Bavinck on the Christian Life by John Bolt

Bavinck on the Christian lifeCrossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series has been excellent so far. And it’s about to get even better. John Bolt has just delivered the latest volume Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service that’s the bees knees. I had the privilege of reading an early copy this spring and endorsing it.

Here’s what I wrote:

“Bolt’s portrait of Bavinck and his theology captures the man himself: clear, elegant, biblically saturated, theologically rich, philosophically nuanced, irenic, and aimed at the Christian life. Drawing on a diversity of sources, Bolt not only brings the riches of Bavinck’s mature theology into conversation with current theological concerns, but also applies it to the most practical elements of faith, marriage, family, work, and culture. He ably introduces readers to Bavinck’s vision of the Christian life as part of God’s movement of grace restoring nature and a cosmic redemption aimed at restoring and elevating creation to its intended goal. Most of all, it is a vision of following Jesus out into the world as the Father conforms his children into the image of the Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of his glorious name.”

If that’s not enough, here’s what a bunch of other smarter people wrote about it:

“To use the word timely for a book about a nineteenth-century Dutch theologian may seem inappropriate. But in this case the adjective is exactly right. Many of us have wanted to spread the word that Herman Bavinck’s theological perspective can contribute much to a renewal of the church’s life and mission today. Now in this book John Bolt has made the case in a concise and convincing manner!”
Richard J. Mouw, President, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary

“This obvious labor of love explores an important but insufficiently highlighted aspect of Bavinck’s thought. Leaving virtually no pertinent stone unturned throughout his life and published works, Bolt provides both a full presentation of Bavinck’s views and his own understanding of their continuing relevance for Christian discipleship today. Here is valuable instruction in Bavinck’s thought presented in a way that will also stimulate the reader’s own thinking on the issues raised.”
Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary

“Trinitarian, Christ-centered, and culturally engaged, Herman Bavinck immerses us into a vivid vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His rich theological imagination provides a compelling alternative to the many vapid, pragmatic approaches to faith today. John Bolt provides an accessible and illuminating guide to Bavinck’s theology of the Christian life in the most expansive sense: the Christian life of fellowship with God and others, in family, work, and politics. Bolt skillfully navigates these waters in order to open up the treasures of Bavinck for today’s church.”
J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan

“Perhaps every generation in the church age could claim a need for Bavinck’s perspective on the Christian life. We can’t let our salt lose its saltiness and our light lose its brilliance—not now. Bavinck encourages us in this regard even as we are in the world, not of the world, and sent into the world. In one seamless volume, Bolt shows how Bavinck’s contributions help correct our nearsightedness as we become tethered to his conviction that the Word of God is ever living and ever active in every day.”
Gloria Furman, Pastor’s wife, Redeemer Church of Dubai; mother of four; author, Glimpses of Grace and Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full  

“Not one square inch of nature, work, culture, or history escaped the reach of Herman Bavinck’s expansive Christ-centered worldview. Of the great Reformed theologians, Bavinck is the generous giant, with a heart as wide as his axiom ‘grace restores nature.’ Bavinck’s vision of a sovereign Savior at work in the world, carefully grounded in the gospel, suits him to speak authoritatively on the Christian’s place in this world. This book is a masterpiece from John Bolt, a man who knows Bavinck’s mind as well as anyone.”
Tony Reinke, Staff Writer and Researcher, desiringGod.org; author, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books

“Never before have I read such a fine and stimulating overview of Herman Bavinck’s life and theology. John Bolt shows clearly why the study of Bavinck is growing worldwide and why this theology is a great help for today’s Christians. Bavinck and Bolt are a great team!”
Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University of Apeldoorn; Director, Refo500, The Netherlands

If you’ve been wanting to get into the Dutch giant, but you’ve been too intimidated by the size and scope of his Reformed Dogmatics to know where to start, this is an excellent introduction to his thought. Bolt gives pride of place to Bavinck’s own words and so you get a bunch of Bavinck himself, not only commentary on him. Though, if you have read him, it is excellent commentary that will help bring out dimensions you might have missed, especially since Bolt draws on works other works beyond the Dogmatics that have yet to be translated. Beyond that, it’s just an edifying work.

