Reformation Theology (book review)

Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary
Matthew Barrett (ed.)
Crossway, 2017

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‘At the start of any book, it is always helpful to know…the drive behind the book’. Few would disagree with that statement. Some will be unconvinced by the next sentence however: ‘Reformation Theology is written by a group of theologians and historians who are committed to Reformation theology’. By the time someone reads that, they’ll have noticed that the prologue was written on ‘Pentecost Sunday’ (wrong on two levels!) and the book is edited by a Baptist. Those facts of course don’t invalidate the authors’ arguments, but they do flag up that this is yet another Crossway book that presents the theology of the past through the glasses of 21st century evangelicalism. This is particularly apparent, for example, in the chapter on ‘The Relationship of Church and State’. The author spends pages going into great depth on the Reformers’ attitude to resistance to tyranny but largely ignores the elephant in the room, which is that ‘the most widely-held view among conservative Christians in Britain and America…is fatally flawed’ and very far from the position held by the magisterial Reformers.

An example of the editor either misunderstanding or misrepresenting Luther occurs on p. 56. Barrett quotes Luther’s statement ‘Reading is not as profitable as hearing it, for the live voice teaches, exhorts, defends, and resists the spirit of error’ then adds ‘Luther concluded this thought with a startling statement: “Satan does not care a hoot for the written Word of God, but he flees at the speaking of the Word.” Barrett immediately concludes: ‘Satan does not worry about Bibles sitting around on shelves. He begins to worry when those Bibles are picked up and taken into pulpits’. It’s pretty clear from what he quotes that the distinction Luther is making is not between Bibles sitting on shelves and Bibles being opened and preached, but between reading the Bible and hearing it preached. Going back and reading Luther in context makes it crystal clear that that’s the case.

As would be expected from Crossway, the Reformation’s theology on worship is largely ignored. The regulative principle is mentioned twice (once in a footnote), and Barrett comments: ‘Calvin would have been horrified by the church’s obsession today with “putting on a show,” driven first and foremost by pragmatic, consumeristic motivations’ and ‘Calvin’s [services] were characterized by a noticeable simplicity — no symbols, ceremonies, and rituals’. Both of those are true statements, but also ones which most readers will agree with, perhaps not realising just how contrary the worship of most Reformed churches today is to Reformation principles and practice. The fact that the Reformers pulled out the organs is hidden away in a footnote, church government barely features, and ‘Sabbatarianism’ gets one mention, thanks to Carl Trueman.

The Anabaptists are generally mentioned favourably throughout, and the negative comments in the chapter on Baptism are saved for Calvin. Indeed, there seems to be some difference between the authors as to whether the radical Reformers were ‘radical biblicists’ who rejected traditional Christian categories (Reeves) or whether they were radical because they ‘abandonded the history and traditions of Christianity and went back to the Scriptures for a fresh beginning of Christianity’ (Lillback). There is also a disagreement as to whether ‘from a Protestant persepctive of history it is more appropriate to label Trent a Counter-Reformation’ (Barrett) or whether it should be labelled ‘the Catholic Reformation’ and even have its own section (Trueman and Kim).

This is not a bad book. There is much to be gleaned from it. However it is shaped to a large extent by the concerns of 21st century ‘Calvinistic’ evangelicalism. If you had assembled a group of theologians in the 19th century who were ‘committed to Reformation theology’ and given them this remit, they would have come up with a very different book with very different emphases.

Overall this is a book written by and for those who like to think of themselves as committed to Reformation theology – there are many places where this book could have challenged that assumption, but most of its punches are pulled.

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

Giving our young people a reason to stay

“There are many compelling reasons why we believe the RPCNA should be the place that you give your best years of service that you give to Christ and his church.

“Come to TFY and we will try to persuade you, and encourage you, to think of ways in which you can use your gifts and employ them for Christ and his kingdom”

Rad.

New Horizon and the Gospel

Below is my handbook from New Horizon 22 years ago.

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If I didn’t have a soft spot for it, I probably would have entitled this post ‘Parachurch embraces Liberalism shocker’.

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This year New Horizon have a woman doing the morning Bible teaching, and both the main speakers (English and Scottish Episcopalians) have women as assistant ministers in their home congregations. The worship is being led by a husband and wife couple, and the wife is the worship pastor in their church.

