“God Is My Hobby” Or, Salinger, Osteen, and Bonhoeffer Walk Into a Bar

osteenMy Franny and Zooey gleanings have been numerous. One fantastic paragraph comes in the middle of a conversation between Zooey and his mother Mrs. Glass with regards to his younger sister Franny. Mrs. Glass is worried over the apparent spiritual meltdown Franny’s having consisting of mumbling, crying, and losing appetite and sleep. After much badgering and antagonism, Zooey sets himself to enlighten his mother as to the problem with his sister and it’s connection to a little book she’s been carrying around with her. It’s a little book about the Jesus Prayer and the contemplative spiritual practice surrounding it, involving repeating the prayer “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me” over and over until it becomes a part of your heart, your breath, your very being.

The brilliant part comes in Zooey’s final response in this exchange:

Mrs. Glass took a deep drag on her cigarette, watching him, then crossed her legs
and asked, demanded, “Is that what Franny’s supposed to be doing? I mean is that what
she’s doing and all?”

“So I gather. Don’t ask me, ask her.”

There was a short pause, and a dubious one. Then Mrs. Glass abruptly and rather
pluckily asked, “How long do you have to do it?”

Zooey’s face lit up with pleasure. He turned to her. “How long?” he said. “Oh, not
long. Till the painters want to get in your room. Then a procession of saints and
bodhisattvas march in, carrying bowls of chicken broth. The Hall Johnson Choir starts up
in the background, and the cameras move in on a nice old gentleman in a loincloth
standing against a background of mountains and blue skies and white clouds, and a look
of peace comes over everybody’s—”

“All right, just stop that,” Mrs. Glass said.

“Well, Jesus. I’m only trying to help. Mercy. I don’t want you to go away with the impression that there’re any—you know—any incon-veniences involved in the religious life. I mean a lot of people don’t take it up just because they think it’s going to involve a certain amount of nasty application and perseverance—you know what I mean.” It was clear that the speaker, with patent relish, was now reaching the high point of his address. He wagged his orange stick solemnly at his mother. “As soon as we get out of the chapel here, I hope you’ll accept from me a little volume I’ve always admired. I believe it touches on some of the fine points we’ve discussed this morning. ‘God Is My Hobby.’ By Dr. Homer Vincent Claude Pierson, Jr. In this little book, I think you’ll find, Dr. Pierson tells us very clearly how when he was twenty-one years of age he started putting aside a little time each day—two minutes in the morning and two minutes at night, if I remember correctly—and at the end of the first year, just by these little informal visits with God, he increased his annual income seventy-four per cent. I believe I have an extra copy, and if you’ll be good enough—”

In the context of the broader story there’s much more going on. Still, in one paragraph, Zooey Glass’ amusingly damning little conceit about “God Is My Hobby” gets you a far better snapshot portrait of so much wrong with contemporary, American religion than any lengthy jeremiad about the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of the Gospel of Osteenism. Here you have it in nuce: the self-satisfied, oh-so-comfortable, non-transformative commercialism of it all. And this was written in 1955, pre-TBN in all of its gold-throne glory.

I am not sure I have “gospel” application here. I wish I could even say “See, even thoughtful unbelievers see through this, so who do you think you’re fooling? Who are you drawing in by lowering the asking price on the gospel for cut-rate prices?” Because while it’s true that thoughtful  non-believers will see through it, that’s not the problem here, now is it?

I suppose it’s another excuse to exhort preachers once again to heed the words of Bonhoeffer on cheap and costly grace.

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I suppose what I’m saying is that if Osteen, Bonhoeffer walked into a bar, I know which one would have Zooey’s, or rather, Salinger’s attention.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christmas is About The Eschaton

parousiaAdvent is about the coming of Jesus, the arrival of God in the flesh. This is the mystery we look back towards and celebrate with joy. The babe in the manger, come to reveal God, to be God with us: Emmanuel.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Christmas, though, isn’t a holiday that terminates in on itself. Yes, we rightly celebrate it in its own right, but it is a day that points forward to another day, one which has yet to arrive, and we await with a holy longing: the return of Christ. Christmas, at core, is about the Last Day of the Old Creation and the First Day of the New Creation.

