets, Luther’s frustrations with the work of his local printer made him persuade a better one to set-up shop in Wittenberg – even though he had previously been printing anti-Luther works. In conjunction with Lucas Cranch, court painter in Wittenberg, Luther developed ‘a form of book that was itself a powerful representative of the movement—bold, clear, and recognizably distinct from what had gone before. This was Brand Luther, and its success…lies at the heart of Luther’s success, and of the transforming impact of the Reformation’.

The book doesn’t focus exclusively on print however. Pettegree’s portrayal of the relationship between Luther and Melanchthon, to take just one example, is very instructive. Luther ‘knew himself to be in the presence of a superior intellect’ and often got frustrated with Philip’s timidity, yet the relationship worked partly because both men recognised their limitations and the corresponding strengths of the other. This was encapsulated in a preface Luther wrote for Melanchthon: ‘I am the crude woodsman, who has to clear and make the path. But Master Philip comes after me meticulously and quietly, builds and plants, sows and waters happily, according to the talents God has richly given him’.

Carl Trueman recently called this ‘one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read’. That might be going too far for the average reader, but for fans of Luther, especially those with a bit of an interest in books and print culture, it’s a fascinating read. Pettegree remarks that in the support of Frederick the Wise (a devout Catholic who never left the old faith), Luther was ‘lucky, in this, perhaps above all else’. Even those who would want to be more explicit about divine sovereignty however would find it hard to argue against the evidence that, under God, ‘the medium…was in many respects as important as the message’.

If you want to read one book about the Reformation to mark its five-hundredth annivesary in 2017, you won’t go far wrong with this one.

Thanks to Penguin for a complimentary copy of this book