Soli Deo Gloria

“What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality?” by Kevin DeYoung (Book Review)

deyoungObviously, one of the most contested and painful issues in the church and in the world today is the moral status of same-sex relationships. Within the publishing world, there’s been a blitz of blogs, books, conferences, and symposia on the subject, with no signs of abatement any time soon. In the middle of all of this muddle, faithful Christians are understandably confused.

Many are wondering where to look for resources. They’re thinking about that heavily-footnoted blog their friend shared that made them question what they’d believed before, or pastors are wondering which of the recent spate of works will be helpful to hand to the questioning college student, or the new elder, looking to shepherd that that student faithfully.

If that’s you, I’d like to commend to you Kevin DeYoung’s helpful, new book on the subject, What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?

Now, I’ll be upfront and say I’m a Kevin DeYoung fan. I read his blog and I’ve read a number of books, my favorite being his work on the Heidelberg catechism, which was pretty significant for my move over into the Reformedish direction. So I’m obviously predisposed to be sympathetic to his work. With that in mind, take this post as you like. Also, know I got a free copy of the book, though I wasn’t required to say anything nice about it.

That confession aside, I’ll say it’s DeYoung doing what he does best: taking a complicated subject, and with clear, straightforward prose, reviewing significant biblical and theological material, asking the important questions, explaining it, and applying it.  In this case, DeYoung is very clear about his aim, which is to treat the specific question of “What does the Bible really say about homosexuality, or same-sex, sexual activity? Is it healthy, approved of by God in the appropriate situations, or is it sin to be avoided as the Church has said for about 2000 years?”  Unsurprisingly, DeYoung answers in favor of the latter. As he says, it’s a defense of the traditional understanding of marriage.

DeYoung’s structure is really rather basic. He doesn’t really get into sociological, psychological, or political questions (except for an appendix or two at the end). Instead, the first section focuses specifically on explaining the logic of the Biblical narrative and relevant texts (Gen 1, Leviticus, Rom. 1, etc), and the second half is devoted to answering key questions and challenges like the inconsistency of the church (what about gluttony?), the disputed nature of the same-sex activities in the NT times, and other popular, understandable questions.

So what are some of the highlights?

Well, first, this is not really aimed at specialized blogger debates, or niche scholarship. When DeYoung cites his sources, it’s clear he’s done his homework and read the big names on both sides, as well as the source material carefully. He tackles the main, exegetical, historical, and contextual challenges that need to be addressed. It’s solid work. That said, it’s meant for everybody. It’s a clear book for college students with questions, educated people in the pews, pastors, elders, and small group leaders. Which is so needed. I’ve read Robert Gagnon’s big book on the subject, and I think most pastors should, but there’s no way I’m handing my kids 500 pages of footnotes.

Next, it’s pretty calm. That’s kind of an odd thing to praise, but I get tired of the histrionic tones of some the people defending a classical position on the subject. It just gets shrill, depressing, and kind of unhelpful, especially if you’re going to be sensitive and pastoral towards those for whom the issue is a source of personal pain and struggle. DeYoung manages to stay away from the bluster, all the while driving home the weighty issues of sin, salvation, and the holiness of the church that are caught up in the question. For that, I’m grateful.