I was reminded of this truth by Michael Allen in his recent piece over at Zondervan Academic on the recent trends and future prospects of eschatology in modern theology. He points out the positive movement of the last century in terms of the earthiness of Christian hope: we are waiting a New World, one with earth and sky, not merely clouds and harps. But he also says something has been lost to view that theologians like Bavinck managed to hold on to well:

I do not advocate a return to life prior to the remarkable witness of theologians like Bavinck. His biblical imagination, commitment to the full canonical scope of Scripture, and unswerving determination to let dogmatic eschatology shape Christian ethics are all to be commended and never to be forgotten. And yet it seems to me that one can (and many seem, unintentionally, to) herald something akin to Bavinck’s Augustinian vision without capturing the very center of Augustine’s eschatology (and that of the classical Christian consensus that marked at least the late patristic and medieval eras). There may be something approximating an “Augustinian naturalism” (unintentionally) where the focus and emphasis falls upon the New Jerusalem rather than her chief occupant, forgetting that the best news of Christian bliss is not newness but nearness: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). Hence the repetition of the promise: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20).

The good news of Second Coming and the New Creation is not simply the earthiness of it all. Yes, let’s rejoice and look forward to the resurrection of the body. Let us hope for the renewal of the cosmos. Let’s delight in the idea that every field and stream, every star and galaxy will be born anew, shining with the lustre of the glory of God. But let us not forget that it is the glory of God that makes all things shine. God is what makes the New Creation good news.

As Allen reminds us, Revelation 21 presents us with a vision of God dwelling with man:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21 is the consummation of the movement of God on John 1, and indeed, Genesis 1. God, the Triune Creator, the Eternal One whose glory makes the brightest supernova seem like a child’s night-light, has reunited Heaven and Earth, so that we might be near him without being consumed by the beauty of his holiness.

Christmas is about the eschaton.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Atonement

A few weeks ago Matt Anderson and I invited on Adam Johnson and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry to talk about atonement. Our qualifications? Well, on our end, Anderson runs the Mere Orthodoxy site and I wrote this super-long post about penal substitutionary atonement. Adam Johnson has actually written a couple of books on the subject and teaches at Biola’s Torrey Honors program. So he’s kind of an expert. Now, Pascal, well, he’s my favorite French Catholic writer/twitter-fiend/troll on the internet right now. We debate stuff like this all the time, so we figured why not on the podcast?

So, here it is:

For more show links that I don’t feel like hassling with, go to MereOrthodoxy. They’re actually very helpful.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Theologian and the “Section Man” (Or, Franny and Zooey Go to Seminary)

franny and zooeyContinuing my foray in literature, I’ve begun reading Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, mostly because it’s on the shelf and Alan Noble is a Salinger fan and I don’t feel like picking up Cormac McCarthy, yet. Of course, this is a huge change of pace from Austen. It’s a different air we’re breathing–much smokier and angst-ridden. As a college pastor only a few years out of school myself, in some ways this is all a bit too familiar. All the same, I’ve found it illuminating and enjoyable. But not in phony way.

One particular interchange early on between the young couple, Franny and Kane, got me thinking about the nature of theology, or rather, the character of theology student. Kane is telling Franny about some critical lit paper he’s thinking of getting published. He’s obviously very proud of it, while at the same time trying to act cool, detached, and dismissive about the whole thing, and it provokes Franny’s ire. Later on in the chapter we learn that Franny’s become sick of all the “ego”, all the self-aggrandizing attached to the pursuit of a name through petty accomplishments in the world she knows. Upon seeing Kane caught up in the same sort of preening, ecocentric concerns, she responds by saying that he’s acting just like a “section man.”

