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

The Skeletons in God’s Closet (TGC Book Review)

skeletonsJoshua Ryan Butler. The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Holy of Holy War. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2014. 384 pp. $15.99.

Hell. Judgment. Holy war.

For many critics and struggling Christians, these aspects of biblical teaching represent all that is darkest about religion. They give rise to the questions that haunt them at night and linger in the back of their prayers, causing them to doubt they can pray to a merciful God. They are the secret skeletons in God’s closet that have to be denied, or at least hidden away, if we are still to believe him at all. A loving God cannot condemn people to eternal torment, or exclusively judge those in other religions, or send one nation to invade and conquer another. Many of us simply sense in our gut that either God is not like this or God is not real.

In The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War, Joshua Ryan Butler argues the provocative thesis that these are teachings not skeletons in God’s closet—indeed, they are evidence that he is goodness all the way down to his bones. The pastor of global outreach at Imago Dei Church in Portland, Oregon, Butler writes as one who came to faith in Christ and found hope but was then faced with the shock of a Bible that didn’t fit his initial ideas of love, goodness, and justice. But in the course of looking at the bigger story of Scripture, wrestling with theology, working against global oppression, serving on missions to rescue girls stuck in sex trafficking, and spending time in Native American reservations, he began to find in doctrines like divine judgment both hope and healing for creation’s brokenness and human evil.

Taking these biblical, theological, and practical dimensions and using persuasive, clear, and even poetic arguments, Butler weaves them into one seamless tapestry. His ability to exposit Scripture in light of scholarship and everyday personal and political realities—and to do so with theological depth—allows him to cut through so many damaging and damnable caricatures that hold people back from trusting in the fundamental goodness of God.

So what exactly does Butler say about hell, judgment, and holy war?

You can read the rest of my review at The Gospel Coalition. And really, go buy the book. It’s that good and that important.

Soli Deo Gloria

Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer (TGC Review)

Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014. 298 pp. $22.42.

“The drama is in the dogma,” Dorothy Sayers once said. It seems no evangelical theologian has more enthusiastically taken to heart her statement than Kevin Vanhoozer, research professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago.

Building on the foundation laid by H. U. Von Balthasar in his multi-volume series Theodrama, over the past 12 years Vanhoozer has put forward and developed his own “theatrical” approach to doctrine and theology.

Project Continues

Beginning with The Drama of Doctrine (Christianity Today’s 2006 book of the year in theology), Vanhoozer argued that the category of “drama” is well suited to conceptualizing a theology that takes its cues from the gospel. Doctrine, on this model, is the stage direction that enables disciples to participate rightly in the drama of the gospel. Doctrine does this by rightly identifying the dramatis personae (God, Christ, Israel, and so on), the shape of God’s (theos) actions (drao = to act, drama) that come before (creation, election, Jesus, church, consummation), and in that light, our role in local community performances as the company of the church on the stage of the world.

Vanhoozer followed that up a few years later in his groundbreaking Remythologizing Theology (2010), putting his theory into practice by engaging in some 500 pages of theology proper. Essentially it was a call for theology to reorient itself to speaking of God’s being on the basis of his dramatic doings revealed in Scripture.

Despite their wide acclaim, however, the size, complexity, and price tag of these works has prevented many pastors outside the academy from been exposed to Vanhoozer’s work. This is a shame because—and I know this is a bold statement—these are two of the most important works of evangelical theology written over the past 15 years. The Drama of Doctrine saved my theology of revelation and Scripture in the emergent years, and Remythologizing Theology did the same for my doctrine of God. If I could force every seminary student to closely read and digest those two books, the church would be saved a lot of theological grief.

Enter Vanhoozer’s newest work, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. 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 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)

Please go read the rest of my review over at TGC and then go buy the book. It’s that good. 

Soli Deo Gloria

PROOF Review (TGC)

proofDaniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones. PROOF: Finding Freedom Through The Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014. 224 pp. $16.99.

Grace. There are few words more cherished in the evangelical idiom. Step into our churches and you’ll probably hear the word every Sunday. You’d even think the word would be seared into the American consciousness. I mean, everyone knows that God shed his grace on America, and who couldn’t sing a few bars of “Amazing Grace”?

And yet for all that familiarity, Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones contend, most of us tend to live a graceless existence where performance and conditionality determine everything, threatening to thrust us into the cauldron of faith-killing despair. If we truly understood the beauty of the astonishing grace of the biblical gospel, it would make us stagger like drunken men intoxicated on the highest-proof spirits we could lay our hands on. In their pastoral, lively, and accessible book PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, they aim to get us tipsy by presenting us with a God who is sovereign, gracious, and mighty to save—far beyond the Cosmic Butler/Therapist of our imaginations.