DeYoung also manages to set the stage well. I think my favorite section in the whole book was the intro chapter where he sets up the question of what the Bible says about homosexuality by talking about what the Bible says about everything; he basically goes through the story-line of creation, fall, redemption through Christ, and the goal God has for everything in the consummation of the ages. One of things I’ve told my students before is that there are some answers that Christianity gives that only make sense if you’ve understood its place within the whole. Yes, you need to tackle Greek words, Roman context, exegetical twists, but he says:

…before we get up close to the trees, we should step back and make sure we are gazing upon the same forest. As is so often the case with controversial matters, we will never agree on the smaller subplots if it turns out we aren’t even telling the same story. (9-10)

The most important part of that story, of course, is Jesus’ saving life, death, and resurrection. And that’s at the center of DeYoung’s little work. Pastors, small group leaders, and just Christians, realize that you cannot simply charge into conversations about these issues armed with a knowledge of key texts. You really need to soak in and connect these to the broader gospel realities, or the medicine simply will not go down.

A final plus, it’s only maybe 150 (shortish) pages. For those familiar with the arguments, it takes maybe an hour, hour and a half, and probably not a lot more if you’re not, which is surprising given the important ground it covers. I take this to be a strength. If you’re “not a reader”, I think you can make it through this book, and, at this point, most Christians really need to have read something solid on the subject.

One word, though: the book’s title really is what the book is about. It’s a book for people for whom the Bible is the sine qua non of spiritual authority. DeYoung’s polemic is mostly about answering revisionist reinterpretations of the texts that try to get around traditional interpretations. He also spends time defending what the Bible says in the objections section, but for those who have to wrestle with more complex questions of hermeneutics, the authority of Scripture, and so forth, you’re probably going to need a more heavy work. Which is probably why DeYoung included a helpful annotated bibliography at the end.

Well, there you have it. Some of my posts are just encouragements to pick up helpful resources. This is one on a key subject that most of us are wrestling with. I hope you find it as helpful as I did.

Soli Deo Gloria 

 

Faith, Form, and Fashion by Paul Helm (TGC Review)

Paul Helm. Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classic Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. 284 pp. $32.00.

Paul Helm is worried about the state of Reformed theology. The dangers that trouble him, though, are not the enemies at the gate but the dangerous friends unwittingly doing damage from within. In his latest, forceful offering—Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classic Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics (henceforth FFF)—Helm takes aim at recent strands in Reformed theology he thinks are drinking too deeply from the well of postmodernity, endangering the well-established methods of “Classic Reformed Theology” (which Helm calls CRT) in order to accommodate the intellectual fashions of the age. More specifically, he singles out Kevin Vanhoozer’s theodramatic theological proposal, as well as the work of John Franke, as the chief exemplars of this drift.

We want to be clear at the outset that students of Reformed theology and philosophy owe Helm, teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, a debt of gratitude for his generally excellent work in the field. What’s more, conversations about the issues he raises need to be engaged. Regrettably, FFF is not the book to constructively carry it forward. While there is much value in his introductory comments, Helm’s portrait and criticism of his interlocutors is beset by a lack of interpretive charity so as to be deeply misleading, and at times simply factually mistaken.

Since we are better acquainted with Vanhoozer’s corpus, and the bulk of Helm’s critique is aimed at him (Franke gets a chapter-and-a-half, compared with Vanhoozer’s five-and-a-half chapters), we will focus our analysis on his critique of Vanhoozer.

You can go read the rest of this review over at The Gospel Coalition. If you’re at all interested in Vanhoozer, or the criticism of him, I highly advise it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings (Reformation21 Review)