When pressed on it, she explains further:

“Well, I don’t know what they are around here, but where I come from, a section man’s a person that takes over a class when the professor isn’t there or is busy having a nervous breakdown or is at the dentist or something. He’s usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it’s a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie, and starts knocking Tur-genev for about a half hour. Then, when he’s finished, when he’s completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis for his M.A. on. Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they’re all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths—pardon the contradiction. I mean if you get into an argument with them, all they do is get this terribly benign expression on their—” -Franny and Zooey, pg. 14

Anyone who has spent enough time in the right sort of breakout discussion section run by a fresh grad student, or TA, can probably recognize the picture. Or been to seminary for that matter. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved my philosophy TAs and my time in seminary, but this sort of thing can happen. It’s a particularly good picture of the way that “knowledge puffs up.”

Which brings me straight to the point. As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but reflect on the practice of theology and think to myself, “Theologians, we are not to be ‘section men.'”

You see, while everyone is a theologian of sorts, there are others–pastors, and theology students, usually–who become “theologians” in the technical sense. They set aside time in their lives, to study, grow, and become experts, knowledgable in their fields. They become familiar with the names, the history of theological discussion, the important categories, and so forth, that go along with that. As you might expect, in the course of things they develop opinions, convictions, passions, likes, and dislikes just as other men and women do. Expertise in any field will produce that and that’s fine.

We must be sure, though, that we do not turn in a “section men”, or “section women.” Theology students pursue these activities and specialized knowledge in order to know, love, serve and worship God, as well as to equip and prepare the church to know, love, serve, and worship God.

This is not for our own name or prestige as an expert. It’s all too tempting to enjoy being consulted as the expert in a given area. We may seek to derive our justification by approval as an “expert” or a theologian rather than simply as a child of God. Or on the more negative side, it’s also tempting to taking pleasure in being “in the know” about these things, the inner circle of the wise, and quashing the opinions of the theologically unwashed. There is a certain type of individual who loves crushing pop theology, not because of a love of truth, or because its destructive of souls, but because they love crushing things and this is the way they know how. This is not being a theologian, but rather a “section man.”

It’s not for nothing the old theologians used to say theology was impossible without prayer. Attempting to study theology without prayer is a contradictory endeavor. It’s attempting to learn and say something about the God upon whom all existence depends, all the while acting like you’ve arrived on your own steam. This can only lead to pride, self-justification, and other such folly.

Pastors, theology students, and others of the general species homo theologicus, heed that counsel. Theology is only to be studied with prayer, otherwise, you may just look up from your textbooks one of these days and see a section man staring back at you in the mirror.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Jane Austen, Tim Keller, and the Happiness of Holiness

pride and prejudiceAfter many long, inexcusable years, I finally sat down to read a Jane Austen novel; Pride and Prejudice, to be exact. I suppose I had avoided them in my youth because they were the type of thing my sister–a girl, mind you–read. Also, I’d been subjected to the film Sense and Sensibility as a young boy and I’m still not sure what effect that’s had on my disposition ever since. In any case, inspired by my English acquaintances and a sense of nostalgia for literature, I picked up the copy off the shelf last week and got to work.

It was delightful, of course. Singing Austen’s praises is a bit absurd at this point; the humor, lively characters, dialogue, and so forth, was a wonderful change of pace from all the theology and biblical studies. (And ladies, I get it. That Mr. Darcy. What gallantry.)

Now, I’ve known for a while that reading literature is more than simple entertainment. Reading thick literature is a soul-expanding experience, especially with novelists possessing as keen an eye for the richly textured diversity of human experience and character as Austen. Indeed, it’s not simply that Austen was a keen observer, but she was also a moralist in the best sense of the word, whose portraits of virtue and vice not only amuse, but enlighten, shape, and form us. I remember one of the liveliest sections of Alasdair MacIntyre’s magisterial After Virtue was dedicated to examining the shape of Austen’s moral thought. I’m sadly only now in a position to begin appreciating it.