Why does it matter if they have a woman teaching? And if the others speaking are in favour of it? Well if resisting a clear Biblical command (1 Tim 2:12) isn’t enough (!), Richard Phillips wrote a very timely article last week with yet another example of women’s ordination being the slippery slope that ends up with the gospel itself being lost.

For a reminder of better days, here’s Alistair Begg speaking in 2005 on what now seems a very radical topic: ‘The Bible: Convincing the Mind, Captivating the Heart’

For the Glory (book review)

For the Glory: the life of Eric Liddell, from Olympic hero to modern martyr
Duncan Hamilton
Doubleday, 2016

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Eric Liddell is one of my Christian heroes. Yet after reading Duncan Hamilton’s excellent biography, I was left asking: ‘Was he a Christian at all?’.

Liddell’s life was impeccable. Hamilton realises that some will be sceptical that someone could live such a good life, but he simply couldn’t find any record of Liddell being anything other than almost super-humanly virtuous.

But amidst all the self-denial, virtue and heroism, there’s almost nothing of the gospel. Undoubtedly part of that stems from the fact that (as far as I know) Hamilton doesn’t write from the standpoint of an evangelical Christian. Approaching Liddell purely from a secular perspective simply can’t do justice to someone who clearly had sincere and deeply-held religious beliefs.

In all the writings, speeches and sermons of Liddell quoted, there’s no sense that his amazing life flowed out of wonder at what Jesus had done for him – however one amazon review from a previous biographer (John Keddie) suggests that there are records of Liddell’s joy at the salvation of souls, they’re just not quoted.

Based on what’s presented here, the question I was left with was whether Liddell’s belief system was one of moralism, or whether the author just sees the fruit and not the root. Certainly, in what’s quoted from Liddell’s wife, there’s no sense that she understood the gospel or what a missionary’s calling was about.

In terms of the other facts of Liddell’s life, the book leaves no stone unturned. If you want to know the facts of his athletic career, missionary endeavours or internment in China, it’s all here. Parts that will remain long in the memory are the huge pressure he came from the British Olympic Association to compromise his beliefs and compete on the Sabbath – and also the folly of the missionary society he was with, separating Liddell’s family, and not trying to pull him out of a warzone until it was too late.
This is a great biography of Liddell from a secular perspective – and will probably move you to tears in places – but it will leave believers with more questions than answers.

Thanks to Doubleday for a complimentary copy of this book.

Finding God in my loneliness (book review)

Finding God in my Loneliness
Lydia Brownback
Crossway, 2017

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With more people than ever living by themselves, as well as life expectancy increasing, loneliness is going to be an even more pressing issue in the days ahead. I decided to read this book not just because of the topic but because Lydia Brownback is a well-respected author of Christian women’s books – and the blurb of the book says ‘male or female…we’re all confronted with loneliness’. If you’re hoping for a more general take on loneliness however you will be disappointed – despite the blurb this book is squarely aimed at women, with the word ‘husband’ occurring over 40 times.

Of course, Brownback’s goal is that single women would see Jesus and not a husband as the answer to loneliness. And she certainly broadens out the topic of loneliness, including chapters such as ‘the loneliness of marriage’ and ‘the loneliness of being different’. In fact, at times it seemed that she was stretching out the definition of loneliness in order to reach a book of 150 pages, when it could have been said in much fewer. The publishers also drop a particular clanger with the statement on p. 133 that ‘No one can argue that good has come from the society-wide recognition that men and women have equal value’. One worries whether some of the proof readers thought the author meant to say that!

Some of the personal illustrations she uses also leave her open to ridicule – the top critical review on Amazon picks up on a paragraph where she extols the benefits of being able to make a rotisserie chicken last four nights if you’re single. Personally I found it hard to take seriously a chapter on grief which started with an illustration about the depth of pain she felt when losing a ‘precious pet’.

These frustrations aside, for a random person searching for a book on loneliness, at least this one gets to the gospel and approaches the loneliness problem the right way. As the same reviewer who now hates rotisserie chicken points out: ‘Most books tend to focus on fixing the problem, this book focuses more on fixing yourself’.

Ultimately I would be interested in hearing what people who struggle with loneliness think of the book. I’m sure I have felt lonely in my life, but if I have, I don’t remember it, so I’m really not the target audience. From my perspective, the book over-promises and under-delivers. I didn’t find it particularly insightful in thinking through our society’s loneliness epidemic – but it does get the basics right. ‘The primary reason we are lonely is that we aren’t home yet…Our loneliness points to the fact that something is missing’.

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