rejoicingJ. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. $14.99/£11.99
Much of life in a fallen world consists of navigating through the fog of tragedy and suffering. Any pastor who has spent more than a month or two in any given parish will come up against the broken gears of the cycle of life. Illness strikes the healthy, death comes to take the young, and all too often it seems that curse falls upon the way of the righteous. At times like these, in a church culture that has all-but-lost the Psalmic language of lament, it can be difficult to avoid falling into trite speech more hollow than even explicit silence. And sometimes temporary silence is initially the best path. Yet the hearts and the minds of the afflicted need answers. They need a comfort grounded in the deep, glorious truth of the gospel.
That’s what Todd Billings has given us in his recent offering Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. At the age of 39, Billings was happily married, father of two young children, and beginning a promising career as young Reformed theologian turning heads with rich, careful theological scholarship (Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, The Word of God for the People of God, Union with Christ). Then he was diagnosed with advanced, incurable blood cancer, and the bottom dropped out. The future that once looked so clear–marriage, watching his children graduate, scholarship–immediately fogged over with the pronouncement that he could no longer look forward to the “median” life-span that that most of us blithely assume we’re owed (p.7).
In the midst of his own struggles with pain, suffering, and the agony of uncertainty, Billings has produced a profound meditation on the hope of the Christian life in light of the realities of the gospel. Rejoicing in Lament is rather unique in that it occupies a middle range in terms of its approach and appeal. It is not a strictly academic work, and yet Billings is a top-shelf theologian, so it’s not just a pop-book either. It is top-shelf theology that has been lived in and communicated with an eye toward the sufferer in the pew, with Billings interspersing the story of his cancer battle–diagnosis, treatment, future prospects–within the broader story of God’s saving action in Christ.
I hope you’ll read the rest of my review at Reformation21. This is an important and helpful book.
Soli Deo Gloria

Kevin Vanhoozer on the Crucified King

I don’t do the random quote and link post but, in this case, I’ll break protocol. Last year I endorsed Jeremy Treat’s The Crucified King as one of my favorite books of the year. Well, now you don’t have to take only my word for it. Zondervan Academic’s excellent “Common Places” series edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain at their blog has asked senior scholars to endorse the words of young, up and coming scholars for the attention of the rest of us. Today’s post features the inimitable Kevin Vanhoozer’s summary and review of Treat’s work.

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
—William B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Yeats probably did not have the academy and church in mind when he penned these lines in 1919, but he could have, for theological things, and the gospel itself, have been coming apart for centuries. Theology itself has come apart: what God joined together—doctrine and life—has been cast asunder, into the academy and church respectively. And, within the academy, the disciplines of biblical theology and systematic theology go their separate ways, speaking different languages. Even worse, the story and logic of the gospel have come apart in both the church and the academy, with some Christians focusing on the significance of Jesus’ death with its promise of heaven (cross) and others on Jesus’ message about the reign of God with its promise of justice for earth (kingdom).

The Crucified KingBlessed are the peacemakers, for they seek to repair the center—and shall receive honorable mention in Christianity Today’s Book Awards list, as Jeremy R. Treat’s first book has done in 2015—no mean feat for a work that began life as a doctoral dissertation. Treat’s The Crucified King (Zondervan, 2014) works several important mediations: church and academy; biblical theology and systematic theology; penal substitution and Christus Victor theory of the atonement. His title signals his reconciling intent: rather than viewing the kingdom and the cross as themes that belong to different universes of discourse, Treat argues that they form a seamless whole, centered on the unabbreviated gospel. The subtitle provides further italicized fuel to the mediatorial fire: “Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology.”

Please do go read the rest of the review here. And then pick up the book if you haven’t already. It’s well worth your time.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rules for Reading Calvin After Reading Muller

unaccommodated CalvinStudent of Calvin that I am, I was very excited to receive Richard Muller’s The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition. It’s supposed to be the book when it comes to Calvin that you have to reckon with, if you’re going to get an accurate and adequate picture of Calvin. As soon as I got it, I broke down and put it the front of the list and began reading. Soon, though, I realized that this was not the book I expected, but maybe the one I needed. 

In his work, Muller points out that Calvin has been accommodated over the years to any number of widely diverging portraits designed, intentionally or not, to fit him into their own current theological program or grid. Depending on the theologian, Calvin comes out as the rigid systematician, or the scornful humanist who wouldn’t approach anything like a scholastic system. The problem is that most have done so without any serious care to set him deeply within his 16th-Century historical and intellectual context, or dealt properly with the variety of source material when it comes to Calvin’s works. Muller wants to set the record to straight and do the kind of historical work necessary to set Calvin in his proper context and trace out the shape of Calvin’s program. It’s not so much a study in Calvin’s theology (for that, I’d recommend Billings or Horton), so much as a study in Calvin the theologian; his method, more than his results; how to read him, not so much what you’ll find when you do.