(BTW, spoiler alert on a 200-year-old novel). While there were multiple passages throughout the novel that caught my eye, one encounter between our protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane in particular drew my attention. It is towards the close of the novel, when the amiable, wealthy, generous, and all-around perfect match, Mr. Bingley has finally proposed to Jane and their happiness is secured. Jane and Elizabeth are rejoicing at her good fortune and we find this little nugget of moral wisdom:

Jane: “Oh Lizzy, why am I this singled from my family, and blessed above them all! If I could but see you as happy! I there were such another man for you!”

Elizabeth: “If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness.”  pg. 331

Elizabeth’s response to Jane ought to be memorized by our particularly discontented and unhappy age. Jane looked at her sister in the rapture of her own delight in her impending marriage to such a good man and wished that Elizabeth might too share in that same kind of joy. For Jane, the cause of her joy and happiness was Bingley and she supposed that if Elizabeth could also have a Bingley, she would be just as happy.

Elizabeth knows better, though. While not writing off the truth that Bingley is a good man and that the situation that goes along with him is a favorable one, she knows that the another significant difference in separates the two young women: their “goodness” and “dispositions.” In other words, their characters. All throughout the novel we are keenly aware that Jane is far more humble, less critical, a bit too trusting, but much more easily contented, and, in a word, more virtuous than Elizabeth. (Though I’m sure some Austen fan could correct me here.) The point is that Elizabeth knows happiness is not only an issue of having favorable external circumstances, or even the possession of a great good, but one of having the right character.

You see, it would not matter if even the most advantageous situation were cooked up, a woman with the wrong character would be unable to enjoy a good husband. The woman lacking in wisdom would be unable to recognize the good man for who he is. The woman lacking humility would suppose the good man is deserved and so would be unable to receive him with the delight of a gift or with gratitude; also, should there be some understandable, human defect, she would be tempted to take it as a greater affront and be less likely to forgive, be contented, or patient. I could go on listing any number of virtues and vices and you’ll the problem. It doesn’t matter how good the situation is, if the virtue is missing, there can be no long-term joy, only short-term pleasures. Of course, this applies equally to men.

I’m reminded of a section in Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage where they speak of the happiness of holiness. Many think that marriage is about making you happy, being pleased by and pleasing your spouse. The Kellers show disastrous fruit of pursuing that impossible approach at length. Instead, Paul teaches us that the end-goal of marriage is the holiness of your spouse. Marriage is about sanctification and one day seeing your husband and wife looking radiant, with the beauty of Christlike character. In that setting, the struggles, the pains, trials, as well as the pleasures, joys, and celebrations can take their place as part of a grander whole.

Now, at this point some may get the impression that marriage isn’t about happiness at all. But that would be a mistake. In fact, what we’ve seen with Austen is that happiness and goodness, or happiness and holiness go hand in hand. The Kellers write:

Does this mean “marriage is not about being happy; it’s about being holy”? Yes and no. As we have seen, that is too stark a contrast. If you understand what holiness is, you come to see that real happiness is on the far side of holiness, not the near side. Holiness gives us new desires and brings old desires into line with one another. So if we want to be happy in marriage, we will accept that marriage is designed to make us holy.

-Timothy and Kathy Keller. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (pp. 124-125).

While being so much more than this, Austen’s novel, in many ways, is parable about that suitability of character in marriage, and the happiness that attends holiness. I’d commend you, then, to pick it up, make yourself some tea, plop yourself down into a couch, and prepare to be entertained and maybe even edified at the same time.