You can read the review HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

Economic Shalom–Bolt’s Theology of the Market Beyond Biblicism

boltEconomics is complicated. Establishing a Christian approach to economics seems even more daunting a task, especially given the amount of ink that’s been spilled when it comes to a Christian approach to money and wealth. Trying to wade into the conversation without any sort of guide then, can be overwhelming. As someone who has only begun to stumble towards developing my own thought in this area, I was delighted to receive a copy of John Bolt’s new little volume in the Acton Institute’s series of primers on faith and work, Economic Shalom: A Reformed Primer on Faith, Work, and Human Flourishing.

Though the cover’s a bit drab and uninspiring, the writing is not. Bolt manages to deliver an accessible, lively introduction to basic economics in what amounts to an “unapologetic defense of a free market economy set within a democratic liberal polity” (pg. 171) from a Reformed theological perspective. I emphasize “a” Reformed perspective for two reasons. First, Bolt explicitly draws from a primarily from the Dutch Reformed tradition, most specifically from the thought Neo-Calvinists like Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper. Also, as is evident in his arguments against them, there are other Reformed voices who would probably disagree with his construal.

Now, while I don’t have the time give it the justice of a full review, I did want to highlight the couple of key strengths that make this a valuable resource for those looking to give deeper thought to the issues of faith and economics.

The primary strength of Bolt’s proposal is try to move us past the simple biblicism that tends to run rampant in these theological discussions. In the first chapter, he disposes of the idea that there is clearly one “biblical economics” that can be cleanly read off the surface of the text. He does so partially by surveying the economic thought of three major christian ethicists, Walter Rauschenbusch, Ronald Sider, and David Chilton, using essentially the same biblicistic assumptions, end up with a wide variety of contradictory economic proposals ranging from interventionist socialism to theonomic libertarianism.

Instead, he holds up the thought of Herman Bavinck, who put forward a more chastened reading of Scripture that takes into account it’s salvific purposes:

A Reformed approach to the Bible resists reading it in a flat manner as so many disparate bits and pieces of inspired, useful knowledge that can be picked up here and there as we have need of them. A Reformed handling of Scripture does not treat it as a manual for child-rearing one day and a textbook for financial management the next. It is a mistake to go to the Bible for scientific knowledge, a point John Calvin already made in his Genesis commentary when he observed that the words “let there be a firmament” (1:6) are meant not for the sophisticated mean of learning but “for all men without exception” and can be understood even by the “rude and unlearned.” Calvin then added: “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” Two important aspects of Reformed hermeneutics are illustrated here: The first is the perspecuity of Scripture, the conviction arising from the priesthood of all believers that Scripture’s essential message can be grasped by all who have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. Reformed people do not rely on a priestly caste of theologians to tell them how to read the Bible. Second, though the Bible is relevant for every dimension of human life, it has a very specific and well-defined purpose: “that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The Bible is a salvation book and not an economics textbook or social renewal manual. And it is with this particular focus on salvation that Bavinck addresses the question of the Bible’s relevance for economics. (pg. 15)

Instead of piling up a bunch of verses and trying to see which specific commands can be cleanly mapped onto the current political system, Bavinck proposes we recover the main spiritual purpose of the Scriptures–the restoration of fallen man to God through the Gospel. From there, humans begin to be restored to their proper relationships with each other and are enabled to begin taking up the form of life rooted in God’s creational norms. Where do we go to find those norms? Well, back to the Scriptures, but now, we don’t go looking for particular commands, but the general principles that underlie and inform them. For this reason, Bavinck won’t speak directly of a “biblical economics”, but rather an economic system that is consistent with Scripture.

While not slavishly following Bavinck at all points, Bolt’s approach is broadly consistent with it. He offers up a defense of the ordered liberty of free-market capitalism as consistent with a broad biblical theology we find in Scripture: creation bursting with potential awaiting cultivation; the freedom and vocation the of Imago Dei; the universal sinfulness of humanity after the Fall; our epistemic limitations as finite creatures; the providence and sovereignty of God in the allocation of resources; biblical principles of work and charity from the wisdom literature; a conception of justice as opportunity and the restraint of evil; the truth of our redemption through Christ; an amillenial eschatology that eschews over-reach or pessimism. It is in light of these principles that he draws on the work of economists to deal with the market, consumerism, ordered liberty, and social inequality.

I’ll be brief about the second strength, as it follows directly from the first: Bolt demonstrates a humble restraint in his judgments on a where rhetoric typically runs wild. Because of this, Bolt goes about explaining basic economic concepts, demonstrating their compatibility with Scriptural principles, and dealing with common Christian objections to a market economy with sanity and grace. While it’s easy to imagine a number of robust challenges to Bolt’s account, it won’t be on account of undue dogmatism or a lack of Christian charity.

All of that to say, I would warmly commend Economic Shalom to anyone tired of simplistic accounts, both on the Right and the Left, theologically and politically. Bolt has done the Church a service writing it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford (TGC Review)

unapologeticFrancis Spufford. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. New York: HarperOne, 2013. 240 pp. $25.99.

Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote his classic treatise On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers at the behest of his radically irreligious friends—emancipated thinkers who wanted to know how he could share so much of their intellectual world and yet be an ordained, believing Christian. The result was a novel, innovative phenomenology of religion that aimed at rendering religion intelligible to a large swath of modern, intellectual Europe, and which influenced liberal Christian theology for generations.

In many ways Francis Spufford’s unique, hilariously pugnacious, and vivaciously argued tour-de-force Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense could be considered a version of that same project. Only this time the book aims at “awkward” post-Christian Brits who have trouble making sense of why an emotionally competent adult would embrace belief in a sky-fairy and so forth.

Before you’re too put off, though, unlike Schleiermacher or Spong-style modern liberals, Spufford knows that big doctrines like the incarnation and the actual events of history (cross and resurrection) matter as issues of truth. He’s not offering some soggy song about the power of metaphors. The emotions must somehow connect to reality. Still, though he engages in some humorous polemics against Dawkins & Co., it’s not a traditional, philosophic apologetic for the truth-claims of the Christian faith—he doesn’t think that can really be done. Rather, it’s more of a Pascalian wager in the sense that, assuming we can’t know either way, there is real satisfaction and dignity in belief. It’s a brief, pop phenomenology of the Christian faith that tries to help the non-religious understand what it’s like from the inside.

Check out the rest of my review over at The Gospel Coalition.

Top Five Reformedish Books of 2013

AD: I use Grammarly to check plagiarism because what if I go on the Janet Mefferd Show? 

Once again it is time for my annual “Top Five Reformedish Books” of the year. This is actually a horrible post to write. I read a lot of good books this year. Many of them deserve to be on Top Five book lists somewhere. For me, though, these particular five distinguished themselves. Now, unlike some other lists, I am not simply choosing from books published in 2013, but rather from ones that I’ve read in 2013. I am still catching up on 20 centuries of thought, you know. Well, without further ado, here they are:

death by livingDeath By Living: Life Was Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson – I’ve already reviewed this over at the Gospel Coalition where I said:

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond-imagining author of this ridiculously unexpected universe. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, as a sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow of eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

walking with GodWalking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller – I’ve read a number of books on the subject, especially in my undergrad in philosophy, and I have to say, it is going to be the new classic on the subject. Unlike other works on the subject, it is not only pastoral, or only philosophical, or only theological, but approaches the issue of suffering from all of these angles and more. Keller brings sociology, literature, theology, philosophy, and, of course, the Scriptures, to bear on the seemingly intractable burden of suffering and evil. I’ll go out on a limb and say this is his best book yet. Given that you and everyone you know will encounter pain and suffering in this world, everybody should go out and pick up this book.

people and placePeople and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology by Michael Horton – This is the fourth volume of Horton’s dogmatics examining traditional doctrinal loci from the standpoint of a retooled covenant theology. Building on the work of Farrow, Volf, and others, Horton offers an instructive treatment of the origin of the Church, the sacraments, the classic marks of the Church, and her mission in the world. Of course, eschatology figures prominently in the discussion, and there is an excellent discussion of Scripture and tradition towards the front-end. As always, Horton is in constant conversation with Roman Catholic ecclesiologies, Barth, Radical Orthodoxy, Stanley Grenz, and general Evangelicals setting up a clear, irenic, and charitable contrast. While some discussions are a bit thick for the non-specialist, I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the ecclesiological discussions of the day, especially if you’re looking for a Reformed account that can play alongside the big boys like Ratzinger (RC) and Ziziouslas (EO).

athanasius leithartAthanasius by Peter Leithart – I decided to get down to business and read Athanasius’ Four Discourses Against the Arians this year, so I picked up Leithart’s volume as a bit of a guide. As usual, I was not disappointed. Paying close attention to Athanasius’ metaphysical categories and scriptural exegesis, Leithart cleanly and clearly expounds the good bishops’ beautiful Trinitarian and Christological theology, bringing it into living conversation with theologians at work today. Not only is Leithart an able interpreter of Athanasius’ polemical and pastoral theology, he sets the discussion in lively account of his theo-political controversies. For anybody interested in Athanasius, or the conversation around the ‘theological interpretation’ of scripture, it’s a great place to take the plunge.

paul and the faithfulness of GodPaul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright – I’ve waited for this book for a few years now. While I’m only through the first volume (weighing in at 570 pages), I can safely say this is the Paul book of the decade. It will be impossible to write about Paul from now on without engaging Wright’s arguments in this sprawling masterpiece. Beyond that, what can I say? It is the most grossly comprehensive thing I’ve ever seen on the subject. It’s Wright at the height of his powers: asking the big questions, giving even bigger answers; setting Paul in his 1st Century context against various backgrounds (2nd Temple Judaism, Roman, Greek); engaging New Perspectives and Old Perspectives; telling stories and arguing for stories; close exegesis and sweeping overviews from 20,000 feet; actantial analyses for days. No, you don’t agree with everything he says, but that isn’t why you read Wright, now is it?

Honorable Mentions:

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor

The Word of God for the People of God by J. Todd Billings

Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Soli Deo Gloria