So what should we learn about Calvin the theologian? What should we avoid and what should we expect? Well, I can’t give you everything because that would take the couple of hundred pages, plus the eighty pages of endnotes (yes, endnotes) to do what Muller did. Still, I’ll try to summarize a few highlight takeaways. As always, this is rough.

Yes, Calvin was trained as a humanist. Does that make him “anti-scholastic”? Well, yes and no. Muller makes a very convincing case that Calvin was mostly directly acquainted with the ‘scholastic’ theologians of the Sorbonne of his day and that most of his harsh polemics is aimed at them. Indeed, the French translation of the Institutes especially makes the case as the term scholastic is often translated “Sorbonnist theologians.” Beyond that, he probably wasn’t deeply as acquainted with scholastic theology personally as some have imagined. Calvin learned theology as he studied and taught, in the thick of ministry. That said, there are strong evidences of its influences in his theology in terms of classical distinctions he used, and argument forms he deployed.

The same thing is true, apparently, of Aristotle. While most of his references to Aristotle are negative, Aristotelian thought-forms and categories are still present in his work, because they were shared by a lot of the common intellectual culture at the time. Actually, a lot of what you see in Calvin is a shift in his form of argument influenced by Agricolan logic, and the greater emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion that the humanists had. When you compare him to what came before and what followed, he actually makes a lot of sense as something of an in-between figure, because really, it’s historically anachronistic to separate out ‘humanism’ as a theology and method too cleanly from ‘scholasticism’ as a theology and method at the time.

Does that make him anti-systematic? We should also scrap any idea that Calvin was, therefore, as a humanist, totally anti-systematic. Muller makes the case that Institutes are something in-between a full-blown, modern system, and something else. Instead, they are arranged as a set of loci communes, or commonplaces. In other words, it’s a work where special topics addressed and arranged to provide a gateway into Scripture. It’s not supposed to be a total system of doctrine, or Calvin’s final or only word on any issue. This was the place where Calvin wanted to address key topics, issues, arguments, and disputed doctrines so that he wouldn’t have to clutter up his commentaries with lengthy appendices or sections devoted to them. He wanted his commentaries to be marked by ‘clarity’ and brevity, following the logic of the text, unlike some of his contemporaries. Also, we should know that our modern translations kind of muck with the work a bit. A lot of the technical theological terms of argument that scholastically and humanistically trained types would have picked up on are no longer there, making it feel less systematic than it would have to an early reader.  So yes, it’s clearly a system, but maybe not the kind of system that many of us are used to now.

How to Read The Institutes. Here are a few tips on how to read the Institutes, or, well–you’ll see.

Read Him With Paul in Mind. There’s been a lot of argument about how Calvin organized his Institutes, or whether there is some correct order that makes sense of the way Calvin placed the topics, especially since he rearranged it a few times through various editions. After a lot of very detailed reading and argumentation, Muller basically comes out saying there are three noted organizing themes. First, and most important, Calvin, influenced by Philip Melancthon and his own reading, organized along the Pauline order of salvation as it is found in the book of Romans. If you look at the two books, there’s a generally recognizable flow and similarity to structure. So, if you want to understand Calvin’s logic in presenting the subjects in the order he does, go read Romans a few times and it will start to make more sense.

Second, yes, there is a bit of a credal structure as Calvin does base a lot of his exposition on the Apostles’ Creed, but that is broken up a lot over the course of the editions. Finally, you can see the structural theme of the duplex cognitio Dei, or the twofold knowledge of God. This is not so much the knowledge of God as Creator and then as Redeemer, although that’s there. It’s the “knowledge of God and ourselves”, insofar as we can only know our nature and our sin in light God’s nature and revelation.