Soli Deo Gloria

Luke Skywalker Never Shot A Blaster Rifle (Or, a Couple Options in Progressive Revelation)

lukeblasterI’ve been thinking of the issue of progressive revelation a bit lately. It keeps coming up the rather feisty discussions around the nature of Scripture, the character of God, and what we do with the Old Testament. Often-times people on both sides of the growing split (and those somewhere in the middle) will appeal to the concept, agree that it’s important for Christians to acknowledge, and yet there remain significant, troubling differences between the conversation partners as to the way this idea ought to be employed in developing our thoughts about God. Actually, it seems that in the current discussions, there is not merely a debate about the application of the concept, but rather there seem to be two entirely different kinds of progressive revelation on offer. Bear with me as I think out loud here.

1. Consistent/Adjunctive. The first concept of progressive revelation I take to be the more traditional of the two. In this case, the progress of revelation means a real growth in the knowledge of God from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to the end of the narrative in Revelation. At the same time, it is continuous, self-consistent knowledge of God that unfolds and expands as the story progresses. While in the First Testament, we learn that God is by nature one, the New Testament revelation of the Incarnation and the Trinity does not change that, though it significantly alters our understanding of what the confession of God’s oneness means.

In other words, we don’t go from monotheists to tritheists–we go from monotheists to Trinitarian monotheists. It is not the YHWH was lying when he said that he alone was God and that his glory he would give to no other. Instead, it turns out that the Son who took on flesh in Jesus Christ was always to be identified with YHWH. YHWH remains the same today, yesterday, and forever, and all that was said of him in the First Testament is true, but now it there is a deeper layer and dimension to that truth. In a sense, it is by addition, but it’s even more than that. To steal an image from Lewis, it’s less like simply going from a square to a bigger square, but understanding that the square is a cube.

2. Contradictory/Disjunctive.  This one we might call the “evolutionary” view in that it often coincides with an evolutionary understanding of religion inherited from the older history-of-religions approach popular in European scholarship of the last couple centuries. This kind of progressive revelation isn’t progression by way of natural narrative development, or by way of simple addition. Instead, it’s more about moving from higher to lower understanding, not simply less clear to more clear. Older, more primitive religious conceptions such as the worship of multiple gods (polytheism) gives way to the worship of a chief god (henotheism), and eventually to belief in one Creator God (monotheism).*  It includes the possibility not only of expansion in our knowledge of something, but the contradiction of it. For that reason, we may also term this a “disjunctive” kind of progressive revelation.

The most popular example I’ve been seeing lately is about God’s activity in history. The classic extreme version of this is the Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament God as the revelation of a vicious, deficient, Demiurge who is superseded by the revelation of the loving Father of Jesus Christ who wants to save us from our miserable creation. The more recent model, though, is not that extreme. Instead, many suggest that our knowledge of God progresses by learning that while the Ancient Hebrews had some real encounter and true revelation of the Creating and Redeeming God, the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament reveals that there was much falsehood and error mixed in, given their limited vantage point and backwards cultural presuppositions. The advent of Jesus then, “clarifies”, not only by sharpening edges still fuzzy in the OT, or adding a depth dimension, but by also by straightforward negation.  In many ways, God is actually not what Hebrew Scriptures have proclaimed, but only what Jesus in his incarnation reveals him to be. Of this sort of “christocentrism”, we have spoken before.

Revealing Luke Skywalker

Let me clarify illustrate the differences between the two types of progressive revelation by using Star Wars, because Star Wars.

In the first type, we find an analogy in the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader has actually been Luke Skywalker’s father the whole time. This is the kind of narrative revelation that is mostly consistent and adjunctive. This is a new fact about Luke that is a shock to the viewer, but it is primarily one that fills out his character, even while it does not contradict what we’ve come to see about Luke’s activities, characteristics, and so forth–at least insofar as we haven’t made our entire of Luke dependent on his not-being-Darth Vader’s son. Yes, our understanding is changed of him and that even changes the way we watch the first movie again. We reinterpret Obi-wan’s words, hearing resonances and layers we didn’t see before. But again, this is essentially a filling out of his character that forwards the narrative in ways that do no violence to what has come before.

