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

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