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.

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.

Burnout (book review)

Reset: living a grace-paced life in a burnout culture
David Murray
Crossway, 2017

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Being at a gathering of pastors from many different theological backgrounds this week reinforced to me that burnout is an issue faced by those in all flavours of Christian ministry. Last year’s big book on burnout was by an Englishman (Christopher Ash – Zeal without Burnout), this year’s is by a Scot (now an American citizen). While Ash’s book was solely aimed at those in ministry, Murray tries to aim at a wider constituency (men in general – he and his wife are bringing out a book for women later in the year).

The book is well-structured, and follows a series of ten ‘repair bays’ that Murray has used when walking through this process with others. As well as being helpful in and of itself, Murray’s system would be a good guide to use to help others through burnout.

For those who’ve followed Murray’s writing, it’s a familiar mix of Scripture, personal examples and scientific/medical research – he argues that the sufficiency of Scripture means that we don’t need any more special revelation, not that we should shun every nonbiblical source of knowledge.

Murray uses a lot of examples of things he does in his own life, some of which I found helpful and some of which I didn’t. Living a life as regimented as his may help him in his battle with burnout, but I found it exhausting just reading about it. Like Ash, he also just talks about the Sabbath as a pattern rather than a specific day. This is perhaps understandable when writing for those ministering on Sundays – then again, as Paul Levy noted recently ‘I’m not convinced there’s an exemption for ministers’.

If you were just to read one book on burnout, I would recommend Ash’s. It’s more concise, less prescriptive and brings out a helpful theme that Murray doesn’t stress – those who are burnt out may well not realise it. Having said that, burnout is a common enough and serious enough issue that there’s no need to limit yourself to one book. If you enjoy Murray’s writing, you’ll enjoy this.

To close, here are some great lines if you don’t fancy reading all 200 or so pages (most of the first person examples aren’t from Murray himself):

– ‘When and how long we sleep makes a huge statement about who we are and what we believe about God’
– ‘digital technology is one of the greatest impediments to a life spent in communion with God’
– ‘Pascal: “All our miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone [with God]”. We’d like it to be different. But as Psalm 46 confirms, God has inseparably and irrevocably joined quietness with knowledge of him.’
– ‘Two minutes of silence are more relaxing than listening to music…Experiments on mice found that two hours of daily silence produced new brain cells in the area of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion’
– ‘If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath’
– It’s not “Rest when you have nothing to do”, but “Rest because you will never be done”
– ‘We’re not really relaxing if we’re still emailing every day or preaching on the weekend’
– A couple of good scenarios of where people find their identity in chapter 6: Seth attends a church where important doctrines are ‘only postscripts to lengthy tirades about what’s wrong with people, the church, and the world. He has little or no sense of God’s love or of being God’s child… His children dread family devotions…’
– ‘The worst thing that happened to me in ministry was when I forgot who I was in Christ. The second worst thing was when I tried to make what I did as a pastor fill that void’
– ‘What happens if I lose my job, retire, or if my job does not go well? I lose my identity’.
– ‘Learning to fail well is a vital part of the Christian life’
– ‘My failures may have been painful, but unbroken success would have been deadly’
– ‘My failures have drained my sinful self-confidence and filled me with sympathy for others’
– ‘For Christians, our best days are ahead of us’
– ‘A denial of the existence of mental disorders is essentially a denial of biblical anthropology in that it is a denial of the extensive, damaging effects of the fall upon our whole humanity’
– ‘Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work’
– ‘Would you accept a “successful” job (or ministry) at the cost of a happy marriage?’
– ‘The best decision I ever made was to pull back from ministry and reconnect with my family. It may be one of the few things I have done for which I have no regrets’
– ‘I have never regretted saying “I’m sorry” to my children.
– ‘Contentment in ministry is a secret of endurance in ministry. Pastors must learn to be content with what hand God has dealt them’.
– ‘When we live a grace-based life, we not only receive more grace, we give more grace’

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

Greater than Gold (Book review)

Greater than Gold: from Olympic heartbreak to ultimate redemption
David Boudia with Tim Ellsworth
Thomas Nelson, 2016

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I first came across Olympic diver David Boudia when I saw him and his excellently named teammate Steele Johnson talk about having their identity in Christ when interviewed after winning silver at the Rio 2016 (a video which has been watched nearly 5 million times).

This book, written before Rio, recounts Boudia’s life and conversion up to and after he won gold in the 2012 Olympics in London. But this is far more than just a Christian sports autobiography – it’s a portrait of someone trying to apply the gospel to every area of life. For example, Boudia shows very clearly that the gospel isn’t just for the start of the Christian life – he talks about wrong behaviours and attitudes in his life that have emerged when he’s stopped living in light of the gospel. Before he became a Christian, sporting success was where he looked for his identity – and that idol didn’t just disappear once he was born again.

Boudia is insightful on nearly every subject area he touches – marriage, work etc. For example he writes: ‘sometimes we get the idea that we should be passionate about our work all the time [but] our work was never designed to provide us with the joy and satisfaction we can only find in Jesus’. Reading this book is nearly like a reading a Christian counselling book, because he makes it so clear what it looks like to apply the gospel to every area of life.

I’ll close with the reaction of this newly converted Olympic athlete to hearing that he could get to go to church TWICE in one day:

“My heart leaped for joy when [they] said they’d be going back again that night. ‘You’re going back back to church again’, I asked in astonishement. ‘Yeah, I’d love to go with you’.
Church twice in one day? The old me would rather have done anything else. The new me – the one in whose heart God was doing a work of grace and redemption – couldn’t get enough.”

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a complimentary copy of this book

Gospel Fluency (book review)

Gospel fluency: speaking the truths of Jesus into the everyday stuff of life
Jeff Vanderstelt
Crossway, 2017

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Having enjoyed Jeff Vanderstelt’s previous book, Saturate, I thought this was worth a look. The subtitle reads ‘speaking the truths of Jesus into the everyday stuff of life’, and what’s not to like about that?

Early on Vanderstelt diagnoses what he sees as the problem. Many Christians speak about the gospel but people don’t listen to what they’re saying, and so they conclude: ‘People just have hard hearts and deaf ears’. However Vanderstelt believes it’s actually because many Christians are speaking ‘gospelish’ – a set of phrases or propositions which don’t make sense to their hearers’ context, culture or language. Therefore people are not rejecting the gospel, they’re rejecting what Christians are saying because there’s no good news coming through.

However, we have to wait nearly 100 pages until the author starts talking about what ‘Gospel Fluency’ actually looks like. The first two thirds of the book largely just elaborates on what the gospel looks like in day to day life and how to use it to fight sin etc. It also includes a slightly odd chapter where he coaches his wife through her anxiety issues (‘What else do you believe, babe?’).

Once we finally get to the 4th and 5th of the 5 sections of the book (speaking the gospel into the lives of our churches and then into the lives of unbelievers), it finally feels like you’re reading the book that was advertised. He provides many helpful examples of what speaking the truths of the gospel into everyday situations looks like. It’s a great vision of God’s people speaking more about Jesus both to themselves and to outsiders.

Overall I enjoyed the book and I’m glad I read it, but would have felt short-changed if I’d paid money expecting it all to be about what’s described in the subtitle (especially if it was the £18 the book costs on Amazon!). But if it’s going cheap some time it would be worth picking up, even just for those final two sections.

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