Now, imagine a different kind of progression in the story. Imagine that in coming to Return of the Jedi, upon viewing Luke Skywalker’s near-exclusive use of light-saber, we are given to now understand that in the first couple of movies, Luke actually never used a blaster rifle, it being inconsistent with his Jedi ways; it was merely the way Leia and Han understood him at the time. On this scenario, yes, Luke is a character throughout the whole story, and yes, there are some strong continuities, but the narrative unity of the storyline is severely disrupted, rendering its coherence seriously suspect and the author rather confused.

None of the above is yet a straightforward argument one way or another, but more of an exercise in clarification. Of course, I do think that proposals which make greater sense of the unity of the narrative are inherently preferable for a number of reasons. First, they give us a greater sense that the ultimate Author of Scripture is the God of Scripture, and not simply a second-trilogy Lucas sans the special effects. This strengthens our ability to affirm a unity of revelation, and therefore the unity of covenant, or the good, saving purposes of the God of both Testaments.**

Still, clarifying our options can be a helpful exercise for further conversation and study on this point and any excuse for a Star Wars analogy in theology, right?

Soli Deo Gloria

*It should be noted that much of this European scholarship was heavily influenced by Enlightenment presuppositions of a colonialist, imperialistic, and Anti-Semitic sort.

**This also makes more difficult the inadvertent Anti-Semitism of the most history-of-religions approach to progressive revelation.

5 Best Reformedish Books of 2014

The year of our Lord 2014 has been a great year of reading for me. I can only think of a couple of duds in the pile of books I’ve had the fortune of getting my hands on and cruising through. This means one thing: picking this year’s Top Reformedish books of 2014 was a difficult task. There were a great number that I thought of and considered for this. As it happened, though, there were a few standouts I would like to highlight and commend to you for your reading pleasure and edification.

A couple of notes before I proceed, though.

First, I am not including Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics here simply because I have an article coming out on it later this month, and because it sits in a category all by itself. It is not a book of 2014. It is a work that transcends the years and decades.

Second, it just so happens that all of the books I’m highlighting I have actually already reviewed. Where relevant, I will simply note, excerpt, and forgo any more summary.

Finally, this list is not in any particular order. I am a notoriously bad ranker and decision-maker. Just ask my wife.

faith speaking understanding1. Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer. I’ve reviewed Vanhoozer’s book at The Gospel Coalition. This is some of what I said:

Let me put it this way: if Drama of Doctrine and Remythologizing Theology had a child, it would be Faith Speaking Understanding. Though intended as a briefer, less intimidating introduction to and practical application of his theodramatic theology for pastors and serious students, it isn’t a mere rehash of the last two works. As Vanhoozer explains, Faith Speaking Understanding is “an upstart sibling with a swagger of its own, namely a full-fledged proposal for the role of theology in the church’s task of making disciples” (xv).

Swagger it may have, but it’s swagger mediated through Vanhoozer’s inimitable style, irenic tone, and jovial spirit. Vanhoozer’s prose is a joy to read—a seamless movement between biblical and theological reflection (as evidenced by the extensive and helpful indexes of Scripture and theology) that is robustly catholic and winsomely evangelical.

calvin2. Calvin on the Christian Life by Michael Horton. I also reviewed this for The Gospel Coalition. Here’s what I said there:

In the history of the church, particularly its Western Protestant wing, few theological lights shine brighter than John Calvin’s. The Reformer par excellence, he stands out for his theological acumen, systematic comprehensiveness, and care as a biblical exegete. Beyond Calvin the theologian and biblical scholar, though, there was Calvin the pastor—the man passionately concerned that all of human life be lived before God (coram Deo) and in light of the gospel. Though it’s often presented this way in history textbooks, the Reformation wasn’t simply an academic theological debate about justification and the thoughts we think on a Sunday morning, but rather a total restructuring of Christian life and practice. It was about, as James K.A. Smith puts it, the “sanctification of ordinary life.” For that reason Calvin was concerned not only with teaching doctrine, but also with the life of piety flowing from that doctrine.