Read the Commentaries too. I’ve talked a bit about this before over at The Gospel Coalition, but Calvin never wanted the Institutes to be read alone. Calvin’s magnum opus was developed through various editions, starting from a brief exposition of the creed, the commandments, etc. into the work we currently have through his life-long conversation with Scripture, churchly theological disputes, and so forth. Again, if you recognize that it was supposed to be a collection of topics in order to leave his commentaries uncluttered, then you realize that you really need to read the commentaries on relevant texts in order to get Calvin’s “theology” on a given subject.

In that sense, you have to read the Institutes knowing that Calvin’s many “proof-texts” are more like footnotes. Calvin wrote commentaries on over 2/3 of the books of the Bible. So when he cites a text, odds are, tucked away somewhere is a discussion on the subject in his commentary, or, also, the commentaries of contemporary or classical exegetes like Chrystostom. He’s kind of like the Westminster divines that way. One more tidbit there. You need to know that not all the proof-texts cited in modern editions are his but have been added by editors. So, if you do go check the commentary and there’s nothing there on the subject, Calvin may not be to blame.

Point is, read the Institutes, but don’t read them alone.

Read the Sermons. On a similar note, we need to remember to read Calvin’s sermons. Calvin preached multiple sermons per week through various books of the Bible for years. Often the commentaries are the fruit of his labor in the sermons. What’s more, the sermons are usually thicker and more theologically developed than the commentaries, at least the early ones (Calvin got a bit more long-winded in his later, post-1559 Institutes commentaries).

Read Developmentally. Calvin almost never cut stuff out, but he did a heck of a lot of re-organizing of his Institutes, and often that did change the shape of his exposition enough. Also, you have to know that while Calvin was fairly solid throughout his career, he was human, so his thought did develop. In which case, comparing commentaries and Institutes without respect for when the commentary was written might skew your perception.

Conclusion

My big conclusion when it comes to reading Calvin after Muller? Well, it’s something I sort of already knew, but now begin to grasp in a way I couldn’t before: Calvin was a complex, historically-situated theologian, pastor, and commentator. In other words, before you go making sweeping claims about Calvin’s work, do your homework. As an example, Muller read William J. Bousma the riot act for his reading of Calvin as being some unsystematic thinker driven by anxieties based on his (misreading) of Calvin’s use of few phrases like “abyss” and “labyrinth.” Muller goes on to show that Calvin wasn’t suffering some grave anxiety–at least, you can’t come to that conclusion based on those texts. Instead, he was using common literary tropes as they were appropriate to discussing the texts he was commenting on, and they served specific polemical purposes in his writing. Indeed, words like “way” and “order” were far more common in his work, indicating a mind concerned to illustrate the sure, comforting path offered by the light of Scripture. But it takes more than quick, cursory, or even broad readings of Calvin to see that. It needs the patience to set Calvin in his proper historical and theological context, to appreciate him for the thinker he was, instead the accommodated intellectual prop we’d like him to be.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why You Should Read Bavinck

Until recently, few Americans—even in Reformed circles—had heard of the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). With the publication of a beautiful translation of his masterpiece four-volume Reformed Dogmatics a few years ago, this colossal theologian is finally beginning to garner a greater reputation and increased attention in English-speaking theology. (A brief biography can be found here.)

This past January I embarked on a Saturday reading plan of the Dogmatics. Now roughly halfway through the fourth volume and on track to complete the set by the end of December, I can safely say this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my theological life. Bavinck’s accomplishment in the Dogmatics is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The expansive, nuanced, and deeply trinitarian theological vision is both intellectually challenging and spiritually nourishing. I anticipate turning to these volumes regularly in the years to come.

I’d like to offer up six reasons you ought to consider picking up the Dogmatics and working through them yourself.

You can go read the rest of the article here at The Gospel Coalition. 

Soli Deo Gloria