This is the Calvin that theologian and Westminster Seminary (California) professor Michael Horton introduces us to in his new volume on Calvin and the Christian Life. With an engaging blend of biography, theology, and commentary, and with copious reference to Calvin’s Institutes, commentaries, tracts, and key secondary literature, Horton takes us on a whirlwind tour through the Reformer’s thought as a whole.

age of atheists3. The Age of Atheists by Peter Watson. There’s a bit of a theme here in that I also reviewed this for The Gospel Coalition. Here’s what I said there:

In The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God Peter Watson hopes to change the narrative by pushing back on Taylor’s impoverishment thesis. In this massive and thoroughly entrancing work of intellectual and cultural history, the prolific London-based author aims to recount hitherto-untold drama of the multifarious and rather “thick” ways we’ve tried to “live without God” ever since we discovered his death about 120 years ago.

Beginning with Nietzsche himself, Watson focuses on the lives, stories, and theories of those who haven’t merely lamented the loss of God but pushed through to find meaning—or rather “meanings”—of a more humble sort on the other side. Jumping from Europe to America to the Isles, Watson presents us with a cascading torrent of names (the back cover alone is plastered with them)—whether poet, philosopher, novelist, dancer, psychiatrist, or theologian—all of whom offered visions of life beyond traditional religious belief. The overall effect is to overwhelm you with the wealth of non-theistic options to meaning and fulfillment. To put it bluntly, Watson wants to show us we have more options than glum Dawkinsism or Jesus.

skeletons4. The Skeletons in God’s Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler.  And again, this is one I reviewed at The Gospel Coalition. Here’s some of what I said there:

The Skeletons in God’s Closet has the potential to be a game-changer for a lot of struggling Christians and skeptics. Thoroughly orthodox, Butler also speaks in a language and with the sensibility of someone who can still step out of his Christian shoes to hear, think, and feel the tension from the outside. In a lot of ways, it’s the book Love Wins tried to be but failed due to doctrinal drift. Instead, by helping readers walk through the difficult texts in Scripture, Butler sets out for them a broader vision for the beautiful character of a God who doesn’t give a doctrinal inch. Is it perfect? No. Would I have hit a couple of themes harder, or connected a couple of dots differently? Probably.

Still, Butler has done the church a magnificent service by showing a postmodern world that doctrines like hell and holy war aren’t about a God whose malevolence has to be restrained. Instead, The Skeletons in God’s Closet shows us a God who is good down to his bones, and utterly committed to loving and saving his world in Christ.

crucified king5. Tie: The Crucified King by Jeremy Treat and Atonement, Law, and Justice by Adonis Vidu.  I did not review these two at The Gospel Coalition. Still, I have already talked briefly about these two works here:

On The Crucified King:

In one sense, I found it to be a gravely disappointing book. It’s disappointing because Treat has written the book I wanted to write on the subject. Giving equal attention to biblical theology and systematic categories, Treat reunites what never should have been divorced in much modern theology: kingdom and cross as well as Christus Victor and penal substitution accounts of the atonement.

viduOn Atonement, Law and Justice:

Vidu aims to provide an account of the history of atonement theology down into the present that presents theologians against the background of the various legal and political theories dominant at the time. In this way, we can begin to appreciate better the way these theological concepts shaped and were shaped by their native settings. Five judicious, careful, and lucid chapters are devoted to the descriptive task, focusing on Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, modern, and contemporary periods…What’s more, along the way, he corrects a number of common misunderstandings and caricatures of historic positions.

If I went on to cite runners-up and honorable mentions, we’d be here for a while. It’s been a good year for books. I hope this list finds you in time for you to update your Amazon.com wishlist for last-minute purchases. If not, it ought to give you an idea of how to use your spare gift cash.

Soli Deo Gloria